Read The Cabinet of Earths Online

Authors: Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths (14 page)

Her eyes were sharper now than they had been before; perhaps they were adjusting to the light. But she saw now that the bottles had patterns in their glass, pictures and shapes that shifted themselves into something coherent as she looked. If she squinted a little and relaxed some corner of her brain, the patterns became as legible as names. She could see, for instance, that the bright jar on the second shelf belonged to a woman; when she moved her hand closer to it, the picture became clearer in her mind: not just any woman, but the one who had come stumbling out of the Salamander House, all those weeks ago. Eugène's mother. In her jar was a small amount of what looked like golden sand, shifting about restlessly within its glass walls.

That sand looked nothing, for instance, like the dark, complicated earth in the green bottle next to it. She knew before even passing her hand over the bottle whose earth that must be: Nothing else in the Cabinet was as old or as secret as this. That's where it rested, then, the mortal part of the purple-eyed Henri de Fourcroy, put into the Cabinet of Earths when he was still young and beautiful. How many decades ago must that be? Eighty years? Ninety?

The room became very quiet, just waiting for Maya, waiting for some great thing to happen. Even the sad, old shadow of the Lavirotte witch came rippling around to the front of the Cabinet, watching her and waiting, too.

Enough. Maya put her fingers firmly around the neck of the bottle, and pulled, but at first it would not budge, a bottle-shaped limpet clinging to its part of the pool.

Stupid bottle! But it had to come out: It was the one thing Maya could think of that could give her power over the purple-eyed Fourcroy. The one thing he might be willing to trade James for. She pulled and pulled, but the Cabinet clearly did not like to let things go.

“Oh, you should have done this yourself!” she said aloud to the shadow-witch watching. “He's bad. Why did you let him go on and on and on?”

He was still my own son
, said the shadow.

(It didn't need words to say these things, of course. The glass flowing through Maya now carried shadow in it, too.)

I could not
, it said.
I could not. And the Cabinet had bound me, though I was its Maker. I waited too long, and it bound me. You must work fast, Maya. Fast!

The bottle came free then, and in one smooth motion Maya pulled it up to the surface of the Cabinet's glass pool and brought it out into the air and the world with the tiniest of little popping sounds, as if a bubble had been broken. Maya gasped as if she herself were just coming up for air, and at that moment the shadow-witch swam up to the very surface of the glass and looked out at Maya with something so like Maya's own face that it was hard to sort out what was shadow and what was reflection. Especially since the shadow then said what Maya had been thinking herself:

Quick now!
Before the Cabinet has time to bind you. A Lavirotte made it—a Lavirotte can end it!

“But my mother,” said Maya, and she hesitated for a moment, worrying.

Of course it was evil, the Cabinet, for all that it was the loveliest thing Maya had ever seen. But Maya thought of her mother, and her heart was torn right in two.

On the one hand, her mother, well and beautiful—always well and beautiful, placed right out of reach of time and decay. That was what the Cabinet could do. Her mother, safe for ever and ever, exactly as she was now, always Maya's own mother, even decades and decades from now, when Maya herself might be old and gray.

Her mother—like the purple-eyed Fourcroy.

And that right there was what you might call “the other hand.” Because her mother, her lovable, creative, ever-so-slightly extravagant mother, was nothing at all—thank goodness!—like the beautiful, unchanging Fourcroy in the Salamander House. What's more, she would not want to be like him. Never in a million years. So there.

And Maya stepped back from the Cabinet and looked around the room.

Don't do that
,
said the Cabinet. It said this by becoming even more beautiful and precious, every part of it gleaming with secret magic.
Wait a little, Keeper. We can save her, you and I. Wait, and you'll see—

Hurry
, whispered the witch's shadow in the glass.
Now. Time.

“Be quiet!” said Maya to all of them, but mostly to drown out the images the Cabinet poured into her now. The old Fourcroy's tools hung on the wall by the door. She reached out blindly and grabbed the first thing that came to hand.

(The island in the middle of the painted river; her mother looking out from one of the turrets there; safe and sound, forever and ever—)

“Not fair!” said Maya, and she heaved the thing in her hands high above her head. A hammer. High above her head, and then her arm froze.

Because this is what the Cabinet was saying now:
Are you absolutely sure, Keeper? Are you sure?

“Not fair,” she said again, but her voice had slipped into that other world, the world of the painted island, the world where her mother was safe, forever and ever. She could feel the tug of that place on her, and the Cabinet's warm whispers spreading like worry through her veins.

I'm already a little bit stuck
,
she thought. There was some important reason why she should not get stuck, though she could not quite remember, just then, what it was.

(At that very moment her mother turned in her painted turret, in all that loveliness, and looked straight at her. And shook her head to get the too-perfect paint out of her hair.

Honestly, Maya
,
she said.
Stay here FOREVER? Without even a bridge or a boat? Are you absolutely nuts?

And then the Cabinet raged around her in beautiful fury and took all the images away.)

Time! Maya, unstuck, swung the hammer forward as hard as she could, and the world exploded with a bright, splashing crash. It hurt too much to think, so she just closed her eyes as tight as she could and swung the hammer, again and again and again, while the sounds changed around her, the glass splintering like ordinary glass, the metal pinging and denting under her blows.

When she finally opened her eyes, she was astonished by the crumpled heap in front of her, a messy jumble of glass and metal, all dim and broken now, in the room's gray light. Specks of earth were wriggling away in all directions, already looking for the people they had come from, long ago. They were moving fast; they were crawling away under the door, like crumbs blown along by an invisible wind. Like ants gone wild. They would find their people again, the earths, and all those beautiful, golden faces would be part of time again. Would change. Grow old. And, one day, die.

A single old bottle, faintly green, stood undamaged on the floor beside her. Maya let the hammer drop to the floor, and picked up the bottle with numb, disbelieving hands.

It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, the Cabinet of Earths—and Maya had destroyed it.

For a moment she stood there, blank, just staring at the wreckage.

But now even the wreckage was changing before her eyes. The shards of glass had already lost their edges: Soon there was a shining puddle of glass on the floor, right there among twisted bits of brass fronds and broken leaves. The salamander was gone. The glass puddle gleamed and sighed and shrank, giving off wisps of steam as it went. Now it was no longer quite as big as a manhole cover—now it was only the size of a dinner plate—now it was an opalescent splotch no larger than the palm of her hand—

And she reached down without thinking and scooped it up, a warm circle of glass/not-glass against her skin. In her hand it stopped vanishing: it seemed almost to hold its breath.

“Glass is not a liquid,” said Maya aloud. She was still half in a daze. The glass melted and remolded in her hand, teasing her, almost. So she took it over to the Old Man's workbench and poked a string through it: it wanted to be worn around her neck. It needed that.

And then the clock in the corner began again to tick. It was almost one, said the hands of that clock: one o'clock in the afternoon. One o'clock! One o'clock! That woke her right up: The purple-eyed Fourcroy had taken James a little more than an hour ago.

Chapter 15
Every Single Drop

S
he paused only long enough to stopper the green bottle with one of the Old Man's little woolen sheep. Then Maya hopped over the oddly determined trickle of earth still pushing its way over the threshold and ran back through streets, métro stations, avenues, parks, all the way to the Salamander House, the bottle in her coat pocket thumping against her hip with every step she took.

There was a crowd, a beautiful crowd, clustering around the entrance to the Alchemical Theater. A matinee, must be. Ha! The earths would find them soon enough. Maya tucked her chin down and kept moving. If the old Fourcroy was right, there were ways into the Salamander House from the back of the theater, but she would never be able to sneak past all those noses unnoticed. So she left the back door alone and went to the front, where the salamander handle turned to stare over its shoulder at her as she came panting up.

Nobody else was there; even the old lady was gone from her bench. She glanced up and down the street and then typed the code: 1901. The year that the building had been built; wasn't that what the purple-eyed Fourcroy had told them? The salamander was chilly now under her hand.

When she pulled the door open, still there was nobody. She didn't go toward the stairway doors this time, where the buzzers were.
Back doors
, she had been thinking. The Old Man had given her an idea.

Parisian buildings of a certain age, like the one she had been living in since August, have certain things in common: They have garret rooms under the roof where the servants used to live, back when people expected to have servants. And they have dark wooden staircases winding up to those rooms, somewhere behind the marble glitter of the front stairs and the lacy metal elevator shaft. And the dark wooden staircases have to connect the garret rooms with all the building's kitchens, so that the poor overworked girls from the country could come slipping down from their attics to their stoves and worktables without offending their masters' guests by using the same stairs. And the back staircases had to connect the kitchens with the rubbish heap, too, so that the country girls could make the chicken bones vanish neatly after dinner. “Like magic,” Maya's father had said, when he took Maya and James on a sneaky expedition up and down their own back stairs.

Not really like magic, though
, thought Maya darkly
. Nothing but magic is really like magic, when it comes right down to it.

She slipped into the courtyard as quietly as she could, and there it was, in a corner by the row of green and yellow trash bins: a plain wooden door. And sure enough, it hadn't quite latched properly, when the last person had pushed through it with his garbage bags. One sharp pull, and she was in.

Bare wooden stairs make more noise than carpeted ones, but she went up as quietly and quickly as she could, counting the flights as she climbed:
two, three, four
. . . . By then she was panting. And out onto the fire escape for a moment; through another door, and there she was. Inside.

The room had been a kitchen a hundred years ago, but now it was a kind of laboratory and supply room. Sinks and beakers everywhere.

Her heart was pounding so hard she had to wait for a moment before peeking out into the hall. She tried to take very quiet breaths.

But there was no one in the hall, either. And it was definitely the purple-eyed Fourcroy's hall, the same hall Cousin Louise had shown her weeks ago, only now she was farther down it than she had been before, and the apartment's entrance seemed very far away, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. She slipped out into the hall itself, feeling very exposed, and made her way up to the next door: nothing. A storage room. Everything still quiet. Oh, maybe there was really nobody here, maybe the apartment was empty, maybe this whole day had been some kind of elaborate, terrible false alarm—

And then from beyond the next door came a little sound, a small ghost of a snuffle.

She put her ear to the door, listening for whatever noises cousin-uncles might make, and heard nothing but that little snuffle again. Nothing uncle-ish about it at all. Too small for that.

All the same, her hand felt very alone as it reached out for the handle of that door, and she turned the knob as slowly and silently as she could manage, opening the door just a sliver at first, just to peek.

At first she saw only the afternoon light glinting back at her from those looping tubes of glass, those metal instruments arranged against the green walls, the silvery vines that crept up the sides and back of the beautiful, terrible chair.

Another little snuffle. She hadn't even seen it, at first: There was a miserable splotch of darkness crumpled in that chair. All of that twining loveliness wrapped around a huddled little figure, its eyes tightly closed against the light.

“James?” she whispered. It was so hard to see, with all those funnels and tubes and wires so delicately snaking around that small head.

The splotch of darkness opened its dull brown eyes and looked at her. It was James. And yet—sort of not James, all the same. A shadowy James. A dull James.

She was too late.

And rage welled up in her, welled up and spilled over. She almost couldn't speak, she was so angry—at the beautiful Fourcroy; at the school's guardian, who had just let James go walking off like that, with someone calling himself an uncle; at her parents, for bringing them to this terrible, terrible city; and most of all at herself, Maya. Who always came too late. Who always did the wrong thing. Who couldn't save anyone, not even her brother.

She was pulling at the tubes and belts and funnels all that time, digging her brother out of all that mess. He didn't even complain as she yanked on him. Whatever those awful mechanisms were designed to do, they did it somehow without so much as a single wire breaking the skin. And yet some terrible change had been worked on her baby brother, all the same.

“James!” she said, hugging him finally, with all the fierceness of her despair and her rage. “Why didn't you wait for me?”

“Don't feel so good,” said James, and he slipped right out of her hug onto the floor.

“Did they hurt you? Are you hurt? Where'd they hurt you?” said Maya, pulling on his arm.

James shook his head. He wasn't really resisting her; he just wasn't doing anything. “Tired. Leave me alone.”

And he sagged over into a small uninteresting lump at her feet. Against the gray of the floor, he was actually—Maya's heart contracted—rather hard to see.

All right. Maya's life was over; everything was ruined. Her brother had been turned into a miniature Cousin Louise, and it was
all her fault
.

She felt the full hopelessness of all that, but below the hopelessness she found she still had a firm layer of something else, something that had come up from deep inside with the rage and the anger. She recognized it by now, that solid thing in her:
sheer stubbornness
, that's what it was. It could hold you up for a moment in a wobbly world. You could stand on it and get your head above water for a moment, just long enough to find something else to hang on to, maybe.

She lifted her head and looked around. The tubing that she'd pushed away from her brother's head still loomed in a glassy tangle above and to the side of the chair. (And on the shelf, waiting, one of those sweet little silk boxes, with silvery writing on the lid:
for Maya
, it said.
A gift
. Empty. Waiting. She couldn't waste time worrying about it now; she just slipped it into her pocket, while her eyes worked to make sense of all the tubing.)

From a step or two closer she could see how it all connected together, all those tubes and cylinders and mysterious silver containers. There—at the end of the tangle, the tube emptied into a funnel. And the funnel rested in the mouth of a clear glass cylinder, about the size of a coffee mug. And in that cylinder, a liquid, a pale, straw-colored liquid. She put her nose down near it, and it was faintly sweet.

It all reminded her of something. In the woods once in New England, when she was very little, she had seen a tree with a wooden pipe coming out of it, like a faucet, almost, and a bucket underneath full of what looked like water.

“Why is there water coming out of the tree?” Maya had asked her father, and he said it wasn't water at all; it was something called sap. And the sap would be boiled down until it was maple syrup for pancakes. See? He had her stick her finger into the bucket and taste it, and it was true: There was just the slightest hint of sugar to it.

So this, thought Maya now, was the sap that
anbar
came from, before they did whatever they did to it to make it thick and resinous and powerful. A last drop eased out of the tubing and fell, with the slightest of
plonks
, into the cylinder. She reached out and picked up the glass with both hands.

“James,” she said, turning around very carefully, so that the liquid wouldn't slosh. “Sit up! You have to drink this. Right now.”

On the floor by that awful chair, James just shook his head.

“Right now! Do you hear me?
Sit up!

She risked one hand to haul James up a little by his shoulder.

“Drink this,” she said, holding the glass up to his mouth. “Come on. Quick!”

“Don't want to,” mumbled James, his eyes dull and tired. “Leave me alone.”

Well! The anger in her came together into something very pointed and precise. She squatted down so she was looking right into James's slumping face and pinched his shoulder again to try to make his eyes focus.

“You listen to me!” she said to him, in the harshest, bossiest hiss of a whisper she had ever used on him in all her years of sistering. “I am NOT going to leave you alone, you dope! You drink this right now, or I'll be really, really, seriously mad. I will tell Mom on you. I will take that stupid windup clown I gave you, and I will
throw it in the garbage!
Sit up and drink.”

James sat up a little. He did seem just a smidge more awake.

“Don't throw out the clown,” he said.

“Drink this,” said Maya. “See? It's nice.”

He took a drowsy sip, and then sat up a bit more.

“Okay, I tasted it,” he said. “You won't throw out the clown?”

“If you want your clown back,” said Maya, making every word as full of weight and edge as she could manage, considering she still had to whisper, “You will drink this up. Every. Single. Drop.”

“Okay, okay,” said James, taking another swallow.

“More,” said Maya. “Quick.”

She had been so focused on James that she had hardly been paying attention to anything else, but suddenly she realized that she had been hearing a slow, tapping noise for a few seconds: the noise of someone somewhere coming up a long flight of stairs.

This room! That dreadful chair! James still sitting on the floor, with the glass tipped up at his mouth!

“Come on,” she said. “We've got to get out of here. No—bring the glass, too.”

James had put it back down on the floor as she pulled him up.

“I finished already,” said James. He was quite awake now, Maya noticed. There was something almost like light in his eyes again—a dim light, but still. And he was just the slightest bit more visible against the dull color of the floor.

“You bring it along,” said Maya. “I want you to lick it clean.”

He did smile at that, a halfway smile. And Maya took his hand and led him down the corridor, the way she had come: through the old kitchen and out on the fire escape for a second, where the back staircase was.

“Hey!” someone shouted at them from far away. Maya glanced down, and there was a fat woman in the courtyard below, looking up at them with an angry face.
Strictly
not allowed
,
probably, for children to go out onto the fire escape.

Maya dragged James into the back staircase and paused for a moment, listening. Yes, there it was: the door, many flights below, creaking open. Angry feet on the stairs. So that wouldn't work.

But there was another door out of this staircase, a door leading to the left, and when she tried the handle, it opened.

“Quiet,” she said, right into James's ear. “Come on!”

Behind this door was a long wooden hall, a forgotten place, it seemed like. Empty rooms opened up on either side of it, and there were cobwebby doors that looked like they hadn't been used in years. At the end the hall angled sharply right, went down a couple of steps, and became dimmer. And at the end of that stretch of hall was another door, and another wooden staircase, wending its shadowy way up and down.

“Cool,” said James, sounding much more like himself.

Maya squeezed his hand.

“Come on,” she said. “Let's go.”

They padded down that long staircase, down and down and down and down. Maya was trying to count the flights, but it was hard to be sure. Some of the landings didn't even have doors to break up the blankness of their walls. When Maya and James had come down what she thought must be at least four stories' worth of stairs, they found themselves standing before another door, a very old door, by the looks of it, with looping lines of metal hammered into it, another one of those graceful iron plants James had once thought must be—what had he said?—
squids
.

Maya eyed the door with some doubt.

“There are a lot of stairs in this place,” said James, and he sank down onto the bottom step.

“No, you don't!” said Maya, hauling him back to his feet. “You do
not
get to quit yet.”

And she pushed them right through that door—into yet another hallway.

Another world, you might also have said, from the plain wooden staircases and abandoned halls behind them: Here every inch of the wall, of the floor, of the ceiling was decorated with tendrils and birds, little animals peeking out. The lampshades were curling blossoms of metal and glass. All in all, a riot of unliving life. It made you feel uneasy, being surrounded by all of that frozen motion.

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