My father took my hand and held me close to him. A moment later the crackling noise of fire rose above the din of whispered conversation. Cloaked men and women parted the crowd and marched through, torches blazing in their pale hands. I watched carefully but could make out no sign of eyes under the dark hood
The tent stood massive, towering sheaths the colors of auburn. The air smelled of campfire. My breath came out in warm crisp clumps of white, like powder. The damp ground was swathed in fallen leaves, a natural mat on which to walk. The sun had just set so now beyond the pitching shadows cast by the bonfires among the trees, the natural light of the horizon slashed a narrow sword swipe of volcanic red. The crowd was thickening. Murmurs grew in the night air, shifted conversation. A crackling of nervous anticipation held tight in the atmosphere.
I stood up on my toes to speak quietly to my father. “Is that them?”
This was my first time to the carnival. Today was also my birthday. My father told me when I was eleven he’d take me and then by shear luck the carnival came early this year. October 1st.
My father didn’t take his eyes from the passing cloaked people. “No, it’s not.”
I felt his hand squeeze my hand a little harder, enough pressure to notice. He seemed serious, more serious than usual.
As the cloaked people entered the tent the procession began again, people replacing the hollow ground. My father and I walked in unison, left foot then right foot. I looked around me and noticed all the somber faces and wondered how any of these people could contain themselves. It was the carnival! Perhaps they’d all been too many times and the wonderful enticement had worn off.
All the chatter died out and after a while we entered the tent. My father didn’t pay anyone any money, handed over no tickets. A single soul stood under the darkened canopy entrance and nodded once as each person walked inside.
It was large inside, much larger than it looked from the outside. And dark. Through a flap near the back, what seemed a long distance from where we stood, I could barely make out the tickling movement of the torchlights.
We went up several steps in the darkness. My father gripped my hand and took me down an aisle. I stepped on someone’s foot in the dark. My father counted aloud to himself and when he made it to seventeen he pivoted and took me by the shoulders and set me down. “Careful.” He said.
I sat down and felt the cold reality of the metal seat. The carnival hadn’t seemed truly real until I felt my breath escape, when through my long underwear and pants, felt the cold metal in that tent. I looked around in the dark, used all the energy I could muster to see through the blackness. It was no use. The huge room was pitch dark, devoid of light. I could make out bits of conversation, the whispered accumulation of the scared and the eager. Everyone seemed to speak in such a way, as if there was an agreement that regular volume conversation would not be tolerated.
I felt something damp in my hair. I removed a wet leaf from my head. I traced its shape in the dark with my fingers. A maple leaf, I think. Another leaf landed on my head and this time, on instinct, I looked up. The walls of the tent cascaded into the darkness where they became one with the sky, and above it all I could make out the scratching contrast of tree branches. My eyes found focus and I counted several stars and as my eyes continued to adjust I could see as well as sense, leaves falling. The stars, small and distant as they were, reflected glimmers of light on the falling leaves. The sky above the tent grew before me, like the Milky Way, brighter and brighter. The leaves twinkled from red to orange to green. As each leaf descended they took turns filling the hole in the roof of the tent and then slowly shrunk into their normal state. Some of them flashed a white brilliance as each explosion of color became more luminescent until I looked down at the darkness that surrounded me, my head dizzy and full of light.
I slipped my hand from my lap and set it where I thought my father was. My hand came down on to a cold metal seat.
“Dad?” I whispered.
There was no response.
“Dad, where are you?” I spoke louder now, breaking the unspoken code of quiet.
Somewhere above me in the stands a voice shushed, and then another. The darkness in which I was lost rained down the hissing tonal wave of quiet until it abruptly stopped.
Another leaf fell on my head. I wiped it away and it fell onto the empty seat next to me and glowed a vivid orange that blended into a fiery red and blinked out in a small white flash.
Soon all the leaves in the world were falling and there was nothing I could do but watch.