The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

A Whispering, a Muttering, a Hum.

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum. There weren’t so many of them that a birthday was an everyday occurrence. Especially not this birthday.

There were worn floors that had seen better days, scrubbed clean by capable hands. The boy followed the others along grooves etched by hundreds of feet, between the dormitories and breakfast tables and school rooms, counting the hours.

There were hearth fires, not blazing enough to reach into every corner, but warm if you stood near enough and never moved, because once you stepped away you’d be twice as chilled as before. The first signs of spring budding on the trees and poking up from the earth had not yet crept indoors.

There were scents, of rain and smoke and something sweet baking in the kitchen.

There was saliva dripping down the chins of those accustomed to watery porridge.

All the younger children looked at the boy with excited smiles. The matrons gazed at him with thin-lipped grimaces.

Well, they would miss him, wouldn’t they. For this was the last time he would hear these whispers and walk these floors and smell these smells.

He was about to receive his Gift.

Af supper, a package would appear, shiny and bright as one of the foul cough drops Nurse gave when the winter winds came and the children could hardly speak. Though it was not needed, a label, on which someone had written his name, would flutter from the ribbon, the whole representing the only two things in the world that belonged to him, and him alone.

Oh, he would be given food, and warm clothing for his journey, but those didn’t count. Everybody had such things, even if the food was barely enough to fill a belly, the clothes full of holes.

He would take his Gift, and Head Matron would take the large brass key from the string at her waist, fit it neatly into the lock of the orphanage’s front door.

The bell rang.

The package was blue, a blue of skies and flowers. He’d seen them in all colors over the years, for as long as he could remember. “Open it,” the others begged, but the boy shook his head. That wasn’t done. He ate his stew in silence, eyes never leaving the small, square box. While the rest of the children exclaimed in delight over the rare cake, he scarcely tasted it. Only a faint impression of sweetness left itself on his tongue.

“It is time,” said Head Matron. The key caught the lamplight. The box was heavy in his hand and the blue paper shimmered.

“Well,” he said, looking up and down the long tables. “Goodbye.”

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum, and it swelled as he reached the door. They were guessing. In his time, he’d done plenty of that himself, every time he’d watched someone else celebrate this birthday.

Head Matron didn’t say a word. She draped a warm cloak round his shoulders, held out a coarsely woven sack for him to take with his free hand. The boy saw the one who taught him maths wipe her eyes. Well, he was good with his numbers, and he’d always taken care to help the ones who struggled. Perhaps she’d miss him most of all. He gave her a smile, which she returned with a weak one of her own.

It was a long walk down the path to the gates set into the walls that surrounded the orphanage. A second brass key, this one from Head Matron’s pocket, turned the lock with the tiniest of clicks. The gates creaked.

“Thank you,” said the boy, because he felt he should. She had, after all, kept him safe and warm and fed his whole life, or near to it as mattered. He’d kept his bed and table tidy, never been rude at mealtimes, or spoken out of turn in lessons, and thus she had never given him a cruel word.

And now, she gave him none at all. Nodding, she gestured through the gate and, for the first time, he stepped outside the orphanage’s confines, with the entire world spread out before him like an adventure. When the gate swung shut and locked behind him, he barely heard it.

The Gift slipped in his slightly clammy hand. He could open it now, if he wished, but curiously, he did not. Not yet. While it was still wrapped and pretty, it could be anything, and there was a delightful wonder to that, wasn’t there? Certainly, the other children would still be guessing as they made their way to the dormitories and climbed under scratchy blankets.

Some said it was a fat gold coin, enough riches to make life in the city on the other side of the forest that surrounded the grand, old, crumbling house. Others thought it was a map, unique to each child, with which they might find any family left to them. It could be the key to a palace, a blood red jewel the size of a plum. Those with great imaginations and a keenness for fairy stories were sure it was a gift in the truest sense, and that opening the package would grant something wonderful, magical; the ability to soar high above the treetops, or become as invisible as the wind which rippled the boy’s new cloak.

If it would let him fly, he wouldn’t have to walk through the woods, which at the moment looked very deep, and dark, and getting darker with each inch the sun dropped in the sky. Behind him, the windows glowed, and the boy thought for a moment about turning back, asking to stay until morning. But the Gift always came with supper, and nobody ever returned. He would not be the first. He would brave the forest, as every child before him had, and make his way to the city. Yes. He would walk for a while through the trees, and when he became tired or hungry, he would find a clearing and curl up for the night. There, alone, he’d open the package and see what clue to his new life it held.

Looking out from the dormitory window at the vast swathe of green treetops, he’d imagined the forest to be a calm, quiet place, far more peaceful than a house full of children. Now that he was inside it, however, it sang with a symphony of noise; birds and leaves and scuttling creatures. But it was not unpleasant, indeed it felt like a sort of company, so that he was not so very alone.

With no clock, and the moon hidden away, the boy didn’t know how long or far he walked, only that he did so until his feet inside his hand-me-down boots were sore and blistered. On he trudged, peering through the gloom until he saw light, moonlight pouring into an empty circle of trees.

He thanked his luck at such a perfect spot. A large boulder, its surface worn smooth, gave an ideal place to lean against as he sat on the hard ground and placed the blue-wrapped package in front of him. Still, it could be anything.

In the sack was bread and cheese, plus a stoppered bottle of what turned out to be water, still chilled courtesy of the night air. The boy ate and rested his aching feet, drawing his cloak around him as the wind picked up.

There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum.

And it grew louder. Louder. LOUDER.

Wailing, ghostly figures emerged from the trees to surround him. A cry of fright trapped in his throat, unwilling to come out. The blue paper caught the moonlight. It must be something to help him, protect him! With near frozen, trembling fingers, the boy tore open the Gift, paper blowing away across the clearing.

The box shook. The swirling, wispy creatures came closer, closer.

He tore off the lid.

The air filled with a scream, bursting from the box to join the cacophony of sound in the forest. He could not run back, they would chase him and it was too far. He couldn’t warn the others at the orphanage.

The scream kept going, billowing out of the small box that was growing lighter in his hands.

Closer. Closer they came.

He knew the scream.

It was his own.

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