1.

The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

You pay your admission to a man who looks like he could knock out a steer, but it is a slight young man who hands you your ticket: printed on thick, clean paper, one corner embossed in gold ink with a griffin whose mechanical wings shine in the shivering mirrorlight.

TRESAULTI, it says, and underneath, CIRCUS MECHANIQUE, which is even more showy than the posters. Their bulbs are bare; who do they think they are?

“Go inside, take a seat, the show is about to begin!” the young man shouts to the crowd as he hands out the tickets, his hinged brass legs creaking. Above the noise the food vendor is shouting: “Come and have a drink! Beer in glasses! Beer in glasses!”

Inside some invisible ring the circus people have drawn in the muddy hill, there are the dancing girls and the barkers and jugglers. The musical man is playing within the tent—a cranking, tinkling mess of noise from this far away. The dancing girls shimmying outside the tent doors have metal hands or feet that glitter in the lights, and calling above it all is the young man with the brass legs who had come through the city a day ago and put up the Tresaulti posters.

Inside, the tent is round and bright, dozens of bulbs hanging from the rigging. Some of them have paper lanterns over them, so the light is a little pink or a little yellow.

The trapezes are hanging already from the topmost supports, stiff brackets of brass and iron, waiting for girls to inhabit them. The poster says “Lighter than Air.” The mood in the tent is, We’ll see. Not that you’re hoping for someone to fall—that would be morbid—but if you say something is lighter than air, well, the bets are on.

(These trapezes are imposters; they are for practice, they are for the beginning of the act. For the finale, the real trapezes walk out. Big George and Big Tom are lifted into place by Ayar the strong man, and they lock their seven-foot metal arms around the poles and hold themselves flat as tables. The girls scamper up and down their arms, hook their feet over Big George’s feet, and dangle upside-down with their arms spread out like wings. When Big George swings back and forth, the girls let go, flying, and catch Big Tom’s legs on the other side.

But you do not know that this first trapeze is a false front. You have not yet been surprised.)

The tent comes alive as those who bought tickets file in; some of them have stopped at the food wagon, so the beer-smell cooks slowly under the bulbs. People talk among themselves, but carefully; the government is new (the government is always new), and you never know who’s working for whom.

A drum roll announces the beginning of the show, and the tent flaps open up for the entrance of an enormous woman in a black-sequined coat. Her curly dark hair springs out over her shoulders, and she wears red lipstick that seems unnaturally bright when she stands under the pink paper lanterns.

She raises her arms, and the crowd noisily hushes itself.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she calls.

Her voice fills the air. It feels as if the tent grows to accommodate the words, the circle of benches pushing out and out, the tinny Panadrome swelling to an orchestra, the light softening and curling around the shadows, until all at once you are perched in a tiny wooden seat above a vast and a glorious stage.

The woman’s arms are still thrown wide, and you realize she has not paused, that her voice alone has changed the air, and when she goes on, “Welcome to the Circus Tresaulti!” you applaud like your life depends on it, without knowing why.





2.

THE MECHANICAL CIRCUS TRESAULTI
FINEST SPECTACLE ANY WHERE
MECHANICAL MEN beyond IMAGINATION
Astounding Feats of ACROBATICS
The Finest HUMAN CURIOSITIES the World has ever SEEN
STRONG MEN, DANCING GIRLS & LIVING ENGINES
FLYING GIRLS, LIGHTER than AIR
MUSIC from the HUMAN ORCHESTRA
BARGAIN ENTERTAINMENT for ONE and ALL

No Weapons Allowed






3.

The Circus Tresaulti has six acts.

All of them are set to Panadrome’s music. He is the most complicated of all Boss’s machines—he is a true marvel—but one look at that human face above the mechanized band is enough for most. The music seems to seep into their blood, turning them to metal from the inside out, trapping them inside some brass barrel they can’t see.

They press their hands hard to their chests until they feel their hearts beating, and they don’t look at him again.

#

It begins with jugglers, who move into the tent from outside. They toss clubs and glasses of water and torches. For their finale, each torch falls flame-first into a glass of water, extinguishing with a hiss that’s lost in the applause.

The jugglers are human. You can see one with a false leg, but these days there are so many bombs and so many people to remake; one shiny leg is no surprise.

(They could be mechanical, too, if they chose, but the three jugglers have formed a little union against. God knows if a false arm would be fast enough to catch anything.)

#

The dancing girls come next. They are all muscle under their filmy skirts—they once were soldiers or factory workers, they pack and unpack as much rig as the tumblers—but the audience demands dancing girls, so they make do. Over the years they have all learned the profit in the curled hand and the cocked hip.

Their eyes are rimmed with kohl and their lips are painted purple; they uncover as much as they can of their skin (you have to cover the scars, of course). They dress in whatever spangles they can come by. Their dancing names are Sunyat and Sola, Moonlight and Minette. (Their real names don’t matter; no one in the circus is real any more.)

For their finale, the strong man enters. The four of them climb onto his shoulders and his arms. They sit—legs crossed, arms raised— and he carries them off the stage as if they were no heavier than four cats.

#

The strong man’s name is Ayar. He was strong before he joined the circus. Boss made him stronger. He never asked for more strength; he didn’t want it when offered. He accepted only on condition—Jonah.

Jonah was injured fighting—a lung collapsed—and he had been getting worse, worse, worse, until the doctor used a bellows on him and told Ayar (who wore a different name then) to expect the end.

The Circus Tresaulti was in town. Ayar stood in the city square and stared at the picture of the Winged Man for a long time.

Then he carried Jonah out to the camp and asked the first person he saw, “Where is the man with wings?”

The boy was young, but he looked at Ayar for only a moment before he said, “You’ll want Boss. Wait here.”

Negotiations took an hour—a long hour, an hour Ayar remembers only in brief moments of shouting, of crying, of wanting to hit her but still holding Jonah—and then the worst was over.

When Ayar woke up, he had a new name that went with a body made of gears and pistons and a spine that could carry anything, and Jonah was standing over him, smiling, turning to show Ayar the little beetle-glossy hatch Boss had built for the mechanisms that powered Jonah’s new clockwork lungs.

Boss made Ayar stronger, but Jonah she saved.)

Ayar doesn’t regret it. He is of a temperament to be liked, and of all at Tresaulti he has the least urge to complain. He struck a better bargain than some.

He lifts the dancing girls; he lifts benches from the front circle with five rubes from the audience on them. At the end of Ayar’s act, Jonah drives the small red truck through the opened flaps into the center of the ring. He climbs into the bed and turns around slowly, so everyone can get a look at the brass hump sticking out of his back. Then Ayar sets himself under the flatbed and lifts the truck with Jonah still standing on it.

Ayar is supposed to call when he is ready to lift, so Jonah can prepare, but it is always Jonah who calls, as if he knows when Ayar will be ready better than Ayar will.

(It had been Jonah—when he was so ill—who said, “You will just not let this go, will you?”, knowing Ayar wouldn’t. Ayar got a new spine and new shoulders and new ribs, and his comrade back again.

“Your comrade,” Boss had said. She looked them over and raised an eyebrow and said, “Sure, we’ll call you that.”)

Outside, Ayar sets down the truck, and Jonah jumps off the flatbed, smiling, and cuffs Ayar lightly on the shoulder.

“Nice lift,” he says, every night.

Then it is Ayar’s turn to smile, though he doesn’t return the gesture. What can he do with his pile-driver arms, cuff Jonah back?

#

The next act is a duo. Stenos is the thin man in black who stands and offers his arms, who tosses the woman into the air, and catches her again. Bird is the woman, the one in grey, who flies. He is tall and graceful; she is like a skin-covered spring. They should be lovely to watch.

The audience does watch them—they are impossible not to watch—but what they see is rarely lovely.

The light in the tent seems to change as they go on, the dark creeping up around them. To focus on them is painful; sometimes it’s difficult to look at them directly, and their bodies become only impressions.

It is two acrobats performing. No, it is two acrobats dancing. No, it is two dancers fighting. No, it is two animals fighting.

After their act there is no applause.

#

The tumblers roll out just as the silence gets uncomfortable.

The tumblers are wild and bright, and have made their own family even within the circus troupe. They love more than anything to hear Boss call out, “The Grimaldi Brothers!” (It is only because of the Boss’s voice that anyone believes the name for a moment. Grimaldi Brothers; as if anyone would have eight grown children or seven surviving siblings in days like these.)

Their names are little jumps: Alto, Brio, Spinto, Moto, Barbaro, Focoso, Altissimo, Pizzicato.

(Boss gave them the names. She never told them what they mean; they never bothered to find out. They make a living, almost, and they would be fools to ask questions.)

#

The aerialists are the finale.

The girls swing from the trapeze thirty feet above the ground. When a girl lets go, the audience gasps. When she twists and manages, impossibly, to grip the outstretched arms of the girl waiting to catch her, the audience roars.

When Big Tom and Big George walk out into the ring with their arms raised, people scream; applaud with relief.

Ayar hoists both men into the air like batons, and their mechanical hands close with sharp clicks over the rigging bars. The girls have locked up the trapezes and are perched on the rigging, their weight on the balls of their feet, their hands wrapped tightly on the bars.

There are six aerialists, even though it seems like more, like ten or twelve or twenty girls leaping into thin air. Elena is the captain; Fatima and Nayah are her lieutenants, and then there are Mina and Penna and Ying. They dress in shabby spangles and paint their faces to look the same, though if you know what to look for you can make them out: the captain; the girl with the strongest feet; the girl who will be first to jump down onto Tom; the girl who trembles.

They are swift and sure, and they don’t need to call warnings. After enough time, it’s easy to see when a body is preparing to leap; it’s easy to be ready.

By the end, Big Tom and Big George are swinging so far back and forth that a girl can hold his ankles on the upswing and just touch the upper edge of the tent. When she swings back to the center of the tent, reaches the other apex of the pendulum and lets go, there are two seconds in the air when she is weightless; the audience can feel it, and holds its breath.

They finish the act posed triumphantly: four of them wrapped around Big Tom’s and Big George’s arms; Ying and Mina, the smallest, hang by their knees from Tom and George’s feet, upside down and smiling.

The audience is never sitting at the end of the Circus Tresaulti; it is always on its feet, whistling and pounding the boards, knocking beer glasses into the dirt. They don’t notice the glasses; their eyes are on the golden lamplight, on the aerialists who shimmy down the rigging and take their bows on the ground, on the men who can only smile because their arms are still locked on the crossbars. It’s magic, and the audience applauds for as long as their stinging palms can stand it. (Who knows if something beautiful will ever come again?)

Later, after all the rubes have gone home chattering at one another about how fast the tumblers are, how agile the aerialists, Little George will step out of his brass legs and collect the beer glasses, even the ones with cracked sharp edges; glass these days is hard to find.

#

There was a seventh act, years ago.

He was the Winged Man, and when he swooped from the rigging and spread his wings the crowd would go wild, screaming and shouting, straining in their seats to reach for him as he sailed just over their outstretched fingers. Sometimes a woman would faint. Sometimes a man would faint.

There were always tears of joy; a man so beautifully married to machine was something that people needed to see after a war like they had been through. The technology in those days was weapons and radio signals; people needed to remember the art of the machine.

He landed after the applause shook the bleachers and the rigging so hard they looked ready to collapse; the light around him was tinged gold from the feathers in his wings, and he stood in the center of the ring and let them applaud him, that most amazing specimen of man.

That was before he fell.





4.

We’re the circus that survives.

Boss claims we were always around; she shows me glue-paper posters with the edges singed and flaking. The circuses are owned by a series of brothers with names I don’t know, and peopled with acts I’ve never heard of. (I recognize Grimaldi, the brothers’ false name. Other than that, there’s nothing much to them but worn-out pictures. I don’t even know where she’s found them.)

Some of them have an eagle mascot; some have a lion, or a flaming hoop, or an eight-point star. The emblem of Tresaulti Circus is a griffin in profile, her hinged wings outstretched. A tattoo of that crest covers the top half of each of the boss’s wide, pale arms. You can see them in the ring, though the tattoos look like lace sleeves in the lantern light; you wouldn’t guess if you didn’t already know.

You have to really know what you’re looking for, when it comes to her.

The names of the other circuses are different from ours, so I know they can’t be our circus still going, but the only time I ask her about it (when I’m still young and stupid and too slow to get out of the reach of her arms), she clips me on the ear.

“The name changes, Little George,” she says, “but the circus is always the same.” She flicks the tattoo on her right arm as if to prove her point or wake the animal. Her nail slices her skin, and where the griffin’s metal wings have been grafted, the blood pools like oil.

For a moment I’m frightened, but I don’t know why. Nothing to worry about.

No one has wings like that any more; not since Alec died.





5.

This is what happens when you take a step:

Your first leg moves out from underneath you. By now your chest is already moving, your back foot ready to push.

(You will not notice, but here you are the tallest you will ever be, poised on one foot and ready for motion.)

Your first leg sweeps ahead, and your back foot powers you. Your weight is propelled forward, inertia dragging you back.

In this instant is the body-terror; here you are unbalanced, unable to rest or move back. Your arms are swinging, trying to keep the mechanism in motion. Here you are at the lowest point. Here is the danger of falling.

Your first leg hits the ground, heel-first, and the worst is over. The chest is following, finding balance in this new place. Now if you lift the back foot, you keep hold of yourself. Your back leg swings to meet its brother, and you are standing still.

#

This is what happens when you take a step: you are moving closer to what you want.

#

This is what happens when an aerialist lets go of the swinging trapeze:

She swings with her legs forward and lifted, feet pressed together and toes pointed, for momentum.

By the time she lets go of the bar, her legs are already touching her chest, and she is in the pike position of a diver; she is already pulling her torso away, arcing backwards as fast as she can. Her arms are close to her chest like the folded wings of a bird, for speed.

Then her arms are straight, arms extended. Her spine is parallel to the ground. Her eyes are fixed ahead, and her path is clear; she is the bird in flight.

But the legs are coming up behind her; gravity has hold of her, and her legs are weights dragging her down to the floor forty feet beneath her.

Here, someone catches her. (Or they don’t.)

She wraps her hands around her partner’s wrists, and her momentum drives the swing. Her legs snap down, under her and forward; now the power of the pendulum has hold of her, and she will swing out, her toes just brushing the fabric of the tent. She will spend a moment weightless, motionless; a state of bliss.

#

This is what happens when an acrobat lets go of the swinging trapeze: the bird, or the ground.

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