This story was written for Eerie River Publishing’s monthly horror writing contest. May’s theme was carnivals and circus’. It didn’t win. I know the two talented writers who did win and their contributions were top notch. June’s theme is “Mirrors” why not take a look and have a crack at it yourself. (~4950 words)
I’ve always loved heights. As a child, I’d climb to the top of every tree. I was that kid dancing on the top diving board, and it wouldn’t even take a dare. Something in me longed to look down on the world. I found a kind of peace up there. My parents would joke that I should join the circus. I doubt they ever imagined I would.
Every year, at the end of the harvest, when the farming community would have a little spare cash, the circus would roll into town. The magnificent Soul Brother’s Circus. Even now, even with everything I’ve learnt the hairs on my neck still prickle with excitement. Growing up, I used to look forward to the Circus’ arrival more than Christmas. For me, the spectacle and pageantry were in stark contrast to my drab life on the farm. It was everything I yearned for as a teenager, danger and excitement in equal measure and a momentary escape from the tough monotonous labour of the fields.
The stars of the show were the Flying Fenici’s; a family of trapeze artists. Everything about them was exotic. Jules Fenici, the patriarch of the troupe, was my idol. I honestly believed he could fly. You would have too if you’d seen him perform.
Then there was Angela, his wife. She was an angel; of that I was certain. Beautiful, fearless and half-naked, my pubescent mind was agog every time I saw her. The couple had a strapping son, Marco, the envy of my life. How I longed to have his lot, to have a future in the big top. Lastly and most forgettable, was their daughter Sofia who would perform on rare occasions. She was my age and the ugly duckling of the family, having none of the attributes of her parents or even the rudiments of balance. I was convinced she was adopted.
Every time I watched them perform, I’d dream I was up there with them. It became an obsession, and I was forever getting caught sneaking either out of the farm or into the big top. Even the ringmaster knew who I was by the age of fifteen.
Things came to a head, one fateful night. The circus had been in town for a week. I’d been caught twice by a mean-spirited circus hand that took it upon himself to teach me a lesson. Dragging me behind the big top, belt wrapped around his giant fists, he set to my education. I remember little after the first punch. The next thing I knew J.G. Fauste, the ringmaster himself, was staring down at me. His immaculate waxed moustache was a thing of legend, it was front and centre on all the posters along with his top hat and its iconic lucky shamrock. Seeing it up close, even in my concussed state, I remember gasping. I might even have reached out for that lucky charm. A slap to the face brought me to my senses, and I gushed apologies for my infraction. “I just wanted to see the amazing Fenici’s,” I’d pleaded. J.G. stared down at me and laughed. Helping me up, he gave me a slap on the back and fishing into his pocket handed me two VIP tickets to the last night as a way of an apology for as he said: “Things getting a bit out of hand.”
I don’t recall how I got home that night but glancing back at the sound of J.G. hollering I saw exaggerated shadows of violence play out against the side of the big top. Seemed to me like the overzealous hand got an education of his own that night. Little could I have known.
Next morning, I made up some bull to my parents about a milking accident. I spent the rest of the day lugging hay into the barn for the winter. It was the longest day of my life. All I could think about was stepping into that big top with J.G.’s blessing, VIP’s no less. I’d convinced my father to come that night. He was never one for turning down a freebie. Although he’d made it quite clear, he would not be paying for any cotton candy. No carnie would rob him blind.
We got there early. It would have been earlier if I’d had my way. That said, it was a short queue and at the front stood J.G., charming the punters. Twiddling his moustache and tipping his lucky hat, as expected of him. When we got to the front, J.G. performed a theatrical bow. “It’s our biggest fan,” he joked. My father was unimpressed. J.G. winked and waved us into the big top to sit wherever we liked. Well, I knew where that was. I rushed to the back of the stalls to the highest seat in the big top. The seat I’d always wanted, the one that commanded the best view of the Fenici’s in flight. All those mugs at the front being sprayed with confetti by the clowns would never understand. Neither did my father.
For the last night, the big top was only half-full. Somewhat unfortunate given that the press seemed to be in. I could see them at the front talking to J.G., getting the inside scoop. He pointed them to the side of the ring where no doubt they’d get the best shots. I remember they weren’t local reporters and guessed that J.G. was drumming up publicity for their arrival at the next town.
The torches dimmed and J.G. did what he did best. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the amazing, fantastic, incredible Soul Brother’s Circus.” He was the master of the ring. From the comedy of the mischievous cowboy clowns to the bravery of the lion tamer, and the staggering dexterity of the jugglers. J.G. Fauste orchestrated a stunning riot of colour and life. It was impossible not to be impressed as each act surpassed the last and the performance marched towards its crescendo the Flying Fenici’s.
The penultimate act was the elephants. Three huge Asian elephants, Bertha, Ruth and the monster that was Titus. “The largest elephant in the Northern Hemisphere,” J.G. announced to a thrilled audience. Titus’ party piece was standing up on two legs. An extraordinary sight. It was also something he was increasingly reluctant to perform as he grew older, for painfully obvious reasons. It would take his trainer and two hands to get him to perform on most nights. But tonight, Titus stubbornly refused. When one of the hands prodded him a little too hard, he snapped. I saw it in his eyes as he pushed himself back towards the overzealous hand pinning him to the ring wall. Then slowly, so very slowly, he sat down. The audience’s gasp of surprise turned to screams of horror as in a flash of camera bulbs the man’s eyes bulged and a cloud of blood exploded from his lungs. I thought I recognised the crushed victim, but Titus rolled, engulfing the man and muffling his gruesome gurgling. The audience had seen enough, most were already flooding from the tent. My father and I were the last to leave, bumping into J.G. at the exit. He was plainly shaken. “I’m sorry, son. I know that’s not what you came to see. Maybe another night, eh? Look me up next year. I still owe you one.”
With that, he was gone. I remember looking back as we headed out into the night and seeing J.G. talking to the reporters. He’d be desperate for the photos not to be published. He didn’t succeed. I saw the papers a few days later, and it turned out I did know that overzealous hand.
I wouldn’t see the Circus for another year. What a difference a year can make. I was sixteen now, headstrong and after a terrible season convinced that farming wasn’t for me. That year half the crops had failed across the county. Within five years nothing would grow in the Midwest dust bowl.
My biggest fear was that the Circus wouldn’t return. You only had to read the papers to know there was little spare cash in the county. When the posters went up with J.G.’s beaming face, I made my mind up. I would not follow in my father’s footsteps, scratching a living in the dirt. I needed to fly.
Even before the big top was up, I was banging on J.G.’s caravan. The thing that always amazed me about the man was that he never seemed to age, always immaculate, it was as if he’d stepped from one of his posters. He recognised me and smiling ushered me into what I can only describe as an Aladdin’s cave of circus memorabilia. I pleaded my case, imploring him to take me on. I’d do anything if I could just have a shot at flying on the trapeze. He considered my request for the longest time before saying. “What do you say, mother?”
Mother? Distracted by all the brick-a-brick, I’d not seen the woman leant over a round table at the far end of the caravan. Silhouetted by the early morning light she had the demeanour of a woman in mourning, replete with a black veil hiding her face. She ushered me over and seized my hand. I remember her dry decrepit fingers probing my palm and was about to snatch my hand from her grasp when she turned to the tarot cards laid out on the table. Picking up the deck, she splayed them out and gestured for me to pick one. Which I did. Turning over my card, I tried to hide my dismay at the sight of the hanged man. Hand trembling, I handed the card back to the old woman.
“Well?” J.G. demanded.
The old fortune-teller scrutinized the card through her veil, and I could just make out her mouth curl into a grin. Holding up the card, she declared. “The Fool!”
I stared at the card dumbfounded, for the card she held aloft was The Fool. I was about to set the record straight when the card burst into flame and the old woman cackled. “Fools, all! Burn!” Over and over, the cards on the table bursting into flame as J.G. dragged me from the caravan, away from the screechings of the mad fortune teller. Outside he apologised, even as she ranted and raved a smell of acrid smoke filled the air. J.G. directed men to get buckets. Placing a hand on my shoulder, he told me to pay no attention to her mad ramblings and that if I was willing to work hard and make the necessary sacrifices then I could join the circus. There was one catch, I’d start at the bottom and have to learn the ropes, literally, it turned out. If I kept my head down, one day I’d get my shot at performing on the trapeze.
And that’s the story of how I joined the circus, almost. You might think it was the happiest day of my brief life, it turned out to be the saddest. It broke my father’s heart when I told him, but he didn’t stop me. He knew what it meant to me, and he gave up his dream so I could chase mine. That’s a heavy burden and one I still carry to this day.
I couldn’t have joined the Circus at a worse time. In the year since it last visited, the depression bit hard. Money was tight, and the Circus was never out of the papers. Not a month passed without another tragic accident, most notably Marco Fenici, who’d fallen to his death. I sometimes wonder if I’d known about his death the day I left home if I would have had second thoughts.
The first thing I learnt about the Circus was that there were two worlds, the world inside the big top and the real world outside. Inside, that’s where the magic happened, that’s what I fell in love with. Outside, well, there was no magic there, just people trying to scratch out a living. That first day, the day the scales fell from my eyes, was tough, like being told there’s no Santa.
My biggest disappointment was when I discovered the Fenici’s were not what they seemed. It turned out Jules wasn’t Italian, rather he was an ex-sailor out of New Jersey. His actual name was Joe. He even had the tattoos to prove it. Angela, or rather Ruby, she was from Kansas City. They were h on talking terms, let alone married. Poor dead Marco had been Ruby’s lover, not her son, and his death still haunted her. She was not the angel of my childhood memory, in or out of the ring.
And then there was Sofia. Dear Sofia. At least that was her actual name. My instinct that they adopted her was almost right. She was the only daughter of one of the cowboy clowns, Terrance the dwarf and how he doted on her. As for the rest of my instincts with respect to Sofia. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, what a difference a year can make. For even an ugly duckling can turn into a swan, and there was none more beautiful, more elegant than Sofia. I was besotted the moment I saw her practising.
It wasn’t just the Fenici’s. Everyone had a story, most of them sad. For most, the Circus had been a welcome safety net from a fate far worse. If it was not for J.G.’s benevolence most agreed they’d have been dead or in prison long ago. The only genuine person was J.G. himself. In and out of the big top he was the master of all he surveyed, and it was only his vision that held the rag-tag bunch of miscreants together.
I had a good handle on most of the troupe within the first month. All except one. The elusive lady in black, the mystic, the fortune teller. She had many more names, not all of them flattering. Few would talk about her; all were convinced of her prophetic gifts. There was a rumour that it was her gifts that bound her to J.G. and was why he never let her out of his caravan. I’m not superstitious and was far from convinced by her twisted card tricks. That said, I can attest to never seeing her, not once in that first year.
And what a first year it was. I did everything and anything, a dog’s body for any who needed an errand run, and I loved it. Sure, it was hard work, but I was no stranger to that. For a lad of sixteen, with a few coins in his pocket, a dream and a new town every fortnight, life was never boring. Not that I ever went to town. I spent what little free time I had wooing Sofia. We shared the same dream, the same passion, and with J.G.’s approval, Sofia taught me the art of the trapeze. In the subsequent months, our love and my skill blossomed. Much to the annoyance of Ruby, Joe, and most of all Terrance.
I can’t recall a happier period in my life. I was in love, and I was flying. My fortunes had changed for the better, unlike the Circus’. The depression continued to keep the audience away. Many talked of a curse, both within the company and in the communities we passed through. Most vocal amongst our number was Larry the lion tamer. I remember watching Larry growing up and I thought him to be the bravest man I’d ever seen. I also remember he had two arms. Not anymore. He’d lost his left arm a year earlier when one of his pride decided it would have an early supper. That was in the papers, a photo of a lion striding off with his arm.
Ever since the accident, Larry needed a bit of courage to get back in the ring and he found it at the bottom of a bottle. It was one of my daily chores to ensure he was fortified for his nightly performance. Right after ensuring the lions were well fed. No simple task with money being so tight.
Larry was convinced the loss of his arm was no accident. When he was stinking drunk, he’d make very little sense other than to repeat the conviction that he’d die in the ring. “She knows, she’s told me. Pop, pop, pop,” he’d say “Pop, pop, pop, that’s when you’ll know. That’s when you’ll know, lad.”
When he got like that, I’d hide the bottle, ready for the next day, and tuck him into sleep it off. I gave his ranting no heed. It was another tall tale amongst people who made a living from exaggeration and storytelling.
Fast forward a few months and it’s another town and another quiet night, not even two dozen in. J.G. was in two minds whether to cancel the show. If he hadn’t arranged some advertising with the local paper, I’m sure would have. Instead, the show went ahead.
Taking the bottle from Larry and handing him his whip, I pointed him towards the ring. He staggered on as he did every night, to meagre applause. He was halfway through his act. All three lions were on their marks when I heard a noise. So did the lions. Pop! Followed by a high-pitched whistle. Confused, I stared across at Larry and it was the oddest thing. He just smiled at me and winked. Another Pop! and the largest of the lions growled and launched itself at Larry. He didn’t stand a chance, not with one arm.
Pop! Pop! Pop, went the flash of the cameras snapping the gory scene of Larry being ripped apart. Next thing I know J.G.’s levelled a pistol at the man-killer and with a pop it dropped on top of Larry’s twitching bloody corpse. I couldn’t move. It took Sofia’s touch to drag me away. Outside the tent, I vomited and finished the last of the bottle before breaking down in a flood of tears. In part, at the horror of what I’d witnessed, but more at the realisation that Larry had known his fate. He knew how he’d die, and yet he still got in the ring. It turned out Larry was the bravest man I ever knew.
Larry wasn’t the only victim of rotten luck. As the year dragged on and audience numbers dwindled, it seemed like every other week there was an accident. Have you ever seen a sword swallower have a coughing fit or a human cannonball explode? I have and I can tell you it can’t be unseen. No matter how much you drink or try to scrub the blood from your face.
I spent my days running errands, training for the trapeze and hanging out with Sofia. I had several run-ins with her father. He had an uncanny knack for turning up where he wasn’t wanted. I don’t believe I’ve ever come across anyone lighter on their feet or keener of hearing. In spite of the accidents, it was a great life, I was happy, if a little frustrated, at least during the day.
The nights though, they were different. After the show, the company would sit around the campfire. No one joked, no one laughed. Hardly anyone even spoke. No one would say it, but we all thought it, knew it to be true. The circus was cursed. Too many things were going wrong and always spectacularly. No one ever got a paper cut, they’d always lose an arm, or worse. So, we spent the nights huddled around the fire drinking, wondering who’d be next.
Come the new year all the hours of training and practising paid off and on a balmy Saturday afternoon, Sofia and myself performed together, to an audience of one, J.G. We were desperate for his approval. I’d never been so nervous. This was it, my big chance. Sofia was already a rising star. She had nothing to prove.
Nerves almost got the better of me on the first catch. Sofia only just grabbed my wrists as I hung upside down swinging. I thought I’d blown it until I looked down and saw her smiling back at me. She had no doubts, so neither did I. The rest of our performance was flawless and safely on the ground, raising Sofia’s arm triumphantly we took a bow. Panting hard we stared into each other’s eyes and as one turned to gauge J.G.’s reaction.
Stepping from the shadows, he walked towards us and began to slowly clap. For a moment I feared the worst. But with each step, his clapping increased until it was righteous applause that culminated in him throwing his arms around me. “I knew you had it in you, lad. From the first time I saw you.”
We’d done it. I hugged Sofia, knowing I couldn’t have done it without months of patient tuition. J.G. was delighted and on the way out, he told of us of his plan. The flying lovers, a spectacular new headline act, one guaranteed to appeal to the most jaded punter. Who could resist the story of the century? J.G. moved fast and the next day a dozen newspapers arrived to take photos and he spun a timeless tale of true love found amongst the stars. He wasn’t wrong.
And it worked. With J.G. stoking the publicity fires, our debut was spectacular. We packed out the big top in every town that season. We were now the stars of the show, the next generation of Flying Fenici’s. It was a tough pill to swallow for Joe and Ruby. Relegated to supporting roles, I had several heated exchanges. In the end, J.G. stepped in and appeased the old stars. Sofia’s father was also not a fan, at least of mine, and pleaded with his daughter to reconsider. Sofia refused. It was me and her now, and the entire world lay at our feet.
They say everything that goes up must come down. That’s what they’ll write on my grave. It’s also a perfect description of my career as a Trapeze artist. As rapidly as the crowds had flocked to watch our performance almost overnight, they waned. The next season audiences dwindled. We were old news against the backdrop of the third year of the depression. States that once provided a good living were deserts now, tumbleweed and scorpions their only inhabitants. Even the ever-confident, ever upbeat J.G. was worried. His immaculate appearance showed signs of wear and tear, there was a shot of grey at his temples. Even his shamrock seemed to wilt in the face of so much bad luck. Something needed to change the fortunes of the circus and J.G. as always had a plan.
I don’t know where we were that night, some Wyoming backwater. I know the next week J.G. had us in Denver. Which was unusual. The Circus rarely toured the cities, but J.G. reasoned that if anyone had money, it would be the city folk. As always, promotion would be the key and he paid for a Denver paper to send a reporter and photographer up to create a story. I’d had a lot of fun giving them the tour. They took a few shots of Sofia and me posing, and the rest of the Flying Fenici’s family. It was the only time you’d ever see us all smiling. There was even an ensemble photo of the entire company, and J.G. had touched up his roots, looking every part the man I remember as a child. It was a wonderful day and there was a definite buzz that J.G.’s strategy might just be the change the circus needed. A few successful shows in a few cities and we might even make the big league.
That night was like any other. We were the last act to go on, the big finale, and we were halfway through the routine when I remember looking over at Joe. I was waiting for his signal but instead of meeting my eye, he was staring down at J.G., clear apprehension on his face. When he looked across at me, he gave the nod and I swung out. This was my big triple somersault, and Joe would be there to catch me at the end. Except he wasn’t. I’d already committed, having completed my third rotation, and I was spotting for a hand that wasn’t there. Joe was a fraction too late, his fingers tips tantalizingly touched mine, but there was no hope of any grip.
Twenty-five feet up and falling, my world slowed as I stared in terror at the half-full tent. They say your life flashes before your eyes at the point of death and they’re right, this story being the testament of my thoughts at that moment right up to the point I heard. Pop! Whiz!
Pop! Pop! Pop and the flashes of the reporters’ cameras blinded me. As always, in the right place at just the right time to snap that perfect photo. I knew I’d be front-page news tomorrow and in my mind’s eye, I could already see the headline. Big Top Tragedy, lover’s death plunge. Yes, the only thing dropping faster than me at that point was the penny. Larry had told me I’d understand at the end, and he was right. There were no accidents at the Soul Brother’s Circus. For me, the catch was, there was no catch. J.G. would hit Denver and everyone would know the Circus was coming. There wouldn’t be an empty seat.
It took me a second to spot J.G., his arms held out wide, top hat in his hand. He was bowing. I assumed it was to the audience until he tilted his head up and met my gaze. He grinned, and in his eyes, I saw the Machiavellian ringmaster toying with another fool. He had played me right from the start and I was neither the first nor the last victim he would claim.
Staring into that monster’s eyes, I knew Sofia’s fate would be the same as mine, as clear as any fortune teller. J.G. would sacrifice everyone and everything to keep his circus going. He wanted me to know that at my end. I was staring at his mocking grin, angry but resigned to my fate when something odd happened. A rope fell around J.G.’s neck. Much to both his and my surprise and we both traced it back to its source. Terrance, as always dressed up as the mischievous cowboy clown. I saw J.G.’s grin turn into a laugh. A laugh cut short by a violent tug from Terrance.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any stranger, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Ten feet from death and I felt an arm wrap its way around my chest. I never took my gaze from the confused J.G. even when he inexplicably rose into the air. Eyes bulging, his tongue thrust out, he levitated. Truly he was the devil.
Or so I thought as a brutal jerk rattled my ribcage, slowing my perilous descent. Not by much, but by enough. I hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of me and a crushing weight pressing hard into my back. A weight that hung on so tight I struggled to breathe. A weight that whispered. “I got you.” Sofia! A second later her grip loosened, and her weight was gone and with a thump, the strangled corpse of J.G. fell to the floor beside me. He was the last thing I saw before I blacked out, his milky dead eyes staring at me. The last thing I heard was the Pop! Pop! Pop of camera flashbulbs.
I came to in thick smoke, the panicked screams of people running as Terrance dragged me across the ring by. Sofia joined us a moment later, clutching her stomach she was hurt and suddenly my own pains were for nothing. Half stumbling, we made our way to an exit, and I looked back across hell itself as the big top burned and people scrambled. In the centre of the ring, the ringmaster himself, J.G., his purple tongue stuck out as if blowing a raspberry and in the smoke, knelt over him a woman dressed in black, cackling. “Burn you fools!”
We were the last out of that inferno, of that I am sure. The next morning in the dying embers, Terrance confirmed what I already knew. He’d suspected J.G. of skulduggery for years, having narrowly avoided being a headline himself. He praised the fortune teller for that bit of luck. It seemed as if the crazy old oracle had gotten the last laugh on her captor and in the process freed us all from a terrible end. The big top was not the only fire that day. A search of J.G.’s caravan revealed the truth of all his memorabilia, trophies everyone. Each item, a sacrifice to keep his circus of horrors going and it went back decades. We burnt it all to the ground the following night.
The following week we arrived in Denver, but not as part of the Circus. No, Sofia and I never graced the trapeze again. I got a job as an accountant, of all things, and Sofia she became a schoolteacher. As for Terrance, he took what was left of the company back east and in time he too became a legendary ringmaster. Thankfully, I never once saw them in the papers.