The Night Circus

Page 11


A man stands between two women, a cherub with bow and arrow hovering over their heads. L’Amoureux. The Lovers.
“Is she pretty?” Isobel asks.
Marco does not answer.
She pulls another card from the line and lays it atop the first. La Maison Dieu.
She frowns at the picture of the crumbling tower and the falling figure. She returns both cards to the deck, pushing it back into an orderly stack.
“Is she stronger than you?” Isobel asks.
Again Marco fails to answer, flipping through the pages of a notebook.
For years, he has felt reasonably well prepared. Practicing with Isobel has proved an advantage, enabling him to improve aspects of his illusions to the point where even with her familiarity she cannot always discern what is real.
But faced with his opponent, his feelings about the challenge have suddenly changed, replaced by nerves and confusion.
He had half expected he would simply know what to do when the time came.
And he had entertained the thought that the time might never come, that the promise of the game was something to motivate his studies and nothing more.
“So the competition will begin when the circus opens, then?” Isobel asks him. He had almost forgotten she was there.
“I suppose that would be logical,” Marco says. “I don’t understand how we are meant to compete when the circus is going to travel, and I must remain in London. I shall have to do everything remotely.”
“I could go,” Isobel says.
“What?” Marco asks, looking up at her again.
“You said the circus still needs a fortune-teller, didn’t you? I could read my cards. I haven’t read for anyone but myself, but I am getting better at it. I could write you letters when the circus is away. It would give me someplace to go, if you’re not supposed to have me here while you play your game.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Marco says, though he cannot articulate why. He had never considered the possibility of involving Isobel in his life outside the bounds of the flat. He had been keeping her separate from Chandresh and the circus, both to have something of his own and because it seemed appropriate, especially given his instructor’s vague advice about the matter.
“Please,” Isobel says. “This way I can help you.”
Marco hesitates, glancing down at his books. His thoughts remain preoccupied with the image of the girl from the theater.
“It will help you be closer to the circus,” Isobel continues, “and it will give me something to do for the duration of your challenge. When it’s done I can come back to London.”
“I’m not even certain how the challenge is going to work,” Marco says.
“But you’re certain that I can’t stay here during it?” she asks.
Marco sighs. They have discussed it before, not in any great detail, but enough to establish that when the game began, she would have to leave.
“I am already so busy working for Chandresh, and I will need to focus on the competition without … distraction,” he says, using his instructor’s choice of word, from an order disguised as a suggestion. He is not certain which option bothers him more: involving Isobel in the game or relinquishing the one relationship in his life that has not been dictated for him.
“This way I wouldn’t be a distraction, I’d be helping,” Isobel says. “And if you’re not supposed to have help, well, I’d only be writing you letters, what’s wrong with that? It seems like a perfect solution to me.”
“I could arrange for you to meet with Chandresh,” Marco suggests.
“You could … convince him to hire me, couldn’t you?” Isobel asks. “If he needs convincing?”
Marco nods, still not entirely certain about the idea but almost desperate for some kind of strategy. A tactic to use in dealing with his newly revealed opponent.
He turns her name over and over in his mind.
“What is Prospero’s daughter named?” Isobel asks, as though she can tell what he is thinking.
“Bowen,” Marco says. “Her name is Celia Bowen.”
“It’s a pretty name,” Isobel says. “Is something wrong with your hand?”
Marco looks down, surprised to find that he has been holding his right hand in his left, unconsciously stroking the empty space where a ring was once burned into his skin.
“No,” he says, picking up a notebook to occupy his hands. “It’s nothing.”
Isobel seems satisfied with the response, lifting a pile of fallen books from the floor and stacking them on the desk.
Marco is relieved that she does not have the skill to pull the memory of the ring from his mind.
You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.
The light emanates from a large bonfire in the center of the courtyard.
As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.
The flames are not yellow or orange, but white as snow as they dance.
Hidden Things
The arguments over Bailey’s future began early and occur frequently, though at this point they often devolve into repetitive phrases and tense silences.
He blames Caroline for starting it, even though the raising of the issue was the fault of his maternal grandmother. Bailey is much more fond of his grandmother than of his sister, so he leaves the blame squarely on Caroline. Had she not given in, he would not have to fight as hard.
It was one of their grandmother’s requests disguised as a suggestion, one which seemed innocuous enough, that Caroline attend Radcliffe College.
Caroline seemed intrigued by the idea through the entire length of tea in the cushioned, flower-wallpapered calm of their grandmother’s Cambridge parlor.
But any resolve she might have had about the matter disappeared as soon as they were back in Concord and their father’s word came down.
“Absolutely not.”
Caroline accepted this with little more than a fleeting pout, deciding that it would probably be too much work, and she did not particularly care for the city, anyway. Besides, Millie was engaged and there was a wedding to plan, a subject Caroline found far more interesting than her own education.
And that was that.
Then came the response from Cambridge, the grandmotherly decree that this was acceptable, but Bailey would be going to Harvard, of course.
This one was not a request disguised as anything. This was pure demand. Finance-based protestations were crushed before they could be raised, by the clear statement that his tuition would be taken care of.
The arguments started before Bailey’s opinion was even asked.
“I would like to go,” he said, when there came a pause long enough to fit the words in.
“You are taking over the farm” was his father’s response.
The easy thing to do would be to let the issue drop and raise it again later, especially considering Bailey is not quite sixteen and there is a substantial interim before either option will occur.
Instead, and he is not entirely certain why, he keeps the subject alive, bringing it up as often as possible. Pointing out that he could always go and return to the farm after the fact, that four years is not a terribly long time.
These statements are met with lectures at first, but they soon become loudly voiced decrees and slammed doors. His mother stays out of the arguments as much as she can, but when pressed she agrees with her husband, while at the same time quietly asserting that it should really be Bailey’s decision.
Bailey is not even certain he wants to go to Harvard. He does like the city more than Caroline, and it seems to him to be the option that holds the most mystery, the most possibility.
Whereas the farm holds only sheep and apples and predictability.
He can already envision how it will play out. Every day. Every season. When the apples will fall and when the sheep will need shearing and when the frost will come.
Always the same, year after year.
He mentions something about the endless repetition to his mother, hoping it might turn into a more measured conversation about whether or not he will be allowed to leave, but she only says that she finds the cyclical nature of the farm comforting, and asks if he has finished all of his chores.
The invitations to tea in Cambridge now arrive addressed only to Bailey, leaving his sister off entirely. Caroline mutters something about not having time for such things anyway, and Bailey attends alone, grateful to be able to enjoy the trip without Caroline’s constant talking.
“I do not particularly care whether or not you attend Harvard,” his grandmother says one afternoon, though Bailey has not mentioned it. He generally attempts to avoid the subject, thinking he knows perfectly well where she stands.
He adds another spoon of sugar to his tea and waits for her to elaborate.
“I believe it would offer you more opportunity,” she continues. “And that is something that I would like you to have, even if your parents are not enthused about the idea. Do you know why I gave my daughter permission to marry your father?”
“No,” Bailey says. It is not a topic that has ever been discussed in his presence, though Caroline once told him in secret she heard it was something of a scandal. Even almost twenty years later, his father never sets foot in his grandmother’s house, nor does she ever come out to Concord.
“Because she would have run off with him regardless,” she says. “That was what she wished. It would not have been my choice for her, but a child should not have their choices dictated for them. I have listened to you read books aloud to my cats. When you were five years old you turned a laundry tub into a pirate ship and launched an attack against the hydrangeas in my garden. Do not try to convince me that you would choose that farm.”
“I have a responsibility,” Bailey says, repeating the word he has begun to hate.
His grandmother makes a noise that may be a laugh or a cough or a combination of the two.
“Follow your dreams, Bailey,” she says. “Be they Harvard or something else entirely. No matter what that father of yours says, or how loudly he might say it. He forgets that he was someone’s dream once, himself.”
Bailey nods, and his grandmother sits back in her chair and complains about the neighbors for some time, not mentioning his father or his dreams again. Though before Bailey leaves she adds, “Do not forget what I said.”
“I won’t,” he assures her.
He does not tell her that he has only one dream, and it is just as improbable as a career in garden piracy.
But he valiantly continues to debate with his father on a regular basis.
“Doesn’t my opinion matter?” he asks one evening, before the conversation escalates to door slamming.
“No, it does not,” his father answers.
“Maybe you should let this go, Bailey,” his mother says quietly after his father leaves the room.
Bailey begins spending a great deal of time outside of the house.
School does not take up as many hours as he would like. At first he works more, in the far rows of the orchards, choosing the farthest points from wherever his father happens to be.
Then he resorts to taking long walks, through fields and woods and cemeteries.
He wanders past graves belonging to philosophers and poets, authors whose books he knows from his grandmother’s library. And there are countless other headstones engraved with names he does not recognize, and more that have been so worn by time and wind that they are illegible, their owners long forgotten.
He walks with no particular destination in mind, but the place he ends up most frequently is the very same oak tree he so often sat in with Caroline and her friends.
It is more manageable now that he is taller, and he climbs to the topmost branches with ease. It is shaded enough to feel secluded but bright enough to read when he brings books along, which soon becomes part of his routine.
He reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself. And he is not in the position to do any rescuing of his own.
During the hours spent watching the sheep as they wander aimlessly around their fields, he even wishes that someone would come and take him away, but wishes on sheep appear to work no better than wishes on stars.
He tells himself that it is not a bad life. That there is nothing wrong with being a farmer.
But still, the discontent remains. Even the ground beneath his feet feels unsatisfying to his boots.
So he continues to escape to his tree.
To make the tree his own, he even goes so far as to move the old wooden box in which he keeps his most valued possessions from its standard hiding spot beneath a loose floorboard under his bed to a nook in the oak tree, a substantial indentation that is not quite a hole but secure enough to serve the purpose.