The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes



This story begins the way most things begin, which is to say that this story begins in a rather dull way: a milkmaid is getting ready to take her tea. She is a very poor milkmaid, and her cottage is bare as an egg. It has a three-legged iron stove in one corner, and a rug that’s gone threadbare and grey in the spot where the milkmaid stands to churn the butter. There are cobwebs in some places, and dust in others, and in one corner there is a photograph of two smiling people who are perhaps the milkmaid’s parents, but they are dead now. The only thing of any interest in the cottage is a set of china tea-things, sitting atop the sideboard like a veritable shrine.

It is a splendid tea-set, though upon closer inspection one can see that the china is a lacework of cracks, and very old. There are two dainty cups with tiny orange flowers painted around the edges, a creamer and a sugar-bowl with a pair of pewter tongs to fish out the lumps. There is the loveliest, loveliest teapot you can possibly imagine. And on the bottom of three of the pieces are symbols, sharp black lines and crosses, a language the milkmaid has never been able to read.

The milkmaid drinks tea from her tea-set exactly once per week, and she takes great care to make the occasion special. She sweeps the floor with a twig broom, opens all the windows to exchange the air, boils the water, measures out the precious leaves, arranges her tea-things precisely, sits down at her table. . . .


Should you have come by the milkmaid’s dwelling just then and peered through her bottle-glass window, the scene that would meet your eyes would most likely strike you as ridiculousa stout milkmaid, no longer quite young, alone at a wobbly table, trying to be prim, simpering with the sugar bowl, buttering slips of bread and nibbling at them prettily. You would think her silly.

But the milkmaid does not know that you are watching, and so she doesn’t mind. She is very happy when she drinks from her tea-set. It was her inheritance from the smiling people in the photograph, and when she uses it, when she even looks at it, she feels she is a child again. She feels her parents are right there with her, and she feels they will always be her parents as long as she has the tea-set. It is her favorite thing in the whole world.

Until one day. Until today.


For just in the moment when the milkmaid is lifting the teacup to her lips, the teacup moves. Only a little bit. Only one tiny, tiny shiver, like a bird about to hatch. But it moves.

The milkmaid looks at it quizzically. Then she raises her eyebrows and brings the cup back to her lips. The cup shivers again, this time so severely that flecks of tea spatter the milkmaid’s nose. The milkmaid, in an attempt to calm the teacup, lays it back hastily on its saucer. But it does not stop. It continues to shiver, rattling and spilling tea over the rim, harder and harder, and now suddenly there is a voice, cold and pure as porcelain, saying: “Break it. Break it. Split its back and shatter its bones.”

The milkmaid jerks away in terror, but the teacup continues to speak, hollow and dark, louder and louder. And then the milkmaid picks up the cup in a fright and throws it down with all her might against the tabletop. The teacup explodes into a dozen small white pieces . . . And what should come out of it but a very long, skinny creature, brown and red and green, and flat as paper. It might be a dragon, but it is very furry, and it has horns. It turns a circle on the tabletop, joints clicking, looking rather stiff, and then, noticing the milkmaid’s wide-eyed stare, squints up at her and says in a silky, hissing voice:

One wish now

Quick and careful

Then have your tea

And be quite cheerful.

The milkmaid screams and hits the creature with a heavy fist, and its legs squeeze out on either side.  But then it turns to smoke and blows out from under her fingers, and comes to rest on the corner of the table.

“Come now, quickly, what would you like?” it says, in a slightly less sinister voice. The milkmaid screams again.

The creature peers at the milkmaid askance. “I do not understand your wish,” it says.

The milkmaid lets out one last strangled cry and then puts her head between her knees, trying to calm herself. She has heard tales like this one. Be careful what you wish for. Be careful, be careful. She raises her head. The creature is still there. She watches it carefully, and it watches her back.

“Shouldn’t you give me three?” the milkmaid squeaks. “Three wishes?”

“One wish!” says the creature imperiously. “And you can’t wish for more wishes, now hurry.”

The milkmaid thinks and thinks, so long that the creature wonders if perhaps it got a bad apple and it will have to wait all night. The milkmaid thinks of the tales she has heard, and she tries to makes sure her wishes will not backfire too badly, and then she says: “I would like a great lovely house, furnished and weather-tight, right here where this house is.”

And the next instant the cottage is gone and it is replaced by the strangest, most marvelous building the milkmaid has ever seen. The walls are lacquered wood, and the floors are strewn with pillows, and the windows are large and wide. The rooms are a bit too colorful for the milkmaid’s tastes, and she is not enamored with the artwork, but it is too late to change anything, because the creature has dissolved into a purple plume that is making its way up the chimney.


The milkmaid is so pleased with her new house. She wanders through it and admires the many rooms and the many windows and fire-pits. She finds the remaining pieces of her tea things sitting on a low, glimmering table, and her heart hurts for a moment, for the broken teacup, but then she thinks the china looks even more lovely now, like it belongs here. She thinks she will be very happy now.

But the next day, a tax-collector, coming along the road down from the town, sees the great mansion and he comes up the path and knocks at the door, wondering where this wonderful new house has come from and whether it has been properly taxed. Of course, it hasn’t. The milkmaid is very afraid when she opens the door. She tells the tax-collector that the house is only just built, and she will be paying the taxes the very next day, and then she closes the door quickly and locks it, and hurries through the house wringing her hands and wondering what to do. She doesn’t want to sell the house, or anything in it, and she doesn’t have time to, really. She comes to stand in front of the magnificent tea-set, sitting on its table. She stares at it. And now she is taking another teacup, and her heart is pounding so dreadfully. She is lifting it and smashing it on the floor. She winces as it breaks. Please, she thinks. Please be another strange, small creature.

And indeed out slips another one, this one like a spider, emerald-green, with long and spiny legs. It says:

In such a house

All red and gold,

What could there still be

You wish to hold?

And the milkmaid says, “Quickly, please, I must pay all the taxes on my house and I haven’t any money! Give me all the money I will ever need.”

The next instant the house is full to bursting with gold and jewels. There is enough to pay all the taxes for the rest of the milkmaid’s life, and she nearly dies of relief.


It is not long after the tax-collector had come and gone, that people begin to notice the beautiful house with its many gables and colored walls, and begin to think the milkmaid far more interesting than they had before. They come from far and wide to knock on the milkmaid’s door and speak with her, and she revels in the attention. No one ever visited her before. No one spoke to her, except to tell her the cows were in the wrong field, or the milk was late. Now they compliment her lovely house and the gape over all her gold and jewels. But as time passes, the milkmaid notices that while they talk to her a great deal they never really say anything. It is so strange; the milkmaid is sure she had had better conversations with the tea-set in her lonely cottage than with these people, who paw over her furniture and drink great quantities of her tea.

The milkmaid doesn’t know why this is. She wonders long and hard, and she decides it is because she is still a great clumsy milkmaid, and though she is kind and unassuming, she feels she is not as fine as all the wonderful people who visit her. Perhaps, she thinks, if she were like them, they would be her friends. They would tell her secrets and invite her to their own homes, and not just come to hers. And so, without another thought, she goes to her tea-things and takes up the sugar bowl and smashes it on the floor, and out comes another odd creature, this one like a black worm, all glistening and wet.

A third wish then?

Again, again?

You want a lot,

You silly hen.

The milkmaid says, “I would like to be someone else. Someone beautiful. Someone more beautiful than anyone in the entire country, in the entire world!”

And the next instant she is just that, and the worm has split into a thousand smaller worms that wriggle and creep into the floorboards.

The milkmaid goes to the mirror. She can hardly breathe when she sees herself. She has glimmering crow-black hair, and her face is so beautiful it is like the sun and the moon and all the stars put together, and her old, work hardened hands have become long and fine as any china.


But when the milkmaid again receives visitors to her mansion on the hill, they are somewhat quieter around her, somewhat more cautious, and then one of them asks her what has become of the silly, ugly milkmaid who had lived here before. It breaks the milkmaid’s heart to hear them. She sends them all away. She stops letting anyone in when they knock. She becomes lonely, lonelier than she ever had been before, and though she tries to sweep her great house and lay out the tea-things and feel happy again, she has only the teapot now and the creamer, and it feels desolate somehow, and not the same.

At last, she is so unhappy that she goes to her teapot and clutches it to her. She does not want to break it. But then she thinks of the picture in the frame that had vanished with her old cottage, of the smiling faces, and she thinks of drinking tea and buttering scones in the quiet of her shabby home, with only her own thoughts and memories, and all her tea-things gathered around her, and suddenly she knows what she wants, she knows exactly.

She lifts the china teapot to her chest, after a long, fond gaze, lets it slip from her hands. There is a great crashing. The china blooms across the floor like a sharp flower. . . . But there is nothing inside the walls of the teapot. No dragon or spider or worm, and nothing to grant the milkmaid’s last, most desperate wish.


Now, if you came upon the milkmaid’s mansion and pressed your face to a crystalline window, and glimpsed through the gap in the velvet curtains, the scene you would meet your eyes would be very different from before: a beautiful room, and a beautiful woman kneeling in the midst of it, crying her eyes out, and spread all around her the remains of a lovely china tea-set, smashed all to bits. And perhaps you would wonder what such a beautiful woman could have to cry about, and you would see her gold and jewels and think she really has no reason to cry; she could simply buy a new tea-set. And you would go on your way, and think how foolish are the rich and vain. But the milkmaid would not know your thoughts, and she would weep and weep and weep. . . .


So as you see, this story ends differently than most things end, which is with a sunset, or a wedding, or a bloodied axe. But it is an ending, and the milkmaid has come to realize something very cruel about the world: that you can have a great many things from life, but not for nothing, and perhaps the things you gave away are what you wanted most.

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