For no particular reason a thin man with straight hair and nervous gestures attracted my attention: above his many lips, on his corporal’s mask he had a moustache that looked like two flies stuck on with a pin. It looked like the moustache would outlive its owner. The man wore a uniform with decorations that made you think of a spider, a spider web, and a spider’s victim at the same time. He was with a smaller and fatter man with a conquistador’s mask; he wore a uniform with epaulets and a tri-cornered hat. The thin one and the fat one were talking, and they waved their arms vigorously, as if they arguing who was the greater hero. Their conversation was overheard by a boy with a wonderful body, in a canvas shirt, with a Virgo mask on his face.
There were bare-chinned Huns here, Tartars, in their clothes and with their idols; there were wine-producers, Slavs, Normans, Saxons, Goths, there were Mayas with half-moon faces; there were Roman emperors and church heads; patriarchs, popes, Pharisees and Scribes; chiefs of extinct tribes; Chinese leaders, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian, Macedonian; there were Greek dictators; Spanish, Hawaiian; there were Nicholas’ and Alexanders, Phillips and Louises, Marias and Elisabeths, with names that ended in ov, va, vo, ski, chki, ich, ik, ah, or, ti, vi, with decorative feathers; there were the wild and the wise smart of this and that place; their hostages and hostages’ lovers; jesters and ladies, statesmen and law makers, bankers and traders, factory owners and entertainers, philosophers and artists, scientists and alchemists, usurers and dreamers, young and old, beautiful and ugly, big and small, dirty and clean.
This crowd was like a cluster of grapes, like a bunch of carnations in whose middle were the man with the moustache and spider cross, and the fat man; it seemed that they still argued over who had accomplished the greater deeds. The handsome boy stood just to the side and watched everything quietly, but not with disinterest.
The stage was brightly lighted. There was nobody, nothing on it: just the unbearable whiteness.
In time, the shiny light grew weaker, paler, taking on violet shades. The audience became quieter and quieter.
When the noise stopped, I knew the show was about to start. And I would surely see it once the workers (did they?) made the final preparations, unless something averted my attention.
The audience members started taking off their masks. I watched that unforgettable sight and I couldn’t believe my eyes: under the pig, wild dog, or puma mask with expensive clothes, were the faces of those to whom the clothes belonged in a former life. Under the masks of those persons from more recent times, other masks appeared, like those removed but more perfect, made of delicate skins, spotted, or white as ivory, hairy or angelically pure. The matching of the clothes and face, the mask and the mask, the face and the face, did not leave room for suspicion: the circus audience was made up of the real and only owners of the clothes and masks.
When I turned toward the stage, everything was ready for the start of the show.
In fact, there was now nothing on the stage. Only some iron rings hanging freely in the air. Strangely shaped, they looked like every-day, though large, scissors: the handles of the scissors were rings, the two sharp blades crossed ropes.
The scissors were half-open, and the blades formed an angle of twenty-two or twenty-five degrees. In this space, between the sharp steel blades, a naked female body dangled, quivering in the emptiness. The girl was familiar from somewhere, but I couldn’t clearly see her face: it was in half darkness. The body, young and fresh, voluptuously trembled in the air, like a fish in an aquarium.
A woman with a water bucket appeared on the stage, bathed in green light. She was dressed almost like a peasant. She didn’t turn toward the audience. She put the bucket down at the side of the dark podium, close to me, and she stood by it, mute, immobile. In the pseudo-peasant I recognized the wife of the guard.
The guard also came soon (why did I expect him?). Dressed like a gymnast, illuminated by red light, he stood in the middle of the stage and bowed to the audience. He went beneath the device and jumped. His strong hands grabbed the rings; the blades shone in the half darkness.
When the guard leapt from the ground, I thought the girl would be immediately cut in half: under the pressure of the man’s body, the blades would fly to each other and slice the girl in two. But he was obviously a master of his trade. With incomprehensible speed, making numerous half-movements, wiggling like a caught fish, the shivering body, bowing and stretching its toes, managed to keep the blades from joining each other. In fact, the sharp edges gradually grew further apart, leaving the girl more and more space.
The gymnast was dripping with sweat. With a convulsive expression, he even managed to open the blades of the scissors as much as he could spread his arms. And he stood like that for a moment, triumphantly. Then, all at once, the body started sinking: the blades flew to each other. The movement of the gymnast and the way he suddenly loosened his body were so sudden that I spread the curtain in confusion. Everything happened fast. The blades clinked together and cut off the girl’s head. The gymnast caught the beheaded body as he fell, and when he touched the ground, he stood frozen, holding the warm, lifeless flesh in his arms. The head with flying hair, a shiny meteor in the dark night, flew through the air and – splash! — it fell into the water bucket.
Something splashed my face. I wiped it off with my hand. Blood!
In the beginning I thought that they had seen me, because I stood in front of the curtain. But apparently everybody was busy with his or her work, and my insignificance brought no attention. I quickly returned to my former place.
The show, evidently, had finished, because the viewers got out of their seats. They put on the masks they had come with and, not turning toward the stage, left.
I sat motionless, until the last visitor left. I think I dozed a little. When I again peeked through the curtain, I saw the guard, his wife, and their daughter. The woman was cleaned up; the guard was removing the chairs. The girl was sitting, pensive, a bit to the side, smoking.
Although I intended to address the guard after the end of the show and let him know how I had tricked him, now I thought it smarter not to brag too much. Because for him, maybe, it wouldn’t be too hard to fix the demonic scissors and in a second put me between the sharp blades. For a man who had such dangerous skill, it seemed that nothing was impossible.
The guard, his wife, and their daughter remained under the tent for a long time: they spent a lot of time preparing for the next day’s show. When they left I was relieved.
So I was alone now. I could smoke a cigarette at peace and think about everything I had seen, how I would get out of there, whether I would return through the underground tunnel about which nobody (except for the dog?) knew, or whether I would do something else.
I thought about the show for a long time, and everything upset me. But most of all I was bothered by one question: Who was the girl? Now it felt – and while I watched her smoking, I was sure of it – that the girl whose head flew so awfully was nobody but the guard’s daughter. The similarity between her and the killed girl was striking: same hair, same smile, same hands, and same gestures.
But she had been beheaded! How did she resurrect all of a sudden? I didn’t see where they took the head and the dead body, but I knew that it was not that simple to glue them together and breathe life into them again.
Were the victims of the shows dragged from the underworld, every day a piece (the head and the body of the killed ones were hidden by the guard, so the newly arrived didn’t know what awaited her)? Well, without a doubt there were people living under the ground I passed through: didn’t I hear their whispering? But why was this girl so similar to the guard’s daughter? Did the earth’s bosom contain thousands of his living daughters, one of whom was killed today to be replaced by another tomorrow?
I decided to get out as soon as possible, along the same road I used to get there. Thus I would also have a chance to examine the underground and discover the secret of the dead girl, then return home. I came to the place where the spongy opening was. But when I tried to thrust in my hand I almost broke all the bones of my fingers. The hole was closed, cemented.
Apparently, it became mushy and penetrable only when somebody wanted to enter it, a man led by a dog, maybe, or a creature of the underground, a provocative beauty with white skin who looked so much like the guard’s daughter that I could never say it was not her. This all lasted for a short time. Then the opening would close (or better, freeze) itself.
For the first time since I came I remembered that often the guard, earlier, when I tried unsuccessfully to enter the circus, told me: You are trying in vain. Nobody but my wife and myself can enter the tent. Others who do, do not come out.
Then I thought those words were a joke, but now after I had seen the strange things the guard was doing and understood that the circus was only a big, shiny trap (for daughters, or naïve, curious people?), I shuddered.
Was it possible that, searching for luxury, I had found my own grave?
In vain. I yelled in vain, I pushed the chairs in vain. I was in a glass bell at the bottom of the ocean. The canvas didn’t have even the slightest crack. And it was canvas only in name and color (in my dimmed consciousness). As a matter of fact, the trap was made of hard, smooth, unfamiliar, and, of course, impregnable matter! When I touched the wall of the trap I felt that behind it there was nothing, nothing, and least of all a field of wild poppies.
So, I was buried alive.
Doesn’t matter. Tomorrow night, when the masked people come, when the guard erects the unusual device, when the woman stands by the water bucket and the magical girl’s body – no doubt, the same, eternally same girl – shines in the half darkness, swinging like a ship on the sea, like a speck of dust freely trembling, when the shiny eyes of the rulers, nymphomaniacs, and vultures, turn toward the red light of the spot lights, in this short, awful and endlessly precious moment – when the steel becomes dough, and the secret gates of freedom open, for those who love it – providence will grant me a small, almost meaningless – but why unfulfilling? — chance.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska