The Greatest Show on Earth

March 11, 2024

Graphic by Cassidy Wong 

The carousel of life never stops turning; let yourself take a ride.

        Little girls sat on little chairs. Their desks stood in pretty, neat rows, their hair set in pretty, neat plaits. Off to the left, a girl sat, not copying her verses as instructed, but staring out the window. She looked at the blades of grass quivering outside the schoolhouse window, wondering about the ladybugs that must be crawling between them.


        The shout came from the front of the room, accompanied by a sharp rap of a pointer against a blackboard. Eleanor sat straight up in her chair as the wiry teacher who headed the schoolhouse fixed her gaze upon her.

        “It upsets me that you disregard my lessons, girl,” the teacher began.

        “The things we learn here are important. I’ve told you time and time again, if you follow the whisperings of the winds, you will get blown away. So, we stay here, where it’s safe. Here, we know what will happen tomorrow, the next day, and the next day. There is no opportunity for fear.”

        These words pierced Eleanor’s heart with a talon-like grip, leaving her with nowhere to go but out. She stood abruptly from her desk, leaving her chair displaced. Every head in the room snapped towards her as she bolted for the door, their echoing shouts chasing her down the hall. Clanging open the bathroom door, Eleanor heaved and looked desperately around. Words and ideas clamored around in her mind, chasing each other, pushing towards the front in attempts to be seen and heard. We know what will happen tomorrow, the next day, and the next day. Her breath caught chokingly in her throat.

        “Hello,” a light, musical voice intoned, interrupting the din in Eleanor’s head. Now, it was her turn to whip around. A pale hand crept over the door to the bathroom stall, followed by a green balloon that bounced fumblingly against the tiled ceiling. All Eleanor could do was stare. Then, the white hand grew into a white wrist, a white forearm, and a puff sleeve the same spring green as the balloon. Finally, the face of a little girl popped over the top of the stall; a painted smile slashed crookedly across her face.

        “Hello,” the girl said again. Her words seemed to jingle, to swirl and whirl in the air. The girl’s eyes, green as pond water, peered brightly; not piercingly like the teacher’s, but curious.

        “Who–” Eleanor would never get to finish her question. The little green girl slipped one foot over the stall door and flipped down over it, landing on both feet like a cat. She grabbed Eleanor’s hand, which seemed filthy compared to the girl’s translucent skin, and smiled enticingly at her. Eleanor knew not what hid in that smile; she only knew that no one had smiled at her like that in all her life. So, she followed.

        Like a stone skips, the little clown girl’s feet tapped across the cobblestone. Eleanor felt like a beast next to the girl’s unpracticed grace. In the distance, behind the rolling hills, tents began to rise from the ground, slowly consuming the noon-blue sky.

        “Welcome,” the girl said, spreading her arms wide, “to the circus.”

        It was unlike anything Eleanor had ever seen. Colors exploded across her field of vision, blues and greens and reds too vibrant to exist in the same realm as her drab schoolhouse. Sweetness coated her tongue as she ambled deeper into the circus, the tastes of strawberry and spun sugar dancing in her mouth. Everything she saw, she longed to touch, taste, and experience. She wanted it all.

        A painted advertisement boasting a High-Flying, Death-Defying Trapeze caught Eleanor’s attention right away. She followed the commotion until a whizzing blue ballet shoe nearly severed her in two. She watched as a long, lithe body swung like a pendulum, flipping and jumping to different bars. Abandon. Recklessness. The trapeze artists’ striped limbs interwove, mending together and unfurling again. Compared to the schoolhouse, the performance contained such unabashed freedom that Eleanor had difficulty making sense of it. She longed to grow wings and join them up there, flitting among the clouds.

Graphic by Cassidy Wong

        Lilting music finally drew Eleanor away from the High-Fliers. She found herself atop a vast marble amphitheater. At the bottom stood two intertwined figures. A tall, slender man clad in harlequin diamonds had his hands wrapped around the waist of a ballerina, her tutu flush against his body. They moved as if completely oblivious to the voyeurs around them, twisting and leaping as if connected by invisible strings. Their dance seemed completely spontaneous yet somehow perfectly coordinated. Eleanor had never seen such a look in a person’s eyes, such hunger, such desire. Each second they parted from each other seemed to pain them, but not to worry. They always arrived back in each other’s arms. Suddenly, the little girl from the bathroom appeared at her shoulder.

        “This is quite something, isn’t it?”

        There were too many choices for where to head next. Fliers waved high above the girls’ heads, advertising the Sicilian Hydra, the Northern Ventriloquist, the House of Artifice, and far stranger wares. As she pondered entering the Cave of Unanswered Wishes, the green girl hopped up and down, pointing towards a tent labeled The House of Mirrors. Eleanor followed her, only a little reluctantly. After pushing through the curtain, Eleanor found herself face to face with — well, herself. But not exactly herself. The girl standing opposite her seemed older somehow, more assured. She had a glint in her eye that suggested some inner complexity that Eleanor had never felt. The mirror doppelganger raised her hand to the glass, so Eleanor did the same. Suddenly, the mirror fractured into millions of refracting shards, each reflecting a different Eleanor. She spotted one where she wore a slicked-back bun, the same as her teacher from the schoolhouse; another where she sported an impishly painted grin. In other fragments she stood among men, women, and children, fighting, embracing, and laughing with them. Eleanor tried to grasp onto one — any — of her reflections, but her fingertips only skimmed their surfaces. The splinters grew more frequent and cavernous, creating a spiderweb of glittering fractals. She felt the pressure of each potential future like fingers on her skin, indenting her forearms with their grip. Just when she felt like her limbs would be pulled apart by indecision, the mirror exploded into effervescent dust, dusting her hair like snow.

        In the calamity, Eleanor had sunk to her knees and covered her head for protection. Now, all she felt was a soft hand resting on her shoulder. She glanced up, her eyes meeting the most sorrowful face she had ever seen. A man cloaked in white, with similar face paint to the little girl’s, but a profound expression of sadness where his mischievous grin should have been.

        “It’s time to go,” he told her.

        She got to her feet, still a little shaky, and followed him out of the tent, down the cobblestone road, over the rolling hills, until the scent of buttery sweetness no longer coated the inside of her nose. She held the sad clown’s hand as the schoolhouse came back into view. As soon as she spotted the building, a lump swelled deep in her throat.

        “Don’t make me go back there,” she said, tears stinging her eyes. She imagined the teacher’s pointer rapping against the blackboard in step to her beating heart.

        “Smile,” he said, the sadness in his eyes ebbing slightly. “Beginnings are exciting.”

        He squeezed her hand, turned his back, and wandered back from where he came.

        As Eleanor returned to the schoolhouse, she no longer saw an entire world encased in four walls. She had seen her reflection in the House of Mirrors. Millions of futures lay fractured at her feet, waiting for her to put the puzzle together. Fear was irrevocably imbued in these uncertainties, but Eleanor now felt sure that fear was far better than monotony. ■  

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