Carousel Circle of Life

I met him at a carnival. I had wandered in, dazed by the pirouetting lights and enchanting music. The air was perfumed with the scent of corn dogs and fried dough, filled with the hum of machinery and the shrieks of small children. A vendor was attempting to coax out the few lonely dollars residing in my pocket with cotton candy and lemonade, but I had business to attend to. A blank roll of film perched anxiously in my camera, and my finger itched to press the shutter release. A warped, broken mirror on the wildly spinning merry go round had caught my eye and I had my tickets for the ride in hand.


He was working the gate of the attraction, scanning the crowd with dark eyes. They were rimmed in kohl, turned up at the corners like a cat’s. He reminded me of drawings I had seen in textbooks, photos of Egyptian hieroglyphs. He looked like the boy-king, Tutankhamen, an image that was only enhanced by the black cat winding around his ankles. He smiled when I handed over the green slips of paper and winked at me. “Here all by yourself?” he asked. I made a semi-coherent attempt to say ‘yes.’ He nodded his head of violently purple hair and waved me onto the carousel with an arm circled by a dragon tattoo. “Enjoy the ride.”


I walked through the gate, camera at the ready. Rows of jumping horses, frozen in time, stared with unseeing eyes as I walked through their ranks, searching for the perfect shot. Finally, I focused in on the mirror I had spotted before and pressed the shutter release. There was a click-whirr as the camera exposed and then advanced the film.


The spell that the capturing of a perfect photo creates was broken as a bell rang shrilly. I hopped onto one of the ponies and closed my eyes as the wind whistled by. I’d never admit to another living soul how much I loved carousels. There was something about them that made everyone eight years old and innocent again. Grownups and kids alike could be free on them, could begin to be real people again. All of the layers and shields we all put up day by day slowly melted away, one by one, the longer we thrown about, tossed into the air. They were magic.


As I left through another metal gate, he caught my eye. “Where to next?” he asked.


I shrugged. I’d gotten all of the pictures I needed to take for the night. “Home, I guess.”


He narrowed his cat-eyes at me and caught my wrist as I headed toward the exit. “You can’t go home yet! You have to stay for the fireworks.”


“Fireworks?”


“Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to copy? Yes, fireworks. You can’t leave until you’ve seen them. Please.”


“How long?”


“Half an hour. Tops. I’ll even keep you company while you wait. I mean, that is, if you want company…” he trailed off, suddenly uncertain.


I sighed. A strange boy whose name I didn’t even know was asking me to stay with him at a carnival for half an hour in the middle of the night. I shrugged again. “I guess.”


“Cool,” he said, the left side of his mouth twitching up momentarily. “Come over here.” He pulled me across the stopped merry-go-round to the control panel in the center of the ride. Kids filed on, and he switched on an almost creepily cheerful quadrille. “This is my favorite part,” he told me, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I love the faces on the kids, when they’re running around in circles, trying to find exactly the right horse. Have you ever seen the look on a child’s face when the carousel pony lurches forward for the first time? It’s beautiful.”


Without waiting for an answer, he flipped two more switches, and the rows of horses began to rotate slowly around us, circling. I smiled quietly, and his face lit up as he watched row after row of happy children parade by. A thought managed to work its way through the haze of amazement in my mind. “Can I take your picture?” I asked, already beginning to fiddle with the focus wheel.


“No,” he said, matter-of-factly.


“Thank y-wait, why not?” I dropped the camera so that it hung loosely around my neck.


“Don’t like my picture taken,” he said evenly, with a small twitch of his shoulders. “Did you know that some religions believe that when you take someone’s picture, you take a piece of their soul?”


“I don’t want your soul, I want your photo.”


“You can’t have it.”


I was used to the games kids played with each other, trying to coax their reluctant friends to pose for pictures, then ambushing them when all else failed. I had scads of pictures like that, with close mates flipping me the bird or putting their hand in front of the lens. There was something about the way he said it, something about him in general, though, that stopped me. I dropped my camera at my feet and nodded without pressing the issue.


The ride slowed just as the first firework shot off with a loud sizzle, then an ear-splitting crack. I jumped so high I was afraid the top of my head would hit the brightly lit ceiling, then giggled as a dark, tattoo-covered arm shot out to steady me as I landed. “This is like…if everyone could have a moment like this, there would be no wars. Ever,” I said. “It’s birthdays and weddings and holidays, and circuses and concerts and parades, all wrapped into one great big good thing. It’s what rainbows would feel like.” I knew I was babbling, but it was suddenly so important to make him understand what he had just given me.


I opened my mouth to apologize for running at the mouth, but he cut me off. “Yeah, it is,” he said, before I could begin a profuse, and probably even longer apology for my incessant rambling. Then, in the middle of the evening, with fireworks going off overhead, the yells of small children winding their way through the labyrinthine carnival echoing through the night air, a cat twisting itself in and out through my ankles, and a carousel spinning lazily around us, he kissed me. Full on the lips, he just leaned over and softly pressed his lips to mine. The smell of cardamom and firewood and burnt cloves wove its way around me. He tasted like nutmeg and cigarettes and fresh grass as he pulled me in closer, closer to him.


All of a sudden, time stopped. There was no carousel, no carnival, let alone any rest of the world. There was a boy with purple hair and a tattoo of a dragon winding around his arm and the brownest eyes I’d ever seen, rimmed with kohl, and he was kissing me. That was all there was.


And then there wasn’t. The fireworks, the painted ponies circling slowly on the merry-go-round, the carnival, the rest of the world came back, but he didn’t. I spun around, pivoting on my heel, searching in the semidarkness for him, but it was all in vain. Boy and cat had slipped away into the night. They were gone.


The next day, I drove back to the fairground to look for him, so look for the carnival, even, but it was gone. The whole fair had just packed up and left. All that was left to suggest that a carnival had ever been there was a carpet of ticket stubs littering what, in the day time, was only the parking lot of a hardware store.


Later that week, I developed the roll of film I had taken. I almost screamed in frustration when I finally pulled the negatives out of the wash-the film had torn, and only one picture had actually been processed correctly. I sighed and brought the film into the dark room with me anyway. I went about preparing the chemicals I would need before moving over to the enlarger. I fiddled with heights and focus knobs before finally sliding a piece of paper into the easel and switching on the light, projecting the negative image onto the blank photo paper.


After a few seconds, I flipped the light off again. Slowly, delicately, I slid the photograph into the developer, wondering if the one image on the roll would be worth all the trouble.


I caught my breath as the image began to surface. A broken mirror came into focus, and staring out from it were a pair of the darkest kohl-rimmed eyes I’d ever seen.





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