For the uninitiated, this competition gives you a genre, object and location and you have 48 hours to write and submit a 1000-word story based on those characteristics. Here was my assignment:
- Genre - Ghost Story
- Object to include - horseshoe
- Location - Circus
My Summary: It’s hard enough to bury a friend. Harder still when a host of the damned are trying to stop you.
Hope you enjoy it!
Years ago, to the sound of loud applause, I left the ring and stepped outside the red and white tent. I could hear the bellows of the ringmaster and see the contorted silhouettes of animal and man flash across its walls.
Someone approached me from the side. As I lit a cigarette, the flash of my match strike revealed Fini, our head trapeze flyer.
“Good show tonight,” he said.
“Well, I managed not to die,” I responded, “if that’s considered a success these days.”
“The crowd was savage, but you pulled off your hardest stunt. In fact, that helped make my decision,” he said. “I’m hoping you’ll bury me if I die….”
This is not a request that comes lightly among circus performers.
All of us who spend our life traveling the earth as entertainer vagabonds know the fate we face. If we die in the act of performing, we are damned to become part of the circus of the dead – cursed to perform among the deceased, night after night into the eternities. This becomes our repayment for the “freakish” talents we bear and for which we depended for our sustenance. (Whether these gifts come from heaven or hell, we’ve never known – nor have we bothered to ask.)
We only know of one way to alter this lot: the deceased must not leave the town wherein they perished, but be buried near the grounds where they lost their life before the next sun rises. The grave must be unmarked, save for a horseshoe with the open end facing east.
It was this ritual for his soul Fini had placed in my charge.
Last autumn, screams of horror were quickly followed by men in the audience covering the eyes of the women and children with their fedoras and ushering them to the exit. The ringmaster and those of us nearby rushed to a group around Fini. There he lay in a twisted, crumpled heap. Joints and appendages misaligned, eyes open, his jaw detached and gaping wide, and a dark, shiny trickle puddled outside his ear. It was not the first or last time a stunt without nets had claimed a life.
Shortly, my mind became fixed on my promise. I had to bury the man, by the means that all us carnies, freaks and clowns knew the circumstances dictated.
I found a tarp behind the animal boxcars and spread it out, brushing off the straw and manure. In it, I gently rolled Fini’s remains with a tasseled shoe still poking out one end. I set off for the woods seen yards from where our circus had erected the night before.
The moon was high, but the passing clouds necessitated lighting a lantern. I struck a match and the glow of the candlelight spread. Lantern and shovel in one hand, and my comrade over my shoulder, I hiked in seek of his burial ground.
Not long after entering the forested terrain, I could tell I was not alone – that sensation you often feel before your eyes confirm the fact. Shortly thereafter, I saw dark, hooded figures emerging from the ink-black shadows formed by trees, shrubs and thickets.
I moved onward, and the phantoms closed in around me arresting me with a feeling of foreboding, emptiness and dread. Undaunted, I picked the spot where I could assure my friend’s eternal peace. With the lantern set in the grass, I pitched my shovel into the ground and began spooning earth into a pile next to the tarp-wrapped body. The specters watched my every move; I had to concentrate on my dig rather than the seeping intimidation they invoked.
As I worked, they dropped their hooded robes to reveal a macabre collection of corpses in various stages of decay. By their dress (what was left of it) it was apparent they were former carnies: still dressed in the sequins, ribbons and bells that denoted their profession. They spread out and started into their act. Two jugglers tossed a couple swords and one of their heads between them. A contortionist, who had apparently suffered a shattered fate similar to Fini’s, tied herself into the most grotesque knots never seen in mortal form. A clown, missing a good portion of his shredded torso, cracked a whip that commanded his skeletal lion to leap onto a stone and stand with its claws in the air.
Inside the tarp, Fini began to stir. I picked up my pace. I was losing him to the troupe that had come to claim him. Dirt flew, and the hole grew deeper and yawned wider.
As the performance was at its most grotesque climax, I tossed my friend into the hole and began covering it with greater speed than which I had unearthed it. With wails that would rattle hell’s very foundation, the tattered mass of damned knew their attempt to claim Fini was nearing an unfruitful end. I pounded the fresh mound of dirt with the blunt end of the shovel, then pulled the horseshoe from my satchel. I placed it on the mound with the open end facing the warm tones already beginning to bleed into the gloaming.
In defeat, the fiends fell back to the retreating darkness. Only then did I notice the force with which my heart pounded. I had communed with death in a way that few mortals ever would.
I’ve not recounted this tale before. These are things circus folk don’t speak about in our circles. But since that night, I’ve had my eye out for the peer who will have the nerve to properly complete this deed for me, should the need arise. Just today, I saw a young man swallowing swords, completely unfretted by the boys firing at him with their slingshots.
He and I will be having a chat later this evening.