The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Die with Me


The city of Belle-by-the-Sea was the most fashionable place on earth. There was nowhere more polished and up-to-date, no city lovelier, with greener trees or sweeter air or a bluer, more-picturesque ocean that one might look out over, and throw oneself into when hot or melancholy. The citizens prided themselves in being the prettiest, the most modern citizens probably anywhere, and it would take you only a moment in those beautiful streets, with the willows drooping overhead and the people strolling past in bizarrely improbable costumes, to realize the abnormal measures their obsession with fashionableness sometimes took.

It was a marvelous-looking city, there could be no doubt of that. Slow-moving dirigibles floated overhead, and colorful kites wafted in the ocean breezes, and the buildings soared, built of gray stone, but so delicate and fantastical that they looked more like carefully dipped wax, little balconies protruding, and pierced all over with stained-glass windows or diamond-shaped panes, peeping out like eyes. The chimneys were twisted or braided, or carved in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Below in the streets, ladies and gentleman promenaded tirelessly (promenading was the fashion that month, replacing the newly outmoded “jaunting” and the hopelessly prosaic “walking”). Lace parasols bobbed along like the skeletons of mushrooms, pinstripe trousers snipped like scissors, salmon-silk socks flashed, candy-colored shoes darted. The skies overhead were kept perpetually blue and cheery by the weather balloons that floated about, pulling clouds in through their propellers and releasing them white and pure. The gutters and stoops were always clean. Even the urchins were perfectly maintained, their cheeks smudged with just the right amount of coal-sludge, and their suspenders and ratty polka-dot bow ties kept in a careful state of disarray by the city’s Fashion Keepers.

But now you would begin to notice the abnormalities – the desperation, almost, beneath the lacy, silken, parasol-toting façade.

For example, when the newspapers declared that fish-shaped hats were all the rage and in fact indispensable to any well-dressed lady’s or gentleman’s wardrobe for Wednesdays, the hat-shops and milliners of Belle-by-the-Sea were hard pressed to stock their shelves fast enough, and were known to send errand-boys running to the fisherman quays with their fists full of hat-pins.

When an underground pamphlet declared that one ought to be utterly indignant about the state of cat-hairstyles in the neighborhood of Glendaloo, everyone made a point to be righteously outraged over the subject for at least ten minutes a day.

And when some enterprising young fellow discovered he had miscalculated gravely, and had far too many pads of butter in his cooling warehouse, he put up posters all over the city declaring that butter was good for one’s figure and one might dispense with exercising altogether if one ate sufficiently of the butter, and he put this statement on great sun-colored billboards, with appealingly curly, vine-like type, and had it printed with a picture of two lovely people, one slim and one round, and of course they weren’t the same person at all, but my dear, you would be far too busy eating butter to notice.

Enough of that, though. All in all, Belle-by-the-Sea was a lovely place. It was a pleasant life, there in the cool shadows of its arches, and a simple one, too, because after a while no one really knew what was good and what was bad, simply what was fashionable.

One day, something arrived in Belle-by-the-Sea so marvelous that the people were rather surprised, as they thought they had seen everything marvelous already.

It was a massive wagon. Not a regular massive wagon, but a wagon so great and ponderous it was more of a gilt-and-wood castle, balancing on thirty-six massive iron-hooped wheels and pulled by an army of eighty silent, velvet-gray donkeys. The wagon rose almost fifty feet into the air, towers and flags not included, and the sight of it emerging through the dust on that hot summer’s day, well. . . . It was a sight for sore eyes, and fashionable eyes, too.

Behind upper windows, and from balconies, housemaids and children gasped as the wagon pulled slowly into the city and squeezed between the housetops. Housemaid spoke to parlor-maid spoke to housekeeper spoke to master or mistress and soon crowds of powdery rose-and-mint colored promenaders were pouring toward the main square of the city, where rumor had it the wagon was destined to arrive.

The wagon squirmed into the square, went to its center, and there curled like a great worm around the fountain in the middle, falling still with a creak and a sigh, the donkeys closing their eyes without a single bray or stamp of hoof, as if falling asleep.

By this time, word had spread through all of Belle-by-the-Sea, from the mansions to the gutters to the quays and the fashionably-distressed-nautical-chic sailors’ taverns. News arrived of the marvelously enormous wagon lying in wait in the main square, and people left whatever they were doing to see it.

The urchins heard, too, and went running and ducking under the fingers and swabs of the Fashion Keepers, went darting and leaping through the streets. When they got to the square, it was already packed toe-to-heel. It was a large square, and a grand and beautiful square even without people in it, but now, full of all the wonderful figures of Belle-by-the-Sea, with the blue sky spread out overhead, and the gilt glimmering from the wagon’s crenelations, and the eighty donkeys standing silent as could be, it made the urchins stop in their tracks and stare.

Everyone was staring. Everyone was waiting, breathing, silent.

The wagon sat for what felt like a ridiculously long time in the heat, with the weight of Belle-by-the-Sea’s not-entirely-low expectations hanging about like fluffy pink smog. I have already said the wagon was massive, but it was more than that. It had turrets and towers, many windows and little balconies, and on one side was a stage, curtained with luxuriantly rippling purple velvet. There was no sign above the stage, or indication of what might be performed, but the promise was there and so the population of Belle-by-the-Sea waited.

After approximately fourteen minutes, the curtains twitched, and out came a man, marching across the stage. He looked very fashionable, quite as marvelous as the wagon from which he had emerged. He wore a gloriously complicated coat made from many sharply tailored triangles and covered in buttons, brass and seashell, and drooling lace from the throat and cuffs. He had an enormously tall top hat on his head, the most handsome mustache anyone had ever seen, and as he approached, he smiled radiantly down at the masses below. A few young ladies flapped their painted fans, and the gentlemen smirked disparagingly, which is what gentlemen do when they stumble upon other men whom they deem almost as wonderful and debonair as themselves.

There was a moment’s pause when all of Belle-by-the-Sea seemed to hold its breath. Then the man in the complicated coat spoke:

“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls. Urchins,” he began, and he threw his arms wide, so that the people in the crowd could more fully appreciate the red silk lining of his jacket and the fact that his belt was almost certainly snakeskin, with a little ruby eye at the buckle. (The Fashion-Keepers were scribbling wildly at this point: ruby-eye buckles, dramatic arm sweeps, complicated coats.) “Welcome! To my Palace of Marvels!”

Music sounded from somewhere, a clarion blast of trumpets, violins sawing frantic scales, and a frenzy of clashing cymbals and tinkling bells. At the same moment, a hundred butterflies were released from somewhere behind the wonderful gentleman and spiraled into the air in a beautiful column of iridescent wings, emerald-, wine-, and pearl-colored. The butterflies were sucked into one of the weather-turbines high above and came out the other end considerably smaller, but the audience below was far too busy staring at the complicated gentleman to notice.

“You may be asking yourselves,” he said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the square, “what is this Palace of Marvels? And who are you, Wonderful Gentleman, with your impeccable coattails and well-oiled mustache? Well, fear not! I shall tell you!” Here he smiled again, even more radiantly than before, and his eyes shone, and suddenly and subtly, without anyone really understanding how, the tables had turned. They had already been almost upside down  the impressively massive wagon and the donkeys and the butterflies had done much of the work  but now the entire audience was beholden, enraptured, enslaved to every word the gentleman spoke. He was no longer a traveling performer. He was almost a king, and there was not a person in the crowd who did not desire to know what secret this man had to tell, and what wonders were held within his Palace of Marvels.

The gentleman in the complicated coat seemed to have expected this development as a matter of course: “My Palace has been to all the great cities of the world. No doubt you have heard of it from London. Beijing. Poughkeepsie. Now doubt you have heard tales of the fetes which it can perform. No doubt our reputation has reached this great city years ago. “

Again that smile flashed, and a veritable gale of head-nodding ensued, peacock feathers, silk flowers, and fish-tails shivering in time with their wearers. The truth was, no one in Belle-by-the-Sea had ever heard of him before, but there are some things simply too mortifying to admit.

“I thought so.” The gentleman said and now something new entered his eyes, the tiniest glitter of derision, but no one stood near enough to catch that.

“And yet. . .” he said, his eyes back to twinkling like a pair of bells. “And yet there are no doubt one or two among you who have been living under a bridge your entire lives, or have been recently orphaned, who have not had the cultural education necessary to know of me. You, perhaps, with that hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief. You have only recently crawled into the light of the sun at the sound of my arrival, yes?”

The man with the hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief tried desperately to cover it with his hands, but the gentleman only laughed and carried on. “And so for you, for the benefit of you, I will reiterate. “

“I?” He swirled his hands at the wrist and bowed low, and doffed his enormously tall top hat, which was lined inside with blood-red satin that had been printed with smaller top hats. “Am the Lord Doctor, PHD from Wizcombe University, honorary member of the Society of Rednow, recipient of degrees from the University of Juno, knighted by the Queen of Ingrish. I am John. . .” He breathed in, deeply and dramatically, “Smith.”

Rapturous applause exploded throughout the square, ringing and bouncing against the stone faces of the buildings. Again the music started up, trumpets and violins screeching. Again a burst of butterflies were let up into the air and again they were desiccated horribly by the propellers of the weather balloons.

“Thank you,” said the gentleman, and instantly the crowd and the music fell quiet again, and all that moved was the softly drifting wings of the butterflies, raining down like petals. “Now. You are probably wondering: what is such a man as this doing in our town, on a stage? Like a common conjuror, or snake-oil-selling witch-doctor quack! Well. . .”

A spindly brass staircase folded down off the edge of the stage, and the gentleman darted down it, leaning over the railing toward a little child who smiled up at him, brushing bits of Butterfly-guts out of her eyelashes.

“I will tell you,” he said, in a whisper that was somehow not a whisper at all, but loud and cutting enough for all to hear. “I will tell all of you! Nay, better, I will show you!”

The gentleman spun away, back toward the center of the stage, and there he spread his arms. Spotlights affixed somewhere high among the turrets of the wagon ignited, and suddenly the curtain behind him was awash in changing colors, a shifting, whirling cloud of purple and green and dusky blue. The music became mysterious and tinkling.

“I have discovered,” the Lord Doctor Smith breathed, and spread his fingers, and looked away into the distance as if seeing some glorious vision of dewy-hilled Arcadia. Everyone in the crowd sighed in awe. “I have discovered the greatest mystery of all. And I have solved it.

“Yes! I have solved the greatest mystery! You all know what the greatest mystery is. No, not your neighbor’s flawlessly inexpressive face, or where your brother gets all those socks from. Death! Death is the greatest mystery. And I have conquered it.”

Behind him, projected on the curtains, a coffin appeared, and a rather Gothic graveyard, and the spell in the square was rather broken by that. Death was neither a pleasant subject nor a fashionable one, and snake-oil might have been preferable. The shift was instant. Skepticism crept into faces, charged the air and turned it heavy and bitter. And yet the Lord Doctor Smith was unperturbed.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Murmur among yourselves. Shake your heads. Call it an impossibility, frippery, rubbish! But are you a member of the Society of Rednow? No, I think you are not. I can show you this world. That is what my Palace of Marvels does. I have developed a foolproof way to cross between the world of the living, into the world of paradise.“ Again, the swift swoop of the hand outward, fingers spread.

“It is a marvelous place, a Wonderland, a garden of pleasures. I have been there. I have charted it, and developed a perfectly safe method of traveling between the two plains. All you must do to get in is die.”

He was losing the audience rather quicker now, and he seemed not to care at all.

“You don’t need to believe me of course. Such worldly people as yourselves will want proof. I can give it to you. All you like! I call it Paradise Tourism, and that’s really all it is! Tourism! A jaunt to the world beyond the grave for well-heeled people.”

A few of those well-heeled people were leaving the square just now, indignantly drawing scarves around shoulders and straightening hats. Perhaps the Lord Doctor saw it, or perhaps that was only a bit of dust making his eye dart and glimmer in amusement. Whatever the case, he was not disturbed.

“Behold!” he shouted.

The curtains behind Lord Doctor Smith opened slightly, revealing a woman in a glittering circus costume, bristling with feathers and stitched with so many gilt beads and crystals she practically shone. The woman smiled broadly at the audience. The Lord Doctor Smith smiled at the audience, too. He extended his hand and she took it, and together they both walked across the stage, their eyes clanging like church-bells now, projecting metaphorical lightning bolts of joy and showmanship into the crowd. They stopped in the center of the stage. The Lord Doctor turned his smile on the girl. Then he took a pistol from his breast pocket and shot her in the heart.

The sound was sharp. It pulled the crowd tight like a drawstring, jerking everyone upright and freezing them. The girl fell, blood blooming across her chest.

“Nothing like someone dying to catch your attention, eh?” the wonderful gentleman laughed, flicking the blackpowder from the barrel of his silver gun, while all across the square people’s faces turned to masks of shock and revulsion. “All the books start that way these days, don’t they? So-and-so died. Why should you care? I don’t know, but you should because it’s dramatic. However!” He twinkled at the audience, as if he were telling a joke. “It’s really only remarkable when they come back.”

The audience did not understand this joke. If it was a joke, it was not funny at all. The girl lying on the stage had a bloody wound over her heart, and there is something very primal and horridly unnatural about seeing another person die that ruins the mood of any gathering.

And yet the gentleman was carrying on as if nothing was amiss. “Don’t worry!” he cried, laughing merrily and not at all madly. “Don’t be afraid! Look!”

Here the great curtains parted, and then another pair, and another, three sets of curtains swooping apart in waves  purple-green-red  and there, behind them, was a great circle of bevelled glass, like a lens. And behind that, floating happily-as-could-be  in the most marvelous void of multicolored clouds, was the circus girl. There was no sign of a wound. In fact, she looked as if she could not have been happier about her current state. She appeared rather like a goldfish in a bowl, moving languidly about, plucking bits of multicolored cloud and eating them and making delighted faces. Her body remained on the stage, a lump of sequins, white limbs and beads.

“You see?” said the gentleman, very softly. “She is dead. Temporarily. And yet her soul, her essence, all that really matters, has passed into that wonderful place beyond. That is what all of you have been missing! Clinging to this dull old ground. This!” He gestured around him. “This is only half of everything! There is an entire world of softness and joy and wonder, where you are never hungry or sad or too warm or too cold! Look at her frolic! Would it not be worth a moment’s discomfort to frolic through a landscape of multicolored clouds?”

No. The crowd was not entirely convinced that it would. Not to mention, they were still sure they had witnessed a cold-blooded murder.

“Oh, but of course. You are all asking: ‘What of the dear girl? How will she come back! Surely it is not so difficult to die, but how will one return?’ Well, you are darling little thinkers, aren’t you. Let me show you something else.” And here he made an elaborate gesture, and a mechanical arm swooped into the dark behind the bowled lens and drew the circus girl out. However, she left the lens not as girl, but as a wisp of violet steam that somehow did not dissipate or blow away. The Lord Doctor took the wisp by thumb-and-forefinger and placed it elaborately over the dead girl on the stage, and suddenly she was alive again, and there she sat up and smiled rather vacantly, her teeth as white as rabbit-fur.

“There you have it! There she is, in the flesh.” His eyes flashed brighter and merrier than they ever had before. “Now, is that not terribly, terribly fashionable?”

There was still some slight convincing to do, of course. The circus girl roamed about through the square and let people touch her hands, and she smiled at them reassuringly and showed them that yes indeed her wound had entirely healed, and the Lord Doctor continued to flail and gesticulate and prance on the stage.

And now it came, slowly at first, but rising steadily and surely: the most resounding sound came up from the crowd, the loudest cheer you ever heard. This was death conquered. This was new, and exciting, and wonderful, and quite realistic and scientific, didn’t you think, Jeremy? Eating clouds? Frolicking weightlessly? Yes, please.

“But don’t make up your mind just now,” the gentleman cried. “Go home and think on it. We will not run away in the night. In two days, when we open for business, the doors to paradise will be flung wide, and you may enter and leave as you please. Death Tourism, I call it! And you are all . . . WELCOME.”

Everyone went home that evening befuddled, slightly fuzzy and sick-feeling, like the way you are after a carnival. Too much cotton candy and too-bright-lights, and too much wonder can turn nasty very quickly.

But it could not be denied that Lord Doctor Smith had caused a sensation. All through the night, and the next morning, too, the citizens of Belle-by-the-Sea were a-buzz with talk of his great wagon, and the Lord Doctor’s marvelous contraptions. You could even go to the square and watch various members from the Lord Doctor’s troupe being murdered and then appearing behind the glass, leaping through the clouds, being merry. They were such fashionably-clad people, and they looked very happy.

And so two days later, when the little ticket booths opened for business and the spotlights were lit, and the beveled glass lens was polished to a gleam and promising all the wonders of that cloud-filled void, there was a long, long line of people waiting to go in.

Great ladies from the mansions on the waterfront of Belle-by-the-Sea had left cards at their friends’ houses, had met over finger sandwiches at Mademoiselle Fricassee, had passed folded notes while getting their feet chewed upon by dogs, which was the newest fashion in pedicures:

My darling Emily, Die with me, won’t you? The newspapers are saying it’s quite necessary this week, quite indispensable. 12 o’ Clock, Saturday, Town Square.

Yours, fashionably, Lady Meredith Cray

Darling Emily was only too happy to die with Lady Meredith Cray, and so was most everyone else. Within one turn of the clock-hands, much of the population of Belle-by-the-Sea had been convinced this was a revolution, a wonder, and a must-do.

High on the fifth floor of the wonderful wagon, inside one of its drooping turrets, in the hot, stuffy confines of its wooden walls, there sat the circus girl in her sequined costume, fuming on a little velvet footstool and looking as if she were about to explode. The complicated gentleman was there, too, watching the scene below with an air of satisfied disdain.

The circus girl began toeing a crack in the floor, then kicking the corner of a carpet, ever more viciously. Finally the complicated gentleman sighed expansively and turned to her.

“Oh, come now, Bessy, stop your rattling. It’s paying your dinner too.”

Bessy’s head came up like a Jack-in-a-Box, her eyes like two little stones. “What about the little ‘uns! What about the babies left at home, and all the old folk, and the ill, and- ”

“Not my fault. A fool and his breathing-abilities are soon parted.”

“That is not how that saying goes, and you- you- You! There are good people down there! Good people!”

“Darling, I do not doubt it. I’ve been quite convinced of their virtues as well. But why do you scowl at me so? What have I done? I have not lifted a finger against them. That’s the brilliance of it. It’s all entirely up to them.”

“The first judge who finds out, you tell ‘im that and you see if you’re not drawn and quartered for what you’ve done.”

“Well,” said the complicated gentleman. “I think we must simply make sure that never am I caught.” His eyes went the slightest shade darker. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He laughed, and turned again to the window.

Here the door to the chamber creaked open and another girl came in. She looked  almost identical to the girl on the footstool. They wore the same costume down to the smallest bead and bit of stitchery. They had the same nose, the same dark eyes, the same pale skin and thin face. And yet it would have only taken a moment of looking at them both in close proximity to see they were not the same people at all. They were sisters, twins, and one of them had a splotch of red theater blood above her heart and the other had small hooks hidden about the waist of costume that allowed her to be hung on invisible ropes and appear, from a distance, as though she were floating.

“Is Bessy whining about the poor innocents again?” the girl asked, and she spoke the word ‘innocents’ as though it were not a word at all but a string of spit. The differences could be counted on two hands now: this girl had all of Bessy’s grace, and yet none of that coiled, angry energy. She was somehow sharp beneath her flowing movements – sharp voice and sharp chin, and a somewhat supercilious expression which she employed liberally as she passed the footstool on which Bessy sat. Bessy glared up at her.

“I am,” Bessy said, as if daring her sister to contradict. “And you should be, too, if you had half a heart.”

“Well, I don’t. Not for idiots.”

“Both of you are awful. Both of you are a couple of rotten wormy wicked apples!”

“Hear that, Esmé? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be a rotten wormy apple any day, if you’ll be, too.”

And here they took to giggling and poking each other, and Bessy ran from the room, while below in the square an insistent clatter had begun, a clatter, a snap, and a fall.

The massacre had begun. 10£ a piece, the gilt sign by the booths said, and it could have said 100£: the people of Belle-by-the-Sea would have payed it gladly. A gallows had been put up in front of the stage and all the fashionable people payed for their tickets and went up with their little half-heeled shoes, and salmon silk socks and plumed hats, and there they lay nooses around their own necks, looking at each other excitedly, and making little exclamations, and when the trapdoor fell, the attendants and onlookers cheered, and the little shoes and silks went spinning down into the dark, and the rows of people on the scaffold were smiling, too, their faces quite bright and joyful as their necks broke.

Figures began to appear in the wonderful world beyond the glass, indistinct shapes that frolicked about and ate clouds. Row after row stepped onto the dais, and row upon row fell. The Lord Doctor Smith’s coffers became full to bursting, and no one seemed to notice how the shapes were very blurry behind the beveled glass, not like faces at all, but merely silhouettes, drifting farther and farther away.

Late in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman, trembling and solemn-faced, came to one of the booths and said, “My wife went in. When will she be out, please?” And the boy in the booth smiled and said: “I don’t know! But perhaps you would like to join her! Couples go free, naturally.”

The bodies, once they had been hanged, were taken down with the utmost care and hurried behind the wagon. Shoes were gathered and carted away between the wagon wheels by tiny, chittering little creatures wrapped in strips of old cracked leather, with helmets over their faces. And at last, when night came, the Palace of Marvels was closed and the curtains swayed shut.

Not a single person had left the wondrous sky-scape beyond the beveled glass.

The next morning, very early, Bessy woke and threw a cloak over her sequined get-up and crawled out the bottom of the wagon, landing in a heap on the cobbles. She had a small sack over her shoulder and workman boots on her feet, and she stole across the square and into the shadowed streets as quietly as an ant. Then she began to run, out of the city and into the wild countryside, and only when she was far down the road did she slow and look back over her shoulder. Belle-by-the-Sea looked gaudy to her then, a hideous whirl of fakery, the balconies teeth, the chimneys noses, pointing endlessly toward the sky. She turned her face to the road again and began to walk, suddenly loosely, into the dawning sun. She did not look back a second time. There are some things much larger and more complicated than one’s self, like an entire city of fools, and a heartless sister, and a greedy man. But there is always a sun going up somewhere that one can walk into and hope, for a little while, that elsewhere is better.

The urchins of Belle-by-the-Sea watched mountains of fashionably-clad bodies being taken away, pockets emptied of purses and coins, limbs stripped of their silk stockings and candy-colored shoes, milky bodies thrown into the water to sink quickly under the deep blue waves. Later, in the dead of night, when the urchins went around the glass on the stage, they found there nothing of a paradise, and no wonderland of clouds. Only light, sculpted carefully, and sound effects, and strange profusions of steam, that, from a distance, might be mistaken for souls.

Stump Child

Durand Asher (1865)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come away!” the guide screamed.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Clara and the Djinni



Clara Jane Cow was an unfortunate name for a child. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Her great-great-grandfather had come across the sea in a creaky boat from Lithuania, and in Lithuania ‘Cow’ was a fairly common name. It meant ’tiller of black soil’ and was properly pronounced Gov. The problem was, no one in North Carolina knew that.

When the first letter for the great-great-grandfather arrived, from his dear old mother in the steppe, the postmaster took one look at the envelope and laughed so loud that the birds were startled from their roost under the post-office roof and the rafters dropped dust into his wide-open mouth. The news spread like wildfire, because of course when someone laughs everyone wants to know why, and before anyone even had the chance to meet Yigur Cow and learn the truth about his surname, the whole town had made up its mind.

Yigur Cow was one of those loping, good-hearted men who expect other people to be the same, and so when folk at the general store or by the hitching posts shouted after him, “Hey! Hey, Mr. Cow!”, he thought they were simply being very friendly and chalked up their terrible pronunciation to inferior schooling. He never quite realized what the problem was, and nor did his wife. But their children did. And their children’s children did. And now it was Clara Jane’s turn to notice.

If, in the past eight years of her life, things had been different, if she had been born into a family that was not named Cow, if she had a regular, pointless name like Wheeler or Charleston, if the other children at the little school by the brook had not teased her, if she had not climbed up into the hayloft of the Cow barn and cried until she couldn’t stop, well then, she may never have found the djinni. But she did, and so it happened.


The djinni was kept in a small, regular-looking wooden box – it might once have been a sewing box – shiny, and worn smooth from a hundred years of leathery, lye-soaked fingers. The wood was dark, almost black, with shades of cherry just peeking through where the varnish still clung. There was a keyhole, and no key.

Clara Jane had no idea it was there. She was having a good cry. She was rolling about, mourning the day of her birth, and the hayloft being what it was, scratchy stalks of dry grass were getting into Clara’s dress and makingher cry more; it was as if the straw were in league with the horrid children at school, as if everything, the very universe, were conspiring against her.

She stood up after a bit and began to pace, still sobbing, and after another while a particularly harsh stab of sadness and shame overtook her and she threw herself down in a comfortable-looking heap of hay. . . . and landed on the djinni’s box. Right on the corner.

She sprang back up with an indignant cry, because now she was sure the world was simply one great cruel thing that would not even let her weep without hurting her. She spun to look at the heap of hay, rubbing her back where the box had bit into it.

She saw the djinni’s box. Just the corner, dark and silent, poking out from among the gold and dull green of the hay. . .


I will tell you right now that this is not a wishing story. It is not the sort of story where you know what will happen, and where you can nod wisely as all of Clara’s wishes go terribly wrong and think how she really should have been more content, because who cares what your name is anyway?

Clara Jane cared, for one. She cared a lot. And there was no one who could have told her it was not a bad thing to be called Clara Jane Cow without her spinning about and laughing loudly in his face, and then punching it, too. It is bad, she would say. You try it.

No, this is the story of a girl, and a djinni who had run out of wishes.


The djinni had a silky voice, like ink and oil, and as it stood there, hovering, its lower extremities tapering into shadow, it eyed Clara. It was dark and vaguely boy-shaped, and though it was constantly shifting, a thousand strands of night and starlight, it was not frightening.

Mostly because it looked terribly depressed and morose. It practically dripped self-pity.

“I suppose you want a wish,” the djinni said, and Clara Jane’s mouth dropped open. She wasn’t surprised that it spoke. Djinni’s were supposed to speak. She was surprised that it was such a stingy, grotty djinni.

“Aren’t you supposed to give three wishes?” she asked.

In her mind, she added that to the long list of injustices her life had seen. A wish, not three, like in every fairy story she had ever heard.

“Oh, I would if I could, but someone else used them all up. So in fact, you can’t have any. But I thought I’d ask, for politeness sake.” The djinni sighed, its chin coming to rest on its shadowy chest. Apparently it was done eying Clara.

“So, I can’t wish for anything?”

Another mark on the tally.

“You can, if you fancy to, but I’m not sure it will do any good.”

Clara felt a sob creeping up again, all the hot, bitter tears that had not fallen yet rushing up again.  They were not for the defective genie and its lack of wish-granting, no, but she had not been anywhere close to being done crying before. This encounter seemed only to highlight the plight of her life.

She took several quick, gasping breaths. She couldn’t very well cry now, with this sad-looking creature hovering about, watching her. She wanted it to go away. She picked little bit of hay nervously from her dress.

The djinni lifted its head partway and eyed her again. Then it raised one finger and asked politely: “I could not help but overhear your wailing. These walls aren’t what they used to be.” It tapped the dented old sewing box with one inky strand of leg. “Why were you crying?”

Clara Jane’s gaze turned sharp. If she told him why she was crying, she would have to tell the djinni her name, and then it would probably laugh.

“I wasn’t crying,” she said, and frowned. “I was singing.”

The djinni dipped its head agreeably and sank back into the box. “Oh, pardon me. What a striking voice you have. Are you going to wish for something? You might as well. I can’t give you anything, but perhaps it will make you feel better. Go ahead, give it a try. If I could grant wishes, what would you ask for?”

The djinni spoke in a slow, drippy voice, never sounding as though it were terribly interested in the answers she might give.

Clara thought for a moment. What would she wish for, if she were not the unluckiest girl in all the world? Many things. A new name. A new face. A new house, far, far away from here.

“You’re grinding your teeth,” the djinn observed, turning its head aside to stare tragically at a beam of sunlight.

Clara stopped. She took a step toward the djinn.

“Do you want to know? I’ll tell you then. I will. I would wish for you to hang Johnny Traverse from the rafters until his head burst, and I would want you to eat up Sara Prigg, and then I would want you to pinch the teacher black and blue because it’s her fault, too. She could stop them, and she never does.”

“That’s very gruesome. What a gruesome child you are.”

“Well, you can’t do any of it anyway. What sort of djinni are you if you can’t grant wishes?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been asking myself the same thing recently. A lousy one, I suppose.” The djinni gave an expansive sigh and curled into a ball. “I can tell stories, though. That’s something.”

Clara turned away angrily. “I don’t want to be told stories.”

“They’re very good stories,” the djinni mumbled, curling into a tighter ball. “I’ve been told they are. Young Henry VIII liked them, at least. . .”

“About what?” Clara said despondently and sat down heavily in the hay next to the box.

“Oh, everything. Everyone I’ve ever met. You know, Solomon, Caesar Augustus. . . . I’m thousands of years old.”

“So why can’t you grant wishes!”

“Because it’s difficult, and I’m all out!” the djinni snapped. And then it deflated again. “That’s why. What sort of story would you like to hear?”

“I don’t know. One that isn’t boring.”

The djinn’s eyes widened slowly, dull and milky. “I’ve never heard a boring story in my life.”

“Well, go on, then.”

The djinni dropped its voice low and began to tell a tale. It started very boring, Clara thought. There were endless-long sentences about the sky and the color of the tiles in a courtyard, and the sound someone’s voice made when it rose, and the colors some improbably perfect girl’s hair took on when when the light changed. (So many colors – crimson, chestnut, auburn. Clara did not think it possible that one person’s head of hair could change so often without the help of wigs or dye, but the djinni sounded quite convinced).

Clara Jane yawned expansively which threw the djinni off for a moment.

But then there came a line, just one sentence, and suddenly Clara was listening. The line was about the main character of the story, the improbably perfect girl. She had been kidnapped from her parent’s home and taken far away, and while Clara had instinctively disliked her a second ago, that line came and went, and Clara found herself interested, almost despite herself.

The line was this: but Esmerelda did not want to be betrothed to the horrid Jezra, the shifter, the poison-slinger, and nor indeed did she wish to leave her beautiful home forever, and so she fled to the highest tower of Jezra’s castle and tried to think of a way in which she could dodge her fate.


Clara Jane Cow was, as usual, very frightened when she went to school the next day. She dreaded it most awfully on her way down the rutted road. She practically shook all the way through class. And yet, somehow, it was not quite so bad as the day before, and the day before that. Now, when the teacher rang the bell and the children spilled like roaches out of the schoolhouse, Clara went and sat by the brook and thought lengthily about the girl Esmerelda and how she would escape the wicked monster Jezra, to whom she was to be betrothed. (Clara didn’t know what ‘betrothed’ meant exactly, but it was clearly an awful thing.) And as soon as the teacher dismissed the class, Clara sprang up and ran all the way home, and it was not that she did not hear the screams and taunts of the other children, because she did, but they were not all she heard today. There was something else now, and it was almost as important.

As soon as she was back at the farm, she threw her books down on the porch and climbed the creaking ladder to the hayloft, and opened the djinni’s box and listened in the dark as it spun Esmerelda’s tale, on and on, the strands of it floating into her mind, and deeper. Clara’s mother came and poked her head through the barn-door, but all she heard was Clara’s quiet breathing and an occasional laugh, and a very soft voice which may have been Clara’s own, whispering. When Clara came down she was very happy.


The djinni continued Esmerelda’s story for one hour every evening after school, and not a word more, though Clara begged for more and tried to bribe the djinn with gingersnaps and apples. (To no avail.) The story went on and on, and Esmerelda got into an alarming amount of trouble for one person, but she was clever and brave, and she usually found a way out of it again.

As for Clara and the djinni, they could not help but become quite good friends, though the djinni was still very sad over the fact that he could not grant wishes.

“You know, it’s not the same, telling stories. Not the same as giving people castles or one hundred fire-breathing camels. I’ve come down the world, really, absolutely sunk.”

And Clara looked at the djinni from where she was resting her head on her hands and smiled.

She didn’t say it, because she didn’t quite know how, but her smile said, It’s almost the same as granting wishes. In fact, maybe it’s better.


Esmerelda finally escaped the clutches of Jezra and was promptly captured by thieves. Clara was both inconsolable and jubilant at the same time.

Clara’s parents decided, in a doting way, that she was slightly mad. Her peers, in a less doting way, decided she was tedious and insufferable. She cared not at all for either opinion.


One day, she came home from school and scurried up the ladder, only to find all the hay gone and the dim loft full of furniture. A strange man was clattering about, setting up a brass lamp.

“The old box?” her mother said, when Clara came barreling toward her, sobbing. “Well, I threw it out! I didn’t think we’d need it. The loft is being rented now that we have the new stye.”

That was the end of the djinni. Clara looked, far and wide, as hard as she could, but she never found that old box with its shiny wooden sides and hint of cherry. She cried for many nights, convinced she would never know the end to Esmerelda’s story, whether she would escape the thieves, whether she would find her way back home, and be happy again. Clara felt she could never leave her room again, never go anywhere. What good was it, when there was no story and no silly, mournful djinni to tell it.

But eventually, when she was done crying, and her parents made her go to school again, and everything was forced to go back to normal, she climbed up into the hayloft, which was now full of a furniture, and sat down, and thought of Esmerelda and the thieves. She began to speak, softly:

The thieves lived in a cave, in the heart of a mountain made of bones, and that was where they took Esmerelda, though she fought them with all her might. . .

It was not the same as when the djinni spoke. She was worried she would get it wrong. But after a while she realized she couldn’t get it wrong, even if she tried. It was her story now, and she could make it any way she pleased.


Clara Jane Cow never changed her last name. And people never stopped laughing at it, not even when she was eighty-nine years old, living in a mustard-y old house in the middle of a cornfield. But when they did laugh, she would simply stare at them, and then she would go away through her rooms full of books, and while you would never see, you could hear a silky, oily voice telling the most marvelous stories you ever heard.

“And one day, Esmerelda rounded the last bend and climbed the last hill, and was home. . .”


(Curator’s note: Cow does not mean ’tiller of black soil’ in Lithuanian nor is it properly pronounced ‘Gov’, but as this tale was dredged up from the bottom of a well, some parts were ineligible and could not be precisely deciphered.)

The Editor


View of Rooftops and Gardens – Karl Blechen (1835)

In a little town, all brown roofs and wheeling jackdaws and wilting flowers in pots on the front step, where everyone was quite all right and in fact fairly pleased with himself, a newspaper arrived to change that. The letters of the headline were large and blaring, with exclamation points so as to be less easily doubted. They spoke of murder, coming closer, creeping up the roads and along the hedgerows toward the town. A great shape had been seen in the neighboring towns, dark and huge, lumbering through the streets in the wee hours. It went after everything it saw, the weak and the useless. By morning, its victims speckled the streets like grey heaps of rubbish. They called this figure the Editor.

The Editor did not arrive creeping along the ditch or behind the hedgerow as the newspaper had anticipated. Instead it stepped from the door below the baker’s sign in a burst of brilliant white light and went about its business.

I say ‘it’ because it was impossible to tell who, or what, the Editor was. It was without a doubt very great and dark and frightening-looking. It wore a boxy black coachman’s cloak and a black leather gloves, and no features could be discerned under the brim of its huge top-hat, certainly not in the lamp-pole-less lanes and alleys of that town.

The white light from the door it stepped from was as bright as daytime, as if white clouds and sunlight lay beyond instead of the dusty, musty shop of a baker. When the door closed, the light faded away, narrowing to a spear from the keyhole and then vanishing altogether.

The Editor crossed the street, and though nothing could be seen of its face, the shadows under its hat seemed to frown. It looked at the color of the shutters, and the old iron locks on the doors. It looked at the cobbles on the ground, and the pictures painted on the sign-boards. Then it drew out a long silver spike from somewhere within its cloak and reached up, just touched the wood of the signboard swinging above, and a bit of red bloomed there.

The Editor was just returning the silver spike to its cloak when there came a sound from the street. A clicking, shuffling, and a small cough, echoing between the houses. An old woman was, for no particular reason, hobbling past him, a basket of new yellow dandelions under her arm, even though it was October and there was frost along the gutters.

The Editor struck quickly. A silver slash, a red spray, and then the old woman lay in a heap on the cobbles, the dandelions slipping away in tufts of yellow over the cobbles. The Editor went back to examining the signboards.

They found the old woman the next morning and held a quiet burial, but somehow the newspaper heard of it, and, as if by magic, there were papers on every wilting-flower-doorstep an hour later, the ink still wet and black, bellowing:


Several days after the dandelion woman was done away with, the Editor arrived again, and this time it was not content to stay out in the street. It nodded at the sign-boards, which all seemed to have been repainted in the past days, anxious eyes having seen the red blots, children reporting the Editor pausing under them, and the aura of disapproval it left in its wake.

The Editor came to the corner of one street and looked up at a tall, crooked house with a lantern burning above the door. The Editor touched the lantern with its silver spike and it sputtered out and fell away. Then the Editor burst through the door, shouldering between the shattered boards. A tall, anxious-looking man in a pointy hat was inside, several glimmer-eyed toads poking from his pockets. With him was a sly-looking boy, as well as a man and a woman who looked equally sly and where no doubt the boy’s parents. The boy had just received word he was to go to a many-towered school that stood next door to the town and become the Greatest Wizard the World has Known.

The Editor relieved him of that notion with a flick of silver. The anxious man in the pointy hat put both hands to his mouth and went very still. The child’s mother ceased abruptly looking sly and clutched the boy’s body, screaming, a keening sound that filled the streets to the tops of its brown roofs, and people began pouring in through the battered door, in nightgowns and pale caps, to comfort her.

“My darling!” she wailed, over and over again. “You’ve killed my darling!”

The boy was not the last. In fact, the town went through quite the wringer before the Editor was done. Other people were recruited by the many-towered school, boys, girls, men and women, clever folk with glasses and endearing foibles, or vicious tempers, or the ability to light their own heads on fire. The Editor paused sometimes before letting the silver fly, sometime pinching the Great-Wizard-to-be’s chin in black-gloved fingers. But in the end the silver did fly. The candidate fell, and the parents mourned the loss of their murdered darlings, though they were, increasingly, wearily accepting of it. . . .They all looked vaguely the same, those parents.  Hunched and glazed-looking, with a penchant for wearing pajamas all day, never changing to go outside, and sometimes not going out at all.


The Editor did not stay forever. Within several months, a girl received a magical apparatus that shot a wonderful glowing map from its eyes that led her to an underwater school in a sunken pirate ship, where she would learn to fight sharks and amphibious spiders and all manner of evil. The Editor watched her go, standing along the side of the road like a dark mountain, and it seemed pleased, or at least not actively unhappy, as it kept its silver spike firmly within the confines of its cloak. Then the Editor followed her to a town by the seaside, and watched the proceedings unfold, and the shadows under its hat no longer seemed to frown quite so much.

As for the dingy town it left behind, it went on as it had before. The door under the baker sign no longer lit with that searing white light. The newspapers went back to writing about turnip harvests and an epic and explosive battle involving sharks and amphibious spiders, happening in the seaside town many miles away. The people who had been killed, the old woman with the basket, and all the candidates for the many-towered school were soon forgotten, endearing foibles and vicious tempers notwithstanding. And had the villagers been so prescient as to see the future, they would have found that despite all the tears and wailings, they were much better off without them. For had she lived, the old woman would have turned out to be a witch, growing dandelions for potions in the root cellar of her cottage and thereby bringing about the end of the world. The sly boy would have become the Greatest Wizard Known to Man and would have lured a monstrous darkness there, battling it in exciting ways, the town being utterly destroyed in the process.

Instead the seaside town was utterly destroyed, and the brown-roofed one with the jackdaws and wilted flowers – that one ran along like like a little clock instead of a jouncing wagon, no witches, no spiders, no sharks.

The signboards looked better, too.

(Note from the Curator: this story may not make a particle of sense to anyone who isn’t a writer, and it might not make a particle of sense to anyone who is, either.)

The Care and Keeping of Lies


Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.

I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.

It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.

“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.


I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.

I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.

It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.

I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.


This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.

To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.

I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”

Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.

“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”

“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.

No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the  two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.

I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .

“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.

That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”

She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”

Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”

“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”

Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”

“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”

“Well, then who?”

“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”

I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.

“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.

We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.

I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.

“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”

“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”

I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.

Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.

“Yes! A magician, maybe!”

“D’you think he’s still close?”

“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.

But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves,  turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.

I spun around, but I saw nothing.

“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.

I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.

“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.

Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”

“A man? What sort of man?”

“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”

I don’t know why I said that part.

Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”

I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.

I still wonder why.

Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.


I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:

“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.

She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.

“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”

“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”

“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”

“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”

“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”

“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.

I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.

But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.

I wonder if she found him. She found someone.


The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.

“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.

“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.

“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.

“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”

“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”

She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.

“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.


“All in white or just partly.”


“And he was carrying a rope.”

“Yes. One rope.”

“Was he carrying anything else?”

I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”

“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.

“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.

“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”

We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.


The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.


The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.

“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”


“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”

“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”

“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”

“Yes. Lots.”

The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.


They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.


I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.

The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.

But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.