In ‘A Circus of Emotions’, the main character, Tania, undergoes a Rite of Passage as she encounters circus workers and performers whose lives exist outside the sheltered naïvite in which her parents raised her (Loss of Innocence), and grows as a person. She befriends a sideshow mermaid (Buddy Love), who aids her in confronting the machinations and unwanted advances of the bookkeeper, who has been preying on the entire troupe (Monster in the House).
Gaudy in spectacle, awash in swirls of color, the small circus traveled from town to town, riding sometimes the steel tracks in gaily-painted boxes, other times plodding slowly along narrow roads, stopping at whim and setting up for show at some dust bowl burg. Often, though the destitute townsfolk were barely able to afford one ticket among five people, the circus stopped anyways, and the performers entertained for free. Silas Cratchett was the sole owner and proprietor at that time, having inherited the outfit from his late partner Edwin Falstaff, who had died of pneumonia in New York one winter evening a few weeks after old Rockefeller himself had purchased a seat in the audience on account of the troupe's fame. Nearly a decade had passed since then, and though hard times had fallen on the group, they managed, somehow, kept together by some strange bond not quite of family or even trusted friend (between some), but more than disinterested strangers who pass one another on the street.
While it varied in size as transient acts came and went, it rarely dwindled to fewer than two dozen persons, if you counted the manager and assorted helpers whose only contribution to the art was setting up the tents or caring for the animals. Each kept to their own—apart from vetting new acts, dismissing ones of which popularity had faded, and personally doling out weekly pay (financial matters not entrusted to any other soul since Falstaff's lean, doleful countenance was tallied amongst the living), the short, rotund form of old Silas was seldom seen. Now, he still got fancied up in his dark-green suit and felt bowler to attend the first night's show in places where there was promise of a larger turnout, but in the early days of the circus, it was none other than himself that worked the ticket booth with bluster and gaiety before the main show to draw as many as possible, then proceeded to the big top to serve as ringmaster. He would introduce the varied animal acts, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, and high-wire act, the last of which had been a notable source of fame after a family was brought on whose skill in the art had been passed down over, it was said, nearly ten generations. Though the performers of each act generally minded their own business and didn't trouble the others, as a group, the big top acts (which were officially on the payroll) shunned and sneered at the hucksters and other hangers-on that trailed along and set up shop around the tent, to glean what income they could from unwary curiosity-seekers. Food vendors, tricked games, strongmen, and any number of freak shows all provided a great variety that doubtlessly increased the income of the circus proper, but were seen by the legitimate acts as unfairly lending an air of disrepute.
One of the queerer exhibits flaunted as means to attract customers was, of all things, a real, living mermaid, kept in a small tank of moldy, tepid water. Now, this was not one of those stitched-together hoaxes put on display by the big circuses, but a winsome, bedraggled-looking young thing with slight curves, taken in after being found on some rocky strand of beach along the Maine coast. She was kept fed with sardines and occasionally such raw fish as the rude, younger helper-boys would see fit to keep for her after larking about at a pond on a hot afternoon. They cajoled and teased her greatly as price, speculating about the differences between her anatomy and theirs, prodding here and there with careless fingers, snickering if one found its mark. These impish lads, being such brutish numskulls, never grasped the notion that she was as much a girl as any, though they would more often than not simply taunt her and tug at her reedy, greenish-blonde hair, tying the ends of the long locks into horrible knots, just as with any human girl they desired to torment.
As it happens, the daughter of the resident aerialists was dragged along to the sideshow wagons by her brother, who had heard of the other boys' secret post-fishing pastime but never had the nerve to come see for himself, being a bit of a coward for all his ten years. Now, this girl was fully three summers her brother's junior, but she was bright and quick-witted, her eyes sparkling with merriment as she rushed headlong into any such adventure a mere boy would endeavor, though they rarely let her in on their grand plans. When she brushed past the threadbare curtain hiding the dim interior and beheld the fish-girl, her bravado failed and her breath caught in her throat as she stared into those wide and solemn, mournful eyes. Tania Yumashev—for that was the little girl's name—shook her head, short chestnut curls bouncing wildly, and began to cry, fleeing to the safety of the dormitory tents on the other side of the grounds. When she told her mother, between blubbering sobs, what a poor, pitiful creature she had seen, the slender woman's features darkened and creased into a scowl, but she clutched the child to her breast and stroked her hair, soothing her, looking with fearful worry at her gangly husband. He shook his head angrily and, slapping a hand on the tent-pole, muttered a prayer against the heathen freaks and the unholy demons they kept as pets. Both children were forbidden to associate with any of the unsavory characters that hung on to the fringes of the real entertainers' work like leeches.
Half a dozen winters had passed since Tania first laid eyes on the mermaid, and the child had grown into a charming young lady with long, slender limbs and such a beauty and wonderful sense of balance that she quickly drew attention as a worthy inheritor of Yumashev family trade. Also aiding her rise to fame were the elements of contortion and ballet she learned from a visiting guest troupe one spring and incorporated into the tightrope work that she practiced in anticipation of her intended career, much to the pride of her parents and sure delight of future audiences. She would dance and pirouette high above the empty seats, the sequins on her leotard shimmering as she moved like some enchanting pixie, defying gravity. Bound again to Earth's embrace at the end of an exercise, she still seemed to float on air with each step, lightly darting to and fro, and the brilliant smile she offered kindly to all was infectious, a sparkling ray of light to all who saw it.
“Be Amazed by Marvin Crowell's MAGNIFICENT MERMAID!” read the gaudy text surrounding a mermaid with curling hair half-draped over bare torso, the blue paint on the clapboard standing outside the weathered tent peeling and bleached by the sun. Tania was not inclined to venture to this corner of the circus grounds ordinarily, after her first encounter with the fish-girl, but Silas Cratchett himself had caught her elbow in passing and inquired if she might do him the favor of summoning Crowell, as everyone else was presently busy. She stood there a few minutes, taken aback by the advertisement's explicit display.
Darkness engulfed Tania when she finally slipped into the sideshow tent, as surely as if a blindfold had been placed over her face. Startled, she paused, closing her eyes and letting her other senses tell their stories, as she did before stepping onto the wire. Unlike the whispering hush enveloping her in the empty cavern of the big top's upper reaches, here there was a faint creak and ticking bouncing among a clutter of what must be a senseless maze of junk, making the entrance a narrow vestibule that turned sharply to the right a pace ahead. Somewhere, too, the wheeze and squeak of an unknown mechanism, and the quiet gurgle and drip-drip of water. She shivered, for though she expected the air to be stifling like all the smaller tents, it was strangely chilly and humid after the dry heat outside, and carried a sickening, pungent aroma fighting the subtly-sweet scent of sawdust.
“This way, please,” said a thick voice at her ear, and when she opened her eyes again she could make out the feeble glow of a ship's lantern swinging from a spar. Tania wended a path into the heart of the tent, to a gloomy little pocket lit uncertainly by the weathered lamp and stared in horrified wonder at the grimy tank of water, nearly overgrown by algae, in which huddled the pallid form of the mermaid. Alarmed when the creature made a feeble movement and sloshed towards her with a wheezing, sucking gasp of breath, she half-stepped backwards and looked defiantly at the portly, balding man nearly hidden in the shadows. A sad sort of smile lifted the corners of his mouth, obscured by rich curls of a full beard. “Yes,” he murmured. “She is quite real.” He jabbed in the direction of the tank with the stem of his pipe, the dingy yellow material of his oilcloth raincoat creaking in protest. “Rescued from the wild clutches of the Atlantic deeps after a nor'easter ravaged the coast! Carried now across this great land to educate folks just such as you about the wonders of creation!” Then, softer, “My meager income is barely sufficient to sustain the both of us, as you can see…too small a home, and little enough to feed upon…and so you will forgive me if I humbly ask you to find in your heart to provide a few pennies more than the admission, as…as charity for we, forlorn and so very far from the sea which gives us strength…” The man trailed off, and assumed an doleful expression and made a loose grasping motion in the air with his free hand.
Tania's lips parted in dismay. “I am to tell you Mr. Cratchett wants word with you, da?” She gave a last glance at the mermaid, and tossed her head. “Promptly. Good day to you.” With that, she turned and hastily exited the tent, dodging the rickety piles of nautical curios.
“Ah—” began Crowell, stumbling over himself to catch up with the retreating girl. “Of course, miss…” His words were snatched away by the abrupt heat of the summer as he lurched into the daylight, blinking. Nervously, he smoothed the few strands of hair across the top of his head and shook himself out, uttering “Pow'rful hot…” as he bowed his head and strode towards the circus owner's wagon.
Marvin stumped down the midway towards the Red Wagon, frequently wiping his brow of sweat. It was just after two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and the grinders were having a hard time of it, trying to draw the attention of the sparse natives in attendance. Most of that lot here at this hour were just killing time and rubbernecking at the variety of sideshows present, barely having the coin for admission to the lot, never mind spare for novelties and concessions. 'Twould pick up towards nightfall.
He was somewhat surprised to see the portly figure of Silas Cratchett at the side of the wagon with a severe-looking young man, occasionally gesticulating and indicating different directions with waves of his arms, apparently discussing layout of the grounds or something of the sort. Not wanting to disturb them, but aware of the urgency of his summons, he positioned himself nearby where the ringmaster could see him and lifted his pipe for a moment, an action curiously met by a derisive sneer on the part of the youngster, and a vague wave by Cratchett, who finished his business and shooed off the lad.
“Mr. Crowell,” said Cratchett, “I would ask you to step into my office, but bless me if it isn't a proper oven in there during the day.”
“That girl you sent to fetch me…”
“Ah, Miss Tania?”
“Yes…why send her? She a bally girl?”
“Heavens, no!” exclaimed the short man. “She's the daughter of Ivan and Marie—” He looked up at Crowell, lifting his brows at the nonplussed expression this elicited. “…the Aerial Yumashevs? Our premier duo, them. Tania's training as a rope-walker, and she's good. Hope to start her next season.” Silas mused a moment, then waved this off as he changed tacks. “Anyhow. You've been carting your show with us a few years, now, and I don't know how you've managed it, but you seem to have a genuine article on your hands. Pulls enough extra traffic that I haven't failed to notice.”
Marvin shrugged, and harrumphed uneasily. “More attention than is strictly wanted, begging your pardon.”
Silas clucked his tongue, and clasped his hands behind his back, leaning forward into Crowell with a steely gaze. “Want you to move towards the front, Mr. Crowell. Not out of the kid shows, mind, but enough to get a bit more of a word around that you're here.”
“I really just make enough to keep my lot and feed my charge, sir.”
“Feed it, y'do? Right peculiar, that.” The nearly-bald ringmaster shook his head in disbelief, jowls shaking. “It's no bother, though. I'll give you a special writ for the move. Same price as where you're parked now. Want to offer a personal word of congratulations, by the by. We were on shaky ground for a while, after poor Edwin passed. Then you came on, and…well! Here we are.”
Marvin frowned. “I don't see as how I can turn down such a generous offer,” he said, unsure of this change of fortune. “But my charge is frail, and I fear the increased attention would be no good for her health.”
Cratchett mused, “Feed it, you say…what's it eat?”
“Fish leavings as I can get from the animal handlers, mostly. Rotting things that'd be just thrown out, unfit for the seals and big cats. Once every few weeks or so a fresh catch, as I can manage. Sardines as can be had for a few coins.”
“And that suits it well enough?”
“Seems to keep her alive, Mr. Cratchett.”
“Fair enough. And what of this heat? Don't imagine it's less than hellfire itself, cooped up all day.”
“Oh—I have a—sort of a pump, I guess you can call it—it works some kind of mechanism and churns out cool air. Got it when we were down in Florida, two or three years past. Fellow seemed particular concerned about the temperature in my tent, practically demanded that I take his invention. Works tolerably well, if you don't mind its noise and smell.”
“Wonders never cease, do they? Well, I'll just get this paperwork sorted, and let you to your business. Much obliged.”
With a perfunctory “And you, sir,” Marvin retreated, returning to his tent.
Tania carefully picked her way down to the broad rocks that started a little ways up the cliff above the wide beach, nearly hidden among the heather, and crouched down to get the attention of the mermaid reclining there beside her overturned little wheelbarrow. Each looked at the other a moment, then the mermaid resumed staring bleakly out to sea. Tania squinted against the brisk, chilly wind that swept the hair about in streamers and tore a faint, mournful cry from a seagull circling in the gray autumn sky. This, and the quiet crash of the impossibly vast ocean still just far enough in the distance to bring only a hint of saltiness in the air to compete with the green-and-brown smell of the clumpy weeds that covered this scrub of meadow and acrid smoke still lingering in the rain-washed sky. Tania made the futile gesture of leaning over and pulling a lock of hair out of the mermaid's face, and the wind greedily snatched it right back, whipping it around.
“You…missing home, da?” She had to raise her voice to be heard, and she wasn't entirely sure the fish-girl even understood—never mind that this was the west coast, and the mermaid supposedly from the opposite side of the continent—so just knelt beside her and shared that long stare. Time passed, and the wind died down. “Circus…ay. Tch. Is home enough. Old man…owner. Says people come for you special-like. Not leaving behind, even though nekulturny of keeper is dead. Maybe…better for you?” The human girl frowned, fumbling for words to express sufficient sympathy and encouragement. “Will get bigger tank,” she finally resolved, and jerked a thumb against her chest. “Own money, I have.” Pleased with herself for this splendid idea, Tania smiled hopefully and gently petted the mermaid's head, which earned naught but a somewhat concerned expression.