I will recount for you the story of the Stump Child. There was once a little person who sat alone on the top of a fallen tree stump. She was pale and delicate and marble-skinned, and though the fog rolled up into the woods, and the wind lashed, and the rain came down in torrents, the child remained still as stone atop the stump, rain dripping from her nose, not moving at all. The child was seen from time to time by passing travelers, and they would comment on her, asking their guide who it was that they glimpsed there among the curling branches, far off the path. Sometimes the guide would tell them. The less fortunate found out for themselves. . .
We were walking along a muddy trail in that country called the Emerald Isle, heading for the town of Arklow. I had booked passage on a ship bound for England, and from England I was quite looking forward to the journey home, wandering the dusty halls and sunlit motes of the Cabinet, exchanging notes with the other curators, and catalogueing my many perilous encounters in the faery hills of Lough Corrib.
I was not expecting further encounters of the supernatural sort, and when I saw the face, high up the hillside, I thought at first it was an owl. I told myself it was an owl, because owls are generally benign creatures, and one needn’t feel obligated to know things about them or record tales about them and their histories. And yet when I peered closer into the rain, I saw that it was indeed nothing like an owl, but a child, with her knees pulled up to her chin, and her small sharp face peering over the tops of them, eyes slightly pointed, and very dark, too distant to read, but close enough to see that they looked like little holes in the woods, like little hole-punched openings.
“What is that?” I asked my guide, whose name was McCarthy, and who seemed to me a quintessential Irishman in that he was brusque, sharp-witted, somewhat superstitious, and very difficult to understand. For sake of simplicity, I have refrained from writing out his marvelous accent, and have put down his words in plainer, duller English.
“That?” my guide said, not even glancing toward the dark woods, but keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, “Is Betty’s Daughter. Don’t look at her.”
And so of course, being a Curator of Curious Things, I wrenched my head around and looked up into the trees with great interest.
It was a weird, unearthly sort of forest we were walking through. Ireland has no shortage of such woods. The trees grow sinuous, as if their branches are floating up in water. The bark is always thick with moss, the ground thick with mist, and the rocks are wrapped as if in green velvet. The resulting impression is one wild beauty, but also forlornness, and a sense that one should not be there, that the forest should be walked through at great speed until one is in a city with cars and ugly buildings where one belongs, and that the forest should be left to its own devices, of which there are no doubt many.
But cars and cities were far from us, and so were all manner of humans, and as I stared up into the woods, I felt the child turn her head and look at me.
“Why is she called that? Betty’s Daughter? What is she doing there?”
“Don’t speak to her. Show her no kindness. Come quickly.” My guide kept his eyes on the ground, but his brows were low, and as he spoke, he came back toward me and gripped my arm. I resisted, shrugging him off.
“Come, Sir,” he said. “Bad things happen when you stray from the path. The woods are treacherous in the quiet hours.”
I was not listening. I turned back to the girl. The rain was coming more violently now, and suddenly I was noticing details I had not seen before: the child wore a blue smock with a soiled collar, and little old-fashioned black leather shoes, and she no longer appeared quite so bony and fey, but like an actual child, shivering in the cold and weeping, so that I could not tell where the tears ended and the rain began.
“Is it here often?” I said. One part of my mind was trying to swim its way to the surface and whisper warnings in my ear, and the other part looked into the child’s eyes and felt a deep, unimaginable sadness. The child’s hole-punch gaze was blue now. She was sniffling, crying. . .
I saw a child walking with her mother down a forest path. The sun was shining, and for a moment it was an idyllic scene, something from a painting. Their garb was Victorian, and the forest was younger and wilder than it is now. The mother stopped suddenly, several paces away from where I observed them, and I saw she looked haggard, and her clothes were askew and her face was tired and pockmarked. She took the child up to the stump and sat her there, and though I heard no voices, I saw the mother’s mouth move, and her finger wag, and then the woman left and hurried on down the path. The child sat on the stump and waited. The sun faded. The fog came, creeping up the hillside and lapping slowly at the base of the stump like cotton tongues. The dark followed, then the rain, and the child sat on the stump in the cold and the damp, and waited. The rain dripped from her nose, and the water pooled in her shoes. Her mother did not return that night.
I realized suddenly I was standing, petrified, in the path, and my guide was dragging at me, his eyes wild. “Do not look at it! Do not look!”
I turned to him again, and said, almost dreamily: “Why does no one help her?”
“Come away!” the guide screamed.
But I could not. The child on the hillside was sobbing wretchedly, her hands were over her eyes, and now I saw her mother faraway, reaching a smoky city, limping past grimy brick walls and signboards, boarding a boat, going farther away, and all the while her child sat alone in the woods. The mother died on the boat and was thrown overboard. The child waited in the woods for days, then weeks, becoming thinner and thinner, and the people who passed by crossed themselves and hurried on in terror. And then, in my vision, I saw two people clumping up the muddy path, a guide and a Curator in aubergine shoes, wending their way through the green and the mist.
It became clear to me then what must be done: I would save the child. I would take her to the city and hand her over to be someone else’s problem the way noble heroes do, and I would be successful where others had failed. And so before I really knew what I was doing, I was racing up through the underbrush, the branches grasping at my jacket and snatching at my cheeks. I heard my guide cry out behind me. I scrabbled in the mud, slipped on the moss. I saw the stump approaching, and the child on it, and I saw suddenly the child was death-white, a starved, hateful little thing with hungry eyes, one-hundred-and sixty years dead with fingers curled around the stump, leaning down toward me. My body tipped forward. There was no more ground under me. And I saw there was a great pit at the base of the stump, invisible from the path, and far down in the depths was something larger, a vast creature with many eyes like little crystals, and dark spines and an embarrassment of legs, slithering in the dark.
And just there, the guide jerked me back, and together we rolled down the hill and fell in a heap at the bottom, muddy and soaked, and the Irishman very angry.
I did not look back at the child on the stump. I grappled myself to my feet and together with the guide, hurried up the path and over the hill. We did not slow until we were in Arklow and I had boarded a boat. To this day I do not know exactly what breed of magic Betty’s Daughter was, or what ancient creature lived in the pit at its feet and used it to lure in its dinner, but in all honesty I am not curious enough to find out.
You may think me foolish for not knowing better than to look into the hole-punch gaze of the creature on the stump. My Irish guide certainly did. But then, Ireland is an ancient and enchanted place, and there is no telling what one will do there, or what might live in these green hollows and old woods, and perhaps that is the long and short of it: we are not meant to know everything. If we did, there would be no adventures.
(Curator Bachmann is, as of the posting of this, still in Ireland, traveling merrily away, and will blog about his less supernatural encounters later.)
I know, I know. I’ve been gone for a long while now, and you’re grumpy about it, and feeling maybe a bit self-righteous about it, and thinking to yourself, “It’s past time, isn’t it, you lazy, good-for-nothing Curator?”
Well. Allow me to toss a withering glare in your general direction and ask you to take your cheek elsewhere, thank you very much.
It’s not like I’ve been lounging about the Cabinet, re-reading favorite spellbooks and sorting through my collection of dancing shoes, reminiscing fondly about each pair’s doomed former owner.
(Don’t look at me like that. I wouldn’t harm someone just to get my hands on their dancing shoes. I may be a Curator and therefore in possession of both dubious judgment and an irregular personal hygiene routine, but my morals are intact, I assure you.)
(Now, if the owner of a fabulous pair of dancing shoes happened also to have broken into the Cabinet stores, and attempted to sneak away with Curator Bachmann’s collection of haunted musical instruments in order to enspell and then dispose of a prima ballerina and take her spot at the upcoming premiere . . . why, then, it is perfectly acceptable to, shall we say, cautiously incapacitate this person and take said fabulous dancing shoes for oneself. It’s all in the name of justice, you see.)
Now, where was I? You made me so indignant that I was forced to use parentheticals.
Ah, yes. The reason for my absence.
How to tell such a story? I’m not sure you will believe me when you hear it. And it’s rather embarrassing, in fact, so maybe I shan’t tell you at all.
What’s that? Are you actually begging to hear my story, like a spoiled child?
Well. If you insist. But don’t think I’ll give in to your pitiful whingeing again.
(Oh, who am I kidding? We Curators can’t resist telling our stories. You know this by now.)
So. Imagine this:
It is a Sunday, the most horrid day of the week because with it comes an unshakeable sense of impending disaster, otherwise known as Monday morning.
You decide to take a stroll and enjoy the noiselessness of your neighborhood at half past nine. Children are asleep. Adults are grumbling about their laundry, the twins’ lunches, the dog’s piddle on the rug.
But the streets are quiet.
And it is here, on these streets, at the corner of somewhere and thereabouts, that you hear a rustling.
You peek out from beneath your scarves and your layered felt hats, the necklaces you wear around your neck clacking against each other. The necklaces are made of carved sections of bone, each piece strung to the next with hair from a tribe of flesh-eating pixies. You wear them to protect yourself from evil and also from smelly people on the train.
A familiar face appears before you, and the delicious fear tickling your skin subsides. Why, it’s nothing exciting. It’s only your friend Percival
(What, don’t you have a friend named Percival? I thought everyone did.)
“Hello, there,” says Percival, bobbing his head about in the strangest of fashions. Perhaps he hears music you cannot? “I thought it was you.”
“Hello, Percival,” you say. “I was just out for my Sunday evening walk.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Percival blinks at you, his eyes watery and a bit gummy around the edges.
You say: “Percival, are you quite all right? You have a sick look about you.”
Percival says: “I’m afraid I’m quite ill.” His head is starting to fall this way and that like a child swinging about a bag of potatoes.
A thin line of laughter arises from the shadows. You turn, but nothing is there.
“Well, I must go,” says Percival, “for I have a sick look about me.”
Then Percival leaves you standing there curiously as he continues on his way. You blink, and his body buckles. Did he stumble on a crack in the walk? You blink again, and Percival is gone. You think you see small shapes scattering into the hedges like tumbleweeds, but you can’t be sure.
What an odd fellow, that Percival.
You continue on your walk, and for a time all is well. But then you turn a corner, and there he is again—Percival. Only this time, his skin is wriggling like many squirming things are itching to break out of their fleshy Percival-prison.
“Percival, my friend, you look rather smashing just now,” you say, for, as everyone knows, it is rude to comment on someone’s wriggling skin to his face.
“Percival, my friend, Percival, my friend,” whispers Percival, and then comes that laughter again. It is high and shrill. Really, it could be best described as shrieky, and it appears to be emanating from the rubbery crack forming diagonally across Percival’s face.
“Ah. Percival?” you point out helpfully. “Your face appears to be breaking in two. Or rather more like melting in two.” You peer closely. “I’m not sure what to call it, actually.”
“Your face! Your face! Your face!” Percival shrieks, and then runs away, his crooked limbs flailing everywhere like those of a marionette with cut strings.
He truly is an odd fellow. You ought to send him some fairy cakes to get his color up a bit.
Later, you reach your neighborhood’s little pond. It is flat and black and is actually the gateway to an imprisoned army of demons, but none of these people in their bright, cheery houses need to know that. Besides, you and your friends have long had these demons under control.
Truly. You have. No matter what anyone says.
And wouldn’t you know it? There is Percival, sitting by the water with his legs splayed like a child’s. Fish fresh from the water flap about him in the dirt. He has plucked off several of their fins; his mouth is slimy with guts.
“Face,” Percival whispers. “Face, face, face.” Then he holds up a mutilated fish for you to see.
“Percival, I’m not sure you should be eating fish fresh from the water like that,” you advise. “The water may not be . . . entirely safe. You know. Pollution and such.”
(Pollution there may be, but nothing humans can create is as foul as demon breath, and to the trained nose, this pond reeks of it.)
But you don’t tell Percival that. Even if you had wanted to, his ears appear to be sliding off of his skull.
In fact, his entire face is now peeling apart into five sections—eyes and nose and mouth and ear and ear. Gummy strings stretch between each separating piece of Percival-face. The pieces elongate and squash and flatten and squash again until they take the shapes of fat little men with swollen faces.
It is only then that you realize your error, and everything becomes clear.
These are the flesh-eating pixies from which you harvested hair to bind together your protective necklaces those many months ago—and you realize now, many months too late, that on that fateful day, you forgot to offer them your own hair in return for what you harvested.
You committed, in fact, an unthinkable pixie faux pas.
And of course they let you. They didn’t clear their throats or raise their eyebrows or give you any sort of body language cue that you were doing something wrong. No, the little flatulent devils just sat there and smiled, probably already plotting the details of this very night, right down to the last mangled fish fin.
“Oh, of all the rotten luck,” you mutter, as the pixies tumble out of their Percival-shaped tower and become themselves. What they lack in size they make for in numbers and a fierce adherence to the rules of trade etiquette. They drag you through the neighborhood by your scarves, through the forest, up the mountain, down the mountain, and up the next mountain, until coming to a stop in a wooded glen encircled by rocks—and it is here that you see an empty cage, waiting for you.
“What is the sentence for a botched exchange of hair?” you ask, as you are unceremoniously shoved into the cage. “Do remind me. I’ve forgotten.”
For answer, a pixie with a particularly gleeful expression floats up to meet your eyes. In his tiny hands are a pair of polished scissors.
He flies at your hair with a gleam in his eye, and you quickly calculate how long you will have to remain indoors after this. Three months?Four? Pixies love hair—especially that of humans—but they have a notoriously terrible eye for style, and whatever they have used to coat the scissors’ blades reeks of poison. No doubt it will take some time for everything to grow back.
When the first lock of your hair hits the floor, and the pixies let out a cheer, you sigh and clasp your hands. It could be worse, you suppose—and very well might be, if they get hungry while they work.
(But obviously they didn’t, for I am still here.)
You’ve noticed my absence here—I know you have. True, I’ve received only two letters of inquiry: one disguised as a life insurance flyer, the other a blank sheet wrapped carefully around a dead cricket.
But I know what that insurance flyer and insect-corpse were trying to say, and I know they spoke for millions of souls impatient for Cabinet news: to put it simply, you missed me.
That’s right, you heard me. You’re welcome. And the story can now be told.
Those of you who on occasion walk, or hasten, past the Cabinet of Curiosities itself, that strange, many-turreted tower (by the way, I don’t know which of you scrawled “CREEPY OLD WITCH” on the sidewalk outside my window? but it brought a smile and a blush to this old face, as I know you intended)—anyway, those of you who pass by our quarters know that six months ago, a window appeared among the trees.
Just a four-paned window, in a wooden frame painted a dingy, peeling white, hanging seemingly from the sky itself.
I collected this window several years ago at an estate sale with a tragic history, my favorite kind. It seems a young couple had hung the window from their trees as a sort of whimsical art statement, I suppose. Artists baffle me; they don’t seem to realize that they are playing with fire.
In this case, within about a year, the fire they toyed with burnt them, and badly. This was not a literal fire, for the house still stands. But the fate met by the couple inside was so terrible, so unspeakable, that even years later their once-lovely house bears a tattered FOR SALE sign.
I doubt that house will ever sell, as long as human memory lives.
I read about the case one morning when the wind wrapped a yellowing scrap of newspaper around our iron gate. When the wind brings a story, you must always pay attention: the wind doesn’t joke.
I was profoundly troubled by what I read. Not by what happened to the young artist couple—tragic, etc., naturally, but I don’t care. I have no interest in them.
However, according to the newspaper account, when the police and ambulance workers leapt from their wailing, shrieking vehicles, one young paramedic was stopped by a grisly sight on the front porch: a butterfly with one wing torn off, spinning frantically on the ground.
“It just made me shiver all over,” the young man reportedly said. “It was like a hint of what we’d see inside.”
I am, as it happens, very fond of butterflies. So I decided to look into this case. I bought the window, brought it home, and hung it among the trees of our front yard. Some know-it-all passerby—was it you? —explained to a friend that the thing must be hung with fishing line or some such invisible thread. Ha-ha-ha, said the know-it-all: it couldn’t just be hanging from the empty air.
It could, in fact, and was. But these details need not concern you.
Once the window was hung, every night for the next month I climbed into a tree to watch it. I learned that this window has two interesting properties.
On nights when the moon is full, when that cold and waxy light spills through the panes—on those nights, and only then, a midnight watcher can see what lies behind the window.
The view is not a pleasant one. What lies behind the window are the creatures of our worst nightmares—everyone’s nightmares, the most dreadful ones, the ones you try to forget, and usually do.
You know the sort of thing. Skeletons, some still bearing ragged strips of flesh.
Shadowy black things leaving trails of oily slime wherever they go.
A crowned head, neck still bloody from the axe, eyes and mouth open wide in horror, hurtling toward you.
Crowds of ghosts, pale and gray as old photographs, human-shaped but with pieces horribly missing.
A snarling dog whose maw is a human mouth that drips blood.
A long stream of screaming, flapping night-birds.
That sort of thing, and much, much more—all that I saw behind the window on that first full moon last summer.
It gets worse. I also learned that on nights when the moon is new, a black disk in the black sky, then all those . . . creatures, let’s call them, that lie behind the window: all those nightmares crowd up to the pane to watch us.
And once in a while, at midnight during the dark of the moon, one of the creatures slips or slithers through the window-crack to have its fearful fun, until dawn, when it must return.
Do you see what I’m saying? I hope you’re keeping up. That fearful fun of a nightmare is what happened to the unhappy previous owners of this window. “This is a terrible nightmare,” at least one of them must have said, as the terrible, unspeakable things happened. Until he realized, or until she saw, that it was not a nightmare at all, but real as pudding real as a boot, real as a the scream in your own throat.
My concern grew. So for six months, at every full moon, I climbed the tree to watch through the window as creatures of blood and darkness fought and cavorted and danced on the other side.
And for six months, at every new moon, I planted my old face right in front of that window, so that they would know just who was waiting for them here, and think twice about slithering out.
And on the nights when the moon was neither full nor new, I took a single candle and ransacked our curatorial libraries for information.
I learned that when by chance the new moon happens to fall on the night of the winter solstice—the longest, darkest night of the year—then the worst of all happens. That night, the window opens, wide, wide, wide, and evert nightmare creature made hard and real comes streaming through, leaving a trail of blood and black slime on the sill.
And every house, all that long, long night—not just in my neighborhood, but everywhere in the world where one lies asleep—is visited by one or more of the nightmare crew. And when they are finished, the innocent sleepers are mad or they are dead, and I would not like to have to say which is preferable.
And, dear readers, as you perhaps know or perhaps did not, this past winter solstice occurred the same night as the new moon.
So I made certain preparations. And on December 21, as the dusk came on, I was already seated in the high branches of our lone evergreen, wool skirts gathered around my ankles. I am an elderly woman, far more elderly than any grandma you know, and I do not wear trousers. But I am an excellent tree-climber, and had at the ready a thermos of tomato soup as warm and red as human blood.
I chose the evergreen in order to disguise my presence. I have learned the hard way that when I sit astride a winter-bare branches in plain sight, I risk troublesome neighbors calling 911 to report a “crone in tree” emergency, which leads to the tedious necessity of slipping Forget-Me-Ever potions to the mental health authorities and, frankly, life is too short.
Midnight came, and I watched through the window.
I saw a nightmare-bat with long needle teeth.
I saw a man with a blood-spattered face, a bloodier axe, and a terrible grin.
I saw a furry black tarantula the size of a pony with rows of shark-teeth.
I saw a sneering doll whose fist clenched and unclenched as it laughed a high, mad laugh.
I saw a woman with long black hair whose face was smooth and featureless as an egg.
And as the distant church tower gently chimed midnight, I saw these nightmares, and many more, as they lifted the window. I felt the sickening rush of the nightmare wind sweep past me.
And what did I have to hold against them, to push them back—I, an elderly woman with an empty thermos and a wool scarf?
I had what you use against any nightmare creature: light.
At my signal, the sparklers I had tied all over our leaf-bare maple burst and fizzed with crazy light, one after the other, like wild birthday candles.
At my signal, in the huge bare oak, the flames of a thousand small white candles awoke and danced.
And the Cabinet itself, as if its eyes flew open, lit up in lines and curves and patterns of light, every window outlined in starry brightness, every turret, every gargoyle’s eye and lip, every doorway, every line of every roof, a dazzle of light.
It worked, of course. You’re here, aren’t you? The toothed and the bloody and the snarling and the mad retreated, with shrieks of fear and frustration, and the window closed again, I hope for a long, long time.
A man passing in the street, tipsy from a holiday party, remarked to his companion, “Look at this ridiculous display. Some people don’t have any better ways to spend their money. Just want the biggest light show in the neighborhood.”
He passed just under my tree, this gentleman. It was tempting, indeed.
But in the spirit of the season, I let him live.
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.
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.
(Gentle Reader: We at the Cabinet have been taking an extended and unannounced leave of absence these past few months, due to various ailments and nervous breakdowns related to the hazards of our occupation. We feel more or less recovered now, and will be resuming a more regular posting schedule in January 2015! In the meantime, here is a brief and simple tale from Curator Bachmann, with which we would like to wish you a lovely holiday season and a happy new year!)
There were once two children who lived on an island far in the stormy, frosty north. Their village was small and damp. It clung to the edge of the cliffs like a barnacle. Life was hard. But every twelve months, when the year came to a close, and the nights grew long and bitter, something wonderful happened there that made everything worthwhile. In December, always on the same day (the 6th for those of you who are curious) the children of the town would set out their shoes on the front steps of their homes, and the next morning the shoes would be full. Good children found sugared nuts and raisins and apricots and boiled sweets in their shoes. Bad children found nothing but ashes.
No one knew who it was who gave them this bounty. Not even the parents, for they had set out their shoes too when they were young, as their parents had before them, and as their parents had before them, and no one had ever caught the one who did it. It was thought to be an ancient creature from the mountains, older than time, there long before the barnacle village was ever built, and everyone agreed in hushed voices that it would have been rude to look into it too closely, because after all, it was done for free.
We return now to the two children at the beginning of this tale: they were not related. They were not even friends. They were neighbors, and that night, the night of the 5th of December, they both went out onto their front steps at the same time with their boots to be filled, and saw each other.
Now, on this island, at this time of year, the wind is so fierce and the snow so cold that anything weighing less than a teakettle is in danger of blowing away. So when the children stepped out of their houses, they were bundled up to their noses in scarves and coats, and they really only saw each others eyes.
One of the children was named Anna. Anna was small and pale and pretty as an elf. The other child was named Jón. Jón was large and looked rather like an ogre. He was cruel to all the other children of the village, except for the few equally ogre-like boys who were his friends. He never helped his father, and he spoke rudely to his mother. He brought out his shoe and Anna saw that it was massive, for he had taken his father’s boot instead of his own, and she smiled to herself because she knew Jón Einarsson would get nothing but ash the next morning. A bigger boot would only mean more ashes.
She set out hers, a dainty slipper that she had stitched and weighted down with stones, and darted back inside.
The next morning dawned, clear and glittering, and the children of the village all leaped from their warm beds and went outside to fetch their shoes. All over the town, whoops and shouts were heard, and not a few angry tears and knowing nods where only ash dripped out of boot-tops.
But Anna’s shoe was full to the brim, and she had no reason to cry. She brought it in and showed it to her parents, who beamed at her with pride, and though Anna was very happy, a little corner of her heart wanted to see Jón get his ashes. So while her parents smiled and sorted through her treats, she crept back to the door and looked out. And what should she see but Jón Einarsson dragging his Father’s great boot up off the step. . . . And it was full of jewels! Treasures and pearls and bits of ribbon! Walnuts and prunes and gingerbread! So many wonderful things that they fell out of the top and rolled into the snow.
Anna watched, open-mouthed from the step. Jón saw her, and grinned most wickedly and kicked his door shut after him, and when Anna went in and sat down with her treats she scowled at them and could not eat a single one.
The year passed, and summer came, which meant rain and wind, instead of snow and wind, and then it was December again, and Jón was no kinder, and Anna was no happier. She had watched him through the months, looking for some secret goodness that perhaps she had missed, some hidden well of kindness that would make him deserve the rich gifts he had received. She saw no evidence of it. In fact, Jón seemed to become more unpleasant and ogre-like by the day.
December 5th came again, and again Anna went out with her shoe. She did not feel bad that her shoe was a little bigger this year. Her feet were a little bigger too, after all, and she had been extraordinarily good the past twelve months. She had helped old Elinsdottir with the milking and had shoveled snow and baked bread and worked very hard. And just as she was turning to go in, she saw Jón come out of his house. He was carrying a sack this time! Not even a shoe! And he was grinning ear-to-ear as if he deserved it, being a greedy pig, and he had not done anything kind in the entire year!
She scowled at his closed door after he had returned back inside, and went into her own house digging her nails into her hands and muttering. Last year had been a mistake, she was sure of it. Whatever creature came down from the mountains and filled their shoes, it would realize its folly and it would give Jón ashes this year, just as he deserved.
The next morning, when Anna rushed from the house, she did not even glance at her own shoe, which was very well-filled. All she saw was Jón’s sack, brimming with honey-cakes and peanuts and raisins and crowned with a diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg. She wanted to shriek. She threw her shoe inside, not even seeing where the contents fell, and when Jón came out to collect his sack she stood on the step and glared at him, trembling with rage. He grinned again and took the sack inside, and kicked the door closed after him, and Anna stood fuming in the wind and the snow until her nose was red and her eyelashes coated with snow. Her Mother noticed her before she froze solid and dragged her inside.
The next year was a bad one. Jón was a horrid oaf. He seemed to have gotten very swollen and sick, and Anna could hear his parents fighting through the walls of their house, which seemed to only increase Jón’s horribleness. Anna sulked sometimes and snapped at her parents, but only sometimes, and in general she was as industrious as ever. Most of her spare time she spent watching Jón, and she witnessed his horribleness with glee, for surely this would be the year where their benefactor realized his mistake and brought justice to their doorsteps.
When December came again, Anna set out her shoe confident in the knowledge that Jón would receive ashes, lumps of coal, perhaps a switch. Other bad children received ashes. Jón was not good. He would too.
But it was not so. The next morning Jón received a large sack of salted fish and pretzels and tangerines and cinnamon cookies, and Anna received a shoeful of ash.
This was too much for Anna. The injustice of it made her cry and wail. Had she not helped Helgi Georgsdottir with the new baby? Had she not been quick and smiling the whole year, and only sulked a little? And Jón, who did nothing, and sulked a thousand times worse than she, had received better and more? So the next day, she packed a small bag and went up into the mountains to search for the one responsible.
It was a dangerous path, and unwise to undertake alone as the light was short and the nights deadly cold, but Anna could not abide this injustice any longer.
She walked until her breathing came fast and hard, winding through the gray craggy peaks, and at last, when she was sure she would have to turn back before the sun went down and she lost her way, she happened upon a small cave next to a brook. There was a man in the cave. The man was very tall and dark. So tall, he had to fold his stick-thin legs and arms around himself so that he would fit. She walked up to him and poked him and asked: “Are you the one who fills the shoes every year?”
He opened one glassy eye and looked at her. “Yes.”
She quailed somewhat, because the voice that came from him was old and rather sly, but she would not be deterred: “You have been making mistakes these last three years. You have been giving Jón Einarsson jewels and pretzels, far more than anyone else, even more than the good children, and he has been dreadful. And this year, I, who have been very good indeed, received only ash.”
The tall man opened his other eye and looked at Anna sharply. “Yes.”
“Well, it’s not fair! He has been bad! I have been good!”
“Oh? Did you not receive a lovely shoe the last few years, every year but this one?”
“Yes, but- ”
“And was it not full of raisins and gingerbread and good things?”
“Jón is bad! You gave him diamonds!”
“And you think that makes me unfair? Jón received many pretzels, yes, so many he got a stomachache and was sick for all of December. And he received jewels, it is true, so many that his parents fought and are very bitter now. And he was greedy, and it will do him no good in later life when he thinks that this is the way things will always be. A bad man will be his own unmaking, whether he is dressed in silk or rags.”
He paused, staring at her very darkly. “And a false little girl will be her own unmaking too. Was your shoe not full of just enough lovely things that you were not ill? You had everything you needed.” The tall man extended a finger at her. “And yet you were far too busy looking at Jón’s diamonds to be happy. If you want more, be as wicked as Jón, but do not be surprised when your wickedness turns and bites your foolish hand.”
And then the tall man closed both his eyes again and did not speak another word.
Anna shivered then. The sun was going down outside. A cold wind was whistling around the mouth of the cave. She felt afraid, and she ran, ran, ran and became very lost and very tired. Night fell. And when at last she saw the lights of her village twinkling through the snow, she was cold to her bones and covered in frost. She came to her house and burst in, and her parents, sick with worry, sat her by the fire. She did not speak a word, but looked around her as her fingers thawed, and she saw that the cottage was warm and the fire stoked and the curtains drawn against the wind and snow outside, and her parents were cheery and red-cheeked with relief, and her shoe was full of ashes but she did not care. Tomorrow she would mix the ashes with grease and make pencils.
As for Jón Einarsson he died of liver failure and was thrown into the sea.