Translated from Spanish by Sarah Viren
The circus came to town and put its tents up on railroad land to one side of the train station. It took them three days. They began by drawing an enormous circle on the ground and smoothing out the earth; that would be the ring. Then, they arranged the trailers and wagons and the cages with the lions and tigers around this circle. Far enough away. On the second day, they drove stakes in all morning. The town filled with the sounds of hammering. In the afternoon, they raised the poles. A group of men gripped at a thick cord and tugged, yelling in rhythm. An old man in a T-shirt directed them. The central pole rose until it was a sail.
The last day they covered the poles with a tarp and the tent was complete.
Meanwhile, the skeletal women who would fly through the air in the show were reading magazines next to their mobile homes and hanging clothes out to dry from the branches of trees. From far off, you could see the contortionist stretched out on the roof of his trailer, sunbathing in briefs, and the magician polishing a giant glass box.
The townspeople locked up their dogs and cats because they’d heard the carnies were known for stealing pets and feeding them to their animals. Mothers wouldn’t let their children near the tracks for fear they’d be kidnapped and turned into acrobats or jugglers when the circus left town. No matter, the children snuck out of school anyway to see how the lions were fed and, from the street, they stayed to watch the rest of the circus life. There were monkeys itching with fleas. There were dancing dogs running desperately after a man throwing them biscuits. There were two white horses, one with a tail that reached to the ground. And there was an elephant. Gray. Perfect. Tall. Slightly sad.
The first show sold out completely. The townspeople talked of the marvels they had seen: the human cannonball, the human pyramid, the woman spitting fire from atop galloping horses, the lion tamer and his lions, a tiny tiger dressed in a hat and performing with the clowns. Those that hadn’t gone waited anxiously for the next weekend to come. Those that had, walked around puffed up with pride.
The circus owner had a son and he sent him to attend classes at the local school while the circus was in town. The boy was in sixth grade. The schoolchildren surrounded him, waiting for him to recount thousands of adventures, as they were sure circus life must be extraordinary. But the boy refused to talk about it. He was a withdrawn child with hard, merciless eyes. He hated to be seen as a freak. He didn’t go out during recess, but would stay at his desk, watching the street out the window. At the end of the day, they always came to get him in an old Rastrojero pickup outfitted with two speakers announcing the upcoming shows. As the recorded clown voice grew louder, shouting out its ads, the circus boy would grow redder and redder. After that, the only thing left to do in the day was to stand at attention and lower the flag.
One morning, one of the circus boy’s classmates ran in before the bell and gave him a fleeting kiss on the lips. The girl then tried to escape, but the circus boy pulled her by the hair and made her kiss him again. He opened his mouth wide, as if to swallow her, and pushed with his tongue until the girl’s lips yielded. The circus boy inserted his tongue inside and deposited there, in the pink hollow, a wad of tasteless, colorless mint gum. When the rest of the students arrived, the girl was crying at her desk, her legs squeezed together and the apron of her uniform pulled over her knees. The circus boy continued looking out the window.
In no time a rumor had made its way through the younger classes. They said that the circus boy had dragged one of his classmates to the hollow behind the hanging branches of the vine tree in the schoolyard and forced her to get naked. They swore that the two had pooped together.
The principal paid little attention to the gossip, but still she called the circus boy to her office, where an extensive interview took place in which she interrogated him about how he felt in his new school and if he was fitting in well with the rest of his peers. The circus boy barely spoke.
One day, without prior warning, and after two successful weekends, the circus left town and the boy never returned to school. At dawn, the empty lot was smooth and clean where the tent had been. All that remained was the elephant standing off to one side, tall and sad, shackled at the leg to a chain staked to the ground.
The police investigated. They said the circus papers for the animal weren’t in order and that they had left him behind because of this. The veterinarian came and examined the elephant.
This animal is very sick, he said. He is one step away from death.
Everyone became very sad.
You can’t do anything? Is there no way to save him, they asked.
The veterinarian said no, that it was only a question of time.
And what are we going to do with a dead elephant, they asked.
I have no idea, the veterinarian said.
The children, meanwhile, encircled the elephant, running in and out from under his legs. The goal was to pass under the animal’s belly without him noticing. Later, they hung from his tail and one of them, the rascal of the group, climbed up on his back. After a while of waving from up there, he shimmied back down with little fanfare. Standing in the middle of the railroad property, the elephant barely moved its ears to scare off the flies. He wouldn’t eat. His trunk slumped to the right and dragged along the ground. His eyes were half-closed and filled with sleep.
Two days later, he died.
No one knew what to do with a dead elephant. They cut the padlock that shackled his foot and the elephant was free. With an excavator and the help of several men, they lifted him onto a truck and hauled his body to the dump. They left him there.
For a while, a few children still went to play on the elephant. One day they stopped going. He had begun to smell.
When the elephant was nothing more than a parched and shapeless mound, the mayor remembered him and began to make arrangements. He managed to sell the skeleton to a natural science museum in the remote province of Formosa. It was a good deal for the city. Three engineers showed up and spent two days bleaching the bones and packing them away in cardboard boxes. They then loaded everything into a ramshackle van and left. The museum had a slightly dark but still regal grand foyer at its entryway, and the elephant would be quite the attraction in its center.
It took them a year and a half to reconstruct him. Day after day, they hooked the bones together around a hidden iron frame. They consulted an old zoological encyclopedia, scrutinizing each part, every joint, every trivial detail. Slowly, the elephant took shape. It was nearly complete when they realized he was missing a tiny vertebra in his tail. According to the encyclopedia, there should have been nineteen vertebrae, but the box had only eighteen.
After a while of searching through their boxes, they finally gave up. They told themselves that surely the little bone had been left somewhere in the town, lost between the potato skins, nylon bags and broken bottles.
But it wasn’t so. The girl who had kissed the circus owner’s son was the one who had it. Without anyone noticing, she had snuck among the shadows one summer night to steal the vertebra from the crusty, trembling waste heap.
She had wrapped it in a pink ribbon and hid it in a secret drawer at the bottom of her dresser, beside her diary and next to a dried out, colorless wad of gum.
It was her souvenir.