The where is Penny's cell, dank and windowless, but illuminated by the blue-green patina of countless copper pennies. Unlike the Dungeon, Penny's cell is still accessible to the hub and the bub—the Penny Arcade of Wunderkammern Castle—where everyone must tread at some point in their lives, even if it is only to pause and disavow the possibility of wishes and witches.
Her noon supplicant is a big-boned man, his face a map of broken blood vessels, his protruding stomach a bowling ball, his eyebrows furrowed, as if one frown were not enough for his face.
He holds his penny up, the old copper dark green, but she can still make out the date, 1958—his birth year, his lucky penny. His breath smells of whiskey moonshine, home-distilled in a cat. Rotgut.
"You the freedom witch?" he asks.
"Call me Penny. What chains may I break?"
He falls to his knees, holds his meaty fists out—callused and thickened by jagged angry tissue. Fresh blood covers old scars, but there's no hiding how many wounds healed wrong. "My fists. Take away my fists."
She tries again. "From which chains do you seek to be free?" If only he would name his tendency to hit when he hurts, name his fists as the bloody hammers she sees before her.
"I love her too much to leave, but I can't—I hit her before I mean to, before I even—take my fists from me so I can't hurt her again."
"Think of what you wish for, not merely what you fight against."
"Take my fists! Please. I have waited ten years to find my lucky penny." He throws his penny down.
Clank. She's bound, now. Chained to fulfill his wish as surely as he's chained by his need to hurl hammers. If he could name his freedom, there might still be hope.
"Close your eyes. Tell me what you see."
His eyebrows push together, a frown appearing above his eyes again. He squints towards her breastplate. When her silence persists, he closes his eyes.
She waits until he inhales. "What do you see?"
"Roses," he says, "I see roses."
"As you see, so shall you be." She hates the words and their fairy tale quality. But she's bound to say them, even as she's bound to grant his wish.
Deep red roses bloom from his fists. He laughs, the sound of joy curling out of his mouth much like the roses curling out of his wrists.
"Thank you, Penny! Thank you! She'll love this!" He blows rose petal kisses to her, leaves falling around him as he exits her cell. Dark green vines already run across his shoulders. Soon he'll be a walking trellis of roses.
If she still had a human mouth, instead of this clockwork piano roll of interlocking rituals and spells—what chains do you present? which freedom do you choose? what do you see?—she'd curse a blue streak.
She spends her fury cleaning the mosaic floor of her cell. The supplicants are too eager to look at her strange body of links and chains and its false promise of wishes granted. Not one of her supplicants has ever read the word she's so carefully chinked into the copper-patinated mosaic.
If the mosaic were stained red—red as blood, red as the roses she'd just cursed that poor man with—perhaps her next supplicant would read and obey the one word warning: flee.
The where is a prefab aluminum two-bedroom condo outside of a city that was happier when it was a town, a condo about to be foreclosed on, with so much clutter and mess Bill doesn't let anyone inside the front door. Not even his estranged wife, Jackie. Although since they haven't spoken in six months, he'd let her in now, watch this old movie with him, laugh and cry together about the madman painter, sing "O My Luve…" until they fall sleep. If only she'd answer his calls, come drop by, come knock, they could start over, start fresh, start clean, clean as that penny he'd found yesterday, sparkling like starlight, so pretty and pure in the blue TV glare, there, on the coffee table, sitting on top of all those papers and magazines and newspapers he keeps meaning to recycle cuz he does care about the earth, he's not some lout to throw it in the trash, no he'll get this place cleaned up right, recycle for a greener earth, but today he's too tired and the cheap bourbon finally hitting sweet enough in his stomach, making life sweet enough to bear when—
—so he struggles out of his cat-hair-covered armchair—at least he still has Nutmeg's hair—stumbles over the bottles, better recycle soon, too many damn bottles, oops, the noise, the crash is awful loud, there goes his plan to peek out, see who it is without them knowing he's home.
"One minute!" At least that's what he means to say but even he can hear the sliding slur and maybe better ignore the knock, watch Lust for Life in peace.
Sweet bourbon it's her! He crashes towards the door. "Coming!" He buttons his shirt, fixes up what's left of his hair, kicks the bottles clear of the door—another crash.
"Bill. You okay?"
"One sec." Reaches for the deadbolt, slips on some broken glass—whoops—thud whack—no problem. Bourbon's good for bouncing.
"No prob." He's on his feet, slides the deadlock, opens the door.
No one there.
No one there. Only the nearby traffic, screech of brakes, a horn. No one there.
Not even the empty pie pan promise of the moon.
The damn porch bulb blinks its stupid blink, buzzing, buzzing, always buzzing, why doesn't anyone fix anything around here? He hits it, more broken glass, but at least the damn buzzing stops, and there's no pain.
No pain, only darkness and not enough Heaven Hill bourbon. He stumbles from the porch, past empty bottles to the blue of his TV and that ugly, stupid penny he wishes had never been born, and as he stumbles he wonders what happened to his hands—why they're stained such a rich, rose, red.
PENNY ARCADE OF WUNDERKAMMERN CASTLE: ROSE GARDEN
Dream Come True Floribunda
Passion of romantic love. The night he proposed, Bill covered Jackie's bed with rose petals.
Iconic flower of beauty and its cost. Any bud on any limb. Even fingers.
Bill's mother used to sing "O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose" to him if he had a bad dream.
From the Cutting Garden
Color of the heart's blood when it meets the air.
"There is the problem of communication." It is all Penny dares say to the Dungeon Master. Even so, it is too brazen, as she can tell from the knock and rattle, feather-soft-shift of soles and paws, trees and rock around her. The Dungeon smells of fresh-mown grass, but still, she is grateful the darkness blinds her.
"What is the problem?" The Dungeon Master doesn't speak so much as herd words—hooved beasts fording a river of grass.
She has dared come to the Dungeon only because the bird of her need is keen in her breast—all last week she heard the crocodile snapping his too big teeth as he circled Wunderkammern moat. "They—my supplicants—they do not know what chains them."
"But you guide them to their wish."
"I ask questions, but they don't have answers. They ask for the wrong freedom, then squander it. I did not chain myself to see the supplicants stay chained."
"You wish an end to your service?"
"Come then. You have earned a wish of your own, Penny. You will not earn another audience for years."
"I wish you to solve the problem of communication."
"Between you and your supplicants?"
"It is not a wish I can grant. That is between you and them."
"May I choose their wishes for them?"
"You would be giving them more chains, not fewer. If you decide on your own wish, you may come see me again."
A new, strange supplicant slips into Penny's cell before the bells ring the hour. Dressed in a tuxedo, wearing scuffed work boots, with holes where his sockless toes stick out, the supplicant leans on a broken umbrella as if it were a cane, and his face is pockmarked with clotted cream.
Somewhere beneath the layers of metal, torn flesh, traded chains, something deep inside Penny leans towards the strange man. Nothing visible, she's sure, but still, she tilts. Something like barefoot sensation peeks through the fury she's so used to feeling.
"Can you pay the penny price?"
He doesn't answer. He doesn't even look at her. He looks at the mosaic.
Penny's heart bangs against the steel drum and broken ribs of her body, some old memory of skin wakes inside the hair shirts and chain mail. Perhaps this one, perhaps this one will read her warning, save himself from freedom.
He looks up at her.
"Why should I flee?"
Deep within her banded torso, her heart skids. "What chains may I take?"
"You did not answer my question."
"What chains may I break?"
"Why would I flee freedom?"
"If you have no penny, I cannot grant your wish. Every wish has a price."
He steps towards her, she backs away. He approaches, she retreats, roller chains rolling smoothly beneath her weight, chains and manacles clinking lightly until with a clang she hits the stone wall behind her.
"You do not look like a freedom witch to me."
"Please, call me Penny."
"Penny." He snorts. "Well, if I am to call you Penny, you might as well call me Pie."
"Well, my legal name's Pie-in-the-Face."
He pulls a cream pie out of his broken umbrella handle and throws it in his face. His eyes blink out from a mask of clotted cream. "See?"
She refuses to tilt any farther. "Do you have a penny? Do you have a wish?"
Pie cartwheels, pratfalls, and lands cross-legged beneath his broken umbrella, scoops clotted cream off his face, and then licks the cream off his fingers. "I don't have a wish, and I don't have a penny. I came to see you."
"Well, you've seen me."
"Could stand to see you laugh." He pulls another cream pie from the handle of his umbrella, throws it at Penny, but the pie flies around her, missing her completely, and swoops back hitting him smack-dab in his own face.
Penny tilts toward him, the clockwork piano scroll of her mouth spins, but nothing comes out.
"Guess I'll have to stay sitting."
The bells ring. He cocks his head to the side. "There's the crocodile. Time to go." He somersaults out, disappears into the moat.
The where is Cheryl's childhood kitchen. A linoleum pattern of peach and cream—and on the kitchen door a faded print of Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone, because her mother, Jackie, has dreams. Or had them once. Dreams her daughter Cheryl doesn't understand.
"Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams, cranberry sauce, what else? What am I forgetting, Mom?" Cheryl hands the dripping plate to Jackie, who wipes the plate dry in three swift strokes. Even confined to a wheelchair, her mother's efficiency in the kitchen is a lesson in housewifery Cheryl will never attain.
"What kind of pie you want, darling?"
"I don't care."
"How can you not care? Course you care. Pie's the best part! That's what your dad always said. What about one of each? Pumpkin and pecan?"
"There are only four of us, Mom. You, me, Greg, and Billy—I mean, Bill. Still not used to calling him that.
"It's your dad's name."
"It's his name too," Cheryl says, as gently as she can. "And he's right. It's a little strange to still be called Billy when you're almost thirty years old."
"I can't. Not yet."
Cheryl turns on the hot water, grateful for the hiss and sigh of the running water as she changes the greasy dishwater; the steady sigh allows her mother to collect herself while Cheryl bites her tongue against the bitter words threatening to spill out. Greg tells her grief comes in all forms—surely this new anger she's been feeling all year is a kind of disguised grief.
"Mom, why didn't you leave him?" She asks as she squirts in the lemon-scented dish liquid. Best to keep washing the dishes, slip the question in like another Thanksgiving dish they were discussing. She's wanted to ask before, when she was younger—look her mother dead-on, straight in the eye, and demand an answer—but she'd never found the courage while Dad was still alive. Now, even though her mother is nearly eighty and would rather not talk about the past, Cheryl needs her mother's answer, and she doesn't think her mother will answer if she has to look her daughter in the eye.
The water runs reliably, providing an innocuous backdrop, domestic white noise, to bridge the unspeakable. The soapy water is nearing the brim of the rubber tub, and Cheryl dumps in the coffee mugs, the soup bowls, and a handful of silverware; she's just beginning to wonder if she should repeat the question, when finally her mother speaks.
"I did once. And I would have left him for good, if he'd ever hit you, or Billy. You know that, don't you?"
Cheryl turns off the water, murmurs her uncertainty, hoping it will be taken as assent, and keeps washing the dishes.
"But he sent me roses. And I thought, well, I know he loves me."
The lemon soapy scent suddenly thickens with the aroma of remembered roses. How often that rich sweet fragrance had graced the dinner table when Cheryl was young. She'd not understood everything growing up, but she'd understood enough of how much those roses cost to choose thistles and wildflowers for her own wedding bouquet. Through the sink window, she sees her husband laughing with Billy, both of them drinking Heaven Hill. Perhaps no bouquet would have been the way to go.
"Cheryl, can you understand that?" Jackie pivots her wheelchair towards her daughter.
She takes a deep breath and tries to tell the truth. "I'm sorry, Mom. I wish I did, but I really don't."
"Let me put it this way." Jackie points to the faded Van Gogh print. "Better go a little mad, than go a lot mad."
Cheryl nods, she's heard the phrase before.
"And like the madman said, 'You can't be at the pole and the equator at the same time. You must choose your own line.' Well, my line was your father." Her eyes are stained red and wet, her hands shake, but her voice is firm.
A fierce, hard knot tightens in Cheryl's stomach, and she turns to face her mother, tries not to spit the words. "But he beat you."
"You get to choose your own line, Cheryl. You don't get to choose mine." Not a single tear escapes the red trenches of her eyes. "Now hand me that bowl, you're getting water all over the floor."
The knot in Cheryl's stomach tightens further at the thought of choosing lines, but her mother's hands still shake in spite of her hard, desperately dry gaze, and this was meant to be a conversation that healed, after all. Healed more than it hurt.
"Okay, Mom. Okay. Sorry I brought it up. I needed to ask. Thank you for answering." She forces herself to smile, hopes it looks real, even though she has to crank a two-ton crane to hoist the smile up her face. She thrusts her hands back into the hot, soapy water. "So, what'll it be this year? Pumpkin or pecan?
PENNY ARCADE OF WUNDERKAMMERN CASTLE: PIE SIDEBOARD
Pastry, consisting of butter, flour, fruit compote, or cream filling. Served in celebration. Or as dessert. Sometimes thrown in someone's face, see Classic Comedy.
Homemade Lattice Top
What is sweet of life. That for which it is no burden to give thanks. What we ask of, and forgive, each other.
What love Penny remembers, or dreams. A rainsong clown. A lost gondolier. Forgotten delight.
Your first lover. Your next. Your last. The lover who exists in the eyes of the stranger you meet and will never kiss, but who breathes you back into life, beckoning you into the self you hope for but have not yet found.
Penny's next supplicant—a rough, bearded chap, paint on his shirt, a bleeding left ear, and eyes too thirsty for the world—doesn't have an appointment either.
"What chains may I break?"
"There is something inside me, what can it be?"
"Did you bring your penny?"
“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”
"I am so sorry."
"I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners."
Penny looks around her cell. Her mosaic is a kind of picture she supposes. She backs up, clanking and whirring, but the man in front of her keeps staring at the dark ceiling, not down at the penny-strewn floor. Time to try again.
"You have a wish?"
"I've just read Victor Hugo's L'année Terrible. There's hope there, but…that hope's in the stars. I find that true, and well said, and beautiful; and what's more, I readily believe it myself, too."
Penny hasn't read any Victor Hugo, but she believes there's hope in the stars too. She repeats his words back to him, "True, and well said, and beautiful. Your wish?"
"When I have a terrible need for, shall I say the word—religion…I go outside to paint the stars."
"Your wish is to paint the stars?"
The man nods.
"Do you have your lucky penny?"
The man shrugs, unwraps the large canvas he carries.
A night landscape of a city by a river, the sky filled with thick yellow stars erupting from the canvas, and on the riverbanks, a couple walks arm and arm, their clothes dark. The canvas floats, awash in golds, greens, and dark shades of blue reflecting the night, with only a smudged patch of red on the woman's skirt to anchor the beauty of the starry landscape in some memory of flesh. Such a glimpse of enchantment, Penny has not seen since before her first chain.
"Not a lucky penny, but rare all the same. You've already painted the stars. Don't you have another wish?"
The painter shrugs, wraps his canvas. He takes out a small envelope, stained with a small red blossom. "Guard this object carefully," he says. Then he leaves.
The blossom grows larger with each second, transforming the envelope into a bandage, bloodying her pennies. The stain reminds Penny of the patch of red on the woman's dress in his beautiful night landscape. Deep within her sheathed metal self of chains and armor, something falls free, a weight that falls and keeps falling, an anchor seeking bottom in a bottomless sea.
PENNY ARCADE OF WUNDERKAMMERN CASTLE: ENVELOPE OF RED STAINS
Warning, wound, cry for freedom, rebellion, torn flesh, heartbreak of mortality. The madness that allows one to go on living.
Birthmark or Bruise as Blossom
The price is always blood, be it found in paint or penny. Roses or pie.
The Red of Sex
If Van Gogh left the cut-off bit of his left ear in Penny's care, then for Van Gogh, Penny was a whore.
Curator Addendum, Written with Wax Residue from The Red of Sex
Are you suggesting Van Gogh found his freedom through whores?
I would never suggest Van Gogh found his freedom.
"Hello, Dungeon Master?" In the darkness all sound is magnified, and Penny's voice thunderclaps back. Two weeks of hearing the crocodile circling in the moat and the bird of her need is keen in her breast—a roc ogre, frenzied with fear. A roc ogre who read her mosaic back to her, day after day for the last two weeks until she finally understood the mosaic was a message she'd written to herself.
"I have thought of my wish." The word 'wish' boomerangs back, a scream, a slur, a witch or a wish or a which Penny cannot tell, but it does not matter anymore. The promise of fresh-mown grass surrounds her, but where is the Dungeon Master?
"I wish to see starlight."
No echo this time. Strange. Perhaps she didn't speak her wish out loud.
"I have no penny, but I brought you this."
In the new silence of the Dungeon, Penny holds her breath, opens the red stained envelope the painter left in her care.
A sea of stars cascades out of her hand. Where once she was blinded by darkness, now she is blinded by heat and light— what was once metal, softens, melts. The air sizzles and grass burns and somewhere deep within the mangled metal bands of her ribs, something—that might once have been called a heart—thumps. The thumping should scare her, but instead it conjures courage out of her tainted-metal blood. Thump thump.
She rolls forward into the light. Accelerates. Everything's wet, she must have fallen in the moat, she's sinking, oh no the crocodile the crocodile, he will come and eat her with his too big teeth, the roc ogre of her need sings or is it screams I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry, and Pie surfs by, naked to his toes, paddling the moon's reflection with his broken umbrella, 'til he hooks the umbrella handle up up up onto the moon itself—that can't be, can it?—and then there's only the pie pan promise of the moon winking at her, and a rusted crank groans, she rises out of the moat, lifted on a broken drawbridge, water dripping, as the roc ogre shrieks, tears apart her hammered metal skin with its beak, raging against chain after chain, until she is no longer rolling, but running, naked, her feet nude and hurting, heel toe, heel toe, oh to have toes and feet and skin—what glory—she runs through cool thin knives that touch but don't cut—the smell jolts her and the knives tickle her soles. Damp wiggly grass, wet from a rain that still falls around her, a rain that uncovers her lost body, and in the starlight the wet scars from her chains shine like golden constellations.
The where is the hill behind their home, the grassy slope they've dubbed Heaven Hill. Tonight, home is filled with loud voices, like so many nights before, and so many nights to come, and so they've fled home. They do not speak of home or loud voices or the fact that they should be sleeping, instead they lie in the grass on the hill and watch what they would never have seen without this particular night of loud voices.
"Did you see that one?"
"Make a wish. Make a wish every time you see one."
"How many wishes do we get to make?"
"One for every shooting star."
"Isn't there a limit?"
The voices from their home rise and fall, ebbing and flowing like the sea—a fact of life, like the moon and the stars, like gravity and rain. On this particular night, as stars fall, the voices quiet. The squeak of a window being raised and their mother's voice calls.
"William Gregory Burns! Jacqueline Cheryl Burns! Are you there?"
They don't say anything, unified in their silence.
"You should be in bed!" says their father.
Their silence holds. But then another star streaks across the sky.
"Oh!" say William Gregory and Jacqueline Cheryl, in unison. They clap their hands over their mouths.
"Did you see that, darling?" says their mother.
"Must be a meteor storm. Well. Shall we join our runaways?"
"Come see the stars, mom and dad!" says Jacqueline Cheryl.
"Come make wishes!" says William Gregory.
And on this particular night, their parents laugh, and on this particular night, they walk up Heaven Hill, and on this particular night—smeared with unquenchable beauty, forgiveness raining from the sky—there's no need for wishes.
Author's note: Van Gogh's dialogue consists of verbatim excerpts written to his brother Theo as found in Complete letters of Vincent Van Gogh: with reproductions of all the drawings in the correspondence. Boston: Bulfinch Press Book, Little Brown and Company.
Krista Hoeppner Leahy is a writer and actor. Her work has appeared in ASIM, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Raritan, Shimmer, Tin House, The Way of the Wizard, The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere. She attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2007 and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.