Real Rubies for Marrionetta

Marrionetta sullenly appraised the offerings on the table. A chef’s cherry pick of glistening glands, asymmetric little blobs, bone shards, and organelles.

“Now these are real rubies, wouldn’t you say?” Lorelei ran a hand through Marrionetta’s coarse hair. “It’s rubies you like, wasn’t it?”

She bit her lip and tried to see it his way. He took her hand and ran her fingers over the surface of the choice items. Deep magentas, purples, heightened blues. She felt a shiver up her arm. Even at the slightest touch, she could feel their unique powers carrying through the light bark of her skin and into her chlorophyllic bloodstream. She lightly pinched a cherry red globin. It wept thick yellow tears of some unknown emotion.

“Now,” said Lorelei, “Let’s see what we can arrange just for you, my pet.” He began examining her bodice, trying to find a perfect latch or trap to house some viscera inside of her.

“What will they do to me?” she asked as the mad scientist fingered her underscores.

“We’ll see!” Lorelei whinnied.

She felt a pang of uncertainty. He didn’t know?

the gramophone

Violet arrived at the elephant pen very early in the morning. It was already hot and damp, and her hair was beginning to fray out of the curled lock she’d set it to. She climbed under the fence and into the pen. She had come prepared with a rucksack and a wooden box. She placed the wooden box to the side and took some jars of jam out of her rucksack.

She’d been giving the elephants jam from the hurled samples she had received from Marrionetta, along with a few other morsels she had pilfered from the mess hall. She fed the elephants without connection to their circus work. Once before practice and once after. Just to say, “you’re nice elephants.” It made the dancing lessons go smoother.

The elephants were slumbering in a heap but quickly roused once they perceived Violet’s small, crushing footsteps in the sand. They lined up for jam, occasionally slapping each other in the head with their trunks to gain advantage.

Augromme was always there during morning rehearsals but slept through them. He was usually nestled into the recessed corner of the elephant barn, tucked into the buggy, grimy hay. He labored under a shade of nightmares that Violet dared not consider. He was a thick sleeper.

Violet whistled a syncopated tune and clapped an intricate signal of beats. The elephants lined up and began to rotate their heads, adagio as you please. Their ears furled out like great sails and began to ripple. They traded a great billowing wave among themselves, bobbing their heads up and down. They were — convincingly– a grey ocean.

“Very good!” Violet cheered. One of the elephants snorted, proud. “Now we’re going to add more.” She clasped the wooden box on the ground and opened it. It was a compact gramophone with a disc inside. She revved the crank and a mildly interesting shanty piped out.

“Alright,” Violet clapped and signaled with the beat. The elephants were more accustomed to dancing over the accompanying music as opposed to working within it. It would be no small task to help them recognize the fall drops instead of focusing on her for directions. Still, a combination of dependency would probably be sufficient, at least for their upcoming performance at the end of the month. Her very own showcase!

The shanty hit a high note. Suddenly, Augromme thrashed inside the barn. Violet gasped and teetered backwards. The other elephants too bugged back from the barn.

Augromme rolled over and rose sharply. Violet tried to make her way back out of the pen but tripped over her rucksack. She became tangled in her thighs and fell over. Augromme stalked towards her and gained in an instant. He seemed just about to trample her when one of the sows stood over Violet’s body and protectively reached her trunk between them. The sow puffed at Augromme and whurtled her enormous flanks. Augromme hesitated, ambivalent.

Slyly, his nose found Violet’s foot. He yanked her ankle, dragging her a few feet forward. She cried out, afraid now. Both sows started puffing at Augromme. The shanty kept playing, alarmingly out of place.

Violet coughed in the upkicked dust and felt her heart pounding in her chest. Augromme let go of her ankle. Deftly, he removed her ballet slipper and started smelling the palm of her foot. The sows seemed to feel this was acceptable and stopped puffing.

There was a reverberative CLANG. All of the elephants and Violet looked over to see Ungulen with a feeding bucket standing at the fence.

Ungulen appraised the situation carefully. “Everything alright?”

“No,” said Violet.

Ungulen ducked under the fence and approached Augromme.

“What did we talk about, mate?” He took a commanding tone with the maladaptive giant. Augromme rasped loudly.

Ungulen picked up the food bucket and slowly backed into an adjoining pen. Augromme tossed his head with attitude, hissing at Ungulen. The elephant headed straight for the food bucket and Ungulen locked his friend inside.

The sows helped Violet to her feet.

“May’s be,” Ungulen drawled, embarrassed, “we need some better arrangement?”

Violet dusted herself off and heaved a sigh of relief.

Marrionetta on the ceiling

Lorelei climbed through the reverse traffic of carnies and performers in the basement of the big top. A few fixed him with disapproving looks or curious expressions. His unbelonging was evident to all.

At last, he reached a door marked with a yellow triangle. Instinctively, he opened it.

In the small abode, Marrionetta was influcking her hair to create a wild decree of angles. Lorelei’s entrance surprised her. Like a cat, she burst from her plush footstool and gloamed monumental on the ceiling.

“I’ll roast your guts crisp, you wandering grease pig!” She had a knife.

Lorelei smiled. He pulled out his own knife and showed it to her. Then he put his knife down on her polished mahogany vanity. She — however — remained on the ceiling, a dark cloud verving around her.

“Have dinner with me,” said Lorelei.

Marrionetta hovered for a few more moments and then sank back down into her seat. She tarnished him with a frowning once-over. Then she made a show of cleaning all her frontmost teeth with her tongue. Lorelei’s face twitched.

“Tomorrow,” he said.

Marrionetta found this approach interesting. She picked up his knife.

“This looks expensive,” she said.

“It was,” he confirmed.

cramped for starters

Violet presumed to seat herself on an overstuffed ottoman in the corner of Marrionetta’s dressing room. The room, cramped for starters, was brimming with patterned furniture. Marrionetta appeared to be very fond of reds this year. Red roses, red geometrics, red perfume bottles, a few tapestries in crimson and blue, and a spilling theme of silver accents.

In the opposite corner was a raised platform that nearly reached the ceiling. Violet concluded that Marrionetta was now living and sleeping in her dressing room since her eviction from The Emerald House.

“Prancing elephants” Marrionetta scoffed. “Why not have toothpicks dig trenches?”

“I know,” said Violet. “It’s hard to know how to balance their size within the movement. To do anything interesting with it anyway.”

Marrionetta paced a small trail through the furniture as if it were a landscaped English garden. She nodded thoughtfully.

“If it’s going to be anything, it’s either got to be tremendous or mouselike. Middling doesn’t converse in this case.” Marrionetta began to pace faster. “Odd extremities. How far do their ears stick out?”

“Oh ummm,” Violet guessed with her hands.

“Fans.” Marrionetta concluded.

“Sorry?”

Marrionetta huffed. “Fans! Their ears are like fans! Use that.” She threw a raspberry at Violet for being slow witted.

“Thank you,” Violet suppressed the instinct to throw the raspberry right back. But the fans idea was — in fact — interesting. She wondered how much intrinsic musculature the elephants had and in what parts of their ears. She could coordinate a row of fanning ears, like flags or like billowing scarves. It would be very different from anything the elephants had been tasked with before.

Marrionetta palmed a mouthful of raspberries. She was still thinking about the elephants.

“Miss Mary, I wondered…” Violet cautioned, “the elephants are a sad lot. I wanted to make them a gift.”

Marrionetta frowned at Violet and then frowned at a different part of the room. “What?”

“Do you have any jam I could take to them? I’d pay you of course.”

Marrionetta stalled. Her eyes started burning that awful orange of her passions. She invected the bowl of raspberries into the floor where it exploded.

“What mercenary, foaming maggot told you I like jam!?” She raged toward Violet like a rattling sheath of swords.

“No one,” Violet whispered. “Nobody. I swear it. I just thought you might have some and it could lift their spirits.”

“Elephants?! Jam!?” Marrionetta shook with agitated vigor. “Yes! That’s right!” she said hysterically. “Good enough for dusty elephants! Jam! PLEUGH!” She swirled over to a locked cabinet. She threw open its doors revealing a trove of secret jam. She began snatching jar upon jar and hurling them at Violet.

“Here you go! Dirty jam for dirty elephants! Take all you want! What the skindigging eel mites do I care!” She started screaming wordless things and shuddering the cabinet.

Violet palmed a few jars of jam and leapt for the door.

“Thank you, Miss Mary! You’re a true original!” Violet ran down the hall.

Marrionetta inculcated her jam cabinet with a few more punishing body slams. Then she caught herself and remained still. She looked around the room and saw that Violet had left. Then she noticed her overturned and broken bowl of raspberries.

She slid onto the floor and took a breath that was centuries deep.


a bowl of raspberries

Violet knocked on the door with the yellow triangle. She cleared her throat, nervous. Under the doorway, Violet could see and hear Marrionetta’s slender wooden feet as they cluttered and cast a multifaceted shadow.

Violet was very familiar with Marrionetta’s bodywork. As a dancer, Violet was sensitive to the physicalities of others. Naturally, she had seen Marrionetta — the star of the circus — perform many times. Like the audience members, Violet too was entranced by the otherworldly tenses of Marrionetta’s physique. However, Violet had also seen Marrionetta in her personal routines and unconscious browsings around the circus. Violet was always struck by the continuities between the star’s stage art and her private rhythms. Most of the other circus performers hated Marrionetta as she was hostile and erratic. But Violet understood something about Marrionetta. She was a performer and performers are trapped in the demanding stage play of their own lives. Perfectionists striving to make every moment something beautiful and significant.

Violet made a point to angle at chances to speak with Marrionetta privately. She wanted to round out her education with a bit of Marrionetta’s interior approaches. Rarely had Violet found sufficient reason to bother her until the elephants had provided her with just such a case.

The door opened. Marrionetta was dressed in a casually decadent robe and eating raspberries out of a bowl. Violet smiled. “Hello, Miss Mary.”

Marrionetta felt neutral towards Violet which was high honors for anybody. She had no expression on her face when she saw the inconsequential dancer in her doorway. She refrained from insulting Violet which was an invitation for Violet to continue speaking.

“Sorry to interrupt your relaxation after the show. I wanted to ask your advice on something. As a dancer.”

Marrionetta crossed her arms while still holding the bowl of raspberries aloft. It was that highly concentrated, furrowed crossing that is only capable among wooden toys. Her angled joints, fashioned purposefully to hinge and crease, were perfectly oiled and haughty.

“Drutherstone’s asked me to train the elephants and I need to come up with an interesting routine.”

Marrionetta arched a wiry eyebrow. Then, almost from nowhere, a laugh squeezed itself out of her lungs. This startled Violet who poised herself to leave immediately.

“Drutherstone” the named rolled around in the puppetress’s mouth. “Such an imbecile.” Marrionetta wafted away from the door, an implicit invitation for Violet to enter, which she did.

Violet and the Elephants

“So all’s you do is clap three times like this,” Ungulen explained. After he clapped, the three depressed elephants obediently stood in a line.

“And now, one clap two clap three clap four,” he demonstrated the pattern and the elephants began a lackluster two step in amazing syncopation.

“Where’s the insane one?” asked Violet.

“At pasture so you can rehearse in peace. I’ll bring him back later,” said Ungulen.

Violet turned her attention back to her elephant pupils who were still rolling along in a miserable two step.

“They look sad,” she said.

“Well wouldn’t you be? Cooped up all day in a pen, dancing for treats, nothing but a bunch of strangers around ya?”

Violet, a veteran dancer of the circus, didn’t know how to answer that. Instead she clapped a new pattern which the elephants picked up right away. They began a sweet little shimmy back and forth.

“Huh,” Violet said.

“Look at you. A real natural. I’ll leave you to it then.” And with that, Ungulen took off to attend to something different.

Violet whistled for the elephants to stop. They came to a stulting halt, bumping one another in mild confusion. Violet stepped towards the pen and reached out a friendly palm towards them. One of the sows locked her arm in a nose-hug.

“Well hello. I’m Violet. What are your names?” The elephants crowded her.

“I’ll bet,” she waggled her eyebrows, “you’d all like some jam.”

Janus Tewditch, the prolific sex hound

Beautiful, pansexual Janus Tewditch was sprawled out in the seersucker sheets of his day bed. It was oppressively hot and fanged sunshine lit up the corridor where he slept. He slept in the corridor mostly in order to catch the fabled Arabian nighttime breeze but the strategy always besmirched him by nine the next morning. Janus was sweating both from the heat and from his feverish illness.

His current wife, Priva, was quietly preparing coffee in the shadowy kitchen down the hall. He heard her unstick the ice box open. Next, the thud of an ice brick on the counter. Then, the single sharding crack as she hit the brick with a hammer. It was the enamel hammer he’d bought for her a year earlier. The one with the inlaid design of parakeets.

Herod, an athletic, bronze man shuffled quietly up the hallway. He wore a roomy shirt and was barefoot. The skins of his feet softly percussed along the flooring. He looked at Janus in a friendly way and cocked his head to the side. Did Janus need anything? He seemed to say. Janus lifted a weak hand to indicate that he had no present need. Herod continued into the kitchen. Janus heard him and Priva kissing one another. He heard their low voices discussing their morning tasks, a soft murmur like a shady brook. Janus closed his eyes.

In his day — that is to say, when the days didn’t feel so numbered — Janus was a prolific sex hound. He had tried almost everything in the dominion of the flesh and had even dabbled in a few sexual excursions in the realm of the spiritual. He had authored several guidebooks about his travels across two continents and another two dense volumes of his adventures across the human body. Book sales were up and his lascivious Arabian carnival was a popular destination, bringing in princes, sheiks, and the rabble from both near and far. He was more than amply funded, a master of worldly experience, but now he was steadily waning into the final days of his mortal existence. The finale. It was an ironic blow that he was still trying to reconcile.

Janus was ill for many years before he finally succumbed to the severity of his condition. In his poor health, he married his carnival’s contortionist, Priva who herself was a holdover from the days at Drutherstone’s Circus. Priva was trustworthy and could not only bend over backwards for him but also through stair banisters, around imports officials, and sometimes even through the eyes of needles to procure him the help and comforts that he required in his accelerating state of deterioration. In turn, he planned to die and leave her everything. He had observed that she was rather capable of running the carnival operation he’d built here. And now, she wouldn’t have to do it all on her own. Herod, the bastard son of a dervish who had been brought up in the local acrobatic circuits, was good for her. The two of them, Janus hoped, might do something interesting with the property.

“Three of a kind!” he used to kid her. She never found it funny and lately he didn’t either. He found his mind turning back to the mosaic collection of memorable human encounters. What had it all amounted to in the end?

Over the years Janus had sampled numerous staccatos of flings but also the muscular undertows of a few trusted partnerships. Each phase had had its merits. Still, confronted with his fading vitality, he suddenly found himself curious over which style of living was the more satisfying? He luxuriated in mental comparisons as he ate the steaming, nourishing pilafs Priva prepared for him and continued his reveries long into the night as he suckled on rose water treats that Herod would purchase, three for a penny at the bazaar.

Perhaps it was an idle question. It’s not as if he had time to write one last book on the subject. Regardless of what conclusions he might arrive at, the pursuiting days were definitely over. Now life was all but a steady plod into whatever shrouded follows. “Whatever death consists of,” Janus would tell his young wife and business friends, “I intend to do it prodigiously.”

Priva handed him a chilly cup of coffee. He drank deeply, cooling down his overheated temple of clay. She patted his hand and smiled in a way that immediately made him suspicious.

“What?” he asked.

Priva sighed and crossed her hands in her lap.

“Priva,” Janus looked at her with a smoky expression, a bygone from their exciting days.

“I wrote a letter to Lindsey.”

Janus paused. Then he carefully put the coffee somewhere else. “And why would you do that?”

“Because you’re not well.”

“I’m not not well, String-a-ling. I’m dying. I’m next in line. I’m up. Curtains.” Janus settled down from his flare of character acting. “How many other letters did you write? I’ll not have a parade!”

“Just him. He’s the goodbying type,” said Priva.  

a three-headed meeting

Drutherstone, Ungulen, and Goren Hargus sat around the table, sipping tea made from boiled cigarette butts.

“How dire,” Goren pouted. He washed the awful taste of the tea down with another sip of it. “So Janus is truly going to die?”

“We’re all truly going to die,” said Ungulen. He rotated his tea cup around in circles.

“You know what I mean,” Goren murmured. Then he fixed Drutherstone with a sympathetic look. “It’s good you’re going to see him?”

Drutherstone was chewing the inside of his mouth. There were many travel details to arrange. He gulped an entire cup of the noxious tea without tasting it.

“In my absence,” he began. “You should have no fewer than four shows. We’ll need at least one major, probably two showcases and if you want to do an exhibition on the side, you can put the sinister elephant in a box. Ten cents per viewing. That should keep you all in the black while I’m away. Don’t do anything ambitious while I’m not around. The budgets tend to engorge themselves.”

“When it comes to the coffers, you can count on me,” Goren offered with a smile.

Ungulen rolled his eyes. “If she had her mind on anything fancy, Marrionetta would have you eating out of her hand inside of three days.”

Goren opened his mouth to protest but then stopped to wonder what it might be like to eat something out of Marrionetta’s hand.

“And there you have it,” Ungulen noted. Drutherstone considered the problem more carefully.

“Let’s try not to let the staff know I’m gone right away. Just say I’m in town purchasing all new textiles. Anyone who needs to speak with me urgently can write me a letter care of you.” Drutherstone indicated Ungulen who nodded.

“How long do you expect to be away?” asked Goren.

“At least two months,” Drutherstone’s shoulders piled and he twisted hard in his seat. “The bastard’s all the way in bloody Arabia.” He accidentally overturned his empty tea cup.

Ungulen and Goren exchanged a glance. Ungulen smacked Drutherstone on the arm. “He’ll be happy to see you. I’m sure of it.”

Drutherstone and Ungulen in the Demucking Tower

Down below, the tanker boomed with industrial fervor. The languid suck of the lagoon filled the air with a rotten stench. But high above in the demucking tower, Ungulen and Drutherstone enjoyed the strange foggy breeze, a manmade bit of weather that soothed their tired heads. The tarp above them flapped pleasantly and a bluish sky — as opposed to a green one — was nearly discernible if you looked at it the right way.

“I have to go away for a while,” Drutherstone said.

“Don’t tell me we’re bankrupt.”

“No no. It isn’t anything to do with us. It’s Janus Tewditch. He’s in a bad way.”

Ungulen made a perfunctory show of concern. “I see.” But there was something prismatic at the mention of Janus. After some consideration, Ungulen added “Helping him, are you?”

“Yes I’ll be helping him.” There was a pause. “I’m not being sarcastic.”

Ungulen nodded and started to thoughtfully mouth at his lips. Then, he remembered something. “I brought sandwiches. Your favorite.”

From the inside of his shirt, Ungulen produced six mangy olive sandwiches. The bread was stuffed to brimming with seeds. Drutherstone’s face lapsed into a hungry smile.

“I love these.” He took one and immediately dug a delicious mouthful. It was tangy, salty, and full of oiled garlic that Ungulen never failed to add. Poppy seeds lodged themselves between Drutherstone’s teeth like little children clinging to their fathers’ legs.

Ungulen suddenly pointed a finger in the direction of the fairgrounds. Drutherstone looked and saw the body of a lever boy coming over the edge. The boy’s muck-choked screams echoed through the valley. Drutherstone produced a long weave of rope from under his top hat. They descended the Demucking Tower to rescue their small employee from becoming lagooned and entankered.

Boutique Service

Lorelei succumbed to the undignified state. He let himself be dragged via rope through the thick, flowing sludge. Occasionally it covered his face and he found himself submerged for unmeasurable amounts of time. He swallowed air when he could and privately cursed god for the rapidly depreciating quality of his morning. Eventually, his strange rescuer hauled him up on dry land.

Lorelei spat and rubbed grass in his face to remove the slime. His rescuer handed him a towel and he de-slimed more effectively with that. Finally, Lorelei got a good look at the man who had pulled him to safety.

Ernt Rauchebaum was as thin as a light post and ganglier still. His eyes had sunk so far back into his head that it gave the impression that he was hiding inside of himself, peering out from an ill-fitting skin suit.

“You must be new,” Ernt said, gesturing to the flowing muck.

“What the devil is happening?” Lorelei esophagated.

“Demucking Day.”

Lorelei nearly exploded with rage at the idiotic repetition of this phrase. Ernt Rauchebaum threw back his head and laughed. It was an awful sight, given the rakish man’s squeebly little shoulders. It seemed like his head might snap off with each guffaw.

“Nobody warned you, I see.” Ernt extended a hand and helped the sociopathic doctor to his feet.

“I’m Ernt. I work here. At least, normally I do. Actually I’m only back in town to give myself a cash advance.” Ernt’s eyes roamed over Lorelei’s suit which, while coated in a layer of revolting mucous, nevertheless denoted wealth and breeding.

“Any chance you could spare a silverback?” Ernt ventured.

By now, Lorelei had put together that Ernt was both a drug addict and bounding itinerant for the sake of his habit. With a dignified sniff, Lorelei reasserted himself as the better of the two men.

Lorelei smiled broadly at Ernt. “Have you any experience with private courier services?”

“What’s that?” Ernt asked, understanding that negotiations had begun.

“The postal service doesn’t come through nearly as often as I’d like. I’m in the market for boutique service. Something customized to my needs.”

“Boutique!” Ernt squared himself up. “I think I know a thing or two about that.”

Lorelei Learns More About Demucking Day

Lorelei arrived at the mess hall at the bottom of the hill but found it had been completely looted. “Nevermind” he thought. “A brisk constitution instead.” He breathed a sigh of relief as the grounds were curiously clear of anybody and he entertained the possibility of a peaceful walk to the valley.

He bore to the east, around the big top, and onward past the elephant pen. “That’s odd,” he noticed. “No elephants.” He concluded they must be grazing.

As he continued to walk he suddenly felt disoriented. The landscape before him seemed to contract. No, it was loose. No it was heat rays. No. What was it? He kept pace as he tried to reconcile the strange oozing principle that had rallied itself on the horizon.

The next thing he knew, he was down on the ground.

“KURST!” The doctor yelled. He tried to push himself up but found that his ankles and his wrists were being yanked back down again. He was still moving. He was sliding! He was in a muck rapid.

The muck’s swell became rapacious. Try as he might, he was being carried along. For every one jerk backwards it was two sucks forward. Up ahead, Lorelei could see the ground falling away. He remembered the cliffed tract of the valleytop and realized with a dash of total certainty that he was destined to go over the edge.

“Ahoy!” A strange voice bugled. Lorelei felt himself hit in the head with something. It was rope.

“Grab the rope, stupid!” said the voice.

Lorelei grabbed the rope.

Doctor Lorelei on Demucking Day

Lorelei was exasperated. Very early in the morning he had been roused by the belching reports of Ungulen’s motorbike, accompanied by Drutherstone screaming something about “demucking day,” whatever that was. But just as soon as that ruckus had died down and Lorelei thought he might sleep again, another disturbance visited itself upon the doctor. All of a sudden there were tents and small encampments just outside The Emerald House. It was almost as if they had cropped up like mushrooms. Carnies, lever boys, shrill musicians and jugglers strode around the hilltop having loud conversations and practicing their circus tricks. Not to mention the light odor of under-bathing bodies.

Realizing that he was exposed for all to see through the open windows, Lorelei shot up from his cot and peevishly flicked all of the curtains closed. Still outfitted in his pajamas, he stormed around the house, preparing a little coffee and toast. But the ritual brought no comfort and Lorelei remained vexed even as he sat down to his desk, trying to begin a meaningful day of blueprinting.

An hour stretched by like tar. Lorelei could not concentrate on his models. Twice he had accidentally shocked himself while repairing the circuitry of a mincing contraption and had also nearly lost his nose when he — forgetting he had ingeniously amplified the device’s horsepower — turned it on.

Profoundly irritated, Lorelei sought to stretch his legs. He dressed and stepped out the front door of The Emerald House. The rude stench and drivelrous conversation of drunk morning carnies overwhelmed him instantly. He had half a mind to chase them all away with one of his larger knives but realized that still more of them were hiking up the hill to perch on his property.

“What are you all doing here?” Lorelei demanded of a lever boy in moccasins.

“Demucking day, sir.”

“And what — in Christ’s sanctimonium — is that?”

“When they dee the muck away, sir?”

Lorelei nearly kicked the young boy in the head but instead strode down the hill in search of a more satisfying breakfast.

Marrionetta’s Refuge from Demucking Day

Marrionetta spent Demucking Day the way she always did. She traipsed off into the woods wearing a pair of brand new clogs that Ungulen had carved for her out of imported mahogany. She had her favorite parasol as well and acted every part the lady, gliding through the dappling sunlight and ancient trees.

A scattering of toads throbbed and trembled among the dead rot. They too had sought refuge in the forest from Demucking Day. Marrionetta croaked and chirped back at them, inciting a few to fight among themselves, mistaking her for a potential mate.

Eventually she grew tired of the ladylike stroll. She stashed her clogs and her parasol in a holed out tree and tied up her hair with string.

Glancing from trunk to trunk, she strung herself up from the numerous boughs. Thus suspended, she cracked her neck and arms to make them nimbly extra limber.

Floating in the carve of trees, she raised her toes one at a time. She held her fingers aloft and swayed this way and that until she had a momentum of rhythm. She began to dance. It was her private dancing. Graceful swoons checked by jittery and jolted punctuation. It was nothing like her circus work. It was melancholy trapeze for no one but herself.

The Demucking Tower

Next to the lake, the tanker loomed in a thicket of green fog. The partial visibility enlarged it in the mind’s eye as one could not decipher its precise boundaries and shape. A squawking series of sounds, all steel on steel, reverberated from its belly.

Ungulen and Drutherstone motored up to the nose of the tanker. Ungulen idled and killed the engine. Drutherstone kicked out and stripped off his outer, soaked layer of slimy overcoat. Beneath, he was relatively dry in a linen shirt.

Somewhere in the fog, a small man popped off the back of the tankard. He was bird like, skipping around with weightless energy.

“Biddim, hello!” Drutherstone waved to the speckling man fluttering around in the fog. Ungulen made no greeting as he was busy servicing the smeared up guts of the motorbike.

Biddim grinned enormously but not at anybody or anything in particular. His toothy mouth stretched beyond the ears, and his tiny black eyes glinted off of every surface. He acknowledged Drutherstone for half an instant and then disappeared around the back of the tankard.

“Never does say hullo properly,” Ungulen noted. And with that, Ungulen swung the motorbike over onto his back. He and Drutherstone made their way to a tall scaffolded structure. They climbed the built-in ladder and settled on the topmost tier, spreading a tarp over the open surface and prepared to settle in for a full day’s wait by the lagoon.

The Lagoon vs. The Lake

Perhaps the lake had always been polluted. It’s hard to know. Lakes and mountains, cliffs and islands, they’ve all been hanging around since before there was anybody and so nobody knows where any of them come from. One could say “tectonics” and feel smug but what urges those plates and so much molten conveyance to the patterns they arrive at? Is it random? Is it a dance? Is it a set of preferences set in motion by huge, time-evading entities that could miss you in the infinity of their blinking stars? Maybe that’s too much to consider all at once. And why you keep stammering ‘t-t-tecton-n-nics?’

No one really knows where the slime comes from at Drutherstone’s circus. It erupts from the ground. A patient carnie can even detect the occasional bubble in the grass as a small spurt announces itself as having arrived terrestrial.

Because it is everywhere and sometimes oozier than at other times, the muck has a tendency to drain. Despite its mysterious origins, the muck still obeys the laws of gravity and moves downhill, towards the valley and — perhaps gravitationally — towards the lake.

The lake is made of water. We know because Ungulen’s checked during his many crabbing expeditions. So when the ooze hits the lake, it unctuously floats along, never enmeshing itself with lakey molecules but instead continues on a short journey into the center where it all tends to collect in an orbiting swallow of awful, stinking goop. This is the lagoon. Festooned inside of the lake like the eye of Jupiter. A bloated coalescence of physical laws.

Demucking Day: Dawn

“Demucking Day!” Drutherstone boomed. “Ready up, you sodden drips!”

Ungulen revved the belching motorbike through thick sprays of muck and grass confetti. Drutherstone knelt on the seat behind Ungulen, gripping the man between his knees for balance. Drutherstone brought a crude bull horn to his mouth and continued to bark orders. “Sandbagging starts immediately! The laundry house is closed! Avoid the lake! By god I mean it this time! Avoid the lake! “

Lever boys and other inhabitants of the barracks foisted triages of gas masks, rubber boots, and dry towels to their cohorts. Bodies streamed in all directions, some to construct massive sandbag barriers around the foundations of the circus rides, others setting up tents on higher ground, and no small number took this opportunity to raid the mess hall of any last perishables before the entire grounds were running like a drainage tap.

As Ungulen and Drutherstone whizzed around — coated in slime from the motorbike’s feedback — a distant dirt cloud began to grow on the service road. It was the slime tanker.

Tha tanker was the size of a small ocean liner and just as graceless on land as a whale. It moaned up and over a small hill, clanged like total destruction over a speed bump, and passed the fairgrounds by on its laborious way down into the valley.

Drutherstone gave Ungulen’s shoulder a friendly smack. Ungulen sheered off the circus grounds and headed down to meet the tanker down by the lagoon.

Violet in grey silk

Drutherstone knocked four times with one knuckle.

“Fuck off!” came an expressive voice through the door.

“It’s only me, Drutherstone, your patient employer and signer of paychecks.” A shuffled murmuring was detectable on the other side of the portal. The door swung open.

A menagerie of women in various states of undress were covering up. Mingey stuck her face out directly into Drutherstone’s nose.

“What is it, Lindsey?” she sing songed.

“Do you work here?” he rhetoricized.

“What?”

“What is the name of your place of employment?”

Mingey sneered, embarrassed. “Drutherstone’s Circus” she said at last.

“Thank you. Now I want to talk to Violet.”

“Violet!” Mingey screeched, closing the door on Drutherstone. He checked his timepiece.

Violet, the girl with cigarette-stained fingers who enjoyed combing her hair, was robed in grey silk. She joined Drutherstone in the hallway. “Yes?”

“I have a task for you.”

“Alright.”

“I want you to take responsibility for the elephants.”

Violet laughed in his face. “I don’t know the first thing about elephants.”

“I know,” said Drutherstone, “but we’re short of hands. Many hands. I don’t know where all the hands keep getting to, frankly. You always seem to know what’s going on at least. Ungulen keeps them and feeds them. I want you to do the fun bit. Train them up for an interesting act for next month.”

Violet was caught in a state of objection. There were so many ways to say “no” she couldn’t connect with just one.

“No,” she said at last.

“They’re already trained. Ungulen can show you their calls and responses. They’re very docile. Well, except for the mad one. You don’t have to train him. He’s technically dead anyway.”

“Why?” Violet asked.

“I told you. We’re short of staff. Just come up with some little routine. You’re one of the dancers, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Are you one of the best ones?”

“I think so.”

“Good. And now you are a choreographer.”

“Of elephants.”

“Of elephants! Now isn’t that exciting?”

Violet thought it over. She laughed again but this time with ideas in her head.

“Alright, the elephants.”

“Thank you,” said Drutherstone and he checked his timepiece once more. Doffing his miserable top hat, he left for another appointment.

Doctor Dactyl

Dr. Lorelei was right back in the saddle. The postal service had finally sallied through the abysmal marshlands surrounding the circus. Among the numerous bills, certified letters, cash advances for sword swallowing, and nude photos, Lorelei’s coveted parcels had arrived at long last.

He tore through the brown paper packaging of his own handiwork and gingerly removed the contents of the boxes: mostly severed hands. Hands in all conditions. Old, young, deeply lined, workmanlike, and soft. He also unpacked a collection of viscera: shriveled organs, pickled glands, vials of secretions, and numerous concatenations of electrical wiring. Also lots and lots of broken glass.

“VLATCH!” he swore in a former mother tongue as he cut himself on a vertical shard. He wrapped his hand in a handkerchief and staunched the bleeding.

His voice became dulcet as he retrieved the numerous broken jars from a mishandled box. “No…”

Ears, fingertips, and countless irretrievables swam in their own juices at the bottom of the fortified box. Some had muddled together. If he hadn’t been so upset, the dynamic recombinants might have given Lorelei a few fresh ideas.

Lorelei scooped up a precious handful of the lost specimens. He cradled them, calling to mind the source of each and every one. Nostalgia like that for childhood.

“Idiots!” he roared and catapulted his lost children directly into a wall.

Letters to Management

Goren Hargus wibbered down the hallway, clutching a thick envelope. He dodged half naked clownettes and club footed machine operators who would not make way for him. A long ways away, plodding organ music reverberated throughout the big top and its basements.

Hargus arrived at the dressing room in a cloud of glitter and black licorice. “Drutherstone?” he asked one of the matted extras who was combing her hair with cigarette nails. She pointed with her chin.

Clownmaster Drutherstone was powdered and dressed in blue sequins and mesh. His chest was belted and a long row of peacock feathers stuck up and out, concealing his face like a swan in a marsh. A little lever in the belt scooted the feathers this way and that.

“Drutherstone,” Hargus repeated. Drutherstone turned around and made an attempt at the envelope but it was snatched up by Mingey, one of the unicycling twins.

“What’s this! What’s this! Checks for us! Rustia and me want to get tutus!” Mingey squealed but then her twin sister Rustia began beating her around the face.

“Give me that.” Rustia stole the envelope from Mingey, “I want the checks. Mud on your tutus! I want a great big silver tureen to eat soup from!” Hargus reached a hand in to rescue the envelope but the twin sisters were advanced scufflers and handily evaded him while still choking at each others’ throats.

“What soup!” snapped Mingey. “Tutus! Pink taffeta ones with the yellow trim like we saw in Roma!” She strained for the envelope but Rustia kept it out of reach.

Keeping both her sister and gnomish Hargus at bay, Rustia examined the envelope more closely, “Lindsey Drutherstone? Since when does Drutherstone have a wifey?”

“He’s Lindsey. Lindsey Drutherstone,” the girl combing her cigarette hair drawled from the doorway.

“Thank you, Violet,” Hargus beseeched the cigarette girl.

Rustia and Mingey began to laugh like barking seals. “Lindsey!” they squealed in ghoulish unison.

“Just give us back the envelope,” panted Hargus.

Lindsey Drutherstone plucked his envelope from Rustia’s hand, ending the foolery. “Upstairs,” he recommended to the twins.

Rustia hopped onto her unicycle and Mingey scampered up her sister’s back. Rustia peddled them up the stairs with olympic abandon while they both chanted, “Lindsey! Lindsey! Such a measly mimsy!”

“Is it checks?” Hargus hoped.

Lindsey Drutherstone opened the envelope and pulled out a long notice. He took his time reading it. Hargus felt sweat at his temples. Violet, the cigarette stained girl, cocked her head to one side, watching with interest whatever troubles were playing out at the level of management.

“I may have to go away for a while,” Lindsey said to Goren.

Marrionetta, the unhinged puppetress

Marrionetta was fashioned out of Finnish pine. It had been a frosty spring in their small village when her maker set about her final touches. The village was known regionally for making soap and growing apples but Marrionetta’s maker was a rather gifted craftsman who might have accomplished great works if things had gone differently. Then again, while Marrionetta may be our only living proof of the maker’s talents, that’s not to say there weren’t other toys this maker created that went on to do interesting things in other parts of the world. Those toys may simply be unknown to us.

It really is a shame that it was so chilly that spring when Marrionetta came to completion, as none of the villagers made it to summer. Their town was abruptly overtaken and massacred by wandering Visigoths. The Visigoths had become lost and so followed their noses up a riverway to the small, Finnish village known for its soaps and apples. The Visigoths murdered everyone, raped their way into the larders, ate every withered, leftover apple in sight and then shoved off to another town that was known for a distinctive regional cheese. The apple variant is still grown throughout Finland today but the curious cheese recipe has been lost to time.

Marrionetta was meant as a gift for a little girl named Lempi. Lempi probably gave Marrionetta a different name but, like the cheese, that too is lost to time. Marrionetta was spared by the Visigoths who did not recognize her as an equal worthy of destruction. After the raid, Marrionetta sat for many days in a sad heap, tangled in her strings, wondering why Lempi would not get up to play or at least to help her out of the netted prison of fishing line.

After an interlude of voided time, Marrionetta began to chew herself free. To do this she had to destroy every last strand holding her back. Her small, wooden teeth were hardly the tool for the job. It took a small eternity.

She chewed and chewed with all her slight might, blubbering nonsensical emotions as she did not possess any words at the time. When she finally did sever the final string, she laid out in her freedom for many hours, exhausted and afraid her jaw might fall off if she moved at all.

Nearly a month after the death of everyone around her, she tottered off into the woods. She tried a few times to return to Lempi and the village but could never retrace her steps. Soon it dawned on her that she had been swallowed up by the world. The ensuing years unfolded, meaningless and disorienting. People and places moved around her as reflections in curved glass. Impermanence itself was her foremost and constant companion. The people she encountered fell neatly into her three primitive categories: There were Makers, there were Dead Lempis and there were Visigoths. The paradigm served her well on the long road to Drutherstone’s circus.

pennies fell out

The curtain fell with a scrape. The audience members in the big top roared with satisfaction. Clownmaster Drutherstone bounded up to the stage and took a self-congratulatory bow. Somewhere in the shadows, Ungulen rolled his eyes at his boss until pennies fell out of his pockets.

Lorelei was already out of his seat. He intercepted Drutherstone as he descended the platform. With fastening eyes, Lorelei demanded, “Tell me about the puppetress.”

Drutherstone was slow to reply and couldn’t dam the fearful flush spreading through him. “Marrionetta?” He sought to confirm, “You liked her act?”

“What is she?”

Drutherstone considered the question. “Well she’s crazy for one thing. Expensive tastes to boot. Fashioned in a toy shop in Finland a long, long time ago. She’s fond of jam but would never admit it.”

Lorelei appraised Drutherstone closely. He thought he knew when he was being mocked but couldn’t tell what Drutherstone’s play was.

“Where does she live? On the grounds?”

“Funny you should ask that,” Drutherstone fidgeted with his cravat and stifled a rippling sensation in his waterlogged lungs. “She was living in The Emerald House but I asked her to leave so you could take those rooms for yourself. How is it up there, by the way? Settling in comfortably?”

Lorelei rocked back on his heels. His posture took on an exclamatory seize.

“She’s made with pegs?”

“I believe so? We’re really not that personal.”

Lorelei nodded but was already marching away. Drutherstone heaved a sigh as Ungulen approached.

“Pretty good haul tonight, sir.”

“Yes. We’ll keep the mess stocked for another month or two.”

“What’s so grievous with our new friend on the hill? I always think he’s about to rough someone up the way he strides around. You’d probably be first.”

“Evidently, he’s keen on Marrionetta.”

Ungulen squinted for a long moment and then doubled over in bellowgoats of laughter. At last he managed, “God help us all.”

Drutherstone — unamused — agreed wholeheartedly.

his delve, his worship

Dr. Lorelei was growing fatigued and ill. The hard, lopsided bench he was seated upon was being nonsensically rocked and jostled by the other excited patrons. They leapt over and shoved each other, hooting, hollering, masticating spoiled popcorn and generally causing a charged ruckus of enjoying the entertainment in the big top.

Dr. Lorelei tried, once again, to rise from his complimentary seat only to find Drutherstone buzzing him around him, insisting he remain for the final act. “You won’t regret it,” Drutherstone sang before collapsing into a coughing fit and dissipating back into the crowd.

If the previous performances were anything to go by, Lorelei was rather certain he would not enjoy the final act. But he could not think of another place he needed to be. His room in The Emerald House was fully tidied at this point, his specimens had yet to arrive through the post, and there were no other patronable institutions for miles around. Plus, Drutherstone was keeping him flush with the reprehensible mezcal. Lorelei swigged back more of the burning head varnish and started to carefully observe the hands and ligaments of the idiotic circus goers around him. Perhaps he could find a specimen he liked and mutilate them later.

Lorelei was eager to return to his work. The animation of dead flesh was his sore spot, his excitement, his delve, his worship. He missed his recombinated creatures. Each was like his child, unique creations that seem to take on minds of their own once all his hard work and planning had been expended. But each of them, all his unique recombinants, had been stolen from him by his pursuant detractors, the so called “authorities” who were constantly chasing him and interrupting his practice. Though Lorelei had made steady and incredible advancements over the years, he wondered what other heights he might have attained in the artform if he had not needed to constantly evade capture by vanishing and reappearing in places such as Drutherstone’s circus.

His morose reverie was halted by a reedy squeak. The staccato note of a violin. Then a long drag on C minor. The curtain rose patiently this time. Marrionetta stood limp and discoverable in the middle of the stage. Lorelei’s neck straightened.

The violin began to bleat a mind numbing ditty. Marrionetta sprang to life, her strings quivering in the lamplight. Her tautness and her sags achieved a stupefying elegance. She was captivating. Even under the weight of the artless music, or perhaps because of it, her strange locomotion and apparent lack of self-determinism held each and every audience member in the sway of total apprehension.

But for Lorelei, it was more than this. The studious collector of body parts, the animator of expired flesh, the experimenter who danced along the periphery of the soul itself, was not just captivated by her. Not just bound in attention to her every gesture. No. In his breast, a desire began to burn. He wanted to examine every groove and splinter of her minutiae. In the depths of a green, repulsive and idiotic hellscape, he had discovered a muse.

Augromme, the skeletal elephant

The elephant pen was a scabby affair. There were four elephants in all, two sows and two bulls. They mostly kept to themselves in dreary, masticating silence but occasionally they would fight one another, spearing each others’ flanks with their tusks, twisting their long noses in skin-husking, death grips. The instigator was usually Augromme, the undead and partially zombified male.

Ernt Rauchebaum was, ostensibly, the Elephant Keeper at Drutherstone’s circus but he had spent the past 90 years cultivating his opium habit and had recently taken several villainous sabbaticals leaving more than several circus chores unattended. Ungulen, the groundskeeper, usually wound up cleaning and feeding the elephants.

Augromme, the undead elephant, was brainsick. He rarely knew where he was or what he wanted to eat. He stomped with frustration around his small enclosure, unsure of what to do next in any situation. His addled mind — for indeed his brains had begun to deteriorate into something green and gelatinous– fired off indiscriminate orders and ideas that he was never able to bring to forbearance despite his beastly size and determined attitude of elephantdom.

Augromme recalled recently having chased a little girl in circles. It felt good to do that. He wanted to do it again. His tusks hadn’t tasted blood in a few years and he was eager to exact murderous pleasures from somewhere, anywhere. But as his small eyes darted around, all he saw were his three other elephantpanions. He liked them. Sometimes. They were hairy and warm and occasionally he felt like they were a family. Then some bolt of searing mania would strike and he would attack them viciously until Ungulen or another carnie roped him down and poured lavender wax in his ears — never a good feeling and yet, something about it made his nerves relax.

Augromme paced energetically several times and then rolled back down on his haunches, amazed at something in the sky.

valley crabs

“Delicious,” sucked Drutherstone. A heap of membranous shells grew at his elbow. The shells had a catching quality to them, still outfitted with little spines and naturalistic curvatures. It was almost as if the shells found some comfort still being huddled together and were frightened to part ways even as they were periodically swept into the trash.

Ungulen closed his eyes, wrapped his mouth around a claw and slurped. Valley crabs were his absolute favorite and he had spent many solitary hours collecting them off the oozing green lakeshore down in the valley earlier that morning. The mountain of shells in front of his seat at the table was tremendous. A monument to his enjoyment and and an honest day’s work.

Marrionetta stuck out her tongue and gagged for the fifteenth time that night.

“What’s wrong, love?” Ungulen’s lips shimmered. “Not good enough for ye?”

Marrionetta fixed Ungulen with a haughty and sarcastic stare which produced a sound like billiards colliding. “I’ve dined on the finest crustacea on several continents so don’t condescend to me, Ungy.”

Ungy rolled his eyes.

She continued, “I just find it disgusting you could eat these sad little tacks that have done nothing but roll around in groundsmuck all their lives, not to mention whatever skim finds its way out of Drutherstone’s sinuses.”

In response, Ungulen smacked a fat plug of crabmeat out of a tubule. Drutherstone too merely picked his teeth.

Drutherstone, Ungulen, Marrionnetta and Goren Hargus sat around the round table, eating under the swaying silhouette of an oil lamp. Outside the mess hall, night closed in, in its greenish way.

This was a private dinner. All the other employ had been banished both from the discussion and from the intoxicating fumes of boiled slime crabs. A lever boy or two had managed to steal hot specimens from the pot, their fingers singeing and warting up all the way back to their barracks. Otherwise, the party remained undisturbed.

Goren Hargus was the first to conclude his appetite. “So,” he announced. “Shall we review the financials?”

a highly organized and efficient psychopath

It was the morning after Dr. Lorelei had seen the little girl with brown hair being chased by the elephant down in the sinkhole. In the relative comfort of The Emerald House, he rose from his creaking cot, dreary and hungry, fearing the sort of breakfast that would be available in his new abode, the accursed circus.

He rifled through the mania of discarded items around the room. His tunics, his briefcase, a clattering pile of empty bottles — all Drutherstone’s mezcal — paperwork on lost experiments, several of his favorite knives, and numerous pharmaceuticals. Dr. Lorelei knew his own habits well enough. Typically a highly organized and efficient psychopath, Lorelei was sometimes given to bouts of animalistic and explosive rage, especially when change was in the air and drink was in the blood. He made a mental note to tidy things up later. He also knew that soon he would need to reinstate his honed routine of Personal Dispossession. This consisted of self-inflicted pain — in carefully measured intervals — to conjure that sublime and acute state of dissociative thinking. In his dissociated state, he found himself to be as rational and objective as a blade’s edge is gleaming and sharp. An ideal frame of mind for his scientific work.

Outside, he slid carefully down the muck covered grade of the hill. Everything was so humid and greenish, he noticed. The rides were rusted to a blue-green hue, the ubiquitous muck shimmered with verdant, oily swirls. Even the grass seemed the greenest that green could be. It was fecund, wet, and inviting in its own way. A lusty pull that seemed to typify circuses and other impermanent clusters of occultae.

He found the public mess house easily enough. The concomitant blur of both the circus’s staff and its performers were writhing in a mass all around it. Liquor was already flowing freely even though the sun had barely winked out of the teal fog of early day. A vein of barbarism snaked through the familial din. Hard punches and snarls constituted salutations all around. Even the women seemed to be baring too many teeth than could reasonably fit inside their fairer heads. Lorelei did not see Drutherstone anywhere and yet he felt certain that the Clownmaster’s pneumatic discharges were all around them.

A plate was slopped together for the Doctor and he barged back up the hill, completely unaware that vicious Marrionetta had clocked him. Standing aloof, she was thoughtlessly lighting matches and tossing them into the strata of oozing footprints. The orange coals of her eyes burned through the steaming morning sunlight.