Notes from the Road: The
Our circus tent is
up, taut and shining, banner line hung, stages built, curtains
scrubbed, illusions bolted, ratchets oiled, everything coiffed
the night before we open at our first fair. All around,
fireflies spark and fade. Men in yellow “Safety is
Non-Negotiable!” t-shirts with varying numbers of teeth straddle
the metal arms of the scrambler beside our big red and blue
tent, cursing above the blaring pop country hits as they hinge
and pin the little metal closures that hold the massive ride
My boss pops his
head into the tent. “You busy?” he asks. I shake my head. I’ve
just finished Windexing the glass in front of Queen Kong, our
giant taxidermied gorilla, and the coffin bearing our two-headed
“Great,” he says.
“Come meet the snakes.”
Most of what I know
about snakes I’d learned in the six days since I’d run away with
the circus sideshow. The night I arrived, the stage manager told
me about the previous season’s thirteen-foot albino python. “I
wasn’t really paying attention one day,” she said, waving her
hand dismissively, “and Lemon managed to wrap herself all the
way around my arms and neck, and then slid down my body, pinning
me completely inside her coils. ‘Bad Lemon,’ I said. Someone had
to come unwrap her so I could move again. It was so funny.” She
and the boss exchanged nostalgic smiles. I hoped they didn’t
notice my blanched cheeks.
“You like snakes?”
the boss asked. One of the jobs I’ve just signed on for is Snake
Charmer. What I’d imagined was playing a flute with dramatic
flicks of my wrist for a snake coiled in a basket, amazing the
audience without ever having to get too close.
“I’m going to,” I
I follow my boss
into the semi truck, which triples as our bunkhouse and
backstage area in addition to hauling our show around the
country. He unlatches a large plastic box and inside, coiled
around one another, are our two brand new boa constrictors.
“You’ve gotta reach
both your hands all the way inside the box, under the bodies of
the snakes,” he says, elbow-deep in snakes. His screen-printed
T-shirt displays a beach scene around his body that, once
lowered, looks like a much more appropriate environment for the
snake I’m supposed to charm than the box she’s in. Perhaps I
could free her. Because I was hoping for some kind of net or
gloves to catch and hold the creature. But his hands are right
on the snake.
“Use both hands to
pick them up,” he says, New Jersey thick in his voice. “If you
pick up a giant snake with one hand, it could kill them. Their
back breaks, they get paralyzed, and they can’t eat.” Last
season, one of the snakes died after a performer accidentally
picked him up that way. As unsure as I am about these animals,
that is a sad fate.
With his face right
beside the snake’s fangs, my boss has the seven foot boa wrapped
around his arms and is coming toward me. She has tan and
chestnut diamonds down her back, the shapes outlined in black
and cream. Her body is as thick as salad plate. I realize
instantly how out of place I am when I’m measuring the
approaching beast in terms of dinnerware. However, because I am
new here and want desperately to prove myself, and because I
know that wrangling these snakes will be one of my primary jobs,
and also because I fibbed a bit when I first listed my sideshow
skills and included snake charming, I stretch a smile across my
face as wide as I can.
“Hello, snake,” I
say. She does not blink.
The boss steps
toward me with the serpent coiled around his arm and without
meaning to, I step backward. He steps toward me again. I
involuntarily step back, trying to throw a casual laugh on top
of my ducking and dodging like this little tango is just a joke.
After a few steps though, I’ve come to the wall. My back is cold
against the metal and wood paneling that runs inside the truck.
I feel the film of dust slide against my palms. I start to
sweat. A few of the other performers come through the stage
curtains and into the truck, rushing right to the snakes with
open arms and kissy noises and pet names.
“Who’s a snake?” one
of them says as she reaches out both hands. “Oh you’re just a
snake, that’s right, girl.” She catches me pressing each of my
joints into the furthest corner of the truck and breathing hard.
“The snakes think you’re just a big tree,” she says
encouragingly. I nod my head. Outside, a polka band rehearses
“America the Beautiful.” The Ferris wheel’s shadow grows longer
along the grass, a moving spiderweb.
“Here’s the little
angel,” she says, arms moving with incredible speed as she
drapes the snake around my shoulders.
One week earlier, my
plane touched down in Tampa just before sunset, the palm trees
alongside the jetway waving us in. The World of Wonders sideshow
winters in Gibsonton, a town just outside Tampa where faded
paint peels off the Showman’s Bar and nearly all of the
legendary performers who lived there for years are now dead.
Most sideshows themselves are now dead. They are a cultural
fragment mostly stomped out after sweeping legislation and
shifting public perception in the 1950s and ’60s established
tight restrictions on what or who could be displayed on stage.
Though a few stationary sideshows remain—Coney Island, for
example, and one on Venice Beach—the World of Wonders is the
last traveling sideshow of its kind, a stage show that features
live performers alongside a freakatorium.
I arrive in Florida
with, per instructions, a suitcase full of family-friendly
stripper costumes for our five-month season. Our caravan left
the next morning for our first fair in Pennsylvania, a smooth
ride until our semi truck’s tire blew, weakened by a knife
during an incident in which the Pygmy tried and failed to stab
one of the bosses a few years back. Well, that’s one story I
heard. The stories here shift with the fluidity of the facts we
list about our Fee Jee Mermaid.
It’s easy enough to
think that my fear of snakes doesn’t come from anywhere in
particular, as snakes are a common enough occurrence in the
menagerie of childhood fears that manifest as phobias in
adulthood. Sideshows themselves are a place where people come to
see a public display of their private fears. Fear of deformity,
of a disruption of the gender binary, of mutation, of
disfigurement, of a crossover with the animal world, of being
out of proportion—all these fears constellate our childhood
imaginations and are the center of the attractions people seek
in a freak show. And being part of the freak show, they are the
list of fears I have to conquer day after day, again and again.
Bring fire to your face. Climb to the top of a ladder and
balance massive tent poles in your arms. Let a giant snake wrap
itself around your neck.
In the dry
California hills where I grew up, snakes were everywhere.
Threatening. One day, my mom sat my brother and me down on the
couch and, explaining why an ambulance just left our neighbor’s
house, said, “Ida was bit by a rattlesnake.”
We know about
rattlesnakes. We’ve learned the dangers of our particular child
world. Ours includes the usual kidnappers and fires in addition
to rattlesnakes and mountain lions, creatures of the wild hills
that back up against our street.
“She was on the
ridge with her boys,” my mom continued, “and saw a snake. She
went closer to show them. It sprang and bit her hand.” Then,
under her breath: “Idiot.” We stared, the drama of violence
active in our child minds.
“Is she dead?” I
asked, imagining our neighbor stiff and blue.
“Not yet,” my mom
said. “She sucked the venom out of her hand.” We collectively
inhaled. “Then she spit it out. Don’t you dare try that,” she
said. “If Ida had swallowed any of that venom, it would have
killed her straight away. Don’t you do it.”
We nodded gravely.
“But also, don’t not
do it, if it will save your life.” We nodded again. “Just don’t
go near snakes. Ever. No matter what. Promise?”
“Promise,” we said.
And I didn’t.
I’ve felt it, that
long, fanged body waiting in shadow on the other side of the
rock I was jumping onto, that cold skin flattening the dry
grasses just over the crest of the hill. I had the idea that at
some point as I grew up, the threat would dissipate. Now I don’t
think that’s true. The threat is still here—the list of threats
actually seems to grow longer the further into adulthood I
get—and now it isn’t imagined. The snake is not a shadow; it is
actually around my neck. The issue isn’t whether or not the
threat is there, it’s how much attention I give it.
All my fellow
performers’ eyes are on me, the new snake wrangler, to see what
I do with this beastie around my neck. I touch the snake’s body
with my hand. I will be bold. My eyes crest with tears. My chest
heaves, I can hardly breath. I’m trying to tell myself not to be
scared, that there is no reason to think the snake might hurt
me, that people look far greater terror in the face every day,
people very close to me. I dig in deep, try to channel that
bravery. Exhale slowly.
enough,” I say, scooting my shoulders out from under the snake.
Four sets of arms reach toward me to catch the snake I’m
recoiling beneath. They grab the thick body and peel her muscled
length from my neck. They move fast. It appears, given the
placement of their hands, that they think there is a very good
chance I will drop or throw the snake.
“Off, off, off,” I
say, the tears breaking and dribbling down my cheek. My heart
won’t slow the pace of its clenching, the thump of its terror.
“Snake lesson number
one,” my boss says, putting quick distance between me and the
reptile. He looks at my face, the terror leaking down my cheeks.
“You okay?” he asks. I nod. “Good job,” he says with a smile. He
is kind, not at all the stereotypical circus boss who’d throw
you from the train in the middle of the night.
The rest of the
performers take turns draping the snake around their shoulders,
bringing its flickering tongue to their lips to kiss the snake
on the mouth. “Angel!” one squeaks.
It is 8:00 the night
before we open. By the next morning, I will have to hold the
snakes for twelve hours a day. Though I do my best to perpetuate
my fearless persona, am desperate for it, in my first week with
the sideshow I’ve already come face to face with a fear I can’t
beat. And that is the scariest thing of all.
I spend the rest of
that night and the following morning trying to convince myself
that the creature will not hurt me. As I did when learning to
eat fire, I wish for a trick to snake wrangling, a grip maybe
that would force the creature to become docile and domestic.
But, also as with learning to eat fire, I’m disappointed to
learn that there is no trick. Or the trick, really, is to stand
up against a monstrous fear as boldly as possible and see what
I call my mom and
stepdad. Before I can begin my complaint, my stepdad details the
new off-roading tires he’s attached to my mom’s wheelchair,
which he has named Bubbles. After a massive stroke which left
her unable to walk or talk, my mom underwent thirteen brain
surgeries, and the doctors have decided they cannot ever put the
bone flap back on her head, which means she cannot go on an
airplane. A brain relies on pressure to function properly, a
problem exacerbated by altitude. For as many years as I can
remember, my parents talked about traveling to Italy as the
dream of their retirement. “That’s so tragic,” everyone said
when they heard about the flight restriction. “Fuck it,” my
parents said, and bought two tickets on a ship bound for Europe.
I spend a lot of
time imagining all the things that might go wrong while they
will be gone for three months, but I pitch my voice high and
enthusiastic on the phone, try to channel their bravery
privately all night. Fearful of a snake? Get over it. Move
day, I’m standing on stage, smiling at the audience with
the snake wrapped around my neck, when I first see the
blood. The snake is shimmery and cold, eyes milky blue
because she’s readying to shed. The meat of her middle
rests on my shoulders and throat, sliding across my body
as she squeezes my limbs. I feel her tongue flick
against my earlobe. I feel it on my cheek. I feel her
face slide onto the hand I have beside my neck, inside a
coil to keep her from strangling me, and then I feel a
sharp pain on my finger. And there is blood.
My heart is
already clomping and kicking with such ferocity beneath
the fat body of the snake that I’m afraid she’ll mistake
it for the quick pitter of a rat’s heart, her dinner. Of
course this very thought makes it pump faster. Sweat
beads on my hairline and upper lip, and my wet
fishnetted feet slip inside my heels.
you’re going to see a girl from California eat fire and
drink burning gasoline like you or I would drink iced
tea,” the talker, my boss, tells the growing crowd.
“You’ll see the pain-proof man, the Icelandic giant, and
Olga Hess, the headless woman.” I point to the
corresponding banners, keeping the bloody side of my
finger away from the audience as well as I can though,
truthfully, part of me wants an audience member to
notice, put me over his shoulder and rush me to the
hospital. I could be sent home with such a legitimate
excuse and I wouldn’t have to follow through with this
circus scheme that I can already tell is going to be so
much harder than I ever imagined. It would give me a way
out. The flavor of recklessness I am drawn to is a kind
of impulsive, yes-to-the-idea sort of danger that always
seems better the farther away I am from actually having
to do it.
stings, though after the first thirty seconds, the
bleeding only looks impressive when I squeeze the little
wound, which, in truth, does not have two deep fang
holes. It seems instead to be a few straight lines.
Pandora the snake keeps wrapping her body around me,
curving her strong neck toward my face with a kind of
coil that looks to me as if she’s readying to attack, so
I keep strong-holding her head away from mine. My biceps
are already quivering with strain.
ahold of that snake?” the boss whispers when his bally
pitch is through. It does not look like I have a hold on
this snake. I do not have a hold.
bit me,” I whisper to the boss, trying to keep my smile.
The words come out a little garbled, like a
ventriloquist. I hold my finger up to his face and
prepare for him to cry out in horror, but as I eye the
injury myself, I realize it appears more like a scrape
than a bite. A small scrape.
boss says. “This is a first.” We both eye my finger’s
little scrape. It appears, really, that the snake has
brushed her teeth against me more than anything else.
“Do you want to put her down? I can take her,” he says,
reaching over toward me. I begin to lean toward him, let
the snake get taken from my shoulders. An outrage is
brewing, anger that I could work so hard to face a fear
only to have the fear immediately manifest. When I first
thought about running away with the circus, I did not
imagine fear would be such a daily hurdle. But here it
is. Again and again.
squeezes on, coiling herself around my body. My boss’s
arms reach out toward me. What I want to say here is
that I took a deep breath, moved past the fear and let
myself face the actual creature on my shoulders, so much
less terrifying, really, than the idea of her, and reset
her around my neck. I wish I could say that I thought of
my parents and didn’t fear with my full dumb heart that
my goodbye before I ran away with the circus was my last
goodbye, that I thought instead of them waving their
scarves from the deck of the departing ship and grew
What I do
instead is shake my head meekly at my boss and keep the
snake half-draped across my shoulders. Smear the last
blood on my sequin shorts. I grab hold of the thing that
terrifies me the most and wonder how long until it
graduated from the University of Alabama's MFA program and
joined a traveling circus sideshow. As an instructor for Alabama
Prison Arts and Education Project, she taught creative writing
and performance in prisons across Alabama. More of her work can
be found in Creative Nonfiction, The
Normal School, Seneca Review,
DIAGRAM, Pank, and more.
Notes fro the Road -
The Snake Charmer posted here with permission of Tessa Fontaine.
Rumpus original art by