Curiosity is as central to life as breathing. And like breath itself, when it ceases, the vibrancy of life fades and disappears. Curiosity leads to discoveries both beneficent and, at times, destructive. It often occasions wonderment, but also terror. It prompts the precise scientist, but also the nosy gadfly. A double-edged sword, curiosity has forever held a crucial role in myth, literature, science, philosophy, history—nearly every field of human endeavor. While most of us know the old saying about curiosity killing the cat, we must also remember that “satisfaction brought it back.” Curiosity incites and compels, taketh away and giveth.
In this issue, curiosity impels a personal assistant to learn hidden truths about her deceased employer—a famed playwright—and his relationship with the woman who directs an Italian arts foundation to which he donated his priceless library of first editions. A novelist, inspired by a different kind of curiosity, studies the traditional teachings of his Cherokee forebears after reading the notebook his beloved grandfather possessed when he died. Elsewhere, a young boy removes his clothes and, driven by dangerous curiosity, crawls into the gaping darkness of a sewer pipe, where he mysteriously vanishes, altering the lives of everyone who knew him. While most of the stories, poems, and memoirs here investigate the places where curiosity transports us—from forgotten burial grounds to natural history museums, from alluring lakes to postapocalyptic seaside shanties—A Cabinet of Curiosity also features a singular visit to an archetypal curiosity cabinet in Amsterdam with its treasury of specimens, of oddities in jars and on shelves, of things pinned and things afloat.
Curiosity in all its guises is the wellspring of revelation. It is a prime mover behind our deeds, good or evil, simple or complicated. While the thirty-one writers gathered here individually explore many of the ways in which curiosity drives and defines us, together they propose that the realms of curiosity are, finally, inexhaustible.
A Cabinet of Curiosity includes contributions from Laura van den Berg, Ann Beattie, Brandon Hobson, Eleni Sikelianos, Greg Jackson, Julianna Baggott, Jeffrey Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, William Lychack, Joanna Scott, Catherine Imbriglio, Dave King, Lauren Green, Can Xue (Translated by Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping), Nathaniel Mackey, A. D. Jameson, Quintan Ana Wikswo, Lynn Schmeidler, Samuel R. Delany, Kelsey Peterson, Sarah Blackman, Gerard Malanga, Martine Bellen, Maud Casey, Gregory Norman Bossert, Stephen O’Connor, Matt Bell, Madeline Kearin, Bin Ramke, Diane Ackerman, Elizabeth Hand.
About the Author
Bradford Morrow (b. 1951) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, editor, and author of children’s books. He grew up in Colorado and traveled extensively before settling in New York and launching the renowned literary journal Conjunctions. His novel The Almanac Branch was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and for Trinity Fields, Morrow was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Academy Award in Literature. He has garnered numerous other accolades for his fiction, including O. Henry and Pushcart prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College.
Peter Straub is the New York Times bestselling author of seventeen novels, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. His two collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House, were international bestsellers. Two of Peter’s most recent novels, Lost Boy Lost Girl and In the Night Room, were winners of the Bram Stoker Award. In 2006, he was given the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Peter and his wife live in New York City.
Martine Bellen’s most recent collection of poetry is Wabac Machine (Furniture Press Books). Her other books include GHOSTS! (Spuyten Duyvil Press) and The Vulnerability of Order (Copper Canyon Press).
Howard Norman is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both nominated for National Book Awards. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, What Is Left the Daughter, and Next Life Might Be Kinder. He divides his time between East Calais, Vermont, and Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
Laura van den Berg
After the sudden death of my employer, I was tasked with overseeing the transfer of his personal library. The books would travel from his studio in New York City to an arts foundation in Italy, where my employer had once enjoyed a long and productive stay, many years in the past. He was a playwright — a very famous one — and his personal library contained over five thousand books, including a number of rare volumes. I had served as his personal assistant for fifteen years; in his will he had left me a handsome bonus, to be deposited after the library transfer, a task he apparently believed no one else was fit to complete. His three adult children, who had made it clear that they would not be keeping me on, bought me a first-class plane ticket and, upon learning I had never been before, offered to fund a short stay in Rome after the library business had been settled, lending my journey a morbid and bewildering aura, some combination of last rites and a holiday and a severance.
At the townhouse, the library was appraised and inventoried. Next I supervised a team of packers, recommended by a high-end auction house, as they wrapped each book in clean tissue (newspaper was strictly forbidden; the ink could damage the books), followed by bubble wrap; each package was then sealed in a plastic bag, to guard against moisture. If the packers found any notes or cards slipped between the pages, they were to bring them straight to me, for me to read and then hand over to my employer's son, who already had a novel about his father in the works (I had already deemed one correspondence too private and had fed it into the paper shredder). My employer had prized my attention to detail and my discretion, even if his children felt I had been too discreet in some respects, especially when it came to guarding his secrets.
Once the boxes were in transit, I photocopied the paperwork and packed the duplicates in my suitcase, which had not seen use in a very long time. As the taxi pulled away from my employer's brownstone, I realized I would never set foot in the building again; the children planned to sell, and by the time I boarded my return flight, I would be employed by the family no more.
At the airport in Rome, I was collected by the foundation director, an American woman driving a tiny white Fiat. She was only three years into her directorship, but had been in Italy long enough to have adopted the belief that one should not put milk in his or her coffee after ten in the morning because it was bad for digestion. I had met her several times before, at my employer's home, before she moved abroad; she used to attend the dinner parties he had been fond of throwing. As I waited on the curb with my luggage, I remembered sitting at his dining-room table and writing her name, Sylvie, on a cream place card with a calligraphy pen, the heavy cursive belly of the S, the loop of the L.
"Did you sleep on the plane? Do you feel delirious?" she asked me as we sped east, toward Le Marche, nestled between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, where the foundation was situated outside a small village.
"I'm fine," I told her. "Eager to see the books."
"Of course you are," she replied.
The drive took two hours and during this time we continued to exchange pleasantries. We never mentioned my employer directly or his manner of death, which had shocked everyone. Sylvie looked different than she had when I saw her last. Her dress — navy, sleeveless — was impeccably tailored and her wavy hair had been bobbed and streaked with blonde, the work of either chemicals or the sun. I had never known her well; after a time, her name disappeared from the guest lists, as names did on occasion, and then she returned, in a manner of speaking, after the tragic death of her son was all my employer's circle could talk about. The boy had died in a drowning accident, in the Finger Lakes region. Not long after his death, she and her husband separated and she fled to Italy and the party chatter moved on to someone else.
"I'm sure he told you all about this place," she said as we rolled down a long driveway, arrow straight and lined with cypress trees. "He loved it here."
The foundation grounds were every bit as lovely as I had imagined. From the outside, it looked like a hilltop town in miniature, a gated compound with a collection of stone buildings with terra-cotta tile roofs, everything connected by a network of gravel paths, embellished by rose gardens.
The director escorted me to my quarters, a room in a small building near the kitchen, the square windows framed with ivy. I had a view of the valleys with their pale rounds of hay, the green and distant hillsides.
"Dinner is at eight sharp," the director said, just before she left me. She added that this meal would be the first held in honor of the latest group of visiting artists and I might meet some interesting people. Yet when the moment arrived, I was made invisible, as was always the case at these kinds of affairs. I was not an artist or a curator or a director or a publisher. People talked past me and over me and around me, as though there was not a human body sitting in my chair but a tall and inconveniently placed plant. The only people who showed even a vague interest in my presence were the young playwrights who wanted to be regaled with tidbits about my employer and even then I was not quite a person to them, just a conduit. I was relieved that no one was indelicate enough to ask questions about the particulars of his death.
The director was wearing the same navy dress, but had added cork wedges and a pair of round sapphire earrings. I overheard a painter ask the director if she had children and felt a sharp pang on her behalf, a feeling that evaporated the moment Sylvie fingered an earring and replied, "Why yes! I have a son, three years old this month. And you?"
We were eating in a garden, surrounded by cypress trees and pink geraniums planted in enormous red-clay pots. A long table had been placed under an arbor; ivy dangled like green tentacles from the beams. I continued to watch the director, her earrings catching and throwing the light. She did not seem sheepish about telling such a brazen lie with me in earshot; she was simply a person who had a child once more. After a sip of wine, the most obvious solution presented itself and I felt suddenly daft: in three years, she could have very well met someone in Italy and given birth to another son.
Before departing, I had secured daily Italian lessons with a private tutor and so, in the morning, I placed a few casual inquiries with the kitchen staff and learned that the director had told everyone she had a son, but no one had ever seen the boy. The director never brought him to the foundation, not even for special events, as her predecessor had; apparently he spent the weeks with his father in Florence and only the weekends, which the director enjoyed off-site, with his mother. Of course, these details only made me more curious.
"Strange situation, if you ask me," said one of the chefs.
The next day I began my work in the library and it was a good thing I had flown all the way to Italy to oversee the transfer, as the library was otherwise supervised by an ancient man in suspenders and a part-time intern from Minneapolis. The librarian shuffled around with a Walkman in his pocket and headphones in his ears; whenever I appeared I startled him so badly that he dropped whatever books he'd been carrying. We unpacked one box at a time and began cataloging my employer's library — a system that, to my horror, was not digitized. Instead we were at the mercy of the librarian's archaic method of flash cards in little plastic boxes, each entry written in inscrutable pencil. Early on, the intern had stabbed at one of the packages with the sharp end of a letter opener and I had shrieked so loudly a stream of bats fled from the upper eaves. I rushed over to the girl and took the letter opener from her hands, replacing it with a small, sharp knife and instructions to only cut the tape and to do so with extreme care.
I know they talked about me when I wasn't around, the librarian and the intern. Once I overheard the intern asking, in Italian, why my employer had been such a big deal, wasn't he just some playwright, and the librarian had shrugged and said, "Gli americani sono pazzi."
In a hallway, I had pressed myself to a cool stone wall, breathless, surprised by my desire to smack the young intern hard in the face. My employer had sat at the center of my world for nearly two decades — if he was irrelevant to her, then what did that make me?
After all the books had been unpacked, cataloged, and bookplated, we began the process of shelving. To prepare for the donation, the foundation had constructed tall bookcases on the library's ground floor, with two inches of space between each case and the wall to encourage circulation, the wood treated with a waterborne polyurethane varnish to prevent acid from bleeding into the paper. Each case had its own laced iron door, with its own skeleton key. Soon a person would be able to stand in the center of the room, on a glazed tile floor the color of pomegranates, and be surrounded by my employer's vast collection. The library had long windows — scenic but the sunlight was a concern for the rarest and most expensive books, so a temperature-controlled glass case had been installed in a different room for a handful of select items including first editions of Leaves of Grass and Ulysses.
I was transferring one of these volumes, a rare edition of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, into the special case when an envelope slipped out from between the pages. I collected the slash of cream from the carpet and slipped it into my pocket, making a mental note to inform the auction house that the packers had done a subpar job of following my instructions.
In my room, I stretched out on a small sofa by a window — I could hear birdsong through the glass — and examined the envelope. There was no address or postage; the back flap was not sealed. From the scent of the paper, I could tell the envelope, and whatever it contained, had been between the pages of Goldfinger for some time. I opened the letter and pulled out a single sheet of stationery. The letter was addressed to the residency director, Sylvie, and signed by my employer; even before I glimpsed his name at the bottom I recognized his impeccable cursive script, the product of a lifetime of fine private schooling. From the letter I learned that he'd carried on an affair with Sylvie and the son she'd lost in the drowning accident had not been fathered by her husband, or ex-husband, but rather by my employer. The letter was dated several months after the boy died and each sentence sang out with regret — how he wished he had gotten to know his son, how he had been a coward, too afraid of his three spoiled and overbearing adult children, too afraid of his long-suffering wife, to do so much as acknowledge the child and now it was too late, far too late. He was sorry he had begged her to have an abortion and, when she refused, he was sorry he had ended their relationship the way he had. He was sorry she had to sit alone with the complicated layers of her suffering. The last sentence, which began I have taken too much , trailed off, uncompleted.
I put the letter down and listened to the birds. Before I left for Italy, my employer's son had asked me to read a chapter from his novel in progress, in which the father (who had been transformed from a playwright into a sculptor) has too much to drink while dining with his family in the countryside and, on the drive home, because it was understood the sculptor would still drive no matter how much he'd had to drink, had swerved to miss a deer, careened through a fence, and beached the car in a lush green field. Then the father hoisted the boys onto the roof and instructed them on constellations while the mother wept in the front seat. He was magical and terrible, and he despised every one of us — that was how the chapter ended. My employer's son wanted my opinion on whether the father character seemed "accurate" and I had wanted to tell him that, in the end, I had not known my employer as well as they had believed.
I wondered at what point my employer decided the letter was not one he would send and if he already knew, at the time of the writing, that one day not so far in the future he would take his own life.
All night, I flopped around in bed, trying to decide what to do. If I had discovered the letter in New York, I would have destroyed it at once, but finding the correspondence at the foundation, with its intended recipient not a hundred paces from where I slept — well, these facts altered the terms. More than anything, though, I kept thinking about writing Sylvie with the calligraphy pen, the fat S and the looping L, and then her name being replaced by someone else's. My employer had had many affairs through the years, most of which I'd been at least passingly aware of, but this one I had missed. Where had my mind been?
The day the library transfer was completed, I shook hands with the librarian and the intern and thanked them for their labor. I said it would have made my employer very happy to see his books in such a beautiful place. Then I walked across the grounds and knocked on the director's office door. She invited me in, offered me an espresso.
I sat down across from her and placed the envelope on her desk.
"What's this?" She peered down at the envelope, but made no move to touch it.
"I found it in a book," I said, "while we were organizing the library. The letter was written by my employer and it was meant for you."
I leaned forward and nudged the letter a little closer to her.
"It's about your son," I said.
"My son?" She sat up very straight, her back pressed to her chair.
"What would he have wanted with my son?"
"It was written after your son died," I said. "I think you can imagine what my employer might have wanted to tell you."
"I don't know what you mean." The director gave me a pinched smile. Her hands were in her lap, but there was enough space between her chair and the desk for me to see her long fingers coil into fists. "I saw my son just this morning."
"Sylvie," I said. "Let's stop this. Please."
All the windows were open, the linen curtains billowing in the breeze. The gardener kept a team of hounds on the edge of the property, and I could hear them baying in their kennels.
"This is a strange conversation," she said. "Brought on by a strange woman. I can't say it was ever clear to me what he saw in you."
"Show me a photo," I said next, with the cool of a detective closing in on a suspect.
"What?" The a stretched with genuine surprise.
"Show me a photo of your son that was taken right here, in Italy."
The director stood and went to the espresso machine in the corner of her office. She placed a tiny white cup under the spout and pulled the handle to tighten the contraption, but she did not press the button. She just stood there frowning down into the empty cup and then finally abandoned whatever private negotiation she had been engaged in and returned to her desk.
"I owe you nothing," she said, sitting back down.
I was starting to wonder if a miraculous transformation had occurred during the director's time in Italy — if, through the powers of her own imagination, she had managed to liberate herself from the terrible reality of her grief. I was fascinated by the possibility of such a transformation and wanted to better understand the inner workings. On the one hand, the correct part of my character had wanted to force the director to right her story; on the other, I remembered arriving at my employer's studio and finding his body hanging from a rope that had been lashed around the strong wood rafters — after such a sight, who could make claims about the right way or the wrong way to survive?
"Why did you accept his collection?" I asked. "The foundation had to undertake renovations to accommodate all his books, a lot of trouble and expense for a library that was already well-appointed."
"The collection is priceless," she replied. "Many years ago he wrote the play that made him famous here. He felt he owed the foundation a great debt and debts should always be paid."
I saw the wood footstool kicked over on the striped rug, all four legs in the air; in the moment, I had thought of turtles. To my shame, I had not tried to cut him down; I had not called 911 or the police or his children. I backed out of the room and ran down the spiral staircase and out the front door, slamming it behind me like a harried teenager, straight out into the glorious blaze of summer. It was a beautiful day; the air smelled floral. For a little bit longer, my life was still my life. I ran for blocks and blocks. I only stopped an hour later, after I got a call from his daughter on my cell. Come right away, she had wept into the phone. Something terrible has happened.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Cabinet of Curiosity"
Copyright © 2018 Conjunctions.
Excerpted by permission of Conjunctions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Laura van den Berg, Transfer,
Ann Beattie, Why Brother Stayed Away,
Brandon Hobson, How Tsala Entered the Spirit World and Became a Hawk,
Eleni Sikelianos, In the Great Hall of Bones,
Greg Jackson, A Curiosity of Spies,
Julianna Baggott, Plastics,
Jeffrey Ford, Big, Dark Hole,
Joyce Carol Oates, Waiting for Kizer,
William Lychack, Soldier's Handbook,
Joanna Scott, Infidels,
Catherine Imbriglio, Idylls of Curiosity,
Dave King, Once More to the Beach,
Lauren Green, Mona Sparrow,
Can Xue, Her Old Home (translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping),
Nathaniel Mackey, Untitled Original 11386i,
A. D. Jameson, Days of Heaven,
Quintan Ana Wikswo, The Fisherman Bombardier of Naval Station Norfolk,
Lynn Schmeidler, The Wanting Beach,
Samuel R. Delany, Reflections on the Real Joe Dicostanzo,
Kelsey Peterson, The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal,
Sarah Blackman, Untitled or Not Yet,
Gerard Malanga, Three Poems,
Martine Bellen, An Anatomy of Curiosity,
Maud Casey, Father, Ether, Sea,
Gregory Norman Bossert, The Empyrean Light,
Stephen O'Connor, Coyotes,
Matt Bell, Fur, Bark, Feather, Leaf, Faun,
Madeline Kearin, Tattersall,
Bin Ramke, Three Poems,
Diane Ackerman, A Visit to Frederik Ruysch's Cabinets,
Elizabeth Hand, Henry's Room,
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS,