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brooke stevens
THE CIRCUS OF THE EARTH AND THE AIR
CHAPTER ONE

        Iris came up on the other side of a high wave, swimming hard and fast and climbing the crest of the next wave without going under. Beyond the breakers in the calm blue green sea, three gulls opened their wings to fly. She swam toward them steadily, lifting her hands high over her head, kicking up white foam behind her. Soon all Alex Barton could see through the late afternoon light was a glimmer of movement from an arm or a leg and flashes of white.
        A few pink and white clouds gathered on the horizon; gulls flew by from land toward sea. Alex scooped sand into his hands and let it sift down through his fingers. Then, looking out at the water, staring at the reflection of blue which his wife had become, he thought of how much he loved her and how strange and lucky it was that they were together.
        Iris came into sight again, a dark speck of movement becoming clearer, an arm coming out of the water, arching out over her head, and once again the foam from her kick. Alex turned and threw his towel up into the sand, dove through white foam and under waves until he could see her clearly, stroking so steadily and seriously that she didn't look up. When she was near, he dove deep into cool water, rolled onto his back and watched her white, naked body kick rapidly as she went overhead. Coming up again, he blew air out quietly and followed her, reaching out for her kicking feet, then touching one.
        She turned and screamed.
        He put his arms around her muscular body which felt cool and light underwater, and kissed her lips; she was laughing.
        Together they swam in, feeling the slow lift of the big waves, finally riding a small one all the way up onto the sand of the beach. Facing the ocean, they sat down and let the surf's foam drain against their backs out to sea. High flying sea gulls caught the yellowing rays of the sun.
        She tapped his knee and pointed at a large white shape moving far down the beach through a light blue mist that had risen from the breaking waves. Soon they saw a horse, a white horse with a frisky white mane, kicking up water as it ran through the foam of a wave, nearing them quickly, rocking back and forth, galloping. They climbed up to their belongings and picked up their towels, aware of being naked in front of it.
        It was coming up on them now, its ears erect, its neck arched. Iris stepped toward it, but Alex held her hand back. It slowed to a trot as it crossed in front of them, its back lathered with frothy yellow sweat. Vapor jetted from its nostrils. Turning away from the water, it climbed inland, through the deep white sand, finally disappearing over a steep dune. A tern flew straight up into the sky above it.
        Iris and Alex followed the horse's tracks, sand flowing beneath their feet up the steep knoll. They let go of each other's hands and used all fours to make the climb. Alex looked across a wide field; sharp blades of saw grass gave way to curly tufts of salt gray crab grass. In the middle of the field stood a tall circular tent, a circus tent with red, yellow and blue stripes on its roof converging on a center pole from which a forked flag hung limply. There were trucks parked to one side, some with their doors open, and far off to their right the windshields of parked cars reflected the diminishing red light of the sky. The horse, far away and small, headed toward an opening in the tent. A person with yellow hair, perhaps a woman, came out and put a bridle on it, leading it through the door.
        Alex turned to Iris. Her eyes were fixed on the tent and the cars. Taking her hand, he led her back to the beach where they dressed, picked up their belongings and climbed back to the field and started across the grass for the tent.
        Yellow spot lights had come on around the circular border of the tent. They could hear several engines, generators perhaps. To one side of the field they saw a tree with a perfectly flat top like a tree in an African plain. A black bird roosted high on its branches. Behind the bird fiery yellow and orange clouds streaked the sky.
        A long line of people waited in front of the barred windows of a ticket booth. There were young couples, older couples, families with children and tourists with cameras. Alex and Iris joined the line behind two young boys who stood behind their parents, punching each other in the arm. The older boy was hurting the younger boy, who looked like he would break into tears soon, but the parents paid no attention to either one.
        The long line moved slowly. Darkness settled across the field, the moon came out, stars appeared one by one in the purple sky.
        Iris and Alex had been the last ones to get in line. When they finally reached the ticket window, they could hear the ringmaster inside the tent already starting the show. "Children of All Ages..."
        Behind the ticket booth's thin black bars, they saw an old woman in black sunglasses, her gray fingers on the counter waiting for money.
        "How much?" Alex said.
        "Thirty dollars."
        He slipped his hand into his wallet and laughed. "I've only got a twenty." He rubbed the single twenty dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger hoping it would turn into two. "Do you take credit cards?"
        "No," the woman said.
        "Any chance you'd let a show person in for free?" Alex asked. "My wife is an actress."
        "No." She was already reaching up for the wooden curtain.
        Alex turned to Iris. "Are you sure you don't have any money on you?"
        She shook her head. Her hands rested in the back pockets of her jeans.
        Alex turned back to the window. The wooden curtain had been pulled down. On it was a painted mural of a circus ring in the open air before a placid blue sea. In the ring sea gulls roosted on an elephant that lay on its side with its eye closed.
        The back door to the ticket booth opened and closed. The old woman, who was surprisingly short, walked with a limp toward the big top.
        A tiger or lion growled so deeply that they could feel it in their chests. They looked into a menagerie tent and saw five elephants separating hay from broken bales with their trunks, curling it up to their mouths. Further down they saw large steel cages stacked on top of each other.
        They could smell dung and hay and feel the heat from animal bodies. They heard different sounds: hay swishing in the trunks of elephants; the rattling of a steel cage; a hiss of air, perhaps from a big cat, then a whinny answered by another whinny.         They turned and went back toward the clear, mournful notes of a trumpet coming from the big tent. A trapeze artist must be working. Stepping back, they tried to look at the roof of the tent as if they'd be able to see through it. The forked flag on the tent's crown had yellow and black tiger-like stripes.
        Somewhere outside the tent they heard hooves; a white horse appeared galloping, perhaps the same white horse, but now ridden by a man dressed as a Cossack, a sword at his side, and spurs on tall black boots. He narrowly missed Iris and Alex, then yanked the reins to one side and turned the horse around rapidly, coming up alongside them.
        He was no older than Alex. His face had a European look, Italian or French. He had beautiful dark eyebrows; his narrow, muscular features made him look feminine for an instant, then masculine, powerful and sleek. High cheek bones and large, alert eyes. His expression changed as he looked from Alex to Iris; the horse beneath him pranced back and forth excitedly, but the man's eyes were trained on Iris.
        "You'd like to see the show?" he said. "Sure, you can see it, but you-" he lifted a rein and pointed at Iris, "I've seen you, you are an actress aren't you?"
        "Yes," Iris said.
        "Then you must volunteer for an act. It'll be your admission fee."
        The man's legs squeezed the excited horse and it bolted toward the opening of the tent where somebody lifted the flap and the man and the horse disappeared. The trumpet still played as Alex and Iris followed him in.
        The space inside was bigger than they had imagined; high above, a woman in a silvery blue suit was flipping and twisting in the air, catching the hands of men on opposite swings. Standing in center ring a dwarf in clown attire played the trumpet pointing the instrument toward the ceiling. A woman with a white plume on her snowy white hat smiled at Iris and Alex and led them to the bleachers, pointed with a black riding crop toward their seats, then took Iris's arm. "You must stand up," she said, "when Father Fish looks your way." She handed her two tickets. Iris gave the tickets to Alex. One was torn, the other whole. He put them in his shirt pocket. A heavy man and a small monkey with pale white fur and bright yellow eyes worked together selling concessions, the monkey delivering food and collecting money from hard to reach people on the bleachers. To Alex and Iris he made several trips bringing a snow cone, a beer and two hot dogs, then chattered impatiently as he waited for payment.Between one of the animal acts Alex took out the tickets she'd given him and looked at them. Their peculiar shade of red matched the shade of the tent, and the shade of Iris's shirt. THE CHILD WILL FOLLOW, the untorn ticket said. A design had been drawn behind the thin black letters that looked like a wire mesh fence with barbed wire on the top and ripples of water before it.
             The show was more than two hours long. Among the acts was a contortionist, a chinese woman, who moved from one posture to the next on a little pedestal in center ring so gracefully and fluidly that she looked like she was underwater. Folding herself backward she rested her buttocks on her back and wrapped her legs over her shoulders and down her chest. A man came out into the ring, lifted her with one hand, and carried her away under his arm like a package.
        Finally, the lights were extinguished and the ringmaster, a stout, ruddy faced man in red coattails, called out, "Ladies and gentlemen, our final act of the night is our most spectacular: the great one and only Father Fish's disappearing act!"
            When the lights came on again, they saw that a circular wooden platform, a stage of some sort, had been wheeled into the ring. A black box, like a coffin, rested on end at its center. The door opened. A man in a dark blue tuxedo decorated with silver scales stepped out. The tuxedo's tails were shredded to look like a fish's tail. He wore an enormous top hat and white gloves. There thick layers of white make-up on his cheeks, caked and layered like fish scales. Stepping away from the coffin, he took short bows, turning to all members of the audience, then, with enormous bulging eyes, he looked straight up at Alex. Like a blowfish he puffed out his cheeks, then burst out laughing.
             "Ladies of the audience," the ringmaster called. "From among you, the Amazing Father Fish needs a volunteer. A volunteer of great faith, a volunteer of great courage. Those with great faith, please rise!" he shouted.
        Father Fish stared at Iris and smiled. Iris stood up smiling and made her way down to him. The lights in the arena suddenly became a watery blue and green, caressing the skin of every face and hand in the audience. Taking Iris by the arm, Father Fish put his wand under his own arm, then turned and looked up in the stands. He stared at Alex for an instant, tipping his hat with his white glove, and blowing him a kiss. Stepping to the side of Iris, he put his arms behind her back. As if fainting, she fell back into the arms and he held her horizontal body effortlessly.
        Swiftly he lifted his hands high over his head and stepped around her. She floated before him. Demonstrating her independence, he waved his stick over and under her floating body, then placed his arms beneath her again and she descended into them. He lowered her feet gently to the stage. She bowed slightly as if in trance, then stepped back into the cushioned coffin. The man closed the door and draped a blue cloth over the box. To one corner he set fire with a lighter. The fire climbed the fabric until the whole box was engulfed, yellow flames rising high up into the trapeze rigging. Once the cloth burnt away, Alex saw crumbling, charred strips of the box itself collapsing onto the platform around it. Smoke filled the upper regions of the tent, then the stands. People coughed, raising handkerchiefs to their noses. Finally, there was nothing left on stage but charcoal and embers; the smoke began to clear. Father Fish bowed several times, then turned and walked away.
        The ringmaster stepped out. "Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight Father Fish is having difficulty bringing his subject back from the dead. Rest assured that this is only a temporary failure of communication," his voice echoed. "Another night...another night...Thank you, and have a good evening."
        The band played, the lights came on, and the crowd stood up, talking loudly amongst themselves, lining up in the aisles of the bleachers to leave, walking slowly, one step at a time. Alex stared down at the black circle where he'd last seen Iris. He waited for the crowd to move down the steps, then climbed over the bleachers and down into the arena toward the exit that the ringmaster and the magician had taken. Workmen in jump suits pushed past him. Outside he met with the crowd, pushing across the river of people to the back of a trailer.
        Lights shone through drawn curtains. The same yellow and black forked flag hung from a pole on the roof. Alex knocked on the flimsy aluminum door. The door opened and he saw the burly ringmaster. The pale white monkey stood on his shoulder, his long tail curled around the ringmaster's neck like a scarf, his yellow eyes glaring at Alex.
        "Yes-," Alex said.
        The ringmaster, his face beet red, had unbuttoned his jacket, vest and shirt. A pale white undershirt stuck out from beneath his layers of clothing; his belt was unbuckled, but his pants still buttoned. The monkey chattered loudly. "Yes?" the ringmaster said above the din.
        Alex smiled. "Where is she?"
        "Where is who?" the man said.
        "I'm her husband," he said.
        The man looked at Alex gravely. The monkey kept chattering.
        "Whose husband?" the man said.
        Alex saw other performers behind the ringmaster and monkey: the face of an old dwarf who had already wiped off most of his make-up, and the face of a woman, a heavy, defiant, European face: healthy, muscular and unhappy. She wore one long black false eyelash. Another woman stood behind her.
        "My wife--the woman who just volunteered."
        The ringmaster stared at Alex; the faces behind him pressed tighter over his shoulder and at his legs.
        "Are you some kind of prankster?" the man said.
        "What? The woman in the show--with Father Fish, the performer. I'm her husband."
        "Father who?" the man said.
        "The man with the black hat, the woman in the box, the disappearing act."
        The man put his arms up across the door as if to hold the others back from Alex.
        Alex smiled, turned and followed the last of the crowd out to where the man in the white horse had met them. He looked up at the clear sky, at all the stars. The moon, well above the water, looked much smaller, more distinct. He could barely see the ridge of dunes that divided the field from the sea. He turned and looked at the cars leaving the field--a line of headlights slowly rising and falling over bumps and ditches, making their way to the main road. He went back toward the mouth of the tent. Inside, a haze of wood smoke drifted. The workmen were breaking down the rigging. The trapeze and tight wires were coming down, the ring curb dismantled and loaded on a truck inside the tent. Men had folded a section of bleacher.
        He stepped outside. The salty and grassy night air was cool. He was tired, anxious to get back to the guest house. Workmen were leading the horses out of the tent. One was pulling the white horse by a painter up a trailer's ramp. The horse swung his head back, snorting and whinnying, fighting the workman's rope. Finally, it bolted up through the dark door.
        Four elephants with two men next to each one worked outside the big top. The elephants wrapped their trunks around the top of tent stakes and pulled. The long stakes came out slowly with clods of dirt clinging to the ends. The sound of the generator filled the air. The lights of the last few cars shone against the brush at the far end of the field.
        Every component of the show was being torn down. Alex stopped a workman carrying a huge coil of cable toward the back of a truck and asked him where the woman who had volunteered for the last act had gone. The man, who evidently didn't speak English, shrugged his muscular shoulders and went on.
        He went to another trailer he thought might be for performers and knocked on the aluminum door, shaking the curtains inside. The door opened and the man who had been on the white horse--his face kind, sleek and effeminate--looked out at him.
        "Where's my wife, we have to go," Alex said..
        "What do you say?" he said.
        The man wore a white sleeveless undershirt. Veins bulged from his arm and shoulder muscles.
        Alex smiled a little. "You asked us to come into the show," he said. "Me and my wife."
        "Who are you?" the man said. "Go away." He started to close the door.
        "The husband of the volunteer."
        "I don't know who you are." The man slammed the door.
        Alex grabbed the handle. It was locked, then he banged on the door. "I'll call the police!" he yelled.
         He saw the silhouette of an elephant pulling back on a guide rope. Workmen carrying props, boards, and wires moved quickly back and forth. A man lifted two bails of hay, one in each hand, toting them to the animal truck. Performers came out of the trailers, helping to set up spotlights on the roves of several trucks, as the other lights were pulled down off the tents.
        Alex went to every trailer and knocked. Nobody answered; the doors were bolted.
        He stepped out into the field in the direction the cars had gone and watched for Iris's silhouette, waiting for her to come up to him. It was quite a show, he thought, but what he couldn't figure out was how they had gotten her to go along with them. It wasn't like her. She must have known that during the last hour he had been feeling a little anxious and had wanted to get back to their room. She knew his feelings, that it was quite a novelty finding this circus in the field behind the beach, but that the novelty had worn off and that he just wanted to take a shower and lie down in bed. It was more like him than like her. She played tricks on him, but they were mild tricks; she'd hide from him sometimes, and when he couldn't find her she'd whistle.
        At least an hour had gone by and she still hadn't appeared.        He walked to the edge of the light from the spotlight so she'd see him, squatted and watched the elephants lined up in pairs, two on one side of the big top and two on the other, holding guy-ropes taut with their trunks. A workman yelled a command and the elephants moved forward slowly collapsing the canvas.
        The other tent, the animal tent, was down now too and an elephant, guided by workmen, pushed a roll of canvas with the back of its trunk.
        Alex spotted the stout ringmaster with the chattering, pale white monkey on his shoulder walking away in the dark. Alex called to him from behind.
        "Excuse me, excuse me."
        The ringmaster kept walking.
        "Hold on, would you. I still haven't found her. I'm getting tired of waiting!"
        "Get lost," the man said, still walking away.
        "Don't tell me to get lost! I'm freezing. Now just hold on here." He reached for the man's shoulder to turn him around, but as he did the monkey spun around screeching, grabbed Alex's hand and put his mouth down to it. A needle like pain shot through it.
        "God damn it!" Alex yelled. The man kept walking away without speaking.
        Small drops of blood dripped coolly down the back of his hand. He held his thumb against the bite to stop the bleeding.
        He turned and started across the dewy field toward the empty parking lot.
        He wasn't positive where he was. The narrow dirt road must lead back to the main road. He'd have to hitchhike back to the bed and breakfast, or call a taxi from a public phone. He'd seen a telephone in the small town near the dirt road they had walked on to get to the beach.
        He kept his thumb pressed against the shallow cut to stop the bleeding. He thought of Iris. She must have gotten a ride out of the area, but he wasn't sure why she had done this. He thought of scenarios when he got back and saw her. Maybe she hadn't known that they weren't going to tell him what was going on. He could hear her apologizing to him back at the guest room.
        "But I got bitten, bitten by a monkey!" he'd say. "You think that's funny? Well I'm pissed off...Why did you go along with those cruel bastards?..."
        The dirt road at the edge of the field cut through short, scraggly trees and waist high bushes. He could hear crickets in the grass and gravel under his feet.
         He imagined how fast and easy this would have been in a car. Usually he liked walking, but he was tired and he was anxious to get back to the guest house.
        "Where did you go when he was burning that box?" he kept saying to himself.
        The terrain along the dirt road changed from low brush and small trees to bigger trees. The air smelled less like the ocean and more like the dark earth. There were no crickets. The taller trees made the road darker and quieter and he felt smaller. He was small compared to the big world, but his problems were huge.
        He released his thumb from the shallow cut and realized it had long ago stopped bleeding. He tried to laugh at himself for thinking his problems so momentous, when in fact he was so small compared to everything else.
        He made it out to the main road. Cars drove by quickly. Because there was no shoulder he had to keep climbing the bank through the tall wet weeds to avoid being hit. This added to his anger. "I almost got killed on the road. A drunk swerved..." He hated the sound of cars at night. They didn't know he was there, people were probably drinking, laughing in their comfortable little environments. In their headlights they'd catch a glimpse of him walking through the grass along the embankment. They'd think he was crazy.
        He came to Towson, a town with only one small country store, which was closed, and one public telephone. He fingered his pockets for change, then crossed a parking lot next to the store where he saw two cars with their lights on parked next to each other facing different directions. Two teenage boys with their arms around girls were talking through adjacent windows. Alex walked into the headlights of one car and held out a dollar and asked for change as he approached. Between the two teenagers they came up with four quarters. Alex thanked them.
        The pay phone was out of order; there was no dial tone. He thought of Iris. "You wouldn't believe what this cost me," he said to her. He didn't know how he'd get back so he couldn't finish off the scenario in his head. He went back to the teenagers. Both cars started moving, he stopped one of them and went to the window.
        "Is there another pay phone around here? That one's broken."
        "Nope," the boy said.
        "Any idea how I might get a cab? I missed my ride back to Verrehaven."
        "Nope."
        "I couldn't offer to pay you to drive me there?"
        The boy looked at the girl next to him.
        "I'll pay you ten dollars," Alex said. He'd get Iris to pay it. He was really angry now.
        "That's two six-packs," the girl said to the boy.
        Alex got into the back of the car.He crossed the porch of the guest house near the center of Verrehaven where he and Iris rented a room. He walked through the living room, then started up the stairs. First he tried the handle, then he put the key in and opened it. The light was off. He turned it on. Mrs. Burns, the owner, had made the bed.
        *
        The room was untouched.She must have gone back to look for him. He was a little relieved that she hadn't been comfortably waiting for him all this time. He went into the bathroom, cleaned off the back of his hand and examined the bite which looked more like a scratch now that it had scabbed. Though exhausted, he took a quick shower, expecting to see Iris's hand pull back the shower curtain at any moment, then in the bedroom he expected to hear the key in the door. He dried his hair and got into bed, turning on the reading light behind him. He stared at the door for a moment, then picked up a book and tried to read. He laughed to himself; somehow this whole trick with the circus was something that he could have engineered. He was always playing tricks on people, but nothing of this magnitude. When he was little he played dead in front of his foster parents. Maybe this was just an elaborate one of those that would cure him once and for all of performing them on others.
             He was still angry, a little upset just from having to spend the last two and a half hours alone, but he was also slightly amused at the whole thing. It was certainly something to tell their friends when they got back. He closed his eyes, and, in a flash, he felt deeply exhausted; something was yanking him down into the darkness of sleep
        .