Folley’s Circus, by Lucio Rodriguez. Episode 5

Previous: Episode 4

Gaspard balanced the knife on his finger, at the handle just before it met the blade. The handle was newly carved, and hadn’t been stained yet. Viera had broken the old one during her last show—clapped them together too hard before her bow. Snapped it clean in half.

“You notice knife throwers never curtsy? They always bow. Why is that?”

Le Petit watched from the half open flap of the tent. He shrugged.

“Heavy in the handle,” Gaspard said. A pocket knife and whetstone had been laid out on a crate. He took the pocket knife and began shaving thin slivers of wood from the handle’s end. Satisfied with its balance, he spat on the whetstone and began sharpening the knives.

Each knife had an eight inch handle, the blade almost as long. “I get showmanship, but these are absurdly large.”

Le Petit raised his eyebrows, his face settling as if he were explaining something.

“Fred? No, I’ve never read—oh, Freud. No? Hey, they aren’t my knives! Besides, it sounds more like this Freud is pushing his character flaws on others.”

Two thick snaps. Gaspard looked up, Le Petit’s fingers still pinched, other hand gesturing outside.

Gaspard set the knives back in place, best as he could remember finding them. He turned the whetstone over to hide the wet spot. He hopped from the stage, made as if he were busy with the benches.

Viera entered, “Le Petit, how are you—Gaspard! What are you doing near my stage? Why are you here?” She was dressed for her show, tall black boots, pants. A dark striped shirt that fit a little too tight for polite company.

Pardon? Your stage?” Gaspard stood. “Bossman is holding me accountable for, well, a lot. The tents on this side included. I’m just making sure everything is ship-shape.” He kicked at the bench, where the crossbars were joined with the sides.

Viera eyed Gaspard. She looked around the tent, at benches and walls. Back to the stage. She eyed her knives. She took the stage with one stride of her long legs. She lifted a knife, another. She grabbed the one with the replaced handle. Viera hefted it, pointed it at Gaspard, “Did you—”

Two men rushed past the tent flap. A pair of feet skidded in the dirt. “Le Petit! Oy, I’ve found one—no, three. All three. This is the last of them. I’ll meet you at the back yard.”

Donovan entered the tent. He eyed Viera, up and down, then took his hat off his head.

“Folley wants everyone at the backyard. Mr. It’s making his exit.”

Merde, I thought I was done seeing that pompus—”

“Hey, Frog, watch your language around the lady.”

Pardon? Do you even know what I said?”

“We both know what you said,” Donovan puffed his chest. “Don’t be talking about pomp-asses around her, or you’ll have to answer to me.”

Gaspard looked at Viera, her knives still pointed in Gaspard’s direction. Her jaw was clenched, an eyebrow raised in confusion.

“This woman?” Gaspard asked.

“You heard me, Frenchie.”

Gaspard snickered. “Of course. Donovan, I forgot to mention before, you did a great job on my shoes. I think I’ll have you polish them every week.” He pulled his Spauldeens from his pocket and juggled them one-handed. He could hear Donovan fuming when he walked by him. If he could only make it out the door before Donovan opened his mouth again…

“You know, you’re pretty fancy with those balls. You like touching balls?”

“Of course. But not like you, I’m sure. I hear you like handling…” Gaspard looked to Le Petit, shined a full-teeth smile. “Knives.”

“I’m just a roustabout,” Devon said. “Making an honest day’s wage with hard labor, not some fancy pants juggler strutting around and shooting off my mouth. But if I was a juggler, I’d juggle more than toys. Like torches. Or, yeah, maybe knives.”

Le Petit stifled a giggle that Gaspard could almost hear.

“Why don’t you give it a shot, eh?” Donovan’s voice had a tinge in it, something that curled Gaspard’s stomach.

A breeze blew in, throwing the tent flap back and forth. Le Petit flung it back, kicking at the ground. He was trying to dislodge the few black feathers that had gathered at his shoes.

Gaspard turned.

Donovan’s smile was unsettling. “Come on, juggler. Let’s see you juggle the knives. I hear P.T. has a guy that can juggle six knives at a time.”

Gaspard held his hands up and out. “No, no knives for me. Too sharp. Too scary.”

But now Viera seemed interested. “You are pretty good at juggling. I’ve seen you with the pins. The knives probably aren’t that different.” She offered a handful to Gaspard.

“No, no.” Gaspard insisted back. “What if they got wobbly? Those knives look mighty sharp. I could lose a finger.”

“Are you—my knives are the most balanced knives in the country.”

“I’m certain they are,” Gaspard said. “And if I messed up, it would be entirely my fault. And it would also be my fingers.”

“Chicken shit,” Donovan said, with no small amount of disdain.

Gaspard made to point out Donovan’s hypocrisy about language in front of Viera. Instead he turned to the door. “I believe we have somewhere to be. Can’t keep the Bossman waiting.”

“I forgot to tell you,” Donovan eyed Viera. “Full dress.”

“Son of a bitch!” Viera scowled. “It’s the middle of the day, do you know how hot it is outside?”

“Not my rules,” Donovan said. When Viera turned her back, he eyed her again, licked his lips.

She spun, a small black corset flailing in one hand.

Donovan’s eyes were locked on it. “If you want, I can help you—”

“I’m not putting this thing on until the last second.” She stormed out the tent, boots making heavy crunches in the dirt.

“What about you, Frog? Where’s your full dress?”

Gaspard wiped the sweat from his brow, used it to slick back his hair. Then he buttoned the single button on his suit jacket and straightened his lapels. He made an extra point to reorient the pin on his lapel, wiggling it in place with two fingers.

Donovan squared up with Gaspard, blocking the exit. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“That’s good,” Gaspard said. “I didn’t tell you to be.”

###

They were waiting in the back yard, cast and crew, tracing the half-circle that faced the Black Cart. This all felt strange—Francine didn’t like it. Frank stood next to her. She was holding his hand, or maybe he was holding hers.

Muttering all around them: What-are-we-waiting-for’s, and, who-isn’t-here-yet’s. Grandma Babushka hushed them all, saying, “We can’t start until everyone is here.”

It was rare to see Grandma Babushka outside her little cart. She was wearing a grey shawl and her robes, even though, to Francine, it seemed too hot to be wearing either. Grandma Babushka and Mr. Ringmaster were near the middle of the half-circled crowd. They seemed to be having an important discussion, so Francine wasn’t upset when Grandma didn’t see her waving.

More muttering. Le Petit and the juggler appeared by Mr. Ringmaster. Grandma Babushka stepped out and addressed everyone gathered.

“Welcome, family.” Her voice was loud and clean and bright. “I’ve been with this carnival longer than anyone. People come, and people go, but part of what keeps us a family, what keeps us safe, is our traditions.”

Grandma Babushka looked left and right among those gathered. “Who has fulfilled their contract?”

Mr. It stepped forward. Instead of his usual suit he wore clean pants and worn shoes, with a grey cabbie atop his head. He carried an oversized floral carpet bag that looked like it should belong to a woman. Grandma Babushka took him by the hand, walked him to the far end of the line.

She continued. “We work together. We succeed and fail together. We smile and we argue, as family does. Mr. It has decided to leave us. While we all have our opinions on his decision, remember, he is family. We wish him goodness and success.”

Grandma Babushka grabbed Mr. It by the head. He leaned forward, and she kissed his forehead.

One by one, Mr. It made his way along the line of people. Nodding. Shaking hands. The occasional hug, mostly from the people in the freak show. Daniel hugged Mr. It so long that Mr. It had to pull away.

It was almost her turn. Francine had been practicing all day, was still nervous because she knew she’d have to touch Mr. It’s hands. Frank had been teasing her all day, saying the lizard man’s hands were scaly and cold, and to be careful around his claws.

Niccolo was to their left. Francine wanted to move away, was sure they’d argue. She didn’t want to be around for that. She still didn’t like hearing people yell. But when Mr. It stood across from Niccolo, they shook hands politely.

Francine held out her hand. “Good luck, Mr. It.” He shook her hand gently, even took off his hat. His hands were rough, not scaly. But they were warm, like a normal person’s hands.

Mr. Ringmaster was halfway between the Black Cart and the crowd. Mr. It made his way there. The two men had a few words. Mr. Ringmaster shook Mr. It’s hand, clasped him on the shoulder. He handed Mr. It something, something Francine recognized. A key.

Together they walked to the Black Cart. Mr. It entered, alone.

Silence from the gathered crowd. Someone exhaled, causing the same from several others. Francine realized she, too, had been holding her breath.

Mr. It looked pale when he exited the cart. He placed the key back into Mr. Ringmaster’s hand, walked away—a little quickly, Francine thought. He reached the road, shrunk smaller and smaller until it was hard to make him out from the trees and bushes on the horizon.

Finally, the crowd began dispersing.

Francine waited until everyone had left, counted fifty alligators to make sure everyone would be occupied preparing for the evening. She pulled the two tins of sardines from her pocket, two new quarters rattling in her pocket. She started for the Black Cart.

That feeling again, that something was wrong. The cart rattled with her steps, more than usual. It seemed empty. Not just empty, no. More than empty, like the empty was empty. There was a word for it, Grandma Bubushka had taught it to her, when she said something about not being able to read the cards because the Moon was wrong.

Void.

There was a void here.

Francine panicked, but only briefly: the locks were still on the door, the chains were all present.

“Mister?”

No answer. No movement, for that matter. The man behind the door was large enough—with his wings—that any stirring inside made noise that carried along the walls and floor. Was he sleeping? Did he even need to sleep? He was always awake when Francine brought his meals, and at midnight when Mr. Ringmaster Folley visited.

She approached the door, every step echoing forever away. The door was tall and black and even more imposing than it usually was. Looking up, she thought it might fall over, land on her.

Still no noise, even when she put her ear to the door. It was the first time she had touched it, really touched it. The wood felt dry and old, its grain rough.

She would leave the sardines, she decided. Quickly, she slid them under the door, made only a step toward the exit. Then she was back on all fours, a single finger poking the flap of the food pass.

The room inside was tiny—she doubted even she could lay down in there. The only light came through the bars in the door, but it was still dark and hard to make out any real details.

But it was empty. She was sure of it.

Panic again. It was one thing to think the room was empty, but now that she knew—

She paced the cart. She could talk to Mr. Ringmaster, but he probably didn’t want her here anyway. The juggler, but no, he’d go straight to Mr. Ringmaster. The roustabouts would outright refuse to help her. Just mentioning the Black Cart to them would trigger chants, the Sign of the Cross, or knocking on wood.

Her pacing slowed when she realized they were getting heavier, as if they had more substance. From behind her, “Francine?”

“You weren’t here for a bit.” She heard the panic in her own voice. Her heart was racing.

“I’m sorry?” the winged man replied. He was there, his face in the barred window. But the muscles in his jaw looked stern.

“You, you weren’t here. Just a moment ago.”

“Francine, look at the locks.” His face relaxed when he spoke, his voice calm and calming, like a promise. Like a very old promise. “Are they not still in place? Where could I have gone?”

Yes. Where could he have gone. The door was still locked. It was dark in there, maybe she just couldn’t see well enough?

“So many visitors today,” the man said. “Though I can’t say I’ll miss Jeffrey.”

“Who?”

“Hmm. Yes. I believe the folk here call him, Mr. It.”

“His name is Jeffrey?” Francine smiled. Jeffrey was far less intimidating than the serious lizard man she had encountered.

“That’s what he was christened as. Though, perhaps even he doesn’t know that name.” A pause, then, “Tell me, Francine. Do many stand with Ringmaster Folley at the center of the circle?” He must have seen Francine’s face, because he added, “When someone leaves?”

“I’ve only seen…Jeffrey leave,” she snickered.

“And who stood with the ringmaster today?”

It wasn’t the first time the winged man had asked her about the carnival, or the weather. He often liked to ask what the sky looked like. Francine thought back. “Grandma Babushka was there. The juggler. I think his name starts with a G.

“Gaspard, but no, he doesn’t count.”

“Yes, Gaspard. What do you mean he—”

“Who else?”

“Oh, um. Le Petit. He’s always with Gaspard.” Francine smiled, “Le Petit is so funny. Oh, and Hank. He’s always helping Mr. Ringmaster.”

“Yes. He’s been here forever, but not him, either. Is that all?”

“I think so.”

“Not a woman with snakes?”

Francine shivered. “No, I hope not.”

“Two left without saying good bye. Curious. They wouldn’t steal away, so that means there’s only one way they could have left.”

“Who left?”

“Don’t worry about it, Littlest. But thank you for the…” The man reached down, “Sardines? You should leave now. Be careful, there’s some kind of ruckus going on outside.”

He was right. As soon as Francine had locked the cart door she could hear yelling, see people running from all over the carnival toward one of the east tents. No smoke, so it wasn’t a fire.

“What’s going on,” she asked when she had finally managed to stop one of the crew. “Why is everyone running?”

“It’s one of the acrobats,” the man said. “She fell.”

Next: Episode 6

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