The Castle on the Back of a Snail

Chapter 41

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

Kassandra caught up with Monstro the Snail, but had to power walk to keep alongside it. This close, it seemed even more ginormous. Maybe if she stacked a few stories on top of the high school gym, plus gave it a high carb diet, it might be the same size.

She glanced toward the stained glass tower perched on top. How did she get way up there? Running a finger along the shell, Kassandra felt the slick surface. Not going to climb that. She circled the creature, examining the undulating pattern on the snail’s shell. A bit of light reflected off the indentation of slender stairs etched into the surface. They mimicked the pattern of the shell, creating a kind of illusion. Kassandra grabbed the first step and clambered up.

When she reached the top, the nightingale greeted her from its perch next to the door of the tower.

Twah-twah-twah-too-weet.

“Easy for you to say.” Kassandra placed one hand on the tower wall and leaned down, panting. “You flew.”

The glass wasn’t smooth like the windows at home. The surface bubbled and wobbled. It almost felt alive. Thick bands of lead joined the geometric shapes of stained glass with no obvious pattern, just a mishmash of red and blue glass all the way up. How did this thing stay up? Nothing seemed to support it except the glass and lead.

Even the door was stained glass, though it was composed of tinier shards. Kassandra peered through one of the walls, but the glass was too thick see anything.

“Okay. This better take me someplace good.” Kassandra gripped the red crystal door knob and pushed. Metal hinges squealed, alerting the whole planet that she was here. So much for being subtle.

She shoved the door farther in, initiating another piercing screech from the hinges. The bird swooped through and zoomed into a room at least two stories high. The walls glowed red and blue, lit from the light outside. At the far end, stairs circled up to the next level.

The place smelled like oranges, reminding her of Luke’s cologne. A quick scan showed about twenty wooden baskets hooked on jagged bits of glass in the walls. She stepped closer to examine one. It was crudely built out of wood and twine, with dried orange peels and sticks of cinnamon stashed inside. Luke had the same sort of basket contraption strapped to his belt at the circle of wagons. She recalled reading about these things in social studies class. They were called Pomanders, a sort of medieval deodorant. 

Kassandra turned and her foot struck a discarded chair leg, sending it rattling along the floor. The wood had been hacked and splintered, with strips gouged out in places. A few more lonely chunks of wood lay scattered about. One looked like it once belonged to a table. When she took in the room as a whole, it appeared vacant, as if there should’ve been furniture. Luke must have dismantled it all. Maybe to build the pomander baskets. She lifted one from the wall, taking in the sharp smell of oranges. These were made with tiny scraps of wood. 

“Where did the rest of the furniture disappear to?”

Kassandra headed for the stairs, meeting up with her nightingale perched on a banister of glass and lead. From somewhere above came a muffled squabbling sound, growing louder as she climbed. A strong musky scent mixed with the sharp tang of ammonia drifted down. Kassandra pinched her nose. Whatever the smell was, it reeked.

The nightingale fluttered over and landed on one shoulder. So far, the bird hadn’t touched Kassandra, much less landed on her. The needlelike claws dug into the skin. Why couldn’t the bird find some other place to perch on? 

Kassandra rounded a bend to find a massive room filled, floor to ceiling, with bird cages—each one inhabited by a nightingale. There were hundreds of them, all screeching and flapping their wings. What the heck was Luke doing in here with all these birds?

Stepping into the room, Kassandra wished for one of those Pomander baskets. She needed something to mask the stench. Everything was caked in bird droppings. The cages. The floor. The stink was eye watering. As she moved farther in, the birds accelerated their chatter, all chirping at once. Bits of down feathers floated in the air and stuck to the gray sludge coating the floor.

Kassandra walked a slender path worn into the mounds of bird poop. Strips of wood and chunks of stained glass had been stitched together with wire to form the cages. This was where the rest of the furniture had gone. Luke must have smashed it up to make all these cages. The birds pecked frantically at the sides, their beaks clicking on shards of glass.

“I can’t leave them locked up like this. They’ll starve.” 

Kassandra leaned down to the nearest cage, where a strip of paper had been tacked to the bottom. It read: JUSTICE. Was that one of the Tarot cards? She couldn’t remember. Untwisting a pair of wires allowed the door to swing open. The bird shot out, flitting about the room.

Kassandra opened more cages and soon nightingales crisscrossed the air, searching for a way out. She surveyed the room. There were still hundreds of cages, all with squawking birds.

“There are too many. I can’t free them all.”

A bird zoomed by her face, missing only by inches. 

“Hey, watch it.” 

The other nightingales circled and swooped everywhere. How many had she let out? Kassandra’s nightingale scuttled nearer to her head, its claws needling the skin. Birds swirled around and one dive bombed, zooming for her chest. Kassandra swatted and it veered off course. But now the others got the idea. Soon there was a steady stream of birds turned Kamikaze pilots.

Kassandra clobbered three, knocking them off to the side. But the fourth managed to strike her chest. Instead of bouncing off or clinging and pecking, the bird burrowed straight through, as if her shirt and body were made of sand.

A numbing chill spread through Kassandra’s torso as the bird burrowed its head in. She staggered back, head spinning. Her hands groped for the squirming bird, but they responded as if drunk, grasping at empty air.

Her own nightingale leapt up and began pecking at the other bird, yanking out feathers. Finally the bird wiggled out of Kassandra’s chest, revealing its head and beak again.  The instant it was out, her gut twisted up.

The other bird flew away, pursued by her nightingale. But with her chest wide open, the rest of the birds resumed their diving runs. Kassandra struggled forward on wobbly legs, swiping the air wildly. Tiny bird bodies slapped into her hands. More by chance than actual aim.

“Get away.”

She spotted another set of stairs and dashed over, strength rushing through her legs again. Kassandra took the steps three at a time. 

The birds pursued, twirling around in the narrow stairwell and knocking into the stained glass walls. Many gave up and flew back to the room leaving only a handful, but these ones still dive bombed. One darted right in front of her eyes and she swatted at it. The bird pinwheeled into the wall and then crumpled to the ground. 

Another one swooped low and pecked at her hair. Kassandra shook her head and rushed up the stairs. Finally, the last bird gave up and flew away. She collapsed on a step, gasping for breath, sides aching from running. 

Kassandra sat up straight and looked around. Where was her nightingale? She stood, but had to stop from hurtling down the steps. That would only bring on another skull pecking. Kassandra edged down the curved stairwell and the sound of chirping and flapping wings grew louder. She stiffened at the sight of the swatted bird. It lay on the steps, one wing bent backward, its leg twitching. A shiver swept through her. Had she attacked her own nightingale?

As Kassandra crept closer, something caught her attention. A lone bird flew shakily toward her. It swerved left, nearly colliding with a mound of cages. It had the familiar light brown coloring of her own nightingale. 

The other birds zipped through the air, pecking at the walls and sparing with each other. 

Kassandra’s nightingale wobbled to a landing, nearly crashing on the stair below her. She leaned over and held out one hand.

“Come on.” 

The feathers in its right wing looked twisted. Some had been torn out. It flap-hopped into her hand.

A shriek came from the room. They’d been spotted. Kassandra cupped her fingers around the bird and bounded up the stairs. A mass of beaks and claws chased after. This time she had a head start and raced through the stained glass door at the top before they could reach her. Kassandra leaned on the door, shutting off the stairs. The birds clamored against the glass, searching for a way in. Her pulse rocketed, feeling the vibrations of all those squawking bodies. After a few moments, the pecking died down until they all fluttered down the stairs. She let herself breathe. 

Her nightingale quivered in her palms. “I’m so sorry.”  

Something else in the room chirped. Kassandra jerked her head up and instinctively cupped a hand over the nightingale. One of the other birds had slipped through. 

She scanned the room for the source of the sound. There was a desk and a bed, both pushed up against the curved walls. The covers on the bed were partly tossed aside. Luke had driven wire hooks into the lead molding forming a makeshift closet. Clothes swayed gently to the left and then back right, moving with the undulations of the snail.

Then Kassandra spied another of those cages cobbled together from stained glass and wood. A single nightingale sat inside with a tiny scrap of paper tacked to the bottom. As she walked over, her nightingale fidgeted. The paper at the bottom of the cage was chewed almost to shreds, nearly obliterating the one word: Gabriel.

Kassandra stared at the cage. This was Gabriel’s bird. The one Luke had taken away. She squatted down, setting her nightingale on the floor. Both birds chattering excitedly. 

“What?” 

They hopped up and down in a panic. 

In her crouched position, she was level with Luke’s bed. Something shifted under the half drawn covers. The hairs along her neck prickled. She reached forward. The sheets rumpled as something squirmed around. When her fingers brushed the fabric, both birds fell silent. Kassandra grasped one corner of the covers and drew them back. She saw hair. Then a forehead. Finally a face.

It was Ezabell.