The two men stood off to the side of the main entrance of the carnival. From where they stood they could briefly glimpse the faces of those who entered through the main gate. The crowds were piling in. Attendance had been low recently; they were told it was because of the cold and rainy spring. Today was the first day they really had a big crowd. The sun was high in the sky and a warm wind was blowing in from the West. The grass of the field where they made their camp was bursting green with life.
“Welcome to the carnival my friend” said the man, the sound of laughter and jubilant circus music gently escaping the nearby tents, the faint notes enveloping the two. A large top hat covered his long dark brown hair, accented by a few strands of age popping up near the ears. Underneath his eyes were two dark bags crying out for sleep. “I am Cyrus, the founder of this carnival, the man who turned it into what it is today. Single handily I turned it into an attraction that people from the farthest corners of our country come to be entertained at. However my personal interest, my friend, lies with your kind, with the freaks, the outcast, the spectacles, the others. The freak show is one of the main drawers of the entire establishment, a barbarian delight for a people who fancy themselves enlightened. Here we have all sorts of rarities and oddities. We have small folk and tall folk, Siamese twins and living torsos, fat women and skeleton men, pinheads and missing links, and every other unnatural taboo the mind could imagine.” His lips grinned under his moustache. “Now if you’ll follow me I’ll show you were you’ll be staying.”
Cyrus glided down the dirt path, swerving between the crowd of amazed and oblivious onlookers who were distracted while walking by the sites that flanked them on both sides. Liam followed close on the other’s coat tails hoping that if he made one wrong step he would not get sucked into the mob of men, women, and children, and loose his way.
“Keep up my good man. You must learn to keep pace with us here” Cyrus shouted over his shoulder at Liam, turning his head back to the front of him. Each person only got one warning.
“You see my friend this is a business, a business that can be extremely profitable, both for me and for you if you wish it be. Out there beyond these walls people shunned you, they snickered and shrieked just out of hearing at the deformities that you have. Out there they no one would love you. Out there no one would even dare to think of hiring the grotesque monster with the charred face unless they wished to scare away their customers. But here, here is a paradise for your kind. This here is a place where you will be gazed upon by the masses with the affection and admiration that was never afforded to you after your accident."
They proceeded on and made a right turn in front of a little wooden carriage that looked like it was barely big enough to take a few steps in.
“Here we are. You’ll be staying here with Bernard. Before we go in I have to warn you, he’s one of our biggest attractions and rightfully so. He has some sort of condition that has deformed certain sections of his body, leaving some portions of his body completely out of proportion while other parts of his body are completely unaffected. Now time to go in good sir.
He was right. There he was laying on his bed sitting up reading. The ring leader had told him to beware but the man was not ready for this type of grotesqueness. His head, his head was the worse. Protrusions jutted out his head, enlarged was almost every part of his face, his lips, his jaw. His limbs were not left unaffected, his left arm and left leg were almost three times as large as its counterpart, each looked like clubs that could be used to beat a man to death. Draped over them he had what must have been a custom tailored suit to fit the contours of his arms and his legs. The suit was shabby and looked no longer black but gray from it being worn out. The hue of his skin appeared almost gray, it was loose and cold which only made him more hideous to the man because even his skin looked inhuman.
“‘Ello Bernard. How are you doing this evening?” The Cyrus asked.
“I’m as good as I can be I suppose” replied the man not looking up from his book, attentive not to the man addressing him but to the book instead.
“Good, good, good. As I told you yesterday I would have a new bunkmate arriving for you come tomorrow, and here he is. If you don’t mind please show him around if you could, I’m sure that he could benefit from an experienced tour of the ins and outs of the place.”
The elephant man looked up and his dwarfed eyes looked out from underneath an extended knot of skin protruding from his forehead. He glanced at the man evaluated him. “Alright.” And looked back down at his book.
“Thank you Bernard.” The man said earnestly.
The door at the front of the trailer flung open and in came a small young woman with black hair. The girl had a withered arm. Her left arm dangled small and uselessly by her side. “Cyrus I demand you listen to me this time! I’m tired of trying to chase you down and get your attention on this matter!”
“Annie, dear Annie I must encourage you that I am not avoiding you. I assure you that I am just a busy man with more things to do then I have time in my day. But now I am here and you are so why not inform me of the reason that you been hunting me down for?” Cyrus tried to force a grin to convince her that he was telling the truth.
“It’s my damn cart, its falling to shreds. The wood on the sides are loose and let the wind just come in and the roof has holes in it and when it rains water comes pouring down, I have buckets in several different spots across my floor just to keep it dry. I’ve constantly ask those baboons you call guards but they’re completely useless when it comes to anything!”
“Hmmm.” He paused not answering back. “It’s getting late, I must being going. I’ll look into what you brought up to my attention as soon as I can. Goodnight everyone.” Out the door he went, ducking his head as he went down the stairs.
“Who is this Bernard?” the girl inquired of the stranger standing in the room.
“This is my new friend that I’ll be sharing my room with.”
“Oh, he’s the new one that I’ve been hearing about. Well I’m Anneliese, Anne for short if you like. Some advice, don’t let Cyrus sink his claws into you. He doesn’t care about us no matter how much he says he does. I swear he would sell all of us off in five minutes if he could make a profit somehow.”
“Don’t put those types’ thoughts into the boy’s head. Cyrus might be tight fisted but without him where would we be? He’s given us places to stay, jobs, food.”
“If you could call the slop that they feed us food. Either way I think I should be going myself.” She hurried out the door and down the stairs.
“Don’t pay too much mind to the things she says. We look out for our own here. She’s just young and angry. When she was around five years old her parent left her and never came back for her. Cyrus and the rest of us has raised her ever since. I don’t think that she has ever gotten over how they abandoned her.”
Anneliese, Liam, and the Bernard were outside walking back to their separate carriages after a show when they could hear from some corner nearby a sound like the crack of a belt snapping against itself and defeated dog like whimpers. The sound was faint they could make out the words that were being thrown like spears at whoever was receiving the beating.
“We’ll teach you to upset the boss.” Crack!
“Yeah you freak” said another voice. “You’re going to start doing as the boss says. No more fuckin’ around else you’ll have to deal with us again. You got that?”
Another smack followed soon after by thud on the ground, and then another wheeze for air.
The three of them could see two stocky trolls appear from behind a trailer not too far off. Their lips were curled into smirks. They were snickering, mocking whoever it was that they had just beat the shit out of.
“What the hell just happened? How often do things like that happen” asked the Liam.
Bernard began to speak “More often than any of us here would like to admit to. Whenever someone steps out of line or says something bad about the carnival, and if the boss hears about it then he sends his goons to make an example of whomever the poor soul. It usually does the job getting us to fly straight for a time.”
Anneliese’s face was on fire. “It makes me sick the way he treats us. As if parading us around as some sort of commodity without the slightest amount of compassion isn’t enough then he has to beat us. We’ve both seen of the results of his handy work before. The dark limb covering bruises, the busted lips, the puffed and sealed eyes. Sometimes I just want to go right up to him and call him out on everything, all of his abuses and all of the wrong things that he has done to us.”
The carnival had closed up and all of the people had gone home. Most of the lights were turned off only leaving the dim glow of the essential few for the workers to make their way from place to place. The laughter and shouts from the mob had ceased a long time ago. Now there was barely any sound, a stillness hanging in the air, a comforting emptiness. No swirling music escaping from the flap of the big tents. The only intrusion was the occasional cry of an animal on the far side of the carnival. The dichotomy was a pleasant coming for all after the long day filled with nothing but noise.
Anneliese and the Liam sat around outside. Inside of their carts the air was stale but outside the night was warm and comfortable.
“So what happened to you?” she asked “I mean were you born that way or what?
“I don’t like to talk about it really. I was cooking some food in my apartment and went to the bathroom, and I must have taken extra-long because when I came back the grease from what I was cooking had caught on fire. I panicked, and not thinking I rushed for the sink and filled a pot of water. I threw the water on it, and fireball came hurling back at my face. Apparently you’re never supposed to put out grease fires with water, but no one ever let me in on that little secret. I was knocked to the floor and it took my screaming in agony to get my roommate to come out of his room and put the fire out. Very anti-climactic.”
Anneliese wanted to laugh at the absurd story. It seemed almost to ridiculous to be true but she kept her chuckle down just in case the story was indeed true.
“How did you end up here?” he asked.
“My parents left me here when I was a little girl. By that time my arm was already like it is now. They told me that we were going to the carnival. I was so excited to see all the big animals and play all of the games. They took me all around. We went into the big top and saw the elephants, saw the trapeze artist and clowns, we saw people breathing fire. It was magical.”
“How did they end up leaving you here?”
“After the show was over everyone rushed out of the tent and I tried following them but I was too young and too small to make my way through all the people. I tried keeping up with them but I couldn’t. I tried shouting their names but I don’t know if they could hear me. They never did look back. Every second my mom with her long curly blonde hair and my dad with his tweed jacket were slipping further and further away from me. I kept trying to get closer to them but eventually they got too far out of head of me. Then they just sort of disappeared.”
Her eyes were beginning to turn red and swell up. She sniffed trying to force back down her sadness. She couldn’t stop herself from thinking that her parents had left her at the carnival on purpose. She saw how the people who come to the carnival look at the freaks, at her, like they’re some sort of subhuman species. Sometimes she could hear them whisper about how appalling they found them. Yet they pay money to come and see her and the rest perform. Everyone knows that they’re the undesirables. She didn’t doubt that her parents were any different from every other person that walks through the gates of the carnival. She couldn’t help but convince herself that they were probably embarrassed and ashamed of her. Who would want a freak as a child? They probably had left her thinking that it would be the best for both of them. They could go on with their lives and act as if she never existed, and here she would be raised and taken care of.”
“Cyrus, I need to have a talk with you.” Bernard said to Cyrus.
Cyrus took a seat on the bed opposite of Bernard’s. The bed was austere, hard as stone with only one blanket as cushion, one pillow as well. Sitting on the bed he could feel the rush of brisk air attack his back and could feel a shiver run through his body. Air was slipping in through the cracks of the side of the cart.
“How can I help you Bernard? Where’s your roommate?”
“I sent him out because I needed to talk to you about something personally. When I was out recently I overheard something that troubled me greatly. I heard and saw two of your guards beat Damian into a pulp. I don’t know what he did but I saw the way his face looked and I couldn’t think up any reason in the world as to why someone would have deserved the beating he received.”
“My old friend I assure you it was nothing more than an isolated incident. I was in a extremely important meeting with some contacts from town when the miserable creature burst into my office and started making a fool out of me in front of everyone. I couldn’t possibly let him go unpunished but I promise you that it was a solitary incident and won’t happen again.”
Bernard’s head hung down. “I’ve been with you since the beginning Cyrus and you know I’m grateful and you know you have my support because of all that you’ve done for me and the others, but this type of thing has happened more than once. I’ve seen others brutally beat up and left lying practically comatose in the shadows from beatings they received from your guards. It’s worrying the others, and its worrying me as well. It’s as if this place has become a tyranny and anyone who steps out of line or even moderately disagrees with you will be beat into a bloody mess. We’re all worrying that any of us could possibly be your next victim.”
He could recall what it was like to be human. His disease had not always effected his body, it was only when he was in his early twenties’ when the disease started to take its toll. The changes were sudden, one night he would go to sleep healthy and normal, and then the next morning he would awake with some unexplainable mutation. His family was moderately wealthy and successful, and sent countless amount of money on the best doctors looking for reason for what was happening with their child. Each doctor gave the same answer - there was no medical explanation for what was happening. A political power within the region, any discovery of Bernard’s disease would be detrimental to his family, it being open season for their political rivals. They hid him away in their houses from the public until what time they could fabricate the lie that they had sent him far off to some prestigious school to continue his studies. They did send him away, but there was no education, just shame and disgust at what their son had become.
There he was in a new place, thousands of miles away from his home, and it was exactly the same as the place he had just left. Out on the street during the few times he forced himself outside there were those that he could hear snicker and gasp aloud, and there were those who hoped to seem more humane and kept their mouths shut and just stared, but whose eyes seemed just as cruel. When not playing the role of the outsider in his new city he spent the rest of his time in living squalor in a small cramped apartment on the edge of town, the only place that he could afford with the pittance that his lovely mother and father afforded him.
One day there came a knock on his door. On the other side of it was a young man who introduced himself as Cyrus who proclaimed he had a proposition for him and asked to come inside. Inside he told him that he had acquired the funding to start up a traveling carnival, and that he rounding up talent for the show. He had been traveling through towns nearby looking for interesting characters when he overheard his name, and knew he had to visit him. Cyrus spoke of his carnival as a utopia for those on the fringes of society. He made promises of travel, delicious food, warm beds, community, and equality. He offered a chance to turn away from the filth and build something new, something better.
Bernard jumped at the opportunity. Within months Cyrus had rounded up a small group, and they were on the road. The first few years were rough; the first year they barely made enough money to cover their expenses. However poor they were still happy because they had a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and friends in the carnival. As they travelled around more and their notoriety grew they began to make a profit. This was when Bernard began to sense a change within Cyrus. The money had changed him, corrupted him. He began to withdraw from the scenes and to take more charge of the carnival by himself. He was more focused on the financial gains that he could incur from the carnival then with working along with he had connived into joining hi,
There was a moment of silence between the two. “I understand. Perhaps I need to reevaluate the way I run this carnival. I thank you for your suggestions Bernard, I’ll be sure to take them into consideration.”
Whispers were floating from one ear to next. They were seeking answers, answers as to why they were all gathered here. All the freaks had been rounded up by the guards. The only thing they knew was that the “boss” wanted to talk to them about something. Everyone knew nothing good ever resulted from times when Cyrus wanted to talk to anyone.
The whispers faded out as Cyrus took the stage from behind the curtain. There was less of a bounce in his step as he solemnly shuffled his to the middle of the stage.
“Good afternoon everyone” he said in a drawl. I’ve come here to talk to you all about an urgent matter that one of your kind has brought to my attention. Recently I’ve been told that there is a certain amount of animosity for me stirring amongst you all. A discontent about the way that I conduct matters.”
Bernard stood in the back of the tent not believing what he was hearing. Cyrus had betrayed his trust. He had told Cyrus what he had in confidence, and now here he was giving this speech in front of everyone.
Cyrus slowly paced back and forth from one end of the small stage to the other. He stopped. “I’ve taken some days to reevaluate the way I govern this carnival. I’ve thought about all of you, and how I treat you. I’ve tried to be benevolent and allow you all the upmost freedom, but now I see what a mistake that has been. The freedom that I’ve allowed you has allowed you to run unchecked like wild animals, like savage little children. I have walked among you; there is no order here, only chaos. Children are not fit to govern themselves, they require someone more enlightened to watch over them. The foundation that you have built your dwelling upon is shifting and weak. I will be the rock, I will be the parent to grab you by the hand and guide you. From now on the rules will be stricter but they will be for your benefit. There may be less freedom but it will be for your benefit. Do not fear though friends I will govern with a stern but fair hand.”
Over next few months Cyrus had adopted an almost dictatorial role over the carnival. If anyone dared to step out of line he was there to make sure that they were put back into their place. Under his watch not even the smallest misconduct would not be tolerated. The first time any indiscretion was committed against him or the rules of the carnival the offender would lose their abilities to make money off the patrons of the carnival for a few days. The second offence would decrease the amount of food you would receive for a week. A third offence, which rarely happened since most learned their lesson after a week of starvation, resulted in an almost incapacitating beating. If someone didn’t learn their lesson at that point then they would be put out and not allowed at the carnival ever again. Constantly he would remind them of just how lucky they were to have this opportunity, and how there were lines waiting just outside the gates to take your spot.
“I can’t handle it anymore!”
“Calm down Anne. Acting irrational is not got going to help anyone” said Bernard.
“Calm down? What are you blind; can’t you see the way that Cyrus is treating us? He’s treating us like damn dogs. He’s got everyone one afraid to make even the littlest mistake.”
“I know, I know. The way he is acting is a bit over the top, but I’m sure it’s only passing, and that things will go back to normal in time.”
“Normal? Back to the point where he just beats us? He doesn’t give a damn about us. All he cares about is his money. And you know it Bernard!”
“Don’t say that. You know that Cyrus isn’t that bad. He provides us with food to keep us from starving and he gives us a roof over our heads. He took us in and gave us a life. He took you in when your parents left you here and raised you. We’re not living in a land of milk and honey, but we are living.”
Her face instantly flushed with red at the mention of her parents. Bernard was the last person that she expected to use her parents against her in such a way.
“You know damn well that doesn’t mean a damn thing! Me, you and everyone else in this carnival are nothing more than something to milk dry and dispose of when we’re no longer useful. If you’re too blind and complacent to see that then I don’t think there’s any help you. Hell, I rather be living anywhere else then here. There has to be something better out there then what we’re putting up with here.”
He was astounded by her naivety. “You seriously think that there is a better place out there for people like us out there in the outside world? You’ve never spent a day of you adult life out there so you couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to live out there. Everything out there is thousand times worse. The way that people stare and gawk, it burns holes right through the heart. The gasps and laughs, they cut deeper out there than they ever could here. You would have no way of supporting yourself out there, no one would ever hire any of us. At least here we have a means of surviving, even if it is a meager existence. We have a stable community with friends that we can lean on, something you won’t ever find on the outside.”
She had taken a moment to calm down. “You may be right but anything would be better than living here under the thumb of that tyrant.”
Liam entered the carriage. “Hey Bernard, do you know where Annie is? I need to talk to her about something. I have to go perform in a few minutes and I can’t find her anywhere.”
“No one told you then I guess. She left earlier today.”
“What do you mean she left earlier?”
“I mean she left for good. Some of the others saw her just walk through the front gate. I don’t believe she said goodbye to anyone.”
“I need to go get ready for my show.” He thought how strange it was for her to just leave. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. Whether she was right. The memory what it was like out there in outside world hadn’t faded. But again he couldn’t say that things were much better here, and given his chance that he wouldn’t leave. Either way he still had a show to perform. Outside people were still roaming about. Everything still was.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Schultz. All rights reserved.