I was up on the wire when the Ringmaster killed the clown. With my eyes closed and all my focus on my feet, I did not notice what was going on until halfway through the familiar speech that always preceded such an occurrence.
“—have betrayed the audience, your oath, and the company itself. For that you are charged to die for the benefit of the show.”
I scrambled for the platform at the end of the wire. They stood, the Ringmaster, the strong man, and one of the clowns, Maurice, on his knees, just at the base of one of the poles that held up the platform. As I leaned over the edge, my arm hit one of the rope ladders, causing the chain at its base to jangle merrily. The sound reverberated through the empty tent, and the Ringmaster looked up.
“Good,” she said, pointing her long, thin knife at me. “A witness. Do you, Ida tightrope walker, swear witness to the fact that Maurice the clown caused a child to cry last night, failing his role and debasing our show?”
I nodded silently. Maurice seemed to be crying. His shoulders shook but he made no sound.
“The show must go on.”
One swipe to the neck. One jab to the breast bone. Maurice’s body crumpled into a swiftly growing puddle of blood. Quick, efficient. His life was probably gone before his cheek touched the ground, even if the blood continued to flow. It reached the bottom of the rope ladder. I couldn’t help but step in it when I climbed down, the blood mixing to form a paste with the dust from the packed dirt floor.
The animals’ tent was empty of people, save for Thomas, the lion tamer, standing quietly among the smell of dung and wisps of hay. The lions paced back and forth along the bars, restless as Thomas gently and firmly directed them about.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
Thomas glanced briefly at me
“They’ve gone to enjoy town before the final show tonight. And you are not coming near the lions with blood on your feet,” he replied.
I climbed upon a feed crate and watched Thomas move and wave his hands and whips. A hypnotist and dancer in one.
“Maurice?” Thomas asked.
“Yes.” He nodded without taking his eyes away from the enormous cats.
“He should not have approached such a young child. He knew better.”
“I would have thought the Ringmaster would wait. We’ve a show tonight and Dark Moon is only week away.”
“The Ringmasters of our troupe do not take mistakes lightly. In my years, I’ve seen them come and go, but always punishment is delivered swiftly.”
I scuffed my feet against the wood like the child I had ceased to be a few years previously. “I know that.”
Thomas frowned. “How did you tread in the blood? Were you involved in the punishment?”
I shook my head lightly. “I was practicing on the wire. They happened to be below me.”
“Ach, always on the wire.” He frowned at me. “It’s not safe up there when the tent is empty. Too easy to be trapped. All the Ringmaster would have to do to bring you down is cut the lines.”
“She would only kill me if I faltered in performance. Therefore, I should spend as much time as I can up in the air practicing. Besides, you should be worried about your own fate, old man.”
Thomas smiled at me, all the stories and thoughts from his many years in the troupe lighting up his eyes. Many of the performers tried to guess his age, but he never told. With his greying hair, lined face and strong wiry arms, I imagined him as an ageless spirit, the father of our circus, as much a part of our world as the tents with their faded colors.
“Lion tamers are not so easily replaced as clowns. Or tightrope walkers.”
When I stuck my tongue out at him, he chuckled and returned to the lions. “Go on child. I have work to do.”
“Just because you are old does not mean I’m a child,” I replied. I dismounted the crate with a tumble and a flourish. At the open flaps of the tent, I paused. “I don’t care if I die on the wire. It is better then having my neck sliced. And I’d rather have my wings spread for a second than my feet nailed to the floor.”
That night as I carefully smeared on my greasy makeup, I felt the palpable buzz of energy and excitement filling the air. The performers bustled to and fro backstage, some stretching or walking on their hands to warm up, some hurriedly sewing escaped buttons. Most of the costumes had been patched so many times they were very different colors than they once had been. The scent of popcorn and caramel mixed with the eager murmur from the audience and the sounds of the musicians on the other side of the curtain.
I finished my makeup as the Ringmaster rang the bell to signal a few minutes until the start of the show. My roughed cheeks and the black lines trailing away from my eyes stood out against my pale skin and tightly pulled back curls, matching my striped black and once-white bodice and ruffled skirt.
I slipped over to the small slit in the curtains. I saw the empty rings and bare tightrope, waiting for us to bring them to life. The audience packed the stands. It did not matter how bad times became, how far the economy fell, how many Hoovervilles appeared. The audience always came for a glimpse something more than their mundane, difficult lives. The eagerness to deliver was already stirring in my belly. If I had turned around at that point, I would have seen the same eager gleam in the eyes of the other performers as well. Only the clowns did not share the giddy excitements, to busy going over their hastily adjusted routine to accommodate their suddenly diminished number.
When the lights went out, the musicians stopped playing and there was a moment of breathless silence. Then the spotlight hit the Ringmaster, who appeared as if by magic in the center of the tent. She stood tall, black top hat perched at a jaunty angle and the golden buttons on her long red coat glittering in the light. For a moment she was silent and scanned the audience with a small smirk. Then her voice boomed out, snaring the attention of everyone: child, parent, performer, audience member.
“Ladies and gentleman. Perhaps you have heard of a circus long ago that travelled from a far and distant land, a heathen land,” there was a murmur and hissing from the audience. “A circus of darkness, lead by a man who blessed the pagan gods with blood sacrifice.” The murmuring quieted, and the audience huddled closer together. “In return, the circus was imbued with mysterious strength, and could perform feats never before seen. Wonders of rare beauty and terrifying skill, only imagined in the deepest of dreams.”
The entire audience was still. Only the Ringmaster moved. A strip of red and black with a gleaming smile.
“Of course the man was caught and the circus disbanded. But the powers lived on through the generations.” The murmuring was growing again. “That’s right ladies and gentlemen, we are the descendants of that fantastic troupe! Ladies and gentlemen, we are the Circus of Mysteries! Welcome! Welcome to the show!”
On the final word, she flung up a hand and the firecrackers around the ring flared to life and the musicians played in earnest. The audience cheered and roared, and I stumbled over my own eager feet to assume my position in the line starting to parade out into the main tent, my chest tight not with fear, only the desire to be out in the ring.
As I did on every other night, I performed my stunts with the other tightrope walkers on the wire several times in between acts, usually as the animal cages were quickly assembled or dismantled. On a few instances, I did some tumbling with the acrobats.
When I was not performing, I kept to the slit in the curtain, watching the Ringmaster work. The story she told was the same as every night. The story of our founding and one of the first stories every troupe member heard. I could not remember the hovel I had lived in for most of my childhood, but I knew those words by heart. With one difference. There were no powers, no gods, nothing passed down through generations. Only hard work, ritual, and the sacrifice of lives to perfection and to the show. And though the man was arrested, the circus never truly disbanded, only continued under someone new. His name was long disappeared. We called him only the First Ringmaster. And every other Ringmaster had followed in his stead, discarding their name as they picked up the hat and the knife.
The Ringmaster never left the tent, always somewhere in the background or around the edges when the focus was not on her, surveying her territory. She was graceful, completely in control, able to captivate an entire audience with a single look or gesture. I tried to copy her movements and mannerisms while I watched from behind the curtain. It must have been like being up on the wire at all times. That exquisite combination of balance and performance. Either the audience or gravity tried to pull you down, and with the perfect motion, the perfect word or gesture, the perfect launch, and they were pulled back, entranced, and expectations defied.
Two days later, they found a replacement for Maurice. A boy, barely even nine years old and riding the rails, was caught trying to steal some of the apples set out for the horses. The strong man and one of the trapeze artists hauled him before the Ringmaster who declared he might be “entertaining enough” and sent him to the clowns as their newest trainee.
That night a group of performers gathered in one of the sleeping cars of the train. Annie, one of the trapeze artists, stood the boy up on an abandoned crate and was sewing him a costume out of what patches of Maurice’s old costume had been salvaged from the blood. The boy stood very still, arms out wide, even when Annie told him he could put them down.
“Don’t be so scared,” one of the accordion players said. “It’s only your oath ceremony tonight. Follow the Ringmaster’s orders and don’t look terrified and you will be fine.”
“Do you remember the oath?” I asked.
“I so swear to dedicate my life, my body, and my talents to the circus. I am only my role. The wellbeing of the circus and the performance is everything. The show must go on,” the boy said. His voice did not shake, thanks to the day of drilling the oath that the clowns had given him.
“Perfect,” Annie smiled. “Then the Ringmaster will carve an ‘x’ above your breastbone and it will all be over.”
The boy’s face blanched. “Why?”
“Because we are bound by blood, our own and each others.” Thomas entered the car and proceeded to the bucket of water in the corner and began washing his hands. He had been feeding the lions, leaving his knuckles stained red with blood. The assembled members of the troupe did not comment on the stain, nor the fact that we knew the flesh he had been feeding the lions had once been Maurice. Fresh meat was far from cheap, and we had to use what we had.
“Once that’s over,” the accordion player continued. “You will be fine. The clowns will teach you what to do during a performance. Soon it will be second nature.”
“You are lucky,” Ettie said to the boy. Ettie was one of the women who dressed in elegant outfits and colorful, feathered headdresses to ride the horses. She was still beautiful and elegant, even as age had begun to chase its way across her face. She covered that fact with regular dye to turn her hair jet black and thick layers of makeup. The powders tended to crack at the corners of her mouth near the end of each day, reminding each of us that her time was limited.
“If Maurice had not been punished, we would not need a new clown and you would most certainly have been killed on the spot.”
The boy’s brows furrowed. “Maurice?”
“The clown before you.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed,” Annie answered breezily. “Turn and let me see the back of your costume.”
But the boy did not move. “They killed him? Why?”
“He made a mistake during a performance,” replied Annie. “The punishment for that is death. The show must go on.”
“So don’t mess up, kid,” the accordion player added. “Or—” he glanced furtively at Ettie. “—get too old and lose your usefulness. That will get you killed as well.”
“No matter how hard you might try to escape it,” Annie said. “Ida, do you remember Freddie?”
I laughed. “Of course! He taught me to walk the wire! Eventually. He knew his usefulness was running out so he took as long as possible with the lessons.”
“Fool,” Thomas said. “He seemed to think as long as the circus still needed a tightrope teacher, he would stay alive. Or that you’d fall and the Ringmaster would have no choice to keep him alive
“It’s good then that I was a natural.”
The boy’s gaze hopped from face to face, his brow becoming more furrowed with each word.
“Are you all thieves too?” he asked once the laughter had settled into a pleasant lull.
The accordion player brought his head up from where he had been resting it against the wall of the car with a frown. “Of course not.”
“Then why do you stay?” the boy said. It was barely a whisper over the steady clacking of the train wheels. We sat a moment. Annie cocked her head, her mouth full of pins.
“Where else are we to go?” Thomas finally said.
Annie removed the pins from her mouth and shushed Thomas with a wave. “We—” she gestured to the assembled troupe members, “—are a family. Mind the Ringmaster, perform your part, and you’ll be quite at home. Now go.” She bit off the thread. “Join the clowns. They will finish readying you for your initiation.”
The boy stepped down from the box and made his way to the carriage door, staggering with every bump of the train.
“I still say he was lucky,” Ettie said, pulling out her tarnished makeup case and dabbing at her nose.
I wondered. No doubt the general company members, Ringmaster aside, were a family, but perhaps choosing to steal from our carriages actually made the boy unlucky. Most of those apples were filled with worms anyway.
When the loud clanging of a bell woke me several nights later, I thought the train had crashed. The ceiling of the train car came into dim focus. The darkness consumed everything but the never-ceasing bell. The train’s motion had completely stopped.
The strong man stepped into the train car, the bell in one of his giant’s hands.
“Come on. Up, up. Everybody outside.”
One of the other tightrope walkers groaned and mumbled something into his blankets before pulling himself upright and dragging his feet out the door with the others.
The strong man paused beside my hammock where I carefully held on to the last escaping remnants of peaceful sleep.
“Come on Ida.” His voice was softer. “You have to get up. Dark Moon. The Ringmaster is waiting and she won’t be pleased if you are late.”
I nodded and tipped myself out of the cloth sling. The floor was ice on my bare feet.
“And take your blankets with you,” the strong man added as he continued his journey to the next train car. “It’s cold outside.”
The wind bit my face as I stepped off the train to join the shivering circle of performers and animal hands. Several of them also were bundled in blankets. I raised my gaze to the sky for the moon that I knew would not be there tonight. A few stars winked back at me but the horizon was lined with clouds. Perhaps it would snow early this year.
The Ringmaster stood a few yards off, her face bowed and her knife held out in both hands. While the other performers were clad in blankets and nightclothes, she alone wore her full costume: the red jacket that almost glowing in the light of the few torches and the gloriously ink black top hat, the sign of her station, set on her head. We shuffled forward to stand in front of her.
“What’s going on?” a high voice piped from the back. The new clown boy.
“Hush,” someone replied. “It is the Dark Moon ceremony. It’s performed every month to ensure our circus’s continued fortune and success.”
The Ringmaster raised her head.
“Circus of Mysteries,” she cried. “I call you!”
“And we answer!” we shouted back.
“You have each given an oath to this company that every one of you will sacrifice your very lives for our show.”
“And to that we swear.”
The clown boy mumbled along, gazing at the faces around him. None of us paid him much mind. He would memorize the responses soon enough.
“And now the time has come for one of you to fulfill that oath.”
For the first time, a shiver ran through the company that had nothing to do with the cold. Even the sleepiest now had wide-open eyes.
The Ringmaster let her gaze sweep us for a count of ten before she announced her verdict.
“Ettie. Come forward.”
“No.” Ettie’s response was more of a cut off gasp than a word. Those around her pushed her forward until she stood in front of the Ringmaster. I craned my neck to see her properly. She was dressed in a simple white nightgown.
Ettie sank to her knees and clasped her quivering hands in front of her. An outsider might have thought she was praying to God. But we did not believe in any form of Christianity. Our circus only had one god. The one who wore the hat and wielded the knife.
“You have given so much of your life to the betterment of this company, your family, and to the spirit of the show.”
“I have more to give,” Ettie replied in a quavering voice.
“We have no room for the aging,” the Ringmaster cut her off. “Each of us must have our time to exit. There is little more you can offer as a member of the Circus of Mysteries. For that you are charged to die. The show must go on.”
Ettie bowed her head. “Yes, Ringmaster.”
Any more words she might have uttered were silenced by the Ringmaster’s knife sinking into her chest. The Ringmaster held her there for a moment, then wet her own hand in the blood.
“The Circus,” she cried, raising it above her head.
“The Circus,” we echoed back. The boy had started to cry softly, but someone wrapped him in a blanket to muffle the noise.
The Ringmaster pulled her knife from Ettie’s chest and let her body drop to the ground. One by one, we stepped forward and dipped one hand in the blood, then put our fist to our heart as we nodded to the Ringmaster. Many of the troupe’s night clothes already had old stains on the chest that no soap or rubbing could remove. We only performed the motions at the Dark Moon sacrifice to save the costumes the danger of bloodstains.
The ceremony over, the company began shuffling back to the train, eager for their beds. As I took the step up to the train car, I glanced back. It was a pity it had not snowed already. With her dark hair spread on the ground and white nightgown stained with blood, Ettie would have looked lovely on a bed of snow.
At the next town, small groups of us roved before the first performance, performing handstands, juggling, or riding horses. We paid particular attention to the wide-eyed children in grubby, tattered clothes and no shoes. We let them come closer and taught them a few tumbles or let them pet the horses. Each child was watched carefully, especially those that came forth eagerly to gently stroke the horses. As well as drumming up business for the show, this was most likely how we would find a replacement for Ettie. Every child who had nothing else in the world wanted to run away with the circus. That was how the Circus had found me, after all, and practically every other member of our company.
The performances began smoothly with the ease that came from having done our roles a thousand times before. Very little ever distinguished one night or one town from the next.
A week later, during the trapeze act, one of Annie’s hands slipped. One moment she flew through the air, her partner’s arms outstretched to catch her, then the next her left hand slid through his without catching. They recovered, Annie’s right hand caught, and she swung one-handed. Within an extra swing of the trapeze they had each other by both hands again, but the momentum of the trapeze had been lost. They would have to swing for a moment to regain enough height to complete the next throw, if they could complete it all.
“Damn.” Thomas watched with me before he had to prepare the lions. “They’re not going to be able to finish properly.”
The audience knew something had gone wrong. I saw a few of them leaning in towards each other and whispering. The Ringmaster had yet to regain control. She had her eyes fixed on the trapeze artists, probably trying to guess if one of them was going to fall.
We had been trained never to let the audience become fixated by anything except a routine. Before I could second-guess myself, I pulled the curtain open and bounded into the tent.
“Ida! What are you doing!” Thomas whispered, but it was too late. I was already halfway into a flip. One of the other acrobats noticed and followed suit, and together we performed a series of tumbles and flips about the ring while the trapeze artists cut their act short and managed to finish with a toss that would look impressive enough to the audience. Satisfied by the distraction, the audience cheered and clapped again.
As soon as we returned backstage, the performers clustered around the Annie who slipped, questions coming from every direction.
She held out her hands to show a cracked, oozing blister on her left palm. “Bandage came off and my hand was slick.”
Someone quickly tore a strip of cloth off their costume and rebandaged the hand, and we returned to our designated tasks. There was no time to pause in the middle of a performance.
Once the show was finished and the last of the crowd had departed, the Ringmaster appeared. The normal happy chatter of the troupe after a performance died swiftly. With two steps, the Ringmaster came to stand in front of the Annie, pulled out her knife, and stabbed the performer deep in the stomach. The trapeze artist fell to the ground with only a gurgle and a faint look of surprise.
There was a stifled gasp from the assembled troupe, but only Thomas stepped forward.
“It was a blister,” he said in a controlled tone that was at odds with the wary clench of his jaw. “She’d have been fine tomorrow night.”
The Ringmaster turned cold eyes on him.
“We already have an empty position to fill, we cant afford too many more,” he continued.
“She failed the company and the audience,” the Ringmaster stated.
“You didn’t pronounce the proper judgment on her before killing her.”
The Ringmaster stepped closer to Thomas and hissed in his face. “Are you questioning me?”
Thomas swallowed took a step back.
“Good. I pronounce judgment now that she failed her task appointed to her as a member of the Circus of Mysteries. In doing so, she betrayed the audience, her oath, and the company itself. For that she is charged to die. The show must go on. Are you satisfied?”
Thomas nodded stiffly.
The Ringleader pressed her bloody knife under his chin and he froze.
“Defy me again, and you will die too.”
No one moved. Then the Ringmaster, in one motion, turned and slapped me across the face. I gasped and stumbled. No one reached out a hand to help me.
“As for you, how dare you improvise? Take charge of an act?”
“I was just—”
The Ringmaster grabbed the collar of my costume and pulled my face close to hers. I heard the cloth tear and for the first time, there was no control in the Ringmaster’s face. Only crazed fury and a gleam of something I had never seen before except in the animals’ eyes when they were spooked.
“I make the decisions,” she hissed. “I am the Ringmaster. You are nothing.”
She flung me to the ground and stormed off. The troupe waited for a beat of ten before silently picking me up and resuming our post show routines.
Over the next week, performances were marked with nerves. No accidents happened, but there were a few near misses. The strongman almost faltered when he tried to hoist one of the acrobats. The new boy had to be sat down every night before he went out with the clowns to stop his shaking.
The Ringmaster stalked about, similar to the lions, examining all of us with sharp eyes. We tried to stay out of her way. Rehearsals were usually the only space we were allowed to slip up as long as we could do the routine perfectly after a few more tries. Even so, the Ringmaster circled the tent as we tried new tosses and tricks, making more threats. One night I over heard her say that the new boy was not cut out for our troupe and she expected to have to kill him soon.
I spent as much time as possible on the wire or in the animals’ tent with Thomas.
“It’s as if the Ringmaster has lost her composure, but she doesn’t bother to regain it, Thomas. She’s never been like this before in the years I’ve been here.”
There was no reply from Thomas besides a gentle pat on my arm.
“Have you seen her act like this, Thomas?”
Thomas gave a noncommittal jerk of the head.
He looked at me with a guarded expression. “I have seen other Ringmasters of our troupe act in this way.”
He turned away. “Shortly before they are replaced.”
Perhaps the animals sensed what was to happen before we could. Or perhaps they were merely feeling the tension that seethed amongst the performers, filling the backstage tents as thickly as smoke.
On our final night in town, the lions refused to behave. Thomas spent all afternoon with them, attempting to bribe, cajole, and threaten them into submission. They roared and batted away his whips and scorned the hoops and other props they jumped through and over effortlessly on any other night.
Five minutes before the show was about to start, the Ringmaster stormed into the animal tent. Most of the performers were there as well, helping Thomas as best they could or standing about with bitten fingernails.
“Well?” the Ringmaster demanded.
Thomas swallowed before turning to face her. “Perhaps one of them will be able to go on tonight.”
The Ringmaster shook her head. “Not good enough. All of them must go. The audience expects it.”
“They will not behave.”
“Perhaps they are not being handled well enough?”
With another swallow, Thomas managed almost to sound composed. “It happens. The animals become skittish sometimes. With a break and more training, they should be fine by the next town.”
The Ringmaster’s face darkened.
“Besides, we have plenty of other acts. The horses could perform longer. Or the dogs could join with the clowns…”
His voice trailed away as the Ringmaster slid her knife from its sheath.
“Are you defying me, Thomas?” she asked.
The strongman tried to stop her. “Don’t. We need a lion tamer.”
“Do not tell me what to do,” said the Ringmaster without looking away from Thomas. The strongman stepped back as if burned. “Though that is true. But this lion tamer has been becoming much to old and troublesome.”
She regarded Thomas for another moment before she held out the hand that did not hold the knife and snapped. “Ida.”
Hesitantly, I approached.
“You spend enough time watching Thomas with the lions. You can take over.”
“What?” I whispered. A gasp and murmur ran through the assembled troupe. Thomas’s mouth fell open and he stared at me pale faced.
“You can’t,” he said hoarsely. “Someone new cannot just step into the lions’ ring. She’ll be killed in an instant.”
“Think of the show,” the strongman added.
“Silence!” screamed the Ringmaster. But the murmur of the troupe did not stop. It seemed to grow louder, buzzing and swelling and mixing with the noise of the audience just a scrap of cloth away until it reached a dizzying ringing in my ears.
All noise seemed to stop at the sound of the voice. It was not until the Ringmaster turned to face me that I realized it was my own. The words bubble forth, without my having bidden my tongue to say them.
“You have failed in the task appointed to you as a member of the Circus of Mysteries.”
Each word lit a spark within me, akin to the sensation of being on the wire, until the spark was a full flame, filling my chest with scorching warmth.
“In doing so, you have betrayed the audience, your oath, and the company itself.”
The Ringmaster made no word or move to stop me. Her face was slack with shock.
“For that, you are charged to die for the benefit of the show.” Something was passed into my hand. I did not look to see who gave it to me, but from its weight and shape, I knew it was one of the hammers used to drive the iron tent stakes into the ground. My role was as clear as any one of our long rehearsed routines.
With all my might, I swung the hammer, letting the thickened end collide with the side of the Ringmaster’s head. It connected with a crack and her hat flew off as she fell to the ground. She made an attempt to stand, but I picked up the knife she had dropped when she fell and stabbed it deep into her ribs. The last twitches of her body faded away in a matter of seconds.
The tent remained still for a few more seconds. Then there was a shuffling among the performers. One of the jugglers retrieved the top hat. Hesitantly, he presented it to me. The strongman stripped the dead Ringmaster of the red coat and left the body where it lay.
“It will need to be cleaned, but the blood can not be seen from the outside,” he said as he slipped it around my shoulders.
Thomas removed the knife from the Ringmaster’s chest and handed it to me with a small, reverential bow. I grasped it, testing its weight in my hand. Then I took the silk top hat from the juggler and placed it on my head. It fit perfectly.
Once more I was aware of the noise from the audience. The music playing along to the eager murmuring and laughter as the people waited for what we would present to them.
I raised my head to see all the eyes of the troupe upon me.
I took a deep breath and stood a little taller, the bloody knife still clutched in one of my hands. I let some of the blood drip onto my other hand, then raised it high in the air. “The Circus.”
“The Circus!” came the reply from the troupe.
“The audience expects a performance,” I shouted. “A perfect one. Now go!”
The troupe scattered. A few of the performers gave me a bow like Thomas’s and added, “Yes, Ringmaster.”
I watched them move quickly to finish the preshow preparations. I buckled the Ringmaster’s belt around my waist, tightening it somewhat, and sheathed the knife. Then I turned to the opening that led to the main tent and the awaiting audience.
“The show must go on,” I murmured and strode out to take my new place at the center of the tent.
Image Source: The magic of the circus by [bastlan.]