An excerpt from the novel Bits of String too Small to Save
by Ruby Peru
It all started when a local farmer found every one of his chickens red in the face, mangy, and dead. Then, scavenger types discovered hundreds of field rabbits just the same—feet in the air, stiff as boards, and dead as Fred. Next, large game became thin on the ground. Hogs wouldn’t fatten. Badgers disappeared, leaving large holes gaping and uninhabited. Monkeys seemed to be the only animals immune to Bumblegreen’s deadly blight.
Wherever entire villages had fallen prey to the blight, mass graves peppered the landscape. Homes, mills, shops, and saloons lay abandoned: morbid ghost towns from which passing gypsies shielded children’s eyes. The same gypsies spent chilly nights without fires rather than scavenge planks from the rotting shacks thought to be cursed. Dead farmers’ surviving relatives burned the farmers’ bodies along with their crops, food stores, and homes, with great weeping finality. The massive pyres sent up inky plumes, dry-brushing history, blacking out hope.
With the blight’s source unknown, superstition flourished in this once-educated land. Bitter accusations flew among family members and former friends, where every soul sought a spook to take the sharp end of his sorrow and fear. Villages in the north emptied out, as peasants attempted to travel to blight-free provinces in the south; meanwhile, southerners hiked north. Everyone wanted to be someplace else, but all this traveling seemed only to spread the deadly blight itself.
During their reign, Queen Dahlia’s parents, the former king and queen, funded a barrage of undertakers, coroners, and grave diggers to travel the kingdom autopsying bodies and performing burials both sacred and sanitary. They ordered teams of experts to inspect crops all over the kingdom, and where anything appeared suspect, they burned whole fields with a free hand.
Of course, the monarchs put every intellectual, scientist, deep thinker, and even crossword-puzzle expert in Bumblegreen to the task of discovering the cause of the blight. But, ultimately, these experts made little progress in determining even a single plausible explanation for the sweeping disease, whose deadly appetite didn’t discriminate between human, animal, or vegetable. Indeed, a map of the lands ruined by the blight portrayed it taking on a polka-dot pattern and striking with sudden ferocity wherever least expected.
Steadfastly maintaining a daily session of chanting and positive-incantation-recitation (the custom even in times of prosperity) the king and queen used their thusly gained equanimity to remain open-minded while also wary of zealots who called the blight a punishment for not following the ways of magic. These types insisted the blight swept in as a triumph of technology’s dark forces and, whenever they could find receptive ears, ranted on in that vein. The King and Queen, however, would have none of such notions.
Finally, the king and queen spent so many late nights inspecting blighted regions, consulting researchers, and pondering all the horrible developments that, exhausted, they eventually caught the terrible epidemic themselves and died tragically on a would-be-beautiful spring day, leaving the kingdom to their orphaned daughter at the tender age of nine. On their deathbeds, rather than appealing to some magician for mercy, the monarchs separately croaked their appeals—neither to God nor sorcerer, but to science.
Sitting on the throne on coronation day, looking out over hundreds of expectant faces, nine-year-old Queen Dahlia resolved to become a revolutionary monarch. She decided to adhere, like her parents, to science, yet Dahlia would take an unusual path. The kingdom needed an influx of new scientific expertise, she felt, and, unlike her parents, Dahlia actually knew where to get it. So, as soon as she had endured the crowning ceremony and the required speech—which Dahlia’s regents, thinking her incapable, delivered for her, offering Bumblegreen’s subjects a variety of platitudes and vague promises of prosperity—young Queen Dahlia called a meeting.
“We’ll begin my reign by instituting a think tank!” proclaimed little Queen Dahlia. The room’s silence only seemed to amplify the swishing of her countless layers of taffeta skirts (which the royal costumer had presented to the girl as the first of many cumbersome outriggings of queenliness).
“We’ll get all the best minds together in one room,” Dahlia said. “We’ll create a place where real thinkers will think their brains into applesauce coming up with a solution to the blight.”
“I see,” said the bravest of her parents’ advisors—now one of her regents, a tolerant half-smile on his face. “And from whence will we procure these intelligent persons?”
Queen Dahlia understood the gentleman’s hesitation. After all, the most intelligent persons in the kingdom generally considered themselves to be assembled right there, at that court, in that room, at that moment. Dahlia’s suggestion, she knew, came as a bit of an insult, but she hoped the sting would fade with the success of her mission. While speaking, she had been stirring her tea and now, very suddenly, smacked the damp spoon against her palm with a firm thwack.
“From other worlds!” she declared.
Queen Dahlia snapped her fingers, and before the inevitable condescending tut-tuts and don’t-be-sillys could escape the lips of a single regent or adviser, the meeting room’s door swung wide. Four rugged strangers trundled in, dressed in heavy boots, helmets, bass-fishing vests, and hip waders, and carrying backpacks with mysterious gear strapped to the sides.
In truth, the gear was nothing but scraps from a local blacksmith’s shop. The costumes the lowland gypsies wore had nothing whatever to do with the work they were to perform, but Queen Dahlia had designed the garb herself and felt the outfits projected a sense of cautious optimism, intellectual earnestness, and leathery experience that would win over skeptical court conservatives
“Portal exploration, Gentlemen!” she announced. “These fine men and women are seasoned explorers of Bumblegreen’s well-known portals!” Queen Dahlia waited for a reaction, positive or negative, receiving only silence. So, she cleared her throat and continued, “Disguised as rabbit burrows, squirrel’s homes, and other natural hollows, these portals enable us to examine life outside our little ‘paradise.’” (Her clear discomfort with the word suggested the sarcastic quote marks in the minds of her more linguistically oriented regents.) “More importantly,” she added, “the portals enable us to meet new people and find fresh talent. Of course, if you know anything about portal travel, you know these other worlds can sometimes be as blank as our moons, without a living soul, nor air sufficient to sustain life. Yet, some of the portals have indeed been found to lead to worlds rich with wonders!” A pause here.
She raised her teacup to her lips as she let the speech’s introduction seep in. The queen did not actually sip. In fact, she could hardly breathe for fear her regents, who had been her parents’ cronies—those stooped pessimists, those close-minded codgers—would burst into laughter and dismiss her idea with careless waves of their gnarled hands, but Queen Dahlia’s audience sat transfixed, as hoped.
She set her teacup down on the wooden table rather than in its saucer, lest a shaking hand expose her fear with the tell-tale rattle of china.
“Some of these worlds can be vibrant with astounding technology, buzzing with inventive activity,” she explained.
“Yes, yes,” answered one of the wizened regents, “Of course, we know about the portals, Sweety. I mean, Your Highness.” The man sighed and plunged his head into his crossed arms in tired embarrassment.
The queen’s financial advisor took up where the old regent left off, a bit too loudly, covering for his associate’s gaffe. “It’s where all our imports come from: furniture, lab equipment, office supplies. From other worlds, of course. But the sort of people who Travel are . . . what’s a way of putting it? . . . not exactly risk-averse.” He cast a dubious glance at the four rugged strangers, Dahlia’s lowland gypsy friends.
“Hello! Fine crystal? Hello! Immunizations? Hello! High-end micro-brewed beers?” ventured a certain political strategist whose rudeness had always remained somehow pardoned because of it being such a consistent and essential part of his overall being. “Who makes these in Bumblegreen? Nobody! We get them from the gypsies, the so-called Travelers, but so what? What’s that got to do with the price of peas?”
“Besides valuable imports,” continued the queen, “really smart people can be found in these other worlds. And technology. And machinery. And . . . and things you can’t even imagine! We’ve used up all our Bumblegreen resources trying to cure this blight, including even your own brain power, if I can say that. Can I say that? Well, I did. So now, I think, I believe, I insist, I mean . . . I command that we should explore other lands—not for luxury goods, but for brilliant minds. We’ll bring back experts from these places—advanced doctors and scientists— and maybe they’ll know how to end the blight.”
Young Queen Dahlia turned to look out the castle’s high, arched windows at the bleak and ruined landscape beyond. Her arm gracefully rose and gestured that they should all behold the once-verdant, rolling hills that stood now as nothing more than barren, dust-blown acreage. Then, growing bold, she picked up her cup and slammed the thing right in the center of its saucer.