Set was a tall, thin boy, delicate and blonde and well-behaved. He was so much the youngest, by so many years, that he often felt like an audience, invisible and rapt in the soft glow of his family’s stage presence.
He could not possibly have guessed, then, that he was was truly their favorite sibling. They told them things that they told no one else, they showed him secrets, they trusted him completely. He was such a quiet child, a cipher, almost–he seemed a blank made to fill in, a horn made to sing through even though he was no more ordinary than they, in the end. Even though he turned out to be something much more than just a vessel.
Cedric took him to dusty, dark museums fallen out of favor, showed him impossibly large-hipped stone women and spear tips and tiny skulls no bigger than an acorn. He told Set stories about the hunter that brought down the Sabertooth, about the pygmy races who used those spear tips, about the sleep spells women would cast in the days before dreams were invented.
Constance gave him sweets and ginger beer, and read him love letters from her admirers. She would laugh, a high strange laugh like the sky before thunder, and toss the letters on the fire. They always seemed to be from very glamorous people. Set ambushed a distracted Pru at the piano one afternoon and asked if his sister was famous, and Pru frowned and said, yes, possibly more than she should have been. But then she smiled and said it would be very difficult not to be famous, if one were as lovely and accomplished as Constance. She removed one hand from the Chopin to put a finger to her lips, and Set was not sure which part was the secret, the fame or the beauty or the accomplishment or, indeed, Constance herself, but there clearly was a secret here just the same.
Drake showed Set the strange weapons he created as a hobby, when he wasn’t working on the railroads. Huge metal pikes, swords lighter than air, wickedly curved scimitars with hooks along the blade. The stuff of hand-to-hand combat before man was quite civilized. Drake, Pru used to say, had brains aplenty, but they were all in his hands. She said if you cut off his head he’d just keep coming, hands wrapped around six-shooter or a musket or an axe or a knife as big as a sword and twice as sharp.
Oliver’s secrets, though, were Set’s favorites. Oliver had a very orderly mind, doors for each feeling and glass cases for the strongest memories. So it was not surprising to Set that Oliver should own a real manifestation of this need for cataloguing: a self-dubbed “Cabinet of Curiosities” that he only opened up for Set and for his lover, Desmond, whom everyone pretended was Oliver’s roommate even though he did not live at the apartment and even though he and Oliver used to sit in the back at the Fortuna Music Hall and do what Set-as-a-child thought was a good deal of embracing for two grown men with whiskers.
Oliver always said the Cabinet contained the best of this world and the remnants of the one before it. Set was confused and fascinated by it, this gilded wooden cabinet, long as one wall and topped in sections by a carved snake, a wolf, and a fierce giantess; this glassless exhibit where brass clocks butted against stringless lutes, and chalky human bones overlapped pearlescent fish scales and fetuses floating in glass jars. In it, Indonesian ceremonial masks sat alongside works of art by Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec; a little glass chimera peeked out from behind a magic lantern, three crystal balls were wrapped in maps made by Chinese explorers in the 1500s; a beautiful painting of a stag hunted by dogs hung crooked and slashed in one corner; and everywhere were stuffed birds, magnets, obelisks, pieces of armor, bits of Claude Lorraine glass, and branches made of wood, of iron, of ash.
It’s just a jumble, Set complained to Oliver, the first time he was allowed into the locked library to view this precious collection.
Oliver and Desmond smiled at one another. The collector is a little god on earth, said Oliver, and he walked over to the section where the wolf guardian stood watch, hackles raised and back arched. Oliver sorted through a pile of shells and pulled out a small, broken-off branch—just a twig, really. He held it out to Set. Take it, he said. Do you feel how important it is?
Set did feel something—a becalmed energy flowing from the dead twig, a blue sort of energy, smoky and sad. It seemed to belong to the past. He wanted to cry without knowing why. I don’t like it, he said.
Oliver took the twig back, patting Set’s small head. Oliver was the only one of his siblings who was dark and small; he wore his neat black hair slicked back and a jaunty little mustache above his lip that bent and broke like a little black wave when he smiled. He was not smiling now. This is almost all that’s left of the last world, he told Set. All the power of the last place, bound up in this one little twig. You can see why we would keep it a jumble—why we would keep it hard to find? But you should know it’s here, he told Set. If you ever have a great need, this is what will save you.
Photo by North Charleston