Anatomy of a Freak Show
Augustin Grace stands above the crowd from his perverse proscenium.
“Step right up! Step right up! See what yeh have all been waitin’ for! Augustin Grace’s Great Wonders of the World! But women and children, beware! For the shocking, horrendous display that yer about to witness is seen nowhere else on earth!”
* * *
We travel, night after night, and crowds come to witness our disfigurement with grotesque curiosity. None of us know where we are or where we are going next, journeying only at night while we are kept inside the darkness of the band of the boxcar caravan. The darkness of it is always more peaceful than the day. In the black we are all the same. The silence drowns out the gawks of the people, shouting and laughing as they steal their first peek, desperate to release some of their built up anticipation. We forget that we are all different, that we are all monsters. Finally we fall asleep, the only time that we see ourselves as human.
My dreams take me back to when I was young. My family was originally from the countryside of Thurmaston, but like many, we followed the jobs opening up in the industrial areas of England. We moved to Leicester so that my father could work labor instead of farming. At the time, we had no way of knowing about the descent of conditions. At first, everything was alright. As a boy, I explored and played with the other children among the streets where we all lived. Our families all resided in one room houses that were packed together back to back, almost as dense as trees in the forest. It was in the city that I met my best friend, Clara, who lived only two houses down. The first moment that I saw her, her cocoa hair lay unfettered upon her shoulders and danced in a bronze ballet behind her as the wind lingered in the cities dampness. Her skin glowed in milky complexion, soft, not yet touched by the filth of humanity. And in the moment that our eyes met, both holding the twinkle that is exclusive to the unblemished purity of children, I knew that I wanted to marry her someday.
The once pleasant strolls that Clara and I took slowly turned gray. The streets became more and more disheveled, spattered with the excrement of human waste and litter as more and more people filled the town in the rush of the industrial revolution. The cesspits were never cleaned, overflowed, and urine seeped through the ground into the wells where we drew our drinking water. Clara and I both became weak, but we were reaching the age where we needed the strength to earn our place in our families.
We both began working at Lancashire Mill. I had never known true work before, and a great awakening stirred me as I entered the mist of thick cotton dust. Clara and I were separated to our respective stations. I was in charge of working the looms that produced towels and nappies. I was issued a cardboard mask to protect my eyes from the fibers, but the air had to be kept sweltering hot to prevent the thread from breaking. No one bothered with them, making it easier for the filth to sneak into our lungs and eyes. Clara was sent to work with a spinning mule, a machine that produced soft yarns, but was extremely dangerous for tired hands. One woman had been working twelve hour days all week, and nodding off, got her finger caught in the frame, notching it off almost completely.
Clara was doing alright despite her fatigue, but I soon found myself unable to work under such exertion. With every day that passed I lost strength and motivation. Mum tried to nourish me with boiled water and bread crust as I collapsed from exhaustion at the end of each day. It was then when I noticed early signs of my physical disintegration. My skin started to itch wildly, and soon I began to notice the dryness to start cracking in the creases between my limbs.
* * *
I jump, startled as the sliding door flew open, and the blinding light pierces through the darkness, finding me within the straw in the corner as it attempts to pry my squinting eyes open to re-affirm reality.
“Come on now, yeh filthy toad. You sure as ‘ell don’t want me commin’ in there after yeh,” one of Grace’s handlers bellows in a husky snarl. I slowly rise, but with every new movement after a night of stillness, the creases on the back of my knees and on the front of my elbows split again, and along comes the familiar, ripping pain. “Don’t yeh go blattin’ all over, I don’t wanna have to clean that shit up.”
Impatient, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out into the hot afternoon and pushed me forward into line. Around me are the same looks of tired eyes, as we never seem to get more than a few hours of sleep at a time. Next to me is the Albino Man. I envy his skin, almost transparent, like it isn’t even there. He looks like a ghost that lives without a shell, his white hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. The only thing that really makes him one of us is his eyes, glowing a flushed pink. Even the handlers won’t mess with him, much. They, and the people of this world, think we are condemned, that we were created by Satan. They look into the albino’s eyes and cannot imagine how God would create something so terrifying.
Augustin Grace appeared out of his tent. “Alright you povvy beasts,” he barked as he made his way in front of us, a warden pacing in front of his prisoners outside of their cells. He slowly tramped each step in his leather, knee high boots that covered his perfect feet that supported his flawless limbs. “Quite a crowd tonight, so you need to be on yer best display, and fer God’s sake, attempt to entertain, ‘cus if they aren’t pleased you ain’t getting’ paid.” He stopped in front of me and hissed, “Quit your fecking scratchin’, no one wants to see yeh bleedin’.”
* * *
I could no longer work in the mill. Every time I extended my fingers and opened my fist, the creases in the palms of my hands cracked, becoming infected as the fissures would re-fracture. With each day and more and more scratching, the skin on my legs turned rough and dry. The burn underneath my surface became so extreme that I constantly clawed at myself with my fingernails. At first I could hide my deformation with my knickers, but then it began to spread into my torso and upper limbs. My body became useless for labor.
Mum would not let me leave the house, even if I wheezed for fresh air. Within a month, the disease had spread all up to my scalp. I began to lose tufts of hair. I sat for hours trying to cover myself with blankets to resist the creeping irritation under my surface, grating my fingernails against the rawness of my scalp as I wished that I could shred my rotten sheath.
I begged Mum to keep Clara away, but she couldn’t keep her away forever, and after a few weeks, Clara snuck in. I had finally fallen asleep, my body buried under the shield of blankets when I felt a nudge. As my face emerged from the shelter, I saw her body jerk as her eyes widened at her first glance of me, and her perfect hands clasped her gaping mouth.
* * *
All natural light has almost gone and the circus music permeates the damp, wooden boxcars, telling us that it was time. The handlers round us up, pushing us to our respective sets, placing us among objects that will enhance our malformations. The Fire Breather sips his paraffin. The Giant Woman is forced upon her stilts. The Legless Man is carried to his small stage where he prepares to hobble on his hands in a shuffling dance. The gray of the day is replaced with brightly colored lights to please the audience, as they make sure the lights are shining where it exploits us. We are shown in the evening, for it is always easier to trick the eyes as dusk approaches. It is the time when people want to believe in illusions.
I am led to my habitat, where I am placed among taxidermic remains of exotic lizards and snakes that they have collected from their travels. There is a large rock in the center for me. I slowly strip my clothes off and lay on my stomach, my arms folded at the elbow in a clambering pose. The lights above me are covered with green fabrics to transform my cell into a rainforest, and they glare down on my naked back that had become spotted with a mosaic of flaky, severed bits of husk. The lights morph the hardened plates of my skin to alligator green. I pose alongside their cadaverous bodies, frozen in time on a rock. So I lay there, naked, for the world to see my lepidote suit while my body burns beneath its shell. I face them, the patches of peeling skin spreading across my cheeks, my nose, and my scalp in a unitary mask. They laugh and gape and inspect with crinkled noses and disbelieving eyes. I surrender to them, giving them the creature they suppose, an empty decomposing corpse.
* * *
A man in the back of the crowd whispers to his neighbor, “Rather a romantic state, isn’t it, to be one with nature.” The Lizard Man’s eyes shifted from their faces to his own shaking hands, the scales curled up around the edges like a prehistoric amphibian. He grit his teeth, resisting.
A child in the front of the crowd points to the lizard remains around the Lizard Man and pulls on his mother’s dress, “Mum! He is just like the othas!” The Lizard Man winced. The tingling became too much, and he could no longer take the burn. He reached back and began to claw wildly, and bled.