The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Care and Keeping of Lies

 

Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.

I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.

It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.

“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.

*

I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.

I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.

It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.

I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.

*

This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.

To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.

I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”

Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.

“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”

“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.

No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the  two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.

I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .

“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.

That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”

She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”

Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”

“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”

Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”

“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”

“Well, then who?”

“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”

I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.

“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.

We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.

I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.

“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”

“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”

I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.

Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.

“Yes! A magician, maybe!”

“D’you think he’s still close?”

“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.

But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves,  turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.

I spun around, but I saw nothing.

“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.

I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.

“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.

Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”

“A man? What sort of man?”

“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”

I don’t know why I said that part.

Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”

I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.

I still wonder why.

Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.

*

I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:

“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.

She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.

“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”

“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”

“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”

“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”

“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”

“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.

I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.

But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.

I wonder if she found him. She found someone.

*

The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.

“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.

“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.

“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.

“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”

“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”

She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.

“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.

“Yes.”

“All in white or just partly.”

“All.”

“And he was carrying a rope.”

“Yes. One rope.”

“Was he carrying anything else?”

I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”

“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.

“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.

“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”

We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.

*

The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.

*

The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.

“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”

“Yes.”

“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”

“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”

“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”

“Yes. Lots.”

The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.

*

They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.

*

I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.

The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.

But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.

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