Not a lot of exciting things happened in Bucky Creek, and not a lot of bad things happened either, at least none anyone talked about, and that was very disappointing to Jeanie Kramer because she wanted to catch a murderer.
Jeanie Kramer was eight, and a liar. If you asked her what her name was she would say it was Stella Goldfish, and if you asked her what grade she was in, she would lower her voice darkly and tell you she didn’t have time for school because she was a private eye, and if you asked her where she was going so quickly with mud all over her front and a dripping bag in one hand, she would wave you close and tell you that she had just solved a hot case and there were six dead bodies lying in the streambed at Willow Crossing, and she was on her way to fetch the police.
The truth of the matter was somewhat different: Jeanie had never actually seen a dead body, at least not a human one. The six she had found in the stream-bed were rats that had been surprised in their holes by a flashflood and washed out, all matted fur and yellow, translucent claws. Jeanie had never put anyone in jail either. Her only case so far had been finding old Mrs. Brodzinksi’s cat in the storm-drain, and then running all the way back to Mrs. Brodzinksi’s house and waiting on the rickety porch until Mrs. Brodzinksi came home and telephoned the fire department. But – and Jeanie was quite firm on this – none of that mattered. Just because something wasn’t true now, didn’t mean it would never be true. She would be named Stella Goldfish one day. She would be a detective, and if people laughed at her, well, they would just have to solve their own murder cases.
* * *
Her way to achieve her goals, she had decided, was to catch a killer. Murder was the worst sort of crime you could commit. Even the word sounded dreadful – MURDER – all red and raw and awful. So it stood to reason that if you could catch a murderer you had to be pretty bright. You had to be fearless and brave and better. Jeanie had already imagined many times a scenario in which she found one. They were either great grizzled men with beards, or shivery, wild-eyed women in nightdresses, or sometimes a pumpkin with a knife. (Jeanie didn’t quite believe that last one, but she had dreamed about it one night, and had henceforth always regarded pumpkins with suspicion).
In Jeanie’s daydreams, she would leap onto the scene just as the murderer was about to commit his dastardly deed, and then things became rather fuzzy, but they usually involved the murderer tripping, or Jeanie using a crossbow to shoot him.
Jeanie didn’t have a crossbow in real life, and she didn’t know what she would do in the case that there was no fortuitous clumsiness, but that wasn’t the point. When you got into tough situations, either things went your way, or they didn’t, and Jeanie felt they would go her way, because why would things go well for an evil bearded man or a crazy lady?
* * *
Jeanie’s parents were not best pleased with her pastime. Neither was her older brother, who wore spectacles and ratty sweatpants, and always seemed to find something wrong with everything Jeanie did. He often gave her long speeches about the ill-effects of having morbid interests, but whenever he started on those Jeanie made a point not to listen to him.
At breakfast, her father would look over his newspaper at her. She hardly noticed, was usually busy reading How to Sharpen your Powers of Observance in 10 Simple Steps, whil her eggs grew cold and congealed in greasy puddles on her plate. He would say, “Jeanie, I think if you found a murderer, you wouldn’t know what to do with him,” at which Jeanie eyed him sharply over the top of her book and said, “It might not be a ‘him’. Ladies kill people, too, sometimes.” At which point her father lost all interest in the conversation.
* * *
Jeanie and her parents and her dull brother lived outside a town that was very small, in one of those brown, scraggly states that no one really talks about except to express dismay at their voting habits. Her house was out on a long stretch of highway, and there were fields around it for miles, no trees, just lots of brown dead grasses, waving like so many dry, thin dancers. Sometimes Jeanie would sit in the yard and peer out toward the fluttering brown sea and imagine what might be going on in there, or just beyond the horizon-line.
It was lonely out here. It was lonely in Bucky Creek, too, because it took ages to become friendly with people. Once you did, you started to wonder whether you really knew them, or whether they simply knew you.
The Kramers had moved into the house about two years ago, after Jeanie’s parents became convinced the city was too dangerous to raise a family. Jeanie had not been happy about the move. The Kramer house was a low, one-story get-up, with a few shingles missing and a screen-door with a too-quick spring that snapped shut on your heels if you weren’t quick enough. There was a patch of lawn and a few dark bushes and a creaky swing-set and not much else. It was exactly the sort of house, that, when you pass by on a long road trip, you wondered with a pang of pity what sort of sad, going-nowhere people must live there, and sometimes when Jeanie walked home she thought the same thing.
She had not been as keen on murderers as a six-year-old as she was now as an eight-year-old. It had happened slowly. The kids at school were farm kids who had so many brothers and sisters they didn’t need anyone else. They didn’t have time for games, and they talked about livestock a lot. None of them really liked detectives. And Jeanie had decided that if she couldn’t fit in, she had to stand out wildly.
She got used to the town. She got used to the library. The house wasn’t so bad on closer inspection, and once you stepped safely through the screen door it was actually quite homey; it had a TV and running water and all that, which some people maybe would not have guessed at first glance.
But there were no murderers. Jeanie had checked. She had even checked the shed far out in the fields behind the house. It had looked very promising, but had proved to be empty.
* * *
Jeanie made a sign and colored it yellow and put it in the driveway. It said, “Stella Goldfish, private-eye, 2$” and unfortunately that had not turned out well. Her brother had laughed uproariously when he saw it, and Jeanie had stared at him, confused, because she thought it was a good sign. When he had calmed down enough to speak, he asked, “What happens when they pay 2 dollars? Do they get to keep you? There’s a no-returns policy, I hope?” And then he started laughing again, and Jeanie shook her head and furrowed her brow and said, “No, then I solve their cases, duh.” But her stupid brother hadn’t stopped laughing.
No one responded to the sign. Maybe the people in the cars driving by laughed, too, when they saw it, or maybe they saw the house beyond, and the brown fields, and had that twinge of pity, thinking, “What sort of sad, going-nowhere people live here?” And it made Jeanie angry because she didn’t want to be a sad, going nowhere person. She wanted to be someone. She wanted people to stop laughing, and she wanted to do something brave and wonderful like Arthur Conan or Nancy Drew. No one ever laughed at them, did they?
And then one day, not to be deterred, Jeanie put on rain boots and a red raincoat and took the bus into town.
* * *
Jeanie went to the library. “Hello,” she said at the desk. “I need some books about murder.” The librarian was a nice-looking person with frizzy hair, who said, “Oh, you mean mysteries. Well, I don’t know if they have murder in them, but let me find you something.” She came back a few minutes later with three small, bright books that had children in sneakers and flashlights on the covers, and titles with exclamation points.
Jeanie looked at the books and looked at the librarian. The librarian smiled at her, waving the books encouragingly. Jeanie sighed. She knew the librarian meant well, but she also knew that these were not the sorts of books she needed.
“Can I look around?” she asked, and the librarian smiled and nodded.
Jeanie found a section on forensics, some illustrated volumes on crimes scenes, and one book full of glossy pages of photographic evidence. She had just gotten comfortable at a table under a window with a large stack of books, when the librarian swooped in out of nowhere and said, “Sweetie, I don’t think these books are good for you right yet,” and started gathering them up and putting them back on shelves before Jeanie could even open her mouth.
Jeanie watched her, annoyed.
“If you really want something on the subject, how about trying these books!” the librarian said cheerily, and set down a few old-looking books. “There’s some tingly local stories in them and you’ll get some history, too.”
Jeanie blew a strand of hair out of her face and picked up one of the history books despondently. She began to read. The history book was surprisingly good. It didn’t tell her the really necessary things, like how victims were identified when they had been dead for a while, or what the police did when they knew someone was guilty but he wouldn’t confess. But there were nuggets here and there that intrigued her. It seemed that this particular county, with its brittle yards and ochre-colored houses, had just as many terrible people as anywhere. The difference was simply that they lived very far apart from one another, and no one ever spoke of the bad things that happened. They knew. Everyone knew. But they didn’t tell outsiders. They didn’t tell book-writers; they didn’t even tell the police necessarily.
Jeanie read about a few cases the book-writer had been able to glean – a woman who drove off a bridge, and a man who stayed in his house so long that when they found him he was covered in dust and cobwebs, still breathing, because his dog had brought him sparrows and blackbirds to eat. Jeanie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she read, and the clock ticked, and the shadows grew longer. The librarian came by once or twice just to make sure she was okay, and probably also to make sure Jeanie didn’t make a run for the Criminology shelf.
And then Jeanie saw it, and her skin prickled. Murder. Murder right here in town. She shivered.
The Raincoat Killer: 22 years ago, in the sleepy town of Bucky Creek, a shocking murder tore through the community. An entire family slain. Remains never found. Perpetrator vanished without a trace, presumed dead. All that was recovered from the crime scene was a shred of plastic, probably belonging to a raincoat.
Jeanie’s heart squeezed. She was suddenly glad for the librarian hovering around and shelving books and making friendly, normal noises. The murderer had been identified immediately, but somehow before the police could arrest him he had gone into the grasslands and no one had ever seen him again. They found some evidence later, but no one ever found the remains of his victims. The murders had taken place in one of the houses in Bucky Creek, and it was still standing, and there was a black-and-white photograph of a knife that-
Jeanie closed the book with snap and looked over at the librarian, who was humming and flipping through a notepad, casting Jeanie nervous glances. Jeanie sat very still, breathing shallowly. Then she scooted off her chair and hurried out of the library.
She didn’t think about what she had read. She was not even sure she had read it. It was half in and half out of her brain, and somehow it was in just enough to disturb her a lot. She thought of the murderer, imagined him a man with silvered glasses walking along the street in his gray raincoat. She thought of the nice people who stopped for him, and she wondered where they might have gone had they not stopped. It made her feel cold and sad and hollow.
She thought about going home, but she felt she ought to investigate now. She was closer than ever. A murder had happened right here in Bucky Creek and no one had ever solved it. One part of her, deep, deep down, was telling her she shouldn’t go snooping anymore, and she wasn’t sure why because it was all she had wanted to do for years now. She wasn’t afraid, not of murderers. But something told her she might be afraid of this one.
* * *
She wandered all up Bucky Creek’s main street, then down its only side street, one called Peachtree Drive, even though there were no peach trees and probably never had been. She peeked in windows and crept over scraggly lawns, quiet and sharp-eyed. She looked everywhere for clues. She saw bad things, that was for sure, things no one should really see, garbages full of glass bottles, quiet fights, and whispered words behind a wood-stack. But it was not enough, and it wasn’t what she needed. After a while, she went to Mrs. Brodzinski’s house and stood with a stick, banging it against the mailbox post. She saw old Mrs. Brodzinski on her porch and walked over. The woman was crying, her white hair stuck to her face.
“Why are you crying?” Jeanie asked, peering at her from below, and Mrs. Brodzinski’s head came up with a start. She didn’t answer, just stared at Jeanie, wide-eyed.
“I miss them,” she said. “I miss them so much.”
“Oh, kiddo,” said Mrs. Brodzinski. “What do you want? Why d’you keep coming ‘round here, causing mischief?”
Jeanie wandered off, but she couldn’t get Mrs. Brodzinski’s words out of her head. It wasn’t mean, the way she’d said it. It was so sad.
* * *
Jeanie went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take her home. It was a gray, windy evening. She sat down on the bench next to a woman who was chewing gum and flipping through an envelope of static-y, freshly developed photos. The woman smiled at Jeanie, but Jeanie didn’t smile back. She was busy thinking. The police had never caught the Raincoat Killer. Ever. They never found all his victims. This was her chance. She would search the town far and wide, look into windows, use her very sharpest observational skills. She would find him. . .
But what Jeanie didn’t know was that she already had. A third figure was waiting at the bus-stop. Behind the bench where Jeanie and the gum-chewing woman sat, behind the glass of the bus-stop’s wind-break a huge, gray man loomed. He had hunched shoulders and a great, gray coat with a piece missing. She looked back in that direction several times but she didn’t see him, right there on the other side of the glass, standing among the wet leaves and shrubs that grew close and tangled behind the bus-stop.
* * *
Jeanie shivered one last time as the bus pulled up, and climbed in. She didn’t see the figure behind the glass flicker, like film, skipping frames. As the bus took her out of the town and down the road, she thought she saw someone there on the shoulder, blurred by the windows. But the bus was going fast and it was getting dark and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a friendly farmer. She did think it was watching her, though, standing still, eyes following the bus as it passed.
She had to walk the last distance from the bus-stop to her house. She got off and started along the ditch next to the road. She didn’t even bother going into the house, which was oddly dark for so late in the day. She went around the back, and pulling her raincoat around her, hurried into the fields. There was that shed, far out back. She had investigated it before, but had she dug in the dirt floor?
She walked through the brown grasses, poking along with her stick. The wind flittered through the top of them. Faraway she heard crows calling, and suddenly she wondered if there was not another sound, a drifting, sighing sound a few feet away in the sea of brown. But she ignored it and began humming, walking, humming, poking with her stick. It was a big field, but Jeanie always kept a compass with her, and she knew which way was home. She walked until she came to a tiny clearing, where there was a twisted black tree. She stopped and stared up at it. The brown grass made a clearing around the tree, and she saw the tree was full of blackbirds, silent, watching her. She crept around the tree and kept going into the field.
And all at once she stepped out from a particularly high clump of shrubs and found herself face-to-face with the shed. She dropped her stick and hurried toward it. It was small, leaning, almost tipping over, its back facing a ditch full of stagnant water, an old creek-bed maybe, overgrown with brush.
She pushed open the door. It was dark in there. The air smelled old, wet. She felt suddenly sick and giddy. . .
She knelt down on the floor, scratching in the dirt. She did not see as the gray figure came and stood in the doorway behind her. She found a bit of a flannel shirt, a hammer, a ring . . . and all the while the figure in the door stood, motionless in that wrinkled gray raincoat, eyes hidden behind silver glasses. The door began to close with a creak.
Jeanie looked up with a start. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but suddenly she felt very cold. She knew, she just knew that the ground under her was a lacework of skeletons, a white tangle of bones extending into the earth. And she knew there was someone behind her.
“Who are you?” she asked, without turning. She kept her voice steady, but her heart was going off like a jackhammer.
The figure didn’t answer. The door was almost closed, the faint gray light from outside becoming narrower and narrower across the floor. Jeanie turned her eyes downwards, watching the triangle turn to a thread. Her breathing sped up.
And all at once the huge man turned and shrank, and his coat wriggled, and then it was a child, standing there in the shadows, her back to Jeanie.
Jeanie stood up and spun.
“Who are you?” Jeanie shouted. “Are you-“ She cleared her throat and said loudly, “Are you the Raincoat Killer?”
The other girl began to whisper. Her face was hidden in the shadow of her coat’s hood. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Your brother is so annoying. So is Mrs. Gilthrope. They’re all so stupid and mean. They laugh. They laugh at you. Gacker-gacker-gacker.”
The girl made a hideous noise, dry and chittering.
“What are you talking about?” Jeanie asked. Something was wrong. This was not how murder investigations went. Who was this girl?
“They all know, Jeanie,” the girl said. “The librarian, Mrs. Brodzinski, that woman on the bus. They see you, but they never talk about it, because nothing bad ever happens in Bucky Creek.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Jeanie.
“You know. Truth is, Jeanie, you don’t need to go looking for bad things in other people’s yards, because, oh, there’s plenty in your own.”
The girl dropped to her knees and scrabbled wildly at the dirt floor, scabbed fingers clawing at the earth. There were the bones, peeking out, almost gasping for the air, white, white, white in the darkness. . .
A pair of spectacles. Ratty sweatpants. A wedding ring. A brother, a mother, a father, rumpled under a thin skin of earth. And far out in the fields another body, one no one had ever found, even though her coat was bright red, like a stoplight.
“No,” said Jeanie Kramer, putting her hands to her ears. “It’s not me. It’s not me.”
The shed door crashed open. The girl was gone. Jeanie chased her. Back, back through the fields, past the tree full of black birds. Jeanie’s head was buzzing. In the distance – the direction of the house – she heard a sound, a clattering, maybe voices, but it was being drowned out by the cloaked hum inside her skull. She ran faster, faster, and she could have sworn she heard screams, the screen-door snapping open-closed-open-closed as people ran through it in a panic. . .
She arrived at the house. All was silent. There was the girl again, standing still, looking down at the bare earth at her feet. The knife was still in her hand. Jeanie tackled her and the blade spun away, and she ripped the hood from the girl’s head. It was like a string had been cut, like a door had been battered down inside Jeanie’s head.
It was herself she was looking at. Jeanie Kramer, in her favorite red raincoat and muddy galoshes. Pasty and wide-eyed, her lips blue, her skin pocked with black, turning to decay, like old china.
Six dead bodies in the stream-bed at Willow Crossing. The spout of a hose pressed to the black, wet dirt, to the mouth of the warren, rats squeezing out, gasping for breath and then washed away. She had gathered them up and took them though the town, a lonely, desperate ghost, looking for anyone who would listen to her, listen to her whisper about how someone had murdered, someone awful, not her, not her, someone worse.
Why do you come around here causing mischief? What do you want?
She wanted so much. She wanted someone to know what she had done. She wanted someone to find her bones and bury her. She didn’t want people to forget her. She wanted to be a detective. . .
The house was so quiet. The knife was nowhere to be found.
Slowly, Jeanie rose to her feet. Her knees were muddy. Her fingers were red.
“I caught one,” she said crazily, and wandered down the driveway. It looked for a moment as if she were wringing her hands, her dirty fingers pinched tight around each other. But then it became clear that she was gripping her own arm, guiding herself along. “I caught one!”
She stumbled into the road, and then she began to run, on and on along the chipped yellow line. Cars passed her – a sad little ghost in a red raincoat – and the tall grasses began to dance, their scaly heads whispering in the wind, and behind, the house shrank and darkened, a black memory swallowed whole by the gathering dusk.
* * *
Back in town, the librarian opened a book to replace the checkout sticker. The dedication quote caught her eye:
How comforting are our neighbor’s evils, distracting us ever from our own.
The strange tale which I am about to recount took place many years ago, in the summer of 19—, upon my return from university in Hertfordshire for the summer. My parents, as you will recall, had died in my youth, and I was staying with my aunt, who, being of busy disposition and not entirely sound mind, had decided to abandon a handsome rental in St. Albans and move north to the country, for no particular reason other than that she felt it might be a pleasant change. She had purchased a snug house in Ivydale and was eager to get there as soon as possible.
She had been hasty in her decision, however, and had completely overlooked making arrangements with the landlord concerning the St. Albans lease, not to mention paying her debts at the shops and saying goodbye to the bridge club and farewell to the postman and the milkman and the woman who did her cleaning on Wednesdays. She asked whether I wouldn’t travel up a few days early to make sure the house was weather-tight and all was in order, and she would follow directly after. I said yes, of course, Aunty, I’d be happy to.
In truth I was utterly miserable at the prospect.
Ivydale, as it happens, was the town where my Aunt grew up, and it was also the town where my parents had lived, and thus, of course, where I had lived with them when they were alive. I had fond memories of sunny lanes and ripe, buzzing fields, and now that I was older and reasonable, and viewed everything exactly as it was, I feared I would find the town dull and commonplace, and all my recollections would be tainted. But I was in no position to argue with my aunt, being little better than a charity case, and having found university rather a lonely place full of clever, frightening people, I decided to make the most of this latest inconvenience. I packed my satchel and took the train up first thing the next morning.
I had sent a telegram ahead to what friends I could still remember from my years in Ivydale. I did not expect to see any of them, but upon stepping off the train, four familiar faces were there to greet me. There was Jenny, who had shared a desk with me in the first year of school. There was Bill, who had been a braggart in the play-yard, and was still a braggart now. He told me straightaway he had ‘thought about leaving this dowdy old town’, but did I know, the money here was so much better than in the bigger places? I found this claim to be dubious. Then there was Oliver, who thought himself superior to all of us because he had been stationed in London at the very tail-end of the war, and there was his own acquaintance, a dour boy named Hackford, who I did not know and who was very quiet and long in the face.
We went on a short trip ’round Ivydale to our old haunts – the brook along the town’s border, a red-brick bridge and the weeping willows, Mrs. Whyst’s Cake Shop – and we were rather a loud, uncommonly merry group compared to what I was used to. I was in good spirits and happy to find the town mostly unchanged since I had last been there. It was still tiny, and leafy, bleeding effortlessly from grass to dusty lane and back again. The people had grown a bit grayer and more wrinkled since my last visit here, and there was now a train station, but otherwise progress seemed to have passed Ivydale by completely, without so much as a general store or movie theater deposited in its wake.
After several hours, I told my friends of the reason for my coming here, and of my Aunt’s new abode. When I told them its address, they agreed to accompany me there and to inspect whether it was up to snuff for a lady from the City, though I noticed that Hackford looked up sharply when I mentioned the location of the place.
We went along the lane out of the center of town, laughing and talking. Jenny pointed out the house to me as we approached. It stood at the top of a low hill and was lovely from the outside, bright-white and neat, with climbing roses and a high, stone wall around the garden. The roof was steeply pitched and the shutters had been painted not long past.
I unlocked the door with the key my Aunt had supplied me, and we all crowded into the hall. The house was very small inside, dim and tight. A small parlor opening off one side of the entry and a cramped study on the other. I observed the air was musty and close, but I also observed that there was no dust on any of the furnishings. I wondered if someone had come up from the village to clean before our arrival. We resolved right away to open all the windows and give the place a good airing. We proceeded to go through the house, throwing the casements wide, and as we went Bill asked if I planned to stay here alone until my Aunt arrived. I said, of course I would, but with no great conviction and soon it happened as I had secretly hoped, and Oliver, Bill, and Hackford agreed to stay in the cottage the first night to keep me company. We each chose sleeping spaces for ourselves on the second floor and explored all the little rooms. The house was not small, really, but it had been partitioned so many times that it seemed almost like a collection of closets, opening one into another. Another oddity we noticed, and which Jenny commented on at once, was the fact that the previous owner, whose things were still everywhere, appeared to have had a fondness for little Victorian dolls and clowns. There were a total of fourteen of them lined up on a shelf in the parlor.
It came about evening, and we went down to the inn for a bite, and to the corner shop for basic supplies. Jenny left our group then, with a backward wave and a merry farewell, and we set off back to the house. When we returned, we found it just as we had left it, only I realized we ought to have closed the windows before going out, as a wind had kicked up in our absence and was flapping the curtains madly, and racing so strongly I was worried it might send some of the many baubles and dolls flying out into the night.
We hurried through the house, closing the panes against the wind. I noticed at once, when we had finished and were congregated again in the parlor, that the whole exercise had done very little good: the house still felt tight and tiny, and the air smelled musty, as if the very walls and furniture had closed their pores and cracks against any sort of invasion of fresh air or newness. I decided it must be the decor; Aunty had warned me the house would be just as it was when the previous owners lived in it and she said she was most assuredly going to throw everything away when she arrived and decorate the house to the modern style, but for the moment, I wouldn’t mind, would I?
And I had said, no, Aunty, of course not, I’m sure it will be lovely.
We stayed a while in the parlor, lit a lamp and spoke of old times under the watchful, beady little black eyes of the dolls and clowns, and when the clock on the mantel began chiming 10, we all rose and bid each other a good night. I thanked Bill and Oliver and Hackford for being good sports about the house, and was apologetic to its faults, and tried to make it clear that I was very grateful they were there.
Bill, no doubt deciding I was becoming soppy, went to wind the clock on the mantel.
“Don’t bother,” Oliver said. “You don’t want that loud old thing going off at all hours of the night. Let it wind down on its own.”
And then we all went upstairs, peculiarly hushed, as though we had suddenly said everything we could say. There were two bedrooms on the second floor, down a short, narrow corridor from the stairs, and I thought, of course, that we might split the space evenly. Oliver had different plans, however, and took one room to himself, insisting he was of the highest rank among us and thus entitled to it. This left Bill, Hackford and myself the room across the corridor from him. I explored the second story a bit longer after the others had lain down on their makeshift beds, and came upon a small bathroom, very old-fashioned, with nary a spigot or running water to speak of. I found there on the edge of the basin a small square of terry cloth, filthy and damp of the sort a gardener might use after a long day of toiling in the soil, and I wondered at it being left there when the rest of the house was so fastidiously clean.
I returned to the bedroom and there we sat up a while longer in the light of a monstrous old kerosene lamp and spoke.
“You know,” said Hackford, after a while of idle talk. “I don’t fancy this house. And I don’t think your aunt will either once she gets to know the place a bit.”
“What d’you mean?” I ask him.
“Shut up,” said Bill, but Hackford continued.
“The man who lived here before . . . he was an odd one. His wife had died, and then he became a bit warped, always smiling when he came down to the shop in town, always friendly. But he had this cold, glittering sort of gaze above his smile that would make your heart stop in your chest. None of us really liked him.”
“He was just an eccentric,” Bill said. “There was no ‘cold and glittering gaze’, or whatever you said. We didn’t know him well enough to dislike him.”
“Well, that’s all the reason one needs to dislike someone,” I said, hoping to sound clever. “Not knowing them, I mean. What happened to him? He moved, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said Bill, staring up at the ceiling. “Or died. He had grown incredibly large in an unhealthy sort of way. Liked those cakes of Mrs. Whyst’s. Skin like flaps of old cheese, last I saw him, wandering about town in an odd hat and an odd suit. Probably went off to a nursing home like old Mr. Beecham from the shops. You know Mr. Beecham?”
The conversation turned to other things and then died down altogether. After some time, I drifted off to sleep.
Slowly, I came to my senses again to the distinct sound of a clock, ticking, somewhere in the house.
I lay still for some minutes, trying to sort out where it was coming from. And after a while I became certain the ticking was from downstairs in the parlor
I sat up in bed. The room was very dark. I was in no mood to go downstairs, but I was sure Bill had said it was about to wind down. Why, then, was it still ticking? It seemed very loud, and suddenly there was sharp clang and I suppose it must have reached midnight for it began ringing incessantly. Bill shifted somewhere on the floor, but did not wake. I decided I could not return to sleep with this racket going off and so I climbed from the narrow bed, resolving to go downstairs and wind the clock down by hand.
I slipped out into the hall and down the stairs, shuddering somewhat; the walls seemed very close, and the doors did too, and it all combined to give me the impression that if anything dreadful were in this house it would have no option but to be uncomfortably close to me. I came to the parlor and stepped in. Sure enough, there on the mantel, the parlor clock was tick-tocking merrily away, almost too quickly, like a maniacal little seesaw. I went to it, found its key on the backside, and wound it down sharply. It is not wise to wind a clock down by hand, as it is likely to damage the gears, but I was tired and Aunty would not be needing the clock anyway. I twisted the key all the way to its end, hearing the gears grind and snap in protest, and then I set the clock back down and turned and stepped into the entry way.
I had hardly gone five steps when I heard a sound behind me, a swift, metallic clicking and the rasp of a key, and then a brushing sound, like fabric being drawn swiftly over the floor. I spun, just in time to see the clock falling from the mantel and shattering to the floor.
The silence that followed was quite sudden and complete, my heart hammering in my ears.
I stared at the clock on the floor, illuminated by moonlight through the tiny windows. I looked at the fourteen dolls and clowns on their high shelf. They seemed like a small jury, inspecting me. And where there more dolls now on the shelf, more than fourteen? I thought perhaps I should go into the parlor and see what had caused the fall, but for some reason I dared not step over the threshold. Feeling suddenly very cold, I forced myself to do it and hurried about, careful to avoid the glass on the floor. The windows were all firmly closed. I found no evidence of a slant on the mantel that might have caused the clock to slip. My mind went to Hackford suddenly, and I recalled his dower ways and sinister descriptions, and wondered if he was playing a practical joke on us. But Hackford was soundly asleep upstairs – I had stepped over his body on the way out of the room – and what a foolish thing it would be if one were not even awake to enjoy the aftermath of one’s wicked jokes.
I started slowly back up the stairs, pondering the clock. When I reached the second floor, I noticed at once a light coming from the bathroom at the end of the corridor. It was very faint and it wavered as if someone were walking in front of it. The door stood slightly open.
I spun away and went straightaway back to bed, taking care to note the measured breathing of Hackford and Bill. I burrowed under the covers and waited, and there was not a sound, nor a disturbance, until I fell asleep.
I woke the next morning refreshed and well-rested, as if nothing had occurred, and recounted my tale to the others.
“Don’t worry,” Bill said. “We’ll bin it all up.” And we set about doing just that, gathering the clock and all the hideous dolls, and putting them outside together with a great deal of other turn-of-the-century rubbish.
After some hours my friends departed and I sat in the kitchen for my dinner. Aunty would be arriving tomorrow. The house was in good order, though I was beginning to agree with Hackford that she would not like it. This last night I was to be on my own. I must say I dreaded it greatly. I recalled I had forgotten to ask any of them if they had used the bathroom late that night and I very much wish I had. The smashed clock was gone and so were the dolls, but I could not forget the words Hackford had said, about the man with skin like old cheese, always smiling, cold and glitt’ring, cold and glitt’ring. I imagined him pawing over all the little knickknacks, rocking in the chair, dusting the furniture, and I felt a trespasser entirely.
I went to bed early, determined to sleep soundly and wake soon, but it was not to be. Sometime in the night, a small creaking from the corridor pulled me from sleep. I sat bolt upright. It was the unmistakeable sound of footsteps, and not quiet, stealthy footsteps, but someone walking quite freely down the corridor, soles clacking on the wooden floor. I rose quickly, unsure what to do, and then I took up the great old lamp and crept out into the corridor. It was empty. I was terrified I would see some ruffian, the flash of a knife or a pistol, but no one was there.
I was sure I had not imagined it. The corridor was so small and narrow, and I distinctly remember the sound of someone striding down it, perhaps even wheezing breaths and great arms touching the walls.
I turned to look down the stairs. Turned to look to at the opposite end. . .
And what should I see but the light of the bathroom on again, flickering, and a sound: the unmistakable sound of someone shaving his face; the scratch of a razor and sweeping rasp of a brush in barber’s cream; and humming. High, shrill, deeply unpleasant humming, in time to the sound of the blade and the foam.
Broke my clock
I’ll snap his back
I froze, gripped by such cold terror I could scarcely breathe. The voice was real, neither imagined nor dreamed. I could hear the wheezing breaths again, and how the man seemed to swing around in the small space, a great beast in that tiny closet of a room. And as I watched I saw the toes of a pair of great black shoes, just peeking past the edge of the door, as the man stood before the mirror.
I turned slowly, meaning to go down the stairs and flee, but as I was turning the floor contrived to squeak loudly and the sound of the razor and the foam-brush stopped. So did the wheezing and so did the song. I stood frozen, the air around me electric, as if waiting in expectation for some untold horror to occur, and when I looked back over my shoulder I saw only the toes of the shoes, motionless before the sink, and a huge pale hand gripping a razor.
I fled for the stairs, clattered down them, and coming to the front hall, rattled at the door. It was locked by my own hand, earlier that night, and the key was upstairs beneath my pillow. I fled into the parlor. The high shelf was empty, but for one doll, a little clown holding a satchel, with a wide red grimace on its bone-pale face. It was lying strangely, and I realized its back was broken, snapped into a triangle.
Upstairs, a slow tread emerged into the hallway, advancing toward the stairs, and whatever it was began to sing again, a stone-cold malice in its voice:
Locked the lock
He won’t get out
High in the rafters, deep in the earth
My lies in the roof and my truths in the dirt
They’d have me strung up
By my tail, by my hair
Too late for that now, friends
Too late for that now
And here, whatever it was up there in the hall reached the head of the stairs and I saw in the darkness a face, or perhaps a mask, and it seemed like that of a clown, freakishly exaggerated and grinning, black eye-holes in a pale face, and lips painted red as a wound.
I turned and smashed the window to the lawn, and leaped out and fled across the grass and through the gate. I did not stop running until I was at the inn, and there I banged on the door until the proprietor screamed at me and let me in. But even in the crisp sheets of my new bed, with the owner below and the guests above, I was still terrified that whatever was in that house might follow me down the hill and snap my back like a pencil.
It happened, later, that the police were brought in to investigate what I had told them was possibly a squatter or wandering criminal. They told me they found no evidence of such a person staying there, but they did find several large knives and a cleaver and a little room with a bolt on the outside, and in the end, the lovely little yard was dug up and there were discovered fourteen bodies buried at various depths, belonging to the many folks thought vanished or runaway from the village over the years. And in the attic, under a heavy blanket, was found the great corpse of the owner, who had died inside a chest which he had specially constructed to bolt from within, so that he might stay in his house even after death. Judging by the level of decomposition, the police suspected him to have been dead at least six months.
Later that year I returned to Hertfordshire and university, quite shaken by the entire ordeal and in fact very much excited to never go back to Ivydale again. As for my aunt, she was persuaded she did not want to live in the house on the hill after all the unpleasantness with the lawn coming up corpses, and she moved instead to a modern cottage in town, with running water and very many large, bright windows to let in the sun.
I wake covered in ice. It crusts my lips, hangs in silvery pins from my sleeves, turns the crimson velvet of my coat gray and frosty. My gaze twitches to the left, to the right, my eyeballs shifting with a delicate cracking sound beneath their sheen of frost.
I am sitting at a table. A feast is spread before me, and the lace at my throat seems to strangle me, stiff with cold. Moonlight streams over my shoulder, glimmering on the silverware, milky through the window-glass.
I cannot recall where I am. I cannot recall who I am. Not even my own name.
Again I twitch, fissures opening in the frost on my back and across my shoulders. I am on a ship. I must be. I see the curved walls, the iron stove, bolted securely to the floorboards. I am in the captain’s dining room. Ice covers the rich fruits before me, dusts white the cornucopia of apples and cherries, walnuts, lemons, plums, like crystal sugar. The carved ham is furry with cold, the dark wood of the walls and the furnishings dulled, as if viewed through a gossamer veil.
My eyes swivel downward. A book lies open beneath my fingertips. It is the captain’s logbook, though I am certain I am not the captain. It lies open to the final page. My fingertips stick slightly to the parchment. I do not trust myself to move, but I turn my eyes downward further and read the words that loop, thin and spidery, across the page:
August 17th, 1674
This weather is cursed. It is deepest summer and yet there is only wind and sleet and misery. It is that thing’s fault. They said: you shall be quicker this way. They said: two trips in the time of one, you will be rich! But they lied. They wished to be rid of it. We will be lucky if we survive the month.
I cannot have a moment’s peace. It follows me everywhere, and I hardly dare venture on-deck, for the looks I receive from the crew are black as hate. They blame me, though it is not my fault.
I must end this. A monster walks in our midst, silk-tongued and smiling. I am the captain. I am the captain! I will end this, I swear it-
The writing halts. The next page unfurls, blank and empty.
The words sink slowly into my sluggishly awakening mind. And suddenly I recall dates, names, images, all in a sharp, painful flash: I am on-board the Homunculus, voyage 834 across the Northwest Passage from China to London, carrying a cargo of tea. I was the physician. Or was I simply a passenger? I still cannot remember. And I recall nothing of a monster. Somewhere in far off days I heard tales of such things: kraken and sirens and shape-shifting birds who fly down from the sky wrapped in feathers, but land on the deck dressed in a waistcoat and silver-buckled shoes. Mayhap we have been accosted by one such. Mayhap it is still here.
I am beginning to thaw. Water pools on my cheeks and drips from the end of my nose. My hair crinkles, falling in frozen strands across my forehead. I stand, releasing from my wooden chair with a crack, and look around me, hunched, shivering.
All is silent. Across from me, at the other end of the table, a figure sits – a great dark form, stiff in his chair. He too is frozen. It is the captain. The writer of the warnings. His plumed hat is pulled low, a wide black brim hiding his face.
I move slowly around the table, and I see he is holding a flintlock, clenched in his lap, his finger already hooked around the trigger. I look into the captain’s eyes. They are wide-open, stenciled with delicate patterns of frost. But beneath it I can still see the rage: the hate.
I shudder and circle slowly around the back of his chair. A cabin boy sits in the corner of the room, curled up as if he sought to hide from something. His eyes closed, stitched up with snowy lashes. I look again at the captain, terrified. A single pearl of water forms upon his nose. Stretches. Drops.
He is thawing too. His eyes twitch toward me.
I jerk back, ice cracking up my sleeves, rattling to the floor in shards. I do not know why I fear him, but I do. There is something unnatural underway here, something too dreadful for the minds of man. I hurry for the door, stagger down a short passage, burst out onto the deck. . .
The entire ship is wrapped in snow, emanating like a starburst from the room I have just left. The masts are broken. Men stand on the deck, leaning over the edge, and though their mouths are wide and their eyes open, their tongues are covered in snow, and icy barbs extend from their backs in whatever direction the wind blew. Something knocks against my foot. I look down and see it is a leg, a gray stump upon the deck. I peer upwards.
His name was Cowlick. The man in the crow’s nest. I remember him, too, now. He is still there among the rigging – all of him but his leg – swinging in in the wind like a gruesome flag.
Fear grips me. I run to the balustrade, peer over it into the mist.
A wind is whipping about my ears, and as the ice on my clothing melts it begins to freeze me anew, bitterly cold. The ship is becalmed, stoppered up in a cracked circle of snow and ice. Beyond it I see the black waters of the ocean, ice caps rearing up like drooping nightcaps.
What has happened here?
A sound reaches beneath the wind and into my ears, the creak of wood. I do not know where it comes from, but it fills me with dread. And then, through the mist, I see a light approaching, a lantern, perhaps upon another boat.
I cannot remain. This ship is cursed. Perhaps they will take pity on me. I snatch up a coil of rope from the deck and loop it around the mast. I clamber over the balustrade, letting myself down the side of the ship. The beads of ice in my hair knock against each other like wind chimes, stiff ropes of grease and cold. I reach the snow, stagger, and begin to run toward the edge.
“Hello?” I call out. “Mercy! I am shipwrecked!”
The light in the fog continues on its course a moment, and the water laps gently inches from my feet. Then the light pauses, turning, and begins to slide toward me. It is a ship, then, and they have heard me. My heart hammers against my ribs. The ship emerges from the fog, a great sodden boat, greenish at first, the single lantern creaking like a single golden eye from its figurehead. The figurehead is a woman with the head of a wolf, teeth bared, eyes narrowed. I watch the boat approach, see figures darting on the deck, leaning over the balustrade. The prow of the ship strikes our little shelf of ice and rocks it. Behind me, the Homunculus creaks, shuddering. I fall to one knee, my hands burying themselves in the snow.
“Take the rope!” someone shouts. The ship is towering over me, a monolith of black shuttering out the moon. In the next instant, the knotted end of a coil strikes me in the face. I snatch it, my fingers trembling. I let it pull me toward the edge, and then I kick my legs out and begin to make my way up the steep side of the ship. I look back over my shoulder. The Homunculus looks like a child’s plaything, forsaken. Something is stirring on her deck: a figure hulking from the aft tower, spinning, staring about him across the deck.
I hear a voice follow me up, a deep rumbling.
“Hurry!” I shout up, and my voice echoes in this forsaken expanse, a tiny, high screech. “I beg you, hurry!”
The rope begins to jerk upwards faster, pulling the wind from my lungs. I reach the railing and arms loop over it, dragging me onto the deck. Faces peer down at me, awed and frightened, and I wonder if it is from my appearance that startles them, or that I am alive at all.
“What happened?” they ask me, and I know my eyes are wide, fevered, but I cannot help it.
“We must get away,” I hiss. “Leave here!”
The captain, a young fellow, flint-eyed and strong-jawed, eyes me a moment. He snaps something over his shoulder in a language I feel I should understand but do not entirely.
The boat begins to creak. I hear the water giving way against its side, cradling us and carrying us away. I drag myself to my feet and peer over the railing.
“What year is it?” I ask over my shoulder.
“1699,” the first mate replies, perplexed. “April.”
1699. We have been drifting, frozen across the ocean, for thirty long years.
A gap of water is widening between the boat’s prow and the ice-shelf, and a figure approaches across the snow, that huge black shape from the ship’s dining room. He is stumbling slowly, leaning upon a bit of broken mast. The fog is beginning to close again, the little silent island of ice losing itself again in the darkness. The captain waves his flintlock and I hear a call through the wind, a desperate, small cry.
“Faster!” I shout over my shoulder. “Away!”
I see people moving on the Homunculus’s deck now, hear the wail of Cowlick as he wakes without his leg, and hear the captain screaming: “Save us! Leave the wicked creature! He will be the end of you!”
But the crew of this new ship does not hear them. The fog closes and they are gone.
I turn away, slumping against the wood. Beneath my coat, I notice that there my red slippers are oddly turned, as though my feet have been broken, my ankles grotesquely bent. I draw out my hand from beneath my arms and I see feathers where fingers should be, fruit for nails, twigs for bone, wax for skin. I blink, shut my eyes tightly. When I open them, my hand is that of a man’s again. The captain is watching me.
I watch him back, memories flooding like dark water across me, a storm of roiling clouds through my skull. Does he suspect what I am? Ah well. I am good at surviving. I sat in the dining room of the Homunculus and read the captain’s scribbled words, and when he entered, trembling, he pretended he did not know. But I did. He wanted to shoot me, to be rid of me, and I could not allow that. There was a white flash, a flood of ice spreading away from me, freezing everything living upon that boat, and everything not, for 30 long years.
The young captain is still watching me, his eyes sharp. I smile at him, my lips flicking back across my teeth.
I do so enjoy traveling.
The city of Belle-by-the-Sea was the most fashionable place on earth. There was nowhere more polished and up-to-date, no city lovelier, with greener trees or sweeter air or a bluer, more-picturesque ocean that one might look out over, and throw oneself into when hot or melancholy. The citizens prided themselves in being the prettiest, the most modern citizens probably anywhere, and it would take you only a moment in those beautiful streets, with the willows drooping overhead and the people strolling past in bizarrely improbable costumes, to realize the abnormal measures their obsession with fashionableness sometimes took.
It was a marvelous-looking city, there could be no doubt of that. Slow-moving dirigibles floated overhead, and colorful kites wafted in the ocean breezes, and the buildings soared, built of gray stone, but so delicate and fantastical that they looked more like carefully dipped wax, little balconies protruding, and pierced all over with stained-glass windows or diamond-shaped panes, peeping out like eyes. The chimneys were twisted or braided, or carved in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Below in the streets, ladies and gentleman promenaded tirelessly (promenading was the fashion that month, replacing the newly outmoded “jaunting” and the hopelessly prosaic “walking”). Lace parasols bobbed along like the skeletons of mushrooms, pinstripe trousers snipped like scissors, salmon-silk socks flashed, candy-colored shoes darted. The skies overhead were kept perpetually blue and cheery by the weather balloons that floated about, pulling clouds in through their propellers and releasing them white and pure. The gutters and stoops were always clean. Even the urchins were perfectly maintained, their cheeks smudged with just the right amount of coal-sludge, and their suspenders and ratty polka-dot bow ties kept in a careful state of disarray by the city’s Fashion Keepers.
But now you would begin to notice the abnormalities – the desperation, almost, beneath the lacy, silken, parasol-toting façade.
For example, when the newspapers declared that fish-shaped hats were all the rage and in fact indispensable to any well-dressed lady’s or gentleman’s wardrobe for Wednesdays, the hat-shops and milliners of Belle-by-the-Sea were hard pressed to stock their shelves fast enough, and were known to send errand-boys running to the fisherman quays with their fists full of hat-pins.
When an underground pamphlet declared that one ought to be utterly indignant about the state of cat-hairstyles in the neighborhood of Glendaloo, everyone made a point to be righteously outraged over the subject for at least ten minutes a day.
And when some enterprising young fellow discovered he had miscalculated gravely, and had far too many pads of butter in his cooling warehouse, he put up posters all over the city declaring that butter was good for one’s figure and one might dispense with exercising altogether if one ate sufficiently of the butter, and he put this statement on great sun-colored billboards, with appealingly curly, vine-like type, and had it printed with a picture of two lovely people, one slim and one round, and of course they weren’t the same person at all, but my dear, you would be far too busy eating butter to notice.
Enough of that, though. All in all, Belle-by-the-Sea was a lovely place. It was a pleasant life, there in the cool shadows of its arches, and a simple one, too, because after a while no one really knew what was good and what was bad, simply what was fashionable.
One day, something arrived in Belle-by-the-Sea so marvelous that the people were rather surprised, as they thought they had seen everything marvelous already.
It was a massive wagon. Not a regular massive wagon, but a wagon so great and ponderous it was more of a gilt-and-wood castle, balancing on thirty-six massive iron-hooped wheels and pulled by an army of eighty silent, velvet-gray donkeys. The wagon rose almost fifty feet into the air, towers and flags not included, and the sight of it emerging through the dust on that hot summer’s day, well. . . . It was a sight for sore eyes, and fashionable eyes, too.
Behind upper windows, and from balconies, housemaids and children gasped as the wagon pulled slowly into the city and squeezed between the housetops. Housemaid spoke to parlor-maid spoke to housekeeper spoke to master or mistress and soon crowds of powdery rose-and-mint colored promenaders were pouring toward the main square of the city, where rumor had it the wagon was destined to arrive.
The wagon squirmed into the square, went to its center, and there curled like a great worm around the fountain in the middle, falling still with a creak and a sigh, the donkeys closing their eyes without a single bray or stamp of hoof, as if falling asleep.
By this time, word had spread through all of Belle-by-the-Sea, from the mansions to the gutters to the quays and the fashionably-distressed-nautical-chic sailors’ taverns. News arrived of the marvelously enormous wagon lying in wait in the main square, and people left whatever they were doing to see it.
The urchins heard, too, and went running and ducking under the fingers and swabs of the Fashion Keepers, went darting and leaping through the streets. When they got to the square, it was already packed toe-to-heel. It was a large square, and a grand and beautiful square even without people in it, but now, full of all the wonderful figures of Belle-by-the-Sea, with the blue sky spread out overhead, and the gilt glimmering from the wagon’s crenelations, and the eighty donkeys standing silent as could be, it made the urchins stop in their tracks and stare.
Everyone was staring. Everyone was waiting, breathing, silent.
The wagon sat for what felt like a ridiculously long time in the heat, with the weight of Belle-by-the-Sea’s not-entirely-low expectations hanging about like fluffy pink smog. I have already said the wagon was massive, but it was more than that. It had turrets and towers, many windows and little balconies, and on one side was a stage, curtained with luxuriantly rippling purple velvet. There was no sign above the stage, or indication of what might be performed, but the promise was there and so the population of Belle-by-the-Sea waited.
After approximately fourteen minutes, the curtains twitched, and out came a man, marching across the stage. He looked very fashionable, quite as marvelous as the wagon from which he had emerged. He wore a gloriously complicated coat made from many sharply tailored triangles and covered in buttons, brass and seashell, and drooling lace from the throat and cuffs. He had an enormously tall top hat on his head, the most handsome mustache anyone had ever seen, and as he approached, he smiled radiantly down at the masses below. A few young ladies flapped their painted fans, and the gentlemen smirked disparagingly, which is what gentlemen do when they stumble upon other men whom they deem almost as wonderful and debonair as themselves.
There was a moment’s pause when all of Belle-by-the-Sea seemed to hold its breath. Then the man in the complicated coat spoke:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls. Urchins,” he began, and he threw his arms wide, so that the people in the crowd could more fully appreciate the red silk lining of his jacket and the fact that his belt was almost certainly snakeskin, with a little ruby eye at the buckle. (The Fashion-Keepers were scribbling wildly at this point: ruby-eye buckles, dramatic arm sweeps, complicated coats.) “Welcome! To my Palace of Marvels!”
Music sounded from somewhere, a clarion blast of trumpets, violins sawing frantic scales, and a frenzy of clashing cymbals and tinkling bells. At the same moment, a hundred butterflies were released from somewhere behind the wonderful gentleman and spiraled into the air in a beautiful column of iridescent wings, emerald-, wine-, and pearl-colored. The butterflies were sucked into one of the weather-turbines high above and came out the other end considerably smaller, but the audience below was far too busy staring at the complicated gentleman to notice.
“You may be asking yourselves,” he said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the square, “what is this Palace of Marvels? And who are you, Wonderful Gentleman, with your impeccable coattails and well-oiled mustache? Well, fear not! I shall tell you!” Here he smiled again, even more radiantly than before, and his eyes shone, and suddenly and subtly, without anyone really understanding how, the tables had turned. They had already been almost upside down – the impressively massive wagon and the donkeys and the butterflies had done much of the work – but now the entire audience was beholden, enraptured, enslaved to every word the gentleman spoke. He was no longer a traveling performer. He was almost a king, and there was not a person in the crowd who did not desire to know what secret this man had to tell, and what wonders were held within his Palace of Marvels.
The gentleman in the complicated coat seemed to have expected this development as a matter of course: “My Palace has been to all the great cities of the world. No doubt you have heard of it from London. Beijing. Poughkeepsie. Now doubt you have heard tales of the fetes which it can perform. No doubt our reputation has reached this great city years ago. “
Again that smile flashed, and a veritable gale of head-nodding ensued, peacock feathers, silk flowers, and fish-tails shivering in time with their wearers. The truth was, no one in Belle-by-the-Sea had ever heard of him before, but there are some things simply too mortifying to admit.
“I thought so.” The gentleman said and now something new entered his eyes, the tiniest glitter of derision, but no one stood near enough to catch that.
“And yet. . .” he said, his eyes back to twinkling like a pair of bells. “And yet there are no doubt one or two among you who have been living under a bridge your entire lives, or have been recently orphaned, who have not had the cultural education necessary to know of me. You, perhaps, with that hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief. You have only recently crawled into the light of the sun at the sound of my arrival, yes?”
The man with the hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief tried desperately to cover it with his hands, but the gentleman only laughed and carried on. “And so for you, for the benefit of you, I will reiterate. “
“I?” He swirled his hands at the wrist and bowed low, and doffed his enormously tall top hat, which was lined inside with blood-red satin that had been printed with smaller top hats. “Am the Lord Doctor, PHD from Wizcombe University, honorary member of the Society of Rednow, recipient of degrees from the University of Juno, knighted by the Queen of Ingrish. I am John. . .” He breathed in, deeply and dramatically, “Smith.”
Rapturous applause exploded throughout the square, ringing and bouncing against the stone faces of the buildings. Again the music started up, trumpets and violins screeching. Again a burst of butterflies were let up into the air and again they were desiccated horribly by the propellers of the weather balloons.
“Thank you,” said the gentleman, and instantly the crowd and the music fell quiet again, and all that moved was the softly drifting wings of the butterflies, raining down like petals. “Now. You are probably wondering: what is such a man as this doing in our town, on a stage? Like a common conjuror, or snake-oil-selling witch-doctor quack! Well. . .”
A spindly brass staircase folded down off the edge of the stage, and the gentleman darted down it, leaning over the railing toward a little child who smiled up at him, brushing bits of Butterfly-guts out of her eyelashes.
“I will tell you,” he said, in a whisper that was somehow not a whisper at all, but loud and cutting enough for all to hear. “I will tell all of you! Nay, better, I will show you!”
The gentleman spun away, back toward the center of the stage, and there he spread his arms. Spotlights affixed somewhere high among the turrets of the wagon ignited, and suddenly the curtain behind him was awash in changing colors, a shifting, whirling cloud of purple and green and dusky blue. The music became mysterious and tinkling.
“I have discovered,” the Lord Doctor Smith breathed, and spread his fingers, and looked away into the distance as if seeing some glorious vision of dewy-hilled Arcadia. Everyone in the crowd sighed in awe. “I have discovered the greatest mystery of all. And I have solved it.
“Yes! I have solved the greatest mystery! You all know what the greatest mystery is. No, not your neighbor’s flawlessly inexpressive face, or where your brother gets all those socks from. Death! Death is the greatest mystery. And I have conquered it.”
Behind him, projected on the curtains, a coffin appeared, and a rather Gothic graveyard, and the spell in the square was rather broken by that. Death was neither a pleasant subject nor a fashionable one, and snake-oil might have been preferable. The shift was instant. Skepticism crept into faces, charged the air and turned it heavy and bitter. And yet the Lord Doctor Smith was unperturbed.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Murmur among yourselves. Shake your heads. Call it an impossibility, frippery, rubbish! But are you a member of the Society of Rednow? No, I think you are not. I can show you this world. That is what my Palace of Marvels does. I have developed a foolproof way to cross between the world of the living, into the world of paradise.“ Again, the swift swoop of the hand outward, fingers spread.
“It is a marvelous place, a Wonderland, a garden of pleasures. I have been there. I have charted it, and developed a perfectly safe method of traveling between the two plains. All you must do to get in is die.”
He was losing the audience rather quicker now, and he seemed not to care at all.
“You don’t need to believe me of course. Such worldly people as yourselves will want proof. I can give it to you. All you like! I call it Paradise Tourism, and that’s really all it is! Tourism! A jaunt to the world beyond the grave for well-heeled people.”
A few of those well-heeled people were leaving the square just now, indignantly drawing scarves around shoulders and straightening hats. Perhaps the Lord Doctor saw it, or perhaps that was only a bit of dust making his eye dart and glimmer in amusement. Whatever the case, he was not disturbed.
“Behold!” he shouted.
The curtains behind Lord Doctor Smith opened slightly, revealing a woman in a glittering circus costume, bristling with feathers and stitched with so many gilt beads and crystals she practically shone. The woman smiled broadly at the audience. The Lord Doctor Smith smiled at the audience, too. He extended his hand and she took it, and together they both walked across the stage, their eyes clanging like church-bells now, projecting metaphorical lightning bolts of joy and showmanship into the crowd. They stopped in the center of the stage. The Lord Doctor turned his smile on the girl. Then he took a pistol from his breast pocket and shot her in the heart.
The sound was sharp. It pulled the crowd tight like a drawstring, jerking everyone upright and freezing them. The girl fell, blood blooming across her chest.
“Nothing like someone dying to catch your attention, eh?” the wonderful gentleman laughed, flicking the blackpowder from the barrel of his silver gun, while all across the square people’s faces turned to masks of shock and revulsion. “All the books start that way these days, don’t they? So-and-so died. Why should you care? I don’t know, but you should because it’s dramatic. However!” He twinkled at the audience, as if he were telling a joke. “It’s really only remarkable when they come back.”
The audience did not understand this joke. If it was a joke, it was not funny at all. The girl lying on the stage had a bloody wound over her heart, and there is something very primal and horridly unnatural about seeing another person die that ruins the mood of any gathering.
And yet the gentleman was carrying on as if nothing was amiss. “Don’t worry!” he cried, laughing merrily and not at all madly. “Don’t be afraid! Look!”
Here the great curtains parted, and then another pair, and another, three sets of curtains swooping apart in waves – purple-green-red – and there, behind them, was a great circle of bevelled glass, like a lens. And behind that, floating happily-as-could-be in the most marvelous void of multicolored clouds, was the circus girl. There was no sign of a wound. In fact, she looked as if she could not have been happier about her current state. She appeared rather like a goldfish in a bowl, moving languidly about, plucking bits of multicolored cloud and eating them and making delighted faces. Her body remained on the stage, a lump of sequins, white limbs and beads.
“You see?” said the gentleman, very softly. “She is dead. Temporarily. And yet her soul, her essence, all that really matters, has passed into that wonderful place beyond. That is what all of you have been missing! Clinging to this dull old ground. This!” He gestured around him. “This is only half of everything! There is an entire world of softness and joy and wonder, where you are never hungry or sad or too warm or too cold! Look at her frolic! Would it not be worth a moment’s discomfort to frolic through a landscape of multicolored clouds?”
No. The crowd was not entirely convinced that it would. Not to mention, they were still sure they had witnessed a cold-blooded murder.
“Oh, but of course. You are all asking: ‘What of the dear girl? How will she come back! Surely it is not so difficult to die, but how will one return?’ Well, you are darling little thinkers, aren’t you. Let me show you something else.” And here he made an elaborate gesture, and a mechanical arm swooped into the dark behind the bowled lens and drew the circus girl out. However, she left the lens not as girl, but as a wisp of violet steam that somehow did not dissipate or blow away. The Lord Doctor took the wisp by thumb-and-forefinger and placed it elaborately over the dead girl on the stage, and suddenly she was alive again, and there she sat up and smiled rather vacantly, her teeth as white as rabbit-fur.
“There you have it! There she is, in the flesh.” His eyes flashed brighter and merrier than they ever had before. “Now, is that not terribly, terribly fashionable?”
There was still some slight convincing to do, of course. The circus girl roamed about through the square and let people touch her hands, and she smiled at them reassuringly and showed them that yes indeed her wound had entirely healed, and the Lord Doctor continued to flail and gesticulate and prance on the stage.
And now it came, slowly at first, but rising steadily and surely: the most resounding sound came up from the crowd, the loudest cheer you ever heard. This was death conquered. This was new, and exciting, and wonderful, and quite realistic and scientific, didn’t you think, Jeremy? Eating clouds? Frolicking weightlessly? Yes, please.
“But don’t make up your mind just now,” the gentleman cried. “Go home and think on it. We will not run away in the night. In two days, when we open for business, the doors to paradise will be flung wide, and you may enter and leave as you please. Death Tourism, I call it! And you are all . . . WELCOME.”
Everyone went home that evening befuddled, slightly fuzzy and sick-feeling, like the way you are after a carnival. Too much cotton candy and too-bright-lights, and too much wonder can turn nasty very quickly.
But it could not be denied that Lord Doctor Smith had caused a sensation. All through the night, and the next morning, too, the citizens of Belle-by-the-Sea were a-buzz with talk of his great wagon, and the Lord Doctor’s marvelous contraptions. You could even go to the square and watch various members from the Lord Doctor’s troupe being murdered and then appearing behind the glass, leaping through the clouds, being merry. They were such fashionably-clad people, and they looked very happy.
And so two days later, when the little ticket booths opened for business and the spotlights were lit, and the beveled glass lens was polished to a gleam and promising all the wonders of that cloud-filled void, there was a long, long line of people waiting to go in.
Great ladies from the mansions on the waterfront of Belle-by-the-Sea had left cards at their friends’ houses, had met over finger sandwiches at Mademoiselle Fricassee, had passed folded notes while getting their feet chewed upon by dogs, which was the newest fashion in pedicures:
My darling Emily, Die with me, won’t you? The newspapers are saying it’s quite necessary this week, quite indispensable. 12 o’ Clock, Saturday, Town Square.
Yours, fashionably, Lady Meredith Cray
Darling Emily was only too happy to die with Lady Meredith Cray, and so was most everyone else. Within one turn of the clock-hands, much of the population of Belle-by-the-Sea had been convinced this was a revolution, a wonder, and a must-do.
High on the fifth floor of the wonderful wagon, inside one of its drooping turrets, in the hot, stuffy confines of its wooden walls, there sat the circus girl in her sequined costume, fuming on a little velvet footstool and looking as if she were about to explode. The complicated gentleman was there, too, watching the scene below with an air of satisfied disdain.
The circus girl began toeing a crack in the floor, then kicking the corner of a carpet, ever more viciously. Finally the complicated gentleman sighed expansively and turned to her.
“Oh, come now, Bessy, stop your rattling. It’s paying your dinner too.”
Bessy’s head came up like a Jack-in-a-Box, her eyes like two little stones. “What about the little ‘uns! What about the babies left at home, and all the old folk, and the ill, and- ”
“Not my fault. A fool and his breathing-abilities are soon parted.”
“That is not how that saying goes, and you- you- You! There are good people down there! Good people!”
“Darling, I do not doubt it. I’ve been quite convinced of their virtues as well. But why do you scowl at me so? What have I done? I have not lifted a finger against them. That’s the brilliance of it. It’s all entirely up to them.”
“The first judge who finds out, you tell ‘im that and you see if you’re not drawn and quartered for what you’ve done.”
“Well,” said the complicated gentleman. “I think we must simply make sure that never am I caught.” His eyes went the slightest shade darker. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He laughed, and turned again to the window.
Here the door to the chamber creaked open and another girl came in. She looked almost identical to the girl on the footstool. They wore the same costume down to the smallest bead and bit of stitchery. They had the same nose, the same dark eyes, the same pale skin and thin face. And yet it would have only taken a moment of looking at them both in close proximity to see they were not the same people at all. They were sisters, twins, and one of them had a splotch of red theater blood above her heart and the other had small hooks hidden about the waist of costume that allowed her to be hung on invisible ropes and appear, from a distance, as though she were floating.
“Is Bessy whining about the poor innocents again?” the girl asked, and she spoke the word ‘innocents’ as though it were not a word at all but a string of spit. The differences could be counted on two hands now: this girl had all of Bessy’s grace, and yet none of that coiled, angry energy. She was somehow sharp beneath her flowing movements – sharp voice and sharp chin, and a somewhat supercilious expression which she employed liberally as she passed the footstool on which Bessy sat. Bessy glared up at her.
“I am,” Bessy said, as if daring her sister to contradict. “And you should be, too, if you had half a heart.”
“Well, I don’t. Not for idiots.”
“Both of you are awful. Both of you are a couple of rotten wormy wicked apples!”
“Hear that, Esmé? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be a rotten wormy apple any day, if you’ll be, too.”
And here they took to giggling and poking each other, and Bessy ran from the room, while below in the square an insistent clatter had begun, a clatter, a snap, and a fall.
The massacre had begun. 10£ a piece, the gilt sign by the booths said, and it could have said 100£: the people of Belle-by-the-Sea would have payed it gladly. A gallows had been put up in front of the stage and all the fashionable people payed for their tickets and went up with their little half-heeled shoes, and salmon silk socks and plumed hats, and there they lay nooses around their own necks, looking at each other excitedly, and making little exclamations, and when the trapdoor fell, the attendants and onlookers cheered, and the little shoes and silks went spinning down into the dark, and the rows of people on the scaffold were smiling, too, their faces quite bright and joyful as their necks broke.
Figures began to appear in the wonderful world beyond the glass, indistinct shapes that frolicked about and ate clouds. Row after row stepped onto the dais, and row upon row fell. The Lord Doctor Smith’s coffers became full to bursting, and no one seemed to notice how the shapes were very blurry behind the beveled glass, not like faces at all, but merely silhouettes, drifting farther and farther away.
Late in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman, trembling and solemn-faced, came to one of the booths and said, “My wife went in. When will she be out, please?” And the boy in the booth smiled and said: “I don’t know! But perhaps you would like to join her! Couples go free, naturally.”
The bodies, once they had been hanged, were taken down with the utmost care and hurried behind the wagon. Shoes were gathered and carted away between the wagon wheels by tiny, chittering little creatures wrapped in strips of old cracked leather, with helmets over their faces. And at last, when night came, the Palace of Marvels was closed and the curtains swayed shut.
Not a single person had left the wondrous sky-scape beyond the beveled glass.
The next morning, very early, Bessy woke and threw a cloak over her sequined get-up and crawled out the bottom of the wagon, landing in a heap on the cobbles. She had a small sack over her shoulder and workman boots on her feet, and she stole across the square and into the shadowed streets as quietly as an ant. Then she began to run, out of the city and into the wild countryside, and only when she was far down the road did she slow and look back over her shoulder. Belle-by-the-Sea looked gaudy to her then, a hideous whirl of fakery, the balconies teeth, the chimneys noses, pointing endlessly toward the sky. She turned her face to the road again and began to walk, suddenly loosely, into the dawning sun. She did not look back a second time. There are some things much larger and more complicated than one’s self, like an entire city of fools, and a heartless sister, and a greedy man. But there is always a sun going up somewhere that one can walk into and hope, for a little while, that elsewhere is better.
The urchins of Belle-by-the-Sea watched mountains of fashionably-clad bodies being taken away, pockets emptied of purses and coins, limbs stripped of their silk stockings and candy-colored shoes, milky bodies thrown into the water to sink quickly under the deep blue waves. Later, in the dead of night, when the urchins went around the glass on the stage, they found there nothing of a paradise, and no wonderland of clouds. Only light, sculpted carefully, and sound effects, and strange profusions of steam, that, from a distance, might be mistaken for souls.
I will recount for you the story of the Stump Child. There was once a little person who sat alone on the top of a fallen tree stump. She was pale and delicate and marble-skinned, and though the fog rolled up into the woods, and the wind lashed, and the rain came down in torrents, the child remained still as stone atop the stump, rain dripping from her nose, not moving at all. The child was seen from time to time by passing travelers, and they would comment on her, asking their guide who it was that they glimpsed there among the curling branches, far off the path. Sometimes the guide would tell them. The less fortunate found out for themselves. . .
We were walking along a muddy trail in that country called the Emerald Isle, heading for the town of Arklow. I had booked passage on a ship bound for England, and from England I was quite looking forward to the journey home, wandering the dusty halls and sunlit motes of the Cabinet, exchanging notes with the other curators, and catalogueing my many perilous encounters in the faery hills of Lough Corrib.
I was not expecting further encounters of the supernatural sort, and when I saw the face, high up the hillside, I thought at first it was an owl. I told myself it was an owl, because owls are generally benign creatures, and one needn’t feel obligated to know things about them or record tales about them and their histories. And yet when I peered closer into the rain, I saw that it was indeed nothing like an owl, but a child, with her knees pulled up to her chin, and her small sharp face peering over the tops of them, eyes slightly pointed, and very dark, too distant to read, but close enough to see that they looked like little holes in the woods, like little hole-punched openings.
“What is that?” I asked my guide, whose name was McCarthy, and who seemed to me a quintessential Irishman in that he was brusque, sharp-witted, somewhat superstitious, and very difficult to understand. For sake of simplicity, I have refrained from writing out his marvelous accent, and have put down his words in plainer, duller English.
“That?” my guide said, not even glancing toward the dark woods, but keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, “Is Betty’s Daughter. Don’t look at her.”
And so of course, being a Curator of Curious Things, I wrenched my head around and looked up into the trees with great interest.
It was a weird, unearthly sort of forest we were walking through. Ireland has no shortage of such woods. The trees grow sinuous, as if their branches are floating up in water. The bark is always thick with moss, the ground thick with mist, and the rocks are wrapped as if in green velvet. The resulting impression is one wild beauty, but also forlornness, and a sense that one should not be there, that the forest should be walked through at great speed until one is in a city with cars and ugly buildings where one belongs, and that the forest should be left to its own devices, of which there are no doubt many.
But cars and cities were far from us, and so were all manner of humans, and as I stared up into the woods, I felt the child turn her head and look at me.
“Why is she called that? Betty’s Daughter? What is she doing there?”
“Don’t speak to her. Show her no kindness. Come quickly.” My guide kept his eyes on the ground, but his brows were low, and as he spoke, he came back toward me and gripped my arm. I resisted, shrugging him off.
“Come, Sir,” he said. “Bad things happen when you stray from the path. The woods are treacherous in the quiet hours.”
I was not listening. I turned back to the girl. The rain was coming more violently now, and suddenly I was noticing details I had not seen before: the child wore a blue smock with a soiled collar, and little old-fashioned black leather shoes, and she no longer appeared quite so bony and fey, but like an actual child, shivering in the cold and weeping, so that I could not tell where the tears ended and the rain began.
“Is it here often?” I said. One part of my mind was trying to swim its way to the surface and whisper warnings in my ear, and the other part looked into the child’s eyes and felt a deep, unimaginable sadness. The child’s hole-punch gaze was blue now. She was sniffling, crying. . .
I saw a child walking with her mother down a forest path. The sun was shining, and for a moment it was an idyllic scene, something from a painting. Their garb was Victorian, and the forest was younger and wilder than it is now. The mother stopped suddenly, several paces away from where I observed them, and I saw she looked haggard, and her clothes were askew and her face was tired and pockmarked. She took the child up to the stump and sat her there, and though I heard no voices, I saw the mother’s mouth move, and her finger wag, and then the woman left and hurried on down the path. The child sat on the stump and waited. The sun faded. The fog came, creeping up the hillside and lapping slowly at the base of the stump like cotton tongues. The dark followed, then the rain, and the child sat on the stump in the cold and the damp, and waited. The rain dripped from her nose, and the water pooled in her shoes. Her mother did not return that night.
I realized suddenly I was standing, petrified, in the path, and my guide was dragging at me, his eyes wild. “Do not look at it! Do not look!”
I turned to him again, and said, almost dreamily: “Why does no one help her?”
“Come away!” the guide screamed.
But I could not. The child on the hillside was sobbing wretchedly, her hands were over her eyes, and now I saw her mother faraway, reaching a smoky city, limping past grimy brick walls and signboards, boarding a boat, going farther away, and all the while her child sat alone in the woods. The mother died on the boat and was thrown overboard. The child waited in the woods for days, then weeks, becoming thinner and thinner, and the people who passed by crossed themselves and hurried on in terror. And then, in my vision, I saw two people clumping up the muddy path, a guide and a Curator in aubergine shoes, wending their way through the green and the mist.
It became clear to me then what must be done: I would save the child. I would take her to the city and hand her over to be someone else’s problem the way noble heroes do, and I would be successful where others had failed. And so before I really knew what I was doing, I was racing up through the underbrush, the branches grasping at my jacket and snatching at my cheeks. I heard my guide cry out behind me. I scrabbled in the mud, slipped on the moss. I saw the stump approaching, and the child on it, and I saw suddenly the child was death-white, a starved, hateful little thing with hungry eyes, one-hundred-and sixty years dead with fingers curled around the stump, leaning down toward me. My body tipped forward. There was no more ground under me. And I saw there was a great pit at the base of the stump, invisible from the path, and far down in the depths was something larger, a vast creature with many eyes like little crystals, and dark spines and an embarrassment of legs, slithering in the dark.
And just there, the guide jerked me back, and together we rolled down the hill and fell in a heap at the bottom, muddy and soaked, and the Irishman very angry.
I did not look back at the child on the stump. I grappled myself to my feet and together with the guide, hurried up the path and over the hill. We did not slow until we were in Arklow and I had boarded a boat. To this day I do not know exactly what breed of magic Betty’s Daughter was, or what ancient creature lived in the pit at its feet and used it to lure in its dinner, but in all honesty I am not curious enough to find out.
You may think me foolish for not knowing better than to look into the hole-punch gaze of the creature on the stump. My Irish guide certainly did. But then, Ireland is an ancient and enchanted place, and there is no telling what one will do there, or what might live in these green hollows and old woods, and perhaps that is the long and short of it: we are not meant to know everything. If we did, there would be no adventures.
(Curator Bachmann is, as of the posting of this, still in Ireland, traveling merrily away, and will blog about his less supernatural encounters later.)