||[Oct. 3rd, 2006|10:24 pm]
Short Story Tapestry Society
As promised, slightly delayed, just begun, and to be retooled (ad nauseam), here is a beginning to a Carnival story. It's meant as an intro, to establish the mood and a few characters. I welcome feedback, both positive and negative. I also welcome anyone else who wants to post a story idea/draft. Please enjoy, or tell me why you didn't.|
It was autumn in Lamb‘s Village, the skeletal part of autumn when the trees were bare and the air was dry. In the villages, crops were being driven in, sold, bundled, and laid away for the cold season. Ales were brewed and barreled, houses shored and windows sealed, sweaters knitted and socks darned. The wind smelled of a crisp, cold winter, and the people of the villages were practicing their stoic frowns and downcast eyes, in advance.
The harvest time was near its end, and the hay rides and barn-raisings were nearing the end of their season. Farmers, traveling merchants, and their families were almost ready to close their stalls and drive their wagons home. Winter was a lonely, behind-doors time. These last few weeks, before the snows came and people spent their time huddled around the fires, were high season for the Seraphim and Excelsior Fantasmic Carnivalissimo.
The carnival had toured the region for as long as anyone could remember. Every few years, more often when the town was lucky, the wagons would appear at the end of the North Road, heralding the beginning of a weeklong holiday. Many families saved their money from year to year, a Carnival Fund in a hidden box that the patriarch, hounded by hopping children, would smuggle from its hiding place. As the wagons circled on the great open meadow and the tents began to go up, the young men and women would creep to the edge of the carnival’s temporary grounds to sneak secret looks at the preparations, seeking glimpses of the attractions brought this year by Seraphim and Excelsior.
The main feature of the Carnivalissimo was the tent, in which all the high profile acts would appear. The trapeze, the animal shows, the star attractions, would all happen under the bright lights and washed by the applause of the ticket holders. Alongside the big tent was the raucous side show, an entity unto itself populated with jugglers, fools, and fortune tellers. A coin would gain admittance to any of a number of novelty wagons, inside which the alchemists, freaks, and novelty performers would amaze and delight. And outside the side show, all lights and barkers, lay the midway. Games and contests of wit and skill were ready to draw money from eager young folk, and the Funhouse and Mirrormaze did a brisk business entertaining kids of all ages. Food and sweets were available, unlike anything that could come from a rustic kitchen. For those lucky or skilled enough to win a game there were brightly colored prizes, held aloft and giggled at by excited girls and elated boys as they ran from booth to booth.
For as long as memory held, the Carnivalissimo had been run by Master Seraphim himself, the ringmaster and the voice of mirth. He and his star attractions, his midway, his spectacular sideshow brought villagers in droves whenever his wagons circled outside a town. Leopold the Beastmaster, Dragontongue the Fire Eater, Bobo and Didi the Dueling Clowns, all were known far and wide, and whispered of excitedly when the calliope music began to sound. The crowds gathered each night for a week, eager for the boisterous, welcoming sound of Seraphim‘s basso voice and the acts he was to introduce.
Vespasian Seraphim stepped jauntily between the wagons of his carnival, threescore and six wagons circled and bunched within sight of Lamb‘s Village. His high, black boots deftly avoided the horse piles and skipped over the wagon ruts. Horses, caged animals, and carnies alike turned at his cheery whistle. Seraphim was dressed for the show, as he always was, in pants and gloves as white as a newborn soul and his long-tailed jacket as red as congealed blood. The golden buttons and cords on his jacket gleamed in the torchlight from the wagon sconces, and stretched from the girth of his broad chest. The black collared shirt was pressed to perfection, and the golden tie in exact symmetry. His red-banded top hat, the crown of office to any carnival master, clung to Seraphim’s bald pate at an impossibly rakish angle.
The man himself was as polished as his uniform, and as eccentric. The flickering torches brought forth stark shadows in Seraphim’s dark skin, as deep and rich as Madame Persephone’s darkest chocolate confections. His nose was long and aquiline, his cheeks high and pronounced, his brow low and sculpted. Beneath it, his eyes burned as black coals, their expression ever changing and always intense. His full lips, beneath the curling black mustache, currently curled in a half-amused pucker as he whistled an off-key children’s song. He tossed a salute to the men currying the horses of Madeline the Puppet Mistress’s wagon, and the grooms straightened quickly and nodded in reply. They watched, wide-eyed, for some time after he passed before returning to their work.
A satin-draped, purple-and-silver painted wagon loomed ahead, the sign by the door labeling it the abode of “Aphrodite, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” As Seraphim passed the wagon, the door slid open and an unreally buxom, wasp-waisted woman leaned from the wagon. She was clad in a simple shift that clung tightly to her dramatic curves, seeming ready to burst from the sheer garment with little more than an encouraging word or a sharply drawn breath. “Where so fast, Master?” the beauty cooed. She curled her full lips into a sultry leer as she spoke, her violet eyes flashing beneath a perfectly arched brow.
The carnival master didn’t slow his step. “Not now, Aftie,” he paused in his whistling to say. “Save your energy for the show.” As he passed from sight, the woman sighed and pouted. As she returned to her wagon, her curves deflated with the sound of a balloon losing air. The taut flesh of her bosom lost cohesion, causing her breasts to wither and sag. Her skin quickly bunched in wrinkles, her blond curls withering to stringy gray hanks of unwashed hair. The violet eyes shrunk and dimmed to a two unremarkable brown orbs hidden within puckered wrinkles. Her shift now hanging loosely from her bony frame, and her now-thin lips pursed in a frustrated simper, the crone Aphrodite closed her wagon door.
Seraphim moved beyond the ring of wagons, tugging lightly at the fingers of his gloves to pull them from his hands. With a quick look at his burnished fingernails, in which he could briefly see his reflection lit by the torches behind him, he curved his whistle into a smile and moved for the forest at the outskirts of his domain. Though the ground was now rough and hard, he stepped across it with a nobleman’s grace.
As he neared the copse of trees, a shaggy wolf padded from the darkness of the wood. Spying the strolling man, the wolf angled his steps toward him, quickening its gait. Seraphim never slowed as he approached the beast. When the wolf closed to within a few yards, it stopped and lurched, its fur rippling. As Seraphim slowed to a halt, the creature fell back onto its haunches, twisting, its snout receding and forelegs lengthening. Fingers sprouted from its toe pads, and the wolf’s fur retracted and assumed the form of a trim leather vest and loose breeches. The pointed ears grew round and pink, the black eyes faded to a bright blue, and the sharp canines lost their points in a mouthful of straight, even teeth. The transition complete, the tousle-haired man sketched a slight bow to Master Seraphim.
“We have him, Master,” the wolf-man growled in a raspy voice as he straightened.
The carnival master nodded. “As I knew you would, Ulric. How far did he get?”
Ulric’s mouth curved in a smile that mirrored his master’s. “How far do you think?”
Seraphim’s eyebrows rose. “I give him too much credit, then,” he smiled. “I thought he had grown more cunning than that. And Leopold?”
“Is with him,” came the reply.
“Then take me.” He was walking, letting Ulric pace him to take the lead into the dense forest. “Let us hope he learns the lesson, this time.”
It was, indeed, a short walk, less than ten minutes till Ulric led Seraphim into a grove in which the trees were sparser. The moonlight illuminated a half dozen beasts circling a large tree. Three lions, one of them female, crossed tracks with another wolf, a white tiger, and two immense bears, all of which curved their prowling paths away from the advancing man in the red coat. As he rounded the tree, a large man with an explosion of blond hair and beard greeted him.
“Master,” Leopold the Beastmaster intoned, crossing his arms over his barrel chest. Clad in a long khaki overcoat, dark brown breeches and black boots, he looked every bit the master of the circling animals, yet he gave ground before Vespasian Seraphim with palpable respect. Seraphim sniffed and peered past Leopold at the man being held against the wide-trunked tree.
The figure, trying in vain not to tremble, was being held at one arm by a burly woman in garments of off white and dark brown, and at the other by a thin but muscled man in dark green and yellow, his yellow hair held back by a leather band. The prisoner was in brown as well, though the red and white of his carnival clothes peeked out at his collar and the opening of his disheveled jacket. The stolen ‘disguise’ was made almost ludicrous by the man’s halo of bright orange hair, not to mention the iridescent white skin of his face and hands. His pale eyes were surrounded by diamonds of gold-bordered green paint, the diamonds distorted and angled from his temples down to his nose, giving the eyes a wickedly mischievous tilt. His mouth was a wide smear of red-violet, his cheeks accentuated with rosy pink, and his huge nose was as red as a candy apple. He shrunk against the tree, pulling against is captors as Seraphim regarded him blandly.
“Call off your menagerie, Leopold,” Seraphim instructed. The beast master paused, prompting a sharp glance. “Now, if you please.”
Suppressing a scowl, the large man ran a finger alongside his wide, flat nose and waved the half-dozen animals off. As one, they moved away from the tree and formed a seated half-circle, behind Seraphim and Leopold, facing the held clown. The man and woman looked uncertainly at their two bosses. “Ursula, Spots. With me,” Leopold instructed, and the two released their captive and watched him as they walked, backward, to join Ulric near the seated animals. The clown, held by Seraphim’s gaze, remained frozen where he was.
“Bobo,” the carnival master crooned, taking a step forward. The clown cringed against the tree. “How disappointing, that you keep fleeing the wagons, and always the night before opening.” He took another step, spreading his hands helplessly at his sides. “What would we do without you?”
“I don’t wanna do the show any more.” The words seemed almost to spill unbidden from Bobo’s mouth, and he looked shocked that he had spoken them aloud. Shaking his head, he forced himself to continue. “Don’t make me, Vespasian.”
Seraphim tsked. “But, Bobo, old friend,” he said smoothly, “I’m not the one who decides. You decided, Bobo, you decided you would do the show.”
“That was a long time ago!” Bobo cried, his eyes widening. “Too long ago. I can’t do it any more. I want you to let me go.” His hands clasped at his breast, white fingers lacing. “Please, Vespasian.”
“But you’re a star attraction,” Seraphim responded, spreading his hands again. “I can hardly let you go now, the night before a show, when the signs are all posted and the town is humming your name. What will the show do without you? What will Didi do?”
“The hell with Didi!” Bobo snarled, lunging away from the tree, his fingers curled into claws. Ursula and Spots stepped forward, but Leopold stopped their advance with an upraised hand. As Seraphim took another step forward, his brow lowering, Bobo immediately calmed and flattened his back against the tree. “I won’t work with him,” he whined, his eyes wide. “Get me another act. Let me go solo. You know I can do it, Vespasian, you know I can.”
Already, Seraphim thought, already he gives up on leaving, so quickly this time. The carnival master shook his head slowly, half his battle already won. “You know it’s impossible, old friend. You are a pair, a joined act. Bobo and Didi the Dueling Clowns!” The clown’s face sagged in defeat, looking all the more miserable with the garish makeup. “You can hardly duel yourself, Bobo. There’s just no entertainment in it.” Seraphim stepped forward again, an almost apologetic look on his face.
Bobo writhed against his tree. “But I’m tired of it!” he wheedled, wringing his hands. “Tired! Let me have a day off, at least, can’t you? Let me walk the streets like a normal man! Let me wash my face, at least, just once, can’t you?” His voice, already high, seemed now to almost squeak.
“Your face?” Seraphim asked, his brow arching in mock surprise. With a sudden lunge, he was against Bobo, pinning him to the tree, snarling with teeth that were suddenly razor sharp. His eyes burned red beneath his lowered brow, causing the terrified clown to shriek and buck against his stronger, inhuman captor. Seraphim smacked his hands against Bobo’s temples on either side, sharp fingernails digging into the clown’s white flesh. With a sudden jerk and twist, the carnival master backstepped quickly from the unfortunate Bobo, tearing his entire face from his skull with a wet rip. The animals seated behind Seraphim licked their chops with long tongues. Ulric, Ursula, and Spots did the same, as did Leopold.
“This face?” Seraphim asked innocently, panting slightly, holding the dripping rag of flesh up before the screaming clown. He held it, his smile spreading, as Bobo’s shrieks tapered off to moans. As he writhed against the tree trunk, his red-bathed skull dried and paled. White skin grew at an incredible rate from his ears, chin, and scalp to cover the torn section of his head. While Seraphim watched, ripped skin held high, Bobo’s face re-grew as it had been, down to the green and red paint and bulbous nose. His moans trailed off as he stared, wide-eyed, at his disembodied face being held before him.
“Wash it all you want, Bobo,” Seraphim said softly, jiggling the torn flesh to the disembodied lips flapped in time with his words. His sharp teeth retracted, and the red glow of his eyes subsided, the demonic mien smoothly disappearing into the softly smiling demeanor Seraphim showed his public. “I gave you that face,” he continued softly. “Gave it because you asked for it. You wouldn’t be so ungrateful as to return that gift, would you?”
Bobo seemed to wilt. “No,Vespa… Ma-Master Seraphim,” he stammered, his fingers gingerly exploring his restored face though his eyes remained locked on the carnival master’s.
“You’re my clown,” Seraphim intoned. His voice was the softest it had yet been, though the night breeze carried it easily to the ears of all. “And you always will be. It’s in your contract.” Bobo, fully defeated, nodded dully. Seraphim cocked his head slightly, his straight-lined face twisting into a half-teasing smirk. “They’re going to love you, Bobo.” The clown straightened against his tree, and his forlorn expression wavered, melting quickly away. “It’ll be the best show in years. I can already feel it.” With that the carnival master gave Bobo a deep, reassuring nod.
At Seraphim’s words, the clown seemed inspired with a new confidence, as though his master’s faith had erased his earlier trepidation. With bright eyes he gave an enthusiastic nod. “Oh, it will be! I’ll get some new stuff… won’t tell Didi, he’ll never see it coming…, Ohhh, Master, we’ll make the swells laugh till they bleed!” He laughed in sudden glee and clapped his hands.
Seraphim nodded with a spreading smile, all teeth and shining dark eyes. “Atta boy.”
His smile went, a sternly quizzical expression replacing it. “Now,” he continued, clutching the clown’s ripped face in his fist. “Should this mask go into my collection, or into yours?” Bobo stopped his giggling immediately, blanching, but before he could stammer a reply, the carnival master went on. “Mine, I think. May it be the last, Bobo. I tire of this conversation.” He turned away from the fidgeting clown, walking toward the denser wood as Ulric fell into step beside him. The white tiger lurched to its feet and heeled at Seraphim’s side as he walked, and his fingers dropped to scratch between its ears. “See him back to his wagon,” he instructed Leopold, and the trio disappeared into the dark. As the trees swallowed him, he called over his shoulder, “Tomorrow night, Bobo! The best show in years!” Bobo smiled suddenly, waving a goodbye after Seaphim, and clenched his other hand in an excited fist.
Another short walk brought the pair and the tiger to another, smaller clearing, revealing another huge bear sitting on the ground. The beast turned its shaggy head as Seraphim entered the moonlight, and inclined its snout in greeting.
“Well done, Rasputin,” Seraphim greeted Leopold’s lieutenant, and tossed Bobo’s torn face toward the beast. The bear stood and ambled toward the bloody mask, hungrily lifting it in its jaws and carrying it to the side while Ulric watched with mild jealousy. Seraphim, the tiger padding at his side, strode slowly toward where Rasputin had been sitting, shaking his head slowly at the blue-haired, white-faced, trembling man lying on his back.
“Didi,” Seraphim crooned, spreading his hands at his sides, “How disappointing…”