The tape measure recoiled into its pocket-sized case with a satisfying snap. Ned smiled, wiped flecks of nail polish from the tape’s metal tip, and slid it back into her knapsack. Today had been a long time coming. Too long.
Her toenails had lengthened more than 3mm since the last good window day. They had nearly grown bare in the dark interim, leaving the slightest crescent of colour on the tips of her toes. Cerulean blue, speckled with white polka dots. She celebrated the good days with brilliant toenail polish—but until today, the view hadn’t been worth the paint.
Not more than an hour earlier, a wedge of geese had flown past her window. What a sight! Now Ned was dying to get at her collection of nail varnishes. She’d packed a few bottles in her knapsack—they nestled at the bottom like bubbles of promised pleasure, beside her tape measure and a fossilised rain shower (over 250 million years old!)—but Tantie would kill her if she stopped to repaint her nails now.
The sun broke through the clouds, gilding Ned’s face, as her matronly aunt accused her of lying.
“Don’t be wicked, Ned,” Tantie May said. “There are no geese outside. You know that full well. Be a good girl, now; it’s almost time for us to leave—”
“Call me Lavinia,” Ned said. “Please, Tantie. It’s such a lovely name. And I’m not fibbing, I swear.”
Ned’s wordwind fluttered in V-formation around her, spilling little white lies in its wake, immediately retracing its path to cross them out. Words swirled through her hair, pale tendrils lifting as paragraphs tornadoed above her head. Ned pinched the slowest phrases between her fingers, popping them into her mouth before they could escape.
“We’ve been over this, Ned,” Tantie said, her own wordwind buzzing with ferocious energy, spinning tales of naughty children, bottomless pits, and rotten cheese as she spoke. “I will not call you Lavinia. Or Clarissa. Or Enchantée. Your name was set down in ink the day you were born. And that is that.”
“But they made a mistake,” Ned cried, wishing she knew who had recorded her name—it was meant to be Nell—dooming her with their atrocious penmanship.
“Yes, Ned. They made a mistake. Just as you did when you thought you saw geese outside.” Shaking her head, Tantie shooed her wordwind toward the bedroom door, swiftly following it. “Your ’wind must’ve obscured your vision, dear. It has been known to happen.”
Turning away from her aunt’s disappointment, Ned stepped up on her school chair and peered out the window. The bedroom door clicked shut behind her. Let her leave, Ned thought. Outside, the sun was wavering. Although it had gleamed for much of the day, its light now pulsed feebly, consumed by a familiar shade of grey. The street was deserted.
Their paperwork had been stamped with official seals, and likenesses of Ned and her aunt had been inscribed—with ink—into small leather booklets. Ned thought her picture looked funny. All the artist had wanted was to capture an impression of her face, serious and close-up: Ned thought she looked naked without a wordwind tap-dancing across her shoulders.
Tantie had applied for this set of transport passes more than once. More than once the applications had been rejected. But today the sun shone on them for the first time in 3mm. And then their passes arrived in the morning chute. The train departed for the ’port in less than an hour.
They’d finally been given leave to go.
And there had been geese, even if Tantie hadn’t seen them.
Ned was sure she’d never hear the end of it if she made them miss the ship, after all Tantie had done to book their passage. So she wiggled her half-polished toes into thick-soled treaders, tried not to think how much better they’d look tipped in fuchsia. A day like today definitely warranted fuchsia varnish, but that bottle had already been boxed up and sent to Mamie’s.
Stepping out of her room, Ned made sure to avoid the ladder propped up against the wall in the hallway. They weren’t taking it with them—Ned had insisted. Tantie had rolled her eyes, her wordwind merging with Ned’s, listing lullabies and recipes for candy as they negotiated. But Ned’s mind wouldn’t be changed, no matter how sweet Tantie’s words were.
On the bad window days, the ladder inevitably got positioned near the bathroom. The men would ascend its length, disappearing into the ceiling, frightening Ned when she really needed to go. The men’d sit up there non-stop—sometimes for weeks—knocking around, repairing the machines they kept in the air shafts.
The machines that caused such a ruckus Ned couldn’t concentrate on her schoolwork.
The ones that generated the finely sifted ash that drifted to the ground outside her window, that spoiled her view with washes of red and charcoal.
The ones that made anxiety drench her pants while she avoided the bathroom.
Outside, ghostly green flashes would explode on the horizon whenever the men were around, bright enough to make Ned blink. Sirens would sound in the distance. Too far away to know from which direction they came. Ned would have to draw the curtains as emergency signs switched on in the tenements a block over.
Those were the bad window days. Ned knew she and Tantie were in for it whenever the ladder came out.
There was no way it was coming with them to Mamie’s.
Tumbleweeds of ash and newspaper scuttled along behind Ned and Tantie as the pair hurried toward the train station. You know it’s a fuchsia kind of day when people are comfortable enough to sleep outside, Ned thought. Bodies dressed in coverall suits, faces hiding behind faded chip packets and litter, were strewn across benches or collapsed beside tree stumps. Their legs bent in foetal position, their arms draped uncomfortably across eyes. Ned adjusted her aviator goggles, pulled her hood strings until the world seemed almost entirely cut off. Good thing the sleepers’ve got the sense to cover their eyes, Ned thought, carefully tying a double-knot beneath her nose.
But where were their wordwinds? Even sleeping people were surrounded by words, whether dream words concocting incredible falsehoods over pillows, or magnetic words landing on slumbering figures like flies.
“Is it naptime out here, Tantie?” Ned asked, her voice muffled behind the thick canvas of her hood. “Should we wake them from their siestas? What if they miss the train? Then they’ll never be able to leave.”
Tantie didn’t reply, but her wordwind launched into a parable about dogs and wounded children.
That was so like her, Ned thought. Tantie’s mouth remained firmly set. Her grip on Ned’s hand was firmer still.
The train timetable skidded across Ned’s restricted view when the station appeared on the horizon. Tantie’s strides grew longer, the pressure she exerted in dragging Ned along increasing as their goal appeared.
“Slow down please, Tantie,” Ned said, as she stumbled to her knees for the third time. Her treaders were covered in soot; the palms of her hands were lacerated and imbedded with chips of gravel and shrapnel.
Don’t worry, Ned wanted to say when Tantie pierced her with an anxious gaze. That train never runs on time—but her lungs were aching with heavy air. Loosening her hood just enough to poke her mouth out, Ned kept silent, breathed deeply. She didn’t want to lie to Tantie. How could she know about the trains? She hadn’t been outside in weeks.
The station was deserted when they arrived. Ned was overjoyed—maybe they’d get the whole train to themselves! Her wordwind painted pictures of spinning tops, magpies building nests out of rusty cogs, and dented fob watches. Tantie flicked at a haywire word, sent it ricocheting off Ned’s goggles.
“Take those things off, Neddie,” Tantie May said. “They’re ludicrous.”
In response, Ned clutched the goggles’ rims, pressed them further into her eye sockets.
“Trust me, the fée have been gone for years,” her aunt said, taking hold of Ned’s hand. “None of them will steal your eyes. Promise.”
Why did fée creatures always go for the eyes, Ned wondered. Maybe it’s because they wanted to see more clearly in our world, or maybe it gave them some advantage in theirs? Maybe they sold them on the black market, exchanging eyes for babies’ livers and fresh pumpkin soup?
Tantie shook her head as Ned’s wordwind transcribed her suspicions across the air. Ned pretended she wasn’t looking when Tantie tucked the worst of her worries into a back pocket. Removing her gloves, Tantie worked at the knot in Ned’s hood strings until it released, then pushed the hood back from her face. Tracing a rough finger along Ned’s smooth cheek, Tantie stretched the goggles upwards on their elastic strap. Ned squirmed as her aunt unveiled her grey eyes, making them a target for bloodthirsty fée.
Brown eyes would be so much better than grey, Ned thought. Brown is a much less troublesome colour, since the fée seemed to like grey the best.
And everything was grey nowadays, except for Ned’s toenails.
The pair of filth-encrusted lenses dropped to the ground, forgotten, as an iron engine billowed around the corner, chugging toward the station on elegant puffs of steam.
The ’port was a blur. A thoroughfare for travellers, all on outbound ships; but also a marketplace for storytellers, plucking snippets from each other’s wordwinds while they waited to depart. Ned raised her hood, tried to capture her words beneath its insufficient shelter. She wouldn’t have anyone stealing her thoughts in this place. No way.
Preoccupied with confining her wordwind, Ned took small notice of her surroundings as she was ushered toward the ship. Artificial breath mixed with the scent of too many bodies, uneasiness filling the unfamiliar space with its pungent aroma. A cacophony of wordwinds eclipsed the ’port’s humming lights as the crowd ebbed and flowed between the entrance and their departure gates. Ned blocked her nose, wished she hadn’t lost her goggles. There were bound to be fée creatures here, she reasoned. Neither her words nor her eyes would be safe until they were both on the ship.
At the gate, guards carrying bayonets scanned wordwinds for signs of trouble, looking for bold statements or those that dripped red onto the passengers’ luggage. Ned passed through the archway unhindered, but Tantie was asked to step aside for closer inspection.
“Tantie,” Ned cried. “What’s happening, Tantie? I can’t go by myself! I don’t know where to go.” She caught a glimpse of the massive ship out the ‘port window. It reminded her of a picture she’d once seen of a catfish. Only this one was humungous—a fish fit for a giant’s breakfast—and made entirely of wood and steel. Its wings stretched beyond her line of sight. And somehow she was meant to walk straight into its mouth and sit in its belly while it flew.
Her knees buckled with relief when the guard returned Tantie’s satchel, nodding her through the gates.
“Hush now, Neddie,” Tantie said, clumps of black words raining into her handbag while she scooped Ned up from the floor. “No need to make a spectacle,” she breathed. “You’ll be all right.” Her face was stern, but her arms quivered while she held Ned close, carrying her onto the ship.
The window beside Ned’s seat was shaped like the lozenge Tantie had given her to suck on while the ship took off. It was smaller than the window in her room at home, but big enough to take her breath away.
An army of clouds began waging war on the ship as soon as it soared upwards. Yet the loss of sunlight didn’t diminish the glory of Ned’s good window day in the least. It added drama—it added flair!—to the pantomime being enacted beneath her. Tiny fires dotted the landscape below, shining like rubies scattered across a bed of smoking grey. Ned reached a hand out to the glass, tried to grasp one of the glowering embers between her fingertips. Her wordwind framed the window pane, asking “Who is the fairest?” as flashes of lightning shot up from black tubes on the ground, chasing the ship across the sky.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Tantie?” Ned whispered, her face aglow with ambient light.
“No, dear,” Tantie replied, her eyes fastened shut as if she were dozing. Tantie’s knuckles whitened as she clutched the arms of her seat, her wordwind clunking around like the men in the ceiling, shedding stories of sorrow and loss.
“Will there be views like these where we’re going, Tantie?’\” Ned asked, completely absorbed by the good window’s spectacle. The ship shuddered through a stubborn cloud, briefly surfaced into a painfully bright vista of blue and white. Ned gasped, clapped her hands with delight. The sky had coloured itself to match her toes! She was so glad she hadn’t repainted them after all.
Tantie swallowed hard as the ship dropped rapidly, enveloped once more by rampaging clouds. “If we’re lucky, Neddie,” she said, “you’ll never see anything like this again.”
Ned nodded, but hadn’t heard a word Tantie had said. She brushed her wordwind away from the window, vied against her own imagination for a better vantage.
Had those naughty fée swapped her eyes with tricksy ones that would get her into trouble with Tantie May? She didn’t like being thought a liar. She rubbed her eyelids, stretched them as wide as they’d go, and pressed her face to the glass.
No, she realised. Her eyes were just fine. But Tantie would sure feel bad about not believing her, Ned thought, as she watched a distant ‘V’ fly in the ship’s direction.
“Look, Tantie! It’s the geese,” she said, jubilant with vindication. “I told you they were real.”
Tantie squeezed her eyes shut as the ship reverberated with the sound of shot clanging off metal. Incoherent prayers spun around her head, then expanded to include Ned in their embrace of benedictions and regrets. Tantie’s wavering words raced upwards and back around the ship’s cabin, mingling with the other passengers’ encyclopaedic entries on monsters, nightmares, and survival techniques. Babies cried, spilling alphabet jumbles into the mix. The air sizzled with electric uncertainties. With exclamations of horror, both verbal and written.
Careering sharply to the left, their vessel’s flight path turned back on itself like a broken elbow. Plumes of smoke swelled from its undercarriage.
“Look,” Ned repeated, pointing at the battle geese descending upon their ship. Yellow and red starbursts bloomed from their metallic wings as the flock glided closer. Echoing bursts projected skyward from below as earthbound creatures answered the birds’ colorful calls.
“Don’t be scared, Tantie. I won’t let anything happen to you. Promise.”
Wait ’til I tell Mamie about this, Ned thought. How lucky we are to see all this up close! The ship plunged through a chequerboard of orange and red. Ned’s wordwind floundered, turned green. The turbulence upset her stomach. Tantie clasped Ned’s hand, drew her head to her breast.
“Don’t be scared, Tantie,” Ned said as her aunt’s wordwind fell like a veil before her eyes. Ned waved her aunt’s skittish words away, gently. Turned back to the events unfolding outside her window.
Hills festooned with blackened trees seemed to dart upwards, drawing the ship down, until the clouds were once more far, far above. The ship plummeted with wondrous speed. Ned sat still, riveted to the view. Her wordwind latched on to Tantie’s, lost some of its shine in the process.
“‘Don’t be scared,” Ned repeated while the earth rushed up to meet their ship. “Don’t be scared.”