The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Nursery Rhymes

I’m walking to school all by myself today, because it’s the first day of second grade, and I did it yesterday with Mom but we pretended she wasn’t there, so she didn’t tell me where to go. And I didn’t get lost. That means I’m big enough now.

It smells like apples and pencils this morning. I have on a brand new shirt and pants, and new shoes and socks, well the socks are brand new and the shoes I only wore one time before, on yesterday.

632px-Old_book_gatheringAnd I have a new lunchbox with a peace sign and flowers on and a new notebook which is green, which is my favorite color even though every other girl likes pink and purple. I like green.

My backpack is the same from last year though.

The sidewalk around here has a lot of cracks and pieces missing, Dad says the taxes should have fixed it but I guess they didn’t yet. Anyway so you have to be sure to watch where you’re going and not get dis-racted by an interesting rock or a butterfly or something.

But when you’re watching out for cracks at least you can play Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back.

I forgot: also my brown sweater is brand new.

I like how the air feels today. It feels like if you go to a football game, it’s not really cold but your nose runs a little. The wind is blowing yellow leaves right between my feet.

For Halloween I’m going to be a cat, Mom’s going to help me make it.

Step on a crack. Break your mother’s back. So I don’t step on a–

Oh.

That shouldn’t be there.

A book shouldn’t be on the sidewalk. Especially not right in the middle of a sidewalk, where you could walk on it, if you weren’t playing Step on a Crack.

It looks really old. Really old and huge. It doesn’t look like a school book.

Oh. Oh! I might know, I think. I bet it’s a library book. I bet it came from the library at school. Some big kid must have dropped it or something.

Then I will be the HERO and bring it back. Like this kid thinks they’re going to be in huge trouble and get detention and have to pay for the book, which with this big book would probably be like maybe fifty dollars or something. And then I will show up and say “hey did someone lose this?” and they will start crying they’ll be so happy, even though they’re fifth grade.

I better check to see if there’s a name or something though. The paper is so thin and whispery, it’s like a dictionary, this book. Its title says . . . How to Make Everything Turn Out Okay.

But it doesn’t say the writer.

That’s a really good title though, it makes you want to read it.

Okay, I am not getting dis-racted, I’m going to school, but I’m just going to open it up to the first page. Just to see. Probably it will be too hard or too boring but just . . .

Step on a crack
Break your mother’s back
Step on a hole
Break your mother’s sugar bowl.

I know this one! It’s just a nursery rhymes, it’s not hard! Is this book just nursery rhymes? I think so. It’s funny there’s no pictures though, just all these pages and this tiny writing.

Step on the grass
Miss your favorite class.

HA. That’s funny. I didn’t know that part. I’ll try not to step on the grass!

If the milk you’ve spilled,
Your cat gets killed.

. . . What is that part. I don’t like that part.

Is that true?

Eat the last ice cream
Your friend’s terrible screams.

Wait a minute.

Tear your winter coat
Cut your mother’s throat.

That’s horrible. I don’t like this. What if it’s only, if you tear it on accident!

Forget to wave goodbye
Your mother’s going to die.

What is this book! I don’t like this book.

I waved goodbye to my mother this morning, though, for sure. I DEFINITELY did.

Did I?

I’m shutting it NOW. Wait but I gotta see—what do I do if . . .

Turn three times around
Or your house burns to the ground.

I gotta remember these! I gotta not forget them or—I didn’t know there were all these other ones, all these other rules.

Pick a flower in the bud
Find your friend in a pool of blood.

No. Stop.

Better not oversleep
Or your dolls grow teeth.

I think I should stop reading this book now.

Break your daddy’s phone
Hear the rattling bones

Please don’t.

Let your hand touch the ground
See your little brother drown.

I don’t want to read this book. I hate this book, it’s horrible. But I gotta keep reading. I gotta remember all these and there’s so many pages, there’s like a million . . .

Tell your mom a lie
Hear a dead baby cry
Underneath your bed
Where the blood runs red.

Stop it! Stop it! I will learn them, I will! I will learn all the rules, I will memorize every rule in this book, I promise, just please please stop stop STOP.

—–

“And so this is the children’s ward. You’ll be working the night shift here, Thursdays, though Sundays — sorry, not the greatest hours, but that’s how it goes when you’re new.”

“I don’t care. But man, this place is sad. I didn’t know kids could go so crazy that—“

“Yeah, look, we don’t say ‘crazy’ here—“

“Sorry, right. That kids could go so . . . whatever, that they would have to be locked in rooms like these.”

“You’ll get used to it. So listen, your main job is, besides the paperwork, you walk up and down the halls during the night, looking in these little barred windows, see? Like this one. You make sure the kid inside is okay, hasn’t choked to death or hung himself or whatever.”

“Man, I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“Are you saying you don’t want the job?”

“No, no. I need this job. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Man, look at this one, with the book. She is reading the heck out of that great big book.”

“She’s been here a couple of years. When she first got here, they tried taking that book away from her. She screamed for three days, and when she lost her voice, she just sat with her mouth open in a silent scream, her face all red and her eyes bulging. It was horrible. Finally, they gave it back.”

“Oh wow, she just got up, turned in a circle three times, and then sat back down to read.”

“Yeah she does that, or little weird jumps or snapping her finger, or knocking wood, or muttering to herself. No one knows why. Anyway. The doctors have looked through that book, cover to cover, to see why she’s so obsessed with it. No one can figure it out. It’s just an old book of nursery rhymes.”

The Treacherous Books of September

Hello, friends. (Can I call you friends? Perhaps you bitterly dislike me—how fascinating that would be!) From my high and grimy window, I’ve been watching children skip Septemberishly off to school, if skipping is what you do under a knapsack stuffed with 75 pounds of books.

More of a bent and beaten trudge, perhaps.

It made me think how strange it is that we give books to children. Everyone knows—surely everyone knows?—what treacherous creatures books are. You might as well give a boy a knapsack full of tarantulas, or lovingly tuck a black hole, wrapped in waxed paper, inside a girl’s lunchbox.

Old_book_bindingsYes: books are dangerous. Whether it’s the electronic kind, buzzing around inside your tablet like angry wasps , or the old-fashioned, bulky, jam-stained ones, covered in brown paper upon which you have drawn a race car or a unicorn (incidentally, a unicorn can beat a stock car over a flat 15-mile stretch, and remind me to tell you how I know that, and to show you the scars)—or whether it’s the rather more delicious paperback you’ve concealed behind your schoolbook, hoping onlookers will believe that it’s igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks making your eyes glow and you mouth hang slightly open—whatever kind of book you hold, it’s dangerous.

For example, books can grab you—and I don’t mean metaphorically: I mean a wizened little hand reaches out and takes you by the throat. Or you can fall into books, especially deep ones, and be heard from again only as a faint wail when someone turns to that particular page.

Books can hurt you. Books can change you.

As a public service, we are dedicating the month of September’s Cabinet tales to the horrors that lurk within and without books. First story will appear here this Wednesday—enjoy it, if enjoy is the right word for a feeling of creeping and inescapable dread.

And next time you’re in a library, stay alert. Stay terribly, terribly alert.

The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces

Our father is a bad man. We hate him.

He has twelve daughters, and I am the youngest. He is the king, but when he dies, none of us shall rule. He laughs at the idea. Although he has twelve daughters like twelve strong trees, like a sheaf of wheat; although we are some of us brilliant, some of us strong and fast, and some of us tenderly kind, and some of us able to talk a flock of birds or people into following wherever she leads—despite all that, he laughs at the idea of a woman ruler.

“I’d more likely leave my kingdom to my dogs,” he says.dancers

When my oldest sister tries to lay the case for fairness, or for sanity—that he could choose one of us other than her, even, or that perhaps we could rule together, lend each of our separate strengths to lead the kingdom to a new happiness and peace (for it has seen little of either under his clumsy, brutal rule)—our father mocks her, says in a high lisping voice (and she doesn’t lisp, and her voice is low and cool), “Oh Daddy, pwease, I want to wear the pwetty crown, it will show off my pwetty shining eyes!”

We hate him. My eldest sister hates him most of all. He would never give her the tutors she begged for, so she has learned and studied in secret, all her life. She is the cleverest of us all.

Father intended to give the rulership to some stupid, brutal boy he  will choose to marry one of us. But we had other plans. We said: We’ll never be married, never. Though we will not rule, we will keep our own freedom until we die.

One morning, as we lay in our twelve beds, my sister Rêve sat up straight and fast. Her eyes were shining and wild. “I have had one of my dreams,” she said. Rêve is a great dreamer, and knows how to dream things true. But all she would say was that that night, after the king our father went to bed, we should all dress in our favorite, our loveliest, our wildest dresses, and wear our dancing shoes,

We did as she said. “Now see what I dreamed,” said Rêve. She knocked three times on the wooden headboard of our eldest sister’s bed: knock, knock, knock.

For a moment, nothing happened. And then—oh, and then—the bed sank away, as if sinking into a great black lake. And beneath the bed were stone stairs, going down, down, down.

So down the stairs we went, in our clothes of ebony silk, of cherry-wine velvet, of lilac lace. Our soft dancing shoes made no noise at all on the stone steps.

At the bottom of the staircase, we entered a forest where the trees were made of filigreed silver.

Next we came through another forest, where the trees were shaped of shimmering gold, delicate gold leaves trembling as we stirred the air around them in our passing. The gold made the air feel warm.

Then we moved through a third forest, whose trees were cut from diamond. Each twig and leaf glittered hard and bright around us, and in that forest I felt as cold as if the trees were carved of ice.

We emerged onto the shore of a vast black lake, a lake that mirrored a vast black sky, so both seemed crowded with diamond stars, and no moon at all. Floating before us were twelve boats, each a different color,  the colors darkened and subdued under the pale stars.

In each boat sat a young man, each quite different, skin dark or fair, but each with the same mournful smile and something ghostly around the eyes and mouth.

I chose the ghost-boy whose boat might have been sky-blue, in the light. When he helped me in, his hand was as cold as the diamond forest.

The ghost boys rowed us in perfect silence to an island where a crystal castle stood. Warm lights moved and glowed inside the castle, like fire caught behind glass.

Inside the castle was an orchestra made up of forest animals—a grave jay with a tiny violin, and a white stag with a cello, and a smiling fox on a stool with a clarinet—oh so many of them, many more. And their music was wild, and it was mournful, too. The music had fire and rage underneath it to match our fire and rage, and it made us want to do nothing but dance.

ruined dancing shoesSo dance we did with our cold and ghosty boys, we danced out our rage all the wild night, as the violin-bearing birds swirled above our heads, the fiery lights swirling too as we swirled in the dance, our heads flung back, our feet mad beneath us.

When the eastern horizon began to soften, the boys rowed us back to the edge of the lake, and we walked through the icy diamond forest, and the shimmering gold one, and the delicate silver one, and back up the stairs to our room. On the floor beside each bed, we left our shoes in shreds and pieces

The next morning, the wretched maid told our father about our shoes. He demanded to know what had happened. But we were half dead from our long night, and we said nothing at all. Even my sister who always talks back just looked at him, her face pale and empty, and turned away.

He ordered that we must be kept shod, and left. New shoes were brought that afternoon.

The next night, we went dancing again, we danced our anger, and the next and the next and the next and the next. Every morning, our new shoes lay in shreds on the floor beside each bed; every morning, our father would shout and argue and insult us.

But we were turning half-ghost ourselves by day, with all our life in the night, and we only looked at him from dark-circled eyes and yawned.

Our father made an announcement to the kingdom. Any man who could solve the mystery, he would marry off to one of us, and make his heir. But if the man tried for three nights and could not solve the mystery, he would lose his head.

“That should motivate them,” said our father. His cruelty, his cruelty.

A prince from a far land came to try. Father gave these him the room beside ours, and left the door between open, which shamed and angered us. But my clever eldest sister made a potion, and put it in fine wine, and offered it to the prince with falsely loving words.

The potion made him sleep all night, and we were left to our raging revels. He slept through three nights, bewildered each morning at how it had happened.

On the third morning, my father had his head chopped off with an axe.

My heart wavered at this, for he had not seemed a bad man, only a hopeful and arrogant one. But my eldest sister, whose rage was greater, laughed. “It is what he deserves,” she said. “It is what they all deserve.”

Then she added, so perhaps her heart was not quite eaten with anger: “Anyway, it is father who kills them, not I.”

More princes came. More princes tried. More lost their heads. My eldest sister’s laugh became uglier and too much like my father’s.

Then no men came for a long time. We danced out our rage every night. Every morning we grew paler, but our eyes were bright and hot inside their dark circles. My father’s anger grew, because something was happening that he could not control.

But that his daughters grew into ghosts before his eyes: that worried him not at all.

After a year of the dancing, a new man came to try. He was different from the others, older, and no prince at all, but a common soldier who had been wounded in the leg, so that he limped badly, and could fight no more. He told us that he had met a strange old woman and shared his food with her, and she had repaid him by telling him of our father’s offer, “as well as with advice, and a small gift.”

I did not like to hear that, for there is great power in the gratitude of strange old women.

My father said, “I hope her gift was an iron neck,” and laughed.

When my eldest sister brought this new man the doctored wine and false words, he watched her out of dark eyes, and I thought I saw something like pity in them, which confused and frightened me. But he drank—or we thought he drank. And when the night came, he slept—or we thought he slept.

And yet when we slipped down the stairs that night, I was sure I heard a heavy, uneven gait behind me.

But when I turned, I saw nothing at all.

When we passed through the silver forest, I was sure I heard the limping steps behind me still. And I did hear, I know I heard, a sudden crack, like the snapping of a branch. I looked wildly around. “It was probably an animal,” said my sister Tendresse. “Calm yourself, calm yourself.”

So I put the limping, swinging, invisible step out of my mind, and out of my hearing, and found my ghosty boy, and danced my raging dance all night in the fiery crystal palace.

The next morning, the soldier said, as they all had said, “But I don’t understand how I could have fallen asleep.” I felt better. My imagination must have been playing tricks on me—my imagination, and perhaps my too great respect for strange old women.

In the silver forest that night, when I heard the limping, broken steps behind me, I said to myself firmly: “Your imagination.”

And at the crack of the branch in the golden forest, I said to myself, “An animal.”

Still, I could not throw myself into the black lake of our dance as deeply as usual.

In the morning, the soldier said, “Only one more night! It certainly doesn’t look good for me.” So I thought it must be all right after all.

And yet that third night, the heavy, limping gait behind me felt like the gait of Death. The crack of the branch in the diamond forest thrust a shard of ice into my heart.

And as I danced, I swear as I danced with my cold, mournful, ghosty boy, I felt something touch my arm here and there, something I could not see, as if that Death walked among us in the dance.

That morning, my father came with guards to take the soldier away to be beheaded. They found him sitting politely at the edge of his neatly-made bed, holding in his lap a silver branch, a golden branch, and a diamond one. As we watched from our room in despair, he told the whole story of what we did each night, and held up the branches one at a time for proof.

The king our father laughed and laughed, and clapped the soldier too hard on his back, and jeered at us. “They want to rule the kingdom, and yet they spend their nights giggling and dancing, like the empty heads they are.”

(But he did not know, had never seen, our raging, raging dance.)

The soldier said nothing. My father stopped laughing and said, “Then take whichever you want for a wife—Bellaluna is the prettiest by far—and I’ll set you up in a castle, and then you can wait for me to die, which I hope is a long damn wait.” He walked out, the guards behind him.

The soldier turned to us with his dark, opaque eyes. He said, “I think you are all quite beautiful, and much too beautiful for a man like me. Also, I will not take or choose, as if you were toys in a shop; but I will ask, and I will offer my pledge and my faith and my respect.”

He turned to my eldest sister. “I am no longer a boy, and I wish a wife who is my equal or better in wisdom. I have been watching you for three nights, and I believe that is you. I will need your wisdom to help me make this land a more peaceful place, for I have had enough of fighting. If you will have me, I will make you my queen and co-ruler, and we will heal the kingdom together. You do not need to give me your answer now.”

And he limped away to be shown his new castle.

I watched my eldest sister that night, over the ten narrow beds of my sleeping sisters between us. She lay back with her hands behind her head and her eyes wide open, considering.

In the morning she said to us, “I do not know how to give him my trust, but I am going to give him my trust anyway. My anger has danced through too many pairs of shoes. He is a new man, and I will try a new way.”

So the banns were made and the wedding held, with great pomp and many white horses and silver lace and bells. In the following weeks we visited them at their castle, and we saw a new way between a man and a woman, that we had never conceived of before.

One by one, with our father’s shrugged permission, we moved to the new castle to live.  My sister has filled it with books and art and mathematical instruments, and everything our father ever denied us. We sleep well at night, and we have lost our ghostly look, and live in the world around us.

Our father is a bad man. We hate our father.

But one day our father will die. And together with this wounded man, we we will make a new and better kingdom.

Once our father dies.

The Talent of the Howl (by Katherine Catmull)

Sing us a song, Grandma.

Don’t want to. Don’t make me.

Then tell us a story, then. 

A story, yeah!

We’d love one, Grandma.

Don’t want to tell a story. Don’t make me.

Do one. You have to do one. A story or a song.

Story or song! Story or song!

Please!

I’ll tell a story, then. I’ll tell an awful, horrid story, which is what you children deserve.

Hurray!

Long ago, long time ago, when I was young —

That was before the MOON, probably.

—when I was young, there was a girl. A girl who loved to sing. She could sing indeed, she was a good singer—not an opera singer, not that kind of voice. Her voice was simple as water, and that sweet.

But when she sang a sad song—ah, then. That girl had the talent of the sad song. When she sang a sad one, her voice pulsed with the blood of her aching heart. Her breath moved like the ocean moves, from somewhere far beneath.

song pic

And when she sang like that, then the people stood around her, mouths open, eyes full, and when she was finished, they said, “Sing again.” That girl had the talent of the howl.

A howl! Hahahaha! That means she had a BAD voice!

No, child. A song is a howl, like a dog’s howl, you know.

No it isn’t. 

Isn’t either!

Is that right? Then how come when you sing near a dog, he’ll soon begin to howl along with you—at least, if the dog looks up to you, he will. I don’t know how your dog feels about you. A song done right is your whole body howling, like a dog’s body howls and howls. That’s true for anyone, and any song.

But if you’re a true singer, as this girl was—and if you find a song with just the right sadness to it, one that harmonizes with your own sad heart—and if you sing it right, if you sing it true . . . . well, then, as this girl discovered, something remarkable happens. You close your eyes, singing, and the song wraps around you, invisible as glass. The song becomes a container, like a bottle or a boat. And then that bottle-boat bobs along the ocean of time, with you safe inside it.

When you do it right, your howl becomes a glass ship, that carries your worried mind away, far out to sea.  songpic2

And it’s such a relief, to leave this hot, bright, noisy place, and find yourself bobbing on the silent-cold and moonlit water. It’s such a relief to be carried away, unable to pause, unable to think, only letting your heart pour from your mouth, and wrap about you, and carry you away.

Oh children: to be alone and silent inside your own heart’s song, bobbing on the waves—it’s a great relief. A great relief. Greater than I can ever say.

. . . .

Grandma?

Is that the end of the story?

It wasn’t very horrible, really.

Sorry. Lost myself a moment.

It’s a relief, as I say, to be carried across the sea by your song.

But it’s dangerous, too.

Because—as this girl discovered—one day, your song may wash you up somewhere . . . somewhere new. Somewhere else.

This girl had a song, a favorite sad song. And one day, as she sang it, and closed her eyes, the song swept her out to the cold sea, as usual. She lay back, singing, and watched the million stars and the only moon, hiding and playing behind bits of cloud.

But then the bobbing stopped, though she was still singing. And she found that she was on a moonlit shore, lit silvery gray, a shore held delicate as a wafer between the jaws of the night-ocean and the enormous black sky.

And on that shore was silence, but for the crunch of her shoe on the gray pebbles, but for the wash of the waves, which is a kind of silence. Absolute silence, and silver-cool beauty. And she never wanted to leave.

But, of course, the song came to an end. And when she opened her eyes, she saw them all standing around, staring at her, saying, “Sing it again.”

Ah, that poor girl. Like the Pied Piper in reverse. Think of that poor piper, the next time you hear his story, and feel for him! Think how dreadful it must be, to be followed everywhere you go by rats and children.

Grandma, what was the song? Her special song, her favorite sad one?

Oh now. It’s an old song, that. You’ve heard me humming it in bits now and then, no doubt. I never try to properly sing it, anymore. I can’t sing it the way that girl did.

Is it that one that goes ‘O come the wild dead leaves’? I know that one.

That is the one. Clever girl, Lacy, that is the one indeed.

At any rate. For one whole year the girl would close her eyes and sing, and return again and again to her island. The song made a glass ship, and her breath was the wind in its invisible sails.

What was it like, on the island.

It is hard—it was hard—for the girl to describe. Because when you’re on the island, you see a thing, but you forget its name. You forget whether it’s of any use to you, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad. You only see it, you only see what it is. All the noise of words and saying and choosing and judging is left behind you. You only see the great beauty of the stone, the shell, the sea-grass, the star. The great beauty of the moonlight scattered and trembling on the water. And no words, no words. All the words gone quiet.

That sounds stupid!

So totally boring!

I think it sounds wonderful.

Dumbface Lacy. 

Ya dope.

Then what happened, Grandma?

And then  . . .  And then, after a while, she lost the knack of leaving, when she sang. She couldn’t make her bottle-song-boat, anymore. And the people went away, and didn’t say, “Sing again.”

Why did she lose the knack?

Oh, well. I’m not sure. She just got out of the habit, I suppose. Because one of the pied piper rats, you know, —they weren’t really rats, of course, I mean one of the staring faces when her eyes opened—well: it was a kind face, and a handsome one, with long dark brows over smiling green eyes. And he persuaded her to give up the glass boat, and the island, and to give this hot, crowded, noisy life a try.

And it was worth it. Or for a while, at least, she found it was.

But she never saw her island again.

But Gran. It’s so sad. She really never got back to the island?

Lacy! Stupid!The song didn’t really take her to an island. She just went in her mind, Grandma means.

Is that what I mean? Thanks for telling me. Shoo the lot of you now, I don’t have all day to stand telling ancient stories. Children and their “sing me a song,” as if to sing a song wasn’t to . . . Lacy. Girl. Did you hear me say shoo? Why are you still here?

Girl?

Speak up. Words.

Grandma. Teach me that song. Please.

What  . . . What song do you mean, you silly child?

I know the girl was you. Teach me that song, ‘O come the wild dead leaves,’ that song that makes a boat or a bottle. The song that carries you across the sea..

But why? Why would you want to learn such a sad song?

Because I’m no good here. You know I’m no good here. 

Oh, Lacy.

I’m not. I’m not meant to be in this place, it’s too loud and bright, it’s not my place. I can’t bear it here, Grandma, I want to go the island with you. And I think I might have the talent, too, the talent of the howl.

But girl, even if we could. Even if we could go, what about the pied piper of it? You forget the coming back, and the people saying sing it again, sing another? There’s always the coming back.

Maybe this time we could stay, Grandma. If we sang it together. If we made a harmony. Maybe that would make the ship strong enough to stay on the island, far from the hot and the noise. Only cool and gray and moonlight.

Child.

There’s no green-eyed boy for either of us, to keep us here. I’m too young, and Grandpa died a long time ago. 

Child, oh child.

Come on, Grandma, sing, too. Just sing it with me—probably nothing will happen. I’ve heard you singing. I’ve been practicing, only I don’t know all the words. Listen: ‘O come the wild dead leaves of fall/O come the coldest rain. . . .’  Then what?

‘For summer lies as dead as he/And he’ll not rise again.’ O girl, you take me back, and you make me think of . . . but we mustn’t . . .

‘O come the wild wet winter snow/O come the prickling ice. . . .’

‘For love’s laid deep beneath the ground/And that was summer’s price.’

Now we sing together. Eyes closed, Grandma, and hold my hands. ‘O come the yellow buds of spring,/O come the melting snow. . . .’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go. . . .’

Grandma! LACY. Dinner!

It’s DINNER you guys. MOM SAID COME!

Weird, they were here like one second ago, I could hear them singing some stupid–Oh! Jeez, here you are. You scared me! Didn’t you  . . .

What? Are they . . . Wait. What are they—

They’re pretending. Come on you guys. It’s obvious you’re pretending.

You’re not scaring us.

You can’t fool us, we know you’re just playing. Come on, or I’ll POKE you—

Yeah! We get fair shot to poke you, if you’re supposedly . . .

Holy . . .

But . . . something’s really wrong. Something’s really, really . . . what’s happening? What’s wrong with them, what’s—

Go get Mom. Go get her NOW.

Red Raging Sun

It’s too hot here. You should come to this place in winter, when you’d be happy it’s warm. Not in summer, it’s way too hot. But Dad said Affordable and Mom said Adventure, so we’re here. We’ve been here almost a week.

I don’t like it here. The dirt is yellow on the empty paths that run from the jungle to the beach. The dirt glows hot and yellow back up to the hot yellow sun.

black dog on yellow dirt road

Photo by Todd Campbell.

There’s an ocean, but the water’s hot, and when the sun’s out the beach is too hot to walk on barefoot. The sea breeze feels more like walking past an open dryer, the wind is so hot and damp. The sun is so bright on the water, it gives you a headache.

At night it’s cooler, with better breezes, salty and fishy and dark. When the sun goes down, everybody—not the local people, but the vacation people, like us—everybody walks down to the beach, and they build a bonfire, and we sit around it. It’s the best part of the day, when the sun is gone. The fire is like the sun, but all packaged up and neat, surrounded by rocks, so it can’t jump out and get you.

I like to sit on the warm sand in the dark, just outside the circle of light, watching the fire, listening to the laughing. It’s nice. Mom and Dad sound happy, happier than at home. The three of us walk back singing to the cabin—Mom calls it an Eco-Cabin, which means no glass in the windows, and no doors in the doorways, and a roof made of dry grass. It’s like sleeping outside. Mom and Dad have the bed, and I’m in a hammock by the window, facing the jungle. I swing to sleep like in a rocking boat.

But later that night I wake up, because someone is talking. A light is flashing all around the room like a scared bird. For a second, before I wake up all the way, I think somehow police are in our room, arresting us.

Then I see that it’s Dad. He’s sitting straight up in bed, shining a flashlight all around, all wild. When the light catches his face by accident, I see he’s sweating.

Monkeys, says Dad. His voice is shaking. He’s saying: There were monkeys in here, did you see? Did you see them? I swear, just a second ago, these long-armed . . . They must have been monkeys . . . I swear they were here.

And all the time Mom is saying Shhh, shhh, and Bad dream, and Honey, maybe you shouldn’t have had that margarita. All very soft—she’s trying not to wake me up. That’s nice of her.

The flashlight goes out, click. In a while, I hear their breathing go long and soft again.

But I don’t go back to sleep.

Because for just a second, just for one second, while that yellow light flew around our cabin, I saw something. I did. I saw something long-armed and long-tailed swing over me in the dark, and out the window, into the jungle.

I only saw for a second. I don’t know what it was.

But it didn’t look like a monkey to me.

I’m not hungry for breakfast that morning, and I walk on the beach away from other people. The sun hangs over the sea, burning at me.

In the afternoons we always nap, but I have a bad dream, that there’s an animal in the room with us but I can’t quite see it, only hear its heavy tail dragging along the floor. When I wake up, the cabin smells wrong, a dirty, snakey smell. Mom and Dad are still asleep.

I can’t stay in the cabin with that smell, so I go for walk. I start at the beach, but it’s way too hot, even with flip-flops. The rubber’s melting under my feet. So I start walking back.

But you’re not supposed to go into the jungle, because of snakes, or something. Mom made a big deal out of that, and asked me Did I understand and Did I promise.

Now I’m standing there on the dirt road. I can’t decide what to do. A pale green lizard, only much bigger than the lizards at home, turns its face to me. Its eyes are half open, something pulses at its throat.

Oh: the ruins, I think. I’ll go there.

Sand ziggurat

Photo by Todd Campbell.

The ruins are mostly huge piles of gray stone, lots of thousands of years old. But in some of the piles you can see the shapes of the buildings they were, see the steps leading up to broken temples at the top. I’m not supposed to go to the ruins, either, actually. But it’s not as definite as the jungle. Dad was actually all disappointed, he thought it looked archeological or something. But the people who run this place said It needs repairs, and reinforcements, it’s not safe to climb on. They said how last year a little girl ignored the warnings and fell, and died.

But I’m not going to be stupid and climb on the stones. I’m just going to look around.

As I walk past him, the lizard turns its head to watch me.

I walk for a few minutes. The sound of the waves is nice. But it’s so hot, my head is hurting, and my eyes are squinched up against the brightness. My shirt sticks to my body.

But walking is good. The sun will go down soon. I start to relax. Just a bad dream.

When I’m almost at the ruins, all of a sudden, there’s a dog. There’s nothing around here, I don’t know where it came from. It’s not a huge dog, but it comes up to my knees. It has slick brown hair, peeling off in patches to show gray and purple skin below, and its eyes are blue and round and blind. At least I think it’s blind. It stares just over my head, barking hard, growling in its throat.

Hurt, it sounds like it’s saying. Hurt, hurt, hurt.

The dog walks in front of me on the road for the while, walking backwards, facing me, barking HURT, HURT, HURT, like it’s trying to stop me. But I stay brave, I keep walking, and after a while the dog gives up. I walk through the door of a chain link fence that’s just hanging there, broken, and into the ruins.

The ruins have their back to the jungle. It’s like the jungle made them, kind of, then pushed them out: Here. I made this for you. Come in, come in.

That’s a dumb thought, but it’s what it looks like.

The sun shines hard on the huge blocks of gray stone. They crowd everywhere, you have to sort of pick your way through. Even just one block is taller than my head, and one of the old . . . buildings, I guess is what they are, the one that’s still mostly there, is really tall. A zillion steps are running up the side. That girl who died must have climbed up there, and fallen.

It’s quiet here, a weird kind of quiet, no birds or insects at all. And it’s so hot, the heat is like a fever or a warning, but I don’t know what the warning says.

Hurt, hurt. Hurt hurt hurt.

My parents might be awake my now, I should go see.

But I don’t go see. I keep walking through the stone blocks and towers, the huge piles of stone.

Now a shadow passes across me. A bird? But it’s too big for a bird. I look up. The sky is squinty empty blue.

But then—what was that, out of the corner of my eye? Not a bird, but more like something on one of the stones above me. Something running.

And then behind me—I whip around fast. I can hear a ripple of running feet, high on that one pile of gray stone.

And now that, there—out of the corner of my eye—it’s gone now, but it it seemed like a leg, almost a human leg, but also it had — a tail?
A monkey?

But no monkey has a tail so thick, so heavy, swishing across the stone like a pale green snake.

I should go. It’s time to go. My heart is beating really fast, and I turn back—but I’m not sure where I am now, where the gate is, the stones are so high, and I’m all turned around. I start one way, then turn back and try another.

The skittering sound above me, nails on stone.

I start running. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I have to run.

But I started running too late. When I round the corner of another pile of stones, they are waiting for me, and their hands are on me.

Their hands are scaly with long, sharp nails. Their teeth are pointed and long, and their mouths are open in a horrible smile. Like they’re glad to see me. One of them is holding a cup, like a wine glass, but carved out of the same old stone as the ruins. They hold me, and they force my mouth open, and they pour something burning down my throat.

In a minute, in less than a minute, I can’t move at all. I can’t even close my eyes.

With green, long-nailed hands, they lift me high above their heads. They take me to the steps, and they begin to climb.

My mind is going so fast, so fast in my still body. I see that they were waiting for someone to come. If it had not been me, it would have been someone else. Maybe my mom or dad, come here looking for me. Maybe just some other tourist kid, dumb enough to wander in here.

I think of that as they bear me gently in their long-nailed hands, their thick-muscled arms holding me high above their heads, as if I were weightless. Weightless, paralyzed, and my blood going so fast with fear that it makes everything perfectly, exactly clear. I think: At least it won’t be someone else.

Green, long-toed, long-nailed feet climb the stone steps, and the indentations in the stone match their feet exactly. How many thousands of years have they been doing this?

It’s getting late. The sun is going down, it’s looking straight at me now, and its face is red with anger. Why is the sun angry with me.

Shining, scaly arms lift me high, high, so the sun can see me. The long-nailed hands begin to turn me toward the empty air. The sky darkens around the red, raging sun.

I think of my parents, and I feel so sad. I can’t move my face to cry, but tears leak out and fall far, far to the ground below. In my mind, I can see the search party. I can hear the screams of the ones who find me first. They’ll say I fell, like that little girl. They’ll say they told me not to go to this place, that I must have climbed up on the rocks and lost my footing, and fallen.

But that can’t be right, my mother will say. She will say Too good, too smart, she will say It can’t be, it can’t, as my father cries, big gasping sobs.

And the other vacationers will say, Shhh, shhh: the old rock crumbled, and the child fell.

But they’ll be wrong, I think. I want to shout it, but I can’t shout, but I want to shout: I didn’t fall, I didn’t fall.

I am thinking that, I am thinking all of that, as I fall, as I fall, as I fall.