The Big World

Jane has a candle.

The candle sits on Jane’s desk. It never burns out. It fills the sphere of her little world with light. Next to the candle there’s a stuffed rabbit, white and well-loved. On the desk there’s a book. It’s a magic book, and it says different things every day. One day it gives thirty-seven good reasons to value dental hygiene. The next, it tells a fabulous story of dragons and knights. There’s always something new to discover.

In the morning, Jane wakes up. She takes a bath. She eats Cheerios. Then she goes to the crooked woman and asks, “Can I go outside today?”

Usually, the crooked woman says, “No.” On those days, Jane reads her book or plays games. The dust bunnies wage a war against the stuffed bunny, and Jane is the finest general either side has ever seen.

Some days, the woman says, “Yes.”

“Yes,” she says, today. “Go. Fetch me some teeth.”

Jane frowns. “Are you out already?”

“I go through them awfully fast,” the woman admits. “It’s because modern teeth are so low-quality.”

Jane makes a rueful expression. It’s true. They don’t make teeth like they used to.

“So, git,” the woman says.

Jane goes up the stairs. She opens the door. She blinks in the light.

It’s a bit too bright. But Jane likes it, outside, in the big world.

She walks down the street. She smiles at the people. Everyone’s happy. She reaches the end of the street. The light turns green. The sign flashes WALK. Jane’s pretty sure this is the coolest thing ever, so she waits and watches. The light turns red. The sign flashes DON’T WALK.

“Isn’t that cool?” she asks someone. He’s standing next to her. He raises an eyebrow. It’s pretty clear he has no idea how to respond.

“The light, I mean,” she clarifies. “It’s not a living thing, but it communicates in words, and it cares about whether people get hit by cars.”

“I guess,” he agrees.

“Getting hit by cars is a massive systemic shock that can cause discomfort, fainting, lowered body temperature, sweating, pallor, and even death,” Jane points out. “It’s best to avoid it!”

“That’s very good,” he says. He looks around for Jane’s mother. The light turns green. The sign flashes WALK. He hurries across. Jane follows.

The sidewalks are very clean, in the big world. The buildings are old but sturdy. Jane sees a dog sniffing at a fire hydrant.

“I know what you’re doing!” she says. “You’re curious about the meat content and hormonal balance of other dogs that have urinated on that hydrant!”

The dog looks up at Jane. It cocks one ear.

“Carry on,” Jane says, suavely. “Carry on.”

The dog pants. Then it shakes itself and runs away.

There’s a bird sitting on a telephone pole. There are people all around her, bustling along.

Jane sits down on the steps of a building. “It’s like living in a picture book,” she says.

“TEETH!” shouts the crooked woman. It’s a distant, echoing sound. It’s very far away.

Jane hops to her feet. “I didn’t forget!” she says. “It’s just such a nice day.”

“AND SOME TOOTHPASTE,” the crooked woman shouts. She sounds mollified.

Everyone around Jane seems a bit disturbed. They hurry on, just a bit faster. They’re not used to hearing a woman shout, not so clearly, not from so very far away. But after a little bit, they relax. Things are okay again.

Jane strolls down the street towards the tooth store. Then she stops. She goes very still. She can hear something breathing.

She scans the street. She looks up and down. Then, deliberately, carefully, and slowly, she finds a random store—this one’s a small feminist bookstore named “Hippolyta”—and walks in.

“Well, hi,” says Shelley, looking up from behind the counter. She smiles at Jane. “Aren’t you a bit young to be out wandering alone?”

Jane closes the door carefully behind her. She looks around. Then she walks up to the counter. She looks up at Shelley.

“This town is like being in a picture book,” she says.

Shelley nods. “It’s very pretty.”

“But,” Jane says, “if you look outside the pages, there are ragged things.”

Shelley tilts her head to one side. “Ragged things?”

“You know,” Jane says. Then she holds up a finger. It’s a ‘shh!’ motion. Shelley is, obediently and condescendingly, quiet. There’s something outside. It walks by. Its footfalls are heavy. After a moment, Jane lowers her finger. She listens. “It’s all right now.”

“Are you hiding from your parents?” Shelley asks.

Jane sighs. It’s a long-suffering sigh. “I’m just out shopping for my guardian,” she says. “I’m buying her some new teeth. From the tooth store.”

“Oh!” Shelley says. She thinks. “That’s right, I’ve seen it a few blocks down. I’ve never gone in. I don’t really need teeth for much.”

“They’re good for recipes,” Jane says. “And for gnawing on things that you don’t want to taste. Like, stuff that’s been dead too long, or skunks.”

Shelley ponders. “I’ve heard that some people actually eat skunks,” she says. “I mean, after removing the musk gland.”

Jane thinks about that. “I guess that would work,” she agrees.

“So,” Shelley says, obdurately, “from whom are you hiding?”

Jane waves one hand about. From her expression, it looks as if the gesture helps her find words.

“Nobody ever suffers here,” Jane says. “Right?”

Shelley nods. “It’s not supposed to happen. Not in the big world. Nobody ever suffers here.”

“But sometimes,” Jane says, “there are mistakes.”

Shelley makes a wry face. “Yeah.”

“Do you know what that means?”

Shelley thinks. “I’ve never seen it,” she says. “But sometimes, I’ve seen weak places. Places where the big world wasn’t very whole. Places where there’s something ragged in the air, something raw, something hurt.” She gestures to the shelves. “Most of the books are about little worlds,” she says. “Or about happiness. But a few of them talk about the raw places. I don’t know what causes them, though.”

“Ragged things,” Jane says.

“Oh.”

Shelley has an odd look on her face. It’s a little bit patronizing and a little bit uncomfortable. It’s like the look the man had, back at the street light.

“They live outside the storybook world,” Jane says. “They’re not supposed to come in. But sometimes, there are mistakes. They come in. And they pull someone away. They’re heavy. You can hear them walking. And they breathe funny. I can hear it from a long way away.”

“Oh.”

Jane looks outside through the plastic door. “And in the wrong places,” she says, “they can just come in. Any time they want. It doesn’t take a mistake. They can just come in.”

Jane opens the door. She looks up the street. She looks down the street. “Thank you,” she says.

“Have a good day,” Shelley says. “Come again.”

Jane slips out. She walks down the street.

There’s a conjunction of shadows in the alley off to the left. Jane looks at it carefully. She’s not sure if it’s a wrong place.

She hurries towards the tooth store.

There’s a brick building to her left. A gargoyle scowls down from its roof. It’s a bad design choice. Jane’s not sure if it’s a wrong place.

She hurries towards the tooth store.

The sun is high overhead. It’s baking the trash cans on the street. It’s making the sidewalk hot. Jane looks carefully at a crack in the sidewalk. Then she shakes her head and moves on.

She’s not even looking when it happens.

A man is walking down the street. He steps on the crack. There’s an eddying and an oozing. There’s a stomping and a breathing. There’s a ragged thing. It clutches him in its hands. It takes him away. Jane doesn’t move. She doesn’t turn. It takes her a long five second count before she even dares twitch her head a little to the left, and look as far as she can with the corner of her eye, to make sure that the ragged thing is gone. Then she runs.

The tooth store has a big plastic tooth above the door. Jane stops in its shadow. She gathers her composure. Then opens the door and walks in. There’s a chime. There’s a gap-toothed old woman behind the counter who grins at Jane.

“Why,” she says, “it’s my best customer!”

Jane looks sulky. “I don’t get that many teeth,” she says.

The old woman giggles. “But you brighten my day,” she says, “so that makes you a better customer than old Mr. Fogle.”

“Oh!” Jane says. She beams. “That’s all right, then.”

The old woman comes out from around the counter. She pokes Jane’s teeth. “Yours doing okay?”

“Very well,” Jane says. “Thank you, ma’am.”

The old woman taps her head, thinking. “Can you make the noise?”

Jane rolls her eyes. Then she smiles. Ting!

“Pretty good,” the old woman says. “Pretty good. But you still need practice.”

“Ha!” Jane says. “I’ll go against you any day!”

The old woman grimaces and bares her teeth. TING!

There’s a silence.

“Okay,” Jane admits, “I can’t top that.” She thinks. “I guess twenty teeth should do me?”

“They’re cheaper in packs of twenty-four,” the old woman says.

“Okay,” Jane says. “Twenty-four, then.”

The old woman goes back behind the counter. She begins counting out teeth. “One, two, three, four, five . . .”

“Ma’am,” Jane says, “where do the ragged things come from?”

The old woman looks at Jane.

“I know you know,” Jane says. “You’re magic.”

The old woman looks wry. She counts out the sixth and seventh teeth, silently. “They go to special schools,” she says.

“Oh?”

Eight, nine, ten, eleven. “They teach them how to be ragged things,” the old woman says. “And how to go outside the big world.”

“Oh.”

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

“So they learn,” the old woman says.

Sixteen.

“And they go outside.”

Seventeen. Eighteen.

“And they lurk outside the pages of our picturebook world.”

Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.

“And when they think it’s a good idea,” the old woman says.

Twenty-two.

“Snatch!”

Twenty-three. Twenty-four.

“They have snatchy claws,” the old woman says, in explanation. She pushes twenty-four teeth across the counter. “That’ll be fourteen dollars and seventeen cents.”

Jane counts out the money. She puts it on the counter. The old woman takes it.

“Do they all need special schools?” Jane asks.

“Nope,” the old woman says. “Some people turn into ragged things on their own. And some are just born that way.”

“Oh,” Jane says. She pockets the teeth. “I have a pocket full of teeth,” she says.

“It can even happen if you forget to brush,” the old woman notes. “It’s just one more reason for good dental hygiene!”

“Wow,” says Jane, in a soft tone of awe. “That’s thirty-eight.”

11 thoughts on “The Big World

  1. I’d like to visit the picturebook world. My only worry is that I may be a ragged thing… and I’m afraid of what I’d do when I got there.

  2. Things like this make me wonder about the real world. Isn’t it all just a storybook world? If you are in a good place, you can live and be content and do what you want to do. But there are places where you might die, or be where everything you want isn’t, or do what you don’t want to do.

    I know that there are both places. I go to both of them, sometimes.

    In the real world there aren’t gods or isn’ts, unless you want there to be, you don’t need them. There aren’t monsters or evil men, unless you allow yourselves to be terrorized and ruled over by them.

    Somehow this seems scarier than living in the farie world. I don’t know why, it’s the same thing.

    There are people who don’t know or aren’t thinking about what they know, but how many don’t care?

    Someone once said that being a Monster means you hurt people and made them suffer. It also means they didn’t care that it happened. I don’t know if there are Monsters in real life. I mean, people tell me they do but they say there are Dragons too, and then they demonstrate their ignorance or lack of thinking by telling me something that’s wrong.

    The real world is safe, but I don’t live there… In my world, there’s a god and his son died so that everything I do wrong I can repent for what I did wrong and when I am tired I will live in his home forever in perfect happiness. But I can’t tell if there are Monsters, if there are Dragons, but there might be and that scares me.. sometimes.

    But I live in a good place now, even though I haven’t, or aren’t, I know that good places are there. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m just pretending that I’m in a good place, or that I’m avoiding the bad place. I don’t know, and if I am, I’m being a Monster.

    that’s really scary. because you can make isn’ts if you’re not careful, or let a Monster trick you into becoming one if you’re not…..

  3. Nope!

    phew!

    Good and evil are slippery!

    I know that there are monsters in the real world. I don’t know if they’re evil, though. I guess it depends on how you define evil. Personally, I attach the word “evil” to D&D-style theological evil, and I don’t think it exists. If I ever need a new meaning for the word, I’ll start by rereading Hannah Arendt.

    *adds a book to his list*

    It’s funny you should mention D&D-evil, since so many people seem confused about what it is :)

    Dragons are a bit more complicated.

    Rebecca

    They always are…

  4. In Hitherby canon, being a proper monster requires a bloodline that you probably don’t have, and powers that I rather doubt exist. Also, dragons aren’t as bad as you seem to think.

    It’s certainly possible to qualify loosely for the word “monster,” in legends or dialogue, without either of these things. I try not to use the word unless the crew at Gibbelins’ Tower has some reason for it, but that reason can be pretty thin. (It’s pretty thin in the first canon entry, for instance.) That said, bear in mind that “pretending” is one of those pretty thin reasons. Being a hypocrite is monster-like; being self-righteous is monster-like; being most comfortable in uncomfortable situations is a bit monster-like; and heck, being smart or charming is kind of monster-like. These are traits most monsters have. But these aren’t at the core, and having one of them isn’t sufficient reason to worry about whether you’re a monster.

    At the core, monsters empty people methodically because doing so suits their purposes. I haven’t given a precise definition of emptiness, and I’ve avoided writing about the techniques used by Jenna and Liril’s monster. This isn’t that kind of story. But! Unless you regularly do stuff that can drive people to catatonia, suicide, or at least post-traumatic stress disorder, I recommend choosing a different label for yourself. (People can become empty without trauma, as today’s reference to the Buddha being empty suggests. But it’s not really a good thing to force on someone.)

    Rebecca

  5. Thanks for replying, Rebecca, but I’m not afraid of literally becoming a “proper monster” as you write it.. it’s just that sometimes what you write skirts my delusions of what might be. Try rereading that with Monsters being as you write it, and monsters being what commonly people think of one as.

    For instance, I don’t know my bloodline that far back, and lots of details are wrong, but I do know that there were plenty of people in it who have been hidden by my ancestors because they were monsters, even if they wouldn’t be one in Hitherby canon. What your parents don’t teach you, era newspapers and family trees will.

    It’s not that I belive the events within this page are true, it’s that regardless of if I read Hitherby or not I would still wonder if I was a monster. Sometimes you manage to capture that inner dialouge perfectly. You also seemed to have captured the joy perfectly as well, and I’m of the sort that finds beauty in both and happiness that I can enjoy seeing something that has beauty no matter what it is.

    I don’t think I’m what most people would consider to be a monster. I think I COULD be a monster, because I see people driving “people to catatonia, suicide, or at least post-traumatic stress disorder,” in everyday life and I see that capability in myself. I fight that, but a few times I’ve slipped and people’s lives have changed, sometimes for the better. Sometimes I try and make people’s lives better and even succeed. I’ve been lucky.

    “But it’s not really a good thing to force on someone.”

    There’s a good quote I heard once. “You’re not insane until you stop wondering if you’re insane or not”… so I’m still wondering :D

    Being good is a constant battle. But do I really want to be the Buddha?

    And I’m not sure you understand my conceptions of dragons :) I love dragons. I was somehow raised on them with stories and literature that didn’t paint them in a bad light.. I never had negative conotations of dragons. To me, a dragon is more pure, and trustworthy, than an angel… things like Smaug are the unfortunate exception to my legends.

    It’s scary to think there are dragons, though, just like it’s scary to think there are monsters. It’s scary for there to be Good or Evil, it’s scary for their to be both, and it’s scary for there to be neither. But it’s still interesting to think about ;)

    Sometimes you write things that I can see the good in the world, and I like that too. Sometimes Evil, sometimes Neither.. maybe it’s not what you intend but it’s what I see. And I’m famous for misinterpreting things :P

    PS – I’d be interested to know if you thought I didn’t like dragons based on something else I said, I can’t remember everything I ever said :O

  6. But! Unless you regularly do stuff that can drive people to catatonia, suicide, or at least post-traumatic stress disorder, I recommend choosing a different label for yourself. (People can become empty without trauma, as today’s reference to the Buddha being empty suggests. But it’s not really a good thing to force on someone.)

    It’s quite possible for real world people to do these things, and it happens more than we’d like to realize. Look at Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Dirty War in Argentina, even what the Janjaweed is doing in Darfur in the Sudan. Ask people who grow up in refugee camps whether others regularly do things that cause PTSD or suicide…

    Apologies, now, for dragging the real world into this. Great story.

    – S –

  7. It’s quite possible for real world people to do these things, and it happens more than we’d like to realize. Look at Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Dirty War in Argentina, even what the Janjaweed is doing in Darfur in the Sudan. Ask people who grow up in refugee camps whether others regularly do things that cause PTSD or suicide…

    Oh, sure. Heck, *I’ve* got PTSD because of stuff someone did. But I don’t expect people who do that sort of thing to be reading Hitherby and then fretting about whether they’re monsters or not.

    Rebecca

  8. Sorry if I’m freaking you out.

    Nope!

    If you rationally expect that you’re going to do commit an act of cruelty or violation against someone, please seek professional help.

    If you’re wrestling with whether you’re a monster for . . . well, any other reason . . . then please find what wisdom in Hitherby that you can, and I hope it helps you find some kind of peace or resolution. :)

    It’s scary to think there are dragons, though, just like it’s scary to think there are monsters. It’s scary for there to be Good or Evil, it’s scary for their to be both, and it’s scary for there to be neither. But it’s still interesting to think about ;)

    Good and evil are slippery!

    I know that there are monsters in the real world. I don’t know if they’re evil, though. I guess it depends on how you define evil. Personally, I attach the word “evil” to D&D-style theological evil, and I don’t think it exists. If I ever need a new meaning for the word, I’ll start by rereading Hannah Arendt.

    Dragons are a bit more complicated.

    Rebecca

  9. I’m most intrigued by the crooked woman and Jane’s relationship to her.

    Somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, it reminds me of the relationship between Iphigenia and Tina. The way Tina kept Iphigenia and cared for her as her daughter, and sent her “out” to do things for her.

    Iphigenia had a storybook kind of way of looking at the world, and Tina told her about, and exposed her to horrors while still keeping her world a storybook world. I think Iphigenia felt with Tina a little bit the way Jane felt in the storybook world– it’s all kind of safe, and sort of neat, the way the world fits together, but then there are these horrors that Iphigenia has to… skirt, where children scream.

    Iphigenia seemed sort of fascinated by the school Tina once attended, too.

    I don’t know, it’s just what popped into my head.

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