They milled about, restless, anticipation making them jostle each other with elbows and words. Three large tents bearing vertical stripes penned them into a large triangular yard. The tents were resolutely shut, teasing the penultimate reveals with silence. And the crowd in the open space grew. People of all ages drawn there for a single unifying reason. They bounced from foot to foot, they murmur-talked and occasionally called for the show to start, they rubbed their hands for warmth in the increasingly chill night air. Their numbers swelled until they seethed, barely constrained, in the subconsciously marked space. They shared a like eagerness. They wanted the same thing. They waited for the tents to open.
Floodlights overhead snapped on suddenly, without warning or fanfare, and drenched the crowd in buttery light. An audible buzz rained down from the bulbs. The time was drawing near. The crowd sparked with excitement.
A man emerged from the shadowed place behind one of the tents. He placed a large pedestal on the ground then stood to one side. A second man emerged and stepped up onto the pedestal. He addressed the crowd in a booming bass voice. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. The crowd cheered. “You are about to witness a singular event. Never before has such a cabinet of forbidden curiosities been assembled in one place.” The crowd cheered again, lustily. “Your eyes will pop with wonder. Your hearts will cringe in fear. Beware! Beware! For what will be revealed cannot be unseen. You will all bear witness.” The crowd hollered approval and applause thundered up past the floodlights. There was a heavy pause in which the man stepped down and vanished along with his assistant and pedestal. Everyone strained to see which tent would open first.
Blue vertical stripes fell away from one of the tents in a sudden melting motion. The crowd surged, like a rolling wave crashing the shore, then recoiled with a collected gasp. Red vertical stripes fell away from the second tent and the crowd, half-stunned, veered and surged forth again. Screams rang out. Green vertical stripes fell away from the final tent and the crowd rushed forward only to turn sharply with covered eyes. They reeled between three points of horror, unsure where to fix their sight, unable to gaze at length and unwilling to look away. For a long time hushed gasps, strangled exclamations, and an undercurrent of desperate murmuring filled the space. Then, by the light of the waning moon and the sputtering floodlights, the crowd silently bled away into the fringed darkness.
Soon the triangle of tents were alone in the great space.
In the blue striped tent sat a glass cage and within that cage a simple wooden chair held a young girl. Blonde, blue-eyed, dressed in a simple apron dress, the girl sat reading a book, her legs swinging back and forth as she turned pages in absorption. In the red striped tent a similar glass cage held a similar chair in which sat a dark man with black eyes wearing a smart pin-striped suit with a red tie. He read a book with a furrow of concentration on his brow. In the green striped tent a third glass cage held a chair bearing a woman with flowing red hair dressed in a gown of emerald. She too sat reading a book, utterly engaged in the words before her. The girl’s book bore the title “To Kill A Mockingbird”. The man’s book bore the title “Brave New World”. The woman’s book bore the title “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. Above each cage hung a sign, suspended on delicate golden chains, that spelled out the titles in the hieroglyph iconispeak of the people who formed the crowd. The ground beneath the feet of each silent reader was a carpet of ash.
On some unspoken cue flames roared down from the top of the glass cages and swallowed the readers and their horrifying books whole. The tents folded themselves tidily up once the flames had finished their meal. They were collected by the two men, stored inside the pedestal, and whisked away to another town under cover of night and secrecy.
- Corinne Simpson