It’s that most wonderful time of year: Halloween! The 31st of October has always been my first love. It comes before cosplay, before biology, before even *gasp* Batman!
I haven’t gone trick-or-treating in about ten years so my traditions have changed a little. Still, there’s always a party on the closest weekend to Halloween and there’s always movies to watch on the actual day. Right now I’m watching Shock Treatment, a sequel/alternate universe to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s sort of like a world where Brad and Janet never got lost on the way to see Dr. Scott and so never met Frank-n-Furter. Not going to lie, there’s a lot in it that I like just as much as the stuff in Rocky Horror. I actually prefer Jessica Harper’s singing voice over Susan Sarandon’s.
Costume wise, I had no idea what I wanted to be. So I went and booked myself a Sephora appointment. Together, although mostly on the part of my lovely Sephora associate, we came up with an Alien Empress look. I broke out my old bridemaid dress and a spider crown and looked amazing!
Of course, this look was for my party just this Friday past. Actual Halloween saw me dressed as a witch and giving out candy at the mall where I work.
Now here’s a spooky story that I wrote a couple a years ago to send you off this Halloween season:
She was completely nude except for the spiked heels on her feet. Black body paint covered her except for where the artisans had painted the bones. A skeleton lady. Rumour said that she had learned to dance in the best whore houses in the country. Others said she had come to realise her craft in a vision while lounging in an opium den. And still others said she was just a performer, a talented gymnast with knowledge of silk dancing perhaps, but a performer nonetheless. Those last rumours came from those that did not believe in the death magics of the Cirque de la Mort.
Many thought that the circus could let them see beyond the veil and possibly reunite with lost loved ones. Others still wrote the circus off as just another gimmick to bring in money. I never cared any which way. The circus was what it was, something to be marvelled at. It went from town to town to town, attracting an audience. Just like any other circus I suppose. It just looked different from the others.
When it came to our town, the boys dared each other to go while the girls played at being scared little things. The circus had not even had its first showing and tales were spreading that they killed men and summoned devils all for the purpose of entertaining a town before claiming the souls of the town’s inhabitants. But I had known we would go and be there for opening night. Our parents would forbid it and we would all sneak out to Natalia Harris’ house as her parents were out of town. And that is what I and the other girls did. We put on dark lipstick and purple eyeshadows because somehow that seemed spookier than the usual pinks or nudes. We’d all wear cute dresses that may have been a tad too short and heels if we could walk in them and stylist flats if we couldn’t. I wore flats and a plain dress because I was plain but April and Ariel, the twins, would force me to let them curl my hair while Natalia brought up a bottle of whiskey for liquid courage. We were barely legal although that didn’t stop us. Only Dani Elizabeth voiced any concerns and the others overrode her. And then the boys picked us up. They wore jeans and button down shirts and brought beer.
I think they thought that if they acted like it was any other time we snuck out for parties or dates then maybe the circus wouldn’t be so scary.
We had to use fake IDs to get into the circus as it had an age requirement of eighteen or older. And I could see why. The circus was typical enough although the tents were striped black and poison green instead of the usual cheery white and red. But then they unleased the clowns to open the show and things were no longer typical. The clowns were not truly clowns. They were misshaped and wore grey rags. Their faces were either those of demons or of the damned. Dani Elizabeth was already crying before the ringmaster even came out and her boyfriend had to hold her close. The twins had both grabbed their respective boyfriends’ hands in their nervousness. I was without a boyfriend and Natalia had refused to let one accompany her. She laughed at the demonic clowns in good cheer and I knew she did not bring one of her many boys because she had no need of one.
There were magic tricks that involved the raising of the dead and there were performers that juggled skulls of different creatures. There was a trampoline act where the jumper never came back down and we did not know where she went. There was a man that granted wishes. And then there was Lady Fatality, the nude woman painted as a skeleton.
I could not tell you if she was originally a pole dancer or a silk dancer. She danced like a pole dancer although her pole was made of rope and it was dangling from the ceiling. The rope terminated at the bottom with a noose that held a struggling man. The strongman came up to toss Lady Fatality into the air at the beginning of her performance. She caught the rope and swung herself around before she held herself upside down and spread her legs. She was showing off how strong and flexible she was, no doubt, as I knew it was not easy to do what she did on a moving pole. The rope was swinging in a pendulum motion from the force of her grabbing hold of it after she had been thrown. The hanged man gurgled horribly and turned an awful shade of purple. The noose was tight enough to strangle him but not to kill him.
“This isn’t real right? He’s a prop or just pretending to choke right?” April asked nervously.
Natalia shushed her.
Lady Fatality then flipped herself over and let her feet rest on the hanged man’s head. She held the rope with only one hand so she could lean out and wave to the audience. A crack could be heard and, if that was a real man, the lady’s weight had helped the noose finish him off. Lady Fatality giggled at the shocked gasps before she swung herself back upside-down and hooked one leg around the rope so she let go with both hands. With only one leg holding her in place, she let the rope swing and take her where it would.
I thought it was lovely in its own way although both the other boys and girls were frightened. All except Natalia, who had smiled.
Alice Munro had been in the audience opening night as well although I did not know it until after the show. Munro was a private detective that most thought insane. He was good at his job but he talked to invisible women and befriended men with Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities. Whenever he would walk by on the street or if he happened to be in the supermarket, parents would grab their children and glare. He was avoided by everyone unless someone had a job for him. I liked Munro well enough despite the talk about him. It was said that he always knew who murdered a person once he touched the victim. It was said he could reach into their heads and pull out their last memories. Munro had come from the same town at Cirque de la Mort so I was not surprised to see him. He was staring at the corpse of the hanged man. After Lady Fatality’s act, the Ringmaster had decided to leave it there as he felt it was an omen of what had been and what would be. The circus folk had that sort of humour.
As far as I know, Munro did not. He was fine most of the time but he was a suspicious sort at times like Halloween. It was said he believed in the supernatural. That was not unusual. Half our town did. Half the world did. There were things that the scientists and the police and the government could not explain. The reason for so many rumours were to give some kind of comfort as one or two rumours always seemed some sort of normal, human thing.
“He knows it’s a real corpse.” Natalia said, causing me to jump. I had not known I had been staring down Munro. The others had left us or Natalia’s comments would have caused tears and screams and denials to pour from our friends. Natalia was pretty and popular and feminine. You would not guess her to be the type of girl who could say such a thing so casually.
“No one is fool enough to murder a person in front of an audience full of witnesses.” I said.
Natalia titled her head. “Is it foolish when people would easily explain the murder away as nothing of the sort? Anyway, you know that was no fake hanging.”
I did. Just as I knew the Cirque de la Mort to be filled with magicians and sorcerers and demons. Just as I knew Munro for a dead man’s psychic. I did not know Natalia knew these things. As I said, she was pretty and popular and looked to be a person of little substance. Everyone was for the most part.
“Let’s go see what he’s after. Munro is too quiet to come to a circus for the fun of it.” Natalia said as she grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the detective.
Munro was startled to see Natalia although he barely glanced at me. Had I been a girl of little self-esteem I could have said it was because Natalia was the prettier of us. Natalia was tall and shaped like a woman. She looked older than eighteen although she did not yet pass for twenty. She had picked the smallest dress of all when we were getting ready and shoes that were impossible to walk in for anyone else. She also smelled of whiskey and roses. But I was cursed with a great deal of awareness. Munro did not startle when he saw beautiful women. He was startled because Natalia was Natalia and I did not like that Natalia was something to be startled by.
“You’ve changed.” Munro said. While he did not speak in monotone, Munro’s voice was often flat and lacked emotion.
“Not yet.” Natalia said.
“Why did you kill him?” Munro asked. The question was matter-of-fact.
“I couldn’t say. I haven’t met him yet.” Natalia laughed as she tossed some hair over her shoulder. “You should take us out for a drink. I think this town needs a little scandal and what better than the creepy private eye taking two underage girls out for drinks?”
Munro looked me over. “Why bring her along?”
“She’s a teenager. She was going to be here because she wasn’t allowed here. That’s why all the teenagers came. And she knows this place for what it is anyway.”
“Human. She’s cut from the same cloth as you Alice. Although I haven’t found what she can do yet, if she can do anything at all. She’s been my friend.”
“You have friends?”
“Everyone has friends. Even Lady Fatality.”
I chose to speak up then. “You’re not Lady Fatality.”
“No, not yet. But I was and I will be and I am.” Natalia explained. “I traded my soul once, a long time ago and in a time that’s still yet to come.”
I knew then. I always know eventually. The Cirque de la Mort was eternal. It was born with the other demon magics and it would live as long as humans lived and perhaps past that point too. Natalia was saying that she had not yet joined the circus but when she did she would be with it for eternity. And eternity included the past as well. Munro had met Natalia’s soul before at the circus, at another place. He had not known that it was eternal either but he was coming to that conclusion. He knew it through experience and studying whereas I just knew.
“Did you know you’d be here when we all agreed to come?” I asked. Natalia had not been the one to suggest coming. We had all overheard our parents complain about such a morbid show coming to our town and then the boys made the decision to come. Had Natalia recognised herself and known then her future or had she always known?
Natalia smiled but offered no explanation. Those that knew of the occult or cursed with a gift such as mine or Munro’s seldom spoke of it. Speaking about a supernatural thing could make it happen. And girls like Natalia were not honest girls in general.
Sighing, Munro stood and faced Natalia. I was startled to see that Natalia was a full foot taller than him in her heels- she had to have six inches on him without the stilettos. I had not realised how small a man Munro was or how large a girl Natalia was. Natalia always seemed to take up a great deal of space because she had charisma, popularity, the ability to make people think she was attractive and powerful. A creature to be admired. I had not realised she had true physical need of the space she commanded. The combination of her tangible and intangible traits served to make Munro, a thin, short man, even smaller.
“You should head home. You’re not Lady Fatality yet and your friend is just a girl.” Munro said. If it bothered him to have to look up to a girl barely seventeen I never knew.
I was beginning to know other things about Munro however. He did not want us here. We were young and Cirque de la Mort was dangerous. He intended to cut down the hanged man and read his memories. If the murder was of a man belonging to this time period, a victim and not one of the circus’ immortal souls, then Munro would confront the ringmaster and Lady Fatality. He thought he could play detective and pretend the circus was just another crime scene.
I knew he would die if he followed through with this plan.
Natalia, however, had belonged here in the past and would in the future. The circus would not hurt her, I knew. So when she laughed at Munro and asked if I would go with her to meet herself I said yes. Perhaps it was because I knew I would be safe with Natalia. Perhaps it was because I was enraptured with Lady Fatality. Perhaps it was a little of both.
“How often does a girl get to meet herself?” Natalia asked as she led the way to the back of the tent. We had watched the performers exit through the back. Munro followed, the intent to play the protective adult clear on his face.
Whoever had set up the circus grounds knew the local geography well. My town had always been small and paranoid. When the Cold War was in its early days, the townsfolk built a complicated labyrinth of tunnels underground instead of simple bomb shelters. The circus tent led down into this labyrinth.
Natalia did not know which way to go and chose her direction randomly. That was how I knew she was not yet Lady Fatality. Fortunately, we both knew the tunnels. My classmates would hold parties down in the tunnels. Our friends would get drunk or have dates down here. Half the people I knew lost their virginity down here. These tunnels were familiar.
They did not look it. Many of the tunnels led to make shift rooms set up by the circus folk. One tunnel was inhabited by the bearded lady, who was sat at a grand makeup table and eating the eyes out of what appeared to be the skulls of infants. The contortionist was down another tunnel, folding herself up into a small bed in a box for the night. I saw lions lock their feral tamers into cages. I saw the demon clowns paint spells upon the walls in red. The trampoline artist finally came down from her jump and landed in another hallway, her bones shattering on the floor. The strongman and a hunchback had to sew her back together again.
“Don’t talk to any of them.” I told Munro. “Pretend you never saw the dead man hang.”
Munro started to speak but Natalia hushed him. “She always knows, Munro. She can’t always tell you why but she always knows. I’d do as she says.” Natalia said casually. I wonder when Natalia realised what I could do. She had told Munro that she had yet to learn my curse.
“Haven’t we always done as she’s told us?” Natalia asked. Her voice seemed to come from all around us. It was eerily familiar and different. Older.
It was not my Natalia that had spoken.
Lady Fatality emerged from the shadows before us and bowed low. She still wore the body paint so I could not tell whether or not she looked like Natalia. The eyes were the same but the bone structure was hidden under the skull painted on face. She was fuller in the hips as she was older. Her bust was smaller but that was due to the lack of body fat on her frame. Lady Fatality was strong and muscular like a gymnast or dancer.
She smiled and the sight of her real teeth under the painted skull’s teeth on her lips was disconcerting. Munro made the attempt to stand between us and Lady Fatality. I let him but Natalia did not. He did not realise that the Cirque de la Mort was more dangerous for him than it was for Natalia. As for myself, the circus folk had no reason to even acknowledge my presence.
“Will they come for me soon?” Natalia asked.
“Sooner than you realise. But not in this moment.” Lady Fatality said. “You have yet to prove what you are capable of.”
“Then there’s no point in hanging around.” Natalia said, sighing as she flipped her hair. “Dani Elizabeth has probably tattled on us for being gone so long anyway.”
“You mean she’s probably tattled on me. She’d never say anything about you if she knew you’d find out about it.” I said. Natalia was the kind of girl other girls wanted to impress.
Still, we did try to leave. Natalia had taken Munro by the arm and had already turned her back on herself. I was giving Lady Fatality one last look before we left. I was the only one to see her raise one eyebrow as Natalia sometimes did when she thought someone was being cutely ignorant. We would not be leaving easily tonight.
“Oh, you may leave, my younger self, and our lovely friend too. But Munro has not been given permission to do so.” Lady Fatality said.
“Why not?” Natalia asked. It was the first time I heard anything other than total confidence in her voice. She may have only now realised what danger we had walked into. Natalia had seen the evidence that she was to see an older age in Lady Fatality. She had no proof that Munro and I would see another day.
“It’s fine. You two go on ahead.” Munro said. “I suspect I know what this is about.”
“You suspect a lot of things.” Lady Fatality agreed. “Some of us do not appreciate it.”
“Are you one of them Nate?” Munro asked. Natalia glanced at me. Never had I heard her addressed as Nate. Her face suggested that she had never been called by that name either. Munro and Lady Fatality knew each other. They had a history. Natalia liked to play with Munro as she liked to play with all males. She called him Alice because it amused her to try and get a grown man flushed. I doubt she ever expected to be on a first name basis with the detective even if she had known he was gifted.
“Oh Alice, you should know me better by now. I am so looking forward to when young Natalia there finally meets young Alice Munro. Did you know this was the town I was born when you came here? Were you investigating me?” Lady Fatality asked. “I don’t mind you stalking me. You can’t do anything to harm me or Cirque de la Mort. Unfortunately, I am one of the few here who believes that. Old magic has always feared human things.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. I suspected I already knew
“It means I won’t hurt him. But he’ll never get out of the tunnels alive.” Lady Fatality said.
“We’ll see about that.” Natalia said. She then started to drag Munro away. He struggled, knowing that he was a risk to her. But Natalia was so much bigger and she had always been so determined. If need be, she could carry him.
I closed my eyes and thought. Natalia did not realise she was leaving me behind. But I had to know. If there was a solution then I knew it. I always did. Yet I had never tried to force the knowing to come to me. I saw the circus folk attacking Munro. He had been investigating the people that went missing every time Cirque de la Mort had a show since his youth. I saw that he had the potential to break the deals the circus had with demons if he learned what he hoped to learn. I saw that he was safe so long as he stayed away from the fair grounds and Lady Fatality.
The fair grounds were the answer. The circus only had magic where they erected their tents. The performers did not inhabit the tunnels that were not directly under the fair ground. We needed to get deeper into the tunnel system.
“I’ve forgotten your name, I’m afraid.” Lady Fatality said once the others were out of earshot. “You’ll be famous for all time because there are so few that foresee the future by willing it. People will call you Soothsayer and Clairvoyant and Diviner and your real name will be forgotten by even those that know you.”
Of course someone who had once been my dearest friend would know what my gift of knowing meant.
“But I won’t tell anyone what you have just learned if you act quickly Soothsayer.” My pole dancing, murderous Natalia told me.
“What do you bring to the circus that they’ll let you run around freely with Munro?” I asked. I had to focus on escape and could not try and know what Lady Fatality was. So I had asked in the hope that she would simply tell me.
“The men and women that go missing, that die in our shows, are tributes. The circus trades souls for favours from devils. I am a grim reaper, Soothsayer. They need me to collect the souls.” Lady Fatality said.
She was a Death.
“My name is Sybil.” I told her. It was all I could offer her.
When I finally caught up with Natalia and Munro I saw that they had been attacked. Munro was unconscious and slung over Natalia’s back. There was blood on the floor. Natalia was unharmed but I knew that was only because the circus could not risk its Death.
“We need to go down this tunnel.” I told Natalia as I pointed down a dark alley to her left.
“That will take us down to the school. We’ll be heading deeper into the tunnel system.” Natalia said. “The exit we came through is only four feet away.”
“We need to get away from the fair grounds. We do not want to be in the heart of it.” I said. “Did you not tell Munro to do as I say?”
“I dislike how fragile mortals are.” Natalia muttered under the breath as she slung Munro down off her shoulders and shoved him at me. I doubt she noticed that I had heard her. Yet I took the man from her and did my best to drag him towards the right tunnel. I was barely strong enough. Yet I managed to take Munro to safety as Natalia stayed behind to defend us.
The Cirque de la Mort was about to learn what it’s Death could do.
Natalia never came home.
Munro explained that a reaper would have been immediately recruited by the circus. Natalia gave up her life as Natalia Harris for an eternity as Lady Fatality and for our lives. Munro told me he intended to head home and continue his work there. I would continue my education here and live as a normal teenage girl.
And maybe someday, in a time that was and a time that will be, a soothsayer will reunite with a reaper.