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Authors: Joanne Owen

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Part Three

By the time Vasilisa neared home, the sun had risen and she had no need of the skull's light. But as she went to throw it away, a voice came from it. ‘Don't discard me,' it said. ‘Take me to your stepmother.' Vasilisa looked at the house and saw it was still dark, so she did as the skull asked and brought it inside.

While Vasilisa had been away, no flame had lit for the stepmother or stepsisters and every flame brought to them by their neighbours had gone out the moment it came into the house, so when she went inside with the light they treated her kindly for the very first time.

‘Perhaps your light will last,' said the stepmother. And she was right, for the skull's glowing eyes stared at both her and the stepsisters throughout the night. They were unable to escape its scorching glare and by morning they were burned to ashes, and only Vasilisa was spared.

When the sun rose, she dug a deep hole and buried the skull and walked into town, hoping to find her father. An old, childless woman offered her shelter until her father returned. To keep herself busy while she waited, Vasilisa asked the old woman for some flax and she spent her days spinning. She spun fast as lightning and her thread was as fine as strands of hair, and in no time at all she'd spun a great bundle of yarn. It was too fine to comb and too fine to weave, so she asked her doll for help. Using a comb, a shuttle and the mane of a horse, the doll made a loom and Vasilisa was able to weave the thread herself.

By the end of winter all the thread had been woven and Vasilisa said the old woman could sell the cloth and keep the money, to thank her for giving her shelter. The old woman looked at the cloth and thought it was so fine that only the Tsar himself could wear it, so she took it to the palace and the Tsar was so impressed he gave her great gifts in exchange for it.

Once the old woman had gone, the Tsar ordered new shirts to be made from the cloth, but it was too fine for any of his seamstresses to work with. So he summoned the old woman back and asked her to make them, thinking she'd spun the cloth. When she explained it was the work of a young girl she'd taken in, the Tsar asked for that girl to make them.

The old woman hurried home and told Vasilisa.

‘I knew one day I would have to do my own work,' she replied, and she locked herself away and sewed without rest until a dozen shirts were ready.

When the old woman took them to the Tsar, he was so impressed that he wanted to meet the young seamstress for himself. He rode to the cottage and as soon as he saw Vasilisa, he fell in love and asked for her hand in marriage.

And though she was now able to look after herself, and do her own work, Vasilisa carried her doll in her pocket for the rest of her life, to remind her of her mother, and of the time in her life when she needed help.

Chapter Seventeen

Time seemed to stop while I sat there outside the cave. I felt as frozen as Freddie had looked, but not from anything Mother Matushka had done to me, or even the cold. It was like my whole
had frozen. All my thoughts, everything I'd ever done, and everything I might have done. Everything had stopped, including my future. I was locked in limbo, until Fabian came. I didn't hear him. He just appeared before me, pulled me to my feet and wrapped me in his arms. And then, finally, I breathed again. I went limp with relief. Not because anything had changed about my situation. It was just overwhelming relief at him being there, at not being totally alone.

‘I know, I know,' he said. ‘You feel lost now, little Rose, but the shock will pass and you'll feel found again. I know it.'

I'd never been so grateful for company or a hug, but still, part of me was hurt – and angry – that he hadn't told me the truth.

‘Why didn't you tell me what this place really is, what you really are? Why did no one tell me?'

‘You were an outsider,' he explained. ‘You came on your own, outside the ordinary cycle of things. We supposed you were a danger.'

‘A danger?' I almost snorted. I still couldn't really grasp how someone like me could be seen as dangerous. ‘I don't know about that, but I
on my own. I
on my own.'

‘I understand. We all feel like that at first, but you will settle in and come to realise how fortunate you are to have another life. A
kind of life,' he corrected himself. ‘We get to be here, to have all this.' He gestured in the direction of the Big Top.

‘Not everyone,' I said. ‘Not Freddie. He didn't ever settle in, did he? And I won't either. I don't want this.'

‘Let's walk,' he said, softly.

He held out his hand and led me over the bank to the lake. We sat at the edge of the water, watching the moon and its reflection.

‘It seems like a tiny thing, but this has always done me good,' he said, his voice barely there.

‘What has?' I whispered too. It felt wrong to spoil the peace.

‘Drinking in the moon here. It always makes me feel close to the world we came from.'

His words turned my heart. ‘I was thinking something like that before you came,' I said. ‘It sounds daft, but I was wondering if it was the same moon.'

‘I believe it is; I believe they can see it.' He closed his eyes and I saw his lips move, like he was saying a silent prayer. ‘I did the same before I came to the circus. Whenever I was apart from my family, I would take comfort from knowing that we could be linked by watching this same moon at the same time, that we were connected by something so much greater than the physical space between us.'

I completely got what Fabian meant, and I also got that he didn't just mean the moon. I mean, it's comforting and romantic to imagine that the people you love are seeing the same incredible thing as you when you're not with them, but more than that,
than that, there's the way people you love are always with you, even when you're apart, because they're part of you. I'd learned that when Granny had gone.

‘Did you ever think about trying to leave the circus?' I asked. ‘To go home to the people you left behind?'

‘I think about them all the time, but I taught myself, early on, not to torture myself with thoughts of leaving.' He sighed, long and deep. ‘I have Accordienka. Pining for our past would be harmful to us both, as it is to you, Rosie. It will only prolong your pain.'

Again, I totally understood what he was saying, but I wasn't like him. I felt bad for saying it, but I needed people to stop trying to persuade me I'd be OK here. I wasn't staying.

‘I'm different. I'm not supposed to be here.'

‘I know you are not like us, but you can work with Mother and play a very important part in what we do here. And you know there's no way back,' he added. ‘Being special doesn't change that.'

‘I'm not special. Not really. It's all because of a stupid accident.' I skimmed a stone across the lake. The ripples ruined its smoothness. ‘And I mean it about trying to get home. Mother Matushka said there's a way. She said if I go through and bring something back she doesn't have, she could give me what I wanted, so I could go home  … '

I shut up. The edgy look on Fabian's face was scaring me. ‘What is it?'

‘I must be honest with you.' He took hold of my hands. ‘The chances of you succeeding are extremely slight. No one has ever done it. I fear you won't make it back, that you'll be trapped beyond the hearth forever. And there is something else to consider too – your family. You've left that world. Won't they think you've gone, that you've passed on? Even if you do the impossible and return, it cannot bring them any good. Think of them.'

I wasn't sure about that – how could I be? I didn't know how bad I was back there, how close to death I was. Maybe I'd died there since me seeing them in that room. Maybe that's why the curtains had been closed. I felt like I'd slipped through a crack in the world. Could they ever know where I was?

know about this place?' I asked. ‘Or is it really unseen to everyone outside?'

‘To be honest, I've always thought that some people in the world back there knew something – the mythmakers and storytellers, the old soothsayers and wise women who passed on stories about how the world came to be, what happens when we die, and so on. But it wasn't until coming here that I understood the true meaning of those tales.'

I could feel my face flushing. He sounded like Granny. ‘Like what?' I asked.

‘Like that the witch isn't all bad. She isn't all about death and destruction. While Mother facilitates the passage of the dead, she also protects
by upholding this threshold between the two worlds.'

. There was that word again. Mother Matushka had used it, but I'd come across it somewhere else too. I could see it now, in Granny's spindly writing, in
note. Could she have known
truth? I might have been reading far too much into this, but it seemed to me now that anything could be true.

‘This is going to sound weird,' I said, ‘but my granny used to say stuff about tales telling truths. She used to tell me the story about Mashenka and the bear – the one Jacques mentioned – and she told me about Lady Snowstorm. But the thing about thresholds is that after she died I found a letter from her. It was her suicide note.' I swallowed hard. The word choked me. ‘I found it in her hearth, close to where she was found. And  …  and it said something about it being time for her to cross the threshold. I had my accident just after reading it. I fell through that same hearth and ended up here. It's too much of a coincidence, don't you think? I can't quite fit all the pieces together, but do you think she
have known about this place?'

‘That I cannot say, Rosie. I don't know her. It might have been a figure of speech. Death is often referred to as a crossing or passing. Perhaps we all know about the threshold, deep down, just not necessarily in a literal sense. She meant a lot to you, didn't she?'

As I went to reply, Scarlet's sing-song voice rang out. ‘Where are you, Fabian? Did you find her?'

‘We're down here! By the water,' he called.

She appeared at the top of the bank and waved wildly before bounding down to us.

‘Hope you're doing OK, sweetheart. Knew you were special first time I set my eyes on you, but
? That's something else!'

‘And you're  … ' I trailed off. It felt rude to actually say the word and also, as I looked at her, all vibrant and healthy-looking, it really hit me how crazy it was that she wasn't actually alive. I'd been so wrapped up in myself I hadn't thought to ask what it was like being them. ‘What does it feel like?' I asked. ‘To be  …  not alive?'

She held out her arm. ‘Touch me,' she said. I put my hand on her wrist. There was no pulse. ‘It's like my blood froze the day I died,' she said. ‘It's tricky to describe what it feels like from the inside. I guess  …  I guess it's like going to sleep as normal and waking up as a feistier, more fearless version of yourself. As your gutsier twin, or your sassier big sister. It's like when something real bad has happened to you, and you're at that scary, exciting stage of starting to pick yourself up and throw yourself back into the world, open to discovering what new things you can do, what new paths you could take. It's like all those in-between parts of your life, when anything seems possible.'

Her description reminded me of the amazing adrenaline rush I'd felt at a couple of auditions, when everything was flowing and the world was right onside, but you're teetering on the edge because you know you've got to keep it all going and not slip up.

‘And on top of that,' she smiled, ‘I'll never get any more wrinkly. I came here in 1957 when I'd just turned thirty. Haven't aged a day since.'

‘So, that makes you  …  eighty-six? Eighty-seven? That's crazy. So you meant it when you said you went to that film premiere? You really were there?'

‘Sure was, honey. Not bad-looking for such an old broad, wouldn't you say?'

‘Not bad at all.' I smiled. ‘Do you mind if I ask you something else? Why are you here? I mean, I know about Coco and Lola and the boat accident, but what happened to you?'

‘Remember me mentioning that baby I had in my belly? Well, I never got to be her mother.'

Her story really tore at my heart. She'd gone into labour early and died giving birth while her sailor sweetheart was at sea. She'd died on the threshold of motherhood, which was why she'd stayed in the circus.

‘I remember the doctors in white masks and the river of blood, and then more red and white – the carousel and the Big Top. And that was that.' She ran a hand over her tattoo. ‘Me and my Jack had it all mapped out. That baby was going to turn our lives around. I was going to quit the travelling troupe and find more regular work with a theatre. Of course, I can't know for sure, but I've always felt that she did pull through and made a real good life for herself. I don't even know if she was a girl, but she'll always be my little Martha.'

Scarlet's voice cracked and I went to put an arm round her, but she waved me away. ‘Bet she turned out to be a brilliant dancer, what with the way she kept me awake with all her kicking. She'd have been born for the circus.'

That was something else that hadn't occurred to me in all the madness. ‘If you all came here from different kinds of lives, why
this a circus?'

Scarlet stood up, smiling, and hugged her shoulders. ‘See, the thing about circuses, especially ours, is that they contain the whole world, but in glorious Technicolor! In a circus, everything is brighter, more intense, at its extreme. The biggest, the highest, the strongest, the smallest, the fastest. Get it? Everything is here, and everything is exaggerated. You've seen it, haven't you? You saw me on that wheel, and Fab with the fire, and the boys on the wire, and Coco soaring from the ceiling. We can't die, so we can do all kinds of daredevil things. Doesn't matter if you never did anything adventurous before coming here. Doesn't matter if you've never performed. Take Fab, for instance. He came here as plain old Fabianski, a humble country carpenter. Well, not so plain, I guess.' She pinched his cheek, and he smiled in return. ‘I mean, you were no performer when you came here, were you, Fab? You
how to be fabulous.'

‘You're quite right, Scarlet.' He smiled. ‘We can be everything and anything here, because we are neither one thing nor another.'

Scarlet pulled me to my feet and swung me around. ‘No constraints, total freedom!' she yelled. ‘And you could have that too!'

I hugged her so hard my arms hurt. I felt excited. I actually felt excited. Right at that moment I wasn't thinking about going home, or what I had to do to get there. I just felt rollercoaster-touching-down-in-a-new-country excited. Heart-in-my-mouth and stomach-in-my-head excited. Mad-crazy excited.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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