Marisol Tublé was 107 years old, and so it felt like something of an affront to wake up in a strange and extravagant hotel room with a headache and no recollection of how she had come to be there. Headaches were the ailment of the young and lazy, Marisol thought, for people who drank too much or did not want to listen to tiresome piano-playing relatives. At 107 one ought to have graduated to more noble illnesses.
She lay in the bed, her wrist against her forehead, staring up through the semi-gloom at a ceiling of painted panels and trying to recall what she had to do to today. There had been such a lot of traveling the past few weeks. She remembered that much. She was a singer—the Great Warbler Marisol—and she was on a tour. Her final tour. A sudden throb passed through her head and she had a brief impression of concerts, one after the next, the hustle and bustle behind stage, the murmur of the audience as they settled into their cradle of anticipation, the flare of the stage lights, the swell of the orchestra, and the swell of her heart the beat before she began to sing, Budapest, Rome, Darmstadt. . . But where was she today?
She rolled over and squinted at the silver clock on the nightstand. She couldn’t see its numbers. It was a blurry, ticking moon, too far away. She dragged herself closer and stared at its blank face. Her old, old eyes flickered over the spiny hands. Then she let out a small squeak and sat straight up, her frail frame like a pole in the dark.
Nine o’ clock. It was nine o’ clock in the morning, and faint, butter-colored light was slipping through the slit in the drapes, and she could hear the distant calls of birds and people. Marisol remembered: she had been on the final leg of her tour, almost done, and then there had been some unpleasant incidents, and she had been invited to visit one of those small, dusty countries that no one really knows exists, and to perform a concert there, as well as a brief conference to speak to the local press. That was it. She was staying at a hotel on the Rue de Marmiet, and her contact, a man named Mr. Devereux was to pick her up at 9 thirty from the lobby to take her to her interviews. Which left her with only thirty minutes to prepare herself and take her breakfast.
Ah well. The stage waits for no man. Or was it ‘Death waits for no man?’ There was no great difference.
She began to struggle out from among the sheets, heavy, scratchy, frilled things that smelled of must and rose-petals. She kicked them all onto the floor, slid off the bed, hurried for her dressing gown. . . .
It was odd that she had forgotten where she was. She could remember things from her childhood, clear as a glass of water, could remember stumbling on a curb on a hot summer day and losing an ice-cream cone to the muck of a gutter. She could remember her mother, playing piano, teaching Marisol to sing. But she could not remember where her performances were one day to the next. She frowned and began taking the curlers from her hair and rowing them up on the top of her vanity.
She felt very tired still, and the headache hadn’t left her. She hoped the interviews would go quickly and that the journalists would be pleasant. She began shuffling through the contents of an alligator-skin cosmetics case, bottles of tincture and clasps of powder clinking together softly beneath her fingers. She brought out an elaborate perfume-diffuser and poof’d a cloud of violet-smelling mist onto her neck. One time, twice, again and again. Yes, she hoped very much the journalists were pleasant.
* * *
It took Marisol about twenty minutes to prepare herself, and that was in a great rush, without the attention to detail she usually gave herself. She painted her paper-thin skin very carefully, white as porcelain, with lead and bone-powder. She dabbed her lips and rouged her cheeks. She put on strings of pearls and a small hat, and when she was all finished she raised her head and smiled at herself in the mirror. Her face was a thousand hatches and cross-hatches, and she had not so much crow’s feet around her eyes, as octopus feet. But when she smiled, even in the silence and of the dim hotel room, her face turned glowing. Her eyes flashed, piercing and charming and witty and warm all at once, and had anyone been watching at that moment, her gaze would have struck home like a bolt of lightning.
The look faded as quickly as it had come. Marisol’s eyes dulled a little. She began puttering about.
Interviews. Interviews, and then a concert. And then she was almost done.
She adjusted her hat put on a pair of gloves, and then she let herself out of the room and went downstairs to the breakfast room. It was already 9 thirty by then, but it was not good to be early to anything, especially when meeting people one didn’t know.
Marisol had four bites of toast and three cups of black coffee in the breakfast room. It was a very shabby breakfast room. And empty. It might have been grand once, but it was difficult to tell because it was so dim, and there were great, many-ruffled drapes over the windows. The only person in the room was an attendant standing by the buffet, still as a statue. Marisol watched him as she nibbled at her bread, and drank the last of her coffee. Then she set down her napkin and hobbled out of the room. She found Mr. Deveraux waiting for her in the lobby.
“Mr. Deveraux,” she said, coming up to him and smiling again, that brilliant, flashing smile. “I hope all the preparations have been made in my dressing room for this evening?”
Marisol always asked that there be a bottle of Mr. Thymus’s Throat Soothing Syrup, as well as six pink roses and a piece of chocolate waiting for her after every concert. She didn’t really like chocolate, or pink roses for that matter, but if she didn’t ask anything people tended to get lazy.
Mr. Deveraux looked at her curiously when she spoke. Then he nodded and gestured for her to follow. He was a small man, and he seemed rather nervous. Marisol thought that was just as well. Nervous people were much easier to handle than confident people. He did look vaguely familiar, though. She watched him as she followed him through the glass doors and into the street. Perhaps it was just another old memory, a snippet of someone long dead. Perhaps it was not even that.
Mr. Deveraux escorted her along the street, through the sticky morning air. It was not a hot day, but it was one of those uncomfortable mornings where the heat was just enough to make one scratchy and sweaty simply by existing. The street was deserted. Quite as empty as the hotel’s breakfast room had been. It was lined with shops, shuttered and closed, a city hall, a cathedral and several cafes. Marisol could not hear the birds anymore, or the call of the people. It was utterly silent here.
Mr. Deveraux led her into the shadows of a promenade, past a beetle-black automobile and some dying palm trees, down a stretch of cobbles, waiting every few steps for Marisol to catch up.
Marisol didn’t hurry. She never hurried anywhere, not anymore. She looked around her with great interest, and whenever Mr. Deveraux looked at her with those questioning eyes of his, she smiled at him and continued to feign enjoyment of the scenery. They arrived, at last, at a tall, terracotta-colored building, and Marisol followed Mr. Deveraux up a flight of steep steps, ever-so-slowly, down a short hallway, and into a room furnished with two hard wooden chairs, a table, a vase of dead flowers, and nothing else.
Marisol frowned. This was a sad country indeed if this the best they could do. Why had the journalists not simply met her in the hotel? But again, ah well. One must be understanding of other people’s customs. Marisol stepped into the room and sat down on one of the chairs.
“I suppose we’d better get on with it then,” she said, and breathed deeply as though steeling herself for a great trial. “Please show them in one at a time, Mr. Deveraux.” Then she smiled one more time at him, and said began fanning herself with a small feathery fan.
“Y- yes,” said Mr. Deveraux, and peered at her again, and darted out. What an odd man, Marisol thought, turning her attention to a small window in the wall. It could be that Mr. Deveraux never seen an opera star before. Or perhaps her make-up was slipping. The heat was just enough to do that. She began quickly touching about her eyes and hair, and then the door opened and she dropped her hands into her lap.
Mr. Deveraux poked his head in. “Erm- ” he said.
“Yes?” said Marisol. She was beginning to feel somewhat annoyed. It was not a good day to be sitting in an ugly, stuffy room. She needed to begin practicing her scales. And why was everything so empty and desolate here? She still could not hear the sounds of a town through the window, and the birds were silent, too.
“Yes, erm . . . The journalist is here.”
Marisol clicked her tongue. “Yes, show them in. Quickly, please. I’d like to get back to the hotel as soon as I possibly can.”
Mr. Deveraux nodded, but he did not leave. He adjusted his collar. Finally he said: “There is only one to see you today, Marisol.”
Marisol paused her fanning, eying him. “Only one journalist?”
Mr. Deveraux nodded.
Marisol stared. That couldn’t be. Was there only one newspaper in this country? Granted, she was not in her prime any more, but that there should be so few interested in the Viennese Nightingale, the Star of Copenhagen, the Great Warbler? That was very nearly insulting.
“Yes, yes, all right,” she said, a bit testily. “Who needs a lot of journalists anyway? The sooner we’re finished the better. Show him in.”
Mr. Deveraux ducked his head and hurried out of the room. A few seconds later he returned, bringing with him a man. Or at least, something vaguely human-shaped.
The man who came in was not very much like a man at all really, or even much like a journalist, and the sight of him made Marisol flinch in her chair so hard that it creaked.
The man-thing was very stooped. He had a great, warty mushroom going out of the side of his head, his eyes were rheumy, and his skin was sagging in all the wrong places, so that it looked like a wet bag draped across his skull. His coat was covered in moss and barnacles, rooted in deep blue cloth. He came in, clumping over the floor, and settled himself heavily opposite her.
Marisol leaned forward, squinting. “You- you are the journalist?” she asked quizzically, and then looked to Mr. Deveraux. But Mr. Deveraux had already fled.
The man-thing watched her for several seconds, his eyes blunt and heavy. Marisol watched him back. She paid careful attention to the mushroom growing from his face, which seemed to be changing colors slowly from russet to deep-green.
“Please ask me questions, then,” Marisol said. “I haven’t got all day. If you’re the only one here, I’d like to be finished very soon. How long do you think you will need?”
Here the man-thing cleared his throat wetly and said, “I will ask the questions,” and took out an old pad of paper and a lead and began scribbling away at it. Marisol gasped. I will ask the questions? Did he mean that simply as a preamble to his question-asking, or was he telling her that he would be the only one asking questions, and therefore would not answer hers?
In which case he was being very rude. “I beg your pardon?” she said angrily, and hammered one heel on the floor.
“You have a concert tonight, then?” asked the man-thing, ignoring her question. “You are going to sing for a great audience?”
The man-thing spoke very quickly and only looked at her briefly, and all the while he scribbled in a notepad in his hands, though Marisol had not yet answered with a single word.
Marisol stared at him, her hands clasped tight in her lap. What in all earth? “Mr.- Mr. whoever you are, I am a singer, and you are a reporter, and it is your business to ask me questions that are not stupid. Proceed.”
The man-thing looked up at her quickly, then down. “Are you a good singer? Have you been singing a long time? Perhaps as a job?”
Oh, thought Marisol. She knew what game he was playing. It was one she had come across many times before. The envious, faintly aggressive sort, who made a point of being ignorant of everything his subject had ever done, in order to make his subject feel small and insignificant. Well, Marisol was beyond that. She had met all the varieties of writers and journalists in her interviews throughout the years—sorts who smiled very wide and then wrote articles all of black slashes and bits of hate, sorts who were cold and aloof, sorts who were callow and eager, and asked far too many questions, so that she had to flap them away like flies. This was just another kind, this envious creature. Perhaps the man-thing was a singer, too, and was deemed too ugly for the stage. There was the saying that if you could not do, you taught. Equally true might be: if you could not live, you wrote.
“You are clearly new at this job,” said Marisol sharply, at which the man-thing looked up with some irritation. “I suggest you research journalism and proper etiquette and how to remove fungi from your face, and then perhaps we can speak again after my concert this evening.” She stood, swaying a little on her feet.
“What do you remember about yesterday?” asked the man-thing, not moving at all.
Marisol ignored him, making her way slowly toward the door.
“Fine then, what do you remember from last week? Were you happy last week? Or were you sad. Perhaps you were sad. A bit depressed, even.”
What a perfectly foolish question for a newspaper article. But then newspapers weren’t what they used to be. People didn’t want information. They wanted stories. Exciting stories. Tragic stories. Funny stories. False stories.
Marisol reached the door and tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. It was locked. She wheeled around on the man-thing, who still hunched over his pad, back toward her, scribbling.
“Do you like it here?” he went on. “Or would you rather be somewhere else?”
Marisol was trembling now, part with rage and part with fear. How dare he? Why had she even come? What was this wretched city and its wretched hotel? “It is ghastly here,” she spat, not even thinking. “You are ghastly. The hotel is ghastly. I hate it. I hate all of it. I am leaving the moment my concert is done, and you can be sure I will have nothing pleasant to say of you when I am home again. Now, I demand you let me out.”
The man-thing did not move a muscle. Scritch-scratch-scratch went the nib of his pen, and the ink splattered.
“Mr. Deveraux!” screeched Marisol, and it almost killed her to do it because screeching was not good for the vocal chords. “Mr. Deveraux?”
The man-thing didn’t look up. “What time is your concert tonight?”
“I am not a signpost! Go and find a flyer and look it up.” Marisol began pounding against the wood, her thin hands cracking painfully on the frame.
“What are you singing?”
“The Arias from Tosca!” she screamed. “From Puccini! Let me out!”
“Do you know what happens in that opera, Mrs. Marisol? In Tosca?”
“Of course I know! I’ve sung the role a thousand times! Do you know?”
“I do. I do know. It is about a great and desperate lady, who at the end of Act 2, takes a knife and- Marisol, it’s about a person who murders another person, and then runs away.”
Marisol stopped pounding the door. She turned on the man-thing, and the man-thing turned, too, in his chair and looked at her with his mournful eyes and hideous face. Marisol’s gaze was very sharp just then, and so lucid, that even the man-thing stared. And then Marisol smiled. Her last resort. Her final tactic with reticent journalists. It was a desperate, terrible smile.
“It’s all very sad, isn’t it. But the music. The music!”
The man-thing closed his pad. “Marisol,” he said gently, and he no longer seemed so dreadful. “Marisol, I am not a journalist. I am doctor. Do you remember? Do you remember anything?” Suddenly he looked rather sad, or perhaps pitying.
Marisol continued to stare at him, her smile fixed, her powdered skin cracking into tiny filigree beneath her eyes.
The man rose from his chair. He didn’t look quite so strange anymore, not even to Marisol. He didn’t even have mushroom growing out of his face. And his coat was the blue of a uniform, wasn’t it. No moss or barnacles. A blue uniform with a red cross above the heart.
“You’re lost, Marisol. It has been forty years since you were last on stage. It’s been forty years since you were anywhere but here, since you took up that knife and- ”
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it,” she said, pointedly ignoring that statement. “Everyone knowing you. You know, I always thought you’d really made it when you don’t have to tell people things about you anymore and they just know.”
“Do you have any memories of your family? Who they were? Perhaps if you remembered that, we could trace someone, find someone to- ”
“There is no one,” said Marisol, and the smile dropped from her face like a stone. “There is no one left. People die. They forget. But the audience doesn’t. I’ll always have them. The audience loves me.” Her words were ferocious there, wild and sharp . . . and then her face softened again, and she looked simply tired and frail and rather annoyed, waiting to leave so that she could go and warm up her voice.
* * *
Mr. Deveraux came back to collect her after the doctor had gone. “How was the interview?” he asked, helping her from her chair.
“Odious,” said Marisol. “The journalist was a boor. I think he disliked me from the start. I don’t even want to know what the article will be like.” She began to warm up her voice even as she walked, her notes high and reedy, like a cracked whistle. She broke off a second later and began fanning herself vehemently. “He was clearly just a bitter pudding. That’s what my mother would say. A bitter, bitter pudding, all nasty and rancid. You know, I’m glad there aren’t any more reporters in this wretched town. I don’t think I could bear to speak with them. I will sing for the audience, yes, but then I’m done. I’m flying straight back to Paris. Mr. Deveraux, you may arrange the car to pick me up first thing in the morning.”
Mr. Deveraux nodded patiently.
And as they walked down the street and into the hotel, the world seemed to drift around them, disintegrating. The floral wallpaper faded to white plaster, the chandeliers wilted into iron lamps, and the drapes fell to nothing over bare and glaring windows, barred on the outside. Marisol was no longer dressed in velvet and pearls. She limped along in thin slippers over the green floor. Her clothing was a white shift. But as Mr. Deveraux brought her back to her cell on the third floor of the Belvoir Institute and guided her gently through the door, she turned and smiled at him, and there were those eyes again, diamond-bright, and her face enough to light a stage, and it made Mr. Deveraux pause for a second in awe.
“I’m ready to sing for them,” said Marisol, and her eyes flashed one more time. Then she vanished into her cell, and Mr. Deveraux closed the door behind her and locked it.
As he went away down the corridor he heard the sound of music drifting after him, the beginning notes from one of Puccini’s arias, rising, rising in a small, broken arpeggio, and for an instant he thought he heard the rustling of an audience, the breath of excitement as the stage-lights flared and the curtain began to rise. . . .
(Dear readers: Curator Bachmann froze off three of his fingers this month while in pursuit of a deadly sort of child who pulls winter around itself like a cloak and wanders the deep forests of Kazakhstan. He therefor opted to give you a poem instead. He is not a poet, but he hopes you will forgive him this deficit. And now, all of us at the Cabinet wish you very happy and curious holidays.)
Do you hear them in the moonlight—
Hear their footsteps in the dark?
Seven voices deep as thunder,
Seven faces split like bark.
They wear cloaks as red as berries,
And their eyes are black as night,
They have bells upon their fingertips
That glimmer cold and bright.
They have come to sing a carol,
Sing it right into your ear,
In their misty, twisty voices,
Deep as thunder, dark as fear.
It will start quite soft, like velvet,
‘T’will be cold as any snow.
It will whisper up the staircase
And slip underneath your door.
And then all at once they’ll shriek it,
And you’ll hear it in your dreams.
And you’ll have a little heart-attack;
You’ll wake up with a scream. . . .
For their song, it sounds of stealing,
And of empty living rooms,
And of broken, torn-up presents,
And of trees, like twiggy brooms.
They are singing on the street now.
They are gliding down the way.
Silent footsteps in the moonlight,
Sending snow up in a spray.
They are floating at your window;
See their hands against the glass.
They are coming! They are coming!
Pull the covers, pull them fast!
But wait, fear not, they won’t come in.
They’re not allowed, you see:
For there’s a little mistletoe
To guard the room for me.
The carolers will glimpse it,
And will hiss and swoop away.
They’ll find another child to haunt,
Another place to stay.
For where houses glow with kindness,
And with laughter and with light,
There the presents will stay lovely,
Through the long and wintry night.
But where houses drip with sadness
Brim with anger and regret,
There the carolers come singing,
And turn everything a wreck.
All the fancy little baubles
And the wind-up type-machine
Will be corkscrews and be coal-dust
By the sun’s next golden beam.
So then when you hear the tinkle
Of their gleaming finger-bells,
And the carolers are near you,
Though no one ever tells. . . .
You can smile a little secret
And curl up into a ball,
And can sleep ’til Christmas morning
And you need not wake at all.
The violins looked like the bodies of small, curly-tailed animals, hanging there in the darkened shop window, and they were in a way—dead—because no one played them.
Henty eyed them through the smudged glass. He felt the two heavy coins rasping together in his pocket. He decided he wouldn’t be sorry. Then he hurried into the grimy alley around the corner of the shop and knelt down.
The air was cold. Across the rooftops, the bells of St. Winnifred-in-the-Oak were ringing nine o’ clock, and the gables glistened with wet and moonlight. He began laying out his sweep-things quickly: a bristly black brush, a filthy oil cloth, an array of shovels and scrapers. He wasn’t a chimney sweep. Crimson Porters didn’t do that. But boys on the streets after dark where almost expected to be doing something illegal, and this way if he were caught he could tell whoever it was that he had gotten stuck in a chimney.
The bells were still ringing. In the distance he heard a rag-and-bone man pushing his cart, shouting as he moved between the buildings, shouting into the dark. Right now everything was green and black. Green moss, black wet, black stone, green chimneys. It wouldn’t be for much longer.
Henty took off his ratty gloves, rubbed his hands together and breathed on them. He tried to concentrate. He would prefer, of course, to be back in the Unders, warming up by a smoldering fire and eating whatever there was to be eaten. But Effie had sent him up into the city, and she would kill him if he came back without doing the job. Now he just had to make sure everything worked out as planned.
The bells rang one last time.
Henty placed his palms against the wall of Mr. Muckpearl’s Marvelous Music Shop and exhaled.
At first nothing happened. Henty shuffled his feet. He swallowed. He closed his eyes.
His breath began to come quickly, though he wasn’t moving. He squeezed his eyes closed. It was starting to hurt a bit, but it always did.
He opened his eyes. The wall where his hands were spread was beginning to smoke. The stone was turning black as coal. And then, from between Henty’s splayed fingers, came a rush of sound, and suddenly the stones beneath his hands were smoldering a deep, dark red like cooling lava. The stones cracked a little. Fire erupted, devoured the moss, ran right up the cracks and seams in the wall, right up to the roof. . . .
Henty watched it. It was always a sight. A river of red was coming from his hands now, pouring up the stone. The flames caught on the roof beams. Soon the roof was a bonfire, crimson sparks rising into the night sky. The entire alley was awash in a violent, ruddy light.
And then: “Hey!”
A deep yell, too close for comfort. Henty didn’t move his hands, but his head snapped around. A man was coming toward him. A huge man in a bulky black greatcoat.
Uh-oh. . .
“It’s on fire!” Henty shouted. “The shop’s burning, I’m trying- ”
It was a stupid thing to say, but Henty had long ago realized that stupid things seem sensible to stupid people, and so he kept up the charade until the man was only ten steps away. When the man still showed no sign of slowing, Henty began to think about running. But the building wasn’t down yet, and the stone was wet. Burnt to the ground. No foundations. That was the job. If the water-belchers came soon it might still be salvaged.
Keeping one hand pressed to the wall, Henty threw the other one out, sending a spray of red sparks spinning toward the approaching thug. It was only supposed to frighten him. Usually it was enough.
Not this time. The man kept coming. He was bald, his pate glimmering in the firelight, and he had a tattoo of something snaking up his neck. He looked slightly insane.
Henty let go of the wall.
“Mister, you don’t wanna do that,” he started. “You don’t wanna- ”
The fist caught him in the mouth and he reeled back, almost falling onto his sweep things.
Oh, now you did it. Henty was up in an instant. His hands were up. He flicked his fingers toward the blazing wall and a jet of red flew from it and whirled in his palm.
“Give you one more chance,” Henty said, spitting blood onto the cobbles.
The man punched him again, this time in the stomach. The flames in Henty’s hand almost went out. Then he tensed his fingers and let loose, sending a burst of heat strong enough to melt iron swirling around the man.
Normally a blow like that would turn a body to cinders in seconds. But not this time. The blaze surrounded the man, his black coat and his tattooed neck. . . and it didn’t do a thing. The man smiled through the flames, all rotting teeth and cold eyes. He came at Henty again.
Henty’s heart dropped. This was new.
“Whada you want! What d’you-” He barely dodged a fist, only to be caught in the back by another one, and when he leaped back out of range, something long and black detached from the man’s neck and slithered toward him.
The man was another one. One like Henty. But grown-up. And apparently immune to heat. This was getting worse by the second.
“Give me the cut,” the man growled. “The pay for the job. I know what you do, give it here- ”
Henty threw out the two silver coins, fast and hard against the wall at the end of the alley. Then he turned tail and ran, leaving his brushes, leaving his gloves.
By time the first men arrived, clanging buckets and shouting, Henty was gone. So was the instrument shop. And so was Henty’s money.
Everything was going precisely according to plan.
Henty half-hobbled, half-ran back to the docklands. It had begun to rain lightly, a cold, disgusting rain that coated his skin. He wiped away the drops and hurried under an archway. In the distance he could still hear the rush of flames. His crow-black hair was much too long and it stuck to his face as he ran, making his sharp, pale face even paler. People used to call him baekir, little devil-boy. In the workhouse the cook would throw pans at him and cross herself when he watched her from around the door-frame. Henty was fairly certain that was exactly what he was, and he had no qualms.
He came to an old leaning house right up along the quays, in earshot of the river and certainly in nose-shot. Music and raucous voices were pouring out of the house, but Henty didn’t go to the door. He went around the back, into a little court where some damp, bone-thin chickens were scratching in the rain. Then he shimmied up a drainpipe, leaped onto a beam, swung once, and he was on the roof, running along the slick slates toward the tip of the gable. Quick as a shadow, he leaped out over an alley. He came down lightly on the roof on the other side and began to climb the peak. This roof belonged to an empty house, a ruin, gutted all the way through. Henty stopped three slates below the great blackened chimney. There was a moldering tile there that someone had scratched with an “X”, and on this he knocked, three times.
Sharp knock. Soft knock. Sharp knock.
Somewhere far below there was a clack, a squeak of turning wheels and racing pulleys. Then the slates beneath Henty boots flipped down and he dropped like a stone, so quick his hair flew up behind him.
He was falling through the gutted house. He saw its empty windows rush past. But instead of hitting the floor, he fell through a hole and kept falling, down, down. He bounced on a stretched sheet, fell another ten feet, bounced again, and landed with a thud in a pile of sacks and damp feather beds and old musty mattresses. He was far underground now. Surely fifty feet from the slate he had knocked on to here. He was in a great cavernous space that was part of the sewer system. There were lanterns lit all up the walls, lining a spiral metal staircase, glowing in the upper archways. Smoke and the smell of cooking meat wafted about and mixed with the stench of the water in the canals. And everywhere there were boys and girls, some in rags, some in what may once have been splendid clothes. They were going here and there, writing, speaking, pondering, sitting sadly.
Henty pulled himself out of the pile of mattresses and bedding and hurried along the edge of one of the canals. Pipes poked out of the walls above, dripping green liquid into black waterways. It was noxious and most likely poisonous, and Henty had once woken to a wart sprouting from his hand where it had slipped into the water. They would all die down here, living the way they were. But they would die either way, and this was a better place to die than elsewhere.
He turned onto a bridge. Halfway across he started climbing a chain, switched onto some pegs that had been driven into the wall, and then leaped out into nothing, over an abyss that went even further down, hundreds of feet into the depths. A greenish waterfall poured into darkness. Nets and lamps reached down a little way and then extinguished. Henty fell for perhaps a second, slid along a rope, and then collapsed with a grunt into a great hanging net a few dozen feet from the edge of the abyss. The net was occupied by a girl and a tiny, frightened-looking boy, and Henty landed so hard that they jolted, and all the little boxes and lanterns leaped an inch into the air.
“Took you long enough,” the girl said, straightening an abacus and ledger, and fixing Henty with a frosty look. “Split the cut, and you can go eat- ”
She must have noticed his bloody lip and the long purplish bruise growing along his cheekbone, because she broke off then. Henty pretended not to notice.
“What happened?” Her voice was sharp. “You better not tell me you’re useless self went brawling and skipped out on the job, or I’ll- ”
Effie was the only person, ever, Henty reminded himself, who would dare talk to him liked that. She was the undisputed mistress of the Unders, the boss, the swanbolly, the leader of these orphans and outcasts. All of fifteen years old, she was grubby and disheveled, and she had a heart of stone. And she was a Blue Pusher. If Henty tried any funny business—setting her braids on fire, or burning her stockings—he would be doused with black water from the canals quicker than you could say Jack Willard. He knew, because he had tried once, way back when he was just a nipper and didn’t know the order of things. He hadn’t tried again.
“I didn’t skip the job,” Henty said.
Effie waited for him to say more. To the left of him, he heard the other boy in the net lean forward.
“Then what happened?” Effie demanded. “Did someone see you?”
Henty took a deep breath. This would be the hard part. “No one saw me,” he said, but Effie wasn’t stupid. She didn’t have any mind gifts, like the Worms or the Teases, but she had Persnickety—that little boy with his great, disturbingly limpid eyes. Effie always kept him close. When you run a sewer full of children who can kill you easier than tie their own shoe a boy like Persnickity comes in very handy.
As if in response Persnickety’s eyes twitched and he smiled at Henty. Henty glared at him.
“Well, then, Henty. . .” said Effie, noting the exchange. “If nothing happened where’s my cut?”
Henty paused. He looked up toward the lanterns and the ropes. He thought about making a break for it. He had reported in and now maybe he could run off and Effie would forget about the money. But no. Effie wouldn’t forget. Effie would trap him in a bubble of water until he drowned. He started shuffling in his pockets, pretending he’d lost something.
“It’s right- Oh, look at that. I’m sure it was here- ”
“Henty.” Effie’s voice was like nail. Persnickety had crept a little closer. “If you’re thinking of keeping cuts from me, I won’t have it. I’ll- ”
All right, thought Henty. This is it.
“I lost it,” he said, and Persnickety’s eyes went wide. Henty thought of the huge thug, the red heat swirling around him, not even singing him. He pushed the image away quickly. “I tripped in the alley on the way back from Eastbourne and the coins slipped right out o’ my hand. But the house is gone. The job’s done. No one’s going to come asking.”
Effie watched him for a moment. Then she crooked her finger at Persnickety and he came over on all fours. Effie leaned down.
Henty couldn’t be sure if Persnickety ever opened his mouth, but he could swear there was a sudden flurry of whispers in the air, there for an instant, then gone.
Effie looked at Henty again. Her mouth twisted. “The great Henty, tripping over his own toes. My, my. . . Can’t handle your own feet on the streets, what? Double duty tomorrow, and don’t let it happen again or I may be needing a different Crimson Porter.”
She gave him one last look and started clacking beads again and scratching at her ledger with the nib of her pen. Persnickety continued to watch Henty.
Henty bared his teeth at the boy. Then he was off the net, swinging back up toward the lights.
Talk all you want, Effie. You don’t know half as much as you think.
Effie didn’t know, for instance, that there was another Worm down here, an eight-year-old from South Kensington who had run away after making his governess leap from the second story window. Effie didn’t know that that eight year old was fond of chocolate and toy-soldiers, and Effie didn’t know that Henty had struck a little deal with the Kensington Worm. Chocolate and two tin soldiers for a little lessons in protection from probing minds.
Oh, yes, Henty had his own allies. Effie made a point to call every new arrival up to her net for Persnickety to read them. There were few secrets, few terrible pasts and horrid memories that Effie didn’t know. And she thought she knew Henty’s. But she didn’t. There were things in Henty’s mind that had a cage around them, a black spiny cage that the Kensington Worm had set up for him, and everything Henty didn’t want Effie to know, he put inside that cage. Sometimes he felt Persnickty’s fingers, poking at it, but even he couldn’t get in. One of the things in the cage was a box, hidden behind a brick in the south wall of the sewer. A box he wanted to fill with coins. That is where Henty went and that is where he lay down on a pile of straw, looking into a red flame in the palm of his hand and thinking.
“Crimson Porter!” the shout went up, flying from mouth to mouth, echoing through the cavernous sewer. “Crimson Porter to the galley net!”
Henty groaned. There were dozens of Crimson Porters in the Unders, but even though Effie threatened, Henty knew he was still the best of the lot. If she were calling a Porter it was him.
He propped himself up on his elbows, straightened his cap, and then set off at a quick clip. Effie ran a tight business. He had wondered how long it would take her to call him back about last night.
As Henty ran, he saw a girl lifting a wind and blowing it through her hair, swaying, her eyes closed, as if she were imagining herself somewhere else. Another boy had set himself a pathetic fire in his hand and was warming himself by it. By the way the fire flickered and limped Henty knew the boy was no threat to him. There were all sorts of gifted children down here. Ones who could control iron, pull the bolts from a moving carriage wheel, open the locks on near any door. Ones who could control glass, who could slip their hands through a jeweler’s window like it was water and make vases shatter into a a million razor-sharp bullets. There were those who could control water, like Effie, and heat, like him, and wind and trees. And there were ones like Persnickety. Worms they were called, because they got into your mind and wriggled about there, and they were nasty. They were always watching other people, looking for things, things you didn’t want anyone else to see.
Henty had a million of those.
He came to the precipice and swung down into the dark.
“What,” he snapped, when he arrived on the net. “It’s ruddy early in the morning.”
“It’s seven thirty,” Effie snapped back. She was dressed in her cleanest, nicest blue dress, which was still a sorry excuse for a dress, Henty thought. “And don’t give me any of your lip. You were seen yesterday.”
“By who?” Henty puffed out his chest, but a flicker of fear passed through him.
“Don’t know. Persnickety ‘s only getting a shadow. But someone saw. And if they followed you here, you know what’s going to happen.”
Henty did know. It wouldn’t be the first time. There was a perimeter of Pokers all around the sewer, in the outer passages, children who could sense a living thing from a hundred yards away, from a heartbeat or a breath. Normally all they got were rats and perhaps a poor lost bird, but when a person came there were no exceptions. When a person came those children had orders.
Henty had seen the aftermath. A splatter of blood on the wall where all of it had been pulled from the trespasser’s veins at the same instant. The bloodless corpses would float out into the Thames and the gifted children would be blamed, but no one would be any wiser.
“But he didn’t follow me, did he,” Henty said smartly. “No one can follow me.”
“He?” Effie looked up.
“Well,” Henty started hurriedly, but it was no use.
“Persnickety says you’re lying, Henty. Lying about losing the coins. Persnickety says you might be keeping the cut.”
Henty turned to the little boy. Persnickety looked back, twitching, and suddenly Henty was filled with a loathing for the Worm and his huge, watchful eyes. Persnickety’s twig arms were wrapped around him. His fingers were digging into his shoulders. When he caught sight of Henty scowling at him, he rolled back his lips and smiled.
Henty turned back to Effie. “He doesn’t know a thing.”
“He knows everything. You’re lying.”
“I’m not, Effie, I swear!”
Persnickety began to bounce up and down, making the net judder. Effie put her ear close. Again Henty heard nothing, but Effie’s expression changed.
“There was a man,” she said, slowly.
“There was. A man in a black greatcoat with a tattoo up his neck. He attacked you.”
“No!” shouted Henty again. “No one could have- ”
“You listen here, and you listen careful.” All at once Effie had cleared the space between them and there was knife in her hand, right against his ear. “I can handle it if you get robbed, if you get beat up, if you get the cut taken from you. But if you lie to me again just so I think you’re a tough lad, you’re out. I’ll throw your body to the Clowns myself. He stole from you, didn’t he? He stole the cut, and you didn’t have the guts to tell me.”
Henty didn’t say a word. Effie flicked the knife and a bit of his hair went floating through the ropes of the net and down toward the water. “Didn’t he, Henty.”
“All right!” Henty ducked under the knife. “He stole it. Happy? There’s no money either way.”
Effie folded the knife away with disgust. “Go on, then, pansy. Go on.”
She gave him a push, and he pretended to stumble on the netting. In the last instant he caught himself and leaped off, did a swan dive and grabbed hold of a rope, swinging above the water nearly thirty feet below.
It took him almost an hour to climb back up to the Unders. When he arrived, sweaty and tired, he went to a fire pit to grab a bite of bacon and a roast apple for his breakfast. Then, when he had eaten, he walk back toward the precipice and buried his hand in his pocket. He felt two heavy coins there, rasping together. The money from the job. The cut. He glanced out over the edge, toward the net hovering in the darkness like a little glowing island.
He could see Persnickety on it, shaking back and forth. He could see Effie, hunched up over her ledgers.
As far as she was concerned, Henty was a liar and weakling. And she could think that for all Henty cared. But he had just made twice as much he normally would and it wouldn’t be the last time.
Henty tossed the coins up into the air, caught them again. There had been no thug in a black greatcoat, no tattoo, and no flying fists. Henty had done his job and split his lip with the back of his hand. Then he had gone back to Mr. Muckpearl’s burnt down shop, picked up the sweep things and returned to the Unders.
No firestorms. No fights in alleys. No stolen money. All there was was a figure in a spiny cage in Henty’s mind, a figure in a black greatcoat and a tattoo up his neck, a figure who did not really exist unless Henty thought of him.
There were other things in that spiny cage, and as Henty shoved the man inside again, he saw them briefly. Dark things. Sad things. A little boy with crow-black hair and a pale sharp face standing barefoot in a rainy street. A little boy burning, and a little boy crying, and a little boy running. But Henty closed all that away. He felt the coins in his pocket, and he smiled.
Every Wednesday, shortly before midnight, Jedediah Blacktop went to the graveyard in the north of the town to empty the coffins. He was not a grave-robber. He would not have been pleased had you called him one. In fact, he would have punched out all your teeth and sold them. No, Jedidiah considered himself a recycler.
Wednesday would arrive without fail, and would tick steadily past, and midnight would approach, and then, as if it were part of Wednesday’s inner workings, Jedidiah would open his door and stump down out of his attic like some sort of bedraggled bird from a cuckoo-clock. He would drag his cart out from under the stairs and pull it, softly creaking, through the cobbled lanes and dirt ruts toward the north of the town. He would go to Fenningham Street, where the houses were built with their backs pressed against the bend of the river, and where there was an old church and a graveyard. He would pull his cart into the graveyard, past the good, rich graves in the front. He would slink along in the deep shadows of the church wall, and reemerge on the other side. He would find the freshest, newest graves, where the wooden crosses were still oozing sap and the ground was freshly turned. And he would proceed to dig them up.
He always started with a stick to measure how deep the coffin had been laid (never more than three feet for a poor grave). Then he would graduate to a spade and dig, careful not to scratch the coffin’s top very badly. The body inside would be laid out, and Jedidiah would go on like this until there was a neat row of corpses, all pale and cold in the grass. The coffins would then be stacked on the cart. When Jedidiah had a full load, he would throw the bodies over the graveyard wall into the river, and take all the coffins to the coffin-shop.
Twice-used coffins went for barely a penny, thrice-used not even a groat, so Jedidiah didn’t get very much, but he always received his handful of coins and returned to his attic quite satisfied.
It was unpleasant occupation, and Jedidiah was an unpleasant person, so it suited him well.
* * *
This particular Wednesday was a bleak, black night in Fenningham Street. The clouds were thick, and the moon hung low in the sky like a dull candle, and Jedidiah sauntered into the graveyard, sucking his long thin cigarette. It was the only spot of color, that glowing tip. Everything else was ink-blue and cat-black, and a deep, unsettling sort of green that comes when shadows are soaked in the leaves of trees.
Jedidiah pulled his cart past the good graves up front. He pulled it along the church wall. He began poking about the pauper’s lots with his stick.
It would be a good week, he suspected. There had been an outbreak of the influenza in the north part of the town and so the graveyard would likely have been blessed with many new arrivals.
Sure enough, Jedidiah got a long row of bodies, some tall, some short, bare feet poking out from under their burial shrouds. He even found a few charms around the pale necks, and some of the older bodies had coins over their eyes, which of course he pocketed. The coins were put there to pay Death, because it was said he would not take you across an imagined river and into the Summer Lands otherwise, but the coins really only payed Jedidiah and he didn’t take the dead people across any rivers; he simply threw them in.
He came to the last grave. There had been eighteen today, a very great number. Jedidiah was already looking forward to the road home, a good rattling handful of coins, enough for tobacco and bread. He started to dig, the spade biting into the earth, tossing the dirt. He uncovered the coffin. It was a small one. A child’s coffin, very fine. Child’s coffins were more expensive than the adult coffins, so Jedidiah whistled through his crooked teeth when he saw it. He pried it out of the wet, damp earth. He lifted it higher, and a few earth worms dangled from its new, sharp corners. The earthworms lost their grip and fell. Jedidiah laid the coffin down on the grass and hooked his iron bar under the lid. He popped it off. And then he started, and his cigarette dropped right out of his mouth. Because inside the coffin, nestled in linens and lace, was a child, bald and paper-pale, its eyes closed as if in sleep. And clutched in the baby’s little hands, tight against its chest, was a long, iron knife.
Jedidiah stared, unmoving. His breath stopped clouding the cold night.
The knife was butcher’s knife. It was wickedly sharp, and curved for slicing hams, and it glinted softly in the moonlight. The child’s hands were so tight around it, clenching it, a tiny knight in snowy dress.
Jedidiah blew out a puff of smoke. He contemplated putting the lid back on the coffin. He contemplated putting it back into the earth and hurrying off. But if he did that he wouldn’t make a profit. He would get 10d 6 shillings, and he still had rent to pay, and so he would have to go without cigarettes and ale and it would be dreadful. But the same time, he did not want to disturb the child. Something in Jedidiah”s cold, toothy heart quailed at the sight of it, so calm and cold in its little bed.
And the knife. Who would bury a child with a knife? If the coins were for Death, who was the knife for?
Jedidiah put the lid back on and stood back, chewing his cigarette and contemplating. He could ask the priest. Or the undertaker. Of course they would want to know why he was digging up coffins, and he would go to jail perhaps, and the coffin-seller with him.
In the end Jedidiah took the coffin back home with him and left it in the cart under the stairs, contents still intact.
And that was where it stayed for five days. When he opened it again he expected to find rot and decay and stench, and the snow-white linens soaked with fluids. But he didn’t, because the child was gone, and there were little scratch marks along the edges of the coffin, and splinters, as if little fingers had torn it up. The knife was gone, too.
* * *
“Marsh?” Jedidiah asked, in the coffin-makers shop. “Marsh, who ordered that child’s coffin you sent out, on the first of last week?”
Marsh spat tobacco onto the floor. “Eech. I’d have to look in the books. Why?”
“Look, then.” Jedidiah turned a circle, glancing around.
Marsh went around the back of his work-table and found a great dusty ledger, and began paging through it. Then he set it down with a snap.
“A family in Winterton.”
“Winterton? What’s a family in Winterton doing at your shop?”
“I beg your pardon?” demanded Marsh, indignant.
Jedidiah left, and went to Winterton.
* * *
“We did order a coffin,” said the maid, whispering, half-hidden behind the flapping clothes-line. “For Miss Jenny, the baby. And yes, she had a knife in her hands.”
“Why? Oh, go on,” said Jedidiah, pulling at his cigarette and glancing around, which is what he did often in the company of other people.
“The mistress wanted it,” the maid said. “She said kept saying, ‘Why, why?’ and cried and screamed, and said, ‘Why did Death take Jenny, when it could have a taken another little girl or another little boy, or no one at all?’ And in the end she gave the baby a knife, and whispered to her the whole night long, though Baby was already dead and cold by then.”
“That’s the daftest thing. What was the child supposed to do with the knife?”
“I don’t know!” said the maid, clipping and un-clipping clothes-pins for no reason at all. And then she said: “Well, little Jenny was not the first to die. There was the influenza. Her brother went, only two days before. And then, as Mistress was sitting down by the river, crying into it, he came back. He floated up to her in the water, and his eyes were open and milky, and he was dead, but he wasn’t. He stared at her and his mouth was opening and closing and Mistress leaped up and screamed, but the boy floated right against the shore. And when the Master came back with a rifle the boy seemed to be trying to flop up the bank, and his eyes were rolling, and his tongue was black. I didn’t see it, but I heard, and it sounded dreadful.”
“That’s the daftest thing,” said Jedidiah again.
“I don’t know,” replied the maid softly, her eyes wide. “All I know is that Death isn’t the end right now. The dead, they’re not staying dead. It’s as if they don’t know, as if they’re lost.”
Jedidiah left in a huff, rolling himself another cigarette and scowling. He went up the streets to his attic. Tomorrow was Wednesday. He wondered what if would be a good one, or poor.
* * *
Midnight struck. Jedidiah left his attic He dragged out his cart. He pulled it through the lanes, wheels creaking, just as he always did. He was a bit slower at everything that night, though. Deep in thought. The words of the maid were still loud in his head, ringing like a bell: “It’s as if they’re lost.”
He came to the pauper’s lots and began poking with the stick. He began digging.
The first body out was an old woman. He lay her on the grass. Then he went to the next new grave. He dug that one up to. And when he came back with the second body, the old woman was gone. Jedidiah dropped his corpse. He stared at the grave and at the ground. The grass was trampled. There were sliding marks in the mud. But no body.
Jedidiah spun. The graveyard was dark and silent. His hands tightened around the handle of his spade.
“If this is a joke, it ain’t one sort of funny,” he snapped. He wondered if perhaps it was a constable, or a local mourner who, disapproving of his line of work, had decided to get revenge on him. Jedidiah walked a few steps across the graveyard. And then he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. The old-woman-body was on the wall, the graveyard wall, and she was trying to scramble over it with reckless haste.
Jedidiah’s heart leaped. She was not making it over. She seemed strong enough, but she was desperately uncoordinated. He went to her. He stared up.
She did not see him, or if she did, she did not care. She struggled, scraping her hands on the stone, staring frantically forward into the dark, as if her whole life and fortune were lying wait on the other side of the wall.
“I want to go home,” she was whispering. “I want to go home. Markist! Markist! Wait for me, Markist!”
Jedidiah dragged her struggling and put her back in the coffin and slammed the lid down and buried it again.
Then he dragged his empty cart back to his house and stayed up very late, smoking and wondering.
* * *
Jedidiah did not return to the graveyard for three Wednesdays. He ran out of bread, but he still didn’t go. Then he ran out of cigarettes. He went.
He took his cart out, pulled it to Fenningham Street. The graveyard would be so full. And there were reports now, newspaper articles. People were glimpsing their deceased relatives at the windows, staring in, deceased relatives who had been dead a day, a week, staring with cold eyes at the firelight and the life. Thew news was printed everywhere, headlines all over the country and in large cities:
The Dead Walk!
Death is on Holiday!
Rising Panic as Loved Ones Come Home
No one understood.
But Jedidiah needed to bring a load of coffins in or he would starve, and so he decided not to care.
He began digging quickly in the churchyard, and instead of laying the bodies on the grass so they could wriggle away, he tipped them straight over the wall into the river. They could be the river’s problem. They could be the problem of whomever lived downstream.
He did the rich graves, too. He threw a great big opera singer over the wall after taking all her jewels. He could still hear her singing Puccini, gurgling and weak as she bobbed away down the river. He threw the mayor over. The mayor was still giving orders under his breath, his cold dead breath:
I forbid it. I allow it. I forbid it. Yes. No. They mustn’t. Because I said so.
Jedidiah went behind to work on the pauper’s lots.
And then, when he was almost finished, someone stepped from around the gravestone and stared at him. At first, Jedidiah thought it was a corpse again. He thought he would have to tackle it if it came any closer and hurl it into the river the way he had done with the rest. But it was not a corpse. It was a woman, and she was bizarre. She wore wide, lacy bloomers and red shoes, and she had orange hair in tight curls. Little baubles – birds and cages and mice – hung from it. Under the frizz of hair was a pasty face and a red mouth and blue-striped gloves, and a puffy coat like for a ballgown. When the woman saw Jedidiah she said: “Oh, well then,” in a very low, lazy, slightly scratchy voice.
“Who are you?” Jedidiah barked, and though it sounded very rough he was in particular awe. She was so out of place in the dark graveyard. Like a great colorful bird, and all around shadows and darkness.
“I don’t know,” replied the woman, still very deep, and she began to wander toward him, inspecting him lazily and then moving on to do the same to a nearby tree. “I ask myself it often, but I never get an answer. It’s rude, really. Someone should do something about it.”
“Rude,” she said again. “You, too. Everyone’s rude.”
She was most likely a dreadful person from the slums, thought Jedidiah. They went mad from diseases sometimes.
“Well?” said the woman. “Where am I?”
Jedidiah regained a bit of his composure. “Look, what’s a tart like you doing around so late in a graveyard?” He glared at her. “Off you go, back to wherever you came from.”
“Tart!” exclaimed the woman, and began to laugh very boisterously. And then she became very serious, and said: “Gooseberries.”
“What?” asked Jedidiah.
“Gooseberry tarts. They’re the cat’s pajamas, quite.”
Jedidiah shook his head. “Go away. I have work to do.”
“Oh, that makes two of us. We should form a company.” She picked up a bit of flower from a grave and tossed it back.
“What work have you got? Nothing honest by the looks of them spotless gloves.”
“Oh, surely not as honest as your work,” she said drily. “But. . . Well, I believe I’ve forgotten. I’m certain it was something.”
Jedidiah peered at her. “You don’t hold with the police, do you?” His eyes went sharp, glittering. Then faded. “I suppose not. Fine then, I will ignore you and go about my business.” He began to dig again. “Good night.”
“Is it?” asked the tart, and peered skeptically up at the pitch-black sky. “I seem to recall the last few nights being dismal and horrid, but everyone said good night anyway.”
Jedidiah dug in silence.
The tart began to wander across the yard, looking at things, picking little bits of mortar from the gravestones and crumbling them between her fingers.
“Have you remembered?” asked Jedidiah after a while. “Your business here?”
The tart sat down on a tree stump. “No. I suppose something went very wrong. I forgot.”
“You’re likely mad, is how I suppose it.”
“Well, perhaps if you told me what I had forgotten I would remember,” snapped the tart, and it was a ridiculous thing to say, but she snapped it with such conviction that it made Jedidiah a little bit ashamed that he hadn’t thought to do so himself. He kept digging, becoming flustered. Then he paused. Lifted a coffin out, and dumped its contents on the grass.
“Well,” he said slowly. “If you hang about in these parts, perhaps you know why the corpses are all strange. Perhaps- ”
“Corpses?” said the woman, and licked her lips. “Where are corpses?”
And then she saw it. On the ground. Pale face.
“Oh,” she said. And then again, “Ooh.” Very deep and scratchy, like from the belly of a cat.
And when Jedidiah looked over his shoulder at her he nearly dropped his spade. The air around her was shifting, snapping, like it couldn’t decide whether it was town-air, or the air of some vast dead country of flame and ash, and with every snap, the lady, for a brief second, seemed to be someone else entirely.
Jedidiah caught a glimpse of inky feathers, a great black cape. A pale face, no, not pale, a face with no skin at all. A face that was a grinning skull, and a bony hand gripping a scythe.
“Yes,” said the woman, and her voice was a dry clack now. “I’ve remembered now.”
Jedidiah stood transfixed. His mouth opened and closed over his coffee-colored teeth. “But-” he said. “But it isn’t! No, it isn’t!”
“It is,” said the tart, who was in fact the queen of all tarts, and Death herself. “I’ve been confused. Several weeks ago I went to an inn because it looked bright and cheery, and I thought I’d kill some people there, but it seems I was waylaid. Goodness, what a headache.”
She put a bony hand to her skinless head. “Ah well. It was a pleasant diversion.- Now to business.”
And she took the scythe and swung it at Jedidiah. It did not touch him, but Jedidiah clutched his jacket over his chest. His eyes went wide. He began to cough. He coughed so loudly it sounded as if his lungs where ripping, ripping. Death swung the scythe again, at a crawling little boy, and a screaming girl, and they fell down, too, though they kept watching Jedidiah with wise, blank eyes.
Jedidiah coughed and coughed until his lungs heaved. And then he fell.
“You know, it’s funny people think themselves so clever.” The queen of tarts moved languidly back toward Jedidiah, whose eyes were rolling, rolling up into his head. “You don’t know a thing about me. And you never will, not until it’s too late.”
The air around her had stopped crackling. She was the tart again, frilly bloomers, and dangles clinking in her orange hair. She stepped over Jedidiah’s prostrate body. She looked down at him. The glowing end of his cigarette was still fizzling weakly in the grass. She put it out with the toe of her shoe.
And then she tucked her scythe under her arm and put her hands in the pockets of her bloomers. She went away down Fenningham Street, and though she peered for a second into the inn she did not go inside.
They came and went from a hole below a tavern in Daggenford Street, in a grimy, moldering part of the town where there were no streetlamps. No one ever caught more than a glimpse of them. Sometimes, a watchful eye or a bloodshot gaze pressed to a window would catch the slither of black cloaks, the gleam of a metal mask, or the flicker of a white finger . . . But nothing more.
Many wished to see them. Over the years, many came to that part of the town, from across the sea, and from far across the country—rich men in crimson waistcoats and poor men in tattered hats, and fine ladies and barefoot children. They all craved to see one, to look behind its mask and learn its secrets. Edgart Viviender was the latest. Bored and clever and rich as Italian damask. He would not be the last.
There were no books in Edgart Viviender’s country. Perhaps there were none in the whole world. There were no books because there were no trees, and no paper, and very little leather, and hardly any brains to string words together and make sense of them. Edgart’s house had a room called a library, but no one remembered what it was for; the shelves were empty and they were too narrow for shirtwaists and too wide for china-ware.
And the problem was, Edgart knew how to read. He had practiced the street-signs and the medicine bottles, and he had read all the words stamped on the soles of his shoes, and his options had become rather limited. He wanted more. He wanted deeper. That was when he had begun to gad about, and ask questions, and go on journeys. And that was how he came to Daggenford Street.
That was how anyone came, trickling into the shadowy confines, adventurers and fortune-seekers, and the curious, and the bored. They came to that town based on rumors: that there were suppliers there, purveyors of wondrous things, marvelous things, sparks and flames and rolling shadows. Things to prod the mind and poke the soul. And so Edgart came, and took lodgings in some upstairs rooms in Belheim, and set off every night to search for the booksellers.
On this particular night, the foghorns from the docks were moaning and the air was opaque, as if a curtain of oil hung in the atmosphere. The cobbles were slick. The taverns were full. Not loud, but full.
Seven were there, sitting at Edgart’s table, and one of them was a local, speaking in a hushed and grating voice.
“There’s Crow-face and Moon-face and Iron-teeth and Tar,” the old man whispered over the guttering flame of a candle, and the others stared, and Edgart stared hardest of all. He sat between a woman named Mary the Bonneter and a man named Merry the Hangman and they both wanted to find the booksellers, too. Mary the Bonneter leaned over, pulling her headscarf low.
“Where? Where are they?” she said, and her voice was soft and musical, and it made everyone wonder why she was here, and why any of them were here.
The old man answered: “You won’t find them if you look. They’ll come to you. And if they do, they will ask a price. It is not free, the things they give.”
Edgart thought: Well, I am very wealthy. . .
“Have you ever seen one,” Mary the Bonneter asked. “Ever at all? I hear they wear masks- ”
“They do,” said the old man. “And I have. Oh, I wish I never do again.” He shivered, violently, and the candle shivered with him. “I was twelve then. I did not see the face, but the figure reared up before me seven feet tall, wrapped in a black cloak, and his round, silver mask shimmering. . . That was Moon-face. I still see him sometimes, in the far reaches of the night, after I close my eyes.”
Edgart left the table hurriedly. The booksellers would not find him here. Edgart would not learn their secrets by talking to superstitious old boggarts. He went to every tavern in that part of town where there are no streetlamps, and he waited on corners, and he shuffled through gutters, and he slept in the day and walked in the night, and waited.
In the end, the booksellers found Edgart. He was stumbling back to his lodgings after a long, cold night, his joints stiff, his waistcoat and cravat a little wilted.
The booksellers were in a group, hunched and moving swiftly down the street, four figures returning from some errand, some shadowy journey through the night.
Edgart was in the middle of the street, and they were coming straight toward him.
He was paralyzed for a moment, frozen in a mixture of fear and anticipation. Then he slipped into a doorway, waited for them to pass, and followed quietly behind.
Moon-face was in the middle. Edgart recognized the round, round mask, mirror-bright, with slits for eyes and a grinning mouth. Then there was Crow-face, who was a woman, and Iron-teeth who was short and stocky, like a boulder, and Tar, which was so tall and thin it was impossible to tell what it was.
They moved with incredible speed, darting and gliding, and yet they did not seem in any hurry. They turned into a narrow lane, scrabbled close along the house-walls. It was difficult for Edgart to keep them in sight. And then they arrived at a tavern with a wordless sign hanging broken above the door—an empty tavern, long deserted.
There was hole under it, a fallen bit of wall where the gutter flowed in.
Crow-face slipped into the hole, a small cackle echoing from behind her mask. Tar and Iron-teeth went next.
And then, just as Moon-face paused, and turned and looked over his shoulder, and was about to dive into the blackness as well, Edgart Viviender stepped into the street.
He didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, and when Moon-face looked at him, all sound seemed to stop. There was no distant clatter of docks and drinking. No dripping gutters. Only a shimmering, silvery ringing, piercing the air.
Slowly, Moon-face straightened.
Edgart stood stock-still, his hands clenched around his trouser-legs.
Moon-face glided toward him.
“Show me,” said Edgart. “Show me, please! Take off your mask!”
Moon-face froze. He did not come closer.
“Do you want something?” Edgart’s voice rose. He took a few steps forward. “Something in return? I will give it to you. Anything you ask.”
Moon-face watched him. The ringing continued, seemed to swell and weave, hypnotic and strangely sickening. And then Moon-face reached up and opened his mask.
Every drop of blood in Edgart’s body turned to fire. He could no longer speak, or move, and his muscles wound tight and his bones locked. The face behind the mask was pale and smooth, the skin so clear and glass-like, as if it had never felt a strong wind or the scratch of a branch. And there were words there. Scrawled on the eyelids, on the cheeks, across the forehead in blood-red ink. So many words, flying at Edgart and pounding him, a thousand words and a thousand stories.
Every happy family is alike-Anna? Anna, where are you going-no one noticed the soldier-and suddenly Edgart was so heavy and full that he reeled back and fell into a doorway and collapsed.
Moon-face stayed perfectly still. Then he reached up slowly and closed his mask over his face, and its hinge creaked like a door. More seconds passed. Somewhere in the distance a cat shrieked.
Moon-face turned and melted into the dark.
Edgart lay in the street, shaking and freezing, his eyes open, and when he had recovered enough, he dragged himself back to his lodgings in Belheim. He did not leave them again. He locked himself in, and the landlady heard odd voices from the rooms, as if there was not one, but many different people there. She heard loud thumps, and the casements banged open on windy, stormy nights, and water dripped through the floors. And at some point, when no one had seen Edgart for many, many days, the constable came to break down the door.
They found the rooms in a disarray, and Edgart lying on the floor, laughing, or possibly crying, it was difficult to say. He had gone mad. He had scrawled on the walls with ink and fingernails and worse things, and though very few people knew how to read it, it was a masterpiece.
It began: Why, oh why do the little ones go, laughing and talking, into the snow. . .
One week later, in Daggenford Street, Moon-face crept from under the tavern, and found Mary the Bonneter. She was waiting for him, her face alive and bright, and her eyes quivering. Moon-face paused before her, and she promised to pay the price. He creaked opened his mask.
Why, oh why do the little ones go, she read on his eyelids and on his face. . .