Fera Profanum (Flash Fiction)

By the time the McPhereson Carnival and Circus Cavalcade left the county, six children had disappeared with it. Each of the kids had been orphaned, and had no real family to speak of. They were county kids, the kids who lived outside of town. If not for the fact that one of them had been my best friend, Flick, I might never have noticed what was happening.

The carnival train arrived in the dead of night, its whistle piercing the veil of sleep and awakening every child. We listened as the clickity-clack, clickity-clack of its wheels gave way to a long screech of metal on the track as the brakes slowed the train’s progress.

The days leading up to the carnival were a wash at school. We did nothing but dream of the coming festivities. We bragged about who was brave enough to ride the most frightening rides, who was skilled enough to win the midway games, and how much of the carnival fare we were likely to eat.

The year had been a good one for the neighboring farms. While most of the kids were eagerly counting up their pennies and working extra chores to earn more, Flick worried that he wouldn’t be able to go at all.

Flick had been my best friend my whole life. He was a constant guest in our home. My father once compared him to a fly that you constantly flick away but always returns. And he became affectionately known as Flick ever since. He shared most of our suppers, slept most nights in my room, and he was more like a brother than a friend.

My parents surprised us that weekend with tickets to the carnival. I asked if Flick could go with us, knowing his Aunt Selma was too old and too frail to take him. I even offered to share half of my tickets so he could go.

“You don’t have to do that,” Mom said, cradling my face in her hand. “We bought tickets for Flick, too.”

Dad added, “You couldn’t very well leave your shadow behind.”

Flick and I danced around the living room, excited for what was to come. But if I’d known then what would happen, I would have tied Flick to a chair, burned our tickets, and never set foot in that accursed traveling show.

*****

The grey October sky and cool northwest wind offered a perfect day for going to the carnival. We arrived shortly after lunch, with the plan to stay the rest of the day. Though Mom had wisely filled our stomach with cold meat sandwiches and whole milk, Flick and I were already dreaming of cotton candy, caramel apples, popcorn, and hot apple cider.

We spent the first hour bounding from the one ride to another, never passing an opportunity to spin, circle, or soar into the air. Then we strolled along the midway to see the games. And though my dad is a crack shot at a rifle, he could only hit one of the targets. It earned him the smallest prize – a Kewpie doll, which he gave to my mom.

By the time the sun began to set, we were starting to tire. The circus wouldn’t start for another hour, so we decided to catch a magic show before going to the main event. With Flick by my side, I broke away from my folks in the crowded tent and made my way down to the front.

From somewhere backstage, a gong sounded. The lights dimmed. With a bang, a puff of smoke appeared onstage. And out of the mist came a dark man in a tuxedo. On his head, he wore a shiny turban, like the Indians wore in Kipling’s stories.

“I am Hazarika, the Sorcerer,” he said, his voice heavy with an accent that made him sound exotic. “Before I joined this traveling show, I was one of the premiere magicians in the courts of the Maharaja of Assam. I have spent my life learning the mystic arts. Be warned! This show is not for the faint of heart!”

Flick and I looked at each other, but neither of us made a move to leave.

Hazarika stood before us on a makeshift stage, but for him it could have been the center court of his native land. He moved with determination and grace, whether making a woman float off the ground or producing live birds from out of thin air. After nearly a half hour, he reached the climax of the show.

“For my next illusion, I will need a volunteer from the audience. You, boy. Will you join me?”

I thought he was looking at me, but I quickly realized he was looking at Flick. Flick sat still for a moment, but his gaze was fixed on the magician.

“What is your name, boy?”

“Flick,” he said, sounding like he was in a dream.

“Come here, Flick.”

The crowd erupted into applause as Flick mounted the three wooden steps to the stage. The magician walked Flick to a wooden cabinet and had my best friend step inside. As he closed the door, he explained, “This is the Fera Profanum, the most dangerous trick in all the world. With it, I will turn our young friend into a beast!”

The door to the cabinet closed and the magician chanted some unintelligible words. I heard a muffled grunt as the cabinet began to shake. The door flew open, and out bounded a small pig, wearing the same hat that moments ago had been on Flick’s head.

The people in the tent began to applaud and cheer. There was laughter and dismay. Even I felt a bit of relief at the silliness of it all. And if that had been where the trick ended — if that had been the end of the deception – this tale would be over.

With the aid of his assistant, Hazarika rounded up the pig and put it back into the cabinet. More words were chanted, and this time a little smoke was added for dramatic effect. When the door of the cabinet flew open, the pig was gone. Cheers and whistles, followed by chants of “Flick! Flick! Flick!” filled the tent.

But the creature that stood in the cabinet was not Flick. It was only remotely human. I would liken it to the midget people who worked in the carnival, but twisted and misshapen. I thought it might be another trick, but when it moved out of the cabinet people were applauding and shaking his (its) hand. Then the grotesque monstrosity sat beside me and said, “Pretty neat trick, huh?” in Flick’s voice.

I wanted to run, I wanted to scream, but some base instinct froze me in my fear. I stayed seated until the end of the show, at which point I sought out the safety of my family. My mom and dad made no notice of the change in Flick. They treated him with the same loving care they had always given him over the years. I, on the other hand, could barely dare to look at him.

Walking outside, I breathed in the night air hoping to clear my senses. I could feel no change, however. When I looked at Flick, he was still the same deformed creature I had seen emerge from the cabinet.

“What happened?” I heard the voice of Toby Williams. I thought for a moment that he, too, might see the truth of what had happened to Flick.

“I got to be in a magic trick!” said the Flick-voiced thing. “This magician put me in a box and turned me into a pig. Then he turned me back. But don’t ask me how he did it. I couldn’t tell you.”

“He did the same thing to Sally Kellerman,” said Toby. “The pig was running around the stage with her ribbon on its head. It was hilarious!”

I could imagine the scene, the same pig with Sally’s pink ribbon flowing from its head. But I wondered what had happened to her afterward. I scanned the crowds, but could see no sign of her or the parson, whose family had taken her in after her parents died in a fire the previous year.

“Did she come back?” I asked.

“Of course she came back, you doofus,” said Toby. “A magician has to make people come back or it’s not a trick.”

In the end, though, they didn’t come back.

Flick, Sally, and four other kids disappeared in the dead of night. Each of them vanished without a trace. Each child, an orphan, with no family left behind to care.

Of course, some of us did care. My parents helped me search for Flick, just as the Parson and Mrs. White searched for Sally. But in the end, the bonds that held them to our community weren’t as strong as the bonds that connect a child to its parents, so the town forgot about them, bit by bit.

I didn’t forget.

Whatever spell had failed to make me see Flick come out of the magician’s cabinet, the same spell failed to make me forget.

As I grew up, I became obsessed with the carnival. I learned as much as I could and followed signs for the carnival all around the state, then the country. I studied the folklore and read all the stories about the traveling show. It seemed to arrive from nowhere and return there when it was done.

I learned what I could about the Fera Profanum and discovered it was no mere magician’s trick. The name was Latin, meaning “Profane Beast,” taken from a book of unholy arcana. It was a spell meant to keep the devil at bay. Children were the required sacrifice, left behind as bait to slow the devil’s approach.

Wherever the carnival moved, children went missing. Flick, Sally, and hundreds of others, all sacrificed by those in the traveling show to keep the devil from catching up to them.

For the past fifty years, I have followed the carnival. Modern technology and transportation have shortened the length of time necessary for me to catch up to them. By the time the carnival puts up its next tent, I will be there. Watching. Waiting.

No more children will die. And the carnival will be forced to give the devil its due.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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