It blew in with the storm that night, on the howl of the wind and the silver rattle of rain and thunder. The flicker and flap of loose, wet canvas and the strains of the men, the navvies hired away from the railroad for this impossible task. They wordlessly carried it, soaking, drenched and exhausted to the centre of the camp, next to the big top and ready for the freakshow
Huddling to stay dry, the others warmed their hands round bins that burned with whatever came to hand - hunks of wood, moth eaten rugs. Even a heavy, leather-bound bible warmed their cold, damp fingers. They peered out from behind the curtains of rain, watching the navvies heave the immense cage, their shirt sleeves rolled back, tattooed biceps straining at the weight of it, rain streaming down faces illuminated by streaks of lightning.
And in the morning it was there, beside the bear pit, surrounded by the debris of the storm and circled by the six navvies. Implacable. Unreadable. Unmovable. Their tattoos dancing and writhing in the watery dawn light. A sheet of impenetrable canvas hiding the contents of the cage from view.
The acrobats gawped and gossiped with the clowns from a distance. Adonissimo postured and flexed, demanding to see, demanding to know, fronting up to the navvies who stared impassively until he was forced to back down, humiliated. A sketchy mermaid on the bicep of one navvy swam around to watch him retreat with a smirk and a flick of inky black hair.
It wasn’t until dusk began to creep around the edges of things that the bear trainer could slip, under the cover of the oncoming darkness past the Navvies, drooping-eyed with exhaustion by now. The mermaid dozed on the rock of her Navvy’s elbow and the bear trainer slid past undetected to lift up the sheet of heavy canvas and peer inside.
She fell back in horror, her mouth filled with unshed screams, her eyes filled with a blur of teeth and feathers and fur and claws - a shapeless, monstrous horror that rocked in silent misery in the confines of its cage.
She had known that misery for a long time, from her bears; their unhappiness was palpable. Daily they stared balefully at her as she forced them to dance, to perform, their toothless mouths rendered useless, their ferociousness, their only strength stolen from them. But what else was there for them now? It was this life or no life at all.
Perhaps it was this that made her do it.
As the navvies slept, slumped to the ground surrounding the cage she slipped inside their circle to peer once again beneath the canvas. Without giving herself time to think, to consider, she slipped a length of wire into the padlock and silently opened the door of the cage. The creature flew out and up immediately and, with a triumphant bestial howl it vanished to freedom.
When the navvies seized her and searched for the key she had stolen her hands were empty, the length of wire conjured away. She had sneaked a look, yes, but the cage had been unlocked when she got there. One of them must have forgotten to lock it.
When the others asked her what she had seen she lied. Sometimes she said it was a wolf, others a bear. The truth became fluid and took on a life of its own and soon the creature became the stuff of legends, then fantasy. Then myth.
People began to wonder if there had ever been anything in there at all.