Love, much like fire, can be a very dangerous thing. To some, it can even be deadly—or at least life changing. But can a soul survive without love?
I’m living a coming-of-age tale, and it’s one I wish to share with you. It’s a life story not uncommon to a few billion other souls that have trod upon this earth. And that means it must be lived—every single second. Nobody tossed a completed work in my lap and proclaimed the hard part had already been lived for me. After all, it’s the scars of life’s beatings that bring about a self-awareness needed to complete one’s own destiny.
That’s all anybody is really doing here: living out their destiny.
My name is Judith Zot. And honestly, I can’t recall a time ever hearing my father, in his own voice, tell me he loves me. Not even once. He just isn’t that sort of man. Feelings—or rather the expression of—isn’t part of his makeup. I’m his only child. The daughter he’d hoped would be a son. But love me, he does. I have never doubted this notion. It’s there in his eyes each night I step into center ring and thrill audiences across the United States.
I have a talent for archery. Some might even call it my one true passion. It’s just one of those things that came natural to me the very first time I picked up a bow fifteen years ago—on the very day I turned five. That bow, it had been meant for the boy my mother truly believed occupied her womb. A fortune teller even told her as much.
But that’s not how my story plays out. In my telling of it, my mother birthed a baby girl, then promptly bled out, leaving my father a widower and first-time parent.
My father is not the only man in my life. I have a husband. His name is Abel Zot. We were married two years ago, shortly after my eighteenth birthday. Three months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Uncle Sam drafted all those able-bodied young (and not-so-young) men. My father, well, he walks with a limp. An old elephant injury, he likes to say. The army couldn’t use him. Abel? They snatched him up in the first wave, sent him to Fort Hood for basic, before delivering him to the South Pacific to fight the very ones responsible for the mess our country finds itself in to this day.
I didn’t mind seeing him leave—not to face death, mind you. He and I, we just never really clicked as a married couple. I like him sure enough, though I don’t know that I love him. And it’s nothing he did wrong, either. Getting married when we did, well, it just seemed like the right thing to do, taking that first big step in our recently acquired adult lives. We both understood it to be a mistake after that first week. He took to sleeping on a separate bunk in our Pullman coach.
I was born into a circus family—fourth generation. We travel the country by train, visiting places like New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. The Midwest and east, mostly, though we do from time to time reach as far west as Denver.
I’m sort of famous. Not like a movie star kind of famous, but darn close. I’ve even been featured in Life magazine—twice. Franklin D. Roosevelt himself requested my services for the first USO show in support of our Troops right after we entered the war. But even being known by the president isn’t enough to stave off tragic circumstances.
* * *
I’m the middle act in the circus—following right after my father and his elephants. Jimmy Hoke and I, we enter center ring for each performance at six p.m. on the dot. Jimmy, he’s like the little brother I’ve always wanted—ten years old, a face full of freckles, and fearless. That kid will do anything I ask of him. He puts a shiny red apple atop his blond head, and I run an arrow straight through it at fifty paces. He holds up the ace of spades in his left hand, and I pierce the card dead center. My favorite is when Jimmy climbs up top and walks the tightrope high above center ring, holding a target over his head while walking from one end to the other with perfect balance. I use a flaming arrow for that one. We’ve done these tricks a thousand times without trouble or injury. And the night in question, well, it began exactly the same as any other along the way.
* * *
“You’re the archer girl, ain’t you?”
He’d just been hired, the one asking the question. And from the looks of him, he ought to have been alongside Abel Zot, fighting the Japanese, on a ship in the South Pacific. But the United States Army didn’t figure into this boy’s plans. He stood taller than me by a full foot, had one of those lean and wiry frames, and arms a tangle of muscles and tattoos.
I shouldn’t have looked at him, but I did.
“I’m her,” I told him.
He shook my hand, said his name was Daniel. “Like the man in the lions den.”
That’s how it all began. Just small talk meant to pass the time, I told myself. But deep down inside, I guess I knew I wanted more.
Two weeks later, we’re laughing at each other’s corny jokes and having lunch together. Not alone, mind you. My father always ate lunch with me. So did Jimmy Hoke and his parents. The Hokes, they’ve been tightrope walkers since anybody with a memory could recall. Jimmy claims to be the seventh generation.
Lunches turned into afternoon walks or quiet chats during travel. My father took notice, decided to drop his own opinions of the matter into my ear.
“You have a husband,” he said. “And God doesn’t look kindly on those keen to adultery.”
“I’m just talking with the man,” I replied, hoping that would put such gossip to bed.
I will confess there are certain aspects to a relationship that I miss with Abel being gone—even if I’m not in love with the boy. A smile, a touch, a lingering kiss—all can be had without love being involved. This one here, the new guy, he already knew that about me. He’d read me like a dog-eared pulp novel. He began to eye me with mischievous intent—and I liked it.
He and the other men on the crew would raise the massive circus tent, always showing out for the gathering local girls. I’d catch myself watching him swing that giant hammer, driving stakes deep into the earth at whatever city we’d stop in.
It’s there that the fire began. A slow burner, this kind, lots of smoke at the source of it. Lunches together became late afternoon strolls out to where nobody would see. Kisses were stolen and saved and reminisced over late at night. Those very kisses soon became touch revealing heat in the midst of all that smoke.
We made love just once. And that’s all it took to throw the world out of balance. That it happened in my Pullman coach, well, that’s on me. I planned it out of yearning, a deep desire. I thought I needed that emotion, the lust part of it in my life.
“You sure you’re okay with this?” Daniel asked, seated on my bunk.
I read a certain nervousness in the man, like maybe he’d not done such things before—or at least not often enough to be comfortable with the whole ritual.
We were set up to perform in Cleveland, on the shores of Lake Erie. My father had slipped off for a drink with some of the crew, leaving me to my own devices. That usually meant I wouldn’t see him until just before show time.
The thing about Daniel’s kisses, they ran soft and slow and purposeful, as if he were savoring me and the moment we occupied together. His fingers searched out and found the buttons on my dress. Our clothing fell away like silent accusations lying on the floor. I pushed him onto his back and took up on top of him. And Daniel let me. It’s something Abel would never have allowed—this giving away total control of such intimacy.
Such an odd feeling once our heat became extinguished. In the afterglow we lay in silence together—him smoking a cigarette, me staring at the ceiling above. Simple conversation failed us.
I don’t recall when he left. I just remember Jimmy Hoke showing up at my door, ready for the night’s performance.
“You look flustered,” he said. “You mad at somebody?”
“Only myself,” I told him, leading the boy out toward the big tent.
We waited in our usual spot, out of sight of the paying customers. This is where we’d normally bond in our focus, Jimmy and me. A quick check of my bow, the arrows in my quiver, the props we’d take out there with us. There’s never much talking between us. Jimmy likes to think we’re psychic, that our minds are somehow working together in some strange mystical sense. And maybe that’s usually the case.
But this night wasn’t usual.
My father and the elephants danced their familiar routine, completed tricks I’d seen a thousand times before, and walked their slow wander from center ring.
The ringmaster shouted my name.
Fans took to their feet and cheered wildly. Some thrust copies of Life magazine in my direction, begging for autographs.
Jimmy sprinted toward the wide pole holding the big top high overhead—the way he’d done hundreds of times before. He leaned his back against it and set the apple atop his head. The boy trusted me to get it done. I’d never given reason not to.
I ambled over to where he stood, counted off thirty paces, and took my stance. It’s here that I should have called him off, feigned illness, and gone back to my coach. I’d only done such a thing once before—three years earlier in Atlanta. A touch of food poisoning laid me up for a few days back then.
A bad meal couldn’t be blamed this night.
My hands selected an arrow from my quiver.
Jimmy’s trustful gaze fixed on mine.
When I pulled back the bow, inside my mind Daniel’s hands found my breasts again, his kiss stole my breath, and my guilt threatened to expose me to every living soul beneath the big top.
My arrow split the apple atop Jimmy’s head. A clean shot—as usual.
On cue, the boy raised the ace of spades high above his head and held it perfectly still. A single nervous twitch would likely cost him a finger or two—maybe even a whole hand!
As I drew back the bow, my father’s words filled my head: God doesn’t look kindly on those keen to adultery.
The arrow tore through the very center of the card and lodged in the pole behind Jimmy and his still-intact hand.
While Jimmy worked his way to the top of the pole, I wowed the crowd with an assortment of bullseye shots on targets scattered here and there across center ring.
Atop the pole, Jimmy readied himself for the long walk on the high wire. Slow and steady he worked his way to the middle of the rope, high up where one misstep would most definitely be fatal. In his hands he held the heavy wooden target.
I found the last remaining arrow in my quiver, its point wrapped in gasoline-soaked gauze. A silver Zippo came to my hand—a gift from my father, given just before my first-ever performance. Sparks from the flint lit the wick. The crowd offered their enthusiastic cheers, knowing what would come next, daring me to see it through. I touched the lit Zippo to the arrow, set the tip alight.
Jimmy stood still at the center of the rope, held the cedar shingle target over his head.
I’d never missed before—not even in practice. The arrow always found its mark in the wood.
But this night, well, my father’s warning took away all of my focus: You have a husband.
The arrow sailed high and to the left of its intended mark, attaching itself to the very top, up there where the pole and canvas meet. Flames like wicked tongues licked at that thick covering. There’d be nothing to stop it from spreading.
Paying customers scattered for the exits as the orange glow magnified its intensity. Panicked voices of parents calling out for lost children competed with the cries of those certain death had arrived.
I’d lost sight of Jimmy in all that smoke. The last I’d seen the boy, he still stood on that tightrope high above center ring.
“What did you do?” my father demanded, yanking me toward the exit.
* * *
When the flames died out, the wreckage revealed three dead souls, each one a child under the age of twelve. Jimmy had been among them.
Life doesn’t just resume after a fire. It doesn’t just stop, either.
The circus shut down for the remainder of the season, putting the entire crew back at our winter home in Tampa, Florida. Nobody blamed me—at least not out loud. A dangerous trick, people would say. It was bound to happen eventually. Can’t play with fire and expect it to not burn once in a while.
Daniel didn’t follow us down to Florida. He’d never live with the aftermath and its heavy burden.
I never again set eyes on that man.
Abel, well, he returned to me a month after the conflagration. The one I called husband had taken a bullet in his left knee, thus rendering him useless to Uncle Sam.
He’d hobbled into the bathroom that first morning I got sick, held my hair back from the spew. “You okay?”
“Just fine,” I told him.
He sensed the thing growing inside my womb, understood the circumstances in its coming to be; the man made offers to raise it as his own.
“You won’t mind?” I asked.
His head gave a short left-right twist, a move meant to settle the thing right then and there. “I don’t even need to know the details.”
“I wasn’t offering any.”
“But you might—in due time.”
Abel’s arms went easily around my body. He hugged me close to him. His scent, both familiar and strange, carried with it a certain comfort, a reassurance of sorts. We’d be all right, me and him.
Love (like fire) can be a very dangerous thing indeed. And yes, to some, it might even become deadly—or at least life changing. But a soul, well, it most assuredly cannot survive without it.
© 2020 Beem Weeks