The Ringmaster’s wagon had a faded red and gold wooden exterior, with black door knobs. The only thing impressive about it was the endless collection of daggers hanging inside, wall to wall. As the sword swallower, the Ringmaster had become accustomed to keeping his daggers out for all to see, some were rusted, some were golden, some were razor sharp. None were exactly like the rest. I visited him twice a week, because he asked me to. He’d been worried about me since he took me in at age 4.
I knocked on the door and within seconds, he appeared, still in his black eyeliner and silvery green jumpsuit from last night’s performance. His face contained two small black eyes and a large nose which held a pair of rounded spectacles.
“Well, if it isn’t my lion tamer. Mornin’ Dimitri. Coffee?”
The coffee was cold, bitter and lumpy. It scratched at my throat making me gag. I stared at the assortment of weapons to appear distracted. As per usual, one set of hooks remained empty where a dagger no longer hung. I had asked him about it, what it looked like and where it had gone but every time he responded with “I think it had a rose, a golden one maybe? But it was stolen boy! Will you focus!”, so I learned quickly never to ask again. I watched him chug an entire cup of slow roasted death before he even looked at me. We now sat facing each other on the floor, where he usually slept. My head rested against the wall behind me, with my legs outstretched. I had always hated these visits.
“So, in our last session…”
This was about the time he went on a tangent about how I lacked confidence, needed to work harder, needed to smile, needed to pretend that I cared for once in my life. He was the man with the swords daring everyone to do better, or else. We had to be the best.
When I was young he used to just hit me when I did something wrong. Honestly, I would have rather been beaten until I bleed then listened to him go on. At one point I just started staring at the bags under his eyes. Once he realized I wasn’t listening, he became annoyed.
“My son” he spat, rolling his eyes, “was up all night practicing and driving me crazy. His routine last night was horrid! The little failure claims he just has to “perfect” it.”
The clowns once told me why the Ringmaster hated his son, Angel. The Ringmaster’s old partner (a lion tamer like myself) was once supposed to inherit the circus. He’d taught many new performers how to control the lion from within it’s cage. They said he was the best, but one day, he disappeared. Rumor got around that he’d been driven off by a student who couldn’t keep up, one who always messed up routines and made all the wrong moves. Angel. The Ringmaster was furious, complaining for weeks about how the show would never be good enough without a lion tamer. That is, until I showed up. Soon after, Angel moved on to acrobatics, but even with his change in position, he was still a slow learner.
“Anyways,” said the Ringmaster with a huff, “I wanted to reserve today’s session for us to discuss those flashbacks of yours. You must learn to keep focused when they occur or that lion will take advantage and strike, like he almost did for the third time last night. Have you still not seen the killer’s face?”
Before I could answer, my head started to throb. I could hear a woman’s piercing scream setting my eardrums on fire. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the screaming started to fade away, filling the open air with silence.
“Dimitri? I asked you a question! Have you seen the face of your parent’s killer?”
I wasn’t dealing with this anymore.
“No, I haven’t”. I pushed past him, got up and stumbled out of the wagon, without another word.
* * *
They always went like this: My mother screamed as she held me close to her breast, while my father is beaten to death by a rounded object that I can never make out. The attacker always reached out to grab me after that. Then, it ends.
I hated the images and I hated the Ringmaster for forcing me to remember them. I don’t care who killed my parents. I didn’t even know them, I was too young. I walked past wagon after wagon, my hand to my head as I watched performers practice. The clowns juggled until they passed out, the acrobats twisted into pretzels that never came undone. If you wanted a roof over your head, you could come and live here, but the downside was you’d have to kill yourself in practice each day to prove your worth. I circled around the big tent when I ran smack dab into a blond haired, blued eyed boy, holding an assortment of acrobat costumes. It was Angel.
“You should go in the tent and practice” he said simply, squinting at me. The boy was a reincarnation of his father, hardcore and stubborn, mostly to avoid being hit. He was nothing more than a piece of clay, ready to be molded into his father’s golden boy.
“Maybe later, my head hurts like hell.”
His stared at me with cold eyes, before he pushed past me to carry on his way. I watched as he left, shaking my head. Then I looked down and saw one of his costumes. I picked it up, huffed in annoyance and followed in the direction he’d headed. I looked around behind every wagon, then I started to open doors. Finally, I walked up to one that was already ajar. I pushed on it and looked in.
“Angel? You dropped…”
My voice failed me as I entered a room of a thousand pictures, newspapers and maps that lined wall to wall. The pictures were of a tall, dark haired man with a thin mustache, who always wore a lion tamer outfit. Next to him was a small child being held by a young woman. In the far corner, there sat a solitary teddy bear on the only shelf. I walked towards it cautiously and picked it up. It was small, missing one eye, with stuffing coming out from it’s right paw. On the back, was a string with a finger hoop. I didn’t hesitate to pull it and just as I did, the teddy bear song started to play, sounding as if the batteries were about to run out.
“If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…”
Suddenly, I could hear my mother’s screaming again, louder than ever. My father begging for mercy from the attacker. The pictures on the walls came out and swallowed me up.
* * *
My mom clutched me, as I pulled my teddy bear close. My father looked up at his attacker, tears rolling down his face as he screamed,
“Please! I am sorry for leaving, but I had a family to raise! I couldn’t live that way anymore…show after show. Please!”
The person was hooded but I could finally make out the murder weapon from this view. A dagger. Rusted and golden with a red rose on the handle…just like the one missing from the Ringmaster’s carriage. The attacker raised his weapon and shoved it into the heart of my father, as he watched him die. Then he removed his hood and stared at me.
A blond haired, blue eyed boy stood before my mother and I, smiling proudly as he whispered, “If my father can’t go on without a lion tamer then I will give him one. The circus will be perfect!”
He slashed my mother’s throat, grabbed my collar and pulled me from her dying embrace. Then everything faded to black.
* * *
I woke up laying on my back on the floor of the wagon, the teddy bear still in my arms.
“You shouldn’t be here Dimitri”.
Angel stood above me, staring into my eyes.
“I…I was looking for you” I stammered.
“You should be with your lion, practicing. Making my father proud!”
I rolled over onto my knees, as tears formed. I clutched my teddy bear, gasping, “It was you…”.
A smile slowly tore from the corner of his mouth, “Oh Dimitri, you always were my father’s favourite. I figured the same passion to be a lion tamer was in you as it was in your father and I was right. You see Dimitri, my father was wrong about me. I didn’t mess everything up, I gave him the best lion tamer he’s ever had.”
He walked towards me, with the same hateful glare he had in his eyes, the night he killed my parents. My pulse raced, anger building up like a lump in my throat. No. Angel gave his father nothing. I knocked Angel down and climbed onto him as he wriggled on his back. I grabbed his head and began smashing it hard against the baseboards. All the anger I ever felt for his father, this circus and him, all that energy was spent smashing Angel’s skull until I saw the blood forming in pools below my knees. He lay there motionless for several minutes before I collapsed to the floor and sobbed. What had I done? I searched around desperate for an idea. How would I hide the body? That’s when I saw the box of matches.
* * *
The night swept over the land, as I now stared over the circus grounds from the top of the hill. The wind was blowing at my face, guiding me away. The flames from the wagon would soon be put out, only for the firemen to discover the body. They would find me soon if I didn’t leave. Turning away, I pulled the bear out from my backpack and looked at it’s broken face. I smiled as I pulled the string, listening to the bear sing its song.
August 5, 2018