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The Smell of Orange Blossoms

by Ron Van Sweringen

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Father’s reflection in the mirror was amazing but almost unrecognizable. The tall black silk hat fit him exactly and was a perfect match in color to the large handlebar moustache glued onto his upper lip. A bright red jacket with wide shoulder pads covered with rows of gold buttons and braid glowed like fireworks on the 4th of July. Tall black leather boots so shiny you could see your face in them and a glistening brass baton completed his costume.

It was time for him to begin rehearsing the greeting spiel that Morning Glory had given him. Standing in the glow of a pink spotlight, in the center ring of the bigtop, his voice boomed out. “Ladies and Gentlemen....Welcome To The Grandest Traveling Circus On Earth!”

Nettie patted Mohab’s swaying trunk in greeting and Filbert gave a shrill squawk of recognition as they passed the huge elephant who stood tethered by a heavy rope around his hind leg. The gray tomcat following silently, gave a wide birth to Mohab. They had met with mutual dislike many times before, and the elephant snorted his displeasure at seeing the intruder he knew was up to no good.

Nettie decided the water for washing Mohab might be clearer away from the muddy shore, so she climbed out on a rickety pier rising over the river. Its weathered boards trembled slightly when she bent to lower her bucket into the swirling brown water. At that moment Filbert’s wildly flapping wings and frantic screams of panic knocked her off balance.

“How much do you weigh?” Morning Glory Jones asked Marcus, tapping her finger on her pursed lips.

“I’m not sure ma’am,” Marcus replied, puzzled at the question, “but around 95 pounds, I’d guess.”

“No matter,” she smiled in response, “just so long as your legs ain’t too long to fit in the cannon barrel.”

“CANNON!” Marcus squawked. “What cannon?” He dropped the folding chair he was holding.

“That one there,” Morning Glory continued, pointing to a large billboard showing a cannon with the name “Flying Fosdick, the Human Cannonball” painted in bright red letters.

“Who is that?” Marcus gulped, not wanting to hear the answer.

“You, young fella,” Morning Glory laughed, “just as soon as we figure out how far we can shoot you without breaking you in half.”

Clive began laughing hysterically at the look on his brother’s face, but stopped when Morning Glory turned to him. “And as for you, young man, we need a human target for ‘Marco the Magnificent,’ our blindfolded knife thrower.”

Clive’s mouth fell open, but nothing except his tongue came out.

“Don’t worry,” Morning Glory shook her head while winking an eye, “Marco the Magnificent, hardly ever misses, only just now and then.”

Nettie caught just a glimpse of the gray tomcat’s spring toward Filbert, his yellow eyes flashing and his claws extended as she fell backwards into the brown water.

Wings flapping, Filbert went with her, shrieking so loudly that Mohab began trumpeting in alarm. The water was cold and dark and to make matters worse, neither Nettie nor Filbert could swim or see the black shark fins that slowly circled them.

When Nettie surfaced, wildly thrashing to stay afloat, Filbert was on top of her head and clawing tightly. And a moment later, the gray tomcat was suddenly sent sailing into the river by a stiff broom to his backside.

“That’ll teach ya, ya troublemaker,” a large black woman with her head tied up in a red bandana cursed after the tomcat. “Hold on, child. Jemima’s comin’ after ya,” she called to Nettie before jumping into the water. A huge wave followed, bouncing Nettie and Filbert up and down on a mountain of bubbles.

Jemima threw her arms around Nettie and pulled her close. “Don’t worry, honey,” she smiled, “I’s too fat to sink, so all we gots to worry about is them oversized sardines out there.”

Punjab knew immediately from the sound of Mohab’s desperate trumpeting that something was wrong. He, Marcus, Clive and Morning Glory raced toward the elephant’s holding area.

“He’s broken free,” Punjab gasped when they saw the large iron stake pulled out of the ground. A moment later, Mohab’s excited trumpeting led them toward the river. What met their eyes next was astounding. Mohab was shoulder deep in the river with both Nettie and Jemima sitting behind his head, all four feet nestled behind his ears.

Marcus’s blood ran cold when he saw the ring of black fins in the water closing in around Mohab. “Those devils are after ’em,” Morning Glory shouted, charging onto the old pier. “Heaven help us!”

Mohab raised his great trunk to give a loud trumpet when he saw Punjab at the edge of the river. Nettie, ensconced in Jemima’s arms on the back of the elephant, waved wildly to the rescuers.

“Come home, my friend,” Punjab shouted while wading into the brown water. “Come home, Mohab.”

“Oh Lord,” Morning Glory moaned, “Punjab is crazy! The sharks will get him for sure.”

Marcus and Clive watched helplessly as Punjab waded ever more deeply into the swirling water while calling to the elephant.

Suddenly, Mohab’s huge head rose up, his tusks now visible coming out of the water, both buried in the white belly of a large shark. The elephant swung his head violently, throwing the lifeless fish onto the river bank. A second and then a third shark met the same fate, until Mohab’s huge body loomed above the brown water, with Punjab’s hand stroking his trunk.

The commotion from the river bank brought everyone from the big top. Nettie, with Filbert on her head, slid down Mohab’s trunk into Mother’s arms and announced loudly, “I knew all the time that elephants could swim.”

Jemima came from the water a little less gracefully, feet in the air and her two large gold teeth commanding a wide smile. “Lawd be praised, we done back on dry ground again.”

All three feet of Morning Glory Jones, still standing on the rickety pier, made the announcement. “Jemima is right: Lord be praised. Tonight’s Friday and we’re gonna have fish.”

Neither Marcus nor Clive slept well that night as a storm with driving rain beat against the circus trailer. Both brothers lay there thinking about what lay ahead tomorrow as they stared into the blackness until at last sleep won out.

In the morning as sunlight peeped through the trailer window, a loud voice boomed through the opened door. “Rise and shine boys, tonight’s the night!”

It was Morning Glory Jones, dressed in a chimpanzee costume, standing in the doorway eating a banana.

“Oh no,” Clive mumbled through squinted eyes, “maybe a blindfolded knife thrower isn’t so bad.”

Marcus started to laugh until the picture of a cannon blew its way into his head.

Everyone else was in good spirits at the outdoor breakfast table an hour later. Mother was wearing a Japanese kimono and had in her hair large pink cabbage roses held on by chop-sticks. Father was handsome and commanding with his black handlebar mustache. And Nettie, miss know-it-all, was the star of the show while sharing pancakes with Filbert.

Suddenly a new face appeared at the end of the table, and it was memorable. Here was an olive complexion creased by the sun, with black shiny hair framing the face like a lion’s mane. A jagged scar ran down the side of the face and terminated at the cheek. Most unnerving of all , the right eye appeared to be blinded by a thick milky glaze.

“I would like everyone to meet ‘Marco the Magnificent’, knife-thrower spectacular,” Morning Glory announced, raising her coffee cup in a toast. Everyone joined in the toast except Clive, who looked petrified as Jemima bent over his shoulder to serve him pancakes.

“If’n I was you,” Jemima whispered in his ear, “I’d be askin’ fer a raise.”

Crowds began arriving after lunch and by three o’clock long lines of traffic moved down the dusty South Carolina backroads to the circus campground. Whole families of country folks arrived in all manner of moving conveyances, a good many drawn by horse or mule. Black Model T’s puffed along behind battered pickup trucks, like an army of snails making their ways under the August sun down the rutted dirt roads.

The smell of hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy clung to the humid air near the river along with the unmistakable sounds of the circus calliope in the distance. Voices became louder and happier once in view of the Morning Glory Circus Big Top.

Colorful billboards of wild animals and sideshow freaks including the newest attraction, “A Wild Chimpanzee of Borneo” which led the way. The show in the big top was scheduled to begin at four o’clock, but all manner of sideshow attractions and games had already begun on the sawdust-covered circus grounds.

Fanny Klatter was a star, at least a star of the midway. Hers was the largest draw among the sideshows of the Morning Glory Circus, and she commanded the highest admission price of fifteen cents. All for good reason: Fanny was billed as “Rumanda The Three-Hundred-Pound Serpent Queen,” and she was famous for her mesmerizing snake dance of the seven veils.

Rumanda’s entire body was covered with tattooed snakes. And when she moved or flexed her muscles, they began an undulating serpent dance, wiggling and squirming on every part of her. It was an amazing sight that made strong men go weak, or so the barker in front of her tent assured the passing crowd.

Rumanda was rubbing her snakes with a concoction of olive and mineral oil to make them appear more realistic when she heard a drum roll from the big top announcing the start of the grand parade.

Everyone had heard that a new “Fosdick, the Human Cannonball” was to be debuting at today’s performance. The Human Cannonball was being shot one hundred and fifty feet through the air into a huge safety net erected directly above Rumanda’s tent. She wasn’t sure why, but for some reason she had an unsettling premonition that made the garter snake coiled around her belly button begin to quiver.

Marcus had squeezed into his Fearless Fosdick costume, which consisted of red, white and blue stars and stripes under a silver metal headpiece in the shape of a speeding bullet with eye holes. He had gone through a practice run early that morning with everyone in attendance: mother, father, Clive, Nettie and Morning Glory Jones. Although he was afraid that his heart might stop when the large spring beneath his feet shot him forward out of the cannon barrel, he actually enjoyed the feeling of gliding through the air, so much so that he almost forgot to curl up before hitting the safety net.

“Don’t forget to curl up,” Morning Glory had warned him, “or you’ll wind up flat as a pancake.” The practice run went perfectly except for one thing: the head grip had decided that the net was too loose and needed to be tightened for a better landing and bounce.

From his position beside the cannon at the far end of the big top, Marcus waited for the pink spotlight to find him and the beginning of his introduction by the ringmaster. He had a perfect vantage point of the center ring, watching mother atop two white ponies, one foot on each of their backs. She was dressed all in white and covered in sequins, except for a crown of red ostrich feathers streaming behind her like shooting flames as she flew around the ring, arms in the air.

Marcus could hardly believe what came next. Mohab appeared with his trunk in the air and his purple satin robes encrusted with sparkling jewels flowing behind him. Punjab, all in white and wearing a red turban, rode on his neck behind the large flapping ears. A harness beneath Mohab’s robes pulled a circus wagon, its sides enclosed with metal bars.

The ringmaster’s voice boomed out, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, from the heart of darkest Africa, The Wild Chimpanzee Of Borneo.”

Marcus began laughing when he recognized Nettie wearing the chimpanzee costume, jumping up and down on all fours inside the cage. Filbert, in a state of panic was hanging upside down from the bars, screeching for help as they went by.

Suddenly the pink spotlight hit Marcus, and his father’s voice began the introduction. “Now ladies, gentlemen and kiddies, we proudly present the death-defying “Fearless Fosdick, the Human Cannonball,” who will be shot at great risk to life and limb, for one hundred and fifty feet through the air before your very eyes.”

After a bow, Marcus took his position in the cannon’s barrel and at the end of a loud drum roll, he was sent hurtling through the air in a huge puff of smoke. He expected the same pleasant sensation he had experienced that morning during the test run, but this time something was different. When Marcus opened his eyes, the hundreds of faces filling the big top below him whizzed by in a blur. He was traveling at a much greater speed and a feeling of panic made his blood run cold when he remembered Morning Glory’s warning: “Curl up or you’ll be flat as a pancake!”

Marcus pulled his knees up under his chin just in time, before hitting the net with a zing! But this time the tightened net acted like a slingshot, sending him straight up through an opening in the big top. Then just as quickly, he went zooming down, head over heels.

Rumanda was in the middle of practicing her mesmerizing snake dance of the seven veils when a very Fearful Fosdick came crashing through the top of her tent. He landed in her arms, and the impact caused her fat suit to explode, sending rubber snakes flying everywhere and exposing a shell-shocked Fanny Klatter.

A month later, the Fuller family packed up securely in the Model T and waved goodbye to the Orange Blossom Circus. Mother had a happy smile at reliving her flying days; Papa was still wearing his ringmaster’s red jacket; and the Fuller kids were laughing at Mohab’s loud trumpet calls as they sped down the dusty road to Florida and orange trees in the front yard!

Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen

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