I was awaiting my cue, with a few other clowns, when the foul smell of burning canvas infiltrated my senses. Dressed in oversized pants barely held up by my flimsy suspenders and my unshaven face covered in thick white paint. I called myself Weary Willie, a sad hobo clown with a permanent frown. I always got the short end of the stick, yet I never gave up. An important lesson my pa taught me, and one which I impressed on the children who came to the Ringling Circus. Had I known what was to occur that day, I wouldn’t have bothered plastering on my unhappy persona.
It was a sunny Thursday afternoon matinee. The Flying Wallendas, a family of acrobats, were about to take to the ropes. As they chalked up their hands, I’d walked below them with my handkerchief stretched out to “catch” one of the Wallendas if they fell from the high wires. The band leader saw the flame first, signaling his musicians to begin playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” or what circus folk used in code for “emergency.” What started as a small flicker of bright sunlight transformed into a fiery rain, which now trapped almost six thousand guests within its circular blazing confines. Children of all ages, sitting in wonder alongside their mothers, were caught in its grasp. The men were miles away, having only one month prior been dealt the fatal blow of D-Day. Now, unbeknownst to some of those very soldiers, their wives and children were about to face their own battle for survival.
Within mere minutes, the fire swept over the massive big-top. Panic swelled, causing mothers to jump from their seats high atop the bleachers, fracturing their ankles as they hit the grass below. Children, some barely old enough to walk, were paralyzed in confusion as their mothers screamed in horror. Young boys took charge, grabbing their siblings’ hands as they rushed out any of the narrow exits still visible within the blanket of thick smoke. One boy, in overalls, took out his trusty pocketknife and slashed an opening in the side of the tent, saving countless lives. Pieces of fiery canvas fell from above, landing on unsuspecting victims. The lions roared, horses neighed in terror, and babies wailed as screams of all kinds of life echoed until the sirens outside arrived.
Once I made it outside, I rushed to my dressing room to retrieve the metal bucket of water I used to wipe away my makeup. I shouted at the other clowns to grab their buckets too, before heading back to the fire. You can’t run in oversized shoes, but I sure as hell tried. When I made it back to the tent’s main entrance, overwhelming reality set in. My little metal bucket of water would be of no true help. It would be like a drop in the ocean against the raging inferno before me. I dropped the bucket to the ground below. I went to the closest side of the canvas and lifted it up with all my might. Children began crawling out towards the sunlight around me. One little girl in pigtails and a once-pristine checked dress came out, only to try and crawl back in. I grabbed her foot and pulled her back as she screamed, “My mother, my mother’s not here!”
“You can’t go back in there! Keep moving!” I shouted.
Though it was chaos, the crying girl sat down beside my legs as I held up the canvas until the flames forced me away. I swung down, scooped her up, and clung her around my rapidly panting chest. Her tiny hands squeezed the sides of my rib cage, leaving ten indentations along each bony groove. “Your mother’s here somewhere, we’ll find her,” I assured her. I looked out at the vast field around us, astounded. Thousands of traumatized women and children were surrounded by siren-wailing fire trucks, shocked circus folk, and frenzied roaming animals. Behind us were the charred remains of the big top and the women and children who didn’t make it out in time. The little girl suddenly leapt down from my hold and ran, becoming one with the huge crowd of onlookers.
We’d later learn that they slathered paraffin and gasoline atop the canvas to waterproof it. Ironically, rained out shows were highly probable and costly, while fire was an absolute worst-case scenario. We’d already canceled a show that week, which in circus culture is considered a bad omen. We just assumed one of us would trip up in our act; not watch our audience be consumed by fire and smoke inhalation. That day changed me, hell, it changed all of us circus folk. To this day, as I slather on my makeup before a show, the frown indentation is already set. No contouring needed. And, as a token of remembrance, I draw a small teardrop underneath my right eye. I wear it as a badge of tribute, to every single mother and child who fell into the ashes and never rose. There’s no forgetting that day the clowns cried. Now, when the big top goes dark and my makeup is scrubbed away after each show, I imagine that little girl. Determined to find her mother within that hellish landscape. Whom I held tightly as if she were my daughter, weepily unraveling against my shoulder.
She’s become an unsolvable puzzle thanks to numerous missing pieces, lacking a name or age. I read, in one newspaper article weeks later, that over one hundred children’s dead bodies were identified. Fifty-nine of those kids were under nine years old. But six were never able to be identified, one being a young girl with blonde hair in a white dress. All buried in graves marked with only the coroner’s ID number as an identifier. Could she be Miss 1565? Her life, and end, are forever a mystery. Except for in my hopes, where she’s spotted her mother. Running into mother’s desperate, wide-open arms. Refusing to ever let go.
Bethany Bruno is a writer of Southern fiction. She was born and raised in Florida, where she obtained three degrees in English: an AA from Indian River State College, a BA from Flagler College, and an MA from the University of North Florida. Her work has been previously featured in several journals, including The MacGuffin, Ruminate, and Lunch Ticket Magazine. Her previous nominations include 2021’s Best of the Net. She works as a technical writer for the Army and as a priority editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. Together with her husband and daughter, she currently resides in Alabama. Find her at https://bethanybruno.journoportfolio.com