It is that unnamable time of a late December morning, that nighttime hour that bleeds into tired dawn. My great-great-great-great grandmother sits in the living room, in the dark. I hear the rustling of her ancient newspaper as she turns each delicate page. The furnace has shut down after its daily muted roar, and a distant tick sounds through the walls as the metal ducts contract and cool. Other than the paper’s whispers, it is the only sound in the house.
In the same dark, around the corner, past the foyer, I stand in the middle of the hallway, in my stained nightgown and robe, the ones I left behind some fifteen years ago when I left this place, my childhood home. My mother’s house, so lovely and modern and clean—before The Grand moved in and took over, like she takes over everything. The outline of my overweight body hovers in the large black-stained mirror at the end of the hall, by the always-locked front door. A distorted Pierrette with a marshmallow body and mouthless face. I raise my hand. A second later, the creature in the mirror reluctantly moves. I can’t blame it, I know why. The Grand can’t see me, but she knows I’m there. She reads in the dark. She outlines her lips bright red in the pitch black of windowless closets. She embroiders tiny, perfect stitches in absolute gloom. Even during the day, the curtains in all the rooms are drawn, the lamps turned off. —This is how it used to be, she tells me over and over again. —When I was a child, we didn’t have electric lamps. We didn’t have radios. There were no televisions or computers; we weren’t compelled to entertain ourselves all day. We were self-contained. Everything we needed came out of ourselves, out of our own family. This is how it was in the world. This is how it will always be for me.
I open my robe and pull the nightgown up. If there is a demarcation between fabric and flesh, mercury and air, the creature and me, I cannot see it. I search for the familiar black triangle between my legs. Even that has vanished. I am no different than the bare, cream walls around me. Outside of us, nothing can be seen. Yet within—a carnelevare of the numinous, waiting for release. Everything I need will come out of me.
—What are you doing? The Grand calls out from the living room. —Are you up? As she speaks, I hear her sniffing me out, and my blood runs peppermint hot and cold. She likes it like that.
I let my nightgown drop, and shuffle and squint my way around the corner. Morning presses against the thick curtains, to no avail. Everything glows, but dimly so. Against the far corner of the couch she curls, a fragile mound of bones and skin dressed in soft, flowery clothes. The open newspaper obscures the upper half of her body. I see only legs and knife-sharp fingers, the leaves of dark print flapping back in between. Her feet are small and perfectly formed, with nails like mother-of-pearl. She hasn’t walked in a hundred and fifty years. She hasn’t needed to.
—Give your great grand a sweet breakfast kiss, she says, floating up from the cushions. The newspaper flutters to the floor.
—It’s time, my sister said. Her voice poured out of the phone like poison.
—No. Not yet. No.
—The Grand is sending for you, she continued over me, as if she couldn’t hear my voice.
—I don’t want to go.
—You don’t have a choice. Check your email—I sent the plane ticket to you already. You have a month to pack up and say goodbye.
—I have a life here.
—I had a life, too. And now I get it back. But only if you come. You know what happens to me if you don’t. She’ll use me up until there’s nothing left.
—You know I’d never let that happen. But why so soon?
—She’s tired of me. I don’t please her anymore, or so she says. At any rate, I’ve done my time. It’s your turn now.
—This is wrong. You know that.
—It doesn’t matter. We can’t change it. This is why we were born.
It was late summer, back then, and my city was a volcano of bright life. I took her call at work, in an empty corner office. I gave an obfuscated answer that pleased us both and hung up. Outside, day was racing down into the shimmery fires of night. Twenty floors down, clogged streets were transforming into long-running strands of rubies and diamonds, winding around buildings slick with coruscated light. I pressed my hand against the glass. Hard and hot. When I took my hand away, a thin film of perspiration remained, outstretched against the avenue as though trying to grasp it. The ghost hand of a ghost girl. Within seconds, it disappeared.
I said my goodbyes at work without telling them I’d never return, and bought boxes on the way home, just enough to ship a few piles of books and clothes. My small room in the SRO building didn’t hold that much, anyway. I’d always known this moment would come, and so my decisions had already been made, years ago, how I would live my life and how I would defend it. I was more prepared than my sister could imagine, and more ruthless than The Grand could ever be. Desperation made me so. In a way, I was no different than her.
The next morning I settled my account at the SRO, made a stop at the post office, then walked twenty blocks south, down through my beautiful city. Past blight-tinged gentrification, past markets and parks and coffee shops and wide bustling avenues; and then west, over to the edge of the river, to block after block of monolithic warehouses and factories, moldering in shadowed silence and brick dust until their moment in history came again. It was like I’d walked this path just yesterday, even though a decade had passed. —When you’ve made your decision, be it tomorrow or a million tomorrows from now, you’ll find us, he had said with his yellow-teethed smile as I looked over his exhibits and wares. —You won’t ever need a map.
She leans into me in the queer morning light for her kiss, and my mouth slackens and my head lolls back. Every day is the same, and night no different than day. Darkness, rain needling against the rooftop and windows, wind thundering through distant trees. She never sleeps. Her need keeps her running hot and constant, a nuclear reactor of hunger that can never be shut down. —It’s not so bad, my sister said, the few times I spoke with her until she stopped taking my calls. —She takes from you, but she gives you something back, in a way. It’s almost an even exchange. —What does she do, what is she, how can she be? I asked over and over again. —Is she a vampire? A ghoul? An insect? Why do we submit?
—I don’t know, my sister always replied. —Who can say?
Sometimes, at night, I awake in the dark and feel her hovering over me, a weight and emotion I sense but never feel or see. Paralyzed, I breathe all my damp terror and fear into the emptiness of my childhood room. Above, mote by mote she sucks it in. Sleep itself is no refuge. In my dreams I rise to the ceiling, my skin brushing against the faded outlines of spiraling galaxies my mother painted for me long ago. And then the ceiling, the stars, soften and yield—her arms are around me, mouth against mine, while in the waking world, my body moans and shivers, ten feet above my bed. The days are worse. I can’t hide in my room forever, and so I venture out into the house, wandering like a restless ghost of myself through the still rooms. Everywhere, vestiges of the life I had before, of my sister and me as children, of my mother and the father I too briefly knew. Cobwebbed tableaus of toys and dishes. Photos of distant summers, succumbing to speckled mold. A faint scent of my mother’s perfume rising like a tired ghost from a dresser of musty clothes. Old folders of school homework, boxes of books my aching eyes could no longer read in the ever-dim light. And I, always never knowing where she is, in what room, squeezed into what tight corner or closet or crack. Never knowing when she will ooze out and ignore me, or play with me, or pounce.
—You’re different, she says this morning, her vulpine face hovering just above my head. —I don’t like it. I smell animals. I smell fire and sugar and rust. The words wash over my face like gasoline fumes, and tears dribble out of my eyes into my mouth. My flesh grows heavy and prickly-numb. Her face is an amorphous stain, a blur. I open my mouth to speak. All that comes forth is a burp, loud and wet. Bile dribbles down my lips and chin. It tastes like rotting grapes.
The Grand recoils. —You’re sick, she hisses. She hates any hint of illness or disease.
—No, I’m not, I garble. Thin pine needles slide out of my running nose and onto my tongue. —It’s the carnival.
—What are you talking about?
A slow, long tremor erupts throughout my belly. My tearing eyes shut tight, and I smile. I am horrifying and new. She leans back into me, curious. Lips and breath against my cheek, mouth open, seeking, seeking. —Tell me everything, she whispers. —Fill me up with everything.
I lift my wet nightgown. —Stay with me, and you can take everything you need.
I drop to the floor, back arched, thighs apart. The second contraction rips through me, and I howl. The barker said there would be pain, and he didn’t lie. He said it would be the eighth wonder of the world.
The barker stood where I had seen him a decade ago, as if he had never moved from the spot: on a wood-planked platform in the middle of a vast dirt and sawdust-covered warehouse floor, surrounded by rows and rows of broken and abandoned caravans and carousels and fair rides in fading pastels, painted canvases depicting creatures and humans of sublime beauty and deformity, statues and stuffed beasts, tanks and cages, carts and costume-choked trunks. It took an eternity of footsteps to walk to him. The musk of animal and tang of sea creature and the green of chipped wood filled my lungs—none of it had moved in ten years, none of it had changed. Bits of jewel-colored glitter floated through the smoky, popcorn-scented air. Antiques, it said on the crumpled brochure I’d found blowing about on the street that spring day so long ago, and had carried in my purse ever since. Rare Circus Items Curated from America’s Golden Age of Entertainment. Powerful Carnival Artifacts Rescued from Civilizations Lost Forever in the Mists of Time. A Veritable Cornucopia of Wonders, Mesmerizing and Terrifying. This Once in a Lifetime Opportunity, Only For You.
—Are you ready? he called out, and his words echoed back and forth between the high walls before dying out in a faint burst of calliope music. —Have you made your choice? He lifted his cane and pointed down. Below the stage sat a massive flat-topped megalith, with five black marble boxes resting on its rough surface, each carved on the top with the name of an ancient carnival, culled from histories lost forever, as the brochure had said. Within each box, though, anything but dry history resided. Chaos, essence, power, folding in on itself in infinite spirals. Waiting for an incubator, a warm walking womb to carry it to its new home, to release. Unchecked primal appetite, that could consume anything, even a woman with an endless appetite of her own. I felt my breath shallow out, my heart beat fluttery and weak.
I reached out and touched the box labeled Kronia. It vibrated slightly under my fingertips. After a pause, I pushed it back.
—Masks and merriment, as I recall. Too weak, I said. The barker nodded and smiled.
I picked up the boxed labeled Navigium Isidis, and immediately placed it on top of the Kronia box. —Floats, processionals, parades. I think she’d be amused. I don’t want to amuse her.
At the far edge of the floor, a chair moved. I felt the contents of the space shifting, as if rousing itself from a too-long dream. A low sigh wafted across the room, or perhaps it was only the wind, or the ghost of a dream of the wind.
Three boxes were left on the stone. —Bacchanalia, I said, picking up the one to the left. I placed it on top of the stack. —Savage. She’d be disoriented, repulsed. But not incapacitated.
—Are you certain, madam? the barker said. —Wine-soaked madness and lust in the night? Nothing to stop you from partaking as well, if you desire. If you aren’t dismembered, that is.
But I had moved on. Saturnalia, said the next box. I lifted it up.
—What’s this one again?
—Pageants. Very theatrical, said the barker. — I must warn you: there will be many, many clowns.
I added Saturnalia to the stack. A single box remained. Dionysia, it said. I ran my fingertips over the carved letters. The barker smiled.
—Great festivities within, he said. —A carnelevare of god-frenzied transformation, which subsumes and liberates all.
—I don’t want to transform her, I said, adding the box to the stack. —I don’t want to liberate or destroy her.
For the first time, the barker looked unsure. —What is it that you want, then?
—I want something so wondrous and primal, she’ll never be able to leave it. I want to fill her up, completely. I want her to fall in love.
The warehouse floor grew quiet. —There are no boxes left, the barker said. —There are no more choices.
I reached out, placing both hands flat on the megalith as I contemplated the stack. The stone was warm and smooth, except for spider-thin scratches. I moved my fingers over them. Back and forth. A sixth name, in a language I did not recognize, running across the surface. A secret, sixth carnelevare.
—No more choices, the barker repeated.
—There never was a choice. This is the one I’ve always wanted, I said. —The carnival with no name.
—The first. Do you know what it is you’re asking for? The barker motioned to the dusty rides and ruins scattered across the warehouse floor. —It won’t be like any of these. No sequins or carousels or quaint colored lights.
I pointed to the black boxes. —The other carnivals I considered were nothing like that.
The barker’s cane came to rest on the pitted surface of the megalith. A sharp click hit the air. —Nothing since the dawn of history has been like this.
I said nothing. There was nothing more to say. After a time, the barker nodded.
—As you wish, he said. —The conception will be—complex. I will need time.
—I have thirty days.
—Thirty days out there, you mean. He pointed up, to pale blue skies shimmering outside the high windows. —In here, it will be as long as I need it to be.
—I am compelled to caution you: your body will change. Your mind will change. And there will be pain.
—I’m a woman. There always is.
Outside the house, days have come and gone. Months have bled away. Within these walls, the universe pauses to watch.
In the undiscovered country of my torso, from out the limitless valleys of my most intimate self, another monster emerges another child of the carnelevare, horns and hooves slicing through skin and muscle and bone and capillaries. By my side, The Grand struggles, but I do not lessen my grip. Massive clawed hands clutch at my slick thighs, hoisting its heavy furred body up and out and into a room so spattered by my blood that I cannot tell where my body ends and where the house begins, except there is no beginning and ending, it is all one and the same, an ouroboros of continual birth. And the monster cleans its bull-shaped face against my stomach and licks my breasts, and crawls away, far into the house, and something else begins to emerge from my body, worse or better I cannot tell. This is the sixth carnelevare, the great removing and raising of the flesh, the coming of a god so old it does not remember its name, and with it all its attendants beautiful and hideous, bursting forth from every orifice of my flesh to celebrate the mystery of all mysteries.
The floor beneath me shudders beneath my sudden burgeoning weight, and I hear the crackling of tree limbs, the cracking of bones. The dislocation of my jaw, the colossal clang of bells. Vastness pours out of me like an ocean. And the backwash of darkness rolls over my mind like a breaking wheel, and I float in the spirals of those faded painted galaxies of my childhood, holding my great-great-great-great grandmother’s slender hand. Who lives around all those stars, can they see us, what are their names, my nine-year-old self asks her as the ghost of my mother daubs specks of gold and silver paint across the fathomless blue, and my grandmother replies, I am the only human in the world who will ever know.
Together we look up, and up, and up, and from our starry perch we see the deep woods of all the worlds, the labyrinths and groves, we see the satyrs and stags and bulls and the wolves and women and men. Masked and naked, they dance and contort around frightened fires, they chant their prayers and pleas into the shadowed cracks of the world, they laugh and crash together in god-fevered horror and cry out as the sparks of their devotion float up and wink out with their ecstasy. They gyre together and pull apart transformed, endless variations of monstrosities kaleidoscoping out of their frenzied couplings. And I am the night, and out of the night and the woods their god comes to them, into them, into her, in the strike of lightning and the shuddering of the earth, in the terminal vastation of his song.
—Close your eyes, I whisper.
I sigh, and the fires wink out one by one, and I sink back down to the floor, to a room filled with clear light and the silk rattle of morning through the tree’s wintery bones.
I force my sticky eyelids open. My body feels empty, still. I blink, and the ceiling swims in a thin wash of red. I can’t tell if I’m dead or alive. I’m not breathing, and I cannot feel the beating of my heart. There is no pain, I realize in shock: the complete absence of such an all-consuming presence makes me light, free. I roll slightly, slowly, and sit up. I am covered head to toe in blood, and I am whole. My right hand holds the mangled, broken wrist of a woman’s severed arm, the grip so tight and deep beneath her flesh that I cannot see my fingertips. Crimson-brown gobs of placenta and blood cover every inch of our joined skin. Under the drying gore, I recognize The Grand’s flower-carved wedding ring. I leave the ring on the couch, with the arm.
Outside, gossamer trails of night-blue mist waft through the backyard like torn strands of the Milky Way, sparking with millions of little pinpricks of pure white light. They drift and catch on the sleeping faces of the women and men pulled from their neighboring homes in the carnelevare’s orgiastic wake, settle into their hair and over their bare tangled limbs, crash and break apart against tall pine trees and dissipate with the rising sun. A thread of it trails against my bare leg, disappearing beneath the triangle of matted hair. The effluvium of a nameless carnival as it blew in and out of town. I gently pull it out and let it float away.
At the edge of the yard, legs tucked under thighs white and hard as marble, the small body of a woman with a missing left arm rests under a large tree. I walk over, and kneel before The Grand. She looks no older than me. Her pale green eyes are open, wide, blank. They stare through and beyond me, up into the sky. Her face is raised and lips are parted, as if being forced to drink from a bottomless cup. Or perhaps, as if about to speak a name.
A blood-orange sun was sinking slowly into the edges of my city’s wide electric edges, and I raised my worshiping hands and face like a grateful Akhenaton into its early autumn heat. I had lost a month, and so much more. It was time to go home, all the way home. Behind me, just within the shadows of the open warehouse doors, behind the boundary he could not see or cross, the barker stood, hesitant.
—What does it feel like? he asked.
—This? I turned, hand on my stomach, already slightly curved.
—That. All of it, the god and the power and the mysteries, folded into something so small and insignificant as you. To be so full. And, the sun. The weight of the air on your body. The pleasure of bearing so much pain. Being a part of the world, while knowing you’re not really a part of anything at all.
—I couldn’t tell you. I don’t have any answers.
He stared at me, waiting, disappointed yet still expectant; and then his eyes glazed. I could see him moving beyond me, his mind traveling to that invisible realm beyond the carnelevare’s end, where all questions are answered, all hunger sated, where all the endless pleasurable and terrifying variations of the chase dwindle down to a dead and desiccated end.
—Do you really want to know? I asked.
He looked up into the sky, then smiled his yellow-teethed grin.
Originally published in Nightmare Carnival, edited by Ellen Datlow.