Under the Big Tent by Terri Clifton

Under the Big Tent

by Terri Clifton

Atlantic Seaboard, 1925

Rolling through miles of farmland, the circus train headed into the barely rising sun toward the Atlantic Ocean. The smell of the land was heavy with heat and the sweetness of tasseling corn. Men already at work in the watermelon fields stopped and watched the spectacle pass. A few of them waved, and Sigmund waved back. They bent to their work again as Sigmund continued toward his. He should be sleeping the last of a night’s good rest, but he was too excited inside and simply sat by the window until the miles passed.

In only hours he’d be center ring in his red jacket, becoming a purveyor of wonder and amazement. He enjoyed his life and had seen many strange and fascinating things in all his years, but somehow there remained, tucked in that place where men keep their little boy hearts, a love of the ocean. And that is why his heart beat a little faster as the train neared its destination, the very air changed, and he could smell the sea.

Steam and smoke whirled from the inbound train as it slowed its roll along the center tracks of the Avenue. A picture-perfect day for the annual arrival of the circus in the tiny seaside town of Rehoboth, and people traveled from miles around to make a holiday of it.

Sigmund noted the much larger crowds gathered all along the way into town and clustered at the little station. The new highway from the county seat had delivered more automobiles than he’d ever seen here, and not nearly so many wagons as there used to be. The world kept changing, and he sometimes wondered about his place in it, but he knew for him on this day it meant a sold-out performance. So he put any worries or cynicism aside for another day and waved with genuine enthusiasm at the throng before him.

People of all ages craned to see the animals. He enjoyed seeing faces filled with anticipation. He felt it, too. This was his favorite stop of the summer.

The handbills and broadsides had done their advertising jobs and gotten the people here, and now that all were assembled, it was time to get them to buy a ticket. He mounted a brightly striped dais that would soon host a lion but, for now, made a perfect small stage. His entertaining patter and the cadence of his ringmaster’s voice would fill the seats; every inflection would sell the show. He promised amazement. He regaled those before him with the wonders to be found under the big tent—wonders such as they had never before seen—all for just the price of a ticket. Come one and all, he encouraged, while all along the train cars, the unloading commenced, a show in itself.

“Today, you have the opportunity to be awed and amazed, amazed and awed. Today only, for tomorrow, we will be gone again, taking it all with us. Today is your one chance, so step on up and take it! We don’t want you to miss a single wonder.”

With the fluidity of repeated action, the tent was on its way up before all of the animals even disembarked. The wide-open field teemed with canvasmen and gandy dancers carrying ropes and spikes. In no time at all, Jupiter was raising the king pole, and the big top went up. The circus band stood ready to begin the parade just as the hard pounding clink of hammers on tent spikes came to an end.

It started with the drums. The brass joined in with gusto. In established order, a practiced company of performers filed along. Sigmund narrated their progress.

Geno and Giuseppe, Acrobats Extraordinaire, came first behind the musicians. Tumbling and flipping, leaping over one another, in constant motion, smiling and waving, they enjoyed the happy crowd.

Behind them was Jack the Juggler, squinting hard into the climbing sun, catching by instinct as much as sight, tossing again with the surety of years. Above the throng, Archie, the stilt man, saw beyond the sea of people to the sea itself, sparkling with the full beauty of a July morning, and he stood a little taller, feeling grand.

A pair of matched bay horses, whose broad chests glistened against their harness, pulled the canon. Flying Fernando, cape over one shoulder, sat astride the canon. He would launch forth, and a breathless crowd would watch him soar free and into the net. His hearing wasn’t very good, so many of the cheers were lost on him, but he, too, waved as he passed.

Jupiter was smart, even for an elephant, and used to being the star of the show. She took the cheers as her due, stretching her trunk high to catch a taste of the salted air, then curling it again to savor the deliciousness. The big cats lounged inside brightly painted cages but came to their feet to roar at the seagulls that dared to swoop low overhead, and a ripple of excitement ran through the crowd.

One by one, each ticket holder passed beneath the entrance sign and through the open tent flaps to find a seat in the grandstands. When the sunlight streamed in from an opening high in the apex of the big top and fell nearly center ring like a spotlight, Sigmund stepped into it. Bits of dust caught in the beam and hung suspended. A packed house held its breath, then he let the magic begin.

Fiona had plaited ribbons, the blue-green colors of water, into her braids and the manes of her black Arab horses before they pranced into the ring. She let the horses stand a moment, still as statues before she set about dazzling everyone with fearless handstands at breakneck speeds around the ring. Beauty at the edge of disaster compelled the watchers to lean in as she rode.

As she stood on their backs and exited, Sigmund directed all eyes upward. High overhead, Geno and Giuseppe had climbed. Balancing and relying on skill and faith, they flew. Gasps escaped the crowd when their hands left the solid trapeze bars, and sighs erupted once they’d found purchase again. Back on the ground, they flipped and cartwheeled out.

Jupiter was sluggish in the summer heat, or maybe she was just daydreaming of the scent of the sea she’d managed to catch and a memory it had stirred. Moving heavily through her paces, a gentle giant, she bowed at the end as gracefully as any pachyderm could.

The tigers were restless with their slow tail twitches, but they jumped through hoops and stood on hind legs as a matter of course. Micah, the monkey, rode a tiny bicycle, doffing his bright yellow hat and begging for coins while the canon was readied, making everyone laugh. And when Flying Fernando launched forth in a belch of smoke and sparks, landing safely in the catch net on the far side of the tent, they applauded loudly and long.

One by one, the acts progressed. Between them, Sigmund kept up his one-sided conversation, full of anecdotes and exaggerations, the crowd loving it all. What could be better than a circus at the seaside on a flawless summer day? So they clapped and cheered and gasped. They ate popcorn and cotton candy from hawkers, and when the concessionaires came out at the end of the show, they bought souvenirs of programs, tin rings, animal figures, and carnival canes—tangible pieces of the memory to hold onto long after the golden summer day was over.

Sigmund watched them emerge outside again, into the late day sun, still carrying the dazzling moments with them, chattering about the things they had seen. Children would look every bit as awed and amazed as he’d advertised, and he was glad to see wonder in their eyes. Children who learned wonder would dream a fine future, no matter that no one understood what that looked like. He sent them all off with a silent blessing and gratitude.

The hard work of traveling show business doesn’t finish with the curtain calls and the audience leaving. Animals still need to be fed and settled into cages. Costumes must be carefully refolded and packed, props stored for travel, all made ready for an early morning train ride to the next town, the next show. Dusk faded to twilight as everyone finished their tasks, and the animals fell asleep to the soft sound of a calm ocean. Even the tigers and the lion.

The steady fresh breeze that had blown most of the day dropped off to nothing with the setting sun. Bright pennants that had waved from high atop the roof of the boardwalk amusements hung down motionless, their color draining in the coming dark. The nearly empty street seemed much wider now, and all the bustle of the day seemed an illusion. More real was the lamplight that fell from windows as the town quieted for the night. Any normal night, the members of the circus would have retired as well, to rest most earned, but this night was Sigmund’s one chance to visit the ocean.

Once he decided all around him was settled to his satisfaction and his day officially done, he started to walk. He never said where he was going, and he issued no invitation, but one by one across the camp, the others joined him. A motley crew, they walked in silence down the very same street they had paraded, past quiet cottages and closed shops.

Sigmund loved the sea nearly as much as he loved the circus. The enormity of the ocean, full of wondrous and undiscovered things, tugged at his imagination. He inhaled the briny air with its hint of distant, exotic places and descended the stairs to the beach, his noiseless procession following. He had never understood his own homesickness for a place he’d never been. A life he hadn’t lived. But he had no regrets, even so. Who could have imagined the life he’d had, after all?

All lined at the land’s edge, staring eastward over the water, they stopped. Sigmund looked at his circus family. Fiona had slipped off her shoes and waded ankle-deep with skirt held aloft, eyes full of mermaid dreams, while Jack was watching her with eyes full of dreams of his own. Archie reached down to pick up a seashell and tuck it in his pocket. Geno and Giuseppe settled onto the sand, so still and quiet Sigmund knew they, too, were homesick for a homeland that lay far across the dark Atlantic.

Fernando, whose real name was Toby, was staring at the night’s first stars, coming into their own, impossibly high above. Sigmund wondered if he dreamed of flying that far and followed his gaze to the sky just in time to see a falling star.

“Oh,” said Fiona, hushed and reverent, as it streaked through the heavens, and everyone made their own wish deep in their heart.

Sigmund made no wishes for himself, being happy, but knowing the struggle of others to find it, he wished a general wish for all the souls below. They stood together in the gathering dark, taking their one chance to be awed and amazed, amazed and awed, under the endless big tent of the sky.


Terri's short stories and poetry have been published in more than a dozen anthologies. Her nonfiction memoir, A Random Soldier, was published in 2007. She was the recipient of a fellowship for emerging artist in fiction literature in 2013. She has recently completed two novels, an adult romance set in the 1980s, and a middle-grade fantasy.

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  1. The author leaves us ‘awed and amazed’ with her vivid and moving depiction of a circus in all its glory, along with a peak inside the emotions of the traveling cast that become like family to each other. Glorious .

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