World War Two, The Pacific Theater of Operations. This story is going to end in the cockpit of a Japanese fighter craft several thousand meters above an unnamed tropical island. It is a night of many stars, brilliant above, stygian below and that is where a young American soldier lies in an improvised field hospital, dying of a fever no one understands and everyone fears. Screened off from the wounded, not quite sure how he got to where is, he dies alone. The last sounds he hears are the groans of his comrades, the nocturnal calls of jungle birds, and the familiar drone of that Japanese aircraft above, sedulously circling, circling, circling, as if seeking a single blade of light.
But first there was a boy of sixteen, a poor man's son (who wasn't in those days?) who finally had some loose change in his pocket, money he’d earned setting pins at the local bowling alley. This was done by hand, snatching up two, three, and four heavy pins at a time, tough work, but the best a boy could hope for in a town where grown men still lined up for relief. It was a warm summer evening on Main Street. Storekeepers were rolling up their awnings and turning the keys in their shops. The big clock above the State Bank said 7:15 and the year was 1939. The boy was with his sister, the one he called "The Brat" and they were on their way to the carnival. Every summer the Kiwanis brought the same traveling carnival to town, but this was the first year the boy had his own money, the first year without his parents to remind him that a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl or Ferris wheel would end in minutes and produce nothing that could not be duplicated by simply standing by and watching. Now they asked only that he take his sister and save them the trouble. He felt free and light and could think of no more to ask from life.
The Brat was thirteen and very eager to grow up; she insisted she was developing breasts. It was better, she said, to have her brother for a chaperone than her parents, but she made him promise they would split when they reached the carnival so she could be with her friends, and he with his. They could meet again at nine (they would know the hour because St. Andrews would chime it) and walk home together, just as they had promised their parents. "I can't always be with my brother," she said, and he said "Good riddance." She was wearing a dress their mother had "taken in" for her, and had brushed out her curly hair in a way that made it seem longer. "When I get a real job," he promised, "maybe I'll buy you a real dress, not just something your cousin wore." "Maybe I'll have my own real job," she replied. "Maybe I'll buy you a pair of shoes."
Before this could happen, they would have to grow up and leave this lifeless town which "rolled up the sidewalks" as soon as the sun went down. It did not seem possible that people in other parts of the world lived lives as eventless as some grownups clearly hoped their children would someday lead. The carnival was cheap and tacky, everyone knew it, but at least it brought light and color and music to that same empty block on the north side, After that block there was nothing but miles and miles of prairie stubble with railroad lines running off to the horizon. There was a swamp that would someday be filled in, but now it had frogs and dragon flies that would sit on your bobber if you were foolish enough to think you could catch a fish. Cattails grew all along the railroad embankments, exactly as if someone had taken great trouble to plant them there. When the boy was small, this part of the world had been forbidden by his mother who feared Gypsies and tramps, but she’d gotten over that, or found other more reasonable worries.
Blocks away, the boy and his sister could hear the mechanical carousel music. Everything was waiting, the roaring Tilt-A-Whirl, the slow lazy Ferris Wheel, the barkers insisting they and they alone had what you wanted most in all the world. It could not be resisted. They dropped all pretense at indifference and picked up the pace. When they crossed the final street the boy pressed 35 cents into his sister’s hand, saying, "This is for you." Recklessly, she raced ahead, and a moment later he saw her with her friends, huddled together, all of them putting on lipstick. He would have died for her, no doubt, but that was something he would never admit, not even to himself. No boy he knew ever felt that way about a sister, let alone a tag-along kid like the Brat.
The carnival was as he remembered it. A winding boardwalk led you past everything worth seeing, the Ferris Wheel, the Flying Swings, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Merry-Go-Round,, the booth games and their gaudy prizes, a real live pony children could sit upon while their parent snapped their pictures. Trucks, tents, and trailers were scattered about in the background; a gassy electric smell hung in the air. His heart sang. He had over an hour before it would be time to leave.
By then the sky would be as dark as pitch and the sky humming with huge hairy moths that would sear their wings against the hot lights and fall helplessly to the earth below. Hard- shelled June bugs were already on the walk, crunching beneath his shoes. He smiled when booth workers called out to him, almost as if they sensed the money in his pocket. No one could ever knock those weighted dolls from their perches, no one could toss a coin into the floating cup without seeing it skip out. The wheel could turn and turn and it would never stop on your number. All was a scam, a cheat, even the Ferris Wheel where you spent more time waiting in line than you actually did in the sky. Many of the equipment operators were boys not much older than himself, but oh so different with their olive skin and straight black hair, their crafty faces wise beyond their years. The older workers had that same shrewd cast, their weathered faces humorless and gap-toothed, their muscular forearms tattooed with flags and serpents, and the women, oh the women were, as the boy's mother liked to put it, as "hard as nails." What he looked for was his friends, Ralph and Jimmy, who had promised to meet him, but they were not to be found until he had completely circled the carnival, pausing only at the shooting gallery where the guns were sighted so badly Annie Oakley herself could not have knocked over a single tin duck. At last he saw Ralph and Jimmy standing before the Gypsy Fortune tent with their hands in their pockets. They had girls with them, classmates the boy knew well enough to dislike. Especially he did not like Milly Hansen, and especially she did not like him.
"Where's Baby Sister?" she asked. She was chewing gum, clutching Ralph's right arm, a pretty girl with permed blonde hair and impossible breasts filling out her school sweater. Her mouse-haired satellite, Ruthie Banks, was also chewing gum, no doubt the same juicy-fruit flavor, and hanging onto Jimmy Hersher as if she had earned the right to do so. There would be no room in this crowd for him.
Milly tilted her head mockingly. "Why don't you get your fortune told?"
"Why don't you?" he snapped back.
Ralph Garner spoke, his voice already as deep as a grown man's. "Because she would rather go on the rides." Ralph was a boy who had a weekly allowance from his parents. He did not need to set pins in a bowling alley, but when the allowance ran short, he was not adverse to "borrowing" money from someone who did.
"It’s only a dime," the boy said.. "Here, I’ll pay for her."
He went into his pocket and in the time it took to dig out a dime he’d earned lifting hundreds of hardwood pins, the expression on her face changed from amusement to complete contempt.
"I don’t want to know my fortune. Who would want to know that?"
Standing behind a wooden bench, the Gypsy woman watched them. She was old, or seemed to be, tiny as a bird with a leathery face, her long straight hair darker than molten tar. "All young people want fortune," she said. "When will come love?"
"Nuts to your dime," Milly Hansen told the boy. "We’re going on the tilt-a-whirl. Come on, Ralph. Let’s ditch this drip."
Ralph and his friend Jimmy shrugged, rolled their eyes, and did as they were told, leaving him alone before the Gypsy tent.
"Come on, boy," the Gypsy whispered. "In here you can get Gypsy Good Time."
And he had the dime in his hand, fresh and shiny.
"That not enough," the Gypsy said, immediately seizing it and dropping it into the folds of her dress. "You give twenty-five cents. Get Gypsy good time."
"I don’t want it. Give me my dime back."
Now a second Gypsy stepped out of the tent, a girl no older than himself, dark skinned, dark eyed, dark haired, wearing a plain cotton blouse with a colorful shawl around her shoulders.
"You are so beautiful," she cried. "Come into the tent with me."
"Twenty-five cents!" The old Gypsy repeated, licking her suddenly reddened lips.
"Pay no attention to her," the girl whispered. "I will take care of you."
Then he was in the tent where the only light came from a kerosene lantern hooked to an upright pole. The girl drew him close, tilted back her head, and said something in another language.
"I’m not giving you twenty five cents."
"Boy," she said. "You will have a good time."
To his horror, she sank to her knees and reached for his fly, the rings on her skillful fingers glittering. For a long moment he seemed frozen, unable to resist, and she made the most of that moment. Then, before she could complete the act she had set upon, he jerked free.
"Get your hands off me! I don’t want your good time."
"Oh!" Wiping her hands as if they had actually been soiled, she stood erect. "I see. You’re a baby. Too bad for you. Twenty-five cents, please."
"I’m not giving you any more money. I already gave your mother a dime."
"My mother? Who is my mother? How do you know my mother? Twenty-five cents. No. Fifty cents. Yes, it will be fifty cents because you insult me. You, a baby, insult me!"
Somehow he backed his way out of the tent, warily fending off the girl who almost seemed ready to leap. He imagined her nails in his eyes. "Fifty cents!" People on all sides turned and stared. "Hey, everyone, here is a boy who won’t pay! I give him what he wants, and he won’t pay? What kind of a boy is this, Huh?"
It was impossible. Without thinking, he reached into his pocket, gathered up a handful of coins, and threw them at her.
"No, you do not do that!" she shouted, even as the older Gypsy scrambled on hands and knees. "I curse you and your money!"
A dream could not have been worse. She pulled up her skirt, almost even with her chin, and thrust out her white bare pelvis. "I curse you!" she repeated. "You will never know love!"
Then laughter. Hers and the old woman’s. It followed him as he fled, as quickly as he could without actually breaking into a run. What had he done to earn this? How had come such people into his world?
"She got you, didn’t she, kid?"
He turned and saw one of the old leathery-faced booth workers standing by a dice game no one had ever beaten, and not for the lack of trying. There was nothing resembling sympathy in the man’s eyes, only cold blooded amusement. The boy took a step toward him, and asked:
"Does she do that to others?"
"Come on, kid, Put down a dime, just a dime. Double your money and get the last laugh."
Yes, it was all for money.
Later, he counted up what he had left, enough, he hoped, to buy his sister one last stick of cotton candy. He’d thrown it all at the Gypsy and ended up watching others enjoy the rides, pretending, just as his parents pretended, that seeing was every bit as good as doing. Waiting for his sister, he imagined himself meeting the Gypsy girl again but this time safely away from her "mother," and repentant. She would know the Ferris Wheel operator who would allow them to ride free. Aloft, while the earth rose and fell before them, she would tell him her own true story, how she had been stolen by the Gypsies as a child and no longer remembered to whom she really belonged. "It cannot be changed," she would say bravely and when the gondola stopped at the apex of its journey and waited there, gently swinging, he would point out where the swamp he had discovered was hidden, and tell her how his own mother, too, had feared he would be stolen.
Before he could complete this story, he saw his sister coming toward him, alone, her face wiped clean. The bells of St. Andrews had begun to ring.
"Did you have a good time?" he asked. He’d seen her several times with her friends, and their crowd had grown to include boys. He would not mention this lest she imagine he had been watching too closely.
"Yes," she said. He bought her a stick of pink cotton candy, and she accepted it eagerly. "I love this. It’s so silly."
"You’re not supposed to love candy," he laughed. "You know what Sister Ethelbert would say about that!"
"Only love God!"
"Oh, you could love your parents. You could love me."
A boy and his sister. They walked away from the carnival and back down dark sensible Main Street where every store was closed and traffic had become so quiet they could hear crickets chirping on the side streets.
"So what did you do?" she asked. "I did not see you once."
He took a deep breath. "Oh. I had my fortune told."
"And what was it?"
"I can’t tell you," he said, after some hesitation. "If I tell anyone, it won’t come true."
* * *
There were always clouds clinging to the distant mountains. It was said that a mountain could hold a cloud as a woman holds a lover. There were nights when they seemed to merge and lift the whole earth toward the stars, and were other nights when they grew thin and Lieutenant Kurosawa, circling above, could make out distant pinpricks of orange, campfires of the hill people who had no part in this war other than to dine upon some unfortunate straggler; such were the stories you heard and you could believe them if you wished. Lieutenant Kurosawa was a serious young man, and tried to block such nonsense from his mind.
For weeks this expanse of blacked out jungle had been his war. While others bled and burned he circled, harmless as a moth, a few thousand meters above the enemy who almost certainly had tales of their own about the hill people. Was he meant to bring alarm, send them scrambling for shelter, or simply to remind them that someone in this unfortunate world was ready to end their lives? A bomb, dropped every other night, would have done that job better, but Kurosawa was glad he had been given none. To kill so pointlessly, so randomly, that would accomplish nothing at all.
The night was vast as death. He did think that. It had beauty too, for the earth was never completely dark. He could make out with some certainty the line where land gave way to the phosphorescent sea, empty, but always ominous. On certain nights the moon would light up the clouds in a way that brought him close to ecstasy, Then he would think of home and parents and a childhood that had not included war. If only he could speak of it to these men he called the enemy. He would tell them of the spring festival and of the colorful kites and how he had thrilled to see them against the bright blue wind. Banking his craft, he turned the entire world on edge and looked down at where he knew they must certainly be. He would tell them how his father talked of great carps and dragons that took flight and honored the sky and brought fortune to all. He would tell them how beautiful it was to be alive.
But the darkness below was darker than ever, and something seemed to rise up from it that chilled him as he had never been chilled before.
About the author:
Paul Pekin is a retired police officer who lives in Chicago where he taught fiction writing at Columbia College, the School or the Art Institute of Chicago, and several other schools. His work has appeared in newspapers (The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, and others), literary magazines (Karamu, The Macguffin, Sou’wester, The South Dakota Quarterly, etc.) and has won prizes from the Chicago Journalism Club and the Illinois Art Council.