The Living Dead Girl
Even inside my coffin, I knew when the Angel floated down. The canvas tent hiding me from the audience did nothing to dampen the crowd’s thrilled whispers and shuffling feet.
“Welcome, friends.” The Angel’s voice was soft, precise, and projected by the shape of his golden mask. If anyone asked, he sold some bullshit about the face of an angel being too glorious. Usually, they asked about the halo, which I thought looked fake as shit, but floated over his head and inspired a lot of awe. “You are about to enter the center of Madame Lacha’s Carnival of Wonders, Delights, and Terrors. It’s not for the weak-hearted or the faint-willed.”
As if people from Earth travel through a portal and wander this deep into Tovar to grab a cup of tea and chat about the weather.
He made the usual promises and warning. The experience would alter them to their core…blur the line between Heaven and Hell…turn off any cell phones. Don’t touch the displays.
I mentally went on the tour with them. Gargoyle was the first specimen. Literally, he was made of rock. Not carved like most Earth tourists thought a gargoyle would be, but a heap of small stones shaped like a man. He sat in a puddle of pebbles and made shapes with his magic. A dolphin poised above gravel waves. A delicately blooming rose that hardened into a solid lump when he handed it to a lady. A balloon on a string that quivered in the air and shattered to pieces when a child touched it. An arrow pointed up the staircase to the strongman.
Bob, a guy from Earth, lifted heavy things over his head. Big ball weights. A chair. A chair with a lady in it. A chair with the biggest man in the room.
Every night without fail our plant in the audience, as swaybough named Abby, called, “Lift Gargoyle.”
And without fail, every night Bob grunted, strained, but ultimately lifted the man made of stone to triumphant applauds. No one ever noticed the little stalagmite of stone that actually held Gargoyle up.
Then Feather-head ran into the room and begged to be next. The frilly pink dress—which contrasted the polished brown of his skin beautifully—was modeled after Earth’s Victorian gowns although no one on Earth wore that fashion anymore. Bob hoisted “Lady Feather” with one pinkie, then tossed him into the crowd and made his pretty skirts flutter. Feather-head floated up, too high, then flitted down into the arms of the crowd. Abby whistled in his direction, and they all cooed in amazement when her breath carried Feather-head away. There was a game of Toss the Lady, which ended when Feather-head planted his feet on the ground and became utterly unmovable. Everyone tried, including Bob, and no one could make the lady budge. Bob makes a joke about the fickleness of women—which used to be Feather-head’s line, but most nights he forgot his lines—and everyone laughed.
Feather-head was the saddest attractions in the show from the inside. He was a half-wit, and he loved floating and being volleyed about in the air. Gargoyle was too slow to take care of him, and Crane was busy with the crowds, so the swayboughs helped him get ready. Somewhere along the way, they decided to put him in a dress and call him Lady Feather. The audience thought it was funny and so he laughed along, too dumb to know he was the joke.
The Angel directed them to the menageries where he guided their aimless wanderings. Mandrakes under bell jars. A stuffed Basilisk that Lacha had suffocated when it grew too dangerous to live. Unicorns with plaited manes, bleached fur, and scrubbed asses, so they looked less feral than they were. Lacha fed them drugs to keep them calm. They died young, but they always looked so pretty with their heads in a swaybough’s lap.
The swayboughs were all over the carnival since Lacha never had a shortage of stupid girls selling themselves in exchange for training in the magic arts. Lacha only took pretty girls or very talented ones. Pretty girls are always useful. Some dressed as fairies behind mirrors to make them look tiny. Some danced with snakes. Some just did little tricks with fire and air.
Lacha had other people in there too. She had a centaur who gave children rides if they paid her a yegg. We had a wolf in human skin who talked about shifters and the shifter communities in Rath Cairn to school groups. He preferred the adult shows where he could dance to the heavy beats and pulses of Earth music and strip until he was too naked to hold his shape and transformed into a howling beast. He dove at the prettiest girl and a swaybough—usually wearing only slightly more than the wolf—whipped him into submission.
The crowd never noticed when their angelic guide ducked away, and in private took off his mask and white robe and long gloves. He reappeared as himself. Just Crane. Half man, half bird, all monster. He chattered his deformed black beak-lips, flapped his thickly feathered arms, twisted his long neck. His very wide, very white eyes were unnerving, and people would scamper away when he brought his feather-capped head close to them. He didn’t wear a shirt, and his waist was so small, some people asked where his internal organs hid. Crane did not speak, only squawked and pecked people until they all went into the next room.
As if the angel’s abandonment allowed the darkness in, the crowd now found themselves surrounded by skeletons. The bones of a three-headed Afreet with his six arms raised as if killed mid-attack. The siren with her bony legs spread and a minotaur charging her, frozen on his pedestal, never getting nearer to his prize. The yothgre torso with his bleached fingers wrapped around the handle of the ax embedded in his skull like he was still trying to pull it out. I cut my fingers on the jagged rows of his teeth unloading that skeleton once.
Deeper into the darkness. A demon’s shriveled testicles in a crystal jar, a headless man in a cage, reaching down, a calcified mermaid. The ‘demon’ balls were just rotten avocados, and the man without a head was Jevee, another swaybough, practicing her illusion spells. But the dead merrow was real. Rumor around camp went that the mermaid drowned ten years ago in the menagerie. It was in Lacha’s character to work her people even after death. Tons of other shit so creepy, only Jevee, Abby, and I would help Crane set this part of the tent up.
Like a miracle of magnanimity, their angel reappeared. His golden mask covered the twist of his beak, the robe covered his narrowness, the gloves hid his feathers and mud brown skin. This shiny clean figure offered to lead the squeamish to the exit.
“Please remember, fifteen minutes after our present tour, the Dreaded Dragon Lord and his Deadly Dragons will take the center ring for a flying spectacle. Perfectly safe.” The Angel announced, delighted by his alliteration and jokes. “There’s an ice cream stand just outside. And as always, our lovely ladies are ready to tell your future.”
Giggles as the swayboughs, the stars of the delighting portion of the carnival, skipped away.
The Angel pled once more. “Last chance for anyone to leave the tour now before seeing… what cannot be unseen.”
I hated that line. Sounded stupid every time he said it.
“No one? Very well, then. I give you…” The curtain fell down as the Angel announced the star of the terror portion of the carnival, me. “The Living Dead Girl.”
There were always gasps, sometimes screams. Does wonders for a girl’s self-esteem. I was more terrifying than a demon’s pickled sex organs. But at least I was more interesting than ice cream. Not as tasty.
Crane usually described me as a murdered child and gestured to the knife plunged into my side. Except for special occasions, the blade was staged. But the muscle and ribs showing through my translucent brown skin were not. My withered right arm rested on my belly above my normal left one. My hair, long and dark, splayed around my head to highlight my sunken cheek, exposed teeth, and of course, horror-of-horrors, my empty eye-socket.
Well, not totally empty. I put a little bowl of dirt and some worms in there.
“How the hell is it still alive?” Someone always asked some variant on that question.
Another man, wearing a white shirt without sleeves which seemed very impractical, said, “well-endowed for a little girl.”
Crane slipped accidentally into his actual voice disgusted by the remark. “She’s also dead, sir.”
I wished I could keep my good eye shut. Crane said it was creepier when I looked at people. But when I could lie there with my eyes shut I could disappear. I’d imagine staring up through green forest branches, at a great mountain with a bit of sky above. In the distance, high on the mountain, there was a stone fountain made mostly by nature but with some human intervention. The waterfall came from the rough outcropping extending over a sheer slope, but the waterfall’s lake had been dammed by intricately carved stones. It made a pool that was in constant motion and somehow never overflowed its walls or grew filthy with the pines needles and leaves. If I disappeared fully into the vision, I could hear the ocean at the base of the mountain.
Then I could escape the ignorance of tourists.
When looking was no longer terrible enough for the audience, Crane put his hand on the coffin. He still jabbered on about what had killed me, but it was the signal for me to perform. I stirred and groaned a little. Sneered with the skinless side of my face. Lifted my withered arm and flexed my gnarled fingers.
Most nights, Crane said, “Anyone who wishes to learn their future from the dead can purchase some blood and feed the living corpse.”
Lacha told me the vials were full of real blood, but Crane said it was just a little water mixed with mandrake juice for color and texture. It tasted like some chocolate sauce and spices were mixed in as well, though it wasn’t for my benefit. Customers liked to smell the contents of the vial before they poured it into my mouth.
Often they’d miss. Afraid to get close. They should have been afraid. I took great delight in grabbing their arms in my withered claw and glaring into their eyes until I could see their future. I especially loved to tell what they really didn’t want to know.
And some tours, we had a different script.
Crane said, “The Dead are… restless. We should-”
I lurched forward and knocked the dirt and worms from my socket and clawed for the nearest customer. I targeted the vulnerable, the father holding his daughter. The girl screamed.
The Angel, all glowing halo and stunning wings, stepped between them and me. He shouted some made-up angel words. I hissed and coiled back into my death pose.
The customers eagerly left the dark tent. Only then did they think to applaud.
When Crane finished collecting tips and came back in, I sat scooping the worms back into the cup.
I smiled faintly at him. “Quick tour.”
He flung off the mask, and a groan passed his beak-lips. Then he chucked the halo into the corner. “Fuckin’ discount groups.”
“Yeah. They sounded drunk.”
“You think?” Crane unlaced his fake wings and angelic robe and tossed them on my coffin. Swayboughs would clean them later.
Crane flicked his fingers and his wind magic carried his red tunic from a hidden nook in the tent and deposited it in his hand. He slipped into the tunic and rubbed his long neck, which reliably ached after bad groups. Then scowled over at me.
It was nothing I did. Crane generally scowled. His face didn’t soften much when he said, “How old are you?”
“I’m taller than Isme, so… a little older than her?”
Crane considered. “That makes you about eleven. Suppose that dress is a bit old.”
I glanced down at it and shrugged. It had noticed it was tighter recently.
He perched on his stool and started counting tips.
“Mr. Crane? Does that mean I’m growing?”
Crane snorted. “Of course. The hell kind of question is that?”
“Goryner said dead things don’t grow.”
The old goblin trained dragons and Lacha herself had forecast that he’d smoke himself to death within four years. I was something like his apprentice only because he wouldn’t shirk his duty to the dragons by not training me. And though he didn’t have a spit of affection to spare for anything but his winged beauties, he’d never been overly cruel to me.
Crane lifted his eyes to judge my remark. “Well, what does Goryner know about living dead things? You are obviously a child growing up. That prick in the crowd certainly noticed.”
I stayed in the coffin, knees tucked up to my chin. “I don’t care about that. But…don’t people usually remember being little? Like Isme talks about when she was five, and she was sold to Lacha. If I’m the same age, shouldn’t I remember something before?”
“They say on Earth, a poor memory is the key to happiness.” He flicked through the cash, pretending he wasn’t paying attention to me. But I knew he’d lost count and was only going through the motions.
So I persisted. “How did I actually die?”
“You came to us dead.” He put the cash down. “I don’t know more than that. Lacha’s the only one who might, and it wouldn’t be wise for you to ask her.”
“But don’t I have the right to—”
“No. You don’t.” He said crossly. “If Lacha wanted it known, she’d have told me. A witch keeps secrets for a reason.”
He pocketed the cash and sighed. Then tried his best imitation of sympathy. “Now I believe you can live a reasonably pleasant life if you let yourself. It’ll be easier when you’re older when your place in the caravan is more… respected. But if you start poking and prodding around your past, you’re only going to find darkness and pain.”
I scowled at the withered hand clasped around my knee. “I understand. I don’t like it, but I thank you for your wisdom.”
“Wisdom?” Crane scoffed and opened the curtain, letting sunlight stream into the tent. “Self-preservation. Nothing wholesome created you, Dead Girl.”