“Yabba, where’re my boots?”
The girl stood in the dark of the hovel and raged. She was tiny. Her knees stuck out like knobby fists, and her nose ran, and her fingers were cracked with dirt and cold. Not even the wind—when it came howling through the chinks in the hovel’s door—could stir the nest of hair on her head, so thick were the knots and tangles. “Where are they?”
Yabba sat in the corner and scowled. He was whittling furiously at a piece of wood.
“Where are they?” the girl snapped again. “What’d you do with them?”
Yabba nicked his finger and hissed, sucking the blood. He looked at the girl. Then his lips curled back. “I sold ’em. Needed the coin.”
The girl let out a screech and flew at him. She’d scratched him halfway across his face before he could even shout.
“You sold ’em?” she screamed. “You sold my boots?”
Yabba regained his balance and threw the girl across the hovel. She crashed into the wall and fell, a heap of rags.
“To the tinker,” he said, wiping his face. “Out back of Olga’s.” He set back to whittling the wood, breathing hard. “Go get ’em if you want ’em.”
The girl sat up. There was blood on her head, but she didn’t seem to notice it. “Those were my boots,” she said, quieter now. “Mam gave them to me ‘fore she left. They were mine, Yabba.” Her eyes were beginning to quiver, glistening in the light of a little cook-fire.
“Well, now they’re the tinker’s,” said Yabba. “And you can just shut up about Mam. She weren’t your Mam any more ‘n she was mine. Go to sleep, and tomorrow you get something valuable, you hear? Something we can use, so that I don’t have go out and sell your grotty boots. Lace, or red berries, or something fancy. I’m going to need it.”
* * *
The girl came back the next day with a bundle of twigs, green and uneven, torn from the shrubs beyond the river-fork.
“That don’t look like lace to me,” Yabba said when he saw it. “What else?”
“Nothing,” said the girl. Her teeth were gritted, but she was not as wild as usual. She had gone rather quiet. “Twigs was all I found. That’s all there was today.”
For a moment Yabba stared at her, as if he couldn’t understand. Then he said, “And what d’you expect me to do with twigs?” His black hair was in his face, sticking to his forehead.
“You could sell ’em,” the girl said. “I don’t know. It’s all I got this time.” The girl wouldn’t look at him.
Yabba threw her out the door and she slept that night under the drooping thatch, her feet in the cold rain. When morning came, she ran away up the hill on the other side of the town and got a knife from under the tree that grew there.
* * *
The girl brought the knife back to the hovel. It was a very fine knife. It had a manticore in red carnelian on its hilt and a sheath of finest leather.
“Yabba!” she shouted, and pounded on the door. “Yabba, I have something! Lemme in! Lemme in, or you can’t have it.”
Yabba opened the door. He took the knife and looked it over. “Should do,” he said. “No more of this twig stuff, now, or you’ll be staying outside permanent-like.” Then he left, and he didn’t come back for a whole day and night.
* * *
Yabba came back with a black eye and two yellow teeth in the palm of his hand.
“They didn’t want it!” he screamed. “They didn’t want your stupid knife. ‘Where’d you get a knife like that?’ they said. ‘Ain’t no place we can sell that knife without getting hanged,’ they said. I want coin! Silver and gold, or I’ll throw you out!” He hurled the knife into the dirt at the girl’s feet. Then he stormed away, slamming the door so hard the whole hut shivered.
The girl picked up the knife and folded it gently into the shreds of her dress.
* * *
Yabba didn’t come back to the hovel for a week. When he did, he wanted coin again. The girl hadn’t got anything. She hadn’t left the house, though she didn’t tell Yabba that. She offered Yabba the knife again, but Yabba just spat. He was afraid, then angry, turning circles and growling like a cornered dog.
“What now? What do I do now? You always get something. A pair of gloves or some honey or lard or something. Now what am I ‘spected to do?”
“I want my boots back, Yabba,” the girl said. Her eyes were on the watery broth she was stirring.
Yabba shouted, going hoarse about the money he needed to pay off some people. The girl kept stirring. Her hand was tight around the wooden spoon.
“Those were my boots,” she kept saying. “Those were my boots, Yabba, and Mam gave them to me and I want them back. I asked at Olga’s. The tinker you sold them to, he’s not there no more.”
“Course he’s not there!” Yabba shouted, before he got really mad. “It’s been a fortnight. He’ll be halfway to the moon by now.”
* * *
The girl knelt on a hill under a solitary tree. A heap of knives lay against its roots. The lower ones were black, gnawed-upon by damp, but the ones close to the top still glinted. They were all very fine, with elaborate sigils in the likenesses of dragons and hens and manticores.
“I got another one for you, Mam. You listenin’? I got another one.”
The girl laid a knife on the top of the pile. It had a bit of dirt on its tip. Then the girl rested her head on her knees and stayed that way until long after the sun had gone down and the wind blew sharp and cold over the back of the hill.
* * *
It was morning when the girl made her way through the town toward the hovel. It had rained during the night, and the day was cold and drizzling. Halfway down the street, in front of the church, she came upon some townspeople, huddled together. They were very silent, looking at something on the ground.
“What is it?” the girl asked, edging up to an old woman who was standing a little apart from the others. The woman looked at her a moment, but said nothing. The girl walked around to the other side of the huddle.
Something was lying on the ground. All she could see of it were the bare feet, white and swollen against the black mud.
“Who is it?” she whispered. “Who’s that on the ground?”
“A tinker,” one of the men said, before going back to staring.
“From up North,” said another.
“No great loss,” said a third. “But for the way it was done. Dreadful. Like some sort of beast, only bigger. Not like anything around here. Not like wolves.”
The girl didn’t wait with the townsfolk. She ran back to the hovel, feet sliding in the mud.
* * *
A woman hurries about the hovel, rushing from corner to corner, wrapping a heel of bread, lighting a lantern. She tries to be quiet, but she is not quiet enough. A girl wakes from the straw in the corner.
“Mam?” she asks. Her voice is scratchy with sleep. “What you doin’, Mam?”
The woman goes very still, her back to the girl. She closes her eyes. Her face is worn and thin.
“I have to leave for a while,” she says. Her hand closes around the warm glass of the lantern, trying to block out the light, but the girl is already standing up in her little bed, shaking.
“Why you going, Mam? Why you taking all those things?”
The woman’s skin is like leather, hardened from winters and summers and falls. She turns and reaches out a finger, brushing it over the child’s face.“Now, deary. No crying. You’ll see Mam again. You’ll see me one day.”
“Don’t leave, Mam. Don’t leave me with Yabba, I don’t like Yabba!”
But the woman is already turning. She’s at the door, heaving her sack. “I have to,” she whispers. “I’m ten kinds of dead if I stay.”
“Why?” the girl cries, and it’s a piercing sound, like a whistle. She looks as if she wants to follow the woman, but she’s still rooted to the bed of straw.
“He’s after me,” the woman says. She pulls up her shawl, black and crimson, shadowing her face. “He’s after me and he won’t ever stop. I stole something from him, see. Years ago. I thought it would be good and help me, but it wasn’t good, and he knows my scent. He’s been chasing and chasing me all these years, and he’s close now. So close. But he won’t have those boots. He won’t have them back. You keep them, all right? You keep them and you use them.”
“Mam!” the girl says, shifting from foot to foot on the bed. “I’ll help you, Mam! He won’t catch you, I’ll take care of you!”
The woman half turns in the doorway, a dark shape against the blue night. The girl can’t see her expression—a sad smile on cracked lips. “Oh, deary. Nothing can save me now. Nothing but a good sharp knife.”
* * *
That night the girl woke in a sweat. “Mam?“ she called.
“Shut up.” Yabba turned over in the thick blackness. “Go to sleep.”
The girl eased up onto his elbows. Her shoulders were trembling. “Yabba?” she said, after several minutes. The word stuck in the dark like a tuft of wool. “Yabba, why’d Mam go?”
“I said, shut up.”
“Why’d she leave, Yabba?”
Yabba lurched up and dragged the younger girl over by the scruff of her neck.
“She weren’t our Mam! She weren’t nothing but a witch, you hear? A good-for-nothing witch. The townsfolk say she was troll’s wife ‘for she ran, and only witches make troll wives. Now shut up about it! I can’t take this no more. I can’t take your stupid talk. Tomorrow you get me something good like you used to, or I’ll burn this place down and run away and you can go house to house and see how they like you there.”
* * *
They found her the next day, face-down in the mud, a half-mile out of town. Something had attacked her on the road, torn her throat out. A lantern lay by her side, cracked open, oil dripping into the wagon ruts. It mingled with the blood, black and crimson.
There was no funeral. A group of townsfolk carried the body up the hill and dug a grave under the yew tree. No one came to mourn. Only a young girl was there, watching as the dirt rustled onto the white, white face.
* * *
Two days later, a constable stood at the door of the hovel, black boots in a mirror puddle, cape billowing in the drizzle.
“No use hiding in there, girl. There’s a town-full of witnesses seen you break into the Strevlov’s house yesterday.”
Yabba stood in the back, cowering. He shoved the girl forward. The girl looked up, her eyes huge.
“Why’d you do it?” the constable asked. “I know why you took the money, but why all those knives? You must have known you wouldn’t get away with selling them here.”
The girl picked herself up, and not looking at the constable. “I couldn’t get ’em no other way,” she said. Her voice was soft. “I had to get something, and I can’t walk far no more.”
“She’s crazy,” Yabba growled, stepping forward and then back again. “Go lock ‘er up. I can’t stand it.”
“You shut your mouth,” the constable barked. He didn’t take his eyes from the girl. His eyes were hard, but not all the way to the bottom. “You’re in a heap of trouble, my girl. Come. You’ll not be staying here.”
* * *
The girl lay in a dank cell. Wind whistled through the cracks in the gray daub-and-mottle walls. Water dripped from the ceiling. An iron bucket caught it with little plinks.
After a day or so, a key ground in the lock. The constable was there, boots freshly blacked.
“We found your stash, child. Up on the hill by old Sheema’s grave.”
The girl said nothing.
“How’d you get all those knives? From halfway ‘cross the country, some of them. And the one on top––from Lord Naryeshkin’s own larder. His castle’s seven leagues from here!”
The girl looked up at the man, then through him as if he were made of glass. She was seeing the tree, and Mam, and Mam was smiling at her, waving her on.
“It weren’t so far,” she said quietly. “I had boots then.”
Mr. Farringdale and Mr. Blake stood in Pemberton Street, hunched against the coal smoke and a driving green rain, peering at each other gravely.
“It was found with the gentleman?” Mr. Farringdale inquired. He was holding a small bundle of envelopes—tied with a red ribbon—and he was holding it very delicately, as if it were valuable, or a severed hand.
“It was,” said Mr. Blake. “And it is very odd. The writings, I mean. Fanciful and not particularly helpful. But perhaps they will shed some light on the matter for you. I thought you might read them and give me your opinion by tomorrow.”
Mr. Farringdale nodded and tucked the letters into his coat. Pemberton Street traffic drifted around the two men, strangely silent in the rain. Shadow-clouds rolled overhead. Behind Mr. Blake, in the police station, a grate clanged, echoing.
“I shall read them this evening,” said Mr Farringdale. “Though if they shed no light on the matter for you, I fear they will do very little for me. Good day.”
Mr. Farringdale touched his hat and hurried away up the street. The rain flew at his face, and it smelled of rust and chemicals.
* * *
Mr. Farringdale went to his lodgings in Aberlyne. His rooms were situated at the top of a steep, dim staircase in one of those old, narrow, complicated sorts of city-houses. Mr. Farringdale was only renting.
He lived in London officially, in a scrubbed brick three-story with a wife and two children. He was not there often, however. He was not here often either. He was wherever he had to be, for however long he was needed, and then he was elsewhere. His landlady did not call out to him as he climbed the stairs to his rooms.
He found the stove already lit upon undoing his door. He stamped the rain off. He filled himself a pot of tea and took off his overshoes, then his under-shoes. He hung up his coat.
The bundle of letters sat on a chair, the red ribbon glimmering softly in the stove-light.
Mr. Farringdale took his supper on a wobbly table, watching the rain dribble and worm down the windowpanes. He drank his tea.
Then he settled himself into a large threadbare chair and began to read . . .
* * *
February 15th, 1862
We are beginning to suspect we are not real people. I often feel I am made of wind and bits of ash, and that I cannot stand upright or all my bones will snap. Harry thinks he might be made from wax. He told me the other night that when he was standing too close to the candle in Mistress Hannicky’s study he thought his skin was going runny. He thought it all might drip away. Do you think we are not real people? Do you think we are changelings, perhaps?
Please write back.
It is very lonely here, and it is always raining. Harry is the only person I talk to, but he is very quiet. Some days I think Harry is lost. He tells me he is in a deep forest, even when he is directly beside me. I would call him silly, but then some days I feel as though the wind is singing to me and calling me away. What do you think, Papa? Do you ever suppose you do not belong in the place you are? Do you ever think you are not like all the people around you and that perhaps you should be somewhere else?
It is beginning to storm and thunder outside. I feel the rain all day long. Sometimes I feel like I am in the rafters, staring down at myself. I need to go before the others come in.
Do you think I might come home soon?
Your affectionate daughter,
P.S. Could you send me a stick of peppermint? I told the other girls you owned a factory that made peppermint sticks. They do not believe me, but perhaps if they did we would be friends. (?)
* * *
Mr. Farringdale frowned and set the letter aside. He picked up the next envelope. A reply. London address. Thick, creamy stock and monogrammed stationary. It was written very differently from the first letter. Where that one was spelled out in the jerking, uneven hand of a child, this one was all sharp points and swift lines, thin bits of ink, controlled.
* * *
March 6th, 1862
I was displeased to hear that school is not to your liking. It is, however, one of the finest in the country, and very expensive, and if you are sad I think it may well be because you are not trying to be happy. Have you spoken to the other children? Perhaps if you made an effort to become acquainted with the other little girls there, things would appear brighter.
Furthermore, your gloominess is little wonder when all you do is associate with Harry Snails. He is not a good sort. His own parents say so. He is mean and petty and you will do well to remember the reasons he was sent away. You would do well to choose a better friend.
I must be going now. I have no more to write. We shall see you at Christmas, and you shall have a rocking horse.
* * *
Mr. Farringdale read the letter again because it didn’t really seem like a reply. He wondered if perhaps the letters were out of order. But no, this was the reply, dated three weeks after the first letter from Pellinora. Mr. Farringdale took a sip of tea. He opened the next envelope and slid out its contents.
* * *
June 16th, 1862
The other children were beastly today, especially to Harry. They were throwing rocks at him. I told them not to. I told them Harry didn’t mean to be horrid. I know he can be. He can be dreadfully mean, but he has had such a hard life, what with going to India and being sick and alone for so long. I understand him, don’t you, Papa? He told the other children he didn’t want to go near the warm food or it would melt him from the inside out, and then when they didn’t believe him he began to call them names. When we were sent outside to take the air, that was when they started throwing the rocks. One cut Harry right over the eye and he bled a lot. They were throwing rocks at me, too, I don’t know why. I pulled Harry away then and we ran out onto the moor. They are very wild, these moors. Mistress Hannicky says we are never to go wandering there, but Papa, I was afraid they would hurt Harry to death! So we ran and ran over the moor. The ground is soft and strange there, Papa, like wet, mossy skin. We ran so long and then we came to the loveliest little pond, just sitting there in the middle of nowhere, lovely as you like. We couldn’t run anymore then. The other children weren’t following us and so Harry and I just sat down and cried.
The wind made me feel better after a while, but Harry is still angry.
I’m back now in school but I wish I didn’t have to be. Will you come and take me away? And Harry, too? It is so cold all the time. It is dreadfully cold, and they never build fires. The headmistress is very cruel. I don’t know why she will not build a fire.
Your affectionate daughter,
P.S. I think perhaps you forgot to read the post script on my last letter. Could you please send me a stick of peppermint? The other girls don’t believe me that you are rich. They think perhaps you’ve left me here, and that I’ll never leave again, but of course I’m coming home for Christmas. And Harry, too?
* * *
The next letter was from the father again. It had been sent only three days later.
* * *
October 15th, 1862
You will stay at Carrybruck until the term is out. You will attend to yourself, and what happens to Harry Snail is none of your concern. I hope you are not being a trial to the other children. We will discuss your further education in December when you are home.
* * *
Cold, thought Mr. Farringdale. He sipped his tea.
* * *
October 30th, 1862
We have a friend now, Papa! Here at school! He is a bit strange and quiet, but oh! a friend! He walks and talks with us. He says he saw us out on the moor that day, crying by the pond, and he followed us back, do you believe it? I think perhaps he is from one of the farms, but he is very interesting. He knows so much. He asked us what the trouble was, why we had been crying. So nice. We told him. We told him everything and how the other children were dreadful. We told him we thought we were perhaps ashes and wax and ought to be somewhere else. Do you know what he said? He said, it is not the children who are dreadful.
I only wish he would come inside sometimes. He always stays out. Perhaps it’s for the best, but I do feel sorry for him. He is always quite drenched from the rain. He did give us a new game to play, though. Up in the rafters. Harry and I will walk the beams, two at a time, heel-to-toe, one after another and try not to look down. If we look down we’ll fall. Jack (that’s the name of our new friend) watches from the windows.
Your affectionate daughter,
* * *
Again there was no reply from the father. Odd. The child wrote and wrote and no one answered. Mr. Farringdale thought of his own two children at home. Tousled heads and starched collars. He peered into the stove.
Then he sat up.
Tea. The next envelope.
* * *
November 5th, 1862
Jack (remember from my last letter? Our new friend?) says the funniest things. Sometimes I think he is a child, but sometimes I think he is someone else, too. Someone old. Just like us, Papa, just like me and Harry!
The other day we were talking with Jack late at night. He was outside and we were inside and we were whispering so as not to wake the other children.
“Aren’t people stupid?” Harry said, and Jack said, “Oh, yes! People are insufferable. When you become acquainted with them one by one they can be tolerated, but taken together one wants to slap them!”
Isn’t that funny? I’m not sure what it means, but I thought it was clever.
Jack sings, too, did I tell you? I don’t think I did. He doesn’t have a nice voice, but we don’t tell him because he can become quite cross and moody. He slaps Harry sometimes. So hard Harry falls. He pushes him. He pushes both of us and the other children, too. But he’s better than no one! He’s a good friend!
We are going to the moors tomorrow again, after the others have gone to sleep. Jack showed us a way out. A lose panel in the scullery girl’s pantry. We will go and dance on the moors, jack says.
Your affectionate daughter,
* * *
November 12th, 1862
I can see right through my hand. I wish you could be here. I’m quite sure I’m a fairy child. When the wind is very strong I feel it right through me, stirring my heart as if it all only little whirling particles. I feel I could fly away!
We don’t eat anymore, Harry and I. Jack says it’s silly to eat, so we don’t, and we’re not hungry anyway. No one notices. I thought we might get in trouble from the headmistress, but she doesn’t know.
Your affectionate daughter,
* * *
They found the panel in the scullery girl’s pantry. They nailed it closed. We can’t go out that way anymore. They found our soaked clothing, too. They don’t know they’re ours, but they will guess soon, I think. We will be in trouble.
Oh Daddy, take us away before we get in trouble! Please!
* * *
Mr. Farringdale unfolded the letters faster now, envelope by envelope. He could see Pellinora in his mind’s eye, scribbling away in the blue shadows of a somber country school, the tumbling rain outside and the wind howling over the sharp corners of the house. Mr. Farringdale wondered. He wondered who Harry Snails was, and why the mean and petty boy had been sent to the country. He wondered if this new friend Pellinora spoke of was imaginary or one of the farmhands, and he wondered if it made any difference.
Mr. Farringdale sipped his tea.
He slit open the next envelope.
* * *
(Ah, thought Mr. Farringdale. Another one from the father.)
I am most distressed by your letters. I found myself in Yorkshire yesterday on business and spoke to your headmistress. There is no one named Jack at your school. Not even a neighbor boy. And she is most disturbed by your and Harry’s habits,and the negative influence you are exerting on the other school children. She says you are often distant and rude and that you care very little for the cleanliness of your garments and your skin. You often ignore the other children, and she says you and Harry speak to each other as if there were the only souls in the world. Why must you be such a toil, so selfish?
You are leaving Carrybruck at Christmas and will not be going back. What Harry’s family do with him is none of my concern.
* * *
The next letter was very crumpled. It was blotched, too, great splatters over the ink, rain or perhaps tears. Mr. Farringdale frowned when he saw this and rose to tighten the window against a sudden draft of air from the street.
The dates were approaching the present. The night of the death, six days ago.
* * *
November 30th, 1862
You spoke to the headmistress? Why didn’t you tell me you were here? Did you not wish to speak to me? Are you very cross? We are not wicked children, Papa, I promise! If you saw, you would understand. I can barely hold this pen, so flimsy have my fingers become. In a day or two they will be little flakes and threads of bone. If you would only come and visit us! We are sorry we caused you distress. Christmas seems very far away.
Your affectionate daughter,
* * *
With shaking fingers, Mr. Farringdale undid the final envelope and slid out the paper. It was limp and wrinkled, showing all the signs of having been drenched in water or dropped in a puddle. The ink was faded in places, so much it was difficult to read. There was no address on it. No stamp or postmark.
* * *
December 24th, 1862
We are going to the pond. We are tired of the school and Jack agrees it will be best. You said in your last letter that Mistress Hannicky didn’t know of Jack. She doesn’t of course, and that is because Jack lives on the moors like I told you. He said Mistress Hannicky wouldn’t know him either way. He says he would frighten her. He is very pale, you see, and he has black spots on his cheeks like an old cracked mirror. I think it is perhaps from some terrible country disease that they do not have in the cities.
I must write quickly now. Jack says he will take care of everything. He will take care of you, too, he said, isn’t that nice? He has told us about it, and all will be well. We’re going out soon, into the night. There’s another way, a loose lock into the herb-garden behind the kitchens that the headmistress doesn’t know about. We’ll go out onto the moors and we’ll take off our shoes and in we’ll go for a little swim, Jack says! It won’t bother me, and Harry is made of wax. Wax is waterproof, isn’t it? Isn’t it what they seal bottles with?
Oh, Jack is calling now. Farewell, Papa! He is tapping at the window. Farewell!
* * *
Mr. Farringdale dropped the letter. He glanced about.
Then he put all the letters back in a heap and hurried to a cupboard. He rifled through newspapers, records, old correspondence. He came upon a file. He snapped it open briskly and took out a piece of paper.
Mr. Quitts: found dead on the morning of December 25th, 1862 in London.
Pellinora Quitts and Harry Snails: reported missing from communal breakfast table on December 25th, 1862, North Yorkshire.
It was a twelve hour journey by steam-train from Yorkshire to London. Never-mind that it would have been undertaken by two children in freezing December weather. They would never have made it to the station in Leeds let alone to London, to Mr. Quitts’ house, in the wee hours of the morning.
Who delivered that last letter to Mr. Quitts’ bedside, then, was not immediately evident.
* * *
“What do you wish me to say, Mr. Farringdale? That Mr. Quitt was killed by a ghost?”
“No, of course not, but can you explain to me how a man drowns when he is all alone in his house and asleep in bed? How he chokes on four pints of black and brackish water? Can you tell me this? And how the correspondence of both parties from a dozen months come to be lying on his bedside table? No, I think you cannot.”
“It is nonsense. What you tell the commissioner is none of my concern, but ghosts do not kill people.”
“Indeed. Well, it will be ruled suicide. I can tell you that already.”
“Very well, then.”
“. . . And the children? Pellinora and Harry? What became of them?”
“I thought you’d ask.”
“Of course I’d ask! What became of them? Were they found?”
“Found? No. Only their shoes. The school lies on the edge of the moors, Mr. Farringdale. There are many bogs and little holes there, some very deep. What look like silvery little ponds might be wells a hundred feet deep. They went searching for them when the notice came in from the headmistress. They had poles and bloodhounds. They dragged every pond and climbed into every crevice. But there was nothing. No bodies. Not a strand of hair. Only two pairs of shoes rowed up in the moss. Those children went out that night and there’s no telling what became of them. Just the wind out there now, the search-leader told me afterward. Only the wind.”
* * *
Mr. Farringdale caught a train to London the very next day. At the stop-over station in Bristol he bought a large striped box of peppermint sticks.
It is late July, and Nanny and Jane and Paris and I, though I am very small, are taking the steamer from Belmont, across a chugging blue sea, to a little white town on the coast. This is my first time going. Well, it isn’t really, but I don’t remember the other times; this is my first time going where I am clever enough to know about it, so I’m quite excited.
The steamer whistles and shears ahead, through water that picks at the sun and sparkles badly. I wave at Mama and Father on the shore, and so does Paris, and Jane and Nanny take out handkerchiefs and wave those.
I’m afraid I’ve mostly forgotten about the other summers I went. I only remember bits and pieces of them, like everything inside my head is a glass and I dropped it. I remember the great glossy mango leaves, and dripping lemonade pitchers, and sitting on a step and digging my toes into the hot, dry dust. I remember someone being scolded. But it is all rather indistinct. It doesn’t matter. Last year, quite without me noticing, I shot up like a little plant, and now I am very clever. I can do additions, and I can speak long sentences and not become confused. This summer, when I go to the white town on the coast, I am determined to remember everything.
* * *
We are staying with a Mistress Frobisher, who owns a pretty house a small ways outside of the white town, about a mile from the sea. We had to take a wagon to get there and Nanny’s trunk opened when the farmer loaded it up, and all her clothes fell into the road. It made everyone laugh, except Nanny. The house, I noted when we arrived, had a red roof and white-washed walls and blue, sun-baked shutters. We have only one neighbor, though there are other, similar white cottages scattered along the road leading toward the town.
Mistress Frobisher is a very proper, buttoned-up sort of lady. She is a friend of Mama’s, I think, though she is not a friend of ours. I don’t know why she is Mother’s friend. Perhaps because she has such a nice house. When we arrived, she straightaway gave us a list of rules:
Don’t be too long in the sun, or you’ll bake.
Don’t touch scorpions or bees or anything with teeth.
Don’t track dust into the house.
Don’t scream, or speak too loudly.
And certainly don’t wander by yourself. Not in the tall grass, or in the road. Not anywhere.
I noticed Jane and Paris glancing at each other at that, and smirking, and I glanced and smirked, too, but they didn’t look at me.
* * *
I met Jintzy on my third day after arriving at the white town by the sea.
I had decided to wander by myself, which of course was number five on the list of things I was not allowed to do. We were in a hot part of the country, and Nanny had warned us that there were snakes in the brush, and large spiders, and possibly lions. But I was tired of sitting about on the front step and waiting for Paris and Jane to do something interesting, and since I am six now, I went off behind the house when no one was looking and hurried away into the canopy of green and leaves that edges the back garden.
I wandered for quite a while. I passed a sad little gurgle of a brook, climbed over great boulders, went ever deeper into the green woods. The air buzzed with insects, and the leaves were huge as giants’ faces. The trunks of the trees did not only have bark on them like they did back home, but were also wrapped with snaking vines and clumped with mushrooms. I saw a lizard, and it saw me and blinked. And then I came to a field. There was a cottage in the field. It was a plain, stone cottage with plants climbing the crooked walls. A woman was out front, tending to a patch of a garden. She was dressed in bright, flow-y clothes and she had a cloth wrapped around her head, like a turban. Her stockings were very colorful, red and orange and purple braid, with plenty of frills and bobbins. The woman was far too old to be showing stockings. She was surely twenty, or forty-three. But I didn’t mind. I thought she looked wonderful. She was singing to herself, very prettily, in a high, piercing voice:
Rosa, Rosa, lived by the sea
Alone in a cottage built for three.
She never sang and she never danced.
She wouldn’t said why, and I know she can’t.
Rosa, Rosa sat in the dark
And gnashed her teeth and broke her heart.
She never ate, and when she did
It was air and shadows and things she hid.
Rosa, Rosa, come away quick
They’ll catch you, they’ll catch you and beat you with sticks.
Live in the shadows or die in the sun.
Eat seventy pastries, it’s better than none.
But Rosa, Rosa stayed by the sea
And they came, and they caught her; they broke her knees. . . .
Now Rosa lives in a new house by the sea.
It’s white and it’s lovely, ‘s’got forty-three keys.
It has so many toys, and it’s so much fun.
But the cottage is built just for one.
I suppose whoever wrote the words to that song was quite silly, but I liked the sound of it. The melody was sad, and it curled in the air like silver silk.
I wandered closer.
The woman did not see me. She worked away, plucking beans from soft green tendrils and poking about in the dirt with her stick, and all in such a lively happy way, like everything was her friend. She continued to sing, now something about a cloud and a sailboat and cockroaches. And then, all at once, a large, hairy animal rounded the corner of the cottage. It spotted me, standing in the field. It was a dog, and it began to bark.
I had such a fright. My heart leaped right into my throat and I turned tail fast as I could and fled back to the trees. I did not stop until I was sure the dog was not following me. Then I crept back to the edge of the woods and peered through the leaves at the cottage.
The colorful woman was still working in her patch, picking beans, poking with her stick. . . But although she was very far away I was almost sure she was smiling to herself, a small, secret smile.
* * *
I got a little bit lost on the way home. I walked through those hot green leaves, on and on until I came to a river. It was not the gurgling brook I had encountered on the way there. It was very wide, and I had to cross it on some strange, knuckly sort of logs that moved and shifted under my weight. I found the road again shortly afterward. All would have been well, except Mistress Frobisher was cross when I got back. She had been fretting. So had Nanny. They thought I might have been eaten by crocodiles, the sillies. They both seem to be quite unaware of my developments.
I told Nanny and Mistress Frobisher about the cottage and the lovely, colorful woman, tending the garden patch.
I didn’t think anything of telling them; I supposed I thought if Nanny and Mistress Frobisher knew I had been near people and houses they would not be so frightened, but it was not so. Nanny and Mistress Frobisher exchanged hard, quick glances, and then Mistress Frobisher took hold of my arm very cruelly and said, “You must never go there again. Wicked child.”
I began to cry when she said it, though I didn’t want to. I tried to twist away. “Why not?” I asked.
“It’s Jintzy’s place. You must never go there.”
And then Nanny asked the same question I had, but this time Mistress Frobisher had a better answer:
“Much speculation over that woman,” said Mistress Frobisher, wagging her finger. “By the townsfolk. Much speculation. One time, as I was walking that way collecting- well, collecting things, I saw a goat in the window of her house! A goat, looking right at me, saucy as you like!”
I did not tell Nanny or Mistress Frobisher that the only window I had seen was on the left side of the house, half-hidden behind a twisted, bushy tree, and that Mistress Frobisher would practically have had to press herself to the wall to see in. I said nothing at all.
* * *
Today, Mistress Frobisher took Paris and me to the town to see a collection of performers throw things about in the dusty square. Jane and Nanny stayed behind at the cottage because Jane was complaining of dizziness and nervousness.
We set off just after tea. Paris had run ahead a little way. I was with Mistress Frobisher and she was holding my hand. She thinks I am still a baby, I know it.
We were about halfway to the town, walking under the arching boughs of some trees when we met Jintzy on the road. She was coming from the opposite direction, and it was the first time I had seen her up close. From a distance she had already looked tall and lovely, but up close she was simply magical.
She was like a fairy queen, or a princess out of a storybook. She had a strange, beautiful face, and her eyes were slanted and very bright, as if there were bits of stars in them. Her hair was tied up in a scarf, and as she came up the road toward us, her colored sashes swished in the summer breeze.
“Hello, Mistress Frobisher!” Jintzy called out. She smiled at Mistress Frobisher and then at me, and I thought she smiled at me best.
“Hello,” said Mistress Frobisher stiffly. We paused.
And then Jintzy fixed her flashing eyes on me and clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Who have we here? What a darling little person!”
“I’m actually six,” I corrected her gravely.
“Of course you are.” Jintzy’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Silly me.” And then she dropped down in the road in front of me and whispered in my ear, “In fact, I shouldn’t wonder if your cow is a bit jealous of you, what with such a wonderful age as six. You must be very careful not to let her know.”
“My cow?” I said, pulling away, aghast and giggling both at once. “What d’you- ?”
“Shh.” Jintzy put her fingers to her lips. Her eyes were laughing, and I was laughing, too, but when I looked up at Mistress Frobisher, her mouth was like an iron pincer, shut tight.
I stopped laughing. For a moment there was only the chirp of birds. Then Mistress Frobisher said, “Come along, child,” sharp as a pin, and pulled me away from Jintzy. But Mistress Frobisher didn’t begin walking. She simply clutched at me, and we stood in the road, very still.
“Well,” Jintzy said, standing and brushing the dirt from her green and purple knees. “Good day to you, Mistress Frobisher. And you.” Jintzy smiled at me. Then she went on down the road, soft-foot in the puddles and the moss, stockings flashing in the sunlight.
Mistress Frobisher and I stood there a while longer. I looked up at her, confused. She was squeezing my hand very hard.
Finally she gasped, “Those stockings!” and tut-tutted, and pulled me on down the road, so sharply that I protested.
* * *
Today there is a carousel by the sea and we each have a little stub of ticket to go. I’m practically bursting with anticipation for it all. I have never been on a carousel before. Well, I have, but I was a baby then.
Jane, Paris and I all set off in a giggling, skipping gaggle, like a bunch of geese. We are the color of geese, too, in our white linens and stockings, starched and stiff as new paper.
We ran away up the dusty road, far ahead of Nanny and Mistress Frobisher.
“You’ll never catch me!” shouted Paris. “I’m the fastest.”
“No, you’re simply the loudest,” laughed Jane. And then they put their heads together and began whispering to each other and laughing.
I watched, a few steps behind. And then, because I did not know what they were saying and wanted to be a part of it by saying something scandalous, I said, “Jintzy called Mistress Frobisher a cow.”
I said it loudly, because I wanted to be sure they heard the first time, but I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher and Nanny had caught up quite a lot. I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher was standing directly behind me. I realized it very quickly, however, and turned. I looked up at her face and then down at my shoes.
Mistress Frobisher said nothing. She stared at me, her mouth like the iron pincers again. Then she said, “On with you. Get to the sea,” and we children went running up the road as quick as we could. When we rounded a bend, out of sight of Nanny and Frobisher, Paris cuffed me for saying nonsense in front of grown-ups.
* * *
The carousel was grand. For several minutes after the incident with Mistress Frobisher, and after Paris cuffed me, I felt sure the day would be spoilt and that I should be forced to pout for the rest of it. But then Paris, who is such a jolly-jolly, laughed and pinched my arm, and said,”Oh, come now, she is a cow, you just mustn’t say it so loudly or she’ll begin to suspect,” and I laughed and joined Jane and Paris and rode the carousel four times around, which made me quite proud.
One of the little boys fell off. That made me even prouder. I didn’t fall off, and he was just a baby. I held on very tightly.
* * *
On the way home from the carousel, something dreadful happened. Nanny had taken off her shoes to sit with her feet in the sea and she had not buttoned them up all the way for the journey home. And then, as she was walking, she twisted her ankle in the rut on the side of the road and because her boots were very loose, she broke it, the ankle, with a sound like a snapping twig. She screamed very loudly. We children stopped, startled, and were very concerned for her. Mistress Frobisher soothed her and tutted and ran to the nearest house to ask for a buggy and a donkey or a mule of some sort.
She came back with Mr. Brock.
He leaped down into the ditch and tried to help Nanny up, and that was when I saw there was blood on Nanny’s shoe and on her stocking.
I stepped a little closer to Paris.
“What the bl- “ started Mr. Brock, and Mistress Frobisher gave him a warning scowl and jerked her head in our direction, because she did not want him to curse in front of us.
“Look at it,” he grumbled, into his beard. “Look what she stepped in. It’s a small cage!”
And it was. Nanny’s foot had slipped down the side of the root and gotten caught in a little cage, and the wires had caught on her skin.
We were still trying to grasp this, and what it meant, when I saw Jintzy, ambling up the road. She was wearing green stockings today, with little brass bells jingling up their sides, and she had a ring of flowers in her hair, and a basket on her arm.
“Oh dear!” she said, when she saw Nanny crying and screaming in the ditch. Jintzy dropped her basket and ran toward our little group.
We children made way for her right away. But Mistress Frobisher hissed like a cat, and Mr. Brock growled, and said, “We don’t want your help here, keep going.” And so Jintzy did. She gave us children a quick, sad smile, like she was sorry Mr. Brock was such an oaf, and gathered up her basket and all the things that had fallen out of it, and went on down the road without a word.
* * *
“Too much strangeness,” Mistress Frobisher said to our neighbor over the fence that evening. The light was golden and hazy. Nanny was in the kitchen, her foot up and a cold cloth on her forehead. Paris and Jane were writing letters home. I was playing in the acacia tree and I don’t think Mistress Frobisher knew I was there.
“That wicked woman,” she was saying. “It’s her doing, no doubt about it.”
I wondered what wicked woman they were talking about. Wicked people were very interesting.
“I heard she catches little animals with those cages. And what does she do with them, I wonder. It’s anyone’s guess. Imagine if a child should fall in. Living in that cottage all by herself. With a goat. There’s something wrong with that one.”
“Aye,” the neighbor agreed.
“First Jane and then Nanny and then your wife, only days afterward, falling down a hole and skewering her hands.”
“She fell down the hole in Barmsalid- ” the neighbor began, but Mistress Frobisher just said, “It simply can’t be coincidence. It’s too much!”
I watched them both very closely through the knobby branches, and I listened very sharply. But then they started talking of children and the price of coffee and it became rather dull.
I shrugged and left the acacia bush and went and played in the back.
* * *
At dinner, Jintzy was brought up again, this time by Jane. She said, “Jintzy was in our yard today. I was out reading by the orange tree and she passed me and said it was shortcut to the road and she hoped I didn’t mind. I said of course I didn’t.”
I scowled at Jane. I would have preferred it if I had been in the garden then, and that Jintzy had asked me. But I had hardly any time to think about it, because Mistress Frobisher sat straight up in her chair and screeched, “Good heavens, child, you didn’t! Strangers on our property? What were you thinking?”
Then I was glad Jane had met her instead of me.
“Jintzy’s practically our neighbor,” Paris said reasonably, trying to help out Jane, who was beginning to fumble. “She’s not exactly a stranger.”
But Mistress Frobisher would have none of it. “No! She is a dreadful creature, and everyone agrees. The neighbors and half the town. Laila Ishkeri said Jintzy might well be throwing curses at folk, making people ill and making them hurt.” She nodded at Nanny’s foot, which was still very swollen. “Of course, she doesn’t do it directly. Not in plain in sight. She’s far too clever for that. But Mirka said there was shadow on her window one night, and there’s been talk of creeping things in the town.” Mistress Frobisher narrowed her eyes and when she spoke the next words her mouth was red and wet, like a wound: “If she comes again tell her to put on some reasonable shoes and to take the road like everyone else. It simply doesn’t do to be nice to certain people.”
I thought that very interesting. After a while of silence, I said, “I like Jintzy.”
“No, you don’t!” screamed Mrs. Frobisher. “You’re just a child. You haven’t learnt anything yet, and you don’t know how the world works.”
I thought this very insulting. I was six. I knew about a lot of things, like additions and carousels, and I wasn’t like that baby who had fallen off. I don’t know what Mistress Frobisher was talking about, ‘hadn’t learned’.
* * *
It was Saturday when the most startling part of the summer happened. I had not expected anything startling. I had expected lemonade and peppermint leaves and dust, but I had not expected this.
I was helping Nanny shell peas in the kitchen when I heard it. Her ankle was up on the chair. “A ghoul!” came the shout through the window, faint and dull, but coming closer. “A ghoul in the town hall!”
I sat up so fast Nanny startled and winced, because I may have bumped her ankle.
“What?” I demanded. I hurried quick to the window.
People were in the road, running toward the town. The neighbor woman was stumbling out of her house, tying down her bonnet, and others in the road wore no bonnets at all, and looked quite disheveled and in a great hurry. It was a bright, hot day. Someone, I couldn’t see who, kept screaming, “Ghoul! Ghoul! Ghoul in the town hall!”
I did not know what a ghoul was, though I had heard them mentioned in vague terms in stories. In a flash, I had unlatched the window and was leaning out on my tip-toes.
“A what?” I screamed at the passing people. “What’s a ghoul?” But just then I saw Mistress Frobisher in the crowd, her face gray and determined, like a soldier off to war. When she saw me, she said, “Stay with Nanny, child! Inside with you!” And then she passed by and went along with everyone else.
“Nanny, what is a ghoul?” I asked, hurrying back to her side. I couldn’t stand not knowing. “What is it?”
Nanny was distracted. She kept glancing at the window, and picking at the same pea-pod over and over. “It’s a dreadful, terrible thing,” she said, her eyes darting. “Oh, dear, it’s born of shadows and witchcraft. It eats the dead, I heard, eats their bones and eats their eyes.”
Immediately I thought of the conversation I had overheard in the acacia tree, of the shadows in the town and the creeping things. I thought of Jintzy, and what Mistress Frobisher had been saying about her being a witch. I hoped it wasn’t Jintzy’s ghoul. I hoped she was all right in her little cottage behind the woods.
But even if it was Jintzy’s ghoul, I had to see it for myself. I was six.
I waited until Nanny was very distracted and then fled right out of the kitchen and out the front door. Then I was off, my little feet kicking up scuds of dust from the road.
I came to the town quickly. The houses looked bare and shut-up. No one was out. I raced into the square. It was there I found the townsfolk, crowds of them, jostling and screaming in front of the government hall.
“What is it?” I screamed, worming under arms and around legs. “Where’s the ghoul?”
I saw Paris, standing a bit to the side. “Have you seen it?” I shouted, running up. “Have you seen the ghoul?”
“Yes!” Paris exclaimed, turning to see me. “At least, I think I did. Oh, it’s dreadful. You can’t even imagine. It has so many arms and legs, and they have too many joints, and it has three heads. One’s lovely, and one’s sleeping, and one’s squished like cabbage, and the skin is green and rotting and has so many teeth!”
Paris would have said more, but just then the crowd surged forward and we were separated. I was bounced about until my head felt quite numb. I kept hearing, “How dreadful! Oh, I do hope they kill it! Oh, look!” And while I tried to look, everyone else was much taller, and so I only heard. Dreadful shrieks were coming from the town hall, through the open door. The sound was echoing and bouncing up the white fronts of the buildings and into the bells in the church tower.
Someone shouted, “Be gone! Be gone, evil creature!”
And then I heard a gasp, and everyone—all the tall people—went stock-still.
“The ghoul has been transformed!” the shouting voice said. “The ghoul has taken on the form of one of the townsfolk!” It took me several seconds to realize the voice was Mistress Frobisher’s.
“Who?” whispered the crowd. “Who did it change into?”
“That woman!” came the answer. “That Jintzy from behind the woods!”
And that was when pandemonium broke out for sure and certain. The crowd pushed me right into the hall, and I saw Jintzy, or what looked like Jintzy, for a split second, only her hair was disheveled and there was blood on her lip. I saw her bright stockings flashing. I did not see her eyes. They were closed, perhaps in pain. And then one of the ladies caught me and dragged me outside, saying, “Away with you. The ghoul might enchant you straight out of your senses.”
I was brought back to the cottage. Everything seemed dry as a husk. The sun beat down, unbearably hot now. The screams died away.
Later that evening Mistress Frobisher said that the ghoul had been subdued and had been buried with iron and salt and a stake through its wicked heart, that it would not disturb these parts again. And what a vile creature it was, taking on the form of a citizen.
Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief as we sat down to our peas and pheasant stew. But I couldn’t eat, and I still thought it was too hot, and my collar scratched, and all I wanted to do was go to my room and lie on my bed, though I couldn’t say why.
Just before she brought us to the kitchen for ours baths, Nanny turned to Mistress Frobisher and said, “Rosa, hand me the lamp, won’t you?”
* * *
I never saw Jintzy after that. The times I slipped away from Nanny and Mistress Frobisher and went to her cottage it looked quite bare and desolate, and the garden grew wild, and the half-hidden window disappeared entirely behind the twisted, bushy tree. I wondered often if Jintzy had moved away due to the trouble with the ghoul.
There were six things Mabel Mavelia could not abide. The first was toast, the second was tea, the third was parakeets, all sorts, the fourth was her father, the fifth was her mother, and the sixth was the great, tall house on Curliblue Street, in which they had made her live. She hated that one most of all. By way of rebellion she had locked herself in the attic.
She had been fighting with her mother. The fight had begun in the dining room, escalated in the stairwell, and had exploded into a frightful burst of screaming in the third story hallway.
“Why can’t we go back!” Mabel had screeched. “I don’t like it here! I don’t want to live here, and why do we only do what you and father want? What about me?”
“Oh, oh,” Mabel’s mother had said, coming after her, great silk bustles dragging. She was rather breathless, and she kept wringing her hands and reaching out toward Mabel, as if she could not decide which gesture might be more useful. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry. I know the city isn’t what you’re used to, but- Well, if you would only give it some time- “
“No. I want to leave.”
Then Mabel had dashed up the attic stairs and had come upon a little door. Mabel had never seen the door before—the Mavelias had only just moved into the house on Curliblue Street—but there was a key already in the lock, and so Mabel had snatched it, waited until her mother was only steps away, and then had screamed and slammed the door with great gusto and twisted the key twice ’round.
“I’m not coming down, and I’m not opening the door, ever.” she shouted at the door. “Also, I hate you.”
Mabel was a strange child. She was sickly and pale, like salt, but a bit sharper, and her gray eyes were so huge in her thin little face that she looked to be in a perpetual state of bewilderment. She was not a bewildered child, though. No. Mabel knew exactly what she wanted, or thought she did, and she knew exactly what she hated, or thought she did. She hated her parents and she hated the house on Curliblue Street.
She stared about the attic, her hands clenched at her sides. It was an ugly room, squeezed under the eaves. There was a window with four frosty panes in the roof, a desk, and a wooden chair without a cushion. The wallpaper was yellow.
Mabel went to the chair and sat down. She listened for a sound from the other side of the door, but there wasn’t one. Her mother had already left, tutting and smoothing her curls.
Mabel scowled out the window. The City. Chimneys and gables as far as the eye could see, hills and valley and forests of rooftops, rolling on forever. The sky was a gray swirl overhead, like a windstorm about to descend. Mabel hoped a windstorm would descend. She hoped it would sweep the City up and fling into a dustbin and the dustbin would go to an incinerator and. . . and that Mabel would escape suddenly and miraculously and everyone else would become victims of the conflagration.
Give it time, Mabel thought bitterly. She didn’t want to give it time. She didn’t know anyone in Curliblue Street. The people were all tall and gaunt and gray-faced to her, and the city was vast and anonymous, and her new school was full of starched, sallow-faced children who stared at her like cows. Or like her dolls. She always put her dolls in the corner when they looked at her like that, but it was not allowed to put other children in corners.
Far, far below, in the nice part of the house with its red drapes and bric-a-brac, Mabel thought she she heard sounds––the clink of silverware, laughter and conversation. Dinner, going on without her. The sounds made her sad. And then angry. They shouldn’t be talking and eating without her. It wasn’t fair. They should be sad, too, sad about living in this horrid city, sad about living on Curliblue Street. She rapped her knuckles on the desk.
The sound echoed in the room like a pistol-crack. Mabel jerked a little in her chair. She peered over her shoulder. It was perhaps not a very good place to be, she realized. The room was very small. The yellow wallpaper was very hideous. And there was no light, and evening was creeping across the city outside. It was becoming quite gloomy.
Mabel looked about, huge eyes darting. She wasn’t going to be afraid. She was going to stay up here until her parents begged her to come down again. “We’ll bring you back to Heretofore, darling! Whatever you want, only please, please come down.”
But her parents didn’t come up, and so Mabel hated them so much she could practically feel the hate dripping off her skin.
After a while, it began to get very dark in the attic. Almost pitch-black. The only light came from the four small panes in the roof.
Mabel got up to pace. She wasn’t about to leave. But it was getting so very dark. And the door was locked.
She circled the room. She felt the wind tickling across the roof-tiles, like spider’s legs.
She ran her hand over the yellow wallpaper. It was rough and old and rather nasty. She tugged at a rip in it. A long strip of it came away in her hand. And then she saw that there was no wall behind it. No boards or plaster. There was nothing. Emptiness.
Behind the thin layer of yellow wallpaper, was another room. A conservatory of sorts, made of glass and full of foliage and flowers. The flowers were very odd to look at. Some were brightly colored, others were gray like rotting meat. They stretched on for what seemed like forever. There were little contraptions, too, like mechanics. Little hands to pat the soil, and little glass tubes to measure the fertilizer, and little chicken-footed watering cans to water the roots. A puff of warm air flew into Mabel’s face and blew back her hair. It was thick air, heavy with damp and earthy smells.
Mabel slipped through the gash in the wallpaper and wandered forward.
She hadn’t known there was a conservatory in the house on Curliblue Street. It wouldn’t have made anything better, but at least her parents could have told her about it. It was just like them, not telling her the good parts.
She stooped in front of a flower shaped like begging hands and sniffed it. She thought it smelled like laziness. She went on to the next one, a rose with an eye at the middle.
And then, all at once, a boy with golden hair stepped from behind a particularly large potted fern and stared at her.
Mabel’s heart leaped. She stared back at him, like a rabbit. Her face twitched a little bit. She didn’t like the look of that boy. He was younger than she was, and yet he had a tiresomely clever, self-satisfied face and golden curls that would take Mabel hours to put up. Mabel thought the boy looked rather haughty.
She regained her composure and lifted her chin. “What’s your name?” she demanded.
The boy said nothing for a second. Then he moved away suddenly, darting among the plants. “Mr. Pittance,” he called, and laughed.
“You’re not old enough to be a Mr. Anything,” Mabel snapped. She really could not abide children who made a show of themselves. She would have to add that to her list.
“Am I not?” the boy asked. And just before he disappeared behind the thick trunk of a tree, he looked at her, an odd sparkle in his eye.
Mabel watched the boy carefully, every move, every swing of his darting hands. When he passed close by again, Mabel made a move to catch him. “What is this place?” she asked, running after him. “Tell me at once. Am I in the next house over? Did I cross the partition wall by accident?”
“No. It is still your house.”
Oh, good, Mabel thought. “Well, what are you doing in our attic then? Are you a thief? Does my mother know you’re in our greenhouse?”
“Your greenhouse?” The boy popped up from behind a pot and peered at her. “It isn’t yours.”
“Yes, it is. It’s in my attic.”
“It’s my skin garden.”
“No, it isn’t, it’s- ” Mabel stopped short. “Your what?”
“My skin garden,” the boy repeated. He stood and lifted a silver watering can labeled “Pity” and laid its spout gently against the roots of a plant. Purple liquid dribbled out and the dirt drank it thirstily.
“What- ?” Mabel cleared her throat. “What’s a skin garden?” It would have been nicer to continue quarreling, but curiosity had gotten the best of her and there was nothing she could do about that.
“It is where I plant things.” the boy said.
“What do you plant?” Mabel glanced around her, at the leaves and up at the ceiling. The night pressed against the glass above. She wondered if her parents would come looking for her now.
“Oh, I plant everything,” the boy said. “Kisses, and faces, and words, and sorrows, and bits of fingernails, and flakes of skin. Drops of tears, and blots of ink, and horrid mistakes and mortifying secrets.”
Mabel squinted at him. It seemed very fanciful.
“It’s my job,” the boy went on. “I make them grow.”
“You’re not old enough to have a job. And no one wants their mortifying secret to grow anyway. What a stupid sort of job.” She hoped that would wipe the haughtiness from the little boy’s face. She was suddenly glad her father had a dull, respectable place at a bank. Perhaps she could throw that at the boy shortly.
“But surely they do,” the boy said, wandering away. “Why would they keep them if they did not want them to grow?”
“Keep what? No one keeps their bits of fingernails.”
“But they grow, don’t they?”
Mabel frowned at the boy’s back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Does fath- does Mr. Mavelia pay you?”
“So you steal these things?”
“You said no one keeps their fingernails anyway.”
Mabel chased after him. She’d had quite enough now. Everything the boy said made a tiny, flitting bit of sense, and then she didn’t understand it at all. Well, Mabel decided to be just as annoying to the little boy as he was to her.
“I bet you don’t make much money. What happens once they’ve grown? The plants. What’s the point?”
“Well,” the boy said. “Everyone has a flower, and- “
“Everyone in the world? Here? In my attic?”
“Don’t interrupt. Everyone has a flower and I simply make the flower grow the way they want it to.”
“Oh.” Mabel thought for a second. Then, “What would happen if you cut them? What would happen if you took those scissors there. . .” She stabbed a finger at a pair of silver shears. “. . .and snipped them all down and made them into a bouquet?”
“What odd thoughts children have,” the boy said quietly, but he did not answer her question, which made Mabel even more curious and more angry.
“Here,” he said, and opened a little box. “I see you don’t understand at all. You may watch me.”
From the box he took three small objects. One appeared to be a handful of words, like printer’s blocks. Another was a few ribbons of musical notes. And the last was a pearl, black as a dead man’s heart.
“See here? I have three things from this house. Your mother read a book, and I do believe it will stay with her many years. And here is the song your father heard the other day on Fangdiddy Street,. There was a gypsy boy with a three string violin, and the sound of it touched your father’s heart like a knife. And here are the words you told your parents, yesterday over breakfast.”
Mabel saw the blob of black, like a spider, wriggling, trying to escape across the boy’s hand.
“You’re going to plant that?” she asked. She didn’t know which words they were, but they probably weren’t very good ones.
“Why? No, don’t. I don’t want you to.”
The boy went to a flower and dropped the blob into its roots. It sank in slowly, but then all at once, and was gone, and the flower drooped such a little bit.
“Was that my flower?” Mabel flew to his side. “Was that me?” She felt a bit panic-stricken, though she couldn’t say why.
The flower was frayed and gloomy around the edges. Mabel’s first thought was to be insulted. But then she saw the center of the flower. It was red—a lovely, rich red. It made Mabel happy to see it. She stood there in her white dress and smiled a little bit. “It’s very nice,” she said softly.
“Hmm,” the boy said. “It’s not much to look at. The petals need work.” He turned away. It was a simple motion, perhaps not even intended as a slight, but it stung Mabel. She frowned at his back. He was such a short thing. She wanted to clobber him.
“Do you have a flower?” she asked suddenly.
“Of course!” The boy’s face lit up. “Come, let me show you.”
He took Mabel by the hand and drew her toward the far end of the skin garden, to a glass dome veined with spider-web wires. Under it was a single marble pot, and in the pot was the most magnificent flower Mabel had ever seen.
“That’s yours,” she stated, and she said in a flat way because the instant she saw it she was overcome with a deep, wriggling envy. The boy’s flower was far prettier than hers. Its petals were blue, speckled with gold, and its leaves were such a dark green that they were almost black, glossy and smooth as eels. At the flower’s center was a glittering poof of golden pollen, like a brooch pinning a marvelous bow.
The boy walked around it proudly.
Mabel stared at him, and then at the flower. She looked sullen. She was not being sullen, though. Mabel Mavelia’s mind was clicking like a typewriter. She couldn’t stand that boy just then. His nose was in the air, and he had such a perfect know-it-all face, and she hated his careful garden, and she hated that he had a job even though he was just a baby, and she hated everything.
Before she knew what she was doing, Mabel took up the shears on the little chair and charged toward the great flower. The boy’s eyes widened. Mabel’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. She came to the flower and snipped it right through the center. It was like cutting a snake in half. The skin was thick, and as soon as the blades sheared through it a wash of red liquid oozed out, dark and slow.
Mabel turned, breathless, smiling in triumph.
But the boy was just standing there, a look of abject terror on his pale face. He raised a hand, as if to grasp Mabel, as if to stop her. But then the flower fell, its petals tickling Mabel’s neck, and the boy fell, too. He had been cut clean in half.
Mabel’s glee faded a little bit. And then it turned to fear. The boy didn’t have bones and blood inside him. He had many little birds and little music notes and little hopes and dreams, glimmering like stars. And when he fell they all dissipated, flying into the skin garden and vanishing among the leaves.
Mabel dropped the shears. They clattered to the floor. She spun, as if she were afraid someone might have seen her. The flower continued to ooze. And then she heard noises, voices calling her, and something inside her snapped. She picked up the two empty halves of the boy and dragged them to the dirt and laid him in the soft earth. The flower’s ooze was all over her, on her hands and face. She scrabbled and dug. Then she patted the dirt over the boy’s eyes and fled through the garden, under the glass mullioned roofs, past plant after plant that seemed to grasp at her as she went. She came to the wallpaper, slashed through it. She fled the attic and went down the stairs.
Her mother spotted her in the hallway, her little sash disappearing into her bedroom.
“Mabel, dear?” her mother called, but Mabel didn’t stop. She was too busy trying to wipe the plant’s blood from the front of her white pinafore, but it wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t hide it.
* * *
Upstairs, behind the little door, behind the yellow wallpaper, Mabel’s flower stretched its roots into the dirt toward a pale hand buried there. The hand had begun to grow roots, too, from its fingertips and from under its nails. The finger-roots met the flower-roots. Slowly, it began to wrap itself around them.
* * *
The next morning Mabel woke with a start. She’d had such a terrible dream. Her heart was still heavy with it, heavy as a stone. She got up and walked about her room. It was regular, hideous, she thought, with its silly paintings and its silly fireplace. And then she remembered the boy and the dirt closing over his staring eyes. She hurried upstairs and peered into the little attic. It looked quite harmless. The yellow wallpaper was slashed, but there were only boards behind it.
“Mr. Pittance,” she called. “Mr. Pittance?” And then, quietly. “I suppose I’m sorry. I did not want to, but I was so angry with you! Please don’t be dead!”
But if there was a skin garden on the other side of the wall, it did not show itself. Mabel didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified. If there was a skin garden there was also a beautiful flower with gold-speckled leaves lying on the floor, and a chopped stem, and a little boy with golden hair, buried in the earth together with a pair of shears. And if there wasn’t. . .
Mabel shuddered. She looked out the window. She went to it and sat down and thought.
It was all just a dream. It had to be. She watched the milkmen and the ice-men and the automobiles clogging the streets, and watched the smoke rise from the chimney forests, and it was all so deliciously normal that it convinced her she had done nothing wrong. She had only dreamed it.
She went downstairs and had breakfast with her parents.
* * *
Dinner time in the Mavelia household was salad. Mr. Mavelia had become taken by a new craze, which was to eat only salads and drink prune juice for as long as was humanly possible. Mabel’s mother approved of this craze. Mabel did not.
Dinner was served by the maid. She brought in the tureens, three silver dishes with silver domes. She laid them on the table, one for Father, one for Mother. . .
Mabel got hers, a specially sized little dome with a glass of water, and a glass of prune juice, black as gutter water.
The maid lifted Mabel’s dome with a flourish. And for an instant, Mabel thought there was hand on the bed of salad inside, a pale hand reaching out of the puff of lettuce and onions. Mabel gagged. She tipped from her chair, about to be sick.
“Mabel!” her mother exclaimed and rushed her upstairs, and so Mabel was sick upstairs instead of downstairs.
* * *
Mabel woke that night, ice-cold. She had heard a sound, and it was not a good sound. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Something was hovering over her bed. A monstrous plant, its long, thorny arms coiling and snaking, black in the night. It had come in through the doorway, and Mabel could see its hide glistening in the hall and all the way up the attic stair. And in the plant, skewered on its thorns, was the boy, Mr. Pittance.
“Go away!” Mabel shrieked. “Leave me alone! I did not mean to! I did not want to!”
“Oh, you did want to,” the boy said, and his angelic face was no longer kind. “You planted me in the skin garden, well, come and pick the fruit that grew.” And here he held out his hand, and in it was what looked like an apple, only it wasn’t an apple, it was a bloody, beating heart.
Mabel leaped from her bed. She took up the lamp and lit it with trembling fingers and hurled it at the boy and the writhing vines. They burst into flames. So did the drapes. The smoke came fast and thick, and then the screams, and Mabel was bundled out into the freezing street, coughing and crying.
* * *
The house on Curliblue Street burned to the ground. Mabel’s parents took her to see a series of doctors. They thought it necessary. Because whenever Mabel looked up or down or anywhere at all, she saw plants climbing the walls of her schoolroom, or filling the streets and choking the City, and the flowers in Pimlico Park always had little mouths with little red tongues, and Mabel could not eat vegetables or fruits because they turned to golden hair in her mouth. She became ill. And then, when she had been like this for several years and her parents had sent her to an insane asylum, she found a little room under the roof, with a little window looking onto the moors. The wallpaper was yellow, ripped and clawed.
“Mr. Pittance!” she shrieked, at the wallpaper. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Pittance! I’m so terribly, terribly sorry!”
Mr. Pittance came out of the wall then. He was just as young as he had been years ago. His hair was golden, and his face was pale and knowing and smug. The only difference was that he had great big stitches across his midsection, and a knotted, gnarled wound.
“Mr. Pittance,” Mabel sobbed, dropping to his feet. “I am sorry.”
The boy wandered into the room and smiled. It was neither a kind smile nor a cruel one. “Oh, but I never doubted you were sorry,” he said. “It was simply too late then. Too late to pull up the roots.”
And he took her tears and he took her scars and planted them in the skin garden. They grew into a pretty, velvety flower, not as tall as her old one, but much hardier, a gray flower with a purple heart. Mabel got better. In fact she became quite merry after that, and whenever new, sad inmates would came to the asylum Mabel would know just how to cheer them up. But when her parents came to visit her they did not let her out. They never let her out.
A black tree leans over the rocky road from Harrypatch to Winthrop—a monstrous tree, thick and warped like a rotting blood vessel. Its branches whirl into the sky, strands of ink in frozen water. The countryside all about is bare, and the fields stretch for miles, and this tree is the only one in sight, as if it has frightened all the other trees away. A length of rope is knotted through its crown, back and forth and crisscrossing, and one bit of the rope hangs down, and from it hangs a man—a thief, they say, and a murderer—and now look! a little boy is coming up the road. He is rich as a too-ripe plum, and round like one, too, and he has little toothpick legs and a jaunty green cap.
He stalks along, the pompous goose, swinging a half-sized walking stick made just for him. He does not see the dead man in the tree. He walks, walks, staring at the darkening sky with large watery eyes. He sees the tree. He wrinkles his nose and peers at it. He does not understand what is hanging in it. He realizes it is not a branch or a particularly large and hideous bird. And then, when he is directly below it, he sees that it is a man, and the man is dead.
Plum Boy startles. His knees knock together and he clutches at his hat.
Slowly, very slowly, he begins to edge around the ugly tree, pressing himself to the far side of the road, his eyes round as saucers. And now he is past it and hurrying on.
And this is when the dead man calls out:
“You,” he cries, very softly from his dead, dry throat. “You? Come here a moment?”
The boy lets out a shriek and breaks into a proper run. But he is clumsy and he trips, and wriggling onto his back, he stares at the tree and the hanged man in terror.
“Don’t run,” the dead man says, very gently. He is hanging with his back toward Plum Boy, but there is no one else in the fields and no one on the road, and Plum Boy is sure it is the dead man who had spoken.
“Who are you?” Plum Boy squeaks. And then, because he does not want to sound afraid, he says, “Why are you hanging in a tree? You know, you might startle someone. Come down at once.” Because you see, Plum Boy thinks the dead man is playing a game. And perhaps the dead man is. . .
“I wish I could,” the dead man says, turning slowly on the end of his rope. “But I’m afraid I am quite put out.”
Plum Boy stands quickly and brushes the dust from his velvet breeches. He eyes the corpse suspiciously. Live men should not have such oddly turned necks, he thinks. Live men should not gave such badly blackened feet.
“It is a magic trick,” says Plum Boy stoutly, but his voice shakes. “Come- come down!” He stamps his foot.
The dead man has turned a full circle. He is facing Plum Boy now. His head is cricked over the noose, his eyes empty. He is smiling, like a puppet on a string, because there is nothing else he can do; he has no lips anymore.
“Alas, I cannot,” the dead man says. He sounds unbearably sad. “But come and sit down a while at the bottom of my tree. . . Come and speak with me.”
Plum Boy gapes at him. The dead man sounded kind, but there were maggots on his cheeks.
“No,” says Plum Boy. “You are a thief and a murderer. I’ll be on my way now.”
“Oh, don’t! Don’t leave! It is so lonely here.”
It is lonely, Plum Boy sees. The fields are nothing but bare, wretched humps all the way to the horizon. Night is coming. Perhaps, Plum Boy thinks, if he makes the dead man very desperate. . . Plum Boy stuffs his fingers in his pockets and hunches his shoulders.
“No,” he says. “You are a recalcitrant criminal. If you were hanged you deserve to be lonely, that’s my opinion.”
The dead man continues to smile. His teeth are very white. In life they must have never grown yellow with cane sugar and tobacco and ale like those of Plum Boy’s parents and indeed of Plum Boy himself. He begins to turn away from Plum Boy again, the rope doing another slow, creaking turn.
“You seem to think a very great deal of your opinion,” the dead man says.
“And why shouldn’t I? My father says everyone ought to have opinions or they’ll be wobbly as marrow pudding.”
“But what if your opinion is not true?”
Plum Boy thinks that is a very odd idea.
The dead man ventures on. “And even if I am nothing but a thief and a murderer, must you hate me? Must you be cruel?”
“Because you are very wicked.”
“And you are not? You are perfect?”
“Quite,” says Plum Boy. “And now I’m going.”
Plum Boy spins and begins to walk again, for good this time. At least, he pretends as if it is for good, but he simply wants the dead man to beg. It pleases Plum Boy when people are desperate for him to speak with them, because they aren’t very often. Plum Boy cannot imagine why.
“No, please!” the dead man cries after him. “Just tell me a few little things. What is your name? What is happening in the world these days? Is the tree still blooming in the square in Harrypatch? Tell me anything, so that I can think on it while I hang here.”
The dead man cannot move, but it is as if he is struggling to twist back toward Plum Boy. He is like a very slow top, Plum Boy decides, a very dull, broken top that has gotten stuck in a tree.
Plum Boy sighs. He shakes his head slowly, as if he is pondering some great sacrifice he must make. Then he returns to the tree and pulls out a very large, very flowery handkerchief that been soaked in lavender water and covers his entire face with it.
“All right,” he says. “I will be charitable today. But I don’t want to look at you, because you are far to ugly. I live in Winthrope, in a big house that is nicer than all the other houses, and I have a mother and father and four sisters and three brothers and we own the bakery and the pie shop and the coffee house, too.”
“How grand,” the dead man says. “And what month is it? And what is the weather like? And what is your name? And what are in your pockets?”
Plum Boy realizes the dead man must be very nearly blind.
“It is April. Spring,” says Plum Boy. He begins digging in his pockets, almost eagerly. A jackknife comes out, a bit of string and some sticky, nasty, yellow toffees. He lists them to the dead man. “I have a wind-up horse, too,” says Plum Boy, “but I forgot to bring it.”
And then Plum Boy straightens suddenly. The handkerchief slips from his face, but he does not catch it. “You asked me my name twice.”
The dead man hangs from his rope, unmoving.
“I’m sick of your questions,” Plum Boy says. “Why did they hang you? What did you do?”
“Oh,” says the dead man, softly. “That is a very long, sad story.”
“Well, you can leave out all the boring bits and the sad bits and only tell me the horrible crimes.”
“But those are the most important parts,” the dead man says. “The boring bits and the sad bits. . .”
“I don’t want to know them. Who died? Was it very gruesome?”
“Yes,” the dead man says. “It was very gruesome. Seven people from the farms, seven people on the forest floor, and they had no eyes and no teeth, but I did not do it. I was an herb-brewer then, and the potion-witcher, but the magistrate said I was the murderer, and everyone was certain they agreed with him. They made their opinions so quick, in an instant, and yet their opinions were strong as stone. And so they hung me here. Who is the magistrate these days? Is it still the same one? Still old Master Penniman? And, boy, what is your name?”
Plum Boy stares up at the tree. The sun is going down. It is an odd picture, a round boy and an ugly tree and a strange dead person, all stamped in black against the bloody red sun.
“Who is the magistrate?” the dead man asks again. His voice sounds precisely the same as it had the first time he had asked the question, kind and a tiny bit wheedling, as if he does not realize he is asking it again. As if he does not care. “Who is the magistrate?”
Plum Boy peers up curiously. The handkerchief is blowing away up the road. He does not notice.
“It is still Master Penniman,” Plum Boy says. “And he’s my father.”
“And what is your name?”
“William Penniman, if you- if you really want to know.”
“Ah.” The dead man stares down at Plum Boy, still grinning, and the red glint of the setting sun is in his cold, blank eyes. For the first time Plum Boy notices that the dead man has iron at his wrists and at his ankles and making an X across his ribs. He is caged in it. But it cannot stop him anymore.
“William Penniman,” the dead man whispers.
There is an odd brush of wind that flies around Plum Boy’s ankles and pulls at his cap. And then Plum Boy feels very strange, very light. . . and very unconscious.
* * *
Plum Boy’s eyes are dim as old wicks. He feels dull and heavy, like a sack in the rain. He is watching a little figure walking away up the road, as if through haze.
At first Plum Boy thinks he has been robbed. His jacket! The fat little imbecile in the road is wearing my jacket and holding my half-sized walking stick and my lovely green cap!
And then the figure turns to face him. . .
With a slither of fear, Plum Boy realizes that he is high up, staring down, and below him is his own smug face and watery blue eyes.
He tries to shout, but all he can do is smile.
The boy in the road smiles back. There is a jackknife in his pocket, and he lifts it out and swings it between thumb and forefinger, back and forth, back and forth.
Then, with a little laugh, the new Plum Boy wheels and skips away down the road, and the night wind flies around the old Plum Boy and his old, black tree, and turns him on the gibbet, and he must look to the North, though he doesn’t want to look that way.
He decides in an instant: he does not like the sight at all.