Delicate

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jill Quinn


CIRCUS
Photo Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini

Sasha shivered. It had been a long winter, but he hoped that everything would be over soon. That’s what all the grown-ups on the streets said anyways. What did he know? He was just a little thief. They shooed him away at every opportunity.

It hadn’t always been that way. Once he had been a child with mother and a father, but then they had attacked the Winter Palace and the world had turned upside down. Earlier revolutions had failed, but not this one. This had ripped his family apart and tore at the very fabric of Mother Russia.

No time to think about that now. If this worked, he would have a little of his family back.

He approached the edge of the circus with a feeling of dread hanging over him. He checked his pocket one more time. A flashy bit of pink winked out at him in the darkness. It was still there. He had to stop checking, he would drive himself mad. He held it very carefully in the palm of his hand.

The tents and carts loomed over him. The smell of overcooked cabbage hung in the air. A woman scuttled by with a nervous gait.

“Excuse me, could you take me to the ringmaster?”

She eyed him up and down. From her garish painted face and hurried but graceful gestures he guessed she was a ballerina, but not the star of the show. The star would have just pushed him in the mud.

“Is it wise that a little one like you would meet up with him?”

“I need to do it. I have something for him.”

“Is it something he wants or something he needs?” She asked this question like it was very important.

“Something he wants.” Sasha tried to say it with confidence, even though he wasn’t sure. All he knew is he had to get it to the ringmaster and fast if he wanted to see Irina again.

“Let me see it.” The ballerina held out her hand. She had only one. He had thought the other hand was drawn up into her sleeve to protect from the cold, but now he saw it was just a stump protruding out of her coat sleeve. It wasn’t bandaged, but the flesh had a raw look.

“Give it to me.” She waved her hand again.

She might be graceful, but she had the authoritarian voice of a schoolteacher. Should he trust her? How did he know she wouldn’t run away with it?

The only reason he had survived on the street this long was because he didn’t trust easily. That and his lightning-quick fingers. He would have starved many times over without his newfound talent.

Sasha fished around in his pocket and displayed the trinket. The ballerina snatched it from his hand and dashed it to the ground.

“There, now go and don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”

She ran away, crying into the night. Sasha didn’t have a moment to spare for her. He bent down and started anxiously scraping away at the dirt and muck.

Finally he saw the shine of pink diamonds. He sat back on his heels and sighed with relief. The tiny elephant was safe. Now he just had to make sure it worked. He jammed the little key in and cranked it. It took a moment, but the elephant raised its head in a creaking movement.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he saw the puff of white in the air. Now he just had to find the ringmaster. He had to reach him before midnight.

A drunk was sprawled out over some old netting. Sasha poked him with a long stick. The man grumbled.

“Excuse me, can you take me to the ringmaster?”

The drunk grunted and pointed.

Sasha decided that was the best he was going to get, so he hurried off in that direction. Noises started to grow louder, lights started to grow brighter. The smell of cabbage started to fade and he smelled something else. Something that smelled a lot like rotting meat.

He finally reached his destination. A train car that stood open to the elements on one side. Herds of animals gathered around. He saw them as eerie half shapes that would come from nightmares. There were claws, fur, and lots of teeth.

He shuddered and it wasn’t from the cold.

“Step back. Step back. He’ll see you later.” A ferocious man swaggered forward. He didn’t have a stick or anything to beat back the animals. They made no motion.

“Step back.” He said again, gulping at a bottle. Then he roared out a wall of blue flame. There were neighs, roars, and squawks as the animals skittered away.

Sasha wanted to skitter away too, but the fire-breathing man saw him. He waved a hand.

“Come here. You’re expected.”

Sasha took a tentative step.

The fire-breathing man squatted down close so they could be eye to eye. He had no mustaches or beard, probably because they might catch on fire. He did have bushy eyebrows that seemed to dance about his face. All the sudden he seemed easy and friendly, like Uncle Artemi after some plum brandy.

“You have what the ringmaster needs?”

“What he wants.” Sasha corrected the man, but felt himself atremble with nerves. What if the man questioned him? What if he stole the elephant? What could the big man do to it? It wouldn’t survive another blow.

Sasha clutched onto the pink elephant in his hand, still protected in his little wool jacket. Too tight and he might break the delicate machinery inside. Too lightly and the man would might seize it right out of his pocket.

The man wrapped his arm around Sasha. “Little one, the two are often one and the same. You must be very brave to have come this far and done this much.”

“He has my sister.” Sasha said.

The man nodded. “You must not react to his appearance.” He tapped Sasha twice on the nose. “Remember that and you will be fine.”

The man stepped back and made an elaborate bow. “Continue on, my good man.” Sasha heard him say under his breath. “And may God bless you.”

Every step up the plank seemed to be an eternity. The fire-breathing man shut the door.

Sasha knew he should feel frightened, but his first sense was of a delicious warmth, something he hadn’t felt in months.

Then he began to take in the cozy interior of the room. Jewelry and shiny trinkets were strewn about as if a child had been playing. Everything was covered in green velvet and purple silks, elegance that would put the tsar to shame. That is if they still had a tsar.

There was a samovar glowing golden in the lamplight. His hands ached to hold a cup of tea, to feel the heat sliding down. There was no smell of rotting meat here, just tea and something like flowers.

His eyes scanned the room. He had to find Irina. Towards the back of the rail car there was a large Oriental screen, painted with flying cranes and dragons.

An orangutan stepped out behind the screen, wiping his hands on a cloth. He had the stiff-legged gait of someone who was trying to walk after a long time in bed. He was dressed in the style of a country gentleman.

“Oh good. You’ve come. Let’s see it then.” The ape adjusted his spectacles. His arms were far too long to make this dignified, but somehow he managed.

Sasha hesitated. “I need to see Irina first.”

The orangutan let out a rich liquid chuckle. “I need to see Irina, sir,” he said, unfazed by Sasha’s boldness.

“Yes, sir.” Sasha said.

The ringmaster rubbed his chin in a gesture that looked disturbingly human. “All right then. Irina, come out my dear.”

Irina walked out from behind the screen. She wasn’t Irina as Sasha knew her. She was just sixteen, still beautiful, but now tired and worn. What was worse, her face was a blank slate.

“Sit down, my pet.”

Irina walked over to a couch, sat and folded her hands primly over her lap. She moved with the grace of the acrobat she had once been, but there was no joy to her movements.

“Irina, do you know me?” Sasha longed with every fiber in his being to run to her and throw himself into her skirts and cry like he had not done in years.

She looked at him and smiled, but her face revealed no trace of recognition.

“You’re upset. Perhaps you’re too young to understand what’s going on,” the orangutan said.

“I understand, sir. You’re creating a better world.” Sasha swiped at his nose with his hand, resisting all impulses to cry. It wasn’t what he believed, but he knew what was expected.

“Not a better world. A fairer one. A just one.” The ringmaster gestured at a chair. “Please sit, my boy.”

Sasha sat down by a table that was scattered with implements. He tried not to stare at the saws and other cutting devices. Surely those were only used on the animals.

The chairs and tables were all low to the ground, all perfectly sized for Sasha. Or an animal that was about a foot or so shorter than a grown man.

The orangutan settled into his own chair as if he was about to tell a long fairy tale.

“You see, when the human ringmaster figured out how to make me talk and think that was a great moment, but when I could give the gift to the other animals…” the ringmaster tapped his long orange finger to his head, “…that was the miracle.”

Sasha decided not to mention that the orangutan had also killed the human ringmaster and many others besides. He and this circus had started a movement that had overthrown a whole government. Everyone knew that by now. It was all anyone could talk about, the great Animal Uprising. More and more animals were being given the special clockworks and special parts to make the world “fair.”

There was a roar close by.

“You see, my children are hungry for more miracles. There’s only so much I can do.” The orangutan held up his huge hands in dismay. “That’s where Irina comes in.”

“How, sir?” Sasha said. It took every inch of his courage not to run out into the night, but he had a feeling there was more than one animal waiting for a miracle. And most of them would be ready to gobble him up if a miracle wasn’t handy. Only the fire-breathing man could hold them back and he wouldn’t be so nice to someone who crossed the ringmaster.

“Look at her radiance.” The ringmaster gestured at Irina. He spoke in a low croon. “You humans are usually vile-looking creatures, but she has such an innocent, pure way about her. We animals don’t want to be like humans, we want to be better, the best. And the only way to be the best is to study what is most beautiful and right and true in all of you.”

Irina glanced up and gave another stupid smile. Sasha wanted to run over and slap her, just to get her to cry or laugh. To do something.

“You’ve studied her. Now you can set her free.” Sasha didn’t know how he would manage with Irina acting like a dress mannequin. Somehow he would do it. He’d care for them both this time and not lose her like Mama and Papa.

“Give me the elephant first.” The ringmaster curled his lips in a most inhuman way. Tongue licked teeth.

Sasha reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink elephant. In the golden lamplight, it seemed little and soiled.

The orangutan snatched it up and polished it with his cloth. He held it up and the pink diamonds shone again.

“Those nasty Romanovs could never appreciate something of such beauty. Only someone who works with his hands can understand the art that goes into even something simple. How nice of you to liberate it.”

“Thank you, sir.” He didn’t steal it from the Romanovs, not exactly. A freelance rascal had taken it during the confusion of the animals storming Saint Petersburg. Then Sasha had liberated it. Let the ringmaster think what he wanted.

“You’re very talented with your hands aren’t you, little man? There’s not many that could handle this situation properly.” The orangutan poured a cup of steaming hot tea from the samovar and handed it to Sasha.

“You have your elephant. We’d like to go, sir.” Sasha raised his voice a little. He curled his fingertips around the dainty china cup. It wouldn’t hurt to steal a moment’s warmth.

“You see, Sasha. We don’t just want to study you. We’re not trying to become you. We want you to become us. Don’t you see that’s the only way to fair world? No rulers, no chains. No king of the jungle. ” The ringmaster smiled at his little joke and caressed Sasha’s hand.

Sasha had to do his best not to show even a hint of repulsion. He knew if he did it would be the end of him and Irina.

“I was told you stick to a bargain, sir.”

The orangutan released Sasha’s hand. He sighed. “With your fast little fingers I could do so much. Someday I will create the perfect human being, much like your sort used to breed thoroughbreds. Or perhaps how your mama would sew up a little doll for your sister to play with.”

Sasha remembered for a horrible moment the ballerina with one hand.

“A doll?” Irina asked. Her voice was eager, but cracked and strange.

“Yes, my poppet. A doll for you later.” The ringmaster sounded amused, but bored, as if talking to a small child.

The orangutan’s eyes cut back to Sasha. It was clear he had no further use for Irina. “Very well. Give me the key.”

Sasha laid the key to the toy on the table. He did not want to touch that paw again.

The ape grabbed the key between two fingertips and wound up the elephant. This time it did not raise its trunk. It just sat there in that large brown palm.

“Oh dear,” said the ringmaster, but he didn’t sound very sad at all. He sounded almost gleeful.

“It worked just a moment ago.” Sasha felt as if he might have been better off with the lions and bears.

The orangutan smiled. “These things happen. It was only something I wanted, not something I needed.” Then in a fast move he shattered the elephant all over the table and flung the pieces at the samovar. The diamonds and clockworks fell to the floor, making a slight tinkling sound as they collided on the Oriental rug.

“Very well. Your sister can go. Irina, leave now,” the ringmaster said with a voice filled with a strange, terrible authority.

Irina got up and walked to the door. She pushed it open and walked out without a glance to Sasha.

Sasha laid down the tea.

“Sir, I’ll just be going. I have to look after her, you see.” He wasn’t sure if she could be trusted even a moment on her own.

The orangutan gripped Sasha’s wrists with a brute force, stronger than the grip of any man. “I don’t think so, my dear,” he said, his tone full of regret. “Your sister is free, but you must stay. You see, you’ve brought me something I want, but now you have something I need.”

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Jill Quinn is a writer. She lives with her family in Washington D.C. and their lives are enriched by one very neurotic cat. Email: jill.kathleen.quinn[at]gmail.com

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