Monday, May 26, 2003

The Tragic Circus

part two:

After retiring to bed at dawn, most everyone sleeps in late the next morning. Everyone but Soren. Nine strikes on the Norwegian Grandfather Clock in the living room (shaking awake the carved trolls lurking in the wooden corners, eliciting a hiss from the World Serpent encircling the clock face, tail in mouth) and Soren knocks softly on his nephew?s door. When no answer is forthcoming he pushes the door ajar. Peering in he discovers what he suspected, books and cloths strewn about, various odd paintings, a number of them by Lady Saturnine, framed and set on the walls in bunches, like surreal bouquet?s. Soren scrutinizes a particular lithograph of Don Quixote, signed by Salvador Dali (one of thousands, mass produced by the printer who had Dali sign the lithograph plate, backwards). He compares the infamous tilter of windmills to his nephew curled up in the middle of a great old creaking bed and finds the verisimilitude astounding. Add a Spanish goatee and a romantic fixation for a prostitute and here sleeps the Man of La Mancha, wearing a pillow for a helmet.

"Does your father know about this mess" Soren asks by way of announcing his presence. "You know how he likes to keep his castle ship-shape..."

Simon does not stir. Which is not unusual as it often takes great measures to rouse Simon, on the order of matches lit between his toes and cold glasses of water splashed on his face. But Uncle Soren is experienced at rousing the dead. He starts by nudging Simon in the ribs with his elbow. Nothing.

"Wake up you!" He shouts and bites him hard, on the arm. Simon bolts awake, rubbing his bleary eyes and a hand through his rooster hair, which is even more tousled then usual.

"Oh. Morning. Or is it afternoon" Simon looks around, tries to determine by the angle of light creeping in through the curtains just what part of the day he has found himself in. He wraps a sheet around his waist and dislodges himself from the disarray of the bed sheets, stumbling into the more general disarray of his room.

"It's still morning but not by much." Soren grins. "Come on you slothful slouch! We've got a busy day ahead of us!" He winks and then exits, shutting the door behind him.

A short shower and a shave later, Simon, now dressed in black T-shirt and checkered pants and someone's letterman sweater he found in a vintage clothing store, descends the stairs to find Soren and Lilly waiting for him in the Fourier.

"Promptness is a virtue," chides Lilly, fingering the oversized silver crucifix dangling between her young breasts. Today, she wears one of her less dramatic black dresses, knee high boots and a pair of black fishnet gloves, the fingers of which have all been torn out by her long nails, painted black.

Ignoring his sister, Simon asks, "So, what are we doing today?"

Uncle Soren answers by wiggling his eyebrows. He then escorts them out the kitchen door to their first stop, an old oak in the back yard.

The tree stands, gnarled and at an angle on the edge of a spacious garden. Simon had climbed that tree a thousand times as a child and lost his virginity one summer night in its shadow.

It had been one of those late July nights when the air hangs like perfumed curtains, stifling what little breeze manages to slip past the shore. The kind of night when fireflies wink at the moon. Simon had just turned fifteen and was courting, secretly and despite all reason, Fatima El Shahezred the youngest of the thirteen daughters of the Ambassador from Eschnapur. Fatima was a girl Simon's age though you wouldn't know it by looking at her, attired as most Muslim women from the Middle East in a traditional burka. She could just as easily have been thirty as thirteen. Covered from head to foot in a stylish midnight blue, it was her dark eyes, like two ripe figs that Simon fell in love with. And her hips, like a Genie's who had swallowed the moon and wore the weight like a talisman around her pelvis. That night he had read from Baudelaire's Le Fleur de Mar to Fatima under the tree until she couldn't stand the heat any longer and peeled off her veil.

Frederick and the Ambassador found them, at their most glorious moment, stark naked except for a shadow that fell across them like a blanket tossed askew, cast by the street lamp against this very oak tree. In Simon's opinion this is one of the reasons for the current chilly state of affairs between The U.S. and the kingdom of Eschnapur.

Today, Christmas lights droop like an electric clothesline from the eves of the house to the leaves of the tree. Several clocks, all set at different times hang from a number of the branches while the largest limb, the one that reaches over the center of the yard, bears a Chinese paper lantern. Soren strolls up to the tree, walks around it three times tugging on his beard.

"Yes, I think this is the one!" He pauses on his third rotation at a small hollow in the trunk and plunges his hand inside, headless of rabid squirrels, garden snakes and what ever else might lurk inside. He's up to his elbow before he shouts, "Ahah!"

Simon winces and Lilly holds her breath as he maneuvers his arm out of the tree. Expecting a bare and bloody stump with an albino hairless mole gnawing on the end they are surprised to find instead Soren holding by its slender neck a bottle of whiskey.

Next stop is the end of a back alley, just behind the cathedral of Saint Thomas. Soren leads Simon and Lilly, holding her parasol erect, through the overgrown cemetery where ferns and aloe growing on the graves obscure some names and important dates while others are simply worn away by years of wind and rain. They pause briefly at the back of the cemetery by a wrought iron gate. Simon notices a freshly hewn headstone in the corner, bare of the pertinent names and dates. But before he can imagine whose life it will sum up, Soren pushes open the ivy -festooned gate (which whines a feeble protest) and leads them down a side lane. Here they find a disused square where once slaves and cattle were sold.

Today the square is in use for a more whimsical trade. Under the old oaks gather snake handlers, Gypsies, jugglers and a wondering band of mariachis who fill the lanes with a southwestern twang reminiscent of cilantro, cumin, tequila, sunlight and piÒatas. Before long the last troop of Carnival Freaks in the Western World march and caper into the square: tiny blue pygmies, a nine foot tall adolescent named Sven with a pipsqueak voice and a vocabulary made up entirely of bawdy limericks, Mr. Cyclops, Georgiana the hermaphrodite, Siamese triplets named August, Dieter and Stephan who are experts at throwing axes, Gilberto the Brass Man, The Mysterious Dragon Lady, a trio of polka dot-tattooed clowns and Cosmo the Magician looking dramatic as always in a top hat and red velvet lined cape leading the way, limping slightly with his lame knee and aided by an ostentatious cane, the head of which resembles a rearing cobra in silver. They slouch up to the courtyard where they unfold a canvas covered set tucked in the back of their truck. A huge banner is hoisted into the air, propped up on poles. It reads:

The Dangling Brothers
Traveling Side Show and Cosmic Emporium
Beauty and the Beast

Soren walks up to Cosmo and gives the man a great bear hug. They talk at length, about what, neither Simon nor Lilly have any idea but whatever the discussion it must have been important as Soren returns without his bottle of whiskey. Shortly thereafter, Cosmo hobbles onto the rickety stage to announce the start of the performance.

"Gentleman and Gentler ladies! Pursuers of the arcane and acolytes of the Secret Wonders, welcome to the Dangling Brothers Side Show and Cosmic Emporium!" Cosmo twirls his handlebar mustache, adding emphasis to his bombastic preamble in all the right places. "But what's this you say?" He cups a white-gloved hand to his ear. "You say there's no such thing as wonder left in this Sordid Old World? Well, then you?ve come to the right place to be proven Joyously Wrong!"

"Met him and his family in Prague, just after the Velvet revolution," Elaborates Soren in a stage whisper to his niece and nephew. "Loveliest bunch of people I've ever met! Except for you two, of course!"

Simon asks, "Uncle Soren, how did you know about this place?"

"Oh I rode into town with yonder sideshow, hence the bottle of whisky. I was paying for my fair. As for the market, that's a secret. Mind you, they don't except money or travelers checks or credit cards here. Only exchange goods and services for goods and services. Barter only." Soren opens his coat pocket, revealing several pieces of the Family silverware, a length of string, a combination bottle opener and corkscrew, three pens, Simon's grandfather's old pipe, a ceramic monkey from the mantle over the fireplace and a hand full of batteries, various sizes.

They stay to watch the show, giggling with the crowd made up mostly of homeless people, migrant workers who found none today (to their great pleasure) and a few lucky college students form the art school over in Knobville, who will for once have something interesting to talk abut at the cafÈ tonight. Especially when the get to the part about the dwarves who juggle an antique tea setting, three lighted candelabras and a poodle. After the clowns take their short bows, Georgiana the hermaphrodite plays the part of the Beast in a sable fur mask while the tattooed lady as Belle, illustrate the forbidden lovers consummating their affection in anatomical detail.

Afterwards the Said trio peruses the unexpected realm of commerce in mysteries.

"Tongues! Tongues for sale!" A stout woman yells in Simon's ear. "Whisper sweet nothings for a small price! Good between two slices of bread! Can never go wrong with a spare tongue!"

Under a canopied table an old man sells keys of all shapes and sizes, some made to fit into hearts while others fit only doors that no longer exist or never were in the first place.

Simon stops to peruse a booth stuffed full of prosthetic body parts of all shapes, sizes and verities: gilded feet and brass knuckles, eyes made of glass and alabaster toes. A stunning pair of articulated silver plated hands catch Simon's eye. He strokes his chin and does some mental arithmetic. At the next booth, a purveyor of fine superstitions is set on selling Lilly a broken mirror. She is more interested, however in his black kitten who crawls backwards behind a spare toilet in the corner, hissing.

At a booksellers cart, Simon rifles through an old steamer trunk full of lost and unknown classics. Most are in poor condition and unreadable either because of time, decrepitude or poor usage of illegible fonts. However, there is one that catches Simon's eye, a small clothbound novella entitled The Tragic Circus. Opening to the first page he reads the first line, his tried and true method of testing the literary quality of any book. He is not disappointed as chapter one starts:

On August 30th, 1921, in the town of Avignon, France was born a boy with the head of a wolf.

The Tragic Circus chronicles the life of this wolf headed boy, Pierre Le Chen. His parents, who are the worst sort of superstitious and ill-mannered bumpkins inform the local paper that their son died after only five days when in fact they sold the infant Pierre to a passing Carnival Side Show for a pair of hens. The Bearded Lady raises him as her own son and teaches him the value of the human spirit, no matter in what shape it manifests.

Meanwhile his natural parents go on to have a gaggle of normal children, all of who die tragic deaths before the age of eighteen, some by childhood maladies common to the period, others by accidents of an unusual nature. Like second born Bertrand, running afoul of Pablo Picasso who challenges the poor boy to a duel by Absinth. The only child who lives to see adulthood is their youngest, Charles, who is retarded and must remain in their care well into his forties, making it impossible for them to ever retire or be happy ever again.

A Teenaged Pierre has a series of adventures, each more sublime and fabulous than the next, including a romance with Isabel the painted Lady, who gives him an intimate tour of her full body tattoo. Then there is the ingenious duel of wits against three Nazi naturalists who have come to capture Pierre for display in Der Feurer's private zoo. After escaping the Nazi Naturalists, Pierre joins the Resistance, helping sabotage bridges and delivering Albert Camus? underground newspaper. Pierre becomes something of a folk legend to the people of France who refer to him as Le Chen Noir, The Black Dog who seems to be everywhere and nowhere, sapping roads and gladdening the hearts of children and adults alike with his acrobatic routine. To the Nazis however, he is Der Kr‰nkenwˆlfe, just some abominable Jewish subversion.

The author, Kevin Kaiser, who, according to the about-the-author note on the last page was a librarian and founding member of the short lived and often ignored neo-Fabulist school, delights in details of the Anarchism of Circus life, full of communal participation in the joys and tragedies of a life lived on the fringes of society.

A bittersweet, melancholic flavor asserts itself throughout the story but it achieves an almost palpable presence towards the end when Pierre, who has fallen in love with Anne Nagas, daughter of a famous Parisian bicycle enthusiast, discovers that the girl thinks him a grotesque amusement and was merely feigning affection for him. In spite of her betrayal, Pierre saves her from the machinations of a mad Priest (who was secretly a Nazi sympathizer) named Father Emanuel Basquiet who, through a circuitous and questionable bit of metaphysics, decides that the best way to get the wayward Parisians back into the Cathedrals is by putting the fear of God into them. He does this by setting fire to the Circus Folk whom he regards as the Henchmen of Satan. Pierre dies saving both the callow girl and his adopted family from an unholy conflagration on the west bank of the Seine and is swept away by the unforgiving river.

The part of the story though that really shakes Simon's spine is when Pierre the wolf headed young man befriends an aging poet named SimÛn Voulezvou who has the most glorious speech in the whole book about how the most important thing in life is not duty to family, country or ideology but to find that which makes you happy above all else and pursue it unto death. And also, the best way to live one's life is in accordance with classical wisdom: to eat, drink and be merry for we all soon will die.

Simon promptly exchanges one of his favorite poems for the book:

Galileo's Telescope

Never much of a friend
To Old Occam and his Magic Razor,
Galileo through his Telescope saw
No crosses,
No swords,
No Platonic Angels
Dancing on the rings of Saturn.
Just the infinite reflection of
Bees Wings
And the Seventh Veil of Salome
And Ten Thousand Species of Beetles
Who will never submit
To the Learned Astronomer's scalpel.

After the bookseller's stall they pay a visit to the Mysterious Dragon Lady who has eyes like live coals and a forked tongue, which gives her a slight lisp as she reads the tarot cards one by one.

"The Knight of Swords next to the Empress: a lover for you!" She winks at Simon who smiles and nods his approval.

"The Knight of wands. Beware the Man who represents the right hand of the King. Three of cups, yes! I see passion and I see... the Tower, struck by lightning! Oh! And it crosses the female pope! Interesting?"

"Care to elaborate?" Asks Simon, flopping a pair of double-A batteries onto the table.

The Mysterious Dragon Lady hands them back to Simon. "This is no longer your fortune, dear. Hers!" She levels a long red nail at Lilly. "There will be an unexpected visitor. And something will remain. Two in one and the third, invisible to the instruments of science will forever leave its mark on you and your offspring..." She sucks on hot incensed air that smells like flowers and dragon scales and magic. And says no more. Simon and Soren exchange raised eyebrows. Soren pays the Dragon Lady with a ceramic monkey and a spare flashlight he found in the kitchen junk drawer.

They step out into the sunlight on the square again, spending the rest of the afternoon exploring stalls of vintage clothing and a varied selection of shoes.
The cryptic words of the Mysterious Dragon Lady will return to Lilly every so often, at least until dinner time when she will remember that fortune telling is a sin and besides, she doesn't believe in that sort of thing anyway.


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