Finding Essie
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Out of all the clowns at the Circus, there were three I was allowed to be around.

Jojo LeBeaux watched her weight very carefully. She only clocked in at a measly three hundred pounds of pure whale blubber, but she did her diligence to maintain the illusion of weighing twice as much. My attempts to engage her in conversation would invariably end in threats of being sat on.

Wimbley Pinhead wore one of those pointy caps with a puffball on top, which he wore on an over-sized prosthetic forehead, which he wore on his real head, which he wore on a lurching storm of frills and ruffles so dense that some questioned if there was a person underneath. He was subtle like that. Avoided me like the plague, but it wasn't personal; the guy hated kids. There was one time he announced that 'clowning is a mature art form for a mature audience'. Many regard this to be his comedic peak.

Scruffy McGrubbins had the voice, grace, and heart of a chain-smoking grizzly bear, and he was worth more than all the grandmothers I never had. Dressed in drag more often than not. He didn't just talk to me, he talked to me the same way he talked to everyone else: like a freak. He smelled like home. But not in a weird way.

When I first caught wind of the rumors, Scruffy was the person I went to for information. He was wise (for a clown) and the sound of his voice was the conversational equivalent of a good, hard, deep-tissue massage. I found him on a stump behind the Den of Freaks, polishing the beast tamer's wooden leg for chump change.

"If a man can't catch a fish, he'll despair in want," is what he said when I approached. That's how Scruffy was, you see. He never used a stock greeting. He leapt into the conversation ass-over-ankles and waited for you to catch up. "S'alls I remember of what my ol' Great Grandsomething passed on to me before passing on. You ever been fishing before, Barney?"

"No." It didn't occur to me at the time that the question might have been anything other than inquisition of facts, so I jumped straight to a question of my own. "Who is Essie P.?"

Scruffy groaned an impressive groan. All of his groans were impressive. Every sound that came from his mouth was impressive. Pretty sure his vocal cords were just two rocks grinding together.

"You don't want to saddle your bean with all that," he told me, taking his attention back to the leg in his lap.

I didn't like this answer, so I ignored it. "Why's she coming after us? What's the big shots doing about it? Does The Man know about her?"

Scruffy continued to polish vigorously. "There ain't any Essie, Barney. Some people just like tellin' stories, and some stories ain't worth hearin'. You keep that space in your noggin resoived for things that'll keep a smile in your gut and your feet on the clouds. The soikus is safe and sound, and don't you let anyone tell you otherwise."

Soikus. That man was perfection incarnate. But I didn't want to hear that I was safe. I liked scary stories. I wanted a fright that would drain the blood from my bones. Without another word, I turned and left Scruffy to his leg.

* * *

Gourdi Lanternskull was as much a showman off the stage as he was on. Every movement rolled off his body with effortless panache. Every cockney syllable dripped with a wry affectation, and he was never—not ever—under-dressed. Most times I was too awestruck by his honeysuckle aura to speak to him, but he was my best bet for a good scoop.

He was sprawled on the grass, lengths of limbs stretched in repose. Puffs of cigar smoke fluttered out in hypnotic spirals from the flickering caverns where his eyes should have been. Even a lazy evening on the lawn became an artform in Gourdi's hands, you see. He waited until I stood right over him before acknowledging my presence.

"Egads!" he exclaimed in mock surprise, his eye-holes shooting a burst of smoke and fire that came just shy of my face. I laughed, and this seemed to please him. "Looks like I've been found. What can I do for you, boy?"

I was clever enough to hold my breath when the smoke hit me, and I was so proud of my cleverness that I almost couldn't remember why I had been looking for him.

"What's the story on that Essie woman everyone's whispering about?" I asked.

"Ahhhh, I wish you hadn't asked!" he said with a skull-wide grin. Gourdi rarely needed much prompting to launch into a bit. He reeled his legs back and kicked himself upright. "So you've heard the murmurings, then? Those dark tales and ill omens the circus folk nary dare to whisper have reached even your innocent ears? The dread dame Essie! Her very name bites at my lips. Cast it from your mind. Don't make relive the horror."

Every word had some corresponding bodily flourish, an expression, a turn of the hand. I nodded wordlessly, afraid to break the spell he was weaving.

"It is against my better judgement for me to disclose the secrets of this vast ocean of misery looming over us," he continued, not missing a beat. "But I suppose it's too late to spare you from the coming flood. For you, dear boy, I shall pull back the curtain and lay bare her truth."

Thus began the epic of Esther Pleiades-Pringlewoot, a young woman who dreamt of molding the world into one where magic and mundane lived side by side, where circuses would dissolve as the realm of the fantastic converged with society at large.

"She wants to tear down the walls that divide us, Barney! In her eyes we are but captives here, imprisoned by the cruel constraints of society!"

"But I'm not a prisoner. I want to be here. I like making people throw up."

"So do I, dear boy! So do we all! But where you and I see a conglomeration of miracles, Essie sees a bubble of magic to be popped. She will tear us from the circus while claiming to be our liberator, and she will make us live ordinary lives amongst the bland folk. But beware! If you dare raise your voice in defiance, she will ensnare you within a book, a fell tome of her own binding, and seal you within your own story, doomed to rest upon the shelves of her library until Zion calls at the end of days."

This bedazzling bullshit went on for some time. He bowed when he was through, and I applauded him, thanked him for his time, swore on 'what stone from which my grave be carved' never to share what I'd heard with another living soul, and left. He went back to staring eyelessly at the sky, smoking his cigars, and thinking about the handful of stories that he didn't like to tell.

* * *

Scythe was the kind of guy who never needed an occasion to wear leather. If you ask me, a person can't be too comfortable in their own skin if they're always wearing something else's. Despite whatever instability Scythe may have suffered in his romantic ventures, the dude showed unwavering commitment to his aesthetic. Applied eyeliner every morning with religious devotion, though for what god is anyone's guess. Maybe it was Satan. Maybe it's Maybelline.

Once a week I came to his practice tent and he'd pretend to teach me how to juggle. The big shots were adamant that I learn, and everyone else capable of teaching me either had seniority or was banned from interacting with children altogether, so Scythe got stuck with the job. He hated it. Granted, Scythe hated everything and everyone, though I think my reciprocal loathing caused him to respect me somewhat, albeit in his own stupid way.

"All right, Buttless," he said with exasperation, which was how he said everything. "Playtime's over. We're done with the hollow stuff. You're doing real pins today. No complaints. Got it?"

"Bottomless," I corrected him. "Barney the Bottomless Boy."

"I know. I'm mocking you."

He swung his head to flip his hair out of his eyes and hurled a juggling pin in my direction without so much as a "think fast." It met my fingers and I accepted its weight into my hand, then redirected it back where it came from. Instead of Scythe catching the pin as I expected, he barely even registered it coming toward him before it nailed him square in the chest.

"What the hell, kid?" He yelled, clutching his ribs. "This isn't a two person act, okay? You're going to be performing solo, so you're going to be practicing solo. Jesus."

"What if we combined our acts?" I suggested. "I mean, they're already really similar. What if we juggle together, pins and knives, and then I swallow the pins when you catch the knives in your torso?"

I was rewarded for my idea with a juggling pin to the head. Not hard. Just enough to hurt. I took the pins and started practicing.

"Well, look at you go," he said, slinking against a tent post. "Aren't we the little prodigy? Fuck if I know why they need me to babysit you."

I really was a natural at juggling. In hindsight, I think that's no small part of why Scythe despised me so much.

"Everyone keeps yammering on and on about that Essie lady," I said, keeping my eyes on the pins as they danced. There was no way Scythe would tell me about Essie if I asked him directly, but if I gave him something to complain about, he'd tell me everything. "Nobody even really knows what they're talking about."

"People here don't got two brain cells to rub together," Scythe replied. "I heard one guy say that Essie's in it with that Wondertainment hack. Can you believe that? I mean, how does that make a microfuck of sense? It's bad enough people think 'Essie P.' is even a person."

"She's not a person?" I asked, nearly missing a pin.

"Shoulda known you'd believe that shit. It's just a government front name. The feds don't like what we're doing so they're trying to shut us down. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out."

"Why'd they want to shut down the Cir—"

Scythe snatched a pin out from over my head. I was so thrown off that I completely missed the next one, and I probably would have lost a toenail when it hit my foot if I hadn't already lost that one to Mommy's bedroom doorjamb.

"It's 'cause they're afraid of us," he said, wielding the pin like a knife over my head. "People don't like wild animals when they're not in cages. A lion's only a pussy cat until it gets hungry, and kid, the world knows we're starving. These folks have their way, they'll put us down behind the woodshed and suck the goddamn fairy dust from our veins. They just have to find us first."

He tossed the pin back to me and I resumed juggling. Scythe passed the time by trying to see how many knives he could fit in his rib cage. He ran out of knives and got bored, so he left to me practice by myself while he ran some errands up his nose.

* * *

Asking folks about Essie became something of a pastime of mine. Everyone, and I mean everyone had a different idea of who or what she was.

Jeremiah Puzzle Guts said Essie comes from a world that's upside-down, and that she'll pull your teeth through your toes to make you into her idea of rightside-up.

Laurie-Jean the Spider Queen explained that Essie P. is the leader of a group of religious zealots who consider the Circus to be anathema in the eyes of the Great Ululating All-and-Evermore.

Tiberius Montgomery Shin, who helped with the lights, told me that the Essie P. Foundation is just a charity that won't stop hounding the Circus for donations.

Time went on. The stories grew weirder for a while, and then they started to die out. Same could be said for the old crew.

Scythe turned out to be right about me: I didn't need juggling lessons. Our weekly bonding time didn't last more than a few months. When I was in my early teens, the big shots made my idea of a combined act a reality. After a couple years of that, I developed such a unique and complex repertoire that the folks in charge decided Scythe was holding me back. Poor guy ended up strapped to a wheel while I chucked scimitars into his chest.

He took it pretty hard. Eventually he quit performing in the Big Top, then quit altogether. They put him in the Den of Freaks where visitors paid to impale him. One night he and his friend Jack Daniels decided it'd be nice to relive his glory days by tossing around some flaming katanas.

Do you have any idea what burning leather smells like? Neither do I. I wasn't there.

Now that I think about it, he couldn't have been older than thirty when he died. I was too preoccupied with stropping myself on his brother to attend the service, but everyone said it was lovely. I'm not sure which half of that sentence he would've hated more.

Gourdi Lanternskull, by contrast, was a performer to the very end. When he died, it happened in front of the largest audience the Circus had seen in decades. Everyone always loved when Gourdi would take a swig of kerosene and spurt ribbons of flame from his various facial orifices, but it was nothing compared to the sight of his famous lantern skull unexpectedly exploding like a butternut squash on a powder keg. Some called the volcano of gore a tragic accident. Others said it was the grand finale he'd been planning for years. Either way, I firmly believe he'd be pleased with the spectacle.

JoJo LeBeaux stubbed her toe and went septic not long after my twenty-first birthday. Her remains were burnt, as per the ironic stipulation in her will that her body not be used for any funny business. Story goes that her flab proved to be more flammable than anticipated and the furnace went spiraling out of control. Most of Sleeper Row went up in smoke that night. I had dirt for a bed from June to September.

Wimbley Pinhead hung up his ruffles and left the following year. Said he wanted to pursue the dramatic arts. Sometimes folks make a big messy deal of it when people try to leave the Circus, but human clowns were basically vestigial limbs at that point, and Wilford Pembrook ran away to join the real world with no fanfare whatsoever.

And Scruffy McGrubbins, the last true clown at the circus, the last human clown at the circus, the clown who held me after I accidentally suffocated my border collie inside my stomach and challenged me to put his cigar out with my tears?

Well, I don't know what happened to him. People tell stories, of course. They always do and they always should. The second most popular theory is that he simply left without a word and lives his days quietly in a flat down in Kent. The most popular theory is that the other clowns didn't like having someone around them who wasn't one of their own.

I never imagined I'd end up finding out firsthand who Essie P. is, let alone did I think that she might be just as curious about the Circus as it was about her.

You asked me to describe Herman Fuller's Circus of the Disquieting. I'll tell you what it is, doctor.

It's people.

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