rat trap

“Hand me that,” Lorelei gestured absently towards his tools. Ossip fetched the implement and directed it to his mentor’s long and agile fingers.

Lorelei pursed his lips as he worked. It was a looming Sunday, full to brimming with idle hours and coffee. Ossip hopped around the Emerald House in a doused state of caffeination. Even at age 19 he was a seasoned coffee drinker but Lorelei’s brew was darkly energizing. Ossip was excited, curious. He was open wide to everything.

The little project they had elected to work on together was nothing of consequence. It was an inverted rat trap. A machine that squealed at a frequency far above those detectable to human ears. It was a mechanical irritant to ward away circus vermin. Lorelei made a few final touches to the massive circuit board and then, with a magnanimous smile, slid the contraption across the work desk to his pupil.

Ossip grinned. So strong was his desire to please and to work at something new, the smile stretched his face until it nearly cracked open for a moment. His teenaged fingers set to work at the wiring, soldering the diodes together in alternating crosses like stitching up the corset of a beautiful woman.

It was careful work. Painstaking and satisfying. Hardly a word was shared between them as Ossip fulfilled his mentor’s instructions. The boy was certainly thriving with the special attentions of “mister doctor.” The newly won envy from his peers had put an imperious slant to Ossip’s jaw and a raptness to his work. Doctor Lorelei’s eyes roamed over the boy, making inventory of his talents, his weaknesses, and the manifesting bond between them.

Ossip looked up from the wiring and indicated a more complicated looping of copper wires and switches. Lorelei tapped his index finger on the work desk, very much pleased with his handiwork.

several, competing arrangements

Tasked with two buckets, a rucksack, her cleats, and a fresh bouquet of daffodils for her ailing mistress, Violet trudged back from the pasturelands towards the big top and its subterranean dressing rooms. One of which was still occupied by the flagging Marrionetta.

Things with Augromme had been steadily progressing. She had to keep up the clandestine habit of only visiting him while he was put out to graze. Ungulen still hadn’t caught on that she was rehearsing the grievous creature in her spare time. The zombified, nightmare elephant was picking up the dance routines in fits and starts. One week he would have grasped something superbly but then the next, he would forget nearly all of it. Almost purposefully, Violet felt. Essentially, he was a frustrating mess. Still, she felt certain that if she could get him into some kind of rhythm, some kind of mutual understanding, she could unleash his beastly bravado as a major coup for her showcases.

Practice with the healthy, un-brainsick elephantrinas was no less demanding. She had introduced new choreography and they had all been working on that together for several weeks. The elephantrinas were doing remarkably well with it but the constant count offs, repetitions, and management of their temperaments was draining. Still, Goren and Ungulen had agreed to extend her foray as manager of the elephant showcases. So, for better or worse, she was contractually obligated now. Violet couldn’t decide if she was pleased to be locked into the performance schedule as an official second bill for the circus or if she had gotten herself in over her head. Could she succeed the next time around? Would she soon fail to magnificent fanfare? Or was she better than all this? Perhaps the elephant show was beneath her and a waste of her time, youth and talents. It was hard for her to say which version of her predicament was the most real. So instead, each of the three blended together into an unfocused, self-feeding cycle of crushing doubt that released into giddy flights of pulsating energy that could keep her going for days.

Things with Marrionetta hadn’t been progressing at all. The star was a fixture on her chez-lounge, languid and pale. Violet continued to sleep up in the canopy cot in the dressing room with her and she was constantly at the star’s beck and call. Marrionetta could be harsh with Violet. At other times though, she was sweet, even circumspectly grateful. The otherwise fiendishly practiced puppetress was clumsy with her gratitude. Any word of thanks she gave was accompanied by avoidant eye contact or a rushed gesture. Yet, to Violet, this seemed genuine. Or at least it wasn’t an act. The unvarnished aspects of Marrionetta were like bird calls through dense, thick trees. Evidence of a life unperceived, except by those paying close, close attention.

In the mornings, Violet would breakfast with Ungulen down in the public mess. Buttering toast and chattering away on her flimsy, flighty energy of underslept resilience. It was a lie to eat with him. He didn’t know about her several, competing arrangements. As far as he knew she was handling the elephant show and that was it. Had he known that she had become Marrionetta’s full time caregiver or the de facto dance instructor to the wild and unpredictable Augromme, he almost certainly would have had words for her. As it was though, they broke bread in the curling sunshine of green mornings, discussing anything and everything that didn’t matter at all.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin

As much as it shamed her, it felt good to rest. What choice did she have, really? Marrionetta’s entire body was taken apart and parceled across Doctor Lorelei’s desk and some of her was also laid out on the table in the center of the room. She had so looked forward to getting away from here. To escape back into dancing, performing, being alone. No such luck.

A tidy man, Doctor Lorelei he set about her repairs. If he was going to utilize all her bits and bobs, he wanted a clean, fresh specimen. He filed down her splinters, re-stained her limbs the color of brilliant cedar, and used a tiny scalpel to sculpt away all the forest grime that had accumulate in her joints. It was a meticulous task. Mindless in some sense. He found himself singing as he cleaned her. That proud, operatic baritone gliding along melodies originally composed for conquest.

He had ducted her head directly into a tinctured mixture of joy and relax. It kept them both on task through the long, untalkative hours of her repossession. They were rainy days. Blue outside and dreary. Heavy droplets popped the glass roofing of The Emerald House all day and all night. In its own bleak way, it was peaceful. One day, however, he finally said something.

“Overexertion.” He said it mostly to himself, apropos of nothing that had come before. Marrionetta remained quiet, calm in the cooling bath of soothe he had concocted for her fresh that morning. “Overexertion,” he repeated, “Clinical, really. How many days in a row are you accustomed to performing?” She didn’t answer.

With tenderness, he rubbed her cheek with the tips of two fingers.

“I do it too,” he said. “Work work work.” There was a wicked glint in his eye and he pinched her nose like a grandfather might. She tried to wag her face away from him. It was a difficult move, given that her head was no longer attached to a neck. Lorelei pet her hair instead.

“The doctor prescribes a brief interlude for the star.” He grinned at her. “You have a different role to play. Tomorrow, we’ll begin.”

cudgel, back in its block

Violet hurried around the room. She wrapped Marrionetta in plush blankets. Found a pillow for her head. She put a pot on the little stove and began boiling broth. She worried. She hesitated. Tears leaked from her eyes. Her tongue fluttered with meaningless questions and expressions. Her heart fluttered with the idea of fainting. Marrionetta’s body was a bizarre mess, indeed.

Her joints were broken. Her head was askew. She breathed like Augromme during his worst, most fractured nightmares.

“We’ll sew you up,” Violet said. “Ungulen will know what to do. I’ll get him. You’ll see. It’s alright. Just breathe. Don’t move. I’ll get someone.” Violet had no idea what to do next. She searched desperately for ribbon or spare pegs. Anything to begin rebuilding Marrionetta.

Shift employ knocked urgently on the door. “Is Miss Mary alright? Can we see?” Violet shut the door and locked it in their faces. The vultures. She hoped Ungulen would be by soon. He would kick the door down and tell her what to do.

Instead though, Violet heard a key in the lock. The sound of it surprised her so badly that she froze. Who in the world would have a key?

The door swung up. It was Lorelei. The curious faces of the shift employ loomed behind him but he was just as dismissive of them as Violet had been. Perhaps even more so. He too closed the door and locked it behind him.

“You have a key,” Violet said stupidly.

Lorelei’s eyes drifted over Violet. She was as inconsequential to him as bush.

“Lovely performance tonight, darling.” he crooned to Marrionetta. Even in the gasping violence of her pain, she attempted to spit at him. The projectile went nowhere though. It rolled down her lips and onto the floor. Lorelei laughed. He was mirthful. Violet shrank from him. A moment later though, she recognized her position. Their position. She stepped towards the doctor.

“Leave us alone. Miss Mary doesn’t want you here.”

Lorelei smashed her across the face with a fist. She spun across the room and blood entered her mouth.

“Time to come home,” Lorelei teased. He scooped his arms under Marrionetta’s broken body and was about to lift her to his shoulder when he suddenly felt an explosion of pain on his brow.

“KURST!” He didn’t even have to wonder though. Instinctively, Lorelei wrapped himself around Violet who was attempting to ball change her way towards the door. A jar of jam fell from her hands. With his free hand, Lorelei picked up the jar and began beating the young dancer in the head with it.

Violet collapsed to the floor and was unable to rise. Lorelei observed her on the floor. Once he was satisfied that she was totally dispatched, he turned his victorious countenance back towards his prize.

Lorelei scooped up Marrionetta and carefully arranged her over his shoulder. Thus equipped with his lovely little experimentress, he opened the door and exited her dressing room. Not a soul dared stop him. He carried her through the halls, up the back stairs and straight into night air. On their casual, late night stroll back to The Emerald House, Lorelei whispered all his sweet, malicious plans in her cracked and broken ears.

cudgel, part iii

The crowd was hungry for Marrionetta. They guzzled on moonshine, fractured peanuts in their eager fingers, shifted their sweating haunches and gazed with frustration at the stage wings, waiting and waiting for their favorite to take the center spotlight.

At last, she did. She rose from a lorry in the floor. Tremendous applause tended her upwards and she threw her face skyward with a triumphant arm stretched out as if to say Hail to thee, loyal worshipers.

Lorelei, the long wedge of his face looming in the crowd, smirked at her feeble attempt to project control. Inside his breast though, something twinged. She couldn’t possibly be alright, could she? No he stifled the idea. She would be weak. Patience, patience.

She had already sweated through her costume. Each breath came as a rattling rasp, her lungs barely able to contain the oxygen she desperately craved. The lorry halted. She was on stage. The organ stopped its tumbling drone. Close at hand to the stage, Mingey took up her seat at a harp The metal of the harp’s frame was well oxidized and mishandled. She strummed a false, angelic note. It cringed with irony.

With noticeable effort, Marrionetta lashed herself to the beams of the stage. Members of the audience gasped at her strange grace. Once aloft though, she gave a bow as languid as a dew drop. The appreciating crowd cheered again and with this swell of appreciation, Marrionetta began to whirl.

Supreme dissatisfaction darkened Lorelei’s brow as he watched her swiftly wind herself through the air. It was mesmerizing. With her body, she charted out the contours of an unknown satellite. Like a distant planet or a sphere conjured through sublime magic, something unseen was made visible. Her sequins flashed, adding a sense of radiant beauty.

The trick distracted. Even Lorelei could not keep his focus on her face as it sweated and darkened with effort. The sloping movement helped preserve her energies but nothing could be done about the constant, draining fatigue. Her cold and hollow bones seemed to leech energy from her very spirit. She bore down on herself. CUDGEL she thought. CUDGEL or die. Tears streamed down her face. They flew from her cheeks, winking bright in the air but their luminescence was softer than the sequins and no one saw them at all.

But the ruse could only go on for so long. Her abdomen cramped. Hard. She yelped in pain and an attendant gag of nausea escaped her throat. It felt like her stomach might collapse in on itself. She lost the flow of her arc. Her trajectory became strange and harried. She became a tousle of uncollected movements as she moved through the canopy of the big top.

The audience waited for resolution. This was, without a doubt, one of the most complex and intricate performances of hers they had ever seen. None suspected that the spidery cacophony above them was a performer on a collision course with fate. It all appeared rehearsed, meaningful, and practiced. Beautiful. She was beautiful even in the beginning throes of disaster.

Lorelei’s groin leapt in anticipation. He knew what it meant. Or if he didn’t know, he felt it all the same.

Marrionetta attempted to regain control. For several breaths she felt certain she could do it. Harder. CUDGEL. Die! Die! but her berating words were of no use. Her body was not her own and had not been for some time. She became entangled in her strings. The torque of her swings and the weight of her body stretched a bundle of them in just the wrong way. There was a sound like crunching grass. A handful of her strings broke in midair.

She fell so hard and so fast that it was almost invisible. Several moments passed while the gaping audience sought to find her. Wasn’t she still in the air? Where had she gone?

Like a broken insect, Marrionetta lay on the floor. What an image it was. She bit down on her mouth, hard to make no sound. She raised an arm to try to rise but the strength was not there. She was a buzzing, piled squander of limbs.

The audience screamed with pleasure. “She’s fallen! She’s fallen!” Peanut shells rained down on her. Her loyal worshipers embraced each other, crying, hysterical. A vile thing had befallen their nightmare queen. They thrilled and thrilled. Never before could such a thing had ever happened or been imagined.

Violet rushed out to her. With enormous effort, Violet dragged Marrionetta back into the subterranean refuge of the big top. The shrill and delighted screams of the audience echoing in their ears.

cudgel, part ii

“Miss Mary, this isn’t necessary.” Tears stood out in Violet’s eyes. “Send me out in your place. I’ll make something up. Send the twins. Send anyone. You can’t possibly go on like this.”

Marrionetta bared her teeth like a bear. She was quaking all over. Large beads of sweat dewed her bark as if she were dotted over with fairie’s pearls.

“Shut up you heel trotting little bitch,” Marrionetta seethed. Then she began dry heaving in the empty vomit bucket.

Outside Marrionetta’s dressing room, they could hear the pitter patter of circus employ and performers as they traversed the subterranean halls of the big top. The gathering audience up on the surface was cheering, stomping, drinking and crying out for the show to begin. The organ was grinding itself loudly with its lascivious and inviting melodies and its bellows reverberated everywhere. Violet had the impression that she and Miss Mary were sitting inside the empty belly of an iron pot; a quiet abscess puncturing a world that was otherwise composed of endless, pitiless sound and activity. Here in the tense knot of the dressing room, there was only a strained silence and slow, laboriously movement.

“Give me my costume,” Marrionetta said wetly.

Violet handed over the leotard. Marrionetta stretched it over herself. It was pink and tight, shiny with silver sequins. To Violet’s eyes, her mistress appeared as the totality of a courtly funeral. She was the trimmings, the trappings, the officiant, and the primary attendant, all in one.

“Assist me,” Marrionetta said. Violet took her arm and lead her mistress lurching up the stairs to the stage.

cudgel, part i

It was opening night. Lorelei grinned at himself in the greasy mirror. His sharp teeth and narrow eyes were a beautiful match for his new, pin striped cravat and jacket combination. Baby blue. His favorite color.

He stroked pomade through his hair with a trusty comb, streaking back his clipped hair into an angled sweep. The peak of fashion he arched an eyebrow at himself. If only those snot nosed Viennese petit bourgeois could see him now. His smile faded slightly. No. They wouldn’t understand if they saw now. He was still hunkered down in the mud slick of this insolent circus. But his mood changed again things would soon be different.

Lorelei strode down the hill and headed for the big top. It was already after sunset and the croak of crickets and toads blended with the approaching din of the audience gathering around the main circus tents. Lorelei could scarcely keep a chortle out of his cheeks and he whistled a little tune to himself. It was the puppetress’s big night and he couldn’t wait to see how the hell he had wrought for her was affecting her physique.

According to the private notes in his diary — for he always kept meticulous notes on his experiments — she should be totally clear of the last implants he had given her. She would be at the absolute nadir of her suffering. He delighted to imagine the physical pain it must have caused her. To fly that high and then to crash his mind was twittering like blood thirsty birds who trace and follow the beast, waiting for it to stumble one last time and expire into carrion.

He approached the big top and walked among the crowd — they were mostly dreaming damned. A Marrionetta headline was always sure to bring a good and seasoned crowd of haunted adorés. The crowd was large tonight, Lorelei noticed. A boon to circus finances, no doubt.

He pushed easily through the mesmerized hoards. With a confident flick of his inventive wrist, he sent the side flap back and let himself inside the tent.

Ossip and Lorelei, best of friends

“What a clever boy you are,” Lorelei set his long, tapered hands on each of Ossip’s developing shoulders. Ossip shrugged out from under the doctor’s touch. Still, he beamed into the man’s face. Not even Ungulen had called him clever before.

The truth was that Ossip was a clever boy. He could while away for hours on circuitry, building little models, designing mechanical improvements for circus operations. But a clever boy still has many years to go before he becomes an experienced young man. In the realm of choosing mentors, Ossip had no prior experience.

Ossip was a orphan like all the rest of the lever boys. He had no parents. His place of birth was incidental and far away. He would never return there unless by accident. He was a wayward son of circus life now. Still, he was intelligent and had accrued many lessons of life during his employ at the circus. He knew how to spot a cheat at cards. He knew which of the dancer girls were merely teases and which were genuinely affection and worth picking flowers for. He knew instinctively how to string a series of gears. He knew when and where to hide a tin of meat so none of the acrobats could find it. He fashioned mechanical parts for the circus and, in turns, the circus had fashioned him into one of its mechanical parts. He was like well oiled piece of its machinery, spinning happily, confident with his place in the world. Because of the nestled, uncomplicated nature of his being, he knew not the properties of an interloper. He had no way to measure the hidden dimensions of Lorelei.

Lorelei’s attentions were novel to Ossip. Privileging. He garnered favors, coin, and even the occasional smile from Herr Doktor’s tense jaw. It made some of the other lever boys jealous. Ossip could tell and he knew enough to protect his newfound status with an air of authority. He began posturing himself in much the same way he had seen Lorelei do. Stiff in the back. Unflinching in the gaze. He had learned the power of leaving a word unsaid where an eyebrow’s flick will suffice.

Ossip had been spending more and more time at The Emerald House and he was becoming accustomed to its comfortable interior. It was very messy, he noticed. Ungulen would never allow the barracks to become so unclean. Still, the furniture was nicer here. The snacks the doctor provided were always fresh. There was music occasionally as well. But the biggest draw was Lorelei’s magnificent array of tools. Ossip had only read about some of these gadgets and devices in his worn manuscrips and texts. Ossip never saw, not even for an instant, that he himself was slowly becoming one of Lorelei’s instruments. It was one of the easiest seductions Lorelei had ever orchestrated.

Marrionetta’s big act

Marrionetta staggered around the stage area in the big top. The staff hands exchanged weathered and weary glances among themselves just behind the thin veil of stale cigarette smoke. The dancer girls arched their snarling mouths, prettying up their stockings and waving their shoulders around in mocking shadows of Miss Mary’s preeminent case of the shakes. Everyone at rehearsal assumed she was drunk.

Only Violet could see the strength. Just hours before, Marrionetta had been raked as a bean stalk, doubled over in her voming bucket, a splintered and desolate version of herself. Now, at least, here in the big top, she merely appeared graceless. At least she was standing on her own two feet. Violet couldn’t imagine the effort it was taking Miss Mary to stand relatively tall and proud. She wondered additionally how badly things might go this evening if Marrionetta really intended to put in a full day’s work of rehearsal. That was to say, half a day, in her case.

Marrionetta skipped up the walls and strung herself up on the ceiling. Her weight sagged and not performatively. A few of the teenaged lever boys looked away with disgust. A female form so tortured was beyond their ken to appreciate, in any dimension.

Marrionetta wrestled her tired scoop into a more agréable stature. She inhaled deeply and, to Violet’s astonishment, hurled herself in several beautiful circles. She turned and glided along an unseen axis. Her ankles flew back over her head. Her hair whipped out of its braids. She was like a wild thing, contouring out a celestial shape. Her momentum carried her faster and faster until she was in a silken orbit. One could almost see the object she conjured out of negative space. A round nothing. A planet. A moon. Something full of life and rotating violently just beyond the dullness of common sight and visual meaning.

She managed this silhouetting display for several minutes. A few of the dancers’ sneers opened up into gapes of interest. An observant acrobat lit a new cigarette, one that burned brightly as his eyes followed her calculating rotations. Marrionetta, the unhinged puppetress. What a find she really was.

Then, one of her strings caught sour on an old hook. She jerked off course. Her flank collided forcefully with a beam and she screamed like an angry dog.

“Miss Mary!” Violet immediately approached the stage area. Marrionetta was already letting herself down in a spidery tantrum of her strings.

“After all your mincing and hill spiking shrieks!” Marrionetta gestured rudely at all of the attending circus staff. People backed away from her. She kicked a box of nails and they scattered in a tremendous wave. “Everyone begs and pleads for Miss Mary to come back to work and you crabbing munchers can’t even hook it up right!”

Marrionetta threw on her coat and spat on the ground. The observant acrobat bowed and moved quickly out of her way. She flicked her hand at him. A command. He gave her his glowing cigarette and she dragged on it angrily. She she smote it under her pink, velvet slipper.

“If Ungulen or Mr. Hargus asks for me,” Marrionetta shrieked at the top of her lungs, “I’m in my dressing room until you brackish piss drinking, dandruff huffing hooligans gets my stage rigging done up correctly!” She began slowly marching her way out the big top. Violet attempted to offer Marrionetta an arm but she haughtily refused. Each foot stomped strangely over the next, like a cross eyed hen.

Once she was out of the big top, Marrionetta slung herself over a low fence and began dry heaving. Violet joined her outside. They walked home very gently.

tinsel spring

Marrionetta extruded more chlorophyll slime into the bucket beneath her chin. Violet patted her forehead and neck down with a cool washcloth. The pupptress’s hair was tied up in pretty french braids — safely away from her mouth and sweating temples. The braids were Violet’s handiwork.

“Were they in here?” Violet asked, gingerly pushing in on one of Marrionetta’s little body drawers. There were three drawers inside Marrionetta. One in her neck that pulled out long. A slender vertical cabinet that opened laterally down the length of her arm. The last was a small, round pocket in her lower abdomen. They were all pegged tightly shut. Using her finger, Violet lightly outlined their silhouettes. Marrionetta nodded. Yes, that’s where the organ plugs were stored.

Violet had been keeping herself in the dressing rooms with Marrionetta. Marionetta slept almost exclusively on the ruby red sette. She didn’t seem to mind that Violet had taken the bed on the platform. There were a few other unspoken rules and ideas that had emerged between the two of them. Violet went and fetched her meals, braided her hair, and changed out her vomiting bucket every hour or so. Marrionetta had begun sharing little favors of her own with Violet, insisting she try some of her expensive perfumes or treating herself to a silk robe for the day.

During a long stretch of afternoon, the two dancers had touched on the exploratory idea that Violet might be able to remove the implants inside of Marrionetta. They could use Marrionetta’s various pries. Marrionetta had collected many good quality tools over the years — mostly gold plated or decorated with small gems — to open and close her private drawers and to cinch open her pegs. She didn’t like to do it though. Lorelei had used his own tools. They were cold, she recalled. For the removal, it all just depended on when Marrionetta could work up the nerve. Violet hadn’t pressed the issue once it had been delicately floated during one of their many oblique conversations. Marrionetta was still feeling extremely sick and they both wondered if removing them altogether would hasten an even nastier outcome.

There was a rapid knock on Marrionetta’s door. “Mary!” came a sprucing command. “It’s Goren! Let me in, please?”

“Priggin’! Foo!” Marrionetta’s mouth turned into a layering frown. Then, her stomach upturned and she quietly spat a long, silken strand of green mucous which hung forever and a day from her mouth before depositing itself into the bucket. “Make him go away.”

Violet moved towards the door. “Miss Mary isn’t feeling well at the moment.”

“Violet?” asked Goren. “Thank god. Open the door. Mary’s needed at rehearsal. The major is in less than three weeks. We have to stage out her latest choreography.

Violet’s hands traced up her forearms. She looked at Mary with questioning eyes. Marrionetta waved her hands irritably. No.

“Maybe later?” Violet asked through the door.

Goren started pounding on the door. “Marrionetta, you selfish, wayward, dolly! If you don’t show up for rehearsal we can’t lay out the stage rigs! Nobody else can get rehearsed. The shifts will spend all of opening night crashing up against each others’ noses and your very own cherished, stinking act will be a lousy, hazy mess just thanks to everyone’s inability to sort out the operational trim! So quit lying around like a useless bunch and get your shaven sticks to the big top!”

“Tinsel spring!” Marrionetta shouted back through the door. Violet looked confused.

“What?” said Goren.

“Tinsel spring! The year we put on the silver tinsel and Ernt had the elephants dressed as fairies. I’ll do that one. So set it up that way.”

There was a long pause on the other side of the door.

“Fine,” Goren said at last. “But you had better be there tomorrow!”

They heard Goren stomp away down the hall. Marrionetta cinched her nose at Violet, a finely tuned enmeshing of spite and laughter. Violet smiled back, nervous that she had somehow won Marrionetta’s momentary favor. Then Marrionetta stuck her head back in the bucket and vomited threefold.

“cercle!”

Far off from the circus, there was an autumnal chill in the woods. Leaves were draining out their greenery and rusting out matte. A bitter little wind hushed its way through the trees tops. Rustia and Mingey tooled around the perimeter of a dilapidated barn. They were quite snug in wooly, cable knit sweaters. Mingey, of course, was looped around Rustia’s shoulders as Rustia pedalled the unicycle.

Mingey peeled off her sweater and threw it on the ground close by. Immediately, she began shivering. She retrieved a black, wooden hoola-hoop off the siderack of their unicycle and brought it to her tapered, shrunken waist. She swang her hips around and around, building a soft rhythm.

Rustia continued to cycle slowly around the barn. She was patiently practiced in attending to Mingey’s mis-en-place. Rustia put her arms out to their full spread. Mingey tip toed gracefully out onto the left arm. She placed one careful footfall after the next. Her hooping was in a full and graceful largo. She reached the terminus, which was Rustia’s upturned palm. In the palm of her sister’s hand, Mingey set both her feet en pointe, balanced now only on her toes. Once she found her breathing point, Mingey bent her waist at an angle, and lifted up one foot. She was now balanced on a single toe, hoola-hooping gently in her sister’s outstretched hand.

“Attends-sautee!” Mingey squeaked in her over pronounced accent from a country she’d visited only once. Rustia’s arms stiffened and broadened with musculature.

Mingey hopped! She landed softly on her opposite toe on Rustia’s cramming shoulder.

“Attends-sautee!” Mingey squealed again. She hopped into Rustia’s opposite palm.

“Cercle!” Mingey announced, a grin poking the bones of her cheeks. She wound herself, almost effortlessly, in a perfect circle, hoola hooping all the way.

“We should get that parasol in the act,” Rustia barked. “That should get Mister Doctor’s attention, alright.”

“Mmmmm,” Mingey smiled.

go away

Marrionetta, recently returned from her arduous walk in the woods, moaned and curled herself on the sette in her dressing room. The various plugs of endocrine tissue within her were fading out. As the cold swallow engulfed her, it left behind a hollowness that was was familiar and freshly unbearable.

Her joints were all splintering. She pricked herself all over, leaving scratches on her unpolished surfaces.

There was a knock at the door. A female voice ventured, “Miss Mary?”

“Go away,” Marrionetta humidly breathed into the sette.

“Miss Mary?” they hadn’t heard her.

Marrionetta rallied herself and rasped, “Go away!”

There was a pause at the door. “It’s Violet.”

Violet, Marrionetta thought. She had meant to see Violet’s elephant show but hadn’t quite gotten around to it in the depths of her lolligag. Hadn’t she thrown jam jars at that poor girl? She had impressive posture, Marrionetta remembered. She liked that. Not all the dancers cared about their appearance the way Violet did. Most of them slouched around, smoking like chimneys, obscening their ways into various pairs of trousers. Violet was a bit more walled off. Discrete, maybe.

Marrionetta’s stomach churned and she puked quietly on the floor. She wiped her mouth and took a long, hard look at her reflection across the room in the vanity mirror.

At last, Marrionetta croaked “It’s open.”

Ungulen’s ribs

Ungulen is a superstitious creature. Superstition is hereditary for goats and is a common linguistic underpinning of their bleating languages. It’s challenging, however, for goat people to put these ideas into the words of human languages. So even though Goren Hargus and Ungulen had developed mutual suspicion of Doctor Lorelei in connection to the disappearance of the lever boys, Ungulen struggled to convey the depths of his feeling. This despite the fact that Goren Hargus was a trusted friend.

Perhaps even more than that, Ungulen was hesitant to say what he thought out loud. There is a potent, spellbinding aspect to giving voice to one’s deepest fears and intuitions. Disturbing the fungus, after all, can only provoke spores. Any woodland creature knows this rule as a matter of course. Ungulen instinctively kept his private feelings between his sturdy ribs.

Privately, in those ribs, he felt that something violent must have happened to the missing lever boys. They had been threatened, maimed, scared off, something. Fear was in play. He hadn’t seen or heard anything definitive so all was speculative at best. Conversely, he also couldn’t ignore the fact that his chief assistant, Ossip, was apparently friends with the doctor. Whatever was happening, it had dimensionality. Ungulen didn’t want to play his cards too quickly.

exchange rates

Goren Hargus had seen the silverbacks. He knew they were of southern Germanic origin. Land of cows. He had weighed several examples of the coins in his office on a small but highly accurate scale. They were genuine and very valuable. He had seen too many of them for his liking but prior to his conversation with Ungulen, he hadn’t realized that their distribution might be even more widespread than previously thought.

Foreign currency is like a weed. It can choke out the beautiful flower of a perfectly sound and harmonious economy. The circus economy could be quartered out neatly among booze, cigarettes, gambling debts, and shift hours. The latter two being more weighty than the former but all their relative exchange rates usually remained quite steady. Goren credited himself with this fine tuned modulation of the circus market. He was a controlling stock owner in all four quadrants, after all.

Ungulen’s question about the doctor’s character had spurred Goren to compose a full treatise on how much of this silverback slime might have worked its way into the circus’s lifeblood already. His conservative estimates were well within standards and didn’t threaten too much of anything. But now he had to take the leaving off of seven lever boys into more serious consideration. Ungulen had confirmed in his social way that the missing boys had not left any kind of sentimental trace or reason for their sudden disappearance. So, Goren’s calculations had to be adjusted. Seven lever boys, at a full month’s wages apiece, this strongly indicated that Lorelei had major cash on hand to coax employees away from their duties. The more Goren calculated, the more certain he felt that poaching was afoot.

eyelets in payroll

Goren Hargus cinched his pants up further, constricting his artichoke thighs. On tip toe, he numbered among the skittering creatures — most of them crabs — down by the lake shore.

“Quit yer tight ropin’!” Ungulen threw his head back and brayed with laughter at Goren’s fear of the ooze and general wetness. All around them there was a fleeing pasture of tiny claws. Muck crabs.

“Buckets for bread you said,” Ungulen chided. “It was your idea in the first place to restock the mess from the land.”

“Land, precisely.” Goren complained. “I don’t like getting my slippers wet.”

“Then don’t wear your pussing slippers!” Ungulen rattled his bucket at Goren, alighting droplets of murky, unctuous water onto the man’s face. Goren whipped out a ready handkerchief and cleared them away.

“I don’t want to muddy my leathers either.” Goren sighed, “You’re right though.” He took his slippers off and set them aside. He finger-tucked his pant legs in and over themselves to keep them aloft. Then he made his way barefoot through the slime and chased a few crabs around. He pincered one or two into his bucket.

“Ungulen,” Goren said presently. “There’s a matter I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”

“What’s that.”

“I was reconciling payroll last Sunday to see if there were any opportunities for forestallment.” Finding opportunities for forestallment was one of Goren’s favorite things about reconciling payroll. “But I noticed something peculiar. More than half a dozen of the lever boys have dipped out as recently as last month. Three alone since I last did the totalling.”

Ungulen shrugged. The shift employ were always running off. Working for a circus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I know. I know. At first I thought they were probably just waywards too. But usually when a lad’s about to duck, he tries to collect his wages early. It’s all pleadings ‘Mr. Hargus this and Mr. Hargus that’ for their train tickets home or one last rose for Dahlia. That sort of thing.”

“And none’s collected?”

“None. Not a one. And where’s the sense in absconding if you don’t make a grab for the church funds?”

Ungulen’s ears twitched. That was peculiar. “So what’s yer theory?”

“Well my first idea was perhaps they’re all traveling through the woods together. Some kind of ritualized hubris. You know how the midranged ones can get when they’re spoiling for dancer crush. But then I looked at the boys who were missing. They didn’t really fit together companion like. All disparate, you know?”

Ungulen moved towards understanding. “Popular or unpopular?”

“Un. Very unpopular.” Goren paused. “And no one’s said anything to you about them? I thought maybe you’d have a version of this through the social vines.”

“No,” said Ungulen, straightening himself to his full height. He fixed Goren with the stern attention of a troubled herd animal. The horizontal slits of his pupils burned with millenia’s worth of experience in identifying predators.

Ungulen asked, “Mr. Hargus, what do you think of the doctor lately?”

Goren was momentarily thrown by this apparent change in topic. Then his mental abacus adjusted.

“I’m not sure I like him,” was the accountant’s reply.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 2)

Herr Doktor Sinvarius Lorelei could not control his erection. It nearly punctured a hole through his slacks. Lorelei knew he was working on his magnum opus. But, what’s more, he knew this was only the first of many opuses to come. The Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator was his first great work. Commissioned by a Baron no less. And its manifestation would set him free.

The puppetress had gone back down to her circus kin. At least for the time being. This was just as well. He’d grown tired of her, skulking around, nodding off on the floor, and demanding greater and greater dosages of hormonal injections. Still, he knew he’d need her again in short order. What a find she was. The repeat experiments with her reusable body had been a glorious boon to his work. He had found exciting new techniques through the application of her favorite moods. His observations of her had also answered many lingering questions that had persisted in the margins of his research. Marrionetta was the ultimate test subject for his work concerning the chemical compounds dictating emotionality. His lips twisted into an ugly smile. It made him laugh to think that such an ignorant vagabond like her should be so integral to the final stages of the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. She would never know, of course. And even if she did, how could she possibly appreciate her little role in history? Genius he thought to himself, is the ability to transform that which is inconsequential or even vulgar into a work of art. He marveled at how he always seemed to find exactly what he needed exactly when he needed it. He could only conclude that he was a great creator blessed by the Great Creator himself.

Once this machine was completed he would be flush with capital and state protections. No more circuses. No many stiflingly hot squats in the tropics. No more tinned meats and sour grain. The Baron had made these assurances and even though Sinvarius never trusted anyone farther than he could stick his knife through them, the prospectus seemed certain in this particular case and for this particular machine. Politicians the world over would pay handsomely for a device that transforms hate to love and back again. It was the ultimate tool of social control. And he would be a godlike figure, the only one capable of deploying the thing and improving upon it. They’d bring him tubs full of bodies: human, animal, insectoid, whatever he liked. He’d never have to dig another grave or abandon another laboratory midstream ever again. A life of grand experimentation and luxurious accomodation awaited him just on the other side of this swiftly approaching precipice.

Now all he needed to procure were the underripe hearts of 11 happy children. None of the lever boys would do. They were, as a rule, far too old and far too orphaned to have the delicate tissues required to make his sublime vision into a pumping, cranking reality.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 1)

“Aus hass, liebe,” the Baron intoned quietly, stroking a finger over the face of the woman in the daguerreotype. It was his daughter. His frequent worship of her picture had blurred her face away. He regretted doing this but was unable to stop himself. He had not seen or heard from her in many long years.

The Baron tucked his body further into his massive cape. The room was cold. He jangled softly with dominating heirlooms, unable to separate his personhood from his statehead, even this late into the evening. The room was saturated in candlelight and infused with the lingering odor of roasted game.

He set his daughter’s picture back down into its shrine on his imperious receiving table. He turned his attention to a stash of letters, all of them from Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei.

The letters ranged in date, spanning a decade. He thumbed through, paging to the one that contained the schematic. It was done up in graphite and in Lorelei’s horrid handwriting. The doctor’s penmanship was absolutely diseased, especially when he was excited about anything. The man was too enamored of his art form. It made the Baron queasy to think of the small examples he had seen over the years. Fascinating yes, but there is something phantom, folkloric and fearful about watching the slender arm of a dead young lady suddenly spring to life and gesture submissively to her creator. He still wondered sometimes who that arm had belonged to. He never did find out.

He had met Lorelei that spring at a gala. He was one of the soon to be graduates of the imperial university. The student body of the medical school had several annual occasions to rub shoulders with the nobler blood of the empire. It made for good conversation, connections, and occasionally fruitful business partnerships. Many good examples were available for citation. The hospitals, research groups, private miracles of personal doctoring. On the whole it was a societal good.

But the Baron did not fool himself. He knew his patronage of Lorelei was a sin. One that incurred itself over and over again, with every bucket of currency sent out across all four corners of the planet. Each and every crime of mutilation Lorelei might commit abroad was, certainly, on the Baron’s conscious. He had considered many times what would happen if he simply stopped sending Lorelei the money. It wouldn’t absolve him exactly but it would help. However, in that scenario, the Baron would never see the end result of this project he himself had commissioned. Furthermore, it’s not as if Lorelei would or could ever stop his violent craftsmanship, patronage or no patronage. More likely, the doctor would simply go and entrance some other benefactor. In fact, maybe he already had. The Baron laughed wryly to himself. If anyone could serve two masters, it was Sinvarius alright.

He turned his attention back to the frenetically conceived letter. Lorelei had sent it nearly a year ago. It was from somewhere in the tropics. The machine’s design was in a more finished state than the previous installments. But it didn’t mean anything to the Baron. He had no formal education in the sciences. He was bred to be a leader and, as such, had no use for technical knowledge. This would all be delegated to those who served him. So Lorelei’s excited diagramming was for the doctor’s thrill alone. The only thing the Baron could really distinguish was that the machine was slowly becoming a reality. The I love you I hate you machine the Baron thought to himself, aware of its sing song and childish nature. That is how he conceived of the awful thing. He knew once he had the prototype in hand, he would be able to recoup many times what he had spent on it. Those warlike brutes up in the mountain states would kowtow to his small dominion, despite their economic and military superiority. The machine would secure his lineage and protect his people for centuries. But that was not its foremost purpose. The Baron had one idea in his mind. To recapture his daughter’s affection and maybe — just maybe — to see his grandson again.

Woozies!

Marrionetta woke up in a daze but couldn’t get her bearings. Night had fallen. For a few head turning moments, she couldn’t discern anything through impenetrable black. The sensation made her feel like the billiards of her eyes were rolling weighty around in her head. She had to stop moving and find a point. A star.

Once her center of gravity returned she made a fuller assessment of where she was. Woozies! She thought I must have dropped off right velvetine!

She rose from the ground and brushed dirt off herself. So much for the lavender bath. Crumble and clod clung to her green dress. She felt out some leaves in her hair. She was hungry and her stomach panged. The pang grew larger and seemed to spread throughout her body. She realized that everything ached. Surprising herself, she vomited a babyish amount of stomach fluid onto the ground. She couldn’t see it but it was green, of course. Chlorophyll.

Sick she worried. She always worried when she was sick. A loner’s instinct. Her dressing room, a faithful retreat, was only a few miles away but the distance opened up in her mind like the channel itself.

“Ungulen?” she cried out feebly. The black woods rustled back at her. Then she felt like an imbecile and stamped her foot. The show of force put her off balance and she nearly fell over.

Just like the quiet years she thought. The quiet years were her childhood. Abandoned and orphaned in the woods for an unknowable number of years and seasons. No one to talk to, everything to fear, it was the origin of her acrobatic self-tutelage. A natural and wild apprenticeship totally devoid of self-conscious feeling. In her well furnished adulthood, she had tried to count it all out. To try and figure how many years it must have been. Seven hard winters stood out meaningfully but she couldn’t be sure if she was collapsing a few together, like braiding fingers.

She took a long, impatient breath and prepared herself for the long, long journey home in the dark.

white lace

Rustia’s thighs revved faster and faster like a combustion engine, slamming and pulling up the pedals of her unicycle like they were natural extensions of her feet. Her and Mingey peeled through the thick forestry of Herder Woods along a trail that they themselves had carved through routine exertion.

Mingey scurried along Rustia’s head, back and shoulders like a slender homunculus. She wrapped her legs around Rustia’s neck, hanging down the posterior of the unicycle. Hanging down, she fingered at a cat’s cradle of string which was attached to a weighted system of gears. It was a small contraption that Rustia had designed to augment the power of her physicality with some mechanical advantage.

“Grade!” Rustia commanded. Mingey, extensively trained in the call and response of operating the unicycle, unloosed a dense weight pack. The counterweight gave Rustia a strong vertical off which to hurtle them up the steep grade of a nameless mountain.

Rustia growled like a bear, sweating excitedly as she drove their winged ascent. Presently, she reached the precipice. Their stomachs dropped as they went over the bumpy top and back down the edge again.

“Eeeeeeeiiuyyiiii!” Mingey thrilled.

“Spin down!” Rustia barked and Mingey promptly switched out the weights for the pedal lock. The unicycle’s gear fixed. The wheel spun faster and faster, nearly out of control. Rustia stuck her legs out like balancing antennae. Mingey bobbed and dipped to keep them straightened out.

They screeched down the mountain face, mounting speed like a runaway train. The treading on the wheel started to smoke. They approached the deep ravine at the bottom of the mountain. Faster and faster. Closer and closer Just upon it now! Mingey screamed in terror and covered her eyes as they shot out over the edge.

“Pull!” Rustia roared. Mingey pulled out Marrionetta’s parasol. It was expensive and delicate, covered with white lace and accented with big red roses crafted from silk. They had stolen it from her room when they had noticed her door was broken in.

The parasol popped open. They caught in an abrupt wind tunnel of reverse thrust. After a turbulent ride through negative space, they sailed through the air, laughing and shrieking in delight.

“You see that, Minge!” Rustia gloated, clutching the unicycle tightly in her legs, “I told you it’d work!”

Augromme dreams of jam

Augromme doesn’t think in words but if he did the phrase MAGIC BLANKET would be the reverberating mantra for that particular day. A tiny human, not the bucket bringer — he was much bigger–, had brought him a magic blanket full of sweet, sweet jellies.

He burrowed through all of them in one sitting. Apricot. Blueberry. Raspberry. Peach. A bouquet of colors swam resplendent in his mind. When each jar was thoroughly worked over, he belched a great elephant’s belch. It was rancid with zombie humours and sweet like sugary pickles from the continent. The birds overarching in his thermal column squawked with mania in the odorous plume. One nearly swooned directly into a tree.

Augromme picked up the empty jars with curiosity. He tossed one. It thumped to the ground and then thumped again off a smaller arc. Then it rolled around in the grass and remained still. Augromme reared up, delighted with the jar. He threw a second one. This one didn’t thump. It hit a large stone and broke into a dozen pieces. He waited for something else to happen. Then he forgot about the jars and looked up at the sky.

Violet’s face smoldered in his consciousness. The memory of her small frame and how she conveyed both strength and friendliness. Inside, a sensation emerged for her. It wasn’t a name exactly. More like an emotional designation that demarcated her individuality in the green nebula of his rotten brains. Roughly translating from the private sentiments held by a demented elephant to the Queen’s Standard English, Violet had become Jellybird.

the bridge

Violet made her way to the pasturelands with her rucksack. Instead of her ballet slippers, this time she’d come prepared with cleated boots. One of her dancer friends with a penchant for sport had loaned them to her. If she needed to make a quick get away, she’d be more prepared this time.

She spied Augromme long before he noticed her. He seemed harmless enough in this context. He was walking in slow circles, snuffling at the grass and occasionally lifting his tremendous head skyward to look at the birds. Birds were always attracted to his stewy smells.

She evaluated the brute for a long time. The elephant show needed a real bang next time. The problem was mostly determining if Augromme could be trained or not. She knew he was erratic and hostile but so was Marrionetta and she was the star. Violet had seen Augromme be sweet with the other elephants and they with him. She had seen him tortured by his nightmares, appearing to cry out helplessly about some imagined or timespun injury. She had seen him frolicking in the fields and he had also once attacked her. It was a definite risk to try and include him in the show. That was probably why she hadn’t mentioned the idea to Ungulen who almost certainly would have rejected it.

She also knew how much the poor animal ticketed for when they put him in the box. It was a lot. So the impetus to box him out twice a year would never diminish as long as people like Goren Hargus controlled the purse strings. All day in that tiny enclosure, becoming angry and frustrated, kicking and hissing for his freedom. What if he had hidden talents that could be harnessed? He wouldn’t have to be crammed in the enclosure anymore just to be gawked at for an undignified stretch of hours. Besides, she could really strut something majestic in her next showcase if she pulled this off.

She unpocketed a small woodwind, something crude another circus worker had made and passed around communal. She struck a long, pleasant D note down low on the pipe. Augromme noticed and turned towards the sound. When he noticed she was a person and not a bird, he began a steady trot towards her.

The trot started building and was threatening to become a stampede of one. Violet put the instrument away and took a commanding posture like she had seen Ungulen do. She thrust out her chest and extended a palm-faced arm. “Hold it,” she said.

Augromme responded. He slowed his advance. Then he sat down like a tremendous dog.

“Okay,” said Violet. She pulled out the instrument again and fingered a pleasant major chord in B. Augromme stood up again and started waggling around, snorting and billowing his ears. She rummaged in the rucksack and handed over a large jar of jam.

Augromme immediately scarfed up the jam with his trunk. She played the chord again, still low on the register. She didn’t want to spook him with anything too high and shrill. His trunk piqued up. More? his tiny black eye seemed to inquire. She pulled out another jar which he put away as well.

She played a new chord, something upbeat. To her surprise, Augromme did an intricate series of dance steps. It was sloppy and out of rhythm but she recognized it immediately. It was the bridge of the choreography she had taught the other elephants for the showcase. He had been paying attention after all.

“Interesting,” she said to him. He puffed himself a few times. But then, in a fluid strike, he stole the rucksack and galloped away.

“Hey!” But she didn’t chase him. She’d get another sack and come back tomorrow.

woods

Marrionetta slicked away the grime and the ash. Her lavender oil made her feel calm and she toweled off. She checked the mirror again in her dressing room. She looked splintered and harried but clean at least. She put on her clogs and a green dress. She still couldn’t find her parasol.

If this had been the past, she would have raged through the dormitories of the subterranean circus rooms until she found somebody who knew what had happened to the parasol. She felt certain the it had been stolen as it was very beautiful and, as she had noticed earlier, her door had been broken in at some point. But she was too tired to become angry. She almost thought she might cry again. Did the circus folk really hate her that much? That they would steal from her? Instead of bowing to self pity, she abruptly hurried herself out the door and away from the circus property, snapping and creaking the whole way. 

The walk to the woods was more challenging than she remembered. She felt winded as she approached the tree line. Her physicality was so diminished. The disuse of her energies was only the beginning though. Being taken apart and put back together over a dozen times was an exertion she had never known before. And the steady ebb of her endocrine implants was turning into a very strong desire to re-up. She insisted to herself that she could go longer though. She didn’t need Lorelei. She didn’t need these ungrateful circus chesires. She’d struck it out on her own for centuries before any of them. She had beat back every villain and torn down countless shimsham walls that stood between her and hot plates of oily, garlicky pâtes.

She picked her way through the humid woods. There were no frogs today. She wondered if Lorelei hadn’t eaten them all. When she arrived at her favorite grove of trees, she sat down and caught her breath on a log. It occurred to her — not for the first time — that the log might be a distant cousin of hers. She couldn’t actually tell trees apart. This always made her feel a little ashamed. She put the thought of arboreal roots out of her mind. 

Just a quick jump and I’m up she thought. She readied herself to applique across the trees branches, to suspend herself in midair for some mid afternoon acrobatics. Just her and the trees. Just like always. 

Instead, Marrionetta slowly slid sideways and onto the ground. She fell into an exhausted slumber. 

homesick

Marrionetta could feel the drain. The endocrine infusions Doctor Lorelei had traced her with were emptying of their petit vitalities and her overall mood sagged with them.

Upon returning to her dressing room down in the basement of the big top, Marrionetta took notice that her door had been busted off its hinges at least once while she was away. The door had been fixed. She could tell by the shiny new hinges. Ungulen must have come looking for her before he found her up at The Emerald House.

She entered her room with the intention of settling in immediately and getting back to dancing. Instead though, she slumped onto a plush sette and did not get up for a long while.

It was the morning after the circus mob had demanded her return to performing. It made her feel stitched. One the one hand, it was interesting to see just how essential she was to the rooming and boarding of hundreds of other individuals who, by all accounts, hated her. On the other hand, what pigratting business was it of theirs what she did with her time? Perhaps if they all took the care and patience to perfect their own excellence, the whole operation wouldn’t be so entirely reliant upon her.

Moaning, she picked up her head and layed it back down on the pillows in a new angle. It smelled a bit musty. She wanted to feel that this sette was far more comfortable and superior to sleeping on the floor of The Emerald House or crouching inside of the cold, angular recess of the fireplace. But she couldn’t pretend. Those harsher accomodations were paired with the rush of unending, scientifically modulated joy that the doctor had infused her with over and over again. Here, in her proper, familiar home she felt nauseated and exhausted. Her whole body was fatigued and her thoughts wrapped tighter and tighter around bad memories both from her earliest times in Finland and most recently up with the doctor. The future did not seem terribly bright either. She knew that in a few days time a rancid, choking suppression would overtake her as the nodes and bobules she’d been surfeited with all ran out of juice simultaneously.

Instinctively, she began crying.

Presently, though she felt it was time to do something else. She wiped her eyes in an accusatory fashion against herself. She needed to get into the woods. She found her clogs but could not locate her parasol. That’s when she finally caught herself in the mirror of her vanity. It wasn’t good. No good at all. She needed an oil bath.

different’s always a flash

Violet wrung her hands instead of touching her food. “If I had done better with the elephants, Marrionetta could have…she would be…well.” Her face clouded.

Ungulen shook his head at her. “Netta’s her own foisted knot. Don’t hurl yourself in a pit on her account.” He nibbled on boiled, taupe leftovers.

“Well I failed.” Violet crossed her arms definitively. “The elephant show was a bust. I can’t see why you haven’t put me back on the chorus line yet.”

Ungulen shrugged. “That’ll be Drutherstone’s call whenever he gets back. For now, the elephant show is probably as good as it ever was. May’s be better. Certainly different. Different’s always a flash.” Ungulen drained an entire carafe of table coffee. Then he continued, “Why don’t you keep working on it. See what else you can muster?”

Violet flattened out, depressed. “It was bad, wasn’t it? The worst elephant show anyone’s ever seen.”

“I couldn’t say that with a straight face. It’s was just regular like. I know. Let’s compare with our resident expert on all things status quo.”

“No,” said Violet, cramming her face into the abyss of her hands.

“Hargus!” Ungulen boomed.

Hargus jiggled over. “Hmm?”

“Is it your keen estimation, that Violet’s most recent showcase with the elephants was the worst elephant show we’ve ever had?”

The abacus of Goren’s mind skittered around for a few seconds. “No,” he said without emotion. “Why?”

“She says it was crumblier than stale shortbread.”

“No,” said Goren. “Not that bad. Just kind of regular. We’re still in the black, albeit with a few set backs. Don’t know why everyone treating it like such a crisis.”

“There, see?” said Ungulen trying to assure the wilting Violet. “Just keep working on it.”

“Yes,” Goren agreed, “Just do something better next time. What if you tried making it very unique and exciting. Have you tried thinking about it that way?”

Violet raised her eyes to the ceiling and goosed a tremendous smile. She snapped her shoulders square and rose from her breakfast seat.

“Thank you,” she said mechanically. She left the mess. Goren and Ungulen looked at each other for a moment.

Goren rolled his eyes, “Dancers.” He nabbed Violet’s abandoned pastry and rolled himself away.

habeas corpus

Rustia and Mingey arrived far ahead of the rest of the mob. Never ones to miss an opportunity to flaunt their freakish athleticism, Rustia belted the unicycle hard and cast circles around the entire perimeter of The Emerald House. Mingey screamed at the top of her lungs like a haunt of the heath. She smacked the windows panes taunting, “Miss Mary! Miss Mary! Miss Mary!”

As the sisters swung by on a second tour, Mingey kicked the front door and — to their absolute delight — the front door fell completely off its hinges. Ungulen had never sent anybody up to repair it after kicking in down himself a few days earlier.

Inside, Lorelei dropped a candle directly onto his foot. “VLATCH!”

The mob was gathering now in the front yard of The Emerald House. Ungulen strode up, panting. Annoyed with the entire situation, he stuck out his long, bony leg and tripped Rustia and Mingey as they rushed past. Rustia flew off and impacted with the ground like a meteor. Mingey skidded a few dozen yards away and immediately began crying. Rustia, rushed over to her sister and protectively covered her up. They huddled and glared at Ungulen.

But the mob had already taken up the sisters’ battle cry. “Come out, Miss Mary!” they screeched. “Where’s your honest day’s work yesterday!” They threw rocks and dirt clods at the house. Ooze-like mud welted and dripped down the sides of the house. Ungulen was unable to control them.

Presently, Lorelei came out of the front entrance. He was dressed in a silk night robe and he held Marrionetta around the waist in a fashion that almost appeared charming. The shock of his calm silenced the mob.

Marrionetta was aware that she was in the serpent’s grip. He was guiding her out of the house, flaunting her before the angry eyes of her circus brethren who had been chanting her name in a way she didn’t like at all. This night had Visigoth written all over it.

Marrionetta couldn’t help but physically experience Lorelei in their mutual embrace. Their flanks were not quite touching but she could feel his mood change under the slip of the silk robe. He was perfectly at ease, she realized. It confused her. There they were, holding together like perfect housemates in front of a group of 200 who were already throwing rocks. And yet, Lorelei projected nothing but a deep and alarming confidence. Was he in his element? How many angry mobs had he encountered before?

“She’s right here,” Doctor Lorelei said to the circusfolk. “Safe and sound. Prim and proper. How do you feel, Netty? Good tonight?”

Marrionetta swayed with the billowing nighttime air. There was an extended pause.

“Netty?” Lorelei prompted.

Somewhere in the crowd, Violet started softly crying and didn’t know why.

“I will return to work in the morning,” Marrionetta declared and then she drifted back inside of the house. Lorelei bowed to everyone and followed in after her, propping up the front door behind him.

The mob suddenly felt very self-conscious. They each bowed their heads and made their excuses. Just what had they thought was going to happen tonight? People avoided each others’ eyes as they trudged back down the hill. Ungulen found his way to Rustia and Mingey who were still huddled on the ground. Ungulen offered Rustia and hand but she batted him away.

Ungulen made his descent just as Goren was finally arriving to the scene of events.

“What happened?” Goren asked.

Ungulen shuffled his head and snorted forcefully. “Not a dreckerd thing.”