"Come on Pa!" I shouted while running back down the dirt path, "we're going to be late."
I grabbed his hand with both of mine, trying to speed up his normal rambling walk. His fingers were rough from callouses and dirty with soil engraved into his skin like fingerprints despite washing his hands twice this morning. Undeterred by me digging my heels into the ground, he continued to walk at a snail’s pace. Resigned, I crossed my arms and slowed down to walk beside him.
"What's the rush for kid? The show isn't going anywhere," he smiled down at me from his impressive height of over six feet. The crisp white shirt and pants Ma had forced his to wear never looked right on Pa. I guess I'm just used to seeing him in the corn field wearing sun-bleached overalls with sweat stained undershirts. He'd live and die in those clothes if Ma didn't make him change for church.
"If we're late we'll miss all the good stuff and who knows if the circus will ever come back here."
"We've got plenty of time. I promise we won't miss a thing."
It was the first time anything resembling a circus had come to a small town like Burton, Nebraska. We get the occasional merchants trading their wares and the rare family settling down to try their hand at farming, but never a circus. I wasn't going to miss a second if I could help it.
The dirt path led us to a clearing that used to be filled with corn until Farmer Walter caught his wife Irene cheating and burned the whole thing down. Now he lives alone is a small shack, renting the land out to travelers and spending all his money on booze. At least, that's what I heard my parents saying when they thought I had gone to bed.
The circus had come into town by train late last night and by dawn the whole field had been transformed. We passed game booths with prizes hanging from the ceiling and children begging for just one more chance. Food stalls with flashing signs had my mouth watering for just a taste of what created the delicious smells. I tore my gaze away from the temptation and my eyes fell upon the tent.
Three times as tall as our home, the red and white stripped tent stood in the rear of the clearing, taking up more than half of the available space. Posters advertising the various attractions hung along the sides and black flags waved in the breeze from the very top of the tent.
Dazed, I followed Pa to the tent entrance. Folds of the tent had been pulled back, revealing a dark tunnel with only a couple dull red lights to guide the way. A strange melody flowed from within, played slowly with an instrument I couldn't name. Stepping closer, I was about to ask Pa if he knew when a bright red ticket was appeared in front of my face.
"Would you like to hold your own?" the man from behind the podium asked. He was a short, portly man and if it wasn't for the stool he was standing on, he'd never be able to see over the stand. His scraggly hair was so slicked down with grease, I couldn't tell what color it was supposed to be other than black.
"Yes, please." I took the ticket, trying not to stare at his hands. The nails looked stained with black ink, the skin above it red and peeling, as if he'd been burned.
"Enjoy the show." He held my gaze as a smile slowly crawled across his face. Crooked yellow teeth caught the glare from the sun and for just a moment, they seemed to sharpen, tips turning needle sharp. I blinked and the image vanished. His teeth once again as blunt as mine.
"Come along Johnny," Pa called, five steps into the tunnel, "I thought you didn't want to be late."
I hurried to Pa's side, unnerved by that strange man, but unwilling to say anything out loud. Ma always said I had an overactive imagination.
As we walked through the tunnel smoke started to gather around our ankles, slowly rising with each step we took. The light appeared to set the smoke ablaze, like we were walking through an ocean of fire. The tunnel turned sharply to the left before it ended; leaving us on the walkway leading to the bleachers.
We grabbed the first available seats we could find, which luckily were directly across from where I assumed was the entrance for the acts. The tent seemed massive; it looked far larger than its appearance outside. Our small town would never come close to filling all the space, but looking around I think we made a good effort.
The lights started to dim and I almost wriggled out of my seat in anticipation. A single red spotlight illuminated center stage and with an explosion of fireworks that appeared to come from the ground; the ringmaster emerged.
His tanned skin was covered by leather pants tucked into spit shined boots and a bright red tail coat fastened with gold buttons from the neck to the pant line where it then flared out to just past his knees; the edges tattered and singed. Probably from getting to close to those fireworks he set off.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, voice echoing through the tent despite his low tone, "Welcome to Morning Star Circus!"
"My name is Luce and I'll be your ringmaster for the magical evening." He bowed, white gloved hands sweeping his black top hat from its perch atop equally dark curls.
Standing upright amid the applause from the audience, he replaced his hat turned to wave to all sides of the tent. The bleachers took up three quarters of the tent with the remaining area reserved for the acts.
"We have a mesmerizing evening planned for you tonight. From our high flying trapeze artists to our work renowned contortionists; I guarantee this will be a night you'll never forget." He spun toward the empty space and a white spotlight revealed two people standing around something very big covered by a brown sheet.
"Our first act is Quill, knife thrower extraordinaire and his twin Quillina." The red light cut off and Luce vanished with it. I turned to focus on the knife throwers and tried to think of what could possibly be under that sheet.
Quill was dressed in a black pants and vest combo with a white long sleeve shirt under it; the sleeves pushed up toward his elbows. His vest glinted silver in the light whenever he moved. I squinted, trying to see more clearly, but my seat was too far away to make out what was attached to the vest.
Following the same color scheme, Quillina's costume looked like a white sparkling bathing suite with shorts attached. Black lace ran in stripes across the bodice to match the lace gloves on her hands. Both had short whiskey brown hair styled into loose spikes.
"Thank you all for coming out," Quill spoke first, walking toward the sheet, "tonight my assistant and I will be unveiling our new trick for the first time.
"We give you," Quillina grabbed two handfuls of the fabric and with one sharp tug it pooled to the ground.
"The Wheel of Death!" Quill finished, taking hold of the revealed wheel and giving it a quick spin. The black and white swirling pattern was disorienting while in motion. My eyes started to water from staring so I focused on the performers instead.
"Quillina, if you could step onto the wheel please," Quill requested. Stepping up to the wheel, face toward the audience; she placed her hands and feet in the four holders along the edge of the wheel.
"I will now throw these knives toward the target to create an outline around Quillina. Any wrong move, from either of us, could prove deadly." His hand grasped the end of one of the silver spots on his vest and with a flick of the wrist it detached from whatever was holding it in place.
In Quill's hand was the strangest knife I had ever seen. Sharp a both ends and about a ruler's length long. He flipped the blade in the air before moving to stand about 25 feet away from the wheel.
"Ready Miss Quillina?" Seeing her nod, Quill pulled out another knife with his free hand and the Wheel started to spin. He threw each knife one at a time, each sinking into the wood right beside her leg. As the wheel gained momentum and the color started to blur, I could no longer tell exactly where Quillina was.
Without hesitation, Quill began to throw every knife he had on him at a rapid pace. He never took a second to aim; only the steady thunk of metal hitting wood and the absence of screams let us know that he wasn't hitting flesh with each throw.
Five minutes of this passed before Quill was down to his last knife. He turned so his back was to the wheel and then lobbed it over his shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that the poor women was going to be injured this time for sure. In the silence created by what felt like the entire audience holding their breath; one last thunk rang through the tent.
"Open your eyes John," Pa whispered, "you don't want to miss the ending."
Taking a quick peek, I saw that the wheel had slowed enough to show that Miss Quillina was alright. There was no blood in sight and once the wheel stopped completely we couldn't even see a scratch on her. Knives outlined her entire body, from her head to her white boots. Slowly, Quillina detached herself from the wheel and her brother swept her up into a tight hug.
"Thank you all, you've been a lovely audience," she said raising their clasped hands into the air.
"We hope to see again for another round of the Wheel of Death," Quill finished and together they bowed to all sides of the audience. Their lights went out and center stage lit up to show Ringmaster Luce twirling a staff with one hand.
"That was certainly exciting, but there's more where that came from. Our next act is a troop of contortionists so limber they've been accused of not having any bones. Let's hear it for Viper, Coral, Cleo and Aspen!" Luce threw the staff upwards, the lights fading out before we could see if he managed to catch it.
Green lights slowly faded in to reveal the four contortionists. All four were tall, thin women wearing similar once piece costumes that covered their entire bodies except for their hands, feet and faces. The clothes clung to their skin and despite being different colors the patterns looked just like the scales the snakes the crawl through the cornfields.
The first women's costume was a dark blue, fading into a florescent orange on her head and feet. She stepped forward, tumbling down to the floor where she bent her legs over her head until her toes touched the ground, bracing her forearms flat to the ground for balance. Her body creating a loose backwards c-shape.
The next two performers cartwheeled to opposite sides of the first; one bearing a black and green checkered outfit. The other's back was completely black with thin yellow stripes across it and simply yellow on the front. In sync, both performers ended their cartwheels in a handstand facing toward the center. Bending at the hips, while keeping their legs straight and toes pointed, they lowered their legs until becoming parallel with the floor.
The final contortionist, decked out in fiery patches of red, orange and yellow took a running start and jumped toward the first performer. Twisting in mid-air, she landed on her hands, facing the audience as her legs dropped open into a perfect split.
"Did you see that Pa?" I asked, clapping along with the rest of the crowd. Pulling my eyes away from where the contortionists were now springing into a new human puzzle, I could see that Pa had the same gob-smacked look on his face that he had when Mamma announced she was pregnant again.
I turned back to the show and muffled my giggles behind my hand. Mamma always said it wasn't polite to laugh at people, even when they are making funny faces.
For the next half hour, we all watched as the contortionists bent, twisted and stretched their bodies in the most astounding ways. Just as Ringmaster Luce had said, they moved in ways that I really couldn't see possible for a person with bones. Pa and I clapped and whistled for every pose and after simultaneous somersaults, the women bowed as the green lights cut off.
"I don't know how they do it folks, but I know we're all thankful for their dedication. Up next we have the graceful ladies of the skies. They will be walking the tightrope and performing masterful aerial stunts. Please direct your attention upwards for Odette," Luce swept a hand to the left, "and Hera," he said as he pointed to the right this time.
Pale blue light illuminated the top half of the tent while Luce's red one shut off. A taunt rope traveled between the main support beams; a platform on each end with enough room for two people to stand. Above the platforms hung two trapeze swings held in place with string. The women standing on the left platform must be Odette and Hera would be the one on the right.
Hera, perched atop the tight rope, was wearing a leotard. It was royal blue from the long sleeves until it turned into neon green at the waist and below. A bustle comprised of dark and light green feathers trailed to just above her feet. Spots of blues and blacks made it seem like there were eyes staring right back at the crown.
Waving to the crowd, Hera walked back to the empty platform; her balance on the rope was perfect as she never faltered on her path. She stepping up onto the platform and unhooked the string around the trapeze, holding it back from swing forward. She flashed a thumbs up to Odette who smiled in return and started to untie her own swing.
Odette's costume was pure white; a tight strapless shirt leading to a flared skirt edged with wispy feathers. Two ivory wing combs held her blonde hair in an intricate bun while ribbons crisscrossed around her arms and legs. She held her swing with two hands and stepped to the edge of the platform.
"Wait, wait," I whispered to Pa, "they're going to use a net right? They could get hurt."
"It's okay John, they're professionals." He gave my hand an encouraging squeeze and we looked back to the performers.
Unafraid by the lack of net, Odette began her routine by simply stepping off the platform. Gracefully, she glided through the air; arms fully extended and a smile on her lips. Hera released her swing and it flew rider less toward the middle of the tent. Right before Odette came to the end of her swing she let go, flipping twice in the air to catch the bar Hera had just released.
"Did you see that Pa?" I couldn't resist standing and jumping in place, "oh my gosh, that was amazing!"
Up above, Odette now hanging from her knees, was making her way back to Hera's platform. Hera jumped, taking a firm grip on Odette's wrists and together they flew back across the tent. Hera released at the top of the swing and used her momentum to soar through the open air. The still swinging, rider less bar was caught in Hera's nimble hands.
As each trapeze continued to sway, both performers climbed to stand atop the bars. They posed, waving to the cheering crowd and then proceed to jump straight down.
"No!" I screamed in horror, stunned as they started to fall. Startled, Pa had even started to move down the stairs, as if he could help them before they fell to their deaths.
Instead of continuing to fall, Odette and Hera landed on the tight rope. They immediately rolled across the wire and stood up; perfectly balanced with one foot on the wire and the other straight out behind them. Pa and I looked at each other with disbelief in our eyes and began hollering out praise.
The aerial acrobats proceeded to cartwheel and flip across the wire, sometimes even jumping over the other to complete a trick. They flew through the air as if gravity didn't exist, as if with a single leap they could take flight and leave everyone else behind.
The act ended with the performers flipping off the tight rope to land of both of the platforms. The lights dimmed on their smiling faces and the audiences’ enthusiastic applause. Pale yellow lights lit up the entire tent instead of the spotlights we had seen so far. I looked back toward the ground, anxious to see what the next act would be.
While our attention had been captured up high, two cannons half the size of our barn had been set up below. Resting on opposite sides of the tent, both were black and speckled with red and white paint. The wicks for each cannon were long, extending halfway to the ground.
"Thank you for the beautiful performance ladies. I know I loved it and judging by the applause so did the audience. As you can see we have one final performance for you before the day is done," Ringmaster Luce, standing in the center between the cannon, waved to where two new performers were emerging, "I give you Titan and Rose. The human cannonballs!"
The man and women were both on the short side, wearing fully body suits with a helmet under their arms. The black suits had white spots decorating their arms and red stops on their legs; matching the cannons expertly. They shared a brief kiss before approaching the separate cannons and climbing the ladders to the openings.
"While the performers are getting into position," Luce narrated, the performers fitting their helmets into place, "I'll show you have we are going to light up these cannons."
He snapped his fingers on both hands and flames erupted to hover an inch above his fingertips. Murmurs of awe swept through the crowd as the Ringmaster started to weave his hands through the air, the fire following like an obedient dog.
Luce peeked over his shoulder to see the performers in position and spun around with his hands held out to the cannons. The fire circled him once before igniting the end of the wicks. Eagerly, the flames devoured the flammable material inch by inch.
"And now, the moment you've all been waiting for," he said, the leftover flames dying out from around him, "in three, two, one...." The wick ran out and the cannons fired, the loud blasts shaking the stands.
The performers sped through the air, limbs held tight to their bodies and heads point straight forward. They were quickly approaching the center of the tent. Right before they struck each other head on, Titan and Rose turned their bodies sideways, just barely avoiding a collision.
Opening their arms and legs revealed black webbing with red spots stretching across the space between their limbs. The thin material allowed the performers to slowly glide through the air, spiraling around the tent and circling closer to center stage with each pass.
"Let's hear it one more time for Rose and Titan as they come in for their landing," Luce called out. He took a couple steps back to make sure there was enough room for two people to land.
"Wasn't that incredible Pa?" I asked, stepping onto my seat to get a better view of where the performers had just landed. They pulled off their helmets and waved back to the crowd.
"Never seen anything like it," he said, clapping his hands with a smile on his stubble covered face, "now get down off there before you fall and crack your head."
Laughing, I did as he asked and went back to watching the end of the show. The human cannonballs had started their journey back to the tents exit. The yellow light darkened to red as it once again focused on Ringmaster Luce.
"I hope you were all thrilled and amazed by our gifted performances and I thank you for coming out to support," he bowed at the waist and lifted his head to stare at the audience from under his hats brim, "Morning Star Circus."
His shadowed eyes seem to glow red in the lighting before the tent darkened once more. The lights marking the exit tunnel was the only thing keeping everyone from tripping over themselves as the crowd slowly filtered out.
"Show's over son, let's go home," Pa said making his way down the steps. He had waited until we were the last one's there to avoid the crowded passage. I followed behind him, smoke once again curling around our ankles with that same soft music playing.
I turned back for one last look, squinting to see through the dark. All I could make out was the Ringmaster's glowing eyes, burning red like the flames he so easily commanded.
"Johnathan!" Pa's shout echoed through the tunnel, startling me into looking away from that fiery gaze.
"Coming," I yelled and when I looked back, the eyes were gone. A cold chill ran down my spine. I rushed through the tunnel; overcome with the sudden feeling that if I didn't leave now, I never would.
I burst through the exit to see that Pa was the only person left standing near the entrance. Even the ticket seller and his podium were nowhere in sight. Behind me, the strange music abruptly stopped playing and the stripped tent fabric dropped; sealing the entrance.
As we walked through the clearing, I realized the whole place was deserted. The townsfolk were missing and the people who were supposed to be manning the games had disappeared.
"Where is everybody?" I asked.
"You must've been in that tent a long time. What held you up?" Pa took my hand as we stepped onto the dirt path heading home, "I was getting ready to send a search party for you."
"I don't know," I looked away from concerned eyes, "just got distracted, I guess."
"Well, why don't you think about what your favorite act was so you can tell Mama all about it when we get home."
"That's a great idea. I'm going to tell her everything!" I put the weird Ringmaster out of my mind and focused on all the things I've seen today. Mamma will want every detail; this time I can tell her a story before bed.
Later that night, Mamma sent me into town to pick up some flour to finish dinner with after Pa accidentally spilled our last cupful. The sun was barely hanging in the sky as I left the general store. I knew if I hurried I could make it home before dark.
I was halfway home, about to cross the only train tracks in town when I heard a piercing whistle. A train was approaching, but the warning bells and stop lights remained silent and dark. Taking a couple of steps back I decided to wait for it to pass; just to be safe. Mamma would rather me be late than dead due to foolishness.
The first couple of cars to pass by were dull brown, steel storage containers led by a black engine spewing thick smoke into the air. Time seemed to slow as I caught sight of a boxcar with Morning Star Circus painted with fancy red letters across it. The rest of the train held simple flatcars with different sized cages strapped to them.
Bristling porcupines laid in a bed of grass next to a tank filled with color colorful snakes lounging on branches and stones. White swans floated on the water side of an unusual tank filled with half water and half grass. The next set of cages had peacocks strutting across the floor, fanning out their feathers in a colorful display. The last tank was populated with hundreds of butterflies of every size and color fluttering through the available space.
I could feel my jaw drop in surprise. If Mamma were hear she would be telling me to close my mouth before a bug flies in, but I couldn't help it. Never have I seen most of these beautiful animals. The closest I've ever come to them is the picture books at school. After a few more normal storage containers came the caboose, just as darkly colored as the engine was.
Leaning out the only window I could see was Ringmaster Luce, still dressed in the same costume. Those red eyes locked onto mine and he smiled at me as his gloved hand swept the top hat off his head. The action revealed long red horns, sharpened to terrible points and just short enough to fit under his hat.
"No," the gasped word was barely audible as my breath stuttered in my chest.
Luce's smile widened even further, nearly splitting his face in half as he placed the hat back on his head. My eyes followed him as the train passed by. The last thing I was before the final rays of the sun blinded me was Luce holding his pointer finger up to pursed lips in a familiar shushing gesture.
Rubbing the black spots from my eyes only took a moment, but when I looked up the tracks were empty and there was no train for miles. I rubbed my eyes once more just to make sure what I was seeing was real. There still wasn't a train chugging along in the distance, not even smoke in the sky. Only the steel tracks and a boy carrying a bag of flour.
It must have been my imagination, brought on by hunger and too much excitement today. I'll forget the whole thing ever happened. I'll forget the voice I heard. The voice and the words whispered in my ears right before the train disappeared. Words that will haunt my dreams, keep me up at night and have me second guessing my every decision.
"I'll be seeing you soon, Johnny-boy."
updated by @americymru: 11/30/16 01:46:51AM