A Midnight Carnival at Sunset by Terra LeMay

By Photo by Heather Abounader (www.abounaderphoto.com abounaderphoto.blogspot.com Heather Moreton from Louisville, KY, USA) (12/28/08 Sunset  Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, you’re on your way home from work, and traffic is awful. You try an alternate route but it doesn’t help, and you’re not a confident driver. Or maybe you’ve been having car trouble and you’re afraid your car’s going to overheat. Hell, maybe you just had a bad day at work and are wondering if you should pull the car over and wait for traffic to die down before you experience some kind of freakish road rage and kill someone. Who knows.

In any case, just ahead, off to your right, you see a time-worn, hand-painted sign for a place called Kurious Kreatures. You’ve heard of the place, of course. It’s a zoo for fairy-tale creatures. Really, a kind of sideshow. You’ve even passed it before, though you’ve never stopped because you don’t want to be seen as supporting that kind of exploitation. A regular zoo full of regular animals is bad enough, but most creatures of legend are sentient and self-aware in a way that regular animals aren’t. Some of them can even talk. At least, that’s what you’re given to understand. You’ve never actually met one.

At any rate, it doesn’t seem right to you that someone should lock talking animals up in cages so that gawkers can point and laugh. But you have to admit you’ve often wondered about the place. You’ve never seen a unicorn before, not even on television. As traffic creeps forward and the setting sun burns your retinas, the park begins to seem like a good place to take a load off. If nothing else, it looks quiet. The parking lot is empty. You decide to stop and check it out.

You park your car, get out, approach the entrance. The first sign you pass reads:

“Caution – Kurious Kreatures is not a petting zoo. The Kreatures are free to move about their individual enclosures and free to leave them at any time. Please do not enter the enclosures or try to touch the Kreatures. If a Kreature approaches you or speaks to you, please treat him or her with the same respect and consideration you’d offer toward your fellow humans. Thank you and God Bless.”

This isn’t what you expected.

There’s no gate at the entrance, only an honor box style parking meter that’s been retrofitted to take the admission fee. A laminated sign duct-taped to the bottom of it says, “Please help us feed the Kreatures so they will consent to remain at our facility. Suggested donation: $5.00. Thank you and God Bless.”

At this point, you may choose to make a donation, or you may decide to wait until you see the sights. It won’t take long. There’s an illustrated map of the park on another sign above the donation box, and it shows the habitats running along both sides of a single lane, circling a cul-de-sac at the lane’s end. When you glance ahead, you can see the end of the cul-de-sac from the entrance. You’ll be in and out in fifteen minutes. Thirty, tops.

There are ten habitats, each containing a shed-style stall inside a yard bound by a waist-high picket fence. The grass inside all the habitats needs cutting and weeds are growing along the picket fences even on the visitor side of the fence, which is paved. Every painted surface is peeling. There are speakers mounted to telephone poles at the corner of every habitat playing, faintly, a poor approximation of “Sobre las Olas.”

The front of the first shed in the first enclosure on the left is covered with a large blue tarp, and the shed in the enclosure beyond it is stuffed full of hay bales. Because the enclosures on the left are clearly being used for storage, you move to the right to begin your tour.

Placards are mounted to the front of each enclosure. The first placard says, “The Imperial Basilisk,” and below, hand-painted letters explain, “Please do not fear our basilisk. He is harmless, having been blinded in his youth by the urine of a weasel. He is content to remain on display in our park, but do not attempt to touch him as his touch remains deadly as ever, and he may bite. Thank you and God Bless.”

An overlarge lump covered in scaly lizard skin rests on a bare patch of ground near the shed stall. It’s nearly impossible to tell if the thing is really a basilisk or just some kind of fat alligator, and no matter how long you stand at the fence and watch, you never see it move, not so much as the rise and fall of its sides as it inhales and exhales. Perhaps it has died. Or perhaps it’s just a painted rock.

And yet, although the weeds grow thick along the picket fence, all vegetation within a fifteen-foot diameter of the thing is burnt or brown or dying. Fake or real, dead or alive, you are afraid to risk investigating. You move on.

The next placard is blank, the enclosure overgrown, and just beyond it, the lane opens up. Counterclockwise around the cul-de-sac–widdershins, if you prefer–you make your way past a second empty enclosure, and then a third. You assume the three are empty, anyway. The placards are blank and the grass is taller than the picket fence.

The fifth enclosure you come to, deep at the end of the lane near the top of the cul-de-sac, appears to be well tended. You are relieved. It must be inhabited.

The grass is cropped short and a bucket near the enclosure’s closed gate contains fresh, clean water. There are flakes of hay stacked beside the fence, pulled apart and scattered a little as if something has been eating at them.

The placard on the front of the enclosure says, “The Unicorn of Legend,” and, “We are very sorry. The unicorn is invisible to most of our adult patrons. This comes as a disappointment to many but is unfortunately beyond our control. Please accept our apologies and God Bless.”

You shake your head and move on.

Beyond the “unicorn” is another “inhabited” enclosure. The placard says, “The Cursed Werewolf: Contrary to popular belief, a lycanthrope spends most of its time in four-legged form and is only free of its curse during the full moon. Thank you and God Bless.”

There’s a smaller sign below the placard with spaces in which someone has failed to fill in a date and time.

“See the next transformation at __:__ on _______ ___, 20__.

“(Not recommended for those with heart problems or weak stomachs.)”

You see no sign of any creature whether in the shape of man or beast. You move on.

You’re more than half-finished with the tour by this point, already around the deepest curve of the cul-de-sac and back on your way out of the park now. Perhaps you are annoyed. Perhaps you are baffled. Perhaps you are weary and wonder if you’ve wasted your time.

But the next enclosure is different than all the others. Its yard is paved and contains a shallow, concrete depression in the center. A swimming pool. It even contains water, tinted slightly green by algae. There’s a brownish lump resting at one end of the pool, and beside it, dry on the cement, a second lump. Both lumps raise their heads at your approach.

Is this life? Live animals, praise be!

The lump on the cement springs to its feet–it is a dog, you see–and then as if it you’ve caught it piddling on the rug or chewing the newspaper, it skedaddles toward the enclosure you just passed, squeezing through a hole in the fence between them. It trots to the center of the other enclosure, sits as perfectly as a trained obedience champion, and raises a paw, as if to wave.

Is it a dog? Surely it’s not a werewolf.

The lump in the cement swimming pool–it’s a seal–looks at you as if annoyed that you’ve caused the loss of its companion. The sign on the post says, “A Selkie of the Faroe Islands,” and, “Please do not ask our Selkie friend to remove his pelt for he is nude beneath it and very modest. You would not appreciate it if someone demanded you to remove your own clothing in front of strangers, would you? Thank you for your understanding, and God Bless.”

The “selkie” lifts a flipper, but you’d swear if it had hands that it was flipping you the middle finger.

The next enclosure contains a bird perch, and a bird on the ground beside it, pecking at the grass. It could be an ugly peacock or maybe some kind of lyrebird, but the sign tells you it’s The Sacred Phoenix:

“Also known as the firebird, this Kreature has a lifespan of five hundred years, at the end of which it spontaneously combusts and is reborn out of its own ashes. Our firebird has consented to allowing us to observe this amazing phenomenon. Thank you and God Bless.”

The sign to indicate the date and time of the phoenix’s rebirth is mounted below, but the pertinent information describes a date so far in the future as to be irrelevant. “Next show: December 28th, 2317. 2:00 pm.”

By this point you’re leaving the cul-de-sac and pointed toward the exit. The enclosure on your right is the one which contains the shed full of hay. Your tour is over. How boring.

You stalk toward the exit, muttering beneath your breath. If you haven’t yet put any money in the admission box, you resolve not to do so, and if you paid on your way in, you’re wondering if you could break the box open and get your money back without getting caught.

The only exhibit even remotely convincing was the basilisk, and only because someone took the time to liberally douse the enclosure with weed killer.

As you near its habitat, you can’t stop looking at the so-called basilisk, which you’re now sure is just a painted-up rock.

Admit it, you’re thinking of vandalizing the rock so other visitors won’t waste their time as you did. You’re remembering the can of spray paint that’s been rolling around in the trunk of your car for the last three weeks. You’re wondering if painting “God Bless” on the rock would be ironic or too subtle.

But you were on your way home from work when you stopped, and it’s getting dark. You’re annoyed, but are you really a vandal? Maybe you’ll just go home instead and laugh about it with your spouse.

You pass under the sun-bleached welcome banner stretching between the two frontmost enclosures (“Please come again, and God Bless!” it says on the reverse side), and the halogens all over the park come on at once. There are several atop each telephone pole and they illuminate the lane and each of the enclosures very well. Under the light of the halogen, the lizard-rock looks even more convincing. There is even the trompe l’oeil suggestion of a head.

You pause, admire the attention to detail, the creative way the artist has taken advantage of the shape of the rock, and you’re just giving up your last instincts to vandalize the thing when a voice from behind you startles you so much you almost jump out of your skin.

“He’s nocturnal, you know. Like me. But if you wanna hang around another twenty minutes, he’ll prolly give you a show.”

Standing in front of the tarp-covered shed-stall in the habitat across from the basilisk enclosure is a pale-skinned man. He turns away and drags down the tarp. Inside the shed, on a couple of pallets, is a glossy black sarcophagus, and near it, arranged on a Persian rug: an armchair and footstool, a bookshelf, a small table and an antique Victorian lamp.

The placard on the fence says, “A Damned Vampire: On exhibit only from dusk to dawn. Please cover all crosses and religious paraphernalia while viewing. Thank you.”

The “vampire” folds the tarp from the front of his shed and sets it behind the sarcophagus, out of sight. He goes to the armchair, makes himself comfortable in it, and turns on the lamp. “Is that better?” he asks. “Sometimes people complain they cannot make me out in the dark.”

You exhale sharply through your nose. You don’t believe for a minute that this guy’s the real thing. But before you’re able to come up with an appropriately stinging retort, your cell phone demands your attention with whatever familiar ring tone you’ve assigned to your spouse.

Your stomach drops. You suddenly remember you were supposed to meet your spouse for dinner at that little place where you two always go for birthdays and anniversaries. Which happens to be a few blocks away from your workplace, back in town.

You’re in serious trouble. You don’t even glance at the so-called vampire. You just hurry toward the exit while you dig in your pocket for your phone.

“Shoot! I’m so sorry, honey.”

“I’ve been waiting for you for forty minutes!”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry,” you say again. “I’m on my way.”

You drive against traffic, back into town the way you’d come, leaving the not-quite-a-zoo/not-quite-a-sideshow place behind you without a second thought.

Later, when you’ve soothed the ruffled feathers of your spouse, you recount your visit to Kurious Kreatures, tell all about the supposedly magical monsters and the guy at the end pretending to be a vampire. And you laugh over your plot to vandalize the basilisk rock with the words “God Bless,” but your spouse doesn’t seem to get the joke.

“Well, all the signs,” you say, “they all ended in ‘God Bless’ and I just thought–” but it doesn’t sound as entertaining out of context. Your spouse is merely puzzled.

That’s when you realize not every single sign had ended in “God Bless.” You wonder at the significance of that very last sign. It seems awfully subtle.

Perhaps you ought to go back. After dark, on a full moon. Check it out again.

And, you know, you’re pretty sure that guy in accounting is still a virgin. Maybe you ought to mention the place to him. Maybe he could tell you if there was really a unicorn.

Terra was born on top of a volcano. She’s fond of anagrams, hyperbole, and using extended metaphors to make a point. She writes every day, and a list of her published works is available on the ‘Fiction‘ page on her web site.

Terra has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and likes to paint, draw, and make handmade books. She’s also trying to teach herself how to knit and spin yarn. You can find her art on the ‘Fine Art‘ page.

When Terra’s not writing or making art, she can often be found on the back of a horse or reading a good book—or, sometimes, reading a good book from the back of a good horse. She also reads short story submissions for Clarkesworld Magazine.

She has a day job working in a tattoo studio where, for a small fee, she’ll happily poke a hole in you.

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