Go Big or Go Home
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It isn't so uncommon — the wooden grinding of wheels against gravel. The pops as pebbles are crushed against one another and spat into the air. The trot of hooves and the smell of horse-dung the wagons carry with them. No, that doesn't catch my attention. They are merely integrated, sneaking in through the window at night, coming to rest on my pillow and whispering new dreams into my head. Dreams of a white-covered carriage and a handsome humble craftsman, extending his hand to me to pull me in with him and take me somewhere fantastic.

No, these ordinary sounds only lull me deeper. It is the hooting and hollering that wakes me up proper.

My eyes crack open, and I wonder if the pub down the street has left its doors ajar, but as I listen to the night, it only fills with more and more cheering.

I sit up. Celebrations? At this time of night? I look out my window at the looming orange moon, shifting as it were in the amorphous smoke of the house next door. Midnight, at least. An unholy hour to be awake for any girl my age. My heavy head urges me back to sleep, and I nearly follow it, curiosity dwindling, before my nose catches on to a peculiar aroma. One or two deep huffs of air, and all my senses come back in full. Awake, alert, and excited.

There is a moment's pause as I listen to the night and my body regains its energy. The occasion calls for stealth — Mother wouldn't be so happy finding me wasting my youth on nightly strolls again. I get out of bed and imagine my feet as mouse paws.

I slip on something more appropriate for an outing, but I rush and leave behind a fair deal of my usuals. I put on my dress but forego plenty of the ribbons, and I don my socks but forget to pull them high. A hat seems ridiculous for a night as warm as this, and I let my hair down because a braid would take too long. Besides, I only have so many good clothes, and the streets are muddy.

Another rise in the waves of whoops hastens my trip. I tip-toe past my mother's room on the second floor, and then run a pitter-patter down the stairs. In the pitch dark of the shop, I fumble for the keys on the counter and let myself out the front door.

The night is warm and inviting. Summer reaches even here in the foothills, where rain pools between all the cracks and crevices and the air is humid for a foreseeable eternity. The one-and-two story buildings come up everywhere terrain is flat enough, betwixt the verdant alders, beeches and grass. When I was very little, there used to be a family for every house, but now half the smokestacks are empty, and most windows are never lit. Somewhere far, but not too far, the city has drawn the eyes of my neighbors.

I lock the store behind me, and breathe deep. Above the damp soil comes that smell, that smell I've only smelled so many times, so much stronger than I have ever imagined I could smell it. Sweet and delicious — sugar.

I hear more substance in the yells as I draw closer to the crowd huddled outside of the pub. They are shouting bets. "Four shillings!" "Eight!" The crowd ooh's at the jump to doubling, and some louder, demanding voice rises above it: "A man of action! Any more?"

As I approach, I glimpse a basket passing between the hands of the men and their consorts — a crowd of drunkards and the occasional whore, all gleefully tossing coins at the taller man prancing around with the basket. His extended gait gives me pause, the way he stumbles about and nearly falls over, it looks like he must be walking on short stilts. His face comes with a modest patch of beard just below his lip and a bright, bristly moustache — he is clean and groomed enough to be taken for a higher class if not for the poorly-concealed patch seams sometimes caught by the fire's light. When I look at him, the senses clarify. The smell, the sweet, is his.

"Oh-ho! I think we're done," he bellows. I sneak up just to the glow's edge, so that my small stature might be lost in the darkness and the rowdiness won't suck me in. I find a log among the gravel and sit on it.

The stilt-man wobbles back to the center of the crowd, standing just behind the fire which throws long shadows from his legs across his chest and face. His mere stature and presence hushes the crowd into a captivated pause. Deeper, and louder than before: "I bring you a relic from a distant land! Where the sands twist and howl through the wind, and the sun crests so close to the earth you can feel its burn from a raise of the hand. To the south and to the east, the wide deserts from horizon to horizon, from sea to sea, the clouds are made of dust and the sky is red with fire."

He begins to stride, carefully and slowly, towards the front lines of the audience.

"And yet, in this place where God's name is foreign, they practice strange magic, a witchcraft that seldom graces the Western world. But in my travels I stumbled on this swarthy man, playing his tricks for scraps at a pub, and past his wrappings there was a terrible power in those dark eyes. That power, that very same power, I bring to amaze and astound you tonight! And now, I present the wonder himself… the mysterious, exotic, all-seeing… Zoltan!"

Behind the stilt-man, from the back of the wagon, emerges a man the likes of which I have never seen. His head is wrapped in black-purple cloth so that only his eyes and the bridge of his nose are visible. Thin strips of hair come through and hang around his face, further obscuring his eyes, and behind that curtain a fire dances within them, brought to life in his pupils and shining like a cat's. As he moves, there is a slight jingling that brings me to think of a jeweler.

The crowd laughs as he starts to circle around the fire, small chips of metal on his cloak catching the embers and sparkling like stars. He closes his eyes, and walks so close to the flames I fear his clothes might catch.

"Take your seats," the stilt-man insists, "while Zoltan draws your names from the ether!"

The crowd dutifully sits on the ground or wherever is available, some in the dirt and some on stools. With a shaking hand, strong and dirty, graced with tarnished, bent rings on each finger, Zoltan reaches to his forehead, and smooths the cloth back. When he takes his hand off, below it is an eye — painted, red and purple, that glistens like grease in the flickering light.

Zoltan starts making great motions with his hands, extended to the crowd, like he really is pulling names out of people's heads. He takes deep breaths, and the crowd chuckles at his theatrics.

"Get on with it," someone slurs.

"Quiet!" the showrunner bites. "This mastery takes time!"

Still, Zoltan winks an eye open to glare at the offender, and then goes back to his blind wandering. Eventually, he lands on one woman and puts both his hands on her head. The man with his arm around her seems to lean in to slap him off, but before he can:

"Audrey Smith!" Zoltan announces. The lady looks around with a stupid smile on her face, her mouth agape.

"Hey, any girlie can have tha—"

Zoltan points to the interruption. "Nick Coulhan!"

That shuts him up quick. Zoltan continues around the circle, either in order or singling someone out if they interrupt. "Padraig Odelia! Fergus, Samuel, Jack Abner, Edmund Vignau!" He turns his finger to someone milling about the back. "You… you wouldn't like it if I said your name."

Eyes turn, and the man chuckles and waved a hand at Zoltan, confirming his suspicion. The crowd ooh's, and soon people have forgotten all about the wager and are simply raising their hand, asking that Zoltan guess their name.


"And my wife's?"


"My daughter?"

"Trick question," Zoltan states, and turns away from him with some flare. "She isn't born yet."

Another round of pointing and naming. "Aubrey, Elmer, Leon Fletcher, and that one…" Zoltan seems to reach above the crowd to point at… "Selma Bridgers."

The crowd parts, in their own sloppy clumsy way, so that no one stands between myself and Zoltan, his finger unerring, his stance like a fancy swordsman, so that his side is to me and his chin is turned up.

"Oh ho ho!" the stilt-man reminds me of his presence, "a young girl has stumbled into our midst! And what are you doing up so late?"

I stand, and stutter. "M-me? I was… I…"

The stilt-man strides up to me, looking wildly off-balance and yet staying upright the whole time, until he is just in front of me. Even as he kneels to greet me, he is nearly twice my height. "Little girl! You surely don't want to be one with this crowd of hooligans and ne'er-do-wells! Aren't ladies like you tucked in bed at this hour?"

I try to get out a sound, but he just continues: "Ohh, or could it be…" he leans in close enough that I take a step back, but then pulls something out of his shirt pocket. His voice lowered: "This?"

The smell.

With him backlit by the fire, I can't make out the object he holds, but then he is standing and pacing back to the jeering crowd, upset as they were by the "hooligan" title. But where he goes, he leaves a trail, and I, the ant, follow the pheromone. I toddle forward, trying to keep up with him and whatever he has in his hands, and it seems the rest of the drunkards start to notice.

"More of the good stuff!" one astutely observes. "Didn't you run out?"

The stilt-man doesn't respond, and Zoltan obediently relinquishes the spotlight, his glittering cloak the only give-away of his presence behind the silhouettes of the crowd he begins to circle. "Ran out? There's always room for dessert! And we have a special guest, now, don't we?"

Once I am well within the boundaries of the audience, he leans down again, and I see that he is holding a single candied nut, like those I remember from Christmas. Just this? my eyes widen, such a smell from so small a thing?

But I must have it. My hand reaches out, and he gingerly places the candy into my palm. The audience boos my special treatment. The stilt-man ignores them, only watching me chew.

It is like nothing I've ever tasted — sweet beyond compare, to such a degree my teeth hurt. Its surface coats my mouth like a popped grape, its juices nutty and decadent and overwhelming. For a moment I can only imagine that I have eaten that which belonged only to royalty — that I have stolen from some forbidden wealth and would soon be punished.

But instead, a warm feeling fills my body from head to toe. I feel my cheeks flush, and my head fill with air. I nearly fall but stick out a foot to catch myself.

"Woah! The little lady has little tolerance, doesn't she?"

The words swirl in my head like they are from another place, and everything left is taste. The colors in my world become coated with candy, the fire's rising smoke turning into a cottony pink cloud. The patchwork suit of the platform man dissolves into wild shapes that play and champ at each other, and when he speaks, his mouth sheds light like a jack-o-lantern's.

He grabs my arm to keep me on my feet, and then shakes his head while somewhere far away a mob craves that very candy he has given me. "No more!" he fends them off. "She's a special guest! My daughter! My heavens, if I knew you would be so rowdy, I wouldn't have made her part of the act!"

I can't argue, because I haven't the head to tell if he is right or wrong. He lifts me up and puts me on his back, like he's protecting me from a pack of wolves, and with my head so light he feels like a mountain — like he is lifting me into the heavens, and I am at once afraid of the fall back down. I begin to mewl and moan as best I can with my world so distorted and my muscles so disobedient of my commands and he seems to interpret this as my fear of the drunken fools. "Well then, our act must be on the road at once! You people simply can't control yourselves. Toodle-oo, and may we never meet again!"

He waves Zoltan over, who looks like a spattering of the cosmos itself, and we all retreat into the wagon through the back. As we enter, the smell becomes more than mere scent but the air itself. It's like we step into a sugar-oven. The air is warm and intoxicating, so much so that I nearly faint.

"Ah, our little lady is heavy! Zoltan, lay out some sheets for her. And Hare! Pull us out of here, we've collected our dues this night. I don't want to remain for the aftermath."

I moan, trying to get some kind of word to come out. Where are we going? I need to be home. But nothing happens.

"What's our change look like?"

"Enough for a feast the next town over, and a cleaning of our ladies' hooves."

"Astounding," the stilt-man says, placing me on some bench where I slump over immediately, only able to gently wave my hands outstretched in front of my face and watch the fingers turn from ten to twenty to thirty until I blink the duplicates away.

I feel something gentle and woolen coat me from my shoulders to my feet. "There," Zoltan says.

I close my eyes. Make it go away, I silently wish, make it go away, make it go away. My head spins no matter how much I will against it. Make this all go away.

"There," the stilt-man agrees. "She can sleep the sugar off. Leave her be."

Their voices starts to get very far away. "What do we do with her?" Zoltan asks.

There's a pause, or maybe I slip out of consciousness for a second before I hear the response: "Hare, find somewhere discreet for the night."

Cricket song. Wet leaves on my left cheek. I'm lying down, somewhere dark. Light from the corners of my vision. My ears tune to voice tones.

"… an animal is hard to train. Do you see what I'm saying?"

Some mumbles of agreement. I blink my eyes. My head is still light, but clearer. My mouth doesn't respond to my wants, and neither does the rest of my body. However, in what little wiggling I can accomplish, I quickly come against restraints.

"She's awake," some new voice says.

"Thank you, Hare. I never would have known!"

I hear steps. The warm night air meets with my flushing cheeks. I wriggle my jaw, only to find my mouth is open, but there's something in it, tied around my head. I create some kind of sound, weak as it is, a moan or somesuch up from my sternum.

"Well?" the showrunner asks. "Any other ideas?"

My ankles are bound, and my wrists are tied behind my back. The dirt meets my skin from my temple to my feet. Fear starts to crowd out the lingering effects of the candy, and my muscles tense. I can see nothing but some shifting shadows from the flickering light of a lantern behind me.

A toddler's squeal comes through my throat, and I start to fight hard against the restraints, only accomplishing a change in position, from my side to prone.


I hear the rubbing of two pieces of wood together.

"It appears I didn't hire conversationalists, did I?"

I start to find some kind of rhythm in squirming which makes me gain ground against their voices. Progress, meaning. Direction. I start to move as fast as I can, like a little worm who's never been a worm before, pushing against the dirt and towards whatever else.

A boot is shoved underneath my stomach, and flips me onto my back.

Above me, there is the stilt-man, without his stilts. The travelling entertainer. A lantern from some other source illuminates only the right side of his face, but his eyes catch some flick of the fire to give them orange glimmering pupils that stare down at me through the thick fog of terror and drug.

"You all lack vision," he says. He takes one deep breath, and then crouches down. I try to wiggle away, but he places his hands on my shoulders and pushes me down into the earth, pinning me. His orange eyes spear through my head. I try my best to look away, but only when I close my eyes can I escape his awful gaze. He studies me like the men study meat at the butcher.

"Hello, you," he whispers, almost only breathes.

For a moment, he only looks at me. I hear the shuffling of feet from somewhere — above me to my right. There is a cough, and the entertainer looks up, his moustache catching on the light, hanging in the air with a perfect coil.

"Do you need… help?" Hare asks.

"Hm?" His eyes return to me. "No, no. I'm just getting a sense of our newest addition! Selma. Hello, Selma! I'm Herman, Herman Fuller, and I get the sense that we are going to get along swimmingly. I'm giving you the opportunity to be part of something bigger, something grander, a spectacle for the world to see and love! Only, we have to make you something loveable first, and, well, that process isn't so easy." He holds something up to the lantern light that I can't quite make out. "In other words, sorry for the gag, and you may feel a little pinch."

I scream as the wooden blade goes through my right side and out the back. I scream again as the second one mirrors it, and both pin me to the forest floor. My vision swims, and my world loses itself to the shearing of my flesh and the pooling blood underneath my bare back.

He stands above me, impassive, though I can hardly make him out past the tears pooling in my eyes.

"Zoltan, come here."

He leaves my vision. Every motion, every straining of muscle, only pulls at the wounds in my loins, the new orifices leaking my lifeblood. I cry and screech, but the gag muffles my attempts.

I hear some kind of physicality. "Come here. I need you to be here for this. You aren't the first Zoltan, and if you're lucky, you can be the last, do you understand me?"

A pause. The crickets have ceased their calls to cede the stage to my suffering.

"Of course," he replies, too quiet.

"Progress is hard, Zoltan. Progress takes fucking effort. I thought you told me, 'I have the heart for it.' I thought you told me, 'I have the gift.' Now come here, Zoltan, and look at it. Look at progress, look at it in the eyes."

My cries redouble as a boot stomps the blade further into my side, sawing through tissue as it goes.

"Just you wait. One day, this will be a whole industry. Someone can be on the ground using their hands, and I'll call the shots. But you have to work hard to never work again, and the work… oh, the work."

He crouches down, and rests both hands on the handles of the wooden knives, staring into my face of agony again. "Hmm. I'm not very practiced at growing fur. Selma! I declare that you, then, will be our fantastically intelligent pig. I think that will really sell on the flyers, don't you?"

His fingers drum on the handles, and then he stands again. He breathes deep, and pumps his arms back and forth. "And a one, and a two, and a three." Clap.

He plummets his hand onto my stomach with such force that I immediately vomit and begin to choke. He starts to mutter in some language I can't understand — not that I can listen for words, now that my mind is taken with the bile clogging my mouth, preventing the passage of air from my nose to my lungs, burning in my esophagus.

But his hand, his hand goes through my skin, like his arm and my guts have molded into one being, and I begin to feel some things long and serpentine shoot out the point of impact beneath my skin, reaching into my extremities and into my hands and feet, one then coming through the meat of my neck and wrapping around to the back of my head. His muttering continues, and the blades begin to burn.

My body changes.

First, my belly expands.

I swell like a balloon, starting with my stomach, but the bloat reaches up to my chest and then starts to blow through my neck. Once the transformation reaches my head, something worse begins to happen. My cheeks extend, and I can feel my bones stretch and break and reform and stretch again. The bridge of my nose pulls forward like a sapling reaching towards the sun, and my nostrils turn up at the end where there forms a flat face.

My eyes drift to the side of my head, and my ears pull up to the top. My cries start to change their tone, from gargled screams to squeals. My limbs pull at their restraints as their sockets stretch and their flexibility limits. My wrists break free first, pulling in front of me as they're angled up towards the sky, and at their ends my fingers are encased together in new hooves made from my expanding fingernails. My legs soon follow suit, as the back end of my spine grows and pushes against my skin, fracturing and stretching and healing and fracturing again.

As soon as it started, it stops. The tendrils whip back to their point of origin, and his hand pulls out of my putty-like stomach, which in his absence hardens into something closer to skin.

He stands to full height and looks down at me, my still-human eyes leaking tears from some new system I'm not familiar with, my stubby arms-turned-legs waving in the air, my inhales snorting and squealing.

He breathes heavily.

"Well, that was unpleasant." He brushes some dirt off of his pants where he knelt on the ground. He turns to his compatriots: "Eh? Looks like a pig?"

I hear some grunts of affirmation. I stop making noise and just lay there, breathing heavily, my lungs weighted by my new layers of fat. Everything feels wrong.

"Good. Maybe we can make it walk on two legs, or do math. The fantastically intelligent pig. Let's think of a name on the ride. Hare, go drag it into the wagon, it should be too tired to fight you."

He's right. I don't have good enough control of my body to fight him. Hare heaves my rotund figure with ease, and carries me back into the cart. Along the way, the entertainer unties my gag and throws it to the ground, coated as it is in bile. They toss me in, and Hare goes around to the front. The cart begins to move, as the entertainer and Zoltan sit on either side of me. I just lay and heave.

"How's this, Zoltan: Herman Fuller's Precocious Prancing Pig!! Eh?"

The pause is pregnant.

"I like it," Zoltan replies.

Herman takes one sharp breath, then reaches over me to pat Zoltan on the cheek.

"I knew you'd come around." He leans back in his seat and spreads his arms along the headrest, then takes his glittering eyes and looks down towards me.

"We'll all be big one day. You just wait and see. Like one big, happy family."

He laughs, careless that no one joins him.

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