L'Incroyable Fantomatique Cirque
To me there is no picture so beautiful as smiling, bright-eyed, happy children; no music so sweet as their clear and ringing laughter.
My reflection winks at me. I can barely raise my head to smile back. The mirrored copy of me trembles, distorting and elongating so the marks on my cheeks look like strips. I wince. It’s not Specs fault, he’s just trying to make me feel better.
As if he hears my thoughts, my reflection multiplies to thousands in the surrounding mirrors, dancing and cavorting in, what should be, an amusing parody of delight. But Specs can only do so much. Whether fat or thin, straight or wavy, each of the echoed reflections shares my grim expression.
I reach up with a pale hand and stroke the cool glass. “I’m sorry, Specs. Not today.” The lights dim and the walls rattle as if their breathing. He can’t speak, but Specs has other ways of getting his emotions across. And right now he is upset, wondering why I refuse to play our usual game. “He’s putting Durga…” My voice breaks and I clear my throat.
In an instant, the room shudders to darkness. The air is warm and comforting around me in the dark space. It smells faintly of candy and butter popcorn, memories made scents. It’s Specs’ version of a hug. “Thanks.” I tip my head in a silent goodbye and glide through the dark. I know the twist and turns of the house of mirrors so well, that I don’t need light to make my way to leave.
Kai is waiting for me at the exit. The sight of his broad shoulders sends a ripple through my body, ending somewhere in the pit of my stomach. His inky eyes focus on my clavicle as I step hesitantly up to him. When I’m close enough to feel the heat radiating from his skin, as hot as the fire in his act, his gaze slides up to the tip of my chin.
“I didn’t expect to see you today.” My voice is gravely and strange, just as it was the first day Father brought me home.
“Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind.” His face and voice are emotionless when he speaks, although his words spark a warmth behind my breastbone. Kai never says anything he doesn’t mean. Pathologically unable to lie. Still, I wonder how much he understands the sentiment. It sounds more like something Father would have tried to teach him.
“Do you mean that?”
His depthless eyes met mine for one too-quick second, before they skitter away again. Like a shadow fleeing the sun. Or is it the sun fleeing the shadow? “Durga dies today.”
The warmth turns to ice. There are many things I love about Kai, but his inability to soften the blow of his words is not one of them. “It wasn’t her fault.”
He tilts his head before walking away, with that particular gangly gait of his. It should be awkward, but there is a truth to the way he walks. It is not normal, or even beautiful. But it is his. “Someone died, Dema.” He says to my right shoe.
I scurry to catch up to him. Dust rises from the ground from the shuffling of my feet. “It was an accident. She didn’t mean it.”
The carnival is practically deserted. Hot dog wrappers and old raffle tickets litter the ground around us; forgotten relics of happier times. Up ahead, the sleeping form of one of our tightrope walkers breaks up the feeling of isolation. Kai pauses next to Arturo, the man’s snores adding a strange note of humor to the cloud hanging over my head.
Kai taps the tight-rope walker on the foot impatiently, his uncomfortableness touching another live human obvious.
Arturo’s snores don’t stop, but are punctuated with muttered nonsense. “My milkshake …” Snore. “… doesn’t bring any boys to the yard.”
I frown as Kai kicks Arturo’s foot harder, the air around Kai’s body shimmering with heat.
Arturo blinks owlishly, looking up at Kai in confusion. “Is it time for my act?”
I drop my gaze, embarrassed. When a wrong step in an act brought him crashing to the ground, Arturo’s tightrope walking days ended. Perhaps a clown act with a narcoleptic tightrope walker would be funny. But since Father doesn’t believe in nets, it would likely be a onetime deal. Arturo has tried to get Father to hire him for another act. But the man’s only so-called redeeming skill is the ability to eat strange concoctions of greasy food. He still doesn’t understand why Father refuses to create a new act around his … talent. The only reason he is still around is that the Accident has caused a delay in the carnival’s movements. As soon as Father takes care of Durga, we will move again. I don’t know what will happen to Arturo when we leave. I don’t think I care.
“It’s time. Father would want you to be here.” Kai starts walking again, his shoulders tight.
Arturo watches him go, before turning to me, rubbing his belly. His crooked teeth are stained yellow from nicotine, just as the tips of his dirty fingers. “There at least has to be time for me to eat. I’m dying of hunger.” He belches into his closed fist. “Are there any corn dogs left? Wrapped in a bit of cotton candy: That would do me quite nicely.”
I scowl at him, letting every ounce of my disdain show in my ice blue eyes. “I don’t care what Father says. I don’t want you there.”
He blanches, and behind his garish stage makeup, his face is green. “La llorona.” He crossed himself.
Because I’m feeling raw, I make the sign of the devil at him. But there is little satisfaction when he skitters away. Fear is such a common reaction, it makes no impact on me anymore.
I hurry to catch up with Kai. He’s waiting for me by the elephants, eyes focused intently on the massive gray creatures. He’s always been more comfortable with animals. I’ve tried asking Father why he never let Kai be the Menagerie Man. Kai was horrible in my Father’s band of orphan pickpockets. Too clumsy, so the marks almost always felt his awkward fumbling.
Usually such a failure would have meant banishment. My Father is not known for his philanthropic heart. I can only imagine how angry he would have been when he found out the quiet boy he had brought all the way from Hawaii, was a useless thief. But maybe the fire act was punishment. Kai hid it well, but he hated the fire. He feared it, as much as he needed it. I once asked him why he still stayed? Why he was still willing to swallow the fire? Surely at twenty-three, my Father no longer held so much power over him.
Kai told me he stayed because the fire made him feel alive. From another person, I would have taken this as a sly insult. But from Kai … From Kai, it was so very difficult to tell.
Sighing, I step up to the elephants, inhaling their earthy smell. Unlike Durga, they are terrified of me. They bellow and huff, shifting in their chains to try to get away from me.
The sound of voices grows behind us. They are coming.
Kai turns, staring intently at the scar on my left cheek. “I’m … sorry.”
He doesn’t mean it. Well, at least he doesn’t mean it in the way most people do. His willingness to apologize, when he doesn’t understand the fundamental meaning of the act, speaks of his feelings towards me. But as I often do, I wonder if the feelings are still the same.
A relationship between the ringleader’s daughter and the unusual fire-swallower was one that was destined to fail. Father had always been controlling about my life. After the Accident, he only became more so. I can’t really complain. I literally owe him my life; I don’t even know if I would still have one if I tried to leave. But sometimes, the idea of running away and not looking back is so strong I can taste it. Like honey and the taste of the air after it rains. I wonder if Kai would come with me.
I close my eyes and reach out to him, absorbing the heat of his presence. Whatever the problems the two of us have, and believe me, we both have our fair share: For better or worse, this is the man I love. But what kind of future can I offer him? Would it be better to just set him free?
Touching his arm, the softest brush of butterfly wings, I smile when his gaze meets mine for a moment. And in his eyes, I see so much love that it takes my breath away. But with the love, there is just as much pain. I open my mouth to speak but it’s too late. Everyone has arrived.
My Father looks majestic. The velvet of his coat shines like some exotic animal’s pelt in the midday sun. Surrounded by his familiar group of orphan acolytes, he reminds me of some pagan god. On these grounds, he is certainly treated as one.
Cassandra stands at his side, her hand gripped tightly on his forearm. She is still beautiful: Inky black hair and pale skin. She stands straight and proud, the red of her crushed silk dress highlighting the bloody color of her lips. But in the face of her beauty, the destruction of her eyes stands out as even more terrible. She’d been my Father’s best illusionist. He’d had to find ways to make her acts seem more like tricks. In a few of the smaller towns we visited, people had started accusing the woman of witchcraft. If only they knew. But so good had Cassandra’s illusions been, even she lost her grip on reality. My Father was able to grab hold of the dagger before it was used on her wrists. But her eyes were another story.
Her face turns unerringly towards me, and I feel Kai tense at my side. “Fair that the victim should be present.” Her voice is quiet, but with everyone desperate to hear her, it rings out across the grounds. “Perhaps she should be the one who takes the life?”
“No!” The word is torn from my lips. I regret it as soon as I say it. It is dangerous to show such weakness in front of this crowd.
Father’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t speak.
“It was an accident. It wasn’t Durga’s fault.” I hate how I sound like a broken record. I used to be so eloquent. I had been the crowd’s favorite; the act everyone was dying to see. Durga was so wild when Father first purchased her from another carnival, that Father grew to regret his investment. But when I first saw her, I knew. She was mine. And I was hers. Part of the same soul.
Everything was perfect when I was on that stage with her. We didn’t need language to speak to each other and unlike other animal taming acts, I needed no whip to force her into submission. It was always flawless.
Until the Accident.
When I meet Father’s eyes, I am forced back into the memory of the day. It really was an accident. A perfect chain of unconnected events that led to a nightmare. Father’s pickpockets were up to their usual tricks, lightening the pockets of a few of the more luxuriously dressed marks. But a newly joined thief made a mistake. It wasn’t until later, when he pulled the nuts and bolts from his pocket, that the link was made.
The man hired to repair the Ferris wheel didn’t look like a mark, but the new boy was too fresh to make the distinction. The repairman had been in a hurry; with the carnival set to open in a few moments and people clamoring at the gates for my act, he’d overlooked the missing pieces.
And it was his one moment of inattention that had the Ferris wheel grinding to a shuddering halt in the middle of my act. The sudden force of inertia sent a carriage, thankfully empty, crashing to the ground. People screamed and ran. It was chaos.
They flooded the stage like rats deserting a sinking ship. All they knew was sound and fear, and they brought their rushing wave of terror with them.
I’m brought back to the moment with a snap, my body rigid and shaking. I reach up to touch the wetness on my cheeks, feeling the jagged scars underneath. “Is it any wonder she reacted as she did?” I hear a screaming off in the distance. It matches the feelings inside me so much, I tremble. “If anyone is to blame, it is the people who rushed the stage. In the chaos they created, she reacted. She was scared. It was an accident.”
My Father’s icy disapproval chills me. “Adeline…”
“Don’t call me that!” I hiss at him. “It’s Dema.”
His jaw clenches but he tips his head. “Durga has killed. She can no longer be allowed to live.”
“But the balance is restored.” I press my hand to my beating heart. “How can she be punished for something that has been fixed?”
But my words fall on deaf ears and I watch as Solomon, the stooped and ancient caretaker, pulls the struggling Durga into view. It was her screams that I heard earlier. She is so strong that Solomon can barely pull her into the circle of people, but when Durga sees me, she drops to her belly, panting in the dust. I drop to my knees with her, our eyes locked.
I hear Kai whisper a plea in my ears, but I can’t answer. The dual pounding of Durga and my heart beats loudly in my ears. She is so beautiful my breath catches in my throat. Her existence in this horrible place is beneath her, she deserves to be free. An idea glimmers in the back of my mind; forbidden, marvelous.
Cassandra screams behind me, and someone grabs me roughly by the shoulders. But it is all so distant. The only thing I see is Durga’s black eyes. They hold the same pain as Kai’s: A wild animal, just desperate to be free. I wasn’t sure it would work, but as our hearts slow to the same beat, I calm.
It was a power I never had before. But thanks to Cassandra and Father, I can feel it coursing through my veins. The illusionist’s screams grow higher and more frantic. As Father shakes me cruelly, from the corner of my eye I see Cassandra tearing at her hair. Whatever I’m doing, it most somehow be hurting her. She is the link that brought me back into this world. And now I’m shredding that link. If it hurts her, so be it. I never asked for this.
Father curses and roughly grabs my chin. “Don’t do this, Adeline. I can’t lose you.”
But you already did.
My head rolls to the side and my eyes met Kai’s. In the state I’m in, I swear I can see flames licking over his body. I smile at him and I see him relax.
I love you. I imagine the chains that have bound him to this place breaking. He is free. He swallows once, but then nods. Like Durga, we’ve never needed words to communicate. He understands.
Once again I turn my eyes to the beautiful creature in front of me. Like it did on stage, my world constricts until it is just her and I. She makes a soft huffing sound, and the brightness of her soul fills me. She knows what is happening. She understands too.
In the last moments, before we are whisked away, it’s like I am looking down on the scene. A twisted tableau of a mourning family. Two still bodies lay side by side.
A beast and her victim.
A man-eating tiger and the living dead girl.
Shouldering my bag, I look back behind me. Without the bright lights and garish music, the tents and structures of the carnival seem haunted. Like the abandoned bones of some ancient giant.
The night is freezing, but I am never cold. The heat of the fire is always with me. A part of me now. I used to think it was a curse. Something the Ringleader had done to me. But instead, I think it is something else.
Dema may have left me. But she gave me something of herself before she went. A piece of a soul. So I can recognize her in the next place.
I step away from the gates of the carnival, my feet not faltering. I’m not sure what life holds for me now, but I am not afraid. I am free now, and that can only be good.
The road in front of me is long and unknown, but I keep walking. As I leave the place that has been my home for the last eighteen years, a band of pressure releases from my chest and I smile. Perhaps the first real smile I’ve ever had.
Behind me there is laughter, and at the edges of my vision I can see something.
The ghostly figures of a girl and her tiger. Dancing in the moonlight.
***Based on The Prompt Challenge (http://www.kkazulwolf.com/promptchallenge)***