The Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of 36 sinister tales by Stefan Bachmann, Claire Legrand, Katherine Catmull, and Emma Trevayne–aka the Curators–is available now! Publishers Weekly said in their fabulous starred review, “This collection of 36 short dark fantasies from Bachmann, Catmull, Legrand, and Trevayne aspires to sit on the same shelf as Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and succeeds admirably.”
For those of you stopping by our blog for the first time (welcome all) here’s how the contest works: Read the exclusive story below, enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books. It will end Friday at midnight, and we’ll select the winner on Monday.
by Stefan Bachmann
“Yabba, where’re my boots?”
The girl stood in the dark of the hovel and raged. She was tiny. Her knees stuck out like knobby fists. Her nose ran and her fingers were cracked with dirt and cold. A wind rushed through the chinks in the hovel’s crooked door, carrying the smell of onion and ice, but it was not enough to stir that nest of hair on her head, so thick were the knots and tangles. “Where are they?”
Yabba sat in the corner. He only scowled, whittling furiously at a piece of wood.
“Where are they, Yabba?” the girl snapped. “Those were my boots. What’d you do with them?”
Yabba nicked his finger and hissed, sucking the blood. He looked at the girl. Then his lips curled back. “I sold ’em. Needed the coin.”
The girl let out a screech and flew at him. She’d scratched him halfway across his face before he could even shout.
“You sold ’em?” she screamed. “You sold my boots?”
Yabba regained his balance and threw the girl across the hovel. She crashed into the wall and fell, a heap of rags.
“To the tinker,” he said, wiping his face. “Out back of Olga’s.” He set to whittling the wood again, breathing hard. “Go get ’em if you want ’em.”
The girl sat up. There was blood on her head, but she seemed not to notice it. “Those were my boots,” she said, quieter now. “Mam gave them to me ’fore she left. They were mine, Yabba!” She began to blink quickly, her eyes glistening in the light of a little fire.
“Well, now they’re the tinker’s,” said Yabba. “And you can just shut up about Mam. She weren’t your mam any more ’n she was mine. Go to sleep, and tomorrow you get something valuable, you hear? Something we can use so that I don’t have go out and sell your grotty boots. Lace, or red berries, or something fancy. I’m going to need it.”
The girl came back the next day with a bundle of twigs, green and uneven, torn from the shrubs beyond the river fork.
“That don’t look like lace to me,” Yabba said when he saw it. “What else?”
“Nothing,” said the girl. Her teeth were gritted, but she was not as wild as usual. She had gone rather quiet. “Twigs was all I found. That’s all there was today.”
For a moment Yabba stared at her. Then he said, “And what d’you expect me to do with twigs?” His black hair was in his face, sticking to his forehead.
“You could sell ’em,” the girl said. “I don’t know. It’s all I got this time.” The girl wouldn’t look at him.
Yabba threw her out the door and she slept that night under the drooping thatch, her feet in the cold rain. When morning came, she ran away up the hill on the other side of the town and got a knife from under the tree that grew there.
The girl brought the knife back to the hovel. It was a fine knife. It had a manticore in red carnelian on its hilt and a sheath of finest leather.
“Yabba!” she shouted, and pounded on the door. “Yabba, I have something! Lemme in! Lemme in, or you can’t have it.”
Yabba opened the door. He took the knife and looked it over. “Should do,” he said. “No more of this twig stuff, now, or you’ll be staying outside permanent-like.” Then he left, and he didn’t come back for a whole day and night.
Yabba came back with a black eye, and two yellow teeth in the palm of his hand.
“They didn’t want it!” he screamed. “They didn’t want your stupid knife. ‘Where’d you get a knife like that?’ they said. ‘Ain’t no place we can sell that knife without getting hanged,’ they said. I want coin! Silver and gold, or I’ll throw you out!” He hurled the knife into the dirt at the girl’s feet. Then he stormed away again, slamming the door so hard the whole hut shivered.
The girl picked up the knife and folded it gently into the shreds of her dress.
Yabba didn’t come back to the hovel for a week. When he did, he wanted coin again. The girl didn’t have any. She hadn’t left the house, though she didn’t tell Yabba that. She offered Yabba the knife again, but Yabba just spat. He was afraid, then angry, turning circles and growling like a cornered dog.
“What now? What do I do now? You always get something. A pair of gloves or some honey or lard or something. Now what do I do?”
“I want my boots back, Yabba,” the girl said. Her eyes were on the watery broth she was stirring.
Yabba shouted, going hoarse about the money he needed to pay off some people. The girl kept stirring. Her hand was tight around the wooden spoon.
“Those were my boots,” she kept saying. “Those were my boots, Yabba, and Mam gave them to me and I want them back. I asked at Olga’s. The tinker you sold them to’s not there no more.”
“’Course he’s not there!” Yabba shouted, before he got really mad. “It’s been a fortnight. He’ll be halfway to the moon by now.”
The girl knelt on a hill under a solitary tree. A heap of knives lay against its roots. The lower ones were black, gnawed upon by damp, but the ones close to the top still glinted. They were all very fine, with elaborate sigils in the likenesses of dragons and hens and manticores.
“I got another one for you, Mam. You listenin’? I got another one.”
The girl laid a knife on the top of the pile. It had a bit of dirt on its tip. Then the girl rested her head on her knees and stayed that way until long after the sun had gone down and the wind blew sharp and cold over the back of the hill.
It was morning when the girl made her way through the town toward the hovel. It had rained during the night, and the day was cold and drizzling. Halfway down the street, in front of the church, she came upon some townspeople, huddled together. They were silent, looking at something on the ground.
“What is it?” the girl asked, edging up to an old woman who was standing a little apart from the others. The woman looked at her a moment, but said nothing. The girl walked around to the other side of the huddle.
Something was lying on the ground. All she could see of it were the bare feet, white and swollen against the black mud.
“Who is it?” she whispered. “Who’s that on the ground?”
“A tinker,” one of the men said, before going back to staring.
“From up north,” said another.
“No great loss,” said a third. “But for the way it was done. Dreadful. Like some sort of beast, only bigger. Not like anything around here. Not like wolves.”
The girl didn’t wait with the townsfolk. She ran back to the hovel, feet sliding in the mud.
A woman hurries about the hovel, rushing from corner to corner, wrapping a heel of bread, lighting a lantern. She tries to be quiet, but she is not quiet enough. A girl wakes from the straw in the corner.
“Mam?” she asks. Her voice is scratchy with sleep. “What you doin’, Mam?”
The woman goes very still, her back to the girl. She closes her eyes. Her face is worn and thin.
“I have to leave for a while,” she says. Her hand closes around the warm glass of the lantern, trying to block out the light, but the girl is already standing up in her little bed, shaking.
“Why you going, Mam? Why you taking all those things?”
The woman’s skin is like leather, hardened from winters and summers and falls. She turns and reaches out a finger, brushing it over the child’s face.“Now, deary. No crying. You’ll see Mam again. You’ll see me one day.”
“Don’t leave, Mam. Don’t leave me with Yabba. I don’t like Yabba!”
But the woman is already turning. She’s at the door, heaving her sack. “I have to,” she whispers. “I’m ten kinds of dead if I stay.”
“Why?” the girl cries, and it’s a piercing sound, like a whistle. She looks as if she wants to follow the woman, but she’s still rooted to the bed of straw.
“He’s after me,” the woman says. She pulls up her shawl, black and crimson, shadowing her face. “He’s after me and he won’t ever stop. I stole something from him, you see. Years ago. I thought it would be good and help me, but it wasn’t good, and he knows my scent. He’s been chasing and chasing me all these years, and he’s close now. So close. But he won’t have those boots. He won’t have them back. You keep them, all right? You keep them and you use them.”
“Mam!” the girl says, shifting from foot to foot on the bed. “I’ll help you, Mam! He won’t catch you; I’ll take care of you!”
The woman half turns in the doorway, a dark shape against the blue night. The girl can’t see her expression, a sad smile on cracked lips. “Oh, deary. Nothing can save me now. Nothing but a good sharp knife.”
That night the girl woke in a sweat. “Mam?” she called.
“Shut up.” Yabba turned over in the thick blackness. “Go to sleep.”
The girl eased up onto her elbows. Her shoulders were trembling. “Yabba?” she said, after several minutes. The word stuck in the dark like a tuft of wool. “Yabba, why’d Mam go?”
“I said, shut up.”
“Why’d she leave, Yabba?”
Yabba lurched up and dragged her to him by the scruff of her neck.
“She weren’t our mam! She weren’t nothing but a witch, you hear? A good-for-nothing witch. The townsfolk say she was a troll’s wife ’fore she ran, and only witches make troll wives. Now shut up about it! I can’t take this no more. I can’t take your stupid talk. Tomorrow you get me something good like you used to, or I’ll burn this place down and run away and you can go house to house and see how they like you there.”
They found her the morning after she had fled, facedown in the mud, a half-mile out of town. Something had attacked her on the road, torn her throat out. A lantern lay by her side, cracked open, oil dripping into the wagon ruts. It mingled with the blood, black and crimson.
There was no funeral. A group of townsfolk carried the body up the hill and dug a grave under the yew tree. No one came to mourn. Only a young girl was there, hair like a bird’s nest, watching as the dirt fell onto the white, white face.
Two days later, a constable stood at the door of the hovel, black boots in a mirror puddle, cape billowing in the drizzle.
“No use hiding in there, girl. There’s a town full of witnesses seen you break into the Strevlovs’ house yesterday.”
Yabba stood in the back, cowering. He shoved the girl forward. The girl looked up, her eyes huge.
“Why’d you do it?” the constable asked. “I know why you took the money, but why all those knives? You must have known you wouldn’t get away with selling them here.”
The girl picked herself up, not looking at the constable. “I couldn’t get ’em no other way,” she said. Her voice was soft. “I had to get something, and I can’t walk far no more.”
“She’s crazy,” Yabba growled, stepping forward and then back again. “Go lock ’er up. I can’t stand it.”
“You shut your mouth,” the constable snapped. He didn’t take his eyes from the girl. His eyes were hard, but not all the way to the bottom. “You’re in a heap of trouble, my girl. Come. You’ll not be staying here.”
The girl lay in a dank cell. Wind whistled through the cracks in the gray wattle-and-daub walls. Water dripped from the ceiling. An iron bucket caught it with little plinks.
After a day or so, a key ground in the lock. The constable was there, boots freshly blacked.
“We found your stash, child. Up on the hill by old Sheema’s grave.”
The girl said nothing.
“How’d you get all those knives? From halfway ’cross the country, some of them. And the one on top––from Lord Naryeshkin’s own larder. His castle’s seven leagues from here!”
The girl looked up at the man, then through him as if he were made of glass. She was seeing the tree, and Mam, and all the things that would never save her.
“It weren’t so far,” she said quietly. “I had boots then.”
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.