We’d been there too long. Portia’s red slip bleached pink on the line, Mr. B getting to know the local girls by name.
Across the camp, the motorbikes’ thrum railed ’nuff ’nuff ’nuff, and behind my trailer a pile of chicken bones flowered as the prairie gave way to brush, a disinterested milk cow, antique prop-looking tumbleweed.
Once upon, I’d been carnival’s main attraction, swooping into the mercury-spangled tent, dove gray, fogged and feathered. Or burst in, tulle skirts pouring from my waist, fire ants cascading, a fall of thistles. Everyone around me bursting into flames, dying from thirst, but preferring a soupçon of my perfume to any clean cool draught of water. Mr. B would watch me from the wings as I spun midair, and later from his bath as I shimmied up the bedpost.
I don’t mean he watched me. I mean, he devoured me.
But that was long before the prairie, with its manic winds and its dreary little antelope. Oh, how sweet, Portia would croon, all pancakes and syrup. I’d roll my eyes right up to my wig. Those antelope were hoodlums, making off with a bag of corn or the sugar sacks, puncturing tires and carving their names in the side of the van. That evening, in the endless stretch of nauseating twilight, I could see four of their yearlings approach. I knew I should run fetch Lewis to blast them, and would’ve if I hadn’t been to the bone weary. On Saturday, I’d given a morning show, a matinee, prime time, and a late night adults-only. Sunday, a sunup-to-down holy trinity show. I hadn’t had a wink. Gunpowder weighted my feather lashes, and my ears still rang. ’Nuff ’nuff ’nuff.
“I see you,” I told the beasts. “I see your ugly little behinds.”
The antelope started, sprinted off a’ways. Maybe it was my roughened voice, or maybe it was my furs spooking them. I wore possum, bearclaw, and a synthetic-but-awfully-convincing maned wolf. In the Sunday Last Supper act, I’d been the supper. I’d been the ghost of suppers past, and I’d been the milk that Ma ladled out to the wee ones. I’d been the bones that Pa sucked dry by the fire, and even the gristle fed to the pigs. I knew I looked a fright. But I couldn’t let the weariness knock me down another peg. If I was to keep drawing Mr. B’s bath, I’d have to scrub clean and start over. So over to Lewis, who was, by turns, our antelope wrangler, our chief of security, and Mr. B’s valet.
Lewis, wolfish, wiry, always chewing on nothing at all, maybe just his own sordid past. Who knew what he’d done before Mr. B’s. He’d been with plenty of girls, plenty of boys, women, men you wouldn’t meet eyes with in a tavern, criminals, nuns. He had that kind of anyone-anywhere crossed-leg walk. I slunk around the van, catching a whiff of the nasty tobaccy. “Lew, s’me,” I hissed.
“Lucy,” he husked. “I’m open.”
I wound up the ladder to the van’s roof with its little domed hatch propped wide. Smoke seeped out and I slipped in. Lewis lived in the carnival’s van, and had outfitted it with deep russet wall-to-wall-to-ceiling shag. Curling my bare toes into the carpet, I felt my pulse slow, dim to match the little patch of sky holding steady above us. My molting furs settled around me like the blankets they were meant to be.
Lew reclined against a pile of corduroy pillows. In one leathery paw, a pipe, and in the other a match he lit on his boot. He passed the pipe to me, and I sucked in an ember.
“That oughta kill something what I got left,” I grinned. I waited a beat, as Lew took his turn, inhaling deeply. A little soot lit on his nose.
Then, impatience reigned. “So?” I prompted.
“Mr. B won’t require your services tonight, Lu.”
“And why’s that, Lew?”
He sighed a barbed breath. “Alright, Ms. Lucifer. As if you don’t know already. Our illustrious captain already has himself two girls in there. One looks legal enough, the other just off the teat. They’re trussed up prettily.”
“Why can’t he use me, as well? Two little girls probably frozen as deer.” I scoffed.
“Haven’t you had enough for one day?”
I felt a blush rise up from my gut. Lewis, the whole camp for that matter, had seen what happened just before The Last Supper act. Nothing special, really. In my furs and lashes, I offered Mr. B a quick restorative suck, a divine little coffee break, and he turned me down. Nothing special. It was just the way he’d announced, benevolently, Thank you, dear Lucy, but I’m already spent. Not only was I bumped off nights, but between acts? A cloud of misgivings muffled me, the rest of my performance. It’s a miracle I didn’t light my furs instead of the fuse when I shot Pa from the cannon, or bleed out when I cut my arm for Ma’s glass of wine.
In came the chill night air, and I snuggled down, eye level with Lewis’s steel toes. If Mr. B didn’t want me, what could I do? For now, I’d give myself over to that pervert Sleep.
The carnival was old. Maybe the oldest. With routes on three different continents and under a dozen different names since its inception. On the prairie, it was going by Behemoth Family Carnival; it had been Sad Salty’s when I joined up on the coast. Babies were born, grannies put out to pasture, three-legged dogs came and went, but the real players stayed the course. Portia, Lewis, Pa Strong, Ma Beard, Li’l Tit, and the Moth Child. And me, of course. I’d been there the longest, except for Moth Child and Mr. B himself.
For years, we’d taken turns headlining, but Portia’s turn always lasted a bit longer, caught summer at its apex. She kept a stable full of ugly ponies and tattered horses. Dolled up for the shows, under the kaleidoscope lights, you couldn’t see their mange or bad teeth, you couldn’t read their wishless eyes.
Portia herself was beautiful, even by the harsh light of sunup in the icy camp showers. No denying that. Her thick braids glossy as woven silk, her strawberry scent and the blush to match. No matter how long we traveled, how many performances we logged, she strode into the ring kitten fresh. She wore seamed stockings and miniscule hats with miniscule birds perched atop roses dewy with actual dew. She wore gloves to the shoulder, rouge with powdered pearl, rings with secret compartments for sugar, hash, poison some said.
Under my wig, I was bald. Bald as a bottom, bald as a lie. Or nearly. I had a collection of scrappy hairs that stood up funny when I slid my skullcap back. Just a bit of cobwebbing, really. Only Lewis had seen me in my altogether, owing to the night he’d insisted on saving my life—somewhere between Prague and Avignon, too much wine, too many cobblestones, some feral dogs. From then on, I used a concentrated spirit glue. Whether on my way to the showers, in the heat of a Louisiana swamp, or in the gale force winds of a north country winter, my wig stayed firmly planted as though an authentic part of me.
As though I were a part of it.
Mr. B wasn’t bothered. He’d always preferred me in costume. Even back when I’d had my own perfectly respectable tresses, he’d rather I pop up in the Raggedy Anne of Green Gables curls or the Lizzie Borden Milk Maid braids. The Marie Antoinette on holidays, the Cabaret Shroud for his naughtier pranks.
Sure, I had those almond eyes, the lithe legs, the tail that could shimmy any man loose of his trousers. Those were assets. But Mr. B praised my thespian proclivities above all else. Thesssssspian, he’d whisper. Once upon.
And that is how it came to pass that I was standing with one foot pointed down the path toward Portia’s wagon, and one foot pointed anywhere else in the world.
A woman alone in the world has to be one of two things: incredibly beautiful, or shrewder than a shrew. I’d tried my hand at the first for dang long enough, but never quite stuck the landing. I was carnival glamorous, moonlight pretty. And then I sunk and sagged and dried. My hair fell out, the lines around my eyes deepened, and I began to see myself for what I really was. Like most of the creatures around me, I had become a hideous man. Maybe they were contagious, or maybe fending for myself so long, so cleverly had led me to it. Whatever the cause, I’d become one of them. Every night, as I zipped myself into something life-threatening, taped it to my melons, painted my pucker, and pulled my wig down one notch tighter, I thought what a hideous man in disguise.
Nights when Mr. B would have me, I half expected him to find a shocker between my thighs.
Washing off my makeup in front of the mirror I’d inherited from the world-renowned fortuneteller Sheba Shebang, I’d see it—the future happening to me. For sure, one day I’d wake up with a great mustache, wiry nose hairs, a dangerously overdeveloped sense of say-so, and a case of the jowls.
I became ever more indebted to my costumes. I bought potions from swamp women, then from Basque aunties, and then I began to mix up my own. The tiger’s amniotic fluid, the elephants’ piss, and some kind of herb you’d use to stop a baby or sweeten a man. But it was just a matter of time (ha! time!) until I’d need a more permanent solution.
It had been a good Wednesday. A brief, riotous show of sneak peeks and tempters was followed by elephant rides, huckster charms, and win-a-prize-for-the-lady. Mr. B and I lazed on the office floor in a pile of well-aged quilts. Outside the trailer, children yipped and men hooted as Li’l Tit went down in the dunking tank, but we’d had our own games to attend to—Bad Esquire, followed by a round of ’Fess Up Father. Now, twined around Mr. B’s stocky frame, slithering a bit, darting my tongue across his furry chest, I could pretend we were back on the romantic bayou, or in one of those bittersweet cities behind the wall.
“Lucy,” he said in a thoughtful way, and tipped my chin so that I was looking straight up his little star of a nose.
“Yes?” I darted my tongue into his nostril.
“Lucy,” he continued in the same thoughtful tone, “what do you imagine our Portia would say to a game of Teddy Bear’s Picnic?”
“I ’spect the same thing she said to Plum Pudding Rounders and Button, Button, Who’s Got the Mutton.” My voice was light, but my heart was gagging.
“Yes, I agree. She shan’t say yes now if she hasn’t ever yet …” He trailed off, stroking my flank absently, and I thought he might fall asleep. He often did, wherever we lay, and I’d slink back to my trailer just before he woke at dawn.
“But what if—” he enthusiastically, tugging the quilt from beneath me so that I tumbled onto the scratched linoleum—“what if, my sweet, you were to play Portia in our very own private production?”
“Play? Portia?” I repeated, righting myself.
“Yes, a brilliant fancy! Should’ve thought of it sooner! You’d just need a few of those luscious braids, that white coat of hers, the golden horn she sports, and, let’s see, what else would Portia need have? Ah, yes, you’d want her leathers and some of that exquisite scent she favors.”
No point in telling him that the scent was just Portia herself. No point in telling him that Portia had never so much as tossed me a laddered stocking, more less a braid from her own head. And no point in telling him that I was ice-cold petrified, blue with terror; if he were to see me decked out in Portia’s garb, he’d know for sure I was nothing but the carnival’s most washed-up, washed-out drag artist.
“Play? Portia?” I shivered, broken there on the gritty floor, Mr. B’s back to me as he peered out the speakeasy slot in the trailer door. His suspenders hung down his back, beckoning. Then he whistled low and long. He’d spotted someone tender, a girl he hadn’t yet taken for a spin.
“Lucy, lovely, help yourself to whatever’s in my bar, and I’ll see you in the morning.” He made to leave, then stopped, swiveled, fixing his small pink eyes on me. I was naked, but for a coy red wig from the Orphan Annie Oakley act. What the heck, I struck a pose that showed off my remaining advantages, and I thought for a second he might stay. Vanity, what a thug.
“Next time, you’ll be Portia.” His voice was kind as he delivered the order a lesser man would have barked.
At breakfast the next morning, I couldn’t eat a thing. I managed to suck in some coffee, and to position myself far enough from the noxious odor of omelets and grits. I eyed Portia as she bit into a peach that some hulking farm boy had brought across two state lines just for her.
Portia was not my friend. That much I knew. Dressing, speaking, moving, fucking as though I were her, Portia, daughter of the lost Princess Olga and the golden bear with whom Olga eloped, might very well kill me. But what less would Mr. B do if I refused to play? He’d kill me and worse. He’d kill me and bring me back and mount me on his bedpost to watch an endless stream of filly girls tickle him into the grave. And then I’d really be alone.
Down the bench from me, Lewis stirred his coffee and bourbon with a rusty nail. Mr. B sauntered into the grub tent, and everyone went quiet.
“Good morning, sweet children,” he trilled.
“Mr. B,” Li’l Tit sprang forward, “coffee, two sugars, and none of the fun left out!”
“Thank you, pet,” Mr. B replied, accepting the mug as though it were a rose. “Now, as it’s Thursday, you all have your usual assignments, and I’ve got the extras here by my heart.” He pat-patted his vest pocket. “Pa Strong and Ma Beard, if you two would see to that beast of a corn kettle? And Lewis will take Moth and Li’l to town for another four sacks of sugar (vile antelopes be damned!). I expect the crowds will be voracious tonight, what with the rodeo long over and the slaughter long off. Now, Portia—I’ve something quite special for you. If you’d come to my trailer, you’ll find a pedicurist all the way from the coast. She’s brought hot waxes and iridescent polishes. You first, then the ponies. We’ll call it Liquor, Lacquer, Lady in Love. You’ll ride as though drunken, but at the last moment—Loop-de-Loop!—into Pa’s arms.”
Everyone murmured appreciatively. Pa ducked his head, flattered, while Portia, though pleased, appeared completely, utterly unsurprised that she should be tossed a treat where everyone else bagged a chore.
“And Lucy,” Mr. B added, as though casual afterthought, “why don’t you see to that matter we discussed last night? See if you can’t get it all taken care of by noon, why don’t you?” His eyebrows waggled my way, caterpillars on a hot stove, and I was struck by an unfamiliar wave of … not repulsion exactly … resistance. I longed to say no, or at the very least to sit stock-still staring away as though what had once upon been Lucy were now just a few grains of sugar dissolving on an antelope’s tongue.
“Sure thing, Mr. B,” I said.
In each and absolutely every fiber of my body and the few that made up whatever it was that might, just might, be my long-neglected soul, I did not want to step into Portia’s trailer. I burned a nervous red, and knew that more stupid than entering Portia’s trailer was hanging around outside as though about to enter her trailer. So, though I longed to take off east toward the highway and hitch a ride into town where I’d scrub my face, set up shop as a chemist, and never again put a paw down a man’s pants, I slipped up the neatly painted block steps and through the trailer door. Unlocked, of course; we trusted each other.
Portia’s strawberry scent crept up over me (into me, I prayed!), along with faint suggestions of oats, hay, milk soap, and hash. Another scent, more astringent, wafted up out of a tin basin of clear liquid. The basin sat in the center of Portia’s table, unassuming as the cherry-printed oilcloth. Next to the basin, a syringe, and next to the syringe a hand mirror, and next to the hand mirror an empty mug, but it bore a grayish stain and smelled just so of match ends.
Pregnant, was she? But how? And who? Never, in all her years with the carnival, had Portia had intercourse. She had strict rules about such things—no one from the carnival, no one with a family, no one from the seminary. No penises, no apparatuses, no fingers, no tongues. What she’d actually consent to was a bit of a mystery, but neither farm boys nor flaneurs, shop girls nor buttoned-up marms looked disappointed when they left her trailer.
Had Portia and I been friends, she would’ve gotten the potion from me. I’d birthed a dozen babies, stopped a dozen babies, and done the same for any tearstained, pitching girl Mr. B sent my way.
Had Portia and I been friends, she would’ve held my hand while I plunged the syringe. Or, were it too late, while a baby slipped out. She would’ve helped me pack that baby up in one of the Moth Child’s discarded jumpers. Together we would’ve picked our way out to the nearest river to sink the thing, or the nearest highway to meet Mr. B’s Granmere. And once every year or two, when the carnival passed through Granmere’s town, Portia would’ve accompanied me to that sprawling, bursting home where all the little girls would’ve admired her braids. All the little boys would’ve shown off for her, leaping from the second story, picking the highest hanging apple. One child would’ve been Portia’s, a bit sullen, a bit sad, blonde as a sunrise, humming nursery rhymes to a baby doll.
And I wouldn’t have been jealous a whit. Children know where their bread is buttered, and they don’t need a pretty face to love.
Turning the syringe idly against my palm, I’d drifted. And, then, as if on cue—because what isn’t on cue in the carnival?—I heard the hiss of the trailer door. The strawberry scent grew legs and came for me.
In fact, I must’ve passed out from fear or shame or maybe just exhaustion. I came to, slumped against Portia’s vanity, its satin skirt marked with my drool.
“Lucy, whatever … Well, are you alright?” Portia stood just inside the door, her feet shod in those paper sandals meant to protect a pedicure. Each toenail an iridescent wonder. Tipping my head back, I saw that her makeup had been done, too, and her hair (natural!) had been coiled and tussled, laced with real gold.
“Fine, fine,” I said, feeling quite busted in body and crime, when it dawned on me that Portia couldn’t possible know what I was after in her close and frothy trailer. “I was looking,” I began, slowly, thickly, hoping Portia would blame my knocked noggin, “I was looking for it, that thing, you know, the one with the, for the, I thought you might have it here on account …”
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry, Lucy, how thoughtless of me.” Portia floated over to a little dresser with Queen Anne legs. She slid the bottom drawer open and plucked out my tattered old Bonnie-sans-Clyde corset. She’d borrowed it from me when Mr. B went through his urchin phase. Everyone, an orphan or a burnout, a silver-tongued golden-hearted prostitute down on her luck, a gambler on his deathbed. Portia was cast a railroad tramp, and had nothing in her vast wardrobe quite grimy enough.
She ever so gingerly held the wrecked satin out to me. “Do forgive me, Lucy, and I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you any.”
Tempted though I was to stride out with my head high and my tail wagging, my shame over the theft-unfinished and my curiosity about the baby-stopping basin had me pinned to the spot. I straightened my fishnets and rubbed the drool from my chin. Then, with as much grace as the close quarters permitted, I wiggled my way to standing. “Portia.” I put on my stealthiest, most hypnotic voice. I had that left, didn’t I? “What’s here on the table?”
Portia’s golden-eyed gaze slid over the oilcloth, its jubilant cherries, up the basin’s pragmatic side, and into the astringent potion. “Oh,” she breathed, and her face, though beautifully, twitched.
I took my sad delicates out of her hands (cold as two stone doves) and gently steered her toward the chaise. A mound of silk and linen pillows toppled off, as Portia all but collapsed. It was becoming claustrophobically Victorian in there. I steeled myself against her fluttering eyelids and rapid breath. “Portia,” I whispered, “what have you gotten into?” Though of course I meant what’s gotten into you?
Portia’s eyelids snapped up, two little shades revealing the boudoir. “Lucy,” she commanded, gripping three of my fingers in her fist, “forget all this witchy business and go rehearse. Don’t bother your—your little head about it. You wouldn’t want to slip from the harness tonight.”
Whether threat or insult I couldn’t tell, but even in desperation, Portia retained her regal bearing. I plunged my free hand into her robe and rooted around at her gut. Lower, lower, and there it was. The hard little knot. The creeping, exponential panic attack. I knew it well, though this one was oddly shaped. Through the fine sheaf of Portia’s torso, I could distinguish four, no, six sharp points. Some rounded edges, a smooth ring. What was this? With a flick of my wrist, Portia’s robe spilled open. Spread beneath an eastern-facing window, Portia’s illuminated belly put on a show the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Prague in the old days.
“Portia, what have you done?”
She sighed then, more exasperated than sorrowful, and snapped her robe back over her roiling belly. Whatever she’d stowed away in there, it wasn’t human. It wasn’t even animal, but it was surely live. “Lucy. I have had. Enough. Enough of this damned carnival. It’s all dogs and ponies and sugar-snot children. It’s a curse. Stupid Lucy! Look at me when I’m speaking to you! A curse! Haven’t you ever tried to leave? Have you ever even gotten to the gates? You can’t leave. None of us can.”
Portia was sitting up, one cool hand cinching her robe, and the other clamped on my chin. She pulled my face to hers and drilled deep into my eyes. I was humming—in my head? aloud?—the opening bars to a campfire drinking song. Something about a darlin’ girl back east and a ruddy bottom out west. Had I ever tried to leave?
“Lucy, we’ve never been close, but we are a terrible family of sorts, so believe me when I tell you—we. are. trapped. Do you understand me?”
I shrugged and hummed.
“When did we first meet?”
I thought about it. “When your mother left you just inside the flap of Ma Beard’s tent. You were wrapped in silks, and had a bear’s tooth in your rosy fist. You smelled like strawberries, only greener.”
“And you were not much more than a girl yourself, but to me you were a woman. You were drunk on your own laughter, and filled with embers. I thought I’d be happy to grow up just as you were.”
I vaguely remembered Portia’s early days with the carnival, trailing after one or the other of us, crooning her minor key lullabies, as though she needed no momma or nurse. We soon learned she had a way with the animals, who feared and respected her. The horses kneeled down to her, the tigers averted their eyes. The elephants tenderly lifted her up to see fireworks or reach the choicest fruit.
“This is your home, Portia.”
“This is our home and our prison, Lucy, and you should know that better than anyone. Where are your children? Where is your money? Who the fuck is Granmere?”
She wasn’t wrong. My children, my money, all my most precious souvenirs were stashed at Granmere’s place. Who was that crone? She wasn’t really Mr. B’s grandmother. She certainly wasn’t mine. Somewhere in the Midwest, a woman, no relation to me, about a thousand years old, had in her clutch everything that might’ve been dear to me, and I had Mr. B’s crummy assignment—to be the closest thing to Portia he’d ever have a go with.
“Kak shura,” Portia waved her hand dismissively. “Such a shame. You were beautiful. I was beautiful. It’s all over, now. I always thought you’d be the one to break us out, but you just get more addled by the day.” Portia let her robe fall open, again. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not stopping a baby. I’m ending a war. Take a good look,” she commanded.
Petal-pink rag rug littered with pillows, cherry-wood chaise frame, plush ivory cushions not a stain on them, Portia’s cream thighs, Portia’s belly—or what once was her stomach, flat, sinuous. The lumps inside looked painful, distorted her skin. They were packed tight, but when I pressed my hand against one, they shifted, scraping. She felt hot, ready. The solution she’d used, it was meant to open a woman, to loosen her nethers until the baby slid out. I supposed you could just as well use it to slide something in, though who’d be mad enough to try? Portia held my chin still, as though answering me, so that I stared at the triangle where belly met thighs. She fished around with her free hand, until she revealed a length of pale blue silk. She laughed, a soft bird’s warble, “It’s a boy!” and I raised my head again.
Her gold-flecked ruby lips parted. “It’s tied,” she whispered, “to the grenades!” Then, she spoke aloud again, her regular well-modulated voice, the ls curving like sleds, vowels resting at the back of her throat. “When it’s time, I’ll tug the string, and the pins will pop, and I’ll blow this whole carnival back to the fucktown hell it came from.”
“Portia!” It was a stage gasp, the first time I’d ever gasped as such alone with a woman. What was she doing? They’d all be killed! All our friends, Mr. B, my dear sweet Mr. B! And me. I’d be killed?
“It’s done. Everyone’s assembled in the ring, now. Rehearsal’s begun, and by the time you’ve explained Portia’s explosive, Portia’s got grenades, Portia’s going to kill you”—she sang these out, mockingly, but not without a certain tenderness—“oh, Lucy, by the time you’ve explained, you’ll be dead.”
I believed her. Who was I to stand in the way? Not daughter of princess and bear, The Most Beautiful Woman in All the World still a match for her ages-old poster. The carnival queen. Its delicious, delirious executioner. I was a dried-up old lizard, and I’d soon be dead. Perhaps I’d go just a split second before Mr. B. Perhaps he’d be sorry.
“Don’t look so glum, Lucy.” Portia pushed away from me, stood up, and began to dress. She traded her robe for a glistening leotard with a surprising amount of stretch, and a cape of ostrich feathers. As she searched through her wardrobe for the right headpiece, she added, coolly, “You needn’t be blown to bits with the rest, darling. I have an errand for you, and I wouldn’t feel right taking this life of yours you’ve never bothered to live.”
Again, I couldn’t tell if I should be insulted, but I knew I was puzzled. “Errand?”
“My mother, the Princess Olga? Yes, you remember her. She’s still in Minsk, the bitch. Take this to her.” She turned and handed me a small Lucite box. Inside sat a cockroach—either dead or extremely well trained—and around its thorax, a tiny gold ring. A charmed ring, which had been on Portia’s finger when we found her, and then on a chain around her neck for many years. It was how we’d known whose child she was, and how she’d protected herself from kidnappers, rapists, Mr. B, and disease. When I took the box, I knew it was over. I could march into the big top and die, or I could pocket the message to Princess Olga, grab a motorbike, and hit the highway before the noon rehearsal began.
“How would I pass through the gates? I can’t. You said,” I murmured, trying to catch the roach in action.
“With this,” Portia said, and shoved her tongue deep into my mouth. She didn’t taste like a strawberry. She tasted of tar and ash, bee sap and adrenaline. “Go quick, sweet stupid sister. I’m on in ten.”
I would miss Lewis. I’d hoped that he and Li’l Tit and Moth would still be off fetching sugar, but by the time I ached out of Portia’s trailer, the sun was high noon and the van was back in its well-worn ruts. Everyone was in the ring, just as Portia said. Just as we’d been daily for years, decades, centuries. Who knows when it started. I’d never known how I came to be in the carnival. One day I was nothing, the next I was there. Had I parents? I’d never thought so. Or siblings, maybe? I’d never liked to think back. It was an empty bucket, a hollow plunk. I was born instead of drowned, and somehow I walked, spoke, and wasn’t killed for sport before I landed in Mr. B’s lap. What more did I need to know? For the first time in my life, hesitating on Portia’s cheerily painted steps, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to know in what town I’d been hatched. What country, even.
It was hardly the time to stand there, dense as a bison, waiting for the shot. Portia gave me ten minutes to start. She’d soon come out of her trailer, ducking a bit to spare her elaborate headpiece, striding across the camp as swiftly as ever, graceful even with a bellyful of death. Enough time for me to take my place under the big tent. Or to risk something so unforgivingly final as my future.
I ran. I ran, stumbling to the far end of camp where the motorbikes sat, waiting for their evening cage match. Red and chrome, beefy like work dogs, the bikes offered themselves up. I grabbed number 5, our most reliable, Pa’s favorite. I gagged a bit, thinking of him, and then Ma, of course, and all the rest. My whole terrible family about to go up in flames. At least they were together. They were in the show. I longed to be in the show, didn’t I?
But already I was on the bike, tearing down the dirt path, to the broader dirt road, and on asphalt before long. A mile away, I pulled over, looked back and waited. There was a punch in the earth and a punch in the sky. Smoke drifted prettily into the otherwise untampered blue, and I knew they were dead. I couldn’t help but admire Portia’s skill. It had worked.
I set out in the world. The wig I’d chosen that morning, a dozen ebony snakes, glossy with new skins. I wondered if I’d head straight for Minsk, or if I’d have it out with Granmere first. First! Who’d have thought it? I would do something first, and another thing second, and it would continue on like that until I died! I marveled astride the bike. Oh, I was crying. My heart felt charred and melted and as though its leak would never plug, but I was also buzzing a bit. The bike between my legs bucked and darted, and there I went, as though I’d ever gone before.