It’s always a big deal when the carnival comes to town. For Jim Jones, it brings with it a sense of wonder, and has done ever since he was little. Not that he’s a kid anymore – just turned twenty, engaged to the prettiest girl in Pleasant Peak. He was meant to call on Daisy, pick her up so they could go to the carnival together, but she’s fallen prey to a nasty cold. Sweet girl that she is, she insists he go anyway. Have fun.
Off he goes after dinner, boots clomping satisfyingly against the sun-baked earth, the night air warm and welcoming. He hears the carnival before he sees it – laughter, applause, music that borders on the eerie – and when he turns a corner in the road there it is, as if by magic.
The sign that Jim walks under welcomes him to the Wyrdofsky Brothers’ Travelling Phenomenanza. He finds himself wondering if the pleasures of the carnival make up for its crimes against the English language.
"Read your palm, sir?" Asks a woman with beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes. Jim smiles and shakes his head before walking on; God only knows what secrets a gypsy such as her might coax from his heart line.
His thoughts are coloured with concern for Daisy, but a deeper concern keeps trying to surface. A niggle, a worry that he keeps trying to prevent from coming up for air. The truth, he supposes he should call it. The truth that however worried he might be about the state of Daisy’s health, it doesn’t mean he loves her. At least, not as much as he loves –
Jim pushes the thought back into its box and focuses his attention on the card tricks being performed by a pale man in evening dress, before continuing his amble through the heated throng, passing a bearded lady and the tallest man he has ever seen before running into a miniature tribe of jesters.
The clowns are diminutive and rambunctious; it is impossible to determine whether they are children or dwarves under their harlequin makeup. They prance and cartwheel right past Jim, vanishing into a nearby tent. As he watches them go, someone wanders into his eye-line. There, in the crowd, is Harry Baker. He’s with a group of friends, laughing, enjoying the carnival like everyone else. When Jim sees that they’re moving in his general direction, he looks away quickly, almost as if burned, and ignores the tightness in his chest. And elsewhere.
He occupies himself by joining the small crowd that is gathered in front of one of the many stalls dotted around the carnival. A bearded gentleman in a bottle green coat is extolling the virtues of his creation, which is described by a large banner above him as:
DOCTOR MARVOLO’S MIRACULOUS ELIXIR
A Wondrous New Creation From The Master Of The Alchemic Arts!
"This is no mere tonic," he bellows to the crowd. "This will alleviate the most downtrodden person of any ill feeling.” Jim’s ears practically prick up at the sound of this. Perhaps a dose would do Daisy the world of good. “Bad dreams? No more! Anxious? Stressed? This mystical concoction will embolden you, strengthen your natural constitution, cure you of your deepest troubles."
Then again, perhaps Daisy wasn’t the one who would benefit the most from a sip of this magic potion. When everyone else in the tiny mob has purchased a bottle and gone their own way, Jim approaches the entrepreneurial Doctor Marvolo.
“Is it true what you said?” He asks nervously. “About what this elixir can do?”
“My good son,” the man replies in a more ordinary tone of voice, words slightly muffled through his preposterously shaped beard, “every word I say when I stand under this banner is true. The experiments I have conducted to reach this point! The hardship, the metaphysical terrors I have endured... To answer your question, yes. Anything which may afflict you –”
The doctor gives him a knowing look, as if he can see every detail of Jim’s inner life mapped out across his face, and nods.
“Take it from a magician,” Doctor Marvolo says, winking as he hands him two bottles. “I’m never wrong.” Marvolo has long, tapering fingers and impossibly wide palms. They are the hands of a trickster, an illusionist. But Jim wants to believe, and so he does.
"Thank you," he breathes, before handing over his money and leaving the carnival.
He purposely walks home the long way so he can drop off the elixir for Daisy. She is too ill to come to the door, and Jim doesn't want to bother her, so he leaves the small bottle with her mother. "Such a thoughtful boy," she says to him warmly, before he continues his walk home. He is almost at his own house when he draws out the second bottle from his pocket and stands there at the side of the road as he slowly removes the stopper, gives its contents a quick, curious sniff, and then downs the whole thing.
For a moment, nothing is different, other than a brief metallic aftertaste. Jim shrugs, and approaches his house. He reaches into his pocket for the key, and it is in the lock when he feels the elixir's effect. The crickets that inhabit the undergrowth up and down the street seem to be chirping ten times louder than they had been a moment before; the stars shine brighter; the hum of the streetlamp is almost deafening. With an unfamiliar clarity, Jim removes the key from the lock, places it back into his pocket, and turns around. As if possessed by a will all of their own, his legs carry him at a brisk pace across the town. When he arrives at a small house on the outskirts of Pleasant Peak, it is with the utmost surety that Jim knocks on the door. Harry Baker answers.
He says nothing for a moment. And then the words rise up, buoyant, like minims from a marching band.
"The one I love is you," he says. Clumsily, simply and truthfully. He watches Harry absorb this, and when he holds out a hand to welcome him inside, Jim feels no trepidation like before, no urge to run. He takes Harry's hand in his own (read your palm, sir?) and follows him into the little house.
Morning comes and the carnival is already on its way, leaving nothing but a storm of dust in its wake. When Pleasant Peak is not much more than a speck in the distance, Doctor Marvolo, just plain Marv when the customers aren’t around, looks back and thinks of the young man who came to see him. Marv knows what he’d wanted curing. He may not be a bona fide sorcerer, but you don’t travel from one coast to another without learning a thing or two about the human animal. Of course, the elixir holds no magical properties. A flavourful mix of drugstore goods which does little more than clear the head. The innocence of the young man’s request, his sheer naivety, makes Marv laugh.
A cure for the heart simply wanting what it wants? Ridiculous.
“These country folk will believe anything,” he chortles, and counts his earnings once again.