by Shannon Peavey
There was a man in those days who lived in the house on the hill with a thousand creatures
in cages. His mother named him Ludovic, but he called himself Doctor.
He employed a girl from town to help with his work, paying her in gold lumps the size of
a baby's tooth. In return, she held the light steady as he put pins in the flight feathers of a terrified
bullfinch, skewering it to heavy cardstock. He sketched its shape, measured the length of its
claws. And when he was satisfied, he killed it and ate its heart raw.
Though he would answer her questions about the creatures they studied, their qualities
and place in the natural order, he paused when she asked why he did it. "Alina," he said, "what
do you think about this world? Do you ever doubt what you see? That this is the truest world, the
"No." Alina was a pragmatic girl.
The doctor smiled and tapped his bloody fingers to his temple. "But I doubt it," he said.
"The only world I know to be real is the one I am building in my mind. And once I come to know
something, it no longer has reason to exist outside. It exists in me, in the world I'm building, and
Alina said nothing and the doctor's smile sharpened. He said, "One day, all things will
exist only in me." Then he turned from her and went to clean his hands.
A shiver crept down Alina's spine. Her not-sister hissed to her: Do you hear that? We
can't let him know us. Not ever, not ever.
Alina gathered up the dead creature and carried it to the garden. She tried to pinch its
ribcage closed, but the bones were snapped too far and the ends wouldn't meet. So she buried it
in a shallow hole next to the others, near the grass and a sprawl of white alyssum.
The doctor watched her from a window high in the house. His hands were clean and he
had licked all the blood from his teeth. But when Alina looked up, feeling the prickle of his gaze
on her neck, he was gone.
All right, we're done, her not-sister said, please let's go home--but Alina said, Don't be a
coward. We have things to do here still, and she dusted the black garden-dirt off her skirt and
went into the house to get the doctor's supper ready. She made him sour fish soup and sausages
and left the meal on the table. She'd never seen him eat anything other than the bloody hearts. But
when she came back in the morning, the dishes were always empty--so she supposed he must
take some nourishment.
The doctor called to her when she was at the door with her hand on the latch. "Alina," he
said. He was somewhere above her and his voice came disembodied down the stairwell like a
proclamation from heaven. "Did the things I said frighten you?"
The windows alongside the door showed the sky streaked orange and grey. She had to
hurry if she wanted to get home before dark. Her mother was expecting her.
She said, "Yes."
"That's good." The doctor's voice was soothing. "That's your animal instinct for survival.
You know it--you've seen it in the beasts, just before we rip out their hearts. But you needn't
worry. There are so many things to know before I must know you."
Alina lifted the latch and went out into the dusk. She shut the door firmly behind her and
told her pounding heart to calm.