Read The Cabinet of Earths Online

Authors: Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths (10 page)

Inside, everything was grand in every way. Through one archway Maya caught a glimpse of long tables covered with desserts and bottles of soda. Another led to a room full of endless rows of coatracks. The ceilings must have been thirty feet high, the ceilings of a palace, and enormous chandeliers lit the stone walls and set the great windows glittering. In another large room the lights were dimmer and people were dancing. Mirrors everywhere. Beyond another arch she caught a glimpse of what looked oddly like stalactites. That made her grab Valko by the elbow and drag him back to take another look.

“There's a fake cave in this palace!” she said.

“Unbelievable,” said Valko. “This is really unbelievable. Let's go dance. You know, to blend in, right?”

You can't wade into a dance. You have to jump in. You have to be willing to splash about like a spluttering fool. Maya took a deep breath and let go. There were lots of people dancing now, anyway.

She hadn't had a lot of good experiences, dancing, perhaps because worriers tend to get tangled up in knots when someone asks them to dance. But dancing with Valko wasn't like that. He wasn't worrying at all, for one thing. He was having a great time. And on his face was a friendly and conspiratorial grin, meant for Maya alone.
We're here together
, said that grin.
We're on the same team, and that's pretty great.

It caught her by surprise when a strange hand settled on her shoulder, weighing her down. She looked up and saw the Dolphin leaning toward her, an interested, questioning look in his eyes, his nose testing the air.

“You're the
américaine
from school,” he said. “Come talk to me a moment.
Viens
, let's get something to drink.”

Maya looked over at Valko, who made his dancing arms pantomime something that looked suspiciously like a person taking detailed notes in a
cahier
. She had to look away to keep her mouth from twitching at the corners, but the Dolphin's eyes were resting most earnestly on her. It seemed safe to say he hadn't noticed Valko at all. No, he was leading her—where else?—to the indoor cave, to a drinks table nestled between a pair of stalactites. He even poured out the soda for her, in a grave and aristocratic way. He was all attention.

“There's something about you,” he said as Maya took a steadying sip of soda. “I noticed it at school one day. You're not like the rest of them. Who are you, if I may ask?”

He was really quite a good-looking boy, this Eugène de Raousset-Boulbon, with his shock of fair hair and his light brown eyes. He had very clear skin, too, as if he worked away at it with a loofah sponge every morning. Clear and soft. Ordinarily you aren't close enough to people to appreciate details like that. Maya took another hasty sip from her glass. Then something restless in her woke up and flicked its tail back and forth.

“Well, I'm Maya,” she said. “I'm something like the niece of Henri de Fourcroy. Or the cousin.”

She was surprised at herself, even as the words came out of her. They sounded almost proud, as if she were boasting. And a light came into Eugène's eyes when she said that. She had impressed him.

“Ah, I thought you might be,” he said. Well, that made no sense. Why would anyone think she was related to anybody in particular, much less the purple-eyed man in the Salamander House?

“I've heard rumors,” he added, as if it explained something.

“Oh?” said Maya. “Rumors?”

“That the Lavirottes had returned. You're a Lavirotte, I guess. And your brother.”

“My grandmother was.”

“So through her.
Bon
.”

He was turning the plastic cup around and around in his hands, thinking about something.

“What do you plan to do?” he asked. Maya jumped. She had been watching the soda swirl about in his glass. “It's always the Lavirottes who change things.
Les vraies sorcières.
Well, and we need change, I'd say. They all say that.”

“Oh, um, why?” said Maya, already out of her depth.

“You know,” said the Dolphin. “The Old Man's rebellion. That's no good.”

Maya was still trying to remember what a “
sorcière
” was, and now there was this Old Man to worry about, too. The old Fourcroy, maybe, with his miniature worlds in his boxes? But rebellion seemed a very strong word. She decided it might be best to head in some other direction.

“Tell me more about the
anbar
,” she said, taking herself by surprise again. “Your mother said—I think I heard her say—it keeps her alive.”

The Dolphin turned his head away from her very fast, but not fast enough. She saw the misery wash over his face. It seemed very out of place, unhappiness, shadowing all that smooth golden skin.

“My mother is immortal,” he said.

She might have misheard that, too. She was always a couple of seconds behind in making sense of his French.

“Well, she's certainly very beautiful,” she said.

“Yes,” said Eugène. “My father, too. Have you seen him?”

Maya thought back to that day at the door of the Salamander House and nodded.

“Both of them immortal. That's very rare,” said Eugène.

What could he possibly mean by that? It was all so surreal: this artificial cavern inside a palace, the soda bottles looking out of place under the plaster stalactites and trembling slightly with the beat of the music, the chandeliers glittering in the mirror-walled room beyond the arch. Maya's eyes flicked about her, resting for a single uncomfortable moment on Eugène's golden, shadowed face, and then retreated to the safety of the ice in her glass.

“But the thing is, they did it so young. Imagine! It was right after I was born. And the Keeper was furious about it. He said they were too young. When he took their earths, he said they would be the last. Oh, your Uncle Fourcroy, the
Directeur
, he didn't believe him at first, but ever since: no. So that's when the rebellion began. There haven't been any new immortals since them.”

He made a resentful sound.

“And then after that my parents couldn't be bothered much with ordinary things, like babies. Which are so much dull work. You understand.”

Maya was pretty sure she was not understanding nearly enough.

“They couldn't be bothered?”

“Everything is very small to immortals. So far beneath them. Uninteresting. Gray. Only
anbar
gives things flavor, said my mother once when I was little. It's all she cares about these days. They should not have given their earths away so soon, I suppose. It's tiresome for me while I'm still left behind like this, of course.”

“Ah,” said Maya.

“You Lavirottes can fix that, though,” he said. “Why can't I be immortal, too? You could stop the rebellion. Your uncle says—”

He bent so close to her that she could see that even his eyelashes were flecked with gold.

“He says the old Keeper has gotten out of hand. He's half-mad, apparently. And lives entirely in the past. That's what I hear. Old and stubborn! Refusing to let new people in. Time for him to go. ‘Someone younger and more flexible'—that's what your uncle said to my parents. And then he found you, the Lavirottes. Even if you had to come from far away. ‘The perfect arrangement,' says your uncle.”

His breath was warm and slightly cinnamony. He was so close to her now; she could not help but breathe him in. Even the melting ice in her glass trembled a little, though she was trying so very, very hard not to let it show, the tremor that was rumbling about in her.

“I see it now. The Old Man will never take my earth, not as long as he is Keeper. I'll never be immortal, if it's left up to him. But
you
could help me, you and your brother. The Lavirotte in you. You even look like her tonight. I didn't see it so much before.”

There were more of his crowd in the room now, casting curious glances in her direction.

“I look like
who
?” said Maya, as a couple of the burnished girls cut away from the crowd and headed in their direction. “Who are you talking about?”

“The first Lavirotte. The first
sorcière
. Over the door of your uncle's building—”

And then the conversation changed because the girls were there, and there was more music, and more drinking and snacking, and from time to time she caught glimpses of Valko listening to people or chatting or bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. She was never alone; the whole evening someone was always looking at her, or asking her questions, or just breathing in the air around her. She was somebody other than herself that evening, for all of those glamorous partygoers in their expensive shoes. And at the end of the party they all kissed her cheeks, in the cool French way. She hardly knew what to make of it.

“How'd you do?” said Valko as they went to look for their coats.

“Well,” said Maya. “Let's see. Eugène's parents are apparently immortal, and he keeps insisting I'm a
sorcière
. I couldn't even remember what that meant at first, but then I did: a witch.”

And the Old Man has rebelled—he won't put any more bottles in the Cabinet
, she thought. But she couldn't say that aloud.

“It's that weird perfume you're wearing tonight,” said Valko. “It's warping their minds or something. They were all buzzing around you like bees.”

“Perfume?” said Maya, indignant for a moment—but then she remembered the
anbar
and stopped in her tracks. “Oh, right. It's that strong?”

“Overpowering,” said Valko. “Apparently. Doesn't bother me too much, though, now I'm used to it. There's something in it that kind of fuzzes up a person's brain. You didn't ask me how my research went.”

“How'd it go?”

He gave a wry little shrug.

“Not very well,” he said. “Nobody could tell me a thing about the mysterious Society. I am still in the dark. Their parents have appointments there. Or attend lectures. Basically I drew a blank. Did the Dolphin even mention the place? Or do we have to call him ‘Eugène' now?”

“He wants to be immortal, too,” said Maya, and was caught by surprise by a giggle. “Apparently I'm the one who could help him with that.”

“Since you're a witch and all,” said Valko.

“Yes, well,” said Maya. “So I'm told.”

And it was a strange thing, too: As the moonlight drifted down onto everything around them (the sidewalk, her hand, the surprisingly white laces of Valko's sneakers), she felt certain, somehow, that if that peculiar old camera were to take a picture of her just then, it would capture a different Maya than the usual one, an ever-so-slightly shinier Maya, a Maya all a-shimmer, for once, with light and depth.

Chapter 11
What Cabinet-Keepers Keep

T
he shimmer wore off, but the worry remained. Glass bottles and salamanders and phoenixes began appearing in the margins of Maya's math homework when she hadn't even known she was doodling. But almost as soon as the pictures had taken shape in her notebooks, she would be required, by whatever force it was that made her think of these things but forbade speaking of them aloud, to hunt through her pencil case for the big eraser, and remove all traces of bird, beast, or bottle. Clearly, the little cabinet was losing its patience.

But finally there came a Wednesday when Cousin Louise felt it made more sense to stay home and nurse her cold than come over to drill Maya on her French grammar.

“Well,” said Maya's mother as she hung up the phone. “That's too bad.”

Then she had to pause and cough for a moment: The cold was going around.

But Maya had already slipped into her room and was packing the little cabinet into a shoe box.

“Maya?”

Thwap!
Down went the cover onto the shoe box, snug and tight, and secured for extra measure by a couple of pieces of tape.

“Maya?”

Her mother's head poked into the room.

“What are you up to? Did you hear? That was Cousin Louise. She can't come—”

“Okay. I'll be back pretty soon,” said Maya, heading down the hall. “Got some errands. Sorry, Mom, I'm kind of in a rush.”

She really was. She felt as though she must hurry, hurry, hurry, now that the chance was here. She ran all the way to the métro station, and tapped her fingers against the side of the shoe box while waiting for the train, and ran again from the Odéon station to the round green door on the rue du Four, and pushed the buzzer like someone crossing the finish line at the end of a very long race.

“Oui?
said that quavery voice, and then when Maya went into her explanation, her words tripping over each other as if they, too, were in some terrible hurry, the voice broke into the audible form of a smile.

“But of course!” it said. “The little cousin from California! Please, come in!”

He was already standing in the open doorway when she came jogging into the second courtyard. The old Fourcroy was even smaller and older than she remembered; as she hurried forward to his doorway, she saw him run one trembling hand through his thin gray hair. The Old Man, that's what Eugène had called him. She could see why, and it made her feel a little protective of him, even now as she rushed forward those last few paces to where he stood waiting.

“The little cousin!” he said again, when she finally reached him and stood there, gasping for breath as she held her shoe box close to her chest. “Maya is the name, am I right? Come in, come in, my girl
.
I did hope you might come back.”

“I wanted to show you something,” said Maya, still fairly breathless after all that hurry. “Something I made.”

They were in the studio now, and light came whispering in through all the windows, and the hundreds of little figures in their elaborate boxes seemed to lean forward to watch. Maya put the box on the table, undid the tape, and tugged at the lid.

“I made it,” she said again.

There was a moment of utter hush as the old Fourcroy bent his head over her shoe box and lifted out from it the little cabinet with careful, tender hands.

“Ahhhh,”
he said, more an exhalation than a word. “How beautiful it is. My dear girl! Practically perfect, is it not? Your clever fingers! Oh!”

But it was strange: There was a struggle going on in that face. It was awash with awe—and it was so very sad. Sad!

“I tried to get it right,” said Maya, suddenly feeling shy. “Do you think—is it right?”

And her eyes wandered over to that other door, the one in the back wall. The Cabinet was there: very close. Impatience welled up in her again, just like that.

“Please, I really need to know if I got it right. Can we go see now?”

He looked at the little cabinet in his hands, and he looked at her with his oddly tender and grief-stricken eyes.

“It is true, then,” said the old Fourcroy. “I thought it might be. It wants you,
ma cousine
. It has brought you a long way already. And here you are!”

He showed no signs of moving toward that door, Maya noticed. She shifted from foot to foot, waiting.

“You have made a most beautiful thing, my dear,” he said. “The call must be very strong in you, to have made something as lovely as this. And you look so much like my grandmother. That I saw right away, yes! But you are very young.”

Why was he hesitating? Not just hesitating, but holding back. Maya could feel the rest of her patience evaporating.

“Please,” she said. “I just came to see the Cabinet of Earths.”

He had spoken almost in a whisper, but Maya spoke aloud. She could speak to him. She could speak here. She could say what for some reason she couldn't say anywhere else. It was like part of her had been in a tiny, tiny cage all this long time, and now was finally free.

She took a step toward the inner door, just to see what the Old Man would do. He looked uncertain. He looked unhappy. And, at the same time, full of expectation:
thrilled
, somehow. It was a very disconcerting combination. It made no sense.

“Of course you have,” he said, and even his words seemed to be wrestling with each other, as if YES and NO had gotten into a mortal battle in his head and his mouth. “Of course! And the Cabinet of Earths wants you, my dear! I just would like to ask: What do
you
want?”

“I want to see if I got it right.”

She was almost glaring at him now.

He looked at her another second or two, and then gave a little nod, giving in.

“I'm afraid I have not been very strong,” he said. “It seems quite possible, my dear—it is my hope—that you will be stronger than I have been.”

And he led her into the other room, where the glass-fronted Cabinet rose up very tall and bright in its corner. She had remembered it well, she saw right away, and still there were things she had not remembered or had perhaps not noticed the first time: the brass berries peeking out from beneath the phoenix's spreading wings; the words etched into the curving line of the frame. She stepped forward another pace or two to look, while the old Fourcroy knelt down to set her little cabinet on the ground.

“I didn't see the writing before,” she said, turning her head to follow the line of text as it sidestepped the small brass feet of the salamander and began making its way back down the Cabinet's other side. What did it say?

“Nothing is lost
.”

Well, that didn't seem quite right. As far as she could tell, there were in fact altogether too many lost things in this world: friends too far away, pretty green rings that you got on your sixth birthday and accidentally dropped down the drain the same day. Not to mention everything in the past. The feel of Boofer's soft puppy ears under your hand, the mint ice-cream cone you ate at the beach last summer, the voice of your grandmother on the phone—all as lost to you now as that poor plastic ring. Weren't they?

She turned to the old man, who had lumbered back up to his feet, his eyes traveling fondly between the big Cabinet and the little one, the little cabinet and the big one.

“Why does it say that?”

“Ah, well,” he said, as if abashed. “They took one part of the truth, you see, and made a spell of it. Because they loved beauty, I think. You see how beautiful it is.”

The Cabinet was beautiful, that was true. The way the frame wound so tenderly around the glass, the way the earths shifted, restless and lovely, in their bottles: It was not just beautiful, but truly
perfect
, the sort of object you might reach out to in a dream but could never ever hope to find standing against a real wall in a real room in your real life.

“Yes,” said Maya, all the little wrinkles of doubt beginning to fade away in her brain. “I see that. It's beautiful, and it's real. Why should things always get lost? Why shouldn't some really beautiful things be kept forever?”

The brass salamander on the top of the Cabinet turned its head to look back at her. And smiled.

“Well, yes,” said the old man with a sigh. “There is that. There's always that.”

She lost track of his words, then, because the Cabinet was moving.

Moving? No.

The glass was melting.

No.

She turned her face away in alarm, and saw the old man looking at her, his worn face full of kindness and awe.

“How much you look like her!” he said. “
Ah, oui!
I saw it right away!”

“Something's wrong,” said Maya. It was hard to speak. “Help me.”

If she looked back at the Cabinet, the swirling glass would pull too hard. It would eat her up.

“You're the one it wants, my dear,” said the old Fourcroy. “It wants to have you. Not whatever stupid young thing
he
might care to put in charge.”

It was so hard to look away from the glass. Her neck ached. Her shoulders hurt. She had to force her head to stay turned in the Old Man's direction.

“I was even younger than you,” said the old Fourcroy. “So much younger, yes. My grandmother led me to the glass. Oh, I didn't know! She was so sad, my
grand-mère
. The earth spilling out of her mouth! I was frightened! The glass in my soul! I was too young to understand.”

Maya was filled with the strangest jumble of thoughts. She knew, for instance, that she should really be very afraid, but for some reason the Cabinet drowned out that fear. It could do that, apparently. It could open its great glass mouth, and a person could be falling into that maw and still be almost not afraid.

But Maya hung on, all the same. Not out of fear, exactly, because she really was almost not afraid, but out of something like stubbornness. Even the Cabinet could not just swallow her up that way, without her knowing what she wanted to know.

“Your grandmother shouldn't have done that to you,” she said. “Without you even knowing. She should have made the Cabinet leave you alone.”

“Ah, well,” said the Old Man. “I was too young, but she was in despair. She had lost her son, you see—my father. I think the Cabinet would have come into his hands, in time. That was how it was supposed to be. But instead, my uncle betrayed him, during that terrible war, and my father was killed. The curse of the Fourcroys,
ma fille
! They betray their brothers.”

“He was jealous,” she said. The plain truth, but to say it she had to fight very hard. Even just opening her mouth was hard, with the beautiful, hungry Cabinet pulling at her that way. “Your uncle was jealous, I guess. That's how it must have happened.”

She did know something about jealousy, after all.

The Old Man looked at her.

“My father hid people here,” he said simply. “During the war. People the Nazis wanted to find. Some of them just children, if you can imagine! His very own cousins, at one point. Here and at the Alchemical Theater. There are hiding places there. And then my uncle found out and was angry. No, not just angry—”

The old Fourcroy shielded his face for a moment with his hand.

“He was furious. It was risking the Society, risking all their work—that was what my uncle said. Too much risk—so he turned in his own brother. That's how it happened. And my grandmother despaired. She no
longer wanted to live forever, not in a world where one son could kill another.”

“To live forever?” said Maya. That was about how many words she could manage. She was still trying to listen only to the Old Man. She was still pretty stubborn.

“Well, yes,” said the Old Man. “She had learned to put death away. She had made the Cabinet, after all! She was a true Lavirotte, like you—”

“Davidson, actually,” said Maya, because it fed the stubbornness in her, and only stubbornness kept her from turning her head toward the swirling glass of the Cabinet, where the beautiful, precious earths hummed to her from their bottles and jars.

The old Fourcroy didn't hear her, though, or was too caught up in his thoughts to understand what she was saying.

“But then she despaired and took her bottle out. I saw it all,
ma fille
. Your earth comes finding you, once it's out of its bottle. It will crawl across half the world if it has to. It moves very fast. I was frightened then, believe me! I cried and cried, but she had despaired. The Cabinet must not go to my uncle, she said. I must be Keeper, though I was really too young.”

He looked at Maya, all that sad history, layer after layer of it, deepening the lines of his face.

“Ah, how much you look like her! They made a statue of her to gaze down at the world from above the door of that house they built, the year my uncle was born. My terrible, beautiful uncle. How long ago it all is now. And now the Cabinet comes to you.”

Maya gathered her strength together as best she could.

“Why to me?” she said. “Why should I agree?”

But she knew at the same time that she already had the answer to that question, too. Why else would she make a little cabinet and bring it here? Why would the call of the earths in their bottles be so compelling, if she wasn't meant to respond? Of course she belonged to the Cabinet of Earths! Of course! Not James! Her! And yet this tiny knot of stubbornness remained in her.

“Do you have a grandmother?” asked the Old Man suddenly.

“Not alive,” said Maya.

“Ah, sad,” said the old Fourcroy. “Because you could have saved her, if she were still living, you know, and you were the Cabinet-Keeper. The earth of her: mortality. Extracted, bottled, kept safely away. They do that, you know, in their Society, extracting the earths. They have an hourglass there—a wonder. And then they bring their bottles here, to be kept. Forever and ever, always the same. An immortal grandmother, you could have had. I had one once.”

Other books

A Woman's Place by Lynn Austin
A Promise of Hope by Amy Clipston
Rattled by Kris Bock
The Last Slayer by Lee, Nadia
Secret Girlfriend by Bria Quinlan
Where Love Takes You by Rosemary Smith
Existence by Abbi Glines
Finding Margo by Susanne O'Leary