Atherton: Flesh of Prey

Tonight’s story follows Ather once more. Where nightmares take the place of dreams and surcease comes from the quiet consideration of watchful spirits. Enjoy.

"We are a business of nightmares, Mr. Graves. This is not the Light Carnival. This is not the Circus of Joy nor the Big Top of Fantasies or even the Circus of Dreams. Do you require further examples to understand my point or have I illustrated myself clearly?" Mrs. Lester thrust my fulfilled contract across the desk, where it slid off and fell in a kind of pitiful slide at my feet. 

I picked up the paper, hoping that this kind of verbal battery was commonplace between her and her performers. 

"Because you seem to not be getting it! Three!" she shrieked, "Three performances you've had. We've given you lights, acrobats at your disposal, every apparatus you can dream up, a quartet!" Mrs. Lester scoffed. "Whatever Nyx sees in you I am surely missing. Of those three evenings, all we've begotten from you is lacklustre takes on classics. Your performances lack substance.”

“Will all respect, I have already expressed my opinion on this matter to Nyx.”

"So express it to me, then.”

The shouts of stagehands and craftsmen communicating as they collapsed the carnival into train cars seemed to thrash against the small tent currently operating as Mrs. Lester's office.

"Every soul is haunted by the same morbidity. A curiosity for disaster, violence, the grotesque. Even though people pretend they don't like to, every passerby cranes their neck to snatch their share of collisions and falling buildings. We all have a bit of monster in us."

Mrs. Lester stared at me, evidently waiting for more. When there was none, she deflated enough that she sat back down into her chair. A palpable disappointment. "Does your understanding of what every audience member observes beneath these tents give you the right to be a performer? That is the Black Carnival's ethos, yes, but you are not performing it. Give me a reason besides my leniency and patience that I should give you a final chance to be one of our aerialists."

"Why? Why, because you're still here. You are too busy to waste your own time on scolding somebody you don't intend to work with and too stubborn to see this as a negotiation. You've already decided you'll give me another chance. A final chance," I clarified.

“You know me that well, then?” One of my Mrs. Lester’s eyebrows raised as she sparked a cigarette. “Go on, what else would I say?” But she’d already brought another paper on her desk to the forefront of her attention. 

"You may be clinging in fascination to the last of this conversation, but I am exhausted from this evening. Good night, Mrs. Lester. I will see you in three months when the Carnival returns to High Peak."

"Ather,"  she hummed. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

My skin felt like a ghost’s, wavering like the tent's walls in the harsh winds. When my feet stopped at the edge of the entrance, I remembered how sorely I wished to not return to the gravel roads leading back to High Peak with the rest of the town and its visitors. I didn't want to be another guest or tourist or audience member. I wanted to see the world, but more than that, I wanted to see it on my own terms. A performer. An artist. 

"There's a letter in your hands. It's addressed to Nyx, isn't it?" Mrs. Lester continued.

"... Yes."

I dropped it on her desk, retreating away before the light from the gas lamps on her desk could reveal the growing fury in my expression.

I watched from a distance as the carnival folded itself back into the train that had brought it here. Everything collapsing neatly, tucking away into tight corners and shelves built upon more equipment. The crew flitted to and fro like phantom dancers, growing quieter as the night grew longer. And before that longer ever arrived, the only signs left of the Black Carnival were empty holes where stakes had been placed. And just above the trampled grass, the intangible certainty that what had been left in place of these performances was not only dreams or inspiration, but ghosts. Peculiar memories of the sort one might not be so quick to categorise.

On my walk home, I thought of Vivie.

At supper I told my mother, my father, and little sister Ester that all this time I had been trying to join the Carnival permanently. There were shouts. A broken glass. A narrowly dodged fist that settled into sobs, profuse apologies from each party, and a wailing sister who wouldn't let go of my trousers even when it came time to embrace my father and mother for the pain I caused them.

Then I told them about Vivie.

Our plates had gone cold and the worn expressions of my parents sagged deeper into a kind of suspicion. Was I disturbed?

"He's only trying to spook us. Lighten the mood after all this fighting,” Ester said. 

"No," I said simply. "I saw her. I felt her. I spoke to her. She was as real as you are. But she was supposed to be dead. She ... was dead."

"What did Ms. Butler have to say about this? Everyone said her mother was a clairvoyant before ..."

"No such thing," my father said, "and this ... Ather, this will give Ester nightmares, do you understand? Is that what you want to do? Scare your little sister sleepless on the same night you break her heart?"

"I'm not telling you to scare you," I said. "I am telling you to relieve myself. The thought of her wrapping her arms around me. The way she whispered into my ear--"

"That's more than enough, Atherton."

"It was all so real," I whispered.

"You didn't tell Ms. Butler, did you?" my mother asked.

I shook my head.

"Maybe it's time you sent her another bouquet."

"Honey, you can't actually be entertaining this, can you?" father replied.

"It doesn't matter if it's real or not. Ather is clearly shaken by this. Vivie was Ms. Butler's responsibility. Perhaps ..."

"Won't it make her sad?" Ester interjected.

"Those whose lives are touched by the dead can't run from grief," mother replied. "The living have to work together to comfort one another's darknesses, or it will consume them. Eat them alive. Ather, where are you going?"

The dinner table fell away from me.

I passed my hand along the barley bordering the road draped in midnight stars. The night air was crisp. Distilled silence with just a touch of paranoia. 

At the end of the bend in the road was pure darkness. A mouth of it, made up of sagging arms of douglas fir and pine. From it emerged a silhouette. An animal. It began to walk towards me into the moonlight. Still, in the haze of the dream, all I could see its shifting silhouette.

Then the beast sprang into speed, hurtling towards me. Fear pinched my arteries. Not the kind of fear that came over me when Ms. Butler told me Vivie had been dead all that time that I'd been speaking to her. It was the fear of rent flesh and final screams.

As the creature emerged from the blackness and I saw it clearly. Its antlers rose in towering sigils. They quivered as it darted in a mad gallop. Deep, black smoke like charcoal dust trailed its silhouette as it fled past, with enough force that a gust of clouded air poured into my lungs. A stag.

The relief was punctuated by the certainty that behind every prey’s trail is a predator. 

Through its wake of shadows sprang a wolf. A wolf whose eyes caught the moonlight and burned crimson. A wolf whose jaws snapped at me before thinking better and tearing after the stag.

And from the darkness came two more of them. Thick, shaggy, coats of black swarming out from the maw. The first of them I threw off. I caught their arc in the air, slapping their snouts away with my forearms. They tumbled down the cliff beside the road, splashing into the lake beneath us. 

Then there were not two or four or eight but dozens of them.

They surrounded me until my heels breeched the cliff’s edge. That's when they sprang. Their teeth sank in and bit between my bones. I struggled away, wrenching off the teeth and flesh, jumping backwards.

Several of them followed even after I'd flung myself towards the abyss. The dark waters grasped my outstretched hands and pulled me under. The wolves scrambled for land as I sank beneath the stillness. Until I came up for air, clutching bedsheets damp with sweat.

I had awoken to somebody calling my name.

“Mother?” I asked.

Her small head was peaking out from the foot of the bed. Against the fear pulling apart my chest, I crawled for a better look. It was Vivie.

“Are you having nightmares again?” she asked.