A circus story

October 28, 2011
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When I was young my grandfather owned a glass cube that he used to check every night before sleeping. He showed it to me, one night, and I felt it in my hands. I felt the sharp edges and the clear faces. I would look through it, the diamond like markings on each surface and gawk. It was beautiful but it was still, then, to me, only an amusing toy. As I lay in bed and examined it, my grandfather, with his voice of shifting rocks, sat next to me one night and said “Do you see what’s inside, Aretta?” His droopy eyes watched me with a distant spark that gave me all the life in the world. I smiled, in my ignorance, as I turned the cube and peered through to see his swelled nose, like a peach, and those eyes again.
“Grandpa,” I giggled the word, “it’s empty.” It was his turn to smile, something sly and amused in all his sagacity as he turned the cube in my palms. He felt the edges with his nails and carefully opened its top. I stared with large eyes. I hadn’t seen the top-in all my time in playing with it and examining it had never occurred to me that it could be opened. He reached in, with a wizened finger, but his fingers didn’t show through in the cube. It was as if they cut off, out of the transparent observation of the box. He tilted the cube to my view. The inside was laced with a black covering, and he pulled, from the container, a small chain; looped with silver and a white cut pendant held by tiny fingers at its end. It was gorgeous. I watched his face, his smile lifting the wrinkles around his eyes and he laughed again; an aged man’s laugh threaded with coughing.
“Everything… is not always a clear cube, Aretta,” grandfather said, waving me foreword. I leaned in closer and her roped the necklace round my tiny neck. I parted my raven black hair to the side and felt the pendent in my hand. An illusion. I should have remembered that when all this was happening. I lost the necklace though-it was so long ago. I still had his memory, the cube and his smile. It’s all I need of him I think.

Now I’m rehearsing. I’ve been practicing this same trick for hours and I can’t say, in Mrs. Cinder’s eyes anyway, that I’ve gotten any better. I’m in acrobatic class. The only problem is I’m not an acrobat. I’ve been practicing for four hours straight and in these four hours it’s possible that Mrs. Cinders actually thinks I’ve exacerbated (OR worsened). She is the chorographer for my three piece part. It’s something like a crow call and dance. I hum in practice (but on stage I’ll sing), while moving my body with slow, controlled, flexible movements moving the crows with body language alone. It’s difficult. But to Mrs. Cinders there’s no such word.
“No, Aretta up! Lift your leg up! Higher!” Mrs. Cinders is as about as annoying as they come. I do as she says and stretch but I’m not an acrobat.
“I’m trying” I say.
“Alright stop. Let’s all take ten,” she says disgusted. I let my body relax and take a seat on the floor beside the mirrors. Mrs. Cinders is being ridiculous. I booked six shows last week and preformed them perfectly. I didn’t miss a beat or skip a step and after all of that she can’t even smile in my direction. She can’t even say “well done, Aretta.” She’s not satisfied until everything is beyond faultless. I grab a water bottle from the cart by the tent’s entrance and take a sip, pouring the rest on my face. I start to go back to my place, to stretch when I hear something.
“Pst! ‘Retta.” It’s coming from the tent entrance. I pretend to be getting another bottle and slip back over there. Parsifal pokes his head into the tent, his wild mop-like hair recognizable anywhere.
“C’mon,” he whispers “Navy Peak.” A second head pops in next to his; Caracal. “I can walk it,” she says excited. I hold my hands on my hips.
“Nuh-uh?” I can’t hide the skepticism in my voice. She makes a pathetic angry face and waves me over. I turn back to the class. Cinders would kill me… Cinders would kill me either way. That’s it. I leave my bottle by the cart and ducking down low, I slip out of the tent behind the two.
Performing lights
Navy Peak is the largest, uppermost cliff of the Anomaly City coast and Caracal can tightrope it just as easily. Standing on the edge of the cliff looking over I can see the white of the waves crashing below and straight ahead Navy Peak stands proud for the entire world to see against an orange and pink sky. Caracal smiles the whole way there and back as if she’s in front of an audience. No audience, just Parsifal and I.
Her curly white hair contrasts with the bright pink bow in her hair and she holds her head high and stiff, barley watching her step as she glides back in her black tights. She reminds me of a raven ballerina as she takes the last step off the tightrope gracing us with her presence on level land. Smiling wide she bows gracefully, feet positioned in different directions. La fin. Parsifal claps, genuinely impressed.
“Merci, Merci beaucoup, thank you very much, you’ve been a wonderful audience,” she says blowing kisses to the air. Her make up makes her look five years older than she really is and her crimson lips are painted to make them look small and full. A true Anomalite. I clap too because I’ve got it give it up to her, that took guts.
“Well I guess we know whose the bravest,” Parsifal shrugs tucking his hands in his pockets. His hands are a charcoal black over his caramel brown skin because of his trick. Parsifal’s a fire breather. It’s in his family heritage. He’s a Waltimer, named after the entertainer Walt, and everyone knows Waltimer’s are obsessed with the fire element. That’s why he’s shirtless too-not because of the warm spring weather-because it’s always spring in Anomaly, but because of the fire breathing thing.
“No!” Caracal squeals, a bubbly life in her aqua eyes, “Aretta didn’t get to go yet,” she says looking at me. I bite my lip. I was kind of hoping they’d forget by the time Caracal was finished. No suck luck. I yawn a fake yawn and cover my mouth. “Look guys I’m really tired,” I say. Caracal rolls her eyes and smiles at me like, c’mon, we know you’re not sleepy. She knows me way too well.
“C’mon, there’s nothing to be afraid of, Aretta,” Caracal jokes nudging my arm. It’s an ongoing joke that has been circling around for a while now. She knows how much I hate that, talk of stage fright.
I just want to clear something up. I did NOT get stage fright. If anyone says so it was probably Elliot because she hates me! There is only one greater insult to a train wreck of a performance and that is freezing up.
I stood in ballet position, right toe over left in first position and waited, waited for the city anthem to play, a jolly and upbeat sort of tune, and curtains to part to the stage. They finally rose to a magical blue fog seeping over the stage, curling, over itself and fading at its ends. I remembered every move and preformed them perfectly until the finally part. I was on my last line, of you can believe that. The words were there, the music rose to my cue when I glanced over the audience in their thick shadow and froze.
I saw something! That’s why I froze, NOT from stage fright, okay! No, there, past the stage, in the depths of the audience I noticed the top of a woman’s head rising, slowly out of place from all others. It would not have bothered me if only her body stood along with her head. A loud snap and her head jerked to the side revealing a ‘L’ shaped crack in what should’ve been her neck! But it wasn’t a neck it was more like a black pipe, as then as a bone and stiff as metal. My. Mouth. Dropped.
I forgot the show. Forgot my needing to sing. Caught in a trance that stronger than any hypnosis. Oh my gosh. I frowned in awe of the woman who didn’t let out a scream or holler or anyone around her. Anything out of place catches my attention. And this defiantly sent a shiver down my spine. I felt sick. I felt like hunching over and barfing all over the stage. I cupped my hands over my mouth, horrified. And if she or her family weren’t going to scream I was going to.
I screamed my little lungs out.
Everyone believes that I choked that night. That in the mist of my anxiousness I made an error and a terrible one at that. But I didn’t. I saw something and I know it.
Suddenly the light vanished. The stage lights flicker then dimmed to nothing making a loud powering down sound as they left me in the dark, along with the other dancers behind me. Groans of displeasure came from everyone. My screams stopped.
We were unshed off the stage immediately. Two heavy hands who I assumed to be security took me by the shoulders and lead me down the narrow steps leading backstage. The performers changing backstage stared at us in puzzlement; our performance wasn’t scheduled over for a while. “Technical difficulties, sorry ladies and gentlemen,” the guards were saying. They waved everyone far from the stage.
“No wait,” I said “I saw-”
“Technical… difficulties…” the man growled, like he was sticking to that story and that was final.
After the show Mr. Harper took me outside for a “chat”. It’s never a good thing, a chat with Harper. I wrapped the towel provided in the Changing area over my sleeveless dress. Makeup removed was the way Mr. Harper liked to speak to everyone, straight faced he called it; none of that silly color-paint business.

“Aretta, darling, I realize you’re only twelve years old, but I need for you to stay focused for me,” he said. “Please. For your job and mine.”
I blinked. “I don’t have a job,” I said. Mr. Harper rubbed his nose as if he could feel a migraine coming on, which very often happened to him. He blamed it on us “theatrical kind.” “And anyway I saw something out there,” I said. I can be a true Anomalite, I admit it, but this was NOT an exaggeration. That woman needed some serious medical attention!
Mom put her hands over my shoulders. “What she means to say is she’ll be sure of it,” she apologized for me. “Isn’t that right dear?” Mom being Mom I was forced to agree. But I didn’t. I still don’t. But maybe if I would’ve kept my big mouth shut I’d be an Elitist by now instead of RM, a Rising Master.
I’m ready to give in and make up some trick when a siren blares through the twilight air; the west wall alarm. It’s performance time.
I turn to Caracal and grin. She shakes her head like I always get what I want and Parsifal says “C’mon!” He starts down the hill, racing to the white fence where we left our bikes. Caracal and I start after him. I grab mine, a rusted indigo bike I call Blue Belle, and swing a leg over it. We race in full fury to the Cisco, turning up dust and leaving tracks behind. No one wants to be late. Especially me, since I’m the one with the part tonight.

No one knows where the audience comes from, and no one has ever asked. All we know is that on work days-usually Saturday or Sunday they come. We stand behind curtains with anxiety in our stomachs and anticipation in our hearts. Take deep breaths and then… we simply perform. I guess I never really thought about it but it is performing-what we do. To us it’s our life, our heritage, our hobbies and our joy. To them, the audience and all their mysteriousness, it’s breathtaking.
Tonight I am a part of the audience. I’m watching mom perform with Karla, a three two ton giant Indian elephant. She’s very talented, Karla. She races around the dirt circle and charms the crowd with her strength and ability to stand on one leg. I watch the audience from behind the black curtains. I hug my knees and starch my neck behind stage so I can see well. Everyone looks in aw. There are lots of kids in the audience too and so many curious faces. I’m in uniform too, like mom. She’s in her red vest and skirt and top hat. My act is a little different. My dark purple shirt has ruffles around the chest and sleeves and turtle neck.
“Aretta,” a enthused voice calls. I look backstage, past the jugglers and walking stilts and dancers to see a stubby, stiff suited man rushing towards me, waving a clipboard. The man’s Mr. Harper, but we all call him The Coordinator. He’s kind of a bland, chubby guy with his black hair slicked back. He’s also got a bit of a temper and a booming voice, which is good because he can easily capture the attention of any Anomalite nearby. But I don’t know why The Coordinator insists on wearing such tasteless clothing.
I leave the curtains and stand to my feet. “There’s my girl, my Ace!” he says with wide arms. I smile. He embraces me in a quick hug then stands back to look me over. “Okay, so you got your hair done and your make up,” he says as if he’s going through a mental check list. “headset?” he checks for the microphone hidden behind my hair. Roman did my make-up. She darkened the areas above and around my eyes and put mascara and white powder for the foundation to make my face paler. I’m pretty tan so it took a lot. She also pulled my hair into a high ponytail that whips like a like fly swatter. My dress is just extravagant. It’s black and ruffles from shoulder to shoulder and it morphs up into a turtle neck. The sleeves are fabricated into ruffles too.
The Coordinator smiles and through his grey mustache and the wrinkles rise under his eyes. “Knock ‘em dead, kiddo,” he taps my chin with his fists in a pretend punch. A sudden buzz makes him jump and presses his hand to the headset in his ear and says, “Yeah, okay.” Glancing up at me he said “yes she’s here.” He motions for me to stand by the curtains again and wait for my cue. Clenching and unclenching my fingers I close my eyes and breathe. Nice and slow like Forna taught me. I’ve been doing this for years, I tell myself, this is my passion-who I am. “The amazing…” our mayor’s voice rumbles through the microphone. “The Crooooww Callerrrr.” That’s me. I pull back the curtains and race out to the center of the dirt floor, where the spot light’s shining, anxious and ready. The crowd finishes clapping, their applause turning into an eager ilence.
The light is so bright everything else takes on a shadowed tent when I’m beneath it. I stand erect and confident, with the neck of a swan. My heart’s racing and my hands are moist. The music starts and hollowed violins begin; sad and slow. Showtime. And then… I sing. I open my mouth and the tune comes, something like a mix between opera and the chorus (musicians)-but my own style. The people I can see carry expressions of amusement. They stare curiously, wondering what I’m all about. But this isn’t why they’re here-to hear me sing.
The light dulls as I drop my head with a dramatic bong of a drum-adding in a little bounce for that hanging effect. The music sinks low and then starts up again, a dramatic symphony from the heavens, constantly arising. I continue to sing and my voice rises and falls with the music, harmoniously. The light flashes brighter, but this time over the whole stage and a white fog trickles from backstage and covers my feet. I have to ignore it. All at once another bong echoes throughout the stage signing the birds from either side of me, the latches of hidden crates fly open releasing a whirlwind of black feathers throwing themselves against the air. The crows break from their wooden cages, staged at my sides. Their wings flap and they fly overhead. I want to gawk at them, stare at their beauty but I’m supposed to look straight ahead. So I ignore them.
I extend my arm far to the left and lean that way, elegantly moving my gloved fingers. The birds follow my arm, the violins play faster and the drums bang to my heartbeat. Extend to the right, the birds swerve and circle me. I raise both arms up and drop my head back to strikingly loud violin chant, which means come and circle me. They surround me in a flurry-like a volcano of black feathers- and I bet the audience is dropping their mouths by now, gaping, glued to our tornado. They break the light around me into flashes of the stage, flashes of feathers as they fly, enclosing me in a cocoon of night and day. Shadows and lights.
I turn in my dress and it rises and falls in a vibrant circle; the ruffle like the waves of the sea. The tornado breaks and the birds make a ring above my head like dark clouds. The music goes sad and exhilarating. It sounds like a weeping widow. The birds are doing well, cooperating. They dance with me, around me then, I stop, stomping at the ground with my boot. Fog rises. I feel my lungs with air and I sing the final words in a loud opera voice. “See the wings fly over the dust sky!”
The music ends. I raise both arms above my head and sink, as if I’m falling to the fog.
Dropping sideways wood of the stage I shield my face from the audience and bounce my shoulders as if I’m crying. I hold this position, even though now is the perfect time to peek at the audience, until the lights dim. Birds return to their crates. The sound of their wings flapping like waving sheets of paper. Lights go black and I scurry off the stage and behind the curtains. I hear the audience cheer and clap and it makes me feel good. Really good.
Backstage Caracal and Parsifal and Mom are there to greet me. My heart’s still racing and my hands are still so excited they’re shaking. Mom has already changed into her wardrobe and now has on her earthy colorful orange skirt and tank top with her pendant around her neck. She smiles wide and grabs me into a hug. “Aww, honey, you did so well,” she squeaks. I soak up the complement and return a cheesy smile. She wrinkles her nose and takes my cheeks in her cold hands and I push away. I adore her but she can be SO embarrassing.
Caracal’s still in her tutu and tights because that’s what she always wears. She let her curly wavy hair down, though and removed only the sparkles in her purple eye shadow. “Yeah, Arty you killed it! Your voice was amazing!” I don’t like when people call me Arty, but I let her. She hugs me tight too and I tell her that her acrobatics were stellar-even though I was scared she might fall. I’m always scared she might fall. But Caracal’s like a cat, always landing on her toes.
Parsifal says I look scary in all black and that my eyes look a lot like a tiger’s. So when the make-up come off I’m more than happy to look like myself-and to have color in my face again. I’m changing in a small closet when I remember I wanted watch the audience leave and see our mayor wish everyone a good evening-so I race back to the curtains.
The stage is fully lit. The chairs are all visible where the people sat. The props are all still there… but the audience isn’t.

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