October showered the carnival with amber and crimson leaves. I caught one as it fell. Autumn's signature memento mori for us all. But the reminder felt facetious and fragile.
Steele your gaze. You need no memento mori to see death in everything.
Two parents strolled with their children in Hyde Park, surprised to see the black tents encroaching on the idyllic scenery. Still they traipsed towards me and the gates. Inevitably, their confused gazes turned into questions.
The father was hesitant, but his partner quickly won him over with the help of their twins, eager to interact with the performers practicing openly throughout the grounds.
"Do we require a ticket?" the woman asked.
"Not a problem, madame,” I gestured and produced four of them, much to the silent awe of the little girl and boy. “And you too, sir, of course,” I bowed to the father, passing him another dark paper. He took it with a slow reach, the least understanding of my mute movements.
The ritual appeared at once meaningless and absurd, when I asked for their immediate return, only to swallow the tickets in small mouths of flame and motion for the family to enter.
Without words, I climbed back to my lanterns and waved them inside. The family of four passed under me, and more groups like this one were coming, as the Saturday morning was quiet and uneventful for working families in need of distraction.
But my eyes lingered long on the four of them. On the two children who held hands.
My parents held hands like that when they prayed. Our family was Catholic. Sundays always reminded me of incense and long walks outside our abbey. It meant wandering thoughts and fidgeting limbs stopped by mother's pinches. Harsh, wooden pews and numb knees from kneeling, that too. It was Latin rituals and forgiveness for sins I didn't understand.
That all changed when Ivy died. She was twelve-years-old. On the cusp of that great calamity of adolescence which creates so much. A foundation of destruction from which adulthood blossoms.
In the end it was ice, not fire, that took her. Those sharp blades of her skates weren't swift enough one December evening. She'd been too excited to put on the pair after unwrapping them for Christmas.
We found her the next morning after she'd snuck out. A neighbor came, panting. I never saw her corpse, but I didn't need to. The imagery was fresh in his eyes. The skin blackened as if the waters had lashed her all evening while the ice fought to consume ever inch.
I had gotten a pair of skates as well.
"You stay in bed," Ivy whispered.
She was all buttoned up, ready to leave that night. Her fiery hair made her eyes look all the more mischievous in the moonlight. My arms were wrapped firmly around her while tears streamed thick down my cheeks.
"Are you afraid to sleep in the dark without me?" she asked.
I didn't have to reply. My eyes said everything. I didn't want our parents to hear me sobbing, thereby ruining her escape.
So Ivy rushed into our room and came back, revealing the jester hat she won at a fair that very same autumn before. It was a game of throwing hoops, the kind rigged to take your money. The kind that made winning seem that much more enchanting and miraculous.
The three-peaked hat was her prize, and the most coveted item in all of her possessions and otherworldly secrets of having lived three years longer than me. I wanted that hat more than anything. It was joy. Magic. Laughter, even music--from its bells.
She placed it on my head. The oversized hat fell over one of my eyes. Immediately, the world was much safer. Our dark bedroom was no longer a nightmare, rather the proof of our quiet secret of her sneaking out.
"There you are," she smiled. "We'll go together tomorrow morning. Just this once, I want to go alone. You won't tell, will you?"
Of course I wouldn't. I'd sooner cast my soul to damnation than condemn my own sister.
But I should have.
Shortly after came the changes. God was replaced with spiritualism. We stopped going to the abbey for the small masses led by monks in their chestnut robes.
My parents began to speak in strange languages in the small hours of the evening. They purchased objects with appearances that frightened me. Most nights, the space between my doorway and the floor represented a world I was not ready for. It conveyed the flickering candlelight of spells and incantations beyond my understanding.
Meanwhile, Ivy was with me. She watched me, in her bed as usual. Only, her eyes had turned white and she spoke--not at all.
My parents consulted every medium, ever piece of literature. They collected obscure tomes scarred by scorch marks and unidentifiable stains. It consumed their evenings.
"But she's right here," I would tell them.
"I know she is, sweetie," my mother might say.
"No, I mean it! I see her!"
"Don't tell us that!" my father roared. "Don't you ever lie to us again!"
And just like that ... screams and shouts dissolved every fibre of confidence I ever had. After Ivy's death, my father's rage was a boiling kettle welded to a flame.
So I hid in my hat, more and more. I jingled the bells to create music in an apartment filled with silence and the moans of two broken souls calling for the dead.
What were the declarations of a nine-year-old before heaping piles of books written by experts? Anecdotes from practitioners, warlocks, witches, spiritualists, and the esoteric ruminations of philosophers from distant cultures?
What was, "I see her at night?" in the wake of that?
Perhaps if I had used the right words to convince them, the story I am telling you would be much different.
The obsession deepened as the months wore on. Nightly rituals to call forth Ivy remained ineffective. I was stuck. She lingered, watching me, while I was too petrified to investigate the harsh, guttural chants of my father and mother sitting in the chalk circles they failed to hide with all the rugs they bought.
Ivy was changing, too. I could sense, increasingly, that we were no longer alone. She was bringing something in when she visited me. Something else was sitting in our room. Something unwelcome. I could feel it examining me. Wondering. Observing. Prodding. While I slept, it slipped into the bodies of people in my dreams and spoke riddles. It showed me memories that did not belong to me.
One night, such memories were disturbed by the door of my bedroom being slammed open.
"Where is that damned hat?"
My father rifled through the toys on my desk, through Ivy's bed covers. The room seemed to shift awkwardly to accommodate for his noisiness. Then, he found it.
He wrenched it from my head and stormed back into the living room.
I followed, already crying, to find my mother kneeling in the center of a circle bordered with candles. My father joined her, but not before placing Ivy's hat on a shrine alongside other objects that belonged to her. One of them being a lock of her hair, another, a bottle of her baby teeth.
That was when I saw what the shrine was on top of. It was a small coffin. Fresh earth still clung to the sides, while moisture deepened the color of the already rotted wood.
My cries turned to screams.
But the ritual was already underway. They chanted and ignored me. A dagger was produced. They made quick cuts and directed the slow trickle to the objects, to certain areas within the circle.
That's when I felt it.
That thing, that creature, that unwelcome guest, it ripped itself out of the bedroom. As if it had been waiting all this time, and only now, was it allowed to. The force of it knocked me over while my throat went raw. The dark form found the coffin and rushed into it.
In nightmares, sometimes we open our mouths to scream but find we cannot produce the sound, or that we are not strong enough to cry for help. Or perhaps, despite all our strain, only a meek whisper is produced.
But that terror is lessened only because we are allowed to wake up.
"Are you ready to see your sister again?" my mother asked. Her eyes were as red as mine were.
"Leave Ivy alone!" I screamed.
But the coffin slammed open just as my door had. There were no more shouts left in me. There was no terror left to be heard, if I produced them. My heart beat quicker but my body sat with it, like it was an old friend.
So I stumbled backwards while Ivy crawled out of her coffin. I perched myself on the top of an armchair, too transfixed to move. Though I could no longer shout, I was afraid. Fear held me. Fear asked me to get to the highest place and hold myself there. Fear instructed me. To watch from afar. There, I am safe. Up high, I am safe. I can watch. I can wait. I can be silent.
"There she is, oh darling," my mother moaned and reached out to embrace her.
My father fell in hysterical gasps, pulling her towards him as well.
But that wasn't Ivy.
I know because she was in the hallway, just like me, watching it all unfold.
Whatever was in her body had no intention of staying for embraces. Whatever had been unwelcome had now been invited in. And now, it was finding the dagger my mother and father had used to create the shallow cuts.
The creature revelled in it. Though Ivy's body was stiff and mottled, blackened and scorched by frost burn, it slashed and cut away at my parents with an unbridled glee. A pure, unadulterated malice. Their shock too numbing to stop the flurry of fatal strikes.
The candles hissed and sizzled from the blood spray. Confused screams were cut short by the creaking of Ivy's tired bones.
When their bodies fell, I held my breath.
It had been many months since the apartment was this silent.
But the demon had not forgotten me. No, in fact, it looked at me. Both of us shared that moment, of watching the dark pools spreading across the floor.
Then it stepped over the bodies and met my. eyes. It looked through shut, black eyelids. But instead of raising the blade, it placed the hat atop my head.
I sat, perched on that chair, until the sun came up. Until Ivy left. Until a neighbor banged on the door. Until police arrived and took me away.
Ever since then, I've hopped from one family to another. But I've never been alone. Not quite.
Because after that night, the hat I wear, it moves of its own accord.