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Authors: Joanne Owen

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BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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‘It wasn't my fault,' said Lola. ‘We didn't go too far, we really didn't, and I wanted to bring her straight to you, but Scarlet  … '

‘Just tell me what you know, child. Tell me all that you saw, and all that you know.'

Mother Matushka listened calmly until Lola mentioned the marsh. Hearing how it had retreated around the girl, and how the waters had run clear, sent shockwaves through her. The marsh had been here as long as her. In the beginning, before any people passed through, there was Mother Matushka, and there was the mist and there was the marsh. That's how it was, that's how it had always been. And the girl had
changed
it, and when things change, they can never go back as they were.

‘She said she didn't do anything, but I saw it happen. We both did. You can ask Coco if you don't believe me. Who is she, Mother? It's her fault everything has gone funny, isn't it? Has she upset you?'

Mother Matushka placed a hand on Lola's shoulder to calm her. The girl was shaking. She couldn't let this fear spread among her children. They needed to feel safe. Some order had to be maintained. ‘What about the mist, my child? Was that as it should be?'

Lola nodded. ‘It was just the marsh she made change. She stepped into it and started to drown, but then it just shrank away from her. Why has the sun been funny, Mother? Was that the girl's fault too?'

‘I shall see, child. I shall see who she is, and what she can do, like the rest of you.'

Chapter Thirteen

The door opened. I sat up, still half in my dream. In it, I'd been back at home, in my room in the cellar – only Scarlet and Fabian had been there too, and we'd found another envelope of Granny's things, more pieces to her puzzle.

‘Stir yourself, girl. You're leaving.'

‘What?'

Mother Matushka's words catapulted me awake. I didn't know what to do with myself. I wanted to laugh and cry and dance and even hug her. ‘I'd like to say goodbye to Scarlet first.'

‘No need for goodbyes. You'll see her soon enough. Her and all the others. Accordienka, we're ready,' she called. ‘She will take you to the Big Top. Her father will be your guide there. I shall find you later.'

I felt totally flattened. I shouldn't have let myself get carried away like that. ‘Why do I have to go there?'

‘I know how the marsh shrank back for you, and I saw for myself how the birds came to you, so let us see how you fare in the Circus of the Unseen.'

‘What do you mean?' I asked. The thought of being forced to do some kind of circus act as a test turned my stomach.

‘Let us see what you can do,' she said. ‘Let us see what you learn,' she went on, which didn't help me at all. She blew onto one of the skull-capped fence-posts and a flame ignited. She uprooted the whole post and handed it to me. ‘In case you need to light your way; in case the sun fails. But do not stray from any path,' she warned, as if she knew what I was thinking. ‘All paths return to me.'

Accordienka took my hand, like I was the little sister she'd been told to take care of, and the wind whipped up and jostled us away. I just kept telling myself, over and over, to stay calm and sharp and not fall to pieces. What else could I do? At least I wasn't locked up. I glanced back at the cottage, with its stilts and skulls and the blast of blue roses round the door, and I saw Mother Matushka flapping her arms at the sky, and I swear it looked like she was making the wind herself. As Accordienka led me to the crossroads, that familiar mist closed in around us.

‘Is the weather always so strange here?' I asked. ‘It's like you have your own climate.'

She didn't reply to that, or to any of my questions, like why I had to go to the Big Top, and what I was supposed to do there, and if she'd always lived here. She just looked at me with her big, dark eyes, as if she was speaking, but no words came. I don't know if Mother Matushka had told her to keep quiet, or if she was shy, or maybe she just didn't like me because I'd gone to pick up her doll, but she didn't say a single word. I almost jumped out of my skin when someone else did.

‘Pleased to meet you, missy. Welcome to my water wagon.'

I'd been babbling on so much, hoping Accordienka would respond to
something
, that I hadn't noticed him, or where we were. The person was an old boatman who looked as beaten up by the elements as his canoe. We'd come to a lake that was so clear and calm, it looked like a perfect disc of polished glass. He tipped his hat at us.

‘Is this what we're supposed to be doing?' I asked Accordienka. ‘Mother Matushka said I had to go to the Big Top.'

The boatman released a rough, crackly laugh. ‘Ain't nobody told you, missy? She ain't said a word since the day she and her daddy came to be here. But you speak through your music, don't you, girl? You speak through your bellows rather than your mouth.'

So that explained why she hadn't answered me. She
couldn't
speak. Before I could ask why, Accordienka climbed aboard. The boatman must have sensed my fear, because he took the skull from me and lifted me on. Then he paddled away, singing out in a graveyard-gravelly voice that came deep from his belly.

The river don't stop, and the river don't rest.

The river keeps a-flowing when there's no flesh left.

The earth don't rot and the earth don't rust.

The earth keeps a-swelling when your bones are dust.

Got to flow with the river, got to keep flowing higher.

Got to ride that river right back to the mire.

His haunting, hypnotic song mixed with the rhythm of the oars sloshing into the water and the ripples lapping against the boat, and I felt adrift from everything – until the lapping and chanting stopped. We'd come to land.

After helping me out, the boatman handed me the skull-post, wished me well and rowed off. I followed Accordienka up over the rocky bank beyond the shoreline. It was packed with hundreds of fossilised shells, like the ghost town of a reef. At the highest point, I could see the Big Top's candy-striped canopy jutting out of the valley. Accordienka waved at her father and Scarlet, and I raced after her down the bank towards them.

‘I hope I didn't get you in any trouble with Mother Matushka,' I said to Scarlet.

‘Don't worry about that. It could have been worse. She has other things on her mind.'

I guessed the ‘other things' were me. I wanted to ask them why I'd been locked up, and about Mother's crazy reaction to the dolls, and what had happened with the birds, but the noise coming from inside the tent was too loud to start up a big conversation.

‘So this is the Place of the Players,' Fabian called, lifting Accordienka onto his shoulders like she weighed no more than a feather. ‘Mother asked that I introduce you to what we do here.'

Scarlet took the skull-post from me and jabbed it into the ground. ‘Welcome to the World, honey!' She flipped back the curtain, put an arm round me and shepherded me inside. It
was
like being in a different world. It looked even bigger from the inside. The canop
y glowed silver, like it was flooded with moonlight.

‘Where shall we start?' said Fabian. ‘See there?' He gestured upwards. ‘That's Henri, and the smaller one is Jacques. They're brothers – the Tremendous Tightrope Walkers of Toulouse. They are called that because they can walk the branches of the highest trees, and because –'

‘They're from Toulouse?'

‘You might think so.' He winked. ‘But not exactly. Sometimes they are from Toulouse. Other times they are from Tonga, or some other place. It depends on their mood. They are whoever, or whatever, they want to be.' Then, gently, Fabian lifted Accordienka from his shoulders to the ground. She hurried away and came back soon with her accordion. Sitting down, she began to play.

The two boys in matching sailors' outfits and wolf masks were balanced at either end of a tightrope. They bowed to each other before taking tiny, exact steps across the wire towards the centre until the tips of their noses touched. Then, while one of them stayed completely still, the other rotated his arms forward and somersaulted over his brother's head. He hovered several metres above him for what felt like an age. I could hardly bear to watch. There was no net beneath them and what he was doing seemed impossible. I mean, how was he holding himself in that position for so long? It was crazy. But then things became even crazier. They began to howl like they actually were wolves, and I saw them sprout tails and bristles that burst through their clothes.

‘Is this really happening?' I breathed. ‘Can you see it too?'

‘Quick, don't miss Dolly Dimple.' Scarlet nudged me. ‘She's our Mistress of the Midair Marvel!' She pointed across the ring at a plump lady dressed in a snakeskin-print leotard and bathing cap. The lady smeared grease over the bare bits of her body, climbed a set of steps up to a cannon and somehow managed to squeeze herself into it. Just thinking
about how she could breathe in such a tiny space made my chest tight. A small boy wearing a harlequin suit tumbled over to the cannon and wound a handle at one end. A click-clack-clicking sound started up, and then came a big bang and a cloud of smoke and Dolly Dimple shot out of the other end towards a water-filled glass tank. She vanished on contact with the water, but the tank now contained a poisonous-looking snake-like creature. I knew it was behind glass, but just seeing its yellow-green slithers sent shivers through me, and I
swear
it hadn't been there before. I swear the tank had been empty before the woman plunged into it.

There were things like this going on across the entire ring. I watched a group of female fire-eaters slip flaming torches down their throats and engulf themselves in flames. They flapped and beat their arms a few times and a flock of orange birds emerged from the blaze. I saw a woman walk right through a mirror and come out the other side as a man, but the most bizarre – and disturbing – thing of all was watching a boy being gagged and nailed into a coffin. A few seconds later, the coffin burst open and a cluster of spiders, each as big as a dinner plate, scurried from it, and there was no boy.

All this was more incredible than anything I'd seen in any other circus, or on any illusion show. It was more incredible than anything I'd imagined possible. But, actually, what made their acts even
more
spectacular was the way they performed them. Despite all the chaotic movements and the colour and noise, there was a grace to everything the performers did – all their moves were considered, and executed with dignity. The atmosphere was solemn, and underpinned by Accordienka's drone.

‘Are you
her
?' It was one of the wolf brothers. I hadn't seen them change back, but they both looked like normal boys again. ‘
Are
you her?' he shouted again, and right in my face this time, so close I could feel his cold breath on my cheeks. ‘Are you the one Lola found?'

At those words, everyone around us stopped what they were doing. They stopped and they stared and they gathered around me. The red-and-white harlequin tumblers, the women in cheetah-print bodysuits, the boys dressed as foxes. I couldn't speak, and it felt like a thousand eyes were staring at me. Accordienka ran to her dad and clung onto his legs. I moved closer to him too.

‘Please, step away,' Fabian called at the crowd, but they babbled over him.

‘Who is she? Where did she come from? What is she doing here? What is she
for
?' Then they turned their questions onto me. ‘What happened to you?' Another voice: ‘Are you still hungry? Do you really bleed?' Another: ‘Can you feel this?' A woman dressed as a pink flamingo leaned in and went to pinch me, like I was an exhibit in a freak show.

I went to say something, but Fabian nudged her away and touched my arm to keep me quiet. ‘That is enough,' he shouted. ‘Enough!'

‘It is her. I found her.' It was Lola. ‘And she does bleed. I saw it.'

‘Stop tormenting her, Lola. She is but a child.'

‘So am I,' said Lola. ‘So are lots of us. It's all her fault. The sun, the marsh. She's made everything messy. I know because Mother spoke to me about her.'

‘Get back to your work! All of you. I, also, have spoken to Mother Matushka and she said that this girl is to come here and learn with us. This is not for you to meddle in, Lola, or any of you.'

Their protests faded to murmurs and everyone went back to what they'd been doing, and I could breathe again.

‘Let's find some quiet,' said Fabian, leading me outside, and we went away from the Big Top to where he and Accordienka lived. It wasn't far, but their shady clearing near the lake couldn't have felt more different. The peace and the way the light fell on the lake was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. We sat on a bench outside their hut while Accordienka played near the shore.

‘Thank you,' I said. ‘If you hadn't stopped them, I don't know what they'd have done.'

‘It won't happen again, I'll make sure of it,' he replied. ‘And I wanted to say that I didn't mean you are a child. You are a young woman. I meant you are a child in this place and they should not have treated you like that. I am sorry.'

I could feel myself blushing, but he didn't seem to notice.

‘Their reaction was because they do not know you,' he went on, ‘because you are from the outside. Of course, new people come here, but we always know when. It is never like this. Usually new arrivals who stay are welcomed with a show.'

‘Can everyone here do illusions like that?' I asked. ‘I mean, turn themselves into animals, and escape from coffins. How did they do it?'

‘That's what they have learned to do here. Everyone finds their own special abilities.'

‘What do you do?' I asked. ‘What's your act?'

‘Sometimes I am the Fabulous Fabianski, and other times I am Fabian of the Forest. When I am either, I do things with my hands. I move things and I catch things and I make things, like this house of ours, Scarlet's wagon, Wheels of Death, dolls. Anything we need. Accordienka!' he called to his daughter. ‘Why don't you play something for our guest?'

‘I'd love that,' I said. She was such a sweet little thing. It was amazing she was strong enough to hold the instrument, let alone play it so brilliantly. She settled on a stone near the lake's edge and closed her eyes. The sounds she made were so achingly beautiful I actually started crying. It felt like her music was literally moving through me, swelling my heart. She must have noticed, because she put down the accordion and ran up to me. She wiped away my tears, and gently pulled my lips into a smile.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
12.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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