The expansive Big Top sheltered three rings, all of equal size yet greatly varying in popularity. In the first ring, only for the ‘Reserved’, local businessmen and their families sat sensibly, demurely, in their seats, admiring the stilt walkers weaving through elephants adorned with silk. The spotlight shone strictly on this ring and their gazes never wavered to anything beyond it. The stilt walkers projected a countenance of certainty and pride, their strides exceeding that of a panther.
It was far from a fully democratised spectacle, however. The more clearly one sees this world, the more one is obliged to pretend it does not exist. The public saw only the centre and rear ring, which had been dimly lit by the mere glow of the spotlight. Darkness had queered the pitch of the scrupulous tightrope walkers in the centre, ambulating thin lines alongside juggling acrobats. And directly at the rear of the stage, concealed from the grandstand, lay an empty ring with naught but a single iron-barred cage housing the epitome of human nature gone astray. His calloused feet dragged across the coarse sand of the ring. The stench of his urination faded as it wandered to the other rings.
Arthur cowered at the cage’s edge like a scrap of clothing, burying his congenital anomaly of a nose that earned him his mother’s abhorrence. The rambunctious shoutings of the public abated not. They had flocked to the periphery of the ring to gawp at ‘The Devil’s Mutt’ – the human beast with whom so few associated his real name, Mr. Arthur Tee. The rusty iron bars failed to deter them from savagely rattling his cage, as though to spur on the mutt’s animal mannerisms. The showman, as though infected, shouted with them.
Arthur remained in the cage’s corner, grunting and spitting at the polished shoes of the belligerent gentlemen who, in their altitudes, had lost all propriety. Mr. Moore, a bacon-faced patron of the circus, considered Arthur’s value to the act as merely profit, for, had he not attracted the majority of the visitors, the showman would have disposed of him immediately.
‘He is an imbecile, I tell you. The mutt wails through the night. God forbid that he be left in the dark.’
As the night wore on and the boisterous crowd receded, the final visitors to the circus comprised a gentleman with a young girl of affectionate disposition, from whom Arthur felt a certain warmth. Her curiosity overwhelmed her apprehension, and thus she cautiously approached the deformed man.
‘May I have the pleasure, sir, of knowing your name?’
Arthur threw his arms grandly outwards to mimic the showman’s haughty countenance. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I reveal to you the creature crafted from the devil himself. The anomaly of human nature, the physically deformed man who is mocked and spat upon, the dough of the circus. The Devil’s Mu-‘
‘The name by which you identify yourself, sir.’
Struck by her sincerity, Arthur cleared his throat in an attempt to conceal the hoarseness of his voice. And although his voice was unlike the soft music of the child’s tones, he pronounced with clarity. His hunched spine protruded, yet his movements were supple. He gave the most subtle of bows. ‘Arthur Tee, ma’am.’
‘Like the beverage.’
Between his parched, cracked lips, Arthur’s smile revealed an incomplete row of teeth, all crooked, most chipped. He chuckled. ‘Like the letter.’
‘You can spell, sir?’
‘Only my name,’ he replied with diffidence.
Why had God condemned such a gentleman to this place? Surely, one would not withstand such formidable sins without a reward. Her little repulsion to Arthur’s physiognomy dissipated after he planted a gentle kiss on the child’s hand, and upon their separation she left him with a silk handkerchief.
It went against the grain with Arthur that he was left to reside in the confines of the rusted iron bars. Evading the uncertainty and dangers of the dark, he desperately clung to what little light emanated from the faraway ring, in which the stilt walkers chattered in felicity. Since childhood, Arthur both dreaded and yearned for the prospect of success in the show, for the public’s spending was the meaning of his life. The pegs holding down the Big Top remained driven into the soil, and would remain indefinitely as fetters to Arthur’s freedom. He dared never to besmirch the circus.
He flattened the scrunched handkerchief the child gave him and began to wipe his face. The luxuriance of the delicate lace only formed a more horrid contrast with the grime it absorbed. He moved to scrub his hands, but the redundant rag expelled only more debris. Was this the wasteful result of what rare benevolence he encountered? He shuddered at the conception and scrubbed with increased vexation until the debris fused into his flesh.
If salvation had come, then God deemed him unworthy of it.