Come, come, say his hands as he leads you through the foyer, nothing to light his way but a dusting of blinking ghost lamps. His coat, a long affair with too many pockets, pirouettes about his legs as he twists and turns. Come and see what I have just for you.
And here in the dark with shining eyes and his grin reflected in your spectacles, you believe him. You’ve read about him: a connoisseur of oddities, a collector of dreams and nightmares, only one show in each city he visits. The premiere event, they call it. They say he travels with so many glass jars in his pomegranate-red coat that it chimes as he rides from city to city, ever the showman. You saw his horse, a big black stallion with blinkers over its eyes, untethered, waiting.
What is in the jars, they cannot say. There have been no reviews or articles, no indication of what the show might entail. Ask and you will not be answered.
Arched over the doors in beautifully painted script are the words: you will not share what you see here. When you pass beneath them, your stomach drops and settles, like something has been tombed in place—a contract signed by your entry. You swallow down the nerves gnawing at your throat. It’s the mystery that lured you here after all and the ticket your mother thrust at you.
“Take it. You need to go out more. Experience things,” she said. “Have the life I never had.”
“I know, Mama,” you said. “I want to.”
Her cheeks pinkened with hope and you wanted so much to please her, so here you are. You didn’t lie—you do want to. You want to tease all the secrets from the world. You want to drink from the well of adventure, and the first step is the theatre and its strange show. You’re running late and there’s no time to wonder why you’re alone, why there’s no one else here.
Once you’re inside, it’s as if you and he—the Collector—are the only people alive in all the world. It’s not difficult to imagine ghosts in the dark.
The theatre is old and small, and all of the seating has been ripped out. Ghost lamps flicker at its edges, emitting pallid light and an insectine buzz—constant and threatening—as if they might swarm or surge at any moment. The auditorium is shorn into a semi-circle, its stalls punctuated with curtained shapes; look up and you can see the dress circle too, the balcony, each with curtained structures of their own.
Something sweeps past and you jump, but it’s just the dark and the quiet. That’s all.
He takes your hands now and bile rises in your throat. They’re waxy, his hands, and cold—but foul too, like sinking your fingers into fresh soil and finding something dead there. You bite the inside of your cheek; you should leave but this is what you’re here for, and there is wonder in it, dark and strange though it may be. You straighten your shoulders, steel your resolve—
And stumble. Your foot snags on the floor and your shoulder slams hard into the Collector’s chest and something crunches. He wheezes out a breath. Theatrically, he dusts you off.
Recovering, the Collector leads you to the first curtain, plain black, tall and cylindrical. He smiles, releases one of your hands and inclines his head towards a golden cord. Pull it, the hand says. Pull it and be awed.
You swallow. You don’t know why you close your eyes when you pull the cord, but you do. You keep them shut tight until you hear the drape unfurl and land with a heavy thump at your feet.
A glass cylinder stands before you, casting a pale light into the auditorium. At first, you don’t look at it, you look at your hands—at how grey they are in the blue light. You catch your reflection, gaunt like a doll unpainted, before you see the face of the ghost child in the glass behind it. A shriek hitches itself in the roof of your mouth so that the only thing that makes it out is a muted squeal.
The Collector smiles again. This time he shows his teeth, cracking the pale make-up on his face. He still has one of your hands in his and pats it when you gawp at him—horror etched into your cheeks.
The boy doesn’t move in the glass; he sits, wide-eyed, and stares until you look at him, really look at him. See the dew drops in his hair and how his shirt is bunched halfway up his chest. How the pads of his fingers and his toes are puckered.
Only when you have noticed all of these things does the dead boy drift upwards. Gently, at first.
Then he’s kicking and his fingers are raking his neck so hard that the skin breaks. His mouth is open, fat tongue protruding and eyes bulging. The giggle rises without your say—delirious and wild. This can’t be real, just a boy in make-up, spooled up on wires. A brilliant actor for a child so young. But there are no wires, and you can see his fragile bones through his skin, see the stringy pull of muscle as he fights.
It is not hard to imagine the water, murky and dark around him. Imagine his heart slow as he drowns. The dead boy is desperate, but he’s tired and you can’t tear your gaze away from his dying.
A hand clamps on your shoulder and your focus snaps to the side—but there is nothing there. When you look back, the dead boy is gone, and the glass is dark—you have missed his ending and you are glad.
Glancing around the auditorium, you search for smoke and mirrors, for proof of his artifice—but there is none.
The Collector clears his throat. There is a smile on his face still, but it does not reach his eyes. He stares at you as he speaks, your hand still mulched in his. Even though you are his only audience, his voice is deep and booming, like a door slamming shut.
“Ghosts,” he says, sweeping his free hand wide, and you believe him.
“This one I found in a canal after the thaw.” He pulls a small jar from his coat. “He was so cold that he crawled into my jar willingly. I only had to ask.”
The Collector offers it for your inspection. “Careful not to break it.”
You expect it to be heavy or special in some way, but it is completely ordinary. There’s even a sticky residue where a label used to be. As you stare at the jar, you wonder if the dead boy liked jam once.
The Collector plucks it from your hand and moves on. You follow dumbly. You want to rip your fingers away from his, experience be damned. You would apologise to your mother later, or pretend you stayed, pretend you witnessed wonderful things. But you can’t, you can’t even try, such is his power—his voice may be a door, but his grasp is the lock, and it is rusted shut. When you think to pull away, your hand only tightens around his, unbidden.
He pulls you to the next curtain and you hope, through shivers and sweat, that this one will be different. Its shape is different, at least. This one is wider and shorter, about your height, but it cuts the auditorium in half like a stunted corridor.
The Collector gestures at the rope. This time, you don’t close your eyes.
You pull the cord and the curtain drops and there she is, leaning against one end of the tank. She is angry. Her stare dares you to look away, to take your eyes off her for one moment, but you don’t. You watch until she pushes herself from the glass and marches forward. She is the leader and you follow.
As she reaches the end, she opens her arms, and you feel a hand knit its fingers between yours. You know, like with the boy, that if you look down you will see nothing, so you don’t look down. Figures unseen grasp her arms and thrust her backwards—there is a mark on her hand, a devil’s mark. Your mind pictures the stake on which they bind her, the one that your eyes cannot see, and though there are no flames, you watch her burn.
As her body blackens, you count the curtains: three more down here, one each on the dress circle and the balcony, and then the stage itself, the largest of them.
You look back before she is ash. Perhaps it’s not real. Perhaps it is just stage magic and you’ve been fooled. Soon, the house lights will come on and the Collector will laugh, your mother will emerge from the stage pleased with herself and her elaborate joke, and you will chuckle along with them—embarrassed but relieved.
“She fought, truly.” The Collector produces another jar. This one has scrapes and scars on its insides. “She didn’t want to go. She wanted to keep fighting. But I took her all the same.”
The not-hand slips away from yours, and the Collector pulls you deftly to the next curtain, his teeth gleaming bright. Together, you perform the same dance: the cord is pulled, the curtain drops—and the case is empty.
There’s a hole like a scream in the side of the glass, as if something tore at it with its teeth. Cracks spider-web out and throw the lamplight across the room in shards.
The Collector stands statue-still for a moment. Not even his coat dares swill around his ankles, nor do the strands that have fallen from the slickening of his hair with his breathing. In the stillness, the electrical buzz looms louder, filaments clinking in their bulbs. The jar he pulls from his coat is shattered, its own jagged teeth jutting into his palm.
Careful not to break it—his words slip into your mouth, and you almost say them aloud, smug.
Until the ghost lamps go out.
The shriek unmoors itself from the roof of your mouth and you fill the auditorium with it. In the shock of your scream, the lock of his grasp springs open and the Collector releases your hand. But you do not run; instead fear presses you against him, breath close, fingers buried in his lapels. Mildew fills your nostrils and the rough down of his coat scratches at your face.
What am I—you shove him away, mouth filled with spit and bile, as if it were he who cowered into you in the dark. You reach into your pocket for a match but there is none—the pack is home by the stove where you left it.
Cold fingers touch the back of your neck, and you sense rather than hear the words: the jars. Please. The cold sweeps your cheek and you suck in a breath.
Now that your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, you see him flee in monochrome. The dark has stripped the Collector of his colour—the deep reds of the circus, the gold of a stolen sun.
You cut past each curtained monument, each diorama of death after death after death, and wonder why he’s leaving them.
Shoving your arms out in front, you grope for him. Your fingers graze his collar and the Collector stumbles towards the door.
But he’s not fast enough.
A presence erupts in the doorway. It is old, a woman far older than anything you’ve ever seen, the lines in her skin thick like treebark. Museum relics have nothing on the cold of her, on the thick matting of her clothes, her hair, her skin. She is older than the earth below and angrier still by far. There is something in her hair that shines like crystal. The broken case, the broken jar.
The sight of her makes him falter just enough.
You tear into the seams at his shoulders, catching your nails in the rough stitching. You rip the garment away from him and the momentum slams you against the hard floor. The coat falls and when it lands, the auditorium is an explosion of glass and spectral screaming.
The Collector scrambles back until his hands fall on your boots. All around, the dead emerge from behind curtains, and, on the stage, the grand drape ripples with the souls of an entire regiment of boys too young to have died—what a finale that would have been. Absently, you hear the faint hum of the generator crawling back to life, and relief pools in your belly. But it doesn’t last.
Cold grips you and you kick at the Collector, pushing off with your feet—anything to get away from the dead and their rage. He is quick to recover, making for the door far at the back of the auditorium now. The dead do not rush as they approach him—nothing is as inevitable as they are, and they can walk far longer than he can.
But the Old One sees it before you do, emits a screech, bestial and wild. He’s going for the fusebox.
You rush forward as if you can stop him, but he is too far away and by the time you’re up and running, it is done.
He leans on the heavy switch, gasping. The ghost lamps burn bright, and the cavalcade of the dead are thrust to the centre of the room, trapped there by the exorcisant glow. You stop to watch them writhe away from the light, pity daggering your chest and a sob bleeding up from your throat.
The Collector slips from the auditorium.
When, finally, you heave your way outside between sobs and shaking, the Collector and his black stallion are gone. If you listen carefully, you swear you can hear the faint rattle of glass.
As soon as you are out of the doors, your sobs fall silent. You grab at your throat just like the dead boy did, but the cry doesn’t return. You try to shout for someone—anyone—to chase him but you can’t. You are mute.
There was a rule when you entered the theatre that felt like a promise, like a spell, like a curse. A contract you signed with your step: you will not share what you see here.
And though you want to—you want to travel ahead of him to the next city and the next, find each ticket holder and make them swear not to go in—you know that you won’t. That you can’t.
When your mother asks later—“How was the show, dear?”—you know you won’t say a thing.
© 2022 Elou Carroll