Adventure Mystery Suspense

“None of it’s real sweet,” my Dad said to be from behind his growing beard capped with foam from his beer. He gave a reassuring smile and ruffled my dark hair as I quailed behind an untouched box of popcorn. “It’s all just for show. No need to be scared, she’s probably practiced this lots of times.” Dad was a doctor who knew all about bodies and stuff, so I tried to reassure myself with that fact. It was hard however when the whole audience around us in the circular stalls held their breath as a slender woman in full teal body paint slid a sword down her throat. I could feel it in my own throat as I stared. I imagined the edge sliding just one way or another and making a small incision in my throat or tummy making me bleed. The knot in my gut was not helped by the constant thrum of the drum that sounded from the band, making the tension almost physical. My Dad was smiling at my apparent nervousness, but I stayed focused on the woman, waiting for her to gag or choke.

Her bejeweled lips undulated, and I could hear the sound of the blade hissing against her teeth bright white teeth. The shiny bar of steel disappeared down to her stomach until the elaborate golden handle rested on her chin, and she pulled her hands away in a fixed balletic position. The paint on her body, and her raven hair made it look as if she was hummingbird unfurling her wings under the circus lights, bright colours reflecting off her sculpted frame. The crowd emitted a hushed cheer that was followed by a smattering of applause, as well as whispers of amazed admiration.

The woman withdrew the sword from her mouth as if it where a long spaghetti noodle before licking and smacking her lips as if she had just finished a delicious meal. She smiled a beautiful smile and I breathed out for the first time in what felt like an hour as the applause began. The sword-eater bowed low three times, soaking in the sound like a flower in the sun. Then with a handspring she withdrew into the huge red curtains from which all the acts had emerged, accompanied by more applause and a rising crescendo from the live brass band in the wings. The curtain had barely closed before the ringmaster appeared, wearing a white cloth shirt and tight-fitting black trousers, his winning smile twinkling in the bright lights and his arms wide toward the curtain. “Ladies and gentlemen! The woman with the iron stomach!” The applause rose again with whooping and the ring master bowed, his long hair flopping over his face before he flicked it back again. “And remember kids don’t try anything like that at home, stick to your five a day.” He counted off on his fingers. “Steel, magnesium, aluminium, bronze and gold, or platinum for you posh kids.”

A chuckle circled the crowd.

“Honestly, she loves it. Can’t leave out any tin foil out or it’s gone…” He mimed biting down on a bar of steel and there was another round of laughter from the gathered spectators including my dad. “But now we must move on, for I have a little group that have been dying to meet you all night, though people in the front row.” He looked down at the front who were lowest and closest to the stage. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to crane your necks, as I give you. All the way from the Himalayas, Tenzing’s terrifically tall troupe!!” He skipped back through the curtain and the lights went dark.

A drum began to roll again, and I felt the knot reform in my stomach. My Dad squeezed my shoulder, “It’s all pretend darling. Don’t you worry.” I pressed into his side.

Something enormous, and long shrouded in a large cloth pierced the veil. It placed a booted foot down on the stage, kicking up a cloud of dust with its tread. A member of the band released a rising note as a head ducked out from beneath the portal into the stage to stride out into the light, showing off the tremendous scale of the figure that parted the curtains to stand in the stage. It had the body, arms, and head of a man, but the legs were fearfully long. He staggered about the arena, followed by two more in full makeup and staggering around like drunkards in enormous baggy clothes, and trousers that could swallow a lamppost.

They guffawed and tottered about the stage, juggling balls between each other, leaning out as far as they could so their made-up faces leered at the audience, most of whom were laughing, some were clapping, but I was shaking. I kept thinking about their terrifying faces, and how far it was for them to fall, and of all the other things that could go wrong! My Dad pointed them out, explaining to me loudly over the sound of the music and the shouting audience, “These guys are called stilt walkers! In those trousers they’ve got long wooden poles or something to stand on! It’s all an act sweet! He’s probably not even called Tenzing! You know Tenzing was one of the first…”

His words trailed off, as the noise rose to a crescendo. The stilt-walkers, as my dad said, were now spinning around and lifting their ludicrously long legs up and about so high, it was like they would kick the ropes that held the tent up. The crowd gasped and whooped nervously as the feet strayed near them and I squeezed my dad’s hand fearingfor their balance on those long legs. It turned out I was right to be afraid.

The was a resounding snap as one of the long-legged men’s legs snapped at about the halfway mark. The man, who was dressed in a purple bowler hat with a black and white face, yelped and, as he began to fall, grasped at something to hold catching a rope. The rope pulled free and without warning, part of the tent began to collapse. The band stopped abruptly, as the crowd jumped up, suddenly afraid rather than entertained. The huge canvas came down all about us and my hand slipped free of my dad’s.

There was a crash, a crunch and I looked up to see one of the large supporting beams above come tumbling down. Suddenly my dad, who had thrown his drink down to catch me was snatched away, as the whole row of seats beneath us collapsed under the weight of the falling timber beam.

Yet, even as I fell away and my Dad disappeared from view, that wasn’t the thing that scared me the most. Amongst all the yelling and shouting to get away and of fear. What really scared me was the shrieks of pain, that came from the man who had fallen. It was a scream that you felt in your chest as you heard it and made your skin prickle with sympathetic pain as he let out scream after moan after scream, each one a lung emptying distorted wail of agony.

I hit the ground in a shower of wood splinters, my shoulder taking the brunt of the force as I rolled over, and the world promptly went dark as the canvas fell over me. I shrieked for my father, but I couldn’t even hear my own voice over the sound of the rest of the people shouting, running, clawing, crawling for the edge of the canvas as the fear of being suffocated and trapped overcame all of us. I joined them, deciding it would be much better to find my dad outside of this disaster than within it.

It was total darkness, and all I could feel was the press of the damp canvas over my head, the soft grass under my shoes and the relentless pounding of terrified people trying to escape. Eventually, to my relief, I saw a crack of light and I forced my way toward it, pushing people out of the way before getting down, and crawling under. I was only small, so there was no way that anyone but me could have fit through the tiny gap.

However, I wasn’t outside like I had expected but instead inside another tent, or another part of the large tent which hadn’t collapsed. Looking around, I noticed the curtain that the acts had been stepping through, only this time I was on the same level as it and on the other side. It looked much bigger from the ground level, reminding me of the size of the stilt-walkers. The floor under my feet was carpeted, with a roll out matt of enormous proportion and perplexingly complex patterns. It was as tall as the main tent, and the section I was in was divided into cubicles by sheets of stretched white canvas and all the outside noise was strangely muted. There was a static charge in the air like imperceivable energy and the smell of incense was pungent and strong.

The curtain suddenly parted wide and from its gap immerged the stilt-walkers dragging their friend behind them, a cacophony of noise spilling from the other side of the huge veil. I shuffled back into a corner, afraid of being spotted and getting into trouble. The ring master ran out, his loose white cloth shirt billowing across his chest. “What in blazes happened in there!” One of the stilt men replied, with a strong Indian accent, and the ringmaster had to tip his head way back to look him in the eye. “It’s Tenzing! His leg broke and he went down! Took the whole bloody tent with him too!”

Tenzing, which as it turns out was his name, howled his agony into the tent and the girl who had been swallowing swords glided up to join them. It was then I noticed that there was blood on the injured man’s long trousers, about where the break was. “Has he had a fall?” She asked, her voice delicate and high pitched. “Get the table.” The ringmaster said and, after the briefest pause, turned his head to her sharply. “Now!” She nodded fearfully and turned away to run, dropping an iron crowbar on the ground. Or at least, what was left of it… My eyes widened and jaw dropped as I noticed that there were teeth marks in it.

“Should just shoot him now if you ask me.” Came a low voice from a nearby cubicle, honeyed with menace and gravel. “That’s what they do to horses isn’t it? When they break a leg, the kindest thing is to shoot them.” Tenzing yelled again with renewed anguish as they rolled him over. “Leave it out Eddie!” Snapped one of the stilt walkers, his black and white face twisted in a snarl. “I’m just saying,” The voice came back indignantly.

With a muffled clattering sound, the sword-swallower returned pulling a stretcher table behind her. A stretcher table that was longer than a minibus. With a great effort, the men in stilts, ring master and sword-swallower lifted Tenzing onto the long table. Then with a short knife he pulled from his pocket, the ringmaster slit Tenzing’s trousers from him to ankle, and I saw the damage.

What was beneath the trousers was not a wooden stilt, or a steel construct. It was flesh. A real-life human leg, except it was so long, it was twice its owner’s torso height. Pale, hairy and perilously thin with a thigh about 2ft long and shins over 8ft meaning the knee appeared far too high for comfort. At the centre of the long shin was an unnatural kink, through which an ivory shard of bone pierced the skin. I tried not to be sick as the ringmaster cursed under his breath and ran his fingers through his hair. “Worse than I thought.” Came the voice of Eddie who made his appearance now from behind where the cubicles were. My lungs froze my breath in place and fear shot through my legs making me want to run but rooting me to the spot.

An adult male lion, padded up next to the wounded Tenzing, sniffing the wound and licking at it, his wide mane flowing out behind him like sun beams through a cloud. The ring master beat him off, and the lion snarled. “No blood! You’re not allowed human blood, you know that.” Eddie snorted, a kind of muffled growl mixed with a sneeze. “He’s hardly human.”

“Is…it…bad…” Tenzing hissed in a pain strangled voice, his hand covering his face as he breathed through his teeth.

“Honestly…?” The ring master began.

“Yes!” Said the lady with the iron stomach. “It’s bad Tenzing. I told you, you’re too old for this! Your bones can’t take the strain.” She stroked his face affectionately as she spoke. He shifted his hand and, to my amazement, smiled.

“It’s all for the applause dear.”

The Ringmaster swore again. “Damn Tenzing! What am I going to do with you? Sprains, cuts, bruises, even fractures we can deal with, but this!” He gestured at the wound. “I don’t know what we can do without a doctor.”

“But you said we can’t!” The lady said.

“I’m not going to a zoo!” Roared Eddie.

“Never mind a Zoo, where will we end up?” Asked one of the giants.

“What other choice to I have?!” The Ringmaster snapped at all of them. “If we do nothing…” A silence hung between them, even the proud lion. “I’ll be a little shorter on one side.” Tenzing tried to smile, but the tension remained high.

Pity overtook the crippling anxiety that gripped me as tears threatened by eyes. Without a doctor this man was going to lose his leg or worse. But there was no way they could approach a hospital without their abnormalities being exposed to the outside world and that was something they clearly didn’t want. Unless there was a doctor they could trust. One that could be discreet and that they could talk to on their own terms.

I raised my head, gritted my teeth, and stepped into the light.

“My Dad’s a doctor.”

May 14, 2021 13:26

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