She was poor, so poor. And she was weak from hunger. Almost too weak to beg. Her mother was sick, her father gone to war, his fate unknown, and her two younger brothers were starving. Despite all this, when a traveling circus came through the nearby town, Irina went to visit, hoping to see wonders.
A part of her hoped to be noticed by some kind circus folk and swept away with them into a life of wonder and adventure, never to starve again. Never again to feel the burden of her poor family. Or perhaps that was how she could help them. Perhaps she could send back money to her twin brothers and they could buy medicine for their mother. Then when her mother had regained her strength, she would raise her sons until they were old enough to join their sister if they so desired. Irina scolded herself for such visions, for they were selfish and cruel. She must look after her family. Her brothers were too young. Her mother was too sick.
But there was a reason to visit the circus. She was not the only one who wished to be mesmerized by its wonders. And some could afford to be so. She had watched some of the poor children of the town pick the pockets of unwary folk walking the streets. But she had never tried it herself. She was always afraid of being caught. She had seen what happened to a few children who had been. Usually the person who had been thieved was kind enough to let the child go with a stern warning and a light rapping of their hands. But once she saw a person summon one of the town constables, who tipped his hat to the man, and dragged the child away. She never saw that child again. Among the proper street urchins, there were whispers of a dark factory where they sent children like them to toil away for the rest of their days, never again to see the light…
But the circus would be different. There would be so many people pressed together. All distracted, not like the sometimes unhappy distraction of folk going about their business on the town streets. But the dreamy distraction of those who wanted to escape their workaday lives. For even those who were not so miserable as her wanted to escape their lives, if only for a little while.
Irina resolved to try some thieving. Perhaps she could get some medicine, just enough so her mother would be cured, and then her mother could grow strong. Her mother could take care of them. They would no longer be poor. She need not run away with the circus. She didn’t really want to do so. She wanted to stay with her family. But she needed for her mother to get well.
Irina watched as the crowd around the entryway to the circus grew thicker. The circus-master, an imperious and commanding figure in a fine red suit and a deep black top hat, stood on a rise and called out to the incoming circus-goers. He tossed the occasional candy to a child and tipped his hat to the occasional young lady. But most of the time, he had his face turned up and his eyes cast down on the crowd. He held the attention of most. Irina kept low and she slipped into the crowd of circus-goers. She managed to pick the pockets of three people—and do so quite more easily than she had anticipated—before guilt and fear halted her. She darted off to a spot behind a bush to check her loot. There were coins. Enough coins to buy the medicine she needed for her mother. Immediate relief replaced the guilt and fear. Still, she wanted nothing more than to leave the circus grounds. She was already away from the main press of people. She heard a booming voice still calling them in to the circus. As she tried to sneak away, she was halted by a word.
Someone did notice her.
The most important someone in the circus, the circus-master himself. He must have seen her. He must have left someone else to bark at the audience while he followed her. He caught her, and he took the purses she had stolen. She was so scared that she obeyed without question when he bade her to follow him. He led her onto the circus grounds and into one of the largest tents on the grounds. It was bustling with performers practicing and primping for the evening shows. They walked past a row of beautiful young women dressed in sparkling corsets and plumed feathers, practicing a dancing jig. They walked past a lady with a thick and full beard, who smiled and curtsied to Irina. And they walked past a man who was full-grown but only as tall as Irina’s hip. He was preparing to lift a bench atop which sat three full-grown men of typical height. Irina would have marveled at the sights if she weren’t so terrified. At last, they came to a chamber within the great tent, where the circus-master kept his office. There were guards standing at all sides, for the day’s profits were kept there, the circus-master explained as he watched Irina’s reaction.
She thought the circus-master would give her a talking too. She feared he might rap her hands with a ruler. She saw the whip hung by his hip and dreaded that he might whip her. But above all—even a whipping—she was terrified that he might call the constable and have her dragged away, away to that dark factory where she would toil for the rest of her life, until she grew taller, then shrunk again. Until her olive skin turned gray and dry. Until her hair turned white, and she might not even notice. For her eyes would turn milky and she would go blind from always working, working.
“I can call the constable and return these stolen goods to their rightful owners,” the circus-master said in a voice that was silky and quiet, unlike the deep and thunderous tone he had used on the circus-goers.
It was as she feared. Irina lowered her head and felt the very life drain out of her.
That single word made Irina raise her head. That single word raised her hopes.
“Or I can let you keep these stolen goods and tell no one of what you have done.”
Irina waited, for she knew there must be a price. For a fleeting moment, she dared to hope that the price would be her staying with the circus, perhaps as a servant. A man who wore suits as fine as the circus-master’s suit must have need for servants. Small servants who could remain out of the way. She began to think of all the things she knew how to do. Not cooking. She was no good at cooking. She did not know how to care for animals. She could wash clothes, but her mother always told her she didn’t wash them well enough.
But then the circus-master spoke his request. He did not ask her to stay with the circus and tend the animals, wash the clothes, or run messages between the tents. He asked her for something she could not fathom having much less giving. He asked for her firstborn child.
Irina agreed right away. It was easy to do so, for she had already resolved never to have children. What if she grew ill and her poor children had to fend for themselves and care for her as she now had to care for her mother? Much as she loved her mother, she held some bitterness in her heart for being burdened with a family she did not create.
The circus-master kept his word. He gave her back the purses she had stolen and let her go. When she returned home, she found even more coins in the purses she thought she had when first she counted. It was well that there were more, for she needed them. She needed all the coins to buy enough medicine for her mother. She feared the medicine would not work. She feared that she would have to thieve again. But the medicine did work. Her mother got better. As the days wore on, she grew stronger and stronger. One day, the girl woke up to find that her mother was preparing the morning meal. Her brothers were already awake and making a mess. But when Irina went to clean it up, her mother stopped her, gazed at her tenderly, and bade her to return to her rest.
“You have done enough, darling daughter,” she said.
For the first time in a long while, Irina felt free of all burdens. In time, her father returned home, and Irina was even more relieved. She lived happily. As she grew older, she longed for two things, two things she would love in her life. She longed for a trade that she could do to earn coins for her family. She loved to sew and became a seamstress like her mother. Her other longing was for a love, a man who would cherish her as well as her father cherished her mother. She met such a man when he came upon the tailor shop that her mother and father had bought in the town market. Irina married.
Soon, she was with child. She grew so big and heavy that she had to take to her bed. She was otherwise well and the nurse and midwife who cared for her told her that she was so big because she carried more than one life within her. Irina and her family rejoiced and they teased her, for she was to take after her mother in more ways than just her sewing. Irina was happy, but there was something in the back of her thoughts that bothered her. She could not put a name to her worry, and her husband assured her that she had no reason to fear, that it was right for a mother-to-be to fear for her children.
He was not by her side when it was time for Irina to give birth. Like her father, her husband had been called away to a distant war.
Three were born that day. Three sisters all alike in face and shape. After the last of them passed from her womb into the world, Irina had but a moment of rest. Then a spark went through her, and she suddenly remembered the bargain she made with the circus-master so long ago when she was but a girl. After a moment of panic, she calmed herself as the midwife cleaned the babies. She told herself that the bargain was meaningless. Surely, the circus-master seen how scared she was and had merely been toying with her.
She told the midwife not to give her the babies in the order they were born, but to give them to her all together. She named all her triplet daughters Alexandra in the hopes that she, and all else who were present at their birth, would not be able to tell who had come first. She could think of no other way to thwart the bargain she had made.
It worked. Irina did not know which one was firstborn. And in the coming days, as the nurse and midwife tended to her and the babies, they too could not tell.
Irina explained her fears to her mother and father, for they were much perplexed by her choice of names. Irina had strayed from the names that she and her husband had agreed upon before he left. Still, by the custom in their region, the mother chose the name of her children. So her choice, odd as it was, went undisputed.
As the girls grew older, they also grew quite different. Irina gave them pet names derived from their given name. There was Sandy whose manner was sometimes coarse and sometimes fine. There was Allie who was agile as an alley cat. And there was Lexie, who was calm and quiet, and often stood between her warring sisters and made the peace.
They lived many happy years together. And because everyone called the girls by their nicknames, everyone forgot about Irina’s fears. Everyone save Irina herself. The circus returned to their town every now and again. When it did, she was especially anxious. But no circus-master came to claim her firstborn.
The girls reached their seventeenth year, and fell to choosing amongst their studies what trade they would take. Much to their father’s chagrin, they were also shyly (or sometimes not so shyly) choosing among the young men whom they might wish to marry someday.
At last, Irina began wonder if she had been a fool fearing a false fear all these many years. Then one summer, when her husband was called away on business, a circus came to town. One balmy evening, there came a knock at the door.
Irina went to answer, and before she opened the door, she gave her customary greeting. “Who knocks?”
“It is I,” a voice on the other side of the door said. A voice that chilled Irina’s heart for she recognized it, though she had been a child when first she heard it. “I have come to claim my prize.”
Irina thought to fool the man at first. She claimed he had stopped at the wrong house, but when he asked her to direct him to the right house, she could not send him to harass her neighbors. She pretended to have forgotten the bargain and to laugh it off as the foolish promise of a child. She even promised to bring out a sum of coins that would equal many times what she stole on that fateful day.
But the man would not be thwarted. He stood behind the door until one of Irina’s daughters came by and asked her mother who was at the door before Irina could hush her.
“Is that your child?” the man asked.
Irina looked at her daughter and could stand it no longer. She threatened the man now with promises of a thrashing from her husband and her brothers.
But the man only laughed. Her husband and her brothers were far away. And she had only the power of a seamstress. The door burst open then, and into Irina’s house strode the circus-master. He looked the same as he did those many years ago. He wore the same fine red coat. He swept the black top hat from his head and bowed to Irina and her daughter, whom he eyed with great interest.
“And who might you be?” he asked her.
“They call me Sandy.”
“Call you? But then what is your proper name, child?”
The commotion of Irina’s argument with the circus-master and the door bursting open had drawn the attention of her other daughters, who rushed down the stairs to see what was the matter.
Irina’s heart sank. The circus-master’s eye twinkled at the sight of two more children.
“And who might you be?” he asked the next one.
“They call me Lexie.”
“Call you? But then what is your proper name, child?”
The circus-master narrowed his eyes. He glanced at the last girl.
“And who might you be?”
“They call me Allie.”
“Call you? But then what is your proper name, child?”
The circus-master smirked at Irina. “Three sisters. And they all have the same name.”
He asked the girls which of them was eldest, which the firstborn. The girls claimed they did not know. He asked their mother. Irina claimed that she also did not know. All were silent for a moment.
“Then I will take them all,” the circus-master said.
Irina stepped in front of her daughters. “You would be going against your word.”
“As you have gone against yours.”
“I cannot give you my firstborn, if I do not know who my firstborn is.”
“Our bargain must be satisfied. I will take them all. But as I am taking more than we agreed upon, I must give you something more in return.”
Irina had never told her daughters about the circus-master and her bargain. She had never told them why she gave them the same name. Rather, she had told them, but she had told them a weak and gentle lie about wanting them all to be friends and to remember always that they were family.
But they were sharp of mind, her Alexandras.
At once, one of the girls stepped forth and claimed to be the eldest. It was Sandy. She claimed she had always known she was eldest, but had hidden the fact from her family, because she knew there was something dangerous about it. Now that she knew why her mother had hidden her, she was ready to face her fate.
Irina was stricken. As she listened to Sandy tell her sisters to take care of their mother and father, she felt faint. But then another of her daughters stepped forth. It was Lexie and she opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, Allie proclaimed that she was actually the firstborn. Her sister Sandy was only trying to cover up for her, but she was ready to set aside her cowardice and face her fate. It came as no surprise then, that Lexie claimed she was firstborn, and her two kind sisters were only trying to protect her. But she was ready at last to face her fate.
All three girls stepped toward the circus-master, who chuckled with glee. For once again, he knew not which sister was eldest. He would take all three.
“Let me go with you,” Irina begged.
The circus-master refused.
“What will you do with them?” Irina asked.
The circus-master raised a fine black brow. “Why, I will marry them.”
Irina was horrified. “You cannot marry all three!”
“But I must. You have made it so.”
“Wait!” She could not look at her brave daughters. She, who had sold them off without a thought, felt such great shame that she could not meet their gazes. “I promised you one. You are taking three. You said you would balance our bargain.” She was distraught, but she had to think of something, some way to forestall her daughters’ fates, so she might change those fates.
The circus-master inclined his head, smiled, and asked her to speak her requests.
She asked for three things. She asked that the wedding be delayed until she made her daughters’ wedding dresses. She asked that he give each of her daughters a gift of her choice, and if he was not able to deliver even one of the gifts, he could not marry any of the girls. Finally, she asked if she might now take the place of one of her girls.
The circus-master agreed to give her one year and no more to make the wedding dresses. He agreed to give each girl a gift of her choice—anything on earth—and if he failed to deliver the chosen gift, he agreed not to marry that particular girl. But he would still marry any girl whose gift he was able to deliver.
He refused, however, her request to take the place of one of her daughters, for she was already married. But he offered to give her another request to replace the one he had refused. She could see in the wicked glint of his eye that he had worked out her ruse. She had planned to take the place of one of her daughters, so that she could rescue the other two by instructing them to ask for an impossible gift, and thereby free themselves. She had given herself away, for now the circus-master suspected that on their own, the girls may not understand what they should do. Sharp of mind though they were, they were young and callow. Irina feared they would ask for humble gifts, for she had taught them to be honest and forthright, more so than she had ever been.
For her last request, she could think of nothing. She only glanced at her daughters at last and saw them clutching each other and glancing fearfully at the circus-master.
So she asked in desperation, “Please, do not touch them until you are wed.”
The circus-master surprised her then. For he did not laugh wickedly or mock her. “It is granted,” he said. “I have only a year to wait.”
As the girls sat in the carriage, huddling together, being carted away to the sound of their mother’s sobs, the circus-master sat across from them and asked what gift each girl wanted for her wedding day.
Forgetting how repulsed she was by the circus-master, who had stolen them and made their mother weep so mournfully, one of the girl’s started to say something, but the other two clapped their hands over her mouth. And one of them asked him politely if they might think on it. He agreed.
When the girls first arrived at the circus, they were stared at as the circus-master showed them around to all the tents and introduced them to all the performers. Then he left them in the care of a matron who seemed to be charged with caring for all the circus’s children. It was when the circus-master left that the tension seemed to lift, and the circus folk began to approach the girls. Some of the circus folk were standoffish, some unfriendly, and some were kind and welcoming. All were curious.
One passed by and told the girls that the master would sew them together because some circuses have two joined, but he’s never seen one that has three joined together. The girls didn’t know what that meant, but it scared them nonetheless.
The circus’s fortune teller joked that she would help them make a potion to defend themselves against their husband on their wedding night.
The girls’ eyes widened. One of them asked, “Does he mean to attack us?”
“A true man would not, but our task-master is no man.”
A raucous round of rude laughter followed, but they were silenced by the arrival of a young man and woman. The couple was a sight to behold. The girls had never seen a woman so beautiful, or a man so handsome. They each blushed when he shooed away the other circus folk and smiled at the girls. Some of the circus folk did not oblige. They challenged the young man, but when a booming voice called from behind them, they all scattered. The girls set eyes upon their rescuer then. Their mother would have recognized the sight. He was a full-grown man, but he only reached half their own height. He explained that he was a dwarf and he gallantly kissed their hands, and again, the girls blushed.
All three of the girls’ rescuers and welcomers were tight-rope walkers. They befriended the girls, but did not shelter them. The girls were made to do the kind of work that their mother had envisioned doing when she encountered the circus-master as a girl. They washed dishes. They tended to the animals. They sewed. They helped to build and break down the tents and the stages.
As the months passed, their humble charm and resolve won over most all of the circus folk. The fortune-teller in particular came to adore them. She took them on as her apprentices. Telling fortunes was not her true gift. She was a potion-maker. She served as the nurse and healer for the circus folk, for she knew many remedies known to healers. Each individually learned skills like tight-rope walking or snake-charming. But all three girls took to potion-making and healing as their trade, practicing their skills upon the circus folk and the circus animals.
They wanted for nothing. The circus-master bought them new dresses all the time, and jewelry, which they had never had before. He gave them good food to eat, and he did not mind that they shared everything with their friends among the circus. Every day, he asked them what they wanted for their wedding gift. And every day the girls asked if they might think about it longer.
They were happy on the surface, happy in the circus, and at times, they tried to convince themselves that they could live as the circus-master’s wives. In those times, it was their friends who reminded them that they were but well-kept prisoners. For they were forbidden to see their mother and father, or even to write to their loved ones in their home town.
Many of the circus folk believed it was not proper for their master to wed more than one girl, but no one would make a fuss. There were many things about the circus-master that the girls did not know. Many swirling rumors. The girls decided to find out about the man who had claimed all three of them as his betrothed. They tried to observe him when he didn’t know they were watching. But it was near-impossible, for he always seemed to know when they were about. He was always on his most guarded behavior. More than likely, he had his spies among the circus folk. The girls became more careful of what they said and to whom.
Then one day, a few months before the appointed wedding dates, the girls decided on a plan. One by one, they would appeal to the circus-master and ask him if the gift they might grant him is freedom from marrying him.
They drew straws, and Allie was first to ask. She braced for the circus-master’s anger. But he was not angry. He merely smiled and inclined his head and told her that if there were no wedding, he owed her no wedding gift, so he need not grant her request.
Allie told her sisters what transpired and they thought of another request.
The next day, Sandy went to ask. She too braced for the circus-master’s anger. For she too had a request that she knew he would not grant. She asked that she and her sisters be allowed to see their mother, either to visit her before the wedding, or to invite her to see them.
The circus-master inclined his head, but did not smile. He knew the girls were testing him. He asked her if she was certain that that was her request. Sandy hesitated, for she knew he had some trick in mind. She said she would not make the request yet, but wanted to know what he might say if she did.
The circus-master did smile then. He told her that he would of course grant her request to summon her mother to the circus, but would do so after they were wed, for he had promised to give them any wedding gift they wanted, and as it was a wedding gift, he was not obliged to give the gift before the wedding.
As Sandy left him, dejected, he called out to her. “Everyone always tries to wiggle out of their bargains,” he said. “And everyone fails.”
It was no use. There was no request they could make, no matter how impossible, that he would not find a way to thwart. He would not keep to his bargains. Again, they spoke of escape and reaching their family and finding some place where the circus-master would not find them. But their teacher, the fortune-teller, was nearby, hearing the girls talk over the brews they were stirring. They had considered making a sleeping brew to put the circus-master to sleep long enough to escape. They had skirted the talk of a potion that would poison him, but had not come to speak of it directly. The circus-master had shown no true cruelty to them. They could not do so to him. But the fortune-teller knew her master’s true nature. He would show the girls soon enough, after he truly had them in his clutches. For he had little power outside of a bargain, outside of a binding contract, but within it…
At last, the fortune-teller spoke. She warned the girls that the circus-master was full of far more guile and cleverness than they were, and wherever they went in the world, he would find them and their family. And in any case, they would have a difficult time of it trying to move all their family, for surely they had cousins, aunts, uncles, grand-folk, and the like. Their best chance was to find a way to thwart the bargain that their mother had made. To ask for something the circus-master must give them, but could not.
A few days later, the girls figured out what gift to ask for that would release them from their mother’s bargain. They told the fortune-teller, and though she was disgusted, she thought on their request and agreed. There were perhaps ways that he could refuse. But if the girls asked as they were prepared to ask, he would break their bargain, one way or another.
But the girls were too afraid to ask. For it was something they did not truly want. A kiss from the circus-master. He had agreed not to touch them until they were wed. He had agreed to give them whatever on earth they wished to have. Either way he chose, he would violate the bargain. He might claim again as he did before that he was not obliged to give the gift before the wedding. That was why the girls waited until the night before their wedding day. For they had hoped the circus-master would be more easily swayed so close to the day of his victory. They hoped to catch him by surprise.
Their mother alone would be allowed to come and deliver the dresses she had made for them. If their plan did not work, they hoped that their mother would have found some other way to free them. Their mother had come, but was not allowed to see her daughters until after they declared the gifts they wanted. The circus-master still feared she would put some idea into their heads.
When midnight struck, and it was the day of their wedding, the girls came to him as one and told him what they wanted. They stepped ever closer to him and he stepped back. His eyes darted among them. They had been so fearful, so reluctant. He had never imagined they would ask for such a thing. Not to take his hand or touch his cheek. A kiss, upon the lips. He could think of no reason to deny them. Their request was fair. It was their wedding day and he must oblige. But if he touched them before they were actually wed to him, he would forever lose them. The girls stood steadfast. They did not huddle together or clutch each other. They did not look away from him. They gazed at him.
Alexandra. Alexandra. Alexandra.
They stepped closer. And knowing he had been bested, the circus-master grew furious. He had only one recourse. He hoped to frighten the girls, frighten them so much they would revoke their request, and ask for something he could give. A jewel. A pet. The largest tent in the circus. Anything else. But he had to frighten them without touching them. He pulled a dueling rapier from the wall of the tent. It was for mere decoration, but he slashed at the air before the girls. He kicked at the furnishings and knocked over candlesticks. He drove the girls back. They cried out and fled from his blade, but all the while, they demanded their gift. He knew now that they would try to fall upon him. And in trying to defend himself, he would touch them and break the bargain. The bargain was all. He could not break it.
He chased them outside of the tent and found a gathered crowd of the circus folks standing under the light of a half-moon. That all were witnessing his rage made him rage all the more and he fixed that rage upon the girls who scattered before him. He had passed beyond merely wanting to scare them. One of them tripped and fell right before his feet. From the corner of his eye, he saw figures flying toward him, coming to rescue the girl. Her sisters perhaps would escape. But this one would not escape him. This one would be his. He drew back his blade and stabbed.
But his blow was intercepted. Someone had reached the girl in time. Someone had saved her by taking the blow that was meant for her.
It was the girl’s mother, Irina. She locked eyes with him. Her eyes were once full of terror and despair. Now they were full of something troubling. Resolve.
She fell to the ground, her breathing labored. She lay dying.
Something changed. A charge seemed to pass through the crowd of circus folk who were gathered. The strong man moved first. He planted himself before the circus-master and the girls. He knocked the rapier out of the circus-master’s hand, and he pushed down his own master.
The girls knelt beside their mother, all weeping. One of them, Sandy, rose and reached for the rapier. The strong man pinned down the circus-master, who was helpless to do anything but watch as Alexandra strode toward him holding the blade that had just struck her mother.
Her eyes reflected the rage he still felt. Suddenly, she stopped, and just as one of her sisters called out for a potion, she threw away the blade, and turned back to her mother.
Her sisters had wiped away their tears, saving them for a later time. They had found their mother’s wound, and Allie had called for a potion that was meant to strengthen. Lexie called for a potion meant to seal wounds. The fortune-teller came forth and Sandy asked her to bring the proper herbs and tools, for they had to seal and sew up the wounds within their mother’s body before sealing her flesh.
The strong woman joined the strong man in dragging the circus-master away. Others followed them.
The girls did not notice. Their eyes were upon their mother, whom they aimed to save. They called out to their friends and fellow circus folk, their requests firm and commanding, but also entreating.
Irina felt a great sleep come upon her. There was little she could understand in those moments. She only wished to know one thing.
“Did I save you, Alexandra?”
“Yes, mother,” all three said at once, and silently to themselves, they said, And now we must save you.
Dawn came with the rooster’s crowing. Yet the circus did not wake, for it was already awake. It had been vigilant and wakeful since midnight. There was the sound of voices. Familiar voices, young and sweet, but tired. Young and sweet, but sweeping through the air with firmness and certainty.
Alexandra’s voice. But which one?
Irina slowly opened her eyes. She was lying in a large and airy tent. The scent of herbs and flowers suffused the cool air, but did not overwhelm. She remembered a man being dragged away to a dark factory, but perhaps that was a dream.
She woke fully and found that her left hand felt warmer than the right. She saw it was because her daughter was holding it. Allie smiled at her mother and stroked her hair.
At the entrance to the tent was her daughter giving instructions to a lady whose face bore a full and rather handsome beard. Lexie turned when her sister called and beamed at her mother.
Sitting to her right at a small table with a thin woman wearing an abundance of scarves was her daughter. Sandy looked up and grinned at her mother.
They gathered around her bedside. Her saviors. Her daughters.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel