“That’s what you are. Argue with anything else, but don’t argue with your own nature.”
John Cameron knows that even when someone’s soul walks beside them, it’s not always possible to tell what sort of person they are. It is, however, possible to tell if they mind other people knowing what sort of person they are. Some people like to hide their daemons, or keep them close. John once had a teacher who kept a spider in a box in his pocket; John once slept with a man who carried his rainbow macaw about in a wicker basket. (Privately, John thought the basket said far more about the man’s sexual preferences than his daemon.)
When it came down to it, John Cameron did not care if people knew the truth about him. Perhaps he did when he was younger, but any reservations he might have had, he shed quickly when Arcady settled as a peacock.
They were fourteen. “What do you think?” Arcady asked.
“I think it’s beautiful,” John had said. He didn’t say, everyone will know in an instant that you’re a boy, and also they’ll take this as proof that I’m gay.
“I think this is it, then,” said Arcady.
“Okay,” said John, and that had been that.
No one at the Circus ever says anything, of course, because by the time they meet Arcady, they’ve already met John and really that’s already told them everything they need to know.
When he meets Leticia, he also meets her daemon, some kind of massive tan cat—not a lion, because it has no mane, and Cassiene is male. Leticia refers to him as a lion, though, and it seems close enough, so John just rolls with it. A man he once slept with had talked about “puma” once, huge wildcats that lived in the mountains in America, and John has never been to the mountains in America so he just rolls with that one, too. (Honestly, for that man he would have put up with a lot of bullshit.)
Cassiene is massive, but he prowls around backstage like it’s nothing, contorting himself to fit through the hallways. The first few times he appears just ahead of Leticia, John nearly has a heart attack, the massive head leaning around the corner with those lamprey-yellow eyes. He gets used to Cassiene, though, and once a long time ago (not as long as he would like to pretend) when John is shaking and unable to make eye contact the cat rested the side of his massive face against Arcady (about the same size as Arcady, that head was, if Arcady had his feathers in) and had purred, a soft rumbling noise like the cat John had kept as a child.
It makes him think a little bit differently of Leticia, although he knows her well enough to never bring it up.
The other stagehands are utterly predictable in their daemons. Jacques has some sort of mastiff who John can never remember the name of; the others have various of the common/obedient/convenient sort. It’s not his business to try and judge them by the animals that walk beside them, anyway, even though they’re surely judging him.
But even if the daemon walks in full view, John figures, you never get a full measure of the person. Everyone’s got their own reasons for something. Arcady spreads his feathers sometimes and people think it means he wants attention when it really means John desperately wants everyone to look away from him, and Arcady hops onto a table and commands their gazes while John pulls himself together.
Cassiene purrs like a house cat even though he’s really a lion. He’s sure Jacques’ mastiff has secrets that he doesn’t give a shit about. They’ve all got something.
And then there’s the goddamned Janitor.
The first time John meets Julian, he doesn’t spare him a second thought—literally doesn’t spare him a thought beyond oh, the janitor, okay. He doesn’t even file away his name. He certainly doesn’t notice what sort of daemon the man has, or even if he catches sight of it at all. It’s bound to be there, of course, but if it’s little or hiding or if they’ve got a longer range, well.
And besides, what does John care?
Then Julian starts to get in the way—come crashing into the ballroom during the show, making a mess, knocking things over—and John starts to pay attention. The funny thing is that he still barely notices Julian’s daemon, the first couple times. He catches a glimpse of it, though, a furry chipmunk-ish thing, and he thinks, oh, of course. Something obnoxious and chatty.
He can pinpoint the moment he became suspicious, though. It’s getting late, after a show that had gone pretty well, all things considered, except for Julian knocking over a ladder. Thankfully, the damage has been easily contained, nobody had been hurt, and John had quickly played it off for the audience over the air. He and Leticia are standing by, watching the stagehands prop it back up, the orchestral disappearing into the back.
Leticia is complaining about Julian. “Him and zat—stupid leetle bird.”
“That what?” asks Arcady.
“Ze stupid leetle bird, it goes, cheep cheep cheep, it is brown and white and whispering in his ear all ze time.”
John blinks. “It does what?
“His daemon, it is always whispering at him.” Cassiene doesn’t have the same accent as Leticia, although they share some of the same speech patterns. John hasn’t ever gotten the courage to ask Leticia where it’s from.
“I thought it was a chipmunk.”
Leticia blinks at him. “No, it is a leetle bird.”
“Maybe not a chipmunk.” John considers Leticia’s accent again. He is ninety-nine percent sure she is saying ‘bird’. “A little furry creature. Some sort of ground squirrel.”
“It is a leetle bird.”
“A bird. With wings, and feathers, that sort of bird.”
Leticia is staring at him as though he has sprouted a second head. “Yes! What other sort of bird is zere?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” John says. He thinks about Julian’s daemon, thinks about the thing on his shoulder. It had been whispering. Talking. It wasn’t just a little animal Julian had been carrying around, he didn’t think. Leticia is still looking at him. “That’s all for the night, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Leticia is watching the stagehands, but Cassiene is giving John a piercing look. “See you tomorrow,” Cassiene says to Arcady, and the two of them leave.
Once they’re on the street, John picks up Arcady. “It was a squirrel, wasn’t it?”
Arcady bobs his head in the birdlike approximation of a nod. “He was a squirrel. He spoke to me once.”
“He?” John checks.
Arcady bobs his head again. “I didn’t get his name.”
“Just as well,” says John. “Is Leticia wrong, then?”
“She must be.”
The next time John sees Julian, though, it is a screaming disaster, and he spends so much time yelling at the man he barely spares a glance at the bird/chipmunk. Arcady isn’t squawking at it, although he has before. Arcady has his feathers tucked in, radiating all the fear that John is currently turning into anger.
A polar bear. Chained to the microphone.
Jesus Christ, John thinks. He’s seen a polar bear before, in a zoo in another country. He doesn’t see them in France, not even as daemons, because people say they have souls. John believes it, or at least believes that the ones in the North do, but the one at the zoo didn’t. And certainly this one chained to the microphone seems to be nothing more than a dumb beast.
John tries talking to it, anyway, just in case it’s somehow a person inside it, but all it does is snarl at him, so he gives it up as a bad job.
“It’ll be okay,” Arcady whispers. “We’ll get through it, we’ll get rid of the polar bear, we’ll be perfectly fine.”
John and Arcady are the same person, so John knows he’s lying, but he appreciates the attempt nonetheless.
John has always figured he has a decent imagination, but all his internal fears about the polar bear mauling him have nothing on the actual experience of it lunging towards him, teeth bared, unchained. John has never fully appreciated the size a polar bear is, before.
His imagination mostly lacked the cacophony of sound that accompanies it. The roar of the bear. The crash as people abandon posts and instruments, trying to get away. The sharp way John exhales as he threw Arcady behind him, as though it will somehow shield him when they are the same person. The sound of Leticia screaming. The sound of Cassiene’s huge paws hitting the stagefloor as he runs, not capable of closing the distance in time.
The sound of a second roar as a polar bear comes bursting out of the ceiling and lands between him and the first bear.
“Jesus Christ,” John says. Sometime between the first roar and now, he’s ended up on the floor. There’s a slight tug in his chest because Arcady is farther back than he normally is—not out of range or anything, but starting to get there. It doesn’t hurt but he still feels the absence, and bear or not it compels Arcady to close the distance between them, his feathers soft as he brushes up against John’s arm.
The Microphone Bear (which John quickly labels to keep it distinct from the Ceiling Bear) is cowed, distracted by its double. It settles back onto four legs even while the Ceiling Bear stays reared-up, sniffing at it.
John watches Julian slip around behind and click the padlock into place. He darts backwards and clears the range of the bear even as it tries to pull away and roars at finding itself secured again. John scrambles backwards another foot, even though he, too, is clear.
“Sorry, Mr. Cameron, I’m so sorry,” Julian says as he darts all the way around the stage.
“Is that all, then?” asks Ceiling Bear, and he melts back into a little furry chipmunk creature, and then into a little brown bird and flutters to Julian’s shoulder.
“He changes,” John says, and forces himself into a sitting position. “Julian, your daemon changes. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Narrator,” the little bird says.
“Narrator,” says Arcady.
“I’m sorry,” Julian says.
“I told you,” Narrator cheeps.
The stage hands are starting to come to life, grappling for the crate now that the bear is chained and they have a chance at getting it back inside. John has no idea what to say.
“That’s…” John is watching the bear disappear, his nightmare to be crated back up and shipped off where it came from. The adrenaline of the day is fading, the fear and the anger and the more fear and the sheer absurdity of Julian the Janitor and his daemon and the polar bear, and John is shaking a little bit. “Let’s never repeat this experience. Julian.”
“Mr. Cameron?” Julian says.
“Please listen to your daemon. I think he has all the sense.”
“As if you have any either,” Letitia says, closing the distance between them as John watches the relief flow over Julian’s face. She grasps him by the elbow and pulls him to his feet, holding him steady.
“Oh, I know,” John says, and reaches his free hand down to Arcady’s feathers. Cassiene lets out a low, rumbling purr from Leticia’s side, and from somewhere outside his line of site as though sensing that the show is over, the Orchestral begins to sing.