But for the gigantic Ferris wheel that towered over it, the town was utterly unremarkable. A handful of brick houses, painted white and with grilled square windows, lay scattered about, perimetered by short thick boundary walls that kept the stray dogs away. A solitary road, covered in dust with disuse, passed through the town and continued on, on either side, in a straight line across the unending, barren plains. No vehicle had been seen on this road for many years; the wizened elders of the town spoke wistfully of a time when each day, in the early morning light, a long line of trucks, came and went, and the kids ran behind them for as long as they could, and sometimes came back with lozenges that the drivers had offered them. Not even a mailman came now, for everyone the townsfolk knew lived in the town, and there was no need for a letter to be written or received.
Nobody remembered how the Ferris wheel had come to be there. It had been there for as far back as the oldest memories would go. It belonged to the family that had a different last name than everyone else’s and had been passed on from generation to generation like an heirloom. In the evenings, the wheel was lit up with a million yellow-red bulbs, and the entire town made its way to it for a ride. They waited patiently for their turn to arrive, indeed often allowed the kids to break line and run up ahead of them in the queue; after sundown, when the children were no longer allowed on it, the elders rode the wheel and stared into the moonlit distances with tears in their eyes. There were no tickets; the family was recompensed with free food and a place to live.
The family, two middle aged men, their wives and the old invalid patriarch, lived in a cottage right next to the wheel. Throughout the day, the two men toiled on the wheel, cleaning and oiling and fixing, while the wives cooked their meals and looked after the patriarch. The patriarch, whom the rest of the village had rarely seen since the incident, remained in bed throughout, moaning occasionally whenever a sharp spasm shot through his wasted muscles and bones. On some evenings, when the weather was pleasant and the patriarch was in a good mood, the two men, his adopted sons, carried his cot outside so he could see his beloved Ferris wheel. On such days, the queue below the wheel appeared shorter than usual and nobody rode after sundown. They had, several times, asked the family to not bring the patriarch so near the wheel again, but his two sons had remained defiant. There was one time when the entire town threatened to never ride the wheel again and stop offering them food. For ten days, they did not; the brothers still spent the day working at the wheel but in the evening when nobody arrived, they took turns to ride the wheel themselves with their wives, while their father lay on the cot below, watching them. The lack of food, it appeared, did not bother them. On the eleventh day, the kids returned with their mothers, and a couple of days later, so did the fathers.
Though there were various versions of the story of what happened to the patriarch all those years ago, they varied only in the minor details. The story went thus:
The patriarch was six years old when it happened. In those days, he was like any other kid his age, oblivious and happy. It was his father who worked the wheel then. The boy hadn’t ever been on the wheel till then, of course, for kids below the age of six weren’t allowed on it. On his sixth birthday, like had been the tradition in the family for many generations, he was bathed with rose-scented water, and odes of the family’s unknown, mysterious religion were sung. His father then spent the rest of the day with him, explaining to him the many intricacies of the wheel and that he was now as much the owner of it as his father. When the hour came, they placed him in one of the gondolas, to the sounds of conch shells blown into.
But then, something strange started to happen. The moment he entered the gondola, the wheel began to move by itself. It moved slowly at first, and the father tried to stop it with his hands, for he thought it was merely a stray gust of wind that had caused the movement. But it didn’t stall. It continued to move and pick up speed. By the time the gondola was halfway up, the wheel had begun to rotate as fast as anyone had ever seen it. The boy began to cry. The people, gathered below, who had stood staring up until then, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing, eventually snapped back into action. They shut the power supply and when somebody suggested that putting an obstacle in its way might help, they found a long sturdy ladder and dragged it to the wheel, so its sides brushed against the wheel’s. The wheel did not stop. Each time the gondola with the boy in it came down to its lowest point, they caught glimpses of him trapped inside, staring back at them.
For two hours the wheel rotated thus, and would not stop. And then they saw the grilled gate of the gondola swing open and the next second, the boy jumped. In a few minutes, the wheel came to a standstill. The boy lay in a pool of blood, miraculously alive but robbed of the use of his legs forever.
That the boy, now the patriarch, had the devil in him was unanimously agreed upon.
He moved around on crutches for a few years. He even tried convincing his father that he could still help with the wheel. His father refused to let him touch the wheel, but agreed that he could collect the bread and other food that the people brought for them. He did it for one day, forcing himself to not look at the wheel, for whenever he did, he could see kids like him on it, and it made him cry. The next day, nobody turned up. It emerged that the town would have nothing to do with the wheel if the boy was to be present near it, in plain sight. That evening, he told his father that he would stay indoors. He went to bed later in the night and never got out of it since.
By and by his father died. The town became worried that, with him, the Ferris wheel and their evenings riding it would die too. But then, one morning, they found two teenage boys cleaning the wheel. When asked who they were, they said they were adopted sons of the patriarch. The Ferris wheel survived.
It had been twenty years since.
One day, the town woke up to torrential rains. They looked out of their windows in amazement, for it hadn’t rained in three years. They poked their hands tentatively out; the raindrops were exploded in their palms in small, frosty bursts. The sky had turned an unnatural grey and in the distance, lightning spread like fissures on parched soil. The clouds hung so low, they seemed to touch the top of the Ferris wheel.
The rain fell for a month and nobody ventured outside their homes. Then, all at once, it stopped raining one morning. The clouds turned paler, and a red glow seeped into them from the horizons. Immediately, everyone rushed to the Ferris wheel. They found the two brothers sitting on the soggy soil and staring at the wheel. It wouldn't start, they said. The motor had remained submerged in water for too long. They'd drained the water out and tried everything they could, but it wouldn't start. The town hung around the wheel for the rest of the day, staring suspiciously at its parts and offering suggestions. Nothing worked. The wheel stayed resolutely still.
The next morning, the Patriarch woke up to an unnatural stillness - a stillness that seemed to him like it pervaded the world and not just his cottage. And there was a smell – a damp pungent smell, which made his nostrils itch. It was a smell he had smelled in his most terrible dreams, in which he had visions of the Ferris wheel on fire or disintegrating into the ground. He did not move for a long time, waiting for a common sound, a whiff of the usual arid breeze that would pierce the stillness. None came. The crutches, unused for decades, stood by the bedside. He looked at them and sighed. He felt nervous but not agitated. Perhaps, he had seen this in one of his dreams.
He walked out to a crimson sky, with patches of fire, out of which bellowed out black smoke. On both sides, the barren plains were obscured by huge columns of smoke escaping the earth, the same colour as the smoke in the sky. The town was burnt to ashes. All that remained was his cottage and the Ferris wheel.
He smiled. The ends of the crutches dug into the black soil as he made his way to the wheel. When he reached the wheel, he turned and looked back at the devastation. Then he helped himself into a gondola. The wheel began to turn.