The show was a flop from the very start. Carnivals as a rule had trouble in those days but time had made it impossible to relay on the old standbys. Bearded women were cured by cosmetic surgery. Snake charmers were a dime a dozen. Fire eaters were listed as an insurance risk. It was getting harder and harder for decent hard working circus managers to pull together a show.
And then there were the protests from the animal rights activists, complaining about the treatment of the elephants. The elephants! For godsake they were treated better than the people who worked there. But who the hell cared about the people right? The costs were adding up, the revenues dropping. You get ten tigers to stand at attention and roar with each whip crack you get a yawn from kids. Only candy sales were up. And that wasn’t enough to combat the lot fees, insurance, feed and housing of rare snakes, elephants, tigers, et al, and twenty very disgruntled overworked carnival hands who, if the sources are correct, were staging a Guatemalan revolt in their shared trailer.
The manager sat at his cramped desk in the back of his dimly lit trailer, and rearranged the bills for the seventh time. He stacked the past due and the really past due and the foreclosure warnings into three distinct piles. Not surprisingly, this caused no change in their collective arrears.
There was a knock at the trailer door and the manager barked to enter.
“Sir,” said the carnival hand, rubbing his dark hair back and forth with his large palm. “There’s a lady…er…to see you.”
“A lady?” The manager said re-adjusting his bill piles. “What does she want?”
“To see you sir.”
“Is she rich?”
“Um….” The worker briefly exited the trailer letting the door slam behind him and then
re-entered. “No sir, she says she’s not rich. She’s looking for work.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“Here, sir. She’s looking for work here.”
“Is she an accountant? Can she make these bills go away?”
“Whatever, send her in.”
“I’m afraid I can’t sir.” The carnival hand looked genuinely terrified at his inability to comply with his boss’ request.
“Because she can’t fit, sir,”
“Can’t fit, you say?”
“Christ.” The manager got up from his desk and placed his hat up on his head. He shooed the man out of his trailer and before exiting checked his teeth in the mirror near the door.
“Morning, sir,” the woman said, as soon as the trailer door opened. The circus manager faltered but managed a feeble reply. Standing before him was the largest woman he had ever seen. The largest woman, he believed, that may have ever lived. She wore a pink strapless dress that stopped just below her knees. Or what the manager assumed were her knees, but seemed to be just more layers of pink and dimpled flesh. Her bust alone must have needed an entire bolt of fabric to cover. At her side was a small man, who had neither arms nor legs, just a torso and a head. He was tied sitting upright on a skateboard. The skateboard had a string tied to the axle and the end of the string was held by the woman.
“My name is Irene,” the woman said. “This is Vincent. We are looking for some work.”
“Work?” the manager repeated rather stupidly.
He was surprised by how soft and childlike her voice was. Her vocal cords somehow managed, strangled and suffocating under the rolls of flesh and fatty tissue, to capture such dulcet tones.
“What kind of work are you looking for?” the manager asked. Unable to resist the urge, he ventured around to the back of Irene and her very tiny friend. Irene craned her neck to see him. Her bottom was even bigger than her front.
“Well I can sing sir and Vincent here, well, he doesn’t do much, but as you can see he’s got no arms or legs.”
“Indeed,” the manager said circling back around. He bent over to get a good look at the sad eyed Vincent on his skateboard. His diminutive features, those black coal eyes and pug nose, clustered in the center of his face, rallying together like bugs. His skin was pasty, slick looking.
“But we thought that maybe we could be part of the act.”
“Part of the act?”
“Yes sir,” Irene said.
“Part of the act?”
“How can you be part of the act?”
“Well sir, like I said, I can sing and Vincent here is something to look at.”
“Something to look at?”
“You are both something to look at. I mean, my god, my great grandfather would
have killed to get his hands on you. But that was back then. You can’t be in the show now. I mean, look at you!”
“Listen, I get it. The Fat Lady and The Half Man. It would have been a huge hit. In 1896! You can’t go on stage today. They will run me out of town.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Look, Irene, you seem like a really nice…girl. And I’m glad that you are comfortable with your body, but this is the 20th century. I can’t go putting you on stage. It’s…well it’s just cruel. I’m sorry. I have no work for you.”
“But sir, every carnival needs a fat lady and a half man.”
The manager looked her at her face. It too was soft and tender looking, puffing at the cheeks and dimpling at her chin. The rest of her was just like that; as if she had never had a callous finger or a scabbed toe. She looked like an overgrown baby, soft, pink and gigantic. “Irene, I’m serious. I’ve already got the animal cruelty people on my back. I don’t need human rights people to join the throng. If I put you on stage, as magnificent as you are, they will string me up. You understand?”
“It’s a sad day when the freaks can’t even work at the Freak Show,” croaked Vincent, his voice much lower than anyone would have expected. The manager looked down at him but said nothing.
“I’m sorry for taking up your time, sir,” Irene said. “We’ll be going.” She turned around, waddling on her shockingly small feet and walked away, slowly, tugging Vincent along with each step. The manager watched them go.
“Wait!” he said before they reached the circus gate. “Wait!”
Irene was renamed Baby Irene and a placard was set up containing a caricature of her seated on a swing, with a small pink umbrella in her hand. In the background was a draped red curtain held back by two yellow cords. Her name was plastered over the top. In two small bubbles at the bottom it said “The One Ton Woman, 960 lbs” and in another bubble it said “Alive.”
Vincent got a similar sign treatment, though his caricature showed a much tougher looking creature. His sad bug eyes were gone and instead he was depicted with a snarl, a black wiry eyebrows jutting off his face, and his torso twisted to the side like a bean with no arms or legs. He was cast as the “Amazonian Half Man” and the placard informed customers that he was available “Only here” and “A fierce version of Nature’s mistakes.”
“You look handsome,” Irene said when she saw it. Vincent smiled at her.
“Everyone ready?” the manager asked doing the rounds. Though she was reluctant, she handed over the rope so that the manager could wheel Vincent down to his tent. She watched him go away, sadly hoping they would not be apart for too long.
“Through here, miss,” said the carnival hand holding back the tent flap for her. “You sit right there,” he said motioning at the swing in the center of the stage. There were three planks of wood hammered together and rigged to the ceiling.
“Is it safe?” Irene asked.
“Of course,” he replied. “We tested it on the baby elephant, miss.”
“Everything good?” the manager asked ducking back into the tent.
“Yes, everything is fine.”
“Okay, you are going to sit there and sing and let people get a look at you. Your costume is right there,” he said pointing behind a small wooden shoji screen.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Listen, Irene, if there are any problems, you know I’m going to have let you go.”
“I understand, sir,” she said slowly walking towards the screen. It would only cover half of her. She looked up at the manager.
“Oh right of course,” he said snapping for the man to bring another. “Good luck,” he said as he left.
Later that night, the townspeople wandered in. Oklahoma was a hard sell anyway, the Sunday preacher warning the townsfolk about strange devils. But the crowd was all right and the acrobats did the act where it looked like one of them was going to fall and die and then they caught each other at the last possible second. Always a show pleaser.
The manager made his way around to Irene’s tent. He watched the small group of people there open their wallets, hand over the admission price and file into the tent. He waited with baited breath, his ear pressed to the flap. There was a murmur of conversation that died down as Baby Irene took the stage. He heard stifled laughter, clearly from children who were hushed by their parents. He heard nervous coughing. It’s never going to work. It’s too much. They will be shut down in a week.
He did not stay to hear her sing. But when it was over, and the flap pulled back to let the crowd out, he noticed something strange. They were all stricken, as if they had just exited church after a particularly moving sermon. On their way out, each of them, pressed more money into the hands of the ticket taker. Women were moved to tears; men, stoic.
The manager headed backstage. Irene stood there, still in her pink performance outfit. He took her hand and kissed it.
“You must have been wonderful.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“They were giving me MORE money. This is….this is incredible.”
“Thank you, sir. So we may stay?”
“Stay? Of course. Of course you must stay, my sweet Baby Irene.”
“And Vincent, too?”
They extended the stay in Grady County, adding two weeks onto the tour. By the time they made it to Pushmataha, Baby Irene’s stature and voice where already on the lips of the townsfolk. The people thought she was an angel from God. The Guatemalans agreed. But the manager knew better. She was a Venus of Willendorf, a goddess robust in breasts and abdomen and vulva. She was fertile. She was land to be sowed and now, she was money. They were making more money than the manager ever had. He couldn’t even being to fathom his own fortuitous luck. Texas and Louisiana were similar. It wasn’t until Terrebonne Parish that things changed.
The Magician arrived in a black carriage pulled by four white horses. His name was painted on the side. He pulled the carriage to a halt, the horses snorting and foaming and dismounted without a word in the center of the fairgrounds. The Guatemalans gathered cautiously. The Magician opened the door for a twisted toothless woman. She exited the carriage, crippled and bent like a fisherman’s hook. The newcomers entered the manager’s tent without speaking to the workers.
“It is to your advantage,” he told the manager, who rubbed his face with his palm. He eyed the old woman.
“And who is she?”
“Of no concern to you,” the Magician said. The old woman, with her milky eyes, stared
upwards. Occasionally she whispered into the Magician’s ear.
“I have a main attraction. She’s done quite well. I’ve very happy with her.”
“Not like me,” the Magician said.
The Magician gathered them outside the tent. He rounded up the three ancient elephants the show had, their grey skin pocked with scars. When they vanished into thin air and reappeared on the other side of the circus, with trumpeting alarm, the Guatemalans crossed themselves. The manager nearly cried. There was no more discussion after that.
“Bruja,” they Guatemalans whispered when the old woman passed. She spat at them and they hustled away, crossing their chests and foreheads. Later they talked amongst themselves about how the fruit they fed the animals would rot as soon as she passed.
The glass tank arrived by horseback in the night. The Magician only practiced at night when no one could see his secretes. Baby Irene could hear the chains rattling as he refitted the locks and filled the tank. Each time she heard the sound of his body hit the water and the slam of the lid she held her breath. He struggled inside that glass water tank for what, to her lying in her bed, seemed like hours. When she heard him come out, coughing and gasping for air, she took would breathe heavy.
The crowd doubled. The Guatemalans held prayer sessions. They gave Baby Irene a rosary which was too small for her to fit over her head. They pressed it into her hand.
“Bruja” they warned. “Mantenerse alejado de bruja. Niño, rezar, rezar.”
When the show came to Biloxi, the Magician paraded the elephants down Main Street. There was still water flowing and their heavy fat feet splashed against it, trunk to tail, trunk to tail. The Magician announced the show. The people, lost, hungry came out of their broken homes, down the water swollen streets left by the hurricane.
After the show, the people, dazzled, charmed even, left money on their seats. They filled the hat the monkey passed around. They couldn’t give away their few precious dollars fast enough.
The Magician asked for the grandstand from inside Baby Irene’s tent.
“He’s bringing in more money,” the manager said.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
Then he argued for the whole tent.
“You cannot have two main attractions. It doesn’t work,” the Magician said. The old woman stood just behind him, her fingers tugging at the tails of his coat. She opened her mouth, showing rotten gums and a blackened tongue. “Her or me.”
“But Baby Irene has been with us for so long now,” the manager said, looking away from the old woman. There was a buzzing in his head, as if it were filled with mosquitoes. Things had seemed so much easier when it was only money. “She’s harmless.”
The old woman whispered into the Magician’s ear. “You cannot have two main attractions,” he repeated and turned to walk out. “Her or me.”
“Okay, wait,” the manager said. “You can have the tent.”
It was moved for the performance that night. They put Baby Irene in the smaller tent. She had to share it with the acrobats who spoke no English but offered some of their stew to her.
Before the performance that night, the old woman wandered by alone. It was strange to
see her moving about without the looming shadow of the Magician and the carnival hands spat on the ground as she passed. When she entered Irene’s tent, she smiled a gaping toothless smile at her. Irene nodded and smiled back. The woman rummaged through the tent and approached Irene with a small hairbrush.
“Cheveux. Juste an peu..sil vous plait,” she said, her voice guttural. She put the brush in Baby Irene’s hand and then with two gnarled and twisted fingers she dug out some hair. She held it up to show Irene and opened her blackened mouth.
Irene sang that night. And every night after wards, as the carnival lumbered across the gulf.
Vincent noticed first, which of course he would. He asked if she was feeling alright.
“Just tired,” Baby Irene said. “Just tired.”
The Guatemalans crossed themselves when she passed now. The baldness started in the back of her head. It wound in concentric circles. Hair came out by the handful, clumps of it. Baby Irene only cried when no one was watching, her shaking hand compulsively touching the skin of her scalp.
They fitted her for a wig and she sang every night.
Then the rash started; a large red splash across her face and over the bridge of her nose. Vincent cried when saw it. Baby Irene hushed him and used her skirt to wipe away his tears. She promised she was fine.
They used makeup to cover it and she sang every night.
There were skin lesions, joint pain and swelling. Irene walked with a limp now. But still she sang every night.
The manager fretted. He feared it was contagious.
The Magician changed the name of the show. The manager didn’t protest. Not even when they painted the Magician’s name across the banner.
The Guatemalans held vigil by her bedside. The prayed over their beads, over Irene’s sleeping bald form. The lesions spread mapping their way down her arms and legs. Then, the worst part happened.
“Bruja,” they whispered. “Bruja.”
Irene started to wither away. It was a drastic weight loss, as if her skeleton was being squeezed out of her body. Her hand turned boney first, even as her arms were still fattened and dimpled.
The manager fretted. What was happening to the One Ton Woman?
Then, her voice went.
For the first night since she joined the carnival, she did not sing. She lay in bed that night and spoke only once.
“Please, may I see Vincent?” she asked, her voice like gravel.
The Guatemalans brought him in on his skateboard. Before he even approached her bed, he could smell her, the skin spoiling, the body rotting. The propped him up on the edge of her bed. They didn’t speak. Vincent’s tears dropped onto her shoulder.
“Are you dying?” Vincent asked.
“I don’t know,” Irene said. “My voice is gone.”
They sat in silence and listened to the lions roaring in their cages.
“I think it’s over then,” Vincent said.
“Maybe,” Irene sighed.
The manager with hands wringing brought in the doctor. He put the large metal stethoscope against Irene’s chest and listened.
“What is it?” the manager asked.
“Are you sure?”
“I would need to do a test.”
“Yes.” The doctor reached into his black bag and removed a sheet of paper. On it, he
wrote a sum.
The manager took the paper and looked at Baby Irene. The Guatemalans had fitted her with the rosary. It hung limply on her buried in the folds of rotting skin, now splotched and marked with lesions and pustules clustered like fish eggs on her body. The manager looked at the paper and shook his head no.
The doctor closed his black bag and left the tent.
“Bruja,” the Guatemalans told Vincent. They pulled him on his skateboard away from the tent. Away from Irene. “Que fue maldecida por la bruja.”
When they passed the lion cage Vincent told them to stop. They left him there. He watched the creature for some time, its yellow mane tangled with knots and straw. It watched him too, with sharp unblinking black eyes.
Vincent knew what the Guatemalans spoke of. He knew what he had to do. Long ago he had a grandmother. She had not loved him, no one had every really loved him before Irene, but she taught him things. Things from the old country. Vincent knew there was only one way to undo a curse.
He leaned forward, and rolled off the skateboard. Using his neck and chin he inched his way across the grass to the edge of the lion’s cage. The creature stared at him with renewed curiosity.
He pulled himself, painstaking inch after painstaking inch, wriggling past the bars. This took a long time. He was tired and his neck hurt. His face was poked by the reeds of hay lining at the bottom of the cage. He struggled. He sweat. His tears mixed with the sweat and blood from the scratches. Finally, he pulled himself through the bars into the lion’s cage. He lay there panting, trying to be brave.
The lion, with renewed interest, stood up, and padded his way over to the strange thing that had crawled into his cage. It sniffed Vincent. Hot puffs of air blew out its black velvety nose. It smelled sharp, like raw meat and feces and fur. It nudged him with a paw and Vincent whimpered slightly. He thought of Baby Irene lying in the tent, wasting away to nothingness. The lion reached out a paw and pushed down on Vincent’s body. He felt the claws rise out of the creatures paw, slowly, and press their needle points into his flesh. The lion roared loudly and Vincent felt it in every molecule of his being. He trembled slightly. He closed his eyes. This was it. This would save her.
The lion sniffed him again, its nose rubbing against the side of Vincent’s face. He saw the creature pull back its lips, the whiskers brushing past his eye. It snarled, showing thick yellow fangs sunk in black gums. The smell of the lion coated Vincent.
“Please,” Vincent said softly.
The lion lifted its head and the cool night air again touched Vincent’s skin. It yawned,
letting out a small squeak.
“Just do it. Just end this,” he said to the creature. “Break the curse.”
But the lion lifted his paw off Vincent’s body, stretched like a kitten with its haunches in the air and headed back to the corner. It flopped down on the hay, curled up and went back to sleep.
And Vincent lay face down in the dirty hay, small specks of blood staining his shirt from the lion’s paw. He could just see the moon through the cracks of the bars and he watched it and he waited. He waited for something, anything, to happen.