In the third episode of The Cabinet of Curiosities podcast, Curator Stefan Bachmann reads his most disturbing story “Plum Boy and the Dead Man.”
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Each week, one of the four Cabinet curators—authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne—will read a tale from their collection of spooky, creepy, or simply horrifying short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, available from Greenwillow/HarperCollins, wherever books are sold.
Scary stories for ages 8 and up. Adults will like them, too . . . if “like” is the is the best description for a cold and creeping terror.
A woman was folded into the chest by the front stairs. She was dressed very well, taffeta and black bombazine, with little green birds stitched around the collar. Her hands were crossed over her heart. Her shoes were well-polished. She was curled up a little so that when Detective Greenville opened the lid and found her there, he thought at first she was sleeping. But her skin was too pale, almost gray, and she was too still. Perfectly, utterly still.
He blinked at the woman. Shuffled his feet. Then closed the lid and turned away. “Dom?” he called. “Dom, there’s another one down here. In the chest. Get it tagged, please.”
He walked back into the center of the hall, glancing about. There was nothing to suggest anything but perfect Victorian sobriety in the dark paneling, the dour oil-paintings in muted browns and greens, the quiet flicker of the kerosene lamps. Nothing but the bodies everywhere, stowed in closets, in the kitchen holding bowls, in the dining room, propped against the high backed chairs.
Detective Greenville went up the stairs, past another woman (woman #3, a bit of paper pinned to her collar said) and across the upper hallway, where a third body, a man this time, stood in an alcove, his head against his chest. They were all dead, and recently, too, but they were not like any corpses he had seen before. None of them had started to decay, suggesting they had all been done in recently, and in short succession, and yet not one of them had a mark or cut, not so much as a bruise to suggest what had coaxed them from their mortal coil.
Mr Greenville walked into a bedroom, stiffening as the rattle and pop of an automobile approached up the street outside. He went to the window. It looked out over a cul-de-sac, maple trees and ruddy leaves, skittering over the weary grass of September. The reporters would be swarming soon, demanding statements, flashing photographs, offering bribes for lurid details. . .
But the automobile kept going, around the circle, stopping two houses further on. Mr. Greenville turned away from the window. The longer the silence lasted, the better. He had not yet thought of anything sensible to tell the chief of police yet alone rag reporters.
He looked across the room, at Moon Boy. Moon Boy was one of the more grotesque finds. A lad with a round, pale face, his mouth pulled into a wide smile. He was arranged carefully over a game of chess. His eyes were open, glassy.
Mr. Greenville approached the chess game. There was only the slightest hint of death in the room, a vaguely sour, milky smell, and slipping under the usual odors of dust and lamp-oil. Mr. Greenville leaned down next to Moon Boy. He noticed the body was not looking at the game. Its head was up. He eyed Moon Boy, then brought his own head up, tracing the direction of the body’s empty stare. The opponent’s chair was not occupied – Mr. Greenville wondered if it was reserved for the house’s infamous proprietor – but the body was not looking at the chair either. Not the minutely-carved ivory of his queen. Not the window. Something. . .
Mr. Greenville leaned closer and squinted, imagining the boy was some sort of mannequin instead of a corpse. His gaze traveled from the boy’s hands, slumped heavily on the table, to the pale queen, to. . . His attention jerked back to the hands. One wrist was punctured with many small red dots, as if narrow instruments had been poked into the flesh.
Mr. Greenville blinked. He straightened, and looked about, his eyes half-lidded, expressionless. He was always very distanced about these sorts of things. Horrible things. He saw many horrible things, and if let them affect him they would worm into his skull and break him like a china doll, and so instead he did not care at all. There was no in-between.
He looked again at the boy’s hands. One was lying wrist-up. The other resting, the fingers tucked beneath the palm. All except one. One finger pointed, straight ahead. To the other side of the room. Mr. Greenville flinched.
There was another body in the room. He had not even seen it. And neither had Dom apparently, as it wore no tag. It was the body of a man, and it stood partly in shadow, staring straight ahead. The body had been propped up straight, and though the man was clearly dead, his eyes were open wide, curiously sharp and dark. The irises were blue, rimmed in black.
Mr. Greenville swallowed quickly. The whole house was like this. A nightmarish tableau, some bodies propped up in a semblance of work or amusement, others simply dumped places, as if they were not needed and would be taken out later. But Mr. Greenville had not seen any like this fellow yet. Not with such eyes.
He took a step toward the body. The man had been exquisitely handsome. His face was sharp, the lines of his cheekbones like razors, his hair combed back over his scalp. But his eyes. Those dead, sharp eyes – they were filled with something, as if behind the deadness and the gone-ness, there was something else, something looking in, like through a window.
Mr. Greenville took another step toward the body. The limpid, cutting eyes. He could feel Moon Boy behind him, the presence of him, picture his smile and his limp, pointing finger.
“Dom!” he called out, and his voice slipped just a tiny bit. “Dom, there’s another one up here. You missed him.”
The silence in the room, in the whole house, was suffocating. Dom did not answer.
Mr. Greenville shook himself and left the room, suddenly cold, and went to fetch his coat and some brandy from the front hall. A bit of brandy would do wonders. It would wake him up, and it would dull the smell, which was perhaps slightly stronger than he had thought.
He went back across the landing and down the stairs, hopping gingerly over the prone shape of woman #3. He took his coat and put it on. Threw back his head for a draft of brandy. Then he crossed the hall and looked into the kitchen, where he had expected Dom to be. No one was there. Only a white-aproned cook, staring at him, wires suspending her arms, holding up a ceramic bowl, a metal whisk, her eyes like cold milk.
Mr. Greenville closed the kitchen door and whistled a little to calm himself.
“Dom?” he called again, not very loudly. He never spoke loudly. He was a large man, but his voice was always soft and breathy, and even when he thought he was shouting he was not. He passed the chest with the woman in it, went into the dining room, the study.
“Dom, hurry yourself up!”
There had been people missing all over the City for years, but people went missing in big cities all the time. Sometimes they were found. Sometimes they lived, and went home to their families. Sometimes they didn’t. But who would have thought they would end up here, in respectable house on the bay?
Mr. Greenville took another swig of brandy and climbed back up the stairs to the bedrooms. “Dom!” he called out, walking into Moon Boy’s room. “Get out of whatever you’re in and come tag this- ”
The man was gone. Mr. Greenville coughed slightly. Moon Boy still pointed, but there was no one there in the shadows at the end of the room.
Mr. Greenville stood very, very still, staring at the place where it had been. His solid, dependable heart wobble a little. He blinked, confused. He had seen it. He had walked right up to it and stared into its eyes.
He swung about, peering at Moon Boy suspiciously. Moon Boy stared back, and he looked strangely sad, despite his grin. Or perhaps Mr. Greenville imagined it.
He turned back to the place the corpse had stood. He went out into the upstairs hallway.
He heard a sound then, a soft step along the carpet, and wheeled toward it.
“Dom!” he bellowed (or breathed), but there was no answer. A door stood open at the end of the hallway, a bedroom. He walked briskly toward it. It had been closed before. He hurried past man #4, head-to-chist, still as stone. He entered the room.
It was a nursery, snowy white. A small cot stood in one corner, covered by a lace baldachin. There was a toy carousel, a rocking horse, a doll, all sugar-white porcelains and shades of pastel.
He looked about. The owner of the house, according the the records Mr. Greenville had been given by the police, was one William Pynchon. He had been 87 at the last census, some six years ago. He had not had any children. Strange to have a nursery. Of course, Mr. Greenville did not know if William Pynchon still lived here, or if he had not long since joined the ranks of the house’s other inhabitants. But why a nursery?
He went to the cot, lifted the veil. It was empty, thank goodness. The coverlet was neatly made up.
A snap sounded behind him. He spun. “Dom?” he cried, and it was Dom, but he was coming at Mr. Greenville like a bull, and there was something off about him, about his face, and now he was grabbing Mr. Greenville, shoving him backwards.
“Dom!” Mr. Greenville crashed into a closet, breaking straight through the thin white wood. He was falling. Falling down into darkness, a shaft inside the closet, the rungs of a ladder rushing past him, and ropes, too, and high above was Dom, looking down.
Mr. Greenville’s hands caught one of the ropes and burned as he slid down it. Air whistled past his ears. And then his feet hit solid ground and the force of it rattled his teeth. He spun, breathing hard.
He was far underground, in the cellar no doubt. There was a new smell here, thick and ripe and horrid, but also sweet.
It was dark as pitch, darker than night, and his heart was hammering wildly. Dom? What is this madness?
His hands rummaged in his pockets and he found a box of matches, struck one. He was in a room, the ceiling low and vaulted, the walls glistening with damp. There was a table. A chair. Papers. Many papers.
His match fizzled out. He lit another.
He hurried to the papers. High above, he heard the creak of the ladder. Dom. Or something else? Something was coming down to him. He leaned over the papers and shuffled through them, trying to find an early date, a useful sentence.
I am increasingly interested in whether or not man has a soul, he read. And if they do what is a soul? Surely if it exists it is the most fascinating part of the human anatomy. It does not control one’s actions, as the heart does, and yet it must be located very close by. How does the soul of a good man look, and how the soul of a wicked one? Or are all souls the same, and only the mind is different? And how much does a soul weigh.
Mr. Greenville read quickly, striking match after match, the walls seeming to press down around him, as if the house above, with its gruesome weight of countless bodies, knew of the intrusion and was intent on burying it. There were so many papers. The ladder was still creaking.
I have my first specimen, Mr. Greenville read, his breath coming in gasps. He is a low creature of the streets, not worth a tot, and in the name of the advancement and betterment of mankind I do not feel bad for taking him. He died too quick, alas, and I could not even glimpse his soul, let alone catch it-
The match’s flame bit into Mr. Greenville’s thumb and he hissed, shaking it out and lighting another. He was running low on matches. He had to get out.
I have it! I measured the weight of the human body the instant before death and the instant after, in a bed set upon a scale, and have come to this conclusion: the body is twenty-one grams lighter after death, after the soul has left it. Twenty-one grams, can you imagine? The weight of two slices of toast. Now, the question is, where have those twenty-one grams gone? And why can I not catch them, see them, touch them? Or perhaps follow them. The moment of death is the moment of realization, the realization of all the knowledge of the world. Suppose I could speak to it? And what of the body it has left behind? It is completely healthy beyond the extraction of the soul, not technically dead at all. But what, exactly, is it?
Mr. Greenville spun toward the ladder, seeing the boots of his assistant clambering, slowly and cumbersomely, down into sight. He turned back to the papers, reading as he stuffed them into his coat.
The human soul is a capricious thing. It will not speak with me and it decays quickly once freed, and departs, to where I do not know. It seems to strain against the bonds of this world, to weep with the pain of it, as if the body was its shield and anchor, and without it it is alone, wishing to be elsewhere. I always let them go. There are other things that interest me now. The bodies left behind. They are not dead. They still have their minds, though they are of little use now. They simply need those twenty-one grams, that invisible weight, and what if it were mine? What if I could pass from shell to shell, like an actor donning different costumes? What if I could be anyone, and everyone? I asked the souls this as they thrashed against my tweezers. I asked them whether it was logical, a scientific phenomena, or something else. One told me it did not understand, that logic was an idea of man, made to serve man’s ideas, and then it fled. I think it is logical, what I strive to do. I think it is good. Someone is screaming upstairs-
The match went out. Dom was in the cellar. Mr. Greenville struck another, frantically, and as the flame bloomed he saw the devilish man, inches away from him, blue eyes searing a hole into his skin.
“What are you?” Mr. Greenville breathed, and suddenly the man leaned forward, and it was as if Mr. Greenville was being engulfed, eaten up by the those rings of darkness and the ice blue at their epicenter. The mouth opened. A dead breath drifted out of it, a dead voice:
“Another one. How perfect. Little Bobby tried to warn you, but you didn’t listen. You can play chess with him later. He would appreciate that. But come now. Let us see how much your soul weighs. And rest easy in the knowledge that it will be gone from this place soon, even if your body will. . . stay.”
“You are a monster,” Mr. Greenville gasped, fighting against the cold hands, but they were digging in, inhumanly strong, and there was Dom, his eyes blank now, his face sagging, an empty flask of skin and bones. “Monster!” Mr. Greenville cried again, a desperate shriek that echoed in the cellar and melded with the sound of a siren high above, the sound of automobiles, and the flash of a photographer’s bulb.
“I?” said the man, and grinned, his teeth yellow behind the perfect lips. “Oh no. I am a man.”
Once upon a time, in a country of mountains and forests and mirror-glass lakes, in the rookery of a great stone palace, the red birds hatched. The eggs were laid out in many little porcelain bowls, as if they were going to be eaten for breakfast, and the princess was there and the Queen Mother was there and the bird-keepers were there, and they all stood very still and listened as the tapping started, sharp and sudden, and the first cracks began to form on the shells, and then – pop! – a little head shot up, glistening-wet and red as a berry.
“Oh,” the princess whispered, when she saw it. “Grandmama, look. Look at its dear little red head.” And the Queen Mother said, “Do you like it? You may have one. Any one you like.” As for the red bird, it let out a hideous screech and began rolling about in the remains of its shell, polishing its red coat and fluffing its handsome crest.
The princess stared at it. Then she turned away and watched the other eggs intently as they shivered and wobbled in their bowls, and heads began popping up left and right, blooming like drops of blood out of the whiteness of the shells.
“Have you chosen one yet?” the Queen Mother asked after a while, because there were quite a lot of eggs, and quite a lot of red birds still to hatch, and the Queen Mother’s knees were not what they used to be. But the princess only shook her head and continued to stare at the eggs, the red bodies and the shattered shells. They stood for almost an hour, the two of them, while the bird-keepers tended to their wards, and outside the flags flew, all of them stamped with red birds, which were the mark and seal of that kingdom. A cold wind whispered across the fields and over the rooftops, and the Queen Mother began to suspect she would never move again, so stiff were her joints, when just then, from the very last egg, there came a soft, gentle knocking, and the shell fall apart, and there sat gray bird, smaller than all the others, soft and feathery as a puff of ash. The princess’s face lit up when she saw it, and she clutched at the Queen Mother’s hand. “There he is,” she said. “That’s the one I want. Oh, look at him, Grandmama, isn’t he marvelous? ”
The Queen Mother squinted at the gray bird from behind her spectacles. She watched it sitting there, so still and quiet in the remains of its shell. She eyed its soft gray wing. She shook her head. “You cannot have that one,” she said. “And not because he is plain and common. He is the most important bird of all of them, and not all his proud brothers and sisters in their red cloaks are as significant he, but I fear you will not like him. Choose a different one, and then let’s go and sit somewhere and I will read you a very long book.”
But the little princess was adamant, and she knew her grandmama very well, and so eventually the Queen Mother relented and said, “You may have him. But you must take very good care of him and not tire of him and leave him to the servants to spoil.”
The princess nodded happily and took the little gray bird in her hands and brought him away with her, out of the rookery, and into the palace. The little bird looked over his shoulder as he left, at his brothers and sisters in their beautiful red garments, and he wanted to call out to them as he was taken away, but that was when he realized he had no voice at all.
The little bird and the princess got along splendidly. The little bird did not know what his special task was that the Queen Mother had spoken of, or why he was more important than all his siblings. He did not know why he could not sing, or why he had come into the world gray while they had hatched the color of roses and blood and hot coals. All he knew was that the princess was his friend, and she loved him, and he loved her too. They ate together, studied together, ran screeching through the palace halls (or at least, the princess shrieked, and the little bird flew at her side as loudly as he could, which was barely as loud as a breath when all was said and done) and at night, when the Queen Mother came to read to them, they sat in front of the fire, the little bird folded into the hollow below the princess’s chin, and they both listened to the stories as if there were nothing else in the world.
But sometimes the bird would shift, or turn his head, and would catch the Queen Mother eying him, a little sharply and a little sadly, and somewhere deep in his tiny heart he knew it would not always be this way.
The little bird and the princess grew older, and still the little bird did not know a lot of things. He did not know that the kingdom the palace ruled was set next to another kingdom, a great and busy country, stacked high with guns and machinery. He did not know that the aeroplanes that swooped by on their canvas wings overhead and the airships and the red flags were all the trappings of a great kingdom, and that one day his dear princess would be queen.
He had not seen the red birds since the day of his hatching in the rookery, but he had heard they were all still there and where they were kept in golden cages and hardly ever let out. He, on the other hand, was allowed to fly freely throughout the entire palace, and he went with the princess wherever she went, and stayed in her pocket during lessons and during dinner.
“One day,” the princess said, when they were up among the towers, looking out across the land, “You will fly all across the entire world.” (And here she gestured toward the mirror-glass lakes, and the white-tipped mountains and the cotton clouds tinged pink) “You will fly across the waters, and across the forests, and you will have to be the bravest of any bird. Do you know what that means? Do you know how important that makes you?”
The little bird did not know what that meant. He cocked his head and peered at the princess, and waited for her to tell him what his purpose was, but she said nothing more.
He began to suspect it was something dreadful. Perhaps he was going to die. Perhaps they were going to kill him. He wondered if the red birds in their gold cages, with their proud crests and their foolish songs, had special tasks, and he wondered if it would not be better to be one of them. But he had no voice to speak, and so he sat silently and pondered.
The princess grew older still, until she was not a little girl anymore but a clever and sharp-tongued young woman, and even then she kept the little bird close. When the Queen Mother died and was laid out in white lace, and the entire city was decked in lilies (because the Queen Mother had lived a long life, and a good one, and there was no sadness in that) the princess wept, and the little bird was there to comfort her. When her mother, the Queen, died, the little bird was there, too, huddled in the depths of her pocket. And when the princess stood before the roaring crowds, cloaked in purple, and became a queen, she tucked her hand behind her back and the warmth of the little bird’s feathers gave her strength.
The princess grew into a good queen. A busy queen. She still saw the little bird from time to time, but there was no more running in the halls, and no one read to them anymore by the fire, and so the little bird spent most of his time under a chair in an old sitting room, watching the door and wondering over his secret purpose.
One day the queen came in looking worn and tired, and the little bird flew to her and alighted on her shoulder, and burrowed its soft head into her neck, and it was like a door had opened in the queen’s face. She let out a little gasp. She did not cry. She wanted to, the bird thought, but she did not. She simply stood, staring into space.
“There is going to be war,” she said, to the little bird, and the bird simply watched her out of one eye, and watched the glass windows with the other, and the sunlight and the blue sky. “They’ve decided to fight. There is a land between our two countries, and it is rich, and my mother kept it for many years, but now they want it as well, and they are spreading lies and- “ She looked down at the little bird, and the little bird wanted so badly to speak to her then, and give some small comfort.
“You must be good, now, little bird,” the queen said. “Are you listening? You must be brave for me, and you must never falter no matter what you see.” And then the queen laid him gently on the warm sill and hurried away, her skirts like a sail behind her, and though the little bird could not speak, he promised with all his heart that he would be brave.
The next day, the bird-keepers came into the queen’s chambers and caught the little bird under one of the chairs and brought him back to the rookery and put him in the cage together with the red birds.
“Now, my silent one,” one of the bird-keepers had whispered to him, as he locked the gate again. “It’s business from here on, and no mistake.”
And that was when it began to dawn on the little bird what he was here for and what he would have to do.
There was a war. The queen had spoken the truth. The neighboring country was displeased at the queen, who was clever and rich, and displeased at the way the lines were arranged on the map, and displeased by the queen’s army, which was quite powerful, and so the two countries agreed that the best way to solve this problem was to fight each other with guns.
It seemed a pleasant notion at first. There were parades in the city, and bright flags, and the red birds were sent swooping over the rooftops and through the streets, and everyone clapped and hooted, and then the soldiers went away, and no one heard much of anything, and life went on.
The little bird, high in the tower of the rookery, was taught to carry a brass capsule around his ankle, and taught to wait patiently while humans wrote messages and put them into his capsule. And while now the little bird knew what he would be used for he still did not understand the Queen Mother’s words, because all the birds were being taught just the same as he, and they all carried messages hither and yon, and the handsome red birds looked at him with disdain if they looked at him at all. He was not terribly important at all.
But the little bird did as he was told, and tried to avoid the red birds with their sharp claws and great wings, and he went to sleep in the far corner of the cage each night and hoped the queen would come for him soon and they would go back to the fireplace and someone would read to them.
One night, several months after the war began, and the countries had settled into an odd sort of routine, and the newspapers were becoming impatient because there was nothing exciting to write about, and both sides were coming to the conclusion that maybe it would be better not to fight at all, a round man in a square hat came to the palace of the queen. He played tricks in the hall all day, until he was noticed and was brought to the queen’s dining room to cheer her weary mind, and that was when he put a drop of poison in her soup while no one was looking, and she choked on her own tongue and died.
The little bird was not there to see. He was high up in the spires, following little flags on little strings, while below him the bird-keepers shouted at him – faster! and Not that way, not that way! But when he came back to the palace, he noticed the change right away. He noticed the sadness, like a velvet pall across the halls, and of course he noticed the absence of the queen, like a light gone out. And at the very first moment he could, he escaped the rookery and went in search of his queen. He found her in the chapel, but she did not move to greet him, and she did not smile, and though her eyes were open, they never looked at the little bird. She looked at the ceiling, at painting of clouds and starlight, and nothing the little bird did was able to rouse her.
The bird flew away, through the palace, deep into the cellars and there he saw a round man in a square hat, and the man was counting gold into a large bag and chuckling.
The bird did not understand. He did not understand how anyone could laugh when his queen had died. And he tried to fly away, and he tried to weep, but he could do nothing to match the grief he felt. Soon the bird-keepers had caught him again, and they brought him back to the rookery and put back in the cage. The red birds did not cry for their queen. They sat and preened and fought with each other, and when they saw the little bird weeping, they did not go to comfort him, because he was not one of them. In fact, they did not know what he was.
The death of the queen ignited a spark, and the spark became a flame – a fire of outrage throughout the whole kingdom. The war effort sprang up again in earnest, because when you are angry you want to fight, and you cease to think. Newspaper headlines screamed of the murder. Fingers were pointed, and fingers were cut off. The red birds were sent out in great number, and the little gray bird was, too.
His first assignment was to take a message across the bay to a man in a dingy garret of the enemy’s city. The man was a general, but he was dressed to look like a beggar so no one would know. The bird let the keepers clip the capsule to his leg. He let them toss him out into a stiff wind, and he saw them toss three red birds out after him. They flew with him a short distance, out over the city, their eyes fixed straight ahead and their vicious beaks like knives in the wind. And then they veered away in all different directions, and the little bird was left alone.
The bird did not know this, but as he passed over a beautiful green field, a rolling pasture of daisies and trees, he passed that invisible line that everyone was fighting over, and he was no longer in his mistress’s land, but in the enemy’s. All he saw was land, though, and houses, and they all had vegetable gardens out front, and vats for washing, and knickers hanging in the yard.
The little bird found the general-dressed-as-a-beggar waiting for him in the upper garret. The man’s head was in shadow and his eyes glimmered under his hood. He took the bird and read his message, and squeezed him tightly in his rough hand all the while, as if he thought the little bird would try to escape. The general did not understand that the bird had made a promise, and that he would keep the promise, and be faithful to his queen, even though she was buried beneath stone and roses now, and far away.
After the general had read the message, he scribbled out a new one and deposited it in the capsule, practically threw the little bird back into the night. The little bird returned to the palace, to the bird-keepers, and he slept, his head under his wing. He noticed that there were not as many red birds anymore, not as many as before.
The war moved quickly after the message had come to the man in the garret. It swept across the countries and burned them both, and when the little bird next flew from his roost, the capsule secure around his leg, he looked down in horror at the land. The queen’s city was all dark now, no windows lit for fear the enemy would find it in the dark and destroy it. He looked to his left and saw four of the red birds swooping away, this way and that, saw men below, shooting, the armies marching, horns blowing. And the fields beyond . . . they were scorched. Black trees stood up like the charred ribs of an animal, and red sparks leaped and flew around the little bird in eddies and gusts. The forests were blackened and the pastures were gray as a blind man’s eyes. Ash fell, from where the bird could not know, and it made the fields look as though they were covered in snow. Ash from the sky, sparks from the earth, and wind that blew into the little bird’s face, bitter and hot as tar.
The little bird flapped on tirelessly, though its wings felt heavy, and they strained against the air. He passed over the empty hulls of farmhouses, passed over neat squares of weeds, once vegetable beds, but now the home of crows-foot and scrub, and tough, coarse weeds that did not mind the choked air. The bird passed over a family of refugees, huddled in the shelter of a mortared wall. They had only the smallest fire, though it was quite cold close to the ground, and they sat close together and sang, and it was the prettiest song the bird had ever heard though their voices were cracked and split with longing.
The bird flew and flew, and at last it came to the enemy city, and alighted on one of its tall roofs, looking out across it. It was a fine city, with peaked gables and strong chimneys and solid houses. The little bird thought for a moment about the message he carried, and what it meant, and whether it would cause this place to be razed as well, like all the lands between. But the little bird had made the queen a promise and so he went into a window, waited there until a red-faced, white-whiskered man barged in and read the message, and screamed and spat, and scrawled a new message on a piece of soiled paper.
The white-whiskered man rammed the paper into the capsule and sent the little bird off with a spank, and the bird dipped and flew as fast as it could away. But as the bird fluttered back across the wasteland, he kept his eyes sharp for the group of refugees he had seen on its journey there. He wanted to be sure they had made it further, made it somewhere better perhaps. The land seemed even more beleaguered than it had the last time the little bird had passed over it. Bombs cracked tirelessly in the distance. The wind whistled like a lost lamb, but below that, below the wind, there was no sound at all, only a deathly silence, and the ash swirled up in ghostly forms among rotting walls of the farmhouses. There were no rising sparks anymore, and no ruddy glow. Those had all gone out.
The little bird passed over the wall where it had seen the refugees take shelter, but they were not there anymore. The fire was nothing but a pile of charcoal, crusted with frost.
The little bird flew low over the fields, searching for them, over hills and pastures. He came to a rutted, muddy trail where tanks and feet had gone, and followed that for several miles, winding among the forests and the hills. And that was when he saw them again, the refugees. They were lying by the side of the road, only they were dead now, stiff and cold, and there were dark holes in the whiteness of their skin. And beyond them, dotting the land like drops of blood far into the distance, were the red birds, bullets in their hearts, and their capsules opened, and their false messages read.
And that was when the little bird understood. He understood the Queen Mother’s words from far back in his youth, and he understood why he had no voice, and why he was gray when they were bright. The red birds were proud and beautiful, but they were not what they thought, nor as important. They were there to die.
The bird let out a silent cry, and swooped away from the earth, up, up, into the freezing sky, where it was cold as ice, but pure at least, and far away from the cannon and the death. There, the little bird looked down again, and saw the dull orange burst of bombs, and again he wished he could wail, or scream, or make any sound at all, but he was not meant to be heard.
He returned to the city of his mistress. People were lining the streets now, cold and hungry. Everything was gray, as gray as the ash that fell from the sky. Even the flags, so bright and red before the war, were dulled, and coated with grime, and nothing was left of the songs and the bluster.
The little bird received one last message, from a thin, starved-looking bird-keeper. One last message, and the last of the red birds to allow him safe journey. The little bird tried to tell them not to go, not to fly out over the land, as they were meant to die, but the red birds were proud and they only eyed him briefly and then veered away, and he never saw them again. He flew out over the land, though he was very tired now, and the ash weighted his wings, and the hot wind burned his eyes, and he did not want to fly anymore; he wanted to sleep. He passed over the fields, the farmhouses. The refugees by the roadside had wasted away to nothing. The soldiers trudged to nowhere, deep inside their greatcoats, their hats low. They sat in trenches, their boots in the mud. From time to time they leaped up and shot wildly into the gloom, and then they would all hurry across the waste and set up ranks further forward, and dig trenches where the cabbage beds had been, and it was a great victory and everyone rejoiced.
The bird flew on. He came to the enemy city again. And here he paused a moment, suspended in the air, his wings fluttering furiously. He recalled the land before he had carried that first message, before any of this had started. He recalled the green fields, and the blue sky, and the red feathers of the birds, so proud and vain and foolish. And then the image faded, and he saw what the land had become.
The bird did not fly into the window of the high tower where he had been instructed to go. He did not deliver his message. He thought of his queen, and he thought of his small wings tucked up under her chin, and he thought of the fire crackling, and grandmama reading. And if the little bird could have spoken, he would have said he was sorry. He would have said that he could not keep his promise to his queen, that whatever was in those capsules, whatever the little markings meant, they was foolishness, and man was foolishness, and he was tired. But he could not speak, and so instead he let out a pitiful cry, and only the wind and the falling ash heard him.
And at last the little bird flew away from the city. He flew away from the wastelands, the razed forests, the muddy roads, the bodies and trenches, and the weeping towns. He flew high, high above it all, into a piercing cold rain, and he did not stop until his wings ached and his head ached and he felt sure he was going to die. He dropped down out of the sky like a small stone, and came to rest in a green country, a land that was very like the old countries he had come from, but somehow not so far along as those, not yet spoiled. An old woman found the bird and brought him inside. She noticed the capsule on his poor blackened leg and took it off, and then she washed the little bird with soft cloths and warm water, and fed him berries. And when she thought he was asleep in the warmth and the silence, she rolled out the message from the capsule and read it:
“Enough,” she said, in her cracked old voice. “We have had enough. Words are what started this war, and words shall end it. Here is our surrender.”
The old woman threw the paper into the fire then, because she did not understand what it was about, and thought it was likely a dull sort of joke. And the little bird lay on its side and watched as the flames ate the paper, and it curled and blackened. He was not sorry to see it burn. His tiny, glimmering eyes did not appear to move, but their gaze turned from the fire to the window, and looked out into the morning light, at the trees and the grass. And the little bird wondered how long the war would take to reach there, and how long before those trees were burnt, too, and the grass was dead and the clouds were clouds of ash.
Because if there was one thing the little bird had learned in all his flights and his journeys across those ravaged fields, it was that there was no peace for man. They never stopped wanting, and they never stopped trying, and if they learned things, they forgot them just a soon. That was their blessing, and that was their curse. They were the red birds in a gold cage, and they flew to their death proudly, because they did not know what they were meant for. . . but oh, were their feathers bright.
The Cabinet of Curiosities has received a STAR from Kirkus. Not a real one. Real stars are difficult to come by, even more difficult to preserve, and our specimen, in the mason jar under the third-story windowsill, has become dull and melancholy in his captivity. He will be replaced by this new one, we think, as it is really more of a figurative star and much more practical.
But in all earnestness: Kirkus, that venerable place known for chewing up books the way werewolves chew up children, has bestowed on our little collection of horrors a STARRED REVIEW. If you are confused as to what a starred review is, fear not. It simply means that the review has a star on it, like a Sneetch, and the star means that Kirkus liked the book a great deal, and to us, this is a vast and humbling honor. In fact, we’re all rather in a tizzy right now, fainting all over the furniture. You must excuse us. Would you like to see the review? Here it is:
“Styling themselves ‘curators,’ four of horror fantasy’s newer stars share tales and correspondence related to an imaginary museum of creepy creatures and artifacts.
In addition to Bachmann, the authors include Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand and Emma Trevayne. The letters, scattered throughout, record adventures in gathering the Cabinet’s eldritch collections or report allusively on them: “I just let them creep or wing about the place,” writes Curator Catmull, “and stretch their many, many, many legs. What jolly shouts I hear when the workers come across one!” The stories, most of which were previously published on the eponymous website, are taken from eight thematic drawers ranging from “Love” and “Tricks” to “Cake.” Along with a cast of evil magicians, oversized spiders and other reliable frights, the stories throw children into sinister situations in graveyards, deceptively quiet gardens or forests, their own bedrooms and similar likely settings. Said children are seldom exposed to gory or explicit violence and, except for horrid ones who deserve what they get, generally emerge from their experiences better and wiser—or at least alive. Jansson’s small black-and-white vignettes add scattered but appropriately enigmatic visual notes.
A hefty sheaf of chillers—all short enough to share aloud and expertly cast to entice unwary middle graders a step or two into the shadows.” (Horror/short stories. 10-13)
Isn’t it lovely? Evil magicians, oversized spiders and other reliable frights? Lovely. If you like odd and scary stories, too, or if you have a pet, child, or corpse who likes odd and scary stories, you can pre-order this collection at one of these fine retailers: amazon | barnes & noble | indiebound | the book depository | itunes | books-a-million
As for us, we’ve revived from our fainting and are off to collect more stories for the coming weeks. Thank you, Kirkus, from the bottom of our damp and echo-y hearts.
In the middle of a wide, snowy field, beneath a solitary tree, two nuns stood, side by side. Their black habits—blacker than the tree—flapped about their ankles. Their white wimples—whiter than the ground—framed their faces. Their sensible shoes, patent-leather and pointy-toed, shone dully in the winter light.
The nuns did not move a muscle.
A man was approaching them from far across the barren field, tramping steadily through the frost and the silence. The man’s head was far too small. Or perhaps his body was simply too large; it was difficult to say. At any rate, he had a freakish set about him, like an ogre, and his skin had a pale, greenish tinge, a slimy-wet sheen.
The nuns regarded him as he approached, their expressions inscrutable. One of them, the smaller one, had her eyes opened very wide, but whether it was out of surprise or simply the permanent state of her face, it was impossible to say.
As the man approached, it became apparent that he had no fingers on either hand, only stumps, stopping at the first knuckles. When he ducked his tiny head, one could see he had no ears either, only holes on either side of his face.
The smaller nun didn’t say a word, but her eyes grew a fraction wider.
The man stopped several paces away, just outside the spreading reach of the tree. He bowed heavily and stood waiting, shifting from foot to foot.
The two nuns turned slowly and looked at each other. Then they looked back at the man, and the taller of the two held out a hand, as if to say, Have you got it? We have walked many miles. We have waited in the cold. Give it to us.
The man with the too-small head looked up at the tall nun. Then he grinned gapingly, and the nuns gasped in unison because he had no tongue. No ears. No fingers. No tongue. Eyes, he had, but those are not nearly as useful as most assume.
He was the perfect messenger, of course. The nuns should not have been surprised.
The taller one regained her composure, and held out her hand again, more insistently this time.
The man nodded his tiny head, and his eyes lit up, and he slipped something from his sleeve.
It was not a bottle or packet, or anything like that, as one might have expected. It was a butterfly, sapphire-winged and veined with black, and it emerged out of his sleeve and came to rest delicately on the end of one of his poor old stumps, flapping slowly, feelers curled against the wind.
The nuns looked at each other again. The younger nun’s eyes were very near to rolling down her cheeks. The man with the too-small head simply smiled down at the butterfly in his palm, a look of wonder on his face.
Finally the tall nun nodded and inclined her head formally toward him. Then she put the butterfly in a small cage made of wire, and the two nuns went away across the field.
The man with the too-small-head watched them go, and watched the glimmer of the blue butterfly-wings in the cage.
When they were gone, he shook his head and grinned again, and he didn’t exactly disappear so much as simply move someplace else, someplace that was not the snowy field, but was very close by.
The nuns came back to their nunnery very late. Before going inside, they made sure to pat some wet earth on the knees of their habits and clump a bit around the frosty heels of their sensible shoes, before finally letting themselves in through the great door.
They had herbs under their arms, but they had collected them the day before, so as to have some time free to seek out the man with the too-small head.
They looked around stealthily as they entered the nunnery, stood still and nodded as other nuns passed by. The cage with the butterfly was hidden tightly behind their backs. When the Mother Superior saw them, she twinkled at them, her eyes very bright and kind, and they both inclined their heads as she passed, but their faces remained stone.
And as the Mother Superior went on down the corridor, they watched her, their eyes following her back, and the younger nun’s mouth may have even twitched a bit, just a tiny, tiny bit; but in that flat, empty face it was like a bomb blowing up.
The nuns took the wire cage to the taller one’s cell and simply sat a while, admiring the butterfly through the mesh. The nunnery was a somewhat austere place, busy and soft, echoing songs and shadows and whispers. The music was often rather sad, and the colors were either dark or white, and so it was something of a marvel, this blue-winged butterfly in the gray cell.
The younger nun, finally, looked at the taller one in a questioning way as if to say, Do you think it will do the trick?
And the taller one looked back, eyebrows raised, as if to say, Who can know? They promised it would. Those wild things in the fields and moors, they promised, and I know they lie, but it should. It should do the trick.
Then she undid the latch of the cage with two long fingers, and the butterfly crept out, blue wings flickering tentatively.
It was about to fly away, about to beat those wings once, twice, and then flutter toward the ceiling.
Then the younger nun took out a wooden mallet from the folds of her dress and smashed the butterfly onto the table top.
The nuns let the butterfly sit, squashed to the table-top, overnight, exactly as they had been instructed. Then they scraped the blue from its wings and the clear, watery blood from its veins into a tiny thimble-sized bowl and set it out on the windowsill, in the cold, fresh air.
The younger one looked at the taller one, and her eyes said, I hope it works. We haven’t much time left. And what if someone starts to suspect?
And the taller one nodded in a way that meant, It will work.
The moon came out, half-full like a sleepy eye and squinted down at the bowl, and at the nuns, who looked away quickly and closed the casement.
In the bowl, the blue and the blood sat and drank in the moonlight, but also the night and the shadows and the cold, and then nuns went down to the evening mass and tried to forget about it until it was ready.
The Mother Superior was there at mass of course, and though her back was toward the two nuns, anyone raising her head from the hymn-book might have noticed the younger nun staring at the Mother Superior, her eyes so wide and still.
Five weeks earlier, the nuns had gone to the Mother Superior and asked her a question.
“Please,” the taller one had asked, and her voice was surprisingly soft and regular-sounding, papery and cool, and much quieter than her eyes. “Might we have the third Saturday of next month off?”
And the Mother Superior had twinkled at them, and said, “Of course you may have a day off! But not that Saturday. We’ll need you here for the weeding and the churning. You may have the fourth Saturday off. I will mark it down.”
You never would have guessed the nuns’ disappointment. They had looked at each other briefly, had nodded at the Mother Superior, and had slipped away without another word. But it was not the end of the matter.
Few people can plot quite as well as the ones you’d never suspect.
Here was the situation: a great violinist, a Master Garibaldi, was on a tour across the continent, and the nuns were determined to go. Master Garibaldi was playing Bach, all the Chaconnes and Voluntairs, and the nuns pined to hear it, and pined to see it, too.
And it was not that the mother superior was unkind. She simply didn’t know how lovely Maestro Garibaldi was, and how his hair shook like a lion’s mane when he played his violin and how his music felt like a lamp, glowing behind your ribs. And so when the tall nun and the short nun had been told they could not go to the City the day of the concert, that was when they began to plot.
They read great grimoires in the library and went on long walks across the moors, and came upon the creatures of stone and moss in the wild hills, and all the while Maestro Garibaldi crept closer and closer across the continent toward the City, and the nuns became more and more serious, and at last they had it all, everything needed to escape that day, everything but the last bit, the most important bit.
What is stronger than storms, yet weeps like a child, one of the old crusty books in the library had whispered to them. Colder than snow and softer than hair?
The nuns had thought about it very long. And of course they found out.
It was the wind.
So when they were sure their mixture had ripened well on the windowsill, and turned into a good thick paste, silver-gray and speckled with flecks of iridescent blue, the nuns brought it out into the early morning, in an open place where the wind blew strongly.
The nuns set the bowl on the ground and the wind dipped into it at once, picked up its contents and blew it into the air, straight up out of the bowl. The flakes whirled a moment and then began to form a shape. A human-shape. A nun in a black habit—blacker than the stone walls of the nunnery. A white wimple—whiter than the nun’s teeth as they smiled and watched.
The wind swept over again, and the last of the mixture grew into the second nun, small and stout, with eyes like marbles.
The two sets of nuns stood looking at each other, one pair smiling, the other not. Then they nodded to each other, and one pair set off into the nunnery and the other took off its sensible shoes and put on ones with bows and went to the city where it heard the great Garibaldi on his violin and fairly well swooned.
That night, the wind came and reclaimed its breath from the delicate shell of butterfly blood and moonlight, and the false nuns fell to nothing. But by that time their namesakes where comfortably in their beds and fast asleep.
They weeded twice as many beds the next morning, those two nuns, and churned three times the butter, and perhaps, if one had watched them very, very closely, one might have seen them wink to each other over their baskets.
(Postscript: the butterflies of the area were less pleased by it all, and there was an infestation the next year in the nunnery’s dining hall, small onyx-winged insects all up the rafters and under the edges of the plates. No one could understand why it happened, not even the two who had caused it.)