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from the June 2004 issue

The Circus

When I close my ears to the sounds of this circus my eyes rise to the paths where Will High-Bridge-Arm waits for me. The papers said it was the sovereign in his pocket that was bait for thieves. I wonder whether time froze for him as he tasted, heard, felt the pain of the world passing by him?

The gang laughed at him as they caught the glint of moon in his gold coin. Will High-Bridge-Arm sank into oblivion's fountain. When he rose from the water the world was changed. Where the fields had filled his memory there were acres of foreign words and unstable rocks above him by the headland pool and the barn gable about to fall. He did not recognize this new country. Only the fairies saw him cross the sea on the full moon toward Ireland.

When they dragged his body out of the peat bog some said he seemed to be asleep, because he was still warm. I remembered having asked him once if there was any good in the world.

"Yes, somewhere between here and Baltimore," he had replied.

He didn't seem like he wanted to talk much now.

The gang were all in the front row trying to touch the ringmaster's sleeve with their outstretched hands. He was a big man with waxed mustache and long red coat, white trousers, a whip and boots that shone like the bottom of a pot. He pretended not to be interested in the bad boys in the front row. He didn't seem to notice Llinos or me, although we did not take our eyes off him. When he went back for his break I went out to the cotton candy stand and watched the pink web spin in its silver pan.

"Don't forget your change, love," called the woman in the red scarf as she pushed some coins into my hand.

"When I'm in your arms the world is warm," said Llinos, her eyes shining like two stars. She took my hand and placed in on her stomach. "It's a boy," she said. "I can tell by the way he kicks."

The next day the rain was falling like I remember summers long ago. I saw them through the rain-spatted windows in their hats and coats climbing the steps toward me. There was no sun nor masts on the waves. Perhaps it was something about the cut of their collars that had alerted me.

That was twelve years ago. Since then I have been in this cage and Llinos is history. I got a card from her from New City one time. She said the boy's name was Ianto.

I can't tell right now if I'm on a pinnacle or if it's a void under my feet that makes my head spin. I remember them telling me to empty my pockets. They were interviewing all Will's old neighbors.

The officer called his chief over. "Look what this son of a bitch has in his pocket."

I had never seen that sovereign before. It shone quietly like sun through mist and glowed yellow in the eyes of the wardens. The chief put on a transparent glove and raised it between his finger and thumb. Then he looked at me and I saw the red veins pulsing in the whites of his eyes.

"Before the circus?" he demanded. "And afterward?"

"Take your claws off me," I insisted. "I have nothing to hide."

"You have something to hide," he told me. "Like all the rest."

He took up a remote control and pointed toward a white screen. It was footage of the place Will's body was found. A peat bog and black pools, low hills beyond. Once seen, Hill Marsh is best forgotten. I saw a deep pool with Will's legs sticking out. I'm not sure if they were still thrashing.

I told them I was innocent.

The chief clicked off his presentation. "We don't arrest innocent citizens," he told me. "And even if we did, we couldn't let you go in case people started thinking innocent people were getting picked up at random."

"I appreciate your explanation," I said. I should have said "Sir," I guess.

When they used to hit me on the black and blue bruises it was like they were pouring boiling water on my legs. When I was tired I had to stand at attention. If I said I was cold I was sent to stand barefoot in the snow for hours. When I was thirsty they would say: Give a prisoner a drink and soon he'll want a piss. I asked if I could give in.

"Give in?" screamed the assistant discomforter, his eyes dripping wet. "You bastard." He sank his teeth into my neck and I screamed for a long time.

"Leave him," said the discomforter-in-chief. "Go take a break." He threw a few pennies at his assistant.

My attorney admitted that he had slept during the trial.

"Why not?" he asked me. "It was obvious you were guilty."

"Why didn't you plea bargain?"

"What with?" he asked. "Cotton candy?" He lit a cigarette. He didn't ask me if I smoked.

I never saw my attorney again but I did see the discomforter-in-chief. Years later I recognized him as he came toward me. He was watching me from the corner of his eye. The same light shone from his eyes as before, yellow like the eyes of a lizard.

He told me he did not have a choice back then. It was his job, it fed his family. Had it not been for him someone worse would have been in charge, the assistant maybe, or one or two of the others out there in line banging on the door wanting to come in. He told me that with the earphones on he could hardly hear people scream. The apron kept their blood off his clothes. Once he was showered and changed he would sit in his window seat on the bus home through the cornfields and he would start to think of other things.

He told me he was promoted three days after processing my case. "Moved upstairs," as he put it. New policies received and passed on. They had carpets on the floor. The coffee, however, came from a machine. The windows did not even open. Baked in summer and in winter the heating was never turned on.

I was the last prisoner he had processed. He had worked well upstairs until three years ago when he fell out of favor. Arrested as a counterrevolutionary. His reptile eyes licked me like an oil lamp. He said he might be able to help me.

I said no thanks. I did not need his protection. He probably had permission to see me. He had enough contacts. Maybe he wanted to see me because I was the only one left of the ones he'd processed, as he called it?

It's against the rules to communicate in this prison without permission. Permission is not like confetti. We live here like fleas on a fox's tail. We are on a raft over the falls. Occasionally you remember the sun through mists like the yolk of an egg falling into flour and the tweed of yellow larch and pines along the hillside.

We have a new alphabet to talk through walls. The wardens can't destroy it even though they won't understand a word of it themselves. We used to suffer if we used it; now with a bribe they usually turn a blind eye.

When you're like us in solitary the urge to communicate is stronger than these tin pot time lords will allow. But we can't exist in a world without other people. That's why we knock on our neighbor's walls.

We have divided the alphabet into five columns of five letters and have given two numbers to each. We tap those numbers with a pause between each. It took me three months to understand how it worked and write down the first question, "Who are you?" My neighbor had been trying to get through for twelve weeks.

Crumbs of communication like that tasted good to those who hungered for communion. Life in a box and lights in your eyes with no knowing what the hour of day or night might be. Losing track of the city of your incarceration. You are told there is no one left outside there who is aware of your existence.

I walked my cell all the way to America. Back and forth like the swing of a long pendulum I counted steps, imagining the journey. Turn the corner in the street behind the prison, cross the canal over the lover's bridge. Follow the river under the trees and parasols of the grand avenue. Outside the sounds of the city, through the suburbs and the plains. West toward an imagined border, no checkpoint to worry about. In a cell you don't need a passport. I walked across France and Brittany and put a toe in the water in the Atlantic off Brest.

I walked like Jesus on the crest of waves, counting ten hundred paces to a kilometer. Every so often a shoal of fish would brush against my shins. Other times I got entertained by dolphins. Once I saw a bird with wingspan to spare that didn't look down to shit on me.

Eventually the seagulls came to welcome me to the new world along with a green star that rose over the horizon. It was followed by a green hill with two blue lakes upon it and a hand raising a flaming torch with no fire lit. I was down near the Broken Lands at the end of Long Island. I had her address, she lived somewhere in the New City.

My wife was standing with her back to me slicing cucumber with a sushi knife. I coughed. She turned on her heel and stuck the knife right through me as if I was air. She turned back to the sink, calling out to Jeff to open the window, she was cold.

"What do you mean?" said the man. "It's July."

"I know," she said. "Probably the air conditioning is on too strong."

I followed her out of the kitchen. She didn't go to check the air conditioning. She went to stand on the veranda. She was looking due east. It was a warm close night. She was looking for the stars. Perhaps she was thinking about the way we used to see the stars and smell the bracken burning on the high pastures.

"When I was in your arms one time you told me your world was warm," I said. "Now I just make you cold."

She went from the veranda like the wind was blowing her back inside. I wonder when she wakes at night does she still hear my voice? Or is she just glad to get away? Maybe she can't even spit out my name. I asked her these questions but she didn't reply.

I passed her by to go upstairs. There was a boy sitting on his bed playing a game on a flat screen. I sat on his bed. "You're Ianto then?" I said.

He raised his head.

"Go to bed, Ianto," called his mother from down stairs.

He put his hand on my knee, went through it onto the bed. "The bed's soaking wet, Mam," he shouted.

"Who the hell is up there with you?" she demanded. I heard her heels clacking on the stairs.

"I haven't done anything," shouted Ianto.

"It's my fault," I explained.

"This is sea water," she whispered as she raised her palm to her nose.

I walked down the stairs and out of the house. The wind took me block by block along the avenues. I lit out for Baltimore where they say the whiskey's a good price and the women aren't scared of ghosts. I thought that's where I'd find him.

Now again I found myself walking along forest roads lit by a slanting sun. I was aware of each pine needle that fell in the forest and hissed into the moss. I saw the moon reflected in the eye of a dewdrop. I was a while at a country crossroads where the curlew cried out from the mountains. When he had finished I asked him whether it was easy to live like that for so many years. He looked at me and his eye shone and was gone like the wind without a word.

"Sod this," I thought with every intention of going home. But there was no home to go to so I went on.

"It's been a while," said Will Upper-Bridge-Arm coming down the highway toward me. "Baltimore, is it?" he said.

"How did you guess?" I asked. I showed him where I got hurt and he turned down his upper lip. Will Upper-Bridge-Arm said the circus boys had got him by the peat bog pool before the circus. He heard the bells as he went under. He said it was not the sovereign in his pocket that they wanted. He said it was him they were after.

"And why didn't you check your change?" he accused me. "Or did you just pretend you never saw that sovereign in your hand?"

"Pretend?" I said, "Llinos had just told me she was expecting our baby. That's all I was thinking about, that and the cotton candy."

"You need to get real," said Will.

"I will," I said to Will before I started to feel a bit queasy. I never made it to Baltimore. Not this time. Only real ghosts get to go to Baltimore with Will Upper-Bridge-Arm. My legs were shaky and my breath was in my fist. A blast of cold air hit me, then a wallop of sleet got me in the ear hole. I grappled for something to hold on to. I was on the side of a mountain holding on to some bushes with dry earth falling from their roots like sand in an egg timer between my finger and my thumb. I could hear my boots scrape the rocks as I fell.

I landed on board ship with a roller coaster in my stomach. The ship was up and down like a cork; rain spewed down on us. The waves were high above us then sank like caverns down into the sea with a hiss and swell. The sailors were lashed to the mainsail and all secondary sails as far as I could see. I crossed myself and I jumped ship.

No churning ocean filled my head but sweet breezes through beachside palms and dancing sunlit leaves. Having squeezed the water out of my eyes I found myself sprawled on a white sands bay. Birds were screeching from the forest. I realized it would not last very long as I blinked again.

I was back within the walls I knew. Then one day two needles were found in one haystack. We were back in action. The killers of Will Upper-Bridge-Arm were brought to light and I was set free. Now I have to think about crossing the Atlantic.

Read more from the June 2004 issue
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