The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

What the Mask Wants

That’s a good mask you’ve got on. Scary.

But you want to be careful with scary masks. Just saying. Not that it makes much difference to you now, but still.

You think it’s just a piece of plastic, or something your dad helped you make with cloth and glue. But once it’s on you, it’s almost like a mask is alive. You know what I mean? Like it has its own ideas what to do.

Especially the scary ones, the masks that are practically snarling in rage or fear or hunger. They’re bad that way.

halfmaskYou look at a scary mask and think that’s not you, right? You’re a nice kid! Not like that mask, it’s horrible and hideous and awesome.

But snarling rage and fear and bloody-teeth hunger—you’ve got all those, of course you do. You just locked them up, way deep inside you, in a little closet. ‘Cause you’re such a nice kid.

But the right mask knows how to whisper through the keyhole of that closet. It stirs those feelings up, till you hear them banging on the doors down there, the hunger and fear and rage. Banging and banging and banging down there.

It can drive you a little crazy.

Let me tell you a story. Imagine it’s Halloween night—well, and it is Halloween tonight, of course. So imagine a Halloween like tonight.

A black-dark, chilly, leaf-skittering night.

And you go out, wearing your mask. A mask like mine.

First thing, near the end of your street, you see a low white creature, holy crap, a ghost, flying down the street, just impossibly fast, impossibly smooth. And your heart stops and starts, and you feel scared right down to the ground, because—could that be real?

But as the ghost flies past, you see running behind it is a dad, all dressed in black. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow, and some little kid in a long white sheet is sitting inside, flying down the road.

Okay, good one, you think, and your heart settles down.

Now the dark has wandering lights in it, and voices shouting, laughing. But because it’s so dark, you feel alone until the others are really close. Then suddenly the lights and colors are bobbing around you.

And when they see your mask, some little kids look scared, and grab their moms’ hands, and you feel great.

You see three Spidermen and two princesses. You see Iron Men and fairies. You see vampires and witches and cats.

You see a small girl in a long gray wig and long white dress, running through yards, crying “Dónde están mis hijos?”

You think, Pretty cool. Good Halloween.

You see a really little kid, like four or five, standing on the sidewalk, sobbing. His big sister is trying to get him to put his mask over his face, but he won’t do it. He stands there in his yellow nylon suit, the Frankenstein mask sitting on his head, its stretchy string cutting into the soft flesh of his throat. He’s terrified, crying, “Not on! No, not on my face!”

You don’t realize it, but that kid is smart.

Because you still haven’t learned: you gotta be careful with masks.

I was the one walking around, seeing all that, that Halloween night. I was only a little older than you are now, almost too old to go trick or treating.

And I was wearing this mask, that night. Wow, when I first saw it in the store. It made my heart stop-and-start, that feeling. Its awful mouth. The way the whole face is so horribly twisted, and frozen there, stuck in one moment of terrible time.

It felt like something that had escaped from that little locked-door room inside me, right? It still gives me that start-and-stop heart feeling, whenever I see it, after all these years.

Anyway. That first Halloween with this mask, I felt so alive. I walked through the black-dark night, loving every leaf-skitter, every distant shout and bobbing light.

But then when it got late, and the night sank into silence, things changed.

Because the thing is, I didn’t want to take the mask off.

Or it didn’t want to be taken off. One of those.

I still felt so powerful. I still felt so alive. And the mask told me I should walk through people’s backyards, so I did. It was super, super late. I checked out the toys and tricycles. I stole a swing on a tire. I pushed over a barbecue grill: bang, clatter. Charcoal and ash spilled across the grass. Lights came on inside the house. I ran.

It was fantastic.

This mask wanted me to move, wanted me to break things. It made me ring 3am doorbells, smash eggs against cars, trash people’s lawns.

Well, those are Halloween pranks, right? Not very nice, not very nice kid things to do. But not so bad.

But as the night wore on, as the dark got deeper, the mask made me to do much worse than that. Much, much worse. Things with fire. And things with blood.

I didn’t want to do those things. The mask wanted to.

And after a while, this little part of me said, No. No more blood. No more fire. I have to take this thing off and go home, and go to sleep, and forget this night, forget it ever happened.

Too late, though. Too late for that. Because the mask wasn’t on board with that. The mask was having too much fun. The rage and fear and hunger that mask had freed? They didn’t want to go back into their little closets.

And the mask wouldn’t come off.

It’s wasn’t stuck, exactly. Only without my noticing, it had started to fit my face so well, that .  . . well. It had become my face.

The mask was alive now. And the mask was me.

So the next time you choose a Halloween mask— you won’t, but let’s pretend—be careful. Because that’s what happened to me. You think this is a mask I’m wearing. But this is my face, now. Go ahead. You can touch it if you want, I don’t care.

And I’m not the only one. You wouldn’t believe how many of us there are, with our terrible mask-faces: the blood-dripping teeth, the mad twisted mouths, one eye bulging or dripping down the cheek.

People like us, we can only come out on Halloween, when everyone thinks our terrible faces are only masks.

Man, I love Halloween for that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone thinks that this axe I’m holding is just a prop, a costume prop.

Just like you thought that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone will believe that this old cellar is a haunted house, and it might be fun to visit.

Just like you thought it might be fun.

But you were wrong.

I’m sorry. Don’t cry. This isn’t what I want, you know. I don’t want this. The mask wants it.

Sorry. But that’s how it is.

This isn’t a haunted house, it’s an old cellar, and you will never leave.

And this axe is a real axe, ready to cut through your soft flesh.

And this mask, what you thought was this terrible mask: this is my real face.

And this twisted, raging, mad face: it’s the last face that you will ever see.

Nursery Rhymes

I’m walking to school all by myself today, because it’s the first day of second grade, and I did it yesterday with Mom but we pretended she wasn’t there, so she didn’t tell me where to go. And I didn’t get lost. That means I’m big enough now.

It smells like apples and pencils this morning. I have on a brand new shirt and pants, and new shoes and socks, well the socks are brand new and the shoes I only wore one time before, on yesterday.

632px-Old_book_gatheringAnd I have a new lunchbox with a peace sign and flowers on and a new notebook which is green, which is my favorite color even though every other girl likes pink and purple. I like green.

My backpack is the same from last year though.

The sidewalk around here has a lot of cracks and pieces missing, Dad says the taxes should have fixed it but I guess they didn’t yet. Anyway so you have to be sure to watch where you’re going and not get dis-racted by an interesting rock or a butterfly or something.

But when you’re watching out for cracks at least you can play Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back.

I forgot: also my brown sweater is brand new.

I like how the air feels today. It feels like if you go to a football game, it’s not really cold but your nose runs a little. The wind is blowing yellow leaves right between my feet.

For Halloween I’m going to be a cat, Mom’s going to help me make it.

Step on a crack. Break your mother’s back. So I don’t step on a–


That shouldn’t be there.

A book shouldn’t be on the sidewalk. Especially not right in the middle of a sidewalk, where you could walk on it, if you weren’t playing Step on a Crack.

It looks really old. Really old and huge. It doesn’t look like a school book.

Oh. Oh! I might know, I think. I bet it’s a library book. I bet it came from the library at school. Some big kid must have dropped it or something.

Then I will be the HERO and bring it back. Like this kid thinks they’re going to be in huge trouble and get detention and have to pay for the book, which with this big book would probably be like maybe fifty dollars or something. And then I will show up and say “hey did someone lose this?” and they will start crying they’ll be so happy, even though they’re fifth grade.

I better check to see if there’s a name or something though. The paper is so thin and whispery, it’s like a dictionary, this book. Its title says . . . How to Make Everything Turn Out Okay.

But it doesn’t say the writer.

That’s a really good title though, it makes you want to read it.

Okay, I am not getting dis-racted, I’m going to school, but I’m just going to open it up to the first page. Just to see. Probably it will be too hard or too boring but just . . .

Step on a crack
Break your mother’s back
Step on a hole
Break your mother’s sugar bowl.

I know this one! It’s just a nursery rhymes, it’s not hard! Is this book just nursery rhymes? I think so. It’s funny there’s no pictures though, just all these pages and this tiny writing.

Step on the grass
Miss your favorite class.

HA. That’s funny. I didn’t know that part. I’ll try not to step on the grass!

If the milk you’ve spilled,
Your cat gets killed.

. . . What is that part. I don’t like that part.

Is that true?

Eat the last ice cream
Your friend’s terrible screams.

Wait a minute.

Tear your winter coat
Cut your mother’s throat.

That’s horrible. I don’t like this. What if it’s only, if you tear it on accident!

Forget to wave goodbye
Your mother’s going to die.

What is this book! I don’t like this book.

I waved goodbye to my mother this morning, though, for sure. I DEFINITELY did.

Did I?

I’m shutting it NOW. Wait but I gotta see—what do I do if . . .

Turn three times around
Or your house burns to the ground.

I gotta remember these! I gotta not forget them or—I didn’t know there were all these other ones, all these other rules.

Pick a flower in the bud
Find your friend in a pool of blood.

No. Stop.

Better not oversleep
Or your dolls grow teeth.

I think I should stop reading this book now.

Break your daddy’s phone
Hear the rattling bones

Please don’t.

Let your hand touch the ground
See your little brother drown.

I don’t want to read this book. I hate this book, it’s horrible. But I gotta keep reading. I gotta remember all these and there’s so many pages, there’s like a million . . .

Tell your mom a lie
Hear a dead baby cry
Underneath your bed
Where the blood runs red.

Stop it! Stop it! I will learn them, I will! I will learn all the rules, I will memorize every rule in this book, I promise, just please please stop stop STOP.


“And so this is the children’s ward. You’ll be working the night shift here, Thursdays, though Sundays — sorry, not the greatest hours, but that’s how it goes when you’re new.”

“I don’t care. But man, this place is sad. I didn’t know kids could go so crazy that—“

“Yeah, look, we don’t say ‘crazy’ here—“

“Sorry, right. That kids could go so . . . whatever, that they would have to be locked in rooms like these.”

“You’ll get used to it. So listen, your main job is, besides the paperwork, you walk up and down the halls during the night, looking in these little barred windows, see? Like this one. You make sure the kid inside is okay, hasn’t choked to death or hung himself or whatever.”

“Man, I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“Are you saying you don’t want the job?”

“No, no. I need this job. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Man, look at this one, with the book. She is reading the heck out of that great big book.”

“She’s been here a couple of years. When she first got here, they tried taking that book away from her. She screamed for three days, and when she lost her voice, she just sat with her mouth open in a silent scream, her face all red and her eyes bulging. It was horrible. Finally, they gave it back.”

“Oh wow, she just got up, turned in a circle three times, and then sat back down to read.”

“Yeah she does that, or little weird jumps or snapping her finger, or knocking wood, or muttering to herself. No one knows why. Anyway. The doctors have looked through that book, cover to cover, to see why she’s so obsessed with it. No one can figure it out. It’s just an old book of nursery rhymes.”

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.

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.

The Talent of the Howl (by Katherine Catmull)

Sing us a song, Grandma.

Don’t want to. Don’t make me.

Then tell us a story, then. 

A story, yeah!

We’d love one, Grandma.

Don’t want to tell a story. Don’t make me.

Do one. You have to do one. A story or a song.

Story or song! Story or song!


I’ll tell a story, then. I’ll tell an awful, horrid story, which is what you children deserve.


Long ago, long time ago, when I was young —

That was before the MOON, probably.

—when I was young, there was a girl. A girl who loved to sing. She could sing indeed, she was a good singer—not an opera singer, not that kind of voice. Her voice was simple as water, and that sweet.

But when she sang a sad song—ah, then. That girl had the talent of the sad song. When she sang a sad one, her voice pulsed with the blood of her aching heart. Her breath moved like the ocean moves, from somewhere far beneath.

song pic

And when she sang like that, then the people stood around her, mouths open, eyes full, and when she was finished, they said, “Sing again.” That girl had the talent of the howl.

A howl! Hahahaha! That means she had a BAD voice!

No, child. A song is a howl, like a dog’s howl, you know.

No it isn’t. 

Isn’t either!

Is that right? Then how come when you sing near a dog, he’ll soon begin to howl along with you—at least, if the dog looks up to you, he will. I don’t know how your dog feels about you. A song done right is your whole body howling, like a dog’s body howls and howls. That’s true for anyone, and any song.

But if you’re a true singer, as this girl was—and if you find a song with just the right sadness to it, one that harmonizes with your own sad heart—and if you sing it right, if you sing it true . . . . well, then, as this girl discovered, something remarkable happens. You close your eyes, singing, and the song wraps around you, invisible as glass. The song becomes a container, like a bottle or a boat. And then that bottle-boat bobs along the ocean of time, with you safe inside it.

When you do it right, your howl becomes a glass ship, that carries your worried mind away, far out to sea.  songpic2

And it’s such a relief, to leave this hot, bright, noisy place, and find yourself bobbing on the silent-cold and moonlit water. It’s such a relief to be carried away, unable to pause, unable to think, only letting your heart pour from your mouth, and wrap about you, and carry you away.

Oh children: to be alone and silent inside your own heart’s song, bobbing on the waves—it’s a great relief. A great relief. Greater than I can ever say.

. . . .


Is that the end of the story?

It wasn’t very horrible, really.

Sorry. Lost myself a moment.

It’s a relief, as I say, to be carried across the sea by your song.

But it’s dangerous, too.

Because—as this girl discovered—one day, your song may wash you up somewhere . . . somewhere new. Somewhere else.

This girl had a song, a favorite sad song. And one day, as she sang it, and closed her eyes, the song swept her out to the cold sea, as usual. She lay back, singing, and watched the million stars and the only moon, hiding and playing behind bits of cloud.

But then the bobbing stopped, though she was still singing. And she found that she was on a moonlit shore, lit silvery gray, a shore held delicate as a wafer between the jaws of the night-ocean and the enormous black sky.

And on that shore was silence, but for the crunch of her shoe on the gray pebbles, but for the wash of the waves, which is a kind of silence. Absolute silence, and silver-cool beauty. And she never wanted to leave.

But, of course, the song came to an end. And when she opened her eyes, she saw them all standing around, staring at her, saying, “Sing it again.”

Ah, that poor girl. Like the Pied Piper in reverse. Think of that poor piper, the next time you hear his story, and feel for him! Think how dreadful it must be, to be followed everywhere you go by rats and children.

Grandma, what was the song? Her special song, her favorite sad one?

Oh now. It’s an old song, that. You’ve heard me humming it in bits now and then, no doubt. I never try to properly sing it, anymore. I can’t sing it the way that girl did.

Is it that one that goes ‘O come the wild dead leaves’? I know that one.

That is the one. Clever girl, Lacy, that is the one indeed.

At any rate. For one whole year the girl would close her eyes and sing, and return again and again to her island. The song made a glass ship, and her breath was the wind in its invisible sails.

What was it like, on the island.

It is hard—it was hard—for the girl to describe. Because when you’re on the island, you see a thing, but you forget its name. You forget whether it’s of any use to you, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad. You only see it, you only see what it is. All the noise of words and saying and choosing and judging is left behind you. You only see the great beauty of the stone, the shell, the sea-grass, the star. The great beauty of the moonlight scattered and trembling on the water. And no words, no words. All the words gone quiet.

That sounds stupid!

So totally boring!

I think it sounds wonderful.

Dumbface Lacy. 

Ya dope.

Then what happened, Grandma?

And then  . . .  And then, after a while, she lost the knack of leaving, when she sang. She couldn’t make her bottle-song-boat, anymore. And the people went away, and didn’t say, “Sing again.”

Why did she lose the knack?

Oh, well. I’m not sure. She just got out of the habit, I suppose. Because one of the pied piper rats, you know, —they weren’t really rats, of course, I mean one of the staring faces when her eyes opened—well: it was a kind face, and a handsome one, with long dark brows over smiling green eyes. And he persuaded her to give up the glass boat, and the island, and to give this hot, crowded, noisy life a try.

And it was worth it. Or for a while, at least, she found it was.

But she never saw her island again.

But Gran. It’s so sad. She really never got back to the island?

Lacy! Stupid!The song didn’t really take her to an island. She just went in her mind, Grandma means.

Is that what I mean? Thanks for telling me. Shoo the lot of you now, I don’t have all day to stand telling ancient stories. Children and their “sing me a song,” as if to sing a song wasn’t to . . . Lacy. Girl. Did you hear me say shoo? Why are you still here?


Speak up. Words.

Grandma. Teach me that song. Please.

What  . . . What song do you mean, you silly child?

I know the girl was you. Teach me that song, ‘O come the wild dead leaves,’ that song that makes a boat or a bottle. The song that carries you across the sea..

But why? Why would you want to learn such a sad song?

Because I’m no good here. You know I’m no good here. 

Oh, Lacy.

I’m not. I’m not meant to be in this place, it’s too loud and bright, it’s not my place. I can’t bear it here, Grandma, I want to go the island with you. And I think I might have the talent, too, the talent of the howl.

But girl, even if we could. Even if we could go, what about the pied piper of it? You forget the coming back, and the people saying sing it again, sing another? There’s always the coming back.

Maybe this time we could stay, Grandma. If we sang it together. If we made a harmony. Maybe that would make the ship strong enough to stay on the island, far from the hot and the noise. Only cool and gray and moonlight.


There’s no green-eyed boy for either of us, to keep us here. I’m too young, and Grandpa died a long time ago. 

Child, oh child.

Come on, Grandma, sing, too. Just sing it with me—probably nothing will happen. I’ve heard you singing. I’ve been practicing, only I don’t know all the words. Listen: ‘O come the wild dead leaves of fall/O come the coldest rain. . . .’  Then what?

‘For summer lies as dead as he/And he’ll not rise again.’ O girl, you take me back, and you make me think of . . . but we mustn’t . . .

‘O come the wild wet winter snow/O come the prickling ice. . . .’

‘For love’s laid deep beneath the ground/And that was summer’s price.’

Now we sing together. Eyes closed, Grandma, and hold my hands. ‘O come the yellow buds of spring,/O come the melting snow. . . .’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go.’

‘But come for someone else than me/For now’s my hour to go. . . .’

Grandma! LACY. Dinner!

It’s DINNER you guys. MOM SAID COME!

Weird, they were here like one second ago, I could hear them singing some stupid–Oh! Jeez, here you are. You scared me! Didn’t you  . . .

What? Are they . . . Wait. What are they—

They’re pretending. Come on you guys. It’s obvious you’re pretending.

You’re not scaring us.

You can’t fool us, we know you’re just playing. Come on, or I’ll POKE you—

Yeah! We get fair shot to poke you, if you’re supposedly . . .

Holy . . .

But . . . something’s really wrong. Something’s really, really . . . what’s happening? What’s wrong with them, what’s—

Go get Mom. Go get her NOW.