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Pursuits

 

She could feel the mirrors waiting for her in each room much the same as you felt, without opening your eyes, that the first snow of winter has just fallen outside your window.

Miss Foley had first noticed, some years ago, that her house crowded with bright shadows of herself. Best, then, to was ignore the cold sheets of December ice in the hall, above the bureaus, in the bath. Best skate the thin ice, lightly. Paused, the weight of your attention might crack the shell. Plunged through the crust, you might drown in depths so cold, so remote that all the Past lay carved in tombstone marbles there. Ice water would syringe your veins. Transfixed at the mirror sill you would stand forever, unable to lift your gaze from the proofs of Time.

Yet tonight, with the echo of the running feet of the three boys dying away, she kept feeling snow fall in the mirrors of her house. She wanted to thrust through the frames to test their weather. But she was afraid that doing this might cause all the mirrors to somehow assemble in billionfold multiplications of self, an army of women marching away to become girls and girls marching to become Infinitely small children. So many people, crammed in one house, would provoke suffocation.

So what must she do about mirrors, Will Halloway, Jim Nightshade, and...the nephew?

Strange. Why not say my nephew?

Because, she thought, from the first when he came in the door, he didn’t belong, his proof was not proof, she kept waiting for...what?

Tonight. The carnival. Music, the nephew said, that must be heard, rides that must be ridden. Stay away from the maze where winter slept. Swim around with the carousel where summer, sweet as clover, honey-grass, and wild mint, kept its lovely time.

She looked out at the night lawn from which she had not yet retrieved the scattered jewels. Somehow she guessed this was a way the nephew had of getting rid of the two boys who might stop her using this ticket she took from the mantel:

CAROUSEL. ADMIT ONE.

She had waited for the nephew to come back. With time passing, she must act on her own. Something must be done not to hurt no, but slow down interference from such as Jim and Will. No one must stand between her and nephew, her and carousel, her and lovely gliding ride-around summer.

The nephew had said as much, by saying nothing, by just holding her hands, and breathing baked-apple-pie scent from his small pink mouth upon her face.

She lifted the telephone.

Across town she saw the light in the stone library building, as all the town had seen it, over the years. She dialled. A quiet voice answered. She said:

“Library? Mr Halloway? This is Miss Foley. Will’s teacher. In ten minutes, please, meet me in the police station...Mr Halloway?”

A pause.

“Are you still there...?

 

26

 

“I”d have sworn,” said one interne. “When we first got there...that old man was dead.

The ambulance and the police car had pulled up at the same moment at the crossroads, going back into town. One of the intermes had called over. Now one of the policemen called back:

“You’re joking!

The internes sat in their ambulance. They shrugged.

“Yeah. Sure. Joking.”

They drove on ahead their faces as quiet and white as their uniforms.

The police followed, with Jim and Will huddled in back, trying to say more, but the police started talking and laughing, retelling everything that happened to one another, so Will and Jim wound up lying, giving wrong names again, saying they lived around the comer from the police station.

They let the police drop them at two dark houses near the station and they ran up on those porches and grabbed the doorknobs and waited for the prowl car to swing off around the corner into the station, and then they came down and followed and stood looking at the yellow lights of the station all sun-coloured at midnight and Will glanced over and saw the whole evening come and go in Jim’s face and Jim watching the police station windows as if at any moment darkness might fill every room and put the lights out forever.

On my way back into town, thought Will, I threw away my tickets. But — look...

Jim still has his, in his hand.

Will trembled.

What did Jim think, want, plan, now that dead men lived and only lived through the fire of white-hot electric chair machines? Did he stiff very much love carnivals? Will searched. Faint echoes, yes, they came, they went in Jim’s eyes, for Jim, after all, was Jim, even standing here with the calm light of Justice falling on his cheekbones.

“The Chief of Police” Will said. “He”d listen to us — “

“Yeah,” said Jim. “He”d wake just long enough to send for the butterfly net. Hell, William, hell, even I don’t believe what’s happened the last twenty-four hours.”

“But we got to find someone higher up, keep trying, now we know what the score is.”

“Okay, what’s the score? What’s the carnival done so bad? Scared a woman with a mirror maze? So, she scared herself the police”d say. Burgled a house? Okay, where’s the burglar? Hiding inside an old man’s skin? Who”d believe that? Who”d believe an old old man was ever a boy of twelve? What else is the score? Did a lightning-rod salesman disappear? Sure, and left his bag. But he could’ve left town — “

“That dwarf in the side-show — “

“I saw him, you saw him, looks kinda like the lightning-rod man, sure, but again, can you prove he was ever big? No, just like you can’t prove Cooger was ever small, so that leaves us right here, Will, on the sidewalk, no proof except what we saw, and us just kids, the carnival’s word against ours, and the police had a fine time anyway there. Oh gosh, it’s a mess. If only, if only there was still some way to apologize to Mr Cooger — “

“Apologize?” Will yelled. “To a man-eating crocodile? Jehoshaphat! You still don’t see we can’t do business with those ulmers and goffs!”

“Ulmers? Goffs?” Jim gazed upon him thoughtfully, for that was how the boys talked of the creatures who dragged and swayed and slumped through their dreams. In the bad dreams of William, the “ulmers’ moaned and gibbered and had no faces. In the equally bad dreams of Jim, the “goffs”, his peculiar name for them, grew like monster meringue-paste mushrooms, which fed on rats which fed on spiders which fed, in turn, because they were large enough, on cats.

“Ulmers! Goffs!” said Will. “You need a ten-ton safe to fall on you? Look what happened to two folks already, Mr Electrico, and that terrible crazy dwarf! All kinds of things can go wrong with people on that darn machine. We know, we seen it. Maybe they squashed the lightning-rod man down that way on purpose, or maybe something went wrong. Fact is, he wound up in a wine press anyway, got run over by a steam-roller carousel and’s so crazy now he doesn’t even know us! Ain’t that enough to scare the Jesus out of you, Jim? Why, maybe even Mr Crosetti — “

“Mr Crosetti’s on vacation.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. There’s his shop. There’s the sign: CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF ILLNESS. What kind of illness, Jim? He eat too much candy out at the show? He get seasick on everybody’s favourite ride?”

“Cut it, Will.”

“No, sir, I won’t cut it. Sure, sure, the merry-go-round sounds keen. You think I like being thirteen all the time? Not me! But for cri-yi, Jim, face it, you don’t really want to be twenty!”

What else we talked about all summer?”

“Talk, sure. But throwing yourself head first in that taffy machine and getting your bones pulled long, Jim, you wouldn’t what to do with your bones then!”

“I”d know,” said Jim, in the night. “I”d know.”

“Sure. You”d just go away and leave me here, Jim.”

“Why,” protested the other, “I wouldn’t leave you, Will. We”d be together.”

“Together? You two feet taller and going around feeling your leg-and-arm-bones? You looking down at me, Jim, and what”d we talk about, me with my pockets full of kite-string and marbles and frog-eyes, and you with clean nice and empty pockets and making fun, is that what we”d talk, and you able to run faster and ditch me — “

“I”d never ditch you, Will — “

“Ditch me in a minute. Well, go on, Jim, just go on leave me because I got my pocket knife and there’s nothing wrong with me sitting under a tree playing mumblety-peg while you get yourself plain crazy with the heat of all those horses racing around, but thank God they’re not racing any more — “

“And it’s your fault!” cried Jim. He stopped.

Will stiffened and made fists. “You mean I should’ve let young mean-and-terrible get old mean-and-terrible enough to chew our heads off? Just let him ride around and hock his spit in our eye? and maybe you with him, waving good-bye, going around again, waving so long! and all I got to do is wave back, Jim, that what you mean?”

“Sh,” said Jim. “Like you say, it’s too late. The carousel’s broke — “

“And when it’s fixed, they ride old horrible Cooger back, make him young enough so he can speak and remember our names, and then they come like cannibals after us, or just me, if you want to get in good with them and go tell them my name and where I live — “

“I wouldn’t do that, Will.” Jim touched him.

“Oh, Jim, Jim, you do see, don’t you? Everything in its time, like the preacher said only last month, everything one by one, not two by two, will you remember?”

“Everything, “ said Jim, “in its time...”

And then they heard voices from the police station. In one of the rooms to the right of the entrance, a woman was talking now, and men were talking.

Will nodded to Jim and they ran quietly over to pick their way through bushes and look into the room.

There sat Miss Foley. There sat Will’s father.

“I don’t understand,” said Miss Foley. “To think Will and Jim would break in my house, steal, run off — “

“You saw their faces?” asked Mr Halloway.

“When I screamed, they looked back under the light.” She’s not mentioning the nephew, thought Will. And she won’t, of course.

You see, Jim, he wanted to shout, it was a trap! The nephew waited for us to come prowling. He wanted to get us in so much trouble, no matter what we said to anybody, police, parents, that nobody”d listen to us about carnivals, late hours, merry-go-rounds, because our word”d be no good!

“I don’t want to prosecute,” said Miss Foley. “But if they are innocent, where are the boys?”

“Here!” someone cried.

“Will!” said Jim.

Too late.

For Will had jumped high and was scrambling through the window.

“Here,” he said, simply, as he touched the floor.

 

27

 

They walked home quietly on the moon-coloured sidewalks, Mr Halloway between the boys. When they reached home, Will’s father sighed.

“Jim, I don’t see any reason to tear your mother to bits at this hour. If you promise to tell her this whole thing at breakfast, I’ll let you off. Can you get in without waking her up?”

“Sure. Look what we got.”

“We?”

Jim nodded and took them over to fumble among the clusters of thick moss and leaves on the side of the house until they found the iron rungs they had secretly nailed and placed to make a hidden ladder up to Jim’s room. Mr Halloway laughed, once, almost with pain, and a strange wild sadness shook his head.

“How long has this gone on? No, don’t tell. I did it, too, your age.” He looked up the ivy toward Jim’s window. “Fun being out late, free as all hell.” He caught himself. “You don’t stay out too long — ?”

“This week was the very first time after midnight.”

Dad pondered a moment. “Having permission would spoil everything, I suppose? It’s sneaking out to the lake, the graveyard, the rail tracks, the peach orchards summer nights that counts...”

“Gosh, Mr Halloway, did you once — “

“Yes. But don’t let the women know I told you. Up.” He motioned. “And don’t come out again any night for the next month.”

“Yes, sir!”

Jim swung monkeywise to the stars, flashed through his window, shut it, drew the shade.

Dad looked up at the hidden rungs coming down out of the starlight to the running-free world of sidewalks that invited the one-thousand-yard dash, and the high hurdles of the dark bushes, and the pole-vault cemetery trellises and walls...

“You know what I hate most of all, Will? Not being able to run any more, like you.”

“Yes, sir,” said his son.

“Let’s have it clear now,” said Dad. “Tomorrow, go apologize to Miss Foley again. Check her lawn. We may have missed some of the — stolen property — with matches and flashlights. Then go to the Police Chief to report. You’re lucky you turned yourself in. You’re lucky Miss Foley won’t press charges.”

“Yes, sir.”

They walked back to the side of their own house. Dad raked his hand in the ivy.

“Our place, too?”

His hand found a rung Will had nailed away among the leaves.

“Our place, too.”

He took out his tobacco pouch, filled his pipe as they stood by the ivy, the hidden rungs leading up to warm beds, safe rooms, then lit his pipe and said, “I know you. You’re not acting guilty. You didn’t steal anything.”

“No.”

“Then why did you say you did, to the police?”

“Because Miss Foley — who knows why? — wants us guilty. If she says we are, we are. You saw how surprised she was to see us come in through the window? She never figured we”d confess. Well, we did. We got enough enemies without the law on us, too. I figured if we made a clean breast, they”d go easy. They did. At the same time, boy, Miss Foley’s won, too, because now we’re criminals. Nobody’ll believe what we say.”

“I’ll believe.”

“Will you?” Will searched the shadows on his father’s face, saw whiteness of skin, eyeball, and hair.

“Dad, the other night, at three o”clock in the morning — “

“Three in the morning — “

He saw Dad flinch as from a cold wind, as if he smelled and knew the whole thing and simply could not move, reach out, touch and pat Will.

And he knew he could not say it. Tomorrow, yes, some other day, yes, for perhaps with the sun coming up, the tents would be gone, the freaks off over the world, leaving them alone, knowing they were scared enough not to push it, say anything, just keep their mouths shut. Maybe it would all blow over, maybe...maybe...

“Yes, Will?” said his father, with difficulty, the pipe in his hand going dead. “Go on.”

No, thought Will, let Jim and me be cannibalized, but no one else. Anyone that knows gets hurt. So no one else must know. Aloud he said:

“In a couple of days, Dad, I’ll tell you everything. I swear. Mom’s honour.”

“Mom’s honour” said Dad, at last, “is good enough for me.”

 

28

 

The night was sweet with the dust of autumn leaves that smelled as if the fine sands of ancient Egypt were drifting to dunes beyond the town. How come, thought Will, at a time like this, I can even think of four thousand years of dust of ancient people sliding around the world, and me sad because no one notices except me and Dad here maybe, and even us not telling each other.

It was indeed a time between, one second their thoughts all brambled airedale, the next all silken slumbering cat. It was a time to go to bed, yet still they lingered reluctant as boys to give over and wander in wide circles to pillow and night thoughts. It was a time to say much but not all. It was a time after first discoveries but not last ones. It was wanting to know everything and wanting to know nothing. It was the new sweetness of men starting to talk as they must talk. It was the possible bitterness of revelation.

So while they should have gone upstairs, they could not depart this moment that promised others on not so distant nights when man and boy-becoming-man might almost sing. So Will at last said, carefully:

“Dad? Am I a good person?”

“I think so. I know so, yes.”

“Will — will that help when things get really rough?”

“It’ll help.”

“Will it save me if I need saving? I mean, if I’m around bad people and there’s no one else good around for miles, what then?”

“It’ll help.”

“That’s not good enough, Dad!”

“Good is no guarantee for your body. It’s mainly for peace of mind — “

“But sometimes, Dad, aren’t you so scared that even — “

“ — the mind isn’t peaceful?” His father nodded, his face uneasy.

“Dad,” said Will, his voice very faint. “Are you a good person?”

“To you and your mother, yes, I try. But no man’s a hero to himself. I’ve lived with me a lifetime, Will. I know everything worth knowing about myself — “

“And, adding it all up...?”

“The sum? As they come and go, and I mostly sit very still and tight, yes, I’m all right.”

“Then, Dad,” asked Will, “why aren’t you happy?”

“The front lawn at let’s see...one-thirty in the morning...is no place to start a philosophical...”

“I just wanted to know is all.”

There was a long moment of silence. Dad sighed.

Dad took his arm, walked him over and sat him down on the porch steps, relit his pipe. Puffing, he said, “All right. Your mother’s asleep. She doesn’t know we’re out here with our tomcat talk. We can go on. Now, look, since when did you think being good meant being happy?”

“Since always.”

“Since now learn otherwise. Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter half the time he’s covering up. He’s had his fun and he’s guilty. And men do love sin. Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colours, and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit our appetites. Hear a man too loudly praising others, and look to wonder if he didn’t just get up from the sty. On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that’s your good man with a capital G, Will. For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two. I’ve known a few. You work twice as hard to be a farmer as to be his hog. I suppose it’s thinking about trying to be good makes the crack run up the wall one night. A man with high standards, too, the least hair falls on him sometimes wilts his spine. He can’t let himself alone, won’t lift himself off the hook if he falls just a breath from grace.

“Oh, it would be lovely if you could just be fine, act fine, not think of it all the time. But it’s hard, right? with the last piece of lemon cake waiting in the icebox, middle of the night, not yours, but you he awake in a hot sweat for it, eh? Do I need tell you? Or, a hot spring day, noon, and there you are chained to your school desk and away off there goes the river, cool and fresh over the rock-fall. Boys can hear clear water like that miles away. So, minute by minute, hour by hour, a lifetime, it never ends, never stops, you got the choice this second, now this next, and the next after that, be good, be bad, that’s what the dock ticks, that’s what it says in the ticks. Run swim, or stay hot, run eat or lie hungry. So you stay but once stayed, Will, you know the secret, don’t you? don’t think of the river again. Or the cake. Because if you do, you’ll go crazy. Add up all the rivers never swum in, cakes never eaten, and by the time you get my age, Will, it’s a lot missed out on. But then you console yourself, thinking, the more times in, the more times possibly drowned, or choken on lemon frosting. But then, through plain dumb cowardice, I guess, maybe you hold off from too much, wait, play it safe.

“Look at me: married at thirty-nine, Will thirty-nine! But I was so busy wrestling myself two falls out of three, I figured I couldn’t marry until I had licked myself good and forever. Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else. So at last I looked up from my great self-wrestling match one night when your mother came to the library for a book, and got me, instead. And I saw then and there you take a man half-bad and a women half-bad and put their two good halves together and you got one human all good to share between. That’s you, Will, for my money. And the strange thing is, son, and sad, too, though you’re always racing out there on the rim of the lawn, and me on the roof using books for shingles, comparing life to libraries, I soon saw you were wiser, sooner and better, than I will ever be...”

Dad’s pipe was dead. He paused to tap it out and reload it.

“No, sir,” Will said.

“Yes,” said his father, “I”d be a fool not to know I’m a fool. My one wisdom is: you’re wise.”

“Funny” Will said, after a long pause. “You’ve told me more, tonight, than I’ve told you. I’ll think some more. Maybe I’ll tell you everything, at breakfast. Okay?”

“I’ll be ready, if you are.”

“Because...I want you to be happy, Dad.”

He hated the tears that sprang to his eyes.

“I’ll be all right, Will.”

“Anything I could say or do to make you happy, I would.”

“Willy, William.” Dad lit his pipe again and watched the smoke blow away in sweet dissolvings. “Just tell me I’ll live forever. That would do nicely.”

His voice, Will thought, I never noticed. It’s the same colour as his hair.

“Pa,” he said, “don’t sound so sad.”

“Me? I’m the original sad man. I read a book and it makes me sad. See a film: sad. Plays? they really work me over.”

“Is there anything,” said Will, “doesn’t make you sad?”

“One thing. Death.”

“Boy!” Will started. “I should think that would!”

“No” said the man with the voice to match his hair. “Death makes everything else sad. But death itself only scares. If there wasn’t death, all the other things wouldn’t get tainted.”

And, Will thought, here comes the carnival, Death like a rattle in one hand, Life like candy in the other; shake one to scare you, offer one to make your mouth water. Here comes the side-show, both hands full!

He jumped to his feet.

“Dad oh, listen! You’ll live forever! Believe me, or you’re sunk! Sure, you were sick a few years ago — but that’s over. Sure, you’re fifty-four, but that’s young! And another thing — “

“Yes, Willy?”

His father waited for him. He swayed. He bit his lips, then blurted out:

“Don’t go near the carnival.”

“Strange,” his father said, “that’s what I was going to tell you.”

“I wouldn’t go back to that place for a billion dollars!”

But, Will thought, that won’t stop the carnival searching through town to visit me.

“Promise, Dad?”

“Why don’t you want me to go there, Will?”

“That’s one of the things I’ll tell tomorrow or next week or next year. You just got to trust me, Dad.”

“I do, son.” Dad took his hand. “It’s a promise.”

As if at a signal, both turned to the house. The time was up, the hour was late, enough had been said, they properly sensed they must go.

“The way you came out,” said Dad, “is the way you go in.”

Will walked silently to touch the iron rungs hidden under the rustling ivy.

“Dad. You won’t pull these off...?”

Dad probed one with his fingers.

“Some day, when you’re tired of them, you’ll take them off yourself.”

“I’ll never be tired of them.”

“Is that how it seems? Yes, to someone your age, you figure you’ll never get tired of anything. All right, son, up you go.”

He saw how his father looked up along the ivy and the hidden path.

“You want to come up this way, too?”

“No, no,” his father said, quickly.

“Because,” said Will, “you’re welcome.”

“That’s all right. Go on.”

But he still looked at the ivy stirring in the dark morning light.

Will sprang up, grabbed the first, the second, the third rungs and looked down.

From just this distance, Dad looked as if he were shrinking, there on the ground. Somehow he didn’t want to leave him behind there in the night, like someone ditched by someone else, one hand up to move, but not moving.

“Dad!” he whispered. “You ain’t got the stuff!”

Who says!? cried Dad’s mouth, silently.

And he jumped.

And laughing without sound, the boy, the man swung up the side of the house, unceasingly, hand over hand, foot after foot.

He heard Dad slip, scrabble, grab.

Hold tight! he thought.

“Ah...!”

The man breathed hard.

Eyes tight, Will prayed: hold...there...now...!!

The old man gusted out, sucked in, swore in a fierce whisper, then climbed again.

Will opened his eyes and climbed and the rest was smooth, high, higher, fine, sweet, wondrous, done! They swung in and sat upon the sill, same size, same weight, coloured same by the stars, and sat embraced once more with grand fine exhaustion, gasping on huge ingulped laughs which swept their bones together, and for fear of waking God, country, wife, Mom, and hell, they snug-clapped hands to each other’s mouths, felt the vibrant warm hilarity fountained there and sat one instant longer, eyes bright with each other and wet with love.

Then, with a last strong clasp, Dad was gone, the bedroom door shut.

Drunk on the long night’s doings, lolled away from fear toward better, grander things found in Dad, Will slung off limp-falling clothes with tipsy arms and delightfully aching legs, and like a fall of timber chopped himself to bed...

 

29

 

He slept for exactly one hour.

And then, as if remembering something he had only half seen, he woke, sat up, and peered out at Jim’s rooftop.

“The lightning-rod!” he yelled. “It’s gone!”

Which indeed it was.

Stolen? No. Jim take it down? Yes! Why? For the shucks of it. Smiling, he had climbed to scuttle the iron, dare any storm to strike his house! Afraid? No. Fear was a new electric-power suit Jim must try for size.

Jim! Will wanted to smash his confounded window. Go nail the rod back! Before morn, Jim, the blasted carnival’ll send someone to find where we live, don’t know how they’ll come or what they’ll look like, but, Lord, your roof’s so empty! the clouds are moving fast, that storm’s rushing at us and...

Will stopped.

What sort of noise does a balloon make, adrift?

None.

No, not quite. It noises itself, it soughs, like the wind billowing your curtains all white as breaths of foam. Or it makes a sound like the stars turning over in your sleep. Or it announces itself like moonrise and moonset. That last is best: like the moon sailing the universal deeps, so rides a balloon.

How do you hear it, how are you warned? The ear, does it hear? No. But the hairs on the back of your neck, and the peach-fuzz in your ears, they do, and the hair along your arms sings like grasshopper legs frictioned and trembling with strange music. So you know, you feel, you are sure, lying abed, that a balloon is submerging the ocean sky.

Will sensed a stir in Jim’s house; Jim, too, with his fine dark antennae, must have felt the waters part high over town to let a Leviathan pass.

Both boys felt a shadow bulk the drive between their houses, both flung up their windows, both poked their heads out, both dropped their jaws in surprise at this friendly, this always exquisite timing, this delightful pantomime of intuition, of apprehension, their tandem teamwork over the years. Then silver-faced, for the moon was rising, both glanced up.

As a balloon wafted over and vanished.

“Holy cow, what’s a balloon doing here!?” Jim asked, but wished no answer.

For, peering, they both knew the balloon was searching the best search ever; no car-motor racket, no tires whining asphalt, no footstepped street, just the wind clearing a great amazon through the clouds for a solemn voyage of wicker basket and storm sail riding over.

Neither Jim nor Will crashed his window or pulled his shade, they simply had to stay motionless waiting, for they heard the noise again like a murmur in someone else’s dream...

The temperature dropped forty degrees.

Because now the storm-bleached balloon whisper-purled, plummet-sank softly down, its elephant shadow cooling gemmed lawns and sundials as they flaunted their swift gaze high through that shadow.

And what they saw was something akimbo and arustle in the down-hung wicker carriage. Was that head and shoulders? Yes, with the moon like a silver cloak thrown up behind. Mr Dark! thought Will. The Crusher! thought Jim. The Wart! thought Will. The Skeleton! The Lava Sipper! The Hanging Man! Monsieur Guillotine!

No.

The Dust Witch.

The Witch who might draw skulls and bones in the dust, then sneeze it away.

Jim looked to Will and Will to Jim; both read their lips: the Witch!

But why a wax crone flung out in a night balloon to search? thought Will, why none of the others, with their lizard-venom, wolf-fire, snake-pit eyes? Why send a crumbled statue with blind-newt lashes sewn tight with black-widow thread?

And then, looking up, they knew.

For the Witch, though peculiar wax, was peculiarly alive. Blind, yes, but she thrust down rust-splotched fingers which petted, stroked the sluices of air, which cut and splayed the wind, peeled layers of space, blinded stars, which hovered and danced, then fixed and pointed as did her nose.

And the boys knew even more.

They knew that she was blind, but special blind. She could dip down her hands to feel the bumps of the world, touch house roofs, probe attic bins, reap dust, examine draughts that blew through halls and souls that blew through people, draughts vented from bellows to thump-whist, to pound-temples., to pulse-throat, and back to bellows again. Just as they felt that balloon sift down like an autumn rain, so she could feel their souls disinhabit, reinhabit their tremulous nostrils. Each soul, a vast warm fingerprint, felt different, she could roll it in her hand like clay; smelled different, Will could hear her snuffing his life away; tasted different, she savoured them with her raw-gummed mouth, her puff-adder tongue; sounded different, she stuffed their souls in one ear, tissued them out the other!

Her hands played down the air, one for Will, one for Jim.

The balloon shadow washed them with panic, rinsed them with terror.

The Witch exhaled.

The balloon, freed of the small sour ballast, uprose. The shadow passed.

“Oh God!” said Jim. “Now they know where we live!”

Both gasped. Some monstrous baggage brushed and dragged across the shingles of Jim’s house.

“Will! She’s got me!”

“No! I think — “

The drag, brush, rustle scurried from bottom to top of Jim’s roof. Then Will saw the balloon whirl up, fly off toward the hills.

“She’s gone, there she goes! Jim, she did something to your roof. Shove the monkey pole over!”

Jim slid the long slender clothesline pole over, Will fixed it on his sill, then swung out, hand over hand, swung until Jim pulled him through his window and they barefooted it into Jim’s clothes closet and boosted and hoisted each other up inside the attic that smelled like lumber mills, old, dark, and too silent. Perched out on the high roof, shivering, Will cried: “Jim, there it is.”

And there it was, in the moonlight.

It was a track like a snail paints on a sidewalk. It glistened It was silver-slick. But this was a path left by a gigantic snail that, if it existed at all, weighed a hundred pounds. The silver ribbon was a yard across. Starting down at the leaf-flued rain trough, the silver track shimmered to the rooftop, then tremored down the other side.

“Why?” gasped Jim. “Why?”

“Easier than looking for house numbers or street names. She marked your roof so you can see it for miles around, night or day!”

“Ohmigosh.” Jim bent to touch the track. A faint evil-smelling glue covered his finger. “Will, what’ll we do?”

“ I’ve got a hunch,” the other whispered, “they won’t be back till morning. They can’t just start a rumpus. They got some plan. Right now — there’s what we do!”

Coiled across the lawn below like a vast boa constrictor, waiting for them, was the garden hose.

Will was gone, down, fast, and didn’t knock anything over or wake anyone up. Jim, on the roof, was surprised, in no time at all, when Will came scuttling up all panting teeth, the water-fizzing hose in his fist.

“Will, you’re a genius!”

“Sure! Quick!”

They dragged the hose to drench the shingles, to wash the silver, flood the evil mercury paint away.

Working, Will glanced off at the pure colour of night turning toward morn and saw the balloon trying to make decisions on the wind. Did it sense, would it come back? Would she mark the roof again, and they have to wash it off, and she mark it and they wash it, until dawn? Yes, if need be.

If only, thought Will, I could stop the Witch for good. They don’t know our names or where we live, Mr Cooger’s too near dead to remember or tell. The Dwarf — if he is the lightning-rod man — is mad — and, God willing, won’t recollect! And they won’t dare bother Miss Foley until morning. So, grinding their teeth way out in the meadows, they’ve sent the Dust Witch to search...

“I’m a fool,” grieved Jim, quietly, rinsing the roof where the lightning-rod had been. “Why didn’t I leave it up?”

“Lightning hasn’t struck yet,” Will said. “And if we jump lively, it won’t. Now — over here!”

They showered the roof.

Below, someone put down a window.

“Mom.” Jim laughed, bleakly. “She thinks it’s raining.”

 

30

 

The rain ceased.

The roof was clean.

They let the hose snake away to thump on the night grass a thousand miles below.

Beyond town, the balloon still paused between unpromising midnight and promised and hoped—for sun.

“Why’s she waiting?”

“Maybe she smells what we’re up to.”

They went back down through the attic and soon were in separate rooms and beds after many fevers and chills of talk quietly separate listening to hearts and clocks beat and now lay too quickly toward dawn.

Whatever they do, thought Will, we must do it first. He wished the balloon might fly back, the Witch might guess they had washed her mark off and soar down to trace the roof again. Why?

Because.

He found himself staring at his Boy Scout archery set, the big beautiful bow and quiver of arrows arranged on the east wall of his room.

Sorry, Dad, he thought, and sat up, smiling. This time it’s me out alone. I don’t want her going back to report on us for hours, maybe days.

He grabbed the bow and quiver from the wall, hesitated, thinking, then stealthily ran the window up and leaned out. No need to holler loud and long, no. But just think real hard. They can’t read thoughts, I know, that’s sure, or they wouldn’t send her, and she can’t read thoughts, but she can feel body heat and special temperatures and special smells and excitements, and if I jump up and down and let her know just by my feeling good about having tricked her, maybe, maybe...

Four o”clock in the morning, said a drowsy clock-chime, off in another land.

Witch, he thought, come back.

Witch, he thought louder and let his blood pound, the roof’s clean, hear!? We made our own rain! You got to come back and re-mark it! Witch...?

And the Witch moved.

He felt the earth turn under the balloon.

Okay, Witch, come on, there’s just me, the no-name boy, You can’t read my mind, but here’s me spitting on you! and here’s me yelling we tricked you, and the general idea gets through, so come on, come on! dare! double-dare you!”

Miles away, there was a gasp of assent rising, coming near. Holy cow, he thought suddenly, I don’t want her back to this house! Come on! He thrashed into his clothes.

Clutching his weapons, he aped down the hidden ivy rungs and dogged the wet grass.

Witch! Here! He ran leaving patterns, ran feeling crazy fine, wild as a hare who has chewed some secret, delicious, sweetly poisonous root that now gallops him berserk. Knees striking his chin, shoes crushing wet leaves, he soared over a hedge, his hands full of bristly porcupine weapons, fear and joy a tumble of mixed marbles in his mouth.

He looked back. The balloon swung near! It inhaled, exhaled itself along from tree to tree, from cloud to cloud.

Where am I going? he thought. Wait! The Redman house! Not lived in in years! Two blocks more.

There was the swift shush of his feet in the leaves and the big shush of the creature in the sky, while moonlight snowed everything and stars glittered.

He pulled up in front of the Redman house, a torch in each lung, tasting blood, crying out silently: here! this is my house!

He felt a great river change its bed in the sky. Good! he thought.

His hand turned the doorknob of the old house. Oh God, he thought, what if they are inside, waiting for me?

He opened a door on darkness.

Dust came and went in that dark, and a harpstring gesticulation of spiders. Nothing else.

Will jumped two at a time up the crumbling stairs, around and out on the roof where he stashed his weapons behind the chimney and stood tall.

The balloon, green as slime, printed with titan pictures of winged scorpions, ancient phoenixes, smokes, fires, clouded weathers, swung its wicker basket wheezing, down.

Witch, he thought, here!

The dank shadow struck him like a batwing.

Will toppled. He flung up his hands. The shadow was almost black flesh, striking.

He fell. He clutched the chimney.

The shadow draped him, hushing down.

It was cold as a sea cave in that cloud-dark.

But suddenly the wind, of itself, veered.

The Witch hissed in frustration. The balloon swam a washing circle up around.

The wind! thought the boy wildy, it’s on my side!

No, don’t go! he thought. Come back.

For he feared she had smelled his plan.

She had. She itched for his scheme. She snuffed, she gasped at it. He saw the way her nails filed and scraped the air as if running over grooved wax to seek patterns. She turned her Palms out and down as ff he were a small stove burning softly somewhere in a nether world and she came to warm her hands at him. As the basket swung in an upglided pendulum he saw her squinched blind-sewn eyes, the ears with moss in them, the pale wrinkled apricot mouth mummifying the air it drew in, trying to taste what was wrong with his act, his thought. He was too good, too rare, too fine, too available to be true! surely she knew that!

And knowing it, she held her breath.

Which made the balloon suspend itself, half between inhale and exhale.

Now, tremulously, experimentally, daring to test, the Witch inhaled. The balloon, so weighted, sank. Exhaled — so freed of vapour — the craft ascended!

Now, now, the waiting, the holding of dank sour breath in the wry tissues of her childlike body.

Will waggled his fingers, thumb to nose.

She sucked air. The weight of this one breath skimmed the balloon down.

Closer! he thought.

But, careful, she circled her craft, scenting the sharp adrenalin wafted from his pores. He wheeled, following as the balloon spun, and him reeling. You!. he thought, you want me sick! Spin me, will you? Make me dizzy?

There was one last thing to try.

He stood very still with his back to the balloon.

Witch, he thought, you can’t resist.

He felt the sound of the green slime cloud, the kept bag of sour air, the squeal and stir of mouse-wicker on wicker as the shadow cooled his legs, his spine, his neck.

Close!

The Witch took air, weight, night burden, star-and-cold-wind ballast.

Closer!

Elephant shadow stroked his ears.

He nudged his weapons.

The shadow engulfed him.

A spider flicked his hair — her hand?

Choking a scream, he spun.

The Witch, leaned out, was a mere foot away.

He bent. He snatched.

The Witch tried to scream out breath when she smelled, felt, knew what he held tight.

But, in reaction, horrified, she seized a breath, sucked weight, burdened the balloon. It dragged the roof.

Will pulled the bowstring back, freighted with single destruction.

The bow broke in two pieces. He stared at the unshot arrow in his hands.

The Witch let out her breath in one great sigh of relief and triumph.

The balloon swung up. It struck him with its dry rattle-chuckling heavy-laden basket.

The Witch shouted again with insane happiness.

Clutched to the basket rim, Will with one free hand drew back and with all his strength threw the arrowhead flint up at the balloon flesh.

The Witch gagged. She tore at his face.

Then the arrow, a long hour it seemed in flight, razored a small vent in the balloon. Rapidly the shaft sank as if cutting a vast green cheese. The surface slit itself further in a wide ripping smile across the entire surface of the gigantic pear, as the blind Witch gabbled, moaned, blistered her lips, shrieked in protest, and Will hung fast, hands gripped to wicker, kicking legs, as the balloon wailed whiffled, guzzled, mourned its own swift gaseous death, as dungeon air raved out, as dragon breath gushed forth and the bag, thus driven, retreated up.

Will let go. Space whistled about him. He turned, hit shingles, fell skidding down the inclined ancient roof, over down to rim, to rainspout where, feet first, he spilled into further emptiness, yelling, clawed at the rain gutter, held, felt it groan, give way, as he swept the sky to see the balloon whistling, wrinkling, flying up like a wounded beast to evacuate its terrified exhalations in the clouds; a gunshot mammoth, not wanting to expire, yet in terrible flux coughing out its stinking winds.

All this in a flash. Then Will flailed into space, with no time to be glad for a tree beneath when it netted him, cut him, but broke his fall with mattress twig, branch and limb. Like a kite he was held face up to the moon where, at his exhausted leisure, he might hear the last Witch lamentations for a wake in progress as the balloon spiralled her away from house, street, town with inhuman mourns.

The balloon smile, the balloon rip was all-encompassing now as it wandered in deliriums to die in the meadows from which it had come, sinking down now beyond all the sleeping, ignorant and unknowing houses.

For a long while Will could not move. Buoyed in the tree branches, afraid he might slip through and kill himself on the black earth below, he waited for the sledgehammer to subside in his head.

The blows of his heart might jar him loose, crash him down but he was glad to hear them, know himself alive.

But then at last, gone calm, he gathered his limbs, most carefully searched for a prayer, and climbed himself down through the tree.

 

31

 

Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night.

 

32

 

At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult. Rain fell softly on town cupolas, chuckled from rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues beneath the windows where Jim and Will knew fitful dreams, slipping out of one, trying another for size, but finding all cut from the same dark, mouldered cloth.

In the rustling drumbeat, a second thing occurred:

From the sodden carnival grounds, the carousel suddenly spasmed to life. Its calliope fluted up malodorous steams of music.

Perhaps only one person in town heard and guessed that the carousel was working again.

The door to Miss Foley’s house opened and shut; her footsteps hurried away along the street.

Then the rain fell hard as lightning did a crippled dance down the now-totally-revealed, now-vanishing-forever land.

In Jim’s house, in Will’s house, as the rain nuzzled the breakfast windows, there was a lot of quiet talk, some shouting, and more quiet talk again.

At nine-fifteen, Jim shuffled out into the Sunday weather, wearing his raincoat, cap, and rubbers.

He stood gazing at his roof where the giant snail track was washed away. Then he stared at Will’s door to make it open. It did. Will emerged. Ms father’s voice followed: “Want me to come along?” Will shook his head, firmly.

The boys walked solemnly, the sky washing them toward the police station where they would talk, to Miss Foley’s where they would apologize again, but right now they only walked, hands in pockets, thinking of yesterday’s fearful puzzles. At last Jim broke the silence:

“Last night, after we washed off the roof, and I finally got to sleep, I dreamed a funeral. It came right down Main Street, like a visit.”

“Or...a parade?”

“That’s it! A thousand people, all dressed in black coats, black hats, black shoes, and a coffin forty feet long!”

“Criminentry!”

“Right! What forty feet long needs to be buried? I thought. And in the dream I ran up and looked in. Don’t laugh.”

“I don’t feel funny, Jim.”

“In the long coffin was a big long wrinkled thing like a prune or a big grape lying in the sun. Like a big skin or a giant’s head, drying.”

“The balloon!”

“Hey.” Jim stopped. “You must’ve had the same dream! But...balloons can’t die, can they?”

Will was silent.

“And you don’t have funerals for them, do you?”

“Jim, I...

“Darn balloon laid out like a hippo someone leaked the wind out of — “

“Jim, last night...”

“Black plumes waving, band banging on black velvet-muffled drums with black ivory bones, boy, boy! Then on top of it, have to get up this morning and tell Mom, not everything, but enough so she cried and yelled and cried some more, women sure like to cry, don’t they? and called me her criminal son but — we didn’t do anything bad, did we, Will?”

“Someone almost took a ride on a merry-go-round.”

Jim walked along in the rain. “I don’t think I want any more of that.”

“You don’t think! ? After all this!? Good grief, let me tell you! The Witch, Jim, the balloon! Last night, all alone, I — “

But there was no time to tell it.

No time to tell his stabbing the balloon so it gusted away to die in the lonely country sinking the blind woman with it.

No time because walking in the cold rain now, they heard a sad sound.

They were passing an empty lot deep within which stood a vast oak-tree. Under it were rainy shadows, and the sound.

“Jim,” said Will, “someone’s — crying.”

“No.” Jim moved on.

“There’s a little girl in there.”

“No.” Jim would not look. “What would a girl be doing out under a tree in the rain? Come on.”

“Jim! You hear her!”

“No! I don’t, I don’t!”

But then the crying came stronger across the dead grass, flew like a sad bird through the rain, and Jim had to turn, for there was Will marching across the rubble.

“Jim — that voice — I know it!”

“Will, don’t go there!”

And Jim did not move, but Will stumbled and walked until he entered the shade of the raining tree where the sky fell and was lost in autumn leaves and crept down at last in shining rivers along the branches and trunk and there was the little girl, crouched, face buried in her hands, weeping as if the town were gone and the people in it and herself lost in terrible woods.

And at last Jim came edging up and stood at the edge of the shadow and said, “Who is it?”

“I don’t know.” But Will felt tears start to his eyes, as if some part of him guessed.

“It’s not Jenny Holdridge, is it...”

“No.”

“Jane Franklin?”

“No.” His mouth felt full of novocaine, his tongue merely stirred in his numb lips. “...no... “

The little girl wept, feeling them near, but not looking up yet.

“...me...me...help me...nobody’ll help me...me...me...I don’t like this...”

Then when she had strength enough and was quieter she turned her face, her eyes almost swollen shut with weeping. She was shocked to see anyone near, then surprised.

“Jim! Will! Oh God, it’s you!”

She seized Jim’s hand. He writhed back, yelling. “No! I don’t know you, let go!”

“Will, help me, Jim, oh don’t go, don’t leave!” she gasped, brokenly, new tears bursting from her eyes.

“No, no, don’t!” screamed Jim, he thrashed, he broke free fell, leaped to his feet, one fist raised to strike. He stopped, trembling, held it to his side. “Oh, Will, Will, let’s get out of here, I’m sorry, oh God, God.”

The little girl in the shadow of the tree, flung back, widened her eyes to fix the two in wetness, moaned, clutched herself and rocked back and forth, her own child-baby, comforting her elbows... soon she might sing to herself and sing that way, alone beneath the dark tree, forever, no one able to join or stop the song.

“...someone must help me...someone must help her...” she mourned as for one dead, “someone must help her...nobody will...nobody has...help her if not me...terrible...terrible...”

“She knows us!” said Will, hopelessly, half bent down to her, half turned to Jim. “I can’t leave her!”

“Lies!” said Jim, wildly. “Lies! She don’t know us! Never saw her before!”

“She’s gone, bring her back, she’s gone, bring her back,” mourned the girl, eyes shut.

“Find who?” Will got down on one knee, dared to touch her hand. She grabbed him. Almost immediately she knew this was wrong for he tried to tear free, so she let him go, and wept, while he waited near and Jim, far out in the dead grass, called in for them to go, he didn’t like it, they must, they must go.

“Oh, she’s lost,” sobbed the little girl. “She ran off in that place and never come back. Will you find her, please, please...?”

Shivering, Will touched her cheek. “Hey now,” he whispered. “You’ll be okay. I’ll find help,” he said, gently. She opened her eyes. “This is Will Halloway, okay? Cross my heart, we’ll be back. Ten minutes. But you mustn’t go away.” She shook her head. “You’ll wait here under the tree for us?” She nodded, mutely. He stood up. This simple motion frightened her and she flinched. So he waited and looked at her and said, “I know who you are.” He saw the great familiar eyes open grey in the small wounded face. He saw the long rainwashed black hair and the pale cheeks. “I know who you are. But I got to check.”

“Who’ll believe?” she wailed.

“I believe,” Will said.

And she lay back against the tree, her hands in her lap, trembling, very thin, very white, very lost, very small.

“Can I go now?” he said.

She nodded.

And he walked away.

At the edge of the lot, Jim stomped his feet in disbelief, almost hysterical with outrage and declamation.

”It can’t be!”

“It is,” said Will. “The eyes. That’s how you tell. Like it was with Mr Cooger and the evil boy — There’s one way to be sure. Come on!”

And he took Jim through the town and they stopped at last in front of Miss Foley’s house and looked at the unlit windows in the morning gloom and walked up the steps and rang the bell, once, twice, three times.

Silence.

Very slowly, the front door moved whining back on its hinges.

“Miss Foley?” Jim called, softly.

Somewhere off in the house, shadows of rain moved on far windowpanes.

“Miss Foley...?”

They stood in the hall by the bead-rain in the entry door, listening to the great attic beams ashift and astir in the downpour.

“Miss Foley!” Louder.

But only the mice in the walls, warmly nested, made sgraffito sounds in answer.

“She’s gone out to shop,” said. Jim.

“No.” said Will. “We know where she is.”

“Miss Foley, I know you’re here!” shouted Jim suddenly, savagely, dashing upstairs. “Come on out, you!”

Will waited for him to search and drag slowly back down. As Jim reached the bottom of the steps, they both heard the music blowing through the front door with the smell of fresh rain and ancient grass.

The carousel calliope, among the hills, piping the “Funeral March” backwards. 

Jim opened the door wider and stood in the music, as one stands in the rain.

“The merry-go-round. They fixed it!”

Will nodded. “She must’ve heard the music, gone out at sunrise. Something went wrong. Maybe the carousel wasn’t fixed right. Maybe accidents happen all the time. Like to the lightning-rod man, him inside-out and crazy. Maybe the carnival likes accidents, gets a kick out of them. Or maybe they did something to her on purpose. Maybe they wanted to know more about us, our names, where we live, or wanted her to help them hurt us. Who knows what? Maybe she got suspicious or scared. Then they just gave her more than she ever wanted or asked for.”

“I don’t understand — “

But now, in the doorway, in the cold rain, there was time to think of Miss Foley afraid of mirror mazes, Miss Foley alone not so long ago at the carnival, and maybe screaming when they did what they finally did to her, around and around, around and around, too many years, more years than she had ever dreamed of shucked away, rubbing her raw, leaving her naked small, alone, and bewildered because unknown-even-to-herself, around and around, until all the years were gone and the carousel rocked to a halt like a roulette wheel, and nothing gained and all lost and nowhere for her to go, no way to tell the strangeness, and nothing to do but weep under a tree, alone, in the autumn rain...

Will thought this. Jim thought it, and said:

“Oh, the poor...the poor...”

“We got to help her, Jim. Who else would believe? If she tells anyone, “I’m Miss Foley!” “Get away!” they”d say, “Miss Foley’s left town, disappeared!” “Go on, little girl!” Oh, Jim, I bet she”d pounded a dozen doors this morning wanting help, scared people with her screaming and yelling, then ran off, gave up, and hid under that tree. Police are probably looking for her now, but so what? it’s just a wild girl crying and they’ll lock her away and she’ll go crazy. That carnival, boy, do they know how to punish so you can’t hit back. They just shake you up and change you so no one ever knows you again and let you run free, it’s okay, go ahead, talk, “cause folks are too scared of you to listen. Only we hear, Jim, only you and me, and right now I feel like I just ate a cold snail raw.”

They looked back a last time at the shadows of rain crying on the windows inside the parlour where a teacher had often served them cookies and hot chocolate and waved to them from the window and moved tall through the town. Then they stepped out and shut the door and ran back toward the empty lot.

“We got to hide her, until we can help — “

“Help?” panted Jim. “We can’t help ourselves!

“There’s got to be weapons, right in front of us, we’re just too blind — “

They stopped.

Beyond the thump of their own hearts, a greater heart thumped. Brass trumpets wailed. Trombones blared. A herd of tubas made an elephant charge, alarmed for unknown reasons.

“The carnival!” gasped Jim. “We never thought! It can come right into town. A Parade! Or that funeral I dreamt about, for the balloon?”

“Not a funeral and only what looks like a parade but’s a search for us, Jim, for us, or Miss Foley, if they want her back! They can march down any old street, fine and dandy, and spy as they go, drum and bugle! Jim, we got to get her before they — “

And breaking off, they flung themselves down an alley, but stopped suddenly, and leaped to hide in some bushes.

At the far end of the alley, the carnival band, animal wagons, clowns, freaks and all, banged and crashed between them and the empty lot and the great oak tree.

It must have taken five minutes for the parade to pass. The rain seemed to move on away, the clouds moving with them. The rain ceased. The strut of drums faded. The boys loped down the alley, across the street, and stopped by the empty lot.

There was no little girl under the tree.

They circled it, looked up in it, not daring to call a name.

Then very much afraid, they ran to hide themselves somewhere in the town.

 

33

 

The phone rang.

Mr Halloway picked it up.

“Dad, this is Willy, we can’t go to the police station, we may not be home today, tell Mom, tell Jim’s mom.”

“Willy, where are you?”

“We got to hide. They’re looking for us.”

“Who, for God’s sake?”

“I don’t want you in it, Dad. You got to believe, we’ll just hide one day, two, until they go away. If we came home they”d follow and hurt you or Ma or Jim’s mom. I got to go.”

“Willy, don’t!”

“Oh, Dad,” said Will. “Wish me luck.”

Click.

Mr Halloway looked out at the trees, the houses, the streets, hearing faraway music.

“Willy,” he said to the dead phone. “Luck.”

And he put on his coat and hat and went out into the strange bright rainy sunshine that filled the cold air.

 

34

 

In front of the United Cigar Store on this before-noon Sunday with the bells of all churches ringing across here, colliding with each other there, showering sound from the sky now that the rain was spent, in front of the cigar store the Cherokee wooden Indian stood, his carved plumes pearled with water, oblivious to Catholic or Baptist bells, oblivious to the steadily approaching sun-bright cymbals, the thumping pagan heart of the carnival band. The flourished drums, the old-womanish shriek of calliope, the shadow drift of creatures far stranger than he, did not witch the Indian’s yellow hawk-fierce gaze. Still, the drums did tilt churches and plummet forth mobs of boys curious and eager for any change mild or wild, so, as the church bells stopped up their silver and iron rain, pew-stiffened crowds became relaxed parade crowds as the carnival, a promotion of brass, a flush of velvet, all lion-pacing, mammoth-shuffling, flag-fluttered by.

The shadow of the Indian’s wooden tomahawk lay on an iron grille embedded in the sidewalk in front of the cigar store. Over this grille with faint metallic reverberations, year after year, people passed, dropping tonnages of mint-gum wrapper, gold cigar-band, matchstub, cigarette butt or copper penny which vanished below forever.

Now, with the parade, hundreds of feet rang and clustered on the grille as the carnival strode by on stilts, roared by in tiger and volcano sounds and colours.

Under the grille, two shapes trembled.

“Above, like a great baroque peacock striding the bricks and asphalt, the freaks’ eyes opened out, to stare, to search office roofs, church spires, read dentists’ and opticians’ signs, check dime and dry goods stores as drums shocked plate glass windows and wax dummies quaked in facsimiles of fear. A multitude of hot and incredibly bright fierce eyes, the parade moved, desiring, but not quenching its desire.

For the things it most wanted were hidden in dark.

Jim and Will, under the cigar store sidewalk grille.

Crouch-pressed knee to knee, heads up, eyes alert, they sucked their breaths like iron Popsicles. Above, women’s dresses flowered in a cold breeze. Above, men tilted on the sky. The band, in a collision of cymbals, knocked children against their mothers’ knees with concussion.

“There!” exclaimed Jim! “The parade! It’s right out front the cigar store! What’re we doing here, Will? Let’s go!”

“No!” cried Will, hoarsely, clenching Jim’s knee. “It’s the most obvious place, in front of everybody! They’ll never think to check here! Shut up!”

Thrrrummmmm...

The grille, above, rang with the touch of a man’s shoe, and the worn nails in that shoe.

Dad! Will almost cried.

He rose, sank back, biting his lips.

Jim saw the man above wheel this way, wheel that, searching, so near, yet so far, three feet away.

I could just reach up...thought Will.

But Dad, pale, nervous, hurried on.

And Will felt his soul fall over cold and white-jelly quivering inside.

Bang!

The boys jerked.

A chewed lump of pink bubble-gum, falling, had hit a pile of old paper near Jim’s foot.

A five-year-old boy, above, crouched on the grille, peered down with dismay after his vanished sweet.

Get! thought Will.

The boy knelt, hands to the grille.

Go on! thought Will.

He had a crazy wish to grab the gum and stuff it back up into the little boy’s mouth.

A parade-drum thumped one huge time, then - silence.

Jim and Will glanced at each other.

The parade, both thought, it’s halted!

The small boy stuck one hand half through the grille.

Above, in the street, Mr Dark, the Illustrated Man, glanced back over his river of freaks, cages, at the sunburst tubas and python brass horns. He nodded.

The parade fell apart.

The freaks hurried half to one sidewalk, half to the other, mingling with the crowd, passing out handbills, eyes fire-crystal, quick, striking like snakes.

The small boy’s shadow cooled Will’s cheek.

The parade’s over, he thought, now the search begins.

“Look, Ma!” The small boy pointed down through the grille “There!”

 

35

 

In Ned’s Night Spot, half a block from the cigar store, Charles Halloway, exhausted from no sleep, too much thinking, far too much walking, finished his second coffee and was about to pay when the sharp silence from the street outside made him uneasy. He sensed rather than saw the mild intermingled disturbance as the parade melted among the sidewalk crowds. Not knowing why, Charles Halloway put his money away.

“Warm it up again, Ned?”

Ned was pouring coffee when the door swung wide, someone entered, and splayed his right hand lightly on the counter.

Charles Halloway stared.

The hand stared back at him.

There was a single eye tattooed on the back of each finger.

 

“Mom! Down there! Look!”

The boy cried, pointing through the grille.

More shadows passed and lingered.

Including — the Skeleton.

Tall as a dead tree in winter all skull, all scarecrow-stilted bones, the thin man, the Skeleton, Mr Skull played his xylophone shadow upon hidden things, cold paper rubbish, warm flinching boys, below.

Go! thought Will. Go!

The plump fingers of the child gesticulated through the grille.

Go.

Mr Skull walked away.

Thank God, thought Will, then gasped, “Oh, no!”

For the Dwarf as suddenly appeared., waddling along, a fringe of bells on his dirty shirt jingling softly, his toad-shadow tucked under him, his eyes like broken splinters of brown marble now bright-on-the-surface mad, now deeply mournfully forever-lost-and-gone-buried-away mad looking for something could not be found, a lost self somewhere, lost boys for an instant, then the lost self again, two parts of the little squashed man fought to jerk his flashing eyes here, there, around, up, down, one seeking the past, one the immediate present.

“Mama!” said the child.

The Dwarf stopped and looked at the boy no bigger than himself. Their eyes met.

Will flung himself back, tried to gum his body into the concrete. He felt Jim do the same, not moving but moving his mind, his soul, thrusting it into darkness to hide from the little drama above.

“Come on, Junior!” A woman’s voice.

The boy was puffed up and away.

Too late.

For the Dwarf was looking down.

And in his eyes were the lost bits and fitful pieces of a man named Fury who had sold lightning-rods how many days how many years ago in the long, the easy, the safe and wondrous time before this fright was born.

Oh, Mr Fury, thought Will, what they’ve done to you. Threw you under a pile-driver, squashed you in a steel press, squeezed the tears and screams out of you, trapped you in a jack-in-a-box all pressed down until there’s nothing left of you, Mr Fury...nothing left but this...

Dwarf. And the Dwarf’s face was less human, more machine now; in fact, a camera.

The shuttering eyes flexed, sightless, opening upon darkness. Tick. Two lenses expanded-contracted with liquid swiftness: a picture-snap of the grille.

A snap, also, of what lay beneath?

Is he staring at the metal, thought Will, or the spaces between the metal?

For a long moment, the ruined-squashed clay doll Dwarf squatted while standing tall. His flash-camera eyes were bulged wide, perhaps still taking pictures?

Will, Jim, were not seen really at all, only their shape, their colour and size were borrowed by these dwarf camera eyes. They were clapped away in the box-Brownie skull. Later how much later? — the picture would be developed by the wild, the tiny, the forgetful., the wandering and lost lightning-rod mind. What lay under the grille would then be really seen. And after that? Revelation! Revenge! Destruction!

Click-snap-tick.

Children ran laughing by.

The Dwarf-child, drawn by their running joy, was swept along with them. Madly, he skipped off, remembered himself, and went looking for something, he knew not what.

The cloudy sun poured fight through all the sky.

The two boys, boxed in light-slotted pit, hisstled their breath softly out through gritted teeth.

Jim squeezed Will’s hand, tight, tight.

Both waited for more eyes to stride along and rake the steel grille.

The blue-red-green tattooed eyes, all five of them, fell away from the counter top.

Charles Halloway, sipping his third coffee, turned slightly on the revolving stool.

The Illustrated Man was watching him.

Charles Halloway nodded.

The Illustrated Man did not nod or blink, but stared until the janitor wanted to turn away, but did not, and simply gazed as calmly as possible at the impertinent intruder.

“What’ll it be?” asked the café proprietor.

“Nothing.” Mr Dark watched Will’s father. “I’m looking for two boys.”

Who isn’t? Charles Halloway rose, paid, walked off. “Thanks, Ned.” In passing, he saw the man with the tattoos hold his hands out, palms up toward Ned.

“Boys?” said Ned. “How old?”

The door slammed.

Mr Dark watched Charles Halloway walk off outside the window.

Ned talked.

But the Illustrated Man did not hear.

 

Outside, Will’s father moved toward the library, stopped, moved toward the courthouse, stopped, waited for some better sense to direct him, felt his pocket, missed his smokes, and turned toward the United Cigar Store.

Jim looked up, saw familiar feet, pale faces salt and pepper hair. “Will! Your dad! Call to him. He’ll help us!” Will could not speak.

“I’ll call to him!”

Will bit Jim’s arm., shook his head violently, No!

Why not? mouthed Jim.

Because, said Will’s lips.

Because...he gazed up...Dad looked even smaller up there than he had last night, seen from the side of the house. It would be like calling to one more boy passing. They didn’t need one more boy, they needed a general, no, a major general! He tried to see Dad’s face at the cigar counter window, and discover whether it looked really older, firmer, stronger, than it did last night washed with all the milk colours of the moon. But all he saw was Dad’s fingers twitching nervously, his mouth working, as if he didn’t dare ask his needs from Mr Tetley...

“One...that is...one twenty-five cent cigar.”

“My God,” said Mr Tetley, above. “The man’s rich!”

Charles Halloway took his time removing the cellophane, waiting for some hint, some move on the part of the universe to show him where he was going, why he had come back this way for a cigar he did not really want. He thought he heard himself called, twice, glanced swiftly at the crowds, saw clowns passing with handbills, then lit the cigar he did not want from the eternal blue-gas flame that burned in a small silver jet pipe on the counter, and puffing smoke, dropped the cigar band with his free hand, saw the band bounce on the metal grille, and vanish, his eyes following it farther down to where...

It lit at the feet of Will Halloway, his son.

Charles Halloway choked on cigar smoke.

Two shadows there, yes! And the eyes, terror gazing up out of the dark well under the street. He almost bent to seize the grate, yelling.

Instead, incredulous, he only blurted softly., with the crowd around, and the weather clearing:

“Jim? Will! What the hell’s going on?”

At which moment, one hundred feet away, the Illustrated Man came out of Ned’s Night Spot.

“Mr Halloway — “ said Jim.

“Come up out of there,” said Charles Halloway.

The Illustrated Man, a crowd among crowds, pivoted slowly, then walked toward the cigar store.

“Dad, we can’t! Don’t look at us down here!”

The Illustrated Man was some eighty feet away.

“Boys,” said Charles Halloway. “The police — “

“Mr Halloway,” said Jim hoarsely., “we’re dead if you don’t look up! The Illustrated Man, if he — “

“The what?” asked Mr Halloway.

“The man with the tattoos!”

From the café counter, five electric blue-inked eyes fixed Mr Halloway’s memory.

“Dad, look over at the courthouse clock, while we tell you what happened — “

Mr Halloway straightened up.

And the Illustrated Man arrived.

He stood studying Charles Halloway.

“Sir,” said the Illustrated Man.

“Eleven-fifteen.” Charles Halloway judged the courthouse clock, adjusted his wrist watch, cigar in mouth. “One minute slow.”

“Sir,” said the Illustrated Man.

Will held Jim, Jim held Will fast in the gum-wrapper, tobacco-littered pit, as the four shoes rocked, shuffled, tilted above.

“Sir,” said the man named Dark, probing Charles Halloway’s face for the bones there to compare to other bones in other half-similar people, “the Cooger-Dark Combined Shows have picked two local boys, two! to be our special guests during our celebratory visit!”

“Well, I — “ Will’s father tried not to glance at the sidewalk.

“These two boys — “

Will watched the tooth-sharp shoe-nails of the Illustrated Man flash, sparking the grille.

“ — these boys will ride all rides see each show, shake hands with every performer, go home with magic kits, baseball bats — “

“Who,” interrupted Mr Halloway, “are these lucky boys?”

“Two selected from photos snapped on our midway yesterday. Identify them, sir, and you will share their fortune. There are the boys!”

He sees us down here! thought Will. Oh, God!

The Illustrated Man thrust out his hands.

Will’s father lurched.

Tattooed in bright blue ink, Will’s face gazed up at him from the palm of the right hand.

Ink-sewn to the left palm, Jim’s face was indelible and natural as life.

“You know them?” The Illustrated Man saw Mr Halloway’s throat clench, his eyelids squinch, his bones struck vibrant as from a sledgehammer blow. “Their names?”

Dad, careful! Will thought.

“I don’t — “ said Will’s father.

“You know them.”

The Illustrated Man’s hands shook, held out to view, asking for the gift of names, making Jim’s face on the flesh, Will’s face on the flesh., Jim’s face hidden beneath the street, Will’s face hidden beneath the street, tremble, writhe, pinch.

“Sir, you wouldn’t want them to lose out...?”

“No, but — “

“But, but, but?” Mr Dark loomed closer, magnificent in his picture-gallery flesh, his eyes, the eyes of all his beasts and hapless creatures cutting through his shirt, coat, trousers, fastening the old man tight, biting him with fire, fixing him with thousandfold attentions. Mr Dark shoved his two palms near. “But? — “

Mr Halloway needing something to excruciate, bit his cigar.

“I thought for a moment — “

“Thought what?” Grand delight from Mr Dark.

“One of them looked like — “

“Like who?”

Too eager, thought Will. You see that, Dad, don’t you?

“Mister,” said Will’s father. “Why are you so jumpy about two boys?”

“Jumpy...?”

Mr Dark’s smile melted like cotton candy.

Jim scootched himself down into a dwarf, Will crammed himself down into a midget, both looking up, waiting.

“Sir,” said Mr Dark, “is my enthusiasm that to you? “Jumpy?”“

Will’s father noted the muscles cord along the arms, roping and unroping themselves with a writhe like the puff adders and sidewinders doubtless inked and venomous there.

“One of those pictures,” drawled Mr Halloway, looks like Milton Blumquist.”

Mr Dark clenched a fist.

A blinding ache struck Jim’s head.

“The other,” Will’s father was almost bland, “looks like Avery Johnson.”

Oh, Dad, thought Will, you’re great!

The Illustrated Man clenched his other fist.

Will his head in a vice, almost screamed.

“Both boys,” finished Mr Halloway, “moved to Milwaukee some weeks ago.”

“You,” said Mr Dark, coldly, “lie.”

Will’s father was truly shocked.

“Me? And spoil the prizewinners’ fun?”

“Fact is,” said Mr Dark, “we found the names of the boys ten minutes ago. Just want to double-check.”

“So?” said Will’s father, disbelieving.

“Jim,” said Mr Dark. “Will.”

Jim writhed in the dark. Will sank his head deep in his shoulder blades, eyes tight.

Will’s father’s face was a pond into which the two dark stone names sank without a ripple.

“First names? Jim? Will? Lots of Jims and Wills, couple hundred, town like this.”

Will, crouched and squirming, thought, who told? Miss Foley? But she was gone, her house empty and full of rain shadows. Only one other person...

The little girl who looked like Miss Foley weeping under the tree? The little girl who frightened us so bad? he wondered. In the last half hour the parade, going by, found her, and her crying for hours, afraid, and ready to do anything, say anything, if only with music, horses plunging, world racing, they would grow her old again, grow her around again, lift her, shut up her crying, stop up the awful thing and make her as she was. Did the carnival promise, lie to her when they found her under the tree and ran her off ? The little girl crying, but not telling all, because —

“Jim. Will,” said Will’s father. “First names. What about the last?”

Mr Dark did not know the last names.

His universe of monsters sweated phosphorus on his hide, soured his armpits, reeked, slammed between his iron-sinewed legs.

“Now,” said Will’s father, with a strange, and to him almost-defightful-because-new, calm, “I think you’re lying. You don’t know the last names. Now, why should you, a carnival stranger, lie to me here on a street in some town on the backside of nowhere?”

The Illustrated Man clenched his two calligraphic fists very hard.

Will’s father, his face pale, considered these mean, constricted fingers, knuckles’ digging nails, inside which two boys faces, crushed hard in dark vice, tight, very tight in prison flesh, were kept in fury.

Two shadows, below, thrashed in agony.

The Illustrated Man erased his face to serenity.

But a bright drop fell from his right fist.

A bright drop fell from his left fist.

The drops vanished through the steel sidewalk grille.

Will gasped. Wetness had struck his face. He clapped his hand to it, then looked at his palm.

The wetness that had hit his cheek was bright red.

He glanced from it to Jim, who lay still now also, for the scarification, real or imagined, seemed over and both flicked their eyes up to where the Illustrated Man’s shoes flint-sparked the grille, grinding steel on steel.

Will’s father saw the blood ooze from the clenched fists, but forced himself to look only at the Illustrated Man’s face, as he said:

“Sorry I can’t be more help.”

Beyond the Illustrated Man, rounding the corner, hands weaving the air, dressed “m harlequin Gypsy colours, face waxen, eyes hid behind plum-dark glasses, the Fortune Teller, the Dust Witch, came mumbling.

A moment later, looking up, Will saw her. Not dead! he thought. Carried off, bruised, fallen, yes but now back, and mad! Lord, yes, mad, looking especially for me!

Will’s father saw her. His blood slowed, by instinct alone, to a pudding in his chest.

The crowd opened happily, laughing and commenting on her bright if tattered costume, trying to remember what she rhymed, so as to tell it later. She moved, fingers feeling the town as if it were an immensely complicated and lush tapestry. And she sang:

“Tell you your husbands. Tell you your wives. Tell you your fortunes. Tell you your lives. See me, I know. See me at the show. Tell you the colour of his eyes. Tell you the colour of her lies. Tell you the colour of his goal. Tell you the colour of her soul. Come now, don’t go. See me, see me at the show.”

Children appalled, children impressed, parents delighted, parents in high good humour, and still the Gypsy from the dusts of living sang. Time walked in her murmuring. She made and broke microscopic webs between her fingers wherewith to feel soot fly up, breath fly out. She touched the wings of flies, the souls of invisible bacteria, all specks, mites, and mica-snowings of sunlight filtrated with motion and much more hidden emotion.

Will and Jim cracked their bones, cowered down., hearing:

“Blind, yes, blind. But I see what I see, I see where I be,” said the Witch, softly. “There’s a man with a straw hat in autumn. Hello. And — why there’s Mr Dark, and...an old man...an old man.”

He’s not that old! cried Will to himself, blinking up at the three, as the Witch stopped, her shadow falling moist-frog cool on the hidden boys.

“...old man... “

Mr Halloway was jolted as by a series of cold knives thrust in his stomach.

“...old man...old man...” said the Witch.

She stopped this. “Ah...” The hairs in her nostrils bristled.

She gaped her mouth to savour air. “Ah...”

The Illustrated Man quickened.

“Wait...!” sighed the Gypsy.

Her fingernails scraped down an unseen blackboard of air.

Will felt himself yip, bark, whimper like an aggravated hound.

Slowly her fingers climbed down, feeling the spectrums, weighing the light. In another moment, a forefinger might thrust to the sidewalk grille, implying: there! there!

Dad! thought Will. Do something!

The Illustrated Man, gone sweetly patient now that his blind but immensely aware dust lady was here, watched her with love.

“Now...” The Witch’s fingers itched.

“Now!” said Will’s father, loud.

The Witch flinched.

“Now, this is a fine cigar!” yelled Will’s father, turning with great pomp back to the counter.

“Quiet...” said the Illustrated Man.

The boys looked up.

“Now — “ The Witch sniffed the wind.

“Got to light it again!” Mr Halloway stuck the cigar in the eternal blue flame.

“Silence...” suggested Mr Dark.

“Ever smoke, yourself?” asked Dad.

The Witch, from the concussion of his fiercely erupted and overly jovial words, dropped one wounded hand to her side, wiped sweat from it, as one wipes an antenna for better reception, and drifted it up again, her nostrils flared with wind.

“Ah!” Will’s father blew a dense cloud of cigar smoke. It made a fine thick cumulus surrounding the woman.

“Gah!” she choked.

“Fool!” The Illustrated Man barked, but whether at man or woman, the boys below could not tell.

“Here, let’s buy you one!” Mr Halloway blew more smoke, handing Mr Dark a cigar.

The Witch exploded a sneeze, recoiled, staggered away. The Illustrated Man snatched Dad’s arm, saw that he had gone too far, let go, and could only follow his Gypsy woman off, in some clumsy and totally unexpected defeat. But then in going, he heard Will’s father say, “A fine day to you, sir!”

No, Dad! thought Will.

The Illustrated Man came back.

“Your name, sir?” he asked, directly.

Don’t tell him! thought Will.

Will’s father debated a moment, took the cigar from his mouth, tapped ash and said, quietly:

“Halloway. Work in the library. Drop by some time.”

“You can be sure, Mr Halloway. I will.”

The Witch was waiting near the corner.

Mr Halloway whetted his forefinger, tested the wind, and sent a cumulus her way.

She flailed back, gone.

The Illustrated Man went rigid, spun about, and strode off, the ink portraits of Jim and Will crushed hard iron tight in his fists.

Silence.

It was so quiet under the grille, Mr Halloway thought the two boys had died of fright.

And Will, below, gazing up, eyes wet, mouth wide, thought, Oh my gosh, why didn’t I see it before?

Dad’s tall. Dad’s very tall indeed.

Still Charles Halloway did not look down at the grille but only at the small comets of splashed red colour left on the sidewalk, trailed around the corner, dropped from the clenched hands of the vanished Mr Dark. He was also gazing with surprise at himself, accepting the surprise, the new purpose, which was half despair, half serenity, now that the incredible deed was done. Let no one ask why he had given his true name; even he could not assay and give its real weight. Now he could only read the numerals on the courthouse clock and speak to it, while the boys below, listened.

“Oh, Jim, Will, something is going on. Can you hide, keep out from under, the rest of the day? We got to have time. With things like this, where do you begin? No law’s been broken, none on the books, anyway. But I feel dead and buried a month. My flesh ripples. Hide, Jim, Will, hide. I’ll tell your mothers you’ve got jobs at the carnival, good excuse for you not coming home. Stay hid until dark, then come to the library at seven. Meantime, I’ll check police records on carnivals, newspaper files at the library, books, old folios, everything that might fit. God willing, by the time you show up, after dark, I’ll have a plan. Walk easy until then. Bless you, Jim. Bless you, Will.”

The small father who was very tall now walked slowly away.

Its cigar, unnoticed, fell from his hand, dropped in a spark shower through the grate.

It lay in the square pit glowing its single fiery pink eye at Jim and Will, who looked back and at last snatched to blind and put it out.

 

36

 

The, Dwarf, bearing his demented and wildly lighted eyes, made his way south on Main Street.

Stopping suddenly, he developed a film strip in his head, scanned it, bleated and blundered back through the forest of legs to reach for and pull the Illustrated Man down where a whisper was as good as a shout. Mr Dark listened, then fled, leaving the Dwarf far behind.

Reaching the cigar store Indian, the Illustrated Man sank to his knees. Clutching the steel lattice-grille, he peered down in the pit.

Below lay yellow newspapers, wilted candy wrappers, burnt cigars, and gum.

Mr Dark’s cry was muffled fury.

“Lose something?”

Mr Tetley blinked over his counter.

“The Illustrated Man clenched the grate, nodding once.

“I clean under the grate once a month for the money,” said Mr Tetley. “How much you lose? Dime? Quarter? Half dollar?”

Bing!

The Illustrated Man glared up.

In the cash-register window a small fire-red sign jumped high:

NO SALE.

 

37

 

The town clock struck seven.

The echoes of the great chime wandered in the unlit halls of the library.

An autumn leaf, very crisp, fell somewhere in the dark. But it was only the page of a book, turning.

Off in one of the catacombs, bent to a table under a grass-green-shaded lamp, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, sat Charles Halloway, his hands trembling the pages, lifting, rearranging the books. Now and then he hurried off to peer into the autumn night, watchful of the streets. Then again he came back to paper-clip pages, to inset papers, to scribble out quotations, whispering to himself. His voice brought forth quick echoes from the library vaults:

“Look here!”

“...here...!” said the night passages.

“This picture...!”

“...picture...!” said the halls.

“And this!”

“...this...” The dust settled.

It had been the longest day of all the days he could remember in his life. He had mingled with strange and not-so-strange crowds, he had searched after the searchers, in the wake of the wide-scattering parade. He had resisted telling Jim’s mother, Will’s mother, more than they needed to know for a happy Sunday, and meantime crossed shadows with Dwarf, traded nods with Pinhead and Fire-eater, kept free of shadowed alleys, and controlled his panic, when, doubling back, he saw the basement pit empty under the cigar store grille and knew that the boys were at hide-and-seek somewhere nearby or somewhere, praise God, very far away.

Then, in the crowds, he moved to the carnival ground, stayed out of tents, stayed free of rides, observed, watched the sun go down, and just at twilight, surveyed the cold glass waters of the Mirror Maze and saw just enough on the shore to pull him back before he drowned. Wet all over, cold to the bone, before night caught him he let the crowd protect, warm, and bear him away up into town, to the library, and to most important books which he arranged in a great literary clock on a table, like someone learning to tell a new time. So he paced round and round the huge clock squinting at the yellowed pages as if they were moth-wings pinned dead to the wood.

Here lay a portrait of the Prince of Darkness. Next a series of fantastic sketches of the Temptations of St Anthony. Next some etchings from the Bizarie by Giovan-batista Bracelli, depicting a set of curious toys, humanlike robots engaged in various alchemical rites. At five minutes to twelve stood a copy of Dr Faustus, at two lay on Occult Iconography, at six, under Mr Halloway’s trailed fingers now, a history of circuses, carnivals, shadow shows, puppet menageries inhabited by mountebanks, minstrels, stilt-walking sorcerers and their fantoccini. More: A Manual of the Air Kingdoms (Things That Fly Down History). At nine sharp: By Demons Possessed, lying atop Egyptian Philtres, lying atop the Torments of the Damned, which in turn crushed flat The Spell of Mirrors. Very late up the literary clock one named Locomotives and Trains, The Mystery of Sleep, Between Midnight and Dawn, The Witches’ Sabbath, and Pacts With Demons. It was all laid out. He could see the face.

But there were no hands on this clock.

He could not tell what hour of the night of life it was for himself, the boys, or the unknowing town.

For, in sum, what had he to go by?

A three-o”-clock-in-the-morning arrival, a grotesque-looking glass maze, a Sunday parade, a tall man with a swarm of electric-blue pictures itching on his sweaty hide, a few drops of blood falling down through a pavement grille, two frightened boys staring up out of the earth, and himself, alone in mausoleum quiet, nudging the puzzle together.

What was there about the boys that made him believe the simplest word they whispered up through the grille? Fear itself was proof here, and he had seen enough fear in his fife to know it, like the smell from a butcher’s shop in summer twilight.

What was there about the illustrated carnival owner’s silences that spoke thousands of violent, corrupt, and crippling words?

What was there in that old man he had seen through a tent flap late this afternoon, seated in a chair with the words MR ELECTRICO bannered over him, power webbing and crawling on his flesh like green lizards?

All, all, all of it. And now, these books. This. He touched Physiognomonie. The secrets of the individual’s character as found in his face.

Were Jim and Will, then, featured all angelic, pure, half-innocent, peering up through the sidewalk at marching terror? Did the boys represent the ideal for your Woman, Man, or Child of Excellent Bearing, Colour, Balance, and Summer Disposition?

Conversely...Charles Halloway turned a page...did the scurrying freaks, the Illustrated Marvel, bear the foreheads of the Irascible, the Cruel, the Covetous, the mouths of the Lewd and Untruthful? the teeth of the Crafty, the Unstable, the Audacious, the Vainglorious, and your Murderous Beast?

No. The book slipped shut. If faces were judged, the freaks were no worse than many he”d seen slipping from the library late nights in his long career.

There was only one thing sure.

Two lines of Shakespeare said it. He should write them in the middle of the clock of books, to fix the heart of his apprehension:

 

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

 

So vague, yet so immense.

He did not want to live with it.

Yet he knew that, during this night, unless he lived with it very well, he might have to live with it all the rest of his life.

At the window he looked out and thought, Jim, Will, are you coming? will you get here?

Waiting, his flesh took paleness from his bones.

 

38

 

The library, then, at seven-fifteen, seven-thirty, seven-forty-five of a Sunday night, cloistered with great drifts of silence and transfixed avalanche of books poised like the cuneiform stones of eternity on shelves, so high the unseen snows of time fell all year there.

Outside, the town breathed back and forth to the carnival, hundreds of people passing near where Jim and Will lay strewn in bushes to one side of the library, now ducking up, now ducking down to nose raw earth.

“Cheezit!”

Both smothered in grass. Across the street there passed what could have been a boy, could have been a dwarf, could have been a boy-with-dwarf-mind, could have been anything blown along like the scuttle-crab leaves on the frost-mica sidewalks. But then whatever it was went away Jim sat up, Will still lay face buried in good safe dirt.

“Come on, what’s wrong?”

“The library,” said Will. “I’m even afraid of it, now.” All the books, he thought, perched there, hundreds of years old, peeling skin, leaning on each other like ten million vultures. Walk along the dark stacks and all the gold titles shine their eyes at you. Between old carnival, old library and his own father, everything old...well...

“I know Dad’s in there, but is it Dad? I mean what if they came, changed him, made him bad, promised him something they can’t give but he thinks they can, and we go in there and some day fifty years from now someone opens a book in there and you and me drop out, like two dry moth-wings on the floor, Jim, someone pressed and hid us between pages, and no one ever guessed where we went — “

This was too much for Jim, who had to do something to flog his spirits. Next thing Will knew, Jim was hammering on the library door. Both hammered, frantic to jump from this night to that warmer book-breathing night inside. Given a choice of darkness, this one was the better: the oven smell of books, as the door opened and Dad stood with his ghost-coloured hair.

They tiptoed back through the deserted corridors, Will feeling a crazy urge to whistle as he often did past the graveyard at sundown, Dad asking what made them late, and they trying to remember all the places they hid in one day.

They had hid in old garages, they had hid in old barns, they had hid in the highest trees they could climb and got bored and boredom was worse than fear so they came down and reported in to the Police Chief and had a fine chat which gave them twenty safe minutes right in the station and Will got the idea of touring churches and they climbed all the steeples in town and scared pigeons off the belfries and whether or not it was safer in churches and especially up with the bells or not, no one could claim, but it felt safe. But there again they began to get starchy with boredom and fatigued with sameness, and were almost on the point of giving themselves up to the carnival in order to have something to do, when quite fortunately the sun went down. From sundown to now it had taken a wonderful time, creeping upon the library, as if it were a once friendly fort that might now be manned by Arabs.

“So here we are,” whispered Jim, and stopped.

“Why am I whispering? It’s after hours. Heck!”

He laughed, then stopped.

For he thought he heard a soft tread off in the subterranean vaults.

But it was only his laughter walking back through the deep stacks on panther feet.

So when they talked again, it was still in whispers. Deep forests, dark caves, dim churches, half-lit libraries were all the same, they tuned you down, they dampened your ardour, they brought you to murmurs and soft cries for fear of raising up phantom twins of your voice which might haunt corridors long after your passage.

They reached the small room and circled the table on which Charles Halloway had laid out the books, where he had read many hours, and for the first time looked in each other’s faces and saw a dreadful paleness, so did not comment.

“From the beginning.” Will’s father pulled out chairs.

“Please.”

So, each taking his part, in their own good time, the boys told of the wandering-by lightning-rod salesman, the predictions of storms to come, the long-after-midnight train, the suddenly inhabited meadow, the moonblown tents, the untouched but full-wept calliope, then the light of noon showering over an ordinary midway with hundreds of Christians wandering through but no lions for them to be tossed to, only the maze where time lost itself backward and forward in waterfall mirrors, only the OUT OF ORDER carousel, the dead supper hour, Mr Cooger, and the boy with the eyes that had seen all the glistery tripes of the world shaped like hung-and-dripping sins and all the sins tenterhooked and running red and verminous, this boy with the eyes of a man who has lived forever, seen too much, might like, to die but doesn’t know how...

The boys stopped for breath.

Miss Foley, the carnival again, the carousel run wild, the ancient Cooger mummy gasping moonlight, exhaling silver dust, dead, then resurrected in a chair where green lightning struck his skeleton alight, all of it a storm minus rain, minus thunder, and parade, the cigar store basement, the hiding, and at last them here, finished, done with the telling.

For a long moment, Will’s father sat staring blindly into the centre of the table. Then, his lips moved.

“Jim. Will,” he said. “I believe.”

The boys sank in their chairs.

“All of it?”

“All.”

Will wiped his eyes. “Boy,” he said gruffly. “I’m going to start bawling.”

“We got no time for that! “ said Jim.

“No time.” And Will’s father stood up, stuffed his pipe with tobacco, rummaged his pockets for matches, brought out a battered harmonica, a penknife, a cigarette lighter that wouldn’t work, and a memo pad he had always meant to write some great thoughts down on but never got around to, and lined up these weapons for a pygmy war that could be lost before it even started. Probing this idle refuse, shaking his head, he finally found a tattered matchbox, lit his pipe and began to muse, pacing the room.

“Looks like we’re going to do a lot of talking about one particular carnival. Where’s it come from, where’s it going, what’s it up to? We thought it never hit town before. Yet, by God, look here.”

He tapped a yellowed newspaper ad dated October 12, 1888, and ran his fingernail along under this:

J. C. COOGER AND G. M. DARK PRESENT THE PANDEMONIUM THEATRE CO. COMBINED SIDE-SHOWS AND UNNATURAL MUSEUMS, INTERNATIONAL!

“J.C. G.M.” said Jim. “Those are the same initials as on the throwaways around town this week. But — it couldn’t be the same men...”

“No?” Will’s father rubbed his elbows. “My goose pimples run counter to that.”

He laid forth other old newspapers.

“1860. 1846. Same ad. Same names. Same initials. Dark and Cooger, Cooger and Dark, they came and went, but only once every twenty, thirty, forty years, so people forgot. Where were they all the other years? Travelling. And more than travelling. Always in October: October 1846, October 1860, October 1888, October 1910, and October now, tonight.” His voice trailed off. “...Beware the autumn people...”

“What?”

“An old religious tract. Pastor Newgate Phillips, I think. Read it as a boy. How does it go again?”

He tried to remember. He licked his lips. He did remember.

”“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles - breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”“

After a pause, both boys exhaled at once.

“The autumn people,” said Jim. “That’s them. Sure!”

“Then — “ Will swallowed — “does that make us...summer people?”

“Not quite.” Charles Halloway shook his head. “Oh, you’re nearer summer than me. If I was ever a rare fine summer person, that’s long ago. Most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.”

“Not you,” Dad.

“Not you, Mr Halloway!”

He turned quickly to see both appraising him, paleness next to paleness, hands on knees as if to bolt.

“It’s a way of speaking. Easy, boys, I’m after the facts. Will, do you really know your Dad? Shouldn’t you know me, and me you, if it’s going to be us”ns against them”ns?”

“Hey, yeah,” breathed Jim. “Who are you?”

“We know who he is, darn it!” Will protested.

“Do we?” said Will’s father. “Let’s see. Charles William Halloway. Nothing extraordinary about me except I’m fifty-four, which is always extraordinary to the man inside it. Born in Sweet Water, lived in Chicago, survived in New York, brooded in Detroit, floundered in lots of places, arrived here late, after living in libraries around the country all those years because I liked being alone, liked matching up in books what I”d seen on the roads. Then in the middle of all the running away, which I called travel, in my thirty-ninth year, your mother fixed me with one glance, been here ever since. Still most comfortable in the library nights, in out of the rain of people. Is this my last stop? Chances are. Why am I here at all? Right now, it seems, to help you.”

He paused and looked at the two boys and their fine young faces.

“Yes,” he said. “Very late in the game. To help you.”

 

39

 

Every night-blind library window clattered with cold.

The man, the two boys, waited for the wind to pass away.

Then Will said: “Dad. You’ve always helped.”

“Thanks, but it’s not true.” Charles Halloway examined one very empty hand. “I’m a fool. Always looking over your shoulder to see what’s coming instead of right at you to see what’s here. But then, for what salve it gives me, every man’s a fool. Which means you got to pitch in all your life, bail out, board over, tie rope, patch plaster, pat cheeks, kiss brows, laugh, cry, make do, against the day you’re the worst fool of all and shout “Help!” Then all you need is one person’s answer. I see it so clear, across the country tonight lie cities, towns and mere jerkwater stops of fools. So the carnival steams by, shakes any tree: it rains jackasses. Separate jackasses, I should say, individuals with no one, they think, or no one actual, to answer their “Help!” Unconnected fools, that’s the harvest the carnival comes smiling after with its threshing machine.”

“Oh gosh,” said Will. “It’s hopeless!”

“No. The very fact we’re here worrying about the difference between summer and autumn, makes me sure there’s a way out. You don’t have to stay foolish and you don’t have to be wrong, evil, sinful, whatever you want to call it. There’s more than three or four choices. They, that Dark fellow and his friends, don’t hold all the cards, I could tell that today, at the cigar store. I’m afraid of him but, I could see, he as was afraid of me. So there’s fear on both sides. Now how can we use it to advantage?”

“How?”

“First things first. Let’s bone up on history. If men had wanted to stay bad forever, they could have, agreed? Agreed. Did we stay out in the fields with the beasts? No. In the water with the barracuda? No. Somewhere we let go of the hot gorilla’s paw. Somewhere we turned in our carnivore’s teeth and started chewing blades of grass. We been working mulch as much as blood, into our philosophy, for quite a few life-times. Since then we measure ourselves up the scale from apes, but not half so high as angels. It was a nice new idea and we were afraid we”d lose it, so we put it on paper and built buildings like this one around it. And we been going in and out of these buildings chewing it over, that one new sweet blade of grass, trying to figure how it all started, when we made the move, when we decided to be different. I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night, fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever. Then he must have wept. And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them. He felt that seed like slime in his pulse, splitting, making more against the day they would multiply his body into darkness. So that man, the first one, knew what we know now: our hour is short, eternity is long. With this knowledge came pity and mercy, so we spared others for the later, more intricate, more mysterious benefits of love.

“So, in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have no choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do both, depending on the season and the need. Somehow, I feel the carnival watches, to see which we’re doing and how and why, and moves in on us when it feels we’re ripe.

Charles Halloway stopped, for the boys were watching him so intently he suddenly had to turn, flushing, away.

“Boy, Mr Halloway,” cried Jim, softly. “That’s great. Go on.”

“Dad,” said Will, amazed. “I never knew you could talk.”

“You should hear me here late nights, nothing but talk! Charles Halloway shook his head. “Yes, you should’ve heard. I should’ve said more to you any day you name in the past. Hell. Where was I? Leading up to love, I think. Yes...love.”

Will looked bored, Jim looked wary of the word.

And these looks gave Charles Halloway pause.

What could he say that might make sense to them? Could he say love was above all, common cause, shared experience?

That was the vital cement, wasn’t it? Could he say how he felt about their all being here tonight on this wild world running around a big sun which fell through a bigger space falling through yet vaster immensities of space, maybe toward and maybe away from Something? Could he say: we share this billon-mile-an-hour ride. We have common cause against the night. You start with little common causes. Why love the boy in a March field with his kite braving the sky? Because our fingers burn with the hot string singeing our hands. Why love some girl viewed from a train, bent to a country well? The tongue remembers iron water cool on some long lost noon. Why weep at strangers dead by the road? They resemble friends unseen in forty years. Why laugh when clowns are hit by pies? We taste custard, we taste life. Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes in the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow and pain. Shared and once again shared experience. Billions of prickling textures. Cut one sense away, cut part of life away. Cut two senses; life halves itself on the instant. We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.

But...how to say it?

“Look,” he tried, “put two men in a rail car, one a soldier, the other a farmer. One talks war, the other wheat; and bore each other to sleep. But let one spell long-distance running, and if the other once ran the mile, why, those men will run all night like boys, sparking a friendship up from memory. So, all men have one business in common: women, and can talk that till sunrise and beyond. Hell.”

Charles Halloway stopped, flushed, self-conscious again, knowing vaguely there was a target up ahead but not quite how to get there. He chewed his lips.

Dad, don’t stop, thought Will. When you talk, it’s swell in here. You’ll save us. Go on.

The man read his son’s eyes, saw the same look in Jim, and walked slowly around the table, touching a night beast here, a clutch of ragged crones there, a star, a crescent moon, an antique sun, an hourglass that told time with bone dust instead of sand.

“Have I said anything I started out to say about being good? God, I don’t know. A stranger is shot in the street, you hardly move to help. But if, half an hour before, you spent just ten minutes with the fellow and knew a little about him and his family, you might just jump in front of his killer and try to stop it. Really knowing is good. Not knowing, or refusing to know, is bad, or amoral, at least. You can’t act if you don’t know. Acting without knowing takes you right off the cliff. God, God, you must think I’m crazy, this talk. Probably think we should be out duck-shooting, elephant-gunning balloons, like you did, Will, but we got to know all there is to know about those freaks and that man heading them up. We can’t be good unless we know what bad is, and it’s a shame we’re working against time. Show’ll close and the crowds go home early on a Sunday night. I feel we’ll have a visit from the autumn people, then. That gives us maybe two hours.”

Jim was at the window now, looking out across the town to the far black tents and the calliope that played by the turning of the world in the night.

“Is it bad?” he asked.

“Bad?” cried Will, angrily. “Bad. You ask that!?”

“Calmly,” said Will’s father. “A good question. Part of that show looks just great. But the old saying really applies: you can’t get something for nothing. Fact is, from them, you get nothing for something. They make you empty promises, you stick our your neck and — wham!”

“Where”d they come from?” asked Jim. “Who are they?”

Will went to the window with his father and they both looked out and Charles Halloway said, to those far tents:

“Maybe once it was just one man walking across Europe, jingling his ankle bells, a lute on his shoulder making a hunchbacked shadow, before Columbus. Maybe a man walked around in a monkey skin a million years ago, stuffing himself with other people’s unhappiness, chewed their pain all day like spearmint gum, for the sweet savour., and trotted faster, revivified by personal disaster. Maybe this son after him refined his father’s deadfalls, mantraps, bone-crunchers, head-achers, flesh-twitchers, soul-skinners. These laid the scum on lonely ponds from which came vinegar gnats to snuff up noses, mosquitoes to ride summer-night flesh and sting forth those bumps that carnival phrenologists dearly love to fondle and prophesy upon. So from one man here, one man there, walking as swift as his oily glances, it became scuttles of dogmen begging gifts of trouble, pandering misery, seeking under carpets for centipede treads, watchful of night sweats, harkening by all bedroom doors to hear men twist basting themselves with remorse and warm-water dreams.

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horse of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the long road out of the Gothic and Baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.”

“All those years.” Jim’s voice swallowed itself. The same people? You think Mr Cooger, Mr Dark are both a couple hundred years old?”

“Riding that merry-go-round they can shave off a year or two, any time they want, right?”

“Why, then — “ The abyss opened at Will’s feet — “they could live forever!”

“And hurt people.” Jim turned it over, again and again. “But why, why all the hurt?”

“Because,” said Mr Halloway. “You need fuel, gas, something to run a carnival on, don’t you? Women live off gossip, and what’s gossip but a swap of headaches, sour spit, arthritic bones, ruptured and mended flesh, indiscretions, storms of madness, calms after the storms? If some people didn’t have something juicy to chew on, their choppers would prolapse, their souls with them. Multiply their pleasure at funerals, their chuckling through breakfast, obituaries, add all the cat-fight marriages where folks spend careers ripping skin off each other and patching it back upside around, add quack doctors slicing persons to read their guts like tea leaves, then sewing them tight with fingerprinted thread., square the whole dynamite factory by ten quadrillion, and you got the black candlepower of this one carnival.

“All the meannesses we harbour, they borrow in redoubled spades. They’re a billion times itchier for pain, sorrow, and sickness than the average man. We salt our lives with other people’s sins. Our flesh to us tastes sweet. But the carnival doesn’t care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That’s the fuel, the vapour that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the screams from real or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites it, and chugs along its way.”

Charles Halloway took a breath, shut his eyes, and said:

“How do I know this? I don’t! I feel it. I taste it. It was like old leaves burning on the wind two nights ago. It was a smell like mortuary flowers. I hear that music. I hear what you tell me, and half what you don’t tell me. Maybe I’ve always dreamt about such carnivals, and was just waiting for it to come sols to see it once, and nod. Now, that tent show plays my bones like a marimba.

“My skeleton knows.

“It tells me.

“I tell you.”

 

40

 

”Can they ...” said Jim. “I mean ... do they ... buy souls?”

”Buy, when they can get them free?” said Mr. Halloway. “Why, most men jump at the chance to give up everything for nothing. There’s nothing we’re so slapstick with as our own immortal souls. Besides, you’re inferring that’s the, Devil out there. I only say it’s a type of creature has learned to live off souls, not the souls themselves. That always worried me in the old myths. I asked myself, why would Mephistopheles want a soul? What does he do with it when he gets it, of what use is it? Stand back while I throw my own theory over the plate. Those creatures want the gas off souls who can’t sleep nights, that fever by day from old crimes. A dead soul is no kindling. But a live and raving soul, crippled with self-damnation, oh that’s a pretty snoutful for such as them.

”How do I know this? I observe. The carnival is like people, only more so. A man, a woman, rather than walk away from, or kill, each other, ride each other a lifetime, pulling hair, extracting fingernails, the pain of each to the other like a narcotic that makes existence worth the day. So the carnival feels ulcerated egos miles off and lopes to toast its hands at that ache. It smells boys ulcerating to be men, paining like great unwise wisdom teeth, twenty thousand miles away, summer abed in winter’s night. It feels the aggravation of middle-aged men like myself, who gibber after long-lost August afternoons to no avail. Need, want, desire, we burn those in our fluids, oxidize those in our souls, which jet streams out lips, nostrils, eyes, cars, broadcasts from antennae-fingers, long or short wave, God only knows, but the freak-masters perceive Itches and come crab-clustering to Scratch. It’s traveled a long way on an easy map, with people handy by every crossroad to lend it lustful pints of agony to power it on. So maybe the carnival survives, living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets.”

Charles Halloway snorted.

”Good grief, how much have I said out loud, how much to myself, the last ten minutes?”

”You,” said Jim, “talk a lot.”

”In what language, dammit!” cried Charles Halloway, for suddenly it seemed he had done no more than other nights walking exquisitely alone, deliciously propounding his ideas to halls which echoed them once, then made them vanish forever. He had written books a lifetime, on the, airs of vast rooms in vast buildings, and had it all fly out the vents. Now it all seemed fireworks, done for color, sound, the high architecture of words, to dazzle the boys, powder his ego, but with no mark left on retina or mind after the color and sound faded; a mere exercise in self-declamation. Sheepishly he accosted himself.

”How much of all this got through? One sentence out of five, two out of eight?”

”Three in a thousand,”“ said Will.

Charles Halloway could not but laugh and sigh in one.

Then Jim cut across with:

”Is ... is it ... Death?”

”The carnival?” The old man lit his pipe, blew smoke, seriously studied the patterns. “No. But I think it uses Death as a threat. Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing. And the carnival wisely knows we’re more afraid of Nothing than we are of Something. You can fight Something. But ... Nothing? Where do you hit it? Has it a heart, soul, butt-behind, brain? No, no. So the carnival just shakes a great croupier’s cupful of Nothing at us, and reaps us as we tumble back headover-heels in fright. Oh, it shows us Something that might eventually lead to Nothing, all right. That flourish of mirrors out there in the meadow, that’s a raw Something, for sure. Enough to knock your soul sidewise in the saddle. It’s a hit below the belt to see yourself ninety years gone, the vapors of eternity rising from you like breath off dry ice. Then, when it’s frozen you stiff, it plays that fine sweet soul-searching music that smells of fresh-washed frocks of women dancing on back-yard lines in May, that sounds like haystacks trampled into wine, all that blue sky and summer night-on-the-lake kind of tune until your head bangs with the drums that look like full moons beating around the calliope. Simplicity. Lord, I do admire their direct approach. Hit an old man with mirrors, watch his pieces fall in jigsaws of ice only the carnival can put together again. How? Waltz around back on the carousel to “Beautiful Ohio” or “Merry Widow.” But they’re careful not to tell one thing to people who go riding to its music.”

”What?” asked Jim.

”Why, that if you’re a miserable sinner in one shape, you’re a miserable sinner in another. Changing size doesn’t change the brain. If I made you twenty-five tomorrow, Jim, your thoughts would still be boy thoughts, and it”d show! Or if they turned me into a boy of ten this instant, my brain would still be fifty and that boy would act funnier and older and weirder than any boy ever. Then, too, time’s out of joint another way.”

”Which way?” asked Will.

”If I became young again, all my friends would still be fifty, sixty, wouldn’t they? I”d be cut off from them, forever, for I couldn’t tell them what I”d up and done, could I? They”d resent it. They”d hate me. Their interests would no longer be mine, would they? Especially their worries. Sickness and death for them, new life for me. So where’s the place in this world for a man who looks twenty but who is older than Methuselah, what man could stand the shock of a change like that? Carnival won’t warn you its equal to postoperative shock, but, by God, I bet it is, and more!

”So, what happens? You get your reward: madness. Change of body, change of personal environment, for one thing. Guilt, for another, guilt at leaving your wife, husband, friends to die the way all men die—Lord, that alone would give a man fits. So more fear, more agony for the carnival to breakfast on. So with the green vapors coming off your stricken conscience you say you want to go back the way you were! The carnival nods and listens. Yes, they promise, if you behave as they say, in a short while they’ll give you back your twoscore and ten or whatever. On the promise alone of being returned to normal old age, that train travels with the world, its side show populated with madmen waiting to be released from bondage, meantime servicing the carnival, giving it coke for its ovens.”

Will murmured something.

”What?”

”Mss Foley,” mourned Will. ““Oh, poor Miss Foley, they got her now, just like you say. Once she got what she wanted it scared her, she didn’t like it, oh, she was crying so hard, Dad, so hard; now I bet they promise her someday she can be fifty again if she’ll mind. I wonder what they’re doing with her, right now, oh, Dad, oh, Jim!”

”God help her.” Will’s father put a heavy hand out to trace the old carnival portraits. “They’ve probably thrown her in with the freaks. And what are they? Sinners who’ve traveled so long, hoping for deliverance, they’ve taken on the shape of their original sins? The Fat Man., what was he once? If I can guess the carnival’s sense of irony, the way they like to weight the scales, he was once a ravener after all kinds and varieties of lust. No matter, there he lives now, anyway, collected up in bursting skin. The Man, Skeleton, or whatever, did he starve his wife”s, children’s spiritual as well as physical hungers? The Dwarf? Was he or was he not your friend, the lightning-rod salesman, always on the road, never settling, ever-moving, facing no encounters, running ahead of the lightning and selling rods, yes, but leaving others to face the storm, so maybe, through accident, or design, when he fell in with the free rides, he shrank not to a boy but a mean ball of grotesque tripes, all self-involved. The fortune-telling, Gypsy Dust Witch? Maybe someone who lived always tomorrow and let today slide, like myself, and so wound up pen having to guess other people’s wild sunrises and sad sunsets. You tell me, you’ve seen her near. The Pinhead? The Sheep Boy? The Fire Eater? The Siamese Twins, good God, what were they? twins all bound up in tandem narcissism? We’ll never know. They’ll never tell. We’ve guessed, and probably guessed wrong, on ten dozen things the last half hour. Now—some plan. Where do we go from here?”

Charles Halloway placed forth a map of the town and drew in the location of the carnival with a blunt pencil.

”Do we keep hiding out? No. With Miss Foley, and so many others involved, we just can’t. Well, then, how do we attack so we won’t be picked off first thing? What kind of weapons—”

”Silver bullets.” cried Will. suddenly.

”Heck, no!” snorted Jim. “They’re not vampires!”

”If we were Catholic, we could borrow church holy water and—”

”Nuts,” said Jim. “Movie stuff. It don’t happen that way in real life. Am I wrong, Mr. Halloway?”

”I wish you were, boy.”

Will’s eyes glowed fiercely. “Okay. Only one thing to do: trot down to the meadow with a couple gallons of kerosene and some matches—”

”That’s against the law!” Jim exclaimed.

”Look who’s talking!”

“Hold on!”

But everyone stopped right then.

Whisper.

A faint tide of wind flowed up along through the library corridors and into this room.

”The front door,” Jim whispered. “Someone just opened it.”

Far away, a gentle click. The draft that had for a moment stirred the boys’ trouser cuffs and blown the man’s hair, ceased.

”Someone just closed it.”

Silence.

Just the great dark library with its labyrinths and hedgerow mazes of sleeping books.

”Someone’s inside.”

The boys half rose, bleating in the backs of their mouths.

Charles Halloway waited, then said one word, softly:

”Hide.”

”We can’t leave you—”

”Hide.”

The boys ran and vanished in the dark maze. Charles Halloway then rigidly, slowly, breathing in, breathing out, forced himself to sit back down, his eyes on the yellowed newspapers, to wait, to wait, then again ... to wait some more.

 

41

 

A shadow moved among shadows.

Charles Halloway felt his soul submerge.

It took a long time for the, shadow and the man it escorted to come stand in the doorway of the room. The shadow seemed deliberate in its slowness so as to shingle his flesh and cheesegrate his steadily willed calm. And when at last the shadow reached the door it brought not one, not a hundred, but a thousand people with it to look in.

”My name is Dark,” said the voice.

Charles Halloway let out two fistfuls of air.

”Better known as the Illustrated Man,” said the voice. “Where are the boys?”

”Boys?” Will’s father turned at last to appraise the tall man who stood in the door.

The Illustrated Man sniffed the yellow pollen that whiffed up from the ancient books as quite suddenly Will’s father saw them laid out in full sight, leaped up, stopped, then began to close them, one by one, as casually as possible.

The Illustrated Man pretended not to notice.

”The boys are not home. The two houses are empty. What a shame, they’ll miss those free rides.”

”I wish I knew where they were.”“ Charles Halloway started carrying the books to the shelves. “Hell, if they knew you were here with free tickets, they”d shout for joy.”

”Would they?” Mr. Dark let his smile melt like a white and pink paraffin candy toy he no longer had appetite for. Softly, he said, “I could kill you.”

Charles Halloway nodded, walking slowly.

”Did you hear what I said?” barked the Illustrated Man.

”Yes.” Charles Halloway weighed the books, as if they were his judgment. “But you won’t kill now. You’re too smart. You’ve kept the show on the road a long time, being smart.”

”So you’ve read a few papers and think you know all about us?”

”“No, not all. Just enough to scare me.”

”Be more scared then,”“ said the crowd of night-crawling illustrations locked under black suiting, speaking through the thin lips. “One of my friends, outside, can fix you so it seems you died of most natural heart failure.”

The blood banged at Charles Halloway’s heart, knocked at his temples, tapped twice at his wrists.

The Witch, he thought.

His lips must have formed the words.

”The Witch.” Mr. Dark nodded.

The other shelved the books, withholding one.

”Well, what have you there?” Mr. Dark squinted. ““A Bible? How very charming, how childish and refreshingly old-fashioned.”

”Have you ever read it, Mr. Dark?”“

”“Read it! I’ve had every page, paragraph, and word read at me, sir!” Mr. Dark took time to light a cigarette and blow smoke toward the NO SMOKING sign, then at Will’s father. “Do you really imagine that books can harm me? Is naiveté really your armor? Here!”

And before Charles Halloway could move, Mr. Dark ran lightly forward and took the Bible. He, held it in his two hands.

”Aren’t you surprised? See, I touch, hold, even read from it.”

Mr. Dark blew smoke on the pages as he riffled them.

”Do you expect me to fall away into so many Dead Sea scrolls of flesh before you? Myths, unfortunately, are just that. Life, and by life I could mean so many fascinating things, goes on, makes shift for itself, survives wildly, and I not the least wild among many. Your King James and his literary version of some rather stuffy poetic materials is worth just about this much of my time and sweat.”

Mr. Dark hurled the Bible into a wastepaper basket and did not look at it again.

”I hear your heart beating rapidly,” said Mr. Dark. ““My ears are not so finely tuned as the Gypsy”s, but they hear. Your eyes jump beyond my shoulder. The boys hide out there in the warrens? Good. I would not wish for their escape. Not that anyone will believe their gibberings, in fact it’s good advertisement for our shows, people titillate, night-sweat, then come prowling down to look us over, lick their lips, and wonder about investing in our special securities. You came, you prowled, and it wasn’t just for curiosity. How old are you?”

Charles Halloway pressed his lips shut.

”Fifty?” purred Mr. Dark. “Fifty-one?” he murmured.

”Fifty-two? Like to be younger?”

”No!”

”No need to yell. Politely, please.”“ Mr. Dark hummed, strolling the room, running his hand over the books as if they were years to be counted. “Oh, it’s nice to be young really. Wouldn’t forty be nice, again? Forty’s ten years nicer than fifty, and thirty’s twenty years nicer by an incredible long shot.”

”I won’t listen!” Charles Halloway shut his eyes.

Mr. Dark tilted his head, sucked on his cigarette, and observed. “Strange, you shut your eyes, not to listen. Clapping your hands over your ears would be better—”

Will’s father clapped his hands to his ears, but the voice came through.

”Tell you what,” said Mr. Dark, casually, waving his cigarette. “If you help me within fifteen seconds I’ll give you your fortieth birthday. Ten seconds and you can celebrate thirty-five. A rare young age. A stripling, almost, by comparison. I’ll start counting by my watch and by God, if you should jump to it, lend a hand, I might just cut thirty years off your life! Bargains galore, as the posters say of it! Starting all over again, everything fine and new and glorious, all the things to be done and thought and savored again. Last chancel Here goes. One, Two. Three. Four—”

Charles Halloway hunched away, half crouched, propped hard against the shelves, grinding his teeth to drown the sound of counting.

”You’re losing out, old man, my dear old fellow,” said Mr. Dark. “Five. Losing. Six. Losing very much. Seven. Really losing. Eight. Frittering away. Nine. Ten. My God, you fool! Eleven. Halloway! Twelve. Almost gone. Thirteen! Gone! Fourteen! Lost! Fifteen! Lost forever!”

Mr. Dark put down his arm with the watch on it.

Charles Halloway, gasping,, had turned away to bury his face in the smell of ancient books, the feel of old and comfortable leather, the taste of funeral dust and pressed flowers.

Mr. Dark stood in the door now, on his way out.

”Stay there,” he directed. ““Listen to your heart. I’ll send someone to fix it. But, first, the boys ...”

The crowd of unsleeping creatures, saddled upon tall flesh, strode quietly forth into darkness, borne with and all over upon Mr. Dark. Their cries and whines and utterances of vague but excruciating excitements sounded in his husky summoning:

”“Boys? Are you there? Wherever you are ... answer.”

Charles Halloway sprang forward, then felt the room spin and whirl him, as that soft, that easy, that most pleasant voice of Mr. Dark went calling through the dark. Charles Halloway fell against a chair, thought: Listen, my heart! sank down to his knees, he said, Listen to my heart! it explodes! Oh God, it’s tearing free!—and could not follow.

The Illustrated Man trod cat-soft in the labyrinths of shelved and darkly waiting books.

”Boys ... ? Hear me ... ?”

Silence.

”Boys ...?”

 

42

 

Somewhere in the recumbent solitudes, the motionless but teeming millions of books, lost in two dozen turns right, three dozen turns left, down aisles, through doors, toward dead ends, locked doors, half-empty shelves, somewhere in the literary soot of Dickens’s London, or Dostoevsky’s Moscow or the steppes beyond, somewhere in the vellumed dust of atlas or Geographic, sneezes pent but set like traps, the boys crouched, stood, lay sweating a cool and constant brine.

Somewhere hidden, Jim thought: He’s coming!

Somewhere hidden, Will thought: He’s near!

”Boys ... ?”

Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends, his jewel-case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at midnight on his flesh. With him strode the stitch-inked Tyrannosaurus rex, which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral-oil glide. As the thunder lizard strode, all glass-bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh. It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults. And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers-on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults screaming bat-screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill. Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore, a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward.

”Boys ...?”

Immensely patient, that soft voice, ever the warmest friend to chilly creatures burrowed away, nested amongst dry books; so he scuttered, crept, scurried, stalked, tiptoed, wafted, stood immensely still among the primates, the Egyptian monuments to bestial gods, brushed black histories of dead Africa, stayed awhile in Asia, then sauntered on to newer lands.

”Boys, I know you hear me! The sign reads: SILFNCE! So, I’ll whisper: one of you still wants what we offer. Eh? Eh?”

Jim, thought Will.

Me, thought Jim. No! oh, no! not still! not me!

”Come out.” Mr. Dark purred the air through his teeth. “I guarantee rewards! Whoever turns himself in wins it all!

Bangity-bang!

My heart! thought Jim

Is that me? thought Will, or Jim!!?

”I hear you.” Mr. Dark’s lips quivered. “Closer now. Will? Jim? Isn’t it Jim who’s the, smart one? Come along, boy... !”

No! thought Will.

I don’t know anything! thought Jim, wildly.

”Jim, yes ...” Mr. Dark wheeled in a new direction. “Jim, show me where your friend is.” Softly. “We’ll shut him up, give you the ride that would have been his if he”d used his head. Right, Jim?” A dove voice, cooing. “Closer. I hear your heart jump!”

Stop! thought Will to his chest.

Stop! Jim clenched his breath. Stop!!

”I wonder ... are you in this alcove ... ?”

Mr. Dark let the peculiar gravity of a certain group of stacks tug him forward.

”You here, Jim ...? Or ... over behind ... ?”

He shoved a trolley of books mindlessly off on rubber rollers to bump through the night. A long way off, it crashed and spilled its contents to the floor like so many dead black ravens.

”Smart hide-and-seekers, both,” said Mr. Dark. “But someone’s smarter. Did you hear the carousel calliope tonight? Did you know, someone dear to you was down to the carousel? Will? Willy? William. William Halloway. Where’s your mother tonight?”

Silence.

”She was out riding the night wind, Willy-William. Around. We put her on. Around. We left her on. Around. You hear, Willy? Around, a year, another year, another, around, around!”

Dad! thought Will. Where are you!

In the far room, Charles Halloway, seated, his heart pounding, heard and thought, He won’t find them, I won’t move unless he does, he can’t find them, they won’t listen! they won’t believe! he’ll go away!

”Your mother, Will,” called Mr. Dark, softly. “Around and around, can you guess which direction, Willy?”

Mr. Dark circled his thin ghost hand in the dark air between the stacks.

”Around, around, and when we let your mother off, boy, and showed her herself in the Mirror Maze, you should have heard the one single sound she made. She was like a cat with a hair ball in her so big and sticky there was no way to gag it out, no way to scream around the hair coming out her nostrils and ears and eyes, boy, and her old old old. The last we saw of her, boy Willy, she was running off away from what she saw in the mirrors. She’ll bang Jim’s house door but when his ma sees a thing, two hundred years old slobbering at the keyhole, begging the mercy of gunshot death, boy, Jim’s ma will gag the same way, like a hairballed cat sick but can’t be sick, and beat her away, send her beggaring the streets, where no one’ll believe, Will, such a kettle of bones and spit, no one’ll believe this was a rose beauty, your kind relations So Will, it’s up to us to run find, ran save her, for we know who she is—right, Will, right, Will, right, right, right?!”

The dark man’s voice hissed away to silence.

Very faintly now, somewhere in the library, someone was sobbing.

Ah ...

The Illustrated Man gassed the air pleasantly from his dank lungs.

Yesssssssssss ...

”Here ...” he, murmured. “What? Filed under B for Boys? A for Adventure? H for Hidden. S for Secret. T for Terrified? Or filed under J for Jim or N for Nightshade, W for William, H for Halloway? Where are my two precious human books, so I may turn their pages, eh?,”

He kicked a place for his right foot on the first shelf of a towering stack.

He shoved his right foot in, put his weight there, and swung his left foot free.

”There.”

His left foot hit the second shelf, knocked space. He climbed. His right foot kicked a hole on the third shelf, plunged books back, and so up and up he climbed, to fourth shelf, to fifth, to six, groping dark library heavens, hands clutching shelfboards, then scrabbling higher to leaf night to find boys, if boys there were, like bookmarks among books.

His right hand, a princely tarantula, garlanded with roses, cracked a book of Bayeaux tapestries aspin down the sightless abyss below. It seemed an age before the tapestries struck, all askew, a ruin of beauty, an avalanche of gold, silver, and sky-blue thread on the floor.

His left hand, reaching the ninth shelf as he panted, grunted, encountered empty space—no books.

”Boys, are you here on Everest?”

Silence. Except for the faint sobbing, nearer now.

”Is it cold here? Colder? Coldest?”“

The eyes of the Illustrated Man came abreast of the eleventh shelf.

Like a corpse laid rigid out, face down just three inches away, was Jim Nightshade.

One shelf further up in the catacomb, eyes trembling with tears, lay William Halloway.

”Well,” said Mr. Dark.

He reached a hand to pat Will’s head.

”Hello,” he said.

 

43

 

To Will, the palm of the hand that drifted up was like a moon rising.

Upon it was the fiery blue-inked portrait of himself. Jim, too, saw a hand before his face.

His own picture looked back at him from the palm.

The hand with Will’s picture grabbed Will.

The hand with Jim’s picture grabbed Jim.

Shrieks and yells.

The Illustrated Man heaved.

Twisting, he fell-jumped to the floor.

The boys, kicking, yelling, fell with him. They landed on their feet, toppled, collapsed, to be held, reared, set right, fistfuls of their shirts in Mr. Dark’s fists.

”Jim!” he said. “Will! What were you doing up there, boys? Surely not reading?”

”Dad!”

”Mr. Halloway!”

Will’s father stepped from the dark.

The Illustrated Man rearranged the boys tenderly under one arm like kindling, then gazed with genteel curiosity at Charles Halloway and reached for him. Will’s father struck one blow before his left hand was seized, held, squeezed. As the boys watched, shouting, they saw Charles Halloway gasp and fall to one knee.

Mr. Dark squeezed that left hand harder and, doing this, slowly, certainly, pressured the boys with his other arm, crushing their ribs so air gushed from their mouths.

Night spiraled in fiery whorls like great thumbprints inside Will’s eyes.

Will’s father, groaning, sank to both knees, flailing his right arm.

”Damn you!”

”But,” said the carnival owner quietly, “I am already.”

”Damn you, damn you!”

”Not words, old man,” said Mr. Dark. ““Not words in books or words you say, but real thoughts, real actions, quick thought, quick action, win the day. So!”

He gave one last mighty clench of his fist.

The boys heard Charles Halloway’s finger bones crack. He gave a last cry and fell senseless.

In one motion like a solemn pavane, the Illustrated Man rounded the stacks, the boys, kicking books from shelves, under his arms.

Will, feeling walls, books, floors fly by, foolishly thought, pressed close.. Why, why, Mr. Dark smells like ... calliope steam!

Both boys were dropped suddenly. Before they could move or regain their breath, each was gripped by the hair on their head and roused marionettes-wise to face a window, a street.

”Boys, you read Dickens?” Mr. Dark whispered.

Critics hate his coincidences. But we know, don’t we? Life’s all coincidence. Turn death and happenstance flakes off him like fleas from a killed ox. Look!”

Both boys writhed in the iron-maiden clutch of hungry saurians and bristly apes.

Will did not know whether to weep with joy or new despair.

Below, across the avenue, passing from church going home, was his mother and Jim’s mother.

Not on the carousel, not old, crazy, dead, in jail, but freshly out in the good October air. She had been not a hundred yards away in church during all the last five minutes!

Mom! screamed Will, against the hand which, anticipating his cry, clamped tight to his mouth..

”Mom,” crooned Mr. Dark, mockingly. “Come save me!”

No, thought Will, save yourself, run!

But his mother and Jim’s mother simply strolled content, from the warm church through town.

Mom! screamed Will again, and some small muffled bleat of it escaped the sweaty paw.

Will’s mother, a thousand miles away over on that side-walk, paused.

She couldn’t have heard! thought Will. Yet—

She looked over at the library.

”Good,” sighed Mr. Dark. “Excellent, fine.”

Here! thought Will. See us, Mom! Run call the police!

”Why doesn’t she look at this window?” asked Mr. Dark quietly. “And see us three standing as for a portrait. Look over. Then, come running. We’ll let her in.”

Will strangled a sob. No, no.

His mother’s gaze trailed from the front entrance to the first-floor windows.

”Here,” said Mr. Dark. “Second floor. A proper coincidence, let’s make it proper.”

Now Jim’s mother was talking. Both women stood together at the curb.

No, thought Will, oh, no.

And the women turned and went away into the Sunday-night town.

Will felt the Illustrated Man slump the tiniest bit.

”Not much of a coincidence, no crisis, no one lost or saved. Pity. Well!”

Dragging the boys’ feet, he glided down to open the front door.

Someone waited in the shadows.

A lizard hand scurried cold on Will’s chin.

”Halloway,” husked the Witch’s voice.

A chameleon perched on Jim’s nose.

”Nightshade,” whisked the dry-broom voice.

Behind her stood the Dwarf and the Skeleton, silent, shifting, apprehensive.

Obedient to the occasion, the boys would have given their best stored yells air, but again, on the instant recognizing their need, the Illustrated Man trapped the sound before it could issue forth, then nodded curtly to the old dust woman.

The Witch toppled forward with her seamed black wax sewn-shut iguana eyelids and her great proboscis with the nostrils caked like tobacco-blackened pipe bowls, her fingers tracing, weaving a silent plinth of symbols on the mind.

The boys stared.

Her fingernails fluttered, darted, feathered cold winter-water air. Her pickled green froes breath crawled their flesh in pimples as she sang softly, mewing, humming, glistering her babes, her boys, her friends of the slick snail-tracked roof, the straight-flung arrow, the stricken and sky-drowned balloon.

”Darning-needle dragonfly, sew up these mouths so they not speak!”

Touch, sew, touch, sew her thumbnail stabbed, punched, drew, stabbed, punched, drew along their lower, upper lips until they were, thread-pouch shut with invisible read.

”Darning needle-dragonfly, sew up these ears, so they not hear!”

Cold sand funneled Will’s ears, burying her voice. Muffled, far away, fading, she chanted on with a rustle, tick, tickle, tap, flourish of caliper hands.

Moss grew in Jim’s ears, swiftly sealing him deep.

”Darning needle-dragonfly, sew up these eyes so they not see!”

Her white-hot fingerprints rolled back their stricken eyeballs to throw the lids down with bangs like great tin doors slammed shut.

Will saw a billion flashbulbs explode, then suck to darkness while the unseen darning-needle insect out beyond somewhere pranced and fizzed like insect drawn to sun-warmed honeypot, as closeted voice stitched off their senses forever and a day beyond.

”Darning-needle dragonfly, have done with eye, ear, lip and tooth, finish hem, sew dark, mound dust, heap with slumber sleep, now tie all knots ever so neat, pump silence, in blood like sand in river deep. So. So.”

The Witch, somewhere outside the boys, lowered her hands.

The boys stood silent. The Illustrated Man took his embrace from them and stepped back.

The woman from the Dust sniffed at her twin triumphs, ran her hand a last loving time over her statues.

The Dwarf toddled madly about in the boys’ shadows, nibbling daintily at their fingernails, softly calling their names.

The Illustrated Man nodded toward the library. “The janitor’s clock. Stop it.”

The Witch, mouth wide, savoring doom, wandered off into the marble quarry.

Mr. Dark said: “Left, right. One, two.”

The boys walked down the steps, the Dwarf at Jim’s side, the Skeleton at Will”s.

Serene as death, the Illustrated Man followed.

 

44

 

Somewhere near, Charles Halloway’s hand lay in a white-hot furnace, melted to sheer nerve and pain. He opened his eyes. At the same moment he heard a great breath as the front door swung shut and a woman’s voice came singing in the hall:

”Old man, old man, old man, old man ... ?”

Where his left hand should be was this swelled blood pudding which pulsed with such ecstasies of pain it fed forth his life, his will, his whole attention. He tried to sit up, but the pain hammerblowed him down again “Old man ... ?”

Not old! Fifty-four’s not old, he thought wildly.

And here she came on the worn stone floors, her moth-fingers tapping, scanning braille book titles, as her nostrils siphoned the shadows.

Charles Halloway hunched and crawled, hunched and crawled, toward the nearest stack, cramming pain back with his tongue. He must climb out of reach, climb where books might be weapons flung down upon any night-crawling pursuer...

”Old man, hear you breathing..

She on his tide, let her body be summoned by every sibilant hiss of his pain.

”Old man. feel your hurt...”

If he could fling the hand, the pain, out the window where it might lie beating like a heart, summoning her away, tricked, to go seek this awful fire. Bent in the street, he imagined her brisking her palms at this throb, an abandoned chunk of delirium.

But no the hand stayed, glowed, poisoned the air, hurrying the strange nun-Gypsy’s tread as she gasped her avaricious mouth most ardently.

”Damn you!” he cried. “Get it over with! I’m here!”

So the Witch wheeled swift as a black clothes dummy on rubber rollers and swayed over him.

He did not even look at her. Such weights and pressures of despair and exertion fought for his attention, he could only free his eyes to watch the inside of his lids upon which multiple and ever changing looms of terror jigged and gamboled.

”Very simple.” The whisper bent low. “Stop the heart!”

Why not, he thought, vaguely.

”Slow,” she murmured.

Yes, he thought.

”“Slow, very slow.”

His heart, once bolting, now fell away to a strange, ease, disquiet, then quiet, then ease.

”Much more slow, slow ...” she suggested.

Tired, yes, you hear that, heart? he wondered.

His heart heard. Like a tight fist it began to relax, a finger at a time.

”Stop all for good, forget all for good,” she whispered.

Well why not?

”Slower ... slowest.”

His heart stumbled.

And then for no reason, save perhaps for a last look around, because he did want to get rid of the pain, and sleep was the way to do that ... Charles Halloway opened his eyes.

He saw the Witch.

He saw her fingers working at the air, his face, his body, the heart within his body, and the soul within the heart. Her swamp breath flooded him while, with immense curiosity, he watched the poisonous drizzle from her lips, counted the folds in her stitch-wrinkled eyes, the Gila monster neck, the mummy-linen ears, the dry-rivulet riversand brow. Never in his life had he focused so nearly to a person, as if she were a puzzle, which once touched together might show life’s greatest secret. The solution was in her, it would all spring clear this moment, no, the next, no, the next, watch her scorpion fingers! hear her chant as she diddled the air, yes, diddled was it, tickling, tickling, “Slow!” she whispered. “Slow!” And his obedient heart pulled rein. Diddle-tickle went her fingers.

Charles Halloway snorted. Faintly, he giggled.

He caught this. Why? Why am I ... gigling ... at such a time!?

The Witch pulled back the merest quarter inch as if some strange but hidden electric light socket, touched with wet whorl, gave shock.

Charles Halloway saw but did not see her flinch, sensed but seemed in no way to consider her withdrawal, for almost immediately, seizing the initiative, she flung herself forward, not touching, but mutely gesticulating at his chest as one might try to spell an antique clock pendulum.

”Slow!” she cried.

Senselessly, he permitted an idiot smile to balloon itself up from somewhere to attach itself with careless ease under his nose.

”Slowest!”

Her new fever, her anxiety which changed itself to anger was even more of a toy to him. A part of his attention, secret until now, leaned forward to scan every pore of her Halloween face. Somehow, irresistibly, the prime thing was: nothing mattered. Life in the end seemed a prank of such size you could only stand off at this end of the corridor to note its meaningless length and its quite unnecessary height, a mountain built to such ridiculous immensities you were dwarfed in its shadow and mocking of its pomp. So with death this near he thought numbly but purely upon a billion vanities, arrivals, departures, idiot excursions of boy, boy-man, man and old-man goat. He had gathered and stacked all manner of foibles, devices, playthings of his egotism and now, between all the silly corridors of books, the toys of his life swayed. And none more grotesque than this thing named Witch Gypsy Reader-of-Dust, tickling, that’s what! just tickling the air! Fool! Didn’t she know what she was doing! He opened his mouth.

Of itself, like a child born of an unsuspecting parent, one single raw laugh broke free.

The Witch swooned back.

Charles Halloway did not see. He was far too busy letting the joke rush through his fingers, letting hilarity spring forth of it’s own volition along his throat, eyes squeezed shut; there it flew, whipping shrapnel in all directions.

”You!” he cried, to no one, everyone, himself, her, them, it, all. “Funny! You!”

”No,” the Witch protested.

”Stop tickling!” he gasped.

”Not!” she lunged back, frantically. “Not! Sleep! Slow! Very slow!”

”No tickling is all it is, for sure,” he roared. “Oh, ha! Ha, stop!”

”Yes, stop heart!” she squealed. “Stop blood.” Her own heart must have shaken like a tambourine; her hands shook. In mid-gesticulation she froze and became, aware of the silly fingers.

”Oh, my God!” He wept beautiful glad tears. “Get off my ribs, oh, ha, go on, my heart!”

”Your heart, yesssssss!”

”God!” He popped his eyes wide, gulped air, released more soap and water washing everything clear, incredibly clean. “Toys! The key sticks out your back! Who wound you up!?”

And the largest roar of all, flung at the woman, burnt her hands, seared her face, or so it seemed, for she seized herself as from a blast furnace, wrapped her fried hands in Egyptian rags, gripped her dry dugs, skipped back, gave pause, then started a slow retreat, nudged, pushed, pummeled inch by inch, foot by foot, clattering bookracks, shelves, fumbling for handholds on volumes that thrashed free as she scrambled them down. Her brow knocked dim histories, vain theories, duned-up time, promised but compromised years. Chased, bruised, beaten by his laugh which echoed, rang, swam to fill the marble vaults, she whirled at last, claws razoring the wild air and fled to fall downstairs.

Moments later, she managed to cram herself through the front door, which slammed!

Her fall, the door slam, almost broke his frame with laughter.

”Oh God, God, please stop, stop yourself!” he begged of his hilarity.

And thus begged, his humor let be.

In mid-roar, at last, all faded to honest laughter, pleasant chuckling, faint giggling, then softly and with great contentment receiving and giving, breath, shaking his happy-weary head, the good ache of action in his throat and ribs, gone from his crumpled hand. He lay against the stacks, head leaned to some dear befriending book, the tears of releaseful mirth salting his cheeks, and suddenly knew her gone.

Why? he wondered. What did I do?

With one last bark of mirth, he rose up, slow.

What’s happened? Oh, God, let’s get it clear! First, the drug store, a half-dozen aspirin to cure this hand for an hour, then, think. In the last five minutes you did win something, didn’t you? What’s victory taste like?

Try to remember

And smiling a new smile at the ridiculous dead-animal left hand nested in his right crooked elbow, he hurried down the night corridors, and out into town...

 

III

 



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