They said I was found in an eggshell. That a witch sailed to sea in the shell to whip up a storm that would smash the boats to ribbons on the rocks, and when the shell came back to land, there was I, curled inside.
That’s what they said. Rubbish, of course, but in our line of work, an interesting story was important as the clothes on your back. Maybe more important.
And it’s true I was always lucky, right from a tiny thing, always first to find stones with holes in their middles when we cleared the ground for the tents, or see a cat the color of midnight. Lucky Luke, they called me.
But only once. Tempting fate like that is the height of foolishness, and we are by nature a superstitious lot.
Perhaps that’s what happened.
I was seven, possibly eight. Not knowing exactly my birthday on account of the eggshells, it was difficult to say for sure, but that sounds about right. Seven or eight, and there was so much glittering, thrilling fun to be had, ducking under the juggler’s clubs, spitting water back at the elephants. Waiting for the moment when everyone had taken their seats and the whole tent held its breath...
“Welcome, welcome!” Mister Scully, the ringmaster, would cry. The towns changed, some big, some small, at the edges of lakes or swaddled by mountains, but this was always the same. And then I would be wheeled out in a special box, because I was one of the small ones, and the magician would saw me clean in two.
Not truly. But it looked for all the world as if he had.
On one particular day, the animals were tired and grizzly, and the rest of us soaked through from a week’s worth of rain. “Are we there yet?” I asked. I remember this quite clearly.
“Nearly, Lucky Luke!” roared Scully, trying very hard to smile beneath his drooping, dripping mustache. Beside me the fortune teller made a sign to ward off evil spirits.
We turned down a dirt road walled on both sides with trees tall as hills. Somewhere behind my little nest of blankets the lion roared, the tamer rattled his chains.
And the beast was silenced.
Inside the trees, nightfall had come at breakfast time, so dark it was. Leaves rustled, and whatever tiny points of light broke through seemed more like stars than daylight. The forest kept the rain off, however. That was something.
It felt an age that we traveled that dark road, peering ahead for any sign of it ending, and when it did, trees giving way to open space and then a large town of wood and brick, it was as abrupt and surprising as a miracle. As finding a penny beside your shoe the moment you happen to look down.
Everyone has a job, in the circus. In truth, everyone has twenty-seven jobs, all part of a well-oiled mechanism. The acrobats climbed atop the piles on the wagons to grasp tent pegs with their toes. The magicians vanished burlap sacks as soon as they were emptied. I wriggled through the small spaces, ran jackrabbit-quick between the carts and the tent.
With a sweeping arm, Scully donned his top hat and crossed the muddy field to the town. I remember this quite clearly, too, though I could not now say why it made such an impression. He always went to issue a formal invitation, as if the people hadn’t watched our arrival through their windows.
The circus had come to town, and oh, wouldn’t they come that very evening to see what wonders the Big Top held?
Of course they would come. They always came, ready to stamp their feet and clap their hands and hiss like snakes.
Only later, much later, did I realize I hadn’t found a single holed stone, or seen a cat hunting for field mice. I was too busy helping the tumblers with their spangles, tying knots in the trapeze ropes, fetching buckets of sawdust and rainwater.
I wouldn’t realize until later.
The tent was full to bursting. I sneaked out and away, far enough that I could see how grand it was, great stripes lit up with torches against the backdrop of that deep, dark forest.
“Here!” I ran back, back to Maximilian, the magician, ready to tuck me into the box so he might cut me in two again.
“In you go, then.”
It was dark as a bruise inside the box, but I wasn’t afraid. No need for that. Done it a hundred times, hadn’t I?
The tent was dark, too. I couldn’t see, but I knew, it was always dark as I was wheeled out to the edge of the ring in my box. Dark and quiet enough to hear a pin drop. The band silent, Scully in his waistcoat and top hat waiting, waiting until the townsfolk couldn’t stay still for another moment.
And then the lights would burst to life, and the waiting band would play, and Scully would welcome everyone, and the show would begin.
Just another moment, that’s all. Squashed inside my box, I knew it would only take another moment.
That’s when the whistle began. A low, mournful whistle that brought goosebumps to my skin. A trombone made a noise like a cat under a cartwheel. Glass shattered.
“Lights!” Scully ordered. Maximilian flicked the latches with fingers that made the whole box shake. I tumbled out, heart thudding, as the ring of torches flared on our fearful faces. High up on the ladders, Ivan and Cassandra dropped their trapezes to put their hands to their mouths. Juliette dropped her deck of cards that did not foresee this. She would have said.
“Who was that,” Scully whispered, gazing about the tent. “Who whistled?”
No one said a word. He looked terrifying, terrible, inhuman with his wide mustache and goggling eyes.
“It is terrible luck to whistle in a circus tent, you know. Let us not get off on such a terrible foot, my friends. Who was it?”
Still, no one answered. Bunch of cowards, I thought then. Bunch of stinking cowards.
Scully gave a last look around the tent. “All right. Welcome, welcome.” It was not a cry, that time.
It was something more of a warning.
The smashed mirror was swept, cards gathered, latches closed on the box, locking me back inside. For the first time I was afraid as the sword sliced the air, but the trick went off without a hitch. And for the rest, if our hands shook a little more, if our feet were not so steady that evening, who was to notice?
But we would not stay another night, that was decided the instant the tent had cleared. Pack up first thing, be on our way to somewhere more hospitable.
In the morning, the wheels stuck so fast in the mud not even the elephants could pull them free.
That afternoon, bored, restless, Cassandra set up a tightrope between two trees, and Ivan wasn’t quick enough to catch her when she fell.
Sulky and starving, the lion seemed to feel the tamer was taking too long to bring his dinner. A single scream broke the sunset, blood stained the ground.
By nightfall, we were all huddled in a single wagon, Juliette’s cards promising death, and death, and death again.
For these things always came in threes. We stole glances at each other’s faces, wondering.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who knocked the candle, and I am the only one left to think of it.
I was always lucky. Found in an eggshell, the first to spot four-leafed clovers and make wishes on shooting stars.
The only one to wake as the flames licked and crackled over parched wood and moth-eaten blankets. My screams trapped in my throat, my hands weak. No one stirred when I shook them.
Jackrabbit-quick, I ran. Into the woods, dark, dank, safe. From behind a tree I saw the fire spread down the chain of wagons, heard the lion roar, the elephants stamp their feet and toss their heads, strong enough to break their chains and let them run.
But there was no saving the circus. Nothing to do but wait for the flames to burn themselves out in the hour of sunrise, when the sky matched the burning embers exactly. On knocking knees I walked, edging closer to a sight too terrible to look at, and yet too terrible to look away.
Part of my magic box survived, charred wood held together by silver hinges, surrounded by a pile of spangles and ash. A beautiful, brightly-colored bird, like a fire itself, flew down to perch on its edge.
It turned a beady eye on me, and then on the rising sun. And it began to whistle, sounding for all the world like a man.