THE HEALING TONGUE

Faced with losing his eyesight, an elderly man puts his hope in a circus performer with an unconventional gift in Mike Fox's short story. Illustration by Luis Pinto.

The old man sat bent forward at his kitchen table, his posture rigid from years of labour. He passed a magnifying glass left to right in three inch sweeps across the newspaper spread before him. His lips moved silently, as though only fierce attention could draw meaning from the smudged print. After a while, he folded the paper carefully and sat back, looking within himself. His life had allowed little poetry of thought, but something encouraged him to believe that what he had read could be true.

Next week, the circus would set up again on the common ground just outside his village. Once an annual event, this would be their first visit since the close of war. Gradually, small freedoms were returning. In the years between, a generation had been taken from the village. The women remained but of the men, only the old and very young. His daughter and her little boy had lost a husband and father respectively. They were now his incentive to continue, if he could find a way.

For nearly four decades, like most of the men he knew, he had worked hewing coal in the local pit until his lungs thickened and his spine faltered. But his wits saved him — he was treasurer of the working men’s club, and could calculate figures as fast as anyone. He was moved above ground to prepare wages for the men he had worked alongside, or those that were left. Everyone in the village was a survivor of some sort.

But within the last year, the rows of numbers had begun to coalesce. Shapes that were once distinct now had to be prised apart. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that the work was taking him longer. Any inaccuracy could quickly lead to discontent amongst men, no longer young, who bought livelihood through the daily pain of their bodies. He had to find a way to heal his eyes or be laid off.

He had heard about others in the same position; tales of ether, cocaine, and shaky, inexperienced hands that could pierce him into sightlessness. Now, if he could believe in magic, or something like it, there might be an alternative.

And so, from the post office he bought two tickets for the circus, and prepared his strategy.

‘He’s not been still since you told him,’ his daughter said, when he called to collect his grandson the following week. He saw the boy’s excitement, and for a moment he felt it too.

As they walked out into the dark evening, the little boy took his grandfather’s hand tactfully, as his mother had told him, and they made their way together. The old man trod carefully but with purpose, each being a guide to the other.

‘Will there be a fire eater?’ the little boy asked.

‘I expect so,’ he replied, and realised he had given no thought to the other acts.

For a moment his grandson skipped from one foot to the other, but then remembered his role, and walked as soberly as his excitement allowed. As they approached the marquee, they were greeted by more and more people walking in the same direction. Everyone in the audience would be known to them. When they arrived and showed their tickets, a steward directed them to seats in the front row.

‘Grandpa wants to be able to see,’ the boy thought.

When the audience had settled, a ringmaster strutted out before them. He wore a polished top hat, crimson tail coat, knee length leather boots and flashing brass buttons; a peacock circling before the grey and darned villagers.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘tonight I have brought you magnificence. I will present you with the utmost variety, I will offer you the strangest sights, and physical feats beyond your power to imagine. I must ask you to believe what you see, as I promise it is all real. My colleagues and our friends from the animal kingdom, will entertain, engross and enthral you. Please open your minds and your hearts. I guarantee an evening that will change your belief in what is possible in this world.’

He swept the audience with his eyes.

‘I will now introduce to you our world famous aerialists. Please welcome them and then maintain silence, as their skills demand the utmost concentration, and they perform without safety nets.’

The lighting changed and taut, muscular bodies plunged from perches high in the marquee. They flickered, twisted and flew between their trapezes, as the audience breathed together in stifled gasps. Then the air cleared and, announced by a drum role, one of the tumblers walked a high wire, juggling small orange globes. With each step, the wire bulged beneath his splayed feet, and the little boy’s legs moved involuntarily as he watched. As he reached the other side, catching the globes with a flourish, relief burst out as applause, and the small troupe slid down the ropes, bowing elaborately to all parts of the surrounding audience.

Both the boy and his grandfather had been lost in the sights above them. But now the smell of sawdust, pipe smoke and fear-tainted sweat brought the old man back to himself, and to his purpose that evening. He looked on with growing impatience as clowns, midgets and acrobats, horses, lions and elephants performed and mesmerised those around him. An illusionist, who lifted and balanced more and more Windsor chairs until he looked like a vast wooden porcupine, briefly took him back into wonder.

Then men in tight vests ran on to assemble a stand bearing a large circular target and, without introduction, Sliding Joe Paine walked slowly to the centre of the ring, dragging a straightened leg.

He remembered the article in his local paper. ‘It is said that Sliding Joe can ride the wildest stallion and put a parting in your hair from twenty feet with a single flick of his knife. But throughout Montana, he is famous as a medicine man. Native Americans are known to have the strongest eyes in the world and, amongst his other accomplishments, Joe is reputed to have learned techniques from the Sioux that enable him to heal eyes that are sore or losing vision.’

One of the acrobats cartwheeled out after him and braced her back against the target, spreading her arms. From the front row, the little boy could clearly see her trembling. To a succession of drum rolls, Joe Paine flung knives fearsomely close to her head and torso, each hit making the target shudder. When she finally stepped away, the audience whistled and beat their palms together, glad to release their tension. She bowed and left the ring with the elegance of a gymnast. Just as she reached the curtain, the boy saw her put her hand to her mouth, as though she was about to vomit.

For a few moments, Joe Paine pulled two pistols from the holsters on his hips, and spun them around his fingers and into the air like a juggler. It was as though he commanded the obedience of any object he touched. Then a riderless mare was led into the ring and began to canter around the perimeter. Joe remained in the centre throwing shapes with a lariat until, with a deft flick, he spun its noose around the horse’s neck and drew the animal towards him. When it came near, he mounted it with a powerful movement of his arms and circled the ring bareback, his stiff leg pointing askew.

As he came past them, the little boy saw his grandfather, with a sudden urgent gesture, thrust a sheaf of pound notes out towards the performer and point towards his eyes. The cowboy looked at him briefly and nodded. He finished circling, doffed his Stetson in all directions, and rode the horse from the ring.

The ringmaster reappeared.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘your evening’s entertainment is almost complete. Please welcome back all of our cast and crew. We bow before you in gratitude for the generous appreciation you have shown us tonight.’

The ring flooded again with jugglers and clowns, animals and their trainers, and all the other circus acts, swirling in choreographed patterns before the audience. The individual entertainers stood in the centre, bending low with flourishing hands. Acrobats cartwheeled and pirouetted around the edge of the ring, until one, twisting elegantly as she passed, dropped a piece of paper in the old man’s lap.

‘What does it say?’ he asked his grandson.

‘It says “come and find me after the show” grandpa,’ the boy said.

The applause died down and the ring cleared.

‘There’s someone I have to see before we go home,’ the old man said.

‘Are we going to find the acrobat?’ the boy asked.

‘No son, we aren’t looking for her,’ the old man said, ‘it’s just some business I have to attend to.’

They waited until the crowd cleared, then went outside. The old man took the boy’s hand and they walked towards a line of painted wooden wagons. They passed a midget struggling to carry a large pallet.

‘Where will I find Joe Paine?’ the old man asked him.

‘He’s in the fancy wagon at the end,’ the midget replied, gasping at his exertion.

‘Should we help him with that, grandpa?’ the boy asked, looking back.

‘Not now son,’ the old man said, touching the boy’s hair, ‘but it’s a good thought.’

They reached the heavily decorated wagon. Its door was open and Joe Paine stood inside, a thick mug in his hand.

‘Mr Paine,’ the old man said, ‘I’ve come to ask for your help.’

Joe Paine was still in his cowboy gear but shorn of the ring’s mystique, he seemed smaller. He gestured to a roughly hewn colonial chair.

‘I know why you’re here sir,’ he said. ‘You’re not the first. Sit there and lie back as far as you can.’

As he bent over the old man he saw the little boy flinch.

‘No one’s going to come to any harm, son,’ he said.

The old man felt calloused fingers in his eye socket, holding his eyelids open. He felt sharp bristles against his cheek, and smelled whisky breath. Then a tongue, hot and doused in alcohol, caressed first one eye then the other with unexpected tenderness. He felt saliva run like tears down the side of his face. Then Joe Paine lent back, spat through the open door, and it was over.

‘Stay away from sunlight for a little while,’ he said.

The old man sat up. For a moment, he seemed to be looking into distance, as though his gaze could take him beyond the restraint of his life. Then, blinking, he reached into his pocket and held out the pound notes.

The cowboy pressed them back into the old man’s hand.

‘Pray for my soul,’ he said.

The little boy, looking on, suddenly understood what he had witnessed.

His grandfather took the cowboy’s hand and bent to kiss it. They left without further words.

As they walked home, the night air was cold and full of energy. Images danced in the boy’s mind. He sensed new strength in his grandfather’s step, and power in the hand that gripped his. He could still picture the aerialists, the acrobats and the fast, undeviating knives. Surely anything was possible in this world? As they continued to walk, he kept glancing up at his grandfather, searching his eyes for light.



'The Healing Tongue' was published in our 16th issue, The Hope Issue, which is available to buy here.