The Better to See You, Beth
by Anta Baku
Part 4 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
Beth didn’t know what had happened. One day she was living in a beautiful castle, triumphant revolutionary leader, the hero who had introduced democracy to a previously oppressed population. The next day she found herself politely and firmly escorted out as small mammal factions aligned against each other, each desiring its own leadership.
She’d never been out of the kingdom before. In fact, before the ball a few weeks ago, the one that got all this started, she had never been out of her house before. Her stepsisters kept her locked inside, doing their chores, which wasn’t conducive to learning the ways of the world. Doing chores and running a nascent democracy weren’t as different as she had expected, but it seemed she was better at the chores. That skill would probably be more useful at finding a roof to sleep under and a kitchen to cook in, two things she was suddenly without.
Fortunately for Beth, navigating in Fairyland was only difficult if there was someplace you particularly wanted to go. With no aim but getting somewhere interesting, simply setting out in any direction would get you to somewhere narratively appropriate in no time at all. So when Beth, walking through the woods, stumbled onto a little cottage that must have been the only building for miles, she wasn’t surprised.
The woman who lived there spotted Beth before she could knock, and after a few questions invited her inside. She told Beth to call her Grandma, and offered her a job for a few days running errands. The cottage only had one bedroom, but Beth was willing to sleep on the hearth rug for a few nights while she figured out what else she wanted to do.
Beth offered to make dinner, but Grandma told her not to bother, that she would take care of it. Beth regretted that almost immediately, as the smell that permeated the cottage as Grandma was preparing dinner for the two of them was extremely unappetizing. Beth surreptitiously cracked open the two windows, but it didn’t help much.
And then there was some sort of a stew, in far, far too short of a time for anyone to make stew. Beth wasn’t sure how it happened, and given that the taste made the smell seem like a pleasant memory, wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But Grandma wanted to tell her all about it, with the enthusiasm of someone who has just made an amazing discovery, or at least been sold on it.
“They come in buckets!” she said.
“Buckets?” asked Beth.
“Big plastic buckets,” said Grandma. “From the World of Chaos! This is how they make food there, they cook it and put it in little packages and then you just heat it again!”
Beth had met two people from the World of Chaos, since the gates had opened just a few weeks before. One of them had been pretending to be her fairy godmother. She had even visited it, briefly, to help them get home again. And no one had ever mentioned food like this.
Grandma was hauling out the bucket that her food came from, and indeed it looked like it came from the World of Chaos. It was the smooth material they called plastic, covered with the brightly-colored logos and text they called marketing material.
“Each of these holds two weeks of food!” said Grandma. “It’s such a relief knowing that if anything bad happens, I have thirty years of food in the house.”
“Thirty years?” said Beth in a bit of shock. That had to be a lot of plastic buckets. She’d picked up some math in spite of her stepsisters, so she figured it was nearly eight hundred buckets.
“Oh yes,” said Grandma. “My storm cellar is full of buckets of food. I’m so proud.”
Beth finished her stew out of politeness more than hunger, even though she hadn’t eaten all day, and they talked a little about the errands Beth would be running the next day. Inspired by her stockpile of food, Grandma wanted to build up supplies of her other necessities, and Beth had come along just in time to go into town and buy them for her. Then they went to sleep early, Grandma in her bedroom and Beth stretched out on the hearth rug.
Breakfast the next morning was pancakes out of the plastic tub, and the only good thing that could be said about them was they were less offensive than the stew. Fortunately Grandma gave Beth some extra money to spend on herself, and she resolved to eat a good, and large, lunch in town.
Though it was just after sunrise when she left Grandma’s cottage, it was mid-morning before Beth reached the town market. Reluctantly she bypassed the food stalls, not without thinking how much better it would be to take some of the produce back to Grandma’s and actually cook. But she had a list of things to accomplish.
The first thing on the list was bonnets, a gross of bonnets, which seemed excessive to Beth but the whole list was like that. Grandma had told her to seek out the shops on Grand Avenue, where all the products were tailor-made for the older generation, and Beth found the street easily. It was a block full of heavily-decorated brick storefronts, with the sort of seasonal decorations that were so organized and so timely that she imagined there had to be a coordinator somewhere just making sure they were always correct.
Outside the shop she was accosted by a wolf. Not even an old wolf, who might have reason to be here, but a reasonably young and healthy wolf, or at least he looked it. She braced herself to deal with harassment, or at least begging for money, but it turned out what he wanted was for her to buy him a bonnet. He offered to pay double for it. She wasn’t sure what a wolf who was wearing suspenders and lederhosen would want with a bonnet. That didn’t seem like it would coordinate at all. But she told him she’d think about it, and went into the shop.
The shopkeeper was a pig, and didn’t seem too startled by the order for 144 bonnets. “Lots of our customers have been stocking up,” he said. “I think the older people are uncomfortable because of the World of Chaos.”
“Aren’t we all?” said Beth.
“Well, my business is booming, and I can order hats, scarves, and bonnets for much lower wholesale prices if I buy them in bulk from Over There,” said the pig. “I don’t know how they make so many of them, they must have thousands of pieceworkers.”
“Grandma said I could rent a wagon from you,” said Beth.
“Oh, yeah, no trouble for such a good customer,” said the pig. “And look at this.” He held up a small package made of thin plastic, with a bit of cloth inside. “This is a whole bonnet, and they get it into this tiny little space. They hardly take up any room at all.”
Beth remembered then to ask him about the wolf outside. “Oh yes,” he said. “None of us allow the wolf to shop in our stores. He once tried to eat my cousin.”
Even if one bonnet didn’t take up any room at all, a gross of them was hard to handle on the wagon. She managed it out the door and tried to brush off the wolf, telling him she didn’t feel comfortable buying a bonnet for him, but she wished him luck with the next person. She expected him to let her go at that and keep hanging around the bonnet store, but instead he followed her as she headed for the next thing on her list, makeup. She wasn’t sure what someone who lived by herself and spent her life in pyjamas needed with makeup, but that was Grandma’s business. Beth was just running the errands.
The wolf pleaded with her, as she went down the street, to buy him some makeup. He told her all about how the cruel pigs wouldn’t let him into their stores, and how he just needed a few things to get by. He offered her three times what she would pay, just for a few things. She tried to avoid both confrontation and encouragement, and breathed a little easier once she made it into the store where he couldn’t follow.
Beth didn’t know much about makeup, from growing up cleaning her stepsisters’ house. The only time she’d particularly worn any was for her trip to the Prince’s ball, and then her fairy godmother had applied it for her. Her fake fairy godmother, she reminded herself. It should have been a sign, how many times Angie had to resort to the makeup remover and start over before they got something satisfactory. But from what she did know, she had a hard time picturing how it would work on a wolf. She asked the elderly pig who was moving about the shop, trying to collect all of the items on Grandma’s list.
“He tried to eat my great-nephew,” said the shopkeeper. “Whatever he wants, he’s up to no good.” She was amassing quite a collection of items on Beth’s borrowed wagon, all in big plastic boxes that clearly came from the World of Chaos. “We have new products for all sorts of complexions, now,” she said. “The most amazing things. But for a wolf? I saw some moustache wax in a catalogue, I’m not even sure what that is, but maybe it would do something.”
At that the door burst open and the wolf jumped into the shop aggressively, clearly ready to steal something, or maybe eat the pig. But he landed right on the end of Beth’s wagon, and makeup boxes and plastic-wrapped bonnets flew everywhere. Beth ducked out of the way, but not before she saw a box of makeup hit the off-balance wolf directly in the face and explode in a puff of brightly-colored shards of plastic.
The pig hadn’t bothered to get out of the way, so she had a bonnet on her head and another one stuck in her skirt, but she was also wielding a broom against the vulpine intruder. She jabbed him repeatedly with the butt end until he had fled the premises entirely, then stopped to help Beth collect her scattered purchases.
“Sorry about that,” said the shopkeeper. “Could I throw in something special for you for the trouble?” Beth admitted to not really knowing anything about makeup, which led to a 45-minute session with the pig, who demonstrated all sorts of interesting techniques. She sent Beth away loaded with samples that seemed impossible to use up but hardly took up any space on the wagon next to Grandma’s thirty-year supply.
After all that time Beth expected the wolf to be gone, or at least cleaned up, but there he was in the street waiting for her. His face was covered in gaudy colors, stuck all through his fur and his whiskers, but he seemed to at least have gotten all the plastic bits off.
He wanted to tell her all about how put-upon he was by these unpleasant pigs. She had seen, surely, that all he wanted was to purchase a few things in their stores. She could not have missed, he was confident, the level of mistreatment he was subject to, especially in the immediately-previous incident. Beth had to admit he looked pretty pathetic, and she had no particular reason to believe he had ever tried to eat any of their relatives. Maybe he really was the victim here after all. And all he wanted from the next shop was a pair of pyjamas. He even offered to reimburse Beth four times what they were worth.
The third pig storekeeper wasn’t as well-prepared for Grandma’s large order as the other two. He tried to make small talk as he bustled around the shop trying to come up with two hundred pairs of pyjamas. Beth asked him about the wolf, and he admitted to banning the wolf from his shop without a particular reason. “Everyone else said he tried to eat someone they knew,” he said. “And you can’t be too careful with wolves.”
He had to go into the back of the shop to find more pyjamas, and left Beth alone with her thoughts. She decided she was going to buy the wolf a pair of pyjamas after all, at least if there were any left after Grandma’s order was filled. She was even thinking about whether to offer to go back to the bonnet shop and the makeup shop on his behalf, when there was a loud noise from the back of the shop. She called out to the pig to make sure he was all right, and when she didn’t get a response, made her way back into a dim and drafty store-room.
The draft was coming from a window that had been pried open from the outside, and Beth moved more carefully. She peeked around a shelf full of dressing-gowns to see the pig shopkeeper lying senseless on the floor, with the wolf looming over him. The wolf had an extremely hungry look, which was disturbing given that his face was still caked in makeup.
“I thought you wanted pyjamas,” said Beth loudly, stepping out from behind the shelf.
“I did,” said the wolf. “I broke in to get pyjamas but then there was this pig right here and he looks so tasty.”
“You can’t eat him.”
Beth was a little taken aback by the question. “Because we don’t eat people is why not.” She thought that was self-evident.
“I’m a wolf,” said the wolf. “What do you want me to do?”
“Why don’t you just take the pyjamas you wanted and leave without eating anybody?” said Beth.
“Why do you think I wanted the pyjamas in the first place?”
“To sleep in?”
“I have fur,” said the wolf. “I’m already hot when I sleep. I wanted the pyjamas, and the makeup, and the bonnet, so that I could pretend to be a grandmother and eat a nice little girl with a picnic basket.”
“That’s horrible,” said Beth.
“I thought you would think so,” said the wolf. “So how about I just eat this pig instead?”
She kicked him. She’d been getting close and closer as he explained himself, and she kicked him three times until he was flat on the ground and unwilling to get up, just like the pig. She grabbed a dressing gown from the shelf and used it to tie his hands and feet together behind his back, then hauled him out the back door and dumped him in the alley.
She woke the pig, and while he was finishing up her order Beth nailed the store-room window shut. By the time she was done all the space left on her wagon was packed full of pyjamas, and she pleaded a need to get back to Grandma to get away from the overly-grateful shopkeeper. She had money left over for a late lunch, but while she deeply regretted passing up the opportunity for real food in return for the prospect of Grandma’s buckets, she thought it was a good idea to get out of town.
On the way back to Grandma’s house she met a little girl in a red cloak who was headed in the same direction. Beth hauled her wagon, and Red carried her picnic basket, and they made conversation. Red told Beth how her parents were in desperation over her grandmother, they had tried everything they could think of to get her to take better care of herself, and as a last chance had sent the favorite granddaughter with a basket full of Grandma’s favorite foods in hopes that sentiment would do what logical argument hadn’t been able to accomplish.
Beth pushed the wagon into the storage shed, where all the contents, being wrapped in plastic, would keep indefinitely. Then she escorted Red and the picnic basket into the house. When they showed the basket to Grandma she told them she wasn’t interested, that she was just fine with her buckets, thank you. But Beth hadn’t eaten lunch, and Red was a growing girl, so they broke open the real food for themselves.
Red’s basket had half an apple pie in it, and some peaches, and slices of cured ham, and a salty blue cheese that made Grandma stop resisting and join in before Beth could eat it all. There was fizzy water with cherry and lime, and herb crackers shaped like octopus, and roasted hazelnuts.
And they ate it all up.
Part 5 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is “Ian and the Grey Sisters”
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