Greatest Love on Earth
by Mary Ellen Dennis
25 August, 1855
“It’s a girl,” said the Bearded Lady. “But her’s not breathing.” Carefully, the Bearded Lady extended the lifeless infant toward Angelique Kelley.
“You did your best,” said Sean Kelley, patting the Bearded Lady’s shoulder. “There was no midwife handy, and our wee one came early.”
Nine-year-old Brian O’Connor had been crouched outside the circus wagon. Now he burst through the doorway and raced across the wagon’s narrow interior. Grasping the baby, he held her by the ankles and slapped her slippery bottom.
“Brian!” Sean roared. “Are you brainsick?”
“Brian, s’il vous plait,” Angelique cried.
“Hush,” Brian said. “Listen!”
The baby girl mewed piteously. Then she sneezed, screwed up her tiny mouth, and wailed. Brian placed her upon her mum’s bosom, and the babe’s yowls subsided.
“Merci,” Angelique whispered.
“There was something in a book ’bout spanking a dead baby alive. You always say reading’s a waste of time, but I’m glad I read that book.”
“A miracle,” said the Bearded Lady.
As if she understood, the baby gurgled.
Tears streamed down Sean’s face. “Me daughter,” he bragged, “sounds like a calliope.”
“What’s a calliope?” Embarrassed by Sean’s tears, Brian counted his toes.
“A musical instrument. I shall buy one for our circus. That’ll increase business tenfold. Wait till you hear the calliope’s whistle, lad. ’Tis a siren one cannot fail to notice. Seductive, tempting, irresistible.”
“Seductive, tempting, irresistible,” Brian parroted.
Outside the wagon, a short distance away, another circus performer squatted like a toad—a turbulent toad. The Gypsy’s concoction had cost dear. Angelique had swallowed every bite of the spiced pudding and gone into early labor, yet she was still this side of the grave.
The French wench was a cat with nine lives, damn it, and she had eight lives to go!
Wish I could fly without a net.
Hands pressed against her heart, Calliope Kelley watched a lone sparrow hawk glide across the sky.
“Happy birthday, Calico Cat,” Brian said.
He had sneaked up behind and tugged her long braids as if they were whips to tame his lions and tigers. Ouch!
Her braids felt like a hangman’s noose as Brian wrapped them around her neck and stepped in front of her. He wore fawn-colored trousers tucked into high black boots, and a loose white shirt. Peeking from the shirt’s pocket was a dime novel. Brian always carried books. He had taught Calliope how to read, and when she wasn’t performing or helping with chores, she eagerly scanned pages.
“Let go of my hair, Brian O’Connor,” she stated with defiance, but couldn’t control a tear or three.
“Sorry, puss.” He released her braids. “Guess I pulled your weeds too hard.”
“My hair ain’t weeds,” she said, her tears forgotten. “Papa says weeds are not valued where they grow. Mum says flowers are cherished.”
“True.” Brian bowed, then handed her a clown’s bouquet of paper flowers. He did it so quickly she couldn’t decide if he had drawn it from his sleeve or the pocket of his breeches. She hated being fooled.
She hated her name, too. Calliope Angelique Kelley. It was pronounced cal-eye-oh-pee, but some people said cal-eee-ope, which was wrong, wrong, wrong! Brian had nicknamed her Calico Cat because, he said, her brown hair had glints of reddish gold, and her gray-green eyes slanted like a tiger’s. Other circus performers called her girl. “Stay away from the tent ropes, girl.” “Don’t be playing near the elephants, girl.” Golly Jehossafrat!
This afternoon she had blown out the candles on her birthday cake and wished her name was Mary. Mary was a fine name. Nobody in the whole world was called Calliope. Everyone else had a person’s name.
Calliope stood outside the performers’ entrance to the big tent. She had just finished her Jockey’s Act, not that she did much. Wearing soft leather boots, tights, leotard, and skirt, she straddled Marianne Defossey’s shoulders. Marianne stood on top of Big John’s shoulders while their horse galloped ’round the ring. Last week Calliope had practiced a pirouette on her toes, followed by an upward leap and spiral, but when Papa watched, she had missed and tumbled from her horse to the dirt. What a hullabaloo! She had merely hurt her pride and behind, but Papa said, “Wait a bit, me darlin’ daughter. Practice makes perfection. ’Tis no need to be taking foolhardy chances.”
It wasn’t fair. When Mum rehearsed, she sometimes stumbled and fell. Mum had even tried to somersault forward, an almost impossible feat for a ropewalker. By Calliope’s reckoning, Mum had been close to death seven times. She had fallen twice while climbing to the top of the tent. Luckily, the distance had not been great, and she had ended up with what Papa called “piddling boo-boos.” Once Mum had eaten canned beans and suffered from a ghastly belly ache. Then there was the time she had been pushed from the wagon by mistake while crossing a stream. Papa said he had to turn her inside out and bail her breadbasket. Last Christmas she had been scratched by a lion with a toothache, and last month she had been shot at during a circus parade. Thank goodness she had been swinging from the small parade trapeze and the gunshot missed. Mum said the bullet parted her hair down the middle like Papa’s, and Papa said she must wear a big hat for her next march-past. Papa was so funny.
Calliope peeked through the tent’s opening. Papa stood by the center pole. White cuffs hung from the sleeves of his gray linen jacket. He wore a batwing collar and a black cravat, and his necktie’s knot sported a diamond pin as big as an acorn. Papa looked downright purty with his round, rosy face, green eyes, and wavy black hair. Mum and Papa had met in Paris, France.
Mum considered herself an equilibrist, but other performers called it ropewalking. Mum used a net for rehearsals, never during her act. High above the audience, she danced with the grace of a ballerina. Then, blindfolded, she would perform blackflip somersaults.
Calliope thought her mum, Angelique, was the most daring performer in Papa’s circus. If only Mum wouldn’t insist on perfecting that forward somersault. If only Brian O’Connor wasn’t besotted by Mum’s beauty.
Brian loved Angelique, and why not? Everyone adored Sean Kelley’s “French Angel.” Everyone said how Calliope was such a skinny little thing, all arms and legs, with a sassy mouth to boot—nothing like her mother.
But now she was eleven. Older. Tomorrow she’d be eleven and a day. Soon she’d play center ring, just like Mum. Then Brian would love her.
Calliope watched Marianne perform a fork jump, leaping from the ground to her horse, alighting astride its dappled back. There was scattered applause.
Maybe it was the recent outbreak of cholera, thought Calliope, but the audience seemed restless, mean tempered. Papa had sensed their unease and begun his show with Brian’s wild cats. That held their interest, but they hadn’t laughed much at the clowns. And they seemed downright bored by the Jockey Act.
Papa signaled to the band member who played a steam piano on wheels, and Calliope heard the music’s tinny whine taper off.
“My friends,” Sean began.
“We ain’t your friends,” shouted a beefy, red-faced man. “And if’n you cain’t do your show better, we want our two bits back.”
“My friends,” Sean repeated, his clear voice reaching every seat. “You have just heard a modern marvel of musical mechanism, a gen-u-ine calliope. The tones of this incredible instrument are so powerful they can be heard five miles away, and yet they are as sweetly soft as a lover’s lute.”
The beefy man guffawed. “Lover’s lute, my ass! The wife’s piana can be heard ten miles away, more’s the pity.”
A wave of laughter followed the heckler’s words.
“Rotten, side-whiskered son of a hyena,” Brian muttered.
Calliope wished she could cuss like a man. “Why is that gilly so mean?” she asked.
“Who can tell about gillys? They all sound growly. I wish Sean had taken the circus straight to New York.”
Calliope slanted a glance toward Brian. His mother, a circus equestrian, had died before Calliope was born. Sean and Angelique had taken the orphaned boy into their care and raised him. He was, in effect, her big brother. Calliope knew she couldn’t marry her brother, and she was glad Brian was not truly related by blood ties. Because she planned to marry him when she grew up. Then, lickety-split, they would have a baby named Mary.
What if her first child was a boy? Well then, she would christen him for the state where he was born. Dakota. Montana. York. Unless, of course, he was born in Missouri. You couldn’t call a lad Miss Ouri.
“Look at your papa, Calico Cat.” Brian pointed toward the ring.
Sean, unperturbed, waved a slender, gold-headed cane. “And now, my friends, if you will kindly give me your attention, the Sean Kelley Circus proudly presents its star attraction. Our French Angel, at great danger to her lovely person, will tiptoe across the rope. Lay-deez and gen-tul-men, she will dance through the air straight up to heaven.” He winked toward the red-faced, side-whiskered man. “And don’t be tellin’ me how your wife dances across the sky like an angel, though I sure-fire pity her for the divil she wed.”
This time the laughter was good-natured.
Calliope watched the beefy man’s wife jab him in the ribs. His mouth opened then closed. Whatever remark he meant to shout became an unintelligible gurgle.
Angelique had entered the ring.
Calliope gasped. Mum had sewn a new costume. Beads sparkled at her bosom and between her legs. The tights and leotard were flesh-colored, and from a distance she appeared naked. Good thing they were performing in Missouri, because she’d never get away with it in Boston. Calliope sneaked a peek at Brian. His dark blue eyes looked moonstruck, and his lips wore a doltish grin.
Her heart plummeted to the bottom of her boots. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how fast she grew, she would never look like Mum.
Angelique entered the ring swiftly, her honey-colored hair streaming behind her. Reaching the center pole, she posed en pointe. Then she began a slow accent up a swinging ladder, held steady by Papa. The band played a waltz.
Calliope’s gaze followed until Mum safely reached the platform.
Excitement charged the audience, but there was still an almost imperceptible murmur of discontent. Calliope sighed. What would make the gillys happy? Couldn’t they see there was no net beneath? Did they want Mum to walk through the air without a rope?
“Lay-deez and gen-tul-men,” Papa announced after Mum had danced to the middle of the rope, “our French Angel will execute a back somersault blindfolded. We need complete silence. Will the fainthearted among you please shut your eyes?”
A drum rolled, and the audience hushed. Good. Mum had their attention.
The calliope player hit a key by mistake. A discordant whistle echoed throughout the tent.
Startled, Angelique dropped her blindfold. The piece of black material floated toward the ground. Angelique’s spell was broken.
“Does she want it brung up again?” roared the red-faced man. “I’ll climb that there ladder fer a kiss at the top.”
“What’s the Angel doing now?” cried a woman, rising to her feet.
Noting the waning interest of her audience, Angelique had performed a series of double somersaults.
“That ain’t nothin’,” Redface said with a sneer. “My young’un can jump from the roof of our barn backwards an’ spin his way down like some damnfool twister. French Angel, my ass! She’s a cheat!”
The crowd rumbled loudly. Calliope thought they sounded like lions and tigers with bellyaches. She watched Angelique tense her body and spread her arms. “Mum’s going to try a forward somersault, Papa. Stop her, oh please, stop her.”
Calliope’s plea was unnecessary, for Sean had already seen his wife’s anger and sensed her injured pride. Dropping his cane, he cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Cease, me precious darlin’!” he yelled. “There’s no net beneath. Do not be attemptin’ a foolish stunt for these hooligans. New York—we planned to show the forward in New York.”
If Angelique heard her husband, she gave no sign.
Calliope watched, praying. In a back somersault, shoulders flexed naturally, and swinging arms gave additional momentum. “Somersaulting forward reverses natural reflexes,” Papa had once said. “The body generates a gravitational pull.” Calliope wasn’t sure what gravitational pull meant, but she thought it might mean Mum’s arms were no help because they got in the way.
Angelique leaped high. At the same time, she lowered her head.
“Your arms!” Calliope screamed.
“Do not be forgettin’ to wrap your arms about your chest,” Papa warned, “or they’ll catch between your legs.”
Brian pressed Calliope’s face against his ruffled shirtfront. Despite the book in his pocket, she could hear the thud of his heart.
“Angelique, no, please, God, no.” Brian’s voice was an anguished moan.
Wrenching free from his grasp, Calliope ran through the tent’s open flap, her gaze riveted upwards, her whole world reduced to a pair of slipper-clad feet. And yet she thought she saw a sag in the rope. Impossible! The rope was always guyed-out, stretched tight by Big John or Bobby Duncan or Jack the Giant.
Angelique’s golden hair whipped around her throat as she teetered sideways. Her fingers scratched at the air, reaching toward heaven. Then one dainty foot stepped on a cloud that wasn’t there, and she plummeted toward earth.