The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces

Our father is a bad man. We hate him.

He has twelve daughters, and I am the youngest. He is the king, but when he dies, none of us shall rule. He laughs at the idea. Although he has twelve daughters like twelve strong trees, like a sheaf of wheat; although we are some of us brilliant, some of us strong and fast, and some of us tenderly kind, and some of us able to talk a flock of birds or people into following wherever she leads—despite all that, he laughs at the idea of a woman ruler.

“I’d more likely leave my kingdom to my dogs,” he says.dancers

When my oldest sister tries to lay the case for fairness, or for sanity—that he could choose one of us other than her, even, or that perhaps we could rule together, lend each of our separate strengths to lead the kingdom to a new happiness and peace (for it has seen little of either under his clumsy, brutal rule)—our father mocks her, says in a high lisping voice (and she doesn’t lisp, and her voice is low and cool), “Oh Daddy, pwease, I want to wear the pwetty crown, it will show off my pwetty shining eyes!”

We hate him. My eldest sister hates him most of all. He would never give her the tutors she begged for, so she has learned and studied in secret, all her life. She is the cleverest of us all.

Father intended to give the rulership to some stupid, brutal boy he  will choose to marry one of us. But we had other plans. We said: We’ll never be married, never. Though we will not rule, we will keep our own freedom until we die.

One morning, as we lay in our twelve beds, my sister Rêve sat up straight and fast. Her eyes were shining and wild. “I have had one of my dreams,” she said. Rêve is a great dreamer, and knows how to dream things true. But all she would say was that that night, after the king our father went to bed, we should all dress in our favorite, our loveliest, our wildest dresses, and wear our dancing shoes,

We did as she said. “Now see what I dreamed,” said Rêve. She knocked three times on the wooden headboard of our eldest sister’s bed: knock, knock, knock.

For a moment, nothing happened. And then—oh, and then—the bed sank away, as if sinking into a great black lake. And beneath the bed were stone stairs, going down, down, down.

So down the stairs we went, in our clothes of ebony silk, of cherry-wine velvet, of lilac lace. Our soft dancing shoes made no noise at all on the stone steps.

At the bottom of the staircase, we entered a forest where the trees were made of filigreed silver.

Next we came through another forest, where the trees were shaped of shimmering gold, delicate gold leaves trembling as we stirred the air around them in our passing. The gold made the air feel warm.

Then we moved through a third forest, whose trees were cut from diamond. Each twig and leaf glittered hard and bright around us, and in that forest I felt as cold as if the trees were carved of ice.

We emerged onto the shore of a vast black lake, a lake that mirrored a vast black sky, so both seemed crowded with diamond stars, and no moon at all. Floating before us were twelve boats, each a different color,  the colors darkened and subdued under the pale stars.

In each boat sat a young man, each quite different, skin dark or fair, but each with the same mournful smile and something ghostly around the eyes and mouth.

I chose the ghost-boy whose boat might have been sky-blue, in the light. When he helped me in, his hand was as cold as the diamond forest.

The ghost boys rowed us in perfect silence to an island where a crystal castle stood. Warm lights moved and glowed inside the castle, like fire caught behind glass.

Inside the castle was an orchestra made up of forest animals—a grave jay with a tiny violin, and a white stag with a cello, and a smiling fox on a stool with a clarinet—oh so many of them, many more. And their music was wild, and it was mournful, too. The music had fire and rage underneath it to match our fire and rage, and it made us want to do nothing but dance.

ruined dancing shoesSo dance we did with our cold and ghosty boys, we danced out our rage all the wild night, as the violin-bearing birds swirled above our heads, the fiery lights swirling too as we swirled in the dance, our heads flung back, our feet mad beneath us.

When the eastern horizon began to soften, the boys rowed us back to the edge of the lake, and we walked through the icy diamond forest, and the shimmering gold one, and the delicate silver one, and back up the stairs to our room. On the floor beside each bed, we left our shoes in shreds and pieces

The next morning, the wretched maid told our father about our shoes. He demanded to know what had happened. But we were half dead from our long night, and we said nothing at all. Even my sister who always talks back just looked at him, her face pale and empty, and turned away.

He ordered that we must be kept shod, and left. New shoes were brought that afternoon.

The next night, we went dancing again, we danced our anger, and the next and the next and the next and the next. Every morning, our new shoes lay in shreds on the floor beside each bed; every morning, our father would shout and argue and insult us.

But we were turning half-ghost ourselves by day, with all our life in the night, and we only looked at him from dark-circled eyes and yawned.

Our father made an announcement to the kingdom. Any man who could solve the mystery, he would marry off to one of us, and make his heir. But if the man tried for three nights and could not solve the mystery, he would lose his head.

“That should motivate them,” said our father. His cruelty, his cruelty.

A prince from a far land came to try. Father gave these him the room beside ours, and left the door between open, which shamed and angered us. But my clever eldest sister made a potion, and put it in fine wine, and offered it to the prince with falsely loving words.

The potion made him sleep all night, and we were left to our raging revels. He slept through three nights, bewildered each morning at how it had happened.

On the third morning, my father had his head chopped off with an axe.

My heart wavered at this, for he had not seemed a bad man, only a hopeful and arrogant one. But my eldest sister, whose rage was greater, laughed. “It is what he deserves,” she said. “It is what they all deserve.”

Then she added, so perhaps her heart was not quite eaten with anger: “Anyway, it is father who kills them, not I.”

More princes came. More princes tried. More lost their heads. My eldest sister’s laugh became uglier and too much like my father’s.

Then no men came for a long time. We danced out our rage every night. Every morning we grew paler, but our eyes were bright and hot inside their dark circles. My father’s anger grew, because something was happening that he could not control.

But that his daughters grew into ghosts before his eyes: that worried him not at all.

After a year of the dancing, a new man came to try. He was different from the others, older, and no prince at all, but a common soldier who had been wounded in the leg, so that he limped badly, and could fight no more. He told us that he had met a strange old woman and shared his food with her, and she had repaid him by telling him of our father’s offer, “as well as with advice, and a small gift.”

I did not like to hear that, for there is great power in the gratitude of strange old women.

My father said, “I hope her gift was an iron neck,” and laughed.

When my eldest sister brought this new man the doctored wine and false words, he watched her out of dark eyes, and I thought I saw something like pity in them, which confused and frightened me. But he drank—or we thought he drank. And when the night came, he slept—or we thought he slept.

And yet when we slipped down the stairs that night, I was sure I heard a heavy, uneven gait behind me.

But when I turned, I saw nothing at all.

When we passed through the silver forest, I was sure I heard the limping steps behind me still. And I did hear, I know I heard, a sudden crack, like the snapping of a branch. I looked wildly around. “It was probably an animal,” said my sister Tendresse. “Calm yourself, calm yourself.”

So I put the limping, swinging, invisible step out of my mind, and out of my hearing, and found my ghosty boy, and danced my raging dance all night in the fiery crystal palace.

The next morning, the soldier said, as they all had said, “But I don’t understand how I could have fallen asleep.” I felt better. My imagination must have been playing tricks on me—my imagination, and perhaps my too great respect for strange old women.

In the silver forest that night, when I heard the limping, broken steps behind me, I said to myself firmly: “Your imagination.”

And at the crack of the branch in the golden forest, I said to myself, “An animal.”

Still, I could not throw myself into the black lake of our dance as deeply as usual.

In the morning, the soldier said, “Only one more night! It certainly doesn’t look good for me.” So I thought it must be all right after all.

And yet that third night, the heavy, limping gait behind me felt like the gait of Death. The crack of the branch in the diamond forest thrust a shard of ice into my heart.

And as I danced, I swear as I danced with my cold, mournful, ghosty boy, I felt something touch my arm here and there, something I could not see, as if that Death walked among us in the dance.

That morning, my father came with guards to take the soldier away to be beheaded. They found him sitting politely at the edge of his neatly-made bed, holding in his lap a silver branch, a golden branch, and a diamond one. As we watched from our room in despair, he told the whole story of what we did each night, and held up the branches one at a time for proof.

The king our father laughed and laughed, and clapped the soldier too hard on his back, and jeered at us. “They want to rule the kingdom, and yet they spend their nights giggling and dancing, like the empty heads they are.”

(But he did not know, had never seen, our raging, raging dance.)

The soldier said nothing. My father stopped laughing and said, “Then take whichever you want for a wife—Bellaluna is the prettiest by far—and I’ll set you up in a castle, and then you can wait for me to die, which I hope is a long damn wait.” He walked out, the guards behind him.

The soldier turned to us with his dark, opaque eyes. He said, “I think you are all quite beautiful, and much too beautiful for a man like me. Also, I will not take or choose, as if you were toys in a shop; but I will ask, and I will offer my pledge and my faith and my respect.”

He turned to my eldest sister. “I am no longer a boy, and I wish a wife who is my equal or better in wisdom. I have been watching you for three nights, and I believe that is you. I will need your wisdom to help me make this land a more peaceful place, for I have had enough of fighting. If you will have me, I will make you my queen and co-ruler, and we will heal the kingdom together. You do not need to give me your answer now.”

And he limped away to be shown his new castle.

I watched my eldest sister that night, over the ten narrow beds of my sleeping sisters between us. She lay back with her hands behind her head and her eyes wide open, considering.

In the morning she said to us, “I do not know how to give him my trust, but I am going to give him my trust anyway. My anger has danced through too many pairs of shoes. He is a new man, and I will try a new way.”

So the banns were made and the wedding held, with great pomp and many white horses and silver lace and bells. In the following weeks we visited them at their castle, and we saw a new way between a man and a woman, that we had never conceived of before.

One by one, with our father’s shrugged permission, we moved to the new castle to live.  My sister has filled it with books and art and mathematical instruments, and everything our father ever denied us. We sleep well at night, and we have lost our ghostly look, and live in the world around us.

Our father is a bad man. We hate our father.

But one day our father will die. And together with this wounded man, we we will make a new and better kingdom.

Once our father dies.

The Sandman Cometh

A note from your Curators: Dear readers, we apologize that we neglected to post our usual introductory post at the beginning of this week, announcing the theme for this month’s stories. But you see, we have recently had great reason to celebrate, as all four of us met a particularly important deadline for a particularly precious project (that may or may not have something to do with this website you are now reading). And after we met said important deadline, we were in such a state of jubilation that apparently our brains melted and dripped out our ears, leaving us with nothing to govern our common sense but the copious amounts of celebratory cake we consumed.

So, we hope you’ll forgive our forgetfulness — and the tardiness of today’s story — and that you’ll enjoy August’s month of stories, all of which are re-tellings of fairy tales.

Curator Legrand’s story, which you’ll see below, is a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ole Lukøje,” which Curator Legrand thought was a very odd story indeed, and which she might have made even more odd in her re-telling (but neither version is as odd as the adventure during which she was first told the tale).

*

When Harvey goes to bed on Saturday night, his heart is black and hot. In general, he’s a good kid, but he’s suffered one too many indignities today, and thirteen-year-old boys have very little patience to begin with.

First of all, there’s the matter of the dolls. His eight-year-old sister Jessie left her dolls all over the floor after a morning of manic play with her friends from next door. Harvey stepped on them and tripped over them one too many times, and finally lost his temper and kicked one of them into the wall. Out of all the other soft, unbreakable dolls well within reach of his foot, he happened to kick the one with the porcelain face. It shattered, and Jessie’s been an inconsolable mess all day.

Secondly, there’s the matter of his parents. Did they reprimand Jessie for leaving her toys strewn about so irresponsibly? No, they didn’t. All they did was punish Harvey for committing the understandable and relatively minor crime of kicking a doll into a wall. The unfairness of it makes Harvey’s insides seethe.

And that leads to the third thing, which was Harvey not being able to go to the movies tonight with Dennis and Jordan and Enrique and Enrique’s dad, who is far cooler than Harvey’s dad will ever be. Harvey can’t go because he’s grounded. He’s grounded because he reacted like any sane person would after stepping on dolls that his little sister refuses to clean up.

There is no justice in the world tonight. That’s one of the primary thoughts on Harvey’s mind as he falls into a tempestuous sleep.

The other thought is this: “I hate them. I hate all three of them. I want to wake up in the morning and have the house to myself so they can’t annoy me ever again.”

(Oh, dear.)

*

Harvey wakes up in the morning to a blissfully quiet house. In fact, at first he thinks he might have woken up in the wrong house somehow, even though that makes no sense. He doesn’t hear his sister running around singing songs, he doesn’t hear his father banging dishes and pans around the kitchen, and he doesn’t hear his mother’s shows blaring on the television.

He falls back asleep, fantasizing that they’ve all decided to have mercy on him and spare him the chore of Sunday errands. He decides that when he wakes up in a couple of hours, he’ll clean the kitchen so that maybe his parents will lessen his punishment. He figures they’ll return well into the afternoon.

They don’t.

*

It’s been a long day for Harvey. He doesn’t understand where his family has gone. At first it’s wonderful, having the house to himself. He is able to clean the kitchen like a good son would do, and even has time after that to play some video games without Jessie running through the living room asking if she can play too.

He also has time to do his homework. And microwave himself a frozen dinner. And shoot hoops on the driveway after dark on a school night. It is at this point he remembers to look in the garage and realizes that his parents and Jessie haven’t gone to run errands—unless they’ve gone on foot, that is, which is unlikely.

Both cars are still parked in the garage.

*

Harvey is not sleeping well.

Before going to bed, he tried calling some friends of his parents, and also some of Jessie’s friends, to see if anyone knew where they had gone—but the phone didn’t work. That was odd; Harvey checked to make sure it was plugged in, and it was. But it wouldn’t dial a single number. Harvey searched for his parents’ cell phones and tried them, but they didn’t work either.

The television played nothing but static. Videos game worked, but not the television. The computer wouldn’t connect to the Internet. And, as Henry lay there before bed trying to quiet his mind, he realized with a creeping sense of dread that when he had been outside shooting hoops earlier, he hadn’t seen a single other living thing on his street—not a person, not a bird, not the DeRosarios’ fat cat.

But now Harvey is asleep, tossing and turning as the remnants of these worries stew in his mind. He doesn’t see the man enter his room, quiet as shadow. The man is tall and thin and dark, with a crisp black suit and a spotless black umbrella. He leans on the umbrella and watches Harvey for a long time. He is smiling and waiting for Harvey to wake up.

*

When Harvey does wake up, it is in the middle of the night, and the first thing he sees is the man at his door, still and slender.

Harvey screams, and the man lets him. The man looks bored.

When Harvey is done screaming, the man says, “Have you finished?”

The question takes Harvey quite aback. He replies, “I guess.”

“Good.” The man approaches, his coattails trailing behind him like long black tongues. “I’ll make this simple. I have your family, and I’ll only bring them back if you do exactly as I say.”

Harvey is at first dumbstruck and then outraged. Remorse floods through him like a sick, cold tidal wave, and the man watching him seems to shudder, like he can feel Harvey’s emotion and finds it delicious.

“What do you mean you have them?” Harvey demands. “Where are they? And who are you?”

“I can’t tell you where they are. As for your second question, I have many names. I am Morpheus, I am Ole Lukøje, I am the Bringer of Dreams. You may call me the Sandman.”

With that, the Sandman bows. He cuts the air like a black scythe.

Harvey is fairly practical for a thirteen-year-old boy. He knows that such things as Sandmen don’t exist. And yet here is the Sandman, bowing before him. And here is his empty house, and here is the phone and the computer and the television that don’t work. And here is his empty street.

He balls his fists into his bedsheets. “You have my parents, and my sister.”

The Sandman inclines his head. “As I said.”

“Why?”

“Because I need your help.” A small smile curls across his face. “And now, so do they.”

Harvey draws a deep breath. He is terrified; he has never been especially brave. He is the boy who stands on the bank of the creek and watches the other boys swing on the rope into the water.

“What do I have to do?”

The Sandman takes a vial from his pocket and dips a gloved finger into it. “You must complete for me six tasks. If you succeed . . . ” He smears a grainy, rank-smelling tar over Harvey’s eyelids, sealing them shut. “ . . . you may be able to save your family.”

Harvey falls back onto the bed, as heavy and cold as a stone. A shiny substance plugs up his ears and mouth and nose and eyes. Still, though, his eyelids flutter. He is dreaming.

The Sandman settles onto the foot of Harvey’s bed, soft and sleek as a cat. He waits.

*

Harvey awakes in a jungle.

The air is ripe with the smells of rot and sweaty animal fur and tropical flowers. The air is so steamy that Harvey finds it difficult to breathe. He holds in his hand a sealed envelope, addressed in an immaculate hand to The One Who Waits.

A breath wafts across Harvey’s neck. He whirls, but no one is there. He feels cold, ghostly fingers on his shoulders. He slaps them away, but ends up only slapping himself.

Stop slapping yourself and listen to me, says the Sandman’s voice, deep inside Harvey’s head. With every word, that same cold breath caresses Harvey’s neck. This is your first task: Deliver this letter to The One Who Waits, who lives at the other end of the jungle. Do not stop for anything. Do not eat the fruit.

Then, just like that, the Sandman’s presence disappears. Harvey is alone.

None of this makes sense, but the letter in Harvey’s hand feels real enough, so he figures he should go along with this, just in case. Anyway, delivering a letter doesn’t sound so hard, and he’s not hungry, so avoiding fruit won’t be a problem.

But then Harvey begins to walk. The way is overgrown and dripping with moisture, and he notices that the branches hang heavy with fruit—at first just normal fruit like bananas and oranges, and although they are brightly colored, they don’t particularly tempt Henry. But then he sees mangoes and passion fruit, and kiwi and pineapples, and soon Henry is pushing aside piles of grapes and bushes laden with strawberries, and countless other unfamiliar fruits in yellows and blues and purples that brush against his face and arms. Their soft, fuzzy skins tickle his cheeks.

Their scents twist up his nose and make him feel faint. They smell increasingly delicious—tart and sweet, juicy and tender, and some of them smell like fruit but some of them smell like choice meat, and others like glazed pastries.

Soon, Harvey cannot help himself. He truly wasn’t hungry, but now his stomach twists painfully. He is frantic with craving. He plucks a bright red fruit from its branch and pops it into his mouth. He chews, and the fruit bursts; he swallows, and juice and seeds drip down his mouth. He feels, for a moment, the most satisfied he has ever felt.

Then the jungle begins to quake around him. Starting nearest him, and then spreading out in waves, the plants shrivel and blacken, and turn to dust. Harvey hurries through them, the taste of the stolen fruit turning sour on his tongue. It seems to him that the dying branches grab for his feet as he runs. He tramples piles of rotting fruit that squelch between his toes. The ground is coming apart, a sliver of earthquake trailing his steps.

He emerges on the other side of the jungle just in time. The whole thing collapses behind him, and Harvey pants to catch his breath. That’s when he sees it: The envelope, fallen open in his hand. The letter inside it is sopping wet, black with ash, and the words written on the ruined paper drip off the paper and onto the ground, where they collect in steaming black puddles. The words left on the page are gibberish. The letter is unreadable.

Harvey feels a shadow fall over his face. He looks up and sees a tall, hooded figure standing at a black crossroads in a green field. The figure holds out its hand, which looks surprisingly human.

“Are you The One Who Waits?” asks Henry.

The figure nods, and Henry shoves the letter into its hand and closes his eyes.

*

Harvey wakes back in his bedroom and promptly gets sick on the floor. Apparently, the fruit did not agree with him.

The Sandman watches him, irritated. “You ate the fruit.”

“I couldn’t help it.”

“You ruined the letter.”

Harvey turns, afraid. “You didn’t say anything about delivering the letter intact. You just said deliver the letter, and I did.”

The Sandman’s mouth grows thin. “I suppose I shall have to be more specific in the future.”

“Where was that place?”

“There are many places you can’t access but I can. That was one of them.”

“And what exactly is all this that you’re making me do?”

“Does it matter? If you want your family back, you’ll perform my tasks regardless.”

“But—”

“If I wanted to give you any more information,” says the Sandman smoothly, “I would do so. Don’t ask me pointless questions.”

He smears a fresh coat of tar across Harvey’s eyes, and Harvey falls back into his pillows for the second time.

*

Harvey is on a boat painted red and white, with silver sails that spread out like wings.

The air here is quiet and still, and the prow of the boat pushes through a thick black swamp littered with dead trees and alligator carcasses.

Harvey takes a step forward, and something crunches beneath his foot. He looks down and almost gags.

The deck of the boat is covered with the bodies of dead swans.

Find the princesses, the Sandman whispers from far away, his breath carrying the stench of the tar from his vial. One is the true princess; six are impostors. Find them and pick the right one.

Something terrible has happened here; that much is obvious to Harvey. He sees that the sky is shifting, full of malevolent clouds. He sees lightning on the horizon but hears no answering thunder. He sees thin houses built on stilts, rising up out of the water, and he calls out, hoping whoever lives there will help him find his way, but no one answers. The windows remain dark.

Harvey stands at the wheel and steers the boat for countless hours, until blisters form on his palms. It’s impossible to track the time; the light in the sky never changes. Finally, Harvey sees a black shape in the distance that looks castle-like, and princesses live in castles, so he decides to head that way.

He arrives at the gates of a castle made of stone and iron. At the gate stand seven identical figures—all in fearsome, spiked armor and voluminous cloaks. They wear helmets that resemble crowns and battle axes hang from their belts. In their hands they hold powdered cakes in the shape of pigs, offering them to Harvey for a taste.

Harvey climbs down from the boat and trudges across the barren beach to reach the princesses, for of course that’s who they are. As he walks, panic grows inside him. These princesses look exactly alike. He cannot see their faces. How is he to tell the real one from the impostors?

Harvey inspects them, licking his dry lips. He is nearly ready to give up when he notices that one of the cakes is different from the others: It is missing a bite-sized piece. It’s a risky guess, but Harvey decides that if he were surrounded by six impostors, he would want to do something to show he was the real Harvey. Perhaps, he thinks, the real princess managed to sneak a bite, and this was a sign.

There is nothing else to do. Harvey kneels in front of this princess and bows his head. “Your Highness,” he says, “you are the one true princess.”

From above and around him comes the sounds of sliding steel. He looks up in time to see the other six princesses unsheathe their axes. They let out inhuman shrieks. The true princess, the one Harvey has chosen, rips off her helmet, revealing a face so hard and beautiful that Harvey feels tears come to his eyes. She raises her axe to defend him, and Harvey turns away, shielding his face in her cloak.

*

Harvey gasps awake in his bed. His sheets are soaked with sweat and cling to him like clammy fingers.

“Well?” The Sandman sounds bored, but his eyes are alight with interest. “What happened?”

“I found her.” Harvey is still catching his breath. “At least I think so. Her cake had a bite missing from it. That’s how I knew.”

“I’m not sure what cake you’re talking about,” says the Sandman, “but I’d know if you had failed. Don’t expect me to congratulate you, though.”

Harvey frowns. His ears are still ringing with the clash of swords, and he’s more than a little annoyed. “I don’t. I expect you to release my family after I win at your stupid games.”

The Sandman looks grave, and full of secrets. “They are not games. Don’t make the mistake of treating them as such, Harvey.”

Harvey shivers without knowing why. “Fine. Can we get on with it? I’ve got four tasks to go.”

A grin spreads across the Sandman’s face, a moonbeam cutting through clouds. He seals Harvey’s eyes shut for a third time, and Harvey slips back into darkness.

*

Harvey is being thrown against walls of rock.

At least, that’s what it feels like. He breathes salt and is shaking with cold. He struggles up to breathe and is pushed back under. Something throws him into somersaults through a thick, overwhelming heaviness.

He remembers, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he is asleep, that the Sandman is waiting patiently at the foot of his bed, but that doesn’t stop Harvey from feeling like he is about to die. He needs to breathe, he needs air, he needs ground under his feet—

He wakes up on a beach awash with sunlight. A white beach littered with shells and seaweed and the corpses of sea creatures washed ashore. He is sopping wet, and struggles to lift himself up and look around. Behind him stretches a great blue sea, sparkling and calm after a night of storms. Harvey coughs up ocean water. His stomach is burning.

Find the girl disguised as a bird, whispers the Sandman, his cold, faraway fingers wiping Harvey’s wet hair back from his eyes. Set her free. Avoid the Good Doctor.

This task makes the least amount of sense yet, but Harvey forces himself across the beach and into a meadow. At first there is nothing but grass, but then ruins appear—cottages and temples, bridges and towers. They are gray and crumbling, but still beautiful. There are roads and there is a market, and people milling about. Harvey hears them chattering and feels relieved. The chattering has a friendly sound to it. Perhaps he will actually have help this time.

But when Harvey gets closer, he notices something startling about the people in this ruined village: They have beaks.

They have feathers and clawed feet. They have wings and black beady eyes. Their faces are part human; there is human flesh there, and human teeth. But the human flesh transitions into black bird feathers, and the human teeth line yellow bird beaks instead of lips. The bird-people speak in disjointed words and rattling squawks. They neither fly nor walk but instead hop around, like they don’t know what to do with themselves. They seem unnatural, cobbled together.

At the center of the town is an enormous temple with a red tiled roof. Harvey sees a figure in white standing there, surveying the domain from a terrace. Harvey ducks his head and hurries into the shadows. Could that white figure be the Good Doctor? Whoever that is.

What has happened here? Harvey can’t know for sure, but he is a smart boy and constructs a hypothesis. Perhaps the Good Doctor isn’t so good at all. Perhaps he conducts experiments, crafting birds and people into bird-people.

The air smells like medicine and burnt feathers. Harvey doesn’t like it.

He hears a ruckus and peeks around the corner of a building. A crowd of bird-people gather in a circle. There are hen-people and duck-people and a giant gobbling turkey with the face of a man and clawed fingers.

They are making fun of someone—a small bird-person whose feathers don’t look quite right.

Harvey’s skin tingles. It is the girl disguised as a bird. He must free her. Though the Good Doctor watches from on high—surely that’s him, up on that terrace—Harvey must free this girl. The bullying bird-people are kicking the girl’s legs, pecking her skin. They are jeering at her, calling her stupid, calling her beautiful in a mocking fashion.

Harvey is filled with horror and rage. This place is not right. He rushes at the girl and grabs her arm, dislodging pasted-on feathers. He runs with her toward the ocean, a mob of bird-people at their heels. The bird-people are vicious. They peck with their beaks and tear with their human teeth. They curse Harvey and the girl. They call for the Good Doctor.

Looking back over his shoulder, Harvey sees that the terrace is empty.

“Where are you taking me?” gasps the girl. Her tied-on beak has fallen. Her feathers are flying off.

Harvey doesn’t have an answer for her. His legs carry them into the ocean, and they dive. Everything in him recoils at the idea of returning to the sea that nearly drowned him, but drowning is better than becoming these things that are chasing him.

Water fills his ears. He hears a man calling out on the shore. He feels rubber gloved hands reaching for him. He loses his hold on the girl’s hand and opens his mouth to call for her, but he is lost in blackness and foam.

*

Harvey wakes shivering. He is curled into a knot on his bed, but he still feels the churning of the water and the pinch of the Good Doctor’s seeking hands.

The Sandman sits quietly beside him, inspecting him. “Well? Is she freed?”

“I don’t know.” Harvey is distraught. “I took her into the ocean. There was nowhere else to go. Those bird-people were chasing us. I panicked.”

The Sandman nods. “I think that should be fine. She is a good swimmer. And the sea holds many secrets, some of which are escape routes.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Harvey is reaching the end of his rope, but he is only halfway finished.

The Sandman cocks his head and regards Henry. The motion is too birdlike for Harvey to feel comfortable. He turns away.

“Whatever,” he says. “Never mind. Let’s just keep going.”

“You didn’t like seeing her there, did you? Seeing her trapped and bullied?”

“Of course I didn’t! It was wrong.” Harvey’s hands clench into fists. “She didn’t deserve that. No one does.”

The Sandman nods. “I see.” He is quiet for a long time. “Well, then.” He takes out his vial, and Harvey closes his eyes. He feels the cool brush of the Sandman’s fingers, and hears him whisper, “You are halfway there, Harvey.”

*

Harvey wakes up on a bed of moss in a church graveyard.

Bells are ringing, and the church windows are full of light. Harvey sits in the damp autumn wind and waits for the Sandman’s instructions. The air smells of rain.

Marry her.

That’s all the Sandman says, and Harvey is concerned: That instruction seems particularly ominous. But he doesn’t have a choice.

Ah, but you do.

Harvey is startled to hear the Sandman speak again, and he realizes the Sandman is right. Harvey does have a choice. He doesn’t have to go through these tasks. He can return home, and leave his family to their fate.

But he can’t do that. He’s a good kid, in general. He will do the right thing.

Even with that decided, what he finds inside the church nearly sends him running. It is a congregation of people, and a priest and a bride, and an organist playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Typical, except for the fact that the people in this church all wear masks. The masks are shaped like mouse faces, and are plain and plastic. It might have been a funny combination, in another situation: A group of dressed-up people wearing mouse masks. But the people stand up from their pews and turn to watch Harvey as he walks down the aisle.

A great terror seizes Harvey. Now that he is closer, he can see that the masks aren’t tied on; they are sewn on. They are sewn with ugly black stitches, plastic to skin, and the skin is raw and red.

Harvey steps up beside the bride. She takes his hand, and they are wed by the priest whose voice is muffled by his mask. The final step, the priest explains, is up to Harvey. A mask sits on the altar. It is for Harvey to wear.

Harvey is sweating. He cries out for the Sandman but doesn’t hear an answer. For several long seconds, he considers running.

Then, ashamed, he takes hold of the mask and holds it before his eyes. The mask jerks into place, and a sharp pain works its way around Harvey’s face, affixing the mask to his skull. It pierces and burns. He screams and drops to his knees. His bride pats him on the shoulder, soothing him. The priest leads a hymn.

*

Harvey wakes on the floor of his bedroom, scratching at his face. The Sandman kneels beside him and catches his wild arms before he can do any more damage.

“There, there.”

Harvey pushes him away. “You didn’t say I would have to do that. You said marry her, not sew a mask to my face!”

“The masking ritual is part of marriage ceremonies there.”

“There? There where?”

The Sandman sighs. “We’ve been over this, Harvey.”

“So, I’m married to some woman who wears a mouse mask in some place I can’t access unless you send me there. What does that even mean? What will happen to her now that she’s married me?”

“Well,” the Sandman says, smiling, “that will be interesting for you to find out someday, won’t it?”

“I hate you.” Harvey climbs back into bed. He is tired and weak. “I hate you for doing this to me.”

“Everyone hates me. But sometimes these things must be done.”

Harvey lies back in bed, rigid as a board, full of anger. He refuses to acknowledge that the Sandman sounded sad, just then. He refuses to acknowledge anything but his own rage. It gives him strength.

“Twice more, Harvey,” says the Sandman, and soon Harvey’s eyes are cool with sleep.

*

Harvey is in an attic, sitting beside a dollhouse.

The attic window is dirty but ajar; a thin beam of sunlight shines on the dollhouse, illuminating its rooms, which look as though a storm has ripped through them. The doll furniture is upturned; the doll portraits have fallen from the walls.

The dolls themselves are scattered about, lying on their faces, straddling the roof, buried under sofas.

Put the dollhouse to rights, comes the Sandman’s voice, and the dolls back into their proper places.

Harvey breathes a sigh of relief. That does not sound so hard, compared to everything else, so he gets to work at once.

He takes out every doll and piece of furniture and sets them on the floor. The rooms empty, he takes a moment to inspect the dollhouse: five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a parlor, a living room, a game room, an attic, a basement, a garage. Four floors altogether, counting the attic and basement.

A strange feeling comes over him as he begins putting the furniture back into place. He can’t know where the furniture is supposed to go, and yet he does. He feels it as a rightness that tugs his hands here and there—the sofa goes against the red wall in the living room; the desk goes in the green bedroom beside the fireplace.

The more furniture he replaces, the more familiar this dollhouse becomes. He feels that he has played with this dollhouse before, even though he knows that to be impossible. He feels that he has lived in this dollhouse before, which is even more impossible.

Harvey retrieves the first doll—the mother, he assumes. She has blond hair and is wearing a blue dress. He puts her in the living room, watching television. He puts the father in the kitchen, getting something to eat. He puts the brother at the top of the basement stairs.

Somehow, Harvey knows exactly where each doll should go. He matches them with their spots like magnets to magnets. He knows their names—the father, George; the mother, Pamela; the son, Herman. He knows their hopes and fears, which strikes him as odd; dolls don’t have hopes and fears.

The last doll is a small girl. Her name is Bertha, and Harvey knows she needs to go into the basement. He knows it like he knows two added to another two makes four. But when Harvey turns the tiny basement doorknob, he hears a scream.

It is the doll, Bertha. He knows it is Bertha’s scream, even though the sound is not coming from the doll; it’s coming from everywhere.

“Don’t make me go down there!” Bertha screams. She is terrified, and that makes Harvey terrified, because he can feel her fear like it’s his own. “Please, he’ll lock me in!”

He? Harvey turns to the brother doll, Herman. The markings of his face have rubbed off over time, but Harvey gets the feeling that Herman is a brute. Harvey pauses, uncertain. He knows Bertha’s place is in the basement, but he doesn’t want to put her there. But if he doesn’t put her there, he will fail in his task, and the Sandman will keep his family.

“Please, don’t do it,” sobs Bertha. She is a ghostly apparition before him, a small girl with braids and braces. “Please, don’t put me down there. He’ll lock me in, he’ll trap me. I hate being down there. It scares me!”

Harvey sees another apparition at the far end of the attic—Herman, the brother, full-sized and approaching fast.

“But you’re a doll!” Harvey protests. If they’re just dolls, it doesn’t matter where he puts them. Does it?

“Maybe to you, I’m a doll,” says Bertha, “but to me, I’m real! I wasn’t always like this! I didn’t always live here! Oh, please, please don’t do it!” Her hands are clasped, like she is praying to Harvey. He sees ghostly tears run down her cheeks.

Harvey considers it for a few more seconds. He could throw the Bertha doll into the basement and shut the tiny basement door. He could.

But he doesn’t. Bertha is too afraid, and Harvey is a good kid, in general. He grabs the Herman doll instead, and the Herman apparition, on the other side of the dollhouse, freezes.

“Put me down,” he says quietly.

Harvey stands. “No,” he says, though he is afraid, and throws the Herman doll out the attic window, into the sun.

*

Harvey awakes in his bedroom, crying. He finds the Sandman and falls to his knees.

“Please,” he chokes out, “please, don’t hurt my family. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put the dolls back in their proper places. The girl doll, Bertha. She was scared. I couldn’t trap her in that basement. Herman was scaring her. The basement scares her. Please, please.”

The Sandman kneels and tilts up Harvey’s chin. “Ah,” he says, “but you did put the dolls in their proper places.” He wipes Harvey’s cheeks. “Some souls deserve to be thrown out, and you did that beautifully.”

Harvey sniffles, backing away. The Sandman is looking kindly at him, and somehow that’s the most disturbing thing of all. “You mean, you won’t hurt my family?”

“Not for that, no. In fact, if you had put Bertha in the basement, we would be having a very different conversation right now. You did right. But you do have one more task to complete.”

Harvey climbs back into bed. He is exhausted, but a little less so now that he has heard the Sandman’s approval. The kind words wrap around his heart, cushioning it.

“Sleep, Harvey,” whispers the Sandman. Lovingly, he seals Harvey’s eyes shut for the last time.

*

Harvey awakes in a village where it is almost midnight. In a few minutes, it will be Sunday.

The village lies nestled in a small valley between black mountains with jagged peaks, and the fields surrounding this village are on fire.

It is a cold, silver fire, so cold that it feels hot. Harvey shields his eyes from the brightness, stumbling through the door of the nearest building—a small cottage with a metal roof. He peeks out through his fingers, watching the chaos outside. Villagers run to and fro along the streets, shouting, grabbing items from their homes, abandoning their village for the hills. Harvey sees why: The silver fire is approaching the village’s outer road. Soon, it will devour every building.

“Harvey,” says a familiar voice, and Harvey turns, startled, for there, in a portrait hung on the wall, sits the Sandman in a high-backed red chair, twirling his black umbrella.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you talking to me in my head?”

The Sandman shrugs. “I like variation.”

“What do I have to do this time?”

The Sandman smiles, as if he appreciates how Harvey has come to accept his own mysterious ways. “The fire you see is no ordinary fire. It is star-fire. Find the fallen star and put it back in its proper place before it burns down this village.”

Harvey is aghast. “You mean, back into space?”

“Where else would a star go?”

“But that doesn’t make sense! How can I possibly do that?”

“That’s entirely up to you, Harvey.” The Sandman rises from his chair and walks out of the portrait frame without another word.

Harvey can’t waste any time. Though his mind refuses to accept what he is about to do, he rushes outside and into the wall of silver fire encroaching upon the village. It burns him; it feels like plunging into arctic waters. He can hardly open his eyes. He crawls like a blind baby on the ground, searching for the fallen star.

His hand lands upon a hard, cold stone, smooth as water. Harvey cracks open his eyes and sees a pulsing light, brighter even than the fire. It scalds his retinas, and he loses his sight. Where the star touches his palm, it brands his skin. But he holds tight to it anyway and stumbles through the village, trailing sparks behind him.

“Point me to the highest mountain,” he tells everyone he encounters, and with the villagers’ help, he finds his way to the base of a black mountain so tall that its peak seems to brush the moon.

Harvey begins to climb. He is burned and aching, and in so much pain that constant tears stream down his face. The salt inflames his wounds, but he soldiers on, because more painful than anything is the thought that if he fails, he will have failed his family.

He climbs, and he climbs. The air grows thinner, and Harvey’s breath turns to wheezing. He is cold, and he is hunted by mountain cats, but something seems to deflect them every time they pounce—maybe it’s a black umbrella being swung like an axe, or maybe it’s some kind of protective forcefield emanating from the star in Harvey’s hand. Who knows? Harvey doesn’t.

He reaches the icy slopes of the mountain peak, and can climb no farther. He looks up to the sky with eyes that can no longer see. He feels moonlight on his ruined skin. He reaches back, his brittle bones snapping, and throws the star into the sky as far as he can.

He collapses face-first into the snow.

*

Harvey is on trial.

He blinks, confused, trying to figure out why and how and where. But it’s true: He is in a courtroom, and he doesn’t recognize everyone on the jury, but he does see The One Who Waits and the one true princess, the girl disguised as a bird and his mouse-masked bride. He sees Bertha the doll, held in the lap of her girl-shaped soul.

“Sandman?” Harvey whispers, turning around and around. At least he can see now, and at least his skin is no longer burned. But he is full of fear. He has completed six tasks, but did he complete them well enough? He realizes that this is the end, that now he will learn the fate of his family.

Everyone rises when the judge enters. The judge is handsome and strong, a god among men. He wears an unfamiliar silver uniform and a black velvet cloak. The judge’s aide, a bespectacled man, rips down a curtain at the far end of the room, behind which sit Harvey’s parents and his sister, Jessie. They are sitting, but they do not see him. They do not see anything at all.

Harvey lunges for them, but he has been bound to his chair. From the bench, the judge watches coldly.

“In the case of Harvey Black,” the girl disguised as a bird reads, “the jury has reached its verdict.”

“Wait!” Harvey struggles against his bindings. “I haven’t gotten to speak! I don’t have a lawyer! Can’t I ask some of the jurors to speak for me as witnesses? I helped them, I saved them! Ask the Sandman, he’ll tell you! Where is he?”

“There will be no more interruptions,” says the judge, his voice a terrible blend of thousands. “What is the verdict?”

“According to the testimony of the Sandman,” says the girl disguised as a bird, “Harvey Black has completed his tasks in a manner satisfying their accord.”

Harvey slumps back in his chair. “So my family is safe?”

“Perhaps,” intones the judge. “You have a choice now, Harvey. You can go home and wake up, and all this will have been a mere dream—but your family may or may not return with you.”

Harvey is outraged. “What do you mean? I did exactly what I was supposed to!”

“Or,” the judge continues, talking over Harvey’s cries, “you can stay here and work for the Sandman, and your family will be returned home safely, guaranteed.”

“Where is he? Bring him here! He promised, he promised!”

Everyone watches Harvey as he cries tears of betrayal and fear, alone on his chair. He cries for a long time, but when he raises his head next, his expression is one of determination.

“Fine,” he says, his voice clogged with sadness, “I’ll stay here. Let them go. Just let them go.”

In an instant, Harvey’s parents and sister vanish, and the judge’s face melts into a warm smile. His outer skin sheds, revealing a familiar figure: the sallow, dark-eyed Sandman, leaning on his umbrella.

“You’ve done well, Harvey,” says the Sandman, as the jury applauds. The Sandman’s voice is rough, and his eyes bright. “I am proud of you. You may go.”

Flabbergasted, Harvey says, “What? What do you mean? What just happened? You said—”

“I gave you a terrible choice—save yourself or save your family, and you chose the latter. Not many would have done that, Harvey. Not many would have kept Bertha out of the basement, or sewn a mask to his own face.” The Sandman approaches, and puts a hand on each of Harvey’s shoulders. Harvey’s chains crumble, releasing him. “You are special, Harvey. I chose well, and I thank you for proving me right.”

Harvey feels a strange warmth at having made the Sandman so proud, even though this man lies at the root of his recent troubles. “You said I could go. Are you telling the truth?”

“I always tell the truth, Harvey, even when it makes people uncomfortable to hear it.”

“Who are you?”

The Sandman holds out his hands. “I am Morpheus. I am the Bringer of Dreams. I am Ole Lukøje. I am the Old Storyteller, the Dreamwalker, the Sandman. I enter worlds only accessible through dreams, where I right wrongs and put chaos into order. I guide those who die in their sleep to the Lord of the Dead. I wrangle nightmares and coax peace into troubled hearts and coax trouble into hearts of the content. I am the balance of the universe.”

The Sandman crouches. His face is kindly, and Harvey cannot look away from those deep, dark eyes. “Someday, you will replace me, Harvey. You chose it, just now. I can’t change that. But I can do this much for you: I can give you what was not given me. I can give you your life first.”

He stands, and helps Harvey to his feet. “We’ll meet again, Harvey Black, when you’re old and wrinkled, and your heart slows in your sleep. We’ll meet again, and I will teach you everything I know. Until then—” The Sandman takes out the familiar vial.

“But wait!” Harvey says, throwing out his arm. He is suddenly sad to leave. He sees entire worlds in the Sandman’s endless eyes. He sees gods and monsters, dreams and death. He sees a lonely man.

But he cannot keep his eyes open, and soon he sees nothing at all.

*

Harvey wakes up to the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs, of his family chatting about their day. It is Sunday morning, and he remembers nothing of the previous night except falling asleep. He feels well-rested, and stretches in the sunlight.

Wayward Sons and Windblown Daughters

 

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 envelopestied with a red ribbonand 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

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora Quitts

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

Pellinora,

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.

Regards,

Your father

 * * *

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

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora Quitts

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

Pellinora,

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.

Regards,

You father

 * * *

Cold, thought Mr. Farringdale. He sipped his tea.

 * * *

October 30th, 1862

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora Quitts

 * * *

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

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora Quitts

* * *

November 12th, 1862

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora Quitts

 * * *

Papa,

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!

Pellinora

 * * *

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.

 * * *

Pellinora,

(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.

Regards,

Your father

 * * *

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

Dear Papa,

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,

Pellinora

 * * *

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

Dear Papa,

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!

Pellinora

 * * *

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.

Rhapsody in Doom

The city of Rhapsody is a city of tangles and knots.

Shops and apartment buildings stand in teetering stacks, and its streets are all twisty. Some people swear the streets change, moving to different locations from week to week, just to be confusing. The river that runs through the center of Rhapsody is criss-crossed by a dazzling assortment of bridges built in every architectural style imaginable, because a long time ago, when Rhapsody was first built, the city council held an architectural contest with a grand prize of $100,000, and engineers from far and wide came to out-bridge each other. The result was an alarming and impractical line-up of bridges that the city council had been thoroughly unprepared to handle and that now creates horrific traffic jams during rush hour. For the children of Rhapsody, who don’t yet have to contend with rush hour, the bridges provide long sweaty summer afternoons of climbing through the chaos like gangs of monkeys.

The most miraculous thing about Rhapsody, however, is not its array of bridges, nor its twistiness. The most miraculous thing is something you can’t see at all. It’s something you hear.

Rhapsody has more amphitheaters and concert halls and hole-in-the-wall live music venues than it does groceries, or tailors, or even bridges. For although the citizens of Rhapsody use ordinary money for some trade, there is another, much more valuable currency in use throughout this city.

Listen closely, and you’ll hear it, even out here on the outskirt roads. Close your eyes. Do you hear that cacophony of fiddles and pipes, of drums and tambourines and glockenspiels and horns? That ever-present trill of song?

I’m sure you do hear it. And I’m sure you feel the accompanying thrill along your arms, raising the hairs on your skin and eliciting cascades of goose bumps.

That cacophony is Rhapsody’s other, miraculous currency: music. And the thrill you feel, the magnetic pull, the prickling energy—that is magic.

In Rhapsody, even a simple fiddled jig can conjure enough magic to provide a brief reading of one aspect of your future, or an hour-long love spell, or the clearing of a few unsightly blemishes. A piano concerto can get you enough magic to imbue a handful of unremarkable stones with the power of runes. A quality string quartet is enough for a night of invisibility; a symphony performed by a full orchestra, a temporary glamour that can disguise your true features. Both are perfect for covert operations, if that’s your thing.

But a song—the simple sound of a melody spun through the air by a single human voice—produces a more powerful magic than any other type of music. I’m not sure why, so don’t ask me. It’s the truth, though.

Such was the case the day Dmitri Hatchett was born.

*

Dmitri’s mother was talentless and pleasantly ordinary. Since her parents died when she was twelve, she’d scratched out a humdrum living doing odd jobs for rich people—mending their clothes and massaging their bunions and watching over their personal items when out for a day of hunting in the hill country. Despite her ordinariness—or perhaps because of it—she managed to charm the son of a Mr. Roquefort. His name was Ferdie or Llewellyn or something equally ridiculous, I can’t remember. Anyway, they fell in love, I guess, although opinions are mixed on that. But Ferdie-Llewellyn-Whatever soon decided he didn’t love her after all, and divorced her, and turned her back out onto the streets.

As you can imagine, by the time Dmitri’s mother gave birth to Dmitri, she was in a sorry state. She was alone and heartbroken, and she couldn’t afford a hot breakfast, much less a proper nurse. So just after Dmitri drew his first breaths, his mother drew her last.

But not before she sang to him.

That’s how the legend  goes: That as Dmitri Hatchett’s mother lay dying, she sang her son a song. It was full of enough love and sadness and regret and pain to make up for the fact that her voice was kind of repulsive. All that emotion turned her voice, for a few brief moments, into something lovely.

Then she died, and Dmitri was alone. He was found on the street sometime later by Gipsy Blue, the mistress of a pickpocketing gang, who pretended to be a brute but was actually a huge softie. She took him in, and the root of his mother’s song was already turning over quietly deep inside him. Gipsy fed him and gave him his name. She dressed him in patched-up diapers and was at least halfway obsessed with tickling his feet. If her gang ever suspected that she actually liked Dmitri, they wisely decided not to say anything about it.

As Dmitri grew up, so did his mother’s song. It grew in the most secret part of his heart, which is coincidentally the same spot from which both magic and music originate. It grew and it grew. Dmitri became tall and lanky and freckled, and eventually he realized what was growing inside him—a beautiful song, perhaps one of the most beautiful that had ever existed. And with it, of course, grew the potential for either a great or terrible magic, depending on what kind of person Dmitri turned out to be.

Dmitri, thankfully, wasn’t an idiot. He kept his secret safe so he wouldn’t end up dead in a twisty alleyway somewhere with his throat or diaphragm cut out by someone on the Rhapsody black market, desperate for magic and willing to undergo or at least facilitate an illegal transplant. As if a transfer of vocal cords or internal organs could give you musical talent. The people of Rhapsody could be so depraved. Not to mention medically ignorant.

So Dmitri kept quiet—he was practically a mute, in fact—until a fateful Saturday afternoon when he was the solid age of twelve. There was a storm brewing, a great roiling storm that cast an ugly light over Rhapsody’s rooftops and sent the children scampering inside from their bridges. It was a storm of destiny. That’s how the legend goes. Take it with a grain of salt or whatever. You know how legends can be.

 *

That very afternoon, The Amazing Lockhart was traveling near Rhapsody in a rickety wagon covered with painted stars. If you were an astute enough observer, you’d be able to tell that it was a manufactured ricketiness. The paint had been peeled by a tool, and not naturally over time.

The Amazing Lockhart wanted you to think he was impoverished and unfortunate, so that you would take pity on him and donate generously to his patched felt hat at the end of one of his magic shows.

But Lockhart was neither impoverished nor unfortunate. He had enough money to be comfortable, and he hadn’t died yet, so I think we can agree he was fortunate in that regard at least.

He was, however, a fool, though he wouldn’t realize it in time. Most fools don’t.

You see, Lockhart was not amazing in the truest sense of the word. He was one of those street magicians who can’t perform real magic, but instead has to resort to illusions and sleight of hand. That’s all fine, in my opinion. It still looks impressive, even if it isn’t strictly authentic.

But Lockhart yearned to be a real magician. He dreamt about it every night. He had done all sorts of nasty things in all sorts of nasty corners of the world in an attempt to force magic inside him. But it’s not the kind of thing you can force, and Lockhart had become a bitter, angry loser.

You might think that’s cruel of me, to call him that. Haven’t we all felt like a loser at various times in our lives?

But just wait. He deserves it.

*

On this same afternoon, a young musician from Rhapsody was traveling the same country road down which Lockhart was traveling.

This young musician was singing to himself as he walked. Most Rhapsodisians would never dream of doing such a thing while all alone in a strange place, where anyone could happen by, sense their magic, hear their song, and put two and two together. But this traveling musician had just turned fifteen years old and thought he was the greatest and most indestructible creature to have ever walked the planet.

 *

Lockhart heard the musician’s lilting song, and he felt the magic accompanying it. It was unmistakable. Maybe because he’d spent all his life obsessing about it, and had read so many books about it, and had spent years sucking up to actual talented magicians—but whatever the reason, Lockhart tasted that magic like someone had just dashed a handful of spice onto his tongue. He tasted its bold, brash, kind of stupid fifteen-year-old-boy flavor.

“Ah.” He sat up straighter, and his poor abused team of mules winced at how hard he pulled their reins. “Ah, that is something, isn’t it? That is something indeed.”

Lockhart was tired of traveling around with all the bumpkins and the hicks. He was tired of living off of radishes and rats, and he was tired of sucking up to talented magicians. He wanted to be a talented magician. He wanted to be rich, famous, and terrifying. He wanted to receive love letters sprayed with perfume.

So he crept up on the traveling musician. He wasn’t sure how he was going to go about this, exactly. He’d killed people before as part of horrible rituals—which, by the way, had proven completely useless as well as gruesome, in that they hadn’t granted him the power of real magic after all—but he’d never killed someone with the aim of capturing their voice first.

But then he remembered: In the back of his wagon, in that deep purple box he’d stolen from that dark church in the north, where the monks wore masks and the priests had no tongues. That deep purple box that the monks had said would provide Lockhart with whatever he needed at the moment he needed it most.

Ah.

At the time, Lockhart had thought the monks were making fun of him. He had carelessly thrown the empty box into the back of his wagon. He had listened to them laughing, and their laughter had burned his ears. He had lost two fingers in that church, during a ritual the monks swore would get him some magic at last.

Dirty rotten masked liars.

But now, he felt deep in his brittle black heart that this was it. This was the key to his long-awaited success. The monks had known he would encounter this young musician on this very day. His two lost fingers were simply the price he had had to pay to earn this gift. It had all been fated.

Lockhart dug for the purple box with shaking hands. Where before it had been empty, there now lay nestled inside it, within folds of velvet fabric, an unkind-looking brass tool. It was made of wire, in a shape similar to those monks’ masks. In addition, it sported two levers that cranked open when you wound the knob between them, and the knob itself clicked open to reveal a tiny dark space. It was both a knob and a small container, too small to hold anything but a few pennies.

Or a few of something even more precious than that.

This was it. A diabolical plan came to life in Lockhart’s mind. This, he knew, was his destiny.

*

The young traveling musician didn’t see it coming. He was thinking about this cute girl from town who had the best smile he’d ever laid eyes on. Maybe when he got back, he would ask her to go to the meadow with him. He would bring along a picnic lunch. He would tell her jokes and make her laugh.

He would . . . he would . . .

What was that?

A shape in the shadowy road. A hulking darkness in the brambles.

It leapt at him. It pinned him down. It was a man with dirty fingernails and even dirtier teeth. The man thrust an unfamiliar brass tool right in the musician’s face.

The tool latched onto the musician, pushing his skin back from his skull and clamping down on his cheeks like a hockey goalie’s mask gone wrong.

The musician screamed and tried to claw the device off of himself. Even the dirty-fingernailed man looked a bit shocked.

 *

Of course, this didn’t stop Lockhart from turning the knob, which opened the levers, which forced open the musician’s mouth. When this happened, some kind of force threw Lockhart back onto the ground, and cracked open the musician’s jaw with a terrible snapping sound.

The little knob’s lid flew open, and the musician’s body flopped around on the ground like a dying fish.

Finally, he fell still. Except he was making this horrible gagging noise like he wanted to throw up and couldn’t.

A thin spiral of light, like golden smoke, floated up from the boy’s throat, right into the waiting brass box.

The box snapped shut. The device unfolded itself from the musician’s face, creeping off of him like a liquid spider, and then became still, like it was just an ordinary tool and not . . . whatever it truly was, which even I’m not sure of, to be frank. I don’t like this sort of business, myself.

For a long time, the musician lay there, gray-faced and blank-eyed, while Lockhart stared and wiped his brow and looked around to make sure no one had seen this happen.

Then he picked up the brass tool and began to laugh. He laughed loud and long, and he did a little jig right there on the forest road while his team of mules gazed at him judgmentally.

“I did it!” Lockhart crowed. “I stole his voice!” He could feel the magic thrumming there in that box, between his hands.

He dropped to his knees and said a prayer to the skies, which was pretty rich, all things considered.

“I will finally be able to do magic,” he said, tears rushing down his cheeks. “I will finally, finally, be what I’m meant to be.”

Little did Lockhart know that he hadn’t just stole that musician’s voice. Magic and music are about so much more than what kind of vocal cords you have and the capacity of your lungs.

He had stolen the musician’s soul, and in that soul resided all the magic of his music, and all the power of his magic. There are consequences for stealing such a thing. They may not happen at first, but they always happen eventually.

Lockhart led the musician into the wagon and tied him into a chair and let him sit there like a zombie, drooling on himself. Lockhart knew nothing of souls. But those masked monks in the north did. They were probably watching this whole terrible business through some secret magical mirror or something, right at that very moment, eating popcorn or whatever the northern equivalent is. They hadn’t ever liked The Amazing Lockhart. They considered him a dangerous egomaniac. They’d been waiting for this day.

*

For reasons utterly mysterious to most people in Rhapsody who only knew Gipsy Blue as a pimpled criminal suffering from chronic halitosis, Dmitri Hatchett had become fond of Gipsy over the years. After all, she hadn’t let him die or anything. And you got used to her stench after a while.

So when she got caught outside in that same fateful storm, and was struck by a freak bolt of lightning, and fell down into the river through the one spot where there wasn’t a bridge to break her fall, Dmitri’s heart shattered.

Dmitri gathered her body from the river and brought her home with the rest of Gipsy’s gang. He dried her off and set her out on her bed and held her cold, lifeless hand. He felt utterly alone.

He began to cry. His tears fell down his cheeks and onto their joined hands.

Then, for the first time in his life, Dmitri began to sing.

It was a song for the dead. It was supposed to help a dead soul move on to the next life without any trouble, and it rocked the very foundations of Rhapsody with its power.

*

It rocked and rippled out past Rhapsody, into the hill country, into the brambled woods.

 *

It rocked the wheels of The Amazing Lockhart’s wagon. It made his team of mules stumble and snort.

*

It made the poor gray-faced soulless musician in Lockhart’s wagon open his mouth in a horrible, hoarse grunt.

*

It pulled The Amazing Lockhart’s gaze out of the woods and onto the horizon, where he could see the faint outlines of a city.

“Could there be more of such creatures?” he whispered to himself. And it seemed to him that the purple box nestled in his lap whispered, Yessss.

“Then I must go there,” he said, and to experiment, he used a spell he had learned in the western deserts. A simple thing, a petty thing. It was a spell to make a wagon drive itself. He had never been able to do it.

Until now.

He felt a thin cord of power snaking out from the purple box, up through his chest, and out of the wagon. It was angry that it had been stolen, but it obeyed Lockhart anyway. It wrapped around the mules’ reins and tapped them lightly on their haunches.

It whispered, Drive, beasts. Drive.

And as that thin cord of magic wrapped tighter and tighter around Lockhart’s soul, he began to smile. It was an unnaturally thin and wide smile that made him look stretched-out.

“I must have more,” he said. He sat back, lazy, and let the spell do its thing. “I will have more.”

*

“Have you heard?”

Dmitri turned over and put his pillow over his head.

“Hey!” Something smacked his skull. “Wake up. You’re so lazy, man.”

Dmitri glared up at Wrench, who was probably his best friend in Gipsy’s gang, on days he could stand Wrench’s company, at least.

“Here. Look at this.” Wrench threw a newspaper at Dmitri’s face.

Dmitri sat up and read the front page article, and he felt his stomach tie up in terrible cold knots as he did so.

Another child had been taken.

“That’s eleven so far,” Dmitri said quietly. Ever since his song for Gipsy, he’d been talking more and more. Not much, but enough to freak people out.

Case in point: Wrench shuddered. “I don’t know if I’m okay hearing you talk. You’re not supposed to talk.”

Dmitri shoved him off the bed. “I don’t know if I’m okay with seeing your ugly face.”

They shoved and punched and wrestled each other. Then Wrench went off to do his Monday rounds on Eldridge Street, and Dmitri wandered off to Jasper Street.

He didn’t much feel like pickpocketing, though. Not with those eleven kids missing.

People gone missing and murdered for their magic wasn’t news. Remember what I said about the citizens of Rhapsody and their magical black market and their thing for diaphragms.

But until now, there had always been this unspoken rule: No hurting children.

Add to this the fact that these weren’t the usual disappearances, where a body would show up with some of their parts missing.

These were complete disappearances. It was like these kids had never existed. No one could find them—not the police, not private investigators, not the search-and-rescue dogs.

Dmitri didn’t earn much money that day. His heart wasn’t in it. And besides, everyone in Rhapsody was guarding their pockets and staying indoors. No kids played on the bridges. Worst of all, the streets were quiet. No music graced the streets of Rhapsody in those days, not a hint of song.

People were afraid.

*

When Dmitri arrived at home late that night, his heart heavy with worry, he saw his gang huddled around the kitchen table. They were hovering over the evening edition of the newspaper.

They turned when they saw him, and he knew what had happened by the looks on their faces.

“Wrench is gone,” he whispered. “Isn’t he?”

The littlest of their gang, a weaselly-looking boy named Hardy, burst into tears. Hardy’s older sister tried to sing a piece of comfort magic for him, but she was sniffling too hard to make it work.

The portrait of Gipsy Blue, which hung over their fireplace and had been, since her death, decorated with flowers, seemed to waver in the candlelight like it was crying. The flowers surrounding her pockmarked face were brown and dry.

Twelve children.

What was the link between them? Or, Dmitri thought, were their disappearances random?

He paced in front of the fire, until the last of the gang had either gone upstairs to bed or slumped right there on the dirt floor, snoring.

 *

Twelve children.

Deep below the river and its bridges, in a dank passage of sewer, The Amazing Lockhart put on a gramophone record and twirled about happily in front of his wagon.

“Twelve, twelve! A dozen for me!” He took a swig of drink and spat it at the face of the nearest child—a sweet-faced girl whose name, he had deduced from the flavor of her soul, was Penny. Her soul thrummed in the tiny box of that evil brass tool, which Lockhart kept in his pocket. Sometimes, like right now, he took it out and cracked open the box and held it to his ear.

Image by Nate Robert

Image by Nate Robert

“Shhh!” He pointed at the collection of gray-skinned, slack-jawed children surrounding him. He had tied them to the great concrete pillars holding up the sewer tunnels. The chains cut into the skin of their arms. They hung around him like the numbers on some demented clock. They were soulless and drooping. One of them was a buck-toothed boy named Wrench.

“Listen!” Lockhart told them. He sneered at them. They all disgusted him. “Listen to yourselves.”

Their twelve voices could be heard from outside the box, which had become their prison. Twelve voices, twelve souls, twelve distinct flavors of magic—savory, saccharine, sour. Like fine wines, Lockhart let the flavors of the children’s magic float along his tongue. He breathed them in and let their souls filter down into his own, horrible one.

He had deduced that the voices of children created the most pliable magic. It was easy to take it from them and make it his own. Listening to their voices filled him with both joy—that he had managed to trap their magic and use it for himself—and also with a terrible hatred.

Why was it that he had not been gifted with this magic from birth? None of these children had lost their fingers trying to get a taste of power.

Maybe he would change that. He eyed Penny Granger’s bare, muddy toes. Yes, maybe he would.

He ducked inside his wagon for a knife, but then the clock over the door chimed the hour.

“Ah!” Lockhart whirled around, forgetting all about the knife. “You know what that means, dearest ones. Play time.”

He drew upon the stolen magic wrapped around his soul—twelve different magics, all helpless to obey him. Twelve voices, trapped in a northern box, merging into his.

Never in his life had he been able to sing like this.

“Twelve little children, turned to rot
Twelve bratty trash heaps, all forgot!”

It was an appalling spell he had made up himself. He had made up his own spell. Lockhart giggled, half-delirious at the thought. He was becoming ridiculously talented. He could hardly stand it. He was desperate to show himself off.

One more child. He needed just one more. Thirteen was a good number. Thirteen was a hefty, tricky number. It was his hope that with thirteen children, he would be able to create something monstrous, something like the brass device, but made entirely of magic instead of metal. He would suck out all the power from this greedy, puffed-up town. He would leave its citizens lifeless husks and be on his way, with a box full of magic, an endless supply of power.

He grinned to think about it. He only needed one more to make it happen. He knew it instinctively. Thirteen children. You could do all sorts of things with thirteen. Those masked monks in their cold black church had told him that. He would have to pay them a visit one of these days, to thank them for what they had given him, and maybe to take off some of their fingers in revenge. It was only fair.

Lockhart’s spell ricocheted off his palms and raced around the circle of children. The spell slapped them each across their faces, over and over, while Lockhart hooted and hollered and danced, kicking their dangling legs. His spell left angry red marks on their faces. They let out muted sounds of pain, but nothing more. They couldn’t, without their souls.

The poor traveling musician let out the most pained sound of all. He was stuck there, across from Penny Granger, forced to stare at her deadened eyes. He knew what he was seeing, and yet he didn’t. He was a confused shell of skin and bones.

After a while, Lockhart exhausted himself. He sat back in his wagon and tapped his toes together.

“One more. I only need one more.”

*

At three in the morning, Dmitri stopped pacing.

It had been a month since that fateful stormy day, since the first child disappeared, and in all his pacing, Dmitri had hit upon a ghastly thought.

“What if,” he said slowly, “whoever is taking these children is after their magic?”

Weasel-faced Hardy, who had fallen asleep on the hearth, blinked sleepily awake. “Wha?”

An internal fire lit up Dmitri’s heart. “People have tried to take others’ magic before, but it’s never worked. They’ve never had the proper tools. They’ve done stupid things like carve out body parts.”

Hardy nodded sagely. The hearth was cold and ashy, so he started humming to conjure up a tiny warming spell, but Dmitri slapped a hand over Hardy’s mouth and silenced him.

“What if,” he said, “someone did have the proper tools?”

Hardy was dumbstruck. “Like what?”

dead_flowerDmitri shivered. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. But Gipsy Blue’s portrait was staring down at him, and his mother’s song was surging up inside of him. He had barely scratched its surface when he sang that tune for Gipsy’s death, and the rest of it was ready now, after all these years. He was ready.

He took off his cap and plopped it onto Hardy’s head. “Tell everyone I’ll be back by lunch.”

Then he hurried out into the night. He was frightened, but he had a feeling that his mother, wherever she was and whoever she had been, would be proud of him.

 *

The Amazing Lockhart slithered out of the sewers. His body was long and scaled, thick and agile. His thin black tongue flicked out to taste the cobblestones.

It was a spell he had found in one of those books he’d picked up at that questionable flea market in Cliff Town. He’d thought the books were useless, but it seemed when you had magic, anything was possible.

A great bitterness rose up inside him at the thought of these people who had lived here in this city, hoarding their magic. So many years he had wasted, living an ordinary life! Never again would he allow that to happen.

He coiled on the riverbank beneath a bridge, waiting. Children couldn’t resist the bridges.

Then he heard it: A song. It was so beautiful he almost wept.

Almost.

He climbed up the river wall and hurried down Broad Street, his fangs glistening with stolen power.

 *

Dmitri was so afraid that his knees were shaking. Sweat coated his palms and plastered his hair to his forehead.

He could feel something approaching in the night—something tremendous and frightening. It was gaining on him, and it wanted him. It thirsted for his voice, it hungered for his magic. He could feel it like a storm in the air—heavy and unstoppable, a rolling mass of force. It would peel off his skin; it would tear out his bones. An air of frightened children hung around it.

But Dmitri stood on the highest bridge in Rhapsody, under the stars, his feet planted on the cold marble stone like twin anchors. He did not run or try to hide. He sang, and he sang.

He sang the song his mother had given him—except for the ending. The ending, he saved for later.

Or so the legend goes.

*

Lockhart reared up from the side of the bridge. He saw himself in the terror on this boy’s face. He saw his towering snake-shadow, and felt the vibrations of his own might in the air.

He dove, fangs flashing. He wrapped his coils around the boy and squeezed, making sure not to stop his heart or crush his bones—but almost. He wanted the boy in pain, but not dead. If he was dead, his soul would leave, and the whole thing would be pointless.

Lockhart opened his mouth over the boy’s face. His snake jaws could have swallowed the boy’s entire skull. But instead he drank in the sound of the boy’s voice. He inhaled the particular magical flavor of the boy’s soul.

For this boy, this Dmitri Hatchett—Lockhart knew this by listening to the twists and turns of Dmitri’s burglarized soul—would not stop singing, no matter how much it hurt.

*

Dmitri was losing consciousness. His vision was darkening, full of red pulsing spots. Some kind of cold metal device was clamped around his face, shoving his jaws apart. He was ninety-nine percent sure a snake was wrapped around his body, crushing the life out of him.

That was insane. Maybe he was hallucinating the shape of his attacker.

But whoever or whatever it was, Dmitri could feel it gulping down his soul. He knew it was his soul even though he’d never really thought about such things before. He could feel something important being threaded out of his throat, uncoiling. He felt himself drifting out of his body into the tight dark confines of a tiny brass box.

It was a crowded box. It held twelve other childlike driftings, and they were cramped and argumentative:

You’re stepping on my foot!

Well, maybe if someone didn’t smell so bad, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to get away from her!

Well, maybe I’ll step on both your feet if you don’t shut your stupid faces!

I want to go home. Please, someone help me get out of here!

Cut it out, said Dmitri. It was so weird that he could talk while being outside his body. It was also weird to realize that his body was being dragged into the sewers by a man with dirty teeth and fingernails who kept sticking his tongue in and out like he hadn’t quite finished being a snake. But living on the streets as a pickpocketer taught you to be quick on your feet. Even if your feet were temporarily noncorporeal. So Dmitri rallied.

We have to work together, he shouted over the rest of them. Please listen to me.

The other twelve laughed and cried and jeered. You? Why should we listen to you? You’re new. You don’t get it, do you?

Dmitri? That was Wrench’s soul, frightened and confused. Is that you?

It is. He wanted to hug Wrench, but of course he couldn’t. For a moment, he imagined being like this forever—without a body, trapped in a box, his magic being used by another—and a heavy despair pressed down on him.

But the ending of his mother’s song was still inside him, safe and waiting, so he didn’t let the despair beat him. Souls are plucky like that.

Just everyone be quiet, Dmitri commanded. Trust me. Please. I’m going to try something.

And maybe they heard the authority of the song in his voice, or maybe by that point they were desperate enough to try anything, but whatever it was, something miraculous happened:

Twelve bickering souls fell silent, and Dmitri sang his mother’s last words.

“Clouds in the sky, sun in the west
Tiny hot heart beats in tiny hot chest
Winds from the east, stars shining bright
Tiny little boy won’t go without a fight

Big mean world, long hot road
But your strong arms can carry this load
Life ain’t short, life ain’t long
All I can give you is this one last song”

He sang it over and over, his voice shaking like a newborn bird. Twelve bickering, savory, sweet, tangy souls listened, and understood. Their voices wove together like the knotted streets of Rhapsody. They gathered into a battering ram of magic for Dmitri to carry.

*

Lockhart was hanging up Dmitri’s body in the center of the circle of children. He figured there was something special about this boy, so he should keep him in an important position. There couldn’t be any harm in trying to flatter the boy’s magic.

He slapped Dmitri across the face, hard. He didn’t like the look on the boy’s face. He slapped him again; the boy looked way too smug.

That’s when he felt it: A hot fist tapping his shoulder, a metallic finger running down his back.

I would imagine, at this point, Lockhart thought something like: That can’t be good. Maybe he didn’t think that, I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t afraid whatsoever. But I like to think he was afraid when he turned and saw the tiny brass box with its levers and its wire cage floating in midair, buoyed there by the magic of thirteen children’s angry souls.

Their songs echoed throughout the sewers, sending the mules into a panic. Lockhart tried to run, but he couldn’t. The monks’ device seized him by the face, yanking him to the ground. The levers pried open his stinking, black-lined mouth.

The thirteen souls burst out of their cage, led by Dmitri and his mother’s song. The voice of Dmitri’s soul was a clear, high sound, and he wasn’t alone. They sang with him, and their magic was like a chorus, an army. Like Gipsy Blue’s gang of street thieves, minus the body odor.

They gathered, thirteen glowing spools of filmy gold, as the device threw The Amazing Lockhart about the sewer, bashing his head, cracking his bones. He groaned and screamed, but there was no mercy here in this circle of children. When he fell silent, the little brass box opened once more, and Lockhart’s soul—a disgusting, stinking thing—crawled out of his throat. It could hardly move. It was flaking away. It was full of his own poison.

The box snapped shut, with Lockhart’s soul inside it—silent and alone. The movement was enough to send Lockhart’s wide-eyed, gray-faced body rolling down into the flowing sewer water. If you wanted to call it water, that is. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.

Let’s call it sludge and hope he choked on it.

*

I could tell you many things at this point: How the children’s souls returned to their bodies, and if they all stayed friends after that shared traumatic experience. If Dmitri kept singing after that, or if he had no more songs to sing, or if he grew up to be a famous tenor at the opera. If the mules ever found a kind owner, if the traveling musician ever took Penny Granger on that picnic, and if the children told the truth about their disappearances or made up something more believable. Or if they did tell the truth, if anyone believed them.

Maybe this legend is just that—a legend Dmitri and his friends started telling because the real reason behind their disappearances was something much more normal. Like, maybe they had all just gone on a camping trip in the woods and forgot to tell anyone. Or they decided to pull a Tom Sawyer and see how the town would react if everyone thought they were dead. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, I guess you can never know for sure. I’m just telling you how it was told to me. Take it with a grain of salt or whatever. You know how legends can be.

The Talent of the Howl (by Katherine Catmull)

Sing us a song, Grandma.

Don’t want to. Don’t make me.

Then tell us a story, then. 

A story, yeah!

We’d love one, Grandma.

Don’t want to tell a story. Don’t make me.

Do one. You have to do one. A story or a song.

Story or song! Story or song!

Please!

I’ll tell a story, then. I’ll tell an awful, horrid story, which is what you children deserve.

Hurray!

Long ago, long time ago, when I was young —

That was before the MOON, probably.

—when I was young, there was a girl. A girl who loved to sing. She could sing indeed, she was a good singer—not an opera singer, not that kind of voice. Her voice was simple as water, and that sweet.

But when she sang a sad song—ah, then. That girl had the talent of the sad song. When she sang a sad one, her voice pulsed with the blood of her aching heart. Her breath moved like the ocean moves, from somewhere far beneath.

song pic

And when she sang like that, then the people stood around her, mouths open, eyes full, and when she was finished, they said, “Sing again.” That girl had the talent of the howl.

A howl! Hahahaha! That means she had a BAD voice!

No, child. A song is a howl, like a dog’s howl, you know.

No it isn’t. 

Isn’t either!

Is that right? Then how come when you sing near a dog, he’ll soon begin to howl along with you—at least, if the dog looks up to you, he will. I don’t know how your dog feels about you. A song done right is your whole body howling, like a dog’s body howls and howls. That’s true for anyone, and any song.

But if you’re a true singer, as this girl was—and if you find a song with just the right sadness to it, one that harmonizes with your own sad heart—and if you sing it right, if you sing it true . . . . well, then, as this girl discovered, something remarkable happens. You close your eyes, singing, and the song wraps around you, invisible as glass. The song becomes a container, like a bottle or a boat. And then that bottle-boat bobs along the ocean of time, with you safe inside it.

When you do it right, your howl becomes a glass ship, that carries your worried mind away, far out to sea.  songpic2

And it’s such a relief, to leave this hot, bright, noisy place, and find yourself bobbing on the silent-cold and moonlit water. It’s such a relief to be carried away, unable to pause, unable to think, only letting your heart pour from your mouth, and wrap about you, and carry you away.

Oh children: to be alone and silent inside your own heart’s song, bobbing on the waves—it’s a great relief. A great relief. Greater than I can ever say.

. . . .

Grandma?

Is that the end of the story?

It wasn’t very horrible, really.

Sorry. Lost myself a moment.

It’s a relief, as I say, to be carried across the sea by your song.

But it’s dangerous, too.

Because—as this girl discovered—one day, your song may wash you up somewhere . . . somewhere new. Somewhere else.

This girl had a song, a favorite sad song. And one day, as she sang it, and closed her eyes, the song swept her out to the cold sea, as usual. She lay back, singing, and watched the million stars and the only moon, hiding and playing behind bits of cloud.

But then the bobbing stopped, though she was still singing. And she found that she was on a moonlit shore, lit silvery gray, a shore held delicate as a wafer between the jaws of the night-ocean and the enormous black sky.

And on that shore was silence, but for the crunch of her shoe on the gray pebbles, but for the wash of the waves, which is a kind of silence. Absolute silence, and silver-cool beauty. And she never wanted to leave.

But, of course, the song came to an end. And when she opened her eyes, she saw them all standing around, staring at her, saying, “Sing it again.”

Ah, that poor girl. Like the Pied Piper in reverse. Think of that poor piper, the next time you hear his story, and feel for him! Think how dreadful it must be, to be followed everywhere you go by rats and children.

Grandma, what was the song? Her special song, her favorite sad one?

Oh now. It’s an old song, that. You’ve heard me humming it in bits now and then, no doubt. I never try to properly sing it, anymore. I can’t sing it the way that girl did.

Is it that one that goes ‘O come the wild dead leaves’? I know that one.

That is the one. Clever girl, Lacy, that is the one indeed.

At any rate. For one whole year the girl would close her eyes and sing, and return again and again to her island. The song made a glass ship, and her breath was the wind in its invisible sails.

What was it like, on the island.

It is hard—it was hard—for the girl to describe. Because when you’re on the island, you see a thing, but you forget its name. You forget whether it’s of any use to you, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad. You only see it, you only see what it is. All the noise of words and saying and choosing and judging is left behind you. You only see the great beauty of the stone, the shell, the sea-grass, the star. The great beauty of the moonlight scattered and trembling on the water. And no words, no words. All the words gone quiet.

That sounds stupid!

So totally boring!

I think it sounds wonderful.

Dumbface Lacy. 

Ya dope.

Then what happened, Grandma?

And then  . . .  And then, after a while, she lost the knack of leaving, when she sang. She couldn’t make her bottle-song-boat, anymore. And the people went away, and didn’t say, “Sing again.”

Why did she lose the knack?

Oh, well. I’m not sure. She just got out of the habit, I suppose. Because one of the pied piper rats, you know, —they weren’t really rats, of course, I mean one of the staring faces when her eyes opened—well: it was a kind face, and a handsome one, with long dark brows over smiling green eyes. And he persuaded her to give up the glass boat, and the island, and to give this hot, crowded, noisy life a try.

And it was worth it. Or for a while, at least, she found it was.

But she never saw her island again.

But Gran. It’s so sad. She really never got back to the island?

Lacy! Stupid!The song didn’t really take her to an island. She just went in her mind, Grandma means.

Is that what I mean? Thanks for telling me. Shoo the lot of you now, I don’t have all day to stand telling ancient stories. Children and their “sing me a song,” as if to sing a song wasn’t to . . . Lacy. Girl. Did you hear me say shoo? Why are you still here?

Girl?

Speak up. Words.

Grandma. Teach me that song. Please.

What  . . . What song do you mean, you silly child?

I know the girl was you. Teach me that song, ‘O come the wild dead leaves,’ that song that makes a boat or a bottle. The song that carries you across the sea..

But why? Why would you want to learn such a sad song?

Because I’m no good here. You know I’m no good here. 

Oh, Lacy.

I’m not. I’m not meant to be in this place, it’s too loud and bright, it’s not my place. I can’t bear it here, Grandma, I want to go the island with you. And I think I might have the talent, too, the talent of the howl.

But girl, even if we could. Even if we could go, what about the pied piper of it? You forget the coming back, and the people saying sing it again, sing another? There’s always the coming back.

Maybe this time we could stay, Grandma. If we sang it together. If we made a harmony. Maybe that would make the ship strong enough to stay on the island, far from the hot and the noise. Only cool and gray and moonlight.

Child.

There’s no green-eyed boy for either of us, to keep us here. I’m too young, and Grandpa died a long time ago. 

Child, oh child.

Come on, Grandma, sing, too. Just sing it with me—probably nothing will happen. I’ve heard you singing. I’ve been practicing, only I don’t know all the words. Listen: ‘O come the wild dead leaves of fall/O come the coldest rain. . . .’  Then what?

‘For summer lies as dead as he/And he’ll not rise again.’ O girl, you take me back, and you make me think of . . . but we mustn’t . . .

‘O come the wild wet winter snow/O come the prickling ice. . . .’

‘For love’s laid deep beneath the ground/And that was summer’s price.’

Now we sing together. Eyes closed, Grandma, and hold my hands. ‘O come the yellow buds of spring,/O come the melting snow. . . .’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go. . . .’

Grandma! LACY. Dinner!

It’s DINNER you guys. MOM SAID COME!

Weird, they were here like one second ago, I could hear them singing some stupid–Oh! Jeez, here you are. You scared me! Didn’t you  . . .

What? Are they . . . Wait. What are they—

They’re pretending. Come on you guys. It’s obvious you’re pretending.

You’re not scaring us.

You can’t fool us, we know you’re just playing. Come on, or I’ll POKE you—

Yeah! We get fair shot to poke you, if you’re supposedly . . .

Holy . . .

But . . . something’s really wrong. Something’s really, really . . . what’s happening? What’s wrong with them, what’s—

Go get Mom. Go get her NOW.