I haven’t had a mind to do much writing lately, but I briefly crossed paths with inspiration a week or two ago and wrote a short story. It’s based on a song called Esther, by Phish. The song tells a story over composed music, so there are only snippets of narrative. I took that narrative and expanded on it. Fair warning: it’s a really weird story. That said, it’s perfect for Halloween.
Late one fall night, when red leaves still clung to the crooked fingers of trees, little Esther stood alone in a sea of people that tromped through the carnival grounds. In all her excitement of being at the fair, she’d lost her mother, or perhaps it was the other way around. Alone now, she felt so very small far below the adults who, like giants, towered over her mere seven-and-a-half years and forty-eight inches.
The minutes ticked past like seconds as she craned her neck left and right, up and down, hoping to glimpse her mother’s red hair flashing through the crowd. Instead, she suffocated under the density of bodies that packed the fairgrounds that night. It made her want to escape not just the crowd but herself, though she couldn’t say exactly what it was that held her captive.
Vaguely, sadness held her captive, but even at seven-and-a-half she knew it was more than that. It was an emptiness vast and deep, a numbness somehow tangible. It was the mourning of all that the world would never be, even though Esther thought it should, believed it could if she just wished for it hard enough.
Yet there she was, alone in the glow of the late night rides that spun screaming children in circles and turned them upside down and whipped them from side to side so that their imaginations didn’t have to work for a while. Esther never much cared for carnival rides. Her imagination was too noisy for them.
Instead, Esther had come to see the acrobats, the cotton candy and funnel cake, and of course the magicians. But Esther’s mother worked late and couldn’t take her until night had already fallen. Since it was so late, her mother agreed to take her for one hour only, which meant Esther would probably miss the acrobats, but she didn’t mind as long as she got to see the magic show.
At eight o’clock that evening, Esther and her mother arrived, hand-in-hand, at the fairgrounds near town. They parked in a mucky field, compliments of a storm that had passed by earlier that day, and which had jeopardized Esther’s chances of seeing the magicians at all because her father hated mucky things and absolutely refused to take her. Thankfully, her mother owned a pair of boots and an adventurous spirit.
Under Esther’s galoshes, the ground squished with a thick and sticky sound as she and her mother trudged along the walkway to the tents on the other side of the ticket booth. In the distance, the Ferris wheel lights blinked red and white high above the other rides, except for the one that turned children upside down. That ride glowed green and reminded Esther of the Emerald City. The air smelled of popcorn and hot cider and caramel apples. Esther could practically taste them all each time she breathed in as though specks of powdered sugar dusted the tip of her tongue. Her mother paid their admission, and they entered through the wooden gate with the painted sign on top.
The carnival was very crowded that night, maybe because the weather was so nice or maybe because others wanted to see the magic show as much as Esther did. Before they set off for the magicians’ tent, Esther’s mother pulled her to the side.
“Stay very close to me,” she said. “It’s easy to get lost with so many people around.”
“What do I do if I do get lost?” asked the little girl.
“You see that church there?” her mother asked, pointing to the west. Next to the fairgrounds there was a tiny white church with a steeple that reached into the sky like a castle spire. “If you get lost,” Esther’s mother continued, “go straight inside the church, where it’s safe. If I’m not already there, I’ll be right behind you. Do you understand?”
Esther nodded that she did, but she wasn’t really paying attention. There were too many distractions around her: the goofy reflections on the front of the House of Mirrors, the ride that looked like a spaceship and spun so fast it made you leave your feet, the elephant tent, and the toys hanging from the walls of the game booths. The entire scene cast such a spell over her that she forgot everything a little boy or girl should remember when out in such a crowded place with so many strangers. Indeed, little Esther even forgot herself for just a moment.
In particular, a small doll behind a game counter captured her interest. The doll looked like a little girl, with long brown hair made from yarn and a patchwork dress put together from scraps of fabric that didn’t go very well together. It wasn’t the prettiest doll she’d ever seen, but the way it smiled, the way it’s large marble eyes seemed to look directly at her, follow her even—these features drew Esther towards the gaming booth. From the nearby speakers, a Hammond organ played a funny, somewhat eerie carnival song.
“Dollar to play, step right up,” said the game operator, a skinny man with leathery skin and blurry tattoos. He wore a blue polo shirt advertising the name of the carnival company. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. “Come on, little girl, you look like you’ve got good aim. All you have to do is knock over these three bottles with a single throw. That’s it! Just hit ‘em right there in the center and bam!” Here he demonstrated and all of the bottles toppled over. “See? Give it a try! Just one dollar!”
It did look easy. And Esther did have good aim. Unfortunately, she lacked something else.
“I don’t have any money,” she said, her voice heavy and tired with disappointment.
“Ah, that’s too bad,” said the carny. “Why don’t you go ask your parents for some money. I’m sure they’ll let you take a shot if you ask them.”
Esther turned to find her mother, but all she saw was the thickening crowd of people bustling about. Had Esther lost her mother already? She would be in so much trouble. She might even miss the magic show! The carny persisted in trying to get her to play for the doll, but Esther ignored him. Before she knew what she was doing, she darted into the gathering mass. Legs and feet of all shapes and sizes surrounded her. She thought she’d never find her way out from amongst all these people.
If you get lost, go straight inside the church. The only problem was she couldn’t see the church. She was much too short, and everyone else much too tall. Afraid of being trampled underfoot, she continued to move with the persistent flow of foot traffic that swept her away to another part of the carnival grounds. There at last, she found a break in the crowd. She hurried through, thanks to the sacrifices of a few knees and toes, and ended up in a small clearing behind the game booths. Relieved at being free from all the people, Esther sat on a rock and tried to think about how she was going to get to the church.
While she thought, an old man approached. He seemed to move through the crowd more than with it, walking towards Esther while others moved side to side. He wore a long black jacket with wide lapels and red stitching, a white shirt stained with dirt and age, and a tattered black top hat. His red cummerbund tamed a slightly protruding belly and his white countenance looked sick with the exception of blood red lips. A large, Romanesque nose stuck out from his face, upstaged only by his bloodshot grey eyes. A metal pail swung in his hand as he walked. When he reached Esther, he bent over close to her face.
“Hello, little girl,” he said. His breath stunk of something sweet and rotten at the same time. His voice had a funny accent to it that Esther didn’t recognize. She didn’t like him at all.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, her words wavering as her courage prevailed.
“I am not a stranger,” he said, “I am Abirad the Armenian magician!” He flourished a black cape and took a bow as though he’d already performed his greatest trick.
Esther’s ears perked up at this. “You can do magic?” she said, forgetting the rules about strangers.
“Of course!” said the man. “But for now—I’d rather you took this old bucket from me.”
He held the pail out to her, but above her head so that she couldn’t see what was inside. An eerie smile crept over his face, full of yellow teeth that sat in his mouth like a weathered picket fence.
“What’s in it?” she asked.
“Would you like to see?”
Esther knew she should refuse. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but the expression on his face unnerved her. Still, she was a very curious little girl and besides, the magician fascinated her apart from his creepy smile and ragged clothes. What if the object in the bucket was a magic object? She would never forgive herself for not looking.
“Okay,” she said, standing on her tip-toes.
The man’s grin stretched the folds of his pasty white cheeks, and his lips hurled a dollop of murk on the curb. Esther scrunched her face in disgust. Abirad stood looking down at the innocent girl, and she stared at the bucket, bewildered. Then, as though he was performing a magic trick, he reached into the bucket and lifted a doll for the young girl to see. Once more, a giant smile grew on his face.
Esther’s eyes lit up; it was the same doll she had seen at the carnival game.
Well, almost the same. The doll wore the same mismatched patchwork dress and had the same brown yarn for hair, the same stitched smile on its face. It was the eyes, though, that caught Esther’s attention. The doll at the carnival game had eyes of dark marble that gleamed more than they shone, but this doll—this doll had red gems for eyes that sparkled under the flashing lights of the fair. When she saw the doll’s eyes she couldn’t resist. She snatched the doll from the man’s grip.
“This,” said the man, “is a magic doll. Take her with you wherever you go and never lose her. She wouldn’t like that.”
Esther clutched the doll fiercely to her chest. “What does she do?”
A mischievous sparkle flashed in the hollow-eyed stare of the Armenian man. “You’ll have to find that out for yourself,” he said.
A chill ran through Esther’s body. She was suddenly very afraid, so afraid that she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t been before. “Thank you,” she said, and before the man could say another word, Esther disappeared into the crowd.
She wandered for a quarter of an hour before the little white church finally came into view. Lights glowed softly from the inside. She ran towards the entrance as best as she could in the sloppy mud. The farther she ran from the fairgrounds, the more solid the ground became underneath her feet. What started as wet, slippery mud soon dried into soft, mushy earth, which eventually turned into solid ground with a sparse bed of matted grass along its surface. All the while she clutched her new doll in both hands like a coveted trophy. The dolls eyes twinkled even so far away from the carnival lights.
At last Esther arrived at the large oak doors of the church. A sharp chill blew through the air, the wind rustling the dead leaves on the trees. Running at full speed, she burst through the doors with the puppet held high, proud to show her mother her new magic toy.
“Mommy, look what I—” Her voice trailed off as an eerie hush filled the chapel, which was dimly lit and full of aging pews. An orange flame flickered from the pulpit, but no pastor or priest stood nearby to lead the service. Three dozen people occupied the pews and they all turned to see the cause of the disruption. Their faces were stony and cruel. Esther had never seen any of them around town before. She stood for a moment, embarrassed as she was afraid. Slowly, she lowered the doll and tucked it into the leather sack she wore over her shoulder. Taking a step backwards, she said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“What are you doing bringing that thing in here?” shouted a woman from one of the pews. She was middle-aged, with greying brown hair and a blue shawl draped over her shoulders. Faint lines ran across her face, accented by the fire in the dark.
“What thing?” said Esther.
“Don’t play stupid with us, little girl,” said a man from another pew.
“We know the devil when we see it,” added another man. Soon the entire congregation was shouting at Esther, some of them shaking fists in the air.
“Please,” said Esther, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only came here to find my mother”
“Lies!” said the woman who’d spoken first. “It’s bad enough you bring evil into this house, but then you think you can trick us.”
“I didn’t lie,” protested Esther. “It’s true. I only want to find my mother and go home.”
She felt tears welling in her eyes, but something told her that this wasn’t the time for crying. She needed to have her wits about her. She reached a hand into her satchel and squeezed the doll’s hand for comfort. It might have just been her mind playing tricks on her, but she thought for a moment that she actually felt the doll squeeze back.
“Give us that wicked creature and you can go wherever you like,” said a man in a flannel shirt with a bushy, greying beard, pointing at her pouch. A crowd closed in behind Esther so now she was encircled by members of this strange and angry congregation.
“I’ll just be on my way now,” said Esther, hoping to get out without any trouble. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
“You’re not going anywhere!” croaked an old woman with a hook nose and an ugly mole on her chin. “Not until that doll is in flames on our altar.”
“Or maybe you’d rather be on the altar yourself!” shouted someone else.
“Yes, that’s it! They’re working together to bring their wickedness into our sanctuary! Get them both!”
“Seize the girl! Seize the doll!”
Esther barely had time to process this strange and frightening turn of events. The congregation had turned into a mob, shouting and screaming and grabbing for her. With her heart racing and her palms sweating, Esther darted down the aisle, through the legs of a tall and clumsy man, and then into an empty pew where she ran to the side of the church. The mob spread out to corner her, throwing fists and elbows and shoulders at each other as they frantically jostled for position. They shouted cruel things at Esther as she made her way around the church, sliding under pews and jumping over them to get away from the angry hands that grasped for her. The congregants became so enraged, a few of them forgot all about Esther and the doll and fought each other instead.
Esther knew she couldn’t keep this up forever. There were far more of them than there were of her. She was surprised she’d been able to dodge them this long. She needed a plan.
Just then, a loud crack sounded from outside, accompanied by a brilliant flash that flickered through the windows of the church. A storm began to rage outside, rain falling in sheets and clattering against the aging window panes. An explosion of thunder rattled the rafters of the church. Esther knew the time had come to flee. The mob didn’t seem likely to follow her out into the rain, and anyway she was sure she was faster than most of them if only she could get out of the maze of the church. It took another minute or two, but eventually, Esther saw her chance. She scurried down the aisle towards the doorway in the distance and out into the rainstorm where she thought she would be free.
Within seconds, she was soaked from head to toe with chilly rain that poured down as though from an giant bucket. A gust of wind tore through the church parking lot, blowing Esther’s hair into her face so she couldn’t see. As the wind blew harder, her skirt began to billow like a plume of smoke. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, she thought. Over her shoulder, the mob made its way towards the doorway of the church. They were following her after all.
Desperate and afraid, she shoved her hand into her leather sack and clasped the doll’s hand once more. “What are we going to do!”
As the words left her mouth, Esther felt a strange tingling sensation run down her spine, through her legs, and into her toes, warming her so that she no longer shivered in the rain. She pulled the doll from her pouch and saw its eyes alight even in the darkness of the storm. Before Esther could investigate this new phenomenon, she experienced a sensation she’d ever felt before: A lightness washed over her body so she felt weightless as a cloud, and finally her feet began to lift. She didn’t notice it at first, so violent was the storm, but she soon looked down and realized she was inches off the ground and still rising. Lost for words and unable to return to the ground, Esther began to scream, her cries fading into the driving rain.
“We’re going too high!” Esther shouted at the doll, certain her magical toy must be responsible for her impromptu flight. The doll said nothing in return, just went on smiling its stitched smile, eyes gleaming in the storm. And they rose above the houses and the people and the chimneys. And then, once all obstacles had been cleared, Esther and the doll were set adrift.
Floating higher, over the hills and the valleys and the treetops, they fluttered and glided through the stormy sky. Esther’s screams of terror soon turned to screams of delight as the doll carried her slowly through the town. From that height, Esther saw all the lights of the homes and cars glowing down below, tiny specks of yellow against a backdrop of impenetrable black. She wondered which one was her house and whether or not she’d land safely to see it again.
“I’m scared,” she said to the doll. “We’re going too high!”
And they were. Soaring and turning, suspended on air, they rose as high as the clouds and even higher than that. Soon Esther couldn’t see anything except the dense grey fog of storm clouds surrounding her on all sides—she couldn’t even see her own feet below her. What was strange, though, was that up in the clouds, where she’d expected the storm to be even worse, it was calm and warm, like a fluffy blanket protecting her from a winter’s day. Though she could no longer see, she felt herself still rising, up and up, until at last she broke through the tops of the clouds and saw the stars spread out above her like millions of jewels encrusted in the silky black spread of the sky.
Free now from the storm and the mob of people so far below, Esther drifted effortlessly through the air, taking everything in. For a moment, peace enveloped her, soothed her nerves and calmed her mind. Accustomed now to the feeling of flying and no longer afraid, she began to tumble and dive and experiment with all of the ways she could float freely, unrestricted by the confines of gravity. Could this really be happening? Was she really flying through the air with a magic doll and not a care in the world? No one would ever believe her, she was sure of it. But she pushed the thought from her mind, focusing instead on the sensation of weightlessness and the light wind that carried her along, farther and farther towards the edge of town.
As she lost herself in the dream of flight, she pulled the doll from her satchel and held it tightly in both hands, afraid of what would happen if she dropped it. “How will we ever get down from her?” she said. The toy’s eyes lit up a fiery red, and for the first time, Esther thought the doll didn’t look very friendly. “Please, let’s go home.”
The doll’s eyes flashed three times, and without any warning, Esther began to plummet earthward. She screamed as she fell through the clouds and back into the rain, the earth coming at her fast now, each tiny light growing bigger and brighter as she lost altitude.
“Stop!” she screamed. Her body jerked to a halt like she’d opened a parachute. She floated now like she’d done above the clouds, only this time downward until she landed gently on the slick ground below.
Esther’s legs wobbled and almost buckled underneath her. How frightening that all had been! And yet, it had been thrilling at the same time. Now that she stood on solid land, she wanted very much to go back into the sky and do it all again. But that would have to wait. For now, she had to find her way home.
She’d never been to this part of town. It didn’t look anything like her neighborhood, where green lawns and trimmed shrubs and paved driveways dominated block after block, and all the houses looked clean and left the lights on until bedtime. Under the dim flicker of yellow streetlights, she saw that this neighborhood had yards filled with junk, and run-down shacks for houses. In a gravel driveway nearby, a car sat on cinderblocks instead of wheels, and in another rested a rusty, boxy looking vehicle unlike any car she’d ever seen. Puddles gathered all over the muddy ground.
A howl in the distance startled her. Frantically, Esther stuffed the doll into her pouch and started to run down the street. She didn’t know which direction she was going in—she didn’t even know where she was—but her only hope in the darkness of night was to follow the hazy streetlights. Another howl sounded, and this time it seemed closer. Esther’s heart thumped inside her chest. Why had her mother left her alone at the carnival? How did she end up so far from home when all she’d wanted to do was to have fun like any other little girl? It wasn’t fair. Esther’s fear turned into something like anger, though not quite the same. Whatever it was, it propelled her little feet forward, faster and faster, until she lost her breath and couldn’t run anymore. Doubled over, her hands on her knees, she knew she couldn’t go any further that night. She stepped out of the light to avoid being seen while she caught her breath.
She wondered what her mother was doing right now. Her parents must be looking for her, she thought. At least, she hoped they were. And she hoped they found her soon, too. She’d probably be in trouble even though she didn’t think she’d done anything wrong, but she didn’t care anymore. She didn’t care about trouble or the carnival or magic or even the doll. All she wanted was for life to go back to the way it had been before. All she wanted was to go home.
A few feet away from her, there was a small wooden shed, crumpled leaves laying on the ground around it. Next to it stood a pile of soggy lumber, stacked high enough to cover Esther from view. Careful to avoid crunching the leaves too loudly, she tiptoed through the mud and dead grass, crept around the back side of the lumber pile, and curled up on the ground. The rain had stopped, but now the dank and chilly air penetrated her bones so she thought she’d never be warm again. It took all her will power to stave off the tears that burned beneath her eyes, yet even in her most desperate hour of loneliness, she wanted to be strong—wanted to know that she could make it on her own. Exhausted, she hugged herself tightly and dozed into a brief and bottomless slumber.
Esther woke just before the sun to the sound of crickets in the woods nearby. As she stretched her achy legs and massaged the crick out of her neck, she remembered all that had transpired the night before: the Armenian magician, the doll, the disappearance of her mother, the wicked people at the church, and then flying—had she really done it?—flying through the night sky so far above the shadows and the rain. The memory of being weightless made her smile for a brief moment. No matter the predicament she was in now, she would always remember that magical flight across town.
The morning light grew faster now. Esther knew she couldn’t say hidden forever. The time had come for her to find her way home.
Slowly, she got to her feet and peered around the pile of wood that had protected her through the night. The part of town she’d landed in was desolate and empty. The broken houses and vehicles in disrepair were even more depressing in the morning light where all their failed potential shone like dying embers from a fire once bright. Esther wondered what sort of people lived here and how their lives had become so dreary.
She walked along a bumpy road, keeping close to the side in case a car passed by, though one never did, not even after she’d gone a whole mile. Her journey homeward—is that the direction she was headed?—was lonely, but also serene, the calm and quiet soothing her nerves that had been on end since the night before.
Soon the road twisted and turned and opened up to a large, glassy lake that ran beside the town—a lake that Esther recognized. Her parents would take her there in the summer time to go swimming and to make clumsy sandcastles on the tiny beach. Her parents forbade her to go near the water on her own, though she never understood why. She was a good enough swimmer, after all, and besides, going near the water was not the same as going in the water. Curious and once more feeling just a little rebellious, she tromped through a field of weeds, took off her shoes and socks, and stood next to the water where she nestled her feet into the sand, soft and cool between her toes. A light breeze danced off the lake surface. Esther closed her eyes and let the wind wash over her with a surreal peace she’d never felt before, like she’d finally returned home after a very, very long journey.
As she stood facing the lake, the coolness of autumn against her face, she thought she heard a sound in the distance. It started as a murmur so faint she wondered if she wasn’t imagining things, but then it started to grow. The murmur grew into something excited, then louder still until it was a clamor, and finally a cacophony of voices both high and deep and everywhere in between. Esther opened her eyes and turned towards the road behind her.
From around the corner, there came an angry mob, jogging more than running in her direction.
“There she is!” someone shouted.
“Get her!” yelled another. The mob roared in agreement, their jog now a sprint as they barreled towards her.
This can’t be happening, thought Esther, shaking her head in disbelief as she stood ankle-deep in the sand. Why was everyone after her? Were these the same people from the church? And how had this angry mob found her, but her parents were still nowhere in sight?
She wanted to cry, but there wasn’t time for that. The mob rushed in from the road, and Esther knew she couldn’t make it past them safely. Her only option, she realized with some hesitation, was to try to swim the chilly lake. Something inside her said that if she could get to the other side before them, she’d be safe and this would all be over. Screwing up her courage, she dropped her satchel, took a deep breath, and ran towards the lake, kicking up sand in her wake.
As soon as she entered, the frosty water sank its bitter teeth into her hide. It’s so cold, she thought. I’ll never make it across. But as the mob bore down on her, she had no other choice. The autumn dress that her mother had made for her dragged her down, seemed to attract more cold and sluggishness the deeper she went. At last, her feet left the floor of the lake and she was floating again, not with the freedom of soaring through the sky, but with the lethargy and stunted movement of trying to stay atop the water. But swimming in her warm clothes was so much harder than swimming in her bathing suit. Afraid she might sink before she made it to the other side, she ducked her head underwater and struggled to free herself from the constriction of her clothing. At last, she kicked the dress off and watched it sink into the murky darkness below.
Naked now, she made her way towards the shore, the mob still shouting and reviling her from behind. She swam faster now towards the other side, but the lake was no longer glassy, but tumultuous. The farther she went, the more the waters stirred until a storm was upon her again, though no rain fell from the steely sky. She bobbed along the surface, swallowing mouthfuls of water as the waves crashed over her and retreated again. Still, she fought the maelstrom with all her might, and soon she could see the other shore was within reach. All she had to do was to keep swimming for just a few more minutes.
Suddenly, Esther felt a tiny tugging at her toe. At first she thought she’d gotten her foot caught up in a plant, but the tugging grew stronger, like something had latched on to her and was intentionally trying to pull her under. With safety so near, Esther flailed her arms about, hoping to break free and reach the other side. But the tugging turned into pulling with so much force behind it, Esther’s strength waned. In that moment, the waves seemed to open and swallow her whole, and despite all her valiant efforts to the contrary, she disappeared under the surface.
The rush of waves and the roar of the mob vanished into the muffled quiet of the water filling her ears. Esther reached down to free herself from whatever had caught her when she noticed two large, gleaming red crystals staring up at her. It was the doll that she’d forgotten. It had wrapped its tiny little arms around her ankle and it wouldn’t let her go.
Running out of air now, her chest heavy with the beat of her heart and the pressure on her lungs, she tried to pry the doll’s fingers from her body, but they wouldn’t budge. She tried to scream, but the sound came out only as a stifled murmur, more a cluster of bubbles and breath than anything else. In the melee of the morning, she’d forgotten all about the doll. Now it frightened her as it continued to drag her down to the eerie green deep.
And then, just before everything went dark, she heard a sound so awful, so terribly wicked, it nearly caused Esther’s heart to burst. It was the sound of the laughing old man, his sinister countenance still grinning in the eye of Esther’s mind. She opened her mouth to scream, but instead, sucked in a mouthful of water that sank into her lungs and weighed her down even more. Her eyes bulged from their sockets as she gasped and choked, and then finally, drifted away to a tranquil and motionless sleep.
And neither Esther, nor the doll, nor the Armenian man were ever seen again.