Rina Palumbo


It was seven in the morning; the amusement park would open in an hour. Leonardo had been awake since the first light had broken the night sky, a habit he had learned as a boy and could not unlearn now. Riding the ferry to work, he always stood, looking at all the younger men around him, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, smoking cigarettes, and looking like their work overalls were an unwanted layer of burned skin just waiting to peel away. When the boat was idled and stopped at the pier, he smiled and nodded to a few of them as they made way, as always, to let him be the first to step onto the grounds.

Most people noticed the horses and not much else. For Leonardo, the carousel that peeked out from the stubborn morning fog was a complex machine that relied, like all things, on balance.

The animals themselves were carved from wood, works of artisans long gone. The art was still there, although now under too many coats of matte paint and improperly cured varnish. Probably unnoticed, but with deliberate stealth, the management of the amusement park was selling off these animals to an auction house. He didn’t know how much the park made from these clandestine sales, but several new rides, all higher and faster than the old ones, had been installed. Leonardo, for his part, had no opinion on these changes.

The problem for Leonardo was that the plastic replicas of the old horses now mushrooming on the rotating stage, stubbornly and brashly reflective of any light cast upon them, were hollow at their core. This change in weight upset the careful balance that it was Leonardo’s job to maintain.

As he stepped onto the platform, he expertly wove his way through the rows of horses and, stepping down, opened the double doors leading to the machine’s heart. The doors slammed closed behind him. As he switched on the lights that filled the small room with a low hum, he touched a statue of the Virgin Mary above the right door with two quickly kissed fingers, an action so ingrained he often forgot he did it.

With the flick of another switch, the great bevel gear that made all the other components move started to turn. As Leonardo put on and buttoned his grey oil-stained overalls, he listened, eyes half closed, as the gears turned. There it was, just below the main rhythm, an off-key vibration. Instantly, he knew the adjustment he needed to make and turned off the main switch. As the carousel ground to a halt, Leonardo removed the housing plates. Reaching in, and with touch alone, he re-calibrated a timing loop and a small switch gear that was doing too much work and upsetting the order of energy release.  

Out of instinct, he felt and found a smaller metal plate that was warm to the touch. A little too warm. He opened this and lifted the gear casing into the light. Very slowly, he turned the gear, watching the bearings spin, looking for that tiny glint of light. It flashed. A stiff, sharp, bright pinpoint. Placing it on the work tray, he reached into his toolbox, into a jar on the bottom right corner, and took out a new ball bearing. Leaning forward, he carefully pulled out the old misshapen sphere and replaced it with the new one. Holding the repaired gear in his palm, he sensed the equilibrium return. He replaced it and gave the metal casing over it a quick tap with two fingers. Snapping on the outer housing, he set the machine moving again.

Leonardo’s hair was grayer now than when he started working as a mechanic. He had replaced almost every piece of the carousel machinery with his own hands, now held out as if in an offering. Empty, but still alive.

He opened the double doors. Sunlight had disbanded all the gray patches of fog. Perfectly balanced. Filling the world with color, the horses were turning in an eternal circle, spinning out exactly even flows of energy.

He heard the music start as the park opened its doors. It was eight in the morning; his work was done.

Rina Palumbo (she/her/hers) has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel and two nonfiction long-form writing projects alongside short-form fiction, creative nonfiction, and prose poetry. Her work is forthcoming or appears in Milk Candy, Bending GenresStonecoast, and AutoFocus et al.