Sideshow (Part V)

It was impossible for Rosemary appreciate the scene before her; Norah’s vast rump hung almost to the floor on both sides of the red velvet stool and she trembled all over with excitement and the effort of not crying—not yet.  Marko the Magnificent caught her eye and gestured once with the tip of his leather whip.  It was time. 

Norah’s pink, dimpled hands rose with a flourish, then fell.  She pounded the old, cracked keys of the steam calliope, causing both music and a procession of smiling clock-work milk maids and youths in gilded plaster lederhosen to issue out of the depths of the organ.  Thumbo, the World’s Tiniest Man, was perched on a stack of milk crates by Norah’s left elbow, poised to mop her streaming face with the pillow slip she kept tucked in her bosom for sentimental occasions.

“Are you ready, Miss Day?” Marko asked Rosemary. 

She nodded, jangling the bangles on her borrowed veil.  It belonged to a dancer in the sultan’s harem show, but it made a fine bridal headdress just the same.

“They’re coming!” Thumbo shouted over the noise of the calliope.  Norah abandoned the sheet music in front of her and craned her head back over one shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the bride.  Fresh tears welled up and breached the dam of Norah’s cheeks until Thumbo staunched the flood with the already-damp cloth.

Marko patted Rosemary’s hand as he guided her between the hay bales and barrels that served as seats for the audience.  Bare light bulbs dangled from each side of the makeshift canopy overhead, flipping and flickering shadows every which way.  Rosemary stumbled and Marko glared at the red-nosed auguste whose oversized clown shoes stuck out in the aisle.  The clown made a rude face and the points of Marko’s waxed moustache quivered, but Rosemary walked on, tugging at the sleeve of Marko’s scarlet frogged ringmaster’s jacket. 

The calliope groaned under Norah’s manipulations as she ground out a particularly wheezy version of ‘Here Comes the Bride’.  Rosemary smiled beneath her veil, wishing she could see her surroundings.  It wasn’t so bad to be blind—she’d never known any other way—but she would have liked to view the splendor of her own wedding party, just the same. It smelled splendid anyway—all fried dough and wild animals and exhaust from the generators that powered everything.  It was as exotic as anything she’d ever read or dreamed of in the little room above her aunt’s front parlor.

“Beautiful,” Norah sniffed, snatching a quick musical heading before she lost her place.  The wedding march was sliding into a sort of oompah-pah that was more in keeping with the German figurines that waltzed in and out of the calliope.

“She’s something, all right,” Thumbo said.  “Looks like the Flying Fanandas must have dressed her—she’s spangled from stem to stern.”

“Ohhh…” Norah breathed, shuddering with delight.   “I wish somebody else knew how to play the ‘Bridal March’…”

Marko led his charge past the calliope and up to the steps of the carousel.  He looked to Norah and twitched one perfectly tweezed black eyebrow; her hands slid off the keys with a final, mournful ‘bride’.  It was all quiet, except for a few moths flapping against the light bulbs.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Marko said, his voice as bold as if he were addressing a full house at a three ring show, “We are gathered together to witness the union of Miss Rosemary Day—“ he swept a bow in Rosemary’s direction, “and our good friend and comrade Jack, the Human Rat!”

The audience roared, stamping their feet against the hard-packed dirt. 

“Jack, Jack, Jack!” they cried with one voice, clowns and acrobats and snake handlers all mixed up with barkers and dancers and fortune tellers.

“Miss Day, if you please…” Marko helped her up the carousel stairs and eased the veil back from her face. 

Rosemary smiled at all the people she couldn’t see, her new family.  In the morning, they’d take her far away from this place, away from the little room where she’d spent her whole life, shut away from warmth and laughter and feeling.  What would Aunt Fanny think, Rosemary wondered, to find her niece run away with the circus?


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