Under the canvas sky of the Big Top no one talks about their past, but murder has a way of bringing deadly secrets out into the open.
July 5th, 1942
I didn’t wake up this morning thinking about my past or a little boy’s face that sometimes makes me cry in my sleep. No, it’s a typical day and all I’m thinking about is the act.
I push out into space and up toward the canvas sky, the trapeze and I as one. It’s exhilarating, the closest thing to flying I’d ever known. The fatigue from yesterday’s Fourth of July parade and two shows turn into wings. I am more than an eagle. I am free.
The trapeze begins its arc back to the center of the ring and I throw myself over backward, catching either side of the bar with flexed feet. I swing like that for several moments, my long, blue-black curls falling loose from the snood and sweeping the air. I arch my back, reaching up from behind to grab the bar with my hands, then release my feet. The momentum swings me up and over. I land straddling the thin metal bar with my abdomen and find my balance.
Then comes the pose; legs straight out, ankles crossed, toes pointed, arms outstretched. I have a well toned body, and I know it looks good. Back and forth I go, smiling the grand, Big Top smile. Tin Foot, my web sitter and friend, applauds from forty feet below for a trick that goes perfectly.
The air, so silent you can hear the rub of rigging on metal, is pierced by a discordant, blood-curdling scream. It goes on and on, like an air raid siren. Only a siren has no pathos behind it, just sheer pitch and volume. This sound is one of the basest of human agonies, pure horror that comes from the soul.
Shock vibrates through my body and I topple over the thin bar, losing concentration, out of control, falling. Even
with the safety net sixty-feet below, if I land wrong I could break my neck. I snatch at the bar with my left hand and hang beneath, swaying from side to side. The shrill scream stops as suddenly as it starts, shrouding the Big Top in a split second of uncanny silence. A low, anguished wail rises again into its long siren of death. I let go of the bar and lay horizontally on the air, my body speeding toward the ground. With practiced timing, I reach palm down for the webbing just as I hit the net. While my walk to the edge is fast and efficient, there is no styling for the audience, just a dead run toward the screeching voice.
Tin Foot, even with his limp, is right behind me. We throw aside the tent flap and run out, ignoring the light rainfall. I struggle to stay on my feet in the ever-deepening ruts and potholes of the muddy, narrow pathway.
Sandwiched in between the main and dressing tents, dozens of iron-barred wagons are kept, pulled in and out daily for the shows. Against the darkened sky and glossy wet from the rain, the six-by-eight foot cages seem to jump out at us as Tin and I dart by. Flashes of color – red, blue, yellow, purple, and orange – sparkle with the circus name in flourishes of gold.
Inside the cages exotic animals react to the screams. Gargantua the Gorilla grunts and pounds on his bars, big cats growl, bears rumble low and threateningly. The shrill laughter of hyenas slice through the air. The screams grow louder as we near the only green and gold wagon which houses Old Kirby, an ancient but beloved lion. There we stop, transfixed by the sight of the lion, silent and huddled in a corner, staring at the shrieking woman. The young girl lies sprawled on the steps directly outside Old Kirby’s wide-open cage door, a figure grasped in her arms.
I recognize the wailing sixteen-year old assistant knife thrower but not the man, whose face is hidden in the shadows. I look for signs of a struggle, clawing, blood,
something. There’s nothing. In confusion, I reach out for the girl’s shoulder.
“Catalena, what happened?”
She slaps at me so savagely, I stumble backwards.
“Go away,” Catalena hisses.
I turn to Tin Foot, who comes forward. “Come on now, girl,” he says. “Let go. Let me see how bad it is.”
“He’s dead! That’s how bad it is.” Her voice is hoarse and worn out. She begins to rock him gently, crooning to him in her native Romanian.
I grab her shoulder again but this time hold fast. “Catalena, listen to me. He may not be dead. Maybe we can help. But we won’t know unless we can get to him. Now don’t fight us.”
We lock eyes. I see a flicker of hope come into hers then die. With a mute nod, she releases her hold and sits up, laying a thin hand on the man’s breast. Her body sways in an unsung lament.
Tin Foot reaches out and lifts the girl in his massive arms. As he steps away, I get a clearer view of the man lying on the steps. His face is turned to the side, obscured by a fall of light brown hair and broken pieces of straw. I reach with trembling fingers for pulse points at both his wrist and neck and find none.
I brush away the hair to reveal the swollen and lifeless features of Eddie Connors, the youngest of the clowns. Vacant, bulging eyes stare back at me. A protruding tongue along with mottled purple and white skin, create a grotesque image, much like something from a Lon Chaney horror movie.
Breathing hard, I lean against the bars, flashes of a living Eddie running through my mind. He was about twenty, two years younger than I, and only with the circus a short time. He called it his new home.
Above the body, the lion’s cage door gapes open. I pull myself together knowing I have to shut it. Old Kirby might be
the most gentle and sweet-natured of the big cats, but he is
still a wild animal and could be unpredictable, especially in times of stress. More to the point, if Old Kirby wanders out, a panicky townsperson might shoot him.
I move carefully to the other side of the steps and give the barred door a small shove. It swings closed easily on well-oiled hinges, the round staples of the door and cage aligning perfectly. That’s when I see the padlock is missing. If I can’t find the lock, I’ll have to use rope, anything I can get my hands on, to keep the door closed.
Searching in the mud below the steps, I spot it lying on a patch of grass under the shadow of the top step. The heavy lock feels as cold as a block of ice. I look down into its polished surface and see the reflection of my own brown eyes, large and darkened by death. It has tracked me down again. Sometimes you can never be free.
Stretching up, I pass the hinged shackle through the door and iron frame and snap it closed. I pull on the lock several times to make sure it’s secure. Whatever happened here, the lock did not come off of its own accord. Backing away from the stairs, I fold my arms about me, trembling not just from the rain and cold but the violent death of a sweet, sweet kid.
Formerly called Death of a Clown