She Who Rode Standing
A snake may shed its skin, but it will still be a snake. Can a person gravely scarred in childhood ever really be whole and free?
My parents, after many years with the circus, were well situated to weather the wake of the 1929 crash. That was the year John Ringling took in a dozen smaller circuses and sent “the greatest show on earth” winding through the land in a hundred railroad cars. But sad to say, my father, an animal trainer, was excluded. Drunk, he had let a tiger escape into a Florida jungle.
My mother, an equestrian, left with him. I still have her blurred postcard mailed from the Cajun village of her birth. “Dear Jon and Michelle,” she wrote, “when you are older you will understand why it was best to leave my darlings behind.”
I was six years old, my sister five. We stayed with various performers, some kind and protective, some less so. I was apprenticed to my father’s successor, a Turkish martinet who put me to work cleaning cages. I still smell the fouled sawdust I shoveled up while the shunted felines stared.
And there were horrors, which likely started when our parents dropped out of our lives. As I lay awake in my straw bin, an amorphous shape like dense smoke would descend upon me. Another vision, even more dreaded, was that of a tall form in a shroud. Could I have merely dreamt that nearby lions snarled or the figure blotted out the gleam of their eyes. I was glad that Michelle slept in a car with the pretty aerialists, who shielded her from ghosts.
Other fears replaced those―fears perhaps born of neglect and dearth of affection. In my schooling, partly provided en route, I shunned the illustration of a skeleton in my small dictionary. And I avoided the grinning Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland and the dogs with enormous eyes in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When I was eight, some clowns took me to see Dracula and later Frankenstein. Both left me shaking for days.
As time went on, I learned to throw knives, since Ali Atlamaz, “The Terrible Turk,” was determined to make me a wage earner. I could soon gauge the distance at which a six-ounce knife, hurled with a certain force, would always pierce its target. It took longer to master the art of surrounding the outline of a body with naked blades. At first I rose to the challenge. But confidence became gnawing anxiety when I turned fifteen and Atlamaz put up a real body. The person to be narrowly missed was my sister.
I was close to Michelle and felt that I must protect her from perils real or imagined. Still, in mischief, I’d occasionally try to shock her. “I had a dream last night,” I remember saying. “I was in a wax museum and all the statues came to life. They put me under a guillotine and raised the blade.”
“What happened?” she asked with disinterest.
“I woke up, stupid. Otherwise my head would be in a basket.”
As we left the chuck tent with ice cream cones, she said, “You’re always thinking about awful things. I had a dream last night, too―a happy dream.”
“There was a pretty lady riding a horse, standing on its back.”
We paused while a goaded elephant pushed a wagon across our path.
“That’s it?” I said.
“Well . . . her golden hair flew in the wind. She wore a white tutu, and the horse was all white. They went round and round the ring. It was very lovely.”
Michelle was pale and thin. Her large brown eyes were darkly circled and she seldom smiled. Now she seemed rapt, and I found her beautiful.
“You dreamt of our mother,” I said.
She glanced at me, but was silent awhile. “I had the same dream before,” she murmured.
I shouldn’t give the impression that we were always sad or that circus life was all hardship. We suffered none of the poverty we saw everywhere. In my own case, a concerned manager, once convinced I wasn’t a stowaway, granted me a real berth. When we stayed overnight in cities, we often slept in hotels and ate in restaurants. There was little time for boredom, with our daily classes and the constant bustle of animals, tenting, and trains. We must have visited every sizable city in America, and with so many foreign performers, our roaming was virtually global.
The circus had its bright and dark sides, dazzling, amusing, revolting. There was grandeur, with action in three rings―processions, acrobatics, animal acts―in a tent that could hold ten thousand. The loud, brassy music was stirring. I smiled at the clowns and midgets, the bombastic pitch of the ringmasters. The rope walkers and ‘fliers’ thrilled me anew with each performance. But the side shows, popular in those days, were upsetting: the fire eater, the sword swallower, the so-called freaks. I recoiled from monsters, self-mutilation, extremes of emaciation and obesity. Though friendly with the bearded lady, I seldom entered the outer tents.
On my sixteenth birthday, my sister and I performed for the first time. I was nearly six feet tall, lithe and agile, even dashing in Gypsy garb. Yet Michelle, padded a little and lightly clad, was surely the center of attention. I tried to look cool, but had to wipe my hands on the red tablecloth under my knives.
Then I chose one, tested the blade with my thumb to build suspense. To a long drum roll, I stepped back and aimed at a point near a raised arm. I avoided vital areas while getting up nerve. Cymbals accented the strike. Thousands sucked air.
Calmer now, I moved with grace to the music, the insistent drums. Soon a dozen knives framed her body. Then I placed the last three around her head. The crowd released its collective breath. Drums rolled, cymbals crashed. Michelle stepped forth and we joined hands and took our bows. The applause was loud and long. We were stars!
As we cleared the ring for the clowns in their noisy, balky car, Atlamaz stood in our way. “Not bad,” he boomed. “Tomorrow we practice with the wheel.”
“Wheel?” I said.
“We strap her to a wheel and you throw the knives while she turns.”
Her fingers tightened.
“Slow. Round and round,” he said, rotating his hand. It was hard to imagine placing the knives squarely while the target revolved. And why did his eyes dance and gold glint under his black mustache?
“Yeah, right,” I said in a way that told Michelle I wouldn’t be pushed.
In the days to come, I wrangled with Atlamaz. “I won’t risk it,” I said―“not with Michelle or anybody.”
Sometimes he snorted, sometimes threatened. “You’re not the only knife thrower in the world. I’ll get Kemal from the old country. You’ll see.”
“Go ahead,” I snarled. He forced me to rebel. If he kept it up, I’d have to leave the circus―with Michelle, of course―though I had no idea how we’d survive.
The circus, a world in itself, held much to enjoy and admire. By now I was strongly attracted to girls, and my erotic adventures could fill volumes. Here I think of Robert Service’s line “And the trail has its own stern code.” We men had a code and it was simple. If you get a circus girl pregnant, you marry her. Be careful. Indeed, we generally treated everyone, in or out of our world, with respect.
Which brings me to the matter of Atlamaz and Michelle. The more she flowered, the more he stroked her. To me it looked affectionate at first, but she knew. “I cringe when he touches me,” she complained with a shudder.
I tried to be realistic. “You’re filling out, Michelle. You’ll have to get used to men making passes.” She stalked off in disdain.
One night when Atlamaz had drunk more than usual, he followed her after our act and attacked her in an empty dressing car. Close behind them, I wielded a small stool. He never knew what hit him. We left him there, apparently dead drunk, for others to find and shame. I figured he’d leave her alone after that, mindful that someone was watching.
Time passed and we went on as before, with one difference. I had discovered Atlamaz’s hidden bottles of grappa, a brandy distilled from the dregs of wine making. After several binges, I reflected on my father’s fate and learned moderation.
Even so, Michelle would smell liquor on my breath, and it became an issue. “You’re not going to throw knives at me when you’re drunk,” she flared. I promised to be sober for the show.
One evening, though, I had a clash with Atlamaz and drank to excess. Everything jangled. A storm was approaching and canvas flapped in the wind. A flier missed her bar and fell into the net, spraining an ankle. As I waited to go on, the music sounded off-key and the urgent drumming rose and fell. Rattled, I threw a knife badly―and it grazed Michelle’s shoulder. Thank God, it was the last throw, the act over. I vowed never to fling another knife at my sister.
I must say, in all fairness, there was no place for me now but the cages. By dint of shovel and hose, none were ever kept cleaner. Still, my lowly state rankled, and I felt akin to the trapped, sullen beasts.
One hot July morning, Michelle climbed up to my berth. “We’ve come to Red Stick,” she said.
I had to think. “You don’t translate that,” I groaned. “It’s Baton Rouge in English. So what?”
“I want to see our mom and dad.”
So we spent several hours on buses and finally arrived at Cow Island in the parish of Vermilion, which is largely swampland extending into the Gulf. From there we hitched a ride to Beau Riz, whose cypress trees graced our faded postcard. The asphalt shimmered, and no breeze stirred the rice fields or the Spanish moss. The small dwelling, old and run-down, was in a cul-de-sac. Behind it loomed a vast swamp. In the front, a realtor’s sign read SOLD.
Dejected, confused, we talked with a neighbor, a fat, sluggish woman who spoke Cajun French. Through a screen door dotted with mosquitoes, I said we were children of the Nicoles who had dwelt in the end house. “Où sont-ils?” I asked. Where are they?
“Morts,” she said, and admitted us to the kitchen.
Dead? How could they be dead? When I found my voice, I asked how they died.
“Ton père,” she said, “une maladie de foie. Longtemps back.”
Liver disease . . . That figures, I thought. “Et sa femme?”
“Fièvre,” she said skeptically. “À c’que je pense, de crève-cœur et de faim.” She studied us to observe the effect of her dark surmise tinged with blame.
Michelle had understood “heartbreak and starvation,” and her eyes welled with tears. I hastened to say, “More likely malaria.” The house, I asked―when was it sold?
“Récemment,” said the woman. “Vendue pour les impôts.” Sold for taxes. She shuffled to the stove and dumped live crayfish into a steaming pot. We declined to stay for lunch and backed out.
Not to leave it at that, we walked and hitched to Abbeville, the parish seat, for more information. There, in a public building, an official named LeMay heard our story, then led us to a stifling office. He offered chairs, opened a window, and stood awhile looking out. “You were sent a notice,” he said. He drew a copy from the files.
I read the letter. We were the only heirs and could have the house for back taxes. It would be sold, however, if we failed to respond by a certain date six months ago.
Puzzled, curious, I asked who had bought the property.
He drew out another paper. “Atlamaz,” he said. “Ali Atlamaz.”
Stunned at first, I dwelt with mounting anger on the obvious interception of the notice. And there was no chance, no chance at all, that the scoundrel had acted on our behalf.
Now Michelle broke her silence. “Why would he want the place, anyway? It didn’t look to be worth much.”
“He got a bargain, young lady,” said LeMay from his swivel chair. “He can gaze out on his ten acres of rich swampland.”
“Rich,” I scoffed, annoyed at his sarcasm.
“It could be,” he said, leaning back with hands behind his head. “There’s oil all around there.”
“So that’s it,” I muttered. “That’s why he stole our property.”
“He bought it fair and square,” said LeMay, again the official.
Michelle and I withdrew our savings from the circus bank and flew to New York City. Two notable events occurred there. Michelle, after five days in a modeling school, was hired by a famous couturier; and I, shortly after Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army.
My prowess with knives, soon adapted for combat, gained me corporal’s stripes as an instructor. This kept me in the States until 1944. Then I fought at Leyte, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and, by a miracle, arrived whole in San Francisco in ’45.
There, ironically, I was beaten and robbed in a corridor of my hotel. Fortunately, most of my money―saved from four years in the service―was hidden in my room. I had also saved a well-balanced knife, which I wore henceforth in an ankle sheath.
I tried to call Michelle in New York, but she had gone to Paris with her troupe. I eventually reached her by phone. Despite a poor connection, I learned that she had an apartment with other models. She was making good money . . . had lots of dates. And I heard, “. . . dreamt my favorite dream again.” We promised to write.
For years I wandered from city to city, lonely and morose. I prowled the galleries, bookstores, and bars. To conserve my savings, I slept in rented rooms or cheap hotels. I thought often of returning to the circus, even as a roustabout, but was loath to be near Atlamaz and afraid my defection was resented.
Another thought, or obsession, haunted me. I had somehow acquired my sister’s vision of the woman who rode standing on a white horse. Around and around the ring . . . I saw her in the smoke of a cigarette. I saw her in dreams.
One day in Miami I read a poster announcing the circus. It would be the last performance before they wintered in Sarasota. I watched the parade―shorter now. But there were the clowns, midgets, and ringmasters, the vast menagerie, the floats decked with flowers and glittering fliers and riders. And there was Atlamaz, snapping a whip as he paced his cages of restless cats. I wavered, shunning him, but drawn toward the only home I knew.
That night, I followed him from a barroom toward the tracks where the circus train stood. A light rain fell and vapor rose from the pavements. We came to a platform dimly lit from the train windows. I drew the knife. Now I quickened my pace until we were twelve feet apart. At first I thought of hitting him square in the back, but it crossed my mind that, if he lived, the circus might have to support a cripple. So I decided to strike a little to the left, in his heart if I could. By habit, I thumbed the blade.
But then, I thought of Michelle and her recurrent dream of the equestrian. The instant she heard of the death, she would know the killer. And suppose a new image arose: a man striving in agony to reach a knife in his back and then dropping beside a railroad track in the rain―and there in the shadows, her brother. Suppose this vision replaced the beautiful dream we shared . . .
Besides, Atlamaz was getting old and drinking more. Like the circus itself, he was fading. Someday a ferocious cat―they hated him, too―would catch him unawares, and the claws and teeth would hurt far more than steel. So I just stood there and watched him stagger to a car and grasp the handholds and lurch up the steps.
The following morning I put on a clean shirt, a snappy bow tie, and strode into the circus manager’s office. To my surprise, he recognized me and, after warm reminiscences, offered me a desk job. I accepted, of course. Winter in Florida would be pleasant, with preparations for next spring to keep us busy. In April I’d meet Michelle in Paris and catch her show.