The Circus Lives On Top Of The Hill
It’s winter now, when I think of them. Their faded and tattered tents strung across woodworm-riddled poles. Red and white canvas stripes of reminiscent joy now merged and faded to amorphous pink, like a thrice-washed bloodied shroud. And the wonderful wooden keys and brass pipes – the mad balloons and fraying ropes – of that magical machine lying forgotten in the mud. If I could battle through the snow and the woods to reach them, maybe I would; if I thought a fire still burned there, and they huddled it, shoulder to shoulder and passing a bottle between them, and laughing about the world and their sideways place in it. If it were possible, I would like to see them all, one last time, to see that they were well, and not long dead with no one to note their passing.
The strongman and the guitar player walked me through the tents, following a path only they knew between the sides of canvas and the hazards of angled guy ropes punched into the dirt. Mintz, his huge bulk strangely graceful despite his size, hopped almost playfully over rope and peg, never once letting go his grip on my hand. Behind us, his guitar slung across his back, Lionel Duddy bent almost double, shifted to one side and the other as he moved under the rain-soaked ropes like a child on an assault course.
Mintz looked over his shoulder at me. ‟Is here, just a little way.”
We moved between an unseen gap between tents, the sharp tang of animal wafting across the breeze, and scorched oil as someone cooked something dangerous. The clouds blew grey, and there was ice in the air.
‟Here.” Mintz pulled me ever so gently – any lighter and I might not have felt it at all – into a clearing between the tents. Other circus folk gathered around a fire, eating, drinking, laughing and muttering in closed breaths between themselves. One of them looked up at our approach and raised a dark green bottle at us.
‟Guitar player! Now we have a song, yes? We have waited for you.”
Lionel Duddey, the guitar player, moved nimbly around the strongman and me and pulled his guitar from his back in a motion. ‟Not this night, Farrell. This night I have promised something special for our guest.” He held his guitar by the neck and gestured towards me with a flourish.
‟A guest!” A huge woman rose with alarming speed towards me. ‟You must sit! Sit, my dear. Tell us stories.”
‟Not yet, Amara. Maybe later, depending on the weather.” He pointed out the litter of bottles on the cold earth. ‟If we are still able.”
‟Ha.” Mintz, in his soft and quiet voice, you had to lean in to hear him. ‟Amara is not long for this world.”
‟Longer than you, I think.” She leaned her size against his, like giants of the old world. ‟Longer than you. Rather I dig the grave for you, than you for me.” She opened her arms, her dress hanging from her arm like mainsails. ‟Rather you than me.”
Mintz hugged her to him. ‟When you go, we do not bury you. We cook you up, eat for a month.”
Amara pushed him back. She looked like she loved him, somewhere deep inside. ‟Only a month?”
Lionel had two of them hold the vast balloons down. Two of them manned the doors. Two more held on to ropes. The wind picked up and howled about us. Lionel sat on the velvet-seated chair and cracked his knuckles.
‟My dear – as promised, the wind organ!”
The two holding the balloons let them go. They shot up into the night air, pulling a rope each. From this a huge sheet of canvas flew up.
‟The doors!” Two men either side of the machine pulled on the concertinaed frontage, folding it back to reveal the banks of keys and tubes and pedals.
‟Hold fast, the wind is coming!” The two holding on to ropes were pulled to their height as the balloons bobbed in place and the canvas twirled into a spiral and the wind blew hard. The base of the fluttering sheet drew in and vanished into a gramophone horn built into the roof of the organ. The sound of the wind diminished as it was captured and funnelled. It became eerie, the silence. In the woods, an owl called. The wood of the organ creaked and bowed, and it rocked back and forth gently. And then, when it seemed the whole contraption must explode, Lionel drew his chair calmly forward, flourished his hand – his fingers spread – across the keyboards, and he began to play.
Great, deep notes flew out of the tubes. The whistle of the wind across them added to the din. Then Lionel picked at another set of keys and played a song across the top of the first. Then he tapped at yet another set – stretching up to reach them – and they sounded like plucked guitar. Layer upon layer of tunes, and the wind blew and blew; the balloons pulled left and right and forward and back, and the canvas funnel snapped and rippled and Lionel made it all seem part of the song. The ropes pulled the two men holding them up from the ground and Lionel gestured others to help them, shouting instructions as he did.
‟Hold the wind! Hold the wind!”
They took his shout up as a chorus, and then we were all manning the organ; holding ropes, securing the balloons, pinning back the unsecured doors and shoring up the vast nonsense of it all as it swayed and lifted with the wind it stole from the night, its old wood and pipework creaking and moaning with the song.
‟Hold the wind! Hold the wind!” Into the night, atop the hill, we called, we shouted and we laughed.
‟Hold the wind! Hold the wind!” What a wonderful song.
And then I was with the circus folk, if only for some hours. They laughed easily, and teased without mercy, and each seemed greatly to love the other, and not a harsh word was spoken. I heard of how Trounce fought an alligator on the main street of Prague and threw it into the Vltava, where it lives in legend to this day. How Amara had been once a princess whose love had died, leaving her starved and abandoned by the side of the road until the circus came to town and fed her. How Mintz had held up the collapsing centre pole of a burning circus tent while the audience escaped into the safety of the dark outside. How each and every one had seen and heard the world, loved it and been loved in return, and had come to find home here, in the simplicity of wood and canvas, fire-cooked meat and hand-made bread, and laughter and friendship given freely.
It grew colder, and we huddled closer to the flames, and drank the warming liquor, told each other wilder and stranger stories that we made up from truths we knew.
Sometimes, when it’s quiet or when only the wind blows cold, I can hear it. If all is silent, on the edge of hearing, I can hear the wind tamed and made beautiful, the wonderful wind and noise of it, as we all sang Hold The Wind on the icy hilltop, above the forest, in the snow where no man ever goes.
If I really thought they might still be there; if their once great tent was not now sagging and swaying in the cruel winter wind like the loose and leathered hide of a long dead beast pulling in the breeze upon its frost-bit bones. Up there, on the hill, where the caravan train stopped to die, and the world would forget it had ever been there at all.