“What you are looking for is beyond stories.” The Gravedigger whispered in his dry voice, like dead leaves scraping over asphalt. The glitter of his eyes was cold. Heartless stars in the dead black of night. “You will not find it in the confines of what you know. You must go beyond. You must find the place where Stories go to die.
I turned my head, peeking at Hook, standing tall and strong in his long, red coat. Red as blood, a scarlet flame in the dusty dim of the graveyard, a place full of words, full of tales of those who have come before. His face was impassable, black stubbled stone. “Where do stories go to die?” I asked.
“That is the riddle, isn’t it?” The Gravedigger made a weird, croaking noise, like a raven coughing, low in his throat. It took me a moment to realize he was laughing. “A riddle for the riddler, is it? A puzzle for the puzzler?”
“But this is the graveyard,” I said.
“This is a place of memory. The place you want kills memory. Destroys it, eats it, spits it out as nothing that will ever be Story again.” His grin was full of pleased expectation; he was having fun.
For a moment, my anger flared, bright white hot, burning through my fear and making my claws dig deep into the book laid before him. It was the book or his throat. He looked down and the mirth died on his gray and narrow face. He wanted to throttle me. But Hook took one heavy step closer, his boot heel thudding, a sound like a coffin lid falling back to let someone in.
I tipped my head, thinking hard. Where do stories go to die? It isn’t something we speak of; a story that has died is just gone. Why would we miss it? If we remain, then it is not ours. And it is hard to remember them once they are gone; we have our own stories to tend, our own lines to remember. There are places where stories live – and even though this is a graveyard, the ghosts here walk often out into the world. These aren’t forgotten stories, just ones that are in limbo; they have no real home, only this place between. Some are dying and some are waiting to be born. It is one and the same to the Gravedigger; for it is often the dying that give their soul to the child.
“When a story dies, no-one remembers it,” I whisper, eyes half closed. “No shred of it can remain, no memory of it lingers. Not even the stories of the Egyptians died so completely; they remained waiting on the walls of their tombs, patiently knowing they would be discovered again.” I remember my mother telling me that, of the bitter tannin of the dusty rooms, cool beneath the burning surface of the desert. I remember the shadows she wrapped about herself to bring me the musty scent of those subterranean depths. I bit my lip, shrunk down into pale fur and tapping tail, then back to crouching girl. “Only when the words are destroyed can the story wholly die. When paper is dust.” I paused. “No. Not dust. Ash.”
“The furnaces,” Hook whispered, whiskey rough voice full of dreadful hope and terrible confusion.
“There are no tombs or graves in a furnace,” I answer. And then I hear it. The soft shuffle of feet, rubber soles on marble floors. And I smell it. The musty, wet dog smell, the scent of fear and pain, the low, heartbreaking sense of animals that held out hope for someone, anyone to come and save them until that last, final walk. Only one place smells like that – urine soaked cages and hopelessness, the sadness of being unwanted when all you want is to love someone. I’ve smelled it before. I felt the jaws of that trap closing on me. But there was Alice. As quick as she was clever.
My spine stiffened and the Gravedigger was smiling.
“You let him in?” I hissed.
“No collar, kitten,” he whispered back. “Stray animals are such a nuisance.”
Hook’s hook. Gleaming silver steel, carven with names, if you look close enough. Many, many names. And even the Gravedigger shrank from it when Hook buried it in the table in front of him, splintering the gleaming oak. His pirate snarl was full of teeth, sharp and hungry, like a shark looking for fresh blood. “You will seek me, Gravedigger. In a thousand stories, in a million names. And you will never find all the pieces of me.” His hate was a smell stronger than even that of the beast stalking me in the shadows, the smell of winter and flesh frozen solid. “If Wendy dies? I will come for you in every guise and I will cut off a bit of you each time.” He ripped his hook out of the wood, splinters flying into the air.
He turned in a swirl of blood colored coat, a motion that had me leaping for the safety of his shoulder, curling down over bone, flat and frightened. Only those who have ever been unwanted could understand. What it is like to be hunted. To know that you could disappear and no-one would ever even notice. That they could put you in a cage and steal your breath, even though you are just a babe that did nothing more than get born in the wrong place. This is something only the left behinds and Unwrittens can understand. Sometimes there is an Alice, with her comfy, cotton pocket smelling of the flowers she used to pick. But, more often, there is not.
I breathe in scents of cigar, whiskey, and blood. I pray to gods I do not believe in. I forget that I am the Hero and the Hero cannot be taken without the will of Story. To hear the door of that cage, to know of what befell its last tenant, that is to know what mortality feels like. To be only small and alone and harmless and know that you can still die for being unwanted is to know how dark the world really is.
Hook draws his sword, eyes flashing, as a shadow steps into our path. “The kitten has no collar,” coos the sickly sweet, noxious voice that lures, that promises food and warmth and a dry bed. If you listen close enough, you can hear what really waits in that steal cage. “The kitty has no bell.”
There are rules. I am not like Peter or his boys. I am not only lost. I am a never wanted. No one but Alice would ever miss me if I was gone. Not even my parents who don’t remember the time before I was there, before Alice paid Wendy with a bit of black, silk ribbon to give me a niche where I could stay. For Wendy is the most curious of Heroes and holds some sway over the words of Story. If I am taken now, sunk before my own Story finds its way, then they will not remember me tomorrow and the only one who might come looking will carry them with her to their own grave.
Hook does not know panic. I think it likely that he’s never spoken such a word or learned its definition. He is the pirate king, the shadow of the seven seas, a thousand and one villains in a single, crimson coat. Were he anyone else, law would bind him. But what means law to a pirate? He slashed out, sword a silver blur whistling dangerously. “Ship’s cats have no collars or bells to warn the rats,” he hissed, teeth flashing white under black mustache.
“But this is not a ship,” the man says, oily voice daring Hook to disagree. His dangerously soft eyes turn to me. If you look long enough there, you will believe all that he tells you. You will think he is safety, that he will help you. When you are very small in a loud place, belly growling hungry and fur spiky with water splashed out of a grit filled puddle, you want to believe. “Here, there are rules.”
“Blast and damn yer rules,” Hook said, periwinkle eyes glimmering with coal bright sparks. “Call the guards to come, ye lily livered coward. See if they will help you here, see if they will stand against the hooked man, the pirate what slit the throat of the king, the man who sunk the queen’s fleet.”
The gray coated one lunged, fingers grabbing for my ruff. Yet this is what guardians are made for. I am not the sword bearing hero. I come to solve a puzzle, not make graves. Thus has Hook found his way into the threads of my story and thus he does fulfill his place. Slashing and cutting, he is a whirl of dancing, a man meant for killing and who embraces his destiny wholly.
He leaves behind us the grumbles of the Gravedigger and a pool of blood upon the marble. “She needs a collar and a bell,” cries the weakest of weak voices. Hook does not stop to tell him what he thinks of that.
“There will be more.” A low growl, frustration clear; how foolish to worry for mundane niceties like collars and names when the one you love lies helpless and fading. Yet a Story always has rules and there are always quests which come to trip those who wish only to race on and on to the end, where, at last, there is knowing. A collar and a bell or more gray suited hunters that come to cage me. Always more, until there are too many. I know this because I know the way of Story; first there is one, like a tiny ant, coming to scout. Then will come the whole nest, buzzing like hornets and ready to sting. Because Story may want to end, but that does not mean it always wants to end well or without some bloodshed or without doing a few dances around the mulberry tree.
“Yes, there will be more,” I whisper in his ear, watching the tick, tick, ticking of his mustache.
“And there will be Hook, right here waiting,” Hook says, eyes still blazing.