When Elsionna d’Esser-Belluvex misbehaved and the weather permitted, she could expect the punishment most enjoyed by her governess Nelfrid — a measure that perhaps did little to change the child’s behavior, but at least seemed effective in the way she greeted each session with encouraging cries of terror. It began with the old woman strapping Elsionna firmly by her knees to her own canopy bed. Then, elaborating on a craft learned from her deceased seagoing husband, Nelfrid would tie the length of curtain draped from the left footpost into a large, exquisite knot. By means of a deliberate arrangement of interstices and creases, this knot resembled a sinister face — especially at nighttime, in minimal light, nodding slightly with the currents of air from an open window. The illusion was enough to frighten all wishes and plans out of Elsionna’s mind, so that she found herself shutting her eyes to avoid this specter and keeping them shut until morning the way people are supposed to.
By the time this story begins, the cloth grimace had become the face of Elsionna’s dread. It was not at all clear to her what would happen once the knot finally opened its wrinkle-mouth and spoke, but she would have to face it restrained and helpless, incapable of preventing what she could not bear to happen.
On this night, however, Nelfrid, old and tired, had perhaps not strapped her down as tightly as before, or maybe she had not accounted for the child’s growing legs becoming less plump around the knees. Maybe. Whatever the case, Elsionna could now wriggle to her north somewhat, until the straps were around her ankles. This gave her just enough leeway to reach beneath the mattress and grope, until she located the buckle that secured her bonds — and freed herself completely.
There was a nice breeze going, and the footpost-knot was nodding more rapidly than usual, and maybe tonight it appeared more malevolent than it ever had before. But tonight she could defeat it! She could undo its face and ruin the spell. Her heart racing, she stood up on the mattress, reached out to the fluttering cloth features and…
“Nooooooo!” screamed the knot, which this time really was alive, for reasons that are still unknown. “Nooooooo! Please don’t untie me. Let me live out my wretched ten-hour existence all the way to its end. Please? In return I’ll tell you a secret.”
Its low voice was pleading and sounded pathetic. When its mouth opened, it assumed a very round shape while folds beneath it suggested a double chin — neither of which Elsionna had envisioned. And she, for whom everything had changed so completely and suddenly, lowered her hands and let it continue.
“On the west wall of your uncle’s guest bedroom is a certain closet where a certain paper lantern is kept that no one will notice missing. It comes with a curved pole with a hook that you can use to keep it hanging above you while you carry it. Light it and stay within its glow, and no person or beast will be able to detect you. You could obtain it right now if you walk quietly. Go now, and please forget all about me!”
And so in this way a new epoch began in Elsionna d’Esser-Belluvex’s life, during which she became an unknown witness, strolling brazenly in the dead of night, exploring the hedge mazes of her family estate, and later, unsafe places further and further afield — where she could view (as we might gaze into a shop window) numerous hideous crimes and other atrocities, about which more later.