Two houses stand at No. 17, Farringdon High Street, behind the station tracks where the steam engines used to whistle and where the mushrooms grew tall as trees. One house you see, grey and cold, red drapes and only a single window lit. One house you don’t see. One house you’ll never see. I write this as a confession. I write this to speak of that other house – the one under the back stairs – and what happened to it, and what I did.
The stairs are still there. I hobbled down them just to be sure, while the nurse was sleeping. It is a dark, creaky little flight, squeezed between the scullery and the back hall. It has a door under it leading into what may have once been a broom-cupboard or a boiler room. You wouldn’t know it now. You would never guess. I had it papered over years ago in dull green stripes. Behind the door, that is where the other house stays. It is so silent, but when I was small, and we had servants and maids for every little thing, the other house used to come out at night and I could hear it wheezing and clattering from all the way upstairs. It had legs, you see. Long clicketty legs like a spider’s.
“Mother, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said to my mother once before bed, and she said, “Oh, how wonderful,” and looked worried and hurried away.
I thought it was wonderful, too. One night, when I was feeling very brave, I left a crust of bread for it in the back hall and watched from between the spindles in the banister. I waited a long time before the little door under the stairs creaked open and the house scuttled out. It was like a doll-house with eight sharp metal legs and a turret. It went right up to where the piece of bread lay and seemed to tip forward, its joints scraping. If it were a dog, I would have thought it had sniffed the crust. It wasn’t a dog, though, so I’m not sure what it did. Then it retreated back into the door, leaving the bread untouched on the tiles.
It doesn’t much fancy bread, I remember thinking. I wonder what it does fancy. I wonder it wants.
For several nights I did the same thing only with different foods. I tried a teaspoon of quince in a saucer. The house didn’t eat it. I tried a single ripe gooseberry and a bit of pear. A great angry puff of smoke went up from the house’s chimney when it investigated those and it immediately retreated under the stairs, slamming the little door behind it. It did not fancy gooseberries either.
I tried biscuits and snapped beans, a slice of plum pudding and a bowl of curds. It investigated all of them, but it did not take any.
“Father, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said one day, when he came back from the city, and he said, “What utter nonsense!” and had a talk with my mother, as if it were her fault.
Nonsense. . . When I saw the house again it seemed a bit darker and the windows were full of soot.
That evening, at dinner, I hid a disk of sausage inside my napkin. Mother saw me, but she said nothing. Father saw, too. He said something.
“What is that for?” he demanded. “Why did you take that sausage?”
I said something about the other house, and how I wanted to catch it and open its roof and look at its insides, and how-
“There is no other house!” Father snapped. “There is no such thing!”
But there was! I knew there was!
That night, I slipped from my bed and padded down the back stairs. When I had settled myself behind the banister, I tossed the sausage into the hall. It struck the tiles with a sound like a slap. For a second nothing stirred. Then I felt a shudder under the stairs. The door opened a crack. Two long black legs uncurled, testing the tiles, testing the air. With a whir and clatter, the house shot out the door and fell upon the sausage in a frenzy of smoke and metal. I saw something, something so small I cannot be certain what it was, flicker out and snatch the sausage. That was when I knew I wanted to catch that house more than ever.
A few nights later I stole a small roast from the larder. The roast had a mottled white bone at one end, and to this I attached a length of twine. The twine I tied about my wrist. I laid the roast in the back hall. I sat up on the stairs. I leaned my head against the spindles, and thought about the house and all its secrets.
The other house came out after not very long. It was on the roast in a blink. The twine snapped tight around my wrist. The house began to drag at the ham, pulling and scrabbling, frantically trying to get it back under the stairs. I gasped, struggling to undo the twine. It was so strong. My head slammed flat against the banister. The house pulled and pulled. The twine went tighter, tighter, and then I was thrown off balance and went tumbling down the stairs.
“Help!” I shrieked. “Father, mother, help me!”
The spider-house was pulling me toward the door, right along with the roast. I squeaked over the tiles. Somewhere I heard doors open. Footsteps and worried voices. Faces peering down at me, pale moons of befuddlement and indignation.
I wasn’t moving. I was lying on the cold tiles. The roast was next to me, and the twine, and there were bruises on my arms and back.
“Mrs. Barrowstamp!” the housekeeper shouted. “Mr. Barrowstamp, your son!”
I got the most horrible lecture that night. It went on and on until I felt the words in my bones, and my head was full of them, full enough to burst.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.
I went to bed, and woke the next morning with it still ringing in my ears. Mother had cried, Father had shouted, the maids had whispered, and the housekeeper had sneered.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Someday you’ll have to grow up.
And I did. I stole a great big ham next. I think it was for New Year’s Eve; I think a servant was probably sacked because of it. But I didn’t think of it then. From Father’s glass cabinet I stole a syringe and a bottle of carbolic acid. I had heard what carbolic acid does. I wasn’t innocent. The cold precision with which I went about all this would shock me now. I filled the acid into the syringe and injected the entire load into the ham.
As soon as everyone had gone to bed, I took the ham and laid it out on the tiles. Then I went up to my perch behind the banister and waited.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.
I was almost ready to assume the problem had taken care of itself and I could go back to bed, when the door under the stairs opened. The other house stood in it, swaying slightly on its long, long legs, staring at the ham. It clicked over to it. It leaned down. The ham was already shriveling, drying into a thin twist of sinew. The house turned slowly. Its gable tilted up, and I might have sworn it was looking at me. Then it turned back to the ham and began to eat it, quietly. A spring popped from the tiled roof with the sound of a snapped wire. It spasmed and jerked. It staggered around the newel-post toward the foot of the stair. It began climbing the stairs, right up toward me, legs scrabbling for hold on the wood.
But when it was only two or three steps below me, it stopped. Through its little windows I could see people, tiny shadowy figures moving frantically this way and that. They had fingers and eyes and clothes on their backs. A woman ran to one of the windows and mashed her face against the pane. Her mouth was open, gaping in a silent shriek. She had been pretty once, like porcelain painted doll. Now she was hideous, her face cracked and wicked-eyed. I watched as the fumes engulfed her and ate her away.
I vaguely remember the house retreating, dragging itself back under the stairs. I have not seen it since then. I think it must be there still, silent in the dark, spider-legs curled around itself, but I have not seen it. I have not seen anything particularly interesting since, and I no longer believe there were ever mushrooms growing as tall as trees on Farringdon High Street.
Henry Higginbotham was generally considered to be the worst child in the world, but even then, it’s hard to say if he deserved what happened to him.
Do note the use of the word “generally” rather than “universally,” for Henry’s parents, as is often the case with horrible children, believed their son to be remarkable, precocious, and even darling.
For example, when Henry would not eat his supper of chicken and green beans, instead choosing to sit at the table hurling insults at his parents for a solid quarter of an hour, and then proceeding to throw the green beans at their heads like darts, Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham praised his stubborn spirit and fixed him a heaping platter of cookies instead.
When Henry was called to the principal’s office for bullying the third-graders—pinning them to the blacktop during recess and pummeling them until he was satisfied; calling them nasty names that would have made even hardened criminals cover their ears—Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham gave the school board a heap of money in exchange for “putting this punishment business behind us.” They then congratulated Henry all the way home, for inspiring the younger students with his physical prowess.
And when Henry threw an absolute raging fit the day of his 11th birthday, declaring the birthday cake his mother had worked so hard to make “an ugly heap of eyeball pus,” Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham sent home the partygoers at once (who were only too glad to leave, having been bullied by Henry into attending) and took Henry into town for a new cake.
Of course—and this should not be surprising—not just any bakery would do. Not the bakery in the supermarket, and not the fancy bakery with all the cupcakes in the windows—but the little bakery far on the outskirts of town, in a neighborhood the Higginbothams did not normally frequent . . . ah. Henry pressed his face against the car window and smiled at the sight of the tiny rundown building with the faded lettering: MR. HONEY’S HAPPY DELITES.
Henry began thinking of all the ways he could make fun of the unimpressive shop’s proprietor, and his shriveled black heart leapt with glee.
“What a dump,” said Henry. “We’ll go here.”
“But Henry,” protested Mrs. Higginbotham, “don’t you think it looks a bit shabby?”
Henry whirled on his mother, smiling when she shrank back from him. “What, do you think I’m blind, you idiot? I said we’ll go here and we’ll go here. I know what I want.”
“Of course you do, son,” said Mr. Higginbotham, glaring pointedly at his wife. “You know what’s best.”
Henry marched up to MR. HONEY’S HAPPY DELITES and let himself in, his parents hurrying to catch up. Inside the bakery, Henry stopped short, for the inside of the bakery and the outside of the bakery were, in a word, incongruous. Bright white tile covered the floor, warm lights blinked overhead, and displays of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and pies sat behind pristine glass windows. Bright posters of laughing children at birthday parties and picnics and bowling alleys covered the walls. Some sort of cheery old-fashioned music came from a radio in the corner.
Henry scoffed, to cover his surprise. “Wow. This place is so . . . cheesy. What is this, 1950?”
At that moment, a man came out from the kitchen through a set of swinging doors, and said, “Hello there. I’m Mr. Honey. How can I help you today?”
Now, Mr. Honey was a man so exceptionally handsome that even Henry felt a bit discombobulated. He had fair skin and fair hair and fair eyes, and a wonderful smile that made Mrs. Higginbotham say to herself, “Well, my heavens,” and blush a bright pink.
Henry saw the blush, and felt furious. His mother was not supposed to think anyone handsome but Henry himself. So he marched up to Mr. Honey and slammed his fist against the cake displays with every screamed word:
“Give us a cake. Now.”
Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham rushed forward to gush about how delightfully outspokentheir son was—and, perhaps, to more closely inspect Mr. Honey’s handsome smile—but Mr. Honey ignored them. He had eyes only for Henry. You could say, in fact, that they were staring each other down, Henry with a fearsome scowl on his face (his most typical expression) and Mr. Honey with a broad smile.
“It’s for his birthday,” Mrs. Higginbotham explained. “The cake we gave him wasn’t good enough.”
“The cake you gave him,” Mr. Higginbotham added sourly, eager to get back into Henry’s good graces. “I told you we should have gone with a store-bought cake. Didn’t I, Henry?”
“Oh, shut up, both of you.” Henry was in top form. “Do you see what I have to put up with?”
Mr. Honey nodded, his smile a bit smaller now, and his eyes a bit less kind. “Oh, yes. I see quite a lot. If you’ll excuse me for one moment, I think I have just the thing.”
When Mr. Honey returned from the kitchen, he held in his arms an astonishing cake. Not only was it enormous, but it looked just like Henry. Yes, a boy-shaped cake, from head to toe—from Henry’s brown hair to his red hi-top sneakers. His exact sneakers! In fact, the only thing about the cake Henry that was different from the real Henry was that cake Henry was . . . smiling.
Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham found it unsettling to look at, and stepped away.
Henry, however, was enamored. A cake, an entire cake, that looked just like him! It was, he decided, the perfect tribute. He wouldn’t have to sit and look at stupid balloons or animals or other meaningless icing decorations while he ate. No, he would be able to look at himself, and was there anything in the world he liked to look at more than his own reflection? (There wasn’t.)
“We’ll take it,” he said, looking up at Mr. Honey.
Mr. Honey smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. “Yes. I thought you might.”
At first, everything seemed marvelous. As soon as the Higginbothams arrived back at home, Henry commanded his parents to set up a fresh table setting. They were, he told them, to sit there and watch while he ate a piece of cake, surrounded by his piles of presents.
“Maybe,” Henry said, “if you’re good, if I feel like it, I’ll let you have some cake too.”
Mr. Higginbotham smiled gratefully. “Oh, isn’t that generous of you, Henry?”
“So generous,” Mrs. Higginbotham agreed, though she wasn’t sure she actually wanted any of that cake. It was, she thought, too disturbingly lifelike to be trusted.
She wasn’t wrong.
“Where shall I start?” Henry lovingly inspected his cake, admiring the shape of his own arms and legs. “I suppose I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up. Father, cut off the left foot. And hurry. I’m hungry.”
Mr. Higginbotham sliced off cake Henry’s left foot and slid it onto real Henry’s plate, and the latter began to eat, and . . . oh. Oh. It was, without doubt, the best cake Henry had ever eaten. The icing melted on his tongue; the cake was moist and rich. But as Henry put the last bite of foot into his mouth, he noticed something strange; he paused mid-bite. His eyes went wide, and his face went green. He swallowed, and began to scream.
“Something’s eating me! Help me! Help, make it stop!”
For a moment, Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham watched in stunned silence as their son fell to the floor, writhing and sobbing and clutching his left foot. What they did not yet know was that, though, technically, nothing was eating their son, he certainly felt like it was. All over his left foot, he felt the nibbling of teeth; they tore at his flesh, chomping, swallowing, grinding his foot bones into little bone granules. And Henry knew, instinctively, that the teeth he felt were his own.
“Make it stop!” Henry clawed at his own flesh, drawing bloody red marks across his skin, which, as you can imagine, did nothing to help the pain. “MAKE IT STOP MAKE THEM STOP MOMMY DADDY MAKE IT STOP!”
Now, Henry Higginbotham had not called his parents anything but their first names, scornfully, since the moment he was able to speak. So hearing him scream Mommy and Daddy like that shocked Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham into action. They did everything they could to help Henry; they bandaged his foot, they forced medicine down his throat between his screams, they took him to the hospital to have him examined. But the bandages, of course, did nothing; and Henry just threw the medicine right back up, in this sour, evil-smelling puddle; and the doctors could find nothing wrong with him.
“He’s having a tantrum,” they said. “Just let him cry it out.” (The doctors were not, as most people in Berryton were not, the biggest fans of Henry Higginbotham.)
Helplessly, Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham returned home, and watched Henry scream and sob and bang his fists against his foot until he passed out, in a drooling puddle on the floor. His left foot was a quite abused shade of red. Mr. Higginbotham picked Henry up and put him to bed; Mrs. Higginbotham cleaned up in the kitchen. Together, as Henry slept upstairs, they sat at the kitchen table in silence, and stared at the one-footed cake.
The next day, Henry limped downstairs in a terrible temper.
“I’m hungry,” he announced, with his usual haughtiness (but he did eye the cake, wrapped up innocently on the countertop, with no small amount of suspicion).
Mrs. Higginbotham offered him a plate of eggs, and though Henry complained about their consistency, he gobbled them up. Perhaps he was eager to get the sugary aftertaste out of his mouth? But no sooner had he swallowed the last bite did it all come back up, in a most unsettling and foul-smelling puddle of steaming black goop.
The Higginbothams looked at the black goop in dismay. Henry blinked. “But I’m hungry,” he said, and Mrs. Higginbotham quickly toasted some bread, while Henry banged on the kitchen table with his knife and fork. But the toast was no good either; and neither was the waffle, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of cereal. Every bit of food came back up stinking like rotten eggs, and each time, Henry became hungrier, and, worst of all, he began to crave a piece of cake. Yes, his foot still stung with the memory of all those invisible teeth eating him, and yes, he had had nightmares too unspeakable to write about, but he was hungry. And he knew only the cake would satisfy him.
So, Henry made a dive for it, dragging it off the countertop and into his lap. Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham tried to stop him, but he flung them away with a hiss, and a terrible look in his eyes, and began scooping the right foot of cake Henry into his mouth.
Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham watched, horrified, as Henry finished eating his right foot and once again began to flail and thrash across the ground, shouting terrible things: “IT’S EATING MY FOOT, I’M EATING MY FOOT, I CAN FEEL THE TEETH, IT HURTS, IT HURTS!” He begged them to make it stop, but, of course, they could do nothing.
Nothing, but take him back to the place where the cake was made.
Mr. Honey was waiting for them, standing politely behind the counter of his shop in a fresh white apron.
“Now see here,” Mr. Higginbotham said, slamming the cake down on the countertop. “You’d better explain yourself, sir.”
“This cake is hurting our son,” Mrs. Higginbotham said tearfully. “I don’t understand it, but it is.”
Henry, chomping and slobbering to himself at his father’s side, made a wild-eyed leap for the cake, even though he was still crying.
“MORE CAKE,” he said, clambering up onto the countertop. “No no no no. YES. MORE CAKE. Make it stop, oh it hurts me!”
It was as though Henry was having a conversation with himself. Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham backed away from him, huddling in the corner by the refrigerated ice cream cakes.
Mr. Honey stood and watched. “It’s eating you alive,” he said, “isn’t it?”
Red-eyed, red-footed Henry looked up at Mr. Honey. “Yes. YES.”
“Good.” Mr. Honey’s eyes flashed. “Horrible children deserve horrible cakes.”
Then Mr. Honey smiled and turned to Henry’s parents, and despite the fact that her son was rolling around on the floor screaming like a demon, Mrs. Higginbotham patted her hair smooth and Mr. Higginbotham puffed up his chest impressively.
“You should take him home,” Mr. Honey said. “There isn’t anything to do now but finish it.”
“Now see here,” Mr. Higginbotham said once more, “I’ll call the police on you, I will. You can’t just—you can’t just poison someone and get away with it.”
Mr. Honey smiled; it was not a nice smile; it could, in fact, be described as bestial. “The only poison in Henry is his own.”
The Higginbothams left quickly after that, Mrs. Higginbotham wondering what she had ever seen in the handsome baker man, and Mr. Higginbotham sustaining a good number of bite marks from the wailing Henry.
Cake Henry stared at everyone, smiling, from the back seat.
To this day, the Higginbothams’ neighbors trade gossip about what happened to the Higginbotham family that terrible week in August, when all they could hear from the Higginbotham house was Henry’s unearthly screams.
“Maybe they’re finally teaching him a lesson,” said Mr. Bradhurst, on Monday. “Brat’s needed a good beating for years.”
“Maybe he’s decided he’s not getting enough attention,” suggested Mrs. White, on Tuesday, “so he’s moved on to constant screaming. You can’t ignore screaming.”
“Should someone call the police?” asked Mr. Rockwell, on Wednesday.
No one called the police.
Quite a few of them, they shamefully (but not too shamefully) confessed some time afterward, had hoped something awful was happening to Henry Higginbotham—though none of them could have guessed how awful that something was.
At the end of that week, when all that was left of cake Henry was its smiling, red-cheeked head, the Higginbotham family gathered around it on the floor of the kitchen, for Henry could no longer sit up properly.
His entire body was red with teeth marks and brown with bruises where he had punched himself to try to stop the pain. He had spent the week either miserable with hunger and craving cake, or devouring said cake and then feeling it, as it coursed through his body, devouring him. He had, like a wicked game of reverse Hangman, eaten his way through all of cake Henry . . . except for the head.
“This is it,” Mr. Higginbotham said, exhausted. “Just one last helping, Henry, and this will all go away.”
Mrs. Higginbotham was so tired, her head so filled with Henry’s screams, that she felt a bit mad. “Just . . . eat it, Henry. And hurry.”
Henry, on the floor, dragged himself closer to the cake and looked at his parents with bleary, wild eyes. “Help me,” he said, in a voice not entirely his own, and not entirely Mr. Honey’s, but an unnatural blend of the two. It was deep and horrible and eager. “Help me eat it.”
Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham shared an uncertain look.
“HELP ME EAT IT. THIS IS YOUR FAULT. YOU MADE ME. HELP ME EAT IT. IDIOTS. STUPID. STUPID IDIOTS STUPID IDIOTS.”
They did, fumbling for forks—as if forks mattered at such a time!—and when Henry—just Henry’s voice, this time—screamed, “No! Wait! DON’T!” it was too late, for Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham had already taken their first bites.
And Henry collapsed, mouth full of cake, screaming the loudest he had yet screamed. For now it was not only his teeth chomping through his skull and across his face, but also his parents’ teeth, and there was something infinitely worse about that.
When it was finished, however, when the last bites had been swallowed and the cake platter licked ravenously clean by Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham (who had, in the eating of cake Henry’s head, discovered how good this cake was, how irresistibly sweet), Henry lay stone still and cold on the floor, white as a sheet, his eyes open in shock.
And for a few minutes, Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham thought he was dead.
(But of course, he wasn’t dead. What a wasted effort that would have been.)
Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham realized, as they stared at their possibly-dead son, that they weren’t as beat up about it as they ought to have been, and this thought so completely disturbed them, that when Henry blinked awake at last, his parents vowed to make things different from that moment on. How they would make things different, they weren’t sure. (But life, they would soon find out, would be much easier for them now that Henry had apparently lost all will to speak and instead devoted himself to peaceful, solitary tasks like bird-watching and organizing the spice cabinet.)
Mr. Higginbotham, however, did know one thing he would do, now that the frightening week had passed and he could think clearly once more. He picked up the phone and called the police, describing the odd bakery on the outskirts of town, and how he suspected the proprietor, a “Mr. Honey,” had sold his family a poisoned cake.
“See that he’s put out of business, will you?” said Mr. Higginbotham authoritatively. “No man should be able to get away with something like that.”
“Of course, Mr. Higginbotham, we’ll start our investigation right away,” said Sergeant Moseley, who had been taking notes at the police station.
Both men hung up, Mr. Higginbotham feeling quite good about how effectively he could get things done. Sergeant Moseley, who didn’t care for the Higginbothams and their horrid son, begrudgingly started an investigation anyway, because the Higginbothams had recently helped financed the construction of the new city hall.
So, as Mr. and Mrs. Higginbotham carried their pale, speechless son to bed and tucked him in as they had always longed to do (and which he had never permitted them to do), Sergeant Moseley and his deputy drove to the outskirts of town and found the bakery, just as Mr. Higginbotham had described it . . . at least, on the outside.
Inside, however, the counter displays were crawling with moldy cakes, the kitchen was buzzing with flies, and the refrigerators held congealed, rotten pools of melted ice cream.
“There’s no one here!” said the deputy, pushing back his cap. “And it stinks to high heaven.”
“That Higginbotham’s an idiot,” muttered Sergeant Moseley, who had just found something odd on the floor behind the counter.“What is this, some kind of sick joke?
He picked it up and frowned at it—an old stained apron, obviously not worn for years. On the apron’s nametag, swirling blue letters read MR. HONEY. The fabric smelled rotten, like cake gone bad, and no matter how many times Sergeant Moseley washed his hands after that, he could never quite get out the stench.
“Anyone home? It’s me.”
No answer. The boy’s new key felt warm from his pocket in his chilly fingers. He turned the cold knob. The door creaked open.
“Hey, anyone home?” he called again.
His footsteps on the old wooden floor made hollow clock-clock-clocks; nothing like the soundless carpets of their old house. Through the row of wide windows on his left, he saw the nearby woods turn black under the dimming sky. It was only early October, but already swirls of dry yellow and brown rattled past the window in every gust of wind.
A lamp sat on the bare, dusty floor, and he switched it on. His family had only moved in the day before. The boy moved among piles of cardboard boxes, clock-clocking across the room. He didn’t know this new house—this very old house, but new to them, and much bigger than their last house. He didn’t know whether his parents could hear him calling from the front room, if they were upstairs, or if they were down.
In the kitchen, last night’s empty pizza box sat on a yellow-tiled counter.
“Anyone here? Anyone home?”
And for a moment the house seemed to call back, but he couldn’t quite hear what it said. He was quiet, listening. Was it only the emptiness, echoing back?
The boy slid his cold fingers up his wrists, under his sweater, for warmth. He didn’t know how to turn the heat on in this house.
An icy draft slipped down the neck of his sweater, like fingers.
Oh: the basement door was open—just a crack. Just a crack leading into the blackness of the stairwell. That must be where the draft was coming from. His dad must be down there, setting up his workroom.
The boy slipped through that cracked-open door into the darkness. He felt the air for the string to pull the light on, but it was too high, just too high for him to reach, though he could feel it with the tips of his fingers.
So he walked down the narrow wooden steps in the dark, feeling his way. At the bottom of the stair, he took a few steps in.
A silky hand brushed across his face. He stumbled backwards, thinking: a cobweb, it was obviously a cobweb, a cobweb for sure.
But for some reason, at the touch of the cold silk, he remembered the woman from next door, the woman who had brought them a welcome cake the night before. She had stood in the doorway, smiling, but she wouldn’t come in, and wouldn’t look them in the eye. “It’s your first night in the house. You should have some of this ginger cake,” she had said. “You should all have some, tonight, for luck. It’s a special cake, for luck.”
Then she smiled, as if she were joking. But her eyes hadn’t smiled at all.
His parents had called the cake delicious, licking crumbs from their fingers, laughing at the idea of lucky cake.
But the boy didn’t like ginger, so he had had no cake at all.
“Dad?” he called into the echoing dark. “Anyone here?”
And now he heard, he definitely heard, a whisper—unless it was only water running in the pipes.
But why would pipes say Yes, yes; here, here.
And it was still so dark. If his father was here, why was it still so dark?
“Anyone home?” he calls, and now his voice is high and thin, his throat is dry, and the cold of the basement runs through his veins, up and down his arms and legs. Shouldn’t his eyes be adjusting by now; shouldn’t he see something? But he sees only darkness.
He hears something, though. Yes: now he hears it, he hears the voices, and now they are certainly voices, rustling and whispering around him. And although hasn’t moved, although he has stood quite still, the cobwebs—are they cobwebs?—are all around him now, caressing his face, tangling like silk around his fingers and wrists, stroking the back of his neck.
“Anyone home?” he whispers.
We are, we are, they say, folding themselves around him. We’re home, they say, gathering him up, caressing him, muffling his screams. Yes, we’re home. We’re home. We’re home.
A few minutes later, another key in the front door, his parents’ laughing voices, the rustle of boxes and packages.
“Anyone home?” they call.
But the only noise is the October wind singing through the door, then the creaking of the door as it swings shut. That is the only noise in the old house.
And that is the only noise there will ever be.
The fairies come in the night, leaving tiny footprints in the sugar and the flour.
The townspeople are always too tired after the day of baking to tidy up properly, sweep the floors and wipe the countertops with a rag. A mess can wait.
But the fairies won’t.
Everyone knows what happened the first time the fairies didn’t get their cakes. It is, coincidentally, also the last time the fairies didn’t get their cakes, and the stories are still told in shaking whispers, in lead-lined rooms, the only place the people can be sure they won’t be overheard.
They come on a Tuesday, which is an odd sort of day all around, really, but most Tuesdays are not so very odd as the first Tuesday of February. For as long as anyone can remember, and far longer than that, the fairies have come on this day, and the snows always melt just in time to clear the pass through the mountains.
In the morning, the townspeople line the streets to wait for the deliveries. Fresh milk, and flour, sugar and eggs wrapped in cotton and honey from warm, distant lands where the bees are hard at work. The honey is especially important. No one speaks. No one even looks up. Eyes closed, they listen for the rumble of wheels over the broken road.
And on this morning, the rumbles never come.
An hour passes, then another. Higher, higher, the sun creeps.
“They’re not coming,” says a voice. Quietly, but the whisper carries down the line, passed from neighbor to neighbor.
“Have to,” says another. “Have to.”
Everyone is thinking the same thing. Angry teeth and unbreakable, fluttering wings. The light fades and the shivers start, and the suggestion comes to check all the cupboards. At once the street is empty, the kitchens full of searching hands, thin and bony from winter. Little children are sent to bed, but they do not sleep, their fingertips trapped in the dust on windowsills as they watch their mothers and fathers scurry to and from the town hall.
“It’ll be all right,” says a young girl to her younger sister. Their noses press against the glass, tips growing cold and red, until they have to wipe breath-mist away with the sleeves of their nightgowns.
“I promise,” says the older one, fingers crossed behind her back.
On the wide countertop in the town hall, too much wood shows between the meager gatherings, certainly not enough to bake for each one of the fairies, and no honey at all.
Outside, the moon rises in the sunset-sky. The clock on the wall, hammered into the lead with a heavy spike, chimes the truth that there is no time to get away.
There is no choice but to make do with what they have. When all is said and done, a few dozen tiny cakes sit, cooling, where there should be hundreds. One by one, the townspeople slip through the door and back to their homes. They pull the little children from the windows and tuck them into their beds, planting kisses on foreheads. The girl and her sister curl on their sides, huddling together for warmth, and they are asleep when the humming begins.
Thousands upon thousands of wings block out the moon and the mountains, the noise growing louder and sharper as the fairies descend. Smiling, teeth bared, ready for the feast that is their due. The town hall door stands open; some fly inside, others land on the ground to run, cackling, over the floor.
And the cackles turn to screeching, inhuman cries.
Years later, the stories are told of what happened the second time the fairies didn’t get their cakes. The girl is old, wrinkled, her younger sister only a little less lined. In lead-lined rooms, they tell their children and grandchildren of the night the fairies went hungry. Of the sound that woke them from their beds and sent them back to the windows to watch as feathers flew and blood-curdling screams tore the night apart.
They covered their eyes, and then their ears, and then tried to cover both at once. Crouched down, they waited, safe, for the fairies never harm little children. The screams finally stopped, and the humming grew distant, disappearing over the mountains into the dawn.
By the light of day, feathers littered the broken road where the townspeople had tried to protect themselves, even while knowing it was no use.
There was no blood. There were no bones. There was only silence, and then, slowly, whispers as the children met outside their houses. Older ones took smaller hands, promising, again, that it would be all right. They had watched their parents, and knew what to do on the next first Tuesday of February, and the one after that.
It would be all right.
Bravely, the children crept into the town hall. Crumbs littered the countertop, spat out by fairy-mouths the moment they tasted the cakes, baked without honey. Splintered wooden spoons lay strewn on the floor, mixing bowls sat dented where the fairies had used them for war drums.
In the last scraps of sugar and flour were tiny footprints, no bigger than a fingernail, from when the fairies had come in the night.
Imagine, if you will, a door in a wall.
Go on. Close your eyes. You can trust us.
Now, imagine that the wall is made of crumbling brick. It is part of a building set low on the side of a seldom traveled road, and that road lies at the edge of a wood you cannot enter unless you know the way. The door is weathered. Its peeling paint bears the prints of many a desperate hand, a dangerous hand, an innocent hand, and all of them curious. The knob is brass, worn dark; the threshold smells of spices, of candlelight and old things. The latch will open for no key. It will, however, open for the curious at heart.
Are you one of those curious souls?
If so, welcome. You have found the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Inside the Cabinet, you will find many rooms — tiny ones and cavernous ones, rooms lined with shelves of trinkets and rooms that contain only what you bring inside them (so be mindful of what you carry). You will find many treasures in these rooms — relics and remnants, secrets and stories. Some of them may be beautiful, and some of them may be ugly, but rest assured, you curious visitors, they will all be strange — and sometimes even frightening. But you are brave, aren’t you?
Take heart: Four Curators are here to guide you, to help you find the particular bit of oddity you seek, and to share with you the stories of our curiosities. How did we obtain this one-eyed doll, or that dainty bird skeleton? What fills those jars labeled in an undecipherable language? Who once wore this jewelry that whispers of murder, what child sat at this shivering desk, what pirate used this glass eye — and why, when you look into it, do you see glimpses of your past?
Join us, every Wednesday, when one of we Curators will share with you a story sure to entertain and entrance. And, as we are Curators — and therefore more organized than your average eccentric — do note that each month of stories will fall under a different theme. This month, the theme is cake, to celebrate the beginning of our adventures together.
Come. Close your eyes and step through the tired old door into our world of strangeness and dark delights.
Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.