By A.C. Wise
I. The Magician
“What do you think?” the Old Man asks, turning my question back at me. He taps the tarot card with one finger, nail tobacco-yellow and tipped in a crescent moon of dirt. “Sacred or profane? Sinner or Saint?”
He pushes the card closer as if I haven’t already looked my fill. The photograph pasted to the board shows the woman whose story I’ve come to gather – Erzebetta, no last name – the Carnival Queen. Feathers ring her collar and rise from her hair. There are shadows around her head, what could be smudges on the photograph, but distinctly in the shape of feathers, beaks, and the blur of wings.
The photograph is worn, edges made velvet-soft from handling, lightning-struck with pale creases. Even faded, Erzebetta’s expression is defiant, head held high. Yes. A queen. A goddess even.
I look up to catch the Old Man grinning. Light slides through his eyes, winking without lowering a lid. It’s as if he’s read my mind and seen it made up before I even talk to the list of people he’s given me. My neck prickles, and I try not to blush.
“I’m just here to write a book, sir,” I say.
“But you must have an opinion, hey? It’s been nearly a month since the conflagration. Plenty of time for rumor to spread, especially with tongues wagging right from the start.”
I shake my head, but it’s answer enough for him. He leans back, lanky frame barely contained by the whole of his smoke-stained trailer, crowded with the ghosts of cigarettes past.
“So, you have your list,” he says, expectant weight in the words.
“Sorry. I almost forgot. The smokes you asked for.” I hold out four cigarettes fished from my shirt pocket. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the whole pack?”
“Four will do.” He plucks them from my hand one by one, pushes Erzebetta’s picture out of the way, and lays them out in a row. He takes a penknife from his pocket and a packet of rolling papers.
“What about the girls?” I ask. “I don’t see any of their names on the list.”
“Most of them ran off after the troubles. Can’t blame them, me. Besides, a man like you doesn’t want the chatter of a bunch of silly birds cluttering up his book.”
I open my mouth to answer, but the movement of his hands catches my attention, though I swear I never took my eyes off them for more than a second as he slit each of my four cigarettes down the middle and re-rolled their contents in his own papers. The battered table is lined with sixteen cigarettes, sixteen dead soldiers, shroud-wrapped and waiting their burial day.
“Good trick, hey?” He looks up. For a brief moment, his eyes are gold. It must be the light, or all the smoke – curing the Old Man in his trailer, like dried meat and old leather.
At the thought, I can’t help another glance at the Old Man’s handiwork, mounted on the walls, all the other eyes watching me – The Fiji Mermaid, the Jackalope, the two-headed calf, the werewolf pup, and even a demon or two. The Old Man swears his are the originals, he gave Barnum the idea.
“Smoke?” he offers. I shake my head.
He shrugs, sticks the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and produces a strike box of matches seemingly from thin air. There’s a lewd picture of a woman on the top that looks stuck there by hand. The Old Man breathes out, adding more smoke ghosts to the wall. The smell is cloves and cinnamon, nothing that was in the cigarettes I gave him. He smiles slow this time, gaze half-lidded, which only makes him seem more watchful.
“So,” he says, and taps the picture again. “I suppose you want to hear about the day Erzebetta fell from the sky?”
II. The High Priestess
Say what you want, but I’m no fool, me. Except when I am, but that’s another tale and nothing you need worry yourself with just yet.
I know when trouble’s coming. I can feel it like a wind up my tail. That night, it came in a storm, all done up in lightning and thunder. So I set myself up with a smoke, poured a little whiskey in my tea, and stood right in my trailer door to see what the howling night would bring.
That’s how I was the first to see her when she fell out of the sky.
She was a sight, right enough, tumbling ass over teakettle into the mess of mud outside my trailer. If I hadn’t seen her fall, I would have sworn on my own mother’s grave she was nothing but a pile of old rags being picked over by birds. I even heard those birds shriek just before she stood up to show she was a woman, not a bundle of cloth and wings.
Even with her boots heels sunk deep in the dirt, and mud spattered all up her legs, even wearing scarce more than silk panties, with her skirt bunched behind her, a froth of black fabric just as pretty as a peacock’s tail, dragging down in the muck, she lifted her chin and glared right at me like I was the one trespassing. Feathers peeked out from her corset, and only a fool would think they grew right out of her skin, despite the tricks the lightning played. There were feathers in her hair, too, all draggled by the rain. Crow, they were, black as her eyes, which wept more black where her make-up ran. Only thing about her not black or mud spattered were her teeth. They were white as milk and sharp as anything when she showed them to speak.
“Old Man. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
What does a body say to a thing like that? I did the charitable thing, me. No sense giving trouble anger for fuel on top of everything else. I let her track mud all over my floors, let her trail her fingers over my things, like she was marking me by what I owned. I poured her whiskey, which she took without tea. I let her pace round and round my trailer, and never said a word aloud as to how she smelled of life and death, sex and blood.
“Do you know who I am?” she said at last.
Her eyes were fierce, all black lightning and wicked as the storm. I could see by their look she wanted me whipped, tail tucked between my legs and all. She wanted my belly, rolled for her wicked-sharp teeth, or failing that, my throat.
But I’m in no hurry to see my own demise, me, and, “I think I got a fair idea,” says I to her, stalling for time.
I gave her a look like maybe I was trying to place where I’d seen her before. I knew exactly who she was, but I figured there was no sense in showing my hand too soon. By the look she gave me right back, I wasn’t fooling her. Erzebetta wasn’t like me. She was in a rush to put her cards on the table and see if I’d fold from the blow.
“Well then, Dad,” she says. “Since we got a lot of catching up to do and I’m going to be around for a while, why don’t you start by offering me a job?”
III. The Empress
Snips, they call me. Ain’t my real name, but I reckon you guessed that already, what with your book smarts and all. And I don’t guess you want to hear about me or what name my mama gave me. It’s no account, like me, which is what Daddy always said about me, so much I almost thought that might be my name for a while. No Account. But there I go rambling when you’re here to hear about Miss Erzebetta, our Carnival Queen.
She was real pretty. But I guess you know that already, too. She wasn’t pretty like the dancing girls, mind you. They were a soft kind of pretty, one you could touch. Miss Erzebetta was different. Like the kind of pretty what scares you, you know? Like a shiny bug, and you don’t know if it’s poison til it bites you.
The Old Man, that’s what we call him, he gave her the girlie show to run. She popped right up one day and asked for a job, and he gave it to her, no questions asked. It’s funny, though. The Old Man ain’t really in charge. Charlie’s the boss. Leastwise it’s his trailer we line up outside of on payday, but even Charlie knows the real score.
So when the Old Man said Miss Erzebetta was going to run the girlie show, well, that’s just what happened. I think he did it to needle her. She was real proud-like, Miss Erzebetta. Like I said, a Queen. The Old Man probably thought it’d be funny to give her girlie show, but if he was looking for her to turn her nose up, she never did give him the satisfaction.
I’ll tell you, she flipped the show round right quick, and got all the girls eating right out of her hand like birds to seed. One of the first things she did was bring me on her crew.
When she asked, “Is there anyone here I can count on to do whatever I say, with no questions or back-talk?” I said right away, “Yes’m, that’s me.”
The other boys, Rib, and Toad-Licker, and even Geech teased me about being in love with her. I’ll allow as maybe they were right. I only knew I wanted to do things to make her happy, you know? Or maybe it was just that I never wanted to find out whether her bite was poisonous. I ‘spect Rib and Geech and Toad-Licker felt the same way, though they never said as much, and it never stopped their teasing.
Anyway, she brought me on her crew to work the lights. Geech ran the curtain, Toad-Licker cleaned up the stage, and Rib guarded the door just in case there was any trouble.
I don’t know when Miss Erzebetta got all the girls together to rehearse her new show. She never let us see beforehand. I guess she trusted us to get everything right on the first try without any practice, and I’ll tell you what – we did.
Thinking on it now, maybe it was some kind of magic, you know? Like maybe there was a spell cast on the whole room the night Miss Erzebetta put on her first show. Otherwise I can’t explain it.
Miss Erzebetta’s show weren’t like no girlie show I ever saw before. It was almost like going to church, and you can say I’m a sinner for saying so, but it’s the truth. That’s just what it felt like, with all the men sitting on the wooden benches like pews, and a hush over everything while they waited for the curtain to rise.
There was a kind of ‘lectricity in the air, like a storm about to break, and I swear the hair stood right up on the back of my neck. I felt like laughing and dancing and crying all at once, and even now I can’t say why.
The Old Man even showed up, like he wanted to see what Miss Erzebetta would do, same as the rest of us. He didn’t sit in the seats, of course. He just leaned in the doorway with his arms crossed, like he didn’t care one way or the other about being there, except he did care. I could tell.
I guess at some point Miss Erzebetta decided the waiting had gone on long enough. I don’t remember how I knew the right moment, but I did. Smooth as butter, I flipped the first light on – a spot as full and bright as the moon, right in the center of the stage – right as the curtains glided back like water. There was a gasp, a kind of rippling thing that spread across the room like wind over tall grass. There weren’t no girls on the stage yet, just a pile of rags and a bunch of birds settling their wings.
Before anyone got angry so that Rib had to throw them out, the rags unfolded. I don’t know how to say it any better, or how Miss Erzebetta pulled it off. It was like a magic trick. I swear when the curtain went up it was just rags and birds on the stage. Then suddenly Miss Erzebetta was there, stretching herself up to her full height. The birds circled her once, then they just kind of disappeared into her so everyone could see they must have imagined them after all.
After that, Miss Erzebetta started talking. She was wearing a skimpy costume and all, the same thing she always wore, and it showed plenty of skin, but she never took any of her clothes off. She just stood there and told a story. Funny thing is, all those men who’d paid to see girls flash their titties, not one of them got mad or tried to leave. They all sat with their feet rooted in the floor like they’d grown there.
The story Miss Erzebetta told, well, I’ll remember it word for word til I die. The first thing she was: “In the beginning, in the dark before the world, there were the People, and the Spirits, and Coyote was among them.”
When she said that, it was just like someone dropped a handful of ice right down my back. I don’t know what made me do it, but I looked over at the Old Man right as she said those words. He nodded, like he knew what she was going to say, and could tell the story word for word along with her if anyone asked. There was kind of a faraway look about him, too, like he was sad and wicked, mad and bad and crazy all at once. It put a picture in my head of a mangy dog chasing its tail and trying to get rid of fleas, but grinning wild the whole time, with a red tongue hanging out between its teeth as it spun.
I can tell you, it scared me more than anything and I had to look away quick-like. The other funny thing, when I looked away I saw my hands had been working the lights the whole time, like they knew what to do and didn’t need me at all.
The stage was lit up all pink and orange like the sun coming up at the beginning of the world. Miss Erzebetta raised her arms, and the dancing girls came onto the stage. They weren’t dressed in their spangles and beads, mind you. They were dressed like regular folk, only some were dressed like women, and some like men.
The next thing Miss Erzebetta said was: “The men and women lived in harmony with each other, and with the Spirits, except for Coyote, who grew bored. So Coyote thought of a good joke to play. He pissed a river to separate the women from the men, and he laughed while he did it like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.”
Pardon my language, but that’s just how she said it, and I want to tell it right. She used an awful lot of words most folks don’t say in polite company, let alone a lady sayin’ em. But that’s how she was, Miss Erzebetta.
A shadow flickered on the wall behind her. My hands were playing tricks with the light again, making a monster with bristled fur and jaws stretched wide. The light on the stage changed, too, pooling yellow between her feet, like there really was a river of piss there.
Then Miss Erzebetta said: “At first the men and women made a game of the river. They put words and gifts and toys into clay pots and boats woven out of twigs, and tried to float them to the other side. They called to each other, and danced and laughed. But after a time, the women sang, not with words, but with sweet, dark sounds from their throats. And they changed the way they danced so it wasn’t playful anymore. The dancing and the song made the men feel their pulsing blood, and it put thoughts of everything they couldn’t have into their heads. And you can bet that was Coyote’s doing, too.”
When she said that last bit, her tone change, and she looked right at the Old Man. Her eyes were black-black, just like ink, and it scared me almost as bad as looking at the Old Man and seeing that mangy dog.
While Miss Erzebetta stared at the Old Man, the girls dressed like men hung their tongues out and panted, and the girls dressed like women danced. And I don’t mind telling you how the dancing put thoughts in my head, just like Miss Erzebetta said in the story.
I’d rolled with a few of the girls from time to time. Lots of us had. If they were in the mood, the girls would give us a good price, and sometimes, if they were in a really good mood, they would roll for free. But even the ones I knew, well, when they danced up there on the stage, they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were wild and strange and I don’t know what. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say they weren’t human.
“And even that wasn’t enough for Coyote,” Miss Erzebetta said. “So he put thoughts of fucking into the women’s heads, too. And because they couldn’t reach the men, the women gathered branches and stones, smooth-polished bones and horns from the ground. They stripped off their clothes, and laid down right there on the river bank and pleasured themselves where the men could see, but not touch.”
You’ll pardon my language again, but that’s just what she said, word for word. Anyway, the girls up on stage acted out what Miss Erzebetta said. They took their clothes off, but it weren’t like no normal girlie show. Like I said, it was like being in church, only with naked girls doing all kinds of ungodly things.
Sometimes, when Miss Erzebetta spoke, it sounded like birdsong. Sometimes it sounded like thunder. All the while my hands were doing things with the lights. The girls on stage gleamed blue; they turned into starlight and moonlight.
As Miss Erzebetta spoke, the girls gathered stones and bones, smooth wood and horn and feathers from the stage. I don’t know where they came from, they were just there for the girls to pick up. When they stroked them slick and wet between their legs, moaning and crying out just like they were lying with a man, I had to look away. I swear I heard someone in the benches cryin’, and someone else being sick.
I didn’t look to see for sure, but I’ll bet out of everyone there, the Old Man was the only who never looked away, never blinked either, cuz he’d seen it all before.
Then Miss Erzebetta said, “In their desire, the men built creatures out of mud, things they could fuck while the women pleasured themselves.”
I almost couldn’t bear to look, but it was like I had to, you know? The girls dressed as men, they were doing just what Miss Erzebetta said, too. They had buckets and they poured mud onto the stage and built it into shapes that looked almost like women, but like monsters, too. I can’t say for sure, but I swear some of the girls had man-parts between their legs when they took their clothes off.
The last thing Miss Erzebetta said, while the women writhed around with the bones and the wood, and the girl-men fucked the things made of mud was: “And, because they copulated with bones and horn, branches and feathers and stone, the women became pregnant. And because the men fucked the mud, the river bank became pregnant, too. And because it was the time before the beginning of the world, the river dried up when the sun rose, and the men and the women, together again, had to live with what they’d done. And the women and the riverbank gave birth to monsters – girls with feathers in their skin, and boys with mud in their bones – by the next fullness of the moon.”
Then just like that, the lights went out. Bam! Without me even touching ‘em. I expected folks to yell in the sudden dark, but it was so still you could hear a pin drop. The men just sat there, breathing quiet, and even I felt like I was half asleep. When I finally shook myself up to turn the lights on, I felt all heavy, like pins and needles going up and down my legs.
Well, I got the lights on, and the men were all still sitting right where they were when Miss Erzebetta said the last word. They were staring up at the stage, only it was empty now, like they were waiting for her to come back. If me and Rib and Geech hadn’t finally thought to shoo them away, they might be sitting there still.
I don’t know what Miss Erzebetta did, but her telling that story was like a magician with a pocket watch. From that night on, Miss Erzebetta was our Queen, without anyone saying so, and we were all under her spell.
IV. The Emperor
I’m going to tell you a story. It’ll sound like two stories, but it’s really only one story, see? This story is just for you. Oh, you can put it in your fancy book if you want, but really, this story is for you and me.
After the time of the river, the men and women got to being afraid of the things they’d made by fucking mud and bone. So they made offerings of smoke and food to anyone who would listen. A bunch of us got together and came down to see what all the fuss was about, and everyone got to arguing about whether the monsters should live or die.
Those creatures had been born through no fault of their own, but that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. No one likes having their wickedness shoved back in their face, I suppose. Everyone was too busy being ashamed of what they’d done that I guess no one remembered the whole mess was my fault. And since I can yell louder than most, me, everyone listened when I told them I had a plan.
There’s a thing about monsters most people don’t understand. What really makes a monster is wanting, always wanting to be something you’re not, and fighting against what’s down deep in your bones. Too many folks spend too much time trying to make their bones match their skin, but a bone’s never going to be but what it is. You fight bone-nature, and that’s when you become monstrous.
While everyone was arguing and worrying, I’d looked over all those so-called monsters. I knew which ones wanted and which ones knew their bones and skin. I know a thing or two about what kind of monsters the world needs, just to keep things interesting, see? A good joke gets spoiled if you don’t tell it all the way to the end.
So I said we’d draw lots for the monsters, a stick that was either cut with a mark or not for each one. If there was a mark on the stick, then the monster would be drowned, and if there wasn’t, they’d live in exile, far away from the folks that fucked them into being. The men and women all agreed, because even though they didn’t want their get around, no one wanted death on their hands, either. They figured it wouldn’t be wicked if they left it up to fate.
I like games, me, but I like the ones where I win the best. So I rigged the draw. And in the end, I decided each and every time which of the monsters would live, and which would die. So I birthed them twice, the ones who lived. I pissed a river so they got born in the first place, and I didn’t cut a stick for some, so they’d be born again. Some of them never forgave me for that.
You might think I’m wicked, me. But I am what I am in my skin and my bones. Trying to be otherwise, that would make me a monster.
Now here’s the other part of the story, which is the same story, see?
In the Starving Time, there were hard winters, and dry summers. Men didn’t have enough food to put on their tables, and cattle were scarce more than skin and bone. There was no grass to feed them, but men went right on breeding, making more mouths they couldn’t fill. And I was hungry, too.
There’s belly hunger, and there’s hunger that goes deeper and wider and all the way through. I was both kinds of hungry, me, so I set to singing under the moon and calling all my brothers and sisters, all my husbands and wives and children together. I told them about all the good things the men had to eat in their camps and behind their fences, and I sent them down from of the hills, all hungry jaws and wide smiles.
Course, when they got there, they found nothing but the bones of cattle, because whatever men had in those days, they’d already picked clean and still their bellies sang for more. My kin, they sang right back to that belly-hunger, howling their frustration in the shadows, just outside the circle of men’s hearth fires and campfires.
And didn’t that just put fear up the spines of the men, thinking about their loved ones falling to white teeth and wide jaws? So they loaded up their guns. They shot my brother first, and nailed his skin right up a barn door so the rest of us would know to stay away.
With my brother shot, there was more food for the rest of us. Just a mouthful, mind, but it was still one mouthful more than we’d had before. The thing about one mouthful is, it ain’t powerful enough to kill a hunger. One mouthful feeds a hunger, gives it teeth, makes it howl.
It wasn’t difficult to convince my kin to keep harrying those farms and those campfires, despite my brother’s skin up on the wall. Even his sons and daughters went right under their daddy’s eyes, all dripping buzzy fly tears, pissing and scratching and trying to mark the farmer’s land for their own. They even managed to snatch a babe right out of its cradle, under its mam’s sleeping nose, and didn’t that make a feast between them, tearing all that lovely red meat from those delicate bones?
If our singing put shivers up men’s spines, the death of a babe put rage in their bellies, enough so they almost thought they were full for a while. Those men howled almost as good as me and mine that night, calling for blood.
And while they were all het up, I walked right into the men’s circle of firelight, me, going on two legs, growl traded for grin. I told them where to find the dens; I told them where to put their snares; I left the fire and laid down musk and piss as lures, and led my kin right into the muzzles of those death-screaming guns.
Without all my brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, daughters and sons gobbling up what scarceness there was, just imagine how many mouthfuls were left for me.
And with all my kin gone, the men put their guns away. After a while, they felt so safe, they even started leaving their windows open again. And you can just imagine what a feast I had then.
When it was all said and done, my belly was full to bursting. It was a good joke I played, me, but I had no one to share it with. So I lay down among the corpses of my sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters, my husbands and wives. I let the flies tickle my ears and dance on my snout. And I wept a flood to cleanse the earth of every sin. Or enough to end the drought and bring the crops back, leastwise.
V. The Hierophant
I guess Snips already told all about the show, so there’s no sense in telling that part again. I can tell you what came after though, cuz Miss Erzebetta kept me on to guard the door, even when she changed everything, on account of I’m big, so people think I’m mean, too.
After that first night, there weren’t no more girlie shows. Instead, Miss Erzebetta taught the girls to tell fortunes. She made her own set of cards, Miss Erzebetta, I mean. She used pictures of people in the carnival. She even used one of me. Ain’t nobody ever thought I was worth putting on a card before, let alone to tell the future, but she did and that was fine by me.
She said something to me once that I don’t full understand, but it stuck with me, I guess. She said: “Rib, if you let the world tell your tale, nothing will ever be like you want it. You have to make your own story. It’s the only way to get the world to fall in line. They’re powerful things, stories. They can shape just about anything, if you tell them right. You remember that, Rib.”
I did just that, I guess, even though I don’t know what it means. Except that now I think back on it, maybe that’s what Miss Erzebetta was doing with the cards, telling a story. It’s like her girlie show told the way the world used to be, and the cards told the way she wanted it to be. I guess that sounds crazy, don’t it?
Anyway, even though there weren’t no more girlie shows, men still lined up at Miss Erzebetta’s to get their fortunes told. Some of the girls got pretty good at reading those cards, too. Some of them even were cards, like me, part of Miss Erzebetta’s story.
Well, there’s another part, which I probably shouldn’t say, but I guess it’s all over now so it don’t matter much. Even though they weren’t dancing no more, you could still pay some of the girls for their time, after they told your fortune and all. I guess that must be how some of them got pregnant. Anyway, I just wanted to add that bit in case it’s important, for your book and all.
“Hey,” the Old man says. “Let me give you a piece of advice for free.”
He taps the table, startling me. Then in one smooth motion he sweeps up the cards laid between us, Erzebetta’s photographs, and shuffles them in his yellow-nailed hands.
“Stories got their own rhythm and flow,” he says. “You got to let them take their own shape, tell the bits they need you to know in their own order and time. That way you get to skip all the boring parts, hey?”
He spreads the cards out on the table in a new order. His hands are quick, just like they were rolling cigarettes that became sixteen from four.
“There,” he says, and taps the first card in the new pattern. “That’s a good one. Start here.”
He lights another cigarette, breathes out a picture in smoke, and grins.
XII. The Hanged Man
That’s right, Elb, with an El and a Bee, Constable. You got that down? Right then.
The whole thing was an awful business, I can tell you that much. Right from the get go, the missus got after me about rousting them up and sending them on down the road, going on about the ‘sorts’ the carnival attracted. Tell you the truth, I didn’t like having the carnival right on our doorstep either, but I told her let it be – carnival usually only stays a week at most.
Least that’s how it was every other year. They blew into town and right back out again, leaving pockets a few dollars lighter, but folks happier for all that. ‘Cept this time, they stayed. Planted themselves down and never got back up again. The missus was right, not that I’d tell her so.
She kept at me, though. Especially after the tent city grew up with all the folks who styled that woman who joined up with them some kind of prophet. I don’t rightly know what that was about. I heard tell of some kind of show, and talk that she could tell the future. Most of the time, I just kept my head down and let it wash over me. Weren’t none of my business, way I figured it.
Sure every now and then we’d get a call about a fight getting out of hand, and I’d gather some of the boys to go see. More often than not, all it took was us showing up in uniform for everyone to settle down and go their separate ways. It was a nuisance, but no real trouble. I wasn’t fussed much, but the missus, well… I guess you’re wishing you could talk to her, too. I’m sure she’d give you an earful, but to tell you the truth, she don’t even talk to me much these days. She’s staying up with her sister now, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for her side of the story.
Anyway, she wasn’t the only one worked up about matters. There was a whole group that met up at the church pretty regular, the committee for moral decency or some such.
I don’t know what all is truth since I never did see anything too bad with my own eyes. But I can tell you what the committee for moral decency thought was going on up there. They said all the folks from the carnival and the folks from the tent city would gather up in the field and dance around without their clothes on, rutting like animals, and worshipping the devil.
Like I said, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. All I can say is the business with Bessie’s little girl was a tragedy, and what happened after with that carnival gal wasn’t right neither. A thing like that isn’t justice, it’s…well, I’ll just say sometimes even good, decent people can get to feeding off their own bile until they’re no better than a pack of starving dogs.
The carnival gal, she was a real looker. Etoile was her name. That’s French for star, on account of how she was the star of, ahem, the show, before that odd bird came in and changed it all. Well, I guess maybe she was still the star, but in a different way. Like I said, I don’t pretend to know what went on up there. I never did go and get my fortune told. Truth is, the idea kinda scared me. Though I guess if the cards had told me the missus was gonna up and stay with her sister, maybe I could have done something about it. Maybe not.
What I can say is what set everything to unraveling was Bessie Williams’ little girl going missing. She was a pretty thing, blonde curls and sweet little apple cheeks and the bluest eyes you ever saw. She had her daddy and her momma both wrapped around her little finger, and she was barely even talking yet.
Anyway, as soon as she went missing, the committee for moral decency pointed their fingers straight at the carnival. I tried to talk some sense into them, the missus mostly, but she would have none of it. Let’s not be hasty, is all I said, and I’ll have my boys look into it. And we did, but I don’t mind telling you she gave me the cold shoulder just the same.
We did find Bessie’s little girl, two days later, but there wasn’t much left of her. Nasty business. She’d been tore up, like some animal got at her. My money’s on a rabid dog, or maybe a coyote. The committee for moral decency wouldn’t hear any of it. They said it was a blood sacrifice, and maybe they fed that little girl to wild dogs after she was dead, but sure as anything, it was the carnival folks who were to blame.
Now, I’ll admit, maybe my blood got up a little bit, too, seeing that poor little girl torn apart and Bessie so heartbroken. I like to think I couldn’t have done more to stop what happened next, but some days I just don’t know.
My boys and me, we did our jobs, I can promise you that. We’re not the type of lawmen who look the other way when one of our own is involved, no sir. But there was only so much we could do. A whole mob descended on the carnival, so I can’t even say any one person was to blame.
Still, it is a shame. Like I said, Etoile was real pretty. She used to get up all in silver and crystal beads, hanging everywhere in ropes on her so you couldn’t quite tell whether she was wearing anything under them. Ahem. Well, maybe it’s best you don’t put that bit in your book right there. For decency’s sake, you know
Anyway, like I said, it wasn’t right what happened to her. It wasn’t justice, stringing her up like that by her ankle, her throat slashed, leaving her to bleed dry. They cut her belly, too. There was a baby. Of sorts. At least that’s what I heard. I mean folks said it wasn’t natural, but I don’t know.
I do have a picture here somewhere, though, if you want to see. A word of fair warning: It’s not for the faint of heart.
XV. The Devil
Who was it you think put the idea of the hanging into those people’s minds in the first place? Sometimes the old tricks are the best ones. And sometimes what looks like two stories or three, is really all the same story. And every story needs a villain. You either have to be one or the other, hero or villain, to get written into the fabric of the world.
I am what I am, me. In my skin and in my bones.
XVI. The Tower
The Old Man leans back, blowing smoke at the ceiling. Sixteen cigarettes have become four again, but this time by the normal means.
“One spark is all it takes to set a pyre to blaze so long as it’s built right,” the Old Man says. “Me and Erzebetta, we built that pyre right and high all summer long. She thought she was raising up an army against me with her girls, showing she could birth monsters every bit as good as me, but she had no idea.”
He seems proud, like he knows my mind was made up the moment I saw the pictures of the girl with her belly cut and the thing they cut out of her. The way he grins, with all his grisly creations framing him on the wall, it’s like he’s just waiting for me to ask.
“How did you do it?” I say, not because I want to give him the satisfaction, but because I want him to see how quick I caught on to him.
“Some of my best work, if I do say.” The Old Man chuckles. “Turtle skin and squirrel bones, painted with tar. I’m wicked-clever, me. The demon infant cut out of the dead girl’s belly – proof the Devil’s work was being done. A glimpse here and there, and that’s your spark.”
I open my mouth, but the Old Man goes right on talking, with only the barest glance to make sure I’m writing everything down. There isn’t a bit of shame in him, like he can’t wait to boast to the whole world about what he’s done.
“Not that it mattered much. Folks had made up their minds already, hey? All they needed was a little shove in the right direction.
“They came with torches in hand, a mob to bring the demon down, to smoke the devil from her hole. Of course the men and women in the tent city fought back. They were ready to lay their lives down for Erzebetta at that point. All the fate and destiny she shaped in her cards did her some good, I suppose.”
The Old Man taps the cards piled neat on the table. He picks them up and shuffles them slow.
“Course, I doubt she ever promised a conflagration, hey? I doubt many folks would be so eager to sign up if she’d showed them that.”
The Old Man deals the cards, face down. They make dry, snapping sound against the table, like old bones.
“The tents caught first, all that canvas going up in a rush and the smoke pouring over everything and the wind catching and blowing it all around. What the wind didn’t carry, the men brought with their torches, marching toward Erzebetta’s temple to burn it to the ground. Oh, it was a sight, all that bloody-red gold, and sparks swirling up to kiss the stars.”
The Old Man pushes the remaining cigarettes aside to make more room for the cards. I read up on tarot when I first heard about Erzebetta’s deck, but this pattern I don’t recognize. It loops and swirls, taking up almost the entire table.
“It was a night of miracles,” the Old Man says. “Or of black sorcery, depending who’s doing the telling.” He looks at me, flashing a grin, like he’s going to ask my opinion again: sacred or profane? But he says nothing, waiting for me to speak first.
“So what happened?” I ask.
My notebook is full of different versions of what happened that night: Erzebetta walked untouched through the flames and vanished; a flock of dark birds dropped out of the sky and stole her away; she sprouted wings of her own and flew up into the stars. But I want to hear what the Old Man has to say, his side of the tale.
Instead of the glint in his eye and another boast, he surprises me and merely shrugs. “I don’t know. She would have said I’m not the kind of daddy that looks back after the birthing is done. Maybe she’s right, at that.”
“That’s it?” I say. I can’t help myself, I gape at him.
“That’s all,” the Old Man says. “Everything you need is right there.” He taps the edge of my notebook with one yellow-nailed finger. If I didn’t know better, I could swear the nail has grown.
I glance at the pattern of cards spread before him. There’s one left in his hand, but he doesn’t put it down. He holds onto it and looks up at me.
“Now, if don’t mind, I’m an old man, and old men need their rest, hey?”
That’s when the glint comes back into his eye, wicked and bright. He shows his teeth, just a fraction, and this time it isn’t a smile. Knowing everything he’s done, and proudly claimed, I can’t help myself. I gather up my papers and run.
Null. The Fool
I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s the same story. It’s about a girl and her daddy, and how the girl hated her daddy and blamed him for every wrong thing that had ever happened in her life. It’s about how the girl set out to take away everything her daddy had built over long years, on account of hating him so. And it’s about how the girl failed, being as how her daddy was wicked old and had been telling tales since before the world had even thought to be born.
Thing is, she saw the carnival and thought it was all of my tale. But the carnival is only one story, which is the same story, and I’m wicked-good at tales, me. I’ve been telling this one so long hardly anyone sees the head or tail of it. Cut one part out, and the rest just keeps on going.
Now this part here, this is just for you, see? Not that boy and his book. Poor holy Fool, clutching his notes to his chest, full of fire and knowing just what kind of tale he’s going to write. Gone running to proclaim my wickedness to the world.
He’d already made up his mind when came to my door with that picture of Erzebetta clutched in his hand, see? He had his hero. All he needed was a villain. I sent him off with the best there is, tucked in his back pocket.
Never let it be said I’m a poor host, me.
I’ll tell you a secret, and you can have this one for free. Tell someone they can’t have something, they’ll go to wanting it so bad it cracks the marrow from their bones. Tell them something’s no good for them, and it’s all they’ll be able to think on for days. Give them a devil, and it’ll set thrill up their spines, thinking on all that wickedness. They’ll tell its story to their children and their children’s children again and again, whispering its name in the dark, so as to keep feeling that thrill. And won’t that name just live on and on.
Oh I’m wicked, me.
Here’s another secret, and you can have this one for free, too. Misdirection is an easy thing. Put something smack in the middle of the frame, and most people won’t bother to look to the edges, the background. When most people look at the Fool card, what do they see? They see the bright, motley jester, dancing his way to the cliff’s edge. What they rarely notice is the little dog, snapping his bright sharp jaws at the Fool’s heels, driving him closer.
That’s my story, me.
Coyote, blurring out from the edge of the picture frame. Coyote grinning, and driving the tale.
Copyright 2014 A.C. Wise.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, among other places. She also co-edits the online magazine, Unlikely Story. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.