by Julianne Carew
I have always had a fascination with birds, it doesn’t matter what kind. Whether it is a lone bald eagle or a flock of doves or a cluster of simple farm pigeons, I love them all.
When people ask me why I find them so intriguing, I say that I don’t know why, but the real reason is a lot simpler than that. When I was five years old and my mother died, I asked my father where she went. We had just gotten home from her funeral, and my father didn’t have the heart to tell me that we’d already buried her in a box in the ground. Instead, he took me outside and pointed to a flock of ravens that happened to be flying overhead.
“When people die they become birds,” my father said, “so that they can watch over their loved ones from the sky.”
I love all birds, but to this day, ravens have always been my favorite.
I’m from a small town in northern Kansas that is so small it doesn’t technically have a name. It’s right in the middle of two bigger towns that sometimes claim us, sometimes don’t, which is why I found it odd that a carnival would set itself up in the middle of my father’s cornfields.
It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I had fallen asleep in my old tree house. I’d spent a lot of time there since graduation because up there, amongst the old toys and dry leaves, I felt safe. It was a place where nothing ever changed besides the birds flying overhead.
That is, until I woke up and saw the carnival. It seemed big for a travelling production, with a giant Ferris wheel, a carousel with horses as large as my father’s tractor, and a roller coaster that went upside down. What struck me as most unusual, though, was the size of the funhouse, which sprawled from one end of the rides to the other. It didn’t seem that far off, but then again, nothing seems far off in Kanas. But even so, I felt I could reach it. Like if I climbed out onto one of the branches of the tree and stretched as far as my lanky limbs would go, I could touch it.
I jumped down the ladder and started running. I do not know why. I am not a thrill-seeker. I am not one who enjoys large crowds. Normally, I never left my father’s farm. It’s not that I couldn’t, my legs still worked fine after the accident. It was more that I found no reason to subject the rest of the world to my face.
People were nice enough, or they tried to be. When I was at the grocery store, the checker always made sure to speak to the air right above my head, and whenever my father dragged me to church, all the kids I grew up with were polite-quick, not saying much past a “How ya doin’, Lori,” but polite.
It was the whispers left in their wake that made me stay home; the whispers about the accident, the one where I ran my car into a tree. The one where I claimed to have been run off the road by a black truck whose tire tracks had never been found. The one where I was pulled out of a burning car with the left side of my face on fire — screaming.
When I was younger, before I saw wings and looked up for just a second and came back to consciousness in a tin can of fire, my father used to say that lightning never struck twice. He said this with confidence, as though reminding the universe of our previous tragedy would bring us luck.
But I knew better. Lightning did strike twice. How did we know that any two snowflakes weren’t the same? Who had ever really checked? I believed in duplicates. I knew that my mother was gone, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t out there, somewhere. I believed that parts of her could fly back to me.
You see, I don’t have memories of my mother. At least, not the kind that I would want to dwell on. I remember her backwards, as if her life was a photo album that I flipped through in reverse. I remember people crying and not really knowing why. I remember her absence. I remember her tucking me in one last time and thinking that it was strange I didn’t have to beg her to read me one more bedtime story. I remember her being sad. I remember everything, except all the things that matter.
When I arrived, the sun was no longer overhead. It was falling behind the horizon slowly, elongating the shadows as it went. Fog that seemed to come from nowhere obstructed the rest of my view, which was why I didn’t see the carnival again until I almost ran into it.
Once I walked inside the gates, the heat seemed thicker, heavier, safe in that it became something I felt I had to swim through. Up close, the rides weren’t old, as I’d expected them to be. They were brand-new and shining in what was left of the fading light. I remember thinking it was strange that no one else was there, but not being particularly surprised. Everything seemed somehow familiar. The freshly painted carousel was a giant version of the one my grandmother had given me after my mother died. The flying swings were all my height, and the Ferris wheel was an exact replica of the first one I ever remember being on.
I wandered around for a long time, touching the fences and signposts as I went, just to make sure they were real, until I came across the entrance to the funhouse. It was bigger than I could have ever imagined, so big that I realized I had been walking along its outermost edges without even realizing what I was touching. It was two stories high with splashes of color in the form of stained glass. The rest of the house’s face was decorated in broken mirrors that reflected my jagged image and shocked look of surprise.
Ever since the accident, I have avoided mirrors. My father is not a vain man and, at a loss as to what to do with a daughter who refused to look at herself, he took as many of them down as he could. I brushed my teeth with my eyes closed and never bothered with a stitch of make-up, but there were still moments such as the one at the carnival in which I ran into myself on accident.
Most of the time I looked away as quickly as I could and rubbed the left side of my face. Usually, I felt my skin’s ridges and curves like the mountains within myself I couldn’t ever cross. I knew their defects better than I knew myself. But within the reflection of the funhouse mirrors, I stared, slack-jawed, because my face was completely smooth.
I don’t know how long I stared at myself, first in one broken shard and then another. It was the raven cawing on the roof of the funhouse that finally caught my attention. It was larger than most other birds of its kind, somehow more erect, aware of its place as the self-appointed observer of the carnival. It squawked an elaborate song and then turned its head to look at me with eyes that can only be described as human.
I tried to outstare its gaze, but then I heard the levers of the Ferris wheel turning, and my head jolted back in that general direction. When I turned to see what happened to the raven on the roof, it was gone.
The cars of the Ferris wheel were moving imperceptibly slow. They swung like the numbers on a clock that had to wiggle from one hand to the other. I was about to turn around and head back towards the funhouse when the uppermost car caught my attention. It swung at a different pace from the others. It seemed heavier, droopy almost, as though there were someone sitting inside.
I followed the car with my eyes as it got closer, until I could see the outline of a woman perched atop its seat. She was wearing a long, black dress that matched the color of her hair. I stared at her and she stared back. Something about her drew me to her. It could have been her milky-white skin. It could have been the fact that she was the only other person around, but I found myself wanting to stop the Ferris wheel and climb up to where she was sitting and... and, what, I didn’t know. I raised my hand to wave at her, but then the wind blew a fleck of dust in my nose and I sneezed, and she was in front of me.
“Hey, you wanna ride?” the same black-haired woman asked. She was operating the control panel of the carousel, her black hair no longer flowing, but piled inside an old-fashioned newspaper cap. A cigar hung from her lips. She took a drag.
“What are you staring at? Do you want a ride or not?”
I shook my head slowly. The woman stopped the ride and put out her cigar.
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
I watched the woman walk away, towards a cotton-candy stand on the other side of the carousel. To say that I followed her wouldn’t really be the right word. Her voice, at once raspy and light and familiar, mesmerized me to the extent that I would have followed her further than the cotton-candy stand, further than across a field in the middle of Kansas, further than the sky allowed. As she walked, I tried to fit my footsteps into the imprints hers made.
When I finally caught up to her, the woman tried to hand me a mountain of cotton candy the color of my tongue.
“You want some cotton candy? It’s watermelon, your favorite.”
“H-how did you know that?” I asked. The woman laughed but it sounded more like a squawk.
“Why, because I know everything,” she said.
I took the cotton candy from her, but I let it drop to the ground. My hands were limp like the rest of me. Where was I? Who was this woman? How would I get home now that it was dark?
I looked up so that I could ask her, but the woman had already vanished.
In the silence, I could hear the corn breathing. All of the rides were shut down. Even the moon was hiding. The only light coming from anywhere was reflected in the broken mirrors of the funhouse. They beckoned to me, drawing me in. They made my legs move without me realizing where I was going.
There was only one way into the funhouse, through a spinning tunnel that reminded me of Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole. It spun, my head spun, I climbed through without thinking twice.
Inside there were more mirrors filled with more light. I didn’t know which way to go, so I kept walking. I turned right, and then I turned left. I watched my reflection get closer and then further away. I stared at myself until I went cross-eyed.
I stared at myself for so long that the image in front of me was no longer of me, but that of my mother. I watched her tuck me into bed that last night before she died, but instead of dying, she didn’t. Instead of going into the bathroom and my father finding her in a pile of her own blood, wrists cut, mouth foaming, my mother went into the bathroom and then came out. Instead of leaving me, she stayed. She stayed to wake me up the next morning, to make me dinner later that night.
In the cracked reflection of a funhouse mirror, I saw a childhood in which I was no longer lost and alone and stumbling. I saw my mother brushing my hair, taming my long, black curls into two neat braids. I saw her at my sixth, seventh, and eighth birthdays and beyond. I saw my mother smiling. I saw her laughing. I saw her watch me grow up.
I followed the cracked mirrored hallway as I would follow the timeline of a life, my life, my life the way things could have been. I followed my life all the way down to the end of the hall, where I saw another mirror that was really a door. I opened it and walked inside.
Beyond the secret looking-glass there was no more light or mirrors. It was dark, almost as dark as it was outside except for a few candles littering the room. At first, I thought that the room was empty.
But just when I thought my heart rate had finally stabilized, a woman got up from a chair in the corner of the room. She was the same black-haired woman from outside, but she was different. Her hair was piled on top of her head like a backwards beak. Her eyes were winged in charcoal. She looked like an angel, disguised as a bird, so that no one but me would know who she was.
The bird-woman walked up to me and looked into my eyes that were a mirror image of her own, dark and brown like burned chocolate. I was expecting her to say something, but she didn’t. Instead, we stared at each other until the realization hit me. We stared at each other until the bird-woman wasn’t the bird-woman anymore, she was my mother.
“But... why? H-how did you get here?” I asked as my eyes filled with tears.
My mother didn’t say anything, she only smiled and took one step closer. I leaned in to give her a hug, but as soon as my skin touched hers, she was gone.
Copyright © 2016 by Julianne Carew