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.

7 Responses to “Mabel Mavelia”

  1. Stoich91 says:

    WHY ARE THERE NO COMMENTS ON THIS?! Beautiful, well-written…I almost wish it hadn’t taken the ‘dark’ turn at the end, because this idea is fantastic enough to keep going and going. One of the best things I’ve read all year. love it. Thanks for putting amazing stuff like this up free to read on the web!

  2. Andi Davis says:

    Oh my goodness! What a tale, scary and delightful, and have you no mercy? Poor Mr. Pittance and poor, poor Mabel. Oh dear, I think i’m the pity flower. well done.

    PS, found this through the delightful and evil Janet Reid’s blog

  3. judith says:

    Loved this story! Very well done.

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