Before I’d even decided to join the circus, I geared myself up to meet some fairly interesting folk. The stories you hear, even out this far into the sticks, they don’t even come close. Or maybe a couple of them did. Thing is, after seeing their acts, probably would’ve wanted to join them anyway, even if my family weren’t struggling to make ends meet. But then they would of never dared let me go the circus route.
As always, I’m getting ahead of myself.
My family has one of the largest farms in the area, and usually we’d be doing pretty well around that time. This year, drought had crept up on us. Everyone was doing poorly though, trying to scrape through. And so I thought I’d go work for a bit, earn something, help out like I should. My siblings, the ones who were capable, were thinking along the same lines, little jobs in the more populated areas. And until the circus came around, I’d been planning to follow suit.
I think it was the Thursday of the week we all planned to head out, that the circus started setting up on the Ackeman property. They planned to stay a week, and the first night they opened to locals, maybe to encourage more visitors, or maybe to take pity on our hardships. Regardless, it was a fine night for us to go out and see something new. And it ended up being a sight better than even I’d been expecting.
Most of them were stunt crew of some sort. You always hear about exotic animals and tightrope walkers, maybe a few clowns in these smaller groups. The tent alone struck me with amazement; so huge, it made me tilt my head so far back I had to keep hold of my straw hat. These guys were everything I was, on a much larger scale. Two motorcyclists ran themselves round one of those spherical cages, while dancers shimmied and twirled around with flaming sticks, a fire breather in their midst. A bunch of flames and explosions, and a small fireworks display to wrap it all up. There was a large empty area in the back of the tent, but no one else seemed to notice.
Comparing these to my own little stunts, I was in awe. You get away with a lot on a farm; reckless driving on the unused acre, bonfires, not to mention when I got my first ATV. My older brother and I caused Mama a lot of stress when I turn thirteen, and started getting into all sorts of trouble.
Then there’s the incident she won’t let me talk about to people, where I first flew. First time I started bringing it up in company, she very nearly crossed herself. It’s not really Papa’s fault the still was leaking, but the exposed electrical cables he could’ve dealt with earlier. And she’s still sore at him for it, even now. I know now that it could’ve killed me, like a couple folk in Virginia did a few years later. But it didn’t, and when it sent me soaring - with major bruising on landing - it gave me the confidence to be the daredevil I am today.
There was no official audition to join up with the troupe. I just came in and told them what I could do, asked if I could show them. The ringmaster gave a look over his shoulder, to the darkest of the three flame dancers. She just sort of shrugged and walked to the back of the tent, and wheeled out a small cannon into the empty space, facing a net. Some sort of stage fright set in right about that moment. I’d never been in a proper cannon, just little things my brother had rigged up on his time off school. He was topping his class in science, but he studied in the city, a fair throw from our humble farm. He worked the model off a potato shooter they’d made one day, just on a much larger scale. A bunch of stuff I didn’t really understand, but it shot me fairly well, right onto a pile of old mattresses we picked up before they hit the landfill. After tinkering with the cannon for a bit, the lady returned, and motioned for me to put on a helmet and climb on in.
First thing I thought when I saw Sandra, as the fire dancer introduced herself, was that she was tiny. Later found out she was the same height as me. Petit is the word I’d eventually find perfect for her. Half the reason I found her tiny at first was the huge firework strapped to her back, and the giant cigar she held clamped ‘tween her teeth. That same cigar would send me sailing at every show.
She was the unofficial leader of the fire dancers, since she trained and led the girls in show. She’d also trained the cannonball before me, though she didn’t talk much about her, and I thought better than to ask. When I was ready, she led me up to the cannon, talked me through, and I jumped in. A little more sophisticated than my brother’s contraption, but not by much. Now, as Sandra fired me off with the ember of her cigar, I flew so much further.
I was in almost straight away. They agreed to let me do a few local shows, and see how I went from there. Plus, I would be getting payed and helping out with additional chores around the grounds and other acts. It sounded perfect, and I was overjoyed. I slept in the fire dancer’s tent that night, talking myself up to be ready for the crowd the next day.
A small turnout for the first day was no surprise and didn’t get me so frazzled as a huge one might’ve. Sandra told me what she needed and no more, as she did with everyone. We spent the day watering the animals and practicing, and figuring out when my act would be on. Tonight I would be the finale.
As on the first night, I watched the other in awe, almost missing Sandra’s signal (a raise of her cigar) and as I rushed to my cannon the crowd cheered, largely made up of neighbours, people I’d lived close to nearly my whole life. The first night was mortifying as it took almost three tries to get the thing lit. Being stuck in a cannon in silence can be comforting, but not in front of a crowd for fifteen minutes, no matter how friendly.
The following nights were less eventful and far more enjoyable. And more people, certainly, as the other towns got word that the circus was in around. My act was moved around but eventually the ringmaster decided I should be the finale, especially then night before the troupe moved on. Fireworks, he decided, should also be added, just before I shot off. Sandra grimaced at this, but didn’t vocalise whatever misgivings she had. I thought it was great.
The entire last day she carefully instructed the other girls on where to place and how to set the fireworks, mostly in the interest of safety. They had all used fireworks in their dances, but none as showy as the finale would be.