The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Trouble with the Ghoul

It is late July, and Nanny and Jane and Paris and I, though I am very small, are taking the steamer from Belmont, across a chugging blue sea, to a little white town on the coast. This is my first time going. Well, it isn’t really, but I don’t remember the other times; this is my first time going where I am clever enough to know about it, so I’m quite excited.

The steamer whistles and shears ahead, through water that picks at the sun and sparkles badly. I wave at Mama and Father on the shore, and so does Paris, and Jane and Nanny take out handkerchiefs and wave those.

I’m afraid I’ve mostly forgotten about the other summers I went. I only remember bits and pieces of them, like everything inside my head is a glass and I dropped it. I remember the great glossy mango leaves, and dripping lemonade pitchers, and sitting on a step and digging my toes into the hot, dry dust. I remember someone being scolded. But it is all rather indistinct. It doesn’t matter. Last year, quite without me noticing, I shot up like a little plant, and now I am very clever. I can do additions, and I can speak long sentences and not become confused. This summer, when I go to the white town on the coast, I am determined to remember everything.

* * *

We are staying with a Mistress Frobisher, who owns a pretty house a small ways outside of the white town, about a mile from the sea. We had to take a wagon to get there and Nanny’s trunk opened when the farmer loaded it up, and all her clothes fell into the road. It made everyone laugh, except Nanny. The house, I noted when we arrived, had a red roof and white-washed walls and blue, sun-baked shutters. We have only one neighbor, though there are other, similar white cottages scattered along the road leading toward the town.

Mistress Frobisher is a very proper, buttoned-up sort of lady. She is a friend of Mama’s, I think, though she is not a friend of ours. I don’t know why she is Mother’s friend. Perhaps because she has such a nice house. When we arrived, she straightaway gave us a list of rules:

Don’t be too long in the sun, or you’ll bake.

Don’t touch scorpions or bees or anything with teeth.

Don’t track dust into the house.

Don’t scream, or speak too loudly.

And certainly don’t wander by yourself. Not in the tall grass, or in the road. Not anywhere.

I noticed Jane and Paris glancing at each other at that, and smirking, and I glanced and smirked, too, but they didn’t look at me.

* * *

I met Jintzy on my third day after arriving at the white town by the sea.

I had decided to wander by myself, which of course was number five on the list of things I was not allowed to do. We were in a hot part of the country, and Nanny had warned us that there were snakes in the brush, and large spiders, and possibly lions. But I was tired of sitting about on the front step and waiting for Paris and Jane to do something interesting, and since I am six now, I went off behind the house when no one was looking and hurried away into the canopy of green and leaves that edges the back garden.

I wandered for quite a while. I passed a sad little gurgle of a brook, climbed over great boulders, went ever deeper into the green woods. The air buzzed with insects, and the leaves were huge as giants’ faces. The trunks of the trees did not only have bark on them like they did back home, but were also wrapped with snaking vines and clumped with mushrooms. I saw a lizard, and it saw me and blinked. And then I came to a field. There was a cottage in the field. It was a plain, stone cottage with plants climbing the crooked walls. A woman was out front, tending to a patch of a garden. She was dressed in bright, flow-y clothes and she had a cloth wrapped around her head, like a turban. Her stockings were very colorful, red and orange and purple braid, with plenty of frills and bobbins. The woman was far too old to be showing stockings. She was surely twenty, or forty-three. But I didn’t mind. I thought she looked wonderful. She was singing to herself, very prettily, in a high, piercing voice:

 

Rosa, Rosa, lived by the sea

Alone in a cottage built for three.

She never sang and she never danced.

She wouldn’t said why, and I know she can’t.

 

Rosa, Rosa sat in the dark

And gnashed her teeth and broke her heart.

She never ate, and when she did

It was air and shadows and things she hid.

 

Rosa, Rosa, come away quick

They’ll catch you, they’ll catch you and beat you with sticks.

Live in the shadows or die in the sun.

Eat seventy pastries, it’s better than none.

 

But Rosa, Rosa stayed by the sea

And they came, and they caught her; they broke her knees. . . .

 

Now Rosa lives in a new house by the sea.

It’s white and it’s lovely, ‘s’got forty-three keys.

It has so many toys, and it’s so much fun.

But the cottage is built just for one.

 

I suppose whoever wrote the words to that song was quite silly, but I liked the sound of it. The melody was sad, and it curled in the air like silver silk.

I wandered closer.

The woman did not see me. She worked away, plucking beans from soft green tendrils and poking about in the dirt with her stick, and all in such a lively happy way, like everything was her friend. She continued to sing, now something about a cloud and a sailboat and cockroaches. And then, all at once, a large, hairy animal rounded the corner of the cottage. It spotted me, standing in the field. It was a dog, and it began to bark.

I had such a fright. My heart leaped right into my throat and I turned tail fast as I could and fled back to the trees. I did not stop until I was sure the dog was not following me. Then I crept back to the edge of the woods and peered through the leaves at the cottage.

The colorful woman was still working in her patch, picking beans, poking with her stick. . . But although she was very far away I was almost sure she was smiling to herself, a small, secret smile.

* * *

I got a little bit lost on the way home. I walked through those hot green leaves, on and on until I came to a river. It was not the gurgling brook I had encountered on the way there. It was very wide, and I had to cross it on some strange, knuckly sort of logs that moved and shifted under my weight. I found the road again shortly afterward. All would have been well, except Mistress Frobisher was cross when I got back. She had been fretting. So had Nanny. They thought I might have been eaten by crocodiles, the sillies. They both seem to be quite unaware of my developments.

I told Nanny and Mistress Frobisher about the cottage and the lovely, colorful woman, tending the garden patch.

I didn’t think anything of telling them; I supposed I thought if Nanny and Mistress Frobisher knew I had been near people and houses they would not be so frightened, but it was not so. Nanny and Mistress Frobisher exchanged hard, quick glances, and then Mistress Frobisher took hold of my arm very cruelly and said, “You must never go there again. Wicked child.”

I began to cry when she said it, though I didn’t want to. I tried to twist away. “Why not?” I asked.

“It’s Jintzy’s place. You must never go there.”

And then Nanny asked the same question I had, but this time Mistress Frobisher had a better answer:

“Much speculation over that woman,” said Mistress Frobisher, wagging her finger. “By the townsfolk. Much speculation. One time, as I was walking that way collecting- well, collecting things, I saw a goat in the window of her house! A goat, looking right at me, saucy as you like!”

I did not tell Nanny or Mistress Frobisher that the only window I had seen was on the left side of the house, half-hidden behind a twisted, bushy tree, and that Mistress Frobisher would practically have had to press herself to the wall to see in. I said nothing at all.

* * *

Today, Mistress Frobisher took Paris and me to the town to see a collection of performers throw things about in the dusty square. Jane and Nanny stayed behind at the cottage because Jane was complaining of dizziness and nervousness.

We set off just after tea. Paris had run ahead a little way. I was with Mistress Frobisher and she was holding my hand. She thinks I am still a baby, I know it.

We were about halfway to the town, walking under the arching boughs of some trees when we met Jintzy on the road. She was coming from the opposite direction, and it was the first time I had seen her up close. From a distance she had already looked tall and lovely, but up close she was simply magical.

She was like a fairy queen, or a princess out of a storybook. She had a strange, beautiful face, and her eyes were slanted and very bright, as if there were bits of stars in them. Her hair was tied up in a scarf, and as she came up the road toward us, her colored sashes swished in the summer breeze.

“Hello, Mistress Frobisher!” Jintzy called out. She smiled at Mistress Frobisher and then at me, and I thought she smiled at me best.

“Hello,” said Mistress Frobisher stiffly. We paused.

And then Jintzy fixed her flashing eyes on me and clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Who have we here? What a darling little person!”

“I’m actually six,” I corrected her gravely.

“Of course you are.” Jintzy’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Silly me.” And then she dropped down in the road in front of me and whispered in my ear, “In fact, I shouldn’t wonder if your cow is a bit jealous of you, what with such a wonderful age as six. You must be very careful not to let her know.”

“My cow?” I said, pulling away, aghast and giggling both at once. “What d’you- ?”

“Shh.” Jintzy put her fingers to her lips. Her eyes were laughing, and I was laughing, too, but when I looked up at Mistress Frobisher, her mouth was like an iron pincer, shut tight.

I stopped laughing. For a moment there was only the chirp of birds. Then Mistress Frobisher said, “Come along, child,” sharp as a pin, and pulled me away from Jintzy. But Mistress Frobisher didn’t begin walking. She simply clutched at me, and we stood in the road, very still.

“Well,” Jintzy said, standing and brushing the dirt from her green and purple knees. “Good day to you, Mistress Frobisher. And you.” Jintzy smiled at me. Then she went on down the road, soft-foot in the puddles and the moss, stockings flashing in the sunlight.

Mistress Frobisher and I stood there a while longer. I looked up at her, confused. She was squeezing my hand very hard.

Finally she gasped, “Those stockings!” and tut-tutted, and pulled me on down the road, so sharply that I protested.

* * *

Today there is a carousel by the sea and we each have a little stub of ticket to go. I’m practically bursting with anticipation for it all. I have never been on a carousel before. Well, I have, but I was a baby then.

Jane, Paris and I all set off in a giggling, skipping gaggle, like a bunch of geese. We are the color of geese, too, in our white linens and stockings, starched and stiff as new paper.

We ran away up the dusty road, far ahead of Nanny and Mistress Frobisher.

“You’ll never catch me!” shouted Paris. “I’m the fastest.”

“No, you’re simply the loudest,” laughed Jane. And then they put their heads together and began whispering to each other and laughing.

I watched, a few steps behind. And then, because I did not know what they were saying and wanted to be a part of it by saying something scandalous, I said, “Jintzy called Mistress Frobisher a cow.”

I said it loudly, because I wanted to be sure they heard the first time, but I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher and Nanny had caught up quite a lot. I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher was standing directly behind me. I realized it very quickly, however, and turned. I looked up at her face and then down at my shoes.

Mistress Frobisher said nothing. She stared at me, her mouth like the iron pincers again. Then she said, “On with you. Get to the sea,” and we children went running up the road as quick as we could. When we rounded a bend, out of sight of Nanny and Frobisher, Paris cuffed me for saying nonsense in front of grown-ups.

* * *

The carousel was grand. For several minutes after the incident with Mistress Frobisher, and after Paris cuffed me, I felt sure the day would be spoilt and that I should be forced to pout for the rest of it. But then Paris, who is such a jolly-jolly, laughed and pinched my arm, and said,”Oh, come now, she is a cow, you just mustn’t say it so loudly or she’ll begin to suspect,” and I laughed and joined Jane and Paris and rode the carousel four times around, which made me quite proud.

One of the little boys fell off. That made me even prouder. I didn’t fall off, and he was just a baby. I held on very tightly.

* * *

On the way home from the carousel, something dreadful happened. Nanny had taken off her shoes to sit with her feet in the sea and she had not buttoned them up all the way for the journey home. And then, as she was walking, she twisted her ankle in the rut on the side of the road and because her boots were very loose, she broke it, the ankle, with a sound like a snapping twig. She screamed very loudly. We children stopped, startled, and were very concerned for her. Mistress Frobisher soothed her and tutted and ran to the nearest house to ask for a buggy and a donkey or a mule of some sort.

She came back with Mr. Brock.

He leaped down into the ditch and tried to help Nanny up, and that was when I saw there was blood on Nanny’s shoe and on her stocking.

I stepped a little closer to Paris.

“What the bl- “ started Mr. Brock, and Mistress Frobisher gave him a warning scowl and jerked her head in our direction, because she did not want him to curse in front of us.

“Look at it,” he grumbled, into his beard. “Look what she stepped in. It’s a small cage!”

And it was. Nanny’s foot had slipped down the side of the root and gotten caught in a little cage, and the wires had caught on her skin.

We were still trying to grasp this, and what it meant, when I saw Jintzy, ambling up the road. She was wearing green stockings today, with little brass bells jingling up their sides, and she had a ring of flowers in her hair, and a basket on her arm.

“Oh dear!” she said, when she saw Nanny crying and screaming in the ditch. Jintzy dropped her basket and ran toward our little group.

We children made way for her right away. But Mistress Frobisher hissed like a cat, and Mr. Brock growled, and said, “We don’t want your help here, keep going.” And so Jintzy did. She gave us children a quick, sad smile, like she was sorry Mr. Brock was such an oaf, and gathered up her basket and all the things that had fallen out of it, and went on down the road without a word.

* * *

“Too much strangeness,” Mistress Frobisher said to our neighbor over the fence that evening. The light was golden and hazy. Nanny was in the kitchen, her foot up and a cold cloth on her forehead. Paris and Jane were writing letters home. I was playing in the acacia tree and I don’t think Mistress Frobisher knew I was there.

“That wicked woman,” she was saying. “It’s her doing, no doubt about it.”

I wondered what wicked woman they were talking about. Wicked people were very interesting.

“I heard she catches little animals with those cages. And what does she do with them, I wonder. It’s anyone’s guess. Imagine if a child should fall in. Living in that cottage all by herself. With a goat. There’s something wrong with that one.”

“Aye,” the neighbor agreed.

“First Jane and then Nanny and then your wife, only days afterward, falling down a hole and skewering her hands.”

“She fell down the hole in Barmsalid- ” the neighbor began, but Mistress Frobisher just said, “It simply can’t be coincidence. It’s too much!”

I watched them both very closely through the knobby branches, and I listened very sharply. But then they started talking of children and the price of coffee and it became rather dull.

I shrugged and left the acacia bush and went and played in the back.

* * *

At dinner, Jintzy was brought up again, this time by Jane. She said, “Jintzy was in our yard today. I was out reading by the orange tree and she passed me and said it was shortcut to the road and she hoped I didn’t mind. I said of course I didn’t.”

I scowled at Jane. I would have preferred it if I had been in the garden then, and that Jintzy had asked me. But I had hardly any time to think about it, because Mistress Frobisher sat straight up in her chair and screeched, “Good heavens, child, you didn’t! Strangers on our property?  What were you thinking?”

Then I was glad Jane had met her instead of me.

“Jintzy’s practically our neighbor,” Paris said reasonably, trying to help out Jane, who was beginning to fumble. “She’s not exactly a stranger.”

But Mistress Frobisher would have none of it. “No! She is a dreadful creature, and everyone agrees. The neighbors and half the town. Laila Ishkeri said Jintzy might well be throwing curses at folk, making people ill and making them hurt.” She nodded at Nanny’s foot, which was still very swollen. “Of course, she doesn’t do it directly. Not in plain in sight. She’s far too clever for that. But Mirka said there was shadow on her window one night, and there’s been talk of creeping things in the town.” Mistress Frobisher narrowed her eyes and when she spoke the next words her mouth was red and wet, like a wound: “If she comes again tell her to put on some reasonable shoes and to take the road like everyone else. It simply doesn’t do to be nice to certain people.”

I thought that very interesting. After a while of silence, I said, “I like Jintzy.”

“No, you don’t!” screamed Mrs. Frobisher. “You’re just a child. You haven’t learnt anything yet, and you don’t know how the world works.”

I thought this very insulting. I was six. I knew about a lot of things, like additions and carousels, and I wasn’t like that baby who had fallen off. I don’t know what Mistress Frobisher was talking about, ‘hadn’t learned’.

* * *

It was Saturday when the most startling part of the summer happened. I had not expected anything startling. I had expected lemonade and peppermint leaves and dust, but I had not expected this.

I was helping Nanny shell peas in the kitchen when I heard it. Her ankle was up on the chair. “A ghoul!” came the shout through the window, faint and dull, but coming closer. “A ghoul in the town hall!”

I sat up so fast Nanny startled and winced, because I may have bumped her ankle.

“What?” I demanded. I hurried quick to the window.

People were in the road, running toward the town. The neighbor woman was stumbling out of her house, tying down her bonnet, and others in the road wore no bonnets at all, and looked quite disheveled and in a great hurry. It was a bright, hot day. Someone, I couldn’t see who, kept screaming, “Ghoul! Ghoul! Ghoul in the town hall!”

I did not know what a ghoul was, though I had heard them mentioned in vague terms in stories. In a flash, I had unlatched the window and was leaning out on my tip-toes.

“A what?” I screamed at the passing people. “What’s a ghoul?” But just then I saw Mistress Frobisher in the crowd, her face gray and determined, like a soldier off to war. When she saw me, she said, “Stay with Nanny, child! Inside with you!” And then she passed by and went along with everyone else.

“Nanny, what is a ghoul?” I asked, hurrying back to her side. I couldn’t stand not knowing. “What is it?”

Nanny was distracted. She kept glancing at the window, and picking at the same pea-pod over and over. “It’s a dreadful, terrible thing,” she said, her eyes darting. “Oh, dear, it’s born of shadows and witchcraft. It eats the dead, I heard, eats their bones and eats their eyes.”

Immediately I thought of the conversation I had overheard in the acacia tree, of the shadows in the town and the creeping things. I thought of Jintzy, and what Mistress Frobisher had been saying about her being a witch. I hoped it wasn’t Jintzy’s ghoul. I hoped she was all right in her little cottage behind the woods.

But even if it was Jintzy’s ghoul, I had to see it for myself. I was six.

I waited until Nanny was very distracted and then fled right out of the kitchen and out the front door. Then I was off, my little feet kicking up scuds of dust from the road.

I came to the town quickly. The houses looked bare and shut-up. No one was out. I raced into the square. It was there I found the townsfolk, crowds of them, jostling and screaming in front of the government hall.

“What is it?” I screamed, worming under arms and around legs. “Where’s the ghoul?”

I saw Paris, standing a bit to the side. “Have you seen it?” I shouted, running up. “Have you seen the ghoul?”

“Yes!” Paris exclaimed, turning to see me. “At least, I think I did. Oh, it’s dreadful. You can’t even imagine. It has so many arms and legs, and they have too many joints, and it has three heads. One’s lovely, and one’s sleeping, and one’s squished like cabbage, and the skin is green and rotting and has so many teeth!”

Paris would have said more, but just then the crowd surged forward and we were separated. I was bounced about until my head felt quite numb. I kept hearing, “How dreadful! Oh, I do hope they kill it! Oh, look!” And while I tried to look, everyone else was much taller, and so I only heard. Dreadful shrieks were coming from the town hall, through the open door. The sound was echoing and bouncing up the white fronts of the buildings and into the bells in the church tower.

Someone shouted, “Be gone! Be gone, evil creature!”

And then I heard a gasp, and everyoneall the tall peoplewent stock-still.

“The ghoul has been transformed!” the shouting voice said. “The ghoul has taken on the form of one of the townsfolk!” It took me several seconds to realize the voice was Mistress Frobisher’s.

“Who?” whispered the crowd. “Who did it change into?”

“That woman!” came the answer. “That Jintzy from behind the woods!”

And that was when pandemonium broke out for sure and certain. The crowd pushed me right into the hall, and I saw Jintzy, or what looked like Jintzy, for a split second, only her hair was disheveled and there was blood on her lip. I saw her bright stockings flashing. I did not see her eyes. They were closed, perhaps in pain. And then one of the ladies caught me and dragged me outside, saying, “Away with you. The ghoul might enchant you straight out of your senses.”

I was brought back to the cottage. Everything seemed dry as a husk. The sun beat down, unbearably hot now. The screams died away.

Later that evening Mistress Frobisher said that the ghoul had been subdued and had been buried with iron and salt and a stake through its wicked heart, that it would not disturb these parts again. And what a vile creature it was,  taking on the form of a citizen.

Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief as we sat down to our peas and pheasant stew. But I couldn’t eat, and I still thought it was too hot, and my collar scratched, and all I wanted to do was go to my room and lie on my bed, though I couldn’t say why.

Just before she brought us to the kitchen for ours baths, Nanny turned to Mistress Frobisher and said, “Rosa, hand me the lamp, won’t you?”

* * *

I never saw Jintzy after that. The times I slipped away from Nanny and Mistress Frobisher and went to her cottage it looked quite bare and desolate, and the garden grew wild, and the half-hidden window disappeared entirely behind the twisted, bushy tree. I wondered often if Jintzy had moved away due to the trouble with the ghoul.

One Response to “The Trouble with the Ghoul”

  1. Cat York says:

    so sad, elegantly told. I’m very taken with the way you’ve done the voice from the child’s POV. And the subtle reveal at the end with the name. Well done.

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