Michael woke in rosy darkness. Its gaudy blanket smothered him. He pressed his face into its warm wet sponge. He must learn to live here like an aquatic creature, in this dank element, this emollient moisture. Wet close foggy. The smell of firework gunpowder in the November air. He breathed out in wreaths. He could see, but the air was so tactile, this was like touching the world with his eyes. A jolt of electricity. And another. It raised the hairs on his bony arms. The violet night doused with brilliance then wiped back to darkness. Wedges of light lay about like cartoon cheese. The smell of crushed grass. The daisies mashed by work. The sap of this place. The mechanic slaves in their greasy aprons wielding rules and hammers. Thick breaths rank of gross diet. Michael forced to drink their vapour. These Egyptian puppets. He looked about at the curved and almost circular sky. He looked up at the man in the heavy coat, damp bleak and silent with his broken nose. Michael touched his own nose and thought of that cartilage snapped down. With a tender quiver he reached for his father’s torpid hand.
Father clinked the copper discs in the shallow cup of his other palm. There was a firelight shine on savoury things but Michael shook his little head full of sweet teeth. He stood before a wheeled stall so high that its flocculent masses of spun sugar might have been real clouds. He saw nothing of the being who handed down to him the sticky treat he craved. It might have been no person. A hand alone. A sphere of rose and gold so heavy on the square-stemmed splintery stick that impaled it with such impudent cruelty that Michael would have dropped it had it not struck him forcibly in the face. He licked his apple. Licked his chops. The sugary prize coated his teeth instantly with fur. A decadence almost corrupt. This apple was so huge that the boy’s mouth, opened never so wide, could do no more than kiss it. The scrapes of his teeth were impotent. He was keen not to cover his cheeks with toffee but his intention might have been to do the opposite, his efforts achieved so little. Although this confection tasted exactly as Michael had anticipated he still thought he had never eaten anything so wonderful. The stained crisp glass. Then the mere fruit. The poor apple partly bletted by its fierce immersion. A pop of blue light as a photograph was snatched. The fizz and crackle of the flash bulb suddenly molten hot cooling too quickly in the wet air into an icy craquelure. The bulb sagged into a sad version of itself.
Michael feared the shrewd Turk, sipping sherbet from his hookah. His skin dark, a wicked scar patched with velvet, his eyes blue as sapphires, his purple turban dusty. His head never moved but his eyes flicked from side to side. Could the eyes be real? Just the eyes? He smelled of wax. Wax in improbable quantity. His free hand raked the coins into the casket with the easily feigned palsy of the mechanical doll. His permanent smile was generous and cruel. The rings on his fingers were stoned with gems of inestimable worth, if they were not paste. Father’s hand on the boy’s shoulder guided him towards the Big Top. Its bewildering web of taut ropes made a giant thrumming tambour of that cloth arena. Now the music. The jerky spasm of the trombone, the tuba’s rude bleats and then its great castrated bellow. Shards and glints of music. Michael stared at the coiled metal intestines of the snaky instruments. The warbling siren and the chalumeau. The weight, the brass shine, the glory of them was so insistent that it did not matter that the music stumbled on when the musicians stopped, nor that they blew and thrust and gurned in silence. Michael was given a balloon streaked with scarlet and mauve, like a jellyfish. It pulled away from him, its silvered glass striving earnestly to disappear. Michael released it and the lovely ball flew into the tented sky, his tribute to it.
His eyes followed the fugitive jellyfish to a cloud like a shell which became a yellow moon while remaining a sheet of card. Sparks hung in the air like golden spiders depending from invisible threads. Beams of light cored the darkness. Their radiance spilled in yellow puddles in the sawdust. An interior intimate lamp-lit world. A thirsty field. The smell of tobacco and beer. The tent’s curved air. A time of wintry festival. Hot and cold here. Cramped and vast. Wet and dry. They luxuriated. The ringmaster in his high boots, riding breeches, top hat and red tailcoat drew a manganese arc with his silver-headed cane. Jugglers, sorcerers, witches, cheats and mountebanks, he announced and welcomed. This was his vague blessing. The easy pleading grace of the charlatan conjured a world. Michael longed for a human cannonball and believed it was already there because this man promised everything. He leaned into the boy, colluding with him and showed him his white-gloved hands. Palms up, palms down. A solitary bee appeared on his cuff. He brushed it away, but it clung to the fingers of the brushing hand. Another two, three more, crawled from his sleeve. Soon he was washing his hands in bees. They teemed. The bees poured from him. They were silent but then they hummed with the warm buzz of millions. With a delicate pinch of two long fingers he exorcised one sizzling wasp from this furry and contented mass and snuffed it away with a smile from his amazing moustachios.
Michael shook his face to make the fairy lights buzz. Then the smell of French chalk so strong it coated the eyes and tongue. The acrobats must chalk their hands. Then a perfume of cloves and a jangle of silver. They walked through plumes of incense like a mirage in their beautiful narrow shoes. One wore a white froth of vanilla lace and ivory satin, seed pearls, a tiny bodice, a lavish skirt. The other a scalloped neckline, her little frill of taffeta a pageant of torn apricot clouds. Sparkles like pollen gathered in the hollows of their throats. Here was more love and happiness than it was possible to bear. Father spoke to them. Said something Michael did not understand. They laughed and clapped their hands, glittering the air with copper and blue, smiled and were gone among the lighted dust. They swung from the trapeze. They teetered on the tightrope, surrendering to the possible abyss with elegant lethargy. They did not fall, perhaps could not fall, but should they have, the air was so viscid and they were so ethereal, they would have hammocked down from the sky like pigeons’ feathers.
A fire engine roared into the arena and with a horrifying skid tipped a corps of exhilarating clowns into the sawdust. All but one, the fattest, nearest the clamorous bell, who was sound asleep and driving. They were clowns but that does not mean the fire was not real and if real not also funny. The zanies patrolled; the water they threw out of the ring turned to showers of fluttering paper in mid-air, but they threw a feast of real custard at one another. None dared approach the ringmaster. They all had huge papier mâché noses, protuberant and erect despite every impact. They lit hoops on fire and ran from them in terror. Michael thought they were all very brave. The driver woke and began to stalk. He was looking for a coxcomb to hoodwink. He looked to the ringmaster for permission. He was his famulus. His trousers were striped mustard and maroon, like a badge of office. He saw Michael and leered. He had an atrocious hex to cast upon him. He breathed a sour ferment. Seen so close he showed a face that was buckled, blistered and pocked like a worm-eaten apple. He slapped his squamous forehead with his great white-gloved hand, buttoned at the cuff, and dragged his swollen fingers down to his chin, smoothing the cake of greasepaint until his complexion was as unblemished as a mushroom, as a shirred egg and his grin was as shameless as a great red banana. Still his veins of oceanic grey bulged. He turned now this face of monstrous and empty stupidity to Father as though to say, Your turn. You do it. Father jeered and the clown closed his eyes. On his eyelids were painted the simple black crosses of the knocked out cartoon man.
The serious clowns built a cage as big as the arena and the ringmaster cracked a whip. Those iron bars were no barrier against the intoxicating stench that the meat-eating animals blew before them. Tigers and lions processed in a circle. The ringmaster picked up a chair to fend them off and Michael lost all his respect for him. What a fool! When the largest she-tiger loped in front of the boy she roared at nothing in fury. She bore her own cage of meat and fire, she stalked within her own demonic architecture, her burning fur. She creased the air with flame. Michael shuddered in terror and joy. If only all of life could always be like this. The striding tiger’s muscles were a waltz inside itself, or the phantom of one. These barded animals so unimaginably foreign began to blend into chimaera in the mind of the little boy suddenly engulfed by fatigue yet avid for one more taste of that anxious opulence. They were becoming dream animals. The tigers, the ringmaster, the tortured and depraved clown with his great flipper feet, those wonderful and alarming women, Father.
Would Michael like to see the animals in their cages? Where they lived? Desperate to sleep and to not sleep, he hardly dares to nod his head. Ducking under guys and stepping over pegs like swinging giddily through a schooner’s rigging. The green glow throbs from the fireflies hung up in jars. Three bald men, shoeless, sit around a crate and stare hard at their cards. One picks at his teeth, all yellow as canaries, with a burned match. A dark man carrying a purple bag slips between the cages. A hautboy propped on a drum. Michael presses his face to the bars of the tiger’s wagon. The creature gives a yawn of an astonishing gape and licks its whiskers with a tongue as broad as a shawl thrown over its own head. What will the cats and the foxes think when they raise their heads to breathe the tigress’ air? A man in high boots touches Father on the elbow. It’s time now. He is helped off with his coat. A bat flits past a big red ear. A pretty girl bends down to stare into Michael’s face. She is smoking a cigarette and blows a jet straight up from the corner of her scarlet lips. She knows his name. Michael. He is cajoled. He steps high over the wooden side and catches the top with his toe. He gulps back an exhausted sob. She has his shoulder. She tucks a furled photograph into the breast pocket of his blazer. He is inside again. The heat drains from him as from a stone knocked out of the fire. To be folded away, into this pod, this capsule. It is uncomfortable at the beginning, quite stifling, that melodramatic bend, face to toe, but there is a click, the air whistles out of him and it is alright. The trick comes off. Things fall into place.
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in Stand, Panurge, The Write Launch, Eclectica and Wraparound South. He has had a story published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. Micro stories have been published by Palm-Sized Press, 5×5, Star 82 and Clover & White. A longer story will soon come out in Confingo and another in The Wisconsin Review. When not at work, he spends his time reading, writing and mooching about.