Ladies and Gentlemen, Children of All Ages…
Every circus has a story, and every story has its secrets.
Those of us taxed with bearing the burden of such things do so with no sense of pleasure, only duty. We remember so that others, in time, may forget.
Here, the music: a calliope. The notes, instantly recognizable; the tune, age-old and clichéd. The instrument itself, its brass pipes pitted and dark, is carried within an open-sided wagon, the wheels painted in once bright shades of yellow and red. There is no way to adjust the volume, so the music is always too loud, too brash.
I’ve always hated the music. It brings to mind the sharp pain of a cattle prod, the shouts, the forcing of my cumbersome body into positions it wasn’t meant to hold. And for what? The momentary pleasure of others, the applause, the indignity? All small cruelties of a life lived in captivity.
But we are all captives in one way or another.
And so the spotlight swings a great arc, back and forth, back and forth, until it stops to reveal:
Time has left his top hat with a curious, half-deflated appearance, and there’s a tiny V missing from the brim. If you ask, he’ll blame a Siberian tiger with an incompetent handler; the truth is, he’d indulged in too much popcorn and tripped up the steps, but to admit that would be to concede fallibility and appearances are paramount. Always.
He’s taken to sneaking a handful of popcorn in the morning, carefully brushing his teeth afterward to remove the evidence from his teeth. At night he doesn’t bother to hide such things. He’s in charge of the Big Top after all, and if the red and white stripes on the tent are dull, if the fabric is frayed at the edges, it’s no one’s business but his own.
She never stays still. Pale and lachrymose, she flits from one room, one space, to another, leaving a trail of glitter behind. Her fingers are always on the verge of trembling; her lips hold an apology at the ready. For nothing. For everything.
She rarely speaks and when she does, her voice is high-pitched, her words either sharp enough to leave marks behind or light enough to drift in the air like wisps of cotton candy. When she catches a glimpse of her reflection, she jumps, unsure who the face belongs to but unable to remain still long enough to peer behind the silvered mask.
The Mirror Twins, Acrobats Extraordinaire:
Two girls of fifteen, long of limbs and torsos, wide eyes in elfin faces. The eldest twin (by a mere three minutes) has a tiny mole on her right cheek; the youngest has the same on her left.
They slip and glide through hallways and rooms, their feet making no noise whatsoever, something they’ve spent their lives perfecting. They exist in their own sphere, a small ring within the larger whole. They share a bedroom they’ve painted pale green and do their best to avoid the Ringmaster, having learned all too well the sting of his whip when he’s reminiscing. They wear matching scars on the backs of their thighs when they were unaware he was still awake one night. But they were younger then and not so careful.
The twins see the Contortionist in passing, but the passage of time has turned those meetings into small, unhappy accidents. They can’t bear to see the way she folds her body, the way her joints seem boneless. (And she cannot bear to see her own failure in their eyes.)
Me, a scarred beast with broken tusks. I keep to myself in the corners, sleeping most of the time. In truth, I’ve not the energy for much else, but even when I sleep, I’m aware of the performers around me. I see and hear everything, even the secret thoughts not meant to be shared.
On my back I carry a gilded cage, filled with dark, shadowy shapes, nebulous things you can only see from the corner of your eye. Best not to look too long or too hard. Best to forget about me; best to let me tend to the business of remembering.
The tiger sharpens its claws on the linoleum in the kitchen and the legs of the dining room table. It sleeps in patches of sunlight, but it never sleeps unaware, and if you step too close, it will remind you it still has teeth.
The tiger neither remembers nor forgets. That is not his job. The tiger merely is. A beast and nothing more.
And now we come to the monkeys. They’re fractious, as monkeys often are, sneaky, and prone to throwing shit when the whim strikes them.
Their greatest fear is to be forgotten—how many circuses have you attended where the monkeys take the center ring? Relegated to the places just out of the spotlight’s reach, they never get such an honor, but you can hear them, chattering and shuffling about and scratching the fleas from their fur.
Even when you can’t see them, the monkeys are always there.
When I was young, before the stripes on the tent began to fade, I tried to crush the monkeys beneath my feet, but they were too fast.
Occasionally the clowns arrive, jumping free from their impossibly tiny car. Cue the wide smiles, the laughter, but as time goes by, they appear less and less, and more times than not, when they pile back into the car, one clown doesn’t fit and is left behind. He’ll sit on the back porch, smoking a cigarette and wiping the grin from his mouth with a dirty bandana before he hitches his pants and heads off, drawn, no doubt, to a more appreciative circuit.
The magician and his assistant stop by here and there, pulling flowers from sleeves and rabbits from hats. (The tattered paper blossoms shed their petals within moments; the tiger eats the rabbits before they can multiply.) The magician speaks in theatrical cadence; the assistant in a girlish voice at odds with the lines bracketing her eyes and mouth. Sometimes they bring giant lollipops for the twins or a bag of peanuts for the Ringmaster. They never bring anything for the Contortionist, and they never stay very long.
The Ringmaster spends most of his nights slouched on the sofa. The tuxedo he wears no longer fits properly; the buttons strain, the seams are a deep breath away from splitting their threads, the cummerbund cuts a divot into his body.
When I was a lion tamer, he says, holding tight to a tattered whip. His words are slurry and disjointed, and he doesn’t finish the sentence. He rarely does, preferring the sharp snap of leather to fill in the missing pieces.
He gobbles popcorn by rote, ignoring the kernels that spill down his front. His eyes glaze over, but he keeps eating. When he can’t eat any more, he stands on unsteady feet and bows, sweeping the hat from his head in a grandiose manner. Only then does he truly smile, the expression bearing an uncanny resemblance to the tiger’s maw.
The Contortionist curves her body away from the smile, but she’s never quite fast enough and her apology spills atop the popcorn. A second too late for that as well. She closes her eyes and thinks of a young woman she once knew, a woman who danced with a bear. She thinks perhaps the performance ended badly, but if so, at least it ended.
The monkeys shriek, and the tiger bares its claws, its eyes gleaming. I want to intervene; I want to wrap my trunk around the Ringmaster and squeeze every drop of life from his body. Maybe if I were younger or stronger, but it isn’t my place.
In their room, the twins exchange a glance and cast their eyes down, pretending they don’t hear a thing.
Tomorrow will be better, the youngest says. And when we have our own circus, it will be different. The eldest says nothing, simply shakes her head.
When the eldest twin thinks the youngest is asleep, she peels the sequins from her body, wincing at the sting, but even when her eyes fill with tears, she wears a smile. Each bit of pain means she is a little more her, a little less them. (Most of the time, she doesn’t consider her sister part of them.)
When the eldest falls asleep, the youngest creeps from her bed and gathers the discarded sequins. One at a time, she places them on her own skin, overlapping them to conceal the spots that have lost their shine.
The twins share almost everything, but they never speak of the sequins.
The pole in the center of the tent takes on a lean.
The tiger stretches and lets out a noxious cloud of gas.
The monkeys hoot softly to each other.
And the weight on my back grows heavier still.
The Ringmaster stands atop his chair and brandishes his whip. His voice reaches out and up, demanding attention. I was the greatest performer on earth, he says. Now look where I am. Look at this. Look at you.
The Contortionist curls into a tiny ball, rolling this way and that to avoid the frayed end of the whip, but it catches her about the ankle and the Ringmaster slowly reels her in. She tries to think of the dancing bear again, but she knows even when she pretends not to that that performance ended with an accident and blood, so she scrambles for the edge of the safety net and holds on, holds on, holds on.
The tiger roars, the monkeys screech and beat their chests, and the twins cower in their room, covering their ears. The youngest cries; the eldest refuses.
I’m reminded of the ropes, the bullhooks, the electric shocks. A sense of desperation, of knowing that while this won’t last, it will never end.
When the house finally quiets, the eldest twin plucks the last sequin from her arm and opens the bedroom window. She holds out her hand, but the youngest has too many sequins and cannot move.
You can’t go, the youngest says.
I have to, the eldest says. We have to. Please.
The youngest frowns. But we belong here, she says.
If you believe that, you’re no better than they are, her sister says.
In that moment, the youngest sees not her mirror image but a stranger. The eldest opens her mouth to speak again but decides against it and slips over the windowsill, over and down. The youngest crawls to the window and watches as the eldest disappears into the shadows. She opens her mouth to scream her sister back, to bring her home, but her mouth is filled with sawdust instead of a voice.
I know she doesn’t understand, but her sister was afraid that after the last sequin was gone, she’d keep plucking, peeling herself away until there was nothing left.
Captivity breaks us in different ways; nevertheless, it breaks us all in the end.
The Ringmaster says nothing of the eldest twin’s disappearance, merely snarls. The Contortionist weeps, wipes her tears, and weeps some more. The monkeys caper about in graceless figure eights. The youngest twin moves slowly, her limbs no longer flexible. She doesn’t yet know the choreography of a solo act and is terrified at the prospect. She finds a few sequins beneath the eldest twin’s pillow and tucks them beneath her own, to give back to her sister upon her return. (For of course she’ll return, she thinks.) At night, she keeps vigil at the window, her hands tucked beneath her chin, her thoughts drowning out the sound of the Ringmaster and his whip.
One morning, she discovers the Ringmaster still and silent in his chair, surrounded by half-chewed bits of popcorn, the whip coiled on the floor beneath his feet. The Contortionist appears a few minutes later and comes to a stop for the first time in years. The two stare at each other for a long time; even the monkeys are curiously silent.
If I could speak, I’d tell them the Ringmaster died with an unfinished word on his lips, but they might wish to believe it an apology instead of a curse. Is a final word even important if no one hears? Is a final apology meaningful if every preceding action says otherwise?
The youngest twin realizes the tiger is gone, leaving behind only a steaming pile of dung. She cleans up the mess and uses a small throw rug to cover the stain.
(I saw the tiger leave, too, his services no longer required. I was glad to see both beasts go.)
The magician and his assistant arrive, sans flowers or lollipops. They don’t mention the absence of the tiger, but they speak in strangely hushed voices, the assistant constantly dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, until the Contortionist tells them to leave. Then they shout and stomp their feet—and a rabbit tries to crawl from within the folds of the handkerchief—but they finally leave.
The youngest twin never sees them again.
In the weeks that follow, she finds the Contortionist curled up on the top shelf of the closet, next to a box labeled Our Wedding; beneath the kitchen table clutching an empty popcorn container; and sitting atop the closed lid of the toilet, clad in an old robe, holding the whip on her lap and whispering that the show must go on.
But when the youngest twin tries to talk to her, she doesn’t even acknowledge her presence.
The pole continues to lean.
One side of the tent partially collapses, spitting a plume of dust into the air. A tiny bit of sunshine creeps in through a tear in the fabric.
The clowns wait at the far end of the tent, holding red rubber balls in hand, hoping they’ll have a chance to resurrect their act. If there’s ever been a chance to recapture the laughter, surely it’s now.
Then the Contortionist sews the rip shut with ugly, uneven stitches, and the clowns make their exit, leaving behind a smudge of greasepaint and one oversized shoe.
The monkeys race in mad circles, kicking up clouds of sawdust in their wake.
And I remember even as I wish to forget.
The Contortionist leaves for a day and when she returns, she isn’t alone. The Strongman doesn’t speak to the youngest twin nor she to him. It doesn’t matter because he isn’t strong enough and a few weeks later, he’s gone. The youngest notices that another monkey has joined the crew; this one is sullen and simply glares at her as if his existence is her fault. The other monkeys keep their distance from the newcomer because his smell is questionable.
The Contortionist brings home The Human Cannonball next and he does talk to the youngest, but his eyes are too bright, his speech far too animated, and the Contortionist seems to move faster than she ever has.
The Human Cannonball doesn’t linger too long either.
After the Fire-Eater and the Daredevil, or perhaps he was only a Sword Swallower in disguise, come and go, the Contortionist stays in her bedroom for three weeks straight. The youngest twin leaves food on a tray outside the closed door, but she’s never sure who really eats it. She suspects the monkeys.
The Fire-Eater left behind two things: a bruise on the Contortionist’s cheek, a bruise that turned a sickening shade of yellow-green before it disappeared completely, and a leopard. The leopard neither changes color nor does it vanish. The scrawny beast sits curled in a ball beside the refrigerator and bares its teeth from time to time, but it ignores the youngest twin. She ignores it as well.
She retreats to her own room, closes her eyes, and talks to her sister, pretending everything is as it was, even though she knows the show has been wrong for a long time and was even before her sister’s defection, yet at least she knew the rules and regulations.
Her sequins begin to fall with each breath, each step. She picks them up, but they no longer stick to her skin, and eventually, she leaves them on the floor.
She finds a box of old marquee posters tucked away in an old cabinet. The posters contain no monkeys, no tiger, no elephant, only four smiling performers, their costumes perfect and new, the stripes on the tent behind them shining bright.
The youngest twin has no memories of such things, but she hangs one of the posters on her bedroom wall and pretends to remember.
The Grand Finale
Sometimes the youngest twin hears the Contortionist moving around, but she’s erected her own tent and the youngest can’t find the entry. She no longer whispers to the eldest at night, no longer believing in a return.
Wielding a chair in one hand and a broom in the other, she chases the leopard out into the yard. She tosses bananas outside and when the last monkey tumbles out, she slams the door behind them and sweeps the sawdust from the floor.
In the morning, the leopard and the monkeys are back. Traces of sawdust, too.
She doesn’t bother to try a second time; they’re as much a part of this circus as she is, no matter who arrived first. She didn’t invite them in, and she doesn’t have the authority to cancel their acts.
She takes up juggling but can’t keep the balls in the air; she tries using the light fixture in the dining room as a trapeze, but there’s no one to catch her when she falls; she even finds the Ringmaster’s top hat and tries it on, but it slips over her eyes.
The Contortionist remains inside her own tent.
The youngest twin takes the poster from her wall and tears it into confetti. She packs a bag and leaves the sequins under her pillow.
On her way out, she presses a kiss to my head and releases the buckles that hold the cage on my back. The cage falls to its side, its contents spilling out into a dark pool. While I’m grateful for the release of the pressure against my spine, it doesn’t matter whether I bear the cage or not. Some things, once carried, always linger. She’ll understand this one day. But I nuzzle her hand in thanks nonetheless.
The monkeys try to follow her, but she shoos them back. You are not mine, she says. You are not mine. The leopard blocks her way, but she says, you are not mine either, and brandishes the broom until it finally pads away. She pauses by the Contortionist’s tent to say goodbye, but her face falls, as if realizing the Contortionist already said goodbye a lifetime ago. Instead, she takes a deep breath and steps outside.
Yet she doesn’t move for a long time. I feel her fear and know she’s only a second away from returning, and it shames me to admit that I’m angered by her inability to move. This is not my circus, but I’ve been bound here by duty stronger than any chain. She has a chance to break her chains, and I don’t understand why she won’t take it.
Then I see the tears cascading down her cheeks. I swallow my anger and rise, ignoring the creaks in my knees and the pain in my joints. I nudge her with my trunk, and she jumps, one hand pressed to her mouth. She bows her head against my side; I nudge her again; she shakes her head.
I bend down, flick my ears, and nudge her again, this time toward me. For a long moment, she does nothing; then she climbs on my back and I rise once more.
A sense of unease fills my belly. Who will bear witness to the Contortionist if not me? Who will mark the occasion when she finds the will to leave her tent?
I toe the ground with one foot. Perhaps the Contortionist needs no witness; perhaps the end of her routine belongs to no audience save her own; perhaps this is her way of breaking her own chains.
The youngest twin sits with her back straight, her hands holding me tight, trusting that I will not let her fall, and so I walk. I will carry her until she’s strong enough to walk on her own, and I hope she’ll never need to strap a cage to my back. I hope she’ll understand that being born to a circus doesn’t mean she’s trapped in the life forever, but for now I’m content to move, to stretch my legs, to support her so she can hold her head high. We are no longer captives, she and I, but willing participants.
The spotlight narrows its beam and follows as we head away from the Big Top, and when we step beyond the light’s reach, the music, the dreaded, endless calliope, finally, finally, comes to a stop.