Transmogrification by Jael Montellano

Content warning: death or dying, racism and racial slurs

Even from a distance, as Zora parks their car among the maze of vehicles in the field, Xochitl can see the carnival lights dazzling ahead of them like an interstellar nebula. She gasps, “Oh my god!”

“Holy shit,” Zora says.

They have arrived at The Imaginarium of Earthly Delights, an annual festival of spectacles that is never in the same place twice. They have followed the birth and infancy of the festival on social media throughout the duration of their four-year relationship and, by a stroke of good luck, or what Xochi believes is the hand of fate, the festival has been delivered within driving distance of their residence in the first North American venue of the Imaginarium’s history.

“Can you believe it?” Xochi hangs on Zora’s arm as they amble forward, the carnival pinpricking miniatures in their eyes.

In the late afternoon sun, a sea of colorful tents glimmers, as if made of stardust. On the spoked Ferris wheel, carriages adjoining every axle glint their rotation, and in the center, as a violet corolla, the big top towers over its canvas cousins, which spill out in clustered whirls like petals and fruits. The overall effect is one of a ripe luminescent garden at peak perfection, waiting to be gorged, scented.

Zora plucks a map and program guide from the entrance and Xochi places her chin on her lover’s shoulder, stealing a glance down her cleavage.

“You’re so hot.”

Zora smirks. “You’re hotter.”

“You make me want to find a private little corner—”

“Shhhhh—”

Xochi giggles and hugs Zora’s waist.

“Where do you want to start?” Zora says.

“The big top has the acrobats. What time are the aerialists?”

“Seven. Why don’t we get some food, check out vendors, and it should be time.”

Xochi’s lips brush Zora’s cheek and pucker a kiss. “Perfect.”

Everywhere they walk there is something to be seen, from the wandering magicians performing sleight of hand beneath their noses, to the attendees themselves; Xochi spies a harlequin, a Venetian lady, and a child in Renaissance garb all within several yards.

“I’m underdressed,” Zora comments. She overenunciates her d’s.

“There’s no dress code,” Xochi replies, though she knows what Zora means. It is part of the Imaginarium’s charm that visitors attend in their most creative ensembles, but Zora’s costume creation was cut short by her uncle Vanja’s funeral, which she chose to attend alone. She wears a simple urban look instead of the constructed blazer that remains partway stitched in their apartment.

“I think your vest is adorable,” Xochi offers, but Zora shrugs. She will not be convinced.

They maraud to the food vendors and purchase curry bratwurst and spiced wine. Zora mentions that they should get pickled, but Xochi thinks being drunk would be a waste; they’ve only just arrived. They gander at one of the outdoor illusionists who has set up onlookers in a ring for a street performance. A Criss Angel lookalike, the illusionist bears bracelets and bands upon his sleeveless arms. He pulls a deck of cards from the hat and passes it through the crowd. They verify it is a normal deck, flipping through and shuffling, returning them to the performer, who slides them back into the pack. Then the illusionist pulls a blade from his pocket, unfolds it and stabs it through the deck so the tip protrudes on the other side. He walks around the circle holding the blade and pack together like a precious sculpture and passes within a few feet of Zora. Finally, he removes the blade, folds it closed against his leg, returns it to his pocket, and slides out the deck.

Xochi expects the cards to be whole, a trick she has seen before but whose tell she has not divined, yet that is not what occurs. When the illusionist slides out the deck, there is a flash of silver in the light and a thunk of metal against the illusionist’s ringed fingers. He demonstrates what has appeared in his hands by holding the object above his head: a deck-shaped block of steel.

The crowd and Xochi gasp, and as the illusionist wanders close, showing the metal block, whoops erupt. He tosses the steel to the audience, who knock on it with their knuckles, hardly believing the feat.

“Whaaa, how did he do that if he doesn’t have sleeves?” Xochi asks, turning to see Zora’s reaction, but Zora is staring in the distance as if she has not really watched.

“Baby, are you okay?”

Zora blinks. “Sorry. I think the curry is off.”

“Do you want me to run to a pharmacy?”

Zora scrunches her nose. “No. It’ll pass.”

She wraps an arm around Xochi’s hip as they meander away and past a node of vendors selling leather wares when suddenly a flame-thrower intercepts their path. He twirls a flaming baton above his head, somersaults backward and catches it expertly with one hand. Zora and Xochi clap politely, but then Xochi shrieks. She has a childhood fear of fire and there is an abrupt flicker from dark to light before her face; the flame-thrower has belched dragon’s breath ahead of them, close enough they feel the warmth of the blaze upon their faces; and then, nonchalant, he sidles away along the path.

“What the fuck!” Zora yells. She turns to Xochi, asking if she is all right.

Xochi feels choked, the fear still in her throat.

Zora circles an arm around her partner’s shoulders. “Let’s find something to take your mind off it.”

They find just the thing, but there is a line. Xochi nurtures a devotion to analog photography because her Mexican grandfather left her a vintage 35mm Fujica, and there is no higher degree of analog than tintype photography. Zora and Xochi have only ever read about it or seen old tintypes at estate sales, but they have never seen it done. When it is their turn, Xochi steps childlike into the warm tent and observes the large format camera, the hot lights, the reflector. The photographer, a freckle-faced woman, explains they have to stay very still, that the flash will blind them but they should try to please not close their eyes, and that they’ll get two takes in case they do. Zora and Xochi sit on the chaise longue and clasp hands.

On the first try, Zora indeed shuts her eyes. “Fuck, that’s bright,” she says.

On the second, Xochi spontaneously holds Zora’s face for a long kiss and tastes the spiced wine on Zora’s mouth. The photographer awhs, slides out the wet aluminum plate from the camera, and tells them it’ll take twenty minutes to process the plate through the silver nitrate and they can come back for the memento once the lacquer has dried.

In the meantime, they attend the only tent in the vicinity without a line. Zora hesitates, says maybe there’s no line for a reason, but Xochi pleads until acquiesced, and they enter the fortune-teller’s tent with the hand-lettered sign that reads ‘Baba Galya.’

The haze immediately overwhelms them, their noses assaulted by incense. Xochi sees as though through a film. Every wild color inside the tent is dimmed; vibrant reds sicken to orange, violets dilute to mauve. There is a small circular table in the center covered in embroidered cloths with folkloric flowers, and to its left, an oval black mirror leans against a trunk. Baba Galya, herself draped in a padded robe, sits shrunken in a wooden chair behind the table, smoking. She does not look up as Xochi and Zora settle on the low stools.

“One person at time,” Galya says, putting out her meager cigarette. She wears rings on every finger and her bracelets jangle.

“Sure,” Xochi says, volunteering herself, as Zora pushes her stool backward. Zora doesn’t believe in divination, but has surprised Xochi in the past by interpreting her dreams. Xochi hopes Zora can suspend her disbelief with Galya now.

“What you want? Card reading? Palm?” The practitioner swallows and Xochi sees all the wrinkles in the senior’s neck, her torn earlobes. “Tea readings no more, too messy.”

“Cards are fine,” Xochi nods.

“First, payment,” Galya says, her voice like gravel, and Xochi meets Zora’s gaze, who shrugs. Xochi hands over the appropriate bills and swiftly Galya slips them through the neckhole of her robe into what Xochi supposes is the safety of the elder’s brassiere. Xochi hides a smirk.

Galya shuffles the deck and flashes the cards’ opulent backs. She rests them on the table and disperses them with a flick of her wrist and fingertips. “Pick three,” she says to Xochi, who selects from the middle, left and right. She lifts the cards and returns them to Galya without looking.

“This not blackjack,” Galya cackles. She turns them over in the order Xochi picked, grinning at the olive-skinned woman. “Moon upright,” the baba says. “This present; you are child of moon, anxious person who think too much, feel too much. Maybe you not sure of job you have. Maybe you want new job, or are confused.”

Xochi nods in agreement.

“Tower upright,” Galya continues. “This card difficult, mean many things, but always something coming. Change hard for you. You not see coming. Maybe you lose your job, heh? Possible it be other thing, but if you anxious person, will be hard for you.”

Xochi can see Zora roll her eyes through the brume.

“And final—ah, Death.” Galya waves her hand dismissively. “Not be scared of this card. Many people think real death but is not really. It mean transform. After change come, you will be new person, okay? Old person pass away; you not recognize yourself.”

“Darn,” Xochi mourns.

“Maybe you like new person you become?” Galya offers, as if it’s poor form to transition readings this way.

“My turn,” Zora says, but she is annoyed, Xochi can tell. The line of Zora’s mouth draws itself flat and she has not moved her stool closer.

“Where you from?” Galya asks.

“Ostrava.”

Galya nods. “Moravia. Beautiful forest,” she says. Her gaze lingers on Zora curiously, as though something about her face is familiar. Zora glances everywhere but at the elder. Finally, Galya says, “For you, I think scrying mirror.”

Zora shakes her head.

“It’s from old countries, like you. Like me,” the practitioner continues.

“Cards,” Zora says, “or nothing.”

“You are scared of what you can see? What you have left to be scared,” Galya laughs.

Zora is holding her tongue in her cheek but lets it loose. “Kráva,” she says, getting up to leave.

Galya’s face transmogrifies into fury. “You think Galya Kuropteva of Terebovskaya march into Praga to invade your country, huh?” She spits in Zora’s direction, excavates the bills from her person and throws them at Zora. “Take your money, dura! Get out of Galya’s tent!”

Xochi scrambles, reaching for the crumbled cash on the ground. She runs after Zora. Outside, Zora is marching away toward the artisans, biting her lip, her footsteps kicking up dust.

“What happened back there?” Xochi asks, catching her partner’s wrist. “What did you say to her?”

“Nothing!” Zora says, sullen. “That bitch is a scam. She wants me to look in a mirror and see my own fucking reflection. I’m not paying for that!”

“Is that all?” Xochi holds Zora’s hand and squeezes their fingers. “Why was she yelling at you about the invasion? You weren’t even born.”

“Who fucking knows.”

They collect their tintype and Xochi marvels at the velvet warmth of the shadows, the way it embraces their kiss and haloes their faces. “We’ll have to put it somewhere dust-free when we get home,” Zora says, but she isn’t smiling.

“Babe, what’s wrong?” Xochi mutters. “It can’t be Galya.”

Zora’s bangs hang over her face like a curtain and she is refraining eye contact. “Jet lag from the flight.”

Xochi wonders if jet lag is code for grief over Vanja. Zora slept thirteen hours after returning from her former guardian’s funeral in the Czech Republic, but insisted they come to the festival as planned.

“Was the funeral terrible?” Xochi asks.

Zora clenches her jaw so that her bone structure juts out like carved rock. “His long-lost girlfriend showed up. Tried to throw herself into his grave as they lowered the coffin. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to love that homophobic bastard.”

“Love is blind,” Xochi mutters.

“Some people don’t deserve it.”

Xochi doesn’t think Zora actually believes this but changes the subject for both their comfort. “Do you want to leave?”

“We’ve been wanting to do this for years.” Zora gives a weary smile. “Let’s go see that big top.”

Two filaments hold the upturned violet structure of the bud-shaped tent in place, and inside, it glows as though filled with a murmuration of fireflies. Upon entering, the warm lights suspended on tracks above the crowd point center in multicolored hues. Zora and Xochi squeeze into the spaces that remain on the twentieth row, four down from the top. The crowd swells. The bleachers squeak when they take a seat. Zora sneaks a drinking flask from her hip pocket and takes a swig.

“How did you get that in?” Xochi says. She hadn’t even seen Zora fill it before their drive.

Zora winks.

The aerialists appear garbed as majestic phoenixes with monarchic plumage; in the spotlights they drop down their silks in synchronicity, and as they reach the ends of their ropes, their plumage shivers and they emerge as firebirds in flight, wings outspread and weaving. They twirl over the ashen crowd and dust the air with their golden beaks, and for Zora, it is as though every afterimage from their heavenly bodies is a radiant window to an alternate place, a spinning zoetrope flashing right, center, left.

Then from among the middle rungs there is a scream, followed by shouts and leaping; the men seated before Xochi and Zora stand and block out their view. The woodwind music that is the soundtrack of the performance continues playing, but the mythic firebirds hover in midair, catch flame, and suddenly disappear. A man bellows from amid the audience but isn’t audible until the music cuts.

“Fire!” they hear, “Fire!”

There is confusion followed by panic. Xochi looks at Zora but she is standing on the bleachers extending over the men to get an unobstructed view. She points somewhere below and to their right, though Xochi cannot see. The bleachers shake and creak as people storm down the stairs. The man beside Zora elbows her so he can reach the stairway.

“They’re all stairs!” she yells, but he doesn’t compute. His eyes bulge, bug-like.

Xochi climbs the bleacher to avoid being herded away from her lover. A voice crackles through the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. A small non-theatrical fire has erupted in the tent but is being managed. Please proceed down the stairs and out the north and south exists in an organized manner. Thank you.”

“It’s not small!” someone comments, and in that moment Xochi gets a peek of the catastrophe in question and her own saliva chokes her; the fire threads a dozen feet up the canvas tent by the north exit. Xochi flashes a frightened glance at Zora, who has instantly sobered and gestures with ambulant arms, “Come on!”

Zora climbs downward, rung by rung, and Xochi follows with her head ducked, fingers shivering and scraping against the metal. Twice she trips over an abandoned purse. She smells popcorn and cotton candy and bitter smoke. She remembers the saturation of the smell as a five-year-old when her abuelita scooped her from the burning hall.

Halfway down the bleachers, Xochi cannot see Zora and panics. The exits are bottlenecked, with the most desperate clamoring over one another like roaches. Xochi sees a woman trampled underfoot and begins shivering uncontrollably. Then Zora is beside Xochi, pulling her further downward. By the time they reach the ground, the entire north wall of canvas is aflame and the exit is impassable. A brave soul throws themselves through the threshold but their clothing catches and they spin and careen like a marionette, infecting more with flame.

Zora is yelling at Xochi, who cannot hear. Shuddering, Xochi beholds the flames licking upward; an inferno pools above them, hell a lake with black tides raw and blistering, raining judgment. Metal churns. The lights on the tracks shatter and swing and will fall in moments.

Zora shoves Xochi, face stern as she points to the bleachers and dives under, crawling in between the rungs toward the perimeter of the tent. Xochi follows, scraping her elbows against the dirt and it is slow-going until the rungs get higher. Others have had a similar idea and she sees them skulking in her periphery, but the bleachers act as blinders and she focuses only on her beloved, shutting out the screams except when her skirt catches on a ragged joint and she is stuck and wails, aware of her voice joining the cacophony. “Zora!”

Zora is almost at the edge of the tent when she turns and sees Xochi struggle. “Tear it!” Zora screams, like it’s Xochi’s fault, and when she can’t, Zora’s eyebrows furrow. She reaches for her Swiss Army knife and cuts Xochi out, cursing, “Fuck’s sake,” and then they are squeezing under the canvas, breathing crisp night air, running as fast as their legs will take them in whichever direction. Xochi no longer knows.

Xochi steals a backward glance for a second; in the center she sees the blazing tent half-collapsed, the blue breeze pollinating smaller tents with red embers, lighting them with death, skittering people over the bruise-like dark. A few safe persons stand startled, staring and mute; others pray on their knees. Xochi lunges for Zora’s hand, linking fingers as they run past the artisan stalls searching for the wide horizon. This is her prayer.

Suddenly, Xochi falls. She tumbles deeply into the earth, rolling and colliding and knocking her head hard against the ground. She sees whirls of light and a soft blackness.

She is held tenderly by that dark blanket. Then she becomes aware of distant crackling and the smell of earth and the smell of ash and her own sweat drying, which Zora has said smells like cooked huitlacoche.

“Zora?” Xochi murmurs. Her head is heavy. She touches her hand to the back of her head and her fingers come away wet.

She flickers her eyes. There is no tonal gradation until her retinas adjust and black blends to indigo, flecked stars disappearing behind a pluming cloud. The cloud and the weeping synchronize and her chest cavity flutters like a trapped bird. She remembers the flames.

“Zora?” she calls.

“I’m here.” The voice floats down.

“Baby?” It takes a few blinks and Xochi sees Zora’s face above, distant as if from a height. “Why are you far?”

“We were running across the field. You fell,” Zora says. Her voice sounds odd, clotted.

“I don’t think I can get up,” Xochi says. She feels the black blanket border her vision.

Zora replies nothing. Xochi can see the circles under Zora’s eyes, but the light is too dim to show her irises’ glorious green. Instead Zora’s eyes blend into her sockets.

Xochi’s vision blurs like steeping tea. “Is help coming?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m scared.”

“I know.”

Xochi feels muddled, as though her head is underwater. “Can you come?”

“You’re ten meters down a cliff drop.”

Xochi doesn’t know how many feet that is, but it sounds impassable. Tears prick the corners of her eyes and somewhere her head is splitting. “Stay with me,” she croaks.

Zora takes ages in answering, or else Xochi is ferried away from the words by drowsiness. She’s not sure.

“I want to leave,” Zora says. Her voice sounds as though it comes dug out from a well.

Xochi blinks. She doesn’t understand this sudden staking of agency. Zora’s heart-shaped face floats like a balloon toward the stratosphere and Xochi lifts an arm upward as though she might catch its string and tie it around her wrist, only there isn’t one. Her beloved’s face inks into the night sky.

“Baby,” Xochi whimpers. But the denseness thickens against her temples. She sees the plume of smoke, stars and no stars. Stars and no stars. Why are you far?

Xochi exhales and her breath dissolves into particles of matter refracted across the atmosphere. Night and day oscillate until the Anthropocene ends and the constellations wander, cores collapsing in their suns, stardust folding into the dark currents of black holes with degenerate stars and light years in between.

Jael Montellano

Jael Montellano is a writer and editor raised in Mexico City and the Midwest United States. She holds a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, and her fiction, which explores horror and queer life, has been featured in the Columbia Journal, Hypertext Magazine, Camera Obscura Journal, among others. Visit her website. Twitter: @gathcreator

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