So, this week has been a bit crazy and I didn’t have time to write a proper post. So instead here’s a short story. Also, there will be no post on Monday because of Memorial Day. I hope to be back on track by next Thursday. Enjoy!
In the city of Delsera there is a circus. It has elephants and jugglers, tigers and clowns, lions and tight rope walkers. There is also a grand ringmaster with dark bushy hair and beady eyes. Circus Quesera is the best circus in all the lands, people come from lands unknown to see the ringmaster and his attractions. But Quesera’s biggest attraction of all is the lovely trapeze artist, the ringmaster’s young ward.
Her name is Nailah. She has black skin that often shines with sweat, dark hair covering her head at barely half an inch’s length. She has black lips and eyes, a long neck and nose, and a pointed chin. She wears bangles of gold on her wrists and on her ankles. She wears sarongs and skirts made of light pink and green fabrics. They twirl around her when she walks, when she performs, and when her lover twists her in the air as he often likes to do.
The circus has been the girl’s home since birth. Her mother and father had performed for Quesera as a breathtaking trapeze duo. She was twelve when they died, taken by a disease that swept through Delsera and her desert sisters, devastating the nation. The ringmaster took her in and taught her the art of trapeze, allowing her to continue her parent’s legacy.
“No,” she screams. She’s sixteen and says the word to the ringmaster for the first time, struggling against arms that restrain her. The ringmaster’s man servant is on her left, one of his other ruffians on her right. The ringmaster stands in front of her, his sneer illuminated by the moonlight.
“Are you trying to escape, Nailah?” He says. He steps closer, something golden in his hands. “Where will you go?”
She spits on the ground, fighting to free herself. Her dark eyes glow with rebellion. “I will never perform for you again.”
The ringmaster’s laugh is chilling and Nailah winces as he cups her chin in his hand. He forces her eyes to meet his, all rage and power. “You will perform every night until the day your limbs are too brittle to hold you.”
He bares his yellow teeth in a snarl and clasps the golden torque around Nailah’s neck before she can resist any further. “If you try to leave this city, girl, or if you do anything else to flair my temper, that band will make you regret it. You’re mine. Never forget it.”
That night, for the first time, she feels the biting lash of the whip against her back. The cloth from her shirt sticks in the wounds and her body burns in pain. Tears fall as she performs the next evening, cascading from bar to bar. But they look like gems falling in the circus light and the audience is in awe.
On her eighteenth birthday Nailah watches the circus from her seat far above. The audience watches the lion tamer, the clowns, and jugglers and they cheer appreciatively. But Nailah knows they are really waiting for her. The circus has come to depend on her. The nights she couldn’t perform were bad for business. They were worse for her when sickness or exhaustion earned her the ringmaster’s wrath.
Tonight is her eighteenth birthday and the circus is celebrating by hosting an extravaganza. She tries to count the audience but loses her place. She prays there’s enough. The ringmaster has promised that if she brings in 500 guests for her birthday performance, he will allow her to have an apartment in the city.
“I don’t see the harm,” he’d said when she asked, barely looking up from his ledgers. She had brought him a lot of business that season and his spirits were high. “But since your salary has always gone to your room and board here, I’m not sure how you’ll afford it.”
She had been certain that was a no in disguise. She began to bow and leave when he spoke again.
“If 500 people come to your birthday celebration next week, I will give you the money for the apartment.”
It was too soon for relief to flood her. “If I do, then you will give me my salary every week? Like everyone else.”
“Yes.” It looked as if he had a bad taste in his mouth, but he nodded grimly and waved her away.
She stands as her act begins. She takes the bar in her hands and mutters a single word. “Please.”
For the first time she sits on her small terrace. The roof of her modest apartment shows a view of the lower city, the river, and the twinkling lights of the circus farther on. She is cradled in her lover’s arms. It is the first time she has left the circus in six years and the first time she has been with her lover without fear.
“We can be together now,” he whispers in her ear. He feeds her a strawberry she bought at the market that day, glowing with pride as coins clinked in her purse.
The next morning she is late to arrive at the circus.
“It’s because of that boy, isn’t it?” The ringmaster asks her as the whip sounds across her back. Her body is shuddering against the ground, tears and mud streak her face. The torque restricts and she gasps for breath, clutching at the collar. “If you are late again, you will both regret it.”
That night her lover rubs aloe into her back. She whimpers with every stroke and he cries with her. He holds her gently late into the night.
“You will regret being with me,” she says, trying to push him away from her. He clutches her closer, holds her to him as hard as he dares.
“We should leave this place,” he says to her one night. The night is so hot they are forced outdoors. Over the years the view from the terrace has changed little. Some of the buildings are higher but the lights of the circus still shine brightest.
“We could travel,” he continues, oblivious to the fall of her face, lost in his dream. “There are other cities we could go to, better places. We could go to Paris or New York.”
She shakes her head sadly and slightly touches the golden collar at her neck. She swoons from the power it emits, surging into her body through her fingertips, reminding her why she can never leave. She grabs her lover’s hand and squeezes it as if for the last time. “You know there is no escape… for me.”
He knows the tone in her voice, he has loved her for a very long time. He lays his fingers lightly on her cheeks and kisses her dark lips. His plan is forgotten in the night.
Sleepwalking has plagued Nailah since she was very young. More than once the night has taken her too close to the cities borders. Tonight is no exception. She wakes on the city wall, staring out over the deserts she can never cross. She tries to sneak home but it is too late. She was too close to the border. She hears sounds of pursuits behind her and begins to run.
She runs down the cobbled streets, her bare feet aching as they hit the stone. She slows as she comes to a fork in the road. She can hear the thundering footsteps behind her and hear the shouts. She doesn’t know whether to turn left or right. Before she knows it, they’re on her from all sides. A torch is held high, illuminating her face and that of her assailant. The ringmaster sneers at her like he always does. His beady eyes hold sadistic laughter and scorn.
“I told you,” he snarls, shoving his gnarled face closer to hers. “I told you that you’d never be able to leave me.”
The collar tightens and her hand flies to it. It constricts further and her face turns purple as she struggles to breath, and amid the laughter of the ring master and his ruffians she falls helplessly to the ground.
Nailah wakes in a cold sweat, not knowing how she has returned home. The night has gone chilly and her windows are ajar. She stands to shut them but is trapped by the lights of the circus. She is still standing and staring when her lover wakes at dawn. He pulls her from the window. As she bathes and eats, his eyes never leave her. He walks her all the way to the circus though she insists he doesn’t. He risks painful punishment if he reaches the stables late.
“I will come to your show tonight,” he says. It is unnecessary. He always goes to her shows; night after night she searches for him in the crowd before she takes her first leap. She nods and rests her head in the crook of his shoulder. He is warm and the most beautiful man she has ever met. She knows that she will miss him. She prays that he will miss her too.
She sees the ring master coming near and pushes her lover away. “You must go,” she whispers. One last kiss and she runs from him. In a hidden corner she kneels, remembering his touch and his scent. She fingers the collar at her neck, remembers how many people over the years had told her it was beautiful. She is convinced these people’s eyes are never fully open.
It is night when Nailah grasps the polished wood of her bar and gazes over the audience. They wait in hushed anticipation, breaths held, for her to perform. She wants to find her lover’s face but forces herself to look away. She knows the tears are falling freely now but she doesn’t care, it’s not the first time she’s cried up here. She looks down at the nets below her. Nets she knows haven’t been repaired or reinforced for years. Gracefully, she takes the first daring leap and, lifting her fingers one by one, she lets go and falls.