Round and round and round it goes.
My first real memory was riding on a carousel. There were probably other, earlier memories, indistinct blurs of hands and voices, meals and games. But the first thing I remember with crystal starkness is the carousel. A small carousel, as they go, only perhaps ten animals. I was perched on a horse, white faded to the colour of bone, its golden mane chipping and ragged. I remember clinging to the pole up the centre, my child’s legs barely spanning the width of the cracked red saddle. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t trust the horse. The pole seemed to be the only thing between me and the drop to the carousel floor, a distance that seemed light years wide.
Still, when I finally stumbled off, the fear had alchemized, as it sometimes does, to exhilaration. I developed a fondness for carousels. Not for me the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, the lion tamers or the bearded lady. No, I always first sought the ring of delicately prancing ponies with the bright colours and the jauntily tossing heads. In fact, I could spend a whole evening there. The minute to a minute and a half rides, the five or ten rotations never seemed long enough to satiate me.
It was sunny when the carnival rolled into town, the day that special kind of bright and welcoming that seems specially designed for children’s play. If I had had my way, I would have dragged my parents in the second the tents went up. But I was forced to wait, to eat, to be changed into something more appropriate, before finally I was permitted through the tall, fluttering gates.
I made my way to the carousel, of course. I wanted to be early in line, so I had time to pick my mount. I liked to walk along the rows, to pick the very finest one to bear me.
It was an enormous carousel, the largest I had ever seen. The carousel animals were arranged in rows of three, beneath a canopy that blocked out the sky. It must have been freshly painted; it gleamed wetly under the fading sun.
I was lucky; I was first. I was allowed to scramble up immediately. I walked among them. It was a traditional carousel, horses alone. Or at least, I thought they were horses. Whoever had carved them had little talent, I thought. Their bared teeth were too sharp, their necks too long and something in the eyes seemed to follow you as you moved. The colours were strange, too. There was bluish gleam to the whites and a green undercurrent to the blacks that looked sickly. Still, it was a carousel and I was fond of carousels. I chose for my mount a golden horse, because it looked the brightest, and swung into the saddle. I wrapped my hands around the pole. It was a slippery, sinuous thing, slick almost to the point of wetness, and it seemed to already be spiralling up into the canopy.
The carousel filled up quickly. I paid little attention to the other riders, too focused on anticipating the glorious moment when the carousel would begin. Finally, finally, I heard the music start. Slowly, the carousel began to spin. My horse started to raise and lower. It was a disjointed movement, up far too slow and then down with a jerk that sent me slamming against the pole. I sat up, shook my head.
And then – the music did not slow or speed up. Neither did the carousel’s movement. It was the same pace I remembered all my life. And yet, the world beyond didn’t move. Though I could feel the carousel spinning, everything around us was static. And then, everything beyond the carousel slid out of focus. It didn’t blur with speed. It just faded, as though it had simply stopped existing.
The music grew louder and louder, the tinny noise pounding against my ears until they began to ache. The colours, too, seemed to brighten and brighten until my eyes couldn’t take them in any longer. I blinked the tears from my eyes.
I looked around me, wondering if anyone else was experiencing what I was.
There were no children on the horses next to me. There were only shadows, shapes without eyes and with grinning, toothless mouths. Their horses, though, were stark, their colours glistening under the artificial lights. They tossed their heads, their manes falling wetly across their shoulders. They opened their mouths, their jaws splitting open back to their ears, displaying jagged teeth coating every inch of their mouths.
For a moment, my mind couldn’t take it in. And then, without conscious thought, I decided to run. A carousel doesn’t go that fast. I could make it back out into the world I could no longer see. I stiffened. I tried to jump.
But I couldn’t move.
My horse’s head turned. Its eye was black, black, black, and the fangs it bared at me reached past its chin. I had taken the horse’s colour to be golden. But it was not. It was the soft pinks and yellows of human flesh. Almost the colour of my own flesh. I could no longer see the line between my calves and the horse’s belly. I don’t – I don’t think there was one.
Did I scream? I think I must have. Even I couldn’t hear it over the carousel music.
I think my mind stopped working for a while. The world, such as it was, faded out. When it faded back in, I knew I had never had a chance to escape. There was no platform beneath my feet. There was only an inky black void.
How many years passed? I don’t know. I felt my body grow and strengthen, my muscles stretch, my hair on head and face grow and straggle down, mixing with the sweat and blood and urine in my lap to form a sick, crusted mess. I felt my mind change, become sharper, clearer. Better able to understand what was happening but so much less equipped to deal with it. I felt my body begin to fail. My teeth loosened and fell from my mouth. My back hunched. My joints stiffened and ached. And always, always, the carousel music played.
And then – release. My back straightened. My arms moved. My eyes were clear. The world beyond the carousel sharpened. The light was the same tinge it had been when I entered the carousel. The leaves on the trees still held. The crowd wore the same clothing, carried the same bags and prizes. I saw my mother’s face. She was smiling. She was waving.
I was a child again. But there was a last fading spark of something older in my mind. And I understood.
All that time and in it, I had completed only a single rotation of the carousel.
I have ridden many, many carousels. Some go around five times before they stop. Some go around much more.
I don’t know what will be getting off this carousel when it finishes spinning.
Round and round and round it goes.
Rowena McGowan has lived in more provinces than most Canadian citizens have visited. She writes horror, fantasy, and magical realism about birds. You can find her @rowena_mcgowan on Twitter. You can also try whispering her name into the ear of the nearest white horse. It won’t get a message to her or anything but she thinks it would be neat if people did it.