You have probably guessed that Halloween is my favorite time of year! Some of you may already know, but my mom is an award-winning water color artist! One of her paintings is giong to debut in China in December! Woot!
Anyway, a few years ago, she sent me a picture of a new painting she was working on and BAM this story would not let me go… 🙂
The Caretaker – By Lisa Kessler
Artwork by Ally Benbrook
I love her. I hate her.
Her beauty drew me into her circle, and I have been trapped here ever since. The years fly by, but my hair doesn’t gray, my face doesn’t change. All those I once loved are lost to me. Probably dead, but I don’t know for certain. I haven’t seen them since the foggy All Hallow’s Eve when I stumbled out into the darkness and heard her song. I’ve lost count of the years we’ve been together.
The mist was thick, and the night was ripe for a storm when I found her. I could smell the rain, although the skies had yet to release a drop. Haunting melodies from a calliope danced on the chilly night wind. I’d never heard anything so wickedly lovely. Following the chimes of the song, I ventured further out into the darkness.
My muscles ached as I held my heavy iron lantern out in front of me, lighting my path. When I finally saw the horses circling in the distance, I thought I was dreaming. Never before had I seen anything so beautiful.
The fog thinned in the meadow and the moonlight shimmered through, shining down on elaborate painted horses spinning and dancing to the music piped out from the center. A carousel. I’m not sure how many miles I walked that night, but after passing through a village I didn’t recognize, I heard my mother’s warning in my head.
Every time you find yourself in a new town you have to shore up your defenses, Duffy. Shore them up tight, because you could run into the Devil Himself or his top salesman…
My name is Duffy Grimmod, the Devil’s top salesman.
I’m actually the barker for a Victorian carousel.
She is the only silver grey horse on the circle. She’s also the only horse that has life in her eyes. Hunger. And every year I help her feed. I call her Stormy. Her real name is Scelestus, but it’s tough to pronounce when you are enticing riders to forget their worries and climb aboard.
She takes them for the ride of their lives. Their last ride.
You see, every Halloween, her carousel grows. Behind every fiery steed is a story. Some were runaways, lost souls searching for sanctuary, while others were cocky teens who should have listened to the fear that gnawed at their gut. We even have a couple of horses who were young mothers looking for an escape.
Stormy chooses them, and I help them aboard and start the calliope.
And I am tired.
I’ve tried to escape her clutches more than once, but she holds my soul in her grasp. I guess by now you know she is much more than she seems. I hear her velvet voice, drenching her wishes in a sugar I cannot resist, and venom I dare not defy. I serve her year after year, and always her carousel grows.
Most riders aren’t chosen to stay, only the ones who ride on Stormy’s back. She can be very picky. Over the years, I’ve learned that she looks for a certain type of soul. Rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, angry or angelic, none of that seems to matter. It’s a yearning she searches for in each soul. Those are the ones she calls to ride.
I can see the need in their eyes, the wonder when they touch her saddle. On some level, they understand this ride will change their life forever. Most riders climb up without my intervention, but occasionally they sense something. Fear creeps in.
Before they can get down, I ring the bell and the flying horses lurch into motion. With each spin of her circular spell, I watch the life drain from their eyes. Faster and faster the horses run. Lights sparkle in the mirrored center, as the garish steeds spin and the calliope drowns out the squeals and laughter.
And the screams.
I don’t know if the transformation is painful, but I have witnessed too many silent cries amidst the joy that permeates the carousel. Their souls are drained and their bodies mutate and harden, until they are finally a permanent part of her wicked ride. Over the years, I have saved two riders from her appetite.
She only punished me once.
That was the night of my last escape attempt.
Her name was Nan. She heard the pipes calling to her and followed their song. When she stepped out from the shadows and into the dancing lights of the carousel, she took center stage in my heart. I’d never felt anything like it.
At once I heard the sweet call from Stormy.
Bring her, she whispered into my mind.
I glanced over at her, her silver coat forever shining under the bright, twinkling lights, ribbons blowing back on a phantom wind no one else could feel. Her yellow eyes glittered, the only sign that she was more than she seemed.
I answered her with a shake of my head.
Her call persisted. Bring her to me, Duffy.
Instead I walked toward the woman, tipping my hat as I approached. “Good Evenin’ Miss. Name’s Duffy, can I help you?”
Nan pulled her eyes from the carousel for a moment and smiled. My heart clenched. I couldn’t let her touch Stormy. That was probably exactly why the demon horse wanted her.
“I’m Nan. I heard the music, and I had to see where it came from.”
I nodded. I’d heard that story before. For many people those were the last words they ever said.
“I’m sorry if the music woke you. I’m just closing down for the night.”
Duffy! Stormy bellowed in my mind, making me wince a bit. I called this one. She is for me. Bring her to me.
“The horses are beautiful,” Nan said, taking a few more steps toward Stormy. “I’d love to have a ride.”
I moved in front of her, blocking her path. “Maybe tomorrow. We’re closed now.”
Suddenly without my help, the carousel sang, and the horses lurched into action. Damn her!
Nan rose up on her tip toes, peering around my shoulders, her eyes sparkled as she watched the spectacle behind me. “Maybe just one time around before you close?”
“No.” I took her elbow and guided her away. “There’s some sort of malfunction. It’s been starting and stopping like that all night. I couldn’t have you getting hurt on my watch, now could I?”
For the first time since she walked into the light of the carousel, she looked up at me. Really looked. The spell was broken. I smiled and kept walking with her. “I could sure use a bite to eat. Can you recommend anyplace around here?”
We shared a meal at the only burger joint open late. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. Stormy’s magic sustained me. When I walked Nan home, she gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek that set my soul on fire.
“I hope I see you again, Duffy,” she said.
“I hope so too. Goodnight, Nan.”
I watched her go inside and turned to leave when I realized that I really did want to see her again. I didn’t want to polish brass carousel poles or dust the horses anymore. I didn’t want to keep the prison for lost souls shiny and enticing.
I couldn’t watch another life fade away.
Instead of returning to the field where Stormy waited, I walked in the opposite direction. I didn’t have any money, but I could sleep in a stairwell and look for work in the morning. For the first time in decades, I felt free. I had choices, and none of them would take a life. I smiled, but something dripped from my chin.
When I reached up and wiped it away, my fingers were covered in blood.
I gasped when I realized my hands were bleeding too. My skin was paper thin and cracking.
Return to me, Duffy. Return or die.
Stormy! I clenched my fists, but the moment the muscles in my forearms contracted, I felt my skin split open. More blood oozed through the fabric of my shirt, my skin melting away like my body was made of candle wax.
Panic rose inside, and my instinct to live overpowered my stubborn wish to die. I turned back and stumbled toward Stormy, toward the carousel of the damned. I caught my reflection in the orange glow of the gaslamps along the street. My hair was white, my skin sallow and shriveled. I was finally my true age.
Stormy’s spell was weakening.
I was dying.
I lumbered through the streets, the brittle bones in my feet snapping with each step. I groaned in pain, unable to scream because my vocal chords could no longer produce a tone. I could feel decayed flesh oozing from my arms and legs like honey, but still I struggled. When I finally saw the lights in the distance, they were mottled, disfigured by the milky haze of my cataract-filled eyes.
I crumbled at her feet, her frozen hooves poised above my head. I wanted to be courageous. I wanted to spit on the polished wood floor of the carousel and tell her to let me die.
Instead I wept and begged for my pitiful existence.
The carousel came to life, spinning until it vanished from the field, but Stormy left me in my condition for days. I drowned in an ocean of pain until she finally restored me.
You are the chosen one, Duffy. My caretaker. You will care for me until I choose another. Your life is mine.
I was so grateful for the pain to end, for my vision to be restored, my voice, and even my hair, that for a few years I enticed riders without thought or pity on their souls. A selfish indulgence on my part, but until you’ve suffered the indescribable pain she put me through, you can’t understand. I stood by and let the calliope sing out on the Halloween wind, calling to those seekers, enticing them to ride, to toss their cares aside.
But that was years ago. The pain of my last escape has dulled. I am tired. Each time we appear on Halloween, I polish her saddle, shine the ribbons on her bridle, and I pray I will find my replacement. No one ever measures up. But I keep searching. She wants someone who people will trust, who will bring her more riders.
Someone like you, perhaps.
You heard the call this Hallows Eve night. The calliope melody put a song into your soul that sent you searching for us. Now you see the beauty, spinning before you. You see your reflection in her eyes, don’t you? You want an escape. Are you tired of the problems you face at work? Have you exhausted yourself looking for the right mate, or the right job? Do you ever wish you could walk away from it all? Do you wish life could be a fairy tale filled with white horses and music?
Maybe you’re the one I’ve been searching for.
Come closer and have a look at the silver mare on the edge. Yes, she’s the one. Did you see her eyes sparkle?
She likes you, my friend. Can you hear her calling your name? You can; I can see it on your face. Your name has never sounded as sweet as it does when Stormy calls for you.
I might even miss her calling mine. Maybe.
But don’t mind me. Please, step right up and take a ride…
The ride of your life.
For your life.
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