“Claire! Claire!” said a man.
Claire’s thumb filed through the bumpy shells of peanuts without a second glance. The striped bag that was supposed to have twenty-three nuts in it was now engorged. The bulbous bodies were peeking through the shudders of red and white.
Claire just kept on feeding the paper bag.
“Claire?” the man called again. He was coming up behind her and her stand. He was a tall man with a red uniform and top hat on.
The woman did not stir. Her eyes were fixed on what was a few feet ahead of her.
The entrance to the Big Top was peeled back to ventilate the tent. In the ring was Maude. Maude Glass, the trapeze artist. Her brother, Arthur, the lion tamer was sick, so she was the substitute now.
She was pivoting in the center of the ring as she watched a young tiger and a limping lion pace around her. They kicked up the golden dust as they did which made it seem like Maude Glass was standing on a yellowed cloud. She was spinning around on a cumulus instead of her usual thin wire.
Maude would push up a cowlick of black hair off her forehead from time to time. Her face was slick with sweat from the rising heat. Her leather boots and woolen clothes did not help her. Perspiration carved out her streamlined body from the thick material. She had her pant legs and sleeves pushed up as much as possible in the hopes to keep something cool. She had to adjust her grip on the whip from time to time in her right hand. While the left held a six-inch knife at her side. It would wink at the cats and at Claire with every move she made.
“CLAIRE!” The man blared. He was towering over her now. His top hat made him a foot taller than the peanut vendor.
Claire jolted at a crack from the whip. The young tiger attempted to snap at Maude and was instantly reprimanded by the noise. The swollen peanut bag Claire was filling up exploded. Legumes erupted from the paper and scattered across her stand.
“Why weren’t you paying attention? I called your name a number of times and now we lost some profit.” said the man. His shadow was cast over Claire as she plucked some of the rogue peanuts from the hay. All the while she mumbled, “oh, shit. oh, shit” to herself in a feverish whisper.
“Are you deaf, Claire?” the man muttered, shaking his head.
The woman looked up at the ring leader.
“No sir, I’m not deaf. Just wasn’t paying attention.” she muttered.
The ringleader clicked his tongue. His gaze shifted to Maude Glass in the ring. Who was now having the cats jump through hoops. The muscles in his jaw rolled under his skin.
“Anyway, can you do me a favor, doll?”
“My name is Claire. You called me ‘doll’.”
The ringleader shrugged. “I know it is, I’ve been calling it for ten minutes. I was just checking to see if you weren’t really deaf.” he mused.
She placed the ruined peanuts on her stand and brushed off dust from her knees. When she looked up the sharp eyes of the ring leader were still running over her. They brushed her pale hair. They blinked over her dusty knees. They grazed her tone calves. Up her pale blue dress. They studied the structure of her collar bone.
The ringleader focused on her face and cleared his throat.
“Can you just make sure that everyone is hydrated and fed? I don’t want anyone fainting in this heat. It’s not good for the show to watch someone drop when it’s not a stunt,” he said. He looked back at Maude, who wiped her brow again. “Even though it would be highly entertaining for myself.”
Claire pricked at the comment. Her hands rounded into fists. Her elfish features were pinched back.
“Sir. Maude and everyone else will be fine.” she replied firmly.
The ringleader clicked his tongue and smirked at the vendor.
“Sure, she will,” he said. His fine teeth glinted like Maude’s knife. He took a step toward Claire. The woman pulled back.
“Women can take care of themselves so well,” he whispered. His right hand framed Claire’s cheek. She scoffed and looked away from the man. Her body tensed as he breathed down on her. He plucked a peanut shell from her hair and waved it in front of her with that smirk.
“Hope you can recover what you’ve lost, doll,” he said. He took a peanut from the stand and popped the whole thing into his mouth, he cracked it and spat out the severed shell before turning a heel and walked toward the ring.
Claire watched him put an arm around one of Maude’s broad shoulders. A smile gleamed in the shadow if his top hat. Something was said to Maude and the woman nodded extensively. The cats were laying a few feet at her side gnawing on their treats.
Claire shook her head at the man.
“Women can take care of themselves just fine, ” she spat. She snatched a peanut from her stand and pulled it open before throwing the food back into her mouth. The vendor grinned when she saw Maude turn away from the ringleader when he attempted to grab her forearm. The man bristled at the rope walker then stormed out of the tent to continue his rounds.
Claire did hers obediently, taking two bags of peanuts with her on her trip.
Claire had to pry a bag of peanuts from the strong man because he was scarfing them down. The Siamese twins bickered over them, so they had a different meal instead. The two other trapeze artists took a few and kept moving along. The animals were all fed. The stars of the circus were hydrated.
Claire was stuck.
Maude Glass grunted as she struggled to pull off her sweat soaked shirt from her head. Her bra and opaque torso were glazed over with perspiration. A perfect line of freckles was pricked down Maude’s left side. Claire could count Maude’s ribs as they flexed with her rampant breathing. The artist’s frame was so muscular but lean. She was so fragile and strong all at the same time.
Maude paused at the crinkle of a peanut bag.
“Hello?” her voice was muffled by the shirt.
“Is anyone there?”
“I know that someone is here. It’s not that funny.” snapped Maude. She stomped around. Her knees buckled a bit from exhaustion.
“So-sorry sorry!” a small voice came from Claire. Maude turned in the direction of the frail voice.
Claire dropped the tent flap behind her and walked toward the performer.
“Yes,” she replied quietly. She looked over Maude one more time then shied away and caught herself in one of the vanity’s mirrors. She was blushing. Her whole face was ignited.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Maude grumbled and grunted. She bowed down to get a better angle to fight off her shirt. Her spine curved in the mirror. Claire shook her head and turned to face the frustrated performer.
“I… I’m half deaf.” she lied.
“Oh? I didn’t know that.” commented Maude. She had stopped again.
“It’s not something I want to show off. “
“You should, it’s an interesting fact. It makes you more unique, ” Maud said. Claire caught her reflection beaming in the corner of her eye.
“Well, yes. But can you help me take my shirt off? I am beyond stuck. Also, this stench I’m breathing in can knock me out at any given moment. Not to mention the fact that the show is starting soon.” Maude said.
It had taken Claire two hours to check on everyone as directed. She hadn’t finished bagging her peanuts because of this errand but she had ten already made.
Claire let out a little laugh and nodded.
“Are you helping me?” Maude prodded.
Claire jumped. A few seconds had gone by with no response.
“Yes- Yes, of course. Keep your arms up,” Claire directed.
Claire rested her last bag of peanuts she had with her on the vanity. She then walked over to Maude and twisted her hands into the moist fabric at the woman’s elbows.
Maude eagerly nodded.
“One, two, three!”
They both huffed as they wrenched the shirt off.
Thick black hair spilled out of the shirt and rained over Maude’s shoulders, neck, and face.
The cannon to signal the show went off. The cheers of the audience rang through the air. Claire did not stir when the ringleader’s voice boomed over the microphone, “EVENING LADIES AND GENTLEMEN AND WELCOME TO THE SHOW!”
Maude did not move either. She looked over Claire with a crooked grin. Her brown eyes studied the vendor. Her cheekbones, her thick eyebrows, how Claire’s mouth was twitching at the corners.
Maude nodded. “Like I said, I do find you unique. Did you hear me say that?”
Claire nodded. Her cheeks flushed brighter. Maude’s eyes squinted as she smiled.
“I did. I’m only half deaf.”
“I was worried that you wouldn’t hear it over the crowd and Thomas and all.” Maude replied. She smiled in the mirror as she took a white linen shirt that was hanging on the chair in front of it. She smiled as she buttoned it up. She smiled as she looked up at the vendor. She smiled as she stole two peanuts from the bag and ate them.
Claire let out a shaky laugh.
“Yeah, I was worried that I wouldn’t hear it too.” she said. Maude nodded. She grabbed the yellow vest and buttoned it and then the red coat with its tails and gold buttons.
“Um, speaking of Thomas, he wanted me to see if you were hydrated and fed. He doesn’t want anyone fainting.” Claire said. Maude’s face grew rigid at this. She brushed down her vest and fixed her collar.
“He doesn’t want me to faint. He has a lot riding on me tonight.” she huffed. She pulled a pony tail holder from underneath one of her sleeves like a magician. Claire winced as Maude snatched her hair and cranked it into a bun before hiding it under her brother’s top hat.
“That’s what he said at least after my rehearsal.” Maude turned a heel to face Claire. Her nostrils were flared and eyes burning.
“Well you can tell him I am absolutely fine.” she barked before she stormed out of the tent and off towards the Big Top.
Claire watched her walk away. Then looked over at the abandoned peanut bag and sighed, “I find you unique, too.” Before walking to her stand.
“And now, you’ve seen her dazzle us on the tightrope and tonight she will rattle us in the ring! Here is Maude Glass as the lion tamer!” Thomas cried over the speakers. The crowds roared and cried out in perfect harmony. Popcorn and peanuts rained from the sky. This was the last act, everyone was full of snacks and awe to see a woman be near these animals.
Claire pushed past children and adults. She squeezed past people who were skinny and fat, tall and short to get up to the first row. As she did, Maude appeared from behind the curtain and strutted out to the ring. She raised her arms in the air and the crowd hollered once again. The spotlight in the ring haloed her Maude. Claire could only see the outline of her smile. The cats prowled out from behind her. The lion with his limp and the young tiger with his shady eyes.
Maude turned away from the audience to the cats. She cracked her whip at her co-stars and they started to circle her as before the show. They did these three times and after two whip cracks, Maud caught a hoop and had the felines jump through it.
Ten minutes passed and as the seconds ticked, Claire was becoming cemented to the people she was sitting with. The tent was closed, and all Claire could breathe in was the smell of hay, sweat and heat which in her throat.
Then they lit the flammable hoop.
A help had run into the ring quickly to bring it out. Then he lit it and the whole tent began ignited. Claire started to huff and puff as the air grew heavier. People swayed in their seats to hopefully make themselves more comfortable.
The lion jumped through gracefully. He roared to the crowd as he paced back to the start of the trick. Maude wiped sweat away with a gloved hand. She cracked her whip and the young tiger pounced through the inferno too. Then the lion went. He sat before the crackling ring and looked up at his trainer. Maude her head and cracked the whip twice to signal him.
Maude’s knees buckled.
Claire rose in her seat. She looked over at Thomas, who was in the shadow of the left wing. He was glaring at Maude.
Maude stumbled but still cracked her whip. The tiger was watching her. His green eyes were on her wobbly legs, they had the same instability as a newborn calf. Maude snapped at the cat. She cracked the whip again, nicking its back paw. The tiger bucked and bumped the ring of fire. It yowled in pain. The crowd flinched. The lion who had been waiting for his turned bolted out of the tent. The tiger hissed and skidded on the earth. It’s left shoulder smoking from the ring.
Maude dropped to her knees. She was panting in all her wool and linen. She was glistening under the spotlight. The tiger lowered his body and crawled toward her. It’s eyes angry and wild.
“MAUDE!” Claire heard herself cry. The crowd was yelling to. Some yelled to get her out of there. Some yelled for the tiger to kill her.
Thomas watched, grinning.
The tiger was inching closer. Maude kept on waving her right arm to crack the whip. But the whip only wagged on the ground. No crack came. The tiger pounced onto it and tore it out of her grasp.
Maude fell backwards. Her eyes rolled back into her skull.
The tiger started to bolt towards the artist.
Fangs flashed. Eyes glowed. The tiger threw itself at Maude Glass.
The strong man pinned the tiger down between its shoulders and held it there. The other trapeze artists came out of the shadows and grabbed Maude. Her limp body hung over the man’s back while the woman fanned her. The tiger spat and squirmed under the mass of the strongman, but it didn’t budge.
Thomas came out of the left wing, his head hung low in fake sadness. He looked up at the crowd. Claire’s jaw clenched at the sight of him. Her hands clawed her knees.
“Folks, I am so sorry about this. I think the heat must have gotten the better of her. That concludes our show. If you wish to be compensated, come tomorrow. For I must take care of our Maude Glass now,” he said. His sharp eyes stabbed onto Claire. She glared right back at him. He shook his head and walked off. Just as the audience began to peel from the benches, leaving Claire behind in the Big Top. With just the lit circle and the ring of fire that hissed into silence.
Maude Glass was laid out on her bed in the women’s tent. A wet towel was on her forehead and a glass of water was on her bedside. Which was half gone. Her black mass of hair had been pulled away from her neck and bare shoulders. It cascaded down her pillow like a frozen waterfall. She no longer wore the traditional lion tamer outfit. She was in a tan tank top and silk shorts. Which were possibly given to her by the female trapeze artist.
No one was with Maude anymore. She had come to twenty minutes after she fainted, she chugged the water and after Thomas declared that she was fine, people dispersed. Someone had left a paper lantern to help her see. Which made everything inside the tent warm and golden.
Claire stood in the open flap of the tent.
“Maude?” she whispered.
Claire exhaled. Maude peeked at her from underneath the wet cloth.
“Oh… hello, Claire. Did you like the show?” she dropped the cloth back onto her face. A weak laugh creaked out of her.
“I did.” muttered Claire after a moment. She walked over to her bed side.
“Ha, don’t lie, “scoffed Maude “I messed up.”
“You overheated.” corrected Claire.
“Would you stop that?” Claire snapped. She dropped down to sit on the edge of the bed. The abrupt movement shifted Maude so quickly she ripped off her cloth in alarm. She looked over Claire and relaxed, smirking at her.
“Would you take it easy?” she snorted.
Claire grinned at her and shook her head stubbornly. Maude softened and looked up at her with those brown eyes.
“I think …. I think it was impressive.”
“How was it impressive?” Maude curled around Claire’s back. It was as if she were a child listening to a story. She perched her face onto a pale hand and blinked up at the vendor.
Claire cleared her throat and straightened her posture.
“You picked up lion taming in a day, you did so well during rehearsal and even in the show. And — I also think that you are unique.” she exhaled. Her body relaxed. Maude’s other hand soothed her even more as she rubbed her back. Claire looked down on Maude Glass.
She was smiling. In her eyes. In her mouth. In her freckles. She was beaming.
“Peanuts?” Claire revealed the last bag from her stand. Maude looked at the pinstriped bag and chuckled. She took one and peeled it open. She ate one nut and offered the other to Claire.
“Always.” she said, mid chew.