Raine made a living poisoning magic.
More specifically, Raine’s job was to perpetuate the sham of magic in the twisted minds of popcorn-guzzling little grubs whose parents had been dragged here to stand in the sweaty line, be sexually offended by the tattooed pygmy at the ticket booth, and then sit in potentially fatal squeaky chairs to watch Raine prance across the ring with her herd of well-fed white horses sporting conicular birthday hats. The ringmaster, Butch, called them unicorns. That is, he called them unicorns when children were present and he was sufficiently sober to control the foul avalanche that normally poured from his meaty lips like diarrhea any time he tried to call anyone anything.
Raine’s job was to put on a fairy princess gown (gingerly so as not to tear the tissue-paper tutu), mosaic her face with gems (a deduction from her salary; 15 cents a pound at Crafts Galore), and brush her hair until every line of golden light flowed unbroken from her pained scalp to the tip of her pert tufted bun.
She’d lead stupid, smelly creatures into the same positions week after week, then signal them to prance onstage in the same order, regardless of whether their hooves were kicking up Idaho or Oklahoma dust. She earned her lentil soup cartwheeling and pirouetting in the imminent path of a bunch of beasts that would surely trample over her without pause if ever she failed to pas-de-chat out of their way in time.
This Friday (or was it Saturday?) was just like any other. Raine had felt Butch’s gritty nails squeeze her flesh as she bent to lace first her left slipper, then her right. She had painted over her freckles with powder that made her as soft and white as the hoofed brutes. Now the fiddler was sawing away at “Claire de Lune” with some new bearded girl tapping harshly on the triangle. It was time to delve once again into the lucrative sham of magic impostrophy.
With a sweeping inhale, Raine filled her lungs with that wailing wind off the eastern coast of Neverland, where unicorns were endemic. Like young frogs, her satin toes bounced upon imaginary lily pads on the gravelly “pond.” As the diamond-blue spotlight, along with the “ooh”s and “aah”s of the crowd, bathed her in cold light, she could feel the fairytale awakening in all her major blood vessels, allowing her limbs to float and flicker as if she were performing each move because her little heart whimmed it, and not because she’d be fired if she deviated from this Sisyphean routine.
When she approached the audience, for a moment she caught a glimpse of a child’s face: a primary school brat, butterscotch blonde. The wide glittering eyes, the slightly gaping smile were enough to jerk Raine out of the fairytale and back into the fallacy. In fact, it was about enough to make her want to heave.
Oops – she’d veered a bit too close to the edge of the ring with that last tour-jeté. She glanced over her shoulder. Great. The party-hat horses were right behind her, on track to crash into the barrier. In her mind’s eye she could see that “You’re fired” scowl overtaking Butch’s mug.
In a deviation from her routine, she performed a backflip, landing her several feet into the interior of the circle. The horse at the front of the pack turned at the last moment in her direction and began trotting obediently towards her. The rest followed, in a wide turn that resulted in a slight crushing of the railing and possibly of some front-row spectators. Also a lot of hubbub.
The horses were following her a bit too fast now, spit dribbling out their elastic lips. Had they gone crazy? Had she? Maybe they were confused, as she was booking it toward the dressing room without a smidgeon of elegance.
Butch appeared from behind the curtain. His mouth hung in a stubbly oval of shock.
On instinct, Raine cartwheeled to the right, narrowly avoiding slamming into the barrel of a man. The horses weren’t so quick-witted. An audience of eight masters of magic, six oddities, two bears, one sea lion, and forty-two shocked popcorn-munchers looked on as a stampede of unicorns came rumbling in an insistant drum roll over the ringmaster. When the last pearlescent butt had disappeared behind the curtain to the stable, the man was quite unconscious and bloodied; about as grimy as usual.
Demands for “money back” began flowing from all sides of the arena. Some folks were banging on the ticket window. The performers and oddities scrambled aimlessly, some headed for their trailers to get their risk releases and others gathered around the trampled man, searching the emergency kits for water, a cold compress… or perhaps they were looking for a gag and some chains to seize this opportunity? Nothing was clear. Everyone’s eyes caught on others’ eyes, and when the answers to their questions didn’t come up in the pupils they darted on to other antics.
Amidst the commotion, Raine felt a tug on her tutu. The butterscotch brat had entered the ring and now gazed up at her expectantly.
“Um, hello there,” Raine said in the most diplomatic voice she could muster. She’d never actually had to interact with a little grub before; it wasn’t in her contract. “Don’t you have a mommy and daddy you should be running along to?”
The girl pointed to the ticket booth, where a blond man in a tweed suit was holding the tattooed pygmy by the neck through a jagged gash in the window. “My daddy’s busy right now,” she explained. “I came because I wanted to let you know that there really are unicorns. They exist.”
“Sure they do, kid,” Raine muttered. In her peripheral vision, she could see several of the glittery party hats that had served as “horns” lying in the dirt, flattened by muddy footsteps.
Butch groaned. He was alive. She was probably supposed to call an ambulance…
The girl tugged Raine’s tutu again.
“I wish you’d stop doing that; any minute now you’ll rip my whole skirt to shreds and then I’ll get written up for public indecency.”
The girl smiled knowingly. “You don’t believe in unicorns, do you?”
“No! I mean… well, I work with them every day. How could I not believe in them?”
“Not fake unicorns, silly. Real live unicorns. On the northern coast of Neverland, where they’re born with chitinous horns that emerge soon after the severing of the umbilical cord and grow until sexual maturity. The ones that eat honeygrass and swim with lake-bathers on Sundays.”
There were plenty of things Raine wanted to say to this painfully adorable child, most of which contained language she oughtn’t be exposed to at this age. Before Raine could say anything, the girl threw back her head and let out a cascading whinny that tickled of honeygrass in Raine’s ears.
She glanced around. Chaos still reigned supreme; it was as if no one else had heard.
She looked back down at the little girl. The girl grinned, displaying a very straight set of teeth. For the first time, Raine noticed a mark in the center of the child’s forehead. It looked like the scar of some long-ago laceration, but somehow it was perfectly round.
Raine kneeled beside the little girl. “Please stay a little longer,” she appealed. “Tell me about unicorns.”
“On one condition,” the girl warned. “I don’t speak to grown-ups who don’t believe in magic.”
“Not a problem,” Raine replied. She was only half-lying.
The child sank to the dirt and crossed her legs like a sprite across from the circus performer. Around them, cries of anguish and ambulance sirens abounded, but the only voice that penetrated Raine’s eardrums was this pure butter-soft one as it began, “On a far away island where no one goes hungry, there are the unicorns who make a living growing magic.”
Image credits and links in order of appearance:
By Holger.Ellgaard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3101824
Wardrobe wagon, 1959. Courtesy Taschen. Found on http://indulgd.com/rare-color-photos-of-circus-showgirls-of-the-1940s-and-1950s/
Circa 1930: Circus horses walking on their hind legs during a circus act. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images). Found on http://www.vintag.es/2014/04/interesting-vintage-circus-photos-from.html
By Georges Seurat – (Original text: eigenes Foto), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14067628
May 1928: Elephants from the Blackpool Whitsun Circus being unloaded at Tilbury docks. (H. F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images). Found on http://www.vintag.es/2014/04/interesting-vintage-circus-photos-from.html
A scene from ‘The Circus Adventure’ at the Arts Theatre. Douglas Dempster as the wicked ringmaster holds up the talking cat played by Ursula Jones watched by Pinky the clown played by Matyelok Gibbs. (Aubrey Hart/Getty Images). Found on http://www.vintag.es/2014/04/interesting-vintage-circus-photos-from.html
By Reykholt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25939