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david starnes

New Fiction


by David Starnes

      To the patrons of the circus, I am known simply as The Man with the Hands Cut from Stone. My family, the other members, they use the name I have carried since my discovery on the steps of the orphanage: William Carlisle. As I peek between the flaps of the stage’s heavy curtains, I wonder if the woman in the third row, two seats from the left, will ever call me hers.
      I smile, and, though it is impossible that she sees me, she smiles back.
      The skin around my cheeks and neck flushes. Suddenly, it is very, very warm. I check to make sure I’m only wearing a pair of brown pants held up by a string and shoes made from rough alligator leather. All seems well. With a lifetime of practiced care, I nudge my cup sitting on a nearby stool to an accessible drinking position, using my massive pinky. Iron, that delicate metal, complains just a tad.
       “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer on stage says, “boys and girls, I should ask that you prepare yourselves, but how can you? Who here has seen a man with hands fashioned from pure, gray granite?”
      Hardly. I’d like to see him and the sisters at the orphanage argue over my purity. Once, right before I ran away, the headmistress tried chiseling my fingers free of their stony prison. All she succeeded in was snapping two hammers.
      “Who here has seen a two hundred pound man crush¬ the bones of an elephant?”
      The crowd gasps, and the mechanical wheels attached to the tops of the curtains start to squeak. As spots of green, white, and red light trickle through to the shadows I am so accustomed to hiding in, I think of the poor pachyderm. He’d been stillborn, and our ringleader had insisted.
      The announcer continues: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no reason to be frightened . . . frightened of the Monster from Calcutta!”
      My accent sounds more Texan than Bengalese.
      “We are nothing, if not safe at Ringling Brothers. But, for your own sake, keep at least ten feet between you and this cold. Blooded. Killer!
      Standing to the left of the ever-widening curtain split, I see the woman in the third row is glaring at the announcer. Why? Is she no longer interested in my act? Does she worry about our distance? I promise I’ll stay fifteen—no, twenty feet away.
      Just, please. Don’t go.
      “It is my great pleasure,” the announcer says, “to introduce to you: The Man with the Hands Cut from Stone!
      There’s terrible worry in my heart, and I’m thrown off by the curtains tearing away in the center. The overhead light canisters I’ve repeatedly asked for less of, shocks me blind. A rolling thundercloud of applause rattles me down to the bones. I toss my grotesque palms up to cover my eyes. Unfortunately, I am so disoriented, I give too much effort, and I hear my nose break before I feel it.
       I smell blood. It’s hot on my jaw, my bare chest. And then the clapping stops and the yells of terror begin.
      “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will, try and stay calm—” the announcer says, but is interrupted by screams of:
      “Cram that calm up your ass!”
      “I wanna refund!”
      “My daughter! Oh, God, has anyone seen my daughter?”
      It is that last cry that sends the tent into full-fledged panic. The buzzing in my ears has died down some, and my vision has partially returned. What I see fills my chest with so much horror, it takes a moment to understand the reasoning for the stampede of bodies toward the exit. Then, as I see four men bull-rush me, I realize this chaos is all my fault.
      When my head slaps the hardpan, and a fist connects with my throat, I know this wouldn’t have happened, had my mother abandoned me someplace better: the bottom of a river, perhaps.
      Shame (not the bulk of the men; I could easily toss them aside) keeps me on the floor. Let them hit, kick, destroy. Freaks deserve no less. The woman in the third row, two seats from the left, has no doubt already escaped. For this, I am glad. Hurt, but glad.
      From close by: “Fire! Fire! Everyone run!”
      This vantage point offers me only a slanting view of the tent, so I can neither confirm nor deny their claim. But I want to tell them not to worry. Flames are just part of the finale. I can’t, however, since I’ve bitten through the tip of my tongue.
      The man with his knees in my chest, his expression shifts from rage to confusion to fear. Then he’s off and running, joined soon by the other men. Another burst of screaming pierces the din of the crowd. Was it me? I’m not sure. It sounds more animal than human.
      As I try to catch my breath, a hand so soft it feels unnatural touches my stony one. I struggle to lift my head.
      “Easy,” she says. “Those ogres needed to learn a lesson.”
      It’s her: the woman in row three, two seats from the left. And she’s smiling at me. Me, by God! It has to be, there’s no one else around! But she’s also crying. What on earth?
      Oh, let me help you. If I can just escort you backstage, there’s a hanky in my lapel—
      Then, similar to the man who had beat on me, the woman in row three’s face changes to sudden dread. She turns to inspect something. A whiff of kerosene and sulfur knocks me full in the nose.
      Now, it is my turn to smile. That little firebug. . .
      But the moment quickly vanishes, when I hear the main tent pole begin to groan. People are still screaming. The woman must see what I cannot, because she jumps to her feet, urges me to stand.
      There’s a cracking sound. More yells. A balloon of hellish heat.
      Then the tent crumples.
      Before the roof drops more than a yard, the shame that held me down melts. I press my enormous palms to the ground, launch myself to standing. Vertigo hovers above my consciousness, but I bat it away. I sprint to the woman, who, for some unknown reason, waits on me. Without asking, I scoop her up. We barrel through the alarmingly slow-thinning crowd and burst into the night.
      A dozen strides beyond the flaming tent, I attempt to set her down. Her arms tense around my neck, as if she doesn’t want to let go. I respond the only way I am able: with a smile.
      “You’re amazing,” she says. “And those hands—”
      I am no longer smiling.
      “You don’t understand. That’s not even close to what I mean.” She lugs my right paw up as high as she can manage (which isn’t very far), and kisses the speckled top. “Those so-called men in there, they’re the real beasts. They are the ones who deserve punishment, not you.”
      Gazing out over her shoulder, I see the circus that has been my home for many years, and it looks like the devil’s sagging crown. As my refuge burns and shrinks, I think I’ll never have a peaceful sleep again.
      Then it is my turn to kiss her, and I do so softly on her cheek. I pull away. Reflections of orange and white alight her face; her grin is that of a madman. And maybe that’s what she is: mad. And I have a feeling what I’m about to do will infuriate her further.
      I begin to run. Those beasts? I will save them.

David Starnes is a North Carolina State graduate (Go Pack!), with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. A programmer by trade, he’ll readily admit to the number of eye drops necessary for all the time he spends at the computer. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife and two Westies. His first published short story appeared in the Marilyn issue of Literary Orphans.

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