I‘m practicing juggling again, because it’s raining outside and there’s nothing else to do. Big fat bloodwarm drops drum on the tent’s waxed canvas.
In an hour, as the day’s light vanishes, the circus’s light will flicker to life, powered by the ancient turbine/treadmill pulled by three ponies and a servobot. Townsfolk will wander the maze of entrance gates and aisles, hesitant and eager all at once, pockets full of silver slugs and bits of circuitry and other tradeable metal.
They’ll stroll through the booths, looking at the freakshow and trying their luck at the games, winding their way toward the big top, ready to clamber up the creaking bleachers and sit to watch marvels unfold.
This time we’re within earshot of the ocean, a jungle-hugged glade near two different villages.
I drop a beanbag and curse. I’ve worked my way up to four at a time, but keeping five aloft continues to elude me.
Roto the Tiger Boy sticks his head in the flap in time to catch the last words. His whiskers twitch. He holds out a tin silently and I take it, gesture at him to sit on the floor.
He does, closing his eyes as I apply the orange greasepaint that colors his dun fur, turning him from an ordinary cat-man to something exotic.
What can I apply to myself, what will turn me into the exotic thing the circus just hasn’t realized it needs yet? Every day I feel more out of place here. I’m a luckchild, abandoned to find my own way, and most luckchildren don’t survive that first night, let alone be picked up by a traveling show. But I’m not a child anymore, and now I need to find my role or move on.
Roto rumbles against my bare knees, warm and furry. “You’re never going to make it as a juggler, Stella. Pick something else.”
I stripe my fingers through his fur. “Maybe yes, maybe no.” I shrug and push him away. “You’re set.”
“June wants to see you,” he tosses over his shoulder. He flips a poncho over his head to shield his make-up on the way to the shelter of the P.T. Barnum Memorial Exhibit of Mythological Animals, where he’ll stand inside the entrance, plastic bars between himself and the jostling patrons on their way to stare at Beulah the Snake Lady and The Amazing Brain in a Jar, finally being led out by the sign, “This way to the egress.”
I make a few more tries at keeping five beanbags going, but finally give up and head out into the rain, not bothering with a poncho. I’m not part of the circus’s face; it doesn’t matter whether or not my hair is wet.
June wants to see me. What do I want? Mainly, not what June wants. She’s the closest thing to a mother I have, but that doesn’t mean I have to do whatever she wants.
Still, I slap the canvas on her tent in greeting and wait.
“In,” she calls.
When I enter, her tent smells of complicated things, of cedar dust and sandal-wood and tiger balm, of extinguished flames and the waking sea. Her trunk is unfolded into its more natural state, a set of squat chest-of-drawers, dozens of slots and labels, and the brass scale used to weigh out ingredients for her brews.
I scowl at her. It’s what everyone expects of me lately, with all their patient looks and whispers when I’m on the edge of earshot.
Infuriatingly, she just grins at me.
I fold my arms and look down my nose at her. She’s crouched beside her cot, pulling something out. It rasps across the canvas flooring. A pack, tight-buckled.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks.
“Of course I don’t!” This is the infuriating thing about June. She asks questions like that all the time: Do you know what will happen tomorrow? or What do you think that elephant is thinking? tilting her head to examine my face as if to pluck some truth from it that I don’t know. She’s been that way all the time I’ve known her, ever since I was a little girl.
She ignores my tone, coaxes the buckles open. Says, “Your mother gave it to me for you,” as she slides something out, wrapped in a piece of dull grey suede.
It takes my breath away like a blow to the gut. I don’t answer. Everyone here has told me over and over that they don’t know who my parents were. It’s like the whole world realigns but it’s colored red with anger. They all know how desperately I’ve wanted to know where I came from. There can be no possible reason to keep it from me, other than sheer cruelty.
I feel the roaring inside me, a spark of irritation fanned into a flame that seems to consume me. I don’t say anything. I know from experience that anything I say right now will come out wrong: heavy-handed or mis-aimed or the opposite of what I meant to say.
June looks at my face and without saying a word, slides the piece of whatever it is that into the pack. She says, “Maybe this is the wrong time.”
“Any time would be the wrong time!” I snap. “How do I even know you’re telling me the truth now? Maybe this is just some sort of joke or test.”
She studies me. I can’t tell from her expression what she’s thinking. June is better at a totally blank face than anyone else I know. I unfold my arms and lean forward. “Are you going to give it to me or not? There’s no point in talking about it, just do it or don’t.”
She says, “Your mother asked me not to give it to you until you were ready.”
“And I suppose you’re the one who decides whether or not I’m ready.”
She shakes her head. “No. Your mother had certain specific criteria.”
“And what changed in how I matched those criteria in between the time you open that pack and then closed it?”
“You got angry.”
June won’t say much more to me, just brushes me off and says that we’ll talk again later. I hang around for a few minutes, feeling the questions bubble up inside me. What was my mother like? What did she do? How did she die? Why did she leave me here, in a circus? And who and where was my father? And, importantly, why did you keep this all from me?
But June doesn’t invite any of those questions. She starts opening drawers and taking out pinches of this and that. She puts them in a dish and gets a mortar and pestle out from a box. She’s working on some cure, some medicine or preventative needed by someone here in the circus, who may or may not know they need it. That’s what June does. She takes care of all of us, keeps our humors balanced and our bodies well.
I go back out into the rain.
It flattens my hair to my scalp, and runs down my back, tracing my spine with cold fingers. My mood is as gray as the sky, although I can feel that anger still smoldering somewhere underneath, ready to flare up again.
Right now we are into full out evening, and the air is rich with the smell of popcorn and pork rinds and beer. The fairy lights flicker all around me, frayed wires handed down by generations since the Last War, glowing cold and casting shadows in lilac and pink and gold and blue.
Did any of those long ago people dreamed that it would come to this? When they were conquering the world and designing the under people to serve them, did they ever wonder if one day their descendents and the litter of those cat and dog and cow people would coexist, trying to get by in a landscape they would find barely recognizable?
Did they think some of those children would become mutant mages, capable of changing reality? What does it say about humanity that now we’ve got wizards and demons and all sorts of magery?
Carrie’s got a boombox going, blasting out The Rolling Stones, twitching a crowd of dancers into motion inside her charmed circle. She wears her performer’s outfit, bits of gauzy, spangled tulle and silver spray-painted slippers, looking like a storybook princess, dancing under an enormous umbrella, also painted silver. All around her, the rubes are dancing in the rain, shoes squelching through the mud, giving way to her siren magic. Tomorrow morning they’ll wake sleepy and full of happy memories of that dance.
I want coffee. I duck behind the fortune teller’s tent and start making my way toward the old silver airstream trailer that holds an always steaming urn. At least here in the southern lands, coffee’s plentiful.
I’m about to round a corner when words stop me. Not someone hailing me, but my name spoken out loud, followed by, “She could be a danger.”
I don’t want to stick my head around the corner, but I’m pretty sure I know who that voice belongs to anyhow. Edo the circus accountant is always trying to cut costs. He doesn’t think I pull my weight, that I don’t earn my share of each evening’s take.
I try to fill in where I can. But this circus is such a well-oiled machine, that often there is no place that I can fit. Maybe Edo is right.
If my mother was a circus performer, she might have been one of the ones that held a share in the circus overall. If she did, that would be mine, and Edo wouldn’t be able to contest my presence here.
Anyway, what did he mean that I was a danger? I knelt down, pressing against the side of the tent, despite the raindrops that transferred themselves to me in the process, and peeked around the corner.
Those words came from someone with a great deal more to say about things than Edo. Lorelei inherited the circus recently, under tragic circumstances when we’d gone off the road in an area down south much less policed than here. She was still feeling her way through things.
But if she knew this secret, that my mother had been a circus member, then what did that imply? Did that mean that everyone except me knew what was going on?
Anger flares in me again. I feel it move, incandescent, through my veins. I feel lighter, harder. As though I am made of fire and metal and air.
Screw this. If June won’t give me what I want, I will take it.
June goes on during the third act. She shoots flaming arrows at an LED-lit circle while standing on top of a galloping horse. When I was little, I thought she was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.
Now that we are both older, I see the imperfections in the act, where a shot almost goes short and a few paces later where the horse shies and June hops forward just a little to maintain her balance.
I slip out of the main tent and go to hers.
Pausing in the entrance, I consider. June is an alchemist, after all. Circuses sometimes have a sneak thief or two, but everyone knows that an alchemist is capable of all sorts of subtle but lethal tricks to guard their things.
I proceed with caution. I have a thin wooden wand with me, and I use it to tap around the backpack, looking for cords or other triggers. I find nothing.
I kneel beside the bed and pull the pack out. I had expected it to feel heavier.
The package itself is brick-sized but not heavy enough to be made of stone.
I pull the suede away from the rectangular object. Up close I can see where the leather is burned in irregular patterns that look like fingerprints. I close my eyes and tried to match my fingers to the marks. They’re almost perfect in their alignment.
Inside the suede is a box, hollowed out of some white milky stone. I open the lid and see a circlet and necklace. The metal is as intricately wrought as though it came from an older time, but it is set with thumbnails of roughly polished ruby. I stare into their depths, red as rage, mesmerizing.
“Your mother didn’t want you to have that until you learned to master your anger,” June says. She stands unexpectedly close, in the doorway of the tent.
My hands fall, almost dropping the box. “Why aren’t you finishing your act?” I stammer.
She blinks. “I finished a good fifteen minutes ago. You’ve been staring at those stones without moving your eyes.”
I don’t care what my mother thought about my anger. Everyone gets angry. I’m a normal person. I may be having trouble finding my place in the circus, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a place.
“What was my mother?” I asked.
“You mean what did she do for the circus?” June says. “She was a flame eater.”
“And my father?”
June shakes her head. “Your mother decided she wanted a child. She didn’t much care about who fathered the baby, because she figured she’d be well away before she even started to show. He was someone that came through the circus, back in the northern parts, way back when. Exactly when you were conceived, I don’t know. Your mother was very good at keeping things to herself.”
“So what are these things?” I hold the box up.
“Artifacts of your family. They increase a flame eater’s powers.”
“Powers?” I try to put all the scorn and disbelief that I can into the words.
“Who are you to say whether or not I deserve my mother’s legacy?”
“I was one of her best friends.”
I feel a pang of guilt at that, because her face seems genuinely pained when speaking of my mother.
Still the squeeze of anger around my lungs makes me bluster. “Well, you’re not my friend.” My fists clench, forcing more words out. “I hate you!”
“I don’t care how you feel, one way or another. I like you,” she says, eyes patient but flickering with humor, laughing not at me, but at both of us, faced off like this.
“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about my mother?”
June sits down on the cot, folds her hands in her lap, and looks at me as though trying to convince me that every ounce of her attention is being devoted to this conversation. The rain has picked up; it patters urgently on the canvas. “You have to understand, your mother did more than eat flames. She was an elementalist.”
“An elementalist?” People said that there were mutants who were aligned with the forces of the earth, but you never ran into anyone who had actually met one, let alone had one for a parent.
“The flames couldn’t harm her because she was one with them.” June’s face is still serious. She says, “Would you like me to make you a calming tea?”
“Screw that!” I say. “What are you telling me? That my mother is some kind of mutant? That she’s left me some sort of magical jewelry?”
“Not magic. Old tech.” June reaches over to take the tiara from my fingers. I let her, resisting the urge to slap her hand away. She traces with her finger around the lumps of ruby, to the underlying silver circuitry. “Very old.”
I reach to take it back from her, and she resists for a second, before relinquishing it to me. She looks at me as I settle it on my head. I am prepared for something amazing to take place when I do so, but the moment is actually anticlimactic. I feel nothing, no rush of power.
“Your mother wasn’t around to teach you. So we didn’t want you to know what you were capable of, until you were of an age where you could listen and learn from us. An elementalist calling on their powers without knowing how to temper them can kill everyone around them.”
I want to want to scoff at all that she is saying. But I can feel the anger inside me, reaching up to the machinery contained in the metal lying against my scalp and setting it into an oscillating blaze perceptible only inside my skull. I can feel my powers, feel the fields of energy and heat all around me, through several tents away.
And I can feel the people all around me. There is Roto, flirting with two townies, and Carrie with her dancers and Lorelei wondering and worrying how much longer she can keep the circus afloat.
I could set fire to them all.
Even as I think that, I can feel the fire racing out of me, ready to land wherever I want to send it. Ready to turn the humans and under-people around me into burning candles in the night.
My fingers twitch. This might have been what my mother feared, that I’d take this thing and do something terrible with it. And I could. I could take what I wanted from this place, take Roto and whatever supplies I wanted, and leave them all behind, burning.
I look at June.
Her face is placid as she returns my stare.
Trusting me to do the right thing.
I don’t feel as though she is trusting me for my mother’s sake, that her memories of an old friend are what makes her stand there without moving, even as the air inside the tent grows thick and oppressive and hot. No, she is trusting me for my own sake. For the sake of the person who she has watched grow up.
And that trust helps me grapple the flames back inside myself.
It’s not that I don’t still feel the anger. It may linger inside me till my dying day. But I am in control of it. Can use it, can let it fuel my actions. And my powers. I take the tiara off and slide it back into the box with the necklace.
“Do you want me to hold onto that for you?” June offers.
“That’s okay,” I say.
At least I have a better sense of my place here now. If my mother was a flame eater, there’s nothing to say I can’t follow in her footsteps as I explore my new power. As for the necklace and tiara, they can wait until the time that they are needed. For something tells me that my mother thought they would be.
At least I don’t have to practice juggling anymore.
© 2014 by Cat Rambo
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