The Lion-Tamer’s Wife
She is a big woman, with arms like hams and her torso seems to end in her head without bothering with a neck. She has a mane of very thick red hair down to her waist, unkempt. If you could carve the chubbiness away from her face, she would have been beautiful once and, evidently, she still has her charms because, even in the promiscuous rough and tumble of the travelling circus, he has never strayed.
She must have seen him perform a thousand times, but she never misses him on stage. He is as wiry as she is fat, and dextrous with it. He used to be an acrobat and you can still see it in the way he performs a finely-judged dance with his lions, tickling them with a stick to make them roll over or stand up. He looks fearless but, should you watch closely, you will see that he is always weaving away from those jaws.
It was my idea of devotion, the way she stood, only just backstage, with a clear view of him night after night, watching, checking that he was safe always.
When his act finishes, she always has the same routine. She knocks back a small glass of whisky, untouched during his act, lights a cigarette and begins her slow, swaying walk out of the Big Top, her soft shoes threatening to disintegrate under her spreading, swollen feet. Considering she never speaks or does anything other than stand and watch, I am oddly fascinated by her, forgetting all about the lions, standing closer and closer each night to get a better look at her.
Towards the end of the run, he has a slip of concentration and drops the stick, lets the lion come between him and the exit. There is a stunned silence and I look to her. Her face is alive with emotion, and she leans forward, arms outstretched as though she can reach across a hundred yards and pull the lion away with her mighty forearms.
For a second all is still; the audience holds its breath. Then the lion moves towards him, opening its jaws and saliva streaks the sawdust floor. In a split second, a quick-thinking stagehand throws something edible and the lion is distracted; the lion-tamer gets away.
“Shit,” comes a malicious croak just behind me, as heartfelt a thing as I ever heard. “Next time, next time.” And she downs her whisky and shuffles off.