A BOY, HIS HORSE and CAROUSEL SPIRITS by Teresa Coppens
Fat teardrops rolled down chubby cheeks. Jarod’s mother brushed a blond lock of hair from his ten year-old, weary eyes. Those eyes were gazing up at her now looking for answers.
“Why did she have to die, mom? When we die you told me our spirit goes to heaven. Will Lady go to heaven too?”
“I’m not sure, honey. Lady was very old,” replied his mother. She held back her own tears. Lady had been a part of their family for many years. “Goodnight Jarod.”
Although his question was not fully answered, Jarod pulled the sheets to his chin. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard the wailing of a distant train and he frowned.
Jarod dreamed that night of a younger, dappled white mare. They were racing in the meadow as they often had done. Lady’s mane was whipping in the wind. Scenery rushed by in a colorful blur. In the distance, a train wailed again. Jarod grabbed his chest. His lips curled in a grimace. Waking, he watched as the first fingers of light reached his room. Each evening Jarod would be troubled by the same dream, waking always to the whistle of the five o’clock train.
A carnival came to Jarod’s town. Even Jarod smiled more often in anticipation of cool evenings on the midway. Only a few years earlier, the carousel had been his favorite carnival ride. He could hear the carousel music, tinny but bright. In his mind he saw the horses parading up and down and around while trapped on their poles.
It was near closing time on the midway. Cantering around and around, the decadent horses carried their charges on a joyous journey. Although the wind howled as it tousled the leaves of trees and children squealed in delight, the melodic tune of the carousel was not deafened. Beautiful horses, rising and falling in rhythm to their song, slowed and stopped. Wide-eyed children jumped down from their fantastic ride and raced to their parents. A small girl with dark curls and sea-green eyes was the last to dismount. She gave her horse, a beautiful, bay Arabian a gentle kiss and whispered, “good-bye, boy.” The majestic stallion watched as the girl bounded to her mother brimming with laughter. Neither noticed equine eyes following their movements.
Empty of visitors, the fairgrounds took on an eerie ‘almost silence’. The laughter was gone, replaced by the noises of carnies cleaning up for the night. A tarp covered the carousel. All sound, except for that of the wind and an occasional whinny, stopped.
Jarod, disturbed by the same dream, awoke eyes fluttering to the sound of the train. He stumbled into the kitchen his tummy grumbling.
“Hi, honey!” said his mother.
“Hi mom. And no, I haven’t slept well,” he snapped.
His mother, her lip now trembling slightly, had watched while he tossed and turned each night. Sometimes she heard him cry out in his sleep. She approached Jarod and hugged him fiercely.
“Why don’t we head out to the carnival today?” she suggested.
Looking sheepish he said, “Sorry mom. Yah, you’re right. Let’s go.” He hugged her in return. His mind again played the carousel music he so loved.
Jarod and his mother walked to the carnival right after dinner. It was a cool, blustery evening in contrast to the daytime heat.
“That’ll be five dollars for you mum and two for the boy”, said the carnie at the ticket booth.
They wandered down the games’ alley. Young boys aimed and shot at ducks circling in an invisible pond. Other kids threw baseballs at stacked cans and still others attempted to throw hoops onto tiny targets. They went for a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Jarod whispered in awe, to himself as much as to his mom, “Everything looks so small from up here.” The weight crushing his heart lifted a notch or two. He felt optimistic. “Look mom, there’s the carousel!” said Jarod, a smile exploding onto his face.
Her vision became misty. “Come on Jarod. Let’s get you a ride on that carousel.”
“Go on Jarod,” said his mom. “The white horse there looks a bit like Lady. I’ll wait here for you.”
Sure enough, a dappled white horse looked very much like his old friend. She was adorned in a regal, blue and gold saddle blanket and tassels that hung from the saddle and bridle. A number of children were competing for mounts but Jarod was able to ride that white horse. The music gathered momentum, as did the colorful horses. Watching faces blurred before Jarod’s eyes as their speed increased. Tears welled in his eyes. His thoughts turned to Lady and how he would never again ride her like this. Too soon, the horses began to slow. Rosy-faced children dismounted. They ran to their watching families. Jarod waited. He was the last to dismount. As he began the walk to his mother, hairs prickled on the back of his neck. He looked back.
“It can’t be”, he thought. The dappled white horse appeared to be gazing at him. Her eyes looked soft and understanding. Shaking his head, he gazed at her again. Once more, she was a carousel horse, all wood and no life. He joined his mother and they walked home in silence. He did not tell her of those soulful eyes.
The atmosphere in the carnival grounds that evening was supernatural. The whispering wind, rustling leaves and hooting owls all broke the overwhelming silence of the night. Under the tarp, a whinny added to the cacophony. Another and still others joined in the chorus. On the tarp, wild shadows danced for no one in particular. Magic was loose on that cool, August night.
The next day dawned warm and humid. Carnies woke early, before the sticky heat of the day took over, to prepare their trade in the fair. The tarp was removed from the carousel and Pete the carousel carnie stared at his herd.
“I could’ve sworn you was on the other side”, he said to a snow-white Lipizzaner. “I mus’ be dreaming”, he thought to himself as he continued to make all the preparations and safety checks required for the day’s business. A knowing glance flickered in the Lipizzaner’s eyes and she and the others softly nickered to each other when Pete was out of hearing range.
The dream replayed again that night. Lady was racing, racing through the beautiful meadow and he was shouting with joy as the wind whipped his hair around his face. Just as Lady slowed, he heard the wailing train. Again, he awoke feeling more than a little sad. Jarod dragged himself out of bed and recalled his ride on the carousel the previous evening.
“I’m sure that horse could see me”, Jarod whispered. He joined his mom for breakfast sitting down to eggs and toast. “Mom, do you think we could go to the carnival again today? Her lips curled in a sad smile.
“Still having those dreams bud? Yes, we’ll go.” She smiled again, this time with a twinkle in her eye. “I had fun myself yesterday.”
Today, Jarod steered them past the games and other rides to the carousel. Again, his mother watched as he rode the same white mare. Grinning, Jarod stroked the mare and felt for any response.
“Nothing,” he whispered. Disappointed, he jumped down from the carousel horse when the ride stopped and walked, shoulders drooped, to his mother. He didn’t look back, thus, missing the soft, intelligent eyes that followed him.
Jarod and his mother wandered the carnival awhile eating popcorn and cotton candy. They rode the Ferris wheel again and he rode the bumper cars with a few friends from town. Before they left, he asked his mother if he could ride the carousel one more time. He couldn’t forget what he was sure he saw yesterday evening. He decided to ride a different horse, a beautiful black Arabian adorned in red and gold. As the music began and the horses began to prance, Jarod studied the carousel horses for any signs of life. Just as he had resigned himself to the fact that last night had been a figment of his imagination, he saw one of them blink. It was a subtle movement but he looked at just the right moment to capture it and he felt happier then, than he had in a long time.
Lady’s death had been weighing on his mind. His recurring dream was becoming more vivid. Although he loved her, he craved for the blissful, uninterrupted sleep he once enjoyed. Jarod thought again of the soft, knowing eyes of the carousel horses and he was compelled to return to the carnival that evening after it closed. He kept his plan from his mom. Understanding she was, but she would never allow him this adventure. His curiosity was peaked. He paced the room waiting for bedtime to arrive.
After his mother wished him goodnight and kissed him on the cheek, Jarod fidgeted, flipping the pages of a long forgotten book. He watched the clock on the wall waiting for the noises downstairs to cease. At last, the house was silent. His mother had gone to bed. Jarod pushed the covers back and slipped on his clothes. He eased open the door and entered the hallway. Tip-toeing down the stairs, he reached the front door undetected, opened it and stepped out into the cool night.
Jarod had never been out of the house this late at night by himself. His heartbeat accelerated. Running most of the way, keeping to the shadows, he arrived at the carnival grounds and looked for a way to enter. The surrounding fence was not that high and he climbed over easily. With stealth derived from determination, he crept to the carousel. Adrenalin raced through his veins. The carnies slept here. He prayed no one would discover him.
Jarod knew where the carousel was, even in the dark. A billowing, cream-colored tarp covered it now. The sound of it whipping in the wind caused his neck hairs to stand on end. The night had an eerie quality to it. The lights from the town cast a dull glow on the carnival grounds. Crickets and owls called from the dark shadows. It was a night where forces conspired to create the unusual, the magical. As Jarod looked up at the tarp, he saw those forces at work. Shadows began to dance, swaying in exaggerated motion. First one and then a multitude of them joined in. Jarod stood awestruck. He wiped his eyes. He looked again. The spectres still there, he wiped his hand on his pant leg, grimaced and pulled back the tarp.
No longer confined to the poles that by day chained them, the carousel horses were prancing and flying through the air. It was a magical sight. The white, dappled mare who had reminded him of Lady when he rode the carousel yesterday caught sight of Jarod. She flew to him. He climbed on her back. They went for a marvelous ride over dark meadows and tiny buildings bathed in the glow of his small town. They flew over its outskirts, passing over his home and the barn and fields where Lady had once been at home. As he looked down on this, he no longer felt sad. The mare whinnied and they changed course back to the carnival grounds. As if on cotton, the mare landed and stood in silence on the carousel platform. Jarod dismounted. He continued to watch the intelligent creatures as they exalted in their freedom. The sight comforted him. Looking into the mare’s eyes, he stroked her softly.
Before he left for home, he replaced the tarp so no one would know of his presence. Reaching home and his bed undetected, he relaxed, filled with the visions of what he had seen that night. Jarod fell, for the first time in weeks, into a blissful sleep, uninterrupted by wailing trains and restless visions. The question he had asked his mother days ago had an answer. He knew, now, where horses went when they died.