“My old San Francisco, Beth?”
The lime rind is slick between her brown fingers and she looks up to Jackson’s face which peers through the caboose’s side window. Weathered, lined, still the color of a baby’s belly in the gloom of pre-dawn.
Beth is not her name, though she responds well enough to it by now. Perhaps one of the countless jars that line the wall of the caboose-turned-bakery contains her real name, but if so, it is pushed well to the back, gathering dust, cobwebs, forgetfulness. She has not forgotten; she cannot.
She flicks the rind into the bowl before her, wipes fragrant fingers over her apron, and stands from her stool. She has time to go. Fingers trace over soda-lime glass, milk glass; amber, cobalt, green. Ball blue, violet, clear, and black. Jewel tone marmalades press against the curves: lime, lemon, orange, quince, pomegranate. Colorless fogs, rivers, rains, and bogs. Sparrow hearts. A first blush, a last breath, countless in betweens. Her fingers close around a square jar. She gathers one more, this one empty, before leaving the caboose. Eamonn the dwarf perches on the counter, hovers over the rind bowl, and does not look at the bell jar which sits on a shelf at his eye level. Inside a Ferris wheel stands beside a tree caught in perpetual autumn.
“Just a little jaunt,” Jackson says and slips his arm through hers before she takes the lid off the first jar and they vanish as though never there.
Jackson is a jar himself, containing in every aspect the time he wishes to visit. Beth dips her hand into him and the streets permeate her skin. Stone cobbles run like gooseflesh and bridges arc where her fingers once did, stretching into piers, looping backward into avenues soaked with smoke, shade, spice. Through Jackson she can smell the salty ocean, the iron rails, the stink of love and bloom of despair. She walks, her feet inside his shoes, her fingers around the knob of the red-flecked door he opens. His slim sketchbook is hidden in a woman’s wrapper pocket. Beth feels the trespass of his fingers into the pocket, the tug of a thread as the sketchbook slips out of time’s place.
Jackson whispers, “Four years later, this place is gone.”
Time does not matter to Beth, but it is a thing which anchors Jackson and others like him. These rooms haunt him; he hates and loves them by turn. What becomes of them in four years? Part of her wants to know. Part of her presses hands against that pane of glass and peers. Still, she can’t reach it, not even through Jackson; for he won’t be there to remember it by sight or smell. She wishes time did matter, would wish it with all her heart if she still possessed such a thing. She slides the empty jar into his hand and hears the whisper of the book curling inside glass.
Eamonn is still not looking at the bell jar when they return in a blink, steaming in the summer air, the opalescent light. It is not heat that sluices from them, but chill, for it was winter Jackson wanted, claiming his book from a lady he refuses to name. Beth doesn’t ask; she never does.
Jackson takes his leave with his jar. Beth slides her jar against another—Exposition Universelle, where Jackson admired the gauge railway— then settles into the well-worn groove her bottom has made upon her stool. She returns to the lime rind, cutting, cutting. Eamonn perches—not looking—until at last he turns away and moves for the dough bowl. He peels back the damp tea towel. The scent of yeast fills the caboose.
The carnival opens as the sun touches the tips of the long field grass, to allow the crowds to capitalize on the warm yeast rolls, the glazed buns, the sour breads. Eamonn’s large hands cradle each one as they come free from their pans, then set them to cool along the caboose windowsills. His slippered feet leave small impressions in the flour which scatters the counter. The tails of his black and green striped coat sweep up after him.
Beth hears the soft murmurs from several paces away; older ladies dressed in their Sunday best though it may be Wednesday or later. Older ladies clutching straw pocketbooks (adorned with flowers made of gleaming plastic jewels) with gloved hands, every step tentative though not because of age. They fear the very thing that draws them forward.
“It smells like my childhood.”
“Mine, too. Do you think they have— Ah! Elephant ears!”
A thin arm points toward the banners which snap in the warm breeze above the caboose, while the scent of fresh fried dough reaches the woman’s nose. She closes her eyes a moment and stands in place, near a swoon.
Eamonn extracts the fried dough while Beth readies the marmalade. Lemon and a touch of twenty-two, Beth knows, and has the confection ready as the women come to the window. She lets Eamonn deal with them; they love to fuss over his fancy coat and marvel at how small he is. He either doesn’t hear them or doesn’t mind, for he is never put-out when they laugh.
The lemon elephant ear seems to melt against the woman’s tongue; Beth can almost feel it upon her own. It tastes like the woman’s childhood, but the marmalade brings with it another memory, the memory of a younger body that once balanced on a high wire. Maybe an umbrella, Miss Sophie, a dark-haired boy says. His eyes rake up her stockinged leg and she loses her balance, plummeting.
“Oh.” It arrives as a soft exhale. “Do you— Do you sell this lemon marmalade?”
Of course they do and Beth reaches into the long line of bright jars, retrieving the proper one for Miss Sophie. A square of fabric that looks to have been cut from a circus tent just that morning covers the lid. Beth ties it with a yellow ribbon that makes Miss Sophie recall the feel of that young man’s tie between her fingers.
Beth feels nothing as they walk away and she turns back to the jars which line the west wall. The shelves which Rabi made her are worn with time and fingerprints, allowing only one gap for the thin window on that side. Every jar is different and Beth knows where each came from the way she knows the lines on her palm. Her fingers dance over them now, glass shoulders and corked tops; embossed lettering, the thick curve of a sealed lip. Sunlight sneaks through the windows to fragment itself in the bottom of the jars. This shattered sunlight scatters across the shelves which bracket the back door, over the counter and sweltering stoves, across Beth’s brown cheeks in a stained glass mosaic. Small black monkey feet scamper across the topmost shelf as Ichabod steals inside, leaping down to Eamonn’s shoulder where he chatters at the customers.
The voice at the window draws her attention. The young man there is tall, for his eyes meet Beth’s over the sill. His eyes are the color of the bottle just above the window, its label a scrawl that only Beth knows: Co. Kerry, morning mist, November.
Pomegranate pear was a flavor she didn’t want to make, but she still did, turning the golden pears into a smooth chocolate-brown butter, dribbling in the crimson seeds. Beth had allowed herself one spoonful before jarring it, admitting to herself it was one of her best. She reaches for the jar now, fingers knowing where it rests, but her fingers close around nothingness.
Amid the cluster of jars upon the counter, there is a vacant space, a jar-shaped space, a space pomegranate pear should occupy but doesn’t. She looks past the marmalades, beyond the canisters and knotgrass, the jarred yeast and dormouse footprints. The deep opal bowl which houses dreams is still near to overflowing and she drapes a soft towel across it before she moves to the bell jar, fingers printing the lid before she works up and up, past jarred breaths and bottled cities; past boxed fields and ribbon-bound supernumerary rainbows. No pomegranate pear and when she comes back to the window; no young man.
It is easier to move a single person than it is the entire train and its company. Beth can and does move the train when necessary, even enjoys the challenge, but takes a different kind of pleasure when it’s just one person; when it’s just herself.
She opens the jar to find herself on a Himalayan plain, in a time before humanity has discovered this place. The air here is cold, pinks her cheeks. She picks her way toward the pomegranate trees which line the foothills and opens a wide-mouth jar. Two pomegranates will fit inside, little else. She twists the lid into place then sinks into the dark soil at the base of the trees. If she keeps still, the sunlight sinks through her and she hears only the wind.
She doesn’t keep still. She hears the faint beat of a heart and pushes up from the soil. It cannot be her own, she refuses the very idea, but then she sees the shadowed figure on the hill before her. The heartbeat lurches.
She runs. Clutching jars against her sides, she runs toward the figure that shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t be here and she screams. He’s not supposed to be in this place—she broke all the jars he ever had claim to, removing those places and years from her reach. (But you didn’t, oh you didn’t, whispers a distant voice.) Still, he leaps into motion, long legs and flailing arms and that shock of curling black hair. She knows the color of his eyes even if she cannot see them now.
He evades her advance. The pomegranates jostle in their jar, making a solid thumping rhythm against her ribs. The empty jar in her other hand slips and she tightens her hold. Don’t drop it, she tells herself. Don’t. Don’t be stuck here with this shadow-creature. Her feet come down hard with every stride.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”
The word comes with every fall of her right foot. And then: “Don’t go.”
But he goes; vanishes through another stand of pomegranate trees as a breath of wind, pulling her after, turning her heel over head until she does not know which way is up. If the ground is blue, then so be it. She feels as though something precious has been taken from her yet again, even though it was lifetimes ago. Once, she could have counted the time on her fingers, but not now. Even so, she remembers the feeling; it remains a broken place that never healed straight. Staggering, she turns from the trees and runs.
She reaches for the train, pulling caboose walls tall around her, patching in every jar she knows by touch in the dark. She pictures the rusting Ferris wheel under the gleam of the glass and the sugar bowl with its chipped edge and paired dormice curled inside; she draws the taste of sour dough into her mouth, swallows it down, and lets it consume her. Himalayan air slides down her arms, summer sunlight taking its place. Eamonn and Ichabod come into slow focus and she allows the jars to slip from her fingers. Eamonn startles, then moves to the broom.
She doesn’t think she will ever grow tired of the sounds of the carnival. When night comes and the jars fall to darkness in their nooks, Beth closes her eyes and listens.
Even from a distance she names the lions by the sound of their voices. If the train stays in one place long enough, she comes to know the voices of the children who frequent the rides in the same way. The tightropes creak under Pasha’s feet while the cotton candy machine buzzes like an angry bee and the filaments in the electric lights hum high and bright. A soft moan runs below it all, something old and fluid like a river and Beth’s toes curl inside her shoes, as though she were dipped in up to her ankles. The heart of the circus, dark and wet and cold and pounding.
The boy standing outside the caboose is lit by the clear glass bulbs, his hair like spun gold curling into his open collar. It’s warm enough that’s he’s barefoot and clutching two dollars in his shaking hands. Beth leans across the counter and holds to the feeling of that ancient sound at the base of all she knows. Eamonn leans, too, against Beth’s shoulder as he looks out at the boy.
“My ma said—” He swallows hard, thin throat working as if he has an apple lodged there. His eyes skip to the dwarf, then back to Beth. “She said you have jams, or jellies, or summat?” He offers the money up, the bills trembling.
Beth reaches for a crate. “Did you want to spend the whole two dollars?”
She already knows he does; his mother is a bright star in his head, fully formed in a white dress splattered with blue flowers. Twelve buttons run between her breasts, from waist to throat where her own spun gold hair tangles in a knot. At present she is screaming and laughing to be let off the Ferris wheel. This woman tasted the marmalade before—three years ago?—and with it the memory of a boy she kissed when she was but twelve. A small peck, standing barefoot at the end of a lake-wet dock; the gangly boy fled and she never saw him again. Lakes and docks always make her wonder where he is. He’s in New York, Beth could tell her; he tasted the marmalade five years ago and remembered that kiss as well. He never married.
“She said you would know, see.”
“I know,” Beth says.
Beth fills the small crate with six jars: two orange, two lemon, one lime, and one cherry jam. The cherry jam doesn’t sell well, but the crew likes it—Manny says the lions like it especially well. Still, she knows this woman (Lila, the wind says) and knows these cherries will remind her of her husband. Though it is a small jar, Lila will savor it over the course of a month, remembering the warmth of his fingers and the way he held her hand when their golden haired boy was born in a field of wheat. After, there was the sweet taste of cherry cola.
The boy runs back to his mother and Beth leaves the caboose, knowing Eamonn can sell the marmalade well enough without her for a bit. She seeks the main tent, where a cacophony of sound spills. Shards of light escape the tent flaps and vents; screams and laughter come in bursts like thunder. Inside the tent warmth, Beth keeps to the outer edge of planked bleachers, unseen as she steps past a young boy and girl who have found more to enjoy in each other’s lips than they have in Rabi’s center-ring show.
Vanquisher and vanisher, sink me down into this dirt and let me rest. Beth wants to speak the words to Rabi, but doesn’t and won’t ever. She knows too well how his talent weighs on his mind, how it’s not such an easy task to make someone or something disappear. She has been asked to open a jar she would rather not; she has crossed that line, and will again. They are almost in the same business, she and he.
Beth disappears through the shadows, fingers trailing along the bleacher supports. Paper cups dot the landscape here, dropped from careless hands; she finds a wallet amid the soft dirt but leaves it there—perhaps its owner wishes to be someone else. Under the tent, everyone should be given that chance.
The Kerry-eyed boy is not within the tent. Beth knows this from the moment she enters, yet still she looks for him, an automatic response like a leg jerking when tapped. She finds instead Eamonn, at the end of the curving bleachers. He claims her hand and drags her from the tent, into the wash of yellow-white light outside. It’s the parked caboose he pulls her toward and to the second empty space within it.
The bell jar is gone, a perfect faded circle in its place where the sun has worn around it all these immeasurable years. In its center sits a silver coin with an owl upon it.
In the beginning, darkness lay upon the face of the deep. When this darkness roused itself, it was the great lifting wings of a raven who was Mother Night. From her crawled doom, fate, sleep, and dreams. From her fingertips spilled the aether, the madness, and the ancient river’s boatman. All things would come to an end, she decreed, even night herself as dawn crept over her wing’s edge to spread warmth where there had been but cold.
To see that all things would be kept in their place, that all things would end, Mother Night divided fate, bestowing her daughters with tasks they might never finish. Every night, a breath would be stilled even if another came into being. Every night, a love would be confessed as another fell to ash.
Into her eldest daughter’s hands, Mother Night placed the scissors to cut the thread, forgetting that fingers might also tie knots in severed lines. What was torn asunder might yet be joined again.
Beth remembers her name, even if no one uses it. She wishes that it were a lost thing moved elsewhere by Rabi’s clever fingers; that years from now she might come across it in a corner (huddled and dusty and reaching for her) and say “oh yes, that.” “I don’t remember” would be a comfortable lie, the way carpeted with sugared rose petals.
In her name lingers the blade her mother gifted, a thing meant to cut so people might be at final rest. But this cutting takes its toll and, when confronted with the one thread she realizes she cannot cut, makes Beth search for other ways a thing might be ended. Gather it up, wrap it tight, seal it with a lid. Every jar becomes a knot in a thread, a way to stem the tide.
In the middle stands the discovery: that what is sealed away tends to leach into the ground no matter how hard one tries to control it. Water is meant to run; earth is meant to shift. Threads, if not cut, often fray on their own. Better then to control these things, parcel them out so that a thing doesn’t end but somehow goes ever on. If a thing must end for one person, surely it can continue for another.
Yet here rises the absurdity: Beth wishes the thread she cannot cut would fray, but it is stronger than any one thing she knows. Stronger than he knows too, and though his own sharp name cuts the strand once and twice and he walks away, meaning to go forever, there is yet that thread, spooling out through dark labyrinths. Wherever he walks, there is a trail in his wake, a trail she can trace no matter how she tries not to. She wishes to end it, slip it in a jar and hide it away, give it to another person so that she might at last be ended and rest, but she cannot.
She is bound as surely as everyone else is, to her own spooling thread. She cannot cut it. She has tried to tie it in knots so that she might run elsewhere, but she comes always again to the main line.
The thread makes a whisper as it goes, a soft hiss that reminds her of an egg in a pan. She breaks the jars, letting time evaporate—ending all Mother Night said should be ended—and even that becomes not enough. Not enough, for there he is, stealing through pomegranates, and there, in her own caboose, leaving a token for the bell jar.
In the end—
No, this is the part she cannot yet see.
The young redheaded woman comes to Beth on a warm afternoon, finding her behind the caboose washing the bowls that have overflowed the small inside sink. The bowls make a kind of music as they clink together, water streaming from them as Beth lifts them from the washtub to the rinse water.
“The little man said you were back here.”
Beth is about to ask which little man but then realizes she means Eamonn. She straightens to peer through the back window, watching the dwarf and monkey dole out jars of marmalade to customers.
“Here I am,” Beth says. She gently drops the bowl into the rinse water and dries her hands upon her apron. If the woman wanted marmalade, she would be up front, not back here.
“I heard that you might— Might help me.” She sweeps her jacket back to reveal the small bundle nestled against her chest. “I want to keep her, but can’t.”
The last two words are only a whisper. Tears spill over the girl’s cheeks then, brightening her brown eyes. Beth clucks her tongue.
“Sometimes we can’t have the things we most want,” she says, looking at the pair of them long and hard. The baby makes a faint gurgle, seeming to nestle closer into its mother. Sometimes, Beth thought, even though we can’t claim a thing we are still haunted by it. “Wait here.”
Beth gestures to the upended crate in the shadow of the caboose and when the girl sits, she steps into the train car. She takes down one jar of orange marmalade, then returns to the girl. The girl who frowns at her.
“I didn’t come for your mar—”
“You will hush,” Beth tells her and crouches before the pair of them. She sets the marmalade between her own knees, in the hard dirt, and looks up at the girl. “Stay quiet.”
Beth slides a hand into the sling, finding warm darkness inside. Her fingers seek out the curve of the baby’s skull, smoothing over that downy hair before settling just above the nape. More warmth floods through Beth’s palm. An unnamed daughter, born seven days ago.
She ties a small knot in the thread of life, before she divides the thread as neatly as she ever has. She splices this life from that, knowing that no matter what she does, there will always be this point for the mother to look back on. Beth cannot remove the memory of it entirely, so she changes it, infusing the marmalade which sits nearby. Even when given willingly, the loss of a child is no easy thing to bear, but when this young mother looks back onto the knot of the severed thread, she will remember only joy. She will remember the blue of the autumn sky that arced overhead when her child was conceived; she will recall the way the air cooled that night and how sharp the stars looked when they finally came out. With every bite, the young mother will be calmed.
Even so, she will still have to face the bottom of the jar, when the sweetness is gone and only clear glass remains. Will she break the jar or keep it and the memories it tries to hold? Will she seek the circus out in an attempt to find more? Beth can see all ends coming to fruition—she sees the young mother on an endless search for the train, the train which she never finds again; she sees her making the small jar the center of her universe, as if it might replace the child she gave away. This is the true price to be paid.
“What do I owe you?”
The young mother gets to her feet, the crate rocking gently. Beth rises beside her and presses the marmalade into her hands.
“Thirteen pears,” she says.
The woman nods and walks away, sunlight gleaming on her auburn hair as she emerges from the caboose’s shadow.
What of the child? Beth looks only far enough to see this woman walking to the edge of town and the steepled church there. A young widowed man will notice the infant on his way into town, will raise her as his own. Beth could look farther, but she doesn’t, leaving them all there for the time being. Sometimes, she doesn’t want to see where the threads lead.
In the morning, Beth finds a bag of thirteen pears on the caboose’s back porch. They are bruised and fragrant, and perfect for turning into butter (no pomegranate seeds this time, for they perished when their jar shattered, shot through with glass). This work keeps her busy the morning through, distracting her from the idea of the young man returning, even though the pear butter is meant for him. She refuses to acknowledge the way his name spills from her spoon every time she whisks it around the edge of her pot. It is not about her troubles, no, but those of every person outside these caboose walls. She can think on their miseries, if not her own.
She saved one pear for eating and slices another bit of it free, savoring the warm grit of it between her teeth and against her tongue. Ichabod, who perches where the bell jar once did, bends his head down and opens his mouth. Beth feeds him a slice and softly hums until the sunlight brightens the caboose and customers begin lining up at the window. She searches their eager faces yet finds no one she knows.
The disappointment is still sharp, even after all these years. She glances to the jars and reaches for County Kerry’s morning mist. The jar always feels cold in her hand and weighs more than it should for mist. At this point, she doesn’t even have to open this lid, for she knows the mist too well. She simply vanishes into it and is gone, her bare feet sinking into long wet grass, the scent of heather replacing that of cooking pears. She closes her eyes and turns west, walking.
She finds him where he always is, in the churchyard where they first met. He crouches at the base of a crumbling statue, scribbling in a book. She is surprised to see him—she always is, for this is how Memory wrote it. She was only searching for clovers when her path crossed his; she had never looked further down her own thread, for knowing too much about one’s future was a dreadful thing—didn’t everyone agree?
In this moment, he is young—so young! His brow is not yet creased with lines of worry, for he has not met her. She hesitates. If he doesn’t meet her, how much better off might they both be? She brushes that thought aside as she does every time.
He startles when she speaks, his laughter broken and loud in the gloom of morning. He tilts his book and she can see the image there, a church bell tower emerging from the morning’s fog. She glances past the statuary to see the church herself.
“I didn’t think anyone came out here,” he says. He stands, setting his book on the statue’s base, watching her with reserve. She is intruding into his private space, the space he has shared with no other.
“You came out here,” she says. She picks her way past him, leaving footprints in the mud. She crouches beside a statue to Saint Peter and rolls her jar on the ground. It makes a faint tinkling noise, as if something other than mist is caught inside.
Later, he will think he dreamed her and Beth almost wishes she had kept it to that, but she can’t. She knows she will follow him. Nothing sparks her interest the way he does; nothing will haunt her the way he will.
She sits with him all afternoon, silent while he draws. He doesn’t ask anything of her, shares the orange he has brought, and when she rises to leave, makes to follow. She doesn’t stop him, knowing that as she begins to pull caboose walls back around her, he will pause on the muddy track, studying the line of footprints that are once there and then gone, as though the strange girl became the mist itself.
Mist falls from her shoulders as she comes back to the train. Deliberately, she lets the jar slip from her frozen fingers; it hits the floor with a solid thud and does not shatter. Beth watches it roll away from her and then back, resting against her muddy toes. It is the second jar she cannot break.
The first jar is the bell jar.
Her younger sister offers it to her in the depth of a night so dark Beth thinks that Mother Night has returned for good. The jar is strangely warm, like a living thing though it is made of glass. Beth cannot immediately see what it contains and for that she is grateful; when she can—when dawn’s first sun breaks through the glass and illuminates the wheel and tree inside—her breath sticks in her throat. She knows that this eternal autumn will be her undoing (salvation, that distant voice whispers), but not precisely how.
She keeps the jar with her, throughout all the years she can count. It sits at her side, upon a shelf, or buried in a chest; it is never more than a dozen steps away. In one house, she can see it from anywhere she may be, like a bright pinprick of light that has its own heartbeat.
She has tried to break the bell jar three times.
The first time is an accident. While sweeping autumn leaves from her front room, the broom handle collides with the curved glass, sending it from the table to the floor. Beth’s heart seems to pause as she watches the jar drop; she expects it to shatter into a thousand pieces and mourns its loss even before it is gone. Though the glass makes a familiar sound against the floor, it stays intact. The wheel inside doesn’t even come loose from its moorings. A small blizzard of orange and flame leaves rise within the dome and from that moment, though unbroken, the tree continues to shed its bounty.
She expects the leaves to build up and eventually fill the jar, though they do not. She watches the bell jar, once for an entire afternoon, and she can see what happens. She can see the leaves slowly rot and if that is a skeleton barely visible beneath the tree’s roots, she does not want to know. Let the leaves cover it. Better yet, let the thing break and become trash.
The second time, she throws the bell jar to the ground in an effort to make it just that. She is living alone in a lonesome, stony place; the floors are stone yet worn smooth from the continued passage of her bare feet. Back and forth and back once more and she can no longer stand the tree with its damnable leaves. She hurls the jar into the stone and it simply rolls; rolls until it hits the wall. It remains whole.
Years pass. She does not count how many, but when the third attempt rolls around, she is running for her life. When people suspect what she can do—that she knows too much about their lives, that she can seemingly control some part of them—they allow fear to guide their actions. Driven from her home by women too enraged at the idea of what Beth knows of their husbands, Beth flees toward the low murmuring sound that has approached all day. Across this field and that, putting more distance between herself and those women, Beth finds herself at the edge of a railroad track.
She draws up before she stubs a toe against the ties, against the tracks, and only stands there, breathing, praying, listening. Don’t, don’t, don’t. The longer she stands, the more she realizes she can no longer hear the women. Perhaps they have gone.
And then the train, blazing out of the night with its headlamp, rushing past her so fast that her skirts fly up. The rush of wind through her tight brown curls is like laughter or fingers or some combination of both. Beth finds herself laughing and as the train passes her, she flings the bell jar at the caboose. The glass lands on the back porch and is carried off, deep into the night. Beth falls to her knees and presses her hands to the hot rail.
The little man finds her in the morning. She wakes, aware of a hand on her cheek and then her shoulder, and she opens her eyes to find a curious sight: the man can be no more than two feet tall, his face beautiful with gold dust and kohl, his lips turned into a bright red flower with green leaves that spread across his cheeks. On his shoulder perches a small monkey wearing an even smaller top-hat, and their eyes are the very same color, a color that Beth longs to drown in.
“You will need to collect your things,” he tells her.
She can’t go back there, can’t risk those women, and the little man seems to know this without her saying a word. He takes her by the hand and tugs her up from the ground, walking with her along the railroad tracks. By noon, they reach the train.
The bell jar sits on the back porch of the caboose, looking none the worse for its adventure. The wheel is still upright and leaves continue to fall from the tree. Beth bursts into tears at the sight of it, watching the little man as he and an assortment of people from the train head off, toward town. Later, they return with her trunks.
The first time she watches them raise the great wheel, Beth feels like she will be sick. It is a long process for the workers, to dig the holes for the supports, to set the foundation and precisely place each panel that will hold a car. This, Eamonn tells her, is why they don’t always raise the wheel. Only certain cities get the wheel and it’s because they’ve paid extra for the time and risk.
Beth notes each little, worn red car that slots into place when the panels finally ring the axel like petals. She knows there will be twelve cars and that on windy days they will squeak, for so does the wheel within her jar. Eamonn sits beside her on the caboose’s back step and they watch the process in silence, until Beth can watch no more. Still, she has nothing else to occupy her. Within this traveling circus she has no talent that might be put to use, not until Eamonn presses an orange into her palm and gives her the idea.
Her hands close around the orange, fingers seeking the rough skin as the wheel takes its first test spin. The wheel makes a horrific noise, all that metal and wood being forced to move, until it finds its rhythm and rolls easily within its frame.
“Sweet,” Eamonn murmurs and leans into Beth’s side.
She glances down at him and then to the orange. He may be talking about the wheel, but she’s focused on the purpose he has placed within her hands. Sweet was not without bits of sour to counter it; Mother Night said everything has its beginning and so too its end.
Her first efforts are terrible, more tart than sweet, though the monkey Ichabod eats it without complaint. She sits on the back stoop to contemplate where she has gone wrong—with only the marmalade, for any truly complete list would run far into the future. She hears the wheel groan as it lifts another bunch of people into the night sky; she hears the fall of each leaf within the dome of the bell jar.
The idea of the jar draws her to her trunks, which have stayed locked all this time. She opens one, to look upon the jars that line its interior. They gleam as the light from the carnival hits them. All these things she has preserved: time and cities and small words that people have otherwise forgotten. Salvation. Hope. Mercy.
She is adding the laughter of a three-year-old child to a batch of orange marmalade when Jackson enters the caboose unannounced. Beth pauses mid-pour to stare at him, thinking he will tell her to get out, that he will smash every jar she’s strewn about the caboose. But he instead shambles forward and nudges the jar up, preventing her from adding too much. Beth caps the jar while Jackson dips a long wooden spoon into the pot upon the stove. He tastes and then is smiling and laughing much as that three-year old had a hundred years before.
Beth closes her eyes and sees the thread of Jackson’s life stretching far into the distance. When she looks closer, she can see the knots and deviations, the other threads he is tied to. Looking even closer, she can tell that she and he have skipped forward and back, with and without the train, and she sees the thing he cherishes most, the hand holding the cross which rests within his beloved locomotive, and she knows then—believes that if she can infuse such a memory into her marmalades, that though all things must end, she can make the in between bearable.
Beth does not know how long she has been with the circus train, nor does she care. Her days are spent helping people as she can. Rather than severing lines, she fuses them together for a little longer. But every fuse has its consequences, she knows. Everyone cannot go on forever and sometimes she must open jars she would rather not.
She kneels now before a jar wreathed in cobwebs, its label peeling and yellowed. The name that was once writ upon it is long gone, but it whispers in the back of Beth’s mind. Her own name. The cork has been sealed with a thick coat of wax and she digs her nails into it, until she can pull the cork free. The air that filters out is stale but she breathes in it, accepting all she has denied herself.
The great wheel is not far from the caboose; though it is night, crowds still revel amid the tents and booths. Children squeal and the scent of popcorn saturates the land. Beth’s course is steady, a jar cradled within her hands. Her bare feet make no sound until fallen leaves begin to crunch underfoot.
There, near the base of the wheel, stands a tree. A few leaves yet cling to its thick branches and though they fly off under the cooling night air, they never seem to run out. At the base of the tree stands the young man, looking the way he did those many years ago when she startled him in a church graveyard. He’s dressed in the colors of the circus, though, for he works here, operating the great wheel. She knows he does not remember her, for she took that from him. (And yet, whispers that voice, he does, for look, he is here and you are here.)
A sob escapes Beth when she realizes what she has done—what she hasn’t done—and she feels the weight of every second spent in this place pressing down upon her. She feels so heavy, she wonders how she will ever reach his side, but when she does, she’s laughing, because he’s looking at her as though he wants to say—
“No one comes here,” he says, though the people around him contest those very words. The wheel slows behind him, and the people holler for him to fix it—make it go! His brow wrinkles.
Beth’s laugh deepens and she offers the jar of pear butter she carries.
“You came here,” she says, and when his hands close around the jar and he opens it, dipping two fingers in to taste the sweetness, the salvation, the wheel above them glides once more into smooth motion.
Return to Issue #98