It happened during a thunderstorm. Rain pelted at the striped canvas of the tent and lightning rent the sky, like a lion tamer’s whip.
But the show must go on and the lamps were lit, the mud paths were strewn with sawdust and planks of wood stretched firm over the growing puddles.
The trees thrashed their limbs feverishly in the violent winds and still they came, the crowds, egged on by the drama of it, huddling, giggling under vast umbrellas, gasping at the thunder, shivering delightedly at the chill of the rain. Their breath steamed and their flesh pimpled as they squeezed along the benches, chattering excitedly and inhaling the mingling smells of popcorn and sawdust and sweat and filth.
Backstage the performers stood damply, peering in as the benches slowly filled. The clowns bickered, whitewashing their sagging faces, painting on their macabre grins over two-day stubble and whisky breath. The animals paced wretchedly, shivering in their cages and Dmitri finished his final checks over the ropes and pulleys and lamps. All was well, the show could go on.
Natasha stood, cold and still as a statue in her sequined leotard and white feathered headdress, blackened eye turned discreetly into the shadows, reddened lids cast down and pointedly away from Isaac, who glowered, massive fist in a towel of ice and muscles bulging in his red and white striped outfit.
Like all the others, their fight had been about money. She had it. He did not. Something in this imbalance played havoc with his sense of masculine pride and he found ways to tell her with his fists and with his feet, always clad in those sturdy, heavy boots that bruised and broke and snapped.
The lights flared, the band played, the show began. Clowns first, tumbling in a grotesque parody of hilarity. Then the lions, toothless and cowed, pacing miserably about the ring, to the audience’s delight.
Then Natasha. She stalked past Isaac, feigning indifference, until the glare of the lights was upon her and she thought only of the trapeze. Stepping slowly, carefully from rung to rung she reached the platform and gazed down at the tiny people far below her.
Without thinking, she seized the trapeze and launched herself, weightless into the air. The platform, Isaac’s fists, the audience, they all fell away in that one heart-stopping moment. Down, down, down she plunged until the upward momentum caught her and she was flying, sailing up, whirling and graceful free in the air as she never could be on the ground
Dmitri trudged through the storm to lock away his tools and equipment for the night and found the padlock snapped and useless in the mud, tools scattered in disarray. It was only then that he noticed the missing saw and the trail of sturdy, heavy boot prints that had preceded him.
Too late he turned, opened mouthed. Too late he pelted back through the rain. Too late he reached the big top, shouting his useless warning - it was already filled with a shocked and horrified silence. Natasha already lay crumpled in the mud and the sawdust, downed in flight, her shining white feathers smeared with blood and filth from the ground and a length of frayed and ruined rope clutched in her broken hand.