Madame Astrofiammante’s Curiosity Shop
One evening in the early seventies, I was eating dinner alone at the Black Forest Inn in Los Altos, California. The restaurant resembled an alpine chalet, complete with wooden rafters and flower boxes. While reviewing code for the HP 2100 series operating system, I munched on sauerbraten and potato pancakes.
When I looked up from my table to ask for another beer, a woman walked through the front door, who was so odd that I stopped chewing my mouthful of red cabbage. Dark of hair and complexion, her face had an unfinished look, as if a craftsman had sculpted her out of clay but never smoothed out the pinches he used to define her features. She wore a red kerchief tied in the back, big hoop earrings, and a peasant skirt, nothing out of the ordinary for young women in California at that time. But she wasn’t young. Her appearance was a striking contrast to the Silicon Valley couples and elderly expatriate Bavarian ladies who frequented the restaurant. In her bejeweled right hand was a tall staff topped by a ceramic doll’s head. Bells embedded in her clothing jangled when she moved. She was starkly sensual in an ageless way.
The woman scanned the crowd from left to right like a searchlight. The hostess at the register ignored her. I looked down as the woman’s head swiveled in my direction, but I could tell she had locked onto me. She stepped up to my table. When I lifted my head again, I recoiled from the intensity of her gaze and almost choked on half-chewed kraut.
“Yes,” she hissed in a faintly Eastern European accent, “You call me. I come. It takes a while, but I come. You want, my dear? Maybe I have.” She grinned slightly on “dear” in a way that made my heart pause. After fixing me with her dark radar for a few moments, she placed a business card on the table and pressed her thin lips back into a slash. “Maybe I answer your dreams, maybe not. You come. They decide.” Then, she swirled around and went jingling out of the restaurant.
When I got home, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat on the couch with the card in my hand. “Madame Astrofiammante’s Curiosity Shop” was printed in intricate lettering of vines and leaves on a glittering iridescent background. Underneath, in smaller font, was written “Antiques, Dolls, Potions, Ambrosias, Dreams”. By contrast, the address in the lower right-hand corner was shakily handwritten and identified a street in nearby Los Gatos, an upscale town of cutesy craft shops and restaurants along California’s Route 9, the gateway to the hippie counterculture on the other side of the Coast Range. I visited Los Gatos frequently for the Mexican food but did not recognize the street. There was no phone number.
As I studied the card and puzzled over the encounter with Madame, I felt unaccountably drowsy, even though it was not yet dark. The sparkles on the card reminded me of the first time I had seen “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on The Wonderful World of Disney, when I was ten years old. I had never been encouraged by my parents to think about magic, but seeing Mickey Mouse commanding the heavens with a sweep of his arms hooked my imagination. From that day on, I wanted to make glittering stars pour from the tips of my fingers, to conjure and control dragons and demons – anything but the cheerless void of reality. This yearning only worsened with adolescence, although I allowed my father to steer me into a practical career as an engineer. The quest for something more went underground.
I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the couch. There was an intense fuzzy energy surging through my nervous system, and I couldn’t move. Everything inside and around me resonated with the buzz of angry hornets, and the light in the room was unnaturally uniform and starkly bright. I had experienced lucid dreaming before, but this seemed much more real. Madame Astrofiammante was walking slowly toward me from the corner of the room chanting, “My dear, my dear,” over and over again. Small figures danced around her feet like demons.
I had trained myself as a youth to escape nightmares by lifting my real head abruptly from the pillow through sheer effort of will within the dream. After what seemed much too long a time to endure, I succeeded in doing the same on my couch. As the buzzing in my ears subsided, an afterimage of the Madame faded slowly away. I could see that I was alone in my apartment. It was dusk. The card was still in my hand.
I did not get much sleep for days after that. What hours I slept were filled with dreams, many horrible, but none of them lucid like the first. The left side of my brain argued that I ought to visit the Curiosity Shop in Los Gatos to put this peculiar woman into everyday perspective. Although terrified, my want-to-be-wizard right brain was attracted to her for its own reasons.
The next Saturday, I drove to Los Gatos in my beat-up Toyota Corolla. In the snarled weekend traffic, I could not locate the street. So I found a parking spot and walked around. No shop owners had heard of Madame Astrofiammante or her store. I became convinced she was just some loony and breathed a sigh of relief. I took her card out of my pocket in preparation for tossing it in the nearest trashcan.
I jumped, startling a few passersby, when I saw a handwritten word in the lower left corner. I swear it hadn’t been there before. It said simply, “Come!” Maybe the sunlight brought it out, but I had studied the card frequently over the preceding days under all sorts of lighting conditions.
I stopped asking people about the shop or the street and wandered toward the edge of town. Far removed from the bustle of downtown, I found a rickety stairway ascending a hillside. A wooden sign with an arrow carved out of leaves and vines pointed up. I climbed the stairs to a narrow street that had a few neglected shops, the kind where proprietors don’t seem anxious to do business and can’t possibly be earning any money. In the middle of the block, wedged between a potter and a shop advertising embroidered goods, was Madame Astrofiammante’s Curiosity Shop. A placard hanging inside the door read, “Not Yet”.
The contents in the window display held true to the shop’s name. Various old, now apparently useless things from times spanning several centuries were on display, among them a broken tea set, brown maps of nowhere in splintered frames, ancient leather books with illegible covers, and rusty iron implements, one of which looked like a vise or a thumb screw. An army of broken tin soldiers in one corner guarded four corked and dusty apothecary bottles, filled with multicolored crystals, dead bugs, a golden liquid, and twigs and labeled, respectively, “Ambivalence”, “Terror”, “Knowledge”, and “Regret”.
In another section of the window devoted to old toys, a wrinkled old man slumped in a rocking chair. His porcelain chin sported a long grey beard that draped over his lumpy, cloth-stuffed belly. He wore a stained wizard’s gown and conical hat speckled with fading stars and alchemical signs. A tin biplane with one bent propeller rested precariously in his lap.
The door was locked. Shielding my eyes against the glare of the California sunshine, I peered deeply into the shop. It was more of the same, except that one whole wall held shelves of dolls or puppets similar to the old wizard in the window. All were brightly painted, but, unlike the man in the window, their faces were disproportioned and irregular, as if the porcelain had been squeezed or given a nasty twist before it hardened. I could see no one inside and resisted knocking. I was grateful the place was closed.
As I turned to go, something metallic clattered in the window. The plane had fallen from the old man’s lap. It now had two bent propellers. His chair rocked slowly back and forth. What startled me more than the noise was that the doll had shifted his position. He no longer slumped, and his left hand extended down toward a piece of cardboard at his feet printed with crude childlike lettering saying, “Help Me.” There was a pencil in his lap.
Bells jingled faintly, and I thought I saw a dark shape retreat into the depths of the shop. A shiver ran through me. I practically flew down the stairs.
As I made my way back to the car, the engineer side of me hatched a new theory about Madame, and I became angry. She was a sick woman who liked to play elaborate mind games on susceptible people. The command “Come!” remained on the card, but I found it almost impossible to see except in bright daylight. It must have been there all the time. I decided to return to the shop, the next time with company.
I mentioned the strange store to my co-workers at Hewlett-Packard, and they agreed to go to Los Gatos after work one day, have a few beers over a Mexican dinner, and look it over. The dinner went fine, but when I tried to retrace my path to the stairway, I couldn’t find it. We did eventually stumble onto a side street with the correct name. There was a pottery shop and an embroidery shop, but no Curiosity Shop in between. The proprietors said they had never heard of Madame Astrofiammante. I seethed with panic but did my best to hide it. My colleagues laughed the whole thing off. Later we went to one of their condos for beer and shoptalk, but I avoided the joint they passed around, made some feeble excuses, and left early.
The next day, I drove towards the coast along Route 9 into Ben Lomond, a hippie enclave nestled in the redwoods near Santa Cruz, and made the familiar sharp right turn onto a fern-lined dirt road. The dusty track wound upward to a ramshackle redwood lodge dwarfed by tall coastal sequoias. I had spent a couple of blissfully drug-soaked years in this place after completing my Electrical Engineering degree at Stanford, and my best friend from that time, the person I was hoping to find, was sitting cross-legged on the porch.
Tom’s face, surrounded by a gloriously unkempt reddish-brown beard and shoulder-length hair, beamed out its usual inner radiance, “Hey, Man, great to see you. Had enough of the up-tight crazies in the Valley yet? Wanna get high?” He enveloped me in a bear hug.
I considered Tom wise in the ways of the unusual, although he had been brilliant enough once in a conventional sense. If he had stuck with his Standford graduate program in Microbiology, Tom probably would have made a fortune in the emerging recombinant DNA industry, but instead he had fried his circuits on psychedelics and dropped out. Though his rationality might now be suspect, his sensibilities toward the alternative were all the more acute. He had turned his scientific training to the culturing of organic drugs and was the source of the mushrooms that, a year ago, had ironically precipitated my shift back to engineering and the HP corporate lifestyle.
My feeling on seeing him was relief, not warmth or joy. Tom sensed it immediately, pulled back from the hug, and, holding his big hands on my shoulders, inspected my eyes closely. “You don’t feel right to me, Man. What did they do to you over there? It’s like your soul is sucked dry or something.”
“It’s not the work. That’s actually good. It’s something else. I need help. I’m either going insane or something totally strange is happening to me.”
We sat on the porch, and I told him bits of the story while he smoked a lump of hash. His concern deepened when I refused to partake. “Now I know you’re fucked up.” When I handed him Madame’s card, Tom acted like it was hot and gave it right back. “I’m catching serious emanations from that. Not natural. Not organic.” He did not have to hear much before he volunteered to go over to Los Gatos to see if we could find the place and “check it out”.
Tom usually saw the world through a rainbow aura. But, on the drive back across the mountains, he was somber as we puzzled over the details of my story. He shared my love for the magical, but confined his search mostly to drugs, gurus, and the burgeoning varieties of New Age homily. Although it took me two years, I had realized, while tripping on Tom’s mushrooms, that chemically distorted perceptions and promises of elusive inner peace, seductive though they might be, were not what I was looking for. Tom understood and actually helped me prepare for reentry into a more mainstream life. The magic, he had said, would find me anywhere, if I stayed open to it, but I’d better be sure that the kind of magic I attracted was something I really wanted. I thought at the time he was speaking metaphorically.
When we got to Los Gatos, we found the stairway easily, arrow and all. At the top, Madame Astrofiammante’s Curiosity Shop was there for both of us to see. “Jesus,” was all that Tom said. For the first time in years, I actually saw him frown. The sign on the door said, “Only One Customer”. As before, the door was locked and no one seemed to be inside.
“Man, I sure don’t like those dolls,” Tom said as he cupped a hand over his eyes and leaned on the glass.
“I know. They’re like devil-clowns. But look at the one in the window over there. The old man dressed like a wizard. He’s not so bad.”
When Tom looked where I was pointing, he scrutinized the little old man with an almost ferocious intensity.
Then, as if resisting an uncomfortable notion, he mumbled, “That’s no old man. That’s no old man.”
“Well, I don’t mean it’s an old man. It’s a doll of an old man.”
“That’s not a doll.”
His face became more disturbed the longer he looked. Tom turned me away from the window, stared into my eyes, and said slowly for emphasis, “This is very bad.”
“Well, it’s certainly strange. At least now that I know you see it, I know it’s real.”
“It’s not what?”
“It’s not real. I mean it’s real magic, but it’s not a good kind. It’s nothing you want.” He looked back at the window, then back at me. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Let’s cut the hippie crap. Beneath all the hair and shit, I’m just an overgrown kid playing hooky and trying to have some fun. But this stuff here. It’s bad, real bad. I warned you about this. I don’t know how you got yourself into it, but you’ve got to get yourself out. You’ve got to get out of here. Now. And never come back.”
“I agree the place is creepy, but why shouldn’t we find out more about it?”
Tom looked from the window to my face. “Can’t you see? Look at that doll in the window. Can’t you see it’s…”
Tom was struck dumb, mouth agape, face frozen. His gaze was fixed on something right behind me, not the old man. The skin on his cheeks and beneath his auburn mustache and beard went completely white. There was a degree of terror in his eyes that I had never seen before in anyone. He choked when he tried to speak, as if everything was stuffed down deep inside him with a wadded cloth. He backed away from me, then turned and ran.
When Tom got to the head of the stairs, he gestured frantically but never turned around. He clattered down the steps, and I never saw him again. When I turned back toward the shop, I was shocked to find myself eye-to-eye with Madame Astrofiammante, standing only a few feet behind me.
“You come, my dear. Alone. No friends. Understand? Want magic? Here’s magic.”
The Madame stepped back and disappeared as if passing through a curtain. Just like that, she was gone.
When I looked toward the old man, he was holding another crudely lettered sign, “I Need You.” I noticed that his hands, which before had seemed one solid piece, were now articulated into fingers and thumbs.
He winked at me.
After that, I went through the motions of doing my job, but, even though the door remained locked, I went back to the Curiosity Shop every workday evening and all day on weekends. Every time, the wizard doll became more and more a real old man, but in miniature. The look of porcelain about him faded. He became flesh and blood. He moved, waved, and gestured. I could not hear him say anything, but he occasionally performed curious little shows in pantomime. One evening he opened one of the leather books to a page showing a Dionysian orgy and did a lewd thrusting dance around the window. Another time, the old man rolled up his sleeves and made sparkles stream from his fingertips toward the biplane until it flew around the display window. I was enthralled.
Finally, one day, I found the old man sitting in his chair looking glum and holding one of his simple signs. This one said, “Today Is The Day”. When I looked up, Madame Astrofiammante stood just beyond the window display glaring at me. Aside from the suggestion of a shadow moving in the shop, it was the first time I had seen her clearly since the apparition with Tom. She lifted her left hand and pointed at the door. The placard read, “Now.”
The Madame, her shop, and the old man had taken over my life. What else could I do?
She was the first to speak. Her commanding voice halted me in my tracks.
“You call me. I come. Now you come to me.”
I had just enough spirit in me to stammer, “What do you want from me?”
“Not what I want. What you want. Not what I do. What you do. What they do.”
She pointed to the array of dolls and puppets on the wall. They were all moving as if giant hands manipulated them from inside. They leered and menaced me with their miniature fists. “My god,” I muttered.
“No god. Just them. You want magic. They give magic. You want knowledge. They give knowledge.”
Madame Astrofiammante reached into the window display with her left hand and lifted out the little old wizard and set him on the counter.
“This one?” she asked.
The old man nodded to enthusiastic agreement from the other dolls.
“OK, they decide.”
She whacked the old man on the head with the staff in her right hand. Over and over. He emitted little cries with each blow, “ah, ah, ah,” to cheers of approval from the other dolls.
The old man’s head split open. As he hissed out a last fading “aaahhhhhhh”, his head became porcelain again, but now with a hole and gaping cracks that oozed a thick gold liquid. Pieces of ceramic skull scattered on the table.
Madame Astrofiammante dipped her index and middle fingers into the goo and held them toward my face.
The dolls murmured excitedly, then chanted her command.
“Eat it. Eat it. Eat it.”
Since then, I have been a little old man displayed in the window on my rocking chair, dressed like a medieval wizard and holding the metal biplane, just like the old man who preceded me, surrounded by books, apothecary jars, and rusty tools. I could never be certain until the sun rose whether I would manifest that day as flesh and blood or just a motionless but self-aware ceramic doll. Most nights, when fleshy, I sat inside on the countertop closest to my window, as far from the other dolls as I could be.
I received one gift. The golden liquid in my head enabled me to understand any language, spoken or written, no matter how obscure. So, in the evenings, I delved into the ancient texts that Madame Astrofiammante sometimes left lying on the counter next to her oil lamp when she was done reading for the evening.
On a night when the Curiosity Shop was located in the Mideastern city of Seleucia during the heyday of the Parthian Empire, I studied Celtic runes that explained the words and gestures used to call up a fairy. I wanted so badly to get it right and was shocked and delighted by success. When the dust settled, there she was, only a few inches tall, exquisitely proportioned, with wings and hair that glowed a phosphorescent blue. Her opalescent tunic was embroidered with silver thread. She smiled and told me her name was Aoife. Her voice sounded like distant wind chimes, but I could both speak and understand her language with surprising ease.
The dolls, who were in their fleshy form that night, gasped when she appeared and looked at her and me with mouths hanging open. As soon as she became aware of them, Aoife cowered.
“The Curiosity Shop! Of all the places in all the worlds, you brought me here?”
“Uh. I meant no harm. I just wanted to see if I could do it. You can leave if you don’t like it.”
“No, I can’t. Not unless you release me from your spell.”
My face burned with embarrassment, “But I don’t know how.”
Aoife waved her tiny finger at me sternly, “Never work magic you can’t undo.”
The dolls whispered among themselves. The biggest one, a hunched-backed marionette called Molock, leered in our direction. Aoife hid herself in the folds of my robe.
Over the next few days, I kept Aoife next to me in a box on the countertop. I poured over the Celtic texts in Madame’s pile by the lamp until I found one that discussed reversal of conjures. Meanwhile, the shop had jumped to a side street near the Vatican walls in 14th Century Rome.
One night, as I perused the dusty leather-bound book, a remarkable thing happened. The dolls became fully animated, climbed off the shelving, crossed the floor, and gathered on the far end of my countertop. Standing on each other’s shoulders, they brought down a bottle of liquid from an alcove near the ceiling. There was no label, but I could see the glue stain from where one had fallen off. They began to pass it around and take little sips. As they did, they became more and more boisterous.
Peeking over the lip of her box, Aoife watched them nervously. I pulled the box closer to me. Just then, Molock turned at us and grinned. Even though he was in flesh and blood form and not attached to any strings, Molock’s motions as he ambled over to us had the floating awkwardness of a marionette. Aoife retreated deep in a corner of her box. I stood up, but Molock loomed over me, a head taller.
“Why don’t you join us? Conjuring a fairy is impressive. It is time for us to welcome you... properly.” He drew out the last word with a toothy grin.
Glancing down into the box, I could see Aoife shaking her head vigorously, but Molock put his arm around me and urged me toward the rollicking puppets. Although his touch was cold, I yielded. I wanted to see what this was about and swore I would remain vigilant. The dolls and puppets could overwhelm me by their sheer numbers anyhow and, if at last they wanted to be friendly, it could be a grave mistake to refuse.
They greeted me like a champion and handed me the bottle. A few minutes after I took a sip, a dungeon creaked open in my bowels and released some drooling beast with teeth and claws. It was exhilarating. I was free of conscience and restraint for the first time in my life. I recalled the old man’s thrusting dance in the window. What ensued was a carnival orgy of dolls and puppets made flesh.
As time passed, I noticed that Molock and a few others had slipped away. When I looked toward my end of the counter, all the dolls and puppets became silent. Three clown dolls were holding Aoife down. I could hear her pleading. Her head was clamped in the thumbscrew from my window, and Molock was standing over it with his hands on the wheel, twisting slowly.
Molock leered at me, “Want a turn?”
When my head cleared enough to comprehend what was happening, I screamed “No!” and charged at Molock. I struggled to push him away and free Aoife, but was quickly subdued.
Molock spat out, “A failure in all respects, as expected.”
They forced me to watch as he cranked the thumbscrew. When Aoife’s head cracked open, her brain spit out in the direction of my window display. I could hear it hit the glass and rattle around. The puppets released me and roared with laughter as I jumped into the window case to find it. Aoife’s brain was crystal clear with a pinkish tinge and had the weight and texture of a jellybean in my hand. I put it in my pocket.
When I got back inside the shop’s interior, the puppets and dolls had taken Aoife’s body to the other end of the table and were hacking it to pieces. Molock, with his back to me, wielded a butcher’s knife. Fury mingled with the heat of the evil liquid I had drunk. I grabbed the heavy thumbscrew in both hands, walked up behind Molock, and whacked his head so hard that it flew from his body onto the floor and shattered, splattering a tarry paste across the tiles.
The dolls turned toward me with their weapons, but, before further mayhem, Madame Astrofiammante appeared with a candle.
“What happens here?”
She took it all in. The armed puppets, the hacked up fairy, Molock’s body and shattered head, and me holding the thumbscrew. My guts twisted when I noticed in the quiet of the moment that Aoife’s pieces were twitching. Fairies are immortal. They can be injured, but they can’t be killed.
Madame shook her head. With her free hand she pointed the puppets to their shelves, and they shuffled off. She scooped up Aoife’s remains, put them in a bottle, labeled it, and placed it in my window. With a mutter and a wave, she erased Molock’s head shards and muck from the floor. Only a black stain remained on the tiles.
Having restored order, Madame Astrofiammante took Molock’s headless body in one arm and returned to the back rooms.
When I settled into my rocking chair, I took out Aoife’s brain and caressed it gently with my fingers. Her body parts in the bottle next to me became less agitated and glowed with softer phosphorescence. I was crying golden tears.
The very next day a monk in black robes cinctured with rope examined Aoife’s bottle in my window. He returned a few hours later with a bundle wrapped in sackcloth and entered the shop. He negotiated with Madame for some time. She finally retrieved the jar from next to me and handed it to the monk in exchange for the contents of his bundle – an ancient papyrus roll, an elaborately decorated golden pyx, and bunches of herbs tied in string.
I heard the hooded figure say in Ecclesiastical Latin, “His Holiness will be very pleased with His gift!”
During our brief stay in Rome, I continued to study Celtic texts. They implied that correct undoing of a conjuring would send a fairy home with no memory of its adventure, but nowhere did they say, one way or the other, whether the fairy would be restored if it had been injured. One night, I muttered the requisite words with one hand around Aoife’s brain in my pocket. When I finished casting the spell, her brain disappeared. Although I had not heard Madame enter the room, I turned to see her watching. She nodded and returned to the back rooms.
I never found out whether Aoife’s body parts disappeared from His Holiness’ collection or how much it displeased Him if they did. Before the next day broke, the Curiosity Shop jumped to a different place and time.
It has been months since I lost Aoife. The shop has meanwhile continued moving around in history, without apparent pattern. I paid little attention. The dolls, quiet and morose at first, began once again to harass me with threats and derision. I ignored them. In fact, I rarely left my window. I obsessed on Aoife and cried frequently, realizing I would never know for sure what happened to her. I never looked at the texts that Madame still left on the counter at night. I never attempted another spell.
A few days ago, Madame surprised me by lifting me from the window, setting me on the counter, and sitting in a chair to face me at eye level. She had almost never talked to me directly in all the time since I ate the golden liquid.
“So sad, my dear? You not like the magic.”
“No,” I quickly replied.
The dolls and puppets tittered.
“Why keep me here like this?” I gestured at my body.
“I do nothing. You do this. They do this.” She gestured toward the shelves of dolls with her staff. “You call. I come. No more, no less.”
“I want this to be over.”
“Over? I was like you once. Now, just this, you see. Always the same, never over.”
“Not so simple. No, not simple. But we see, my dear.”
After studying me in silence for several minutes, she lifted me back into the window.
It has been several days since that conversation. Something must be about to change.
The shop has made another jump, no ordinary jump.
It has appeared again in 1970’s Los Gatos between the embroidery shop and the potter’s. The window looks exactly as it did the fateful day I first saw it, except that the biplane in my lap now has two bent propellers. I am in my ceramic form, slumped over in the rocking chair, and the fluid in my head churns with apprehension as the hours pass.
Then, sure enough, there I am, coming up the stairs and walking toward the shop. My outside self studies the window, as I remember doing, and looks at me, at himself. He peers inside the shop. I see puzzlement, wonder, and fear in his eyes, mixed with a good dose of skepticism. Good for me.
Finding the shop closed, he turns to leave. Madame Astrofiammante appears suddenly behind me and hands me a pencil and a piece of cardboard. I feel myself loosen and become fleshy enough to hold the pencil. I sit up straighter and have just a moment to decide what to write. Then I stiffen again, which causes me to drop the biplane and the note. The reaction sets the rocker swaying, and the pencil lands in my lap.
The me outside turns and reads the note. He takes one more lingering look at me, himself, the doll, and then hurries down the stairs.
I don’t know who the little old wizard in the window was before me, but I know now that Tom was trying to tell me that he thought it was me. I certainly have no memory of being that little old man then, but I am not so sure anymore who I am or whether the “me” outside can possible have a different fate from my own. What I do know is that the biplane now has two bent propellers and a newly bent wing. I also know that I wrote something different in my note than the other old man. I wrote, “Go! Don’t Come Back!”
So something has to change. Right?
I can see the reflection of Madame Astrofiammante in the window.
She says quietly, “It will, my dear, it will.”
She is standing behind me, cradling the decapitated body of Molock in her left arm and patting it with her right.
“Molock needs new head.”
The puppets on the shelves stare at us in silence.
As published in the anthology Into Darkness Peering, ed. Tyree Campbell (Alban Lake Publishing 2017).