The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Red Raging Sun

It’s too hot here. You should come to this place in winter, when you’d be happy it’s warm. Not in summer, it’s way too hot. But Dad said Affordable and Mom said Adventure, so we’re here. We’ve been here almost a week.

I don’t like it here. The dirt is yellow on the empty paths that run from the jungle to the beach. The dirt glows hot and yellow back up to the hot yellow sun.

black dog on yellow dirt road

Photo by Todd Campbell.

There’s an ocean, but the water’s hot, and when the sun’s out the beach is too hot to walk on barefoot. The sea breeze feels more like walking past an open dryer, the wind is so hot and damp. The sun is so bright on the water, it gives you a headache.

At night it’s cooler, with better breezes, salty and fishy and dark. When the sun goes down, everybody—not the local people, but the vacation people, like us—everybody walks down to the beach, and they build a bonfire, and we sit around it. It’s the best part of the day, when the sun is gone. The fire is like the sun, but all packaged up and neat, surrounded by rocks, so it can’t jump out and get you.

I like to sit on the warm sand in the dark, just outside the circle of light, watching the fire, listening to the laughing. It’s nice. Mom and Dad sound happy, happier than at home. The three of us walk back singing to the cabin—Mom calls it an Eco-Cabin, which means no glass in the windows, and no doors in the doorways, and a roof made of dry grass. It’s like sleeping outside. Mom and Dad have the bed, and I’m in a hammock by the window, facing the jungle. I swing to sleep like in a rocking boat.

But later that night I wake up, because someone is talking. A light is flashing all around the room like a scared bird. For a second, before I wake up all the way, I think somehow police are in our room, arresting us.

Then I see that it’s Dad. He’s sitting straight up in bed, shining a flashlight all around, all wild. When the light catches his face by accident, I see he’s sweating.

Monkeys, says Dad. His voice is shaking. He’s saying: There were monkeys in here, did you see? Did you see them? I swear, just a second ago, these long-armed . . . They must have been monkeys . . . I swear they were here.

And all the time Mom is saying Shhh, shhh, and Bad dream, and Honey, maybe you shouldn’t have had that margarita. All very soft—she’s trying not to wake me up. That’s nice of her.

The flashlight goes out, click. In a while, I hear their breathing go long and soft again.

But I don’t go back to sleep.

Because for just a second, just for one second, while that yellow light flew around our cabin, I saw something. I did. I saw something long-armed and long-tailed swing over me in the dark, and out the window, into the jungle.

I only saw for a second. I don’t know what it was.

But it didn’t look like a monkey to me.

I’m not hungry for breakfast that morning, and I walk on the beach away from other people. The sun hangs over the sea, burning at me.

In the afternoons we always nap, but I have a bad dream, that there’s an animal in the room with us but I can’t quite see it, only hear its heavy tail dragging along the floor. When I wake up, the cabin smells wrong, a dirty, snakey smell. Mom and Dad are still asleep.

I can’t stay in the cabin with that smell, so I go for walk. I start at the beach, but it’s way too hot, even with flip-flops. The rubber’s melting under my feet. So I start walking back.

But you’re not supposed to go into the jungle, because of snakes, or something. Mom made a big deal out of that, and asked me Did I understand and Did I promise.

Now I’m standing there on the dirt road. I can’t decide what to do. A pale green lizard, only much bigger than the lizards at home, turns its face to me. Its eyes are half open, something pulses at its throat.

Oh: the ruins, I think. I’ll go there.

Sand ziggurat

Photo by Todd Campbell.

The ruins are mostly huge piles of gray stone, lots of thousands of years old. But in some of the piles you can see the shapes of the buildings they were, see the steps leading up to broken temples at the top. I’m not supposed to go to the ruins, either, actually. But it’s not as definite as the jungle. Dad was actually all disappointed, he thought it looked archeological or something. But the people who run this place said It needs repairs, and reinforcements, it’s not safe to climb on. They said how last year a little girl ignored the warnings and fell, and died.

But I’m not going to be stupid and climb on the stones. I’m just going to look around.

As I walk past him, the lizard turns its head to watch me.

I walk for a few minutes. The sound of the waves is nice. But it’s so hot, my head is hurting, and my eyes are squinched up against the brightness. My shirt sticks to my body.

But walking is good. The sun will go down soon. I start to relax. Just a bad dream.

When I’m almost at the ruins, all of a sudden, there’s a dog. There’s nothing around here, I don’t know where it came from. It’s not a huge dog, but it comes up to my knees. It has slick brown hair, peeling off in patches to show gray and purple skin below, and its eyes are blue and round and blind. At least I think it’s blind. It stares just over my head, barking hard, growling in its throat.

Hurt, it sounds like it’s saying. Hurt, hurt, hurt.

The dog walks in front of me on the road for the while, walking backwards, facing me, barking HURT, HURT, HURT, like it’s trying to stop me. But I stay brave, I keep walking, and after a while the dog gives up. I walk through the door of a chain link fence that’s just hanging there, broken, and into the ruins.

The ruins have their back to the jungle. It’s like the jungle made them, kind of, then pushed them out: Here. I made this for you. Come in, come in.

That’s a dumb thought, but it’s what it looks like.

The sun shines hard on the huge blocks of gray stone. They crowd everywhere, you have to sort of pick your way through. Even just one block is taller than my head, and one of the old . . . buildings, I guess is what they are, the one that’s still mostly there, is really tall. A zillion steps are running up the side. That girl who died must have climbed up there, and fallen.

It’s quiet here, a weird kind of quiet, no birds or insects at all. And it’s so hot, the heat is like a fever or a warning, but I don’t know what the warning says.

Hurt, hurt. Hurt hurt hurt.

My parents might be awake my now, I should go see.

But I don’t go see. I keep walking through the stone blocks and towers, the huge piles of stone.

Now a shadow passes across me. A bird? But it’s too big for a bird. I look up. The sky is squinty empty blue.

But then—what was that, out of the corner of my eye? Not a bird, but more like something on one of the stones above me. Something running.

And then behind me—I whip around fast. I can hear a ripple of running feet, high on that one pile of gray stone.

And now that, there—out of the corner of my eye—it’s gone now, but it it seemed like a leg, almost a human leg, but also it had — a tail?
A monkey?

But no monkey has a tail so thick, so heavy, swishing across the stone like a pale green snake.

I should go. It’s time to go. My heart is beating really fast, and I turn back—but I’m not sure where I am now, where the gate is, the stones are so high, and I’m all turned around. I start one way, then turn back and try another.

The skittering sound above me, nails on stone.

I start running. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I have to run.

But I started running too late. When I round the corner of another pile of stones, they are waiting for me, and their hands are on me.

Their hands are scaly with long, sharp nails. Their teeth are pointed and long, and their mouths are open in a horrible smile. Like they’re glad to see me. One of them is holding a cup, like a wine glass, but carved out of the same old stone as the ruins. They hold me, and they force my mouth open, and they pour something burning down my throat.

In a minute, in less than a minute, I can’t move at all. I can’t even close my eyes.

With green, long-nailed hands, they lift me high above their heads. They take me to the steps, and they begin to climb.

My mind is going so fast, so fast in my still body. I see that they were waiting for someone to come. If it had not been me, it would have been someone else. Maybe my mom or dad, come here looking for me. Maybe just some other tourist kid, dumb enough to wander in here.

I think of that as they bear me gently in their long-nailed hands, their thick-muscled arms holding me high above their heads, as if I were weightless. Weightless, paralyzed, and my blood going so fast with fear that it makes everything perfectly, exactly clear. I think: At least it won’t be someone else.

Green, long-toed, long-nailed feet climb the stone steps, and the indentations in the stone match their feet exactly. How many thousands of years have they been doing this?

It’s getting late. The sun is going down, it’s looking straight at me now, and its face is red with anger. Why is the sun angry with me.

Shining, scaly arms lift me high, high, so the sun can see me. The long-nailed hands begin to turn me toward the empty air. The sky darkens around the red, raging sun.

I think of my parents, and I feel so sad. I can’t move my face to cry, but tears leak out and fall far, far to the ground below. In my mind, I can see the search party. I can hear the screams of the ones who find me first. They’ll say I fell, like that little girl. They’ll say they told me not to go to this place, that I must have climbed up on the rocks and lost my footing, and fallen.

But that can’t be right, my mother will say. She will say Too good, too smart, she will say It can’t be, it can’t, as my father cries, big gasping sobs.

And the other vacationers will say, Shhh, shhh: the old rock crumbled, and the child fell.

But they’ll be wrong, I think. I want to shout it, but I can’t shout, but I want to shout: I didn’t fall, I didn’t fall.

I am thinking that, I am thinking all of that, as I fall, as I fall, as I fall.

Clickety-Clack

Lush green leaves with saw-toothed edges brush the top of the skeleton train.

It comes from nowhere, and goes there, too, speeding by in the night, billows of steam rising to join the clouds.

And the tracks go clickety-clack.

Little Stevie March waits in the shadow of a bend, just past the old stone bridge that is slowly crumbling into the rushing water below. He’s heard the stories, but that’s never the same as seeing for yourself. So he sits, scarf tied against the cold, nibbling the cheese he filched from the kitchen on his way out, closing the door so quietly no one else in the house so much as rolled over in their beds.

His ears perk, but it’s only the wanderings of a rabbit–hopefully a rabbit–through the bushes. A yawn nearly splits his face in two, and his eyelids grow heavy.

But there…there it is.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Quickly, he scrambles to the edge of the tracks, the wind whistling down a tunnel of trees to make him shiver. Muddy shoes dug into the ground, little Stevie March prepares to jump.

Black as soot, dusty, rusty, the skeleton train rounds the bend. The windows of every carriage glow, the light flickering across the trees, and beneath the roar of the engine, Stevie can just make out the sound of the tracks, thumping like his own heartbeat. For a single breath, he thinks of turning away, it’s coming so awfully fast, a blur, and one mistake will leave him a smear on the grass that will rot away with the end of summer.

But he does jump, fingers closing around metal bars, cold and rough with age. Gasping, thrashing, kicking, he hoists himself to the platform between two carriages, standing still as the world rushes past.

And he opens the door.

The skeletons are dancing to violins played with bony hands. Goblets of wine–hopefully wine–slosh with the rocking of the train. All of them are grinning.

“A flesh-child!” cries one, pointing. It has no fingernails. “Welcome, flesh-child! Join the dance!”

“Yes, join us!” the rest cry.

And when they talk, their jaws go clickety-clack.

The train is like no train Stevie has ever been on, not to the city or to visit the aunt his mother doesn’t like, but won’t say so. Real crystal chandeliers swing from the ceiling, plush purple velvet covers the seats, but no one is sitting.

“Tell us your name, flesh-child,” says one, wrapping bleached-bone fingers around his wrist, pulling him into the throng of ribs and elbows. A single long, blonde lock of hair clings to her skull, just behind her forehead. The ragged remains of what was surely once a pretty dress drip from her shoulders.

“Stevie,” he says, laughing because the stories were true. Really true! “Stevie March, ma’am.”

“No need for manners here, Stevie-child, but you must dance, for we are the stuff of night and dreams, and the moment is gone all too soon!”

They spin and whirl, smiling toothlessly, snapping their fingers to the beat. Clickety-clack.

Beyond the windows, mountains and oceans and the square shadows of towns whizz past, sleeping, undisturbed by the passage of the skeleton train. Word must spread to the other carriages, for soon this one is packed so full Stevie can hear the bones scraping against each other, and he has to repeat his name over and over for the newcomers.

Stevie slips, quick as a fish, through a gap between bones and winds his way along the train, through now-empty carriages, past tables full of empty goblets and plates of strawberry tarts and paté. The soles of his shoes squash food into the lovely rug, fallen there because of course the skeletons can’t really eat it. Perhaps they can’t even taste it.

“A flesh-child!” comes the familiar cry when he steps into the compartment at the very front of the train. A navy blue coat with brass buttons is fastened tightly over this one’s ribs, a smart cap with a peaked brim perched jauntily atop a skull round and smooth and thin as an eggshell. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit?”

“I’m Stevie. I heard the stories and wanted to see for myself.”

“Aaaah. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And do we live up to the tales?”

“It’s even better. No one told me about the dancing or the violins or the food.”

The skeleton grins. Well, he was grinning anyway, but it seems to Stevie that the smile widens, just a bit. “We know how to enjoy ourselves here on the skeleton train, for what is the point, if not joy and revelry?”

“I’m…I’m not sure.”

Ahead, the sky is pink with the first flush of dawn. In that fancy coat, the skeleton’s shoulders fall ever so slightly. “But morning always comes,” he says, the words hissing through the spaces once filled by teeth.

“Why does morning matter?” Stevie asks. The compartment is quiet. Under the floor, the tracks go clickety-clack.

“You’ll see. Go back to the party, little Stevie.”

The party is still a chaos of strings and bones, of rattling laughter and merry jokes. Squeezed by a window, Stevie watches the sun rise over a lake edged with weeping willows in their heaviest throes of sadness. The woman with the lock of blonde hair sits beside him, her cold, smooth hand on top of Stevie’s warm one.

“My daughter wakes up early,” she says, staring at him through empty eye sockets.

“Oh?” It’s an odd thing to tell him, but they’ve all been so welcoming, it’s best to be polite. “Do you miss her?”

The woman doesn’t answer.

She simply fades away.

Rays of light stream in through the windows, plates and forks and goblets drop to the floor, and Stevie is alone. He’s never heard this part of the story, but they are all gone. Up and down the train he looks in vain for any skeletons left on the skeleton train.

The chandeliers blow out, the violins are silent. Outside, there are no towns or mountains or rivers by which to chart, only a blank whiteness, as if the clouds have fallen to smother the train.

Which is just as well, for there are no maps. In fact, the only thing that tells Stevie the train is still moving at all is the sound.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clckety-clack as the train chugs on, rocking gently back and forth. It’s cold on the skeleton train without the music and the laughter. It’s lonely without the dancing. It’s empty without the land rushing past the windows.

But the seats are still very plush and soft, and Stevie curls up in the corner of one, hugging knees to chest and trying not to wonder what happens next, or think about his parents waking up from their warm bed to find him gone.

He does not dream, and even if he did, he has no one to dream about, no way to bring back even one of the skeletons.

“Flesh-child. Flesh-child.” Thin fingers curl around Stevie’s arm to shake him awake. “It’s about time you went home, isn’t it?”

Stevie blinks. The train is clean, tables crammed with goblets freshly filled. The sky is dark. The violins await. “Can I go back?”

The chandelier’s light bounces off brass buttons thick and round as coins. “Of course you may, now that you know the truth of the skeleton train. Go back, and do not forget to dream of us. Stand between the carriages, I’ll slow it down, unless you want to become one of us before your time.”

“Thank you.”

In the tiny space between compartments, the wind howls, the tracks are loud. The train slows to a crawl, and as Stevie prepares to jump, the music begins to play.

He lands heavily on a bank of grass and rolls down, down, into the river with a splash. The skeleton train is already out of sight, but just ahead is the old bridge, its stones crumbling into the water.

Soaking wet, shaking from the chill, Stevie drags himself out and up toward the road. What a sight he’ll be to his parents when he gets home, though perhaps that doesn’t matter now. He wraps his arms about himself for warmth, but his teeth still chatter.

Clickety-clack.

Mabel Mavelia

 

There were six things Mabel Mavelia could not abide. The first was toast, the second was tea, the third was parakeets, all sorts, the fourth was her father, the fifth was her mother, and the sixth was the great, tall house on Curliblue Street, in which they had made her live. She hated that one most of all. By way of rebellion she had locked herself in the attic.

She had been fighting with her mother. The fight had begun in the dining room, escalated in the stairwell, and had exploded into a frightful burst of screaming in the third story hallway.

“Why can’t we go back!” Mabel had screeched. “I don’t like it here! I don’t want to live here, and why do we only do what you and father want? What about me?”

“Oh, oh,” Mabel’s mother had said, coming after her, great silk bustles dragging. She was rather breathless, and she kept wringing her hands and reaching out toward Mabel, as if she could not decide which gesture might be more useful. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry. I know the city isn’t what you’re used to, but- Well, if you would only give it some time- “

“No. I want to leave.”

Then Mabel had dashed up the attic stairs and had come upon a little door. Mabel had never seen the door beforethe Mavelias had only just moved into the house on Curliblue Streetbut there was a key already in the lock, and so Mabel had snatched it, waited until her mother was only steps away, and then had screamed and slammed the door with great gusto and twisted the key twice ’round.

“I’m not coming down, and I’m not opening the door, ever.” she shouted at the door. “Also, I hate you.”

Mabel was a strange child. She was sickly and pale, like salt, but a bit sharper, and her gray eyes were so huge in her thin little face that she looked to be in a perpetual state of bewilderment. She was not a bewildered child, though. No. Mabel knew exactly what she wanted, or thought she did, and she knew exactly what she hated, or thought she did.  She hated her parents and she hated the house on Curliblue Street.

She stared about the attic, her hands clenched at her sides. It was an ugly room, squeezed under the eaves. There was a window with four frosty panes in the roof, a desk, and a wooden chair without a cushion. The wallpaper was yellow.

Mabel went to the chair and sat down. She listened for a sound from the other side of the door, but there wasn’t one. Her mother had already left, tutting and smoothing her curls.

Mabel scowled out the window. The City. Chimneys and gables as far as the eye could see, hills and valley and forests of rooftops, rolling on forever. The sky was a gray swirl overhead, like a windstorm about to descend. Mabel hoped a windstorm would descend. She hoped it would sweep the City up and fling into a dustbin and the dustbin would go to an incinerator and. . . and that Mabel would escape suddenly and miraculously and everyone else would become victims of the conflagration.

Give it time, Mabel thought bitterly. She didn’t want to give it time. She didn’t know anyone in Curliblue Street. The people were all tall and gaunt and gray-faced to her, and the city was vast and anonymous, and her new school was full of starched, sallow-faced children who stared at her like cows. Or like her dolls. She always put her dolls in the corner when they looked at her like that, but it was not allowed to put other children in corners.

Far, far below, in the nice part of the house with its red drapes and bric-a-brac, Mabel thought she she heard sounds––the clink of silverware, laughter and conversation. Dinner, going on without her. The sounds made her sad. And then angry. They shouldn’t be talking and eating without her. It wasn’t fair. They should be sad, too, sad about living in this horrid city, sad about living on Curliblue Street. She rapped her knuckles on the desk.

The sound echoed in the room like a pistol-crack. Mabel jerked a little in her chair. She peered over her shoulder. It was perhaps not a very good place to be, she realized. The room was very small. The yellow wallpaper was very hideous. And there was no light, and evening was creeping across the city outside. It was becoming quite gloomy.

Mabel looked about, huge eyes darting. She wasn’t going to be afraid. She was going to stay up here until her parents begged her to come down again. “We’ll bring you back to Heretofore, darling! Whatever you want, only please, please come down.”

But her parents didn’t come up, and so Mabel hated them so much she could practically feel the hate dripping off her skin.

After a while, it began to get very dark in the attic. Almost pitch-black. The only light came from the four small panes in the roof.

Mabel got up to pace. She wasn’t about to leave. But it was getting so very dark. And the door was locked.

She circled the room. She felt the wind tickling across the roof-tiles, like spider’s legs.

She ran her hand over the yellow wallpaper. It was rough and old and rather nasty. She tugged at a rip in it. A long strip of it came away in her hand. And then she saw that there was no wall behind it. No boards or plaster. There was nothing. Emptiness.

Or not.

Behind the thin layer of yellow wallpaper, was another room. A conservatory of sorts, made of glass and full of foliage and flowers. The flowers were very odd to look at. Some were brightly colored, others were gray like rotting meat. They stretched on for what seemed like forever. There were little contraptions, too, like mechanics. Little hands to pat the soil, and little glass tubes to measure the fertilizer, and little chicken-footed watering cans to water the roots. A puff of warm air flew into Mabel’s face and blew back her hair. It was thick air, heavy with damp and earthy smells.

Mabel slipped through the gash in the wallpaper and wandered forward.

She hadn’t known there was a conservatory in the house on Curliblue Street. It wouldn’t have made anything better, but at least her parents could have told her about it. It was just like them, not telling her the good parts.

She stooped in front of a flower shaped like begging hands and sniffed it. She thought it smelled like laziness. She went on to the next one, a rose with an eye at the middle.

And then, all at once, a boy with golden hair stepped from behind a particularly large potted fern and stared at her.

Mabel’s heart leaped. She stared back at him, like a rabbit. Her face twitched a little bit. She didn’t like the look of that boy. He was younger than she was, and yet he had a tiresomely clever, self-satisfied face and golden curls that would take Mabel hours to put up. Mabel thought the boy looked rather haughty.

She regained her composure and lifted her chin. “What’s your name?” she demanded.

The boy said nothing for a second. Then he moved away suddenly, darting among the plants. “Mr. Pittance,” he called, and laughed.

“You’re not old enough to be a Mr. Anything,” Mabel snapped. She really could not abide children who made a show of themselves. She would have to add that to her list.

“Am I not?” the boy asked. And just before he disappeared behind the thick trunk of a tree, he looked at her, an odd sparkle in his eye.

Mabel watched the boy carefully, every move, every swing of his darting hands. When he passed close by again, Mabel made a move to catch him. “What is this place?” she asked, running after him. “Tell me at once. Am I in the next house over? Did I cross the partition wall by accident?”

“No. It is still your house.”

Oh, good, Mabel thought. “Well, what are you doing in our attic then? Are you a thief? Does my mother know you’re in our greenhouse?”

“Your greenhouse?” The boy popped up from behind a pot and peered at her. “It isn’t yours.”

“Yes, it is. It’s in my attic.”

“It’s my skin garden.”

“No, it isn’t, it’s- ” Mabel stopped short. “Your what?”

“My skin garden,” the boy repeated. He stood and lifted a silver watering can labeled “Pity” and laid its spout gently against the roots of a plant. Purple liquid dribbled out and the dirt drank it thirstily.

“What- ?” Mabel cleared her throat. “What’s a skin garden?” It would have been nicer to continue quarreling, but curiosity had gotten the best of her and there was nothing she could do about that.

“It is where I plant things.” the boy said.

“What do you plant?” Mabel glanced around her, at the leaves and up at the ceiling. The night pressed against the glass above. She wondered if her parents would come looking for her now.

“Oh, I plant everything,” the boy said. “Kisses, and faces, and words, and sorrows, and bits of fingernails, and flakes of skin. Drops of tears, and blots of ink, and horrid mistakes and mortifying secrets.”

Mabel squinted at him. It seemed very fanciful.

“It’s my job,” the boy went on. “I make them grow.”

“You’re not old enough to have a job. And no one wants their mortifying secret to grow anyway. What a stupid sort of job.” She hoped that would wipe the haughtiness from the little boy’s face. She was suddenly glad her father had a dull, respectable place at a bank. Perhaps she could throw that at the boy shortly.

“But surely they do,” the boy said, wandering away. “Why would they keep them if they did not want them to grow?”

“Keep what? No one keeps their bits of fingernails.”

“But they grow, don’t they?”

Mabel frowned at the boy’s back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Does fath- does Mr. Mavelia pay you?”

“No.”

“So you steal these things?”

“You said no one keeps their fingernails anyway.”

Mabel chased after him. She’d had quite enough now. Everything the boy said made a tiny, flitting bit of sense, and then she didn’t understand it at all. Well, Mabel decided to be just as annoying to the little boy as he was to her.

“I bet you don’t make much money. What happens once they’ve grown? The plants. What’s the point?”

“Well,” the boy said. “Everyone has a flower, and- “

“Everyone in the world? Here? In my attic?”

“Don’t interrupt. Everyone has a flower and I simply make the flower grow the way they want it to.”

“Oh.” Mabel thought for a second. Then, “What would happen if you cut them? What would happen if you took those scissors there. . .” She stabbed a finger at a pair of silver shears. “. . .and snipped them all down and made them into a bouquet?”

“What odd thoughts children have,” the boy said quietly, but he did not answer her question, which made Mabel even more curious and more angry.

“Here,” he said, and opened a little box. “I see you don’t understand at all. You may watch me.”

From the box he took three small objects. One appeared to be a handful of words, like printer’s blocks. Another was a few ribbons of musical notes. And the last was a pearl, black as a dead man’s heart.

“See here? I have three things from this house. Your mother read a book, and I do believe it will stay with her many years. And here is the song your father heard the other day on Fangdiddy Street,. There was a gypsy boy with a three string violin, and the sound of it touched your father’s heart like a knife. And here are the words you told your parents, yesterday over breakfast.”

Mabel saw the blob of black, like a spider, wriggling, trying to escape across the boy’s hand.

“You’re going to plant that?” she asked. She didn’t know which words they were, but they probably weren’t very good ones.

“Yes.”

“Why? No, don’t. I don’t want you to.”

“Too late.”

The boy went to a flower and dropped the blob into its roots. It sank in slowly, but then all at once, and was gone, and the flower drooped such a little bit.

“Was that my flower?” Mabel flew to his side. “Was that me?” She felt a bit panic-stricken, though she couldn’t say why.

The flower was frayed and gloomy around the edges. Mabel’s first thought was to be insulted. But then she saw the center of the flower. It was reda lovely, rich red. It made Mabel happy to see it. She stood there in her white dress and smiled a little bit. “It’s very nice,” she said softly.

“Hmm,” the boy said. “It’s not much to look at. The petals need work.” He turned away. It was a simple motion, perhaps not even intended as a slight, but it stung Mabel. She frowned at his back. He was such a short thing. She wanted to clobber him.

“Do you have a flower?” she asked suddenly.

“Of course!” The boy’s face lit up. “Come, let me show you.”

He took Mabel by the hand and drew her toward the far end of the skin garden, to a glass dome veined with spider-web wires. Under it was a single marble pot, and in the pot was the most magnificent flower Mabel had ever seen.

“That’s yours,” she stated, and she said in a flat way because the instant she saw it she was overcome with a deep, wriggling envy. The boy’s flower was far prettier than hers. Its petals were blue, speckled with gold, and its leaves were such a dark green that they were almost black, glossy and smooth as eels. At the flower’s center was a glittering poof of golden pollen, like a brooch pinning a marvelous bow.

The boy walked around it proudly.

Mabel stared at him, and then at the flower. She looked sullen. She was not being sullen, though. Mabel Mavelia’s mind was clicking like a typewriter. She couldn’t stand that boy just then. His nose was in the air, and he had such a perfect know-it-all face, and she hated his careful garden, and she hated that he had a job even though he was just a baby, and she hated everything.

Before she knew what she was doing, Mabel took up the shears on the little chair and charged toward the great flower. The boy’s eyes widened. Mabel’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. She came to the flower and snipped it right through the center. It was like cutting a snake in half. The skin was thick, and as soon as the blades sheared through it a wash of red liquid oozed out, dark and slow.

Mabel turned, breathless, smiling in triumph.

But the boy was just standing there, a look of abject terror on his pale face. He raised a hand, as if to grasp Mabel, as if to stop her. But then the flower fell, its petals tickling Mabel’s neck, and the boy fell, too. He had been cut clean in half.

Mabel’s glee faded a little bit. And then it turned to fear. The boy didn’t have bones and blood inside him. He had many little birds and little music notes and little hopes and dreams, glimmering like stars. And when he fell they all dissipated, flying into the skin garden and vanishing among the leaves.

Mabel dropped the shears. They clattered to the floor. She spun, as if she were afraid someone might have seen her. The flower continued to ooze. And then she heard noises, voices calling her, and something inside her snapped. She picked up the two empty halves of the boy and dragged them to the dirt and laid him in the soft earth. The flower’s ooze was all over her, on her hands and face. She scrabbled and dug. Then she patted the dirt over the boy’s eyes and fled through the garden, under the glass mullioned roofs, past plant after plant that seemed to grasp at her as she went. She came to the wallpaper, slashed through it. She fled the attic and went down the stairs.

Her mother spotted her in the hallway, her little sash disappearing into her bedroom.

“Mabel, dear?” her mother called, but Mabel didn’t stop. She was too busy trying to wipe the plant’s blood from the front of her white pinafore, but it wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t hide it.

* * *

Upstairs, behind the little door, behind the yellow wallpaper, Mabel’s flower stretched its roots into the dirt toward a pale hand buried there. The hand had begun to grow roots, too, from its fingertips and from under its nails. The finger-roots met the flower-roots. Slowly, it began to wrap itself around them.

* * *

The next morning Mabel woke with a start. She’d had such a terrible dream. Her heart was still heavy with it, heavy as a stone. She got up and walked about her room. It was regular, hideous, she thought, with its silly paintings and its silly fireplace. And then she remembered the boy and the dirt closing over his staring eyes. She hurried upstairs and peered into the little attic. It looked quite harmless. The yellow wallpaper was slashed, but there were only boards behind it.

“Mr. Pittance,” she called. “Mr. Pittance?” And then, quietly. “I suppose I’m sorry. I did not want to, but I was so angry with you! Please don’t be dead!”

But if there was a skin garden on the other side of the wall, it did not show itself. Mabel didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified. If there was a skin garden there was also a beautiful flower with gold-speckled leaves lying on the floor, and a chopped stem, and a little boy with golden hair, buried in the earth together with a pair of shears. And if there wasn’t. . .

Mabel shuddered. She looked out the window. She went to it and sat down and thought.

It was all just a dream. It had to be. She watched the milkmen and the ice-men and the automobiles clogging the streets, and watched the smoke rise from the chimney forests, and it was all so deliciously normal that it convinced her she had done nothing wrong. She had only dreamed it.

She went downstairs and had breakfast with her parents.

* * *

Dinner time in the Mavelia household was salad. Mr. Mavelia had become taken by a new craze, which was to eat only salads and drink prune juice for as long as was humanly possible. Mabel’s mother approved of this craze. Mabel did not.

Dinner was served by the maid. She brought in the tureens, three silver dishes with silver domes. She laid them on the table, one for Father, one for Mother. . .

Mabel got hers, a specially sized little dome with a glass of water, and a glass of prune juice, black as gutter water.

The maid lifted Mabel’s dome with a flourish. And for an instant, Mabel thought there was hand on the bed of salad inside, a pale hand reaching out of the puff of lettuce and onions. Mabel gagged. She tipped from her chair, about to be sick.

“Mabel!” her mother exclaimed and rushed her upstairs, and so Mabel was sick upstairs instead of downstairs.

* * *

Mabel woke that night, ice-cold. She had heard a sound, and it was not a good sound. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Something was hovering over her bed. A monstrous plant, its long, thorny arms coiling and snaking, black in the night. It had come in through the doorway, and Mabel could see its hide glistening in the hall and all the way up the attic stair. And in the plant, skewered on its thorns, was the boy, Mr. Pittance.

“Go away!” Mabel shrieked. “Leave me alone! I did not mean to! I did not want to!”

“Oh, you did want to,” the boy said, and his angelic face was no longer kind. “You planted me in the skin garden, well, come and pick the fruit that grew.” And here he held out his hand, and in it was what looked like an apple, only it wasn’t an apple, it was a bloody, beating heart.

Mabel leaped from her bed. She took up the lamp and lit it with trembling fingers and hurled it at the boy and the writhing vines. They burst into flames. So did the drapes. The smoke came fast and thick, and then the screams, and Mabel was bundled out into the freezing street, coughing and crying.

* * *

The house on Curliblue Street burned to the ground. Mabel’s parents took her to see a series of doctors. They thought it necessary. Because whenever Mabel looked up or down or anywhere at all, she saw plants climbing the walls of her schoolroom, or filling the streets and choking the City, and the flowers in Pimlico Park always had little mouths with little red tongues, and Mabel could not eat vegetables or fruits because they turned to golden hair in her mouth. She became ill. And then, when she had been like this for several years and her parents had sent her to an insane asylum, she found a little room under the roof, with a little window looking onto the moors. The wallpaper was yellow, ripped and clawed.

“Mr. Pittance!” she shrieked, at the wallpaper. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Pittance! I’m so terribly, terribly sorry!”

Mr. Pittance came out of the wall then. He was just as young as he had been years ago. His hair was golden, and his face was pale and knowing and smug. The only difference was that he had great big stitches across his midsection, and a knotted, gnarled wound.

“Mr. Pittance,” Mabel sobbed, dropping to his feet. “I am sorry.”

The boy wandered into the room and smiled. It was neither a kind smile nor a cruel one. “Oh, but I never doubted you were sorry,” he said. “It was simply too late then. Too late to pull up the roots.”

And he took her tears and he took her scars and planted them in the skin garden. They grew into a pretty, velvety flower, not as tall as her old one, but much hardier, a gray flower with a purple heart. Mabel got better. In fact she became quite merry after that, and whenever new, sad inmates would came to the asylum Mabel would know just how to cheer them up. But when her parents came to visit her they did not let her out. They never let her out.

A Garden Full of Bad Things

The dog lives in the backyard of a yellow house. Beside his yellow house is a gray house, and behind the gray house is a garden. The garden is overgrown, and sends the perfume of flowers all up and down the street, and sometimes also the smell of sweet rot.

The dog is a little dog, white and twitchy, and he has been trained well. He sits on a stool in his backyard and watches the garden day and night. It isn’t his job. No one told him to do it, but he is a dog and has a sense of duty he can’t shake.

His humans bring him inside on occasion, but the dog will sit at the door and whine and howl and scratch and destroy the carpets until they let him back outside. He feels so guilty about this that it has given him chronic indigestion, for his humans are perfectly good humans and don’t deserve such disloyalty. See? Even now, they demonstrate their kindness. They are bringing him a bowl of the special kibble, prescribed by the veterinarian. It is supposed to be good for dogs with stomach problems. They set the bowl down beside the dog’s stool. They pat him on the head.

“I suppose he must really like it out here,” says one of the humans.

“Maybe it reminds him of his wild ancestors,” suggests the other.

Neither of them says what they’re thinking because they don’t want to hurt the dog’s feelings. What they are thinking is that ever since they moved into this house, the dog has been acting strangely. They wonder for a moment if the house is haunted, or if the soil is contaminated, or some other such thing that a dog might sense and a human cannot. Then they laugh to themselves and go back inside.

The dog’s heart breaks. He wants to go inside with them and lay his head on their feet and sleep on the foot of their bed. But he is a dog, and he has a duty. The gray house’s garden is not right. The gray house’s garden is full of bad things.

The gray house’s garden is full of flowers that whisper and growl and entice. They are angry flowers. They are greedy flowers. But most of all, they are hungry. It has been several days since their last meal, and the dog knows they will try again soon. As always, he will try and stop them. He never stops to think that he will fail, even though he always does. For he is a dog, and he is full of hope.

So the dog settles on his stool and waits.

The dog’s name is Rabbit.

*

Rabbit wakes up in the middle of the night because he hears footsteps on the sidewalk. The footsteps are quick and uneven, like the owner of the feet is in a hurry but also unwell.

Rabbit knows that sound. He has heard it many times. He jumps off his stool and races toward the fence of his yard. There are many layers of sound in a dog’s world, and sometimes they can be hard to pick apart. For example, right now the dog is hearing the spider crawl through the grass and the owl waking up in the woods behind his house. He can hear his humans breathing as they sleep and he can hear a raincloud turning over in the sky.

He can hear many things, but none of them are as loud as the sounds from the gray house’s garden. They are the sounds of immediate danger, so they are like thunder in Rabbit’s ears.

They are the sounds of the garden waking up. They are the sounds of the flowers whispering to each other, and calling to the footsteps on the sidewalk.

Rabbit slips under the fence, through a hole he dug long ago and has cleverly disguised with an empty flower pot. He sees the owner of the footsteps, and he whimpers.

It is a child. It is a boy in his pajamas and slippers, and he smells like old baseball gloves and dirty socks, which is paradise to Rabbit’s nose. But Rabbit is not distracted. Rabbit is a very good dog.

He rushes toward the boy, his nails clicking on the sidewalk. He puts himself directly in the boy’s path and barks.

The boy skids to a halt. His eyes are wild and white. His smile is uneven and loopy. “What do you want?” he asks Rabbit. “You’re in my way.”

Rabbit does everything he knows how to do. He runs back and forth between the boy and the gate that leads to the gray house’s garden. He growls at the gate. He runs at the boy growling, trying to push him away.

The boy gets angry. “Go away,” he says, and he jumps over Rabbit, and Rabbit despairs. If only he weren’t such a little dog. If only he were a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd or even a Labrador. But he is only a tiny white mutt of a dog with big pointy ears that gave him his name.

He chases after the boy. The boy’s hands are on the gate! Rabbit bites his pant leg and tugs, and tugs. The boy turns, growling, and his face has transformed. It is sick with the garden’s power.

“I have to go to them!” says the boy, and he kicks Rabbit away, hard.

Rabbit yelps. The wind is knocked out of him. He watches from the sidewalk as the boy opens the gate and slips inside. He hears the boy’s sigh of relief once his slippers hit the soft wet dirt. Rabbit knows the boy’s nose is not sensitive enough to detect the scent of bones that wafts up from the dirt when the boy steps on it. The boy’s ears are not sensitive enough to distinguish the squelch of dirt wet with water from the squelch of dirt wet with blood.

Rabbit howls and howls, but the flowers only laugh at him. The daffodils bobbing in clumps on either side of the gate, the morning glories winding around the gate’s iron spikes—they are all laughing at him.

You’re too late, they say. Their voices are ugly. Their petals form wicked mouths, and their tongues are dark. When they breathe, the air fills with the scents of hair and fingernails and screams. For to a dog, even a scream has a flavor. You’re too late, Rabbit.

Rabbit shakes. He hates it when they say that. For he is always too late, isn’t he? And too small, and not smart enough, apparently. It is enough to give a poor, simple mutt a vast inferiority complex.

So he sits and watches as the vines wrap around the boy’s legs, and pull him down. He watches as the boy sighs and smiles and laughs, because this is just what he wanted. He wanted to come to the flowers. He heard the flowers calling him, and their voices were so beautiful. Rabbit hears the boy whispering it to himself: “So beautiful. So beautiful. Hello. Hello.” The boy is talking to the flowers as if they are old friends.

Their leaves burrow into his skin, and still he smiles. Their bulbs bend over him like heads, and their black tongues unfurl, and still he laughs.

It isn’t until the orchids latch onto his face, smothering him, that he begins to scream.

Rabbit makes himself watch, though he does grant himself the small mercy of putting his paws over his ears.

*

The next day, Rabbit doesn’t eat. He noses at his kibble and sits under his stool. He does not deserve to sit on his favorite stool today. He can smell the boy’s body as the flowers bleed it and chew it and pull it slowly into the ground. He can hear the flowers celebrating, hissing and laughing and complimenting each other.

They are very loud this morning. Children are their favorite, after all. Children, Rabbit often hears them saying, are the sweetest meat.

Rabbit’s humans leave for work. Rabbit can no longer listen to the flowers gloat and belch and clean the blood from their petals. He is beside himself with shame. He wanders through his backyard, whimpering. The poor boy, he thinks. The poor boy with his baseball gloves and his smelly socks. What will his parents think?

At the edge of the backyard is a fence, and beyond that fence is a field of tall grasses and some woods. Rabbit digs under the fence and comes out into the field on the other side and howls quietly to himself. He will continue to wander forever, he thinks. He will wander away until he finds somewhere he can actually be useful, or perhaps until he dies. Perhaps, he thinks forlornly, dying would be best. A dog who cannot help humans is no dog at all.

But then he hears footsteps crashing through the grasses. The footsteps are coming from the direction of the woods. Rabbit thinks this is curious, for he has never heard anything in these woods except for foxes and birds and snails.

Then he sees the girl. She is as young as the dead boy was. She is wearing a dress that is torn and dirty. She has a wild face and wild eyes, and her hair is full of mud and twigs. She does not move like a human. She moves like an animal, darting this way and that.

She runs toward the gray house’s garden. She is confused. She does not know where she is going.

Rabbit follows her, barking. He does not stop to think how strange this girl looks, or that he has decided to wander off and die. For he is a dog, and when it comes right down to it, he will forget his own problems and do the right thing. He runs and barks and thinks that he will bite the girl’s leg if he has to. A bite from a small dog named Rabbit will be better than getting eaten by flowers.

But the girl stops. She stares at him. She kneels down in the dirt and begins to talk to him, but she does not talk like other humans do. She talks in growls and clicks like an animal, and Rabbit understands her perfectly. He sits back on his haunches and cannot help but wag his tail. This girl is a strange one. He likes this girl.

“You’re saying,” says the girl, clicking and growling, her eyes wide, “that the flowers in that garden eat people?”

“Yes,” says Rabbit, barking. It is a serious moment but he nevertheless has trouble stopping himself from licking her face. He has never talked with a human before, and it brings him a joy not unlike the joy that comes from getting his belly scratched. “Yes, that is what I’m saying. The flowers talk to people. They trick them inside, and then they eat them. They like children best of all.”

“How do you know this?”

“I hear them talking to each other.”

“Ah.” The girl nods. “I didn’t know dogs could understand flowers. But it makes sense.”

“Does it?”

“Of course. Dogs hear and smell and understand things much better than humans do, don’t they?”

“Much better indeed,” Rabbit says gravely.

The girl looks at Rabbit, and then looks around, and then pulls a thorn from her skirt. “Where are we? Could you please tell me?”

Rabbit does not understand. “What do you mean? This is the world. We are in it.”

“But it’s our world, isn’t it? Not theirs?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“This is the world where the sky is blue and the stars come out at night and things are all facing right-side up?”

Rabbit tilts his head. “Apparently the sky is blue. That’s what the humans say. And roses are red. They say that too.”

“Yes.” The girl’s face is strange now. “Roses are always red.”

Rabbit has been so distracted that he doesn’t notice it until now: “You smell funny. You smell not quite right.”

“I’ve been . . . away,” the girl says. She looks at the ground. She smells afraid. “I have been far away, in a place where the sky is black and the stars are falling and everything is upside-down.”

“Well, you are here now. My name is Rabbit.”

“A dog named Rabbit.” The girl frowns. “What nonsense. My name is Alice.”

When Alice says her name, Rabbit hears the flowers in the gray house’s garden stop gloating and boasting. He hears them turn their heads. He feels their silence and their fear.

That, he thinks, is odd. The flowers have never been afraid before.

“You should go home,” says Rabbit. He growls, because he thinks that will frighten her away. “It is not safe here. The garden, the flowers, they will hurt you. You are a child, and they will want to eat you. Go. Run away. Go now.”

Alice looks at the garden through her muddy hair. She looks angry. “They like children best of all, do they?”

Rabbit hears the flowers bending closer to listen. He hears them licking their lips. He hears the clack of their throats full of teeth. “Yes!” Rabbit is becoming afraid for Alice. He yaps and yips and runs around her feet in circles. “You must leave! Oh hurry, before it is too late!”

“Rabbit.” Alice picks him up. He stares into her dirty face. “I swore I would never go there again, once I got out this time. I swore it. But I think that I must. Because I think I know of a way to destroy this garden, these flowers that eat children, and if I know of a way, I must do it even if it scares me, mustn’t I?”

“What do you mean, go back there?” This time Rabbit does lick Alice’s face because that is the best way he knows to help a frightened human. “You mean to the upside-down world?”

“Yes. If I go back there, and I return with a great weapon, a weapon that can destroy that garden and those flowers, will you help me do it?”

Rabbit stops wagging his tail because he understands this to be a solemn moment. “I will.”

“It will be frightening,” Alice whispers. She is not looking at him. She is looking away, back at the woods. Rabbit is not sure if she is talking about fighting the flowers, or returning to the upside-down world. And he is not sure if she is actually all that frightened. Her emotions are confusing.

“All important things are frightening,” says Rabbit.

Alice nods. “Yes. Yes, you are of course quite right. Will you come with me and wait outside while I’m inside?”

That does not make sense to Rabbit, but he will of course follow her anywhere, this wild girl who talks like an animal, who smells like one and has been to an upside-down world. She seems more like a dog than a human, this Alice. Rabbit likes that. He trots beside her into the woods. They reach an ugly tree with a giant hole in its trunk. The air here smells strange, like Alice does. Rabbit puts his head on her bare feet and waits patiently while Alice cries beside the tree. She is scared, but she is also brave. It is a feeling Rabbit can understand.

Alice dries her tears on her muddy skirt. “This is the last time I will ever go back, ever,” she says, but Rabbit knows it is a lie. He can hear it in her voice. He can feel it in her heartbeat.

Alice climbs into the hole in the tree. She screams, and disappears. Rabbit sits in front of the tree, and whines, and waits.

*

When Alice comes back, she is even dirtier than before. She smells like salt water and metal and old stone. There are feathers in her hair, and her skirt has a belt now, and in the belt is a knife.

Rabbit jumps up and Alice holds him in her arms and shakes. She holds him too tightly, but Rabbit is happy to be useful again, and he is quiet until Alice stops shaking.

“Well?” says Rabbit. “Do you have it? Do you have the way to destroy the garden?”

“I have a way,” Alice says. Her voice is scratchy and tired and frightening. “It is probably not the way, and it might not be someone else’s way, but it is my way.”

“I understand. My way was to try and scare off the humans before they got inside the garden. But I don’t think that was the best way. But it was the Rabbit way.”

Alice looks at him with a funny expression on her face. “You are a strange dog.”

“And you are a strange child, but I like you.”

Alice smiles. It is the first time she has smiled in months, but not even Rabbit can know that.

“What is the great weapon?” Rabbit asks.

Alice sets him down and holds out her hand. In her hand is a seed. It is a large seed, and angry looking. It is black and red and spiky. It has left tiny bites on Alice’s palm.

“In some places,” Alice whispers, “there are flowers that are even worse than child-eating flowers.”

Rabbit whimpers. He senses that he is close to things that are too big and important for one small white dog to handle. “You mean, in the upside-down world?”

Alice nods. “And this is a seed of one of them. And we are to plant it in that garden, and let it grow and destroy the others.”

Rabbit is ecstatic. He jumps out of Alice’s arms and rolls around in the dirt. As usual, his joy is quick and gets the best of him. But then he thinks of something. “But if these flowers are even worse than child-eating flowers, and we plant this even worse flower, won’t the garden become even more dangerous?”

Alice looks back at the tree. She is still a child, but she seems much older than she was when Rabbit first met her. “No,” she says. “It will not. It will be a beautiful, tame garden for as long as this world is a world, and everyone will come to admire it, but it will never hurt anyone. We made a deal.”

Rabbit does not know who Alice is talking about. He does not want to know. He has no interest in this upside-down world that sounds so dangerous. He hopes there are no dogs there, but he somewhat vindictively hopes there are cats.

*

At the gate of the gray house’s garden, Rabbit is ready. He is growling to make himself feel fierce. Alice is beside him. They have a plan. Alice is beside him and her hand is on the gate’s latch, and in her other hand is the angry black-and-red seed.

The flowers are watching them. Their petal faces are watching the gate. They are hissing and spitting.  They are beckoning and laughing. Alice. Alice. Alice and Rabbit. Try it. Just try it. We are not afraid of a girl and a Rabbit.

But they are afraid. Rabbit can sense that.

Alice looks down at him. “Are you ready?”

Rabbit wags his tail, and Alice smiles but also looks sad.

“You are a good dog,” she says, and Rabbit’s happiness overwhelms him. He almost turns over to show Alice his belly and request a nice scratch. But then Alice is opening the gate, and they are running.

It is Alice’s job to plant the seed. It is Rabbit’s job to protect her while she plants it.

He runs as fast as his tiny white legs can carry him. Lilies snap at him. Vines wrap themselves around his legs. Tiger lilies throw themselves at him, petals crashing into the ground. The petals smell like blood, and they attach to his coat like suckers. They hurt, but Rabbit does not stop. They do not stop him for long, these shrieking flowers that smell like dead children. He is a small dog, and he is too fast. Too fast for them to touch and too small for them to catch.

Alice is digging. Petunias are swarming over her feet and up her legs, and their voices are small and high like children’s voices. Such a sweet girl, Alice is, they sing. Alice is crying, but she is brave. Alice slashes at vines with her knife. And Rabbit is tearing at the flowers with his teeth and his claws, ripping them to pieces. There is blood on his white coat, but he doesn’t mind. Helping is what a dog does best, and he is happy.

“There!” Alice cries, and slams her fist onto the dirt. She has planted the seed. Her hands are covered in blood and mud and thorns. She finds Rabbit. He is choking in a bed of violets. They fill his mouth and his nose and his ears, and he is afraid, but then he sees Alice. She is crying and ripping the flowers from him, and then he is in her arms. She is saying, “Good dog, such a very, very good dog,” and Rabbit is wagging his tail even though he is hurting. Alice is running out of the garden, and he is in her arms.

The flowers are screaming.

Rabbit opens his eyes and sees it happening. The garden is thrashing and crashing. The garden is drowning under the weight of something new.

They are roses.

They are red roses, bushes of them, towers of them, and they do not speak but they do have teeth. They smother the other flowers so they cannot breathe. They rip the other flowers from the ground and tear their roots to shreds. Even though it is dark, and even though Rabbit sees the world in gray and only knows what color his humans say things are, he knows that these roses are red. They are redder than blood. They are dripping red.

When it is finished, the roses poke their heads over the fence and whisper, Alice, dearest girl, dearest Alice. We did what you said. Now you do what you said. Dearest darling Alice.

“Alice.” Rabbit is whimpering. He wants to say thank you, but Alice is hugging him too tightly. She is setting him on the porch of his house. She is ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door. She is crying and plucking the thorns from Rabbit’s coat. He feels that she is afraid and sad, but also that she is happy.

He hears his humans inside. They are waking, they are hurrying down the stairs.

“Alice,” Rabbit tries to say again, “what did you say you would do? What deal did you make?”

But then the door is opening and his humans are exclaiming things. They are afraid for him. Rabbit knows he will be all right, and he tries to tell them this by licking their hands. They are calling the veterinarian, and they are carrying him to the car. Rabbit feels their love so deeply that he almost doesn’t see her:

Alice, climbing over the fence and running through the field toward the woods. He hears her crying and he hears her laughing. He feels it when she climbs inside the tree. He smells her fear when she screams, and he smells it when she jumps, and he understands now what Alice said she would do. He understands that this time, the jump is forever.

~*~

The Iron Rose

This happened on an island kingdom, a long time ago, although not so long ago that everyone has forgotten. I have not forgotten.

On this island stood a bright and flourishing city. Around the elegant palace flowed broad streets full of cheerful people buying and selling fish and shoes and toys and bread and other pleasant things. Near the western edge, the soil was rich, and farmers grew vegetables and herbs.

In the center of the island was a forest, and in the center of the forest was an unusual flower. Some flowers grow in the deep woods, you know, no matter how little the sun. Deep purple violets, creamy foamflower—they can grow among shadows and dappling light.

And deep in this wood, among the bleeding-heart and monkeyflower, among the baneberry and sweet-after-death, grew a flower that needed no sun at all: a flower made of iron.

“Grew” isn’t quite the right word, of course. It had been planted there, long ago, an iron-gray rose in full blossom. Each of its hundred petals was carved in thin and curving metal, and its iron stem bent gracefully, and its thorns were sharp and precise as tiny daggers.

In spring, when the real flowers were just budding, the Iron Rose stood among them, tall and complete. In summer, when the real flowers blossomed out full, the Iron Rose stood unchanged. In autumn, when the real flowers bent low, faces crumpling into death, the Iron Rose stood strong.

And yet the Iron Rose had its own seasons. Spring rains brought the Season of Glistening Like Wet Black Ink Against the Last Snow; then came the Season of Rust, which flaked off in pretty patterns, and floated on the wind like pollen; and then the loveliest season, the Season of Jewels, when the ice made every leaf, petal and thorn into silver and diamond.

And like a real flower, the Iron Rose had its own perfume, or sort of perfume: a warm, metallic scent, like the taste of blood in your mouth.

One late summer day, a woman walked through the woods, swinging a stick in front of her to clear her path. She was a writer of stories, and writers like to walk. She wasn’t thinking about the flowers, and had murdered or maimed scores of them in her irritable passage.

But then her stick clanged against something metallic and hard.

That’s unexpected, deep in a forest. So the woman looked down, and saw it — the lron Rose, unchanging among the blooming and dying forest flowers. She knelt to look closer. The craftsmanship was flawless. The emperor would pay in splendid gold for this.

Careful of the thorns, she tugged at the rose, and it came up as easily as a piece of grass. Holding it gingerly, arm outstretched, she walked home, daydreaming what the gold might buy her— a voyage to Alexandria? a new roof?—and marveling at its extraordinary, intricate craftsmanship. Why, it was almost as if it had been made by magic.

In fact, the Iron Rose had been made by magic, the magic of a very great magician, and a very wicked one. He was so wicked that the emperor, who was a nice if unimaginative man, had many years before banished him from the island kingdom.

But banishment is not always the best weapon against badness. You are no sooner told that you may not have a cookie than a cookie is all you can think of, and it becomes the most gorgeous and desirable thing there is. Where you might have had one cookie, you find yourself sneaking off with seven.

Before he left the island, the wicked magician had made and planted the Iron Rose. It stood in the forest like a time bomb, slowly tick, tick, ticking off the years, until someone found it, as he knew they would, and took it to the emperor, as he knew they would, for he had made this flower the most gorgeous and desirable object ever seen on the island.

It certainly looked gorgeous and desirable to the emperor, who paid the writer all the gold she had imagined and quite a bit more, in order to possess that Iron Rose.

But I think the emperor must have had a cold that day, because he did not notice its faint perfume of blood.

For a while, that was that. The emperor displayed the Iron Rose in a silver vase in his treasure room, and he visited it often—though less often as the weeks went by, as something about its sharp iron petals and even sharper thorns unnerved him.

Then one day, a few months later, as a maid dusted the Iron Rose, a noise startled her. It was only one of the emperor’s cats, leaping off a suit of armor. Only a cat: but still the startled maid’s hand struck against an iron thorn, which pierced her finger—just as the magician had known would happen somehow, some way, to someone.

“Ah!” cried the maid, because it hurt surprisingly much. She held up her finger, saw it welling with red.

Three drops of blood fell onto the Iron Rose.

The dark gray metal softened. Its color deepened, first to something like black, then to something like red. The chief housekeeper, who had come running at the maid’s cry, watched with her. Yes, no question: the iron was reddening before her eyes. Imagine a black-and-white photo turning into color.

But that wasn’t all: the iron was softening, becoming more delicate, more vulnerable, more alive. It was no longer an Iron Rose, but a real flower, red and glorious, at the height of its beauty. It was a real rose now, in every way but one: it retained its faint, metallic, bloody perfume.

Word made its way to the emperor, who soon stood before the flower with the maid and chief housekeeper and all his counsellors, marveling and exclaiming, and having the maid tell the story of how it had happened again and again.

Then the emperor and his counselors and servants all went to bed

The next morning, there were two roses.

The morning maid called the chief housekeeper, who called the chief counselor, who called the chief gardener, but no one had an explanation. They decided not to mention it to the emperor.

The next morning, four roses crowded the silver vase. The maid laughed out loud. This time they did tell the emperor, who wondered in astonishment whether someone was playing a practical joke. A watch was set up, which watched all night, and saw nothing.

But the guards must have fallen asleep, though they swore they had not, for the next morning, there were eight roses. These new roses spilled on the table and floor. The emperor said sharply, “Take them outside.”

You can perhaps guess what happened. The next morning, on the scrap of lawn where the eight roses had been tossed, were sixteen roses. The morning after that, there were 32.

“Well, I like roses,” said the emperor, defiantly.

The next morning, there were 64 roses.

As a boy, the emperor had never paid close attention to his geometry lessons, but his chief counselor had. He understood that a daily doubling of the roses might have quite serious consequences. “We must destroy those roses,” he told the emperor.

The emperor shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t like them anymore. Whatever you think.”

The counselor ordered the chief gardener to poison the roses with the strongest weed killers he had.

The next morning, there were 128 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to dig a deep hole and bury the evil red flowers.

The next morning, there were 256 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to build a bonfire and burn the roses until nothing remained but ashes.

The next morning, there were 512 roses. The scrap of lawn where they had been thrown was now ankle-deep in thorny, blood-red flowers.

I will allow you to imagine for yourself how it went over the next two weeks. Despite all their efforts, the roses doubled and redoubled, like the fury of a banished magician. By the 25th day, over 167,000 roses filled the palace. The people of the island, who had at first been charmed by the sight of red roses spilling from the palace windows—it must be a sign of favor from the gods!—were less pleased to see roses scattered through the streets as well. Besides, they were growing slightly ill from that strange, sickening perfume.

Three days later, over a million roses choked the city streets. People stayed in the their houses, because to wade outside was to have your legs torn open by thorns.

The next day, roses carpeted the crops on the western side of the island, smothering them.

The emperor now sat miserably in his palace’s highest tower, crowded among his counselors and servants. People began to panic, to discuss abandoning their island. But it was trading season, and the fish were running, and most of the ships were gone. The few small pleasure-crafts left on the island were now buried under tons of thorny flower.

From the emperor’s high tower, with frantic semaphore, they tried to call back the last big ship to leave—a passenger ship on its way to Alexandria. No one on the ship noticed the tiny, distant flag—except one passenger, a writer of stories. But she couldn’t read semaphore, and turned back to her guidebook.

It was lucky—by which I mean, our world was lucky—that the sea was there to stop the roses. They spilled out onto the beaches, and filled the shallows, and great rafts of them floated out hundreds of yards. But eventually the salt water poisoned and discouraged them enough that they stopped doubling, and began to die.

Or perhaps the magician’s anger was finally sated.

When the trading vessels and fishing boats returned, they found an island buried under a mound of dead and dying roses. The forests, grasses, and people underneath were crushed, and smothered, and dead.

Bodies were discovered bound down by thorns, mouths stuffed with the remains of fat red blossoms.

The boats left quickly, and no one visited the island again for many years. The kingdom was abandoned. Even today, it is rarely visited. When travelers do stop there, they find a ghost island, populated only by skeletons wrapped in thorns. The broad streets and narrow forest paths alike are piled with dry, dusty petals. And everywhere lingers a faint perfume of blood.