The Tarot was done talking.
The garden evaporated. The cards were suddenly gone. Dead leaves rustled past Misty’s toes. The gawkers were dispersing. The bordello was occupied past capacity. She was afraid of being trampled. Men shoved past Misty on their way to the bar. Tom had risen from the table. The gypsy took her cards and vanished into the crowd. It was all sped up, somehow, as if the clock which governed all of time had been wound too tightly. Indecipherable voices flooded her ears. Tom was leaving, angling toward the stage, pressing through the crowd.
“River!” she blurted. “Smiles on River!”
“Not yet,” he said without breaking stride. He held his finger across his lips. He smiled and cast her that same familiar wink of his. Then he turned and the crowd swallowed him whole.
Shaken, Misty lost her grip on the awl and it kicked out from under her disguise. As it rolled away across the wood floor, she lost sight of it between all the boots. She lurched after the awl, pressing between as best she could but men weren't apt to let a disheveled hag pass.
She reckoned it were about time to give up the act.
Misty let the disguise slide off. Showing her whore skirt bought her some chivalry. The patrons parted to let her through now that she was showing some skin and bloody linen. She was starting to ache despite the ether, but up yonder – there was the awl! She staggered toward it, but just as fast as they’d parted, the crowd shut her out once more as the call went out:
“The spectacle commences! Come inside!”
There arose a great cheer. Shot-glasses tinkled; whiskey-chimes. Chairs were being dragged toward the staged.
“Come-one-and-come-all! Come and see the show!”
The men jockeyed for floor-space, fighting for a better view. Misty got caught up in the tide of their curiosity. They swept her toward the stage so she could have a better gander. Next she knew, Misty had a seat on some tactile feller's lap. Prying herself away, she sprung up and scanned the floor. The awl was gone.
She spied Rex Westman sitting over yonder. He had a front-row table. His cyclops drank cider alongside him. Tom Savage pulled up a chair. He smiled right at Misty! Her eyes were watering. The show was ready to begin. The crowd inched closer and blocked her view of the Westman Company.
A mostly nude gypsy skipped up onto the stage.
Either Misty was hallucinating again or that gypsy girl had three breasts.
She presented her bosoms beneath an arm's length of lace, tugging it back-and-forth across herself like two men operating a long saw. The crowd bit their tongues and shut up. Misty reckoned they all saw it, too. Those breasts were the genuine article and not another ether trick.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Well met!” The Girl with Three Tits curtsied and allowed the lace to dip tantalizingly low. The cat-calls were overwhelming. “And the rest of you low-life sons-of-bitches, too!”
The parlor rang with the careening of mugs and handshakes. Their laughter expelled a vapor of sour cider-breath and tobacco-juice.
“My name is Extra Special, and I am your guide.” She stiffened and continued primly, “A disclaimer: things be here that cannot be unseen, friends – and the Menagerie is not responsible for any resulting seizures, visions, or erectile possessions!” She released the length of fabric and it fluttered to the stage. The mob rejoiced and she encouraged them by shimmying her shoulders, swaying first hither, then tither and then tither some more.
Flush against Misty's ear a souse shouted, “Triple nipple!”
It was a while before the crowd cooled even a little. Extra Special crossed her arms. When it simmered down to a quiet roar, she encouraged the audience to welcome the first act.
“The Death-Defying Mr Dirk Needles!”
The mob cheered her offstage. She was replaced by a bald, shirtless carny. He came barefoot, wielding a long steel spike and a jug of gin. The tip of the spike was on fire. He stirred the air and Misty felt the heat. He looked to be totally shaved, even his eyebrows.
“How do you do, Red Junction?” he began. “I am Dirk Needles, and tonight I will perform a routine that you should not attempt to recreate in your own homes.”
He opened his jaws wide. It looked as if he was trying to swallow the chandelier. Taking deliberate care, he raised the spike above his head and then inverted it so that its sharpest point was aimed directly at his upturned face. The flames climbed along its shaft and licked just below where his hand held. It threatened to singe him. If that happened and his grip failed, Misty reckoned he'd be skewered from mouth-to-ass. Those in the parlor who weren't already too inebriated to recognize danger held their breaths.
In that quieter moment, Misty heard a skull rolling on the floor near her ankles. It weren't that, though – that were just what the ether would've had her believe. It were the sound of the awl, and somebody kicked it so it spun toward the stage. Misty saw it ricochet off the plywood base, coming to rest beside a dusty boot. The crowd came apart a crack and she saw whose boot it was, and he saw her. Tom Savage scooped the awl off the floor and put it in his pocket. He winked again and Misty wanted to cry. The audience receded and, once again, she lost track of the Westman table.
Were any of this real life? Or were it all a weird dream?
The crowd gasped. Misty heard a viper hissing – and then, again, not. Dirk Needles had extinguished the spike in the cavern of his own gaping mouth. Gray smoke crept out around the steel. There came a spattering of eager applause, and then he interrupted it by releasing the spike entirely so it could slide inside. It entered him fast and stopped all-at-once. The only hands clapping did so against mouths so the yellower fellers wouldn't upchuck. Dirk Needles faced the crowd and bent deeply at only his waist. He stood back upright and began the task of extricating the spike from his esophagus – and only then did the crowd let him hear it.
While they cheered, Rex whispered in Misty's ear, “I reckon that carny ain't got a thing on you when it comes to deep-throated tricks.”
She elbowed him in the gut and spun around – but of course it wasn't Rex. Just some no-account liquor-swiller, holding his belly and moaning. His friends laughed at him and Misty pressed into the crowd, away from the stage. Killing Rex was a lost cause. She couldn't even figure the real him. She'd better be getting on back to Yule's shop.
From behind she heard Extra Special resume the stage and usher Dirk Needles away.
“Do please let him hear your applause!”
Men who were too squeamish to stick around for the first act came scrambling back to see Extra Special. Misty's path was impeded completely. They picked her up and passed her around. She was kissed and touched.
She heard the next act's introduction, “The Missing Link! And please – no sudden movements up front!”
A thick-necked hulk hoisted Misty upward till she was sat on his shoulder like a pirate's parrot. Suddenly she had the best view in the house. Onstage, the backdrop parted. What emerged was at once the most diminutive – as well as the blackest – man she had ever beheld. His silver-specked beard stood out like stars against a moonless sky. Aside from that bristly growth he appeared at first glimpse to be an oddly-proportioned negro-youth. His limbs were short as a toddler's yet muscular as any full-sized man's. He performed a quick somersault followed by a twisting hand-spring. Then he proceeded to walk about the stage upon the palms of his hands, the buckles of his child-sized overalls jingling like spurs. He weaved from stage-left to right, captivating his audience with the same motion a hypnotist effects on a timepiece.
A man stood up from a seat next to the stage and shouted, “Spectators! Huzzah!” He was a bonafide ringmaster, dressed in a bright red coat with gold-tasseled epaulets and a black top-hat. He climbed onto the stage beside the charcoal dwarf and called out, “Behold the Missing Link! Not all beast and not quite man – but wholly entertaining!”
Still perched upon his palms, the Missing Link clapped the soles of his feet and shrieked like a primate. The Ringmaster produced a ripened banana from his coat's pocket and tossed it to the center of the stage. The ape-boy padded over to it on his hands and bent in half so that his feet landed upon it lightly. Then in a maneuver which provoked the audience to guffaw approvingly, he plucked it from the floor with his stubby toes and clutched it with one foot like a fist. He peeled its skin with his toes.
“Phooey! Shenanigans!” A heckler in clown's make-up appeared at the stage's edge and taunted the ringmaster. “Not a wild thing! Merely a midget black!”
“A skeptic is every minute born!” the ringmaster retorted jovially. “Sir Skeptic, how then would you explain his animal magnetism?”
He waved his hand in the backdrop's direction and it parted to reveal the shadowy opening of a wooden crate. The ringmaster dug in his pocket to arm himself with another banana, and he wiggled it just outside the crate's opening. A miniature, dark hand seized upon the banana and then finally a chimpanzee was lured out. The chimp was dressed in a frilled, pink dress tailored for a human child but suited surprisingly well to the primate’s physique.
“Say hello to Ruby!”
The rowdies whistled and crowed. They stomped their feet and bent in half from laughing. Misty saw Rex sitting over there, drawing on his cigar till its eye was fiercely red. The cyclops gave a standing ovation. Tom Savage seemed oblivious to the act. Instead he looked at Misty and never quit with his grinning.
Onstage, the chimp scurried over to the Missing Link and clung to him. She wrapped her furry arms and legs about his torso and hung from his hip the way an infant is carried by its mammy. She noshed her banana and showed her blocky teeth to the audience. When she finished the fruit, she lapped at the residue caught in the Missing Link's beard. He embraced her, rocking his head to-and-fro so they appeared to be tongue-kissing lovers.
“Easy, Link!” the Ringmaster warned. “We've barely the bananas to keep fed but the two of you! How we'd sustain a whole litter I do not know!”
The parlor went wild. Misty's hulk had tears in his eyes. He returned her to the floor so he could slap his own knee. The whole joint quaked. The Missing Link and his gal Ruby the chimp held hands and took a bow. Misty began forging away from the stage once more, but then the crowd sucked in again and she knew what that must mean.
Extra Special was back onstage – this time trussed with an elaborate suspension of clamps and chains dangling from her three bosoms. The metallic apparatus jingled like sleigh-bells. Looping her fingers through rings attached to the chains, she manipulated the get-up the way a woman works a loom. The gesture resulted in her breasts jostling independently of one another. The bordello was silent except for the sound of her chassis tinkling and the stray headboard thudding upstairs.
“Now that your attention is mine, allow me please to introduce the night's next wonder.” Extra batted her eyes at the crowd and continued to operate her bosoms like an erotic marionette. “The voracious Mister Ben Bitten!”
A man in a burlap sack mask came lurching onto the stage. He was tied in a strait-jacket. The sack over his head had a slit cut for his mouth and all around it the burlap was stained crimson. There were holes for his eyes but they were dark.
The curtain behind him was drawn back by hidden ropes and pulleys. Then there was mad-flapping and a slew of chickens came squawking out. Feathers blew up in the air and flirted with the chandelier. One fowl strutted at the stage's brink and another hopped onto the floor where it pecked at spilled tobacco and the rare crumb.
The ringmaster reappeared and bounded to center stage, plucking a bird from the floor as the others scattered. Some went running into the crowd. Misty heard them kicked and clucking. The ringmaster held the fowl and stood beside the man in the burlap mask.
He shouted, “Ben Bitten, ladies and gents! Please don't feed him, for that is my job.”
“A geek...” Misty heard herself whisper. It weren't something she had even an ounce of desire to see.
She turned away from the stage and pressed through the crowd. She tried to block out the sound of his voice but she could still hear the ringmaster droning on. Then a chicken bawked once and no more. It was such a shockingly quick sound. Misty flinched and glanced back over her shoulder…
She looked into the gnashing, churning vortex of Ben Bitten's maw. There were feathers pasted to his chest by the fowl's bright red blood. The ringmaster held the headless body. A loose length of chicken neck flapped from Ben's lips. He mashed his molars and Misty heard the fowl's skull pop inside his mouth. It was loud as a pistol. Gore dribbled out. The front of his strait-jacket was peppered with blood like fire ants crawling from his chin to his navel. The ringmaster held a mug of cider to Ben's lips and the glass shattered. The geek ground the jagged shards between his teeth.
“Should one find the sight of blood frightening,” the ringmaster chuckled, “one might avert their eyes before now. Do please forgive.”