Becca Borawski Jenkins
Though the child of a four-legged woman and a lion-faced man, Edward turned out to be woefully normal. His hands each held four fingers and a thumb. His head was round. He had no extraneous appendages, twins, or otherwise intriguing assets. No one screamed on the day he was born.
He tried to gain weight and then tried to lose it. He sat in the sun hoping his skin would burn and slough off. He refused to cut his hair. He tried to pull out his teeth, but they wouldn’t budge, so he borrowed the teeth discarded by others and tried to add them in. He pierced his body with pins and nails but couldn’t pretend not to feel the pain. He was neither an unnatural nor natural freak.
Despite his father’s genes, Edward’s hair only grew on his head in all the traditional places. Despite his mother’s extra limbs, nothing he added to his body would stick. He sat in the audience each night as his parents performed, because what else was there for him to do? “Edward the Normal Boy” had no ring to it, and, in the end, this is what made Edward so very strange.
Though Edward’s mother had four legs, she mostly walked on two. Legs one and two were pretty much like anyone’s, while the third and fourth legs were much smaller and nestled in between. Anyone else would imagine those legs didn’t contribute much, certainly not more than they took away — but Edward and his parents knew better.
The first and the second leg helped you to crawl and then helped you to walk. The first and the second leg fit into a proper pair of pants. The first and second leg made men gasp when you lifted your skirt. The third and the fourth leg made women scream.
The third and the fourth leg got you left on the hospital doorstep. The third and the fourth leg made the nurse beg the priest to take you in. The third and the fourth leg got you sold for the same sum as it cost to refurnish the rectory living room. Sold to the man who perused all the orphanages and churches and jails and hospitals for something as unique and wondrous and horrible as you.
The third and the fourth leg got you a husband even if his face was covered in fur. If you’d had only three legs or even two, he wouldn’t have looked at you a second time. You would have blended with the rest of the world. With four legs, everyone looked again and again. The third and the fourth leg got you a job and a home and a photographer who painted your face and made you sit for a tin-type for free or a painter who made you pose in the most awkward and unnatural of positions so you could feature in the company poster. And you agreed and even smiled, because you wouldn’t say no to such a thing — for this is what the third and fourth leg brought you and if you hadn’t had these legs, you would not have these things.
Because you can’t be the four-legged woman without leg three and leg four.
Edward’s father parted his hair down the middle of his face. Which he could do because his face was in fact covered in hair, though he called it, for the benefit of his benefactors, fur. It wasn’t so much that he was actually lion, but that when his hair, which was plentiful, was done properly, it flowed like a regal mane — from every pore on his body. When not done right, his mane made him appear as a beast that might crawl out in the night from the New Jersey woods.
“You know of the wendigo?” Edward’s father asked him.
“I don’t,” Edward said as he picked the hairs from his father’s other brush.
“The Algonquian say he is a cannibal monster,” his father replied as he pawed the knots from his beard.
“Who is an Algonquian? And what is a cannibal?” Edward asked.
“People with dark skin, and people who eat people.”
His father held out his hand and Edward traded the second hair brush for the first. He began plucking hairs once again. A pile had grown at his side.
“Are either of them with the company?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly,” his father said. “Did you hear me? The wendigo is an actual monster.”
“He is transformed by greed, the Algonquian say. In winter, he sneaks into their camps and eats everything he finds. He is hungry beyond belief.” His father paused and stared at Edward. Somehow Edward knew he was raising an eyebrow. “He eats everything,” his father said.
Edward pictured the space between the bottom of their tent and the earth. The space where the moonlight crept in and the cold wind poked at his spine in the middle of the night.
“What does the wendigo look like?” he asked.
“A skinny man,” his father replied.
“I’ve seen plenty of skinny men.”
“You might have seen the wendigo then.”
“How would I know? What’s different about it?”
“Not so much,” Edward’s father said.
“It’s not . . . “Edward asked.
“Like us?” Edward’s father shook his head, billowing his golden mane. “No, he’s a normal man. Except sometimes his breath smells like rot.”
“Oh,” Edward whispered, exhaling his breath to the side and hating that he was a normal boy.
In winter, when the train was parked and the spectacle stopped moving, people still came to ride the elephants. They forfeited their change for an opportunity to ascend the stairs and walk the plank, to stand and wait for an empty elephant to circle around. The elephants hardly needed to be guided. They’d been walking in circles for years, for decades, for a memory longer than a man was capable of.
The elephants paused, their backs level with the elevated platform, while the spectators lurched aboard. When the man in the candy-cane pants whistled, their slow shuffle resumed. They shuffled in the mud, the slush, and the snow. When it rained, the water gathered and ran down their trunks and the spectators were handed a rainbow of umbrellas. Atop the backs of pachyderms, the colors of the umbrellas bobbed in the haze, keeping the damp away while the faces of the spectators glowed bright. The red cheeks of a toddler in its mother’s arms. The blue thoughts of a young man peering over the fence at the heated tank of the mermaid. The green eyes of a jealous girlfriend one elephant behind.
“Look!” they all cried to their family members spectating from around the well-trodden ring. “Do you see? It’s an elephant!”
Their families laughed and clapped. Though they could see, they could barely believe.
Could you even imagine?
Once, Edward asked his mother if he could ride the elephants.
His mother slapped him and said, “We don’t do that to them.”
When Edward was twelve he fell in love with the mermaid girl. The mermaid girl was the most intoxicating of all the special people in their traveling band. Edward thought it was true love because he thought she was true. In fact, her tail was not real, and neither was her golden hair or the make-up on her face. She wasn’t a mermaid at all. If Edward had known she was a normal girl, he wouldn’t have loved her.
He wouldn’t have loved the idea of walking along the shore while she swam in the sea. He wouldn’t have loved the idea of them each holding their breath — her because of the ocean, him because of the earth — until they caught sight of the other again. He wouldn’t have loved the idea of waiting to see if their children emerged like her, with a tail and fin, with blue eyes that sparkled the same as her scales, with shells on her bosom that he wasn’t sure weren’t part of her body rather than a garment. Or if the children would turn out plain-faced and plain-lifed like him.
The mermaid girl winked at him every time he walked past her tank, which he happened to do several times a day.
Amid the chaos of the calliope and the bedlam of the barker, he watched her as he ran his fingers along the glass, imagining the damp of the condensation was his fingers running through the tips of waves, that all he could hear was the crashing hush of the water, that he was a sailor leaning over the side to catch a glimpse of his Aquarian bride, that she poked her head from the sea just for him.
She pressed her lips to the water’s surface and whispered.
“Come back after closing.”
Her words sprayed out from her tank and onto him. They cooled his skin and smelled of tidal foam and iridescent algae. They rode on the promise of a different outcome.
He returned after the carnival lights dimmed and the hall emptied of spectators.
She awaited him — standing next to her tank with her tail in her hand.
He couldn’t take his eyes from the sight of her knees.
Before she could speak, he turned and ran.
When Edward was sixteen, the woman who tore the tickets in half gave birth to a child. Its skin was rough, as if it were carved with a dull misery whip, and its teeth were pointed. None of them had the luxury of raising a child at home, no matter its size, shape, or color. So at the end of each night, Edward was sent to collect her bucket of ticket-halves as she sat huddled in the booth, her boy held at her bosom, buried in layers of clothing and shawls despite the summer heat.
Edward himself could not look her in the eyes, though she was not his worry.
He held out his hand so she could hook the ticket bucket on his fingers.
He stared at the floor.
He was more jealous of the haphazardly wood-sawn boy than his heart could bear.
In Edward’s dreams, a horn grew from the center of his head. He wore it all throughout the day though no one else could see it. In the sunshine, it sparkled. In the rain, it glistened blue. When he stood on the shore, the flecks of airborne sand polished it, and if both he and an observer turned their heads just right a flash of it might catch their eye and make them pull down their cap.
At his first job interview, upon his becoming what others told him was something resembling a “respectable young man,” Edward held his horn high though he knew his prospective employer could not see. He hoped perhaps the man could sense it. After all, his mother and father had always told him not to despair, that he was special on the inside.
“What’s so special about you?” the man asked as if on cue and with his fountain pen at the ready to note every detail of what made Edward so different, so unique, so one of a kind and never to be seen again except for this one summer weekend before the circus left town. Or rather, so special that he should be granted the privilege of bagging the groceries of the summer people and tourists and whoever else wandered in to purchase their sundries from this overpriced shop.
Edward inhaled and sat up tall.
“So much more than anyone could ever see,” Edward replied.
The employer frowned, shook Edward’s hand, and thanked him for stopping in.
Later that evening, Edward stood on the midway observing his home.
His eyes were struck by fireworks, his ears by the man who shouted from the dunk tank, from the salesman who pitched their wares, from the music that bumped from the rides, the carousels, the instruments of the musicians who came from the city and spent their weekends here pretending they hadn’t dreamed of playing in the symphony, or at church, or at anything other than this.
He climbed up onto a nearby empty train car and let the circus seep into him.
The heartbeat of this traveling organism that inched its way across the steel spine of this country and back, that ambled up to the edge of each town and scampered away when it was slapped. The pulse of his mother and his father, somewhere in this maze of tents, sitting on display, getting paid to be there, to be who they were, nothing more, nothing less. He wished he could say the same. He wished he could stand there and demand attention.
There, in the midway.
Where last week the Russian strongman had pressed his over-sized dumbbell into the sky. Where the bear had stood on its hind legs and even its handler had appeared to be afraid. Where the Oriental man had flung open his coat and revealed his conjoined twin, tucked into his side.
A plain girl with freckles appeared. She stood alone in the center of midway, which for a moment was curiously empty. The dust swirled around her and settled on her clothes as she squinted at him, a spiral of tickets dangling from her hand.
“What’s so special about you?” she asked.
“So much more than anyone could ever see,” Edward replied.
“Oh, I get it,” she said.
She climbed up on the train car next to him, and the crowds flowed back into place.
They dangled their feet while the spectators walked by in an endless parade past the secret freaks.
BECCA BORAWSKI JENKINS is a writer and editor. She holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing or forthcoming in The Forge, The Knicknackery, Panorama, Five 2 One, Citron Review, and Corium. She lives with her husband in an RV they built by hand, on an off-grid homestead somewhere in the Idaho Panhandle.