"Do you remember our secret code?"
We are on swings, arcing back and forth across a rectangle of red cedar chips. The trees, a green border along the edge of the field, sway back and forth in time with our motion. She is wearing a bright yellow skirt, stitched with the oval shape of lemons, and the bunched fabric flutters beneath her seat as she flies.
"We never had one."
My knees are a patchwork of scabs, the perpetual marks of small boy clumsiness. I am wearing white sneakers and, even though my feet are off the ground, tiny lights are flashing front and back. As if the air pressure of my motion is enough to trigger the sensors in the soles of the shoes.
"Of course we did. Everyone has one." She laughs. "You are so goofy." Said with a twelve-year old's mix of dismissal and adoration. Her hair streams beyond her, a cloud of spun honey.
"Why would we need it?"
"In case one of us gets lost," she explains. "In case one of us turns into a ghost."
At the top of her arc, she leaps out of the swing. Arms out, hair and skirt becoming wings. The world stutters, wombwhite flickers like the projector bulb shining through breaks in the film strip, and she becomes a flood of pale moths.
I snap out of my swing too, jack-knifing into a raven. My joints pop and my skin itches as black feathers bloom. "Which one?" I caw, as I fly after the stream of moths. "Which one of us?"
The moths fly west, leaving the park. As they stream over the old fairground, the lights come on. The calliope coughs, dust flying out of its tubes. Colors flicker and bend in the reflections of the fun-house mirrors. The Ferris wheel creaks and groans, ash sifting off its aged joints. A balloon-faced giant gets to his knees, air swelling his hips and chest. The rollercoaster starts to chatter as it struggles up its long incline.
Down near a row of tents, she waits for me, wreathed in ribbons, white stars piercing her ears and navel. She laughs and claps as I shed my fathers—no, feathers—and land beside her. The carnie behind the counter is a glazed cut-out of a famous movie star in his most well-known role. "Three tosses, two dollars," he cries out as I walk up to the counter.
"But I always know it is you, regardless of the face you are wearing," I say to her. "Why do I need a secret recognition code?"
"You think you do," she says. "You think we've all been the same person."
"But you are," I say. Beneath the tattered canvas roof is a square field of liquid-filled jars. The fluid is brightly colored— red, yellow, green, lavender, cerulean—and the dispersal of colors is a complicated statistical array. There's a pattern here, of course, but it's too obtuse for me.
She laughs at my confusion, and as her right hand snakes into the loose pocket of my pants, she puts her cheek against my shoulder. "Just because we are echoes of echoes doesn't mean we don't prefer the illusion."
Her hand slips between my legs and grabs me. "Identity."
Like a magician producing a rabbit from a hat, she removes her hand from my pocket. Two gold coins lie in her unlined palm. I stare at her hand. Can I not give it life? I wonder. No lines, therefore no future, no past, no fate. Like a piece of stone, free of the deterministic design. Are all the specters of my imagination simply ghosts of the present moment?
She tosses the coins at the cardboard carnie, who makes no move to catch them, and they bounce off his coated surface. "Three throws," he crows. "No leaning. No spitting." A trio of rubber balls, arranged in a precise triangle, appear on the old board of the counter. They are stamped with constellations.
She giggles. "Win me a prize."
I squeeze one of the balls, feeling its textured resilience. It is warm in my hand. Surveying the field of mason jars behind the carnie, I consider where to throw the ball. There are goldfish in some of the jars, and now that I look more closely at them ("No leaning!"), I can see that each jar has a small silver plate on it, inscribed with fine lettering.
Too ornate—too obtuse—to read from where I'm standing. Of course.
I toss the first ball underhand, and it ricochets off one glass—shattering the rim—and skips across several others before landing with a splash of lime green water. She squeals with delight, clutching my arm, and the carnie loudly announces that I appear to not be a complete klutz.
I overcompensate with the second ball, and it skips off the far side of the rack of jars. The third arcs up, seems to flex as if it is gathering breath before diving, and plummets into a yellow-tinted jar. "Two!" the carnie says, his voice a roar of incredulity. No one, apparently, has ever—in his lifetime, in this total span of time of this game's existence—has ever scored twice. I am supposed to get swept up in the miracle; I'm supposed to let her dig into my pocket for more coins.
Win me a prize. "What do I get?" I ask the cardboard cut-out.
"Your choice," he says, and a black monkey wearing a feathered cat and a yellow vest leaps onto the table. It has a stained burlap sack in its hands, and it trusts it at me. The opening is wide enough for my hand, but not wide enough to get a glimpse of what is in the sack.
It wiggles in the animal's grip. In a way that doesn't quite match up with the monkey's light-footed dance.
"What did I get?" I ask again, pointing at the two balls floating in the jars.
The monkey shrieks, shaking the sack at me. I shove it off the counter, and it flips onto the rack of glasses. Sullenly, it wakes across the narrow tops of the mason jars, and bends over to read the labels on the two jars.
"Lux!" The carnie shouts, translating the monkey's screeches. "Fiat!"
"See?" she says. "We do have a secret code."
"Fiat lux," I say. "The first words of the Latin Vulgate?"
"Yes," she says, but she is shaking her head.
The monkey dips a paw into the grimy sack and pulls out a squirming insect. Cackling, it holds it over one of the jars, and watches it smoke as it melts in the blue liquid.
I let her drag me away. "I must have lost my Enigma-class decoder ring somewhere," I mutter as her ephemeral spirit pulls me toward the sky-scraping Ferris wheel. "Or maybe it is still in the cereal box."
"Nothing is in the box, love," she says. "Everything was let out a long time ago."