A Night at the Circus!

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I <3 the Circus!
Herman Fuller Hub | Pt. 1 - A Night at the Circus | Pt. 2 - Amongst the Clowns >>

Breathless, I ran like a child toward the sparkling lights and discordant sound that drifted through the night. The kaleidoscope of color that was the little grouping of tents and wagons parked in the big empty lot behind the mall called to the memory of the child I carried inside me, and I knew I had to go. It promised a way, if only for a little while, to forget the drone-like mentality that had crept into my heart, that For One Night Only! I could be a little kid again, lost in the wonder of the bizarre and unbelievable. Maybe, just maybe, it could remind me that magic still exists in this world instead of the numbing gray of endless quarterly finance reports and monotonous telephone sales calls.

From across the parking lot, the lights of the circus seemed so ephemeral, like fairy lights dancing off the clouds. Up close, the magic pulsed around me with the just off-key sound of a calliope playing somewhere amongst the tents. I drew up short, taking a moment to catch my breath and gaze upon the circus, my eyes no doubt filled with wonder and apprehension. The little voice in my head told me that this is foolish, that I am no longer a child, and now that I am an adult, I have to put away childish things. I felt torn as my inner child wrestled with my sense of responsibility.

I stepped up to the ticket booth. “One please.” My voice trembled as I tried to choke out my request and I had to clear my throat before I could repeat myself. “One ticket, please.” Louder, but still hesitant with that damnable catch in it, like I was once more a teenager and my vocal cords were playing that “not quite an adult, but no longer a child” game with my pitch again. I was so embarrassed and my face burned with shame, but the shadowy person in the ticket booth didn't seem to care when they took my money and handed over the ticket.

I don’t know what I expected. I mean, it certainly wasn’t going to be Charlie’s Golden Ticket, but I expected something more than the faded red “Admit One” printed on thin card stock, the serial number so washed out that it was barely legible. It certainly wasn’t much, but holding the ticket in my hand seemed to finally silence the wageslave in my head, and the nervous jitters spiking through my body quieted to a dull roar.

The last few steps toward the ticket taker, and I was overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, the smells of the circus. The sickly sweet aroma of the cotton candy mixed with the stink of animal, of pungent and unwashed canvas, of the sawdust and thinly-spread mulch that seemed to be everywhere. The crowds were surprisingly thick, and I had to strain to hear the barkers over the riotous sound of screaming children and annoyed parents. The swirling chaos of the circus is exactly what I needed, and I drew in a deep breath, fully embracing the hectic wonder of it all.

“Come one come all to the calamitous cacophony that is Herman Fuller’s Circus of the Disquieting!”

A man’s sonorous voice cut through the miasma of sound like a hot knife. He stood on a box just inside the circus gates, and his grand gestures encompassed the entirety of the crowd gathered before him. He was dressed in a curiously old-fashioned tailed tuxedo, colored a shockingly visceral shade of crimson. A jauntily crooked top hat was perched atop his head, and he waved a long black and white cane as he exhorted the crowd.

“Prepare to be persuaded, perplexed, nay, even perturbed by the pernicious panoply of preposterous performances that await only your perception to propel you into preternatural pleasures!”

His words rolled from his mouth like a spell and it wrapped around me like a shroud. I couldn't help but become enthralled as they washed over me, through me, as they pushed my already blossoming sense of wonder and anticipation to new heights. Trapped now in the entrancing rhythm of his cant, I stumbled forward with the crowd, my eyes never leaving the man in the top hat, and I swear that he winked directly at me as I passed underneath his outspread arms.

Everything else just faded away as I truly entered the circus grounds and the volume of the riotous sounds washed over me again. There were signs that promised a Monstrous Menagerie, a Den of Freaks, even a funhouse, but for that moment I was paralyzed with indecision at what to do and see first. Then the call of the cotton candy vendor floated to my ears, and my decision was made. Even if it wasn't the color I expected and it looked more like a thundercloud than a sugary confection, I just couldn’t pass it up.

The taste was almost unbelievable once I finally clutched a stick of the xiketic cloud. Almost sickeningly sweet, it slid down the back of my throat like a living thing, as if it were eager to get inside of me. I felt the warmth of the sugar rush as it began in the pit of my stomach, and my heart seemed to flutter with the eager anticipation of finishing the confection. In moments, it was gone and I found myself reaching for another. The clown selling the stuff laughed and handed over another of the black clouds before I was once more dragged off by the crowd, pushed away by the other eager patrons waiting for their own little storm of candy.

The events of the night began to blur together. There was a small tent off to the side, and inside was simple stage and a small collection of chairs. Alone on the stage sat a figure of a man swathed in a strange and stretchy fabric. At first I couldn't understand what had drawn me into such a plain tent, but when the figure opened his mouth and my mind was flushed free of thought as the liquid tones of his voice sang into my very soul. I don’t know how long I sat there, entranced by the melody pouring from the strange figure perched on the stage. I would have happily stayed all night, if not the pale girl in lavender and black hadn’t shooed us all out.

For a time, I wandered aimlessly through the crowds, still caught up in the rapture of the virtuoso’s melody. Even as it began to fade and the wash of sights and sounds once more impinged upon my reverie I found I could still recall every note and tonal phrase. The music had become a part of me now, I know it will never fully fade, and the magic of it all still tingles along my arms and deep into my heart.

Eventually I stopped before a noxious green tent, the inside hidden in a blanket of deep shadow. “The Den of Freaks!” the brilliant placard read, and suddenly my anxiety roared once more to the fore as I hesitated. What kind of horror hid within? What unfortunate wretch would I find presented for the amusement of both myself and the other patrons? The inner questions haunted me, caused my feet to drag, long enough for the other patrons to push past me in their rush to see the denizens within.

With a resigned shrug and a sigh, and I passed into the gloom of the Den. Almost immediately my eyes adjusted to the dim illumination that shone down upon a small dais. Perched atop a small column was a figure hooded in dark robes.

“Behold, the Penitent Man.” A voice whispered into the stillness, and another light slowly came to life, revealing the man from the entrance standing off to the side.

“He once walked upon this earth like any normal man, but his heart was awash in dark and evil desires.”

The figure on the dais seemed to shudder inwards at the tuxedo'd man’s words, and he convulsed in upon himself, shrinking into the deep shadows of his robe.

“Many men have such desires, that is not uncommon, but this one fed those desires, let them flow, let them take such a deep root that it wasn’t long before he acted upon them.”

Behind the cloaked figure, dim lights slowly brightened, revealing a stage awash in splashes of gore and viscera.

“Such atrocities committed by this man would cause your blood to run cold and your heart to stop its drumbeat within your chest!”

The figure twisted again, as if in pain, before it fell to its knees upon the column, its hands outstretched in supplication.

“The guilt overwhelmed him, the weight of his sin crushing him down with a weight that none could ever bear. In his guilt and self-loathing, the man called out for redemption, asking, nay pleading for penitence.”

The figure cried out, a mournful wail piercing the silent darkness of the Den. I found myself taking an involuntary step back, away from the soul on the stage that was clearly in the grip of some form of inner torment.

“But then some distant being looked down upon the man and his guilt. Was it benevolence that prompted its choice? Or was it malevolence that caused it to reach out its hand to this poor lost soul, and give to him his penance, the stigmata!”

At that, the figure abruptly stood, throwing his arms wide and dropping the occluding folds of cloth that had hidden him from view. He was shockingly thin, barely more than a skeleton, his skin stretched taut over the sharp edges of protruding bone.

But more shocking still were the thin rivulets of blood that drained continuously from wrists, forehead, side, and feet. The revelation caused a gasp to ripple through the small crowd, and somewhere a young child began to cry.

“The gift of a merciful god, a sign of redemption? Or the sign of punishment, the just rewards for his terrible sins?”

The tuxedo'd man’s voice was soft as it rolled forth with the cadence of long practice, the tone of an experienced showman.

“Or maybe he’s just a freak, cursed with wounds that will never heal, endlessly begging for the relief that he never showed any of his victims!”

For several heartbeats, his words hung suspended in the air, the only other sound to break the stillness were the muffled sobs of the anonymous child. Then, the lights began to slowly dim, and the heavy drapes shifted around to both block off the dais of the Penitent Man and slowly revealed another room deeper into the Den.

The experience shook me to my core, and I wandered through the Den after that in a haze, only barely acknowledging the man that vomited butterflies, or the thing with a hundred arms rolling around a kindly-looking older woman, or the comely girl with the beautiful mint-green scales.

It all blurred together with the magic of the place, intoxicating, entrancing, disquieting. It was as if the horrors of this place weren’t as awful as they should be, each new and bizarre Freak was terrible and beautiful in their own way, and I found myself falling more and more in love with the circus with each gasp and cry of the crowd as another disfigured grotesquerie was revealed to them.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the people that lived out their lives in this place. Was this a home for the forgotten, a place of refuge for people who society had shunned and discarded? Or were they trapped by their abnormalities into punishing servitude and imprisonment, at the mercy of some dark overlord of the circus?

The inner musings continued even after I finally exited the Den and stepped back out into the wider maelstrom of the circus. These were people that have found their place, such as it was, and who was I—

My thoughts were abruptly cut off by a sudden change in tempo of the omnipresent calliope music. What was this? All eyes in the crowd turned towards the Big Top, and once more the man in the tuxedo stood waist-high above the crowd.

“At last, the show you have all been waiting for! A dazzling and devilishly designed departure from the dull and dreary - deployed to delight and deliver a decadent and delectable daedal for you, my discerning damsels and damoiseaux!”

The man grinned broadly and made several expansive gestures as his words continued to work their magic on the crowd. For a moment there was a pause, then the man swept into an exaggerated bow, and the fabric drawn across the entrance to the Big Top was suddenly and dramatically pulled aside, beckoning for the crowd to process inward.

Gasps rippled through the crowd before it surged forward, and I felt myself drawn inside with them, my eyes open in amazement at the vast expanse revealed before me.

Maybe it was just the spell the tuxedo'd man’s words had imprinted upon me, but I swear the Big Top was somehow bigger on the inside, making use of shadow and pinpricks of light to make the sweeping inner canvas resemble a brilliant sky, awash with stars. Thousands of the twinkling little motes swept across the inner surface of the tent to spill down its sides, crafting the illusion that the stands appeared to be floating in a crystal-clear midnight sky.

The great rings of the Big Top were impossibly lit by a convocation of the dancing little lights, and the tuxedo'd man somehow stood there as well, as he welcomed us all to his show with dramatic gestures and a huge smile.

How can one describe the indescribable? How can I put into words the impossible spectacles I saw that night? Acrobats danced through the air, tethered to thin lifelines as they dangled far above us, unfazed by the danger of an absent net as they seemed to simply fly free of gravity’s fragile hold. The horror and slapstick antics of the clowns as they cavorted across the spaces within the rings. They twisted into incredible shapes, disgorged flowers that exploded into sprays of black confetti and glitter, danced and tumbled and caused mayhem, all while another impossible act took center stage to perform before the astonished crowd. A bear danced and sang a mournful dirge as it twirled its way across the center ring. A man rode a motorbike round and round a flaming sphere, cackling with exhilarating laughter as he risked his life over and over again.

Then, all the lights grew dim and a single beam bathed the center ring in incandescence. The tuxedo’d man stood there, his arms raised in supplication.

“My friends, tonight we have for your entertainment a very special treat. A marvelous materialization of meticulous management of miraculous millifluence and magnificent mirage! May this manifestation manipulate your merriment and motivate your meritorious mesmiration, I present to you, Malagantius the Mysterious!”

The ring was immediately plunged into darkness for several heartbeats, and the faint music from the calliope was the only sound in that vast space. Then, a murmuration spread through the crowd as a soft glow slowly appeared. It floated a dozen feet in the air above the center ring, and the figure of a man was curled within. With a snap of sound and a flare of light, the man spread his arms and legs, extending himself out like the Vitruvian Man, suspended in the air before the crowd.

Again, he paused before he began to speak in a deep baritone, and his words rolled out from him with almost gravitic force. I was glued to my chair with the sheer presence of the man, and even though I did not know the language which the man spoke, I knew he spoke directly to me. He told me of my life, of my many disappointments, of the drudgery my life had become. He told me of my sadness, my longing for something more. He told me of my dreams, of my desire.

As he spoke, he gestured with his hands, and images began to appear in the air around him. Visions from my childhood, a birthday, my first bicycle, a game of dodgeball with the kids at school, laughter with my parents. Then the images became more unpleasant, my first abortive attempt at kissing someone I liked, a small huddle of people dressed in dark clothing surrounding the open grave of my mother and my father slipping quietly into my room later that night to “grieve” with me.

I burned with shame, afraid to glance to either side for fear that everyone around me saw my humiliation on display before them. Instead, I leaned forward as I strained to hear more of the words tumbling forth from the man.

The images shifted again, more quickly than before. My father’s rage as I brought home failing grades at school. The laughter of the other kids in my class as I stumbled through a problem at the blackboard, rejection after rejection of friends, family, lovers, then endless days of pointless effort and demeaning tasks given by heartless bosses.

The images in the center ring blurred together, either from my tears, or my own inability to focus as a wave of emotion washed over me. I felt alone, crushed into my seat, left to linger upon the dispair and emptiness of my life.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the visual assault on my senses abated, and once again the man floated alone in the space above the ring. He looked out at me, and I felt his eyes boring into my soul. For a moment I felt the terror of being judged, and I tensed up as I prepared for the rejection I was certain would come next.

I was held there in that moment, shame and fear and self-loathing churning in my stomach like a cancer, locked for an eternity of doubt and recrimination. Then he spoke, and with his words he removed all of that as his forgiveness and love poured into me. Warmth spread through my body in a rising torrent, and I felt the shattered pieces of my soul knit themselves together in the healing light of the man’s gaze.

So enraptured as I was, I didn’t immediately notice when the lights suddenly burst back into full illumination and the tuxedo’d man reappeared. Only when the majestic figure in the air above him vanished did the spell truly break, and I realized what was happening.

Pandemonium broke out around me as the tuxedo’d man shouted directions above the din. Gangs of clowns, more than I had seen during the show ran helter-skelter through the crowds, chivvying people out of their seats and then out of the Big Top itself.

I don’t know how they missed me as I got to my feet and moved unsteadily down the steps towards the Big Top’s floor. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, all I knew was that I had to find that man again, find out if the forgiveness had been real, if his love meant something.

Chaos swirled around me, and I did not care. I did not understand when the performers started yelling "Essie P! Essie P!" and the press got faster, more frantic. I simply followed the clowns as they slipped out the back of the tent and deeper into the Circus. Suddenly, one of them appeared out of the crowd and shoved a large bundle of cloth into my arms.

"Go on then, Fuller wants us all through the Kaleidoscope now!" He pushed me roughly toward a riot of color and flashing lights I had assumed was another of the rides.

Beams of metal shone with light reflected from thousands of colored bulbs as they flickered on and off at an ever-increasing pace. The circus performers crowded around me, and I was carried along in their wake. We passed between two shining mirrors, and suddenly I was somewhere else, stumbling out onto an endless expanse of hard packed sand under an empty expanse of blue sky.

I glanced up, startled at the sudden brilliance of a night that had become day, and I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight I beheld.

There were two suns in that cerulean sky, and their brilliance burned into me with a sudden and all-encompassing sense of dread.

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