The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

A Whispering, a Muttering, a Hum.

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum. There weren’t so many of them that a birthday was an everyday occurrence. Especially not this birthday.

There were worn floors that had seen better days, scrubbed clean by capable hands. The boy followed the others along grooves etched by hundreds of feet, between the dormitories and breakfast tables and school rooms, counting the hours.

There were hearth fires, not blazing enough to reach into every corner, but warm if you stood near enough and never moved, because once you stepped away you’d be twice as chilled as before. The first signs of spring budding on the trees and poking up from the earth had not yet crept indoors.

There were scents, of rain and smoke and something sweet baking in the kitchen.

There was saliva dripping down the chins of those accustomed to watery porridge.

All the younger children looked at the boy with excited smiles. The matrons gazed at him with thin-lipped grimaces.

Well, they would miss him, wouldn’t they. For this was the last time he would hear these whispers and walk these floors and smell these smells.

He was about to receive his Gift.

Af supper, a package would appear, shiny and bright as one of the foul cough drops Nurse gave when the winter winds came and the children could hardly speak. Though it was not needed, a label, on which someone had written his name, would flutter from the ribbon, the whole representing the only two things in the world that belonged to him, and him alone.

Oh, he would be given food, and warm clothing for his journey, but those didn’t count. Everybody had such things, even if the food was barely enough to fill a belly, the clothes full of holes.

He would take his Gift, and Head Matron would take the large brass key from the string at her waist, fit it neatly into the lock of the orphanage’s front door.

The bell rang.

The package was blue, a blue of skies and flowers. He’d seen them in all colors over the years, for as long as he could remember. “Open it,” the others begged, but the boy shook his head. That wasn’t done. He ate his stew in silence, eyes never leaving the small, square box. While the rest of the children exclaimed in delight over the rare cake, he scarcely tasted it. Only a faint impression of sweetness left itself on his tongue.

“It is time,” said Head Matron. The key caught the lamplight. The box was heavy in his hand and the blue paper shimmered.

“Well,” he said, looking up and down the long tables. “Goodbye.”

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum, and it swelled as he reached the door. They were guessing. In his time, he’d done plenty of that himself, every time he’d watched someone else celebrate this birthday.

Head Matron didn’t say a word. She draped a warm cloak round his shoulders, held out a coarsely woven sack for him to take with his free hand. The boy saw the one who taught him maths wipe her eyes. Well, he was good with his numbers, and he’d always taken care to help the ones who struggled. Perhaps she’d miss him most of all. He gave her a smile, which she returned with a weak one of her own.

It was a long walk down the path to the gates set into the walls that surrounded the orphanage. A second brass key, this one from Head Matron’s pocket, turned the lock with the tiniest of clicks. The gates creaked.

“Thank you,” said the boy, because he felt he should. She had, after all, kept him safe and warm and fed his whole life, or near to it as mattered. He’d kept his bed and table tidy, never been rude at mealtimes, or spoken out of turn in lessons, and thus she had never given him a cruel word.

And now, she gave him none at all. Nodding, she gestured through the gate and, for the first time, he stepped outside the orphanage’s confines, with the entire world spread out before him like an adventure. When the gate swung shut and locked behind him, he barely heard it.

The Gift slipped in his slightly clammy hand. He could open it now, if he wished, but curiously, he did not. Not yet. While it was still wrapped and pretty, it could be anything, and there was a delightful wonder to that, wasn’t there? Certainly, the other children would still be guessing as they made their way to the dormitories and climbed under scratchy blankets.

Some said it was a fat gold coin, enough riches to make life in the city on the other side of the forest that surrounded the grand, old, crumbling house. Others thought it was a map, unique to each child, with which they might find any family left to them. It could be the key to a palace, a blood red jewel the size of a plum. Those with great imaginations and a keenness for fairy stories were sure it was a gift in the truest sense, and that opening the package would grant something wonderful, magical; the ability to soar high above the treetops, or become as invisible as the wind which rippled the boy’s new cloak.

If it would let him fly, he wouldn’t have to walk through the woods, which at the moment looked very deep, and dark, and getting darker with each inch the sun dropped in the sky. Behind him, the windows glowed, and the boy thought for a moment about turning back, asking to stay until morning. But the Gift always came with supper, and nobody ever returned. He would not be the first. He would brave the forest, as every child before him had, and make his way to the city. Yes. He would walk for a while through the trees, and when he became tired or hungry, he would find a clearing and curl up for the night. There, alone, he’d open the package and see what clue to his new life it held.

Looking out from the dormitory window at the vast swathe of green treetops, he’d imagined the forest to be a calm, quiet place, far more peaceful than a house full of children. Now that he was inside it, however, it sang with a symphony of noise; birds and leaves and scuttling creatures. But it was not unpleasant, indeed it felt like a sort of company, so that he was not so very alone.

With no clock, and the moon hidden away, the boy didn’t know how long or far he walked, only that he did so until his feet inside his hand-me-down boots were sore and blistered. On he trudged, peering through the gloom until he saw light, moonlight pouring into an empty circle of trees.

He thanked his luck at such a perfect spot. A large boulder, its surface worn smooth, gave an ideal place to lean against as he sat on the hard ground and placed the blue-wrapped package in front of him. Still, it could be anything.

In the sack was bread and cheese, plus a stoppered bottle of what turned out to be water, still chilled courtesy of the night air. The boy ate and rested his aching feet, drawing his cloak around him as the wind picked up.

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum.

And it grew louder. Louder. LOUDER.

Wailing, ghostly figures emerged from the trees to surround him. A cry of fright trapped in his throat, unwilling to come out. The blue paper caught the moonlight. It must be something to help him, protect him! With near frozen, trembling fingers, the boy tore open the Gift, paper blowing away across the clearing.

The box shook. The swirling, wispy creatures came closer, closer.

He tore off the lid.

The air filled with a scream, bursting from the box to join the cacophony of sound in the forest. He could not run back, they would chase him and it was too far. He couldn’t warn the others at the orphanage.

The scream kept going, billowing out of the small box that was growing lighter in his hands.

Closer. Closer they came.

He knew the scream.

It was his own.




The school had a story about a gift.

It was a square box, bigger than a candy box, wrapped in old brown paper—very old, greasy from thousands of fingers over the years. Two pink chrysthanthemums had once upon a time been pinned to the top, but long ago they had withered to the color of dried blood.

Every year, on Valentine’s Day, the gift would appear in a different student’s locker. Supposedly, at least. That’s how the story went.

And then that student had a choice.

He or she could leave the gift untouched and, at the end of the day, close the locker, spin the lock, and go home. In that case, the next day, the gift would be gone.

Or he or she could open the gift.

And in that case, the student would never be seen again.

Supposedly. That was the story about the gift. Some people said the whole thing was just a ghost story or something. Some people said it was a prank the older kids kept alive, or even one of the assistant principals? Everyone had a theory.

But supposedly, every year, some kid did actually get the gift. Every year, some kid would swear he’d found the gift in the locker under his sweatshirt—or some girl would say it was right on top of her biology book. And sometimes they’d even have friends back them up.

“But I didn’t open it,” they’d always say. “I mean it’s just a story, but why take a chance.”

Supposedly, the last time someone opened the gift was back in the 80s. One guy said his mother was actually at the school then, and knew the kid who supposedly opened it. And the kid really did disappear that Valentine’s Day, and was never heard from again, according to this guy, according to this mother.

Which is a lot of accordings.

Annie thought the story was probably bogus. It seemed like the kind of bogus thing they told the younger students to keep them in line, so they could laugh at you later.

One thing about Annie: she was as easy to scare as anyone, but she was a lot harder to intimidate.

And so on Valentine’s Day, when she opened her locker and saw a square box in a plain brown wrapper, with dead flowers pinned on top, at first she froze.

Then, inside the freeze, she started thinking.

Not that she really thought she’d disappear, or whatever. But on the other hand, what could be inside this box that would be nice? Whoever was playing this dumb joke wasn’t going to fill the box with iPhones or scarves or Playstation gift cards or anything a person would actually want. Best case, something would come sproinging out at her, if she opened it. Or it would be someone’s long decayed ham-sandwich, moldy and turning to soup—ugh, her stomach turned just thinking about it.

Annie started to close the locker, but a beefy hand held it open. She turned around.

“You got the gift,” Tim Bettner said. His mouth was slightly open. “Oh my god. Oh my god, you got it.”

Tim Bettner played on the football team, because he was huge, not because he was athletic. He was kind of a jerk and used to bully Annie in grade school. She lifted her chin.

“Did you put this in my locker?”

“Oh my god, you got the gift,” he said again. He wasn’t exactly the smartest person in class, either. His wet upper lip curled in an unpleasant smile. “You’re scared to open it.”

“No—“ Annie began.

“You’re so scared. Scared like a girl,” said Tim. He raised his voice. “She’s scared!” he called. The few remaining students in the hall glanced at them.

“I’m late to class,” said Annie.

“Late to scaredy-cat class?” asked Tim. His idea of a hilarious burn.

“Back off,” said Annie. She slammed her locker shut and walked away.

“Are ya gonna open it?” Tim called after her.

“I haven’t decided,” she said.

She strode down the hall toward math class, picking up speed to beat the bell. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice, half-whisper, half-croon, from the far end of the hall, near her locker.

“Aannnniiieee,” called the voice, soft as a lullabye. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Her skin crawled. She shook it off. Tim, that stupid jerk.

Halfway through math, finishing up a pop quiz she hadn’t studied for, Annie had forgotten about the gift. She had just, with some reluctance, left the quiz on the teacher’s desk when she heard a voice outside the classroom door.

“Aannnniiieee,” said the voice, low and sing-song. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Annie felt her hands go cold and her lips go dry. She looked at the class, then the teacher, but they all had their heads buried in their work, except for two girls whispering near the back of the room. Annie walked over to them.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Uh?” said the short one.

“Never mind.”

Sitting at her desk, waiting for her heart to calm, Annie thought to herself: I’ll show him, I’ll show him, He can’t scare me.

She stormed through volleyball, getting a shout of approval from the surprised coach. She steamed through American history. She had the last lunch period, and was always starved by the time it came around, but this day she stood in the cafeteria doorway, scanning the room for Tim.


The voice, the sweet, cajoling voice again, and now it was coming from behind her.

“I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Jaw set, Annie turned on her heel and walked back down the hall to her locker.


Five minutes later, Annie’s best friend Makayla, headed for lunch herself, saw Annie, facing her locker, working at something in her hands. “What’s up?” she asked. “Sit by me at lunch, I have GOT to tell you about—“

“Give me a second,” said Annie. “I’ve gotta do this so I can shove it in Tim Bettner’s stupid FACE.”

“Oh my god that’s what I was going to tell you!” said Makayla. “Tim Bettner’s not even here, he got sent home during first period science, he cracked his head on the corner of a cabinet, oh my god the blood, and he was crying like a—“

Annie’s busy, furious fingers were tearing at the package. “Wait a minute, what?” She turned back to Makayla. “But if Tim’s not here, then who—“ her fingers stopped.

But her fingers stopped too late. The box was open.


Later, over and over, to all the questions from laughing, shivering friends, then annoyed teachers, then anxious principal, then frantic parents, then police—all Makayla could say was that when Annie turned around, she had a box in her hands. Yes, she was sure it was a box, a box covered in torn brown paper, and yes it was open.

And then she was gone.

Yes, she knew what that box supposedly meant. No, she wasn’t playing games. Yes, she would like a kleenex. Okay, she’d start again.


Annie found herself in a vast, dim, empty place. It was cold. Across from her sat a small, pasty creature with tiny red eyes and a black hole for a mouth. The creature might once have been human.

“Who are you?” said Annie softly.

“I am the gift,” said the creature. His voice was like the creaking of a gate in the distance. Now his hole-mouth twisted into a terrifying parody of a sweet, relieved smile. “I was the gift,” he corrected himself. “But now you are.” His expression twisted into something like sadness. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m more sorry than I can say,”

“Why are you sorry?” asked Annie. “Am I dead?”

“Oh no, oh my gosh no, that would be so much better,” said the small, pale thing. “You’re the gift. You have one chance a year. One chance to make someone else the gift. Supposedly,” he said. “I mean that’s what I heard.”

Annie looked at him in disbelief. “Are you —you’re the last kid who opened the gift?”

The thing nodded.

“But you don’t look like . . . and anyway how could you . . “ Her lip curled up in disgust.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” the creature said in his flat, tiny voice. “You’re thinking, How cruel, how could you be so cruel, to make someone else live this horrible fate.” He creaked in a broken-bird way that might have been a laugh. “That’s what I thought, too. You’ll see. You’ll see. Anyway,” he added. “You’ll have a long, long time to think about it. After what happened to you, it will be many, many years before anyone is brave enough, or forgetful enough, to open the package again. Thank you for being so brave.”

“But wait, though—“ Annie began.

A few drops of brownish fluid leaked from the creature’s tiny red eyes. “Goodbye,” he said, and crumbled into dust.


Annie sits alone in the vast darkness.

“I am the gift,” she practices saying. “I have a present for you.”

She practices making it sound nice.

She would have a long, long time to practice.

Unwrapping February

When most people think of February, they likely think about love, or Leap Day, or how unforgivably cold the weather is that time of year, and will we ever feel warmth again? Ever?

(Ahem. Pardon me. I’m afraid your Curators are getting a touch of winter madness about them. Even living in a house the size of the Cabinet does not make one immune to the torments of cabin fever.)

Here at the Cabinet–at least this year–February is about GIFTS.

They might be gifts of love . . . or of hate.

They might be ribboned gifts left on your doorstep . . . containing dark secrets instead of dark chocolate.

They might be whispered secrets wrapped in lies or shiny trinkets lined with terrible curses.

Here at the Cabinet, one never knows what one might find, but a good rule of thumb is this: Just because something looks innocuous enough on the outside doesn’t mean it’s so on the inside. And sometimes the smelliest, foulest, most dangerous-looking things you could imagine contain the most wondrously lovely insides . . . if you know just where and how to open them.

Then again, sometimes the smelliest, foulest, most dangerous-looking things are exactly what they appear to be.

Really, the lesson here is that you can’t trust anyone and probably shouldn’t open any gifts, ever. Just in case.

. . . But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? We certainly don’t think so.

Come help us unwrap this month, and let’s see what it holds in store.

Stump Child

Durand Asher (1865)

I will recount for you the story of the Stump Child. There was once a little person who sat alone on the top of a fallen tree stump. She was pale and delicate and marble-skinned, and though the fog rolled up into the woods, and the wind lashed, and the rain came down in torrents, the child remained still as stone atop the stump, rain dripping from her nose, not moving at all. The child was seen from time to time by passing travelers, and they would comment on her, asking their guide who it was that they glimpsed there among the curling branches, far off the path. Sometimes the guide would tell them. The less fortunate found out for themselves. . .


We were walking along a muddy trail in that country called the Emerald Isle, heading for the town of Arklow. I had booked passage on a ship bound for England, and from England I was quite looking forward to the journey home, wandering the dusty halls and sunlit motes of the Cabinet, exchanging notes with the other curators, and catalogueing my many perilous encounters in the faery hills of Lough Corrib.

I was not expecting further encounters of the supernatural sort, and when I saw the face, high up the hillside, I thought at first it was an owl. I told myself it was an owl, because owls are generally benign creatures, and one needn’t feel obligated to know things about them or record tales about them and their histories. And yet when I peered closer into the rain, I saw that it was indeed nothing like an owl, but a child, with her knees pulled up to her chin, and her small sharp face peering over the tops of them, eyes slightly pointed, and very dark, too distant to read, but close enough to see that they looked like little holes in the woods, like little hole-punched openings.

“What is that?” I asked my guide, whose name was McCarthy, and who seemed to me a quintessential Irishman in that he was brusque, sharp-witted, somewhat superstitious, and very difficult to understand. For sake of simplicity, I have refrained from writing out his marvelous accent, and have put down his words in plainer, duller English.

“That?” my guide said, not even glancing toward the dark woods, but keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, “Is Betty’s Daughter. Don’t look at her.”

And so of course, being a Curator of Curious Things, I wrenched my head around and looked up into the trees with great interest.

It was a weird, unearthly sort of forest we were walking through. Ireland has no shortage of such woods. The trees grow sinuous, as if their branches are floating up in water. The bark is always thick with moss, the ground thick with mist, and the rocks are wrapped  as if in green velvet. The resulting impression is one wild beauty, but also forlornness, and a sense that one should not be there, that the forest should be walked through at great speed until one is in a city with cars and ugly buildings where one belongs, and that the forest should be left to its own devices, of which there are no doubt many.

But cars and cities were far from us, and so were all manner of humans, and as I stared up into the woods, I felt the child turn her head and look at me.

“Why is she called that? Betty’s Daughter? What is she doing there?”

“Don’t speak to her. Show her no kindness. Come quickly.” My guide kept his eyes on the ground, but his brows were low, and as he spoke, he came back toward me and gripped my arm. I resisted, shrugging him off.

“Come, Sir,” he said. “Bad things happen when you stray from the path. The woods are treacherous in the quiet hours.”

I was not listening. I turned back to the girl. The rain was coming more violently now, and suddenly I was noticing details I had not seen before: the child wore a blue smock with a soiled collar, and little old-fashioned black leather shoes, and she no longer appeared quite so bony and fey, but like an actual child, shivering in the cold and weeping, so that I could not tell where the tears ended and the rain began.

“Is it here often?” I said. One part of my mind was trying to swim its way to the surface and whisper warnings in my ear, and the other part looked into the child’s eyes and felt a deep, unimaginable sadness. The child’s hole-punch gaze was blue now. She was sniffling, crying. . .

I saw a child walking with her mother down a forest path. The sun was shining, and for a moment it was an idyllic scene, something from a painting. Their garb was Victorian, and the forest was younger and wilder than it is now. The mother stopped suddenly, several paces away from where I observed them, and I saw she looked haggard, and her clothes were askew and her face was tired and pockmarked. She took the child up to the stump and sat her there, and though I heard no voices, I saw the mother’s mouth move, and her finger wag, and then the woman left and hurried on down the path. The child sat on the stump and waited. The sun faded. The fog came, creeping up the hillside and lapping slowly at the base of the stump like cotton tongues. The dark followed, then the rain, and the child sat on the stump in the cold and the damp, and waited. The rain dripped from her nose, and the water pooled in her shoes. Her mother did not return that night.

I realized suddenly I was standing, petrified, in the path, and my guide was dragging at me, his eyes wild. “Do not look at it! Do not look!”

I turned to him again, and said, almost dreamily: “Why does no one help her?”

“Come away!” the guide screamed.

But I could not. The child on the hillside was sobbing wretchedly, her hands were over her eyes, and now I saw her mother faraway, reaching a smoky city, limping past grimy brick walls and signboards, boarding a boat, going farther away, and all the while her child sat alone in the woods. The mother died on the boat and was thrown overboard. The child waited in the woods for days, then weeks, becoming thinner and thinner, and the people who passed by crossed themselves and hurried on in terror. And then, in my vision, I saw two people clumping up the muddy path, a guide and a Curator in aubergine shoes, wending their way through the green and the mist.

It became clear to me then what must be done: I would save the child. I would take her to the city and hand her over to be someone else’s problem the way noble heroes do, and I would be successful where others had failed. And so before I really knew what I was doing, I was racing up through the underbrush, the branches grasping at my jacket and snatching at my cheeks. I heard my guide cry out behind me. I scrabbled in the mud, slipped on the moss. I saw the stump approaching, and the child on it, and I saw suddenly the child was death-white, a starved, hateful little thing with hungry eyes, one-hundred-and sixty years dead with fingers curled around the stump, leaning down toward me. My body tipped forward. There was no more ground under me. And I saw there was a great pit at the base of the stump, invisible from the path, and far down in the depths was something larger, a vast creature with many eyes like little crystals, and dark spines and an embarrassment of legs, slithering in the dark.

And just there, the guide jerked me back, and together we rolled down the hill and fell in a heap at the bottom, muddy and soaked, and the Irishman very angry.

I did not look back at the child on the stump. I grappled myself to my feet and together with the guide, hurried up the path and over the hill. We did not slow until we were in Arklow and I had boarded a boat. To this day I do not know exactly what breed of magic Betty’s Daughter was, or what ancient creature lived in the pit at its feet and used it to lure in its dinner, but in all honesty I am not curious enough to find out.

You may think me foolish for not knowing better than to look into the hole-punch gaze of the creature on the stump. My Irish guide certainly did. But then, Ireland is an ancient and enchanted place, and there is no telling what one will do there, or what might live in these green hollows and old woods, and perhaps that is the long and short of it: we are not meant to know everything. If we did, there would be no adventures.


(Curator Bachmann is, as of the posting of this, still in Ireland, traveling merrily away, and will blog about his less supernatural encounters later.)

Sunday Night Strange

I know, I know. I’ve been gone for a long while now, and you’re grumpy about it, and feeling maybe a bit self-righteous about it, and thinking to yourself, “It’s past time, isn’t it, you lazy, good-for-nothing Curator?”

Well. Allow me to toss a withering glare in your general direction and ask you to take your cheek elsewhere, thank you very much.

It’s not like I’ve been lounging about the Cabinet, re-reading favorite spellbooks and sorting through my collection of dancing shoes, reminiscing fondly about each pair’s doomed former owner.

(Don’t look at me like that. I wouldn’t harm someone just to get my hands on their dancing shoes. I may be a Curator and therefore in possession of both dubious judgment and an irregular personal hygiene routine, but my morals are intact, I assure you.)

(Now, if the owner of a fabulous pair of dancing shoes happened also to have broken into the Cabinet stores, and attempted to sneak away with Curator Bachmann’s collection of haunted musical instruments in order to enspell and then dispose of a prima ballerina and take her spot at the upcoming premiere . . . why, then, it is perfectly acceptable to, shall we say, cautiously incapacitate this person and take said fabulous dancing shoes for oneself. It’s all in the name of justice, you see.)

Now, where was I? You made me so indignant that I was forced to use parentheticals.

Ah, yes. The reason for my absence.

How to tell such a story? I’m not sure you will believe me when you hear it. And it’s rather embarrassing, in fact, so maybe I shan’t tell you at all.

What’s that? Are you actually begging to hear my story, like a spoiled child?

Well. If you insist. But don’t think I’ll give in to your pitiful whingeing again.

(Oh, who am I kidding? We Curators can’t resist telling our stories. You know this by now.)

So. Imagine this:

It is a Sunday, the most horrid day of the week because with it comes an unshakeable sense of impending disaster, otherwise known as Monday morning.

You decide to take a stroll and enjoy the noiselessness of your neighborhood at half past nine. Children are asleep. Adults are grumbling about their laundry, the twins’ lunches, the dog’s piddle on the rug.

But the streets are quiet.

And it is here, on these streets, at the corner of somewhere and thereabouts, that you hear a rustling.

You peek out from beneath your scarves and your layered felt hats, the necklaces you wear around your neck clacking against each other. The necklaces are made of carved sections of bone, each piece strung to the next with hair from a tribe of flesh-eating pixies. You wear them to protect yourself from evil and also from smelly people on the train.

A familiar face appears before you, and the delicious fear tickling your skin subsides. Why, it’s nothing exciting. It’s only your friend Percival

(What, don’t you have a friend named Percival? I thought everyone did.)

“Hello, there,” says Percival, bobbing his head about in the strangest of fashions. Perhaps he hears music you cannot? “I thought it was you.”

“Hello, Percival,” you say. “I was just out for my Sunday evening walk.”

“Oh, yes. Of course.” Percival blinks at you, his eyes watery and a bit gummy around the edges.

You say: “Percival, are you quite all right? You have a sick look about you.”

Percival says: “I’m afraid I’m quite ill.” His head is starting to fall this way and that like a child swinging about a bag of potatoes.

A thin line of laughter arises from the shadows. You turn, but nothing is there.

“Well, I must go,” says Percival, “for I have a sick look about me.”

Then Percival leaves you standing there curiously as he continues on his way. You blink, and his body buckles. Did he stumble on a crack in the walk? You blink again, and Percival is gone. You think you see small shapes scattering into the hedges like tumbleweeds, but you can’t be sure.

What an odd fellow, that Percival.

You continue on your walk, and for a time all is well. But then you turn a corner, and there he is again—Percival. Only this time, his skin is wriggling like many squirming things are itching to break out of their fleshy Percival-prison.

“Percival, my friend, you look rather smashing just now,” you say, for, as everyone knows, it is rude to comment on someone’s wriggling skin to his face.

“Percival, my friend, Percival, my friend,” whispers Percival, and then comes that laughter again. It is high and shrill. Really, it could be best described as shrieky, and it appears to be emanating from the rubbery crack forming diagonally across Percival’s face.

“Ah. Percival?” you point out helpfully. “Your face appears to be breaking in two. Or rather more like melting in two.” You peer closely. “I’m not sure what to call it, actually.”

“Your face! Your face! Your face!” Percival shrieks, and then runs away, his crooked limbs flailing everywhere like those of a marionette with cut strings.

He truly is an odd fellow. You ought to send him some fairy cakes to get his color up a bit.

Later, you reach your neighborhood’s little pond. It is flat and black and is actually the gateway to an imprisoned army of demons, but none of these people in their bright, cheery houses need to know that. Besides, you and your friends have long had these demons under control.

Truly. You have. No matter what anyone says.

And wouldn’t you know it? There is Percival, sitting by the water with his legs splayed like a child’s. Fish fresh from the water flap about him in the dirt. He has plucked off several of their fins; his mouth is slimy with guts.

“Face,” Percival whispers. “Face, face, face.” Then he holds up a mutilated fish for you to see.

“Percival, I’m not sure you should be eating fish fresh from the water like that,” you advise. “The water may not be . . . entirely safe. You know. Pollution and such.”

(Pollution there may be, but nothing humans can create is as foul as demon breath, and to the trained nose, this pond reeks of it.)

But you don’t tell Percival that. Even if you had wanted to, his ears appear to be sliding off of his skull.

In fact, his entire face is now peeling apart into five sections—eyes and nose and mouth and ear and ear. Gummy strings stretch between each separating piece of Percival-face. The pieces elongate and squash and flatten and squash again until they take the shapes of fat little men with swollen faces.

It is only then that you realize your error, and everything becomes clear.

These are the flesh-eating pixies from which you harvested hair to bind together your protective necklaces those many months ago—and you realize now, many months too late, that on that fateful day, you forgot to offer them your own hair in return for what you harvested.

You committed, in fact, an unthinkable pixie faux pas.

And of course they let you. They didn’t clear their throats or raise their eyebrows or give you any sort of body language cue that you were doing something wrong. No, the little flatulent devils just sat there and smiled, probably already plotting the details of this very night, right down to the last mangled fish fin.

“Oh, of all the rotten luck,” you mutter, as the pixies tumble out of their Percival-shaped tower and become themselves. What they lack in size they make for in numbers and a fierce adherence to the rules of trade etiquette. They drag you through the neighborhood by your scarves, through the forest, up the mountain, down the mountain, and up the next mountain, until coming to a stop in a wooded glen encircled by rocks—and it is here that you see an empty cage, waiting for you.

“What is the sentence for a botched exchange of hair?” you ask, as you are unceremoniously shoved into the cage. “Do remind me. I’ve forgotten.”

For answer, a pixie with a particularly gleeful expression floats up to meet your eyes. In his tiny hands are a pair of polished scissors.

He flies at your hair with a gleam in his eye, and you quickly calculate how long you will have to remain indoors after this. Three months?Four? Pixies love hair—especially that of humans—but they have a notoriously terrible eye for style, and whatever they have used to coat the scissors’ blades reeks of poison. No doubt it will take some time for everything to grow back.

When the first lock of your hair hits the floor, and the pixies let out a cheer, you sigh and clasp your hands. It could be worse, you suppose—and very well might be, if they get hungry while they work.

(But obviously they didn’t, for I am still here.)

(Well, mostly.)