“Have you ever seen a carnival?” Lester asked me.
The iron gates swung open with a flourish of her hand. Before I drifted into the grounds, she said, “Wait. Watch closely,” showing me the palm of her right hand.
A form manifested out of the open space. A small pile of ash which unfurled itself into a black ticket. The words admit one appeared in white over a matching numeral. On either sides, the ticket number cycled into formation until it noted 0010789.
It was warm when she handed it to me. Upon breaching the entrance, the ticket combusted. I grasped at the hopeless cinders falling to the dewy grass. But when I looked to Lester to apologise, she was smirking.
Curiosity played dimly in my chest as I purveyed the black and grey striped tents. I ran my hands along the ornate metalwork which bordered most exhibitions and signs. I gazed at the curious orbs of light in the lanterns. Lingering at the concession stands, I stared for awhile at the popcorn making itself, uncertain how to ask to try some. If I was even allowed to.
“Soon enough,” Lester said, handing me an overflowing helping, “you will come to understand how all this is possible.”
I ate only a few of the salty, buttery pieces crisped to perfection before deciding to simply hold the bag politely.
My gaze fell on an unlit, motionless carousel. Gargoyles, centaurs, nymphs and floating chairs replaced the usual horses and ponies one might expect. I tested the suppleness of the well-kept leather seats.
“Care for a ride?”
“Maybe another time,” I replied.
Besides the concessions, the carnival was asleep.
It was half an hour past four in the morning. We had traveled by boat from England, then by train through Europe. I passed the hours watching rain streak across the windows. Lester read and wrote in her grimoire. When our train howled to a stop in Gdańsk, Poland, we each removed one of our layers. Autumn was warmer here.
Light was just beginning to bleed into the horizon, but it couldn’t dispel what lingered. The air reminded me of what it felt like to stir at the edge of a nightmare. The amnesia of reality. That sense of still being touched by the dark. Like one might be swallowed by the psyche, back into that strange place—terrifying yet romantic.
“You feel it, don’t you?” Lester asked.
We walked into the centre of the largest tent. An array of props and equipment were tucked away in their rightful places. Trapezes and riggings for aerialists were roped up at the sides. Yet I got the sense that whatever performance happened here was not normal at all, even by the spectacular standards of circus.
Lester said nightmares don’t hide in the dark here. I was beginning to understand that she meant it.
Soon I felt something that I hadn’t in a long time. Something I forgot existed. The bottom of my heart seemed to tickle. The warmth spread. It filled up my chest and expanded. Gentle firecrackers that bounced around my ribs. My breath came faster. Then I imagined what the carnival was like just hours before midnight, packed with performers, lights, crowds, and the roar of expectation and uncertainty in everyone’s minds.
My composure erupted. I giggled, laughed, then crumpled into a ball and held myself as tight as I could as the tears poured.
Lester placed a hand on my back.
It was the first time I had felt fear in a long while.
Fear that I would wake up in Bedlam to the sounds of screams from electromagnetic therapy. Or worse, to the fetid stench of my last orphanage and caretakers’ fists.
Fear that this was all a dream.
“Come now,” she said, once I’d collected myself, “let’s have tea in my tent. I have some friends who will be excited to meet you. Twelve of them, to be exact.”
Lester’s tent was hidden at the back of the carnival. It was bordered by thirteen posts, each boasting different symbols at the top of their lanterns. A circular chimney even extended from the top, exhaling steam. All the lanterns were lit, except for one, which burned to life as Lester let herself in, and then ushered me forward as well.
I was hit with the smell of rendering pork fat, early grey, english breakfast, and herbal tea riding the undercurrent of a bolder flavour, ground arabica beans. Conversation drummed with laughter and unfamiliar accents, even a foreign language I’d never heard before.
Twelve pairs of eyes turned our way. Their faces grew intensely curious. A brief silence captured us all. Then the tent erupted with twice the volume it possessed before. I stuttered beneath the shower of introductions. I even looked for a quiet grave to throw myself into, instead I found an empty chair at their long table.
Lester organised two plates and sat us down. “Remember, Boo,” she whispered to me, “you don’t have to put on a show for anybody. Just be yourself. They’re nice girls.”
“So, Boo, you’re a boy from the city, what’s that like?” one woman asked, pointing a sausage link at me.
“Don’t interrogate him, Francis!” another interjected. “He’s only just arrived! Boo, take your time. You can call me Kayn.” She smiled.
“In any case,” another witch said, dabbing at the oils around her mouth, “it’s not as if we don’t have some of our own from London. Hazel knows, doesn’t she? She got her training there.”
“Well, mostly …” Hazel began.
“Boring! Let’s not play coy with the lad. Boo, everyone’s dying to get their hands on that hat. Possessed? Cursed? In my experience, it’s often one in the same. Would you be a doll and let me see it?”
Kayn groaned. “Demonologists never have any decency, do they?”
Triste scoffed. “Leave it to the necromancer to teach us table manners.”
“Ladies!” Lester shouted. “That is—by far and away!—enough for one breakfast. Let him eat. He’s a big day ahead of him. Don’t you, Boo?”
My coping with the pressure expressed itself in pretending to be a wolf, and the breakfast, my prey. With eggs spilling from my mouth, I nodded and smiled. The hat jingled merrily.
For a moment, the coven of witches remembered themselves. I was, after all, a stranger in their home. They put away their burning questions and returned to their food. The torture would be later.
That would be one breakfast of countless others I spent with Lester’s coven. Though the ringmaster herself was often out on other business, the coven had countless tasks to maintain the carnival. Each of the twelve witches had their own professions. I became something of a familiar for them all.
I ran errands for Adene, a traditionalist who organised daily chores and duties. Ingredients for household spells from local markets, papers from the city to stay up to date on the world while we traveled around it. Simone and Ylva taught me to find herbs for elixirs, and edible plants for cooking. When it came to enchanting objects, Estrid needed hands to secure unstable devices undergoing experimentation. She taught me how to keep the lanterns aglow, and how not to fall into a coma doing so incorrectly.
As for the creatures and animals displayed in the menagerie, Francis had me getting me collecting dung and all manner of excrement from creatures that did not belong in the mortal realm. Imps, I’ve found, leave a particularly foul waste. One that I picked up doubly, if they were transferred to Triste’s care, who often used my body as a conduit for summoning up Gehennic creatures that she swore were authorised by Lester. I was skeptical. Especially when she made me swear on my secrecy, often enforcing such coercions with kisses that secured my dishonesty.
Triste wasn’t the worst, though. Cecilia made a canvas of my body with her blood magick, though the scars would fade with some help, if I worked with Kayn in organising cadavers and cleaning her necromantic supplies. She was kind and the corpses, quiet. We listened to classical music and discussed mortality over the dance of her instruments above operating tables aglow with her incantations. It helped that her expertise developed alongside the medical world’s understanding of anatomy.
But I had more ‘normal’ afternoons, too, under the care of Rosehilda, who, more than anything, needed help carving small wooden pieces for runic alphabets. This was a quiet ritual I enjoyed, as Rose spoke mostly German and, of all the girls, expected me to talk the least.
You might be wondering if I ever rested.
At night, Nova taught me how to read the stars. She read me stories from universities about ancient mythologies. Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, and Gehennic tales that would lull me to sleep. But even in my dreams I worked alongside the coven. Ezra visited me in the dreamworld, exploring the trenches of my past. On slow afternoons, we discussed our explorations over tarot readings and brews that sent my head to distant places where I untangled the bloody web of that night.
When I craved simplicity, I begged Lester to send me to help Hazel. I found Hazel buried in books. Though we told everyone that our work in the carnival’s library was intense, demanding, and highly technical, for the most part, we read. Sure, we enchanted the shelves, the books, the hovering chandelier. But Hazel had a routine ritual which kept the books packing and unpacking in perfect order. Setting up her tent took all of ten minutes followed by a nap, but to the rest of the carnival, it was twelve hours of intense preparation behind a ‘do not disturb sign’.
We sat in silence. We laughed about the hours we squandered.
But most of all, we read.
That was its own kind of magic.