Big top goes up easy, smooth, like they've done it a thousand times before and everyone knows where they're supposed to be. And maybe this is the thousandth time for some of them; Markus isn't sure. Things feel a little strange, a little unreal, a little different here at the circus, with the roadies, with the acts. Thirteen acts each show and more than thirteen sets of performers, all of them dressed and ready, milling around, waiting for the ringmaster to point out who comes next. And then there are the new performers -- appearing out of nowhere now and then, no rhyme or reason to that, just poof, here they are -- and the act that disappears or gets sent away at the end of each show; it's never the same show twice. Everything about setup is smooth as clockwork, but what happens when the lights come up, that's chaos, and somehow no one in the bleachers notices.
Markus fits the high-wire platforms in place. He's never seen a high-wire act under the main tent, but that doesn't mean that something won't change. Thirteen stops into this never-ending circus tour and he's seen things change already. Nothing to say things won't change again. It's all about Entropy here.
Widow, the rope dancer, uses one of the platforms, and Markus is tempted to leave the second one unfitted, but setup goes like clockwork and he fits it into place and another one of the guys helps string the wire between them. Like the circus runs itself and he doesn't have to think about it.
The platform is steady, the hard wood cold beneath Ebb's feet. She doesn't shiver; she's done this too many times to shiver. The cold is just a part of preparing. Like the body paint and the spiderweb patterns drawn onto her skin by the costume girl who tries so hard not to look at the black widow curled in the hollow of Ebb's throat. Like not thinking about the girl while she's painting, or the tickle of the brush. Like disappearing inside of herself so she can't touch and taste and feel the guilt and regret all around the girl when she's that close; no one ever runs to this circus without those things wrapped tightly around themselves. Like the ringmaster's crooked index finger and his hissed, "You, next." Cold wood is just one more step, one more move closer to her act.
On the platform, cold under her feet, she comes back out of herself, touches the world tentatively and shivers, but not from the cold. The guilt is out there, the regrets, thick and tangible in the air; the lust that makes all of them hot draws warmth from her body and throws it into the air. Then there's the prick at her throat as the light comes up, a spotlight below her on the ringmaster and his impossibly tall hat. The light doesn't cut through the guilt and regret in the air, though, doesn't diffuse it or make it shine.
Circus had another rope dancer before, or so Ebb heard. Only she needed a rope to dance from. And she had tits, too. Nice round full tits and wide hips, and Ebb has no idea how anyone with tits can have enough muscle to dance. Not like this.
Ebb also can't imagine trusting a rope. She's never been on a rope, real rope, man-made rope.
The guilt in the air races toward her belly, rests there, curls there, thick coils of it wrapping around and around and around. Guilt and regret and lust and she spins her own rope from that.
Rope twists, wraps thick and wet at her feet, a little bit sticky between her thighs, against the wood and metal platform. She ties it off, smoothes her fingers over it. Perfect seamless connection, strong and impossible and slowly drying out. Rope, but not.
Spotlight comes up, slides up the length of the thick post to her platform, feels as warm as sunshine against her painted-and-naked skin. Blood rushes to the surface, makes her cold deep inside, and turns the scars on her belly pink then red, makes her skin hot and sweaty. Her widow shifts, tiny legs tickling at her throat before the spider settles again.
Ebb takes hold of her rope and lowers herself from the platform. Head first, she descends, one leg wrapped around her rope, the other pointed in front of her. She slides a little way then makes more rope, slides down farther.
She wonders for a moment what it would be like to dance separate from her rope, her lifeline, her umbilical cord, but then there's another sharp prick at her throat; she forgets to wonder as a knot of guilt stops her descent. Breathing raggedly, Ebb closes her eyes, touches the knot with her fingers and mind.
Teenage boy in the audience, can't be much more than fifteen. Little sister is dead, hit by a car, and the last thing he said to her was, "Go play in the street." I didn't mean it. Shouldn't have said it. She's dead and it's all my fault. No matter what his mother and father said, no matter that the driver was drunk and hit her as he jumped the curb. His fault.
The knot is hard and tight and makes Ebb's belly ache. She draws short, shuddery breaths, thinks she might vomit, then slowly dances the knot loose, makes it slick and workable.
Hands and legs and arms move over the rope. She spins fast fast fast, gets dizzy as she tries to untangle the knot, loosen the guilt enough that she can lower herself closer to the ground.
She hates being up so high.
Ebb is only vaguely aware of the crowd watching her, of their sucked-in breaths, of their awe. She is only certain they are still there when the knot comes suddenly loose and she drops quickly four feet and another knot catches her.
The crowd gasps, one monster breath that makes the spider at her throat quiver, then applauds. Wild shouts, as she is caught again, held this time by a man who is cheating on his dying wife.
Sometimes it's the right thing to do, to take the guilt away. Sometimes it's not so right, but Ebb doesn't get to choose whose guilt knots her escape from the tent top, whose guilt she loosens. Inside the tent, with the crowd alive and hot and hurting, the knots come at random and she has to loosen them when they come or she might never get down. Might never feel safe.
"She's some kind of amazing," says Ric, scrawny little guy who'd be better off selling popcorn than swinging a mallet and putting down ropes, only he's not good looking enough to put in front of the crowd.
"Yeah," Markus says because it's the only way to answer that kind of comment. Markus has never seen Widow perform, but Ric has. And normally Markus wouldn't be seeing a performance now, either, only he was taking care of cleanup over by Sideshow Row and stopped outside the big top to have a smoke. Ric tagged along, thinking Markus is his best friend just because he'll talk to him. They've come over to the big top at the wrong time, or at the right time.
They shouldn't be there gawking through the opening in the tent, but they are. Not the best seats in the house, and not the worst. Markus sees that the Widow's not dancing with a rope, never mind that they call her a rope dancer. It wraps around her, holds her up from the ground, but it disappears there, between her legs.
"We had another rope dancer once," Ric says. "She wasn't like the Widow, though. Least, that's what I hear. Nice looking thing, a real woman, if you know what I mean. She didn't last long, though. Fell or something." Then he gets quiet, like maybe he shouldn't have said anything. He takes a drag off his smoke, blows a shaky and imperfect smoke ring toward the sky, then says, "At least, that's what I hear. She'd been gone a while when I started working this gig. Widow's been here longer 'n I have, really. It's all just rumor."
"So how long've you been working the show?"
Ric shrugs, ashes on the ground, says, "Long enough."
Pole that Widow comes down from is in the center of everything she does. Dangerous there. Always a chance she'll spin wrong, end up breaking herself, bruising herself, but that added danger means she's not just dancing. And Markus has been here long enough to know that just performing isn't enough. There's something more at stake for the performers than applause.
"Come on," Ric says. "Want a closer look?"
And Widow's nearly on the ground. "Yeah, sure." Markus follows Ric in, and everyone's eyes are on the spotlight instead of the twilight stream of light coming in through the tent flap.
Widow's on the ground and Markus leaves Ric. "Catch you later, yeah?" and he doesn't wait for a response, follows Widow through the shadows to the back of the tent, catches up to her, says, "Hey."
She flinches, turns, looks up at him. Her lips press tight together and she turns away, walks out of the tent.
"Hey, wait a sec," and Markus is following her, brushing past the big guy with the tattoos who the ringmaster is prepping the crowd for. "Hey, wait," out in the twilight air between tents.
"What?" and she's board-stiff, not graceful. Clockwork girl instead of the fluid woman who'd just danced down the rope. Her nipples are hard in the evening chill.
"I," and now that he is there, that she's spoken to him, Markus isn't sure what. "You're pretty amazing," he says, schoolboy awkward. And it's been a long time since he's felt like that. She's definitely amazing.
She considers for a moment, says, "Thanks," then turns away again, walks to the costume tent and Markus isn't certain he should follow her. Costume tent's always felt like some kind of sacred shrine, some mysterious place where the people who come out aren't the people who went in. He's not sure he's ready for that kind of transformation.
"You won't know who's left," Anne says when Ebb comes into the costume tent. Same conversation they have every time, while the other performers continue to mill about backstage, wait and see which act will be cut.
Ebb doesn't care, though. She doesn't know when she stopped caring, when it ceased to matter who wouldn't continue with the circus while the show went on -- sometime before Anne started painting Ebb's costume onto her. Silly girl keeps reminding Ebb that someone disappears, gets left behind, and Ebb continues to answer her with silence. She just wants to get out of the paint, into her clothes, and back to her trailer, wants to escape from the feelings in the big top that continue to worry at her insides. She'll find out tomorrow who's left.
Anne's pale and quiet and she takes the paint off Ebb with delicate careful fingers. Ebb's not worried about Anne's fingers, though, or the places she touches. Ebb goes back inside of herself and tries not to think of the roadie who came up to her, tries not to think about the light in his expression, the hope that pinched at the corners of his eyes.
He's just like the rest of them, she tells herself while Anne scrapes paint from her breasts. He wants a quick fix, quick way out of feeling the things he's feeling. Just because she can do it for them they all think she can do it for anyone. That she will do it for anyone.
Her thighs are still sticky and she's disgusted with herself, with the things they feel strongly about. She wishes for Anne to be finished, but doesn't speak to the girl, doesn't rush her, because that would mean coming back to the surface, coming out of herself and touching the feelings out in the air. Ebb waits, waits for Anne's "There" before she backs away and cleans paint off her own hands.
When Anne is gone, Ebb dresses, pulls on her jeans and a T-shirt, shoves feet into Keds without socks. No one would mistake her for the creature dancing on the rope earlier, except for the spider that still clings to the hollow of her throat.
She leaves the tent and he's still there; she knows it's him, the one who spoke to her before, because he feels the same across her exposed skin. Her face and the backs of her hands tingle with familiarity. "What," she says, surfacing because he's forced her to with that sameness.
"I . . . ," he falters, hesitates and she nearly pulls back inside of herself, but before she can, he says, "Would you like a drink?"
She looks at him.
He gathers strength or courage or foolishness, they feel the same to her, and says, "I can go grab some beer from where the guys are drinking."
For a moment she catches his lust and it is hot against her, immediate. This is not for someone else, this is for her. She rubs her palms against her jeans, focuses on the rough rub of the denim, then says, "Yes."
That lust lingers in the air as he walks around the costume tent. Ebb sits down on the ground, rocks and straw sticking to her ankles. She looks up when he returns, startled that he has, that the lust is coming back with him.
He hands a bottle down to her, amber glass, silver label; it is cold and damp. "Sorry," he says. "It's cheap piss," but he takes a long drink from his bottle then says, "Markus."
Ebb brings the longneck to her lips, takes a tiny sip and cannot remember when she has last had alcohol. There is another sharp nip at her throat and she cannot imagine that she has ever had any. The beer burns down her throat, feels sudden in her belly. "Ebb," she says, and then, "Come to my trailer?" She asks because she does not want to be there, on the ground, if she gets drunk. She wants to be somewhere safe when the circus lets out, when the crowd leaves the tent.
He follows her to her trailer. She is so small, looks so normal in her jeans and T-shirt. Flat-chested, sure, but still not too bad. Her T-shirt doesn't hide her stiffened nipples and he decides that it's strange to see her with clothes on now when his first sight of her was naked. She definitely came out of the costume tent a different person than she had gone in.
She lets him inside and sits on the bed. Her fingers are loose on the beer bottle, as if she doesn't quite know how she should be holding it.
"What do you want?" she asks, looking at the beer rather than at him.
He hesitates, asks, "Can I sit?"
She shrugs and scoots over so there is space on the bed. He sits down beside her. "I don't know what I want." But he does. He wants to kiss her, so he touches her cheek, tilts her face so she cannot look at her beer.
Her eyes are wide and afraid, a little-girl expression on a grown woman's face.
"I don't want to hurt you," he says and he brings his face close to hers.
"I know," she whispers and her fingers touch his hand. "I thought I couldn't feel this."
And he doesn't know what she's talking about, but he leans forward and kisses her. Her fingers curl against his hand, tiny sharp nails pressing his rough skin. For a moment she is uncertain and reserved, then there is a clunk as the beer bottle falls on the floor.
Scent of cheap beer fills his nose; he ignores it, smells her instead. Tastes her, and then she's pulling at his shirt while he's pulling at hers.
He takes her slow and gentle and she makes tiny little noises of surprise, of pleasure. She is hot and wet and sticky, strong and hard and muscular. She moves like a dancer beneath him and he wants to laugh at how amazing she is, but he's afraid she'll think he's laughing at her. She clings to him, shudders, and bites at his shoulder to muffle her cries.
He is not so reserved.
After, resting his cheek on her shoulder, he notices a spider. How it got there, and how long it had been there, he doesn't know. "Hold still," he whispers to her.
She makes a soft, confused sound, but doesn't move. He reaches carefully to the hollow of her throat and pinches the spider; it pops between his fingers and he flicks what is left of it away, wipes the juices on the sheet.
Ebb goes stiff and still beneath him, asks so softly he can barely hear, "What did you do?"
"You had a spider on you," he says.
"I know," and she sounds scared.
The widow is gone and Ebb thinks perhaps Anne will notice while she paints. But Anne has always tried so hard not to see it there that while she decorates Ebb with spiderweb patterns this time, she does not see that the spider is gone.
The widow is gone and Ebb thinks perhaps the ringmaster will notice, that he will see and will make his choice based on that sight. But he doesn't notice, or does not care. He does not look at her the way she has seen him look at other female acts. She is not a real woman, a whole woman. He calls her Widow the way the rest do.
The widow is gone and Ebb thinks for a moment that she will not be able to spin without it, but there is always guilt and lust and regret, and there is enough of the widow still in her veins that she can spin.
The widow is gone and Ebb descends from the platform, thinking that with the marks on her belly and the webs on her skin she is the widow.
There are memories alive and wild in Ebb's head when Markus comes to her trailer again. She takes him in, draws him inside and closes the door. His hands are on her, his mouth wet against hers, and she wants so much to believe he is Mac.
But Mac never kissed like this. Mac's hands were rough, but they were not the same rough as Markus's hands.
He makes love to her again and she laughs this time. He feels so good inside of her, on top of her, touching her. For a moment, he is Mac, and she is remembering the first time she had sex. Mac was so gentle, afraid he might break her though he knew how strong she was.
Markus is like that. He moves like he thinks she should be fragile. He moves like he thinks she is a woman.
After, she wants to thank him. She can feel the hard space inside of him that is regret and guilt and she touches his belly. "Let me do something for you," she whispers and she's already pulling at his regret, at his guilt.
He didn't love her enough. She doesn't have a name, doesn't have a face, but he thought he loved her. That wasn't enough, though. He didn't love her enough to listen when she begged him for help. Her name is gone; he doesn't conjure a memory of her body or her hair or her eyes, doesn't bring to mind her death-mask to feed this guilt and regret. He just hears her voice, her begging. And he knows now what she was begging for. He hates that he couldn't see it then. Thinks that if he loved her more, loved her enough, she would still be alive.
Ebb shivers, skin going cold. While he watches, she closes her eyes and reaches between her legs. Slowly, she draws out the knot and with tender, hopeful fingers she loosens it, untangles it. In the end, it is a single long strand, still connected to her, sticky between her legs.
There in her trailer, away from the crowds, she can do this. She can concentrate on him and take his regret. She does not have to take the knots as they come. She can focus and find and take. And they know that. They know she can ease their guilt, whatever guilt they feel.
Something twists inside of his belly. At first he thinks it is lust, and his cock is hard again, because Ebb's hands are between her thighs.
Her face is still, her hips arched. But she is not doing what he thought she was doing. Her fingers tease out a thick cord of white-gray stickiness. "What are you doing?" he asks, but he has a feeling she is showing him something she has not shown anyone else. Not like this.
She does not answer. Her stomach tightens, strong muscles visible beneath her skin. She bites her lip and moves as though she is having sex, as though she is dancing without rope, dancing in place and slowly slowly slowly the rope plays out longer.
When her eyes flutter open, she looks down. Something is missing inside of him, but he cannot place it. "What is that?" he asks, staring at the strand.
She offers it to him, pulls on it and it thins like taffy until it is no longer inside of her. "Your regret," she whispers, and she sounds tired.
"She didn't have a face or a name. She had a voice, though." And Ebb sounds like her for a moment, sounds hopeful and broken.
"What do you mean?" He touches the rope and for a moment he knows. He takes up the short length; his fingers feel the place the knot was like they know what they are looking for. Her voice fills his head with pleading, begging, hope, and then disappears.
"Why?" he asks. And he is angry. Because she's gone. Because he only regretted one thing and Ebb has taken that from him.
"You didn't deserve to carry that," she whispers. "You were not wrong, only human."
"You took her from me," he says. He throws the short length of rope at her and takes up his clothes. He puts his jeans on and shoves his underwear into his pocket.
Ebb looks at him and clutches the rope. "Markus," she says, but he only puts his shirt on. He will not think about Ebb, he cannot think about her, and so he thinks of himself and walks out into the achingly cold night.
The tent is full and cold until she comes out of herself. Then everything is hot around her. She does not want to be up so high. She does not want to take anything else, does not want to loosen guilt or untangle regret or smooth out lust.
But she wants to feel her feet on the ground and so she dances.
She dances and touches the ground and she survives another performance. The ringmaster does not banish her. The circus continues and she continues with it. Weariness is creeping into her, though. Weariness and fear and uncertainty.
What is she without the widow? She is still a freak. Or she is more of a freak because she does not need the widow to spin.
And she knows in her belly that Markus will not speak to her again because she has taken something from him that she had no right to and she cannot give it back. The rope is still there in her trailer, but she cannot retie the knot, cannot push it back into the now-empty place it came from.
Markus watches her from the place where he first saw her perform. Ric has long since stomped his cigarette out and gone to check on the dice game.
There is an empty place inside of him, and he wants to be angry with her. There is silence, now, and he wants to blame her.
But he is almost comfortable, now, with the absence. And her voice has only been gone for a day. He feels more alive, more certain.
He feels, perhaps, that he can love Ebb, that he can be grateful for what she's done.
He comes to her trailer again, and she doesn't know if he is angry with her, if he watched her performance. Because suddenly it matters very much to her that he is not angry, matters even more to her that he watched her.
Markus is quiet, then says, "I'm sorry."
And she feels limp, sits down on her bed.
"You . . . ," he falters, looks at his dirty callused hands. "You did something that you felt was right."
Ebb isn't sure, though. She thought he wanted it. Even though he treated her like a woman instead of a freak, even though he was tender and kind. She thought he still wanted what they all want. And she wanted to give that to him, as a gift for his treatment of her.
Markus holds a hand out to her and his fingers are trembling. "Thank you," he says and tears roll down her cheeks.
He holds her, makes love to her again and she clings to him because he is the only thing in this world, now, without regret.
After, while he rests his cheek against her tiny breast, she asks, "You'll watch me again?" She feels afraid, now, vulnerable in a way she never felt with Mac.
He trails his fingers over the scars on her belly, and his cheek is scratchy against her breast when he nods.
He watches all of her performances, now. Once the big top is up and the cages and poles and bleachers are all in place, he disappears from the drinking and the cards and the dice that the rest of the grunts go off and indulge in, finds a spot where he can watch her because she's beautiful. Every performance he hopes she's not the one. And maybe the ringmaster knows, maybe he's taken pity on Markus, but there's no reason to think that. No reason at all.
Tonight he watches from the other tightrope platform, the wire stretched between them like a lifeline. He's amazed to watch her make her own rope, to watch her move, to know what those muscles feel like when they're underneath him. And he's got a hard-on watching her because, in spite of what Ric says, Ebb's a real woman. Hot and wet and sticky and wild.
He knows her the way no one else does. Watches her like a lover, feels his whole body hot and tense as she lowers herself from the platform, pushes off from the pole and begins her dance.
Ebb feels them out there, but their regrets and lust and guilt cannot touch her. She wraps her own feelings around herself, feels them more tangible than the spotlight.
Without the widow eating her past, she remembers her own regret as she lowers herself on her own rope. The memories of before are there in her head, vivid and alive, as alive as her lust for Markus the last few nights.
The pole is there and she spins, twirls, winds her rope around it, giant Maypole. The knots are inside of her, she senses them before she feels them, small at first.
In her mind's eye, she sees other dancers, feels Mac's body against hers. The widow is gone and she remembers real rope and how much she trusted it.
Without the widow, she feels her belly, the baby inside, the baby she couldn't let herself have, the baby her body killed before she could make a decision.
Knots are hard and thick, and she loosens them only enough to let them out. She has no intention of touching her feet to the floor. Not this time.
Her final regret spins out: that Markus is not Mac, that she wants him to be. Because maybe the world would be right again and she wouldn't be doing this.
But Mac is gone. Dead for more time than she can understand and the widow is no longer there eating that memory. Markus is not Mac come to her in a different body. Their souls are not the same; she's touched them both. Mac regretted so much, and Markus held only that one regret, the regret he didn't want her to take from him.
She glances up, sees Markus across the tent, high in the darkness. She smiles a sad tender smile and thinks maybe he sees it; he leans a little farther forward. His hands are white-knuckled against the platform, but he tries to lean farther. Perhaps he knows what she's doing. Perhaps he'll regret this the way he did the last, will call to mind her hoarse voice, her scratchy words that never begged anything from him.
The knots wind round themselves, make loops, and she dives through one, catches the web round her throat, and she has woven well, woven true.
She will not wait for the ringmaster to tell her that her time is up.
The crowd gives a giant gasp, first amazement and then it melts into cries of horror. Markus's fingertips feel numb, sharp, cold, as cold as his insides. The spotlight lowers from Ebb, drops quickly to the ringmaster who stands in its light, shaken. But the show must go on, and he soothes the crowd.
Markus climbs down from his perch, climbs the other pole and Ric is there, helping haul Ebb up. This is the second time Markus has touched her rope and he can feel it. It feels like her, her quiet, her distance, her strength. It should have held her up, kept her safe.
Bodies are hot and tight and this damnable summer heat in the middle of winter seems off. Sweat's coming down more than it usually does while they're setting up the big top.
"Don't bother with the high wire," Ringmaster says while they're setting things up inside the big top. He still sounds shaken as he did last night when he ordered the teardown. "We'll fake it if it turns out we need it this show."
Markus leans against the high-wire platform, touches his fingers to the coiled wire, and closes his eyes. He doesn't know why he thought it was a lifeline to her; it is so cold and her web was so warm. He regrets that he wanted to hold onto his regret, hold onto his guilt when she took it from him. Perhaps she felt guilty for it, in spite of his apology. She gave him this in its place. He puts his hand protectively to his belly, where a new knot has settled into the emptiness she left.
Copyright © 2003 Aynjel Kaye
Illustration © 2003 Elantriell
Aynjel Kaye began life firmly rooted in Normal and escaped. She is an angst-queen in exile holding court in Seattle, Washington, where she is gathering resources to retake her throne. She may or may not be a chocolate lover, a goth, a punk, and less harmless than she was before. For more on her work, see her website.
Elantriell is a digital artist, 3D modeler, and illustrator. Her style varies: dark, erotic, fantasy and sci-fi, still life and architecture, horror, comics . . . and the list goes on and on. She is availible for making book/cd/magazine covers and concept art among other things. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.