by Michael McGlade
From Spring 2018
She squeezed her eyes shut to find darkness, but Caoimhe couldn’t subdue the chaotic noises, those jeers, the catcalls. Needed to magic it all away.
Be still within yourself is what Vladislav always said. Let it wash over you like water, softly, let it go.
Caoimhe wanted to be a star of the Big Top.
She was four storeys high with a thin wire stretched between two platforms: her arena.
One mistake, you fly. Tumble into the catch net.
At stake wasn’t just a diploma from Kazan Circus School, where she had trained for eight years: at the gala performance, a few weeks off, would be the world’s elite circus directors.
Fifteen years old. Eyes like shots of spring green. Cheeks and forearms freckled. Strawberry blonde hair to her bare shoulders, just like her mother’s in the old photos she knew her from.
Caoimhe visualised her routine, the high wire dance.
But the noise of those below, drilling into her, like how ice fractures stone.
The breath of countless bodies. Shadows creaking in the dawn sun.
She opened her eyes.
To the side of the vast training hall, a girl snaked around a hoop suspended two metres above the crash mats. In the central circle twenty students on coordination drill: sprint, jump over a person, hold a handstand with feet apart, another jumps over and holds a handstand, and so on. Maksim, her boyfriend, a leggy youth, stretched into the splits, face red with exertion. Another boy lay on his back and pistoned his legs to spin a girl in the air like a gerbil on a wheel.
Caoimhe blocked it all.
She raised her hands, arched her back, glided her lead foot onto the wire.
When she had become good enough to train at height, she had first remained near ground level to practice on a slackened wire, attuning to the looseness, the sway, like an ocean surge spanning a trench. Never relinquish control to the wire. Dedication was her safety net. Move one foot in front of the next, instructing her body in change. Go to the middle of the wire where it was hardest. One foot. Then the next. Step. Hop. One foot, and the next. Turn. Jump. Vladislav, her mentor, then struck the wire. But she had not fallen, resisting the vibrations through her feet. Understand: she was the top and bottom of the wire simultaneously. And only then had she begun to train at height.
Caoimhe glanced down. Her eyes went squiggly. Height strictured everything, distorted objects.
A tugging pain in her back, half-remembered from a previous fall.
She bent backwards, palms on the platform edge, a handstand on the very edge of the world. She lowered her feet onto the wire, which juddered as she straightened. Cold air snapped in gruff eddies.
The height, it made everything different.
She dashed along the wire, free, unfettered. Clarity of flow. Pure energy shot through her. She twisted and spun, backflips, muscular memory in movement. Up here was liberation. Contorting. Twirling. She leapt, disguising the natural parabolic fall of her body, threw out her arms and legs to float as if suspended in air. All of it done with the ease of motion for which there is no lexis other than pure expression.
She climbed down from the opposite platform, only now conscious of the music she had chosen to play as an accompaniment. The Temptations’ Ball Of Confusion.
Her father had given her a copy of Motown’s greatest hits, the last thing she ever had from him. She came here from Ireland to Russia aged seven, and he died a year later. Her mother had passed away during childbirth. Caoimhe had no one now. The Big Top was everything.
Classmates surrounded her, patting her back, cheering. Maksim hugged her, wouldn’t let go.
Vladislav separated them like a wedge. A short, hairy man in a red velour tracksuit. He’d been technical director of the school for decades.
“Motown?” he questioned. “It is not for this class, is not for the Big Top. Too much confusion, too much sudden shift, Kee-vah.”
His thick Russian accent made her name exotic.
“Tell me what you did wrong.”
“I overextended a few times,” she began. “Lost my centre once… It’s the noise, the distraction of it all, so hard to concentrate.”
“Two weeks until the gala performance,” he said. “You can do this,” he said. “You’re the only one I trust to perform without a net.”
Crimson light slanted though the plastic sheets tacked across the holes in the metal roof.
“Up there, it’s like I’m a tuning fork, everything humming in my chest,” she said. “I wish I could see less, or listen less.”
The classroom always smelled of watery rotting potatoes, especially this close to summer. Her day: four hours of circus school, finishing at nine AM; six hours of high school; half-hour of free time; dinner; two hours of study; four hours of circus school, finishing at ten PM.
Through the window, Caoimhe stared absently at Söyembikä Tower, a tall redbrick stronghold with seven tiers. Legend had it that the tartar queen Söyembikä climbed to the top of this tower that Ivan the Terrible had built for her – seven tiers in seven days – and was so overwhelmed by the beauty of her land that she threw herself off the top.
Seemed that was always on Caoimhe’s mind. In a few weeks she’d perform in front of a full house high up on the wire, without a safety net. Do that, and she had a lifetime ahead of her in the Big Top.
The teacher at the blackboard spoke English during language studies. They had already trudged through two hours of history lessons. Among the class were several members of the circus school. Although the children were mostly from Russia, and mostly spoke Russian, which Caoimhe had learned enough of to converse in, when an argument broke out, which happened often due to the stress of competition, she’d hear a wonderful carnival of dialects, an expletive-laden tapestry of ethnicity: Tartar, Bashkir, Chechen, and more.
There were fifteen students of her age in circus school, all of them Russian; over the years, five other girls from Europe had dropped off like wilted daffodil petals, leaving only Caoimhe.
Staring out of the classroom window now, at the too-blue day, sun dripping like syrup from a jar, she realised all she knew of the city was this view. She never had enough time off to visit it. Kazan, with over a million people, the sports capital of Russia. Could smell the wet chill of the two great rivers Kazanka and Volga crushing into each other.
Maksim lay with his head on Caoimhe’s lap. The fat white clouds in the sky looked like plumped pillows. She stroked his head, the spiky hair rigid from too much gel.
“Only two weeks left,” she said. “It’s all going to change then.”
Her pulse quickened. Her life as she had known it would be over. Her finger snagged a clump of his hair and Maksim offered a thin smile, then pointed to a cloud that resembled a trapeze.
Caoimhe saw a shamrock. She missed the low mist among the bog rushes, the smell of cut turf, peeled back layers of clay, black slugs of peat glistening wetly in the sideways sun. She missed home, a place she had never visited since leaving Ireland eight years ago.
School had been her life. She’d worked hard to earn a scholarship.
“Your eyes are beautiful today,” he said. “So green. Like rippling ponds of tadpoles.”
He could be weird like that. It’s why she’d fallen for him. Her first love.
“What do you miss most about home?”
“Ice diving,” he said. “Your body freezes after diving in, then you get really hot and heavy, you feel happy, want to drink up life and be kind to others. My father would cut this twenty-five metre trench in the ice and in we’d go. Watch out for mozzo – those white tusks! And the blubber is so good, creamy and fresh. Cold water is a medicine. And I miss reindeer.”
She said, “I love reindeer.”
“The way the meat tastes,” Maksim agreed. “God, I can taste it now.”
“Jesus no, not like that. I love Rudolf. I’d never eat him.”
He shrugged. “What do you miss then?”
“Tayto spring onion.”
“Crisps?” He manufactured laughter. “All you miss is a fatty onion potato?”
“Better than eating Santa’s little helper.”
She searched the sky but the light blue wash and jagged contrails felt like a reflection that she had fallen into, some mirror world where everything was upside down and inside out. Her chest constricted.
“After the gala show, I’ll ice dive for a whole week,” he said. “That’s what I miss most. That’s what hurts when I think of home, not diving with my father, just being there with him, you know, together.”
He sat up and dry swallowed.
“Do you ever think it’s not worth it?” he began. “I wish I was back home.”
She met his eyes defiantly.
“I belong here,” she said. “We both do. Sin é!”
That’s it. He kissed her, held her tight, would never let go.
The evening training session had finished twenty minutes ago and Caoimhe practised her footwork on the floor, cutting swift arcs in the air. Earlier she had been gliding through space on the suspended rings, elasticity and rhythm training. Juggling to improve coordination. Ballet for added grace.
Vladislav stroked his grey whiskered chin. “Can you make it, Kee-vah?”
“I am a circus fanatic. That is all. Sin é.”
“But do you deserve it?”
“Only if I earn it.”
She landed heavily on her heel and collapsed to the floor. She clutched her ankle, wincing at the sharp stab of pain there.
“Had you been at height, you’d have tumbled, tumbled down.”
She stood, her feet already covered in strapping from previous injuries.
“Nobody cares if you’re hurting,” he said. “Only that you entertain them. That is all.”
She nodded keenly.
Not above, not below: exist between the wire.
Subdue the fear. Overcome the terror.
She climbed onto the slackened practice wire. Went to the middle. Vladislav struck the wire viciously. She countered the oscillations, flowed like a currach across the breaking wave.
Caoimhe moved to the medium high wire, two metres above ground, and performed. Her arms were metal poles, her legs tree trunks, her body rigid and feeble. Yet somehow she was free, alive within the movement, fluid.
Vladislav clicked his tongue. “You’re doing nothing I told you.”
“I’m doing everything you taught me.”
“Those moves,” he said, “I’ve never witnessed such beautiful moves before. But, Caoimhe, they’re dangerous. Uncontrollable. You will fall.”
“A bird is not afraid of heights, a fish of breathing water,” she said. “A tightrope walker must dance.”
It was almost midnight now. “Let’s get some rest,” he said.
She faced him defiantly, then shimmied up the high-wire ladder as if juggling the wooden rungs in her hands.
Maksim arrived ten minutes early for the morning training session. Caoimhe danced with her eyes shut, her feet always landing on the thin white line drawn on the floor that represented the high wire.
“You missed our study session last night,” he said.
“Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb.”
“What does it mean?”
“The windy day is not the day for thatching.”
“You were practising all night? Again?”
“Have you not slept at all?”
“I’ll sleep when I get it right.”
The sun cast tendrils of milky light through the grimy windows.
Yelizaveta, one of the juniors, vaulted the horse and landed hard, walking off like a splay-legged lamb.
Maksim scissored across the floor in a gymnastics routine, then sprung like a trampoline. Exhausted by the exertion, he nickered, doubled-over, wobbled. Caoimhe grabbed him, otherwise he’d have fallen.
Then it was her turn on the high wire. She climbed the ladder four storeys high, went to the edge of the platform and shut her eyes. Concentrated to block out all sound. Her heart jackhammered unbearably. From the other performers: a cacophony. The creaking roof boomed. Mortar wallop of a pommel horse. The spring-vault-thump of an explosive landing.
She moved to the dance, a stuttering hiccup of a start, and her feet flopped uselessly off the wire. She tumbled. And tumbled. Into darkness.
This darkness that she had now come to know had a particular taste to it, a sticky hot odour like summer peatland and the squat smoke of blazing whins. The thing about the darkness was its weight, the utter unrelenting pressure it bore down on her, crushing toward the earth, like she was sinking into the centre of some great mass where gravity felled everything flat.
The fall from the high wire had stolen her sight. Caoimhe had been blind for a week now. Darkness on everything like a sludgy paint, like she could, if she wished with enough might, pry open her useless eyes to see the world anew.
The doctors could not help her.
The fall had ruptured her retinas and she would never see again.
Those first days, determined to make it out of her room, she had fallen in the hallway, grazed her limbs, and lay there in a dark wilderness with the pitiful reverb of sobbing emanating from somewhere deep within her chest.
Someone had helped her to her room.
Someone brought her solyanka soup, tender chunks of pork in a rich tomato broth with too much wild garlic. Evenings were knish, over-salted mashed potatoes, with ground beef, onions and cheese in a deep-fried dough that oozed oilily down her throat, and made her mouth feel thick.
Someone helped her get dressed.
She passed through time on automatic. Nothing made sense any longer. Her life was over.
The matron of her dorm read an official school letter which informed her that, as she was unable to continue with the Kazan Circus School, her scholarship had been revoked. Her room in the dorm had been reassigned. She must leave.
Minutes were hours were days.
Her heart beat ferociously and defiantly. She heard it, a voice within her that had never before been known, calling her to get up, to move, dance.
She hated that voice.
A man sat on the edge of her bed. She heard the deep timber of his breath, the scratch of his hand rubbing his bristled chin, the rub of mentholated Vicks.
She said, “I can’t leave, Vladislav. I’ve nowhere else to go.”
“Yet you cannot remain at the school any longer.” Vladislav’s strained voice wavered, catching in his throat. “I’m so sorry for what has happened to you,” he continued. “I blame myself. I should not have pushed you so hard.”
He hugged her, those bristles rough against her cheek.
“The doctors are certain you will never see again,” he said. “Your scholarship is gone. What can we do now?”
“Dance,” she said.
He helped her up into the middle of the room and hummed an old tune his mother had sung to him as a child and they tottered around in a circle, clumsily at first but then she surprised him, spinning under his arms, twirling, dancing. She collapsed into his embrace, the world, she could only imagine, spinning uncontrollably.
“You have no family, no one to care for you,” he said. “But you are still my family. I can help, at least a little. My sister, she will take care of you for now. Go to her home and we will work things out.”
“I won’t go. I belong here. This is my home.”
Images ghosted before her eyes, remnants of things long since passed and then she was in a new bed in a different home with people who cared for her like family. But none of it was real. She’d left the best part of her high up on a wire. Nothing could ever be the same again.
She knew then what she would do.
Dance the wire.
Leave it all behind.
Her red heart was a black coffin now.
Didn’t know how long.
The intense saltiness of her tears. Like anchovy and dark Greek olives. Inking down his face, each stuttering movement a symphony, sensate now.
Sobs were amplified within her chest. Everything potent, the sounds intimate, moony.
Maksim held her like a blanket, all around her, within her and without. His hair was sticky like putty, as always, and she stopped stroking his head, unable to comb her fingers through.
“I’ll leave school and get a job,” he said. “I’ll find a way to support us. Whatever it takes.”
She said, “Sin é.”
The night of the gala performance in the Big Top. Maksim guided her hand to a ladder that climbed four storeys high.
“You’ll fall, Caoimhe.”
“Will you catch me?”
“I can try.”
She kissed him, her lipstick tracing his lips.
She gripped the railing and climbed. Halfway up, he told her to turn around. Two-thirds of the way, she heard him snip the lines that held the safety net in place. Then the curtain dropped. The crowd hushed. She edged forward, toes yearning for the wire. A woman yelled and laughed. The others too. Calls and jeers. She’s blind. She can’t see a peep. Who would allow such a travesty? We didn’t pay to see a blind girl die!
Her limbs trembled. Heart ta-rumming like a snare drum.
Then everything leached away into silence.
The rhythm of everything within her now.
You walk the wire, that is all. Feet in the air. Let gravity consume, pull you downwards. Spin. Twirl. Feet gripping the wire. Balance. Your hands rotate with a pretty snap, disguising the counterbalance. But to dance, to flow, to be free – then the wire is all yours, then it is only you dancing.