The circus wagons move from town to town, with the brightly-arrayed creatures tumbling and dancing about them – animated only by the strangely compelling music of the singing oil drums. And all the while, the masters collect money in their horny palms.
Do we ever feel the joy of the dance? No. It is not permitted. We must remain with the freak show, alongside the moustached lady who flaunts her tattooed self and the strangely misshapen beings whose birth was unfortunate and whose lives have rarely been more than burdensome.
We sometimes wonder if we were born as we are now. Truth to tell, we do not know. Although we sometimes speak of where we might have come from none of us has even an idea of before we were as we are.
But our life isn’t hard. Not now. Not if we can manage not to mind the staring eyes.
We speak of that, too, in the quiet of the night – understanding that, hate the eyes though we might, they are less troublesome than the hurled rocks and stones that were overwhelming us in the only other place we can remember. We still feel the hurt to our bones, and the strangeness of relief when the masters drove our persecutors from us with cudgels and harsh words. They removed us from the place and we understood that we became their possessions from that day on.
Our present owners are never truly unkind, although they think of us as animals who have no more comprehension than the heffalumps and the prancing unicorn.
So we stand in our wagon, and those with a brown penny to spend come to look and enjoy their own revulsion. Sometimes those with coins of silver or gold pay to come into the place where we are. They are permitted to do certain things to us. Things that are unpleasant, but never as painful as the rocks of those who sought our deaths. We endure, and are rewarded for our stoicism with treats of honey and brief walks in quiet woodland glades.
Sometimes we think of escape. If we ever get a chance.
Opportunity comes to those who are patient, though, and ours knocked in a most unexpected way.
It was a hot summer night and the circus was leaving town in a hurry. There were whispers of inquisitors in the district and the dark ones had no mind to lose any of their pets to the heavy hand of such as those. The procession hustled along as fast as was possible given the need for discretion. The only sound to be heard was wagons softly creaking in the darkness, while the rising dust clogged our nostrils and besmirched our robes. Nobody capered in a foolish dance, and no music heralded our movement. All was tight-lipped quiet and care to be unobserved.
At a certain place in the deepest shade of the trees our party left the road and turned its face to the hidden ways, where the old trees moved their limbs aside making a path between themselves for the swaying wagons.
We judged it to be coming towards dawn when the wagon beneath us lurched and broadsided itself across the barely discernible byway. There came a horrid cracking sound and we shuddered to a stop.
“Blasted, buggering axle.”
The master who had been driving the patient burden beasts swore in a bitter undervoice. For a few moments there was sufficient chaos to awaken the hungry flesh eaters in their shiny cages. But the masters are resourceful and they soon regained order although we feared certain of the chattering ones would have felt the lash of a stock whip before they quieted.
We stood in our customary quietude whilst they argued the best way forward.
“Leave them. We can return for them tomorrow night.”
“Leave them, and have them run away? What foolishness is this.”
We knew that cold, harsh voice. It belonged to the ringmaster, who was heavily handsome in the way of humans, and whose anger all the circus feared. Or almost all.
Around him, the talk subsided, until only one was left to brave, or foolish, enough to argue. It was the old one. The one whose voice rustled like last years desiccated leaves and was so discordant as to make our mouths and throats feel as if we had been thirsting for many a day.
“Have them run away? Think again grandson of my son. Where would they go?”
The silence fell heavily cold into the breathless heat of the night, but then he laughed. “Where indeed.”
In a very short while they were gone and around us there was no sound save for the noises as the forest herself awoke. Emboldened by our unaccustomed aloneness we sat swinging our feet over the sides of our broken home.
The air grew cooler and the scent of grass came to our nostrils.
“Such beauty,” one of us spoke into the softly verdant air.
We watched as the sun rose and the creatures of the day took over from the night fliers and crawlers.
Another of us spoke into the pinkness of the dawn.
“Do we dare?”
“Do we dare what?”
But we knew. We knew that if we would ever leave the wooden prison in which we dwelt, now was our time.
Nobody moved, though, and our hands stroked the smooth wood of familiarity.
It must have been high noon before yet another found voice.
“After all. Where would we go?”
This story was inspired by the image created by Paul Biddle