The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Diamonds and Dimes

The boy had waited over an hour. First he sat alone in the December dark, watching as the other orchestra students were swept into parental cars: a car door opening, a whoosh of warmth, and a slam as the car spun back into the darkness.

The woman in the last car popped her head out the window. “Is someone coming for you? Can I call, or help, or—?” Her nose was red, and she looked cold, and like she was hoping he would say no. So he said no. Thanks anyway.

Snow began falling, large delicate flakes, seesaw-swinging down. He tried once more to call his father, got voice mail again. He held his violin case in front of him as the snow piled up in silent drifts.

Since he lost his job, his father had been getting less reliable, less predictable. Anything made him angry, some days; other days he laughed too loud and hard. Once, when the boy got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, he had found his father sitting in a chair with a can of beer in his hand, head thrown back, asleep. His mother worked late most nights, now, and had developed a tendency to slam doors.

The boy stood up for his long walk. Which way? The field was a shorter walk, but scarier, with no lights to guide you and greater possibility of getting lost. But the road was scary, too, especially in the snow and darkness—trucks roaring past too close on the narrow shoulder, cars skidding on black ice.

So the field, then. The boy heaved up his violin, heading into a wind that slipped like a sharp knife under his coat and skin. Snow crunched under his boots.

He walked for some time. The wind swept the snow into a veil that swirled around and around him. The lights of school and road were long gone. He was walking lost, maybe not even in the right direction. His boots plunged on through the thickening drifts. He tried not to be afraid.

Then, as happens, his right boot plunged straight through a snow crust and down. He stumbled, trying to straighten up. But it was too late—his foot could not find solid earth. And now neither foot could. He had broken through the crust of snow, and was falling impossibly, falling and falling and falling.

He landed, hitting hard on his back, violin in his arms. He lay on the snow. Stars glittered above him.

Wait, no: not stars. A man was standing over him, smiling, tossing tiny glittering objects from hand to hand, objects made of silver and light. That was the stars.

I must have hit my head quite hard, the boy thought.

The man was snowy pale, with hair as black as trees in snow, and silvery-cool eyes. His suit was as black as his hair.

“I’ll pay you,” said the man, dreamily. “I’ll pay you to play, in dimes. No, that’s not right—I mean, in diamonds. One of those two. Oh yes, that’s it: I’ll pay you to play in diamonds or dimes, your choice. You choose. But choose carefully.”

Now the boy saw: it was diamonds and dimes the snow-pale man was tossing from hand to hand: thin silver dimes, and diamonds like tiny shards of ice. He tossed them in a slow arc like playing cards, back and forth, back and forth.

The boy’s head hurt badly, but he thought: diamonds. If their money troubles were over, wouldn’t his parents . . . ? His father . . .?

“I choose to play for diamonds,” said the boy.

“Ah: for diamonds, then, you must play for the lady,” said the snow-pale, tree-black man. He turned and strode off, thrusting hands in his pockets jauntily, letting the diamonds and dimes drop to the ground.

And yet they did not drop to the ground. They hung in the spot where the man had been standing, like snow in a photograph, like stars come back to earth. Diamonds and dimes, slowly twirling in the air.

Carefully, the boy plucked starry diamonds from the air around him, until he had fistfuls, until he filled his pockets. The dimes he carefully avoided. That was the agreement.

Then he ran across the dim snowy space to find the man.

The pale man stood now beside a single black tree. The tree bent over an ice-covered lake, as if it were leaning down to look within. The man walked a few steps out onto the snow-crusted ice and bent over, just like the tree.

The boy with the diamond-stuffed pockets joined him.

Beneath the ice lay a frozen woman. Long white hair flowed from her head, mingling with the white ice. Her ice-colored eyes were wide open. She stared up at the man, the boy, the tree.

“Play for her,” said the white-and-black man.

The boy warmed his fingers under his arms for a moment. Then he lifted his violin from its case and played. It was a simple melody, threaded with yearning and tenderness, a melody that folded back into itself over and over, each passage reflecting the one before, like a hall of mirrors.

The boy didn’t see, because he looked only into the woman’s icy, frozen eyes. But as he played, each note became a snowflake twisting up and away in the cold wind. Snow poured out of his violin into the black sky.

The song ended. The boy looked up at the man; but the man’s eyes remained upon the woman in the ice. The boy looked back down.

Slowly, very slowly, the woman smiled.

And when she smiled, just to the left of her mouth, a tiny crack appeared in the ice.

Within seconds, the crack had spread beneath the boy’s feet. And before the thought had time to cross his mind, I’d better go— the ice beneath his feet groaned, and cracked, and collapsed.

So cold, the water. Gasping, the boy felt his heart had surely stopped. He knew his breath had stopped. For a moment, everything held frozen.

Then, in a split second, icy water, raging with its new freedom, dragged him under the ice.

Underwater, the current handled him roughly, turning him upside down, backwards, and around again, as if it were searching for something. Then the water found what it was looking for. Helplessly, dragged backwards, his hands outstretched, the boy watched as his pockets were turned inside out and the diamonds poured away from him like a school of wild, translucent fish, into the vast and icy lake.

“I didn’t say you could keep them,” said a silvery voice, far away.

The lake tumbled and turned the boy for a long time. It threw him up to catch his breath only just often enough, then pulled him back into its freezing depths.

Eventually, it spit the boy up onto a snowy bank. He stumbled toward a road, where a car swerved, horn blaring, and stopped.

In the hospital, in his fever, he kept saying, “My diamonds, my diamonds.”

“Darling, you’re dreaming,” said his parents, worried by the slivers of ice that flashed in his fevered eyes (slivers that would always flash there, afterwards, for the rest of his life).

Just before dawn, when the fever broke, the boy ran his hands through hair matted with sweat and lake water. Caught within its tangles, he found two small diamonds.

He gave one diamond to his astonished parents, who sold it. The money did solve some problems, but none of the important ones.

The boy kept the second diamond and used it to pay his tuition at a famous music school. He grew up to become a renowned violinist, who toured around the world.

But he never accepted concert offers in December, no matter how much they paid. During that long, dark month, he played only for himself, alone in his apartment high above the shimmering city. As he played his December music, snow poured out of his violin, a single delicate white flake for every note.

Someone glancing up from the street below would have seen, sitting in a lighted window, a man with a violin,  snow swirled around him like a veil.

And for every December of his life, as he played alone, the famous violinist, who was once a cold and abandoned boy, would wonder what would have happened, if he had chosen to play for the dimes.

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6 Responses to “Diamonds and Dimes”

  1. Linda says:

    Loved the story / I wonder too what would have happened if he chose the dimes / i do love your writings / summer and bird was lovely / thanks

  2. Katherine Catmull Katherine Catmull says:

    Linda! thank you so much, you’ve totally made my day.

  3. Lucia says:

    Wow! There really is this wonderful sort of atmosphere in your stories that would be hard to find from any other writer. Quite lovely, I’m excited for more to come!

  4. Katherine Catmull Katherine Catmull says:

    Hurray, thanks for saying!

  5. Mary Alice says:

    This tale is truly something else. Thank you for writing such original stories!

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