It was the kind of shady dealing that made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, but you went through with it because some part of you just had to know the truth. It was the kind of offer that you couldn’t walk away from and not have it plague you for the rest of your life, no matter how much you tried to convince yourself it couldn’t possibly be true. So you take the tickets and the strange man smiles and melts back into the shadows and you’re left with that sense of having just traded your cow for some magic beans, only this didn’t cost you anything.
At least, that’s what you keep telling yourself.
You look at the tickets again.
COME TO THE MAGICAL, MYTHICAL BEASTS TRAVELING CIRCUS
GRIMSTEAD PARK. ONE NIGHT ONLY
TICKET GUARANTEES ENTRY. ARRIVE AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT
ONE TICKET PER PERSON: NON-REFUNDABLE, NON-TRANSFERABLE
You keep staring at them, waiting for the tickets themselves to do something magical, almost disappointed when they remain simple strips of colored paper with faded black printing. You shove them in your pocket, intent on forgetting about it, but the voice of the man keeps teasing your thoughts.
‘You look like you need something that will change your life.’
You had no intention of stopping for strange men lurking just inside dark alleys. Sounded like an offer of drugs and so you continued on, but then he said something else.
‘You always wanted to know; you need them to be real, and they are.’
What a strange thing for a perfect stranger to say, so you turn around to demand an answer but the only explanation he offers is to hand you these two tickets and disappear. The sensation of being followed trails you all the way home and you find yourself bolting the second lock on the door for the first time since that awful shooting last year.
Taking the tickets out again, you put them on the counter and pour yourself a drink to steady your nerves, laughing at yourself for your childish superstitions. A few hours later and you think it might be a fun adventure. You never wonder how they can make any money giving the tickets away for free.
You call your best friend to rope her into going with you; even if you don’t believe in it you aren’t quite brave enough to go alone. She laughs and says you’re crazy, but then she always knew that, and fine, she didn’t have anything else going on so she might as well go with your sorry ass to the park at midnight. That’s why you’re best friends, after all.
She comes over and the two of you eat dinner and watch a funny movie. You’re still trying to get the words of that man out of your head. She didn’t hear him, you insist, he was creepy, and you don’t know why you’re going. You just want to have a story to tell, you claim, something to talk about in twenty years; ‘that circus’ you saw way back when, do you remember? Boy, was that a crazy night!
Eleven thirty and you get in the car and head to the park. It’s large and you have to park at the far entrance, the other gate is locked at sundown. It’s a chill night for early summer and you both have your coats pulled tight around you. You’re quiet, knowing you would have chickened out by now if you were alone, but your friend is laughing and imagining they’ll have horses dressed up as unicorns and men with filed teeth who breathe fire; proper old-time freak show stuff.
The colorful, fabric walls of the enclosure loom in front of you, as if suddenly appearing out of a thick the mist and yet it’s a clear night. You follow it around to the entrance where an old hag takes your tickets and waves you in with a toothy smile.
There are various cages with animals that, by torchlight and moon-glow, look almost real. Some you know on sight, even though you could never have really seen them before, and some you have to read the carved plaque, saying the names out loud as if speaking such a ridiculous thing might help you see through the illusion.
A phoenix; its feathers were of flaming orange and red; not just color but actual flames. You try to see how it’s done, but the heat on your face convinces you that the fire, at least, is quite real.
‘How do you suppose they did that?’ your friend asks. You shake your head.
Next you come to a cage with two centaurs, male and female. Their eyes follow you and you feel your skin crawl and you walk quickly on, ignoring your gut telling you something is very much not right.
Around the next corner is a large tank of water, and though it doesn’t look too large, the meager light can not penetrate very deep and so you edge closer, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever is in the water. Neither of you can hold back your short screams when a ghostly face with a mournful expression presses against the other side and blue-green fins flip water over the edge.
Mermaids, the sign says. You don’t try to see another.
You walk around and see that the tank is split, another creature on the other side of the dividing wall. The Siren song reaches your ears and you begin to cry despite yourself. The creature is so beautiful, and she reaches down to you. You try to reach back but suddenly a hand grabs your shoulder and yanks you back.
‘Best watch yourselves, missies.’ It’s the man from the alley. ‘She’ll call you right in to drown with her if you don’t keep your wits.’
You look at your friend whom you had forgotten when the song began. You can tell she was affected as you were, her eyes wide and her face gone pale. You look at one another as if to ask if that really just happened.
‘Move along now,’ the man says and you quickly obey him, as eager to get away from him as from the tank.
You duck into a tent just to get out of sight. Inside are more cages, more animals. A Sphinx, with a strict warning not to speak to it or attempt to answer any riddles; a Unicorn, much smaller than a horse, and with a tail like a lion; a Satyr, playing mournfully upon his pipes – he looks at you and you think you see him shed a tear.
Last is a creature that looks human but for the large wings, the sign on the cage indicating Angel. It rushes forward and grabs the bars, speaking low and urgent.
‘No, you must leave, do you hear me? Get out now!’
We run out as it calls after us. ‘You are in great danger here!’
Standing back outside, we look at each other, eyes wide.
‘I don’t think we should have come,’ you say.
She nods, and you grab hold of one another, making your way back to the entrance. You feel like you can’t get out fast enough. The old woman cackles at you as you pass her. It isn’t until you’re out of the gate that you see the bars around you, turning just as the door swings shut with a clang.
‘What are you doing? Let us out!’ you cry, pulling at the bars as if you might be able to free yourself with such action. The man from the alley laughs and begins to pull the curtains down over the sides of your cage. You continue to yell at him until your friend grabs you and points to a sign on the cage.
It says, ‘Human.’