Content warning: Death
The Saddest Clown. It pinches me, that he’s remembered that way. His character’s name was Wag. Audiences came alive whenever Wag appeared.
Dad blamed himself.
But inside, I can’t help feeling, it was me.
The night of the fall was particularly steamy. Program sales were high, the audience fanned themselves constantly with them. One of my jobs was to sell them out front before the show. It was a rare chance to interact with non-circus folk. I’d look out for kids around my age. Mostly, at boys like me. I would try to imagine their lives, put myself in their shoes. I looked at their faces to figure out what I liked about them—their smile, jawline, eyes.
One boy stood out that night. It wasn’t one thing that made his face particularly beautiful, but all parts together. He was so happy wandering with his friends, buying fairy floss, playing the clown games. I wanted to stare. But when I checked Mum in the ticket booth opposite, her scowling eyes caught mine. I had to be content stealing glances.
When you walked through the curtain, it took a bit for your eyes to adjust. We were trained not to blink; it broke the glamour illusion. You had to jut your chin upward and entrust your eyes to adjust. It was a necessary torment. Under the floods and sweeping spots, sequins sparkled, teeth flashed, and glitter cannons dazzled. The ring was a wondrously shiny universe. Without light, there was no magic.
Our family act was one of the top-billing acts. We were constantly passing each other as we moved between the front and back of the curtain. The motorbike routine though, was the one time all three of us were together beneath the lights. It involved my mother, father, and me performing a series of balances while riding a circling motorbike. The balances got increasingly difficult, leading up to our finale where we all stood atop each other’s shoulders. Me on the top, then Mum, and Dad at the base driving with his feet.
The most precarious part of the act for me was the middle bit. Dad drove, and Mum sat on his shoulders, her arms stretched upward, holding me while I balanced above in a handstand. Upside-down, looping in circles, distracted by lights and faces, I’d struggled for a long time to nail it. I’d assumed it was my mother’s pillar-like arms that held me up. Her contrary advice still echoes.
“Focus on your hands, that’s what’s holding you up. You cannot rely on anyone but yourself.”
I didn’t want to give her any reason to doubt.
While the circus ring was luminous and awe-inspiring, behind the curtain was a den of shadows. Here, wizards pulled the levers of a carefully constructed Emerald City.
It had become a habit, whenever I exited the stage, to yank the curtain closed behind me, concealing me in the inky dimness. The adrenalin quickly dissipated. It felt like I was shrinking with each step as I weaved through bodies, dressed and undressed, brushing up against sweat-slick bums and thighs, back to my own stuffy corner.
Mum slumped down in front of her mirror. “I’m suffocating.”
“Moz…” Dad tilted his head toward Mum.
She held her black locks up out of the way and stared at herself wordlessly. I went over and unzipped her costume.
She dropped her hair and began peeling. Her back remained turned to me as she struggled out of one glitzy leotard so she could climb into another. Mum always seemed to darken during her metamorphosis into Nebula. I tried not to take it personally.
“That was one of our best tonight, don’ cha reckon?” Dad shot me a wink and pulled Wag’s baggy, all-in-one costume over the spangly number he wore for our act.
I gave him a tight-lipped smile and checked for Mum’s reaction.
Dad sat down and picked up a makeup pencil, ready to put on Wag’s face. He glanced at Mum.
“Yeah, I’m OK,” she replied but huffed anyway. “Timing was out.”
Dad penciled cartoon eyebrows onto his forehead. The more of Wag he painted on, the bigger his expressions became.
“Naaaah. I don’t think so. When?”
I did an audit of my performance in my mind, searching for a slip-up.
“The Comet pose,” she stated. “The lift was too early.”
Dad forced a smile and shook his head. “Really? I didn’t notice. From where I was, looked perfect.”
Mum rolled up her costume and tossed it on the ground. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Aww, come on, hun.” Dad put down his pencil and turned to face her. “We were amazing. You heard them. They were going wild. No one notices a tiny detail like that.”
She took her next costume from off its hanger. “I noticed.”
She began rolling up her tights, preparing to stretch them over her legs. I watched her face. Her lips were pinched and her forehead tight.
“Here, Mum, let me,” I offered, jumping up to take the costume from her.
Mum’s signature act was Tungsten’s main drawcard. Nebula was her stage name, and it was a given that top billing was hers. The public adored Nebula. They held her on a high pedestal of other-worldly perfection.
Her act was the corde lisse. She would climb a rope suspended from the rig. At the top, she placed her hand, foot, or head through a loop attached to the rope, then hung suspended way above the audience. Dad would be down the bottom. He’d hold the rope and spin it, in large circles, sending Mum flying, faster and faster. For her finale, she would spin, with one foot in the loop while holding fireworks and showering the ring in tiny golden stars.
Her costume was stunning—a black bodysuit covered head to toe in exquisite precious stones: black opals. It took a delicate touch to put it on. I held the leg holes open as she dipped her pointed toes inside. The gems tinkled as we pulled the bodysuit over her body’s contours. You had to be vigilant because beads occasionally snagged and had to be released before they pulled.
When it was on, I stood back for Mum to inspect herself in the mirror. She turned this way and that, checking every inch. Her shimmer was mesmerizing, even in the backstage gloom.
Mum froze. She sucked a sharp intake of air through her teeth.
I snapped out of my trance.
Dad turned his head sharply. “What’s wrong?”
Mum held her arm up and touched a spot just beneath her armpit.
There was a gap. A bead or two were missing.
“Sorry, Mum,” I said.
It wasn’t my fault, but I felt I should apologize anyway.
“Have you got a needle?” Dad asked. “Slip your arm out, I’ll fix it up real quick.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve got to be back on stage in a minute.”
She yanked open the dresser drawer and shoved its contents around.
“Hey, hey…” Dad said, trying to placate.
She found the sewing kit, opened and poked at it. Dad placed his hand on her arm. She faced him with a scowl.
“I’ve got time,” he said. “All the time in the cosmos, if it means making Nebula complete.”
He picked up the sewing kit to find himself a needle.
During the last two acts, I would sneak beneath the stands and watch from there. The audience was unaware I was lurking in the dark below, peering between their feet. I wasn’t performing in either act, so it was okay as long as I could sprint back in time for the curtain call.
Wag was in both acts. Throughout the show, he searches for a way to join in. The performers make a big show of being skeptical but accept his offers to take part in each act, nevertheless. And without fail, Wag stuffs up every time. It took a lot of skill to look so bad. Dad not only had to be a master of slapstick but also of the skills each act required. Wag was the backbone of the show. He tied it all together. The circus is a glossy pantheon of gods, and in it, a clown represents mere mortal humans. In Wag’s imperfection, the audience saw themselves. He commanded their emotions like a conductor flicking a baton, cueing them when to feel joy, fear, sorrow, or amazement.
The second-last act was the Pointer Twins, Annie, and Bonita—knife-throwers. In a final attempt to prove himself, Wag convinces them to take him on as their assistant. A flurry of bumbling gags follows—trips, bumps, mix-ups, and chases—ending with Wag knocking the giant wheel Annie is strapped to off its axel, sending it spinning across the stage, forcing Bonita to peg knives at her sister as she rolls out of the ring.
By this point, the audience is in stitches. Just as the laughter and applause starts to wane, Wag wanders into the center of the ring, head down and arms hanging limp. Bonita marches up to him and gives him a blasting. She tells him he is useless, pathetic, and has no place in the circus. The floodlights dim and Wag is left weeping beneath the spotlight.
The rest of the ring is almost black by now, so when someone enters, the audience can just see them approaching, but cannot make out who it is. A shimmering arm reaches into the circle of light and a hand is placed on the broken clown’s shoulder.
Wag staggers back a few paces. His knees buckle. He clutches his heart. He looks to the audience, imploring them to assure him the vision is real. Nebula steps forward. With her thumbs, she wipes away his tears, leaving smudged streaks across his makeup. She removes his wig and flings it to the ground. Her rope descends into the spotlight’s shaft. She reaches up, grabs it, and holds it out for him to take.
I had probably seen the act a thousand times. I rarely watched it anymore. Instead, I watched the audience’s faces—a guilty pleasure. There was just enough light bouncing off their skin to reveal their expressions.
I scanned the crowd for one person in particular. The boy with the beautiful face.
He sat rigidly. Both arms were straight by his sides and his fingers gripped the front of his bench. His head tilted as he followed Nebula’s climb to the apex of the tent. Shadows slid away and a soft glow bathed his perfect face. I watched him freely, without anyone watching me. He was fully invested in the unfolding story and through him, I saw every detail of it anew.
Like Nebula, I wanted to smooth away his fears. I traced his skin with my eyes instead of my thumbs. I felt all his emotions—concern, relief, delight. And, when Nebula reached her finale and the cascading fireworks lit up his face— rapture.
Then, like a switch had been flipped, the boy’s expression changed.
The audience let out a collective gasp. Their gaze dropped from the top of the tent to the floor. They reeled back, hard against their seats. Eyes and mouths opened wide. A moment of terror.
Then suddenly, they were on their feet, straining to get a view. It was near impossible for me to see past them into the ring. Just momentary glimpses of people running from backstage, bunching in the middle, and in the center of it all—Wag on his knees and Nebula in his arms.
The spotlight continued to shine. The rope hung limply in its column.
My face flushed hot, as if somehow at fault.
Someone turned off the light.
The ring went black.