‘Sweet Like Fate’, Sara Puls

Illustrations © 2013 Cécile Matthey



 [ Lambeth, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ] Lambeth had no right to lurk in the shadows during Ru’s solo practice time beneath the Big Top. An aerialist, Ru was the best performer the Nouveau Cirque de Agua Dulce had. No one else came close to rivaling her strength, her grace, her free fall drops. As for Lambeth, she was just the sideshow. The freak. The misfit. The weirdo. Lambeth the Bearded Lady! See her beard! Watch her whiskers grow!

Still, Lambeth couldn’t help but be drawn to Ru. It wasn’t the way Ru’s body twisted and gyrated around the fabric. And it wasn’t the way her muscles pulsed when she latched back onto the silks after a staggering drop. What made Ru so irresistible were the wyrds written on her skin.


Lambeth noticed the first wyrd after the troupe’s performance in El Paso. In the chaotic shuffle back into the ring for a final bow, Lambeth stumbled into line behind Ru.

Still glistening from her performance—the last of the show—Ru wiped sweat from her brow. Her chest rose and fell in quick, oxygen-hungry breaths. Lambeth soaked in the acrobat’s every move.

As the line of performers lurched forward, Ru lifted her hair with one hand and wiped down her neck with the other. That’s when Lambeth saw it. Written in delicate, inky script across Ru’s neck was the wyrd

breathe

Lambeth stepped closer but the wyrd faded away. Still, she knew what she saw. One moment flawless walnut skin, the next a secret wyrd. A wyrd meant for… whom?

As Ru let her dark curls fall back into place, Lambeth sized her up. She was smart. She was tall and thin, like a giraffe. She had big, bright eyes and skin that seemed to sparkle as she danced. She was strong, too. And until that moment she had seemed so—normal.

Lambeth heeded the wyrd and took a long, slow breath.

Suddenly the ringmaster—Master Fortune McLeroy —was calling out Ru’s name.

Ladies and gentlemen! I give you the beautiful, the elegant, the incredible… Ru!

Crisp, cheerful applause erupted from the hands of each and every body in the crowd.

Lambeth was next. She straightened her skirt and smoothed her beard—which was really more of a goatee.

Lambeth, everyone! Lambeth the Bearded Lady. Give ‘er a round of applause.

A few people whistled and clapped as Lambeth stepped forward. As she curtsied, though, the more typical remarks sliced through the thin, lazy applause.

Sick. Just sick.

Freak!

Feigning ignorance, Lambert straightened up, forced a smile, and waved—from the elbow, not the wrist.

As she stepped back into line, she turned her gaze towards Ru, who looked at her with strange, almost sad eyes. Just before Ru looked away, Lambeth saw another wyrd. This one, arched over Ru’s left eyebrow, said

forget

Lambeth longed to pull Ru close for a better view. Instead, mind racing, unable to catch her breath, she turned back to the crowd.

The next performance, this time in Nuevo Laredo, passed by much like all the rest. With the grace of a swan, Ru contorted herself between the long lengths of fabric that hung from the ceiling. Marcel pranced across the tightrope with barely a wobble. One of the dancing elephants refused to dance. And Lambeth permitted a mixture of jeers and jabs to rain down on her from the crowd.

That’s no woman! yelled a gruff voice from the stands.

Sure feel bad for her husband, another called.

A wave of laughter pushed across crowd.

Nah, she ain’t got a man. Lookit her!

Lambeth knew she was far from beautiful. But this? She didn’t deserve this.

Hey, lady, some kid yelled, disrupting her thoughts. Let’s see you give that ugly ol’ beard a tug!

Lambeth sighed through a beaming, painful smile and obliged the request. Fortune said it was important to prove her beard wasn’t a fake. Most of them were.

As the crowd hooted and laughed, Lambeth finally made her escape. Ru stood partly behind the crushed velvet curtain that led backstage.

Ru’s sympathetic half-smile took Lambeth by surprise. Despite their brief exchange in El Paso, she still expected Ru to look right through her, like most of the troupe did.

“Rough crowd,” Lambeth managed.

“Ain’t it always?” And then, in a swirl of dark ink, the wyrd

strength

danced down Ru’s left arm.

Three wyrds on three occasions. But before Lambeth could speak, Ru hurriedly pulled on her warm-up jacket and slipped into the folds of the faded burgundy curtain.

Two days later, when back at home in Agua Dulce, Lambeth could think only of those wyrds. Impressed into her mind like sunspots, their implications and mysteries would not fade away.


Maybe it was loneliness that compelled Lambeth to sneak into the Big Top during Ru’s practice time. Or maybe it was simply that those wyrds—breathe, forget, strength—were the closest thing to understanding she’d experienced since joining the Nouveau Cirque de Agua Dulce three months earlier. Maybe she had nothing to lose.

Whatever it was, by then the choice to reveal what she knew felt like the only choice there could be. Standing just behind the aging curtains, next to a dusty heap of elephants’ dance shoes, she watched and waited for the right moment.

With each twist and stretch of Ru’s body, the air, a willing supplicant to the acrobat’s charm and power, parted and split, sparkled and glimmered. Like Ru, it moved and bent in ways Lambeth never knew possible.

Finally, Ru swooped down from the practice silks with the ease of a cat scaling down a tree. Then, with both feet planted firmly on the ground, she spoke.

“You don’t have to hide,” she called, voice rich and smooth like honey.

Crouching down, making herself small, Lambeth stepped further into the grey-black shadows.

“Lambeth,” Ru called softly, “I know you’re there.”

Slowly, carefully, Lambeth stepped out from the dusty, backstage air.

Ru’s face was relaxed, her eyes warm; not a single line of irritation marred her beauty. Lambeth inched forward as Ru moved towards her with quick, graceful steps.

Soon they stood together at the edge of the practice ring.

“What made you join?” Ru asked.

It was a good question. The Nouveau Cirque de Agua Dulce was not a nouveau cirque in any sense but name. All their equipment had been purchased at flea markets and yard sales in places like Sarasota, the Ringling Brothers’ de facto company town. And despite all the complaints from elephant rights activists and camel equality groups, Fortune even insisted on keeping two dancing elephants and a talking camel in the ranks. Nothing nouveau about that. Poor things.

“What made me join?” Lambeth chortled. “Who knows?”

“Ha. Tell me about it,” Ru said. “But really, I mean, what’s in it for you?” Again her voice was gentle, careful.

Lambeth shook her head. If she spoke now, she’d definitely cry. She couldn’t cry in front of Ru, strong and beautiful Ru. Trying to ignore the giant pit in her stomach, she blinked rapidly and wiped a bead of sweat from her brow.

“I, I don’t know anymore,” she finally said. “I thought things would be different.” Then, quickly, she changed the subject. “Why did you join? Seems like you could have done anything.”

Ru bit her lower lip. “No,” she finally said. “I can’t control it. The wyrds—I know you’ve seen them—they just come.”

Lambeth blushed.

“When I feel strongly about something—positively, that is, happy—I can’t stop them,” Ru admitted. “ I hate the circus, if you can believe it. And I hate aerial silks. But the gig keeps me safe. Or it did. Until you.”

“What did I—”

Ru reached out and put a hand on Lambeth’s shoulder. A warm glow illuminated the space beneath the worn red and white tent, making Ru look almost ethereal.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Touch me. Here.” She tapped lightly on her chest, just above the hem of her leotard. “You’ll see.”

 [ Ru, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ] “Oh no,” Lambeth said. “I couldn’t.”

“Please.”

As her stomach twisted into knots, Lambeth placed a shaky hand on Ru’s chest. “How long should I wait?”

A tiny smile flickered on Ru’s face. “You’ll know.”

A moment later a delicate burst of heat pulsed beneath Lambeth’s hand. She pulled away.

The wyrd was

yes

“Yes?” Lambeth asked, wiping her palms on her shirt.

Ru’s smile bloomed big and bright. “If I’ve been cold, I’m sorry. It’s just, with the wyrds, I can’t be too trusting. If the circus finds out they’d never let me leave. And I can’t stay here forever.”

Lambeth nodded.

“They can always get a new aerialist. But I doubt they could find another girl with little fates imprinted on her skin.”

“Right,” Lambeth stuttered. “Of course.”

Playfully, Ru took Lambeth’s hands in hers and squeezed. “I’m a freak, too,” she laughed. “Whatever that means.”

Ru hadn’t said it like the others. There was no disdain or judgment in her voice. Finally, Lambeth allowed herself to relax.

Clearing her throat, Ru ran her hands down the sides of her leotard, as if trying to brush her nerves away. “So my answer is yes.”

Now, with a rush of emotion, it clicked.

Slipping one are around Ru’s waist, Lambeth leaned in. First, as her tongue grazed Ru’s bottom lip, she tasted the perfect acceptance of the wyrd yes. Then, pressing hard against Ru’s mouth, she tasted all the wyrds she’d been searching for. The taste was sweet—like fate.


© 2013, Sara Puls

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