"Roll up, roll up!" called out the barker, as though he thought the crowd was an obstinate blind. "See all the great horrors of the earth, gathered together under the same roof, for the first time ever...!"
"It's all a jib, mister," said the fair-haired boy, tugging at the sleeve of the man's suit, as he stopped to listen to the spieler reeling off names as he pointed to obscure portraits upon an age-worn poster that was sewn onto the side of the great circus tent, before which he stood, upon a small, wooden dais.
"See the bearded lady..." he said, starting off small. It was an old gimmick: the gradual building up to the main attraction.
"It's been stuck on hair by hair," said the boy.
"See the bird lady...!
"See the human fly...!
"See the lizard man!"
"All just fancy dress costumes, mister!"
"All the great horrors of the earth, gathered together under the same roof for the first time ever!" he repeated. It was a well-rehearsed spiel that he knew by heart.
"See the bat creature...!"
"It's a phoney, mister. You can tell if you look real close. Not that they ever let you get close enough to be sure. They keep you well back, behind a rope."
"See the beetle man...!"
"A phoney!" repeated the boy, more insistently than before.
"All the great horrors of the earth...!" It was like a broken phonograph record. "See Frankenstein's monster...!"
"Monster me eye! It's a man dressed up!"
"See the legendary golem! See the head of the Medusa...!"
"Both jibs," insisted the boy, tugging at the man's sleeve again. "The golem's just a man with mud slinged over him, and the Medusa head's just a life-like puppet!"
"See the snake lady...!"
"The scales are glued on!"
"See the panther man from deepest, darkest Africa!"
"Anyone can throw a panther skin over himself and say he's a panther man."
"See Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man himself, on display for the first time anywhere in the world in more than ten years ... All for the price of two shillings; one small florin."
The crowd gasped audibly when the spieler said the magic words: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. But the boy was unimpressed: "Ain't no freak, mister, only poxed; poxed up with sickness!"
"Not even that, lad." said the tall, dark-haired man, Samuel Arnold, running one finger through his thick, walrus moustache. "It isn't even Merrick. Joseph Merrick died nine years ago in 1890, at the London Hospital."
"Then there you go, mister." said the boy. "Like I been tryin' to tell you, it's all a jib. Now you don't wanna pay out a whole florin just to be jibbed, do you?" He allowed the statement a few moments to sink in, then added, "Particularly when you can see the real thing, for the price of a sixpence!"
Samuel Arnold was staring down at the boy now, trying to make out his features among the flickering shadows thrown around by the meagre gas-lighting. The boy was thirteen or fourteen; fair-haired and blue-eyed, with a slightly beaked nose and a vaguely trouble-worn face; about four feet six inches in height, and thin to the point of near-emaciation, with an almost anaemic pallor.
"That's right, mister, I can show you a real freak, for the price of a sixpence!"
"What kind of a freak?" asked Samuel.
"I can't hardly just come out and tell you out in the open like. Everyone could hear; might start a panic!"
"I see," said Samuel, turning to walk away and leave both the spieler and the boy behind.
"But I tell you what I'll do, mister, you can come with me now to see it, and you won't have to pay me till later."
Samuel Arnold stopped in mid step, and half turned back toward the boy, raising his left eyebrow questioningly.
"That's right, mister, you can see the freak first, then pay me my sixpence afterwards. That way, if it's all a jib, you won't have to pay nothin' at all. Can't hardly be nothin' fairer than that."
"All right, boy, lead the way." Samuel was genuinely impressed with the boy's offer: for all he knew the boy could well be telling the truth. True freaks did exist, so perhaps the boy really had stumbled onto one somehow.
* * *
Down the dark and narrow cobbled streets of Victorian London the boy led him, apparently completely unawares of the oppressive atmosphere of the half-lit streets, where the flickering gas lights threw up wild and changing shadows that threatened to leap out and grab them; past the row upon row of drab, two-storeyed, semi-detached hovels; past the dingy public houses (the Golden Giant; the Blue Elf; the Wild Man Inn; the Sailor's Arms) unheeding of the boisterous cries and bawdy laughter from within; the brawling sots and hustling proprietors without ("The best little Inn in all o' London" they had been assured on at least a half dozen occasions); past the painted streetwalkers who winked brazenly in their direction; their ample bosoms threatening to spill out of their low cut bodices; past the dingy penny theatres and illegal gaming houses they went, moving ever further and further away from the heart of the city.
"We seem to have strayed quite a distance from known civilisation?" said Samuel. "Are you certain it is perfectly safe all the way out here?"
"Don't worry, mister, I won't let nothin' happen to you."
Samuel was less than reassured by the boy's words, yet what choice did he have but to go on? Clearly the boy could not be persuaded to turn back, and the man possessed no knowledge of that part of London. So he did the only thing that he could under the circumstances: he went on, trailing blindly after the boy.
The streets grew dimmer and dimmer as the gaslights became farther and farther apart, the further they moved away from Greater London. After awhile they had left behind completely the relative safety of the narrow streets to speed recklessly down the slim, high-walled back lanes, perfect targets for any muggers as they stumbled blindly across the moon-lit cobble-stones, weaving their way through an intricate maze of half dark alleys.
Though Samuel had never before been aware of being claustrophobic, he began to feel the night closing in on him more and more, the longer that they travelled through the dark passageways. Even the full moon above appeared to glare down malevolently at him from the night sky, its full face like an omen of ill to come.
From time to time, as Samuel Arnold began to believe that he was well and truly lost, he heard the voice of the boy calling out, "Over here, mister." and hurried off in the direction of the voice, thinking all the while that the call would also assist any would-be muggers.
"Only a little ways further," said the boy for the eleventh time, after they had been running for what seemed to Samuel like hours.
* * *
When the boy finally stopped, they stood outside a dark, unlit, white-washed warehouse, upon a broken down pier. The boy pulled away two loose planks in the warehouse wall and indicated with a wave of his hand that the man should step through: "After you, mister."
Samuel hesitated, suspecting a trap.
"Why all the way down here?" he pondered. He looked down at his feet as though addressing the Thames that swish-swished beneath the ancient grey-brown timbers of the aged wharf.
"Down here, mister? I don't get you?"
Samuel Arnold looked up, startled, unaware that he had spoken aloud.
"I said, why all the way down here? So far from anywhere? Why doesn't your friend live back there?" indicating with a vague sweep of his hand roughly where he imagined Greater London to be.
"Back there, mister? Among the gaping mobs? My friend is afraid of the mobs. He likes to keep to himself mostly. Only showin' himself once a week or so. Plus he don't have to pay rent out here."
Samuel could understand the boy's reasoning. Years earlier, Joseph Merrick had tried to live among the human race and had been persecuted day and night by the crowds. Young children had laughed and pointed at him; grown men had gasped in shock; grown women had screamed or fainted, and the police had hounded Merrick from town to town across the face of the planet. He had never known a moment's peace and had finally died striving to imitate the race who had taunted him.
"If your friend is so hideous that he is forced to hide himself all the way out here, how are you able to stand to look at him?" asked Samuel.
"I only see him once a week or so, whenever I bring someone to see him."
So with the Banshee wind at his back, daring him to step forward and meet his fate, Samuel Arnold stepped through the hole in the warehouse wall. He heard the two planks fall back into place behind him, and realised that the boy had not followed him through into the warehouse.
At first he imagined himself to be alone in the room, and wondered what was going on. "Scarpered," he said to himself, then realised that the idea did not make sense, since he had not yet paid the boy for his trouble.
He was beginning to think that the whole thing had been an elaborate practical joke, when another thought came to mind: Ambush. There are most likely three or four of them waiting in the dark for me to step away from the loose boards. He knew that in the dark it would be impossible for him to relocate the loose planks in a hurry, so he stood his ground and waited.
After a few minutes his eyes began to become accustomed to the meagre moonlight admitted to the room by way of the small, four-paned window opposite him, that looked out over the Thames. And he was able to make out the eyes of the other being in the room, staring directly at him across the room, from beneath the window.
"I hope you don't mind," he began, "you see the boy said that it would be all right...."
"Yes, of course," the creature acknowledged. Its voice was quiet and had a strange, almost insect-like buzzing to it. Not like any Samuel had ever heard before. "He is a good boy, he helps me a lot. I don't know how I could manage without him. Before I met the boy, my existence was an utter misery; I was forced to go outside to fend for myself. People chased me with picks and stakes, and flaming torches. They called me a devil and used the church against me; tried to have me exorcised from their lives.
"I was chased from town to town, country to country, across Europe and Asia I fled for what seemed like a million years. For what seemed like an equal amount of time, I moved back and forth between Africa, the Americas, Australasia and the Antarctic. All the while trying to find a place to settle. But everywhere I went they chased me out. The peasants used magic and witchcraft; tried to use spells against me; the nobility used Gregorian chants, Holy Water and the Elder Sign. In desperation I fled back up across Europe to Paris, where I managed to stow away aboard a vessel bound for England.
"That is when my luck finally changed. I found the boy sleeping in this abandoned storage room the night I reached England, and he has helped me ever since. Now I have no need to ever go outside, even by night: the boy brings everything I need to me right here."
"Don't you ever yearn for companionship?" asked Samuel Arnold.
"From those who would drive me out of this universe with their Elder Sign and Gregorian charms? No, the boy is the only company that I need. The boy, and those he brings to me every other week."
Samuel began to feel a genuine sympathy for the other creature, remembering his earlier thoughts of the Elephant Man. He began slowly walking across the hardwood floor of the warehouse until the two of them stood facing each other, a yard or two apart. Then as the moon finally came out from behind a cloud, light poured in through the small window and the other being and a few feet around it were bathed in a dull light.
Samuel took a pace backwards feeling shocked at the revelation.
Before him stood an immense rugose cone ten feet high, with a base ten feet wide; composed of ridgy, scaly, semi-elastic matter. It sported from its tip four flexible, cylindrical members, each at least twelve inches thick, of similar substance but more flesh-like. The limbs had the ability to expand and contract, sometimes to the length of the cone. Two of the limbs terminated in enormous claws, a third had a crest of four red, trumpet-like appendages. The fourth ended in a great yellow globe two feet in diameter, in the centre of which was three enormous eyes, darkly opalescent, which could be turned in any direction. Its strange head was crowned by four slender grey stalks, carrying flower-like appendages, as well as, from its nether side, eight sinuous, elastic tentacles, moss green in colour, which were constantly agitated by serpentine movement, expanding and contracting, lengthening and shortening and whipping around as if with life independent of the sluggish cone.
"What in the world?" said Samuel, shocked, disgusted, half afraid, half deciding it was a fraud after all. No life of this sort could possibly be of this planet! he thought. Then, after a moment's hesitation, he articulated his thoughts aloud.
"No, not of this planet," agreed the sibilant hissing, half-snake like, half-insectile voice. "We have existed billions of years, but only as cones for the last few centuries, our true shapes are more like shafts of light. We existed on Earth billions of years ago before being driven out by the Elder Gods. We fled to Jupiter, then to a dark star in Taurus, where we remain watching from the Lake of Hali along with Hastur the Not-To-Be-Named-One. Only recently have we learnt to speak in your tongue at all."
"But ... but it's not possible!" insisted Samuel Arnold, refusing to believe what his own eyes showed him.
The huge creature began to inch toward him, unable to move at more than a shamble. If Samuel had taken to flight immediately, he could easily have fled its clutches. But terror held him rooted to the spot, as the immense monstrosity slithered toward him.
As it approached Samuel Arnold smelt the creature's evil, fetid breath: breath like a whiff of death itself; like the breath of a cat that has just eaten a mouse. And he knew for the first time that such things were indeed possible.
"Please," whimpered Samuel, thinking the creature planned to eat him. Then, too late he realised his mistake as his head began to swim. For a moment he thought he was fainting. Then to his astonishment he found himself looking across the room, not at a rugose cone, but at himself.
"So the change has been made?" asked the boy, who had apparently entered the warehouse behind Samuel after all.
"Yes," said Samuel Arnold in the strange, sibilant hissing, that the cone had used earlier.
"Nooooooo!" the rugose cone now screamed in the voice of Samuel Arnold, realising that their identities had been switched.
"How long?" asked the boy. Although he had seen the second transfer many times over the last few years.
"Not long," said Samuel Arnold in the snake-like, insectile hiss.
"Nooooooo!" screamed the rugose cone. Then its scream faded away and the three enormous, darkly opalescent eyes suddenly went dull, like three lights winking out at once. The enormous cone began to deflate like a huge beach ball with a slow leak.
"The final switch has been made," said the boy, stating the obvious.
"Yes," agreed Samuel in the sibilant hiss. Seconds later the lifeless corpse of Samuel Arnold collapsed to the warehouse floor and the enormous rugose cone began to re-inflate as though its slow leak had magically reversed, and the three darkly opalescent eyes of the cone lit up again as it returned to "life".
"Yes," agreed the rugose cone in the sibilant hissing.
* * *
Samuel Arnold awakened from the second transfer to find himself once more housed inside the body of an enormous rugose cone, now seated at a gigantic wooden bench. Upon the bench and in vast wooden shelves all around it sat seemingly millions of great, hand-written books. Beside the cone that now housed the mind of Samuel Arnold sat dozens of other rugose cones, all either reading from the books at the bench, or writing, adding their own knowledge to the vast store already collected down the aeons.
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia