The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Booksellers


They came and went from a hole below a tavern in Daggenford Street, in a grimy, moldering part of the town where there were no streetlamps. No one ever caught more than a glimpse of them. Sometimes, a watchful eye or a bloodshot gaze pressed to a window would catch the slither of black cloaks, the gleam of a metal mask, or the flicker of a white finger . . . But nothing more.

Many wished to see them. Over the years, many came to that part of the town, from across the sea, and from far across the countryrich men in crimson waistcoats and poor men in tattered hats, and fine ladies and barefoot children. They all craved to see one, to look behind its mask and learn its secrets. Edgart Viviender was the latest. Bored and clever and rich as Italian damask. He would not be the last.


There were no books in Edgart Viviender’s country. Perhaps there were none in the whole world. There were no books because there were no trees, and no paper, and very little leather, and hardly any brains to string words together and make sense of them. Edgart’s house had a room called a library, but no one remembered what it was for; the shelves were empty and they were too narrow for shirtwaists and too wide for china-ware.

And the problem was, Edgart knew how to read. He had practiced the street-signs and the medicine bottles, and he had read all the words stamped on the soles of his shoes, and his options had become rather limited. He wanted more. He wanted deeper. That was when he had begun to gad about, and ask questions, and go on journeys. And that was how he came to Daggenford Street.

That was how anyone came, trickling into the shadowy confines, adventurers and fortune-seekers, and the curious, and the bored. They came to that town based on rumors: that there were suppliers there, purveyors of wondrous things, marvelous things, sparks and flames and rolling shadows. Things to prod the mind and poke the soul. And so Edgart came, and took lodgings in some upstairs rooms in Belheim, and set off every night to search for the booksellers.


On this particular night, the foghorns from the docks were moaning and the air was opaque, as if a curtain of oil hung in the atmosphere. The cobbles were slick. The taverns were full. Not loud, but full.

Seven were there, sitting at Edgart’s table, and one of them was a local, speaking in a hushed and grating voice.

“There’s Crow-face and Moon-face and Iron-teeth and Tar,” the old man whispered over the guttering flame of a candle, and the others stared, and Edgart stared hardest of all. He sat between a woman named Mary the Bonneter and a man named Merry the Hangman and they both wanted to find the booksellers, too. Mary the Bonneter leaned over, pulling her headscarf low.

“Where? Where are they?” she said, and her voice was soft and musical, and it made everyone wonder why she was here, and why any of them were here.

The old man answered: “You won’t find them if you look. They’ll come to you. And if they do, they will ask a price. It is not free, the things they give.”

Edgart thought: Well, I am very wealthy. . .

“Have you ever seen one,” Mary the Bonneter asked. “Ever at all? I hear they wear masks- ”

“They do,” said the old man. “And I have. Oh, I wish I never do again.” He shivered, violently, and the candle shivered with him. “I was twelve then. I did not see the face, but the figure reared up before me seven feet tall, wrapped in a black cloak, and his round, silver mask shimmering. . . That was Moon-face. I still see him sometimes, in the far reaches of the night, after I close my eyes.”

Edgart left the table hurriedly. The booksellers would not find him here. Edgart would not learn their secrets by talking to superstitious old boggarts. He went to every tavern in that part of town where there are no streetlamps, and he waited on corners, and he shuffled through gutters, and he slept in the day and walked in the night, and waited.


In the end, the booksellers found Edgart. He was stumbling back to his lodgings after a long, cold night, his joints stiff, his waistcoat and cravat a little wilted.

The booksellers were in a group, hunched and moving swiftly down the street, four figures returning from some errand, some shadowy journey through the night.

Edgart was in the middle of the street, and they were coming straight toward him.

He was paralyzed for a moment, frozen in a mixture of fear and anticipation. Then he slipped into a doorway, waited for them to pass, and followed quietly behind.

Moon-face was in the middle. Edgart recognized the round, round mask, mirror-bright, with slits for eyes and a grinning mouth. Then there was Crow-face, who was a woman, and Iron-teeth who was short and stocky, like a boulder, and Tar, which was so tall and thin it was impossible to tell what it was.

They moved with incredible speed, darting and gliding, and yet they did not seem in any hurry. They turned into a narrow lane, scrabbled close along the house-walls. It was difficult for Edgart to keep them in sight. And then they arrived at a tavern with a wordless sign hanging broken above the dooran empty tavern, long deserted.

There was hole under it, a fallen bit of wall where the gutter flowed in.

Crow-face slipped into the hole, a small cackle echoing from behind her mask. Tar and Iron-teeth went next.

And then, just as Moon-face paused, and turned and looked over his shoulder, and was about to dive into the blackness as well, Edgart Viviender stepped into the street.

He didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, and when Moon-face looked at him, all sound seemed to stop. There was no distant clatter of docks and drinking. No dripping gutters. Only a shimmering, silvery ringing, piercing the air.

Slowly, Moon-face straightened.

Edgart stood stock-still, his hands clenched around his trouser-legs.

Moon-face glided toward him.

“Show me,” said Edgart. “Show me, please! Take off your mask!”

Moon-face froze. He did not come closer.

“Do you want something?” Edgart’s voice rose. He took a few steps forward. “Something in return? I will give it to you. Anything you ask.”

Moon-face watched him. The ringing continued, seemed to swell and weave, hypnotic and strangely sickening. And then Moon-face reached up and opened his mask.

Every drop of blood in Edgart’s body turned to fire. He could no longer speak, or move, and his muscles wound tight and his bones locked. The face behind the mask was pale and smooth, the skin so clear and glass-like, as if it had never felt a strong wind or the scratch of a branch. And there were words there. Scrawled on the eyelids, on the cheeks, across the forehead in blood-red ink. So many words, flying at Edgart and pounding him, a thousand words and a thousand stories.

Every happy family is alike-Anna? Anna, where are you going-no one noticed the soldier-and suddenly Edgart was so heavy and full that he reeled back and fell into a doorway and collapsed.

Moon-face stayed perfectly still. Then he reached up slowly and closed his mask over his face, and its hinge creaked like a door. More seconds passed. Somewhere in the distance a cat shrieked.

Moon-face turned and melted into the dark.


Edgart lay in the street, shaking and freezing, his eyes open, and when he had recovered enough, he dragged himself back to his lodgings in Belheim. He did not leave them again. He locked himself in, and the landlady heard odd voices from the rooms, as if there was not one, but many different people there. She heard loud thumps, and the casements banged open on windy, stormy nights, and water dripped through the floors. And at some point, when no one had seen Edgart for many, many days, the constable came to break down the door.

They found the rooms in a disarray, and Edgart lying on the floor, laughing, or possibly crying, it was difficult to say. He had gone mad. He had scrawled on the walls with ink and fingernails and worse things, and though very few people knew how to read it, it was a masterpiece.

It began: Why, oh why do the little ones go, laughing and talking, into the snow. . .


One week later, in Daggenford Street, Moon-face crept from under the tavern, and found Mary the Bonneter. She was waiting for him, her face alive and bright, and her eyes quivering. Moon-face paused before her, and she promised to pay the price. He creaked opened his mask.

Why, oh why do the little ones go, she read on his eyelids and on his face. . .

Number 87,145

Lizzie doesn’t know what it is about the new kid, but he freaks her out more than pretty much everything except for maybe—maybe—when her brother pretends to be an alien. That’s when he stands around the corner at night, in the dark, and jumps out at her as she walks, sleepy and fuzzy-eyed, back to her bedroom from the bathroom. Which is just not fair, jumping out at a girl as she’s coming back from the bathroom. Lizzie thinks a person should have a kind of safe pass at moments like those. And she’s not sure what makes her brother an “alien” when he does that, but she’s long given up trying to understand him.

The thing is, that’s a jumpy scare, something that comes and goes really fast, and then it’s gone.

The new kid at school is different. This kid—Malcolm Huxley is his name—he freaks out Lizzie in a slow way, a tingling, heavy way like when there’s a storm blowing in, and you just know it’s going to rip the skies open any minute now, but you don’t know when.

It’s something about his eyes. They’re very still. He doesn’t blink much. It’s also, Lizzie thinks, something about the way he smiles at people, how he watches them while they’re talking, how he never blinks his still, dark eyes. He just watches, and smiles his slow smile, and moves his hands from his lap to the table, where he folds them together like whoever’s speaking to him is the most important person in the world, and he’s not even going to mess with his phone while you’re talking to him. That’s how much he cares about your conversation. Isn’t that courteous? Such a rarity, in this technological age.

Lizzie is not even sure he has a phone. He’s old-fashioned like that. He wears neckties to school. And he talks too formally, using words that sound like they should be used only at funerals or in fancy, white-walled modern art museums. Stuffy, cold, lyrical words. The teachers just adore him. They think he’s “refreshingly polite.” They tell him so, too, right to his face, and he folds his hands in front of him and stands there and smiles his slow, perfect smile. “You flatter me,” he says to them. “How kind.”

Lizzie is not impressed by such instances. Gag me, she thinks, rolling her eyes.

But she’ll give him this: He’s interesting.

Lizzie has been waiting for something interesting to happen.

So last week, when Lizzie noticed Malcolm Huxley watching her at lunch from across the cafeteria, she didn’t react. She kept eating her sandwich. And then the lunch bell rang, and she went to math and Malcolm went to choir.

Not a big deal, Lizzie thought. Just Malcolm being Malcolm. Whatever that meant.

But every day since then, he’s been watching her at lunch—staring with his eyes that don’t blink, putting his sandwich down between each bite. Chewing. Swallowing. Watching her. And at first she thought she was imagining things, but today she realizes that every day he has been moving closer to her.

The first day, he was sitting with the cheerleaders. Well, not sitting with them, really, because he seemed so out of it that Lizzie wasn’t sure he even noticed them trying to talk to him.

He was too focused on Lizzie, she guessed.


But still, interesting. It’s been interesting for Lizzie, watching him move from the cheerleaders to the band nerds to the theater geeks to the track team and then, finally, to her. It’s interesting, watching him slide into the seat across from her. Her friends look at her, and then at him, and then back at her.

“Hi, Malcolm,” they say. Everybody knows Malcolm. You can’t wear neckties and speak like an old man and not have people know who you are.

He ignores them. “Hi, Lizzie,” he says to her. He isn’t blinking, and his smile spreads across his face like he knows a secret that Lizzie doesn’t know. And she wants to know.

But she sighs, because she doesn’t want him to know she wants to know.

“Hey.” She says it so it sounds very whatever-y.

“So.” Malcolm pauses, folds his hands on top of the table. “I was wondering if you wanted to come to my house tonight. I could use some help with the unit we’re currently studying in math, and I’ve heard you’re something of a mathematical whiz.”

Meredith, Lizzie’s best friend, elbows her, and Lizzie kicks her under the table.

“I guess.” Lizzie shrugs, but on the inside she is completely thrilled. A chance to figure out the mystery of Malcolm Huxley? Plus a chance to show off her inarguably impressive math skills? She is so in. “I mean, I’m definitely a mathematical whiz, but I guess I’ll help you.”

“Marvelous.” Malcolm stands up and holds out his hand. “Shall we say right after school? We can meet outside by the buses and walk there together.”

Shall we? Lizzie tries not to laugh as she shakes his hand. “Indeed, we shall,” she says, trying to imitate him without cracking up. Meredith is just dying next to her; Lizzie can hear her ready to burst. But Lizzie manages to maintain a serious expression.

“I’ll see you then, Lizzie,” Malcolm says, and he leaves, and once he’s gone, Lizzie’s entire table explodes into gasping and laughter.

“Oh my god. Malcolm Huxley. Oh my god.” Meredith grabs Lizzie’s arms. “He’s cute, in a weird way. Don’t you think he’s cute?”

Cute? Not so much. But interesting? Oh yeah. Lizzie shrugs, playing it cool. “He wears ties.”

Meredith ignores this. Who cares if he wears neckties? That only adds to his mystique. Her eyes go wide. “What will your parents think about you going to his house to study?”

Lizzie is only thirteen, but this whole thing is making her feel older, like a high schooler, like someone who gets away with things. She has never been that kind of person. She has always lived in a very square, very neat box.

She feels her friends’ eyes upon her, and she flips her hair back. “They don’t have to know,” she says in a way that feels dangerous to her, and everyone squeals. She sees Malcolm watching from across the cafeteria, where he’s just thrown away his lunch trash. She waves, trying to flirt, kind of. She’s not really sure how to flirt, but Malcolm’s smile oozes out of him anyway, and he bows.

He bows.

Lizzie thought people only did that in movies.


Despite all Lizzie’s hair flipping, she’s pretty nervous about going into Malcolm’s house. It looks normal from the outside—she can see it as they turn onto his street—but there is the whole not-knowing-how-to-talk-to-boys-who-bow-to-you-in-cafeterias thing.

Boys with hair way shinier than hers.

Boys who hold open the door for you and offer to take your coat.

“For real?” she asks him, handing him her coat. “This is your house?” Her voice echoes across marble floors. They’re inside the foyer of Malcolm’s house, and it’s beautiful—old-fashioned (surprise, surprise) with heavy rugs and dark wood and weird sculptures on tables—but beautiful. And big. It didn’t look this big from outside, and it didn’t look this old. It smells old, like an antique store. Like an attic. Like . . .

“A library.” The double doors on Lizzie’s right are open, so she goes in, kind of dazed, and sees shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, and they’re all full of books. There’s a fireplace she could stand in without having to duck, and two red chairs in front of the fire.

“Do you like it?” says Malcolm. He sits in one of the red chairs, folds his hands in his lap, and watches her. His hair is swept to the side in a neat blond wave.

“Are you kidding?” Lizzie isn’t really a book person; she prefers numbers and soccer. But this library is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s enormous—the size of her basement; no, the size of her house. This is crazy. A part of her thinks she should not be so excited about a library that is way too big for the house she saw outside, but she hurries to the nearest shelf anyway. Maybe if she sees what kind of books this boy has, she’ll understand about everything—the ties, the shall we, the slow smile.

But the books are blank. The spines, anyway. No titles, no authors. Just red books and blue books and green books, all of them dusty and worn around the edges.

“I hate to rush this,” Malcolm says from his chair, “but I’m running out of time. So, if you want to sit down, it might be easier.”

“All right, all right.” Lizzie frowns and drags her finger along the blank spines of these books. She wants to pull them out and open them, see what’s written inside.

She also doesn’t want to open them. Thinking about doing so gives her that growing storm feeling, the one she got about Malcolm when she saw him on his first day at school. That slow-building, stomach-twisting scared feeling.

“If you’re really that excited about algebra,” she says, turning around, “we’ll get started on tonight’s homework. But first can I meet your—”

Lizzie stops, staring at Malcolm. He has a book in his lap, and it isn’t his math book. And he’s writing in it.

“How come none of these books have titles?” Lizzie asks, uncertain. But that’s not the question she really wants to ask. Why are you writing in one of them? That’s what she really wants to ask. Because the book in Malcolm’s lap looks like one of the books on these shelves—except it’s not dusty. It’s new, and its edges are crisp, and its pages are clean. Except where Malcolm is writing.

“Oh,” Malcolm says, in that polite voice of his, “because I don’t need titles. I know what they all are.”

“Really? Every single one of them? But there must be thousands. How can you remember all of them?”

“Because I am much smarter than you will ever be,” Malcolm says smoothly. “And there are 87,144 books in this room, to be exact.” He looks up at Lizzie, and this time his smile is quick, like a dart. Like a knife. “Soon to be 87,145.”

He taps the book on his lap with his pen, like he’s inserting a period. The sound is final, like the closing of a lid.

And then Lizzie feels it: She feels herself bending inward, like her arms and legs are folding up into curlicues, like she’s way too deep underwater and her body can’t take the pressure, so it collapses instead.

She looks down at her hands.

They’re fading.

She begins to scream. She runs for the double doors, but they’re closed and locked. She bangs on them, claws at them, but she is shrinking. She is a girl made of screams instead of bones. She is a girl made of pen ink instead of blood.

She is flying across the room because something is pulling her. Her half-vanished fingernails are digging into the carpet. And then they’re not digging into the carpet because they’re gone. She is gone. She is . . . no longer solid. Something pulls her through a tiny hole, a hundred tiny holes—through letters, written in Malcolm’s handwriting.

Lizzie is in a white, clean prison. She tries to hold out her hands, and she sees nothing. She tries to turn around, and can’t. She can think, she can faintly speak, like something is stuck in her throat, but she can’t move, and all she can see is a forever-whiteness—and Malcolm’s face, in front of her.

She sees his face through dozens of tiny windows that are the letters he has written in this crisp, new book with crisp, new edges and a spine with no title.

But Lizzie, too late for her, realizes this book doesn’t need a title. None of these books do. Because these books are not just books.

They are people. This book is her.

She peers through the window of Malcolm’s letters: September 18, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dale, thirteen years old, mathematics whiz, sarcastic, athletic, pretty.

Lizzie feels like she is looking out of her own tombstone. She tries to scream—a hoarse, whispery sound, because there isn’t a lot of room in her new home for things like voices. She tries to claw her way out through the windows of Malcolm’s letters. But she no longer has use of her arms.

She begins to cry—but there isn’t a lot of room there for tears, either, so she just feels like she’s choking and gasping inside her skin.

“There, there,” says Malcolm, and then he is no longer a boy, but a great, ghastly, scaly thing, a thing with shadows for claws and cold black eyes. His Malcolm-face peels away in curls of skin, and then he is just this terrible thing staring at Lizzie and speaking to her with a high, sweet voice. It is the same voice: Malcolm’s polite, shall we voice.

He bows to her, mockingly.

“Welcome, Lizzie,” he says, his voice hissing on the z’s in her name. “Welcome to your new home. I think we shall be excellent friends.”

Then he slams the book shut, and Lizzie is squished into darkness, which is far worse than the white prison and makes her feel claustrophobic. She feels pinned down and strapped in, and then she feels Malcolm kiss the cover of her book like a parent would kiss its child good night, except his lips are fat and wet with slime.

She feels her book being slid across a surface—onto a shelf?

She feels the snugness of something on either side of this cramped, dark space—other books, beside her?

And she hears whispers—above her, below her, on either side of her, stretching out in all directions as though she is floating in a sea made of terrible words:

Welcome, Lizzie.

Welcome, Lizzie.

Help us.

Help us.

After a time, Lizzie takes up the call too: Help us. Help us. It is a choir of souls.

A choir that no one will ever hear, except for the slithering thing reclining in the red chair by the fireplace. The coiled, hulking, shadow-clawed thing.

It hears, its claws folded in its lap, and it does nothing but laugh.

Nursery Rhymes

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

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

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

My backpack is the same from last year though.

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

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

I forgot: also my brown sweater is brand new.

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

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

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


That shouldn’t be there.

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

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

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

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

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

But it doesn’t say the writer.

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

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

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

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

Step on the grass
Miss your favorite class.

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

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

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

Is that true?

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

Wait a minute.

Tear your winter coat
Cut your mother’s throat.

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

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

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

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

Did I?

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

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

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

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

No. Stop.

Better not oversleep
Or your dolls grow teeth.

I think I should stop reading this book now.

Break your daddy’s phone
Hear the rattling bones

Please don’t.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forever Book

Dust drifts through the air, landing on old, weathered spines and faded pages. I can do little more than watch from my shelf, wedged between an old dictionary and an atlas full of countries that now have other names.


We’re hardly going to talk about dust, even on this long and quiet afternoon, now are we? Not when there are so many other tales to tell each other. Those written on our pages, and the things we have seen from the bookcases and cabinets in which we have spent our years.


A great many years, some of us. For me, especially.


The customers who enter the shop likely do not know that we, the books, speak to each other. We whisper and rustle, and some of us are terrible gossips–though not me, of course.


All books do this, when no one is listening. And no one ever is, because they do not know they should.


No, the customers who visit are in search of a gift, perhaps, for a daughter or mother or brother, or in need of something with which to amuse themselves on a cold night by the fire, while the gas lamps outside sputter and spark.


The door creaks open, and for an instant the sound of horse hooves on the cobbles outside is quite loud, louder than the two chattering almanacs on the shelf below mine.


“Bonjour, Christophe,” says the customer. The words between my covers are English, but one picks up a thing or two. Hello. And I recognize the voice, which is a very good thing indeed. I may relax now; this gentleman won’t pluck me from my cozy spot and regret it forever.


This may seem a great exaggeration, but it is not.


“Ah! Bonjour!” Christophe says in return, coming out from behind his little desk to lead the man down through the crooked paths between shelves, piled high and teetering. As they pass, Christophe’s glittering black eyes flick up to read my spine, and quickly away again before the customer–whose bald head is gleaming in the dim light–notices and takes an interest.


Clearly, I am not kept in the room of rare books into which they disappear, though I should be. Nor am I kept locked away, safe from prying eyes, though I should certainly be that, too.


The constant babbling of the other books soothes my charred covers, crisp and ragged at the edges frm the countless times I have been hurled, tossed, gently placed into the flames. My pages crinkle, warped from the waters of every river marked in the atlas to my left.


I cannot be burned, or sunk, or torn apart. And so I am here, where no one will think to pick me up.


“People will open a book sitting on its own,” Christophe says, in French, but he has muttered this to himself so often I have come to know its meaning. “Here, they will ignore you.”


So far, this has worked. And as I say, I am calmed by the ceaseless talk around me. I do not long for a new…


…well, I suppose victim is truly the only appropriate word.


Cristophe was my last, and this is why he watches me with those obsidian eyes, carefully steering visitors away from my cracked spine. Because he knows. Oh, he knows all too well.


The bookshop is muffled, the voices from the back room too far away to hear, but for the bald man’s occasional exclamation over a book full of delicate paintings of birds. I’d forced Christophe to move that one–its chirping was near unbearable.


The door creaks again.


“Maman! The books!” a child says. There are snowflakes on the shoulders of her scarlet coat, winking like stars in a sky still red from sunset. Up and down the shelves, pages rustle excitedly. Pick me! they say, though of course she cannot hear. She does not know she is supposed to listen. No one does.


I am very still between my dictionary and my atlas. It is no thanks to them that I know so many words, so many places. My own adventures are responsible for that, and it has been a long time since I’ve had one.


“Oui, Madeleine. Be careful, yes?”


“I will!” says the girl, but she is not. Her little shoes kick up more dust from the carpet as she runs back and forth, nearly tipping over a stack of novels having an extremely animated conversation about…cheese, I believe. It’s possible I wasn’t listening quite close enough. For I am watching the girl.


Christophe and his other customer are still looking at birds, and I don’t know how I know this time will be different. That no one will steer the girl away, keep her small fingers from plucking me off the shelf.


The atlas begins to tremble hard enough to shake the mountains within. The dictionary mutters under its breath, words I surely won’t repeat here.


“Not me,” I say. She is still not listening. They never listen.


Her head tilts sideways. “The Forever Book, ” she reads. “Maman? What is im-mor-tal-it-y?”


“Why, it is living forever,” says Madeleine’s mother. “Never growing old or leaving this world for the next.” She shudders, this woman with a brain, for people do not know what they wish for when they seek this.


“Oh!” says Madeleine in her scarlet coat, and I am free, pulled from my cramped place between the dictionary and the atlas. All the other books are quiet now, their whispering silenced by fear.

Her eyes are very blue. My spine cracks and my pages stretch. From the back room, a shout comes, a thump, Christophe falling to the floor as Madeleine, my new owner, perhaps for a great many years to come, begins to read.

The Treacherous Books of September

Hello, friends. (Can I call you friends? Perhaps you bitterly dislike me—how fascinating that would be!) From my high and grimy window, I’ve been watching children skip Septemberishly off to school, if skipping is what you do under a knapsack stuffed with 75 pounds of books.

More of a bent and beaten trudge, perhaps.

It made me think how strange it is that we give books to children. Everyone knows—surely everyone knows?—what treacherous creatures books are. You might as well give a boy a knapsack full of tarantulas, or lovingly tuck a black hole, wrapped in waxed paper, inside a girl’s lunchbox.

Old_book_bindingsYes: books are dangerous. Whether it’s the electronic kind, buzzing around inside your tablet like angry wasps , or the old-fashioned, bulky, jam-stained ones, covered in brown paper upon which you have drawn a race car or a unicorn (incidentally, a unicorn can beat a stock car over a flat 15-mile stretch, and remind me to tell you how I know that, and to show you the scars)—or whether it’s the rather more delicious paperback you’ve concealed behind your schoolbook, hoping onlookers will believe that it’s igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks making your eyes glow and you mouth hang slightly open—whatever kind of book you hold, it’s dangerous.

For example, books can grab you—and I don’t mean metaphorically: I mean a wizened little hand reaches out and takes you by the throat. Or you can fall into books, especially deep ones, and be heard from again only as a faint wail when someone turns to that particular page.

Books can hurt you. Books can change you.

As a public service, we are dedicating the month of September’s Cabinet tales to the horrors that lurk within and without books. First story will appear here this Wednesday—enjoy it, if enjoy is the right word for a feeling of creeping and inescapable dread.

And next time you’re in a library, stay alert. Stay terribly, terribly alert.