this is a weird little tale that couldn't decide if it wanted to be a short story or a poem and finally figured that it wanted to be a bit of both. it was originally published in paraphilia magazine and it won a contest from the magazine 69 flavours of paranoia. i haven't done anything quite like it before or since, although i wish i could. the inspiration was, as it often is, a dream that i had. i hope that you enjoy it!
It is then that the great house starts to move, rattling forward, a body stricken with delirium tremens,
pockets of dust shaken loose as our anchors are raised and we experience the thrill of momentum building,
slow a while and then picking up a little speed, picking itself up, floating like a spirit above the road.
The old haunted house with its leprechaun of a host, his costume folded around him, leaves of a head of lettuce turning brown.
"Welcome aboard one and all," he cries.
"Take care to stay well back
From the edge and keep a lookout
For as it flies
The house plays games
with weary eyes."
We've not been here in years, have we? Have we been here then at all? Us together, as we are now?
I would swear we have, watching the same astounded faces on other people asking how the house knows where to go.
It does seem I have heard those voices, their uneasy murmurs betraying that underlying fear
that this is no trick at all, that the place is really bewitched. No festival ride could be so real, could fool all senses
to believing that it hovered, that it shuddered along a path that held no real design, nothing could feel like that
and not be singed with evil. And so they whisper furtively, their fear ripening above the rows of sagging seats
that have seen too many like them.
I know I have been here, because I know how everything will unfold. I know that the woman in the brown jacket
will fold herself inside her husband's arm for the first time in many months and that he will hold her with the perplexed
face of one who has not felt compelled to act this role in many months. The ride affects each one differently, but I
can guess them all. In the absence of memory, this knowing is a sort of psychic's trick. I should be back in the tent
with Madame Zolta, telling the crowds the small gestures that will form the foundation of their future.
And indeed it is a bachelor
You will stay
And die a young man"
That boy asked his girlfriend to marry him on the way out of the tent, I believe; she turned him down and left him
to the wild of life and he died three weeks hence, besotted, falling under the wheels of a train. It matters not
to Madame Zolta, who tells a bald businessman in a trench-coat that his son is not his own and laughs when he thinks
she speaks in metaphor. I like to think she got her powers riding on the roof of the haunted house as I do, remarking
how things are ever the same and learning that all shall pass here again, without remembering. I like to think that
we are alike, her and I. She probably knows and finds it funny, that I would envy her her little power and her place
among the scamps and oddities whose peripatetic lives we cross through, looking for entertainment.
Now and again it shakes, this ancient house, as it sails forward into the darkening sky, carbon over steel,
limp fingers of gelled rain slapping at our faces, loosening the dirt on our untended vessel; and with each shudder
growing in intensity, the voice of the house rising to a miner's cough, we sense the real magic is about to start.
"For God's sake hush!"
Our ugly guide insists.
"You'll babble without pause
the main event."
The main event is subtle, lost on no one here, begins with the unfurling of the sails that catch the wind
that bear us up further into the twilight, so that the ground below begins to come into focus,
visible underneath our eyes, the circus and its tribes arranged for us to see.
There is the strong man, who whispered words I never heard but that I knew to be a threat;
His thin voice, a eunuch's voice, is with me in my ears and in my stomach, the part that freezes
every time I think of him. Nearby the bearded lady eats messily and cries that no man,
not even the dwarves who hustle customers from one attraction to the next, will look at her
with glossy-eyed lust, the way they do each night at the dough-headed acrobats.
Madame Zolta's tent has a tail, a curled queue of people waiting to speak to her,
people who must know what they are hurtling towards, without knowing it is already done.
At the fringe of the grounds, ostracised by even his peers, the man who swallows pain
crucified for the aghast few, he smells of lead and chrysanthemums and speaks in croaks and clucks
unintelligible to all, save the lion tamer, who placates him with the occasional glass of whiskey.
"Less mwa moorie
Juh tonn pree
Juh vuh la moorie
A-layt, a-layt, a-layt"
The phantom who brought us here is among the guests by now, stirring unrest
talking blackly about our motives and our neighbours, he makes the plump woman in the windbreaker
sob and ask why, just why, without any further clarification. Her befuddled husband shrugs and laughs;
her children turn their backs to her in abject horror. She is heavy on them, her graceless blubbering
lashes them in and holds them as the world peels back its skin for them to see from the shore of safety.
They do not sense the phantom yet. Against children he is useless, being rumour. They'll be back, of course
unable to resist the house and its mysteries and unable to think them away. I know that I came back
drawn by that anti-figure, always trying to pin his drifting shadow to my shores. I know that I came back
but know not how, or why I keep finding myself here.
And then he unleashes the power of the house, the fragments of those still trapped inside, still clinging to the walls
and wondering why they find neither sleep nor adventure, hung on the moldering furniture, shaken loose
like so much plaster dust. We feel them move among us, both groups picking goose flesh from each other's skin.
Who are they and why do they stay here? Who are they and why do they come here? And neither of us moves on.
The apparition raises his hands and the others scramble, tiny monkey spirits and form a spinning wheel. In turn,
each leaves the round and jumps through the centre, then rejoins his brethren as if nothing has happened.
The clever tricks continue, the breathtaking leaps, strange passages, the wordless commands,
always so clearly understood. And we clap, we clap until our ears ache with it, we clap again and we ask more.
I still want to hold him down, force out his secrets, get him to tell me how he makes them dance and
why it is that others cannot. I want to wrap myself in that misty embrace and hear that I can learn
that they will follow me and he will teach me all that is hidden in him. I have been here before and yet
I still hope that of all the arranged bodies, some soft and aging, some like summer fruit: perfect, firm and ripe,
I still dream that it will be me he chooses to lift into that afterlife, that he will see the shards of himself in me
and take interest or pity, it is all the same in the end. But tonight he chooses no one, for he never does;
only ushers the little ghosts back to their lair and nods good night to us all, his way of giving perfunctory thanks.
And wordlessly we drift back, hardly speaking or hearing until the metal sound and weight of the anchor
is on us, dragging us back to ground as if nothing had happened, as if it were as ordinary as cotton,
the fabric that links the elements of this house. And wordlessly we descend the creaking back staircase,
always in want of repair, never growing worse or better, room for one by one by one to pass, no more.
"Good night, ladies
Good night, gentlemen
We'll see you back here
in Hell or in Heaven
The host salutes by taking off his cap, by slapping the ticket-taker and the anchor-man
until they do the same, until they bow their hulking granite heads toward us, not in deference
but in fear. And thus do I pass, full of this place again, I have been here before, I don't know when.
My eyes are closed for that last step and I imagine him approaching, coming down on me
like a raptor, ending what I know.
When my eyes open, I realise I have forgotten. I always think you will be with me.