Carnival

Screams, laughter, lights; a bustling, jostling, roaring throng whirling in all the most garish shades of the rainbow while the black, voided sky brooded above, it's stars obliterated by the gyrating lights of Carnival.

A woman walks alone - a dark figure, hands in the jacket pockets of her short leather jacket - separated by a sense of disquiet and solitude that the crowd does not share or perhaps wishes to ignore and is thereby bound together in their mass. She cannot ignore it, and that menace haunts her relentlessly, grasping her spine with clammy, pulseless hands.

She slips through the crowd easily, her way unobstructed; people seeming to unconsciously give her a distance that keeps her her solitude. She meanders aimlessly; past the spinning eye of the Ferris wheel, past the pings and cries of triumph or of disappointment that accompanies the shooting galleries with their over-sized fuzzy bears and grotesquely-dyed elephants. It never occurs to her to leave the Carnival; there is nowhere else to go and there never has been. There is no life outside the Carnival.

The great striped tents crouch amid the throng, swallowing and excreting streams of smiling faces with their popcorn, balloons, cotton candy, and prizes won at a thousand overpriced games. The siren calls of the carnies at each entrance occasionally draw her to one of the maws, but then they smile and she shudders away.

Occasionally she glances up, wishing one star would penetrate down into the bright lights. She is sure she must have seen one, perhaps a long time ago before whenever whatever this was began. She misses them; they would give shape to a formless sky and constancy amid the protean festivities.

The woman's feet scatter popcorn and wrappers and tossed-away cotton candy sticks that drift with the eddies of the crowd. Her unease grows and gnaws at the back of her neck while her eyes keep catching flickers of unnatural horrors amid the festivities that her mind will not let her acknowledge in sanity. She clutches her arms to herself though the air is balmy and the press of the crowd generates heat like an engine pushed past its appointed revolutions.

Suddenly a wave of the crowd surrounds her, encompassing like a wall on every side, irresistibly escorting her into a great crouching tent, the bright light bulbs hanging from the entrance look briefly like luminescent teeth before she is swept down into its dark throat. The belly of the great beast proves to be a ring, and whether the tent was erected upon a great natural sinkhole or whether dug to seat an audience of hundreds it is impossible to ascertain. Dull spotlights quest across the ring, barely brushing bent-angled things that leap from the high wire on rotting wings to escape illumination.

The woman manages to pull herself out of the crowd, but stands at the outer edge of the stadium, held from exit by macabre curiosity as the crowd twists and turns and seats itself.

A crack of the whip stills all into silence and darkness save for a single spotlight which does more to cast the form of the ringmaster in silhouette than it does to illuminate him. He speaks, but the words seem to pass the woman's ears without entering them. A roar shakes her and she grinds her hands over her ears trying to block out the applause and cheers. An eight-legged shadow does pantomime, a troupe of no-legged things jape and create of each other unwholesome shapes, and a bicycle spins on hoops of flaming eyes. Finally, drums roll, a spotlight pans and then stops, pinning her to the floor. Accosted at once, she is grabbed by one-hundred hands and passed, swung, and danced to the sawdust covered ring; somewhere along the way a collar and leash attached to her neck and heavy, sticky greasepaint daubed over her face.

The crowd thunders as the ringmaster does a flourish and makes a brief alteration to the paint with a dirt-darkened thumbnail. The sharp edge wakens the woman from her shock and horror, and she pulls away, but not fast enough; the whip cracks, its fiery tongue licks her cheek red. The crowd claps and roars. The woman twists as the whip snakes out again, and the lead breaks; the whip sizzling by her eye, missing it by mere centimeters. The crowd boos and hisses, then surges, raging down into the ring from all sides.

The woman runs to the trapeze pole, pulling herself up by chill, metal rungs. A hand grabs her ankle, and she kicks instinctively. Glancing down to be sure of her shot, her foot connects with a face, smudging it, paint running, nose dripping into the mouth, one eye into the other. Now she realizes what her brain denied and hid from her, and why she was the freak in the show: all the faces are painted-on faces; every nose and every eye are painted on the heads of faceless things.

She climbs, wishing she did not see or know. She climbs until she can climb no further, scrambling onto the platform to the applause of crows who shift and flit among the wires yet above her head. She looks down. Far below, lit by spotlights and smoky torches is the ring, the crowd surging upward like ants, one on top of another. A glint catches her eye in a dark rectangle consistently empty of the crowd and which lies right below the ring; the silver flashes again, sparkling with blue and red. A star, surely a star. She stares down, unbelieving still; it looks like a hole to the stars dug in the center of the ring. She looks up to view not even the slightest of gaps or anything a pool of water might reflect with that brightness.

The first of the crowd is almost up to the platform and she makes a decision: whether to death or stars, jumping was the only option left to her.

She jumps. The crows applaud again and dive after her. The crowd grabs at her as she hurtles by, but only succeeds in snatching a few loose black feathers of her winged escort. Darkness swallows her; warm and comfortable, she floats in silent blackness but for a silvery speck that she reaches for. Then dirt meets her hand, softly, as if she had floated into a ceiling of earth. She pushes her hand into it, through it, and into a crispness of air never felt in the carnival. She pushes her other hand through, then her head and torso, and heaves herself onto soft grass that whisper in the company of a cool, night breeze. She rolls onto her back and has to choke down a sob; stars amid the infinity of space are stretched out above her, dazzling like diamonds on a cloth of black velvet. How long she stays looking at the stars, she doesn't know, but eventually she stands, attracted by a light over a rise; she gains the top of it and sees the Carnival – miles and miles of Carnival. She hears the laughter, the ebb and roar of the crowd, sees the lights and colors, but all are faded and almost transparent – like specters, or faint echoes that are just one more echo away from being unable to be heard.

She turns her face away from the Carnival and toward the dark heights of the mountains that stretch toward the stars on the horizon, and runs.