MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The plains of Idaho seemed to stretch from here to Heaven in the moonlight, if such a place existed, and the Blackstone Family Circus rolled over them as silently as a wagon train can roll, which was to say, not silently in the least. Wheels creaked. Oxen lowed quiet protest about being forced to work when they would rather have been stopping to graze in the low, patchy brush. Horses whickered, their hooves striking hard against the stony ground. A few still bore the painted stripes of their last show across their rumps, transforming them into half-zebras for the amusement of the townsfolk. The roustabouts who’d drawn the evening’s short straw walked alongside the wagons, checking the snugness of wheels and the fastening of harnesses even as the train moved on. A show like this required constant maintenance, whether stationary or in motion.
“A circus is like a shark,” said Nathanial Blackstone, whenever he was given the opportunity to do so—which was surprisingly frequent, even in places like this, where it seemed no human foot had trod since the West was won. “If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. So we move onward, ever onward, buy a ticket to see the bearded lady, and your children will thank you in the morning.”
Sometimes the children thanked their parents by stowing away in the open wagons, hiding behind boxes or nestling themselves down in the cored-out hearts of old straw bales. Most of those runaways found themselves summarily dumped back on the road and ordered to go home, best of luck to you, young sir or madam, but we are not in the business of kidnapping, and we are not willing to risk ourselves on the likes of you. And to be fair, most of those runaways were glad to go. The glitter and lure of the circus was a night-thing, strongest by moonlight: it was, in its own way, a werewolf, transforming only when the sun went down. The circus by day was a different beast, less alluring, less attractive. It smelled of wet horse and rotting wood, of unwashed bodies and aging canvas, and it was hard to reconcile with the idea of the shining wonderland that had tempted them in the first place. But for some …
Oh, for some, the roustabouts or handlers who found them nestled in the hay or sleeping behind a costume rack needed only one look before they were going for Blackstone to report, in low, urgent voices, that his attention was needed. For some, who came with ribs that stood out like pickets in a fence, or with black bruises blooming across their cheeks—the kind that found a way to show through, no matter the color of their skin—a place could always be opened up. They might be doing manual labor, shoveling horseshit until the sun set or helping with the endless touch-ups the wagons required, but at least they’d be fed, and as safe as anyone could be in this world, which wasn’t safe in the slightest.
A stranger could be forgiven if, seeing the show from a distance, they took it for a profitable target, and the Blackstone Circus had weathered its share of raids and stickups from people who didn’t understand that circus gold is never true, that circus diamonds are always paste, and that circus beauty is at best a sham to fool the townies. At worst it’s an outright lie, and that was true of most of the wagons, which were held together by hope, baling wire, and sheer cussed stubbornness. If the wagons fell apart, the circus would stop moving; if the circus stopped moving, it would no longer be a circus. Simple as that. So they slapped paint over cracks in the wood, and they repaired what could be repaired, and half the time when raiders came riding down out the hills, set on making mischief, the bold highwaymen somehow found themselves with hammers in their hands, helping to repair a broken axle.
They were paid, of course, in food and entertainment and whatever small riches the circus had been able to scrape together since the last time it had been attacked. And sometimes a man new to the highwayman’s trade would burn a wagon out of an odd sense of obligation, filling the air with the smell of burning mold and blistering paint. But the quietly reproachful eyes of the circus folk seemed to have an extra weight by firelight, and rare was the man anywhere in the West who would harm a traveling show twice. The world was dark enough. Why darken it further by destroying one of the few amusements that served rich and poor alike?
So the circus rolled on, the lookouts keeping a weather eye on the hills while most of the show seized the rare opportunity to sleep between towns. Even if the human dangers would let them be, there were always things to fear out in the open. Cougars and wolves, and worse, to hear some of the roustabouts mutter in the night.
At the head of the wagon train was Nathanial Blackstone himself, owner of the show, reins in his hands as he guided his horses down the trail. Some people believed he never slept at all; that like his circus, he was a shark, and that if he stopped moving, he would die. Others knew that he was flesh and blood like any other man. A born showman, yes, who had no trouble encouraging his own mystique even among the people who worked for him, but still a man. He slept when the show was stopped. He slept in the early afternoons, when the crowds had yet to come in but the work of setting up had been finished. He slept in the space between sentences, where no one needed him to make their decisions for them, where, for good or ill, he could rest.
Rumor was he had a wife somewhere on the coast, in one of the green places where neither man nor beast came a-preying; that he had a child, or two, or as many as four, and that one day, when gray strands started to appear in that great black mustache of his, he’d be sending his trusted right hand to ride for Oregon and bring his eldest back to the show, ready to begin training his heir in the ways of the road.
Rumor also was that he was a clockwork man built by the master of another, fancier show, and that he’d run away from his creator the same way those occasional foundling children ran away from their creators, choosing freedom and uncertainty over captivity and a life where all their choices would come from someone else.
Nathanial Blackstone encouraged the rumors, all of them, no matter how ludicrous. If his people believed him to be a monster or a madman or a maestro, that could only enhance his reputation—and hence the reputation of the show as a whole—in the small towns they rolled through. Their route was a cartographer’s masterwork of trails, roads, and semisafe paths, all connecting the settlements they served. A circus’s map was one of its greatest treasures. Some of these routes, no other show in this part of the country knew. Without maps, the wagons couldn’t get place to place fast enough to make a profit.
Keep moving. Stay alive.
Behind his wagon came the hulking shapes of the equipment wagons, largest in the train, which hauled the upright posts of the various tents, the collapsed game booths, the vast, billowing canopy of the big top. When Nathanial thought of the tent, he always saw it in silken stripes, high enough to beat its banners against the moon. The truth was tamer, fifteen feet at its highest point, patched canvas painted in irregular zigzags, but oh, it was still beautiful when the lights were strung around the edges, when the aerialists put on their spangles and their sequins and learned how to fly. How could something like that be anything but beautiful? And that, in a word, was the power of the circus, and the reason it had been able to pass unscathed through territory he’d been told, time and again, was too dangerous for any man to navigate. No matter how ugly the world outside the tent got, the world inside would always be beautiful, and people would always want beauty. No matter how bad things got, people would always want beauty.
Behind the equipment wagons came a scattering of smaller wagons, most privately owned, some barely worthy of the name. The Visali twins slept in an open cart, on a bed of hay and old carpet, their arms tangled around each other until they seemed like a single body split in two, the long white shapes of their borzoi hounds surrounding them in a hairy curtain. They refused to sleep in a closed wagon unless it was snowing, claiming the heat from their dogs made any enclosure unbearable. Half the show called them “the Russian werewolves,” and untrue as the name was, it played well on the broadsheets they put up to advertise their performances.
Half the wagons were dark, their teams roped to the backs of the wagons ahead of them, trusting the show as a whole to set the path. The wagons where lanterns burned in the windows were still silent, raising the question of whether the light signaled wakefulness or merely superstition. The power of superstition in the circus could not be overlooked by any measure. It was a powerful thing, and some said it was what kept the axles turning without breaking, even when they rode over hard prairie. Say your prayers proper, make your offerings when you can, and the world will pass you by.
At the back of the train—not quite the end, which was reserved for the wagons containing the dancing bear, the aging lion, the strange, terrible creatures of the oddities wagon, and the human attractions of the freak show—a small wagon bounced along, pulled by a pair of mules. One wore a straw hat. It was the sort of foolish affectation adored by children everywhere, and the mule bore up with stoic silence, plodding ever onward. Like so many of the teams in the circus train, the pair had been tied to the wagon ahead of them.
Unlike so many of the wagons around them, the occupants of this one were awake. Sadly so: Annie Pearl, mistress of the freak show, feeder of lions and bears and whatever else she was asked to care after, sat restless and awake beside her daughter’s narrow bunk, mouth pursed tight in worry.
“You’ll feel better if you take your medicine,” she said, in the cajoling, hopeful tone that has belonged to mothers since the very dawn of humanity. “Come along, now, Delly-my-dear. Be a good girl, and let me soothe your throat.”
Adeline shook her head. The wagon lights struck stubborn glints off her dark doe’s eyes. Annie sighed. Seven years old and the girl was still stubborn as a post, and twice as difficult to budge.
“I know you don’t like the taste of it, but there’s nothing to be done for that,” Annie said. “When we come to the next town, I’ll see if I can’t set enough aside to buy you some cherry syrup. Won’t that be fine?”
Adeline eyed her mistrustfully. She knew her mother well enough to know that an offer of that sort always came with strings attached.
“But you have to take your medicine now.”
Adeline frowned and shook her head fiercely, raising her right hand in the sign that meant ‘no.’
This time, Annie’s sigh was heavier. “Delly, you won’t sleep until you take your medicine. Until you sleep, I won’t sleep. If I don’t sleep tonight, I won’t be able to handle the bears in the morning. Do you want your poor old mother to be eaten by bears?”
Adeline giggled soundlessly at the thought before signing, ‘Bears would get sick on you.’
“Yes, probably, and then where would you be? Another circus orphan, and you can’t even sing for your supper. Really, you’re much better off simply keeping me alive, which means letting me give you your medicine so we can both get some sleep tonight.”
Adeline rolled her eyes. Recognizing the first signs of a pending concession, Annie sat back and waited.
Life with a child who could not speak came with challenges and compromises she could never have expected back when she’d been a pregnant wife with a belly full of potential and a head full of dreams. Had someone asked her then what she hoped, she would have answered without hesitation, “A boy, perfect in every possible way, smart as his father,” and she would have been lying through her teeth. Boys belonged to their fathers. That was simply the way the world worked. If the midwife who yanked her firstborn out from between her legs had shouted, “You have a son!” her involvement in her own child’s life would have as good as ended then and there, with her still bloody from the waist down. Her role would have been to cook and clean and look on indulgently as nannies and tutors saw to the young master’s every need, guiding him gradually farther and farther away from his mother.
He would have been his father’s son, and while she knew it was wrong to love one child more than another, she loved Adeline so much more than the heir she’d never given to the man she’d married.
What mother demanded perfection of her children? She couldn’t even manage perfection in herself, and she’d had all the best tutors, all the right opportunities. Even without the damage to her vocal cords that had rendered her perpetually silent, Adeline wouldn’t have had any of those things: she was growing up in creaky circus wagons and under the shadow of the big tent, not in damasked parlors and lacy gowns. No one had ever rapped her knuckles for failing to sit like a little lady. Most of the cakes she’d eaten in her life had been sweetened with honey, not with sugar, and she didn’t know how to properly drink her tea, and she was utterly flawless, no matter what anyone else said.
No matter what her father had said.
It was easier now that Adeline could write when she had something complicated to say. She had some sign, learned from a Blackfoot man who’d traveled with the circus for a time. His Christian name had been Andrew, and his Blackfoot name had been a closely guarded secret, making most of the circus suspect that he was wanted for some crime or other.
(Annie rather assumed he had other reasons for his secrecy. She’d seen the roustabouts find excuses to mock names they found in the slightest bit foreign without mercy, and there was an awful tendency to assume Indian names were foreign, even though all this land had belonged to them ages before the white men came in to spoil things. She figured no one would set himself up to be tormented when he had another choice, and Andrew had been a proud man—most sharpshooters were. If he chose to hide his name so it couldn’t be used against him by people who didn’t understand pride, she had sympathy for that. She’d made similar choices, in her time.)
The sign was useful, and wasn’t it lovely to watch Adeline talking with her hands? They danced and fluttered like little birds, and sometimes Annie thought she was about the luckiest of mothers, because when her daughter sang, she could see it with her eyes and hear it in her heart, where it would echo on forever.
But then there were nights like this, where she couldn’t help thinking the argument would go faster if she could just talk to the girl, and not have to work around a gulf of silence. “Well?” she asked. “Are you going to be kind to your poor old mother and let me have a moment’s peace?”
Adeline looked thoughtful. Then, with a small smile, she nodded.
“Thank you, Delly-my-love, dearest Delly in the world wide. Why, there are no finer Dellys in England or in France.” She produced the green glass bottle from the pocket of her skirt, removing the cork with a practiced twist, and held it out toward Adeline. “Your spoon, please.”
Adeline wrinkled her nose. The smell wafting from the open bottle was camphor and bitter herb, not dampened in the slightest by the honey Annie had mixed into the concoction. There were other ingredients in there, hidden under the surface layer of medicinal sharpness, things to soothe the mind and relax the body. Adeline couldn’t sleep without it. They both knew that. It didn’t make the taking of the stuff any more pleasant.
“Please,” repeated Annie, with more urgency.
Adeline sighed—one of the few audible sounds she was capable of making—and produced a wrought iron spoon from under her pillow. It was a heavy thing, surprisingly delicate, made for her by one of the wainwrights from an old railroad tie. He’d said it would keep bad luck at bay. Adeline wasn’t sure that was true. It delivered her nightly medicine, after all, and that was about the worst luck she could imagine.
Only about. She knew what bad luck looked like, the shape of its face and the color of its eyes, and her nightly medicine had nothing on true disaster.
“Best of children, sweetest of girls,” Annie cooed, and poured thick, greenish syrup into the bowl of the spoon, stopping at the notch that indicated a proper dose. “Now down it goes, and off you go to dreamland, my dearest, my darling girl. Come tomorrow, we’ll have a new show to set, and you’ll be dangling from the rigging like a sailor at sea.”
She put the cork back in the bottle, watching patiently until Adeline stuck the spoon between her lips and swallowed every drop, grimacing as she did. When Delly pulled the spoon out of her mouth and held it up for her mother’s inspection, it was perfectly clean once more.
Annie nodded approvingly. “Good girl,” she said. “Sleep well.” She leaned in and pressed a kiss to her daughter’s forehead before standing and beginning to tidy the wagon. It was a small, unnecessary task—the wagon was as close to spotless as it could be at all times, for the sake of Adeline’s throat and her own sensibilities, which were still, at times, too finely-honed for her current circumstances—but it kept her in the room without making it seem like she was hovering.
When she had finished dusting all four of their plates and wiping an imagined spill off the narrow counter that served as their kitchen, she looked back to the bed where her daughter slept. Adeline’s eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling in a steady motion. Annie smiled in exhaustion and relief. At last.
The wagon had two doors, one at the front and one at the rear, although the door at the front was really more of a glorified hatch, intended for use only if she needed to lunge out and grab control of a runaway horse. She opened it, letting the night air in, and hung a lantern on the hook at the front. Any roustabout who looked that way would see the light and know its meaning: “unmanned wagon, driver out.” If the wheels started to drift or the horses tried to balk, someone would be there to pull things back on track.
Roping the wagons together for night travel came with risks—if something happened to one of the leaders, the whole circus could be compromised—but it was essential if they wanted to maintain the illusion of privacy between them. Not every wagon could be equipped with a driver capable of staying up all night, and even if they could have been, not everyone was happy to share their living space. Life at the circus meant having someone in your back pocket at all times. Any scraps of solitude that could be stolen were important.
And no one wanted to share a wagon with Annie and Adeline. Delly was too quiet for the younger women, the dancers and the aerialists and the made-up fortune tellers who really sold the chance to glance at their powdered bosoms through the magnifying lens of a crystal ball. She could come up on them like a ghost, like the accident that had stolen her voice had taken her footsteps with it, and scare them right out of their youth. She made the older women sad. They remembered their own children as laughing, idealized sprites, creatures that had been too good to stay, and knowing that she would never give her own mother that pleasure broke their hearts. As for the unattached men, well …
Even if Annie had been so determined not to be a burden as to allow one of them to share her wagon, Mr. Blackstone would never have been willing to stand for it. He was a gentleman at heart, which was a dangerous thing to be in a place like this one.
Annie took her cloak from its hook by the back door, slung it around her shoulders, and stepped outside.
There was an art to dismounting from a moving wagon. The steps could be extended only when the train had stopped; otherwise, there was a chance the friction from the ground could rip them right off their hinges, damaging the wood and requiring surprisingly extensive repairs. Annie waited on the lip that served as the wagon’s “porch” until she could feel the rocking of the road in her knees—only a few seconds, a dramatic contrast to her first years with the Blackstone Circus—and then stepped off, as fearless as a high diver plunging into her pool.
Her toes hit the ground first, followed by her heels, which made impact at the moment her knees bent. To an observer, it looked like a very short curtsey. Then she was upright again, heading briskly for the next wagon in the train.
This one was larger than the wagon Annie shared with Adeline, fancier, covered in gingerbread curlycue nonsense that had to be polished for at least an hour before a show—but when it was polished nice and proper, how it shone in the sun! Half the take for an afternoon could be determined by how brightly the trim was shining that day. The sides were painted with larger-than-life advertisements for the wagon’s contents, telling anyone who chanced to look their way that they could see! The Terrifying Swamp Beast! They could thrill! To the Ferocious Man-Eating Fish! They could even, if they liked, gaze in awe! At the Fearsome Tiger, Master of the East!
The freak show wagons rode behind this one, and many was the night Annie had spent among them, massaging sore muscles, tending to sprained backs, and most difficult of all, salving wounded feelings, which were slower to heal than wounded bodies. Thankfully, tonight, all the wagons rode dark and quiet, with their windows shuttered and lanterns hung to signal that everyone aboard was already off to dreamland. Her nursing duties were done for the night. Now was the time for her to do the rest of her duty.
Annie walked around to the back of the wagon that held their traveling caravan of oddities, unhooked the door, and hoisted herself up with a practiced hand, vanishing into the musk-scented darkness.
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