You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
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Control was never a thing I wished for, it was a thing I pined after like a first love gone wrong. Not in the way of Romeo and Juliet, but wrong like Heathcliff and Catherine. Too many failed chances, hurt feelings, and lost causes. I am Heathcliff and it is Catherine and I plan to haunt it for all my remaining days and even into my death.
Not your normal choice for a lover. Nevertheless, it is mine. And right now, I’m losing it.
“You will do this.” My voice is barely above a whisper but the woman standing on the platform thirty feet above me hears every word as if it’s whispered into her mind. In a way, it was. “You will walk the high wire and you will not fall and you will do it now, before our crowd loses interest. Or else…” The command didn’t need to be finished; the ‘or else’ was understood on a level not even I can fully explain.
She takes a tentative, shaky step, one foot still on the platform and the toes of the other on the line.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, quiet please, as Esmerelda attempts this terrifying feat.” My voice booms for all to hear but really, it’s for show. I’ve got them so tuned in they can almost hear my thoughts. So much about being the Ringmaster is for show. Like these tights and this jacket that doesn’t fit quite right since the master before me was a man. The only thing that fits well is the top-hat. Perfect whether I choose to hide my hair. Or not.
“I told you, my name is not Esmerelda,” the woman above me grates as she takes the step that moves her fully onto the wire. She is fighting the control more than most others. It’s unfortunate because if I can’t bring her to fully submit, she will definitely not make it across the wire. Maybe if she understands her survival rests in my hands…
“You have exactly two choices. You can shut up and do as I say. And live. Or you can fight me and I promise, you won’t make it out of here alive.” It’s not that I want her to die. Actually, I desperately want her to live. I’ve never had one die on me. Several close calls and more than a few tragic accidents but I haven’t lost one.
I find her family in the audience. I hate when they bring their kids. Something about a carnival is inviting to families but clearly they don’t pay attention to the advertisement for my carnival—Carnivoule. Especially the part at the bottom where it warns, Come expecting a chilling and terrifying experience!
I keep my voice low, casual. No need to give away how exciting this battle of wills is. “Don’t look now, but your little boy is watching from the front row and your husband has turned an interesting shade of pale. If you want to make it back to them, you have to trust me. I’m the only one who can get you across that wire.” To show her my meaning, I let the hair-like thread of control slip away. As expected, she begins wobbling uncontrollably, swinging left and then right and then too far left. Her arms pitched forward, circling the empty air for some invisible stability. The crowd gasps as if they were one instead of several hundred.
A panicked squeal that sounds like the word ‘okay’ splits the space between us and just like that, the bond goes from hair-like to steel cable.
I smile. Can’t help it. The lady was safe—a bonus. The crowd was terrified—a necessity. And I was in control once again—a privilege.
“Alright, Esmerelda, walk. And do it like you’re a human and not an ape.” Immediately, her back straightens, her shoulders lifting. She has the posture of a runway model. Hm, I wonder if I could make her strut across the wire. Better not. This stunt is taking entirely too long already.
To the amazement of all, she crosses the remaining wire without hesitation. Not a wobble to show her fear. Not a tremble. Not a millimeter’s worth of misstep.
When she’s back on solid ground, I release my hold on her. Regretfully. It wasn’t every day I was able to achieve such a strong connection. It’s intoxicating.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the amazing Esmerelda!” I give a flourishing wave in her direction as the audience cheers a standing O. Unfortunately, Esmerelda doesn’t bow and I have to make her. This time hair-like is enough to accomplish bending at the waist. When I release her again, she stumbles back to her seat. I’m sure she’d rather leave now, but no one is allowed to go once they enter.
Until the show’s over.
Then they can return to their boring, insignificant little lives, armed with a new appreciation for it. Losing control for even a small amount of time can do that for people, make them realize what they had might not have been the drag they’d thought it was.
I turn in a leisurely circle, scanning the audience. They are absolutely rapt, eyes wide, breath hitched, waiting for the next thrill. Tamping down the giddiness that rides my insides like a baby sloth, I ferret out my next helper.
The perfect one is perched on the very top row, left of the exit. It’s not that he’s particularly submissive looking, even with his slight stature. It’s that his eyes are following my every move, not the least bit interested in the swaying tent lights or the others I’ve taken from the audience to help with the animals. His gaze isn’t bouncing from one dark corner to another waiting for something frightening to jump out. The way he’s watching me, I am the frightening one.
He’s right on target.
I stifle a grin. “And now, prepare yourselves. Hold your children tightly. Our next attraction is a beast so ferocious even I cannot tame him.” A lie, but whatever. I juggle my control until I find the thread binding me to the animal. “Our fortune is, well, misfortune this evening. The beast, unfortunately, is… angry.” Roar. He obeys right on cue and the sound is soul-shattering. How he does it is a mystery to me but, his roar is misery, rage, and vengeance all rolled into a rippling sound wave that feels like it could penetrate the depths of the earth and return with hell’s demons.
A baby cries and for a spare moment, I remember what I once was. Before Carnivoule. A park. A swing. Laughter. Fuzzy. Warm. Love. There were three of us. A man. A child. Me. We walked hand in hand through the red and yellow striped big top, grinning at the warbling organ music.
Like a thunder clap, I return to the shivering people and growling beast.
I’m where I belong.
Control. My love. My only love. You smell sweeter than the cotton candy wafting on the breeze.
“Yes, our beast is very furious indeed. But alas, he demands his time in the spotlight.” I glance at the trembling husk of a man who stands ready to drop the curtain from the lion’s cage. “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, without further ado, I give you our great and mighty… Pharaoh.”
Like a choreographed dance, the curtain is drawn, the bar holding Pharaoh in his cage is released, and he bounds into the center of the arena, roaring and snarling in every direction.
“More,” I whisper, and he obliges, bounding forward and stopping within inches of the front row. Shrieks flutter straight into my heart, a lovely sound.
“Now, Pharaoh,” I chide, for all to hear. “Don’t eat the people. They’re here to see you. Come here, lovely.” He struts over to me, his snarls making him sound like a petulant child. He plays this part so well. A ribbon of pride ties a bow around my heart. Reaching a hand forward, I feign trying to pet him. On cue, he snaps razor-lined jaws at me, his hot breath reminding me of kerosene and peanuts.
Addressing the audience, I say, “It seems he has no time for me. But I have the distinct feeling one of you might have better luck. Who would like to try?” The crowd stirs, mumbling their fear. Heads shake in desperate disagreement. “Anyone? Step right up! Who would dare to tame the ferocious Pharaoh?” I wait, once more, knowing there won’t be a volunteer. “A shame,” I sigh. “It seems I’ll have to choose then. Let’s see… you. You in the back, with the dreads.” My choice weakling raises his eyebrows. His gaze darts to the tent exit only steps away.
I laugh. “Yes, you. You will tame the cat tonight.”
His head shakes back and forth, no, even as he stands and begins climbing down.
“You will help Pharaoh put on the show of a lifetime and if you are lucky—which I truly think you are—you will live to tell the story.”
Pharaoh hisses threateningly at the new addition to the ring, pawing at the dirt-covered floor. The sound sends an odd shiver across my skin because… I didn’t tell him to do it.
Reigning in the feeling, I focus on my helper. He has stopped several feet in front of me and up close I can see he is much taller than I first thought. Not as thin either. What makes me, for the first time, think twice about my choice is what I see when I look into his eyes. Fear mixed with excitement. A bubbling cocktail of terror and joy—on the rocks. I see in him what I feel. Like looking into a mirror through somebody else’s eyes.
It sends me grasping at all my strings. I catch them just before they slip away.
In my bold voice, “May I present to you the Great and Powerful Cordova!”
Applause booms but I hear him clearly when he says, “Cordova? I like that name.”
Ignoring him, I snap the cord connecting us until it is tight as a bow string. Going by the jerk of his head, he feels it. Good. Complete cooperation will be needed for this one.
But instead of bringing him to heel, it does something else. Something that leaves me aching and reeling at the same time: he snaps back. And when he realizes what he’s done and the effect it has on me, he does it again. The feel of the bond going both ways leaves me breathless with panic.
This has never happened before. I don’t like it. To be clear, I loathe it.
Glaring up into his eyes, it’s like a butterfly being birthed from its cocoon. Look at these wings I have now. Look at this thing I can do. What do they call it? Flying?
“Well, now. What do we have here?” he whispers gleefully. There is another snap of our bond and I’m jerked off my feet.
Steel cable—and that’s with me resisting.
His smile is wide and revealing. He takes a deep breath and it feels like he’s sucking all the free air out of the tent. Maybe the world. There won’t be any air when he’s done, I just know it.
“I feel it,” he says, everything about him sparkling like a newborn. “I understand now. This is… exhilarating.”
He circles, scanning the now silent audience as I did only moments ago. He is tall and firm and dominant. In charge. Even Pharaoh is silent. The only sound I hear is me, inside, screaming and snarling and desperately yanking at my leash.
“Give me your hat,” he says. His command threads through me, becoming an urge I can’t resist.
But I do. I resist.
He comes close, cupping my cheek, a tender threat. “Give me your hat. Now.”
My hand reaches up, fingering the silk brim. No matter how much I fight I can’t stop myself from lifting it off my head and passing it over. He spins it in his hand, admiring, before fitting it over his dreadlocks.
“Fits perfectly,” he says with a grin. “The jacket.”
No. I won’t do it. I give him the jacket, I give him everything. I won’t. I can’t.
This is my Carnivoule. Mine.
“No,” I say, loud and clear.
His head cocks to the side. My top hat fits so perfectly, it doesn’t even shift with the movement. “Aw now,” he smirks, “don’t you realize what has happened? For the first time as Ringmaster, you’ve met the one you can’t control. You’ve failed Carnivoule and now Carnivoule has chosen another to do its mastering.” His smile is filled with mock pity as he places a deceptively gentle hand on my shoulder. “Carnivoule has chosen me. Now, give me the jacket.”
No. No, no, no. I have not failed. I am Ringmaster. I am. Control. Control…
Somehow, he has the jacket. My leash is tight. I can’t hear the crowd. I can’t feel them.
“Ladies and Gents, allow me to introduce myself. I am Cordova, Master of the Carnivoule. A round of applause for my lovely assistant…” he gestures to me, “Indora.”
The applause is deafening. It steals what’s left of my breath, my dignity.
THAT’S NOT MY NAME. That’s not my name. My mouth is frozen shut but my mind screams. He can’t call me that. I’m not Indora.
I’m… I’m… not the master. I’m forever Heathcliff. I’m… Indora.
I am alone. Control has left me, divorced, a beggar on the street. What I wouldn’t give for one more taste of it. But there is nothing. Nothing but my leash and my master. My Carnivoule.
T.A. Brock spends her days gleefully plucking words from the chaos of life and dressing them up so they look pretty. Then she calls them stories and tries to convince people to read them. She resides in the great land of tornadoes (Oklahoma) with her husband, two children, and her beloved Kuerig machine.
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