The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

May Flowers . . . Don’t Give Them To Your Mother, Child

Hello, dear readers. I write this from my tower room, safely surrounded by shelves of crumbling books, drawers packed with carved wooden boxes holding a variety of interesting powders, and tables lined with jar upon jar of  . . . well. Things.

My tower room is a pleasant haven, where I tend to forget little details like the changing seasons. But earlier this morning, when I peered down through the small, dirty window, I saw, marring the pensive gray and white slush of winter, a few unpleasant dots of color.

Flowers. Ah yes. It is May, and May means flowers: violets, pansies, and petunias, the colors of old bruises and spoiled butter, turning their little faces up to the beaming sun. I presume that soon some toddler will wander by, yank a few from the ground—oh, is that a silent scream, now, from the dumb little open-mouthed flower-faces?—and carry them off in a filthy fist. Mommy! For you!

If you loved your mommy, you icky child—and if you knew what I know about that wilting bouquet—flowers are the last thing you’d offer.

I won’t mince words: I don’t like flowers. I don’t trust their pretty surfaces, their persuasive perfumes. When it comes to flowers, believe me: things can go dreadfully wrong.

This month, the Cabinet Curators will share with you just a few of our many (oh yes: many) stories about the darker side of flowers. I hope you’ll take it to heart, and plow up your gardens, and salt the earth, and this year give your mother a handful of stones or thorny sticks for her birthday. Much safer than flowers, I assure you.

Plum Boy and the Dead Man

A black tree leans over the rocky road from Harrypatch to Winthropa monstrous tree, thick and warped like a rotting blood vessel. Its branches whirl into the sky, strands of ink in frozen water. The countryside all about is bare, and the fields stretch for miles, and this tree is the only one in sight, as if it has frightened all the other trees away. A length of rope is knotted through its crown, back and forth and crisscrossing, and one bit of the rope hangs down, and from it hangs a mana thief, they say, and a murdererand now look! a little boy is coming up the road. He is rich as a too-ripe plum, and round like one, too, and he has little toothpick legs and a jaunty green cap.

He stalks along, the pompous goose, swinging a half-sized walking stick made just for him. He does not see the dead man in the tree. He walks, walks, staring at the darkening sky with large watery eyes. He sees the tree. He wrinkles his nose and peers at it. He does not understand what is hanging in it. He realizes it is not a branch or a particularly large and hideous bird. And then, when he is directly below it, he sees that it is a man, and the man is dead.

Plum Boy startles. His knees knock together and he clutches at his hat.

Slowly, very slowly, he begins to edge around the ugly tree, pressing himself to the far side of the road, his eyes round as saucers. And now he is past it and hurrying on.

And this is when the dead man calls out:

“You,” he cries, very softly from his dead, dry throat. “You? Come here a moment?”

The boy lets out a shriek and breaks into a proper run. But he is clumsy and he trips, and wriggling onto his back, he stares at the tree and the hanged man in terror.

“Don’t run,” the dead man says, very gently. He is hanging with his back toward Plum Boy, but there is no one else in the fields and no one on the road, and Plum Boy is sure it is the dead man who had spoken.

“Who are you?” Plum Boy squeaks. And then, because he does not want to sound afraid, he says, “Why are you hanging in a tree? You know, you might startle someone. Come down at once.” Because you see, Plum Boy thinks the dead man is playing a game. And perhaps the dead man is. . .

“I wish I could,” the dead man says, turning slowly on the end of his rope. “But I’m afraid I am quite put out.”

Plum Boy stands quickly and brushes the dust from his velvet breeches. He eyes the corpse suspiciously. Live men should not have such oddly turned necks, he thinks. Live men should not gave such badly blackened feet.

“It is a magic trick,” says Plum Boy stoutly, but his voice shakes. “Come- come down!” He stamps his foot.

The dead man has turned a full circle. He is facing Plum Boy now. His head is cricked over the noose, his eyes empty. He is smiling, like a puppet on a string, because there is nothing else he can do; he has no lips anymore.

“Alas, I cannot,” the dead man says. He sounds unbearably sad. “But come and sit down a while at the bottom of my tree. . . Come and speak with me.”

Plum Boy gapes at him. The dead man sounded kind, but there were maggots on his cheeks.

“No,” says Plum Boy. “You are a thief and a murderer. I’ll be on my way now.”

“Oh, don’t! Don’t leave! It is so lonely here.”

It is lonely, Plum Boy sees. The fields are nothing but bare, wretched humps all the way to the horizon. Night is coming. Perhaps, Plum Boy thinks, if he makes the dead man very desperate. . . Plum Boy stuffs his fingers in his pockets and hunches his shoulders.

“No,” he says. “You are a recalcitrant criminal. If you were hanged you deserve to be lonely, that’s my opinion.”

The dead man continues to smile. His teeth are very white. In life they must have never grown yellow with cane sugar and tobacco and ale like those of Plum Boy’s parents and indeed of Plum Boy himself.  He begins to turn away from Plum Boy again, the rope doing another slow, creaking turn.

“You seem to think a very great deal of your opinion,” the dead man says.

“And why shouldn’t I? My father says everyone ought to have opinions or they’ll be wobbly as marrow pudding.”

“But what if your opinion is not true?”

Plum Boy thinks that is a very odd idea.

The dead man ventures on. “And even if I am nothing but a thief and a murderer, must you hate me? Must you be cruel?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because you are very wicked.”

“And you are not? You are perfect?”

“Quite,” says Plum Boy. “And now I’m going.”

Plum Boy spins and begins to walk again, for good this time. At least, he pretends as if it is for good, but he simply wants the dead man to beg. It pleases Plum Boy when people are desperate for him to speak with them, because they aren’t very often. Plum Boy cannot imagine why.

“No, please!” the dead man cries after him. “Just tell me a few little things. What is your name? What is happening in the world these days? Is the tree still blooming in the square in Harrypatch? Tell me anything, so that I can think on it while I hang here.”

The dead man cannot move, but it is as if he is struggling to twist back toward Plum Boy. He is like a very slow top, Plum Boy decides, a very dull, broken top that has gotten stuck in a tree.

Plum Boy sighs. He shakes his head slowly, as if he is pondering some great sacrifice he must make. Then he returns to the tree and pulls out a very large, very flowery handkerchief that been soaked in lavender water and covers his entire face with it.

“All right,” he says. “I will be charitable today. But I don’t want to look at you, because you are far to ugly. I live in Winthrope, in a big house that is nicer than all the other houses, and I have a mother and father and four sisters and three brothers and we own the bakery and the pie shop and the coffee house, too.”

“How grand,” the dead man says. “And what month is it? And what is the weather like? And what is your name? And what are in your pockets?”

Plum Boy realizes the dead man must be very nearly blind.

“It is April. Spring,” says Plum Boy. He begins digging in his pockets, almost eagerly. A jackknife comes out, a bit of string and some sticky, nasty, yellow toffees. He lists them to the dead man. “I have a wind-up horse, too,” says Plum Boy, “but I forgot to bring it.”

And then Plum Boy straightens suddenly. The handkerchief slips from his face, but he does not catch it. “You asked me my name twice.”

The dead man hangs from his rope, unmoving.

“I’m sick of your questions,” Plum Boy says. “Why did they hang you? What did you do?”

“Oh,” says the dead man, softly. “That is a very long, sad story.”

“Well, you can leave out all the boring bits and the sad bits and only tell me the horrible crimes.”

“But those are the most important parts,” the dead man says. “The boring bits and the sad bits. . .”

“I don’t want to know them. Who died? Was it very gruesome?”

“Yes,” the dead man says. “It was very gruesome. Seven people from the farms, seven people on the forest floor, and they had no eyes and no teeth, but I did not do it. I was an herb-brewer then, and the potion-witcher, but the magistrate said I was the murderer, and everyone was certain they agreed with him. They made their opinions so quick, in an instant, and yet their opinions were strong as stone. And so they hung me here. Who is the magistrate these days? Is it still the same one? Still old Master Penniman? And, boy, what is your name?”

Plum Boy stares up at the tree. The sun is going down. It is an odd picture, a round boy and an ugly tree and a strange dead person, all stamped in black against the bloody red sun.

“Who is the magistrate?” the dead man asks again. His voice sounds precisely the same as it had the first time he had asked the question, kind and a tiny bit wheedling, as if he does not realize he is asking it again. As if he does not care. “Who is the magistrate?”

Plum Boy peers up curiously. The handkerchief is blowing away up the road. He does not notice.

“It is still Master Penniman,” Plum Boy says. “And he’s my father.”

“And what is your name?”

“William Penniman, if you- if you really want to know.”

“Ah.” The dead man stares down at Plum Boy, still grinning, and the red glint of the setting sun is in his cold, blank eyes. For the first time Plum Boy notices that the dead man has iron at his wrists and at his ankles and making an X across his ribs. He is caged in it. But it cannot stop him anymore.

“William Penniman,” the dead man whispers.

There is an odd brush of wind that flies around Plum Boy’s ankles and pulls at his cap. And then Plum Boy feels very strange, very light. . . and very unconscious.

* * *

Plum Boy’s eyes are dim as old wicks. He feels dull and heavy, like a sack in the rain. He is watching a little figure walking away up the road, as if through haze.

At first Plum Boy thinks he has been robbed. His jacket! The fat little imbecile in the road is wearing my jacket and holding my half-sized walking stick and my lovely green cap!

And then the figure turns to face him. . .

With a slither of fear, Plum Boy realizes that he is high up, staring down, and below him is his own smug face and watery blue eyes.

He tries to shout, but all he can do is smile.

The boy in the road smiles back. There is a jackknife in his pocket, and he lifts it out and swings it between thumb and forefinger, back and forth, back and forth.

Then, with a little laugh, the new Plum Boy wheels and skips away down the road, and the night wind flies around the old Plum Boy and his old, black tree, and turns him on the gibbet, and he must look to the North, though he doesn’t want to look that way.

He decides in an instant: he does not like the sight at all.

Generously Donated By…

It is one seventeen in the afternoon, and you are bored. Who cares about mummies and old statues and broken bowls someone found in the dirt, anyway? Not even a whole bowl. Your feet drag, and once again Mrs. Webster’s voice calls, “Keep up, everyone, remember to stay with your buddy!”

Her voice echoes around the drafty museum, and Sabrina Linklater is most definitely not your buddy. She smells like cotton candy and she doesn’t like you. You know this because she’s told you every day since you were both five, so it’s just your luck to be stuck with her now.

“We’re going to see a very special exhibit,” says Mrs. Webster, which means nothing; she’s said this about all of them, all day, and your feet hurt. Nobody listened this morning when you insisted these shoes pinch your toes, too busy trying to make you eat horrible slimy oatmeal and remember your bag for the field trip.

This room is dim, and cool, like the others have been. Spotlights bounce off glass cases and the walls seem to swallow every noise, turning voices down to whispers. A few other visitors are wandering around, stopping in front of each piece before slipping through the swathes of shadow to pop up at the next thing to see.

It’s the statue that makes you pause. There’s nothing special about it, in fact it is another boring thing, just a figure of a small man, cast in white stone.

It looks exactly the same as it did in the last room.

And the room before that.

Which is cheating, really, isn’t it. The museum should try to put different things in all the exhibits, or there’s no point to traipsing through the entire building, and maybe then your shoes wouldn’t squash your feet so much. You’re certain you have a blister, just there, on the outside of your left pinky toe.

But you move toward the statue. The air in the room smells funny, like the second before a lightning strike in the dead heat of summer.

Slotted neatly between two of the statue’s fingers is a small card:

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow
England, c. 1805
Mythical trickster and nature sprite
Artist: Unknown
Kindly donated by Mr. Alistair Harbuckle

Boring. You turn, and a tiny sound breaks the hush that smothers everything else, including Sabrina Linklater’s whiny voice and Adam Beech’s constant questions.

Scrape. Scrape. You’ve made that sound before, striking two rocks together to start a fire—which, you can say with authority, absolutely never works.

Scrape. Scrape.

Scraaaaaape.

You whirl back. The statue is perfectly still, and looks no different, except it must be like that famous painting, because its eyes seem to follow you, and the hairs prickle on the back of your neck.

“This way, kids,” says Mrs. Webster. You can barely hear her.

“That statue is weird,” you say when Sabrina reluctantly falls into step beside you.

“You’re an idiot,” she answers.

The next room is filled with bones and the ghosts of the dinosaurs who wore them, grinning skulls with hollow eyes peering down from overhead. This is more interesting than half an old dinner plate or an ancient chess set, and you move up close to read the names on the little cards, inspect the hinged, talon-pointed feet fixed to the stands.

Scrape, scraaaape.

The statue is in the corner, stone-frozen and smiling, its finger crooked, beckoning you, glowing white in the shadows. Nobody is watching. Your buddy—ha, ha—is way over there, exclaiming over something that would once have had huge, leathery wings. Mrs. Webster is leaning against a pillar, her hair loose from its pins.

Closer, the outline of a door scratches itself onto the wall beside Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, mythical trickster.

And this is not boring. Your heart beats faster and you check again that no one is watching. Just for a minute, that’s all, and then you’ll go back to looking at the bones, but the statue chose you, not stinking Sabrina or annoying Adam Beech, and this is very, very interesting.

“In here?” you ask, and it doesn’t even feel silly to be speaking to a piece of stone, however humanlike it suddenly seems to be.

Scrape. Nod. Scrape.

You push on the wall. It’s cool, but not cold, smooth, but not perfectly, and it gives way without a creak, a doorway just large enough to slip through.

Into a forest. A square, room-shaped forest, but a forest. The sunlight from the ceiling is warm on your face, the earth soft underfoot. It smells like it just rained, fresh and clean. A fat bumblebee buzzes lazily in a cluster of snowdrops, the air is tinged with green so rich and sweet you can taste it. Birds twitter, something clawed scuttles away, unseen. The nearest tree is thick, branches gnarled like an old man’s hands grasping for the sky, and carved into its trunk are the words:

Forest
Elsewhere, c. The Year of the Mocking Mirrors
Generously donated by Lord and Lady Hummingbird-Glass

It is real, the bark rough as bark should be, catching your fingertips when you trace each one of the letters. Fallen twigs snap with each step deeper into the trees. This is a different kind of quiet, here, a silence that is such even though it sparkles with birdcalls and rustling.

At the far side of the forest, between two trees growing right from the walls, another door stands an inch ajar, enough to welcome. The one you came in is too far behind to see, but one more room won’t hurt. This is a clever trick of the museum’s, and maybe the next exhibit will give a clue as to how it works.

This is what you tell yourself.

Mostly, this is decidedly interesting.

The next room is empty. A dull, gray box, bare of the merest smudge or speck of dust.

You begin to laugh. Laugh so hard your eyes water and your belly hurts and you fall to your knees, holding your sides as if the air itself is tickling you.

“Help!” you gasp. “Stop!”

No one comes. It’s up to you to crawl, cackling, to the next door, and the instant you’re through the laughter stops, smothered by the weight of thousands of eyes, watching, all turned to stare.

Paired up in jars, in rows and rows on shelves. Green and blue and brown, floating in water or something like it.

Eyes
Everywhere, c. The Beginning of Time – Who Knows?
Generously donated by: please see labels

Scraaaape.

You jump.

“Would you care to make a donation?” the statue asks. He’s still holding the sign with his name on it in one hand. In the other is an empty jar with your name on it. And a spoon. “Yours are lovely.”

“You mean, these are—?” and there is nowhere in the room that’s far enough away from any of the staring eyes. That jar, right there…one is brown and one is blue. Everything goes dark.

Scrape, scrape.

You uncover your eyes. “Do I have to?”

“Oh, no. It’s not required. Please, enjoy your stay. There is always one who is bored.”

The watch on your wrist has stopped. Perhaps it’s time to go back. You look up from the unmoving hands and the statue is gone.

So is the door from the laughing room.

A tingle crawls slowly down your spine. That thud is your heartbeat. Thud. Thud-thud. Thudthudthud.

Inside their jars, the eyes follow as you walk, then run the length of the room. Through a room of music boxes, each playing a different tune. Another full of spiders, all spindly feather-light legs that crawl over you through the next four rooms, rooms you don’t see because you hate spiders most of all. In the one after that, it’s snowing, the snow of a hundred Christmases. And a room of ghosts, cold and dark, generously donated by…everyone. The next room makes you scream as you tumble inside.

For it has no floor. It is only sky. Generously donated by… and a gust of wind blows the rest of the cloud letters to nothing, tossing you this way and that, soaring, flying, blowing you through a hole in the blue to land on a hard, bruising floor.

This has become, perhaps, a little too interesting.

“Hello?” you call. “I need to go! They’ll be missing me!”

No one answers.

“Puck?”

There is no scrape of stone.

Only laughter. Distant laughter.

“This isn’t funny now! It’s all very interesting, but I need to get back!”

Laughter, laughter, laughter.

You grit your teeth and look around this room. This room that might be the strangest, most wonderful and terrible of all, for it is yours.

Everything as you left it this morning, in the shoes that pinch, belly full of slimy oatmeal.

The sweater you hate is at the back of the closet. The secret thing you don’t tell anyone about is under the bed.

It can’t be.

Outside the window, the sky is pink and orange, the first stars glinting in a tinge of darkness at the edge of sunset.

It can’t have been that long. They’re all going to be so furious. Maybe they’ve even called the police, desperate to find you.

You sit on your bed. Feel the lump in the mattress that’s exactly where it always is. Read the plaque on the bedside table that is the only unusual thing, and stop when you get to your parents’ names.

Not generously donated, no, no.

“Is this all because I was bored?”

Scrape.

“Mostly it’s because I am,” says the statue. More scrapes. He snaps his fingers, two doors appear. “One of these will lead you back out, one will keep you here. If you go through either, you cannot return to this particular room. Your only taste of home.”

Flutter, flutter, your heart beats. “Is this a trick?”

“Yes. No. Possibly.”

And he disappears again.

The doors are identical, down to the knots in the wood, the polished brass handles. No way to tell them apart, so which do you choose?

How can you choose?

You close your eyes.

Reach.

Feel the round doorknob, chill against your hand, perfectly smooth.

The draft as you pull it open.

And you smell…cotton candy.

“There you are,” says Sabrina Linklater. “You’re a terrible buddy. I don’t like you.”

Mrs. Webster is still leaning against the wall, her hair loose from its pins. The rest of the class is clearly tired of the dinosaur bones. The statue stands in the corner, and you wonder if maybe the donation from Mr. Alistair Harbuckle wasn’t the biggest trick of all.

The watch on your wrist ticks away, working just fine.

It is one forty-three in the afternoon. And you are not bored.

Transcript: Information Provided by an 11-Year-Old Male, Two Weeks After the Incident

It’s my fault. It was because of me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.

Just tell me again what happened. We’ve been through it before, but let’s just start from the beginning.

It was just a game. Just war, we were playing war, in that field between the school and the woods. It’s so perfect for war, it has these high weeds to hide in, and mounds to climb, and big rocks like boulders you can lay behind.

And right in the middle is this old, dead tree, this creepy tree with twisty dark dead arms going in all directions. You can climb it and see the whole field.

How did it all start?

Allison wanted to play that day. She hadn’t wanted to play in a million years, but that day she said she was bored of what she was reading. I was so psyched. I hated her not playing. She’s one of those people that when she’s around, suddenly whatever stupid thing you were doing seems so cool and hilarious and great. I’ve known her since kindergarten, and she was always so cool like that.

But now we’re 11, and, whatever. She doesn’t play with us so much any more. But this day she was bored of what she was reading, and she came out to play war with me and Tom, like we used to.

It was one against all, no teams, and right away she grabbed the best spot, which is this mound by the dead tree. We didn’t even flip for it—she just ran over and called it, and when I said “So not fair,” she only laughed.

So I was sort of mad about that. She didn’t play with us for six months, and then she grabs the best position, just like she always did, like she could just come back and do that. And she called being America in the war.

That made you angry. 

Well not like angry, but just kind of mad. Anyway, so I took the second best place, a higher mound, but not near the tree. And Tom took the edge of the woods—which is actually pretty good, except you have to keep running so far back and forth. Tom’s a good runner, though.

I still don’t understand how she

It was me, I did it. I mean—but not on purpose that it would end so bad! I was only just playing a trick on her, because of being a little mad.

The thing about that mound that makes it so perfect, besides being by the dead oak, is that there’s this hole in it, so you can crawl inside. Well, I guess you guys know that now.

Yes.

We used to play that it was the opening of a cave, when were kids, even though really the hole doesn’t go back very far. Still, when you’re inside, no one can get at you. It’s the best spot for war.

My trick was that I waited in the weeds on my stomach, until I saw her crawl into the hole. I know her, she always does that first, she loves it in there. Then I waved Tom over, and did that motion of “Be super quiet.”

And then me and Tom moved this big rock in front of the opening, so that she couldn’t get out. We weren’t trying to hurt her, I swear we weren’t. We left a crack for air and everything. We just wanted to scare her—or I did. I wanted to get her back.

Anyway. That rock was heavy, we had to lean on it and push with our legs. But the ground slants down toward the mound, so at the last second it just rolled into place perfectly, like it wanted to go there. Allison’s strong, but we knew there was no way she could roll it out herself, especially from on her stomach inside the cave.

How long did you leave her there?

We were just going to leave her for a minute, I swear, just to scare her, just to get her back for taking the best place and calling being America and never wanting to play anymore. But she got so mad when she realized—she started yelling at us, using pretty bad words. So then we couldn’t let her out right away, or it would be like we gave in.

It was kind of hot that day, so we just leaned against the rock and waited for a breeze, and waited for her to stop yelling.

And did she stop?

She didn’t stop exactly. It was more like . . . the yelling changed. Because at first she was mad, but then she got suddenly so quiet, it was more like she was talking to herself. I thought it might be a trick she was playing back on us. I put my ear up to the crack to listen. And I could hear her voice, like arguing. I heard her say “Stop it, don’t,” a couple of times. I thought she was totally messing with us.

But also, it was sort of working. I did start to feel really creeped out.

And then all of a sudden she started screaming. And it didn’t sound like a trick kind of screaming, it sounded real.

Like something was hurting her? Was she in pain?

I don’t know. Maybe. But more like she was really, really scared. She sounded so scared that it scared us. We started pushing at the boulder. But it was a lot harder now. It had rolled down so easy, but moving it up—and plus she was screaming these terrible screams, screaming for us to move the rock. And we were yelling “We’re are, we’re trying, we’re trying, just wait!”

What happened then?

Then she stopped screaming. And it was so weirdly quiet, but me and Tom kept talking to her, saying “Almost, Ally, we almost got it,” like that. And finally we pushed the stupid boulder out of the way.

And she wasn’t there.

And there’s no way she could not be there. We’ve all been in that tiny cave a million times, since we were little. Back then we could at least fit two of us at a time, but we can’t even do that any more—the rock narrows down to nothing. I mean where could she go?

But she was gone. Both of us stuck our heads in to be sure. And I said, “Do you think it’s like a trick? Is she tricking us?” But Tom didn’t answer. He looked like he was going to throw up. He said, “I’m gonna get someone,” and took off running. He’s fast.

Tom brought his parents to the location of the occurrence, correct? And they called us.

Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.

Tom went to get adults. And what did you do?

I went in. I know it sounds stupid. But I still thought she might be tricking us back.

I went in, I crawled in on my stomach, and—and it was different. It was really different. Where the cave used to end, it didn’t end any more. It got taller and wider, instead of smaller and tighter. And it went down, and down and down.

This is the part that’s difficult for us to believe. Because we sent someone in—

I know.

And the cave doesn’t go back more than a few feet. After that, it’s solid rock.

OK. I know. That’s what it always was before. But I don’t know what else to say. That day, it kept going, and it went down. And I went down with it, to find Allison.

The walls and ceiling and floor were all dirt. I could see that, because there was this cold pale light, like moonlight. Only there wasn’t any moon, because I was underground, so I don’t know where that light came from.

And things were growing from the dirt of the walls and floor and ceiling. All around me, on all sides of me, were these little green stems, and they were sort of gently waving and twisting in the air, and reaching for me, like grabbing at my shirt and pants. It was disgusting. It was the most disgusting thing I ever felt. But I kept walking, and they ripped out of the walls and floors while I walked, but I kept walking down.

And then the passage got wider, and taller. And—I don’t know why I looked up, I must have heard something? I don’t know. But for some reason I looked up, and I saw what I thought for a minute was a tree hanging down. I thought it was that old dead tree, but hanging upside down.

Then I saw that it was roots. It was the roots of that dead oak, and I was underneath them now.

And then—this is the bad part.

Okay. It’s okay.

And then I saw something tangled up in the roots, that wasn’t roots at all.  Up above me, pulled up tight against the earth, something was wrapped up in the viny roots like a moth in a spider’s web. And it was Allison. It was Allison, and she was—I know this sounds dumb, but it was like she was becoming part of the tree. Like the tree was absorbing her. These long snaky roots, all green and dark, wrapped around her, under her arms, around her neck, around her legs. Her mouth was open and—

You can stop if you like. Here’s a tissue.

No, listen, please just listen. Her mouth was open. And this long, snaky root was growing out of her mouth.

All right. Calm down. Just take a minute and calm down.

That wasn’t the worst part, though! The worst part was that she didn’t look dead. She should have been dead, but she looked alive. Her eyes moved, I swear they did. The rest of her all wrapped and cocooned in those roots and vines, and her mouth—but her eyes moved, and they looked at me. And the look in her eye, the way her eyes were, I can’t sleep because my brain keeps thinking about it, and—

Your parents should have a doctor prescribe some medications for that.

I can’t sleep because I ran. I didn’t stay and try to save her. I saw her eyes looking at me, and I got so scared, and I ran. I ran back up that long steep dirt passage, and the little green vines grabbed at me, and I just ran.

I know I already told you guys all this. And I know you don’t believe me.

I wouldn’t say—

Stop, wait, just stop. I came here because I have to tell you one other thing.

My parents basically won’t let me out of the house since this happened. But last night really late, I sneaked out of the house. Or I guess it was early this morning. I just went out the window, I had to go back, I thought I might try . . . . Anyway. When I got to the field it was just being dawn, that gray light and all. But someone had filled up the cave entrance with cement.

We did that. It was a public safety issue. 

It’s horrible you did that. I wish you’d let me in one more time. I wish so hard that you would. But I guess you won’t.

No. We won’t.

I freaked out when I saw that it was blocked. I just sat down hard against that horrible tree. And then I saw something.

This is the thing, this is the main thing I wanted to say. That tree, that dead tree—it has little buds on it now. Every creepy twisty black finger of every creepy dead black branch, they all have these tiny curling greeny-gold leaves now.

That tree was dead. That tree was dead for years, since I was in like first grade, it hasn’t had a single leaf.

Now that tree is full of leaves, all those different colors of green. Now that tree is alive again. And I know it’s her. It’s Allison. That tree ate Allison, to make it alive again. Only she isn’t dead. She’s still alive down there, because her being alive is making the tree alive. And I think she’s going to stay alive, as long as the tree is alive. And you filled the hole up with cement, so she can’t ever get out, and we have to do something, we have to dig that tree up, or blow it up, or burn it down, we have to, if you don’t do it I’ll do it myself, we have to—

Calm down, son. Just calm—can I get some help here? Will someone call his parents again, please? Calm down, would you—Steve, turn that off.

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS]

Quicksilver and the Stranger

Nobody in the town of Willow-on-the-River knew Quicksilver’s real name, or where she came from, or who her family was.

All they knew was that she was eleven years old (she proclaimed this, loudly and often, after outfoxing someone who should have known better), that she had an unbecoming piggish nose, and that she had hair as gray as a crone’s. So she was known as Quicksilver, for her hair, and for her cunning, for there had never been a girl with so slippery a nature. Many called her Quix for short. They hissed it like snakes when she managed to trick them, and laughed it wryly when she managed to trick others.

Quicksilver. Quixxx.

They knew to keep especial watch on sour apples and religious artifacts, for canny Quix had a weakness for the former and a fascination with the latter. They knew she lived on the rooftops when the weather was nice and in the ditches when it wasn’t, for then she could cover herself with mud and sticks and pretend to be a poor hapless urchin, and someone would take pity on her, and then before they knew it, she had picked their pockets and slipped away, hooting. (You might think the Riverlings would have learned, eventually, not to trust even the most pitiful-looking urchin, but the Riverlings are kind folk, and Quicksilver was a master of disguise.)

They knew she was all alone in the world, and that she was perfectly happy with that.

But then came a particular autumn day, when Quicksilver awoke to a shadow on her face and a whisper on the wind.

The shadow was far away—on the edge of town, while Quicksilver was high in the church belfry, sleeping barefoot and easy as a bird in a tree. But still she felt the shadow on her cheek like the touch of winter, and shivered in her sleep.

The whisper on the wind, though, was worse. It said her name, her real name, the name that nobody but she herself knew.

Anastazia, said the wind.

Quicksilver awoke, and nearly tumbled onto the roof.

Anastazia.

She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and searched the town below for the shadow she had felt. Or had it, and the voice, been only a dream?

Ah, no, they had not. For there, at the crooked bridge that marked the way into town, stood a hunched dark figure with bright red hair, and though it was far away, Quicksilver knew it was staring right at her.

 *

Quicksilver watched this dark stranger for a long time, as it hobbled into town and patted children on their heads and gave them treats. She watched as the stranger bartered for a space in the town marketplace and sat on a tall stool. And sat, and sat.

Riverlings began approaching the stranger, slowly. Quicksilver squinted at them from her perch on the belfry but couldn’t see anything worth seeing. She was too high up. She paced, tossing coins between her hands. She wanted to go and see what this figure was all about.

But she was afraid.

For ever since the stranger arrived, the voice on the wind, saying her name, had continued:

Anastazia. Anastazia.

No one but Quicksilver knew that was her true name, and yet she felt, somehow, that this voice on the wind belonged to the stranger down below, and that the stranger was here for her. She didn’t know what that meant, but it gave her a peculiar feeling in her stomach.

quicksilverFinally, she was too curious to resist. She pounded her fist against the belfry’s stone, angry that this stranger had already gotten the best of her, making her do something she would rather not do. She clambered across the rooftops until she was right above the stranger, in the shadow of a teetering chimney.

A small crowd had begun to gather around the stranger, for the stranger was doing magic—street magic, of course, not true magic. True magic, Quicksilver knew, as did everyone, had long ago bled from the world. But this magic of card tricks and disappearing coins was useful enough—sleight of hand, was the term. Illusions, and misdirection. Quicksilver knew of such things, instinctively; she used them everyday. They were as much a part of her as her blood and her bones. But she had always wondered if she could do more than simple street tricks, something grander. Perhaps she could learn it here, from this magic-doing stranger. Perhaps, perhaps . . .

With a great, clumsy crash, not-so-canny Quix pitched off the roof and into the stranger’s lap. She had been leaning out too far from her chimney, and lost her footing.

The crowd roared with laughter. Never had they seen their own surefooted Quix have such a fall! So too did the dark stranger with the bright red hair—although the crowd’s laughter was loud, and the stranger’s laughter was silent, and wormed its way into Quicksilver’s throat like a bad smell. The stranger’s long bony fingers curled around Quicksilver’s dirty legs, quivering.

“Little girl,” said the stranger, “have you hurt yourself?”

Quicksilver leapt out of the stranger’s lap and dusted herself off.

“I never get hurt!” she said, and she sounded ferocious and angry, but inside she was more afraid than ever. She could not tell whether this stranger was man or woman. Its red hair was unnaturally bright, a color not found in Willow-on-the-River; its face was so old and lined that flaky white skin fell from the corners of its mouth and eyelids as it spoke.

“Fair enough.” The stranger shrugged and went back to its business of pulling jackrabbits out of old shoes, and whistling tunes that called birds to its arms like a scarecrow, covering the stranger head to finger.

The marketplace of Riverlings applauded and cheered, and tossed copper coins.

Jealous Quix paced and scowled and muttered insulting things under her breath that made a young mother nearby cover her children’s ears. But while Quicksilver muttered and scowled and paced, she also watched. She watched the stranger’s fingers, so frail and yet so sure, spinning tricks out of old cloths and rickety buckets and seemingly ordinary well water. She watched those crumbling white hands pull fresh, fully-grown flowers out of cracks in the marketplace cobblestones.

Once, the stranger snapped, and the crowd gasped, for the movement cut open the stranger’s right thumb in a tiny spray of blood. A shower of sparks rained down from the chimney overhead, and transformed in mid-air to cover everyone in white feathers.

Quicksilver plucked a feather from her shoulder and sniffed it. It smelled of burned things, and she was the only one to notice that the stranger’s blood dried almost as quickly as it appeared, and turned to ash that fell to the street.

The show lasted well into the night, and when the last sleepy child had been herded to bed, Quicksilver was alone with the stranger. For a long time, they stared at each other. The stranger fiddled with a necklace it wore, a dirty, knobby thing that might have once been gold.

Then, the stranger said quietly, “I’m better than you, little swindler. I am a magician. You are just a thief.”

Was that a cracking, splintering smile on the stranger’s puckered face? Was that a challenging gleam in the bleary, watery old eyes?

Proud Quix thought so. Just a thief, indeed. She put up her chin. “You are no magician. There is no magic left in the world. You’re just playing tricks.”

“Ah, but perhaps,” said the stranger, “I have not shown you all of my tricks, Anastazia.”

Hearing her name—not on the wind, but in a real, true voice—took Quicksilver’s breath away. She could not speak for a long time. Then she said, “Teach me.”

The stranger coughed up crusty yellow bits that spotted its collar. “Teach you what?”

Quicksilver frowned. She would have to say it, then; the stranger would make her. “How to do . . . magic . . . like you do.” Quicksilver blushed, to say such a silly thing.

The stranger was quiet for so long that Quicksilver thought perhaps the old rotting lump of a thing had died.

Then the stranger said, “I will do it, if you will answer my greatest riddle. I will even,” the stranger said, leaning closer, “give you three tries to do it. Three chances, one riddle, endless tricks.”

“Magic,” Quicksilver teased, proud of her own cleverness, “not tricks. Remember? You just said.”

The stranger seemed to smile. It looked painful, but pleased. “As you say.”

They slapped hands in agreement, and Quicksilver yawned. Even eleven-year-old master thieves are still eleven years old, and grow tired after such a long day. And Quicksilver had much to think about.

“Well,” she said, tossing her coins about impressively, “good night, then.”

The stranger grabbed her wrist, stopping her. It hurt. The necklace swung heavily from the stranger’s neck. On that neck, Quicksilver saw angry red marks where the necklace’s chain rested.

“But you must answer my riddle,” the stranger rumbled, its throat full of sickness. “Tonight is your first try.”

Quicksilver stamped her foot. “But I’m tired tonight! I will try tomorrow.”

“Tonight. I am impatient, and you should have known better than to agree to a bargain without first setting your own rules.”

The stranger had a point, and sly Quix had been the one outfoxed, for once. It was not a pleasant feeling.

“Fine.” She hopped on a small fence opposite the stranger and made an ugly face. “What is the riddle?”

The stranger spoke swiftly. “How do I know your true name, Anastazia?”

That was it? That was the riddle? Part of Quicksilver felt glad; that was not the mind-twisting riddle she had expected.

But another part of Quicksilver shivered and shook at the stranger’s voice, so hungry and old and dark.

A possible answer came to her mind—too easy an answer, but she was tired, and didn’t realize it. “You used your magic,” she said, “to find it in my mind.”

“Bah!” The stranger spat, shovering Quicksilver off her fence and to the ground. When the stranger moved, a stink followed it, a stink of unwashed skin and creaking houses. “Magic, to do such things? That was a stupid answer. You didn’t take any time to think about it.” The stranger glared runny yellow eyes at Quicksilver, rubbing its necklace with finger and thumb. “How disappointing.”

Quicksilver leapt to her feet, gray hair flying everywhere like a lion’s mane. If anyone else had insulted her like that, she would have done something truly nasty to them—but the stranger was truly nasty, so Quicksilver said, “Fine. Fine. I’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Two more chances,” the stranger growled as Quicksilver scrambled up the roof and away. “Two more chances, stupid thief. Tiny, stupid, precious thief.”

Quicksilver barely heard those last few words, but she did hear them, and thought them odd, and sat awake for a long time beside the cold, silent church bells, thinking.

 *

The next day was cold and pale. Quicksilver stole an old coat trimmed in fur from a traveler at the inn. She wrapped herself in it and sat on the roof above the stranger, watching another day of the stranger’s art—puppets moving on their lonesome, with no hands to guide them, and snow falling on the stranger out of a sunny sky. She watched the stranger pick pockets without ever moving from its stool, and saw a man so bewitched he thought the stranger was a beautiful woman, and said so, and planted a kiss on the stranger’s chalky white lips.

That made the crowd of Riverlings roar with laughter. They slapped knees and wiped away laughing tears, and led the poor confused man to the tavern for supper.

Quicksilver watched it all, focusing on the stranger’s bright red head, listening to the croaking voice that was neither man’s nor woman’s. She paid such close attention that her head hurt, and her eyes watered, and her body ached with stiffness.

Finally, Quicksilver jumped down, silent as a cat, and hurried to the stranger’s side.

The stranger counted copper coins, chuckling. They gleamed red in the light of the setting sun. The necklace the stranger wore also gleamed, despite its coat of filth.

“Well?” said the stranger, without looking up. “Do you have an answer for me, stupid thief?”

Stupid thief. Ah, but the stranger had said precious thief the night before, and the words had stirred something lonely and forgotten in Quicksilver’s hard little heart. At first she hadn’t realized what it was, and then, sometime during the night, she had started to wonder, and this whole day she had wondered, and now she knew. She knew. It had to be the answer, this wondrous, terrible thought.

“I do,” she said, and she smiled, and it was not the smile of outfoxing someone, but a real, honest smile. “You are one of my parents, my mother or my father, and you’ve come to find me at last.”

After the first answer, the stranger had been angry and disappointed. Now, the stranger seemed simply tired. Its shoulders slumped with sadness. The necklace it wore seemed to drag the stranger’s head close to the ground.

“No, child,” the stranger said at last, and when it breathed, the sound was like dead leaves blowing through a storm. “I am not either of your parents. Your parents left you at the doorstep of St. Agatha’s, and never looked back.”

Quicksilver remembered that place, the tiny convent with the dark roof and the darker rooms. She had run away from the silent, stern Sisters as soon as she was strong enough, but one thing the Sisters had taught her was the beauty of prayer and faith, and she had never forgotten it. The statue of St. Agatha, which Quicksilver kept in her pocket, was the only thing she had ever felt guilty about stealing.

She held it now, her fist tight around it in her coat.

She would not cry in front of this stranger, who looked so suddenly sad.

“You ugly thing,” Quicksilver said. “You ugly, horrible thing. You made me think you were . . . ”

The stranger blinked slowly at her. “Did I?”

Of course, the stranger had not made lonely Quix think anything. She had done it for herself, letting herself hope, letting herself wish for a family, for the first time in ages.

“One more chance,” the stranger said, after a moment. “One more chance, and then either we are done, or we are just beginning. So go. Sleep.”

To keep from crying, Quicksilver grabbed a fistful of dirt and flung it at the stranger’s face, and then raced up the rooftops, alone.

*

Quicksilver did not sleep, though she needed it, and it was a good thing, for her exhaustion allowed her to see things more clearly.

All the next day, she paced on the roof, and when the crowds came and went, and it was evening, and the stranger sat alone on its stool, scratching its bright red head, Quicksilver climbed down and stood tall, though she was more afraid than ever.

For she had found the answer to the stranger’s riddle.

The stranger raised tangled eyebrows. “Well? This is your last chance, thiefling. What is your answer?”

Quicksilver remembered all the times she had thought herself brave and clever before, and realized how silly that had been. She breathed in and out. She stared at the stranger’s necklace, instead of at the stranger’s eyes.

“You are me,” she said. “That is how you know my name.”

Though Quicksilver had spoken softly, the words seemed to ring in Willow-on-the-River’s tiny brown marketplace. She held her breath. She counted the seconds, trying to be patient.

At last, the stranger’s mouth grew into a smile that stretched its skin tight like worn leather, across yellowed teeth and black gums. Quicksilver looked for her own face in that folded-over skin and couldn’t find it, and that was the scariest thing of all.

“Aye, child,” said the stranger, “it is I. I am you.”

And as the stranger spoke, telling Quicksilver stories that only Quicksilver could know—stories of St. Agatha’s, of the other orphans poking fun at her head of thick gray hair, of her escape and her traveling on the road afterward—crafty Quix felt a bit like she was floating above her own body. She had thought it was the right answer, but still, to hear this proof out loud was another thing.

“But how?” she whispered.

At that, the stranger’s eyes turned sharp and narrow, lit up in a new way. “You wanted me to show you my magic.”

“Yes. I did.”

“And I said I would, if you answered my greatest riddle.”

Quicksilver drew her stolen coat tighter about her body. “We slapped hands on it.”

“Aye. Then so be it done, at last.” The stranger took a long, slow breath, and then, before Quicksilver knew what was happening, the stranger was on her feet, pressing her necklace into Quicksilver’s sweaty hands, breathing sour breath on Quicksilver’s wide-eyed face.

“Then have it,” this strange, red-headed Quicksilver said. She seemed sorry for something, but also joyous, and determined. “Have it, and go.”

“Go where?” Quicksilver started to say, but the necklace was growing hot in her hands, so hot that it burned her. She tried to drop it, but her hands would not come away. The necklace was melting into her skin; golden light swirled brightly around her.

Through it, Quicksilver saw the stranger melting away, sighing, her eyes closed. The stranger shed first her dark cloak, then her bright red hair, and then her skin itself, like a tired bird shedding old feathers. She was a shriveled husk of a thing. A skeleton. A mirage.

The gold in Quicksilver’s eyes became too thick to see anything else.

Quick-tongued Quix thought, “Funny, for a girl named Quicksilver to die in a sea of gold.”

But Quicksilver was not dead. Not that night.

Not ever, really.

But she did not know that yet.

*

When Quicksilver next opened her eyes, she sensed without even looking around that she was no longer in Willow-on-the-River, but somewhere entirely new.

She knew this because when she breathed, she nearly choked on the air. It stung her lungs and burned her insides. It was too thick, too full of energy, too different.

She did not know, in that moment, that she was breathing in air laced with magic.

She did not realize that the land she had found herself in was old, much older than the land of the kindly Riverfolk.

She did not understand why the people here sported hair in all manner of outlandish colors—blue as electric as storms, and green as bright as springtime, and red. Red as bright as a stranger’s hair.

Red as was Quicksilver’s hair, now.

She saw it in the reflection of a still pond. Somehow, this was the most unsettling thing of all, that her hair had lost its grey and was now this fiery red. For what is a person, without a name, and what kind of name is Quicksilver, for a girl with red hair?

“Why has my hair changed color?” she wondered. “And where has the necklace gone? That stranger’s necklace?” She paused, afraid, looking around at this world glowing with so many colors that her eyes hurt to look at it. “My necklace.”

She did not understand any of this.

But she would understand it soon.

Soon, she would understand that she had traveled to a time before her own, when magic still lived in the world and the people prayed to different gods.

Soon, she would begin traveling, as she had done before, and she would learn real magic, and the poor street tricks she had always performed to survive would seem like dusty memories in the corners of her mind.

Soon, she would take up her true name and become Anastazia once again, and everyone from the poorest thiefling to the richest king would come to her, seeking the cleverness of her magic.

And later, many lifetimes later, when much of the world had changed and grown dimmer, and much of its magic bled away, she would stumble upon a dirty, knobby necklace in the far north of the world. She would hold it and laugh, and be glad, for this meant that her story was both almost over and close to beginning again. Old Anastazia, cleverest witch, would put the necklace over her head, and she would not take it off, not for many years, not even when it rubbed sores on her chalky white skin.

And she would keep an eye out, in those frail days, for a small girl with limbs like a fox, nose like a pig, and hair grey as a crone’s in winter.

For, like the necklace she wore, Anastazia Quicksilver was a circle, and so was the world, and so was everything, though few ever realized it. It was a grand game, the thorniest of tricks, and no one played it better than she.

~*~