Fiction published originally The Oddville Press, Fall 2018 Edition
Another carnival almost came and went before I discovered a loophole in the Harlequin’s game.
It all began one autumn morning when I visited him at the carriage house for the first time. The house sat in a quaint, historic village on a meandering street next to an old drug store, stable, and turnverein. A brick walkway led up to the entrance, surrounded by an oak grove covered in ball moss and tangled vines. Its stately facade stood in great contrast to the wonders occupying the usually recumbent grounds.
The Harlequin worked in the building year-round. As a staunch patron of the courtesan arts, he was known to linger there during carnival season, gazing out the window at the tents and rides dotting the midway.
To the west lay acres of woods where I often ventured as a child. I would have spent the hours wandering the trails and admiring the sunlight glittering through the leaves if not for my duty as a correspondent to keep up on all the latest fair events.
After entering the property, I climbed the wooden stairs to the spacious office on the second floor to find him sprawled across a red velvet chaise longue. With the festivities in swing, I expected he’d be dressed in full attire. Instead, he wore a plain, white shirt and black pants.
Still, there was an unmistakable air of mischief about him, and our eyes met in faint recognition, though I wasn’t sure why. He studied me with a look askance before rising off the seat and crossing the room with a nimble hop.
“You look very fresh-faced this morning,” the Harlequin said in a tone that made me unable to decide whether it was a compliment or accusation. “Are you prepared for a riveting exposé about grits and corn on the cob?”
I offered my hand, which he shook vigorously.
“Your career is improving, I take it?”
“Every day. You must be excited it’s that time of year again.”
“I’m ebullient! Please have a seat and let’s talk.”
The furniture seemed garish in the business office, but I didn’t question why it was there, knowing the Harlequin likely lugged it up the stairs himself. I sank into the cushion beside him, noticing his cheeks redden and lips part in a friendly smile.
“So, you’re a—correspondent?” he asked.
“I’m the correspondent. Company’s made me chief dispatcher this year.”
“Well, then, you should ask questions. Be inquisitive.”
Just as soon as he sat down, he leapt up again, capering toward the window. I watched his calves and thighs flex beneath the pants. His body appeared to be molded from a ball of clay—something sculpted on a whim, but with no less skill.
The Harlequin peered over the veranda as he added water and several scoops of coffee to the machine on the ledge, replacing the decanter.
“How do you like it?” he cocked his head over his shoulder.
“Good for you.”
He stood with his back turned, humming under his breath until it finished brewing.
Then, he poured some in a paper cup for each of us—topping his off with cream and sugar— and carried them over. Returning to the seat, he crossed his legs and spread his arms across the back to occupy as much space as possible.
“So, you said you were excited,” I said. “Ebullient, I think, was the word.”
“Yes,” he grinned.
“Why don’t you tell me what all the excitement’s about?”
He took a sip and gulped loudly.
“We have the best lineup in years—a grand championship drive, horses and acrobatic riders, impresarios and world-famous performers…” his voice grew livelier as he read down the roster, “…with the newly-renovated hippodrome, it’s sure to be a phenomenal season.”
I tapped my pen thoughtfully against my lower lip.
“Nothing terribly new, though,” I said.
The comment seemed to catch him unaware, and he pursed his lips in response.
“It’s a wonderful carnival, but as the saying goes: Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, don’t you think?”
That was a cheap shot since everyone knew carnivals were meant to offer old-fashioned thrills. In the past, I’d been more than content to partake of the usual amusements, recalling a particularly bawdy rendition of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe whistling out of the midway calliope.
Knowing I misspoke, I straightened up to apologize. The Harlequin accepted, looking chagrined.
“I forget that not everyone appreciates a good ballyhoo as much as I,” he said. “Please be sure to inform your readers that it’s a fresh, new season that will delight newcomers and regulars alike.”
I nodded and wrote down what he said, pen flicking back and forth in my hand. He waited patiently until I finished before speaking again, though I felt him monitoring my nervous habits the whole time.
“I took the time to read some of your previous articles,” he said. “I think you’re a very good writer, and I’d love to have someone cover our commission on a more permanent basis if that’s something that would interest you.”
I stared into my coffee cup. The notion of my working for him seemed ludicrous—even dangerous. But when my mouth opened, I spoke without thinking.
“Would it be per diem?” I asked.
“We could begin per diem to see how it went, and then hire you full-time. Think of it as an apprenticeship. What do you say?”
He waited with bated breath, face plastered into a tight grin. It was strange: The Harlequin seemed to have no identifiable age. There were the usual signs of advanced years: skin that clung looser to his face, hair greying at the temples, crow’s feet marking the corners of his eyes, deep voice belonging to a full-grown man. Otherwise, he had all the characteristics of someone much younger—a small child, even.
I drank the rest of the coffee, swirling the sediment in the bottom.
“I’m not sure I’d be suited to an apprenticeship,” I said.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
He rocked his heels back and forth on the table as his gaze hovered over my breasts, flirting ostentatiously.
“Because I’m thinking of leaving work,” I said. “I’d like to get married, have children, and settle down.”
He shook his head. “I hope you don’t think me too solicitous, but it seems like a terrible waste of talent. Really,” he said.
“I’ve been doing this for a while. Traveling back and forth across the state, getting lost in the countryside without knowing where I am…always finding my destination eventually, of course.”
“You never miss a thing.”
“Ten years have passed since I began a career as a correspondent. It’s been very fulfilling—so much that it feels natural to leave it behind.”
“You’re young yet, though.”
He turned his head, glancing out the window at the midway, where neon lights pulsed and rides spun. A handful of people ambled around the bare patches of grass, their voices echoing off the racetrack’s lower wall, creating shock waves that punctuated the air with a sonic boom.
A funhouse sat between two of the rides, a clown’s cherry-red tongue unfurling from the clapboard walls leading up to the entryway. From a distance, it looked worn and sad.
My attention returned to the room, noticing the cloisonné jars and art lining the shelves. I half-expected to see Arab servants standing there keeping everything in order, but there appeared to be no one in the building beside us.
Glancing over, I noticed the Harlequin’s mouth was now slack—a smudge of strawberry jam on his pale face. I sensed he was trying to throw me off by acting aloof, though my real concern was the cold cunning that seemed to lurk beneath his bonhomie, along with the nagging sensation that we’d met before.
Closing my eyes, I tried to remember sliding my hand up the elegant balustrade to the room at the top of the stairs. Was there a previous meeting that slipped my mind?
Meanwhile, he’d resumed talking about the fair—or rather, his ideas for it.
“One day, this will be much more than a carnival,” he said. “It will be a full-fledged odyssey…host to elaborate floral parades… fountains of jewels with performers gliding down waterfalls…a most interesting tableaux. You might even become a star here yourself.”
I noticed his body started leaning to the side so it touched mine. I pictured the world inside his head—a realm where chaos and upheaval were the norm, and the carnival never ended. Then I desired nothing more than to get out of there.
“Something to think about,” I said, offering him a quick smile as I grabbed my notepad and pen and rose off the seat.
“Going so soon?” the Harlequin asked. I hesitated in the doorway and turned to see him now fully reclined, shirt clinging to his concave chest. “There’s still some coffee left.”
“I’ve got to get a start on this.”
“Of course.” He winked. “We wouldn’t want anyone to be deprived of the latest scoop, would we?”
“Time waits for no man.”
“Words for the wise. “Salut, mon ami. Bonne soirée. Until next time.”
My footsteps echoed along the hall as I scurried down the stairs and out of the house. Heading toward the bridge spanning the main road, I sensed a presence behind my shoulder and turned to find the Harlequin standing in the second-story window, watching me walk away.
The nightmares began shortly afterward, growing more terrifying with each recurrence.
A long hallway leading to a dark room appeared in my mind. The walls were covered in mirrors that cast my body in infinitely smaller reflections until it became a kaleidoscope of fractured images. I saw the past, present, and future merge into a timeless, eternal profusion.
All of a sudden, a hand appeared in a narrow opening high up on the far wall. An elegant hand wrapped in a silk-white glove slipped through the enclosure and descended into the room, writhing toward me.
Seconds passed as the hand came closer. I felt its icy grip on my hair and shoulders, fingers running up and down my spine before it ever touched.
My screams awakened me just in time. The memory of the nightmare pulsed at my temples as I stood at the sink and knocked back an ice-cold glass of water. The night was black as onyx outside the kitchen window, staring back at me.
At dawn, I stepped beneath a sky of tempestuous clouds. A chaotic wind threw me into a café, where I sat drinking in one of the corners, thinking I’d find solace.
But the Harlequin followed me there—his face appearing on the opposite side of the glass, cheeks flexing into a grin that filled the entire pane. I watched the white glove lift and wave back and forth.
He entered the café pretending to be a stranger, sitting in the corner to cast sinister glances in my direction.
The nightmare became a casualty of sleep, haunting me for years. Each time, the gloved hand entered the pitch-black room in a sleek, effortless motion and reached forward, shifting across the mirrored plexus. As time passed, I began to think its possessor was involved in a secret legerdemain. Always, I woke up just before it touched.
Lying awake, I wondered if it would ever go away. Spring cycled through summer, fall, and winter on an incessant loop, and the Harlequin’s game seemed like it would continue without end.
That was, until one night not so long ago. It was early autumn, and the carnival was in town again. A storm blew through one night, bringing a strong wind that shook the walls of the room. When the hand entered, pausing in mid-air, I noticed a tremor in the fingertips.
Sweat began to collect on my forehead, neck, and lower back as I gathered the nerve to finally confront it.
“Who’s there?” I called out, my voice reverberating off the walls of the chamber. A cool mist began curling into the enclosure. The room turned cold quickly, condensing to ice crystals on my skin. I shivered feverishly but remained undeterred.
“You can’t hide forever!” I exclaimed. “Come out and reveal yourself!”
The air prickled with suspense. Finally, the Harlequin spoke, though in a much higher pitch. I didn’t recognize his voice until the timbre returned.
“I do not plan to come out,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t believe you really want me to do that.”
“But I do,” I lied. “What if I joined you?”
While I had no desire to join the Harlequin, I knew it was the only way to learn the truth.
“Don’t you find your reflection alluring in all those mirrors?” he asked. “A woman of enchantment and mystery. Why would you ever desire to come out of there?”
The loophole. That was it, I realized. The Harlequin would try to entice me in any way he could.
“Enchantment?” I remarked. “What is— you encroaching on my sleep night after night? I find it ludicrous. Where is this place?”
“It is the room of dreams. A place that people struggle their whole lives to reach. Look— I’ve even given you a luxurious place to rest.”
He pointed a finger toward the corner, where I was shocked to see the red velvet chaise longue nested in shadows.
“Why don’t you lie down and rest while I entertain you with some of my latest exploits?” he suggested.
“I don’t want to rest,” I said. “I want to know where I am.”
My heartbeat resounded in the thin silence. I was sure the Harlequin could hear it.
“Very well,” he said. “Come a little closer, and I’ll let you have a glimpse.”
As the hand retreated, I left my spot and walked up to the wall, pressing my eye against the narrow, vertical slit. But there was nothing but more dark empty space within.
“I don’t see anything.”
I looked. Nothing. The Harlequin heaved a weary sigh.
“Do you really want to see?” he asked.
“Yes. Very much.”
“Alright, then. Close your eyes, and I’ll tell you when to open them.”
I did as he asked. Mist continued to gather on my forehead in a thin rime. I was perspiring heavily, despite the cold. Seconds passed slowly as I waited, faint breaths punctuating the silence. The hand hovered above the enclosure. I pictured the skin clammy beneath the silk. Then the smooth softness of the glove met my palm, filling the contours. As our fingers interlaced, the hand pulled me forward through the dark. My footsteps quickened. Suddenly, it was lifting me off the ground and carrying me upward. The voice resonated through the chamber, ascending to a higher and higher pitch. I felt a change in energy as my body rose into the air.
“Alright,” the voice said. Open.”
My eyelids fluttered to meet the night, but it was gone. I’d crossed some sort of threshold into morning. The ground was real and marshy beneath my feet with fresh-fallen rain, and the warm air stirred. Far-off voices of children and band organs flitted above the treetops.
Surrounding me was a floral and faunal menagerie like something out of a storybook. That was when I knew I was standing in a clearing in the woods near the fairgrounds.
Thick beech and maple trees cast the undergrowth in patchy shadows that scattered across the mesophytic earth. Except for the transient flutter of a bird’s wings, the woods were beautiful, ethereal, and still.
But as I peered around the wilderness, a disquieting feeling began to creep in from somewhere unfathomable. I sensed I wasn’t alone.
A voice stirred beyond the trees. I walked to the edge of the moraine, standing knee-deep in spicebush and sage to try and see past the brush.
My eyes picked up a bright square of red fabric, and seconds later, the Harlequin emerged dressed in a checkered costume, diamond tights, and a motley cap with bells on its pronged ends. He held a scepter proudly upright. The soft tinkle of bells filled the air as he stepped into the clearing.
Looking closer, I noticed something else had changed besides his clothing: He appeared much younger—the signs of age erased from his face and his skin fresh and glowing.
The Harlequin had turned into a little boy.
He lowered his chin in a debonair manner and winked, which—due to his puerile appearance—struck me as deeply unsettling.
“Hello, troubadour,” he said in a much higher tone of voice. “Remember me?”
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t recall him from anywhere. Standing together in that ancient wood, he seemed stranger than ever.
When I shook my head, his mouth turned down in dismay.
“You don’t,” he lamented.
He took a step closer, feet crunching over dry leaves.
“I’m your childhood playmate, Daniel.”
Pain needled my head like a tiny lightning bolt. Slowly, the memory returned.
Daniel! Of course! We used to play in the woods together all the time, though I wouldn’t have recognized him after all these years.
“Daniel?” I said in disbelief. “You’re—the Harlequin?”
“Yes. Well, I am now.”
“Why are you so young?”
“As a humble servant, I have no age. Though my chronology likely falls somewhere near yours, I’m wont to travel back and forth through great expanses of time. Sometimes I even forget where I am, though I’m fortunate to make it back to my office each morning on schedule,” he chuckled.
“You mean you’re—a time traveler?” I asked.
“You might say that. However, most of what I do is too eccentric for people to appreciate. I must endear myself to my fellow man by doing what I do best.”
He noticed my dumbfounded gaze.
“I’m sure it’s confusing,” he said. “And I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. Many years have passed since we were kids, and much has happened since then.”
“Why do you come while I’m asleep?” I stuttered, fighting back fitful tears. “Why do you reach for me with your white glove?”
“Reaching is what I do. I may excel at parlor tricks, but at heart, I’m an entertainer. Even my charms have their limits. Soon, the carnival will be over and I will have to go back to being my ordinary self.”
Somewhere between the sound of his voice and the woods’ elegiac whispers, the past came into being. It now felt as alive as the old trees, centuries passing in their sere and withered figures.
But Daniel’s story seemed odd. Though I now knew his identity, his absence all those years made it hard to believe. Aside from the cheery mood, he seemed a figment of the man I visited at the old carriage house. It was difficult to believe they were the same person.
“With my office so nearby, I often come out here to think,” he said. “My job can be very demanding, and I like to take every opportunity to get some fresh air. It’s such a magnificent place.”
He drew in a gustatory breath and marveled as he peered around. Eventually, his eyes landed on me. I noticed the pupils were teeming with light.
“Look at you. You always were lovely and intelligent. Still, I can’t help noticing how serious you’ve become. Have you forgotten the games we used to play together?”
I cleared my throat and spoke guardedly.
“Of course not. But I had to grow up eventually.”
“We all must grow up, but I haven’t seen you smile or heard you laugh since you came to visit me that morning,” he frowned. “You’ve gotten very grave.”
I closed my eyes and tried to picture Daniel amidst the lighthearted ephemera of my youth, but all I could think of was the white glove. Even now, I shuddered at the thought of it returning.
“It’s important to stay focused so I can keep growing and moving forward,” I said.
“You could grow with me.”
“By becoming my apprentice as we discussed.”
I furrowed my brow and stared at him. “If you’re so light and carefree, why are you always hiding up in that house?”
The Harlequin looked downcast, and the scepter slipped through his loosened grip.
“Every year, when the carnival visits town, I come alive,” he said. “But the rest of the time, I’m like the others, waiting in the shadows. So much time passes between life’s pleasures, and then they’re over and it’s back to dutiful propriety.”
He reached up to touch my cheek.
“It would be nice to have a companion. I get so lonely up in that old domicile. Think of what fun we’d have reliving earlier times. Good, innocent fun, laughing and rejoicing like children.”
All of a sudden, a beam of light punctured the crowns of the tree canopy, illuminating his scarlet-flushed skin and the pulse of veins beneath. I studied the inlets of blood running through like tiny, red spiders. Again, I sensed coldness beneath the corporeal warmth— coldness of unknown origins.
“We make our lives magical,” he said, eyes narrowing to tiny points. “This moment exists for us. It wouldn’t be otherwise.”
Now, the Harlequin stood close enough that we touched. The plants around us radiated the heat of our bodies—plants with giant hearts that beat at an immeasurable pace. For a few seconds, the woods existed in a more vivid shade of green and brimmed with energy.
I thought of the fingers weaving through the dark chasm. How at first, the dream was nothing more than a splintered image that insinuated itself slowly on my subconscious— the Harlequin’s deception gone through countless permutations to become convincing reality.
As the seconds elapsed, my brain steeped in such intense concentration that I forgot we were both standing there. When I looked up, he was watching me expectantly.
“Come with me, and every day will be an adventure,” he importuned, face stretching into a balloon-like grin.
The woods breathed deeper, enveloping us. I heard the far-off crunch of leaves, life mushrooming in the cloistered dark, fetal ball unwrapping itself…
“So serious,” he said again. “How very serious you’ve become.”
My eyes hung heavy and would have fallen shut if I weren’t suddenly alarmed by his changing appearance. His head was no longer still and composed, but bulged beneath the motley cap with numerous odd-shaped protuberances. For a protracted second, one of the buds unleashed a long tentacle that whipped free of the cap, flexing through the air in wavelike patterns before retracting beneath.
Then, there were more. I watched as two thin strands of flesh shot out and rippled around at wildly opposite angles. The strands fused with his cap and transformed into three, writhing snakes, which quickly multiplied to six and then nine, until the whole thing was an undulating mass of swollen, white bellies and flickering tongues.
One of the snakes lashed out at me, the forked appendage tapping my ear.
My instinct was to recoil and run away from that horrifying sight, leaving the Harlequin in the woods. But I could only stand and watch, mesmerized, considering that as much as I resented his cruel charade, I now pitied him, for it didn’t seem like he could help becoming this: a man with a head full of snakes.
Behind the mask maintained all those years was a close companion harkening back to childhood. Like the carnival’s giant zoetrope, I wondered if he were the same—trapped in the never-ending gyre of phantasy rides, and doomed to loll around in oblivion long after it ended.
“Curses!” a voice called from within the circlet of snakes. “This might have happened today.”
Feeling the overwhelming urge to intervene, I searched around the forest—eyes landing on the trees with missing limbs—for a sharp object that could be used to kill them. When a limb fell, a thousand tiny branches often grew in its place as it regenerated.
But then I worried that slashing off one of the heads meant two more would grow back in its place like I’d heard about in myths.
The Harlequin remained on that same patch of ground as the serpents writhed, showing no signs of torpor. He was talking and being expressive as usual, though his voice was now stifled—a Lilliputian scream trying to wriggle free of the uvula.
“I hadn’t intended this,” I made out from the garbled speech, with a complex of voices now speaking together—the childish voice overlapping with the adult one to create a bizarre mesh of frequencies.
Reaching out, he began to feel his way around the vast clearing like a blind man, the snakes having subsumed all his cephalic senses. At one point, he stumbled precariously close to a sinkhole brimming with stagnant water.
Somehow, he knew to maneuver in the other direction. Sensing I was nearby, he used the low-hanging tree branches and vines to grope his way over. The silk-white glove reached out in a fluid motion, close enough to brush my arm.
I knew the only recourse was to do what I must. After being the Harlequin’s antagonist for ten years, it was time for me to embrace him.
But that was very risky. What if the snakes released their venom, or suffocated me? What if they had poisonous breath that could stun me in a moment? Through the snakes, the Harlequin’s evil nature had finally revealed itself. I imagined being strapped like Mazeppa to a horse and galloped to death around the clearing, or reared up onto the back of a rampant stag and pitched headlong into the grass to be trampled unconscious. Joining him would likely seal a similar fate.
Somehow still—perhaps due to my appetite for adventure often bordering on delusion—I curried the guts to reach beneath the harem and wrap him in my arms.
He startled at my touch, and I knew it had been a long time since anyone held him. The sensation must have felt so foreign and his psyche so deprived that it overwhelmed him in no time at all.
The silken hands dropped to my waist, indenting the flesh.
It frightened me to be held by him, and I shrank away myself. But the longer we embraced, the less awful it seemed—the initial panic transmuted into an edifying calm—and I made a silent wish that nothing bad would happen to either of us.
“What can I do?” I asked, pulling closer.
“Just hold me,” he said, swaying gently back and forth to the faraway carnival music. “Until tomorrow, Don Giovannis and Champagne Arias, for today belongs to my love, and our hearts to each other.”
Through his parted lips flowed a soliloquy about how his long, lost companion had finally returned. He held me gentle and close, and though the snakes hissed and rattled in my ear, their tongues lacerating the din, I sensed he was enjoying a rare moment of happiness and serenity, though the savvier part of me knew I’d yet to meet the worst if I remained there.
He stood with his feet planted on the forest floor as the aria played, the snakes leaving ghostly wreaths in their wake. He may have still been a little boy, though it was hard to tell. The carnival’s dissonant melody seemed to have carried us to the same page of our journey.
“Won’t you stay?” he repeated softly.
Stepping back, I pivoted on my foot to turn away. A tear formed in my right eye and rolled down my cheek. It felt wrong to leave him, but foolish to do otherwise. I might have remained had I not known how evil he was.
I looked down to find my feet thumping across the lowland, pants shredding unconsciously through sassafras and Dutchman’s breeches to carry me out of the clearing. The Harlequin’s voice trailed behind as I thought of what a story I’d have to write, and on what disbelieving ears it would land. His voice grew fainter the longer I ran, until it was gone.
At the edge of the woods, I paused to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my forehead. When I turned back to search for a hint of red fabric through the trees, my eyes met nothing but depthless green. Across the field, I made out the distant shapes of the fair—funhouse arching up to the clouds, Ferris wheel milling through the haze.
It was raining, and the attendants were pulling down their canopies and tarps, creating an array of lollipop-shaped domes. The rides ground to a halt, sending the passengers scurrying across the slick ramps.
A little boy clutched a colorful umbrella as he and his mother ducked beneath the water spilling down the awnings. I noticed something about him that would have been easy to overlook if I weren’t watching.
The boy stopped beneath a chute of water and peered over his shoulder as if sensing someone nearby. Spotting me standing by the woods, he offered a mischievous wink as he let the rainwater splash on top of the umbrella, laughing fiendishly before his mother pulled him forward.
For a second, I thought I detected a faint sparkle in his eye suggesting the two of us might have been privy to something more than a lighthearted joke. Then I remembered that as many carnivals came and went, it was easy to mistake a stranger for an acquaintance, and a chance encounter for an essential one.