Carnival of Rust

He wakes to the pale light of day. Rain puddles around him, and still it falls from the sky. His lifts his coat up off the deck, heavy with water, and fails to ring it out, drapes it across the railing and hopes that the rain will cease.

“You dreamed,” Shoal says from behind him, sitting on a crate at the ship’s stern, studying him.

“Yes,” he says. “Many dreams, and this time they brought me somewhere new, somewhere I’d like to return.”

“But you won’t. Not to your dreams. No one dreams here. You’ll dream when the ship sails somewhere else, if you sail with it, but the dreams of the future won’t be like those of the past. I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t be, and you shouldn’t be either. You can’t remain haunted forever.”

“Where are we, that men don’t dream?” Fog shrouds the world and envelops the ship. He sees the railings and Shoal at the stern, but that’s all. And still the ship, Da Capo al Segno, sails on with its single sail, white and slack in the lack of wind.

“Near an island,” Shoal says.

“And what will we find on that island?”

“I will find nothing. You may find everything.”

“And what does the island look like?”

“I’ve never seen it before. No more,” she says before his questions barrage her. “The ship sails as it must. A simple process, yet you think too much, too hard, and rush too often. Let things happen as they will, and must, and be content. For once, heed your own advice.”

He opens his mouth and immediately shuts it. “Will I dream again when I leave the island?”

She stares at him as if the answers lie somewhere on his face. “You will always dream, but you won’t always remember.”

“There,” she says, pointing, and there it is, cutting through the fog like another ship. Only they are on the ship, and the island isn’t moving. Shoal stands at the bow, pointing into the fog, and in the fog, a beam as thick as a tree and so tall they can’t see where it ends high above. Soon another beam, and another and another, by twos and threes and fours, each as straight as the road departing from Green Lanes. Dark green growth on the beams where the wood meets the sea, weaving its way up, spiraling like decoration on a banister.

“A pier,” he says, knowing more hides above the fog. “You didn’t mention a pier.”

“I didn’t know,” Shoal says. “I haven’t sailed here before. We’re seeing this for the first time, but you’ll see far more than I do. This is meant for your eyes. After, perhaps they won’t be so cold. But probably not.”

“Do you know what I’ll see?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not you. But I know the sights won’t bring warmth. They won’t heal or soothe. They will only bring change. Old wounds may reopen, and new wounds may tear your skin and allow the blood out. We can turn around, you know. You’re supposed to be here, and see this, but we can turn around. Every decision and alteration begins and ends with you.”

“Carry on.”

Carry on seaward waves, to lands lost and blue drowned graves, where everything I had, for you, I gave.

The fog has relented. Day is almost clear. Strands of low-laying clouds remain, only to be torn asunder by gusts.

He sees the pier beside Da Capo al Segno. It is tall and massive, built to endure and withstand and hold upon it miniature lighthouses painted by rust and sea spray, rides with rails and carts and wagons and a life-size plastic elephant with a hole through its side. There’s more—dilapidated stands and shredded tents and streaming lights without their shine—but he’s below it all and catches only glimpses. Rather, he stares at the eddying water ahead of the ship and monitors their speed. Traveling alongside the pier, approaching land, the ship has seemingly increased its pace. It’s eager, he realizes, just as he is eager.

He holds his breath so that all is silent. The moment stills, and the world with it, as a gray and sleek form leaps out of the water in the distance. The splash hides much, the last remnants of fog hiding more, but he’s sure of what he sees. Another breaking of the surface, a shape as gray as the sky, and the splash too quickly, almost invisibly, fades to stillness once again.

“A dolphin,” he says.

Shoal glances at him and shakes her head. “Too fragile. We’re the most fragile lifeform to survive, and only because there’s so many of us and we can devolve to animals again. Dolphins can’t adapt, can’t give themselves over. What you saw is nothing. You saw nothing. A dream of reality.”

“A dolphin,” he repeats and cannot be dissuaded. “There are souls left in this world.”

“So few,” she confesses. “Because they have nowhere else to go. But here, there’s only you and I. If dolphins still swam these waters, they wouldn’t waste their final moments on us. We’re not so special.”

“You’re the ferrywoman.”

“And what are you?”

A more difficult question. “Dreams,” he finally answers. “Memories. Belief. Hope. And love. I am what’s remembered of hope and love. The final memories.”

Tears flood Shoal’s eyes, before she looks away. It is the first time he has seen emotion, of any kind from her.

It will also be the last.

The ship docks between the floating piers bobbing in the waves. A high stone wall runs along the coastline, and at the bottom of that wall, a narrow walkway of redbrick that eventually curves out of view in both directions. A brick stairway cutting up and through the wall, to the autumn trees and rusted carnival above. Leaves tumble across the bricks and into the water, float atop the barely breaking waves, occasionally sink and vanish into the blue-black. Rain falls so that the water is constantly moving, rippling in the wake of countless drops, forever in motion when the rest of the world sits still and waits. And waits. Other than the puddles scattered across the ground. They move, grow and converge.

“This is where we divide,” Shoal says. She doesn’t seem sad to see him go, but she’s not pleased either. “So this is the island.” She sighs and looks up at it, at the tops of faded lighthouses and cart tracks poking above the walls. “You must tell me about it if we ever meet again.”

“Why don’t you join me?” he asks. “It’s a big island.”

“Not as big as you think, and besides, this is for you alone. One at a time on the island. That’s the rule.’

“Who made this rule?”

She shrugs. “Someone. Someone made everything. Goodbye, now.”

“You’re sailing away?” he asks as he leaps over the railing and onto the pier. It wobbles beneath his weight, steadies itself.

“The ship is, yes. But she will return if the future demands it. Da Capo al Segno.

“So I may be stranded here on chance alone?”

“No. You know there is no chance. Things happen as they do. So it is.”

He watches Da Capo al Segno sail away, and on it, Shoal, his ferrywoman.

And, again, he is alone. It’s better this way, he thinks, but does not know.

A gate stands before him, open, but he’s yet to pass between the rusted iron motionless even when the wind gusts, and here, atop the hill atop the island, the wind gusts often. The sign, once bright red and orange and yellow, is washed away like so much else, the colors running long ago. He can barely read the words. The Silent Carnival. A incongruous name for a carnival, as if someone came here long ago to paint over the past and create something new. The Silent Carnival, and even before he hears it, it is deafening in a beautiful and lingering way.

“The Silent Carnival,” he says, wondering how many have stood here before, reading the same words and pondering their meaning, and how many entered the carnival without a thought or care.

Did silence haunt them as it haunts him?

The carnival is empty. The day is dark, so the carnival, without lights that shine and glow, is also dark, depressingly so. He passes much of it with little more than glances. Tents and stands filled with deflated balloons and ash-covered stuffed-animals, red and white swirled circles that dizzy him. Most tents are empty, and many lie on the ground, trembling as rain puddles widen and deepen.

He passes something that resembles a phone booth, only narrower; the front panel is smudged glass and the sides dark steel. A mannequin stands inside, his face snow white and filled with sorrow, his left eye surrounded by black paint. Even his lips are white, his eyes. The mannequin wears a brown fedora and a black coat that reminds him of his own duster coat—now drier than it was but still wet. A slot outside the booth begs for change, coins, but he has no coins.

“I’m sorry, old friend,” he says to the mannequin inside the booth, and moves on, feeling the white eyes following him, watching him, until he is far away.

He passes a booth where a game was once played. He’s unsure how to play, as the booth is empty apart from two easels, one with a picture of a rose, another of a ladder, and both rather crude. Maybe you must climb the ladder to capture the rose.

He wonders why an abandoned carnival rests on this island. Why the ferris-wheel and games? Why the pier? A means to trigger forgotten memories?

Trees grow here, alone or in twos and threes, but never more. They grow along the edges of the carnival where the grass meets the stone wall, and they grow in islands of grass surrounded by concrete and bricks. But the leaves are everywhere, and the ash, although falling slowly now, is sometimes deep enough to preserve tracks, and in other sections, where the wind is constant, there’s no ash at all, as if the world isn’t burning, or has burnt.

It’s still autumn here, and the grass is green like it was around Green Lanes, and the leaves are brilliant in their hues and crisp in their touch, and they crunch beneath his feet and scatter and soar when he crushes them within his hands.

He reaches the pier quicker than he assumed he would. Looking over his shoulder, he feels like he has somehow skipped ahead through time, miles away from here a moment ago. He stands on the wooden boards, between the wooden rails, and looks into the dark water below, and the dark water that is the horizon in every direction but behind him, and he cannot help but feel like he’s done this before. Another him, from another time. A version of himself who never lost his memory, who knows the woman he loves and remembers her face and name and the sound of her voice, her eyes, the pain and longing within them, their desires and darkness.

He has stood here with her—nameless her—and held her hand, and walked this pier, and rode the ferris-wheel. A rusted stairway leads down to the entrance, and the ferris-wheel rises high into the listless sky, reds and blues against gray, just gray, and like the sky, the wheel in the sky does not move. The carts barely sway in the wind, and while leaves dance among the rails and frame and supports, the wheel just sits, or stands, whatever it is that wheels do. Not roll, or turn.

Roll on, he tells himself. Roll on. Find what has eluded him for so long.

The reason why he has come so far. Why the ferrywoman ferried him to this island, this carnival of rust, so much rust he tastes it in his mouth and throat, the ancientness of it all. And he spits it out.

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