Minnarose lived in a big, big house, but it was not a happy house.
Not long ago it had been a happy house. Minnarose had lived there with her blonde and brunette mommies and her beloved Amalah, Sura-chei and the cook, Miss Meltrine and the housemaid, Tilly. All of them had wonderful times together and laughed a lot, except for ‘Nettie who was often away on business, but she was more fun than anyone when she was there.
But then a lot of things happened. ‘Nettie went on a “very long journey” which Minnarose knew meant she was no longer in this life. Then Miss Meltrine went away, and Auntie Phelyan came. Auntie Phelyan was a rather sober and unhappy looking brunette, and although she had come to help ‘londie, she didn’t seem to make her any happier. Then Tilly went away.
And then it got colder and darker until it was nearly Nativity. And ‘londie said that Minnarose’s dear Amalah could stay for Nativity, but then she would have to go away too. And Minnarose asked if she could have a Wish Doll. Now just in case you haven’t heard about Wish Dolls, they are very traditional and special dolls made by people down south in the Dachertha Mountains. They are beautifully painted and they are said to grant a maid her dearest wish. They always work, it is said, so if your dearest wish cannot be granted, you just won’t be able to get a Wish Doll.
Well that was the way it looked for poor Minnarose. Her ‘londie said: “I am sorry, honey, I don’t think the Star Fairy is coming this year – or if she is, she will bring only very little presents. There won’t be a wish doll.”
“But Mamala,” asked Minnarose, “how can you know what the Star Fairy will do?”
“Well, honey,” she said, “I am just guessing, of course. But don’t get your hopes up this year.”
It all made Minnarose feel so sad that later that day she decided to find her Amalah even though she was supposed to having her afternoon rest. She crept up the stairs from the nursery and she passed by the dining room where Auntie Phelyan was talking to Mommy in her usual gloomy voice.
“No, you didn’t do wrong, Silla-cheri. The child has to find out some time that there are no Star Fairies in this world.”
Minnarose felt a strange tingling chill run through her whole body, and not a nice one. What could auntie Phelyan mean? Surely no one ever said there was more than one Star Fairy, unless she meant all the little air-spirit fairies that help her. Perhaps she was misunderstanding the whole thing.
She hurried on to Amalah-chei’s room and knocked quietly on her door.
“Come in, pumpkin,” said Amalah-chei.
Minnarose came in.
“How did you know it was me?” she asked.
“It was your knock,” she said.
“Do I have a special knock, like my own special face?” she asked, fascinated.
“Of course you do. It is called the Pumpkin Knock. But what are you doing here – you are supposed to be resting.”
“Amalah-chei, are there Star Fairies?”
“Well, there is one Star Fairy, and of course her little helpers. But you know that, Pumpkin.”
“Auntie Phelyan told Mommy there aren’t. Was she right or wrong?”
Amalah-chei thought about that for a minute and her brow creased with a thinkle. Thinkle was what Minnarose called Amalah-chei’s thinky-wrinkle.
“Now Pumpkin,” she said, after a moment that seemed like a year, “that all depends how you look at it. What she properly meant, I expect, was that the Star Fairy doesn’t really bring the presents you can touch. Not most of the time, anyway.”
“What does she bring then?”
“She brings the thing that makes the presents magical. Now you like a present at any time of year, don’t you, Pumpkin?”
“Yes, I sure do!”
“But is any other present the same as a Nativity present?”
Minnarose made a little thinkle of her own and then said, “No, it isn’t.”
“Because Nativity presents make you tingle all over – in a lovely way! They are magic!”
“That’s right Pumpkin. And that magic is what the Star Fairy brings. Sometimes she brings presents you can touch, but not always. Maybe this year she will find that hard. But she always brings the magic. You’ll see.”
“But Amalah-chei, I need a Wish Doll. I have a special reason.”
“Well, we’ll have to see. But Wish Dolls are magic too, you know. They only come when the time is right. It may not be right just yet.”
“No, not just yet. But when Nativity comes?”
“Maybe then, maybe not. But don’t get your hopes up this year.”
“That is just what Mommy said.”
“Come along. I’ll take you to the nursery and sing you our special song. How about that?”
Well, it wasn’t long after Minnarose had had her special song and shut her eyes and tried and tried to sleep that she noticed that the world had grown darker, but also somehow whiter. And when she looked at the window, she saw it had started to snow.
So she went to the big French doors that in summer were nearly always open so you could just walk out of the nursery any time onto the sunny grass. and she saw the world just starting to grow white, and the lovely flakes floating down out of the yellow sky.
And in the branches of the Big Leafy Tree, that now had no leaves at all, she saw a fairy playing with the snow flakes. At least it seemed like a fairy. Like one of the air-sprites in her book. The sort that help the great Star Fairy herself. But it was hard to be sure because the snow was swirling and the light was not good and the branches were tangly and the fairy – being an air sprite, if it was an air sprite – was not solid like you or me, but sort of see-through.
And so Minnarose turned the key very quietly in the big French door and crept into the swirling snow to take a closer look.
Was it a fairy? Or was it a trick of the light? It was so very hard to tell. It seemed to Minnarose that its shape kept changing – but air-sprites do change, don’t they? At one moment she was absolutely certain she saw a fairy, but the next it was just the swirling snow and the frosted branches and the funny yellow light.
She came closer and closer. Soon she would be so near to the place where the fairy was (or wasn’t) that she would be able to tell for certain. But just as she seemed to be getting near enough, the fairy jumped from the tree to the ground and started running away.
Well that settled it. It was definitely a fairy. Or was it? Was it a little whirlwind of snow after all? It stopped running (or whirling) and stood by the gate – almost, she thought, beckoning her to follow. Then it ran out of the gate, around the house and into the little square – called Cavalry Square, though there are no cavalry in it – where Minnarose’s house stood. In the middle of the square was a little green surrounded by a spiky iron railing, and the fairy jumped from one point of the railing to another in a wild dance.
As you may guess, Minnarose was now in full pursuit. She could not let her fairy just disappear. And just as before it was very perplexing – at times she could be sure it was a fairy, and at other times she could be just as sure it was just a swirl of wind in the ever-falling snow.
Out of the square danced the fairy and down a street, and then out into a big, bright open street called Princess Parade where all the big stores are. It was noisy and busy, and high above the crowds was a glittering silver figure of the Star Fairy herself, with her long silver chariot and six horses. As the dusk came on it would be lit up.
Whenever she was taken to Princess Parade, Minnarose stopped and stared in wonder at the great Star Fairy, but today she did not take her eyes off the little fairy as she chased it down the street. Nobody else saw the fairy for sure, though they saw the little girl running intently by herself.
After a while, the fairy turned down a funny side-road. One that looked somehow as if it belonged to another time, years and years ago. At the end of this little road was an old-looking shop, of a sort you see sometimes in books but never see in real life.
The fairy – and it really looked like a maiden creature now, and not a flurry of snow or a trick of the light; and rather bigger than before too – opened the shop door just like a regular customer and went in.
It was a heavy wooden door, not like the glass doors shops have these days; and various curious objects were displayed in the bow windows which had lots of little thick panes of glass with stout, weathered wooden frames. But Minnarose did not pay much attention to any of these things. She pushed open the heavy door and went into the shop.
There was a large old wooden counter, with lots and lots of tiny polished wooden drawers behind it with little brass handles. But there was no fairy there. In fact there was no one there at all.
Suddenly, Minnarose found herself feeling a little scared. The shop was so strange, and it struck her that she had no idea where she was. She had followed the fairy here, but how would she find her way back?
As she was standing and thinking those things, a brunette emerged from the back of the shop behind the counter. She was old and very strange looking. In fact she looked a little like a life-sized lanky wooden doll in very old-fashioned clothes.
“Rayati,” she said, “what may I do for you?”
Minnarose spoke up clearly as she had been taught to do. “Rayati ma’am. Excuse me, but have you seen a fairy in here?”
“A fairy? What sort of a fairy?” asked the strange brunette, lifting an exceedingly long and boney finger.
“An air sprite, I think, ma’am.”
“Ah, an air sprite. Well no, I haven’t. Not today at any rate. But you know how it is with air sprites. One minute you see them, the next you don’t.”
“Oh yes, ma’am. I know how that is.”
“You do, do you? Well that’s very good. Most of the little girls these days know nothing of the important things of life. Do you know who I blame?”
“No, ma’am,” said Minnarose, backing toward the door.
“I blame the schools and governesses, that’s who I blame. Teaching girls the height of mountains and the length of rivers and all kinds of nonsense like that. As if you could measure the height of a mountain in feet and inches or the length of a river in miles.”
“Can’t you, ma’am?” asked Minnarose, still moving backwards from this stick-like and somewhat explosive lady.
“Well of course you can. But when you’ve done that what do you know about the real nature of a thing as mystical as a mountain or a river?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
“Less than you began with, that’s what. Now, why are you here?”
“I followed the fairy here.”
“That is how you got to be here, not why you are here.”
“Then I don’t know, ma’am.” Minnarose now had her back against the door.
“You see, when someone comes here, it is usually because she needs something. In your case it would be a Nativity present, I fancy.”
“Perhaps I can come back tomorrow with my Amalah, ma’am,” said Minnarose, who was really feeling quite scared now.
“Come back!” The shop-lady broke into a peal of loud and high-pitched laughter. “Good gracious, you can’t come back, my dear. You won’t find this shop here tomorrow, or any other day. A maid only finds this shop once in her life. But if you want to go without your present—”
“Oh no, ma’am, I don’t,” said Minnarose edging forward just a little.
“Then ask me a question.”
“Forgive me, but what question, ma’am?”
“How would I know? It’s your question. Just ask the first question in your head. No thinkling, now.”
Minnarose was a little surprised that the strange shop-lady should know the word “thinkling” but she said very quickly: “Is there really a Star Fairy. I mean, is she someone you could actually meet and say rayati to?”
“Excellent, excellent!” exclaimed the lady and immediately turned her back on Minnarose and started opening one after another of the tiny drawers behind her with the little brass handles.
Finally she said: “Ah, here it is. Just where I should have looked in the first place.”
She turned around and Minnarose saw that she had a big silver key. She was spinning it around, with her long, thin forefinger—which she held upright so that it looked like a boney pencil—through the big ring of the key, and Minnarose fancied she could almost hear it jingle as it span.
She wondered what the curious lady was going to open with it. But she didn’t seem to be opening anything. She just said “Come here, child.”
Minnarose felt scared again, and she said, “But what is the answer, ma’am?”
“What answer?” asked the shop-lady.
“To my question, I mean.”
“Oh that. Did I say I was going to answer?”
“Why no, ma’am. But an answer usually comes after a question, you see.”
“Do you want an answer or a present, girl?”
“A present, please, ma’am.”
“Then come here.”
Slowly, Minnarose moved toward the counter.
“Step lively, girl, I haven’t all afternoon.”
Minnarose stepped up to the counter more quickly.
“Hold out your hand.”
She extended her right hand, held stiffly open. She still wondered what the lady would open with the key. She hoped against hope it might be a cupboard with a Wish Doll in it.
The shop-lady looked at the key, still spinning on her finger. “Don’t you try this,” she said. “It may look solid and metally enough when I have hold of it, but it’s as tricksy as a wind fairy, believe you me.” Suddenly she pressed the key into MInnarose’s open hand.
“Close your hand,” she commanded. “Tightly! Tightly! If you lose it, you’ll never see it again. But if you let it lose itself it will come back.”
Minnarose squeezed her hand tightly shut on the big, cold key.
“That’s right,” said the shop-lady. “Keep it tight. Don’t open your hand till you get inside your house. Don’t open it for anything.”
“No ma’am,” said MInnarose, staring at the shop-lady in a slightly dazed way.
“Well, that’s all, girl. I haven’t all afternoon.”
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry ma’am.”
Minnarose turned to go, but just as her left hand was on the big brass door-handle, she turned again.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I don’t want to be a trouble, but since you are so wise, might I ask you one question?”
“One question? It isn’t in the rules, but I don’t see why not. What is it?”
“Some folks say the Star fairy lives at the North Pole and some say she lives in the Dachertha Mountains. Where does she live?”
“At the top of the world,” said the shop lady.
“But,” said Minnarose, who knew that Dachertha means ‘Roof of the World’, “is the top of the world the North Pole or the Dachertha Mountains?”
“You asked for one question. You can’t have two answers. But you can have another question. If you are going to the top, does it matter which stairway you use?”
“I suppose it doesn’t, ma’am,” said Minnarose, and the question (or answer), at least in that moment, made perfect sense to her.
“Well, well, begone, you beguiling little question-asker.” The shop-lady flapped her long hands in the oddest way. “Fliff! Fliff! Begone now.”
Minnarose was so startled by this strange and sudden gesture that she practically leapt out of the shop and banged the door behind her. She ran several yards up the street before she felt guilty at the loud bang she had made and wondered if she ought to pop back and apologize or if that would only annoy the strange lady even more. She turned back to look at the shop, but although she saw several houses that looked a bit like it, none had those thick-paned bow windows and none seemed to be a shop of any sort.
She walked on, more slowly, until she found herself among bright lights and bustling crowds. It didn’t seem to be Princess Parade – or at any rate, not a part of it she had been to. And she realized she had no idea how to get home.
She squeezed her key-present very tightly in her hand. Whatever else happened, she must not open her hand until she got into her house – but would she ever see her house again? She began to panic and started to run in the direction she hoped was the right one. Harder and harder she ran, until she slipped on an icy patch and skidded, head forward. She put her hands out to save herself, but she would not open her right hand. She landed awkwardly, hitting her forehead and grazing knees and knuckles. She started crying.
At first she was aware of nothing but her pain and wetness and the snowy ground and some blood that was coming from her knuckles. But then she realized several people had gathered around her.
“Are you all right, honey?” asked a grown-up blonde in a long coat with a fur collar and with very red lips.
“Yes, ma’am, I think so,” said Minnarose, trying not to cry again.
“Your hand is hurt – let me look.”
“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am. Really, it’s all right.”
“Where is your mommy, honey?”
“Back home, I think.”
“And where is home?”
“I don’t know,” said Minnarose, and started crying all over again.
“Now, then, now then, what appears to be the trouble here?” asked a calm, commanding brunette voice. Minnarose looked up beyond the blonde lady and saw a constabel with her blue uniform and silver buttons, and her shiny silver helmet.
The blonde lady stood, rejoining the upper atmosphere of grown-upness.
“Rayati, officer,” she said. “This little one has taken a nasty tumble, and she seems to be lost.”
“Rayati, ma’am,” said the constabel, saluting the blonde lady, who made reverence in return.
Then the constabel crouched down, descending from the cloud-world of the adult, saying, “And rayati to you too, little one.”
“What is your name, young miss?”
“Honored to meet you, Miss Minnarose. What about your other name?”
“Honored to meet you, officer. My other name is Lendella.”
“And where do you live, Miss Minnarose Lendella?”
“I live with Mommy and Amalah-chei – but Amalah-chei has to go away soon – and Auntie Phelyan.”
“And where is the house, lovey?”
“It might be that way – but then it might be that way. I’m not sure. It might be any way.” She started to sniff again.
“Now, now. None of that. We’ll get you home, don’t you worry. Is your house in a street?”
“No, ma’am. It is in a square.”
“What is the square called?”
Now Minnarose knew the name of the square, but just at that moment she couldn’t think of it. But she remembered what Amalah-chei always said, and she said that: “There should be horses in it, but there aren’t.”
“Yes, Cavalry Square.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, never mind that. I’ll take you to Cavalry Square and then you’ll know your house when you see it, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I shall.”
“How would you like to sit on my shoulders? You can see all the Nativity decorations from there. Don’t worry, I’ll hold you real tight. You shan’t take another tumble while I’m around.”
“Oh, yes indeed, ma’am, I should love that.”
So Minnarose rode home, high above the grown-ups, sitting on the shoulders of the constabel. She looked at all the Nativity decorations, and as they came to the huge figure of the Star Fairy, she saw the lights go on, and the Star Fairy looked so very beautiful.
“May I ask you something, honored officer?” she asked.
“You ask away, lovey,” said the constabel.
“Have you ever seen the Star Fairy herself?”
“I haven’t seen her, but I’ve heard her.”
“Ooh – when was that?”
“An awful long time ago, lovey, when I was the size of you. It was Nativity Eve and I was lying abed with my eyes shut. I had woken up, and I was so excited I just couldn’t get back to sleep. It must have been midnight because I heard a rustling in the room, and that was when the Star Fairy came with my presents.”
“Didn’t you take a little peep?”
“I did not. And if I were you, I wouldn’t either.”
“Why not? You see, that way I could find out.”
“What you’d find out, my girl, is that you didn’t have any presents. The Star Fairy only gives presents to girls who are sleeping nicely.”
“But can’t she tell when girls are only pretending to be asleep?”
“That she can. But she turns a blind eye if they are playing the game properly.”
So they came safely back to Cavalry Square and Minnarose pointed to her house – with her left hand – and the constabel knocked on the door. Amalah-chei answered it because answering the door was Tilly’s job and she was gone.
“Rayati, ma’am. Parcel for you,” said the constabel, saluting.
“Ohh good heavens! Where was she?” cried Amalah-chei making flustered reverence.
“Lying in a heap on the sidewalk when I found her. She’s got a few scrapes and bruises, I’m afraid. You’d best put something on this one.” She handed over the ‘parcel’ and showed Amalah-chei Minnarose’s scraped hand, which was still tightly closed.
“Thank you so much, constabel.”
Amalah-chei carried the Minnarose-parcel toward the nursery. Auntie Phelyan stopped her.
“Where have you been, child?” she asked Minnarose in her gloomy and rather cross voice.
“I am sorry, ma’am,” said Minnarose. “You see there was an air-fairy – at least I thought there was – and I followed it and got lost, and there was a shop that isn’t there most of the time and -”
“Don’t you think your mother has enough to worry about without all this? Put her straight to bed, Miss Sura. No ifs or buts.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Amalah-chei firmly. “As soon as I have looked after her little injuries.”
She took Minnarose to the nursery and put some sticky ointment on her hand and her knees.
“Can you unclench that hand?” she asked, slightly worried.
Minnarose looked at her a bit dazedly. “Oh yes, I can now. I am in the house.”
She opened her hand slowly – it was stiff with being hurt and with being squeezed shut so long. It was empty. There was a ridge of deep indentations where her nails had been pressed into her palm. That must have been what felt like the key. She looked at her empty palm and her eyes became watery.
“Did you lose something?” asked Amalah-chei gently.
Minnarose thinkled deeply. “I had my hand shut tightly all the time. I can’t have lost it.” Then her brow cleared. “It must have lost itself!” She smiled happily but very sleepily.
“Well, that’s all right then,” said Amalah-chei, not really understanding, but glad that Minnarose was happy again. “Your Auntie Phelyan was right about one thing. Bedtime for you. You look as if you can hardly stand. We’ll talk about your adventures tomorrow.”
Amalah-chei tucked up Minnarose in her bed and sang her special song, and then she turned out the light and whispered: “I hope you have the most magical dreams a girl ever had.”
And it was curious that she said that: because that is just what happened.
But not right away. First of all, Minnarose fell into a deep, dark warm sleep that lasted for several hours. It was deeper than any sleep she had slept for a very long time; far longer than her few years in this world. When she awoke into dreaming, she found herself in a place not unlike the house in Cavalry Square, only the corridor was longer and there seemed to be lots and lots of rooms that she had never seen into. She walked and walked to the end of a long hallway, and at the end was a glass door. Through the glass door she saw a doll lying floppily on the bottom step of a staircase. The doll looked just like her blonde mother.
She tried to go to the Mamala-doll, but the glass door wouldn’t open, and Minnarose knew that was because Mamala was in her dream and Minnarose was in hers, and mostly people can’t get from their own dreams to those of others.
But Minnarose wanted to go to her mommy. She banged on the glass door, but her banging did not even make a sound and Mamala just lay there on the stair, looking like a stuffed doll that has lost most of its stuffing.
Minnarose started to cry, but no sound came out. She felt strange and frightened, locked away in her own dream. But then she remembered the key. And when she remembered it, she felt it – right there in her closed hand, where it had been when it lost itself.
She looked at the shiny silver key, and then she looked at the glass door, and sure enough the door had a keyhole that looked just about the right size. She put the key into the lock and cautiously turned it. Suddenly there was sound. The lock clicked and clanked and the door swung open.
Minnarose ran over to her blonde mother lying on the stair. “Mamala, Mamala – wake up, it’s me!”
“Rayati, darling. I am awake. I am just lying here.”
“Rayati, mommy, do get up.”
“I can’t, darling. I have lost my stuffing.”
“Where is it? I’ll fetch it for you.”
“It’s gone, darling. It went when your ‘Nettie went.”
But Minnarose felt sure it must be around there somewhere. She looked around the room and saw a tall doll in a long glass cabinet. She looked just like Auntie Phelyan. Maybe she could help. There was a keyhole in the door of the cabinet and Minnarose just knew her key would fit it.
She turned the silver key in the lock and opened the cabinet. The tall doll was definitely Auntie Phelyan, but she stayed completely still as if she were only a doll.
“Auntie Phelyan,” said Minnarose. But there was no reply.
“Auntie Phelyan, Mamala has lost her stuffing. You have to help”
Auntie Phelyan spoke without moving at all. Not even her lips moved. Her voice sounded even more hollow and gloomy than it did in waking.
“I shall never leave this cabinet and your mother will never find her stuffing. I learned long ago that once a doll loses her stuffing it can never be replaced.”
“That’s just nonsense,” said Minnarose, addressing her aunt with the impatience she had often felt in waking life but never dared to express. “As long as you are alive, you can make things better.”
“You are young and foolish,” said the slow, slow, gloomy voice. “You still hope. But you have come to the place where hope is dead.”
“No, ma’am, no,” said Minnarose, “this is my dream, and you have come to the place where hope is alive.” Minnarose was surprised to hear herself say that, but that is what she said. She heard it quite distinctly.
She ran back to her blonde mother. “Mamala, Mamala, you must not lie at the foot of the stairway. We must climb up.”
“I am sorry, honey. I am sorry to let you down. I can’t climb.”
“Yes, you can, Mamala, yes you can.” And Minnarose started to climb the stairs, and her blonde mother came with her, and several steps behind came Auntie Phelyan, looking like a puppet whose strings had been cut, but who still somehow managed to move.
“I won’t go near that stairway,” declared Auntie Phelyan.
“But you are already climbing it, dear,” said Mamala.
“This is foolishness,” said Auntie Phelyan. “Folly and idleness. Why would I be climbing the stairway?”
“I think Minnarose is dreaming us.”
“Nonsense, nonsense, my dreams are mine.” But Mamala and Minnarose kept climbing the stairs, and Auntie Phelyan kept following them, a few treads behind.
“It is only a dream” she muttered gloomily. “And it is my dream. I am dreaming that I am climbing the stairs, though Dea alone knows why.”
Up and up they climbed. This was not like the stairway in the house. It went on and on and up and up. High into the clouds it went. And as they looked upwards there seemed to be no end – the stairway stretched on and on, and up and up, until it vanished into the distance.
“How much longer do we have to keep up this foolishness?” asked Auntie Phelyan, forgetting that she had said it was her dream.
“Until we get there, I think,” said Minnarose – and suddenly smiled to herself as she thought that was the sort of answer grown-ups give to children.
“There isn’t any ‘there’,” said Auntie Phelyan grumpily. “Look for yourself. It goes on up and up. It never ends.”
“Everything ends,” said Minnarose. It sounded wise, and again she was surprised to hear herself say it. But of course it was only sense – everything must end.
“She is your child, Silla-cheri,” said Auntie Phelyan. “Can’t you teach her some sense?”
“I don’t know what is sense and what isn’t,” said Mamala.
And so they climbed, on and on and up and up, until they came to an island in the sky, all covered in snow. It was not the end of the stairway – the stairway still went on and up, but Minnarose said: “I think we may be there now,” and stepped off the stairway onto the crisp, crunchy snow.
“This is getting more foolish by the minute,” declared Auntie Phelyan. “Now instead of climbing a stairway to nowhere we are wandering in the snow with no idea where we are or where we are going. Like as not we’ll die of exposure.”
“Are you cold, dear?” asked Mamala. “I am not cold at all.”
“Hmm, not cold exactly,” admitted Auntie Phelyan. “I suppose I am tucked up in bed really.”
“Then there is no need to worry, is there, dear?”
“Being led around by a child who has no idea what she is doing. Yes, I think there is every reason to worry.”
Minnarose only heard the gentle mutter of grown-up conversation behind her. She knew she was in the right place. She just had to keep going. They walked on in silence for a way, and it almost seemed as if Auntie Phelyan’s skepticism might be justified. The snow stretched on and on. There were forests too, but they seemed wild and uninhabited.
Then suddenly, they all heard the thunder of hoofs and the jingling of harness.
“What is that?” cried Mamala.
“Demons, no doubt,” said Auntie Phelyan. “‘The demon ever waits’,” she quoted the old saying. “But it didn’t have to wait for us. The child led us right to it.”
The thunder of hoofs became louder, and most remarkably, they came not from the ground, but from the sky. The sky itself became brighter and suddenly they could all see a great chariot, shining like a mighty star, drawn by huge white horses. Auntie Phelyan looked terrified, and to tell the truth Minnarose was a little scared too. She believed this was the Star Fairy and her Silver Chariot, but somehow it all looked bigger and brighter and more awe-inspiring than the merry little Star Fairies she had seen in books and Nativity lights.
“Star-fairies,” said Auntie Phelyan scornfully. “This is the only place you’ll ever find star-fairies. In dreams.”
The mighty chariot swooped down like a comet and came to rest in front of the little party as gently as a snowflake. The Star Fairy was standing, holding her silver reins. She was taller than a mortal maid and had about her an atmosphere of majesty and sanctity such as Minnarose had only felt in the most solemn moments at a Temple service.
“Rayati, my children,” she said.
Each of the three made deep reverence.
“Had you something to say to me, honored Phelyan?” asked the Star Fairy.
“No, ma’am, nothing,” said Auntie Phelyan. For suddenly everything she had thought and felt seemed as nothing before this majestic figure. All the cynical and unhappy thoughts that had obsessed her these recent years seemed cheap and meaningless as she now looked at something that lay much closer to the heart of Being, something that belonged to the great swelling depths of existence, rather than to the trivial ripples of its surface.
“That is good. For I have something to say to you. To all of you. Nativity is a time of giving and receiving. It is a time of the greatest gift of all, that is reflected in all the little gifts. And every little gift has all the wonder of the Great Gift wrapped in it. But you three wanderers come to me in a time not of fullness but of loss.
“Honored Silla, you have lost your dear brunette and your heart feels empty, does it not?”
“Yes, ma’am, it does,” breathed Mamala very humbly.
“And honored Minnarose, you have lost your Brunette Mother,”
Minnarose just nodded. She dared not say anything lest she burst into tears.
“And honored Phelyan, you lost your dear blonde three years ago, and now have lost your beloved sister, and all the world seems dark to you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Auntie Phelyan in a voice so small and quiet that it came to one more as a thought than as a sound.
“But your loved ones have lived good lives and await you in the Jeweled Garden. Pray do not disturb their joy with your unhappiness, but rejoice with them. It is hard, I know, for those who are left behind, and hard to know why those are called who are called, and yet all things are ordained as they should be.”
Each of the three had heard such talk before, but suddenly these things that all maids know took on a depth that they had scarcely known, and their hearts became light with a sense of quiet contentment.
“The ways have been stopped to you,” continued the great being of light with a voice as gentle as that of a mother, “because your hearts have been stopped. Time is now to let all things flow again. Pray join me in my silver chariot.”
Silently, as if in a dream, the three souls stepped into the great chariot, which seemed to be made of pure light. Instantly the silence was broken by the sound of hoofs, the neigh of horses and a high cry from the chariot’s mistress of “Away!”
The chariot rose above the snow and then swooped down, down through dizzying space until it landed, gently as a snowflake, in the whitened Cavalry Square.
The Star Fairy turned from her reins to face her passengers, who each seemed no more than a child before the great being of light.
“You enjoyed the ride, little ones?” she asked. And the three nodded enthusiastically. And Minnarose noted that in a curious way her Mother and her Aunt were children – but in the nicest way – and again they were not children, they were themselves. And there was nothing confusing about it at all.
“And now for your presents,” said the Star Fairy. “Still a little early for presents, I know, but you need these ones early.” And she gave each of them what seemed at first like a little cloud, each into her outstretched little hands.
And the cloud cleared as if the present was being unwrapped. And each of them was holding a golden key.
“Thank you for unlocking your hearts for me,” said the Star Fairy. “Now all the rest will open.”
And without being told or even quite willing it, they stepped out of the chariot. “Rayati, dear hearts,” said the Star Fairy.
“Rayati,” said the three in unison.
“Away!” shouted the Star Fairy and in a flurry of hoofbeats and of neighing, and a shower of countless tiny star-like lights that made a shining trail, the great silver chariot rose into the air like a returning comet.
They looked at each other. They looked at the golden keys in their hands. And Minnarose looked at the ceiling of her bedroom in the first rosy rays of the rising sun.
Minnarose felt so wide awake that it was hard to believe she had been asleep and dreaming. She climbed out of bed and went into the nursery which adjoined her little sleeping-chamber. Amalah-chei was not up yet. She looked through the French doors. A light fall of tiny snowflakes was dusting over the snow that already lay on the ground and the branches, as if the snow were powdering its face for the new morning.
Minnarose could not resist turning the key in the French doors and slipping out, in her robe and slippers, into the lovely snow. She walked down the little garden path, and noticed that there were already footprints in the fresh morning snow. Who had walked down the path so early? Past the big bushes she went, and round the little trees, to the tiny pond at the end of the garden, and for a moment she thought she saw someone dancing on the ice.
But she must have been wrong, for when she blinked, it was Auntie Phelyan, who had seen her and was walking toward her.
“Isn’t the snow lovely?” Minnarose wanted to say, but she didn’t. She knew Auntie Phelyan would make some grumpy reply about its being cold and damp and dangerous and all right for children who have nothing to do but play in it, but perfectly disastrous for grown ups who have to live in Reality, or something like that. Anyway she was probably in enough trouble for being out in her robe and slippers. So she just said: “Rayati, Auntie,” very quietly and respectfully.
“Rayati, rayati, little Minnarose,” replied Auntie Phelyan. “Isn’t the snow lovely?”
“Oh yes, it is lovely!” agreed MInnarose. “But I didn’t think you would like it much, Auntie.”
“Not like it, child? How could one not like it? It is beautiful.”
“Oh, it is, isn’t it? And Auntie – May I ask you something?”
“Certainly, little snow-maiden. Anything you like.”
“You weren’t – you weren’t just dancing on the pond, were you?”
“Me?” cried Auntie Phelyan “Dancing on the pond? How can you suggest such a thing, child?”
“Ohh well, I just …”
“You just? You just? Well, can you just keep a secret?”
“I was dancing on the pond. Foolish, I know, but how can one forbear? It is so beautiful, and how many opportunities does one have to dance on a pond? Most of the year only the fairies can do it. So when we can, why don’t we?
“Oh, I know what you are thinking: suppose the ice were to break? Well, think of this. If I were to fall in the pond, who could spank me for it? No one, that is who. That is the glory of being grown up, you know.”
Minnarose looked an her Aunt in astonishment. This little speech was completely unlike her. Actually it was unlike just about any grown-up she had ever met, but it was especially unlike Auntie Phelyan.
“But really you shouldn’t be out here in your robe and slippers, you know. Look, your slippers are soaked already. Come along. We’ll get you into your proper shoes and a nice warm coat, and then we can have some fun.”
‘Fun’ was such an curious word to come out of Auntie Phelyan. Minnarose was just a shade surprised that she even knew it. But she found herself bundled back into the nursery, and Auntie Phelyan tried to help her on with her outdoor clothes. She had no idea how to dress a child and Minnarose could have managed far better by herself. But there was no stopping Auntie Phelyan.
Suddenly the door opened and in came Mamala.
“Rose-baby,” said Mamala, “have you by any chance seen Auntie – oh Phelyan-chei, there you are. What are you doing here?”
“I was simply. . .”
“Never mind, dear – you must hear this. It is too important to wait. You remember how you said Altastre was feckless?”
“Yes, yes, I remember and I apologize. It was a very improper thing to say about my sister and your brunette. Do you forgive me?”
“Of course I forgive you. In a way you seemed almost to have been right. But – well, you weren’t.”
“No, no. I wasn’t right. It was quite wrong of me.”
“But Phelyan-chei, that isn’t what I mean. We thought all the money was gone on what you called ‘wild, reckless schemes’ and it is true that the Trans-Aegis Railroad Company was a complete disaster.”
“It was a wonderful idea, linking North Vintesse with the wildlands of Arcadia. But, well, its time had not come.”
“But you see I had a dream. About going up a long, long stairway to see . . .”
“Yes, I know. I had the same dream. It was Minnarose’s dream, I think.”
“Really – did you really both have it too? And did you really meet – her?”
Minnarose was jumping up and down. “Yes, yes, Mamala, we really did!”
“And did you all get a gift from her – a golden key?”
“Yes!” shouted Minnarose.
“Yes, dear, I did,” said Auntie Phelyan.
“Well, after that I awoke. But then I fell asleep again. I dreamed that I went to my room, and in my room was a chest – like a treasure chest in a story. And I knew it had always been there but I didn’t have the key to it. So I tried the gold key and it opened. And it was full of beautiful treasure. And then I woke up. I didn’t wake up naturally, though. It was a call on my bedside tellie that woke me. And I thought its ringing bell was the jingle of treasure for a moment. But actually it was that nice and terribly dignified Miss Bassing from Bartlett and Bassing.
“Well, she was awfully apologetic. She told me I had been entirely misinformed about…” – Mamala stopped and looked for a moment as if she were about to cry – “about my late wife’s affairs. It seems only a portion of her money was in that railroad company. Most of it, it is true. But some was in the Shin-Felestri mining expedition. . .”
“Shin-Felestri,” breathed Auntie Phelyan, “you mean . . .”
“Yes dear, the place where they had that phenomenal gold-strike you read to me about from the Morning Letter last week.”
“The biggest gold-strike in a hundred and sixteen years .”
“Yes that is right. So I asked Miss Bassing if that meant I didn’t have to send Sura-chei away and if I could have Tilly back, and she said ‘you can hire all the staff in every agency in Meltondene if you care to’. Wasn’t that funny of her? Why would I want to do that?”
“Do you mean Amalah-chei is staying, Mamala?” asked Minnarose.
“Yes darling. You can go tell her if you like.”
So Minnarose rushed to Amalah-chei’s room and hammered on the door and got the biggest hug in a hundred and sixteen years.
And I suppose you are wondering about the other two gold keys. Well, Auntie Phelyan used hers to unlock a golden heart and Minnarose used hers to unlock a golden cupboard.
Inside the cupboard was a Wish Doll. That was all in dream, of course, but when the Star Fairy came (in the usual way) that Nativity, Minnarose had her Wish Doll.
She did not wish for her brunette mother to return as she would have done before, for she remembered what the Star Fairy had told them. Perhaps that was why she could have a Wish Doll now. What she did wish was that all her family would stay together and be happy for always, and Amalah-chei would never go away, and Auntie Phelyan would always be as jolly as she was that wonderful morning in the snow.
And Minnarose, of course, got all her wishes, because a Wish Doll never fails. And Auntie Phelyan was very jolly indeed, for you see, she believed the golden heart was that of Minnarose’s dear Mamala, but in fact it was her own. She looked after Mamala and was very kind to her and they were all very happy together, though it was not till next Nativity that Auntie Phelyan became Minnarose’s new brunette mommy.