The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

A Map to the Center of Now

It began, as things so often do, with a map.

A map is a pleading thing. Explore me, it begs. See where I lead.

It would be a mistake to say that it is always dangerous to obey, but equally wrong to say it never is.

And stories are rarely told about uneventful journeys. Or, at least, interesting stories are rarely told.

Well, my dears, have I an interesting story for you.

The Cabinet was dark and mostly quiet, the only light in the entire place flickering from the lamp at my side, the only sound the occasional rustle or quiet scream from one of the collections. It was cold, so cold my breath crackled in the air before me. My fellow curators, being far cleverer than I, had fled the building and the snowstorm that raged around it, and I hoped they were searching for new treasures in warmer climes.

My fingers, cold and stiff as a corpse, sifted through the chest. The chest that was the reason I was still in our Cabinet of Curiosities, and not in some far-flung place, gathered around a cozy hearth with a group of murderous ghosts, or the like. I had been planning to go, you see, for there are many tales across many lands that have yet to be explored, collected, and displayed in our wondrous museum.

I had, in fact, been so on the verge of leaving that I almost didn’t notice the chest, placed directly outside our door at some point since I arrived back from lunch. Preoccupied and absentminded I may occasionally be, but I am quite certain it wasn’t there as I stepped inside and set down a box containing a most delicious slice of honey cake. Nonetheless, it was assuredly on the doorstep as I stepped out, eyes on the horizon and head full of a rumor of a mysterious potioneer somewhere on the other side of the Malevolent Mountains.

We shall, if you do not mind, gloss smoothly over the heap I found myself in after tripping on the chest, and move directly to my curiosity as to its contents. Curiosity, after all, is what we do here. Our specialty, you might say.

Where was I? Oh, yes, it began with a map.

The chest contained many intriguing items, letters, photographs, all worthy of exploration at a later date, but the map was what grabbed my attention the moment my chilled fingers set upon it. I’m ashamed to say I scarcely glanced at the other things, and perhaps I should have, but the map…the map. The edges of the parchment were ragged and frayed, the ink faded, but I could see the route, clearly marked. For it wasn’t simply a map, an illustration of strange and mysterious lands, but instructions, a path to follow in order to discover something in those lands. What that something would be, I did not yet know, but I was overcome, yes, overcome, with the need to find out.

Leaving a note for my fellows, should they return in my absence, I packed a satchel of those things that are always useful on such a trip: a compass, a notebook, a small leather case of various potions and elixirs whose lack I have regretted in the past. I watered the Cabinet’s collection of carnivorous plants and set on my way, out through the still-falling snow.

My footprints sank deep into it and were quickly erased behind me. One might have taken this as an omen, but if I did, it was a positive one. Adventure looks forward, not back! I arrived in good time at the train station and purchased a ticket for as far away as I could travel by such means. This was not, according to the map tucked safely away, my destination, but it was as near as I could get.

The sky darkened and the train chugged along, emptying at each stop until I was the only one upon it. This, too, I perhaps should have taken as an omen.

The lights went out. “It’s only a tunnel,” I told myself, though this explanation made, even to my own ears, little sense. I had seen much more frightening things in my time as a Curator.

An instant before the lamps flickered back to life, the violins began. And I was no longer alone. My fear was replaced instantly by excitement, for I knew this story, though I had only heard it secondhand.

“I’m on the skeleton train,” I whispered.

“Yes,” the skeletons cried, surrounding me. “Dance with us!”

Well, I have always been partial to a dance. How could I refuse? I felt young as I danced, skipping and leaping among the tangle of bones. I knew better, however, than to linger too long, so in the first rush of sunrise I leapt from the slowing train, and checked that my landing had broken none of my vials tucked away in my satchel.

I also checked the map. My journey would continue south, and I set off with a spring in my step toward the woods ahead. Dark as daytime, they were, when I was in the thick of them, trees on all sides of the worn path I traveled. A rumbling came from behind me, causing me to jump aside for a string of carts, piled high with circus tents and led by a boy with a great, bright red bird atop his shoulder.

“Lucky Luke,” I said, but the boy did not hear me, and the carts rumbled on. I followed in their wake, to the edge of the woods and out again, to the base of mountains that rose high above me.

The map fluttered in the cold breeze that swept down from their peaks and across the foothills on which I stood. My sleeves fluttered, too, and the cuffs of my trousers dragged in the mud, but I did not pay as much attention to this as I should have, too entranced was I by this adventure, leading me—I was sure now—back to places and times of which I had only heard, or hadn’t visited since my early days of gathering oddities and whimsy. Indeed, the landscape became more and more familiar as I trod the roads and passed through towns. Here, the dragons, there, the girl who had made grave errors in her birthday wishes welcomed me as an old friend and made me a cup of rather welcome tea.

But I did not linger. Possibly I should have. She might have seen. I might have seen, in a mirror over the sink.

I kept on, my warm cloak dragging on the ground behind me, over the mountain pass and onto the broken road. For days I walked, sleeping nights in the shelter of rocks and trees. From this height, I could see in the distance the city where a shadow had crept, and the forest where the spiders sang.

In a familiar village, I left my last bottle of honey in the town hall for the people to find.

And I kept walking. I knew, now, that something was amiss, but I had come this far.

High in the mountains, there was a lake. A lake of which I had only heard, and the map led me straight to it. It took more days, more weeks to reach, my worn shoes—too large now—stumbling over every dip in the track. My nights were restless, plagued with nightmares I had once thought long forgotten.

Not so forgotten now.

You might ask why I continued. It is a fair question, but I had to know. Not once had I shied from an adventure, no matter how terrifying the stories that warned of it had been. Danger is part of our collection. And so I kept on, and when the lake came into view, I knew precisely what I would see in its pure silver surface. I was not afraid. After all, I could always simply turn away, walk back the way I had come, visiting with my old acquaintances on the way, and reverse the effects of walking the map.

I slept that night by its shores, warm despite the mountain chill, my small hands curled up inside my oversized clothes.

I should not have done what I did, but it was early dawn, my dreams still swarming in my head. I wasn’t thinking, or I was thinking with a mind much less experienced, and I was thirsty.

So very, very thirsty.

I knew immediately I had made a rash mistake. I did the only thing I could do.

My notebook was full, after my long journey. There are always so many stories to collect. But the reverse of the map was clear. My pen crackled on the parchment.

Dear fellow Curators,

Please find me. I fear I may not remember you, or any of this, much longer. Come to that, I fear I will soon forget how to spell. I am six, perhaps seven years old, but time is different here, and the mountain wolves are howling.

Curator Trevayne.

 

 

 

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Note: Curator Trevayne was successfully rescued, and is recovering with the help of the right medicines, which we have had to invent. She awoke long enough to recount this tale and ask for a slice of cake. All is back to normal.

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