La Camaraderie du Cirque
By dave ring
Gather round, and let me tell you the story of Veronica’s Oiseau de Feu.
They were dark times, for me. Every bloody day, Chuckles, Magda and Felix tried to trip me when I walked by, ugly faces snickering underneath their greasepaint. My everything, Michel, ignored them, even when they pull that shit right in front of him. It infuriated me. He said it was to preserve “the camaraderie du cirque.” I loved Michel. But when Michel stood by doing nothing while those painted-mouth idiots tormented me, my love was lost in a rage that could turn a forest into cinders.
On those days, I screamed into my pillow: “Fuck the camaraderie du cirque!” Though my pillow did just as little as Michel to salve my wounds.
Before my banishment from the tent, I used to lurk behind the cheap velvet curtains and watch Michel and Lars from backstage after all the tickets had been sold and the punters put in their seats. Dear Michel and sweet, foolish Lars. Our main act. Under the lights, they gleamed. They wore tiny silver posing pouches and white cords criss-crossed around their muscled limbs, like they’d been the pawns of bondage-minded sailors. As if you could pull at a loose string and the two of them would fall apart into a sloppy pile of oiled pectorals, triceps and thighs.
Lars was the smaller of the pair. When he balanced atop Michel’s head or his fist, it always seemed as if his gaze was transfixed by someone in the crowd. As if their shared gaze was the only thing holding him in place. Sometimes, later, you heard different punters saying that they were sure it was them that Lars was staring at. Not the girl next to them, or the swarthy guy on the other side. Them.
Before my fall from grace, Lars confided that he’s really not looking at anything. He couldn’t even see the crowd without his glasses. He was just staring at a fixed point in space, concentrating on his center of gravity.
Like the crowd, Michel stared at Lars. At his center of gravity.
Like them all, I’d stared at Lars. Wishing that just that once, Michel would twitch, and Lars would fall. But it never happened, no matter how much I wanted it.
It was summer when Magda discovered my spying. We’d made it all the way up to the City of Trees. Michel and I had spent the day laughing and chasing each other through the dappled light, staring in awe at the airships that cluttered the sky beyond the cathedral ceiling made by branches of elm and honey locust. I didn’t even notice her beside me until she put out her cigarette and the final, thin plume of smoke that rose up made me sneeze. I’d wiped away the tears on my cheeks even though she’d already seen them.
“They’re the real deal, Paolo.” I barely heard her over the orchestra. She dropped her cigarette butt into my beer.
My eyebrow cocked up, forming a question braver than anything I could have said. Besides, she knew I rarely spoke aloud. I hated my voice.
“You have your girlish charms.” This wasn’t a slur, not from Magda. Magda’s appetite for dark maidens was as legendary as it was voracious. With a bit of kohl and a careful fall of satin, I could play the part. Still, I knew the compliment was a feint.
“Lars cheated on him.” It felt like the hundredth time I’d defended myself. My words came out shrill and high as they always did. I tried not to care.
“And you had no part in it, did you?
I didn’t answer. Yes, Lars had cheated on Michel with me, but it wasn’t my fault. Not really.
She’d shrugged, disappointed I didn’t rise to the bait. “It doesn’t matter how you wormed your way into Michel’s heart. It doesn’t make you any less pathetic. You’re not worth a whistle in a rainstorm.” She spat on the ground, carmine lips sneering beneath that carefully waxed handlebar moustache. “Now get out of this tent before I have your sister drag you out.”
My sister Veronica and I were the only two to have been born to the cirque. Different mothers, same father. The late Monsieur Oiseleur. Which would have almost made the circus as much mine as hers, if I’d ever been as good at something besides selling tickets or polishing the mechanical horses. My sister was older than me by a handful of years and collected names the way she collects knives. I’d once thought her my brother, until she told us otherwise. She cycled through names. A boy’s name we’d agreed to never again utter, then Veronica. After that, of course, the Dame de la Violence, Knife-thrower extraordinaire.
I used to be part of the Dame de la Violence’s act. We spent hours together, me learning the discipline it took not to jerk away when the knife pierced the air so close to my skin and her perfecting her throw. I trusted her more than anyone. But when Oiseleur died last year, she turned away from me. And I had to sell tickets every night instead of standing gamely in front of a plywood target.
Yes, Michel had caught Lars and I in the ring after hours, wearing nothing but the sawdust strewn on the floor. And after Lars bunked with the clowns while I kept his Michel warm at night. People said that I’d bewitched him, but if I had, it was only with yearning. Not crude hexes. After each show, I awoke to Michel peeling away my clothes like an onion’s skin. His need, night after night, left me gasping. My fingers found handholds on the sweat-slick expanse of his back, took him into me the way parched earth is grateful for rain.
That feeling was real. It had to be.
I had little of my own. Just clothes. A few knick knacks. And Michel.
That was it.
Certainly not the circus.
Thoughts of Michel were almost enough to make me forget Magda’s laugh and the tempo of her lacquered fingers, tapping against her aluminum juggling clubs as I fled the tent. Tap. Tap. Tap.
If there was a way to never leave his bed, I would’ve seized it. But someone of Michel’s bulk could not survive on sex alone. There were also innumerable eggs involved. One morning, weeks later after we’d crossed the great river and wound our way back south, we dressed and walked into breakfast. The clowns had been telling stories about me again; the dregs of their poison still hung in the air.
Veronica caught Michel’s eye and gestured sharply with the side of her palm against her throat. My face hurt from the effort of holding it motionless. Why couldn’t she just let me be? I had to leave before she could say anything to him, before Michel could fail me, yet again. How could someone so strong be so weak?
I ran until I couldn’t breathe, eyes sore and tearing. The grey sky boded ill that day. Sweat and humidity made every inch of me clammy. I sunk to the ground to catch my breath. My eyes squeezed shut. Just once I’d like to hear Michel’s voice raised in my defense. Just once I’d like Veronica to take my side. I clutched my knees to my chest.
A laugh jarred me. There was Magda’s cruel smirk. “Always crying,” she jeered.
I felt reckless and angry, a fire hissing in my belly, crackling and red. It came up my esophagus, roiling and desperate, until I was almost blinded by it. Magda flinched at my scowl. I felt possessed of sudden preternatural instinct: my hand darted forward, the way a finch might pluck a worm from the ground, and I snatched her voice right from her parted lips. It wriggled in my hand, inscrutably, until I ate it.
I felt her voice careening inside me, captive and afraid. It hurt her, I think. She gasped without noise and clutched at her throat with both hands. What had I done? Why had it felt so easy? The fire in me was relentless. Her voice soon was subdued and took root.
A peal of thunder made us both jump and look up at the flashing sky. I felt her stolen speech become eager on my tongue. “Still not worth a whistle, am I?” I taunted Magda with own voice, feeling cunning and strange all at once. Laughter bubbled up in my chest.
She jerked away and crossed herself, lips moving in a soundless prayer. This was the one who’d threatened me? I loomed over her and Magda flailed backwards, skittish as a grounded fish. She knocked over an empty pail with her floundering.
Felix’s shirtless torso appeared in the slitted door of his tent, his eyes still bleary with sleep, looking for the source of all the commotion.
“What’s her problem?” He scratched at the curly blonde thatch of hair on his chest.
My eyes narrowed to slits. I had never felt so powerful.
I thought about every slight, every shove. It only took one fluid motion to turn that clown into a mime.
I talked to myself on the way back to Michel’s tent, Magda’s clipped voice alternating with Felix’s irritating twang. I talked more in those few minutes than I had in days. A strange guest waited outside Michel’s tent. It was Lars, and he was crying.
I cleared my throat and tried not to panic; I wasn’t sure how to bring my own voice back.
I coughed and tested it out, real quiet: “Lars?”
I sounded like me. It was fine.
Lars pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and crossed is arms. “You win, okay?”
“You win.” There was heartbreak in his dense, Scandinavian-infused syllables. “I’m going.”
I didn’t understand. “Michel is at breakfast. If you need to talk to him.”
“I’m saying it’s not worth it anymore. I’m leaving the circus.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. I stepped towards him, my hand drifting upward towards his shoulder, but he flinched and pulled away.
“It would have happened even without you.” It didn’t sound as if he believed himself.
“But, but—where will you go?” I noticed that there was a duffel bag at his feet. “Back to Sweden?”
Lars shook his head slowly at my naivete. “Goddamnit, Paolo. I grew up in goddamn Bullock County, Alabama. My real name is Josh.” His accent sloughed off as he talked, a snake losing its skin. “My folks have a farm two towns over.”
I drew away from him. Did Michel know? Did everyone know but me?
Lars rolled his eyes. “As if you deserved any kind of truth from me.”
I was angry again, any trace of guilt gone. “You seduced me.” I jabbed my finger into his chest. He had been my first. I hadn’t told anyone. Just let them think the worst of me.
His lip curled. “I hope it’s all worth it. You were a mistake. You still are.”
I slapped him.
He punched me in the jaw.
I went down like a stone.
He swore, remorseful and reached down to gather me up in his strong arms.
I jumped up like a live wire, clawing at his cheek. My nails drew bloody lines across his stubbled jaw. The anger rose, and I took it. His voice. It was like prying a pearl out from a shell.
He fell and looked up at me, eyebrows jammed together in confusion.
“It’s worth it.” My snarl came out in the low Alabama drawl Lars had been hiding from me. “All of it.”
He scrambled to his feet and grabbed his bag. A slow smile filled my face as he walked away.
In Michel’s tent, I sang to myself in Lars’s beautiful, low baritone. It didn’t even remind me of him, without the Viking pretense. I wanted to put it on like a new pair of shoes. Where my own voice was thin and effete, Lars’ had depth and bass. Things had to change, I decided. Michel would be all mine.
My chest felt tight when my mind drifted towards the unthinkable things I’d just done. I stopped myself and revelled in my good fortune. I couldn’t wait to show off for Michel. There was no show scheduled that night, no sea of punters to traverse. Just the wolfish clowns of our little cirque. Michel should be back to his tent as soon as he finished up breakfast. I slid out of my dirty clothes and dressed myself in a lilac robe he liked, daubing musky pine behind my ears and at my wrists. And I waited. Hours passed, and still he hadn’t come. I started gnawing at my fears, twisting them into panic. What if Lars had gone to him before he left? What would he think? What if I spoke to him in Lars’s voice? Would I lose him? I wouldn’t tell him, I decided. And at night, after he’d fallen asleep in my arms, I would sing lullabies in his ear with Lars’ voice.
Yes, I was short-sighted. But my thoughts were only of Michel. But when the tent flap tore open, it wasn’t Michel’s figure silhouetted against the dying sun, but Veronica’s.
“Take him to my wagon.” She turned to Felix and Magda behind her. “No need to be gentle.”
They were only too willing to obey. There was pain and then whiteness and then nothing. The moon’s countenance, full and swollen, slid across the sky without my witness.
When I regained consciousness, light pressed red against my eyelids. Rain pattered against a wooden roof; I was in Veronica’s wagon. My hands had been tied together and knotted to the bedpost. Veronica blew dust from a record and then spent a squeaking eternity winding her gramophone. The needle kissed vinyl, and then a woman’s voice rose up, unaccompanied.
I opened my eyes after the first verse. Veronica knelt beside the gramophone as if in prayer. She’d lit a half dozen thick church candles. Her silver and cyan ringmaster coat hung on a mannequin beside her like a silent guardian.
“Who is this singer?” I asked, unintentionally using Lars’s voice instead of my own.
Veronica nodded, still facing the gramophone, as if in agreement with herself.
My face flushed hot. “Who is it?” I asked again, careful to sound like myself. The singer was familiar but I wasn’t sure why. My hands chafed above my head.
“You know our father made this wagon with his own hands. You were born in this wagon. In the middle of a show. Her stage name was the Bird of Paradise.”
“Who the hell’s that?” I asked, but half-buried memories started to surface. Old flyers I’d seen in my father’s trunk. A faded poster stuck to one of the tent poles.
“Does she sound familiar?” Veronica didn’t bother hiding her hard edges.
I listened more carefully. The song was ending. I pulled at my hands.
“Sing along with her.” Veronica began to clean her fingernails with a knife.
I didn’t know the verse, only the refrain, but I obeyed. My voice was untried. The woman on the record was trained and confident. But otherwise, we sounded the same in timbre and tone. An eerie resonance crept into me, a building strangeness.
“We were in Virginia, I think.” The candlelight made a silhouette of Veronica’s face that was just the poster we hung by her tent. “Down by the Chesapeake. Your mom was big as a house. You came real sudden. She went from singing, to screaming, to nothing. Ever again.”
“I don’t understand.” Magda’s voice came out of me, unbidden.
“Magda’s wasn’t the first voice you stole from someone.”
“What do you mean?” My own voice. Just like the singer’s voice.
“Paolo,” she said, trying to muster pity but only managing frustration. “The Bird of Paradise was your mother.”
She left me alone with the soft static of the finished record. I barely remembered my mother. I didn’t even really know what she’d looked like. When Veronica returned, she held something in her hands. I peered past her, still hoping, against hope, that Michel would come for me.
She raised an immaculately plucked eyebrow. “Michel left.” I wanted to die. Could a florid heart became numb? “As soon as he heard that Lars was gone, he went after him.”
I closed my eyes. “Pity Lars won’t be able to tell him about socking me.” I wanted her to laugh, but we were past that. “Now I truly have nothing.”
Veronica’s lip curled. “No. I’m going to give you a choice, Paolo. You cost me my best act. You can leave here and make your own way. Or you can stay on my terms. Earn your keep and maybe earn this too.” Veronica held up a box of buttery wood, and carved with a pattern of interlocking suns and feathers. A puzzle box. “Before he died, Papa gave me this. It was your mother’s.”
“What do I want of hers?” I couldn’t help myself.
“He thought it had your voice in it. Your real voice.”
I swallowed, head shaking.
“What do you choose, Paolo?” Veronica was insistent.
It was really no decision at all. What if it were true?
I got a wagon of my own, the only one besides Veronica’s. We hired some fresh-faced youth from Minnesota to take my old job in the ticketbooth. And if a drunk punter ever made themselves unwelcome, or realized that the ring toss game was rigged, well, I’d earned myself a new voice.
Veronica was nothing if not practical. Money was money. She replaced the sign of Michel and Lars with silver filigree, blowtorch-blue feathers and a beautiful face that might have looked like mine. My costumes were lavish, my tutors expensive. I sang from a gilt cage in multiple voices and registers. The name they called me was trite, but it sold tickets in those dark times.
They wanted to call me the New Bird of Paradise. But Veronica and I knew better.
I couldn’t have predicted the exultant joy of a crowd falling silent in hushed awe, awaiting me. It became my everything. In the evenings, Veronica came to my wagon to share a meal. Afterward, we played chess by candlelight. The clatter of the clay pieces wasn’t the vibration of wood against my back as her blades thudded into the wall, but it was something.
When she placed the puzzle box beside the candle between us, I drew my fingers along its grain. What could my true voice do that purloined cadences couldn’t? I could see where to push and pull at the box’s secrets, but instead I held it over the flame. Veronica met my eyes and nodded, saying nothing as the wood blackened and smoked.
It wouldn’t be long until it became ash.