On the midway, everything looked like it was poised for history. It would make a fine vintage postcard one day, collected, stuck into an album, sold for a dollar at a junk store. Dear Alice, Saw the most magnificent show! Not as magnificent as you, though. Wish you were here. The sign-off would be illegible and the address it was going to now, a parking lot.
That day on the circus grounds, if you looked along the edges, there was something a little off. Though they’d been at the location only a month, mildew was already creeping in from the sides. But you had to look closely to see that. And you had to know where to look.
Karin was an aerialist – usually found in the catcher’s trap. Maeve was also an aerialist, a flyer in the show. Calluses carpeted Maeve’s palms and burn marks like sand dunes rippled her skin. She’d been flying nearly her entire life, but never on display. The burns, well, those were something else.
Together they walked along the promenade eating blue cotton candy, their mouths purple orchids. They were lovers, but Karin said she didn’t traffic in such frivolities as love. Maeve craved affection, but said she understood. Karin had been with the circus for seventeen years. Maeve was new and still learning how to be an attraction.
The circus was at its end run in the town, that night’s show its last. Guests saw men in stilts reaching for the sun, heard the red and white big top tent flapping in the wind, tasted the ghost of funnel cake lingering on their lips. Among such stimuli they could – for a day at the circus – ignore their father’s drunken nights, their mother’s coldness, their sick brother.
Statuary dotted the gardens where the circus had set up and the tents and stalls were erected among the stone figures that evoked dead women, relics of a little-known past.
At night, it became the stone circus. And because Maeve was new, no one believed her.
The two women wended their way past the last stall. At the final statue along the path, a young woman with a floral crown about her head, Maeve ran her fingers along its collarbone.
In the light of day, Maeve wondered how she had ever thought she had seen these stone women moving about through the paths, down the midway, ducking and hiding behind shrubs. Cold and hard, they were not alive.
Leaving behind the statue and the vivid pinks and purples of the geraniums and pansies, the women began an ascent to the overlook. From that vantage, the tops of the tents were like pastries lined up neatly in a box and beyond, the city. This was the city where Maeve had lived, the arterial streets like the love and life lines along her palm.
She had not bothered to leave the circus grounds in the past month, preferring to stay close to what she knew.
Licking the last of the sugar off the paper cone, Maeve’s eyes followed the roads to the outer edge of the city, where she had been raised. Where her mother and father had lived, and her brother. Until they did not anymore.
“You know this place,” Karin said, but did not ask.
“No,” Maeve said and did not lie. In the circus, you had no place on a map.
Karin leaned in to wipe a speck of blue sugar from Maeve’s mouth. “You are beautiful,” she said. “You’ve really been a great addition to the team.” Maeve wondered if these two things were related in the older woman’s mind. She saw the way the Karin looked at her as if she were an oddity, a sideshow. But there were other times, when the two of them were in bed, side by side, each fitting into the other’s bends and arches, nooks and curves, when Maeve was sure Karin was equally in awe of what they had together.
They sat under a weeping willow, Maeve’s arm linked at Karin’s elbow, their legs a tangle of vines.
“There are more orchid varieties than there are mammals and birds,” Karin said as Maeve watched the city’s lights start to flare in the impending night.
“You know the big statue at the center of the garden?” Maeve asked.
“The messed up one?”
“That one,” Maeve said. One of the statue’s arms was jagged, having been broken off the elbow.
“It used to have a tiny woman at the end of her arm.”
“Like in her hand?” Karin asked.
“No, like a part of her,” Maeve said, braiding her arm with Karin’s. “Like actually growing out of the end of her arm.”
“That’s weird,” Karin said. “I like it.”
“They said it was her lover.”
“Yeah,” Karin said and brushed her lips along Maeve’s cheek. “Is that what they say?”
Maeve felt the kiss like velvet and was reminded of when her mother had whispered the story to her one night under a fort she had made out of bed linens. Held her finger to her lips, shhhhh, they don’t talk about it anymore, her mother had said. They pretend it was always that way, but we, we can see she’s broken.
Maeve stared into the city, hoping to get a glimpse of family in the newly lit up windows, the dioramas of domesticity. She squinted, but knew she was too far away.
“That’s why they smashed it off,” she said.
The show that evening was sold out. The humidity and the cram of bodies created a fug that hung in the tent about a third of the way to the top. It made the tent nearly unbearable. Maeve wore a blue shiny sequined leotard with a matching crown and Karin was already up in the catcher’s trap, swinging like a child at a playground. Higher, higher. Maeve stretched her wrists and twisted at her waist. She touched her toes and went through the list of the evening’s tricks in her head.
The last trick was going to be a triple layout with the final layout including a full twist, something that had made Maeve nervous from the minute they started working on it weeks before. This was the first night to do it for an audience.
Karin would catch Maeve. Clutching each other’s wrists, they would swing forward and swing back. Then Maeve would return to the fly bar, back to the platform, and take a bow.
She bit the last nail with anything to bite. Toby, the Ringmaster, announced Maeve and she cursed not using a pseudonym. While her name was not unusual in some parts of the world, it had gotten her plenty of second takes growing up. She didn’t want anyone to recognize her. As far as she knew, no one knew she had gone off and joined a circus, though she remembered when her fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Stevens, threatened that that would be all that she’d be good for, the sideshow act she was.
Maeve chalked her wrists and climbed the ladder. Rung over rung, the metal was cool and soothing. At the top, she nodded to Aviva – the third aerialist – and surveyed the crowd. Toby droned about death-defying acts as she hopped onto the platform.
“Lista!” Maeve called as she reached for the fly bar with one hand, the other reaching back to the wire. Often the audience was a sea of dark faces, but something with the lighting tonight, something was off, and she could see each face, each shiny, sweaty, pink face, each child’s hope in their eyes with lashes long as kite strings.
And then there, in the third row, between a girl of about seven and a bald man wiping sweat from his forehead, she was.
“Hep!” Karin called from the catch bar. Maeve had no choice but to jump.
As a teenager, Maeve was the pith of an orange: bitter, discarded, but had held things together. When her brother died, and she found hope in a friend – another girl – her father came in to catch them holding each other in a way only those who are in love hold each other. The father roared like a caged lion and pointed a fat finger to the front door.
Her mother had watched the exchange from the doorframe and never once called out for her daughter. Maeve fled immediately. She did not pack a bag, did not say goodbye. Maeve did not even put on shoes.
In time, her feet hardened, calluses like deep crevasses.
In time, her jaw too locked into place.
In time, she came across a circus tent.
As Maeve pushed her legs toward the tent ceiling, she wondered where her father was. Why was her mother at the circus alone? Did they hear Toby announce “Maeve, the high-flying Figaro” and think, I once had a daughter named Maeve. I once loved a Maeve.
She piked her legs as she sailed through the air, her hands no longer the tender hands of a young girl blossoming. They too had become rough as rock and could grip that taped bar as if it was not death below her. She released the bar and began to flip. One, two, and in her third, she twisted. Usually this was quick, but time slowed and Maeve turned to catch her mother’s face in the audience again. But this was folly and her body crashed into Karin’s, who had been hanging by her knees. Maeve flailed her arms in search of something to grab onto. She was falling. There was no net here like in practice. This was showtime. This was perform or die. This was the lesson she had not learned as a child. She did not perform what was expected of her, but she also did not die. She heard a collective gasp, Toby indecipherable on the mic.
Then, just when she thought she would perish in the town where she was born, a hand snapped onto her wrist. It was Karin. She gripped Maeve’s wrist, who in turn reached for Karin’s. She jostled Maeve’s body upward and Maeve threw up her other arm and they connected. For a moment, in one straight line the two women hung. The tent was silenced. All was still.
Maeve looked up at Karin, whose eyes shone with anger under the big top lights. Then she blinked and they were wide with fright.
“What the hell was that?” Karin said through gritted teeth.
“I asked, what the hell was that?”
“Nothing. I just –”
“When you are up here, nothing is nothing.” Maeve swallowed. Her grip strained, a measured slipping.
“Pull me up.”
“I should let you drop.”
“I love you,” Maeve pleaded.
“That’s ridiculous. You don’t find love by running away to join the circus.”
Maeve blinked away a tear, unable to use her hands to wipe them away. Karin jerked Maeve’s wrists upward to get a better grip. “Get the fuck up here.”
Maeve thought about letting go, shaking herself loose from the tethers of the rig, of it all. She was home, after all; let them bury her here, so no one could visit her grave. The thought stung and then anger grew in her chest. They didn’t deserve her here.
The two women gathered enough strength for Maeve to crawl up Karin’s body, until she hung from the catch bar. Karin hung by one knee to make space for the younger flyer. Maeve then pulled herself to up to stand on the bar and then Karin pulled herself up to sit, legs dangling. Once again, a woman in control of her catch trap. They both put their arms out to present to the crowd, smiled big.
One person clapped and Maeve hoped it was her mother. And then a burst of applause circled the room. Aviva on the platform sent the fly bar back and Maeve returned on it. Karin climbed down the rope.
On the ground, they were rooted again. Maeve looked back to where her mother had sat. The woman was inching her way through the crowd to leave. Maeve then glanced up at the empty flying rig, just wires and bars, tape and air.
Maeve picked at her hand. Despite the calluses that had formed, her palm had still ripped. She bit at the flap of skin, slowly tearing it from her body. She held her tender hand to her chest and watched Karin stomp out of the tent.
Eventually the audience departed. After a brief check-in with her, Toby and the rest of the crew left too, leaving the wounded young woman alone. It smelled of peanuts and sweat. The lights had been cut to the floor lights only.
She had hoped her mother would stay behind, like in a movie, or a play and her mother would apologize, wrap an arm around Maeve’s shoulder, pull her in.
Instead, Maeve was alone. She studied her palm. What had been a raw wound a few minutes ago had now hardened. Become a little ashen.
Behind her, she heard someone come into the tent. She turned; it was her. Either her. Her mother. Karin. Maeve would be happy with either one. She would go, she’d get up and chase after her mother.
No, she would go after Karin. She couldn’t possibly have meant what she said up there. It had been fear speaking. But again, didn’t Maeve deserve more? Did she really throw away her life at home to be with a woman who might drop her at any disagreement?
Instead, it was not Maeve’s mother or her love who had entered the tent. It was one of the people who dismantled the rig at the end of the run.
“You about done in here?” he asked.
Maeve looked down at her legs. They too were slowly graying.
“Almost,” she said.
“Toby wants to take down tonight so we can get going first thing,” he said.
She nodded, but even that was stiff, her muscles hardening.
Maeve remembered the rest of the story. All the women who tried to live and then tried to leave. They all turned to stone.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in numerous publications online and in print. She is the writer of “The Predatory Animal Ball” and “As If You Had a Say,” a short story collection forthcoming in 2023 from Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife.
Johanna Strikwerda (b. 1985) is a Dutch artist living in Oslo, Norway. She obtained a PhD in political science from the University of Oslo and studied visual arts at Nydalen Kunstskole. Inspired by colour, sound and nature her artwork is an interpretation led by body movement, intuition and spontaneity.