You’ll be forgiven in seeing some on Neil Gaiman’s works (Stardust in particular) in the inspiration to this novel as well. I hope it did it justice.
One of my fondest childhood memories is that of the circus. Our village was quite remote, out of the way of anything interesting. The biggest excitement was the annual roasting of pumpkin seeds in midsummer. Once a year, before the snows completely melted yet, the same circus troupe would come through, pitch their big tent in an empty field, and entertain us country folk with glimpses of faraway things and miscellaneous oddments.
It never occurred to me to wonder why they would bother with such a small village. Some people paid the entry fee with chickens, and most kids just snuck in one way or another. I knew not where they came from and where they were headed next — all I cared about was that they were here!
One crisp early April morning we’d wake up and see the carts drawing up in the big field. We’d all go, all the children, and watch them hammer the tent pegs into the still frozen ground, set the poles, hoist the ropes and canvas. By the end of the day a big, bright tent would stand up, its wide vertical stripes of red and yellow a happy contrast against the greyish-green of the forest behind it, the golden pennants at the top of the poles fluttering in the stiff breeze.
It was the same show every year, but knowing what to expect just made it better. There was the strongman — a short and stocky character, as wide as he was tall, bearded and muscled. He did amazing things to steel bars. There were the acrobats — a pair of slim and flighty girls, with wild streaming hair and an infectious laugh, their aerial stunts on the flying trapeze made them appear weightless. And the short clown with the big nose building impossible machinery culminating in a human cannonball was a guaranteed laugh.
Then there were the animals, of course. Creatures we only heard about in stories, only saw in illustrated books. They were brought forth, paraded for our amusement, made to sit, walk and do daring tricks for treats. In between everything were clowns and jugglers, telling jokes and slipping on banana peels.
But my favourite was the woman who sang at the end. Her voice was absolutely magical, pure, enchanting. She sang in many languages, but we didn’t need to understand the words to feel what she was singing about. Everyone hushed up for her show as soon as lights dimmed and the spotlight shone on her — the bearded elven lady.
I ran into her a few months ago. I was on the road for my work. Travelling between big cities, my car broke down and I was forced to stop in a small wayside village for the night. I spent my dinner there, worrying about missed appointments and road-side service, when I saw her sitting at the back.
There was no mistaking her. Five foot tall, slim, so fair her skin shone, and high cheekbones that stood out even through her beard the colour of moonlight. She hasn’t aged a day.
I got us two pints at the bar, and went to her table. “Will you share a drink with me?” I asked, and added with a smile “It’s a small compensation for all the times I snuck into the big tent without payment.”
She looked at me for a moment with a faraway look, and then focused and said, “Of course. Please sit. I remember you. Some years it seemed like you would swallow every note I sang with your big eyes and ears.”
We chatted for a while reminiscing of times gone by. I was a man now, wiser in the ways of the world, though I think to her our lives were as brief as the twinkling of a faery light.
The troupe fell apart some years after I left for college. First it was the animals. The urban development encroached on the forest, and it became harder to coax the griffins through. The unicorns flatly refused to come once the hydro-electric dam was built.
“Without the animals,” the lady went on, “the entertainers drifted away as well. In ones and twos, they went to seek their own individual fortunes. First to go were those who always found it hardest to make the trek to the human villages — the trolls who built the tent and sets, then the orcish clowns and the ogress dance group. The gnome packed up his devices and is employed these days in some high-tech military start-up, building cannons.”
“But worst was the dwarf who did the strongman act,” she said. “It turned out he had an affair with one of the brownie acrobats. We were never sure which one of the twins it was,” she confided in me, “and to be honest I don’t think he knew either, or cared much. When they left, all three left together. Their husband Baaz — you remember the gremlin who did the accounts, don’t you? — he was devastated when they left. Drank himself silly on gnomish mead, till one day he faded away beyond the gauntlet. After that no one was left.”
I looked outside to the centuries-old village square, with the church across from us with its thick walls of uneven stones, the roads with pavements worn smooth by years of treading men and animals. I looked at the cars now parked on those pavements, on the metal phone booth painted bright red in to the side, on the tall poles with wires running everywhere, connecting to the church’s bell tower and supplying electricity to a chandelier that once had to be lowered daily so that new tallow candles could be set and lit and was now mounted with energy-saving light-bulbs.
“And what about you?” I asked.
“That same indiscretion my grandmother had with a gnome that gave me my beard, also gave me a certain affinity to mechanical contraptions. Not enough to like it, but enough to withstand the pace of the modern world. I fear I might have to go beyond the gauntlet soon, though I wish to stay here just a while longer, to be the last of the fae to cross. In the mean-time I perform in pubs and bars in remote villages like this, where they still appreciate the old songs.”
Her break was over, she drained her glass, got up. She stepped on the stage, and I noticed there was no microphone or sound equipment. “This one goes to those children who refuse to grow up,” she said, and I could swear she was looking right at me.
She sang a song I haven’t heard in years. It made my heart flutter, and at once consumed with both joy and sorrow. I felt like a child again, sneaking in the cold April morning into the big tent, the world still a wondrous place to be discovered. It turned into a song of loss, but then went beyond it and ended up in notes too pure to be described.
When she was done I was a grown man again, despite what might be assumed from the single tear rolling gently down from my eye.
If you enjoyed this short story, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!