I went to check on Flecha first, where she was pastured with the group’s horses, mules and donkeys. The show animals were here, too, as were a few goats. A girl about my age was checking food and water, her dark curly hair escaping in frizzy puffs from underneath a cap. She didn't seem surprised to see me, and blinked sleepily when I introduced myself.
She said her name was Natasha, and asked, “So you’re Aaron’s latest project?”
“I’m not anyone’s project. He asked for some help with his game, and I needed a place to sleep last night. That’s all.”
“Oh. Well, watch out. He’s always got some new notion, just like his crazy mother. Don’t let him make you his project of the month.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I thanked her for her advice, and made myself useful by helping with the animals. When we were finished and had washed up, there was coffee and breakfast ready at a little cart Natasha called the “chuck wagon.” The name made me laugh, but she swore it was a legitimate Texas term. I’ll have to pay more attention, I guess. I don’t want to sound too much like a foreigner, so I need to know the right words for things.
Natasha and I were having coffee with her husband, a much older man named Demitri who had a knife-throwing act, when Aaron found me. “There you are. You sure are up early.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a country girl.”
“Well, I came to get some coffee for Mom. Come on. She’d like to meet you.”
“Go,” Natasha said. “I’ll see you around.”
Aaron’s mother was red-haired, petite, and looked like nobody’s mom. She was sitting on top of her soft purple cushions, dressed in a purple shift, with a lavender wool wrap around her shoulders. She was rubbing some kind of cream into a badly bruised (purple!) shin when Aaron pulled the gauzy curtain back. “How’s the leg, Mom?”
“Still hurts like hell, damn it. This arnica crap ain’t worth what we paid for it.” Then she looked up at me and smiled, her face breaking into a wreath of little creases. “Well, look what the cat drug in! You were sound asleep when we came in last night or we’d have already met.” She held out a hand, still greasy with ointment. “I’m the Amazing Madame Violet, but you can just call me Vi.”
“Short for Viona,” Aaron said.
“Oh, you hush. I’m Violet, and don’t you forget it.”
I shook the woman’s hand, then wiped my hand on my pants when she wasn’t looking.
Vi patted a spot beside her on the pile of cushions that was her bed. “So what brings a nice girl like you around a place like this, honey? Tell Mother Vi all about it. And make it good. I ain’t heard a good story in at least a week.”
Aaron left, and it was just me and Vi. I tried to be vague about my past, but she had a way of asking question after question, until more of my story came out than I had intended.
“So you’re a foreigner,” she said. “Well, doesn’t that just figure. But don’t you worry. Carnies accept all kinds.”
“Well, I ain’t planning on staying,” I told her. “I said I’d help your son with some new ideas for his game, and then I’ve got to be going.”
“Going where, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Well, we’re heading north, and there’s safety in numbers, you know.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”
I spent the rest of the morning helping Aaron. As it turned out, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to continue with the game as it was set up. “It’s too expensive, and it takes too long to make the blanks.”
“Blanks? No way was I firing blanks yesterday. I heard the bullets hit the back wall when I missed.”
He showed me the pedal he pushed with his foot that made it sound like the bullet had hit the black wooden board behind the targets. The wall had genuine bullet-holes in it, in case a “mark” wanted to inspect it. “Neat trick, huh?”
If his smile hadn’t been so friendly, I think I would’ve hit him.
“So I’m thinking of switching to something totally different,” he went on. “Maybe darts or bean bags. Or both—darts for the grownups, bean bags for the kids. Get ‘em all—young and old.”
“Someone’s got to look after my mother when she gets old. I’m saving up for a house.”
When he put it like that, it didn’t sound so bad. We all have to make a living, after all. “Okay, so what do you want me for? I don’t know anything about these bean bags you’re talking about, although I might be able to help with the darts. They’d be easy to rig just by getting the fletching wrong.”
Aaron got excited. “Yes! That’s exactly the sort of information I need. I knew someone like you would have good ideas.”
He had some old throwing darts, and I explained what they would need in terms of fletching. Then he showed me how he was making the blanks for his current game, and I showed him a way he could do it more efficiently. By then it was noon, and after a lunch of bean and meat stew called chili, Aaron went to open his booth for business, and I went in search of feathers.
I started by tracking down Natasha, who I thought would be a good source of information. I found her at the tent she shared with Demitri. She was wearing a strange costume of blue leggings and ruffles, with a sparkly crown on her head. She didn’t have much time to talk because she was getting ready for her “act,” but she said there was a turkey farm nearby, and she gave me directions. “Don’t tell them you’re from the carnival, though,” she said. “They’re NeoBaptists and think everything’s a sin. We couldn’t get them to sell us so much as an egg when we came to town.”
I followed Natasha’s directions, which were quite good, and soon came to the farm she had talked about. It wasn’t much to look at, all dry and dusty. It didn’t seem like the sort of place where anything could live. But there was a hint of greenery in the direction of the barn, which I guessed was where the turkeys were, so I knocked on the farmhouse door.
The woman who answered was wearing a long dress with a high collar. Her hair was pulled so severely back from her face that it seemed to be stretching her skin, which looked too tight for her high cheekbones and forehead. She had suspicious eyes and asked what I wanted. I explained my errand, thinking it would be no big deal for her to give me some feathers, but I was wrong.
“What do you want them for? I can’t give them to you for any sinful purpose.”
What kind of sin could one get up to with a feather? NeoBaptists must be very imaginative. I thought fast. “I want to make arrows, so I can glorify the Lord by providing food for my family.”
“Is yours a Godly family?”
“We read the Bible.”
She proceeded to quiz me, and I had reason to be very glad Auntie liked reading the Bible so much. But we were wasting time. Finally, I said, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
I got my turkey feathers.
When I got back to the carnival, things were in full swing. I was surprised at how much busier today was, and figured maybe the signs out on the road were finally having a good effect. People were milling around eating, visiting the games, the rides and the food stalls. I saw someone eating an apple covered with a sort of sugar glaze. I bought one for myself, and after dropping off the turkey feathers in Aaron and Vi’s tent, I decided to go see some of these “acts” I had been hearing about.
What a great time that was! My friend Natasha walked along a wire with an umbrella in her hand, then let Demitri throw knives at her. A clown and a monkey did funny tricks, and just as Aaron had said, Vi rode a bicycle around while playing a trumpet. She was dressed all in purple and spangles, and a parrot held onto her hat and screeched. And then there were dancers, jugglers, and more funny tricks. Demitri came back out and pretended to eat a flaming torch, then blew fire out of his mouth. Natasha herded the goats into the ring and they all did tricks on cue. Then the monkey came back, dressed in a little suit and cap, and he rode one of the goats around while Vi played her trumpet some more. It was a crazy show and none of it was very good, but I had never seen so much strange behavior in one place. When it was all over, I was laughing and clapping like everyone else.
When I came out of the tent, it seemed like it should be late, but the sun was still out, and I had work to do. So I went back to the tent, got the turkey feathers and darts, and went to work, humming Vi’s silly trumpet tunes. When Aaron came looking for me a couple hours later, I had a full set of darts to show him.
He was pleased at first, but then frowned. “What did you do to the tips? Did you sharpen them?”
“Of course I did. They were dull. They wouldn’t have cut through a custard.”
“But that’s the whole point.” He handed them back to me in exasperation. “Make them dull again. The last thing we want is for anyone to actually hit anything with them.”
So I dulled all the darts. I guess Aaron doesn’t want to have to give away any more dolls!
I was finishing this project when Vi dashed up to the tent. “Quick, have you seen Lucky?”
“My damn bird! He’s missing!”
“No, I haven’t seen him. But I’ll help you look.”
Vi was frantic and I barely had time to put the darts away before she was tugging me along by the sleeve, pointing in random directions. “He likes high places, but he doesn’t like the oil we use to waterproof the tents. He also doesn’t like the smell of food, unless it’s sugar. He likes the alpacas and the goats, but he hates the ostrich. . .”
She went on and on about Lucky’s likes and dislike, to no purpose I could see. All I knew was that I was looking for a green bird. “Everything’s brown out here,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll be no trouble to find a bright green bird.”
“But my act! The next show starts in half an hour!”
I convinced Vi that we needed to split up. By now a few other carnies were walking around, looking up at the sky, behind things, and around corners, obviously on the same mission I was on. I must have wandered the grounds twice before I finally saw him—a little green statue, watching the whole scene with a decidedly superior air from the top of a tent pole.
I walked over slowly and stood beneath him. “Lucky!” I held out my hand.
“Lucky!” he said back. Then he made a sound that I think was the parrot equivalent of laughter.
“Damn stupid bird.”
Right. What I needed was a ladder. But none was at hand. I was near the horse pasture, so I whistled for Flecha and she came trotting over. I rubbed her nose for a moment. I hadn’t done any tricks with her in a very long time, but that bird was going to fly away if I didn’t do something. I led Flecha to the pole and took off my boots and socks. “Please be still, Flechita. We did this in the mountains with Sachi, remember? Now be good.”
I climbed onto her rump and slowly stood up. There was a bit of candied apple still in my pocket from earlier and I held it out to the bird. We looked at each other for what seemed like forever, then with the fluttering grace of a butterfly, he landed on my wrist and took the food from my hand.
Now what was I supposed to do?
“Come down here. I’ll grab him.”
I looked down. It was Natasha. I bent my knees and began slowly lowering myself, reaching the bird toward her outstretched hands.
Then I heard Vi screech, “Lucky!” and the next thing I knew, I was lying in the tent, with an old woman hovering over me. My head hurt and when I tried to move, everything started spinning.
“You just lie still, honey,” the woman said, pressing me back against the pillows. “That was a nasty fall you took and you’ve got quite a goose egg.”
I let the woman minister to my aching head, and I drank the tea she offered me, then I closed my eyes and rested again. The next time I woke up, Vi was sitting beside me, holding my hand and sniffling.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “I’m not going to die, am I?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “This is all my fault. I’m such a damn klutz. I scared your horse, and—“ She flung herself on top of me, crying in earnest now.
I didn’t know what to make of this and was glad when Aaron came and pulled her away. He took her to her little room, making reassuring sounds. And then he came back and sat down. “So how are you doing?”
“Better, I think. What happened? Did she get Lucky back?”
“Eventually. She had to do the other shows without him, and wouldn’t you know it, when we went to shut everything down for the night, there he was in the animal tent, happy as could be, telling the ostrich he was a stupid bird.”
This made me smile. “He wasn’t really, was he?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t make me ruin a good story.”
Aaron asked if there was anything I needed, and after he got me a glass of water and my diary, I thanked him for his help and told him I would be okay.
“You know, Natasha thinks you could have your own act. You and your horse, you know.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m no performer. Good night.”
Aaron kissed me on the forehead like I was his sister, and went to bed. I’m feeling better now, although when I move around, I can feel the blood pounding in my head. That was some fall I must’ve taken. I’m lucky I wasn’t hurt worse. Me and Flecha have a carnival act? I don’t think so.
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