The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

One Times Two

Mama always told me not to answer the door.

It was dangerous, she said. You never know who might be on the other side, she said.

I kept the key in my hand the whole way from school, held it so tight it left a mark that was always gone by next morning and back again next afternoon. I locked myself inside the house at the end of the row, all exactly the same. Red brick and white shutters, pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes.

I’d do my schoolwork, and count the hour until mama came home.

There were seventeen minutes left. I was multiplying nine times seventeen, and I liked how neat that was.

The doorbell hadn’t worked in years. The knock was soft at first. It stopped and came back again, louder.

Nine times seventeen is one hundred and fifty-three.

Finally, the knock went away.

Twelve minutes later, the door opened. “Adam? I’m home.”

“I’m in here,” I said. “Someone knocked a little bit ago.”

“Oh,” said mama. “I’ll check to see if they left a package. Are you hungry yet?”

“Starving!”

Mama laughed.

After dinner, I finished my math and took a bath. That rhymed, and I liked how neat that was.

My eyes were almost closed, blankets pulled up to my chin. A tap rattled the window, like the spindly wooden fingers of a branch, but there were no trees outside my room. Bugs sometimes flew too hard into the glass and I’d find them squished on the sill, messy and disgusting. I pulled the blankets higher and fell asleep.

The key mark was still on my palm. Eight times thirteen is one hundred and four.

Knock, knock.

“Go away,” I said, much too quietly for whoever was on the other side to hear me. I wouldn’t open it, because of what mama said. It could be anyone.

The same thing happened the next day, and the next. I told mama every time, and she went up and down the street, to all the houses with their red bricks and white shutters and pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes to ask if it was the people who lived there, needing something. But it wasn’t any of them, and they hadn’t seen anybody on our porch. We must have been at work, they said. Helen must have been at school, they said.

The tap on the window was loud enough to wake me up. I climbed out of bed, wriggling my toes in the soft rug before I pulled the curtains apart an inch to look outside. There was nobody there, nobody I could see.

Six times eleven is sixty-six.

I was almost expecting the knock, but I jumped and dropped my pencil when it came, anyway. The lead broke and skittered away across the floor. “Go away,” I said, a little louder this time, still too quiet to be heard through the thick, locked, safe door.

“Please, let me in.”

I ran upstairs, soles of my shoes slapping on the wood, loud, but quieter than my heart thumping fast. I slammed the door to my room so hard the window rattled and that made me jump, too.

“Adam? I’m home!”

“I’m up here,” I whispered.

“Adam?” Mama climbed the stairs and knocked at my door. “Are you in there?”

I stayed curled on my bed, watching the handle turn, even though I knew it was just mama, who smiled when she saw me, and whose smile turned into a frown. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

I couldn’t tell her, not this time. She’d think I wasn’t old enough to stay home alone for an hour after all, and I’d have to stay at school where it was noisy and messy and impossible to remember what five times nine was.

“I’m not feeling well,” I said, which wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll bring you some soup.”

All night, something tapped at the glass. “Please,” it whispered. “Please, let me in,” and no matter how many times I told myself it was the wind, I knew that was a lie.

“You still don’t look very good,” said Mama in the morning. “Let’s stay home today.” She called the school to get my work, and I sat on the couch with a fresh pencil that made nice, sharp marks. I liked how neat they were.

Three times seven is twenty-one.

Mama was upstairs, folding away socks. Someone knocked and it was safe, safe to answer while she was home. I listened as I tiptoed to the door, but there was no voice this time. Probably the mailman with a package.

The lock clicked. A breeze blew as I turned the handle and pulled.

There was no one there.

“Hello?” I called, stepping out onto the porch in my bare feet. “Is anyone there?”

The wind blew harder; the door closed with a shattering slam. I saw too late that everything was different.

There were no other houses on the street, no red bricks or white shutters. Beyond the porch was just barren grass, far as I could see, and farther still. Overhead, the sun was hazed with clouds, hot, but the wind was cold.

“Mama?” I called, knocking on the door hard as I could. “Mama?”

She’d been at the back of the house, upstairs. I ran from the porch and onto the grass, pebbles biting at the bottom of my feet, little teeth hidden in the grass. Around the house and into the overgrown backyard. “Mama?”

I called for her until I couldn’t anymore, my throat hot and raw as the sun that was, now, sinking down in the sky. She’d notice I was gone soon, open the front door and find me there, sitting against it, knees pulled to my chest.

The stars began to twinkle. The moon was bright. My eyes dropped closed, and when I opened them, my whole body hurt from sleeping that way, a solid ache from head to toe. The grass was glassed with frost. My stomach rumbled. Mama still hadn’t noticed I was gone.

I knocked until my knuckles were bruised, blue as the morning.

There was still nothing to be seen in any direction, just my house sitting there in the middle of the nothing.

I multiplied things in my head to stay calm, keep my heart from hammering. It was afternoon, I think, when I remembered the ladder, left in the backyard last summer, now covered with moss and mold and snails. Messy and disgusting and I didn’t want to touch it, but I did, now, dragging it as far as I could and propping it against the red brick.

My bare feet slid on the slimy rungs. I tapped at the window, but there was no answer. I knocked at the door again. “Please,” I said. “Let me in.”

I don’t know if it was the next day, or the one after that, or the one after that when the handle turned. I knew I was cold, and my ribs stuck out, and my mouth tasted of the disgusting hose water that had been the only thing to drink.

The wind blew as the door opened.

One times two is two.

I saw myself.

And we both screamed.

Here There Be Dragons

In the ancient, walled city of Oldlight, night had fallen with the snow. Both covered the stone buildings with a heavy hush. All of those who lived in Oldlight had shut themselves safely inside; hearth-fires flickered from every window, catching the blankets of white on the streets outside and setting them to sparkle.

It was beautiful—a jewel of a city. And such a shame, therefore, that no one could visit it.

And no one could leave.

The walls around the city were high, built of huge rocks nestled together so close a whisper would not fit through the cracks. The gates were just as tall, iron bars thick as branches, topped with razor spikes.

There were jokes, that the barriers were all for protection, to keep the dragons out, but only because they had to laugh at something. The dragons never bothered them, though they could occasionally be heard in the distance, growling and snarling. Sometimes, jets of flame lit the sky, two jets that met in crackling balls of flame and eventually became just one that faded away, leaving the scent of scorch behind it to float past on the wind.

Nonetheless, in a way, the jokes were right, as all jokes contain a grain of truth, even if those telling them aren’t aware of it.

By far the nicest of the buildings in Oldlight sat right on the edge near the tall gate that was never opened, itself surrounded by small walls that weren’t meant to keep anyone in or out. The gates to the castle were never closed, and people came and went. The girl who sat in the castle’s tallest turret, watching the snow, was perfectly allowed to leave, if she liked, to explore the city around her.

But she’d done that already, knew every inch of the city, and all the people, too. They called her Princess as she passed, and curtsied or bowed. She had walked every mile of the high walls and stood at the gate, and then returned, sullen, to her turret.

~*~

The snow was worse in the mountains. The boy and the old man shivered over a fire more steam than flame, built of sodden twigs and leaves. They had paper, but it was the one thing they would never burn, sooner they’d set their few bits of clothing alight. The old man kept pulling the scroll further from the sparks, then leaning forward again so as to read the tiny, cramped writing that scuttled over it like a thousand spiders.

“Are we close?” the boy asked. Personally, he thought the old man quite mad. Surely, what he claimed couldn’t be true.

But if it was…

“Closer than I’ve ever managed before,” whispered the old man, a strange fervor in his eyes. “My life’s work, this. And who’d have thought, with nothing but a scrap of a lad for help. Not that I had much’ve a choice, no one else believed any more…”

The old man had said as much when he’d stamped into the orphanage, one gnarled hand on a walking stick topped with silver, the other clutching a fistful of it. A fair price, he said, for an assistant to carry compasses and bread and blankets.

And now, now he said they were close. They must be. The last village’d been more than a week past. Here there was nothing but mountains and bitter wind and, below, a vast, flat expanse of emptiness.

“Get some rest,” said the old man. “Tomorrow we find them. Oh, yes. Tomorrow we’ll see them with our own eyes.”

~*~

The boy awoke. Sleep hadn’t come easy, the cold biting at him, waking him more suddenly than the bell at the orphanage, calling all the children to breakfast.

His stomach rumbled. He turned, and all at once, he wasn’t hungry at all.

It wasn’t right, that color, not on a person. The old man was blue as a summer lake, fingers curled and frozen and stiff around the scroll of paper.

“Wake up!” said the boy, grasping the old man’s shoulder, certain his own shoulders were shaking even harder. “Please, wake up!”

The old man did not wake. He never would again.

It was a dull, gray day, with a sky the shade of bad memories, and no villages had sprouted down on the plains overnight. Even with a spyglass, there was no sign of anyone, anywhere. Alone, the boy sat in the snow, curling his knees to his chin, beside the blackened remnants of the fire. Frozen himself, as frozen as the dead old man, but with indecision. Tears turned to ice on his cheeks.

Right. Well. There must be something down there, something he just couldn’t see, and it’d be closer than the last village, all the way back on the other side of the mountains.

And the old man had been quite mad, but if he was right…

Sniffling, the boy packed up all their things, and did his best to cover the old man with snow. All day he walked and slid down the steep mountainside, his footprints the only ones marking that anyone visited this place. Behind the clouds the sun arced, unseen, on its journey from morning to evening. Now and again, he stopped to check the scroll, still not entirely believing the words written across it.

~*~

The girl sat in her turret after supper, watching the candles wink on behind windows across the city.  She thought about going for a walk, to creep along the inside of the walls once again, but knew her parents would say it was too late. Which was silly, there wasn’t any danger, although in the distance she could see two flames, battling sun-bright in the sky.

“There’s nothing here,” whispered a voice. “He was wrong. Nothing at all.”

She jumped. “Who said that?”

No answer came.

“I demand you show yourself!” she said, checking behind the draperies. Then under the bed. And in a wardrobe full of dresses she never wore.

“Here there be dragons,” said the voice. “Here there be nothing, more like.”

There was something…odd…about that voice. It didn’t sound like any voice in Oldlight, not that she knew each and every one, but still, there was something strange about it. She wanted it to say something else, just so she could be sure.

It stopped talking, and began to make a…a sound. An awful, wet, sniveling sound. She began to follow it, down the stairs and out the front door, along the walls to the tall, barred gate, as it rang louder and louder and louder.

~*~

A noise tore through the night. The boy’s head snapped up and he rubbed his eyes to clear them, his blood turning cold as the snow underfoot. He turned all the way around, and blinked.

A girl stood in the snow. Well, she must be a girl, but there was something…odd…about her. She didn’t look precisely like any girl he had ever seen, but for the moment, the differences weren’t as important as what was behind her. A gate, flanked on either side by high stone walls.

“What–?” he asked, his voice bouncing over the whiteness.

She moved toward him. “I heard you,” she said. “We’re told never, ever to open the gate, but I heard you.”

“Why shouldn’t you open the gate?” he asked. “Who are you? What is this place?”

It was a lot of questions to ask, and he tried to listen for an answer as he fished for the map.

“I am the princess of Oldlight,” she said.

Oldlight. He squinted, and traced the spider-letters all over the scroll with his finger, searching… Searching, and not finding.

He peered at her. At her bright, round, golden eyes, and the lengthened fingernails, and the tiny scales that covered her, glimmering in light reflected off the snow.

Something roared, distant but nearing. The boy looked up, but not before he caught a flicker of fear on her face. “They never come this close,” she said. “Never!”

Here there be dragons, thought the boy as the ground began to shake, hard enough to toss the map from his hand. It flew up on the wind and exploded in a shower of sparks like stars falling to earth. The stream of fire hit the gates, another the buildings just behind. Another and another and another, until all of Oldlight was aflame. The girl screamed and the dragon whipped its head around to stare at her, its eyes enormous versions of her own, just as its scales and talons were. A searing jet of blue-white heat melted the snow in front of her and she screamed again. “We are no longer safe,” hissed the great beast. “For this, we will get our revenge.”

Dark shapes, a hundred of them, began to appear, dark against the night. The boy dashed forward. Her hand was cold, a strangely dry sort of cold.

“Run,” he said, pulling her along as, behind them, leathery wings flapped nearer and Oldlight, the no-longer-hidden land of the dragons, burned. “Run.”

Episode 4: Generously Donated By . . . , by Emma Trevayne

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In the fourth and final episode of The Cabinet of Curiosities podcast,  Curator Emma Trevayne reads her mad, tricksy story Generously Donated By . . .

You can subscribe to this podcast at iTunes.

In this podcast series, each week, one of the four Cabinet curators—authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne—reads a tale from their collection of spooky, creepy, or simply horrifying short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, available from Greenwillow/HarperCollins, wherever books are sold.

Scary stories for ages 8 and up. Adults will like them, too . . .  if “like” is the is the best description for a cold and creeping terror.

 

The Hills and the Valleys

Creatures live in the hills and in the valleys. They are creatures of smoke and ash, of whispers and misunderstood words, of lavender and poison and hollow bones. Some are so not-there you could put your hand right through them, but if you tried, their very-real fangs would feel very solid indeed, solid and sharp. Others have a laugh that shatters glass…when they laugh.

At night, they run toward the villages. They listen for the sounds of sleep, for breath and snores. They reap their harvest, and return to the hills and the valleys carrying their prizes in talons or on the wind.

A hair, a tooth, a shard of fingernail.

It has no name, the young creature, for names are human things. Ages are human things, too, but it can truly be said that it is young, formed of thistles and lightning the last time the snows had melted and the land had sprung anew with green.

Names are human things, so we shall give it a human name. The hills and the valleys are where the Nightmares live.

The young Nightmare dances across the fields, a crackle of blue and sting, strong enough for the first time to move. It will soon be even stronger. All around, the other, older Nightmares skip and fly and tumble toward the houses, thatched roofs pointed above darkened windows. A dog whines, perhaps sensing something that humans cannot, perhaps simply wishing to fill the silence, for the Nightmares make no noise. No noise, at least, where they can be heard.

Grass gives way to stone under the Nightmares’ feet, and here they all part ways, heading for different places. They slip through window cracks and mouse holes, down chimneys and through letterboxes. Any way inside is good enough, and once they are inside, they cannot be stopped.

The young Nightmare knows what to do. It is knowledge passed from creature to creature by the howl of the storm, by the rustle of leaves—are they just leaves?—in the darkness. It watches the house for a minute, and creeps inside. Up the stairs, past two doors that are not the right doors, and to the one that is. The girl in the bed tosses and turns as the Nightmare nears, her face scrunched at the pictures in her head. The Nightmare knows precisely what the pictures are. She belongs to this Nightmare, and it to her.

She has not recently lost a tooth, and her fingernails are short and smooth, but it is no trouble to take a single long, red hair from her head. She does not even notice. The Nightmare crackles brighter blue. Happiness is a human thing, but this is an important moment, this first collection. It dances back across the fields, the hair streaming behind it. Back in the hills and the valleys, the others have returned to crow over their spoils, and the young Nightmare watches as they grow bigger, stronger from the things they have gathered.

Nightmares are creatures, and creatures must feed. The young one feels itself grow, an inch taller perhaps. Not much, but there is time. Years. The girl’s red hair is cut short, and grows long again. She loses a tooth, and it is replaced by another. One night, a sliver of fingernail is painted pink.

She is alone in the house when the Nightmare, no longer young, climbs the stairs to her room and stops at the landing, for, no, she is not alone. It glows brighter, not from joy at this collection, this time, but rage.

“Mine,” it says, and its voice is the sear of lightning and the burn of a thistle on skin.

The other Nightmare turns from her bedside, empty-handed, but clearly hoping not to be for long. “Mine is gone. It slept the wakeless sleep.”

“Mine,” says the lightning-thistle voice again. “I am gentle to her. She never remembers.”

The girl’s face twists and grimaces as the Nightmares battle inside her head. It is loud, and at the same time completely silent, and when it is over the winner backs away, taking nothing from her tonight and knowing she will not sleep peacefully until it is gone. It crackle-dances over the grass and up the hill to a strange, hollowed-out spot filled with red hair and pink fingernails. “Mine,” it thought once more. She had made the Nightmare strong. “Mine.”

Snows and springs fell over the hills and the valleys, one after another. The girl’s hair turned white, and her fingernails brittle. Once more, she lost her teeth and had them replaced by fake ones that were of no use to the Nightmare at all.

The moon was full, and bounced off the lightning as it moved slowly down to the village. It knew. The Nightmares always knew when the wakeless sleep would come. The house was full of people, speaking in hushed voices the Nightmare ignored as it crept to her bedside.

She opened her eyes, and blinked.

“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you from once, when I was a little girl. I never dreamed again after that.”

The Nightmare thought of its collection. “You did, many times,” it said, and of course she did not understand it, but she nodded, a tiny jerk of the head.

And closed her eyes.

The Warmth of Secrets

High in the trees, the birds build their nests, a constant and ever-changing labor, their homes never the same shape from one hour to the next. Twigs weave with leaves weave with bits of fluff to create warm homes for their delicate eggs.

But this is not the only thing they use. They are only the things you can see.

The birds awoke Annabelle from a rather pleasant dream that she couldn’t remember the moment she opened her eyes. She was quite certain it had been a nice dream, though, from the feeling, like she’d had a big warm mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. Annabelle stretched and climbed from her bed. Her school clothes were already laid out, selected by her mother the night before, but she stayed in her nightgown as she padded to the window and spread the pink curtains she secretly hated.

A small, night-black bird lit on the sill just the other side of the glass, a fine wisp of something glimmering slightly in its beak. It stayed for only an instant before flying off again, becoming a speck and then nothing at all in the distance. The trees in the garden of the Nelson house were just beginning to be touched by spring and sunlight, the tiny green buds tinged with gold.

Downstairs, the kettle whistled. Annabelle dressed and arrived in the kitchen just as her father took his first sip of tea. Her older brother, who was thirteen and very grumpy, left without a word from a mouth filled with toast, the front door slamming behind him.

“Good morning,” said her mother. “Oatmeal?”

Annabelle secretly hated oatmeal even more than she secretly hated her pink curtains. She couldn’t remember when she’d ever liked it, though she must have, surely, when she was too young to know better, or her mother wouldn’t think she still did. But there wasn’t anything else she wanted instead, so she said yes, and put half the sugar bowl on it when her parents were making a fuss over whatever had landed on the bird feeder outside.

It was very rare, apparently. Her father peered through a pair of binoculars that, this close, must have allowed him to see the glint in the bird’s eye.

This time of year, it was difficult to get them to talk about anything else. It was all feathers and eggs and whether this crow was the same one they’d seen last year. Sometimes, only inside her head where no one could hear, Annabelle wondered if she’d be more interesting if she had a beak. Still, she supposed, it kept them from pestering her too much about whether she’d done all her schoolwork or cleaned properly behind her ears or tidied up the mess in her room.

The rest of the day, until the afternoon, passed just as the morning had—which is to say, quite normally. Annabelle went to school and talked to her friends and only raised her hand in those subjects she enjoyed, staying silent and invisible during the ones she didn’t. The final bell rang through the classrooms, and she gathered up her things for the walk home.

Three corners away from Annabelle’s house, it happened. She saw everything, saw what was about to happen and the seconds that would follow, but there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all except to stand, mouth open in a scream that made no sound, as the bird hit the windshield of a car stopped at the lights and bounced off again, arcing through the air in abnormal flight, to land at her feet.

“Oh no,” Annabelle said, when her voice returned, lost amongst the hooting of car horns. The poor creature twitched at her feet. Mother, mother would know what to do, how to save it.

It felt soft in her hands. Soft and broken. “Hold on,” she whispered. “I’ll keep you alive.”

But she couldn’t. Two corners from her house, it gave a final, tiny chirp, almost a sigh, and went very still. Annabelle felt the stillness as firmly as if it had been a slap, and then a curious coldness through her whole body which turned, quickly, back to warmth from the sun overhead.

“Oh, no,” said Annabelle again. “I’m sorry, little bird.”

She did not, as usual, walk in the front door and announce she was home. Instead, Annabelle veered around to the side of the house, where the earth below the rosebushes was thick and damp from the spring rains. Digging with her fingers wasn’t easy, and soon they were black with dirt, but she kept on until the hole was deep enough.

There wasn’t so much as a whisper from the trees above. Patting the soil back into place, Annabelle looked up at the line of birds on a branch.

Watching her.

“There you are!” said her mother when she heard Annabelle come in. “Where have you been…and what have you been doing? Go wash up.”

Annabelle didn’t answer. The bird, beyond her mother’s help, now felt like a secret thing.

She scrubbed her hands. Ate dinner. Went to bed. Dreamed of flying.

And the voices woke her. So very many voices, like being in a room full of a thousand people all talking without a single pause. Was she still dreaming? Annabelle didn’t think so, though it was still night, no hint of light peeking around the hated pink curtains. She threw them apart and stared from the window.

“Buried him, she did.”

“Curious.”

“There’s a nice lot of crumbs down by the river bend. Get them before those greedy swans do.”

“There’ll be a nice breeze today. Anyone fancy a trip south?”

“Can’t. Expecting a hatch.”

Annabelle blinked.

The birds were talking. If she listened, carefully enough that her head began to ache, she could hear their normal chatters and chirps with her normal ears, but their voices, their words were loud inside her head.

She nearly screamed. She nearly ran to her parents’ room to shake them awake and tell them, but she didn’t. This, too, felt a secret thing. They’d think she was mad, or making up stories. Or—perhaps worse—they’d believe her and ask a thousand questions of a thing she wasn’t entirely certain she believed herself.

“Anyone have any spare twigs?”

Very purposefully, Annabelle climbed back into bed, pulled the blanket over her face, and lay in the dark, hearing all the voices until the sun came out. She dressed in Saturday clothes and went downstairs to breakfast.

When her mother asked if she wanted oatmeal, Annabelle said yes.

It came out as a squeak. Annabelle coughed. “Yes,” she repeated carefully. Her mother didn’t notice.

Her parents exclaimed out the window about the beautiful feathers on this one. Annabelle listened to it complain that those blasted starlings had stolen all the good seeds. Her brother stomped into the kitchen. “I’m going to spend the day at Tom’s,” he said. Annabelle’s mother nodded absently.

But Annabelle stared at him. It was a lie, and she didn’t know how she knew this. It left his mouth and drifted over toward her, a thin, glimmering thread of a thing she caught in her hand.

“And I’m going outside,” she said. Nobody heard her, which was perhaps a good thing. Her voice, once again, had not sounded entirely…human.

The birds were louder out here, much louder. The lie still clutched in her palm, Annabelle covered her ears, which didn’t help a bit. Down at the bottom of the garden, there was a tree just perfect for climbing. Every summer since she could remember, her father had promised to build a tree house in the low, wide branches, but he never had, and how she and her brother were probably too old for such things. It was easy enough to place her feet and hands just right, though, and rise up in the tree as simple as if it was a ladder.

She stopped when she found what she was looking for. The first, perfectly round nest, built of twigs and leaves and bits of fluff, and thin, silvery wisps. She touched one and knew Mrs. Livingstone four doors down on the road had thought of putting poison in her husband’s tea, but had never done it. She touched another and learned the man who came to clean the windows had always wished to be an opera singer.

She touched a third and knew—although she didn’t need to be told—that she hated her pink curtains.

A raven landed on the branch beside her. Annabelle startled and slipped, but didn’t fall. It fixed a knowing, wise gaze on her.

“We know all your secrets, all your lies,” it said, and once again, if she really tried, she could hear the ordinary birdsong, and the words in her head, all at the same time. “They line our nests, they keep us warm in the frosts. And now, you know ours.”

“Why?” Annabelle asked.

“We hear everything,” said the raven. “We are everywhere. Humans pay us no notice as they walk beneath our trees, thinking and saying the things they never should.”

Annabelle looked at her brother’s lie, still stuck to her hand. “I don’t understand how they keep you warm.” It made her feel cold, even on the pleasant spring morning.

The raven cackled. “You will,” it said. “Oh, you will. And soon.”

Annabelle climbed down. All day the voices crowded inside her until they fell silent with the evening. Her bones felt odd inside her. She went to bed early, the pink curtains billowing in the breeze from the window she left open as she fell asleep.

In her dreams, feathers crawled over her skin. Her feet shortened and toenails grew. The voices started again in the night, and Annabelle hopped from her bed, up onto the windowsill.

She chirped, once, and flew into the dawn, listening for dreams, for secrets, for lies with which to build her nest.