When Murray said, “Jump,” the big cats leapt through candy-striped rings. When he said, “Sit,” all three of them perched, snarling, on their stools. When he said, “Speak,” Rona the clown stuck her head through a paper drumhead with “Ars Gratia Artis” on a scroll beneath it, which drove Murray bananas.
Out of the ring, Murray was a whiner. “It’s bad for training,” he complained to Sean, the ringmaster. Sean had an entourage of pugs, fourteen at last count, who rode each other bareback when the trick riders performed, perched on the elephants’ heads, tripped the clowns on cue and pulled the lanyard for the human cannonball. Sean understood the need to maintain discipline.
So Sean and his pugs went to see Rona in her trailer. The dogs filled it to capacity, but she didn’t seem to mind. She put down her book and greeted each one by name. She called every one of them “Spot,” rolled them over, rubbed their bellies, tickled their ears and tried to uncurl their tails. They adored her.
“You see, that’s exactly what I mean,” Sean told her firmly. Sean had a great voice. In fact, he had a great voice for every occasion, and could hold a crowd with a whisper or a bellow or a laugh. Just now he rumbled. “These are working dogs. They have stage names. They practice every day. You encourage them to forget themselves. You must see that’s wrong — it’s disrespectful of me and my dogs. What you do in the ring is disrespectful of Murray, because it’s disrespectful of his lions.”
“I suppose it is,” Rona said. “And I suppose the consequences of Leo letting himself go for five minutes would be worse than if Spot here did.” Sean’s face got red and his eyebrows came down, but he said nothing. “Okay,” Rona agreed. “I’ll cut the cats some slack.”
She did, too. She stopped doing anything that mocked the lions. Instead, she played the Murray-tamer. When he told the lions to leap, she ordered Murray to hold up the ring to leap through. When he told them to sit, she slipped a chair up against the backs of his knees. The lions watched thoughtfully.
Murray was not happy. He went whining to Sean again.
“You have no respect!” thundered Sean. He had summoned Rona to his Winnebago where she knelt before him, three pugs on her lap getting their ears stroked, one pug licking the toes of each foot, one draped comfortably on her head, paws dangling over her ears. The remaining eight waited their turns in a patient queue. “This circus is built on teamwork, and teamwork requires mutual respect. You’re not just annoying Murray, you’re not just letting me down, you’re weakening the whole team, from Ben Bazoom the Human Cannonball to Manoj the Mahout. I need to see some respect from you, I need to see some god-damned teamwork from you, or this team will just have to do without you!”
“You’re right,” she said, retiring the first shift and bringing in the second wave of dogs. She lifted one under the front legs, held it so they were eye to eye. “I don’t want to disappoint Spot.” The dog licked her nose. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint you,” she said. “Would I? No I wouldn’t! No I wouldn’t!”
Now when she went into the ring with Murray, she gracefully echoed his every movement. If he snarled at her, she stage-whispered “Teamwork!” and went on with her mimicry. Usually she kept a step behind and to the right of him, just within his peripheral vision, but when she glided up next to him, as she sometimes did, it wasn’t clear who was the lion tamer, and who was the clown.
Murray was more unhappy than ever. The lions kept their own counsel.
Murray was less happy still when Rona unwisely stepped between him and the lions and Elsa, seizing the opportunity, grabbed Rona by the head and snapped her neck with a quick shake. That emptied the tent in a hurry.
Murray caged his cats. He had to resist the temptation to slip Elsa a treat. Sean, on the other hand, was nearly in tears. He knew the business too well to blame Murray, or even Elsa. The audiences, though, would think otherwise. Audiences liked Rona.
Sean found Murray by the cages. He had to try twice before he got his voice to work. “Murray,” he finally managed, “what do we do now?”
Her funeral under the big top was spectacular. Sean paced the sawdust, his dogs facing outward in an alert, silent ring, and recalled to the crowd’s memory a Rona who might — who ought to — have been; a Rona who was much better behaved and, as Sean told it, not a bit less funny. He moved them to laughter at the joy of her spirit, and to tears at the loss of her. Though it had been his idea, Murray found himself wiping his cheeks. Truly, as Sean said in an organ voice that left no room for disbelief, she had been a disciplined team player.
There was silence under the big top, after the last note of Amazing Grace rang from the calliope in a final puff of steam. Sean’s dogs sat tense, ears forward. Sean bowed his head, and at that gesture the dogs slipped their leash of discipline, and leapt into the crowded bleachers, tails waving and tongues lolling in big, doggy grins. Spot — all fourteen of them — were searching for their old pal Rona, to join them in a romp.
Walter Lawn is a professional disaster recovery planner, who writes poetry and short fiction. His work is included in the anthology Unclaimed Baggage, published in 2013 by White Lightning Publishing.