The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Booksellers

 

They came and went from a hole below a tavern in Daggenford Street, in a grimy, moldering part of the town where there were no streetlamps. No one ever caught more than a glimpse of them. Sometimes, a watchful eye or a bloodshot gaze pressed to a window would catch the slither of black cloaks, the gleam of a metal mask, or the flicker of a white finger . . . But nothing more.

Many wished to see them. Over the years, many came to that part of the town, from across the sea, and from far across the countryrich men in crimson waistcoats and poor men in tattered hats, and fine ladies and barefoot children. They all craved to see one, to look behind its mask and learn its secrets. Edgart Viviender was the latest. Bored and clever and rich as Italian damask. He would not be the last.

*

There were no books in Edgart Viviender’s country. Perhaps there were none in the whole world. There were no books because there were no trees, and no paper, and very little leather, and hardly any brains to string words together and make sense of them. Edgart’s house had a room called a library, but no one remembered what it was for; the shelves were empty and they were too narrow for shirtwaists and too wide for china-ware.

And the problem was, Edgart knew how to read. He had practiced the street-signs and the medicine bottles, and he had read all the words stamped on the soles of his shoes, and his options had become rather limited. He wanted more. He wanted deeper. That was when he had begun to gad about, and ask questions, and go on journeys. And that was how he came to Daggenford Street.

That was how anyone came, trickling into the shadowy confines, adventurers and fortune-seekers, and the curious, and the bored. They came to that town based on rumors: that there were suppliers there, purveyors of wondrous things, marvelous things, sparks and flames and rolling shadows. Things to prod the mind and poke the soul. And so Edgart came, and took lodgings in some upstairs rooms in Belheim, and set off every night to search for the booksellers.

*

On this particular night, the foghorns from the docks were moaning and the air was opaque, as if a curtain of oil hung in the atmosphere. The cobbles were slick. The taverns were full. Not loud, but full.

Seven were there, sitting at Edgart’s table, and one of them was a local, speaking in a hushed and grating voice.

“There’s Crow-face and Moon-face and Iron-teeth and Tar,” the old man whispered over the guttering flame of a candle, and the others stared, and Edgart stared hardest of all. He sat between a woman named Mary the Bonneter and a man named Merry the Hangman and they both wanted to find the booksellers, too. Mary the Bonneter leaned over, pulling her headscarf low.

“Where? Where are they?” she said, and her voice was soft and musical, and it made everyone wonder why she was here, and why any of them were here.

The old man answered: “You won’t find them if you look. They’ll come to you. And if they do, they will ask a price. It is not free, the things they give.”

Edgart thought: Well, I am very wealthy. . .

“Have you ever seen one,” Mary the Bonneter asked. “Ever at all? I hear they wear masks- ”

“They do,” said the old man. “And I have. Oh, I wish I never do again.” He shivered, violently, and the candle shivered with him. “I was twelve then. I did not see the face, but the figure reared up before me seven feet tall, wrapped in a black cloak, and his round, silver mask shimmering. . . That was Moon-face. I still see him sometimes, in the far reaches of the night, after I close my eyes.”

Edgart left the table hurriedly. The booksellers would not find him here. Edgart would not learn their secrets by talking to superstitious old boggarts. He went to every tavern in that part of town where there are no streetlamps, and he waited on corners, and he shuffled through gutters, and he slept in the day and walked in the night, and waited.

*

In the end, the booksellers found Edgart. He was stumbling back to his lodgings after a long, cold night, his joints stiff, his waistcoat and cravat a little wilted.

The booksellers were in a group, hunched and moving swiftly down the street, four figures returning from some errand, some shadowy journey through the night.

Edgart was in the middle of the street, and they were coming straight toward him.

He was paralyzed for a moment, frozen in a mixture of fear and anticipation. Then he slipped into a doorway, waited for them to pass, and followed quietly behind.

Moon-face was in the middle. Edgart recognized the round, round mask, mirror-bright, with slits for eyes and a grinning mouth. Then there was Crow-face, who was a woman, and Iron-teeth who was short and stocky, like a boulder, and Tar, which was so tall and thin it was impossible to tell what it was.

They moved with incredible speed, darting and gliding, and yet they did not seem in any hurry. They turned into a narrow lane, scrabbled close along the house-walls. It was difficult for Edgart to keep them in sight. And then they arrived at a tavern with a wordless sign hanging broken above the dooran empty tavern, long deserted.

There was hole under it, a fallen bit of wall where the gutter flowed in.

Crow-face slipped into the hole, a small cackle echoing from behind her mask. Tar and Iron-teeth went next.

And then, just as Moon-face paused, and turned and looked over his shoulder, and was about to dive into the blackness as well, Edgart Viviender stepped into the street.

He didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, and when Moon-face looked at him, all sound seemed to stop. There was no distant clatter of docks and drinking. No dripping gutters. Only a shimmering, silvery ringing, piercing the air.

Slowly, Moon-face straightened.

Edgart stood stock-still, his hands clenched around his trouser-legs.

Moon-face glided toward him.

“Show me,” said Edgart. “Show me, please! Take off your mask!”

Moon-face froze. He did not come closer.

“Do you want something?” Edgart’s voice rose. He took a few steps forward. “Something in return? I will give it to you. Anything you ask.”

Moon-face watched him. The ringing continued, seemed to swell and weave, hypnotic and strangely sickening. And then Moon-face reached up and opened his mask.

Every drop of blood in Edgart’s body turned to fire. He could no longer speak, or move, and his muscles wound tight and his bones locked. The face behind the mask was pale and smooth, the skin so clear and glass-like, as if it had never felt a strong wind or the scratch of a branch. And there were words there. Scrawled on the eyelids, on the cheeks, across the forehead in blood-red ink. So many words, flying at Edgart and pounding him, a thousand words and a thousand stories.

Every happy family is alike-Anna? Anna, where are you going-no one noticed the soldier-and suddenly Edgart was so heavy and full that he reeled back and fell into a doorway and collapsed.

Moon-face stayed perfectly still. Then he reached up slowly and closed his mask over his face, and its hinge creaked like a door. More seconds passed. Somewhere in the distance a cat shrieked.

Moon-face turned and melted into the dark.

*

Edgart lay in the street, shaking and freezing, his eyes open, and when he had recovered enough, he dragged himself back to his lodgings in Belheim. He did not leave them again. He locked himself in, and the landlady heard odd voices from the rooms, as if there was not one, but many different people there. She heard loud thumps, and the casements banged open on windy, stormy nights, and water dripped through the floors. And at some point, when no one had seen Edgart for many, many days, the constable came to break down the door.

They found the rooms in a disarray, and Edgart lying on the floor, laughing, or possibly crying, it was difficult to say. He had gone mad. He had scrawled on the walls with ink and fingernails and worse things, and though very few people knew how to read it, it was a masterpiece.

It began: Why, oh why do the little ones go, laughing and talking, into the snow. . .

*

One week later, in Daggenford Street, Moon-face crept from under the tavern, and found Mary the Bonneter. She was waiting for him, her face alive and bright, and her eyes quivering. Moon-face paused before her, and she promised to pay the price. He creaked opened his mask.

Why, oh why do the little ones go, she read on his eyelids and on his face. . .

3 Responses to “The Booksellers”

  1. Lucia says:

    Lovely! That was a good one.

  2. Claudia Parker says:

    So deliciously creepy! Great read.

  3. Ella says:

    Brilliant!

Leave a Reply

Protected with IP Blacklist CloudIP Blacklist Cloud