Four years had passed since willing boys with bright eyes and quick minds had apprenticed themselves into the ancient art of Javelin catching. Fleet of foot and deft of hand, six eager prospects had started out on the road to enlightenment. That had been a lifetime ago, now there was just Jack. Devotion, application and self-sacrifice had helped him through the arduous training. “It isn’t for everybody,” old Johan had told him. “If it was easy, then anybody could do it.”
Johan’s looks defied his sixty years, his athletic body lending grace to his aged frame. The scar tissue of javelins passed, close calls and near misses marked his skin. A Teutonic athlete, consummate showman, master of airborne dexterity.
Stilted men in garish costumes waded through massed humanity.
“ Roll up, roll up get your tickets ‘ere! Bearded ladies, tigers from Bengal, strange two headed beasties from Katmandu. Prepare your mind for what your eyes will never believe! Get your tickets or forever remain in shadowed ignorance…Step forward ladies and gentleman, enter the tent of knowledge – illumination awaits you.”
Men and women thronged to the big-top; the red and white striping of the canvas, encapsulating their away-day excitement – focussing their wide eyed amazement. Greedy hands clutched toffee apples and brazier roasted nuts; the aroma of baked pies and pastries mingling with the scent of elephant dung and soiled straw. A heady, hypnotic brew, of aromatic curiosity.
The crowd was filled with top hatted whiskered gentleman in Sunday suits – bustled and rouged bonneted ladies, dragging sailor-suited children into the darkness of the tent. Herded and cajoled, penny-pinched and harangued, the holiday ripple pierced with the laughs and cries of excited expectation – the shrill voices of mothers pursuing errant children. As they passed from the shadows into the light there was an audible gasp, the expanse of the big top spreading before them. Candy striped poles, bright shining mirrors – an arena of expectation where the gladiators of entertainment would perform for their appreciative public.
The act was simple enough however the courage and tenacity of the performer was what wooed the crowd. Burlesqued acrobats would climb the ropes of the grand-trapeze where they would hurl silver-steeled, rainbow-fletched javelins down into the arena. Beautiful nubile young women and fit muscular young men would hang in the rigging like vengeful Valkyries, hurling rod after silver rod at their target below.
Johan, with the grace and speed of a dancer, would fling himself from side to side, avoiding the deadly shafts, grabbing them out of the air with calculated ease. Then with eye-defying dexterity and an exaggerated flourish, hurl them at the straw bull’s-eye-painted targets positioned around the ring. A true master of his craft, a confirmed crowd pleaser. His years in the ring obvious ; the continuous thunk- thunk, as the shafts whistled through his hands and struck the targets.
Johan was a blur of skill, eliciting encore after encore of applaused ovation. Billed above the Lion Tamer but below the Fire Eater, he was a wonder to behold. He had performed for kings and queens, emperors and despots – in every country on every map. Although his talents hadn’t made him rich they had made his name synonymous with circus-performed excellence.
The runaways and untimely deaths meant that Johan’s nocturnal visits to the caravan became more frequent. The catch on the door, the creak of footsteps on wooden boards, the swish of the blanket, the hot breath on his neck. At first he had fought back however Johan’s sheer strength had overpowered him; what chance did a mere boy have against a grown man in the prime of physical condition?
He had learnt to endure, biting his tongue, accepting Johan’s love as an inescapable necessary evil. Where was he supposed to go? He had no home, no family. If he left the womb of the circus he would end up in an orphanage or even worse fighting for the emperor on the eastern front. It was what it was, and despite Johan’s unsollicited attentions, life in the circus was good. One big, happy, travelling family.
The finale was upon them, the crowd on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the final act.
“Ladies and gentlemen for your delectation and appreciation, a never to be repeated performance by the incredible death defying Johan. You will witness what those brave English soles at Agincourt wrought upon those mighty French. A sky darkened with arrows – death from above – no mercy and no escape. Brace yourself dear friends, for what you will witness is beyond belief!”
Johan prepared himself, removing his cotton shirt, standing bare chested, arms wide in the center of the ring – waiting for the crowd to silence themselves.
“Now!” screamed the ringmaster.
In a choreographed deluge of steeled-death, the javelins left the hands of the willing assistants above, and hurtled towards the target below. Shaft after shaft intent on deadly contact sang toward the saw dusted floor.
Gauging his moment, Jack stood up from the bench where he watched the performance. He knew how the trick worked. Two from the right – two from the left – followed by four down the center. A dance of death, to which the public were not privy to the steps. Jack lifted his face and shouted her name.
High above in the canopy, dressed in sequins and ostrich feathers, hung the young Katherine. A runaway, like himself, who had found a home among the circus folk. Months of careful practice had taught her to count the steps in her head so that she knew exactly when to throw.
One…two…three…throw. Simulated pitched chaos.
However tonight, her count was off – the javelin which should have gone left went right. She smiled down at Jack far below; they had each other, what could possibly go wrong?
The shaft caught Johan in the eye, pierced his throat, passed through his abdomen and exited his anus, before burying itself into the clay floor of the ring. He never saw it coming, never felt the pain – death was instantaneous. Like a pinioned marionette he hung, shafted in midstep.
The audience erupted.
Jack smiled up at Katherine. Katherine smiled down at Jack.