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.

Teeny Haunts: Mad Mary

When I was 12 or 13, my parents shipped me off to summer camp up in the San Diego mountains. I think they just wanted to get me out of their hair for a little while.

The whole experience. Dusty cabins with a trek through the dark just to go to the bathroom. Me not knowing a single person. Me, the quiet artistic type trapped in a situation designed to bring out the social.

I hated it.

Well, not all of it. You see the counselors (I assume it was them) had nailed up a pair of rusty manacles to a tree by the lake. And they told me the tale of how Mad Mary used to be chained up. Her hair and fingernails grew long. She munched on squirrels or birds. Anything that came too close. Until one day she got free.

I’ve been to this camp again. It’s run by the YMCA and is right outside of Julian. You see, as a sixth grade teacher, I busses whole groups of impressionable kids up into the mountains.

Yet the tree with manacles is gone. And not a single person up there recalled the tales of Mad Mary. Had I dreamt it all up. Not likely. The stories provided fertile soil for my budding imagination.

This is how the tale start. Next Teeny Haunts will continue the tale.

Stay Haunted…

Tim

Mad Mary (Why We Love to Be Scared)

Children love to be scared. Heck, we all do. This Halloween, a colleague and plan to host a Scary Story night at our elementary school. In past years, I tried to read the classics, excerpts of Poe and Stoker. Mostly the kids were bored. I think they only stayed out of respect. And the candy. (Mostly the candy).

Then I got smart. I started asking kids what they liked in scary stories. Started recalling all those creepy stories I’d heard as a kid. I discovered two things: kids like gross plus a little bit of humor.

I dug up a story I hear while I was at a summer camp in the mountains (Camp Marston). The actual story had very little detail. At least that I can recall. I remember hearing about the cattle mutilations. There was mention of a wild girl with ultra long fingernails and crazed eyes. Of course I heard the story over a campfire under a night sky. Very spooky. The camp even had a tree with the manacles still bolted in. That was the best part. Scared the crap out of me.

Obviously, the camp had to take them down. None of the existing counselors remembered Mad Mary. I did a search for her, but came up with nothing.

I decided to write my own version of the story, taming it down a bit for the kids. Here’s what follows:

When I was in sixth grade, I went to Camp Marston, and the counselors there told me the story of Mad Mary.

It seemed there was a girl named Mary. As she grew up, she became more and more insane. Her parents were very old and didn’t want to send her to a mental hospital. They kept her at home away from any other people.

But Mary grew worse. She would growl like a wild animal and gnaw on the furniture like a dog. One day she attacked her mom. Bit her in the arm. Blood was everywhere.

Her father yanked Mary away, but didn’t have the heart to call the police. You see, he still loved her. But she was out of control.

He chained her arms to a tree. He brought her food and water every day, but never unchained her. There she stayed for a whole year.

Now, I told you that her parents were very old. They both passed away suddenly one night, leaving Mary totally alone. She cried all day and all night, calling their names. No one answered. They were dead.

But Mary was still chained to the tree. Unable to get food or water.

For several days she screamed for help, but the house was high up in the Julian hills. There was no one around for miles.

Finally, insane with hunger, she snatched a squirrel off a branch and ate it. Whole. The blood reminded her of when she bit her mother’s arm.

For the next few years, this was how Mary survived. She ate animals that strayed too close. She sucked the dew off grass. All that time she was chained to the tree. Her hair grew down below her bottom. Her fingernails grew long and sharp. She used them like knives to catch her food. And her eyes showed a growing madness.

Finally, the bolts that attached the chain to the tree pulled loose. Mad Mary was free. She scampered off into the woods, dragging the chains behind her.

Every few years after that, farmers would find a that a cow had been killed at night. The animal was sliced open along the gut. Mary had used her long sharp fingernails. And the insides were chewed up.

Now, Marston still had camp for sixth graders every year. One year, a little before I went to camp, a boy named Chris came up with his sixth grade class. Chris was a very forgetful little boy. He had his camp list, but seemed to forget everything.

He forgot his flashlight, his camera, his Chapstick, and his pillow. He remembered his shoes, thank goodness, but even the things he brought he would leave in his cabin.

One day, he was going on a day hike. He brought his jacket because it was chilly in the morning. By afternoon, it had warmed up, so he took it off. That evening it cooled down again, but he couldn’t remember where he left it. The weather turned cold and he shivered.

This was the skit night, and all the students were gathered in the main cabin with the stage for the show. There was a lot of noise with people laughing and clapping.

Chris needed to go to the bathroom. Now normally, he would go with a buddy. But he was embarrassed that he had lost his jacket. So he snuck out of the skit night and headed down to the bathrooms.

It was a clear night with the stars twinkling in the sky. The shadows seemed impossibly dark. By the time he reached the bathrooms his heart pounded hard inside his chest.

Then he heard a noise. It sounded like someone dragging something. The clinking of chains. It was Mad Mary.

Clink. Clink. Clink.

Chris froze. The sound was coming from the field between the bathrooms and the skit night. He couldn’t get back the main cabin.

He cried for help, but of course no one heard him. They were all enjoying the show. If he had brought a buddy, he might have been all right. But Chris was alone.

He dashed for his cabin. All along the way he heard the drag – clink, drag – clink of Mad Mary following him.

He made it to the door, rushed inside, and jumped into bed. He threw the covers over his head.

Outside her heard drag – clink, drag – clink.

Then, along the wall outside the cabin, Mary scraped her long fingernails.

Scraaaaatch. Scraaaaatch.

Then she reached the door. Chris heard the click, click, click of her fingernails on the wood. Then the handle turned and the door squeaked open.

The sounds of the chains drew closer—drag – clink, drag – clink—until they were right by his bed. Then Mad Mary spoke.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

She snatched the covers away. Chris saw two beady eyes peering through the long tangled hair. She held the sheet between her long sharp fingernails.

“You forgot…your…jacket!”

Earlier, on one of my first visits to Camp Marston as a sixth grade teacher, I dropped hints about Mad Mary to many of the kids. We arrived at camp on a Monday and left on a Friday. For several days I got little to no response. I had pointed out a tree that looked like it had been clawed by Mary. Everything changed on Wednesday.

At lunch recess, two contractors were repairing a door. I casually told the students that Mad Mary had ripped it off. They went to ask the contractors, who, going along with the gag, said that she had.

Within a few minutes, students were seeing Mad Mary everywhere. In the trees. In the shadows. I had to start backpedaling, saying that the story was made up. I did some damage control.

Usually on Wednesday, we teachers drive into town for dinner, skipping the meal with the kids. Big mistake. A student from a different school had been nervous about life at camp. For the past few days he had not defecated, scared of the walk to the bathroom outside his cabin. That night, the constipation had reached breaking point, so to speak, and he passed out. Immediately, students spread the rumor that somehow Mad Mary had done the deed.

I was reprimanded for spreading the story. The student recuperated at the hospital. Everything went pretty much back to normal. But I remembered the incident. I was amazed at how much a single story could affect people.

Tim Kane