Step right up, step right up!
Yes, you! Right this way!
Come and experience the one, the only,
the world renowned
traveling HISTORICAL EXTRAVAGANZA
for your WONDERFUL EXHILARATION
for your FANTASMAGORICAL EDIFICATION
(based on the works of Louis Daguerre, of course)
the Polyrama Panoptique!!
Proving that history is fiction today made fact!
Before your very eyes, we shall recount those years in which FREE MEN
stood up in the face of TYRANNY
and for LIBERTY, EQUALITY, BROTHERHOOD,
fine virtues of course which we now know and cherish,
GAVE THEIR LIVES
for in those days the people’s enemies led by TERROR
but our stalwart brothers lived by REASON!
This way, this way!
Under the folds of this tent you will find we have spared no expense,
left no stone unturned, no egg unbroken,
to bring you the most modern and advanced display of man’s progress!!
I moved with the crowd out of the summer evening’s heat into the carnival show tent, into a space well-lit and decorated, a tavern scene, as the busker continued his patter.
“Look, look, here as we enter the exhibit, with all manner of things to catch the eye, for youth and old alike, marvelous detail!”
“See how the people, country folk all, shine even in their weary oppression!”
“See how the men gather at the bar, rough shod feet on the sawdust, a long day of work behind them, and surely a long day to come, but in their eyes bright, bright though here only in wax and glass remembered, bright shines their wish for tomorrow!”
The mannequins were expertly crafted, as he said, and we moved around in the “tavern” admiring the attention to detail. The clothes were worn and coarsely-made, the lanterns were real candles, or oil wicks, even the patrons’ mugs contained some kind of frothed liquid, probably wax to match the false people.
“Next, next, out this door,” the busker called to us, holding open a curtain at the side of the room. We dutifully moved forward and through.
“AHA! It does not lead into the biting cold of night but instead a homely hovel…”
The imitation here was in the same style as the first room, but smaller, and I bumped elbows with the people at my side. A fire crackled beneath what looked like a real stone hearth. The walls were made of false thatch and rough wood.
“So as you gaze and marvel at this humble cottage, notice as the men gathered at the tavern, the women gather in the homes of their friends by the fire, not content to rest by themselves but see, see, the children gathered close, they tell tales of what may yet be, a dawn free of oppression, free of the poverty that has struck so – so terrible it is here, notice!”
The crowd was beginning to fidget as the man spoke, partially from the cramped surroundings but I thought also from a growing lack of interest in hearing the spiel. As with many such exhibits, the curtains surrounding each diorama could be drawn back and a person could wander at their own leisure.
“This woman, at the centre of the throng, so many friends she has but – hark! Her knitting needles spin no wool, weave no thread, so destitute in material these folk, so rich in spirit might they be!”
Something had been bothering me about this part of the exhibit, and as the busker droned on, his words drew my gaze to the object of his rambling. The woman sitting at the middle of a circle of her kin, their waxy skin ruddy in the firelight, their painted-bead eyes all fixed on her, and then she blinked.
A trick of the light?
I stared, unsure for a moment and then she met my gaze without her head moving an inch, the dotted orbs that should have been porcelain or glass clearly focusing on me, human eyes, living eyes, and I stifled a yelp and looked left and right, suddenly unsettled as if the floor had dropped out from beneath my feet.
The other people in the room were listening with rapt attention to the busker, so I looked again at the knitting woman, frozen in place in this strange tableau. It was as if the bloom of her youth had been stolen away, as if, viewed in any light other than the increasingly sickly glow of the fire, she would have been beautiful.
But there was something about the way she sat there, something to the tautness of her shoulders, the lilt of her head, the way her hair clung around her neck, something that was unspeakably wrong and that I could neither figure out nor fix. Her skin did not appear as wax to me anymore, but she was not breathing.
And her eyes. Wet, gray, terrified eyes.
Living eyes amongst a mockery of life.
Staring right at me.
I was uncertain of how to respond. I felt a rising urge to knock aside the people between me and her, remove the busker from my path with a swift blow, sweep the knitting woman up in my arms and flee, but to where? Should I tell the crowd? What would happen?
The busker seemed to notice my growing panic and moved briskly to the next curtain, not pausing in speech, “And who, who you ask has done this, come and see, here, next as we move on, quickly now, through this door right here,” and what remained of the crowd moved with him, pushing me from all sides. I had to stumble along or be trampled.
As I was swept along, I tried to hold the knitting woman’s gaze, but instead I saw only one thing about her, proving the busker’s words false.
He said she had no thread, and her needles were indeed bare. But clearly marked on her pale lips I saw thin, dark lines.
The crowd swirled and the curtain closed off my view behind, and I turned around, my nose stung by pungent incense.
“AHA!” crowed the busker, and he smiled, I was sure it was at the expression he saw on my face. “Such splendiferous furnishings, such royal opulence!”
We were indeed surrounded by lavish designs of faux marble and stone, silk draperies and burning candelabra in every direction. There was much more open space here and the crowd began to spread out once more.
“This is of course the home, or only a tiny part of the home, of our villains in this drama! The palace! See, here, how the privileged reside with so much more, too much, compared to our dear friends who we once moved among!”
Here the diorama “people” resembled royalty, reclining on couches and sitting in gilded chairs. There were many of them in the room, but the lounging ones looked almost bonelessly limp, and the ones standing in groups sagged oddly. Mannequins? Whatever they really were, they resembled real people the more I studied them, but not quite.
Their narrow cheeks were too gaunt, their gauzy eyes sunken in, their hands bony and bent, their robes actually more threadbare than lush, and all adorned with some perfumed scent that was making my eyes water.
The busker started to move closer to me as he spoke. “Where the surroundings were modest, the people were bound together! Contrast the rich paintings and the lavish foodstuffs, compare these to the sallow and empty eyes of those in this place, with all their goods they have no good in their hearts!”
I found myself stepping nervously through the exhibit, trying to avoid him, trying not to run, wanting to run, wanting to scream and flail through the walls of the tent in a mad dash of escape. I was beginning to pick up on another scent, beneath the sweet odor of roses, something even sweeter still.
They were dead. I was surrounded by posed and perfumed corpses.
Shuddering, looking anywhere but at the bodies, searching for which curtained wall would lead me back to the knitting room I tripped over a rough flagstone and passed through a gap in the curtains.
The busker was somewhere in the room I had finally left, but I could still hear him ranting, his voice booming, “Weaknesses, vices, prejudices are the road to monarchy!”
The space behind the curtains was dark and musty, but enough light leaked through the gaps by my feet that I fumbled around and discovered a shoulder-wide access route, as it were, through the fabric walls between the carnival tents. The path was narrow and winding and poorly lit, but I moved as fast as I could, barely keeping from shouting aloud, slapping the rough fabric of the tent on either side as I ran.
The path turned sharply and my way forward ended in a wooden wall with four tall steps leading up to a bare doorframe.
In the lower half of the door was a small square area at eye-level to me that had been cut out and edged by gold trim, with a thick red curtain pulled across the hole.
There was someone whispering nearby. I turned around but no-one had followed me.
The noise seemed to be coming from the curtained gap.
Unsure of how to proceed, I tip-toed up to the stairs and stopped short as a gust of air rustled the red curtain, which now split slightly up the middle, and blew cold against my face. Far colder than the summer night air.
There had to be some way to open the doorframe. I checked behind me again, but there was only the dim light from under the weighted tent walls. I cautiously climbed the stairs and put my hand to the crimson cloth.
It was richly textured, woven thick and full. But the deep fabric was so cold that it almost felt wet to the touch. The bottom of it hung past the frame of the hole, and I could not draw it apart properly with my hands. Bright light and cold air streamed through when I did, overwhelming my sight. My eyes watered and I closed them against the brightness, but pushed my head through the curtain, squinting to try and see properly.
As my vision cleared, it was astounding! It was as if I was outdoors, with a noisy crowd gathered perhaps a hundred feet away, down below the edge of a raised wooden platform that I looked out over. Beyond the crowd were rows of soldiers and horses, and behind them stood marble-columned buildings. The whole display was expertly projected as if from some enormous video player, so that it filled my entire field of view.
My eyes slowly adjusted to the bright “daylight”, my skin prickling from the strangely cold air in the viewing space. The crowd was moving realistically, and they were saying something but it didn’t make sense to me, as if their speech was played from an out-of-tune radio.
I refocused to a man standing close by, on the platform, my eyes in line with his knees. He was staring down at me. His clothes were tattered and torn, and he had an iron helmet with plumes as red as the curtain I was leaning though, and he grasped a pike by his side. He smiled at me, his teeth worn and yellowed, his blue eyes full of contempt. He said something I couldn’t understand, in a thick accent.
The crowd was louder now, a strangely muffled chanting. I could barely make out the words as they grew louder, the people not coming any closer but their screamed words rising in volume as if rushing towards me.
“Aucun Dieu! Aucun Roi! La Mort! La Mort!”
I moved to stand up, to pull back from this strange display and could not. The wooden frame was suddenly tight around my neck.
“Let me go!” I shouted, fumbling with the wood and curtain. “Let me go!” I could not see behind me to unlatch whatever had locked me in. My arms pressed hard against the wooden wall, but to no avail.
On my shoulder I felt the strong grasp of a hand and the voice of the busker.
“Isn’t it excellently crafted? See the crowd gathered around you, and the sun rising over the hills, the bright dawn of universal happiness!”
“This isn’t funny!” I yelled at him. “I’m going to call the police!”
The busker continued as if he had not heard my words. “The wooden platform around you, the stage on which history plays out, for all to see. Men in my profession have learned to make a spectacle of things.”
I struggled and pushed backwards harder, frantically, but his fingers gripped tighter around my shoulder until the nails began to dig in and burn through my shirt. All the while he spoke in that steady, low voice.
“The crowd, the audience, no longer expectantly hushed but rallied for the finale, the man standing close by, you see, a fellow, ready to do his part, and I? I have prepared all of this just for you, just for you to be here! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You will never see anything like this again, I assure you!”
“LA MORT! LA MORT!” howled the crowd.
From above, there was the whisper of a finger on a wine glass,
the sound of something very sharp falling very fast.