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  • Mj Pettengill

The Circus is in Town: Excerpt


Circus Poster, Public Domain
Circus Poster, Public Domain

Usually done in by the end of the week, the girls were excited that P.T. Barnum’s circus was in town, and at the risk of penalty, took early leave. Ever since our episode, Mr. Aldrich and I exchanged long cold stares, each determined to outlast the other. I always won. Without question, there was a part of him that feared me. He knew that I could slay him with my tongue and possibly crush his reputation. He went pale the day that his wife came to the mill. He couldn’t shoo her away fast enough. She was a frail, little thing, a wisp of a woman whose silhouette all but vanished in the side view

He was a coward, but not just any coward. He wielded power that he could not handle. It was too much for him, and his fear streaked madly across the lines on his forehead. I was aware that our silent battle would not last, and I was the one at risk. He had an unrestrained evilness about him. I needed to get out.

Deep, murky puddles did not deter the girls. I chased after them, thinkin’ of how easy it would have been to swear. There was so much about Mary that I didn’t appreciate, until after she abandoned this world.

I managed to hold my tongue. The last thing I wanted to do was slosh through the rain and muck to stand in long lines to see a circus. When I moved to Fall River, I did not think to bring my over-shoes. Until witnessin’ the sight of people wallowin’ in the mush that surrounded the circus tent, I hadn’t thought of them.

“Come on… run!” Clara shouted.

Run? Not only did I refuse to run, but I also stopped right in the middle of the most significant crowds I had ever seen.

Stoppin’ may or may not have been an error on my part, as she was swept away by the rapid flow of people, and I was bumped from all sides. Rather than resist, I slipped back into the current, hopin’ to reunite with at least one of the girls. If I did not see them, it would have been a valid excuse to go home.

I finally had a reason to smile. Up ahead, I spotted a red hat, and sure enough, it was Patrick with another sweeper. He was often the reason that I was able to endure. His true innocence stirred up my pure mind, savin’ me from the dangers of a cold heart, filled with nothin’ but hatred for the man who killed Mary.

The depth of my grief for her was unexpected, oddly more unbearable than it had been for my mother. I supposed it was because I was with Mary under different circumstances. I saw death upon her face and felt the warm blood of both her and her daughter. I was able to escape all reminders of Mother, but Mary stayed with me.

Each night, when I closed my eyes, I saw her face and that of her tiny, perfectly formed baby girl. When I found an old soiled prayer book in the kitchen drawer, I decided that she needed a name. I called her Grace. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death, Amen.

*********

I stood on my tiptoes and looked for the girls. With thousands of people tramplin’ through the mud, pushin’ their way towards the entrance of the tent, it was hopeless. I lacked both the strength and ambition to continue and thought it best to go home.

“Sarah!”

I turned to see August, pullin’ Finn along with him. They wove their way through the herd, comin’ in my direction.

I patted Finn on top of his rain-soaked cap. “Hello.”

He smiled up at me.

“So many people here, eh?” August asked.

“Too many for me,” I said. “I was thinkin’ of goin’ home. I’m not much for crowds.”

He laughed. If one disliked crowds, the last place to be was at a circus in a city that craved distraction from the hardships of everyday life.

“I know. Why are you here, you ask?”

“No, well… yes, sort of,” he said.

“I let the girls persuade me, and now we’re separated.”

“Let us accompany you.” He held out his arm.

With my dress soaked through to the skin and rain streamin’ off my straw bonnet, I stood before him. It was too late to brood over my drizzly appearance. I smiled and gladly took his arm. When I was with August, I had a happier heart.

I had never been to the circus. A few years before, when the circus came to both Wolfeboro and Conway, Mother did not want to spend money on such things. We have fairs in Ossipee, not circuses, she said.

After some time, we finally made it to the entrance of the enormous tent. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a tin and counted enough money for all three of us.

“That is so kind of you, but I will pay for my ticket,” I said.

“I would never want you to do that. The pleasure is mine.”

As soon as we stepped inside, I feared that my heart would faint within me, as there was a cornet band playin’ at an alarmin’ tempo. Not only that, they weren’t makin’ mistakes. They were exquisite. I had heard that circus bands were amongst the best, but in my imagination, it was about clowns, odd people with unusual features, a feast of peculiarities.

As we walked along, we saw cage upon cage of animals—tigers, lions, ostriches, and a massive rhinoceros. Then, there were the majestic elephants, camels of all sizes, and clown-like dogs. Situated on the far side of the tent were more ferocious animals such as a puma, black leopard, and Russian bears. I was very much amused by the monkeys. Of course, there were the superhuman feats by the man with the iron jaw and his female partner—the female Sampson—and a vast collection of curiosities, both artificial and human.

Addin’ to the intrigue, was a band with an automaton trumpeter, bell ringers, drummer, and organ grinder. The show was unlike anything that I envisioned.

I was not disappointed when August mentioned that he had to leave early to light the lamps. In fact, I was relieved. The eye can only take in so many new sights at once.

With our clothes still damp, we left the Hippodrome and went back out into the rain. Determined to get in, people continued to stand in the long lines that spilled out into the streets.

When August took my hand in his, I trembled. I didn’t understand. I held hands with Clara every day. I couldn’t go anywhere without her catchin’ up to me and grabbin’ my hand. As much as I told myself that I wanted nothin’ more than friendship, it was a lie. I had secret thoughts of surrenderin’ my whole heart.

We stopped in front of the tenement. When he looked deeply into my eyes, I wanted to look away, but could not. He touched my cheek.

“You really are a beautiful girl,” he said.

“Oh, please… I look dreadful. You’re much too kind,” I said, lookin’ at the attic window, thinkin’ of how safe it was there.

“No, you should accept a compliment. You’re a beautiful woman. At least to me, you are.”

I took a quick breath. The truth was right there. I looked dreadful. If he considered me to be beautiful in such poor condition, he would have been beside himself to see me in my best dress, with fixed curls, and clear, clean skin. I could not bear for him to look at me any longer. I had lost weight, and like the others, I had become haggard and sickly. He did not know that my hair was gone, as I hid beneath a scraggly bonnet. I could not go on. I had one Sunday dress that was beginnin’ to fade, just as Addy warned me that it would. I was savin’ money to return home, to get Abigail and find somethin’ else for her, for us. My spirits shattered at the thought of Abigail’s son. I could not spend money on a new dress or bonnet to look good for a man.

“I have to go,” I said, and stepped back. “Thank you for takin’ me to the circus. I’ll always remember it.”

“So will I.”

I left him standin’ on the street with his little brother, who was completely unaware, and I felt his eyes on me as I dashed past the outhouses. I raced up to the attic, careful to stay away from the window.

I fished around in my pocket for a half cigarette that I had found in Mary’s things. There was at least a dozen more stashed in her tobacco tin.

Daria, a girl from Mary’s room, gave me yet another tin, somewhat smaller and not so rusted. I took it out of my other pocket and stared at the crude note wrapped around it with butcher’s twine. She said that Mary asked her to write it about a week before her death.

I settled back into the chair and lit the cigarette, bringin’ her essence into the room. I closed my eyes and thought about how we bickered and how much I missed it. We were different in many ways, but we cared for each other. There was no pretendin’ with Mary.

I opened the tin. Inside was a small, fuzzy angel made from lint. I unfolded the note. “Sarah —It snows ‘most every day in Fall River. There’s always enough snow for an angel here. Them angels are all around us. Don’t forget. Yours truly, Mary.” Sarah Hodgdon

May 9, 1873 EXCERPT The Angels' Lament Etched in Granite Series, Book 2 The Crows' Path (4) will be next.