On the fourth anniversary of my parent’s ritual, I was granted a new home for the last time. Four years of England’s orphanage systems yielded seven homes in total. But I wasn’t alone. I always had my hat, even throughout the beatings. No matter that it incited many of them. We were close friends, after all. I had my suspicions that what possessed it was the very thing which set my life on its irrevocable course, but I could never be certain.
I didn’t mind that.
You may be surprised that I consider my parents’ ritual a victimless crime. Their deaths were accidents.
They did not make me a victim. They made me a ghost.
I think that’s why I stopped seeing Ivy, too. Ghosts haunt the living. They have no business with the dismal or lifeless or hollow. There is no sign of a healthier body than one which can express a great deal of fear.
And at thirteen years of age, I still couldn’t find my words. They were taken from me that night. Stolen.
That was when I discovered how to hide in the dark. My capacity for fear had expanded. Or maybe it evaporated. I still don’t understand it. All I know is that such things which terrified other children became allies to me. Basements with broken furnaces, attics full of cobwebs and rodents, rooms without candles or electricity, and the longer hours of the evening. I learned to dwell in places where the other orphans wouldn’t go, to act in such a way to discourage their involvement, their inevitable malice.
It was precisely this behaviour which earned me a coach to Bethlehem Royal Hospital. Nowadays, I hear folks call it Bedlam. My salvation.
Things were better there.
Madness was a natural camouflage. There was even laughter. The sort that is indecipherable and with little to no cause, but laughter nonetheless. I even made a friend. Oskar would have been the age of my father. He was a talented pianist, and played on the donated grand piano missing a third of its teeth. Most days, we sat around and listened to the classical pieces marred by the discordant, untuned strings. But it was beautiful to me. Those performances were more mesmerising because of it.
So long as Oskar’s hands were on the keys, he didn’t look like he belonged in there with the rest of us.
But when he wasn’t playing, he was another vacant body, shuffling around the halls. Most importantly, the only word he knew how to say was:
“Boo!” Oskar shouted with a quivering laugh.
I stirred from my bed and tilted my head at him as he came through the doorway. Early light from the window in the cramped dorm fell on my bed.
“Boo!” went Oskar again.
“That’s quite enough, Oskar,” one of the nurses nudged him gently and entered. “Somebody is here to see you,” she said to me.
I pointed toward myself, slowly putting on my hat despite the disbelief. The three peaks writhed with excitement and jingled. Glaring at the object, the nurse insisted that I follow her.
“A lovely lady is waiting for you outside. She says she has personal business with you,” the nurse spoke as we arrived at the entrance to the psychiatric hospital.
I waited for Martha to open the door. At Bedlam, you are allowed to do very little for yourself.
“You be on your best behaviour, now,” Martha said, swiping away at the lint of my moth-bitten pyjamas. “This is your opportunity to rid us all of that blight on your head. It’s not natural, Boo. God knows we can’t do anything about it. It’s evil. Pure evil.”
I swallowed, not letting my eyes leave from the doorknob.
“Go on, now,” Martha said. “Her name is Ms. Lester, though heavens know you won’t use it. In case you do, child. Put on your best smile.”
I didn’t. But after I saw the woman waiting for me at the end of the pathway into Bedlam, I wanted to. She wore a ruffled, grey ascot tucked into a black waistcoat over a black shirt. Taking off her circular lenses, she beckoned me with a finger and a wide grin that sat as natural as the laced metal around her neck.
“I hear they call you ‘Boo’,” she said. “I simply love that name.” Ms. Lester did that most profound action of commanding affection by squinting her eyes at the punctuation of her sentence, as if this were a warm secret just between the two of us.
“He don’t talk much!” Martha called from the door. “Sometimes he writes, that’s about it.”
“Yes, we’ll crack on just fine without your interjections, thank you,” she replied, to which Martha slammed the door on her way back inside.
“My apologies, Boo. I know how strange it must be for you, to have lost your voice. My name is Irene Eva Lester, and I’ve traveled long and far to meet you.”
Her hand was not the silk I expected. It was calloused, tough. I found myself gripping it harder in our brief shake in an attempt to impress her.
“Caramel?” she asked.
The large drop of amber candy was wrapped perfectly in cellophane. I savoured its loud crinkles as I unwound both ends. When it fell on my tongue, it felt wrong. Too sweet. Too promising.
Next, Ms. Lester retrieved a folder of documents from her satchel. Ledgers from my past orphanages, my transcripts for the hospital, and even a clipping which cited me as the youngest to be admitted into Bedlam’s on account of mental illness. “You’ve quite the story, don’t you Boo? Enough paperwork to make a bureaucrat swoon. How’s that caramel? There’s more where that came from.” She then flashed something else, a newspaper from four years prior, detailing a ‘murder-suicide’ in Whitechapel. “This is you, isn’t it?”
My hat jingled in reply.
“So the stories are true,” she said. One of the peaks slapped her hand away when she attempted to touch it. “My oh my, yes, you’ll do. I’ll introduce myself to your friend here another day. Boo, if I may, I have a proposition for you. And it begins here.”
Ms. Lester traded the folder for a rather large book.
“Do you know what this is?”
And I did. It was an object familiar to me from my parents’ studies in the occult. Bound in dark leather, the grimoire exuded an odour of burning oak and ash. It wasn’t merely paper and ink. It was alive.
“This is a grimoire, and every half-decent witch worth her copper carries one.”
She let the book fall open, and with a wave, the paper flurried until stopping on two pages of records. The list of names was just over a hundred, with dates that reached back as far as sixty years before.
“But if I were a lucky witch,” Ms. Lester continued, “I will have your name in mine by the end of this conversation.”
She then handed me a fountain pen. The ink which had leaked from its tip now soaked the handle and stained my fingers.
“Oh, let me get that for you,” she said, producing a handkerchief from nowhere and dabbing away at it. Simultaneously, a sharp pain appeared in my finger. I recoiled, but Ms. Lester had already collected the blood, too, into a small vial that she slipped out of her sleeve.
Both my hat and I began wondering whether this woman or this book were to be trusted at all. I held the pen above the empty space for my name. A drop of ink fell and blotched the surface.
“Boo,” Ms. Lester sighed, “I can take you away from this place.” Her eyes fell on Bedlam as if she was looking at a cemetery with unearthed graves at every headstone. “This is no place to live, least of all for a young, promising man such as yourself. I can take you away. You’ll work and live for me, for a carnival. But that hardly matters, does it? You already have the hat for it.”
Ms. Lester caressed my cheek thoughtfully. Again, I recoiled. This sting was much harsher than the needle she’d used to draw my blood.
“You aren’t broken. Society doesn’t understand you. Has no idea where to put you. You are an unfitting piece for a puzzle that serves very few people. And that’s a good thing. You may not fit in this world, Boo. But you might fit in mine. In ours. You just haven’t been shown where it is, yet.”
Tear drops mingled with the ink. They formed streams which dragged down the neat lines and rows.
“They tell me I’m a demon,” I blurted out between sobs. There I was, spewing for the first time in years. Ruining my purity. My safety. “People think I killed them. But nobody knows. Nobody. Nobody believes me.”
Ms. Lester pulled me into her arms. “I believe you, Boo. I do.”
“If I join your carnival, then they’ll just think I’m a demon, too!”
“Now you listen to me and you hear me closely.” Ms. Lester knelt down and held my head. Her eyes were the grey of an overcast sky at dawn. “The Black Carnival is a place where nightmares don’t have to hide in the dark. What you have is a gift. A past so dark that it can be put to great use. To great magic.
“If you so choose to join us, we’ll forget your name. You’ll never hear those two words ever again. You’ll be ‘Boo’ forever. And you can speak as little or as much as you want.”
My hand found the space for my name and scrawled out Boo. My name seemed to spread itself across the paper without my consent, yet I knew it was right. The letters etched themselves beneath the ink and brightened with a silver glow. With a delighted chuckle, Ms. Lester placed the drop of my blood at the far end of the space. The scarlet burrowed into the paper. It disappeared, then resurfaced as the date.
October 8th, 1901
“Welcome to the Black Carnival, Boo.”