The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of 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.

One Response to “Plum Boy and the Dead Man”

  1. oh my, this is so dark and lovely!! amazing.

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