FLIGHT • by Annabelle Smith

Caesar Learns to Juggle

Caesar is born in Kansas, 1932, where there is nothing and will never be anything. His future is limited to the dustbowl of the country, where he will die with a lungful of dirt and empty pockets. So when the circus comes to town, he steals five dollars from the tin box beneath the porch and runs. His parents are not surprised. The ringmaster, a beak-nosed woman who wears a suit like a second skin, gives Caesar mismatched swords to juggle, six sheaths of metal that slice open his hands and glint in the sunlight. But he’s good, and he stays.

Caesar Makes Friends

Lucinda and Marlene, who perch on the elephant’s back and wave. The sisters are beautiful from a distance, but not up close. Georgiana, the acrobat, with a voice like rain and two milky eyes that have never once worked. Jack, the ringmaster, with a boy’s name and a boy’s suit and a boy’s nose, hooked like the curl of an elephant’s trunk. When Caesar asks her to marry him, she says “I’ve been proposed to more times than I can count” and then “yes.”

Caesar Gets Paid

They are married in court, Jack in her tailcoat and Caesar in his suspenders. But marriage is expensive, and they empty their pockets on silverware, a chipped oak dresser, a straw mattress with fraying edges. Then the circus skips a paycheck, then another. When Caesar shakes the tin box he keeps under their bed, their last two nickels clunk inside like pebbles. Jack says the circus always has its ups and downs, but Caesar catches her shaking the box every night, listening to the clink of coins, wishing there were more.

Caesar Has a Family

Caesar’s son is born with eyes that blink and float, but do not see. He names him George. When he tells Georgiana, she flutters two callused hands over his son’s face with a touch softer than her smile. She teaches him to tumble in the soft hills of the elephant’s hay, Jack balances the silk brim of her top hat on his head. Caesar watches his family while he juggles. As long as he is watching the three of them, he never once drops his swords.

Caesar Attends a Funeral

Georgiana loses her grip on a leap through a burning ring, and her skirts flutter with scarlet flame as she drops from the air. She is dead before she hits the ground. She does not feel her bones break, but watching her, Caesar feels something inside him break instead. George, three years old, knows that she’s an angel now. He draws her portrait the next day, fumbling for stubs of graphite and scribbling halo over Georgiana’s head. Even though the shape is sharp, jagged, she looks more like an angel than anything Caesar has ever seen.

Caesar Loses His Balance

The new acrobat can see, but she cannot fly like Georgiana could. One sweltering afternoon before the crush of the evening crowd, Jack asks her husband if he’d do a high wire juggling act. Caesar says no. His balance, he says, is off. Jack understands because she feels it too, that shift, that missing weight where Georgiana used to be. He drops his swords more often now, but the crowd only laughs, thinking it’s all part of the act.

Caesar Buys a Car

Caesar runs away from the circus the same way he ran to it — with five stolen dollars and hope for a future. This time, the future he wants is not only for him. The Chevrolet kicks up plumes of dust as they rip across the backcountry roads, and Caesar and Jack try to paint a picture of the circus for their son. They tell him about elephants and clowns and unicycles until their voices grow hoarse and whispery. George, now four, falls asleep in the backseat and dreams of an angel, of a girl who can fly.

Annabelle Smith is a high school senior writing in Maryland. Her work can be read in a forthcoming publication by TRNSFR.

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