by Lesli Pande
A 12-year-old girl ventures to kill a dragon after the death of her father.
Wilbur Willow hid in the alleyway between Harter Confectionaries and Wilson’s, checking his watch every other minute. He wore a black suit two sizes too small, and his curly umber hair lay flat against his head, making him look more like a wet beaver than a man. Top hats and gowns and snow surrounded him, and the feeling of joy and peace was in the air. For a number of reasons that he didn’t feel like getting into, his stomach churned at the sight. Luckily for him, he wasn’t the only one who was uneasy; he was actually the calmer of the two.
“I told you, I told you, I told you!” Mary Willow fumed, her elegant hairdo frizzing at the edges. She stood in the shadows just behind him.
“Honey, calm down,” Wilbur soothed, reaching over for her hand.
She snatched it away. “I am calm!” Mary hissed. “This is calm. This is my calm!”
He cocked his head to the side and raised a brow.
Mary felt her frustration loosen from the look, but she was still too annoyed to let him know. She smoothed her pale blue gown instead, a frown prickling at her brows. She had spent a long time preparing for tonight, and all things considered, she did not appear as worn as usual. Her lips were a ruby red, her lashes stood thick and dark around her chocolate brown eyes, and her hands were long and polished and beautiful, hiding all the cuts and bruises she’d sustained just that afternoon.
“Mary, it’s going to be fine.” Wilbur repeated.
“No it won’t be,” she panicked. “I knew it wouldn’t be. We should have never agreed …”
“It would have been even more suspicious if we didn’t.”
“And that would be fine! But this …” She gestured helplessly at the crowd.
Wilbur didn’t have to look where she did to witness the influx of glamor-chasers, but when he did, their laughter seemed hungry, as did their smiles.
He pursed his lips.
“See?” Mary said, coming up beside him.
Wilbur sighed. “I guess since no one can see us … wanna split?”
For the first time all evening, Mary smiled. “And how would that look?”
“Who cares?” he smiled back.
Ever the wise one, Mary shook her head no. “You go fetch her or we’ll be waiting all night.”
“Is that really necessary?”
“Yes. Because she hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you –”
“Okay, she really, really dislikes me right now.”
Wilbur opened his mouth to retort when a certainly unapologetic “Oh, I’m so sorry!” interrupted them. He looked up to find a short woman standing in front of them in a shimmering gown. Her spiky red hair was twisted up into a kind of seashell, and her hands rested on her hips, nails as long as her fingers.
Rose Pepperbeans squinted into the darkness at them for another awkward second, then, “Oh, it’s just you two!” she said, as if she didn’t already know. “What’re y’all doing back here?” she went on.
“Just waiting for Lily.” said Mary, hoisting a smile onto her face.
“She’s not here yet?” Rose’s eyes blazed with curiosity.
Mary looked at Wilbur.
“Um,” he hesitated. “Why don’t you two go on in and I’ll, um … I’ll go get her?”
“Excellent.” answered Mary, walking over to Rose and towing her out into the crowd.
Wilbur watched until they were gone then walked quickly down to the opposite end of the alley and out into a quiet street.
The Victorian homes watched his progress, as did the yellow light that clung to the rustic street lamps. Snow trailed along the cobblestone ground, and quickly the hobnobbing grew distant. Soon he stood before number seventy-six, Rainbow Noodle Lane, and up he walked to a homely front door. No lights were on. He slipped inside.
“Lily?” Wilbur called, mounting the dark steps.
“Your mom and I were getting pretty worried … we thought you’d be out by now.”
Again, no response.
He reached her door and looked briefly over the pictures painted on it: there was one of the three of them, another of a forest, and a third with a puppy on it. LILY’S ROOM lay plastered along the top. He knocked softly.
“Lily? … Can I come in?”
There was another moment’s silence, then a little voice said: “No.”
“Please? Pretty please with a cherry on top?” He pressed his ear to the wood. It was hollow on the other side but for a repeated sniffling. Was she crying?
“Lily,” he asked again.
“Fine.” she mumbled back.
He opened the door.
Away by the window facing out into the street sat a little girl wearing a puffy, pink dress. Her arms were folded over her chest and a string of tissues led out to meet him. Her sparkly shoes lay random against the far wall beside her dresser, as did her tiny comb and jacket. Wilbur walked slowly in and sat down on the bed beside her.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” he asked.
The little girl seemed to deliberate what to say, then settled for silence.
He peered into her eyes. “You can tell me. Maybe I can h—?”
“Peter Privy says girls can’t be brave.” she mumbled.
Wilbur pursed his lips, thrown. “Peter Privy?”
“He’s a boy who comes around the restaurant sometimes. He’s an idiot.”
Wilbur considered this.
“Well I’m a man, and I know that’s not true. Plenty of girls are brave.”
She looked up at him. Her eyes were red from crying. “Really?”
“Yes. Your mom is one.”
Lily rolled her eyes.
“I’m serious. It’s not easy running a restaurant and being a mom at the same time, especially not here. Grandma Willow is another one, and Mayor Tohë, and Rido Clocks – remember her? The first …?”
“Uh-huh. And Lucy Winnipeg, and the Comet Attics, and Elsa Rodriguez … the list goes on.” He smiled.
Lily smiled back faintly then looked down at her dress. Wilbur threw his arm playfully around her.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“I know. I was looking forward to it, but … could we skip this one?”
He pursed his lips. “I love you, but no. C’mon.” And he got up and held out his hand.
She shook her head again.
His shoulders slumped. On any other night he would have given her what she wanted no problem, but tonight he would have to be a little firm with her. He looked at her face in the pale moonlight: her rosy cheeks, her button nose, her shell-pink lips, and her chocolate brown eyes. She was the spitting image of her mom, but the tiny frown on her brow and the bend of her mouth made her beauty all her own. He wavered.
“Is this just about Peter Privy?” he asked, tilting his head.
Her fingers tightened on a frothy edge of her dress.
“No.” she answered smally.
Wilbur sat back down.
“Then what is it? What’s wrong?”
Lily hesitated again then frowned up at him. “How can we be celebrating, going to shows and dressing up like nothing’s happened?”
This again, he thought with a sigh. “Pumpkin, He’s not coming back –”
“How do you know that?” Her voice broke his heart.
“Baby,” he soothed, pulling her into his arms. “I promise. I promise, I promise, I promise. We’re safe. We’re okay.”
She hugged him tightly, but something about her hold told him she didn’t believe this.
“You know what?” he said, pulling away and standing up. “We’ll wear whatever the heck we want.” And he unbuttoned his jacket. His senses breathed.
Lily was dubious.
“Really?” she asked.
“Mm-hmm. We’re gonna show that Peter Privy what true bravery is!” he said, and stormed over to her closet and threw it open.
“Wait, are you serious?” Lily gasped, tottering to her feet. Happiness spilled onto her face.
“More serious than a pus-filled Liichii nest.” he answered, looking over her wardrobe. “What will it be, milady?”
“Can I wear my mechanic outfit?”
He hesitated. Her face fell.
“Of course you can.” he decided. “And I’ll wear mine.”
So ten minutes later, in matching overalls, they left for the show. Lily skipped at Wilbur’s side, happier than she had been all day, while he dragged his feet, more anxious than he had been all year, wondering what on AdowaLeah he would tell her mother. Without a doubt she would be furious, and she would have every reason to be. But truthfully he didn’t have to worry about it too much, because knowing Mary the way he did, she would be struggling between fury and affection, seeing just how happy Lily was. And that, after all, mattered most.
They came up the alley Wilbur and Mary had hidden in and out into the crowd, slowly filing into the large opera house across the snowy square. Heads turned as they walked, past the showy fountain and unicorn carriages, and up the marble steps. Inside it was lit by warm gold, and almost at once the low chatter stopped. Everyone stared. Wilbur swallowed.
“Let’s go find your mother,” he said, taking Lily’s hand. The guests let them pass as though they were a disease, and their silence only made the few who spoke sound even louder: “Mommy, why are they dressed like that? … Unbelievable! … I always knew they were delusional … Violation of the dress code!”
Wilbur ignored it all.
They walked further into the maroon and gold hall, and up a flight of stairs to the second floor. Wilbur watched the children swarm the concession stand. Suddenly, Lily squeezed his hand. He looked down.
“That’s him!” she hissed, nodding at a lanky boy holding a packet of chocolate fries. He stared back open-mouthed.
Wilbur wiggled his chin. “Pay him no mind, Lily … what would you like before the show?”
“How about a change of clothes?”
A pointy man stood just behind them, his features organized in a smile but his eyes blazing with fury. His head shone brighter than any light they could see and his suit flowed over him, more elegant than any diamond.
“Mr. Grimmian.” Wilbur greeted, holding out his hand.
The man called Mr. Grimmian looked at it long and hard, then shook it once.
“Mr. Willow.” he greeted back. “I didn’t know you two were part of the show?”
“Oh, we’re not.”
“Then why, if I may, are you dressed so … interestingly?”
“Interestingly?” Wilbur frowned. “I don’t recall a dress code, sir.”
“Gowns for ladies and suits for gentlemen, Mr. Willow. It has been such since the beginning of time … it is, after all, The Grimmian Show. I wouldn’t think you’d need a dress code to be written down.”
Wilbur could feel Lily shake at his side, and when he looked at her he could only see fear, as deep in her eyes as their color brown. His body stiffened in response, looking back up at Mr. Grimmian with a good telling off ready on his lips … but Mary stood just behind the man and she shook her head once.
He bit his tongue.
“I … I apologize.” he mumbled. “It won’t happen again.”
“Let’s hope not,” was the reply, and Mr. Grimmian sauntered off to greet his other guests.
A coil wrapped slowly around Wilbur’s chest as he watched the man go, and it was this thing that prevented him from looking down at his daughter, because it was filled with guilt and misery and shame …
“Let’s find our seats.” Mary muttered, not a word about how they were dressed.
The auditorium filled slowly. Lily sat very still, her eyes glued to the stage.
Mary touched his arm. Wilbur looked over at her, and she shook her head again. He sighed, but before he could wallow about how he hadn’t stood up for his daughter, the lights were off, everyone clapped, and Mr. Grimmian was on the stage. And as with every year, he began with a kind of poem:
Blah, blah, blah,
They always said.
Wondering why on AdowaLeah,
A brain should be fed.
We know our history, Doug,
We know it well!
Things happened, people lived,
No need to retell.
But what, I beg, could harm one from learning?
Give it a rest, old boy, we have no yearning.
But what, I beg, will one ever know?
Give it a rest, old boy, or there’ll be a row.
And so I walk, filled with a great sadness,
Wondering, if maybe, I truly am full of madness.
What of the Great Kings and Proud Sons and Glorious Days?
The ones I yearn for, dream for, and hope for always?
What of this desire within me that burns so deep?
Surely I mustn’t let it go, must see where it leads!
And thus I came to a great conclusion,
An answer, a suggestion, my most prized invention.
If no one else can see the light,
Why not me, why don’t I try, surely I might.
So goes a tale that everyone knows,
Welcome, my friends, to this year’s Grimmian Show!
Wilbur didn’t clap. Mary didn’t clap. Lily teared up.
The show began. Holographic vegetation sprouted about the stage, covering the black in a carpet of green.
“The AdowaLeah we know today did not always exist.” Mr. Grimmian called. “Long ago, our world was lifeless, land separated by the Three Great Oceans. Until The Fall.”
Boom. A large, horse-like animal sprung onto the stage. Its tail was covered in diamonds, and crystals clung to its sides. The body flowed chestnut and lavender, and the head lay deep maroon. Everyone oohed and aahed, everyone but the Willows.
“The Unifier was born!” Mr. Grimmian continued. “And from it, life began.”
The animal raised its head and a clear whistle rung through the auditorium. Clouds and trees grew out of thin air, a waterfall built itself into the distance, and a little boy stepped onto the stage, covered in dirt and weeds. The first human, apparently.
“Man was born, and over the centuries he tamed the lands. The Unifier was never seen again, but His presence still remains over the fields and in our hearts.”
The waterfall cleared for a great mountain peak. The Unifier trotted up it and surveyed its creation, then with a twirl of its tail, vanished.
“But with all the good that was given, evil was born.”
The sky soaked black, hulking shapes hid in the shadows, and lightning rumbled and wind blew, curling between the seats. Wilbur looked over Lily’s head and watched a balding man grin impishly at the stage.
Mr. Grimmian’s voice turned grave. “Throughout the ages, Monsters and Demons have tormented the beauty of the Unifier.”
A shower of sparks lit the room, spurting from the snout of a large, purple glob. The flames lit the huts of a small village, but then they swirled, and the flames were waves, washing at a cluster of muddy shacks.
“It is a war we are to wage for all time – but one we must conquer! For if we fail we perish, all life will perish … so goes the tale of Meduseld the Great.”
From the ceiling, a man swung down onto the stage. Every inch of him was covered in armor, and a sea of swords clung to his back. The crowd burst into cheers. Wilbur frowned. They had seen Meduseld a few years before, and some people had said that they hoped he would make a comeback. Wilbur had wished not. He had wished Meduseld would never reappear. He had wished Mr. Grimmian would shove that play in the nearest bin and set it on fire.
He looked over at Mary. She frowned back.
“Can we go now?” he mouthed, nodding first at the stage, then at Lily.
Mary looked over at her daughter then back at him. He could read the desire to leave in her glance, but something more was holding her back, just as it was holding him back. They looked back at the stage.
The play rolled into its story as dramatically as the first time they’d seen it, with an explosion, an avenging warrior and a needy community, though now Wilbur was paying much less attention. As it neared its fifth minute, he started to wonder if he’d locked up the Airshop properly. At the sixth, he wondered if he’d left the porch light on at home. And at the seventh, he could hear sniffling at his right hand side. He looked down.
Lily stared at her hands, crying worse than ever. The tears shone against her open palms, and before he could ask what had triggered this, she stole a glance at the stage. And before Wilbur could stop himself or realize what he was doing, he was on his feet and yelling: “I OBJECT!”
The actors and guests stared at him. Lily and Mary stared at him. Mr. Grimmian scowled.
Wilbur squirmed a little, then shook himself out and edged down the row onto the steps.
“You heard me!” he continued, strutting up to the stage. “I object. To this whole thing. This whole show!”
As if it were a tennis match, everyone looked from him to Mr. Grimmian and back again.
“Object to Meduseld the Great, Mr. Willow?” Mr. Grimmian replied with a toffee-nosed chuckle.
“Yes.” Wilbur said, reaching the edge of the stage. “All of it. This show is … this show is poopy!”
“Mr. Willow!” Mr. Grimmian wheezed, clutching his chest.
Wilbur nodded vigorously. “You heard me – poopy!” He looked across the staggered crowd. “Mankind this, Proud Sons that – it’s ridiculous!”
“Sir, I assure you –”
“Oh, shut up, Grimmian! You’re only making things worse!”
Everyone watched Mr. Grimmian closely, for he appeared on the verge of a heart attack.
Since he’d already set it in motion, Wilbur mounted the steps and stood on the stage. The distance from the crowd was dizzying, and faintly he could see his wife and daughter, the former confused, the latter scared.
“This is ridiculous, people!” he told the crowd. “When did we start defining bravery by such narrow standards? When did we accept only one type of bravery? I would be useless against Meduseld in battle, but I’m an airship mechanic, and that is bravery. You know why? because if I mess up, a ship could fall out of the sky!”
“And I am a father,” he continued; “and raising another person is bravery beyond compare!
“This Grimmian Show,” he waved dismissively behind himself; “is wrong. I won’t stand for it!”
The crowd gasped again, watching him stomp his foot. A painful silence followed, and then –
“I’m a father!” someone shouted, raising a hand.
“Me too!” said another.
“I’m an accountant!” someone hollered. “Handling other people’s finances is bravery!”
“I’m a baker!” A short woman stood. “Handling a hot stove is bravery!”
“Going to college is bravery!”
“Getting married is bravery!”
“Paying rent is bravery!”
“Paying attention is bravery!”
Everyone was chanting. Wilbur suddenly felt like a performer, roaring “YES!” over and over, telling people to “RISE TO YOUR BRAVERY!” But most important of all was the one little face that lit up. Tears shone on her cheeks and a smile was on her lips. From what he could see, she was clapping the hardest and she was the most baffled.
Mr. Grimmian slithered away from the stage and the declarations of bravery, and before Wilbur knew what was happening, the Meduseld actor had lifted him up and had thrown him into the crowd. The people embraced this, tossing him joyously across the room until he was back with Lily.
“We’re all bravery.” he told her. She nodded, hugging him tightly.
And later when they returned home, the euphoria of the night persisted. The Willows sat in their cozy living room watching reruns of Lily’s favorite HoloTV show, and Mary and Lily compared the bravest characters to the bravery Wilbur had shown tonight. But our story is not about Wilbur, it is about Lily, and from through her eyes there was no braver man. Oblivious to her on that night, however, was how much she would need his words, how much she would need to remember them. Because too soon the He that she feared would return, and when that day came, it would be the last time that she would see her bravest man.