“Xantho-what?” Widow Mayfair said from the plush red armchair in her stately parlor.
Ceras sighed. “Ceras. Xanthoceras. Everyone just calls me Ceras, though.”
The widow sniffed. “I should hope so. What were your parents thinking, giving you such a name? And for such a scrawny lad.” She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “A person needs to grow into a name like that. If you ever do, I’ll eat my handkerchief.” She put such a handkerchief up to her nose, peering at Ceras over frills of lace with rheumy and disdainful eyes.
Ceras would have liked to see such a thing, but all he said was, “Yes, ma’am.”
She waved a gnarled hand to a large wooden box in the corner of the room. “Mr. Mayfair’s collection is over there. Take it away, I never could bear the sight of it.”
“What’s in it?”
Widow Mayfair gasped. “None of your business, that’s what. Take it away and burn it, and maybe I’ll give you a copper piece for the trouble.” She grabbed hold of her cane and hoisted herself up from the chair. Then, with the handkerchief still pressed to her nose, she shuffled out of the room.
Ceras put his arms around the box and hoisted it up. It was heavier than he expected and he tottered outside with it before dropping it on the ground. The contents inside clanged and hummed. Curious over what the box contained, Ceras glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and then he lifted the lid.
A row of jars lined one end of the box, next to which lay a dusty hand accordion. Ceras picked up the instrument, and it whined in a monotone wheeze. He set it on the ground and then picked up one of the jars. It held a pale and cloudy liquid, within which a shadowed form floated. A cloud of thin tendrils twined through the liquid, like hair or maybe a delicate flower. Ceras held the jar up to the sun as he tried to get a better look. The tendrils parted, and from within it a colorless eye peered back at him.
Ceras cried out and dropped the jar. The glass shattered, and he gagged as a sharp and pungent odor tainted the air. The hairy, tentacle thing writhed on the ground. Heart pounding, Ceras leapt back, but the thing didn’t follow. It just lay there, its tentacles twitching and probing. The hair parted and the eye watched him, and then its feathery fronds went into the ground.
Mouth hanging open, Ceras watched as the creature started to grow. Its tentacles rose up into the air, twining towards the sky like tendrils of smoke. Its body grew thicker and sturdier as its multiple arms branched and reached for the clouds. And then, upon its dark and outstretched limbs, colorless flowers blinked and blossomed.
Once it had done growing, it was much the same height as Ceras. He told himself to find a torch and burn the thing, yet Ceras remained still. And then, even as he warned himself of his own folly, he reached out and plucked one of the flowers.
Its aroma was sweet and acidic, like overripe apples or lemon soap. The flower blinked up at him and, as Ceras peered back, he thought he saw stars shimmering in a blackened night sky. He blinked, and the vision faded, but he knew it had been real. He put the flower in a buttonhole of his shirt, and closed up the lid of Mr. Mayfair’s box. Maybe one day, Widow Mayfair would eat her handkerchief after all.