The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Warmth of Secrets

High in the trees, the birds build their nests, a constant and ever-changing labor, their homes never the same shape from one hour to the next. Twigs weave with leaves weave with bits of fluff to create warm homes for their delicate eggs.

But this is not the only thing they use. They are only the things you can see.

The birds awoke Annabelle from a rather pleasant dream that she couldn’t remember the moment she opened her eyes. She was quite certain it had been a nice dream, though, from the feeling, like she’d had a big warm mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. Annabelle stretched and climbed from her bed. Her school clothes were already laid out, selected by her mother the night before, but she stayed in her nightgown as she padded to the window and spread the pink curtains she secretly hated.

A small, night-black bird lit on the sill just the other side of the glass, a fine wisp of something glimmering slightly in its beak. It stayed for only an instant before flying off again, becoming a speck and then nothing at all in the distance. The trees in the garden of the Nelson house were just beginning to be touched by spring and sunlight, the tiny green buds tinged with gold.

Downstairs, the kettle whistled. Annabelle dressed and arrived in the kitchen just as her father took his first sip of tea. Her older brother, who was thirteen and very grumpy, left without a word from a mouth filled with toast, the front door slamming behind him.

“Good morning,” said her mother. “Oatmeal?”

Annabelle secretly hated oatmeal even more than she secretly hated her pink curtains. She couldn’t remember when she’d ever liked it, though she must have, surely, when she was too young to know better, or her mother wouldn’t think she still did. But there wasn’t anything else she wanted instead, so she said yes, and put half the sugar bowl on it when her parents were making a fuss over whatever had landed on the bird feeder outside.

It was very rare, apparently. Her father peered through a pair of binoculars that, this close, must have allowed him to see the glint in the bird’s eye.

This time of year, it was difficult to get them to talk about anything else. It was all feathers and eggs and whether this crow was the same one they’d seen last year. Sometimes, only inside her head where no one could hear, Annabelle wondered if she’d be more interesting if she had a beak. Still, she supposed, it kept them from pestering her too much about whether she’d done all her schoolwork or cleaned properly behind her ears or tidied up the mess in her room.

The rest of the day, until the afternoon, passed just as the morning had—which is to say, quite normally. Annabelle went to school and talked to her friends and only raised her hand in those subjects she enjoyed, staying silent and invisible during the ones she didn’t. The final bell rang through the classrooms, and she gathered up her things for the walk home.

Three corners away from Annabelle’s house, it happened. She saw everything, saw what was about to happen and the seconds that would follow, but there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all except to stand, mouth open in a scream that made no sound, as the bird hit the windshield of a car stopped at the lights and bounced off again, arcing through the air in abnormal flight, to land at her feet.

“Oh no,” Annabelle said, when her voice returned, lost amongst the hooting of car horns. The poor creature twitched at her feet. Mother, mother would know what to do, how to save it.

It felt soft in her hands. Soft and broken. “Hold on,” she whispered. “I’ll keep you alive.”

But she couldn’t. Two corners from her house, it gave a final, tiny chirp, almost a sigh, and went very still. Annabelle felt the stillness as firmly as if it had been a slap, and then a curious coldness through her whole body which turned, quickly, back to warmth from the sun overhead.

“Oh, no,” said Annabelle again. “I’m sorry, little bird.”

She did not, as usual, walk in the front door and announce she was home. Instead, Annabelle veered around to the side of the house, where the earth below the rosebushes was thick and damp from the spring rains. Digging with her fingers wasn’t easy, and soon they were black with dirt, but she kept on until the hole was deep enough.

There wasn’t so much as a whisper from the trees above. Patting the soil back into place, Annabelle looked up at the line of birds on a branch.

Watching her.

“There you are!” said her mother when she heard Annabelle come in. “Where have you been…and what have you been doing? Go wash up.”

Annabelle didn’t answer. The bird, beyond her mother’s help, now felt like a secret thing.

She scrubbed her hands. Ate dinner. Went to bed. Dreamed of flying.

And the voices woke her. So very many voices, like being in a room full of a thousand people all talking without a single pause. Was she still dreaming? Annabelle didn’t think so, though it was still night, no hint of light peeking around the hated pink curtains. She threw them apart and stared from the window.

“Buried him, she did.”

“Curious.”

“There’s a nice lot of crumbs down by the river bend. Get them before those greedy swans do.”

“There’ll be a nice breeze today. Anyone fancy a trip south?”

“Can’t. Expecting a hatch.”

Annabelle blinked.

The birds were talking. If she listened, carefully enough that her head began to ache, she could hear their normal chatters and chirps with her normal ears, but their voices, their words were loud inside her head.

She nearly screamed. She nearly ran to her parents’ room to shake them awake and tell them, but she didn’t. This, too, felt a secret thing. They’d think she was mad, or making up stories. Or—perhaps worse—they’d believe her and ask a thousand questions of a thing she wasn’t entirely certain she believed herself.

“Anyone have any spare twigs?”

Very purposefully, Annabelle climbed back into bed, pulled the blanket over her face, and lay in the dark, hearing all the voices until the sun came out. She dressed in Saturday clothes and went downstairs to breakfast.

When her mother asked if she wanted oatmeal, Annabelle said yes.

It came out as a squeak. Annabelle coughed. “Yes,” she repeated carefully. Her mother didn’t notice.

Her parents exclaimed out the window about the beautiful feathers on this one. Annabelle listened to it complain that those blasted starlings had stolen all the good seeds. Her brother stomped into the kitchen. “I’m going to spend the day at Tom’s,” he said. Annabelle’s mother nodded absently.

But Annabelle stared at him. It was a lie, and she didn’t know how she knew this. It left his mouth and drifted over toward her, a thin, glimmering thread of a thing she caught in her hand.

“And I’m going outside,” she said. Nobody heard her, which was perhaps a good thing. Her voice, once again, had not sounded entirely…human.

The birds were louder out here, much louder. The lie still clutched in her palm, Annabelle covered her ears, which didn’t help a bit. Down at the bottom of the garden, there was a tree just perfect for climbing. Every summer since she could remember, her father had promised to build a tree house in the low, wide branches, but he never had, and how she and her brother were probably too old for such things. It was easy enough to place her feet and hands just right, though, and rise up in the tree as simple as if it was a ladder.

She stopped when she found what she was looking for. The first, perfectly round nest, built of twigs and leaves and bits of fluff, and thin, silvery wisps. She touched one and knew Mrs. Livingstone four doors down on the road had thought of putting poison in her husband’s tea, but had never done it. She touched another and learned the man who came to clean the windows had always wished to be an opera singer.

She touched a third and knew—although she didn’t need to be told—that she hated her pink curtains.

A raven landed on the branch beside her. Annabelle startled and slipped, but didn’t fall. It fixed a knowing, wise gaze on her.

“We know all your secrets, all your lies,” it said, and once again, if she really tried, she could hear the ordinary birdsong, and the words in her head, all at the same time. “They line our nests, they keep us warm in the frosts. And now, you know ours.”

“Why?” Annabelle asked.

“We hear everything,” said the raven. “We are everywhere. Humans pay us no notice as they walk beneath our trees, thinking and saying the things they never should.”

Annabelle looked at her brother’s lie, still stuck to her hand. “I don’t understand how they keep you warm.” It made her feel cold, even on the pleasant spring morning.

The raven cackled. “You will,” it said. “Oh, you will. And soon.”

Annabelle climbed down. All day the voices crowded inside her until they fell silent with the evening. Her bones felt odd inside her. She went to bed early, the pink curtains billowing in the breeze from the window she left open as she fell asleep.

In her dreams, feathers crawled over her skin. Her feet shortened and toenails grew. The voices started again in the night, and Annabelle hopped from her bed, up onto the windowsill.

She chirped, once, and flew into the dawn, listening for dreams, for secrets, for lies with which to build her nest.

Butterfly Blood

(©Thomas Bachmann)

In the middle of a wide, snowy field, beneath a solitary tree, two nuns stood, side by side. Their black habitsblacker than the treeflapped about their ankles. Their white wimpleswhiter than the groundframed their faces. Their sensible shoes, patent-leather and pointy-toed, shone dully in the winter light.

The nuns did not move a muscle.

A man was approaching them from far across the barren field, tramping steadily through the frost and the silence. The man’s head was far too small. Or perhaps his body was simply too large; it was difficult to say. At any rate, he had a freakish set about him, like an ogre, and his skin had a pale, greenish tinge, a slimy-wet sheen.

The nuns regarded him as he approached, their expressions inscrutable. One of them, the smaller one, had her eyes opened very wide, but whether it was out of surprise or simply the permanent state of her face, it was impossible to say.

As the man approached, it became apparent that he had no fingers on either hand, only stumps, stopping at the first knuckles. When he ducked his tiny head, one could see he had no ears either, only holes on either side of his face.

The smaller nun didn’t say a word, but her eyes grew a fraction wider.

The man stopped several paces away, just outside the spreading reach of the tree. He bowed heavily and stood waiting, shifting from foot to foot.

The two nuns turned slowly and looked at each other. Then they looked back at the man, and the taller of the two held out a hand, as if to say, Have you got it? We have walked many miles. We have waited in the cold. Give it to us.

The man with the too-small head looked up at the tall nun. Then he grinned gapingly, and the nuns gasped in unison because he had no tongue. No ears. No fingers. No tongue. Eyes, he had, but those are not nearly as useful as most assume.

He was the perfect messenger, of course. The nuns should not have been surprised.

The taller one regained her composure, and held out her hand again, more insistently this time.

The man nodded his tiny head, and his eyes lit up, and he slipped something from his sleeve.

It was not a bottle or packet, or anything like that, as one might have expected. It was a butterfly, sapphire-winged and veined with black, and it emerged out of his sleeve and came to rest delicately on the end of one of his poor old stumps, flapping slowly, feelers curled against the wind.

The nuns looked at each other again. The younger nun’s eyes were very near to rolling down her cheeks. The man with the too-small head simply smiled down at the butterfly in his palm, a look of wonder on his face.

Finally the tall nun nodded and inclined her head formally toward him. Then she put the butterfly in a small cage made of wire, and the two nuns went away across the field.

 

***

 

The man with the too-small-head watched them go, and watched the glimmer of the blue butterfly-wings in the cage.

When they were gone, he shook his head and grinned again, and he didn’t exactly disappear so much as simply move someplace else, someplace that was not the snowy field, but was very close by.

 

***

 

The nuns came back to their nunnery very late. Before going inside, they made sure to pat some wet earth on the knees of their habits and clump a bit around the frosty heels of their sensible shoes, before finally letting themselves in through the great door.

They had herbs under their arms, but they had collected them the day before, so as to have some time free to seek out the man with the too-small head.

They looked around stealthily as they entered the nunnery, stood still and nodded as other nuns passed by. The cage with the butterfly was hidden tightly behind their backs. When the Mother Superior saw them, she twinkled at them, her eyes very bright and kind, and they both inclined their heads as she passed, but their faces remained stone.

And as the Mother Superior went on down the corridor, they watched her, their eyes following her back, and the younger nun’s mouth may have even twitched a bit, just a tiny, tiny bit; but in that flat, empty face it was like a bomb blowing up.

 

***

 

The nuns took the wire cage to the taller one’s cell and simply sat a while, admiring the butterfly through the mesh. The nunnery was a somewhat austere place, busy and soft, echoing songs and shadows and whispers. The music was often rather sad, and the colors were either dark or white, and so it was something of a marvel, this blue-winged butterfly in the gray cell.

The younger nun, finally, looked at the taller one in a questioning way as if to say, Do you think it will do the trick?

And the taller one looked back, eyebrows raised, as if to say, Who can know? They promised it would. Those wild things in the fields and moors, they promised, and I know they lie, but it should. It should do the trick.

Then she undid the latch of the cage with two long fingers, and the butterfly crept out, blue wings flickering tentatively.

It was about to fly away, about to beat those wings once, twice, and then flutter toward the ceiling.

Then the younger nun took out a wooden mallet from the folds of her dress and smashed the butterfly onto the table top.

 

***

 

The nuns let the butterfly sit, squashed to the table-top, overnight, exactly as they had been instructed. Then they scraped the blue from its wings and the clear, watery blood from its veins into a tiny thimble-sized bowl and set it out on the windowsill, in the cold, fresh air.

The younger one looked at the taller one, and her eyes said, I hope it works. We haven’t much time left. And what if someone starts to suspect?

And the taller one nodded in a way that meant, It will work.

 

***

 

The moon came out, half-full like a sleepy eye and squinted down at the bowl, and at the nuns, who looked away quickly and closed the casement.

In the bowl, the blue and the blood sat and drank in the moonlight, but also the night and the shadows and the cold, and then nuns went down to the evening mass and tried to forget about it until it was ready.

The Mother Superior was there at mass of course, and though her back was toward the two nuns, anyone raising her head from the hymn-book might have noticed the younger nun staring at the Mother Superior, her eyes so wide and still.

 

***

 

Five weeks earlier, the nuns had gone to the Mother Superior and asked her a question.

“Please,” the taller one had asked, and her voice was surprisingly soft and regular-sounding, papery and cool, and much quieter than her eyes. “Might we have the third Saturday of next month off?”

And the Mother Superior had twinkled at them, and said, “Of course you may have a day off! But not that Saturday. We’ll need you here for the weeding and the churning. You may have the fourth Saturday off. I will mark it down.”

 

***

 

You never would have guessed the nuns’ disappointment. They had looked at each other briefly, had nodded at the Mother Superior, and had slipped away without another word. But it was not the end of the matter.

Few people can plot quite as well as the ones you’d never suspect.

 

***

 

Here was the situation: a great violinist, a Master Garibaldi, was on a tour across the continent, and the nuns were determined to go. Master Garibaldi was playing Bach, all the Chaconnes and Voluntairs, and the nuns pined to hear it, and pined to see it, too.

And it was not that the mother superior was unkind. She simply didn’t know how lovely Maestro Garibaldi was, and how his hair shook like a lion’s mane when he played his violin and how his music felt like a lamp, glowing behind your ribs. And so when the tall nun and the short nun had been told they could not go to the City the day of the concert, that was when they began to plot.

They read great grimoires in the library and went on long walks across the moors, and came upon the creatures of stone and moss in the wild hills, and all the while Maestro Garibaldi crept closer and closer across the continent toward the City, and the nuns became more and more serious, and at last they had it all, everything needed to escape that day, everything but the last bit, the most important bit.

What is stronger than storms, yet weeps like a child, one of the old crusty books in the library had whispered to them. Colder than snow and softer than hair?

The nuns had thought about it very long. And of course they found out.

It was the wind.

 

***

 

So when they were sure their mixture had ripened well on the windowsill, and turned into a good thick paste, silver-gray and speckled with flecks of iridescent blue, the nuns brought it out into the early morning, in an open place where the wind blew strongly.

The nuns set the bowl on the ground and the wind dipped into it at once, picked up its contents and blew it into the air, straight up out of the bowl. The flakes whirled a moment and then began to form a shape. A human-shape. A nun in a black habitblacker than the stone walls of the nunnery. A white wimplewhiter than the nun’s teeth as they smiled and watched.

The wind swept over again, and the last of the mixture grew into the second nun, small and stout, with eyes like marbles.

The two sets of nuns stood looking at each other, one pair smiling, the other not. Then they nodded to each other, and one pair set off into the nunnery and the other took off its sensible shoes and put on ones with bows and went to the city where it heard the great Garibaldi on his violin and fairly well swooned.

 

***

 

That night, the wind came and reclaimed its breath from the delicate shell of butterfly blood and moonlight, and the false nuns fell to nothing. But by that time their namesakes where comfortably in their beds and fast asleep.

They weeded twice as many beds the next morning, those two nuns, and churned three times the butter, and perhaps, if one had watched them very, very closely, one might have seen them wink to each other over their baskets.

(Postscript: the butterflies of the area were less pleased by it all, and there was an infestation the next year in the nunnery’s dining hall, small onyx-winged insects all up the rafters and under the edges of the plates. No one could understand why it happened, not even the two who had caused it.)

Your Secrets for a Storm

Miranda had been taught by her mother, and her mother had been taught by her mother, and so on, back for a hundred generations in the kingdom of Aurestra, that little girls must never tell the wind their secrets.

Boys were all right; boys could shout at the wind until their throats bled, and the wind of Aurestra would pay them no notice. Boys pretend to be wild, but they’re not very much, not truly, not where it counts, and the wind only deigns to pay attention to creatures like itself.

Wild creatures.

Girls. Not women, but girls. Girls, because they have fire in their blood and storms in their eyes—the old fire, the ancient storms, of the time before cities. Before schools and science and libraries. Before the king’s palace was built. But girls must not show it, they must not unleash themselves, no—because girls are meant to be soft. They are meant to be sweet, and pretty like rose petals, and quiet, above all else. Quiet, quiet as sleeping birds tucked up inside their feathers.

Women are all right, too. They live behind veils and inside windowless carriages. They are forces of nature—though you wouldn’t know it—for they carry the old fire as well. But they have learned how to tame their power, and how to set it loose. Mostly the former, though. Mostly, they keep it quiet and coiled tight inside them, and only let this power out when it is safe—when they are alone, or when they are with their sisters behind heavy closed doors.

Because that is the way it is supposed to be. So say the laws of Aurestra. So say the frowning men. So say the looks on boys’ faces, wide-eyed and fearful, because they have been taught by their fathers about the dangers of girls—if the girl has not been raised right, that is. A girl like that might give in to her power.

So the wind ignores women. The wind doesn’t have the patience for them, with their veils and their whispers, and how they have hidden themselves away.

Girls, though—girls are only just beginning to understand the power they carry inside them, and so they must be watched over, and taught carefully by their mothers. And though a girl might be bursting with secrets, she must never shout them, shriek them, howl them to the wind, even if that’s exactly what her blood and bones are telling her to do.

Because the wind cares nothing for the laws of Aurestra. Single-minded, the wind longs for the way things used to be, when the world was ruled by queens. When girls ran wild, without veils, with bare feet, with hair long and tangled, with hearts open and loving, wanting to be kissed.

For some time now, the wind has been waiting for a girl to come along—the right kind of girl for the wind; the wrong kind of girl for the grim, white-haired kings of Aurestra.

A girl with secrets on the tip of her tongue.

A girl with power at the tips of her fingers.

A girl like Miranda.

 *

Miranda walks through Aurestra’s central market. She is only twelve years old, but she feels heavy and burdened like an old woman. For most girls, it isn’t so hard to stay quiet. Or it is hard, but manageable, at least.

Not so for Miranda.

Staying quiet, staying soft, staying still, still, still has been eating away at her since she reached the Age of Refinement and was given her first veil.

Miranda wants to run, but she doesn’t.

No. She wants to race, to tear along the cobbled pavement until her feet hurt. She wants to yell, and sing—not the lilting, warbling tunes her stiff-robed tutor forces her to learn. No, something else, something different. Something that would shock her fellow shoppers and bring the censors out from the courts to seize her. A howling, savage, discordant song.

Like the wind.

Like the wind gliding softly through the winding aisles of the marketplace—tickling her fingers when she reaches for an apple, a plum; her fingers are the only parts of her not covered in fabric.

Like the wind, but a hundred times stronger than it is right now.

A thunderstorm wind. A hurricane wind. A song like that.

Miranda saw a hurricane once. It was dreadful. She was safe in her father’s sturdy stone cottage, and from the attic window, she could see the southern bay. The water surged in waves, destroying the docks. The wind knocked the boats together like they were less than toys, tearing them apart into splinters and planks.

It was dreadful, yes—and beautiful, too. Miranda had watched, her nose pressed to the crack in the boarded-up window, and she had not been able to help it:

She had let out a horrible, soft, desperate cry.

These winds, these winds, this power—this was what lay cooped up inside her. This was what she was not allowed, never allowed, to touch. If she did, if she broke the law and let it loose, what would become of her? Of her mother?

The Aurestran kings were not known for their mercy.

So Miranda cried, alone in the attic—but not the soft, delicate tears of a wounded damsel. Deep, wild sobs that wrenched her throat into knots, and the sounds of the hurricane drowned it out so that no one downstairs could hear her.

But the wind heard her. It heard her and thought, Ah. Could this be the girl? The wind thought it just might be, but it did nothing. The wind must wait for her to come to it. That was the way of things; a wind cannot just approach a girl and whisper terrible things across her skin, and coax her to tear down her kingdom.

The girl must find the wind herself. First, before anything else, the girl must tell the wind her secrets. That will be the invitation.

From then on, the wind watched Miranda.

It knocked against her window at night, and when she went to look out, she found no one there. And when she returned to bed, her skin was hot and itchy, and her dreams were restless.

When Miranda took her horse out to the fields to check on her father’s sheep, the wind chased at her heels, whipping her veil around her.

And when Miranda is twelve years old and in the market, when she brings her fingers out from beneath her cloak to grab a plum, the wind teases her skin.

And Miranda can bear it no longer.

She hurries as quickly as she dares to the outskirts, and then down the path leading north to the woods, and once she is out of sight, she runs. She runs, she tears, she flies. She drops her wrapped parcels from the market, and she tears her skirts on brambles. By the time she stops to catch her breath, she has reached one of the high meadows, in the foothills. She rips her veil from her head, and she falls to her knees, and screams.

Maybe there are farmers nearby, or shepherds, who happen to be close enough to hear her. They will report her to the censors, and she will be hanged in the square as people throw stones at her and scream for justice.

But Miranda doesn’t care.

“I have power inside me,” she whispers—to no one, she thinks. “And I am tired of hiding it. I don’t want to hide it. I shouldn’t have to hide it. It is me, and I am it, and this is how things are supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be wild. Women are not supposed to hide. There should be queens, not kings. I know the old stories. I know of the old country. I know about the old fire and the ancient storms. Why must I pretend that I don’t? Why must I lie? Why must I hide?”

The words spill out of her, held back too long, and the impact of hearing her own voice speaking treason is so tremendous that she begins to sob and laugh at the same time. Exhaustion claims her, and she lays back in the grasses and stares at the sky, knowing she must soon get dressed and return to town. Knowing her father will beat her for bruising the fruit she bought today.

And the wind watches, and is pleased. The invitation has been sent.

“You don’t have to hide,” it whispers to her.

Miranda shoots upright. “Who’s there?” She hadn’t cared, before—but now that she has calmed, the fear of being caught is like a wild animal in her chest. She finds her veil and tries to put it back on, but the wind tears it from her fingers and flings it into the mountains.

And without her veil, even though explaining how she lost it will be worse—much worse—than explaining the ruined fruit, Miranda feels taller, larger, stronger.

“Who’s there?” she demands. “Show yourself.”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” says the wind, “for I have no body. I have only an offer of friendship, and a proposal.”

Miranda’s eyes narrow. “What kind of a proposal? And why do you want to be friends with me?”

“I want to be friends with you,” the wind hisses through the meadow grasses, “because you are wild, like me.”

“I am not wild,” Miranda protests automatically.

The wind snaps at her furiously, flinging dirt into her eyes. “You can’t lie to me. You can lie to the others, but not to me. I know what you really are.”

Miranda licks her lips, though she doesn’t want to appear too interested. What if a shepherd is watching from the trees? A girl, talking to nothing? She would be hanged for madness. “And what is that?” she asks.

“You’re a girl. You’re a wild, wild girl. You have the old fire and the ancient storms in your blood. You have the power to raze mountains and part oceans. You have the power, but they have taken it from you, because they are afraid of what you could do to them. Too many years have passed between now and then, between now and the old world, when women wore the crowns and girls ran free. But it’s time, now.”

The wind sighs across Miranda’s bare legs, comforting her, enticing her. “It’s time now,” the wind continues, “don’t you see? That is my proposal. It’s time to change things. Do you know, you are the first girl in a thousand years to spill her secrets to the wind? It had to be you, coming to me. I cannot do it on my own. That is the way of things. The girl must come to me, and realize who she is—what she is—and then, only then, can I help her.”

The wind is lonely—frustrated and mighty and dangerous. Mischievous. Not entirely trustworthy, perhaps. Miranda can hear these things in its voice. But Miranda isn’t afraid. This is what she has been waiting for, even if she didn’t know it would be exactly this. This is what she has prayed for. This is what she has been secretly thinking during her lessons, while her tutor drones on and on with his watery eyes on her—like she is a bug and he is a bird who might crush her if he decides he is hungry.

“If you tell me what to do,” the wind continues, shishing and shushing across the meadow, “I will do it. No one else can tell the wind what to do but a wild girl. No one else can change things but me—and you.”

“Will it hurt people?” asks Miranda. “Will it hurt people, what we do?”

“Some. Not all, but some. Some hurt is necessary, for the kind of change we need. Don’t you see that, Miranda? Don’t you think it is so?”

Miranda thinks for a long time, sitting there, bare-legged and barefooted in the meadow, until the sun sets and the sky is awash with flame. She will have some serious explaining to do when she gets home. Some girls might throw themselves in the river instead of face their father’s wrath.

But Miranda is not one of them.

And it isn’t like she wants to hurt people, but . . . but . . . haven’t they hurt her? How many hangings has she been forced to attend? How many stones has her father forced her to throw?

Too many.

Miranda’s hands curl into fists, and a spark lights inside her.

“All right,” she tells the wind at last, “all right, I will do it.”

Then she begins the journey back to town, not bothering to find her shoes, not bothering to search for her veil or her parcels. The more steps she takes, the faster she walks, until she is running, racing, tearing down the path to her gleaming city, with fire in her blood and storms in her eyes.

And the wind churns after her, laughing at her heels.

*

The grocer—he’s the one who triggers it.

Unfortunate enough to be nearest the outskirts when Miranda comes running.

Shocked enough to drop his armful of vegetables at the sight of this girl—without her veil, barefoot, her skirts torn.

Foolish enough to seize her arm as she races by, and scold her for her impropriety.

“I’ll ring for the censors,” he shouts. “Have you lost your mind, girl?”

Miranda is used to being grabbed, used to being struck and scolded and ordered about—but that was before, and this is now. Now, she has a wind at her back. Now, her fingers are on fire with something she will no longer contain.

Truly—her fingers are on fire.

The grocer sees the sparks erupting from her hands and releases her, tries to run—but Miranda is too quick for that.

Go inside him,” she hisses, in a voice that would scandalize her tutor, for it is coarse and lacks any sort of decorum.

And the wind obeys.

It shoots past Miranda, gathering up all her fire, stretching it out from her fingers into the air, down the grocer’s throat, down his nose, up his fingernails, into his eyes.

The power is Miranda’s—old and immense. But the wind takes it to where it needs to be, like an invisible chariot. The wind, who knows Miranda’s secrets. The wind, who, like her, is tired and angry. The wind, who, unlike her, will take much pleasure in the days to come—days of fire and storms and pain.

In truth, it would not take more than this—this one man, this one burst of fire—to change things. It is enough, this one death, to get the attention of Aurestra’s kings.

But Miranda doesn’t know that. And the wind is not going to tell her.

Instead it will race along at her heels, whispering encouragement, as she tears through the city, and the palace, and the calloused flesh of her father’s cruel, meaty fists.

And then what? When all is ash and Miranda’s fire dims, and she understands, exhausted, streaked with strangers’ blood, what she has done?

The wind considers that, for a fleeting moment, as it brings Miranda’s storms crashing through the windows of the censors’ courts—but then, as is the way with wind, as soon as the thought has come, it has gone, and all it knows is its own laughter.

The North Wind Doth Blow

When Curator Catmull was a girl, which was, perhaps, in the late 19th century, she particularly cherished the book At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald. So the tale below interested her particularly, as it casts a much different light on the North Wind of that book, who so tenderly cared for a dying boy named Diamond.

Perhaps she never recovered from his loss. If so, what awfully bad luck for the children of this age.

800px-Occluded_mesocyclone_tornado1_-_NOAA

The wind raced behind Ruby, chasing up the street from tree to tree. As she reached her door, it caught her, tangling her hair into her face as she fumbled with the key. The windchime bounced and jangled overhead, and her phone chimed in her pocket.

In the stillness inside, she read the text: Working late sorry sweet. Lasagna in fridge (is delish). Say it with me: TV stays dark till homework done. I love you. Ruby texted back an emoji sticking out its tongue, to indicate her feelings about homework and being home alone.

In some ways, though, she wasn’t so sorry to put off seeing her mother, after what had happened today.

An hour later at the kitchen table, a half-eaten plate of lasagna sat next to her math book, and her pencil scritched away on a problem. It was already dark outside, or nearly. The windchime jangled again, more insistent now.

The lasagna sat heavy on Ruby’s stomach. She had spent some time the principal’s office that afternoon. It wasn’t 100% that she was going to be suspended, but it wasn’t looking good, either, and her mother would have to take off to come for a meeting the next day, and that would not go over well.

Ruby knew she shouldn’t lose her temper. But also: people shouldn’t talk to her that way. Not people wearing prissy little perfect white dresses; not when she was holding a full lunch tray containing a sloppy joe, a bowl of tomato soup, and mess of chocolate pudding.

Her pencil worked more furiously. What was I supposed to do.

Scritch, scritch.

The windchime’s jangle became more urgent, like a warning. The wind was picking up, had found a voice, as it swept and whined around the corners of the house. Ohh, said the wind. Ohhh, oohhhhhhh, OHHH.

Even inside, it felt colder, and Ruby put her sweater back on. The whole house was dark except for the little pool of light where she sat. She cleared her dishes, turning on the kitchen lights as she passed, stuck the plate in the dishwasher, lasagna back in the fridge

SSssssssssssssss, said the wind. SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSssssssssssssssss aahhhhhhhhhhhh.

Ruby turned on the living room lamp for good measure and returned to the kitchen table. For a few minutes she worked at her math again, but it was impossible to concentrate with that wind. Fine. No choice. She took her homework to the couch and grabbed the remote. Something dumb on TV would drown out the wind and help her concentrate. That was cheating a little, but so what.

If Mom wants me to do my homework first, she should be here to make the house not so scary and weird. 

The flat black screen filled with color and laughter. Outside, the wind rose and wailed louder. No more ohhh and sssssss — now the windchime jangled like a fire alarm, now the voice of the wind was a howl. Ruby pulled a throw blanket around her shoulders and turned the television up. A man on screen turned slowly to the camera with a round O mouth. The audience laughed.

Then the screen went black. Everything went black. Outside, the wind screamed and bent the air like you bend a saw.

Eyes wide in the darkness, Ruby huddled on the couch, feeling around for her phone so she could text her mom: electricity’s out, what do I do?

The wind’s scream rose higher and higher, insistent and mad.

And then, without warning, the picture window exploded. Shards of glass tore through the curtains, ripping them to the floor. The wind screamed, and Ruby screamed, too.

Then: silence. The wind stopped. And Ruby stopped; but her mouth stayed wide open.

Standing before her, luminous in the weak streetlight, was a tall woman, almost as tall as the ceiling. Her icy white hair floated all around her head. Long, ice-blue robes and scarves floated around her. Her eyes were black as holes, and she was smiling, and her face was pale blue, quite beautiful, and entirely mad.

“Diamond,” she said. “Come, my Diamond.”

“My name is Ruby,” whispered Ruby. Her teeth chattered in the near-darkness.

“But I will call you Diamond,” said the blue woman. Her voice was low and rich, with a hint of howls and whines and roars behind it. “I will call you Diamond, because I miss my Diamond. Come, Diamond, come see my world.”

“No, I want to stay,” said Ruby. She pulled the blanket to cover her face. It isn’t real. It isn’t real.

The blanket was ripped from her hands, and the woman’s huge, furious face was inches away. “Climb on my back, my Diamond, before I grow angry. Climb on my back, and I will show you the world, and what I make of it.”

“Please, I don’t want . . .” Ruby began. But a huge, invisible hand seized her; a wind as muscular as a python swept tight around her. Within seconds, it dragged her through the window and into the night sky.

Ruby found herself lying face down on the tall woman’s back—the tall woman who was far, far taller now. She clung to the woman’s ice-white hair, trying to find her breath. Clouds pushed aside as they rushed through; the world below was small dark squares and twinkling golden lights. Ruby’s stomach turned over and she closed her eyes.

“Are you happy, my Diamond?” called the wild, mad voice. “Is my world glorious?”

A sound emerged out of the roaring, keening air: a roaring sound, but mechanical, deafening, and familiar. Ruby opened her eyes.

The North Wind had overtaken an airplane and was playing with it. Ruby and the wind swept around and around the plane, slamming one wing with a sudden blast, then diving beneath its nose, then pushing up on the tail. The plane bucked and reared, rocking on its wings. Streaking past, Ruby saw through yellow windows mouths open in terrified screams, passengers struck by flying books and laptops.

“Please stop!” Ruby screamed into the howl of the engine and wind.

They flew just inches from the face of a young woman clutching an infant to her chest. Both the woman and the infant had their eyes tight shut and mouths wide open, sobbing. At another window, a man bent over, frantically texting, as the man next to him threw up.

The wind grew bored, swept on. Ruby turned, trying to see if the pilots had managed to keep control, if the plane was still aloft, oh please, please let it be. But she saw only the clouds closing behind them.

The wind flew over a black and moonlit ocean. As they descended, the waves whipped up, higher and higher, high as skyscrapers, reaching upward. “COME,” cried the wind, in her deepest howl. “COME. COME. COME.” The whole ocean rocked towards her.

In horror, Ruby spotted a ship caught between two skyscraper waves. As it foundered and tilted, tiny figures ran across the deck, unhooking lifeboats that broke free and sank uselessly into the black water. Another enormous wave swelled up, sucking the ship towards itself. Even through the wind’s wail, Ruby heard the sailors’ thin, terrified cries.

The North Wind laughed her howling laugh.

“No more,” whispered Ruby into the cold white hair she clung to. But the wind ran on.

Ruby saw many terrible sights, that long night.

At the edge of a small town, the North Wind became a tornado and turned a pretty yellow house into a pile of broken sticks. Afterwards, one curling hand thrust from beneath the wreckage. A dirty toddler sat beside the hand, pulling on it, crying.

In a blinding snowstorm on a deserted road, Ruby saw a couple in a stalled car, wrapped in each other’s arms, his coat around her shoulders. Both were as blue-white as the wind, and purple around the lips.

“Take me home,” wept Ruby into the snowy hair. Her tears froze into hard bits of ice.

In time, the wind did take her home. As light dawned at the horizon’s edge, Ruby saw her own street, saw through a smashed window her mother on the couch, blowing her nose, surrounded by police officers.

As they sank toward the house, the North Wind turned her mad smile toward Ruby and whispered in the girl’s ear. Then she slipped her gently onto her own front yard and swept away.

***

The police said “hypothermia” and called an ambulance. Her mother wrapped Ruby first in a blanket and then in her arms as they waited. “But I don’t understand what happened, love, I don’t see—and your hair, how did your hair get this way? We’ll have to cut it off, it will never comb out.”

Ruby stood still as stone, her eyes black and wide.

“Darling, say something,” said her mother. “Sweet girl, you’re scaring me. Please speak, if you can.”

‘I’ll be back,’” Ruby whispered. “That’s what she said. She’ll said ‘I’ll be back tomorrow night, my new Ruby Diamond. And I’ll be back the next night, too, and the next, and the next. I love you, my Diamond, and I’ll be back every night, as long as you live.’”

 

Laughter

Around the world, I am known by many names, and I show many faces.

Faces you never see. And really, it doesn’t matter what I’m called.

In winter, when I’m cold and brittle and snap at the skin of anyone foolish enough to step outside, people close their doors and seal their windows against me. I howl and scram, hammer against the glass, bide my time.

There is a particular smell when the first hint of spring comes in on the air. I smile—for I can smile, you know—and wait. Just a little longer. Soon, so soon, people will throw open their homes to invite me in, and this…this is a mistake.

“What a lovely breeze,” they say.

Hahahaha.

I can laugh, too. You hear it all the time.

When I’m warm again, I am as young and playful as all the other creatures of spring…at first. I dance through the trees, flicking each freshly-sprouted leaf, and ruffle hair on hatless heads. It’s delightful. It’s fun. And I do so enjoy having fun. I gust into parlors and kitchens, cackling as that vase just too close to the edge of the countertop tumbles to the floor with a smash, or stay outside to flip over all the chairs on the grass, one by one.

But spring crawls toward summer. The long, hot days of summer when boredom is as dull and brown and dead as the flowers burned to a crisp in their dry, dusty flowerbeds. I must wait again, then, but only until nightfall. The sky darkens and the air cools enough to let me dance again. Through open windows and into the dreams of sleeping children.

Children are easiest, you see.

And then, then I watch.

~*~

Emily Lewis awoke grumpy and hot. The wind had woken her in the middle of the night, whispering in her ear, blowing across her skin until she’d gotten cold and pulled the covers all the way over her head just before falling asleep again. Now, she was positively boiling, and she stomped downstairs to the breakfast table with a scowl on her face.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” said her mother.

Emily pushed over her glass of orange juice. “Oops,” she said, as it spread slowly, stickily, ruining the fine white tablecloth.

“Emily! Be more careful. Here, it’s all right, I’ll clean it up.”

On the other side of town, little Nate Winston waited until his father was busy washing the already spotless car outside. He fetched a chair that wouldn’t wobble and stood on the very tips of his toes at his bedroom window, pulling down the coverings that had rattled in the wind in the middle of the night. Strings broke and plastic cracked and they fell in a heap on the carpet, utterly ruined.

In the next city over, Bethany Bertram sat in the garden and plucked each petal from her mother’s prize-winning roses, one by one. They scattered on the lawn in droplets of blood red and sunshine yellow, and she hid in her room when her mother came home from work. Slowly, they dried out, turning black and papery in the heat as another long, hot week with no wind began.

The summer dragged on. The wind came and went, always in the night, and hid well away from the burning sun. Everywhere, little children woke in foul tempers, and their parents went to sleep that way.

~*~

I did tell you I like fun, but even these small amusements aren’t enough, in the end. How could they be, for one such as myself? For an hour or a day, perhaps, but soon I must begin to think of the memories that will have to get me through the long, cold winter, when people stay indoors and shut me outside.

I am generous. I give them ten whole days with not so much as a breath, not a single puff of air to rustle even a single leaf. I watch the people wilt as surely as the flowers do.

Every window for miles is open, just in case. Waiting to invite me in, should I decide to turn up.

Hahahaha.

There’s no time. There never is. Emily Lewis’s mother hears the screen door leading to the porch start to rattle on its hinges. Nate’s new curtains begin to billow into the room. Bethany sees the new roses shake on their thorny stems.

A window breaks.

A branch, already cracked, snaps from its tree with a sound like thunder and just barely misses the head of a man walking underneath.

“Get inside!” come shouts from everywhere. “Close the windows! Going to be an awful storm!”

They try. Oh, they do try. I dance as fast as I can to the music of splintering wood and shattering glass. Blades of grass whip through the air, sharp as knives of steel. Through the towns and cities I race, gathering speed, gathering fury to warm me during the loneliness of winter. I do not look behind me at the wreckage in my wake, the things fallen, broken, beyond repair. They will fix their doors and windows in time, seal the cracks in their houses against me.

They always do.

When the first bite of autumn comes, I return, carrying the scent of smoke and the promise of a chill. I flicker through the trees, kicking at the last, stubborn, curly-edged few that cling to the wood. I swoop down, swirl through the red-gold piles on the ground, rustling and spinning.

If you listen on a clear autumn day to the crackle of the leaves, you will know what my laughter sounds like.

Hahahaha.