Gashlycrumb Primer: A Re-Story
“Class,” said Mr. Principal. We barely heard him, we creaked so loud in our desks. Mr. Principal, with his sad, blue eyes, only clasped his hands to deliver bad news. “I’m afraid to say, something awful happened to Kate.” “An axe,” said Prue. From forehead to calves, veins swam under her curdled skin. An axe? On Hallo’s Eve! Though who could say. Prue’s mother was a dispatcher. Knowing that town gossip saved her from our humor, sometimes Prue embellished. “I’m heartbroken,” Mr. Principal said. “We lost so many this year. Una, Susan, Maud. Now Kate.” He shook his head and bit his lip. Snow kept the morning dark. Don’t forget Winnie. Our parents reminded us every morning as they put on our scarves. Don’t want your lungs to freeze, your lungs to freeze. We almost bounced out of our chairs. What was it like, Winnie, when your lungs froze under the ice?
“With Mrs. Edward out, ah, sick. We have a special guest.” Mr. Principal’s nod to the woman next to him was solemn. She was as beautiful as a vampire: long black hair, ruby lips, pallid skin. “Mrs. Gorey is an author. Did you know she’s working on a children’s book about your very own hometown?” We yawned, and soon Mr. Principal left. Upon closer look, Mrs. Gorey’s eyebrows, and her eyes, looked drawn on, like a bad costume. Amy raised her hand. “Shall I instruct the class, Ma’am? That’s what I did for the last substitute. See, I am the oldest.” Eldest by ten days. How she taunted us. How we awed her.
“Today, class.” Mrs. Gorey wrote her name on the board in large, shaky letters. “We will learn the alphabet.” “But Ma’am. I must protest. We’ve known the alphabet for quite some time. And I read at a fifth-grade level.” Mrs. Gorey’s black eyes warbled to the right, then they reappeared on the left side of her head. “And what is your name, child?” she said. “Would it be Xerxes?” He straightened his shoulders, his large lips nearly purple, blinking behind thin-rimmed glasses, though we knew he didn’t need them. “Amy, would you like to help Mrs. Gorey with a very special project?” “What is it,” Amy said, and smoothed her hair behind one elven ear. “But, Ma’am,” Xerxes said, his cheeks glowing. “How come I cannot help?” “Go out into the hall, darling. I’ll be with . . . Ernest. What are you doing with those tacks?” Mrs. Gorey replaced the box of tacks with a clump of napkin from under her dress. “Here. Have a peach. These.” She shook the box. “Are for Leo. Amy. I’ll be there in a minute. Come with me, Xerxes.”
Amy ground her desk to stand, and Xerxes sputtered. Mrs. Gorey led him beyond the play area. When they reached the corner of the room, they stopped. He frowned. “But this is a supply closet,” said Xerxes. “Why don’t you stay in there until you are ready to behave, young man.” He could resist. We were certain of that. He could duck her arms and run for the door. Mr. Principal and Mrs. Xerxes would be here in no time and they would tell him he was a good boy, that he behaved appropriately. Or would they say Mrs. Gorey was wrong to put him in the closet but he was wrong not to obey? We watched Mrs. Gorey lock the closet door.
“Where were we?” said Mrs. Gorey, drifting of leaves and cinnamon. “Yes, Amy. Let’s officially start with you.” Amy said, “Officially?” and Mrs. Gorey whisked her into the hall. We glanced at one another. How would we learn? “I’m second oldest,” Ida said. A shriek tumbled from the second level to the first. Mrs. Gorey returned with her eyebrows raised, and we relaxed. Someone in front of the room again. “When I was a little girl, school was so boring.” Mrs. Gorey scrunched her face. “I always thought learning should be fun.” She tried to smile but the wrinkles of her frown remained and one eye did not uncross. “Does the class want to have fun? Yeah? The first letter of the alphabet is ‘A.’” She wrote: A is for AMY who fell down the stairs. We snorted. Mrs. Gorey said the line, we repeated it, and she looked pleased. “Oh, Mrs. Gorey? When will Amy return to class?” “I don’t recognize children who talk out of turn.”
She wrote: B is for BASIL assaulted by bears. Over the singing and giggling, Olivia said, “Oh, Basil isn’t here, Ma’am.” Basil’s seat was empty, except for a chewed pencil resting in a small depression. “Sick,” said Leo as Mrs. Gorey scratched the board. “Missing. Mum said his parents are looking for him.” C is for CLARA who wasted away. We chanted, but less enthusiastically. We liked Clara, wanted to eat with her during lunch. She got pale, then weak, even though Prue told us the doctors found nothing wrong. No one spoke of her since the funeral.
Knocks came from the closet door. We forgot about Xerxes, whose rapping escalated from soft to frantic, but Mrs. Gorey gave no indication she heard. She tapped the board, and we said: D is for DESMOND thrown out of a sleigh. Olivia stared behind us, her cheeks blanching. Scratching replaced the pounding, but the doorknob stayed perfectly still. E is for ERNEST who choked on a peach. We recited the line without thinking, staring at the back of Ernest’s copper head, stooped forward. We hissed his name, but we couldn’t tell if he was ignoring us, or perhaps playing along. “What rhymes with peach?” asked Fanny.
Mrs. Gorey wrote furiously: J is for JAMES who took lye by mistake. K is for KATE who was struck with an axe. M is for MAUD who was swept out to sea. S is for SUSAN who perished in fits. T is for TITUS who flew into bits. “I saw a fire near his house,” said Quentin. “Just this morning.” U is for UNA who slipped down a drain. W is for WINNIE embedded in ice. X is for XERXES devoured by mice. “No,” Olivia said. “He’s here. Right over there.” Finally: Z is for ZILLAH who drank too much gin. “Who is Zillah?” Ida asked. “A girl who would be your age, darling.” Mrs. Gorey stared over us. “Frontier child, home-schooled, not sorely missed.”
More than halfway through the alphabet, though we noticed gaps: F, G, H, and I. So many empty chairs. Outside, the snow came down harder, the flakes smaller. “Ma’am?” said Hector. “If you would not mind terribly, I would like to speak with Mr. Principal, please.” Mr. Principal. Why hadn’t one of us thought of that? He would bring everyone back, even the ones we didn’t know or hardly missed until today.
“Hector. I can’t have you speaking out of turn. You must raise your hand.” “But, Ma’am.” “Hector,” Mrs. Gorey roared. Her eyes bled white fire, then she was calm and even friendly again. “I do have someone actually. He’s outside, waiting to take you to Mr. Principal. Go look for yourself.”
Leo fell off his chair. Dozens of silver gems winked on the surface of his desk, under where he gagged. At Mrs. Gorey’s prodding, Hector let go of his desk. He trembled as he stood. Mrs. Gorey smiled after him. “Poor fellow,” Quentin said. “He did raise his hand.” “I need to see,” said Olivia, and stumbled to the supply closet. The door rattled in its frame.
She knelt under the desks. What is it? She held up her fingers to show us the liquid red on her tips. “I wanna go home,” said Ida. “We need to get to a radio,” said Prue. “So we can tell Mum.” “I’ll distract her,” Yorick said. “Too dangerous. We need . . .” Yorick silenced them. In him we saw his father, the nice policeman who during assembly demonstrated the contents of his belt. “Use Mr. Jimmy’s radio. In the basement.” “Why Yorick,” said Mrs. Gorey, leaning into the classroom, her hair wet and her hands trembling, each in the shape of a claw. “What are you doing out of your chair?” “Ma’am. I must use the bathroom.” “And did I not just discipline Hector for the same infraction? You must raise your—” She said no more because Yorick sprinted outside the classroom. Mrs. Gorey floated after him. All of us stood, forming a column as we always did. All but one.
“Neville,” said Ida. “Aren’t you coming with us?” But Neville only looked outside, staring without recognition or expression at the dim lumps of our old playground. “Come on,” Quentin said, grabbing Ida. “We need to go. Now.” Our shoes squeaked in the giant hallway. Doors to the other classrooms were open, the lights extinguished, the older children gone. We ducked the yellow tape—DO NOT CROSS UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Down a wooden staircase. Past boarded windows. Hopping over a puddle, hurrying along. At the end of the hall, stenciled on the metal door: MR. JIMMY. “What if it’s locked?” George asked. Victor tried the knob; it wasn’t. Mr. Jimmy’s room smelled like the underbelly of a mouse. Next to the metal cot was the radio, its coat hanger stretched to resemble an exclamation point.
Rhoda touched the play button. Nothing happened. “Prue,” Olivia said. “Show us how to work it.” Prue’s hands shook as she turned the dial. “There’s a switch.” Static roared, and we whimpered. “That’s the 1530. Father listens to that in the morning.” “This isn’t working,” Olivia said. “I thought you could contact your mother with this, Prue.” Prue sobbed, clutching each speaker so hard her knuckles were white. “What’re we going to do?” When Mr. Jimmy’s door creaked open, we didn’t even look.
“There you are, Class,” Mrs. Gorey said, shaking a bottle in her hands. “Were you trying to contact your parents? Surely you can’t use a radio. Of course, Mr. Principal has a C.B. in his office, but I already took care of that. Poor, poor Prue.” Mrs. Gorey touched her cheek. The biting swish of gasoline hit us, and we blinked. “You should’ve let them get to know you, not let them use you the way they do. Oh. Who can remember to write something on the board later?” Olivia’s color was gone again. But she nodded. Fanny sniffled. “‘H is for HECTOR done in by a thug.’ ‘L is for LEO who swallowed some tacks.’ ‘N is for NEVILEE who died of ennui.’ ‘Y is for YORICK whose head was knocked in.’ Make sure they go in order, ABC, okay?”
Rhoda had backed to the door. Seeing her, Mrs. Gorey popped the top and flung the bottle. Rhoda patted her wet head and cried indignantly. Why had Mrs. Gorey done such a thing? Everyone knew Rhoda was very particular about her red pigtails. A silver lighter was already in flight. Even Rhoda watched the whole thing like it was a magic show, then—Rhoda exploded into flames. We screamed. Clawed the smoky flesh from our eyes. Stepped on something soft and lumpy. Something shrieked, then snapped. Made it easier to move. The door opened and we were safe. “Look.”
“‘R is for RHODA consumed by a fire.’” Rhoda fell to the floor, nothing now but a dark blue flame glowing around a black skull. Next to her, we saw a hand. Pale. Unburned. Motionless. Surrounded by billowing darkness. We counted who was left. “‘P is for PRUE trampled flat in a brawl,’” Mrs. Gorey said, wiping her brow. She stretched her skin to align her eyes to their sockets. Flesh peeled under her neck. Then one of us said: “‘P is for—’” We finished the chant, shaking the basement hallway. “What did I tell you?” Mrs. Gorey said. “Learning is fun, isn’t it?” We giggled and raised our hands. Who’s next, Ma’am? Who?
Mrs. Gorey put on her black cloak and her black gloves. “Truth is, I can’t possibly finish the song by myself.” We groaned and she shook her head. “We have a four o’clock train to catch, a six-hour ride to the ocean, a lake to get to, a swamp that isn’t frozen.” She grabbed her black hat that trailed a long, black veil. In her other hand, she held a black pole. “Surely, we have time,” we said. “Time for a few more?”
The umbrella locked into position over our heads. Its bat wings looked like fangs, but when Mrs. Gorey said, “Very well, children. I can stay for a little while,” we cheered and gathered and sang and danced. Our laughter echoed but the words remained, trapped in the corridor hundreds of years old. Trick or treat, smell my feet, we have a deadline to meet. Our parents should’ve called for us by now, it was getting so late. Wind slammed against the school. The old brick shuddered. And the sun went down. Mrs. Gorey sighed and removed her mask. It had been scrunched for a while, with us running around. When I glimpsed the bone gleam from underneath her skin, I saw the rest had fallen, and it was only I who remained.