The halo of fire lit the abandoned subway station like the Eucharist pouring molten soft into a cup. I breathed out flames, illuminating decades-old graffiti and mange-ridden rats. The pests scrabbled away from the heat, claws clicking on the cracked pavement. My companions set up shop, raising circus tents in the rotting terminal and suspending a trapeze from the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The subway station was faded glory, Rococo murals and puddles of filth. Here our carnival would rise, in the gut of Paris, leagues beneath the streets. It was half performance art, half madness. Amelié the bearded lady had first dreamed it up – why not light up the underbelly of France, with snake charmers and sword swallowers? We had done it many times before across Europe, across the world. Why not teach the terminals of Paris to sing like some lost Phantom from an Opera?
Fire breathing came like a second skin to my adopted family. We bathed ourselves in flames, and, purified, ascended to heights only seraphim knew. It was a baptism of sorts, that first time you put the chemicals in your mouth, held the torch to your lips, and spat your sweetest confessions to the heat. It was catharsis, a letting go.
“Francois, it’s time,” said Adam, tightrope walker par excellance, the only man I would trust my life with.
I lowered my torch and nodded. Our rites had just begun.
Into the silk tent we went, where the ringmaster was arranging the masked audience we had stolen from the streets above. They sat shivering in the stands, all modern day urchin children in haggard clothes – some homeless, other Irish Travelers, several human trafficking victims we had stolen from pleasure dens – all plied with popcorn they clutched with grubby little fingers.
The clowns held their small bodies steady, kept them from running away. The children shivered. One girl lifted the popcorn to her nose, sniffing to assure herself it was real.
I had been one, once – raised in this carnival of darkness. But in the black, the truth shone bright as my torches. I would choose no other life, if I had had to make the choice a thousand times more. I was wild, and so were the children.
The ringmaster, Armand, flicked his cane and motioned the clowns to seat the children further to the right. “Bruno, move the blonde up a row!” Armand said. He turned to me and Francois and clapped his white gloved hands. “Ah, Christophe, Francois! Just in time for the act to begin.”
The orchestra struck up a foreboding noise on stolen strings as Francois and I scaled a ladder to the tightrope high above. One by one, the clowns untied the children’s masks. The boys and girls fell silent at the sight of me on Francois’ shoulders as he unicycled across the tightrope, no safety net in sight. I stood balanced atop my best friend, then breathed out the fire I knew so well.
Below, monkeys busted from medical labs, now on balls, scampered around the ring, and Amelié directed a dozen lithe women dressed in Columbine costumes in an elaborate dance, all in time with the ragtag musicians. The act melded together as Francois cycled back and forth.
I breathed fire to the rhythm, and the children’s fear disappeared as they brought their hands to their mouths, rapt at our performance. The dancing girls scattered as the Harlequin leapt into the ring, too-long legs bending at impossible angles as he pursued the Columbines. Soon, he had chased them all offstage, then began to sing of his lonesomeness. He pulled flowers from his pockets and threw them to the girls in the crowd, begging them to be his. Finally, with a rousing finale, the act was over, and Armand motioned for the lights to be dimmed. The children clapped haphazardly, not sure what they had just seen, and Armand turned to address them.
“Gentlemen, mademoiselles, you must be wondering why I brought you here tonight?” Armand said. The children nodded their heads in solemn agreement. Armand grinned. “You have no home, gypsy children. But we are here to offer you one. Join the act of Paris below, and you will never want for food or warmth. All of this can be yours.”
The children were mum, eyes wide as moons. Soon they began to whisper amongst themselves, faces darting to the dancers and actors.
Armand continued: “We will provide you bed and bread, a family unlike any you have ever known. We will train you in the theatrical arts, raise you to be wandering minstrels and mummers, putting on masques from Siena to Sicily. You have a choice, my dear children: our carnivale begins tomorrow, put on for the highest echelons of Parisian society, or to curious students who catch your eyes. We need children to lure them below, sweet faces to coerce them around shadowed alleyways and down ankle-twist stairs. For after all, what is a shadow play without an audience?”
The children, pale in the darkness and firelight, listened intently. I remembered sitting in those same steps, listening to the old ringmaster two generations before Armand, and deciding to dine on danger and wonder from that day forth before he had even ended his invitation. I signed up for the troupe in a heartbeat.
Armand finished: “You will be silent as night’s drapery, and rewarded handsomely for your efforts for the rest of your life, in coin and chorus and camaraderie. Our troupe travels the world, and nowhere do we not have a home. We will train you in whatever arts you desire, from contortionry to the trapeze. So what say you, boys and girls?”
I breathed a halo of fire that circled the room.
Francois cycled handstands around the ring.
The Harlequin bowed, and the Columbines started wailing.
The children put on their masks.
“Welcome,” Armand said, “to the Night Troupe.”
The children bowed.