Clara Jane Cow was an unfortunate name for a child. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Her great-great-grandfather had come across the sea in a creaky boat from Lithuania, and in Lithuania ‘Cow’ was a fairly common name. It meant ’tiller of black soil’ and was properly pronounced Gov. The problem was, no one in North Carolina knew that.
When the first letter for the great-great-grandfather arrived, from his dear old mother in the steppe, the postmaster took one look at the envelope and laughed so loud that the birds were startled from their roost under the post-office roof and the rafters dropped dust into his wide-open mouth. The news spread like wildfire, because of course when someone laughs everyone wants to know why, and before anyone even had the chance to meet Yigur Cow and learn the truth about his surname, the whole town had made up its mind.
Yigur Cow was one of those loping, good-hearted men who expect other people to be the same, and so when folk at the general store or by the hitching posts shouted after him, “Hey! Hey, Mr. Cow!”, he thought they were simply being very friendly and chalked up their terrible pronunciation to inferior schooling. He never quite realized what the problem was, and nor did his wife. But their children did. And their children’s children did. And now it was Clara Jane’s turn to notice.
If, in the past eight years of her life, things had been different, if she had been born into a family that was not named Cow, if she had a regular, pointless name like Wheeler or Charleston, if the other children at the little school by the brook had not teased her, if she had not climbed up into the hayloft of the Cow barn and cried until she couldn’t stop, well then, she may never have found the djinni. But she did, and so it happened.
The djinni was kept in a small, regular-looking wooden box – it might once have been a sewing box – shiny, and worn smooth from a hundred years of leathery, lye-soaked fingers. The wood was dark, almost black, with shades of cherry just peeking through where the varnish still clung. There was a keyhole, and no key.
Clara Jane had no idea it was there. She was having a good cry. She was rolling about, mourning the day of her birth, and the hayloft being what it was, scratchy stalks of dry grass were getting into Clara’s dress and makingher cry more; it was as if the straw were in league with the horrid children at school, as if everything, the very universe, were conspiring against her.
She stood up after a bit and began to pace, still sobbing, and after another while a particularly harsh stab of sadness and shame overtook her and she threw herself down in a comfortable-looking heap of hay. . . . and landed on the djinni’s box. Right on the corner.
She sprang back up with an indignant cry, because now she was sure the world was simply one great cruel thing that would not even let her weep without hurting her. She spun to look at the heap of hay, rubbing her back where the box had bit into it.
She saw the djinni’s box. Just the corner, dark and silent, poking out from among the gold and dull green of the hay. . .
I will tell you right now that this is not a wishing story. It is not the sort of story where you know what will happen, and where you can nod wisely as all of Clara’s wishes go terribly wrong and think how she really should have been more content, because who cares what your name is anyway?
Clara Jane cared, for one. She cared a lot. And there was no one who could have told her it was not a bad thing to be called Clara Jane Cow without her spinning about and laughing loudly in his face, and then punching it, too. It is bad, she would say. You try it.
No, this is the story of a girl, and a djinni who had run out of wishes.
The djinni had a silky voice, like ink and oil, and as it stood there, hovering, its lower extremities tapering into shadow, it eyed Clara. It was dark and vaguely boy-shaped, and though it was constantly shifting, a thousand strands of night and starlight, it was not frightening.
Mostly because it looked terribly depressed and morose. It practically dripped self-pity.
“I suppose you want a wish,” the djinni said, and Clara Jane’s mouth dropped open. She wasn’t surprised that it spoke. Djinni’s were supposed to speak. She was surprised that it was such a stingy, grotty djinni.
“Aren’t you supposed to give three wishes?” she asked.
In her mind, she added that to the long list of injustices her life had seen. A wish, not three, like in every fairy story she had ever heard.
“Oh, I would if I could, but someone else used them all up. So in fact, you can’t have any. But I thought I’d ask, for politeness sake.” The djinni sighed, its chin coming to rest on its shadowy chest. Apparently it was done eying Clara.
“So, I can’t wish for anything?”
Another mark on the tally.
“You can, if you fancy to, but I’m not sure it will do any good.”
Clara felt a sob creeping up again, all the hot, bitter tears that had not fallen yet rushing up again. They were not for the defective genie and its lack of wish-granting, no, but she had not been anywhere close to being done crying before. This encounter seemed only to highlight the plight of her life.
She took several quick, gasping breaths. She couldn’t very well cry now, with this sad-looking creature hovering about, watching her. She wanted it to go away. She picked little bit of hay nervously from her dress.
The djinni lifted its head partway and eyed her again. Then it raised one finger and asked politely: “I could not help but overhear your wailing. These walls aren’t what they used to be.” It tapped the dented old sewing box with one inky strand of leg. “Why were you crying?”
Clara Jane’s gaze turned sharp. If she told him why she was crying, she would have to tell the djinni her name, and then it would probably laugh.
“I wasn’t crying,” she said, and frowned. “I was singing.”
The djinni dipped its head agreeably and sank back into the box. “Oh, pardon me. What a striking voice you have. Are you going to wish for something? You might as well. I can’t give you anything, but perhaps it will make you feel better. Go ahead, give it a try. If I could grant wishes, what would you ask for?”
The djinni spoke in a slow, drippy voice, never sounding as though it were terribly interested in the answers she might give.
Clara thought for a moment. What would she wish for, if she were not the unluckiest girl in all the world? Many things. A new name. A new face. A new house, far, far away from here.
“You’re grinding your teeth,” the djinn observed, turning its head aside to stare tragically at a beam of sunlight.
Clara stopped. She took a step toward the djinn.
“Do you want to know? I’ll tell you then. I will. I would wish for you to hang Johnny Traverse from the rafters until his head burst, and I would want you to eat up Sara Prigg, and then I would want you to pinch the teacher black and blue because it’s her fault, too. She could stop them, and she never does.”
“That’s very gruesome. What a gruesome child you are.”
“Well, you can’t do any of it anyway. What sort of djinni are you if you can’t grant wishes?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been asking myself the same thing recently. A lousy one, I suppose.” The djinni gave an expansive sigh and curled into a ball. “I can tell stories, though. That’s something.”
Clara turned away angrily. “I don’t want to be told stories.”
“They’re very good stories,” the djinni mumbled, curling into a tighter ball. “I’ve been told they are. Young Henry VIII liked them, at least. . .”
“About what?” Clara said despondently and sat down heavily in the hay next to the box.
“Oh, everything. Everyone I’ve ever met. You know, Solomon, Caesar Augustus. . . . I’m thousands of years old.”
“So why can’t you grant wishes!”
“Because it’s difficult, and I’m all out!” the djinni snapped. And then it deflated again. “That’s why. What sort of story would you like to hear?”
“I don’t know. One that isn’t boring.”
The djinn’s eyes widened slowly, dull and milky. “I’ve never heard a boring story in my life.”
“Well, go on, then.”
The djinni dropped its voice low and began to tell a tale. It started very boring, Clara thought. There were endless-long sentences about the sky and the color of the tiles in a courtyard, and the sound someone’s voice made when it rose, and the colors some improbably perfect girl’s hair took on when when the light changed. (So many colors – crimson, chestnut, auburn. Clara did not think it possible that one person’s head of hair could change so often without the help of wigs or dye, but the djinni sounded quite convinced).
Clara Jane yawned expansively which threw the djinni off for a moment.
But then there came a line, just one sentence, and suddenly Clara was listening. The line was about the main character of the story, the improbably perfect girl. She had been kidnapped from her parent’s home and taken far away, and while Clara had instinctively disliked her a second ago, that line came and went, and Clara found herself interested, almost despite herself.
The line was this: but Esmerelda did not want to be betrothed to the horrid Jezra, the shifter, the poison-slinger, and nor indeed did she wish to leave her beautiful home forever, and so she fled to the highest tower of Jezra’s castle and tried to think of a way in which she could dodge her fate.
Clara Jane Cow was, as usual, very frightened when she went to school the next day. She dreaded it most awfully on her way down the rutted road. She practically shook all the way through class. And yet, somehow, it was not quite so bad as the day before, and the day before that. Now, when the teacher rang the bell and the children spilled like roaches out of the schoolhouse, Clara went and sat by the brook and thought lengthily about the girl Esmerelda and how she would escape the wicked monster Jezra, to whom she was to be betrothed. (Clara didn’t know what ‘betrothed’ meant exactly, but it was clearly an awful thing.) And as soon as the teacher dismissed the class, Clara sprang up and ran all the way home, and it was not that she did not hear the screams and taunts of the other children, because she did, but they were not all she heard today. There was something else now, and it was almost as important.
As soon as she was back at the farm, she threw her books down on the porch and climbed the creaking ladder to the hayloft, and opened the djinni’s box and listened in the dark as it spun Esmerelda’s tale, on and on, the strands of it floating into her mind, and deeper. Clara’s mother came and poked her head through the barn-door, but all she heard was Clara’s quiet breathing and an occasional laugh, and a very soft voice which may have been Clara’s own, whispering. When Clara came down she was very happy.
The djinni continued Esmerelda’s story for one hour every evening after school, and not a word more, though Clara begged for more and tried to bribe the djinn with gingersnaps and apples. (To no avail.) The story went on and on, and Esmerelda got into an alarming amount of trouble for one person, but she was clever and brave, and she usually found a way out of it again.
As for Clara and the djinni, they could not help but become quite good friends, though the djinni was still very sad over the fact that he could not grant wishes.
“You know, it’s not the same, telling stories. Not the same as giving people castles or one hundred fire-breathing camels. I’ve come down the world, really, absolutely sunk.”
And Clara looked at the djinni from where she was resting her head on her hands and smiled.
She didn’t say it, because she didn’t quite know how, but her smile said, It’s almost the same as granting wishes. In fact, maybe it’s better.
Esmerelda finally escaped the clutches of Jezra and was promptly captured by thieves. Clara was both inconsolable and jubilant at the same time.
Clara’s parents decided, in a doting way, that she was slightly mad. Her peers, in a less doting way, decided she was tedious and insufferable. She cared not at all for either opinion.
One day, she came home from school and scurried up the ladder, only to find all the hay gone and the dim loft full of furniture. A strange man was clattering about, setting up a brass lamp.
“The old box?” her mother said, when Clara came barreling toward her, sobbing. “Well, I threw it out! I didn’t think we’d need it. The loft is being rented now that we have the new stye.”
That was the end of the djinni. Clara looked, far and wide, as hard as she could, but she never found that old box with its shiny wooden sides and hint of cherry. She cried for many nights, convinced she would never know the end to Esmerelda’s story, whether she would escape the thieves, whether she would find her way back home, and be happy again. Clara felt she could never leave her room again, never go anywhere. What good was it, when there was no story and no silly, mournful djinni to tell it.
But eventually, when she was done crying, and her parents made her go to school again, and everything was forced to go back to normal, she climbed up into the hayloft, which was now full of a furniture, and sat down, and thought of Esmerelda and the thieves. She began to speak, softly:
The thieves lived in a cave, in the heart of a mountain made of bones, and that was where they took Esmerelda, though she fought them with all her might. . .
It was not the same as when the djinni spoke. She was worried she would get it wrong. But after a while she realized she couldn’t get it wrong, even if she tried. It was her story now, and she could make it any way she pleased.
Clara Jane Cow never changed her last name. And people never stopped laughing at it, not even when she was eighty-nine years old, living in a mustard-y old house in the middle of a cornfield. But when they did laugh, she would simply stare at them, and then she would go away through her rooms full of books, and while you would never see, you could hear a silky, oily voice telling the most marvelous stories you ever heard.
“And one day, Esmerelda rounded the last bend and climbed the last hill, and was home. . .”
(Curator’s note: Cow does not mean ’tiller of black soil’ in Lithuanian nor is it properly pronounced ‘Gov’, but as this tale was dredged up from the bottom of a well, some parts were ineligible and could not be precisely deciphered.)
The first thing Ida unlocked was the cat.
The cat’s keyhole was on its breast, a few inches under the chin. It squirmed hard when she held it, but once she thrust the old iron key inside, it went quite still.
What was inside? Not bone and blood and beating heart, as Ida had thought. Bone and blood were there, of course, but were not what this key revealed.
Instead, when Ida peered inside the little door, she saw a blue flame, teased and roused by a silky wind that swirled around it, smelling of smoke and sunbeam-dust. As Ida’s peering face blocked the bone-and-fur door, the wind withdrew, and the flame sank almost to nothing. Scattered around its embers were sharp, curving things—fangs, or claws, or both—and the tiny bones of birds.
Ida closed and locked the cat’s chest. It leaped away without looking back.
All this happened a good while ago, back when your grandma’s mother was a girl. Times were hard then, hard enough that a young girl worked after school in an old folks’ home, sweeping floors and serving mush to help her parents pay the rent. That was Ida. She wasn’t afraid of work, or of very much else.
In that old folk’s home was a woman named Mae, who had not said a word as long as Ida had worked there. She was thin as paper, with hollow eyes and frizzy gray hair, and she rocked back and forth in her bed, smiling to herself. After a while, Ida stopped noticing her, only set the bowl of mush on her bedside table and picked it up, usually untasted, half an hour later.
But one night, when Ida reached for the bowl, a papery brown claw snapped around her wrist. She looked up.
“I see your lock, little miss,” the old woman hissed. Her black eyes had some old fire in them. “I have the key, and you can’t hide nothing from me!”
Ida tried to pull away, but Mae’s long yellow nails dug into her wrist. In her other thin hand, she held up an old iron key.
“This . . .” Mae began. She stopped, wracked by a violent cough. “This!” she said, and her eyes glowed, looking at the key. Then, “This,” she said a third time, and now her eyes, still on the key, clouded over with fear and despair. Round, sticky tears rolled slowly down Mae’s face.
“You take it now,” she said to Ida. “I don’t,—“ she coughed. “I don’t . . . I don’t want it any more! Take it, please, take it from me now!” Her voice climbed, frantic.
Ida put the key in her pocket, more to get it out of the woman’s sight than anything else. Mae turned over in her bed, back to Ida, her bony shoulders shaking silently.
It was busy that day at the home, and Ida forgot about the key until she was walking home. Slipping a chilly hand into her apron pocket for warmth, she felt cold iron.
And with the her hand on that iron, everything looked different. At first she couldn’t tell how everything looked different, only she saw that it did. But in a second or two, she saw.
When she had her hand on the key, everything had a lock. Not just doors and mailboxes, but everything. The trees had locks, and so did each schoolbook under her arm. The postman who tipped his cap at her in friendly hello—he had a keyhole lock in the side of his face. So did the woman driving by in an automobile — her keyhole was right in the middle of her forehead.
Ida took her hand off the key. Everything looked normal again.
She put her hand back, and saw, she saw, that even every flower had a tiny lock on its stem. And ever person around her, all of them were locked up tight.
And, as Ida realized: she had the key.
As soon as she got home, she unlocked the cat. After she’d had her look, and the cat had fled, she tried unlocking a book. Books were expensive, but Ida loved to read, and over years of birthdays and Christmases she had carefully collected a whole shelf full. She brought the key to the shelf, and selected a favorite old story to unlock.
Inside, she found dead flowers, and a broken sea shell, and the faintest seagull cry. That was nice.
In another, she found an old candy wrapper, and wet tea bags, and a sigh that touched her skin with a breath as cold and moist as a ghost’s. She locked that one back up quickly.
In a third, she found a tipped-over bottle of blood-red ink, a pile of rusting iron nails, and a small gray bird with a little black cap, still and dead, one onyx-bead eye wide open and staring at her.
Ida snapped the little door shut and locked it, and didn’t unlock any more books.
Instead, she went outside to a tall, broad cottonwood tree, walking around it until she found the keyhole buried in the deep creases of its trunk. At first she thought she’d found a diamond inside—but then she saw it was sunlight shining through a single large dewdrop, even though the sun had already sunk below the horizon. All around the sun-water jewel were chanting voices, rising and falling on vowels of a language Ida did not know.
Ida listened to the lovely music for a while, until her mother called her to dinner.
At the table, over a very small chicken and very large bowl of potatoes, her father asked how her day had been. His voice was kind, but his eyes were tired and distracted. Ida could not help but notice, when he stretched out his hand for more potatoes, pulling his shirt askew, that there was a rusting keyhole in his chest.
Her mother put dinner on the table without much talk at all, and at one point put her face into her palms and squeezed them hard against her eyes.
“Honey . . . ” said her father.
Her mother interrupted him. “It’s all right, forget it,” she said.
Ida saw that her mother had a keyhole in her throat, just above her collar bone.
That night, when she heard their breaths turn to long, slow sighs, she crept into their room with a flashlight to see what she could see.
Delicately, she pulled back her father’s pajama shirt and fitted the key in. His skin gleamed under the bright moonlight. Inside him, she found a blue jay’s feather, sky-blue streaked with midnight. Beside it were the scattered seeds of a dandelion that someone’s blown to make a wish.
The third thing inside her father was a locked metal box, that you might keep files or money in. It was dented as if it had been pummeled with fists or heels, but it was still locked, and even Ida’s magic key did not work in it.
The feather and wishing-seeds and locked metal box made Ida sad, though she couldn’t say why. She locked her father back up, and moved to her mother.
Inside her mother, Ida found dead grass folded into the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross, and a violet hair ribbon tied in a tight knot, and a glass fishbowl full of murky green water, too clouded and filthy to keep any fish alive.
This made Ida sad as well, more sad than she could say, so she closed her sleeping mother back up and went back to her own bed, key still in her hand, and cried a little. She wished that terrible, crazy Mae had never given her the key. She was hugging herself and sniffling, face buried in the pillow, key still in her left hand, when with her right hand she felt something just over her left shoulder.
Something hard. Something metal.
She stopped crying. She sat up, key in hand.
She thought very hard, very hard indeed. She thought of the dewdrop sparkle and chanting sun of the tree; and the little dead bird; and the thick, green, fishless water.
Ida did not turn her own lock that night, and Ida didn’t sleep.
When dawn came, she slipped out of the house in the gray light, key in her pocket. She half-ran all the way to the nursing home, jiggered the back door where the lock was loose, and slipped in. In seconds, she had crept into the room of mad old Mae.
Mae was sprawled in her bed, muttering in her sleep. Her keyhole was just below her collarbone, a little to the left. Careful and silent, Ida slipped the key in and peered inside.
Inside the old woman, the dawn lit up a dusty space as empty and hollow as the inside of a doll.
“It all came out,” Mae whispered. She had not moved, but her eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, bright and mad. “See? I opened myself up, and it all came out, and rolled and ran and flew and drained away.“ She laughed, a high, unhappy laugh. “I’m empty now. It’s all gone, it’s all gone, all gone.” She laughed her mad laugh over and over.
Mae’s roommate was awake and crying. Nurses and orderlies were calling each other in the hall to come.
Ida slipped out the window and ran.
She ran. She ran not home, but in the opposite direction, as far as she could. She ran till the sun was high, ran through the farms and pastures surrounding her little town. She ran until she came to an empty field; no cows, no crops, no wildflowers, even, nothing but dirt and scrub. She dug, then, using sticks and her own hot, sweating fingers. She dug as deep as could, pulling out rocks as she went, ignoring their keyholes. Then she put the key at the bottom of the hole, piled rocks on top of it, filled it with dirt, and walked home.
When she came in after being gone that whole long day, her mother exclaimed and shouted and hugged her and cried. Ida didn’t mind the shouting. She only hugged her mother, and said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over.
But she was not apologizing for what her mother thought she was apologizing for.
So years passed, and more years passed. Ida grew up, then Ida grew old, then Ida died.
Meanwhile, the rocks of the earth didn’t want the key. They pushed it slowly up and up, back near the surface of the earth.
And meanwhile, a builder bought the scrubby field and covered it with brand-new houses. During the building, many a tractor and backhoe only barely missed digging up that old iron key. Soon the scrubby field had become a new neighborhood. Years passed, and it became a somewhat older neighborhood.
It became your neighborhood, in fact.
And in the backyard of a house in that neighborhood, the key still lays there, just under the surface of the ground—buried so shallow, a dog could dig it up.
It’s buried in your backyard, in fact.
That’s why I’m telling you this story today. Just in case you find that key.
I’m not going to tell you what to do with it, if you find it–if your dog digs it up, or you dig it up, or the earth casts it up at your feet.
I just thought you ought to know.
Last month, our Cabinet theme was doors. So let’s look a little more closely at this door. This one—pay attention, please—the one right here, which just materialized in front of you. Look closer. Bend down. Just under the knob.
Of course, not all keys belong to doors. Some keys might unlock great chests heavy with the weight of centuries of dust. Some might unlock a simple padlock hanging from a gym locker. Some might unlock a human heart—or, for that matter, a human liver.
The questions is what you get, when you’ve done the unlocking. What’s in that chest? What will pop out of that locker, or that heart? Will it be something awfully nice? Or awfully not?
Our stories this month, not surprisingly, are most likely to address the “awfully not” scenario. I hope they will encourage you to think twice before you use a key, just because it’s dangling at the end of your pocket keychain. Even if it only opens the door to your own house, you can never be quite sure what’s waiting inside.
In a little town, all brown roofs and wheeling jackdaws and wilting flowers in pots on the front step, where everyone was quite all right and in fact fairly pleased with himself, a newspaper arrived to change that. The letters of the headline were large and blaring, with exclamation points so as to be less easily doubted. They spoke of murder, coming closer, creeping up the roads and along the hedgerows toward the town. A great shape had been seen in the neighboring towns, dark and huge, lumbering through the streets in the wee hours. It went after everything it saw, the weak and the useless. By morning, its victims speckled the streets like grey heaps of rubbish. They called this figure the Editor.
The Editor did not arrive creeping along the ditch or behind the hedgerow as the newspaper had anticipated. Instead it stepped from the door below the baker’s sign in a burst of brilliant white light and went about its business.
I say ‘it’ because it was impossible to tell who, or what, the Editor was. It was without a doubt very great and dark and frightening-looking. It wore a boxy black coachman’s cloak and a black leather gloves, and no features could be discerned under the brim of its huge top-hat, certainly not in the lamp-pole-less lanes and alleys of that town.
The white light from the door it stepped from was as bright as daytime, as if white clouds and sunlight lay beyond instead of the dusty, musty shop of a baker. When the door closed, the light faded away, narrowing to a spear from the keyhole and then vanishing altogether.
The Editor crossed the street, and though nothing could be seen of its face, the shadows under its hat seemed to frown. It looked at the color of the shutters, and the old iron locks on the doors. It looked at the cobbles on the ground, and the pictures painted on the sign-boards. Then it drew out a long silver spike from somewhere within its cloak and reached up, just touched the wood of the signboard swinging above, and a bit of red bloomed there.
The Editor was just returning the silver spike to its cloak when there came a sound from the street. A clicking, shuffling, and a small cough, echoing between the houses. An old woman was, for no particular reason, hobbling past him, a basket of new yellow dandelions under her arm, even though it was October and there was frost along the gutters.
The Editor struck quickly. A silver slash, a red spray, and then the old woman lay in a heap on the cobbles, the dandelions slipping away in tufts of yellow over the cobbles. The Editor went back to examining the signboards.
They found the old woman the next morning and held a quiet burial, but somehow the newspaper heard of it, and, as if by magic, there were papers on every wilting-flower-doorstep an hour later, the ink still wet and black, bellowing:
SPECIAL ISSUE – THE EDITOR’S 23rd VICTIM – WHEN WILL IT END?
Several days after the dandelion woman was done away with, the Editor arrived again, and this time it was not content to stay out in the street. It nodded at the sign-boards, which all seemed to have been repainted in the past days, anxious eyes having seen the red blots, children reporting the Editor pausing under them, and the aura of disapproval it left in its wake.
The Editor came to the corner of one street and looked up at a tall, crooked house with a lantern burning above the door. The Editor touched the lantern with its silver spike and it sputtered out and fell away. Then the Editor burst through the door, shouldering between the shattered boards. A tall, anxious-looking man in a pointy hat was inside, several glimmer-eyed toads poking from his pockets. With him was a sly-looking boy, as well as a man and a woman who looked equally sly and where no doubt the boy’s parents. The boy had just received word he was to go to a many-towered school that stood next door to the town and become the Greatest Wizard the World has Known.
The Editor relieved him of that notion with a flick of silver. The anxious man in the pointy hat put both hands to his mouth and went very still. The child’s mother ceased abruptly looking sly and clutched the boy’s body, screaming, a keening sound that filled the streets to the tops of its brown roofs, and people began pouring in through the battered door, in nightgowns and pale caps, to comfort her.
“My darling!” she wailed, over and over again. “You’ve killed my darling!”
The boy was not the last. In fact, the town went through quite the wringer before the Editor was done. Other people were recruited by the many-towered school, boys, girls, men and women, clever folk with glasses and endearing foibles, or vicious tempers, or the ability to light their own heads on fire. The Editor paused sometimes before letting the silver fly, sometime pinching the Great-Wizard-to-be’s chin in black-gloved fingers. But in the end the silver did fly. The candidate fell, and the parents mourned the loss of their murdered darlings, though they were, increasingly, wearily accepting of it. . . .They all looked vaguely the same, those parents. Hunched and glazed-looking, with a penchant for wearing pajamas all day, never changing to go outside, and sometimes not going out at all.
The Editor did not stay forever. Within several months, a girl received a magical apparatus that shot a wonderful glowing map from its eyes that led her to an underwater school in a sunken pirate ship, where she would learn to fight sharks and amphibious spiders and all manner of evil. The Editor watched her go, standing along the side of the road like a dark mountain, and it seemed pleased, or at least not actively unhappy, as it kept its silver spike firmly within the confines of its cloak. Then the Editor followed her to a town by the seaside, and watched the proceedings unfold, and the shadows under its hat no longer seemed to frown quite so much.
As for the dingy town it left behind, it went on as it had before. The door under the baker sign no longer lit with that searing white light. The newspapers went back to writing about turnip harvests and an epic and explosive battle involving sharks and amphibious spiders, happening in the seaside town many miles away. The people who had been killed, the old woman with the basket, and all the candidates for the many-towered school were soon forgotten, endearing foibles and vicious tempers notwithstanding. And had the villagers been so prescient as to see the future, they would have found that despite all the tears and wailings, they were much better off without them. For had she lived, the old woman would have turned out to be a witch, growing dandelions for potions in the root cellar of her cottage and thereby bringing about the end of the world. The sly boy would have become the Greatest Wizard Known to Man and would have lured a monstrous darkness there, battling it in exciting ways, the town being utterly destroyed in the process.
Instead the seaside town was utterly destroyed, and the brown-roofed one with the jackdaws and wilted flowers – that one ran along like like a little clock instead of a jouncing wagon, no witches, no spiders, no sharks.
The signboards looked better, too.
(Note from the Curator: this story may not make a particle of sense to anyone who isn’t a writer, and it might not make a particle of sense to anyone who is, either.)
Corinne does not think she is brave. But she is.
She lives in a small blue house with her older sister, Camellia, and Mama.
Corinne thinks this house is hiding something. Their spotted dog whines every time he passes the door to the basement. But when Corinne tells Mama and Camellia this, they ignore her. Corinne is used to that. Camellia and Mama never see what Corinne sees.
They are too busy whispering.
Camellia and Mama are always telling secrets about grown-up things Corinne doesn’t understand. When Corinne asks them to explain, they say, “When you’re older.”
Corinne wonders, “When will that be?”
Camellia is tall, like Mama. Corinne is short. Camellia is smart, like Mama. Camellia always says the right thing. Corinne never says the right thing. Corinne’s hair is the color of dust, instead of golden, like Camellia’s hair.
Sometimes Corinne pretends Camellia has warts on her skin and hair the color of the dust under the rug.
This makes Corinne feel better. For a while.
It is evening time. Camellia and Mama lie on the bed in Mama’s room, whispering and laughing.
Corinne creeps into the room. She listens to Mama’s voice, which is soft like a song.
“What are you talking about?” asks Corinne shyly.
“Oh,” says Camellia, “nothing, Corinne.”
“Just grown-up talk, dear,” says Mama.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” says Camellia.
“But we would like some privacy, please” says Mama. “Just for a little while.”
“Why don’t you go play with your toys or something?” suggests Camellia.
So Corinne leaves them, feeling very lonely. She wants to cry but doesn’t let herself. Grown-ups do not cry. Grown-ups are beautiful. They whisper and tell secrets.
Grown-ups look nothing at all like short, quiet, dirty-haired Corinne.
Corinne wanders through the house and sees their spotted dog. He paces in front of the basement door, whining.
Corinne scratches his ears and wonders.
“Is there something down there?” she asks, but of course no one answers. And Corinne has always been too frightened of the basement to explore it for herself.
Then—laughter, from upstairs. Camellia and Mama, always laughing together. Why couldn’t Corinne be Mama’s favorite?
Corinne stares hard at the basement door.
“Grown-ups are not afraid of basements,” she tells the dog, who wags his tail doubtfully.
Corinne opens the door. It creaks like rusty jaws opening wide.
She peers downstairs. The air smells like paint and laundry and something else, too. Something . . . dark.
Corinne wants to be brave. She walks downstairs and explores. So what if it is so dark she can hardly see? So what if she hears a scratch-scratch-scratch in the corner?
Grown-ups aren’t afraid of darkness and scratching sounds.
There is the washing machine. There is the clothesline with Mama and Camellia’s frilly things hung up to dry.
But there . . . what is that? Tall and dark, maybe just a shadow?
No. It is a door.
Corinne tiptoes near. She touches the door. Her hand closes around a handle as cold as ice and thin as a tongue. Corinne pauses. Maybe it isn’t smart to go waltzing through strange doors like this.
But would Camellia go through the door? Would Mama?
Yes, of course.
So Corinne does too.
And on the other side, she finds . . .
She finds . . .
Right? Yes? Isn’t that true?
Corinne stops and stares around her. Yes. It has to be.
It looks like the world Corinne knows, and yet different. Here, everything is scratchy and dark, like the world has been drawn by a shaky pen. Here, instead of stars in the sky, there are thousands of blinking white eyes.
In Corinne’s world, people do not have black Xs stitched over their chests. And in Corinne’s world, people speak.
Here, the people do not speak.
“Excuse me,” says Corinne to a boy passing by, “can you tell me where we are?”
But the boy stares at her and says nothing.
Corinne tries again.
“Excuse me,” she says to a girl with red braids, “can you please tell me where we are? There was a door in my basement—”
But the girl only stares. Her eyes are silver and foggy, like the boy’s eyes.
Everyone’s eyes are silver and foggy here.
Corinne is afraid, but . . . but there’s something wonderful about this place, isn’t there?
What is it that’s so wonderful?
Corinne decides to explore and find out.
She explores every night.
Once Camellia and Mama are asleep, Corinne puts on her hat and winter coat and boots and sneaks into the basement. Every night, she explores the world through the door downstairs. She begins to think of this world as her world.
Corinne discovers a giant serpent, lying upside down with its fat white belly in the air. Its jaws are wide open and so are its eyes.
There is a great black X sewn into the serpent’s fat white belly.
Corinne wanders through a forest filled with moaning trees.
There are great black Xs sewn into their trunks.
Corinne watches a herd of strange animals. A bird with tall, tall legs and a beak like a giant silver trap. An alligator with two heads. Brown rabbits with curling sharp teeth.
They all have scratchy black Xs sewn onto their chests.
“How bizarre,” Corinne says to the spotted dog, who quivers in her arms. She lifts him up so they are nose to nose.
“No one knows about this but me,” she says to him.
Mama doesn’t know. Camellia doesn’t know.
This is Corinne’s world.
How wonderful, how grown-up, to have a secret like this.
One night, while exploring, Corinne finds a boy, lying on the ground. His eyes are not quite so silver and foggy as the others’. He points to the black X on his chest. He whispers something.
“What?” Corinne leans close. “What is it?”
“The . . .” The boy gasps. His eyes fall closed. “The . . . Marrowman.”
When he opens his eyes again, they are like everyone else’s—silver, foggy. Blank like clouds.
Corinne hears a thundering step past the moaning woods. The world shakes and shudders.
She sees a flock of black owls with long, red tongues hanging out of their beaks. She sees a family of hairless foxes, pink and wrinkled.
All with Xs on their chests.
All with silver, foggy eyes, all running and flying away from . . . something.
Corinne runs, too. She hears the boy’s words in her mind: The Marrowman.
Who is that?
Corinne finds the tall, dark door in the air that leads back home. She opens it and barrels through, into her basement. The spotted dog is panting in her arms, quite beside himself.
Corinne runs upstairs, jumps into her bed, and huddles under the covers until morning.
When she wakes up, her body heavy and sore . . .
She hears nothing. The house is the kind of quiet that comes after something terrible has happened. The spotted dog hides under Corinne’s bed.
Corinne tiptoes downstairs, into the kitchen. “Mama?”
She tiptoes through the hallway. “Camellia?”
Nothing. No one. Not a footstep. Not a breath.
Corinne looks down into the basement, where a dusty lightbulb flickers. It swings on its string, back and forth, back and forth.
Then Corinne remembers: Last night, she forgot to close the door downstairs.
She clomps downstairs in her boots, and she sees . . .
She sees . . .
. . . something terrible.
Mama and Camellia, lying on the floor by the door downstairs.
The door that Corinne left open. The door to the other world.
They have great black Xs stitched into their chests.
Corinne’s heart is a hammer pounding, pounding away.
“Camellia?” She touches Camellia’s forehead. Nothing. Coldness.
“Mama?” Corinne holds Mama’s hand. It is cold and hard like stone.
Corinne holds their hands and cries. It is her fault this has happened. How careless of her, to have forgotten to close the door. Even if she was scared, that is no excuse. Camellia would never be so scared as to forget to close an important door.
Corinne dries her face and pulls herself up. She kisses Camellia and Mama on their cheeks smooth as marble.
“I will figure out what happened to you,” she declares. “And I will save you, even . . .” Corinne looks at the spotted dog, who is most helpfully cleaning his left foot.
“Even if I don’t know how to save you,” says Corinne. “Even if you never tell me any of your secrets. I would rather have you back and never talk to me at all. I would rather that than see you like this.”
Then she draws her coat tight around her, and steps through the door downstairs.
The world through the door quakes and trembles, like the land itself is breathing. Corinne stands under the sky full of blinking white eyes.
“Where shall I go?” she asks herself.
She sees fields of white bone and many dark, moaning forests. Which way will take her to someone who knows what happened to Mama and Camellia?
The spotted dog sits at Corinne’s feet and whines. He looks to the north, where dark mountains stretch to the sky like long, crooked fingers.
Oh. Oh, yes. Corinne sees it now—herds of creatures, crowds of people. They all have those foggy silver eyes, and black Xs on their chests. Like Mama and Camellia do. Everyone is hurrying south, away from those mountains.
So that, Corinne decides, is exactly where she will go.
She walks for many days, the eyes watching her from the dark blue sky.
As Corinne walks, the world begins to change. She sees fewer red-tongued owls, fewer sharp-toothed hares.
The cold wind grows still. The ground grows slimy, and the air takes on a horrible smell.
Then, Corinne sees him.
It must be him.
He is shaped like a person, but he is as large as a boat. He has wings, and his belly is bulging, and his back has a crooked hump. He is made up of too many things to count, all of them slithering around each other like a ball of worms. He is frightening, but the pieces of him are beautiful.
In the Marrowman’s body, Corinne sees the black wing of an owl, the scaled tail of an alligator, the red sneakers of a boy, the white teeth of a girl, the branches of a tree, a tangle of spiderwebs.
And there—can it be?
There, a flash of gold, just like Camellia’s hair.
But then it is gone.
“You’re a brave thing,” booms the Marrowman. “A brave thing indeed, to come and find me.”
He cranes his long neck down to look at Corinne. A hundred eyes form in the middle of the Marrowman’s face—blue eyes, black eyes, human eyes, cat eyes. The biggest eye is yellow and taller than Corinne.
The spotted dog shakes in Corinne’s arms, but Corinne stands tall.
“I am not a thing,” she says. “I am a girl. Are you the Marrowman?”
The Marrowman smiles. “And what if I am?”
Corinne has to be careful. The Marrowman could crush her. But she needs information.
“I was wondering,” she says, “because I’ve heard the Marrowman is the best at what he does. The best in the whole world.”
The Marrowman puffs up his chest made of scales and bones and leathery skin. “I’m the only one who does what I do.”
“And what is that?” says Corinne carefully.
The Marrowman leans even closer. Corinne can see herself in his yellow eye. His breath smells rotten.
“I steal hearts,” he growls, “and I use them to make me stronger.”
Corinne’s eyes go wide. “Why do you do that?”
“Because I want to know everything,” shouts the Marrowman. “Because I want to be everything. The strongest, the bravest . . .”
“The most beautiful,” whispers Corinne. “The smartest.”
“I want to know everything,” rumbles the Marrowman.
“You want to know everyone’s secrets,” says Corinne.
The Marrowman nods happily. “You understand, then!”
“I do,” says Corinne. “You got tired of feeling lonely, and ugly, and not understanding the things people say.”
“It wasn’t fair!” the Marrowman huffs.
“You got tired of people keeping secrets from you,” says Corinne. A tear rolls down her cheek.
“It was mean of them to do so!” the Marrowman cries.
“I understand,” Corinne says, and she really, truly does. She pats one of the Marrowman’s clawed feet.
“Are you all right, brave two-legged thing?” says the Marrowman. “You are crying.”
“Because I feel like that all the time,” Corinne says.
The spotted dog pushes his head against her leg. He wants them to leave.
“Well,” says the Marrowman, “why don’t you stay? I can show you how to steal hearts and use them for yourself. Then you won’t ever have to feel that way again.”
“Really?” Corinne says, her chest filling up with joy. “You would do that for me?”
“Of course,” says the Marrowman. “Even someone as mighty as me wants a friend now and then.”
Then the Marrowman digs inside his chest and pulls out two orbs of light.
“I can show you how,” he says, with a sly smile, “if you eat these hearts.”
Corinne stares at the orbs of bright white light. They pulse in the Marrowman’s hand. They have a rhythm.
They smell familiar. They are singing soft words Corinne can’t understand.
But she knows those strange, high voices.
Mama’s voice. Camellia’s voice.
Corinne must be very careful, now, and very clever.
She holds out her hands for the hearts. The Marrowman gives them to her. He smiles a smile of a thousand different teeth.
“Well?” he bellows, licking his puffy pink lips. “Go on. Eat them. Quickly. Or we have no deal.”
Corinne thinks, “It would be easy to eat them, wouldn’t it? It would be over in a minute or two. And then Camellia and Mama would be forever inside me. I would know all their secrets. I would be as smart and tall and perfect as they are. I would be their favorite. They would love me best of all.”
Corinne holds the hearts up to her eyes.
Her own heart is being pulled in many different directions.
At her feet, the spotted dog whines. He is ready.
And so is Corinne, for she has made her decision.
It was a nice thought, for a while. To be as powerful and strong and strange and beautiful as the Marrowman. To have her mother’s and sister’s hearts locked up inside her.
But . . . Mama and Camellia are waiting for her, on the basement floor. With Xs over their hearts. With strange, silver eyes.
Mama and Camellia love her. Corinne knows that, even though sometimes they make her so angry she can hardly think.
So Corinne runs.
She clutches one heart in each hand, and runs—back through the tall, dark mountains. Back through the moaning forests. Back across the fields of white bone.
The Marrowman is following her, his footsteps like crashing drums. He is so fast, with all those stolen legs and arms and wings.
But Corinne has a spotted dog. She has the hearts of her mother and sister, too, and they have a small blue house. Corinne thinks of these things, and her feet come off the ground. The spotted dog jumps into her coat, and the hearts she carries grow wings of bright white light.
Her wings carry her safely back to the tall, dark door, waiting in the air for her.
She is through. She is in the basement.
The Marrowman roars and reaches for her with his hundred hands.
Corinne slams the door shut.
Thud, comes the Marrowman’s fists on the other side of the door.
Is he really gone? Or is he just catching his breath?
Corinne doesn’t know. But she knows what she must do.
She kneels between Mama and Camellia. She opens their mouths and gently feeds them their hearts. She pretends they are sick and she is spooning them chicken soup, but instead of soup, it is soft, warm light.
“Slowly, Mama,” says Corinne, as Mama begins to glow.
“Careful, Camellia,” whispers Corinne, as the X on Camellia’s heart begins to fade.
The spotted dog whines and licks their hands.
“Corinne?” whispers Camellia, rubbing her eyes. They are blue now, not silver.
“Corinne? Sweet Corinne?” says Mama, sitting up. Her eyes are brown now. Mama’s eyes, and Mama’s soft, lullaby voice.
No Xs on their chests. Just whole, warm, wonderful Mama and Camellia.
“What happened?” Camellia asks.
“We went somewhere,” says Mama. “I think we did. What happened to us, Corinne?”
“I will tell you at supper,” says Corinne. It can’t be wrong to have this one secret, just for a little while. “But first, we have a job to do.”
They search the basement until they find bricks, a pail of mortar, and a dirty shovel, hidden in the corner.
Corinne thinks, “This is not the first time this has happened,” and she shivers, wondering . . .
But first, they have a job to do. Together, Corinne, Camellia, and Mama hide away the door downstairs.