Our circus tent is up, taut and shining, banner line hung, stages built, curtains scrubbed, illusions bolted, ratchets oiled, everything coiffed the night before we open at our first fair. All around, fireflies spark and fade. Men in yellow “Safety is Non-Negotiable!” t-shirts with varying numbers of teeth straddle the metal arms of the scrambler beside our big red and blue tent, cursing above the blaring pop country hits as they hinge and pin the little metal closures that hold the massive ride together.
My boss pops his head into the tent. “You busy?” he asks. I shake my head. I’ve just finished Windexing the glass in front of Queen Kong, our giant taxidermied gorilla, and the coffin bearing our two-headed mummy princess.
“Great,” he says. “Come meet the snakes.”
Most of what I know about snakes I’d learned in the six days since I’d run away with the circus sideshow. The night I arrived, the stage manager told me about the previous season’s thirteen-foot albino python. “I wasn’t really paying attention one day,” she said, waving her hand dismissively, “and Lemon managed to wrap herself all the way around my arms and neck, and then slid down my body, pinning me completely inside her coils. ‘Bad Lemon,’ I said. Someone had to come unwrap her so I could move again. It was so funny.” She and the boss exchanged nostalgic smiles. I hoped they didn’t notice my blanched cheeks.
“You like snakes?” the boss asked. One of the jobs I’ve just signed on for is Snake Charmer. What I’d imagined was playing a flute with dramatic flicks of my wrist for a snake coiled in a basket, amazing the audience without ever having to get too close.
“I’m going to,” I managed.
I follow my boss into the semi truck, which triples as our bunkhouse and backstage area in addition to hauling our show around the country. He unlatches a large plastic box and inside, coiled around one another, are our two brand new boa constrictors.
“You’ve gotta reach both your hands all the way inside the box, under the bodies of the snakes,” he says, elbow-deep in snakes. His screen-printed T-shirt displays a beach scene around his body that, once lowered, looks like a much more appropriate environment for the snake I’m supposed to charm than the box she’s in. Perhaps I could free her. Because I was hoping for some kind of net or gloves to catch and hold the creature. But his hands are right on the snake.
“Use both hands to pick them up,” he says, New Jersey thick in his voice. “If you pick up a giant snake with one hand, it could kill them. Their back breaks, they get paralyzed, and they can’t eat.” Last season, one of the snakes died after a performer accidentally picked him up that way. As unsure as I am about these animals, that is a sad fate.
With his face right beside the snake’s fangs, my boss has the seven foot boa wrapped around his arms and is coming toward me. She has tan and chestnut diamonds down her back, the shapes outlined in black and cream. Her body is as thick as salad plate. I realize instantly how out of place I am when I’m measuring the approaching beast in terms of dinnerware. However, because I am new here and want desperately to prove myself, and because I know that wrangling these snakes will be one of my primary jobs, and also because I fibbed a bit when I first listed my sideshow skills and included snake charming, I stretch a smile across my face as wide as I can.
“Hello, snake,” I say. She does not blink.
The boss steps toward me with the serpent coiled around his arm and without meaning to, I step backward. He steps toward me again. I involuntarily step back, trying to throw a casual laugh on top of my ducking and dodging like this little tango is just a joke. After a few steps though, I’ve come to the wall. My back is cold against the metal and wood paneling that runs inside the truck. I feel the film of dust slide against my palms. I start to sweat. A few of the other performers come through the stage curtains and into the truck, rushing right to the snakes with open arms and kissy noises and pet names.
“Who’s a snake?” one of them says as she reaches out both hands. “Oh you’re just a snake, that’s right, girl.” She catches me pressing each of my joints into the furthest corner of the truck and breathing hard. “The snakes think you’re just a big tree,” she says encouragingly. I nod my head. Outside, a polka band rehearses “America the Beautiful.” The Ferris wheel’s shadow grows longer along the grass, a moving spiderweb.
“Here’s the little angel,” she says, arms moving with incredible speed as she drapes the snake around my shoulders.
One week earlier, my plane touched down in Tampa just before sunset, the palm trees alongside the jetway waving us in. The World of Wonders sideshow winters in Gibsonton, a town just outside Tampa where faded paint peels off the Showman’s Bar and nearly all of the legendary performers who lived there for years are now dead. Most sideshows themselves are now dead. They are a cultural fragment mostly stomped out after sweeping legislation and shifting public perception in the 1950s and ’60s established tight restrictions on what or who could be displayed on stage. Though a few stationary sideshows remain—Coney Island, for example, and one on Venice Beach—the World of Wonders is the last traveling sideshow of its kind, a stage show that features live performers alongside a freakatorium.
I arrive in Florida with, per instructions, a suitcase full of family-friendly stripper costumes for our five-month season. Our caravan left the next morning for our first fair in Pennsylvania, a smooth ride until our semi truck’s tire blew, weakened by a knife during an incident in which the Pygmy tried and failed to stab one of the bosses a few years back. Well, that’s one story I heard. The stories here shift with the fluidity of the facts we list about our Fee Jee Mermaid.
It’s easy enough to think that my fear of snakes doesn’t come from anywhere in particular, as snakes are a common enough occurrence in the menagerie of childhood fears that manifest as phobias in adulthood. Sideshows themselves are a place where people come to see a public display of their private fears. Fear of deformity, of a disruption of the gender binary, of mutation, of disfigurement, of a crossover with the animal world, of being out of proportion—all these fears constellate our childhood imaginations and are the center of the attractions people seek in a freak show. And being part of the freak show, they are the list of fears I have to conquer day after day, again and again. Bring fire to your face. Climb to the top of a ladder and balance massive tent poles in your arms. Let a giant snake wrap itself around your neck.
In the dry California hills where I grew up, snakes were everywhere. Threatening. One day, my mom sat my brother and me down on the couch and, explaining why an ambulance just left our neighbor’s house, said, “Ida was bit by a rattlesnake.”
We know about rattlesnakes. We’ve learned the dangers of our particular child world. Ours includes the usual kidnappers and fires in addition to rattlesnakes and mountain lions, creatures of the wild hills that back up against our street.
“She was on the ridge with her boys,” my mom continued, “and saw a snake. She went closer to show them. It sprang and bit her hand.” Then, under her breath: “Idiot.” We stared, the drama of violence active in our child minds.
“Is she dead?” I asked, imagining our neighbor stiff and blue.
“Not yet,” my mom said. “She sucked the venom out of her hand.” We collectively inhaled. “Then she spit it out. Don’t you dare try that,” she said. “If Ida had swallowed any of that venom, it would have killed her straight away. Don’t you do it.”
We nodded gravely.
“But also, don’t not do it, if it will save your life.” We nodded again. “Just don’t go near snakes. Ever. No matter what. Promise?”
“Promise,” we said.
And I didn’t.
I’ve felt it, that long, fanged body waiting in shadow on the other side of the rock I was jumping onto, that cold skin flattening the dry grasses just over the crest of the hill. I had the idea that at some point as I grew up, the threat would dissipate. Now I don’t think that’s true. The threat is still here—the list of threats actually seems to grow longer the further into adulthood I get—and now it isn’t imagined. The snake is not a shadow; it is actually around my neck. The issue isn’t whether or not the threat is there, it’s how much attention I give it.
All my fellow performers’ eyes are on me, the new snake wrangler, to see what I do with this beastie around my neck. I touch the snake’s body with my hand. I will be bold. My eyes crest with tears. My chest heaves, I can hardly breath. I’m trying to tell myself not to be scared, that there is no reason to think the snake might hurt me, that people look far greater terror in the face every day, people very close to me. I dig in deep, try to channel that bravery. Exhale slowly.
“Okay, nope, enough,” I say, scooting my shoulders out from under the snake. Four sets of arms reach toward me to catch the snake I’m recoiling beneath. They grab the thick body and peel her muscled length from my neck. They move fast. It appears, given the placement of their hands, that they think there is a very good chance I will drop or throw the snake.
“Off, off, off,” I say, the tears breaking and dribbling down my cheek. My heart won’t slow the pace of its clenching, the thump of its terror.
“Snake lesson number one,” my boss says, putting quick distance between me and the reptile. He looks at my face, the terror leaking down my cheeks. “You okay?” he asks. I nod. “Good job,” he says with a smile. He is kind, not at all the stereotypical circus boss who’d throw you from the train in the middle of the night.
The rest of the performers take turns draping the snake around their shoulders, bringing its flickering tongue to their lips to kiss the snake on the mouth. “Angel!” one squeaks.
It is 8:00 the night before we open. By the next morning, I will have to hold the snakes for twelve hours a day. Though I do my best to perpetuate my fearless persona, am desperate for it, in my first week with the sideshow I’ve already come face to face with a fear I can’t beat. And that is the scariest thing of all.
I spend the rest of that night and the following morning trying to convince myself that the creature will not hurt me. As I did when learning to eat fire, I wish for a trick to snake wrangling, a grip maybe that would force the creature to become docile and domestic. But, also as with learning to eat fire, I’m disappointed to learn that there is no trick. Or the trick, really, is to stand up against a monstrous fear as boldly as possible and see what happens next.
I call my mom and stepdad. Before I can begin my complaint, my stepdad details the new off-roading tires he’s attached to my mom’s wheelchair, which he has named Bubbles. After a massive stroke which left her unable to walk or talk, my mom underwent thirteen brain surgeries, and the doctors have decided they cannot ever put the bone flap back on her head, which means she cannot go on an airplane. A brain relies on pressure to function properly, a problem exacerbated by altitude. For as many years as I can remember, my parents talked about traveling to Italy as the dream of their retirement. “That’s so tragic,” everyone said when they heard about the flight restriction. “Fuck it,” my parents said, and bought two tickets on a ship bound for Europe.
I spend a lot of time imagining all the things that might go wrong while they will be gone for three months, but I pitch my voice high and enthusiastic on the phone, try to channel their bravery privately all night. Fearful of a snake? Get over it. Move along.
The next day, I’m standing on stage, smiling at the audience with the snake wrapped around my neck, when I first see the blood. The snake is shimmery and cold, eyes milky blue because she’s readying to shed. The meat of her middle rests on my shoulders and throat, sliding across my body as she squeezes my limbs. I feel her tongue flick against my earlobe. I feel it on my cheek. I feel her face slide onto the hand I have beside my neck, inside a coil to keep her from strangling me, and then I feel a sharp pain on my finger. And there is blood.
My heart is already clomping and kicking with such ferocity beneath the fat body of the snake that I’m afraid she’ll mistake it for the quick pitter of a rat’s heart, her dinner. Of course this very thought makes it pump faster. Sweat beads on my hairline and upper lip, and my wet fishnetted feet slip inside my heels.
“Today you’re going to see a girl from California eat fire and drink burning gasoline like you or I would drink iced tea,” the talker, my boss, tells the growing crowd. “You’ll see the pain-proof man, the Icelandic giant, and Olga Hess, the headless woman.” I point to the corresponding banners, keeping the bloody side of my finger away from the audience as well as I can though, truthfully, part of me wants an audience member to notice, put me over his shoulder and rush me to the hospital. I could be sent home with such a legitimate excuse and I wouldn’t have to follow through with this circus scheme that I can already tell is going to be so much harder than I ever imagined. It would give me a way out. The flavor of recklessness I am drawn to is a kind of impulsive, yes-to-the-idea sort of danger that always seems better the farther away I am from actually having to do it.
My finger stings, though after the first thirty seconds, the bleeding only looks impressive when I squeeze the little wound, which, in truth, does not have two deep fang holes. It seems instead to be a few straight lines. Pandora the snake keeps wrapping her body around me, curving her strong neck toward my face with a kind of coil that looks to me as if she’s readying to attack, so I keep strong-holding her head away from mine. My biceps are already quivering with strain.
“You got ahold of that snake?” the boss whispers when his bally pitch is through. It does not look like I have a hold on this snake. I do not have a hold.
“The snake bit me,” I whisper to the boss, trying to keep my smile. The words come out a little garbled, like a ventriloquist. I hold my finger up to his face and prepare for him to cry out in horror, but as I eye the injury myself, I realize it appears more like a scrape than a bite. A small scrape.
“What?” the boss says. “This is a first.” We both eye my finger’s little scrape. It appears, really, that the snake has brushed her teeth against me more than anything else. “Do you want to put her down? I can take her,” he says, reaching over toward me. I begin to lean toward him, let the snake get taken from my shoulders. An outrage is brewing, anger that I could work so hard to face a fear only to have the fear immediately manifest. When I first thought about running away with the circus, I did not imagine fear would be such a daily hurdle. But here it is. Again and again.
The snake squeezes on, coiling herself around my body. My boss’s arms reach out toward me. What I want to say here is that I took a deep breath, moved past the fear and let myself face the actual creature on my shoulders, so much less terrifying, really, than the idea of her, and reset her around my neck. I wish I could say that I thought of my parents and didn’t fear with my full dumb heart that my goodbye before I ran away with the circus was my last goodbye, that I thought instead of them waving their scarves from the deck of the departing ship and grew bold.
What I do instead is shake my head meekly at my boss and keep the snake half-draped across my shoulders. Smear the last blood on my sequin shorts. I grab hold of the thing that terrifies me the most and wonder how long until it strangles me.
Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.