We are a mere four weeks away from the publication of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne, otherwise known as the esteemed and intrepid Curators.
As a special treat, a curious literary morsel if you will, the Curators have arranged to share with you four exclusive stories for your reading pleasure. Enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. Come back next week for a new story and a different print! This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books.
Poppy and the Poison Garden
By Emma Trevayne
Behind the gate at the end of the lane, the poison garden grew.
Even if there hadn’t been a sign fixed to the iron railing, the children would have known exactly what was planted there. They would have known they were forbidden to enter, this being the source of their parents’ most frequent and hysterical warnings. “Don’t ever go in, are you listening?”
But there is a very particular kind of person who will take words such as these as a challenge, not a warning.
“You’re just scared,” teased Poppy’s brother.
“You are,” she retorted.
The rest of the children laughed. It was easy to taunt one another like this since, no matter how hard they’d tried, not one of them had managed to find out how to get in. The stone wall was twice as high as a person, topped with spikes sharp as needles, and went on as far as they could see. One long, lazy summer afternoon they had followed it, looking for a crack or a hole or someplace where the heavy rocks had come loose. Many hours later, smeared with mud and scratched by brambles, they had ended up where they began, back at the gate under the sign with its warning that the plants within could kill a full-grown man.
“I want to see,” said one of the other boys.
“You want to see a man die?” asked Poppy, with far more curiosity than horror.
“’Course not, but I want to see what could do it. The plants in my garden are boring. All basil and whatnot.”
Everyone else, maybe a half dozen children in total, nodded in agreement. Poppy took her little brother’s hand and marched him back down the lane to their house for dinner. Beside their front steps, bright red poppies bloomed, planted there by her mother every year on Poppy’s birthday. They were pretty enough, but surely the things growing in the poison garden were much more exotic.
Poppy was quite a fan of exotic.
“Poppy, David, wash your hands, what have you been getting up to?” their mother asked.
“We were up at the garden,” said David, because younger brothers are very stupid and don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.
Their mother dropped a ladle. “You must never go in there!”
“We know,” said Poppy, rolling her eyes. “We couldn’t anyway; it’s all locked up. We were just outside.”
“Well, all right,” said their mother, stirring a pot of soup. “But I wish you’d find something else to do. There’s something not right about that place.”
Poppy had heard all the stories. She had heard that men disappeared inside the gates, that the only person with a key was an old woman nobody ever saw, that strange footprints, neither human nor beast, were sometimes seen on the dusty path. Those things couldn’t all be true, and anyway, it was just the kind of place about which such stories were told.
Frankly, she had her doubts that the garden was dangerous at all. Exotic, yes, but it wasn’t as if anyone was going in there and picking leaves for salad, and didn’t a person usually have to eat the wrong plants to get sick? That sort of thing happened all the time in books, some princess or other foolishly swallowing food someone had given her, without wondering whether or not it was truly a gift.
Funny, there was always an old woman in those stories, too.
Poppy blinked, still sleepy, unsure what had woken her. The moon was very full and bright beyond her window. No voices drifted up from downstairs, which meant it was late and her parents had gone to bed, but still too early for the birds to be chattering in their trees.
The long dusty path up to the garden glowed almost blue.
And someone was limping up toward the gates, doubled over, looking like a bundle of blankets propped up by a walking stick.
Poppy’s bare feet made no sound as she crept out onto the landing and down the stairs, pausing only for a moment to wonder whether she should wake David, who would want to see, too.
But he would make too much noise, and so she slipped through the front door alone. Sharp stones cut her toes and a chill wind bit through her nightshirt, but Poppy didn’t stop. She could just see the old woman ahead, almost at the gates. Poppy hurried, cursing very quietly whenever she stepped on something painful.
The gates, when she got there, were open.
“Hello?” Poppy called, one hand on the iron latch. There was no reply. “Can I come in?”
A warm breeze blew from the garden, scented with something sweetly gentle. Poppy stepped through the gate, into a warmth better suited to noon than midnight. Neat paths wove between flowerbeds, tall trees spread thick branches overhead. Moss, soft and green, curled over rocks, laying a hush over everything.
“Hello?” called Poppy again, and even to her own ears her voice was a whisper. There was no sign of the old woman, but it wasn’t completely silent. Something stirred nearby.
“Some kind of animal,” Poppy told herself as she ventured further into the garden. It was light enough to read the little signs in front of every plant and so she did, tasting the words, too beautiful to be bitter or poisonous. Oleander. Narcissus. Hyacinth. Why, her mother planted narcissus and hyacinth. They couldn’t be so very dangerous, no matter what the sign said.
“Foxglove,” she read next, looking first at the plant, then the sign, and then . . .
The bones in the flowerbed, tucked around the stems and leaves, scraps of cloth still clinging to shins and arms. One elbow bent, a hand clutching at where the heart would once have been.
Poppy stumbled back, her own heart racing as if she’d eaten the flowers herself. The skull grinned at her and she ran, not paying attention to the paths or direction until she had to stop, gasping for breath.
The gate was nowhere in sight. The garden walls were too far away to make out. And there, there were more bones, slumped against the trunk of a yew tree.
Also known as the Graveyard Tree, read the sign beside a foot, white in moonlight.
She wanted to scream, to yell for help, but no sound would come out and, in any case, she knew it wouldn’t do any good. She would just have to find her own way back, out of the garden and down the path and into her own warm bed, for she was suddenly very tired.
Her aching feet were as heavy as stones, big ones. But on and on she went, until suddenly . . . the air was sickly sweet. All around her, poppies bloomed red as blood. Truly, she hadn’t meant to step on them, but the moment she did, her bruised, cut feet didn’t hurt anymore.
“You’re mine,” she said to the flowers, though it didn’t make any sense to do that. “We have the same name.”
The poppies danced in the warm breeze.
Poppy knelt to touch the petals and look at their deep black hearts. Oh, they were so soft against her fingers and her legs and her cheek as she lay down among them, their perfume covering her like a blanket.
Blankets. A bundle of them stood on the path.
“Good night,” said Poppy. The walking stick rapped twice on the ground and the bundle turned away.
And Poppy closed her eyes.
You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.