It was a heavy wooden door, not like the glass doors shops have these days. 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.