Tidbit

vilks

By dawn, she is ready to hunt. He watches from horseback, wrinkled brown hills stretching ahead, into a valley streaked with snow; she circles above, jesses trailing behind, higher, until her wings are a sliver against the cloudless blue sky. She sees every patch of snow, every tuft of grass, even the fur on his hat moving with the wind. Then, she folds her wings and drops, like a stone, aiming for the fox skin he ties to the back of his horse and drags across the flat plain.

Before he comes to a full stop, she opens her wings a few meters off the ground, steadying herself before she rips open the fox skin and sends bits of fur and straw stuffing flying. Soon, her feathers will be streaked with the gore of live prey. But even in this riot of dismemberment she is efficient, neat almost, in the way she finds her reward and leaves the rest untouched.

As he watches her gulp back the tidbit of meat hidden inside the straw, he sees a shadow pass over the rising sun and a hint of gold in an otherwise dull landscape. No, he thinks, eagles answer to no one. They remember no one. They look down in search of their dinner, not those who, for a time, helped them find it. And yet all week has been a test in proving the opposite: sleepless nights spent whispering to his new charge, trying to tame her with the sound of his voice, so that now, when he offers his arm again, she hops on willingly, silent and content.

Later, he will say, “She flew well today.” She shifts her weight with each sway of the horse, her talons making slight impressions through the cowhide glove. They are tired; the sun moves towards midday and they ride back to the winter camp filled with the bittersweet tang of coal smoke and curd cooking.

Tomorrow they will hunt again, but for now he must not tempt her with flight. He slips on a leather hood encrusted with gold braiding. Only he would notice the few gold threads missing. He looks up, hoping to see them woven into the wings of another eagle, released one night last spring after a few day’s famine and a butchered sheep left on top of a lonely mountain.

Jumpers

jumpers

Many years later, when I saw her again on a crowded subway car approaching Times Square, I thought back to the night when we both shared a piece of cardboard on the roof of a freight train moving through Mexico. Her hair was short now, much shorter than it was the first time I met her in Arriaga. We were staying the night in a chapel-turned-shelter, its white cement walls covered in faded posters promising salvation. She was as sleepless as I was.

“The ones who are the most restless are the ones fleeing,” she told me.

“Who are you fleeing from?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

At dawn we walked across the lawless and nameless countryside, avoiding checkpoints, and speaking little. The thick overgrowth gave way to loosely paved roads scattered with plastic bags that clung to the gates of cattle ranches. We reached the tracks at midday. I went looking for water in an abandoned rice cellar, and when I found her again, listening for the train, she smelled of grass and sweat.

“Your body is a credit card,” she said. “Cuerpomático. Use it to buy yourself a little safety.”

She gripped a piece of cardboard between her teeth, tucked a roll of string in her pocket, and we started running to match the speed of the coming train. I grabbed the ladder in front of the car and pulled my legs off before the wheels caught up. As I was climbing, I imagined her hair twisting in the machinery and pulling her head off, but she was the first to find a spot on the roof, hot to the touch, and claim it with the cardboard.

“For two,” she said, and we settled back-to-back. A few other migrants stared at us and shifted uncomfortably on the ridged fiberglass. Ankles tied to the holed surface, we crossed into Oaxaca at dusk, the clouds of mosquitos dissolving into the pine forest around us.

Now, when the subway car stopped between stations, before the conductor mumbled about a train directly ahead of us, I wondered if she, too, thought of the moment the freight train stopped and we saw flashlights blinking ahead of us. I wanted to ask her what happened after the garroteros shoved us with their rifles and asked for payment.

“The train is free,” was the last thing I remember her saying before they knocked me out. I wanted to tell her that if my ankles weren’t tied with her string, I would have slipped off the roof, sliced by the beast’s steel bite.

She was a tiny woman, folded between businessmen who rushed out at Times Square, and I lost sight of her on the platform. Before I could find out if she still traveled in shadows, if she still didn’t want to be noticed, the doors closed.

Life Sized

fifeS

The first time I saw Little Man was on a bright, hot afternoon near the end of November, when the trains had just pulled into the fair grounds and the familiar smell of upturned turf and sun-basked animals returned to Sarasota. The stutters of tractors hauling cages had quieted down enough to hear the soft cries of trainers encouraging the elephants to rehearse their steps to Stravinsky. I wandered past the perimeter of cars humming with air conditioning, a novelty back then, and followed the railroad tracks to a row of carved wooden wagons. I must have spent several minutes examining the decorative motifs, running my fingers against the flaking gilded paint, before I noticed him leaning against a particularly ornate caryatid.

“Almost life-sized,” he said, “Like me.”

The white chalk on his face looked patchy and faded in the harsh light.

“I’m Jimmy,” he said, reaching up for a handshake. I moved towards him but stumbled on a cast-concrete putto buried in weeds.

“That’s my lawn decoration,” he said with a laugh that did not disturb the black arches disappearing into his bowler hat. “Reminds me that this is home. For the next few months, anyway.”

He looked me up and down. I began to feel self-conscious of my paint-splattered work clothes against his pristine and impeccably pressed shirt.

“The grounds aren’t open to the public yet. But you’re far too ordinary to belong here.”

“I’m usually up there,” I said, pointing across the stretch of canvas tops shimmering with silver paint and red trim.

“The Greatest Show On Ea–,” he read.

“I still have the last three letters to finish.”

“So they have money to hire a sign painter but not enough to give these old wagons a fresh coat.”

I told him that they pay me less that the price of admission, that I would gladly paint his wagon, but he waved me off.

“Don’t,” he said, peeling off a chip of paint and throwing it in the grass. “It suits me. Soon I’ll be too old to live in this row of left-behinds, and then I’ll be asking you for a job. I don’t know about climbing up that ladder, though.” Laughter left deep creases on his whitened face.

The next time I saw Jimmy was in late March, during one of their last shows of the season. I looked through the program but couldn’t find his name. I found him outside the main tent, handing out balloons and trying not to tangle himself in their strings.

“I’m billed as Little Man,” he said over the roars of children. “Watch me ride an elephant in the second act.”