“Night at the Circus” is a chapter from a children’s book I’m working on called Even Though They Soar. Although the story’s setting is fantastic, the events it portrays are very much grounded in real-world mistreatment of animals, and I hope that the example it sets for young readers will inspire them to become advocates for animals themselves.
The city-folk had drilled deep into the earth to carve out their monstrous auditorium. Stone benches stretched around all four sides of the stage in the centre. Tunnels sealed with iron gates were the only clue to the possible whereabouts of the great eagle the children so desperately sought.
The air tingled with the anticipation of the waiting crowd. A suited attendant, subtly sniffing in disapproval, escorted Nish and her friends to a row at the very front of the stage. They squeezed in beside the other guests, who looked askance at the unattended children but soon turned their scrutiny back to the stage.
“Once you know for certain where the eagle is,” said Nish, leaning in, “we can hang back here after the show finishes and then we can set it free!”
“That’s the plan?” said Chiku, who had clearly expected more.
“It’s all we’ve got!” she snapped back, wishing it wasn’t true.
“At least this will be the last performance the eagle ever has to do!” smiled Eshe after a moment’s silence.
Nish knew that the creature would have endured enormous suffering here already. Yet as heartbreaking as she knew its condition must be, it would nonetheless soothe her spirit to see the wondrous creature in the flesh again.
Suddenly, bright flickering candles sparked into life. The would-be liberators fell silent, craning forward for a better look at whatever was about to unfold.
“Ladies and gentleman! Faithful subjects of the crown! On behalf of his Royal Highness, please allow me to welcome you to the Imperial Circus! Prepare to witness the most incredible creatures in all creation! All gathered here tonight for your viewing pleasure!”
With a gale of applause, the crowd surged onto their feet. The booming voice belonged to a man who leapt, with dizzying precision, from the top of one set of stairs to the bottom, in a series of cartwheels and backflips. The crowd was almost drunk with excitement already.
The ringmaster took a deep bow to soak up the fanfare before taking his place centre stage. He raised both hands until his audience fell silent again.
“For the last five years, we have strived to train the great eagle, mystical leader of the most savage native tribes! This mysterious creature blesses all its followers, whose sharp long nails are like its own cruel talons. It is said that on nights when the full moon hangs low over the grasslands, its savage followers sprout wings and hunt through the skies for their victims!”
The crowd gasped appreciatively. Nish couldn’t help but turn to Chiku and roll her eyes dramatically.
“Thanks to the hard work of our world-renowned trainers, I can proudly reveal that the great eagle will soon take to this very stage and perform for you tonight!”
This time the crowd stamped their feet as well as applauding. Nish wished the ringmaster would hurry up and get on with it.
“Before our show-stopping finale, I, ringmaster of the Imperial Circus, will reveal the attractions that will keep you on the edge of your seats this evening! Firstly, give a warm welcome to our musical accompaniment!”
Twenty-four young girls clad in army uniforms, each carrying drums as big or bigger than their own bodies, entered the stage via the tunnels. They banged their drums in time with their marching feet as they assembled around the stage.
The soft rumble of the drums continued as the ringmaster called out, “We will later be showcasing some of our home grown talent from this glorious city itself! And now, let me introduce you to trainers Zippa and Zago, and their wonderful dancing bear!”
The first act shambled onto the stage amidst the deafening sound of applause and incessant drumming. Nish had never witnessed a sight as pitiful as that broken creature. The bear stood taller than her trainers, yet cowered in fright from them. Her snout bore evidence of the brutal treatment she had received at their hands, and her front paws were stripped of their claws and shackled together. In her chains she stood there, trembling, while her trainers bowed to the rapt audience. Both were clad in top hats and tails; both carried lethal-looking whips.
Brum. Brum. Brum. throbbed the drums. With a single crack of the whip against the stage floor, the bear began to contort herself.
“In what world does anyone consider that dancing?” whispered Eshe to Chiku, who shook her head sadly.
The bear’s lumbering movements were only vaguely in time with the drum beat, yet the crowd lapped it up. As the drums quickened their pace, so too did the bear. When Nish could take it no longer she turned her attention to the crowd instead. Many were clapping in time with the music or dancing along. An old man nearby sat calmly smirking, whilst a woman beside him performed a crude imitation of the bear.
How Nish wished the bear could tear off her chains and show the crowd what wild animals were really capable of… They’d soon learn that they had only a semblance of power over her. By humiliating this poor creature, the city-folk were only stoking the flames of her hatred. Even without her claws she could easily overpower the trainers. One small misstep would be enough to seal their fates.
Shaking her head at these violent visions, Nish glanced around at her friends. Eshe had her hands clapped over her mouth. Chiku was clapping along for show while ice glinted in their eyes.
“It’s not so bad,” whispered Nish, leaning across. “I’ve heard they make the bear fight sometimes…”
She trailed off when Chiku only gaped at her.
“And now, please remain standing for the dazzling wildcats of the Barrenlands! Their natural prowess has been honed over years of dedicated training! In their natural habitat they’d shy away from any human interaction – but now look at them go!”
Nish was glad she hadn’t eaten much before their rescue mission. What she witnessed next made her feel sick to her stomach. The cats were short, stumpy-legged creatures with long bushy tails and perfect white fur. She supposed it must be a very different sort of environment, the Barrenlands, if such white fur was useful as camouflage. She hardly ever saw anything white out in the grasslands, except for the clouds.
The cats sprinted around the stage in synchronised laps before performing tricks at the trainer’s request, leaping high up into the air on command. The ringmaster re-appeared on a unicycle, holding aloft a narrow hoop, which the cats were encouraged to jump through. He held it up higher and higher, but the cats still managed to make the leap cleanly through it. Nish and her friends couldn’t help but wince at the heaviness of their landings on the other side. Then, with a roll of the drums, the ringleader lit the hoop on fire.
The sight of the glowing flames hushed the crowd. They waited with bated breath to see what the cats would do in the face of this new challenge. Either the creatures knew they could jump with unfailing precision, or they feared the wrath of their trainer if they refused. One after another they threw themselves up into the air and through the hoop while the ringmaster cycled erratically around the stage. Nish could hardly hear the ringmaster anymore over the ecstasy of the crowd. When the somehow unharmed cats hurried off the stage, the ringmaster continued to cycle around, performing tricks of his own, until the crowd calmed itself down.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for! From all the way across the ocean, from the hidden, murky depths of a place spoken of among the savages only in fear, a jungle considered to be impenetrable by all but the bravest soldiers! A place so humid, that the sweat would soak through your clothes within seconds of exposure! So dangerous, that even the sweetest-looking flower is stuffed with poison! Home to hunters of all shapes and sizes! From the belly of that foul den, the soldiers of our realm seized no less a prize than the proud great eagle! Believed to be the wisest and most ancient of all the savage creatures! He is worshiped like a king by his tribe! They used to meet under the dusky light of the moon to perform strange rituals in his honour! But – no more!”
His declaration was marked by a shuddering blast of the drums.
“No more can the savages rally around their namesake! We have freed them from their heathen rituals! Now, witness how even the mightiest of the savage creatures has no choice but to succumb to the will of the empire!”
Dragged along by four trainers, each pulling on a chain attached to the collar fixed around his neck, the great eagle fluttered his wings in protest, but was tethered to the ground by the strength of the trainers. Nish glimpsed a small tear in one wing; he suspected it bore many scars invisible to the eye. Not caring for the eagle’s obvious discomfort, the audience admired the striking colours of his plumage.
“Isn’t he gorgeous!” cooed a woman in the row behind.
Eventually the trainers succeeded in pulling the eagle onto the stage. The drummers began to play what Nish suspected was meant to resemble a traditional tribal song. She wondered how they knew what one sounded like, before realising with horror that the information had likely been tortured out of one of the native human captives the city-folk had ‘rescued’ along with the animals.
She had to clench her seat with both fists to keep herself from running onto the stage.
To be continued…
Featured image: elephants made to perform at the Oriental Circus in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2004. Image credit portable soul, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0