THE FLEA CIRCUS
By Harold Barnes
For Ari Only
“The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is like that of the circus for the crowd… there is always the hope that something dangerous will happen.”
A pin-up calendar informed Rosemary that it was Wednesday. Her days were blending together, a collage of sunrises and morphing moons. Underneath the Princes and Peasants mammoth tent, time was a silly distraction. Convention and order refused to pay the price of admission; fantasy was the only barometer. A buxom model looked back at her from the poster with the same flat eyes as yesterday. The same suggestive smirk. The same lacy lingerie. Every ounce of intrigue it possessed had evaporated. And the month was only half over.
Wednesday could only mean one thing: that Millicent the Pink Panther would appear imminently. It was the circus’ main attraction, an ornery jungle cat with a penchant for showmanship. It’s dyed fur popped in the hot lights that beamed at the ring. Applause would thunder down from the nosebleeds whenever it did a flip or killed a small animal. The whole place descended into sheer lunacy when it roared. Rosemary couldn’t even muster a yawn. The pleasure center in her brain was dried and shriveled like a premature baby. Millicent, in all its feral glory, was powerless to inspire her.
She was trapped, a prisoner of her own naiveté . Her extended stay at the baneful big top was the quick result of immaturity and myopia, her deepest flaws. It was all moot, however; she couldn’t even recall how it happened. More’s the pity. Her youth belonged to her captors, the prettiest of whom watched Rosemary’s reflection in one of those lighted dressing room mirrors.
“You are utterly obsessed with that calendar.”
Rosemary turned her head to see Dalia, applying her gaudy makeup in the mirror. A ridiculous headdress was mounted on her hair, reaching for the heavens.
“It helps me maintain the small kernel of sanity I have left.” she returned.
Dalia fluttered her eyelashes. “That won’t do you any good in here.”
She redirected her attention to the calendar. “I’m struggling to remember how long it’s been since you—”
“Since I played you like a cheap accordion?” Dalia interrupted, a petty grin on her painted face.
Rosemary looked at her with disgust and resignation. As much as she resented Dalia’s remark, it was true. She was roped into her clutches with surprising ease. Dalia bored her way into Rosemary’s mind and wrought ten different types of havoc. She kneaded and stretched her brain like it was putty, reorganizing her priorities and appetites, shuffling her identity around. Rosemary was all mixed up.
The protracted silence between them was abbreviated by the unmistakable voice of the ringmaster, one Benjamin Humbug. His baritone vocals swam through the air like Manta rays, crashing into the locker room. Rosemary flinched. Dalia smiled.
“That’s one thing I’ll never get used to.”
“I think it’s wonderful.” said Dalia.
Rosemary rolled her eyes. “You think everything is wonderful.”
She smacked her lips like women do when they apply lipstick. “Everything but you.”
Her humor was cruel, but undercut with tenderness. It was one of the few things Rosemary had gotten used to.
“I bet he can’t even hear himself out there.” she mocked.
Dalia clapped her hands. “Oh, but he’s having so much fun!”
“Is that really all you care about?”
“Why wouldn’t I care about happiness?” she questioned, still puckering her lips.
“We weren’t talking about happiness, we were talking about fun.”
Dalia smiled her cheerleader smile. “Right, of course we were.”
Humbug’s voice intruded once more, along with the muffled growls of the mighty Millicent. The end was nigh….again.
Dalia finished her makeup ritual. “Are you ready for the night of your life?” she beamed.
“Again?” Rosemary droned.
“As long as there are asses in those seats, my love.”
“Oh, it isn’t all bad.” Dalia dismissed her.
“Says you! You live for this….this…Saturnalia!” Rosemary exclaimed, flinging her arms over her head.
Dalia adjusted her cornucopia of a crown. “Ooh, where did you pick up that word?”
“I know a thing or two.”
“Oh please, you don’t even know how long you’ve been here.” she giggled.
Rosemary bit her lip, struggling to recall the length of her stint in la-la-land. It was as if she suffered from some rare form of amnesia. Her memories began and ended with the present day. The life she led before her fateful encounter with Dalia was a dream for all she knew or cared. An icy indifference had captured her heart. She was a sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying cold tears on the inside.
“Don’t think too hard, you might hurt yourself.”
Howls of excitement bounced off the walls in the dressing room. Humbug had the crowd right where he wanted it; he skillfully orchestrated the hysteria, a maestro in the highest sense of the word, a man of odd circumstance, thrilling the masses for a generous fee.
“They’re animals.” Rosemary grunted.
“Well, if anyone can tame them, its Humbug.”
Rosemary had immense respect for Humbug, a respect that proceeded from a healthy fear of him. The man was both debonair and devilish, urbane and uncouth, a walking, screaming, shouting contradiction.
“The real question is can anyone tame him.”
Dalia glared at her, confusion steaming in her eyes. “Now why would anyone want to do that?”
“Right, right….the show must go on.”
“Clever girl!” Dalia chirped.
Rosemary’s mind ventured out to the ring, where Humbug ranted and raved like a man possessed. Millicent bounded about, power in its every move. It’s sultry dance captivated the audience.
Humbug teased and taunted Milli, enticing its inner artiste. Everyone was in on the spectacle. The audience itself was something to behold, their mouths frothing like fiends’. Rosemary and Dalia felt the intensity that emanated from the ring. The spirits of Millicent and Humbug were as one, bound together by the thick threads of whimsy and wonder. They brought the people to the edge of their seats, perched on the edge of the world, watching the duo edge closer and closer to nirvana.
“Its enough to make your head and heart stop.” Dalia commented, appraising herself in the mirror.
On this Rosemary agreed with Dalia. The average man could not fill Humbug’s buckled shoes. No one else could be half as mesmerizing. His talent was inexplicably alluring, as if it were a natural feature of the universe. People lived to be entertained, and Humbug lived to exploit that weakness.
“It’s enough to make you wanna hurl, maybe.”
Dalia snickered. “You’re right… have fun cleaning the stands later.”
Rosemary’s face drooped. For the life of her she could not fathom what kept the people pouring in every day. The circus itself was nothing short of a sty. Garbage littered the stands and vermin were rampant. Criminals and perverts lurked just outside the venue, enticing the throngs with their wicked lures. It was a den of iniquity, the Taj Mahal of tawdry delights. Yet despite all this, or possibly by virtue of it, the masses were drawn in like pigs to the slaughter. It was as if their eyes had filters, selecting only that which was pleasant and thrilling about the place. Or perhaps the muck and mire was precisely what they desired. Either way, it was beyond her.
A snap of Dalia’s fingers brought her back to Earth.
“Thought I lost you for a sec there.” she teased.
“I’m already lost.”
Dalia made a face at her. “Don’t be so dramatic, this isn’t the theater.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Well, how do I look?” Dalia asked as she struck a pose.
She looked like a model on the devil’s catwalk, with her maximalist makeup and ornamental jewelry.
There was something sinister to her costume, a suggestion of evil hidden just beneath the shiny exterior. Rosemary couldn’t place it. She had long since become desensitized to such things.
“Fabulous as usual.” was her reply.
Dalia changed the subject. “Milli is really putting on a show.”
“I’ll give you that.” Rosemary conceded.
“Benjamin can bring the showman out of anybody,” said Dalia “even you!”
Rosemary rarely came into contact with Humbug. He was always busy with something or other, obsessively developing new ways to please his devotees. The man was a myth.
She took a seat on a nearby bench and hung her head. The sounds of the crowd amplified as Humbug and Millicent performed their feats of fancy. They were a darling duet, the perfect pair, man vs. wild in perfect harmony. Rosemary a special bond with Millicent. Her intimate moments with the beast had permanence in her mind. Whenever they were alone together, Rosemary felt closer to herself. Milli’s raw animal energy cut through the dense fog clouding her brain. The scattered puzzle pieces that comprised Rosemary’s psyche were all hitched to visions of the cat, the flash of its teeth or the movement of its seductive shoulders. Milli was the very foundation of her subjectivity, of her entire persona. The insides of her skull were a jungle and the Pink Panther was its king.
“That cat is the only thing about this place I don’t despise.” she pouted.
Dalia was offended. “What about me?”
“You defraud the public!”
She scrunched up her face in defiance. “I give them precisely what their hearts desire.”
Rosemary crossed her arms. “The heart doesn’t know what it desires.”
Dalia strutted her way over to Rosemary and lovingly placed a hand on her cheek.
“But it desires.”
This yielded another eye-roll.
“You are just sapping all of the magic from the air with your persistent moping.” she whined.
“Sorry, my liege, I can’t just flip a switch and be chipper like you can.”
“Because my switch is never off!” she exclaimed, standing in 4th position like a ballerina.
“Tell me about it.” was Rosemary’s weary response.
Dalia sat next to her captive apprentice. “You just have to get into the spirit,” she reasoned. “you might as well, girl…after all, you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“I can’t get into this unholy masquerade. It’s criminal.”
“Oh, come now…we provide a service to these downtrodden people, a release…something impossible for them to find anywhere else in their lives, anywhere else on this wretched rock we call home…for a handful of pennies they can have it all. ”
“Everything but the truth,” she countered. “what good is any of this without that?”
Dalia quickly became somber. “The truth costs far more than a handful of pennies.”
Then Rosemary got all riled up. “That’s bullshit and you know it! The people need a little magic in their lives.”
“ Do you honestly think these people need magic in their lives, the real deal? I mean, just look at what’s become of you.” She sneered.
The question rattled around in Rosemary’s brain for a bit until Dalia asked her another:
“What do you suppose would happen if I showed them the full extent of my power? They’d be lost, more lost than they already are…like…like you.”
“Alright, alright, I get the point.” her face was turning red. Rosemary didn’t know what Dalia was driving at, but it inspired a deep sense of dread.
She continued to pester her. “You were once like them, so easily amused, so distrustful of the unknown. They only want what they can stomach, what their minds can easily decipher. Only you wanted more, you tempted fate, and you got exactly what you asked for, too much of it in fact. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Rosemary could hardly remember yesterday. Her mental log was capped at the end by the biting jaws of Millicent. She could hear the beast’s growling and groaning, in the ring, in her head.
“Remind me….please.” she asked, a sorrowful note in her voice.
Dalia sighed. “This is no time to reminisce, dear.”
But this time Rosemary refused to relent. The fog in her head yielded to a soft light. She was gaining ground.
“Dalia, please…just entertain me.”
“It’s not my job to entertain you,” she replied. “our job is to entertain them.”
The crowd roared as if on cue. The atmosphere was electric. Humbug really outdid himself. A classic performance.
“I just want to know how long I’ve been here.”
This brought a smile to Dalia’s face. “Not knowing is half the fun.”
“Well, what’s the other half, then?.”
“Look at you!” Dalia remarked. “You’re getting smarter everyday!”
Rosemary seethed. “ If I’m so smart then why don’t I know how long I’ve been here?”
Dalia was noticeably miffed. “You’re a broken record, girl.”
Rosemary was in no heart to stop just yet. She felt as if a giant oyster, long sealed shut, had begun to open in her head, out of which golden beams of self-understanding radiated. The more she struggled to remember, the more she argued with Dalia, the closer she came to reclaiming herself.
She pressed on.
“You….you tricked me,” she started “you hustled me, just like you hustle them.”
Dalia was distracted, as usual. “ I can’t wait to get out there! You can just feel the excitement, the air is dense with it.”
She inhaled deeply.
Rosemary kept digging. “You abused my ignorance….you knew I’d take the bait…you knew me better than I knew myself, and now I don’t know anything anymore.”
Dalia raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
“I knew there was something more to you, something you held back…you knew I couldn’t resist…”
She winked at Rosemary. “Let’s just say I have a type.”
The energy in the arena rose and fell like a heart rate monitor. Rosemary’s pulse quickened as she came close to a revelation.
“You’re a witch!” she cried out.
“In more ways than one, dear.”
Rosemary could hardly stomach the realization. Her eyes flooded with tears.
Then Dalia got all philosophical. “We all have a role to play…you and I, Humbug and Millicent. Our dynamic is both sacred and chemical. We four spread our toxic love to the public, awaken minds and lay inhibitions to rest. Our product is timeless, unparalleled, unadulterated. We don’t give them too much, none more than they can handle. But just enough to keep them hooked. It’s magic, an art form. We keep the world going around. If anything were out of place, if any of us were any different, this place could not exist. We are the pillars that support the underworld, the four horsemen of the amphitheater. Humbug is our champion, he faces those groveling hordes head on, like a toreador.
The show starts and ends with him. The sun rises and the moon sets at his will. Milli is our heart, she is the center of our universe, the blunt reality of our existence…she is an emissary of the wild. She leaves her paw print deep in the soul of our patrons, that they might reconnect with their animal instincts. Without her this place would be nothing. As for me, well ….I’ve always been modest….but the fans are hooked on my style and flare….I get under people’s skin, as you well know….I just give a glimpse, a suggestion of the infinite, and I leave the rest to the imagination. My true power is of no concern to John Q. Public. And you my love…you are the reason the lights keep shining, the reason I get all gussied up everyday, why Humbug loses his voice to the crowd, why Millicent flips and flies around…you are the very reason this tent was erected. This place is a part of you, and you are a part of it.”
“I don’t care, I don’t care!” Rosemary screamed, her face a sickly green hue.
Then Humbug’s voice intruded again, this time with urgency:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he panted, wiping his brow. “I invite you to experience something unlike anything else you’ve ever seen or dreamed.”
Millicent came to rest at his feet, immeasurably proud of itself. Humbug smiled at his feline friend and continued to pontificate.
“We put on quite a show for you tonight, ay?” he called to the crowd. They answered with a collective cheer.
Humbug’s teeth glowed as he smiled. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I need something from you.”
He panned his index finger around the circus; every eye in the audience was trained on it.
“I simply ask for your trust.” he finished.
Rosemary listened on in the dressing room. The word “trust” struck her ear like a haymaker. It was almost as if Humbug and Dalia were in cahoots, working in tandem to persuade her.
Dalia mimicked him, looking deep into her eyes. “I simply ask for your trust.”
Humbug picked up where he left off. “Yes, I ask for your trust… I need you to trust whatever instinct drew you here like pilgrims to the holy land. I need you to believe in something. Because what you are about to witness will shake you to your core.”
Dalia then spoke to Rosemary:
“My magic, my truth, is wasted on them,” she said, pointing in the direction of the ring. “They do not deserve my truth. They come here fully prepared to be deceived… the illusion is their reality… so that is what I give them… only you deserve the truth Rosemary… and that is why I must keep you here.”
Tears streamed down Rosemary’s flushed cheeks. She saw Dalia at her most sincere. She dropped the façade.
Meanwhile, back in the ring:
“Hold fast to your convictions, lest you lose them all with a wave of her hand… guard your beliefs or risk having them stolen by her smile… please brace yourselves for the shock of a lifetime…”
“You’re a witch! ” Rosemary repeated. “You cursed me!”
Layers of her mind crumbled under the weight of the realization. She had no idea how much of herself was lost, but she knew it could never be recovered, like memories of yesterday. She was under a sinister spell, caught in an infinite loop, chasing her tail while her body wasted away.
Dalia placed her hands on Rosemary’s shoulders. She was trembling like a small dog.
“I am nothing without you, dear… and I need you tonight, right now… I need you to trust me.”
Rosemary shoved her away. She was falling in on herself, climbing a Penrose staircase in her head. The higher she ascended, the more steps she had to climb.
“You stole my life! And I don’t even remember how! You found me in the darkness and lured me in, like an angler fish!”
Dalia collected herself. “An apt analogy…I’ve always been impressed with your mind.”
“ENOUGH!” Rosemary was sick to her stomach.
But Dalia kept advancing. “You disregarded my power, like all the rest, but I knew that something inside you believed. The sheen of skepticism around you was for the sake of the world, to keep up appearances, but I could see through it. I could see something pure, something wonderful within you, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve been lying to myself for so long, lost among these empty, soulless people, utterly devoid of passion or faith. I needed to reclaim my truth, and I found it in you. I was wasting away in this circus, we all were… until you came our way.”
“I can’t believe you! You had no right!”
Dalia clenched her jaw to keep from crying. Humbug continued to build the hype.
“We need each other…I saved you.” she reasoned
Steam came from Rosemary’s ears. “I don’t even remember who I am! I don’t know how long it’s been!”
Dalia was sweating her makeup off. She was testing the limits of her authority. She understood fully the breach of privacy she made, the abuse of innocence…but she couldn’t give up….they had been through this many times before….but this time was particularly trying….
It doesn’t matter how you got here. It only matters that you’re here now. Trust whatever brought you here….trust me.” she pleaded
“Ready or not, here she comes, Dalia the Electric Lady!”
The lights in the ring shut off and Humbug’s voice echoed throughout. Dalia closed her eyes, envisioning hundreds of awed, vapid faces in the audience, all anticipating her arrival. But what could she do? Without her ward, she was worthless. She would lose herself to the crowd, their evil eyes analyzing her to shreds, roping her down with logic and disbelief. Dalia was no more than an empty bag of tricks to them. Her ipseity was worthless… without Rosemary.
But she was entirely fed up. Rosemary seemed resolved. Dalia thought perhaps she was growing weaker… but it was more likely that Rosemary was growing stronger, and thus less susceptible to her charms. Their symbiotic bond would soon deteriorate, and Dalia would be alone again, lost in the world, until such time that she could ensnare another troubled youth. Yet all hope was not lost, not yet, not on that particular Wednesday. Dalia still had a firm grip on her.
“I can’t trust you….and I don’t know why it took me this long to realize that when the truth, my truth, was in my face the whole time….you’ve been distracting me, keeping me dazed and confused for your own selfish purposes… but no more! I’ve finally thwarted you…your influence only goes so far into my soul, but I’ve retained a modicum of my spirit, I’ve resisted your allure… and now I have the opportunity to deny you, to affirm myself. This tired charade must end! ”
Rosemary was very satisfied with herself. A surging sense of relief overcame her. It was pleasant, if not unfamiliar. Her body was trying to tell her something, reminding her of a truth it knew well. Alas, it was lost on her.
Out in the ring, Humbug sensed something was amiss between them, but he didn’t stir. It happened pretty often. Every week, in fact. Nothing to be concerned about. The show must go on, of course. He knew that more than either Dalia or Rosemary did.
So they were at an impasse. Rosemary didn’t know how lost she was, but she knew she was lost. She was unsure about everything, like a cornered animal. She didn’t know what to expect, but she certainly could not have expected what Dalia said next:
“Rosie, you have a choice, just like last Wednesday… you can come with me and we can do what we were born to do, or you can go, I leave it to you… I won’t stop you… we both know where you belong. No matter how many times this happens, it is fated to happen again. I can’t let you go, dear… you complete me. And soon you’ll find that I do the same for you… now… now I have to go out there… Humbug needs me… wherever you decide to go, whomever you decide you are, just know that you are a part of me… And you can’t find yourself—your truth— without this place.”
They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then Dalia went to do her duty, to debase and prostrate herself for the joy of the world, leaving Rosemary to stew in thought. She heard the crowd explode when Dalia entered the ring. She really had a profound effect on the people. They loved her, or at least loved who she pretended to be. If that was enough for them, then so be it.
Perhaps what Dalia did was honorable. She preserved the thin shell of ignorance that protected the average man from the reality of the world, from the fact that his reality is constructed upon his ignorance. She reinforced his delusions, reaffirmed his identity, all for a handful of pennies. And all at the expense of her essential self. What kind of person would Rosemary be if she left her to the mob? They didn’t appreciate her, they couldn’t. They refused to see anything beyond themselves.
Rosemary envisioned her frenemy out there, stone-faced, dying for the amusement of scoundrels. It was criminal. She deserved so much more… but it wasn’t her problem… at least, it didn’t have to be.
As she contemplated her relationship with Dalia, Rosemary heard deep, gutteral growls just outside the dressing room. Millicent was being led back to its cage. The growling became more and more aggressive as it passed. It was almost as though Millicent were trying to communicate with her. Only Milli had the capacity to sidestep her neurosis and reach the soft underbelly of her mind. It knew she was in a crisis, and it knew what she wanted before Rosemary did… It also knew that this wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. It just had to remind her.
A crossroads laid before her. Neither path would lead her back to her former self. That option was long gone. Leaving would only serve to further muddle up her messy brain. Staying would eliminate any slight chance she had to be free, whatever that meant. She would be a slave to confusion, a living, breathing practical joke. Or perhaps her staying would be a noble endeavor; the circus would fall apart without her, without a true believer. She would be a martyr, of sorts. Only one thing was certain: that the show must go on… with or without her.
About the Author:
Harold Barnes was born in Jersey City and is currently a substitute Paraprofessional for the New York City Department Of Education. He briefly attended the University of Notre Dame, majoring in Physics, then English, but he never graduated. Nowadays he writes and reads avidly, works, and takes care of his ailing mother with his sister.