Weekend Wind Down – Carnival of Darkness

She sat alone in absolute blackness, just as she had always done. From far away she could hear the music of Carnival, under her cold little feet she could feel the rhythm of the drums, and her nose twitched as the smells of torches, and burnt sugar, and heated humanity, penetrated the narrow blackness of her cell.
She wondered what it might be like to be outside, but that wasn’t what Carnival held for her. 
    She was the sacrifice. The bastard seed whose mother had not survived her birth. They had, they said, taken her in out of the kindness of their hearts. Tonight she was to repay their care.
    They would blindfold her and carry her through the streets to the temple, where the High Priest would put out her eyes. They had offered her poppy juice, but even though she was deathly afraid she had her pride. 
    Heavy footsteps in the corridor warned her that the time had come and she stood and faced the wall with. A voice outside the door bade her make ready and she closed her eyes. From behind her eyelids she became aware of the yellowness of lamplight, and she tried to keep that warmth in her head, even when hands came around her face and tied the blindfold tightly.
    They hustled her out of her own space and took her in a direction she had not been before. Her nose caught the sense of water and something sweet before she was roughly pushed into a room with a cool smooth floor. Soft arms caught her before she fell and female voices cooed soothingly. 
    “Come lady.”
    They bathed her and perfumed her, rubbed oils and unguents into her skin, and combed out her long hair. All the time they were careful to remind her to keep her eyes closed, but at least their hands were gentle. When she was polished to their satisfaction they dressed her in smooth soft draperies and covered her face with a mask. The final touches were soft boots and a fur-lined cloak to beat the cold of the longest night. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt really warm, and the unaccustomed luxury of it almost undid her carefully cultivated serenity.
     The fluttering women led her to a door she was sure was not the one by which she had entered the bathhouse.
    It must have opened immediately, because she sensed space in front of her. Hands reached out to grasp her forearms, but they touched her with more respect than she was used to. This frightened her. It was, she thought, as if they were giving her dignity just in time to snatch it from her. For a moment she wished she had taken the poppy juice, but then her spine stiffened. She would endure.
    They shepherded her down a long flight of shallow steps. The group halted at the bottom and two large hands spanned her waist, lifting her onto she knew not what. She was gently pressed into a seat. Then hands that felt almost apologetic fastened jingling chains to her wrists and ankles. They moved away and she understood where she was. She was outside. There was sky above her head. As she tried to process the irrational fear she felt, whatever she was sitting on rose into the air and began to move. Once her stomach settled, she understood, she was about to be carried at shoulder height out into the mayhem of Carnival.  
    The smell of street food reminded her that she hadn’t been fed for some days. Then music stabbed her ears like a tidal wave of sound. She wanted to laugh, to cry, to dance. But all she could do was sit in a swaying litter knowing that the crowds stared and pointed even though she was blind. The eunuchs bore her onward, and she thought ‘I’m alone here, why not open my eyes’. She peeped through her lashes to discover the gauzy mask actually allowed her to see. To see bright lanterns, multicoloured sparkling lights in the sky, and the upturned faces of many many people. For somebody whose only glimpses of life had been taken at the risk of severest punishment, Carnival should have been terrifying. But it wasn’t, it was exhilarating and the sights and the sounds and the smells sang in her blood. For a while she even forgot her impending doom in the sheer thrill of the night.
    Then it happened. There must have been something spilled on the street, because the left-hand bank of bearers all lost their footing together. The palanquin tilted at a crazy angle before falling into a foetid ditch with its helpless passenger still chained to the seat.
    The next thing she knew was voices.
    “Why didn’t she jump clear?”
    She felt hands at her wrists.
    “She couldn’t. The bastards chained her to the litter.”
    “Why’d they do that? The sacrifice is willing ain’t she?”
    She found her voice, although it sounded strange in her own ears. “Of course I’m willing. Willing to have my eyes ripped out. And whatever else they decide to do with me. Just like I was willing to be kept in a windowless cell all my life.” 
    She didn’t expect to be believed, but something in her voice must have told them she spoke truth because she heard the sound of splintering wood and she was thrown across a brawny shoulder. Then they were off and running, wriggling through the crowds with the ease of long practice. Out through the city gates they sprinted, long before the temple guard managed to fight its way to the crippled palanquin.
    They brought her to the old woman who runs the menagerie that follows Carnival from city to city – who nodded just once.  
    Life as a keeper of big cats may be hard, but every morning she looks at the sunrise and is thankful for her eyes.

©Jane Jago

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