Every full moon, the circus arrived and overtook the clearing in the woods while those in the nearby village ignored it. Locked in their little wooden houses bordered by pretty gardens, curtains pulled tight over their windows, the villagers told stories to cover the noise of footsteps. Strangers made their way down narrow lanes, across the wide square, walking into the woods. They kept to themselves; they kept quiet, never disturbing the fragile peace the villagers stole for themselves.
In the morning, those strangers came stumbling from the trees, blinking in wonder at mediocre fields. Feet bare, mud crusting around their ankles, they never lingered long and were always polite when they asked for directions back to the village. In the square, strangers shuffled between stalls of goods, handmade and precious. Jars of jams and miniature painted dolls, flower crowns woven from the pink and blue buds grown at the edges of their fields. The doors of the bakery were propped open, the scent of rising bread and spun sugar spilling out over the cobblestones.
The strangers’ hands shook as they paid for a meal. Their footsteps were uncertain when they sought after the cobbler to cover their scratched and bruised feet. By nightfall, all strangers were gone. They spent their money well, but the villagers never tried to speak with them. Those who were drawn to the circus couldn’t speak of the things they saw in the woods.
Each full moon was the same, until one arrived and Elsie Bartlow woke with starlight caught behind her eyelids. When she stretched and groaned, did her best to avoid properly greeting the day, Elsie glanced downward and saw pink, blushing flower petals circling her wrist. They weren’t soft or sweet-smelling but unsettling, sitting flush against her skin, an unexpected tattoo. Picking at one of the petals with a sharp white nail, Elsie admitted to herself they were beautiful even as her skin stung with the pain of pressing too hard against her wrist.
Born in the village and likely to die there too, she knew this full moon she’d be going to the circus. She and her friends had often clung to the rumors adults never liked to acknowledge, thinking that speaking of the circus would draw its attention. Whispering, giggling, they’d placed wildflower petals on their skin and terrified each other with guesses at what went on at the circus. The strangers drawn to the woods always had flowers wrapped around their wrists, imprinted in their skin, a call to the circus that couldn’t be ignored. The pull of magic would draw them to the woods just a short walk from Elsie’s home, so she supposed in a way she was lucky. Those strangers would have had their petals appear days ago, their journeys already started.
Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, Elsie nearly fell when she made to stand too quickly. Her thoughts dizzy, too disjointed to keep her properly grounded. Fast approaching twenty, Elsie had never learned to walk with much grace, something her mother kindly, consistently mentioned. The noise of her walk to the kitchen—all creaking floorboards and rattling picture frames—resulted in her mother waiting expectantly, already turned to greet her when Elsie stepped into the room. The heady scent of baking bread and roasting meat filled the space between them and began its small task of breaking Elsie’s heart. Tucking her hands behind her back, she hid her wrist amid the folds of her nightgown.
“Good morning,” her mother’s smile already wavered uncertainly by the edges. Faint lines made their impression by her dark eyes and her hair had begun to gray at the roots. Suspicion raised an eyebrow as she took in Elsie’s awkward stance. “What have you done now?”
Like most people who spent too much time alone together, Elsie and her mother couldn’t hide much from one another. It’d been the two of them, just them, since Elsie’s father died back when her age could still be counted in months.
“It will be all right,” Elsie said, which was never a good sentence to begin with, but she believed it to be true. Most strangers returned from the circus, even if they were never quite the same or able to speak about the things they saw. The same magic that’d drawn petals on her skin, that would drag her into the woods if she tried avoiding the call, kept anyone from speaking about anything they saw after entering the tent.
It was terrifying and fascinating, and Elsie held up her wrist so the petals pressed around it nearly glowed in the sunlight streaming through the crooked kitchen window. Her mother gasped; they ended up burning the bread.
Their table was just the right size for two to sit without their knees knocking together underneath. Elsie and her mother drank strong tea, Elsie’s teacup rattling against its saucer, as they sat and cried and tried to think of what to do.
“I must go,” Elsie said. Those who resisted and tried to run, ignoring the warning on their skin, would be pulled to the woods as if by an invisible thread once the circus began. Strangers who listened and heeded and went into the woods once dusk turned to night had a chance of returning. Refusing meant Elsie would be taken anyway and she’d lose any opportunity to come back.
Her mother frowned, the lines around her eyes tensing, before she refilled Elsie’s teacup.
“You’ll go and then this will be done with,” her mother said, or hoped. “No one in the village has been called before. The circus won’t be wanting to keep you.”
Elsie smothered her expression by taking another sip. The circus’s call came with few guarantees.
The day’s hours seemed too few. Elsie helped her mother clean and stack away the breakfast dishes; she settled her teacup next to her mother’s, like any other morning. Then she tidied her bedroom, just in case, making her bed with a sense of finality that made her think of things long missed and all she had left to lose.
Her mother went to the town square, but Elsie didn’t want to see anyone else. The villagers had always looked at her strangely for things that had happened before she could speak. Most of those girls she’d spent time with whispering around rumors of the circus had already made good on their threats to move away, running after something the village had been missing. Elsie loved her home, the dirt and cobblestone streets, faded flags hanging on street corners and bright festivals ushering in winter. Whenever she felt like a piece of herself had gone missing, a jarring hole temporarily plugged in her chest to keep her from sinking, Elsie never felt like leaving home would help her feel whole.
Sprawled out back in their pretty garden, framed by flowers she couldn’t quite look at without feeling queasy, Elsie tried to memorize the sun and clouds and sky. Tried not to wrinkle her blue dress, her best one even if it was a little old. A ladybug landed on her outstretched palm, lingering there. When it walked, tracing the lines in her skin, it tickled and made Elsie want to cry.
There was no time for it; day drooped toward dusk. Her mother returned with fruit-stuffed pastries from the bakery and the makings of Elsie’s favorite meal, a stew she usually had the opportunity to taste only at birthdays and the new year.
“You’ll need your strength for tonight,” her mother said, pausing to touch Elsie’s cheek as they worked side-by-side in the kitchen. The world had done a wonderful job reminding her of all the reasons she had to stay behind. “No matter what happens.”
They ate mostly in silence, emotions too tangled and taut for the words to come out quite right. As the sun began to set, strangers stirred on the path leading through the village. Their forms backlit by pink and orange and gold.
When Elsie opened her door, the other homes in the village were shut tight. The villagers’ attention turned inward, away, as she stepped over the threshold. Something tugged at her wrist, but it was only her mother pulling her back for another embrace.
“I love you.” Her mother’s voice was soft warmth and home, kindness and worry, eyes shining like the moonlight swiftly approaching.
“I love you, too,” Elsie said, and she longed to assure her mother she’d return in the morning but didn’t want to risk her final words being a lie.
Elsie’s footsteps were silent as she went to join the crowd of strangers heading toward the wood. Earlier, she’d tried to insist on practical boots, the kind good for running and kicking. But her mother had returned from the market with softer shoes, black and silky, meant for dancing. Spinning on one heel, Elsie craned her neck, saw her mother rooted in their doorway to watch her leave.
That meant Elsie needed to be strong and couldn’t cry, at least not until she was hidden in the woods. Strangers pressed close around her, unwashed and travel-worn, shoulders limp and wrists bared. A veritable garden of different blooms spread on their skin. Few of the strangers seemed eager; most were nervous, refusing to meet her gaze.
Cool air held her tight once she stepped beneath the trees. Little fingers of moonlight poked through the canopy, wriggling down to bathe her in stripes of silver.
The closest she’d ever come to the clearing was the edge of the fields, where the grasses grew wild and the other girls had tricked each other, claiming to hear the fading echo of the circus in the faraway trees. If she listened close, Elsie heard music—gripping, ethereal music—picking over the noise of so many feet crunching through brush. The notes were fragile, reminding Elsie of long-ago nights when her dreams couldn’t still long enough for her to sleep and her mother would whisper lullabies like prayers.
Her new shoes grew muddy around the edges before Elsie reached the clearing. The trees parted, branches bowing aside, until a massive tent loomed before her. The fabric looked heavy, gleaming white as the moon hanging low overhead. Flags coated in snake scales fluttered on stakes driven into the dirt.
“Tickets, please.” The call came softly but Elsie startled all the same. A rickety booth sat a handful of feet in front of the circus tent; each of those who arrived had to approach the man in the booth before entering. A long line formed by him, already winding back toward the trees. Elsie joined the end of the line, trying to decide what to do with her hands. She wanted to wring them, but didn’t want to appear as nervous as she felt, and settled instead for wiping off the sweat on her blue dress.
In all the time she’d spent knowing she couldn’t overreact or else risk worrying her mother, Elsie hadn’t considered using a few minutes to worry about herself. Seeing the tent and the ticket-taker, hearing the music drifting from the open tent flaps, she felt a little sick. Somehow she doubted she’d be excused if she fainted there in the clearing. Elsie did with her unease what most villagers did with the circus: she ignored it.
“Where is your ticket?” the ticket-taker asked the boy in front of Elsie. When she caught the edge of the ticket-taker’s smile, her nerves threatened to devour her whole. Although he looked quite nice in a well-fitted suit, scarlet rose pinned to his lapel, his teeth were sharp and eyes completely white, luminous like the moon above.
“I—I just—” the boy stammered and a sigh rattled in the man’s throat when he saw the boy’s bare wrists. “She—she shouldn’t go alone—”
“No ticket,” the man settled back into his booth. “No entry.”
Some clung so tightly to those who’d been called they refused to realize they wouldn’t be welcomed at the circus, picky about those it claimed.
Elsie blinked and the boy was gone. She looked forward, then behind her to the line stretched back among the trees—then to the ground, as if he’d fallen.
“Ticket, please,” the man called to her, as Elsie realized she’d held up the line. The ticket-taker wasn’t impatient; as she drew closer, the edges of that sharp smile looked kind. Lifting her wrist, Elsie turned to allow the man a good look at the petals embedded in her skin. “Thank you. Please enjoy the show.”
When he gestured for her to go onward, Elsie’s dainty shoes scuffed against the dirt. Her footsteps slow, reluctant, as she approached the tent. An impressive mural blossomed above the tent’s entrance depicting a figure dressed in gold and silver and blue, gossamer wings spread across the surface, farther than Elsie could see.
“Thomas?” A woman with violets draped around her wrist peered into the faces of all who passed the ticket-taker, staring hard in the gloom. “Thomas, where are you?”
Elsie wondered if the boy had been sent outside of the woods or if the circus had decided to take him. Strangers politely brushed past her, having met the ticket-taker, deciding not to dawdle outside as she did. Some cheeks gleamed with dried tears; some eyes shone a little too brightly, though none had eyes like the ticket-taker. Drawing back her shoulders, pinching her cheeks, Elsie entered the tent.
Her mind sparked. It smelled like sugar, like the bakery in the village square, and flowers, freshly cut and overly perfumed. The musicians she’d heard stood just past the entrance, playing a tune she didn’t know on instruments she didn’t recognize. One glanced up and caught her eye before offering Elsie a wink. His eyes, like the ticket-taker’s, like every other performer she could see, were pure white.
Servers passed with trays of multi-colored, steaming drinks or candies, spun sugar clouds clinging to sticks. Overhead, ropes strung among hoops as lithe figures in a rainbow of tight costumes walked and swung and dove between them. Unknown animals with curling ears and too many pairs of feet, dark as a slip of shadow, eased past at more than twice her height with performers hanging off their backs. Fire wavered and curved overhead, heat dripping down to caress Elsie’s cheeks, following the careful ministrations of a woman balanced on one foot atop a stack of bookcases. Peering closer, Elsie realized she couldn’t read any of the titles; the letters wavered on the spines, playing hide-and-seek with her gaze.
Taking a few steps forward, Elsie realized there was no floor to the tent; little puffs of dust and dirt followed the footsteps of those passing by. Patches of grass clumped at the bottom of the stack of bookcases, the heady scent of earth mixing with the perfume of performers who swept past wearing dark, beaded masks. No one working at the circus wore any shoes. Elsie’s toes curled within her black dancing slippers.
Movement just in front of her nose startled her backward, until she realized it had only been an orange feather, fallen from a massive bird swooping overhead. The woman tossed a ball of fire upward, catching the bird. Flames licked, spread, devoured the creature until nothing was left behind. No, not nothing—a tiny sparrow flitted away, while strangers who’d gathered near Elsie applauded politely. Looking into the faces of those around her, the ones who’d been called to the circus, their expressions slackened, dazed. Her jaw tightened as she wondered if they saw the same things she did, or if perhaps the circus had managed to already encourage them to forget their fear.
Those invited to the circus had begun to spread themselves thin within the tent, to explore. Elsie walked onward, waving away each white-eyed server who approached with tiny cakes decorated to look like little suns, water in glasses shaped like swans. One she hurried past, as the scent of baked apples reminded her of the pastries she’d shared with her mother just a few hours beforehand. She eyed stalls filled with dresses far more ornate than hers, skirts made of metal or petals or starlight. Some sold masks, dark and smiling or colorful and leering. Some advertised assistance on small painted signs.
See the future. The curtain hiding that stall billowed ominously.
Learn the past. A breeze drifted from the entrance, smelling like smoke and a hard day’s work and the pang of someone missed.
Understand the present. Elsie frowned, brow wrinkling, because she didn’t see an opening to that stall at all.
The circus was beautiful and wild and beginning to give her a headache. A few strangers still wandered the tent like Elsie, but most had gathered in the stalls or to watch the performances. They’d found the ways they fit inside the show. Pealing laughter outweighed the distress most had shown while entering the tent; the strangers around Elsie moved like they were caught in their dreams.
Elsie, however, sweated, nerves dialing up her heartbeat. Dabbing the back of her hand against her forehead, she tried to cut away from the bulk of the crowd. Past an orator with a woman’s head and lion’s body, past someone swinging a pocket watch, imploring those nearby to look into their eyes. Past a man with enormous, straining muscles, boosting strangers up to reach the trapeze high, high in the air.
Gripping her hands together so tightly she felt the hard lines of her bones beneath skin, the throb of her pulse, Elsie remained unmoored. Turning in place, she felt very lonely surrounded by the crowd. The strangers fixated on the circus as if unable to look away; the performers eyeing her from the corner of their eyes—though she hoped only her anxiety told her they watched her.
“Our show has something for everyone,” a voice spoke over her shoulder. “There’s no need for you to stand alone.”
Ice dripped down Elsie’s spine, a threadbare reminder of a faraway winter. Her gaze steadied on a performer, tall and confident, white eyes aglow, top hat set at an angle nearly too jaunty to survive against gravity. Hair dark enough to match the black jacket hugging her frame; lips a shade of pink that reminded Elsie of the flowers imprinted on her skin. The performer was beautiful; it did funny things to Elsie’s heart and worse to her speech, so she thought it best to say nothing at all.
“I am the Ringmaster,” the performer said while Elsie faltered and stared. “Are you not enjoying my show?”
“It’s impressive,” Elsie said, the words almost too loud and sudden. She thought of the ticket-taker and how the boy outside had disappeared because he hadn’t belonged at the circus. Her hand tightened by her side, nails biting crescents into her palm. What if the Ringmaster did the same to those who didn’t fit in, inside the tent? “It’s . . . lovely.”
Together they looked out over the organized chaos, sparkling costumes and bleary-eyed strangers, cackling performers, flowing drinks.
“Everyone comes to the circus to find something they’ve been missing. Those who leave are a little more whole, even if they can never explain to others what they experienced here,” the Ringmaster said. As she spoke, Elsie’s brow creased. There was a catch in the performer’s voice—something like hesitation. As if she didn’t know what to make of Elsie as much as Elsie didn’t know what to do with herself.
“This doesn’t happen to you often,” Elsie guessed. It felt like she should apologize, when the Ringmaster’s lips curved downward. Quiet for a moment together, Elsie felt a little like dying, so she cleared her throat to try to dispel her worries. “Does this mean you’ll . . . you know.”
“Do I?” the Ringmaster asked. Her eyebrow arched and it seemed the music played louder.
“The thing you all do,” Elsie’s voice dropped as if mentioning such a thing too loudly would mean her demise. She and her friends had thought up all sorts of horrible endings for those swallowed whole by the circus. “The people who come here and don’t return.”
The Ringmaster blinked slowly. For a being whose eyes were entirely blank starlight, it captivated Elsie how well her expression lent itself to derision.
“I told you everyone comes here for a reason. To find something that couldn’t otherwise be given to them, out there,” the Ringmaster said, gesturing with a vague flick of her hand toward the tent entrance Elsie could no longer see. They were in too deep. “Sometimes, that means keeping someone who’d like it better here than anywhere else. The people we keep are never unhappy about it. The ones they leave behind are the problem, I suppose. That’s why we changed the magic of this place. Those who needed nothing from us were feeling left out, coming when they weren’t invited. If our guests can’t speak about what they see here, no outsiders will feel cheated.”
Elsie watched the Ringmaster’s dark curls swing as she shook her head. It felt easy to believe her, when the strangers around Elsie looked happy. A little enchanted around the edges, but their smiles genuine. Tears dried.
“Ringmaster?” Elsie hesitated, resisting the urge to chew on her lip. Remembering to pretend at confidence. “The outsiders don’t feel, you know, less cheated. People feel a bit—I mean, most people seem to think—like you’re killing people. Here. Something like that. Eating them, maybe.”
The Ringmaster stared then as if Elsie had brought news of a recent death into the tent. “They think that?”
“A little bit,” Elsie said, wanting to ease the information partially to save her own skin, and partly to make the Ringmaster stop looking so sad. “Yes.”
“None of our visitors ever wander long enough to tell us such a thing.” The Ringmaster sighed, adjusting one of the golden buttons on her jacket. With a sudden clap of her hands that startled Elsie, the Ringmaster started walking, gesturing for her to follow. “Come. You’ve arrived here for a reason, and our talk is wasting your night.”
Seeing no other choice, and curious now that the Ringmaster seemed so thrown by Elsie’s presence, she followed the Ringmaster deeper into the circus. They picked their way past sword swallowers and contortionists, a talking wolf, a mirror that showed another room and not the viewer’s reflection. With each performance they passed, Elsie caught the Ringmaster watching her. Waiting for her attention to catch on something, captivated by something that would fill some void that’d supposedly been inside of her. When Elsie looked at the strangers who’d come to the circus with her, they seemed satisfied. Heads thrown back, eyes glazed over. Her skin itched; she rubbed her hands over her arms, uncomfortable despite the warmth trapped inside the tent.
The performances were nice, but Elsie didn’t know what she searched for. Hadn’t thought there had been anything missing within her to start with.
“Nothing?” the Ringmaster asked as they stepped aside to let a long-necked beast pass through. She waved for one of the nearby servers, toting a tray filled with small marshmallow houses, but Elsie shook her head at the offering. “There must be something for you here.”
“I’m sorry,” Elsie said, then frowned, because she truthfully didn’t feel apologetic. She hadn’t asked the circus to come calling. “I could just—”
“Please don’t suggest you’ll pretend to be interested in something. That isn’t how any of this works,” the Ringmaster said, pulling her top hat into her hands, turning it round and round by the brim. It sent a little spark of annoyance up Elsie’s spine, that she had been forced to come to this place, and the Ringmaster was the one looking more uncomfortable.
“Ringmaster—” Elsie said, before her frustration got the best of her. “Do you have another name?”
The Ringmaster shook her head, curls flattened where they’d been pressed down by her hat. “Do humans often hold several titles?”
The reminder that these starry-eyed performers were something new, something different, didn’t unsettle Elsie quite so much now that she knew she held an unusual position in the circus, too.
“Some do,” she admitted. “I don’t. I’m only Elsie.”
“Only Elsie who refuses to behave like all the rest.” The Ringmaster’s pink lips pressed into a thin line. Her gaze shifted downward and Elsie shuffled her feet, but the hem of her blue dress was too short to hide her shoes. “Do you dance?”
“Occasionally,” Elsie answered. “Not very well.”
“I didn’t ask that,” the Ringmaster said. “Would you like to dance?”
Elsie glanced up toward the acrobats performing above them between clouds of smoke from the firebreathers. Listened close to the music drifting over the crowd.
“I would,” she decided. “If you would dance with me.”
Otherwise, she thought she’d melt into a puddle of nerves, if one of the other performers swept her up. The Ringmaster was tall and intimidating, captivating in a way that made Elsie forget herself, but she was the only one who’d approached Elsie there like she was someone worth seeing.
“I would,” the Ringmaster agreed, and they strode through the crowd together.
Dancers whirled and dipped and swayed on a large, crowded makeshift dancefloor in the tent. The ground beneath their feet a carpet of soft grass. Performers lifted one another in convoluted, impossible contortions. Some led strangers around the floor, counting the steps for them aloud. The Ringmaster’s gaze slipped from those dreaming faces to Elsie; the music swelled alongside Elsie’s foolish heart.
Trying to seem at ease, Elsie couldn’t remember how to appear relaxed, unsure what to do with her hands. Her palms were sweating.
“Have you changed your mind?” the Ringmaster asked, eyes narrowed. But her lips were quirked with amusement, so Elsie took her outstretched hand.
Neither truly led the other. The music swept them up, held them tight and close in the overwhelming heat. Elsie’s shoes had been well-made and didn’t pinch, nor did they make her stumble. For once she felt graceful, though no one back in her village would have ever used the word to describe her.
When the song ended, in the beats between that and the next, Elsie’s nerves took hold of her lips.
“What is it like?” she asked. “To live here, always?”
“Wonderful,” the Ringmaster said and Elsie saw her love, her pride in the circus, as she glanced around them. Then her head tipped aside, as she considered the question again, and added, “Lonely.”
A new, brighter song began and they spun away with the crowd before Elsie could catch her breath to respond. But something had changed; something had shifted. When the music paused again, the Ringmaster leaned closer, and asked questions that had Elsie smiling wide, speaking about villages and cobblers and girls who left to see the world. When the music changed again, Elsie asked about circuses and performers, long days without a full moon.
The crowd of dancers around them thinned; Elsie’s feet ached. The Ringmaster spun her, catching Elsie close in her arms. Close enough for Elsie to feel her sharp inhale, when the Ringmaster looked down to where their hands intertwined. The Ringmaster’s fingertips drifted lower, tracing the blushing petals on Elsie’s skin.
“It is you, then,” the Ringmaster said, the two of them rooted in place as the last few couples spun around them. Reluctantly, the Ringmaster’s grasp slipped away, hand hurrying to roll up the sleeve of her midnight jacket, tugging the fabric upward. Pink petals bloomed on the Ringmaster’s skin. When Elsie pressed their wrists together, the blossoms were a perfect, unnatural match. “Sometimes even those of us already inside the circus have a need to find something, here.”
It eased some of Elsie’s anxiety, to find what had drawn her to the circus, but knowing the calling had been a person—someone tugged toward her as well—lit a glow within her chest that outrivaled the moonlight.
“You’ll leave with me?” Elsie guessed—hoped, as the circus still did something terrible to her nerves—and took the Ringmaster’s hand again.
“No,” the Ringmaster said. “You will return home, because you aren’t finished with your world yet. But I would have you return. To visit. If you’d like.”
The music had stopped; the other dancers disappeared. Elsie thought of her mother and the village she loved, the heavy weight of something missing sitting heavy near her heart.
“Yes,” Elsie decided, an answer that terrified and thrilled and sent her blushing all at once. “I would come back, if you called for me.”
The Ringmaster offered her arm and Elsie tucked her hand around her elbow, over the rolled sleeve of her jacket. Together, they walked through the emptying tent, passing performers packing away gorgeous costumes, ropes lowering from the high ceiling. It felt like a long exhale.
“I hope you enjoyed your night,” the Ringmaster said when they paused by the entrance to the tent.
“You were right,” Elsie said. It was easy to ignore the other white-eyed performers, knowing they stared not so much at her but at their Ringmaster. “Your show has something for everyone.”
Flushing furiously, she kissed the Ringmaster.
On the cheek. She was not feeling so bold, yet. The Ringmaster’s smile lit between them like a soft moonbeam, as Elsie stepped out of the tent.
Blinding sunlight forced Elsie to squint and when she managed a glance over her shoulder, the circus was gone. Curling her toes in the dirt, Elsie—
Elsie realized her shoes were gone. She’d ask the Ringmaster about where they’d disappeared to, when the circus came again.
No strangers stood around her; the clearing in the woods was still. Hurrying through the trees, Elsie knew her mother would be worried, waiting. Wondering where her daughter had been taken during the night. Though Elsie wouldn’t be able to explain what had happened because of the misguided magic that kept the events at the circus a secret, she knew she would answer when the circus came calling again.