Ian and the Briar Patch
by Anta Baku
Part 8 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
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I’m all for diversity in hiring, but I wish they would do it in a way that didn’t saddle me with a trainee. Although I suppose I was probably due for one anyway. We’re making serious progress building mobile network infrastructure in Fairyland, and it’s getting to be more work than I can handle by myself. So eventually I was going to have to train someone in, and I could probably do a lot worse than Booker.
Not that I knew much about him. He was straight out of college, and had that nervous first-week attitude that infects most young new hires. He was overdressed, punctual, eager, and earnest, and I had no idea whether any of those would last longer than the first week. I was like that as a new hire, too, and look at me now.
I was a little nervous about taking an inexperienced Black kid into Fairyland. I mean, he’s experienced in being Black, he’d been doing it all his life. And you’ve probably heard that being Black in Minneapolis is not all we’d like it to be, especially recently. But Fairyland seemed like a different story entirely. Literally every human I’d met there had been White, and by and large they didn’t seem like the sort of people who would welcome multiculturalism.
Booker seemed to think he could handle it, though. Of course, in that particular stage, new kids like to think they can handle anything. You can’t trust them, or rather you can trust them to be meticulous, honest, hardworking, and basically trying to make the most positive possible impression. You just can’t trust them to have a realistic estimate of their own abilities. That was my job, and it’s why I don’t like getting stuck with trainees.
He wasn’t a bad kid, though, as far as I could tell beneath the first-week veneer. I just hoped he would relax a little bit so I could find out who he really was. At least I managed to get us on a first-name basis in the first two days, while we stayed around the office doing his HR paperwork and making sure he knew the processes behind all the other paperwork. Even in Fairyland, getting easements for cellular infrastructure requires contracts. In fact, often far more interesting contracts. I made sure to brief Booker about fairy gold, making sure to keep his blood for himself, and some of the other more common complications.
On the third day, I was ready to take him into Fairyland for the first time. He was excited, but I wasn’t sure if it was the prospect of a land of magic and mystery, or if he was just glad to be getting out into the field. So I asked.
“I didn’t request this job,” he said. “They assigned me here.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I got here the same way. Go to Fairyland or find a new job. But it’s treated me well. I get more bonuses here than I ever got working churches and water towers. A lot of the people here don’t even want money, they want favors. And you can bet management is happy to get antennas they don’t even have to pay for.”
“What kind of favors?”
“Oh, all different kinds. Once I had to cut the heart out of a beautiful teenage girl.” I waited a beat for his reaction. “Don’t worry, we faked that one. Sometimes they’re complicated, sometimes they’re dead simple. Last week I closed a deal just by getting my hair cut.”
“I already have a barbershop,” he said, clearly not as into the idea of letting a random troll cut his hair as I was. Maybe he’d change his mind when he met the troll.
I didn’t have any particular place to go in mind when we went into Fairyland, no mission to a Gothic castle or an inaccessible tower or even a high bridge with panoramic vistas. There would be time enough to do a real job with Booker later in the week. I just wanted to have him walk around, get used to the place, maybe get his hands on some of the strangely light fairy gold so he knew how to identify it. I figured we’d go to one of the market towns that seemed to dot the Fairyland landscape, have some lunch, maybe talk to some shopkeeper pigs. Booker had taken the idea of talking animals pretty easily, back in the office, but I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle the reality.
However, I couldn’t find any towns. Moving about in Fairyland isn’t exactly a thing you do with a map. Things aren’t next to each other the way they are in the real world, and a road that goes from one place to another today might go someplace completely different tomorrow. As long as you know where you’re headed, and you keep thinking about trying to get there, eventually it will turn up.
At least, it had always worked that way before. This time, what we got was road, lots of dirt road with brambles and untrimmed hedges and the occasional tree along the side, but no sign of civilization at all. Someone must have built the road, but it didn’t seem to go to anywhere or come from anywhere, or have anything next to it. It was a road whose sole purpose was being a road, and I had the feeling that if we turned around we wouldn’t be able to get back to where we started.
This is the thing everyone I talk to in the real world worries about. What if you go into Fairyland and you get lost and can never get out again? Up until this point, I had never had any reason to think that was a problem. I tried to go places, and I got there. I tried to go home, and pretty soon I was back at the portal, which is only three blocks from my office. The hardest part wasn’t the Fairyland bit but the Minneapolis bit, where it seems like there’s always road construction.
If a road like this existed in Minneapolis, you couldn’t walk down it for ten minutes before it went down to one lane. You wouldn’t have to worry about never finding the way out because you could just ask the flagman.
Fairyland isn’t like that. This road told you that it had always been here, that it would always be here, and that potholes wouldn’t dare come near it. If I could find a way to bottle that last quality I’d never have to work in telecom again, but for the moment my larger worry was that I’d be stuck on the road forever with a trainee. Fortunately he hadn’t noticed that anything was out of the ordinary so far.
I checked my phone, because we’re actually starting to get some coverage now, even though Fairyland isn’t exactly a place where you can build out coverage maps. At the moment we put antennas wherever we can manage and hope it all works out. I wasn’t surprised to find no signal on this infinite road, but I had to check. And since I was looking at my phone, it was Booker who saw the Tar Baby first.
“Oh no,” he said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I looked up to see what looked like a doll sitting by the side of the road, a crude black doll in rough clothes, maybe a little over a foot tall. I bent over to look at it closer.
“Don’t touch it,” said Booker.
“You’ll get stuck,” he said. “But you know that, don’t you?”
“I don’t know what’s going on here at all,” I said.
“I bet,” said Booker.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you brought me here on purpose.”
“I don’t even know where here is!”
“Yeah,” said Booker. “Look, hazing the new guy is one thing, I get it. But you brought me to the—” He stopped a moment, clearly to self-edit. He was mad, but I was still at least sort of his boss. “You brought me to the Tar Baby.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I said. “I’m not hazing you, I swear.”
“Every story you’ve told me, it’s been a White fairy tale, a Germanic fairy tale even. Cinderella, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk. Everything from northern Europe.”
“So day one you bring a Black guy in here and suddenly it’s the most stereotypical Black American legend? I’m supposed to deal with, with, Br’er Rabbit? He’ll probably be here any minute.”
“Look, I don’t even know what this is,” I said. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
I thought quickly and tried to stay calm. “Booker. I know you’ve only known me for two days. I know you have no reason to think I’m not a horrible racist who’s hazing you because I don’t think Black people deserve to be treated fairly. I know you have no idea how angry it makes me, not at you, to think that I might be seen that way.”
“You really don’t know what’s going on here?”
“You’ve known me for two days, and I get that two days means nothing in that context. But maybe you can look at those two days and think about whether the person you spent those two days with would do all this work just to, to mess with you.”
“It’s more than messing with me.”
“Yeah but it’s not professional to say what I actually mean.” He actually laughed a little at that. Maybe I was getting through. I hoped I was getting through. “You have no reason to trust me not to be racist, but maybe trust me to be lazy? I’m not going to make a bunch of work for myself just to be a jerk to you.”
“Yeah, my aunt would be all over me for such profanity.” I said.
He laughed for real this time. “What would she say instead?”
“She’d call me a patoot.”
He snorted. “OK, if you were hazing me you would neve have told me that.”
I relaxed a bit and let my breath out. I didn’t even know I’d been holding it. “Thank you.” At least we’d gotten past that moment, though I was still wondering why we ended up here the first day I brought him into Fairyland, and he probably was too. It was a good question. I was also worrying about being stuck here, though the Tar Baby was a sign that narrative was in action, and probably after something happened we’d be able to leave again. We just had to wait for whatever it was to happen.
That’s when the rabbit showed up. Not your Alice In Wonderland white rabbit with a waistcoat and pocket watch, though he was standing on his hind legs. This rabbit was grey and raggedy, dressed like a bum. I’m not sure who gives hand-me-down clothes to a rabbit, but these had clearly been used and discarded by at least two sets of people before he got his paws on them. His jacket had once been red, and his jeans were made of more hole than fabric, but he had a jaunty step and seemed to be having an excellent time.
He introduced himself to each of us with over-the-top excessive politeness. His name was Br’er Rabbit, and he insisted on getting both of our full names, shook our hands with both of his little paws wrapped around them, and declared himself at our service. But we didn’t get any time to figure out what his service was worth, because he then tried to introduce himself to the Tar Baby.
Now, I know things are alive in Fairyland, sometimes, that aren’t in the real world. And telling these stories can get a little bit confusing, especially when I’m using capital letters for something. But the Tar Baby wasn’t alive. It was just a little back doll, sitting by the side of the road. I suppose Fairyland convention is that it ought to have answered back to Br’er Rabbit’s greeting anyway, but for once things behaved just like you’d expect them to at home, and it just sat there. If you called it stoic you’d have been anthropomorphizing, because there wasn’t any personality to be stoic with. It was inanimate, if you understand what I’m getting at.
Br’er Rabbit took that personally. After all, we’d greeted it nicely, hadn’t we? Those two big, clueless humans had the manners to say how-do-you-do to a stranger met on the road on a bright, sunny day. But no, not the Tar Baby, the Tar Baby was too good for such things.
The rabbit was getting agitated, and I wanted to intervene, but Booker held me back. He seemed like a perfectly nice rabbit, and I didn’t like to see him becoming enraged for no reason, but Booker knew this story and I didn’t, so I deferred to his judgment. If this was supposed to happen, somehow, maybe letting it happen was the only way for us to get home.
Br’er Rabbit kept trying to provoke the Tar Baby, and every time the Tar Baby failed to respond he got more furious. Eventually he got so worked up he reared up and punched one of his little paws into the Tar Baby’s black arm. The punch itself was honestly pretty ridiculous. It’s hard to imagine a rabbit getting enough force into its front paws to do much harm to a dandelion, much less to a person. Inasmuch as a rabbit can do anything, they’re built for power in their hind legs, like a tyrannosaurus.
I had a moment, then, when I realized I didn’t know what happens when you think about a tyrannosaurus in Fairyland, and tried really, really hard to stop. But I guess it’s ok because I’ve never been good at stopping thinking about things, and yet no dinosaurs showed up anyway.
I expected our local forearm-strength-challenged competitor to back right away after the punch, like most people do. But however weak his punch would have been in a universal context, against the Tar Baby it seemed to have been highly effective. Br’er Rabbit’s paw had gone right into the arm of the doll, and he couldn’t get it out again.
At first that didn’t make the rabbit any calmer, but after struggling furiously for a minute or two, he stopped to catch his breath and take a more measured approach.
“Please, gentlemen,” said Br’er Rabbit, “could you give me a bit of help? I seem to be stuck.”
I looked at Booker, since he’d been stopping me from helping before. But he seemed more willing to get involved now that the rabbit was immobilized.
“We can try,” said Booker, “but it looks like you’re stuck in there good.”
He was right. We yanked on the rabbit’s arm, but there wasn’t any way to shake him loose of the Tar Baby. With both of us pulling, the doll came off the ground and swung around the side of the road, but Br’er Rabbit’s arm wasn’t coming loose. I thought it would help if we each pulled from one side, but Booker wouldn’t touch the Tar Baby, and he wouldn’t let me touch it either.
“Do you want to be stuck like he is?”
Eventually we gave up, at least for the moment.
“We could go get something to help,” said Booker. That sounded like a good idea to me, if it meant Fairyland would let us go home. If we could get out of there, we wouldn’t have to come back and help the rabbit. We wouldn’t have to come back to this place at all. Wherever it was, there was no reason to put a mobile phone antenna here.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go back and get some mineral spirits or something. That will loosen the tar right up.”
“You promise to come back, though,” said Br’er Rabbit. “You promise to get me out of this.”
“Sure,” I said, before I saw Booker motioning me to shut up. “We promise to try,” I added. After all, who knew if the mineral spirits would even work?
And then we just walked off down the road. Not long after we were out of sight of the rabbit and the Tar Baby we ended up in places that were familiar to me, and I was able to navigate us back to the office.
“I never had that happen before,” I said, “where I couldn’t get out. I’m never going back there.”
“But you have to go back there,” said Booker.
“You promised Br’er Rabbit!”
“So I lied to him,” I said, doing my best John Belushi from the beginning of Blues Brothers. My best John Belushi isn’t very good, but Booker got it anyway.
“You can’t lie to a trickster god,” he said. “That’s worse than nuns. He’ll get out of the tar his own way, and then he’ll come after you. You’ll never be able to rest.”
“The rabbit is a trickster god?”
“That’s Br’er Rabbit,” he said. “I can’t believe you don’t know him. He’ll get all stuck up in the Tar Baby, and then when Br’er Fox comes along to find out what he caught, he’ll convince Br’er Fox to throw him into a briar patch.”
“That sounds unpleasant,” I said.
“That’s the point. It sounds unpleasant, so Br’er Fox thinks he’s punishing Br’er Rabbit, but Br’er Rabbit was born in that there briar patch.” His accent shifted for the last part. “Br’er Fox caught him with the Tar Baby, but Br’er Rabbit was too smart for him in the end.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means that you have to go get some mineral spirits, and go back and help the rabbit.”
“You mean we have to go get some mineral spirits.”
“No, it’s the end of the work day, and I have to have dinner with my mom,” said Booker. “I’m sure you can manage.”
I wasn’t sure at that point which one of us was supposed to be the trainee. But I wasn’t going to tell him that if I had to work he had to work, I’m not that kind of manager. And after all I was the one stupid enough to promise. So Booker went home, and I drove out for a bottle of mineral spirits.
When I went back into Fairyland with them in hand, I couldn’t find the road anywhere. Usually if I want to go somewhere in Fairyland I just think about it and pretty soon I get there, but that didn’t work this time. Booker had convinced me that I didn’t want to be on this rabbit’s bad side, so I was motivated to find him and help him get unstuck in tar. But not only couldn’t I find the rabbit, or the Tar Baby, I couldn’t even find the road. The place we had come out from connected to a little village I’d been in a few times before, and there was no endless road of brambles and dirt, no rabbit, no Tar Baby.
Eventually I gave up and went home. Br’er Rabbit couldn’t blame me for not coming back if I couldn’t find him, could he?
I got the feeling he probably could.
The next day Booker agreed. He thought we should try to get back to the rabbit, even though a full day had passed, and probably we were too late. I thought we should try to get some real work done. But once we got into Fairyland it’s not like we had a choice. Pretty soon we were walking down that same, lonely road. It hardly mattered what was on my agenda. We got there without even trying, so easily I wondered if Booker was doubting my story about not being able to get there the night before. At least this time he was willing to carry the bottle of mineral spirits.
Somehow the rabbit and the Tar Baby were right where we left them, and almost as we left them. Br’er Rabbit was still stuck, and the Tar Baby was still intractable, but now both of the rabbit’s arms were lodged inside the block, gooey mass of the doll. He’d gotten frustrated and punched it again, with similar results to the first time.
The mineral spirits didn’t help. Well they dissolved the tar just fine, that part went just as it was supposed to. Unfortunately they also started dissolving the rabbit’s fur, and eating away at his skin. By the time we got him out he wouldn’t have much in the way of arms left anyway. Once he felt it he begged us to stop, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to continue against his wishes. He begged us to find a different way, but I didn’t promise this time. I wasn’t sure avoiding a second promise would do much good when we hadn’t been any help so far, but it was worth a try.
On the way back Booker quizzed me on all the other places in Fairyland I had been. He was right that all of them had been very centered on White European culture, and he thought that might have been why I couldn’t get back the night before.
“I still think I’m being hazed,” he said. “Not by you, but by this place.”
“Fairyland wants to taunt you for being Black?”
“Lots of other places do,”
“OK, but, like, metaphorical places. You say places but you really mean people.”
“This is a very metaphorical place.”
He had a point. I didn’t really know how Fairyland worked, it just worked. I went places, and then I got there, except now it seemed like maybe I didn’t, sometimes. It wasn’t like geography, where everything was where it was no matter what. It was something else, and maybe that something else could have a grudge.
“So do you think there’s a person behind all this? Or people?”
“And those people are racist?”
“Then how do we find them?”
He gave me a funny look for that, like I had gone way off script. It seemed like the obvious question. If you think something might be out to get you, then you try to figure out if you’re right. And that applies if you think something’s out to get your trainee, too.
Of course, asking Booker that question was probably silly, because this was his second day in Fairyland. I was the one with the expertise, and that meant I was the one who was supposed to be able to figure out what was going on. Unfortunately I didn’t have any good ideas. There were people I could ask, on top of the list my roommate who used to run weather control across Fairyland. Surely she would know more about how the map worked than I did.
But as I was going down the list of everyone I knew who knew anything about Fairyland, I thought about my brother-in-law. You wouldn’t ask Dave what was going on in basically any circumstance. He’s the sort of person who can’t keep track of a basketball game, even though they put all the information on the scoreboard for him. He calls himself a security consultant, but I’m not sure why anyone would ever hire him, and I’m sure they’d regret it quickly if they did. He spends most of his time playing video games.
Dave had one important thing about him, though: he was the only other person to take me anywhere in Fairyland. He and my youngest sister, not the one who’s married to him, had gone to visit three old ladies on an island. It was a disaster, and mostly it was Dave’s fault, but now I was wondering about the Fairyland part. I don’t think those ladies came out of an English or Germanic myth, like everything I’d been to on my own.
“Do you know anything about Greek mythology?” I asked Booker.
“Not a lot,” he said. “I’ve read Homer. Why?”
“My brother-in-law took me to a place, once,” I said. “It was an island with three old ladies on it who had a magic eye that would let them see the past, present, and future. It wasn’t any myth I know, but I think it might have been Greek.”
“It doesn’t sound familiar to me,” he said.
“I can ask Dave about it,” I said. “But first I want to try to get there. Neither of us knows the myth, but I’ve been there before. Until today I always assumed I could go back.”
Booker agreed that it was worth trying, so I led us to the shore with the canoes we used to make our way out to the island. Or at least I tried. Not only did we find no island with old ladies on it, and no canoes to get us there, I wasn’t even able to find the lake. It was a pretty big lake. You wouldn’t think you could misplace it. But it was nowhere to be found.
Eventually Booker got tired of looking. “This is making me nervous,” he said. “I want to go home.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s go back to the office. There’s no point in continuing this. I want to talk to Dave, and you seem pretty stressed out by the whole thing. Do you have more HR paperwork to do?”
“Probably,” he said. “There’s always more HR paperwork.”
“Take the rest of the day for that, then,” I said. “I’m going to find Dave. There’s something else I want to try.”
Dave was at home and free for a little experimenting in Fairyland, which wasn’t a big surprise. The strange thing would have been finding him with a consulting client. The family would be more annoyed about this, but he and Diana are expecting a baby soon, and we all know Diana isn’t going to do any of the parenting work. We’re just crossing our fingers that Dave will turn out to be a good dad.
For now, though, his afternoon was wide open and it wasn’t hard to convince him to help me figure out a little more about how traveling in Fairyland worked. We started by going back to the lake with the three sisters, and that was no problem at all. At least, the lake was no problem, and I trusted the island was out in the middle of it. The shore of the lake had aluminum rowboats with outboard motors instead of canoes this time, but even so we didn’t bother trying to visit the island.
I told Dave a little bit about the rabbit and the Tar Baby, but he didn’t think he recognized it either. I still wanted to try to go there, just to see what happened. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a road that might never end, but I had gotten out of it twice, so I figured I could do it again, even without Booker. Even if I had to make another promise to the rabbit. So we set out for the spot again, and this time there was a road, though I wasn’t convinced it was the same road. It was still a dirt road with hedges and scraggly trees, but somehow it seemed different.
When we finally came to a clearing we didn’t find the Tar Baby. What we did find was a giant wooden horse standing outside some city walls. The gates to the city were shut, and the horse was just standing there, waiting, with one guy hanging around outside of it. He was shouting something up at the walls, in a language I couldn’t understand, but it’s not like this myth was subtle. I knew what it was. So did Dave, of course, he did manage to get a Classics degree somehow.
“We try to get to a Tar Baby and we end up with a Trojan Horse?” he said.
“They’re both traps,” I said.
“Oh, I see,” said Dave. “The Tar Baby is there to trap the rabbit, and the Trojan Horse is here to trap the people in the city.”
“And I bet it’s full of Trojans,” I said.
“How much?” said Dave.
“You mean how many? It’s pretty big, maybe thirty.”
“No, I mean how much do you want to bet?”
Gambling with Dave isn’t really gambling. There’s no risk to it. He always loses at everything, so I decided to let him off easy. “A dollar.”
“One dollar? Come on, make this interesting.”
“How about fifty?”
Well, if he insisted, I guessed I was willing to take his money, even if it seemed easier than that time he thought the Timberwolves were sure to make the playoffs. We shook on it, and then we went home. We didn’t need to hang around, really. I thought I knew a little more about what was going on, and I thought we should let Booker in on it, even if that meant waiting until the next day.
Dave sent a text that he was going to be late the next morning, which was all right with me. I wanted to take Booker into Fairyland by myself and see if we could get to the Trojan Horse without Dave’s help. I had a theory, and I explained it to Booker as we headed in.
“I think people can only get to places in Fairyland if they’re very familiar with the myth,” I said. “I can’t get to the Tar Baby without you, I can’t get to the Greek things without Dave. So I think you and I shouldn’t be able to get to the Trojan Horse.”
“Why would you think that?” said Booker.
“The Greek myths are Dave’s thing.”
“And the Black myths are my thing? Look, Ian, I’ve read the Odyssey. If familiarity is all it takes I should be able to get to the Trojan Horse.”
“Oh,” I said, eloquent as always.
“What do you mean, oh?”
“I made a stupid assumption, and I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” he said.
“See, sometimes you just say ‘oh.'”
“If you’re right, if I try to go to the Tar Baby I’ll get to the Tar Baby, but if I try to get to the Trojan Horse I’ll get to the Trojan Horse.”
“I don’t know if that tells us anything, though. Before this week I thought everyone could go where they want to.”
“It tells us this place isn’t maliciously sending me to the Tar Baby no matter what I do,” said Booker. “I want to try it.”
So we did, and he was right. The road still looked the same to me, but Booker was confident, and when we had walked down it far enough to encounter something, that something was the walled city, and the wooden horse in front of it. Booker was obviously relieved, but also displeased with the quality of the horse.
“That thing is way too accurate,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“So, Odysseus came up with the idea of building the horse, right? And they built it in three days. And it’s not like they brought master sculptors with them. Do you know how hard it is to make a sculpture stand on four legs?”
“Trust me, the thing would have fallen over the first half-dozen times they tried. Not to mention every time they tried to get soldiers in and out of the belly of the thing. If there was a real Trojan Horse it probably looked more like a knight on a chess board, and not a fancy one. Stylized, and solid on the bottom. You could tell it was supposed to be a horse, but it didn’t look like a horse. This one looks like it was modeled off a photograph.”
“I’m sure they had real horses.”
“At the end of a ten-year siege? If they had any real horses they would have eaten them already. Their main association with horses was probably something they remembered was much tastier than what they’re living on now.”
“Maybe they would have tried to sculpt that,” I said.
“They weren’t post-modernists, Ian.”
I didn’t have a response to that, and it seemed to be all he had to say on the subject. I was just glad he was loosening up a little bit and revealing some of his interests. I was still embarrassed about the Odyssey thing, but if I was going to be working with him from now on, it was nice to know he was passionate about sculpture.
We watched the city and the horse for a while, but nothing much was going on. We got pretty bored standing around before Dave said he would show up, and it didn’t get any better when he wasn’t on time. But I didn’t want to move on, because I was pretty sure if we went back to the Tar Baby he wouldn’t be able to follow.
“I feel like I should apologize in advance for Dave,” I said.
“Why?” said Booker.
“He’s, um, not very sophisticated,” I said.
“As opposed to you?”
“OK, but I mean….”
“Are you trying to say he’s a racist redneck?”
“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” I said. “How many rednecks have Classics degrees?”
“More than you might think,” said Booker.
I left it at that. The truth was, I didn’t quite know what to make of Dave on that front, I was just worried. My sister had some pretty awful ideas about race, but then she had pretty awful ideas about just about everything. I wasn’t sure if Dave agreed with her, or had some other approach. Whatever it takes to be married to Diana, I can’t imagine it.
But he was polite enough when he showed up, and he and Booker even had a brief conversation about how anachronistic the horse was. Dave wasn’t as dedicated to the idea of a stylized horse as Booker was, but he agreed that realism wasn’t very likely. They were more interested in how, and I was more interested in why. If both of them expected a more primitive sculpture, why didn’t Fairyland bring us to one? I couldn’t even imagine an anatomically accurate horse, so it didn’t seem like it could have come from my expectations, even if this was somewhere I could get on my own.
I couldn’t think of any way to learn more about that, though, beyond keeping my eyes open. So when they finished criticizing the horse in front of us, we set off back for the Tar Baby. I didn’t expect us to have any trouble getting there with Booker along, and in fact we were barely out of sight of the city before we came across it in the woods.
The rabbit was still there, and his right foot was now stuck in the Tar Baby, along with both of his hands. He begged us for help, but none of us had thought to bring anything, and even Dave wasn’t willing to risk being caught up in the Tar Baby himself.
“You’re smart, Br’er Rabbit,” said Booker. “I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out yourself.”
Just for the heck of it, I sent Booker and Dave back to the Trojan Horse by themselves. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but so far I had been the common factor in everything, and I thought maybe we could learn something by it. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to get there while I was here, or maybe when Booker left the rabbit would disappear.
I sat by the side of the road and watched him, but all that happened was he kicked at the Tar Baby with his free leg, and finally had all of his limbs stuck and was only able to wriggle. I was wondering whether to warn him not to head-butt the thing when Booker and Dave got back.
They brought the horse with them.
They weren’t pushing it or carrying it or anything. In fact they were as surprised by it as I was. But as soon as they had come back to the place where Br’er Rabbit and I were waiting, the Trojan Horse appeared too, off the road a little ways, in a field of briars. None of us could figure out why that had happened, except that Booker had let Dave take the lead on the way back, and somehow things had gotten jumbled up.
That was when Br’er Fox finally showed up. Booker saw him first, of course. I think he was expecting him, now that the rabbit was fully trapped. We moved to the other side of the road from the rabbit and the Tar Baby, to stay out of his way, but he stopped to greet us almost as politely as Br’er Rabbit had. I had to admit the people in this myth had better manners than the ones I’d been to before.
None of us saw how he did it, but he got Br’er Rabbit loose from the Tar Baby in no time at all. From the way they talked to each other, it was clear that he had set it there to catch Br’er Rabbit specifically, and now was looking forward to doing terrible things to him. Manners or not, I guess he was the villain.
Neither of them seemed to notice the wooden horse.
The fox, for all that he had planned out the trap in advance, seemed surprisingly indecisive about what to do when he’d actually caught a rabbit. It wasn’t lack of options, but too many. It seemed like roasting him was what he really wanted to do, but he couldn’t help considering all his other options, and Br’er Rabbit was encouraging him.
“How about a fry-up,” said Br’er Rabbit. “It won’t take so long.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” said the fox, “but I don’t have a pan.”
“What about some nice barbecued rabbit medallions,” said the rabbit.
“I don’t have a barbecue either,” said the fox.
“You could get one of those new air-fryers that they’re bringing in from the World of Chaos,” said the rabbit.
“How come you’re so ready to get eaten?” asked the fox.
“Oh, you can eat me if you want,” said the rabbit. “I don’t mind being eaten. Just don’t, well, never mind. Go ahead and eat me.”
“What’s never mind?”
“I don’t want to tell you, you might do it.”
“Come on,” said the fox. “Tell me what it is you don’t want me to do. Then at least I’ll be nice about eating you.”
“Well, all right,” said the rabbit. “Eat me if you want, but just don’t throw me into that briar patch.” He indicated the area with the horse in it, though he still didn’t seem to think a big wooden horse was worth mentioning.
“That one over there?” said the fox.
“Yes, that one. I hate that briar patch.”
“The one with the horse?” said the fox, and at least I knew they could see it.
“Oh, the horse doesn’t matter,” said the rabbit. “A wooden horse can’t save me from what will come if you throw me in that briar patch.”
“All right,” said the fox. And like the villain he was, he pulled his arm back and flung Br’er Rabbit right into the briar patch. I could feel Booker nodding along next to me, so apparently this was what was supposed to happen, even if the dialogue had changed.
A moment later Br’er Rabbit popped his head up from the briars and thumbed his nose at Br’er Fox. “I fooled you!” he said. “I was born and raised in this briar patch! You’ll never catch me with a Tar Baby again!” He jumped up and beat out a celebratory rhythm on the side of the Trojan Horse, while Br’er Fox looked abashed.
Then a whole bunch of soldiers in bronze armor came tumbling out of the horse into the briar patch. Br’er Rabbit was laughing so loud I thought he might explode, and we could hear the soldiers swearing at the thorns even from as far away as we were.
“See,” I said to Dave, “I told you it was full of Trojans.”
Booker looked at me like I was stupid. “Greeks, Ian.”
“The Trojan Horse? It was full of Greeks.”
Dave just grinned at me. I pulled out my wallet and handed him his fifty bucks. I knew taking on a trainee was going to cost me in the end.