Emile darted across the lawn and disappeared on the path to the woods. Finger-length twigs disintegrated under her shoes. She pulled a small wooden box from her shirt pocket. It was small and ordinary except for an assortment of tiny seashells someone haphazardly glued to its top.
The remnants of a charred skeleton frame surrounded her. She thought a house must have stood on the empty lot decades ago. Its foundation was covered with small sprouting plants.
Emile opened the lid and little clinks and clunks began pounding out a melody. She closed the lid leaving the familiar but unnameable tune half finished.
“Grandpa found an old music box in the woods and let my mother decorate it when she was my age.”
Jack eyed the pearly pink shells in disgust but nodded.
Clem spent most mornings in her room or digging for bugs and worms in the backyard. After looking for nearly an hour they gave up and went in search of Clem’s mother.
She wasn’t hanging her crisp laundry on the clothesline but sitting at her spotless kitchen table. She jerked upright when Jack rapped on the pristine white paint of the screen door but slumped immediately when she recognized Emile’s red hair and freckles.
She finished her cup of coffee, walked to the sink, poured the rest of the half-full pot down the drain, and muttered it’s cold under her breath.
Jack cleared his throat. She jumped, scattering coffee grounds across the counter.
“She never came back inside. Her father is looking…”
Thoughts pounded in Emile’s head. Thud, thud, thud. Maybe it was just Jack’s shoes pounding the trail in front of her.
“Thought you said you were fast.” Emile’s legs were tired but she lengthened her stride. She barely passed him as they whooshed by a recently fallen tree branch, their designated marker.
“You stopped too soon, I meant the next branch.” Jack grabbed her around the waist and wrestled her to the ground.
“Get up.” Jack said.
The music box dislodged from her father’s shirt pocket, landed face down and started playing. She stared at the ground in front of her and noticed little scratches on the bottom of the box. Her grandfather engraved her mother’s name, Elizabeth, in tiny cursive letters burned in the wood.
Emile lifted it expecting a million pieces to fall. She turned it over in her hands and opened it.
“You gave me seven years of bad luck!”
There was a single crack in the mirror glued inside.
“That’s just an old wives tail my dear, don’t be upset.” a voice said directly behind them.
A strange woman bent down to examine the box. She ran her index finger along Emile’s mother’s name and picked up the broken shells.
“Scars make you interesting.” The woman placed the shells in Emile’s hand, “but you can fix the outside if it’s that important to you. It’s what’s inside that truly counts however, remember that!”
She shook the box seven times with a bony hand. When she opened the lid iridescent dust lifted from its corners leaving a perfect mirror.
“Wh-wha, who are you?”
The woman smiled. “My dear children, I am Madame the Magnificent!”
“My name’s Emile.”
“Don’t tell her who we are—” Jack’s sentence ended in a howl, Emile had stood on his foot. “Maybe she can help us, Jack.”
“What can I assist you with, my dear, what was it… Emile? Odd, it’s usually a boy’s name, several attributes come to mind… rivalry… emulation… eagerness. Yes! Of course, you were named for your grandfather, am I right?” Emile contained the bubbles she felt popping near the back of her throat and nodded.
“We don’t got all day, have you seen Clem or what?” Jack blurted.
“Oh my, I think I may have seen a young girl wandering near my place, looking for wild mushrooms no doubt.”
Madame looked as if she were remembering a particularly pleasant afternoon.
“I haven’t seen her in nearly three weeks. I have always found stories to be most helpful when I am looking for something I’ve lost. Are either of you fond of fairy-tales?”
Madame the Magnificent pulled the branches of a willow tree aside revealing a tent adorned with tiny lights. The bee sized bulbs flickered on illuminating the darkening woods around them.
“Would either of you like any tea?”
Emile declined as Madame led them into a smoky sitting room. It smelled strongly but not unpleasantly of exotic incense. Candles turned to molten puddles of wax. Tiny flames cast shadows across a circular glass coffee table. Madame’s arms were covered with jeweled bracelets and a translucent beaded shawl was tied in elegant knots along with strands of crow black hair.
Madame produced an ornate wooden box from underneath the table. Its surface was inset with green gems and decorated with intricate patterns. She lifted the hinged lid to reveal a stack of strange looking cards. They were larger than the deck Emile’s grandmother used to teach her solitaire.
Jack noticed too because he started to make a remark before Emile jabbed him in the ribs with a pointy elbow.
“Pick your card, young man.”
Jack hastily pulled the first card off the deck and flinged it across the table. Madame’s eyes gleamed slightly as she gave an airy overdramatic laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, just affirming my suspicions.”
Emile looked at the card. The man was right side up and looking at her. He waved as he hung by one foot.
“The hanging is merely symbolic, I assure you. Anyway your card is inverted so it changes the meaning a bit.” She looked from Jack to Emile and smiled.
“It means you are somewhat of an outcast and you often put up a wall when threatened but rarely act on negative impulses.”
Madame focused her attention on Emile. She shuffled the cards and set them down.
“Any card child! Pick up the deck, hold them in your hands and feel which one is calling to you.” Emile felt a little silly and tried to ignore Jack who looked as though he would burst with laughter. She felt a strange sensation in her fingertips. She stopped shuffling and placed her card on the table.
“Now, turn the card over. Doesn’t matter which way. I can read it.”
Emile flipped the card over. Facing her was a girl that slightly resembled herself. She had wavy red hair only she wasn’t just a girl; she was a fish as well. The Mermaiden was suspended in a melting background of ominous black seaweed. Her fins were translucent; blue waves crashed behind her. She held a large shell to her ear and smiled a dreamy sort of smile as if she were a million miles away.
“You must watch out for souls on your journey tonight. The music of the entire ocean is locked inside the Mermaiden’s shell. If a Mermaiden is not careful she can be so entranced by the power of the music that her long hair tangles around her wrists and her fins become tangled in seaweed. Finally, she dies from her own paralysis.”
Emile’s feet tingled. She moved them and found her whole left leg had fallen asleep.
“What does that have to do with souls?” Jack demanded.
“The souls of the dead, however good in life have only one purpose in death. That purpose is to reunite with what they were seeking.”
“This is crazy. You don’t believe in all this do you, Em?”
Madame’s face suddenly became very grim. She rounded on Jack.
“You can laugh at ghosts, say they don’t exist!”
She hit the table hard with her fist causing the cards to spread out in one fluid motion.
“They say some souls are allowed to stay back. They stay asleep mostly, they’re only allowed to wake up on Sundays, the day of rest according to most myths. On this day, ghosts rise from their graves and monsters wake up from their fairy-tales.”
Emile noticed a shadow move across Madame’s eye.
“If by chance you happen to hear screams inside this fairy-tale, if you hear your heart pounding loudly, or if you see a fairy or a dark elf, don’t be alarmed. They cannot hurt you. If you get lost in the woods close your eyes and ears. If you have the time, lose yourself in dreams for a little while. Old and young all grow up with fairy-tales.”
Madame’s eyes returned to their bright color as she laughed and led them outside.
The moon was rising steadily in the sky. As they left the tent Emile turned to thank Madame but the woman and the tent seemed to vanish into thin air. She shivered a little and worried that Jack might not be able to put them back on the path to Clementine’s house.
Emile noticed a clearing through thickset trees. She could see a shack surrounded by torn apart cars and machines.
An old man came out of the shack carrying a large burlap sack. She watched the him hoist the bag over his shoulder and disappear into the woods. Jack pulled her along the path. The man stopped near an area that was filled with an odd collection of crumbling cement staircases.
They weren’t connected to any houses and didn’t lead anywhere but some of their iron railings were still attached. The old man walked behind a tall set of stairs and stared at the ground. He tossed the sack into a hole. Jack stepped on a tree root trying to get a better look.
For a moment the old man seemed very confused. Emile could see individual specs of dirt sticking to his sweaty skin. He wiped his face with the back of a wrinkled hand. He looked around for a few moments before slowly walking back toward his house.
They waited for his footsteps to fade before moving closer. A chain attached to a collar rested on the bottom stair, the silver tag said Oscar in slanted black letters.
Emile collected a bunch of wild flowers and placed them, root and all, on the freshly packed earth.
“He must be all alone now.” Jack said, “We better get back and see if Clem came back yet.”
Jack turned to leave but Emile fell forward, a tree root seemed to reach out, twisting her ankle. Bent down in pain thoughts flashed between Clem shivering alone in the chilly night air and her grandmother snoozing in an easy-chair with television snow creating nightmarish patterns in her oversized glasses.
Jack helped Emile up and slowly led the way down a dim path. She limped behind him as the moon was nearly overhead. They could see Clem’s house in the distance. It was glowing. Light beamed from every window nearly blinding the children as their feet sunk slightly in the gritty sand of the river bank. The moon seemed paler somehow.
Jack stopped. Emile nearly walked into him but wavered, placing her sneaker down in the foamy lip of the lake. She could feel it seeping through her shoe and deeper into her sock.
Hairs on her arm and neck stood. Wind blew bangs around her eyes, obscuring the stinging porch light that hummed behind the slender figure of Clem’s mother.
Emile watched as all the lights in the house popped off one at a time like fireflies burning out one by one. The only light left on was the porch light which illuminated the figure of a man standing near the river.
Clementine’s father was standing further down the edge of the lake holding a bunch of wild flowers. Clem would have known their scientific names. He laid her flowers in the sand and went inside.
All heat from the day was carried away by gusts of wind. Something blue buzzed near Emile’s ear. It zoomed out of sight, disappearing in the brightness of the moon. In semi-darkness they listened to the river trickle by.