The Ringmaster

 This is a beginning of something, but I never figured out what, so don’t expect a beginning, middle and end.

vintage circus

“You’ll be wanting to speak to the ringmaster. ‘Spect he’s in his caravan over yonder,” the man said, barely looking up from his work.

Millie started walking towards the lone caravan the man had indicated. It squatted on the dusty ground, the once ornate paintwork just a distant memory, bleached by the sun and ravaged by the wind, with a scrawny dog lying underneath it to escape the heat. Millie stood at the bottom of the little wooden steps. The door was open, but the sunlight seemed to stop at its threshold, not daring to interrupt the gloom inside.

“Well girl, are you coming in?” a voice inquired from within.

Millie hesitated for a second and then stepped inside. Her eyes took a second to adjust to the darkness as she stood blinking in the doorway. The shutters were closed, so only thin blades of light intruded, resting on a dented cigarette case on the table, glancing off a chipped, crystal wine glass and casting a diagonal spotlight across the deep red rug. Millie couldn’t see the owner of the voice.

“I…I’ve come to ask about work, sir. Gentleman out there said I should come talk to you.” She peered into the warm murk. “I’m a good worker sir. Can turn my hand to washing, cooking and I tend animals too.”

“Any family girl?” the voice came again.

“No sir, not since the good Lord saw to take ma last spring.”

“There’s no good Lord here, girl.”

The caravan creaked as he lurched towards her. He bent forward and surveyed Millie for a moment with one blood-shot, marble of an eye, whilst his other remained in a slight squint, pulling up the left corner of his mouth into a sneer.

The girl didn’t dare move under the scrutiny of the strange figure, his breath hot and sweet on her cheek. The long face was caked in white theatre makeup, cracked and chalky like a pair of tattered kid gloves, with thick, grey deposits settled in the creases on his wide, high forehead.

“We don’t need the good Lord, this is my own personal heaven,” he said gesturing at thin air with a flourish of a gloved hand. “The rebel angels have run amok, we’re stealing the show, eh.” He shot her a wild glance and clicked his yellow teeth, sweeping back a stray lock of dark hair that had fallen across one slate grey eye.

“We’ll have you on the high wire in no time, or maybe one of the warm-up shows.”

“No sir, I aint no performer…”

“Hush girl. I’ll say what you are and what you aint, as you so eloquently put it. Welcome to the family – you’ve got yourself a job. Leave the door open on your way out.” And with that he stepped back into the darkness.

She stood for a moment, not sure what to do. The room was so narrow that she could have almost touched both walls with arms outstretched, if she’d dared. A carpeted, red velvet darkness engulfed the back of the caravan, but she couldn’t imagine that the man could really have left. After all, he had nowhere to go, unless there was another door. She tried to peer into the darkness and thought about stepping forward to see.

Just as she lifted a foot, a breeze whipped through from nowhere, rattling the cut glass drops on a candelabra, which glinted on the table and shaking the tiny, faded curtains. Then it was gone and all was quiet again. Despite the heat, Millie shuddered and turned to leave.

Once outside, Millie’s skin prickled under the unblinking gaze of the sun. She held up a hand to shield her eyes. Only a few men were still working, hammering in huge tent pegs, while others cowered in the hot shade of the canvas. A trickle of sweat began its journey down her back and the thin cotton of her dress clinging to the dampness.

She started down the steps of the caravan and headed towards what looked like the eating area. Dust kicked up as she walked, an occasional whisper of wind sweeping it away to settle in a neglected corner and collect in every crevice, leaving a dull veil over everything that once was bright.

A gramophone played quietly somewhere and two girls danced lazily with each other, hardly moving at all. One girl’s head lolled on the other’s shoulder, only lifting it when her partner offered her a puff of a cigarette. Nearby, a number of people sat around eating, smoking and drinking at a long trestle table. Despite the shade, most of the men had slipped their braces off their shoulders and stripped down to a vest. Women had their skirts hitched above their knees, hoping for a breath to cool their hot, salty skin and a few languidly fanned themselves with whatever came to hand.

Millie reached the shade of the awning that served as a kitchen – it offered no relief from the choking heat. A big-hipped woman swivelled round in her chair, pressing a handkerchief to a plump, rouged cheek.

“Whew, you picked a day to go looking for work, that’s for sure. So, you the new girl?” she said looking Millie up and down

“Yes ma’am.”

“Figures, you don’t look like no carny. Don’t know what himself is thinking, taking on another mouth to feed in the middle of these goddam dust towns,” the woman said to nobody in particular. The rest of them just sat and stared. “Well sit yourself down honey, I’m sure the ringmaster has his reasons. For pity’s sake Lewis, don’t just stand there gawping, get the girl some water before she clear expires.”

Lewis obliged, setting down a dented tin cup, which left a dark, wet ring on the bleached wood. Millie took her place at the table.

2 thoughts on “The Ringmaster

  1. This definitely felt like it should have gone on, but I loved it anyway.

    You’ve captured that sinister/magical essence of the carnie world (at least the one us non-carnies perceive) perfectly. There were some beautiful descriptive moments, bringing all the senses into play. I loved in particular the paragraph starting ‘A gramophone’, which captures so much in just a few short lines.

    The reader instantly sympathises with Millie, and you have to wonder what’s happened to her to make her want to join the carnival. The ringmaster is very charismatic – in a freaky way – and there was that creepy moment when, even though he hadn’t had time to tell anyone, everyone else knew he’d taken her on.

    I wonder which genre you were going for when you started this. Horror? Adventure? Romance? So far it could go in any direction.

    Great job, as always, Chella!


    • Thanks. It was my usual urban fantasy, but in the Great Depression, so not very urban.
      I’m wondering if the ‘caravan’ would be a ‘wagon’ in American vernacular.


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