Under the Shadow of Oz

This story is paired with Chapter 5 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.


Over the river, and through the woods, hill and dale recede, not a horizon, but a memory you see, an event horizon. Over the river and through the woods I brought my child, past the old monuments, and the colors changed. Dearest family, the demon assures me this letter will reach you in our town, though I suppose I cannot know whether the words you end up reading will be the ones I wrote.

Well, you know me, I am the woodcutter. You buy your logs from me; I do good work. I work through the winter, through the spring, through the summer, taking only a short break in fall before chopping again.

Chop, chop, chop. It’s comforting you know, it keeps a body strong, it keeps idle thoughts at bay. Idle thoughts: where we live more than most a serious danger. Idle thoughts, like idle hands, waiting for meaning, for knowledge.

“Do you see that, daughter?” I asked her.

“Yes, father.”

Once as a boy I traveled to the capital and saw the museum there, the great masters and their works. I love our town and its forests. There are so many colors here in these latitudes, so many shades. The masters knew this too and they captured its spirit on canvas.

Past the event horizon, past the gate, if it is a gate, at any rate a boundary, the greens darkened. White and grey slipped into them, making them not more bland but richer, the trees glowed secretly. The moss seemed to float with light under our feet.

We lived so close to the edge.

The demon, I call him that only because I cannot pronounce his name, he greeted me on the far side of the wooden bridge, his eyes somehow kind and sad.

“Travelers,” he said, his body shifting as a mist in a wind.

And I could not speak.

“We’re travelers,” said my daughter, and her voice was ill, it was no longer her voice, though it came from her mouth. I felt the urge to cut off her head and knew this to be wisdom.

“Yes,” said the demon. “You should pay for this toll then. You have a coin?”

“A coin, Da,” my daughter said.

Sluggishly I reached into my sabretache and found a copper there, which I tossed into the body of the demon, who swallowed it like smoke.

“I love copper,” said the demon, its eyes no longer sad but distant, watching some horizon I could not see.

I felt an urge to bow before it then, but instead I clutched my daughter’s hand again, and walked on.

We are bound for the City of Glass, the City of Glass that comes to us in dream. I am only a simple woodcutter. But I know men are challenged in this life; I know that the gods of my ancestors are far gone. I know I live. I hold my daughter’s hand and walk, and watch the dancing of the sky.

*   *   *

How long and how long? Over river and dale? Just as blood makes the best fertilizer, just as the word “territory” itself comes from a root “thirsty,” so we men and women have long made our nests and homes at the edge, there at the edge where the tidal slough may fill our fields with wheat, our minds with sleep. If one is torn away, to be forgotten, somewhere in the night, we know there is compensation. Just as the galaxy spins about a bowl of death, so our lives are sweetened by the mouth that does not close one mile to the south.

*   *   *

We met the Tin Man some time later, let us say it was only an hour, though I felt much older. He beat my daughter swiftly and she appeared to have become a kind of laughing rubber doll. I wanted her dead. I know she is still my daughter. I went and lit my pipe until the Tin Man was done.

After, she danced under the seven moons of this place and the Tin Man only stared at his feet and cried. I went to him and looked at his head, there were many spinning devices and lights there, and his eyes were black holes.

“Tin Man,” I said. “I have heard of you. Are you going to the City of Glass?”

“Yes,” he said.

“You beat my daughter,” I said. “You must pay me.” I do not know where these words came from, but they were the words I spoke.

“I have no coin,” said the man.

“I could cut off your arm,” I said, hefting my ax. “You would not like that.”

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “I am lonely.”

“This is a lonely place,” I said. “Well, let us be on about it. The City may move further away if we are not swift.”

“Yes,” said the Tin Man, and trudged along with us. Some time, later, when my daughter had grown considerably, the Tin Man slew the Lion, and we ate its honey flesh, giving us courage. I put its fur about myself, in the way of my ancestors. The Tin Man did not eat, but only stared ahead into the distance. My daughter smiled with lust, chewing the tasty meat.

*   *   *

The City is strange, strange even in this place. I do not like its promises; often it comes into my mind filling me with empty happiness and I feel my face smile. I slap myself then and it often goes away, but sometimes it does not, and then I have to sit by the roadside and vomit and chant the names of gods who are gone, far gone, until I can stand again.

Its spires are green, green and white, and it hovers in the sky above us, like a tree in a storm.

“Why do you go to the City?” I asked the Tin Man.

“I need a heart,” said the Tin Man.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I know why!” shouted my daughter, and the Tin Man tensed, glaring at her. I held on tighter to my axe. I would not let him beat her again, however much I might want him to.

“You want blood to be in you!” she shouted.

“Blood,” said the Tin Man, as though he did not know what that was.

And then we saw the Scare Crow.

*   *   *

You who may read this; I am sorry. What else can I say? I am sorry. I soared above, though it is forbidden. I knew the man, though it gave little pleasure at first. His broom was a kind of life in that dusk-place, and his smile was still human. Still I dream of the Scare Crow and his many laughs, and the places we saw in that time in the sky.

He had a broom, you see, a broom that was his arm and which became a sword, which became a mighty craft that he stole me onto, and we took into the air.

Crows are hated for their intelligence but scarecrows befriend them. The Scary Man is the name of scarecrows in the Low Countries, and his shape marks Man’s long war vs. Bird. The Scare Crow must remain neutral in this war, never taking a side, proffering shelter for the Crow even as he provides nominal protection for the wheat of Man.

His chaff brushed my cheek as we held each other on the broom and I saw the laughing smiles of the demons of the City of Glass hover to my right but did not care. I kissed him.

Later we embraced and laughed in some living wood that took our blood, tree arms cutting though my flesh and into the head of the Scarecrow, seeking some small food. I wanted to scream but could not, and I knew that I had lost enough of myself that perhaps I could live here now, here in these shadowlands.

I will always love the Scare Crow, no matter what he did later.

*   *   *

We follow now the Yellow Way of Appius, round hill and over stream, the witches sailing along our path overhead; the days seem faster now. Appius, of the Clan of Claudia, a clan well known even amongst you, my townsfolk. The way is stone, cut into the earth, and very old.

Unfortunately the Scare Crow and the Tin Man did not get along, and my daughter did not like that I sometimes held the Scare Crow’s hand.

“Soon I’ll have my thinking brain!” shouted the Scare Crow.

“I’ll cut it out of you,” muttered the Tin Man.

*   *   *

The City of Glass bears the Etruscan Swastika, as befits a city on the way of Appius, and its golden arms sway above us on the liquid walls as we approach the City’s gate. But before the gate is the sacred pomerium, defining the legal boundary of the city (all this the Demon told me later).

“I’ll go mad!” shouted the Scare Crow and I held his hand tighter.

“Home is here, Da,” said my daughter, gazing at the walls above, and I shook my head.

“No, girl, not home. The Castle of the Wizard.”

The Tin Man knelt to examine the pomerium, the holy ditch.. There were many lights within it, not unlike the lights of algae shining behind a night ship at sea. The Tin Man reached in, and I saw fire lace up his arm and fill his head, and he grinned, in pain.

“Step across,” he hissed, and we did.

The gatekeepers, there were two of them, watched us approach. My daughter cleaned some of the hot soot from Tin Man’s head. He smiled, murderously.

“I am Toto,” announced the first gatekeeper.

“And I am Dorothy,” announced the second.

*   *   *

You of my town who have travelled, you have seen how conversation is the eternal entrance key, the magic of speech, more even than the eyes which lie, it is the words we need when wandering far. It is no different at home, the way into a woman’s hart, or a man’s. The way into the whirl of our precarious position there on the edge, and this I must tell you: you must speak of this only in sleep, if you dream it, it is real but cannot hurt you but if you hear my voice during the day it is best to jump off the cliff over Briary and sigh a good death sigh because if you do not our town will be swept past the event horizon into Oz forever and we will be all changed. All changed, my townspeople, in ways you will not like.

I do not know how long we conversed with Toto and Dorothy there at the City’s gates, it is like determining the exact duration of a long sleep, or trying to count sexual intercourse by the second. I was older and younger by the time we had finished; I had acquired additional names. One of them I am allowed to give you: Janus. I have others too, though I do not want them.

Towards the end of the dialogue that was many years, Dorothy said, smoking the last of my pipe:

“You think you came out of necessity but it was only for pleasure, Woodcutter. Even as I came for pleasure, to sell myself for the Wizard. But you forget that it is not your pleasure but his that matters here, and you have begun to exhaust his patience.”

And Toto said:

“Yap! Yap Yap!”

Through that conversation, the Tin Man did something regarding Toto’s speech; it was a language he understood, but he never appeared to like what Toto said. I think now that what we heard from Toto were not words but death throes ― insofar as both Tin Man and Toto are machines, they have an uneasy relationship with death, never sure when they will be revived.

“Yap! Yip! Yapyap!”

“The Wizard tells me you have been granted entrance,” said Dorothy, and I wanted to tear out my own eyes. Get something you have wanted for decades, and it might make you mad too.

But I held on to my daughter’s hand, and Scare Crow’s, and we stepped within the City, Tin Man following after a moment. When I turned back to look, it was as though the Gate had never been, nor its guardians. Only the pomerium was still visible, glowing faintly in the earth.

*   *   *

“What will I do once I have my brain, Woodcutter?” the Scare Crow asked me.

“You’ll be wise, then,” I said.

“Yes.”

“You will not be wise,” said my daughter, whom I have grown to hate in so many ways. “You will be stupider.”

“Perhaps,” said Scare Crow.

“Where is the Wizard?” asked Tin Man.

“Up above, up above!” my daughter shouted.

And so we climbed the stairs.

*   *   *

I was able to think on that long climb. If Oz has been of any benefit to me, I suppose it is that: thinking is less dangerous here than it is at home, in fact it is a form of self-defense. Why, I thought, did we nest so close to Oz, and what exactly were the benefits it gave? Is it only for our strong sleep that we built our town so close to the ancient gate? For our fertile fields? I think we made a mistake, but it is not an easy judgment. I, who will never return, can only return you this letter. If you receive it, go south to Tarchna instead ― they will have you there, and Oz cannot reach.

At the sixth level, there were curtains.

A gnome approached, small and red and smiling.

“Gentle sirs, you have come for an audience?”

“Yes!” said my daughter.

And the gnome laughed.

“You’ve come for a show?” it cackled.

“No,” said Scare Crow.

“You’ve come for a Wink at the Pink? Ha ha ha!”

I aimed a kick at the gnome but it danced away.

“Careful, sir! The Wizard is near! He watches your every step, but he is sleepy! You mustn’t wake him!”

“What good is a sleeping wizard?” muttered Tin Man, and my daughter shushed him.

The Tin Man seized the gnome then, squeezing the red body in one huge metal hand, holding it close to his angry face.

“What good is a sleeping wizard?” he demanded.

“He sleeps for all of you!” whined the little gnome. “Let me go!”

The Tin Man threw the gnome then, against the wall, and it made a small sound. It cried in pain and crawled away, slowly. The Tin Man ignored it.

“We should kill this Wizard,” announced Tin Man.

“And who will you get your heart from then? Don’t you want the blood in you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

The Scare Crow was already at the curtain, pulling it aside.

Behind it lay the Wizard, lying in his bed. His eyes were open but he did not move.

*   *   *

Over the river and through the woods, away from this life. Strutting and fretting, we are his puppets. Or so I now believe.

*   *   *

“I am the Wizard,” the man muttered. “I am the Wizard.”

“Wizard!” shouted my daughter, middle-aged now, and she leapt into the bed and straddled the man, pressing her sagging breasts into his face.

From behind the bed’s headboard emerged the Demon.

“Hello Woodcuttter,” it said.

“Hello.”

“You’ve made it to the Wizard’s bedside.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you’ve found love again.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And hate.”

“Yes.”

“What do you want from the Wizard, Woodcutter?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you be the Wizard?”

“No.”

“What do you want?”

“I want gifts for my friends. We have all suffered. A heart for the Tin Man, a brain for Scare Crow. Slippers and a new dress for my daughter. In return, I give you this.”

I threw the lion’s coat onto the bed then and the Wizard jerked awake, his eyes focused. He pushed my daughter off him, who pouted then, squirming by his side.

“You have killed the Lion,” he said.

“Yes,” said the Tin Man.

“I was sleeping,” said the Wizard.

“He has been asleep since before your world began,” said the Demon.

“I had such a dream,” said the Wizard. “I was a boy, in Africa, holding a machine gun. I had a woman in my tent, and she was crying. I could not escape, but they took me into the north and cut me and I was a man then. And the woman bore me a son, a son I named Baum.”

“Enough of your dreams, Wizard,” hissed the Demon, “Give these visitors what they want. This man brings you a nice Lion coat. You can suck on it next time you sleep.”

“Who are you?” asked the Wizard, turning at last to look at the Demon.

“My name is Frank,” said the Demon. “And I rule here.”

“I am ruler here, aren’t I?” said the Wizard.

“Yes, yes you are!” whined my daughter.

“No, you are not,” said the Demon.

“I don’t care who rules here,” I said. “But we were promised gifts. I would have them now.”

“Yes. Yes, all right,” said the Demon. “Follow me.”

My daughter dragged the Wizard from his bed, who could barely walk, and the Scare Crow helped him with his steps as we followed the Demon into the antechamber behind the Wizard’s bedroom.

“I have journeyed so far, you see, that I grow bored,” the Demon said. “I was Red, long ago, before this planet was formed, and I dwelt in the schemes of colors that shaped the electromagnetic spectrum that now allows your pitiful eyes to see. I wish you could see me as I was then…”

“Enough chatter, Demon. Give my friend his brain now.”

“A brain, yes. A brain. But what kind of brain? A mammal’s, or a serpent’s? Perhaps an angel’s? A monkey’s?”

“You decide, you decide,” said the Scare Crow to me with wide eyes. He was afraid.

“Give him a monkey brain,” I said.

“Good choice,” said the Demon, grinning. “And a monkey’s heart for Tin Man! Ha ha ha! And a full wardrobe in red for your beautiful daughter.”

“No! Just one dress and one pair of slippers!”

“Oh, very well. Ta Da!”

A flash of light and we were transformed.

*   *   *

I am a scholar in the City now; not what I would have expected. I realize that part of the strength of our town lay in that unspoken doom we all knew we drank with each cup of water and ate with each mouthful of bread. With doom so close, the sex was better, the wine more intoxicating, the moon more alive. We dreamt of the Final End. But apocalypse is not an end; it is revelation, it is the curtain that opens at the beginning, so that we may twitch and burst and dance for you, so that you may laugh and scream for us.

The City of Glass is a thousand temples, you see, my daughter of course found Astarte’s right away; all women have a whore within them waiting. I myself visit that temple on occasion and its holy sisters, though Scare Crow contents me most days.

You of my town, bearers of the bold swastika, you of hope, I have seen so much that I must not tell you. If sleep is food, you must starve yourselves. I have found, in waking, what I never knew alive.


Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in Los Angeles, even when he doesn’t.