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October 28th, 1901

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October 28th, 1901
Forrestville, California

Dear Friedrick Thiessen,

I must apologize most profusely for being so bold as to write to you without an introduction. We have never met, but as fellow rêveurs I feel confident that if we do meet one day we will have much to speak about. Ever since I learned of your writings on Le Cirque des Rêves I have searched them out where ever I can find them, and poured over every word. It takes ages for your articles to appear, translated, in our provincial California newspapers yet I treasure each one as I would a letter from a long lost friend. Though of course there is nothing that can compare to visiting the circus in person, your writings take me back, vividly, in my mind’s eye. For this, I cannot thank you enough.

I know that you have made it a habit to collect the memories of others who have visited the circus. I am not so well-traveled a visitor as some, but I have been urged by a dear friend of mine to write to you nevertheless and relate my experiences in Le Cirque des Rêves.

I have visited the circus three times, just one night in each of its three unexpected appearances in an open field in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The first time was in either 1887 or perhaps 1888- you must forgive this imprecision, for I cannot remember if I was 6 years old or if I was 7 and my parents cannot remember either. It was my parents that took me and my brothers and sister. It was so exciting for all of us, to be dressing up and going out so late at night, and to the city no less! My elation about being able to stay up so far past my usual bedtime almost equaled my excitement at the prospect of visiting a circus.

I will not describe to you the feelings I had as a little girl as I first passed through the open circus gates- the painful excitement, the smell of the cold sweet air, the mystery of the black and white tents- you know them already, more intimately than I. It is my experiences in the Labyrinth that I wish to relate to you.

When we first arrived, my parents tried in vain to keep my siblings together, but soon my older brothers had run off to see the lions and tigers, while my sister begged to be allowed to sit and watch the lady illusionist perform. I, the youngest, was kept firmly by my mother’s side until she found a tent in which she deemed it safe to let me roam: the Labyrinth. We walked together through rooms full of wonders until we reached one which, inexplicably, was a large as a cathedral and just as tall. The walls, instead of being made of striped canvas, were formed by a series of graceful pillars fluted in a gothic style. The pillars reached upward where they divided and met like the interwoven branches of trees. The space they contained was filled with the soft glow of golden afternoon, though I don’t remember any specific light source. The ground underfoot was covered in short springy grass, so soft I longed to kick off my shoes and run barefoot as I saw other children doing. Inside the wide space of the room was a forest of wooden-framed panels, each about three feet wide and six or seven feet high, over which was stretched silk fabrics patterned in black, white and grey. These panels linked one onto the next, forming short walls in rows and corridors. It was a twisting maze of stretched silk walls. There were children running everywhere around it, chasing each other down the passage ways, playing tag and hide and seek. Laughter, shouts and wild giggling filled the whole hall. I’m still not sure quite how I convinced her, but somehow I talked my mother into releasing my hand and letting me run, gleefully, into the maze. As long as I didn't leave the room, I was allowed to stay there and play as long as I liked.

I ran into the entrance of the maze, and the first thing I saw was a pile of children’s shoes and socks. Clearly I was not the only one who had planned to shed my stockings as soon as I was out of my mother’s sight! Delightedly I pulled off my boots and added them to the pile. What a wonder that maze was! No end of alleyways to explore, with dead ends, cul-de-sacs, hidden doors and shortcuts. The patterned silk panels blurred together as I ran past- checkers, stripes, swirls and spots blending into one. I swear they moved, rearranging themselves whenever I wasn't looking, though I don’t know how. I never saw the same set of patterns twice. No sooner had I entered the maze than I was accepted into the wild gang that ran and laughed and chased and played all night down those long pathways. What games we had! I would happily have stayed there forever. For a child like myself that maze was heaven.

Far, far too soon I heard my mother’s voice calling to me from the doorway. It was with a heavy heart that I collected my shoes and bid my lovely maze goodbye. As soon as I saw my mother a wave of drowsiness overtook me. We wound our way out through the impossible rooms to find my father and my siblings. My father picked up and carried me piggy back as we left the circus. I remember watching a boy juggling clubs, and seeing a woman swinging knots of fire through the air as my eyes were closing. The trails of the flames were printed on the inside of my eyelids as I fell asleep.

The second time I visited the circus was in 1893 and I was 12. This time it was in April, I know for certain, because my birthday is in April. Once I had heard that the circus has returned to Golden Gate Park the only thing I wanted was to go back. Both of my brothers deemed themselves too grownup for a circus trip, so it was just my mother, my father, my sister and I. Almost as soon as we had entered the circus my sister saw the tent of a fortune teller and (being of an age in which many girls want nothing more than to know what a certain boy thinks) she had to stop and enter. I walked on with my parents. We passed a woman standing still as a statue, in a white dress covered in words. As we passed by some tents we heard roars of applause, soft music or gasps of wonder, but I had no patience for any of them: I headed straight to the Labyrinth as if drawn by a magnet.

I found the correct tent easily enough, and I walked through a room full of snow, a room full of sand and a room full of silver statues. At last I found the room I was looking for, with its high gothic pillars and late afternoon sunshine. But the maze was different than I remembered. Instead of wood and silk panels, the room was filled by a maze of stone. Rough rock walls, 8 feet high in places, 10 or 12 feet high in others, curved and twisted over a floor of hard-packed black dirt. I felt a wave of dismay at the unfamiliar sight. I walked into the stone maze tentatively.

As I began to explore the alleyways, walls that had at first glance seemed featureless began to appear more interesting. I realized that there were faces carved here and there on the rough surface, as well as odd hidden symbols or runes. A soft grey moss studded with star-shaped white flowers grew in damp crevasses. Some of the alcoves at the end of long hallways held figures of Saints and Buddhas surrounded by crystals and lit candles. The old sense of magic and safety came over me again, and I set out to memorize the maze carefully examining each corridor and finding its secrets. I found that there were foot and handholds in some of the walls, so that I could climb up and look down on the paths from above. There were even a few places where the walls were low enough to climb over, or wide enough to sit on. Once again I spent my whole night in that maze. For a while I searched out lost people, people whose seeking for the exit had become desperate, and I led them out. As the evening wore on I climbed up to the top of the highest wall. Sitting there, on top of a spur of stone, I felt like a queen surveying my rocky kingdom. I was convinced that no one had ever come to know that maze as I had and that must make it mine (forgetting, as children will, that of course the maze must have been made by someone, who assuredly knew it better than myself!)

Once again my mother’s voice called to me far too soon, and it was with great reluctance that I left my kingdom behind. My sister couldn't believe that I had spent my whole evening in one tent- she had fluttered from one bright attraction to the next and couldn't understand that I had found equal delight in a single place. Privately, I knew that she would forget each of her hundred marvels within a day or two, whereas I would remember my maze forever.

It would be 8 years before the circus returned. Luckily, I did not have so long a wait to hear news of it. In 1895 articles by ‘Herr Thiessen’ began to appear in our local newspapers. I read them avidly, drinking in the descriptions of the circus through another’s eyes. I learned of the existence of rêveurs and my desire to meet these people who loved the circus as I did was piercingly strong. However, it was not until this year that I met my first fellow rêveur.

A little over a month ago, in August, the circus appeared once more in San Francisco. My excitement was just as great as it had been the last time. Perhaps even greater- for this would be my first time visiting the circus in the costume of a rêveur.

My oldest brother now lives in San Francisco, so I traveled up in the morning and spent the day with him. As dusk began to gather we took a cable car to Golden Gate Park, following the steady stream of people heading towards the circus. It was a cool night, but clear. I had dressed carefully in a dark grey dress, black stockings, black boots, my black wool pea coat and a bright red scarf I had knitted for this very occasion. The beautiful scrolling title, Le Cirque des Rêves, was just beginning to pop and spark into light as we made our way into the crowd in front of the gates. There was a burst of spontaneous applause as the gates swung open.

My hands were shaking as I bought my ticket. I couldn't believe I was back in the circus at last after all these years. The familiar smell- popcorn and cinnamon, caramel and apples, chocolate and cider- filled my nose. My brother and I agreed to meet back under the clock opposite the ticket booth at 4 in the morning, and we each went our separate ways.

I made my way to the Labyrinth tent as if in a dream. There were many more rooms in it than I remembered, or else I simply took a longer way. I passed through the snow room, a room whose floor was patterned like a chessboard, and a room full of a forest of dark pine trees. Somehow I could tell as I got closer to my room- I held my breath as I ducked through a room filled with a waterfall of books suspended from the ceiling. When I opened the next door I almost gasped. There was my room, with the pillars and the golden light. But at first it seemed almost empty. No silk panels. No walls of stone. Only a dozen or so people, walking in a meandering circle in the center of the room. As I moved closer, my eyes were drawn down to the floor and held there. This time, instead of soft grass or hard packed earth, the floor was made of polished white marble. Inlaid into it in black marble was the pattern of a circular labyrinth of many layers, rings within rings. I recognized it from my art history textbook: it was the Labyrinth of Chartres, replicated here within the circus. The people I had seen from the entrance were already walking the labyrinth, moving in steady measured paces down its paths. They walked in silence, not speaking, but it was a companionable quiet filled with the soft sound of footfalls and the brush of hems. It was hard to tell exactly how many people there were, as they kept passing each other or turning sharply as their paths dictated. Suddenly, one of the walkers caught my eye- a girl, about my age, dressed just as I was! She wore a black dress, a long black coat and a red scarf. For good measure she had added bright red leather gloves. My heart was in my throat- was she a fellow rêveur? Could I meet her? How would I ever catch up to her, when she was already half-way through the labyrinth?

I stepped forward, and something made me pause and take a deep breath before I stepped into the entrance of the labyrinth. I let the soft rustling quiet of the room envelope me. I took my first step, and then another. As I made my way through the curving paths I would find myself at times walking side by side with another person as our paths ran parallel. Then our paths would turn away from each other, and each of us would go our separate way. On one turn the red- gloved girl and I meet almost face to face, and we smiled at each other, before following our own courses. It dawned on me what a clear metaphor for life the labyrinth offered. We all spend time in our lives walking side by side with others whom we part with and return to, part with and return to. Even when our friends seem far away they haven’t truly left us, and in the end it is the same path that each of us walks, with the same beginning and the same eventual ending.

As I wound my way inward towards the heart of the labyrinth I was visited by the most curious sensation that it was actually the very center point of the circus which I journeyed towards. Not only that, but the heart of the labyrinth, it seemed to me, was in fact the very center of the world. It was as if the heart of the labyrinth was the core from which all things radiated. The beginning of the labyrinth was so much farther back than the beginning of the black inlaid marble lines on this white floor- it was, in fact, the gateway of the circus itself; or maybe the threshold I had crossed this morning when I left my own house; or perhaps the first step that I took when I learned to walk. Each step I had taken since then had been leading me up to this point, to the center, to the heart of things. When I turned the last corner, and found myself suddenly facing the center of the labyrinth, I was overwhelmed with a wave of emotion. It was like coming home after a long journey, finding at last that clear safe space in which to rest. I knelt down and pressed my open palm onto the while marble floor and tried to imprint the feeling into my memory forever.

Walking back out of the labyrinth, I felt like Theseus rolling up Ariadne’s magic thread. I wound the path up inside me, returning step by step from a deep place into the light of the world above. When I stepped out of the labyrinth, it was to discover that the red-gloved girl had waited for me. Before I could do so much as speak she had rushed to my side and clasped one of my hands in both of hers.

“Oh, please, please say that you are a rêveur and that you wore that scarf specifically!” She said all in a rush. “If you say that you wore it just by chance my evening shall be ruined!”

“I am a rêveur!” I said. “It was intentional.”

“Oh thank goodness!” She said, and I almost thought she would throw her arms around me, she looked so grateful. “It was all I could do not to call out to you across the labyrinth when I saw you come in.” She grinned, and laughed.

I laughed too. Her cheerfulness was infectious.

“Come, let’s go outside where we can talk.” She said, pulling me by the hand.

She introduced herself as Alicia Bright as she led me out of the labyrinth room, and out of the tent. Before I knew it we were talking like friends who had know each other for years. She had, like myself, visited the circus the two previous times it had been in San Francisco, but had never come into the Labyrinth tent before. She, like my sister, was very surprised that I had seen so few of the circus’s attractions but she didn't tease me for it. She understood what it was like to be captivated, completely, by a single tent. That said, she insisted there were some things that I must see. Together we rode the Carousel- I rode a griffin, and she rode a grey fox with raven’s wings- and she took me to the Ice Garden, and the Wishing Tree, and a dozen more things besides. With her by my side, it suddenly seemed that I saw rêveurs everywhere. Alicia even knew a few of them. She had attended a dinner for rêveurs in Sacramento. She told me all about it, and about how she had planned to place an advertisement in the paper here in San Francisco to try and organize a club for rêveurs. Her father had absolutely refused to allow it. Walking arm and arm through the circus we built such air castles- you would hardly believe them. Before the evening was over we had already half talked ourselves into placing the forbidden advertisement, and into buying a large quantity of white and black canvas so that we could build our own small circus tent and set it up in her backyard or mine.

As always, the time to leave the circus came far too soon. Alicia went with me at 4 o’clock to meet my brother. We said goodbye as long-lost sisters might, exchanging addresses and promising to write. We also planned to meet up the following week at the circus, but by the time the appointed day arrived Le Cirque des Rêves had disappeared as silently as it had come.

This time, however, its departure left me less lonely than before, for now I have Alicia to write to. It was she that gave me your address, Herr Thiessen, and urged me to write you this letter. I hope that it intrigues you, and that this account can find a place amid the many descriptions of other rêveurs already in your hands.

When Le Cirque des Rêves next appears outside your door, may the dusk come early and the dawn come late!

Most sincerely,
Elise McBride