John and Alexander sit along the outskirts of Lent, the last town on the delivery schedule. The two share a bag of sandwiches prepared for them by Selina before their departure.
“You wanted to know about my feelings about my boy, John, I’ll tell you,” Alexander says, “I’m terrified.”
“Terrified. I’m so scared he or Selina will be hurt when he comes, that he’ll be sick, that I won’t be able to provide for them.”
“People are always dying, Alexander, I don’t think you have to worry about your business. Compared to the box my mother was buried in, you’re a master. And she went out in style, believe me.”
Alexander laughs. A real laugh, sweet and clear.
“Maybe you’re right.”
The coffin maker tears away a chunk of meat and bread and chews it into a fine pulp. He breathes deeply, staring out across the land, feeling the wind blow against his skin.
“I look at the way I live in and I wonder what kind of life it is. Does my child deserve this? Can I give him what he deserves?”
John swings his legs back and forth. The clack of his spurs against the wood below punctuates his words.
“My father was the greatest man I ever knew. He was also a killer. I found out the extent of his sins shortly after his death, and even then I don’t think much less of him because he did his best to be a father and a husband, changed his way and cleaned up his act. He was a good man with a bad life and I couldn’t have chosen a better man to raise me and my brother.”
John takes a bite out of his sandwich and looks to the side to see the coffin maker staring at him, his meal left unattended. Alexander reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pair of cheap cigars. He offers one to John. John retrieves a match from his breast pocket and strikes the head, lighting both cigars.
“You know, you and Selina, you seem like, how do I put this—” “A unique pairing?”
The coffin maker takes a deep draw from his cigar, savoring the flavor, and breathes out a line of thin smoke rings.
“Boy, that tastes bad,” he mutters, “What were we talking about?”
“You and Selina.”
“Of course. Well, it started out about ten years ago. I was an apprentice under my father. He’s passed now, six years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be, the man drank whiskey like trees drink water, I’m surprised he lasted that long. Anyways, I met Selina, and Harrison, when her mother came into our shop to buy a casket for her father. I spoke with her while her mother ordered for just a bit, exchanged names. Harrison wasn’t too happy about the attention I was giving his sister and neither was my father. My father always hated it when I talked to customers. Said we aren’t to get personal with those who’d lost loved ones. I never understood it when I was young, thought he just didn’t like people in general.”
John coughs suddenly, holding out the cigar with a sour frown. Alexander offers him a knowing nod as if to say he’d warned him so.
“When my father died, I’d been running the shop for around two years. The last thing he asked me to do was to not build his coffin. He said he wanted it from someone who knew what he was doing. He said it with all the snide bark I’d grown to know and accept, but I know he just didn’t want me to have to build his box.”
The coffin maker pauses but a moment as though reminiscing.
“He was a decent man, I’ll give him that.”
“So when did you meet Selina the second time?”
“It was just a few days after I buried my father that she came back again. And hoo boy, had she changed. I mean, four years can change a girl and—”
John holds up both hands, his cigar stuck between two fingers, and halts the coffin maker’s flood of information.
Alexander rubs the back of her neck and grunts a few unintelligible words.
“Of course,” he says, clearing his throat before he continues, “She was there to buy a box for her mother. She’d died of pneumonia. Lot of people left that winter. I made her the coffin and she paid herself, every cent, didn’t take any discounts I offered. She’s always been proud like that. It was a good piece. Not my best, but I’ll admit I put a little extra into it, morbid as that may be.”
“What about Harrison, where was he at the time?”
“He was enlisted in the army, shocking as that may be. He’s only been back for the past three years. Tracked down his sister only to find out she’d moved in with the coffin maker he wasn’t too fond of.”
“Selina was never in town all that often. She’d always travel with her family from fair to fair, hitting the stops in a wide circle before ending back in my town. Her father bred horses, mother cast iron pots, and she charmed snakes.”
“Oh yes, I went to one of her acts, and she put on quite a show too, till she got bit by a rattler out by Roulson. Nearly died. After that and her mother’s death she fell on hard times. Spent most of what she had on the funeral. And with a story like that, when a pretty girl asks if she can rent out some of the space you own beside your store to open up a tarot tent, what can you say?”
“I see your point.”
“And from then on we got close. She’d visit me every day round closing time, bring me some weird dish I’d pretend I enjoyed, read me a fortune I thought was hogwash, then leave before it got too dark. Pretty soon we got to the point where she didn’t bother leaving till morning.”
“So how’d you get involved with the circuit?”
“Opportunity, plain and simple. People always need caskets, but rate of demand can be an issue. People don’t need readings but they always want one. Unfortunately, where my father worked the flow of newcomers had hit a peak. It was around that time when I met Boss. He came in with a handful of bills, told me he needed five coffins. This was about the time the circuits began to roam the state. He didn’t even have any bodies to bury, just said he wanted them for when the time came; probably still has them stashed in one of the coaches. We ain’t lost but one man in our run.
“Anyways, Selina offered him a free read and he was tickled. Said he was impressed by both our crafts and that was that. He offered us a job and we were out that week.”
“Just packed up and left?”
“Selina played a big part in convincing me.”
John lets out a puff of smoke, flat and shapeless. He rolls his eyes at the impressive display the coffin maker offers in return.
“Appreciate your help today, John.”
“We’re not done yet.”
“Hate to disappoint you but we are.”
John leans over the coach seat and peeks through a torn section of coach tarp. Two unmoved coffins sit pushed against the wood backing.
“What about those two, someone welch on their bill?”
Alexander sucks in a hard draw from his cigar and puts it out against the edge of the wagon wheel. A trail of ash and burnt wood lines its wake.
“No. Those belong to me and Selina.”
“You made your own coffins?” John asks, head cocked as though trying to clear sand from his ears.
“That’s right. I’m too proud to let another man make my box. And Selina deserves the best.”
“And what about your son? Could you make his?”
“If I’m lucky I won’t have to.”
“Guess that makes me lucky too,” John mutters.
John stares at his cigar. Ash crumbles from its tip and down his sleeve as a red circle slowly descends the length of its form. Alexander studies his temporary companion.
“That another one of those secrets you keep, John?”
“That it is,” John replies, “What’s the time?”
Alexander draws a clunky brass piece from his pocket and checks the face.
“Just past four.”
“Shouldn’t we be going?”
“In a bit.”
John finishes his cigar, opens his mouth, and snubs the burning end out on the surface of his tongue. His eyes water and he lets out a loud whoop.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Alexander asks.
“Then why do it?”
John tosses the cigar to the ground and shrugs.
“Because it’s what my Pa used to do.”
The two men share a sharp glance and burst out laughing.
* * *
“I can’t believe this thing stopped.”
“It’s called a Ferris wheel, John.”
“I don’t care what it’s called if the damn thing don’t work.”
“‘Doesn’t’ work, John.”
John bites his tongue and shakes his head. He leans back from the front of the lightly rocking car, releasing his hold on the thin safety bar, and looks towards Rose. She wears a blue sequined dress that raises up just above her ankles. Her hair shines in the moonlight.
“Stranded over two hundred feet in the air and she still gives me lessons in grammar,” John remarks
“Won’t stop until you learn better. And it’s two hundred and sixty four feet tall. You should’ve read the flier more closely.”
John reaches out his arm across Rose’s shoulders and pulls her close. She rests her head against his. From down below onlookers begin to gather as the wheel operator desperately fiddles with the wiring that controls the mechanical giant. People whisper and complain, panic and laugh from the cars that surround the couple, but John and Rose ignore them.
“Can’t believe we’re here,” Rose says.
“Grand, ain’t it?”
Rose rises up a hare to give John a quick peck on the cheek before returning to her original position. Voices familiar and foreign drown below. Rows of lights string out in a maze of color and design, linking booth to booth and ride to ride. John closes his eyes.
From the growing crowd below a familiar voice rises.
“Don’t rock the car, John! I don’t want to have to identify you two after it detaches and you plummet to the earth!”
“Shut up, Samuel!” John calls back, his eyes still shut.
A group of fair-workers pull Samuel back from the crowd hoping to prevent any panic from customers. Samuel cackles as he breaks free and races towards the booths. In a few seconds he vanishes from sight.
The car groans under the gentle, rocking hand of the wind. John opens his eyes after a few minutes of silence.
“You know you look beautiful tonight.”
Rose nuzzles his shoulder and glances up with doe eyes.
“Every night,” John replies, “but especially tonight.”
Rose buries her face into John’s arm, chuckling at his rebuff.
“Such a charmer.”
From below an official sounding voice speaks to the Ferris wheel’s passengers. John and Rose lean forward to see the scuffle below.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. We’ll have you down in just a few more minutes. Mr. Ferris himself is checking the contraption as we speak. To compensate you for your time we’ll be offering passes to your rides and booths of choice. Thank you for your patience.”
The couple leans back.
“Least we get something out of this,” Rose says, slapping John’s knee.
“Guess so,” John says, removing his hat and placing it in his lap. He makes an exaggerated show of scoping out the area. “You know…the man said it would take a few minutes…and we are out of sight up here.”
Rose grabs his hat and throws it in his face.
* * *
Children flee from the open road as the coach makes its way into camp. They speed up alongside the wagon and slap its sides, waving up at its drivers. Alexander and John wave back. Booth runners tip their hats on entry as their wives rush from behind the stands to collect the youngsters. Bulbs blaze and fires light to beckon the coming night. Beyond the edge of the flattened earth the moon begins its ascent.
A large post stands tall in the middle of the camp, running from one end of the road to the other. The words ‘Big Boss’s Travelling Carnival’ cross the length of the sign in swirling cursive and a kaleidoscope of maroons.
“That’s new,” Alexander says.
Michael and Harrison sit atop the post. Below them lies a pair of overturned paint cans.
“Well howdy, strangers!” Michael shouts.
“And welcome to Big Boss’s Travelling Carnival!” Harrison adds.
The two speak in pattern, fist Michael, then Harrison.
“Please come in and take a load off—”
“—browse the sights—”
“—and get generally shit-faced.”
“There’s kids around, Michael,” Alexander warns.
“They live here, they’ve heard worse,” Michael replies, pausing a moment to lean forward. His eyes bulge with false wonder and he slaps his partner’s shoulder, “My word, Harrison, you recognize that man?”
“I surely don’t, friend.”
“Why that’s Alexander, our old coffin maker! He was married to your sister.”
“Well I’ll be a son of gun, it surely is. And that brooding fella sitting next to him is old John, that stranger who came in one day and got your ass shot.”
“Wow,” Michael says, shaking his head from side to side, “You boys been gone so long we thought you was dead, called off the search years ago.”
Alexander bobs his head and lets out a phony laugh.
“Alexander, you ain’t going to like this but people here have moved on. We got ourselves a new coffin maker. And Selina, well she remarried.”
Michael holds up his right hand. A cheap dime-store band wraps his ring finger. Alexander ushers the horses into a crawl and under the sign.
“See you tonight, boys.”
Harrison calls after them. “Hey would you mind helping us down? We’re kind of stuck.”
“And grab that paint before Boss shows up,” Michael adds, “He’ll be pissed enough when he sees the sign.”
* * *
The Tall Man lies on his back and stares up at the vibrating ceiling. Dunes of sand and rock curve around the path carved by the Black Rail’s line. The scream of grinding gears speeds through the open windows. Soft lines of sand tumble down from the car’s roof, blown up by the ceaseless wind, now shaken back to earth.
“You know I’ve lost track what number you are,” he mutters, shaking a limp wrist in the dead man’s direction, “You probably told me your name at some point but I never bothered to learn it. You weren’t important enough, never would be.”
He rubs his thumb and index through dried eyes and rises from his seat.
“Only difference between you and me is there was still call for men like us when I was young.”
The Tall Man turns from the dead man towards the opposite end of the compartment. The scuffle of boot on rug rises then stops. No sound follows, its perpetrator stilled. Despite the previous encounter with an unannounced visitor, The Tall Man’s hands remain free, unburdened by steel.
“It’s not wise to approach me in silence.”
From beyond the shades that separate the occupied section of the car come words. A soft voice puts an end to The Tall Man’s private conversation with the dead.
“Pardon, but I was told to report to you, sir.”
The Tall Man doesn’t bother to rise or disguise his act.
The shades draw open and from the other side a young man emerges. A set of revolvers identical to the ones the dead guard once wielded hang from his hips. He bows his head slightly on entrance, eyes turned away from both men before him.
“And who are you supposed to be?”
“Sir, I-I’m…well, I guess I’m…” the young Rider stutters. His hands motion limply towards the dead man at his master’s feet, “I suppose I’m his replacement.”
“I suppose you are.”
The Tall Man drags the spur of his boot down the back of the fallen guard, tearing away a line of fabric.
“Tell me,” he says, “what’s your name?”
“Your name, son, what’s your name? You’re bound to have one.”
The guard straightens his back slightly as though catching onto the elder’s game. He speaks once more with fear lessened.
“It’s Nate, sir.”
“Nate as in Nathanial?”
“Yes sir, after my father.”
The dead man’s eyes lie glassy, one hidden, pressed against the matted blood that covers his scalp. Tinges of blue swirl along his neck. A gaping hole pulls inward into the confines of his skull and bursts forth through the center of his forehead. A dried dribble of brain and blood and bone coats his upturned temple.
“Do you know what happened to that man?” The Tall Man asks.
“I heard he was killed by the assassin who wounded you—”
“I shot him.”
The young man’s words stop. The Tall Man notes his hands. He hides the shaking well, but his voice betrays the fear.
“Wh…why? Why wo-would you do that?”
“Because he wasn’t good enough or fast enough to do what needed to be done,” the Rider replies. He taps the side of his revolver and points to the ones that hang from the new guard’s belt, “Are you?”
The Tall Man tips his hat down and leans back in his seat. His boot toe stretches in the direction of the dead man before him as he mutters the conversation’s final words.
“Get someone to deal with that. He’s starting to stink.”
* * *
“Do you have enough to eat, John?”
John glances up from his bowl and looks to Selina, his mouth stuffed full with meat and potato. The fortuneteller offers him a soft smile. He holds up his hand and initiates a rapid chew to swallow.
“I’m fine, Selina. Thank you.”
Harrison leans back against the inside edge of the wagon, supported by the elastic fabric, and lets out an exaggerated sigh. A cheap metal plate cleared of its former contents lies before him.
“Sister, I think you killed me.”
“Well I certainly hope you left a will, Brother,” Selina replies.
“You can have the money I keep in my boot. Should be enough to buy you a few meals, long as you skimp on everything that makes that meal taste good.”
Selina leans in towards John and whispers, “See how he takes such good care of me?”
“You’re very lucky.”
Alexander lets out a curt laugh. Harrison rises up and looks between the two men.
“Did my ears deceive me?” he asks, “Did Alexander the Rock just express some joy?”
“I wouldn’t call that joy,” John says.
“That’s joy for him.”
The four share the laughter. Selina begins to gather the empty plates and carry them out to soak in the tub that lies beside the wagon wheel.
“Tell us a story, Alexander,” she says, rubbing her hand softly along the nape of her husband’s neck as she passes.
“I think John heard enough of my stories this afternoon.”
“I don’t mind.”
Harrison jabs his elbow in John’s side. He leans forward and scarves a slice of bread from the coffin maker’s plate.
“See that, Harrison, John don’t mind. I for one would love to hear one of your stories.”
“I suppose I could always tell him the story of how I kicked your ass.”
Selina’s soft voice rises out from beyond the wagon wheel. Her silhouette, cast upon the coach’s side, hunches in a sudden display of laughter as she drops a batch of silverware into the tub.
John notes a soft tinge of red grow in Harrison’s cheek. He clears his throat and speaks.
“You didn’t kick my ass. You threw sand in my eyes and hit me with a wooden plank.”
“When was this?” John asks.
Harrison leans forward and pokes a Alexander’s chest with the tip of his finger.
“This was back when this man here got it in his mind that he wanted to marry my little sister. With Pa gone, that left me as the one to give blessing.”
Alexander offers a hand to Selina as she pulls herself up into the wagon.
“Thanks, Hun,” Selina says, leaning over and taking his plates, the last that grace the table, “Uriah and Alexander, at least not in the early years of their relationship, were not on the best of terms.”
The coffin maker rises from seat and lowers Selina down to the outside. He picks up the story from there.
“So Harrison challenges me to a fight. He says if I can best him then he’ll offer me his blessing, but if I lose I never see his sister again—”
“I never said that.”
“—and that I should use any means necessary to win.”
John shrugs. He turns to the fortuneteller’s brother.
“Sounds like you brought it on yourself.”
“He threw sand in my eyes and hit me with a plank!”
“Any means necessary,” Alexander reminds him.
Harrison rises to the sound of amusement at his expense, waving his hands erratically through the air.
“Alright, alright!” he says, leaning forward, grabbing Alexander by the arm, and hoisting him up, “Me and Alexander have some business to discuss with Boss before the show starts. Don’t worry, Selina, I won’t keep your man too long.”
The two exit the tent following a kiss between the married couple. John assists Selina in the washing of dishes outside. The work passes quickly, without fuss and with light conversation. A diminutive fire illuminates their station. Selina looks up towards the sky at the peaked moon.
“Looks like we got about half an hour before the show starts,” she mutters, making her way back into the wagon.
“I better head out and find Boss.”
The wagon back opens and Selina’s head pokes its way out. She waves a stack of worn tarot cards back and forth.
“How’s about a read before you go? It’s on the house.”
* * *
With a sharp tug the curtains that surround the reading table slide back. Selina retrieves a match from her pocket and drags it to flame across the table’s surface. The candle in the center soon glows with soft light, amplified as the fortuneteller snubs the lamps that hang within the wagon’s confines.
Selina gestures for her guest to take a seat. John complies, holding hand to stomach in response to the dulled pain of his beaten torso. Selina tucks her knees under as she lowers herself to the ground. The tarot cards spread out in a neat line as she deliberately shuffles them, careful to avoid any further bending of their edges.
“There’s a lot that people don’t know or just assume about tarot readings. It’s not voodoo. It’s not black magic, despite what some might have told you. I’m not a witch; can’t put curses on people, much as I’d like to.”
“So what is it?” John asks.
“It’s just a matter luck. Or fate. It’s what you wish it to be.”
Selina draws the first card from the deck and lays it face up. Two shapeless figures entwine, locked in deep embrace.
“The Lovers. A deep relationship held between two people, perhaps family, but often between those of romantic tendency. This tends to be a positive omen, depending upon the next card it pairs with.”
Selina lies down a second card. Light of the single candle casts a shifting shadow from beneath its upwardly bent edges. A picture of a thorned wheel, a kaleidoscope of color traveling its length, graces its cover. The card turns downward.
“The Wheel of Fortune, reversed. The card represents the hands of destiny and the path we all take, but often rules in sudden moments of either the past of future. Being one of the first two cards this applies to the former. It indicates a sudden change has occurred in your life, involving both you and your lover. Rose was her name, wasn’t it?”
“Just keep reading.”
“Traumatic change. Powerful and sudden. Loss. Separation or death.”
Selina scans John’s wearied face. Thin scars slope his cheek. Shadows under the eyelids.
“The next card will detail your present.”
Selina pulls the third card from her deck, glancing first at its surface before placing it before John’s eyes. A ghostly figure hangs from a dead tree, a thin nose slopes around his neck. Dulled eyes stare out at the man whose fortune they are a part of.
“The Hanged Man. You are at a crossroads in your life, torn between two paths. One you wish to take, perhaps?”
“One forced upon me,” John replies.
“The other, a path you should but won’t.”
“It’s not that simple.”
Selina pauses. Her hand hovers over the deck. Her eyes study the guns that latch themselves to John’s side.
“Those guns have something to do with your choice?”
“They have everything.”
The next card comes.
Skin pale. Eyes black. Form cloaked. He carries no scythe. No blood stains his robes. No bodies lie beneath his feet. But he is known.
Selina reaches over and touches John’s hand.
“It ain’t a bad omen. So don’t look so serious.”
John smiles. The fortuneteller continues.
“The card does not represent death. The events it reflects may be plagued in death but that is not what the card divines. Rather, it reflects a time of change. A time of transformation. All that you have known, all that you have grown accustomed to—”
“All the things I loved?”
Selina nods. She reaches forward, her hand cupping behind the single candle, and sends forth a puff of air from her lips, extinguishing the flame.
“You’re sending yourself down a bad path. When you killed that man last night, you went to a dark place. And I can tell you plan on going to that place again, but it ain’t a place that lets visitors go without a price. You’re trying to get vengeance for what happened to Rose—”
John rises from his seat. His leg hits the table as he rises, shaking its surface, disorganizing the cards.
“No. It aint—”
He pauses, shaking his head. “It’s not about vengeance. I’ve seen enough these last few weeks to know that.”
“It’s about doing what needs to be done.”
“I can forgive the man who hurt me John, the one you killed,” Selina says, challenging John’s rebuff, “I can. He may have been a monster, and he died like one, but I don’t hate him for that. The man who hurt you, he’s got the same fate coming. Why can’t you let that fate take him?”
“The reason you can say that, Selina, is because the man who hurt you is dead.”
Outside a roar of applause and laughter fills the air. Michael’s speech has ended. A fantastic array of colors reflect against the tarp that covers the wagon’s sides.
“Looks like we’re starting early,” John says, turning to the exit and lifting back the flaps, “Must be quiet a crowd tonight.”
Selina calls out. “John. Whatever you do, whatever path you choose, you can’t keep torturing yourself. You can’t keep blaming yourself for what happened.”
John pauses, his hand still holding the flap open. Light pours in around his shadowed form. He breathes out slowly. His shoulders drop. The weight lessens, if only a slight. He returns his hat to his head and offers a sad smile.
“That’s just it, Selina, I don’t blame myself. I blame him.”
* * *
Fireworks burst overhead. Shrieks of glee and excitement fill the air. Lights move and sway in tandem. The carnival roars with life. A black horse appears on the horizon, its rider cloaked in night.