Ours is still the only circus I’ve ever seen, and that’s pretty sad to think about, given how much ground we’ve traveled. There’s something strange, being the only people in the world who’d rather entertain than start shooting.
We did all right, though, even in the early days. There were only three things I really worried about: where our next meal was coming from, whether Elena would kill me in my sleep, and when I could join the others in the ring.
The next meal always came, even if it was sandy and burned until all the taste was gone and it was just mouthfuls of char with some meat underneath.
I was still waiting on the other two.
“The Amazing Musical Man, Elena and the Sprites of The Flying Trapeze, and The Leaping Brothers” wasn’t a circus, not by a long way. It was just a sideshow with a too-long name and a tent to keep the rain off and gawkers out.
Back then there were so few of us: Alto and Altissimo the tumblers, and Nayah and Mina and Elena on the trapeze, and Panadrome and Boss, and me. We lived out of three rickety trailers and a flatbed cargo truck that had most of the parts it was supposed to. The war had been going since before my time, but you could still get things in decent shape if you kept an eye out for a conquered ditch-city where the smoke had died down.
We’d cruise through empty cities, four of them driving the trucks, Nayah and Altissimo playing lookout, and Alto and me running alongside, darting wherever they pointed us to snatch up pipes and wrenches and books and dishes and any clothes not attached to the departed.
I had a knack for spotting things—”Little George,” Alto would call, and before he could finish the words a half-smashed clock would be in my hands like magic.
(It was strange, sometimes, how bone-dry and dusted over the cities became, as if we were going backwards through time and the war was falling further and further behind us.)
Still, scrounging always got you something. If it was too heavy for me (I was small for my age, Boss always said), Panadrome would pull up short and jump out, lift a generator into the bed of the open truck with one arm, then disappear back into the cab.
(Elena never asked for a thing for herself; she’d point out lumber and wiring, but not one bracelet, not one book. I still don’t know if she couldn’t bring herself to ask anything of me, or if she didn’t want any extra weight. With Elena it could be either.)
Every so often there would be a big building in ruins, and everyone would turn off the trucks and get out. Elena and Panadrome and I would pick over the wreckage (we had the best hands), looking for things most people didn’t have the patience for.
Boss stayed outside with the trucks, always, and never came close to the buildings—wouldn’t even get under their shadows.
When we came out again we’d find her peering at the notices plastered on this wall or that, scraping away dirt with her fingernails, carefully peeling things away from the stone and rolling them up as she walked back to the lead trailer and swung into the cab.
(It made my skin crawl to watch her, like she’d appointed herself the archivist of the whole world.)
But I didn’t have the luxury of getting the creeps; I did what I was told, biding my time until she asked me into the ring.
I took it for granted that there was a place waiting for me.
Why else would I agree to sit in the back of the open truck at night, holding on to the cargo straps with aching arms and praying the canvas didn’t break loose and knock me right into the road?
What else was keeping me there, back then?
Panadrome always got a thrill out of the rubes, but Elena and Nayah and Mina were the real draw, by then.
I was a plant in the crowd to drum up excitement. Boss stayed in the tent all show and gasped during the finale when Elena “fell” and only caught herself by one foot in the very last second before she crashed.
I could hardly keep from laughing at the rubes that panicked and then applauded three times as loud as they would have if it had all been perfect. Elena and the others had Boss’s copper bones—what could happen to them that couldn’t be mended?
(Now, Boss keeps things perfect. You get afraid of mistakes.)
Elena hated the trick. Every night as we unbuckled the tent and unscrewed the rigging, she was working beside Panadrome and seething, her dark hair knotted so tight that it seemed to be pulling at her face.
“What does it get us?” she said. “‘World’s Last Sideshow, Almost Worth Seeing.’“
“It’s more exciting,” Panadrome said. He followed Elena, holding whatever she’d lifted into his arms. His brass-barrel body couldn’t bend, and if he snagged the accordion that hung from one side Boss would have his hide, so mostly he just followed Elena, trying to be useful. Alto and Altissimo would have been better for the job, but Panadrome seemed to take to Elena; she was the only one who never looked at him askance, and he didn’t seem to mind that she only spoke when she was angry.
Panadrome slid the rigging into the cargo truck. “People like a sense of danger.”
“You’d think they’d have enough of that trying not to get shot on their doorsteps,” said Elena.
Panadrome didn’t answer. That sort of logic was hard to argue.
One night, I tried to sneak into the tent.
Mistake. I didn’t know yet that the tent was Elena’s property as soon as the rubes had gone home. (Laugh if you like, but none of us will. You’ve never seen Elena after the crowd’s gone home.)
She was standing beside one of the support poles, perfectly still, with her head turned to watch me come in as if she’d been waiting for me.
I squared my shoulders and stepped inside, letting the flap fall behind me and sink me into the dark.
It took a few moments until my eyes adjusted; then I saw Elena still staring right at me, a tight smile on her face. The dark didn’t bother Elena at all. (After Boss fits you up with the bones, you see better somehow. I couldn’t wait for mine.)
“I’m just looking for something,” I said.
Elena didn’t even bother to answer; she turned away, grabbed the rig, and ascended. (She doesn’t climb it, like all the others do. She just disappears from the ground and reappears at the top, like gravity forgets about her for a moment and she takes advantage.)
“Get out,” she said.
Then she dropped from the rigging headfirst like a stone, caught the trapeze with one hand as she passed, snapped in and out of a pike until she was sitting on the trapeze like it was a child’s swing.
There was no talking to her once she was on the trapeze. I turned and left. Behind me, the rigging creaked as she picked up momentum, and I knew when she had started to practice in earnest from the slap and whistle of her body moving back and forth, back and forth.
Boss came out of the tiny workshop trailer with Panadrome, wiping oil off her forearms.
Panadrome’s face looked grim, like it always did after repairs, and as he passed I clapped him very gently on the shoulder. He was one of us, even if he looked like a nightmare.
“I wish you’d stop asking Elena to be on the trapeze,” Boss said.
I didn’t even wonder any more where she got her information.
“I’m ready,” I said. “I’ve put in my time on the ground, I’m getting stronger. If she’d just let me try-”
“You think you’re ready to work at the level Elena requires?” Boss tossed the rag back into the darkness of the workshop. “I didn’t peg you for an idiot when I picked you up. Maybe I should reconsider.”
She cut around the truck toward her trailer. I followed, hurrying to keep up with her long strides, her round shadow eclipsing me.
“Then let me do something else,” I said. “I can do anything—join Alto and Altissimo!”
“We’ll see,” she said, after too long.
In her trailer she sat at her dressing table, staring into the mirror like a woman facing something awful. (I thought that was unfair; she wasn’t a beauty, but you could do worse.
I didn’t understand that the work she had done was already beginning to catch up to her.)
In the corner near the bed, Panadrome was half-propped on a plank of wood rolled in blankets to give him a way to rest. He didn’t bother pretending to be asleep, and his eyes gleamed in the dark as he looked back and forth.
“Elena wouldn’t like you getting the bones,” Boss said.
“And she decides?” I snapped.
Boss raised an eyebrow, but she only said, “Elena has the nose for these things. She’d sooner slit your throat. And you’re enough trouble as you are.”
Past the open trailer door, I could see glimpses of Elena through the tent flaps, flipping like a shell caught in the undertow.
“She’s going to cut my throat as it is,” I said.
“Don’t think I’ll stop her,” Boss said, running a cloth across her eyes to drag the coal-smudge off. “If you can’t do the job you have, why should she give you the job you want?”
“I can do the job I have.”
She smiled. “Then who’s outside packing tonight’s barter into the truck?”
Panadrome coughed a laugh that turned into a two-tone whistle.
After I turned to go, she added, “And fix your buttons. You’re in a sideshow, not a zoo.”
I stomped across to the cargo truck and launched myself into the cab, thinking it would serve them right if I drove off in the middle of the night and left them all here to rot.
(We were all so separate; even Boss and Panadrome crammed into that tiny trailer were somehow apart and alone.
It’s no wonder we didn’t survive like that. Who could have?)
Back then, Boss took auditions from almost anyone who asked.
I think, now, that she was looking for the thing that would take us from a sideshow to a circus; she was hoping to find the one person who would bring us through and out the other side.
Then she found him.
Peter was a juggler. He juggled three tin mugs full of water without spilling a drop, and then eight knives with his bare hands, coming away without even a nick.
She took him into the workshop, where I knew she was explaining the bones, to see if he had the courage.
(All it took was courage. It was too early, then, to ask for patience.)
I was going to hate him no matter what, because Boss had picked him over me, so when Boss left him in the truck and held the vote, she began with, “We know Little George’s complaint. Gentlemen?”
Alto and Altissimo shrugged, nodded.
Mina nodded yes, Nayah shook hers no.
“He can juggle,” Panadrome said, and after a moment Boss took it as an answer.
Elena said, “No.”
“You can’t keep people out of that ring forever,” I said.
Elena said, “I don’t like him.”
(I didn’t like Elena either, but that wasn’t what she meant, I could tell; even then she was standing where she could keep the workshop in sight. The hair on my neck stood up.)
Peter was adding our glass tumblers to the mugs he had in the air. His boots were worn out, and his ribs showed through his shirt, and he had a gun tucked into his waistband like any good soldier would.
“We’ll wait,” Boss said—a compromise. “See what he can do.”
“I know what he can do,” said Elena, and disappeared into the tent.
“She’s only sour,” Alto said.
But I knew it wasn’t true, I knew something was already wrong, and I shivered when Boss said, “Keep him out of the tent when Elena’s there.”
I had hoped that Peter wouldn’t give up his gun—no guns in the Circus, that had been the rule since the beginning—but the gun disappeared, and suddenly Peter was sleeping in the trailer with Alto and Altissimo as if everything was fine.
For a little while, it was. He knew how to keep a crowd watching, and whatever they tossed to him he could keep in the air as long as they liked, until they couldn’t quite keep count of what he was juggling.
But I could count quicker than the rubes could, and every once in a while something went missing, just for a round or two, like he was practicing making things of value disappear.
I didn’t know what to tell Boss—I couldn’t even imagine if I told her “He’s out to skim us” and she got that disappointed face she wore whenever I was being jealous.
(I couldn’t say, “Don’t make him one of us,” which was worse.)
Boss kept to her trailer more and more as the nights went by, watching the yard from the window as if she was waiting to be called. It wasn’t like her.
But it meant that when something vanished from Peter’s hands, Boss was watching the crowd and the rigging, not the dangerous face of the man who couldn’t see for a second where his watch had gone.
It meant that when we gathered around the fire at night and Altissimo and Mina passed around whatever they called cooking, I watched Peter looking at the trucks with impatient eyes and felt as though I was going to crawl out of my skin.
It meant that when I saw Peter near the truck where we kept the barter—never inside, only near—it felt as though it was only Peter and me along that whole empty road.
Once I noticed as we struck the tent that Elena was on the far side of the circle, loading rolls of canvas carefully into Panadrome’s arms, giving Peter glances that looked how I felt.
(She’s just jealous, I thought out of habit, like it would give me a name for my own worry, but I watched her so often I must have known it wasn’t true.)
It might have comforted me that she was watching him that way, but Elena had never been a comfort, and that didn’t occur to me until after it was too late.
What Peter stole, in the end, I never saw.
What I saw was him coming out of the workshop, where only Boss and I had permission to go alone. The workshop, where the sideshow performers came out with the copper bones that made you Boss’s own in earnest.
Somehow seeing him sneaking out of there, seeing him stealing what he couldn’t wait for, snapped the string I had been hanging on.
I thought I would spit out his name and he would look guilty and they would all come running to my aid somehow, but that would have been more luck than I have.
Really, I misstepped on some gravel and he looked up and saw me (he seemed surprised—I had developed quiet feet, I guess, from sneaking through the rubes acting awed).
The surprise only lasted a moment, though; then he smiled, and I started to worry. He was still rail-thin, but he was faster than I was, that much I knew for sure.
(If only I had the bones, I thought desperately, as if I could pause time and arm myself and come back when I was ready for this fight.)
He had a bag in one hand full to bursting, and his other was empty and open, which frightened me more than anything.
“What did you take?” I asked, like it would matter. One nail from that workshop would be too much.
Then he reached behind him for something hidden at his waist, and I remembered that the first thing he’d ever made disappear was his gun.
I bolted for the tent.
(Strange what you think is safe, for reasons you can’t name.)
We had stayed two nights—the city was in a truce—and the tent was still up, littered with the setup tools between shows. I dove inside, yanked the flaps closed behind me, and dropped to all fours in the darkness.
He was right on my heels, though, and as he skidded into the tent I fumbled blindly for whatever I could grab—a board, not even as thick as my finger, but it was something.
I got my footing, pushed up, and swung.
I was smaller than he was, and slower, but I’d hauled equipment until my muscles were dense as brick, and when it connected there was a sickening crack. It sounded like ribs (I was pleased) but when he gasped the sound was too close, and the next thing I knew I was on my back in the dust with a welt rising on my forehead from the butt of the gun, and I heard a little click as he thumbed the hammer back.
I winced and wondered how quietly I could scramble out of range without splitting my head open on the rigging in the dark. (Chances weren’t good.)
Then I heard the slap and whistle of a body swinging back and forth above us, and the unmistakable sound of a rope slipping free.
If you work in the circus, you know what that means. I pushed off with all my strength, aiming low and for distance, and the sound of the gun going off got swallowed up as the tent fell in around us, an avalanche of canvas so fast and heavy that it sucked away the air.
I kept my head to the ground, knowing what was coming, so when the tent fell it wouldn’t break my neck.
After that, I don’t remember.
I woke up in the empty bed of the truck, aching so badly that I thought for a moment he’d blown my skull open.
The sky was pink, nearly morning, and there were shifting shadows at the edge of my vision.
“I hope you’re not Peter,” I said.
Panadrome wheezed a little, three high notes like his accordion was stuck. “Welcome back,” he said, smiling, and glanced over at Boss.
Boss turned away to look out at the mess where the tent had been. “You’re stupider than I imagined,” she said, “managing to keep quiet from help when we live close enough to share a fork.”
I sat up slowly, propping my arms for support. Panadrome and Boss were crowded close; between their heads I could see glimpses of the others setting up the tent. Elena was standing a few steps off, watching all of us with a drawn face.
I asked, “What did he take?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Boss.
(It was true, but it’s never stopped me wondering what was so worth stealing that he did all that just to rob us of it.
His courage must have failed him; something about the bones must have woken him in dread, just before he broke into the workshop and tried to make a run for it.)
“He’s dead,” Elena said, before I could ask.
“The rigging pole got him,” said Panadrome, watching Boss.
“I heard someone,” I told him. “Before everything caved in, I heard someone moving.”
In the rigging, on the trapeze.
I looked over, but Elena was already gone.
“Leave it,” Boss said.
When she used that tone, you gave way, and so I closed my mouth and kept it closed.
I slept off my headache in Peter’s bunk, dreaming that Boss went into the woods and dug a grave.
When I came out of the trailer it was nearly sundown and Alto and Altissimo were already dressed, smoking a single cigarette in their shabby-looking jackets, their makeup running a little in the heat.
Mina and Nayah must have been inside warming up, because I heard the squeak of the trapeze and the solid clap of hands clasping hands.
From inside Boss’s trailer, I saw the shadows moving that meant she and Panadrome were almost ready.
It was all as it should be, it was all as it had been before, but something had changed, I could tell, while I was sleeping.
It took me until I was standing before the tent to see it—a new banner, the letters traced with care, the paint still gleaming wet in the heavy capital letters. On one end Boss had painted the griffin that was tattooed onto her arms. It stood at the ready, like a talisman.
I read the banner slowly, twice. It seemed strange that it was new; it seemed at once that it had always been hanging there, and yet that it had sprung into being from the wreckage of the tent that had fallen, giving everything a real name at last.
The Mechanical Circus Tresaulti, it read, and underneath, Finest Spectacle Any Where.
“It’s certainly shorter than the other one,” Elena said behind me. “We’ll see if it does any good.”
But she must have known already what had changed; she clenched her hands before she turned away, as if she had just been called to a fight she’d wanted for a long time.
I was still watching Elena’s back when Boss stepped up beside me.
“It’s time,” she said. “Long past time.”
I thought about Peter, about the little crowds that had grumbled at the price of barter and the soldiers who had given us dirty looks and kept us from even slowing down as we passed their city walls.
A little sideshow could come and go, neither a thrill nor a threat. A circus, I could tell, would be a different thing—a circus was something real, something united.
My hands were shaking. I pressed them to my sides.
“Some people won’t like it,” I said.
Boss said, “Then they can be afraid of it.”
(Strange, how sometimes I could guess her reasons, and sometimes nothing at all.)
But she was smiling, and it happened rarely enough that I was happy to smile back, and think about the future as an even road we would all drive along together, and make out all right.
Then I lifted the canvas aside for her, and together Boss and I went inside to the circus.