Here is the first of the Black Carnival stories. I hope you enjoy it.
The day the Black Carnival showed up in our town, I was on my way to HR.
I took the stairs one slow step at a time, letting one loafer meet the other before taking the next descent down. I stared out the window to the outline of the city a few miles away down the interstate, counting cars on the highway as they moved like bubbles in a stream. The sky was a dream of an ocean somewhere far away, somewhere warmer: snow-laden blue clouds were touching the white hills, the sun nowhere to be seen.
Winter should have died a week ago, but it was holding on.
“Hey, Bill,” a voice said, coming down faster behind me. I shuffled a bit towards the banister and took a steadier walk down the steps, startled out of my staring.
“Hey, Rob.” Rob from accounting. I used to work with him in marketing, but then he got promoted, and I changed to the opening in Tech Support. That was all I knew of him; nobody could have asked me what his favorite dinner was or how many kids he had or… “How’s it going?”
Rob was about my same age but slimmer by about twenty pounds. I had been saying for months how I needed to lose weight, but with the added hours to my shifts with the integration of upgraded systems…management needed me on the clock more often than not. The gym would have to wait until the summer time maybe. I matched his pace, hoping he hadn’t thought I was winded just going down the stairs…
“Did you see that crazy caravan out front?” he asked without the obligatory “fine, and yourself”-ing I found I had come to expect.
“Yeah. Looks like some freaky Goth festival. Big black wagons, people in suits and top hats, burlesque chicks. It’s weird, dude. But I thought I’d tell you. Some of it looked like those doodles you used to do at your desk.”
“Oh, yeah, I don’t really do that anymore.”
“That’s too bad. They were pretty cool.”
I had stopped bringing my sketchpad to work when my supervisor saw me working on a figure drawing while on the phone. I was brought into her cube and told that I was not being paid to draw when I should be paying attention to customers’ concerns. That was a year ago, and even though she was gone now, so was the sketchpad. “Well, maybe I’ll check it out at lunch.”
We parted ways, and I plodded down the short hallway to Human Resources. Trey, the office manager, was waiting for me with his door open. I came in and sat down. “William, thanks for coming down,” he said as he sat down in his leather manager’s chair. His face was plastic, devoid of any genuine emotion I could read. I was about to close the door when suddenly Gwen, another face in HR, came in. I hadn’t interacted much with Gwen, but I knew that she was in charge of handling different difficult cases that came across corporate’s desk. Discrimination. Property damage.
I felt myself pale, even though a small pixie-sized voice in my head was trying to remind me that I hadn’t done anything. I barely spoke to the women on my team, let alone other departments. Maybe that was the problem, I thought. Am I being accused of overlooking female coworkers? Does somebody think I’m sexist?
Gwen’s pen scratched loudly against the legal pad she brought with her. “No problem. No problem at all, Trey. What can I do for you?” I had meant to just say it, but it came out yelling.
Trey smiled toothily, like a Ken doll. “We just wanted to talk to you about a few things. How are you doing? Family doing well?”
“Oh fine,” I heard myself say, and I immediately had no idea why that was my response. I wasn’t married, had no children and I lived by myself in a one-bedroom apartment in the east end of the city. A tiny ember of hope lit up in the back corner of my brain as I thought for just a moment that maybe I wasn’t even supposed to be here. That maybe Frank or George or Ray, all of whom were married with at least two children, had been the ones who needed to be sitting down here, sweating. “You know. Same old Monday.”
I looked over at Gwen, trying for a smile or even just a flicker of acknowledgement. The corner of her mouth turned up for just a moment, like a comma, a pause, before Trey went on.
“I know how that is. Listen, William…” He laced his fingers tightly together, rested them on his desk for a second and looked down. “There’s something we want to talk to you about before anything…comes up. If it comes up at all, we’re not even sure…” He pointed at me with both his index fingers pressed together. “We just don’t want it to come as a surprise.”
I stared at him, not blinking, not breathing. If I was with someone, it would have been the point that I would have asked if she was okay. If either of my parents were still alive, I might have even asked if this was about their health. I glanced at Gwen again, this time with nothing in my eyes but obvious confusion. But now, she didn’t meet my gaze. She just reached into an envelope and pulled out a newspaper clipping, handing it to me.
FATHER OF 3 MISSING AFTER INCIDENT OF OFFICE RAGE.
My eyes picked out several lines as I could hear Trey’s level, studied voice in the background, going on like every sentence was from a script.
…after speaking with a tech support representative in another office…
…three thousand dollars in damages to company computers…
…caught on camera as he assaulted the office’s sixty-year-old security guard…
He hasn’t been seen since he left the building Thursday afternoon.
“We pulled your call,” Trey said, “and everyone agrees you didn’t do anything wrong, but –”
“What?” Again, I’m afraid I’ve yelled, but this time my volume only rises on its own, like a bike accelerating downhill. “What do you mean that I didn’t do anything wrong? What does this have to do with me?”
“Bill,” Gwen said, one hand touching my chair. Not me, just the padded arm. I realized it was the first thing she said since she came in. “You don’t remember talking to this man?”
My brain filed through the rolodex of names, problems, issues, callbacks, inbound calls I’d taken since Thursday of last week. I thought that maybe I had pinpointed him – a man calling in about his email service being down – but then, just as quickly, I remembered him saying how happy he was with the service.
The only reason I recalled that, I realize, was because it was the only positive feedback in those 48 hours of work.
“I talk to a lot of people every day,” I said.
“And none of them stand out to you? This one didn’t seem different?” I noticed that her eyes were a deep forest green. We had never looked at each other for longer than a passing glance and now…those emerald orbs were trying to puzzle out how I couldn’t remember this one voice.
“No,” I admitted. Shame coated the inside of my gut, thick and cold and slick like black ice. “I’m sorry.”
Trey cut in at that moment. “No,” he said. “There is nothing for you to be sorry about, William. We just didn’t want you to hear about this or have it come up in some…uncomfortable way. Don’t worry, the legal department will protect the company.”
He continued on, yammering about media disclosure and picking out several papers for me to sign. The whole time, I just stared at Gwen, but her eyes were back down on her notebook, each pressing stroke a judgment, each period a gavel dropping for the sentence against my humanity.
At first, I went back to my desk. My intention was to move on, to accept Trey’s insistence that I had done nothing wrong and to get behind the line of thought that I could not control how other people chose to react to things.
I made the mistake of logging back in. A beep in my headpiece signaled an incoming call, and I just said, “Hello.”
No name, no company title, no question.
There was nothing for a second. “Hi…um…is this the tech support line for-“
“Yes!” I knocked my pencil jar over on my desk, its contents exploding everywhere. “Yes, yes, I’m here. Sorry. Can I…help you?”
A sound came over like a short cough. “I don’t know, can you?”
The voice laughed. I didn’t. I started sweating again instead.
“Please hold,” I gasped, and when I tried to hit the HOLD button, I slapped RELEASE. My supervisor was at my desk in the next 30 seconds. I was breathing like I had done laps around the parking lot, and I tried not to look at his face above the wall of my cube, sitting like the lost treasure of some cephalophore.
“Bill,” the head said. “Can I see you for a few minutes?”
Those few minutes later, I found myself out the door. I was told that HR had asked that I take the afternoon off, to take a few hours from my hoard of paid time off. “I told them that was fine, because we have everyone else here,” he had said, his face not changing, not even hinting at a soft reaction. I left without waiting for him to ask me how I was doing.
The wind kicked up from the east as I looked out over the parking lot to a field beyond. The green, overgrown grass shimmered in the breeze like a coastline, the white flowers pushed up and around like fish. Just beyond, I saw a line of black shapes, and I recalled what Rob had said about some caravan.
The long line of carts, boxcars, and tents on wheels stretched out for at least half a mile, or at least that’s how it looked like from where I was standing. I could just make out the hesitant stamping of impatient animals – horses, maybe, or oxen? – and figures were climbing from one cart to the other on suspended wooden walkways or ropes. A few of them were wearing skin-tight leotards or thin leggings, while others were wearing what looked like Victorian suits. Dresses even. Clothes that looked like they should have impeded them but they floated through the air effortlessly.
My eyes followed the line to the front, where there was something massive lying on the ground. There was a man, kneeling behind it, and a smaller figure. A child, maybe. They were working at the huge…thing. Whatever it was. It was big, round, like a rock or a sack or…
What was it?
I went to my car and had my hand on the door. There were a million and a half things I could do with the afternoon.
What was it?
I fingered my keys and for every tooth I could think of another chore that needed done around the apartment, some corner to clean, a something-or-another to put away.
What was it?
I got in the car and almost made it to the ignition. From my rearview mirror I could just see those two people and the thing on the ground. The giant thing.
I was the tallest point in the field, and it made me feel exposed. Nervous. There was anything I could say, I’m sure. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry, but I needed to see what you were doing to ease my curiosity.” I got ready for someone to call the cops or for some bouncer to get in my face like I was trying to get in one of the cool clubs downtown. But it seemed that the opposite happened: everyone disappeared. There were no eyes on me, no fingers pointing. And as I finally got to where I was heading, I knew we were alone:
There was me.
There was what I could now see was a dwarf with only nine fingers.
There was the man – a long, dark, stone-faced shadow of a man.
And an elephant.
It moved on its side like it was walking in slow motion, as if its massive feet were running in mud. Its trunk waved and hit the ground now and then while a trickle of dark fluid ran down its cheek.
“Darwin, my boy…” the man was saying to the dwarf as he took a handkerchief – black silk – out of his vest pocket and wiped his hand with it. “It would seem our pachyderm has a leak.”
“A leak?” We both actually said it together, and that made the slate face rise up to me just slightly, the white of his eyes little stones shining at me. I waited for him to ask me what exactly I was doing there. What was I doing there?
“That’s right,” he rumbled. His voice sounded ancient and deep and dark. “A leak.”
I walked around the animal’s head to where he was kneeling, where I expected to find a gash or some rotting spot. Instead, what I saw was a mess of gears, mechanical bits and whirrs, a busted chain like on a bike. The entire inside of the elephant was exposed, and a stream of oil oozed to the ground.
“Mr. Kauffee, sir,” the dwarf said, his voice rising with a trill of panic. He shifted from one foot to the other, rubbing his small hands together. “What are we going to do if we can’t get her up?”
“The obvious, my lad,” the man said, picking up a stovepipe hat from the ground that added half a foot to his already long head and face. His eyes seemed to disappear under the rim. “Nothing. The Black Carnival will stay here, the storms will come and we will all surely meet our doom.”
I jumped when a rumble came from miles off, but when I looked out across the expanse of field and forest I couldn’t see a cloud in the sky. I shivered. “Can’t you call someone?” I found myself asking. Feeling like I was getting a bit too familiar, I added, “Can I call you someone?”
“I’m afraid not. The last of the artisans who could work their way through a clockwork elephant died out…a year or so ago now. And that one was in Moscow, I believe. Chechnya perhaps. Far across the sea.” He glanced out at the horizon, away from the city and to the farmlands and further.
“Maybe I can take a look.” The words came out of my mouth even as I was shaking my head. As if my heart had said it while my brain was certain I was an idiot.
“You?” Kauffee stood up. He was giant. So tall I was sure there had to be some trick involved. Something in his starchy pinstripes. “And who are you?”
“And what are you, Bill?”
I licked my lips and tasted the beads of sweat. “I’m in tech support.”
He smiled in a way that almost made me think he could very well laugh in my face, and I wouldn’t blame him. “And do you think that line of expertise makes you qualified to mend a clockwork elephant, Bill?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. But I’ve fixed a lot of watches.” That wasn’t true. I had only fixed one watch. I held up my wrist. I was wearing my grandfather’s 1926 Oyster Rolex that I had maintained through several poor circumstances, including being dropped out of a moving car by my father when he was a teenager, being stepped on by a horse during the Second World War and slipped down the toilet by my mother a few years before she died.
“Could he try?” Darwin asked.
Kauffee nodded once, thoughtfully, and took a step back. I got down on my knees – realizing too late that one went right into the goo coming from the gears – and set to work.
I don’t know what I did. I tinkered. I straightened. The drip of the grease slowed and then stopped altogether, a few minutes later. The elephant – Gretel was her name, I had discovered – moved more thoughtfully. Her head shook like she was waking out of a sleep, and then she was up on her feet. “Start the word,” Kauffee said to Darwin as he ran one hand along her leathery hide. “We leave in the hour.”
Darwin scurried away on his little legs, and suddenly I felt very small, between Gretel and Kauffee. There was another rumble, closer now, and Kauffee started towards the first, huge car. I looked up above the door he opened that said in spiraling, curly cursive: ESPRESSITUS KAUFFEE AND THE BLACK CARNIVAL.
“There will be space for you in the Angels’ wagon,” he said as he ducked his head through the doorway, the frame just missing his massive hat. “Darwin will see that you are supplied a blanket, food to eat and wine. You’ve earned it.”
“I beg your pardon?” The real world came back to me like a poorly-digested lunch. I looked back at my building in the distance, a small cardboard box. I remembered my car, my rent check.
“Wine, boy. Fine wine from Brazil. And dinner will be giant ants, peppers and goat cheese from a Pyrenean ibex I won in a poker game a year and a day ago in Gibraltar. From half of a Siamese twin.”
I suddenly found myself wondering if this was some great joke that had been orchestrated, if I wasn’t being filmed right now, and someone was going to jump out and scare the shit out of me. Or maybe I would just wake up at home, in bed.
Gretel suddenly trumpeted and started moving, nearly knocking Kauffee off his feet. “I suppose the winds have changed. Come along, man! Hurry now!”
The wheels were turning fast. Faster than it seemed Gretel was moving.
His black hand was out towards me from his wagon. “The storms wait for none! Quickly!”
I raised my own arm and got ready but then suddenly, he grabbed me, pulling me up so quick I screamed but only for a moment. I could smell a heady roasty smell about him, as if he had been aged for hundreds of years. His laughter filled my ears and my heart as the Black Carnival sped forward, into the woods and the world and, with me, was gone.