Bonus #3: a tale of those who try to hold on to the piece of the Black Carnival.
When the Black Carnival comes to town, everyone must be vigilant.
In most cases, the urge for children to run into the great arms of the exciting circus with its beating drums and lilting melodies is so strong they practically need to be restrained by their parents, leashed in their rooms like ill-mannered pups until the world returns to unquestionable transparency. Sometimes, however, hands are not quick enough to grab nor eyes to shut, and like trying to hold an anthill in one’s grasp, a few escapees take flight.
That was how Ellinore Lauria Destine – of the uptown Destines – ran from her ivory house with six pillars when Mother was at her woman’s club and Father was working and found her way to the carnival and to one peculiar and wonderful cart. It was tall and small, like a fine bird’s cage draped in satin and red Moroccan tapestries. A black iron door opened to her, and when she stepped inside, there was much more room, double in size compared to how it looked from outside. She was met with a dreamy scent of incense and burning flowers.
The cart was lined with shelves but it was unlike any toy store she had ever been to (and it was worth noting she had been to many; her father knew that nothing soothed her young, savage soul like a plush toy, doll or dress). Her eyes glowed as they studied at least fifty antique dolls, sitting with painted lips turned playfully up, smooth porcelain skin of all hues, from cloud-covered moonlight white to a dark clay pot brown. Their outfits had a palate of colors, and each was a flower in bloom with its own arrangement of silks and cottons and velvets.
Ellinore bit her lip hungrily.
“The young miss likes what she sees.”
The little girl spun around to look up at a tall man dressed in harsh white, so bright he stood out like a bleached stain against the vibrant arrays of fabric both on the dresses and the walls themselves. His bare feet curled on the plush carpet, toes round like water chestnuts. She made a small curtsy like she had seen in Mother’s movies, and the man bent his knees and crossed his legs as if sitting on a chair that was not there.
“These dolls are not for you,” he said slowly. His head was smooth and bald, and he raised a his straight fingers in a steeple. “These dolls are not for little girls who live in pearl houses and do what their parents say and eat their vegetables without their elbows on the table. These dolls are not for lily gardens and golden verandas and the debutante ball.”
Ellinore did not know exactly what the man meant, but she had understood the first words. Not for you. It was not something that anyone told her, not Mother or Father or the tutor or the gardeners or the milk men. She stuck her lip out, and the man smiled, an expression like a crack across a frozen lake. “Go home, now. Your parents will be sending someone to look for you.”
And then there was a moment when the man straightened and turned, and Ellinore paused until she could not see his eyes. It was a moment like being in the kitchen at home, and just as she would do when the cook told her to leave the meats or pastries alone, she reached out one smooth hand, grabbed what she desired and spun on her black dress shoes until she was running fast away.
When she was back home in her room of pink and white lace, plush ponies and carnation sheets, Ellinore’s heart pounded, her cheeks flushed, proud and frightened and giddy that she had taught the man in white a lesson. She hugged the doll to her and sat against the wall away from the window, as if hiding from a bolt of lightning that may come to punish her.
When she awoke the next morning, she was in bed, tucked in tight with the doll pressed to her side. What a queer dream, she thought as she looked outside. The street, the surrounding town, was bare and bright, untouched by the darkness that followed the Black Carnival she had seen. There was no man in white watching for her, so she put the images from her mind and focused on all the wonderful, beautiful things that preoccupy children’s fancies.
Her parents said nothing of the doll at first…until one morning, during a breakfast of English tea, poached eggs and fresh toast. Mother set her cup down a little too hard and said, “She’s been clinging relentlessly to that doll you gave her, hasn’t she?”
“She has,” Father admitted, sitting up a bit straighter but not putting down his paper. He couldn’t place when he had purchased the item, but it seemed within his refined tastes. “It’s a beautiful piece. I’m glad I picked it out for her.”
“I do wish,” Mother went on, letting her voice air wistfully, “that you would pick out something so nice for me.”
He said nothing, and in that hair’s breadth of wordless space, Mother got up and walked from the room.
For a time, Ellinore could hear loud shouts echo up from the floor of her room. She slipped into her bed and under the rose-scented Egyptian sheets she held the doll to her chest so tight that she could feel her heart through its porcelain neck. Her fingers moved to its long, curly hazelnut hair and dug in hard as she was picked up out of the bed and carried away from the white house.
She and her mother moved into an apartment building that was surrounded by weeds and tall grass. Her room was no longer coral and ivory but a sick green, and the sheets were rough. She went to school then but was sent home when she bloodied a boy’s nose who tried to snag the doll from her backpack. She sat on the squeaky bed and used her shirt to polish the doll’s brilliant blue eyes until she was forced to return.
One night, Ellinore woke up to find a deep, dark stain between her legs. For days, she ached, and her mother worked long hours. She never cried but ate the processed foods – sugars, starches, deli meats – that were in the odd-smelling refrigerator because there were no cooks to make fresh salads of spring greens and fresh-picked mandarin oranges or soufflés or roasted chickens. Her arms and legs became thick, and school became harder until she started putting her fingers down her throat. Every night, the doll lay vigilant in her arms over the nightmares that swept over her.
Then, a call came to the apartment while Ellinore was at school. Her father had drunk too much and taken his entire bottle of antidepressants and did not wake up the next morning. She went to the funeral alone because her mother was working, always working, but she swore at night she could hear her cry, the smallest breaths of air through the wall. She held tighter to the doll, the last possession he had given her.
A short time after her father’s death, Ellinore met a boy in her class with long blond hair and a wonderful smile. He called her Ell (“for love”), and they stayed out late into the night and went to clubs and danced until everything in them burned. Sometimes they slept in his car until the sun came up, and he would buy her pancakes before class. She loved him so much that she always ate them and didn’t run to the bathroom afterwards.
Before their prom, she told him, “I think you should wear a white suit. I think you’d look hot in it.” She wasn’t sure why she said it. “Maybe cut your hair.”
“Whatever you want, babe,” he replied.
She slaved over her own dress, inspired by the one on the doll she had had so long now. It had layers and layers of frills and lace, and when she spun in her room, she felt like a blossoming rose. She made herself up with deep red lipstick and dark purple on her eyes. When he showed up with his hay-colored locks trimmed above his ears and the eggshell slacks, she danced with him until everyone else was gone, and they spent the night on a hill overlooking the town, his hands on her, over her, until she trembled watching the stars over them.
It was in that quivering moment that her mind touched something jagged and foreign and faint, a dream, a déjà vu. She imagined them surrounded by red tapestries and an iron barred door and she glanced down at the boy’s feet, the pale toes, and suddenly pushed him away.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I love you.”
He got up, confused, and they talked briefly. He wanted to know who she had been with, and she told him nobody, no one, maybe someone once. His dark eyes flashed, angry, and she understood because he was a boy and her mind desired a man – a man who maybe didn’t exist. As he drove away, she wondered if she was going mad.
The red dress she wore stained in the brown dirt, and when she went home – so late the streets were silent, sleeping themselves – her mother was waiting. Somehow, she knew, knew in the depths of her like a sea knows the movement of its creations, and they screamed at each other for minutes, then hours, until suddenly in a white hot fury her mother’s hand reached for the doll. It moved through the air so fast that it seemed like the sound – the smash of glass, the tinkle of crystal – came before it even touched the wall.
Ellinore ran from the apartment with nothing but the dress, which she held in handfuls. A rain had come, heavy and thick and hot like tears, and she kicked off the heels on her feet and stumbled through it drunkenly. It felt like a piece of the broken porcelain was floating in her heart, cutting as she moved, slicing when she breathed. She wasn’t sure how long she ran or how fast but the town ended and woods began and then there was a space of nothing, and quite suddenly there was music. Creatures. Darkness. The Black Carnival. And a silk-covered cart.
When she opened the ebony door, the man in white turned slowly. Nothing of the place had changed, nothing of him, and even the space on the shelf where the doll had been – the doll that she took, she recalled now – was still bare. She fell into his arms, and he moved his hand through her hair, long and dark with the rain. They said nothing, and the hot droplets fell on the man’s still bare feet.
He touched her cheek, and a coldness spread from his fingers that was comforting like the first snow of winter. He took in the shining of her eyes, that same cracking smile touching his face as his fingers shuffled off the dirt and grime from the night. “I had told you…”
“I was a child,” she whispered. Her eyelashes felt heavy, and she realized how tired she was. “How was I to know?”
He took her hands and kissed them softly. When she closed her eyes, she was that child again, chancing upon a dream of a place and a man who would change everything with his timelessness. He picked her up then, and she took her place on the shelf with her long dark hair, contented smile and frozen features perfectly placed in a red, frilled gown.
The man in white let out a soft sigh of satisfaction for the space once again filled, and he quietly closed the cage door.