Past the empty mess tent and its pervasive smell of beans. Its open ends lightly flapping in the wind.
Past the storage carts, left behind by their sleeping owners. Tattered remains of posters still held by glue: a scaly leg; a bombastic “S;” the broken mosaic of a woman’s mustachioed face.
All the way out to the edge of the field, where the trucks and trailers are parked.
There is only one other man here. He sits on the hood of a truck, watching. Where he sits he is closest to the rest of the carnival, but in truth he could have kept watch along any of the vehicles: the trucks and trailers here form a half-circle, opening to the field as if to keep their distance.
Ringmaster Folley steps alongside the truck, nods to the man waiting there. The man nods back, stands, wipes his hands on his overalls. He is tall—a giant some might say—head and shoulders taller than Folley’s top hat, but Folley is not scared. Not scared of this man, anyway.
A coat rack appears from the back of the truck. Ringmaster Folley has already removed his hat and brushed off a non-existent bit of dust. The man helps Folley from his coat. The man’s hands are larger than Folley’s face, but his fingertips so light Folley hardly notices.
They look to each other one last time. No words, the tall man turns and leaves.
Folley tightens his red suspenders over his shirt. He takes a deep breath, exhales slowly, fidgets with the keys in his vest pocket—whatever he can do to calm his racing heart. He’s already sweating. He stoops, brushes aside the dirt to reveal a chain, links as large as his palm. The metal is rough, but that makes no matter. He inches up the chain, inspecting each link in turn. Slowly, slowly he makes his way to the black cart, standing alone in the field at the middle of the half-circle.
“mr. it,” the banner said, like that, no capitals. An affectation to emphasize the subject as aberration. Beneath, the image of a scaly figure. “More snake than man!” in letters that looked like someone spilled the ink there. The arms were supposed to be poised as if snakes ready to strike, but they instead made the man look more like a toddler tip-toeing about.
The mess was busy, most everyone in the carnival taking their breakfast. Mr. It put his plate on the table and sat beneath his banner. He looked up and scoffed.
His plate was potatoes, mostly. It was the color of eggs, but smelled so faintly that it might have only been someone failed to wash the pan. No meat. Again. Curious, because Gaspard and Le Petit had been sent to the nearby farms yesterday. At least there was milk.
He took a sip, and immediately leaned forward. The thick, scaly skin around his mouth prevented him from spitting properly, so instead he reached in with his fingers and tried to drag the milk out.
“What is this vile swill?” Every ‘S’ dragged, hissed. This was not an affectation, but the result of his forked tongue. He sputtered and threw the tin cup back toward the canopy that marked off the kitchen.
Beneath the canopy Gaspard appeared, pushing past the mess crew. “Quoi! What are you doing, you scaly bastard?”
“You call that milk?” Mr. It asked.
“It is milk!” Even in anger Gaspard’s voice was fluid and pleasant, his French accent tempered by years in the States.
“It tastes like pig milk!”
Gaspard looked indignant. “Do you know how hard it was to milk those pigs?”
“You served me pig milk?” Mr. It yelled.
“I served everyone pig milk.”
Around them cups on tables were pushed away by their owners. Cups in hands were overturned or dropped.
Gaspard looked across at everyone gathered in the mess. “Mon Dieu! Milk is milk, people. You need it for your health. Besides, it’s not like it’s the first time you’ve had pig milk.”
At this another several cups were tossed in Gaspard’s direction. He caught the first two, reached high for the third. He had all three airborne, juggling them as he sidestepped two more projectiles.
“Ooh. Someone tell Hank he can fire the ducks in his shooting range.”
Mr. It leaned across the table and smacked the cups from above Gaspard’s hands. “When I see pigs, I want bacon. Ham! I want—”
“I don’t care what you want. You have this…” He gestured at the unidentifiable slop in the cast iron pans before him, back at the crew preparing the meal, as if to ask a question none could answer. “This…stuff. And milk.”
“I milked your mother,” Mr. It replied.
“As she has been dead these twenty years, I find that a disturbing prospect.” Gaspard didn’t wait for Mr. It’s reply. “I’m just following orders. Ringmaster Folley said to get the crew some milk. Le Petit and I spent the whole of yester-evening looking for a cow. We couldn’t find one within ten miles of this place. But if you want to lace up your fancy spats and walk across creation looking for a cow, by all means. Otherwise,” Gaspard lifted another cup of milk and handed it over to Mr. It, “Shut up and drink your milk.”
Mr. It slapped the cup skyward with a swipe, claws clattering on tin.
Gaspard watched the milk arc away and splash a line in the dirt, traced the path of the cup. He put out his arm, and the cup landed upright in his palm as if an angel had set it there. “Well. Now you’re not having any milk with your dinner, either.” He turned and disappeared among the cook staff.
Mr. It slumped back onto the bench. “At least I’m almost off this sinking ship.”
Daniel was seated across the table, struggling to position his spoon between his two fingers. He stopped and looked up at Mr. It. “You’re not signing back on?”
Mr. It huffed. “Folley hasn’t been able to bring in a decent crowd in six months. My take is getting smaller and smaller. Between that and pitching in for this disgusting food, pretty soon I’ll be paying to work here.”
Daniel forgot about the spoon and bowl of as-yet untouched oatmeal. He fiddled at his bow tie as he asked, “But who is going to bark for us?”
“After next week, that’s not my problem.” Mr. It began shoveling food into his mouth. Daniel fidgeted in his seat, sniffing back tears.
“Don’t be upset, Daniel,” Niccolo, the wrestler, replied from the next table over. He waved a biscuit at Mr. It. “Good riddance, I say. When you leave I’m taking that banner down. I’ve had enough of your ugly mug.”
“I despise that picture,” Mr. It said. “It bears no resemblance to me.”
“’s almost as ugly.”
“Look at those teeth.” The mouth in the banner was open, dagger teeth splayed from a hinged jaw. Mr. It opened his own beak-like mouth, revealing impeccable, and very human, teeth. He clicked them together a few times as if to prove a point. “Those are…repulsive. Almost as bad as your manners.”
Niccolo stood and approached their table, sun reflecting off his seemingly ever-glistening muscles. Those in the mess shifted warily, preparing to stand and break up a fight, or perhaps to choose sides. Daniel remained motionless as if it might make him invisible.
Mr. It raised an eyebrow. “Tell me, Niccolo. Do you oil yourself up, or do you and Anton take turns oiling each other?”
Niccolo slammed the table. A loose board lifted, knocking oatmeal onto Daniel’s white button-up shirt.
“You guys!” Daniel pleaded. He looked down at the spill, face sunk in defeat. With the broad blade of the back of his hand he sloughed off most of the oatmeal. He began clumsily pinching at his buttons with all four of his fingers. When he realized others were watching him, he flushed red and hid is hands behind his back.
“You’re a real piece of shit,” Niccolo said. “Look how much you’re upsetting Daniel.”
“Me? I’m sharing a peaceful meal with him. I’m not the one leaning over him like a Neanderthal.”
Veins on Niccolo’s forehead bulged. “The only person you care about is yourself.”
“Perhaps,” Mr. It hissed. “But at least I’m honest about it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Even with Mr. It’s static mouth, his face was clearly a sneer. “When was the last time you joined anyone on a trip into town? To shop? Or get drinks? Or even to share a meal with anyone else here?”
Niccolo paused. Looked out at everyone around him, guilt on his face.
“I know you and Anton are stashing your money away.” Mr. It addressed the gathered performers. “In the last year, have any of you seen Niccolo or Anton spend a penny they didn’t need to?”
No one spoke.
Niccolo started, if only to interrupt the awkwardness. “I’ve had meals with most everyone here.”
“Yes. You have.” Mr. It turned his back on Niccolo, a lawyer pacing and making his point. “But it’s been years since. You stopped just after the good days did, and those fat paydays stopped rolling in.
“Fact is,” Mr. It continued, “Niccolo’s contract ends in six months. How many of you think he and Anton are signing on for even another year?”
Mr. It paced back, stared right into Niccolo’s eyes. “Just like me, you saw the writing on the wall. We both know this carnival doesn’t have much time left. I’m leaving in a week, but you’ll be right behind me.”
Niccolo didn’t move, nor did he deny it. Quietly, Mr. It took his seat again.
The mess took on a heavy, somber silence. Benches creaked as folk settled back in, drinking, eating, reading—anything to prevent having to look each other in the eye.
Ben broke the silence by slamming his empty bowl onto his table. He marched over to the serving table and stared over the cast-iron pans.
As always, Ben wore no shirt. His ribs could be counted easily, his limbs a series of sticks and knobs. Fury crossed his face. “He’s right! It’s not worth it!” He took another bowl and piled in scoop after scoop of food, the spatula clapping flatly against the rim. He grabbed at his spoon and, after devouring two bites, cast the spoon aside and began shoveling with his hand.
Daniel had been preparing to leave. Already on his feet, he was the first one there. He put himself between Ben and the food, skittering left and right to block. Niccolo came from behind, grappling Ben around his thin waist but seemingly unable to drag him away. Soon all three men were entangled, Ben’s thin arms flailing, Daniel pinching at the bowl of food just out of his reach.
“Ben, you fool,” Niccolo shouted as they struggled. “No one wants to see a fat ‘human skeleton.’”
“I’m hungry!” Ben said.
“You’ll be hungrier if no one pays to see your show,” Niccolo yelled.
“The lizard is right! We’re barely making enough to live on as it is. A third of the crew has already moved on—”
“Their contracts were up,” Niccolo said. “The boss will find others to join us.”
“Look around us. Ben gestured with his chin to the banners hanging on the tents around them; they used to overlap, but now large swathes of the blue and yellow canvas showed. “No one comes to the circus anymore. You think it was lean before, who do you think will come to see half a circus?”
“The boss always makes it work,” Niccolo said, one arm around Ben’s small chest, the other flailing along Ben’s free arm. “You weren’t with him in ’51—”
“We’ve made less and less every night for the last year. We’re missing so many people now, I don’t know how Folley is even going to fill the schedule.”
“And you’re going to find work elsewhere?” Even as he said it, Niccolo’s face sunk.
Daniel snipped at Ben’s arm, and again, finally clamping Ben’s wrist. The bowl slipped from Ben’s hand, its contents scattering into the dry dirt.
Ben stopped struggling. He stared directly at Niccolo, “What do you care? You’re leaving, too.”
A deep voice bellowed, “What is all this commotion?”
The fighting stopped. The three men, along with everyone else, turned to Ringmaster Folley. As ever, he was decked out in his red coat and top hat, both impossibly clean despite the dusty field that surrounded their camp.
“What is this?” Ringmaster Folley’s chest puffed out when he spoke. He gestured at the tangled men.
“Nothing, boss,” Niccolo replied. “Just…uh, showing Benjamin some wrestling moves.”
Folley frowned. “Because he’s entering the ring with you?”
“No, boss.” Niccolo said.
“You all mind yourselves, I’ve enough to think about without your hullabaloo. Fagan is bothering me about old medicines, set-up is only half done, and the…” Folley paused for several seconds, looking west, toward the trucks and trailers in the back yard.
“The flyers need to go out?” Daniel offered.
“Yes. That. Of course,” Ringmaster Folley said, his face nervous. He paused, ears perked as if he was listening to someone. “Right,” Folley continued, distracted. “Eat quickly. We’ve got to finish set-up for tonight’s show and I’ve got to fill the bill. I don’t want to hear any more arguments.” Ringmaster Folley stormed away, but stopped at the edge of the mess. “Mr. It,” he called back, removing a large iron key from his inside coat pocket. “It’s your week to feed him.”
“Ringmaster Folley.” Mr. It’s bravado disappeared. “I’ve only got a dozen days left. Surely this responsibility should fall to someone—”
“It is your week,” Folley repeated. “My circus is a family. We toil together, we reap the benefits together. I’ve already prepared the meal. Get it from Gaspard.”
Ringmaster Folley tossed the key, all eyes following it through the air.
Mr. It fumbled it, had to pick it up from the dirt. He turned in the direction of the back yard. A black-roofed cart was just visible in the distance.
When the ringmaster disappeared, all eyes dropped to their own business again. This time it wasn’t guilt driving them, but self-preservation.
Mr. It looked over the group, round eyes almost pleading. He held the key at arm’s length, either offering it or holding it away from himself. None would look up.
The small girl, sitting alone at the back table.
“Francine? Want to make two bits?”
Niccolo laughed. “You’re so scared you’re going to ask the dwarf girl to feed him for you?” A few of the others around them began laughing as well. Humorless laughter. Nervous laughter.
“I’m glad you find this humorous, Niccolo,” Mr. It said. “But I recall you shoveled the cages all last week so you wouldn’t have to feed him.”
The laughter stopped. Niccolo’s face turned pink.
“Francine?” Mr. It cooed. “You’ve never been to the black cart, right? Would you do me a small favor and take some food there…”
Francine sat alone at a perimeter table eating the last bites of her breakfast. She wore a faux tiger-skin leotard, similar to the one her brother wore. Seven years old, the characteristics of her dwarfism only starting to become apparent with her lack of growth. She lifted her eyebrows as Mr. It approached with the quarter.
“What do you say?” he asked.
She continued chewing, raised her hand to show four fingers.
She didn’t answer, instead filling her mouth with the last bite. She stared at Mr. It, chewing ever so slowly.
“Fine!” He slapped the quarter on the table, reached in his pocket and clapped another atop the first. “We have a deal?” He held out a hand to shake.
Francine placed her empty bowl and spoon into Mr. It’s outstretched hand, scooped the quarters from the table, and plopped down from her seat.
Niccolo approached, stood beside Mr. It. They watched the girl plod toward the furthest reaches of their camp.
“You okay with sending the girl out there?” Niccolo asked.
“No,” Mr. It answered.
“You want to take it back, go do it yourself?”
Mr. It replied, more earnestly, “No.”