'This place smells like balls.'
That's the first thing he ever said to me while his squinty eyes scanned the town. Not much of a town from where we were standing, I have to admit. Twenty-two buildings including the post office tent. It wasn't always a tent.
'Can't smell it.' I take deep breaths and look for eye contact but nothing.
'Yet', he says and puts on his top hat. I give up trying to catch his gaze and I look the town as well. Twenty-one buildings and a tent in the middle of the desert. I'll miss it.
El Maestro was an interesting man. He could not pull a truck with his teeth, neither could he tell you how much longer you had on this earth by reading your palm. He was more like the boss of the place, a real 'maestro'. But what made him special was his sixth sense; a sixth sense for talent. His words, not mine.
'You'll be great kid'. Also his.
He read about me in the paper. It was just in the local news but somehow it reached him. Hence the sixth sense. Or coincidence. Never both, doesn't work that way.
I was on the news cause I got caught up in a fire. Not really but kind of. Like I said, the post office wasn't always a tent. It used to be a big, rotten, wooden building where I used to make some pocket money. It lit up in seconds and Mr Ferguson got trapped in the cellar.
The trick with fires is to keep your cool and hold your breath. Keep it together. I usually struggle with it but that day was different. Ma said pa wasn't coming back again. Hadn't seen him more than two times the past two years but still. No room for fire panic after that but can't say the same for Mr Ferguson. His cries gave away his position and made me a hero. I pull him out and next thing you know I'm a big shot in small news.
Enter 'El Maestro'.
'You're gonna be big, boy! Forget that shithole.'
Does it really smell that bad?
'How did you get that big?'
He looked at me for a second before he burst into laughter and I must have missed the joke because my question was sincere. He was the biggest man I had ever seen.
'Eat all your food kid.'
I could eat all my food, Mr Ferguson's food and his dog's food but I still couldn't see it happening. 'The Great Bama' was the name and the great muscles was his game. Hairy as a bear and high as a mountain, I wouldn't bet against him in a fight with a bull or any fight for that matter. His long moustache was fair play for normal humans to get closer to his face.
'So you're the new recruit?' I nod because I'm not sure he can hear me through all the hair around his ears. 'You'll love it kid. How's your game?'
I show him the palms of my hands and I feel a little bit excited cause he wants to know about me, and even more when I see him stare in awe at the sight of my burns.
'Wow, brave kid. Could never do that myself. All this hair you see, extremely flammable.' He bursts into laughter once again as he slips his fingers through his chest hair. Once again, I missed the joke because he couldn't be more right.
My first time was almost a decade ago, I must have been four or five. The days back home are extremely hot and the nights are hardly any different so a bonfire is a rare sight. We've only had a handful of those back at my hometown and this one wasn't one of those times.
There was this mister whose name I can't recall, if I ever knew it in the first place. All I remember is that he was a darker shade of white and he used to be friendlier than he looked. There was nothing odd about this fella until he passed away when lighting struck him. For real. And that's not even the weird part. You see this fella had a death wish of some sort cause I'm still not convinced 'that's how they do it back there'. He didn't want to lie with the maggots and the lizards. No, no. He wanted to go 'over' rather than go 'under'. Wasn't he smart?
And I still remember watching those huge flames flickering. That wasn't one of those times I kept my 'cool'. I was so 'hot' my momma had to clench my hand to keep me from getting sucked into the fire.
'Whenever you're ready.'
I'll never be ready but how can I say this to El Maestro? They stand there waiting for me to do something and their gaze makes my staff heavy and my shoulders stiff. All I can do is stare back and count them. El Maestro, The Great Bama and three more people. No, make it four. There is a guy taking a nap in the shade by the truck but I know he's pretending. He's actually waiting for me to do something.
'Come on kid, we ain't got all day.'
Easy for you to say. The last time I saw so many people gathered together was when momma used to take me to church more than two years ago. She finally gave up on me and I got my Sundays back.
'Maybe this will help.'
I wasn't looking. I didn't have to look. My nostrils got bigger and if I had hair in my back like The Great Bama did, they would give a salute right now. I just wasn't sure where the smell was coming from. Gasoline. El Maestro puts the bucket in front of me.
I see his lips move but I have no idea what he's saying cause even though he stands just a few feet from me, I am miles away already. With weak knees and trembling hands I dip the staff's ends in the bucket. I don't need to tell him once and he lights the ends on fire.
And so it begins. A wall of flame between me and everybody else. It doesn't last for long so I have to keep building it again and again as I wave the staff around. I bring it close to me, further away and back again. I spin it around my head and close my eyes to enjoy the sound and the smell. Ahh...the smell.
In the distance I catch some words. They need a name for me. How silly is that? I already have a name, it's...
He yells it to the crowd like he only knows how and The Great Bama pushes me on stage. I don't know if it was just a pat in the back or he realized I was nailed to the ground, but I needed that anyway.
I look at El Maestro and he knows. He smells my fear; he 'has seen it a thousand times'.
'Every single one, boy. It's the human nature and you can't escape your nature.' I thought he was always good at talking but he swears he wasn't and if someone swears then it's probably true.
Back to reality that feels more and more like a dream now. I make my way to the centre of the stage and it feels like I'm moving though muddy water. Lights are on me but I can still see the silhouettes in the crowd. So... many... people. And they stare right back at me.
'Pick it up...'
El Maestro is right next to me and is now whispering in my ear. When did he get so close; I have no idea. How my gear lies there in front of me; no clue. But the smell reaches my nostrils and next thing you know my world is in motion again.
The fire dancing around me limits my view. It's ironic how such a bright light creates such darkness around it. I can no longer see silhouettes in the background but I know they're there. I can hear their frenzy.
'Goddammit son! You're a genius!'
Nobody called me a genius before. I wouldn't have believed them anyway but this was coming from El Maestro himself. I'm a genius.
'Welcome to the family kid.'
That's what they said to me and it felt so good I already forgot about being a genius.
In the next few weeks I got to meet almost everyone in the family. Monique was one of the two that impressed me the most. She was younger than my mom but still older than me. She was an escape artist. She said she could escape from any prison, which got me very confused at first since she seemed to have no trouble with the law.
'I don't get it'.
'There's nothing to 'get' kid. Prison in the broader sense.'
I nod like I understand. Hell if I did but then I saw her do her thing.
Once I got over the fear of the crowds I could peek through the curtains and watch the other performers. I can't remember how many chains they put around her but they were enough to sink her to the bottom of the water tank and keep her there. Oh, she also was wrapped in a bag. That's right. A bag. I must have had horror drawn on my face cause The Great Bama tried to calm me down.
'Relax kid. She's the best'.
The best at what? I felt the sheet that covered the tank was a nice touch cause I didn't feel like watching her drown. I tried to hold my breath for the time that she was in there. The crowd must have done the same cause there was absolute silence for a moment.
As I gasped for breath I faced the other way and put my hand on my chest. My heart was racing. I closed my eyes and prayed for her. Could I still save her? The silence turned into whispers. They were worried as well. I was about to turn around and run to the stage when I heard the cheers. Never found out how she did it and I never watched another one of her shows. Just hoped she would always find a way out.
The second one was Vilma. She claimed she could see the future. I could state the obvious, that she was blind, but I'm sure she knew already. She had her own caravan and she didn't perform with the rest of us in the big tent. The only other caravan that was used for performance was Anya's but I was never allowed to go there. They always said 'one day' and gave me a smile. But I was still allowed to go to Vilma's and I settled with that.
Her sign outside read 'Mystique'. The only mystique about her was the amount of wrinkles on her face.
'But your name is Vilma.'
'Is your name Candela?' My ma always said think before you speak.
'Where's your sphere?' I had heard about fortune-tellers with magical spheres from people who had been out of the town.
'I'm blind kid, I read the palm.'(so she did know) 'Here, let me show you.'
She extended her hand and waited. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do but I guess I did the right thing extending my hand as well.
'Hmmm...' She seemed very serious and all I could think was how ticklish it felt but I kept my cool.
'I see a bright future... these lines... I've never seen anything like this...'
'Those are burns.'
She groaned and pushed my hand back. 'Come back when they heal.' I never got my fortune told.
I enjoyed my time around the camp but I had to 'step up my game' whatever that meant.
'You have to introduce new things in your routine. People don't want to see the same stuff all the time.'
'But we're moving places every other week. It's a different crowd.'
'It's a big world boy, but it's not endless.'
However smart El Maestro was, I wasn't sure about this. It did seem endless. This desert seemed to go on forever. But I trusted him anyway. And it paid off.
I remember the first time a carnival was in my town. My ma said she didn't have money to take me so I never saw it up close. But I do remember the poster. It was a big one in the front wall of the pharmacy. Or at least it seemed big; I was quite small back then. I don't remember his name but I remember a man holding a sword close to his mouth. I tried to make myself feel better back then by thinking he couldn't actually swallow swords. After all I've seen I'm not so sure anymore.
And finally, my turn. A poster as big as me, maybe bigger. I had to pose for it and they put the fire spitting afterwards. Now it makes sense as a whole.
'It's gonna be all over town.'
Couldn't believe it. The whole town, seeing my poster. I wish we were in my town so the people there could see it but deep down inside I didn't want to go back. Except for ma I didn't really miss it.
'Enjoy it while it lasts' Mr Ferguson used to say. I always listened to him, he usually turned out to be right.
'What do you mean our final show?'
Monique sounded as stunned as I was but I couldn't say anything. I got scolded for eavesdropping one too many times.
'We're going under. We're shutting down after tonight.'
I've never seen El Maestro so serious and Monique so speechless. As for me, I've felt like this before but that didn't make it any easier. It might not have been a real family but it's as good as it gets I guess and I wasn't sure I go through the same again.
'The end of Anera' The Great Bama said when I asked him what he thinks about it. I have no idea who Anera is or if she works in the circus (though I'm pretty sure I've met everyone) but things were serious dammit! It can't end like this. I don't want to go back.
'Make it count kiddo.' He said and he pushed me on stage just like the first time.
And I did what I do best. Flames rise around me and I enjoy every moment of it. The crowd goes crazy once again and for a moment I forget that this is the last time. That doesn't last long though and I feel scared once again. Make it count he said. Let's give them a show then.
I 'step up my game' and extend the flames. It feels fantastic from where I stand and it must feel the same for everyone else as well because I can hear their shouts. They must love it or so I thought until I felt a big bear arm grab me and pull me off stage.
But my flames still dance around us. It's only then I realise the panicked people running towards the exit away from the fire.
I guess I owe my life to The Great Bama. I owe him a new moustache at the very least and some body hair here and there but I'm sure they'll grow back before I get any myself. Somehow he wasn't mad at me but I can't say the same for El Maestro.
'You're done kid! You're lucky nobody got killed but I'll make sure you'll never work in the business again! Now get the hell out!'
That's the last thing he ever said to me. I said goodbye to everyone except Monique (she had already 'escaped' early in the morning) and I left.
I stand on the hill and stare down the town. Not much of a town from where I was standing. Twenty-two buildings including the post office tent. Still a tent.
I take the road down to my house and all I think about is that this place smells like balls.