They left Grand Harrison and Miz Smitcher in charge of the fairy circle with a plan that sounded so crazy to Ceese that it would be a miracle if anything worked.
Only a few watchers would wander onto the bridge, waiting for Mack's signal. And this was the weirdest part: They had no idea what it would be. "The one time I wrote something," said Mack, "the words came through, but about ten times as big and along the sides of the overpass. All the other stuff I left, it sort of got transformed. All I can tell you is, look for a change. It might even be a natural change. But there are seventeen pillars, so look for seventeen... things."
And then what?
"Then form a circle. Seventeen of you right on top of the markers, the others arrange yourselves in between. And the rest I don't know."
Yolanda knew. "You'll feel it," she said. "You'll know when I'm in the circle."
"But you won't be in the circle," Ophelia objected, sensibly.
"I will, but on the other side. You'll see. Or... not see, but feel. And when that happens, you start moving. Counterclockwise. Which means, if you're facing into the circle, to your right."
"We all know what counterclockwise means," said Moses Jones.
"Except for those that don't and are too embarrassed to ask," said Yolanda with a toothy smile.
"But we don't know the dance," said Miz Smitcher.
"In a fairy circle," said Yolanda, "the dance dances you."
The other part of the plan was Ceese's own contribution. "Six dozen black people, even nicely dressed black people, if you start blocking the road, LAPD will be called and you will be dispersed.
But if you're carrying signs, then you're black activists. Protestors. Got to treat you differently. Find out your grievances. A couple of you carry video cameras—prominently. The LAPD has great respect for video cameras."
"Signs saying what?" asked Grand Harrison.
That was farther than Ceese had planned. "Something that would make sense to demonstrate about in Century City."
" 'Down with Fox'?" somebody suggested.
"Don't forget that there's a big MGM building there now, too."
" 'Not enough black actors in movies.' "
"Yeah," said Miz Smitcher dryly. "How about the stereotype of blacks with signs, having a demonstration."
"Can we sing 'We Shall Overcome'?" asked Ebby DeVries. "I always wanted to march and sing that."
"No," said Sondra Brown. "That song is sacred. You don't sing it for some... act."
"You sing it to change the world, sistah, and that what we doing," said Cooky Peabody, sounding as ebonic as she knew how. A dialect she pretty much learned from television.
To Ceese it didn't matter. He left it up to Grand and Miz Smitcher and—why not?—democracy to make the decision, while he would drive his patrol car down to the gateway between worlds. First, though, he watched Mack get on the motorcycle behind... his wife. Man, that stuck in Ceese's craw, even to think it. Wife. Mack marries a hoochie mama on a bike before he's eighteen and Ceese doesn't even have a steady girl at thirty.
All right, she wasn't a hoochie mama. She was queen of the fairies and Mack was supposedly some excrescence from the king of the fairies. To Ceese he was still a kid who had no business being that free and familiar with such a voluptuous body.
Ceese stood beside his patrol car watching them ride off on the bike. That's when Miz Smitcher came up to him. "Didn't so much as invite us to the wedding," she said.
"I don't think it really counts as a wedding. Near as I can tell, it was reconnaissance."
"Now that's a word for it I've never heard before. 'Hey, baby, how about a little reconnaissance.' "
She leaned close to him. "Ceese, give me your weapon," she said softly.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "A cop doesn't give his gun to anybody."
"You can't take it in there with you, right? Into Fairyland? I just got a feeling, Ceese. You know I'm not crazy. I got a feeling that gun's going to be needed somewhere other than locked in the trunk of your patrol car here in Baldwin Hills. You dig?"
"I can't believe I heard you say 'you dig.' "
"I been listening to Ray Charles," she said.
"He used to say that?"
"I don't know. I just know that back when I started listening to Ray, we were all saying 'you dig.' "
"I used to look young, anyway," she said. "Give me the gun."
"If you shoot that thing, and somebody does ballistics on the bullet, they'll know it was my gun which got fired in a place where I wasn't."
"That happens, I stole it from you."
She looked determined.
"Ceese," she said. "I trusted you with my baby. Now you trust me with your gun. I won't ruin your life or kill anybody doesn't need killing."
He had her get inside the car and then took out the weapon, showed her how to work the safety, and then gave her extra ammo.
"Won't be much good against fairies," said Ceese. "Especially if they're really tiny."
"Just have a feeling," said Miz Smitcher. She put it all in her purse.
A few minutes later, Ceese was down near the bottom of Cloverdale, parking the patrol car between Snipes' and Chandresses'. Yolanda and Mack were already waiting for him. "What kept you? Stop to take a leak?" asked Mack. "We got a whole woods back there."
"Yeah," said Ceese, "but like you said, stuff you leave there might be anything on this side. I'd hate to leave a bag of marshmallows or a baby stroller in the middle of some road, just because I had to pee."
"Am I going to have to listen to two little boys making peepee jokes the whole way?" asked Yolanda.
Mack took both their hands and led them through the gateway into the house.
Puck was waiting inside with two plastic 35mm film canisters.
"Planning on taking pictures?" Ceese asked him.
"They're empty," said Puck. "And look—air holes."
"We're going to get real small once we get into Fairyland. Being without our souls the way we are," said Puck. "And every creature Oberon can assemble is going to come and try to kill us. If you're holding us in your hands, you can't slap them away. Or else you're going to get excited and crush us. So you let us go inside these film tubes and then put us in your pockets. Your safest pockets that we can't fall out of."
"And something else," said Puck. "When we're small, we can't hear big deep sounds. Talk really high, Ceese, or we won't understand you. And every now and then, shut up so you can hear if we're yelling something at you."
"Which pocket?" asked Yolanda. "Not your butt pocket, get it?"
"Got it," said Ceese.
"Good," said Mack. Then he broke up laughing, for reasons Ceese didn't bother to inquire about.
"You got your stuff? For the pillars?" Ceese asked Mack.
Mack patted his own pockets.
"And a knife?"
Mack shook his head. "In my dream I didn't have a knife."
"In your dream you were fighting a slug with wings, too, not the king of the fairies."
"Um," said Yolanda.
"That's the form we imprisoned him in," she said. "It's one of the shapes he can wear, and it's the only one where he doesn't have really dextrous hands."
"Didn't want him to have hands. So what does he have?"
"Talons like a steam shovel," said Yolanda. "But we weren't thinking about fighting him in the flesh, when we did that."
"And wings," said Puck. "With little tiny fingers on them, like a bat. They can rip your cheek right off your face in combat. You couldn't tie your shoelaces with them, though."
"Wish it were the other way," said Ceese. "These other animals—what are they going to do to me?"
"Nothing much, the size you turn into in there."
"What about me?" asked Mack.
"They won't touch you, Mack. Have they ever?"
"Panther growled at me once."
"Boo hoo," said Puck.
"So all that time I kept a watch out for predators and scavengers and heat-seeking reptiles in the night, I had nothing to worry about?"
"They obey Oberon, and to their tiny little minds you are Oberon."
"You do smell like him," Yolanda added.
"That's good news," said Mack. "So what are we waiting for?"
"Courage," said Ceese.
"A heart," said Mack.
"A brain," said Puck, pointedly looking at Ceese. And when Mack laughed, this time Ceese got the reference.
Everybody went to the bathroom who needed to, which meant Ceese and Mack. Then they were ready to go.
When they got out on the back porch, not a thing was changed—not even blown by the wind.
But when they walked back onto the brick walkway, the forest was bedecked in the reds and golds of autumn.
"Toto, I think we're not in Southern California anymore," said Mack.
"Stop," said Yolanda.
Ceese looked at her. She was half the height she was before. And he was several feet taller, because he was looking down at Mack almost like Mack was a kid again. Yet he hadn't felt himself grow.
"They can smell us already," Yolanda said. "They're gathering. Have those film cans ready?
Mack, you hold mine and be ready to put me in. Please don't let any birds snatch it out of your fingers, all right? Or me, for that matter."
Mack looked up. So did Ceese. There were several birds hovering overhead. No, more than several—most of them were so high up they were hard to spot.
"This ain't going to be fun," said Puck. "In case you thought."
"Especially watch your eyes, Cecil Tucker," said Yolanda. "They like to go for the eyes. When they're fighting giants."
"I don't know the way," said Ceese. "I got to be able to see."
"Easy for you to say," said Ceese. "You're immortal."
"But I've been blind."
This wasn't the time for a story. They took another step. Still way too big to fit into a baby stroller, let alone a film canister.
"Hold my hand, baby," said Yolanda. "I don't want you to lose me."
"Hold my hand, too," said Puck.
"I'll just hold you," said Ceese, picking him up and tucking him like a football.
Another step. Another. Another.
Birds were swooping now, flitting by, close over their heads. And all around them, squirrels and other animals were coming to the edges of the path and chattering at them.
The next step would take them off the brick. But the fairies now fit into the palms of their hands.
Another couple of steps and they'd be film size.
They took the steps. Ceese's fingers were so big he could hardly get the lid off. And now the birds were snatching and pecking at him. Landing on his shoulders. They were small but their pecks were sharp and hard. They hurt like horsefly bites.
"I can't do this," said Ceese.
Mack looked up at him. He had the lid off his film canister, and Yolanda was crawling into it.
At that moment, a bird swooped and snatched the lid to Mack's film canister right off his palm.
"Shit!" shouted Mack.
Without even thinking, Ceese swatted the bird that had stolen the lid and knocked it to the forest floor.
Mack dove for it, found it, and put it on the canister. Then he put the canister inside his front jeans pocket. Then he reached for Ceese's film canister and got it open. All the while, Puck was yelling something, but his voice was so little and high that Ceese could hardly hear him. No wonder Puck had had to crawl closer to the house and get larger before Mack could hear him, that time when he got so badly injured.
Mack handed Ceese the canister and Puck leapt in. Again, Mack had to fasten the lid because Ceese's fingers were simply too big. Like an elephant trying to pick up a dime.
"I hate being this big," said Ceese.
"Then let's get under the trees."
It was such a good idea. Except for the part about Ceese being so tall that he wasn't under anything. He had to breast his way through the trees like he was trying to force his way against a river current. And he couldn't see the path at all.
Mack was yelling at him. Ceese bent over, pushing branches out of the way as he did.
"You're off the path!" Mack yelled.
"I can't see the path," said Ceese. "But I can see the sky."
"Great, I need a weather report, I'll give you a call. Look, Ceese, there's no way to do this unless you get down to my level. Stay under the trees."
"I'm supposed to crawl the whole way?"
Mack shrugged. "I can't help it."
Ceese saw that there was no choice. But it hurt his knees. The tree trunks were also close together, so that Ceese was constantly banging his shoulders. Not to mention breaking low-hanging branches with his head.
"I'm going to have such a headache," said Ceese.
He noticed that, along with the birds nipping at his ears and the back of his neck, there were squirrels and other creatures running over his hands and up his sleeves. "What do they think they are, ants?"
"Commandos," said Mack. "Think: fire ants."
"Squirrels aren't poisonous."
"They've got teeth and jaws so strong they can crack nuts."
"Aw no," said Ceese. "Please tell me that bastard won't make them go for my package."
"Must be a huge target," said Mack helpfully. "Easy to find."
Sure enough, just like fire ants, they went straight for his scrotum. Ceese pulled at the crotch of his pants and tried to pinch the creatures without mashing his own testicles.
"Ceese," said Mack, "if you stop every time some creature bites you, we'll never get there."
"I don't notice them biting you."
"They won't fit up my sleeve or into my pants," said Mack.
"That, too," said Mack.
It was slow going—crawling, bumping into trees, scraping through branches, brushing away birds, plucking at squirrels. Ceese was bleeding from hundreds of pecks and bites and he was desperate to fling his clothes off and put Neosporin—or anything, rubbing alcohol—on the sores inside his clothes. "I always hated squirrels," said Ceese. "Now I know why."
"You think they like hanging around in your crotch?"
"Why not?" said Ceese. "Nobody's biting them."
Mack held up a hand. "Stop."
Ceese stopped. He saw Mack simply disappear.
Then he looked closer and realized that they were at the edge of a chasm. There was a fast-moving river at the bottom, and Mack had swung down a little way, clinging to a complicated root system.
Ceese saw the other side and it didn't look so far off. He extended his huge arm to reach for the opposite bank. But inexplicably he couldn't quite touch it. It was as if it kept retreating just enough to be a half-inch out of reach.
"I can't bridge it," said Ceese.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," said Mack. "I think it's part of the protection of the place.
You can't cross over the chasm, you have to get down to the river's edge."
Ceese crept along the edge. "All right, I'll climb down over here so I don't accidently kill you by brushing you off the wall of the canyon."
Ceese swung a leg down over the edge.
"Stop!" screamed Mack.
"Just a second," said Ceese, meaning to drop down to the bottom before he stopped.
"Stop now! Get your leg back up! Now!"
Ceese stopped. But he still felt an overwhelming desire to jump down.
The same kind of desire he felt that day Yolanda tried to get him to throw baby Mack over the stair rail. So maybe it was an impulse he ought to ignore.
Ceese pulled up his leg.
Mack ran over to him. "Your leg was shrinking. As soon as it went over the side, it was getting down to normal size. What if you aren't big when you go down there?"
Mack pulled the film canister out of his pants pocket and held it up by his ear. "What should we do?"
Ceese didn't bother getting Puck out of his pocket. It was Yolanda in charge of this expedition.
"She says she has no idea what happens, she's never been here before. But maybe it's time to let them out."
Ceese pulled the canister out of his pocket. It was easier to get the top off without Mack's help.
Ceese saw Puck stick his head out. He was drenched with sweat, panting. "I want air-conditioning before I go back in there."
"Watch out for birds," said Ceese.
"Not so many around here," said Puck.
"Only takes one."
"At this point I don't care. It can't be any worse inside a bird's gut."
Ceese saw that Mack was perching Yolanda inside the collar of his shirt. A killer squirrel leapt for the spot. Mack dodged and the squirrel plunged over the side. Ceese had never heard a squirrel scream before. Now he knew why Wile E. Coyote never made a sound in the Road Runner cartoons. An animal screaming all the way down a cliff was a chilling sound.
"No way in hell I'm getting inside your collar!" shouted Puck.
"Your jacket pocket."
"What if you get big real fast?" said Ceese. "I don't want to have to replace this jacket, it's real leather."
"Now it's mesh," said Puck.
Sure enough, the birds and squirrels and who knew what other creatures had pecked and torn holes all over the leather. Tiny ones, but holes all the same. Ceese realized his neck must look like that, too.
Mack called out. "Yo Yo says to go slow, and hold on to vines and roots the whole way. Plants don't obey Oberon the way animals do. Especially trees. Very stubborn. They won't let go of us."
Then he added, "Nobody ever called a tree a pushover."
"Maybe it's turning over a new leaf," said Ceese.
a child getting a piggyback ride.
"That shirt's going to rip, you get any bigger," said Ceese helpfully.
Puck was out of his pocket now, holding on to his shoulders. And by the time they reached the bottom, Puck was as heavy as the slightly overweight older man that he was, while Ceese was just a normal-sized LAPD cop.
Also, Puck and Yolanda were stark naked.
"Our clothes didn't grow back to normal size," Puck explained. "Oberon's sense of humor."
"But my clothes shrank back to normal size with me," said Ceese.
"No way did Oberon make up this place in the split second when he realized we were imprisoning him," said Yolanda. "Not with all these complicated traps. He was already plotting this. I think we got him just in time."
Puck smiled wickedly. "Well, that's my beloved master. Mayhem with a dirty twist."
"I was counting on Ceese still being a giant when we got to the grove."
"Maybe he will be, when we go up the other side," said Mack.
"If there's any chance my clothes will get exploded when I get bigger, I'm taking them off down here," said Ceese.
Since nobody offered him any guarantees, he took off everything except his underwear. Then he jumped over the water, with Puck holding his hand. Mack brought Yolanda over the water, too.
By ten feet up the cliff on the other side, Ceese's underwear had burst open. He was growing again. And the two fairies were shrinking. Only there weren't any pockets this time.
"You're sweaty and you stink," said Puck.
"You want a bath," said Ceese, "we got running water down there."
"I was just saying: Wear some cologne."
"What, eau de pig sty?"
"It just said 'toilet water.' "
Puck laughed—well, chirped, his voice being very high by now.
Of course, to a naked guy—even a giant—any size cat was plenty dangerous. Those claws.
Those teeth. Ceese's scrotum shriveled. "What if he goes for my dick?" asked Ceese.
"Then ten thousand women will mourn!" shouted Puck. "Let's get a move on!"
"It's not fair that Mack gets clothes and I don't," said Ceese.
"What are you, six?" asked Puck.
Ceese didn't bother answering. The birds were really going at him now, and with no leather jacket to protect him the branches were almost as bad.
They were at the edge of the clearing.
The two lanterns were still there.
"There I am!" shouted Puck.
"Wait!" cried Yolanda. "Let me at least look for traps."
In reply, Ceese handed Puck to Mack and crawled into the clearing.
The panther leapt.
Ceese swatted it away. It struck a tree trunk and dropped in a heap at the base.
Ceese reached out for the nearest floating lantern. It shied away from his hand. When he tried for the other one, it did the same.
"All right, Miss Fairy Queen, what do I do now? Keep playing this game till I die of old age?"
"Be patient," said Yolanda. "When I say the counterword, they'll stop evading you. But the moment I say it, you have to get them both at once. One can't be opened without the other. That's the way Oberon thinks. He'd make sure we can't figure out which soul is mine and then leave Puck imprisoned. So if I get free, Puck gets free, and then my darling husband will try to make Puck do something."
Puck just stood there and grinned.
Ceese asked him, "You couldn't just tell us what will happen, could you?"
"Of course he can't," said Yolanda. "He is not his own fairy. Don't worry. Now be ready, because as soon as I say the counter-word, we have to move very quickly."
"I'm ready," said Ceese.
Then she slumped to her knees and her voice also became audible as the scream lowered in pitch and faded to a sigh.
Ceese reached out both hands at once and snatched at the lanterns. They held still. He caught them.
Kneeling in the grass, he got his thumbnails under the lantern roofs and tried to pry them off at exactly the same moment. "Somebody needs to bring pop-top technology to Fairyland," he said.
"Just break them. Crush them," whispered Yolanda, exhausted for the moment by the word she had uttered. "You can't hurt us. That's our most immortal part inside that glass."
"How can one part be more immortal than another?" grumbled Ceese as he pried.
"Immortaler," said Puck, correcting him like an English teacher. "Do what the lady said."
Still kneeling in the grass, Ceese pinched both lanterns between thumb and forefinger and crushed them.
With a sharp crack and a crunch of shards of glass rubbing together, the lanterns exploded.
Two tiny lights arose from the lanterns' wreckage between Ceese's fingers.
There must have been a thousand birds waiting in the trees. And now they all swooped out and down, darting for the lights.
Mack moved just as quickly. Holding Puck in one hand and Yolanda in the other, he thrust their tiny bodies toward the hovering lights.
As they neared each other, they became like magnets. The lights crossed each other's path and caught the bodies of the fairies in midair.
There was an explosion of light.
The birds veered and now were circling the clearing, around and around, like a whirlpool of black feathers. But as they flew, their colors changed, brightened. Suddenly there were as many red and blue and yellow birds as black and brown, and among them were fantastically colored parrots, and their calls changed from harsh caws to musical sounds.
The leaves on the trees changed, too, from the colors of autumn to a thousand different shades of green, and many of the trees burst out in blossoms.
In the middle of the clearing, Yolanda stood, normal size again, with her head bowed and her arms folded across her chest. Then, as she raised her head, moth wings unfolded from her back, thin and bright as a stained-glass window. She opened her eyes and looked at the birds. Then she opened her arms, opened her hands, and the birds rose up again into the green-covered branches and sang now in unison, like an avian Tabernacle Choir. The Fairy Queen opened her mouth and joined in the song, her voice rising rich and beautiful like the warm sun rising on a crisp morning.
Mack took a step toward her. She smiled.
Then she whirled toward the strong and tall young black-winged manfairy that Puck had just become. With a quick movement of her hand and a brief "Sorry, doll," she shrank him down and her finger hooked him toward her as surely as if she had just lassoed him. As he approached, he shrank, until he was grasped in her hollow fist, the way a child holds a firefly.
"Give me a film canister," she said.
Mack had them in his pockets.
She held the open canister under the heel of her fist and then blew into the top. In a moment she had the lid on.
She blew another puff of air onto the film canister, and it became a small cage made of golden wire, beautifully woven.
Inside, Puck leaned against the wires, cursing at her.
Another puff of air and his voice went silent.
Then she turned to Ceese and offered him the golden cage that contained Puck. "Oberon is free now," she said. "And Puck is his slave. He must have known I'd have no choice but to do this."
"If Oberon is awake," said Mack, "we don't have much time."
"Take it," she said to Ceese. "Take him back to the house. Don't let him out of your sight. I don't want anybody stealing him and trying to control him like the poor fairies that gave rise to those genie-in-a-bottle stories."
Ceese took the cage, looking at the raging fairy whose wings fluttered madly as he ran around and around inside the cage, treating the walls and ceiling of the spherical cage as if they were all floor and there were no up and down.
"Be gentle with him," said Titania. "I owe him so much. And when this is over, he will be free.
Not just from that cage, but from Oberon as well. His own man again. A free fairy." And softly, tenderly, she leaned toward the cage. "You have my word on it, you nasty, beautiful fairy boy." She looked up into Ceese's face. "Get going. The animals should leave you alone now, but you want to be out of Fairyland before the dragon comes."
"Good idea," said Ceese.
As he neared the place where the brick path began, he stopped one last time to look around over the beautiful green of springtime in Fairyland. He knew that he would probably never see this land again. Nor would he ever be so tall, or see so far.
When he looked south, toward where Cloverdale climbed the mountain in his home world, he saw a hot red shaft of light shoot upward, surrounded by smoke.
And in the shaft a huge black snaky thing began to writhe upward. Even at this distance, Ceese could see how the creature's slimy skin shone in many colors, like a slick of oil on a puddle.
Two great wings unfolded, shaped like enormous bat wings, but webbed like the wings of a dragonfly. They kept unfolding until they extended to an impossible span.
And two red eyes opened and blinked.
From the cage in Ceese's hand, a tiny high voice cried out. "Here, Master! I'm here! She went that way! She's over there! Head for the temple of Pan! Set me free to help you!"
Ceese dropped to his knees and closed his fist over the golden cage. Then he crawled onto the brick path until he was small enough to stand up and walk.
He strode across the patio and opened the back door. The golden cage now was the size of a grapefruit in his hand. Inside the lacework of golden wires, Puck hung by his hands from the wires, his body racked with great sobs. "God help me!" he cried, again and again. "I hate him! I hate him!" And then, more softly, "Beloved master, beautiful king."