From: The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals, or, the Lonesome Vastness
The performers will arrive at midday. Men and women, some wearing a vestige of white face and skull cap, some outfitted in muddied motley, some costumed as a sex not their own, women in trousers, overcoats, top hats, and men in tattered gowns, lips painted red and whiskery cheeks powdered pink, some bearing luggage under their arms, atop their backs, and others tied like beasts of burden hauling through the forest wagons bearing casks and others ornamented with painted images of bears dancing and clowns juggling. They will come singing bawdy songs, popular tunes about drunkards and cuckolds, and tunes of their own manufacture: one about a farmer who fornicated with a sheep so blinded was he by drink and lust and the sheep itself, costumed in a woman’s garments and rouge, and another ditty composed entirely of methods of copulation, both mundane and fantastic, listed in alphabetical order and sung to a common melody. Some performers will bash tambourines in time and some will strum guitars and others will fiddle slightly off tune, and others will dance and spin in circles and others will call out like birds, like dogs, like aborigines.
So across the western lands they will travel and so into your land they will come, bearing with them such lavish merriment.
So the performers will prepare their camp in the shadow of the wall: erecting canvas tents, stakes hammered with rocks, the blunt edges of knives, while men in motley will prank those working, tripping them, tearing down their pants, wagging sticks up dresses. Slowly they will raise tents for shelter and still greater tents for performance. One man in top hat and pantaloons will direct this commotion, bellowing orders and brandishing a whip. And when he commands the pranksters to raise the tent he will lash them, and when he orders them to gather wood he will lash them, and when he tells them to hunt for food they will indicate your mules, tied to a tree as they are, saying, “What about those?”
And when they send a delegation to the house, knocking on the doors, rapping upon the windows, writing in the dust, a horrid thought will rattle in your skull, so you will heft your husband’s rifle when you open the door, dressed in undergarments alone, your outfit and hair and skin streaked with mud and blood and your husband’s vomit and your husband’s spittle. But they will little regard the condition of your attire, for one man will stand in similar dress save his cock flopped from his undergarment, his lengthy graying whiskers and the dark plumage of his chest, while the other man will wear something of a gown, faded and dusty, his lips smeared with red. “We’ve come about the ponies,” this second man will say. “Ponies?” He will nod, indicating the mules. And the other man, bowing and clasping his hands and smiling with upturned eyes, will intercede: “If I may, Miss, we have traveled a great and uncertain expanse, losing many of our number, and several days now we have gone without nourishment—see here Hennesey, how pale his color, how slack his flesh—in short, we come to you little more than rag and bone, and desperate for flesh, any flesh, even horseflesh.” And now the first speaker will anticipate your objection, “We’ll pay you!” And the second speaker will join in, “But, sadly, not in silver, for we have gone long months without a proper audience, or any audience.” And you will respond, slowly, “You are a circus?” And the man will bow, flourish a smile of missing teeth, say, “We are of many talents—the venerable arts of Tragedy, Pantomime, Animal Training—and we are adept at the arts Culinary as well,” and now he will offer you as payment the neck meat of one of the mules, “seasoned with mouthwatering skill, roasted to succulence.” You will cry out, and the man will raise his hand, “Well, the tongue then—you drive a hard bargain,” and he will offer a conspiratorial whisper, “my favorite cut, you know”—roll his eyes and wag his tongue—and when you reach to shut the door he will offer to “throw in” some of the “nutritive meat”: the eyes, the brain, the heart, or the liver, “stewed, roast, baked, or boiled down into jellies, puddings, pie fillings, although they would no doubt serve splendidly in a Fricassee, or Ragout.” And you will cry out, “Leave!” So he will make his last offer, what he will call a “grab bag of delights,” a stew of whatever rests in the guts of the beast, perhaps it is mere grasses and sloshing water, roasted and served in the belly itself. And he will cry out “Ah, such titillations are a torment.” Now you will appear faint, falling against the doorway, the rifle nearly slipping from your grasp, and the man will cluck his tongue, “She is unimpressed, so it is with the wealthier ones. Meat is not so dear for you,” and to the other man he will say, “Consider her cheeks, rosey and plump, aye. Perhaps you even hold some sentimental fondness toward them.” And you will say, “Yes, yes, that is so.” And now he will offer to have the ponies stuffed, if you are “fond” of them for one of their number is accomplished in the curative arts—
Now, finally, you will raise your rifle. And so the men, with considerable apologies, bowing and scraping, will depart your presence.
That night a great and sustained revelry: bonfires and emptied casks and pantomimes apparently plotless and without reason: a woman dressed as a man chasing a man dressed as woman, prodding open his dress with a phallus of carved ivory, a dog-costumed man battling a bear-outfitted man tied to a tree, and a man in motley chased into the shadow of the wall by bear and dog, barking and growling and foaming, and so they finally they drag him down and set upon him. And this man will not rise, but lie in an unmoving heap long after the dog and bear stalk off to the applause of their fellows. And when after the next performance the man still has not risen the ringleader will raise the man’s arm and let it drop, and the audience will cry out, gnashing their teeth. At the ringleader’s commandment the dog and the bear will drag the body across the yard and into the woods, while the audience waves handkerchiefs.
Through the following performances you will watch the forest for the man’s return, but no sign of him will emerge.
Robert Kloss is the author of The Alligators of Abraham and co-author of The Desert Places (with Amber Sparks and Matt Kish). He lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts.