Chapter One: The Child and How Busy She Usually Is
They had let the child name herself when she had become old enough to figure words better than the drooling mumble of babes in arms. Better that they had, her Uncle would tell her, as they had originally planned to call her after the first curious sound she had made. Should they have gone ahead and done that, he would say, her name would most likely be Aaaahuwa; but her name was not Aaaahuwa, it was Dassi.
Now, by long and far the origins of people’s names—indeed of names for anything of sorts at all—interested the child greatly, as she was a very curious and free-willed spirit. When she was only five years old a lodger had come to stay at the house from a country far away and he had spoken several different languages. He was a traveller, he’d told Dassi Jane, and he’d shown her that there were different names for everything that ever was in many, many different languages.
“For example,” he’d said to her one day, “here you would call that a flower,” and he’d pointed then to a rose in her mother’s garden, “but in France they would call that une fleur.”
The girl had been so enthralled with this new knowledge that language and words had become a captivation to her and remain so to this very day. So, as would be fitting, the origin of her own name was utterly fascinating to her. Her mother—or at least the woman whom she guessed must be her mother, as she dressed her and fed her and kissed her goodnight’s even on the bad ones—had told her thoroughly how when she was one and one half years old Dassi had pointed at a flower and questioningly sounded after it (as she could not speak just then, but only sound after things, her mother would like to say) so her mom had told her that it was a daisy, at which point Dassi’s eyes got very big and her mouth turned up almost too high as she cried out with joy: “Dassi!?”
And now that was her name, because it had been a curious thing to say, and had been her first word (which isn’t actually a word at all, you know).
She lived in a very old and very large house with seven other people. Her Uncle Chuck, who stayed in a small dusty room on the second floor, at the end of the long hallway—you could just open his door wide enough to slip in, as he had stacks and stacks of old books cluttering up and, once you were in, there was only just a path from the door to a small bed where he laid his nights through. There was an old woman named Bess, and her old man named Lucky (these whom she assumed were probably her grandparents), who stayed in a much bigger and much tidier bedroom on the same floor, across the hall from Uncle Chuck. Caroline (who she guessed was her mother) and Mr. Pip (who she guessed was her father) had the master bedroom adjacent to Bess and Lucky’s chambers and kept their own surroundings in disarray, although not nearly so much as Uncle Chuck; and a young couple that shared a rented flat near the top of the house—directly under the roof—who had only recently moved in, so she did not yet have their names.
The house had been something to behold, once upon a time, but the years had had their way with it. Mr. Pip was always saying how one of these days he was going to repaint, but every summer he seemed to find some excuse or another, so the work never got done. Consequently the white paint was beginning to peel in some places on the exterior, and the blue windowsills had faded from the sun into what Dassi thought could only be described as ghost blue; or what remained of a color after it died. Inside, the house had all its original wallpaper, which consisted of little pink butterflies and Tiger Lilly’s on a white background. On the second floor, however, the pinkness had been rusted to brown from Mr. Pip’s stinky cigars and here and there along the hall that gave way to the adult’s rooms the paper had curled up in spots, as though it were trying to make a hasty escape but had only gotten so far before being defeated by very old and stubborn glue.
The naked floorboards wanted to be refinished very badly, and in some places on the first floor—including Dassi’s own bedroom—the wood had subtly warped and certain boards had pushed up, as if trying in desperation to get someone’s attention so that they might be mended. Also, it was rather difficult to sneak about in the house, as the boards would squeal on you, so you had to know exactly where to step in order to remain stealthy. Dassi imagined that it was certain boards in the floor who knew how to keep secrets, so you had to know which ones to trust with your footing, and which ones would tell on you (especially if you were out of your room past your bedtime). Dassi did not mind very much about any of these quirky little eccentricities, as she had heard on more than one occasion, from Mr. Pip himself, that the spoiling bits simply added character to the dwelling, like age-lines on a well lived-in face.
She had a very strange family, that was true enough, as titles like Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa were not used here. They only called each other by their names, as was right and proper, or so Mr. Pip liked to say (which is slightly ironic considering that ‘Mr. Pip’ was not her father’s name at all, but rather a moniker which young Dassi had bestowed upon him some time ago).
Dassi and her family lived on the outskirts of a town called Potters Bluff. The town itself was very small, with a population between 480 and 500 people. The houses were old, but kept up, and in each of them lived a well-dressed family with bright smiles and steady incomes. Their yards were green and cropped, their hedges and trees neatly trimmed. Their children were well behaved in front of them, but snotty brats behind them (most of them, anyway). There was a school—both an elementary and high school all in one—a church, a post office, a general store, a fire department—although there had not been a fire in Potters Bluff for nearly forty years, so it was run solely by volunteer fire fighters who took it in turns to sit in the building and wait for no fires to happen—a little movie theatre and a two man police force. The police did not smile, not so as Dassi Jane had ever seen them do.
Most everyone in the town seemed to consider Shellie’s the place to be. It was an old fashioned diner where everything was made from scratch—even the ice cream!—and was where everyone went to eat when they weren’t cooking at home. All of the local teenagers would hang around in the parking lot drinking milkshakes and trying to look cool. The diner was run by a jovial fellow named Charlie, and everyone swore that there had never been a Shellie in Potters Bluff, so where the name for the diner had sprung from was a topic of much debate. Some said that Charlie had a wife who’d run out on him (out of sheer boredom from living in such an eventless town) while others maintained that Shellie was Charlie’s daughter, who had gone off with her boyfriend to University to study years ago and never returned. Still others claimed that old Charlie had named the diner for his mother, and there were even certain grim people who whispered that Charlie’s wife had not run off, but that he’d caught her with another man and buried her in his basement. Dassi thought the last tale was simply ridiculous, especially so if you’d ever met Charlie.
Of course the majority of the townsfolk, at one time or another, had asked Charlie why he’d named the diner Shellie’s, but the old man would only smile, nod, and change the subject, and so far as Dassi was aware, no one had ever gotten an answer to the question.
Dassi rather liked the old proprietor, as he always smiled and seemed to be ageless. In her mind he’d grown tired of aging at around fifty years and had decided to stop right where he was. He always looked exactly the same and always dressed in exactly the same clothing: loose brown slacks, a sleeveless white shirt with food stains, a white apron (which curiously never seemed to have any food stains on it whatsoever) and a square white hat that Dassi thought might have been made of cardboard. She was not sure, as she had never touched it. She had decided some time ago that it was probably rude to touch hats when people had them on.
Shellie’s was Dassi’s favourite place in town. Walking in was like stepping back in time, Mr. Pip always said, as the interior was all made up of pictures of old Hollywood starlet’s like Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and actors like Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas. There was an ancient jukebox that only played old records from the forties and fifties. The floor was black and white chequered tiles, the booths all bright red leather. There were stools in the floor at the front counter whose stands reminded her of candy canes and their comfy cushioned tops were one red, one blue all the way down. They even served their floats and milkshakes in old-fashioned frosty glasses that were thick and heavy and held the cold inside. Also, they were the only place in town where you could buy penny candies. Sour soothers, coke bottles, candy snakes, fuzzy peaches, they had a bit of everything!
In the middle of Potters Bluff was a large roundabout in which there was a fountain with two stone angels stood in the middle, spitting clean, clear water from their mouths and into the wishing well below them. They were mounted in this way: each perched on one leg, the bottoms of their other two feet set heel to heel, backs to one another, they held hands and leaned outward toward the road. Below them, in the well, the stone was black and the coins that people tossed into it dotted the bottom of the circular pool like stars trapped under a stream, twinkling up whenever the sunlight hit them.
Every street in Potters Bluff was lined with brilliant sycamore trees, each and every one of them tended weekly by chubby Gus, the town’s one and only landscaper. One would be hard pressed at finding litter or graffiti in Potters Bluff and you could scarcely walk from one block to the next without a friendly hello or having to stop and chat with confident smirks from sharply dressed individuals. Crime was not an issue in Potters Bluff, and Dassi Jane imagined that this was the reason the policemen never smiled. They, quite simply put, were bored and had nothing at all to do but drive around in circles and wait for nothing out of the way to happen.
The old house that Dassi called home was about a mile out of town. There were no neighbouring houses or farms and they had to go into town, to the post, if they wanted their mail. As one can imagine, being the odd lot that they were, Dassi’s family were gossiped about by some of the townsfolk. They received odd looks whenever they entered the town and Dassi didn’t have very many friends and was sometimes taunted in the play yard during recess breaks from school. Being a stern believer in herself and her ideals, Dassi would let all of these things slide off her back.
“No sense in being worked up all the time,” Mr. Pip would tell her. “Life is too short to step through it angry. Walk with your head up high; but not TOO high, or you won’t see the stones and you’ll trip over.”
But, as the documenter of this odd tale, I am getting out of the way of the child herself. I should be telling you not about her family, or the silly town of Potters Bluff—at least not so much as I am—but rather about her. She had recently turned ten years old and, as I have already made clear enough, was very curious and eager to discover and to explore. She was fond of playing alone rather than with other children, and had on more than one occasion been regarded as precocious by her teachers. There was a huge, yawning wood behind her old house and she spent much of her time there reading fairy stories or chasing multitudes of butterflies all about the trees and imagining that they were fairies or friends or the souls of lost children who’d tired of being children and taken wing.
She had long, straight blonde hair, vigorous, eager and enquiring blue eyes (so blue, in fact, that they put the clearest summer sky to shame), pale white skin and busy hands and busy feet and busy eyes. And speaking of busy-ness, she was very, very, very busy indeed. Always had something of utmost importance to attend to and chores were not for her. Those whom she lived with would never dream of asking her to do anything other than be herself, and be free, which she was. Rules were only something that she had to attend to in the schoolhouse with the other children, whom she found to be rather dull and to lead rather boring and strict lives under the rule of tyrannical parents and other hopelessly mad and cruel authority figures.
But it was summer now and she didn’t have to bother at all after rules of any sort; they had become like a myth—the regulations of school and the world outside of her home—the stuff of legends and stories, more than real at all, and she was just fine with that. It was all lazy, hot summer afternoons for her: reading on the hammock in the back yard, playing about in the forest, and never once caring for anything too serious.
Our story unfolds in the center of July. It had been hot nearly every day since the month had rolled in, shooing off June, and Dassi had spent almost all of her time in the woods behind the house, where she had been attempting to build a crude fort around a rather large grouping of stones she’d found a week earlier. It was hard work, toiling about in the afternoons. The sun was frequently too hot for her, despite the shade of the trees, and she would have to leave off after no more than an hour to laze about in the hammock. So it was that the fort was abandoned only a week into construction.
Since then, Dassi could usually be found reading her fairy stories in shady spots under the trees. Presently she was skipping home and singing a song that Mr. Pip had made up just for her some time ago. She sang all the way up to the porch and into the kitchen where Caroline was brewing a stew at the stove and Mr. Pip smoked his stinky cigars at the table behind her. Pip’s face split in half horizontally and his yellow stained teeth grinned savagely at her when he saw her.
“Come and sit on Ol’Pippy’s leg,” he patted his knee.
She plopped violently into his lap and twirled a long strand of her hair in her fingers. Caroline did not turn around. “Have fun, Dassi Jane?” she asked as she stirred the stew.
Dassi nodded her head.
“I can’t hear nods less you’ve got rocks rollin’ about in your skull, girl,” Caroline said, still not turning around.
“How’d you know I nodded?” Dassi smiled easy.
Caroline finally looked back at her. She smiled in return. “I know everything about you, Dassi Jane,” she nodded. “From what you’ve done to what you’re doing to what you haven’t even done yet.”
“If you know everything about me,” Dassi challenged, “then how come you had to ask if I had fun, huh?”
“Formalities, my dear sweet,” Mr. Pip said. “All just formalities.”
“What’s a formalty?” she asked.
Pip patted her head. “And how busy were you today?”
Dassi sighed, “Of course very, you know. I had to find the wand that the tree lost and tie it back on to the branch and then I had the fairies to attend to...”
“Fairies, you say?” Mr. Pip was all smiles and pleasantness, as much as he usually was.
She nodded, trying to look as though she were distraught about the matter. “They had stories they wanted told, you know, and how bossy they are you can’t even imagine!”
“Have I ever told you about fairy rings?” Mr. Pip said, with a smile in his voice now as well as on his face.
Dassi’s eager eyes bore deeply into his and she tossed a bit of hair out of her face and shook her head. “No,” she said, “you never have. What’s a fairy ring?”
“Well,” Mr. Pip clapped his hands together. “Fairies can be quite mischievous, as you might well know?”
“I’ve heard that, yes.”
“Well, from time and again, I’ve heard it told that fairies like to dance in circles in the woods or in the grass. Their music, the fairies’, can be so delightful and enthralling as to lead any passer-by into their dancing circle, which is called a fairy ring, don’t you know. At any rate, you would dance with them for what would seem only hours or maybe even only minutes, but would really be, in our world, twenty years or more.”
“So you would dance half your life away?” Dassi asked.
He nodded his head very solemnly. “I thought those books of yours would have mentioned fairy rings.”
She shook her little head and wrinkled her nose. “I still have a one or two left for reading though, so mayhaps they’ll talk of it in those.”
Another pat on her head, “Could be, my pet, could very well be.”
Mr. Pip was sort of an odd-faced looking chap. He was soon to turn forty years, but looked ten years older than he ought and dressed usually in plaid slacks with suspenders he left hanging down the back of his knees, a series of either white or black button up shirts that all had stains on them and an old pair of black boots that Dassi had never seen him not wearing, even when he was in the house. His hair was a wild and untamed mop of black mess with silvery white lines running through it at the sides.
His wife, Caroline, was thirty-two and looked ten years younger. She had the longest, softest blonde hair, much as her only daughter did, and wise blue eyes. She had one of those faces—you know, the sort that made you take a second look, the sort that made you blush to speak to her. Her skin, like Dassi Jane’s own, was so pale that when the sun hit it directly she nearly disappeared, or blinded whatever poor sap was admiring her grace. She dressed sensibly, in plain dresses, and she listened far more than she spoke—a skill which she was busily trying to impose upon Dassi, but the babbling child seemed not to take notice.
Half an hour later it was dinner and stew that tasted like poo, or so Dassi confided to Mr. Pip when Caroline had gone into the kitchen to fetch them drinks.
Mr. Pip laughed. “It’s not that bad, you nasty little beast,” he said. “Besides, if Caroline weren’t cooking, then I would be.”
Dassi made a face. “You haven’t the talent for pots or pans, Mr. Pip,” she sternly said. “With spices and whatnot and tomfoolery, you always manage to spoil all the food.”
Now Bess and the old man Lucky chortled and chuckled at the end of the table. “Not much by way of talent in the kitchen this side of the family,” old Lucky said, “or any other.”
“Don’t talk nonsense!” Bess slapped his wrinkled hand. “In my day, before my arthritis, I could cook up a storm!”
“Hrmph!” Lucky snorted. “A storm indeed. A storm we all had to take cover from!”
Bess smiled her thousand-wrinkly-smile and slapped his hand playfully again.
“Our mum says she could cook, dear Caroline, ‘up a storm’,” Uncle Chuck, who was seated next to Dassi on the right side of the table said as Caroline walked into the dining room. “Would you be inclined to agree, or the other part to it all?”
Caroline set Dassi’s drink in front of her and retook her seat. She wrinkled her nose much as her daughter was fond of doing. “What sort of storm, exactly, are you claiming to have cooked, Bess?”
Bess sighed, “No proper respect for the old hen, then?”
“Oh respect, certainly,” Uncle Chuck grinned. “Just not the proper sort.”
And here, everyone laughed.
Later that night, in her bed on the first floor of the three-story house, Dassi dreamed of fairy rings and of staying away from them altogether.