Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland series has captured the imaginations of kids and perspicacious adults alike — and now, the fourth volume in the series, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, is coming out in March. But no need to wait — we've got an exclusive excerpt, in which a troll becomes a boy.
In Which a Troll Named Hawthorn Becomes a Boy Named Thomas, Meets His Parents (One a Psychologist), and Hunts a Wild and Woolly Word
Do you remember being born? Only a few can say they do and not be caught immediately in the lie, and most of them are wizards. I, of course, remember it perfectly. Certain benefi ts are granted to narrators as part of the hiring package, to compensate for our irregular hours and unsafe working conditions. As clear as waking, I remember your hands on the cover of the book, your bright eyes moving swiftly over the pages, the light of your reading lamp, your small laughs and occasional puzzlements. But it is against the rules for a human to recall the moment of their birth. If people did remember it, they would never agree to let it happen to them again, and to live in this world is to be born over and over and over again, every time a new thing happens to your heart, each time more frightening and more thrilling.
Because he will very soon forget it, I shall tell you how a curious boy was born in winter, at night, in a city called Chicago, which is four thousand miles from London something like a million nautical leagues plus a feral furlong, a shake of the leg, and a stone's throw from Fairyland, but not so very far from Omaha, Nebraska. Chicago at the time owned a lake the size of a sea, several advertising fi rms, at least six tribes of marauding criminals, healthy herds of sailors grazing free, the fi rst Ferris wheel in all the world, and more wind than it could care for. The boy was called Thomas Rood, or at least he shall be called that shortly. If you squint, you can see him hurtling through the snowy air at the speed of story. At the moment, he is still called Hawthorn. The faster you go, the brighter you get, and Hawthorn glowed so hot the clouds went up in smoke when he touched them.
If you have ever seen a falling star, you have seen a Changeling arriving.
The parcel box outside the home of Gwendolyn and Nicholas Rood, 3 Racine Avenue, received one troll, slightly singed, with a soft sound like an envelope sealing. The Roods were very much alarmed in the morning to fi nd their little boy sitting on the doorstep with snow in his hair, blinking up at them as though he had never seen them before— which, of course, he hadn't, because only a moment ago he had been a troll called Hawthorn. If they'd investigated later, they might have missed him. He just couldn't abide that cramped little box another second and had gotten busy with his escape.
Neither Gwen nor Nicky guessed that their own child was, even then, as they gasped and worried on the front stoop, being bundled into certain red arms, on his way to another world and a much later chapter. How should they guess? The boy on the doorstep with snow in his hair looked just like their Thomas. He made the same gurgling noises and had the same moles and the same round, uncertain gray eyes. Indeed, far from being suspicious, the Roods were secretly a bit proud, as parents often are when their children do something awfully dangerous and at the same time awfully clever. Only a year old and already able to open the front door! What a fi rebrand our Tommy is! What have you got there, lad? A baseball! A sporting ace in the making! That's our boy!
But this child knew very well that he was called Hawthorn and not Thomas, and was a troll on the inside, not a baby human. It was only that he could not tell anyone— his human mouth was so small and soft! He could not make any words come out of it at all. When he fi nally managed it, they were just the simplest and plainest ones, none of which were big enough to hold his trollness, or that he had once spoken to a giant Panther, or the wonderful, terrible, burning fl ight through the clouds. He could not ask anyone about anything, or understand any of the bizarre objects that surrounded him. He could only grab hold of them, and shake them, or put them in his mouth and try to taste what they were. He did not turn his head when Gwendolyn sang out, Thomas! Thomas, where have you gone, my love? Because he could not remember that he was meant to be called Thomas now.
Whenever Hawthorn picked up a wooden block or a spoon or a ball, he dropped it at once. He could not seem to keep hold of anything. When one is a troll, one has a fearsome grip, and must handle everything very delicately if one does not wish to pulverize it immediately. Hawthorn's hands still thought they could crush stone by waving hello at it. They still wanted to treat the world as gently as they could. But his new hands couldn't pulverize so much as the corner of his blanket, and when he picked anything up with his careful troll- manners, they slipped right through and clattered to the fl oor.
His parents began to fear that he had suff ered some strange injury during his adventure on the doorstep. Their once- sleepy Thomas suddenly barreled headlong round the house, whacking into walls and chairs and babbling to the chandelier. They did not understand that Hawthorn had been promised an adventure by a very convincing Wind, and intended to have it. He loved the feeling of the silver paisley wallpaper in the dining room when he banged into it. He loved the sound of glass breaking. He loved cutlery, and all the things it could cutler. He loved the way the light jumped and jingled inside the chandelier like willo'- the- wisps. He was not in the least babbling at it. Rather, Hawthorn had begun a concentrated campaign to coax the wisps out of their crystal cottage and down to play with him. He had discovered that though his funny little soft pink mouth could not make human words yet, they could manage some troll- tongue, which is a language rounded like stones at the bottom of a river, slushy as snow melting, warm as an open door. Every morning he stood beneath the chandelier and called up to the wisps he knew must be inside—or else where could all that wonderful light come from? He called up to them in troll- tongue:
"Will- o'- the- wisp! If you come out today I shall give you my whole breakfast pancake!"
"Will- o'- the- wisp! If you come out today I shall give you my brandnew wooden racing car with purple stripes on it!"
"Will- o'- the- wisp! If you come out today I shall give you my mother's wedding ring!"
But the chandelier said nothing. The will- o'- the- wisp did not emerge. No matter— Hawthorn knew it would, one day.
Perhaps you have read stories in which trolls are slow and stupid and made primarily of the same sort of stuff as a sidewalk. While it is true that the diff erence between a troll and a stone is much like the diff erence between a human and an orangutan, a stone is not stupid. It is millions of years old, and has more memories and opinions and stories with no endings and fewer breaks for lemonade than even the oldest of your grandparents. Thus, for a troll, learning to talk is as natural as cuddling. Trolls are the best talkers in Fairyland— they make words and sentences and speeches like cobblers make shoes, and with more bells and ribbons and laces and leathers than the wildest dreams of the maddest shoemaker.
But Hawthorn was not a troll anymore. At least, his ears and his mouth were not troll- ears or a troll- mouth. He tried all the tricks a troll has to get his tongue back. He sidled up to En glish, and petted it, and called it a good language, and a pretty language, and wouldn't it like to come and play with him? But En glish was not Troll. En glish loves to stay out all night dancing with other languages, all decked out in sparkling prepositions and irregular verbs. It is unruly and will not obey— just when you think you have it in hand, it lets down its hair along with a hundred nonsensical exceptions.
What a human child must have to get hold of Talk, Hawthorn reasoned, was to go on a Quest. To hunt it down like a pink- horned musk ox. You had to creep along on all fours, hidden in the underbrush, looking for the little words, the weak ones that could be separated from the pack. Then pounce! And quickly, for words were fast and slippery and could get away if you got lazy and unwatchful. Mummy and Daddy were easy, soft little crunchable creatures he could snap up in his jaws. But Gwendolyn and Nicholas weren't his Mummy and Daddy, and he still knew that, no matter what his name was supposed to be now. So he devoured Mummy and Daddy quietly in the shadows, told no one what he'd done, and waited for better prey.
It was an important decision: Among troll- kind a child's fi rst word is a kind of spell cast over the rest of his life. Parents hover over their newborn, ready to catch the glittery little thing as soon as it springs free. A boy who said book before any other word would surely be a great scholar or monk or journalist. A girl who said bird would be a zeppelin pi lot or a dodo rider or perhaps an opera singer. Hawthorn the troll's fi rst word had been: Go! And this had also been his second and third word. Go! Go! Go! But now he had to start all over again.
Hawthorn followed Gwendolyn all round their vast apartment, snatching at the words she used, trying to get them by the tail or the ear. She had a pretty voice and she spoke to him all the time. It sounded to him like the comforting sounds cows and dragons made to their calves. It was a mothering sound. Gwendolyn talked so much and so sweetly that all the words seemed to run together and become a thing more like singing than talking. He understood her well enough, but he just could not make his mouth do the things hers did. He longed to ask her what he considered extremely important questions about this new world he was stuck in: Why is up up and down down? Why does Father wear that checkered snake round his neck? Why does it keep raining when we all wish it would stop so we can go play in the grass? Why don't leprechauns come out of the church bells when they ring on Sundays? Why do they only ring on Sundays? Why can't anybody fl y? What is the point of mathematics when no one likes them? Why is the sky blue? Why won't the stove talk to me? Why won't the teapot talk to me? Why won't the wardrobe talk to me? Why do we use matches to light candles? Why can't we just explain to the candle how much better it is to be lit? Why won't you teach me your magic? Why do I have to sleep? Why are all the trees green when there are so many other colors to be? But when he tried to ask in troll- tongue, she only gurgled and babbled back at him, imitating his heartfelt noises. Hawthorn made a face whenever she did it— her accent was terrible.
It was not only Gwendolyn's talking which fascinated him: She could also fi nd lost things when he knew, he knew they were gone forever and the time had come to weep. She could make music come out of a great brass thing in the parlor that looked like a horn of plenty but wasn't one. She could make blue fi re roar out of the stovetop anytime she pleased. She could make hot milk or cocoa or caramel or porridge appear inside a silver saucepan—he never knew which it would be. When his trollmother wanted porridge, she simply went out to the fi elds and talked to the oats. Gwendolyn was diff erent. Hawthorn had begun to suspect she was a witch, which deeply excited him. Wherever she went, extraordinary things seemed to happen, and she wore beautiful clothes and had beautiful auburn hair and Hawthorn had only met a witch once but she was beautiful because they all were.
One eve ning while Gwendolyn was stirring a big copper pot (she had more pots than he had thought existed in all the world) full of beefand- leek stew, she chirped so prettily to him, telling him that he would grow up big and strong and handsome, and play baseball in school, and go to the same university she and his father had done, and take over his father's practice when he was grown and meet a lovely girl and be so awfully happy.
Hawthorn stared at her. She was stirring up his future. That was witch's work! Yet suddenly he could not think why witches and cookpots and futures went together hand in hand in hand. What a funny thing to have knocking around his head! And besides, Gwendolyn hardly ever wore hats at all. Thomas drank in everything she said. You had to pay close attention when a witch gave you a quest. Yes, yes, he would grow up big and strong! He was a troll, after all; he could hardly help it. But he would also be sly and fast. He knew that his ball, which he kept always nearby, was called a baseball, but he didn't want to play anything with it. He knew it was important, somehow, but he could not remember exactly why, or where he had gotten it. It rolled around by itself sometimes, as though it was not content to just sit still like all the other toys. Hawthorn didn't know what it was about— perhaps that was part of the quest! To discover the destiny of the pale orb with its ruby stitching and protect it! Little Hawthorn held up his chubby human arms to receive the blessing of Gwendolyn. I shall, my lady, he babbled furiously, reaching for her, willing her to understand him. I shall Go to the Kingdom of University and Meet a Girl Called Lovely and Practice Psychology Like My Father Before Me! I accept humbly the awesome honor of your prophecy! Have you a great weapon for me, so that I may be your True Knight?
Gwendolyn looked up from her stew- pot and laughed her singsong laugh. She handed him a pencil from the tight knot of her hair, where she was always keeping things like that, pencils and knitting needles and clothespins. Her hair seemed to be a magical purse in which she could hide anything he wanted. The troll received it solemnly and immediately vanquished the cabinet door with one long, dark scrape across its face.
His new mother was a witch. He knew it in his bones. But the fi nal piece of evidence was this:
Whenever he looked astonished at a suddenly found wooden train caboose or a burst of trumpets from the horn of plenty when there were no trumpeters about or a stream of caramel pouring golden out of the pot when he knew she'd only put a little sugar and cream in, Gwendolyn would lay her fi nger alongside her nose, and then tap his, and say:
Then she would laugh and ruffl e his hair.
Gwendolyn said it when she produced a new toy that he hadn't seen her making even though he watched her with the intensity of a mountain. She said it when she made all the lights come on at once with one touch of her little fi nger to the wall. She said it when his wooden train carriages went spinning around their wooden track with no one touching them or saying any eldritch words or coaxing them in troll- tongue with tales of other trains that had loved to go fast in circles just like these. She said it when she knit him socks and scarves and hats and she said it when they played the hiding game. No matter how he looked he could never fi nd her— she would pop up out of nowhere, crying: "Magic!"
Hawthorn tried to snatch up the word in his teeth. He crouched in the shag carpet and pressed his lips together, trying to bite down on an M. But the word squirmed and hissed and danced away.
Finally, one day, Gwendolyn set down a cup of chocolate in front of him and kissed his head. Hawthorn moved in for the kill, grinning wildly.
"MAGIC!" he cried.
Gwendolyn laughed with delight. She clapped her hands.
It was a good fi rst word for a witch's son, he supposed.
That was the day that Hawthorn forgot his name. It slipped away from him in the night, as silently as he had snuck up on magic. When he awoke in the morning, he was Thomas Rood, and the only Hawthorn he knew was the twisty old tree outside his nursery window.