“Zoetrope” Fiction by Ray Clark

zoetrope

Zoetrope

Fiction by Ray Clark

In her father’s study, the mechanism spun, an ouroboros of magnets fixed to a wooden wheel. The wires sparked with each revolution, illuminating hills and valleys of notes that spread across his desk like an unknown country. She drew back her hand, recoiled from the light. Even as her parents slept, it whirled on: perpetual motion, just as her father had always sworn it would be. All around her, the air crackled; fourteen years later, the tang of the current and the acrid smoke would still come back to her unbidden on fitful nights.

For a moment, she finally believed him. In the second moment, it all caught fire.

***

The winter of her twenty-fourth year was the final winter, and indeed it was also the final year. She spent it bound to her apartment, as always, snowed in by a flurry of paper: yellowing news scraps, four thousand lost days of aged calendars, esoteric volumes barely salvaged from the flames. She had not stirred the drifts in months, only let them mount higher around her cot. She certainly couldn’t throw any of it out, couldn’t lose it all again.

Her door stood chained and bolted against strangers. If she could have, she would have stopped time at her doorstep and turned it away as well. On the wall hung a photograph of a girl and her parents riding a carousel, the borders of the image charred away. By solstice, it too had fallen, lost in the blizzard. She never really noticed. It was difficult to shake the slumber these days, with less and less reason to try. She awoke to a white waste of used napkins, crumpled bills, and unwritten letters. She had endured thus far, survived every era with a fatalist’s obduracy and climbed to the safety of a higher stratum, but soon she would be buried up to her neck. More and more, she feared she would drown amongst the hoarded years.

In the still of her rising tundra, a single slip of paper fell through a crack in the door and settled amongst its comrades: an advertisement for a carnival.

Just before sunset on New Year’s Eve, everything that spun suddenly failed to stop. At first it was just the little things—tops, blenders, loading cursors—but in a matter of hours, the totality of the change became apparent. Cars coasted forward of their own accord, their riders frozen in place as the wheels turned on and on. In the dance hall, the ballerina’s pirouette outlasted the song itself, before the disc looped back to the start again. A few unfortunate eyes could not stop rolling. No one could tell whether the clocks had changed or not.

She only realized what had happened when she tried to drain the stagnant dishwaters from her sink and found that however long the vortex spun, the water never lowered. Out of curiosity, she tried whirling her keyring about her finger, and then slipped it off. Hovering in the air, the keys maintained their orbit.

She stared at them a minute, unlocked the door, and stepped outside.

In the streets, the world had ceded to perfect order. A few bystanders stood gyrating idly as an endless stream of traffic glided past. Squadrons of birds circled beneath the clouds. More than anything, it had grown quiet, and in the restless repose, she walked the city, watching it all spin. Down a dark alleyway, a dog chased its own tail. A man dove out a third-story window above her and hung cartwheeling in the air. A ring of children revolved to an old nursery rhyme, caught like a stuck record on a single verse. Swept away by perpetual motion, nothing went anywhere, save a few flyers fluttering past on the breeze. She plucked one up, then let it loose again.

In the distance came the faint tinkling of a music box.

 

The carnival was already in full swing by the time she arrived, and becalmed. Not a word from the passengers on the ferris wheel, no screams from the expressionless bodies strapped to the roller coaster. She walked past a hopeless ring toss, a whirlpool of rubber ducks, rows of interminable prize roulettes. A few lost children paced the paths nearby, or else tried to shake their gently spinning parents from their stupor. She kept quiet and trudged ahead.

In the center of the reeling fairgrounds, she finally found the carousel, just as she remembered it. The ride had yet to start and the horses stood rearing like the cavalry at Armageddon. Each bore its name on a golden plaque beneath its pole: Charlie, Prancer, Pauli, Abraxas. The lights glared off the mirrors and gilt in the dark, and she tentatively stepped up onto the platform. A strain of tinny music caught her ear, a simple melody of nine or so notes. She hummed a single bar of it, but could not continue.

Overhead, a loudspeaker began to hiss and snap. “Please take your seats,” requested an old man’s faint voice. “The carousel will begin to spin. Keep your hands inside the ride to secure eternity.”

Abraxas stared down at her with eyes like new moons. She climbed into the saddle.

Slowly, the great wheel began to turn, ponderous as the hour hand on a clock tower, but gaining speed. She felt her hair lift and flow behind her, and she hugged Abraxas’s neck tight, watched the carnival blur around her in a neon kaleidoscope. The music swelled to a roar on the wind and still the ride continued. The arm that held the brass ring swung past her face, empty. Beneath her, Abraxas bounded up and down on its axis at a furious tilt. She passed the first revolution, the second, waiting for the sparks to fly, for the horses to burst into flames and gallop off their posts towards the final charge, but they stayed fixed. Her senses smeared against the flattened landscape. Time died within her.

At last, perpetual motion.

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