The Night Circus


Page 12




And several yellowed and folded pages filled with handwritten text.

After the circus departed, he wrote down every detail he could remember about it so it would not fade in his memory. The chocolate-covered popcorn. The tent full of people on raised circular platforms, performing tricks with bright white fire. The magical, transforming clock that sat across from the ticket booth, doing so much more than simply telling the time.

While he catalogued each element of the circus in shaky handwriting, he could not manage to record his encounter with the red-haired girl. He never told anyone about her. He looked for her at the circus during his two subsequent visits during proper nighttime hours, but he had not been able to find her.

Then the circus was gone, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, like a fleeting dream.

And it has not returned.

The only proof he has now that the girl even existed, and was not a figment of his imagination, is the glove.

But he doesn't open the box anymore. It sits, firmly closed, in the tree.

He thinks maybe he should throw it away, but he cannot bring himself to do it.

Perhaps he will leave it in the tree and let the bark grow over it, sealing it inside.





*


IT IS A GREY SATURDAY MORNING, and Bailey is up earlier than the rest of the family, which is not unusual. He performs his chores as quickly as possible, packs an apple in his bag along with his book, and heads off to his tree. Halfway there he thinks perhaps he should have worn his scarf, but the day is bound to get warmer as it goes along. Concentrating on that comforting fact, he climbs up past the bottom branches he was relegated to years ago, past the branches claimed by his sister and her friends. This is Millie's branch, he thinks as his foot touches it. A feeling of satisfaction comes when he climbs above Caroline's branch, even after all this time. Surrounded by leaves that rustle in the breeze, Bailey settles into his favorite spot, his boots resting close to his almost forgotten box of treasures.

When he finally looks up from his book, Bailey is so shocked by the sight of the black-and-white striped tents in the field that he nearly falls out of the tree.





Part II

ILLUMINATION





There is so much that glows in the circus, from flames to lanterns to stars. I have heard the expression "trick of the light" applied to sights within Le Cirque des Rêves so frequently that I sometimes suspect the entirety of the circus is itself a complex illusion of illumination.

- FRIEDRICK THIESSEN, 1894





Opening Night I: Inception

LONDON, OCTOBER 13 AND 14, 1886




Opening day, or opening night, rather, is spectacular. Every last detail is planned, and a massive crowd gathers outside the gates long before sundown. When they are finally allowed to enter, they do so wide-eyed, and as they move from tent to tent, their eyes only get wider.

Every element of the circus blends together in a wonderful coalescence. Acts that have been training in separate countries on separate continents now perform in adjacent tents, each part melding seamlessly into a whole. Each costume, each gesture, each sign on each tent is more perfect than the last.

The air itself is ideal, clear and crisp and cool, permeated with scents and sounds that entice and enchant one patron after another.

At midnight, the bonfire is ceremoniously lit, having spent the earlier part of the evening standing empty, appearing to be a simple sculpture of twisted iron. Twelve of the fire performers quietly enter the courtyard with small platforms that they set up along the perimeter like numbers on a clock. Precisely one minute before the hour, they each ascend their respective platforms and pull from their backs shimmering black bows and arrows. At thirty seconds before midnight, they light the tips of their arrows with small dancing yellow flames. Those in the crowd who had not noticed them previously now watch in wonder. At ten seconds before the hour, they raise their bows and aim the flaming arrows at the waiting well of curling iron. As the clock begins to chime near the gates, the first archer lets his arrow fly, soaring over the crowd and hitting its mark in a shower of sparks.

The bonfire ignites in an eruption of yellow flame.

Then the second chime follows, the second archer sends his arrow into the yellow flames, and they become a clear sky-blue.

A third chime with a third arrow, and the flames are a warm bright pink.

Flames the color of a ripe pumpkin follow the fourth arrow.

A fifth, and the flames are scarlet-red.

A sixth brings a deeper, sparkling crimson.

Seven, and the fire is soaked in a color like an incandescent wine.

Eight, and the flames are shimmering violet.

Nine, and violet shifts to indigo.

A tenth chime, a tenth arrow, and the bonfire turns deepest midnight blue.


On the penultimate chime, the dancing flames change from blue to black, and for that moment, it is difficult to discern the fire from its cauldron.

And on the final strike, the dark flames are replaced with a blinding white, a shower of sparks falling like snowflakes around it. Huge curls of dense white smoke swirl up into the night sky.

The reaction from the crowd is uproarious. The spectators who had been considering taking their leave decide to stay just a bit longer and comment enthusiastically about the lighting of the fire. Those who do not witness it themselves hardly believe the stories told minutes or hours later.

People roam from tent to tent, wandering down paths that loop over each other, never seeming to end. Some enter each tent they pass, while others are more selective, choosing tents to enter after careful consideration of signs. Some find a particular tent so fascinating that they are unable to exit it, opting instead to stay there the duration of their visit. Patrons make suggestions to other patrons they pass on the concourses, pointing out remarkable tents they have visited already. Their advice is always taken with pleasure, though often the advisees are distracted by other tents before they locate the recommended ones.

It is difficult to usher the remaining patrons out as the dawn creeps up, and they are only consoled by assurances that they may return when the sun sets again.

All told, opening night is an undeniable success.

There is only one minor mishap of sorts, one unexpected occurrence. It passes unnoticed by any of the patrons, and many of the performers are not aware of it until after the fact.

Just before sunset, while the last-minute preparations are being made (costumes adjusted, caramel melted), the wife of the wild-cat tamer unexpectedly goes into labor. She is, when not in a delicate state, her husband's assistant. Their act has been subtly modified for her absence, but the cats themselves seem agitated.

She is expecting twins, though they are not due for a few more weeks. People joke afterward that perhaps they did not want to miss opening night.

A doctor is brought to the circus before it opens to the public and escorted discreetly backstage for the delivery (an easier feat to accomplish than moving her to a hospital).

Six minutes before midnight, Winston Aidan Murray is born.

Seven minutes after midnight, his sister, Penelope Aislin Murray, follows.

When the news is relayed to Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, he is mildly disappointed that the twins are not identical. He had thought up various roles in the circus for identical twins to perform once the children were old enough. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, lack the amount of theatricality he had expected, but he has Marco arrange the delivery of two enormous bouquets of red roses anyway.

They are tiny things, each with a rather surprising amount of bright red hair. They barely cry, staying awake and alert, with matching pairs of wide blue eyes. They are wrapped in spare bits of silk and satin, white for her and black for him.

A steady stream of circus performers comes to see them in between acts, taking turns holding them and inevitably remarking on their exquisite timing. They will fit right in, everyone says, save for their hair. Someone suggests hats until they are old enough for hair dye. Someone else remarks that it would be a travesty to dye over such a color, a shocking red much brighter than their mother's auburn.

"It is an auspicious color," Tsukiko comments, but she refuses to elaborate on her meaning. She kisses each twin on the forehead and later makes strings of folded paper cranes to hang above their cradle.

Close to dawn, when the circus is emptying, they are taken for a walk around the tents and into the courtyard. The purpose is ostensibly to lull them to sleep, but they stay awake, watching the lights and the costumes and the stripes on the tents around them, strangely alert for being only a few hours old.

Not until the sun has risen do they finally close their eyes, side by side in the black wrought-iron cradle lined with striped blankets that already awaits them, despite their early arrival. It was delivered as a gift a few weeks earlier, though it had no card or note. The Murrays assumed it was a gift from Chandresh, though when they thanked him for it he claimed he had no idea what they were talking about.

The twins quite like it, regardless of its dubious origins.

No one recalls afterward exactly who it was that dubbed them Poppet and Widget. As with the cradle, no one takes credit for it.

But the nicknames stick, as nicknames do.





Opening Night II: Sparks

LONDON, OCTOBER 13 AND 14, 1886




Marco spends the first several hours of opening night taking surreptitious glances at his watch, waiting impatiently for the hands to reach midnight.

The unexpected early arrival of the Murray twins has complicated his schedule already, but if the lighting of the bonfire proceeds as planned, that should be enough.


It is the best solution he can come up with, knowing that in a few weeks the circus will be hundreds of miles away, leaving him alone in London.

And while Isobel may prove helpful, he needs a stronger tie.

Ever since he discovered the venue for the challenge, he has been slowly taking on more responsibility for the circus. Doing all that Chandresh asked of him and more, to the point where he was given free rein with everything from approving the design of the gates to ordering the canvas for the tents.

It worries him, the scope of the binding. He has never attempted anything on this scale, but there seems no good reason not to start off the game as strongly as possible.

The bonfire will provide him with a connection to the circus, even though he is not entirely certain how well it will work. And with so many people involved, it seems sensible to add an element of safety to the venue.

It has taken months of preparation.

Chandresh was more than willing to let him organize the lighting, having already deemed him invaluable to the circus planning with only mild coercion. A wave of a hand, and the details were all up to him.

And most important, Chandresh agreed to let it be a secret. The lighting itself took on the air of a Midnight Dinner, with no questions permitted as to the ingredients or menu.

No answers provided as to what the arrows are tipped with to create such an astounding effect. How the flames are made to shift from one vibrant hue to another.

Those who did inquire, during preparations and rehearsals, were told that to reveal the methods would ruin the effect.

Though, of course, Marco has been unable to rehearse the most important part.

It is easy enough for him to slip away from Chandresh in the crowded courtyard just before midnight.

He makes his way toward the twisted iron, moving as close as he can to the empty cauldron. He takes a large, leather-bound notebook from his coat, a perfect copy of one that has been safely locked in his office. No one in the milling crowd notices as he tosses it into the bottom of the cauldron. It lands with a thud that is muffled by the ambient noise.

The cover flips open, exposing the elaborate ink tree to the star-speckled night sky.

He stays close to the edge of the twisted metal while the archers take their places.

His attention remains focused on the flames despite the press of patrons around him as the fire is amplified through a rainbow of hues.

When the last arrow lands, he closes his eyes. The white flames burn red through his eyelids.





*


CELIA EXPECTED TO FEEL like a poor imitation of her father during her first performances, but to her relief the experience is vastly different from the one she watched so many times in theater after theater.

The space is small and intimate. The audiences are modest enough that they remain individual people rather than blending into an anonymous crowd.

She finds she is able to make each performance unique, letting the response of the audience inform what she chooses to do next.

While she enjoys it more than she thought she would, she is grateful that she has stretches of time to herself in between. As it nears midnight, she decides to see if she can find a place to discreetly watch the lighting of the bonfire.

But as she makes her way through the area that is already being referred to as backstage despite the lack of stage, she is quickly swept up in the somewhat ordered chaos surrounding the impending birth of the Murray twins.

Several of the performers and staff have gathered, waiting anxiously. The doctor who has been brought in seems to find the entire situation strange. The contortionist comes and goes. Aidan Murray paces like one of his cats.

Celia endeavors to be as helpful as she can, which consists mainly of fetching cups of tea and finding new and creative ways to assure people that everything will be fine.

It reminds her so much of consoling her old spiritualist clients that she is surprised when she is thanked by name.

The soft cry that sounds minutes before midnight comes as a relief, met by sighs and cheers.

And then something else immediately follows.

Celia feels it before she hears the applause echoing from the courtyard, the shift that suddenly spreads through the circus like a wave.

It courses through her body, sending an involuntary shiver down her spine, almost knocking her off of her feet.

"Are you all right?" a voice behind her says, and she turns to find Tsukiko laying a warm hand on her arm to steady her. The too-knowing gleam that Celia is beginning to find familiar shines in the contortionist's smiling eyes.

"I'm fine, thank you," Celia says, struggling to catch her breath.

"You are a sensitive person," Tsukiko says. "It is not unusual for sensitive people to be affected by such events."

Another cry echoes from the adjoining chamber, joining the first in a gentle chorus.

"They have remarkable timing," Tsukiko says, turning her attention to the newborn twins.

Celia can only nod.