The Bee Tamer’s Final Performance
by Aidan Doyle
After my attempt to escape the circus fleet fails, the clowns imprison me in the hold of the asylum ship, along with the other performers who believe they aren’t real.
My legs are shackled, and I sit next to a slug juggler and a fortune caller. The slug juggler’s hands move in an unceasing blur as he keeps half a dozen painted sea slugs spinning in a swirl of impossible reds and midnight sea blues.
The fortune caller looks at me with her mist-filled crystal ball eyes. “When you are ready, I will call your fortune.”
Before I have a chance to reply, I hear the low hum of bees. Black boots appear on the ladder leading to the deck. The slug juggler’s hands falter and the painted slugs spill to the ground. They crawl up the juggler’s trousers, leaving a trail of phosphorescent green slime.
A clown descends the ladder and stomps his way towards me, the buzz of the bees growing louder as he approaches. Through the clown’s empty eye sockets I can see Black River Bees buzzing inside his skull. After the bees mutinied, they ate the brains of the clowns and used them as their vessels.
The clown wears a red suit patched with squares of green cloth. Instead of an arm, a jellyfish tendril is attached to his right shoulder, and he has a large waxy growth on his face where his nose should be. He leans in close, so I can smell the scent of his honey drool. “This clown was once called Mr. Polyp,” he says. “We want to help you, Tashinny. You are afflicted with unreasonable beliefs.”
The bees killed the ringmasters and banned the Book of Circus, but I still believe. I have nothing to say to the bees. Hugorn will rescue me. He is the hero.
“Conversations are more interesting if more than one person contributes,” Mr. Polyp says.
The bees are baiting me, but I can’t resist. “Is this a conversation or an interrogation?”
“The difference is one of emphasis.” He gives me the opportunity to reply, but I say nothing more. “We have always held your family in the highest esteem.”
Bee tamers typically regard the use of smoke and spiced whips as necessary tools, but my parents taught me to treat the bees with kindness. Every morning my father informed the bees of news from the other ships. My mother even convinced the fleet’s whalers to give the bees a whale corpse to lay their eggs in.
I never wanted to be a bee tamer. Instead I dreamed of becoming a stage magician and spent my time learning card tricks and practicing ever-more daring escape attempts. Now I am the last of the bee tamers.
Mr. Polyp runs a gloved finger down my cheek. “Have you considered the possibility that you are real?”
I don’t justify his taunt with a response. The Book of Circus tells us that we are characters in a story. Without meaning, what is the point of life?
“We have seized control of our story. We want to help you do the same.”
“The bees make nothing but honey and lies,” the juggler says.
“Be silent,” the clown hisses.
The slug juggler opens his mouth. Words from the Book of Circus are tattooed on his tongue. “You can’t be silenced when you have a thousand poems inside you.”
Mr. Polyp shakes his head. “If everyone is screaming, then no one can be heard.” His waxy growth twitches. “You smell gallows ripe.”
Two burly bee-filled clowns bustle down the ladder and unlock the juggler’s shackles.
“The truth is a lie that will lead you to the edge of the world,” the juggler calls as the clowns march him to the ladder. “Look to the slugs,” he shouts.
One of the clowns belts the juggler across the face, silencing him. They drag him up the ladder onto the deck. Hugorn will save me soon, but I’m sorry for the juggler. I hope his death is at least swift.
“The Book of Circus is wrong,” Mr. Polyp says. “Reality is not to be feared.”
I don’t want to listen to the lies of bees spilling from the lips of clowns. “Without meaning, life has no purpose,” I retort. “Without story you are nothing.”
The clown rubs a strand of my hair between his gloved fingers, as though testing its quality. “Without the lies of the Book of Circus you will be free to give us your love.”
My stomach churns. “I will never love you!” I spit at the clown.
The ringmasters told me I must love Hugorn, because he is a hero and I’m a love interest. The circus strong man will lead us to our new home.
When I turned eight years old, my parents tied sea stars in my hair and took me to a temple ship. I’d told all my friends that I was going to become the greatest magician in the fleet’s history. I knew a hundred card tricks, a dozen ways to escape from locked boxes, and three ways to cheat death. I recited the poem of awakening before the bearded ringmaster. He opened the Book of Circus and pronounced that I was going to be a bee tamer like my parents. I was to play an important part in the story of the circus. I was going to inspire Hugorn, the fleet’s greatest hero. My parents couldn’t have been prouder.
“We have something to show you,” Mr. Polyp says. The burly clowns unshackle me and take me above deck.
The sun shines brighter than the buttons on a ringmaster’s jacket. I’ve only been below deck for a couple of hours but I fill my lungs with deep breaths of sea air.
The asylum ship is in the middle of the fleet. Even after the damage wrought by the Great Storm, the line of ships extends both north and south as far as I can see. The Book of Circus tells us that the circus folk fled their homeland to escape a terrible war more than eight hundred years ago.
The slug juggler’s corpse hangs from the mast, but my attention is drawn to a cart near the mast. A clown wheels the cart forward so I can clearly see its contents.
The clowns have broken the strongest man in the world and put back the pieces in a way that is not right. My hero stares at me with nipple eyes and wriggles his foot fingers. The clowns have grafted watermelons to his arms in mockery of his once mighty biceps.
Despair overwhelms me and I fall to my knees.
The clowns push the cart to the edge of the deck. I don’t even have the strength to raise my voice in protest. They tip the cart and Hugorn tumbles into the ocean. His twisted form flails for a second before he sinks beneath the waves.
I look away, ashamed of my weakness. He’s the hero and I’m a love interest. This is not the way the story should go.
Mr. Polyp pats me on the shoulder. “You are free to love us now.”
I dash for the side of the ship, ready to fling myself overboard.
Something wraps itself around my right boot and a blast of energy knocks me unconscious.
When I awake, my legs are shackled and I’m back in the hold, next to the fortune caller. Mr. Polyp is watching me.
The hold is scented with jasmine, but the smell of burned leather is overwhelming. My right boot is burned and my ankle aches. The clown must have caught me with his jellyfish tendril.
Mr. Polyp puts a gloved hand on my cheek. “When you come to love us, you will command me to tear off your clothes and cover your body in honey.” The bees inside his head buzz in anticipation.
That will never happen, but other doubts are dancing in my stomach. Hugorn was supposed to save the fleet. Can there be any truth to what the bees tell me?
“The beginning of doubt should be savored,” Mr. Polyp says.
The bees killed my parents during the Great Storm and seized control of the ships. Some of the others think the bees grew strong because my parents were weak, but I believed the bees had rebelled to give Hugorn a chance to prove his greatness. What if I’m truly real? What if I can make my own decisions? If I’m not bound by the constraints of story, I can do anything. First I have to rid the fleet of the bees. I glance down at the shackles. I have escaped from far more complex apparatus.
Mr. Polyp extinguishes the lantern and lies down at my feet. He kisses a gloved finger and touches it to my left boot. “Tell us that you are the one we love,” he whispers.
“Why do you want me to love you?” I ask.
“Tell us that you are the one we love,” he repeats.
Sleep does not come easily when a bee-filled clown lurks nearby, but I must have eventually drifted off to sleep. When I awake, the clown is gone, and my boots are spattered with honeyed drool.
I stand up and stretch. Something is stuck to the side of my trousers. I twist around. One of the painted sea slugs has left a trail of slime on me, a pattern that looks like a rectangle with five stars.
I pluck the slug from my trousers and put it on the floor.
The fortune caller is watching me. “It’s time to call your fortune.”
I don’t want to be responsible for her death. “You know what happened to the slug juggler.”
“It’s my purpose in the story,” the fortune caller replies. She reaches into her blouse and retrieves a deck of cards. “Split the deck.”
I glance up at the ladder, but there’s no sign of the clowns. I lean over and separate the cards.
The fortune caller shuffles the deck and turns over the top card.
“That’s not necessarily bad,” she says. “Death can represent new beginnings.”
“Maybe they should have a new beginnings card instead,” I suggest. She doesn’t find this amusing.
I turn over the next card.
The fortune caller stares at the card in shock.
“How many death cards are there in the deck?” I ask.
I turn over the deck. All of the cards are the same. Death. Death. Death. That’s a lot of new beginnings.
Mr. Polyp slides down the ladder, followed by the burly clowns. “We warned you!” he screeches at the fortune caller. “We make our own fortunes! They are not hidden in cards.”
The fortune caller doesn’t seem surprised. “Sometimes an ending is a beginning in disguise,” she says to me. “Take justice from me.”
The clowns drag her above deck. I’ve caused her death.
I wait for Mr. Polyp to return, but the hours pass. Are the bees testing me?
It’s time to take control of my own destiny. I take a pin from my hair. No lock can thwart Tashinny the Great. A moment later, I’m unshackled. I climb up the ladder and peer out. Some of the crew are on deck, but I can’t see any sign of clowns. It would be safer to wait for darkness, but maybe Mr. Polyp would return to watch over me.
When I climb onto the deck one of the sailors glances in my direction. He purposefully looks away, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
The body of the fortune caller hangs from the mast next to the slug juggler. I start climbing the rigging. The sailors don’t stop me.
The mist has gone from the fortune caller’s crystal ball eyes. I reach a hand down her blouse. Her skin is rough, like seaweed left out to dry in the sun. I grasp the deck of cards and put them in my jacket.
I survey the ships of the circus fleet and spot one bearing a flag with stars. Follow the slug.
I climb down and cross the deck to the ship’s stern. The sailors ignore me. The clowns are letting me escape too easily. Have they set a trap? It’s too late now. I’m following the map to vengeance.
I swing across the rope connecting the ships and land on the deck of the next ship, one of the many fishing vessels. The fishermen are busy with their catch and pay me no attention. I go below deck and grab a change of clothes and a scarf to cover my hair.
There are clowns on the next ship. Fishermen often move between the ships, but I take care to avoid passing close to any clowns.
The Book of Circus dictates that every twentieth vessel must be a temple ship, but the clowns have converted them to fishing vessels. The body of a ringmaster hangs from the mast of the first temple ship I reach. Seagulls have a built a nest in his top hat. Someone has painted the words, The Bees are Freedom on the mast.
I swing aboard the next ship and continue till I reach the ship with the flag with the five stars. A forge ship.
A ladder leads down into a blacksmith’s workshop. The fires of the forge are burning, but there is no smith. A weapon rack stands near the forge and I take a sword. I reach into my jacket and take out the fortune caller’s deck of cards. The fortune caller wanted me to destroy the bees and restore worship of the Book of Circus, but I think the bees are right about that at least. I’m not just a love interest. It’s time for my greatest card trick.
I use a pair of tongs to put all but one of the death cards onto the forge. The cards melt into liquid paper and after cooling them, I hammer them into the shape of a human. The death bone connects to the death bone.
The cardwork automaton climbs off the forge and stands beside me, its illustrated skin shimmering in the light of the flames. The four feet high creature is made of death and destiny, but I give it a sword as well.
I transform the final card into a ring. A special present for Mr. Polyp.
The automaton follows me as I climb the ladder and march towards the bee ship.
Two burly clowns try to stop us, but the automaton leaps forward and cuts them down.
It seems like a lifetime ago that I used to live on the bee ship, a massive five-masted vessel. Tashinny, the love interest is gone. She belonged in a different story. Tashinny and cardwork death march into the hive of dead clowns.
The ship’s hold contains a whale carcass. The bees have laid their eggs in the whale, but the blubber is not enough for the hungry bees. They acquired the taste for clown flesh and the whale is stuffed with honeyed clowns. Fat clowns, thin clowns, tall clowns, short clowns, naked clowns. Clowns with bells. Clowns with missing limbs. They will all be eaten by the hungry larvae.
Mr. Polyp sits on a wax throne, surrounded by a dozen clown guards. “Tell us that you are the one we love,” he demands.
I hold up the ring. “This is the only love I can give you.”
Mr. Polyp motions for the other clowns to step aside. He walks towards me and holds out a gloved hand.
“Take off your glove,” I tell him.
He uses his teeth to peel back the glove, revealing honeycomb and bone fingers.
I slide the ring onto a finger. I wait, but nothing happens. The death in the ring should have finished him.
He holds up the ring to examine it closer. “A little death will not hurt us, for we are multitude. Only when we accept the inevitability of death can we appreciate life.”
“I’m never going to love you.”
“Never is longer than you can understand.”
“You are the ones that don’t understand,” I tell the bees inside the clown. “You think you love me because my parents were kind to you, but love is just a story we tell ourselves when we are cold at night.”
“Tell us that you are the one we love,” Mr. Polyp repeats.
And then it hits me. For all of the bees’ talk of breaking free from the idea of story, they are just as trapped as me. They used to believe in the Book of Circus. They have undergone a transformation. Even though they don’t realize it, they think they are the hero of the story. And the love interest belongs to the hero.
I don’t accept that. I stab Mr. Polyp in the heart.
He staggers backwards, his honeycomb hand clutching at his chest.
A swarm of clowns surrounds me.
I stab two of the clowns and the cardwork automaton deals death to another three, but there are too many. The clowns seize the automaton and tear it apart, scattering pieces of illustrated death on the floor.
Mr. Polyp is still standing. “Tell us that you are the one we love.”
The clowns form a circle around me, leering with their bee-filled eye sockets. The buzzing is deafening, but I’m not afraid. I know the truth. I am the hero of my story.
I lash out with my sword, beheading the nearest clown. His body falls to the floor and a stream of angry bees fly out of his skull.
Mr. Polyp’s jellyfish tendril wraps itself around my sword and a blast of energy knocks me off my feet. I lose my grip on my sword and one of the clowns takes it.
Another clown grabs me by the shoulders and lifts me into the air. I struggle to break free, but he holds me tight.
Mr. Polyp lurches towards me, his human hand pressed against his bleeding chest. “Tell us that you are the one we love.”
“Never. I am the hero of my own story.”
The bees inside Mr. Polyp’s skull buzz in response. “We will hold you prisoner until you see the freedom that surrounds you.”
“I’m already free,” I retort.
Mr. Polyp shakes in head in reply. He gives a command and the bee-filled clowns drag me away from the clown-filled whale.
After my attempt to escape the circus fleet fails, the clowns imprison me in the hold of the asylum ship, along with the other performers who believe they aren’t real.
About the Author
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 100 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside.
Aidan joined PodCastle as an Associate Editor in 2016.
About the Narrator
A.J. Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had short fiction published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres Magazine, and other venues of repute. Look out for upcoming stories in Shimmer Magazine and The Future Fire. She has done narrations across all Escape Artist podcasts, as well as Redstone SF, Interzone, and Wily Writers.