The following is an excerpt. The full story appears in Going Down Swinging #38. Grab a copy here.
Ten minutes before the ball drops we’re sitting on your friend’s roof, flushed with prosecco, waiting for fireworks to tear holes in the sky. I’m almost positive that when everyone looks to their watches and prepares to drop numbers from their lips like round, ripe grapes, you’ll make sure you’re sitting beside me. Your hand will slide across the tile and come to rest somewhere beside my thigh. At the moment of hugs and resolutions, you’ll lean in. The air dusty with the smell of gunpowder, as if the human cannonball has just been fired.
You’ll move for the kiss.
But look, now, just a minute. Stop there. Yes, I’d love to feel your fingers tiptoe up my neck like nervous cats. I could adore the velvet of thumbs. But I have to tell you – whether or not the world ends tonight in an apocalypse of every colour – my heart’s already gone. On the day of the most spectacular trick, it went.
We have ten minutes before the ball drops, so let me tell you, quick, about the circus. I’m thinking of it now because those first few streamers of fireworks are quivering across the skyline like the ribbon I once held high. I’m thinking of it now and, although I’m scared, I want you to know.
In the circus I rode a white pony with feathers and diamonds in her hair. I had a long pink whip that pointed to the sky, as if the air were a blackboard and I were teaching the class their ABCs. Here, take this G and shape a word for your best friend’s pocketbook; take this L for your mother and everything she’s done.
I didn’t use it to hit my pony. I didn’t need to. While I perched, she sped around the ring with hooves as heavy as monsoon rain. You’ll never stop me, you can’t catch me, I have no destiny in glue, they promised. I could balance on that pony with a single fingertip while I pointed my toe to the Big Top. In the beginning, all it took was a flick of my ankle and the crowd was lost to oohs and ahhs.
You see, there’s magic in the circus, despite what you might have come to believe. Ours started in the sawdust – a smell as comforting as a laundrette on an icy Brooklyn afternoon, the heat just turned off in your apartment, those small crystal suds salvation. The smell that sets the world to right, but it was more than comfort, much more. It was charred sticks and promises, campfires, totems, the howl of the night. Shamanistic whisperings.
Ours was the magic of the earth.
Out of the earth we were given a vine to climb – a golden vine of plaited hair. It came from Rapunzel, her legs hooked around the trapeze, her tiny body swooshing through the heavens. As she catapulted into the air, she let the vine unfurl and, in that moment, we all believed there was something to hold onto if we leapt. So we did. We closed our eyes, and we leapt.
This was the moment when it all happened. It would strike deep in the performance, when the frequencies of the air shifted and the light imperceptibly changed colour. Or, then again, it wasn’t like that at all. I tell you the change was imperceptible because I’m scared you’ll think me a fool, because the truth is so distant, so strange. In truth, at a certain point in the night, everything changed violently. The whump of air hit me like stepping off a plane in another hemisphere, and I marvelled at the texture of a new and foreign wind. I stood tall on my pony; I raised my chin. I let the warm orange light spill over me.
Every time I was scared the moment wouldn’t come, and every time it did. One minute the music was static and brassy – the colours all too garish – and then the sounds and the sawdust came together in one delicious buttery source of heart and heat. Whump. I fell in love with the penguins. Whump. The clowns’ makeup stopped being a cover-up, a white sheet pulled over an autopsy patient, and became a blank page to be painted upon with mystery and lore. My heart hooked onto the trapeze, the pony clicked her hooves, and we span and galloped and galloped and span.
From that moment, the crowd sat hushed. The light swelled in the centre and the animals paraded like streamers winding around a cog: the lumbering two-step shuffle of Bear in his red silk waistcoat, the jolly top-hatted gaggle of bickering geese. From the apex of the human pyramid, the fiery devil stick looped the loop, the chainsaw revved and thundered from hand to hand, the rapier leapt and fought a duel with the sky. One after the other, the acrobats thwacked off the landing pad and took to the air, head over heels like balls of red light, through the circle of fire, to the sawdust with a bow. And all the while, the elephants danced.
I don’t know if the others doubted each night, the way I did. Of course, back then there was no need to fret, but I’ve always been like that, always beset by anxieties. Only the circus promised something different. My escape.
We pulled together and made do in the circus because we didn’t know anything else or because we did. There were those born of strange stock: the three-legged mute, Sebastian; our Mexican tightrope walker, Carl, woven in hair from head to toe. There was Belinda, with the mirrors in her eyes, who pitched her own tent by the Top and let those sad young men queue and peer into her gaze. They watched their own futures strut before them, but don’t you sometimes think it’s better not to know?
We had a boy who was half cat, whose teeth were like fragments of old bones. I lay at night next to his tent and listened to his snores, his purrs, so deep and fulsome I could never fit my arms around their edges.
Of course, there was always Sabine.
Some of us, like myself, had lives before the circus, and that wasn’t easy either, because knowing the alternative is different to knowing hope. The ones who began their lives under tarp spoke of another lifetime, when they would leave and find happiness in a peaceful normality. I had lived in that other lifetime but I didn’t open my mouth to explain. How I’d removed layer after layer of clothes while ponies leapt over the fences of my dreams. How I sat in front of the white gleam of a computer screen and spread my legs for the camera and told them what they could do to me, while I leapt, leapt, leapt. How I sometimes travelled to hotel rooms and men met me at the door with hot wet palms and the worst of it was that first moment: the handshake, hello.
Every time I thought there was no way I could do it again and every time my body was already through the door, pliable and lithe and borderless, a small strife-laden country destined to be invaded again and again: the houses pillaged, the baker’s loaves knocked from the shelves and stamped to crumbs on the floor.
I didn’t tell my friends about this world, a place forever surging forward, filled with dazed and crumbling people who hadn’t quite worked out the way to keep up. How could I? In the circus we pulled together and made do, because we weren’t like that – we didn’t know how to piece ourselves together with the broken saucers of the universe.
Instead, I sat silently atop my pony and our plumes of hair billowed in the wind, flags from urgent ships, trying to sail across an earth that might very well be flat. It’s not. I know, I know. The world is round and the circus is magical and if you can complete the trick to perfection you’ll forever be adored. But something was changing within our performance, or perhaps within the world, because as the months passed the audience became less and less inclined to clap and holler. We’d show up and take to the ring and they’d nod, push another handful of popcorn into their mouths, and sit. They would mumble in the breaks about television, politics, what that man said on the news.
I tried: I pushed harder and higher, turned sinew to silk. Poses I could barely believe were patterned in my bones emerged, blinking, into the light. Please, said the angle of my hip. Believe, said the crack of my arm, and that would have been enough before, I promise.
I know you look at me now and think me fantastic, because here, in this world, I am not a poised ballerina turning on my toe in a box. Here, bruises blossom on my shins like thunderous skies; I wobble, I fall. Surely I never held a whole audience’s breath in my pocket? Surely the moment I caught it I would stumble and let it fall to the floor? Yes, but this is what I mean when I say magic.
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