The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Mabel Mavelia

 

There were six things Mabel Mavelia could not abide. The first was toast, the second was tea, the third was parakeets, all sorts, the fourth was her father, the fifth was her mother, and the sixth was the great, tall house on Curliblue Street, in which they had made her live. She hated that one most of all. By way of rebellion she had locked herself in the attic.

She had been fighting with her mother. The fight had begun in the dining room, escalated in the stairwell, and had exploded into a frightful burst of screaming in the third story hallway.

“Why can’t we go back!” Mabel had screeched. “I don’t like it here! I don’t want to live here, and why do we only do what you and father want? What about me?”

“Oh, oh,” Mabel’s mother had said, coming after her, great silk bustles dragging. She was rather breathless, and she kept wringing her hands and reaching out toward Mabel, as if she could not decide which gesture might be more useful. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry. I know the city isn’t what you’re used to, but- Well, if you would only give it some time- “

“No. I want to leave.”

Then Mabel had dashed up the attic stairs and had come upon a little door. Mabel had never seen the door beforethe Mavelias had only just moved into the house on Curliblue Streetbut there was a key already in the lock, and so Mabel had snatched it, waited until her mother was only steps away, and then had screamed and slammed the door with great gusto and twisted the key twice ’round.

“I’m not coming down, and I’m not opening the door, ever.” she shouted at the door. “Also, I hate you.”

Mabel was a strange child. She was sickly and pale, like salt, but a bit sharper, and her gray eyes were so huge in her thin little face that she looked to be in a perpetual state of bewilderment. She was not a bewildered child, though. No. Mabel knew exactly what she wanted, or thought she did, and she knew exactly what she hated, or thought she did.  She hated her parents and she hated the house on Curliblue Street.

She stared about the attic, her hands clenched at her sides. It was an ugly room, squeezed under the eaves. There was a window with four frosty panes in the roof, a desk, and a wooden chair without a cushion. The wallpaper was yellow.

Mabel went to the chair and sat down. She listened for a sound from the other side of the door, but there wasn’t one. Her mother had already left, tutting and smoothing her curls.

Mabel scowled out the window. The City. Chimneys and gables as far as the eye could see, hills and valley and forests of rooftops, rolling on forever. The sky was a gray swirl overhead, like a windstorm about to descend. Mabel hoped a windstorm would descend. She hoped it would sweep the City up and fling into a dustbin and the dustbin would go to an incinerator and. . . and that Mabel would escape suddenly and miraculously and everyone else would become victims of the conflagration.

Give it time, Mabel thought bitterly. She didn’t want to give it time. She didn’t know anyone in Curliblue Street. The people were all tall and gaunt and gray-faced to her, and the city was vast and anonymous, and her new school was full of starched, sallow-faced children who stared at her like cows. Or like her dolls. She always put her dolls in the corner when they looked at her like that, but it was not allowed to put other children in corners.

Far, far below, in the nice part of the house with its red drapes and bric-a-brac, Mabel thought she she heard sounds––the clink of silverware, laughter and conversation. Dinner, going on without her. The sounds made her sad. And then angry. They shouldn’t be talking and eating without her. It wasn’t fair. They should be sad, too, sad about living in this horrid city, sad about living on Curliblue Street. She rapped her knuckles on the desk.

The sound echoed in the room like a pistol-crack. Mabel jerked a little in her chair. She peered over her shoulder. It was perhaps not a very good place to be, she realized. The room was very small. The yellow wallpaper was very hideous. And there was no light, and evening was creeping across the city outside. It was becoming quite gloomy.

Mabel looked about, huge eyes darting. She wasn’t going to be afraid. She was going to stay up here until her parents begged her to come down again. “We’ll bring you back to Heretofore, darling! Whatever you want, only please, please come down.”

But her parents didn’t come up, and so Mabel hated them so much she could practically feel the hate dripping off her skin.

After a while, it began to get very dark in the attic. Almost pitch-black. The only light came from the four small panes in the roof.

Mabel got up to pace. She wasn’t about to leave. But it was getting so very dark. And the door was locked.

She circled the room. She felt the wind tickling across the roof-tiles, like spider’s legs.

She ran her hand over the yellow wallpaper. It was rough and old and rather nasty. She tugged at a rip in it. A long strip of it came away in her hand. And then she saw that there was no wall behind it. No boards or plaster. There was nothing. Emptiness.

Or not.

Behind the thin layer of yellow wallpaper, was another room. A conservatory of sorts, made of glass and full of foliage and flowers. The flowers were very odd to look at. Some were brightly colored, others were gray like rotting meat. They stretched on for what seemed like forever. There were little contraptions, too, like mechanics. Little hands to pat the soil, and little glass tubes to measure the fertilizer, and little chicken-footed watering cans to water the roots. A puff of warm air flew into Mabel’s face and blew back her hair. It was thick air, heavy with damp and earthy smells.

Mabel slipped through the gash in the wallpaper and wandered forward.

She hadn’t known there was a conservatory in the house on Curliblue Street. It wouldn’t have made anything better, but at least her parents could have told her about it. It was just like them, not telling her the good parts.

She stooped in front of a flower shaped like begging hands and sniffed it. She thought it smelled like laziness. She went on to the next one, a rose with an eye at the middle.

And then, all at once, a boy with golden hair stepped from behind a particularly large potted fern and stared at her.

Mabel’s heart leaped. She stared back at him, like a rabbit. Her face twitched a little bit. She didn’t like the look of that boy. He was younger than she was, and yet he had a tiresomely clever, self-satisfied face and golden curls that would take Mabel hours to put up. Mabel thought the boy looked rather haughty.

She regained her composure and lifted her chin. “What’s your name?” she demanded.

The boy said nothing for a second. Then he moved away suddenly, darting among the plants. “Mr. Pittance,” he called, and laughed.

“You’re not old enough to be a Mr. Anything,” Mabel snapped. She really could not abide children who made a show of themselves. She would have to add that to her list.

“Am I not?” the boy asked. And just before he disappeared behind the thick trunk of a tree, he looked at her, an odd sparkle in his eye.

Mabel watched the boy carefully, every move, every swing of his darting hands. When he passed close by again, Mabel made a move to catch him. “What is this place?” she asked, running after him. “Tell me at once. Am I in the next house over? Did I cross the partition wall by accident?”

“No. It is still your house.”

Oh, good, Mabel thought. “Well, what are you doing in our attic then? Are you a thief? Does my mother know you’re in our greenhouse?”

“Your greenhouse?” The boy popped up from behind a pot and peered at her. “It isn’t yours.”

“Yes, it is. It’s in my attic.”

“It’s my skin garden.”

“No, it isn’t, it’s- ” Mabel stopped short. “Your what?”

“My skin garden,” the boy repeated. He stood and lifted a silver watering can labeled “Pity” and laid its spout gently against the roots of a plant. Purple liquid dribbled out and the dirt drank it thirstily.

“What- ?” Mabel cleared her throat. “What’s a skin garden?” It would have been nicer to continue quarreling, but curiosity had gotten the best of her and there was nothing she could do about that.

“It is where I plant things.” the boy said.

“What do you plant?” Mabel glanced around her, at the leaves and up at the ceiling. The night pressed against the glass above. She wondered if her parents would come looking for her now.

“Oh, I plant everything,” the boy said. “Kisses, and faces, and words, and sorrows, and bits of fingernails, and flakes of skin. Drops of tears, and blots of ink, and horrid mistakes and mortifying secrets.”

Mabel squinted at him. It seemed very fanciful.

“It’s my job,” the boy went on. “I make them grow.”

“You’re not old enough to have a job. And no one wants their mortifying secret to grow anyway. What a stupid sort of job.” She hoped that would wipe the haughtiness from the little boy’s face. She was suddenly glad her father had a dull, respectable place at a bank. Perhaps she could throw that at the boy shortly.

“But surely they do,” the boy said, wandering away. “Why would they keep them if they did not want them to grow?”

“Keep what? No one keeps their bits of fingernails.”

“But they grow, don’t they?”

Mabel frowned at the boy’s back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Does fath- does Mr. Mavelia pay you?”

“No.”

“So you steal these things?”

“You said no one keeps their fingernails anyway.”

Mabel chased after him. She’d had quite enough now. Everything the boy said made a tiny, flitting bit of sense, and then she didn’t understand it at all. Well, Mabel decided to be just as annoying to the little boy as he was to her.

“I bet you don’t make much money. What happens once they’ve grown? The plants. What’s the point?”

“Well,” the boy said. “Everyone has a flower, and- “

“Everyone in the world? Here? In my attic?”

“Don’t interrupt. Everyone has a flower and I simply make the flower grow the way they want it to.”

“Oh.” Mabel thought for a second. Then, “What would happen if you cut them? What would happen if you took those scissors there. . .” She stabbed a finger at a pair of silver shears. “. . .and snipped them all down and made them into a bouquet?”

“What odd thoughts children have,” the boy said quietly, but he did not answer her question, which made Mabel even more curious and more angry.

“Here,” he said, and opened a little box. “I see you don’t understand at all. You may watch me.”

From the box he took three small objects. One appeared to be a handful of words, like printer’s blocks. Another was a few ribbons of musical notes. And the last was a pearl, black as a dead man’s heart.

“See here? I have three things from this house. Your mother read a book, and I do believe it will stay with her many years. And here is the song your father heard the other day on Fangdiddy Street,. There was a gypsy boy with a three string violin, and the sound of it touched your father’s heart like a knife. And here are the words you told your parents, yesterday over breakfast.”

Mabel saw the blob of black, like a spider, wriggling, trying to escape across the boy’s hand.

“You’re going to plant that?” she asked. She didn’t know which words they were, but they probably weren’t very good ones.

“Yes.”

“Why? No, don’t. I don’t want you to.”

“Too late.”

The boy went to a flower and dropped the blob into its roots. It sank in slowly, but then all at once, and was gone, and the flower drooped such a little bit.

“Was that my flower?” Mabel flew to his side. “Was that me?” She felt a bit panic-stricken, though she couldn’t say why.

The flower was frayed and gloomy around the edges. Mabel’s first thought was to be insulted. But then she saw the center of the flower. It was reda lovely, rich red. It made Mabel happy to see it. She stood there in her white dress and smiled a little bit. “It’s very nice,” she said softly.

“Hmm,” the boy said. “It’s not much to look at. The petals need work.” He turned away. It was a simple motion, perhaps not even intended as a slight, but it stung Mabel. She frowned at his back. He was such a short thing. She wanted to clobber him.

“Do you have a flower?” she asked suddenly.

“Of course!” The boy’s face lit up. “Come, let me show you.”

He took Mabel by the hand and drew her toward the far end of the skin garden, to a glass dome veined with spider-web wires. Under it was a single marble pot, and in the pot was the most magnificent flower Mabel had ever seen.

“That’s yours,” she stated, and she said in a flat way because the instant she saw it she was overcome with a deep, wriggling envy. The boy’s flower was far prettier than hers. Its petals were blue, speckled with gold, and its leaves were such a dark green that they were almost black, glossy and smooth as eels. At the flower’s center was a glittering poof of golden pollen, like a brooch pinning a marvelous bow.

The boy walked around it proudly.

Mabel stared at him, and then at the flower. She looked sullen. She was not being sullen, though. Mabel Mavelia’s mind was clicking like a typewriter. She couldn’t stand that boy just then. His nose was in the air, and he had such a perfect know-it-all face, and she hated his careful garden, and she hated that he had a job even though he was just a baby, and she hated everything.

Before she knew what she was doing, Mabel took up the shears on the little chair and charged toward the great flower. The boy’s eyes widened. Mabel’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. She came to the flower and snipped it right through the center. It was like cutting a snake in half. The skin was thick, and as soon as the blades sheared through it a wash of red liquid oozed out, dark and slow.

Mabel turned, breathless, smiling in triumph.

But the boy was just standing there, a look of abject terror on his pale face. He raised a hand, as if to grasp Mabel, as if to stop her. But then the flower fell, its petals tickling Mabel’s neck, and the boy fell, too. He had been cut clean in half.

Mabel’s glee faded a little bit. And then it turned to fear. The boy didn’t have bones and blood inside him. He had many little birds and little music notes and little hopes and dreams, glimmering like stars. And when he fell they all dissipated, flying into the skin garden and vanishing among the leaves.

Mabel dropped the shears. They clattered to the floor. She spun, as if she were afraid someone might have seen her. The flower continued to ooze. And then she heard noises, voices calling her, and something inside her snapped. She picked up the two empty halves of the boy and dragged them to the dirt and laid him in the soft earth. The flower’s ooze was all over her, on her hands and face. She scrabbled and dug. Then she patted the dirt over the boy’s eyes and fled through the garden, under the glass mullioned roofs, past plant after plant that seemed to grasp at her as she went. She came to the wallpaper, slashed through it. She fled the attic and went down the stairs.

Her mother spotted her in the hallway, her little sash disappearing into her bedroom.

“Mabel, dear?” her mother called, but Mabel didn’t stop. She was too busy trying to wipe the plant’s blood from the front of her white pinafore, but it wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t hide it.

* * *

Upstairs, behind the little door, behind the yellow wallpaper, Mabel’s flower stretched its roots into the dirt toward a pale hand buried there. The hand had begun to grow roots, too, from its fingertips and from under its nails. The finger-roots met the flower-roots. Slowly, it began to wrap itself around them.

* * *

The next morning Mabel woke with a start. She’d had such a terrible dream. Her heart was still heavy with it, heavy as a stone. She got up and walked about her room. It was regular, hideous, she thought, with its silly paintings and its silly fireplace. And then she remembered the boy and the dirt closing over his staring eyes. She hurried upstairs and peered into the little attic. It looked quite harmless. The yellow wallpaper was slashed, but there were only boards behind it.

“Mr. Pittance,” she called. “Mr. Pittance?” And then, quietly. “I suppose I’m sorry. I did not want to, but I was so angry with you! Please don’t be dead!”

But if there was a skin garden on the other side of the wall, it did not show itself. Mabel didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified. If there was a skin garden there was also a beautiful flower with gold-speckled leaves lying on the floor, and a chopped stem, and a little boy with golden hair, buried in the earth together with a pair of shears. And if there wasn’t. . .

Mabel shuddered. She looked out the window. She went to it and sat down and thought.

It was all just a dream. It had to be. She watched the milkmen and the ice-men and the automobiles clogging the streets, and watched the smoke rise from the chimney forests, and it was all so deliciously normal that it convinced her she had done nothing wrong. She had only dreamed it.

She went downstairs and had breakfast with her parents.

* * *

Dinner time in the Mavelia household was salad. Mr. Mavelia had become taken by a new craze, which was to eat only salads and drink prune juice for as long as was humanly possible. Mabel’s mother approved of this craze. Mabel did not.

Dinner was served by the maid. She brought in the tureens, three silver dishes with silver domes. She laid them on the table, one for Father, one for Mother. . .

Mabel got hers, a specially sized little dome with a glass of water, and a glass of prune juice, black as gutter water.

The maid lifted Mabel’s dome with a flourish. And for an instant, Mabel thought there was hand on the bed of salad inside, a pale hand reaching out of the puff of lettuce and onions. Mabel gagged. She tipped from her chair, about to be sick.

“Mabel!” her mother exclaimed and rushed her upstairs, and so Mabel was sick upstairs instead of downstairs.

* * *

Mabel woke that night, ice-cold. She had heard a sound, and it was not a good sound. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Something was hovering over her bed. A monstrous plant, its long, thorny arms coiling and snaking, black in the night. It had come in through the doorway, and Mabel could see its hide glistening in the hall and all the way up the attic stair. And in the plant, skewered on its thorns, was the boy, Mr. Pittance.

“Go away!” Mabel shrieked. “Leave me alone! I did not mean to! I did not want to!”

“Oh, you did want to,” the boy said, and his angelic face was no longer kind. “You planted me in the skin garden, well, come and pick the fruit that grew.” And here he held out his hand, and in it was what looked like an apple, only it wasn’t an apple, it was a bloody, beating heart.

Mabel leaped from her bed. She took up the lamp and lit it with trembling fingers and hurled it at the boy and the writhing vines. They burst into flames. So did the drapes. The smoke came fast and thick, and then the screams, and Mabel was bundled out into the freezing street, coughing and crying.

* * *

The house on Curliblue Street burned to the ground. Mabel’s parents took her to see a series of doctors. They thought it necessary. Because whenever Mabel looked up or down or anywhere at all, she saw plants climbing the walls of her schoolroom, or filling the streets and choking the City, and the flowers in Pimlico Park always had little mouths with little red tongues, and Mabel could not eat vegetables or fruits because they turned to golden hair in her mouth. She became ill. And then, when she had been like this for several years and her parents had sent her to an insane asylum, she found a little room under the roof, with a little window looking onto the moors. The wallpaper was yellow, ripped and clawed.

“Mr. Pittance!” she shrieked, at the wallpaper. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Pittance! I’m so terribly, terribly sorry!”

Mr. Pittance came out of the wall then. He was just as young as he had been years ago. His hair was golden, and his face was pale and knowing and smug. The only difference was that he had great big stitches across his midsection, and a knotted, gnarled wound.

“Mr. Pittance,” Mabel sobbed, dropping to his feet. “I am sorry.”

The boy wandered into the room and smiled. It was neither a kind smile nor a cruel one. “Oh, but I never doubted you were sorry,” he said. “It was simply too late then. Too late to pull up the roots.”

And he took her tears and he took her scars and planted them in the skin garden. They grew into a pretty, velvety flower, not as tall as her old one, but much hardier, a gray flower with a purple heart. Mabel got better. In fact she became quite merry after that, and whenever new, sad inmates would came to the asylum Mabel would know just how to cheer them up. But when her parents came to visit her they did not let her out. They never let her out.

A Garden Full of Bad Things

The dog lives in the backyard of a yellow house. Beside his yellow house is a gray house, and behind the gray house is a garden. The garden is overgrown, and sends the perfume of flowers all up and down the street, and sometimes also the smell of sweet rot.

The dog is a little dog, white and twitchy, and he has been trained well. He sits on a stool in his backyard and watches the garden day and night. It isn’t his job. No one told him to do it, but he is a dog and has a sense of duty he can’t shake.

His humans bring him inside on occasion, but the dog will sit at the door and whine and howl and scratch and destroy the carpets until they let him back outside. He feels so guilty about this that it has given him chronic indigestion, for his humans are perfectly good humans and don’t deserve such disloyalty. See? Even now, they demonstrate their kindness. They are bringing him a bowl of the special kibble, prescribed by the veterinarian. It is supposed to be good for dogs with stomach problems. They set the bowl down beside the dog’s stool. They pat him on the head.

“I suppose he must really like it out here,” says one of the humans.

“Maybe it reminds him of his wild ancestors,” suggests the other.

Neither of them says what they’re thinking because they don’t want to hurt the dog’s feelings. What they are thinking is that ever since they moved into this house, the dog has been acting strangely. They wonder for a moment if the house is haunted, or if the soil is contaminated, or some other such thing that a dog might sense and a human cannot. Then they laugh to themselves and go back inside.

The dog’s heart breaks. He wants to go inside with them and lay his head on their feet and sleep on the foot of their bed. But he is a dog, and he has a duty. The gray house’s garden is not right. The gray house’s garden is full of bad things.

The gray house’s garden is full of flowers that whisper and growl and entice. They are angry flowers. They are greedy flowers. But most of all, they are hungry. It has been several days since their last meal, and the dog knows they will try again soon. As always, he will try and stop them. He never stops to think that he will fail, even though he always does. For he is a dog, and he is full of hope.

So the dog settles on his stool and waits.

The dog’s name is Rabbit.

*

Rabbit wakes up in the middle of the night because he hears footsteps on the sidewalk. The footsteps are quick and uneven, like the owner of the feet is in a hurry but also unwell.

Rabbit knows that sound. He has heard it many times. He jumps off his stool and races toward the fence of his yard. There are many layers of sound in a dog’s world, and sometimes they can be hard to pick apart. For example, right now the dog is hearing the spider crawl through the grass and the owl waking up in the woods behind his house. He can hear his humans breathing as they sleep and he can hear a raincloud turning over in the sky.

He can hear many things, but none of them are as loud as the sounds from the gray house’s garden. They are the sounds of immediate danger, so they are like thunder in Rabbit’s ears.

They are the sounds of the garden waking up. They are the sounds of the flowers whispering to each other, and calling to the footsteps on the sidewalk.

Rabbit slips under the fence, through a hole he dug long ago and has cleverly disguised with an empty flower pot. He sees the owner of the footsteps, and he whimpers.

It is a child. It is a boy in his pajamas and slippers, and he smells like old baseball gloves and dirty socks, which is paradise to Rabbit’s nose. But Rabbit is not distracted. Rabbit is a very good dog.

He rushes toward the boy, his nails clicking on the sidewalk. He puts himself directly in the boy’s path and barks.

The boy skids to a halt. His eyes are wild and white. His smile is uneven and loopy. “What do you want?” he asks Rabbit. “You’re in my way.”

Rabbit does everything he knows how to do. He runs back and forth between the boy and the gate that leads to the gray house’s garden. He growls at the gate. He runs at the boy growling, trying to push him away.

The boy gets angry. “Go away,” he says, and he jumps over Rabbit, and Rabbit despairs. If only he weren’t such a little dog. If only he were a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd or even a Labrador. But he is only a tiny white mutt of a dog with big pointy ears that gave him his name.

He chases after the boy. The boy’s hands are on the gate! Rabbit bites his pant leg and tugs, and tugs. The boy turns, growling, and his face has transformed. It is sick with the garden’s power.

“I have to go to them!” says the boy, and he kicks Rabbit away, hard.

Rabbit yelps. The wind is knocked out of him. He watches from the sidewalk as the boy opens the gate and slips inside. He hears the boy’s sigh of relief once his slippers hit the soft wet dirt. Rabbit knows the boy’s nose is not sensitive enough to detect the scent of bones that wafts up from the dirt when the boy steps on it. The boy’s ears are not sensitive enough to distinguish the squelch of dirt wet with water from the squelch of dirt wet with blood.

Rabbit howls and howls, but the flowers only laugh at him. The daffodils bobbing in clumps on either side of the gate, the morning glories winding around the gate’s iron spikes—they are all laughing at him.

You’re too late, they say. Their voices are ugly. Their petals form wicked mouths, and their tongues are dark. When they breathe, the air fills with the scents of hair and fingernails and screams. For to a dog, even a scream has a flavor. You’re too late, Rabbit.

Rabbit shakes. He hates it when they say that. For he is always too late, isn’t he? And too small, and not smart enough, apparently. It is enough to give a poor, simple mutt a vast inferiority complex.

So he sits and watches as the vines wrap around the boy’s legs, and pull him down. He watches as the boy sighs and smiles and laughs, because this is just what he wanted. He wanted to come to the flowers. He heard the flowers calling him, and their voices were so beautiful. Rabbit hears the boy whispering it to himself: “So beautiful. So beautiful. Hello. Hello.” The boy is talking to the flowers as if they are old friends.

Their leaves burrow into his skin, and still he smiles. Their bulbs bend over him like heads, and their black tongues unfurl, and still he laughs.

It isn’t until the orchids latch onto his face, smothering him, that he begins to scream.

Rabbit makes himself watch, though he does grant himself the small mercy of putting his paws over his ears.

*

The next day, Rabbit doesn’t eat. He noses at his kibble and sits under his stool. He does not deserve to sit on his favorite stool today. He can smell the boy’s body as the flowers bleed it and chew it and pull it slowly into the ground. He can hear the flowers celebrating, hissing and laughing and complimenting each other.

They are very loud this morning. Children are their favorite, after all. Children, Rabbit often hears them saying, are the sweetest meat.

Rabbit’s humans leave for work. Rabbit can no longer listen to the flowers gloat and belch and clean the blood from their petals. He is beside himself with shame. He wanders through his backyard, whimpering. The poor boy, he thinks. The poor boy with his baseball gloves and his smelly socks. What will his parents think?

At the edge of the backyard is a fence, and beyond that fence is a field of tall grasses and some woods. Rabbit digs under the fence and comes out into the field on the other side and howls quietly to himself. He will continue to wander forever, he thinks. He will wander away until he finds somewhere he can actually be useful, or perhaps until he dies. Perhaps, he thinks forlornly, dying would be best. A dog who cannot help humans is no dog at all.

But then he hears footsteps crashing through the grasses. The footsteps are coming from the direction of the woods. Rabbit thinks this is curious, for he has never heard anything in these woods except for foxes and birds and snails.

Then he sees the girl. She is as young as the dead boy was. She is wearing a dress that is torn and dirty. She has a wild face and wild eyes, and her hair is full of mud and twigs. She does not move like a human. She moves like an animal, darting this way and that.

She runs toward the gray house’s garden. She is confused. She does not know where she is going.

Rabbit follows her, barking. He does not stop to think how strange this girl looks, or that he has decided to wander off and die. For he is a dog, and when it comes right down to it, he will forget his own problems and do the right thing. He runs and barks and thinks that he will bite the girl’s leg if he has to. A bite from a small dog named Rabbit will be better than getting eaten by flowers.

But the girl stops. She stares at him. She kneels down in the dirt and begins to talk to him, but she does not talk like other humans do. She talks in growls and clicks like an animal, and Rabbit understands her perfectly. He sits back on his haunches and cannot help but wag his tail. This girl is a strange one. He likes this girl.

“You’re saying,” says the girl, clicking and growling, her eyes wide, “that the flowers in that garden eat people?”

“Yes,” says Rabbit, barking. It is a serious moment but he nevertheless has trouble stopping himself from licking her face. He has never talked with a human before, and it brings him a joy not unlike the joy that comes from getting his belly scratched. “Yes, that is what I’m saying. The flowers talk to people. They trick them inside, and then they eat them. They like children best of all.”

“How do you know this?”

“I hear them talking to each other.”

“Ah.” The girl nods. “I didn’t know dogs could understand flowers. But it makes sense.”

“Does it?”

“Of course. Dogs hear and smell and understand things much better than humans do, don’t they?”

“Much better indeed,” Rabbit says gravely.

The girl looks at Rabbit, and then looks around, and then pulls a thorn from her skirt. “Where are we? Could you please tell me?”

Rabbit does not understand. “What do you mean? This is the world. We are in it.”

“But it’s our world, isn’t it? Not theirs?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“This is the world where the sky is blue and the stars come out at night and things are all facing right-side up?”

Rabbit tilts his head. “Apparently the sky is blue. That’s what the humans say. And roses are red. They say that too.”

“Yes.” The girl’s face is strange now. “Roses are always red.”

Rabbit has been so distracted that he doesn’t notice it until now: “You smell funny. You smell not quite right.”

“I’ve been . . . away,” the girl says. She looks at the ground. She smells afraid. “I have been far away, in a place where the sky is black and the stars are falling and everything is upside-down.”

“Well, you are here now. My name is Rabbit.”

“A dog named Rabbit.” The girl frowns. “What nonsense. My name is Alice.”

When Alice says her name, Rabbit hears the flowers in the gray house’s garden stop gloating and boasting. He hears them turn their heads. He feels their silence and their fear.

That, he thinks, is odd. The flowers have never been afraid before.

“You should go home,” says Rabbit. He growls, because he thinks that will frighten her away. “It is not safe here. The garden, the flowers, they will hurt you. You are a child, and they will want to eat you. Go. Run away. Go now.”

Alice looks at the garden through her muddy hair. She looks angry. “They like children best of all, do they?”

Rabbit hears the flowers bending closer to listen. He hears them licking their lips. He hears the clack of their throats full of teeth. “Yes!” Rabbit is becoming afraid for Alice. He yaps and yips and runs around her feet in circles. “You must leave! Oh hurry, before it is too late!”

“Rabbit.” Alice picks him up. He stares into her dirty face. “I swore I would never go there again, once I got out this time. I swore it. But I think that I must. Because I think I know of a way to destroy this garden, these flowers that eat children, and if I know of a way, I must do it even if it scares me, mustn’t I?”

“What do you mean, go back there?” This time Rabbit does lick Alice’s face because that is the best way he knows to help a frightened human. “You mean to the upside-down world?”

“Yes. If I go back there, and I return with a great weapon, a weapon that can destroy that garden and those flowers, will you help me do it?”

Rabbit stops wagging his tail because he understands this to be a solemn moment. “I will.”

“It will be frightening,” Alice whispers. She is not looking at him. She is looking away, back at the woods. Rabbit is not sure if she is talking about fighting the flowers, or returning to the upside-down world. And he is not sure if she is actually all that frightened. Her emotions are confusing.

“All important things are frightening,” says Rabbit.

Alice nods. “Yes. Yes, you are of course quite right. Will you come with me and wait outside while I’m inside?”

That does not make sense to Rabbit, but he will of course follow her anywhere, this wild girl who talks like an animal, who smells like one and has been to an upside-down world. She seems more like a dog than a human, this Alice. Rabbit likes that. He trots beside her into the woods. They reach an ugly tree with a giant hole in its trunk. The air here smells strange, like Alice does. Rabbit puts his head on her bare feet and waits patiently while Alice cries beside the tree. She is scared, but she is also brave. It is a feeling Rabbit can understand.

Alice dries her tears on her muddy skirt. “This is the last time I will ever go back, ever,” she says, but Rabbit knows it is a lie. He can hear it in her voice. He can feel it in her heartbeat.

Alice climbs into the hole in the tree. She screams, and disappears. Rabbit sits in front of the tree, and whines, and waits.

*

When Alice comes back, she is even dirtier than before. She smells like salt water and metal and old stone. There are feathers in her hair, and her skirt has a belt now, and in the belt is a knife.

Rabbit jumps up and Alice holds him in her arms and shakes. She holds him too tightly, but Rabbit is happy to be useful again, and he is quiet until Alice stops shaking.

“Well?” says Rabbit. “Do you have it? Do you have the way to destroy the garden?”

“I have a way,” Alice says. Her voice is scratchy and tired and frightening. “It is probably not the way, and it might not be someone else’s way, but it is my way.”

“I understand. My way was to try and scare off the humans before they got inside the garden. But I don’t think that was the best way. But it was the Rabbit way.”

Alice looks at him with a funny expression on her face. “You are a strange dog.”

“And you are a strange child, but I like you.”

Alice smiles. It is the first time she has smiled in months, but not even Rabbit can know that.

“What is the great weapon?” Rabbit asks.

Alice sets him down and holds out her hand. In her hand is a seed. It is a large seed, and angry looking. It is black and red and spiky. It has left tiny bites on Alice’s palm.

“In some places,” Alice whispers, “there are flowers that are even worse than child-eating flowers.”

Rabbit whimpers. He senses that he is close to things that are too big and important for one small white dog to handle. “You mean, in the upside-down world?”

Alice nods. “And this is a seed of one of them. And we are to plant it in that garden, and let it grow and destroy the others.”

Rabbit is ecstatic. He jumps out of Alice’s arms and rolls around in the dirt. As usual, his joy is quick and gets the best of him. But then he thinks of something. “But if these flowers are even worse than child-eating flowers, and we plant this even worse flower, won’t the garden become even more dangerous?”

Alice looks back at the tree. She is still a child, but she seems much older than she was when Rabbit first met her. “No,” she says. “It will not. It will be a beautiful, tame garden for as long as this world is a world, and everyone will come to admire it, but it will never hurt anyone. We made a deal.”

Rabbit does not know who Alice is talking about. He does not want to know. He has no interest in this upside-down world that sounds so dangerous. He hopes there are no dogs there, but he somewhat vindictively hopes there are cats.

*

At the gate of the gray house’s garden, Rabbit is ready. He is growling to make himself feel fierce. Alice is beside him. They have a plan. Alice is beside him and her hand is on the gate’s latch, and in her other hand is the angry black-and-red seed.

The flowers are watching them. Their petal faces are watching the gate. They are hissing and spitting.  They are beckoning and laughing. Alice. Alice. Alice and Rabbit. Try it. Just try it. We are not afraid of a girl and a Rabbit.

But they are afraid. Rabbit can sense that.

Alice looks down at him. “Are you ready?”

Rabbit wags his tail, and Alice smiles but also looks sad.

“You are a good dog,” she says, and Rabbit’s happiness overwhelms him. He almost turns over to show Alice his belly and request a nice scratch. But then Alice is opening the gate, and they are running.

It is Alice’s job to plant the seed. It is Rabbit’s job to protect her while she plants it.

He runs as fast as his tiny white legs can carry him. Lilies snap at him. Vines wrap themselves around his legs. Tiger lilies throw themselves at him, petals crashing into the ground. The petals smell like blood, and they attach to his coat like suckers. They hurt, but Rabbit does not stop. They do not stop him for long, these shrieking flowers that smell like dead children. He is a small dog, and he is too fast. Too fast for them to touch and too small for them to catch.

Alice is digging. Petunias are swarming over her feet and up her legs, and their voices are small and high like children’s voices. Such a sweet girl, Alice is, they sing. Alice is crying, but she is brave. Alice slashes at vines with her knife. And Rabbit is tearing at the flowers with his teeth and his claws, ripping them to pieces. There is blood on his white coat, but he doesn’t mind. Helping is what a dog does best, and he is happy.

“There!” Alice cries, and slams her fist onto the dirt. She has planted the seed. Her hands are covered in blood and mud and thorns. She finds Rabbit. He is choking in a bed of violets. They fill his mouth and his nose and his ears, and he is afraid, but then he sees Alice. She is crying and ripping the flowers from him, and then he is in her arms. She is saying, “Good dog, such a very, very good dog,” and Rabbit is wagging his tail even though he is hurting. Alice is running out of the garden, and he is in her arms.

The flowers are screaming.

Rabbit opens his eyes and sees it happening. The garden is thrashing and crashing. The garden is drowning under the weight of something new.

They are roses.

They are red roses, bushes of them, towers of them, and they do not speak but they do have teeth. They smother the other flowers so they cannot breathe. They rip the other flowers from the ground and tear their roots to shreds. Even though it is dark, and even though Rabbit sees the world in gray and only knows what color his humans say things are, he knows that these roses are red. They are redder than blood. They are dripping red.

When it is finished, the roses poke their heads over the fence and whisper, Alice, dearest girl, dearest Alice. We did what you said. Now you do what you said. Dearest darling Alice.

“Alice.” Rabbit is whimpering. He wants to say thank you, but Alice is hugging him too tightly. She is setting him on the porch of his house. She is ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door. She is crying and plucking the thorns from Rabbit’s coat. He feels that she is afraid and sad, but also that she is happy.

He hears his humans inside. They are waking, they are hurrying down the stairs.

“Alice,” Rabbit tries to say again, “what did you say you would do? What deal did you make?”

But then the door is opening and his humans are exclaiming things. They are afraid for him. Rabbit knows he will be all right, and he tries to tell them this by licking their hands. They are calling the veterinarian, and they are carrying him to the car. Rabbit feels their love so deeply that he almost doesn’t see her:

Alice, climbing over the fence and running through the field toward the woods. He hears her crying and he hears her laughing. He feels it when she climbs inside the tree. He smells her fear when she screams, and he smells it when she jumps, and he understands now what Alice said she would do. He understands that this time, the jump is forever.

~*~

The Iron Rose

This happened on an island kingdom, a long time ago, although not so long ago that everyone has forgotten. I have not forgotten.

On this island stood a bright and flourishing city. Around the elegant palace flowed broad streets full of cheerful people buying and selling fish and shoes and toys and bread and other pleasant things. Near the western edge, the soil was rich, and farmers grew vegetables and herbs.

In the center of the island was a forest, and in the center of the forest was an unusual flower. Some flowers grow in the deep woods, you know, no matter how little the sun. Deep purple violets, creamy foamflower—they can grow among shadows and dappling light.

And deep in this wood, among the bleeding-heart and monkeyflower, among the baneberry and sweet-after-death, grew a flower that needed no sun at all: a flower made of iron.

“Grew” isn’t quite the right word, of course. It had been planted there, long ago, an iron-gray rose in full blossom. Each of its hundred petals was carved in thin and curving metal, and its iron stem bent gracefully, and its thorns were sharp and precise as tiny daggers.

In spring, when the real flowers were just budding, the Iron Rose stood among them, tall and complete. In summer, when the real flowers blossomed out full, the Iron Rose stood unchanged. In autumn, when the real flowers bent low, faces crumpling into death, the Iron Rose stood strong.

And yet the Iron Rose had its own seasons. Spring rains brought the Season of Glistening Like Wet Black Ink Against the Last Snow; then came the Season of Rust, which flaked off in pretty patterns, and floated on the wind like pollen; and then the loveliest season, the Season of Jewels, when the ice made every leaf, petal and thorn into silver and diamond.

And like a real flower, the Iron Rose had its own perfume, or sort of perfume: a warm, metallic scent, like the taste of blood in your mouth.

One late summer day, a woman walked through the woods, swinging a stick in front of her to clear her path. She was a writer of stories, and writers like to walk. She wasn’t thinking about the flowers, and had murdered or maimed scores of them in her irritable passage.

But then her stick clanged against something metallic and hard.

That’s unexpected, deep in a forest. So the woman looked down, and saw it — the lron Rose, unchanging among the blooming and dying forest flowers. She knelt to look closer. The craftsmanship was flawless. The emperor would pay in splendid gold for this.

Careful of the thorns, she tugged at the rose, and it came up as easily as a piece of grass. Holding it gingerly, arm outstretched, she walked home, daydreaming what the gold might buy her— a voyage to Alexandria? a new roof?—and marveling at its extraordinary, intricate craftsmanship. Why, it was almost as if it had been made by magic.

In fact, the Iron Rose had been made by magic, the magic of a very great magician, and a very wicked one. He was so wicked that the emperor, who was a nice if unimaginative man, had many years before banished him from the island kingdom.

But banishment is not always the best weapon against badness. You are no sooner told that you may not have a cookie than a cookie is all you can think of, and it becomes the most gorgeous and desirable thing there is. Where you might have had one cookie, you find yourself sneaking off with seven.

Before he left the island, the wicked magician had made and planted the Iron Rose. It stood in the forest like a time bomb, slowly tick, tick, ticking off the years, until someone found it, as he knew they would, and took it to the emperor, as he knew they would, for he had made this flower the most gorgeous and desirable object ever seen on the island.

It certainly looked gorgeous and desirable to the emperor, who paid the writer all the gold she had imagined and quite a bit more, in order to possess that Iron Rose.

But I think the emperor must have had a cold that day, because he did not notice its faint perfume of blood.

For a while, that was that. The emperor displayed the Iron Rose in a silver vase in his treasure room, and he visited it often—though less often as the weeks went by, as something about its sharp iron petals and even sharper thorns unnerved him.

Then one day, a few months later, as a maid dusted the Iron Rose, a noise startled her. It was only one of the emperor’s cats, leaping off a suit of armor. Only a cat: but still the startled maid’s hand struck against an iron thorn, which pierced her finger—just as the magician had known would happen somehow, some way, to someone.

“Ah!” cried the maid, because it hurt surprisingly much. She held up her finger, saw it welling with red.

Three drops of blood fell onto the Iron Rose.

The dark gray metal softened. Its color deepened, first to something like black, then to something like red. The chief housekeeper, who had come running at the maid’s cry, watched with her. Yes, no question: the iron was reddening before her eyes. Imagine a black-and-white photo turning into color.

But that wasn’t all: the iron was softening, becoming more delicate, more vulnerable, more alive. It was no longer an Iron Rose, but a real flower, red and glorious, at the height of its beauty. It was a real rose now, in every way but one: it retained its faint, metallic, bloody perfume.

Word made its way to the emperor, who soon stood before the flower with the maid and chief housekeeper and all his counsellors, marveling and exclaiming, and having the maid tell the story of how it had happened again and again.

Then the emperor and his counselors and servants all went to bed

The next morning, there were two roses.

The morning maid called the chief housekeeper, who called the chief counselor, who called the chief gardener, but no one had an explanation. They decided not to mention it to the emperor.

The next morning, four roses crowded the silver vase. The maid laughed out loud. This time they did tell the emperor, who wondered in astonishment whether someone was playing a practical joke. A watch was set up, which watched all night, and saw nothing.

But the guards must have fallen asleep, though they swore they had not, for the next morning, there were eight roses. These new roses spilled on the table and floor. The emperor said sharply, “Take them outside.”

You can perhaps guess what happened. The next morning, on the scrap of lawn where the eight roses had been tossed, were sixteen roses. The morning after that, there were 32.

“Well, I like roses,” said the emperor, defiantly.

The next morning, there were 64 roses.

As a boy, the emperor had never paid close attention to his geometry lessons, but his chief counselor had. He understood that a daily doubling of the roses might have quite serious consequences. “We must destroy those roses,” he told the emperor.

The emperor shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t like them anymore. Whatever you think.”

The counselor ordered the chief gardener to poison the roses with the strongest weed killers he had.

The next morning, there were 128 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to dig a deep hole and bury the evil red flowers.

The next morning, there were 256 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to build a bonfire and burn the roses until nothing remained but ashes.

The next morning, there were 512 roses. The scrap of lawn where they had been thrown was now ankle-deep in thorny, blood-red flowers.

I will allow you to imagine for yourself how it went over the next two weeks. Despite all their efforts, the roses doubled and redoubled, like the fury of a banished magician. By the 25th day, over 167,000 roses filled the palace. The people of the island, who had at first been charmed by the sight of red roses spilling from the palace windows—it must be a sign of favor from the gods!—were less pleased to see roses scattered through the streets as well. Besides, they were growing slightly ill from that strange, sickening perfume.

Three days later, over a million roses choked the city streets. People stayed in the their houses, because to wade outside was to have your legs torn open by thorns.

The next day, roses carpeted the crops on the western side of the island, smothering them.

The emperor now sat miserably in his palace’s highest tower, crowded among his counselors and servants. People began to panic, to discuss abandoning their island. But it was trading season, and the fish were running, and most of the ships were gone. The few small pleasure-crafts left on the island were now buried under tons of thorny flower.

From the emperor’s high tower, with frantic semaphore, they tried to call back the last big ship to leave—a passenger ship on its way to Alexandria. No one on the ship noticed the tiny, distant flag—except one passenger, a writer of stories. But she couldn’t read semaphore, and turned back to her guidebook.

It was lucky—by which I mean, our world was lucky—that the sea was there to stop the roses. They spilled out onto the beaches, and filled the shallows, and great rafts of them floated out hundreds of yards. But eventually the salt water poisoned and discouraged them enough that they stopped doubling, and began to die.

Or perhaps the magician’s anger was finally sated.

When the trading vessels and fishing boats returned, they found an island buried under a mound of dead and dying roses. The forests, grasses, and people underneath were crushed, and smothered, and dead.

Bodies were discovered bound down by thorns, mouths stuffed with the remains of fat red blossoms.

The boats left quickly, and no one visited the island again for many years. The kingdom was abandoned. Even today, it is rarely visited. When travelers do stop there, they find a ghost island, populated only by skeletons wrapped in thorns. The broad streets and narrow forest paths alike are piled with dry, dusty petals. And everywhere lingers a faint perfume of blood.

Poppy and the Poison Garden

Mischievous readers! It took much longer to bring this object to you than this Curator had hoped. Oh, the tales I could tell of plagues and an hourglass through which sand fell three times faster than time as we usually know it. Yes, I could tell those tales, but they might be too frightening even to belong in this Cabinet. I hope you will be appeased by the following instead.

— Curator Trevayne

Behind the gates at the end of the lane, the poison garden grew.

Even if there hadn’t been a sign hung on the iron, the children would have known exactly what was planted there, they would have known they were forbidden to enter, this being the source of their parents’ most frequent and hysterical warnings. “Don’t ever go in, are you listening?”

But there is a very particular kind of person who will take words such as these as a challenge, not a warning.

“You’re just scared,” Poppy’s brother teased.

“You are,” she retorted. The rest of the children laughed. It was easy to taunt each other in this way, since, no matter how hard they’d tried, none of them had managed to find out how to get in. The stone wall was twice as high as a person, topped with spikes sharp as needles, and went on as far as they could see. One long, lazy summer afternoon they had followed it, looking for a crack or a hole or some place where the heavy rocks had come loose. Many hours later, smeared with mud and scratched by brambles, they had ended up where they began, back under the sign on the gates, with its warning that the plants within could kill a full-grown man.

“I want to see,” said one of the other boys.

“You want to see a man die?” Poppy asked, with far more curiosity than horror.

“‘Course not, but I want to see what could do it. The plants in my garden are boring. All basil and whatnot.”

Everyone else, maybe a half-dozen children in total, nodded in agreement. Poppy took her little brother’s hand and began to march him back down the lane to their house in time for dinner. Beside the front steps, bright red poppies bloomed with the last flush of life, planted there by her mother every year on Poppy’s birthday. They were pretty enough, but surely the things growing in the poison garden were much more interesting.

Poppy was quite a fan of interesting.

“Poppy, David, wash your hands, what have you been getting up to?” their mother asked.

“We were up at the garden,” said David, because younger brothers are very stupid and don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.

Their mother dropped a ladle. “You must never go in there!”

“We know,” said Poppy, rolling her eyes. “We couldn’t anyway, it’s all locked up. We were just outside.”

“Well, all right,” said their mother, stirring a pot of soup. “But I wish you’d find something else to do. There’s something not right about that place.”

Poppy had heard all the stories. That men disappeared inside the gates, that the only person with a key was an old woman nobody ever saw, that strange footprints, neither human nor beast, were sometimes seen on the dusty path. Those things couldn’t all be true, and anyway, it was just the kind of place about which such stories were told.

Frankly, she had her doubts that it was dangerous at all. Interesting, yes, but it wasn’t as if anyone was going in there and picking leaves to eat as salad, and didn’t a person usually have to eat the wrong plants to get sick? That sort of thing happened all the time in books, some princess or other foolishly swallowing a cake or pudding someone had given her, without thinking whether it was truly a gift.

Funny, it was always an old woman in those stories, too.

Outside Poppy’s window, the moon was very full and bright. She blinked, still sleepy, unsure what had awoken her. No voices drifted up from downstairs, which meant it must be late enough that her parents had gone to bed, but still too early for the birds to have begun twittering in their trees.

The long path up to the garden glowed almost blue, moonlight against the gray dust of a summer without much rain.

And someone was limping up toward the gates, doubled over so that she looked most like a bundle of blankets propped up by a walking stick.

Poppy’s bare feet made no sound on the floor as she crept out onto the landing and down the stairs, pausing only for a moment to wonder whether she should wake David, who would want to see.

But he would make too much noise, and so she slipped through the front door alone. She dared not call to the woman, which might wake up everyone on the street. Stones cut at her toes and a chill wind bit through her nightshirt, but Poppy didn’t stop. Squinting through the moonlight, she could just see the old woman, almost at the gates.

If she locked them behind her, all Poppy was going to have to show for sneaking from her bed in the middle of the night would be sore feet and a cough from catching cold. Poppy hurried, cursing very quietly whenever she stepped on something sharp.

The gates, when she got there, were open.

“Hello?” Poppy called, one hand on the iron. There was no reply. “Can I come in?”

A warm breeze gusted from inside the garden, scented with something sweetly gentle. Poppy stepped through the gates, into warmth better suited to noon than midnight, lovely after the chilly walk. Neat paths wove between flowerbeds, tall trees spread thick branches overhead. Moss, soft and green, curled over rocks, laying a hush over everything.

“Hello?” Poppy called, one more time, and even to her own ears her voice came out as a whisper. There was no sign of the old woman, nor even of the tapping of her cane over the paths, but it wasn’t completely silent.

Nearby, something skittered, as did a shiver up Poppy’s back. “Some kind of animal,” she told herself, venturing further into the garden. It was light enough to read the little signs on wooden plaques in front of every plant and so she did, tasting the words, too beautiful to be bitter or poisonous. Oleander. Narcissus. Hyacinth. Why, her mother planted those last ones, they couldn’t be so very dangerous, no matter what else the sign said.

“Foxglove,” she read at the next one, looking first at the plant, then the sign, and then…

The bones in the flowerbed beside it, scraps of cloth still clinging to shins and arms. One elbow bent, the hand clutching at where the heart would once have been.

Poppy stumbled back, her own heart racing as if she’d eaten the flowers herself. The skull grinned at her and she ran, not paying attention to the paths or direction until she had to stop, gasping for breath.

The gates were nowhere in sight. The garden walls were too far to make out. And there, there were more bones, slumped against the trunk of a yew tree.

Also known as the Graveyard Tree, read the sign beside a foot, bleached white by moonlight.

She wanted to scream, to yell, but no sound would come out and in any case, she knew it wouldn’t do any good. She would just have to find her own way back, out through the gates and down the path and into her own warm bed, for she was suddenly very tired.

Every step felt as if her aching feet were made of stones big as the ones that made up the walls. On and on she went, until she suddenly stopped.

The air was sickly sweet. All around her, poppies bloomed red as blood. Truly, she hadn’t meant to step on them, but the moment she did, the soreness in her scraped and bruised feet seemed to disappear completely.

“You’re mine,” she said to the flowers, though it didn’t make any sense. “We have the same name.”

The poppies danced in the warm breeze.

Poppy knelt to touch the petals and look at their deep black hearts. Oh, they were so soft against her fingers and her legs and her cheek as she lay down among them, their perfume covering her like a blanket.

Blankets. A bundle of them stood on the path, right where Poppy had just been.

“Goodnight,” said Poppy. The walking stick rapped twice on the ground and the bundle turned away.

And Poppy closed her eyes.

Plum Boy and the Dead Man

A black tree leans over the rocky road from Harrypatch to Winthropa monstrous tree, thick and warped like a rotting blood vessel. Its branches whirl into the sky, strands of ink in frozen water. The countryside all about is bare, and the fields stretch for miles, and this tree is the only one in sight, as if it has frightened all the other trees away. A length of rope is knotted through its crown, back and forth and crisscrossing, and one bit of the rope hangs down, and from it hangs a mana thief, they say, and a murdererand now look! a little boy is coming up the road. He is rich as a too-ripe plum, and round like one, too, and he has little toothpick legs and a jaunty green cap.

He stalks along, the pompous goose, swinging a half-sized walking stick made just for him. He does not see the dead man in the tree. He walks, walks, staring at the darkening sky with large watery eyes. He sees the tree. He wrinkles his nose and peers at it. He does not understand what is hanging in it. He realizes it is not a branch or a particularly large and hideous bird. And then, when he is directly below it, he sees that it is a man, and the man is dead.

Plum Boy startles. His knees knock together and he clutches at his hat.

Slowly, very slowly, he begins to edge around the ugly tree, pressing himself to the far side of the road, his eyes round as saucers. And now he is past it and hurrying on.

And this is when the dead man calls out:

“You,” he cries, very softly from his dead, dry throat. “You? Come here a moment?”

The boy lets out a shriek and breaks into a proper run. But he is clumsy and he trips, and wriggling onto his back, he stares at the tree and the hanged man in terror.

“Don’t run,” the dead man says, very gently. He is hanging with his back toward Plum Boy, but there is no one else in the fields and no one on the road, and Plum Boy is sure it is the dead man who had spoken.

“Who are you?” Plum Boy squeaks. And then, because he does not want to sound afraid, he says, “Why are you hanging in a tree? You know, you might startle someone. Come down at once.” Because you see, Plum Boy thinks the dead man is playing a game. And perhaps the dead man is. . .

“I wish I could,” the dead man says, turning slowly on the end of his rope. “But I’m afraid I am quite put out.”

Plum Boy stands quickly and brushes the dust from his velvet breeches. He eyes the corpse suspiciously. Live men should not have such oddly turned necks, he thinks. Live men should not gave such badly blackened feet.

“It is a magic trick,” says Plum Boy stoutly, but his voice shakes. “Come- come down!” He stamps his foot.

The dead man has turned a full circle. He is facing Plum Boy now. His head is cricked over the noose, his eyes empty. He is smiling, like a puppet on a string, because there is nothing else he can do; he has no lips anymore.

“Alas, I cannot,” the dead man says. He sounds unbearably sad. “But come and sit down a while at the bottom of my tree. . . Come and speak with me.”

Plum Boy gapes at him. The dead man sounded kind, but there were maggots on his cheeks.

“No,” says Plum Boy. “You are a thief and a murderer. I’ll be on my way now.”

“Oh, don’t! Don’t leave! It is so lonely here.”

It is lonely, Plum Boy sees. The fields are nothing but bare, wretched humps all the way to the horizon. Night is coming. Perhaps, Plum Boy thinks, if he makes the dead man very desperate. . . Plum Boy stuffs his fingers in his pockets and hunches his shoulders.

“No,” he says. “You are a recalcitrant criminal. If you were hanged you deserve to be lonely, that’s my opinion.”

The dead man continues to smile. His teeth are very white. In life they must have never grown yellow with cane sugar and tobacco and ale like those of Plum Boy’s parents and indeed of Plum Boy himself.  He begins to turn away from Plum Boy again, the rope doing another slow, creaking turn.

“You seem to think a very great deal of your opinion,” the dead man says.

“And why shouldn’t I? My father says everyone ought to have opinions or they’ll be wobbly as marrow pudding.”

“But what if your opinion is not true?”

Plum Boy thinks that is a very odd idea.

The dead man ventures on. “And even if I am nothing but a thief and a murderer, must you hate me? Must you be cruel?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because you are very wicked.”

“And you are not? You are perfect?”

“Quite,” says Plum Boy. “And now I’m going.”

Plum Boy spins and begins to walk again, for good this time. At least, he pretends as if it is for good, but he simply wants the dead man to beg. It pleases Plum Boy when people are desperate for him to speak with them, because they aren’t very often. Plum Boy cannot imagine why.

“No, please!” the dead man cries after him. “Just tell me a few little things. What is your name? What is happening in the world these days? Is the tree still blooming in the square in Harrypatch? Tell me anything, so that I can think on it while I hang here.”

The dead man cannot move, but it is as if he is struggling to twist back toward Plum Boy. He is like a very slow top, Plum Boy decides, a very dull, broken top that has gotten stuck in a tree.

Plum Boy sighs. He shakes his head slowly, as if he is pondering some great sacrifice he must make. Then he returns to the tree and pulls out a very large, very flowery handkerchief that been soaked in lavender water and covers his entire face with it.

“All right,” he says. “I will be charitable today. But I don’t want to look at you, because you are far to ugly. I live in Winthrope, in a big house that is nicer than all the other houses, and I have a mother and father and four sisters and three brothers and we own the bakery and the pie shop and the coffee house, too.”

“How grand,” the dead man says. “And what month is it? And what is the weather like? And what is your name? And what are in your pockets?”

Plum Boy realizes the dead man must be very nearly blind.

“It is April. Spring,” says Plum Boy. He begins digging in his pockets, almost eagerly. A jackknife comes out, a bit of string and some sticky, nasty, yellow toffees. He lists them to the dead man. “I have a wind-up horse, too,” says Plum Boy, “but I forgot to bring it.”

And then Plum Boy straightens suddenly. The handkerchief slips from his face, but he does not catch it. “You asked me my name twice.”

The dead man hangs from his rope, unmoving.

“I’m sick of your questions,” Plum Boy says. “Why did they hang you? What did you do?”

“Oh,” says the dead man, softly. “That is a very long, sad story.”

“Well, you can leave out all the boring bits and the sad bits and only tell me the horrible crimes.”

“But those are the most important parts,” the dead man says. “The boring bits and the sad bits. . .”

“I don’t want to know them. Who died? Was it very gruesome?”

“Yes,” the dead man says. “It was very gruesome. Seven people from the farms, seven people on the forest floor, and they had no eyes and no teeth, but I did not do it. I was an herb-brewer then, and the potion-witcher, but the magistrate said I was the murderer, and everyone was certain they agreed with him. They made their opinions so quick, in an instant, and yet their opinions were strong as stone. And so they hung me here. Who is the magistrate these days? Is it still the same one? Still old Master Penniman? And, boy, what is your name?”

Plum Boy stares up at the tree. The sun is going down. It is an odd picture, a round boy and an ugly tree and a strange dead person, all stamped in black against the bloody red sun.

“Who is the magistrate?” the dead man asks again. His voice sounds precisely the same as it had the first time he had asked the question, kind and a tiny bit wheedling, as if he does not realize he is asking it again. As if he does not care. “Who is the magistrate?”

Plum Boy peers up curiously. The handkerchief is blowing away up the road. He does not notice.

“It is still Master Penniman,” Plum Boy says. “And he’s my father.”

“And what is your name?”

“William Penniman, if you- if you really want to know.”

“Ah.” The dead man stares down at Plum Boy, still grinning, and the red glint of the setting sun is in his cold, blank eyes. For the first time Plum Boy notices that the dead man has iron at his wrists and at his ankles and making an X across his ribs. He is caged in it. But it cannot stop him anymore.

“William Penniman,” the dead man whispers.

There is an odd brush of wind that flies around Plum Boy’s ankles and pulls at his cap. And then Plum Boy feels very strange, very light. . . and very unconscious.

* * *

Plum Boy’s eyes are dim as old wicks. He feels dull and heavy, like a sack in the rain. He is watching a little figure walking away up the road, as if through haze.

At first Plum Boy thinks he has been robbed. His jacket! The fat little imbecile in the road is wearing my jacket and holding my half-sized walking stick and my lovely green cap!

And then the figure turns to face him. . .

With a slither of fear, Plum Boy realizes that he is high up, staring down, and below him is his own smug face and watery blue eyes.

He tries to shout, but all he can do is smile.

The boy in the road smiles back. There is a jackknife in his pocket, and he lifts it out and swings it between thumb and forefinger, back and forth, back and forth.

Then, with a little laugh, the new Plum Boy wheels and skips away down the road, and the night wind flies around the old Plum Boy and his old, black tree, and turns him on the gibbet, and he must look to the North, though he doesn’t want to look that way.

He decides in an instant: he does not like the sight at all.