by Charlie Willis
They had a tiger at the circus. And when she wasn’t on stage inside the big red and yellow tent, she lay in a foul-smelling cage by the edge of the field, panting. The girl didn’t believe in tigers. A black and orange cat as big as a horse? It was absurd. So she told Pauly on that rainy evening in October when he’d asked her to meet him in his caravan.
‘I’ll take you to see her for yourself,’ he said. When he spoke, his cigarette jumped up and down in the corner of his mouth. The mouth itself was crooked and pale across his face, like a scar that had healed badly. The girl hated sitting so close to him. But he’d insisted she sat on the little stool in front of his chair. And when he insisted things, jagged threats seemed to flutter behind a gauze of charm like rocks lurking beneath waves. She hated the sour smell of smoke. She could hardly see him in the fog that he’d blown out around himself.
‘She’s the only reason people come to this damn place,’ Pauly said. He leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. The glowing butt of his cigarette bounced a few inches away from the girl’s face. Drops of rain began to beat on the roof of the tent.
‘So do you want to see her or not?’
Now the girl knew he was teasing her. He must have heard her playing on the patch of yellow grass out by the ice cream stall. He’d heard her talking to her dragons, and he’d seen her running beneath the shadow of her flying phoenix and he knew she didn’t have a tiger. She didn’t know whether to play along. She thought she could run away if she got up quickly. But he’d have people waiting in the wings, reaching out of the rain to grab her.
‘Yes, I want to see her,’ she said.
Pauly stood up, stretched his neck to one side, and took the cigarette out of his mouth. He blew a plume of smoke out through pursed lips and then took the girl by the arm. She flinched but he only tightened his grip.
‘Where are we going?’ The girl had to shout over the hissing of the rain. Pauly didn’t hear her. As they weaved their way along the narrow paths between the tents, Pauly turned and smiled at the girl. She’d never seen such crooked, yellow teeth. The orange light from the lanterns inside the tents wobbled on his face and made his flesh ripple and squirm. Deep ridges and ditches appeared and deepened and disappeared around the crumpled edges of his eyes.
‘We’re nearly there now,’ he leaned down to whisper in her ear. His breath was hot. The girl’s heart stamped in her throat. Pauly spat out the sodden butt of his cigarette and trod it into the wet mud with the heel of his boot.
The tiger’s cage was at the end of a string of carriages and boxes and carts. Two white horses were standing out in the rain, their ragged manes stuck to their necks. They had stopped pulling at the hay bag that was tied up in front of them and were dozing with their eyes half-closed. The rainwater trickled off their rumps in little rivulets and streams.
‘Why haven’t these two been put away?’ Pauly shouted somebody’s name. A tall man with a black beard came lolloping out from behind a carriage. His jaw was slack, but his brow was tight with panic.
‘She’s loose,’ he said, but they couldn’t hear him over the rain.
‘She’s loose!’ he cried.
Then there was much caterwauling and howling and swearing. Men ran about on the watery grass carrying spools of thick rope and lanterns. The girl saw the glimmer of a rifle. She heard a fearsome rumble like thunder in the distant night sky. She guessed Pauly must have forgotten about his little game. She went in through the flap of a nearby tent. A fat woman, coiled up in coloured scarves, was lying on a low bed.
Purple threads of sweet-smelling smoke curled out from a lamp beside her and twisted around and around her arms like a trapeze artist’s ribbons. A parrot with a rainbow of feathers rested its talons on her round, bare shoulder.
‘Why are they running?’ the girl asked, and the woman laughed a hollow laugh that crumbled into dry coughing.
‘Why?’ said the parrot, and the woman continued to cough.
‘What’s happening?’ said the girl, her cold, wet hair hung in tendrils around her shoulders. The woman waved her hand that was heavy with tight rings with jewels that glinted sharply behind the thick haze.
‘She’s escaped, sweetheart,’ the woman said, ‘and it’s all over.’
The girl went out into the rain again. She went away from the screaming and the clanging of metal to the fence that lined the edge of the field. She climbed onto the fence and looked out at the grassy land that flooded into the black night before her. She stretched out her arms and she was at the stern of a ship, like one of those wooden mermaids, flying over a black sea. In the distance, to the east, she saw the warm glow of the town and she jumped off the fence and made her way across the field. Her footsteps were quiet on the damp grass and the rain began to fade.
When she came to the other side of the field, she climbed over another fence and dropped down into a forest. The clouds had moved away from the moon now. A soft white light slipped across the tree trunks and the wet leaves in the thicket. She heard a slithering of feathers, and her phoenix landed beside her. His feathers were blood red in the darkness.
‘And where are the dragons?’ she wondered aloud. When she had gone on a few more steps, she heard their familiar growl. They scurried across the path in front of her, their black wings crookedly folded against their spiny, arched backs.
As they went deeper into the forest, a shadow swelled on the path up ahead. The girl narrowed her eyes, but it was too dark to make out shapes in the distance. She carried on walking. The cold night air made her skin bristle. In the blackness, her breath swirled in front of her. Then, above the shadow, she saw a flash of orange like the glow of amber and a slash of black that was deeper than the sky’s. She saw a beast as big as a horse beneath the light of the moon.
When she saw the girl, the beast turned and slunk along the path. And so they walked away from the circus, with the phoenix flying up ahead, followed by the dragons, followed by the tiger, followed by the girl.