Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
For no particular reason a thin man with straight hair and nervous gestures attracted my attention: above his many lips, on his corporal’s mask he had a moustache that looked like two flies stuck on with a pin. It looked like the moustache would outlive its owner. The man wore a uniform with decorations that made you think of a spider, a spider web, and a spider’s victim at the same time. He was with a smaller and fatter man with a conquistador’s mask; he wore a uniform with epaulets and a tri-cornered hat. The thin one and the fat one were talking, and they waved their arms vigorously, as if they arguing who was the greater hero. Their conversation was overheard by a boy with a wonderful body, in a canvas shirt, with a Virgo mask on his face.
There were bare-chinned Huns here, Tartars, in their clothes and with their idols; there were wine-producers, Slavs, Normans, Saxons, Goths, there were Mayas with half-moon faces; there were Roman emperors and church heads; patriarchs, popes, Pharisees and Scribes; chiefs of extinct tribes; Chinese leaders, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian, Macedonian; there were Greek dictators; Spanish, Hawaiian; there were Nicholas’ and Alexanders, Phillips and Louises, Marias and Elisabeths, with names that ended in ov, va, vo, ski, chki, ich, ik, ah, or, ti, vi, with decorative feathers; there were the wild and the wise smart of this and that place; their hostages and hostages’ lovers; jesters and ladies, statesmen and law makers, bankers and traders, factory owners and entertainers, philosophers and artists, scientists and alchemists, usurers and dreamers, young and old, beautiful and ugly, big and small, dirty and clean.
This crowd was like a cluster of grapes, like a bunch of carnations in whose middle were the man with the moustache and spider cross, and the fat man; it seemed that they still argued over who had accomplished the greater deeds. The handsome boy stood just to the side and watched everything quietly, but not with disinterest.
The stage was brightly lighted. There was nobody, nothing on it: just the unbearable whiteness.
In time, the shiny light grew weaker, paler, taking on violet shades. The audience became quieter and quieter.
When the noise stopped, I knew the show was about to start. And I would surely see it once the workers (did they?) made the final preparations, unless something averted my attention.
The audience members started taking off their masks. I watched that unforgettable sight and I couldn’t believe my eyes: under the pig, wild dog, or puma mask with expensive clothes, were the faces of those to whom the clothes belonged in a former life. Under the masks of those persons from more recent times, other masks appeared, like those removed but more perfect, made of delicate skins, spotted, or white as ivory, hairy or angelically pure. The matching of the clothes and face, the mask and the mask, the face and the face, did not leave room for suspicion: the circus audience was made up of the real and only owners of the clothes and masks.
When I turned toward the stage, everything was ready for the start of the show.
In fact, there was now nothing on the stage. Only some iron rings hanging freely in the air. Strangely shaped, they looked like every-day, though large, scissors: the handles of the scissors were rings, the two sharp blades crossed ropes.
The scissors were half-open, and the blades formed an angle of twenty-two or twenty-five degrees. In this space, between the sharp steel blades, a naked female body dangled, quivering in the emptiness. The girl was familiar from somewhere, but I couldn’t clearly see her face: it was in half darkness. The body, young and fresh, voluptuously trembled in the air, like a fish in an aquarium.
A woman with a water bucket appeared on the stage, bathed in green light. She was dressed almost like a peasant. She didn’t turn toward the audience. She put the bucket down at the side of the dark podium, close to me, and she stood by it, mute, immobile. In the pseudo-peasant I recognized the wife of the guard.
The guard also came soon (why did I expect him?). Dressed like a gymnast, illuminated by red light, he stood in the middle of the stage and bowed to the audience. He went beneath the device and jumped. His strong hands grabbed the rings; the blades shone in the half darkness.
When the guard leapt from the ground, I thought the girl would be immediately cut in half: under the pressure of the man’s body, the blades would fly to each other and slice the girl in two. But he was obviously a master of his trade. With incomprehensible speed, making numerous half-movements, wiggling like a caught fish, the shivering body, bowing and stretching its toes, managed to keep the blades from joining each other. In fact, the sharp edges gradually grew further apart, leaving the girl more and more space.
The gymnast was dripping with sweat. With a convulsive expression, he even managed to open the blades of the scissors as much as he could spread his arms. And he stood like that for a moment, triumphantly. Then, all at once, the body started sinking: the blades flew to each other. The movement of the gymnast and the way he suddenly loosened his body were so sudden that I spread the curtain in confusion. Everything happened fast. The blades clinked together and cut off the girl’s head. The gymnast caught the beheaded body as he fell, and when he touched the ground, he stood frozen, holding the warm, lifeless flesh in his arms. The head with flying hair, a shiny meteor in the dark night, flew through the air and – splash! — it fell into the water bucket.
Something splashed my face. I wiped it off with my hand. Blood!
In the beginning I thought that they had seen me, because I stood in front of the curtain. But apparently everybody was busy with his or her work, and my insignificance brought no attention. I quickly returned to my former place.
The show, evidently, had finished, because the viewers got out of their seats. They put on the masks they had come with and, not turning toward the stage, left.
I sat motionless, until the last visitor left. I think I dozed a little. When I again peeked through the curtain, I saw the guard, his wife, and their daughter. The woman was cleaned up; the guard was removing the chairs. The girl was sitting, pensive, a bit to the side, smoking.
Although I intended to address the guard after the end of the show and let him know how I had tricked him, now I thought it smarter not to brag too much. Because for him, maybe, it wouldn’t be too hard to fix the demonic scissors and in a second put me between the sharp blades. For a man who had such dangerous skill, it seemed that nothing was impossible.
The guard, his wife, and their daughter remained under the tent for a long time: they spent a lot of time preparing for the next day’s show. When they left I was relieved.
So I was alone now. I could smoke a cigarette at peace and think about everything I had seen, how I would get out of there, whether I would return through the underground tunnel about which nobody (except for the dog?) knew, or whether I would do something else.
I thought about the show for a long time, and everything upset me. But most of all I was bothered by one question: Who was the girl? Now it felt – and while I watched her smoking, I was sure of it – that the girl whose head flew so awfully was nobody but the guard’s daughter. The similarity between her and the killed girl was striking: same hair, same smile, same hands, and same gestures.
But she had been beheaded! How did she resurrect all of a sudden? I didn’t see where they took the head and the dead body, but I knew that it was not that simple to glue them together and breathe life into them again.
Were the victims of the shows dragged from the underworld, every day a piece (the head and the body of the killed ones were hidden by the guard, so the newly arrived didn’t know what awaited her)? Well, without a doubt there were people living under the ground I passed through: didn’t I hear their whispering? But why was this girl so similar to the guard’s daughter? Did the earth’s bosom contain thousands of his living daughters, one of whom was killed today to be replaced by another tomorrow?
I decided to get out as soon as possible, along the same road I used to get there. Thus I would also have a chance to examine the underground and discover the secret of the dead girl, then return home. I came to the place where the spongy opening was. But when I tried to thrust in my hand I almost broke all the bones of my fingers. The hole was closed, cemented.
Apparently, it became mushy and penetrable only when somebody wanted to enter it, a man led by a dog, maybe, or a creature of the underground, a provocative beauty with white skin who looked so much like the guard’s daughter that I could never say it was not her. This all lasted for a short time. Then the opening would close (or better, freeze) itself.
For the first time since I came I remembered that often the guard, earlier, when I tried unsuccessfully to enter the circus, told me: You are trying in vain. Nobody but my wife and myself can enter the tent. Others who do, do not come out.
Then I thought those words were a joke, but now after I had seen the strange things the guard was doing and understood that the circus was only a big, shiny trap (for daughters, or naïve, curious people?), I shuddered.
Was it possible that, searching for luxury, I had found my own grave?
In vain. I yelled in vain, I pushed the chairs in vain. I was in a glass bell at the bottom of the ocean. The canvas didn’t have even the slightest crack. And it was canvas only in name and color (in my dimmed consciousness). As a matter of fact, the trap was made of hard, smooth, unfamiliar, and, of course, impregnable matter! When I touched the wall of the trap I felt that behind it there was nothing, nothing, and least of all a field of wild poppies.
So, I was buried alive.
Doesn’t matter. Tomorrow night, when the masked people come, when the guard erects the unusual device, when the woman stands by the water bucket and the magical girl’s body – no doubt, the same, eternally same girl – shines in the half darkness, swinging like a ship on the sea, like a speck of dust freely trembling, when the shiny eyes of the rulers, nymphomaniacs, and vultures, turn toward the red light of the spot lights, in this short, awful and endlessly precious moment – when the steel becomes dough, and the secret gates of freedom open, for those who love it – providence will grant me a small, almost meaningless – but why unfulfilling? — chance.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska
Even in my dreams I planned how I would dig out the ground around the tent, slice the canvas, or in some other way enter the circus and see the big show. I was ready to seduce the guard’s daughter, even his wife, turn into a clown, steal, lie, commit crimes. In vain: the seemingly flimsy, soft canvas fortress was unconquerable.
The tent was at the edge of the city, where the old wooden houses disappeared and the field overgrown with wild poppies started. Stretched and as erect as an elephant’s tusk, it shone in the sun. It flashed colors like the fire of a dragon. It breathed with its enormous chest like a child’s toy, swaying this way and that in the wind – a giant ship on the wide sea.
Strange thing: around the tent there was an empty meadow. No sleeping cars, no people, no children, no animals. God knows where the circus people slept. Next to the entrance to the tent was a cabin where the guard, his wife, and daughter lived.
Late in the night, when the audience arrived, the circus and the area around it was bathed in a waterfall of light that fell from all sides. In this full, magical illumination you could not recognize your own brother, not to mention seeing where the clowns came from, the playthings, the tamer of the wild beasts.
The audience was chosen. The key to the selection was free: it had to do with masks and clothes. The visitors, who came masked as bandits, pigs, or sharks, also had to wear authentic costumes of nobles and rulers of the past. Those who dressed as children of the modern age needed authentic masks. Of course, the formal clothes could easily be bought. But that was not the case with the masks. There were not for sale, and nobody alive – I mean those with whom I spoke – knew how the guests found them. The transformation into persons from past centuries also entailed great difficulties. Indeed, one could buy a mask of a prophet, a harlequin, or a fox; but where could you find the expensive clothes of a ruler, embroidered with gold and sterling silver, and lined with jewels?
For the common mortal, a simple solution was to get away from the glittering stage, erase from one’s mind the magic, gleaming cupola and the thought of the big show that took place under it. But that didn’t suit my egotistical, inflammatory nature. So, even when I lost every hope that I would get into the tent, I persisted in my futile attempts, trusting more in providence than in common sense.
I cannot tell how much time I wasted in these efforts. But one day I got lucky. The guard’s dog helped me. I’d noticed that animal a long time ago, but I couldn’t imagine what use it could be. That day, watching the dog wandering through the field, far from the tent, I happened to notice that the animal went into a hole from which it didn’t come out. I waited all day. In the evening – filled with a strange feeling – I placed a stone on the hole and ran to the tent. The dog was sleeping near its owner. How did it get to the tent? It didn’t take much sense to conclude that the dog used an underground tunnel that connected the outside world and the circus. It was only a matter of whether the secret route ended outside the tent, in the guardhouse, or…?
The area around the tent looked clean, untouched. I had surreptitiously entered the guard’s house several times and looked it over carefully: I never noticed the slightest sign that a tunnel came out there. So?
I returned to the place in the field where I had seen the dog and the hole. The rock still covered it. I removed it. The hole was narrow; a dog could fit, but not a man. Still, wasting no time, without stopping to think or arrive at a decision, I took off my coat, and after I enlarged the opening with a knife, I dug underground clenching a flashlight in my teeth. I crawled, advancing a centimeter at a time. My head was spinning because the show was about to start, and that awareness gave me new strength: the very thought of my reaching the tent too late, when the circus magic would be over, was awful.
Pressed by rocks and mud on all sides, without air, in the kingdom of worms and roots, powerless, I believed I was finished. I was losing consciousness. I was losing strength. For a moment I wanted to go back; but there was nowhere for me to go, much less turn around, and it was impossible to crawl backwards. I continued digging earth with my mouth, swallowing it like a worm.
I was half dead when I realized that the tunnel was expanding. At first it was almost unnoticeable. I continued with the gloomy work of a field mouse. After a while I could move left and right; then the hole became a chamber in which I could crawl more freely; finally it turned into a hall. I stood up and stepped into the darkness of the earth within.
I immediately noticed a detail: from the corridor along which I walked, at right angles, other halls branched, narrower ones: from there something like a reflection of a fire burning within earth came to me, from a great distance was a kind of gurgling; and I could hear a very clear, intelligible human whisper. Curious, I wanted to see where this mysterious light in the bowels of the earth was and what these creatures were who lived so far from the sun, green meadows, and wavy seas. But it was clear that both the light and the hiding places of the mysterious creatures were quite far from me, and I had no time to lose: in the final analysis, I had gone underground because of the show, not because of mad curiosity. I decided to check the mysterious light and the origin of the voices on my way back. Now I had to move on, along the main corridor lighted with the fiery flames – because I had no doubt I was going along the main road, mainly because the corridor along which I walked was wider than the others.
When I reached the end, I started carefully checking the walls. Desperately, because at first glance, the corridor looked like a dead end. I encountered a hard, smooth rock without a single fissure. But to my surprise, after a while my hand touched something soft. I started examining the rock, shining my flashlight on it. The place looked like everything around it, but this rock – about one meter in diameter – was soft as a feather. I realized I was standing in front of a spongy curtain through which one could pass and I stretched out my hand. It sank into the stone. Slowly, carefully, I poked in my head and my shoulders – I felt as if I were passing through a thick, muddy stew. When the strange liquid – if I can call it that – got thinner, above me instead of a starry sky, I saw (for the first time from inside) the shiny dome of the big tent. I swam out of the jellylike membrane and, unnoticed, hid behind the first curtain.
I noticed immediately that it served as a decoration. There was no great danger to be revealed. And when the show was over, I would get out myself – that was my intention – and I would say to the guard to his face: See how I fooled you?
I took a position between two heavy curtains, so I could see both the stage and the audience clearly, and I peered out carefully, to see what supported the big dome, which – oddly – was without posts, supports, pillars, ropes, and from the inside looked like a perfect, hermetically sealed, half-ball of glass.
I noticed something else: in that great hemisphere, the audience sat across from me, while the stage was almost in front of my nose. So, the audience did not sit in an amphitheater, nor was the stage round and in the center, but it was rectangular and at one end of the tent. For me that was better: I could see what was happening under the roof without much trouble.
The visitors, all in masks, were at their seats.
The masks and formal clothes were familiar from before. So I had no trouble recognizing each character.
The audience was mixed together. Old people did not sit with old people, young with young; they were not separated into small groups, but were all lumped together: believers and non-believers, sceptered and mantled, bearded and shaven, fat and thin, the language of the Galapagos and the language of Molière’s precisosas.