As I walked down the rugged pavement, suitcase in hand, I could feel unwanted memories flooding back. The airport had barely changed since that liberating day in 1962; and if you’d have asked me, I would have most likely been able to point out the very objects I had touched on my journey out--away from home.
I suppose my unexpected return had been provoked a few weeks ago when a strange letter came in the mail. As soon as I had noticed it was from my home country, I had been quite intrigued and slightly uneasy. I first wondered how they had found me, but then proceeded to open the envelope. The message itself had been written by my only brother, Louis, whom I had not seen in ages and missed dearly. It’s contents intrigued me greatly, for they spoke of a certain Uncle André who had recently passed away. I knew nothing of the man, but read on nonetheless. The letter had requested my preferably immediate presence in Paris since a portion of the deceased’s money was owed to me, according to his will. I was baffled by the end, both shocked that I might have to return home once more and confused at whom this unknown Uncle André might have been.
That evening, I consulted my wife on the matter. Though she knew very little of my past, she ecstatically encouraged me to return to Paris and claim the offered sum. She argued that it would be both enjoyable to visit my family and beneficial for our financial situation (she had just recently lost her job and we were raising a young girl). I did not agree with her first statement, but reluctantly accepted to make the trip, agreeing with the fact that the money would be of great use to us.
So, that is how I had ended up back in the very place that provoked so many painful and grievous memories that I had never wished to revisit.
As I began to make my way towards the small corner of the parking lot where taxis waited patiently for unsuspecting travellers, I felt a strong pair of arms wrap themselves around my chest, catching me completely off guard. I spun around quickly in a panic, but soon relaxed when I was met with those familiar glistening eyes.
“Louis!” I exclaimed joyfully, wrapping my own arms around my brother.
He had changed a lot since the last time I’d seen him; though that had been almost ten years ago.
“It’s nice to see you again, Charles.” Smiled Louis after we had released each other from the long embrace.
I was taken aback by the sudden use of my old name. Upon arriving in America, it had been the first thing I had changed. I had been trying to get as far away from my past as I could--to forget. People had been calling me John Larson since.
“I go by John now.” I mumbled to my brother who either ignored my comment or simply didn’t hear.
“So, how have you been doing?” He asked, putting an arm around my shoulder and guiding me towards his own car.
I shrugged. How could I answer such a question? It had been ten years.
“How did you find me?” I decided to ask curiously.
“Do you really think that I’d let my little brother fly off to America and not look into his whereabouts?” Laughed Louis.
“You knew where I was?” I questioned, shocked.
Louis simply nodded, the smile never leaving his features.
“Then why didn’t you come after me?” I asked, baffled.
“Because I knew you didn’t want to come back.” He simply replied as we finally reached the beige coloured car.
I was taken aback by the response.
“Did you tell father?” I asked, suddenly feeling slightly uneasy.
Louis shook his head as he got into the driver’s seat. “I knew that you wouldn’t want him to know.”
The short drive was filled with content conversation, catching up for the lost years. I told Louis all about my wife and daughter with great excitement and pride. Louis was still a bachelor and had no interest in children, but he listen to my stories with interest nonetheless.
When we reached my brother’s home, I was astounded. It was rather large and looked very well-kept.
“That’s the kind of money entertainment gets you.” I heard him mumble as he proceeded to get my suitcase from the trunk.
“You’re still in the circus?” I asked, half surprised. I did not know what I had expected. Maybe I had thought that Louis would have left all of that behind. However, I remembered how harsh our father was regarding the sacred family business and realized that not all of us had run away...
Louis decided to change the topic, though what he revealed next unsettled my nerves more than anything else he could have said.
“Father is going to be dropping by later on.”
I froze in my steps, almost ready to pass out.
Louis could tell that I was distressed, so he gently led me into the house and up to the guest bedroom where he set down my suitcase.
“Listen, Charles, I know that you don’t want to see him, but he is simply coming to speak about affairs regarding Uncle André’s will.” Explained my brother as I took a seat on the edge of the bed.
I was suddenly regretting having traveled back, and all because of damned Uncle André whom I knew nothing about.
As hours went by, my stomach began to hurt more and more with anticipation. Louis could sense my unease and tried desperately to distract me, speaking of stories he’d heard in the news or of rumours going around the neighbourhood, but nothing could divert my troubled mind from the man I would have to face--whom I had run away from so many years ago.
A few minutes after the clock struck eight, a loud knock was heard at the front door and Louis scurried off to answer.
I had momentarily contemplated escaping through the window or simply making a run for it, but remembered my wife and daughter back in America who were both counting on me to support them. For once, I decided that I had to suck up my fears, pride, and whatever other emotions had been mixed in and face the man that had raised me.
With a deep breath, I made my way downstairs and into the sitting-room where I saw the large and daunting figure sitting comfortably on a red armchair.
At first glance, I noticed the visible bags and wrinkles that had no doubt recently formed under the man’s dark eyes along with his now predominantly grey hair. He looked almost nothing like the man I had remembered from childhood.
He seemed mostly indifferent at my presence, unlike Louis had been earlier, and greeted me with “So the run away boy has returned.”
I gritted my teeth, already feeling rage build up inside of me, but decided to keep a calm composure and sat down on the couch beside my brother who seemed equally as tense as I.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence before my father’s booming voice filled the room.
“You know, Charles, the circus might have done you some good.” He said, gesturing to my rather skinny and unfit frame.
“Father, we are here to speak about Uncle André’s will.” Said Louis, cutting in quickly before any type of argument could break out.
He simply nodded, leaning back in the arm chair.
“Charles, André has left you a large sum of money.” Began my father “Perks of being an entertainer.” He added off-handedly, repeating a similar phrase to the one that Louis had muttered earlier.
I ignored the last part, listening attentively.
“However, he left instructions,” continued the older man, pulling a paper out of his coat pocket and placing it on the table “as to how you may acquire this inheritance.”
Louis and I were both visibly confused at the statement, so our father decided to elaborate, reclaiming the paper and reading out a few lines of legal text before reaching the bottom.
“I appoint 20,000€ to my great-nephew, Charles Bouquet, on the condition that he attempt a tight-rope walk.”
My father stopped suddenly after having read that last phrase and looked up at me with a raised eyebrow.
I was shocked. My mouth hung open and my eyes were wide with surprise.
Louis looked equally as stunned, but more-so for my sake.
My father then proceeded to read a few more lines, but I could tell that he was enjoying my distress more than anything.
When he had finished, he folded up the paper and placed it back down on the table, crossing his arms.
“So...” Was all he said as he lit a pipe and placed its tip between his lips with an evil smirk.
“Father, I do not believe this is fair,” began Louis in my defence “he hasn’t practiced in years and has no doubt forgotten the art.”
“We can not change what is written.” Replied my father nonchalantly.
There was another long pause of uneasy silence before my father intervened once more.
“So, Charles, what do you say?” He smiled smugly “Probably wishing you hadn’t left now, Son, that’s a pretty large amount.”
“Father, please,” Began Louis, but was instantly cut off.
“Charles can speak for himself, Louis.” He said, agitated, as my brother recoiled uncomfortably.
I was still in shock, but sighed in despair. “I cannot do this. I will no doubt fall to my death.” I replied and added with gritted teeth “Just as Mother did.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as I felt tears coming, unwilling to let my father see such emotions. I had not wished for those memories to resurface, but the topic had been brought up and once again, I felt myself drowning in the past.
The room fell into an eerie silence before I heard Louis whisper.
“Father, I think we should continue this conversation some other time.”
“No.” Replied the man solemnly “Charles, what is your answer?”
I shook my head in despair, my eyes still squeezed shut.
“Are you scared, Charles?” Asked my father. Though I could not see his face, I could tell that he was mocking me. “Don’t be a coward, son.”
I felt Louis put a hand on my back, but I shot up in rage.
“I can not walk the rope, Father, because I do not want to die like Mother did!” I yelled “She was your wife and you don’t even care-”
“Who said I don’t care?” Replied my father, cutting me off, now equally enraged and also on his feet.
“All you care about is money!” I exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger at him “She died in your circus because you forced her to perform that dangerous tightroping act, and you still run that horrid show as if it’s some great success!”
I felt a sharp pain across my cheek; he had slapped me.
“You will say no such thing about the family business, Charles Bouquet. You are the one who ran away from us, so don’t accuse me of betraying the ones I love!”
“I ran away because of the circus, because of Mother’s death, and because of you!” I finally yelled before turning and leaving the room as fast as I could, a hand still over my cheek.
Behind me, I could hear Louis trying to calm the enraged man, but seemingly to no avail. I walked up to my room and slammed the door like a disobedient child, falling onto the bed in tears.
Later, Louis came upstairs to comfort me. We did not speak, but we both knew what the other was thinking.
“You know, Charles, we haven’t spoken of her since you left.” Said Louis after having broken the silence.
I was confused at the statement, but he offered no further explanation.
“Why would Uncle André ask me to walk the rope?” I finally asked.
Louis simply shrugged. “To be honest, I know close to nothing about the man. Father only told me that Uncle was quite impressed with your skills, as he put it. Perhaps he and Father came up with a plan…” He trailed off.
That night, I felt horrible. Would it be so bad if I tried to walk the rope? Louis had assured me that they’d have a net under me, but could I face the humiliation if I fell? I then thought back to my wife and daughter. I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t be like my father. It was my job to provide for them and I had every intention of doing so. But could I really force myself to climb such heights, to cross such lengths once more? I did not know.
After a lot of troubled thoughts, I finally fell into a light and unfulfilling sleep.
I do not know how I convinced myself to do this, but there was no turning back now. I stood on the familiar but strange platform, looking down to the ground.
My father was sitting on a bench alongside Louis, both of them staring up at me with mixed expressions.
Other than them, the tent was mostly vacant except for a few of my distant cousins whom I had recognized briefly. They did not seem pleased to see me, no doubt having been brainwashed by family gossip on how I had abandoned the family business and run away to America.
I looked down at the thin rope and further down to the net that had been placed underneath. I figured there was no chance that I would get to the other side after all these years of missed practice, but Louis had assured me that all I had to do was try and the money would be mine. I didn’t know how to feel about my father watching me fall--watching me fail-- but I decided to put aside my pride and do it for my family; my new family.
I took a deep breath as I lay a shaky foot on the thin wire, memories suddenly flooding back from my youth.
“You’ll be a star!” My father would say after every practice, and I had thought so too at the time. I scoffed at the recollection. If only I had known better.
One more breath and I lifted my second foot in front of the first. My balance was definitely not at it’s prime, but I managed to take a few more hesitant steps as I held the balancing stick firmly between my hands.
Though I had not gotten far, I half-heartedly thought to myself “Maybe this isn’t so bad...maybe I’ll actually make it to the other side!”
However, a quick slip on my next step erased all hope and I suddenly felt myself fall.
This is how she must have felt when she had slipped. I squeezed my eyes shut, knowing that there was nothing I could do. I was helpless, just like she had been. I wondered what she had thought as she fell. Had she accepted it would be her end? What had she thought when she’d seen my young, horrified face just moments before she’d hit the ground?
And then, I landed in the coiled net. I heard a few sniggers coming from my group of cousins, but ignored them.
Upon opening my eyes, I was met with Louis’ concerned ones.
“Are you okay, Charles?” He asked.
I nodded, getting up and out of the net.
To my surprise, my father had also made his way over to the netting.
I averted my gaze to the ground, expecting him to either laugh or scold me. However, he remained silent, a single tear rolling down his aged cheek.
I looked at him, confused, but then realized that he was seemingly deep in thought.
“I’m sorry, Charles.” Was all he said before wrapping me in a hug.
I froze, unable to respond.
“I know how much your mother’s death has traumatized you because, well, you witnessed it.” He continued “Just watching you fall now had me thinking...” He trailed off hesitantly, gesturing to the thin rope suspended in the air.
There was a brief silence.
“I shouldn’t have forced you to stay in the circus.” He sighed “I shouldn't have pushed you so much that you felt the need to run away.”
I could say nothing.
He suddenly began to dig through his pockets, eventually pulling out a shiny golden ring and placing it in the palm of my hand, closing my fingers around it. Upon further inspection, I saw that the word Cirque was engraved on its side.
“It was hers.” My father explained with a smile “She truly loved the circus, and though it may have not have ended well, she loved performing more than anything else. I swear to you, Charles, that I did not force her to do anything against her will.”
My father then wrapped his arms around both Louis and I.
“She loved you both too, just as much as I do, and though it may not seem obvious, I want to make sure that you are both aware of it.”
He then took another breath.
“And now I suppose it is time I come clean.” He added, releasing us and staring me in the eyes “There is no Uncle André. I simply made him up because I...missed you.” He admitted with slight humiliation.
I was shocked. Louis’ expression was no different than mine.
“So there is no money? You tricked me?” I asked, unsure of how to feel about the confession.
He simply nodded. “But I will do anything and everything you require of me, Son. I swear to you, I will help you and your wife and child, because,” He paused, keeping my gaze “I love you, Charles.”