The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Uncanny Valley

Rippling tents, the scent of candy floss, a baking sun that threatened to melt the paint off a hundred faces. Inside one of the tents, the largest, jugglers threw and lions roared and spangled acrobats flew from one trapeze to the next.

The fair came every summer, and Ruby’s parents always took her and, usually, her older brother, but this year he’d said he was too old for silly fairs. That was just fine with Ruby, who was quite happy to eat his share of candy floss for him.

Bunting flags snapped. A clown smiled at her with wide, painted red lips that looked as sticky as her own felt. Ruby stepped away, behind her mother, and watched a woman catch a tossed ribbon of flame in a bare hand, her grin never wavering with pain.

“Can we go in there?” Ruby asked, pointing behind the fire lady to a long, low tent. “Please?”

“Last year you didn’t want to!” said her mother. “Are you sure you won’t be frightened?”

Ruby huffed. Her brother wasn’t the only one getting older, and this year, the hall of mirrors would not scare her. Clowns were still strange, because they pretended to be something they weren’t, but the mirrors would pretend to be something Ruby wasn’t. She understood the difference now. “I’m positive.”

“Let’s go, then,” said her father cheerfully, finishing the last of his ice cream in a single bite.

It was quiet inside. Quieter, at least, filled with murmurings and footsteps tapping on the temporary wooden floor. And cooler, definitely, away from the sun. Mirrors faced and angled, gleaming away to the end of the tent. Barely one step in and already she could see ten of her and her parents, each reflection showing a different shape and size. This one made the three of them look as if they ate candy floss and ice cream for every meal, that one stretched them taller than even the man who stalked the fair on stilts. Ruby ran from one to another, her face swirling like an oil painting or dripping down into her socks.

“Stay where we can see you,” called her mother, a silly thing to say in a hall of mirrors. Ruby could see herself everywhere.

Here was a room within the tent, just one gap to step through so she was nearly surrounded. Here it really was quiet, a silence that rang in her ears after a day full of sound as loud as the clowns’ bright wigs, lime green and lemon yellow and purple that has no fruit. It wasn’t simply cooler here, it was cold.

Ruby shivered. She approached the first mirror. It showed her laughing, though she knew she wasn’t. In the next, shining tears ran down her face in the silver surface, so real she reached up to touch her cheek, dry and chilled. The following showed her asleep while she was awake, the one after that, dancing as she stood still. She reminded herself that none of this was truly real, it was meant to be just real enough to be strange. Her whisper bounced off the mirrors and back into her ears.

But the last one was real, or so it looked. Good grief, she had chocolate ice cream on her shirt. She wiggled her fingers and the mirror waved back. Ruby stepped toward it, closer, closer.

And stepped right through.

The sun beat down. People were all around. Oops. She hadn’t meant to find the exit, and she’d better run back to find mum and dad before they noticed she was missing. The door, however–for it must have been a door–had swung shut and locked behind her. She didn’t remember seeing the actual door part of the door. All those mirrors had played tricks on her eyes, and the bright, blinding sun wasn’t much better, but all she had to do was walk round the outside of the tent to where she’d gone in with mum and dad.

She went round the whole thing once. And again, more slowly.

“Excuse me,” she said, trying not to let her voice shake. “Do you know where the entrance is?” If she said she was lost, the lady in front of her would take her hand and shout for help, and Ruby wasn’t lost. She couldn’t find the door, that’s all.

The lady gazed at her, a slow smile growing to a grin and then, a shout. But it wasn’t for help.

“We’ve got a Real!”

All the people stopped what they were doing. Ruby felt the weight of a hundred stares, hotter than the sun. “I…I’m sorry? I just need to go into the tent.”

“Why would you want to do that?” asked a man, nearing her. There was something…odd…about his face. Something odd about the expression he wore. “You could stay here with us.”

There was something odd about the way he said it. Ruby looked around.

She had lived in the same town her whole life. Gone to its schools and played in its parks. Watched the sun set over the flat fields surrounding it that, once a year, gave up a few acres for the fair. “Where am I?” she asked, her gaze climbing, climbing, climbing the tall hills all around. This time, her voice did shake.

“The Uncanny Valley, where we so rarely get visitors, and we do so enjoy them.”

He said it the way a person might say they enjoy breakfast. Ruby backed away until her shoulders brushed the silk of the tent.

“I think…I think you have frightened her, Godric,” said the woman Ruby had asked for help. “Have we frightened you? We are sorry, little girl. We just want to learn from you.”

“Learn from me? No, I need to get back inside and find my mum and dad. They’ll be worried.” The tent rippled under her palm.

“They will see you in the mirrors,” said the woman. “To them, you are still there. But really, you are here. Isn’t that clever? And now you can teach us.”

“Teach you what?” demanded Ruby, whose heart was beating like the ringmaster’s drum she’d heard just an hour ago.

“It is easier if we show you. Ingrid! Fetch a bowl and a cloth.”

From the crowd of staring eyes, a girl near enough Ruby’s age stepped forward. She wore a pretty dress and had long, very straight black hair shielding a tanned face. She disappeared into another tent and returned a moment later, carrying the requested items. At Ruby’s feet, she knelt and scrubbed her face, droplets of water splashing the parched grass.

Ruby could back away no further when Ingrid raised her head again, the stained cloth still in her hands. Stained with her face, or what had seemed to be her face. The long hair fell to the ground with a hiss, frizzy curls of purple (that has no fruit) springing up in its place.

“Clown,” Ruby whispered.

“We dislike that word. It is inaccurate,” said the man, Godric. “We are us. But we learn to be you, because you are very amusing. Show us how you walk.”


“How about that thing, you know, where your head explodes, except it doesn’t?”

Ruby was confused enough to consider the question. “Um…?”

“And there’s a hilarious noise?”

“A sneeze?” she asked.

“That’s the one! The last one showed us that.”

There had been others. Others who had come through the door that wasn’t a door. Had they been allowed to return home? Ruby didn’t ask. She didn’t want to hear the answer.

Apparently, however, she didn’t need to. “Don’t worry,” said Ingrid. “We’ll show you the way, but please help us first? We are always trying to get better at our craft. Come, look.”

There were a hundred of them, at least, all in human clothes, with human bodies and human hands, wide red smiles and big red noses hiding under fake human faces. They gathered in a circle around Ruby as she moved slowly away from the tent and into another, where two long rails groaned, one under the weight of dresses and suits and shirts, the other huge striped outfits with buttons the size of dinner plates. Racks of dainty sandals and loafers stood beside boots Ruby could have bathed in. A long table held brushes and more pots of makeup than her mother could buy in a lifetime.

“All this, to pretend to be human?” she asked.

“It takes a lot of work,” said the woman, leading Ruby back outside. The crowd was still there, waiting. Ruby scratched her head and they roared with laughter. Her arm dropped to her side.

She turned in a circle and they clapped.

She bent over to tie her shoelace and a boy about her brother’s age joined her in the circle, copying every motion. After this, they all began to imitate her, a hundred reflections like in the hall of mirrors. They snapped their fingers, stuck out their tongues, danced on the spot an instant after she did, laughing madly all the while. She did everything she could think of, steps from her ballet lessons and karate classes, shouting instructions as if she was playing an enormous game of Simon Says. The boiling sun slid across the valley floor and over the hilltops.

Their faces looked more human in the fading light.

“Teach us how to be sad,” said Ingrid. Her face, still scrubbed clean, wore its enormous red smile.

“I…” began Ruby. She couldn’t teach them that. Sadness was a thing that happened. You were or you weren’t. She frowned.

“Yes, just like that!”

One by one, their painted faces began to twist, slowly, painfully. They closed their eyes in concentration, trying to force their lips downward. It was the saddest thing Ruby had ever seen, but none of them could get it right.

“What about that thing, where water comes from your eyes? The last one did that because he wanted to go back, and we just wanted to keep him a little longer?”

“No!” Ruby shouted. It had all been almost fun, just for a minute, but now it wasn’t anymore. She couldn’t teach them to cry, and she was suddenly near tears herself, because what if they were lying about her parents not knowing she was gone?” “I need to go back, too!” She pushed her way through the crowd, hands grasping at her, clutching at her ice cream-stained shirt as if they could keep part of her for themselves. She ran to the tent, slapping at the rippling silk with her fists. “How do I get in? Tell me! There was a door, there must have been a door!”

A finger touched her shoulder. “I’ll show you,” said Ingrid. “You all want to leave us. This way.”

Ruby stopped and pointed at Ingrid’s face. “That feeling, that is how to be sad,” she said, and she felt a little happier, despite everything, that she had taught Ingrid this. But not happy enough to stay. When Ingrid parted a section of curtain and revealed the mirrors beyond, Ruby ran inside.

“Find the mirror that is truly you and step through it,” said Ingrid. Ruby ran back and forth, heart hammering, lost in her own twisted reflections. After what was surely far too long, she moved in front of one, ice cream stains and a pale, frightened face.

“There you are!” said her father cheerfully. “We thought we’d lost you for a moment. Are we finished here? Would you like a hot dog?”

Ruby felt a tiny bit sick. “No, thank you. Can we go home now?”

On the way back to the car, she heard her mother saying she’d known Ruby would be frightened by the mirrors, her father saying it didn’t hurt to be a bit scared sometimes. It was a relief to get home, where she could change her shirt and play with the dog and watch television after supper.

Human things. Human things the not-clowns couldn’t do.

The sun set, as it had done in the Uncanny Valley, and Ruby was sent to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth and hair, wash her face. She leaned over the sink, scrubbing away the last sticky traces of candy floss, and raised her head to look in the mirror.

A bone-white face and wide red lips faced her. A single frizzy curl, as bright as her name, fell into the sink and washed away.

A Beast Named Flowers

My dearest Curators,

I stumbled upon this newspaper clipping whilst foraging through an abandoned farmhouse for haunted relics, as one does, and was immediately intrigued, for obvious reasons. Why a man would want to desecrate the cemetery where his own children lay buried is not something even I, with all my experience in the dark and twisted, can understand. I managed to trace the clipping’s origins back to 1902, to a small town that fits the phrase “in the middle of nowhere” better than any other “middle of nowhere” place I have encountered–and, as you know, that has been quite a few.

There, I dragged the river in an attempt to locate any of the desecrated headstones, although I did not have much hope, seeing as how over a century has passed. Fortuitously, I did find one scrap of stone that called to me more than the other scraps of stone along the riverbed–called to me quite literally, with a sharp-edged voice that I could identify as neither girl nor boy, young nor old, but rather something between and of all of those things, too. The voice in the stone babbled and hissed, croaked and raved, and truly at first it made not one whit of sense. But I think I have managed to arrange the words I could understand into a sort of story, although it is different from the others I have collected.

I have enclosed said stone in this parcel, along with the clipping and my story, all of which should of course be archived, and posthaste. Perhaps one of you will have more luck listening to the voice inside this stone and piecing together its tale. I would advise you do so quickly, for the voice fades every day. I do believe it will soon fall quiet altogether, so far from its home.

Curator Legrand



I don’t like flowers
I never have
        not the yellow ones like Mama’s hair
        and not deep blue like winter mornings
                not blood-red, not meat-red, not red like bad gums
they stain pockets and they turn my skin to crawling
        they look happy when I am happy
        but they look
                when I am not
and I don’t like this new one either
        this new flower who
                when it works
yes I do believe this new flower is
                worst of
the first thing he did was
he took the stones and
        tore them
                from the dirt
                from the roots
                        one by
                                one by
until we had no heads
until the wind gnawed our bones bare
then what did he do? what did he do then?
I’ll tell you
                                he built a house with them
                                he spread them out like a deck of cards
        or maybe more like
        if you squint real hard
        stacks upon stacks
                        of teeth
worse, though, was the others
        the other ones he took
        and he tossed
        and he threw them in the river’s mouth
                                                to drown
                their names lost to the waters of the
he built his house upon them
        our stolen stones
        our cards
        our teeth
left us cold and left us
took his plow and tilled us
        chopped us
        churned us into chunks
pushed his seeds into us
                for money
brought his wife and his babies
        kissed them
        hugged them
        tucked them in
“this is our home now” he told them
it is
        and we want it back
he is no flower, this creature with his hat
        his plow
        his boots
        his rake full of metal fangs
his name is that but he’s got no
he has only a face made of
eyes made of
I think he knows
        we are
I think
        as he stabs our earth with
                his plow
                his shovel
                his rake
        he imagines he is hurting us
        and is
He will not be glad for long
There are many here in the dank dark deep
There’s me and sister, yes of course
        and Big Bad Joe who never meant no harm but has a
                        face cops thought belonged
                                        but jail
There’s Ellis Haze whose daddy sawed off her feet
        so she’d   never         walk                 away
And the Bloom boys
        who knew better
There’s that girl Frankie who thought
                life was
                        a game
And old man Lyle
And the family called Drake
And then there’s the girls with their faces
        cut up
I bet Flowers
        (that’s his name, but he isn’t a flower
                he’s a
I bet Flowers won’t like
                those cut-up girls
                                        But he’ll like me least of all
                                                He always did
We crawl up through the house
        its steps
        its rooms like hearts
        its stolen stones
We drag our way up into the scorching world
                (it’s like Hell up here)
                        (too hot and too much noise)
                        (too much remembering
                                and remembering
                                        and remembering)
The air forgives, in the dank dark deep
The air caresses and soothes
But we
        will do
                                up here in this Hell of Flowers
        (Daddy, Daddy, why’d you leave me)
        (Daddy, Daddy, why’d you drop me in this
                                                        place of
Our hands are spiders and
Our legs are worms and
Our tongues are vipers and
Our fingernails carve like that rake of yours, Mr. Flowers
                                that rake
                                that rake
                                that rake
Didn’t you know what you done dug up
        didn’t you didn’t you
Didn’t you know my face
                (half of it is yours, you know)
                        (Mama always said I got your eyes)
Are your walls crawling now with that black germ sir
Is that your ceiling shaking like the endtimes
Are those your babies screaming for their mama sir
Are those your babies screaming
You brought us up here into this
You shook out our sleeping veins and
You broke our chains and
                drowned our names in silt
        and now you pay the price
        and now your house of cards comes falling
        and now we take back these stolen teeth
                Now we kiss your face like plague
                        and now you’re here with me, Mr. Flowers
How’s about we root you down here real nice
How’s about we stuff that mouth with food
        for your roots
                for your petals
How’s about we plant you just so, like that
        Where the light don’t reach
        Where the water seeps slow like
                the turn of ages
                        the drag of death
How’s about you sit right here next to me, Daddy
                (now don’t cry sir)
                (hush little baby don’t cry)
                (don’t make me call for the cut-up girls sir)
                                (it’s bad enough here with me, don’t you think?)
        Flowers don’t cry Daddy
                                (didn’t you know?)
Flowers don’t cry in the
        they wilt, they choke
        they flatten, sir
                and they shrivel up
                                        and die

What Caroline Said

“It is reported that a house owned by Adolph Wollmer, situated one half mile south of Tess’s Corner in the town of Muskego, Waukesha County, is haunted. It is perfectly quiet around the house until the dread hour of night approaches when it is suddenly illuminated . . . Distinct sounds of footsteps are heard pacing the floors, and doors [swing] . . . to and fro . . . yet no object is perceptible. This scene is of very short duration, lasting one or two minutes only, and is repeated several times during the early morning hours.”
– February 5, 1886, Badger State Banner, as quoted in the book Wisconsin Death Trip

I knocked on the door of the big, dark house. It had steep steps up to the front, but no porch to sit on in the summer, like ours had. Wasn’t summer now, anyway.

The door knocker was shaped like a bear, turning to look at you, jaws open and snarling. It was heavy.

Adolph_Friedrich_VollmerI waited. I watched my breath make warm puffs, watched the puffs lose heart and vanish in the cold air. February is the worst month, at least in Wisconsin, and I’ve never been anywhere else. It’s the shortest month, but it feels like the longest, ‘cause it’s been cold so long, and it’s so long to go before even a hint of spring and warm. And the snow isn’t pretty anymore, in February, only gray slush, all icy-dirty, with horse dung on the roads.

The door swung open to a teenage girl. She wasn’t a maid, for she wore a long green silk dress with dark flowers, banded at the ribs and falling in pretty cascades. I wish my mama still wore pretty dresses like that.

“Yes?” she said, looking sharp at me, but not too sharp.

“I read your house is haunted,” I said. “I read it in the paper. I’m good at talking to spirits, I am. Ma says I am. So I came to see if I could help.”

And that was partly true, about why I came. The other part, I just wanted to see people. I just wanted something to do in the long February, to get me out of the house, where it’s so lonely since Caroline died, since my mother stopped coming out of her room, since my father began staying at the bank till I am asleep and leaving before I wake.

Of course Caroline always wants to play. And I love her, and I’m glad for her. But sometimes I am lonely for a living friend.

The green-dress girl stood staring at me for a length of time, like deciding something. Then she said, “Well, come in, if you’re coming in, it’s far too cold to leave the door open.”

I was glad to be in the warmth of inside, for I had hitched a ride part way with the milk wagon, but mostly walked the seven miles to get here.

I was glad of the warmth, but at first the inside wasn’t glad or friendly. It was dark, dark all over, with the gaslights timid and dim against the dark wood.

The one bit that seemed like light, more real than the gaslight or the frosty window, was all the paintings on the walls. The walls were hung all over with great strange paintings, mostly of ships. They loomed out of the darkness, these paintings, glowing gold or silver-gray.

“Wait here,” said the girl, pointing to a bench by the stairs.

I sat and tried to warm my toes by rocking them back and forth to crack the ice on my leather boots. Across from me was a framed photograph of a man with an old-fashioned necktie and eyes pale as glass.

The wind rose up, snapping and gnashing outside the door, and I thought, I made it just in time. That’s a blizzard-sound.

“You’re getting water on our floor,” said a voice above me. I looked up. On the stairs behind me, about halfway up, sat a boy about my age. He wore a dark wool suit, three silver buttons, a little dark tie, and short pants and high stockings. His leather boots were polished and supple, not like mine.

“Well where should I sit, then?” I asked. “The girl said to sit here.”

“That’s my sister Tillie,” said the boy. “Sit by the fire in the next room, and I’ll sit with you, and your boots will dry.”

As I arranged my boots before the fire, in my much more comfortable chair, he spoke again: “What’s you’re name?”

He was in the chair across from me, sitting importantly, like a man already for all he was but my size. His face was pale and his eyes were big and dark as if something had just shocked him terribly, but his voice was calm.

“Abigail,” I said.

“Eddie,” he said, and we sat in silence, but for the restless, rising wind outside.

Now a woman came, out of the kitchen, perhaps, as she was a bit floury, and wiping her hands on a floury cloth. She was pretty, curly dark hair loosening around her ears, and her bodice was tight and red beneath a white apron, the skirt falling in swags and folds to the floor beneath it. She smiled. “Well, my girl,” she began.

The boy interrupted her. “Her name is Abigail, Ma. She’s come about the haunting.”

By the time I’d explained about the spirits and that, the wind made it hard to hear, and the window was all excited with whiteness. “Whatever your powers with spirits, sweet Abigail,” said Eddie’s mother, pushing her hair from her face with the back of her wrist, “you will surely spend the night tonight. Ach, your parents will be frantic.”

“I believe they won’t,” I said. “Since my twin died, they aren’t very noticing. Once last summer I made a camp near the river, to pretend to be the Roman army. I stayed for three days. And they said nothing when I came back.”

It had been Caroline’s idea, being the Romans. At night we looked at the million billion stars together and picked out the few constellations we knew, and then made our own.

“Child,” said the woman, and how her eyes changed, like my mama used to look at me when I was sick or hurt. “I am sorry you had such a loss, and that your parents . . . well, they must be grieving, too.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But Caroline stays with me, mostly. She makes the wind in the leaves or under the roof into words, or the kettle bubble is her laugh, like that.“

“And that’s how you contact spirits,” said Eddie.

“Yes,” I admitted. “It’s mostly only Caroline I contact. But she tells me things sometimes, about the others where she is.”

A great stamping came from the back of the house, and a teenage boy’s half-deep, shouting voice. “Alma wanted to stay out! She’s a fierce one, no mistake. You should have been a boy, Alma.“

“I wouldn’t want to be a dirty BOY, Rudy,” was the indignant reply, from a girl younger than me, I guessed.

Their mother was already hurrying back toward the voices, murmuring, “Ah, they’ll wake the baby!”

Soon she was calling us to supper, and there was roast chicken and lovely warm potatoes and turnips, and rolls fresh from the oven, and baked cinnamon apples for dessert. And the four older children laughed and talked and teased, and the mother corrected them kindly and laughing herself. And she let me help feed baby Clara with a spoon, and Clara laughed and grabbed my nose with her porridgey fingers.

As we all helped clatter the dishes clean, I thought, I love it here, and I do not want to leave. I love this whole houseful of family—except where is the father?

“My father won’t be coming home tonight, no more than you will,” said Eddie. I looked at him sharp, in case he read my mind, but I didn’t think so. He put down the dish he was wiping. “That means I can show you something. Follow me.”

As we climbed the stairs, I felt so happy. This family, warm and alive: my heart drank them up like water.

But then I heard a whisper in the whistling wind: It’s dangerous here, said Caroline.

“Why?” I whispered.

It’s dangerous here, she whistled more loudly. Oh Abbie! Go home! He’s mad!

“But who is?” I said, bewildered

Eddie turned around to look at me. His big, dark eyes. Then he turned around to climb on.

We came to a long hall with many doors, but Eddie said, “Higher.” The stairway became narrow and cramped, twisting around, then so low we had to duck our heads. Finally, we came to a door we had to kneel to go through.

And then we were in a room full of light.The high windows were blank with snow, but all over the room, on easels, leaning against the wall, were enormous paintings of light: summer light, gold and full of itself, yearning autumn light slanting away, spring all pink-fresh, like eyes just opened. And winter light, the paintings had that too, they showed how it hangs still and silver-gray around you like a heavy coat.

Eddie was looking at me.

“Did you make these?” I said.

He nodded.

“And the ones downstairs?”

“No. My grandfather painted those. He died before I was born.”

“Yours are as good or better,” I blurted. I am a blurter at times. “Yours should be hanging beside his.”

Eddie watched me with his big dark eyes, but something softer in them now. He said, “My father does not wish me to paint. I paint here in secret. Well: it is not so secret, for my mother knows, and I think Tillie suspects. But they do not tell.”

The canvases glowed around us like stolen pieces of days. “Why doesn’t he want you to paint?

“His father went blind. They say that’s why he went blind, from all the painting. He went blind, and then he went mad, and then he died, when Father was Rudy’s age. And so he . . . ” he hesitated “. . . he is not a bad father, he is a kind father in many ways, but he forbids me to paint. He means it well,” he added, and his eyes clouded with so much pain then it was hard to see.

“It’s wrong and a shame,” I said.

A gas lamp on the stairwell sputtered and coughed, and I heard Caroline’s whisper: It’s something about the paintings.

Then we were called down for bed.

Their mother put Alma in with Tillie and let me have Alma’s room, apologizing it was so small. I said I loved it, so snug and pretty and well-arranged, and Alma, who had been looking rather cross and rebellious, smiled.

In the dark, I lay listening to laughing whispers down the hall, and doors opening and closing soft; and once something heavy fell and Tillie’s voice came floating out, “If I get up I’ll be cross, so don’t make me get up.” Then all was silent.

And I thought: I love it here. I love it more than at home with Caroline. It felt disloyal to think it, but think it I did. I didn’t want to know about hauntings and madness, I didn’t want to talk to spirits, not even my sister’s. I wanted to stay here in the arms of this kind mother, these happy children.

Abigail, Caroline whispered in the wind.

“Don’t,” I said, and pulled the covers over my ears.

Abigail! Her whistling, hissing voice held a curious hurt. Abigail? You don’t love them more than me?

I pretended I couldn’t hear her. Under the covers, my body settled and softened. I thought of the strange and lovely paintings above and below me, and then even those sank from my mind, and I fell asleep.

In my dream, my sister whispered my name in my ear, over and over, and I wished she wouldn’t. I could feel her cold, damp fingers pressed against my head as she whispered my name, over and over, Abigail, Abbie. Her voice sounded cold and damp as well, and the whisper came again, over and again, more urgently, every time, and then she was screaming, right in my ear, ABBIE! ABBIE! WATCH OUT!

I sat straight up, awake.

My room was full of a glowing yellow light, brighter than any gas lamp, bright as the brightest day.

But the house was silent. Even the blizzard seemed to have calmed.

I slipped to the floor in bare feet to see where the light came from. I pulled open my door and stepped out.

The whole hallway was full of the golden light, and the stairwell, too; it seemed the whole house was full.

Then, without warning, every door in the hallway swung open, swung wide. Then every door, all together, slammed shut, hard. Then they blew open again, as if from a blast of wind, and slammed shut together again. Then a third time—even my own door, which was torn from my fingers and banged shut, once, twice, again.

And now the wind howled and screamed outside like a patient at an asylum, and thunder cracked—thunder in a blizzard!

And out of the howling, my sister’s voice sang a terrible song: It is he! He does this! He calls for light! ‘Light!’ he screams, ‘Light! Give me light!’

And I knew that wasn’t Eddie, who now stood like the rest of the family in the hallway, staring wildly around. Below, something glass shattered, and I heard the mother scream.

“Tell me something more about him!” I called out to Caroline.

Curly hair, she sang with the wind, and low brows, but handsome, only his eyes are strange, pale as blue glass, and staring.

I thought of the photograph I had seen in the hall, and I shouted “Eddie! Come!” We stumbled down the stairway on cold bare feet.

Below stairs was as brightly lit as above, as if the the sun were inside with us, and the wind screamed in agony. Their mother crouched against the stairwell, bent over her baby, shielding her.

I pointed at the photograph, shouting over the wind. “Caroline! Is it him?”

It is! she howled among the snow-howls.

“That’s my grandfather, the one who was the painter,” Eddie shouted. He grabbed my arm. “What does your sister say?”

HE CALLS FOR LIGHTS! Caroline cried.

“But the lights are on, sir!” I called into the wild wind. “It is as bright as day in here!”

Now the wind stopped, like a caught breath. In the silence I saw Rudy and Tillie on the stairway, eyes enormous, Tillie with Alma pressed against her side.

Then the the thunder CRACKED, like the roof itself had split apart.

And in that same instant, all at once, every painting on the walls crashed to the floor. The ones along the stairways hit the steps, bounced on their corners, and Rudy cried out and held his own arm. One nearly struck Eddie as it slammed down, but I pushed him out of the way.

Eddie’s mother, still shielding the baby, screamed “Children! Take cover!”

Now again the doors banged again in unison, once, twice, three times, and again the wind wailed.

“Caroline,” I cried above the moans, “how can we help him?”

EDDIE, Caroline howled.

All the eyes in the room widened, and the mother looked up, and I could see: they heard her.

Then, all in one gust: He wants Eddie to paint. That’s what he wants. He wants Eddie to paint for him.

A pause for the smallest of seconds. Then Eddie turned and ran up the stairs, past his huddling sisters and brother. We heard his feet thudding, flying.

Then silence.

And the light subsided, inside the house, from brilliant gold to softer white, to dim gray, to gone.

And at the same time, the wind outside subsided into softer sobs, then long sighs. Just before it faded altogether, I thought I heard the wind say, and not in my sister’s voice but in a man’s voice, older and sadder, Let him paint. Let him paint. Let him paint.


The next day, the father came home to find doors splintered and split and his own father’s paintings in broken frames leaning against walls every which way. I saw his wife pull him aside, and they spoke behind a closed door for a long time. I listened for any shouting, as at my house, but there was none. He came out, looking pale, and called for Eddie to join them.

And later, when Eddie emerged, he was smiling, and for the first time his eyes had lost their pained and haunted look.

The father leaned down to me. “Thank you for helping my family,” he said. “You have my gratitude, and if ever we can help you, we will. You have a second home here.” He glanced out the window, then smiled at me. “When I’m more certain that the calm weather will hold, I’lll horse up the sleigh and take you home.”

But I did not want to go home. After breakfast, as the others picked through the wreckage below, I ran to my room and said to Caroline: “I want to stay.”

You don’t love me any more, she hissed in the gaslight.

“I love you. I will never leave you. But I can’t have only you, it’s too lonely.”

I have no one but you, and it’s enough for me.

I was stubborn. “I’m going to ask to stay.” And I made my bed up as neatly as I could, and straightened my frock, and dabbed off the bit of turnip juice, and combed my hair, and started down the stairs.

The gas lamp spoke again. Wait, Caroline hissed. I will help. I will tell you a true thing that will happen, and when you tell Eddie, he will be so grateful, he will persuade them you must stay.

“Caroline!” I cried softly. “Thank you, beautiful sister.”

But when she told me the true thing to tell Eddie, my heart quailed. I wasn’t sure he would be so grateful. But Caroline promised, so I turned around and went back up the stairs, and burst into Eddie’s painting-place, and told him what Caroline had said.

His face went white, and he ran down to his parents. I followed partway and stood on the stairs to listen, but I heard almost nothing.

“Caroline?” I whispered. But she didn’t answer.

The father emerged with a new face, cold and stern. “We’ve had enough of your games, miss,” he said. “Snow or no, I’m taking you home, and you’re not to come back. You understand? Never. Put on your coat.”

All the long ride home, he said not a word. “Caroline?” I whispered into my wool scarf, so he couldn’t hear.

The wind breathed, It’s better this way. I love you more than they ever could.

So I never went back to the warm house with the laughter and the paintings of light. And I only saw Eddie one other time, almost two years later, when what Caroline had said came true. I ran most of the way there, to see if he saw now that it was no mean trick, it was true. To see if he would be my friend again.

The house was full of people. I searched through crowds of black silk and black wool to find him. “Eddie!” I cried when I saw him.

But his wet eyes went dark, and he pointed and shouted “Get out! Get her out! Get her and her ghost sister out!”

And a very large woman in rustling silks grabbed me hard by the arm and pulled me right out the front door. “How dare you, child,” she said, puffing. “How dare you come upset the boy on the day of his mother’s funeral!”

And she slammed the door against me.

I don’t know why he was so upset with us, I’ll never know why, I guess. Eddie’s mother did die. It’s not like Caroline wasn’t right.


Dear fellow Curators,

I came upon the following snippet and of course had to do what I could to discover the truth behind the story–which is never really what we read in the papers, is it? It took some trickery, more than a few potions, and much more time in a diving bell than I’d ordinarly care to spend, but I think I have unearthed the tale.

Hoping you’re all well,

Curator Trevayne

CB Sea Serpent

He could not precisely remember the sensation of warmth, but he could remember that there was such a thing, and that was somehow worse. So, too, he couldn’t remember his name, but he remembered that he had one, once.

He could not remember how long he had been in the water.

His eyes worked well in the murky gloom, even if his mind did not. Inside the cave which he had made his home, chasing out several schools of fish in order to make room, he could see his long, slithery, scaly tail. If he concentrated, he could flick many gills that ran down the length of him independently of each other.

That was getting easier. With each day he had to think less and less in order to swim swiftly through the waves.

But he wanted to think. He wanted to remember. He had to.

And he couldn’t just stay in the cave, neither. If he did, he’d never escape the cold. Every day—though it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night so far below the surface, it was simply morning whenever he awoke—he would flick his gills and swish his tail and rise, up, up, up.


George always fished in the same spot. It was a good spot, and he knew some of the older fishermen looked upon it with envy, but there was rules about that sort of thing. Unwritten, because not all of ‘em could use a pencil, and unspoken, because some things just didn’t need to be said. A person’s patch was their own, even if the exact water in it wasn’t the same one day to the next. The spirit of the water was the same, and that’s what mattered.

Course, thinking that things like water have spirits is where trouble always starts.

For now, however, George was untroubled. The sun shone, turning the water into a thousand crystals far as the eye could see, the fish were biting, his belly was still full from a good breakfast.

“Morning, Georgie,” said a voice behind him. George turned on the slippery rock but kept his line steady in the water. It was Old Lewis, who had been old for so long the wrinkles were as much part of his face as scales were part of a fish.

“Morning, Old Lewis,” said George. “Shouldn’t you be off on your boat? I’ll beat you at the count if you don’t get a move on.” The count was a daily ritual, as each fisherman brought his catch to market, hoping to be the one who’d caught the most. It’d been George a few times since he’d started back at the start of summer. The fishing rod had been the only thing for his dad to leave him when the fever’d done its final, deadly work, but that was all George needed. The rod and the patch. With those, a boy could make a life and grow as old as Old Lewis.

“Not today.” Over Old Lewis’s head, clouds had moved in across the sky, but there were still large patches of blue. “Won’t see none of us out today.”

“Why not?” George asked. “Doesn’t look like a storm to me. I’ll get my share of fish and all yours besides.”

“So he didn’t tell you,” muttered Old Lewis under his breath. His old bones creaked as he settled himself next to George on the slippery rock. “Your dad should’ve had a word with you about this day, lad.”

The water rippled. The breeze wandered through the trees along the shore as if whistling for a lost dog. It was another day. George had fished a hundred of them this summer.

Today was the hundredth, in fact, if his sums were right. He had learned his numbers with scales and eyes and fins, and he was good at them.

“We do not fish today,” said Old Lewis. “The seas and lakes and rivers are good to us, and we must in turn be good to them. The spirits who watch from the depths deserve a day’s rest in return for the food they put on our table.”

“Oh,” said George. “Superstition.”

“Aye, and you’d be wise to listen to it.”

“Yeah? And what if I don’t?”

Old Lewis’s bones groaned again as he stood. “Well, then I suppose we must all make our own mistakes in this life, Georgie. But if you pack up your gear, you can come lunch with me and the others.”

For months, George had been waiting for this very invitation. Pride warred with the ever-growling stomach of a young boy. He could stay here and fish, he could show ‘em, but he might never be asked this again. A sign he belonged, that the others saw him as one of their own.

Quickly, he stowed his line and worms, the little box of buzzing flies that some of the nibblers loved and which he trapped with the help of a large spider that lived in the corner of his room. He followed Old Lewis to the hut next to the market in the middle of the village where all the fishermen gathered. Inside, a table was laden with breads and pickles and butter and huge platters of pink-fleshed trout, cooked crisp on the outside just as George liked it. Hands clapped his shoulders as he was guided to a seat that must once have been his fathers.

“Tell me what happens if we fish today,” he said again to Old Lewis, but his voice carried along down the table, and each of the fifty men their put down his fork.

“Terrible things, boy. Terrible things,” said a voice from the shadows.

“Terrible things,” chorused the others.


The cold and dark were terrible. The beast swam through the water, holding on to the few memories he had left. Close to the surface, he kept watch for a lure, a fly, the shadow of a boat. So far, he had seen nothing at all, not in all his time in the water. He knew they must be up there, but he could not see them, or smell them.

He had to find someone. He had to bite, to allow someone to catch him.

As he had caught the last one. He remembered it rising from the waves under the sunset, smiling with a huge mouthful of teeth, joyfully thrashing its fins. Not a fish, a monster wrinkled as Old Lewis, eagerly snapping at George’s lure.

Around him, the waters sang, voices in his ears, the spirits of the seas and oceans and rivers. Today was the day the fish swam safely. Today was the day an enormous sea serpent would try to be caught.

But there were no lines, no flies, no feathers. He swam around the shores, eyes peeking above the surface to the land all around, empty of a single soul. Silent.

Abandoned by those who had heard the warnings.

And listened.

The Homunculus


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

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

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

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

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

August 17th, 1674 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is thawing too. His eyes twitch toward me.

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

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

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

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

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

What has happened here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do so enjoy traveling.