Deiderick raced down the cobblestone street, the hollow sound of his footsteps barely audible over the singing around him. It wouldn’t take long for his mother and father to notice him missing. He was supposed to be arranging tulips now, in full view of the giants, just as their boat passed. But they wouldn’t ask where he was. They wouldn’t show any anger or disappointment in him. Their smiles wouldn’t falter, not when the giants might see.
Ducking around a corner to leap a narrow waterway, Deiderick kept his own smile plastered on his face. The people lining the street were singing the same song his parents did, the same song everyone did, but their clothes were different. Similar enough that the giants might not notice that Deiderick didn’t belong. The stripes on all the boys’ shirts were horizontal, not vertical like Deiderick’s, and they wore canal hats instead of berets. The only part Deiderick was worried about was his distinctive wooden shoes.
But he had to go this way.
Just ahead, he spotted his goal. Another boy, singing along with everyone else, smiling along with everyone else, but his arms weren’t making the sweeping gestures most of the people were. They were otherwise occupied, working the long pole that powered his gondola. Pushing him toward Deiderick.
Deiderick leapt from the edge of the pier. As he flew towards the small boat, much smaller than the ones the giants used, the gondolier looked up. Spotted Deiderick. The gondolier’s eyes went wide – even wider than they normally were, which was exactly as wide as Deiderick’s normally were – and he gave a slight shake of his head even as he kept singing. It was too late. Deiderick couldn’t stop if he wanted to.
Not that there was any way he was stopping now. He’d spent years planning this, watching the boats, counting the seconds between them, wandering as far as he could from his family’s gardens in the time he wasn’t being watched, climbing buildings to get a view of the surrounding area. Learning everything he could during the gaps between the boats. Finally he had understood enough of how his world fit together in order to slip between the cracks, and hopefully come out into the giants’ world.
He landed on the deck of the gondola, the force of his jump propelling them out into the wide river, leaving the pier far out of reach. The gondolier tried to steer them back on course, but Deiderick grabbed onto the pole, wrestling it from the gondolier’s hands. Not a difficult task. Deiderick knew that what he was doing might displease the giants. So did the gondolier. But it would displease the giants more to fight in front of them, for anyone to act less than completely content. Everyone in Deiderick’s village had known that for as long as they could remember. If he got caught, Deiderick could be the first to test that knowledge.
Deiderick kept singing as he steered the gondola on a new course, heading to a neighbouring village. Even though the song was about friendship between everyone, he had never been to any of the other villages. Not until today.
Next to him on the boat, the gondolier sang as well, his eyes glued to Deiderick. And then he looked up. He almost stopped smiling.
Deiderick turned to see what had terrified the gondolier so much. One of the boats, not the gondolas, but the enormous crafts the giants used, was looming over them. Deiderick hadn’t even noticed it. The giants’ boats glided through the water, not creating any waves or eddies, just seeming to skate along the surface.
The shadow of the massive boat fell over the gondola. The giants disappeared beyond the edge of the railing, only for one to pop out again. There was a bright flash of light as Deiderick stabbed the gondola pole into the bottom of the wide river, plunging it into the rock hard river bed over and over. The gondola barely moved in response.
The giants’ boat got closer, only inches away. Dozens of giants were leaning over the side now, peering at Deiderick and the gondolier. The giants had always stayed in their boats, never even reaching out towards any of the villages or villagers, so this was the closest Deiderick had ever been to any of them. They were even bigger than he’d thought, their faces as tall as Deiderick’s entire body.
Even staring up at them now, Deiderick had no idea what they wanted from him. He had hoped to find out, but now it didn’t look like he was going to learn anything.
In desperation, Deiderick pulled the gondola pole out of the water and jammed it into the side of the giants’ boat. With one shove, the gondola slid away, zooming to the other side of the river.
Deiderick held the gondola pole out to the gondolier as he jumped and grabbed hold of one of the rigid green leaves of the next village’s overgrown vegetation, climbing onto the shore. The gondolier snatched the pole, his feelings obvious even as he smiled with apparent delight.
Deiderick stopped, dazzled. Everyone in his village wore the same colours, red, white, and blue. The people here wore long robes and dresses, in a rainbow of colours. One of them, a girl with long black hair, smiled at Deiderick, her eyes narrowing a fraction of an inch in confusion. The expression reminded Deiderick to keep moving. He was almost there. He was almost where he’d seen the giant come out of the ground.
He ducked behind a tree and waited until the nearby boat rounded a bend, and then began counting down the seconds. He dropped to his knees and crawled through an archway, feeling the time slipping away from him. Winding his way between minarets, Deiderick started to worry that he’d misjudged the distance. Each second felt like it was a little too fast, each tower too big to get past before the next boat would come.
And then he was there. He was finally somewhere where the giants couldn’t see him, at least, not from the boats. He was behind a wall, and he didn’t have to smile or sing for anyone. But most of all, he was behind the wall that he’d seen one giant’s shoulders hulk up over, crawling through the ground into Deiderick’s world. Maybe from here, he’d be able to figure out who the giants were, why they wanted Diederick and all the other villagers to sing for them.
“Giant?” Deiderick whispered. His voice was masked by the singing in the village behind him, but he didn’t know how it would echo behind the wall. He also didn’t know how it would sound, on its own, without the chorus. “Hello?” he called, a little louder.
When no one answered after a minute, he crept forward. His wooden clogs tapped against the ground, no matter how softly he tip-toed. He was so careful not to lift them and risk the sound that they almost shuffled across the ground. Until the right clog clanged against something solid.
Deiderick jumped and looked around. The song still ringing in his ears hadn’t wavered. No giants were looking over the wall to investigate. No one had noticed. With a sigh of relief, he looked down, wondering what he had kicked.
A large square in the ground was raised a few inches higher than the rest. On one side were large hinges. Giant-sized hinges. With wide eyes – even wider than usual – Deiderick crouched down, staring at the hatch.
His small fingers easily found a gap between the hatch and the ground. He worked them in deeper, getting a grip. Deiderick didn’t know if it was because he was so close to answers, or if it was just what he was used to, but a smile grew across his face as he began to lift the hatch.
It came up with little effort – it was heavy, but not as heavy as he expected. Deiderick managed to lift it wide enough to slip under, but the door slammed shut on Deiderick’s fingers where he clutched the edge of the opening. With a scream, he found himself falling into the darkness.
His voice cut off with a thud as he hit the ground a second later. Deiderick panted in shock, staring up at the hatch above him. It didn’t make sense. The tunnel he was in wasn’t big enough for giants, unless they were crawling. Were there others of Deiderick’s size, living among the giants?
He stood and listened, worried someone had heard him scream, heard him fall. From here, he could still hear the sound of all the villages singing their same song, but it was echoed and distorted by the long tunnel ahead. Deiderick’s smile had long since faded, and now he shivered. The song the giants forced everyone to sing sounded wrong from where he stood. He jumped, flailing for the door above him, but it was out of reach. The tunnel behind him ended abruptly with a huge, unmoving fan. The only way to go was forwards.
At first, Deiderick thought the song echoing behind him was fading, but it soon started getting louder again. It wasn’t long before it sounded very close. Deiderick crept forward, worried that the hallway had looped around to deposit him in his village, back where he’d started.
But something about this singing sounded wrong. It was a little too tinny, a little too homogenous. Like many people singing with the same voice.
Light filtered through a large grate embedded in the wall ahead of him. Deiderick peered through one of the slits. He didn’t see anything behind it, just blank greyness. He decided to take a chance – he’d come this far. He laced his fingers through some of the openings in the grate and shoved, holding it as still as he could as it popped off. After a moment of waiting to see if anyone had noticed, Deiderick slipped out of the tunnel and propped the grate up behind him.
Outside, the song was much louder, but it obviously wasn’t being sung by the people from Deiderick’s village, or any of the other villages nearby. Below the sound, there was a low hum, like many people speaking softly. Deiderick was in a narrow passage between the grate he had just exited, and a flat grey wall. Either side of the passage opened up into wide spaces, but all Deiderick could see from where he stood was light and colour streaming in. Deiderick sidled towards the light, leaning out as little as he could to take a peek.
His village stretched out in front of him. Sloping down from the wall he hid behind – the back wall of a large Tudor house – was a town square like the one he’d snuck away from, dotted with people dressed just like his friends and family. Their arms waved in jerky patterns. A hillside dropped away in front of them, but not into water like in Deiderick’s village. Here, giants shuffled slowly through the dry riverbed, instead of riding in their silent boats. Some of them watched the tiny villagers, but unlike the giants in the boats, most of them didn’t seem interested, talking and laughing amongst themselves.
Hoping the giants weren’t paying enough attention to notice him, Deiderick darted out into the open to see who these other villagers were. He raced past a few of the singing people, taking quick glances before ducking behind a nearby house to catch his breath and make sense of what he’d seen.
He felt like his smile had been permanently wiped from his face. The villagers hadn’t been singing. How could they be? Their faces were fixed, their mouths permanently stretched open, their eyes glassy and wide. They were fake, some kind of mannequin or dummy, made to look like they were singing and dancing. Deiderick didn’t have any idea who the giants were or what they wanted. He had thought that anything he learned could only help him to understand more about the giants, that any explanation would make more sense than none whatsoever. But what he was seeing – he suddenly felt like he knew less than when he’d started.
“Enjoy your ride!” Deiderick heard a bright voice say. He poked his head back around the building, scanning the crowds that wound through the villages, eventually coming to the front of the line, where a cluster of giants was climbing into a boat. A smiling giant closed a gate behind them as she wished them a pleasant trip. A few other giants in line pointed and smiled at something above Deiderick’s head. He turned to see a plaque embedded in the wall above him:
These models are the originals that first debuted in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair.
“Hey!” Deiderick almost jumped high enough to pop out above the house he hid behind. The furtive whisper had come from over his shoulder. Or, at least, it sounded like a whisper, even though it had the volume of one of Deiderick’s shouts.
Deiderick turned, slowly, not wanting to see the giant that he knew was behind him. A giant, his head poking up from underneath the landscape, hidden from view of the long lineup. Deiderick wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go.
“What are you doing here?” the giant asked. He didn’t sound angry, like Deiderick had expected. He sounded confused, worried, and – maybe – a little impressed.
Deiderick almost opened his mouth to speak, and then clamped his hand over his mouth. He looked to either side, searching for an exit. There was nowhere to run. Everything around him was too open.
“Hey, I’m not gonna hurt you,” the giant said, still whispering.
Why was he hiding from the other giants? Deiderick wondered. Maybe he wasn’t quite one of them. Maybe he would help Deiderick.
“I – I just wanted to see,” Deiderick said, and then clamped his hand over his mouth again. No one in his village had ever spoken to a giant. It was not allowed. It displeased them. “I’m sorry I’m not singing,” he blurted out.
“Why would you be sorry about that?” the giant asked.
“Because it displeases you. Singing is supposed to please the giants.”
The giant frowned. Deiderick froze in terror. He didn’t know what was supposed to happen when you displeased the giants. No one did. “You aren’t…” the giant started, pausing when Deiderick flinched. “Oh god. Can you guys think?”
“Y-yes?” Deiderick stammered.
“And you… have feelings? Personalities?”
“Yes,” Deiderick said slowly, confused. Couldn’t the giant tell? Was Deiderick displeasing him more? “That’s how we were made. To please the giants.”
“Oh. Oh no,” the giant looked horrified. “Did we make you sentient?”
“Not if that displeases you!” Deiderick cried. “I just want to go home.”
“Hey. Hey, buddy, don’t be scared.” The giant’s tone was soft, soothing. He wriggled around, manoeuvering his hand up into the hole in the landscape his head occupied. His outstretched palm looked surprisingly inviting to Deiderick. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
Another look around confirmed for Deiderick that he had no other option, besides running out from behind the house into the view of hundreds of giants. His head hung low, he stepped onto the giant’s hand. In a brisk movement, he was below the copy of his village, dropping in jerks down a ladder that led to a hallway built for giants.
“Where is this place?” Deiderick asked, his voice hushed. His gaze whipped to the giant’s face, checking to see if it was displeased that he had spoken.
“This is an access tunnel, for ride maintenance,” the giant said.
Speaking hadn’t seemed to offend the giant. Deiderick felt brave enough to ask another question. “What do you mean, ‘ride’?” he asked.
This actually did make the giant react. His mouth dropped, his eyes went wide, he stared at Deiderick for a moment. “It’s, uh, hard to explain.”
“Look,” the giant sighed, “A ride is a thing you sit on that moves. For fun.”
Deiderick decided he was never going to get another chance to ask what he really wanted to know. “Why do the giants always watch us? Why do we have to sing?”
“Because that’s the ride. The boats that we, uh, the giants take, those are the ride.”
“And it goes through my village?”
“Your village is part of the ride. It is the ride.”
“Am I on the ride?”
“No, it’s —” The giant took a deep breath, trying to think. “People want to see you and your… your village. They want to see you being happy.”
“And that’s why we sing?”
“Yes!” the giant beamed. “Yes, exactly! We want you to be happy, and sing. That’s all we want.”
“So, that’s it?” Diederick asked with a frown. “That’s what the giants want?”
“Yeah,” the giant nodded. “That’s all it is.”
Deiderick silently rode on the giant’s shoulder, thinking about what the giant had said. He didn’t ask any more questions, even when the giant climbed halfway through something called an access hatch and set Deiderick on the ground behind a building near his village. He kept thinking, all the way through the neighbouring villages, waiting for gaps between the giants’ boats. As he made his way back, he started to sing the song he’d been singing, along with everyone else, for as long as he could remember.
Deiderick slipped back into position at his family’s bakery to take a tray of bread from the oven. His family’s smiles didn’t betray their questions about where he had been. He wasn’t worried about that. He had bigger things to think about.
The giant had told him to be happy, but why? He had said this was all a ride, but what did that mean? None of what he’d seen, or what the giant had told him, made any sense. It had to be a lie, meant to keep Deiderick from investigating more, asking more questions. He would go back to watching the boats, counting the seconds between them, and learning everything he could during the gaps.
For now, all Deiderick could do was smile and sing. But at least he knew there really was more to life than his small world, after all.