By Casey McConahay
On a day so hot that the handkerchief he carried in his breast pocket was damp by noon, he joined the crowd that lined Main Street and looked to the east. In the shade of the general store, daubing at his forehead with a handkerchief emblazoned with his grandfather’s initials, Micah listened as the murmurs of children were overtaken by the horns of a marching band. He could barely see the blue uniforms of the band members or the gleam of their instruments, but as the marchers came nearer blaring songs so strident that they rattled his eardrums he put his weight on his prosthetic and tried to see beyond the band. Past the flanged barrels of elevated brass instruments, he could almost discern the gray, graceless movements of something sluggish and massive— of a creature as large as a corncrib.
—There it is, he whispered.
The beast was so massive that as it plodded down Main Street the ground fairly shook. He watched its broad ears flapping like the sails of a catamaran. He watched its curious trunk and its tusks like ivory scimitars. He listened to the strange bleats that escaped the animal as its handlers led it before the procession of circus performers. Atop dray wagons were cages that held huge cats—pacing shadows of sinew and fur. Tremendous white horses pranced with sequined women standing above the gemmy saddles. A man with a tall satin hat and a crimson topcoat drove a small team of horses at the end of the parade, and beside the ringmaster’s carriage were circus clowns with painted faces who turned their smiles toward the crowd. They waved and poked one another as the handsome and beautiful acrobats distributed handbills with block letters announcing that performances would be held twice a day on Saturday and Sunday and that admission was only a quarter.
He took a flyer someone handed him but didn’t look from the elephant. He’d not seen anything like it. He watched the rump of the animal as it marched down the street with its tail as thick as a child’s arm dangling slackly from its hindquarters, and he thought of the distance the beast had traveled. It had been captured on another continent. It had sailed across the sea. A boat bearing the animal’s weight had stayed afloat somehow, and after train rides and caravans and marches down Main Streets of obscure, humdrum towns, its steps stirred dust from a road that Micah knew like a friend—a road he’d walked twice a day since his youth.
He itched the hard knot of bone above the leg that Paul had carved him. Paul would appreciate this. Paul was in Cuba with Roosevelt. He was fighting the Spanish. But if Paul were beside him now—if Paul who’d marched and sailed and traveled could see the elephant also—he’d say:
—It’s something, Micah. Isn’t it?
When the elephant was out of sight and the procession was through, the street was opened again. Men went by on horses and surrey carts, and Micah looked down the street as though it all were a dream. Moments ago, he’d seen an elephant. He smiled to himself and listed all that was dream- like. He’d seen the animal. He’d marry soon. His friend would come home. It was summer, and Wendy was pregnant.
He blinked and knew that it was not a dream. This was Main Street again. There was the general store, and seven blocks away from where he stood Wendy waited in the house that belonged to her brother—to Paul. When he spoke with Wendy later, he’d tell her what he’d witnessed. She’d be sorry to have missed it, but she was pregnant, and till her brother returned from Cuba they’d conceal her swollen stomach. They were waiting to marry. They were waiting for Paul.
—Should I tell her? he wondered. I won’t.
No, he would not tell her. But years from now, when the baby she carried was a glad, healthy child, he’d tell the child what he’d seen on a warm day in August—tell of beasts from distant hemispheres, their skin as gray as boulders.
He remembered the handbill then. He’d creased it without meaning to, and after smoothing the paper he read its thick black print. Letters the size of fingernails said that the circus had come on a special engagement. It said they’d performed for royalty in four different countries, and at the bottom of the flyer, beneath the dates, it said the tent would be raised at the fairground.
He entered the general store, where he sometimes ran the register. A bell rang when he opened the door, and Mr. Morgan, the owner, read a newspaper behind the counter.
—Don’t need you today, Micah. Expecting a slow one. Today, this news was welcome.
—That’s fine, Mr. Morgan. Good day.
He read the handbill again as he went from the store. In September, over Labor Day weekend, there were running races at the fairground. Visitors came from neighboring counties, and the grandstand was so dense with warm bodies that race programs were used as fans and men took hats from sweaty heads. But apart from horses stabled in the barns near the track, the fairground was empty now. There was room for the circus, but Micah doubted that the barns could hold an elephant. Where would they keep the elephant? Micah wanted to know.
It was a mile or two away. As he walked, he tried to land gently on his right limb—the false one. He admired the horses beside him, their black hooves stamping the street. He had no horse of his own and could never afford one— not if he worked every day for Mr. Morgan. A horse would make things easier for someone born with half a leg, but his leg wasn’t anyone’s fault, and Paul had told him that he mustn’t pity himself about it.
Paul had carved him the limb. Because Paul knew him better than anyone, he’d carved a foot on the end of it. Micah wore a boot on the limb—a boot like the one on his real foot—and when he sat, no one noticed. No one looked at him strangely till he walked, but it didn’t hurt when he walked if he didn’t walk far. The limb was cupped and fit close to his leg.
He went down Washington Street. At the bridge that crossed the creek, he watched the brown, shallow water. He rested there and thought of Paul when he met him. They were boys. They were twelve. Micah hobbled on crutches, and Paul, who was staring, asked him:
—Where is your leg?
He’d answered the same way as always.
—Born like this.
But that wasn’t what Paul meant.
—I meant, why don’t you have a false one? Like a peg.
He told Paul what his mother had told him. He said that legs were expensive, and they couldn’t buy one now, when he was still growing. He said that someday he’d have one, and then he wouldn’t have to crutch around anymore.
—Shame you have to wait, said Paul, and then he was gone.
Next day, Paul had a straight piece of wood. It had a basin at the top like a salad bowl, and there was cotton in the basin.
—Didn’t know how tall to make it, he told Micah. Made it long just in case. If you come over sometime, I can saw it down for you. Let me show you how it fits.
It had snaps and buckles. Micah felt its leather straps, convinced the boy was teasing him.
—I don’t want it, said Micah. You’re lying.
But it was not a lie, and he told his mother about it at dinner.
—Where does this boy live? she asked.
He led her to Paul’s house—to a two-story building down the street from the school. His mother knocked on the door, and when it opened, they saw a man in a vest with a watch in his pocket. Paul stood behind him.
—Did you make this? asked his mother, who held the limb in her hands.
Paul helped Micah to the living room and strapped the limb to Micah’s leg while a girl—his younger sister—looked on.
That was the first of the limbs. There were new ones every year or so, and when he wore them, Micah thought of their maker.
Micah thought of Paul now as he walked to the fairground. He thought of the hours his friend spent sanding the limb—innumerable hours touching sandpaper to wood to make it smooth as young skin—and it occurred to him that the limbs were the least of the gifts Paul had given him. There was Wendy as well and now the child in Wendy’s belly. He should thank Paul for these and for motion.
There was no way to repay these gifts. Micah knew this. But when he spoke to Paul again, Micah would tell him about the circus. He’d tell of the splendid procession and of the tent at the fairground. He’d tell of elephant, acrobats, bands
The tent wasn’t raised yet. It lay in the open field at the south end of the fairground, and around the tent fabric striped red and white like a disk of hard candy were a cadre of circus workers—not just the ringmaster but also the lion tamer, the acrobats, and clowns wearing work clothes.
Micah watched from a distance and thought how strange it was to see the clowns wearing denim. He was near enough to see their make-up smeared ugly by their sweat as they labored, and their painted smiles were demented as they pounded wooden stakes.
The acrobat women watched the others at work. Their bodies were taut and slender beneath their acrobat garments—the bright, close-fitting costumes that they’d worn in the parade. A few months before, he’d have stared at the women, but things were different now. Now, he had Wendy—Wendy with her long, braided hair and with her lips thin as ribbon. He thought of the dress she’d worn when they went to the station—a dress as blue as robin eggs— and when her brother, his friend, took his seat on the train, Wendy cried, and Micah reached for her shoulder.
—I don’t know what to do, she said.
It was dusk when the train left, and in the darkening distance, Paul waved out the window.
Wendy adjusted her braid.
—Do you think he’ll come back? she asked.
Neither of them knew. That was why they waited in stunned silence on the train platform, Wendy wondering how she’d manage without her brother and Micah simply missing his friend. They stayed until the streetlamps were lit and the station was empty.
—Can I walk you home? he asked.
Yes, Wendy told him—she’d appreciate the company. So they walked without speaking down the streets of their city with Wendy just ahead of him, with Micah hobbling after. They went through night-quiet neighborhoods, and when they reached the house she’d shared with Paul since the death of her parents, Micah sat by her side on the porch steps.
—Just for a minute or two, she told him. I don’t want to keep you.
He was in no hurry.
—I can stay if you want.
—Yes. I’d like that.
So Micah stayed. And when the cool March evening drove them into the house, he sat on the davenport beside this woman he scarcely knew. He remembered her as a girl who carried dolls as he played games with her brother. He’d watched her grow into womanhood, and when he’d visited Paul and talked of McKinley, the Maine, and the general store, she was out with handsome men.
She was much too beautiful to notice him.
But he was with her on the davenport. Family photos on the end table looked on as Wendy started sobbing, and he gave her the handkerchief from his pocket—once his grandfather’s handkerchief. She held it to her eyes, and when the tears were finished, Wendy looked at his leg, his handkerchief crumpled in her hand.
—May I see it? she asked him.
He raised his pant-leg and removed the leather boot. He lifted the limb to her, and she examined it for a time.
—Can I see more? Wendy asked. Where it meets?
A lamp in the corner flickered as Micah pulled the fabric higher. His flesh looked pale and translucent like the skin of a drum, and with the limb exposed, he showed her the straps of the prosthetic and where it joined with his stump.
—Do you want me to take it off ? he asked. Wendy shook her head.
—You poor man, she said. He blushed but said nothing.
She reached for his leg. Her fingers were slender and delicate stroking the woodgrain.
—Being born like this, said Wendy. Being different than other boys. Everything was harder for you, wasn’t it? No running with schoolmates. No friends but my brother. No one to take to the dances.
Micah wanted to answer her. It wasn’t so bad, he wanted to tell her, but she was right. There was no one to dance with him. There was no one who’d love a man with only one able leg, and he knew this on the davenport as Wendy felt his false limb with the man they both loved bound for Cuba.
She was near enough that he could smell the sweetness of Wendy’s breath. She cried beside him. He cried as well. There were tears in his eyes when she kissed him, and she was blurred through the film of his tears.
When he lay on the davenport, she was above him. Her weight on his hips, she shook her hair from the braid. She combed her hair with her fingers, and that was what he remembered about it—Wendy’s curtain of hair.
But that was months ago. Men with broad shoulders came with sledge hammers now, and clowns carried posts from a wagon. Micah sat on a fence and dried the sweat from his face. The handkerchief he used smelled of Wendy.
After their encounter, she wouldn’t speak to him. He came to her door for seven nights, hobbling the many blocks to her house. Though he knocked and waited, she never greeted him. Months went by. Then in June one evening, when he was returning from somewhere, he found her waiting on his lawn.
—Can we talk? Wendy asked. Something’s happened.
That was how he learned. She told him she’d been sick for several days and then had gone to the doctor. She said she’d only just found out about it, and now she was telling him because there were things that they’d need to decide. They talked about it and resolved that they should marry probably, else what would people say? But they would wait on Paul first. So they read the morning papers and hoped the war would end soon, and last Monday they heard that there were plans for withdrawal. Any day now, he thought, and Paul would return on the train. They’d meet him at the station, and they could walk from the train to the courthouse—the three of them together.
There was some movement behind the wagons near the back of the circus camp, and as the ringmaster beckoned for men to help him, Micah imagined Paul’s return. The sooner it happened, the better. Wendy was showing now. She dressed in loose-fitting garments, but soon the bump in her stomach would protrude through her clothes. She was staying inside to hide it, and if necessary she would stay inside indefinitely because by the time her brother came back and they were married, she’d be too far along to deceive anyone. She’d be looked at askance when she walked down the street, and people would point at her belly.
—My, women would whisper knowingly, looks like she started early.
He tried to console her.
—You won’t need to go out, he said. But if you do and if anyone says anything, it doesn’t matter. We’re in love. We’re together. We’ll manage.
She frowned, and Micah knew. He saw the slow way the corners of her lips tilted down, and he was sure she didn’t love him. He was disappointed to discover this, but it didn’t change anything. She was marrying him anyway, and maybe one day, when they were wed, she’d feel some glimmer of fondness. Perhaps she’d see how devoted he was or that he was a good father or that his missing limb didn’t ruin him, and then the fondness would grow like the child in her body.
He felt confident of this. Didn’t that happen? He knew of love at first sight, but wasn’t love oftener a gradual process— some slow transformation from awareness to attraction to love? Yes, he concluded—that was often the way. And if he loved her sincerely, she’d see.
He wanted to think of this longer, but a commotion near the wagons brought him back to the fairground. Workers scrambled toward the tent, their arms feeling ahead of themselves but their heads turned backward as though they were being chased by something. Micah hopped from the fence. Perhaps a tiger had gotten loose. His body readied to flee, and with his limb unsteady beneath him, he feared that if he needed to run his wooden limb would be the end of him.
But in the next moment, he saw a pair of workers pulling at something with thick ropes. They strained against the weight of their burden, and the ropes slanting upward told him that they were pulling something tall.
Then he saw it. The gray length of the trunk emerged first, and behind it followed the rest of the elephant—the creature prehistoric-big and more immense than the wagons. Its legs braced obstinately against the ropes of the handlers—ropes affixed to a collar around the animal’s neck—as the man who stood closest to the elephant applied a hook to its side and forced the beast to move forward.
The elephant fought a bit longer, but knowing the futility of his battle he soon gave in to his handlers. He took some lumbering steps toward the tent in the distance as clowns and sword swallowers backed away. Women acrobats scattered in several directions, the sunlight catching the shimmering somethings on the straps of their leotards.
Another prod from the hook urged the elephant forward, and the animal moved as though he knew what was being asked of him. Men affixed ropes and tackle to the animal. The patient creature waited as they used his body as their machinery, and when the skeleton of the tent was elevated the handlers led the beast to the tent poles. With silent fortitude, the animal pushed the poles into place with its forehead.
Micah watched the animal and admired the careful movements of its massive haunches. He admired the strength of the elephant and its patient forbearance. Here was an animal exotic, beautiful, fantastic, and its caretakers employed it in something commonplace—in the construction of tents.
The beast was lovely and perfect and pure.
Soon the posts were in place, and the elephant was swallowed by the fabric of the tent. Somewhere beyond the stripes like a barber post, the animal finished its task, and when the circus tent was raised, the beast was led from the mouth of the big-top. Micah watched the elephant emerge from the tent, and when the handlers directed the animal behind the wagons again, Micah followed. He wanted to see where they took it, but the slowness of his movements meant that he always lagged behind. He lost the animal behind a barn, though it emerged a moment later. He spotted the elephant as its handlers led it down a narrow dust path that separated two stables, and shortly before the animal disappeared around a corner, he saw its tail swat at flies that came to rest on its backside. Micah tried to hurry behind the elephant, but he gained little ground. He became frustrated by the haltingness of his gait and by the throbs that accompanied his steps, for though the limb—Paul’s limb—was a marvel, even the best- made prosthetic wasn’t as smooth as a real leg.
When he reached the path between the stables, the creature was gone. Micah adjusted the limb and tried to steady his breathing, and as he tightened the strap that fixed the limb to his leg, he saw prints wide as plates in the dust. He finished his adjustments, and though his leg was still smarting, he followed the prints.
—I will find it, he whispered. I must.
The path terminated at a stone road that continued in two directions. A series of stables sat perpendicular to the road along its south side. To the north was the racetrack. He looked left but saw nothing. He looked to his right. No animals there: just men on short stools playing cards on a bucket.
The men stood when they saw him. The two men nearest Micah wore denim work shirts, sleeves rolled to their elbows. The third and smallest man had removed his shirt, which he’d wadded in a heap by his boots. He had a concavity in his chest that Micah noticed immediately.
—What are you doing here? the man asked him.
Micah pointed down the path he’d just traveled. Indicating a print in the dirt.
—I was at the tent, he told them. I wanted to— A tall man crossed his arms.
—You’re not supposed to be here.
Looking at the second man in denim—a man with shoulders like a pack animal—Micah felt the sun overhead. It was well into the afternoon, and the day seemed hotter than ever. A sheen of sweat wet his skin. He took the handkerchief from his shirt pocket, and with the scent of Wendy subdued by the dust in his nostrils, he dried the sweat from his forehead.
—I’m sorry, he told them.
—Maybe you are, said a tall man. Maybe you aren’t. What’s sorry have to do with it?
—I meant that—
—You meant you shouldn’t have come this way. Is that what you meant?
Micah said nothing.
—Every town, the man continued, someone thinks he can go where he wants to. But it isn’t like that. Understand? There are places you can go. There are places you can’t.
He gestured at the gravel.
—This is a place you can’t go. The smaller man spoke.
—What do you have to say for yourself ? Micah put the cloth in his shirt pocket.
—I’m sorry, he said. I didn’t mean to.
The pit in the small man’s chest was as deep as a teacup. He circled the pit with one finger.
—You said that already. Want to say it again?
Micah moved his leg underneath him. It felt cumbersome, rigid, and when he tried to slide the leg backward, it caught in the stone.
—Please, he said, and he backed away from the men. His good leg went smoothly, but the other one dragged, and with the cruel faces of the circus men staring at him, he felt his balance betray him.
Before he hit the ground, however, hands grabbed his wrists. Their grip was vise-tight and painful, but in an instant he was upright again. The man with ox shoulders stood before him, and his companions were at his side. The small man was looking at Micah’s leg and touching his chest.
—What did you say you were doing back here? His tone had softened.
—I was looking for something, Micah told the men. For the elephant.
Grinning as though someone demanded it, the workers nodded at one another. Then the smaller man stepped forward.
—It’s something, isn’t it?
—It certainly is, Micah said. He wanted to tell the men what he esteemed about the animal.
—We can take you to see it.
The throbbing in his chest was not unlike the urgent gladness he’d felt when sitting with Wendy.
—I’d like that, said Micah.
So he followed these men—men who laughed at things they said to one another in voices too quiet for him to hear. They led him past a horse barn. They waved at a groom who carried water buckets.
—I’d like to see it eat. His companions stopped.
—That’s nothing, the small man said to him. Why, you can touch it if you want. You can ride it.
This was elation.
More grins from the workers.
—Of course. We have a saddle for him. An elephant saddle. We’ll need to help you get on him, but he’s easy to ride. He doesn’t buck like a horse does.
When they started walking again, Micah followed as before and thought of riding the elephant. He knew no one who’d ridden one. When he told Wendy about it, he hoped she’d listen with astonishment, and when his child was delivered he’d tell his child of it also. It was a story he’d tell even as an old man. It would become a part of his history no different than Paul or Wendy or his leg or his work at the general store, and the men he followed—they, too, would be a part of that legend.
One of the men spoke to him.
—This way, he said.
Before them, a string of wagons. Some were workers’ wagons. Others had bars on one side, and behind the bars were the vague shapes of animals.
Micah looked about the area. Apart from the men who led him, he noticed no other workers. They were at the tent, probably. They were helping construct the ring or the bleachers. He looked for the elephant handlers or for the gray mass of the pachyderm.
—Over here, said the smaller man.
Behind the bars of a wagon—bars of strong, shining steel—he saw a lion lounging lazily. It lay with its legs stretched before it, its maned head rising a few inches to shake some flies from its whiskers.
—This is the place, the men told him.
And then they were upon him. Someone’s weight held him down, and with the breath of that man on the back of his neck, Micah kicked at his assailants—frightened kicks that flailed and failed to land. The workers laughed as he struggled, and they pulled on his prosthetic.
—Help! Micah cried when they wrenched the limb loose, but there was no one to help him. As his attackers restrained him, he raised his wide, startled eyes and saw a cat in its cage.
The lion watched Micah struggle. It blinked.
Back bowed as he walked, he held the broken prosthetic to the stump of his leg. It slipped from its place as Micah staggered from the fairground, but at least he could stand on it. At least he could move.
When the workers released him, he was sprawled on his stomach. Blades of grass touched his cheeks and his nostrils, and when the men went away—their laughter mocking him as they went—Micah crawled through the grass on his elbows.
In the distance, he saw it. His limb.
It was as far away as the small man could throw it, and when Micah reached it, fatigued, he examined the limb.
He found a crack down its length, and its strap had been broken. He couldn’t attach the prosthetic, but as best he was able, he fit the limb to his leg. Despite the grass stains on his elbows—despite the dust on his clothes—Micah hunched, held his limb, and lurched forward.
Meantime, his shadow was getting longer. He traveled as fast as he could, but it was in the early hours of evening and it would be dark soon. Sweat dripped in beads from the tip of his nose. His back shrieked in anguish, and as he stood and tried to straighten himself he thought of the distance ahead of him—a despair-inducing distance that made him reach for his handkerchief. It was saturated, wrinkled, and no longer smelled of Wendy. It smelled of sweat. Maybe dust. Maybe shame.
Bent at the waist again, Micah thought of Wendy’s hair. Of her lips. Of her skin. Of her beauty. Of her house, which was closer than his was. He took a step. He couldn’t go to her house. She’d see the crack in his limb. She’d see him hunched like a crone. She’d see weakness.
He knew then—he knew with the frailest part of him broken and with the rest of his body battered by its brokenness—that he was fragile and ludicrous. He knew that pity had given him Wendy. An accident brought the baby. The baby, not love, led to plans for a wedding. What he possessed was gained through weakness, and in her seclusion he knew that Wendy was ashamed of him. Surely she wished for a better husband, but pity and the baby made her settle on him: on someone feeble—a limb short of whole.
When he reached home—during that dusk hour when the sinking sun is low and it makes everything golden—he’d thought of Wendy so long and with such concentration that when he saw her on his doorstep, he was hardly astonished. It seemed altogether natural that he should see her there, and it was fitting that she should see him as he was then—bent like a beggar, hands affixed to his limb. He waited in the avenue and watched her tired, tear-streaked eyes.
She came to him. She came in the dress she’d worn to the train station months before, but the blowsy blue fabric was crimson-splotched and gory near her waist, near the hem. Micah’s breath left his body. Before she told him, he knew. The limb remained firm though the rest of him was reeling, for it was gone now—everything was gone. The baby, the plans for marriage, any attachment she may have had for him—it was gone when he reached for her. It was gone when she turned. And she cried. And she started away.
He couldn’t follow her.