Christopher Woods

The Carny Way
March 26, 2012

The carnival is in town. In fact it is close by, not far from our house. When we were kids, we were always drawn to the carnival. There, in a sugary, funnel cake haze, we would find the freaks.
Every year the carnival was more or less the same. Some years it might feature a new addition, or one of the main acts might have gone missing somewhere along the carnival road that led from town to town, state to state, crisscrossing the red, white and blue land of the free. But for us it was the same. Every year we were ready to be amazed.
Admission was cheap, the rewards priceless. We could be certain we would find the scientific displays of babies, eyes and other body parts floating in a thick formaldehyde soup in large glass jars. I always looked at the babies’ eyes. Often they were closed, as if the child were napping. But do you remember one year when there was a baby, yellowed by time and travel, whose eyes were open, staring straight ahead, peering into the abyss of carnival hell? That hell would go on and on and on as long as the road stretched out mile after mile, state by state, sometimes even crossing the Canadian border where bears and moose might muddle through the exhibit.
Do you remember the hearts, hands and feet, all unnumbered and unidentified, also floating in the yucky yellow liquids? They had no names, no bodies, no connection to anything but the freaks and misfits of the sometimes just-ahead-of-the-sheriff carny world.
Do you remember Eric the Viking, preserved and mummified for a thousand years, in his black coffin? God knows he had seen better days, greater seas. He was probably a mannequin, but we listened attentively as the sideshow master of ceremonies told us about Eric’s dramatic life as a warrior on the far North Sea. How he had a spear driven into his chest by a warring Eskimo tribe out of Alaska, how he died a slow, painful death, how his limp body – yet to be painted with tar – floated ashore on the New Jersey coast. How his body was rescued, washed and anointed with semi-holy oils so that Eric could join the carnival and his story could be shared with the world. Do you remember how you whispered, would someone think as much of us to do the same?
I will always remember The Fat Lady in her bikini. She weighed over five-hundred pounds, a solid mass of gelatinous matter streaked with enormous green veins like a rare kind of marble that might be unearthed in an old Roman or Greek city. The Fat Lady needed no announcer as she herself took questions directly from the audience. People wanted to know what it was like to be so fat (“always hungry for something more to eat”), if she could fit in a car (“no, dummy, that’s what carnival wagons are for”), if she had a boyfriend (“thirteen”), if she was too big for heaven (“Jesus loves me no matter what”).
You asked no questions of her. Instead you stood there silently watching her gargantuan breasts shifting this way and that. The Fat Lady noticed and spoke to you directly. She asked, Jealous, baby? And when you laughed, she began to thunder down the metal stairs toward us. The whole tent shook from her shifting steps. We ran for the exit.
We moved quickly, but we knew The Fat Lady would never catch us. We were young and swift. When I finally looked back, she was bent over (or as bent over as she could be), out of breath, her arms reaching desperately for her knees, trying to steady herself. We were safe.
We went on to the next tent where the Snake Woman awaited. She hissed while quoting the Book of Revelations. A young pretty blonde, her head was all you could see. The rest of her body was covered with some god-awful striped upholstery. She could pull a string and the upholstered tail would move a bit, menacingly.
On and on, tent after tent, year after year. I think there was a time when you almost half-believed that some of these people were real. I admit to thinking the same. But then we grew up, you and me. Life became more complicated. In just a few years, it seemed those myths that once organized the world for us, offered rules to follow, drifted away like carny smoke. Life became a realistic kind of thing, leaving little room for magic.


Christopher Woods is a writer, photographer and teacher. He lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas. His books include a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His photography has appeared in a number of places including PUBLIC REPUBLIC, GLASGOW REVIEW and NARRATIVE MAGAZINE. He shares an online gallery with his wife Linda at MOONBIRD HILL