Home > Poetry > A Small Carnival
Published: Fri Oct 15 1976
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Small Carnival

A small carnival had come to our town. Under the same tent five or six acts were grouped together. There were strong men, gypsies, a tame bear, twin dwarves less than two feet tall, and a man without a mouth. I wandered from booth to booth and finally made my way to the corner where many tables had been set up for the gypsies to read palms. Every table but one was taken, but that one appealed to me and I sat down there. At the table was an old woman with a scarf on her head, and beside her a young girl whose fresh appearance had made me trust the old woman in the first place. Without a word the old woman took my right palm and wiped on with a small, soft brush a substance like honey. After brushing in this manner for a while she told me it was time to exchange a minor spirit for the spirit of a dead woman that could fuse with my own. This spirit could be of great assistance to me, but should she become dangerous I could always wash my hands of her—by washing the substance from my palm. Then she and the girl got up and left the table and I turned to leave the tent.

On the way out a strong man at the entrance held out a bamboo pole and announced that this pole was his power over me. That provoked me, and I took hold of the pole, expecting him to fight for sole possession. But as soon as I took hold he lifted the pole off the ground and swung it high above his head. In an instant the pole stretched to a great length and I found myself swinging over a huge abyss, clinging for life. Both land and sea were lost behind me, receding into the distance like a sunstain rowing faint, then all at once he reached the upswing, and I was standing in his place. Now I swung him, and within one or two turns set motion in the even rhythm of a wheel, and only then did I realize that something inside me understood this rhythm very well, and knew that I must sustain this circle or else cling to the other end, over the abyss. But once the strong rhythm was established it was easy, even natural to sustain; it would come back by itself.


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Howard Schwartz was the winner of the 2005 National Jewish Book Award for Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, reissued with annotations in 2007 by Oxford University Press. He teaches English at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. (updated 7/2010)

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