Home > The Night Circus(6)

The Night Circus(6)
Erin Morgenstern

She becomes quite adept at manipulating fabric, altering her gowns as expertly as a master tailor to accommodate the weight she has regained, her body feeling like her own again.

She has to remind her father to come out of the parlor for meals, though lately he has refused more and more often, barely leaving the room at all.

Today he will not even respond to her insistent knocking. Irritated, and knowing he has charmed the locks so she cannot unlatch them without his own keys, she kicks the door with her boot and to her surprise, it swings open.

Her father stands by a window, intently watching his arm as he holds it out in front of him, the sunlight filtering in through the frosted glass and falling over his sleeve.

His hand fades completely and then returns. He stretches his fingers, frowning at the audible creaking of the joints.

“What are you doing, Papa?” Celia asks, curiosity trumping her annoyance. It is not something she has seen him do before, either onstage or in the privacy of her lessons.

“Nothing to concern yourself with,” her father says, pulling the frilled cuff of his shirt down over his hand.

The door slams shut in her face.

Target Practice

LONDON, DECEMBER 1884

The dartboard hangs precariously on a wall in the study, between tall bookcases and ornately framed oil paintings. It is almost camouflaged in the shadows despite its bold pattern, but the knife reaches its target each and every time it is thrown, very near the bull’s-eye that is obscured by the newspaper clipping pinned to the board.

The clipping is a theatrical review, an article carefully removed from the London Times. It is a positive review; some might call it glowing. Nevertheless, it has been put in this position of execution, and the silver-handled knife is being thrown at it. The knife slices through the paper and sinks into the cork of the dartboard. It is retrieved and removed only to have the process repeated again.

The knife is being thrown gracefully, from the handle so it rotates over and over perfectly until the tip of the blade finds its mark, by Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, whose name is printed in clear typeset letters in the last line of the aforementioned newspaper clipping.

The sentence that holds his name is the particular one that has incensed M. Lefèvre to the point of knife throwing. A single sentence, that reads thusly: “M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre continues to push the boundaries of the modern stage, dazzling his audiences with spectacle that is almost transcendent.”

Most theatrical producers would likely be flattered by such a remark. They would clip the article for a scrapbook of reviews, quote it for references and referrals.

But not this particular theatrical producer. No, M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre instead focuses on that penultimate word. Almost. Almost.

The knife flies again across the room, over furniture of velvet and intricately carved wood, passing perilously close to a crystal decanter of brandy. It somersaults swiftly, handle over blade, and finds itself buried in the dartboard once again. This time it pierces the now nearly shredded paper in between the words “audiences” and “spectacle,” obscuring the “with” completely.

Chandresh follows in the wake of the knife, pulling the blade from the board carefully but with a fair amount of force. He walks back across the room, knife in one hand, a glass of brandy in the other, and turns swiftly on his heel, letting the knife fly once more, aiming for that horrible word. Almost.

Clearly he must be doing something wrong. If his productions are merely almost transcendent, when the possibility of true transcendence exists somewhere nearby, waiting to be attained, then there is something else that must be done.

He has been pondering this ever since the review was placed on his desk, neatly clipped and labeled by his assistant. Additional copies have been filed elsewhere for posterity and safekeeping, as the desk copies often meet such gruesome fates while Chandresh agonizes over every word.

Chandresh relishes reactions. Genuine reactions, not mere polite applause. He often values the reactions over the show itself. A show without an audience is nothing, after all. In the response of the audience, that is where the power of performance lives.

He was raised in the theater, sitting in boxes at the ballet. Being a restless child, he quickly grew bored with the familiarity of the dances and chose instead to watch the audiences. To see when they smiled and gasped, when the women sighed and when the men began to nod off.

So perhaps it is not terribly surprising that now, many years later, he still has more interest in the audience than in the performance itself. Though the performance must be spectacular in order to coerce the best reactions.

And because he is incapable of observing the faces of every audience member at every performance of every show (shows that range from compelling drama to exotic dancing girls and a few that creatively combine the two), he relies on the reviews.

Though there has not been a review in some time that vexes him the way that this particular one does. And certainly not one in years that provoked knife throwing.

The knife flies once again, this time piercing the word “stage.”

Chandresh goes to retrieve it, sipping his brandy on the way. He regards the nearly decimated article curiously for a moment, peering at the almost illegible words. Then he bellows for Marco.

With your ticket in hand, you follow a continuous line of patrons into the circus, watching the rhythmic motion of the black-and-white clock as you wait.

Beyond the ticket booth the only way forward is through a heavy striped curtain. One by one each person passes through it, vanishing from sight.

When it is your turn, you pull back the fabric and step forward, only to be engulfed by darkness as the curtain closes again.

It takes your eyes a few moments to adjust, and then tiny dots of light begin appearing like stars, lining the dark walls in front of you.

And while moments before you were so close to your fellow circusgoers that you could have touched them, now you are alone as you feel your way tentatively forward through a mazelike tunnel.

The tunnel twists and turns, the tiny lights providing the only illumination. You have no way of discerning how far you have gone or which direction you are moving in.

Finally you reach another curtain. Fabric that feels as soft as velvet beneath your hands parts easily when you touch it.

The light on the other side is blinding.

Truth or Dare

CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS, SEPTEMBER 1897

They sit in the oak tree in the afternoon sun, the five of them. His sister Caroline on the highest branch, because she always climbs the highest. Her best friend Millie perches below. The Mackenzie brothers, throwing acorns at the squirrels, are somewhat lower than that, but not low enough to be considered anything but high. He is always on the low branches. Not for fear of heights but for where he ranks in the group, when he is even allowed to be a part of it. Being Caroline’s younger brother is both a blessing and a curse that way. Bailey is sometimes allowed to join them, but always kept in his place.

“Truth or dare,” Caroline calls from the upper branches. She receives no reply, so she drops an acorn directly on her brother’s head. “Truth. Or. Dare. Bailey,” she repeats.

Bailey rubs his head through his hat. Maybe the acorn makes him choose the way he does. “Truth” is a resigned response, a yielding to Caroline’s abusive, nut-throwing version of the game. “Dare” is marginally more defiant. Even if he is humoring her, at least he isn’t a coward.

It seems like the right thing to say, and he feels rather proud of himself when it takes Caroline a moment to respond. She sits on her branch some fifteen feet above him, swinging her leg and looking off over the field while she formulates the dare. The Mackenzie brothers continue to torment the squirrels. Then Caroline smiles, and clears her throat to make her proclamation.

“Bailey’s dare,” she starts, making it his own and no one else’s, binding him to it. He begins to feel uneasy before she even says what the dare actually consists of. She pauses dramatically before declaring: “Bailey’s dare is to break into the Night Circus.”

Millie gasps. The Mackenzie brothers stop their acorn throwing and look up at her, squirrels abruptly forgotten. A huge smile spreads across Caroline’s face as she stares down at Bailey. “And bring something back as proof,” she adds, unable to keep the hint of triumph out of her voice.

It is an impossible dare, and all of them know it.

Bailey looks out across the field to where the circus tents sit like mountains in the middle of the valley. It is so still in the daytime, with no lights and no music and no crowds of people. Just a bunch of striped tents, looking more yellow and grey than black and white in the afternoon sun. It looks odd, and perhaps a bit mysterious, but not extraordinary. Not in the middle of the day. And not terribly scary, Bailey thinks.

“I’ll do it,” he says. He jumps down from his low branch and starts across the field, not waiting to hear their replies, not wanting Caroline to retract the dare. He is certain she expected him to say no. An acorn whizzes by his ear, but nothing else.

And for reasons Bailey cannot quite put words to, he is walking toward the circus with a considerable amount of determination.

It looks just as it did the first time he saw it, when he was not quite six years old.

It materialized in the same spot then, and now it looks like it never left. As though it were merely invisible for the five-year period when the field sat empty.

At the age of not quite six, he was not allowed to visit the circus. His parents deemed him too young, so he could only stare from afar, enchanted, at the tents and the lights.

He had hoped it would stay long enough for him to age properly into old enough, but it vanished without notice after two weeks, leaving too-young Bailey heartbroken.

But now it has returned.

It arrived only a few days ago and is still a novelty. Had it been present for longer, Caroline likely would have chosen a different dare, but the circus is currently the talk of the town, and Caroline likes to keep her dares en vogue.

The night before had been Bailey’s first proper introduction to the circus.

It was like nothing he had ever seen. The lights, the costumes, it was all so different. As though he had escaped his everyday life and wandered into another world.

He had expected it to be a show. Something to sit in a chair and watch.

He realized quickly how wrong he was.

It was something to be explored.

He investigated it as best he could, though he felt woefully unprepared. He did not know what tents to choose out of dozens of options, each with tantalizing signs hinting at the contents. And every turn he took through the twisting striped pathways led to more tents, more signs, more mysteries.

He found a tent full of acrobats and stayed amongst them as they twirled and spun until his neck ached from staring up. He wandered through a tent full of mirrors and saw hundreds and thousands of Baileys staring, wide-eyed, back at him, each in matching grey caps.

Even the food was amazing. Apples dipped in caramel so dark they appeared almost blackened but remained light and crisp and sweet. Chocolate bats with impossibly delicate wings. The most delicious cider Bailey had ever tasted.

Everything was magical. And it seemed to go on forever. None of the pathways ended, they curved into others or circled back to the courtyard.

He could not properly describe it afterward. He could only nod when his mother asked if he had enjoyed himself.

They did not stay as long as he would have liked. Bailey would have stayed all night if his parents had let him, there were still so many more tents to explore. But he was ushered home to bed after only a few hours, consoled with promises that he could go back the next weekend, though he anxiously recalls how quickly it disappeared before. He ached to go back almost the moment he walked away.

He wonders if he accepted the dare, in part, to return to the circus sooner.

It takes Bailey the better part of ten minutes to walk all the way across the field, and the closer he gets, the larger and more intimidating the tents look, and the more his conviction fades.

He is already trying to come up with something he can use as proof without having to go in, when he reaches the gates.

The gates are easily three times his height, the letters atop it spelling out LE CIRQUE DES RÊVES are almost indiscernible in the daylight, each one perhaps the size of a rather large pumpkin. The curls of iron around the letters do remind him of pumpkin vines. There is a complicated-looking lock holding the gates shut, and a small sign that reads:

Gates Open at Nightfall & Close at Dawn

in swirly lettering, and under that, in tiny plain letters:

Trespassers Will Be Exsanguinated

Bailey doesn’t know what “exsanguinated” means, but he doesn’t much like the sound of it. The circus feels strange in the daytime, too quiet. There is no music, no noise. Just the calls of nearby birds and the rustling of the leaves in the trees. There doesn’t even appear to be anyone there, as though the whole place is deserted. It smells like it does at night, but fainter, of caramel and popcorn and smoke from the bonfire.

Bailey looks back across the field. The others are still in the tree, though they look tiny from so far away. They are undoubtedly watching, so he decides to walk around to the other side of the fence. He is no longer entirely certain he wants to do this, and if and when he does, he doesn’t particularly want to be watched.

Most of the fence past the gates borders the edges of tents, so there isn’t really anywhere to enter. Bailey keeps walking.

A few minutes after he loses sight of the oak tree, he finds a part of the fence that is not right up against a tent but borders a small passageway, like an alley between them, wrapping around the side of one tent and disappearing around a corner. It is as good a place as any to try to get in.

Bailey finds that he does, actually, want to go inside. Not just because of the dare but because he is curious. Dreadfully, hopelessly curious. And beyond proving himself to Caroline and her gang, beneath the curiosity, there is that need to return tugging at him.

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