Every so often I miss the trapeze, sucking in breath expelled from a hundred gasping mouths, back twisting in air to avoid the crush of net against neck or spine. In those moments of descent I imagine myself a sparrow: worms bloody in my gut, broken wings folded to my heart, anticipating the crush of packed earth, downy feathers in the wind as life seeks its completion.
Squalo flips and catches the opposing bar. He swings and releases onto his platform. He wears a purple leotard stitched with golden thread. He does not have his sash. I know this means he will not come to me thumping knuckles along my trailer, running strong fingers along my collarbone, my cheek. When he is happy he waxes his mustache. When he wants something his tongue slides his lower lip leaving a saliva-slick in the cleft of his chin. Squalo won’t eat meat without making the cross of Jesus, won’t chalk without kissing the ground, and won’t shake hands without holding man’s eye to see of what he is made.
Minty the contortionist crab-walks by on hands supporting his body and legs. He has a piggish face and unorderly teeth and hides his insufficiencies beneath musculature and condescension. He winks at me as he passes. “Lovely day, Pardal.”
I nod, but do not smile. Minty watches me. Sometimes he follows. He scowls and murmurs when he thinks I do not hear. Because I will never want him. Because I do not fear him. I hear their muffled cries in the night from his trailer: those weak urbanites he selects with their thick-lashed and seeking eyes, their soft-clenched hands, those who leave bowed while the sky bleeds those mornings we pull stakes, load trailers. I am not like them. I could never be.
I return to watching Squalo who squats then springs into the air. He does not speak it, but I know he loves me. And although it has been a day since he has come to me, and lately we argue, we are not divisible. His long dark hair catches flight as tattoos stretch and distort. He catches the opposing bar and hangs from a muscled arm. That arm that entwines me in sleep, exhalation against my cheek, those lips that whisper the softness of the universe. I want to swing to him, to feel his breath in my mouth, breath that will explode unborn galaxies within me. I think of fireworks, a stranger with the rocket, us in beach chairs watching fizzing trails that leave lines in the dark sky.
You want him? Squalo asked, jaw clenched.
I laughed, I don’t know him.
Don’t lie, he said, ripping at handfuls of patchy grass.
I sat in his lap. You’re insane. You are the only.
He unraveled my braid but continued watching the man who loaded another and shot it crackling into the night. Squalo’s arm tensed around my waist.
There. You are watching him. Is this for him?
He fingered the ruffles of my shirt. It was red and clung to me as skin. I bit my lip until I felt the snap of skin. Blood seeped out as I try not to cry.
Squalo touched the blood with his forefinger. Don’t. I am sorry, Pardal. He kissed me. We are blood brothers, you and I, he said and watched the man. You are mine.
Georgeau motions for me to climb. She is lithe with hair of orchids. She wears a chiffon coat over her bodysuit and a hairpiece of feathers and sequins. Beside her the lion licks its paw. She spends afternoons in Squalo’s trailer writing songs of death.
Why would you ask me about her? Squalo said as I wrapped long noodles and spooned them onto melamine plates that perch on table ends.
She is always in your trailer, I said.
He frowned and licked at last of the noodles coiled on my spoon. Why you want to think this way? Only guilty people fear what is innocent, Squalo said. He stood and poured my noodles into the sink. You were with him, weren’t you? That man from the fireworks.
I started to laugh.
Don’t lie,Pardal, it is ugly on you.
I stride to my ladder; glad I wore grey today for Squalo tells that my eyes are the Algarve Sea. For him: I am grey, I am tangerine. I brush strands of long hair away, not in my preferred braid, but as he likes it, free for the wind to find.
The metal rungs leave powder as I climb the sixty-five feet to the platform. I am careful not to glance below, not because I fear heights, but because the net belies the freedom of my flight.
Squalo stands on the opposite platform, unsmiling; his hair hangs damp in shiny waves. Bruise-colored circles stain the armpits of his leotard. “Now, Pardal?”
I swing my bar forward and watch it return before pushing it away again. I force a smile, thinking of how he said my teeth are pearls, my tongue the muscle of a clam. I will eat you, he said with a laugh. I will swallow you inside me where you will be true.
“Yes!” I yell.
Squalo leaps and catches his bar. He clips his thigh over it and raises his torso to sit. He looks below at Georgeau. At the lion. His eyes follow her as she unwraps packages of bloody steaks, droplets of juice spattering the dirt beside her lion. Squalo releases his hands and tips backwards, hanging by strong legs. He watches her from upside down. My bar swings forward and back, forward and back. She meets his eye and grins.
“Now!” he yells to me.
I leap and catch the bar. I release, the momentum propelling me into a flip. He grabs my wrists. We sway with the trapeze.
Squalo licks his lip and watches Georgeau. Saliva slicks his chin.
His fingers are tight around my wrists and although we are not finished with our routine I wish for release. Heat collects beneath the valanced peaks. My chest constricts as we swing back and forth and back again––his fingers imprinting my wrists. Below us cords of net cut the air.
Squalo feels my stare. “Pardal! Pay attention or we will have to start again.”
Have I had it wrong, that sparrow alone in her descent? Is it death for which she waits? Or does she dream of flight, broken wings thrashing in those seconds before impact? Am I them, those long-lashed and bowed as the sun bleeds out? Have I been them all along?
Squalo’s face is above me, the slick waves of his hair surrendering to him. I open my fingers, his mouth forming an, ‘O.’ The veins of his throat swell as I slide and he grasps for me, sucking in my discarded breath. I torque my body until free.
We are not he. I close our eyes and think of sky, rooftops in miniature, the currents of air that will sweep us forward and away to where the net no longer shadows us.