Grandmother promised thick slices of watermelon, if only the three girls could shuck the corn before dinner time. They worked as fast as their tiny hands allowed, gripping great soft handfuls of silk and squealing at the wet-boot sound of the leaves tearing away.
When they ran back to Grandmother, raising the large bowl of squeaky-clean ears for her to see, they were rewarded with the melon they had earned: a slice each, as large as half their head. Carrie, Etta, and Fern clutched their bounty and fled to the creek to consume it.
“Come back in time for dinner!” Grandmother called.
As they often did, the girls lined up, tallest to shortest, on a large flat boulder overlooking the trickling creek. It was the height of summer, so the sun overhead had not yet received word that evening was riding in and it should relinquish its heady grip on the world.
Etta took a massive bite and swirled the sweetness around in her mouth. She kept her eyes half-closed as she savored the cloying taste, like the heat clinging to her skin and dress.
Carrie munched noisily, her teeth grinding against the harder flesh near the rind.
Fern raised her head and glared at her youngest sister. “Carrie, ewww. Chew with your mouth closed, like a proper lady.”
Carrie grinned back at the oldest sister, intentionally jamming watermelon flash between her teeth so she looked like a predator with a mouthful of its prey. “Nuh-uh. Don’t have to. I’m not a lady yet.”
“Hmph. You only have two more years you get to say that, Carrie Teresa. Then Ma will ship you off to Ms. Almyra too.” Fern crossed her legs pointedly, fluffing her skirts over her legs with her empty hand.
The sounds were so loud they startled Fern and Carrie into silence.
Etta pursed her lips and looked guilty. After a second, she made a popping sound and said, “That was me. I was spittin’ a seed.”
Fern made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat. “Hmph! How very unladylike, Etta Blossom!”
“I don’t like bein’ a lady,” Etta said with a shrug. “I don’t. It’s no fun. How come the boys get to have all the fun, eh?”
Fern raised a hand to count off the number of ways Etta had broken the proper rules when Carrie let out a strangled cry.
She pointed with a trembling finger to a rock down in the creek, normally covered by the rushing water but exposed by the thirsty heat. Its dark grey surface was darkened in places by where water had splashed up onto the rock and not yet dried. And where Carrie pointed, tucked into a hard right angle where the stone had long ago sheered off, was a tiny castle.
Parapets soared, walls rose, flags fluttered. Everything was in tiny perfect miniature, as if it belonged to the expensive toy collections they saw the Bacon children receive from the catalog every Christmas.
And there were creatures moving on its surface.
Tiny guards patrolling the walls. A tiny queen and her procession strutting across the tiny courtyard. A tiny mounted guard, struggling to keep their tiny mounts in line.
The three sisters stared in awe.
“Where did it come from?” Carrie finally asked in a loud whisper.
“Can they hear us, do you think?” Etta said, the breath rushing out of her.
“It must have always been there,” Fern said, ever the practical one. She handed her half-eaten watermelon to Carrie and scooted down the rock so she could get a closer look.
Fern whirled around, narrowly missing taking the next seed to her cheek.
“ETTA BLOSSOM!” she roared.
Etta bit her upper lip and grinned.
“I just wanted to see if—” Then her eyes widened as she stared at something beyond Fern’s shoulder.
Carrie shrieked. “There’s two of ‘em!”
Fern turned slowly, expecting the worst—a wolf on the riverbank, or strange hunters lurking in the bushes. Instead, where her sisters were staring, on rocks protruding from the low-running river, were two more miniature buildings.
The tiny general store bustled with activity, tiny wagons rolling past and tiny shoppers greeting one another. And the tiny fort bristled with tiny soldiers and their tiny weapons.
Slowly, Fern’s face transformed. Her expression slid from perplexed irritation to sly thoughtfulness.
“Etta,” she said carefully, “do you have any more seeds to spit?”
Under her upper lip, Etta’s tongue fished around and then swiftly retreated. She shook her head, her eyes bulging, and answered without opening her mouth. “Nuh-uh.”
“Do not lie, Etta.” Fern’s eyes narrowed. “It is not lady-like.”
Etta’s throat bobbed. Very slowly, she poked her tongue out of her mouth to reveal a small black dot on the tip of it.
Fern pointed at a broad, low, flat rock upstream from where the girls were sitting. “Go over there and spit your seed onto that.” She scrambled along the bank, heading towards the rock. “Go on, do it!”
Etta waited until Fern was standing just across the water from the rock, then drew in an exaggerated breath, pursed her lips, and blew with all of her might.
The seed arced through the thick summer air, almost in slow motion. Perhaps it sparkled, or perhaps it was just sunlight on moisture.
And here, too, a tiny building sprang up! It was a rounded tower with a conical roof and a tiny flag fluttering from the top. On the flag was emblazoned a ferocious dragon surrounded by purple flames. The door at the very bottom of the tower opened and a tiny man in a pointy hat emerged.
Fern gasped. “Ah, yes! This is perfect. Travelers will come from near and far to see such a wonder. We must gather them up and take them back to Grandmother. Perhaps she will sew us curtains, and Uncle Clyde will build us boxes for display… It will bring in a pretty penny…”
In a surprisingly unladylike move, Fern stepped down into the creek and waded across to the rock. She sat down beside the tiny tower and leaned in to have a closer look, her stockings wet to her knees. “Oh!” she said with pleasant surprise, “the resident of the tower is coming out to see me.”
And indeed, the tiny man with the pointy hat strode with purpose and confidence across the stone surface. Fern brought her face down to his level and extended her pinky finger as if it were a hand he could shake.
The man reached up, his tiny hand eclipsed by the sheer size of Fern’s finger, and touched her.
And she was gone.
Or, rather, she was diminished, in the blink of an eye, to the size of the tiny man. If she cried out when he grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her back to the tower, Carrie and Etta could not hear her, her voice was too small.
The remaining sisters stared at the place where their eldest sibling had vanished, then turned to stare at each other with open mouths.
“She’s gone!” Carrie finally managed to choke out. “She’s tiny and she’s gone!”
“We gotta save her,” Etta said decisively, folding her arms over her chest so hard that the breath huffed out of her. “We gotta go get her. Before Grandmother calls us for dinner.”
Carrie put a hand over her mouth and made a half-choking, half-crying sound. Frowning, Etta furiously ate the rest of her watermelon slice and said, with her mouth full, “We should go to the store.”
“Mrs. Jones won’t know what to do! We can’t just leave Fern here!”
“That store,” Etta mumbled, watermelon juice dribbling from the corners of her mouth, and pointed at the tiny general store.
“Oh,” Carrie said, realizing the implications of her sister’s suggestion. She took in a long, deep breath and closed her eyes. The lightest breeze, warm and sleepy, blew flyaway hairs out of their sweaty faces.
Carrie opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said, “we’ll rescue her.”
The sensation of miniaturization was unlike anything Etta or Carrie had ever experienced: a shrinking of their very bones and blood, a quickening of their pulses, a shortening of their breaths.
They stood hand in hand outside the general store, which was now, in their perspectives, the proper size.
“I’ll go in first,” Carrie said bravely. With her free hand, she wiped the sweat and dust off her brow, then broke into a halting run that did not stop until she was up the three steps and through the big, squeaky door. Etta followed behind without a word.
Inside, their eyes adjusted to the cool darkness and the shelves packed with dusty supplies. Behind the counter sat a short, brown-haired, tan-faced woman, who raised an eyebrow at them.
“Y’all are strangers here, aren’t ya?” she stated rather than asked. “What can I do ya for?”
Carrie shot her sister a look, and when Etta didn’t volunteer, said timidly, “We need some supplies. For rescuing our sister, see.”
“Rescuin’ a sister, eh?” The woman leaned over the counter, setting down her copy of Jane Eyre, and sized the girls up. “What kind of trouble is she in, then?”
Etta pointed silently. Carrie quickly explained, “She’s at the tower, a couple of rocks over. I—I think a man kidnapped her.”
The store woman’s expression changed to something unreadable. She slid her book off the counter into her lap and sank back into her chair. “Hmm. Well. That’ll be the wizard. Not exactly someone I’d trifle with, but… a sister’s a sister, I s’pose. Take a look around, see what you need. I have a feelin’ you didn’t come here with your pockets lined with money, though, eh?”
“I don’t—my dress doesn’t have any pockets,” Carrie said in a tiny voice.
Without looking up from the book, the woman made a dismissive motion with her hand. “Mama didn’t raise no uncharitable daughter,” she muttered, then proceeded to ignore the girls entirely.
So Carrie and Etta outfitted themselves with what seemed practical from the shelves in the store: a hunting knife for Carrie, a slingshot for Etta, new outfits with buckskin pants and embroidered riding boots to exchange for their summer dresses. They were discussing how they might navigate the raging creek between the rocks when the store woman emerged from her book with an exaggerated yawn.
“I don’t reckon y’all will be able to control a boat upriver, with the strength of the current. How about we take a look at the stables, see if ya can’t bond with one of the horses?”
The woman led them out back, where the general store gave way to the sweet, musky scent of horses and their business. When they laid eyes on the big dappled gray mare, both sisters made a mad dash for her stall and petted her soft muzzle, rewarded by her sweet breath and gentle but powerful nudges.
So the store woman helped them outfit the mare with a saddle and bridle, then hoisted both sisters into the saddle, Carrie in the front and Etta clinging to her from behind.
“Have fun stormin’ the tower,” the store woman said, then slapped the mare’s hindquarters. The horse snorted in surprised and broke into a trot, shoes throwing sparks against the stone.
The summer sun seemed to have gained strength, beating down on horse and riders as they trekked across the seemingly endless boulder. Carrie nudged the mare in the withers and the horse complied with a burst of speed that took them up a steep incline, up to where the edge of the rock stood a formidable distance above the gurgling water. Etta pointed silently, and Carrie let the mare have her head so they could pick their way down to where the rock was dark and slick.
For a split second, the horse hesitated, tipped forward so that Carrie nearly tumbled over her broad neck. But then she seemed to find her feet and leapt with a clatter, the sisters clinging to her as she hit the water.
It was cold and it was fast, and they were almost swept away several times. But the mare forged bravely, the immeasurable distance between them and the wizard’s rock closing foot by foot—or maybe inch by inch.
When the mare dragged herself up the stony embankment, mane and tail dripping, Carrie slid off and reached up for Etta’s hand. The youngest sister slid off into Carrie’s arms, and as one they looked over their shoulders. The sun was fast setting behind them, promising Grandmother’s curiosity and then fiery anger if the sisters did not return by the time it grew dark.
Neither girl spoke, but Carrie grabbed the mare’s reins and the trio scrambled up the rock, sometimes sliding, sometimes boosting each other.
Etta was first over the hard edge of stone, pulling herself up with both hands. Nearly an Etta-length below, Carrie stood holding the reins, craning her head back to try to see where her little sister would inevitably peek over and offer her a hand.
But Etta did not, so Carrie lashed the reins around her middle and made the climb herself. She was hosting herself over the edge, clucking to the mare, when she realized something was terribly wrong.
When Carrie scrambled to her feet and spun to face the wizard’s tower, she saw a horrible sight: Etta, her long hair caught up in the wizard’s long fingers, and the man with a horrible leer on his face.
“One, two, and now three! How very fairy tale. How very convenient.” He threw his head back and cackled, like a grandfather whose mind has gone from age and drink. “And you are sisters, are you not? This is exactly what the witch foretold. ‘When summertime comes, and the giants loom, will arrive three sisters, the enemy to entomb.’ “ With his other gnarled hand, the wizard pointed to the deepening sky. “And look, yonder! The midsummer sun sets. I do not see any sign of the giants, but then, I vanquished one myself! Ha-ha! Ha-ha!”
And with his same hand, the wizard gestured behind him, to the small lump of braids and dress and ropes that was Fern.
Now Carrie was small enough to hear Fern’s pitiful wails. She clapped both hands over her mouth. With only her eyes visible, she glared fury at the wizard.
The wizard smirked back. “Oh, what spirit, what a feisty lass! You will surely be the most worthy sacrifice. Your older sister, she was hardly a catch. This one has been silent since I caught her. But you… you will cry the tears that the demons like so very much.”
“You let my sisters go! Both of them, right now!” Carrie shrieked, then covered her mouth again, terrified of the volume of her own rage.
The wizard’s eyes lit up with evil delight. “Ohh, no, I rather think not! It is not every day that such a legend comes true.” His gaze slid past Carrie to take in the mare. “Ah, and I see you have brought me a fine steed as well. How thoughtful.”
Slowly, Carrie untied the reins from around her waist and let them fall. The mare tossed her head and nickered, a sound that brought Fern’s teary face up.
“Etta,” Carrie said, her voice much calmer now, though still high and thick with tears.
Etta blinked twice.
Trying to disguise her movements, Carrie pretended that she needed to scratch her back, fumbling for the hunting knife stashed in the back of her buckskin pants. In one fluid movement, she pulled the blade free of its sheath and charged the wizard.
When she had cleared half the distance between her and the man, Etta dropped and became dead weight. The wizard growled and instinctively untangled his fingers from Etta’s hair. Carrie watched Etta roll away until she was far enough to clamber onto all fours, then push onto her feet, and by then Carrie had reached the wizard.
She slashed at him with the knife, but her attack was clumsy and untrained, so he dodged it easily. But that had not been Carrie’s purpose. A triumphant cry tore from her throat as she lunged, raising her heavy boot, and brought it down hard on the wizard’s bare foot.
The wizard roared and hopped up and down furiously, alternating between grabbing at his foot with a hand and kicking it out behind him as if to reinstate blood flow. Carrie recovered her balance, the knife still held in her grasp, and spun around, ready to attack again.
But Etta spoke for the first time since Fern had miniaturized: “CARRIE! RUN!”
And there was such desperation yet triumph in her little sister’s voice that Carrie obeyed. She turned and pelted towards Fern, the breath ragged in her lungs, fear and achievement vying to claim the tightness in her chest.
When she reached her older sister, Carrie dropped her legs out from under her and skidded to a halt on her butt and legs just past Fern, the hunting knife sliding out of her grasp. She rolled over onto her forearms in time to see Etta standing tall with her arms thrust behind her, a tiny figure defiant in the face of the wizard’s unhinged rage.
“Take this!” Etta screamed in a strange, muffled way, and then she pulled her head back and flung it forward with a great spitting sound.
Thppt! went the seed she had hidden under her tongue.
And where the wizard had been standing, now there was just a pretty cottage made of dark wood and pale trim.
Etta threw her arms in the air and jumped up and down. “Yeah! Yeah! I did it! He’s gone!”
A warm wind whistled over the top of the rock, and behind it was the first chill of falling night.
Carrie shivered, registering the pain from the rock-burn in her leg. She pushed to her feet just in time for Etta to careen into her, a ball of trembling excitement and energy.
“I did it I did it I did it!”
Carrie ran a hand through her little sister’s hair, smiling tiredly. “Yes, you did, Etta.”
“Cut me free immediately!” Fern said, trying to kick her heels but managing to slap the stone surface ineffectively. Carrie fetched the hunting knife and complied, and Fern got to her feet, rubbing her wrists as if nothing had happened. Etta flung her arms around Carrie’s middle, and Carrie held Etta close.
Fern’s face scrunched up in knots. “Etta Blossom, you spit seeds when I told you not to, and—”
Then her expression blossomed into something beatific and grateful.
“—and I am in your debt, my sweet little sister.”
Laughter escaped Etta first, but Carrie’s was quick on its heels, and then even Fern was giggling and finally guffawing, their joy ringing out against the rock and the stones of the tower until even the mare whinnied an answer. The sisters laughed and laughed until their sides hurt and they remembered that there were still watermelon slices on the bank and a Grandmother who would be wondering where they were.