An Oz Tale, by Marcus Mebes
By Marcus Mebes
Illustration by Pol Ledent
Number Nine stowed his ruefully infamous “whistlebreeches” back in the Emerald City more than a week ago, when he left. It was good to walk in the country, along the Yellow Brick Road, and hear real birds whistling and chirping in the trees. During times he walked alone, with no passersby, it was nice to hear nothing but the wind and his footsteps. Being Oscar Diggs’ assistant, he was always coming and going on some errand or another, so leaving the City was nothing special, and no one really cared to notice. That single fact had rankled Nine when he left, and it still irked him as he walked through the Winkie back country, heading toward the border. The Deadly Desert was not much further off, and already the vegetation was becoming noticeably sparse. His destination was ahead: a forest of yellow trees and shrubbery.
The Munchkin boy turned to see his old friend Woot trudging to catch up to him. Though there was assuredly half a day’s walk ahead of them, both boys were glad to keep each other company along the final stretch.
“I’m glad you could make it,” spoke Nine genially as Woot sidled up alongside him. “I wonder if we’re the first ones to get here.”
"You know," said Woot as he and Nine picked up their pace toward the forested area in the distance, "this part of the country is still remote. Not many people live here at all. When was the last time you passed a farmhouse? Right? It's been a while."
Nine noticed that Woot seemed to be talkative, whereas he felt more introspective, so he let his traveling companion speak.
Woot shifted the rucksack on his back and shrugged his shoulders against the weight. He was long since accustomed to its presence. "I came through the Gillikin country, up that way." He pointed in a north-easterly direction. "And there're people EVERYwhere. You know that. How dense is the Emerald City? Everyone HAS to go there at least once to visit, right? But how many people LIVE there? It's overcrowded. Dense. And it's not getting any better, if you catch my drift..."
Nine closed his eyes and nodded. It was starting already, the talk. They had not even reached their destination, and already Woot was unloading. Number Nine felt like Woot needed to rehearse, so he let his old friend talk.
"I've been everywhere, mind you. Crafton. Dunkiton. The Great Grey Gillikin Swamp... well, the swamp is pretty barren, but there's lots of wildlife. Boqville. Oogaboo." He paused, thinking of various places he had been to, but the list was staggering. He stopped walking a moment, his eyes agog, then kept moving to catch up with Nine, who had not stopped. "Truly, there are so many people... everywhere! EVERYwhere. I mean everywhere. When I was working at Glinda's palace, archiving information from the Book of Records, I learned that she and some others had cast a spell that expanded the borders of the entire land of Oz about an inch or two in all directions into the desert, which was supposed to make up for the influx of citizens, but what we don't realize is that people are BREEDING. Animals are BREEDING. Did you know that Billinna and her chicks have had to get a magical infertilization spell cast upon them? Think about it. Oz would be OVERRUN with chickens. There is no death here." He shook his head. "Thank goodness Lurline's spell doesn't apply to plants. Imagine if the fruits and vegetables we eat kept on living, going undigested in our stomachs, sprouting in our guts, and growing up out of our..." He grunted in displeasure.
"No death," echoed Number Nine somberly.
As Woot chattered during their trek, the boys continued to walk toward the forested region that was now clearly ahead of them. The Yellow Brick Road was no longer a steadfast route. Instead, they traveled along winding country dirt roads, well-worn from carts and scalawagons that occasionally stirred through the country. The sun was beginning to hover over the western horizon, casting long shadows that followed them on their journey. They could feel the gradual heat from the desert, though the setting sun meant that temperatures would soon become cooler. Number Nine occasionally ventured a response to Woot's walking commentary, but his biggest concern was getting something to eat. Perhaps, he thought, Woot was talking and walking so much that he forgot to realize it was definitely dinner time.
"We'll get to the forest by nightfall, for certain," said the Wizard's assistant, interjecting once Woot's speech had wound down. "I brought along some of the Wogglebug's meal pills. Not as satisfying as biting into a good sandwich, but they'll do." He reached into a pocket on his coat and removed an aqua blue vial full of the famous pills. Before he could open the lid, he let forth a slow yawn, which caused him to nearly stumble. "Gosh," he said, blinking his eyes. "I'm really tired."
Woot held out his hand for one of the pills, then popped it into his mouth, swallowing it without the aid of a drink. Neither of them appeared to have any water with them, but Nine figured that Woot likely had some kinds of provisions in his rucksack. Soon enough they knew that they would encounter water. After all, their destination was a pond.
"Don't you get it?" demanded Woot as they trudged along. "This is exactly what I'm getting at. All of our conveniences mean we don't have to struggle or work for what we have. Do we earn any of it? Did we work for any of it? We just consumed—each of us—an entire meal... in the form of a pill. Sure, we're full, but did we chew any of it down? Did our jaws move? Our tongues? Is it really as satisfying as eating a real dinner? I don't think it is."
"It's not," agreed Nine with a sigh. The sky was growing darker, and the sparks of stars were beginning to appear on the fringes of nighttime. Sunset had made the shadows even longer, and both boys had neglected to admire the scene before it disappeared beyond the horizon. Number Nine frowned in distaste, realizing what they had just lost. "How many sunsets have we lost?" he said, turning to his companion. He stopped, pointing westward at the horizon.
"Exactly!" exulted Woot. "We've grown so complacent that we don't even realize what we've lost because we're so happy being happy. What if being happy is... wait for it now... what if being happy is making us unhappy?"
The morning found Woot and Number Nine arising at sunrise. The napkin tent magicked into being was soon reduced again to a kerchief, stuck in Number Nine's jacket pocket. As the Munchkin boy folded the white cloth into a small square, Woot folded his arms across his chest, twisted his face into a frown, and shook his head. "Is this living?" he mumbled.
"The pond is just that way," spoke Nine softly. He ignored Woot's comment. The two had spent the night at the edge of the yellow forest. The Wizard's magical tent provided them both with a fireplace, their own comfortable beds, fully stocked bathrooms, and even breakfast. Number Nine, living for decades in the Emerald City, had long since grown accustomed to waking early so that he could bathe and get ready before Oscar Diggs needed him in his tower, or anyone else could call upon him. The tent's bathroom boasted a marble tub with crystal piping that created a massaging shower. Soft music played, gentle but rousing enough to wake Woot.
“I’m going there already. Do you mind?” asked the wanderer.
Nine sighed and nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll wait here. How many are we expecting this time?”
Woot shrugged. “Ten at least, give or take. If there are any stragglers,” he paused, looking toward the forest. He tugged on his ear, relieving an itch. “They’ll find their way there, I’m sure.”
“They’re coming already,” noted Number Nine, looking eastward. Sure enough, a group of people could be seen walking toward their location. Nine squinted his eyes, shielding his vision from the morning sunlight. “Looks like five or six people already,” he said. “Hang on a moment Woot. They should be here in no time.” He turned toward the treeline, but Woot had already disappeared into the forest. Number Nine sighed, shrugged, and sat down on the greensward to wait.
He leaned back on his elbows, hoping that he could make himself comfortable. Unfortunately, the ground was rough and unyielding. What yellow grasses grew in the greenward were sparse. The lush green lawns of the Emerald City were not present at this remote spot in the westernmost Winkie Country. Number Nine fidgeted about, first laying upon his side while propping his head up on his hand, then attempting to lay back with his fingers laced behind his head, but either the position felt uncomfortable or he could not see the travelers, or both. In exasperation, Number Nine sat cross-legged on the field, hunched over, and resting his chin upon his fists.
In time he began to make out distinct figures moving toward him, and in addition to the group of people coming from the east, more people were arriving from the northeasterly direction that Woot had come in from, and soon he could see another small group coming from the south… at least two or three people, but they were too far off for him to be certain. Number Nine took a deep breath and wondered just how long of a nap he could take before everyone was close enough for him to need to stand up and wave at them. The amount of people was of interest to him. Numbers always piqued his interest, but with nothing to do but wait, Nine concluded that he could either sleep or do something constructive.
“Calisthenics?” he mused. “I could exercise. I don’t get to do much of that in the Emerald City.” There was really no need for anyone to exercise, because the nutritional values of all the food were so perfectly balanced that no one became overweight unless they wanted to. The anti-aging spell enabled people to remain at the same physical state as the age they chose to stop at, and though people ate meals to fuel themselves, Number Nine wondered if his body would waste away if he decided not to eat anything for a year. Would he starve? He blinked, and decided that that was a question he would bring up later, once everyone had arrived.
The galloping of hooves coming from the south alerted Number Nine that even more were soon to be there. Foregoing any thoughts of creative stretching or yoga, Number Nine arose, brushed himself off, and turned to face the impending arrival.
“Hello!” he called out, greeting the fellow who rode the sleek brown horse. “Hello. Welcome!” Sidling up next to the horse was another magnificent steed. “Thun! It has been quite some time.” He addressed the rider. “Daniel. Welcome to you all!” Looking at the first rider, he took a moment to register the man’s name. “Aren’t you… Speedy’s uncle? From America…?”
“Yes indeed, good sir!” spoke the man. He wore an outfit similar to Daniel Mann’s own. Daniel, being the Shaggy Man’s brother, also hailed from America, and like his traveling companion, had come to Oz permanently. “William J. Harmstead’s the name. From Garden City, Long Island. Speedy told me much about Oz when he got back, and I managed to make it here. Don’t think we’ve had the pleasure to meet.”
“We met in the Emerald City,” informed Daniel as Thun cantered in place. Daniel Mann, who long before had been called the Ugly One by Ruggedo, patted Thun, the Silver Princess’ Thundercolt, affectionately. With a smile, Number Nine saw that riding behind Daniel was none other than his dear old friend Jellia Jamb. Formerly from Anuther Planet, Thun’s coat gleamed in the morning sunlight, giving the horse an otherworldly glow. Both the horse and rider nodded, as Daniel said, “Mornin’,” and Jellia smiled in greeting. “Billy seemed like he might be interested, so I invited him along.”
Nine nodded. He made a mental note that he would ask William later on to share his story about coming to Oz.
"Daniel's not his true name, you know?" teased Jenny Jump, who seemed to have suddenly appeared from nowhere. "Hello Number Nine!"
The Wizard’s assistant was startled, and his eyes nearly bulged from his head upon hearing his name. As he looked, from behind Speedy’s uncle a hand reached out to steady herself upon the rider’s arm. Billy leaned sideways, allowing Jenny Jump to peer from behind him.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said after Billy helped her dismount. “I mean, I hope you don’t mind me coming along.” She looked at Jellia, who had joined William, Jellia, and Daniel in getting down off the horses.
Jellia Jamb spoke up before Number Nine could. “Of course not, silly! I’ve told you so many times: this is for all of us.” She looked at the others standing in the grassy area in front of the trees. “Isn’t that right?”
“Of course,” laughed Daniel. "And he's right," he explained to Billy. "My real name's Ichabod. As if that's not bad enough, my brother used to call me Wiggy when we were kids. As you can imagine, I don't care for either. And since this is Oz and I can be anyone I want, I choose to go by Daniel."
“I can see why you'd change it,” agreed Billy, smiling. "Ichabod's not quite as flattering on you."
"Shagrick and Ichabod!" Daniel said with mock horror. "What were our parents thinking?"
Billy laughed and continued to banter with Daniel, while Number Nine smiled up at Jenny before averting his eyes. “It's good to have you here,” he said to Jenny. Tentatively reaching out toward her hand, he smiled hopefully. “You do know what we do here, right?”
“Peer counseling, as far as I understand,” replied the half fairy from New Jersey. “At least, that’s what I make of it.”
“There’s a whole lot of griping, too,” inserted Jellia as she gazed outward toward the others steadily walking toward them. “But we try to be positive too. Help each other out.” She returned her gaze to meet Jenny’s, noticing that the girl had taken hold of Number Nine’s hand in her own. “It’s a secret group, though,” she insisted. “Not for everyone.” She sternly looked to Speedy’s uncle Billy, who once again was staring at Daniel. “Ahem,” she coughed. “Secret group,” she reiterated once she got his attention.
“I still don’t understand why we need to keep it secret, though,” groused Billy. “Off with you, good mounts! Enjoy the countryside.” He slapped his steed’s flank, but the horse merely twitched her withers and raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t have to be rude,” the horse scolded him. “Come back in two days?” she asked complacently. Thun, who had sidled up next to the mare, lowered his head to sniff at the grass. He bit off a clump and began chewing it. Billy unlatched and removed the saddle and saddlebags from the horse’s back.
Thun clomped his front right hoof on the ground and shook his mane, silently echoing the other horse’s question.
“Two days, please,” spoke Daniel Mann. He rubbed Thun’s forehead and leaned in to affectionately hug the animal. “Anetty and Randy won’t miss you too much, will they?” he asked. He followed Billy’s example and removed the saddle from the horse’s back.
Thun shook his mane and nickered, backing away from Daniel and the others. He once again pawed at the ground, urging the mare to come with him. The horses cantered off, wandering about the field and grazing on the hearty yellow grasses.
“I feel like it was rude not to ask her name,” muttered Jenny to Nine as the horses sauntered off. Number Nine shrugged his shoulders, but said nothing.
In time, the people that they had seen coming towards them became more distinct, and they could make out six individuals steadily approaching the glade.
“Who are we expecting?” asked Daniel, peering into the distance. He brushed wisps of his unkempt hair from his face, then smiled encouragingly at Billy. He could not help but notice the other man’s constant glances his way, and wondered if Speedy’s uncle might be nervous. “It’s all good here,” he said.
“I like the longer hair on you, Daniel,” spoke up Jenny before Billy could respond, giving the man a genuine compliment. “I thought you had brown hair, though.”
The former Ugly One—by far the opposite of ugly—smiled. “I’ve been out in the field a lot. Trying my hand as a lumberjack and a farm-hand. Your skin gets dark and your hair gets light. I like it too.”
“Very becoming,” commented Billy, his eyes trained upon Daniel’s. Daniel, who had not really paid much attention to his traveling companion, noticed that Billy appeared to be his own age, though he knew that Speedy—certainly in his 40s when he finally came to settle permanently in Oz—was physically much older. Billy had not shared his story much, but Speedy acknowledged the physically younger man to be his uncle, so nobody questioned him. Billy appeared to be of sturdy stock, probably as athletic as Daniel, and certainly a handsome man. He smiled again at the nervous fellow.
Number Nine, still holding onto Jenny’s hand, had been watching the arrivals. He answered Daniel’s earlier question. “Emperor Toko of the Silver Islands. Ginger of Ev. Greta from Monday Mountain. That means there are three more new faces.” He raised an eyebrow and turned to address Billy, Daniel, Jellia and Jenny. “Any ideas?” he asked.
“Jellia swore me to secrecy. ‘It’s very private,’ she said.” Jenny Jump squeezed Nine’s hand in sincerity.
The others shook their heads or shrugged.
The two groups of people converged and were getting close enough to make out shapes. The tall, big-boned woman was obviously Greta. The washerwomen of Monday Mountain were tall women, heavy-set, and very strong. Greta had joined the group many years previously, and had been faithfully coming to their annual retreat.
The short fellow with the large turban was none other than Ginger, the servant of the Red Jinn’s magic dinner bell. He had come all the way from Ev, and though he rarely participated in meetings or even one-on-one sessions with any of the others, he had yet to miss the annual gathering.
Emperor Toko, formerly known as Happy Toko, was similar to Ginger in that it was difficult for him to meet with the others, though he managed, at times, to convene with Nine, Daniel, Woot, or Jellia any time he visited the Emerald City and found one or more of them present. Stealing away for short visits in a private suite was all that was necessary.
As the six drew nearer, smiles spread over the faces of those waiting at the glade.
“That’s Cayke, the Cookie Cook,” observed Jellia. She raised her hand and waved, eliciting return waves from the six oncoming people.
“I don’t think I recognize the others,” commented Number Nine. Two girls—young women, perhaps—walked with Toko, Greta, Cayke and Ginger. They were close enough now to make out colors, and could see that one of the girls wore a red uniform and walked with a spear as a staff. “I believe that girl next to Greta is one of Glinda’s guards.” He squinted at the other girl, but could only see that she wore a loose-fitting shirt and a cap that looked like a big oval hanging off her head.
“She looks familiar,” muttered Jellia, staring intently at the newcomers.
“Who does?” asked Billy. He had taken off his jacket, folded it neatly, and placed it in a saddle-bag that he had removed from his horse. The day was growing warm, and they could feel the heat wafting in from the desert.
Daniel, wearing a tailored suit-coat but comfortable trousers and hiking shoes, took off his coat and vest. “May I?” he asked, folding up his clothes and gesturing to the saddle-bag.
“Of course,” agreed the other, allowing Daniel to stow his clothes in the same pack. “We’ll just hang it in a tree once we head inward.” He glanced at the trees, the sky, the people walking toward them, and then back at Daniel. Biting his lip, he added, “Why not now?”
“You two go on ahead, if you want,” suggested Number Nine. “Jellia, Jenny and I will wait for the rest.” He had let go of Jenny’s hand, but the two stood close together still.
“Works for me,” replied Daniel. He hefted his saddle and lifted it over a shoulder. Billy did the same, and the two carried their loads to the forest. The sky was clear, so there was no danger of the saddles getting rained upon; however, they hoped to keep the saddles and saddlebags obscured. There was little chance of thievery, but they took no chances.
As the New Yorker and the man from Colorado walked, they exchanged significant glances. “It’ll take them another hour or two to get here, I presume,” suggested Billy, his voice low, as they dropped the saddles at the base of a large, spreading golden oak tree. His attempt at innocent banter hid his desire to be alone with the man walking next to him.
“The pond is pretty deep in the forest,” remarked Daniel. He spoke quietly, assuming Billy wished to keep their conversation private. “Horseback riding always cramps up my back.” He pressed his fists into his lower back, arched backward and stretched. He looked at Billy, raising an eyebrow.
“Might take us a while to find it. It’s very possible to get turned around in a forest.” Billy mumbled, glancing behind them at the others, then at the forest around them.
“Even a small one like this,” continued Daniel. He pressed his lips together, looking sideways, then at Billy. “Are you expecting we might get… turned around… in this forest?”
“It could happen,” whispered Bo;;u, glancing over his shoulder to where Nine, Jenny and Jellia waited for the others. He spread out his fingers and shook out his hands. “I, ah… I’ve been told I can give a pretty good sports massage. Get all the knots out. We’ve got an hour or two, like I said.” He breathed deeply through his nose, inhaling the piney, woodsy scent of the forest. The saddles were set side-by-side among the gnarly roots of the tree, the saddle-bags stored underneath them rather than on a branch. He nodded, once again glancing at Daniel. “Why don’t we find out?”
“Find out what?” Daniel asked. “How long it’ll take to find the pond? For them to get here? Or if you can get these knots out of my back?” Daniel smiled, his gaze taking in the forest, then back to Billy. He said nothing as he set out to walk into the forest. Speedy’s uncle followed.
“They’re adults. Capable of making adult decisions,” spoke Number Nine to Jenny as his old friend cast a questioning glance his way. “We all are adults here, whether we look it or not. Right, Jellia?”
The housekeeper of Ozma’s palace blushed, looking downward. A faint grin could be seen upon her lips, but she passed it off and looked outward at the road, inhaling sharply. “I expect they’ll be here soon enough.” She narrowed her eyes and peered closely. “I wish I had some of the Wizard’s binoculars, or his spy-glass. There’s something familiar about that girl.”
Number Nine reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pince-nez, which he handed to Jellia. “Will this work?” he asked.
“Yes!” exulted the girl, grasping the proffered item and pinching it to her nose. She looked through the magical implement, her eyes adjusting to the sudden magnification as her sight moved about. She scanned the distance until her magnified vision settled upon the pedestrians. Sure enough, there were Happy Toko, Greta, Cake, and Ginger, but the girl garbed in red was not someone she knew. She was definitely one of Glinda’s guards, however, for the uniform was distinctly the red sorceress’s design. Her gaze went to the other girl, the one with the loose-fitting shirt, shorts, and large, woolen cap. As she saw her face, she could see smears of mud upon the girl’s features, though on second glance she thought perhaps they were paint smears. Her shirt was covered with them. She saw the girl’s eyes, and at that very moment, the girl’s eyes met her gaze. A finger quickly went up the girl’s lips, dropped down quickly, and the faintest hint of a wink. Jellia was certain that the girl was aware of being scrutinized, even though she was no longer making eye contact over the distance. To be certain, she looked to see if she could see the girl’s hair. Sure enough, curly blonde locks fell from the oversized painter’s cap. Jellia shook her head, handing the viewing implement back to Nine.
“Toko, Ginger, Greta, and Cayke,” she reported. “And two newcomers.” She smiled, grateful that Number Nine secreted the pince-nez back into his pocket. In recent years, the boy had grown distasteful of using too much magic just for convenience’s sake. She knew that he and Woot had used magic tents the night before, but he was apparently fine to wait patiently.
Jenny Jump, however, had a fairy eye. She looked at Jellia, raising an eyebrow in question. Jellia returned her look with a stern, meaningful one of her own.
Once the newcomers arrived, they could discern who exactly was among the group. Introductions were made, and they learned that the girl garbed as one of Glinda’s guards was Ayalla, and that she hailed from Mudge. She had a definite exotic look about her, with her almond skin and jet black hair. She used a spear as a walking stick, and none of those present feared the sharp tip.
The other girl was introduced as Poppy. Jellia and Jenny nodded politely to her as they learned her name. Neither girl spoke, and they noticed that they alone appeared to recognize Poppy. The girl wore a loose-fitting button-up shirt that was covered with different colored paint splotches. Her face was smeared with what looked like soot and paint. She appeared to have blonde hair that was tucked under a woolen cap that was so large that it floated around her head like a cloud.
“I… um…” Poppy spoke, looking at the others and at the forest. “I think I… I think I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to just wait out here,” she said, surprising them all.
“You’ve come all this way,” said Ginger, tilting his head in concern. “Do you want me to take you back?” He bowed and held out his hand to the girl.
“No, thank you Ginger.” Poppy blushed, taken aback by Ginger’s chivalrous offer.
“Poppy, dear,” said Greta, crouching down and placing her hands on her knees so she could be at a level with the girl. “You could very well be waiting two or three days. Some of us…” She glanced at Number Nine, who raised an eyebrow in nonchalance. “Well, sometimes we stay in there a while.”
“There is no pressure, honorable companion,” added Emperor Toko. He bowed low to her. “Your decision is greatly respected. You may do as you please.” He wore a simple, blue outfit that appeared to be a short-waisted kimono robe, matching blue silk trousers, and sandals. His black hair was tied back in a queue. No royal adornments were present to indicate that he was the emperor of the Silver Isles.
“If you change your mind, just come into the forest and find us. It’s not very big. We’ll be there.” Number Nine looked at all the others, sweeping his view across the familiar and new faces. “We’re here. Let’s go in.” As an afterthought, he turned to Poppy. “If you are going to wait out here… well, as long as you’re here, if anyone comes along and mentions that they might be looking for any of us, please direct them to—” He stopped speaking, realizing that their gatherings were secret, and that no one was likely to come along looking for them. “Never mind,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Jellia and Jenny looked at Poppy, concern and confusion apparent on their faces. The girl simply smiled apologetically at them, making a brushing motion with her hands to shoo them into the forest.
“What will you do, then?” asked Ayalla. She had not spoken much, cowed by the oddness of the situation, and the excitement of going into it.
“I think I’m going to go back to that small town we passed this morning. There are some houses that could use painting.” Poppy smiled sweetly and turned heel to walk back the way they had come. She turned and looked over her shoulder as the others began walking toward the forest. Jellia and Jenny lingered to watch the girl go. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.” She tilted her head and stared meaningfully at both of them. “I give you my word.”
The dim light of the forest came about from the first few rays of sunlight that filtered inward through the leaf canopy. Every tree, shrub and fine had a rich yellow tint, intermingled with golds, rusty browns, deep siennas, and even some orange blooms.
No magical tents were present. Spread out around the perimeter of the Truth Pond, the pilgrims were beginning to wake.
The sound of birds chirping in the trees greeted Jellia Jamb as her eyes fluttered open. The morning was cool, but the warmth of their proximity to the desert made it pleasant. None of them had brought blankets or mats, and simply slept on the grass and leaves near the pond. Number Nine knew better than to erect the Wizard's handkerchief tent. This was a place of truth, after all, and as such they all decided to rough it.
The Emerald City palace housekeeper rubbed her eyes, blinking the sleep out, and looked around her. It was still dark in the forest, despite the sunlight that trickled in from the east. None of the others were awake yet, and she realized that she was the first, out of habit. Her duties in Ozma's palace necessitated that she always be an early riser. Jellia wondered how the staff was coping in her absence. She propped herself up on her hands and looked at each of her companions.
Number Nine and Jenny slept, curled up next to each other. Their breathing seemed to be synchronized as their chests rose and fell in unison. Nine's blue shirt was unbuttoned at the top, and she noticed that he had genteelly given his coat to Jenny as a makeshift blanket. Both of their feet were bare, and occasionally Jenny's toes curled and flexed as she dreamed. With a smile, Jellia realized that Nine's arm had been protectively covering Jenny the entire night.
Toko slept peacefully, lying on his back. His fingers were interlaced over his midsection, and he seemed to be smiling peacefully as he slumbered. Not far from him Ginger slumbered on a patch of moss, his head still wrapped in his massive turban. The boy scratched his stomach in his sleep, turned his head, and snuffled quietly.
Greta, Cayke, and Ayalla slept near each other, aligned in a row. Cayke's ample skirts were bunched up as pillows for each of them, and Jellia giggled to see Cayke's billowy pantaloons in stark contrast with Ayalla's deep red skirt and Greta's almost-threadbare housedress. Cayke's snood still held her hair in place, but Ayalla and Greta allowed their tresses to fall loosely about their heads.
Further around the edge of the pond, the Shaggy Man's brother and his friend Billy Harmstead slept side by side. Both being mature, rugged men of adventure, Jellia gazed with admiration at their forms. Well-built, with strong muscles, their bare chests rose and fell as they breathed slowly in their sleep. Their heads were near each other, and their bare feet spread outward as if they were joined as two spokes in a wheel. Daniel's unkempt hair spread out under his head as he slept, with a leafy twig jauntily snagged in his sun-bleached locks.
Jellia wondered what Billy and Daniel had done with their time, having crept off twice the previous evening into the depths of the forest, only to come back later disheveled and smiling. Their sojourn to the Truth Pond was an escape for all of them; a time for them to be honest with each other, to share their concerns, to confide, to confess, and to indulge, but never to pry. Raising an eyebrow, Jellia thought perhaps that Jenny and Number Nine might have done something similarly as curious the time the two of them crept off after all the others had gone to sleep.
Timid, demure Cayke certainly had a lot on her mind, and was keen to share it. Jellia's gaze once again trained upon Greta, Ayalla and Cayke. Was there something blossoming there, or just friendship? Shifting back to Toko, Jellia noted that the emperor was alone. Perhaps that was his strongest desire. She had heard him speak many times of how he never got to be alone with his thoughts. The people of the Silver Isles were always bustling about with something important and honorable, always bowing, always keen to keep up with ceremony.
Ginger—always cheerful and ready to lend a helping hand—used his time to vent about how ungrateful some people were, and how he felt like he was often unfairly treated. He admitted that, sometimes, the fault was his. He allowed people to believe that he was happy to serve them. “Sometimes I want someone to serve me, you understand?” He had clenched his fist as if he were crushing the magic dinner bell that summoned him so often.
But where was Woot? The wanderer had been the first to arrive, along with Number Nine. Jellia could not see him anywhere, though he had certainly been present the previous night as they sat around the pond and talked.
Woot was growing more and more dissatisfied as time went on. Each passing year found the wanderer discontent with his life and situation. He complained that there was nothing new or interesting in Oz anymore, and that he had wandered over every part of the land. He expressed a disconcerting interest in wandering into the desert, which horrified everyone present. Certainly Woot was not suicidal, was he?
Toko spoke of the people in the Silver Islands, and how everyone was exceptionally polite and traditional, but that he, too, suffered from the same dismal boredom of repetition day in and day out. Upon striking that chord, everyone chimed in, echoing the same concern.
"Ojo's parents, Ree and Isomere," explained Number Nine as they conferred, "have decided to move to Tarara, to be a part of their heritage. Did you know that they—well, Ree at least—is a descendant of Tararan people?"
"Like Tandy, from Captain Salt's ship?" asked Daniel, his interest piqued. He glanced at Billy, and a silent communication passed between the two good chums. "I wonder if it's time for us to take a cruise, eh buddy?" he suggested.
Billy nodded dreamily.
"Yes, Ree's mother came from there, and as I understand it, she actually went back there decades ago," continued Number Nine.
Talk had gone on about leaving Oz altogether—not just the country, but the entire continent of Nonestica. From what they heard of Captain Salt and his crew and their adventures in Ozamaland—Ot'Samaland, as they insisted it was correctly pronounced—there were unknown dangers, hardships, and grand adventures to be had in the very different, very rough landscape. There was magic there, to be sure, but not to the extent that it made everyone complacent with easy lives where people wanted for nothing.
As she recalled the previous evening's topics of conversation, Jellia noticed more movement from the sleepers, though none yet were waking. Billy sighed in his sleep. Jenny Jump curled her toes and flexed her fairy foot. Ginger scratched his stomach once again, Greta sniffled and snored, and Ayalla smacked her lips together as a yellow butterfly alit upon her nose. Toko exhaled and a muffled poot sounded from his rear. Jellia giggled.
A gentle splash alerted her to the pond, and she turned to see movement as the water rippled on the surface. She scrutinized the water, now almost calm as a pane of glass. On the far edge of the pond was Woot's rucksack, with his clothes and boots lain upon it. Jellia wondered how Woot could have crept up so quietly, disrobed, and dove into the water without her noticing. She blinked, waiting for him to rise to the surface.
Sure enough, Woot's face emerged, and he rose steadily from the pond, the water trickling in rivulets over his form. Jellia swallowed, realizing that her friend was completely unclothed, but though she attempted to lower her gaze, her eyes remained steadfast upon him.
Though by no means the stunning specimen of physical perfection that Daniel Mann was, or elegantly handsome like Speedy’s uncle Billy, Woot was still a handsome fellow. Years of wandering—decades, to be accurate—had given the young man a lean, lithe build. His back and chest were bronzed from the sun, and his wavy dark hair matched the deep, darkness of his eyes. Woot emerged from the pond and strode quietly over the grass to where Jellia still lay. He knelt, reaching downward to steady himself, and sat next to her, in stark contrast to her fully-dressed demureness.
“This is the one time each year that we allow ourselves to open up to each other,” spoke the wanderer, not looking directly at her. His tone was quiet, hushed so that the others would not be awakened. “For that, I’m grateful. I’m sure we all are. But why must it be just once a year? Why must we be private about it, and keep it a secret? Why can’t we speak our minds anytime we want? Why can’t we shed our masks, our costumes, our clothes, and be who we want to be?” He turned to look at the girl, and saw she was no longer blushing. “You and I are both older than we look. We all are. At what age do we reach maturity? Are we stuck forever as children, teens, young adults? Are we forever forbidden from experiencing the joys and privileges of adulthood?”
“You can age as much as you like,” she commented. “How old are you?” asked Jellia, cautiously. Before he could answer, she spoke. “I chose to stop aging at sixteen.”
“I... seventeen, I suppose,” said Woot. “Though now that I think of it, I haven’t really consciously chosen to stop aging. I’ve just stayed this way because I’m used to it. We do have a choice, don’t we?” He shook his head, staring angrily at the pond. “So why am I stuck as a teenager? Did I do this to myself, or is someone else controlling me?” He frowned, biting his bottom lip. With his knees bent up in front of him, Woot leaned forward and rested his arms upon them, and pressed his face against his forearms. “It’s not fair. What if I want... if I want to... to d-die?”
“Are you sad?” asked Jellia. Tears welled in her eyes and she reached out to place her hand against Woot’s bare back. He was cool from the water, and she rubbed the skin dry.
“No, I’m not sad,” he replied. He breathed sharply, then added, “Maybe I am. But I’m... I’m done with this life. I’ve wandered the land. I’ve worked as a cataloger for Glinda. I’ve crawled into every cave, every deserted castle, climbed every tree, seen every culture... everything there is to experience here. I’m bored. I’m done. I’m either going to Tarara or to the desert.”
Jellia leaned her head against Woot’s back, wrapping her arms around him. Her tears mingled with the water on his back. “You could always drink from the Forbidden Fountain,” she said, whispering still. “I could find a way to sneak some of the water to you without Ozma finding out.”
“And what? Just re-set me so I can live the whole thing all over again? In another couple of decades you’d help me drink the water again? Do it all over again? Is that living?” he asked. Jellia could hear his breathing hitch in his chest, and knew that her friend was about to cry. Woot cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “Come with me,” he suggested.
“To… to Tarara?” asked Jellia. Her sympathy for her friend was overwhelming, but she felt her ties to Ozma and her duties in the Emerald City were too binding. She shook her head. “I don’t know, Woot. I don’t know if I can.”
“You CAN!” he insisted. He reached up and grasped her hand as her arms wrapped around him. “Come with me. Let’s ALL go. All of us. Let’s just leave and never come back. Let’s LIVE.”
Jellia remained silent. She knew that the others would soon awaken. The sunlight was steadily pulsing through the leaves, and the forest was waking up around them. Birds continued to chirp, singing their melodies back and forth as they greeted the day. Already she could see Daniel’s eyes flutter open. His head turned toward the sounds of Jellia and Woot whispering, and he smiled.
Jellia realized that she was clutching a nude young man in her arms, and that Daniel was seeing them. She almost pulled back, but then remembered why they were there—this group of peers who counseled each other and accepted each other—and retained her hold upon him. Daniel could not see the tears that fell from their eyes, or maybe he could. Jellia did not care.
“Let’s go for a swim,” she said, raising her voice so that Daniel could hear her. Perhaps the others would wake and follow their example. Daniel was already stripping his trousers off, and with another blush Jellia realized that she would be in the water with two naked young men. She sighed. “I’m not getting naked though,” she muttered. Quietly, in her thoughts, she challenged herself. “And why not?” Shrugging, Jellia removed her apron and doffed her dress. Knowing they would swim in the pond at some time or another, underneath her ample skirts she had worn a demure one-piece bathing suit with lacy frills along the shoulders. She gingerly followed Woot into the water. Daniel tugged on Billy’s arm, waking his friend, and soon the entire group of friends were in the water, clothes optional.
Poppy entered the forest, knowing that the others were in there, gathered about the Truth Pond. She had walked to the neighboring town, spent the night and the following day there, and set back to the forest at sunrise on the third day. She would go into the forest and talk with the others, sharing her thoughts and concerns. Or perhaps she would listen. Poppy did not know for certain how she would behave; she just knew that she would steel herself and go into the peer counseling group.
Finding the Truth Pond was easy, especially with a small group of people gathered around and in it. She saw that some of them wore bathing suits. With a gasp she saw that some of them wore nothing at all. She gulped, then cleared her throat to let them know she was about to come upon them.
“Honorable Poppy!” exclaimed Emperor Toko. “We were wondering what had become of you.” He was lounging in the water of the Truth Pond, leaning his arms back on the embankment. Poppy saw that he wore swimming trunks, and his pleasant grin gave her comfort. She averted her eyes from Woot, Billy, Daniel, and Greta, and with her eyes nearly bulging from her head, Poppy saw that Jellia wore a very modest bathing suit, and that Ginger wore an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit with horizontal black and white stripes, and had finally taken off his turban, letting his curly hair bristle about his head like a small cloud… not much unlike the cap she wore.
An exclamation from Jellia Jamb, and the palace housekeeper grabbed her dress and quickly covered herself. At Toko’s greeting, Jenny Jump looked up from where she and Nine had been lounging in the Truth Pond next to the emperor. She maintained her cool, and nodded in greeting to the newcomer. She was wearing a fashionable pink two piece bathing suit, her hair swept back in a simple ponytail. Number Nine wore blue swim trunks, and the two held hands as they relaxed. Billy and Daniel did not feel nervous about their nonexistent state of accoutrement, and merely smiled and nodded or waved at the girl as she entered their presence. Greta, Cayke, and Ayalla were seated on the grass on the pond’s bank. All three of them wore bathing suits, but Cayke’s was an antiquated style with fluffy pantaloons and an elastic cap, while Greta wore a simple burlap sack, and Ayalla wore a red tank top and deeper red bathing shorts. They could not have been more different, yet the three huddled together and tittered like children.
“Welcome friend!” spoke up Ginger, smiling genially.
“Glad you could join us,” declared Woot. “The one rule, our only rule, is that you must bathe in the truth pond.” He graciously pulled some of Jellia’s dress to cover his midsection, understanding that such immodesty was surely jarring to someone unaccustomed to it. Even they themselves were somewhat uncomfortable, and were struggling to accept it. The wanderer, the New Yorker, and the former Ugly One seemed to be the most comfortable unclothed.
Poppy, for her part, stood in the midst of a group of people who were completely open to her joining them. Having all bathed in the Truth Pond at one point or another, they were incapable of deception or untruths. She took a deep breath and began walking toward the pond. The grassy banks sloped downward into the water, and the grasses grew downward into the water along the edges, making it even more comfortable and welcoming. “The last I had known,” she said, “there was a plaque that warned this was the Truth Pond.”
“There was. There is,” stated Number Nine, with a sigh. He shifted sideways from where he sat next to Jennie Jump. As his companion watched, the Munchkin youth pushed back the moss and grasses hanging over the embankment where they lounged. Sure enough, a plaque was revealed, having been completely obscured by the growth that they were using as a pillow.
Poppy walked slowly toward the edge of the pond. Biting her lip, she regarded the pool. Not only would she be cleansed of any enchantments, but she would henceforth be able to only speak the truth. Realizing that the ramifications of bathing in the pond were lifelong, she closed her eyes and considered. There was nothing more and nothing less to it. Poppy sucked in a deep breath, kicked off her sandals, exhaled, and stepped into the water. She pulled the cap off her head, letting her long blonde locks fall loose about her shoulders.
As the others watched, the girl’s golden hair turned a rich brown. Poppy reached downward and cupped the water into her hands. She splashed her face, and the paint and smudges of soot washed away. With dawning realization, Poppy became more and more familiar to the onlookers.
Jellia, who had carefully pulled her dress back on over her wet bathing suit while the others were distracted, mustered up the nerve to speak. “Welcome to our group, your Majesty.” She curtsied to the girl who stood in the pond. The others, seeing her do so, looked carefully at the girl wearing the oversized shirt and baggy shorts.
“You were… deceiving us?” asked Emperor Toko, frowning in disappointment. He arose from the pond, as did the Nine and Jenny, followed by everyone else.
Ozma nodded, closing her eyes. She was disappointed in herself. So much of her life was a charade, and she even wore a disguise into a private group where only truth was told. She sucked on her bottom lip and looked up, meeting the looks from each of the participants in the peer counseling group.
“How dare you?” demanded Jenny Jump, stomping her fairy foot in the water of the Truth Pond. She, of all those gathered, had the courage to admonish their ruler. “How COULD you? This is a group where we… where we are honest with each other! You… you… you’ve invaded our…. our sanctuary!” The half-fairy girl from New Jersey turned red, gritting her teeth. She wanted to rant and scream at Ozma, but she dared not overstep herself. This was Ozma, after all. Fairy ruler of the realm.
Billy carefully found his crumbled up trousers and covered his lap, leaving Daniel to sink low into the water. Greta, Ayalla, and Cayke all looked downward, not wishing to be witness to any confrontation, but not turning away either.
“I half expected to turn into Tip,” mused Ozma, doing her best to maintain her dignity and disregard Jenny’s admonition. She laughed nervously. “But that was not my original form anyway.” She stepped deeper into the pond, sitting at the edge like the others had done. “Please, please sit… with me.” She wanted very much to cast her gaze down in shame, but she looked imploringly at each of the people gathered. “Yes, I was deceptive. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. You can’t imagine—or maybe you CAN—what it’s like to always have people coming up to me and wanting to talk with me, ask me questions, make demands, ask favors, have me solve their problems… I just wanted to be me for a little while, but sometimes I don’t even know who ‘me’ is.” She nervously giggled, recalling a Roley Rogue who had visited the Emerald City a generation ago who spoke like that. Before anyone could ask her what was so amusing, she soberly continued. “I’m sorry that I did that, but I’m here now, and you know who I am. I ask you to treat me as anyone else. I’m nobody special here.”
“But you ARE special, Ozma,” spoke Woot. He spread his arms out to encompass the small group of people in and around the Truth Pond. “We’re all special, unique, and one of a kind. And all of us are here because we want to be honest with someone, to not hide who we are, and to discover who we are. You’ve taken the first step.”
“You have to be honest with yourself first,” said Ayalla, surprising the others with her sagacity. She, Greta and Cayke had moved into the pond, and they all formed a circle around the perimeter of the small body of water. Billy slipped into the water next to Daniel, leaving his pants on the bank.
“I’ve been searching for that honesty for so long now,” sighed Ozma. The baggy shirt she wore floated up around her, but as it became saturated it sank down to cling to her form. “Maybe sometimes I don’t want to be me. Maybe I don’t want to be the Ozma that everyone sees me as. But I can’t be someone I’m not…”
Jellia made an almost comical sight, being the only other one fully dressed as she sat in the water of the pond. She placed her hand comfortingly on Ozma’s shoulder. “We’ll help you, in whatever way we can. You don’t have to be alone.”
Those gathered around the circumference of the pool either reached over to Ozma or swam closer to reach out their hands to touch the girl ruler. Ozma was overwhelmed with the sincerity, knowing that the magic of the pond forced everyone to be honest and truthful, and she knew that each of them honestly was willing to help her.
After a few moments, as the tension passed and the group began to relax, thoughts began to return to earlier conversations and circumstances. Jellia blinked, looking from Ozma to Woot. Apparently his concern for Ozma overrode his own feelings. But now she could see that he was growing sullen once again. Jenny and Nine were returning to their own little world, as were Daniel and Billy, and the three girls.
Jellia realized that despite their auspices of being united in their search for honesty and truth, at times they could be very much alone. She began to feel Ozma’s pain, for the first time since she had known the girl ruler.
“What are you going to do?” asked Jellia of Woot.
“I’m leaving.” The wanderer heaved a sigh. He moved his hands around in the water, feeling the liquid resist and flow around his fingers. “I’ll hitch a ride with Captain Salt, and if he goes to Tarara, I’ll ask him to drop me off there.” He shrugged. “Maybe he’ll go there if I ask him to, if he’s not already planning on it. I don’t know his sailing routes or his schedule. Or maybe I’ll try exploring the Outside World.”
“Are you going to tell anyone?”
“I’m telling you,” Woot muttered. He turned to her and gave her a wan smile. “You do look silly fully dressed.”
Jellia put her hands on her hips and pouted. “And why is that? Who says we can’t wear our clothes in the water? I don’t see you caring what you wear.”
Ozma regarded her subjects. Though Ginger was a subject of the Red Jinn, and Emperor Toko reigned in a subterranean substrata, she still felt protective of them as if they were more than guests. Now, perhaps, she could call them each intimate confidantes. It would not happen overnight, but at least she had opened up to them. Perhaps now it might be easier to talk with each of them.
Ozma breathed deeply, smiling. “I suppose we each have duties to get back to,” she sighed, disappointed. She attempted to speak, but decided not to. Perhaps it was simply time to be quiet, and be at peace.
Ginger nodded to Ozma, smiling in encouragement. “In time. Now it is vacation. Now we rest.” Billy, Daniel, Greta, Ayalla, Cayke, Jenny, Nine, Jellia, Woot and Ozma smiled in agreement.
For Synopsis and Continuity notes, go here