Read The Cabinet of Earths Online

Authors: Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths


For Thera, Eleanor, Ada, and Jenna,
the girls of the Square de Robiac


ALL AT ONCE THE WORLD WENT very still. She was floating; she was underwater: All the room's sound was replaced by a throbbing hum, light streaking slowly away from everything it touched. She stretched one hand out (the air was as thick as syrup; her arm moved with the slow grace of an aquatic plant) and tried to say something, but her voice was gone, too.

The cabinet itself
was calling to her.


Nothing is lost, nothing is created,
all is transformed.

—Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier

Chapter 1
A Tangled Family

t was his own grandmother who fed Henri-Pierre to the Cabinet of Earths, long ago when he was only four. Don't misunderstand! It happened like this:

They were dark and cold, the first days of 1944 in Paris, and between the winter and the war, everything was bad. There was never quite enough to eat, and the rooms they lived in were never really warm, but when the electric lights winked out, Henri-Pierre and his grandmother lit a candle and huddled around its friendly yellow glow, feeling almost comfortable despite everything.

“Hands are for making things,” she told him. Her own were slim and nimble and had magic in them that could turn an odd end of wood into anything you asked for: a tiger, a salamander, a tiny ship with paper sails. Once upon a time those hands had helped make the Cabinet, and the Cabinet was maybe the most beautiful thing in the world, with the mysterious bottles glimmering behind its glass front.

“What do we keep in our bottles, little one?” she asked him sometimes, and he would make the wrongest of guesses, just to hear her laugh: “Lemonade! Water! Tea!”

“Not in
bottles,” his grandmother would say (their own private joke), and she would lean forward and whisper the secret into his ear:
“In our bottles we keep Time.”

So Henri-Pierre knew what Time must look like: black grains of earth, straining like something hungry against the bottle glass.

“It wants to get out,” he said once, and his grandmother moved him another pace away from the Cabinet (which he must never, never touch).

“Yes,” she said. “The earths will always dream of the people they came from; that's true. Time is restless that way. It wants to live in things and change them and make them old.”

She put an arm around his shoulder and leaned closer, to whisper right into his ear.

“But in our family we know: There are secret ways to hold time.”

,” said Henri-Pierre contentedly. It was like the glow of warm milk in your belly, the knowledge of all the things your grandmother could do.

His grandmother surprised him by shaking her head.

“Not just magic, little one,” she said. “Someday you'll understand. Oh, I walked in magic every day as a girl, but what did I know? It was how we saw the world, my family: my mother, my grandmother, all of us. Walking in magic is not
it. But your grandfather came and found me—”

“—And brought you away from the woods and the fields,” said Henri-Pierre, in a happy singsong. (He had heard this part of the story many times.) “And brought you to the city where the towers grew—”

“Yes,” she said. “The largest tower of all had just grown there, and your grandfather had helped build it. Because in
family, they were always scientists: builders and chemists. And
was a real Fourcroy, handsome as a prince and twice as ambitious. A great man, your grandfather! He said to me:
Think what we can do, the two of us together!
Science and magic, in a wonderful tangle!
A tangle, you know, is more powerful than a single thread alone.”

Henri-Pierre had had snarls in his hair, so it was hard for him to think of tangles as something very grand, but he nodded anyway, like a good child, to keep the story going.

“What he began, we continue,” said his grandmother, and for a moment she seemed too splendid to be anyone's grandmother. She seemed like someone who should sit on a throne and rule a whole country, not huddle in a cold room in Paris with a little boy like Henri-Pierre. “We have an hourglass now—not here, my dear! hidden away!—that can pull the earth right out of a body. Yes. And the earths stay safe in their bottles, and the Cabinet holds them, and their people, wherever they are, can never grow old or ugly or die. You see how fine a thing it is, child, to be a Cabinet-Keeper!”

She smiled when she said that, a smile that danced like fire in her lovely eyes. She was the best and kindest of grandmothers. And that was not all: She looked so very young, almost like a girl.

The war had taken his parents away. Fever had killed his mother, and his father was in what they called (in whispers) the Resistance, which meant fighting and hiding and never being able to come home. Only his uncle came by sometimes, his beautiful uncle with the purple-blue eyes.

” His grandmother had laughed at him. “Is that how we speak of our uncles, Henri-Pierre?”

But his uncle
beautiful. When he walked along the streets of Paris holding his beautiful uncle's hand, people turned their heads to watch them go by.

And then one day the terrible letter came, and when his grandmother looked up from it at Henri-Pierre, her eyes were like two dull stones.

“Your father is dead, Henri-Pierre,” she told him. “My son is dead. And his own brother is the one who betrayed him. So my son has killed my son.”

He couldn't understand what she was saying, but the look on her face frightened him very much.

beautiful uncle
,” she said, and the words were as cold as the metal bars of his cot. “Not so beautiful, after all! I find I want no more part of this world.”

She got up from the table and went into the other room where the Cabinet was, and Henri-Pierre followed her on his little quiet feet.

He was still very small, so when his mind stored this day away as a memory, it may have changed some things or even made things up. Because what happened next was very strange indeed.

His grandmother lit the two big candles on the table—and then went up to the door of the great Cabinet in the corner and put her hand right through the glass. He must have seen that wrong. Right through the glass front of the Cabinet went her hand, but the glass didn't break. Instead it swirled a little, like a pond when you throw a stone into it. It rippled. Inside the Cabinet the candlelight flickered in the many glasses there: the tall flasks, the little vases, the clear, fluted bottles. Even the earths themselves, in their glassy containers, seemed to wake up to the candlelight, to give off sighs of color: red, brown, ocher, yellow.

He saw his grandmother's lovely hand hesitate for a moment, and then close around one of the Cabinet's bottles—her own bottle! she had told him that once, which bottle was hers—and bring it out through that swirling, liquid glass.

, don't!” he said, because he knew the Cabinet must never be touched, and there was something horrifying to him in the sight of her fingers emerging from that vertical pool of glass.

She put the bottle down on the desk and turned to look at him.

“My poor child! You are so young, but I'm afraid it must come to you,” said his grandmother. “I trust no one else, and the Cabinet must have its Keeper.”

What exactly happened then? He must have stumbled. He fell forward into her arms and felt something sharp pierce his hand, so that the blood came welling up, and his grandmother took that hand and pressed it into the glass of the Cabinet, only it really wasn't proper glass anymore. It was something else that crept like melted wax around his small fingers, flowing and strange. For the briefest of moments it felt like something was being torn from the deepest part of him. He cried out, and at that very instant his grandmother pulled him away from the Cabinet, and the glass was whole again and solid.

Long after, the pictures would come back to haunt him: his grandmother at the table with her bread—and everything covered with the eager, shifting grains of earth she had poured out of that bottle of hers, the bread covered with earth, earth spilling out of the cup she drank from, earth creeping toward the corners of her lovely mouth, while he stood there and pulled on her arm and cried.

“How well it remembers me, the earth!” said his grandmother, as if it were all a dark wonder. As if it didn't matter that a child was weeping at her elbow, wanting her to stop all this and be herself again. “After all these years, it comes back to me. Good. I want to be done with everything.” And that was the most frightening thing he had ever heard.

He pulled on her hand, her familiar, gentle hand, and as he touched it, it changed under his fingers, became wrinkled and dry and splotchy.

he cried out, but something terrible was happening to her face as well, her lovely, loving face. The light was fading in her eyes, the smooth skin of her cheeks becoming wrinkled and brown.

“Oh, my dear boy,” said his grandmother, noticing him again. She was sorry for him; he could hear the pity in her words. “Cry for your father now, yes, but don't waste your tears on me. Not yet. Even this way, I will last a little while.”

But never again did anyone mistake his grandmother for his mother: no. The earth had stolen her beauty and made her old, all at once.

“She lost her son,” they said about his grandmother, “and her hair went white overnight. Like a fairy tale, the poor thing.”

Well! It is better to read fairy tales than to find yourself caught in them. His grandmother had withered away, and the Cabinet's spell had pierced the soul of Henri-Pierre: His body and spirit were curled up tightly around it, and it would not let him go.

Henri-Pierre de Fourcroy grew up and grew old, waiting for someone to come who could break that spell and rescue him. More than sixty years he waited, and then he woke up one morning and felt a twinge in his bones: change in the air. He did not know it yet that summer morning, but the person he had been waiting for all these years had finally come to his country, and the wheels were in motion that would bring her to his door.

Her name was Maya Davidson, she was twelve years old, and she had spent much of the month of August in a very bad mood.

Chapter 2
The Salamander House

hat sneak of a mirror was what gave her away, lurking as it did in the little lobby between the main entrance and the inner glass doors leading to the stairs and the elevator. It was dim in the lobby, and Maya (trying so very hard to be helpful and cheerful) was hauling the umpteenth suitcase in from outside when a shadowy figure caught her eye and made her jump. An actual French person! What would she say! But at that very moment her dad slapped a button, and the lights came on, and she saw it was only her own worried face staring back at her, caught like a prisoner in the glass of the wall-sized mirror. Like a strange, sad creature in a cage at the zoo. There should really have been a little label under the mirror to complete the effect:




Which all goes to show that it is hard to hide how you feel, when mirrors are out there everywhere, just waiting to pounce.

“Hear that?” said her father. “That brother of yours is
making a racket.”

It was true. Some small elephant was galumphing down the stairs from the apartment four flights above, shouting loud, silly things as it went: “Ticky! Ticky! Boo!”

Her dad stuffed another two suitcases into the tiny elevator and called up the stairwell.

Hush! Your mother needs some quiet!”

A pair of curtained doors burst open, and a large woman, her hair in a bun on the top of her head and one hand planted in warning on her hip, came glaring into the lobby.

she said, but it was Maya she frowned at—and then she went on and reeled off a page's worth or more of angry French. You didn't have to know a word of the language to understand perfectly well what she was saying:
Elephants in French apartment houses—not allowed! Noise of any sort at almost any time—not allowed! American children—

At that point James himself, no longer an elephant at all, came through the door into the lobby, and the woman swiveled her head to look at him.

“James, this is Madame Pascal,” said Maya's father.

And James smiled and put out his hand, for all the world like a child who has done nothing but study the international rules of etiquette for years on end.

The concierge melted, of course. Adults always did, when confronted with James, the bear cub look of him, his tawny brown hair, his brown, brown eyes, the dimple in his left cheek, the way he looked right into their suspicious faces and smiled. Everything that Maya had to steel herself to do, like asking strangers for directions or talking to the person in the next seat on an airplane, came as naturally as breathing to her baby brother. And he was only five!

While the woman started another speech in French, this one in an entirely different tone of voice (
“How cute your
son is! How adorable! How well-behaved”—
again it was easy enough to understand the gist), Maya added a suitcase to the crowd of bags waiting for their turn at the elevator. They looked like such patient little creatures, those suitcases. It almost made her smile, despite everything.

“No shoving, now,” she told them, and turned to go back for the next.

It was one of those moments: the concierge retreating, her irritation apparently all evaporated, back into her den; James beginning to bounce up and down on his heels and pulling on Dad's sleeve; her father's face slipping for a moment into the tired worry that was always there somewhere these days. Thinking about her mother, probably. Thinking about noise.

“James!” said Maya. “You know you can't be loud in here. Let's go outside and look around.”

“Exploring!” said James. “Cool!”

Her father looked so relieved that Maya almost felt embarrassed.

“Oh, yes, good idea,” he said. “That's my girl! I'll finish up here. Wait, wait—here's a map of the
. Look, I'll make an
—that's our building. And right there—that's James's school. Go give it a look, maybe, you and the Live Wire—”

Who was already pulling her right through the door.

“Let's go over there,” said James, pointing down the street with his free hand.

“No, no, it's this way,” said Maya, finally having found their street on the map. “You heard Dad. We're going to go look at your new school.”

“Soon I'm going to have about a hundred new friends,” said James, with total confidence. “And they're all going to be French.”

“Well, good for you,” said Maya, and the bitter wave of thoughts that overtook her then—going to
in this place! in
! with
no friends at all
!—made her drag James along down the street so firmly that he yelped in protest.

“You're pulling my arm off!”

“No, I'm not,” said Maya. She did slow down, though. They had come to a pretty big intersection, and then it looked like they were supposed to go on up the next avenue, the one that went at a strange angle to everything else.

“Well, you don't have to be such a grump face all the time about it,” said James.

A flash of misery went right through her. Her mother had a saying for bad days:
Life is full of lessons, and the grades aren't fair
. By which she might as well have said,
Sometimes your mother gets sick
—really sick, like having to go through chemo and losing all her hair and most of her get-up-and-go—
and you have to be a very good sport
. Not just for a day or a summer, but for
. And here are the lessons Maya had learned about trying to be always, always a good sport:

  1. it's exhausting; and

  2. nobody notices; and

  3. it doesn't really work very well, anyway.

Nope. Because consider this. When Maya's mother was finally done with chemo and radiation and all that other awful stuff and tiny curls of hair were beginning to sprout up again like lamb's wool on her bare head, she had looked up from dinner one night and said in this funny voice, sort of wistful and hopeful all mushed up together:

“You know, Greg, I was thinking again about Paris.”

There was a laboratory in Paris that wanted Maya's dad to come do research there. Physical chemistry, which was his particular specialty. A letter had even come from a society of some kind, all gold seals and long words—a special fellowship so he could bring his whole family! Moving expenses! An apartment!

“Almost like magic,” said Maya's mother.

“No such thing as magic,” said her father, the scientist. “But it's pretty good news anyway.”

And then her parents both turned and looked at Maya.

And at that moment Maya's fate was sealed. Because let's face it, when your mother, your one and only mother, whom you love more than anyone else in the world, has come back from nearly dying of cancer to say that her one great wish has always been to take the family to France for a year—you do not say no.

You say, at most, “Umm . . .” And a few months later all the muscles in your face will ache from trying to form the helpful, positive expressions
good sports
wear on their faces all the time, and you will find yourself standing on the avenue Rapp in the center of Paris, five thousand miles from your best friends and your bedroom and your
, and despite all that effort all that time, every mirror you glance into will echo back your miserableness at you.

She blinked away the tears as roughly as she could, and at that moment James yanked himself free from her hand and ran forward a few paces.

“Look, Maya! It's a salamander on the door!”

James was very into salamanders, because they were amphibians.

“No, it's not,” said Maya, without even bothering to look, and then she did look.

“Hey,” she said. “I take it back. That
a salamander.”

It was large and made of brass, and its head was turning to look at them. It was, in fact, the handle of the front door of that house, the one right in front of them. What kind of building had a salamander for a door handle? Maya stepped back to look.

It was one of the strangest buildings she had ever seen. It was covered with patterns and carvings—iron phoenixes decorating the edges of the door, a beautiful, melancholy stone woman staring down at them from above the door, a fox draped gracefully about her neck, more people farther up—were those Adam and Eve?—plants, the heads of cows holding up a balcony on one of the upper floors. And almost every line a curve of dark stone. Swirls and curves, like waves breaking or vines coiling.

James had his head pitched at an impossible slant, the better to stare up at that complicated, swirling façade, and then he started to laugh.

“Look, it's you!” he said. “They put a Maya statue on their building!”

“Don't be silly,” said Maya. “That's not me.”

Her head was beginning to hurt. It had been such a long, strange morning. She squinted up at the building, and the sad stone woman gazed right back down at her, her carved eyes full of secret stone thoughts.

“My hair's not that long,” said Maya, but she almost didn't finish the sentence. It was true—there was something familiar about that face. Too familiar, almost. She backed away another step or two, taking James with her.

,” said James, with total conviction. “Cool!”

Was that really how she looked? Couldn't be. But then again, maybe she
look something like that, if she were carved from limestone or granite or whatever it was.

A stone mirror
, she thought. And felt, for a moment, most peculiar.

“Let's cross the street so we can see the whole of it,” she said, her voice just a bit too loud in her ears.

The building was not symmetrical; that was part of its oddness: About three floors up, a rectangular window on the left contrasted with a tall, curvaceous oval on the right, as if the building were raising a skeptical eyebrow. And above that, a narrow balcony lined with pairs of pillars in another kind of stone, something green and mysterious. It was another world, that building, and that other world was gazing down at them as they stood on the corner with their heads cocked back.

“There's a man up there looking at us,” said James, pointing. “See him?”

“Don't stare,” said Maya, grabbing James's hand again.

“He's the one staring,” said James, and then he smiled and waved up at that vine-green balcony, those undulating, gazing windows.


Really, it was impossible, trying to keep him under control. She looked up quickly, trying to assess the damage, and caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man leaning over the little balcony way above, something dangling from one relaxed hand: glasses? a pipe? She had had enough. She swung James right around to get him back on track, facing down the other little street, the one his school was supposedly on.

“It must be right here,” she said, her jaw tense. And then: “Oh, whoa!”

Because when they turned into that street, all they could see for a moment was a lacework of iron climbing high, high into the sky.

“It's the EVIL TOWER!” said James, delighted. “Is this my school? Wow! Look at that! The Evil Tower is right above my school!”

“Eiffel,” said Maya. “It's the

The strange thing was it didn't look like any postcard of Paris she had ever seen. It was much huger than she had thought. It was really, really big. It was immense. And the building on the left really was an elementary school. But James could hardly be made to glance in the school's direction. His eyes were stuck like glue on that tower.

“Can we go up to the top?”

“Not now,” said Maya. “It's time to go back, anyway.”

“Let's go right up to the top!”

“I said, not now.”

She practically had to drag him backward to the avenue Rapp, his head all tilted with longing as the Evil Tower fell away out of sight behind his future school. They had to wait at the crosswalk for a moment then, just opposite that strange house with the salamander on its door. You could not help staring at that door. It was so alive with creatures and curlicues, and when the door swung open, the salamander looked back over its bronze shoulder at you in the most disconcerting way.

No, not just that: It looked right at Maya and flicked its thin, bronze tongue.

Maya jumped and blinked. So that was what jet lag could do to you! Make door handles come alive!

But then the man who had just come out through that swinging door across the street paused to adjust his glasses with his long, pale hands, and for a moment Maya could see no salamander at all.

“Look!” said James. “There he is again. That's him!”

“Don't point,” said Maya, her heart still racing a little from the weirdness of the salamander.

“I wasn't pointing,” said James. “I was waving.”

“Don't wave either!” said Maya, in some haste. “It's a rule: You can't wave at people you don't know.”

She said that very quietly, bending down over James's ear and kind of blocking his view with her arm for a second, just because you never knew, with James, when he might start not just smiling and waving but—who knows?—handing around invitations to his next birthday or something.

“It's green!” said James, unperturbed. He had been peeking under her elbow at the light. “Come
. Did you see his dark goggly glasses? I bet he's a spy.”

The man couldn't have heard. He was all the way on the other side of the street, after all. But he paused for a second and turned his head very slightly to the right, just as a person might turn his head to listen to some interesting sound coming from fairly far away. And then he straightened up and walked away, his steps fluid and bouncy. Young steps. He was a very young man, despite the elegance of his clothes.

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