Angela Wu | Art by Annie Yao
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Traveling Circus!”
The statement is exclaimed by a small, curious man in a top hat standing in the middle of an empty stage, the translucent walls of a circus tent looming around and overhead him. He is donned in all black except for his snow white gloves and a small silver name tag on his chest that reveals the engraved letters, “The Ringleader”. Surrounded by the walls of this circus tent, the only sound is his voice, which echoes with promises of magic and mystery.
Moved by his voice, the uncertain crowd in front of him begins to cheer and whistle. Behind The Ringleader, there is a dark curtain. Behind this curtain, a bird hunches on the cold metal base of its cage, carefully curling its talons so that as little as possible makes contact with the metal, which leeches its body heat.
The Ringleader continues, yelling above the clamor, “Quiet! Quiet now, and we shall begin…” The bird has heard it a hundred times. The same voice, the same lines, the same cheering… There are dancing tigers, their fur rich like honey. There are glaring lights that fill the tents with
flashes that rile up the crowd and pump adrenaline into the animals. Trumpeting elephants. Gold adorned bears and zebras prancing through rings of fire. There is the loud ambience, jarring to the ear, and the smoke and the glitter and confetti.
But again, the bird is, by now, too familiar with these sights and sounds. Instead, something else catches its eyes.
Beyond the top of the curtains, almost out of sight, is a dark, star-specked hole.
The opening beyond the tent.
There is a hole.
A boy shields his eyes from the circus and gazes upon it.
He stands amidst the chanting crowd near the stage where The Ringleader flourishes his cane. The flashing strobes of light have just been turned on, lighting the tent up until it is too bright. The boy squints at the dark opening peeking at him at the very tip of the tent. The sole patch of darkness and the known, the border between this strange fervor of performance and the real world, is that hole. If this moment was a chapter title, it would be:
Traveling Circus! It is too bright…
Tearing his eyes away from the opening beyond the tent, he cranes his neck above the heads to catch sight of the chaos that has begun on the stage.
The stomping feet, the crying trumpets and the cane of the ringleader. The noise and the sights. Too much. The boy longs to leave but he is stuck between dozens of tightly squished together people straining to see the stage. It is supposed to be a gift, this ticket to the Traveling Circus, but all he wants is to get out and back into the known.
(Not that he wants to leave, really…Sure, he feels trapped and overwhelmed here, but at the very least, this was just a show…)
He coughs as the noise thunders in his ears and the smoke from the rings of fire invade his lungs. Just then, the dancing tigers have retreated and The Ringleader yells,
“Our final act begins in…”
Thank God it’s almost done. He feels an overwhelming desire to escape. (Still, a part of him is disappointed because this pandemonium is fake, right? It serves as a dutiful distraction from reality). The boy inhales and steadies himself.
If this circus had reviews, he’d write:
Traveling Circus! It was not so magical. I was glad to leave…
The crowd counts down with The Ringleader: “Three!”
Inside the cage, the bird wobbles on the thin metal edge, which digs into its flesh as its wings scrape against those poison walls, and every fiber of its body screams for collapse. It stands with uncertainty on the edge of known– the cold metal bars of the cage. And above, where the unknown lies, is that hole, those glittering stars reflecting off its eyes.
The bird’s teeth are tired from biting the lock. Its claws are bleeding from breaking the lock. And The Ringleader is announcing,
“At last, we are coming to the end…”
Years of performing and so the bird knows it’s now or never. The dark curtains shielding it will rise and glaring light will shine on it as it performs those same tricks once again. Unless…
It’s too late to turn back now. Mind focusing upon that small patch of darkness above and eyes squeezed shut, the bird stretches its wings and leaps up. Suddenly the wind burns as it shoots through the air. Flight was not learned, nor was it made.
It just was. A fish gliding in water, the sun illuminating the moon-that was what flying was to the bird.
The bird dares to open its eyes. And…and–
The light, blinding! The swirling brilliant reds and blue, that crisp earthy scent of the wind blowing the smoke away so violently, the cacophony fading away into silence, aching wings stretching, finally flying, flying, flying–!
The bird is free and whole, above the crowd and the stage and The Ringleader. Pulsing with triumph, pumped with exploding joy, it is but a single, throbbing organism, free of rational thought, consumed by euphoria. Piercing the air, up, up, up it erupts towards that hole of starlight, feathers swirling like a fire of glory.
Everything burns; the wind, its muscles, its wings…
Everything burns, but even when gravity pulls the bird down and agony shatters its joints, its wings beat with savagery into the quiet peace of the night–
Closer, closer and closer…
The boy holds his breath. The crowd around him hold their breaths too, as a whole, entranced eyes fixed upon the small thing like wolves. Their eyes follow it.
Their gaze travels down.
The boy has a thought in the midst of the chaos: If he was writing this in his journal, jotting down the day’s events, he’d write:
Traveling Circus! The bird with clipped wings who tried to fly.
He watches from the sea of heads as the fluttering red bird plummets, feathers sinking like snowfall. He watches it and knows what will happen next. He feels as though he himself will scream; no, he is going to scream…
Down, down down–
The boy feels the scream lodging in his throat and suffocating him. The bird has become a blur of red now, almost reaching the stage, illuminated by the spotlight. Four feet, three feet, two feet…He cranes his neck, mad with adrenaline, just as the crowd surges forward and envelops him. His foot catches on something and he crashes down, the crowd looming above him like shadows.
They roar and his ears ring; he wonders which is crueler for the bird, to be caught by The Ringleader or to have fallen all the way down.
Between the crazed cheering and his own spinning thoughts (strangely restless), he hears The Ringleader exclaim,
“And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes the final act! We hope you enjoyed the show…”