I brought my motorcycle to a stop on the rise, glad for the sidecar that kept it upright on the uneven ground, and gazed down. It was already afternoon, and small figures scurried busily around the faded tents, the largest of which was topped with a gaily waving red pennant.
Calliope music carried on the breeze, as well as children’s laughter. It looked to be a popular attraction—but nothing like Caldwell’s Wonders, I assured myself. Nothing at all.
The October sun made heat shimmers on the open ground between the tents and me.
I’d been gone for three days now from the carnival that had become my home, leaving it in Henry and the Professor’s capable hands. It was two weeks since we’d laid Thomas Caldwell’s body to rest, burying him as he’d wanted, beside the river near Norfolk, Virginia, the city where he was born and no doubt his family still lived, though they had turned him away years before, when they found out about his love for men, a love they called unnatural.
I sighed. Thomas had been my first love, and even though we’d been together only two years, his absence was a cold knife in my heart.
“The carnival is yours now,” the Professor had told me, gravely presenting the will written in Thomas’s own hand. “He trusted you, boy.”
And Henry had smiled a little, the brown eyes in his smooth dark face still liquid with his own tears. “Best call Lucas boss now, not boy,” he’d said, and the Professor had nodded gravely.
So I’d acted like the boss, and it wasn’t much of a hardship, because Thomas had seen to it that I knew everything I needed to about the business. But still, his strength had always been there beside me before, and I’d always known who was really in charge, even when he’d been called back to active duty near the end of that accursèd war.
What did it profit anyone for a man to die of influenza in the service of his country?
I shook myself. The sun had lowered a degree or two while I stood staring at nothing. Below my hill, the dusty carnival did its raucous business.
Was I going to go down there, see what amusements the little tent city had to offer?
Where else was there for me to go?
No matter how far I rode away from the caravan I’d shared with Thomas, I couldn’t escape the loneliness and pain of being without him.
“Take all the time you want,” Henry had told me, his hand warm on my shoulder, “but… hurry back. We all need you.”
I’d only nodded, wondering if I would ever return, if I could return, when every sight and smell and taste reminded me of him.
I sighed again, deeper this time, then started the cycle and stared again at the tents below. Thomas had always taken an interest in other shows. Perhaps I could pretend an interest too.
The field just off the dirt track was filled with Model T’s and farm trucks as well as horses tethered to wagons and carts. I parked my cycle nearer the cars, as horses never cared for the roar of my Indian’s engine.
A large banner announced the Jameson-Greco Combined Shows. The familiar smells—popcorn, hot dogs, and roasted peanuts, as well as the homelier odors of animal droppings—brought a new rush of memory and almost overwhelming urges to both weep and flee, but I did neither. Rather, I made my way to the gates and lost myself in the eddies of humanity.
A smiling pigtailed girl sold me a red candied apple on a stick for a nickel, and I crunched it as I watched a man lose his money at the milk bottle game, much to the amusement of his friends and the displeasure of his girl, to whom he had no doubt promised the prize.
Seeing the man’s chagrin, I almost had to smile. I knew that game, and he’d had little chance, especially if the carny was less than honest.
When the man and his party had gone, I stepped up to the booth.
“Try your luck, friend?” asked a scruffy-looking man in a red and white striped vest. “Five balls for only one silver dime.” He grinned. “You look like a winner to me.”
A dime? This was a place to lose your money in a hurry.
Without comment I took a coin from my pocket and placed it on the counter. The man’s grin widened as he stacked five worn baseballs in front of me, then started his spiel.
“Look sharp, friends! Watch and learn! We’ve got a real pro here, cousin to that Babe Ruth fella you been hearing about. Watch and learn! Watch and learn!”
I knew that by this time, many marks were embarrassed and sweating, but his chatter didn’t bother me. I’d heard it all before. Ignoring the small crowd his pitch had gathered, I eyed the center stack of metal bottles. No doubt they were weighted with lead, and if the man was really dishonest, there would be a peg behind to brace the stack against falling—providing a mark could even hit one.
I smoothed the first ball in my hand, leaned back, and heaved it at the base of the stack.
The entire structure swayed, but only the top bottle fell to the ground with a heavy plop.
“Yes-sir, yes-sir, try again, friend,” the carny said. “But wait. You can’t hit a thing with those dirty old baseballs. I’ve got some nice new ones for you right here.” He bent and produced four clean white balls, then tried to take the ones already in front of me.
I put a hand over them. “No thanks. I like these just fine.” The white ones no doubt weighed about half as much as the others.
The man grimaced. “Just trying to help you out, cousin. They don’t call me Freddie Fair for nothing.”
I briefly wondered what they really called him.
The people behind me were jostling for a better view as I squared up and threw the second ball. It hit with a smack, and the top two bottles tilted like branches in the breeze but didn’t fall. This was going to take some doing.
The man’s grin was back, and he crowed a bit as he went on with his patter. “All right, all right, three more balls to go. Can he do it, ladies and gentlemen, can he do it?”
I was wondering that myself. I eyed the bottles, then threw the ball hard at the center one in the base of the stack. There was a crack, and the top two bottles fell forward. The carny frowned.
Before he could say anything, I threw the remaining two balls as fast as I could, and the last three bottles fell, no doubt taking the broken peg with them onto the ground.
He sighed, gave me a dirty look, then recovered his grin.
“Just like I said, ladies and gents, a winner every time!”
The crowd laughed and chattered, and a couple of other men queued up behind me, dimes in hand. I wondered if the carny would talk them into waiting while he repaired his “honest” game.
In the meantime, I asked, “Where’s my prize?” The back of the booth was hung with celluloid kewpie dolls, little plush animals, and other cheap gewgaws, but I’d paid my money and won, and I expected something for my trouble.
The man looked me up and down and reached for a kewpie doll, resplendent in yellow curls and pink feathers, when I noticed a box behind the counter.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Right you are, sir. The perfect prize for the man about town.” He bent and handed me a pair of smoked glass spectacles. “Just right for viewing the upcoming solar eclipse. Yes-sir!”
The marks were getting restless. I grabbed the spectacles and slipped them into the breast pocket of my leather jacket, giving the man a meaningful look as I took them.
“Always a pleasure to play an ‘honest’ game,” I said with a nod. He cringed.
The main show, featuring “breathtaking acts on the high wire” and “ferocious man-eating jungle beasts,” was about to start, and I paid my money like a mark and sat down to watch.
When it ended, the sun was setting, and there was only one tent I hadn’t visited.
The second-rate entertainments had at least managed to distract me for a while, but as the sun touched the hills, the sadness crept back.
What was I doing here? What was I to do anywhere? I couldn’t just keep traveling without a goal, and even if I did I wouldn’t forget Thomas. I’d fallen in love with him the first time I’d laid eyes on him, as a boy of fourteen, and I would have gone anywhere with him that day if he and my father would have allowed.
But the two of them had agreed we should wait until I was seventeen, and now, after our short time together, I was on my own again. What would I do without him?
A part of me wanted to give up and follow Thomas, wherever he had gone, but…
What would Thomas want me to do?
I blinked rapidly at the heat behind my eyes and wandered toward the small torch-lit tent behind the others.
“Conundrums, Oddities, and Mysteries Guaranteed to Terrify and Enlighten Mortal Man,” proclaimed the brightly painted banner hung near the open flap. There seemed to be no other customers, and I strolled closer. Of course—this was the “freak” tent.
Thomas had always hated that word, and Caldwell’s Wonders boasted only “special attractions,” some of whom were my good friends, whatever their appearance.
A small man in a straw hat sat on a high stool, looking about him with a bored expression. “Admission is a nickel,” he informed me.
I regarded the shadowed opening dubiously. Some air of mystery seemed to breathe out of the dark tent. I chastised myself for such foolishness and thought to turn away. Then, before I could think about it, I handed him the coin and pushed past the canvas flap.
The first thing I noticed inside was an odd smell. It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, but strange — musty and sharp. It reminded me somehow of the narrow tunnels my brothers and I had sometimes found inside the hay stacked in the barn. “Snake holes,” my father had said, and we’d never known if he was joking or not.
Murmurs of sound swirled behind the canvas walls, their sources impossible to identify or locate. The dim light made it hard to see anything, and I moved forward carefully until I saw the first platform.
A cloth-draped table held a large glass jar covered with a heavy lid. Curiously, I approached the display. One weak electric bulb dangled to illuminate what was floating in the jar. It was soft looking and pale gray in the cloudy liquid. I couldn’t quite make it out. I stepped closer.
Then I saw it. Suspended there was the body of a newborn piglet—just one thin body with one tail and four tiny legs—but with two perfectly formed heads where only one should have grown.
In spite of myself, I was fascinated. As a boy, I had once broken open an egg and found a well-formed chick with three legs inside. Mercifully dead, like this poor creature preserved in the jar.
Life’s mysteries amazed me. Why did the omnipotent God of the Bible allow such obviously wrong things to happen? Even if I had dared to ask the preacher at my family’s church, I knew there would be no logical answers forthcoming. I had no intention of seeking an answer in religion about the death of Thomas, but “God moves in mysterious ways” was no longer enough for me.
Swallowing hard, I pulled myself away from the first exhibit and looked ahead to the next. This one was a carnival standard. A bored looking woman, reading by candlelight from a dog-eared copy of Huckleberry Finn, stroked a long full beard that seemed firmly attached to her ample chin. Resignedly, she looked down at me from her display, slowly turning this way and that to make sure her gender was not in doubt in the thin dress she wore. Beard or no, I had no desire to stare. I hurried away, feeling the touch of an embarrassment that the “lady” herself seemed not to share.
The canvas labyrinth was well populated. At the next stop, a small man of apparent Chinese extraction held a lit cigarette to his mouth using only the toes of his left foot—since he had no hands or arms. Further on a tiny man and a woman of extraordinary height sat at a table set with fine china, laughing in high voices over their food and ignoring me altogether. I kept walking, each exhibit blending into the next until, almost overwhelmed, I began to wish for the appearance of the exit.
The twists and turns mapped in my head seemed to suggest that one final turn remained before I could escape into the cool dusk of the evening. I hurried now, wishing only to leave all the strangeness behind. I felt a sudden pity for these poor odd people whose only home must be the traveling tent city of the carnival. Even if they wanted to leave, I knew the world outside would never make them welcome.
Walking even faster, I had to stop suddenly or crash into an unexpected barrier. A makeshift wooden structure, almost chest high, guarded the entrance to a canvas cave. At the far end, a large ornately carved wooden frame was set at an angle.
I squinted down the dim tunnel, deciding that the frame held a silvered glass mirror, the kind sometimes seen in depictions of a lady’s boudoir. Peering into it, I could just see around the corner of the obstructing canvas drape. Inhaling deeply, I realized that this place was the source of the odd smell I had been conscious of since first entering the tent.
A large sign propped against the wooden wall announced in bold letters, “The Stone Maiden. DANGER! Do Not Cross Barrier!”
Looking down, I saw small objects on the floor beyond the barricade. The light was dimmer than ever, but suddenly I saw what they were—statues rendered in grey stone, and yet perfectly lifelike and life-size figures. A cat, a lamb, and a small longhaired dog stood in natural poses. Their only common characteristic was an odd, wide-eyed, almost puzzled expression on each ordinary face. They were like nothing I’d ever seen. Without thinking I made to duck under the rough fence for a closer look, but I stopped when my eye caught movement reflected in the mirror’s depths.
Around the corner, beyond my direct line of sight, a figure appeared. Dressed in loose cloth, the shapeless form stopped just within the mirror’s view. Something about the figure caught my attention and would not let it go. When gloved hands moved to lower the hood that covered its head, I was riveted. I could not look away as, inch by inch, a face was revealed. Sharp but unmistakably feminine features, smooth satiny skin, closed eyes and—the hood dropped to the thin shoulders—snakes! Her hairless skull writhed with a hundred finger-thick serpents! My brain reeled in shock.
As I stared, unable to move or breathe, her eyes opened, looking directly into mine through the mirror’s reflection. As though through a telescope I saw their dilated pupils, slitted like a cat’s, and the iris that swallowed the whole of the ball of her eyes was a trembling lake blue, twice as dark as the skin surrounding them.
Gasping, I sucked in a breath at last. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Gazing into those depthless eyes, detail resolved, and the “snakes” became headless fingers of supple flesh. Eyeless and toothless, their long blunt shapes nevertheless slid independently against one another with a faint hiss, like lace curtains moving in a summer breeze.
Here was something beyond my experience, beyond my understanding. Here was wonder and mystery. I wanted, needed to see it more closely. In a dream state, I began to climb the barrier.
Her voice stopped me.
Light and breathy, it carried over the distance that separated us until it whispered directly into my ears.
“Nooh, yoooh musst nott comm clohsser….”
Each strange, drawn-out word tingled down my spine. I had seen the thin lips open, revealing a dark pointed tongue and small sharp teeth.
I found I was shivering, but I had to hear more. “Please, ma’am,” I whispered, sure that she could hear me as well as I heard her, “who are you?”
Unbelievable eyes clouded, a translucent membrane blinking closed vertically for only an instant. She raised her chin, nostrils flaring wide. Was she taking in my scent? Her voice, when it came, was wondrous afresh.
“Whooo harrr yoooh…?”
I blinked. Who was I? I wondered if I knew.
I was suddenly terrified, my heartbeat pounding in my throat. This was too real, too strange even for me, who had lived and worked around strangeness.
But no, I told myself sternly, I wouldn’t be afraid! This was only another—I didn’t even want to think it, but I forced the word into my mind—another freak! Worse yet, perhaps only a silly costume with a person inside who would laugh at my fear while I ran away like a child.
No, I was a man.
I glanced up and down the canvas hallway. There was no one else in sight, and the muffled sounds from outside seemed far away.
Squaring my shoulders, I put one foot on the wooden fence. Rising up, I swung a leg across the top rail and in one quick movement was on the other side.
I paid no attention to the blue woman’s shrill escalating cries of warning that quickly became unintelligible, stopping only for a moment to touch the head of the lamb statue and feel the strange stone’s smooth texture. Then I was at the end of the drape and turning to face the exotic figure directly.
Her thin hands moved quickly to lift the covering hood back over her head, and I reached out to rip it away, but as suddenly as it had come the madness ended and I heard her pleading voice.
“Noohh, you musssst not. If you look into my eyesss, you will be like him….”
A gloved hand pointed to a large gray statue I had not seen, this one of a man in a frock coat and top hat, his eyes wide and his mouth open in horror.
My anger and fear were gone, snuffed like the flame of a candle. This was not a hoax. Whatever else the person in front of me might be, I knew all at once that she was real, as real as I was myself. And she meant me no harm.
As though her strings had been cut, the thin figure sat down suddenly on the straight wooden chair behind her.
As I slowly moved closer, I was surprised to see her shrink away from me. A shiver of metallic sound drew my eyes lower, and I was appalled to see a length of thin iron chain stretching from under her robe and across the dirt floor to a stout metal cage. A brass padlock secured the chain to her ankle. She was a prisoner.
But why? None of the other people in the tent were captives. My heart filled with anger again, this time for anyone who would hold another against their will.
Cautiously, conscious now more of her fears than my own, I closed the short distance between us until it was but an arm’s length.
“I’m Lucas Stone, ma’am.” I spoke softly. “What’s your name?”
A tremor went through the cloaked figure, accompanied by a hissing sound that could be nothing else but a sigh. “I cannot look at you,” she said slowly. “My eyessss….” Her voice drifted away, filled with sorrow.
Suddenly, I had an inspiration. “Would these help?” I asked, withdrawing the dark glasses from my pocket and holding them out.
The hand appeared and took them, and all at once there was a sharp sound. I interpreted it as a laugh. Then the hood was drawn back and her face turned up to me, large round eyes looking at me again, this time from behind smoked lenses. A small gloved hand reached out and brushed mine, where it hung limply at my side. Even through the material her hand felt cool.
“Thank you. I once had something like these, but they were broken.”
The mock serpents on her head had become quiet, but now they moved faster, perhaps reflecting the speed of her thoughts. I found they didn’t bother me much, that I could almost ignore them if I looked at her extraordinary eyes.
Her narrow mouth curved up, and she spoke again. “I am pleased to meet you, Lucas Stone. By my people, I am called Magrish.”
She still spoke slower than most people I was used to, and her words still had that hissing quality, but I could understand her perfectly now. Somehow I knew she did not give this name to everyone she spoke to, and I felt… honored. To be trusted by this extraordinary woman was important, though I couldn’t say how I knew that or why I thought so.
She held out her hand to me again, still sheathed in a cheap white cotton glove. I reached out and took it in both of mine, rubbing it unconsciously, as though trying to warm it. Her lips curved slightly again, and I smiled back. All at once she pulled away, her whole body drooping, now looking down at the dirt floor of the tent.
“You must go now. The carnival closes, and you must not be here. If they find you here with me, they will….” She looked around and behind me furtively. “You must go.”
I felt fury rise like a tide in my blood. I couldn’t leave her a prisoner, and I didn’t care what might happen to me. At the very least I would find a way to break the chain and free her.
“I won’t just go and leave you here. I can’t!”
She looked into my eyes, those extraordinary blue spheres probing into mine. I held still, though I now wanted to look away. It felt as though she could read my soul.
“Who are you, my dear Lucas?”
She seemed to be thinking out loud, talking to herself, so I didn’t try to answer.
“Young, still almost a child, but such courage. Has fate sent you to be my rescuer?”
She pulled the glove off her right hand and reached out to touch my face. Her bare skin was smooth and cool, a little like the glossy snakeskin I’d kept in a drawer when I was a boy. The feel of it made me shiver.
“So brave.” She stood straighter, almost as tall as I was. “If you will not see me left here for all time, then go now, I pray you, but return when the night is at its darkest. Then we will see what can be done.”
Her face was transformed by her smile. Suddenly she stopped looking like a pitiful captive, and her eyes became those of a fierce warrior. I thought of the stories I’d read about women called Amazons.
I stood tall too. I would help her escape, this woman who was a warrior and a captive princess combined.
“I’ll come back,” I promised, breathless. All else had vanished from my mind.
I slipped out of the tent and away from the carnival grounds as quietly as I could. Few people remained, and here and there lights were going out. I was glad for the headlamp on my cycle when I fired it up and drove away from the tents.
In the chilly air, the meeting with the blue lady seemed almost dreamlike. She had told me her name, but I had never heard such a name before. Had I really seen her, or had the cigarette held by the Asian man been not tobacco but opium?
A mile or two down the dusty road, I stopped beside a tumbledown structure that might have once been a farmhouse. A half moon was rising above me, and in its light I could see trees and a small stream. Perhaps a place to camp for the night?
I sat on a stump and pulled my leather jacket closer around me as my thoughts swirled.
Mythology had always fascinated me. We’d studied it a bit in school, and Thomas had two books about it. We’d read stories to each other—flying horses, lightning-throwing gods, and heroes, always heroes. Wasn’t there a story about a woman with snakes for hair, a frightening creature who gleefully turned her victims to stone? I shivered from more than cold.
But Magrish was nothing like that. She had hidden her face from me and seemed almost ashamed of the once-living stone statues that populated her chamber. She could have killed me with a glance, but instead she had warned me away.
I found no fear of her in my heart, only sympathy and trust. I had found a momentary purpose for my life. I had to keep my promise and set her free.
But what then? Where could such a person be hidden? Like the others in that tent, the outside world would not easily accept her. I could take her to Caldwell’s Wonders, where she would at least be treated with kindness, but what did she herself expect from her rescue?
And was she really, like the others in that tent, only a mistake of God or nature? I couldn’t bring myself to believe that.
One thing at a time, I decided. First I had to get her away from there.
I scrabbled through the tools I always carried with me until I found a sharp steel file. If I applied myself, I was betting I could cut through the shackle of that padlock.
I’d never thought Caldwell’s Wonders spooky, even late at night, but it had been my home. The night sounds at this carnival were much the same—snuffling of animals and creaks of machinery cooling after the day’s warmth had gone, but nevertheless I felt a chill crawl up my spine with each little noise. I’d parked my motorbike about half a mile down the road in a thicket and waited until I saw the last light go out in the tents and caravans. Now I crept quietly to the tent where the blue lady waited.
What would the carnival owners do if they caught me helping her? Would I then find myself in a cage?
It was truly dark now, even the moon having sunk to its rest, and I’d had more than enough time to second-guess my decision and its possible consequences.
How would I feel if someone came in the dead of night to steal away an attraction from Caldwell’s Wonders?
But no, it wasn’t the same. This wasn’t like the time another carnival owner had tried to persuade the Professor to travel with his show. Thomas had always said that any of his people were free to leave if they wanted.
No, this creature, this woman, was a nothing more than a slave. The concept of slavery had always infuriated me, even before I heard the stories Henry told about his grandfather. How could one person feel they had the right to own another? Did it matter if they looked different, if their skins were of different colors?
Brown skin or blue, no one deserved to be held against their will.
She was waiting when I lifted the canvas edge of her enclosure. One small candle burned atop a wooden box, and I was grateful for its light, shining dimly through the tent fabric. But in truth it was the unusual scent which had led me back here.
She greeted me with a smile, saying nothing as I applied the file to the padlock’s brass shackle, but I felt her eyes on me, and once, when I eased her bare foot closer, she placed her cool hand on my shoulder.
It seemed to take forever, and each small noise around us sent a thrill of fear through my nerves, though in fact it was probably no more than ten minutes before Magrish was free, the chain falling loose from around her ankle.
I nodded in satisfaction, and her eyes seemed to glow when I looked at her.
Now we needed to quit this place in a hurry.
I watched as she drew on some silvery coverings for her feet. Then she picked up a small bundle tied in a cloth and looked at me expectantly.
I pointed toward the tent wall and lifted the edge, then motioned for her to exit after I had one quick look outside.
We clung to the darkest shadows, and she stayed close behind me as I led her into the grove of trees that bordered the field. Even faint starlight faded as we entered the woods, and I prayed my sense of direction would be enough to guide us.
She moved like a wraith, her passage almost soundless, and I slid my booted feet along Indian fashion, as the Professor had taught me. The hoot of an owl brought my heart into my throat.
At last the copse thinned to reveal the road and my motorbike where I had left it, near the top of a low hill. Without words I packed her and her bundle into the sidecar, then carefully pushed away the rocks I had placed in front of the wheels and mounted to roll the cycle to the edge of the incline.
We were no more than a half mile from the carnival’s site, but I was almost certain Magrish’s escape had not yet been discovered. If it had, we surely would have heard alarms from the camp.
We rolled forward, and I did not engage the engine or headlight until we reached the bottom of the hill, moving quite well by then. When the motor started with a typical roar, I no longer worried about pursuit. I’d seen nothing but trucks and automobiles on the carnival grounds, no motorcycles. Nothing else could catch us now.
Dawn was a welcome sight, and in its glow we found our way down a thin track that seemed no more than a game trail, many miles from where we started. It ended in a clearing near a small creek, and I was glad to quiet the engine and hear the return of everyday bird and animal noises.
I tried not to think of what to do next. There was no “underground railroad” that could return Magrish to safety and ultimate freedom. Surely she knew that as well as I. She was free for the moment, but even with luck, this spot might only hide us for a day or two.
She climbed carefully out of the sidecar, and I rummaged around inside it for the provisions I’d bought. I didn’t feel hungry, but I knew I needed to eat, and a hot drink would be welcome. I watched as Magrish smoothed her gloved hand over the metal of the cycle.
She smiled when she saw me looking at her.
“A lovely machine,” she said, “but very noisy. Like all the machines I have seen on this world.”
This world? I reached out to steady myself against the sidecar.
She was so different, like no one I had ever met in carnival or town, like no one I had ever read about, save one, perhaps. Another world might well explain her existence.
Books by Jules Verne came into my mind, one about a machine that might bear a man to the moon. But I had also read that the moon was cold and airless. Could there be other worlds beyond the moon? If so, a rocket to travel from there to here must certainly be extremely noisy.
But what about…? I gulped. “Do you turn living things to stone on your own world too?” I wondered how they managed to eat if they did. Perhaps they ate only plants.
She laughed, that peculiar hiss of indrawn breath I had come to recognize. She regarded me intently, then stepped very close and put her hand to my cheek. Those blue eyes held all the depth of the sea.
“I think you are a learned man,” she said, “and may be able to understand. Do you know history?”
The small fire was burning well, and Magrish had accepted a cup of coffee and eaten her share of toast and the eggs I scrambled. The practical task of food preparation had given me time to recover from my initial shock, and at last I felt I could listen sensibly.
She smiled again, and I nodded.
“All right. Go ahead.”
“I have been on this planet for many days—months, as you reckon them. I traveled from my home with my sisters, and since I was the eldest, it was my task to explore while they waited with our craft.
“We have long known that there is something odd in this planet’s atmosphere, or perhaps it is the rays of your sun. It’s part of the reason we came. We wanted to understand why this is so—such a dreadful circumstance.” She shuddered and shook her head, pressing the dark glasses tighter against her face.
“My sisters and I read the records of those who had come here before, and we proposed to come to study, even though all who came here did not survive to return home.” She frowned, making a crease in her lower lip. “We did not plan on the unchanged savagery of your race. I was seen and captured outside the first town where we landed, though I tried to communicate in peace. I had protective eyewear then, but the people took it, along with all my other possessions, and I kept my eyes closed for fear of hurting them. I still did not wholly believe in my own destructive power, but it was true, because they came at me with a torch, and in surprise I opened my eyes….”
She shut them.
“When one had been changed, the others screamed, and I did not know your English language then, only Greek and Latin. The remaining men threw a cloth over me and bound me tightly, then struck me repeatedly. When I woke, I found I had been sold to the carnival show.”
She sighed. “I have no more than the clothes I wore on my body, no instrument to contact my sisters. All else is lost to me… I am lost.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Did you see the stone man in my tent?”
“The stone man was Mr. Greco.” She shook her head and sighed more deeply. “His partner told him I was real. He did not believe.”
I thought back. Jameson-Greco’s Combined Shows.
“What about the cage?”
“They placed me in it when the show traveled—with a cloth thrown over it, so I did not create any more… displays.”
“Did they think you would do that on purpose?”
Her eyes changed, somehow growing more intent and… harder. “Perhaps I would have, if it allowed me my freedom.”
I didn’t see how I could blame her.
“Why did you trust me to come back for you?”
She smiled warmly, and I remembered the color of those beautiful eyes reflected in the silvery mirror, not dimmed by the smoked glass.
“Of all the people who have seen me, few speak. Some scream or run away, but all who have spoken have asked what are you, not who. From the first, you were different.”
The sun had risen high by that time, and the purl of the stream seemed loud in my ears. Perhaps my sorrow had set me apart so that extraordinary things seemed normal. I didn’t know.
“I am grateful,” she said softly.
I tried to smile.
When I’d been caught up in her rescue, nothing else had mattered. Now that was over and we were for the moment safe, and everything came crashing back.
“In a way, I’m lost too,” I said.
I’d felt safe at Caldwell’s Wonders. Everyone there had known I shared a wagon with Thomas, and I suppose most guessed what we did alone together. It seemed to me that most didn’t mind, and those that did—well, Thomas was still their boss. I’d never talked about my feelings for Thomas with anyone except my sister, grown and married now with kids of her own. The Professor and Henry were sympathetic, but I couldn’t tell them how I felt, how my very soul was cramped around the place in my heart where Thomas used to be… where he still was, but only in my dreams.
Magrish had told me that she did not belong in this world, and right then I felt the same.
She was looking at me, those wonderful eyes not straying from my face. I took a deep breath.
“He died—my man, my lover, Thomas.”
Her head moved in the faintest of nods. “Tell me about him.”
I talked for a long time, haltingly, taking time to dry tears I’d never let anyone see before, until the sun sank toward afternoon. She said little until I finished my story and asked about her home. Then she shared memories of her former life on a world I could barely imagine.
We did not discuss the future. That seemed too uncertain for both of us.
The fire had died to coals, and I moved to add wood to it, knowing the evening would be cool.
“We should move on in the morning,” I suggested.
She nodded, and her dark blue tongue moved over sharp white teeth. “But for now I am hungry.”
I knew what food we had, and it was nothing more than cans of beans and fruit. We’d eaten the last of the eggs and bread. I started to get up to fetch a can or two, but she held up a hand.
Standing, she removed the layers of flowing cloth, leaving her in only a strange smooth covering of silver, like an extra skin that hugged the unfamiliar shape of her slim body, the substance looking a lot like the odd moccasins she still wore. Then she waded out into the stream, still wearing the smoked glasses, the tendrils on her head excitedly knotting themselves in new ways.
There was a deep pool halfway out, and she stopped there, water around her thighs, then stood so still I had to stare to see her breathing. Minutes passed. Then all at once her hands shot out in front of her as she bent and came back up with a wriggling trout, a big one, maybe eighteen inches long.
I watched, bemused, as she climbed to shore, shaking drops of water from her skin, then came back toward the fire. The fish kept squirming until she gave its head a quick twist.
“Do you want to cook your half?” she asked with another of her smiles.
Morning found us back on the bike. I headed west, my only goal to put distance between us and the Jameson-Greco Carnival, now minus Mr. Greco.
Even though I’d seen what an unguarded glance from her could do, I didn’t feel afraid. Still, I wondered if I had the right to put my friends in danger, and taking Magrish to Caldwell’s Wonders had been all I could think of.
The dirt road widened, and a fork presented itself. Before we reached it, I felt her hand on my knee.
“Turn that way,” she said, pointing south.
Puzzled, I did as she asked, then turned into the next wide spot and killed the engine.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Her head tilted, and I could see that odd vertical film slip over her eyes. Then her gaze met mine.
“My sisters,” she said. “I feel them. If we are quick we may meet them.” She pointed again. “There.”
The country ahead looked dry and desolate, but in a few miles we came to a tiny town, barely more than a windmill and a few buildings but no doubt serving the sheep ranchers whose flocks roamed the hills.
I left her in the sidecar while I went to buy food and water. The loose robe she was again wearing wasn’t much different from the dusters you still saw on ladies in automobiles, so I didn’t worry. Then, with more canned goods and some gallon jugs of water and gasoline, we headed into nowhere.
Late that night, we came to a valley.
Magrish tugged on my leather jacket. “Here,” she said.
We ate cold beans and peaches, not wanting to make a fire, which would have been visible for miles.
“Do you think they can feel you too?” I asked after a while.
The strangeness of it all had kept me quiet while we rode. I had begun to wonder if I had somehow made a wrong turn and lost myself on the desert, thereafter imagining the carnival, and Magrish, and everything. It seemed the most logical explanation.
Her smile was brilliant. “Yes,” she said, voice hissing more than usual. “They are coming!”
She moved closer, until she was next to me on the blanket we’d spread out.
“I have felt them before, but I knew they would not come near a town. I thought that perhaps if I could escape, I might find them, but I had all but given up that hope. Until you,” she said, taking hold of my hand.
She had removed the white gloves, and her skin was soft and very cool against mine. The tendrils on her scalp thrashed furiously, then slowed to a whisper.
“I can never repay your kindness, but I hope you will not forget me.”
I shook my head. I didn’t think I could forget her if I tried.
I was determined to keep watch with her into the night, but I must have fallen asleep, as I was awakened by a soft touch on my arm.
“Lucassss,” she said, my name a drawn-out hiss, “my sisters have come.”
I opened my eyes but saw nothing, only a region of blacker black near the center of the valley. The narrow moon was behind the hills, but not a scrap of its light shone there, nor stars.
I stood, unsteady until her hand found mine. “What will happen?” I asked, knowing something was there but unable to discern its shape or function. There was no sound, as though the world held its breath.
“A door will open, and I will walk into it,” she said, giving my hand a squeeze. “Then we will go.”
I swallowed. I was glad for her, but somehow I wanted to keep her with me. To learn more about her, of course, but mostly to have the distraction of her presence to keep me from the desolation of being without… him.
“I-I’ll miss you,” I said, feeling foolish, and just then a sliver of brightness shone out, illuminating the dark place before us.
In the triangle of light was framed a figure clothed in silver, with tendrils moving above its head.
I staggered back, dazzled.
Magrish’s strong hand was there to steady me.
“My dear brave Lucas,” she said. “All I have to give you is this.”
And her face lifted to mine, soft blue lips touching my mouth, and with them came a coolness, a lightness, a balm that soothed the pain in my soul. I closed my eyes, feeling my ragged anguish ease to an ache, then a bittersweet memory of all Thomas had been and all we had been together. Nothing was lost, only softened until it was bearable, the memories of him all good, sharp and clear within me.
The kiss lasted only a moment, and then Magrish stepped back and walked to meet the figure outlined in brightness. I saw her hand rise in a wave as she turned. The triangle of light again became a sliver, and then it was gone, as though it had never been.
I raised a hand to my lips and could still feel the cool blueness of her gift inside me.
With a small smile and a long sigh, I watched the pink of dawn creeping over the hills. Then I turned to pack my gear for my return to my carnival, my home, Caldwell’s Wonders.
I was repaid in full.
© 2015 Brian Holliday All rights reserved.