"Step inside to see real magic. Your face reflected a thousand times over, glass within glass. Which image is the real you? An avenue of mirrors, ladies and gentlemen. An attraction so unique, no other traveling show can boast of such a marvel."
The tall, dark-haired man on the platform wove wonder with his words and hands as he gestured dramatically toward the brightly painted wagon behind him. The open door's blackness suggested a mouth ready to devour those who entered. It was both a challenge and an enticement. Fear, danger, thrills, and surely real magic waited inside. To leave humdrum life behind and see something new was too great a temptation to pass up. People began to shuffle forward and offer their nickels.
A young man tugged on his lady friend's hand as she protested, "No, Tommy. I don't want to. It's eerie."
"But you love looking at yourself in a mirror, so you should love seeing yourself in a thousand of 'em even more," he replied, earning chuckles from those around him.
The girl shrieked and slapped his arm but allowed him to buy her a ticket from the lovely lady in the short, sparkly skirt. Together they headed inside.
The pretty ticket taker, with her eyes outlined in theatrical black, smiled and fluttered her lashes at the men in the crowd, but Jonah was not interested in her swelling decolletage. He had eyes only for the showman, who never ceased his melodious patter.
"Adventure, excitement, and a memory you'll treasure for a lifetime." The man's face was long and gaunt, with sharp cheekbones and a devilish appearance enhanced by the mustache and goatee that framed his lips. He wore a black cape, which swirled dramatically around him, over a vest studded with tiny mirrors that caught the light and showered the crowd with sparkles. His body was lean and graceful as he conjured anticipation and enthusiasm out of thin air, weaving a spell to push listeners inexorably into the house of mirrors.
Jonah didn't join the group. He wasn't here to enjoy a sideshow but to try to find employment. He tongued his torn lip and tasted metal. His left eye had swollen nearly closed, and every muscle in his body was stiff and aching. He'd barely been able to stumble over the hill to follow the discordant calliope music and glow of lights that beckoned him to the carnival. Even if the traveling show wouldn't hire him, he couldn't go back. He no longer had a choice about leaving home and realized he should've made a decision to go rather than waiting for the situation to explode in his face.
His father's righteous anger still flayed him raw. "You're a filthy pervert, an abomination who has brought shame on our family."
Well, wasn't a carnival sideshow the place for a freak? But a freak of his type wouldn't even fit in here.
Jonah turned to go find the owner of the carnival. He hoped his battered appearance wouldn't alarm a prospective employer. He was strong and capable of lifting and carrying tent poles, watering animals, or mucking out stalls. It didn't much matter to him what he did right now. He just needed a place to hide and a way to travel down the road.
Clutching his satchel tighter, he threaded his way through the crowd and around the big wagon with MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF MIRRORS emblazoned in flowing script on the side. A painting depicted a woman with wide eyes and open mouth, looking into a gilt frame angled so the viewer couldn't see the mirror. A person might interpret her expression as shock, awe, wonder, delight, or horror, depending on his point of view.
Jonah was so intent on gazing at the mural that he barreled into the barker who had leaped down from the platform. A mingled scent of tobacco, alcohol, and sweat came from the man's clothing. He grasped Jonah's shoulder to steady him.
"Easy, lad." His voice was as smooth as worn leather, with a slight English or perhaps Irish accent. An exotic sound compared to the flat cadence of the Midwest. Jonah wondered what had brought the man here.
"Sorry, sir. I wasn't looking where I was going." He met the man's eyes, which were black as a night sky with a sprinkling of stars. Maybe it was the reflection of the moonlight on his mirror-studded vest that made them sparkle. "Could you direct me to the manager of this carnival?"
"What would you be wanting with him?"
"A job." Jonah smiled and tasted a fresh spurt of blood from his split lip.
"Ah, I see." The man scanned Jonah's bloody, disheveled state. "In that case, allow me to escort you to his lodgings. I'm just taking my break."
He guided Jonah away from the House of Mirrors, past other sideshows: a fortune-teller, a freak tent, games of chance with cheap prizes hung on ribbons, and the main tent in which big acts performed. Barkers shouted to draw people to their attractions. Music blared from gramophones near the booths. The noise was too much for Jonah's aching head.
He felt his heartbeats thumping in his ears. The vision in his good eye blurred, and he realized he was about to pass out. That wouldn't do. He couldn't appear weak, or he'd never get hired. He blinked and drew a deep breath.
"Do you know if the manager's hiring? I'd be willing to do any work, anything at all. I don't care if I get paid much. I'd just appreciate the chance to travel."
"In a hurry to get out of town, eh? I've been in that position before."
Jonah stumbled, and the man beside him slung an arm around his back, lending him support. That small kindness coupled with the sympathetic words made Jonah's eyes sting. After what he'd been through that evening, he felt as emotional as one of the devoted old women who laundered altar clothes at his father's church.
"I'm sorry. I've had a rough day." He nearly smiled at the understatement.
"I can see that." The stranger cast a sideways glance at him. "Would the fellows who did that to your face be likely to come after you? The show doesn't need any trouble. We've enough of our own."
"Oh no. Nothing like that. I haven't done anything." Hadn't he? His actions had brought this trouble down on him. He couldn't deny that. Jonah gestured at his face. "This was just a...falling out with some family members."
"With family like that, who needs enemies?" The warm band of the man's arm left his back abruptly as he turned to Jonah and stuck out his hand to shake. "I'm Rafe Grimstone, sometimes ringmaster of the big show or talker for one of the attractions, but also owner of this carnival. And you are...?"
"J-Jonah Talbot." He put down his satchel, took the man's hand, and shook it, good manners outweighing his surprise at the sudden turn of events. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Grimstone. I apologize for my appearance, but I promise I'd be a hard worker at any task you assign me."
"And you'd work for nearly free. Yes, I got that." He nodded, and a lock of long hair fell across his face. "For now I'll take you on temporary-like. Time will tell whether you earn a place here. But it'll be for no cash, lad. Leastwise not while you're on probation."
"Yes. That's fine. Just give me a place to sleep and some work to do."
The man pointed at the carpetbag Jonah had dropped on the ground. "What's in here? I can't be housing thieves, if that's why you're on the run."
Jonah shook his head, which was a mistake--nausea rolled through him. "No. It's mine."
"Way you clutch it, could be filled with bars of gold. Looks heavy enough."
Rather than answer, Jonah reached down to unbuckle the bag. He moved slowly to keep the dizziness at bay.
"Books." The man gave an amused snort as he reached in and pulled one out. "Ach. Shakespeare? Noisy old bugger."
Jonah wanted to protest, tell Mr. Brimstone--or rather, Grimstone--he was wrong. But the man opened the collection at a random page and read a few lines of Hamlet's speech to the actors. No, surely he was reciting, for there wasn't enough light to read by. Something in his manner shifted. That lovely deep voice stroked Jonah's senses. He closed his eyes to listen. The man's accent had changed to a more educated British tone that sounded perfect for Hamlet.
"'O'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.'"
Mr. Grimstone stopped reciting and dropped the book back into the satchel. "Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing." He shoved the bag toward Jonah with the side of his boot.
"But how...?" Jonah stopped. He had no interest in angering the man, yet how could anyone who spoke so beautifully, imbuing the words with perfect feeling, remain cold to Shakespeare?
"Come on." Grimstone watched Jonah gingerly heft the satchel and gave a grunt of either impatience or perhaps sympathy with Jonah's pain. He slapped the outside of his thigh a couple of times and said, "The condition you're in, I'm thinking you need a watchful eye on you tonight, and Parinsky's been at the bottle again, so I guess I draw the winning ticket."
They'd been heading to a line of freight and animal wagons painted with a bright confusion of murals and gold lettering, but now Grimstone veered toward a wagon at the edge. This one was enclosed, like a little house on wheels. In the dark Jonah couldn't see what color it was, but unlike most of the others in the enclave, it didn't have bright paintwork or lurid depictions on its side.
Inside, Grimstone lit an oil lamp and hung it on a metal bracket by the door. The crowded interior smelled of unfamiliar spices and tobacco. Jonah's aching eyes adjusted, and he saw that his first impression of clutter wasn't quite right. The single room was crammed with objects yet organized. There was a trunk and neatly made narrow bed that looked like a shelf built into the wall. Two pots hung on a metal loop over a small spirit stove. Most of the hulking objects were cabinets. Anything private, even as personal as a hairbrush, must have been locked away in those cabinets. Funny to glimpse the mundane in the midst of the glittering exotic carnival. But then light reflected off the spangles of something lying across the foot of the bed. A costume?
Mr. Grimstone gave him a gentle push toward the corner, and Jonah saw a bedroll lay ready, almost as if Grimstone had been expecting him.
"Thank you, sir." Jonah dropped to his knees, gasping as his bruised ribs creaked. With shaking hands he unrolled the two blankets. Not even bothering to haul one over himself, he lay down and waited for the dizziness to pull him under. If he woke up tomorrow, perhaps he'd have the strength to mourn all he'd lost. Except, no; he knew the day after a beating was always worse. He'd met with a few growing up--a preacher's kid was a natural target. He'd occasionally dreamed of taking the path to hell-bent revenge, but Jonah had been well trained to turn the other cheek. Very few people under the sway of Pastor Talbot would question his stern teachings. His own son had once been as devoted as any parishioner.
Tonight Jonah's aches would be bone-deep, a fine distraction, "the bright side of the situation," as Rev. Burns would say, for physical pain would be enough to drown other thoughts. Burns--his teacher. Damn the man to hell.
"Will you...I mean, will the carnival be staying here long?" he asked.
"In a hurry to run away?" Grimstone had hung his dramatic black cape on a hook near the door and was unbuttoning the mirror-studded vest.
Yes, please. He wanted to run far and fast. "No, sir."
"We're due to head south after tomorrow. That good enough for you?"
"Yes, thank you. I-I promise no one will be looking for me." He shouldn't have hesitated over the last part. It made him sound unsure, and he was anything but uncertain. No one would come searching for him here.
Perhaps he'd begun to doze, because he was disoriented when something scraped on the wooden floor near him. He opened his eyes. Only inches from his head, a pair of dusty boots shifted. The leather of the boots creaked as someone knelt and laid a hand on his shoulder.
Oh God, no. The beating would begin again. Then he remembered it was his new employer who was bending over him, but that didn't relieve his anxiety. Perhaps the carnival man realized Jonah's true nature and had come to finish off matters. Jonah had felt strength in that wiry form when the man's arm had held him upright, and knew he didn't have a chance against Grimstone's fists or those boots. He tensed, ready to curl into a protective ball.
"Nothing terrifying, Talbot. Just a salve." He set an open jar of something greasy and stinking of animal fat by Jonah's hand. "You rub it on the parts that hurt or that you think might hurt later." The boots moved out of his sight. "I'll be back."
After the door to the wagon banged shut, Jonah forced himself to sit. He unbuttoned his shirt, hiked his undershirt, and rubbed the rancid-smelling goop on his belly and ribs with tentative fingertips. No bones broken that he could tell. The salve tingled on unbroken flesh. When some touched a cut, he bit back a yelp of pain. He smeared on only enough to obey Mr. Grimstone's order and only on his torso and arms. He had no desire to unbutton his trousers.
Within a few minutes, Mr. Grimstone returned, holding a dark bottle with no label. "You a drinking man?"
"No." Jonah focused on the long fingers that dangled the bottle. "Thank you."
"Might help with the pain."
"It's not so bad as all that, sir."
"So you say." His host grabbed a tin mug from somewhere behind the pots.
Holding bottle and cup in one hand, Mr. Grimstone dropped to a crouch next to Jonah, effortlessly, like a man used to a life without chairs. Jonah recalled foreign farm workers who could sit on their heels for hours at a time. Peasants, his father had called them.
Without a word, Mr. Grimstone poured the grog--or whatever it was--then handed over the mug. The burning liquid stole Jonah's breath and made him cough.
"No, no. Thanks," he managed to choke out as he handed the mug back.
A flash of a grin lifted the corners of Mr. Grimstone's narrow black mustache, making him appear more devilish than ever.
"All the more for me, then." He swallowed the rest of the mug's contents without so much as a flinch, wiped his hand over his mouth, and looked at Jonah with glittering eyes.
Jonah's own eyes still watered from the alcohol. A few days ago he might have been self-conscious about his callowness, a lad unable to fight or hold his liquor. According to the rougher elements in this part of the county, he'd never been much of a man. But now he didn't care what anyone thought of him, except he needed to escape and worried that if he appeared weak, Mr. Grimstone wouldn't keep him on. Perhaps he should explain that, despite his scrawny frame, he could and would work hard. His thin body held strength. He might tell Mr. Grimstone how he'd been outnumbered by his attackers, but he didn't want the man to ask about the reason for the beating.
"Thank you," he repeated and stretched his aching body on the bedroll on the wooden floor. He closed his eyes so Grimstone would leave. Despite the kindness the carnival man had shown him, Jonah needed to be alone. Still he could feel the watchful presence hovering, gazing down on him. Jonah only relaxed when at last footsteps thumped across the floor and the door slammed shut.