Orphans of the Carnival

Carol Birch

November 2, 2016 
The following is from Carol Birch’s novel, Orphans of the Carnival. Birch's most recent novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, was long-listed for the Orange Prize and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Previously she was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the David Higham Award.

London had the best freaks, always had. The Egyptian Hall, the Promenade of Wonders, the Siamese twins, pinheads, midgets, cannibals, giants, living skeletons, the fat, the hairy, the legless, the armless, the noseless, London had seen it all. In the Hall of Ugliness the competition was stiff. But no one had ever seen anything quite like Julia.

She was the Baboon Lady now, appearing apart from the mass in high style, at a gallery. She was the Grand and Novel Attraction, the Nondescript, the Wonder of the World, a scientific marvel. The little book with the drawing of her on the cover, the one done in New York, showed her poised and carefree, her wondrous, wild hairy head adorned with a headdress of feathers and white roses. Inside, Theo had quoted in full from her certificates: “‘Pronounced by the most eminent Naturalists and Physicians to be a true hybrid wherein the nature of woman presides over that of the brute.” He had added: “She is a perfect woman—a rational creature, endowed with speech which no monster has ever possessed.’”

He ’d done a marvelous job; the place was mobbed. Like a clerk he ’d gathered all the information handed on to him by Rates and Beach, pored over dates, questioned her again about her early memories, which were so vague. The papers had blazoned the story he ’d put together, and the crowds caused hold-ups on Regent Street to get a glimpse of the mysterious veiled figure, as small as a child, who was rushed from the carriage to a side door by her manager while the bobbing hordes were kept at a distance. She had a small dressing room with oak walls and a smell of polish, where she got herself ready, following a practiced routine. First she stripped down to her corset and jewelry, then lightly dusted the cleavage of her large dusky breasts with orris root, so that the heady iris scent would rise into her nostrils as she danced. She put a drop of lemon juice in each eye for the brightness, then dressed. She ’d cut her show dress to just below the knee so that she felt like a ballerina. When she ’d showed Theo he ’d laughed and clapped his hands.

“Wonderful!” he’d said. “This is exactly what they want. As much of you as possible, Julia.” Her pearl cross lay at the hollow of her throat, and pearls twined through her hair, gleaming on the tight bodice. The dress was cut very wide and low, and she wasn’t sure if she trembled from nerves or the cold on her shoulders. It didn’t matter, because as soon as she stepped out onto the raised platform and the pianist began to play, she knew it would all be fine. A sixth sense told her. She sang “Ah, Perdona al Primo Affetto” and “Voi Che Sapete,” and at the end of each, the audience first drew in a tiny collective breath, held it for a silent moment, then exploded in a riot of applause that needed only fireworks to complete the sense of occasion. She danced the solo from La Sylphide, then went down among them, letting them shake her hand and stroke her whiskers.

“Miss Pastrana,” they asked her, “are you happy?”

“I am very happy,” she replied.

“Where did you learn to speak English?”

“A long time ago, when I was a child in Mexico. That is also where I learned to speak French.”

“Have you ever been in love?”

“I’m waiting for the right man.”

That brought a laugh, with which she went along.

“None of them were rich enough,” she said.

Another laugh. And she laughed when a toddler stretched out his arm to her, saying, “Dadda!”

“Can I touch your hand?”

“What a beautiful dress!”

“Miss Pastrana, you’re a lovely singer.”

“Do you mind being different?”

“No. Not at all.”

She returned to the platform and sang one more song, this time with her guitar.

Good God, this is it, thought Theo, standing with folded arms at the back because he liked to see things from the audience ’s perspective, blinking rapidly and smiling like an imbecile. Sweet little thing, a true artiste, the real thing. He could have cried. She was the most extraordinary being that had ever existed on the face of this ridiculous earth. The papers said so. Everyone said so. They wanted to see her, they wanted to meet her, everyone came, the great, the good, the scared, bewitched, bewildered, the willing and unwilling. And they paid.

Please God, now, let this be my golden coach at last, whispered Theo, raising his eyes to heaven as smiling, clutching the flowers they gave her, she took her third bow.

Please, this time.

* * * *

His career had been down snakes, up ladders, all those years on the road, the dwarfs, the strongman, the knife thrower, the magicians and mind readers, the man with the parakeet orchestra. A hazardous life, hanging around on the fringes of the business while the other side of the family made killings as far west as Iowa. God, wouldn’t he just love to pass them by now, those Westchester cousins, not bother to call, say, sorry, too busy, far too many important people waiting. Tossing him their crumbs. Uncle Ben put in a word with Barnum, and the upshot was the trip to Europe, where he met the Gatti Twins, two brothers from Swansea who juggled with knives and did ridiculous feats of balancing. Up the ladder he ’d gone, his big chance, four years, four European tours, till one morning in Leipzig when he woke up with a splitting hangover and there were no Gatti Twins and no money, and he realized with a start that he had no idea what day it was, only that he must have been drinking for a very long time. A period of dream and illness followed. He was imprisoned as a vagrant. He stuck it for a week, then got a letter to his father in New York, and after another couple of weeks funds had been sent, and he went back to the States in shame on his uncle ’s money, back to the old house on the Bowery.

This was where he ’d been born, in the back room downstairs, where his mother had been alive, and every room had been full of the show people who came to board. It was in a dire state. Dogs still roamed the stairs and yard, but these were leaner and wilder than those old ones he remembered, and the whole place stank of them. He remembered when the house had always smelled of cooking and drying laundry, when the lobster girls and dog boys had come down for breakfast in the parlor. And he remembered it later when the lobster girls and dog boys had given way to card sharps and fortune-tellers, and it was just him and the old man, and everything was going downhill.

Now the rooms were empty, and his father was sitting in his vest in the kitchen drinking alternately from a Knickerbocker soda bottle and a bottle of whisky. He ’d been addicted to both for years. A massive collection of empties gathered dust on a shelf above the dresser.

“What the hell have you done to this place?” Theo demanded, summoning all that he ’d learned in the years away from home, the voice, the smile, the suave man he ’d groomed himself into. “You’ve let the whole thing go.”

“Look who’s talking,” his father said. “Look at you.” A failure.

Bailed out again. He looked with despair at the filthy walls and the spit in the corners of the old man’s mouth and vowed again: I will not go down. He ’d vowed before. No more pillar-to-post up and down the West Coast, he ’d said, no more being small and slight and looking young and being overlooked and disrespected and always getting the shitty jobs, roustabout, lackey, ticket man. He ’d vowed it and look where he ’d ended up. In jail. But not this time. He ’d worked too hard for that. No more poor Theo. I’m as good as the lot of you. I’ll show them.

I showed them, he thought, applauding wildly in the wings. I did, I showed them.




From ORPHANS OF THE CARNIVAL. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2016 by Carol Birch.

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