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.

Beware the Hunter

Far out among the hillocks and lumps of a misty moor, there stood a house with three chimneys and four windows and six children who lived there all alone. They were very comfortable. Their house was snug and smelled of violets and clary sage, and its insides were well-stuffed with cushions and coal-stoves and crackly, yellow-paged books. Outside was a hawthorn tree and a wash-barrel and a small square of grass, and all of it was enclosed by a high stone wall, its door kept firmly locked from the outside.

Now and then a woman would emerge from the fog that lay forever around the house, and would bring the children pails of fresh milk and trays of meat pies covered with linen handkerchiefs, but she almost never spoke to the children. When she did, she called them “My little lords and ladies” in a sad sort of voice. She would come very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, and would ring a brass bell to let the children know she had placed the pails and trays inside the door into the garden. Then she would go away again in a great hurry.

The children’s names were Betsy, Wilbur, Elihandra, John, Calendula, and Cripps.

Betsy was the eldest. She was ungainly and strong, and would sometimes pause in the middle of a sentence to ponder her words, which made Wilbur think her foolish, because he seldom paused to ponder anything.

Wilbur was second-eldest, loud and insufferable.

Elihandra was waifish and golden-haired, and liked people to get along, so whenever there was a quarrel, she was the one to comfort whomever was crying and also the one to drag the one who had caused the crying out from under a table to apologize.

John and Calendula were twins, and conspired together against everyone else.

And then there was Cripps, who was very tiny and quiet, and wandered about  smelling the bristly purple flowers in the garden and poking his nose into cupboards and the tops of shelves where only spiders lived, and into the chimneys, where nothing lived, but which were very intriguing. Cripps wondered often what they were all doing in that house on the moor and why the door was always kept locked, and why the woman always went away in a hurry. He had a great deal of thoughts, but he kept them to himself so as not to ruin them.

* * *

After some years, when the children were only slightly older (there were no calendars in the house, or clocks), they noticed the woman had not arrived in several days, and they were very hungry. Their meat pies ran out. Their pantry became bare. Elihandra suggested they grow their own food – she’d read about it in books, and she knew it could be done – but though they placed seeds carefully in the dirt along the north wall of the garden, and watered them, and waited patiently for their food to grow, none did.

After two days, when still no one had arrived, Cripps climbed up onto the wall with the help of Betsy’s shoulders, and looked over. “There’s a shoe!” he called down. “Poking out of the fog!”

“A shoe?” Betsy said. “Is there . . .” She paused to think. “. . .a person attached to the shoe?”

Cripps wasn’t sure. He had gone very still; twenty paces to the left of the shoe, a figure stood, just visible in the mist, facing the cottage.

Cripps shouted at the top of his lungs. “Hello! Please help us! We’re very hungry, and we can’t get out!”

But at the sound of his call the figure only shuddered and twisted, and then there was the sound of feet thudding on the heather, and the figure vanished into the white.

Cripps and Elihandra went back to the other children, and they all sat in their chairs in the parlour, becoming hungrier and hungrier by the hour.

* * *

“We’re going to have to leave,” Betsy said finally, when they were all so thin they could see their ribs and the shapes of the bones in their hands. “There’s no food, and Miss Bell-of-brass hasn’t been here in days.” (Miss Bell-of-brass was what they called the woman with pies.)

Everyone said no, they couldn’t possibly go. Surely someone would help them. But though the children waited and waited for the tinkle of a bell, and knocked and pried at the door in the wall, no one came for them. The sounds of the moor beyond the wall became strange and unsettling where before the children had never noticed them at all. Sometimes Cripps thought he heard hands and bony fingers tapping at the door, and distant voices. Wilbur became more insufferable, and Betsy took even longer to say things, and there were quarrels that not even Elihandra cared to diffuse. After one particular angry spat, Cripps went after Betsy, who was crying, and followed her into the garden. Betsy was scrubbing a shirt at the washboard, though it wasn’t dirty, and Cripps slipped his hands into the soap and helped her. “I think we should go,” Cripps whispered, very softly. “I think we should escape.” But Betsy only cried and cried.

At last, when the very smallest of crumbs were gone, and the children were so tired they simply sat for hours, their stomachs growling . . . then finally did Elihandra and Wilbur and all the others agree.

“We’ll climb over the wall,” said Elihandra. And so they did. The very same day, the six of them built a ladder out of all the chairs in the house, scaled it unsteadily, and leaped down the other side of the wall.

Cripps was the last to go. He waved goodbye to the cottage, and the scrawny hawthorn tree, and the wash-barrel, and the three chimneys and four windows, and then he leaped gingerly from the top of the wall, arms outspread as if he hoped he would fly.

It was a long drop to the moor, but the children steeled themselves and made it without injury, and set off into the bank of fog.

They had not gone more than twenty paces when they came upon the woman who had brought them their milk and pies. She had been mostly eaten. There was blood all down her front, and all over the gorse around her, as if the moor had bloomed briefly in spatters of crimson flowers.

“What d’you suppose happened?” the children asked, gazing down at her solemnly.

“A beast,” said Elihandra. “Or worse. We don’t know what might be out in this fog.”

Cripps knelt and closed the woman’s eyes, which had been staring unsettlingly at the locked door in the wall, and then the children continued on their way.

* * *

After a while, they came to a town. It was crackly, rust-brown and mossy, and all the gables and chimneys leaned in one direction, as though at one point a giant had attempted to flatten the town with a hot-iron. The children walked down its street, staring around them at all the dark, locked-up houses. And though the doors were all closed and the shutters bolted, they were sure the town was not abandoned. They thought they saw figures moving in the mist, and heard people going about their business within the houses.

When they passed a tall, pointed window, they heard a breathless, frail voice from beyond the shutters. “Go away,” it said, delicate as bird bones and rattling with fear. “Go back to your own place. We have nothing to give you.”

The children glanced at each other. They came to a window that seemed to have grown inside a lilac bush, but in fact it was the lilac bush which had grown strong and tall and swallowed a house and window.

A hand went up to the window, and an old face peered out. “Off with you, children,” said an old woman, her cheeks rosy and her eyes black and bright. “You are not welcome here!”

The woman’s hand at the window was oddly purplish and long-nailed, and did not seem to go along with her face. It was as if someone else’s hand was poking from her lacy sleeve.

The children put their heads together and conferred. Then, because Elihandra was the politest, she said: “Could you give us something to eat, please? We’re very hungry.”

“Hungry?” the woman said. “Aren’t we all: hungry and cold. We have our own troubles here. Be gone. And beware the hunter!”

The children did not want to be gone. They were tired and starving, and they could see a fire burning beyond the casement of the old woman’s house, and they supposed if they could have gone inside, they might have been able to beware the hunter better (whoever that might be). They stood below the window in the lilac bush, looking up wretchedly and hoping she would change her mind, but then the old woman came out onto the doorstep, and her two old sisters with her, and they stood there in their starched aprons and clean caps, and shooed the children away, cawing and crying like a trio of ancient birds.

* * *

The children left the town and followed a road, on and on into the fog. Their feet hurt and the slippers they had worn at the three-chimneyed house had gone threadbare and ragged, but there was nothing for them to do but walk. After a while they came upon a gang of boys.

The boys were small and grubby and wild-looking, and their clothes flapped in tatters around them.

“Hurry,” one of them said, soft and desperate. “Hurry! Run! They’ve seen us. They’ll catch us all, and what will they do with us?” And then the entire pack – as if they were one single body – turned and fled into the fog, giggling in a piercing, frantic way, like a cry.

The six children stared after the tattered boys, and then wandered on. They walked for what felt like days. It was difficult to tell, because there was no sun or moon in this fog, and it never seemed to become darker or lighter. They could not exactly sleep, because somewhere at the edge of their senses someone was always murmuring or laughing. Once, Cripps looked over his shoulder and was sure he saw the woman who brought them their milk standing at a break in the drifting mist, her front wet and shiny with blood.

When they had been walking a very long time and were hardly more than bones, Elihandra stopped abruptly with a cry, and felt about her back. Several black strings extended from it, stretching away into the fog. It was as if she had snagged her coat on something and unraveled it on and on behind her. And when the other five children looked behind themselves, they saw that all of them had threads in their arms and their backs, vanishing back into the mist.

“Beware the hunter!” the cry came suddenly very close by, and the children ran as fast they could, the strings hissing through the gorse behind them, unspooling on and on.

* * *

In time, the children slowed again, because nothing had come after them.

“Do you think someone caught us?” Elihandra asked, examining her strings. “Like a fish?”

“The hunter, perhaps?” said Elihandra.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Wilbur. “If he caught us, why are we still doing as we please?”

But in the end, they could not agree what the strings were for, and because they could not rip or break them, they decided to follow them to see where they ended. It became a sort of game. They wrapped the coarse threads around their arms until they each had a coil of it, and they began to move more quickly and talk amongst themselves and dart among the hillocks, leaping like sprites, and they didn’t feel quite as tired anymore. . . .

Until all at once, they froze.

There was the hunter, looming in the mist just ahead. He was dressed all in black, and wore a dark hat that drooped over his eyes, and he had a blunderbuss strapped across his back and many large, scabbed knives in his belt, and in his right hand were a pair of small silver scissors of the sort used for needlework.

“There you are,” the hunter said, and he raised the silver scissors, and dove toward the children.

He cut Elihandra’s string first, and she stared in horror at the hunter and then at the other children, and then the mist drifted and swallowed her up, and she was walking away though she didn’t mean to, calling over her shoulder until her shouts and farewells were lost.

Next went John and Calendula, their strings cut at the exact same moment. “Off you go!” the hunter said, almost merrily. “This is no place for you to wander.”

But at Cripps, the hunter stopped. Cripps was standing very calmly, frowning at the hunter, and he said: “Why are you cutting the strings, and where have Elihandra and John and Calendula gone?”

“Onward, silly!” replied the hunter. “And you should, too! And where is the woman? I haven’t found her yet, the poor soul who died at the door to your cottage. They made it look like a wolf did it, but it was so savage, I think only a human could have. I’ll find her soon, and ask her.”

“But what do you mean? Why was she dead? And why were we locked up? And where is onward?”

“She was one of the few who knew you were there,” the hunter said, “far out on Wickham Heath.” The hunter’s eyes skipped across the children, and glimmered not unkindly from under his hat. “And I’m afraid someone wanted there to be one fewer who knew. You’re the kings’ children, that’s the trouble. But kings mustn’t have too many children, and when they do, the children must be hidden far away. Poor things. It’s not your fault, what happened.” And then the hunter said: “I catch all the lost souls and set them free.”

What? thought Cripps. Elihandra was gone now, and even Calendula and John had wandered off, hand in hand into the fog, which now seemed even thicker and colder than before. The remaining three children stared at the hunter. They were very tired. They were gaunt and sleepy, and all they wanted was to find the end of the black strings, and perhaps sleep a while, and so when the hunter approached them, they leaped on him and tore his blunderbuss from his hands and blew his head off.

His body collapsed on the gorse, but he rose from it shortly in a tangle of black string and looked angrily at the children.

“Why’d you do that?” he demanded, but Betsy, Wilbur, and Cripps were already running away, following their strings, looping them haphazardly over their shoulders. They ran and ran and ran, thumping across the moor. They passed through the flattened town again, and they saw the three old sisters with strings extending from their backs, too, sweeping the step of their house inside the lilac shrub. They passed the rowdy boys again, and saw they were all tangled up together, their strings knotted like the tails of a rat king, hurtling through the mist like a desperate comet, shouting: “Get away! Get away, they’ll catch us!”

The children came at last to a high stone wall. The threads went over it and disappeared. The three children stood on each other’s shoulders and pulled each other up and dropped down the other side. There was the cottage, the hawthorn tree, the three chimneys and four windows. Only now there were six skeletons on the chairs in the cottage, and the chairs had not been removed at all, or stacked against the wall. The six children had not escaped. They had sat on their chairs and waited.

“Beware the hunter,” Cripps said, settling himself into his skeleton at the table, which was very comfortable, like an old sofa.

Betsy looked sadly out the window for Elihandra and the twins, but there was only the wall and the fog, and the black strings seemed to drape the cottage now, tying it down and tangling them up with the earth. The three of them curled into cushions, and opened books and spoke to each other softly, and the fog rolled over the house and swallowed it, and they waited for someone to come and feed them.

Red Raincoats

Not a lot of exciting things happened in Bucky Creek, and not a lot of bad things happened either, at least none anyone talked about, and that was very disappointing to Jeanie Kramer because she wanted to catch a murderer.

Jeanie Kramer was eight, and a liar. If you asked her what her name was she would say it was Stella Goldfish, and if you asked her what grade she was in, she would lower her voice darkly and tell you she didn’t have time for school because she was a private eye, and if you asked her where she was going so quickly with mud all over her front and a dripping bag in one hand, she would wave you close and tell you that she had just solved a hot case and there were six dead bodies lying in the streambed at Willow Crossing, and she was on her way to fetch the police.

The truth of the matter was somewhat different: Jeanie had never actually seen a dead body, at least not a human one. The six she had found in the stream-bed were rats that had been surprised in their holes by a flashflood and washed out, all matted fur and yellow, translucent claws. Jeanie had never put anyone in jail either. Her only case so far had been finding old Mrs. Brodzinksi’s cat in the storm-drain, and then running all the way back to Mrs. Brodzinksi’s house and waiting on the rickety porch until Mrs. Brodzinksi came home and telephoned the fire department. But – and Jeanie was quite firm on this – none of that mattered. Just because something wasn’t true now, didn’t mean it would never be true. She would be named Stella Goldfish one day. She would be a detective, and if people laughed at her, well, they would just have to solve their own murder cases.

* * *

Her way to achieve her goals, she had decided, was to catch a killer. Murder was the worst sort of crime you could commit. Even the word sounded dreadful – MURDER – all red and raw and awful. So it stood to reason that if you could catch a murderer you had to be pretty bright. You had to be fearless and brave and better. Jeanie had already imagined many times a scenario in which she found one. They were either great grizzled men with beards, or shivery, wild-eyed women in nightdresses, or sometimes a pumpkin with a knife. (Jeanie didn’t quite believe that last one, but she had dreamed about it one night, and had henceforth always regarded pumpkins with suspicion).

In Jeanie’s daydreams, she would leap onto the scene just as the murderer was about to commit his dastardly deed, and then things became rather fuzzy, but they usually involved the murderer tripping, or Jeanie using a crossbow to shoot him.

Jeanie didn’t have a crossbow in real life, and she didn’t know what she would do in the case that there was no fortuitous clumsiness, but that wasn’t the point. When you got into tough situations, either things went your way, or they didn’t, and Jeanie felt they would go her way, because why would things go well for an evil bearded man or a crazy lady?

* * *

Jeanie’s parents were not best pleased with her pastime. Neither was her older brother, who wore spectacles and ratty sweatpants, and always seemed to find something wrong with everything Jeanie did. He often gave her long speeches about the ill-effects of having morbid interests, but whenever he started on those Jeanie made a point not to listen to him.

At breakfast, her father would look over his newspaper at her. She hardly noticed, was usually busy reading How to Sharpen your Powers of Observance in 10 Simple Steps, whil  her eggs grew cold and congealed in greasy puddles on her plate. He would say, “Jeanie, I think if you found a murderer, you wouldn’t know what to do with him,” at which Jeanie eyed him sharply over the top of her book and said, “It might not be a ‘him’. Ladies kill people, too, sometimes.” At which point her father lost all interest in the conversation.

* * *

Jeanie and her parents and her dull brother lived outside a town that was very small, in one of those brown, scraggly states that no one really talks about except to express dismay at their voting habits. Her house was out on a long stretch of highway, and there were fields around it for miles, no trees, just lots of brown dead grasses, waving like so many dry, thin dancers. Sometimes Jeanie would sit in the yard and peer out toward the fluttering brown sea and imagine what might be going on in there, or just beyond the horizon-line.

It was lonely out here. It was lonely in Bucky Creek, too, because it took ages to become friendly with people. Once you did, you started to wonder whether you really knew them, or whether they simply knew you.

The Kramers had moved into the house about two years ago, after Jeanie’s parents became convinced the city was too dangerous to raise a family. Jeanie had not been happy about the move. The Kramer house was a low, one-story get-up, with a few shingles missing and a screen-door with a too-quick spring that snapped shut on your heels if you weren’t quick enough. There was a patch of lawn and a few dark bushes and a creaky swing-set and not much else. It was exactly the sort of house, that, when you pass by on a long road trip, you wondered with a pang of pity what sort of sad, going-nowhere people must live there, and sometimes when Jeanie walked home she thought the same thing.

She had not been as keen on murderers as a six-year-old as she was now as an eight-year-old. It had happened slowly. The kids at school were farm kids who had so many brothers and sisters they didn’t need anyone else. They didn’t have time for games, and they talked about livestock a lot. None of them really liked detectives. And Jeanie had decided that if she couldn’t fit in, she had to stand out wildly.

She got used to the town. She got used to the library. The house wasn’t so bad on closer inspection, and once you stepped safely through the screen door it was actually quite homey; it had a TV and running water and all that, which some people maybe would not have guessed at first glance.

But there were no murderers. Jeanie had checked. She had even checked the shed far out in the fields behind the house. It had looked very promising, but had proved to be empty.

* * *

Jeanie made a sign and colored it yellow and put it in the driveway. It said, “Stella Goldfish, private-eye, 2$” and unfortunately that had not turned out well. Her brother had laughed uproariously when he saw it, and Jeanie had stared at him, confused, because she thought it was a good sign. When he had calmed down enough to speak, he asked, “What happens when they pay 2 dollars? Do they get to keep you? There’s a no-returns policy, I hope?” And then he started laughing again, and Jeanie shook her head and furrowed her brow and said, “No, then I solve their cases, duh.” But her stupid brother hadn’t stopped laughing.

No one responded to the sign. Maybe the people in the cars driving by laughed, too, when they saw it, or maybe they saw the house beyond, and the brown fields, and had that twinge of pity, thinking, “What sort of sad, going-nowhere people live here?” And it made Jeanie angry because she didn’t want to be a sad, going nowhere person. She wanted to be someone. She wanted people to stop laughing, and she wanted to do something brave and wonderful like Arthur Conan or Nancy Drew. No one ever laughed at them, did they?

And then one day, not to be deterred, Jeanie put on rain boots and a red raincoat and took the bus into town.

* * *

Jeanie went to the library. “Hello,” she said at the desk. “I need some books about murder.” The librarian was a nice-looking person with frizzy hair, who said, “Oh, you mean mysteries. Well, I don’t know if they have murder in them, but let me find you something.” She came back a few minutes later with three small, bright books that had children in sneakers and flashlights on the covers, and titles with exclamation points.

Jeanie looked at the books and looked at the librarian. The librarian smiled at her, waving the books encouragingly. Jeanie sighed. She knew the librarian meant well, but she also knew that these were not the sorts of books she needed.

“Can I look around?” she asked, and the librarian smiled and nodded.

Jeanie found a section on forensics, some illustrated volumes on crimes scenes, and one book full of glossy pages of photographic evidence. She had just gotten comfortable at a table under a window with a large stack of books, when the librarian swooped in out of nowhere and said, “Sweetie, I don’t think these books are good for you right yet,” and started gathering them up and putting them back on shelves before Jeanie could even open her mouth.

Jeanie watched her, annoyed.

“If you really want something on the subject, how about trying these books!” the librarian said cheerily, and set down a few old-looking books. “There’s some tingly local stories in them and you’ll get some history, too.”

Jeanie blew a strand of hair out of her face and picked up one of the history books despondently. She began to read. The history book was surprisingly good. It didn’t tell her the really necessary things, like how victims were identified when they had been dead for a while, or what the police did when they knew someone was guilty but he wouldn’t confess. But there were nuggets here and there that intrigued her. It seemed that this particular county, with its brittle yards and ochre-colored houses, had just as many terrible people as anywhere. The difference was simply that they lived very far apart from one another, and no one ever spoke of the bad things that happened. They knew. Everyone knew. But they didn’t tell outsiders. They didn’t tell book-writers; they didn’t even tell the police necessarily.

Jeanie read about a few cases the book-writer had been able to glean – a woman who drove off a bridge, and a man who stayed in his house so long that when they found him he was covered in dust and cobwebs, still breathing, because his dog had brought him sparrows and blackbirds to eat. Jeanie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she read, and the clock ticked, and the shadows grew longer. The librarian came by once or twice just to make sure she was okay, and probably also to make sure Jeanie didn’t make a run for the Criminology shelf.

And then Jeanie saw it, and her skin prickled. Murder. Murder right here in town. She shivered.

The Raincoat Killer: 22 years ago, in the sleepy town of Bucky Creek, a shocking murder tore through the community. An entire family slain. Remains never found. Perpetrator vanished without a trace, presumed dead. All that was recovered from the crime scene was a shred of plastic, probably belonging to a raincoat.

Jeanie’s heart squeezed. She was suddenly glad for the librarian hovering around and shelving books and making friendly, normal noises. The murderer had been identified immediately, but somehow before the police could arrest him he had gone into the grasslands and no one had ever seen him again. They found some evidence later, but no one ever found the remains of his victims. The murders had taken place in one of the houses in Bucky Creek, and it was still standing, and there was a black-and-white photograph of a knife that-

Jeanie closed the book with snap and looked over at the librarian, who was humming and flipping through a notepad, casting Jeanie nervous glances. Jeanie sat very still, breathing shallowly. Then she scooted off her chair and hurried out of the library.

She didn’t think about what she had read. She was not even sure she had read it. It was half in and half out of her brain, and somehow it was in just enough to disturb her a lot. She thought of the murderer, imagined him a man with silvered glasses walking along the street in his gray raincoat. She thought of the nice people who stopped for him, and she wondered where they might have gone had they not stopped. It made her feel cold and sad and hollow.

She thought about going home, but she felt she ought to investigate now. She was closer than ever. A murder had happened right here in Bucky Creek and no one had ever solved it. One part of her, deep, deep down, was telling her she shouldn’t go snooping anymore, and she wasn’t sure why because it was all she had wanted to do for years now. She wasn’t afraid, not of murderers. But something told her she might be afraid of this one.

* * *

She wandered all up Bucky Creek’s main street, then down its only side street, one called Peachtree Drive, even though there were no peach trees and probably never had been. She peeked in windows and crept over scraggly lawns, quiet and sharp-eyed. She looked everywhere for clues. She saw bad things, that was for sure, things no one should really see, garbages full of glass bottles, quiet fights, and whispered words behind a wood-stack. But it was not enough, and it wasn’t what she needed. After a while, she went to Mrs. Brodzinski’s house and stood with a stick, banging it against the mailbox post. She saw old Mrs. Brodzinski on her porch and walked over. The woman was crying, her white hair stuck to her face.

“Why are you crying?” Jeanie asked, peering at her from below, and Mrs. Brodzinski’s head came up with a start. She didn’t answer, just stared at Jeanie, wide-eyed.

“I miss them,” she said. “I miss them so much.”

“Who?”

“Oh, kiddo,” said Mrs. Brodzinski. “What do you want? Why d’you keep coming ‘round here, causing mischief?”

Jeanie wandered off, but she couldn’t get Mrs. Brodzinski’s words out of her head. It wasn’t mean, the way she’d said it. It was so sad.

* * *

Jeanie went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take her home. It was a gray, windy evening. She sat down on the bench next to a woman who was chewing gum and flipping through an envelope of static-y, freshly developed photos. The woman smiled at Jeanie, but Jeanie didn’t smile back. She was busy thinking. The police had never caught the Raincoat Killer. Ever. They never found all his victims. This was her chance. She would search the town far and wide, look into windows, use her very sharpest observational skills. She would find him. . .

But what Jeanie didn’t know was that she already had. A third figure was waiting at the bus-stop. Behind the bench where Jeanie and the gum-chewing woman sat, behind the glass of the bus-stop’s wind-break a huge, gray man loomed. He had hunched shoulders and a great, gray coat with a piece missing. She looked back in that direction several times but she didn’t see him, right there on the other side of the glass, standing among the wet leaves and shrubs that grew close and tangled behind the bus-stop.

* * *

Jeanie shivered one last time as the bus pulled up, and climbed in. She didn’t see the figure behind the glass flicker, like film, skipping frames. As the bus took her out of the town and down the road, she thought she saw someone there on the shoulder, blurred by the windows. But the bus was going fast and it was getting dark and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a friendly farmer. She did think it was watching her, though, standing still, eyes following the bus as it passed.

She had to walk the last distance from the bus-stop to her house. She got off and started along the ditch next to the road. She didn’t even bother going into the house, which was oddly dark for so late in the day. She went around the back, and pulling her raincoat around her, hurried into the fields. There was that shed, far out back. She had investigated it before, but had she dug in the dirt floor?

She walked through the brown grasses, poking along with her stick. The wind flittered through the top of them. Faraway she heard crows calling, and suddenly she wondered if there was not another sound, a drifting, sighing sound a few feet away in the sea of brown. But she ignored it and began humming, walking, humming, poking with her stick. It was a big field, but Jeanie always kept a compass with her, and she knew which way was home. She walked until she came to a tiny clearing, where there was a twisted black tree. She stopped and stared up at it. The brown grass made a clearing around the tree, and she saw the tree was full of blackbirds, silent, watching her. She crept around the tree and kept going into the field.

And all at once she stepped out from a particularly high clump of shrubs and found herself face-to-face with the shed. She dropped her stick and hurried toward it. It was small, leaning, almost tipping over, its back facing a ditch full of stagnant water, an old creek-bed maybe, overgrown with brush.

She pushed open the door. It was dark in there. The air smelled old, wet. She felt suddenly sick and giddy. . .

She knelt down on the floor, scratching in the dirt. She did not see as the gray figure came and stood in the doorway behind her. She found a bit of a flannel shirt, a hammer, a ring . . . and all the while the figure in the door stood, motionless in that wrinkled gray raincoat, eyes hidden behind silver glasses. The door began to close with a creak.

Jeanie looked up with a start. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but suddenly she felt very cold. She knew, she just knew that the ground under her was a lacework of skeletons, a white tangle of bones extending into the earth. And she knew there was someone behind her.

“Who are you?” she asked, without turning. She kept her voice steady, but her heart was going off like a jackhammer.

The figure didn’t answer. The door was almost closed, the faint gray light from outside becoming narrower and narrower across the floor. Jeanie turned her eyes downwards, watching the triangle turn to a thread. Her breathing sped up.

And all at once the huge man turned and shrank, and his coat wriggled, and then it was a child, standing there in the shadows, her back to Jeanie.

Jeanie stood up and spun.

Who are you?” Jeanie shouted. “Are you-“ She cleared her throat and said loudly, “Are you the Raincoat Killer?”

The other girl began to whisper. Her face was hidden in the shadow of her coat’s hood. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Your brother is so annoying. So is Mrs. Gilthrope. They’re all so stupid and mean. They laugh. They laugh at you. Gacker-gacker-gacker.”

The girl made a hideous noise, dry and chittering.

“What are you talking about?” Jeanie asked. Something was wrong. This was not how murder investigations went. Who was this girl?

“They all know, Jeanie,” the girl said. “The librarian, Mrs. Brodzinski, that woman on the bus. They see you, but they never talk about it, because nothing bad ever happens in Bucky Creek.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Jeanie.

“You know. Truth is, Jeanie, you don’t need to go looking for bad things in other people’s yards, because, oh, there’s plenty in your own.”

The girl dropped to her knees and scrabbled wildly at the dirt floor, scabbed fingers clawing at the earth. There were the bones, peeking out, almost gasping for the air, white, white, white in the darkness. . .

A pair of spectacles. Ratty sweatpants. A wedding ring. A brother, a mother, a father, rumpled under a thin skin of earth. And far out in the fields another body, one no one had ever found, even though her coat was bright red, like a stoplight.

“No,” said Jeanie Kramer, putting her hands to her ears. “It’s not me. It’s not me.”

The shed door crashed open. The girl was gone. Jeanie chased her. Back, back through the fields, past the tree full of black birds. Jeanie’s head was buzzing. In the distance – the direction of the house – she heard a sound, a clattering, maybe voices, but it was being drowned out by the cloaked hum inside her skull. She ran faster, faster, and she could have sworn she heard screams, the screen-door snapping open-closed-open-closed as people ran through it in a panic. . .

She arrived at the house. All was silent. There was the girl again, standing still, looking down at the bare earth at her feet. The knife was still in her hand. Jeanie tackled her and the blade spun away, and she ripped the hood from the girl’s head. It was like a string had been cut, like a door had been battered down inside Jeanie’s head.

It was herself she was looking at. Jeanie Kramer, in her favorite red raincoat and muddy galoshes. Pasty and wide-eyed, her lips blue, her skin pocked with black, turning to decay, like old china.

Six dead bodies in the stream-bed at Willow Crossing. The spout of a hose pressed to the black, wet dirt, to the mouth of the warren, rats squeezing out, gasping for breath and then washed away. She had gathered them up and took them though the town, a lonely, desperate ghost, looking for anyone who would listen to her, listen to her whisper about how someone had murdered, someone awful, not her, not her, someone worse.

Why do you come around here causing mischief? What do you want?

She wanted so much. She wanted someone to know what she had done. She wanted someone to find her bones and bury her. She didn’t want people to forget her. She wanted to be a detective. . .

The house was so quiet. The knife was nowhere to be found.

Slowly, Jeanie rose to her feet. Her knees were muddy. Her fingers were red.

“I caught one,” she said crazily, and wandered down the driveway. It looked for a moment as if she were wringing her hands, her dirty fingers pinched tight around each other. But then it became clear that she was gripping her own arm, guiding herself along. “I caught one!”

She stumbled into the road, and then she began to run, on and on along the chipped yellow line. Cars passed her – a sad little ghost in a red raincoat – and the tall grasses began to dance, their scaly heads whispering in the wind, and behind, the house shrank and darkened, a black memory swallowed whole by the gathering dusk.

* * *

Back in town, the librarian opened a book to replace the checkout sticker. The dedication quote caught her eye:

How comforting are our neighbor’s evils, distracting us ever from our own.

Tick Tock

Artwork by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo

The strange tale which I am about to recount took place many years ago, in the summer of 19—, upon my return from university in Hertfordshire for the summer. My parents, as you will recall, had died in my youth, and I was staying with my aunt, who, being of busy disposition and not entirely sound mind, had decided to abandon a handsome rental in St. Albans and move north to the country, for no particular reason other than that she felt it might be a pleasant change. She had purchased a snug house in Ivydale and was eager to get there as soon as possible.

She had been hasty in her decision, however, and had completely overlooked making arrangements with the landlord concerning the St. Albans lease, not to mention paying her debts at the shops and saying goodbye to the bridge club and farewell to the postman and the milkman and the woman who did her cleaning on Wednesdays. She asked whether I wouldn’t travel up a few days early to make sure the house was weather-tight and all was in order, and she would follow directly after. I said yes, of course, Aunty, I’d be happy to.

In truth I was utterly miserable at the prospect.

Ivydale, as it happens, was the town where my Aunt grew up, and it was also the town where my parents had lived, and thus, of course, where I had lived with them when they were alive. I had fond memories of sunny lanes and ripe, buzzing fields, and now that I was older and reasonable, and viewed everything exactly as it was, I feared I would find the town dull and commonplace, and all my recollections would be tainted. But I was in no position to argue with my aunt, being little better than a charity case, and having found university rather a lonely place full of clever, frightening people,  I decided to make the most of this latest inconvenience. I packed my satchel and took the train up first thing the next morning.

_____

I had sent a telegram ahead to what friends I could still remember from my years in Ivydale. I did not expect to see any of them, but upon stepping off the train, four familiar faces were there to greet me. There was Jenny, who had shared a desk with me in the first year of school. There was Bill, who had been a braggart in the play-yard, and was still a braggart now. He told me straightaway he had ‘thought about leaving this dowdy old town’, but did I know, the money here was so much better than in the bigger places? I found this claim to be dubious. Then there was Oliver, who thought himself superior to all of us because he had been stationed in London at the very tail-end of the war, and there was his own acquaintance, a dour boy named Hackford, who I did not know and who was very quiet and long in the face.

We went on a short trip ’round Ivydale to our old haunts – the brook along the town’s border, a red-brick bridge and the weeping willows, Mrs. Whyst’s Cake Shop – and we were rather a loud, uncommonly merry group compared to what I was used to. I was in good spirits and happy to find the town mostly unchanged since I had last been there. It was still tiny, and leafy, bleeding effortlessly from grass to dusty lane and back again. The people had grown a bit grayer and more wrinkled since my last visit here, and there was now a train station, but otherwise progress seemed to have passed Ivydale by completely, without so much as a general store or movie theater deposited in its wake.

_____

After several hours, I told my friends of the reason for my coming here, and of my Aunt’s new abode. When I told them its address, they agreed to accompany me there and to inspect whether it was up to snuff for a lady from the City, though I noticed that Hackford looked up sharply when I mentioned the location of the place.

We went along the lane out of the center of town, laughing and talking. Jenny pointed out the house to me as we approached. It stood at the top of a low hill and was lovely from the outside, bright-white and neat, with climbing roses and a high, stone wall around the garden. The roof was steeply pitched and the shutters had been painted not long past.

I unlocked the door with the key my Aunt had supplied me, and we all crowded into the hall. The house was very small inside, dim and tight. A small parlor opening off one side of the entry and a cramped study on the other. I observed the air was musty and close, but I also observed that there was no dust on any of the furnishings. I wondered if someone had come up from the village to clean before our arrival. We resolved right away to open all the windows and give the place a good airing. We proceeded to go through the house, throwing the casements wide, and as we went Bill asked if I planned to stay here alone until my Aunt arrived. I said, of course I would, but with no great conviction and soon it happened as I had secretly hoped,  and Oliver, Bill, and Hackford agreed to stay in the cottage the first night to keep me company. We each chose sleeping spaces for ourselves on the second floor and explored all the little rooms. The house was not small, really, but it had been partitioned so many times that it seemed almost like a collection of closets, opening one into another. Another oddity we noticed, and which Jenny commented on at once, was the fact that the previous owner, whose things were still everywhere, appeared to have had a fondness for little Victorian dolls and clowns. There were a total of fourteen of them lined up on a shelf in the parlor.

_____

It came about evening, and we went down to the inn for a bite, and to the corner shop for basic supplies. Jenny left our group then, with a backward wave and a merry farewell, and we set off back to the house. When we returned, we found it just as we had left it, only I realized we ought to have closed the windows before going out, as a wind had kicked up in our absence and was flapping the curtains madly, and racing so strongly I was worried it might send some of the many baubles and dolls flying out into the night.

We hurried through the house, closing the panes against the wind. I noticed at once, when we had finished and were congregated again in the parlor, that the whole exercise had done very little good: the house still felt tight and tiny, and the air smelled musty, as if the very walls and furniture had closed their pores and cracks against any sort of invasion of fresh air or newness. I decided it must be the decor; Aunty had warned me the house would be just as it was when the previous owners lived in it and she said she was most assuredly going to throw everything away when she arrived and decorate the house to the modern style, but for the moment, I wouldn’t mind, would I?

And I had said, no, Aunty, of course not, I’m sure it will be lovely.

_____

We stayed a while in the parlor, lit a lamp and spoke of old times under the watchful, beady little black eyes of the dolls and clowns, and when the clock on the mantel began chiming 10, we all rose and bid each other a good night. I thanked Bill and Oliver and Hackford for being good sports about the house, and was apologetic to its faults, and tried to make it clear that I was very grateful they were there.

Bill, no doubt deciding I was becoming soppy, went to wind the clock on the mantel.

“Don’t bother,” Oliver said. “You don’t want that loud old thing going off at all hours of the night. Let it wind down on its own.”

And then we all went upstairs, peculiarly hushed, as though we had suddenly said everything we could say. There were two bedrooms on the second floor, down a short, narrow corridor from the stairs, and I thought, of course, that we might split the space evenly. Oliver had different plans, however, and took one room to himself, insisting he was of the highest rank among us and thus entitled to it. This left Bill, Hackford and myself the room across the corridor from him. I explored the second story a bit longer after the others had lain down on their makeshift beds, and came upon a small bathroom, very old-fashioned, with nary a spigot or running water to speak of. I found there on the edge of the basin a small square of terry cloth, filthy and damp of the sort a gardener might use after a long day of toiling in the soil, and I wondered at it being left there when the rest of the house was so fastidiously clean.

_____

I returned to the bedroom and there we sat up a while longer in the light of a monstrous old kerosene lamp and spoke.

“You know,” said Hackford, after a while of idle talk. “I don’t fancy this house. And I don’t think your aunt will either once she gets to know the place a bit.”

“What d’you mean?” I ask him.

“Shut up,” said Bill, but Hackford continued.

“The man who lived here before . . . he was an odd one. His wife had died, and then he became a bit warped, always smiling when he came down to the shop in town, always friendly. But he had this cold, glittering sort of gaze above his smile that would make your heart stop in your chest. None of us really liked him.”

“He was just an eccentric,” Bill said. “There was no ‘cold and glittering gaze’, or whatever you said. We didn’t know him well enough to dislike him.”

“Well, that’s all the reason one needs to dislike someone,” I said, hoping to sound clever. “Not knowing them, I mean. What happened to him? He moved, I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Bill, staring up at the ceiling. “Or died. He had grown incredibly large in an unhealthy sort of way. Liked those cakes of Mrs. Whyst’s. Skin like flaps of old cheese, last I saw him, wandering about town in an odd hat and an odd suit. Probably went off to a nursing home like old Mr. Beecham from the shops. You know Mr. Beecham?”

The conversation turned to other things and then died down altogether. After some time, I drifted off to sleep.

_____

Slowly, I came to my senses again to the distinct sound of a clock, ticking, somewhere in the house.

I lay still for some minutes, trying to sort out where it was coming from. And after a while I became certain the ticking was from downstairs in the parlor

I sat up in bed. The room was very dark. I was in no mood to go downstairs, but I was sure Bill had said it was about to wind down. Why, then, was it still ticking? It seemed very loud, and suddenly there was sharp clang and I suppose it must have reached midnight for it began ringing incessantly. Bill shifted somewhere on the floor, but did not wake. I decided I could not return to sleep with this racket going off and so I climbed from the narrow bed, resolving to go downstairs and wind the clock down by hand.

I slipped out into the hall and down the stairs, shuddering somewhat; the walls seemed very close, and the doors did too, and it all combined to give me the impression that if anything dreadful were in this house it would  have no option but to be uncomfortably close to me. I came to the parlor and stepped in. Sure enough, there on the mantel, the parlor clock was tick-tocking merrily away, almost too quickly, like a maniacal little seesaw. I went to it, found its key on the backside, and wound it down sharply. It is not wise to wind a clock down by hand, as it is likely to damage the gears, but I was tired and Aunty would not be needing the clock anyway. I twisted the key all the way to its end, hearing the gears grind and snap in protest, and then I set the clock back down and turned and stepped into the entry way.

I had hardly gone five steps when I heard a sound behind me, a swift, metallic clicking and the rasp of a key, and then a brushing sound, like fabric being drawn swiftly over the floor. I spun, just in time to see the clock falling from the mantel and shattering to the floor.

The silence that followed was quite sudden and complete, my heart hammering in my ears.

I stared at the clock on the floor, illuminated by moonlight through the tiny windows. I looked at the fourteen dolls and clowns on their high shelf. They seemed like a small jury, inspecting me. And where there more dolls now on the shelf, more than fourteen? I thought perhaps I should go into the parlor and see what had caused the fall, but for some reason I dared not step over the threshold. Feeling suddenly very cold, I forced myself to do it and hurried about, careful to avoid the glass on the floor. The windows were all firmly closed. I found no evidence of a slant on the mantel that might have caused the clock to slip. My mind went to Hackford suddenly, and I recalled his dower ways and sinister descriptions, and wondered if he was playing a practical joke on us. But Hackford was soundly asleep upstairs – I had stepped over his body on the way out of the room –  and what a foolish thing it would be if one were not even awake to enjoy the aftermath of one’s wicked jokes.

I started slowly back up the stairs, pondering the clock. When I reached the second floor, I noticed at once a light coming from the bathroom at the end of the corridor. It was very faint and it wavered as if someone were walking in front of it. The door stood slightly open.

I spun away and went straightaway back to bed, taking care to note the measured breathing of Hackford and Bill. I burrowed under the covers and waited, and there was not a sound, nor a disturbance, until I fell asleep.

_____

I woke the next morning refreshed and well-rested, as if nothing had occurred, and recounted my tale to the others.

“Don’t worry,” Bill said. “We’ll bin it all up.” And we set about doing just that, gathering the clock and all the hideous dolls, and putting them outside together with a great deal of other turn-of-the-century rubbish.

After some hours my friends departed and I sat in the kitchen for my dinner. Aunty would be arriving tomorrow. The house was in good order, though I was beginning to agree with Hackford that she would not like it. This last night I was to be on my own. I must say I dreaded it greatly. I recalled I had forgotten to ask any of them if they had used the bathroom late that night and I very much wish I had. The smashed clock was gone and so were the dolls, but I could not forget the words Hackford had said, about the man with skin like old cheese, always smiling, cold and glitt’ring, cold and glitt’ring. I imagined him pawing over all the little knickknacks, rocking in the chair, dusting the furniture, and I felt a trespasser entirely.

I went to bed early, determined to sleep soundly and wake soon, but it was not to be. Sometime in the night, a small creaking from the corridor pulled me from sleep. I sat bolt upright. It was the unmistakeable sound of footsteps, and not quiet, stealthy footsteps, but someone walking quite freely down the corridor, soles clacking on the wooden floor. I rose quickly, unsure what to do, and then I took up the great old lamp and crept out into the corridor. It was empty. I was terrified I would see some ruffian, the flash of a knife or a pistol, but no one was there.

I was sure I had not imagined it. The corridor was so small and narrow, and I distinctly remember the sound of someone striding down it, perhaps even wheezing breaths and great arms touching the walls.

I turned to look down the stairs. Turned to look to at the opposite end. . .

And what should I see but the light of the bathroom on again, flickering, and a sound: the unmistakable sound of someone shaving his face; the scratch of a razor and sweeping rasp of a brush in barber’s cream; and humming. High, shrill, deeply unpleasant humming, in time to the sound of the blade and the foam.

Tick Tock

Broke my clock

Clickety Clack

I’ll snap his back

I froze, gripped by such cold terror I could scarcely breathe. The voice was real, neither imagined nor dreamed. I could hear the wheezing breaths again, and how the man seemed to swing around in the small space, a great beast in that tiny closet of a room. And as I watched I saw the toes of a pair of great black shoes, just peeking past the edge of the door, as the man stood before the mirror.

I turned slowly, meaning to go down the stairs and flee, but as I was turning the floor contrived to squeak loudly and the sound of the razor and the foam-brush stopped. So did the wheezing and so did the song. I stood frozen, the air around me electric, as if waiting in expectation for some untold horror to occur, and when I looked back over my shoulder I saw only the toes of the shoes, motionless before the sink, and a huge pale hand gripping a razor.

I fled for the stairs, clattered down them, and coming to the front hall, rattled at the door. It was locked by my own hand, earlier that night, and the key was upstairs beneath my pillow. I fled into the parlor. The high shelf was empty, but for one doll, a little clown holding a satchel, with a wide red grimace on its bone-pale face. It was lying strangely, and I realized its back was broken, snapped into a triangle.

Upstairs, a slow tread emerged into the hallway, advancing toward the stairs, and whatever it was began to sing again, a stone-cold malice in its voice:

 

Tick Tock

Locked the lock

Weep, shout

He won’t get out

High in the rafters, deep in the earth

My lies in the roof and my truths in the dirt

They’d have me strung up

By my tail, by my hair

Too late for that now, friends

Too late for that now

 

And here, whatever it was up there in the hall reached the head of the stairs and I saw in the darkness a face, or perhaps a mask, and it seemed like that of a clown, freakishly exaggerated and grinning, black eye-holes in a pale face, and lips painted red as a wound.

I turned and smashed the window to the lawn, and leaped out and fled across the grass and through the gate. I did not stop running until I was at the inn, and there I banged on the door until the proprietor screamed at me and let me in. But even in the crisp sheets of my new bed, with the owner below and the guests above, I was still terrified that whatever was in that house might follow me down the hill and snap my back like a pencil.

________

It happened, later, that the police were brought in to investigate what I had told them was possibly a squatter or wandering criminal. They told me they found no evidence of such a person staying there, but they did find several large knives and a cleaver and a little room with a bolt on the outside, and in the end, the lovely little yard was dug up and there were discovered fourteen bodies buried at various depths, belonging to the many folks thought vanished or runaway from the village over the years. And in the attic, under a heavy blanket, was found the great corpse of the owner, who had died inside a chest which he had specially constructed to bolt from within, so that he might stay in his house even after death. Judging by the level of decomposition, the police suspected him to have been dead at least six months.

Later that year I returned to Hertfordshire and university, quite shaken by the entire ordeal and in fact very much excited to never go back to Ivydale again. As for my aunt, she was persuaded she did not want to live in the house on the hill after all the unpleasantness with the lawn coming up corpses, and she moved instead to a modern cottage in town, with running water and very many large, bright windows to let in the sun.

 

The Homunculus

 

I wake covered in ice. It crusts my lips, hangs in silvery pins from my sleeves, turns the crimson velvet of my coat gray and frosty. My gaze twitches to the left, to the right, my eyeballs shifting with a delicate cracking sound beneath their sheen of frost.

I am sitting at a table. A feast is spread before me, and the lace at my throat seems to strangle me, stiff with cold. Moonlight streams over my shoulder, glimmering on the silverware, milky through the window-glass.

I cannot recall where I am. I cannot recall who I am. Not even my own name.

Again I twitch, fissures opening in the frost on my back and across my shoulders. I am on a ship. I must be. I see the curved walls, the iron stove, bolted securely to the floorboards. I am in the captain’s dining room. Ice covers the rich fruits before me, dusts white the cornucopia of apples and cherries, walnuts, lemons, plums, like crystal sugar. The carved ham is furry with cold, the dark wood of the walls and the furnishings dulled, as if viewed through a gossamer veil.

My eyes swivel downward. A book lies open beneath my fingertips. It is the captain’s logbook, though I am certain I am not the captain. It lies open to the final page. My fingertips stick slightly to the parchment. I do not trust myself to move, but I turn my eyes downward further and read the words that loop, thin and spidery, across the page:

August 17th, 1674 

This weather is cursed. It is deepest summer and yet there is only wind and sleet and misery.  It is that thing’s fault. They said: you shall be quicker this way. They said: two trips in the time of one, you will be rich!  But they lied. They wished to be rid of it. We will be lucky if we survive the month.

I cannot have a moment’s peace. It follows me everywhere, and I hardly dare venture on-deck, for the looks I receive from the crew are black as hate. They blame me, though it is not my fault.

I must end this. A monster walks in our midst, silk-tongued and smiling. I am the captain. I am the captain! I will end this, I swear it-

The writing halts. The next page unfurls, blank and empty.

The words sink slowly into my sluggishly awakening mind. And suddenly I recall dates, names, images, all in a sharp, painful flash: I am on-board the Homunculus, voyage 834 across the Northwest Passage from China to London, carrying a cargo of tea. I was the physician. Or was I simply a passenger? I still cannot remember. And I recall nothing of a monster. Somewhere in far off days I heard tales of such things: kraken and sirens and shape-shifting birds who fly down from the sky wrapped in feathers, but land on the deck dressed in a waistcoat and silver-buckled shoes. Mayhap we have been accosted by one such. Mayhap it is still here.

I am beginning to thaw. Water pools on my cheeks and drips from the end of my nose. My hair crinkles, falling in frozen strands across my forehead. I stand, releasing from my wooden chair with a crack, and look around me, hunched, shivering.

All is silent. Across from me, at the other end of the table, a figure  sits a great dark form, stiff in his chair. He too is frozen. It is the captain. The writer of the warnings. His plumed hat is pulled low, a wide black brim hiding his face.

I move slowly around the table, and I see he is holding a flintlock, clenched in his lap, his finger already hooked around the trigger. I look into the captain’s eyes. They are wide-open, stenciled with delicate patterns of frost. But beneath it I can still see the rage: the hate.

I shudder and circle slowly around the back of his chair. A cabin boy sits in the corner of the room, curled up as if he sought to hide from something. His eyes closed, stitched up with snowy lashes. I look again at the captain,  terrified. A single pearl of water forms upon his nose. Stretches. Drops.

He is thawing too. His eyes twitch toward me.

I jerk back, ice cracking up my sleeves, rattling to the floor in shards. I do not know why I fear him, but I do. There is something unnatural underway here, something too dreadful for the minds of man. I hurry for the door, stagger down a short passage, burst out onto the deck. . .

The entire ship is wrapped in snow, emanating like a starburst from the room I have just left. The masts are broken. Men stand on the deck, leaning over the edge, and though their mouths are wide and their eyes open, their tongues are covered in snow, and icy barbs extend from their backs in whatever direction the wind blew. Something knocks against my foot. I look down and see it is a leg, a gray stump upon the deck. I peer upwards.

His name was Cowlick. The man in the crow’s nest. I remember him, too, now. He is still there among the rigging  all of him but his leg  swinging in in the wind like a gruesome flag.

Fear grips me. I run to the balustrade, peer over it into the mist.

A wind is whipping about my ears, and as the ice on my clothing melts it begins to freeze me anew, bitterly cold. The ship is becalmed, stoppered up in a cracked circle of snow and ice. Beyond it I see the black waters of the ocean, ice caps rearing up like drooping nightcaps.

What has happened here?

A sound reaches beneath the wind and into my ears, the creak of wood. I do not know where it comes from, but it fills me with dread. And then, through the mist, I see a light approaching, a lantern, perhaps upon another boat.

I cannot remain. This ship is cursed. Perhaps they will take pity on me. I snatch up a coil of rope from the deck and loop it around the mast. I clamber over the balustrade, letting myself down the side of the ship. The beads of ice in my hair knock against each other like wind chimes, stiff ropes of grease and cold. I reach the snow, stagger, and begin to run toward the edge.

“Hello?” I call out. “Mercy! I am shipwrecked!”

The light in the fog continues on its course a moment, and the water laps gently inches from my feet. Then the light pauses, turning, and begins to slide toward me. It is a ship, then, and they have heard me. My heart hammers against my ribs. The ship emerges from the fog, a great sodden boat, greenish at first, the single lantern creaking like a single golden eye from its figurehead. The figurehead is a woman with the head of a wolf, teeth bared, eyes narrowed. I watch the boat approach, see figures darting on the deck, leaning over the balustrade. The prow of the ship strikes our little shelf of ice and rocks it. Behind me, the Homunculus creaks, shuddering. I fall to one knee, my hands burying themselves in the snow.

“Take the rope!” someone shouts. The ship is towering over me, a monolith of black shuttering out the moon. In the next instant, the knotted end of a coil strikes me in the face. I snatch it, my fingers trembling. I let it pull me toward the edge, and then I kick my legs out and begin to make my way up the steep side of the ship. I look back over my shoulder. The Homunculus looks like a child’s plaything, forsaken. Something is stirring on her deck: a figure hulking from the aft tower, spinning, staring about him across the deck.

I hear a voice follow me up, a deep rumbling.

“Hurry!” I shout up, and my voice echoes in this forsaken expanse, a tiny, high screech. “I beg you, hurry!”

The rope begins to jerk upwards faster, pulling the wind from my lungs. I reach the railing and arms loop over it, dragging me onto the deck. Faces peer down at me, awed and frightened, and I wonder if it is from my appearance that startles them, or that I am alive at all.

“What happened?” they ask me, and I know my eyes are wide, fevered, but I cannot help it.

“We must get away,” I hiss. “Leave here!”

The captain, a young fellow, flint-eyed and strong-jawed, eyes me a moment. He snaps something over his shoulder in a language I feel I should understand but do not entirely.

The boat begins to creak. I hear the water giving way against its side, cradling us and carrying us away. I drag myself to my feet and peer over the railing.

“What year is it?” I ask over my shoulder.

“1699,” the first mate replies, perplexed. “April.”

1699. We have been drifting, frozen across the ocean, for thirty long years.

A gap of water is widening between the boat’s prow and the ice-shelf, and a figure approaches across the snow, that huge black shape from the ship’s dining room.  He is stumbling slowly, leaning upon a bit of broken mast. The fog is beginning to close again, the little silent island of ice losing itself again in the darkness. The captain waves his flintlock and I hear a call through the wind, a desperate, small cry.

“Faster!” I shout over my shoulder. “Away!”

I see people moving on the Homunculus’s deck now, hear the wail of Cowlick as he wakes without his leg, and hear the captain screaming: “Save us! Leave the wicked creature! He will be the end of you!”

But the crew of this new ship does not hear them. The fog closes and they are gone.

I turn away, slumping against the wood. Beneath my coat, I notice that there my red slippers are oddly turned, as though my feet have been broken, my ankles grotesquely bent. I draw out my hand from beneath my arms and I see feathers where fingers should be, fruit for nails, twigs for bone, wax for skin. I blink, shut my eyes tightly. When I open them, my hand is that of a man’s again. The captain is watching me.

I watch him back, memories flooding like dark water across me, a storm of roiling clouds through my skull. Does he suspect what I am? Ah well. I am good at surviving. I sat in the dining room of the Homunculus and read the captain’s scribbled words, and when he entered, trembling, he pretended he did not know. But I did. He wanted to shoot me, to be rid of me, and I could not allow that. There was a white flash, a flood of ice spreading away from me, freezing everything living upon that boat, and everything not, for 30 long years.

The young captain is still watching me, his eyes sharp. I smile at him, my lips flicking back across my teeth.

I do so enjoy traveling.