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VI. The First Town

 

Saguaro saw the last of the seeds drift away and reopened her eyes. She felt steadier as she returned to the darkness of the tunnel. But when she reached out again, she was still unable to push open the tunnel’s knobless door.

 

Finally, about a half hour after Saguaro first became trapped, something happened. The tunnel began to shudder around her, and the roaring returned. When the trembling diminished, the door creaked open of its own accord. She squinted and crawled into the flood of light.

 

Saguaro took an enormous breath as she stood up and faced Oz for the first time.

 

A sandy clearing appeared before her, littered with branches that sparkled with raindrops. A sand dune forest stood a short distance away at the opposite end of the clearing. Grey, puffy clouds peppered the sky, and the blowing wind was still damp from a recent rain.

 

A distinct ticking drew her attention. Saguaro turned to see a large clock mounted above the tunnel she had just exited. An intricate maze of gears rotated within the clock’s outer framework.

 

Her attention was then caught by something perched above the clock. A huge mechanical dragon flapped its wings at her and extended its long neck in her direction. Its flashing red eyes and horns amplified the devilishness of its appearance.

 

Beneath the contraption was a bronze plaque that explained the clock’s history.

 

In the first year of his reign, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz stationed the Clock of the Time Dragon at the border of Winkie Country and the Badlands. The Time Dragon serves as the guardian of Oz and deters unwanted visitors. TRESPASSERS BEWARE! 

 

Saguaro suppressed a laugh. While she had never heard of this “Wizard” before, she could not imagine anyone being afraid of the dragon. It was controlled by metal wires and clearly not real. Trespasser or not, she was not about to be stopped by a clumsy puppet.

 

Nonetheless, Saguaro was impressed by its mechanics. The dragon seemed to move effortlessly, and there appeared to be a correlation between the time on the clock and the closing of the tunnel doors. She had been released around seven o’clock and had been trapped in the tunnel for about a half hour. Perhaps the tunnel only opened on the half or full hour. In addition to being a sorcerer, the Wizard was clearly a gifted inventor. Saguaro, who had always been intrigued by the possibility of mixing sorcery and science, found herself enlivened by this knowledge.

 

Saguaro had been interested in the mechanics of how things work since she was six-years-old. She had been in the room while her mother taught a sorcery lesson and had taken out a wind-up rabbit to amuse herself. After watching the rabbit hop for a few minutes, Saguaro began to fiddle with the rivets holding the back of the toy together. She managed to pry them loose and found herself looking into the toy’s gear compartment.

 

At that moment, it was as though an entirely new world opened up to her. Prior to this point, Saguaro had never stopped to question what made a clock tick or why her rabbit was able to hop. She now realized that there were complex mechanisms involved in making things work. She took out several of the gears to study them, then started to put the mouse back together.

 

Her first attempt was unsuccessful. Though she replaced the gears according to memory and turned the windup key as far as it would go, the rabbit refused to hop. She stared at the toy for a long time before she noticed something that had rolled under the table. It was a gear that she had not accounted for when attempting to put the toy back together.

 

This time, everything fit together, and she had no difficulty fixing the gears. Saguaro could still remember her mother’s astonishment when she explained what had happened and showed her that the rabbit could hop again.

 

From that point on, Saguaro became obsessed with putting things together. She spent hours working on jigsaw puzzles and taking apart her pop-in-the-box so that she could study the pieces. When she was older, she began to read about famous inventors and sometimes sketched her own designs. At twelve, she even made a wind-up mouse for her cat, Azure.

 

For Saguaro, repairing devices was easy. It was people who were more difficult to fix.

 

Neither of her parents understood the source of her unique talent. Though her father had taught her how to use tools and build, he was an architect, not an inventor. Her mother, who understood science but was not particularly savvy when it came to engineering, was particularly puzzled.

 

She had once shaken her head as Azure chased around the windup mouse. “I just don’t understand where you get it,” she had said to Saguaro. “Even as a little girl, you understood these things better than I. There must be a reason your brain works this way.”

 

“What about your skin?” asked Saguaro, unsure where her mother was going with this. “You were the only one with green skin in your family, weren’t you? Why aren’t you curious about that?”

 

Her mother sighed. “There’s so much that I don’t understand about why I am the way I am.”

 

Privately, Saguaro thought that her mother was overreacting. Fiona Alford was a gifted pianist even though both her parents and her older sister were tone deaf. Her mother might even have had a distant relative with green skin somewhere along the line.

 

She often wondered if the reason her mother spent so much time questioning Saguaro’s skills was because they were so different from her own. Sometimes, Saguaro questioned whether her mother recognized how different the two of them truly were.

 

This had been a recurring argument between them.

 

Saguaro sighed as the clock’s hands moved again. She would have liked to examine the Time Dragon further, but she needed to be practical. It would be best if she found shelter before it was too late.

 

Turning away, Saguaro looked into the clearing. Its pure white sand seemed to beckon her. The next thing she knew, she had removed her shoes and jumped to the earth a few feet below the tunnel’s entryway.

 

She fell backwards as she landed with her feet buried in the sand. The earth was softer and warmer than she had expected. She sat up and attempted to brush the sand from her hair, but her sandy hand made it worse than before. After a final attempt to shake out her hair and brush off her feet, Saguaro put on her shoes and started towards the forest.

 

At first, the forest looked similar to the one in Cascadia, but a closer inspection showed it to be very different. A silver sheen covered the trees’ trunks and limbs, and the bark had an unusual cross hatched pattern, similar to a peanut shell. As Saguaro drew closer, the sheen turned darker, causing her to wonder if the silver had been only an illusion.

 

Saguaro paused as she entered the woods and was enveloped by an overwhelming sense of joy. She was really here. In Winkie Country. In Oz! Her father’s magical portrayal of Oz was not simply a story any longer. She had finally made it to the place she had dreamed of her entire life. At this realization, she smiled and dashed ahead.

 

Saguaro noticed a cluster of small plants a few feet from the path. She bent over and picked one. The plant was so tiny that it fit in the palm of her hand. Just as Saguaro was about to set it down, the stem balanced upright and leapt to the ground. It then rooted itself back into the soil, so that it looked exactly as it had before. She giggled at this unexpected turn.

 

The evening sky peeked through the treetops. It had turned from indigo to a deep plum and would soon be dark.

 

After a few miles of walking, Saguaro reached the end of the forest. The path she was on continued past the woods and appeared to lead to a small town not far away.

 

People.

 

Saguaro hesitated before continuing towards the village. A series of thoughts raced through her mind. Her parents had left Oz because of the prejudice there, but were the Ozians as bad as her parents had said? It was difficult to imagine anyone more hateful than the Cascadians. And even if the Ozians were cruel, she still needed to find food and shelter.

 

Saguaro passed several buildings with fading paint and cracked windows upon reaching the town. She could see people inside the houses, cleaning up after dinner or sitting down to meals. One narrow building had a faded red sign that read “Goods and Snugs.” She saw nothing in sight that read “Inn.”

 

A loud and insistent muttering interrupted these observations.

 

Saguaro jumped. She turned to her right to see an elderly man lifting what appeared to be daggers off a rickety porch. A ragged fence separated his front yard from the path. Saguaro tried to pass by unnoticed by crouching below the fence top. As she crept closer, she realized the daggers were merely long branches, but she could not shake the image of sharp weapons from her mind.

 

She took a few steps, careful to remain as quiet as possible. She was only a few steps away from passing his property when the man called, “Show yourself!”

 

Saguaro froze. “Vile, dirty old raccoons they be,” the man said, now looking in her direction. “Come out, come out, I’ve got me rifle for ya…”

 

Saguaro swallowed hard. She crept backwards and turned to reveal herself in front of the man’s gate. She did not want any raccoons he might find later blamed for her intrusion. The man studied her, and by the way he stared from her arms to her face, she knew that he had seen the color of her skin.

 

She had planned to leave as soon as he had seen her, but he mumbled to himself before she could rush off. “Vile, green, obscene, libertine. Wicked Witch of the West haunted me once, but not now…never again…”

 

Saguaro shivered. She had always hated that word…wicked. Still, she had never heard of this “Wicked Witch” before.

 

“Who-” she said. But before she could finish her question, the man lunged forward, a branch pointed like a weapon in his hand.

 

Saguaro did not think. She bolted. Behind her, the man called for her to return. She kept running and crossed to the opposite side of the path. She stopped when she came to a shabby building, the words, “Quenchers,” written above the doorway. Desperate to escape the man, she stepped inside.

 

She was in a narrow foyer, lit only by candlelight. The room was cold and grey. Loud voices and laughter carried over from another room, and the aromas of liquor and fresh bread filled the air. She followed the sounds and smells until she found herself looking into another room.

 

Two men sat at a bar, talking and laughing. Both had dark skin, and their eyes were glazed over. One was broad and muscular, and the other had a particularly sharp nose. The muscular man stopped mid-sentence to refill both their glasses.

 

Saguaro stepped behind the doorway, so that she was no longer visible to the other room. She was having second thoughts about whether this was a safe place to hide.

 

As if confirming her suspicions, another man emerged from a room behind the bar. He was pulling a woman by the arm. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties and had round shoulders and stringy black hair.

 

“Quia, I told ya not to break any more glasses,” he said, shaking her. “Those things are pricey, and we can’t afford much more.”

 

“P-please Father, I’m s-sorry,” the woman said, sounding on the verge of tears. Her father gave her a disgusted look and pushed her into the foyer where Saguaro was hiding.

 

“Clean that floor,” he said, thrusting a rag at her. “That’ll teach ya not to break any more glasses.”

 

The woman bit back a sob and nodded at her father.

 

Saguaro stepped backwards and glanced at the door to see if she could make a clear escape. Sensing movement, Quia turned in her direction. She took one look at Saguaro and let out a bloodcurdling scream.

 

If Saguaro had screamed like that, her father would have rushed in and taken Saguaro in his arms. Quia’s father, however, snorted in disgust. “Quia, I told ya not to make a fuss about mice,” he said. “They’re little beasties, nothin’ more. I don’t want to hear another word.”

 

After another glance at Saguaro, Quia bit her lip and began scrubbing the floor with her rag.

 

Saguaro peeked back into the room. The sharp-nosed man was smirking. “Ya should’ve let me take care of her,” he said, slurring his words. “I’m good at handlin’ women.”

 

The barman ignored this comment and shook his head. “It’s no surprise Oz is in ruins. I dunno how anyone thinks we’ve a chance at anythin’ with a woman for our leader.”

 

“Well, at least Glinda’s good for one thing,” said the sharp-nosed man. He and his muscular friend burst into uproarious laughter. Saguaro glanced at Quia, but the woman had not even flinched at this comment.

 

Glinda. Saguaro knew from her father’s stories that a king and queen ruled Winkie Country, but she could swear that she had heard of Glinda before. Racking her brain, she could not recall when. Perhaps in a conversation, long ago.

 

The barman glared at the other men. “Ya shouldn’t joke about it. Every time the Time Dragon ticks, I swear Glinda gets another bad idea. Glinda’s done nothin’ good for this country, and I’ll be damned if we give her any respect at all.”

 

“Aww, Qweyo, I was just joustin’,” the sharp-nosed man said. “Of course I know Glinda’s done nothin’ good. But I came here to have a good time, not talk about Glinda. Let’s save this for when we’re sober.”

 

“We’re lucky, anyhow,” said the muscular man, speaking for the first time. “Glinda’s never been here to make sure we follow her rules. If ya ask me, she’s forgotten all about us.”

 

“But that’s it, exactly,” the barman said. “I’m not sayin’ I want to stop eatin’ meat or huntin’, but maybe it’d be good if Glinda paid us some attention. Don’t ya think we’d be better off if Glinda took a break from worryin’ about the rights of those blasted Munchkins and Animals and thought about us for a change?”

 

“We have King Tiyago,” said the muscular man, “and that’s good enough for me. I say the real thing we have to worry about is Queen Sarima. If we can get her to learn her place, then maybe we’ll be safe.”

 

“I’ll drink to that,” said the sharp-nosed man, and he lifted his glass to click his friend’s.

 

The barman shook his head. “To think everyone in the Emerald City is gonna be celebrating her anniversary in a month. Sixteen years! I coulda done better in six months than she has in all those years put together.”

 

“Why don’t ya try to become leader, then?” the sharp-nosed man asked, and he and his friend toasted again.

 

Saguaro considered this piece of information. Her parents had also left Oz sixteen years ago. She had been born only a year after they left. Had they known Glinda as their leader and left because of her policies? Judging from the barman’s comments about Animal rights, this did not seem likely.

 

She tried to fight the tightness in her chest that the men’s words had induced. She had never dealt firsthand with such bias against women before. As prejudiced as Cascadians were about people who did not look like them, they did not discriminate based on gender. Cascadia even had a woman as its mayor.

 

Saguaro’s stomach growled. She backed towards the door, ready to leave this conversation behind, but Quia surprised her by looking up from her cleaning. Their eyes met.

 

For a moment, it was as if Saguaro were looking directly into Quia’s soul. She felt all the anger, hurt, and shame that defined Quia’s existence. Quia must have understood this, because she began to relax. Her lips curved into a shy smile.

 

She held up a finger and slipped back into the other room. Her father glared at her, but turned his back as she disappeared into the room behind the bar. When she returned to Saguaro, she was holding something wrapped in a cloth napkin.

 

“Thank you,” Saguaro whispered as Quia handed it to her. The woman shook her head. She gave Saguaro another small smile and opened the door for her.

 

Outside, it had grown dark. Looking into the distance, Saguaro noticed another woods just past the end of the town. Perhaps she would be safer sleeping there.

 

She opened the napkin. Three fat pieces of warm cinnamon bread were wrapped inside. It was the best bread Saguaro had ever tasted, the perfect mixture of savory and sweet. Saguaro was grateful that at the very least, Winkie bread was just as good as she always imagined.

 

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2 Comments ↓

2 Responses to “VI. The First Town”

  1. avatar
    Lee Jaffe September 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Is Saguaro puzzled or afraid of these muscular men. They certainly have an attitude about women. I don’t think that they will hurt her.

  2. avatar
    Impy September 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Aaah loving it! Can’t wait until she finds out about the “Witch”!

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