NOTE: A little something from a dream I had last night. Anyone out there a Photoshop artist who can do me a cross between a cruise ship and a large hotel, flying through the sky?
They come into the small towns and cities like a carnival. A carnival from the sky. First, the helicopters, gay in their red white and blue livery. Then, the floating buildings. Half hotel, half cruise ship, right down to the lifeboats and the balconies and the walkways where the people in their finery stand and gawp and watch and wave to the peasantry below. They try to land at the highest point where there are crowds of people, so they can be seen from a far way off.
The children emerge from the caves and from the woods to watch, pointing to the sky, laughing. Screaming in joy at the spectacle and at the jolly music pouring from the floating boats and to grab the candy the occupants toss from the balconies.
Then they disembark in their finery: the women in laces and white cotton, bright ribbons, flowered hats, painted eyes and straight teeth. The men in their bowlers, shiny shoes, white shirts and black suit coats with the rounded collars. They march forth as if on holiday, spinning umbrellas idly in the air, or draping them demurely over their forearms. Small men with tallow skin. Enormous men with huge hands clamped around their umbrellas. Tall, slender women with dark hair and dark eyes. And every one with a smile.
And the children. Dressed as miniature adults. And all of them staggering. You notice the children in the crowds, struggling to hold their balance as if they were babies learning to walk all over again, their heads too pendulous. When they stop and stand, it’s a battle not to fall over with them as they wobble and right themselves, only to wobble again.
They set up the tents, They play the music. And those who go into the tents, well, they hear that high pitched whine and they see that flash of light that seems to push right through them.
Then they aren’t themselves any more, and their children get the staggers.
I have seen that flash of light. I have felt it push right through me. I have felt the light push my soul out through my back. I have heard that hum.
But I came back, I do not remember how.
I will never go into the tents again.
There are many who don’t. But the carnival always finds them. They are allowed to flee – the secret of the tents is that you have to go inside willingly or the buzz and the flash don’t work – but they always find you. They always try again, with lace and cake and lemonade and persuasion, to get you to enter the tents again. And every time we flee, we flee further into the wilderness where there is less shelter, less to eat, and, for many, less to be. Those who fought the good fight eventually enter the tents willingly, if only to end the escape into the nothing they hoped to avoid by looking into the buzzing light.
“Have you seen Stovall?”
“No,” the woman answered. “Saw his wife at the market yesterday. And their kids.”
“On their feet?”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s good. I’m worried about Stovall. I think he’s ready to go. We can’t lose him. Finest carpenter we’ve got.”
“His apprentice isn’t ready,” the woman asked.
“He’s been there a while, but apparently he’s a slow learner. You’re sure he’s ready to go?”
I swallowed a bit of bread. “You saw him, last time the carnival came through. Out there, running with the children. Eating the candy.”
“He’s young at heart. And he was keeping an eye on them. So they wouldn’t go into the tents when they got set up. It was his turn, his job,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m still worried. I can see him in a bowler hat.”
I left the cave, walked past the pavilion Stovall’s apprentice and helpers were still working on, weeks after it was supposed to be finished. We’re tired of the damp of the cave, the dark. The bats. I had to find Stovall.
I walked down to the creek and followed it downstream, passing the dams the beavers and the children had built. Fine dams, whether built by man or beast, holding back the creek’s bubbling water in a chain of tiny ponds, like pearls reflecting the white of the clouds or the blue of the sky. Further downstream, I could hear children laughing and shrieking; occasionally a loud thunk as someone threw a rock in the water.
Stovall again with the children. He, throwing the rocks.
“Stovall,” I said. He looked. He offered a sheepish grin, then threw another rock into the water.
“You should be at the pavilion,” I said. “Your apprentice can’t keep the work going.”
“Oh, he does well enough,” Stovall said, bending over to pick up another rock. The children searched for smaller rocks to throw into the water. He tossed his rock which entered the water with a thump and left a muddy stain on the clear surface. “There’s not much more I can teach him.”
“You could teach him to use a hammer correctly, for one,” I said. “He hits the wood or his fingers far more than the nails.”
“Practice is all he needs. Besides,” he said with a sigh, “the carnival is on the way.”
I stared at him, at his gormless face, as the children threw more rocks into the pond.
“Stovall,” I said. “Come with me.”
He came meekly enough. “Joshua, mind the small ones don’t fall in the water,” he said.
We walked further along the creek, in silence. The rustle of wind through the leaves was soon drowned out by the roar of water tumbling over the falls.
“How long has it been?”
“Six years now,” he said.
“You miss her?”
We continued walking, our footfalls leaving puffs of dust on the path.
“I suppose I would. But after my own fashion.”
“Like she were dead.”
“Yes, I said. As if she were dead. It’s easier that way. Or so I understand.”
“Childlike, she is,” Stovall said. “Always childlike. That’s what attracted us in the beginning, I think. Each of us in a grown-up body, but each of us content to walk for hours tossing pebbles in the creek, or in the woods, or wherever we could walk and laugh and find mischief.”
“Six years,” he said again.
“I saw her at the carnival last year,” he said.
Stovall sat on a rock, staring out over the falls.
“She loved to play her little jokes,” he said. “Once we stopped at a rest area so I could go to the bathroom. Middle of the dark night. When I came back to the car she handed me a bit of paper and asked if I’d throw it in a garbage can for her. What I didn’t know is she’d seen a cat jump into the garbage can. When I threw her bit of paper in, it popped right back out, followed by the cat. Took a half hour for my heart to start beating again.”
Silence but for the roaring of the water.
“She loved to come here,” he said. She loved to hear the water. Will she come again this year, do you think?”
He threw a branch into the water, watched it twist and tumble and fall into the foam.
I ran from behind him, pushed him off the rock. He fell into the water with a thunk, just like the rocks he’d thrown for the children.
He didn’t struggle, but fell over the falls into the canyon far below.
And in the sky, the sound of helicopters, the thin whine of an approaching calliope.