The Pavilion of Truth
The scent of caramel popcorn lay thick upon the grounds, weaving throughout the large scarlet and gold striped tents. Carnival lights flashed in every direction, as children attached to their mother's hands gazed wildly about at the erratic performers breathing fire and contorting their bodies into odd shapes. I had been exploring the dusty paths for the past few nights, as enraptured by the atmosphere as the roaming children. The place was magical, unlike anything I'd ever seen, a vibrant pulsing heartbeat that seemed to awaken ancient and mysterious energies.
Heavily scented smoke wafted across my path from the Chamber of Illusions. I had explored that labyrinth the first night I came. The first room had displayed simpler tricks, disappearing birds and such, but as you went deeper you would find a woman able to change her hair from dark to white before your eyes, doors that disappeared, and apparitions of the most impossible creatures. When you emerged from the other side you would wonder whether your eyes had ever perceived truth or if the things you'd seen were a deception.
I continued walking and passed the boldly painted names of the other attractions I'd previously explored, hungrily scouring for any hidden gems I might have missed. Wending through the tents I passed the menagerie, the hall of mirrors and the main stage where acrobats and trapeze artists swung from the ceiling. The fortune teller's booth and the many carts selling various sweets and pastries. I ended up at the furthest rim of the fairgrounds, there only seemed to be a few tents left. I headed towards the tent with the brightly painted sign proclaiming 'The Contortionist's Corner: Prepare to be amazed!' The wrought iron fence lining the edge of the fairground peeked out from the gaps between tents. As I walked on, one of the bars moved. My head snapped towards it and I stopped.
The bar hadn't moved, it was just the opening of a tent flap shifting in the breeze. The tent it belonged to was most peculiar. It was squeezed right behind the contortionist's tent and sat directly parallel to the fence, almost as if it was purposefully being hidden. One of the entrance flaps had come loose from its tether, hanging limply, partially obscuring its lopsided sign. The sign read 'Pavilion of Truth'. I looked around me to see if anyone else had noticed this oddity, but everyone wandered past without a second glance at what was behind the contortionist's tent. I hesitated to approach it, unsure whether it was closed. But curiosity got the better of me. I reached out a hand towards the tent flap, but as soon as my hand grabbed the stiff fabric, all sound left me. I looked back at the roaming patrons, their mouths still moving, their footsteps still falling, but I heard nothing. I gazed into the long dark corridor before me, gaping its wide-open mouth which almost seemed to breathe.
I stepped inside.
The passage was pitch black, with a slight shifting noise coming from above. I headed towards the soft golden light pouring through an opening leading to a large round area. There were tables laid all around the space, set with childhood toys and ornaments. Shadows danced in the air, cast by a giant mobile hanging from the centre of a mysterious golden light, pouring from the apex of the roof. I moved my way through the room, brushing my hand over the dolls, spinning tops and crayons that were spread over the large tables. An object caught my eye, I bobbed down to inspect the intricate design of a miniature carousel. I spied the winding key at its back and wound it. A soft lullaby began to emanate from the slowly spinning horses, bobbing up and down on their poles. The sight struck as vaguely familiar, almost all of it did. The shadows wavered on their walls, shifting in an intricate waltz. Almost as if they were telling a story, of brave knights fighting dragons under starry skies, princesses finding true loves in their towers. I stood mesmerised, pondering the tent's proclamation of 'truth'. The shapes shifted together forming a large mass, with claws and a grotesque wriggling body, I started. Was the light getting dimmer? I watched in fascination as the knight began to run, an oversized hand reaching out towards him. Squinting to make out the shapes I saw the hand enclose around the knight and he was snuffed out, pitch blackness swallowed me. The only light that remained was the entrance. I turned to leave and paused. There was a woman standing in the light, staring, just staring. The lullaby silenced.
She stood, looking in, back straight as an arrow, a hand on her hip. I felt… almost ashamed. Then she slammed the door. A door? There was only a curtain there. I walked towards it's glowing outline, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. I brushed my hand against the curious, rough wood until cold metal bit into my fingers and I twisted the doorknob. Gold light spilled from the room as I walked into another round tent. It was empty except for new shadows on the wall. I looked up to find ducks flying in a circle in perfect synchronisation, then lights like fireflies began to flicker in from thin air. When I looked down again a garden had grown, lush grass blanketed the previously hard earth and floral bushes sprouted from all directions. A tall persimmon tree grew in the centre, heavy with fruit that mirrored the red gold of the tent. I reached out to pick one and it dropped to the ground, brown and decaying. Small grotesque creatures wormed from the earth as the decay spread and a stench rose in the air. Repulsed, I turned my back and headed straight towards the dark corridor again. The soft shuffling noise still sounded but I could now almost make out the stripes on the wall.
The next room awaited me.
The round space was filled with window panes sturdily standing, sometimes floating, with nothing to secure them. I hesitated to enter, wondering what might happen in this room and how I was to get out. No other exit presented itself so I proceeded forward through the windows, some open, some closed, until I reached the end of the room, where an old silver mirror sat. I stepped into its reflection but I did not stare at myself. The image was almost distorted, or was that really me? It didn't look like my face, or how I was used to seeing it. It began to shift then, moving through various different emotions; happy, excited, disappointed, sad. Each aspect giving off a different impression; pathetic, powerful, scary. I didn't know what to make of it. Inscribed on the bottom of the mirror were the words "I am a good person". I scrunched my face in confusion, was this supposed to be mockery? I left the room and strode through the significantly lightened, though still gloomy, corridor.
In the next room stood a small child, who looked upset. She must be one of the patron's children. I crouched and asked if she was lost. She paid no attention to me and began to look even more upset as she wobbled on her feet. I noticed then that one of her legs was wooden. I went to say more when she jerked backwards, stumbled then righted herself crying. Her hair was pulled by an invisible hand and she shrieked, sobbed. I tried to help but found I couldn't move my body. Laughter began to echo around the tent and despite myself, I felt a laugh bubble up my own throat and out my mouth. She gave one final scream when her leg was unlatched and snatched away from her. The tent seemed to shrink away from me as I was pulled, the ground sliding underneath me as my body rushed backwards. I saw her fall, then a door slam in the corridor, and I finally stopped moving in the centre of the other tent, surrounded by lifeless bodies.
None of them moved, they just stood close together, swaying slightly. I was sick of this, I just wanted to get out. I barged my way through the crowd, elbowing bodies out of my way and spear heading towards the corridor. I didn't look up, didn't bother, that opening was my only refuge. I finally stumbled through, gasping in the slightly more open air. The dimness of the corridor had lifted and I could now see clearly. The shuffling could still be heard and I lifted my head to find the roof to be much higher than I expected, and standing in many small alcoves set into the wall stood tall, faceless, naked, pale bodies, staring at me from above. A chill shot down my spine and I sped for the tent flap, salt prickling in my eyes.
Dawn light engulfed me as I emerged from the tent into a … field. I spun round to see the wrought iron fence behind me, the scarlet and gold tent tops towering in the sky. Somehow the world felt new, like my very skin had peeled and replaced itself, new eyes lay in their sockets. The person who walked into that tent was a distant memory, and I don't know who had walked out of it.