I got lost on my way to Maine, about a year after college, trying to make the last thirty miles on an empty tank of gas. I didn’t make it.
I coasted the car onto the shoulder, letting it glide along and those last yards slip behind me. I didn’t lay on the brakes. The air was cold and the sun was almost disappeared behind the canopy of pines that lined the interstate; I wasn’t willing to walk a single inch more than I had to, and hoped, with decelerating faith, that the tires might take me over an invisible decline, give me a nice, slow mile to check my map. I was fifteen miles from the last junction, unclear on what lay ahead. So when I stopped, I stopped dead – for I quickly learned that I had no map to consult.
I heard a noise. At first I was hopeful: maybe it’s the music rolling out of somebody’s window coming up the road, someone I can flag down, get me to a gas station. No. The road was silent. In the trees were the cawing of crows, the first strings of crickets and croaks. The noise didn’t sound like music at first. At first it was a rumble, a tempered breathing deeper than music, almost underground. I turned to the woods that bordered the interstate. I got out of my car and listened. Gradually, yes, it became music.
I peered into the woods. Well, if the music came from inside there might be a house in there, someone I could borrow a phone call from, I thought. So I zipped up my jacket and shoved my hands in my pockets, and walked in.
I walked for a long time, trying to pinpoint where the music was coming from. It moved, or it seemed to move until I stopped walking. I trudged ahead, the dried pine needles snapping under my heels, rotted branches going to mush. It got darker, and it got colder, but there was a light in the woods. And though the music seemed to circle me, the light stayed bright ahead. So I kept moving, towards that light, until the pines faded behind me and I moved into a thicker forest, a forest that smelled wetter, of uncurling freshness, like a mist unspooling each time I set my boots down. But the forest was clear, and green, moss on the enormous trunks like fuzzy faces, winking. The music followed me, and I followed the light.
It was hours later when I emerged into a clearing. Suddenly, free of the tangled bracken and monstrous oaks, I saw the light that had guided me, a single lamppost at the edge of the clearing that cast its bright light on a rotating carousel. The carousel was old, and slow to turn. The music belonged to it, and yet I heard the piped organs behind me still, from the slim spaces between the giant tree trunks. The music did not emanate from within the clearing; it shouted at it from the woods.
No sooner had I stepped into the clearing than the lamppost switched off. The carousel continued its turning, but faster. It creaked. The silver mirrors on its roof glimmered under the full moonlight; the plastic tent swirled, the brass rails and painted horses shimmered. The music behind me grew, as if perched upon my shoulders and fattening on my dread.
The horses began to gallop. Music and carousel circled in the clearing, the chords of the organ strained, screaming, the hydraulic frame squealing accelerando. Until the horses tore free of the spiral and came galloping for me in a parade of moon daubed plastic and ancient wood. The brass poles impaled through their bellies carved wet trails in the soil. Their hooves, their plastic hooves, made little noise at all. It was the music that filled my ears, the scrape of brass, and the hideous shriek of the gyrating carousel.
I ran from the clearing, back into the dense trees and their mossy faces, whose laughter sounded like organs, whose music was no music at all.