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.)
Clara Jane Cow was an unfortunate name for a child. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Her great-great-grandfather had come across the sea in a creaky boat from Lithuania, and in Lithuania ‘Cow’ was a fairly common name. It meant ’tiller of black soil’ and was properly pronounced Gov. The problem was, no one in North Carolina knew that.
When the first letter for the great-great-grandfather arrived, from his dear old mother in the steppe, the postmaster took one look at the envelope and laughed so loud that the birds were startled from their roost under the post-office roof and the rafters dropped dust into his wide-open mouth. The news spread like wildfire, because of course when someone laughs everyone wants to know why, and before anyone even had the chance to meet Yigur Cow and learn the truth about his surname, the whole town had made up its mind.
Yigur Cow was one of those loping, good-hearted men who expect other people to be the same, and so when folk at the general store or by the hitching posts shouted after him, “Hey! Hey, Mr. Cow!”, he thought they were simply being very friendly and chalked up their terrible pronunciation to inferior schooling. He never quite realized what the problem was, and nor did his wife. But their children did. And their children’s children did. And now it was Clara Jane’s turn to notice.
If, in the past eight years of her life, things had been different, if she had been born into a family that was not named Cow, if she had a regular, pointless name like Wheeler or Charleston, if the other children at the little school by the brook had not teased her, if she had not climbed up into the hayloft of the Cow barn and cried until she couldn’t stop, well then, she may never have found the djinni. But she did, and so it happened.
The djinni was kept in a small, regular-looking wooden box – it might once have been a sewing box – shiny, and worn smooth from a hundred years of leathery, lye-soaked fingers. The wood was dark, almost black, with shades of cherry just peeking through where the varnish still clung. There was a keyhole, and no key.
Clara Jane had no idea it was there. She was having a good cry. She was rolling about, mourning the day of her birth, and the hayloft being what it was, scratchy stalks of dry grass were getting into Clara’s dress and makingher cry more; it was as if the straw were in league with the horrid children at school, as if everything, the very universe, were conspiring against her.
She stood up after a bit and began to pace, still sobbing, and after another while a particularly harsh stab of sadness and shame overtook her and she threw herself down in a comfortable-looking heap of hay. . . . and landed on the djinni’s box. Right on the corner.
She sprang back up with an indignant cry, because now she was sure the world was simply one great cruel thing that would not even let her weep without hurting her. She spun to look at the heap of hay, rubbing her back where the box had bit into it.
She saw the djinni’s box. Just the corner, dark and silent, poking out from among the gold and dull green of the hay. . .
I will tell you right now that this is not a wishing story. It is not the sort of story where you know what will happen, and where you can nod wisely as all of Clara’s wishes go terribly wrong and think how she really should have been more content, because who cares what your name is anyway?
Clara Jane cared, for one. She cared a lot. And there was no one who could have told her it was not a bad thing to be called Clara Jane Cow without her spinning about and laughing loudly in his face, and then punching it, too. It is bad, she would say. You try it.
No, this is the story of a girl, and a djinni who had run out of wishes.
The djinni had a silky voice, like ink and oil, and as it stood there, hovering, its lower extremities tapering into shadow, it eyed Clara. It was dark and vaguely boy-shaped, and though it was constantly shifting, a thousand strands of night and starlight, it was not frightening.
Mostly because it looked terribly depressed and morose. It practically dripped self-pity.
“I suppose you want a wish,” the djinni said, and Clara Jane’s mouth dropped open. She wasn’t surprised that it spoke. Djinni’s were supposed to speak. She was surprised that it was such a stingy, grotty djinni.
“Aren’t you supposed to give three wishes?” she asked.
In her mind, she added that to the long list of injustices her life had seen. A wish, not three, like in every fairy story she had ever heard.
“Oh, I would if I could, but someone else used them all up. So in fact, you can’t have any. But I thought I’d ask, for politeness sake.” The djinni sighed, its chin coming to rest on its shadowy chest. Apparently it was done eying Clara.
“So, I can’t wish for anything?”
Another mark on the tally.
“You can, if you fancy to, but I’m not sure it will do any good.”
Clara felt a sob creeping up again, all the hot, bitter tears that had not fallen yet rushing up again. They were not for the defective genie and its lack of wish-granting, no, but she had not been anywhere close to being done crying before. This encounter seemed only to highlight the plight of her life.
She took several quick, gasping breaths. She couldn’t very well cry now, with this sad-looking creature hovering about, watching her. She wanted it to go away. She picked little bit of hay nervously from her dress.
The djinni lifted its head partway and eyed her again. Then it raised one finger and asked politely: “I could not help but overhear your wailing. These walls aren’t what they used to be.” It tapped the dented old sewing box with one inky strand of leg. “Why were you crying?”
Clara Jane’s gaze turned sharp. If she told him why she was crying, she would have to tell the djinni her name, and then it would probably laugh.
“I wasn’t crying,” she said, and frowned. “I was singing.”
The djinni dipped its head agreeably and sank back into the box. “Oh, pardon me. What a striking voice you have. Are you going to wish for something? You might as well. I can’t give you anything, but perhaps it will make you feel better. Go ahead, give it a try. If I could grant wishes, what would you ask for?”
The djinni spoke in a slow, drippy voice, never sounding as though it were terribly interested in the answers she might give.
Clara thought for a moment. What would she wish for, if she were not the unluckiest girl in all the world? Many things. A new name. A new face. A new house, far, far away from here.
“You’re grinding your teeth,” the djinn observed, turning its head aside to stare tragically at a beam of sunlight.
Clara stopped. She took a step toward the djinn.
“Do you want to know? I’ll tell you then. I will. I would wish for you to hang Johnny Traverse from the rafters until his head burst, and I would want you to eat up Sara Prigg, and then I would want you to pinch the teacher black and blue because it’s her fault, too. She could stop them, and she never does.”
“That’s very gruesome. What a gruesome child you are.”
“Well, you can’t do any of it anyway. What sort of djinni are you if you can’t grant wishes?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been asking myself the same thing recently. A lousy one, I suppose.” The djinni gave an expansive sigh and curled into a ball. “I can tell stories, though. That’s something.”
Clara turned away angrily. “I don’t want to be told stories.”
“They’re very good stories,” the djinni mumbled, curling into a tighter ball. “I’ve been told they are. Young Henry VIII liked them, at least. . .”
“About what?” Clara said despondently and sat down heavily in the hay next to the box.
“Oh, everything. Everyone I’ve ever met. You know, Solomon, Caesar Augustus. . . . I’m thousands of years old.”
“So why can’t you grant wishes!”
“Because it’s difficult, and I’m all out!” the djinni snapped. And then it deflated again. “That’s why. What sort of story would you like to hear?”
“I don’t know. One that isn’t boring.”
The djinn’s eyes widened slowly, dull and milky. “I’ve never heard a boring story in my life.”
“Well, go on, then.”
The djinni dropped its voice low and began to tell a tale. It started very boring, Clara thought. There were endless-long sentences about the sky and the color of the tiles in a courtyard, and the sound someone’s voice made when it rose, and the colors some improbably perfect girl’s hair took on when when the light changed. (So many colors – crimson, chestnut, auburn. Clara did not think it possible that one person’s head of hair could change so often without the help of wigs or dye, but the djinni sounded quite convinced).
Clara Jane yawned expansively which threw the djinni off for a moment.
But then there came a line, just one sentence, and suddenly Clara was listening. The line was about the main character of the story, the improbably perfect girl. She had been kidnapped from her parent’s home and taken far away, and while Clara had instinctively disliked her a second ago, that line came and went, and Clara found herself interested, almost despite herself.
The line was this: but Esmerelda did not want to be betrothed to the horrid Jezra, the shifter, the poison-slinger, and nor indeed did she wish to leave her beautiful home forever, and so she fled to the highest tower of Jezra’s castle and tried to think of a way in which she could dodge her fate.
Clara Jane Cow was, as usual, very frightened when she went to school the next day. She dreaded it most awfully on her way down the rutted road. She practically shook all the way through class. And yet, somehow, it was not quite so bad as the day before, and the day before that. Now, when the teacher rang the bell and the children spilled like roaches out of the schoolhouse, Clara went and sat by the brook and thought lengthily about the girl Esmerelda and how she would escape the wicked monster Jezra, to whom she was to be betrothed. (Clara didn’t know what ‘betrothed’ meant exactly, but it was clearly an awful thing.) And as soon as the teacher dismissed the class, Clara sprang up and ran all the way home, and it was not that she did not hear the screams and taunts of the other children, because she did, but they were not all she heard today. There was something else now, and it was almost as important.
As soon as she was back at the farm, she threw her books down on the porch and climbed the creaking ladder to the hayloft, and opened the djinni’s box and listened in the dark as it spun Esmerelda’s tale, on and on, the strands of it floating into her mind, and deeper. Clara’s mother came and poked her head through the barn-door, but all she heard was Clara’s quiet breathing and an occasional laugh, and a very soft voice which may have been Clara’s own, whispering. When Clara came down she was very happy.
The djinni continued Esmerelda’s story for one hour every evening after school, and not a word more, though Clara begged for more and tried to bribe the djinn with gingersnaps and apples. (To no avail.) The story went on and on, and Esmerelda got into an alarming amount of trouble for one person, but she was clever and brave, and she usually found a way out of it again.
As for Clara and the djinni, they could not help but become quite good friends, though the djinni was still very sad over the fact that he could not grant wishes.
“You know, it’s not the same, telling stories. Not the same as giving people castles or one hundred fire-breathing camels. I’ve come down the world, really, absolutely sunk.”
And Clara looked at the djinni from where she was resting her head on her hands and smiled.
She didn’t say it, because she didn’t quite know how, but her smile said, It’s almost the same as granting wishes. In fact, maybe it’s better.
Esmerelda finally escaped the clutches of Jezra and was promptly captured by thieves. Clara was both inconsolable and jubilant at the same time.
Clara’s parents decided, in a doting way, that she was slightly mad. Her peers, in a less doting way, decided she was tedious and insufferable. She cared not at all for either opinion.
One day, she came home from school and scurried up the ladder, only to find all the hay gone and the dim loft full of furniture. A strange man was clattering about, setting up a brass lamp.
“The old box?” her mother said, when Clara came barreling toward her, sobbing. “Well, I threw it out! I didn’t think we’d need it. The loft is being rented now that we have the new stye.”
That was the end of the djinni. Clara looked, far and wide, as hard as she could, but she never found that old box with its shiny wooden sides and hint of cherry. She cried for many nights, convinced she would never know the end to Esmerelda’s story, whether she would escape the thieves, whether she would find her way back home, and be happy again. Clara felt she could never leave her room again, never go anywhere. What good was it, when there was no story and no silly, mournful djinni to tell it.
But eventually, when she was done crying, and her parents made her go to school again, and everything was forced to go back to normal, she climbed up into the hayloft, which was now full of a furniture, and sat down, and thought of Esmerelda and the thieves. She began to speak, softly:
The thieves lived in a cave, in the heart of a mountain made of bones, and that was where they took Esmerelda, though she fought them with all her might. . .
It was not the same as when the djinni spoke. She was worried she would get it wrong. But after a while she realized she couldn’t get it wrong, even if she tried. It was her story now, and she could make it any way she pleased.
Clara Jane Cow never changed her last name. And people never stopped laughing at it, not even when she was eighty-nine years old, living in a mustard-y old house in the middle of a cornfield. But when they did laugh, she would simply stare at them, and then she would go away through her rooms full of books, and while you would never see, you could hear a silky, oily voice telling the most marvelous stories you ever heard.
“And one day, Esmerelda rounded the last bend and climbed the last hill, and was home. . .”
(Curator’s note: Cow does not mean ’tiller of black soil’ in Lithuanian nor is it properly pronounced ‘Gov’, but as this tale was dredged up from the bottom of a well, some parts were ineligible and could not be precisely deciphered.)
In a little town, all brown roofs and wheeling jackdaws and wilting flowers in pots on the front step, where everyone was quite all right and in fact fairly pleased with himself, a newspaper arrived to change that. The letters of the headline were large and blaring, with exclamation points so as to be less easily doubted. They spoke of murder, coming closer, creeping up the roads and along the hedgerows toward the town. A great shape had been seen in the neighboring towns, dark and huge, lumbering through the streets in the wee hours. It went after everything it saw, the weak and the useless. By morning, its victims speckled the streets like grey heaps of rubbish. They called this figure the Editor.
The Editor did not arrive creeping along the ditch or behind the hedgerow as the newspaper had anticipated. Instead it stepped from the door below the baker’s sign in a burst of brilliant white light and went about its business.
I say ‘it’ because it was impossible to tell who, or what, the Editor was. It was without a doubt very great and dark and frightening-looking. It wore a boxy black coachman’s cloak and a black leather gloves, and no features could be discerned under the brim of its huge top-hat, certainly not in the lamp-pole-less lanes and alleys of that town.
The white light from the door it stepped from was as bright as daytime, as if white clouds and sunlight lay beyond instead of the dusty, musty shop of a baker. When the door closed, the light faded away, narrowing to a spear from the keyhole and then vanishing altogether.
The Editor crossed the street, and though nothing could be seen of its face, the shadows under its hat seemed to frown. It looked at the color of the shutters, and the old iron locks on the doors. It looked at the cobbles on the ground, and the pictures painted on the sign-boards. Then it drew out a long silver spike from somewhere within its cloak and reached up, just touched the wood of the signboard swinging above, and a bit of red bloomed there.
The Editor was just returning the silver spike to its cloak when there came a sound from the street. A clicking, shuffling, and a small cough, echoing between the houses. An old woman was, for no particular reason, hobbling past him, a basket of new yellow dandelions under her arm, even though it was October and there was frost along the gutters.
The Editor struck quickly. A silver slash, a red spray, and then the old woman lay in a heap on the cobbles, the dandelions slipping away in tufts of yellow over the cobbles. The Editor went back to examining the signboards.
They found the old woman the next morning and held a quiet burial, but somehow the newspaper heard of it, and, as if by magic, there were papers on every wilting-flower-doorstep an hour later, the ink still wet and black, bellowing:
SPECIAL ISSUE – THE EDITOR’S 23rd VICTIM – WHEN WILL IT END?
Several days after the dandelion woman was done away with, the Editor arrived again, and this time it was not content to stay out in the street. It nodded at the sign-boards, which all seemed to have been repainted in the past days, anxious eyes having seen the red blots, children reporting the Editor pausing under them, and the aura of disapproval it left in its wake.
The Editor came to the corner of one street and looked up at a tall, crooked house with a lantern burning above the door. The Editor touched the lantern with its silver spike and it sputtered out and fell away. Then the Editor burst through the door, shouldering between the shattered boards. A tall, anxious-looking man in a pointy hat was inside, several glimmer-eyed toads poking from his pockets. With him was a sly-looking boy, as well as a man and a woman who looked equally sly and where no doubt the boy’s parents. The boy had just received word he was to go to a many-towered school that stood next door to the town and become the Greatest Wizard the World has Known.
The Editor relieved him of that notion with a flick of silver. The anxious man in the pointy hat put both hands to his mouth and went very still. The child’s mother ceased abruptly looking sly and clutched the boy’s body, screaming, a keening sound that filled the streets to the tops of its brown roofs, and people began pouring in through the battered door, in nightgowns and pale caps, to comfort her.
“My darling!” she wailed, over and over again. “You’ve killed my darling!”
The boy was not the last. In fact, the town went through quite the wringer before the Editor was done. Other people were recruited by the many-towered school, boys, girls, men and women, clever folk with glasses and endearing foibles, or vicious tempers, or the ability to light their own heads on fire. The Editor paused sometimes before letting the silver fly, sometime pinching the Great-Wizard-to-be’s chin in black-gloved fingers. But in the end the silver did fly. The candidate fell, and the parents mourned the loss of their murdered darlings, though they were, increasingly, wearily accepting of it. . . .They all looked vaguely the same, those parents. Hunched and glazed-looking, with a penchant for wearing pajamas all day, never changing to go outside, and sometimes not going out at all.
The Editor did not stay forever. Within several months, a girl received a magical apparatus that shot a wonderful glowing map from its eyes that led her to an underwater school in a sunken pirate ship, where she would learn to fight sharks and amphibious spiders and all manner of evil. The Editor watched her go, standing along the side of the road like a dark mountain, and it seemed pleased, or at least not actively unhappy, as it kept its silver spike firmly within the confines of its cloak. Then the Editor followed her to a town by the seaside, and watched the proceedings unfold, and the shadows under its hat no longer seemed to frown quite so much.
As for the dingy town it left behind, it went on as it had before. The door under the baker sign no longer lit with that searing white light. The newspapers went back to writing about turnip harvests and an epic and explosive battle involving sharks and amphibious spiders, happening in the seaside town many miles away. The people who had been killed, the old woman with the basket, and all the candidates for the many-towered school were soon forgotten, endearing foibles and vicious tempers notwithstanding. And had the villagers been so prescient as to see the future, they would have found that despite all the tears and wailings, they were much better off without them. For had she lived, the old woman would have turned out to be a witch, growing dandelions for potions in the root cellar of her cottage and thereby bringing about the end of the world. The sly boy would have become the Greatest Wizard Known to Man and would have lured a monstrous darkness there, battling it in exciting ways, the town being utterly destroyed in the process.
Instead the seaside town was utterly destroyed, and the brown-roofed one with the jackdaws and wilted flowers – that one ran along like like a little clock instead of a jouncing wagon, no witches, no spiders, no sharks.
The signboards looked better, too.
(Note from the Curator: this story may not make a particle of sense to anyone who isn’t a writer, and it might not make a particle of sense to anyone who is, either.)
Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.
I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.
It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.
“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.
I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.
I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.
It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.
I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.
This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.
To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.
I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”
Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.
“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”
“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.
No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.
I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .
“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.
That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”
She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”
Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”
“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”
Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”
“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”
“Well, then who?”
“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”
I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.
“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.
We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.
I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.
“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”
“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”
I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.
Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.
“Yes! A magician, maybe!”
“D’you think he’s still close?”
“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.
But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves, turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.
I spun around, but I saw nothing.
“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.
I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.
“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.
Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”
“A man? What sort of man?”
“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”
I don’t know why I said that part.
Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”
I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.
I still wonder why.
Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.
I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:
“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.
She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.
“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”
“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”
“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”
“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”
“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”
“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.
I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.
But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.
I wonder if she found him. She found someone.
The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.
“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.
“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.
“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.
“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”
“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”
She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.
“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.
“All in white or just partly.”
“And he was carrying a rope.”
“Yes. One rope.”
“Was he carrying anything else?”
I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”
“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.
“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.
“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”
We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.
The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.
The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.
“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”
“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”
“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”
“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”
The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.
They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.
I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.
The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.
But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.
There has been a slight upset in the chronology of the Curator’s home: In June, we wandered down a little used-corridor in search of our miniature wind-up pearl-catapult and found ourself caught in a time-loop, desperately recording our own voices on phonograph and sending them out into the aether in the hopes that someone would hear our cries and rescue us. We have since rescued ourselves, and have found the experience quite enjoyable, but will nevertheless be returning to our previous schedule of one frightening and downright odd story per week, on the subject of maps.
Many things can be mapped. Countries, and lives, and root-structures. And what else can be mapped? The road from Hell to Gloucester perhaps? Or the lines on a dead man’s hand. Many things. Four will follow in the coming weeks.
We would also like to thank all of you who, in your search for morbid things, have bought copies of our stories for yourself or your impressionable young ones. If you’ve read it, we would be delighted and terribly thankful if you took a moment to review it on your favorite book website: