The circus was shutting down. The animals had been shipped off to zoos, mostly, but no one would take the peacock—apparently there was a surplus of peacocks. It strutted angrily around the empty menagerie.
Some of the performers had gotten other work already. The contortionist had an engagement as a dancer, and the trapeze artists were waiting tables. The fire eater was doing quite well as a busker in town. The ringmaster was hawking knife sets at a local fair, but he hadn’t told the rest of the company. He suspected it was beneath his dignity.
For others, the transition had been more difficult. The acrobats sat around on bales of hay, chewing gum and looking sulky. The clowns smoked scrounged cigarettes and juggled intermittently. The lion tamer found very little to do without his lions. He drank himself into a stupor most days and wandered glassy-eyed into the woods, where they heard him cracking his whip from time to time.
Amidst general uproar, the inspector had mandated that everything be taken down by the weekend. The circus had gone downhill, it was true—but they looked past the leaking big top, the mucky ring, the mold, the rusted metal, the skinny tigers with their broken teeth. Instead they remembered things as they had been in better days—the gasps of the audience, the majestic feats of skill and strength, the roar of applause.
The strongman had removed everything from the venue that they could sell, but he refused to touch the clown hanging. “The devil’s in that clown,” he muttered. “Besides, already bad enough luck to have missed a show.”
On Friday night, the remaining company were playing cards while the human cannonball cooked dinner, grumbling about women’s work. The smell of gasoline rose in the air, and he checked the tank for leaks. Everything looked fine. One of the acrobats threw down a straight, causing a general grumbling among the clowns. The smell intensified, accompanied by a strange rushing noise like strong wind. All at once they ran outside and saw the big top enveloped in flames. One of the clowns streaked off towards town to alert the fire department.
The striped canvas flapped and sagged in the darkness, the heat rippling and distorting the space around it. Suddenly a horrible scream emanated from the depths of the fire.
“Joe!” someone cried. “Oh God, it’s Joe!” They looked at each other in horror.
But the lion tamer came stumbling out of the woods, looking just as shocked as everyone else. The shrieking continued, the pitch rising in desperation. Then,
“It’s the clown!” shuddered the strongman, his face white and slack as the idea struck him. He stared into the flames, transfixed.
The screams grew nearer, and something came charging from the depths of the blaze. The strongman fell on his knees. A ball of fire shot from the mouth of the tent and passed him, flapping and screaming like a dying man. The peacock had escaped.