The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Carlotta

 

When autumn came, Carlotta’s parents brought in the trampoline from outside and set it up in the living room. “So it doesn’t blow away,” they said, and Carlotta watched from around a door-frame and thought about how she might use these turn of events to her advantage.

Once her parents were outside in the garden, she approached the trampoline slowly, the way one might approach a bear in the woods when one is not sure if it is dead or only sleeping. She bounced on it cautiously at first, small, exploratory bounces. Then she leaped up and came down with all her weight and was hurled high into the air. She smashed through the ceiling and hung for a moment, her head among the mouse droppings and plaster of the crawlspace, her legs kicking in the room below. Then she fell back down and bounced several more times on the shiny black material, staring up at the hole she had made with her head.

She was not hurt, only a little stunned, but it awakened in her the great wish to go back into the space between the floors and crawl about in it. She had seen it for a split second, a hidden world squeezed between the downstairs and the upstairs, and it had not looked bad at all. She had the idea she would find animals there – mice or birds or rattlesnakes – that liked to be alone as much as she did, and paradoxically, that they would want to be her friends. She dreamed of tunnels worming among the beams and air ducts, secret chambers and quiet corners where she could hide. She imagined herself as one of those feral children from books, haunting her family with frightening cackles and knocks. She was always looking for secret places, always looking for small, quiet corners in the great, bleak expanse of the world. Sanctuary: that was the word that always popped into her head when she thought of her mission. She was looking for a sanctuary.

She went quickly to the window and peered out to make sure her parents were still busy. Then, shaking the plaster out of her hair, she fetched a wobbly stepladder from the broom closet. She balanced it on the trampoline, and climbed it, and peeked again through the hole in the ceiling. It was at this inopportune moment that her parents decided to come back in from the garden.

“Carlotta!” they both exclaimed together, when they saw the trampoline, and the stepladder, and their daughter wobbling at the top of it, her head inside the ceiling. “Did you do that?”

Carlotta did not answer. She waited a moment, wondering which direction to choose – up into the crawlspace, or down to face the noise and angry faces of her parents. In the end, the ladder made the decision for her, toppling over and sending her down into the brightness of the living room. She collapsed onto the trampoline and blinked at her mother and father, who blinked back at her, perplexed. Carlotta’s parents never knew quite what to make of their daughter, and Carlotta often thought they would give her back if they could, and exchange her for someone better.

Carlotta,” her mother said at last, gesturing at the ceiling and the scraps of plaster everywhere. “Why would you do that? Use your head.”

Carlotta had used her head. That was what had made the hole in the ceiling. But she knew it was futile to argue, and so she went and got a dustpan and cleaned up the plaster, and then her parents sent her to her room and had a good, long talk.

*

In the end, it was the trampoline that sent Carlotta to school in the country. “It will do you good,” her parents said, the morning they took her little suitcase and put it into the trunk of the red Jensen. “To be away. To be among other children.”

Carlotta’s mother drove the car. She was not a good driver, and this made Carlotta’s father – who did not know how to drive at all – feel obliged to give directions.

“Turn left up here, Lotta,” he said, pointing to a sign. “It will cut our journey in half.”

“I don’t think that leads anywhere. Are you sure, Carl?”

“Quite sure. I have a knack for directions. And Carlotta,” he added, noting his daughter’s dour expression between the front seats. “Don’t worry, darling. St. Ethelburt’s is a good school, a veritable temple to learning-”

*

St. Ethelburt’s might have been a good school for some children, but it wasn’t for Carlotta.

She didn’t like math, and though she had always thought she liked history, the history teacher smelled of chewing tobacco and Violet Mints and sounded like the drone of a lawnmower engine, and so Carlotta decided she didn’t like history either.

Choir was a trial, sport an exercise in humiliation, and nothing Carlotta did seemed quite right by other people’s standards. During outdoor drawing class, Carlotta would walk about in her great green rain-boots, peering at people’s work over their shoulders like a curious, slightly senile old person. The other girls swatted her away, but she only pushed her glasses – round as a pair of coins – up her nose and continued tottering about.

“Carlotta,” the drawing teacher said. “Sit down and make your own picture. Don’t you have any ideas?”

I’m not looking for ideas, Carlotta thought, frowning. She was going to draw a picture of a hand drawing a picture, and was only looking to see whose hand cast the nicest shadow. But when her gaze darted across all those staring eyes, and the pinched face of the drawing teacher, she paused and hunched her shoulders and could not bring herself to explain this.

The teachers at St. Ethelburt’s were confusing to Carlotta. The science teacher, a Mr. Tweedy, would sometimes not teach science, but would assign them reading and then sit in the light of one of the great classroom windows, looking out from time to time, and then leaning over a table and writing desperate letters, his spectacles sliding down his nose. Miss Larch, the maths teacher, had switched schools six times in three years and was rumored to be a fugitive from the law. And the headmistress had broken up with her fellow just a little while ago and all the girls had talked about it for weeks. One day Carlotta caught her in an empty hallway, primping in front of a mirror and crying. The headmistress had seen Carlotta and had smiled brightly and hurried away. She always gave Carlotta little sideways glances after that, as if she were worried Carlotta would tell on her, and Carlotta wondered often about that mirror and what it must have shown the headmistress to make her cry.

Then there was the trouble of Dido Binnington. Unlike Carlotta, for whom the world was like a prickly, scratchy, much-too-large sweater, the world seemed to have been made to fit Dido like a lovely party dress. Dido was the captain of the rowing team and the head girl for that year, and she thought Carlotta shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near her. In fact, whenever Carlotta came clumping past in her galoshes, Dido would make a face as if she smelled something bad, and would whisper something to her friends. Carlotta didn’t know this, but having the world fit you like a lovely dress came with all sorts of its own insidious troubles, and the truth was Dido was not a happy creature. The mere sight of Carlotta, half-blind behind her spectacles, drove Dido to wrath. She didn’t know why. She only knew that when she pushed Carlotta in the hall, or made a comment about her in class that made everyone laugh, she felt a great satisfaction, the sort she normally only felt when squashing bumblebees or stepping on snails.

Carlotta thought Dido was far too old to care whether Carlotta wore galoshes, and really, it was more pathetic that she paid attention to Carlotta at all, when Carlotta was only in Year 3 and Dido in Year 9. Sometimes Carlotta thought the others should notice how silly Dido was, too, how she picked at her hair whenever someone else’s joke got a louder laugh than her own, and how she spoke a great deal about being good at things, but wasn’t. The other girls didn’t seem to notice anything, however, and it only confused Carlotta further. How easily you could trick the world, Carlotta thought. How easily you could pretend to be good, but be all sorts of nasty underneath. It made Carlotta shake her head. It made her want to go away.

*

Carlotta resumed her search for a good sanctuary during her very first week at St. Ethelbert’s. She decided right away that the school’s crawlspace would not be an option. Her parents’ house had been made of plasterboard and had been put together by a crane, and thus was easily permeable. The school, on the hand, was old and built of stone, and Carlotta thought if she placed a trampoline on the floor of one of the rooms and tried to torpedo herself into the ceiling the results would be significantly less successful than they’d been at home.

Instead, she took to the woods that edged the school green, wandering the little glens and picking her way along the stony shore of the lake, just inside the shadow of the pine stands. There was a folly some ways into the woods. It had once been a gazebo of some sort, or a tower, with Grecian pillars and high windows, but either most of it had fallen over or it had never been built in the first place. It had no ceiling, strange writing on the walls in bright paint, and bottles on the ground. It looked as if it hadn’t been used for a very long time. Better yet, thought Carlotta as she entered for the first time, it had a black iron door in one pillar that looked just large enough for her to crawl into.

She lay on her stomach among the dirt and leaves, and peered at the door. It was a bright, warm day, the golden sun piercing the trees and warming the stone. Birds sang and crickets sawed. Carlotta began to pry at the latch. She thought the door looked like a door in Alice in Wonderland, a door meant for small things only, that would sort out all the larger ones and keep them from entering.

The latch did not open at once, but Carlotta was patient. She picked slowly at the rust of the latch, jiggling it every minute or so. She hummed to herself and imagined what she might find behind the door. She pictured a tunnel, sloping downward, growing wider and wider, and then a stair, and then a great, cavernous chamber with a lake still as glass, and a castle at its center. The castle would have spires and diamond-paned windows, and all its window would be twinkling with warm, orange, inviting light. Music would float toward her across that silent water, and soft voices, and the sound of cutlery, for there was a feast to welcome her. We’ve been waiting for you, they would tell her, the strange quiet inhabitants of the castle. We’ve been waiting a thousand years for you to find the little black door in the folly and come to us.

Of course, Carlotta would leave through the little black door every once in a while if she wanted to. She would see her parents on birthdays and holidays, and go to lessons at St. Ethelbert’s when they interested her, and everyone would be very surprised to see her. But then she’d slip away again and return to her castle underground. She would be an enigma, a mystery to the world above, and it would make sense that everyone thought her strange there, because it was not her world at all.

At last, the latch jiggled and slid back, and the small black door creaked open. Carlotta wrenched it wide and wriggled forward to look in. All was dark. There was indeed a space behind the door, a tunnel of some sort, just as she had thought! Carlotta’s heart felt warm and slithery, for suddenly it seemed entirely possible there was a lake and a castle under this folly, that anything might be waiting in the dark ahead.

She wriggled further until her head was inside the door. . . .

*

Back at St. Ethelburt’s, Dido Binnington had watched from an upstairs window as Carlotta wandered away across the green. Carlotta had been swinging a little stick, walking in wide zigzags so that it took her twice as long as would be strictly necessary to get from one point to another. Dido had snorted. But then she had thought, “What is that little creep up to? Where is she going all by herself?” And Dido had run down the stairs and out over the grass, and followed her.

*

Carlotta did not see Dido standing in the space between two of the crumbling pillars. She was much too busy thinking of what lay ahead. Her feet disappeared inside the little black door. The noise of the trees and the birds was faint in there, cushioned by the velvet dark. It was cool and damp, and Carlotta was aware of her uniform becoming soaked with the mud. She wriggled a foot or so more. The tunnel sloped steeply downward, but it did not become any bigger like it had in her mind.

And all at once, she heard a sound behind her: quick footsteps crunching across the leaves and then a pause as someone crouched down. There was no laughter or taunting, no words at all. Only a quick, sharp breath, and then the black iron door swung shut with great force.

Carlotta remained very still for a moment, her chin on her hands, her entire body pointing down into the earth, like a worm. Then she began to back up slowly until she felt the door with her foot. She tapped the toes of her boot several times against the metal. It was certainly closed. Carlotta frowned. She pushed harder. It was closed and locked.

*

Outside, Dido stood with her arms crossed and looked at that small black door. She wasn’t sure what she meant to accomplish by locking the numpty girl inside. But she felt the familiar satisfaction – the crush of bug carapaces, the squelch of snails – and so she only waited, hoping to hear Carlotta scream or panic.

But no such sounds came from that little black door. Only a faint tapping that went on for several minutes and then stopped.

Dido scowled. She smoked a cigarette, and then sat down in front of the black iron door and waited. Then she wrenched it open, saying, “All right, come out, you little freak.”

But there was no one there. She peered in and saw only blackness, a tunnel extending down steeply, and a little trail in the mud that a girl might have made, wriggling along. Dido looked up sharply. She glanced over her shoulder and the trees seemed to be watching her, silent and disapproving. “Carlotta?” she demanded, in a shrill voice.

Carlotta did not answer.

*

Dido went back to the school slowly, feeling sick. She had left the door wide open. It wasn’t her fault if the idiot had gotten stuck somewhere, or suffocated, or. . .

She thought of going to the headmistress. She thought of telling her friend, Opal, who was dull and reasonable and only said things that made Dido feel better. In the end Dido said nothing, because everyone would ask what she was doing at the folly in the first place, and why she had followed Carlotta, and she could not think of anything that wouldn’t sound foolish.

There was a roll call before dinner, and Carlotta was found to be missing. The younger girls in Carlotta’s room looked about in frightened confusion. Dido stared straight ahead. Opal, after a quick glance in her direction to gauge the winds and the currents, did the same.

The school was searched. One of the girls told the headmistress that Carlotta had once spoken of living inside a mattress, like a feather, and so everyone had gone prodding the beds to make sure she wasn’t inside one of them. But she was not in any of the mattresses, or anywhere in the school. The police were called. Dogs barked and the beams of flashlights went wheeling in blinding white arcs across the grounds.

Dido went to bed, but she didn’t sleep. She thought of that dripping tunnel behind the black door, the trees, watching her, the muddy soles of Carlotta’s rain-boots vanishing into the dark. Finally, Dido couldn’t bare it any longer, and she leapt up and went running out across the fields to the folly. She wanted to go to the little black door, scream into it, “Carlotta! Carlotta!”

But when she arrived, the folly was already full of dogs and police men, and the headmistress was speaking to an officer in low tones, and Dido could only stand like a ghost among the trees, listening. “A coal chute,” she heard the officer saying. “For the oven that used to heat the place. A large room at the bottom. It will have been mostly filled with water, and if she went in face-first, well-”

Dido stared at the little iron door. In the night, it looked like a maw, like the oven in a witch’s cottage. Then she turned and went slowly back to her room. She crawled into bed, wide-eyed and white as her pillowcase. She knew Opal was looking at her questioningly from the bed next over, but she did not catch her gaze.

And just as she was closing her eyes and beginning to cry bitterly for what a dreadful person she was, and how she would henceforth dedicate her life to orphans and little freaks like Carlotta to atone for her wicked past, she heard a sound: the rubbery squinch-squinch-squinch of galoshes, damp and muddy on polished floorboards. The door to her room opened, a cold draft brushing her cheek. And there was Carlotta, standing at the end of her bed, drenched and muddy, her hair hanging into her eyes, which were dark and glaring. She stood there for a good twenty seconds, Dido frozen, her sheets clutched to her chin. Then Carlotta reached up and plucked a gobbet of mud from her hair and lobbed it at Dido. The mud struck her square between the eyes. Carlotta lobbed another gobbet at Opal, because she knew Opal liked to be the same as Dido. Then Carlotta shuddered grotesquely and squinch-squinched out of the room, and with one last portentous look, closed the door with a bang.

Dido and Opal sat for many minutes, mud dripping onto their sheets, staring at each other. Then they screamed and screamed and screamed.

 *

As for Carlotta, she took a bath, and the next morning presented herself at breakfast. She did not know why everyone was startled to see her. She’d not been gone half as long as she had intended. The coal tunnel had been an unsatisfactory refuge. It had been dark and chilly. There had been no castle at the bottom, only a small black chamber full of water, and for a moment, when she’d tipped into it, she thought she might drown. But no, she’d found a little ledge and sat there for who-knew-how-many-hours, humming and murmuring to herself and trying to make the best of it. She’d searched the walls for more tunnels, tunnels that went deeper and farther, where castles might still lie. But no matter how hard she searched, she saw no distant lights and heard no voices calling her name. In the end, she’d crawled back up the tunnel, and finding the door open, went out again. It was night by then, and somewhere between the folly and the edge of the woods, she’d decided to play a prank on Dido, who was always so mean to her.

She could not help feeling a little disappointed at the little black door in the folly. But tomorrow the search would continue. There were still plenty of places to look, and she was almost certain there was something marvelous to find in the old school, or in the woods, or if not there then somewhere, eventually. She thought that when you grew up and got older, you could not help but find those places what with all the days and years you had. She watched Mr. Tweedy scribbling his letters, and the headmistress eying herself in brassy gleam of her desk-lamp and tugging at the skin around her eyes, and she waited for classes to end.

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