Seated between his mother and father under a swirling canopy of snow and crimson, a small, anxious boy wrestled with a rising sensation in his throat.
Nothing, he thought, seemed outwardly wrong; spectators dressed in fashionable apparel formed a sea of cloth and limbs around an empty circular stage. A warm spotlight hanging from the overhead rafters bathed the center of the tent in a welcoming glow as smaller incandescent bulbs glistened around the stage’s perimeter. Soon, a throng of colorful performers would march into the spotlight and promise the audience a night of spectacle and wonder in the grand tradition of Alvah’s Traveling Circus.
Even after the umpteenth survey of his surroundings, the feeling remained. He absent-mindedly chewed on a piece of caramelized popcorn, tasting its brittle interior under a sugary coating, and wondered if it was just anticipation he was experiencing. Perhaps this was a communal emotion, an energy contained in the stillness of the air itself as hundreds of expectant souls took a collective bated breath. The feeling was becoming unbearable. A sickly familiar sense of realization dawned on the boy as the sweetness of melted caramel faded from his tongue and he grasped the sensation that seemed to overtake him: dread.
Noticing her son squirming in the seat beside her, his mother looked over with concern. “Owen?” The boy averted his gaze from a metallic rod at the top of the tent and looked into her crystal blue eyes. “Do you feel the bees in your stomach?” He nodded.
Bees were the antithesis of the nervous, tickly feeling of butterflies so often described by sympathetic adults. His mother had coined the phrase after a bout in which her son had materialized at the foot of her bed in the middle of the night, racked with nausea and a feeling of invisible needles poking the inside of his chest. When it was sufficiently concluded that he did not have a fever, Owen admitted that the feeling came and went, sometimes lapping away and then crashing in waves against his tiny chest; always with him, he learned to keep his swarm of fuzzy creatures at bay most of the time, a few occasionally escaping their purgatory to turn his stomach this way and that.
Now, it felt like millions of little insects were crawling through his intestines, stinging his oesophagus and flying higher and higher towards his mouth. “Want me to go get you some water?” His father had been nervously eyeing the boy’s predicament, eager to help. He hated seeing his son uncomfortable but had become acquainted with his tendencies towards panic. Owen turned around and tried to unhinge his jaw, his tongue still tracing a faint, sugary sweetness; when he found his vocal cords to be dry and useless, he emitted a faint croak and sheepishly nodded his head.
A crack of thunder sounded from outside the tent as his father sidled through the row. The night had been clear, the stars dancing in their celestial patterns as the trio drove to the countryside for the much-anticipated circus. Owen mused the possibility of rain as approaching thunderheads drifted over the hills and trees, casting black shadows across the fields and encroaching on the solitary canvas structures and the masses contained therein. He wondered if the tents were equipped to facilitate such a downpour, or if the liquid would seep through the woven fabric, dripping onto an unexpectant crowd.
Whispered hushes circled through the big top as a man wearing a red-and-gold overcoat stepped into the spotlight, his dark cane clicking on the wooden boards. A spell of anticipatory silence cast itself over the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen” the ringmaster began; Owen tried to remember when his creeping sense of danger had first presented itself. He remembered walking into the gaping black maw of the tent, hand in hand with his parents. An isolated glance over his shoulder had resulted in him meeting eyes with a clown in a striped suit. There was something unsettling about the clown’s over-exaggerated makeup: black diamonds around his eyes and a grotesquely engorged pink nose supplementing an, Owen thought, inhumanly wide smile. A sense of dissonance between the clown’s painted grin and sad, brown eyes gave him the appearance of an apologetic reaper, as if he knew all that would happen but could do nothing to prevent it.
He was snapped back to reality with a deafening crack and illuminative flash of light from outside the thin walls. His father was still gone. Above the stage, two women glided through the air with otherworldly grace and precision; their bodies contorted as they levitated, and their fingers intertwined and separated, locked and divided. Behind each of them flowed a long turquoise scarf, woven of silk and adorned with glimmering gems, drifting with dreamlike fluidity and morphing into nebulous shapes under the hazy orange light.
A strange smell seemed to have overtaken the dominant scents of peanuts and sugar, an odorous burning. In the pinhole top of the canvas ceiling, Owen noticed a new glow. It was as if this concentration of light had birthed the blood-red spirals that descended along the walls. Now, though, a dark, viscous smoke billowed down over the floating women.
Nobody seemed to notice. The smoke was all wrong; hot air rises, Owen thought, so why is it pouring over us, getting pulled closer and closer to the center of the earth? Maybe it’s just the nature of the funhouse: reality bends as women fly through the air, ascending like silvered angels, bewitched and tethered to the earth by their silk ropes as the clouds of ash and monoxide liquify and eclipse them.
A flame, now, burning down the stitches of the tent, licking and spreading. Flickering dancers of light hell-bent on dissolution. The colors themselves seemed to melt together, red-and-white wax dripping down from the sky, the walls, sinking into the ground. And still, the audience was enraptured. Absolutely still. Above them, a firmament of flames formed a blurry mass of light. The angels now obscured by waves of heat, their features indistinguishable, still twisting in the air.
Owen could not move, could only hold his mother’s hand as he watched the big top burning and melting around them. She, too, unaware and paralyzed, a golden reflection glimmering in the deep black of her dilated pupils. His father was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? The people around him, melting like wax figures, static, their flesh boiling and popping but never bleeding, dissolving into puddles of heavy liquid that seeped into the ground and the air; floating but not floating, falling and ascending. The bees in his throat, pinching and stinging, now escaped through his mouth in a swarm and joined the fiery mass in the sky where the angels were now silhouetted.
The tent was gone, a burning carcass in the middle of an empty fairground. Around them, moths of ash fluttered and fell to dust in the smoky air, reforming and wandering backwards in their destined paths of infinite death and rebirth. In the distance, a single tent stood among the smoldering remains of the others. Smaller than the rest, its entrance flapped open in the wind, an invitation— a beckoning. Owen, still clutching tight to his mother’s hand, felt himself being pulled toward the dark opening. His feet were moving on their own; a captive in his own body, a waking dream, he could only watch.
The first thing he noticed were the walls: unlike the canvas displays of before, the inside was coated in a flowing red velvet, draped across the floor and the ceiling, seemingly growing over all its domain. An endless landscape of soft crimson, vaguely reflective but dark and devouring of light. In the center of the room a small round table stood, a ball of onyx crystal and a dripping wax candle atop it. Illuminated by the candle, Owen could make out the shape of an ancient woman, cloaked in a shawl and seated motionlessly at the table. She did not look up. Opposite the woman, two empty stools waited expectantly.
Owen and his glassy-eyed mother sat down. Wordlessly, the woman lifted her head. Now Owen could see her features: her wrinkled brow, her sunken cheeks, her whole face worn by Time. But more than that, she was ageless, undying; a forever remnant of many selves, many lives, a permanent fixture of humanity. Her eyes, welling with tears, endlessly reflected the ocher flame. A trembling hand lifted itself from the tablecloth, and for a moment Owen was unsure of whether it was hers or his own. The woman raised her arm and reached towards him, and in a brief instance, he hesitated. He was afraid she would show him something he was not ready to see. Maybe he would be changed, the essence of himself inexorably jumbled or shifted. But he could not stop himself from letting go his dormant mother’s grasp and holding the woman’s hand.
Immediately, he knew, he had been here before. He had always been here and not here, forever stuck in the limbo of non-existence. It wasn’t fear he felt, but a great weight on his very soul as his throat choked and his heart stopped. The weight of thousands of jumbled memories, not just his own, weighed down on him, and he felt an overwhelming melancholy. The layers of time, of age, of consciousness and existence peeling back onto itself forever and his own crack in the broken ring of time eating itself and eroding through it all. She guided his hand onto the cool black onyx, and he saw himself, saw himself as he really was, reflected in the deep black pool of the Universe. He was everything. He looked back up at the old woman and could not help but smile at the crushing absurdity of it all. And she smiled back. And their eyes welled up, and inky tears fell from their cheeks, newborn and ancient but forever entwined, and together they wept.
Max Buttrill was born in Virginia and currently lives in Florida with his parents and sister. He aspires to be a filmmaker and is fascinated with art that explores the human subconsciousness, especially regarding hidden thoughts that lay just below the surface. He is currently in his Junior year of high school. His Instagram account is here.