Balance is second-nature. Will is a hawk, lithe presence peering down from forty feet above. The walkway lies – a gorge, a crevasse, splitting the earth down to the rising stampede of seats and barriers on either side – and he breathes, and wonders if the air tastes thinner or if it is only the projection of his own sharp thrill. The laws of the earth do not apply to him. Gravity slips him by, a stranger in the crowd. Reality peers at him, and then past through. Like he doesn’t exist.

He claps rosin on his hands. He’d set up the rig a matter of hours earlier, unable to trust anything but his own hands to secure the continuity of his life. The primary bar clipped to the side, the carabiners splotches of colour pinning metal bars and flexible rope together. A duplex structure, primed for him to release and catch, over the controlled breath of a gracefully executed flip. The routine is a map etched inside the orange-red flaps of his eyelids, and he runs over the motions thoughtfully, pupils swivelling and stern in intense concentration. 

There’s an idea that if you do something enough times, the fear is burnt out of you. Yet, there’s no charred gap within the hollow of his chest, no thrumming, beating foreboding either; all that exists is the hot roil of the air above as it steeps the air sticky with sweat, the sloping flaps of the tent so close that all he has to do is reach out and touch for it to greet him like an old, bittersweet friend. 

It knows him. 

Will – dark-haired, wild and wrong and unnatural, no longer a teenager, a child playing with matches in the safety of the dark, his hands grown shaped and carven around the grit of the bars. His ice blue eyes always uncanny in gleaning every thought out of the fortress of every unfortunate mind that dared him a direct gaze. Will, who saw too much and knew too much and swallowed every secret and drowned in it, just as much in the same way that a magpie cannot help itself. 

He grappled with the gravity.

It struggled with him right back. It’s as warm as an exhaled breath. There was no mastery of the air, no swift flowing control of the current that he could seize within his hands. It wrestled with him every step of the way, and he clawed right back. It tossed and spun him through the air – he floated, a dust mote in the brittle rays of the mid-morning sun – and then it set him back down again, a tumultuous grain of sand withstanding the lapping hungry shore. The tension of the wires are wound much like his veins. It unravels, untangles, knots itself and he floats and falls and rises in the span of a split-second. He swings, like a child at the playground, and the only hands that push are the same as those which threaten to send him plummeting back down to the earth. 

He falls comfortably, with his ankles hooked around the curve of the bar and the distance cradles his head safely a few feet from the ground. This part feels like he’s become elastic – stretching his soul like a rubber band pulled taut but with little danger of snapping. Flesh and bone are the wrong material anyway. All it knows is a good splat or crunch, if things go south.

Charlie would call this practice pointless. 

Charlie waits below, a clipboard in the hand and a frown across his face.


“Will?” He calls. His footsteps scuffle across the caked soil of the ring, and send it up in billows like a smoke signal. Upside down, he is a stroboscopic portrait of sight, air, light and colour. A smear, across the tapestry of Will’s swivelling view. 

He hums, a non-committal sound, tastes the resignation caught between his own teeth, and flips back the right way around. 

He unhooks himself and makes his way down, still feeling windswept and unmoored. He always leaves a part of him behind, dancing and recoiling in the eternity of the simultaneous fight and flight, cocooned in the scuffle of the air. What’s left is the scraped grit and the clay that grounds him so painfully back to the ground; static shocks and zinging muscles that plant two solid feet, all the while trying not to reveal too much of the fact that he is still flying high. His mind still tricks itself with vertigo.

“There’s some new people for you to meet.” Charlie says.

Will half-smiles. “I don’t do well. With socialising.” 

“Too bad.” Charlie says. “‘Bout time you learned.”

Will considers. He lets it go.

Rafael and Sarah are a father-daughter act. 

Rafael twirls the sharp edge of a knife within his hands in a clever sleight, and Charlie watches in appreciation as each hit their mark, falling like a torrent of silver violent rain on the wooden board set up in preparation. He is a greying, severe man with cheekbones aptly sharp enough to cut through steel. There is nothing in his eyes, except for the moment of his performance, and then something quivers within the glass of his pupils and becomes alight with passion.

The daughter stands, motionless as stone, poised a lamb secure in its own survival even as the blades miss her skin by the narrow margin of a hair’s breadth. There is no fear in her own expression, only half-lidded boredom as she peers back at them. 

Will stands by the side, and his heart itches to return to soaring.

Heavy clouds and a damp breeze cut through the sky above. Will imagines the impending storm like that hail of silver-sharp blades concealed within calloused palms – thunk, thunk, thunk. He imagines it makes a different sound entirely, sinking into the warmer canvas of flesh. The day’s warmth is dissipating. It vanishes through the atmosphere, and only the bulbous skin of the tent promises to offer protection. He feels a muscle in his neck flinch when Charlie turns to regard him. 

“This is Will Emens.” Charlie offers loudly. He speaks in the same intonation as if Will isn’t present. Or a parent, reluctantly calling the name of a difficult child.

“Rafael.” The voice offers in turn. Soft, accented, deliberate.

Will does not shake the outstretched hand.

Cirque Marquee du Folie.” He says mildly, referring to the cheap gimmick of the title. “You must be mad to come here.”

Charlie sucks in a tired breath.

Rafael laughs. “And yet you are here.”

Folie a deux. Folie a trois.” Will says. “A shared measure of insanity, if one looks hard enough.” He gives the side of the pole a loving scratch. “Good corde lisse.” He explains. “That’s why I stay.”

“I promise you,” Charlie cuts in, “My performers are paid enough to enjoy much more than that.”

“Flying is nice.” Will says. “Falling is even more fun.”

“Hospital bills are even less fun.” Charlie insists.

“And round and round and round the merry-go.” Will quips. “When it deigns to stop, who you might be, you cannot know.”

Rafael turns a thoughtful gaze towards them. Amusement teeters on the edge of his placidity like an ill-placed glint. He idly rocks the hilt of the blade through the cracks of his fingers, twirling with an expert motion that makes it seem as natural as the rocking of the sea.  “Well then,” He says. “It seems our partnership will be interesting.”

There are seven other performers lined up for the show. Seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven days of the week, Will thinks. It’s a very busy number. It dabbles, and is all the more contradictory for it. Will spins and coils and flexes as the bars and the rhythmic drive of his own heart pulses and guides him to soar through the air. He leaps from one end to the other, and the sieve of the safety net at the side is negligible to his eye. He is exhausted by the time he disembarks, but it is a good ache. He twitches and spasms, but the kneading of the static into his adrenaline-pumped flesh keeps him awake.

He pulls open the flap of the tent to the cold twinkling stars of the night. The darkness swamps and satiates the air outside. He breathes in the cold, swallows against the numbness of the chill. He is not alone. He finds himself joined by an unexpected companion as he pulls the sleeves of the coat tighter around himself and puffs a visible breath of ice. 

He sits against the logs. The embers reflect the glass-bead dark eyes. It crackles in the firelight.

Rafael is stiff against the flames, a broad shadow spilling like the stain of ink into the night. He begins, “I find myself curious.”

“Of what?”

Warmer, “You.”

Will says, “I don’t find you all that interesting.”

“No, I suppose not.” He says. “Knife-throwers are plenty a dime a dozen, are they not?”

Will nods.

“I do dabble in other things.” Rafael offers slyly, in the same cadence of a devil offering a handshake. He is allowing Will a foothold, a way to return the invisible waltz of careful words and barbed implications. “It’s truly fascinating what one can pick up along the way.” His eyes cloud, in remembrance of memory. “For a while, it was fortune telling that I found myself mentored in.”

“Cards and palm lines.”

“Precisely that.”

“Have you ever missed?” Will asks instead.

“A mark?” He asks cautiously.

“Throwing knives.”

“A few have drawn blood. And yet mercifully not enough for death.”

“But you didn’t stop.”

“I did.” He allows. “For a while.”

“But you resumed.”

A wry smile, white teeth in the dark, hiding an inside secret. “In a way, I suppose I had found god.” Rafael says simply.

Later, Will looks back on this conversation and thinks he should have asked which one. 

It’s not often that Charlie gathers them backstage to give a pep talk. He stands above, decked out in hand-sewed clothes and glittering sequins. “Go make us proud.” He says. His eyes gleam. “Give ‘em a performance they’ll never forget.”

Rafael is the third act. The third, same as the risen day. 

The knives fly thump-thwick-thump against the wooden board splayed out like a cross. It slides cosily against the cheek, neck and shoulder blade of the daughter’s skin. No blood is drawn, no flash of angry red lines opening up. Will sits, and swings idly, far above. The noise of the crowd is fast and molten, in several different languages, and he cares to comprehend little of it. 

The daughter steps off stage. Rafael speaks a sentence, and all of a sudden the spotlights are swivelling to fixate on Will.

He understands, a beat slower. He catches the word volunteer. 

He hides the recoil beneath his skin, plasters on a smile for the hungry audience, and steps off his perch to spin dizzily through the air. It trawls through his wind-swept hair, eager and grasping. His stomach rights itself as he catches and releases his hold on the bars, the ropes spinning as rapidly as a flipped coin. The last stanza of his breathtaking dance – he reaches for the softer ropes and dangles, friction against his thigh and abdomen as the ground rises up to greet him. 

He wants to feel it flutter against his hands, a trapped bird. The odour is glowy and ashen, closer up. The crowd chokes the ground.

This isn’t faith.

It is a performance, a blindfold and a test of trust.

Will harbours none of the above.

He takes a smooth bow, ignoring the thundering of his own pulse as it mirrors the raucous crowd. This is the madness he is intimately familiar with – the stage that tempts death and the ignorance of the audience that worship the close brush but are secure in the knowledge that they will never be the lamb out for slaughter. The narrative continues, and Will is a sparrow with wings entangled in the swaying branches of the noose.

He steps. He presses his head against the tarnished wood. Offers the soft underside of his throat. The earlier blades have already been plucked clean.

There is a clean whistle, and the sting of air against the hairs of his skin.

He stands, heart quieted.

The blade traces a faint caress against his neck.

He waits, alive and strangely delirious with the thrill.

The next barrage outlines his silhouette. He stands victorious before death. 

It is only when the curtains close that he finds the nick. A small cut near his ear. It stings when he presses down. The beaded red dots his finger like sweat. Strange, he thinks. He would have thought it would have sounded different. Not sinking into wood, but flesh. But it was so quiet. Like the distinct murmur of the wind, as buffeted by the abyss as it was silenced by the distance. His reflection in the silver of the deadly torrent, cold steel propping him up, and he’d tasted the promise of something beyond human understanding. A bite of the divine. The secret, a truth – a quirk of the knife thrower’s lips, speaking noiselessly. The hot chuckle of breath, puffed against the back of a prey’s neck. I have never once missed.

He leaves the ground. 

He strips the coat of fear, shrugs it from his shoulders. 

Sets his feet against the wire. 

As always, a bargain struck with gravity, with death, and he waits to see if it will be kind.

Written by: Trishta

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