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Age of Bronze

Spots in Oz
By Rachel Cosgrove Payes
Excerpt from Oz-story #3

In a far-off corner of the Winkie Country, two twins were celebrating their eighth birthday.

"Happy birthday, children," their mother said. "Herbertha the Herb Lady stopped by with a gift for each of you."

"What is it?" the twins yelled in unison.

"I don't know," their mother said, smiling. "She wrapped them in pretty paper covered with pictures of herb plants."

Tamlyn Faustina Ynez and her twin brother, Fridolf Umberto Georgio, were dying of curiosity. Their parents had named them for relatives, but no one called them such jaw-breaking names. The girl was known as Taffy, and at home her brother was Fudge, although his friends called him Freckles most of the time.

Fudge was a true redhead with hair that flopped down over his forehead, and snapping green eyes. He had a zillion big brown freckles all over his face, hence his other nick- name which he preferred to Fudge. He was the only boy his age who had such a luxuriant crop of freckles, and he was proud of them.

Taffy's eyes were a lovely blue and her delicate, fair skin had only a sprinkling of freckles across her cheekbones and nose. Unlike her brother, Taffy hated them. None of her girl friends at school had freckles on their faces. She'd tried to scrub hers off, but couldn't.

"The gift with the pretty yellow bow is yours, Taffy," her mother said, "and the one with the green bow is for Fudge."

The two little kids immediately unwrapped their gifts.

"Wow!" Fudge cried. "Neat! A chemistry set. What'd you get, Taffy?"

The little girl scowled. "A kit for making doll dresses. I hate sewing."

"Now Taffy, that's not nice," her mother scolded. "You always like dressing your Ozma doll. The Herb Lady was very kind, giving each of you a lovely gift. You must send her thank you notes."

Taffy's mouth turned down. "I'd rather have Fudge's present." She was so annoyed that her yellow braids with strawberry highlights quivered.

"Well, you can't have it," Fudge said rather smugly. "This is for boys! You're just a girl."

"Now children, that's quite enough squabbling," Mother told them. "Fudge, what's this nonsense of telling Taffy she's 'just' a girl? Remember, I once was a girl, but now I'm your Mommy." She didn't have to add, "And don't you forget it." Fudge got her message, his face chagrined.

Taffy made a face at him, but her mother saw her. "And making faces at Fudge isn't nice, Taffy. You have a lovely gift. You can make lots more dresses for your fashion Ozma. She'll be the best-dressed doll in the Winkie Country."

"Don't want to sew," the little girl grumbled. "The chemistry set's more fun."

"If you're nice to your brother, maybe he'll let you help with an experiment." She leafed through the instructions. "Here are directions to make a spot remover to use in the wash."

"I want to do that," Taffy wailed.

"It's my set," Fudge said. "I'll make the spot remover."

As their mother went to the kitchen where she was baking their birthday cake, Fudge stuck out his tongue at Taffy.

"I'm going to tell," his sister said, twisting importantly as she headed for the kitchen.

"Tattletale," Fudge hissed.

From the kitchen, their mother called, "Both of you hush! If you can't get along, I'll put both gifts away until you learn to behave."

This stopped the noisy quarrel, but Fudge had a smug look on his face and Taffy was furious.

"He'll be sorry," she promised herself, but she whispered it for fear her mother might overhear and make good her threats.

Taffy sidled over to where Fudge was reading the instructions for his set. When he saw what his sister was doing, he closed the booklet so she couldn't see.

"Go play with your own gift." He scowled at her.

Reluctantly Taffy picked up her sewing kit. Normally she'd love making a new dress for her doll, but Fudge's chemistry set was different and exciting. She'd fix him! She'd do something to spoil his experiment. He'd be sorry he didn't let her help!

In a few minutes, Fudge went to the kitchen door, directions in hand, and asked, "Mommy, what's soapwort?"

"It's an herb."

"Like the Herb Lady grows?"

"Well, certainly that kind of plant, Fudge. But I don't know if she has soapwort in her garden. I think it grows wild."

"Wild! Then how will I know what it looks like?"

Taffy came into the kitchen, a superior look on her face. "You look it up in our big Oz nature book, dummy," she said.

Fudge, who wasn't much for looking things up in books, just scowled at his twin. "You think you're so smart," he muttered.

"Mommy!" Taffy cried. "Fudge is being mean to me."

"Settle down, both of you," their mother said, tired of the squabbling. "One more word, and I'll not bake a birthday cake."

Faced with this dire prediction, the twins left the kitchen in a hurry. What was a birthday dinner without a cake?

Taffy went to the bookcase and took out the nature book. Plopping down on the floor on her stomach, she leafed through the big tome. Face smug, she told her brother, "Here's a picture of soapwort. It has pretty flowers on it."

"What color?" Fudge asked, his curiosity aroused.

"All Winkie flowers are yellow."

Fudge was annoyed that he'd not thought of this himself. "Then I guess I'll have to go looking for some."

"I can go with you," Taffy said eagerly.

Determined not to let her help with the experiment, Fudge said, "Oh, go make doll clothes like you're supposed to."

Taffy scowled. She'd fix Fudge. She'd do something to ruin his stupid spot remover. Fudge thought he was so smart. Well, he'd find out. Still leafing through the nature book, she saw, CAUTION! DO NOT USE THIS PLANT! THIS HERB IS WITCHWORT AND IS VERY DANGEROUS. It looked a bit like soapwort, but the deep yellow flowers had petals that curled in on themselves, as if to hide a secret.

If I can find some of this witchwort, I'll pick it and put it in his spot remover stew. Stupid Fudge won't even notice, Taffy thought. She smiled a truly wicked smile. Luckily her twin didn't see it, he was so busy learning how to make his Completely Safe Spot Remover -- No Home Should Be Without It.

The Leopard with the Changing Spots and the Hungry Tiger stood outside the tin castle that gleamed in the sunlight.

"The Tin Woodman's not home," grumbled the striped Tiger.

"What bad luck!" exclaimed Spots, little thirteens appearing on his tawny hide. "Shall we go back to the Emerald City?"

"Why, Spots? We'll be just as bored as we were before we left."

"What'll we do?" The thirteens changed to question marks.

"Let's just keep going. Maybe we'll walk into an exciting adventure."

"I know!" The question marks turned to exclamation points. "We take the first side road we come to. It's sure to lead us to some- thing interesting."

"Good idea, Spots! Shall we keep moving to the west?"

"Of course. Onward!" and little batons flashed across his back, in a Hup, Two, Three, Four beat which the two big animals used to coordinate their march toward excitement.

At the first little path that led off to the right, Spots cried, "To the right, march!" and right-turn arrows on his back pointed the way as they entered an evergreen thicket that screened the path ahead which turned and twisted.

"I wonder where this leads?" the Hungry Tiger asked.

"Who knows?" Spots replied. "That's what makes this an adventure. If we knew where it led, there'd be no surprise for us at the end of this path. Maybe it'll be dangerous."

"Who cares? We're strong and dangerous ourselves, Spots."

So the two big cats prowled along the path, looking for adventure. Soon they saw a little golden-haired girl ahead of them. The sun touched off red glints in her golden braids. She was picking a flower that grew beside the path.

"Hello, little girl," Spots called before they got too close to her, lest they startle her.

It didn't do any good. The child looked back over her shoulder, shrieked in terror, and screamed, "Oh! Oh! Oh! Don't eat me! Don't eat me! Mommy!" She raced away from them, clutching the yellow flowers in her hand. Her screams continued, getting farther and farther away.

"Now we've done it," the Hungry Tiger said ruefully. "I hate to scare little kids."

"Me, too," Spots agreed, little downcast faces appearing on his back and sides.

"Strange, though," said the Tiger. "I thought everyone in Oz knew about me at least. Maybe not as many know about you, the famous Leopard with the Changing Spots, as you've not been famous for as long as I have."

"We'll have to apologize to the child's parents for frightening her," said Spots.

"And maybe," said the Tiger, "her parents will invite us to have a nice, home-cooked meal."

So the two big cats slowed down, trying not to look too ferocious. Spots even had big smiley faces all over him.

Taffy, for it was she who'd been frightened by the big cats, was still screaming when she burst into her house. Her mother came rushing out of the kitchen.

"Taffy, what's wrong? Are you hurt?"

Fudge, who'd been setting up his experiment in the kitchen, came bouncing in to see what his sister was yelling about.

"Lock the door! Two huge, horrible wild animals are chasing me," the child sobbed, clutching her mother.

"What kind of wild animals?" her mother asked, voice urgent. Then she turned quickly to Fudge. "Fudge, please close the door and drop the bar in place."

The little boy did as his mother wanted, but he was nearly dying from curiosity. "How big were they?" he asked his sister.

"E-nor-mous! I'd make one bite for them."

"Did they chase you?" her mother wanted to know.

"I don't know," Taffy wailed, hiding her face in her mother's apron.

"Did they growl at you?" Fudge asked, an avid look on his face. "Try to leap at you? Snarl at you?"

"I -- I don't know," Taffy admitted. "When the spotted one spoke to me, I ran."

"Spotted? It sounds like a leopard," their mother said. "I've never heard of leopards in our woods."

"What did the other one look like?" Fudge asked. "If they try to get in, I'll hit them -- " he ran to the fireplace, " -- with the poker." He wielded it as if it were a fencing sword. Now that he'd barred the door, he felt quite bold.

"Fudge, don't even think of going up against two wild animals with that poker," his mother said quickly. "Taffy, you say one of the animals spoke to you? Did he sound threatening?"

"I don't know, Mommy. They both looked so ferocious, I just ran home as fast as I could."

"They may have been just as frightened as you are," mother said in a soothing voice. "No doubt they've raced back into the woods to keep away from people." Fudge still was wielding the poker. "And put that down before you break something, Fudge."

The boy frowned, but he minded his mother and propped the poker back beside the fireplace.

"Now, why don't you finish your experiment, Fudge? I could use a good spot remover when I do a load of laundry later. Didn't you find some soapwort flowers blooming just out- side our back fence?"

Fudge went to the kitchen counter and waved yellow flowers at her. "Just where you thought they might be, Mommy."

"Then why not start your experiment?" his mother suggested.

"I want to help," Taffy whined.

"No, it's my chemistry set. You got your own present."

While they talked, Taffy slipped the witchwort flowers into her dress pocket. When his experiment was cooking, she'd be sure to drop them into the pan. She'd fix Fudge!

Her mother asked, "Will you help me collect the laundry, Taffy? It would save me lots of work."

"Are you going to wash my yellow dress with the orange polka-dots? I want to wear it to school tomorrow."

"Of course," her mother promised. "Just put it in the hamper before you bring it to me." Then she added, "And you put your dirty clothes in the hamper, too, Fudge."

"I'll go get the laundry," the little girl said. "I can get yours too, Fudge. Then you can go right ahead with making your spot remover."

"Gee, thanks, Taffy."

Their mother smiled. How nice it was when the children got along well together instead of squabbling. "I'll not start the laundry until you have the spot remover ready," she promised her son. "It should take out the mud spots on your school shirt."

"I'll hurry, Mommy. All I need to do is to add the soapwort flowers and let the mixture cook for ten minutes."

"Fine. As soon as it's cool, I can put it in the washtub."

Fudge crushed the yellow flowers between his thumb and forefinger, dropped them into the mixture, carried it into the kitchen, and with his mother's help, set it on the stove.

Neither of them noticed, when Taffy brought the hamper of soiled clothes into the kitchen, that she paused in front of the stove when she left. It took only a moment to crush the odd-smelling witchwort flowers between her fingers and drop them into the pot of spot remover Fudge had left cooking. She had a wicked little smile on her face; but as her mother was busy, she didn't see it. If she had, she'd have known Taffy was up to mischief. She did wrinkle her nose, saying, "What's that nasty smell?" Then she frowned "Gracious, is that the spot remover?"

Frightened, smelling the bad odor herself, Taffy didn't answer.

"Spots, I feel terrible about frightening that little girl. She may think I really want to eat her."

"Which you'd never do," the Leopard with the Changing Spots said, a multitude of slashed "no-no" circles appearing on his pelt.

"Of course not," the Tiger agreed, grinning, "but sometimes my appearance helps protect people traveling with me."

"I'll bet, if anyone threatened Dorothy or Ozma, you'd snarl and growl and roar and show your long, sharp fangs and frighten them away."

"Of course," the Hungry Tiger agreed.

"If we see that girl with the colorful braids again, we can tell her that we mean her no harm. We're friendly beasts."

So they kept following the path that Taffy had taken, for it was she they'd seen picking wildflowers. Then Spots began to feel strange. His back felt bare, as if he'd shed his pelt. He stopped short. "I feel peculiar. Do I look different?" Then he sniffed loudly and said, "Something smells odd, too."

The Hungry Tiger, who'd been ahead of the Leopard with the Changing Spots, looked back over his shoulder, expecting to see question marks all over his friend's back. There was nothing there. No usual leopard spots, no spots of any kind.

"Why are you looking at me that way?" the Leopard asked. Still no question marks appeared on his tawny hide.

"You -- you don't have any spots!" the Tiger exclaimed.

"No what?" The Leopard tried to see himself, but every time he tried to look at his own back, he just turned around where he stood. It was very frustrating. "What did you say?"

"You don't have any question marks on you! You don't have any spots at all!"

"No spots! But I'm a leopard!" the animal cried. "All leopards have spots, and mine change!"

"Well, they're not changing now," the Hungry Tiger declared, moving closer so he could get a better look at his friend's back, "There's not a spot on you, Spots."

"But - but -- I don't understand!" wailed the unspotted Spots. "No wonder I feel so odd. What can be wrong with me?"

"Maybe it's something you ate," the Tiger suggested, trying to be helpful. "You nibbled nothing to make you reduce, starting with your spots, did you?"

"I'm not overweight," the Leopard insisted. "Why would I go on a diet? You know I'm not an ounce overweight. I'm sleek and muscular, without any fat or flab on my beautiful, spotted -- " He realized just then that his body wasn't covered with beautiful, changing spots. "Oh, something dreadful has happened to me," the Leopard wailed, a sound very close to caterwauling. "Woe is me! What'll I do? How can I express my feelings now?"

Continued in Oz-story #3
Copyright © 1997 Rachel Cosgrove Payes. All rights reserved.

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