Acts In The Valley by Silke Heiss

'Woken-Beauty'-Drypoint-edpaleTXT.jpg

Who could say with certainty how long the circus might live? There was pressure, she knew, from animal rights activists about the elephants, latterly also about the baboons. There were so many more exciting or convenient forms of entertainment for adults and children alike – games arcades, videos, films and television, adventure sports and ecotours – that it did on certain days appear to be abnormal or sad, rather than natural and funny, for people to sit on hard benches watching clowns, trapeze-artistes, jugglers, dancing pigs and ponies, a nodding, bowing camel and the antics of four small dogs with their glittering, overweight mistress. Not forgetting Spook and Mavis balancing on their ethnically decorated stools, docilely lifting fore-feet and then curtseying for applause.

Sherry did secretly feel critical towards Doodle, the elephant trainer. The twee tricks were degrading, she felt, for the grand creatures. Her own four darlings managed much more glamorous acts, which accorded with their extraordinary souls. As far as Sherry was concerned, Doodle ought to stretch himself – literally by lying down.

“He should lie on the ground and let Spook and Mavis step over him,” she told Zola more than once when they were on the road. “They do that, you know. Their feet are padded. Sensitive. Like cats.”

Mostly, Zola did not reply. He kept his eyes straight, or brushed his eyebrow quickly. But occasionally he smiled, gazed lovingly at her with his huge, black irises swimming weightlessly in their ivory globes, and said, “Ma Sherry wants new tricks.”

When Zola called her Ma Sherry, it sounded like mon cherié, which was a caress for her over-receptive, but uncaressed, body.

“They don’t cause harm, you know,” Sherry insisted, “They don’t want a mess under their feet.” She gurgled laughingly . “Promise!”

Zola chuckled. Sherry lit another cigarette.

“You must not,” said Zola, wrinkling his nose. Tacita and André discouraged smoking among troupe members. But Zola did call her ‘you’. In the cabby, Zola called Sherry ‘you’. Only in the cabby.

“Shut up,” said Sherry crossly. The ‘you’ was a painful kiss on her unkissed heart.

Zola brushed his eyebrow. He wound down the window and Sherry sighed. They never touched. How could they? They travelled together always, but they were too unlikely.

Sherry’s stomach-ache lasted for four days. She would not go to a doctor. She needed to read her ache, to work its message out. In the evening of the last day, Sherry rose from a restless afternoon catnap on her bed and looked out of the caravan. The sun hung low. It was weirdly perched beside the mountain whose slope slid into the horizon where she knew the sea to be. It must be nice at the beach now. Sherry remembered the silhouettes of couples photographed on writing paper from days gone by in her classmates’ scrapbooks, in which they celebrated their boyfriends and girlish longings for true love. Always on beaches, always orange, always blessed by setting suns.

Sherry blew up smoke to veil the vision. It was her eleventh time here. The valley felt (not for the first time) constricting. Ashen. Evil. It had given her the proverbial ‘funny feeling’ before. Now it was newly eloquent and more urgent in her abdomen. Funny feelings were something that Sherry took seriously, perhaps too seriously. They were not something to be laughed away. Even now, after the show, there was a peculiar, heavy tremour in her belly. Who or what was walking there inside her?

Across from the site was the completely unspiritual lump of shopping complex, devoid of beauty or adornment. Sherry lit another cigarette and watched the vapour depart with each breath.

The ‘Pay and See’ section with the animals closed at 6:30pm. Zola had an hour to himself. He approached Sherry’s caravan. The dogs greeted him happily. Zola accepted the creatures as an attribute of their owner. Like himself. Their obedience to her, their ability to perform the magical tricks she had taught them – these were proof of Ma Sherry’s power. Tacita had told Zola once that the brightest star in the sky was called the Dog-Star. He had grinned and not believed her. Then he realised that the star was Ma Sherry’s Guide.

Zola seated himself on the lowest step that led down from the door. He patted Lola and Bobbi, he patted Ezekiel and Swan. When he turned round to face Sherry inside the gloomy interior, she met his eyes straight on without smiling. Zola knew immediately: she was in pain, and anxious.

She was making complications he did not understand. Nor did he want to. Their souls were in harmony. Was that not sufficient? Sherry wanted to keep the harmony secret. She was ashamed. Why? This question he was quite unable to answer. Zola was not ashamed. He loved Sherry truly as he had loved his one and only mother. His body went to the Big One without a thought. Zola trusted his instinct. Yet he could see that she suffered. She spoke with the Shades, to the Spirits. Such vibrational speaking aroused reverence in Zola. Like bubbles in a good, sweet beer the reverence rose up in him, spread through his veins like streams over a countryside. This was splendid evidence of the existence of God. So it was. He will not question what is true.

But the woman was small and sharp as a piece of quartz tonight. He cannot go there now without bruising his self. So Zola rose resignedly and went away.

Sherry watched him lift first one leg and then the other nimbly over the barricades at the extreme end of the camp. His inadmissible, invisible kisses on her heart ached. But she could not call him now. To what end, anyway? What did she want from him? Even if she had known, she would have ignored it. There was some more definite matter, even if it was as yet in limbo, to be attended to. She could feel it accumulating in her body, she longed to deal with it, to expunge the discomfort she was suffering. The dusk darkened and Zola’s form became indistinct in the distance.

Sherry was roused by a grating sound behind her. Then the sound of gravel thrown against the caravan window. The dogs yapped crossly. She shushed them and drew back the cloth covering the window. Aha. Perhaps resolution would be quicker than she had thought. Below on the pale grass she saw looking up at her a man no longer young, with a horrifically handsome face. He lifted his cap and showed that he desired entrance to her caravan.

Sherry carried the feeling of trouble brewing. She opened her caravan and stepped down the grille mesh of the steps onto already damp grass. She was aware of the smell of seaweed blown by the wind from the coast across the valley. Most of the troupe’s members had already lit up their coaches. Festive bulbs outlined the tent’s roof-panels in curvaceous sweeps.

The barking dogs scuttled past Sherry and under the caravan to harass the stranger. But interestingly Swan (Sherry’s angel) quietened almost immediately and so did the others then. They sniffed excitedly at the man’s trousers and shoes. As for the man himself, he behaved in so self-composed a manner that the dogs may as well not have existed. Apart from Swan’s abrupt acceptance of the intruder, this was the first unusual quality that Sherry noted. A coldness, an untouchability even. She led the man through the barricade, which stood slightly askance for the purposes of her business.

“You didn’t run into Mavis and Spook?” she said merrily.

When it came to clients, good humour was automatically her mask.

The man ignored Sherry’s question. It would dangle forever, as so many questions do. He seated himself on the grubby upholstery behind the table. Sherry squashed her cigarette and put the crystal ash tray aside.

“Oscar Simons,” said the man politely, unnecessarily. He stretched out a tough, grey, steely hand, held it up for her to take.

As Sherry’s own, soft, white, podgy fingers brushed his, she shook her head. She was trying to focus, but for some reason she felt shattered, or dizzy. She was in transit of some kind. But suppressed these warnings. Became quite analytic.

One. She had a tummy ache. Two. She was terrified. Three. This man would change her life. Four. She did not know at all what the outcome of the consultation would be. This she endured in the hope that the Spirits would guide her.

“Sherry Lin,” she said irregularly. “What can I do for you?”

The man remained silent. He looked at his folded hands on the table before him. The dogs were peculiarly interested. Swan was gazing devotedly at Oscar Simons. What kind of name was that for such a man? Sherry decided to light some incense. Why Rose? It must be Rose. All right.

Then she leaned against the diminuitive kitchen sink with her hips so broad (a target with a centre), and looked at him.

“You can think about it,” she said, adding, “The circus leaves tomorrow. But I’ll be in all morning.”

She already knew that dusk was his time, however. So she continued.

“I can do the crystal ball, the cards or the palm. But I – don’t limit myself. I use those things as aids, okay. To help you get in touch with where you want to be. You know, your light.”

She should not have said ‘light’. He flinched at the word, pressed his hands together.

“Where you want to be,” she repeated quickly.

She observed the man's silence. Noted his handsomeness become increasingly bullish: his complexion lightened like drying cement, it swept up lazily in him as if an eland was trudging through his form – or was it Sherry’s?

Still they were both quiet. Her guts were quite taut now, a cat in wait of its prey. The moment was intimate despite their extraordinary distance from one another. The moment between hunger and food – both on the alert. The man and the woman inhabited different worlds – worlds with opposite charges which were here now unexpectedly circling one another, threatening to collide.

When Oscar Simons lifted his hand at last, Sherry could not suppress a gasp. Holding her in his nightblack gaze he glided towards her on a pillow of snowy feathers. He seemed furious and she was afraid. Summoning all her professional powers, she turned her head and let him perform the act. She was aware of the dogs whining softly, but they must have remained motionless. For when she came out of her altered state, everything was as it had been before. Notwithstanding that protocol had been breached and she had allowed it.

It seemed that Mr Simons had registered none of his transformations, certainly not his own soul’s invasion into Sherry’s (untouchable!) body. He was peering down, she noticed, at his open palm. It paleness stood out in the gloomy caravan. The Rose incense spiralled up triumphantly from its glowing pinprick point. Its fragrance seemed suddenly awful and unsubtle, piercing Sherry’s nostrils and her throat.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Zola. But with a gesture perfectly invisible to her prospective client, she sent the baboon- and pony-guard scurrying away. Oscar Simons’ rêverie was disturbed by a scuffle between the four dogs intent on following Zola excitedly. Sherry dismissed the animals with a second gesture – visible this time – that re-assured Mr Simons. Without a word, he laid the back of his right hand flat onto the collapsible table, while the clairvoyant lit two candles. These she placed on either side of her client’s palm before settling herself heavily (she was dreadfully conscious of her heaviness) opposite the man.

The dogs re-entered through the cat-flap. One of them stood up on his hind legs, leaning with his front paws against Oscar’s thigh in thick cotton pants.

“Ezekiel!” cried the clairvoyant.

The dog descended to his rightful place on the carpeted floor of the caravan. Beneath Sherry's creaking chair.

She took Oscar’s hand, bent over it. He saw the thin grey furrow demanding re-dyeing at the top of her head. He became violently aware of the Rose smell, shook his head to uncloud his senses. For in that sweetness there were thorns, of course, which the woman lost no time now in pressing into her client’s open hand.

“I must warn you,” said Sherry Lin, “I give the good news with the bad. Except death. I will not foretell death.”

“You have done that once,” said Oscar Simons under his breath.

“Pardon?”

He stared at her so bitterly that he brought her eyes down with his eyes alone and then she noticed: he possessed a Simian line. He had callouses from which wept streets of lines – deep and few and worrisome. Between these lurched several incisive crosses, down over and across the Lifeline, which itself hopskotched in absurd partings and re-gatherings round the mean ball of the thumb, from where it flowed finally like a fantastic delta out into the iron of his wrist.

Sherry glanced at her client’s face. His handsomeness alienated her sharply. Such a beastly hand. She considered for a moment asking him to leave, on account of her stomach-ache. Then it occurred to her that no mention had been made of payment. Breathily and embarrassed she let go of his hand and informed him of his options.

“I have R50.00,” he said.

She dared not resist him and swallowed her pride and indignation.

“Is there nothing specific that you want to ask?” she said, playing for time to examine her conscience, or the situation. Her innards thumped. Sherry summoned her Guides. Then she rose and bolted the catflap, imprisoning the dogs for safety’s sake. She had grown afraid. Knew she was in a fix. There was no mistaking the man’s animus towards her. But the dogs were perfectly calm, which made her hesitant.

“Your heart – “ she began (for Oscar Simons had no specific questions) – “spans extremes. I think I see you stretching yourself. It could literally be between places, trying to be in two or more places at once. Or it could also be inside yourself. Maybe you’re trying to reconcile forces you believe might pull you apart.”

She looked up again. Most clients were obliging: there would be a glimmer of recognition, a nod, or even an awed open mouth and widened eyes melting into her if she got close to their secret truth – which showed that they were working together, that the other was actively applying her general comments to themselves. But Oscar Simons (smirking?) was looking at Swan. Swan had got up and was standing dumbly at the door. She called him secretly, by the faintest of snaps with her fingers. He turned and jumped nimbly up into her lap, where there was so much uncertainty. Perhaps not all of it unpleasant.

Swan’s claws dug deeply into the flesh of her thighs as he tried to get comfortable. Although desperately trying to hold on to the dog, and on to all that she had faith in and knew, she was aware of herself falling apart, or being pulled apart by the man’s suddenly openly hateful gaze on her.

“I have a feeling,” Sherry Lin pressed out through phlegm in her throat, “that you do not wish to go through with this.”

“Please. Go on.”

But she must not. She realised with a pang that she did not possess what she had up to now never had to use: cunning. She must abdicate at once.

“I am sorry,” she asserted therefore, “I seem to be feeling very unwell. I cannot give you proper service tonight.”

Oscar Simons did not hear her, or if he did, he did not understand. He extracted a R50.00 note from his pocket and put it on the table on her side, near her breasts. Inside of which Zola’s kisses were jumping around on the heart. Oh, she longed for Zola now, his soliticitude.

“I am interested,” murmured Mr Simons, “I ask that you continue please.”

There was no sign of mercy. The Guides had deserted her. She summoned the last of her professionalism.

“I cannot,” she said, “I am afraid tonight I cannot.”

Then Oscar Simons stood up, picked up the R50.00 and tucked it into her cleavage. The dogs had deserted her. They allowed it all as if it was the most natural thing in the world, as if it was meant to be. With Sherry in the losing position.

Then Oscar Simons started to speak.

“You,” he hissed, “you lick and bite.”

Sherry stared at him in shock. Her face trembled with fear and outrage. She was in danger. This man might be armed. Where was Zola? She had sent him away.

Paradoxically, in order to escape, she plunged her attention into the man’s terrible palm. That flat thing lying there taut as a spring, ready to trap her. But she was already trapped. She tried to calm herself, to accept this incomprehensible turn. Was she ready to die? How could she not have foreseen this? But oh, she had, she had! What had got the better of her? Curiosity? No – it was her innocence, hell. Now there was one thing, and that was to ‘go with the flow’. If only she could feel the flow. Oscar Simons stopped it, so it seemed.

“I see sparks,” she cried. She felt the R50.00 note, the dark pink lion in her bra half-in, half-out, pricking her with a corner as if it were biting.

Mr Simons’ thin lips twitched derisively. He enjoyed her torture.

“Sparks, which ignite for you in some way. Something very important to you will be coming alive very, very soon. Things will grow out of that!” She faltered. Did she still know what she was saying? Did she ever know? “Do you – is your work with – I see green. Plants?”

But her thoughts were, ‘Envy. Poison.’

He laughed out loud, briefly, like a clap.

“I just thought.”

There was no resonance to his laugh. It stopped as soon as it had been emitted.

“I see significant change.” She was crying softly, helplessly. Both he and she ignored the fact. “But – something must be overcome.”

Swan jumped abruptly off her lap. It made her cough. She had to get up, drink water. Water streamed from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she bawled. She blew her nose into a kitchen cloth, for the box of tissues was behind him and she could not reach over him for it. “I’m sorry to say it, but there is something in the way. Like a poison.” Her stomach was in spasm. “Some cleansing ritual, perhaps, must be performed.”

Oscar Simons laughed again. His laughter was almost joyful now, due to its high pitch. But again it clapped without echo and disappeared as abruptly as it had come.

Sherry did not sit down again. She had never been so out of her depth. She felt alone, abandoned, at the gates of hell. She was in pain and tired. Yet she smiled, or grimaced. She shook her head, squeezed her eyes shut, thought involuntarily of Mavis the elephant and her daughter Spook standing innocently, elephantinely behind her caravan - unable to help, unable to step over anybody or anything, unable to be grand, sensitive and queenly. Condemned to curtsey, to curl up their magnificent noses on their foreheads like handles on a teacup, instead of hurling offenders liberally into the sea, or against the walls of shopping malls rather. ‘I am a circus animal,’ thought Sherry, ‘an animal, performing tricks.’ The thought calmed her, as if she were at last accepting her fate.

“You’ll surely prosper, you are so determined,” she whimpered, looking away from him and adding, “I’m done, Sir, now.”

Done. She knew now what the matter was. It was her own fault. She had never really believed in evil, nor in evil intent. She had not stretched herself and this had made her vulnerable. To find herself in the present situation was a logical consequence of the tepid, self-satisfied, untouched and untouchable life she had led till now. Tacita had advised Sherry long ago to consult modern hand analysis guidebooks, to bring her clairvoyance up to date. Old-fashioned palmistry can be dangerous, she had said, and cause harm. As for a crystal ball! But Sherry had dismissed Tacita. Sherry knew what she knew from way back. She didn’t need textbooks, let alone new books! She’d borrowed her school mates’ Game Books decades ago when they had all played merely for fun. In any case, the Medium was always warned not to foretell bad news and she never really did. Sherry had always enjoyed using the aids loosely. She picked up enough from just looking at her clients, she paid close attention to them, which was enough. That was her gift, after all, and there’d never been consequences. The fortune-telling – well, perhaps it was really a screen, a smokescreen, for the fact that all she was doing was paying very close attention to things. Feeling things that people were neglecting. She sacrificed her body and its well-being for this, after all! She was not to blame. And this very gift, its purity, was now a problem.

She began to breathe heavily. She was still alive and wished to remain so, perhaps even to be given another chance.

Oscar Simons got up and left. Just like that. He opened the door and did not close it behind him. Sherry was unbelieving, although there was no mistaking his disdainful gaze. Her very innocence, or insistence on ignorance, was a sin, she realised now. The dogs would not comfort her, they ran after him for a way. She was no longer their mistress. She sat down again at last between the candles and lit a cigarette. She was sweating, and cold when the dogs returned.

When Zola entered, he perceived at once the change that had overcome Sherry. She was catatonic. He tried to embrace her, to warm her, and it worked. She did not push him away or cry, ‘No!’ Her act had slipped. Zola had seen the tall, nimble man skip down the steps and make a quick, hunched exit from the circle of lit wagons. Zola controlled an urge to run after the man, to thank him.

But Sherry’s trance, her docility was not so good now. Zola took the money out of her bosom. He put it in a cup in the kitchen cabinet. The evening show would start any minute now. Sherry Lin and the Canine Flyers were on just before interval. Zola put out her things.

She readied herself mechanically. Tied Lola’s hat; then the ribbons and bells round the necks of Bobbi, Swan and Zeke, who had all betrayed her. She re-applied glitter to her hair and cleavage and sobbed once. Zola’s ocean-heart absorbed the sob. Sherry squeezed her feet into the marine-blue velvet pumps with their silver sequins. Zola watched. Of what did his powers consist, he wondered. The ability to wait? A feeling for necessity, for what must be? He thought he knew somewhere, or could sense at least, this woman with her skin as soft as chicken down was yearning. To twirl lightly like the smoke from her cigarettes, up and away from a deeply profane existence. But it was only her wish – a wish as insubstantial as scent. Scent – which she was applying now from a gaudy purple crystal bottle. All was the same as ever, and yet all was completely changed.

Zola kissed Sherry now on her powdered cheek. The kiss sunk in there. Like a rooting bulb in the ground it stayed under cover of the skin as she exited, apparently calm, but inwardly so bewildered as to have turned quite numb. Zola went out after her, closing the caravan door without locking it. Sherry hesitated, turned around and found herself re-assured by Zola’s uplifted hand. ‘I will keep watch,’ it seemed to say. How strange that Zola should be her midwife.

Ezekiel stood on his hind legs in the arena. Lola, Bobbi and Swan ran round him. They formed a line, walking upright behind Ezekiel, panted and smiled their doggy smiles. Ms Lin smiled. They received applause. Then she lifted a lumpy leg under the petticoats. The dogs scaled it one by one as she turned round and round on the blunt tip of her dark velvet pump. How fluid were her motions and how gracefully she spun. Huge as the earth itself Ms Lin turned slightly tilted on her axis, inclining her twinkling head. The dogs chased the leg in the air and bound over, over, over and over. It was so natural, so innocent, completely charming.

Then Bobbi, Lola and Zeke stood out. Zola was at the curtain in his Nathan Roy’s Circus overall, reminding the dogs to stay put. They sat obediently waiting, while Ms Lin tied Swan's old, white wings. He stepped delicately into a nylon brace, which she buckled. Swan began to paddle to his song. Slowly he was lifted up, till eventually he flew with huge, blank wings over the heads of the ambiguous audience. It was a touching sight, this ugly duckling with his black nose and ragged hairs like feathers flying up so high and brave. It did not escape Sherry that some audience members looked down in shame that a dog should be made to endure such 'indignity'. That was the word she had heard used to refer to Swan’s bravery and loyal co-operation, her love and years of hard work.

When those unspiritual people looked up again, a frame with two swings had been temporarily erected in the middle of the arena, onto which Bobbi and Lola hopped as cued, while Zeke and Swan (who had been divested of his wings) pushed them with their fore-paws. Ms Lin walked round to receive half-hearted applause. Bobbi and Lola leapt from their swings in flight, one by one onto the bosom of their mistress who kissed  them passionately. The tent, which was perhaps two-thirds full, clapped in spurts. As she circled, Bobbi and Lola scrambled up to perch on her shoulders, while Swan and Ezekiel bounced into her arms. Thus Ms Lin and her Canine Flyers exited through the flap of the sumptuous maroon curtain, like a laden ship into the smell of seaweed and a crescent moon above the mountain peak. A fellow-act was already hurling hoops inside.

“I won’t be there for the last round,” she whispered to a messenger to tell Tacita who was compèring. “I’m feeling ill.”

She heaved up into her painted wagon, followed by her four-legged entourage. Zola, too, smelt the seaweed as he watched strips of cloud drive out and bruise the sickle-moon. He helped Sherry out of her velvet and fake silk dress. This act did them both good. Unbelievable thought this was, her body leaned on his. She stepped into a shabby negligee, right there in front of him. She stuck her thoughtless arms into the towelled sleeves of the gown he found and offered, standing behind her.

“Sorry you are not feeling happy,” said Zola.

You.

“That client,” she confided, “he frightened me. As if he wanted – to harm me. Wanted me. He hated me, or blamed me for – I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Zola was so grateful to that client.

“We will walk,” he said. 

He extracted a little torch from his breastpocket. She put her hand in his arm. It felt strange, a bit young to do so, but not wrong. They walked  over the field, past the elephants still waiting, along the road towards the smell of kelp. They walked seemingly forever beneath the cold crescent of the moon. They did not rest. They had neither words nor real intimacy between them, yet their body warmth commingled and wove itself round them like a blanket, keeping them safe and invisible. Neither of them knew what would become of them or of this moment. The dogs sniffed and pattered on the gravel verge.

Sherry Lin felt newborn. She did not feel her lack of fitness, she did not sweat or pant. She missed her John Player Specials slightly. Zola had caught her falling from the pedestal of her illusions or her dishonesty with herself. It was not a mistake to go like this with him. Her stomach was feeling noticeably better.

“I will give up everything,” she said, “now for you.”

“You do not need,” the protector of baboons and ponies and faltering clairvoyants said, “to give up. Anything.”

“I am ignorant,” she insisted, “I am a baby.”

“Shsh,” said Zola under the tall trees. “It is nonsense, you.”

After an hour or so they reached a brook. There was the sound of water – not yet the sea, but the sound of eternity anyway – and the smell of leaves. They sat down. Sherry was tired now.

“Sleep,” said Zola, “To have a dream is important now.”

He pushed her down onto the cold, black earth. She felt his hand, which was hard but warm, creep up her cold leg. She held her breath. He was taking advantage and the advantage was his to take.

“To get out of one life,” murmured Zola, “go into another different life. You can dream.”

His hand moved up and round like a slow-growing tendril, without haste, completely certain of its path. It had been so long, too long, since a human hand had touched Sherry’s body. That body was gone. This one here was never touched.

“Yes,” said Sherry. Her hand involuntarily come down onto Zola’s and imprisoned it. His expression was puzzled, alarmed even. She raised her eyebrows.

“It has suddenly become very dangerous for me. I am not sure why. I am a baby. I don’t know.”

“You are a powerful woman is what that man saw,” said Zola. “He is jealous.”

Was it that simple? Sherry’s grip on Zola’s hand loosened. He resumed his patient caress up her cool, fat thighs, as if it was the only thing that was possible to do now. It seemed impossible. How could anybody be jealous of her in her ignorance, her lack of looks, her desperate means of living life?

She stopped Zola’s hand again. How strange this all was! He forced himself gently on, along her tingling skin despite her will. She took a few seconds to decide whether or not to fight. But the cold, black earth with its leaves underneath her and this man – he was just a man – he knew her too well. She could not remember being known so well. So she closed her eyes and disappeared. She sank, or flew somewhere on an invisible string at a very great distance from her body. The pleasure was terrifying. Was this what she had feared? Certainly it was too much, too much for her.

She returned with the dogs all over her. Was cross. Embarrassed. The stomach ache, at last, was gone, and with it her last belief in herself.

“What are you doing to me!” she whisper-shouted.

Zola looked hurt.

“You are a woman!” he objected. “Why do you not want? This is not for shame. It is our nature.”

She had no retort. So she really was a baby. She was so exhausted and he kept on at her. By dawn she finally relented for his sake and experienced with amazement the fact that the pony-minder, the truck-driver, that Zola of all people was going places, going far, through or with her. Her, Sherry Lin, awakening inside a particularly vivid dream, less ignorant certainly than before.

Shivering with cold and confusion, Sherry’s heart tore like a piece of pure silk and out of the rent bubbled unstoppable tears. Zola sponged the wetness on her face with his lips.

“I love that Oscar-man,” he murmured, “because without him, this would not be.”

At exactly the same time as Zola was drying Sherry’s face, Doodle the elephant-trainer was handing out tissues to Tacita. She was crying and so, it seemed, was André. The acrobats, the hoop-artist, Doodle, the clowns, the jugglers young and old, the trapeze-artists, the magician – they all stood grey and smouldering, contemplating the ash of Sherry Lin’s recently paid-off caravan.

What message to them all had been sent in this? Sherry had no enemies, or did she? The police were taking notes as they stepped, impressive in their shiny action boots, through the scorched remains of cracked crockery, cupboards, blanket patches or wigs with nylon fibres standing stiff like wires, sooty make-up bottles and containers, fragments of what used to be glazed figs, perhaps, black-baked apples and misshapen tins of what might have been watermelon jam. The policemen’s feelings, unknown to themselves, were released together with vestiges of smoke into the ether as they worked.

Onlookers in the early-morning crowd that was gathering were conferencing about the spectacle or tragedy in their valley. There were builders and builders’ assistants, bunches of unemployed men, skateboarding youths at a loss as to what to do with their futures, char-women, and cashiers on the way to their tills. The Dog-woman had been a witch. Why else would he have wanted to burn her? But who burnt the witch, when witches are well-known not to exist in this new South Africa of ours? With her dogs having to die innocently, too, a ragged valley youth in a grey beanie pointed out. But their teeth should surely have remained. What about the witch’s teeth? Do teeth not burn? It was terrible, a char in sensible shoes said, crossing the road and escaping into the blind walls of her employer’s house to do the dishes.

There were no teeth, no bones, no bits of fur or hair or skin. No traces of living bodies in the blaze. Then Bill, a young juggler not yet twenty, looked round for the quiet shadow of Tacita’s pony-minder who always drove Sherry Lin in that truck.

“Zola!” said Bill softly with intensity.

There was a hideous silence. Even the policemen who knew nothing stopped in their tracks and gazed expectantly at the gathered troupe. Those who had moist eyes and noses became abruptly dry and open. A cold southeaster fanned the shock. Bill felt guilty, or accused. He was not suggesting, but …

“Shoo! Hamba!”

A policeman chased away the small dog that had snuck in underneath the cordons of red and white plastic tape. As the man ran after the dog, more dogs arrived. They examined the remains of their home with their wet noses, in wonderment. People still standing round, and the troupe saw Sherry Lin approaching in her dressing gown. She was supported by Zola and they were crossing the parking lot. The policemen had with their batons and megaphones to assist in creating a channel for them through the crowd, who wanted to touch her. Their fingers darted out, then retracted fearfully before contact was made.

Sherry Lin and her Canine Flyers together with Zola re-entered the fold or inner sanctum of Nathan Roy’s Circus.

Bill ground his teeth in shame about himself. He disappeared to work it out, rehearsing ferociously in the tent with ten bottles, even though it was not his slot. Nobody noticed. Whoever’s turn it was, was not there.

Sherry Lin described Oscar Simons, but nobody with that name appeared to reside within the municipal boundaries of the valley. He must have come in from outside. Did Ms Lin really not wish to lay a charge?

“Whatever charge there is, it’s laid,” she retorted cheekily or grimly. And smiled at the interrogating officer.

She shook her head, feeling in her unwashed hair the smell of black soil, the rich fragrance of dank, cold leaves on which she and Zola had made love – an unvigilant, careless love which had destroyed her life and home.

“I am a baby,” she said. The words caught in her throat. “I’ve only just been born.”

And the officer’s body or soul posted his unacknowledged feelings like messages in bottles, Sherry saw, and knew they’d wash up on her shore sometime.

Then André put a blanket round her shoulders and gave her a tot of peach schnapps, which Doodle, who took her hand emotionally, happened to have in stock.

The circus had an appointment up north tomorrow. They needed to leave now, because there were too few trucks and as usual two trips would have to be made to get everything across. Zola was required. Before they drove off, he was praised.

“You saved her life,” said Tacita with swimming eyes.

Zola felt nourished and big. He hummed a little tune. He cast a glance, no, a look – a proper look at his queen in her blanket. He brushed his eyebrow. She was at peace now. The dogs dreaming at her feet.