The unofficial center of my town was the house of the Moson family, the only one to have any believable claim to blood nobility. Among the better caste of families, a close maze of interconnected family trees, theirs was the only one envied. The reasons were never clear to be anything beyond simple human petulance. Any open animosity was absent, but the roots never died. Mr. David Oper, head of the Oper family, privately spoke of his disdain of the entitlements that accompanied truly noble families. As I said, the Moson family was the only one making such claims in earnest. Mrs. Oper found the Mosons' ability to weather any storm, no matter the difficulties of the rest of the town, an affront to decency.
The main street snaked its way through the old town. My mother seemed to think that was deliberate in order for the people to confirm their envy, every day. Perhaps that was why all the houses in the old part of town, the center, were so close to one another. She said this while explaining how Mr. Harper never fucked his wife for fear that the loss of innocence would be too much for their yet unborn children. And on it went, never more than small grievances but still. The town was typical of the time. Electricity was still new. As was the collective sense of a bigger world. For most, the business of the town was grain or livestock except for the privileged few, whose business was everyone else's business.
I lived on a small farm on the edge of town, an old house among the newer ones, and because our soil was particularly fertile, we lived in quiet contentment. The school was an old hay barn atop a hill nearby. It never held much interest for me. The church was old and near the center, as you might expect, with the cemetery farther out near the river. At some point the monks chose the spot, but their reason was never known. I assisted with the delivering of meat to the more prominent households. My father had asked Mr. Oper if he could use a strong young man, and after some debate concerning my salary, I was hired. The work was tedious at first. I'd pick up a list, then load the cart before delivering. It was a few times a week but never on the same days, and the loads were heavy. It wasn't long before I became acquainted with the Opers.
Mrs. Oper loved the old center. The cobblestone roads, the signs, even the once straight lines of the houses that had yielded to the pull of time. Her mother was Lady Oper, as she was called. She was also the mother of Mrs. Moson. She could tell stories endlessly about the town, and often did. She was having me take down her books from the top shelf. I would place them on the floor, near the window, still standing and lightly opened them. To air them, or "to let the stories breathe" as she would say. I did this for her twice a week and slowly we became friends. But the first time we met she was far too busy berating me, “No, no, no! Ah, I can forgive you for your youth and your lack of proper schooling.”
It was strange that my father would ask people who he had once described as "wandering around like stray stupid dogs, victims of boredom," for a job for me. I never asked him about it, about the tacit contempt he carried. I think, in the end, he minded the idea of his son serving at the whims of others. At the time it was simply confusing. But then, he couldn't foresee what would come of it.
Not long after I had become a familiar face among the servants of the better households by way of my deliveries, a curious thing happened. A maid working for the Harper family took a liking to me. Her husband, who did a great deal of chores around the house, had fallen ill, and the household needed some attention. The maid approached me about other delivery duties, then help with the laundry which turned into help rearranging the attic and on it went. Before long, I could be found in every corner of the house, even at odd hours of the day. Soon after, the husband succumbed to the sickness. I never met him.
However, I got to know everyone, including Mr. Harper who I found exceedingly funny and nothing like my mother had implied. This was the early spring. It felt like suddenly being part of a larger, closer world within the one I already knew. As it turned out, the Harpers were merely the gatekeepers, because by the solstice the maid recommended me to a few of the maids serving some of the other households. My world expanded and grew still more intricate. The cycle repeated itself until there wasn't a house in the old center without a door open to me. And this was where it began.
It was a Sunday afternoon early in the winter. I had just delivered some groceries to the Harpers when I was told the Mosons needed me in their attic. I went and was told to dismantle an old closet. The work filled the room with a dense mist of dust. My eyes watered and a painful cough followed. I quickly found myself crouched in the corner, weeping and spitting, when I suddenly heard the voice of Mrs. Moson talking just below the stairs. This was nothing new. She was a very energetic woman, of no inconsiderable vanity, always exerting her influence and presence. A woman of passion in the bedroom too, as her loud moans occasionally betrayed. You could find her everywhere, barking orders in the sweetest way possible, making changes and ensuring the ever-proper standard of things. So, finding her near the attic was nothing new but the nature of her conversation was. She was whispering, for the first time in her life it seemed, given how loudly she spoke. I couldn't see her companion and could only hear half of the conversation.
“...so your man must leave tonight with the message. They will be moving in the morning and who knows where to. Deliver the details. Don't mention this to my husband, he won't understand and he has always been a skeptical man. I mean, bless him and his wonderful spirit. A sage, however, he is not. Well, except after dark.”
A long pause followed, and I swear I could hear her smile when she spoke again.
“One does not lie when fate and curse come dancing by.”
A voice I couldn't place said “Yes,” and they both left.
The dust had settled while they talked, and I went back to work. A week went by before I knew that what I had heard was not of little consequence.
The first flecks of snow had fallen. The cold was still to come, but everyone knew it lurked about. Then the excitement began. It was just after midday when people noticed the strangers walking up main street.
Two of them, not coiling around the other pedestrians, walked a straight line to the town hall. He had a large nose and a square jawline, long black hair. He walked with ease, and the mud on the ground didn't dirty his leather boots. He was followed by a girl. The one with the burning hair. I was eating lunch on the steps of the church when I noticed the collective yet almost imperceptible movement of people towards town hall. And when I reached the square and saw her, I was torn in two. The stranger ascended the stairs and carefully examined his surroundings, but my eyes stayed with the girl, whose fiery hair and blue eyes mesmerized me. She stood, just out of time. Her wondrous eyes sought the attending crowd. Her lovely mouth moved in a repeated pattern, as if she were whispering secrets. Then her father broke the hushed silence.
“I bring good tidings to you on this day. The sun has started its descent, but it will rise again. And again. And when it has done so three times, you will be in the presence of the D'Amatok travelling circus. There will be wild beasts, performers of dangerous feats, mystics and seers of the ancient world. Oddities that defy the imagination!”
His sonorous voice carried on through the streets and a sea of murmur ensued. He paused and reveled in it. Suddenly, the girl's eyes found me, and her mouth stopped moving. Her gaze was warm, and it spoke of joy to me. I felt she could see all of me, and there was no need for shame of any kind. Her eyes were etched into my own. It occurred to me, though, that I could see sadness in the edges of her eyes.
“Meet us, you fortunate folks, in the field by the river and the cemetery! And, we will show you wonders!”
The audience offered a hesitant applause, as if it didn't quite believe what it was hearing. This seemed to satisfy, and the two descended the stairs and vanished into the crowd.
I spent the night thinking about what I had seen. Yet I didn't understand what was so special about the circus. So, I asked around and a funny thing became clear to me; no one had any idea. They seemed to know only that the circus was very old and had a reputation for the spectacular. None of them had seen it in the flesh, so to speak. I mentioned this to Lady Oper the following day, as I was airing her books. As I did I immediately thought that I was fated to hear a long story. The kind that brought out her most spirited self. Instead, her words had a venomous touch. She said there were tigers, and zebras, and jugglers, and bearded ladies, men of uncanny strength and women of dangerous beauty. Knife throwers, musicians, escape artists and more. I desperately tried to imagine so many things I had never seen before.
“Oh, yes, boy. There are strange and fantastical things. All the more, for your young and bright soul. However, even here the twilight reveals itself.”
Lady Oper fell silent and her face suddenly seemed robbed of light. I stopped and placed the heavy book in my hands on the creaking wooden floor.
“Fortuneteller is a horrible name.”
The words stabbed the air, and I was taken aback by the change.
“The telling of fortune is not what concerns them, and it never has. There he comes marching, that mock Rasputin prophesying the coming of the king like the heralds of old. I am going to tell you a story. You remember mystery plays, don't you? The morality plays of the old times?”
I couldn't help but lean in toward her and nod.
“Bands of makeshift troupes of actors, travelling and presenting stories from the holy book. Dramatizing what should be studied and absorbed in reverence and silence. Well, they have their roots in older times, responding to the peoples' need for stories. One such group, D’Ama, journeyed across the lands in the early days of the first millennium. You won't find their stories recorded anywhere. Through the years countless saw their shows in the bustling cities as well as the small quiet communities. Only, no one could tell exactly what they had seen, or where. The group was there but the collective memory couldn't hold onto it. The damnedest thing. As time passed on, the group didn't…”
Her voice echoed away, taking the poison with it. When she spoke again, restrained tears had touched her words. “Oh, it has been so very many years since I spoke to her, but there can be no doubt she is still with them”
She calmly looked at me, extending her sadness and subtle rancor into the space between us.
“Imonda. Before I was Lady Oper, I was just a timid little girl wanting to know if I would ever marry. She's the one who said I would, and I did, and there would be a curse. It cracked my spirit, it really did. You see, there are two types of curses. There are the ones you are gifted. This is often by some ill-tempered witch proclaiming misery and tells you of an evil that will befall you. No bargaining, no appeasement, and only the slimmest chance of escape. The other one is a foretelling of an inevitable incident, almost always a bad one, that will happen. It's written in the stars, and always has been. No one is responsible, and everyone is to blame. These things can break your heart, boy. Now, please leave, I'm sure some of the other families need you.”
Her abrupt lack of manners was an acquired taste. I looked up at the two full shelves and then back at her. I knew she was old by the counting of her years, but she wasn't old to me. I turned and was about to leave.
The sudden urgency crawled to me like a death groan.
“Do come and see me again before you leave town.”
She was facing the window, looking very much alone. I always felt she was a harsh woman, but not one with a capricious nature. Speaking in afterthought was not her custom. Still, there was nothing I felt I could say, except follow her order. I went home and tried to sleep.
I spent the sleeping part of the night dreaming about the redheaded girl again. Her sky-lit eyes steeled themselves against the cascading flames of her hair. I watched her take off her clothes and invite me in. The night passed in blushes and muttered moans.
I awoke to find Thomson and my father talking in the kitchen. I slipped within earshot. Thomson was the gravedigger and custodian of the cemetery and had spotted a row of lights coming down the road just before dawn. He had watched from atop the old stone wall.
“I swear I could see the caravan coming down the road.”
“Where did they stop?” my father asked.
“Just beyond the stream, near the bridge.”
“Are you going?”
“I think so. A small showcase of wonder will last a long time, I should think.”
My father mulled this over for a moment. And then he asked, “You want to see the fortunetellers?”
Thomson answered quickly and had difficulty hiding his excitement. “How can you not? I mean, she can tell you the future. You should see her too. Just imagine the things she can tell.”
My father scoffed and quickly answered. “I know what she can do, my friend. But what can I do? What can it do but belittle me and toss me about? I'll leave that tent for others.”
Instantly, I thought about the girl and felt certain I would find her. I remembered her eyes and her pretty mouth. The way she looked at me. I slipped back to my room, got dressed and headed back into town.
All day people watched the circus from afar as best they could. Nothing happened. The horses stood in place, never moving. I watched from the cemetery wall. The carts by the stream looked as if they had always been there, surrounded by moors and tall heath plants. I could see tracks of soiled snow leading from the road. The more I watched the more I expected to see wolves wandering the moors. But no.
At midday, a new speaker approached the town square. Dressed in colorful attire and a white thoroughly untamed beard, a big man stood on the same steps as the herald before him and bellowed out all manner of enticements. His voice boomed across the square and through the streets as if it had no shame whatsoever.
“Breathtaking feats of daring, such as you have never seen. Beauties you don't even know how to see, courage to inspire that which will please the senses!”
The skin covering his bald head was leathery and had several deep lines. He moved as he spoke, using more and more of the stairs for his oratory. A light murmur grew in the crowd and peaked sporadically, feeding on certain phrases. But I kept a single image in my mind. I imagined talking to the redheaded girl and asking her about herself. Then sharing secrets and touches.
The man continued his oratory. “Tomorrow, at nightfall, our world will open up to you good people and admission may be gained. Come all, everyone, bring the children and let their minds be filled with more than the world they know!”
He took a slow bow to the cheers of the crowd, and as he did his skull turned towards us, looking like an eye missing its iris. The orator left and, just like the one before him, seemingly vanished. The day was laid to waste for me, after that. Time wouldn't leave any sign of its passing, which I felt to be a personal insult. I found it impossible to think about anything, and if it hadn't been for the list of deliveries I doubt anything would have been done that day. Making my second-to-last delivery I passed by the square. There was a large pile of timber in the middle. Thomson was there, hauling a large tree branch while directing a group of men.
“Hello, Thomson. What's this?”
“You didn't hear? Mrs. Moson wants a large fire to signal when the circus opens tonight. As if I don't have enough to do.”
Thomson went back to work, annoyed with my question, it seemed. He labored on, dragging the dead limbs across the cobblestones. The hollow clatter stopped as he heaved it on the pile. It was cold, much colder than the day before. Everywhere I went and everyone I spoke to was excited. No one could wait for the fire to be lit. Mr. Jossen, who had a large farm in the area but also the poorest house, lost two cows in the night, but he wasn't even interested in finding out how it happened. His wife said he forgot to close the gate. My guess was that wolves got them.
The day passed like the clouds rolling in from the fields. Which is to say, effortlessly and incredibly upsetting. Somewhere in the forest, in some gnarly and ancient tree, a fiend was sitting, casting a spell to make sure the day grew longer while feeding on the cows his wolves had taken. I was sure of it.
I passed by the square several times and watched the pile grow. When the sun began to set, I stopped and watched it descend into the forest. The red spectacle played against a thin layer of freshly fallen snow and the cold air. I imagined I could see her within that forest rising out of a dark and unseen world to greet me. I was so certain it was all for me.
The last person on my delivery list was Lady Oper.
After helping the maids with the meat, I walked upstairs. Forgetting to knock, I walked in and found her exactly where I left her the day before. A few of the books I had placed on the floor had tipped over. She carefully eyed me until some satisfaction was reached.
“You don't like the wait, do you? Pay it no mind, you hear. The world does not wait for you, nor does it move for you. So, pay no mind to the future. Watch the present. You even missed the second announcement of the day.” There was nothing but liquid contempt in her mouth.
“No, I heard it!” I hoped my words would defend me.
“Oh you did, did you! Can you imagine it? A big fire in the center of the old town, where only the old families live!”
I couldn't explain her anger but I felt threatened by it and her, and then changed the subject. “What could the fortunetellers tell me?” I asked.
“Pay them no mind neither, boy. Do you know why people go to such charlatans? It isn't because they want to know the future, to receive that curse. No, they do it because they hope that it changes the future somehow. In their favor, naturally. They don't want prophets, they want orchestrators. Of course, they will never admit as much. It is the same for all of them, especially the ones who already feel kissed by fate.”
Her voice became low, and she looked at me with pitying eyes. Still, I couldn't wait to leave the room, feeling her anger on my skin.
“Go, boy. And see the show, visit whoever you need to but be careful how you leave.”
She turned to face the window again and I hurriedly walked downstairs. Leaving the house, the maid said something to me, but I didn’t hear it. I walked by the square again and saw Thomson there alone. The gravedigger was chopping away in the gathering dark.
With the list complete, I was told there was no more work today, which was odd because Wednesday nights always had me working at the Moson household. But not tonight.
It started to snow and the snow kept falling. One hour later the church bells rang out. The chimes lived for a long time in the silent air. It seized the echo and refused to let go. I left home and made my way through the town towards the river. I passed by the square for the last time. Thomson was nowhere to be seen. The signaling fire was lit. I saw more and more people. People in high spirits, laughing loudly, and it filled the night with music. The snow was trampled into the ground.
For my part I was filled with the image of the redheaded girl. “What would she be wearing?” I asked myself. “She has seen the world, what could she tell me?” I reached the river. A long line had formed in front me. The heavy cloud cover seemed to drop even lower. It had come in from the dark horizon and now filled the entire sky. Large flakes sailed slowly to the ground. The sky over the circus encampment was glowing.
I, along with the rest of the town, was funneled across the bridge and then turned from the road. A crocked line of lights led from the road to the camp entrance. The cairns were oil torches. There were four admission booths. I couldn't see what the people inside the booths looked like until it was my turn. One was a short man sporting a big hat, a cigar and a wry smile.
“Hello, young man. How many will it be?”
I gave him the money, but before I could ask him anything, he said, “One, here you go. Enjoy!”
He then pushed me through. I wanted to ask him if he knew where I might find her. But the moment I passed through the gateway I lost all thought. I suddenly found myself in a maze of brown tents, each surrounded by a string of smaller torches. The snow was no longer falling but the sky looked immense. A colossal cloud trying to touch the ground. Excited, I began walking in among the tents when I suddenly heard a loud roar. I walked ahead to the tent where the sound was coming from. A couple, standing in front of me pulled the curtain aside and walked in. I followed. Inside, there were perhaps thirty people watching a small elevated stage. I couldn't tell what they were seeing at first. Then I moved closer and saw a short man skulking about on an otherwise empty stage. He had a smirk that seemed to envelope him completely. He moved about, carefully watching the crowd, who in turn were held by the throat. He stopped, opened his mouth and let out a roar, the sound of which I had never even dreamt of. A deep sound that shrieked and brushed against the bones of the audience as it passed through the tent. Loud cheers erupted but I was dumbstruck. The man began pacing the stage as if resting before another outburst. I left before he could repeat it.
Outside, it was much colder than before I walked into the tent but I didn't care. I couldn't help but smile from my amazement, and this emboldened me to try the next one. A speech reached me even before I pulled the tent flap aside and walked inside.
“…brought to you from remote corners of the world, from places the maps cannot show, here are wonders and possibilities you…”
A loud cheer swallowed the presenter's words, and a small robed person stepped onto the stage, as the presenter stepped down. At first it seemed the light from the torches couldn't reach this person. The robe fell aside, and I beheld a woman of no age with terrifying eyes. Her naked body was scarred but not viciously so, as if the ugly scars made her beautiful. Somehow, I knew she had come from a land much older than my own. She raised up her hands and looked into the crowd. On either side of her a youth appeared. The two were much taller than the ancient creature in the middle. They were dressed in brown tattered clothes. I couldn't tell if they were boys or girls. The old one took a small step back and the two tall ones began to move in place—small flowing moments at first which slowly became more pronounced. Suddenly, their arms reached all around their bodies. The legs moved to an equally impossible position. Still standing in place, the two resembled slithering pillars that sent small quakes through the audience. They moved and seemed to form new shapes. The head even seemed dislodged from their bodies. It filled me with an uncanny sense of pain but I couldn't look away. There she stood, as sacred as anything I had ever seen, gazing at time moving around and through the crowd. She then turned and left the stage.
The intensity of the crowd grew as the two jerked their bodies in ever new ways. I flinched as I watched the spectacle. Laughter and shouts were heaped upon the stage. The noises were guttural and hollow, carving out the human presence.
Suddenly, there, in a mesh of flickering shadows and the pulsing crowd, I saw her. She stood in perfect composure just off the stage. Her red hair looked black in the dim light. I smiled at her and gently raised my hand. She calmly shook her head. It was then that I noticed the change. Her hair was tightly bound in a knot and her beauty now bore an insidiousness I didn't understand. The long exchanges between us wore me down. Then, almost by way of a dream, she slipped out of sight and the madness of the crowd assailed me again. I left the tent at once. The snow had begun falling again. I kept her in my mind for a moment. I felt disappointed, and hurt, yet there had been a purity in her eyes.
I looked around and some moments passed before I realized it. I was utterly alone. The snowfall and the torches burning were the only sounds. The snow had covered all the footprints and every hint of human. It was as though I could see the future. A terrible future where the fiend's wolves had swallowed all the people as well. The camp was encircled by the darkness and the low hung clouds in the sky. Even the torches looked like they were fighting for life. The image of her gaze returned to me and I felt an ease in my chest. I didn't know what story I was in, but it felt undeniable and far more immense than the one I knew.
Suddenly, I heard footprints in the snow and suddenly Mrs. Moson walked by me. She was in a hurry with a delicious smile on her face. Her eyes found me, and she stooped. She offered an almost embarrassed grin and a nod before rushing on. Like a wayward ghost passing through. The cold crept inside my clothes and the emptiness of the camp made me anxious. Then I saw her. It was the ageless woman from the tent of madness. She looked at me. Wrapped in a thick grey blanket that the snow didn't seem to touch, she walked towards me with feral serenity.
I didn’t answer her.
“I've seen every one of your kind. Boys wandering in, searching for something but with no idea of how to find it. Tonight should be no different.”
Her breath was horrible.
“You see that woman?” She pointed towards Mrs. Moson. “She came here to have her future told. Just like you, really.”
I must have made a frown.
“No? You don't think so?”
“I was told they come because they want their fortunes changed, that’s why they see her.”
“See who? Imonda?” I cautiously nodded, fearing that I was admitting to more than I ought to.
The woman paused and looked about her. “People should know what they are asking. They seldom do.”
The plumes of warm air escaping her lips reeked of rot. “You saw the big fire your town made in the square, I take it. I don't know why these things happen but they always do. Come with me.”
She walked by me and when I turned to follow her, the camp was buzzing with people again.
“This has nothing do to with you, boy, so don't worry. But let me help you. We have other soothsayers and fortune tellers, but only one prophet. Imonda has been with us for such a long time, but she is not mentioned in the same breath as the rest of us. I was only a child when I found Imonda screaming one night, wandering through a meadow. Her face torn apart by grief and her body shaking. I put my arms around her, and we sat in the grass for a long time, waiting for the dream to loosen its grip on her. Finally, only her lips quivered slightly, but she refused to open her eyes. I asked her what she had seen. She got very quiet, sitting in my arms. She heaved a sigh of complete and miserable surrender. She said she saw trenches, in the east, camps, and fire, enough fire to swallow everything. There were no faces. Not a single face, only endless lists of names and places to be ripped from the earth. No blood left, just a sterile surface wiped clean. She said none of us would be alive to see it, and then she could smile again. And that is how it is, and always has been.”
We walked a bit farther, in silence. I didn't know what to say to her story. Just like the circus around me, it seemed fantastical.
We reached a tent which looked just like all the others. As we came close, a man emerged from the tent. He staggered, as if bewildered, and then spun around to look at the tent he had left. Just as we passed him, I saw his face. Thomson. His eyes were vaguely bloodshot, and his cheeks were pale. I could see his yellow teeth in his open mouth. They looked brittle, as did the rest of him. He kept staring at the tent, like he was reading a message.
“No, don’t… Don't believe…”
He never looked at me, but I felt certain those words were for me. I felt dread, under my skin and inside my skull. He turned and staggered on, shoulders hunched and silent footsteps.
“I've seen that kind, too.”
Her words broke the silence, and when I looked at her I suddenly saw nothing but kindness and pity. She then parted the entrance and motioned for me to enter.
“Don't worry. Like I said, this has nothing to do with you and there is nothing you can do about it.”
I hesitated but walked in, hoping this meeting was one I could eventually leave safely.
Imonda stood, opposite the entrance, with her hands folded in front of her. She had golden hair and dark, almost black eyes. Her flawless skin signaled youth, but even I knew better. The left side of her throat was marked by small redden scars. She wore a bright blue robe.
“Hello, young man, have you come to hear your future? There is nothing you can do about it.”
The entire tent suddenly swayed from a violent gush of wind. A low howl passed over the camp and went on into the night. I couldn't take my eyes off her despite the feelings she stirred in me. My instincts told me to leave.
“You don’t know why you are here, but it could not have been otherwise.”
Her eyes seemed to change color in the fluttering light, and I could feel her voice inside my skull. I noticed a chair in front of me.
“Please, come and sit down. Did you see Thomson on your way out? I'm afraid he left rather despondent.”
It was then that I noticed the room. She stood by a wide table littered with small effects I had never seen before. A small fire was burning, as were some large candles.
“But…You wanted to ask me something else didn't you? Come, ask. Let's dispense with this nervousness”
“Why did I see Mrs. Moson?”
“That was strange, wasn’t it? You were looking for someone else when you came tonight. And now you have questions about two other people. Maybe this is much more than you thought. What have you been told about us? What did you expect? A goblin sitting on some gnarly branch?”
I sat down, feeling cracked open. “Lady Oper told me about curses and that fortuneteller is a bad name.”
“She told you something else too, didn't she?”
“She said that people don't want prophets.”
“True, most people do not. Mrs. Moson certainly doesn't. Which is why she’s not here. But that doesn't explain why you are.”
“I was led by a stranger. I don't know why I'm here.”
She chuckled. “You don’t know why you have come, but you want to ask me about the girl. She is not important, and neither are you. She brought you here to see. That’s all. There is nothing good to be learned from this.”
A small shudder passed over her face. The tiniest horror was visible until it was replaced with a wide smile in a swift contorting motion. My hands felt moist.
“When you walked in here, you left behind the world of possibilities, and you will leave here lesser than when you came. There is no need for a long explanation. What good will it do you.”
I heard a torrent of voices outside the tent growing in fervor. It was impossible to hear any one thing, but as the frenzy reached its peak, the terror was clear. The voices then died away, or the people left.
“All those people in your town, they squabble about their business in no real hurry. I remember the last time we were here. It was summer, and an unbearably hot one at that. I left the camp and walked through the old center. I can still remember the smell. Awful. But I also found it cozy. And easeful, the way everyone greeted me and never looked away.”
She gestured towards the scar on her throat and went on. “They are all here tonight, every soul. Most live in the old center or have their business there. Their lives. Each one watching the future when they should mind the present. Fortuneteller really is a bad name.”
She looked at the curtain in the direction of the town before closing her eyes. “Go, look.”
I thought she had the look of a statue. Her tone startled me, and my mouth went dry.
“It's all right. There is nothing you can do.”
I was reluctant to stand, fearing it would be a trick to embarrass me. But nothing happened. No laughter, or sly remarks. Nothing, except a mounting silence. Serrated and haunting.
“Go, boy. She'll be there too.”
I left my chair and walked outside. The camp was deserted again. The sky was closer than ever. Most of the torches had gone out from the violent gush of wind earlier and the snow no longer fell. And then I noticed a bright light. The dark sky was lit in a harsh glow beyond the river. An utter silence reigned, and I felt its weight. I knew where that was. I ran towards the entrance, passing the ticket booth, where the short man still stood. He looked at the ground. The road was hard to see in the dark. The cairns lit far less than before. I made for the bridge and soon reached a small group of older people heading the same way. I quickly outpaced them but felt as though they were still ahead, somehow. The moment I reached the top of the bridge I stopped. In front of me a large crowd had gathered. And beyond them. Fire.
I watched and beheld the old town center completely hidden inside a roaring blaze. Only the tops of the tallest buildings were still visible. Mrs. Oper came running up from behind me. She paused and watched. Then she ran on, fighting through the crowd which then seemed to absorb her. I feared for her. She became invisible, in among the numberless shadows the fire made.
I thought I could see a beast, a creature with a million hands and a massive throat, moving inside the flames. There was a small crash. The city hall tower must have crumbled and collapsed. The blaze rose up as if to celebrate its doing. The beast was swallowing everything I knew. The only grace was in knowing that everyone had left their homes this night. Mostly, there was a constricted silence in the dark. A stillness so heavy it groaned. Then I heard a few laughs. A hollow ringing and it made me feel ill.
And then it became clear. It was ever so simply laid out. The whole town stood stranded on the field in front of me. All the people. Wolves roamed the vast outer fringes. I looked around and felt that I knew them all. Every single one of them standing in the cold under the low crushing sky, mesmerized in terror. My entire world was being swallowed down a fiery throat, doomed. It was painful to witness this beast reach for the immense sky. I had to hurry away. I turned and there she was again. The girl with the crimson hair stood in my way, and I froze. I felt the conflagration behind me become intimate. I remembered the look on Thomson's face, and I remembered the dread it gave to me. I could hear the crackle of the fire as it raged and feel the beast breathe on me.
Then she took a step towards me and took my hand. Her touch was gentle and cautious. I watched her face turn gloomy as her thumb caressed the back of my hand. The light from the flames seemed to gain strength. Her lips moved, but I could not hear anything. Her eyes darted from the fire to my own, and then it became clear to me. This was her grieving. She was apologizing to me. She was still like me and the bereaved crowd, because there was nothing to say, nothing that could be said. The heartbreaking knowledge was tacitly passed on to me. An overwhelming tiredness crept into my body. And rage.
I felt tears floating just behind my eyes, but the moment was not right.
The name was fixed in my mind. I tried to pull back my hand, but she suddenly had a firm grip on it. She moved closer to me, close enough for me to hear her whisper, “Not everything.”
I was stunned by her voice in the silence. It was small and light but intact, not broken in the least. The warmth in her hand spread through mine. Through her touch and gaze, deep down in my soul, that warmth and lightness laid itself. And for a brief moment, the vast and impenetrable sky seemed a bit farther away.
Then I heard a voice, a shout coming out of the dark. It was Mrs. Moson and she was wailing.
“I didn't ask for this, you fiend!”
Her voice cracked at the end, spilling heartache and pain onto the snow. Though I couldn't see her, I could perfectly envision the look on her face. The redheaded girl let go of my hand and I knew I had to move. I walked toward the encampment and didn't look back. My heart and my throat swelled as I trod the trampled path to the entrance. It was deserted. The fires surrounding the tents were burning again. My throat ran dry when I spotted her tent, and my heart hardened.
I found Imonda sitting where I left her, making a cruel smile with her eyes. There was only a vague notion of distress there. “What happened?!”
“Mrs. Moson sends for us. She asks and then she begs. She finally pays for us to come here, to have us tell her fortune. We come. She comes running like a schoolgirl bursting with excitement to see her father, never once considering that the man might do her harm.”
“You knew that was going to happen!”
“Yes. But please, no long explanation.”
Her cold voice tempered my own. “Why didn't you tell someone?”
“What do you mean, of course you could!”
“No, not true.”
“What would you have me do? I have offered tears, prayers and pleas. And screams. And more sleepless nights than I can count. Nothing appeases. Nothing ever has. A smile is all I have left to present. That's my curse. I am fated to bear witness, nothing else. I am a traveler from an ancient world.”
I felt wounded, lost in some agonizing stupor. I could envision the fire spreading out from the old town, burning through the country until it swallowed everything I knew. “No! I don't believe it!!”
My heart felt corrosive in my chest.
“Yes, you do. You came back in spite of yourself. This is where we strip you of your illusions and this is where that leaves you. There was nothing you could have done about it, boy. I have told you so. It was not your fault. This is why no one really remembers us when we pass through. Because they know, by some buried wisdom, that we are best forgotten. Forgotten, though not entirely gone.”
She just smiled at me. Her gaze was kind yet terrible. The anger welled up inside of me grew, but it was trapped. Nowhere to go, nothing to say. There was the agonizing acceptance. I remembered Mrs. Moson, asking her servant to fetch the doomsayers to our town. Maybe she was laughing in the crowd. A mock laughter of absolute defeat. I remembered the message the redheaded girl had passed on to me. Her faint whisper being endlessly repeated until I knew what it meant.
Imonda continued. “Fate and curse come dancing by on their own accord and however little— ”
“Who is the girl?”
Her eyes squinted at my interruption, as if trying to learn the depth of it. “Does it matter?”
“Yes, it does!” I answered defiantly.
“I don't know. It doesn't matter. The town was always going to burn. The shape of things to come. What difference does it make that someone was there to hold your little hand while you watched?”
“You bear witness, but you don't see, do you?”
I rose, turned, feeling I had done this already and impotent rage was all I had left. “Don't forget to tip your waitress on your way out!”
Her voice was shrill for the first time. The cold air pecked at my face as I stepped outside. I looked around, in the vain hope that the redheaded girl was watching me. The place was desolate, and utterly ordinary. There were no signs of passing. But her words were still with me, and they held swallowing fire at bay. But my anger stayed. It wouldn’t leave. I had to make it leave. And then my hand, almost by its own accord, reached up and tipped one of the torches onto the tent. It caught fire. The flames quickly spread along the fabric. I turned and left. I didn't want to look it. Instead, I began walking home. The gargantuan sky had dropped farther still, almost scrapping against the ground. Almost.