The Cadaverous Carnival – Sophie Paterson

It was on a Thursday that the circus came. Preceded by nothing more than the quiet murmur of a restless town, it arrived shrouded in mystery. The canopies flew into the azure sky where clouds twisted peacefully overhead and ropes clawed the ground of the swampy fields just beyond the furthest houses. Brightly coloured stalls littered like exotic flowers, draping the area with a suffocating promise of euphoria. The murmur grew into a buzz and for a few precious moments, the town forgot its problems.

Night fell. A sheet of stars accompanied by a deafening silence cocooned the deserted streets, only broken by the crisp crackle of her boots on the frosted grass. It was a short walk to the fields, through the maze of houses and past the sleeping occupants but the journey felt like an eternity. Soon enough, the oily glow of the golden lamps shone out in front of her but there was something amiss. This was not the circus she had spied being constructed only hours previously.

Bunting lay trodden in the mud-soaked field and the tents bore gashes bleeding out the flickering, dying light from within. Broken stalls lay haphazardly around, surrounded by gaudily wrapped prizes, mutilated and mangled. Popcorn was trodden into the ground at her feet and above her the entrance sign hung from a single cable from which occasionally erupted a shower of sparks like frantic fireflies.

Enslaved, she felt her feet drag her towards the torn opening of the tent. Hesitantly, she pulled aside the curtain and peered through. Her eyes tracked the path of drying blood painting the floor. Laughter, drowned by the broken sound of circus music, hung chillingly in the arid air. The eerie tune writhed its way into her mind as she craned her neck up to look at the disjointed trapeze artists who performed to the music as if they were rag dolls being thrown into the air. The large stage spanned the majority of the room and there were but a few upturned and empty chairs scattered around. The paint on the side of the wooden ladders and platforms was peeling and faded, like a memory long forgotten. Her breath lurched as she watched as one of the artists plummeted through the air like a ribbon. Her body slammed into the ground with a sickening crack; legs bent at unnatural angles and eyes glassy and unfocussed. Mere moments later, the body twisted and convulsed and the doll-like creature stood up again and walked back to the ladder humming the demented tune, whilst the others sat perched on the platforms like vultures.

Leaving the nightmare of the stage behind her, she slithered around the edge of the arena and made her way through the corridors, the music continuing to play in her head; a compulsive, conniving echo.

Time seemed irrelevant as she made her way through the labyrinth; her route random and careless, occasionally glimpsing disturbing scenes such as the ballerina who pirouetted mindlessly on a miniscule box, eyes hauntingly blank. She stumbled on, her hand finding purchase on an obsolete light switch, which illuminated the wall ahead.

The wall seemed to span a thousand feet in the seemingly impossible nothingness of the tent, a collage of monochromatic faces and a flurry of words. She ran her hand along the wall of youthful expressions until she stopped at a random poster pasted over several others. Missing. A boy. He was called Jonathan. His picture embodied the innocence of his youth; she imagined his mother’s desperation at the loss of her son.

She emerged into an unfathomably large room full of cracked and broken mirrors, their jagged blooded shards like predatory teeth. Coaxed into the dark by the sound of muffled screams, choked sobs and high pitched giggles, she stepped through the mirrors’ frames, oblivious to the myriad of small cuts which the remnants inflicted.

An imposing spotlight shone onto the act that stood in the middle of a desolate stage therein. She peered from behind the wooden, supporting beam, swinging her body to gain a better view. The light bounced off the bars of a cage, illuminating the faces of petrified children within who cowered into the corners and shrank in on themselves. Clowns in dirtied silk costumes crawled over the entirety of the enclosure, their bloodied, crimson claws tearing at the children’s skin as they cried out in terror. As the face paint melted off the clowns’ faces revealing mouths of needles and sinister grins, one child grabbed at the bars and tried to squeeze his skeletal frame out of the cage but to no avail. His clothes were dirtied and there was a deep cut over one cheek but his face was the embodiment of innocence. Jonathan.

All those faces, all those posters; it was as if the final piece of the jigsaw was in place.

Marching on, she found herself to be in a dressing room. The make up splayed over the rusty table was bright and bold; behind her lay rails upon rails of silk clothing. Stepping closer to the table, her eyes fell upon the worn leather whip, its tail curling like a snake onto the floor. She tentatively grasped the handle raising it to eye level before gazing in the dirtied mirror, gazing detachedly towards her reflection.

Her dark figure was clothed in a bloody, torn crimson tailcoat, which brushed past her long, worn black boots. A dirtied white cotton shirt flared from beneath the jacket and blood seeped through a rip in her black fitted trousers. She observed the ruby liquid with idle curiosity before drawing her eyes up to her face.  Her breath was even and her expression blank as paper.  The harlequin diamonds and white face paint was flaking off, revealing the rotting flesh and snake like eyes hidden beneath. She tilted her head to the side as she regarded her reflection. With a sharp grin and crack of her whip she twisted brokenly towards the door, the tears in her clothes sewing themselves seamlessly together as she sauntered towards the arena.

The air grew heavy with the electric hum of jewelled tents snapping to attention, hypnotic with colours of crimson red and emerald green.

As she moved forward, the glowing lights grew impossibly golden and all around there was music, warm and irresistible.

Now she is centre stage in a circus alive and intoxicating in its seduction.

She has a show to give. And it will be perfect.