Marie-Louise McGuinness Ghosts of Circus Past Oct 2023

Literary Fiction



here was no room for fear at the circus.                      

       As infants, my sister Jenny and I learned to walk by balancing our child-soft legs on the gravity-defying materials of tightwires and bouncing ropes. We were birds, a fear of tumbling to earth wasn’t in our nature. We were born to the Big Top. Each night beneath the candy-striped tent, we jumped and spun like the adults in our family. 

        Mum said we were lucky to have each other; the circus had gifted her twins to keep each other safe from an accident like the one that claimed the life of our father. We felt lucky, too; while other children dipped their heads in books, Jenny and I wrapped our bodies in taut wire and threw ourselves through the air. We loved it.

        Until the night everything changed.

         I don’t know what happened. I didn’t fall, I didn’t let go a beat too early, and I didn’t lose focus. I just felt…different

        The lights became bright, and my fingers numb, so when Jenny reached a practiced hand for mine, I refused to catch it, forcing her into an unplanned backswing and destroying a lifetime of trust.

        When the cheers subsided, nausea rose through my belly to sit salty on my tongue. My equilibrium was altered with the realization I could never keep my sister safe.

        Now Jenny, alone, was the star of the show.

        Spinning and twirling in swift delicate movements, she made the silver ring an extension of her lithe body. I focused on the astounded faces in the audience, gasping in awe at regular intervals as she moved from one trick to another without falter. It hurt my soul that I was not sharing the limelight with my sister. I dipped my head back down to where the popcorn machine whirred with sweet, warm breath and shook my limbs loose from imagined contortion.

        I watched her practice each morning as the sun rose. I wouldn’t allow her to see me but knew she sensed my presence, her movements filling my own muscles and air gusting through my hair with each of her swinging jumps. My heart sank when she reached for the hand that wasn’t there, mine. Emptiness resounded within my fingers in painful memory of what I’d lost.

        I thought about walking away from the hustle into one of the small towns we frequented. I imagined taking a job in a shop, renting an apartment with a bedroom of my own. I couldn’t.

        Sixth-generation circus folk couldn’t leave the circus. They were the circus.

        I hid from the light for two years. Two years that should have felt unpressured but were spent cowering from the whispering ghost of our dad, with my heart an undulating void aching to be filled.

        Until the day Jenny also stopped spinning. 

        Once, we’d shared a van spray-painted with the image of two smiling, golden-haired girls, our hands clasped, dancing weightless in the air. Now, Jenny was depicted alone on a van that was not my home. The odor was tear-inducing in its familiarity as I knocked on her door—dark tan makeup and patchouli incense. I had gotten used to the sweetness of burnt sugar and fried food, so confronted with the scent of home, my body hummed loud, visceral in its response.

        She didn’t answer, so I took the doorknob in my shaking hand. The darkness inside was heavy as if weighed down by an unseen force, so I drew the faux velvet curtains to allow light to enter.

        Jenny was sprawled face down on her thin strip of mattress, and her hair was dull and matted across the thin pillow. Her exhaustion was palpable. I recognized the despair of cumbersome responsibility.

        I gathered her bony frame into my arms and flooded with relief as I felt her squeeze back, burying her swollen red face, damp and sticky, into the welcome curve of my neck. We sat for what seemed an eternity, until her ragged breaths adopted the full roundness of sleep, and I laid her exhausted frame onto the bed. 

        An innate understanding guided me to the small bedside chest from where I pulled Jenny’s costume and without thinking, stripped to my underwear. I pulled the latex one-piece up over my body. It was tight, digging into flesh that hadn’t been there when I last performed. 

        At the small bedside mirror, I applied broad strokes of thick makeup over my cheeks and lines of sooty kohl around my eyes. With a last look at Jenny, I left the van.

        I entered the Big Top with an imperceptible nod from the dampened eyes of my mother, who trusted in the will of the circus, even after all she’d lost. During my assent on the large silver ring, confidence bloomed wild within me.  I acknowledged that my sister and I were, as Mother believed, two halves of a whole, a gift to our circus family. 

        We’d take the load from each other when expectations bore heavy, and fear threatened our calling. Soon we’d reconnect in glorious synchronicity in the hallowed Big Top, the ghosts of circus past were telling me so.

Marie-Louise McGuinness Ghosts of Circus Past Oct 2023

Author Bio

Marie-Louise McGuinness Ghosts of Circus Past Oct 2023

Marie-Louise McGuinness comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland.  She has work published or forthcoming in Roi Faineant Press, Bending Genres, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, Cerasus Magazine, and The Airgonaut, amongst others. She enjoys writing from a sensory perspective. She’s on X @mlmcguinness.

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