It was the middle of the night when Greta woke up, feeling as if an invisible weight was pressing down on her in bed; a bulky weight, far heavier than the skimpy blanket which covered her. It felt as if someone was lying on top of her, forcing the air from her chest, making it difficult to breathe. With a struggle, she sat up. At first, each time she blinked she saw spots, white on black, dotting before her eyes, but gradually she became more accustomed to the dark. Her head felt heavy, precarious on her muscular shoulders. She peered across at the purple, shifting contour that was Ida, asleep in her bunk on the other side of their wooden caravan and smothered the emotion that immediately bubbled into her mind. Rivalry was not usually in Greta’s nature, but something – the remnant of a dream perhaps – told her to feel pleased that she was the only one awake. She lay back down and tried to sleep again, but more than anything else, she wanted air. For the first time in her life, Greta wanted to slip on her gown and go walking, by herself, through the quiet circus camp.
No one had ever seen her and Ida, the Stillmann Sisters, apart. They weren’t really sisters only in as much as they weren’t really related, but it was a detail that everyone forgot, because the two of them were almost identical. Aside from their slight, boyish bodies, it was something about their bone structure that drew comparison. Both girls had high, angular cheekbones, which they brushed pink in the daytime and they fluttered their long eyelashes in the same way. Rumour had it that there was one difference between them and that Ida was naturally a brunette. It was certainly true that if anyone happened to linger outside their caravan on the weekend after payday, the air carried the odour of bleach.
The two girls were Russian, but their show name and accents were American – put on. Both of them claimed to be twenty-one, but whatever the truth was, Greta was a year older than Ida. They talked in a clotted Russo-Texan drawl and would finish each other’s statements in fits of giggles. They had met as children – the girls’ parents had worked the nightclubs in Petersburg – and the result of years of being thrown together and told to stay out of the way, was their first act. At fifteen they had compiled their savings, from money they had pickpocketed and run away to start their career on the stage. They were snapped almost up at once by a greasy theatre-owner in Moscow who offered a little more money than the going average so that he might be in with a chance. Their routine was fairly simple back then; they would secure a wide skirt around their waists and pretend to be a joined at the hip. Ida would claim to be parched with thirst but on swigging from a bottle, Greta would spit the vodka right out again – slapstick. Crazed expressions would follow; there’d be a lot of disagreement and forgiveness and then the whole sequence would start over again.
These days they were tumblers. One night in Moscow, after-hours, the Ringmaster had come to view the show, cutting an odd figure in his black and white-striped waistcoat and a red, tailed jacket. He had paid good money for the Siamese twin, but hadn’t even blinked when they had separated and walked down the street with him to the trolley car, one on either side. They had thrown away the giant skirt and the blouse with two necks and started work on a new routine, learning to perform tricks and lifts with one another instead, to climb and balance and run backwards on giant rolling balls, in order to travel around the ring. Now, they dressed in the style of Pierrots; for each show Greta would pencil a black tear onto her cheek; Ida, the outline of a heart.
As Greta lay in bed, the sounds of the dark grew louder and closer. She thought she heard a mouse scuffling under the caravan, the warble of a pigeon outside; Ida’s familiar breathing sounded heavy and it irritated her. She flipped her pillow over and turned to face the wall but she still felt stifled, as if everything was pressing in. Before dawn, she crept out of bed and drew her silk dressing gown about her.
It unsettled her to close the caravan door without waiting for Ida to follow but in the outside air, despite the dark, she felt as though her eyes were opened. It was a waxing moon and the stars were bright. Greta inhaled the gloom, the shady outlines of the caravans and that clear, fresh scent she which she had always imagined was the smell of a new day, as yet unlived and so full of prospects. The silk robe smoothed against her skin under the moonlight. Blades of grass tickled her feet, needling up through the gaps between her toes. Her eyes were wide and she basked in the easy shape of herself, swaying, as she padded through the camp.
Without a second pair of footsteps behind her, she felt carefree. On tiptoe, she twirled under the moon. As she glimpsed the long braid of her hair spinning outwards, grey over her shoulder, she heard someone in a nearby caravan turning in bed. Her steps came down to earth and the pirouette was left unfinished. She pulled her robe about her chest. In the fragility of the moment she wondered whether Ida might have woken up without her there. She thought perhaps she could go back to their caravan, slip into bed beside her and go to sleep together, like they sometimes did; but immediately the thought repulsed her. She walked on until she came to the remains of the main camp fire. There, a sheet of glass stood balanced against a fold-out chair. Greta turned her head as the moonlight slicked across its surface. Blue-black shadows pooled and shifted there, giving form to a face she didn’t recognise. She stumbled towards another chair, where she couldn’t see the glass and stared down into the fading, orange embers.
‘A fire has burned here.’ She didn’t know where it came from, but she found herself repeating the line, over and over in her head. ‘A fire has burned here. A flame has flickered out.’
The embers shivered as a black breeze passed over them. Greta imagined invisible arms encasing her from behind. She closed her eyes and conjured up the rasp of a stubbled chin in her hair, soft lips landing kisses on the top of her head.
Last night, after the evening show, the girls had been carrying equipment to the truck. Ida had been up ahead when a tall, young man stopped in front of Greta. He had tousled hair but he wore a suit against a wide-striped shirt. He was put together better than any business man she had ever seen, although he carried a shabby briefcase.
‘Excuse me ma’am,’ he said, ‘I missed the show. Could you point me in the direction of the Ringmaster?’
Greta had said nothing, but his eyes hadn’t followed her finger. They had grazed over the shape of her, seeing right past the black buttons, the white skin of her leotard.
‘Why so sad?’ His gaze had returned to her face. He had raised a tentative finger and, looking straight into her eyes, had gently touched the dark Pierrot tear, still suspended on her cheek. He motioned back round at the busy troupe, ‘Are you really all leaving so soon?’
‘Well, hello there.’ Ida appeared behind her shoulder. The man’s hand fell back to his side. ‘How can we girls help you, sir?’ She had flashed her teeth at him, coerced the dimples into her cheeks.
The man looked to Ida, then back to Greta and she saw that the sparkle in his eyes had faded.
‘There are two of you…’ She had never heard it said like that before.
‘The best things always come in double helpings.’ Ida raised a wicked eyebrow.
‘The Ringmaster’s over there,’ Greta said and she had felt the apology, lying awkwardly across her face.
The intensity in his gaze had planted a seed in her mind. Now, sitting there in the dark, Greta felt chemical. It was as if her blood was running at a different speed from the day before. For a moment she felt wise beyond her years, having seen a light that Ida had not; Ida had no idea what it was like to be appreciated for herself alone. But Greta’s heart knotted again as the thought threaded back and altered in her mind. In the next instant she felt small and shallow, stupid for letting herself be so easily swayed by fancy.
‘I know this place is full of oddities…’
The voice from the dark sent her shoulders arching. She widened her eyes in disbelief as thick, white stripes on a silhouetted figure emerged from the gloom.
‘…but not for a long time have I been surprised.’
The Ringmaster materialised in front of her, smoothing his waistcoat. He didn’t miss the expression that crossed her face.
‘I’m sorry dear, were you hoping for someone else?’
‘I had to take some air.’ Greta brushed a hair out of her face.
‘And your sister?’
The question fell on her like a rash. Heat rushed across her cheeks but she kept her voice level as she answered.
‘She’s asleep, I guess.’
The wagons were about to roll when Greta woke again, later that morning. Ida was grinning at her from the stove.
‘You must have been tired! Hurry up, I made eggs.’
Greta said nothing, but as she began to wash and dress in front of Ida, as she had done every morning for years, she found herself rushing, not because she was hungry but because she felt uncomfortable for her friend to see her naked.
Out of the window of the caravan, she watched the landscape as it started to slip by. Tall trees lined the road. From behind them, the sun cast long, repetitive shadows. She watched the pattern fall and flicker across her bed sheets.
As the troupe moved onwards, she looked up to see Ida’s heart-shaped face, so like her own.
‘What’s wrong, honey?’ Ida wrinkled her forehead.
Greta touched a hand to her cheek. Her fingers came away wet.