They call it the Autumn Carnival and you may have heard of it.
It goes by many names.
Some say it was once a market, but times change and so did it.
It arrives in town after town but is never seen in-between.
But there are some things that are constant.
The Stick Man, nine feet tall, thin enough that when he turns sideways, it’s hard to see him.
The Hunger, obese, with a red sticky chin, his morbidity riding on a divan held up by four, aching men, each a different color.
The less said about the Lady of the Emerald Depths and her terrible long arms, the better.
There are the Lightning Boys and the tiger tamers and the mastodon (whose fur looks glued on) and the bears balanced on bars (how wicked-sharp their claws gleam!) and the food vendors with their dogs-on-a-stick and pink sugar clouds and popped corn and the acrobats and the carnies.
There are the clowns. There are always the clowns. But they come after. They always come after and no one likes them.
There is the Barker, the master of ceremonies and pitchman and owner all wrapped into one. With delicate features as hard-etched as glass and a smile that never fades, but is never warm. With discount tickets for the really good children and free tickets for the really naughty ones.
The Barker promises rides that will whisk you into a sugar-coated future of space travel and aliens and foreign planets or back into the dark ages with knights and maidens-to-be-saved and dragons a-plenty. The Barker will whisper about worlds that exist beyond the sunset and behind the dawn.
The Barker will make no promises about your safety.
In fact, it will be a selling point that anything with a certain amount of risk makes it just that much more special, doesn’t it?
The Barker will smile and even though you can’t feel its warmth, something about it will compel you, with that itch you get that you will understand when you’re older. That itch you get when you know you shouldn’t do something but want to do it anyway.
When the Autumn Carnival comes to town, some children will never come home. Some adults, too. Some children will return home years later, unchanged. Others will return home the same night, much older.
You could be one of them.
Make no mistake: there are no ill wishes here for you. But perhaps you’re just the right person they are looking for. The one that can come out on the other side, changed but matured as well. Something even some adults never achieve.
But you could be different.
You’d have to walk in knowing what you want. Knowing how to hold the Barker to that promise and ignore the smile, and the Barker’s readiness to make new deals with new promises. You’d have to watch out for the Stick Man out of the corner of your eye, never get near the Hunger, or the tank where the Lady waits. Never let yourself be cornered. Always leave yourself a way out.
You’d have to be brave. I think you know that.
There are three doors you would have to open, and three keys you’d need to fetch to open them.
There are mirrors that will try to fool you, to change you. Where did you think the Hunger and the Stick Man and the Lady came from? They came from the mirrors.
If you have doubts, you won’t make it past the menagerie. The bears are the least of it. Or the tigers. Or the lions.
The things that people have forgotten? Those are the worst.
The games run by the carnies will seem to be easy and the carnies are very persuasive. They will offer you real things that you will want or need. Mostly what you need. But you will lose. That is the nature of their games. Just like the nature of the food beyond them is harmful. It will tie you to the times of the sunset and the dawn, never able to step forward into the day again.
At the beginning was the Barker and at the end will be the Barker. That’s the way of it and there’s no way past it.
The Barker will want to show you the Egress. You may feel like you don’t want to see this, but in this and only this, the Egress is exactly what you need to see. Do not visit the Egress, though, until the Barker has paid up on the deal, and only that deal.
If the Barker offers more, do not take it. If the Barker proffers another deal, a better deal, do not accept it. It’s better that you leave the carnival with what you originally wanted than to risk another trip through its trials.
You will, safely, be returned home.
But now, my friend… now that you have what you desire, now that you’ve cheated the Carnival, take your victory with this small word of warning. You have been marked, dear soul.
The Carnival will return. It will return when you are at your weakest, when you are at your most broken. It will return and it will return until you are tempted to use them again. You may know them, but they also know you.
And should you lose at their little games, they will be there to collect.
They will paint your face a pale white, rouge and stage black exaggerating your smile, your eyes, your cheeks. They will show you how shuffle and how to fall and how to laugh. But they will not need to show you how to cry. Those tears will be real.
You will come last, cleaning up the pain the leave in their wake, because that’s how it always is.
The clowns always come at the end.