"Quail Bell" The children's story that inspired the creation of this magazine. by Christine Stoddard
Illustrated by Amy Cheong.
Fantomina could recite the legend of the quail bell since she was nearly small enough to fit into the glorified faerie creation herself. She had learned it from her great-great-great aunt, a shriveled, toothless woman with one eye and a single mauve scarf to cover her bald head. Ever since then, Fantomina guarded the details of the story, save for bargaining purposes and special occasions. It was the most coveted yarn in all the land, one even the most talented bards failed to steal from the lucky lass.
One early morning, in the soft glows of nascent sunlight, Fantomina was bent over a water pump with her girl cousin, Autumn. The day's chores had only begun, yet Fantomina was already exhausted. Autumn, meanwhile, carelessly flounced to and fro in her pale petticoats. Fantomina wiped the sweat gushing from her brow, moved the next pail into place, and primed the pump again. As had become habitual within the last several months, Autumn begged Fantomina to tell her the story of the quail bell. She twirled her pigtails and kissed Fantomina's salty cheeks in between whines instead of holding one of the wooden pails as her cousin asked. Fantomina finally slammed down the pail she was holding, splashing a small ocean's worth of water all over the ground, Autumn, and herself. So strong was her movement that her bun even fell loose. She resembled a mad woman just recently escaped from her prison.
"Fine," Fantomina snarled, "I'll tell the tale, but only if you help me fill up the rest of these pails, feed the lambs, snap the old hen's neck, and boil the potatoes all this week."
Autumn blinked and looked at Fantomina for a moment. "It's worth it," the little one finally uttered, "It's worth it if you tell the story for real--you know, the way it's meant to be told."
Fantomina spat on the soil. She and her cousin crooked forward to watch the saliva soak into the crevices formed by cracked earth. Once the final bubble of spittle had vanished, Fantomina stared at Autumn and whispered, "I'll tell you, but you must keep it a secret for always."
"I'm serious, Autumn. If you tell a soul even the vaguest outlines of the story, the quail bell will haunt you for the rest of your days. Understand?"
Autumn nodded, her sweet face stretched into the gravest expression.
"I'll begin then," Fantomina muttered and wiped her hands on her skirt.
Autumn plopped down, fixing her gaze on the peasant farm girl standing before her. Fantomina coughed as she swatted at a gnat hungry for perspiration. Once Fantomina killed the gnat, squishing it between her fingers, she sat down across from Autumn and started:
"Once upon a time, there was a faerie kingdom in an abandoned ant hill. The ant hill looked just like any other ant hill, except that it hummed in the breeze and glowed green in the night. A bankrupt queen ruled over the pitiable kingdom of fewer than one-hundred faeries, tiny considering that faeries almost always live in groups of seven-hundred and seven or more. Once the kingdom had been grand, with thousands of faeries flying in its name, and a spacious palace of scallop shells and raven feathers. But the queen's vanity destroyed everything her predecessors had worked so hard to establish. She not only had to wear the most splendid of gowns and jewelry, she demanded that the entire kingdom attend a banquet every morning after her servants dressed her to admire her unique beauty. The queen fluttered in silks, rose petals, baby's breath tiaras, velvets, snail shell earrings, pearls, crushed oyster shell rings, and whatever other precious materials her tailor's minions could procure from the forest and sea. She would not be content until every single member of the kingdom told her how ravishing she looked, how she was surely the most gorgeous creature who had ever existed in all of faerie history. Only after she had basked in the last compliment would she dismiss everyone to continue their daily duties."
"What was the queen's name?" Autumn piped up.
"Dorinda, but what does that matter? She has long turned to dust."
"I thought faeries never died."
"Well, this one did."
Autumn gasped and snapped the twig she was holding. "You're lying," she hissed.
"Do you want to hear the rest of this or not?"
Autumn pouted, twig bits still in hand. "You know I want to hear it."
"Then don't interrupt me again. We have a lot to do today. I can't spend all day explaining 'Quail Bell' to you." Fantomina swept her forehead with the inside of her wrist and then wiped her nose, the stench of mud and grass roots creeping into her nostrils.
"So, anyway, one day Queen Dorinda's treasurer announced that she could no longer afford to hold her frivolous banquets. At first, the queen was in denial, but an instant later she pulled a solution out of the air. She decided to raise taxes. None of the faeries could afford to pay them, so that plan fizzled as quickly as an alchemist's rejected potion. Next, Queen Dorinda ordered that the kingdom develop new industries to compete with foreign faeries. The next day, Queen Dorinda's citizens picked up new trades and offered services to the other kingdoms, but none of the foreign faeries were interested.
Then Queen Dorinda figured the real problem was that her kingdom was too big; if she banished half of the citizens, her treasurer calculated that she could still afford her new garments and lavish feasts. So that is exactly what Queen Dorinda did. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong half to banish. She wanted only the most elegant faeries in her court and her kingdom, even if they knew nothing about herding the dragonflies or milking the mice. Consequently, Queen Dorinda cast off the faeries who once kept the kingdom running. Thus, the kingdom dove further into poverty. Even when the queen banished half of the remaining population, her treasurer warned her that the only way she could indulge in her love for fashion and still call herself queen of an actual kingdom and not just a few stray faeries, was if she re-located. That meant selling her precious palace of scallop shells and raven feathers. Queen Dorinda barely hesitated, though, when she realized the choice essentially meant choosing a life of pretty dresses or no pretty dresses.
Queen Dorinda sold the palace to a gnome colony and took her puny citizens to an abandoned ant hill. They grumbled and griped, but, not wishing to be banished, followed her command. A couple of braver faeries, ones sure that they could survive on their own, escaped not long after moving into the old ant hill, but the vast majority of them endured. Queen Dorinda did whatever she could to preserve her luxury of a new gown everyday and a banquet to brandish it--even if it meant depriving the rest of the kingdom. The kingdom became so poor that the only meal any of the faeries ate all day was at the dress banquet. Most of them had to donate their scant clothes at one time or another for the royal tailor to incorporate into one of the queen's latest gowns. Before long, not a single tablecloth or curtain existed in all the ant hill.
Other faerie kingdoms began to talk. Queen Dorinda's vanity was the easy subject of gossip and the way she treated her citizens became infamous. The queen hardly minded her self-centered reputation, however. She was much more concerned about the other subject of gossip: her kingdom's poverty. No other faerie kingdom inhabited an ant hill because no other faerie queen was so selfish.
So Queen Dorinda sought to change her kingdom's raggedy image. For months she conferred with the wisest faeries in her kingdom. They discussed what could make them appear far richer than they were in reality. Everything they imagined, though, required spending money they did not have. That is, until Queen Dorinda's brother-in-law suggested stealing from the forest.
None of the faeries knew what the man meant at first, only that such a task would demand stealth. He elaborated until all of the council gathered this: in order for the kingdom to appear wealthy in the minds of faeries far and wide, they would have to possess something that Mother Nature had never bestowed upon faeries before. Everything they listed--from deer hooves to salamander tails to owl beaks--seemed to have come into faerie possession at one point or another. They couldn't think up anything good, pure, and natural that had not. Then one of the members of the council turned to Queen Dorinda and asked her to list some of the gown decorations she desired. Knowing her fine and particular taste, he figured she was bound to name something so rare that it had yet to enter faerie hands. It was when Queen Dorinda mentioned a quail's head plumage that the council fell silent.
No faerie had ever before touched, let alone owned, a quail's head feathers.
Queen Dorinda sent off all of her best hunters to stalk a quail and bring back its distinctive plumage. Rain fell. Snow came. They scouted for a fortnight before they returned no richer than they had been before.
Furious, Queen Dorinda, sent them out again, this time with no food. She even placed a poisonous curse upon all the foods of the forest, so none of the hunters could eat there. The hunters became so desperately hungry that they thought of nothing but capturing a quail. At last, four days later, they did. They brought back the whole bird. Queen Dorinda eagerly snatched its head plumage and threw minnow bones at the hunters as a reward. But just as the hunters started gnawing on the bones, the queen's messenger soared into the court, lamenting that the neighboring faerie kingdom had also caught a quail and put its head feathers on display in their royal palace.
The council assured Queen Dorinda that the head plumage was a prize nonetheless, but she was not satisfied. She knew her kingdom was still a laughingstock and that it would take a true treasure to transform its poor reputation. The queen demanded that the kingdom distinguish the feathers in some way. Initially, they all deemed her insane. Then one citizen, a skilled blacksmith, asked if he could take the responsibility of altering the feathers. Nobody knew of his plans, but, since they lacked ideas of their own, entrusted the feathers with him.
A week later, the blacksmith emerged from his branch of the ant hill, wielding an object so bright that nobody could look upon it. Nor could they hear what he said upon presenting the object because it emitted such a stunning, high-pitched ringing. When the blacksmith waved his wand, suddenly the object dimmed and grew quiet. At first glance, the object appeared to be an ordinary bell with a few fanciful engravings. As the faeries inspected the bell, however, they realized how wrong their first assumption was.
Inside of the bell, the quail's head plumage rocked back and forth instead of a regular metal pendulum. When one shook the bell to the right, it sang. When one shook the bell to the left, it wept.
Queen Dorinda regarded the bell in awe. She swiftly knighted the blacksmith, ordered her men to display the quail bell in her court, and then took to her throne to admire her new treasure. Nothing else like it existed anywhere, yet it still qualified as good, pure, and natural. No evil, no black magic had been involved in its creation. For that, Queen Dorinda was pleased. Soon all the other faerie kingdoms came to visit. They, too, marveled at the quail bell. Shortly thereafter, the quail bell became famous. Foreign faeries no longer regarded Queen Dorinda's kingdom as cruel and impoverished. Rather, they saw it as a delightful place to live, one where all its citizens woke up to the cheery chimes of the quail bell.
All went well until Queen Dorinda decided to shake the bell. Nearly all of her kingdom had tickled the plumage to and fro, but, for months, the queen considered herself above such a novelty. Eventually, she was tempted and seized the bell. But when she shook it, she exploded into dust.
None of the faeries had ever witnessed the death of one of their kind. For a second, they were all too shocked to speak. But after that second passed, the kingdom returned to their regular duties, as if the queen had never died at all. The bell remained, untarnished, in the deepest portion of the ant hill, the place where Queen Dorinda once slept. Rumor has it that the bell remains there today, though no mortal could tell you where the ant hill lies. Only the most courageous, persistent, and cleverest of souls have a chance of discovering it. That soul may very well be you."
Fantomina stared directly at Autumn, who stood up and brushed off her skirt. The girl sniffed, saying, "That was a good story, I suppose, but I don't understand why the quail bell's so special."
Fantomina stood up immediately after Autumn to tower over her. "It's obvious," she responded, "it killed a faerie."
"I don't want to kill a faerie."
"That's not its only purpose."
Autumn cocked her head. "What else could anybody do with it?"
"Anything upon ringing it, yes."
"So if I wanted...a giant slice of chocolate truffle cake, I could--"
"Ring the bell and have it."
"And if I wanted to escape all my chores forever and ever, I could ring the bell and have it?"
Autumn hopped up and clapped her hands, but scrunched up her forehead a second later. "If that's for real, Fantomina, how come you haven't gotten the bell yet? You could have a palace made of scallop shells and raven feathers or a new gown for everyday, just like that queen."
"I am self-sufficient, Autumn. That is all the happiness I need."
Autumn tsked and popped her little fists on her hips. "How can you be happy doing all this hard work everyday? You're crazy, Fantomina! I won't be filling these dumb pails at your age." She pushed one over with all her might and laughed as the water dug a new river into the earth. Fantomina stood in place, maintaining composure, as mud curdled around her feet.
Autumn giggled and pointed at Fantomina. Then she darted over the hill, shouting, "I know the story of the quail bell! I know the story of the quail bell!"
Her arms flapped with her every stride and her pigtails flew in the air beneath the blue-gray sky. She smiled brightly. Dimples twinkled in the edges of her cheeks. The ringing in her ears was still too faint to notice.