THE DAY THE CIRCUS CAME TO TOWN AND NEVER LEFT AGAIN
by Christina Tang-Bernas
Carrie gripped the striped pastel fabric framing the doorway of her tent. The tops of the tallest trees scraped and pushed up against the bottom of the pliable floor.
When she was very young, still mastering the basics of knife-juggling and time-manipulation, the tents of Maksim’s Flying Circus Extravaganza used to fly en masse above the clouds, the thin air raising goosebumps on any exposed skin even through the thick weather-proofed cloth walls. Carrie would fall asleep to murmuring star-song, silver-spangled light streaming through oilskin windows and twining through her red hair, worry-free this far from the turbulent world below.
This was before.
Before Sammy Lo, eleven and newly-orphaned, stowed away in Carrie’s family tent after their week-long stop in Ottumwa, Iowa. His bright-red backpack writhed with poisonous snakes.
Maksim renamed him Drakon, his little dragon talisman. And thirteen-year-old Carrie invited him into her bed, first as friends, then siblings, then more. Sammy had wrapped that name and Carrie around him like a cloak, his shaggy-haired kid-from-the-suburbs persona falling behind as the tents rose into the sky.
The tent floor shifted under her thighs as Drakon appeared next to her. He snatched a violet blossom from a passing treetop and tucked it behind Carrie’s left ear.
She knew what had happened already to the other flying circuses around the world when the magic starting leaking from their grasp a few years back. Now they were all grounded, still reeling from the loss of the very substance that’d buoyed them countless generations. Except one.
Maksim’s had managed to survive the longest. Maksim, the tenth Maksim of his line, who traveled with some of the oldest magic-user families remaining, Carrie’s included. They’d learned to hold back the ever-quickening seepage by learning charlatan tricks and the art of deception, saving the real magic for the most difficult tricks.
But year by year, no matter what they did, the tents flew lower.
“It’s almost over, isn’t it?” Carrie’s words hovering in the early morning chill.
She didn’t need to hear the answer, and Drakon didn’t give her one. Instead, he perched on the floor, legs dangling into the air, black hair gleaming white where the sunlight hit it. His king cobra, Shesha, twined around his neck, hissing a greeting to Carrie. Askook, the rattlesnake, gripped onto Drakon’s forearm with its muscular coils.
Carrie was glad Drakon’s rapport with the snakes didn’t have supernatural origins. Only an understanding forged with a lonely boy’s infinite reservoir of patience. Carrie couldn’t imagine Drakon without his serpents, and she wondered what she’d be like without her daggers.
“What’s going to happen? Afterwards.” Carrie’s gaze rested on Drakon, at his golden face turned towards the sun, the sharp lines of his jaws and cheekbones, dark eyes hidden behind the thin skin of his twitching eyelids.
“I suppose we’ll cut this tent up and turn them into drapes for apartment windows, into bedsheets wrapped around us while we dream,” Drakon replied, his chin dropping and eyes opening to gaze out over the sprawling town of Columbus, Nebraska, floating below. “And we’ll make friends, non-carnies, who’ll peer into the terrarium to see my snakes or cluster in the kitchen to chat while you prepare a meal, never knowing the reason you’re so adept with knives is that you used to juggle them.”
“One day,” he continued, “another sort of circus will come to town. But this time, we’ll sit in the stands. You’ll be the mother, and I, the father. And our kid will sit between us. A son or a daughter, who studies in public school and thinks their parents are the dullest people imaginable. Together, we’ll ohh and ahh and pretend we don’t know all the tricks, or how we could’ve done it better. When the show’s over, we’ll disappear into the crowd again.”
“But I don’t want that,” Carrie said, her voice rising. “I don’t think I could, even if I tried.”
“We either become mundane eventually, or we drown in the past. That’s the way of the carnies from what I’ve seen, the ones that survive to old age anyways. With or without magic.” Drakon pulled himself upright and bumped shoulders with her.
“But,” he said, smoothing a hand over her hair, “until then, the show must go on.” He unrolled the rope ladder down the side, descending with his usual grace. She followed after, and together they pulled the tent the rest of the way to the ground.
During her turn under the big top, Carrie manipulated her silver blades into intricate shimmering patterns high in the air, her hands too fast for the normal eye to follow. Too fast for the audience to catch the wisp of magic she released during her finale to freeze the present in a tight localized circle around the sharp edges, suspending them in the air long enough for a complicated tumbling pass, before parceling out the trapped moments of time in measured amounts to bring it back in line with the surrounding time stream.
On the third day, Carrie sensed the magic stutter.
It felt the same way the magic had once faltered for a too-long moment as Carrie’s mother had reached out for the jeweled dagger arrowed at her heart. The dagger Mother had discovered in a Lawrence, Kansas, pawn shop, but always said a sheikh had gifted her.
Afterwards, Maksim had stumbled upon Drakon huddled beside a shivering sixteen-years-old Carrie outside the tent that night because her father had refused them entry, his wretched wails vibrating the fabric. He’d washed the flaking blood from Carrie’s palms, from Drakon’s cheek, then gone to reason with the grieving widower.
For a fleeting instant, Carrie considered letting the knives fall as they had that long-ago day. Her last thoughts would be of performing, and the death would be quick.
But her eyes snagged on a little girl in the front, solemn with wonder, tiny fist clutched within her mother’s larger red-knuckled hand. Carrie snatched dual fistfuls of whatever magic she could sense, more than she’d dared to hold in years, burning against her palms, and flung them upwards to hold the knives in place.
Her heart pounded too-fast afterwards. She didn’t know if it was the adrenaline, or time leaking away too quickly, her hands shaking and unsteady.
As she brushed past Drakon afterwards, she on her way backstage, he with his snakes cuddled to him, Carrie gave thanks to whatever unknown deity who cared to listen that he’d never been able to intuit the magic.
The amount she’d used for that performance, the resulting unrenewable loss of it from the world, left a measureable mark. Her muscles seemed weakened, her joints ached, and the hollow of her gut clenched around the emptiness.
She would adjust. They all would, of course.
But it wasn’t the same.
A throat cleared beside her. Carrie turned to meet Maksim’s eyes. She knew he felt the difference as well.
Sorry, she wanted to say.
“Take the rest of the day off,” Maksim said, when she remained silent.
She couldn’t sleep that night, spending the dark-shrouded hours listening to the steady rise and fall of Drakon’s breaths. The warm length of his body stretched along her side did nothing to dissipate the chill she had become so used to.
When the burgeoning sunrise glowed against the cloth like stained glass, she extricated herself from the bedroll.
Carrie looked around at the familiar surroundings.
To give all this up eventually.
What was normal even like in the outside world? Did she even want to learn? Did she have to?
She slid her fingers against the back of a carved wooden chair, her parents’ heavy trunk, a low table inlaid with enamel, ending at Drakon’s glass terrarium, his snakes bathing on the solar-powered warming stones.
She lifted the terrarium cover off, setting it with care on the floor. Askook, ever-curious, slithered over to investigate. “Hey there, darling,” she crooned as she dangled her hands inside, then her forearms, letting her fingertips trail along the top of his wedge-shaped head and down his scaled body.
“They won’t bite you,” Drakon spoke up behind her, and Carrie had to swallow down a small scream. She didn’t turn to face him as he continued, “They like you too much to do so.”
“Hah,” Carrie said, “I doubt it. Tolerated more like.”
Drakon laughed, a throaty sound, too-loud in the early stillness. “All right. They like me too much to bite you, because I like you too much.”
Carrie withdrew her arms and replaced the terrarium cover, before turning to examine Drakon, head propped on one palm, red crease across his cheeks from the pillow, dark eyes still hazy with sleep. “You could go elsewhere with your snakes, to that other sort of circus.”
“You could too,” Drakon replied. “You still have your training. There’s nothing stopping you. Or me. And if that’s your choice, fine. I’ve been your self-proclaimed shadow since your parents took me in. I’m not about to change my habit now.”
And Carrie remembered the time the itinerant illusionist had disappeared with seventeen-years-old Carrie’s father after a Rock Island, Illinois show. Maksim had asked them to move in with him, but Carrie had refused to see her family’s tent packed away.
She’d held Drakon’s hands in hers and promised to care for him in lieu of her parents. Drakon had knelt before her and promised his undying fealty with such a ridiculous excess of flowery words and dramatic gestures, Carrie had forgotten to cry.
“Drak—” Carrie started.
“But, sooner or later,” he continued as he rose to his full height and walked over to her. “Our youth will go the way of your magic. Our reflexes. Our showmanship. And we’ll be washed-up carnies with nowhere to go and nothing but memories to show for it.”
His arms encircled her waist, chin digging against the top of her head. “Right now? You’re twenty-seven. I’m twenty-five. We still have the time and the guts for a new sort of life.” Drakon pulled her tighter to him. “Starting over? It’s not so bad, I promise.”
And Carrie remembered Drakon had had to start over a long time ago.
“Maybe,” she said. “Give me time, Drakon.”
“How much time do we have left?”
“If we’re careful?” Carrie flexed her fingers. “Hopefully, enough.”
It was only until the last day of their week-long engagement in Columbus that Carrie allowed herself to relax.
She raised a hand in front of her, letting her fingertips trail through the wispy tendrils of magic drifting through the air. The sweat on her forehead dried in the breeze of early evening. In about a half hour, she’d have to go in for the grand finale, but for now she let her head tilt back and her eyes drift shut as she waited for Drakon to finish his performance.
They jerked open again at the sound of screams. Sana, the tightrope walker, jerked open the side entrance of the big top, her eyes landing on Carrie. “God,” she said. “Carr- Carrie, get in here. You’ve got to get in here.”
Carrie’s legs reached Drakon’s side without any input from Carrie herself. “What?” Her voice broke halfway through the word. She paid no attention to the jarring of her knees as they slammed into the ground, hands automatically reaching out for him but pausing at the last minute, not sure if by doing so it would cause more damage. “Drakon?”
His head turned towards the sound of his name. He smiled, teeth too-white against lips stained with blood. Somehow a piece of apparatus had splintered and crashed down, from another act maybe, or something else, Carrie didn’t know, and impaled him.
He opened his mouth to say something. Instead, more blood bubbled up. He gasped, choked.
“No,” Carrie said. Then she screamed it.
Hands gripped her shoulders, she didn’t know whose, only that they were trying to pull her away from Drakon.
She fought them, punched out, and dragged herself back.
With her hands free, she inhaled and pulled every single shred of magic in the surrounding area to her. The pressure built and built within her. Every cell of her body flared, burned, dissolved, and was reborn.
“Stop,” she could hear Maksim’s voice say, rippling and blurred as if through oceans of distance.
I’m sorry, Maksim, Carrie thought.
But she wasn’t.
When she could bear no more, Carrie released the power and watched as it expanded beyond the circle of people gathered around Drakon, beyond the big top and keep going. She blinked and no longer was she kneeling beside her lover’s body, but standing back in the center ring, her knives clenched in her fists, chest shuddering, and applause ringing in her ears.
She turned, dazed, her eyes automatically going to the side entrance. Drakon looked back at her, small smile curling at the corners of his lips, snakes draped over his shoulders.
“What are you doing?” Toby, the strongman, hissed in her direction. “Get off the stage.”
Carrie half-ran to Drakon. He stepped out of the shadows, but she pushed him back outside.
“You can’t go out there,” she said.
He frowned down at her. “What do you mean?”
Her fingers gripped his bicep, holding him in place. “Sit out today’s show.”
Sana ran out to the stage, giving them a strange look as she passed.
“What’s going on, Carrie?” Maksim had made his way to the entrance as well. He shook his shoulders, flexing his fingers. “Something’s off. Something’s wrong with the magic.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” Carrie said. “You have to believe me. Please.”
And then, the screaming started.
They ran back inside.
On the floor, right where Drakon usually performed, lay the splintered piece of apparatus. Maksim started directing people to get it cleared away as soon as possible.
The show must go on, after all.
Drakon stared at Carrie. “How did you know?” he asked. “You don’t have precognition.”
She couldn’t answer.
That night, all packed up, Carrie released the anchor rope. The tent wobbled. It rose, an inch, two, eking out a height of about a meter before leveling out. And theirs had risen higher than anyone else’s.
Carrie wasn’t surprised. The air around her echoed with emptiness, and no invisible strands curled around her fingers anymore. What she had done earlier would never be done again, at least not by her, nor likely anyone else around.
Maksim made his usual rounds, his lips pressing tighter together at each tent. When he reached the big top, hovering just above the dirt, his expression shuttered. “I guess that’s it for us,” he said, then beat a hasty retreat back to his own earth-bound tent.
The doorflap shut with finality, leaving the rest of the circus folk murmuring amongst each other. Toby slumped to the ground, even his bulging muscles looking as deflated as everyone else felt.
Drakon squeezed Carrie’s shoulder, “I’ll go talk to him.” She watched him disappear inside Maksim’s tent before heading into their own.
Walking over to her parent’s trunk, she rummaged through the odds and ends they’d acquired over the years, pulling out an old beat-up red backpack.
When Drakon returned, he found her sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, the backpack lying in her lap. “Maksim says somehow all the magic in the surrounding area dissipated. He doesn’t know how.” He tapped long fingers against his thighs. “Do you?”
Carrie looked up at him, at the shadowed planes of his beloved face, the angles of his joints and curves of his lips. “Let’s start over.” She ran a hand over the bag. “And this time, I’ll follow you.”
The next day, the people of Columbus noticed the empty lot where the circus had been situated. They pointed up at the sky and speculated aloud as to Maksim’s Flying Circus Extravaganza’s next stop and when it’d arrive back, as sudden and unexpected as always. Carrie and Sammy stared up from among them, unrecognizable without their flashing costumes and stage makeup.
Carrie startled when someone laid a hand on her shoulder. She turned to face Maksim, clad in the dourest suit she’d ever seen, the beginnings of a bruise blooming high up on a cheekbone. Deep lines fanned out from the corners of his clear green eyes.
She’d always liked that his eyes had matched hers.
Sammy extended his hand and Maksim clasped it. In a voice tumbled with gravel, Maksim said, “Be happy.” Sammy nodded while Carrie blinked back tears. She couldn’t think of what else to say. Too many words crowded at the back of her throat, but none were the right ones.
Maksim turned to her, a knowing glint slipping into his gaze. The hand cupping her shoulder gave it a light squeeze as he leaned closer. “I hope it was worth it.”
Carrie only gave him the truth. Maksim deserved it, after everything he’d done for them. “If I could, I would do it a hundred, a thousand times over.”
He hummed under his breath. “I’m not surprised.” His smile, though, was warm and kind. Her shoulder felt cold when his hand slipped away. With a final wave, Maksim melted into the crowd.
Carrie clung to Sammy’s coarse hand, and they followed suit.