The Carnival of Stone



Elia wandered among the statues and caressed every stone face. Her callused fingers picked out grooves on the chins of the bearded ladies and ripples on the men covered in scales.

“They were killed,” the storyteller told her, “once upon a time.” In front of her, the storyteller paused by a tattooed man whose bald head gleamed beneath the sun. Darker scrawls covered its stone skin. Elia yearned to recreate them in clay. The details of the sculptures were so fine. So perfectly rendered.

“They’re beautiful.” She looked away from the frozen faces to her guide. “What happened to them?”

He walked a short distance away, and she was compelled to follow. Then he halted before a stone tent. One side of the curtained entrance was held open by the statue of a grinning man. An invitation to witness the marvels within.

When he’d first come to her village, the storyteller had spun tales of this place. He’d captivated them all with descriptions of the colors, the music, the sights and scents of a carnival forever captured in stone.

“Perhaps the Gods themselves were responsible.” The storyteller beckoned her forward, and then disappeared inside the tent.

Elia didn’t follow immediately. She wanted to hear more of this story, but she was drawn to the statues even more. The surrounding cages held fantastic creatures covered in stripes, hair and furred skin. More stone statues and tents stretched the horizon, though many tents were closed; their secrets forever shrouded from view.

If the storyteller was correct, they’d once been alive. Horrifying, but exquisite still. She could learn so much here. The human form was known to her hands, so often had she molded it. These figures, with all their oddities, were something new.

When she eventually entered the tent, the interior was dim despite the torch flickering at the far end. Smaller cages and jars lined the periphery. The contents of the jars were unknowable, but the cages held more creatures. Those with multiple heads, tails, legs, and paws. Fins where there should have been feet. Eyes where there should have been mouths.

A horrid existence, she was sure. Perhaps the Gods had been kind in ending their lives, though the preservation seemed cruel as well. Still, she was curious enough to edge forward, to touch the stone bars and the bodies within.

“A disturbing collection, yes?” He smiled again. “Have I not fulfilled my promise to you?”

Elia bowed in acknowledgment. “That and more.”

The storyteller had sought her out. He must have understood her fascination, even if her tribe had not. They’d spent a lifetime surrounded by her creations. And though her work was renowned, her sculptures were still ordinary things. Ordinary people and ordinary animals. The villagers weren’t intrigued by the unique. They’d listened to tales of the carnival of stone, yes, but they hadn’t believed such things existed. They’d called her a fool for wanting to see the extraordinary.

“What if the Gods had nothing to do with this?” he whispered.

Elia halted in mid-caress, her fingers frozen at the juncture between skin and scales. Smooth textures turned to ridges. “If not the Gods, then who?”

“A monster.” The storyteller’s face flickered with shadows. “One of their own.”

She swallowed and withdrew her hand. “What monster can change living flesh to stone?”

The storyteller pressed his hands together. “Legends speak of the gorgon. A woman with serpents for hair, whose gaze could turn others to stone.” He lifted the torch from its holder. “But I don’t think she exists. I searched for her, you see, to no avail.”

She nodded at his words, though her mind was elsewhere. How would she sculpt such a creature? It would be mostly human. The snakes would be thicker substitutes for hair. Arranged like a heavy halo, they’d be likely to break during firing.

“There were other monsters too,” he continued. “Other beasts I wished to gaze upon. Some were found and brought here. Others remained elusive.”

Her stomach fluttered. This was why she’d accompanied the storyteller to this place. To see such creatures would provide inspiration. “A dragon?”

The storyteller smiled. “The dragon, of course, was another. Though I found men with scales for skin and overgrown lizards, there was nothing that could breathe fire. Nothing large enough to fit the legends. So I turned my attention elsewhere, in search of other creatures.”

“And did you find them?”

“No.”

Disappointed, Elia bit her lip and turned away. Had her trip been wasted? A part of her believed not. She’d already seen so much, and perhaps the storyteller would even be able to describe more monsters. Then she could return home, to her workshop surrounded by clay-filled rivers and begin sculpting.

“I would see them all before I die,” the storyteller said, before moving back towards the entrance. “You can assist with that.”

“What do you mean?” When he didn’t answer immediately, Elia turned and found him standing on the outside of the tent. She repeated her question.

The storyteller brushed one hand down the side of the curtained entrance, and then he did it again on the opposite side. Strips of white light glowed between his fingers and stretched to the ground in even columns.

Elia gasped at the wondrous sight. “What are you doing?”

“Adding to my collection,” he said, though he sounded regretful. “Even freaks can die unless someone preserves them. The larger my carnival grows, the more I desire. Your hands can create that which the Gods themselves have not. With your help, I can have the gorgon and the dragon and anything else I can imagine.”

As she watched, the beams of light grew thicker.

“With my help,” the storyteller continued, “your work will endure for thousands of years.  You’ll sculpt them, while I’ll preserve them. Stone is more permanent than flesh or clay.”

Then as Elia reached for the entrance, the bars of her prison solidified into stone.

Jaelithe Ingold

Carnival of Stone, flash fiction, December 1, 2011

Jaelithe Ingold was named after a character in Andre Norton's Witch World series, so it's no great surprise that she loves speculative fiction. She used to prepare fossils for display at the Carnegie Museum and is now a retail manager. Her work has most recently appeared in Abyss & Apex, Shock Totem and Fantastique Unfettered.
age and the imaginative characters. There's also something quite dark beneath the innocent surface of the stories.  
 

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