People went to the field days every year, drawn by brightly coloured rides, games, inexpensive toys won at ridiculous costs, food that was terrible for you, but tasted too good to ignore. The smell of cotton candy, fried dough, candy apples, pizza, lemonade and caramel corn was something you couldn’t ignore. All around, the sights and sounds were cheerful and high-pitched — there were loudspeakers announcing events, tempting gamblers and little children; the grinding squeal of the Ferris wheel lifted high above everything, and everywhere people were being dizzied by an overwhelming rush of every sensation imaginable.
It was the middle of the day, and the festivities would continue through the weekend, as per usual, with the midway closing some time after dark. Many travelling carnivals have lights on the rides and strung throughout the fairgrounds, so that even after sunset, people can come enjoy what it has to offer.
This one, though it was often seen at a number of Field Days, festivals and celebrations, didn’t.
This was because, after dark, when people had finally gone home, knackered and sunburned, far enough away to no longer hear the grind of the rides as they were shutting down, no one, not even the carnies, wanted to see the carousel.
In the middle of the day, it was a brightly painted, well-running machine. A man took tickets or inspected armbands to let on crowds of children and adults, helped them find the right horse or chair and once it was full, rang the bell to let everyone know they’d better hang on. The rides were dizzying and wonderful, full of music and mirrors, prancing steeds and laughing children full of cotton candy and the magic that only a carnival can offer.
Once the sun went down, however, the gates to the carousel were locked, and people gave it as wide a berth as they could. No one wanted to be near the glossy, polished horses with their permanently tossed heads and frozen, silent neighings.
When the last of any of the lights went down, the workers cleaned up as fast as they could and ran like hell for their campers and trailers, cracking open their six-packs and bottles, turning up their radios and locking their doors.
They did this because, once the dark fell, the carousel came alive again. Tinny music played from the little loudspeakers on the ride, and it began to spin; on the crankshaft, the poles rose and fell, and the prancing, running horses began their eternal chase all over again. Hooves came down with a clatter as manes and tails whipped from the wind created by the circle. It was the shriek of the horses the workers wanted to avoid — the screams that lifted high from equine throats as the beasts struggled, impaled, caught in the unfinished throes of a death that wouldn’t end. Huge eyes rolled, nostrils flared and teeth were bared as the animals galloped, forced to follow one another as they had for years and years. Bloodless, helpless, they bucked and snorted, dragged and were dragged, clattering on as the moon rose and the stars came out high above, twinkling down without care or thought to the hellish scene one the edge of a small town.
Night after night, the assembled carousel twirled, and on it, the horses ran a race that had neither beginning, nor end.
Eventually, when the moon descended, and only the stars showed above, the fearsome sight would reach its peak, and more than one of the workers, or their children, would catch a whisper of the screaming, over the blasting radio, and would huddle a little closer to one another, their own laughter forced louder.
When morning comes, and the sun rises, as its first rays strike the fairgrounds, the tinny music sputters and dies, and each horse is caught in its pose, head tossed, teeth bared, legs frozen in a run or leap. Some are held in a pose of something almost like rest, between attempted lunges. Well before the new crowd comes, someone has to make their way over to the carousel, to check it, to polish the horses, to ready it for the masses of smiling, adoring children.
The workers draw straws, none of them brave enough to be near it just yet. No one really slept, in this travelling carnival, too afraid that the carousel would come to pieces in the night, unleashing a stampede of nightmares upon the midway.
By the time the midway is alive again, with families that crawl like ants through the winding displays of food and fun, the carnies are loud-voiced and wide-eyed, all of them shouting their particular pitches, taunting husbands and fathers to win something for the wife and children, and the carousel worker is calling out to invite everyone to ride the painted horses.
Even in the day, with the hot sun beating down, with the sound of laughter and music, the smell of hot food and the sight of colorful rides and prizes… he doesn’t want to be left alone.