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The yggyssey how iggy wo.., p.11
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       The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, p.11

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  "It must be the Valley of the Shlerm!" Seamus said.

  "Also known as the Shlermental," Neddie said.

  "It looks like the Middle Ages or something," I said.

  "Look! The houses have thatched roofs, and there are carts pulled by some kind of animals," Big Audrey said.

  "What are they, oxen?" Seamus asked.

  "No. Oxen have horns and are sort of like cows," I said. "These look more like extremely large..."

  "Skunks!" Big Audrey said.

  We stuck our noses into the air and sniffed.

  "Yep. Skunks."

  "Skunks?"

  "Skunks. Woodpussies, polecats, zorillos, mephitidae, stinkbadgers, Pepé Le Pews, funksquirters."

  "I never knew they got so big."

  "Well, it's a sweet little valley—in certain respects."

  "Shall we go down?"

  "Why not? A smell can't kill you."

  "Let's hope."

  CHAPTER 56

  The Valley of the Shlerm

  It wasn't that bad. It wasn't as though a skunk had lost its temper and let fly in the vicinity. There was just that slight tinge of skunkiness that hangs in the air when a skunk is around—in this case, a lot of skunks, and enormous ones. We were getting used to it.

  "Come, children, gather round. I have grapes and cheese, and fresh spring water. Come, and listen to the old stories, and partake." It was an old guy sitting on a rock by the side of the road. He was wearing a beat-up straw hat, and a kind of smock that came down to his knees. He had cloth leggings crisscrossed with rope, and on his feet there were rags that looked to be stuffed with straw.

  "Come, children, don't be shy. You are footsore and hungry travelers. Come and refresh yourselves." The old guy spread a clean cloth on the ground and out of a big leathern bag took cheese, bunches of purple grapes, a round loaf of bread that was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, and a stoneware bottle full of ice-cold spring water. The cheese was great, not like any cheese I had ever tasted, and it went perfectly with the grapes. We took long swigs from the stone bottle while the old guy looked on, beaming.

  "I am Grivnek," he said. We told him our names. "Eat, children, eat and drink all you want."

  When we had eaten and drunk all we wanted, Grivnek closed his eyes and began to speak.

  "In the days before Uncle came, there was a king in the Shlermental. In those days our people were prosperous and happy. Our maidens were the fairest, with arms like bolognas and legs like bottles of beer. Our swains all had golden hair and were tall and stupid.

  "And heroes! We had heroes! In those days, our brave men were not afraid to venture into the dark forest of Shlerm, the dark forest where the ravens live. They were not afraid to visit the quivering bog.

  "Nafnek was the name of our king, and he was wise and just. The people were happy and content. They tended their garlic fields, raised beautiful skunks, danced and sang. But Nafnek came to die and was succeeded by his son, Foofnik, who was foolish and cruel. He taxed and punished the people, played Ping-Pong on the Sabbath, and mocked our ancient customs. The people were unhappy, and hated Foofnik.

  "Then Uncle came, a stranger from far away. He spoke of throwing off the yoke of Foofnik's cruelty. He spoke of democracy, and the people rose up against Foofnik and drove him away. Then, for a time, happiness returned to the Shlermental. The people governed themselves, we sent our garlic to Old New Hackensack and New Yapyap City, and received gold, with which we bought Hershey bars, and nice shoes, and other fine things.

  "Uncle led us, and also led the great cities, and all the country around. His administration was fair and efficient. The roads were maintained, the drinking water was clean, the price of garlic was controlled, children were taught to read and write, and there was ice cream in the summer.

  "Then there was a catastrophe. A huge storm struck us. Trees were uprooted, houses fell down, and fields were under water. The garlic crop was lost, the skunks ran wild in the forest, and the roads could not be traveled. The people of the Shlermental were in despair. What could be done? All seemed lost. But Uncle came to our rescue, or so he thought. From somewhere he found helpers, a group of powerful people who were skilled in magic. By magical means they repaired the damage and restored everything to the way it had been.

  "These people were witches, and not nice ones. They were bad witches. After they had completed their work, they stayed. They stayed with Uncle as his council of helpers. Uncle thought they were helping him, but really they had taken the power. Instead of a democracy, we had a witchocracy. Conditions are not as bad as in Foofnik's day, but we are not free."

  "Wow, that is some story," we said. "What are you—a wise man, a storyteller, the village elder?"

  "No. None of those things. I am the village idiot."

  CHAPTER 57

  We Discover More

  "Well, my lunch break is over," Grivnek said. "Back to work now."

  He stuffed the picnic cloth back into his leathern bag and went off, wandering from one side of the road to the other, saying things like "Hoo! Haa! Humma humma! Goo! Arr! Bibble bibble. Hee hee hee," and picking up twigs and leaves and tossing them into the air over his head.

  "Nice fellow," Neddie said.

  "And a very competent idiot," Seamus said. "See how he walks normally for a couple of steps, and then shuffles. That's acting." Of course, Seamus's father was an actor, so he had an eye for things like that.

  We walked along the road, Grivnek capering a few yards before us. After a while he set out across a field, falling down every now and then. We continued on our way.

  "Ooo! Look at the dreamboat!" Big Audrey whispered to me. There was a boy tending a garlic patch. He had thick, low-set eyebrows, pale, luminous skin, thick black hair cropped short, sensitive fat little hands, a tiny, perfect nose, and a sweet round face.

  "He is cute," I whispered back.

  "He's looking at us," Big Audrey whispered.

  "Strangers!" the boy said. "Maidens! Swains! Travelers! You see before you the most unhappy Viknik! Life is hollow and empty! Mock me if you wish! Throw clods of earth at me! I do not care! Nothing could make me more wretched and miserable."

  "Ooh, he's tragic," Big Audrey said.

  I felt a strange familiarity with this kid.

  "So, your name is Viknik," Seamus said.

  "Yes."

  "And you're depressed about something?"

  "Yes."

  "May we approach?"

  "Yes. Don't tread on the garlic."

  We introduced ourselves to Viknik and followed him to the shade of a tree. He sat on the ground and continued looking sad.

  "So, what has you so bummed out?" Neddie asked Viknik.

  "Everything. Life, circumstances, fate."

  "But specifically?"

  "My people, the whole Valley of the Shlerm, are under the yoke of oppression. The puppet Uncle, misguided and controlled by his council of helpers, who are all witches, and not the nice kind, squeezes the very life out of everyone. We are impoverished. We are not allowed to follow our ancient traditions. We are enslaved. You know about this?"

  "We met Grivnek. He told us something about it."

  "Grivnek! He is an idiot!" Viknik said.

  "Well, yes."

  "I don't suppose he told you that the entire valley is under an evil spell."

  "No, he didn't actually mention that."

  "Well, it is. Those helpers of Uncle's have put an enchantment on us. Every night we sit in our little houses, enchanted. It's extremely boring."

  "And this is why you're sad. Perfectly understandable."

  "No! That is not why I am sad! I am sad because the men of the Shlermental are shameful cowards. We could throw off the oppression of the council of helpers, but none of them has the nerve."

  "You mean by violent revolution? Against witches? We've recently had an experience with a witch, and it was a close call getting away," Seamus said. "I can see why people would hesitate to take on a whole counci
l of them, especially if they are not the nice kind."

  "It would not need a violent revolution. It would take an act of courage by as few as three—but in the whole valley there is only one willing to do it. Can you believe that?"

  "That one is you, isn't it?" I asked.

  "Yes, cat-whiskered maiden," Viknik said. "I would go this minute and face every danger to retrieve the sacred amulet of which our legends tell."

  "There's a sacred amulet?" Neddie asked.

  "There is. And if we were in possession of it, the power of the helpers would melt away. But to get it would require entering the dark forest, seeking permission from the king of the ravens who live there, and then going through the quivering bog, which no one in living memory has survived. Also, it would be necessary to get a corn muffin to give the king of the ravens, but that part is fairly simple."

  "So, you get a corn muffin, go to the dark forest, find the king of the ravens, give him the corn muffin, get permission to continue, go through the quivering bog, whatever that is..."

  "It's very bad," Viknik said.

  "...and get hold of the sacred amulet, is that all?"

  "More or less. If the sacred amulet was in possession of the people, the evil witches would lose their powers."

  "How do you know it would work?" Big Audrey asked.

  "Do I question your beliefs?" Viknik asked.

  CHAPTER 58

  What?

  "Tell me about this sacred amulet," Neddie said.

  "It is very ancient. No one knows where it comes from. It is believed that the person who has it can defeat the forces of evil."

  "This sounds oddly familiar," Seamus said. "Tell us more."

  "Well, long ago, Shmoonik, a great wizard, hid it in the quivering bog. Only the ravens know where to find it. He put it there so it would be safe, and if there was ever the need, if the people of the valley were in deep trouble, some heroes could go and find it. It is believed that no one person can do this—it would take at least three. And as I have told you, I am the only one willing to try."

  "What does the amulet look like?" Neddie asked.

  "It is a small carved turtle," Viknik said.

  "Did you say a turtle?" Neddie asked.

  "A turtle." Neddie and Seamus looked at each other.

  "Carved turtle made out of...?"

  "Stone."

  "Really."

  "Yes, why?"

  "Prepare yourself," Neddie said. "I may have a big surprise for you."

  Neddie dug in his pocket and then pulled out a closed fist. He held his fist out to Viknik, fingers up, then opened the fingers, revealing his little stone turtle and said, "Voilà!"

  "Voilà?" Viknik said.

  "Look at that!" Neddie said.

  "At that? What is it?"

  "It's the sacred turtle!" Neddie said, smiling triumphantly.

  "No, it's not."

  "Is too!"

  "Do you mock Viknik?" Viknik said. "That is not the sacred turtle."

  "I assure you, it is," Neddie said. "Big as life and twice as magical."

  "Look," Viknik said. "Give a born Shlermentaler credit for knowing what the sacred turtle looks like. First of all, that is not even a turtle."

  "It isn't?"

  "Of course not! A turtle is fuzzy and cute, with long hind legs and long ears."

  "Then what do you call this, a bunny?"

  "If you knew what it was, why did you try to tell me it was a turtle?" Viknik asked.

  "Well, where we come from, this is what we call a turtle, and it is sacred and very magical," Neddie mumbled, looking crestfallen.

  "You are a foreigner, so I will not insult you by going on about how you don't know a turtle from a bunny," Viknik said. "But your ... object will not be of any help. If you want to help me, come with me to the dark forest."

  "Excellent idea!" Seamus said. "We will!"

  "You will?" Viknik asked.

  "We will?" we all asked.

  "Certainly," Seamus said. "It sounds like swashbuckling fun."

  His father's influence. Every now and then, Seamus feels the need to swashbuckle.

  "If you're serious," Viknik said, "I happen to have a corn muffin in my leathern bag."

  "Everybody here has a leathern bag," I whispered to Big Audrey.

  "And foot rags," Big Audrey whispered back. "They all have foot rags. I'm going to get some."

  "Are you both with me? We can start out right away," Viknik said.

  "Both? Don't you mean all four of us?" I asked Viknik.

  "Well, naturally the females will not be coming with us," Viknik said. "You girls can stay and guard the garlic patch, and feed the skunks."

  "He's not as cute as I thought," Big Audrey whispered to me.

  "Nothing doing, Garlic Boy," I said. "We all go or nobody goes. Take it or leave it."

  "It's irregular. It's against our ancient traditions," Viknik said.

  "Blow it out your leathern bag," I said. "That's our ancient Los Angeles tradition."

  "Well, if it is your custom," Viknik said. "But I warn you, there may be scary things."

  "Ha!" I said.

  "Ha ha!" Big Audrey said.

  CHAPTER 59

  The Dark Forest

  Viknik was not a good planner. If he had been, we would have waited until morning to start out for the dark forest. As it was, we arrived there a little before dark, and when it did get dark, we were already in it. There was a full moon, but only a little light made its way through the leaves. Now and then we came to a clearing, bathed in moonlight—but somehow those felt scarier than the thick trees. And we tripped on roots a lot, and stepped in holes.

  "This is ridiculous," Neddie said. "We should just settle somewhere and wait for it to get light. Viknik, what have you got that's edible in your leathern bag, besides the corn muffin?"

  "I have some garlic," Viknik said. "And a small fish."

  "It keeps getting better and better," Big Audrey said. We all snuggled down between the roots of a big tree and tried to fall asleep.

  "Maybe we can find some berries or something in the morning," Neddie said.

  "Anybody want some garlic?" Viknik said. "It's first-class garlic. Besides, it keeps vampires away, and werewolves."

  "There are vampires?"

  "There are werewolves?"

  "Sure," Viknik said. "Why do you think people are afraid to come here? See that dark shadow, sort of like a blob over there?"

  We all saw it.

  "Werewolf," Viknik said. The shadow moved a bit. "Pass some of that garlic over here," Seamus said.

  "I'll have some."

  "Yes, me too."

  "Save some for me."

  Trying to sleep in the dark forest was a joke. It was like rush hour. There were werewolves—we got a good look at some of them—and vampires wandering all around, making noise. There were huge black, fire-breathing horses crashing through the forest, various nameless shrieking creatures, and the well-known things that go bump in the night. Also, we were kept awake by floating lights, strange, evil-feeling cold breezes that were like a hand stroking your face, and little skittering things, like crabs, that made a kind of horrible gibbering sound.

  "It gets better in the daytime, right?" I asked Viknik.

  "Never having been here before, I can't say," Viknik said. "But I imagine it does ... somewhat."

  "Who besides me is sorry he came?" I asked.

  "Not me," Seamus Finn said. "This is great fun."

  "Shut up, Seamus," we all said.

  CHAPTER 60

  Dawn in the Forest

  I never thought I could fall asleep while being haunted and surrounded by noisy ghosts, monsters, and werewolves, but I found myself waking up—we all did—when the dawn filtered down through the leaves. I have to say, I felt pretty good. "I'm so hungry," I said, stretching.

  Everybody else was hungry too. We found a little stream that was clean and cold, and drank, washed, and managed to get ourselves tidied up, but we didn'
t see anything that looked edible.

  It was hard not to think about the corn muffin in Viknik's leathern bag—but, of course, we needed that to give to the king of the ravens. We were about to split Viknik's little fish five ways—it was not an appealing little fish, even to very hungry people—when we smelled something marvelous.

  "What is that?" Seamus asked.

  "Smells like doughnuts," Neddie said. We pushed our noses up in the air and sniffed deeply.

  "Smells better than doughnuts," Big Audrey said. We were walking, almost without knowing it, in the direction of the delicious smell. In a clearing, we found a little guy of remarkable appearance frying up crullers or fritters of some sort in a big skillet, over a charcoal fire. The little guy was maybe four feet high, and it seemed like a third of that was his high-domed bald head. He had weird, large, round dark eyes that gave him a surprised or frightened expression—and there were three flashing lights in his midsection! The lights appeared to be part of him, not something he was wearing.

  "You want to buy sfingi?" the little guy asked us.

  "Sfingi? Those are sfingi?"

  "Yes. Good. You want to buy?"

  This presented a problem.

  "What do you suppose they use for money around here?" I asked.

  "Let's try some American coins and see if he'll accept them," Seamus said. He pulled a handful of change out of his pocket and offered it to the little guy. The little guy studied the coins, selected a nickel, sliced open five sfingi, slathered them with what turned out to be butter and honey, dusted them with powdered sugar, wrapped each in a large leaf, and handed them to us.

  "Oh my goodness!" Neddie said. "I am never going to be able to go back to the Rolling Doughnut when we get home."

  The rest of us said things like "Mmmph!" and "Yum!"

  "This is the best thing I have ever tasted in my life," Viknik said. "And I have had the Shlermentaler fig-and-garlic pastry."

 
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