Authors: Robert Jackson Bennett
Tags: #Horror, #Thriller
“Well, hell,” said Hammond, and got to his feet. “Now I’m curious.”
“Ain’t we all,” said the carnie, who wiped his shoes in the grass. He seemed used to such treatment. He took Hammond’s coins
and he and Connelly watched as Hammond passed through the beaded curtain and vanished into the darkness of the cart.
“There he goes,” said the carnie.
“Yeah,” said Connelly.
“You know, it’s funny. Most people don’t like what Sibyl says.”
“Is that so.”
“It is. Most folk hate it. And I got to figure, that’s odd. I mean, most fortune-telling acts around here now, they just say
something nice and happy or something mysterious that don’t mean anything at all. Bunch of fwoosh and bang and such. But Sibyl
just makes them mad. Mad until one or two come true, then they just think she’s heaven on earth.”
“I keep telling her that when she says something good, she got to stop right there. Don’t go no further. But no. If she tells
someone about marrying, well, then she’ll tell them about how their woman will get fat after the first birth and go blind
and then he’ll be sick of her, or if they win money how they’ll just blow it on some damn fool thing or just stupid idleness,
and if they’re going to have a lovely boy for a kid then she’ll tell them when he’s going to run away from home to go whoring
around town. Shit. Girl just don’t know when to stop.”
They were quiet for a while.
“Then maybe what she’s telling is true,” said Connelly.
The carnie drank and nodded. “Maybe so.”
Hammond came out, smirking to himself. “I never believed in any of this stuff anyways,” he said. “Head on in, if you want.
It’s damned impressive, at least.”
“Thanks,” said the carnie. “You’re up.”
Connelly got to his feet and paid the man and then pierced the veil of beads with his hand. At once the heavy, sweet stink
washed over him, like old perfume or bad fruit, and he looked back at the carnie, who shrugged and nodded forward. Connelly
walked in. The beads clicked behind him as the curtain fell.
Connelly carefully stepped through the darkness. The cart was bigger than he thought. It was barely lit by a few slats of
starlight that came filtering through the curtains. It seemed to go farther back than any cart should.
“Hello?” he said.
There was nothing.
Then a voice murmured, “Connelly.”
A match flared a few feet in front of him, dazzlingly bright. He squinted at it and saw pink-white fingers holding its end
as its flame licked at a misshapen candle. His eyes followed the hand and the white arm until he found the pale, sad moonface
hovering in the dark with doe eyes like toffee and a small, timid mouth. One eye’s whites was a pus-colored yellow like curdled
milk, and somehow he felt that this eye was the one truly looking at him, looking at and looking beyond all at once.
She was younger than he thought she’d be. She could not have been more than sixteen. His heart went out to her for one moment
before he snatched it back and recovered himself.
“Marcus Sullivan Connelly,” said the girl. The stench of bad fruit was overwhelming.
“That’s an impressive trick,” said Connelly. “You ask them my name?”
“Not in the business of asking. Business of telling.” Then she shut her eyes like she was fighting tears and shook her head.
Connelly studied her. Her wrists were bone-thin and her neck was barely able to support her head. A thin, wispy dress of powder
blue hung about her shoulders like a ragged tapestry. It was meant to be mysterious but it was tattered and had not seen soap
in months at least.
“Sit,” she said quietly.
He did so.
“I didn’t want to see you,” she said.
“Didn’t want to tell you anything.”
“That’s a pity.”
“You’re dangerous, I believe,” she said.
“This part of the act?”
“I was about to say. It can’t lend itself well to commerce.”
“I don’t have an act.”
“Then what do you have?”
“Whatever I can give you. People come and they ask me for the things they wish. And I give them, if I can. What do you want,
“You can’t give me what I want.”
She nodded solemnly. “No. I can’t.”
“You must be wore out. I can go if you want.”
“You can go right now. Go all the way back home. But you won’t. Will you?”
Connelly watched her carefully.
She sighed again. “You’ve come. You’ve already left. You’re still coming. Still turning down the offer to bed me like a whore
and still calling me a liar.”
“I never wanted to do that.”
“I never called you a liar, neither.”
“I know that, too. Don’t let it trouble you.” She blinked and brushed her hair back. “You want a reading.”
“From everything,” she said, and dumped a stack of cards on the table. They had unearthly paintings of kings and dogs and
naked women on them.
“What are those?”
“Your future,” she said. She shuffled them in her hands, her fingers oddly graceful while the rest of her body was limp.
“Mine or everyone’s?” he asked.
She stopped and looked at him, her septic eye burning in her face. “Ask me not to do this.”
“Ask me not to. Tell me to stop. Don’t tell me anything. You can move away. You have that option and you should choose it
“What are you saying I should do?”
“Anything but this. Just go and leave what is dead dead and look at what is alive.”
Sibyl did not answer. Connelly looked at her, thinking. He said, “How do you know?”
“I just have to look at you. Anyone can. Simply by looking you over I can see.”
Connelly bowed his head. “I can’t. I can’t stop.”
“I know,” she said. Then she shuffled the cards and took one out and tossed it on the table.
He looked at it. It was a small painting of a crude-looking man with a wide, frowning mouth. He was riding in a chariot being
pulled by two horses wearing blinders. On his head he wore a crown of pearl and in his hand he held a plain scepter, varnished
with age. His free hand was lifted as though he was trying to both balance himself and acknowledge those he passed by, much
as a king would.
“The chariot,” said Sibyl.
“The chariot,” she said again. “He rides out, eager to conquer, willing to ride down what obstacles come before him. To conquer
and kill and reach down into the earth and pick up what meets his disfavor and rearrange it in the way that he deems fit.
But he forgets that he is being pulled not by his own strength but instead is at the mercy of beasts that he himself has chosen
to blind. So you must remember that even though you burn bright and hard with belief, you believe more in your goal than the
manner of arriving there.”
“So?” said Connelly.
“What do you mean, so?”
“I mean, what does that matter?”
She held the card up to her face, then shut her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose, drawing in its scent. Then she
opened her eyes, the fouled one first, then the clean one. “It means there will be a long road. Long and winding. Most will
not wish to travel it. You will prevail upon it, and force your journey. But you may not like what you find upon it, or perhaps
The cards shuffled in the darkness. Another one fell to the table. On it was the night sky and at the top was the moon, great
and sick and pregnant. In its center was a formless face, its eyes and lips runny and its nose askew. Below it two dogs raised
their heads and howled, their bodies long and slender with starvation, and they thrashed in the moon’s hollow glow as it stared
“The moon,” said Sibyl. “We are drawn to the moon. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
“Yes. At night it occupies the mind, for we are drawn to the moon in dark times. It’s said that when dogs howl at the moon
they believe it to be a way out from this earth, that it is some exit set in the sky by an entity that even their minds recognize
but cannot acknowledge. You seek an exit, Connelly. You seek a way out. Deliverance and purpose and meaning. It will find
you, Connelly, and you will find it. But it will be a thing dark and forgotten and it will not be set in the sky. And I dread
to think of the face you will find there.” She leaned forward. “You will be offered the way three times. Beyond that I cannot
see, nor do I wish to.”
Again the shuffling. The candle flame fluttered and as Sibyl breathed out the third card fell. On it was a woman dressed in
ornate robes so thick they hid every inch of her frame. In her hand she held a scepter and on her head was a shining crown,
set with either pearls or stars. Grass reached up and coiled about her feet and far behind were trees stretching to the dusky
sky. A stream curled through the trees and gently fell into a cliffside pool. Connelly felt he could almost smell the fresh
sting of fir-green air and the rich promise of dark earth.
“The empress,” said Sibyl.
“The empress,” repeated Connelly.
“Yes. The queen of rebirth. Quietly she slumbers in the forest heart, and when she wakes all that has passed from this earth
comes again. Black and red succumbs to a cover of green. You can bring this, Connelly.”
“Yes. Your heart has died within you, and you are not alone. Were you to step outside you would see that perhaps the heart
of this place has died as well. A directionless land with no center. A people wandering and hollow. Can you not see that some
great wound has pierced the very heart of all these lives? Yet that can be changed. You can change this, Connelly. You do
not know how and you may not know until the very end. But you can bring rebirth.”
“Will I ever go home? Do you see that?”
“You can go home now.”
“No. There’s no home there now. Not yet. Not really.”
“Do you mean peace?”
“I don’t know what I mean.”
She looked at him, the foul eye burning fiercely. “You may find peace, one day. You will have a great choice, Connelly. You
carry rebirth in the palm of your hand, and it is your decisions that govern it, though you do not know it. Few are given
such a choice. Between justice and contentment. Between home and the road. Neither will be easy, nor will either one fully
satisfy you. It will depend on what you find in the west, and what you choose to do with it.”
Connelly thought hard about this and nodded.
“But remember,” she said, “birth and death have more in common than you think. Neither is dignified. We enter this world violently
and we leave it the same way. Each is marked by terrible suffering. You will bring this as well, or you will allow it to continue.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“You might. You might not. The shape of your life speaks of violence, though you may change its nature.”
She took a breath in, shut her eyes, and shuffled once more. She drew the card and somehow Connelly knew it was the last one.
His eyes found it in the dark, yet as it fell a wind blew through the cart and the light in the room died. He heard the card
clatter to the tabletop but saw nothing but stars where the light had been.
“Where is it?” he said. “What happened?”
Sibyl said nothing. Then another match flared before him. Again he was stunned by the change and he blinked to get his eyes
He looked at the card on the table. There on the small, weathered scrap of cardboard an ancient corpse danced and sang, grinning
up eyelessly. In its ruined hands it held a scythe that it twirled overhead as though to rend the sky itself. Half-fleshed
limbs and heads littered the ground at its feet like windfallen fruit and browning vines rose from the baking earth to claim
these gifts as their own. Connelly stared at the grin, its mouth and teeth enormous in his mind, the black eyes looking at
him but not looking at once.
“Death?” said Connelly.
She didn’t answer.
“I’m going to die? Is that what you’re saying? Is that it?”
Sibyl had not moved. The match was still in her hand and her eyes were still on the card.
“You’re a damn liar,” said Connelly. “A goddamn liar. To hell with you.” He stood to leave.
“You won’t die, Connelly,” she whispered. “You won’t.”
She shut her eyes and shook her head. Twin tears ran down her cheeks in smooth arcs.
“No. You will encounter it upon the road, that is certain. What you do after is a choice that belongs only to you.” She opened
her eyes. “Do you know what I found for the others?” she asked.
He shook his head.
The cards shuffled again. Her rose-pink fingers sped through the deck and lifted one out. On it was a capped man wearing a
colorful, festive gown and carrying a rucksack over his shoulder. In his other hand he had a walking stick and dogs nipped
at his heels.
“The fool,” she said. “All of them, fools. Their way is easier than yours. But perhaps you were made for hard ways and hard
worlds. For this one and the one that lies far to the west. Where things still remember younger years of joyful savagery.”
Sibyl looked at the cards in her hands and then angrily threw them over her shoulder. They fluttered to the ground behind
her like moths upset from old clothing. She shook her head and in her tantrum Connelly was again reminded of her age. She
was no more than a girl.
Feeling his gaze, she lifted her eyes and said, “There’s nothing you can do for me.”
“I can no more stop what I am doing here than you can stop yourself now.” She toyed with her hair and sullenly watched him.
“Did you get your money’s worth?”
Connelly said nothing.
“I’m tired. Let me rest, Connelly. Go if you want, but let me rest.”
He turned and walked out.
Outside the carnie was sitting on the stoop.