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The Magician's Circus
I was born a freak.
I’m not being dramatic or looking for sympathy, but honestly, is there anything else you can call a baby with white hair and mismatched grey and green eyes who was found on an orphanage doorstep floating a foot above the ground?
Well, besides Petronella.
I was found, as I said, floating outside of an orphanage. When one of the matrons came out to hang up the laundry, she saw me and freaked out, dropping her laundry basket and running inside. Eventually, another, more compassionate woman came outside and pulled me out of the air. Luckily, she was the woman in charge of the orphanage. She was also the only one who was willing to take me into their care. The other matrons kept their distance, and the other girls called me a witch.
It did not help that my magic only grew from the first day. Once, in the summer, I was too hot to sleep, and suddenly snow was falling throughout the orphanage. As punishment, I was on dish duty for two weeks. There was also a time when meatloaf was served for dinner. Meatloaf was something I did – and still do – loathe. Inadvertently, I transformed my plate of meatloaf into a platter piled high with warm chocolate cookies. The enticing cookies actually earned me a few friends, but I had to mop the kitchen for a month.
As I grew up, some of the older girls began to tease me. They told me I was a crime of nature and should be locked up. By then I had two friends – Poppy and Elizabeth – who had bonded with me over a shared love of chocolate cookies. They were always with me and would pull me away from the cruel girls and their snarky comments, stopping me from performing any accidental magic. I think they were the only reason I lasted so long in the orphanage. If not for them, I would have been cleaning that awful place until I died.
One day, for a matron’s retirement party, all of the girls over ten took a trip to the circus. I was twelve at the time, and everyone was in a fairly good mood, so I was allowed to go with them. I held Poppy’s and Beth’s hands tightly the entire walk over, slightly nervous that the matrons would reconsider and make me go back. Luckily, my worrying was unnecessary. They were all so caught up in reminiscing about childhood circuses that they barely even noticed me.
When we arrived at the circus, the celebrating matron announced we were allowed to split up into groups of at least two and explore the circus. Poppy, Beth, and I were on our way before she even finished her sentence. The towering tent of the Big Top drew us in, and so we pushed our way past the crowds and through the red-and-white fabric flaps which served as the door. Our newfound freedom, though temporary, thrilled us. Our feeling was only amplified when we found three empty seats right in the front row. We were so close to the ring, we could see the clowns’ makeup running in the heat once the performance started.
We spent the entire first half of the show on the edges of our seats, enthralled by what we saw. There were acrobats and clowns and animals, all of which were foreign to us. For me, though, nothing else about the show even came close to the wonder of the magician.
He entered the tent dressed in a pristine black suit and top hat. Striding into the center of the ring as if he owned the show, he announced to the audience that he was capable of wondrous magic. I could not stifle my faint laugh; even I, who had never before seen a magic show, knew magicians used sleight-of-hand in place of real magic.
However, I began to suspect this magician was different as soon as the sound left my mouth. His eyes found me in the crowd as he twisted sharply to face in my direction, and I sucked in a breath. He walked over to the divider between the audience and the ring and extended his hand over it, inviting me into the show. I hesitated, but Poppy and Beth simultaneously shoved me from behind. After nearly falling over the barrier, I took the magician’s outstreched hand and followed him, glaring at my friends over my shoulder.
“This,” the magician called to the audience, is my new assistant-” He broke off, bent down to me, and whispered, “What’s your name?”
“Petronella – Nell,” I replied, deciding to give him my simpler nickname.
He straightened. “My assistant, Petronella-Nell!”
The audience laughed, and I felt my cheeks heat. Unfazed, the magician continued. “Petronella-Nell is going to help me with a trick. It is a very simple card trick, but I assure you, it is in no way boring.”
He waved his hand and a deck of cards appeared in his hand, seemingly from thin air. The audience clapped. Even I was impressed; even though I stood right next to the magician, I had not seen him pull the deck from up his sleeve. However, upset from the “Petronella-Nell” jibe, I made the deck disappear. The audience noticed, their applause faltering. The magician seemed bewildered as well, but he recovered quickly, saying, “Well, didn’t I tell you it wasn’t the average card trick?”
The audience chucked, and, with a flourish, he conjured up a new deck of cards. Interesting, I thought. Could he have had two decks? Experimentally, I made the second deck vanish as well. Before the audience even noticed, an identical deck was in his hands again. I hardly dared to believe it, but there was no explanation for his tricks other than the fact that they weren’t tricks. He had magic, just like me.
Startled by my revelation, I peered up at the magician. He glanced down at me, and my heart nearly stopped. Up close, I could see the roots of his seemingly dark hair – white, just like mine. The corners of his mouth twitched up into a smile, and he winked at me before pivoting back to the audience.
I stood, stunned, as the magician began narrating his card trick to the audience. Facing me, he held the deck between us and spread the cards into a perfect arc. “And now, my assistant will pick a card.”
I placed my hand on the deck and drew out a card. Unable to resist, I swiftly transformed the faces of all the cards, including my own, into identical black-and-white jokers. The magician appeared not to have noticed, and he turned to speak to the audience. “My assistant has picked one card. I will now reveal to you what it is.”
He restacked the deck as he spoke and shifted it to one hand. Closing his eyes and placing a finger to his temple, as if trying to read my mind, he went completely motionless. I waited along with the audience, breathless with anticipation, wondering what he would do. After about a minute, his eyes abruptly shot open and I gasped, startled by the sudden movement.
He fanned the deck out so the faces were visible to the audience and held it towards the stands, rotating in a slow circle to show them the deck. Murmurs raced throughout the crowd as each audience member caught sight of the deck. Completing his revolution, the magician stopped, once again facing me. The cards he showed were all jokers, just as I had made them. I felt a tinge of regret for ruining his trick, and wondered if I should change my card back. Before I could decide, he put out his hand, palm up, silently asking for my card. I tentatively laid it in his palm, face down.
For a long moment he did not move, my card exposed in his hand. Then, without warning, he spun, tossing my card high into the air. “The Queen of Hearts!” he yelled, as the card climbed upwards. It flipped end over end too quickly for anyone to see if it was indeed the queen, and so the entire crowd was hushed with breathless anticipation. The card reached the apex of its throw, seeming to hang in the air for an impossibly long time. Suddenly it shattered, and several audience members screamed. Fragments of paper fluttered down, each one bearing a miniature Queen of Hearts on its face.
The magician bowed to thunderous applause, snatching one of the papers out of the air as he straightened. He showed it to the audience once more before making it disappear with a flick of his hand. Simultaneously, I felt the card appear between my fingers. “Thank you!” The magician shouted to the still-applauding audience. He regarded me with a smile. “And thank you too, Petronella-Nell.”
Not yet daring to examine the card in my hand, I walked back over to my seat. Poppy and Beth jokingly congratulated me on the start of my magic career, but even as their laughs rang in my ears, an idea began to grow. By the time we left the circus some glorious hours later, I knew for sure I would be back.
I started my plans to join the circus that night.
Now, three years later, I am finally ready to make my escape. I pull out the magician’s card, which is printed with the circus’s newest address. It has changed over the years, the text on the face of the card twisting and morphing into different words and numbers. Tonight, it reads:
King and Oak Streets
50 paces straight, 198 left, 203 right
The address always starts somewhere close, but I never see or hear of the circus. I figure some magic must be involved; after all, why have a magic circus and not reap the benefits? I slip the card back into my pocket and walk over to my bed. Reaching under my pillow, I take out two folded letters with Poppy’s and Beth’s names written on them. Carefully, I make my way to the space between their beds and place their letters on their respective pillows. Neither of them wake up, and I cautiously walk away. I tiptoe over to the window and shove it open. With a simple hand gesture, I conjure a ladder to connect the windowsill to the ground.
Standing on the window ledge, I consider the ladder, my path to freedom. It's so close, but do I really want to leave the only home I have ever known? I start to look back, but force myself to stop. I have already made my decision. I'm going to the circus. After drawing in a deep breath, I slide through the window and descend the ladder. As soon as my feet touch the grass, I feel a rush of exhilaration.
I break into a run, sprinting down the concrete sidewalk which runs alongside the orphanage. I take a hard left when I reach the end, turning on to Oak Street. In barely five minutes, I arrive at the corner of Oak and King, I pause, breathing heavily, my breath creating faint clouds of smoke in the cool night air.
Closing my eyes, I picture a compass to help point me in the right direction. Its needle quivers as I rotate slowly, trying to align it with north’s “N.” Once it lines up, I turn slightly to my right so I face northeast. I take the magician’s card out of my pocket again, studying the directions. 50 paces straight. I walk forward, counting as I go. One, two, three… Soon, the tally in my head reaches fifty. I look in front of me and see nothing but grass, scattered with a few trees. Over my shoulder, I can make out the faint outline of the town behind me, obscured as it is in a thick fog bank. I face left and start counting again.
One hundred and ninety-eight paces later, the circus is nowhere in sight. The town I left behind is no longer visible, and the wide-open field in which I am standing still offers nothing but trees. I take the card out again to read the final directions: 203 paces right. I spin to my right and begin counting again.
Several minutes later, I count out the two hundred and third step, my eyes locked firmly on the ground in front of me. Now I admit to myself that I am too afraid to look up, frightened of seeing absolutely nothing. After my taste of freedom, there is no way I can return to the orphanage. I don’t know what I will do.
Heart hammering in my chest, I slowly lift my head. My eye catches on a strip of fabric striped with red and white. I look up, my eyes following the stripes, and see the welcoming flaps of the Big Top tent. A rush of relief flows over me, making my whole body tingle. “It’s here,” I whisper, almost too stunned to speak. “It’s really here!”
I push my way through the entrance flap, the touch of the rough canvas bringing back memories of my first journey to the circus. I am engulfed in sudden brightness, and I blink rapidly to adjust my eyes. Except for the fact that it's empty, the tent is exactly as I remember it: rows upon rows of waiting seats, all facing the wide-open ring, the heavy aroma of sawdust and cotton candy in the air. There is something eerie about the emptiness, though. This place that was made for laughter and screams of excitement is just waiting, silent. I step farther into the tent, absentmindedly making my way into the center of the ring as I look around. My feet kick up clouds of sawdust as I walk. Stopping directly in the center of the tent, I tilt my head back, catching a glimpse of the moon through the minute gap in the canvas ceiling.
A sudden, quiet noise draws my eyes to the entrance flap. In walks a man dressed in a grey suit and hat which are nearly the same shade as his beard, mustache, and bushy eyebrows. A monocle magnifies one squinting eye as he attempts to examine me from across the room. “Are you the girl?” he calls.
I stammer, unsure of my answer. He interrupts me: “Are you the girl he told us about?”
When I remain silent, the man becomes frustrated and storms over to me. “Listen closely, girl,” he growls, his face so close to mine that I can see the cloudiness in his brown, monocle-clad eye. “Were you or were you not summoned here by the magician?”
“I – he gave me this,” I reply shakily, drawing the card that had led me here out of my pocket.
The man snatches it from my hand, his eyes moving back and forth rapidly as he examines the card. His head jerks up sharply, and I find myself staring directly into his eyes. A shudder runs down my spine, but even as I watch, a sudden change comes over the man’s face. He breaks out into a broad smile as he grabs my hand and pumps it up and down enthusiastically. “So nice to finally meet you!” he cries. “I’m sure you will make a splendid addition to our circus – if you make it, that is.”
“If I make – what?” I say, stepping back. The second I release the man’s hand, he disappears, leaving the tent empty around me. I whirl around, but I can't see a thing. It takes me a moment to realize the tent has gone pitch black. Arms outstretched, I stumble forward, trying to find the exit. An idea strikes suddenly, and I shake my head at my stupidity. Raising my hand, I snap my fingers and a light blooms above them. As the sphere expands, illuminating the room with a soft green tint, I lower my arms. Just as I see the door, however, the sphere winks out, leaving me again in total darkness. I cry out in frustration, but it is mere seconds before a blinding white light fills the tent.
Instinctively, I put up my hands to shield my eyes from the brightness. I jump as a jovial, familiar voice rings out loudly: “Petronella-Nell! So good to see you again.”
My heart leaps as I recognize the voice of the magician. Eyes narrowed against the harsh glow, I lower my hands to look for him. He sits in front of me at a table which was not there just seconds ago. I step forward, relieved to see a familiar face, but stop dead in my tracks when I notice the two people flanking him. One is the monocle man I have just met; the other is a beautiful woman with flowing blond hair and warm green eyes. She stands and says, “Come, my dear. Don’t be afraid. I promise we will not hurt you.”
She extends a hand heavily laden with rings out to me. I walk towards it tentatively, laying my hand in hers as I reach the table. Smiling, she clasps my hand between both of hers and shakes it before releasing me. “Please,” says the magician, drawing my gaze to him, “sit down. I trust you will have no trouble pulling up a chair?”
I glance behind me at the empty ring, then back at the magician. He is grinning widely, his brown eyes sparkling at me. Encouraged, I subtly wave my hand behind me and sit down in my new invisible chair. The magician’s grin grows, and he winks at me. My spirit lifts, and I recline in my chair. The magician moves as I do, leaning forward to address me. “So, Petronella-Nell,” he says. “You came.”
“I did,” I reply, struck by how young he looks with his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. “I… followed the card you gave me.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” he says, waving his hand impatiently. “I gave it to you for a reason. I think you are the perfect addition to this circus. Unfortunately, they –” he gestures at his companions – “want to see some proof of your worthiness. In short, Nell, they want to see magic.”
The table, along with the people and the lights, vanishes, and I groan. Not again, I think. Then I realize the magician has given me the perfect opportunity to show the other two what I am capable of doing. I draw in a deep breath and create another glowing sphere. This time, though, I raise my hands high above my head, letting the globe rise to the top of the tent. I open my arms and it splinters into thousands of pinpoints of light, which settle on the ceiling and floor.
With the ring properly lit, I close my eyes and return to my oldest magic. Slowly my feet lift off the floor, and I rise. When I sense I am close to the ceiling, I stop and open my eyes. With a quick snap, I form more light and send it to either side of me. I pause – what can I say, I love a bit of drama – before holding out my arms to each side and crooking my fingers, beckoning the magic back to me. It comes in the form of radiant trapeze artists, swinging on bars also made of light. Pointing down, I draw the sawdust off of the floor in the shapes of elephants and clowns. With a simple gesture, I call the magician’s empty suit out of the dressing room. It dances out, fanning a deck of cards in its invisible hand. I look out to the audience as my magic circus performs around me. I feel more powerful than I ever have before, and I smile.
I hear a sound from the stands, one I cannot quite make out. It grows louder as I lean forward to hear, and it suddenly occurs to me what the sound is – applause. It is loud, too loud for just three people. The magician appears in front of me, almost startling me out of the air. He grasps my hand and pulls me up so my eyes are level with his. “You did it Nell! They love you!” he cries.
His hand makes a sweeping arc across the dimly lit seats, and they flare a brilliant white. I blink, letting my eyes adjust. When they do, I am met with the sight of several rows full of people. They are all on their feet, clapping for me. I vaguely remember some of them from my original circus visit and realize the entire circus had been watching me. More importantly, they were impressed by me, by my magic.
My feet brush against the ground, and by gaze snaps back to the magician. His feet are already planted solidly in the sawdust and he is beaming up at me. I lower myself to the ground and release his hand. He spreads his arms wide in a grand, all-encompassing gesture.
“Welcome,” he says, his booming voice echoing throughout the tent, “to the circus.”