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The Circus Life of Bailey Alden Clarke, Proprietor

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1. Dendromancy: Paris, January 1903

“I don’t think I’ve seen the Wishing Tree,” Bailey says.
“It is not a tent that is stumbled upon,” Marco says. “It is found when it is needed, instead.”

Bailey finds himself sitting at the base of the Wishing Tree more and more often in the months after he becomes caretaker of the Circus. Sometimes he is joined by Poppet, who brings him cider and sits silently beside him, warm against his arm. Sometimes it is Widget instead, who tells him stories about wizards and magic that Bailey knows in his heart are true. Often he sits alone, watching the flames flicker. He does not ever light a candle for himself.

(When asked, he says it is because he has already received everything he could ever wish for.)

Tonight though, Poppet has left for a short trip to London. Widget has gone into the city for a meeting. Tonight, Bailey has a different sort of visitor.

There are soft footsteps behind him, a scent of perfume and richly-dyed fabric, a light breeze that causes the candles to flicker but not extinguish.

“Good evening, Miss Bowen,” Bailey says without looking.

Bailey knows that Celia Bowen is in the room. He does not know how he can tell this; there are many things about the Circus that he knows as though through a sixth sense.

“Widget told me something the other day,” Bailey continues.

There is no reply, but he does not expect one. Celia listens silently, a presence both there and not. If he glances out of the corner of his eye, he can see the former Illusionist standing patiently.

“He said,” Bailey continues, “that there is no such thing as magic. This is the way the world is, but most people do not take the time to note it. He says it can be taught, though.”

“It can.” Celia’s voice is a whisper through the leafless boughs of the Wishing Tree, a flicker of smoke and air. “You already have the talent to learn within you.”

Bailey focuses on the twisting branches that almost brush the roof of the tent. “I need to learn,” he says. “If I am to be the caretaker of this Circus, I must understand how it works.”

Celia drifts closer, until she is just behind Bailey’s shoulder. There is a brush of silk against his arm. “You had a tree of your own once,” Celia says into his ear. “A tree that you loved. You knew the tree better than anything else; knew its branches and its knots. It kept your secrets for you.”

“Yes,” Bailey says.

“Then you already know magic,” Celia whispers. “The Circus is like your tree. It has roots, a trunk, and branches. It will cradle you in its branches, support you with its trunk, nourish itself with its roots. This is what magic is, Bailey. It is life.”

Bailey turns now to look at the spectre of Celia Bowen. “The Circus is alive, then.”

“Yes. And if you ask of it, it will answer your queries and will acquiesce to your requests. You only need to reach out.”

Though Bailey still does not understand, he knows that he will get no further answers tonight. “Thank you, Miss Bowen,” he says, looking back to the tree.

Instead of a response, there is a soft touch on his shoulder: a reassurance. The pressure vanishes a moment later, but the scent of perfume lingers on for several minutes after.

Bailey sits for another moment, watching the Wishing Tree shine before him. It does have roots, he knows. He can feel them beneath his feet, spreading outside the walls of the tent.

He slowly gets to his feet, dusting off his trousers. Carefully, hesitantly, he stretches his hand to the tree, touches his fingers to its rough bark, and reaches out to the Circus.

 

2. Schematomancy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 1911

The corridors of the hospital are silent except for the steady clacking of footsteps. Bailey walks with a purpose, having inquired with a doctor for the correct room; it is early enough that he encounters no other visitors, and the few nurses that he encounters do not make eye contact.

The door that he is searching for is already cracked open, as though awaiting his arrival. He pushes the door open slowly, but it creaks as he does, alerting the room’s only occupant.

“Who’s there?” Bailey’s grandmother asks.

Bailey slips into the room and closes the door behind him. He takes a moment to study his grandmother before he speaks. Her face still holds its former strength and dignity, but her eyes are the clouded white of the blind, and her hands shake as she tries to push herself up from the bed.

“Good morning, Grandmother,” he says.

The older woman stops in her struggles to sit up, staring in his direction as though she can see him if she tries hard enough. “Bailey?” she asks.

“Yes, Grandmother, it’s me,” he replies.

“Ten years since I last saw you, boy,” she says. “Come help me sit up, and bring me a cup of water.”

Bailey does as he’s told, arranging pillows at her back and helping her drink from the glass on the bedside table, steadying her hands when she begins to spill. “I apologize for not visiting sooner.”

“Apologize?” His grandmother makes the word sound ridiculous. “Don’t be absurd, boy. You were off on a grand adventure, were you not? Fighting hydrangeas in a laundry tub-turned-pirate ship, I suppose?”

While her body may be deteriorating, it is clear that her mind is as sharp as ever. Bailey allows himself a smile, even though he knows she cannot see it. “Something like that,” he allows.

“Tell me about it,” his grandmother demands. “Tell me about your circus.”

Bailey’s surprise must be apparent in the silence that follows, because his grandmother just laughs. “Oh, I have heard from your sister and mother many times, the story of how you ran away to join the circus. The Circus of Dreams. Did you know I visited it once, soon after your grandfather passed away?”

“I didn’t know that,” Bailey says. The day is already filling with surprises, and it is barely half-past eight in the morning.

“Oh yes. It was the spring of 1888, and the Circus came to Boston. I was in town, visiting a friend. Still in mourning, you know, but my mourning dress only fit in all the better in the Circus.” She pauses, and her face lights up at the memories. “It was like nothing I had ever seen before.”

Bailey leans in closer, taking his grandmother’s frail hand within his own. “I know,” he says.

“Of course you do,” his grandmother says. “Now, tell me about the Circus. Has it changed much?”

So Bailey does. He sits there for hours, describing the tents and the people, the bonfire and the candy apples. He doesn’t have Widget’s ability to turn words to his will, but he knows the Circus better than anyone. He even, after a moment of hesitation, tells his grandmother about Poppet.

“Her name is Penelope,” Bailey says. “She is my… that is to say, we…” he trails off.

His grandmother laughs. “You love her greatly,” she says. “Perhaps as much as you love the Circus itself.”

Before long, the nurses are fretting at the door, silently trying to encourage Bailey to leave. He does so regretfully, but not before granting his grandmother one more wish.

“Let me see you,” she asks.

There ways that he could do this, Bailey knows. He has learned enough now to project images into another’s mind, to share emotions through touch. Instead, he lifts his grandmother’s hands to his face, closes his eyes and lets her rough fingers map out the arches of his brow, the ridges of his cheeks, the faint stubble of his chin.

“You have not aged a day,” his grandmother says.

He leans forward. “Magic,” Bailey whispers into her ear.

His grandmother’s smile is delighted. “I knew it,” she whispers back.

Bailey straightens. “Goodbye, Grandmother,” he says.

It will be the last time they meet, Bailey knows, but he doesn’t feel sadness at the realization. Instead, he watches as she closes her eyes to rest, peaceful and calm, and kisses her on the forehead before leaving the hospital.

Soon, Bailey thinks, he will need to ask the Snow Queen to don her angel wings again and to perform in memorial of a lost rêveur.

 

3. Acultomancy: San Francisco, California, February 1942

The first sign of trouble comes when Bailey is least expecting it. He is wandering the paths as he tends to do on opening night in a new city, checking to make sure everything is perfect.

He can tell that something isn’t quite right before the shouting begins.

There is a crowd gathered around a raised platform on one of the winding paths to his left. Bailey moves towards them quickly as the voices get louder and other visitors begin to take notice.

“Get off the stage you fuckin’ Jap!” a man shouts.

Another man shouts in approval, adding another insult to the calls from the audience.

On the platform, Tsukiko continues to perform, seemingly without paying mind to the yelling, although Bailey can see by the tightening of her mouth that she is displeased. He cuts through the crowd easily.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Bailey interrupts. There are four of them, grown men with wives and children standing beside them. All have looks of outrage on their face, but they fall silent when Bailey speaks. “I’m going to have to ask that you please move to another part of the circus, if this act is displeasing you.”

One of the men steps forward, pushing into Bailey’s space. “You in charge here?” he asks.

Bailey nods.

“What are you doin’ hiring Japs like this freak?” the man demands.

Tsukiko has begun the final part of her act, folding herself into the small glass box in the middle of the platform. Most of the audience continues to watch her with morbid fascination, but Bailey can tell that their full attention is not on the show, but rather on the argument forming before them.

“Our contortionist is one of many performers that the Circus employs from all over the world,” Bailey says diplomatically. “If you are unhappy with your experience at the circus, you may return to the box office for a full refund.”

The lid of the box closes, and Tsukiko is soon obscured by the thick white smoke. There is a pop, and most of the audience startles as the box falls open, revealing that it is empty inside.

With no one to direct their anger to, the men fall to muttering and walk away, taking their wives and children with them.

Bailey waits for the crowd to clear before he sighs deeply and goes to find Tsukiko.

She is in her tent, and incense drifts softly out of the open door. Bailey doesn’t even have a chance to knock before Tsukiko is calling for him to enter.

“I require your assistance,” Tsukiko says with aplomb before Bailey can even begin to utter his apologies for the scene outside.

“I… what?” Bailey blinks. Tsukiko is rarely abrupt, but her tone now is short, her words to the point.

“Your assistance. I cannot hold the needle steady myself at this angle.”

Now Bailey notices the needles in her hand; it is a specialized tool, half a dozen needles surrounding a piece of bamboo.

“I will provide you with the symbols,” Tsukiko says, continuing to fill the silence. “And I will hold the skin flat.”

“Wait,” Bailey says. “You’re asking me to tattoo you?”

Tsukiko sighs and looks longingly at the cigarette case on her table. “I thought that was obvious,” she says.

Bailey only hesitates for a moment. This is not the strangest thing he has done since joining the Circus, nor even the strangest request Tsukiko has ever asked of him. “Alright,” he says. “Where?”

Tsukiko still wears her performance clothing for the night, black silk that ripples as she moves and a corset that shows more skin than it hides. Her skin is pale white against the dark cloth, but for the ink that flows in a ribbon along her chest, over her shoulder, and down her back. She shows him a spot above her breast, next to a symbol that Bailey recognizes as the alchemical symbol of the sun. “Here,” she says.

The needles are sharp, Bailey can tell when she presents it to him.

“This is called tebori, to carve by hand,” Tsukiko says. “The method you will use is tsuki-bori, to thrust the ink into the skin.”

“Tsuki, like your name,” Bailey interrupts.

Tsukiko smiles. “Yes, like so. The word you will inscribe is wasurenai.” She does not explain what the word means, and Bailey does not ask, but instead accepts the tool and the design on a piece of paper, Japanese characters that mean nothing to him but are beautiful nonetheless.

“I have never done this before,” Bailey says.

“The needle knows what it is doing,” Tsukiko says. “You must simply let it guide you. I have used this tool for every one of my tattoos.”

Bailey inhales, steadies himself. Exhales.

As he presses the needle into the skin for the first point of ink, Tsukiko whispers softly, “Shakki.” Then she begins to speak.

“There is a tale among the Japanese. A baby is found by a poor bamboo cutter, and is raised by he and his wife who name her Kaguya.”

Tsukiko’s words wash over Bailey as he works. The needle guides his hand, pushing into the skin over and over, making a gentle noise with every thrust, Sha, sha, sha.

“Kaguya grew in a beautiful woman, the most beautiful in all of Japan. Princes fell in love with her, but Kaguya turned them all away. Even the Emperor himself fell in love with the stunning Kaguya. But Kaguya knew that she could not marry any of these suitors, for she was not from Japan, and she would have to return to her true home someday.”

Bailey pauses, sensing where the story is going.

“For Kaguya was from Tsuki no Miyako, the capital of the moon. It was to the Moon that she must return, and to her people there. The Emperor was so distraught by her leaving that he climbed the highest mountain in Japan so that he might be closer to her.”

“Are you leaving us, then?” Bailey asks. He sets the needle tool aside, looking at the symbols that are now forever etched into Tsukiko’s skin.

“Soon, perhaps,” Tsukiko says. “For there are many things in this world left for me to see, and new playing fields for me to explore.”

Bailey pulls his handkerchief from his pocket and dabs at the blood on Tsukiko’s chest. “Is it because of the War?” Even in the Circus they hear news of the War and the devastation it leaves behind, and Bailey knows that today’s incident was only the first of many to come.

“I fought a war once,” Tsukiko says quietly. “A battle between the sun and moon. The moon won, and now I live in a land of nighttime. One war is enough for any lifetime, and I find myself missing the warmth of the sun on my skin.”

It’s not an answer; or, at least, not the answer that Bailey wants.

“If you want to leave, you need only ask,” he says.

Tsukiko gives him a smile. “Thank you,” she says. “For your assistance, and also for listening.”

“Of course,” Bailey says, rising to his feet. He moves for the door of the tent, then pauses before exiting. “What does it say? The word?”

Wasurenai,” Tsukiko repeats. “We will never forget.”

The tent door falls shut behind him.

 

4. Amniomancy: Concord, Massachusetts, August 1962

 

The sun is warm against Bailey’s back as he walks across once-familiar fields. Poppet walks beside him, her long hair tangling in the wind. She looks as out of place now in this pasture as she did almost six decades ago, when she asked Bailey to run away with her.

Laughter carries down to them on the breeze, guiding them to a large oak tree that Bailey looks at fondly. There is a blanket spread on the ground, the clear remains of a picnic scattered on it. Children chase each other around the grass while adults watch.

And beneath the tree, leaning against its bark, is a woman with white hair and a wrinkled face. She is watching Bailey and Poppet approach with something like sadness on her face, though it wars with disbelief.

“Caroline,” Bailey says as he reaches the edge of the blanket.

“My God,” Caroline breathes. “I thought for a moment that I must be hallucinating.”

The other adults on the blanket watch the exchange with confusion. Bailey notes that two of them have his mother’s eyes, and one of them has his father’s hands. These are Caroline’s children, then, he reasons. They are all grown up, and it gives Bailey a pang in his heart to realize that he’s missed so much.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” Bailey says. “But I’m here now.”

“Yes,” Caroline says. “You are. Help me up and we’ll walk for a bit.”

Bailey helps her stand, and they leave Caroline’s children and grandchildren behind, walking toward the sheep fields and orchards.

“Caroline,” Bailey says. “I’d like to introduce you to Ms. Penelope Murray.”

“It’s an honor to meet you at last, Mrs. Clarke,” Poppet says, nodding politely.

Caroline smiles. “It’s Mrs. Mackenzie now,” she says. She turns to Bailey. “Oh yes, I married Jonathan Mackenzie back in ’04, you remember him of course?”

Bailey remembers sitting in the oak tree, watching boys throwing acorns at anything that moved. He nods.

“He passed away in ’59, God rest his soul. It’s just me and my daughter Lucy now. Frank and Anne have married and moved out, although they come by on weekends as you can see. And grandchildren! My goodness. The youngest is Alden, age six and already the spitting image of his uncle.”

Bailey stumbles, and Poppet catches him. She laces their hands together.

“You’ve missed a lot, Bailey,” Caroline says sadly.

“I know,” Bailey says quietly. “Time is different in the Circus.”

“You don’t look a day over twenty-five.” Caroline’s voice is barely audible. “I thought, when you walked up, that you were an angel here to take me to heaven, in the form of my long-lost younger brother.”

“I wrote,” Bailey says.

Caroline snorts. Just like that, Bailey can see his sister in this stranger’s face.

“I sent you tickets to the circus, but you never came,” Bailey continues.

“The circus stole you away from us,” Caroline says. “How could I go visit it when mother and father cried for a week after you left.”

Poppet sends him silent support through their joined hands.

“I had to,” Bailey says.

“You had responsibility here,” Caroline says.

Poppet shakes her head. “He had a responsibility to us,” she says. “To me.”

Caroline notices their joined hands for the first time, and laughs. “You ran away for love?” she asks.

“I ran away to follow my dreams,” Bailey responds. “Love was a much-welcomed bonus.”

They stand in the field for a few minutes, watching the sheep milling about below. “You grew up,” Caroline finally says. “You’re still young and handsome, while I’m old and wrinkled, but your eyes tell the truth. You’ve grown.”

“You’re beautiful,” Bailey says. “And I’m glad you found someone who took decent care of the sheep after I left.”

And then Caroline is laughing again, and the siblings are embracing. Poppet watches them both, amused.

Later, when Poppet and Bailey have joined the family on the picnic blanket—the other adults looking incredulous when Caroline introduces the young man as her baby brother and his girlfriend—a small boy wanders up to them.

He has brown hair that spikes in all directions, rail thin with eyes that see too much. “You’re Uncle Bailey,” the boy says.

Bailey smiles. “And you’re Alden,” he says, “It’s very nice to meet you.”

“You ran away to join the circus a long time ago,” Alden says.

Bailey nods.

“I want to run away, too,” Alden explains with all the solemnity that a six year old can muster. “I have been practicing my handstands, and I can do eight cartwheels in a row before I fall over.”

Caroline speaks before Bailey can. “I knew when Alden was born that he was quite unlike his siblings and cousins,” she says. “The midwife said he was born with a caul about his head, a magic omen. I knew then that he would be different.”

Bailey looks at Poppet, who is watching the boy with the same gentle scrutiny that she gives her scrying stars. “The future is never set in stone,” she says. “But perhaps one path will lead him to the circus.”

Alden lights up at these words, even though he does not fully comprehend what Poppet is saying. But Caroline’s face falls.

“Go play with your brothers,” she says to the boy. When he is gone, she looks to Bailey. “So the circus will take another one from me,” she says.

Poppet reaches out to touch her arm. “No,” she says. “Le Cirque des Rêves is for dreamers; only those who seek it out will find it. We take nothing from you.”

“And Alden will have a choice to make for himself when he is old enough,” Bailey says. “Poppet is right, the future has many possibilities; perhaps Alden will choose to stay with the farm. Perhaps he will visit the circus. You cannot choose his path for him, Caroline.”

Caroline sighs. “I know,” she says. “Only, I wish I had tried harder to convince you to stay that last night.”

“I couldn’t have,” Bailey says. “The Circus needed me.”

Poppet nods.

The sun is starting to dip toward the horizon.

“It is opening night here in Concord,” Bailey says. He pulls out a silver card and hands it to Caroline. “I hope you will come tonight. Bring your family. Bring Alden. Let me show you what I ran away for.”

Caroline takes the card and turns it between her fingers. “I’m sorry that I was not a better sister to you,” she says suddenly.

Bailey smiles. “And I’m sorry that I was not a better brother,” he says. “But the past cannot be changed, so we should live only in the present and look to the future.” He stands, and Poppet joins him. “Please, come tonight.”

“I will,” Caroline says. “I will.”

 

5. Catoptromancy: London, October 31 to November 1, 2012

The hands on the clock slide past midnight as Bailey watches, but still the Circus is flooded with people. Halloween with Le Cirque des Rêves has special meaning, and it has been many years since they’ve celebrated in London.

Dozens of silver and black leather masks pass him, provided upon entry through the gates that night. It’s an eerie effect, making the guests look like ghosts in the darkness, but it is an effect that Bailey never tires of seeing year after year.

Widget appears next to him. One moment Bailey is alone; the next moment, his best friend leans against his shoulder, following his line of sight.

“You’re getting better at that,” Bailey says.

“Yet I still can’t manage to surprise you,” Widget responds. “Celia has been teaching me.”

“The Circus tells me where you are,” Bailey explains. “Just like it tells me that Poppet is, ah—

The woman in question slides between Bailey and Widget, linking her arms through theirs. She grins at her brother first, and then her lover. “Happy Halloween,” she says.

“Shouldn’t you be in your tent?” Widget asks.

Poppet shrugs. “People like to seek out their future early in the evening,” she says. She has explained this before, but Widget still asks every time she emerges early, and Poppet still explains. “It was busier earlier, but now it is quiet and no one waits to see what the stars will tell them.” She laughs, then adds, “The years may change, but people do not.”

Bailey is silent while the siblings chat back and forth. A few people spot them and smile, rêveurs who know the trio well after many years of visiting the circus. Some even wave, but none approach.

“Is Bailey moping again?” Poppet asks.

“Yes,” Widget says.

“No,” Bailey says at the same moment. He frowns at his best friends. “No,” he repeats firmly, “Bailey is not moping.”

Widget just winks at Poppet.

“Every Halloween, like clockwork,” Poppet says. “Are you ever going to tell us what you think about, when you get silent and thoughtful on these nights?”

Bailey shrugs.

“He thinks about the past,” Widget says. He ignores the mock-glare from Bailey; they have long since grown close enough that they don’t mind when the others read them. “He thinks about how things have changed.”

“It’s been one hundred and ten years today. Exactly.” Bailey doesn’t need to elaborate on what the anniversary is marking; they all know.

“Do you ever regret it?” Poppet asks.

“Never.” Bailey’s answer is immediate, unhesitating.

Widget reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bag of cinnamon twists, still their favorite snack after so many years. With a thought, the treats are once again warm, the scent of cinnamon and icing drifting through the air. “You always forget to eat on Halloween night,” he says by way of explanation.

They eat silently, watching the crowds thin.

“Do you ever wish that you changed along with the outside world?” Bailey finally asks. “We don’t age, we don’t grow old or sick. The people of the circus come and go, but the circus itself remains the same.”

Bailey thinks of Tsukiko, gone now almost fifty years; the last he’d heard of her, she was in Peru, following Alexander and Hector’s latest challenge. He thinks of young Alden, who showed up at the gates of the circus on his eighteenth birthday, just outside of Dublin, Ireland, his bags packed and his eyes bright. He thinks of Victor and Lorena and Elizabeth, the rêveurs who he kept in contact with for so many years, but who have also faded away outside the gates of the circus. He thinks of the people they have lost, and the people who are lost to them.

“Why would I want things to change,” Widget says quietly, “When I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of right next to me for all of time?”

“Isobel said something to me once,” Bailey says. “She said, ‘There may be decisions to make, and surprises in store. Life takes us to unexpected places sometimes. The future is never set in stone, remember that.’”

“The future isn’t set in stone,” Poppet agrees. “But whatever surprises may be in store, we will be together to face them, and that’s all that matters, right?”

Bailey Alden Clarke, Proprietor of the Night Circus, one hundred and twenty-six years old, smiles and nods. “Yes, that’s all that matters,” he says. “Now give me another one of those cinnamon things before Widge eats them all.”

If this is a dream, Bailey thinks, it is one that he never wishes to wake up from.

 

Plus one.

6. Ouranomancy: Titusville, Florida, September 2098

It is nighttime, but for once the Circus is not open for business.

Alden stands in the middle of a field, face tilted up to the sky. It is a warm night, and there are no clouds to obscure his vision. He can’t read the stars like Aunt Poppet could, but he sees his future in them nonetheless.

The Circus is packed and ready to go. In the distance, the bright lights from the Shuttle Launch Facility act as a midnight sun, calling to him. Le Cirque des Rêves goes wherever there may be dreamers, and now it is time for them to go further than ever before.

(There is no Shuttle scheduled for tomorrow. The transportation board stands blank. But Alden knows that the Circus will take care of things.)

A glimmer in the sky catches his attention. A dot, tiny and as red as Aunt Poppet and Uncle Widget’s hair. It makes Alden smile.

“Uncle Bailey,” he whispers, “If only you could see us now. We are such stuff as dreams are made on.