My first attempt at ventriloquism, and I’d already screwed it up.
That’s not where you put your left hand, Eva. He blew a plume of smoke from his nostrils in disgust. Haven’t you been listening?
He reached out and yanked the dummy from my grip, its wooden head lolling to one side at a grotesque angle. Even when I looked away I could still feel its painted eyes staring at me.
This wasn’t turning out the way I’d hoped.
The knife thrower’s wench was standing in the doorway of their caravan. I couldn’t work out if the lines in her fishnet stockings were ladders, or scratches down her thighs. I watched her slide the blade of a long handled dagger along a thick leather strap, back and forth, until Jem’s bark made me jump.
Eva! Do you want to do this or not?
I tried not to scowl.
Can’t I be a tightrope walker instead?
He spat on the grass in disgust, and I swear the hula girl tattooed along the curve of his neck shimmied.
You’re not graceful enough, girlie. Anyone could tell you that.
He had a point. I stretched my feet out in front of me and peered down. The laces of my army boots were frayed, the toes scuffed. If I squinted, I could just make out where the elephant had stepped on one this morning in her haste to get away from me. Turns out I’m not a good animal trainer either, apparently.
I wondered whether it was wise to suggest the lions.
Jem hefted the arse of the dummy onto the palm of his open hand, and shook it to get my attention. I took one look at those little legs dangling and felt my popcorn come back up.
You need to understand that this is an art you’re learning, ok?
All I understood was that I belonged in the circus, and wasn’t leaving until I found my place in it. I wedged my hands under my thighs and nodded as he talked.
It comes from the Latin venter, belly, and loqui, to speak. The ancient Greeks thought it was the voices of the unliving coming out through the ventriloquist’s mouth, similar to the sounds that emanate from the human body after death.
God, those little legs just got even creepier.
You need to find what you want him to say. Until you do that, you’ll never get it to work.
He licked one fingertip and smoothed down the dummy’s hair. I watched, fascinated, as he tidied up the errant locks with great affection.
Do you want to give it another try?
I reached out and took the little body in both hands. I cradled it in my lap, and slid my fingers where they belonged. And I stared at the strange little face as Jem stared at me and we all waited for the right words to come.
We waited some time. A stilt walker loped past, and the tattooed lady strolled by and waved a palm inked with the star spangled banner, but still we waited. I could hear the elephants trumpet in the distance. I was just trying to pick a husk of popcorn from between my teeth with my tongue when Jem strode forward, and pushed his fist into the softness of my belly.
I yelped, and drew back in surprise. His face was so close to mine as he pushed again, and bellowed to me: Say it!
I tried to pull away, but he held me in place.
What do you need to say, Eva?
Push, push, right into my flesh.
Find your voice and give it to him…what is it you need to say?!
I felt the rumbling before I heard it. It seemed to come from down deep in my gut, deeper than all the words and wine and wickedness I’d spent my lifetime swallowing, blacker than night and so damn hot I felt my cheeks burning. I saw Jem look down at the ground, as if the growling was coming from there and not the belly of the woman in front of him. I felt it build, felt it burn, until the dummy’s chin started moving and a roar louder than thunder howled from his mouth and up into the cold winter sky.
It knocked Jem clear off his feet. The stilt walker toppled and the knife thrower faltered, sending a dagger into the wig of his assistant as she lay spreadeagled on the spinning wheel. A trapeze artist fell, bouncing against the safety net with curses so blue the bearded lady blushed. And all the fairy floss turned black and one by one, withered on the sticks.
Jem sprawled in the grass, staring at me with his hand at his throat. If you can horrify a carny, you must be doing something right, I tried to tell myself as he climbed to his feet. He reached out and took the dummy, so gently, as though any sudden moves might make me sink my fangs into the hula girl at his throat. And when he spoke, it was almost a whisper.
There is a place for you at the circus after all, Eva.
I followed his directions slowly, one foot in front of the other. The others tried not to stare, but as I crossed the circus, I could feel the eyes on me. When I reached the tent, I looked up at the nine letters stretching over the entrance in red and white carnival font.
And pushing the tent flaps open, I stepped inside the freak show.
Some wants should really, really stay inside you.
Wouldn’t want to wither the fairy floss, after all.