I remember the first time I’ve gone to a circus. Only five or six, surrounded by all the sound and color and music of that magic land that achieved the magnificent impossibility that is being more surreal than the imagination of a little boy. I wasn’t up to it at first. It was probably a Sunday, and I wanted to stay home and have ice cream. We had already been at a park the day before and to a party that same week, all that social activity was interfering with my strict cartoon habits. My parents spent a good hour convincing me. They tried everything, explaining in detail how there would be trapeze artists, a bunch of clowns, magicians, an elephant doing tricks like a dog. They resorted to comparing everything with the colorfulness and noisiness of the cartoons I was starting to get up to date with. Nothing worked. Not even promising the most delicious ice cream I would ever have. The one already in the freezer was good enough. Finally, they gave up and remembered that, after all, they were the parents and I the child, and just made me go. I was carried kicking and screaming to the shower, fought against being dressed, made it as difficult as possible for them to get me into the car. Or at least that’s how I remember it, I might not have been that much of a problematic child. But I remember well the transformation happening inside the car, as we drove through the city to where the houses became more and more scarce until we were driving in a dark road. I went from bored to frightened really quick. Then I started hearing it, the sound, the music, the voices echoing in the distance, all that cheer. The lights started appearing on my left, bright as if there was a whole other city in the middle of the woods. The car turned to a side road and moments later that new world appeared in front of me. For all I could understand being a child, we had been transported to another dimension, where my wildest dreams weren’t comparable with the amazing reality before me.
The parking lot in front of the circus was crowded with cars. We circled a few minutes before finding a suitable spot – or before my dad gave up and just parked anywhere. There was a long line to the box office, and another one to the entrance, but we skipped both. We went to one of the sides, where my parents talked to a big man dressed in tights. I was so baffled with all the colour and movement I paid no attention to the conversation. I just saw the man looking inside and shouting something, then waving us in. We mixed with the other attendants towards the main tent, and if I was already overwhelmed with everything, I must have gone in shock then. All the side events, all the food stands, pretty much a boy’s perfect menu: popcorn – both plain and colored, cotton candy, nuts, hot dog, candy apples, cupcakes, lemonade and, of course, ice cream. The best one I would ever have. I was drawn by it, but my parents pull was stronger. The show was about to start, we would come back later to all that. That was the promise.
The main tent was larger than anyplace I had ever entered. Another world within that already magic one. The red and white stripes on the walls converged to two points in the middle, which I would later learn were the main masts. We found a place close to the ring as if it were there waiting for us, three empty chairs with a great view for what was about to start. The music was loud, all the other children were screaming, there was light everywhere. A popcorn bag produced itself on my lap, my eyes still trying to get everything in. Then, the lights went out, the music stopped, the children went silent. We could hear soft steps from on side towards the middle, and a single spotlight revealed a man dressed in bright red tailcoat over a golden vest, blue pants and black top hat. He opened his arms and turned around himself pronouncing the words I then heard for the first time: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: welcome to the greatest show on earth!” From then on, my eyes were glued to the ring, watching an infinite number of clowns come out of a small car, a pack of dogs perform tricks, five people flying through the air and landing in each other’s arms, lions and elephants, the big man my parents talked to outside lifting incredibly heavy lifts. The performances lasted at least two hours, during which I barely breathed.
The show finished but, instead of exploring the side attractions as my parents promised, we went on the opposite direction of the exiting crowd, passing through the same entrance the ringmaster used to go backstage. I was pretty sure, at the time, we were trespassing. But the look and the smile on the ringmaster’s face assured me otherwise. We were lead inside a narrow corridor exiting to a series of wagons, a place much less colourful and noisy than the circus’ entrance. Most of the artists were there, changing clothes and removing makeup, not to mention my illusions. My mom opened a large smile when she saw the guy that, onstage, threw knives on people without ever hitting them. He, too, smiled wide when he saw her, and opened his arms. They embraced each other long, and my mother even shed a tear. After him and my dad also greeted each other, my mom turned to me and said, “Luke, meet your uncle Ben”. He bent down and patted my head, and I could see the small knives attached to his forearm as well as the first tattoos I ever laid eyes upon up close.
My uncle Ben, mom said, joined the circus long before I was born, and traveled the world performing his art. He was one rare kind of circus artist who isn’t attached to one particular circus and can choose where he will perform. When he heard that the Foverós Circus was coming to our city, he arranged to be there and see her sister. Uncle Ben promised to tell me all about how he started, travelling around with the first circus he worked for as an animal handler, and I was quite interested, but the conversation about their parents and his family and everything they had to catch up to on those almost ten years apart was taking a long time, so I got bored. And like every bored kid would, I looked around for distraction. Luckily, I was in the place where a new interesting distractions abounded.
It took me just a few steps to find the first one. Or rather, to be found. I was looking up and walking, as children do, when the voice came from one side.
“Are you lost, little boy?” It was a soft, warm voice, the kind that make you want to cuddle and take a nap, or just hug forever. I turned around to see the voice’s owner was a nice dark-skinned lady with beautiful hazel eyes, wearing a turban. And a beard. A thick, black beard extending about ten centimeters bellow her chin. She was carefully applying some sort of cream to the beard when she repeated the question.
“I’m with my parents, they are over there”, I answered and pointed.
“Oh, so you are Benjamin’s nephew? First time at the circus?” I nodded in reply, unable to take my eyes of the facial hair coming from the beautiful woman. “It is real, want to see it?” She extended her hand to me and made me grip her beard. “Now pull, gently.” It was not only real but also soft. I pulled once again, unable to contain my big smile.
“How come you have a beard being a woman?” I could hear my mom reprimanding that was not a nice thing to say, and the lady saw in my eyes I was about to say I was sorry. She smiled, probably used to the question.
“Oh, it is a mix of things. I have a problem on my ovaries that causes my hair to grow more than normal. And I’m also forbidden of cutting any hair in my body by my religion.”
“So you never cut your hair?”
“Never”, she kept the smile while combing the beard. I looked at her turban wondering how long the hair below it could be. She answered for me. “Unfortunately I can’t let you see it, but my hair goes almost down my knees.”
“And what do you do in the circus?” I didn’t remember seeing her during the show, and I was sure I didn’t miss one single moment of it.
“Actually, I just stand outside the tent and let people see me. It’s funny reading their reactions, and even funnier when I let someone pull my beard like you just did.”
“It must be boring, just standing there all the time.”
“Oh, it’s not all the time. Besides, this is not what I do all day long. I’m actually an IT developer.” She could see my confusion with those last words. “I work with computers, writing applications. But I offer my services to every circus that comes to town. It is a nice change in my routine, plus the extra money is always good. But the best part is seeing the show for free”, she winked.
I looked over to my parents, to check if their conversation had already ended. “Why aren’t you with your parents and with your uncle?”, she asked.
“They are talking adult stuff, I was bored”, I admitted.
“Bored at a circus? That’s not good”, she laughed. A spark of brightness and a swishing sound made us both turn our heads. “Hey, you are going to love it. Go over there and take a look. But don’t go too far, OK? You don’t want to make your folks worry.” She didn’t need to say, the first part at least. I was already on my way.
The glare and the sound happened one more time before I turned the small corner around one of the wagons to see where it came from. There was a couple, still wearing their performance outfits, dark sparkling tights with flames on the cuffs and ankles. Appropriate, since they were breathing fire. He had his full outfit on, she had the top down to her waist, revealing a white tank top and a large burn scar on her left arm.
“You are still trying to spit too much at a time”, he said to her. “Small bursts, and more movement with your arms, like this”, and he drank a light yellowed liquid from a small bottle, made a large round movement with his arms approaching the torches to his mouth, and a big ball of fire went through the air. “You want to control the size and altitude of the fire, of we risk burning the tent”, he said just after. I couldn’t imagine someone being capable of spitting fire so high up.
It was her time to try. Right after drinking from the same bottle, he said, “There, too much.” She spat it back to the bottle and started again. The second time, while the bottle was up, she spotted me. This time, the liquid went to the ground.
“What are you doing here?”, she said, startled. I was about to explain about my parents and my uncle when the men said “I saw him before the show, he’s a knife guy relative or something.” I nodded.
“Well, boy, you can’t be here. It is already dangerous enough for us, you know?”
My eyes must have told what I was feeling. Before I could turn around, the woman approached, bent down and said: “How about we do one or two quick bursts for you?” Again, my eyes, and probably my smile, gave me away.
“Stella, I’m not sure-“
“Oh, come one, Joseph, just one. We are doing it anyway.” He shrugged and drank the yellow liquid after her. They walked around, both with torches in hand, like they did on the ring, and with a gracious movement left one fireball up, then another.
“At least you got it right this time”, the man said.
She came to me again. “We don’t mind people watching, but we can’t let a little boy here alone. Sorry.” I was satisfied. She kissed my forehead, the strong smell of fuel when her lips came closer made me dizzy.
I was going back to where my parents were, to my uncle’s wagon, when some loud noises caught my attention. I couldn’t distinguish it at first, and I was set on not losing sight of my mom again, but the noise origin was just too much of an attraction for a small boy to resist. Between two wagons, I saw a man furiously arguing with someone I couldn’t see. It wouldn’t be much of a distraction if only the arguing man wasn’t in full clown costume. Overly large pants bright yellow and blue pants, leaving a gap surrounding his waist, held by pink suspenders over a polka-dotted red shirt and a large colourful bow tie, oversized shoes of different colours, white face with a red smile and the large nose ball, blue wig and hat. I wasn’t sure if he was acting enraged or if he the fight was real. I squeezed between the two wagons and got my answer. Three other clowns, some already half out their costumes, all with the same angry face below the make-up. Apparently one of them was messing around with the other’s daughter, or something like that. I didn’t have time to get it, someone pulled me by my shoulders back to the tight hall formed by the wagons.
“Leave the clowns alone, kid. They’re no fun when the show ends.”
The man was wearing tight white pants and jacket, decorated with blue stars. I knew who he was. His performance impressed me the most, spinning his motorcycle inside a giant steel globe. I was going to ask to see his dirt bike, but he was already far, disappearing behind the bearded lady’s wagon.
I looked over to my parents, seeing they were still talking adult stuff. I wanted to remain near, but I also wanted to look around. And guessing they weren’t be over anytime soon, I decided to explore a little more. Even if the area looked nothing like the magical realm of the entrance, it was nevertheless full of colours, aromas and sound. There was people preparing meals on camp stoves, removing costumes and make-up, as well as tasks that up until then I would never relate to a circus, like washing clothes, sewing, or any kind of cleaning. But I wasn’t disappointed to have the illusion pulled from my eyes. Quite the opposite, that peek on the other side of the show intrigued me. Those people weren’t superheroes, full of incredible powers and abilities. Maybe that was the first time I wondered what working in such a place would be like.
I was watching the trapeze artists stretch, which was impressive in itself. They bent like their body was made of rubber, including the girl about my age. I didn’t realize I was slowly walking towards them when I felt someone tapping me on the right shoulder. When I turned to see, I felt the tap on the left. Hoping to see one of the clowns in better humour, I was shocked to see the taps came from a long and wrinkled grey tube, attached to the largest animal I had seen. It was Ms. Varý Fortío, the elephant. Her trunk danced in front of me, messing with my hair while I remained still, afraid.
“She likes you”, a girl’s voice said. “You don’t have to be afraid, she’s friendly even to the people she don’t like.”
She wasn’t dressed as an artist, or even as an artist just out of her outfit. She wore jeans and a blouse like any girl in my school did. She had long blond hair and a smile with slightly large gapped tooth. Her hands caressed the elephant like it was her dog, which was probably true. Then, suddenly, she took my hand and pulled me to a corner, just in time not to be seen by the ringmaster, still in his full outfit. She signed me to silence.
“I’m hiding from my dad”, she whispered once he was out of reach. “He never lets me play around with the animals anymore, not since Lybb accidentally bit his wrangler.”
“Lybb?”, I whispered back.
“Our lion. He didn’t mean it, though.” She looked around, certifying we were safe from her father’s grasp. “Hey, wanna play hide-and-seek?”
“I thought we were already doing that”, I replied.
“We are hiding from my father. I mean hide from each other!” It was my time to look around for my parents. “They will still be talking for a while”, she said, “I just passed near them, it don’t look like they are about to finish. Let’s play, please!”
It would be easy to believe her even if I wasn’t myself craving some amusement. I took the first turn seeking, which gave me the perfect opportunity to explore the surroundings a little further. I could hear the music and cheering outside, and haven’t forgot my parent’s promise for the best ice cream of my life, but I was also enjoying the game. I found her on my first round, but lingered a little longer before calling her out to get to see everything.
I slept through all the commotion. What I thought was the perfect hiding spot quickly became my bed for the next hours. My uncle wasn’t staying in that circus another night, so when the time came my parents offered him a ride to the airport. That’s when they realized I wasn’t at their side, right when they had to leave right away to take Uncle Ben to the airport. They searched for me as long as they could, until the bearded lady told them she saw me and Alicia, the ringmaster’s daughter, playing around. Dad drove Uncle Ben while mom continued looking. In the end, it was Ms. Varý Fortío the one who found me, peacefully sleeping under a tarp over a haystack. My appearance was greeted with cheers from the whole crew, even the clowns stopped fighting to help.
When it was finally time to go, Alicia came to me saying I was the best hider she had ever met and that she wished we could play together again. The bearded lady and Stella both the kissed me on the forehead before I entered the car. I’ve heard dad joking with mom in the car that it turned out to be a night quite more exciting than they had planned. They took me to the Foverós two more times before they moved to another town, and I finally got to eat the best ice cream ever. Since I didn’t get to say goodbye to my Uncle Ben or hear his story about how he joined the circus, he left me one of the small knives he carried in his forearm. My parents kept the knife safely stored until I could be trusted with it.
I grew up remembering that night, and loving the idea of traveling around with the circus. So, when I finally got access to my uncle’s knife, I learned to throw it like him, dreaming of one day joining the circus myself. I ended up fulfilling that dream in the same Foverós, that by the time was managed by Alicia. It was a little too late for us to play hide-and-seek again, but not for building our own circus family.