My 10-year-old nephew is skinny and has big ears. He admits to being timid about certain things — jumping off the raft into the lake, meeting new kids, hearing sudden noises. I too was afraid of things as a child — I like to think I understand David. I was delighted when his mother, my sister, asked me to take him to the circus. “Buy only one bag of popcorn,” she ordered.
“Is there anything we should avoid?”
“Yes, but you can’t avoid it. It’s the elephants’ parade around the ring.”
Oh, I remembered that circle of mournful pachyderms, plodding along until the crack of the master’s whip commands them to halt, to stand on their hind legs one animal by one, to place their front hooves on the hips of the poor guy in front of them, and then simultaneously to drop. Tail behind swings trunk in front. The act humiliates us all. David has read that the circus elephants are the most unhappy creatures in the universe. They’d rather be ripped open by a lion than make fools of themselves before a crowd. And so, when they start their act, his mother told me, David starts to cry. “Those big, big tears …”
“Is he scared of anything else?”
“If a clown boots another one across the ring, he winces. But he knows that the performers are padded. Those suffering elephants, though … Comfort him. Put your arms around him. Whisper into his ear.”
“You’ll think of something.”
And so, eyes still dry, sharing popcorn, we watched the entire human and simian cast rush into the ring to a blare of trumpets. Then we watched the individual acts — the pyramids of acrobats, the monkeys from the Bolshoi, the famous clown who climbs the tallest pole and slips from noose to noose, hanging on by a finger, a knee, a nose. The clown raised laughter and gasps from the audience of children, and from their parents in puffy parkas, and from a group of oldsters in the row in front of us who had been hauled out of their Home for a treat, better than another afternoon of Bingo, I suppose. If the clown slipped, the net would catch him, although I have read that no net is ever to be trusted; it’s easy to fall wrong, and if you fall wrong you can break your silly neck. I would keep that information from David, I promised my schoolteacher self. I was the cool adult here.
Then jugglers threw their balls and dancers spun within hoops flung by other dancers. I waited for the elephants that would wring our hearts.
At last they came, each wearing a fez. If I were Turkish, I’d have been sorely affronted. The animals did their wretched parade. My arm slipped around my beloved nephew.
“Aunt Ella, they are so unhappy.”
“I believe they are. But some day this act will be outlawed.”
“Yes,” I hoped. “And the elephants will be returned to the savannah.”
“That’s Savannah capital S, a city in the United States. Our friends out there come from savannahs small s, grasslands in Africa. They’ll retire there and spend the rest of their long lives chomping green stuff and never having to grab a tail, only a banana.” I put my arms around him and whispered in his ear. “I love you,” I murmured.
And so he did not quite sob. He nestled closer to me.
The elephants were the last act of the first half of the show, and enduring their performance earned us another box of popcorn (I am not the most trustworthy escort).
The second half started with more clowns and then dogs jumping over each other.
The second half started with more clowns and then dogs jumping over each other. Next, a Cinderella ballet, mostly in the air.
My eyes wandered to the high corners of the big top. I could not make sense of the complication of guide lines, and pulleys, and ladders, and hooded lights turned this way and that, and cruel hooks dangling from ropes. While I was squinting at them, the high-wire funnymen appeared, riding small bicycles forward and backward across steel cables. And then came the high-wire acrobats, not at all funny, hurling each other from trapeze to trapeze, and then from person to person, one sequined performer hanging by his knees swinging another by her feet and letting go of her ankles a second too late, and she somersaulting through the air and then stretching out her hands to be caught, again at the wrong second, by someone on another trapeze. Only it was never the wrong second, it was the right second — how? In a flash, I remembered my childhood fears of falling, clawing at the air, smashing. My arm crept around David. “David!” I shamefully hissed. “A split second mistake could …”
“They don’t make mistakes. They practice and practice.”
Every time someone was in air, I buried my nose in his bony shoulder.
“He made it, Aunt Ella!” I heard.
And the next time …
“She made it!”
“Anyone could plunge,” I moaned.
“There’s a net,” he reassured me.
“It’s made of Kleenex,” I said. Where was my schoolteacher self?
“Oh, be quiet,” said an old man in front of us, and then put his head back and began to snore.
“There are wires at their waists, you just can’t quite see the wires,” said my nephew. “Or the ones at their wrists.”
I raised my head. Airborne twirls revealed no wires. “The wires are too narrow to see,” he explained. “The nets are strong. The performers know how to fall. Oh, dear Aunt Ella, I brought something for you,” and my magician of a relative withdrew from his pocket a red bandanna and lifted my head, which was now glued to his chest, and drew the cloth across my eyes as the stars of the show performed terrifying twists and somersaults and twists and somersaults combined … I had to guess what they were doing from the applause, which seemed to well up from the entire audience (excepting the one woman whose blindfolded head was now between her knees).
The applause rose again. Shrieks pierced our eardrums. But it was not the screaming that follows a disaster witnessed but one who pays tribute to disaster averted. I lifted my head from the vise of my knees and my eyes peeked above my bandanna. The stars were standing safely on their platforms, arms raised in triumph; and then, one by one, they swung themselves down on thick ropes and landed with a bounce on the safety net.
I untied the bandanna and held it in front of me as if I’d never met it before. “Well, well, well,” I said in a hearty voice.
David put his arms around me. “I love the circus,” he whispered into my ear. And then: “I love you, too.”