It was late August when the carnival arrived.
The summer heat was at its worst this time of year. Sticky and humid, it rested heavy in the air, bearing down relentlessly on everything it touched. The very most tops of the trees were sunburnt. Harsh rays of light turned the verdure a dry brown in preparation for the coming fall.
News of the carnival had traveled fast. One day the lowlands that sat on the outskirts of town were barren with weeds and tall, brass-colored grass. And then it wasn't.
In a small town like this, such excitement was rare. Whispers of fire swallowers, acrobats, and fun houses passed through anxious lips. Everyone was eager to explore this new attraction, and no one wanted to miss out. It was impossible to not be caught up in the collective fever, or in some cases hear about the carnival, no matter how badly one tried to ignore its presence.
But it was not the promise of nighttime festivities or contortionists that had resolved Sarah to go. It was the name.
Il Carnevale dei Sogni.
She went last minute. The acts, she had learned, only began once the sun set and lasted until sunrise. By the time she made up her mind to go, it was well past the witching hour, guaranteeing all the children were back home, safely tucked in their beds with their cotton candy dreams.
The sign that hung over the gate was faded; the once bright vermillion letters, now the color of dried blood laced together against the white, flaking paint. Two large fire pits flanked the entrance. Their flames sent orange sparks floating up into the dark, moonless night so that the air smelt crisp of smoke and ash.
The ticket vendor stood inside a narrow booth, its stripes of red and yellow washed out and dull. There didn't seem to be enough room to sit, much less stand, but the man inside was long and thin and looked as if the confined space was made just for him. A row of tarnished metal bars lined the window, and the light from the fires cast flickering shadows through them across his pale, drawn skin. When Sarah slipped her money through the space of the bars, she noticed his eyes were completely black.
"Welcome to the Carnival of Dreams," he said, handing her a ticket.
Incongruous. Out of place. Sarah did not belong here.
Women in wine colored dresses paraded around the carnival, their hoop skirts and trains rustling as they brushed past one another. They wore netted veils and décolleté encrusted with rubies, pearls, and flowers. The men were just as bedecked in swathes of velvet and silk. Great plumed pants and feather-topped tricornes fluttered in the wind along with tailcoats paired with oil-black top hats. Many had on hulking masks in the shapes of animals and oversized dwarfish heads that were painted with ruddy cheeks and bulbous noses. Sarah had to do a double take when she passed by someone with golden-ribbed horns curving out from their forehead.
In her jeans and white, flowing peasant top, Sarah looked conspicuous.
But more than anything, it was like stepping back into a dream. Only this time, no one paid her any mind.
There were no spiteful whispers. No one goggled or hounded her. They were all too entranced by their surroundings to pay a girl of no consequence and plain fashion sense much mind. It gave her a sense of freedom. There was no one to trouble you when you were just another face in a crowd of revelers.
She slipped through the sea of people as they gathered in groups to ooh and awe at performers tossing fire in the air and knife-wielding mad men casting silver blades at people strapped to spinning wheels. Streams of on goers flowed into tents, lured by signs offering to see menageries and tightrope walkers on trembling wires. Sarah allowed herself to be drawn into the current. She drifted through tents, watching with her head canted as acrobats flung themselves through the air like fledgling birds and as a man with a dragon on his face, swallowed five swords whole before spitting them out like the shells of sunflower seeds.
She could feel it—the magic. It thrummed through everything around her; in the tents and the poles; in the people and their voices; in the very air around her. She breathed it in, savoring the way it filled her lungs and made the tips of her fingers tingle.
Deeper and deeper she roamed into the hoard of tents, searching for something to quench that yearning expectation she had nestled in the recesses of her heart. A terrible desire that hoped and wished and demanded for more. With each attraction, the need to fill that longing became more insistent. It whispered, telling her to wait and to watch.
The aroma of fresh apples and sugar drew Sarah to a cart where she bought a candied apple coated with caramel and topped with roasted peanuts. The woman who sold it to her had a raspberry mouth and yellow hair coiffed like shell of a snail. She told Sarah her apples were picked fresh from Hesperides and laughed when Sarah said she should probably charge more than seven dollars for one. When she bit into it, the caramel mixed delightfully with the juice and crunch of the apple, the flavor so sweet and sour it sang in her mouth.
As she sank her teeth into the meat of the fruit, she came upon a small tent with a large gilded mirror, twice her height, propped against the entrance. People in the background passed by, in and out of the frame, their hair and the whites of their smiling teeth whipping by. Her reflection shown back out at her, wide-eyed. She looked wild. Drunk on the magic and bitter air of the night.
On the top of the mirror hung a large silken banner and stitched into the fabric were the words, The Labyrinthe of Mirrors.
There were no torches to light her way inside like all the other tents; only a shadowy gloom to welcome curious parties. But not a single person seemed to be interested in the tent. They all walked by, taking no notice of the attraction, letting their gazes slip over it like water over rock.
The promise and threat of mirror-lined paths struck a chord in her. That niggling hope that had been plaguing her from the moment she heard about the carnival peaked. The possibility of the impossible was staring her right in the face, challenging, daring her to meet it head on, teasing her with the chance for adventure and danger.
And then she heard the music.
Foreboding and haunting, the notes rolled over her like the slow cranking of gears. They bounced off the clear waters of the mirrors from inside the tent so that the glass rang and shivered and thrummed with the song. It was an eerie tune. The melody was familiar, but it had a sinister quality that made her feel like ants had buried into her skin and were colonizing underneath it.
She took a step forward to see if she could see where the music was coming from. That recklessness she had been harboring deep inside now surged up to break free, and then the song was cut short and her candied apple was plucked from her hand.
Sarah twisted around with a few choice epithets on her lips—but found no one. She scanned through the crowds, flowing capes and sounds of laughter breezing by her. But no apple thief. Why anyone would even want a half-eaten apple was beyond her. When she found whoever took it, she was going to give them such a tongue-lashing they were going to be sucking down liquid food for the rest of their sticky-fingered life.
And then she saw him.
Hidden behind the spokes of a wheel, under a popcorn pushcart was a monkey. Or at least what looked like one. It had two long incisors jutting out over its lower lips, down to rest on its chin. The creature was wearing a revolting little vest and had a barrel organ resting against its chest. And there clenched in its tiny fist was her apple.
Two glowing red eyes flashed her way, widened, and then disappeared as the monkey ran through the crowds of feet.
"Come back here, you little thief!"
Sarah threw herself into the mass of revelers, giving chase. The crowds parted for her easily, but not a single person gave her a second glance. They simply moved aside, allowing her to keep a long, darting tail in her sights before it whipped around another pair of silken ankles.
However, at the sight of that creature sitting near the flap of a tent and chomping down on her apple like it hadn't just stolen the treat right from out of her hands, Sarah lost all reason.
It looked up, and when it saw her, it bared its teeth at her in what she was sure was a mocking grin. Red clouded her vision and before Sarah knew what was happening, she lunged at the monkey. It jumped out of the way, quicker than anything had a right to be, cackling madly as she landed sprawled on her hands, face, and knees. She raised herself up off the dusty ground just in time to see its tail curve around a tent and out of sight.
Jumping to her feet, she made a mad dash in the direction it ran and suddenly found herself in a clearing.
A back alley of sorts, the clearing was enclosed by the tents with the great expanse of their canvases blocking the main sections of the carnival as to keep its clientele from slipping through. Hexagonal lanterns were strung up. They hung from frayed ropes, crisscrossing overhead as the lights hidden inside ticked off the red paper shades like moths.
There was a thick fog here. It flowed like a steady stream of ice white water, breaking apart and flowing around anything in its path, leading to the far end of the clearing where a gypsy sat with his cart and monkey.
He was dressed in a simple but clean, charcoal-colored tunic. The cloth spilled over his long frame, revealing nothing of his form but his tall, pointed boots that wrapped around his calves like shadows. He wore a mask in the guise of a deer's skull with thick, black braids trailing out over his shoulders and down his back. The bone provided a stark contrast to his dark ensemble. The eye could not help but be drawn to the ivory skeleton, almost as if the mask was intentionally trying to keep you from looking elsewhere. While admiring how the antlers stood proud and regal on the crown of the head, Sarah noticed the skull was actually more reptilian looking and there were no eyes she could see staring back out at her from the sockets.
"Hello," she said, her voice so soft and frail that you would have to cradle it gently in your hands for it not to crack.
The mask tilted toward her, and Sarah took an involuntary step back. If there were a pair of seeing eyes behind those dark hollow pits, they would be looking right at her.
"Hello." High and reedy, the voice brought to mind spidery, wraithlike old women who offered young girls poisoned fruit or lured children into forests to feast on the marrow of their bones.
"Your monkey stole my apple," she said awkwardly.
The monkey took a large, crunching bite from the fruit.
"Ah, you must forgive my pet." A gloved hand reached out and scratched the underside of the creature's chin. The fabric of the glove was a pearlescent gray that wrapped around the gypsy's long, slim fingers.
"He is still being trained and has yet to get those nasty manners of his under control. I do apologize for his rudeness."
"Oh, that's okay," she said lamely.
The monkey screeched at her and jumped off the gypsy's shoulder, running behind the cart to eat the rest of his apple without the scrutiny of his small audience.
"Perhaps I can make it up to you, sweet child."
With a subtle flourish, the gypsy tore a velvet cloth from a large crystal sphere that was balancing on a whirl of glistery taffeta. The surface of the globe was as clear as glass, and she could see the reptilian mask's distorted, funhouse image in it from half way across the clearing.
"Oh no, thank you," she declined politely, "I don't really believe in that sort of stuff."
"Ah," the gypsy said, disappointment evident in his tone. "Then—if you don't mind my asking—what do you believe in?"
Sarah paused, not quite sure how to answer. Her mother was an atheist and her father and stepmother were non-practicing Catholics, so she'd never been very religious growing up. There had never been any kind of draw to the spiritual aspects of religion for her personally. But neither did she believe that what she saw was all there was. She knew that there was something out there, something that could not be explained by mere words and existed on the cusp of our reality.
"Possibility," Sarah finally said. "I believe that anything is possible."
The gypsy nodded, his head dipping low from the weight of the antlers. "If what you say is true, shouldn't this," he said, gesturing to the crystal, "fall into that line of reasoning?"
She pursed her lips. "Just because I admit there are things out there that defy logic and reason, doesn't mean I'm going to fall for some con artist and their schmoozing act."
The crystal flashed, almost as if in challenge at her statement. It distracted her from seeing the tightening of the gypsy's gloved hands. "Do you really believe me to a charlatan? I have offered you my services in return for nothing. What have I to cheat you of? And after all you have seen in this place—is the possibility of my authenticity really so far fetched?"
Sarah did not like the way those words were phrased. Everything had its price. She learned that lesson the hard way long ago. The very fact that this person was taking their time to establish some sort of confidence between them was proof enough that there would be cost for what was being offered. And Sarah knew exactly what she would be forfeiting if she said yes.
She would have to give this person her trust.
"All right then," she said. "I'll bite."
The lanterns overhead seemed to glow brighter at her answer. Their light shone on the gypsy's mask, making the bone gleam gruesome like a bloody skull. Sarah didn't think she could actually trust this person with their bizarre disguise and wheedling voice, but the last thing she wanted to do was walk away now that she was so close to magic. Especially not after being so many years without it.
"Come closer, child," the gypsy beckoned.
Sarah made her way through the wafting vapor of low hanging clouds, until she was standing directly in front of the gypsy and his cart.
"You must look into the crystal. Only you can see into its depths to find what you seek."
She hunched forward, peering into the crystal's glass, waiting. At first, there was nothing. Sarah could only see her reflection, green eyes staring back at her from the crystal ball. Aware of the gypsy watching her, she did her best to not sigh and give away her disappointment. She really had thought this would work. It was truly pointless allowing herself to hope like this, but she had been so sure after stepping foot into this place—
Sarah blinked, leaning so close that her breath began to fog up the crystal's image. No longer was there a reflection contained on the surface of the glass. Instead she could see deep into the crystal's center where a hazy image flickered like a small flame. She watched entranced, unable to tear her gaze away from what she was seeing. Images reflected in the crystal danced beguilingly from inside the glass. They burned bright, a radiant luminescence that set her ablaze in a wave of pure desire.
Faster and faster the images twirled, flickering before her eyes. They drew her in so intently that Sarah didn't even flinch when the gypsy brushed his clothed knuckles across her cheek. Her lips parted in a mixture of awe and terror as the crystal flared in a burst of white light, and her pupils dilated, taking everything in. The blaze gradually dimmed, retuning to a gentle glow before the light went out completely. All that was left was the darkness and the lanterns, which seemed so very faint now in comparison.
The gypsy cast the cloth back over the crystal, startling Sarah from her trance. She was breathing hard. Her chest heaved, the light material of her shirt stretching across her breast with each intake of breath.
"What was that?" she breathed. "Was that- was that real?"
The gypsy's silence was answer enough.
"How?" she asked. "You have to tell me how."
"Oh," he started sadly, "I think even you would not be willing to accept the price for that."
"Please," Sarah said imploringly, "please tell me."
The gypsy considered her. "Very well. If you insist."
Long, lithe legs stretched out from the stool as the gypsy stood to dig around his cart. He brought out a narrow wooden box with a small spherical emblem engraved on the surface.
"Place the item in this chest under your pillow before you go to sleep."
Sarah took the offered box, her skin skimming the splintering wood. "That's it?"
"That's it. Good luck, Sarah."
She thanked the gypsy and turned to go, not quite catching his last few words as they crumbled before her like dead leaves.
It only took her till she was half way across the clearing to notice something was wrong. The box she held in her hands felt…strange. She had this overwhelming desire to know what was in it, but there was something urging her to keep the lid shut, to wait till she was home and then do as she was instructed.
But Sarah's instincts overrode the voice. Gradually she lifted the top, peering into the chest until the lid was open wide. The interior was lined with dark satin that had pinpricks of silver thread, looking like stars woven into the night sky. Resting delicately on the fabric, among the stars and midnight cloth, was a moon white feather.
Sarah looked up and spun around. She was alone. There was no gypsy or cart. In fact, the entire carnival had vanished as easily as a dream upon waking. Even the grass was unbent as if nothing or no one had ever set foot in this place except the mist that snaked through the tall stalks for miles on.
The only thing that suggested the carnival might not have been some illusion was the gift left in the girl's hands that weighed heavier than any feather should.