The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Forever Book

Dust drifts through the air, landing on old, weathered spines and faded pages. I can do little more than watch from my shelf, wedged between an old dictionary and an atlas full of countries that now have other names.


We’re hardly going to talk about dust, even on this long and quiet afternoon, now are we? Not when there are so many other tales to tell each other. Those written on our pages, and the things we have seen from the bookcases and cabinets in which we have spent our years.


A great many years, some of us. For me, especially.


The customers who enter the shop likely do not know that we, the books, speak to each other. We whisper and rustle, and some of us are terrible gossips–though not me, of course.


All books do this, when no one is listening. And no one ever is, because they do not know they should.


No, the customers who visit are in search of a gift, perhaps, for a daughter or mother or brother, or in need of something with which to amuse themselves on a cold night by the fire, while the gas lamps outside sputter and spark.


The door creaks open, and for an instant the sound of horse hooves on the cobbles outside is quite loud, louder than the two chattering almanacs on the shelf below mine.


“Bonjour, Christophe,” says the customer. The words between my covers are English, but one picks up a thing or two. Hello. And I recognize the voice, which is a very good thing indeed. I may relax now; this gentleman won’t pluck me from my cozy spot and regret it forever.


This may seem a great exaggeration, but it is not.


“Ah! Bonjour!” Christophe says in return, coming out from behind his little desk to lead the man down through the crooked paths between shelves, piled high and teetering. As they pass, Christophe’s glittering black eyes flick up to read my spine, and quickly away again before the customer–whose bald head is gleaming in the dim light–notices and takes an interest.


Clearly, I am not kept in the room of rare books into which they disappear, though I should be. Nor am I kept locked away, safe from prying eyes, though I should certainly be that, too.


The constant babbling of the other books soothes my charred covers, crisp and ragged at the edges frm the countless times I have been hurled, tossed, gently placed into the flames. My pages crinkle, warped from the waters of every river marked in the atlas to my left.


I cannot be burned, or sunk, or torn apart. And so I am here, where no one will think to pick me up.


“People will open a book sitting on its own,” Christophe says, in French, but he has muttered this to himself so often I have come to know its meaning. “Here, they will ignore you.”


So far, this has worked. And as I say, I am calmed by the ceaseless talk around me. I do not long for a new…


…well, I suppose victim is truly the only appropriate word.


Cristophe was my last, and this is why he watches me with those obsidian eyes, carefully steering visitors away from my cracked spine. Because he knows. Oh, he knows all too well.


The bookshop is muffled, the voices from the back room too far away to hear, but for the bald man’s occasional exclamation over a book full of delicate paintings of birds. I’d forced Christophe to move that one–its chirping was near unbearable.


The door creaks again.


“Maman! The books!” a child says. There are snowflakes on the shoulders of her scarlet coat, winking like stars in a sky still red from sunset. Up and down the shelves, pages rustle excitedly. Pick me! they say, though of course she cannot hear. She does not know she is supposed to listen. No one does.


I am very still between my dictionary and my atlas. It is no thanks to them that I know so many words, so many places. My own adventures are responsible for that, and it has been a long time since I’ve had one.


“Oui, Madeleine. Be careful, yes?”


“I will!” says the girl, but she is not. Her little shoes kick up more dust from the carpet as she runs back and forth, nearly tipping over a stack of novels having an extremely animated conversation about…cheese, I believe. It’s possible I wasn’t listening quite close enough. For I am watching the girl.


Christophe and his other customer are still looking at birds, and I don’t know how I know this time will be different. That no one will steer the girl away, keep her small fingers from plucking me off the shelf.


The atlas begins to tremble hard enough to shake the mountains within. The dictionary mutters under its breath, words I surely won’t repeat here.


“Not me,” I say. She is still not listening. They never listen.


Her head tilts sideways. “The Forever Book, ” she reads. “Maman? What is im-mor-tal-it-y?”


“Why, it is living forever,” says Madeleine’s mother. “Never growing old or leaving this world for the next.” She shudders, this woman with a brain, for people do not know what they wish for when they seek this.


“Oh!” says Madeleine in her scarlet coat, and I am free, pulled from my cramped place between the dictionary and the atlas. All the other books are quiet now, their whispering silenced by fear.

Her eyes are very blue. My spine cracks and my pages stretch. From the back room, a shout comes, a thump, Christophe falling to the floor as Madeleine, my new owner, perhaps for a great many years to come, begins to read.

The Treacherous Books of September

Hello, friends. (Can I call you friends? Perhaps you bitterly dislike me—how fascinating that would be!) From my high and grimy window, I’ve been watching children skip Septemberishly off to school, if skipping is what you do under a knapsack stuffed with 75 pounds of books.

More of a bent and beaten trudge, perhaps.

It made me think how strange it is that we give books to children. Everyone knows—surely everyone knows?—what treacherous creatures books are. You might as well give a boy a knapsack full of tarantulas, or lovingly tuck a black hole, wrapped in waxed paper, inside a girl’s lunchbox.

Old_book_bindingsYes: books are dangerous. Whether it’s the electronic kind, buzzing around inside your tablet like angry wasps , or the old-fashioned, bulky, jam-stained ones, covered in brown paper upon which you have drawn a race car or a unicorn (incidentally, a unicorn can beat a stock car over a flat 15-mile stretch, and remind me to tell you how I know that, and to show you the scars)—or whether it’s the rather more delicious paperback you’ve concealed behind your schoolbook, hoping onlookers will believe that it’s igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks making your eyes glow and you mouth hang slightly open—whatever kind of book you hold, it’s dangerous.

For example, books can grab you—and I don’t mean metaphorically: I mean a wizened little hand reaches out and takes you by the throat. Or you can fall into books, especially deep ones, and be heard from again only as a faint wail when someone turns to that particular page.

Books can hurt you. Books can change you.

As a public service, we are dedicating the month of September’s Cabinet tales to the horrors that lurk within and without books. First story will appear here this Wednesday—enjoy it, if enjoy is the right word for a feeling of creeping and inescapable dread.

And next time you’re in a library, stay alert. Stay terribly, terribly alert.



“Yabba, where’re my boots?”

The girl stood in the dark of the hovel and raged. She was tiny. Her knees stuck out like knobby fists, and her nose ran, and her fingers were cracked with dirt and cold. Not even the windwhen it came howling through the chinks in the hovel’s doorcould stir the nest of hair on her head, so thick were the knots and tangles. “Where are they?”

Yabba sat in the corner and scowled. He was whittling furiously at a piece of wood.

“Where are they?” the girl snapped again. “What’d you do with them?”

Yabba nicked his finger and hissed, sucking the blood. He looked at the girl. Then his lips curled back. “I sold ’em. Needed the coin.”

The girl let out a screech and flew at him. She’d scratched him halfway across his face before he could even shout.

“You sold ’em?” she screamed. “You sold my boots?”

Yabba regained his balance and threw the girl across the hovel. She crashed into the wall and fell, a heap of rags.

“To the tinker,” he said, wiping his face. “Out back of Olga’s.” He set back to whittling the wood, breathing hard. “Go get ’em if you want ’em.”

The girl sat up. There was blood on her head, but she didn’t seem to notice it. “Those were my boots,” she said, quieter now. “Mam gave them to me ‘fore she left. They were mine, Yabba.” Her eyes were beginning to quiver, glistening in the light of a little cook-fire.

“Well, now they’re the tinker’s,” said Yabba. “And you can just shut up about Mam. She weren’t your Mam any more ‘n she was mine. Go to sleep, and tomorrow you get something valuable, you hear? Something we can use, so that I don’t have go out and sell your grotty boots. Lace, or red berries, or something fancy. I’m going to need it.”

* * *

The girl came back the next day with a bundle of twigs, green and uneven, torn from the shrubs beyond the river-fork.

“That don’t look like lace to me,” Yabba said when he saw it. “What else?”

“Nothing,” said the girl. Her teeth were gritted, but she was not as wild as usual. She had gone rather quiet. “Twigs was all I found. That’s all there was today.”

For a moment Yabba stared at her, as if he couldn’t understand. Then he said, “And what d’you expect me to do with twigs?” His black hair was in his face, sticking to his forehead.

“You could sell ’em,” the girl said. “I don’t know. It’s all I got this time.” The girl wouldn’t look at him.

Yabba threw her out the door and she slept that night under the drooping thatch, her feet in the cold rain. When morning came, she ran away up the hill on the other side of the town and got a knife from under the tree that grew there.

* * *

The girl brought the knife back to the hovel. It was a very fine knife. It had a manticore in red carnelian on its hilt and a sheath of finest leather.

“Yabba!” she shouted, and pounded on the door. “Yabba, I have something! Lemme in! Lemme in, or you can’t have it.”

Yabba opened the door. He took the knife and looked it over. “Should do,” he said. “No more of this twig stuff, now, or you’ll be staying outside permanent-like.” Then he left, and he didn’t come back for a whole day and night.

* * *

Yabba came back with a black eye and two yellow teeth in the palm of his hand.

“They didn’t want it!” he screamed. “They didn’t want your stupid knife. ‘Where’d you get a knife like that?’ they said. ‘Ain’t no place we can sell that knife without getting hanged,’ they said. I want coin! Silver and gold, or I’ll throw you out!” He hurled the knife into the dirt at the girl’s feet. Then he stormed away, slamming the door so hard the whole hut shivered.

The girl picked up the knife and folded it gently into the shreds of her dress.

* * *

Yabba didn’t come back to the hovel for a week. When he did, he wanted coin again. The girl hadn’t got anything. She hadn’t left the house, though she didn’t tell Yabba that. She offered Yabba the knife again, but Yabba just spat. He was afraid, then angry, turning circles and growling like a cornered dog.

“What now? What do I do now? You always get something. A pair of gloves or some honey or lard or something. Now what am I ‘spected to do?”

“I want my boots back, Yabba,” the girl said. Her eyes were on the watery broth she was stirring.

Yabba shouted, going hoarse about the money he needed to pay off some people. The girl kept stirring. Her hand was tight around the wooden spoon.

“Those were my boots,” she kept saying. “Those were my boots, Yabba, and Mam gave them to me and I want them back. I asked at Olga’s. The tinker you sold them to, he’s not there no more.”

“Course he’s not there!” Yabba shouted, before he got really mad. “It’s been a fortnight. He’ll be halfway to the moon by now.”

* * *

The girl knelt on a hill under a solitary tree. A heap of knives lay against its roots. The lower ones were black, gnawed-upon by damp, but the ones close to the top still glinted. They were all very fine, with elaborate sigils in the likenesses of dragons and hens and manticores.

“I got another one for you, Mam. You listenin’? I got another one.”

The girl laid a knife on the top of the pile. It had a bit of dirt on its tip. Then the girl rested her head on her knees and stayed that way until long after the sun had gone down and the wind blew sharp and cold over the back of the hill.

* * *

It was morning when the girl made her way through the town toward the hovel. It had rained during the night, and the day was cold and drizzling. Halfway down the street, in front of the church, she came upon some townspeople, huddled together. They were very silent, looking at something on the ground.

“What is it?” the girl asked, edging up to an old woman who was standing a little apart from the others. The woman looked at her a moment, but said nothing. The girl walked around to the other side of the huddle.

Something was lying on the ground. All she could see of it were the bare feet, white and swollen against the black mud.

“Who is it?” she whispered. “Who’s that on the ground?”

“A tinker,” one of the men said, before going back to staring.

“From up North,” said another.

“No great loss,” said a third. “But for the way it was done. Dreadful. Like some sort of beast, only bigger. Not like anything around here. Not like wolves.”

The girl didn’t wait with the townsfolk. She ran back to the hovel, feet sliding in the mud.

* * *

A woman hurries about the hovel, rushing from corner to corner, wrapping a heel of bread, lighting a lantern. She tries to be quiet, but she is not quiet enough. A girl wakes from the straw in the corner.

“Mam?” she asks. Her voice is scratchy with sleep. “What you doin’, Mam?”

The woman goes very still, her back to the girl. She closes her eyes. Her face is worn and thin.

“I have to leave for a while,” she says. Her hand closes around the warm glass of the lantern, trying to block out the light, but the girl is already standing up in her little bed, shaking.

“Why you going, Mam? Why you taking all those things?”

The woman’s skin is like leather, hardened from winters and summers and falls. She turns and reaches out a finger, brushing it over the child’s face.“Now, deary. No crying. You’ll see Mam again. You’ll see me one day.”

“Don’t leave, Mam. Don’t leave me with Yabba, I don’t like Yabba!”

But the woman is already turning. She’s at the door, heaving her sack. “I have to,” she whispers. “I’m ten kinds of dead if I stay.”

“Why?” the girl cries, and it’s a piercing sound, like a whistle. She looks as if she wants to follow the woman, but she’s still rooted to the bed of straw.

“He’s after me,” the woman says. She pulls up her shawl, black and crimson, shadowing her face. “He’s after me and he won’t ever stop. I stole something from him, see. Years ago. I thought it would be good and help me, but it wasn’t good, and he knows my scent. He’s been chasing and chasing me all these years, and he’s close now. So close. But he won’t have those boots. He won’t have them back. You keep them, all right? You keep them and you use them.”

“Mam!” the girl says, shifting from foot to foot on the bed. “I’ll help you, Mam! He won’t catch you, I’ll take care of you!”

The woman half turns in the doorway, a dark shape against the blue night. The girl can’t see her expressiona sad smile on cracked lips. “Oh, deary. Nothing can save me now. Nothing but a good sharp knife.”

* * *

That night the girl woke in a sweat. “Mam?“ she called.

“Shut up.” Yabba turned over in the thick blackness. “Go to sleep.”

The girl eased up onto his elbows. Her shoulders were trembling. “Yabba?” she said, after several minutes. The word stuck in the dark like a tuft of wool. “Yabba, why’d Mam go?”

“I said, shut up.”

“Why’d she leave, Yabba?”

Yabba lurched up and dragged the younger girl over by the scruff of her neck.

“She weren’t our Mam! She weren’t nothing but a witch, you hear? A good-for-nothing witch. The townsfolk say she was troll’s wife ‘for she ran, and only witches make troll wives. Now shut up about it! I can’t take this no more. I can’t take your stupid talk. Tomorrow you get me something good like you used to, or I’ll burn this place down and run away and you can go house to house and see how they like you there.”

* * *

They found her the next day, face-down in the mud, a half-mile out of town. Something had attacked her on the road, torn her throat out. A lantern lay by her side, cracked open, oil dripping into the wagon ruts. It mingled with the blood, black and crimson.

There was no funeral. A group of townsfolk carried the body up the hill and dug a grave under the yew tree. No one came to mourn. Only a young girl was there, watching as the dirt rustled onto the white, white face.

* * *

Two days later, a constable stood at the door of the hovel, black boots in a mirror puddle, cape billowing in the drizzle.

“No use hiding in there, girl. There’s a town-full of witnesses seen you break into the Strevlov’s house yesterday.”

Yabba stood in the back, cowering. He shoved the girl forward. The girl looked up, her eyes huge.

“Why’d you do it?” the constable asked. “I know why you took the money, but why all those knives? You must have known you wouldn’t get away with selling them here.”

The girl picked herself up, and not looking at the constable. “I couldn’t get ’em no other way,” she said. Her voice was soft. “I had to get something, and I can’t walk far no more.”

“She’s crazy,” Yabba growled, stepping forward and then back again. “Go lock ‘er up. I can’t stand it.”

“You shut your mouth,” the constable barked. He didn’t take his eyes from the girl. His eyes were hard, but not all the way to the bottom. “You’re in a heap of trouble, my girl. Come. You’ll not be staying here.”

* * *

The girl lay in a dank cell. Wind whistled through the cracks in the gray daub-and-mottle walls. Water dripped from the ceiling. An iron bucket caught it with little plinks.

After a day or so, a key ground in the lock. The constable was there, boots freshly blacked.

“We found your stash, child. Up on the hill by old Sheema’s grave.”

The girl said nothing.

“How’d you get all those knives? From halfway ‘cross the country, some of them. And the one on top––from Lord Naryeshkin’s own larder. His castle’s seven leagues from here!”

The girl looked up at the man, then through him as if he were made of glass. She was seeing the tree, and Mam, and Mam was smiling at her, waving her on.

“It weren’t so far,” she said quietly. “I had boots then.”

Jack Shadow

. This story based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shadow.”

The shadow slipped through the night, hid from the sun, stretched out every morning and evening. Through towns and along roads that stretched for miles, the shadow slid.

You might not think that a shadow would have a name, but this one did, unpronounceable though it certainly was. It sounded a little like a snake slithering over moss, a little like fairy tears hitting the surface of a river.

But we…we shall call him Jack, just for now, because it is easier than snake-slithers and fairy tears, and this story is quite difficult enough to tell.

Jack was hunting. He had been for many years, and hoped it would not take much longer. A shadow, you see, needs a person, and this was the one thing he did not currently have.

Over his time, there had been many, tried on as one might test a new suit for a good fit. The last one, well, he had been nearly right, nearly perfect, but in the end that had made him very wrong.

A city loomed ahead; surely he would find what he was looking for in there, with so many people to choose from. Glass towers stood tall among small houses, reminding him of palaces. Of the days of dragons and kings.

Yes, my friends, our Jack the Shadow is that old, and then some.

I do suppose that now, as Jack edges into the city, mingling with all the normal shadows of sunset, is a good time to warn you that if Jack ever comes seeking to become your shadow, you must run. Run far and fast and do not look back. I only wish I had been able to warn the others, but I, unlike our Jack, am capable of regret.

Then again, you might well never know if Jack, or one like him, has begun to follow, a dark, sharp-edged blade of a thing.

He moved along the bustling streets, alert, careful, almost disappearing behind buildings as the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky. Turning a corner, he entered a quiet neighborhood full of tall, snow-white houses and old trees that spread leafy branches overhead.

This was promising. And you of course will know that when I say promising I mean dreadful, but to Jack, it was very promising indeed.

Up ahead, on the lawn of a large house on the next corner, a young boy kicked a ball, always reaching it just a second before his shadow—a real shadow—did. Jack crept up toward the house.

“Sam!” came a voice from within. “Time to wash up for dinner!”

“Coming!” he called back. Sam’s real shadow made to trail him into the house, but Jack caught it and held it back.

“We won’t be needing you anymore,” he said as the front door closed. Sam’s shadow turned around. It trembled in the breeze.

“No,” it said. “He’s a perfectly good boy and I won’t let you hurt him!”

“Hmmm,” said Jack the Shadow. “Why would you think I would hurt him?”

“I’ve heard of you,” it answered, shaking harder as the wind blew. “I heard what you did to that poor man, following him around for years and years, sucking the very life out of him until he was more of a shadow than you were!”

Jack laughed. It frightened the birds from the trees. He had been particularly proud of that one, but in the end, the man had not been the perfect fit. He had not wanted to become Jack’s shadow, and so there was only one thing that could be done.

“You killed him, and I won’t let you do it to Sam.”

“I do not think,” Jack said, “that you have a choice.” Swiftly, he plucked a strand of cobweb from a nearby bush and with it he slit the other shadow’s throat.

Now, you and I know that you could not ordinarily do such a thing with a cobweb, but shadows are not ordinary, and Jack was extraordinary, in the strictest sense of that word. Shadows do not play by the rules, and so the dead shadow shattered into a thousand tiny, black-winged moths and flew away.

The other shadow had been right about one thing. In fact, he had been right about everything, including what Jack did to the last one, but it was certainly right that Sam was a perfectly nice boy. Jack sat at the table while Sam ate, hid in a corner while he did every last bit of his schoolwork, and listened from the closet as his father read to him each night. He followed Sam to school and kicked a ball around the grass with him before dinner.

Jack was sure it was a perfect fit, that it was simply a matter of time.

Sam grew older, always a good boy, but taller, thinner, paler, his veins blue beneath his skin. His mother took him to the doctor, who said Sam was perfectly healthy, but perhaps a growing boy needed more sleep.

Jack hid under the chair in the doctor’s office and laughed. Goosebumps broke out over Sam’s skin.

“Sam,” Jack said that night, when the lights were out, the house quiet as a tomb.

“Who said that?” Sam asked, sitting bolt upright in bed.

“I’m your shadow.” Jack slid from the bed, over to the patch of moonlight on the floor. He stretched high as the ceiling, leaning over the boy in the bed. “You’ve been very good, but now it is time.”

“T-time for what?” Sam blinked, as if he was unsure whether he was truly awake.

“You are not dreaming,” said Jack. “It is time. I have followed you since you were young, Sam. I have done everything you asked of me, and now you must do what I ask of you. It is your turn to become my shadow.”

“I am dreaming,” Sam replied. “You aren’t real.” He lay back down and closed his eyes, turning his face into the pillow. Jack shook with rage, his whole thin, flat body shivering like the beat of a thousand moth wings. He slipped from the room, down the stairs, to the kitchen drawer where all the sharp knives were kept. Cobwebs did not work on people, and people follow the rules.

I cannot bear what happened next, just cannot bear it. You can imagine, you can close your eyes and picture it, if you so choose, though I wouldn’t choose to. Please forgive me if I don’t tell you every word, describe every drop of blood as it bloomed on the pillow.

I told you already that I wish I could have warned the others, and I only hope this has been enough of a warning for you. And so, rather than go through every last, horrible detail, I will instead ask you to do something for me. Go outside, stand in the sun. Close your eyes and feel it warm your face.

Open them again. Look around.

Is that truly your shadow?

Are you sure?

The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces

Our father is a bad man. We hate him.

He has twelve daughters, and I am the youngest. He is the king, but when he dies, none of us shall rule. He laughs at the idea. Although he has twelve daughters like twelve strong trees, like a sheaf of wheat; although we are some of us brilliant, some of us strong and fast, and some of us tenderly kind, and some of us able to talk a flock of birds or people into following wherever she leads—despite all that, he laughs at the idea of a woman ruler.

“I’d more likely leave my kingdom to my dogs,” he says.dancers

When my oldest sister tries to lay the case for fairness, or for sanity—that he could choose one of us other than her, even, or that perhaps we could rule together, lend each of our separate strengths to lead the kingdom to a new happiness and peace (for it has seen little of either under his clumsy, brutal rule)—our father mocks her, says in a high lisping voice (and she doesn’t lisp, and her voice is low and cool), “Oh Daddy, pwease, I want to wear the pwetty crown, it will show off my pwetty shining eyes!”

We hate him. My eldest sister hates him most of all. He would never give her the tutors she begged for, so she has learned and studied in secret, all her life. She is the cleverest of us all.

Father intended to give the rulership to some stupid, brutal boy he  will choose to marry one of us. But we had other plans. We said: We’ll never be married, never. Though we will not rule, we will keep our own freedom until we die.

One morning, as we lay in our twelve beds, my sister Rêve sat up straight and fast. Her eyes were shining and wild. “I have had one of my dreams,” she said. Rêve is a great dreamer, and knows how to dream things true. But all she would say was that that night, after the king our father went to bed, we should all dress in our favorite, our loveliest, our wildest dresses, and wear our dancing shoes,

We did as she said. “Now see what I dreamed,” said Rêve. She knocked three times on the wooden headboard of our eldest sister’s bed: knock, knock, knock.

For a moment, nothing happened. And then—oh, and then—the bed sank away, as if sinking into a great black lake. And beneath the bed were stone stairs, going down, down, down.

So down the stairs we went, in our clothes of ebony silk, of cherry-wine velvet, of lilac lace. Our soft dancing shoes made no noise at all on the stone steps.

At the bottom of the staircase, we entered a forest where the trees were made of filigreed silver.

Next we came through another forest, where the trees were shaped of shimmering gold, delicate gold leaves trembling as we stirred the air around them in our passing. The gold made the air feel warm.

Then we moved through a third forest, whose trees were cut from diamond. Each twig and leaf glittered hard and bright around us, and in that forest I felt as cold as if the trees were carved of ice.

We emerged onto the shore of a vast black lake, a lake that mirrored a vast black sky, so both seemed crowded with diamond stars, and no moon at all. Floating before us were twelve boats, each a different color,  the colors darkened and subdued under the pale stars.

In each boat sat a young man, each quite different, skin dark or fair, but each with the same mournful smile and something ghostly around the eyes and mouth.

I chose the ghost-boy whose boat might have been sky-blue, in the light. When he helped me in, his hand was as cold as the diamond forest.

The ghost boys rowed us in perfect silence to an island where a crystal castle stood. Warm lights moved and glowed inside the castle, like fire caught behind glass.

Inside the castle was an orchestra made up of forest animals—a grave jay with a tiny violin, and a white stag with a cello, and a smiling fox on a stool with a clarinet—oh so many of them, many more. And their music was wild, and it was mournful, too. The music had fire and rage underneath it to match our fire and rage, and it made us want to do nothing but dance.

ruined dancing shoesSo dance we did with our cold and ghosty boys, we danced out our rage all the wild night, as the violin-bearing birds swirled above our heads, the fiery lights swirling too as we swirled in the dance, our heads flung back, our feet mad beneath us.

When the eastern horizon began to soften, the boys rowed us back to the edge of the lake, and we walked through the icy diamond forest, and the shimmering gold one, and the delicate silver one, and back up the stairs to our room. On the floor beside each bed, we left our shoes in shreds and pieces

The next morning, the wretched maid told our father about our shoes. He demanded to know what had happened. But we were half dead from our long night, and we said nothing at all. Even my sister who always talks back just looked at him, her face pale and empty, and turned away.

He ordered that we must be kept shod, and left. New shoes were brought that afternoon.

The next night, we went dancing again, we danced our anger, and the next and the next and the next and the next. Every morning, our new shoes lay in shreds on the floor beside each bed; every morning, our father would shout and argue and insult us.

But we were turning half-ghost ourselves by day, with all our life in the night, and we only looked at him from dark-circled eyes and yawned.

Our father made an announcement to the kingdom. Any man who could solve the mystery, he would marry off to one of us, and make his heir. But if the man tried for three nights and could not solve the mystery, he would lose his head.

“That should motivate them,” said our father. His cruelty, his cruelty.

A prince from a far land came to try. Father gave these him the room beside ours, and left the door between open, which shamed and angered us. But my clever eldest sister made a potion, and put it in fine wine, and offered it to the prince with falsely loving words.

The potion made him sleep all night, and we were left to our raging revels. He slept through three nights, bewildered each morning at how it had happened.

On the third morning, my father had his head chopped off with an axe.

My heart wavered at this, for he had not seemed a bad man, only a hopeful and arrogant one. But my eldest sister, whose rage was greater, laughed. “It is what he deserves,” she said. “It is what they all deserve.”

Then she added, so perhaps her heart was not quite eaten with anger: “Anyway, it is father who kills them, not I.”

More princes came. More princes tried. More lost their heads. My eldest sister’s laugh became uglier and too much like my father’s.

Then no men came for a long time. We danced out our rage every night. Every morning we grew paler, but our eyes were bright and hot inside their dark circles. My father’s anger grew, because something was happening that he could not control.

But that his daughters grew into ghosts before his eyes: that worried him not at all.

After a year of the dancing, a new man came to try. He was different from the others, older, and no prince at all, but a common soldier who had been wounded in the leg, so that he limped badly, and could fight no more. He told us that he had met a strange old woman and shared his food with her, and she had repaid him by telling him of our father’s offer, “as well as with advice, and a small gift.”

I did not like to hear that, for there is great power in the gratitude of strange old women.

My father said, “I hope her gift was an iron neck,” and laughed.

When my eldest sister brought this new man the doctored wine and false words, he watched her out of dark eyes, and I thought I saw something like pity in them, which confused and frightened me. But he drank—or we thought he drank. And when the night came, he slept—or we thought he slept.

And yet when we slipped down the stairs that night, I was sure I heard a heavy, uneven gait behind me.

But when I turned, I saw nothing at all.

When we passed through the silver forest, I was sure I heard the limping steps behind me still. And I did hear, I know I heard, a sudden crack, like the snapping of a branch. I looked wildly around. “It was probably an animal,” said my sister Tendresse. “Calm yourself, calm yourself.”

So I put the limping, swinging, invisible step out of my mind, and out of my hearing, and found my ghosty boy, and danced my raging dance all night in the fiery crystal palace.

The next morning, the soldier said, as they all had said, “But I don’t understand how I could have fallen asleep.” I felt better. My imagination must have been playing tricks on me—my imagination, and perhaps my too great respect for strange old women.

In the silver forest that night, when I heard the limping, broken steps behind me, I said to myself firmly: “Your imagination.”

And at the crack of the branch in the golden forest, I said to myself, “An animal.”

Still, I could not throw myself into the black lake of our dance as deeply as usual.

In the morning, the soldier said, “Only one more night! It certainly doesn’t look good for me.” So I thought it must be all right after all.

And yet that third night, the heavy, limping gait behind me felt like the gait of Death. The crack of the branch in the diamond forest thrust a shard of ice into my heart.

And as I danced, I swear as I danced with my cold, mournful, ghosty boy, I felt something touch my arm here and there, something I could not see, as if that Death walked among us in the dance.

That morning, my father came with guards to take the soldier away to be beheaded. They found him sitting politely at the edge of his neatly-made bed, holding in his lap a silver branch, a golden branch, and a diamond one. As we watched from our room in despair, he told the whole story of what we did each night, and held up the branches one at a time for proof.

The king our father laughed and laughed, and clapped the soldier too hard on his back, and jeered at us. “They want to rule the kingdom, and yet they spend their nights giggling and dancing, like the empty heads they are.”

(But he did not know, had never seen, our raging, raging dance.)

The soldier said nothing. My father stopped laughing and said, “Then take whichever you want for a wife—Bellaluna is the prettiest by far—and I’ll set you up in a castle, and then you can wait for me to die, which I hope is a long damn wait.” He walked out, the guards behind him.

The soldier turned to us with his dark, opaque eyes. He said, “I think you are all quite beautiful, and much too beautiful for a man like me. Also, I will not take or choose, as if you were toys in a shop; but I will ask, and I will offer my pledge and my faith and my respect.”

He turned to my eldest sister. “I am no longer a boy, and I wish a wife who is my equal or better in wisdom. I have been watching you for three nights, and I believe that is you. I will need your wisdom to help me make this land a more peaceful place, for I have had enough of fighting. If you will have me, I will make you my queen and co-ruler, and we will heal the kingdom together. You do not need to give me your answer now.”

And he limped away to be shown his new castle.

I watched my eldest sister that night, over the ten narrow beds of my sleeping sisters between us. She lay back with her hands behind her head and her eyes wide open, considering.

In the morning she said to us, “I do not know how to give him my trust, but I am going to give him my trust anyway. My anger has danced through too many pairs of shoes. He is a new man, and I will try a new way.”

So the banns were made and the wedding held, with great pomp and many white horses and silver lace and bells. In the following weeks we visited them at their castle, and we saw a new way between a man and a woman, that we had never conceived of before.

One by one, with our father’s shrugged permission, we moved to the new castle to live.  My sister has filled it with books and art and mathematical instruments, and everything our father ever denied us. We sleep well at night, and we have lost our ghostly look, and live in the world around us.

Our father is a bad man. We hate our father.

But one day our father will die. And together with this wounded man, we we will make a new and better kingdom.

Once our father dies.