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The Door by the Staircase
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Cover design or artwork by Kelly Murphy
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $7.99 $8.99 CAD
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 3, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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The very next day, a mysterious woman named Madame Z appears at the orphanage requesting to adopt Mary, and the matron’s all too happy to get the girl off her hands. Soon, Mary is fed a hearty meal, dressed in a clean, new nightgown and shown to a soft bed with blankets piled high. She can hardly believe she isn’t dreaming!
But when Mary begins to explore the strange nearby town with the help of her new friend, Jacob, she learns a terrifying secret about Madame Z’s true identity. If Mary’s not careful, her new home might just turn into a nightmare.
Award-winning author Katherine Marsh draws from Russian fairytales in this darkly funny middle-grade fantasy novel, now available in paperback.
Praise for The Door by the Staircase
* “Well-drawn characters, an original setting, and a satisfying resolution are the ingredients that make this carefully crafted middle-grade adventure a highly rewarding read.”
–Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Praise for Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2012
The Wall Street Journal Best Children’s Books of 2012
–The New York Times Book Review
–School Library Journal, starred review
–Publishers Weekly, starred review
* “Incorporating elements of adventure, romance, tragedy, intrigue, and science, the novel conjures a place and time not commonly explored in young adult fiction ?”
–Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review
* “Readers should be drawn in by the complex relationships between Marsh’s protagonists and Jack’s continuing existential struggles, caught between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
–Publishers Weekly, starred review
Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, 2008
* “This intelligent and self-assured debut will compel readers from its outset, and leave them satisfied as it explores universal themes of love, loss, and closure.”
–Publishers Weekly, starred review
ALSO BY KATHERINE MARSH
The Night Tourist
The Twilight Prisoner
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT, Mary Hayes crept into the kitchen of the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies and opened a small door on the side of the enormous cast-iron stove. Then she took a deep breath and shoved herself inside.
A chilly October wind blew across Lake Erie, but the stove was not fired up. Mrs. Boot was always telling Mary and the other orphans that cold was good for them—that it toughened them up. But Mary had recently learned from one of the older girls that Mrs. Boot did not keep the stove lit at night so that she could pocket the money she saved on fuel. It was this seemingly dismal bit of news that had given Mary an idea.
Even for a skinny twelve-year-old, the clean-out door was a tight fit. But the worst part wasn’t squeezing herself through it, or even the pitch-blackness when she closed the door behind her. It was the smoky carbon smell. For a moment, Mary found herself thinking about her brother, Caleb. He had been just thirteen months older, and her best friend. It was he who had taught her to read and who had given her Grimm’s Household Tales, the book she had sneaked out of the bedroom they shared on the night of the fire. It was this book that had saved her life.
The Household Tales lay inside her shoulder bag, tucked snugly against her. The book was her most cherished possession now that Caleb and her mother were gone. But it was a poor substitute for a family. The acrid smell of soot made her eyes sting. Or was it the memory of her mother, an arm around each of them before bed, calling one her heart, the other her soul? Mary was never quite sure which one she was, only that there was a power in their being three. She murmured her mother’s words—my heart, my soul—but they just made her feel worse. Her forehead slid onto her knees. At least the dark stove seemed the right place to mourn, curled into a fetal ball in its cast-iron belly of ashes.
It was tempting to stay like this forever; but Mary knew it was only a matter of time before Mrs. Boot realized she was missing and went looking for her. So after a few minutes she sat up, wiped away her tears, and began to hunt in the dark, feeling blindly along the crusty sides of the stove until she found what she was looking for—the pipe that led up into the chimney.
The opening of the pipe was narrow and round. She pushed her bag, with her copy of Household Tales, up through the pipe, then stuck in her head. But she had to press the soles of her boots against the sides of the stove to wedge her shoulders through. After an uncomfortably tight squeeze, she popped into the flue. She wriggled all the way out of the pipe and began to shimmy her way up, using her elbows and knees. But as the smell of soot grew stronger, she felt a stab of breathless panic. She had read stories in the newspaper about chimney sweeps, boy apprentices even smaller than she, who had suffocated trying to clean inside the tight flues. Her palms felt sweaty and slick against the brick, and her heart pounded as she imagined a similar fate. The stove would start to smoke and Mrs. Boot would complain that something—a dead animal, perhaps—was blocking the chimney. Eventually, they would find her blackened body. Mary’s breath came in ragged gasps, and she struggled to control her trembling, which for once wasn’t from the cold or the threat of Mrs. Boot’s switch.
But turning back wasn’t an option. For the first four years after the fire, she had lived at an orphanage for younger girls, where she had been kept warm and decently fed in the hope that one of the wealthy couples who sometimes came through would adopt her. But the few girls who were adopted were cheerful and eager to please. Even their straight, tightly braided hair seemed obedient. Mary had wild brown curls and clung to a battered copy of Grimm’s fairy tales—she seemed too bookish, too sly. And here, among the older girls, there was no such hope. No one ever came to adopt. If the girls were lucky enough to survive the cold and the meager portions, Mrs. Boot might find them a job at a textile factory. But Mary wasn’t going to be one of the lucky ones—Mrs. Boot had taken an instant disliking to her. Within weeks of arriving, Mary had realized that her only chance at a better life was to flee, preferably before winter.
Counting silently to distract herself, Mary climbed farther up the flue. Her knees and elbows scraped against the blackened brick as she shoved herself upward. Once, a patch of hardened creosote gave way, and she nearly fell before catching herself by jamming her knees and elbows out to stop her. She was certain she was bleeding, but she dared not look. As the flue narrowed, her shoulder bag wedged against her. Her head began to feel thick and heavy from the smell of soot. How far, she wondered, could the chimney cap be?
At just that moment, the crown of Mary’s head smashed against something hard. She worked one arm up and felt a small steel square. She tried to shove it open, but it wouldn’t give. “Come on,” she whispered. She banged on it with her fist. Her heart began to race as she realized that after all this way, she was locked in, trapped. In a moment of terror, she butted the cap with her head.
It popped open. Mary stifled a cry of relief as cold, fresh air flooded her lungs. The moonlight was so bright it made her blink. She scrambled out of the chimney and gave herself a quick once-over. Her dress was torn at the elbows, and the exposed skin was scraped and bloody. She had left her coat behind, afraid she couldn’t fit through the chimney with the extra layer of clothing. But now, shivering on the roof in the chilly October night, Mary regretted leaving it behind. Her knees, like her elbows, glistened darkly with blood where she had skinned them. Her hands and dress were blackened by soot, and she could feel a layer of it on her face as well. But this Mary did not mind. It would help camouflage her during the next, dangerous step.
She sprinted to the edge of the roof. A drainpipe ran down the side of the building, right by Mrs. Boot’s bedroom window. Mary quietly lowered herself, until she was clinging to it with her hands and knees. The drainpipe creaked, and her pulse quickened as she wondered if it would bear her weight. When the pipe didn’t pull away, she took a breath and slowly, inch by inch, slid down it. Just before she reached Mrs. Boot’s window, she stopped. The shade was drawn and the light was off. As silently as possible, Mary slid past, allowing herself to pick up speed—until a few feet from the ground, she let go and jumped. She landed, catlike, on her feet.
Mary pressed herself flat against the wall of the orphanage, looking for lights or witnesses. But it was past midnight, and the normally busy city street was deserted. She looked up one last time at the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies to make sure all the windows were dark.
Just then a whistling, whirring sound filled the air. Mary swung around. Down the street, the wind was gathering into a funnel, swirling up leaves and bits of trash. Mary had spent her entire life in Buffalo. She knew the icy winds and the heavy autumn snows, but she had never seen anything like this. Her breath quickened, and she could feel the blood drain out of her fingers as she watched the funnel grow. When it was as tall as a two-story building, it began to blow toward her down the center of the street. She willed herself to run, but she was paralyzed, her legs frozen and her eyes fixed on the advancing twister. There was something almost human about how it undulated from side to side, like a giant shifting its weight. She could feel her curls flying around her face, her thin dress twisting around her legs, as the wind drew near. She instinctively flattened herself against the brick wall of the asylum and closed her eyes.
And then, suddenly, the whistling, whirring noise grew quieter, changing to a low hum. Mary opened her eyes. The whirlwind was only a few feet away from her. It spun in place. The top of its funnel bent down as if it were studying her. Mary kept as still as she could, her every muscle tense. She knew she had to do something.
She stared up at the funnel. “Go on, then.”
From inside the whirlwind, she thought she heard a robust laugh. Then the whistling noise started up and the whirlwind backed away from her.
But just as she took a step, the whirlwind picked up speed and hurled itself against Mrs. Boot’s window. A light turned on, and the matron’s head emerged.
“Mary, you little witch!”
Mary tried to run, but the whirlwind pinned her against the wall with its furious gusts like a pair of strong hands. A minute later, the door opened and Mrs. Boot charged out like a small, angry bull and seized her by the arm.
“The wind!” Mary shouted, although she would have been quite happy if Mrs. Boot were swept away forever.
But the moment Mary said it, she realized the wind was already gone. There was no funnel, no driving gust, just a light and invisible breeze.
With her free hand, Mrs. Boot walloped Mary over the head. “Don’t try to trick me.”
Mrs. Boot marched her inside, wrenching her arm painfully as she dragged her up the stairs. But instead of taking Mary back to bed, Mrs. Boot shoved her into a storage room that housed mops, brooms, washboards, and buckets.
“Tomorrow I’ll chain the clean-out door of the stove closed,” she said, jabbing a fat finger into Mary’s sooty face. “And then I’ll whip you in front of the others.”
She slammed the door and locked it behind her. Mary ran to the storage room’s single window, but it had been welded shut. Although she could see the street a story below, there was no way to reach it.
“I hate you!” she shouted to the whirlwind, not at all caring if Mrs. Boot thought Mary was talking to her. She threw a punch into the air, imagining she could strike the funnel. Then she curled up on the floor, resting her head on top of her shoulder bag and the copy of Household Tales inside it, and cried herself to sleep.
MARY WAS AWAKENED by sunlight streaming through the window. The events of the previous night came rushing back. Stiffly, she stood up and looked outside. The street was once again crowded with factory workers, migrants, boatmen, stevedores, and peddlers. But there was one curious sight. A gig was parked directly in front of the Asylum for Young Ladies, and an enormous golden-brown horse stomped impatiently in front of it and shook its mane. Mary wondered whom it belonged to. She hoped it wasn’t an undertaker and that one of the girls hadn’t perished during the night. But before she could think more about it, she heard the click of the lock, and the door swung open.
At the sound of Mrs. Boot’s shrill voice, Mary covered her backside as she remembered the whipping the matron had promised.
“She has no family at all, poor devochka?” said a woman’s voice in a thick foreign accent.
It was only then that Mary realized someone else had joined them. The woman was wrinkled and hunched, with a long nose and big ears that had clearly continued to grow while the rest of her had shriveled. She wore her silver hair braided and coiled into a bun. One gnarled hand clutched a simple birch cane. Yet despite her obvious age and frailty, her wide-set gray eyes were keen. They flashed at Mary above a pair of sharp cheekbones.
“Her father died before she was born,” Mrs. Boot said. “Her mother and brother died in a fire. The naughty imp sneaked out of bed to read. Otherwise, she’d be with them.”
Mary winced at the memory. They had lived in a boardinghouse—her mother was a seamstress, and a single room was all she could afford. Another lodger had given Caleb the Household Tales, and he had used the simplest stories, such as “The Nail,” to teach Mary to read. Knowing how to turn letters into words had seemed a wonderful kind of power…until that horrible September night. She had sneaked out to the porch to read the tale of the straw, the coal, and the bean that escaped a fire. She didn’t remember falling asleep, only being awakened by the smell of smoke. Dashing inside, she had found a wall of flames blocking the single staircase. She would never forget those powerless moments of shouting Caleb’s and her mother’s names, pleading for others to help. But there had been no way to save them.
“She is completely alone, then,” the old woman said, shaking her head ruefully.
“Yes,” Mrs. Boot said, affecting a businesslike tone. “And I am happy to get rid of her. But if you want an older girl, I have plenty of other, more obedient ones.”
Mary snapped out of the terrible memory of that night as she realized what was happening. The old woman meant to adopt her. Mary had no idea who she was, but she realized the miraculous opportunity before her. She wasn’t going to allow this last, precious chance to slip away.
“No!” Mary said. “Take me! It’s me you want.”
The old woman grinned, seemingly amused by Mary’s enthusiasm. “The child is quite certain,” she said.
But Mrs. Boot seemed not to hear her. “She is an idle one, too. She lazes about, reading. Fairy tales. Nonsense. Believe me, I’d love to get rid of her, but you’ll end up returning her in days. I have a girl who can clean and cook for you—”
Mary ran to the old woman. “I can clean and cook!”
“Of course you can, devochka,” the old woman said. Her gray eyes fell on Mary’s scraped-up elbows. “But you are thin, aren’t you?”
A flicker of hesitation crossed the old woman’s face. Mary was determined not to let her change her mind. “Thin but strong! And I am clever, too.”
“Clever enough to escape,” Mrs. Boot said. “She will run away, just like she did last night, and then you’ll be back looking for another girl—”
“I won’t run away,” Mary said, adding under her breath, “as long as I am well treated.”
“Impertinent, too!” Mrs. Boot said. “Look, madam, a woman your age cannot go chasing after a runaway in the middle of the night. I have a simple girl, strong as an ox, perfect to help with your infirmities.”
The old woman inhaled deeply through a pair of large nostrils as if she were summoning the patience to deal with Mrs. Boot. “No, nyet, my dear lady. I want this one.” She beckoned to Mary. “Come, child, I’m taking you home.” Then she turned and hobbled toward the door, tapping her birch cane in front of her.
Mary could hardly believe her ears. Home. For four years, she had longed to hear this word. She didn’t even care what kind of home it was—rich or poor, large or small. Before Mrs. Boot could stop her, she slung her shoulder bag over her head and raced after her new guardian, past the curious faces of the other girls. She didn’t even stop to get her coat—afraid any delay might change her fortune—but stayed close by the old woman’s heels, following her out the door.
On the street, the wind sent men’s hats flying. Mary half-feared it might blow away the old woman, too, but she appeared no more bent in the strong wind than she had inside. In fact, she seemed less feeble now, holding up her cane and scuttling toward the gig as if she feared Mrs. Boot might yet chase after her and again try to change her mind. She unhitched the golden-brown horse, who thrust up his head, stared at Mary, and snorted a hot, steamy cloud.
“His name is Sivka,” the old woman said, “after his color. And I am Madame Zolotaya. But you, devochka, may call me Madame Z.”
“I am Mary,” Mary said, unsure whether Madame Z knew her name. “You sound as if you’re from someplace far away.”
“I am from a land that was once next to Russia, devochka. But I live in America now, in a small yet interesting town. It’s not so far.”
Madame Z stepped up into the gig and patted the seat beside her. Mary climbed in, and when she sat down, she noticed that Madame Z had produced a fur wrap, which she proceeded to drape over Mary. “It will do for now,” she said.
It would more than do. Mary’s coat had been threadbare and too short. The fur wrap was toasty and warm. “Thank you,” she said.
At the sound of a piercing whistle from Madame Z, Sivka trotted off. Mary’s stomach rumbled, and she realized she had not eaten anything since the previous day.
Although the noise was very soft, Madame Z seemed to hear it. She pulled an entire loaf of black bread and two hard-boiled eggs from beneath the bench and handed them to Mary.
“But I couldn’t possibly eat all this,” Mary lied. “Would you like some?”
She held out an egg. Madame Z stared down at it. Mary thought she looked a bit hungry, but she shook her head. “All yours, devochka. I’d rather save up my appetite for later.”
Mary couldn’t believe her new guardian’s generosity. She wolfed down the bread and eggs, enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of a full stomach. By this time, her birthplace—with its mansions and breweries, canal and railroads—was behind her. The gig raced along a post road that wended past orchards, pumpkin fields, stone farmhouses, and rolling hills carpeted with orange and yellow leaves. Madame Z began to sing. Her voice was high and raspy, and Mary could only assume the nonsensical words were some language close to Russian. Before long, the old woman’s voice combined with the wind and the warmth of the throw to put her to sleep.
When Mary awoke, the sun was low in the sky, and Madame Z was no longer singing. She held the reins loosely as Sivka, who seemed to know the way, pulled the gig into a town. Mary wondered if they had reached Madame Z’s home. She fluttered her eyelids as if she were still asleep, possibly dreaming, but in fact she meant to take a secret look around.
The little town consisted mostly of colorful cottages with spindlework porches, balconies, and gabled roofs, packed tightly together. Men and women, dressed as elegantly as those in the finest neighborhoods of Buffalo, drifted in and out of them. Mary wondered if her new home was some vacation colony for the rich—perhaps a spa town where they went to bathe in healing waters. Her mother had heard of such places from the servants of wealthy households who brought their masters’ clothes to her to mend.
Mary spotted a sign hanging outside one of the cottages, rocking gently in the chilly wind: AURA THE EYE, SHE SEES THE FUTURE. Next to it was an eye inside a triangle. There were fortune-tellers in Buffalo, too, so at first this did not surprise her. But then she noticed another sign, in front of a cottage with a wand in the window, that read THE GREAT DEBOSCO, BEHOLD TO BELIEVE! A magician, right next to a fortune-teller?
While Sivka stopped to let a group of women pass, Mary gazed across the street to see the town’s other proprietors. An awning over a black house with red trim advertised MADAME PETITSA, THE FIRE-EATER. This one gave her a shiver, not only because she was still deathly afraid of fires but because there was clearly something odd about the town she had awakened in. She forgot all about pretending to be asleep and sat up to study her surroundings. Save for a handful of ordinary establishments such as a hotel and a bank, the town was filled with storefronts that advertised the occult—from mind reading to magic to communicating with the dead.
“Where are we?” Mary asked.
“Iris,” Madame Z said with affection. “A town of con artists, fakes, and charlatans.”
Although Mary was too old to believe in magic, she somehow felt disappointed. She caught Madame Z looking at her with a grin, as if she knew.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Mary said.
“Of course you didn’t, devochka,” said Madame Z agreeably. “But many less sensible people do. They believe magic and the occult flourish in Iris, rather than just swindlers and frauds.”
“Why do you live here?” Mary asked.
“I don’t,” Madame Z said. “I live outside town.”
She pointed a crooked finger past the last cottage—RUSALINA, SPIRIT GUIDE—to where the road curved toward the setting sun. Mary didn’t feel this exactly answered her question, but she decided not to press Madame Z until she knew her a little better. Perhaps she had been one of these fakes herself.
Sivka trotted swiftly out of town. Mary paid careful attention to the route, which was simple; the gig never turned but stayed on the same road, past farms and fields, heading west. After a couple of miles, they reached a white wooden fence. Madame Z scrambled down to open a gate, and they continued until the road dead-ended at the edge of a forest.
Dusk had fallen, and in the fading light, Mary could see a small house set at the edge of flame-colored trees. It had wooden lace shingles, two chimneys—one small and the other large—and an enchanting tower topped by a dome. Rosebushes, still covered with blue-tinged white roses, curled up the railing of a wraparound porch. The forest surrounded the house on the other three sides; it was so close to the house that the tall trees—oaks and pines—seemed to bend over its eaves.
The gig rolled to a stop in front of the house, and an old man emerged from the woods, waving wildly. He was tall and gaunt, with a long, scraggly gray beard and craggy gray eyebrows that hung over pale blue eyes.
“Is that your husband?” Mary asked as the man loped over to them.
“Husband?” Madame Z laughed. “I have no husband, devochka. This is Koshchey. He takes care of Sivka for me and lives in a hut in the woods.”
“Ah, there she is!” Koshchey cried, enveloping Mary’s hands in his own long ones and giving them a squeeze. “The mistress said she was going to find a child to adopt, and I can see she has found the perfect one!”
Mary, who was unaccustomed to flattery, felt herself blush.
“Leave the girl alone,” Madame Z said with a tinge of irritation. “Sivka is thirsty.”
Koshchey unclasped Mary’s hands and bowed toward Madame Z. Then he winked at Mary and ran to unhitch Sivka.
“He overdoes it,” Madame Z muttered, stepping down from the gig.
Mary watched Koshchey lead Sivka into the darkening forest. “Where’s the stable?” she asked.
“Behind the house,” Madame Z said vaguely. “But there will be plenty of time for you to explore later. Come, devochka. You must be hungry.”
Mary reluctantly shrugged off the toasty fur throw, slung her shoulder bag over her sooty dress, and hopped down to the ground. She followed Madame Z up the stairs and onto the wide porch that encircled her new home like a skirt. There were several chairs fashioned out of knotty boughs, and a tinkling wind chime that Mary guessed was made of ivory. It seemed a pleasant spot, but the autumn chill was growing as night fell. Mary, lacking a coat, was glad when Madame Z opened the front door—which was carved with figures of birds and leaves—and led her inside.
“Welcome, welcome,” Madame Z said.
Mary followed her into a candlelit foyer. Enormous silver urns stood as sentries.
“Samovars,” Madame Z explained, noticing her gaze. “Native to my land. They heat water for chai—tea.”
She picked up a bowl lying on the floor and filled it with steaming water, then produced a soft cloth, which she dipped in the water and wrung out. “Wash your hands and face, devochka.”
Mary obediently cleaned herself, enjoying the feel of the warm cloth, which quickly turned black with soot.
Madame Z gave a little sniff, then nodded. “Better. We will take care of the rest of you later.”
After setting the dirty cloth and bowl of water on a side table, she led Mary into another room. As Madame Z scurried about lighting kerosene lamps and starting a fire in the hearth, Mary could see they were in some sort of parlor. The walls were covered in dark, patterned wallpaper of flowers and vines. Dried orange flowers that resembled tiny lanterns poked out of tall vases. Spiders, flies, and other insects encased in honey-colored gobs of amber sat on display on the side tables. A small writing desk with slender, coltish legs, a chair tucked beneath it, occupied one corner. In another corner was a small round dining table. In the front of the room, next to a plain wooden bench, stood a primitive-looking loom as tall as Mary herself.
She was about to reach out and touch it when she sensed a shadow behind her. She turned around to find a gray cat stretching himself in front of the fire. The cat began to wash his paws, then stopped to stare at Mary with gooseberry-green eyes. Mary remembered how Caleb had befriended and fed a stray in the alley behind the boardinghouse. Just as she remembered Caleb doing, she crouched down and held out a hand to the cat, which he sniffed with a regal air.
“What do you think, Yulik?” Madame Z asked him playfully. “Do you like her?”
Yulik meowed in response. Mary, who had never heard a cat meow on command before, applauded.
Madame Z laughed. “Spoken like a true creature of instinct.” She pointed Mary toward a sofa. “Let’s get you more to eat.”
Madame Z disappeared through a doorway that presumably led to the kitchen. A few minutes later, she reappeared with a wooden tray laden with two enormous bowls of stew and an entire loaf of bread. Mary felt her mouth water at the sight of it.
“I regret that this is all I have for tonight,” Madame Z said, setting the bowls down at the small round table.
- * "Well-drawn characters, an original setting, and a satisfying resolution are the ingredients that make this carefully crafted middle-grade adventure a highly rewarding read."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "Marsh has crafted a sparkling tale full of adventure, magic, and folklore."—School Library Journal, starred review
"[An] engaging, almost cinematic story . . ."—The Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Jan 3, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers