SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)
 

Katy Gunn

Lady Castella’s Miniature Lions and Other Spectacular Cats

 

When we stop in a city or town where a performer grew up, we go to a local bar and take turns buying that person as many drinks as he or she can hold. It is understood that the gift will be reciprocated for any of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves in the same situation.

But no one tells me to put on my smallest dress on the night we arrive in Farwell. I buy myself a bottle of gin in celebration of this oversight and drink it in my room with my cats.

If anyone asks where I’m from, I claim to be the illegitimate daughter of Tom Reinhold the lion tamer. The response is predictable but usually gets a laugh and a snide comment about the horror my brood will be when they grow up.

‘Don’t feel too special, now, you aren’t the only one out there,’ Reinhold will say if he’s around, and I will have successfully avoided the question.

The lie has potential. The keeper of the little cats should be the illegitimate daughter of the lion tamer. Reinhold need not claim me or love me. My mother, a trick rider or acrobat, wouldn’t have pushed me on him. She would have died shortly after my birth. The cook would have raised me for the kitchen car, but no one would have been able to keep me from my father’s cats.

Instead I have definitive parents buried in Farwell, and my brother Noah will always be my brother.

During breakfast I watch Reinhold to pay attention to all the ways we are alike. They are subtle but could be telling, were I his daughter. We both eat everything with our forks, even if its liquid drips through the prongs or it’s hard to cut with the fork’s dull edge. We just sit there and saw at it, both of us.

Our noses are long and we are always sneezing, but not because of cats. I never know what triggers my sneezing, but we sneeze on the same days, so we are allergic to similar things. His thin nose is twitching above his omelet now and I feel a drip starting between my eyes.

My brother Noah has a flat, round nose, and he has hardly been sick in his life. When I used to visit him at our parents’ house, it was spoons that filled the sinks, not forks. Reinhold could never be Noah’s father.

If Reinhold were my father, I wouldn’t know Noah existed until I went out for drinks for no occasion after performing in any regular town and met him for the very first time.

 

We only have one show in Farwell and it’s set for midmorning. I’m nervous in a way the Great World Circus doesn’t usually make me. The cats can probably feel where we are too, but they wear brave faces while I dress them, as cats will.

The cats never planned on the circus. Esther came to my brother without a name when he was a depressed fifteen and I was away at my first year of boarding school. The creature always slept in Noah’s bed and at first I hated her for it, but when I came home for summer and Noah went away to a series of camps, I forgave her.

Esther would totter out of Noah’s room with one or another of his shirts in her mouth and drag it into my lap. She kept me always running back into his room, putting away his belongings, stopping to refold his shirts or lie on his bed.

When I stopped cleaning up after her, Noah’s room slowly emptied and little bits of him were spread all over the house. Esther and I slept in his bed when we were home alone and I taught her to make and hold the poses Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.

Noah brought Abraham back from his summer away. Abraham was tall and gray like Esther but standoffish. All three of them stood silent in the doorway when I left them for school again, Noah watching me go, Abraham glaring at Esther with his fur raised, and Esther doing Speak No Evil.

Next time I came home and Noah left, Esther was fat with kittens, Simeon, Silas, Hagar, Judith, Tobias, and Philemon.

Esther died soon after, of course. She was named for our mother. Abraham took over care of the kittens but didn’t know what to offer them and mostly paced circles around the litter, trying not to touch anything, looking lost. He died too, shortly. The kittens nursed small bottles that Noah or I prepared, depending on who was home.

I like to think Noah and I blended together for them, that they remember our fingers laced together around the bottle.

I hadn’t planned on the circus any more than the cats. If I had, I would have taught myself to be flexible and high up. I would have climbed trees as a child and jumped onto barn roofs and the roof of the house. I would have ridden on Noah’s shoulders.

My decision to join the circus came too late for all of this. Noah never tried to stop me from going. I have feelings about the circus, I told him, that are similar to love.

 

My own costume is baby blue and covered in bows. Some are functional, props for the cats, but not many. They adorn everything, my bodice, stockings, high heels, wide hat, fingerless gloves, detached puff sleeves. Some parts glitter, and my baby blue bloomers reflect the most light under my skirt, the stiff ruffled platform that sticks out from the tops of my thighs horizontally. For part of the show, it’s a stage for the kittens.

I know everything it signifies, and I have built myself around a few of these, little sister, desire, performance, the most important ones.

The kittens and I practice their new hat trick. They execute it perfectly. I put my hat on early and wheel them loopingly across the lot behind the big top. They look straight ahead, refusing to look foolish.

Behind a flap of tent I indulge my nerves. A postcard from Noah comes out of my dress and I read it rapidly over and over until it feels almost like a full letter. We stopped writing letters. They afford too much open space.

My letters to Noah would start simply, Dear Noah, how are you and the house? I bet the pear tree is blooming, but by the middle of the page I always slipped into The days are so long here and, by the end, I miss you, I am always missing you.

The nails on my left hand would leave little crescent dents on my leg while I wrote. Noah’s return letter always dwindled down to The pear tree is blooming. Come home. Please come home.
Ours was a rough imitation of our father’s correspondence with our mother after she died. The lines were, ‘Come home, Esther. I miss you. I always miss you. I love you,’ with big gaps between the sentences that were easy enough for Noah and me to fill in. It was the only conversation we had learned to have.

‘I miss you too. I love you too.’ Noah and I learned it too thoroughly.

We need the restraint of postcards. The knowledge that the postman and anyone could read it. I read Noah’s postcard for the first half of the Great World Circus and through the intermission, only going inside for Erik and Saskia’s trapeze act.

They come on right after the intermission while all the children and parents are trickling back with cotton candy and ice cream. No one in the crowd is ever paying attention, and I want to yell at them, shame on them, because Erik and Saskia are doing something amazing and could one day fall.

Saskia’s body forms a ball as she flies toward Erik and until the last minute it looks like she will knock him from his trapeze and they will both die. She unfolds just quickly enough to grab his hands and be pulled up onto his body. This part always makes me forget to breathe.

 

‘It’s Cowgirl Janie’s Terrific Team! Parsifal’s Performing Pups! Lady Castella’s Miniature Lions and Other Spectacular Cats,’ the ringmaster shouts from the middle of our stage in Farwell. The cats and I ride in on a small platform that I push with my left foot. It has a blue felt top that the cats hook their claws into for balance. The boxes arranged on the platform are also topped with blue felt, and the kittens hold on there.

I smile at everyone and give the platform a spin around our section of floor. The cats pull their whiskers back into their own best smiles as they whip around. Usually I’m annoyed at how these smallest and most difficult tricks are lost on the crowd, but today all my attention is focused on scanning the stands madly in case my brother has come.

Some people cheer when Hagar jumps through the big hoop, the first obvious trick, though Jane’s goat and donkey are forming a wheelbarrow to the left of us and it’s difficult to tell which animals are winning the crowd.

It’s even harder to tell if Noah’s out there. From this distance and through these lights everyone is only either adult or not, and faces are large or small happy blurs.

When I fail to put up Simeon’s hoop, he recalculates and jumps through Silas’s as Silas comes through the opposite direction. Silas’s hoop is too small for both of them. They should collide, but they both sail through perfectly. I need to remember this.

The only person I recognize is a teacher in the second row. She wasn’t my teacher.

People cheer when Judith’s kittens climb up my legs to balance on my stiff skirt. Their nails feel like my nails digging into my thighs when I am trying not to tell Noah I love him. I spin and the ribbons tied to my waist fly outwards. The kittens look windblown. They roll their eyes around, another small and perfect trick that goes unnoticed crowds who come to be astounded by lions and fireworks.

One child in the first row starts shouting, ‘Kittens! Kittens! Kittens!’ and counting the cats with her fingers, and I want to hug her. I want to hug anything. My arms are shaking. I don’t even know what Noah would look like now, I realize. He could have grown a beard. He could have a young woman under his more or less muscular arm.

Hagar, Philemon, and Tobias perform the pyramid trick Noah taught them as kittens. I can’t remember their cues, but the cats are too smart to need them. My mind is full of the combination of potential versions of Noah and I keep almost seeing him in the crowd. There, with the woman in the large pink dress. There, with the vomiting baby.

To stop trying to find his face I focus on my memory of his body. This is no better.

At the end of their performance, the cats bow in unison as they always do. They have done everything perfectly. They always do everything perfectly because they love me and know I rely on them. Cats work that way. They don’t trip over their love.

I push the wheeled platform offstage backwards in a rushed last scan of the crowd but I still can’t find my brother’s face. I wish there were many more of me that I could arrange by all the exits to see if Noah goes out, and to see Noah go.

It’s been a long time since I last watched him leave me.

 

I wheel us slowly back to our car parked in the yard behind the tent. The air smells like Farwell, and the grass is the pale green of early autumn grass in Farwell. I am thankful at least that it is still early autumn. A visit to Farwell in winter would be too much to take. Winter here was where I first truly met my brother.

Of course I met Noah when he was born and I was one, because then we lived in the type of family where everyone was still alive together and full of possibility. But I didn’t really know him, the Noah he could be to me, until the winter I was fifteen. Winter in Farwell is fast and disorienting. The flowers start blooming during sporadic warm flashes as early as January, but the air still smells like decay and hay rides because autumn stretches into the end of the year. The leaves are still dead on the ground and budding green above.

The seasons are all fighting around you in a mad windy battle and you have just had Christmas, so everything is brighter and happier and there is tinsel in your brother’s hair. At least that is how it was for me the winter I was fifteen and fell in love with mine.

I take my bottle of gin to Reinhold, who always welcomes a bottle of gin. Jane is there removing her Cowgirl Janie vest and chaps. I ask, as always, if I’m interrupting, and Jane answers as she usually does.

‘I wouldn’t touch this man. He smells like animal shit.’

They laugh. Jane smells worse than Reinhold, though on her it is a comforting smell, like lying in leaves. No, the leaves haven’t fallen. I hold up the gin to Reinhold, who takes it and pours.
‘Well damn to the Great World Circus.’

We drink. Reinhold has gin too, and brandy and rum, and Jane says she’d like to make a night of it. One of the ponies kicked her in the thigh. She shows us her bruise. It’s surrounded by older hoof marks, and when Reinhold points them out, she says, ‘Can’t a woman have a drink?’

I answer for Reinhold in what is supposed to be an encouraging affirmative but it comes out sad and halfhearted. To cover it up I joke again, and we’re all surprised at the one that comes out. 
‘What would you think if I said I grew up in this awful–’

Reinhold looks at me in a way that shows he knows it’s no joke and also that I’m sad.

‘Go change out of your frilly shit. Put on something that shows a little more skin. If that’s possible. And don’t leave your gin, local girl.’

In another life he could be my father so I do what he says.

 

I return to Reinhold’s car in a thin black dress I’ve worn once. Jane has also changed into a dress, but instead of her usual green silk it’s a modest blue I haven’t seen before. I think she put it on because she knows she’s more beautiful than I am and she wants me to feel special tonight. I love her too, for that.

She is more beautiful than me, though she is forty and always spotted with bruises. She gets the most attention wherever we go. I am not thinking about Noah.

Reinhold is still wearing his lion tamer’s suit. He likes to make an impression. Others have gathered, Joaquin the strongman, Saskia the aerialist, sad clowns Gotthard and Frank, and a young new girl named Catty who’ll eventually do a gymnastic ground routine but for now just operates small equipment.

Everyone but Reinhold is in normal clothes, but Joaquin is still huge, and Gotthard and Frank haven’t got all their paint from around their eyes. Catty keeps looking at Reinhold like she wants to sleep with him and she probably will, even though he’s old enough to be her father too.

To Farwell we’ll look like a group full of mystery and danger. I feel a second’s thrill and drink more gin to make sure I have an excuse for my excitement.

Jane tells me my dress makes me look like a fortune teller. It is the best thing she could have said. Reinhold asks me to lead them to the nearest bar, so I do.

Three roads further and I would be at the house I grew up in, where Noah should be, washing dishes from dinner or feeding the goat. Thinking about the Great World Circus if he went. If he didn’t.

Part of me is glad that Man Amsel is playing show music at the bar tonight. It is entirely unconnected to Noah and keeps me feeling composed, though Jane keeps reminding me it’s acceptable to feel embarrassed as the local. Embarrassment is part of the reason for the tradition, Jane told me once when we were in her own hometown.

Except instead of tradition she said, ‘all the fucking white rum.’

No one recognizes me at Man Amsel’s bar, not even Man. My drinks are ordered an organized order than only excludes Frank, whose father is known to be sick and receiving a large part of his pay, and Catty, who is somehow exonerated from payment by being young and leaning so close to Reinhold.

A  woman recognizes Joaquin and shouts for her son to arm-wrestle him. She keeps saying that her son is a top wrestler, and he looks embarrassed. I wonder what kind of mother brings her son to a bar, or what kind of son brings his mother, but then I think I don’t have the right to judge anything that happens in families.

The mother buys me a lemony beer and I drink it. I am starting to let my eyes blur for short periods of time because whenever I refocus I’m searching the bar.

At bars in other towns when everyone is talking around me, I pull one or another of his postcards out of my dress. Bringing him out like that is thrilling. The postcard in my dress pokes the underside of my left breast.

It's one full sentence tells how he has started caring for sick farm animals. We grew up in town and he was always taking in small hurt birds and any turtles he found. I imagine him feeding a foal from a nipple, him holding a chicken to his chest. My brother has always been tender.

My left hand has slid up under my dress and my nails are pressed into my thigh.

Even if Noah wanted to drink tonight, something would keep him from Man Amsel’s bar. That force started growing the winter I was fifteen and became almost tangible, like the spin of the cat’s platform that presses their fur flat, by the time I left for good to join the Great World Circus.

It was for the best, we agreed in the doorway. We could hardly be in the same place at the same time, especially the house, where we were the only people around and most dangerous.

 

I tell Jane and Reinhold I want to go home.

Nice try, local girl.’ Reinhold assumes I’m talking about the rail yard where our cars are parked. I am talking about going back to the cars, I remind myself. Jane puts her hand on my arm.

’ You need some air?’ she says and leads me outside.

Jane starts to smoke and soon I am leaning on her and pointing toward our house, talking about my real dead father and how my brother still lives there and it’s been so long since I’ve seen him. We’re taking a walk and I’m leaning on her in front of our house, and one or another of us has just knocked.

All the forces of the world I know say Noah shouldn’t be home, that my arrival in town should have pushed him out. He opens the door.

He is wearing a shirt with no wrinkles but the buttons not lined up. His hair is trimmed closer than it used to be, but it still curls like mine, the same dark brown as mine. He looks confused and says something that is like a welcome, and we come in.

We sit, Jane and I on the sofa and Noah across. There is talking, mostly Jane’s.

She loves Essie the goat. She says this and scratches behind Essie’s ears while she asks Noah about her. He tells her about caring for the farm animals, and how it supplements his real job, which he would leave in a minute if it paid more to nurse livestock.

Essie nuzzles Noah’s knee, a little kiss. He gives her a cue and she rolls onto her back and kicks her legs. Jane claps and rubs Essie’s thick belly.

’That’s a real job too. We have basically the same job!’ Jane keeps saying. I love her for running the Great World Circus’s farm animal show and loving goats and being able to keep the conversation going here in our house, where Noah is almost completely silent and I am.

Through Jane’s questions I learn small bits about Noah’s animal charges. He has just returned two ducks that had been attacked by a dog. Last month he had a baby calf in the kitchen. It’s only him and Essie right now, though. He grew too fond of Essie, and the owner had already given her up for dead.

Noah scratches his arm through his poorly-buttoned shirt and I wonder if we got him out of bed, but he’s not yawning. I’m afraid I’m beginning to sober. I don’t have any idea what time it is, and because I’m not speaking I don’t ask Jane.

Jane smiles at me. It’s a funny smile. I give her one back that I hope only looks drunk and not like I’m in love and terrified. She tells Noah about her own goats again and how she should really get back, because their training is early in the morning, and I do I want to come with her, or go back to the bar, or stay at my own house and be free of the circus for a night?

I can’t answer her question, but my head is nodding. My face is twisted in some kind of gratified pain. Jane stands up, goat hairs all over her dress.

‘You should think about joining too, Noah. I could use a partner Cowboy for the show.’ She smiles with all her teeth and lingers in the doorway. I’m not sure what she’s doing. I remind myself how good she is to me and that Noah is my brother.

She leaves a frozen house. Noah’s mouth opens impossibly slowly and everything in my life is scripted and I remind myself I am drunk and should be brave enough to stop.

‘I miss,’ he starts to say, but I am talking about the circus.

‘First are the clowns, one on a bicycle on a tightrope. He’s trying to learn the unicycle but as soon as it gets in the air he falls off. They bring out the teeterboard and set it up for the flyers. For the first ten minutes it’s really just the clown dog running back and forth on the teeterboard. The cats hate the clown dog, Hagar especially. Once she clawed Simeon’s ear open for being in the way when she was trying to glare at it. You know how Hagar–’ I have to stop for breath.

‘The cats were very good.’ Noah wobbles a bit when he says it.


He was at the Great World Circus. He was there when I was looking and saw me looking for him. I miss him. My mouth opens to say how I miss him but only get out the first syllable, which could be the beginning of anything, before he too cuts us off.

‘Every single one of them smiled! when you spun them out of the gate. I thought it couldn’t be the right show, Hagar hasn’t smiled a day in her life. Cross little delicate snot. God I miss those cats.’

He has said every right thing.

‘I wish I brought the cats.’ We could spend the night petting them and trying new tricks and not feeling this twitch in our hands. Yes, I am speaking for Noah, but I have always known how he feels.

‘Let’s go see the cats,’ he says.

Essie puts her nose in my hand, the first affection she’s shown me.

‘Yes, we’ll go see the cats.’

He says he needs to change clothes and disappears into his old bedroom. I had expected him to have moved into our parents’ room, the largest one, at some definitive point at which he became an adult without me. He is in his room for what feels like a very long time, but I can’t be sure how long because I am staring into the eyes of the goat.

Essie stares back for a long time and doesn’t blink.

‘We are having a staring contest, me and your goat,’ I whisper to Essie in rehearsal for what I’ll say when Noah comes out of his bedroom. It is another line that is unexpected and true. Essie blinks half a second before me. She too is human, in the way that means she is not perfect.

‘In the circus you would be perfect. All animals are,’ I tell her.

 

Essie doesn’t like to be left behind, Noah explains, so we bring her. She skips between us on the walk, biting off snatches of grass as we go. I keep my left hand twisted into the fur on her back.

When I open the door to my car, all the cats ignore me, but Silas perks his ears when Noah speaks. Slowly they slink out to smell him, rub their faces on his pants, and lie on his lap until he is pinned to the floor with cats and laughing.

He says, ‘I miss this! I miss,’ but is interrupted by the male kitten Barnabas doing Hear No Evil, an old trick he has only recently learned. Barnabas is excited about company. Because he is at home in the car and not on stage, he doesn’t have to be perfect and keeps falling over as soon as he gets both front paws up to the sides of his head.

I realize I have just thought the phrase at home in the car, which I have never thought, but there is no room to question it in this small space where everyone is laughing, the show is going well, and Barnabas is overwhelmingly charming.

Barnabas runs around the group in a mad circle after the fifth time he falls, and then he skids to a stop and does See No Evil, a trick he has mastered more thoroughly. His race has stirred all the other cats and, already overexcited by Noah and Essie, they begin to copy him. They wobble, trying to outdo each other with the length of time they can stand on two legs.

It’s not like anything I have seen them do before, See No Evil, See No Evil, See No Evil, See No Evil, all in a line, fourteen sets of manicured gray paws covering fourteen pairs of eyes. Noah kisses me.

I know he is thinking how he could join the circus. I have always known what he’s thought, but now the edges of my brain have weakened and melted into his so everything is even clearer.
You could join the circus, I think to him. Join the circus, join the circus.

Though I have just thought of this train car as home, not for a second do I think come home because there is no space for our parents’ words here, in the circus. It is because of this new phrase that is only ours, the circus, that everything works.

He will wear a blue suit with wide shoulders for the kittens to stand on, and the show will be modified for him to grow flustered, an act, at my sparkling bloomers. Essie, naturally curious, will pick up barrel and ball tricks in her first week of training. She will become Jane’s star goat. Jane will smile at both of us and say she saw it in Essie, in Noah.

Now the cats are beginning to fall out of See No Evil back onto their four legs, animals after all, seeing everything. We lay together in a tight warm pile on the floor, cats, goat, lovers, and eventually we all sleep because it is late tonight and in the morning the circus leaves Farwell.