by Craig McGregor
It was always Gramma that hummed the tune to me, and when she found it and brought it home in a box, I thought she was just about the most magical person that there ever was.
She bought it from a small shop in town. Second-hand, third-hand, I didn’t know. It was worn but in the same way a favoured book feathers at the edges with fondness. It looked cared for; it was certainly more expensive than she could afford. I didn’t like thinking of her spending that much on something for a grandchild.
It was my birthday, my tenth, when she gave it to me. A special birthday, she said, deserves a special present. It was a little box, not much bigger than a jewellery one, but when you lifted that lid there was such music, such song. And though her lips didn’t move and her eyes didn’t shut, a beautiful little girl spun around on one leg to a tune so glorious that a ten-year-old child could barely comprehend it. It made my heart swell. Porcelain, Gramma said it was. Pure white porcelain. I tried the word out loud, loving the way it made my tongue dance in my mouth. Porcelain.
And when the porcelain girl twirled, she twirled in a circle, slow, but like she’d never get dizzy a drop. Like she’d turn forever if I let her. I tried to copy her for the whole song once, leg lifted as high as I could, but I only got halfway around before I fell down dizzy and laughing. It took pride of place in my room, right on my dresser. I opened it every morning and night when I brushed my hair, and it reminded me of Gramma and birthdays and good things.
One night, after I had gone to bed but stayed awake, I heard the song from across the room. Across the room and on the dresser, the box was open and playing its music. I pulled my head out from under my cover and looked right over at it and saw her turning there like it was the most natural thing in the world to be doing so. She sang without moving her lips, and as I watched her twirling, the big, bright moon draped over her in ways that made her white skin silver and her ruby lips black. It was the moon that caught her eyes as she turned and made them flash right as they met mine again. The music sounded off-key somehow. I tiptoed across the room and shut the box.
In the morning I got Daddy to look at the latch and the hinges. I said that it woke me up because he’d be cross if he knew I was awake late. He said that there wasn’t a thing wrong with my box and that I’d probably forgotten to close it before I went to sleep and it had woken me up. I knew it wasn’t so, but I couldn’t say that without making Daddy mad, so I kept my tongue in my head.
I rarely opened the box after that night. I didn’t like the way her eyes flashed at me like that, or the way the song was different. It didn’t do much for the next few months except to gather up dust that I never dusted despite what Mum said. I just told her and Daddy that I was growing up and out of it. They said that was fine, but that I should act like it was still precious when Gramma came over for the holidays. Back then that was okay by me because holidays aren’t as often as real days. So, save for those special days, the box stayed shut.
Later, in summer, at night, and under the covers, I was reading and ruining my eyes by straining them in the dark when the box opened again and started to sing.
This time I didn’t tiptoe. This time I got right up out of bed and slammed the lid shut and put my book on top of it. It was a big book, too. The music had been odd again, different in some way I can’t describe. Imagine hearing carousel music, but the music is playing backwards, or just too fast or slow. What left me standing there in the dark though, wasn’t the music. I swore that the girl used to move the other way round. I stood there and thought about it, and the terror grew around me like dandelions in the garden. Not terror just because it had moved the wrong way round, but terror because I thought it had forgotten which way it used to move, and that led onto a thought that almost kept me dandelion-rooted for hours: how can a porcelain anything forget anything?
Late that night I dreamed porcelain dreams; all red and white and turning the wrong way round.
Gramma visited that year around harvest time, same as always. She brought with her a book, a present for me, and she joked that she was sorry it didn’t sing like the last gift and I smiled and hugged her because I didn’t know what to say. I had put it under the wardrobe, gathering dust at the back where the spiders were. When she asked me to get it I almost said no, but saw the look on Daddy’s face.
The room was getting autumn-dark and the moon was shy. I had to let my eyes adjust to the gloom under the wardrobe. I had pushed back the dark in the room with the light switch, but I didn’t think any light would scare off the dark under that wardrobe. After a few seconds of staring, the grubby grey skirting board began to bleed through the black and I could see the box in front of it like the negative of a photo.
All around it were spiders. They lay upturned on their backs and their legs had curled up and in like little hooks aimed at their bellies. There were so many of them. I could see more as my eyes grew wider and let in more light. As I yelled, the dust and bugs blew back and the box seemed to shine a little even though it was under the wardrobe and at the back and the moon wasn’t going to come out that night. I didn’t think I was going to be able to grab it but I saw my arm stretch forward, reaching for it, and scooted my fingers behind the lacquered wood to shuffle it towards me. It looked no better on the desk. Dust caked it the way it does to all things under all wardrobes. I dusted it off with the hem of my dress, making sure I didn’t flick the latch up and let it open.
When Gramma left it went straight back under the wardrobe, despite twirling the right way round and playing its song the same way as I remember on my birthday all those months ago. As I shoved it, it scraped the wood floor and hit the back of the skirting board with a thunk I found most satisfying.
The next time it played I was asleep. I snapped my eyes open to the first notes of music and was properly awake even quicker than that. The room was dark above me, but the floor was filled with a light that was like trapped and angry lightning. The song roared, and I wondered how I could ever have found something so awful and haunting beautiful. I screamed into my blankets and I screamed out of my blankets for my mum and my daddy and they came running in and turned on the light just as the lightning under the wardrobe disappeared and the song stopped dead.
I yelled and I cried for them to get rid of it, to throw it in the bin, to drop it in the river, to smash it to bits, to make it gone. I wasn’t often a petulant child, but that night I refused to sleep, refused to let them leave, or turn the light off, or anything. Finally, they agreed. In the morning, they’d get rid of it and we would all tell Gramma that I dropped it and it broke beyond fixing. With that, they calmed me, tucked me in, and took the box from my room. I tensed under the covers when Daddy lay down and reached under the wardrobe to get it. He held it in both hands, and I saw him then as a jailer escorting a dangerous prisoner.
Sleep escaped me, and I stayed awake looking at the dark spot under the wardrobe across the gulf of the room. That light had been false. It wasn’t real light, like the sun, or even a lightbulb. It was fake, porcelain light, no more real than the girl in the box that scared me so much. But, what was it doing? I crept out of bed, feeling silly for being a stranger here in my own home, and crept across the boards of the floor. I flicked on the light and dropped down to look into that black space that shouldn’t have seen any light at all. My eyes took a long time adjusting. The darkness was cold like the residue of a camera flash. The blacks turned to grey, shade by shade, and shapes were revealed in silhouette. I froze, and for a moment was as still as that porcelain girl should’ve been.
My hand extended beneath the wardrobe, creeping along on spider-leg fingers. I gently curled them around what now lay beneath. My fingers confirmed what my eyes could not. I was mustering up the courage to open my hand and look at the cold things I held when the music started once more.
I cried out. Stumbled upwards. Flinging the door open with my free hand, I sprinted down the hall fuelled by fear more than bravery. The corridor seemed in that moment to be too long for the house, and I saw that awful porcelain light emanating from the gap beneath my parents’ door.
I ran towards the light, never actually wanting to reach it. The music filtered through the stillness in the air. It was stronger now, discordant, and sharp enough to cut. It filled my head and the porcelain light began to pulse in time. I thought of the porcelain girl, her ruby lips, and eyes that flashed at me in the dark. Her smile stayed static as she turned in my mind until she began to face away. Then I saw her face change, saw a sneer form before she completed her turn and was smiling at me once more.
When I reached the door and put my hand to it, everything stopped. The light, the music, the girl; the only thing left to mark the time was my breathing, shallow and quick, but alive, made of flesh and bone and blood. I waited. Whatever lay beyond the door, and I thought I knew, I didn’t think I would find the girl or the box there anymore.
I stood there for a long time, one hand on the door in the silent house, the other tightly shut, clutching the things from under the wardrobe. I uncurled my hand. Several spiders lay there upside-down, just the same way they had lain dead under the wardrobe for so long. From somewhere, moonlight flashed in all of their tiny eyes. I felt them, caressed them with my thumb, and felt their porcelain legs crack and snap and scrape their hollow porcelain bellies, like little porcelain hooks in the delicate porcelain models they had become.
Craig McGregor is a primary school teacher from Plymouth. He has an MA in Creative Writing, and his work has previously been published by Cape Fear Comics and the Sublunary Review. Since writing them their own stories his students have been his staunchest supporters, frequently telling him to “go and write some proper stories already.” His fiction ranges from quiet horror and folktales to splatterpunk, depending on how grumpy he is at the time.