Giorgio Loses His Mother but Finds His Breath
Giorgio’s mother stroked his hair while New York City’s January poked sharp, insistent fingers through the holes in the wall. For warmth they’d burrowed into the mass of rags she’d collected with the other shrewd-eyed wraiths haunting the textile mill rubbish bins.
In the morning she was gone. Fear rippled within Giorgio like a sack of rats. His breath tightened to a trickle and he heaved and gulped, eventually reaching past the panic for calm and holding his arms overhead the way the doctors had shown him. Small breaths, slow down, don’t fight. Wheezing, Giorgio unwrapped a quarter-loaf of bread from a cupboard. Chewing and breathing with care so as not to choke, he stared out of the greasy windows of the back-tenement on Chrystie Street. For a bit he slept, exhausted by asthma and worry. Usually he fought sleep, afraid he would not wake up, or wake up drowning in his bed. But sometimes when he gave in, he dreamed he could outrun the wind.
The bread soon went the way of hunger. A day passed and she did not return.
He bundled himself in his jacket. He stuffed rags around his torso and throat and up his sleeves. Giorgio crept past the sleeping families in the apartment’s other rooms and down the filthy stairs to Chrystie Street. January prodded him with frigid curiosity but had not see his mother, neither had the cold paving stones or the soot-black chimneys on the roofs or the gaslights. At Delancey and the Bowery he waited for a streetcar and then a cab, the horse’s breath streamed in twin plumes. Giorgio managed just a trickle of air with each step. The world passed like a snail’s dream. Across Delancey, he straightened his back. It ached from hunching against the cold and his disease. January screamed her cold gusts through the rags around his throat and drove him to shelter in the corner of a stoop. He hugged his knees and fought for air, but the world dimmed anyway and he closed his eyes.
Shaking awake seconds later, he ducked his nose and mouth into his coat, breathing his own humid air until his lungs opened. There was strange music ahead, and a faint red light coming from a massive archway, its double doors carved with symbols and banded by iron. Light seeped from the other side and from the windows where men and women with painted faces leaned out, their elaborate hair threaded with gold and copper wire and lace. They waved and Giorgio waved back. One of them blew him a kiss.
The doors swung open and the music rose to a deafening level, the light boiling out. Giorgio stepped back in fear as a figure bent to clear the doorway. It walked with a loose, bobbing gait that made it appear as if he floated on legs that seemed to have twice the normal number of joints. Shining eyes sat below the brim of his battered stovepipe hat and a waxed mustache framed his mouth. Straightening to a full ten feet, twelve with the hat, he leaned down a slender hand.
“Well, well, lad, what might your name be?” The doors closed behind him with a delicate click.
Giorgio’s jacket had fallen away from his nose and mouth but he couldn’t speak. His breath had tightened down to nothing.
The slender giant with too many knees cocked his head to one side.
“Can’t talk, lad? Don’t you speak the English?”
Giorgio grunted, spent precious air to do it and sat down on the pavement. The giant shook his head.
“Now, that, that there won’t do at all.”
He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders and leaned in. Giorgio tensed to run. He strained and struggled, tried to shake loose but his muscles cramped and there were spots in front of his eyes. The slender giant’s face got closer.
“No, no, no. Not at all.” The giant said and put a hand on Giorgio’s chest. Deep warmth spread out from it. He opened his mouth so wide that the black of it eclipsed the street and all the boy saw were teeth and throat.
He exhaled hard and warm, humid breath slammed into Giorgio’s lungs, obliterating the wall he’d been trying to breath through with a welcome violence and more oxygen than he’d ever tasted before.
“I can…” Giorgio breathed and stared, rubbing his chest.
The giant smiled.
“I’ve never been able to. Not like this!” he started, stopped and tried again, “How did you?”
The giant shook his head and called over his shoulder to nobody.
“Uh oh, I think I’ve broken the lad, it’s a shame about the youth these days, given everything they are, and when they have it they don’t know what to do with it.”
Giorgio ignored his theatrics. There was so much sweet, cold air. He wanted to bite into it, to feel the juice of it run down his chin.
“How did you do that?”
The slender giant shrugged and it made his head and shoulders look like the letter M.
“An old parlor trick.”
“When does it wear off?”
“Do you want it to?” The giant looked puzzled.
“So, then. There’s your answer.”
Giorgio looked again at the building behind and its ominous doors.
“What’s in there?” Giorgio asked. The giant draped an arm around him.
“That? That’s nothing, lad. Don’t you worry about that.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing.”
“It’s just that a circus of wonder may not be very interesting to you.” The giant said.
“Just a boring old circus.”
“Can I see it?”
“You sure?” The giant frowned.
“I’m sure, I’m sure.” Giorgio squirmed and hopped.
“Then behold!” He bellowed and swept his arms apart, doubling over with the force and the wooden doors swung wide. Lights poured out with music, and sweet, spiced air that throbbed with life and drowned their senses.
On the other side, stood two imposing figures.
“My gatekeepers!” The giant intoned.
A great beast, black-stripped and golden-furred, had a thick tail rearing up behind it, the fur becoming scales that split into three snakes. They tasted the air with forked tongues. It had a man’s head, but several times bigger and it watched the boy with cat’s eyes. There were chewed bits of violent secrets caught between its three rows of teeth.
Giorgio backed away.
“Lad, you’re our guest here. He just likes to make an impression.” Giorgio looked to the beast for confirmation and it winked at him and chuckled in a voice of horns.
On the other side was a man nearly as tall as the slender giant, but his frame was stacked with muscle. Naked from the waist up, his skin was decorated with whorls, ships, weapons, and every manner of beast for which the mind had room. His grin was gentler than the beast’s with more than a few gaps.
“The titan and the manticore,” Said the giant. “Out of the mists of myth, from the cauldrons of the very gods themselves and onto the pages of history, these two have fought on every battle ground, sometimes together, sometimes as adversaries, but still they survive.”
“Why aren’t they fighting now?” Asked Giorgio.
“They’re the last of their kind.” The slender giant tipped his hat and leapt into the air. His coat tails flew out to the sides, and for a moment he seemed to change into a bird. Landing in a crouch with a grin as wide as his imaginary wingspan he said:
“Shall we continue?”
Giorgio looked north along the Bowery.
“The thing is…” He began.
“Yes?” The slender giant asked, brow furrowed.
“I’m looking for somebody. My mother.”
The slender giant leaned back and scratched his chin.
“That’s a thing indeed. But isn’t it you she’s meant to be keeping track of, not the other way around?”
“She’s been gone for hours.”
“What if you can’t find her?” The giant asked.
Giorgio rubbed at his chest and looked north. The giant snapped his fingers.
“No problem at all, lad. Won’t take a moment to view the wonders herein. After, I bet you’ll go home and find her there.”
Giorgio looked with longing into the carnival. “If she comes home and I’m not there she’ll be afraid.”
“A good son, you are. You’ve been scared yourself, right? All drowning on dry land and whatnot? Perhaps, and I think your mother, any mother would agree, that you’ve earned a bit of fun.”
Giorgio took the giant’s offered hand and a weight left his shoulders.
“What’s your name?” Giorgio asked.
“Have you ever been to the circus before?”
“No. I can’t even get too close to horses.” The boy rubbed his throat.
“Ah, well that won’t be a problem here. You can call me Ringmaster.”
“My name is Giorgio.”
The Ringmaster smiled. “It’s a pleasure indeed, Giorgio.”
Through the doors, past the titan and the manticore, was a hall ringed on all sides by spiraling stairs and balconies of stone, steel and wood. The doors closed and five men walked up to the Ringmaster. Rough fellows all, with the scars on their faces, hard eyes and the fancy, ragged clothes. Two of the men had holes in their waistcoats that looked like they’d just been made by knives but they weren’t bleeding. Giorgio huddled closer to the Ringmaster’s leg as one of the men tipped his hat.
“Michael.” The Ringmaster greeted him.
“Who’s the mouse?” Michael asked and Giorgio flinched.
“No mouse. This is Giorgio. Our guest.”
The tough-looking man dropped into a crouch and smiled, flashing a tooth of polished silver. He doffed his cap.
“Of course it is. Nice to meet you, Georgie.”
Giorgio nodded and stared.
“There’s nothing now, Michael,” said the Ringmaster, “Wait. Giorgio here’s lost his mother.”
Michael looked down at the boy, who was inching around the Ringmaster’s leg as his fear lessened. “Aye, we can do that.”
Michael led his band of toughs away.
“They’re going to look for her?” Giorgio said.
The Ringmaster waved his hand.
“If she’s lost, Michael will find her. While we wait, let me show you around.”
Giorgio soon learned not to look too close, or try to comprehend, the many doors, branching corridors and high-arched rooms. The carnival was like a tree flowering in mirrors, and each of the wonders he was led past branched off into scores of others. Giorgio saw a group of burly men working in undershirts and caps, their skin streaked with sweat and dirt. They were building a massive circle of burnished steel that filled the room to the edges and made them all look as small as children. The steel branched and twisted, thin as wire in some places and wide as a man in others. It disappeared into the walls, the ceiling and the floor.
“What are they building?”
The giant frowned and stroked his chin. “Oh, I think that’s part of everything. Looks like the base. “
“What do you mean, everything?”
“Everything you see around you has to stand on something or be made of something, right?
“But nothing can be everything.” Giorgio frowned.
“No? Then were does everything come from?”
The workmen used no tools. In their hands the iron became red-hot and pliable, and their muscles bunched and stretched as they fitted and smeared the pieces into place. They connected pipes and wire and platforms and catwalks. They made angles where there had been smooth curves and used their calloused palms to plane sharp lines into sensuous slopes. Other rooms held orchards and rainstorms, ships and waves and flocks of birds in endless skies of every shade. Acrobats tight-rope walked between buildings and canyons and took off into the air on wings of red steel. All of this Giorgio saw and wondered at, but it was the next room that made the boy laugh with delight.
“They’re juggling pigs.” Giorgio pointed.
The men sweated and strained, tossing the large pink animals into the air and then running to catch them. The pigs endured the practice with a strange passivity, no more than the occasional reproachful oink at a rough catch.
“Yes, well.” The Ringmaster coughed into his hand. “We may have to skip this one at shows. Not really fit for an audience.”
“Because it’s a pain in the ass. First you gotta get the pigs drunk and then if they do squeal too loud they upset the audience. And in this one town we traveled to, a couple of farmers snuck into the tent one night after the show and stole two of them. Heard they used them to win blue ribbons at the county fair. Ignorant bastards.”
Giorgio laughed behind his hands while the Ringmaster looked at him askance.
“Stop laughing, lad, it’s not funny. It’s quite a thing, the pig-juggling game. Training new pigs? Takes forever. Not to mention the liquor costs. And imagine if the pigs talked about what we do here?”
“Pigs can’t talk.”
The Ringmaster put a finger to his lips. “Don’t tell them that!” His voice was stern, but his eyes twinkled. Giorgio laughed for the sheer joy of it, just to use the lungs that for the first time rang clean and clear. The Ringmaster signaled to a juggler who’d just caught a fat sow in both arms and was stumbling sideways, trying not to tip over. He sighed with relief and put down the pig. She tottered over, grunting and snorting. Giorgio stared down at her for so long that she nudged him with her snout. When he failed to do anything, she nudged him again and made a funny little plaintive oink. The boy laughed and patted her. The sow gurgled, bumped him and walked back to the juggler. He took a deep breath, picked her up and shuffed back to the practice floor.
“This place is amazing.” Giorgio said and the Ringmaster tipped his hat. Then he peered into the corridor ahead of them.
“I believe I have a true surprise for you, Giorgio.”
“They come out for visitors so rarely.” The Ringmaster’s voice was viscous with awe and theater tricks.
Walking toward them were two tall, slender women dressed in identical men’s suits. Their coattails drifted around their steps. When they moved Giorgio saw flashes of steel and fire. Their faces were identical, their eyes lined in white paint, one had red hair, the other black.
“Who are they?”
“Sisters. Warders, you might call them.”
“What’s a warder?”
“They protect. Tonight it seems they’re here to protect you.”
“But they’re girls.” Giorgio frowned.
“Apparently, a young boy’s wonder extends only so far.” The Ringmaster said with a smirk. If they were offended, they did not show it. They knelt in front of Giorgio and stared at him for several moments, eyes on every feature of his face until he became nervous.
“What are they?”
The Ringmaster shrugged. “I’ve never been sure and they’ve never told me.”
They nodded to Giorgio and warmth spread throughout him. When it hit his belly he wanted to laugh, to shout.
“They’ve placed their mark on you, lad. You’ll never know danger again.”
Danger reminded him.
“Ringmaster, I have to find my mother.”
“I have my best on it.”
“Michael.” Giorgio said and looked at the floor.
“You’re sure they’ll find her?”
“I’ve never seen anything that can stop Michael.”
Giorgio nodded and clapped a hand to his stomach when it rumbled.
The Ringmaster laughed and Giorgio blushed. “I guess I’m hungry.
“I’ve never known a boy not to be.” The Ringmaster said and led the way as the twin sisters’ bookended Giorgio. They were soon sprawled at a long table, laid in white cloth and scattered with food, where Giorgio ate more than he’d ever seen before in his life. He sighed as he pushed a last morsel into his mouth, his veins fat with an opiate fullness of oxygen and safety. He thought of his mother, out there and alone, her fingers darting for rags behind the factory and haggling with a chemist for medicine. And here I’ve been having fun, he thought, eating good food and seeing amazing things without her.
“Ringmaster, I can’t stay here anymore. I have to go look for her.”
The Ringmaster looked uncomfortable and was about to speak when Michael appeared at his side and whispered in his ear. Giorgio’s gut clenched when Michael cast a quick look at him before he left the room. His face grew hot, and tears built in his eyes.
“Giorgio, are you crying?” The Ringmaster asked.
“She’s dead. She went out to get medicine for me and now she’s never coming back.”
“No, Giorgio. That’s not it….”
“I can see it on your face, she’s dead. It’s my fault and I’ve been sitting here having fun. She went out to get medicine because I’m always sick. It’s my fault.”
“Giorgio…” The Ringmaster tried to speak, but the boy’s sobbing cut him off. The sisters glared at the Ringmaster and moved closer, their hips pressing against the boy’s shoulders. He scowled back at them.
“Giorgio, look at me. She isn’t dead. Truly.” The Ringmaster took off his hat and put his hand on the boy’s knee.
Giorgio wiped at this face. “Is she coming here?”
“Not yet but very soon.”
“What is she doing?”
“She’ll be here before you know it, I give you my word. She’s just got a bit of a journey ahead of her.”
“But we live close by!”
“Everybody takes their own road here, Giorgio. Here’s is just a little longer than yours. Michael left word. She’ll know to come here.”
“Are you sure?”
“I promise. You can wait for her right here.”
Giorgio allowed the last of his tears to run out and soak into the giant’s soft velvet coat. The sisters stared out at a threat only they could see, some noise, some menacing shadow in the future or possibly the past.