From The Garden of the Plynck, a 1920 novel by Karle Wilson Baker:
Has any mortal but Sara ever seen Avrillia? Certainly there never was another fairy so wan and wild and beautiful. When Sara caught sight of her she was leaning over the marble balustrade, looking down into Nothing, and one hand was still stretched out as if it had just let something fall. She seemed to be still watching its descent. Her body, as she leaned, was like a reed, and her hair was pale-gold and cloudy. But all that was nothing beside Avrillia’s eyes.
For she turned around after a while and saw Sara, and smiled at her without surprise, though she looked absent-minded and wistful.
“It didn’t stick,” she said.
“What didn’t?” asked Sara. Her words may not sound very polite; but if you could have heard the awe and wonder in her little voice you would have pardoned her.
“The poem,” Avrillia said. What was it her voice was like? Sheep-bells? Sheep-bells, that was it. Sheep-bells across an English down — at twilight! Sara had never seen more than three sheep in her life; and those three didn’t wear bells; and she had never heard of a down. And yet, Avrillia’s voice sounded to Sara exactly as I have said.
Moreover, it drew Sara softly to her side. Her dress smelled like isthagaria, and it was very soft to touch. For Sara touched it as confidingly as she would her own mother’s. At that Avrillia seemed to remember her. Sara saw at once that Avrillia never remembered anybody very long at a time. She was kind, and her smile was entrancingly sweet; but her mind always seemed to be on something else. Probably on her poetry, Sara decided.
Now, however, she remembered Sara, and asked, “Would you like to look over?”
“What’s down there?” Sara could not help asking.
“Nothing. Would you like to see it?”
Sara drew nearer the balustrade, full of awe, and uncertain whether she wished to look or not. But presently curiosity got the better of her, and she leaned over the balustrade and looked down into Nothing. It was very gray.
Do you throw your poems down there?” she asked of Avrillia, in inexpressible wonder.
“Of course,” said Avrillia. “I write them on rose-leaves, you know –”
“Oh, yes!” breathed Sara. She still thought that she had never heard of anything that sounded lovelier than poems writen on rose-leaves.
“Petals, I mean, of course,” continued Avrillia, “all colors, but especially blue. And then I drop them over, and some day one of them may stick on the bottom –”
“But there isn’t any bottom,” said Sara, lifting eyes like black pansies for wonder.
“No, there’s no real bottom,” conceded Avrillia patiently, “but there’s an imaginary bottom. One might stick on that, you know. And then, with that to build to, if I drop them in very fast, I may be able to fill it up –”
“But there aren’t any sides to it, either!” objected Sara, even more wonderingly.
Avrillia betrayed a faint exasperation (it showed a little around the edges, like a green petticoat under a black dress). “Oh, these literal people!” she said, half to herself. Then she continued, still more patiently, “Isn’t it just as easy to imagine sides as a bottom? Well, as I was saying, if I write them fast enought to fill it up — I mean if one should stick, of course — somebody a hundred years from now may come along and notice one of my poems; and then I shall be Immortal.” And at that a lovely smile crossed Avrillia’s face.
Karle Wilson Baker spent just about all of her adult life in Texas, writing poetry, essays and novels, and I wonder if she didn’t occasionally feel like Avrillia, dropped her writing into the big Nothing and wondering if any of it would ever be noticed. Of course, some of her rose-petals landed in places like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and Yale Review, and her 1925 children’s book on Texas history was adopted as a school text, so her writing life did not lack for recognition and reward. She died in 1960 after a career that earned her the title “First Lady of Texas Letters.”
I don’t recall how old I was when I first walked into the Plynck’s garden, but the experience stayed with me in a half-remembered way until a friend told me about Theodore Sturgeon, a writer who also remembered the book from his childhood and constantly lamented that it was out of print. He devoted at least two articles to his search for the book, and while he didn’t remember the author’s name very well (he had it as Karl Baker) he did have a great memory for some of the better passages, including the one above. Now that the book has lapsed into the public domain, you can download it for free through Project Gutenberg or buy a copy that includes Florence Minard’s illustrations, which really do belong with the story.
Shortly after college I found a very good copy of the 1920 Yale University Press hardcover, which may be the oldest book I own. I was happy to see the story held up very well, though I had forgotten about one of the characters — a chocolate man named Yassuh who rolls his eyes and opens a mouth colored “the lovely violent red of certain jelly-beans.” Baker was a woman ahead of her time in many ways, but when it came to minstrel comedy she was very much in steo with the white herd. Like the spear-shaking African who mars the splendor of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Yassuh doesn’t spoil the story for me, but he does root Sara’s journey to meet the Plynck, unlike Alice’s encounters in Wonderland, in a very specific period.
It’s a charming book, as whimsical and formal as Lewis Carroll and as pun-crazy as Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a better-known icon of my childhood. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who groan and mime shooting off guns whenever they hear a good pun, and those who laugh and whack the ball back over the net with a pun of their own. Karle Baker was a member of the first camp in good standing, I’m happy to say.
There is a surprising toughness underlying the charm: The first chapter has a startling moment in which the heroine Sara, briefly enraged by a condescending remark from her mother, imagines doing something that Alice never would have dreamed even of considering. But the moment passes, and Sara — who has been complaining about her lack of a playmate — decides to go inside her own head. There she finds the Plynck, a sort of peacock with a woman’s face, who sites in the branches of a tree and gazes down into a decorative pond where her reflection, called Echo, carries on a pretty active life of her own. There is Schlorge the Dimple-Smith, the poetic fairy Avrillia, and the Strained Relations, who pass back and forth through a picket fence, getting fainter each time.
A recent post from Joe inspired me to take the book down for a look, and while I wouldn’t put Sara in the same class as Alice as a literary heroine, she rules a patch of literature that’s worth visiting. Now that I’ve printed out the Gutenberg version, I’ll try it out on Dances With Mermaids and she if she, like her dad, learns to stop and read the rose-petals wherever they might fall.