My mum can fit inside a jar. SHEILA SPANGLE THE AMAZING CONTORTIONIST reads the sign on our caravan. Twice a day Mama squeezes inside her jar.
Papa’s a magician – Herman the Mighty. And my older brother Anthony flies on the trapeze night after night in the Big Top.
I’m Cassie, nine years old and the Family Disappointment. Can’t fold my body into a tiny ball. Can’t produce coins from behind people’s ears. And unlike Anthony, I’m scared of heights.
I have only one skill: I play the violin.
“Like an angel,” says Madam Zizinski, my music teacher.
“Like a squawking bird,” says Anthony.
Mama hands me a tea towel and tells me to dry dishes. “Playing the violin is nice,” she says. “But you’re a circus girl, Cassie. Circus girls don’t play the violin.”
“You’ve a rare gift,” says Madam Zizinkski when I complain about not fitting in. “One day you’ll make your family proud.”
I believe Madam Zizinkski. Between acts, she tells fortunes with her crystal ball.
After Tuesday night’s show I’m practising my notes when Joe Sharman, the circus owner stands outside our van talking to Papa. Usually Mr Sharman speaks with a cheerful voice. Tonight he sounds serious. And kind of sad.
“Profits are down,” he says. “I’m going to have to let some of our people go.”
“You mean you’re going to sack some of the performers?”
“Afraid so,” says Mr Sharman. “I’m off to tell Bo Bo now. Someone else will have to train the animals.”
I wonder if Mr Sharman is going to sack Papa. Or Anthony. Or Mama. Maybe he’s going to sack our whole family. Then where would we go? The circus is our life. It’s all we know.
Next day I find Shortie who’s very upset. “It’s Madam Zizinski,” he hiccups. I can’t get another word from him.
In her van, Madam is putting silk scarves into a bag. “Shortie’s crying,” I say. “What’s wrong? Where are you going?”
Madam reaches out and draws me to her. I love her cuddles. She always smells of sweet oils. And her body is soft like a feather mattress.
“Oh, little one,” she says in her heavy accent. “I will miss you so much.”
I pull away. “Where are you going?” I feel as though I’ve been standing on my head too long.
“Mr Sharman has given me my marching orders.”
“You’re marching? Are you in a new act?”
Madam smiles her big, red lipstick smile. “No, ma petite. I am leaving the circus. For ever.”
It’s too much! I burst into tears.
Madam rocks me. She croons soft and low in my ear.
“I want to go with you,” I blubber.
“I am going on a long trip,” Madam says. “To my family in Europe. It is a good thing.”
“Not for me.”
Madam sighs. “You will be sad for a while. But, dearest Cassie, it will not last.”
“Yes, it will. You’re my best friend.”
Madam Zizinski slips me off her lap. “Look, little one. Look into the ball.”
Madam’s crystal ball looks like glass. But when Madam puts it onto its square of black velvet, she can see into the future. She waves her hands above the ball and mutters strange words.
“Ah!” she says. “Here you are. I see many happy people around you. You are happy.”
I peer into the ball. “Where am I?”
“In a good place,” says Madam. “The angel has played her music. And soothed the savage beast.”
That night, instead of helping to sell fairy floss, I sit with Madam. She tells me about her family.
“You are to be happy for me, little one,” she says.
“I’ll try,” I promise.
Next day I want to be happy. But I feel lost without Madam Zizinski.
Mama gives me Calipso, our youngest chimp. “Look after her,” she says. “Like you would a baby.”
Mr Sharman sold Calipso’s mother to a zoo. I hug my little chimp and mutter angry words about Mr Sharman.
Calipso tumbles and chatters. She pokes her fingers into my mouth. And up her nose. She makes me laugh. But I’m still sad. I’m even sadder when Mr Sharman sacks Shortie.
“Herman,” he tells Papa, “I want Cassie and Calipso to be part of your new act. Cassie, Calipso and…” Mr Sharman pauses. “…Charlie,” he says. “You’ll be called Charlie. Cassie, Calipso and Charlie, the Incredible Clowns.”
Papa must teach Calipso tricks. I must play the violin.
I’m scared. I don’t want to perform in the Big Top. My music isn’t good enough.
“Practise,” Mr Sharman says. “You start your new act next week.”
That night our elephant, Ellie, trumpets again and again. Nobody can sleep. And everyone is cross with her. She is probably sad because Bo Bo has left.
“Shut that jumbo up,” Mr Sharman tells Papa.
Papa pats Ellie’s thick hide and talks softly. But still she cries.
“Go play her some music, Cassie,” says Mama.
I grumble as it’s cold outdoors but do as I’m told. I play a polka and then a waltz. Soon Ellie has calmed.
“Look,” says Papa, “She’s dancing!”
It’s true. Ellie’s swaying, lifting first one leg, then another, in time with my music.
For the first time ever, I don’t feel like the Family Disappointment.
Mama fits Papa and me with colourful clown outfits. I have a red, plastic nose and a purple wig.
Calipso claps his hands and somersaults when he sees me. He curls back his lips and bobs his head up and down.
“Don’t laugh at me, you naughty boy!” I say.
At last it’s time for our new act. I’m so scared. Mama hugs me. “I know you’re not a circus girl, Cassie, but do your best, “ she says.
I remember Madam’s words. ‘I see many people around you. They are all happy.” It makes me feel better.
Tonight the Big Top is half-empty. But the show must go on! Mama squashes herself in her jar. A suitcase too! Then Anthony, so strong and handsome, flies on the trapeze.
I’m on next.
“Presenting Cassie, Calipso and Charlie, the Incredible Clowns!” announces Mr Sharman.
We’re off! The three of us hurtle into the ring. Papa and Calipso tumble while I play a cheerful tune. Then they chase one another in and out of the audience while I play as fast as I can.
When I stop it is a signal for Papa.
“Oh me, oh my!” bellows Papa. “What is this?” He pulls a bunch of flowers out of a small boy’s ear.
It’s a trick, of course. But the boy is amazed.
Calipso grabs Papa’s flowers and races off. Papa chases him. I play again. Somehow my music is sweet. The people are happy. I’m happy.
Papa, Calipso and I continue to entertain while workers build a cage in the ring for the big cats. People are laughing and clapping. They love Calipso’s antics. And Papa’s magic. If only Madam Zizinski was here to hear me play. She’d be enjoying our act so much!
When the cage is finished, Papa, Calipso and I take our bows and leave the ring.
“You were wonderful, Cassie,” says Momma who is waiting in the wings.
Usually now is my bedtime. But tonight, Papa and I stay to watch the big cats. All day they’ve been nervous. Roaring and pacing up and down.
“They miss Bo Bo,” says Papa. “I don’t like the look of them.”
Down the chute the four of them pace. Snarling and showing their sharp, sharp teeth. I wouldn’t like to be in Mr Sharman’s shoes tonight.
Sheila the tigress looks extra mean. She snaps at Mr Sharman again and again. He bellows at her. Flicks his whip on her rump.
Now Sheila, Big Boy, Roman and Marcelle are perched on their stands. For a moment they are quiet. But not for long.
When Mr Sharman tries to get Big Boy to jump through a hoop, Big Boy refuses.
“He’d do it easy for Bo Bo,” I whisper to Papa.
The audience starts a slow hand clap. Mr Sharman yells at Big Boy. And whips him. Hard.
In a flash Sheila leaps from her stand. She crashes into Mr Sharman and knocks him down.
“Oh no!” the audience cries.
Papa calls, “Anthony!” and charges into the cage.
“No, Papa, no!” I scream.
Now Anthony is going in, too!
Papa grabs Mr Sharman’s whip and flicks it at Sheila and Big Boy. Mr Sharman is lying still on the ground. People are screaming. Calipso has his hands over his eyes and is whimpering.
Sheila bares her big, yellow teeth. Marcelle paces back and forth, roaring. Like the loudest thunder. Big Boy and Roman are roaring, too. They’ve never been so angry. So fierce. So scary.
I wish there was something I could do.
Then I remember: “You will sooth the savage beast,” Madam Zizinski said.
I tuck my violin under my chin, raise my bow, and play. I play the sweetest music I know.
Now Anthony pulls Mr Sharman to the cage door. Papa is trying to herd the cats into the chute. They won’t go. They don’t seem to hear my music. For sure Sheila is going to leap onto Papa. Tear him to pieces.
Not one of the cats is doing what Papa tells them. Bo Bo would have sorted them out in a flash. But Papa has never worked the cats before. They’re fierce and so, so mean.
I close my eyes and focus on my music. But still the cats don’t seem to hear it.
All alone, Papa is struggling for control.
Still the cats bellow at him, pace up and down. Refuse to do as Papa says.
Now, remembering how my music calmed Ellie, I start up a waltz. Da Da Da, Da Du Da Da!
I want to close my eyes to the sight of Papa so helpless. But I need to watch.
Sheila has come to the side of the cage. She roars at the crowd. I would like to yell at her. Tell her to behave herself. But I need to concentrate on my tune.
Now Sheila turns her head to the side. One of her ears is raised. She looks straight at me. She hears my music! Marcelle, Big Boy and Roman are now quiet, as well. The people are quiet. Papa’s whiplash sizzles in the air.
All that can be heard is my waltz. Da Da Da, Da Du Da Da!
The audience begins clapping in time with the music. The spotlight swings onto me.
Sheila’s tail flaps back and forth. Slaps against the cage bars. It’s as though she’s clapping, too. She growls at me. It’s a good growl, a way of saying something nice to me. I smile at her.
Marcelle now plods towards the chute. Big Boy follows him. And Roman too. Before they pass the door, each of them turns and growls, as though saying “thank you” to me.
I want to cry and to thank them for being good.
Now only Sheila is in the ring with Papa.
“Come on, girl!” Papa shouts.
As quiet as a kitten, Sheila turns and pads over to the chute. Before going in, she turns and growls kindly at me.
When her tail disappears, I stop playing and stretch my aching fingers. I’ve never played so long before. Nor as good.
Papa closes the chute door. Turns and smiles at me. Bows at the audience.
Now the people are clapping and foot-stamping. “Circus girl! Circus girl!” they call.
They’re cheering me! Me, Cassie Spangle.
Papa is beside me, grinning. Mama sweeps me into her arms and hugs me.
“Well done, Cassie, well done!”
“I’m proud of you,” Anthony says.
“Bow,” whispers Papa.
I bow. And Calipso claps his hands again and again.
Madam Zizinski would be so proud.
– End –
Cover image by igorovsyannykov at Pixabay (free image site)
Author of 130+ books, Australian writer Dianne (Di) Bates has worked as a newspaper and magazine editor and manuscript assessor. In 2006, she founded Buzz Words http://www.buzzwordsmagazine.com, an online magazine for those in the children’s book industry. Di is a recipient of The Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s Literature.
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