Previous: Episode 3
Three towns in less than two weeks. Francine had only been with the carnival for a short while, but this seemed unusual, even to her. They usually stayed most of a week, setting up Wednesday or Thursday for a weekend stay.
But this time they’d stayed in—she realized she didn’t even know the name of the town, that’s how briefly they stayed. Then, another “bad show” in Madison, Tennessee. They were scheduled for Little Rock, but Grandma Babushka shook her head, said ‘There’s a storm brewing here.’ Folley didn’t even set up there. They were on the road again, heading southwest toward Texas.
Bad show. It was repeated up and down the caravan. She thought all the performers had done really well. She had watched the acrobats twice in Madison. The battery was acting up so Frank was put inside the sideshow tent, but he told Francine to make a list of shows she would be at, so he could find her later.
He had crossed out “Kooch” from her list, not before telling her it was spelled with a C, and that she “shouldn’t be saying that word out loud.”
It was a whim that she added Acrobats in the list again, just picking the first name off the list (she had written it alphabetically), but after that first performance she wished she had put nothing else.
Viera, the knife thrower, had her show on the other end of the carnival. Francine had to leave a few minutes early to make it back to the acrobats, the misspelled word-she-can’t-say-out-loud next, alphabetically. Thankfully there weren’t too many customers in her way, and she made it with minutes to spare.
They were beautiful. Two men and two women, at the tippy-top of the main tent, swinging back and forth on the flying trapeze. The men were strong, with dark hair slicked down on their heads. The women, both blonde, had their hair in ballerina buns. They swung, and leaped, frozen in the air that brief second between falling and being caught by their partners.
And they were always caught.
Francine sighed. Her breath fogged up the grimy window.
“What are you thinking about, Francy?” her brother asked.
“Acrobats.” The word was another sigh.
“Ain’t no acrobats out that window,” Frank said. “If you’re not going to enjoy the view, at least let me sit at the window.”
They were in the back of Gaspard’s trailer this time, and there was so much junk piled in that the only space for them was the corner of Gaspard’s bed and the cushion on the floor.
“Ain’t nothing to look at, anyway,” she replied. Francine rolled to her feet and swapped places with her brother.
The trailer rocked. This stretch of road was unpaved, and the wood signs and boards leaning against the opposite wall clattered with the sway of the trailer. Unconsciously she fiddled with the dimes in her pockets, keeping time with the clanking wood.
“What was that?” Frank asked.
“What?” Francine stopped, held the coins as still as she could.
“That noise. Do you hear it?”
Frank looked around the cart, but his eyes kept falling on Francine. She tried to remove her hand from her pockets, but the coins were sticky with her palm sweat. She tried to pick the last one free from her thumb.
The tiniest sound. Maybe Frank hadn’t heard it—
“Nothing!” she shouted, her face already hot with the lie.
“Empty your pockets, Francine.”
She reached in her pocket, slowly opened her palm to show her brother the dimes.
“Where did you get those?” Her brother gasped. “Francine, did you steal money?”
Francine scrunched her mouth. “No, I didn’t steal. Mom told us to never be stealers. I did some…helped some of the performers and they paid me money.”
“Anton. He paid me fifty cents.” That part was true. Mr. Ringmaster Folley had fed the Black Cart for a few days after Mr. It’s turn, but Anton was up next. He had approached her after Little Rock, and paid the same price Mr. It had.
“Fifty cents! For what?”
“Jus’ helpin’ around.” She could feel her feet fidgeting.
Frank looked at the money in her hand, then to her. “Helping? They’re not asking you to…?”
“Nothing.” Frank blew air from his nose. “Nothing. Just, put the money back in your pocket. I don’t want you to lose it.”
He went back to looking out the window. He was thinking about something, Francine could tell. He was clenching his jaw, that muscle at the back of his cheek bulging.
“I miss Mom.” She didn’t know where that came from. They hadn’t talked about their mother in months. But, it was true.
That cheek bulge again, and Frank’s hands tightened into fists.
“Do you think she’s better? Did the doctors make her better, yet?”
A moment of quiet, and then Frank responded, “I’m not sure. Maybe soon. She’ll come find us when she’s all better.”
But something had been bothering her. Frank seemed to be listening, maybe she could get an answer now.
“Frank? How is Mom going to find us? We’ve been traveling so much.”
Frank hesitated. “I’ve been leaving signs behind us.”
“Oh, a trail. Like Hansel and Gretel!” Francine smiled, clutched her hands near her mouth.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Just like that.”
The car jerked to a halt. The wood signs and boards beside Francine clattered and shook. Frank was immediately beside her, hands keeping the boards from falling on them.
“Why are we stopped?” Francine asked.
“Don’t know.” Frank jumped, trying to catch a glimpse out the window. He opened the door at the back of the trailer, looked around. “Everyone’s out. Go stretch your legs. But stay close. I don’t want the carnival leaving without you. I’m going to go talk to Anton.”
Outside, the entire caravan had come to a halt. Roustabouts and performers milled around, wiggling their arms and legs and stretching their necks.
Francine wandered, keeping an eye on Gaspard’s truck. The animal handlers were checking on the tigers and bear, giving them food and water. She was busy watching the animals and bumped into Dr. Fagan, the real Dr. Fagan, not just the poster. He turned, looked at her. Maybe it was the sun, maybe he was in a bad mood, but with one eye squinting the other looked all the more menacing. She apologized and quickly walked away from him.
“Francine!” It was Anton, his voice strong but high. His shirt was sleeveless, and in the mid-day sun his muscles glistened. He waved at her from afar, carrying something in his hand.
She waved back. Anton jogged over to her.
“Here, Folley gave me this. For…” He eyed the center of the caravan line and nodded his head in that direction. The Black Cart was there, at its center, a few extra trailer-lengths in front and behind it.
He handed her a bundle wrapped in a handkerchief. She unwrapped it: a half-loaf of bread and a stick of butter.
“No knife? How is he going to spread the butter?”
“He?” Anton shook his head. “I don’t want to be responsible for giving that thing a knife. Just feed it the bread and butter, and give me my kerchief back.”
Francine nodded, gave a sharp salute, paused. “Oh. My brother is looking for you.”
“For me?” Anton’s eyebrows furled. “Okay. I’ll keep my eyes out.”
People seemed to be gathering around the mess truck, and her grumbling stomach urged her that direction. Apples and bread, a little cheese. She fished around in one of the buckets near the mess truck, added something to the growing bundle she was carrying.
Mr. Ringmaster approached the mess, passing near her. He nodded to her and was about to tip his hat, but he paused. She could feel his eyes pressing down on her hands, on the food she carried.
“Little girl,” Mr. Ringmaster called.
“Yes?” Francine felt tiny next to the ringmaster, tinier than she usually felt.
“Where did you get—”
“Ringmaster Folley!” Dr. Fagan stepped between Francine and the ringmaster. “Will you tell your organ monkey here to let me purchase the medicines I need?”
Gaspard shouted in reply, “Organ Monkey? Do you see me doing this?” Gaspard raised his arms and began a decent organ monkey prance.
“Three hours in Little Rock and I could have taken care of this.”
“You act like I was the one who made the decision,” Gaspard said.
“Need I remind you that not all my medicines are for the show. I’m the carnival’s doctor.”
Gaspard puffed up. “And need I remind you to shut the f—”
Francine tried not to hear that word. It was another one she wasn’t supposed to say.
Ringmaster Folley tried to lean around the two men, to speak to Francine. Dr. Fagan saw where the ringmaster was looking and clearly didn’t approve of the interruption. He leered at Francine, that same, squinty-eyed glare.
Francine backed away, running only when she felt it was safe enough to turn her back on the doctor. Over the past year her legs didn’t seem to line up like they used to; today, especially, her hips seemed to sway a little unevenly when she ran, and the top of her left leg felt strained.
She didn’t run for long. She hadn’t known where she was going when she stepped out of the trailer, but in a way she always knew. Her feet brought her exactly where she wanted to be, to the thought she couldn’t get off her mind.
The acrobats were seated outside their trailer. Francine heard they’d been with the carnival about a year now, but unlike the rest of the carnival, their trailer hadn’t fallen into disrepair. Their trailer was clean, with a fresh coat of light blue paint. Its trim was polished to a mirror shine.
The acrobats themselves were an equally stark contrast with the rest of the carnival. The men were clean shaven, with perfectly styled dark hair. It reminded her of Superman’s hair, from the television show her brother liked. The women, taller and blonder than they had appeared during their show, had long legs and seemed to—the word sashay entered her mind, and a brief memory of her mother yelling at her in the dance studio.
But it was their outfits that stood out more than anything. In the carnival, everything was bright and ostentatious: the red of a fire engine, yellow like the sun, dark blues and the rich green of grass. The acrobat outfits were light blue, the color of the sky on a clear day, fading subtly to a color even more rare among the carnival: white.
She approached them reverently.
“Why hello, darlin’,” one of the women cooed at her. The other lit up a cigarette.
Francine’s mouth felt dumb. With some struggle, she fumbled out, “Hello.” A small curtsy, because it felt right to do.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, that’s a lovely name. I’m Celia.”
“I like your name, too.”
“She didn’t say she liked your name,” the smoking woman said.
“Oh, Emma. Stop.” Celia smiled, waved her hand toward the smoking woman as if she were batting away a fly.
“Your outfits are pretty,” Francine said.
“Thank you, dear,” Celia said.
Emma puffed from the side of her mouth. “Thanks.”
“Your clothes are…” Celia looked at Francine’s clothes: pants her brother had hemmed, a shirt with the sleeves rolled up several times over. “You’re one of the new hires, yes?”
“Yes. Me and my brother. Frank.”
“Came in with the other midget. The strong man.” Emma puffed on her cigarette again. “Folley hired them to join the sideshow. With the rest of the Freaks.”
“Ah. Yes.” Celia tittered.
Francine was confused. She smiled, hoping to hide that she’d missed the joke.
“I…” Francine hesitated. She had been looking for her place in the carnival, wanted to say the words caught in her throat since Tennessee.
“What is it, darlin’?”
“Your show is so beautiful. I watched it twice.”
“Why, thank you. I wish more of the townsfolk felt the same way. Can’t hardly blame them, what with the state of the carnival and all.”
“That’s not what you were going to say,” Emma said. She dropped her cigarette, ground it out in the dirt. “Out with it.”
“Emma!” another titter from Celia.
No, she was right, Francine thought. She would say it.
“I want to fly like you do.” The words came out, and it was like emerging from a warm bath.
“Let me see your hands,” Celia said, holding her palm out for Francine.
Francine placed her hand atop Celia’s. It was small, barely the size of Celia’s palm. Celia turned Francine’s hand over, slapping it so her own palm was up as well. It was pudgy in comparison to Celia’s, the creases deeper.
Francine held on to hope. “Can you teach me how to fly?”
Celia bent down, stared Francine in the eyes. She whispered, “You can barely run. How do you expect to fly?”
Francine closed her hand, pulled it back. Put it in her pocket.
“You’re touching that thing?” It was one of the male acrobats. “Make sure you wash your hands before we practice, I don’t want to catch anything.”
He looked down at Francine. She was used to feeling small, but right now was the smallest she had ever felt.
Celia stood, smiled her elegant smile at the man. She reached behind him, took a kerchief from his back pocket. She wiped her hands dramatically, and let the kerchief fall to the ground.
Francine’s eyes burned. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from crying. She didn’t want to run, not in front of them, but she couldn’t get away quick enough. She was inside the Black Cart without realizing she had even unlocked it.
“Francine?” The winged man’s face appeared in the barred window. His voice was calming, but sent a shiver up her spine. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. You are…” he paused, seemed to stare inside her. “You are a puzzle. A curiosity. Like the object’s I’ve gathered here.” Though she couldn’t see him, she could feel him gesture at the walls of the cart.
She turned, pretended to look at the things in jars so she could wipe her eyes.
“You can pick them up,” the winged man said. “If you wish.”
It was an invitation he hadn’t given before. She almost felt inclined, and reached for the closest jar. It was a puppy, hair barely forming. All of its legs were missing, had never grown.
She pulled her hand away. Francine turned back to the man, who appeared to be staring beyond the cart. In the direction she had come. His eyes were narrowed, lips straight—a face she hadn’t seen from him, one that looked to topple kingdoms. He turned back to her and his face softened.
“You were crying?”
“No, I…yes.” The tears were welling again. “I don’t like it here anymore. I don’t belong here.” She moved to wipe her tears, but the winged man halted her.
“Let them fall, Little One.”
Francine clenched her eyes, clenched them hard and felt the tears stream down her cheeks and patter around her feet.
The winged man’s breathing filled the cart, swelled around her. It felt warm. Soft.
“I do not know about the carnival, Little One. But you belong here. Here, as much as anyone or anything else in this cart.”
For some reason, that comforted her. “I brought your food.” She slid the bread and butter through the flap in the door.
The winged man sighed. “It was said, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’”
“You’re not really a man, are you? ’sides, there’s butter in there, too.”
“Indeed.” The man smiled. He stooped to pick up the food. When he reappeared he added, “I must say, you are a great deal more pleasant than the ringmaster. His visits involve a lot of yelling.”
“Yelling? I can barely hear you two—” Francine stopped.
The man’s eyebrow raised. “Have you been spying on us, Little One?”
Francine blanched. She wasn’t supposed to know that Mr. Ringmaster Folley visited the cart at midnight.
“Yelling is not the loudness of one’s voice. Yelling is about intent, and intensity.” Before she could voice her concern the man added, “Don’t worry, the ringmaster doesn’t know. And I certainly won’t be telling him.”
“Hmm.” The man looked down, to the food out of her view. “And how am I to spread this? With my fingers, like some kind of savage?” He chuckled to himself.
“Oh!” Francine returned to where she opened the bundle, removed the knife she had taken from the mess truck. She was not a stealer. She was going to take the knife back as soon as she was done with it.
She stooped, was about to slide it under the door when she remembered Anton’s words. She looked up, and saw the knife reflected in the winged man’s eyes.
“You need to promise me,” she showed him the knife. “Promise to give it back when you’re done with it.”
“When I am done with it?” His eyebrow raised again.
The man nodded, and Francine slid the knife under the door.
She started in on an apple. “I need to go back. Frank is probably looking for me.”
“He is,” the man said, again looking past the walls of the cart.
She pulled the keys from her pocket, found the one for the outside lock. “I’ll…see you tomorrow.” She opened the door to leave.
The knife slid from beneath the door and to the middle of the wooden cart floor. It spun once, its blade pointing just past her.
“Thank you,” the man said.
Next: Episode 5