“And that, Saladin,” Miss Gundelfinger concluded, “are the twin properties of refraction and reflection.”
“Just sounds like the Rainbow to me,” Button-Bright mumbled. He was glad that she had finally finished; there’d been a few minutes there where he’d been afraid she never would.
“Well, yes, exactly,” she said, sounding a little puzzled and a lot annoyed. “The topic came up as a way of explaining how rainbows work. I thought, since they sometimes come up in your conversation, that you were interested in the physics.”
“The Rainbow isn’t psychic, and he doesn’t go to work,” Button-Bright argued. “Or, well, he doesn’t think of it like work. He goes around wherever his older brother gets to first. Kind of like a tag-a-long, come to think of it.”
Miss Gundelfinger made that staccato grunt deep in her throat that indicated Button-Bright was about to be scolded, and maybe even rapped across the knuckles with a ruler. “I have told you time and again that there is no such person as the Rain King. Rain is a phenomenon with scientific—”
“Don’t worry. It isn’t your fault,” Button-Bright said kindly. “You don’t know any better.”
“Enough. You are…” And here it was, an even deeper grunt that signaled she had lost her temper entirely. “You are the most obstinate, infuriating pupil I have ever taught. Or tried to teach. I think we’ve had enough science today. Now it is time to start your Latin.”
Button-Bright had never seen the use of learning a language that no one had spoken in a thousand years, not when there were other languages being spoken all around him, and especially not when there was still so much of English left to learn. But dared not further cross Miss Gundelfinger, not if he wanted to get out for a walk later that afternoon. So, he took the Latin grammar book that she handed him with no answer other than an absent-minded scratch to his thigh, and began his dec… declin… declensions.
Miss Gundelfinger pretended to mark up something Button-Bright had written the day before about the Revolutionary War, but he knew she had a different book hidden in the notebook. Something that seemed a whole lot more interesting than Latin or History. Whenever she tilted her book up like that, to hide the novel she wasn’t supposed to be reading, Button-Bright knew she wouldn’t be watching him too closely. He kept his pencil hovered over his notebook, but otherwise, stopped conjugating and started looking out the window.
Trickles of other children walking home from school. Some were led by their nannies or parents. Others, not much older than himself, walked alone, with heads up and scarves tied tightly around the necks of their overcoats. He could see them talking among themselves. The boys bounced balls as they walked, and the girls stuck their tongues out to catch snowflakes
Button-Bright longed to go out and make snowballs, instead of sitting here with his Latin. But he was a practical boy, not given to sulks. He bore everything with equanimity.
Between every third line, he doodled in the margins. He drew a picture of himself with Trot, from whom he’d had a letter the other day. He missed her, as well as the other friends he’d made on his adventures. Since he wasn’t allowed to go to a regular school—Button-Bright thought being rich seemed much less fun than poverty—they were his only friends. He even missed Shaggy Man and Cap’n Bill, who were the best kind of grown-ups—grown-ups who didn’t mind adventures and who took life as much in stride as Button-Bright did.
If only he could get back to fairyland, where, even though unpleasant things were often liable to happen—such as transformations, threats of patching, and boot-bluing servitude—he’d always found good companions, and had been able to go outside whenever he liked.
Button-Bright was drawing the shape of a rainbow as he wished.
Later that evening, Button-Bright was staring out the window again, this time from his bedroom, when he heard a commotion downstairs. He crept downstairs to have a look, careful to walk around the edges of the hallway so as to avoid creaking the wooden boards. Miss Gundelfinger had not yet left for the day, and if she caught him, he’d get a rap across the knuckles for sure.
He found Cook and Mary standing in the front doorway, clucking to themselves. They used actual words, Button-Bright was fairly certain, but it sounded like the clucking of outraged hens. Their blowsy black dresses blocked his view, but thought he spied a flash of something uncommonly bright and colorful. Everything else in this house and on this street and in this city felt like a drab variation on brown and grey. Button-Bright hadn’t seen anything strikingly pretty since California and the Pacific, so he was drawn to this new thing immediately.
“What do you mean, you know the young master?” Cook was saying. “The von Smiths do not associate with half-naked heathens.”
“I’ll fetch her an old wrap. I don’t want it on my conscience that any child caught their death on my watch. But after that, begone with you,” Mary added. “Honestly, the tramps grow stranger and bolder with each day.”
“If you would only let me see him,” a tinkling and thrillingly familiar voice pleaded, “you will see that Button-Bright knows me.”
Button-Bright slipped in his sudden excitement to reach the door, and in doing so, managed to squeeze between Cook and Mary, landing squarely in front of them.
“Hullo, Polly,” he said. “You’re awful wet.”
Polychrome’s face had been a mask of helpless trouble that didn’t suit her at all, but upon seeing Button-Bright, it transformed into a beaming smile of happiness that looked more like what he remembered. She put her shivering hands in his and let him pull her past the still-clucking women and into the comfortable warmth of the brownstone.
Her sodden hair slapped wetly against his face and soaked through his shirt as she hugged him tight. It was little wonder that Cook and Mary were so scandalized by her appearance. Her bright gauzy gowns were wet through, to the point of transparency. She wore no coat, even though it had snowed earlier.
“You know this girl?” Cook asked as Polly burrowed herself into Button-Bright’s arms.
“‘Course I know her. From the time I got lost and was gone for days and days. And the time before that, too.”
“That doesn’t help. You’re always getting lost.”
“Not like those times.”
“She can’t come in here.”
“My father owns this house, doesn’t he?” Button-Bright asked after thinking for a minute.
“Yes?” Cook said.
“Well, it stands to reason that if he isn’t here, I’m the master of the house. And I say she stays. She got me out of a tight spot once, and it looks like it’s time to return the favor.” He looked at Polly. “Are you in trouble?”
“I didn’t realize how little I belonged here until I had already arrived.”
“At least she knows it,” Cook mumbled.
“Come on,” Button-Bright said. “We’ll get you all fixed up.”
Button-Bright bustled her off to his room, despite the outcries of the staff. They climbed the stairs two at a time, and didn’t stop until the door had been latched behind them. Cook and Mary and even Miss Gundelfinger pounded on the door, but there was nothing they could do. Button-Bright knew they’d stop eventually. Grown-ups got tired and gave up a lot more easily than he did.
“They were terribly cross,” Polly remarked through chattering teeth. “Everyone I have encountered today has been. Is this what all mortals are like?”
“Those three are a little crosser than most, but…” Button-Bright shrugged. “You should meet my uncle. He’s the crossest.”
“What a dreadful place this is, then.”
Polly was shivering from head to foot, so hard that it took her twice as long as it should have to get that out. So, instead of making any more conversation, Button-Bright fetched her a towel from his washstand, along with a set of pajamas. He sat down cross-legged and watched her pat her dress and hair dry.
They were both quiet, since she was still shivering, and he had never been a chatterbox, but it was a companionable sort of quiet, the kind that only truly good chums can have, and Polly had always been one of the best—brave and calm and always jolly, especially for a girl. The girliest sort of girl, at that. It had been ages since they’d last seen one another, but Button-Bright didn’t feel a lick of awkwardness or surprise. Not even the fact that there was a real, live, sky fairy in his house threw him. It seemed to him like exactly the sort of thing that ought to happen to anybody. He’d never thought there was anything so special about himself.
But this was just the sort of thing he’d needed today, when he’d been extra lonely.
“These are so drab,” Polly said as she ran her hands over the brown wool pants. “And itchy.”
“Boy’s clothes are all I’ve got. Sorry. And the itchy stuff is what everything around here is made of.”
“What about that?” She pointed at a soft, sky blue bathrobe peeking out from behind the closet door.
“Bathrobes aren’t real clothes,” Button-Bright said, though, now that he was thinking about it, he didn’t see why not. “But you can wear it while I dry out your dress.”
They had a drawn-out moment in which she stared at the bathrobe and then at him, and then back at the bathrobe.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, when she hadn’t moved.
“Well, I…” She laughed, shaking herself out of the momentary oddness. “I just realized that, in all the thousands of years I’ve been alive, you’re the only boy I’ve ever...” She looked at the bathrobe again.
“Oh!” Button-Bright finally cottoned on. “I see. Say, I’ll call my father and explain this whole mess to him while you change. Lock the door behind me and only open it when I give the all-clear.”
Button-Bright found everyone whispering down the hallway. He ran by them, ignoring their calls, and went straight for the telephone. He’d only just learned how to use it a week ago. Cook said they were the first on their street to have one. She’d told all the callers and delivery men proudly. Button-Bright hadn’t understood why, when it was neither her house nor her telephone.
He asked the operator to put him through to his father’s bank office in Boston. The metal was cold against his ear as he listened to the ringing and then as he waited for Father’s secretary to put the call through.
“Good evening, son,” Father’s warm voice said. He wasn’t around much—never had been, and Button-Bright’s mother had died ages ago, too long ago for him to remember—and he’d always seemed wistful when looking at his son. Apparently Button-Bright looked quite a lot like her.
“Hi Father. I’ve got a problem.”
“What is it?”
“Well, you see, one of my friends is lost and came here for help. Polly. I’ve told you about her.”
“Oh, did you? Yes, yes, of course,” Father said. “From when you wandered off that time.”
This was going much more easily than Button-Bright suspected it would with most parents, but Father had always been easy-going. Although sometimes he wondered if it was because Father wasn’t quite attending. Uncle Bob always liked to say ‘like father, like son… no wonder you’re always wandering off, with my absent-minded brother for a father.’ Still, whatever the cause, Button-Bright wasn’t about to complain if it meant he got what he needed.
“That’s the one. She’s upstairs right now, but Cook and Mary and Miss Gundelfinger are trying to throw her out. They think she’s a tramp.”
There were voices in the background, and Father was certainly only half paying attention, but he must have remembered something Button-Bright had told him because he said, “I thought you said this Polly was the loveliest girl in the whole world, almost like a fairy. Or am I thinking of someone else from your stories?”
Father often didn't remember entire events, but would retain the most unexpected details.
Button-Bright knew no one could hear, especially not Polly, but he still blushed and covered the microphone, instinctively. “No, you have it right. That’s that one.”
“Then how could they think she’s a tramp?” asked, quite logically.
“I guess her fairy-ness doesn’t work the same here. Say, Father, if I put them on the phone would you…?”
“Tell them to be more welcoming? Of course.”
“That would be swell.”
Within minutes, it was all sorted, with Miss Gundelfinger stammering apologies over the phone and Cook asking Button-Bright what the young miss most liked to eat.
“Dew drops, if I remember right.”
“Is that some kind of sweetie?”
“No, just water,” Button-Bright replied. “She probably won’t want supper. She never did eat much of anything. If you could set up the spare room for her and make me a sandwich, I’m sure that’ll set us up just fine.”
When he returned upstairs, Polly was dancing slowly around the room, twirling the belt of the bathrobe like a ribbon.
“They’ll lay off now,” Button-Bright said. “I got us all fixed up. Now, can you tell me what happened? How did you get here?”
Polly slowed her dance even more, until she was barely waltzing in place. “Well, it started this afternoon, when I felt your call.”
Button-Bright frowned. “The only person I’ve called today was my Father, on the telephone just now.”
“What is a telephone?”
Button-Bright explained as best he could, but Polly didn’t understand. Eventually, she waved his words away and told him not to bother.
“Whatever it is, that isn’t how you called me. I told you last time we met that I’ve been watching over you. I’ve been watching over you since we first parted, after Ozma’s birthday party. Even when I can’t see you, it’s always been possible for you to call for me. How do you think I knew you needed my help with the Pinkies?”
“I dunno. Just thought it was a coincidence that you were nearby, I guess.” He paused and got an idea. “Does this mean you’re my fairy godmother?”
Button-Bright had always imagined old ladies as fairy godmothers. But he’d never pretended to know much. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find out he’d gotten it all wrong.
Polly laughed. “No, I am no one’s mother, dear. But neither was today’s adventure a coincidence. Today, you needed me again, and so I came, although the trip was much less comfortable. Unfortunately, my aunt, the Snow Queen, was visiting, and the winds of the blizzard she had brought with her must have drowned out my parting message as I danced off my bow to come reach you. I don’t think my father or sisters realize I have gone. When I landed, they told me I was in a place called Ohio. I remembered that you lived in Philadelphia, so I snuck onto what a kind gentleman told me was a train. He said it was headed there.”
“If you were already in Ohio why didn’t you try Dorothy for help first? Kansas is a lot closer.”
“Dorothy doesn’t live in Kansas anymore. She has taken up permanent residence in the Emerald City.”
“Didn’t know people like me and Dorothy could move to fairyland.”
“They can if a fairy grants them permission. And Ozma wanted to keep her friend at her side.”
Button-Bright felt a pang of jealousy, but ungenerous emotions never stayed with him for long. He told himself that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl. He said so to Polly, as well.
“Would you like to live in fairyland, Button-Bright?” she asked searchingly, almost pleadingly.
“Would you miss it here?”
Button-Bright thought of Latin and lines and lonely afternoons spent looking out the window at other children.
“Probably not,” he said.
“Would anyone miss you?”
Button-Bright thought of Miss Gundelfinger. He thought of Uncle Bob, who was always cross with him. He thought of Father, who was kind, but never there.
“Well, then there’s nothing to stop you.” Polychrome grasped his hands and danced him around with her. She must have needed to dance herself up to saying it, because finally she broke the silence to confess, “I would like it very much.”
“Because you are almost the only friend I’ve ever had. It would be easier for me to see you there than here. I don’t belong on the earth, but I belong even less in this mortal world. If you were in fairyland, we would be the same age always. As it is, one day, you will be a grown-up and I will be…” She trailed off.
Only now did he realize that she hadn’t aged a day, while he had grown almost a foot in the years since they’d first met.
“What do you mean you don’t have any friends?” he asked, going back to the beginning of her speech, because there was a lot to think about in it, and he liked to think one step at a time. “You have all your sisters. I’ve seen ‘em.”
“I love them dearly, and we do have a beautiful time, but… They are all very proper and dutiful. They’re all only one color, you see. It makes them less adventurous, less inclined to mix with others, lest their colors run together and take away their individuality and purpose. There’s Rose and Ivory and Lilac and…” Polychrome rattled off a long list of other fancy-sounding names.
“But you’re all the colors,” Button-Bright said.
“Yes, because I am the youngest and I needed a purpose, too. Fairies like me only exist to provide something for mortals like you, you know.”
Button-Bright hadn’t known, and said as much.
“I suppose that’s why I’m considered a bit mad, compared to the others. Father’s bow is all very organized, with red flowing very neatly into orange, and then onto yellow, according to the spectrum. But with me, everything just runs together.”
“I like that the best,” he said, meaning that he liked her best.
“Thank you,” she said, and danced around him with joy. The ends of her hair whipped around and wisped across his face, like kisses. After a few more steps, she said, “I do believe I’m hungry. It’s been a long, cold day, and I’ve had to dance twenty times as much to keep warm. So it stands to reason that I need to eat twenty times as much.”
They went downstairs to see what Cook had made. Twenty times as much for Polly turned out to be about three bites worth, so there was plenty of the sandwich left over for him.
After dinner, Button-Bright gave Polly a full tour of the house, showing her all his toys and favorite games and favorite haunts. Polly was very polite about it all, but Button-Bright got the feeling she was too cold to pay close attention, for she danced furiously the whole way through. She had asked for long socks, but the wool irritated her delicate skin, so in the end she danced the entire way through the tour, stopping only when Button-Bright instructed her to look closely at something.
She was being an awfully good sport about it all, but Button-Bright knew she couldn’t be happy here. He felt guilty about having accidentally called her, and wanted to do something to help.
“Tomorrow,” he promised, after it had gotten late and Mary was chasing them to their separate bedrooms, “tomorrow we’ll think of a way to get you home.”
An hour or so later, when the house had gone still, he felt a light dip in the mattress beside him. Polly had come into the room so quietly that he hadn’t noticed until she was practically under the covers with him.
“I couldn’t sleep in there,” she said. “I’m not accustomed to rooms with ceilings. Our sky palaces are all open and lovely. The walls here make me feel trapped.”
“It’s all right, Polly. You can sleep here.”
They twisted this way and that under the covers, trying to get warm, but it was a vey cold night, even for Button-Bright.
“I remember you being warmer to sleep against when we traveled together,” she whispered after awhile.
“Probably because I was a fox then.”
“That’s true. I remember the first time I ever saw you. I was terribly frightened. I thought you were some sort of monster.”
“It wasn’t my fault the old Fox King gave me that head. I was glad to change back, no doubt about it. But I’ll tell you the truth. It had some bright spots. I never needed a hat, not even at night when it got chilly. I was already wearing a fur hat, and I could use my ears to scratch itches on the back of my head. Useful for when your hands are busy with other things.” Button-Bright demonstrated, and Polly laughed at the gangly miming.
“If anyone could get used to such a transformation, it is you, Button-Bright. You know, I think you could get used to anything at all.”
“That’s probably true.”
“You were very brave about it, but I much prefer you like this.” Polly reached out to run her fingers through Button-Bright’s golden curls. It felt quite nice until she suddenly snatched her hand back.
“Nothing,” she said, but she was blushing.
Button-Bright didn’t know fairies could blush. “Well,” he said, feeling that something had to follow, “you’re not doing so bad at getting used to things here.”
“I shall have to, as it will take some time for Father to realize I’m gone, and to return to this part of the world. He usually avoids the wintry places.”
Button-Bright got a sudden idea. “What if we went to him, instead of waiting around for him to come to us?”
“The same way I got to Sky Island.” Button-Bright rolled over one last time, bouncing so hard on the mattress that he practically bounced Polly right off it. “It’ll take some doing, but we’ll get you home. Night, Polly.”
Father, after having been nagged by Uncle Bob, had locked the magic umbrella in the attic after Button-Bright’s trip to Sky Island. The key sat on his big, heavy keychain, and was with him now, all the way in Boston, so there was no getting in.
“There are ways inside other than through the front door, Button-Bright,” Polly said the next morning after he’d explained the whole story.
“What do you propose we do?”
“Does the attic have a window?"
"Yes, it's just above this window, actually."
"Perfect. Do you have a mirror? And a crystal, with edges?”
Button-Bright roamed through the house and found a nice hand-mirror, and a piece of crystal that had fallen from the chandelier and been put into a drawer until the repairman could come.
“Is this good enough?”
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked.
In answer, Polly flung open the windows and positioned the pieces of glass in curious positions, moving them this way and that until she was satisfied in whatever she was trying to do. Button-Bright noticed that a beam of light had caught on the attic window of the house across the street. Polly danced and danced, right in the path of light. She moved faster and faster, between the mirror and the bit of crystal and the beam of light that went across the street… He thought there were a thousand of her and grew dizzy.
And then she was gone.
He looked this way and that, wondering what had happened. And then he heard a stamping on the ceiling above him. He ran into the hallway and up the stairs, towards the locked attic door. But it wasn’t locked anymore. Polly had just opened it from the inside and was standing in the threshold, beaming at him.
“What did you do?” he asked, when she’d pulled him inside.
“My father uses certain properties of light to help him follow his brother and direct the bow. As his daughter, I know how to use them, too. I rode on the light to the window across the street and bounced off it, straight back to this house, but angled upstairs, through the attic window.”
“Refraction and reflection?” Button-Bright asked, remembering the lesson of yesterday, and feeling that perhaps he ought to apologize to Miss Gundelfinger.
“There are many words for it, but yes, those are the non-magical ones,” Polly said. “Now, where is that umbrella?”
They tore through many old boxes before they saw it propped up against a wall, in plain sight the whole time. They took it back to Button-Bright’s room and opened the window wide—wide enough to stick all but the handle outside, and open it.
“It’s a pretty finicky umbrella,” Button-Bright explained. “You have to give it exact addresses, but I don’t know if ‘the Rainbow’ is a real address.”
“It will not be finicky with me, dear. The magic that powers it was granted by sky fairies. It will do anything I say.”
“So, that’s all, I guess,” Button-Bright said, feel deflated. He’d wanted to help her, but couldn’t help but feel sad to lose her again so quickly. “You fly home and… and that’s all.”
“Or you could come with me, and stay in fairyland,” Polly said brightly. “But I cannot promise that you’ll return here again. So if you go, you must be prepared not to stay.”
“You mean I can come live with you in the sky?” Button-Bright smiled at the prospect of being able to stay with her.
“Not quite, unfortunately. For while mortals can live in fairyland upon invitation, your kind is not meant for my realm. But I will stop by the Emerald City and ask Ozma to make you welcome. She liked you very much, so I’m sure she’ll say yes. And there, I can slip off my bow from time to time and visit you and Dorothy.”
“That sounds just as good.” Button-Bright had all but made up his mind the night before. “Let’s go.”
He looked around his room for something he wanted to take, something he might miss, but there was nothing. So he slipped his arms around Polly’s waist, and she held him just as tightly. She whispered a few words to the umbrella handle, and then they were off, floating into the air with increasing speed. Soon, the skyline of Philadelphia was far below them. Button-Bright pointed out places of interest as they passed.
“Where do you think the rainbow is?” he shouted over the wind rushing past his ears.
“We aren’t going to the rainbow yet,” she yelled back. “You wouldn’t be able to land. It isn’t solid enough. I’ll drop you in the Land of Mo. It’s the closest fairy country to here. From there, you can make your way to the Land of Oz.”
“All by myself?” Button-Bright wasn’t afraid, as he’d been alone plenty of times before and been all right, but it never hurt to know more about a plan.
“Not for long. I have some other arrangements to make, but you’ll have company soon enough. I’ll arrange it.” Then her face brightened. “Oh! Lovely! There’s my aunt.”
“Where?” Button-Bright tried to look, but to turn would mean loosening his hold on Polly, which he didn’t want to do.
“She’s not too far away, brewing up a blizzard on the horizon. From what I can see, she happens to be in the middle of the most pleasant of all her various types of blizzard. You can ride the snow to a nice, soft landing. Would you like that?”
“Won’t know until it’s over, I s’pose. But I’ll give it a try. Is this goodbye then?”
“For now, but not for long, I promise.”
“All right. Well, thanks, Polly.”
“Any time, dear.”
She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He figured it was only fair to return the gesture, and kissed her right back, but she turned unexpectedly and he got her square on the lips instead.
“Sorry!” he said.
“Don’t be! Goodbye!”
She let go of him and he experienced a few seconds of panic as he went into a free-fall. But then a gentle wind caught him, and soft bits of stuff settled underneath him, carrying him to as peaceful a landing as possible from such a height. It didn’t hurt a bit, so little that he barely noticed he’d touched down. The only problem was that the soft, warm bits continued to fall around him and over hi, burying him completely. Button-Bright opened his mouth to yell and got a face full of popcorn instead.
Not bad, he thought, and decided to eat it, since he hadn’t had any breakfast, and had only eaten three-quarters of a sandwich for dinner the night before.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, happily munching in the warm popcorn snowdrift, before a pair of strong hands grabbed him by the ankle and yanked him into the sunshine.
“Hullo, Trot,” he said, after he’d swallowed.