In 2013 I participated in NaNoWriMo, writing a small novel in 30 days. I also worked together with my other half to write short stories to be read alongside her NaNo. All of the stories were the origins of Circus folk in a mystical circus with some unusual members. This is the story of their resident juggler, Giorgio.
Excuse the simple language, Giorgio is a simple guy.
Giorgio the Juggler
Sometimes you don’t get to make the choices in life. Sometimes everything is out of your hands, and you just get to go along with the ride.
That’s what Giorgio thought. Life hadn’t been easy so far, but he didn’t stress about it. He wasn’t that smart, and he knew it. School had never been easy for him, when he even bothered to go. His family had come to America with a hope that things would be different, that they could have a fresh life. Instead he spent his life hearing stories about the old country.
He had a skill though, a talent. When it came to sports, Giorgio was a natural. It didn’t matter what he put his hands on, a baseball, a basketball, he could move it with such ease that it blew the minds of his family and friends.
It didn’t matter if he was out in a field juggling a ball, or wrestling in a backroom, no one was better than Giorgio.
One day, when Giorgio was still in school, he was juggling out in the yard with the other boys. He had found heavy rocks, and produced a knife from his back pocket.
“I bet you can’t do it,” One boy offered, “I bet you my lunch.”
These are the bets he loved most. A free meal, and plenty of fun. He threw the first rock, began to pace it in the air, and soon the second rock, before the knife joined in. The other boys were in awe as it spun in the air, its blade gleaming, narrowly missing his palm each time it came down.
To Giorgio, this was easy, a carefree way to spend the time.
“Another rock,” shouted one of the boys, chucking one at him. He caught it in his left hand, and soon the rock joined the rotation, floating through the air as if weightless.
“Giorgio!” Shouted a girl’s voice. It was his sister.
He caught the rocks, one by one, and let the knife fall to the ground. It landed with its point digging into the earth near his foot.
The other boys turned their face to the black haired girl approaching them, an angry look on her face.
“Mary,” Giorgio said as he dropped the rocks behind him.
“You know you should be studying, you know what mother said.”
He turned his face away. The other boys ran off, snickering as they went. He didn’t want to be yelled at, not for doing something he loved, not for being good at something.
“Come on Giorgio,” She said while grabbing him by the hand, “We have to go back, school will start again soon.”
He let her hand go, “I’ll catch up.”
She looked at him, but he grinned in a way he knew she couldn’t resist. A big brother’s grin.
“Trust your brother.”
Mary looked back at the school, nodded, and ran off.
Giorgio retrieved his knife from the ground, balanced it in his hands. It was a pocket knife, his favorite, worn through years of service. Given to him by his father, before father left.
“Have you always been that good?” Asked a voice.
Giorgio turned, and there stood a man, hidden under the shadow of a tree. Giorgio turned away from him.
“Everyone says,” Giorgio started, “Giorgio is the best there is.”
The man laughed, it was a jolly laugh. Whatever made him happy, it was none of Giorgio’s business, but he remembered thinking he had never heard anyone that glad to see a boy juggle.
“Giorgio,” Said the man, “I think I know something you could do, and do well.”
It was an offer, a job. If he wanted, and the man always left him the choice, he could join their circus. Giorgio knew it was in town, saw the signs about the big top, saw the peak of the tents on his way to school.
At first he didn’t like the idea, but the man offered him the chance to come and see, meet the people, try it out. They were leaving in a week, and by then he could make his choice.
Giorgio went after school. He wasn’t that impressed with the carnival rides, and the loud vendors. It seemed like a place for children, and in his eyes, he was almost a man. He didn’t need cotton candy, or hot dogs.
Then he saw the strong men, and the jugglers. These men showing off great might and skill, smiles on their faces as they hoisted weights or juggled blades in pairs.
The jolly man took him to the back of the tent, introduced him to the other circus folk. Some of them were no older than him, some looked ancient in comparison.
“What can he do?” Asked a man only a little older than Giorgio.
The man looked at Giorgio, then to the juggler, “Give the boy your blades.”
Giorgio had never juggled long blades before. He held three in his hands, weighed them, practiced tossing one.
“The boy’ll end himself,” Said the juggler with a heavy accent.
“Hush,” Said the man who brought him there.
Giorgio looked at all the eyes on him, bulky mustached men and skinny acrobats. He swallowed, and began. His hands slid over the hilt of the blades, and one by one he launched them, juggled them in the air, and soon they were dancing above him like anything else.
The people were watching him, and at first he thought he saw anger, frustration. Then, they burst into cheering, claps and shouting for him to go on. Giorgio smiled, and the blades went higher, twirling in the air.
When he finished, the strongman smacked him on the back, and the juggler squeezed him in a hug. They smelled of barn straw and sweat, but they looked happy, and they made him happy. He stayed with them, listened to their music, tunes he had never heard, sometimes in languages he didn’t understand. They were unreal.
When he returned home, the lights on the street already lit, he could see his sister waiting for him outside their house. Her face was red with rage, and Giorgio’s smile did nothing to slow her anger.
“Where have you been?” She cried out, “Mother is worried sick.”
Giorgio looked through the window, but he knew what he was looking for wasn’t there; his mother’s face. She would be inside, sleep for the next day, ready to work.
“Where were you?” Mary asked as Giorgio passed her. She grabbed him by the arm, tried to hold him in place. Giorgio would have none of it, and pulled himself free.
“I was at the tents,” He said, “For the circus.”
The explanation was simple, but it did nothing to change his sister’s expression. She looked hurt, on top of her anger. They squeezed inside the house, and Giorgio sat down in a chair to take off his boots.
“You went to the circus without me?” Mary said, “With what money? What were you doing there?”
Giorgio didn’t look at her. It was hard to ignore her, not to see something of his mother there. She was so concerned, but it never felt like concern for him. She was trying to keep him in place, make sure he became the new father of the house, with the same work, the same lack of control. She didn’t seem to understand, father was gone.
“I was invited,” Giorgio said, “For no money. The recruiter, he wanted to see my talent.”
“Your talent?” Mary said, her voice rising.
“My talent. He says I am exceptional. He says I could be great in their circus, I would bring in great crowds and be happy there.”
Giorgio didn’t see the strike coming, but he felt the sting of Mary’s palm. It felt like a hot coal across the cheek, and the pain lingered, made the room spin.
“Stupid,” She said, “Did you even think about us? Did you think about your family? You will be happy there, but what will they pay you? How will we live, Giorgio? You are being a stupid boy.”
He looked at her, and he could see her palm reach back again, a look of fury in her eyes. Giorgio caught her arm, stood up from the chair.
Even without his boots, he towered over her. Looking down she was exactly what she should have been, a child. Her wrist was small in his palm, flimsy. He had to concentrate to loosen his grip, and she pulled her arm free, held it in her opposite hand.
“Stupid,” She whispered. Then she sniffled, her breath caught in her throat.
Giorgio took a deep breath, “I want to be happy, Mary. Can’t you and mother come with me? We can travel, see the world, and all of us will be happy.”
Sports, running, juggling, these things were what his life was all about. Asking anyone, they would have told you the same. Giorgio loved to move, Giorgio had a natural talent. He thought of the other boys with talents, some were good with numbers, others were good at fixing things, these talents Giorgio could see going places. They would work, and their sisters would be happy, they wouldn’t fight in the dark.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Mary said, turning and heading to go to bed.
Giorgio sat back in the chair, looked around their house. It was tiny, full of pictures and gifts from family. It was home, but it didn’t make Giorgio feel welcome.
The next days he spent with the circus folk, dancing, singing, playing. It was beautiful. The women were extraordinary, hair flowing as they span in circles. The men were free, they played instruments when they wanted, and their work looked like play. They would draw in crowds of people, show off their skills, and Giorgio would watch.
One day, the juggler invited him over to join him. Giorgio had never juggled with someone else, but he wasn’t afraid now. He took his position, smiled to the crowd, people from his town and beyond. They surrounded them as the long knives were pulled out, they wowed the crowd as they tested the knives by cutting ropes, by digging them deep into wooden poles to show they were deadly. Then the juggler threw him his first knife, and without fail, Giorgio sent it right back to him, found the timing between them. The act created cries of awe from children.
Then another man lit small torches, and threw them to the juggler. The number of objects doubled, but they still juggled them without fail, smiles on their faces, cheers from the crowd. The torches felt hot on Giorgio’s palms, the light was blinding, but it was a rush like he had never felt.
When they it was time to stop, Giorgio caught the knives, the juggler caught the torches, and they both bowed to the audience around them. Never had Giorgio been part of anything so wonderful.
When the crowd dispersed, the recruiter man came to him.
“Juggle these,” he said, handing Giorgio two small rubber balls.
Giorgio shrugged, and did this.
“I want you for this circus,” The man said, “You don’t know what that means to me. We don’t hire just anybody, we only bring in family. If you come with us, you are one of us, and we will protect you as our own. You are something special Giorgio, and I don’t say that lightly.”
The man had a fast tongue, but his words only made him think of Mary. His sister would have hated what the man was saying, maybe she would have slapped him too.
“What about my real family?” Giorgio asked.
The man looked over his shoulder, and he nodded at the strong man. The man took a black dumbbell he was using, and without hesitation, threw it at Giorgio.
Giorgio was afraid, but then he caught it, and he juggled it. The weight seemed light, as if it was fake. Giorgio felt silly for ever fearing it in the first place.
“We can send your money home,” The man said as he watched Giorgio. He nodded to the strong man again, and another weight was thrown. This time Giorgio didn’t react, he caught it, added it to the whirling air show.
“My sister, she will not be happy,” Giorgio said.
“Your sister doesn’t know what is best for you,” The man said, “You don’t belong here. They will put you in some factory, or working on a farm. This is not your destiny, Giorgio. I’m here in this city for you.”
“I will think about this,” Giorgio said.
Giorgio stopped juggling, catching the balls in one hand, and the weights in the other. The dumbells, which seemed as light as air a moment before, regained the weight he feared they had before. At first Giorgio strained to carry them, then realized it was impossible, and dropped the weight to the ground where it crashed into the dirt.
Giorgio’s arm flared with pain, and he looked at the dumbbells, unsure what to think of them, or what just happened.
When he looked at the recruiter, the man was staring at Giorgio intently.
“See that you do think about it,” He said, “You have two more days, Giorgio.”
Giorgio returned home, and this time his sister didn’t bother to welcome him. He walked into their house, and she was in the kitchen, cleaning dishes. He sat down and took off his boots.
The main thing on his mind was those weights. No matter how much he asked, no one would explain what happened. He tested them, and found they were as heavy as he expected, as were the other weights of the strongman. Still, when they were being juggled, they felt weightless. Was this what all circuses were like? Was it just a trick they used? Some special show business?
The man, he made it seem like it was Giorgio’s fault. How could that be? All Giorgio knew was to play, to juggle, to enjoy himself. Sure, he had a talent, but it wasn’t something like that.
“You didn’t go to school again,” His sister said as she brought out a plate of food and set it on the table behind him.
“Thank you,” He said. Taking a knife, and digging into the simple plate of veggies and chicken. He could tell she was annoyed with him, but he didn’t bother to look up at her.
“Everyone was worried,” She continued, “They wanted to know where my brother had gone. I told them, he wants to be carnival folk. He doesn’t care if his sister and mother starve.”
“I do,” He said as he chewed, “I do care.”
“This isn’t how you act,” She said as she went back to the sink and scrubbed more dishes, “You’re acting like a spoiled child. You think only of your own dreams. You think I wouldn’t want to join the circus? When we were younger, I dreamed of that all the time. Then things changed, because we got older.”
“The man,” Giorgio began, “He says I can take everyone with me. We don’t have to worry about money. We can live with them, earn money, and be safe.”
“And be circus freaks?” She said, a crash of dishes accompanying her frustration, “Do you think mother wants to live like that? Can’t we be normal people, brother? Is that so difficult for you? No childish tricks, no showboating, just working and living.”
He swallowed a mouthful, and scooted his chair away from the table, “You want to live my life for me.”
Mary turned, “No, Giorgio, I just want us all to be happy. Not just you.”
“You want us all to be miserable,” Giorgio replied as he stood up, “I will do what I have to. You can go on being miserable.”
Mary’s eyes could have lit a pool of water on fire. She watched him leave the room, and head back to bed. Then Giorgio could hear her go back to washing dishes.
The next day his friends knew about his decision. They surrounded him before school, jeering and chatting between each other.
“A circus freak?” One boy said, “Giorgio is definitely unique, like a wild tigerman.”
“A real brute,” Another said, “Will they put you in a cage?”
They laughed and poked fun, but Giorgio didn’t listen. They were his friends, but at the same time they were never close. They were just the boys in his class, the same ones that were there every day, for him to play with, wrestle, juggle for. They were sometimes mean.
“I will juggle,” Giorgio said, “He says I am talented.”
“Really?” Said one smaller boy, “Talented like that bearded lady they got?”
They broke into laughter again, but now the bell rang. They had to head to class. Giorgio did what he always did, try to survive the session. He wasn’t bright, and he knew that, but he absorbed what he could. He could count, and he could write, and that suited him just fine. He knew some history, he knew some math, and that got him through tests when they asked.
When the bell let them out into the yard, Giorgio stretched, and headed down to join the other boys. He saw a commotion, a circle of boys around a man. It was the strongman.
The man saw him above the school boys, and waved. The kids were all crying out at him, shouting insults, throwing small rocks at him. He ignored them.
“Friend Giorgio,” He said, “I am here to see you.”
Giorgio charged the circle of boys, pushed his way in.
“Stay away from him,” One yelled.
“He stinks,” Said another.
When he finally made it through the crowd, the strongman reached down and grabbed him. Lifting Giorgio up in his arms, he was brought a few heads higher than the crowd. From up there, Giorgio could drown out the cries, ignore the pebbles being launched at them.
“You wanted to speak to me?” Giorgio said.
“I am here to say, we leave tomorrow, just after dawn, if you wish to come.”
Giorgio looked down at the people at the strongman’s feet.
“What if they don’t want me to come?” Giorgio asked.
The strongman seemed to know the look on his face, and brought Giorgio closer. He could smell that earthy smell on the large man.
“It is tough choice,” Said the strong man, “But, I find these things solve themselves.”
The man nodded, and put Giorgio down back in the center of the circle.
A rock flew straight for the strongman’s head, and with one sweep of his arm, the strongman caught it. With a squeeze of his fist, the rock crumbled into smaller pebbles. The large man made an angry face, flaring his nostrils and twitching his mustache. The boys gasped, and all backed off.
With a wave, the strongman left the schoolyard.
The other boys gathered around Giorgio, and soon the flinging of insults was focused on him as well.
“What are you doing with that freak?” Said one boy before he pushed Giorgio.
“Do you think your circus folk can protect you?” Said another.
The circle became nasty in a way that Giorgio had never imagined before. It was almost like watching animals snapping at large food, wolves slobbering at the muzzle. Giorgio looked around him and saw exactly what he was afraid of, people with nothing to accomplish, sad people who didn’t know what to do with themselves. Were their lives so empty that they had to attack him for something as simple as wanting to juggle.
He broke out of the circle, tried to head toward home, but a few of the boys followed, staying close behind him on the paths home. He started to run, trying to create as much distance as he could between him and them.
They ran as well, and here Giorgio knew he was truly in trouble. There was no way to get away from them, not unless he was faster, could run longer. Maybe he could, but even then, what if they knew where he lived? Would they stop at his door, or would they try to come inside? What did they even want?
So right before a field, he stopped and turned on them.
At this point only 4 of the boys remained.
“What do you want?” Giorgio shouted as the boys surrounded him.
“What are you doing with those people?” Asked one of the boys, “We’ve heard you were doing your little show there, you might even go live with them?”
This was Mary’s doing. She was telling others about the circus, and it had angered his schoolyard buddies. It seemed strange she would go this far, but he didn’t need to look far for proof. The red in their eyes was something only Mary could create. She was good at moving people’s hearts with just her words. Maybe that was her talent.
“It isn’t your business,” Giorgio said, “I’ll go where I want.”
“You think so?” Another boy said, “Maybe you’ll figure it out when you can’t walk so good.”
Giorgio imagined Mary telling the boys, spreading lies about the circus, about his new friends he enjoyed so much. Why else would they be so angry at the strongman? The most dangerous thing about him was his odor, and his booming laughter. As he told her, she was trying to stop his happiness. He couldn’t take that anymore.
Giorgio clenched his fist, and the boys came at him. Four on one wasn’t fair, no matter how much Giorgio liked to fight. It didn’t matter how many punches he threw, or how many he wrestled to the ground, if they had the numbers to surround him.
When they left him he was bruised and covered in dirt. His eyes felt like they were swelling, and he didn’t even know if he could sit up.
They stood around him, and one of them spat on him. Then they left. Giorgio rested his eyes.
When he got home, Mary was already sleep. He set his alarm clock, and laid down to go to sleep. His bruises kept him awake, each twist and turn sending a shooting pain through his ribs. Still, if he woke up early enough, he could pack up his things, and he could go to the circus. No matter how many people his sister sent, she couldn’t stop him from being happy.
When Giorgio’s eyes opened, it wasn’t to his alarm clock. It was to Mary’s smiling face, hanging above him.
“Wake up, sleepy,” She said.
He saw that sunlight was coming through the window, and sat up.
“My alarm,” He said as he got out of bed, “What happened to my alarm?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mary said, “I decided it would be better if you slept.”
He turned to his sister, and she looked at him with an expressionless glance. It was cold, sinister.
“No,” He said, “Where is the clock, what time is it?”
“What time did they tell you?” Mary said as she walked toward the kitchen, “They should already be on their way out of town.”
Giorgio rushed to his cabinet, pulled out a pair of pants and threw them on. He tried to pull a shirt over his head as he got into the living room, but Mary was standing in front of the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” She said, “Don’t you get it. Its over. Go relax, brother. There will be no more circus.”
Giorgio grabbed her at the shoulder, and pushed her aside, pulling the door open to the bright morning sun. She was right that he was late, the circus would have packed up through the night, they were likely on their way already. He had to make it there before it was all gone, see if he could talk to someone.
He ran from the house, and Mary followed, “Come back Giorgio,” she said, “You can’t.”
It didn’t matter what she thought. He had no other choice. If he stayed here now, Mary had made sure he had enemies at school, that his former playmates hated him, and his life would be miserable.
Mary kept pace as he ran the trail. The road was ahead, right before the clearing where the tent had set up. He couldn’t see the tents. It made his eyes sting with tears, his feet felt heavy. He wanted to see some sign, any sign that they were still there. He could feel himself slowing though, giving up. Maybe she was right, there was no hope. He would have to live the life defined for him, some time in a factory, an eternity of misery, day by day.
He could hear her coming up behind him. He stopped before the road, cars passing each way.
“Giorgio!” She shouted, and he turned to face her, “Stop!”
She ran into him, full run, and knocked him back. He heard the cry of a horn, and heard the screech of wheels. Then something heavy hit him in the chest.
When his eyes opened, Giorgio could hear voices all around him, could see the colors of the circus.
He tried to sit up, but a hand held him down.
“Stay down, friend,” Said the strong man.
The colors he was seeing, it was clowns, their painted faces looking down at him in a red, blue, and yellow dotted pattern. The crowd cleared long enough for Giorgio to see around him.
A truck was over-ended in the road, a wheel turned way off its axis.
People were crowded around the edge of the road. It seemed his town had come to see what the commotion was.
Across the street, he could see Mary, crying so hard that her face was red. She was being hugged, by his mother. When Giorgio looked, his mother turned her eyes to look at him. They were tired eyes, a dead stare that he only saw occasionally on weekends. It was a face that fed two kids, wearing an apron and a layer of dirt.
Mary’s eyes turned on him as well.
The recruiter touched him on the shoulder, “I know you’re shaken,” The man said, “But we have a schedule to keep.”
Giorgio looked at his sister, waved for her to join him. Mary shook her head no, hugged closer to their mother.
It felt like he was sore all over, and his stomach was on fire, and he didn’t know what was causing which. Giorgio bowed his head.
“I’ll come,” He said.
There was a cheer among the circus folk, and the strongman pulled Giorgio up into the air. Though they were just somber, they were already full of happiness and song. The movement of their dancing caused a jolting pain through his chest, and Giorgio pulled up his shirt to see what the cause was.
A handprint was across his chest, so large that he knew only one pair of hands that could make it. He looked to the wrecked truck in the road, and the saddened faces of the people he used to know. He never had a choice, he was born with a talent, and he was going to be happy.