Today's post is something slightly different. It is not inspired by an actual person but by someone I have never met and whose name I do not know. It owes its existence to the person who came up with the sentence"It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town." and invited subscribers of Writer's Digest to finish the story in 750 words or less.
I had never felt any previous desire to write about a traveling circus but writing outside an area of comfort or interest is even more challenging than writing about what you care about or know. So, I decided to give it a go anyway. I didn't win or it would have been published in Writer's Digest, not here. But it seems a waste to work on a project that never sees the light of day. So I hope it is something that you will enjoy.
It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Eliza stood in the shadows and watched the wagons rattle past. The moon was already high, casting its silvery light and draining all color from the scene. The horses hauling the loaded carts looked ashen. The men who held their reins were pale as ghosts. Eliza realized that she would not know him if she saw him and felt a rush of relief.
It was late September and Eliza had not expected to still be here. The harvest was over. The fields were dotted with mounds of fragrant hay and the silos were brimming with corn. Casual labor was no longer required. There was no reason to stay.
But three days ago, as Eliza was retying her bundle, a peddler had arrived in the small town square.
“I saw them myself,” he told the women who bent to examine his wares. “The tents and cages and that. I could hear the animals roaring and smell their stink from the road. Packing up they were. They’ll be here any day.”
Eliza stood close, fingering the spools of ribbon and lace, turning buttons and hairpins in her work-worn hands. She would wait now, and see her mission through. The bundle on her back was heavy and with winter coming, it was time.
Eliza remembered the day, almost a year ago, when she’d watched the circus setting up in her hometown. Men, muscular and stripped down to the waist, heaved on oily ropes as the blue and yellow big top rose and took on shape.
Women walked between the men, sloshing beer into large tin mugs and playfully shoving anyone who grabbed at their swaying behinds.
One woman in particular caught Eliza’s eye. She was older, matronly, laughing as she coerced and hugged and chastised. Everyone called her Ma and Eliza loved the way she smiled.
Eliza’s brothers had accompanied her to the show. She’d clutched at their arms as fearsome tigers swiped the air with heavy paws, and had laughed until her sides ached, at the antics of the clowns.
But the acrobats had left her wide-eyed and speechless with awe. Four men, dressed in tight, sequined leotards, sprang effortlessly from hands to feet across the ring. They were sleek as fishes darting through a stream. Then audience looked up, heads tilted, mouths open, as two men climbed to the top of the tent and swung on a trapeze. As they sailed effortlessly above the crowds, passing in midflight. As Eliza watched enraptured she was barely able to breathe.
When the acrobats took their final bow, everyone rose to their feet. The applause was tremendous, the shouting loud and full of joy. Eliza stood too. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were pink. She laughed and clapped and cheered. One of the men paused mid bow. He caught her eye and stared at her with a gaze so penetrating that she saw it in her sleep.
The next day her feet led her back to the field. She spotted him immediately, standing on the steps of a brightly painted caravan, talking with the woman they called Ma. Ma prodded his arm and wagged her finger. They laughed and Eliza saw that their eyes and smiles were the same, mother and son, so it seemed.
The acrobat spotted Eliza. He performed a low, sweeping bow and offered her his arm. With barely a second thought, Eliza placed a hand in the crook of his elbow, and the pair began to walk.
Later, much later, Eliza stumbled home. Her face was streaked with tears and her skirts were torn. She ran a comb through her tangled hair and changed her dress. Her father and brothers must never, ever know.
But by the time the frosts turned the grass rigid, the results of that fateful day were impossible to hide. Eliza’s father lamented her motherless state. Her brothers set their faces hard and old her that she could not stay.
Eliza took what she could carry and set out across the fields.
And now here she was, alone and far from home, waiting for the circus folk to pitch camp and retire. When the campsite was silent and dark, Eliza found the caravan she remembered and lay the baby down. Choking back tears, she crept away.
The boy was quiet. His tiny fists jabbed at the air.
On his shawl she’d pinned a note.
“I cannot manage. He is yours.”