E’s Father had gotten lost again. In the cracks between the furniture, or the helix of the staircase. Sometimes E & Mother would glance down after a quiet dinner only to find that Father had been there the entire time, swirling in the dust.
Their jaundiced yellow house had been changing rapidly as well. Mother didn’t like admitting it, but when they fought, E could see their home twitch and shriek. Amidst the shouting, it would congeal the way daubed paint smears on forehead. Even E’s room had morphed slightly, the snake cage rumbling every time the ashtray dropped.
One thing couldn’t be changed. That was E’s photo of A. Snapped on a delicate morning three years earlier, when the house was much smaller but also always the same, the photo lived in a box wrapped in tin foil beneath a blanket underneath E’s bed. It was only to be looked at once a day, but this was mostly due to the laborious process of wrapping and unwrapping it and knowing that if Father or Mother saw it there was no chance it wouldn’t change.
The festival had come to town a week earlier. E had never been to one before and apparently it was a very rare occurrence. Father had brought this news home along with a jug of whiskey from one of the farmers. Mother ran a knife aimlessly along a chipped piece of china while Father described the firebreathers. Somewhere in the attic a piece of pottery exploded.
Mother stood up abruptly and began clearing the table. It sagged lopsidedly from a fight last year where it had sunk into the basement without warning. Instinctively, E knew it was time to head upstairs and sleep. School was tomorrow. It had to be.
E crawled up the stairs like a little animal. A squirrel or otter, maybe. As E did this the steps fell away in clumps, most likely to return tomorrow. Father said something about always spending more time with her. It was mostly drowned out by the sound of the faucet running.
School was easier than home for E, but not by much. A tiny brick house at the base of the hill, all of the students were distracted that morning by the craning view of the festival above. Eyes stretched skyward, they saw a cloud formation which spelled out THREE RINGS and cypresses dotting the fairgrounds. Dancers, trained animals, and musicians reconfigured endlessly in set up.
E fiddled with a small braid at the base of the scalp. The teacher had decreed at the beginning of the year that these “new-fangled” hairstyles could proceed only at regulation heights and E sought to push this premise to its relentless conclusion. In class, hand over thigh, E thought about the picture again. A had graduated that previous year and sometimes stopped by afterwards so the two could go for a walk. On one of these short ambles E had taken the photo, on a small polaroid camera which was later found smashed to pieces in front of the fishtank during Father’s holiday.
On this particular day after school A was smoking under the apple tree. The two sat together quietly, dozing in the light springtime air and occasionally lifting sullen heads to watch the procession of builders and perfumers at the festival.
We should go, A announced.
Tonight, obviously. Don’t you want to?
E picked off a bit of bark from the wagging cypress under which their dream took shape. If the tree had screamed in horror, pain, or warning, between them they did not hear.
It’s only a short walk. Meet here at 8?
E squirmed in the creaky desk chair at the dinner table. The lamp hung low overhead, bathing the family in a light that indicated at equanimity, but flickered on and off with the dull vibration of houseflies. Everyone was eating. It was some kind of porridge paste, but with strange, rich pockets of pasta and meat and vegetables. It looked disgusting and had likely taken hours to make. Mother’s downcast eyes revealed nothing of this labor.
Everything was eerily still during dinner. E glanced up at the clay birds, lined up in mid flight along the top kitchen cabinetry, molded during art class with unsure hands. Most of them looked half-formed, perhaps underfed in the nest. E tried to will the same power as Father to make them explode, but they sat there in mute and unequivocal silence. Just like the family that evening.
Father moved a fork lugubriously around a shell and sighed. We should all go to bed early this evening. Everyone, without another word, smiled inwardly and began to move the dishes from the table in low clatter.
Scampering up the stairs and watching them fall away like puzzle blocks, E rushed into bed and then, only after a regulatory fifteen minutes of safe sleeping time, threw the blanket over the television set. Sitting there, bathed in blue light and with a thin ray of filmy matter spilling across the walls, E climbed up on the desk and pushed delicate fingers through the skylight. E had never done this before, and in preparation had grabbed a slim volume of Father’s poetry and stuffed the photo in it. Clad in a black turtleneck, E tossed one of Father’s stern leather jackets over bony shoulders. The trees outside bent, quavering. The shingles shuffled and creaked a kind of wordless mourning as E faded into the distance.
The air hung heavy at the base of the hill. From all around it seemed that townsfolk were flocking to see the summer festival. A was there, waiting.
What took so long? It’s a quarter past 8.
Still in school, ya know. It’s not so easy for all of us.
I was thinking…
Come on, let’s go.
It was that simple. As they passed through the gates of the festival, they dropped acorns into the footman’s bucket.
I was thinking…
You wanna go on the ferris wheel?
Then let’s go see the wild animals.
Along the perimeter of the festival were various cages and trucks that housed things E and A had never seen. One was a family of cats all living like a normal human family. The head cat wore a fine tweed sweater and sipped brandy in a recliner, reading a newspaper that proclaimed OF MICE AND MEN: Two great threats to the nation-state. A pointed at a glass case where a person was sitting at a desk and tapping a box full of light. The two watched for fifteen minutes as the person tapped endlessly, legs scrunched and shoulders buckled, without even taking notice of the audience. Their hair was long and wrists frail, shabby. Unicorns basking. A baby python with a jewel on its forehead. Four grizzly bears sitting at a table, except it wasn’t a table, it was really a set of drawers someone had painted over the grassy knoll, and over that the festival colors, and another layer of white with rings for each year. Eventually the two grew bored and headed deeper into the thronging crowd.
The evening drew on and some of the revelers donned cloaks and masks. E could feel the heat seeping into the leather jacket as they stood on the outer ring of the main attractions. High above a Ferris wheel spun endlessly, little carriages bobbing up and down the sumptuous night sky.
They each fished out a few brass coins for the Ferris wheel operator. The carriage houses danced in small wheels from side to side. It was difficult to see the top. As the Ferris wheel twisted to life E slowly thumbed that back-pocket photo. It felt like the jetty ink of it could wipe right off.
The ride stopped, and now all of the carriages sat suspended in air. The night sky gave the impression of a lion, with its mane on fire, or perhaps a cotton candy wisp. They bobbed back and forth in darkness, eyes cast out across the countryside.
And then all was clear.
What curling, curling formation could that be by the unicorn stable? Who but Father was there, waiting to ride the merry go-round and who was Father with? A spoke, but a great unwholeness opened up in the sky. E’s head jutted out of the carriage with wild abandon, moments before the two halves of the photograph sailed through the night sky. Father resembled the strange contort of a ? mark. And the other one, at the home each Friday night delivering pizza.
E rushed past the ferris wheel operator, mascara running slightly and legs surely wobbling towards animal dens. A watched the scene unfold from ruffling street lamps, the horror and disarray. Stray rocks materialized, and what appeared to be a copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows, or so the civilians of the town would later testify in unison, and smashed through the glass plating, releasing the unicorns into the crowd. Though this bit of folklore is lost to most now, mated unicorns are actually extremely deadly in crowds, particularly when enraged while in a state of admiration for the essential beauty of their partner.
Moments before a group was eviscerated by the tragic & intoxicating creatures, E stumbled up to the animal tents. In the thrush of townsfolk fleeing, and the din of screaming animals, E could only wonder if Father had slipped away or, finally, transformed into an animal of idol fixation.
The animals were largely calmed by dawn. One of the unicorns had its throat slit in the night and much heated debate emanated from those who believed it was a human seeking immortality and those who claimed the inferior unicorn would always attempt to stab its mate in the heat of combat in an effort to absorb their power.
Regardless, E stumbled home in a kind of haze. Sick with dread, and the oppressive sum of the jacket, snuck back through the briar bush, up to the back door, and slipped through the walls of the home, past the cracks In the stairs, up to bed. Draped beneath the blanket, the TV still shone. A child at a birthday party kept smashing plates with cakes on them. The floor was covered with fragments of clay icing.
The house still stood the next day. Moments after the first birdsong, townsfolk could see the festival packed up and long gone, as if it had all toppled into another dimension and continued falling. Some of the cypresses now bore persimmons.
Every moment after school for the next week E looked for Father in the cracks of the home. Each stair was checked and re-checked, combed for the eventual return. Mother sat in a corner of the home running a dirty dish rag over the same filthy spot, what initially appeared to be a mouse carcass gave way to rot, mold, and rusted steel.
E stood, entranced by the repetitive motion. Turning, E slowly walked upstairs. Making sure to kick each crack along the way, E’s entire mental focus went towards making the skylight explode.
A rich red blood vessel formed on the surface of E’s skull. It could have been an hour. E blinked and slowly pulled the skylight closed. Then, walking down the stairs and out the front door, E whirled around.
The house was absolutely silent.