It was late in the night. The moon shone high in the sky, while the last lamp lights at McNash & Sullivan Circus and Shows were turned off, just some candles into the circus barracks, tents and wagons.
In one of those wagons, a man with a old, although vigorous, face looked to the pendulum he held over the US map. His tailcoat and top hat, that he used during his shows, rested over a trunk with all his possessions.
His eyes where fixed into a point over which the pendulum stopped, held by forces beyond common people understanding. But this man was no common people. Never was, never is, never would be. He had a mission:
- Ongelooflike! Unbelievable! So near, and so far at the same time! - he said, swearing into a language not so common in US, and that he seldom used: Afrikaans, the language of the Boers, the farmers that crossed South Africa, and conquered and occupied that land, fighting adversities and powerful enemies like the native people, like the Xhosa and the Zulu, and other conquerors, like the English and the Portuguese.
He by himself had seen lots of those conquests at the last century, when he was part of the Century Club, a secret society focused into the humanity progress,
As an Artiste and Scholar, it was obvious to him becoming the Spirit of Literacy, showing that you could be lots of things if you studied and dedicated hard for this, an excel and compromise with knowledge providing you the tools to do everything you wanted.
Even being a honest charlatan, a living Munchhausen, calling himself Don Cagliostro, Master of Mesmerism, Mentalism and Hypnosis.
Curious is: his own “mission” was to show that literacy should topple things like charlatanism and mysticism, things from which his “powers” depends of.
Frederick Van Der Merwe was born at Cape Town, in January 1st, 1800, from a Boer diplomat and an English actress. With time, they chosed to emigrate from South Africa to Napoleonic France, to avoid the wars, turning into artists.
Even being so small, at five he already learned to read and write, being also very good at music, maths and rhetoric, being mentored at home by his parents, Andraas and Melody. At 10, he already was acting at his parent’s shows, and developing his alter-ego, Don Cagliostro.
During the 19th Century, from the time he turned 18, he had not aged a second. And so, he could see and stimulated a series of great events, like Darwin’s voyage in Beagle (at least partially), and the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital (an analysis that, by an unfortunate destiny, turned into a pamphlet).
He also fought lots of enemies, including the nefarious and virtually immortal Doctor Methuselah, so called Master Mathemagician, powers he supposedly stolen from Socrates and the Hyppocratics.
Not that means too much, as this was all old news.
Like the Grey Ghost and all the 19th Century Spirits, he knew that, sooner or later, Time would take its toll for the powers and experiences granted. At January 1st, 1900, a new generation of Spirits (and their opposites, the Shadows) had came to the world, the hopes and ambitions of this century (and the death rattle from the century before) personified. Since them, he and the other 19th Century Spirits started to leave this world. His last mission would be, with the help of the Century Club, find and train one of those Spirits.
That was the only reason he left his old station at the Club as archivist and scholar and get back the field, even after the terrible wounds the suffered at his last battle, into 1892, against the Shadow of Industry. Looking now, with the recent events with workers being spanked, mauled or even killed, it was a Phyrric Victory that against Leonard Charlesmagne.
The scrying method he was using was simple and very imprecise, which frustrated him a lot, but this time looks like he’s right: during the matinee show, he felt a faint, uncommon presence. Not like the powerful and evil emanations from Kult-ah-saleh, the old Shadow of Mystics, that put Paris under his power via hypnosis and old Egyptian mystical practices, lost since ancient times until then. But a very soft and, why not, warm presence.
Frederick got out the trance and chose to not think on this for now: it’s better to left this for tomorrow, as his body is very tired and needs some sleep to recover himself. Curiously, he was a very light-sleeper at the 19th.
- I think soon it will be the day… Hope I can find the one I need before this.
He changed clothes and turn the lamplight off, the moonlight being enough to him to go to bed.
- And this one is for you to learn not be a so great liar, boy! - yell the man, while whipping the chubby boy, the belt hitting the boy’s back very hard. The chubby boy didn’t react or wimp, although the tears that cross his face.
Curiously, the boy’s strawberry blond hair could deceive it, but otherwise no one could mistake him with the man that was whipping him. After all, that was his foster father, being Nicola Castrogiovanni an orphan.
Nicola didn’t remember a little from Tuscany, where his parents lived and where he was born, and remembered very little from his parent’s faces, although he remembers very fondly from his mom’s beautiful face, laying into the coffin where she slept, and would still until the Reckoning time, when she would come back to life.
Those memories filled him with hope, even being kicked from foster home to foster home, lots of them more interested into the extra money government gives them or the extra hands they had for the work, none of them wanting him because they loved him.
He didn’t understand why his foster parents never liked him, even being a so well-mannered and well-behaved kid, doing all his chores very well. He always asked himself why the other kids thought he as a silly boy. He just believe that everything would always end well, so it was nonsense to complain or not to do anything when asked.
Even after the trashing he suffered.
Even knowing he’s suffering because of his big bully of foster brother.
And even knowing that he would be sent to sleep at the stables.
All right: the straw was warm and the horses liked him.
Before getting out, his foster mother, maybe the only one that shown any kind of love to him, gave him a parcel, the one she always gives when he was sent to sleep at the stables.
- Nicola, John will be alright tomorrow. Maybe everything will be okay then. - she said, while he notes the parcel was a little bigger than normal: normally she would only pack an old pyjama to him.
Nicola chose to not complain and got out the house. Anyway, it was worth of: Miss Prescott gave him a pair of tickets to the circus as the best kid at spelling bee. His brother took the tickets from him, but he was awarded another one as he had helped to spread the circus opening’s handbills. As Nicola was already a newsie, he just slipped the pamphlets into the newspapers.
So the circus get crowded, but he took one of the best places to see the show, specially the fascinating Mentalism show. That proud and confident man, Don Cagliostro, looked so powerful and self-confident that Nicola thought he could be as powerful and self-confident than him.
However, when he got at home, later in the night, his foster parent thought he took the newspaper’s money and spent it in the circus. When he talked his story, he was branded as liar and the whipping started.
When Nicola got into the stable and opened the parcel, there was a letter on it:
Nicola, please, run away. My husband want to kill you and hide your body! Please, run yourself away and forget us! I don’t want you to be killed, but I don’t want you cause us any harm!
Nicola looked worried to the letter, thinking if this would be really truth. Then he looked the other things in the parcel: there was a little leather knapsack with some clothes and papers. Those, he knew, were his birth certificate and adoption papers.
She was, in fact, giving him freedom!
Nicola, even all bruised from the whipping, had some hope in the eyes. He get out the stables, crossed beside the pigsty and walked through the wheat fields till he get into the road that gone to the city.
Nicola looked to the sides of the road. He knew that trying to get back the orphanage would only result in being sent back that house, where he would be at risk. And the next other city is miles away, at least one full day on foot. The train station is closed now, and certainly the police would not help.
He thought, so, to go to the circus and ran away with them. He could drop them at a big city where he could try anything better. He worked as newsie, so he could work at anything at city. In worst case, he would stay with the circus.
He walked during some hours in the night, carefully avoiding the darkest tracks: snakes and other wild critters could be very sneak and the hide in the shadows. Nicola had more than his share on stories of kids that, after ran away, were attacked and killed by wild animals, their guys disputed by buzzards when the sun shone.
After all, he came into the circus, now very creepy without all the lights, the darkness giving a spooky air to the tents and wagons. He looked for all the animals sleeping, trying to find a place were to relax his tired body. He found a tree where he could laid off. The tiredness (strenghted by their whipping) made him doze off and black out as soon as he puts it knapsack under his head.
- Hey, you kid! Should you not be at school now? - Nicola heard someone saying, while being poked out of sleep.
He yawned somewhat and started to open his eyes, seeing a very small person, almost his size, poking him. That person is smiling, although his nose was wrinkled for some reason. When he had waken up enough to his smell sense works again, he see the reason of the nose wrinkling: he was stinking afoul!
- Crikey, kid! You should be really as sleepy as dead to not see you were lying next the nest of a mama skunk with a litter. Better get out there before she sprays you again. - says the small person, with a somewhat squeaky voice.
Nicola then notes that that person is a midget: he looks like a very small adult. His smile was a very confident one, and he was using very practical clothes: white cotton shirt, suspenders-held pants, a very old fabric hat and shoes as old as the hat. His hair was jet black and his eyes almond brown.
- Looks like you had a big trip, kid. I think Mary could help you with a bath and a good bowl of porridge to fill you in. Sure, you’ll have to pay that. - he said
- I don’t have any money, mister…
- Call me Pyg. Stands for Pygmalion, the name my dad gave to me. Everyone here in the circus calls me Pyg.
- I’m Castrogiovanni, mister. Nicola Castrogiovanni. I ran away from home, so I have no money to pay for it. But I can work for food. I’m very good at cleaning and tidying things.
- Wait a minute. Now I remember from where I knew you: you’re that newsie kid that won a ticket for helping us with the handbills. - says Pyg
- Yes… - said Nicola, while Pyg brought him to the circus.
The people started to look Nicola with weird eyes. Sure, people looks you weird when you were stinking as a skunk.
Pyg took Nicola to a very beautiful woman, with some Romani blood on her as far as Nicola could see, and talked to her.
He noted something is wrong by the scared face she did when looked his back.
- Oh, dear me. Kid, this will hurt a little, but we need to take this shirt NOW. And not only because of the mama skunk spray! - she said - By the way, I’m Mary, the circus psychic. I also help things to get under the way here, helping provide the food and things everyone needs, and putting everything into place.
She took Nicola’s shirt, which made him for some reason yelp.
- Dear me! If that was the life they give you at home, you really needed to run away! - she said, showing him his back using mirrors.
Nicola was accomplished with the bruises at his back, result of all whippings from his foster parent, but the last one had get really deep, so the blood drenched in the shirt without Nicola being aware of this. When Mary took the shirt off, the wounds had opened back. Mary put some iodine on the wounds, which made Nicola cringe.
- Alright, boy, I think the worst of the mama skunk spray was in that shirt. Now, go over there and take a bath. You can use this soap bar. - she said, giving him a little bar of homemade soap - Scrub yourself very good, specially in the back, to get off from any skunk stink and drenched blood, and came back here after so I can heal those wounds. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can find you a proper shirt.
- I have some clothes into my knapsack. - said Nicola
- I know you have, kid. - said Mary - But we need to see if that mama skunk had left her perfume at them. You know that is not that easy to make skunk stink go away, right? After that, we’ll talk with Mr. McNash, the circus owner, about how we can help you, and you help us.
Nicola agreed and get to a small toilet outside the tent to take his bath, being conducted there by Pyg.
And Mary got into another direction.
As every day, Frederick was, after wake up, training, in front of a full-body mirror, his Mentalist expressions, before going to breakfast.
He knew that the most important part of Mentalism involves using menacing expressions, that make people go freeze by instinct. Those expressions were crucial to weaken others’ will, readying the targets so he could then apply all the suggestions he could.
He did a menacing expression, analyzing the result, when someone called him, outside the wagon:
- Fred, it’s me, Mary!
Frederick knew that Mary was there because very few people called him that way, even in the Century Club. In circus, only Mary called him that way. Everyone else called him Frederick, or, under the Big Top, Don Cagliostro.
- Just a Minute. - he says, opening the wagon door, and so Mary got into the wagon.
Mary Alethea, as she calls herself, is one of the Club retainers, born at January 1st of a non-Century turning decade. In her case, at January 1st, 1870. Being a retainer, she was one of those peoples who helped the Centurions, the Spirits of the Century before, to find the new Spirits and bringing them to the Century Club.
Mary knew Frederick when her family had to get out Prussia for America, and she had been put under Frederick’s protection. When Frederick’s time had “expired” and he started to grow old, it was Mary that convinced him to join her in the quest of finding a Spirit and train him as a legacy of them to the new Century.
- What happened? - he asked
- Fred, I think I found the one we are searching for. He came to the circus. - said Mary
- Are you sure? Had you seem his papers? You know that the birth certificates are not trustworthy in this case. - said Frederick
- I didn’t see any papers, but… Look: that boy had been found sleeping next that tree that is a nest for a skunk with a litter. You know the one I’m talking about, right? - she said, and he agreed - You know how fierce she is, even more now that he has a litter. Well, she just left him with a big spraying, not biting him and so on. And, when looking him, I’ve seem lots of bruises and scars at his back, very bad ones. Remember what I said about the 20th Century Spirit were searching for? What I had seen at the cards?
- Sure: undeserved wounds.
- Yes. Look there: I don’t believe that little gift of God, that little angel, would deserve being that beaten. He was really hurt and coped with this, and by what I’ve saw, without complaining. And looks like there’s no bad time with him: even being smelling like a skunk he was so calm, like he knew we would help him unconditionally.
- Maybe he’s just one of those poor little orphans that tries to find a home. There’s lots of them on the roads in America those days. - said Frederick
- Maybe, but… Look: you know about my Scrying Eye, right? - said Mary, and Frederick agreed: Mary’s heterocromic eyes were not just a family mark, but they had powers, smalls but true. - So: I could not take my eyes from him… Like he was desperately needing a hug. I could not explain this.
Frederick seems Mary was business about this: a Spirit of the Century gift could explain that motherly surge on Mary.
- I see. Well, let’s pretend nothing is happening. If he’s not the one we are searching for, at least he’ll not harm us or the circus, because he’s not a bad boy if you’re saying the truth. So, we could help him anyway and then get back to our quest everything said and done. - said Frederick - Where he’s now?
- Taking a bath, poor thing. He should really be trashed hard to pass out so deep he didn’t notice he was sprayed by a mama skunk. Skunk stink is so foul that normally people wake up at the time to run the Hell away from them. - said Mary.
- Alright: I’ll see him at breakfast. I think he’s getting out the bath now. Go take care of him. I’ll join you later. - said Frederick, while Mary got out the wagon.
Nicola gone aware on how much the whipping had hurt him when he scrubbed the wounds with the soap bar. The smell of the soap was faint and good… But the effect on him was obvious, the little tickling in his back showing that the wounds were now clean.
Soon he finished to bath himself and dressed into only his underwear and pants, as he took nothing else to dress, and had got back Mary’s tent. She then inspected Nicola to see if he was clean enough.
- Much better. - said Mary, approvingly, while passing more iodine and arnica into Nicola’s wound, what made him cringe again. - I found a shirt that will do for now. And I’ve found those into your knapsack while checking your clothes. They’re yours, right?
She shows Nicola a Holy Mother of Mount Carmel scapulary and a red checkered felt casquette.
- Looks like they are very, very important things for you: even mama skunk had not the courage to spray this. - said Mary, while Nicola took those items like prized tokens.
- Yes… They are the only things I still have from my parents. - said Nicola
- I see. And here is your knapsack, with all your papers on it. - says Mary - I had taken the clothes to clean them and remove the skunk stink from them later. Go on, you can check the papers.
- No need for, I know you would not steal me.
- You’re a so goody two-shoes. Never said you to not trust gypsies? - said Mary
- Yup… But… You know, I always trust everyone. I never be able to do otherwise.
- It’s good to be treated nicely for a change. - said Mary, while Nicola put the common white cotton shirt Mary gave, a little baggier for him, even he being a chubby kid - Sorry about the baggy shirt. It was the smallest I found with people, and you’ll have to use it till I can clean your other clothes and remove the skunk stink from them. The one you were using unfortunately I had to throw away: the drenched blood and the skunk spray rendered it useless.
- That’s okay.
- Now I’ll take you for the cookhouse, where we eat our meals. I believe that today Franck is doing pancakes. He’s our strongman, and, even being strong as an ox, he can very swift and delicate when needed. And he’s a great cook: we could bring any kind of grub to him and he does Heavens with it. Obviously, hunger gives taste. - said Mary, smiling, while Nicola’s belly growled.
Nicola walks to the cookhouse, while saw all the crew walking at the backyard: some people were training their gigs, others reviewing and repairing the props or clothes, some feeding the animals, some chatting with each other. Curiously, where many could see just a bunch of freaks, Nicola felt it like a family: even when the midget talked with one of the freak show guys, everyone sees to like each other, like a family, something that, Nicola would never admit, he had a hunger and for what he would pay all the gold in the world.
When getting at the cookhouse, he felt the smell of porridge, toast, eggs and bacon, and pancakes with maple syrup. He looked everything with hunger and happy eyes, while a big man, with muscles as big as himself, spinning the pancakes, thick and gold, with swift, precise movements, incompatible with the his powerful arms.
- Franck, this is Nicola. He ran away from home and came here. He said he can work here to pay for food, but, you know, empty bag don’t stand. Can you fix something for him? For me, the same one. - says Mary, showing Nicola to Franck.
- Oui, Mademoiselle Mary, but mister McNash know you’re with another homeless boy? - said Franck.
- This is between me and mister McNash, Franck. This little mister has taken a hell of a beating and, to turn things worse, slept next mama skunk’s tree. I think he needs something to cheer him up.
- Oui! - said Franck, putting some pancake and an egg in a plate. Then he took a glass of milk and sweetened it with some honey and gave it to Nicola, while doing a plate of eggs and bacon and a cup of black coffee for Mary.
Nicola sat into a little chair and put his plate and glass of milk over a table, starting to eat, while people entered the cookhouse. It was then when he saw that gray haired, black bearded and mustached man that fascinated him last night: Don Cagliostro!
- Hey, Franck. Today I’ll want just some toast and coffee, please. - said Don Cagliostro, and Nicola noted that, beside the powerful, intimidating vision, his voice was very calm and comforting, instead the brood, powerful, harsh voice in the show.
Nicola held his breath by seeing Don Cagliostro going to his table, a plate of buttered toasts into a hand and a black coffee mug into the other. He got even more silly-faced when Don Cagliostro sat into their table.
- Hello, Mary! - said Frederick, doing his best poker face. He observed the little strawberry blond kid at his left, while he looked him as if he was Santa Claus. “Really, he’s as pure as Mary said”, thought Frederick, and he feels a very thin, warm, comforting presence, when he asked Mary as it was nothing - And who is this little boy?
- Pyg brought him to me. He was sleeping at the mama skunk’s tree and, well, it sprayed him with gusto. He was smelling as a smelly skunk when he came, but now he’s as clean as an angel. I’ll talk with mister McNash to see if he could stay with us for a day or two, at least until he could be far away from here. - said Mary - Sounds like they don’t like him here. He had been beaten very harshly.
Nicola blushed when Mary cited his wounds: normally he didn’t complain about anything, to save his energy to take action when he can. If he couldn’t… Well, c’est la vie, as French class’ Madame Le Pen said.
- My name is Frederick Van Der Merwe. And yours? - said Frederick, when Nicola looked flabbergasted with that wonderful artiste talking with him.
- I’m Nicola Castrogiovanni, sir… But… I thought your name was Don Cagliostro. - said Nicola, when he could stuttered some words. Frederick laughed with gusto.
- So, looks like you really liked my tricks and show. - said Frederick, while drinking some coffee and studying Nicola’s reaction. - Don Cagliostro is my stage name. Here, I’m just Frederick for everyone. Maybe, if you stay long enough with us, you’ll have a stage name for yourself. But, if you pardon my curiosity, why had you ran away from home?
Nicola thought a little: he didn’t want to say his foster father wanted to kill him and, to avoid a bigger tragedy, his foster mother sent him away from home. But also he thought he would not avoid give some explanation, so he chosed to just left some bits of truth off.
- You know, my foster father hated me, and left my foster brother beat the crap out of me. So, yesterday night, I was sent to the stables for something he did. My foster mother gave me everything I need to run away, because she feared that, sooner or later, my foster father would beat me to death. I ran away and, very tired, I laid down next that tree, without knowing about the mama skunk. And mister Pyg had woke me, warning that I was all sprayed. - said Nicola, putting away the life threat and flourishing things a little, as he lived a big adventure.
Frederick used one of the specially trained mesmeric looks, trying to see if Nicola lied to him, trying to scare him and, this way, opening him to the Mentalism tricks if needed. However, Nicola looked him with the same pure, naive eyes from the start, without flinched in front of those looks.
“Century Club’s First Rule: the eyes never lie.”, thought Frederick, while relaxing his tense face: if he was not the Spirit they were searching for, at least he was not a Shadow, as far he found.
- Well, they are the ones who are losing something in my book. Hurt a such good kid like you? You look like a really good kid - said Frederick - Now, finish your meal, and we’ll see how you’ll pay for all this. You know that there’s no such thing as free lunch. And I know you have no money, but we are always in need of help to tidy everything till showtime.
- Could I get into the show? - asked Nicola, hopefully, as there’s nothing to him to lose.
- Maybe. - said Frederick, smiling - Anyway, we really need to see mister McNash. He don’t like hoodlums, freeloaders and eat-and-sleep people here. But, let us see how can we help you.
Mister Alvin McNash is the McNash & Sullivan Circus and Shows’ owner by inheritance: his father was the circus owner and announcer before him, and his dad before him. And if there’s something McNash would never put up with was things out of place. He shows this behavior by never, ever be seeing wearing something else than the circus announcer clothes, either inside the Big Top and outside it. And he did everything to be presentable, no matter the weather, temperature or anything else.
- Mr. McNash, it’s Frederick. Could we speak a little? - asked Frederick outside his wagon.
- Just a minute. - said McNash, while tidying up the tailcoat
When he opened the wagon’s door, he saw Frederick with Mary and Nicola. He sighed and asked:
- Another orphan kid, Frederick?
- Sir, Pyg found this kid laid down next the mama skunk’s tree, sleeping even after being hit by a very big spray from her. Mary gave him a bath and he ate some pancakes at the cookhouse. In fact, our little Nicola here had made clear he wants to work the food he ate. I think we could put him to help us with no problem. He looks a good kid.
- Humm…. - said McNash. The other orphans that the circus catched around US were just a bunch of freeloaders. But for some reason that kid looked otherwise for him: he looked to have strength and will to work, which the others had not, and had a very different, hopeful-filled, look. Looks like he was really a very different kid.
- Alright: send him to Pyg and Roland for help with the animals. - said McNash - Then, let us see if there’s something to him to do in the Top, even selling popcorn or nuts. Hope you behave yourself, boy, and do your job dearly. - said McNash to Nicola, with a severe, but somewhat sweet, look.
- Yes, sir. I promise do my job very well and learn to do the things very fast. - said Nicola, with conviction
- Very well. I like your attitude. So, let’s go! - said McNash, going with Frederick and Mary to put Nicola at work.
Roland MacIntyre was from Scottish ancestry, with a small and strong body, almost as strong as Franck, and turned the animal handler after his father had the job.
Instead of many animal handlers, however, he tried to show that respect to animals were the best way to make them do what he wanted, without getting the whip or act harshly with them.
He was taking care of Eliah, the big elephant that was the most important animal in the circus, with Pyg’s help, when McNash, Frederick, Mary and Nicola came near them:
- Heya, is the tree kid. - said Pyg, smiling, while scrubbing Eliah’s side with a soup soaked broom - Mister McNash approved him?
- We still don’t know. - said McNash - At least for today he’ll work for the food he’ll ate. Roland, I think you need a extra pair of hands to ease your job.
- Think so. We have lots of work today. - said Roland, while the others got back to their business, leaving Nicola with him and Pyg.
- What’s your name, boy?
Nicola answered and then Roland said:
- Alright, Nicola… Your first job will be helping us to clean our Eliah here. Use one of those brooms near you to scrub her back’s hide. Don’t push too much on her: this will hurt her and she don’t like this. However, don’t push too little: elephant hide is very thick, so you need to put some strength to remove the dirty on it. Do you believe you can do this?
- I think so. At least I can do my best. - said Nicola
- Good. I like your attitude. - said Roland - It’s better to take your shirt out, because you’ll be very wet very soon.
Nicola took the shirt out and took one of the big, heavy brooms, soaking it into the soapered water next him. Obviously at first he had some problem, but very soon he was helping into Eliah’s bath.
He soon discovered the best way to scrub Eliah’s hide with the broom to clean her without hurting her. She gave some happy roars, which scared Nicola at first, but as long he grew accustomed with this, he grew happy with Eliah’s happiness, while finishing her bath, cleaning her very good. He was tired and sweaty, but with a large smile on his face that glad Roland.
- Very well, boy, think you have a knack for the circus. Now it’s time to feed Khan, the lion. - said Roland while going to the lion’s cage.
- Two important words while dealing with animals: Respect and Safety. Old Khan here is as good as a kitten, but this is not reason to let the guard down. - said Roland, when the get next the cage, while Pyg, that left a little before, came with a big bucket full of bloody, raw meat cuts, including some guts. - Hope you have no problem in dealing with raw meat. - said Roland.
In fact, Nicola never dealt with raw meat before, but he didn’t want to blow everything up by being a coward or a slump, even more that, now that he ran away, the circus was his best chance for a better life.
- I think I can deal with this. - said Nicola, picking some of the bloody meat cuts from the bucket.
It was something very messy and lengthy, and didn’t help that Khan’s cage, while big, was very smelly from all the lion poop. But the lion, roaring, looks that liked Roland’s care a lot, even more with Nicola’s help.
- Doesn’t he get out the cage to spread its legs? - asked Nicola, while putting, through the cage bars, some big meat cuts for Khan.
- We can’t let him spread its legs out of presentations. Safety reasons. But we have some places were we can place him into bigger cages, where he can take a walk safely. - said Roland - I don’t think he like this that much, but unfortunately we can’t put him in bigger spaces. Believe me, I would love to have some acres of land where Khan could live in peace.
- I understand… - said Nicola
After Khan, Nicola helped to feed the hippopotamuses. That was not that different than feed horses, thought Nicola, beside the big food buckets to put at the troughs. In the end, he was tired, but very happy.
- You’re really a good kid, Nicola. - said Roland, while they cleaned their hands and the worst of the sweat - Hope mister McNash take you with us. We need hardworking people like you here. Well, time of the lunch. Hope you like some chili.
- I like, sir. - said Nicola
- And then we’ll see the place Pyg’ll put you into our show. I think nothing that big, but you look a full of talents little boy. - said Roland.
Nicola ate some chili con carne made by Franck. It was like Mary said: hunger gives taste for food. After a very cool glass of lemonade Franck gave him as dessert, he had gone with Pyg to the clown alley.
- Now look, Nicola: the main circus shows are about prowess, courage, agility, and graciousness, which, I need to say, you don’t look have much. So, I talked with mister McNash and we put you into the clown squad for now, until we see if you have other good talents. We fill the show, you know: while people are readying the ring for the next number, we do your zaniness to attract audience’s attention. Let us see how you get on certain things and see how we could use you into our numbers.
Nicola agreed, while started to do as Pyg said:
- Run a little… Now a tumble… Somersault… Yeah, we’ll avoid this by now with you. - said Pyg, while giving a hand to Nicola, after him hitting the ground with his butt. - Run in the same place… Yeah, very good. Now, do as I’m doing. - said Pyg, while he started to walk with big, zany steps, very expanded arms, like a silly march. Then he gave some little jumps, making big expansive moves with the hands, and so on, until Pyg looks satisfied.
- Hum… Not that bad for a First of May… - said Pyg
- First of May?! But we are still at the beginning of March. - said Nicola
Pyg started to laugh, which made Nicola blushes, while Pyg took him to some old vanities full of pots and other things.
- First of May is how we call the newbies in the circus. This is because the biggest circus, like Ringling Bros, contract the artists by season, from May till somewhat November. So, everyone came to circus for the first time at First of May. Our circus is smaller, so we need to work more, just taking vacation between December and the beginning of February. - said Pyg, making Nicola sat into a little stool in front of one of those vanities.
- Alright… Now I have an idea on how to put you into the clown show. I’ll explain your role into that soon. But first, your makeup. - he said.
- Every clown needs to put makeup? - asked Nicola.
- Sure… But the makeup don’t hide our face, but, instead, emphasis our most funny expressions. Remember that, more than calling attention, our function is to make people laugh. First of all, I want you, just with your face, show me the feelings I ask you.
And Pyg started to say the feelings: happiness, angry, sadness, surprise… And then he did some goofy faces as Pyg asked for. Nicola liked it a lot, as it was very funny.
- OK, now I have on idea on your makeup. Now, observe how I’ll put it on you because, you being taken as part of the circus, you’ll have to do it by yourself. - said Pyg, sitting over Nicola’s lap, taking a clean cloth and using it to cleaning Nicola’s face to make him up.
Not that far from circus, a group of boys were looking for the other kids going back home.
No kid would get near those boys if they could: everyone knew that they were the worst kids in town, and no one wanted to mess with them. And as they where next a crossroad that get near the school, all the kids needed to take a bigger turn.
That was fun for them, although they looked around with a bored face, one of them smoking a, obviously stolen, cigarette:
- It’s a bore today. - said the fire-red haired boy, with a weaselly face - That brat was very funny: we could take the crap out of him and he never complained.
- You say this because you didn’t lived under the same roof of him, Colin. - said the smoking boy, with brown hair and green eyes - I was not standing that momma boy anymore. Thanks he ran away, although it would be funny to see my dad taking his skin out of him.
- But Josh, we have no more fun. He was the only one that took that way back from school. - said another boy, with black hair and mean eyes.
- Hey, I had an idea! - said Josh - Why not mess the things on the circus. They’re outsiders. We could do all the mess, that the city guys will be with us!
- Look like a big idea… But it would be even better if we do this at the matinee! They have lots of brats there on those shows! We could scare them! It would be a big laugh! - said the black haired hair.
- Yeah, Aaron. - said Josh - I think we can have lots of fun there!
And they started to talk their mean plans.
Obviously they knew the circus, but never by putting their money out of their pockets, because they robbed the tickets from other kids or simply crashed into the circus, as they’re all strong and swift enough to dodge the circus’ tough guys.
So they knew how to mess everything.
- Right… This is our main gig. Understood, Nicola? - said Pyg, while the other clowns got next Nicola, that sat over the ring curb.
Nicola was dressed into a navy blue sailor’s suit, complete with matching color hat and shorts, a baby pink woolly wig below the hat. He looked like a kid even younger than he was, one that just left diapers behind.
He would be one of the “little kids” that should jump from the “tower in flames” in the fire gig. In fact, the “tower” was a wood and cardboard structure with some bright paper standing by the flames.
- Understood… I’ll be the little cute scared kid, right?
- Yes. Not that different, right? - said one of the other clowns.
Everyone laughed, including Nicola, that shown the red blushed cheeks and the black painted in black, which made his “smile” getting big and very comic, his button of a nose now painted into bright red. His painted clown face only made him looking even more like a little angel, as he was even more baby-faced.
- I understood. Think I can do this. - said Nicola, while he got out the Big Top, using the funny walking Pyg taught him, which, although difficult at first, was the best way to walk with the double-sized shoes he was using.
- Alright, let us eat anything before readying ourselves for the afternoon show. - said Pyg
Mary opened the Tarot about Nicola for Frederick. When he opened the next-to-last card, she put his hand at mouth in horror.
- My God, why? - she said, looking the Tower drawing at the card, the Tower hit by a lighting bolt, people falling from the tower.
- Oh dear… This is not good… - said Frederick, with his calm mind
- Not good? This is terrible! What kind of Destiny could be waiting that boy? - said Mary, worried.
- Well, this can be the proof this kid can be the one we are searching for. The Club already knows about this? Maybe he should left the circus before the time and go to the Club chapter at Omaha, to start his training as a Spirit of the Century. - said Frederick, not aware of Mary’s worries. Then he looked to Mary and said, sympathetic - We still don’t know what the Destiny is reserving for the kid. And there’s still one card to be opened.
- Let us see… - said her, opening the last card, in the center of the cross of cards she placed in the desk.
When she turned the card, she saw a nude person, circled by a mandala of leaves, like the Laurels of the Olympic Champions, at the corners a guy, an eagle, a lion and a bull.
- My my… - said Frederick, smiling - I think we were excessively worried.
- The World! - said her - Never opened The World for the Future. A symbol of ascension, to get higher than ground, into the Heavens!
- So, we could let the hair down for a while… If his Destiny is to be a 20th Century Spirit, nothing will happen with him. Otherwise… Well, unfortunately we’ll not be able to do too much for him. - said Frederick, as the band started the music for the matinee - Anyway, let us see how our little clownie is going into his new life.
The show started very well, as very fast Nicola understood the clown entrances and his station on them. All the clowns looked to Nicola after each exit after the gigs were ready and noted his evolution.
- Crikey, Nicola! - said Pyg, behind the curtains that split the backstage and the ring with the other clowns, ready for the action if needed - I’m in the circus by more than 20 years and never see someone learn so fast the art of clowning. I’m really proud of you!
- Thanks, mister Pyg. - said Nicola, tired, heavily breathing by all the fast movements he need to do for all the clowning, being into all the baggy clothes and shoes that turned movements very difficult - I didn’t know this would be that all that hard.
- Codswallop! - said Pyg - You’re doing very well! Now, it’s time for our main gig. - he said, while the circus crew mounted the “tower in flames”, after Khan’s show.
Two of the kids had taken Roland and punched him unconscious, just a little before he could lock Khan the lion’s cage, after closing it.
- OK, the handler is down. - said Aaron - And now?
- Look for the entrance to the Big Top, Colin. As soon I opened the cage, hit him in the muzzle with a stone from the slingshot. This will make him mad. Get out the way as soon you do this, or he’ll attack you. We’ll give everyone a big scare when the lion get into the ring. Now it’s the clowns show, so no one will, at first, give a damn to us, so we could get away… It will be the time we could get out.! - said Josh.
- Alright! Let’s go! - said Colin
Josh opened the cage and Colin shot Khan with a stone.
Khan felt a pain in the muzzle: not enough to hurt him, but enough to get mad and make him run out the cage and to Colin, that noted, too late, that he could not win against a lion into running.
- Run, Colin! - said Josh, a little worried, a little entertained, as all this was like an rodeo.
After all, he was not the one being chased by a lion.
Nicola was in the top of the “tower in flames”, while Pyg, down the floor, dressed as a big momma, screamed like he was his “little boy”, cornered by the bright paper “flames” in the top of the tower. All that Nicola had to do by now was to feign be scared and do a fake crying, until the other clowns put the safe net so he could jump from the “building” safely.
It was when the band started to play Stars and Stripes Forever.
That rang a bell into his head, from something Pyg said when he asked about the circus, while he did his clown makeup.
- If, at any time in the show, you hear Stars and Stripes Forever, no matter what happens, stay calm. This is an alert music in the circus, so everyone can be aware that something very wrong is happening. Normally, in this case we do our clowning to help people get out the circus safely while others solve whatever happened… I remember hear it just one time, before one of those big twisters in Alabama. That was the kind of situation this music is played, and only on that kind of situation they play it at circus. Not without reason we call it The Disaster March.
And it was. They were playing The Disaster March!
In that moment, Nicola did as Pyg said: stayed calm and continued into his show, while the audience were evacuated by the circus crew. However, he was a little scared, as the “tower in flames” were small and relatively tall, with space just for the clowns that needed to be there. And he was the last one in the top of the “building”.
He stayed into the character, doing his show, but at the same time he tried by all means to find why they played the Disaster March.
It was when he saw, at the ring entrance, a kid running from Khan, that looked furious. He saw the other clowns below running for safety, and this left him a little scared, as he could not get down there.
However, as far he knew, lions couldn’t climb. So, in the top of the “tower in flames”, at least by the time he was safer than those in the ground.
Some moments before…
Frederick was the one who found the boys trying to run away after doing the mess. He used a little trick he learned with Francisco Lamarca, a.k.a. Gaucho, the late Spirit of Pampas, throwing some bolas to lace their feet.
- What you did? - said Frederick for the kids that tried to run away, while Mary came next the Big Top entrance.
- They knocked out Roland and freed Khan after turning him furious! - said Mary, still into the gypsy costume she used into the psychic tent, reading cards and Tarot for people.
- Run to the band and say them to play the Disaster March. Normally Khan don’t attack people, but we don’t know how he would behave when furious. We can’t put people at risk! - said Frederick, and Mary ran to do as he asked for.
It was when he took a deep breath and got himself “on character” as Don Cagliostro, to put that country bullies’ weak minds under his power, to discover their plans.
He did his best mentalist expression, the one he used only in the most serious moments, out of the shows, a menacing mask that could drive minds more powerful than those bullies’ into nightmare and even in madness and, looking straight into the bullies’ eyes, specially the green eyed one, unknowingly to him, Nicola’s former foster brother, he said, into the low, powerful tone he developed in a century as Don Cagliostro.
- Now… - he said, with that low, powerful tune, specially trained, leaving the dread getting into the boys’ mind, freezing their reactions and preparing them to the mentalist suggestion that he would apply - You are under my power. My mind put your feeble ones under my will. You have no free will. You will do everything I want, until I chose to free you. To begin, you’ll say me what, how and why you did.
Nicola saw Khan getting into the ring, chasing the boy, when the boy got behind the “tower in flames”. He thought he would have time to hide behind it, but Khan passed through it, destroying the paper and wood structure like watered down paper, taking the tower balance out.
Nicola still had the presence to hold some parts of the falling wood structure. This didn’t made him avoid the fall, although helped him to not be seriously hurt.
After some painful seconds, Nicola checked out himself by instinct, as always did after a beating. Just a sprained ankle, but nothing more serious. He started to get up, looking for a exit route that he could cover with the sprained leg.
It was when he saw one of the bullies from his foster brother’s gang, frozen like a deer with light pointed into his face. The lion was walking at small steps to him, ready for the final blow to sent the bully Down Below.
And, for the first time ever, Nicola was faced with a really life-and-death choice.
He could get out and survive, but no one could help the bully, that would be devoured before someone else could stop Khan.
However, if he called the Khan attention, he would be the one at death risk, although the bully being able to escape.
And, for some reason, Nicola didn’t thought too much for this:
- Hey, Khan! Over here! - Nicola shouts, the bully scared by recognized the voice of the kid he beated so much.
Frederick gave the boys to mister McNash, while Pyg tried to wake up Roland.
- Bloody hell, boys! - yelled McNash to the boys, totally out of temper, taking the announcer’s top hat and sending it to the ground - Where you were in mind to release a bloody lion and, worse, make him mad, at the ring? What kind of fun you thought you could take from all this?
- We just… - Josh was about to say, stuttering, when one of the clowns came to them.
- Sir, we have a problem! Khan had send the “tower in flames” down when that other boy tried to hide into its back. Nicola had fell and now he’s facing Khan! - said him
McNash had gone very worried: a boy being devoured by a lion would be a tragedy!!!
- Pyg, go on trying to wake Roland up. We need him back awake to tame Khan back to calmness! There’s no chance that Nicola could stop Khan, even more now that he’s furious. I’ll go there to see what I can do. Fred, come with me. You, - said McNash to the clown - run and call the police. And you two… - said McNash to the bullies, out of rage - I swear by God, mark my words: if anything happens with this circus… If any tragedy closes down this Big Top, its fabric will be your coffin!
Josh’s mind normally were not used to much, but now it was dry as Grand Canyon and as frozen as Hell.
First of all, by looking to Don Cagliostro’s terrible eyes, that opened his mind as if his skull was a popcap and that eyes were the cap opener. He felt himself out of will as he never was…
And now, he heard Nicola was trying to face that lion.
What kind of world was that Nicola was getting into?
Khan turned back to the kid that shouted.
When Khan did that, Nicola started to froze over fear, while feeling the, somewhat justified, rage in Khan.
However, in his mind, came the very same little voice that always came on that kind of events, when he was worried, scared or so:
“Everything ends well… If it’s not well, it’s not over yet.”
He tried to calm down a little, his heartbeat getting normal. So, he remembered what Roland said:
Two important words while dealing with animals: Respect and Safeness. Old Khan here is as good as a kitten, but this is no reason to let the guard down.”
He breathed a little and looked with very respect to Khan.
- Khan, I think you remember me when I helped give you your breakfast today morning. I’m Nicola. Hope you liked it - he said, don’t understanding why he was trying to talk with a lion.
Khan still walked slowly, when McNash and Frederick get into the Big Top, now empty, besides Khan, Nicola and the bully. The situation was too much weird to them, seeing the bully fear locked in the ground, although Khan was going to Nicola, that looked calm, or so much terrified he could not show.
- I know what you’re feeling: they are bad guys. I know that. They were very mean with me. But you don’t need to be mean with them. I’m sure they’ll never do anything mean again. At least not that one. He had take the lesson. - said Nicola.
Khan looked not amused, still walking to Nicola, that started to show fear.
- Look, I don’t want anyone to be hurt, right? Neither him, nor you and even more me. It was scary to hear the Disaster March from the top of the “tower in flames”… And when I saw you running to get this kid, I could left him to you. It would not be my problem, because he did many mean things before… But I don’t want anyone hurt, and I think you don’t want it also. - said Nicola, a little horrified, when he noted Khan was near enough him to simply get his paw up and using it to open him like someone peels an orange.
And Khan just expired to Nicola, and licked his face, like a little kitten, messing it into lion’s gob and undone clown makeup, still in front of Nicola, his face more calm. Nicola giggled a little, looking Khan, mixed feeling of happiness, scaring and relief.
It was when Roland came and put a collar over Khan’s neck with care, without taking the whip from his animal handler costume, that was more an ornament than anything:
- OK, Khan… Calm down, boy. It’s over. Let’s go back home. We’ll deal with those kids. They’ll have what they deserve. - said Roland, taking the Lion back to his home at circus.
Mary ran to Nicola and put him into a very motherly hug, that remembered him his mother.
- Nicola… What you had in mind, to face a furious Khan? - said Mary. - You were very brave… Had no fear to face Khan?
- In fact… - said him, now shaking like a leaf - I had a lot! But that times I feel that everything will end well. If is not well, it’s not over yet. - said Nicola, surprising the others’ with sage beyond the age.
- Crikey, Nicola, you had a courage worth of a Spirit of Optimism. - said Frederick
- Spirit of Optimism? - said Nicola, while the city’s police took the bullies
- Let’s say that you’re very special, Nicola. You was born in January 1st, and, now in 1912, you’re 12, right? - said Frederick
- Yes… This. They said me I was born still under the bells tolling the new century.
- Exactly this! This means you’re somewhat special… But first, let us clean all this Khan’s gob from your face and then we’ll talk. - said Frederick, taking Nicola out from the ring to a new life.
The next days were very weird and intense for Nicola:
His former foster brother was sent to the police, and there he saw his former foster father. Nicola talked all about him, but exchanged the idea of putting him in jail by exchanging his fostering, now Frederick being his foster father under the law. And his former foster brother was put to work in the town medical center.
Frederick taught Nicola everything he could about the ages-long conflict between Spirits and Shadows of each Century. And Nicola understood his station on this as the Spirit of Optimism, that was show for everyone exactly what got into his head when he faced Khan: “Everything ends well… If it’s not well, it’s not over yet.”
The circus chosed to left the town, before other bully had any dangerous idea. In the parade before leaving the city, Nicola was cheered by many people, some of them, in fact, that beated him some days before as a weird kid.
In a quick stop of the circus at Omaha, Frederick presented him to the Century Club, but made clear that he would be Nicola’s Mentor, working for the Club from the Circus. So, that received voluminous investments to include loads of new equipments, including a, still uncommon, fireproof Big Top and a portable telegraph.
And that was how the history of Nicola Castrogiovanni, Spirit of Optimism, began.
A history that surely would end well.
After all: If it’s not well, it’s not over yet.