I: THE PLAYERS
Vibrio cholera: A violin made out of bones – femur and tibia both, a red scratching for the man who wears a mask on the high ladder. Bones rub together as they clap for him, the blue-skinned shallow diver who wobbles at the final rung and then is platformed.
When he speaks, it’s a quote to open the party, the story of a Paris carnival interrupted and infectious. Then the body curls up like a comma, arms tucked in and legs curving out as he leaps into dead air, into the long thin plummet to the small pool beneath, the sides made of bones still covered in flesh, of bodies pressed together with their faces covered over. Water splashes out, splatters the crowds, sprays into open faces –
(no-one has brought a raincoat) (all the umbrellas are closed up).
Poliovirus: Columbine sticks with the callipers because she likes tradition and because she won’t wear the lung – under the circumstances, it seems a cheat and a swindle. There’s no way the blades will hit her, and armour is unsuitable for an audience that is secretly hoping for blood. Hers rushes to her head, the wheel spinning and the blunt quiver of knives echoing in the wood by her pelvis, her cheekbones, her chest. The blades catch at her dress (the cloth is the colour of rags and pale aquilegias) (the colour of doves).
She’s always enjoyed the wheel, remains attached to the frame whenever she can – a lazy upright daybed with zils round the side like a giant tambourine. When she is still, not rolling or wrenching stiff legs from leather and screaming metal, the wheel is silent and she can hear everything under the canvas.
Bacillus anthracis: The harlequin knows she is not clever. Knows, as she watches the heavily made up face of her lover, bound to the wheel, that the knives in her hands do not make her the master. She does not care. She cares for food and back-flips and cartwheels, for the painted tattoos on her skin: the diamond patchwork of a thousand tiny needles, a thousand little wounds.
Before the show starts, before the afternoon crowds and the evening show, she lies in the grass and roasts – sucks in sunshine and spores and the alkaline soils that feel best against her body. Sometimes Columbine will come to her with mutton and veal, with pork and the black ink of diamonds. She comes with an old needle, and colours in the flesh around the harlequin’s eschars – the pretty boils and lesions the necrotic soil has given her. There in the grass the harlequin is happy.
Streptococcus pyogenes: Scarlet swings on the trapeze, just a little. It’s too hot for effort, and the dark red sequins on her costume (bubble-round) (stained to purple under spotlights) are like sandpaper on skin. When the lights are on and the audience crammed beneath she can feel her flesh heating up, the hot prickle-breath of crowds. Then movement cools her skin, and she leans back into empty space, legs in the air, drunk with the swing and swoop and rush of it. She’ll poke her tongue out at them (that swollen, strawberry tongue) and flash a bit of thigh, smile that they don’t notice her skin peeling off in flakes… drifting down onto the bleachers, onto the children with their open mouths, onto their eyes and their ice creams and their brief pale skin.
Lyssavirus rabies: There’s a second top hat at the circus, but this one’s rage red and there’s bats flying out of it. The magician has them roosting in her hair, small flat faces poking out between plaits, their jaws half paralysed and drooling – it’s better than gel for keeping hair in place. When the magician wears the hat, the bats that can still fly crawl into it (cuddle into the crown) (float their wings on the black felt lining).
The hat goes well with the magician’s suit but it’s a man’s hat – the ringmaster’s blacker twin, and he doesn’t like to see her wear it. Thinks it gives ideas above her station but she doesn’t do bare legs and sparkles and her head’s plenty swollen already, what with encephalitis and bat-shuffling and shit.
Clostridium tetani: He loves to shock, the human blockhead. It doesn’t take much: a hammer and something sharp and silent (nails or screwdrivers or awls) (preferably rusty, red rough with dirt) and an audience unfamiliar with the strange geometry of nostrils.
He’s got great big arms – but it’s mostly for show, tattooed with rose thorns and a heart for mother. The important thing is the look of it, how strong the arms for skull-pounding and how necessary the drama (the gritted teeth, the clenched jaw) (the snakeless gorgon grimace) (the bent back and sly pop of broken bones) (contraction and defecation and drool).
If he stiffens long enough, the clowns will use him for a croquet hoop before they extract the nail.
Yersinia pestis: You can always find the Rat Man: he overshadows everything. It’s not the black cloak (a little old fashioned now, in truth) but the breadcrumb bones he leaves behind him – the bare clawed hands and caudal vertebrae, the little pointed teeth in little pointed skulls. They’re fragile, but easy to trip over until they’re pounded into bony dust and appear as the footprints of a saint.
The Rat Man has a circus of his own. He trains his pets, orders them on tightropes and trampolines and carnival tricks, keeps them about him and under his robes, a shifting shadow ringmaster. He could be the master in truth, drag a scythe through the competition, but he does not and those who suggest it find rats in their beds.
Mycobacterium scrofulaceum: There’s fighting round the mirror; the type that comes from too many children and too few walls to hang things on. Getting the family ready to perform is always a challenge – red acrobat costumes with gold coins sewn on as touchpieces and all the ruffles to be starched. Low necked, of course, to show off what a king could take away if they weren’t so proud of it: the bright bruising sores that blush blue under spotlights, that come from more than bad falls and acrobatics.
“Well don’t you all look so pretty,” says Dad. “So fine with your baby scroffs – but wait, just wait until you’re old like your Mum and me, and your scrofulaceum becomes tuberculosis. You’ll really have grown up then.”
Dengue virus: He’s the least popular act. It’s quite pathetic: even paint and pantaloons, the black skullcap, can’t distract from tears. The audience can see each sob and snuffling, but the balls he’s shuffling drown him out with droning – they’re noisy, curled-up mosquitoes, giant ones at that with white striped suckers and lyres on their back. (He knows his liars; it’s why he’s crying.) The insects fly round his head, a rhythm of swarm that come to rest, that are cupped and caressed and thrown back into the air from hands that curl and cramp and quake.
He juggles like his joints are broken. “I wish it were only my bones,” he says. “But my ribs are a cage that can’t keep grief out and my head’s too soft for shaking.”
(breakbone, breakbrain, breakhome) (breakheart)
Salmonella typhi: Inside the ropes is a green cart. Strategically placed, it smells of barbecue sauce and boiled sugar, of hot fry oil and fritters – and behind, the sweet putrescence of the privies. There’s candy floss and popcorn and pickled onions and in the middle of the cart, an array of rod shaped treats – hot dogs, éclairs and long john doughnuts. There are shadow rings on them, from sausages hung in loops from the ceiling (bratwurst and wieners) (smokies and cervelat) and Mary’s greasy fingers are fat in the intestines, plucking links for punters.
She wears a pretty apron, does Mary. A cook’s apron, with ruffles round the hem, though these lose their starch in the heat. But even sweating, she smiles – a pleasant expression lets her slip by unnoticed.
Variola major: The puppeteer has pockmarked hands hidden by gloves and little strings for dancing. Strings for Punch, for his wife and the hangman and the story that’s the favourite of the circus.
Judy has her nails bright-tinted with needles all underneath, and the stage lights make them shine as talons, as predatory things. That damnable woman, an agent of sin with her devil’s work, a diabolical operation – variolation and vaccine and vice, a dangerous and sinful practice.
In her hand is a brush. Something to paint over Punch, to hide his scabs, the marks of scars after pus has been scratched into his skin. As if it isn’t bad enough he’s got horns on his head – for the hangman’s dressed in blue and red, dressed to match Judy in the colours of suffocation, of strangulation and endings.
(No wonder Punch hates them) (No wonder he beats them)
Variola minor: They’re conjoined twins – back to back, sharing a spine and their heads fused tight behind – and if one is uglier than the other there is no competition and no surprise waiting for them in the mirror. No unflattering comparisons, and no disappointment.
It’s an astonishment to many that the younger is the ringmaster – but he has a gift for organisation, for manipulation, and he’d rather use it on people than puppets. Besides, they are brothers and so share more than bones, more than blood. Minor shares the hat, fitted black and shining over their gargantuan, two-faced skull and that is enough for major (the brim isn’t heavy when someone else puts it on).
In return, minor is gifted a marionette-set: a birthday present kept safe and secret, representations of his acts (the lithe and limber girl who swings beneath the dome) (the dove girl with her hooping skirts) (Mary, with hands like cornucopia). They’re a compensation that he plays with when he feels his grip is slipping.
Mycobacterium leprae: He’s sitting on a pile of dirt by a six foot hole, an armadillo beneath his knees snouting for worms in grave dirt, and snuffling. Its armoured back nudges his knees (those bare benoduled knees) (the yellow-crossed robe hitched up round lesioned thighs). One hand holds a clapper of iron-bound wood that rings like a bell. His fingers are fused. Curled into a claw, they scrape along the armadillo’s armour. A pretty pet for a leper to have: already closed off, already infected.
“Roll up, roll up!” he says. “Roll up to see the freak-show. Come see our little colony (but keep the kiddies back) (don’t reach through the cages). They’re unclean, this lot, the dirty bastards, and quarantined to keep you safe. Beware.”
II: THE FREAKS
The Freak Show: Caravans laid out end to end, a bright caterpillar of metal and wood with one wall of each cell barred and open to the elements.
The freaks need a certain environment to feel at home – anything different and they’d sicken, droop and flop and dangle feet outside the bars. No-one wants to see such moping, such boredom. Best to keep them occupied (with microscopes and test tubes and Petri dishes) (with burners and beakers and bottles and flasks) (with shelves that are prisms of glass).
The caravan is drawn by oxen, with cows at the other end for milk. The freaks love their milk, it keeps them healthy and flushed with endless fascination – especially when the dairy’s doctored with pox, with pus and phlegm and flux.
“Enrichment,” says the ringmaster, scratching over a bowl. “No-one can say I don’t look after them.”
Edward Jenner: has a cowhide on his wall, stretched tight in four directions and with the feet cut off. The cow’s name is – was – Blossom.
has a milkmaid with poxy hands and otherwise perfect skin, who sings as she squeezes and believes all the tales her mother told her. Her name is Sarah.
has a garden, and a gardener who raises kids as well as cabbages and carnations and chances. The child’s name is James: he is eight years old, with skinned knees, and can be trusted not to make a fuss.
has a scalpel, to scrape the pus from milky hands, to open up the freckled skin with slices and supplement with smallpox. The scalpel doesn’t have a name. Tools very often don’t – or so Blossom and Sarah and Jamie would say, all innocent, as if their opinions mattered to anyone.
Alice Evans: has a handmade patchwork quilt and scratchy blankets and scarlet fever; a mother that cries and a brother that coughs and a window, to see the neighbour’s kids carried out of their house in wooden boxes.
has a lab-coat for a blanket on the day she stays late in an empty building, with Brucella and test tubes and incubators, salt water and milk and Malta fever; bacteria that blur together.
has a narrow cot with stamped sheets (more than one for many years) and a slur on her reputation – an undulating fever without a name, perspiration and joint pain and hospital doctors who don’t have a diagnosis other than imaginitis.
(“I’m not dreaming,” she says to them.)
(“I know what sick is.”)
Élie Metchnikoff: has a terrible relationship with Venus. She’s always fucking him over.
has a wife, Ludmila, who loves him so much she won’t let anything put her off and must be carried into church red-cheeked and coughing from TB. When she dies he overdoses on opium, but it fails him and leaves him alive with his dreams.
has a lab where he works with mercury – calomel – on syphilis, but the cure seems to cause more damage than the curse.
has another wife, Olga, who drags him from depression and into typhoid. He saves her – barely – but not himself, and suicide is again upon his mind… watching another wife die would be a nightmare too far and there is no trust left in him. He’ll go out with relief and for science – injecting himself with relapsing fever, an experimental inoculation to make him good for the thing he loves.
(He survives anyway, and finds it cruel.)
Louis Pasteur: smells the stain of old, spoiled red wine in silkworm nurseries – not the small soft bodies, not the grassy tea scent of warm leaves, but the overlay of dark tarts and silk over pébrine and flacherie.
smells chicken feathers, dusty with dirt, with old manure and yard scratchings and beetles, with echoes of cackling and crowing and cholera.
smells the tannery scents of childhood – his father’s leather aprons, spattered with gore (lime and urine and salt stress for hair loss) – in the cattle, infected with anthrax, in the red potassium vaccine. Scents it again in unboiled milk and spoilt beer.
smells the dead breath of a rabid dog: breathes in its rage, test tube between his teeth, the sour heat of its red, wide maw the bulldog froth and drool of it – held down with leather gloves, his hands like clamps around the jaw and its mouth so close to his own.
(“Three of my children are dead,” he tells it. “Typhoid.”)
(“What more have I to fear?”)
Robert Koch: has clear wet eyes and a knack for dissection – an ox lens and aqueous humours to grow his anthrax in.
has rough and grainy lids: thin slices of potato like wet linen and long nights. When boiled, sliced with a hot knife and not allowed to spoil, he can keep the potato sterile and smear it with pure cultures.
has dry and hungry eyes in summer, and an assistant with a gift for sweets. Lina makes jellies and wet wobbly puddings and none of them melt in the heat. “It’s agar,” she says, and he has a new lens.
has a glass eye, highly polished, given to him by his wife as a birthday present. It’s slick and smooth and warms in the sun when he leaves it on the bench in their four-room home, when he lets it roll away unnoticed while he uses other eyes.
Rebecca Lancefield: mixes egg-nog in her lab before Thanksgiving, leaves it in the fridge to cool.
mixes eggs and bourbon and rum (the combination of barracks and bacteria and European war has the army disturbed: there’s a boom in broncho-pneumonia).
mixes heavy cream, beaten to peaks (and Streptococcus with hot acid: finds the same carbohydrates, and proteins separated like pinnacles)
mixes light cream and sugar and nutmeg (finds Streptococcus sorted by tongues – a different strain for guinea pigs and cows and army boys)
When she has all the serotypes together, they taste of celebration.
Joseph Lister: has a bride with a veil, who he takes on a hospital honeymoon – a romantic trip through the infirmaries of Europe.
has the thin membranes of bat wings and web-footed frogs: investigations, inflammations, and a seeping sepsis.
has wet sheets and washboards, lye soap and dolly sticks and a calf that turns up unexpectedly for experiments. (It has to be kept in the laundry and leaves hoof-prints in the suds.)
has gauze and bandages and blood, a cart-crushed boy with a compound fracture, the promise of gangrene, and carbolic acid.
has a sheet to put over the face of his wife. It’s thinner than the veil and doesn’t smell of wedding cake and he never wants to see the cloth again.
Fred Griffiths: hears the rattle of a kerosene tin, the green scent and silver knock of it, the hiss of the primus stove – there’s no money in Ministry medicine, in pneumococci and pathology.
hears the squeaks of little mice, their scratching feet and warm shuffles of hot-smooth bacteria, the quick silence where a heart should be after he’s injected them with hot and cold, with rough and smooth.
hears nothing, and then chaos: the bombshell in the field when form and function are not fixed and cold-rough transforms to smooth-hot.
hears air raids and bombers and blazing sirens, bricks falling in the Blitz on a blacked out night (they drown out tins and mice and debate forever).
Paul Ehrlich: saw the colours in his father’s distillery, mixed in with liqueurs to make them more tempting and made himself drunk on them.
saw the pale smooth feathers on his mother’s white pigeons and thought what if they were blue? (They died from the dye in their food, and were buried the colour of an early sky.)
saw the hard bright burst of methylene, that perfect blue, seeping into cells and staining there. And not an even stain – some parts would blush harder than others, and some with only a tinge to the thin sheets under sliced glass.
saw colours so clearly they kept him awake at night: blue again and yellow, coal-tar and the trypan red that could heal a mouse of sleeping sickness. So many mice… he saw them in his waking dreams, coloured like the sugar sweets he’d take home for his little girls.
“Look how pretty they are,” he said.
Margaret Pittman: has four year old memories of pertussis – the hundred day whooping cough with the mild beginning and mucus whistle, her doctor father and his pale cheek against her red one.
has terrible memories of a term paper, the literature hacked up by the local library in pieces and apart: each paper was held separate and all was confusion, perplexity.
has a vaccine that kills as it cures, a varied bacterial content that’s sometimes impotent and sometimes not (was this how her father felt as his four year old quaked and cried?)
has a vaccine with a ream of toxic side effects – fever, seizures, shock and death – and a protein revelation: “It’s like diphtheria,” she says, “like cholera” (was this how he felt when she got better?)
George Eliava: went to school to study literature and found the revolution more exciting than his books – got himself expelled and blanket-banned from every college in the nation.
went as a student to Geneva where rowing on the lake and making up to exile was less exciting than the microbes that made him forget why he was there (there’s less romance among the Bunsens than you think).
went for medicine to Moscow with a family pulling strings, and to Paris for some serums to make his own vaccines (cholera, smallpox, but especially the typhus spread by lice and Lenin’s special scourge).
went to no-one knows where but likely dark and cramped and filthy before going to the wall. His wife was sent there with him, their daughter to the camps for people smart enough to argue and the newspapers all said he was breeding bugs to kill them.
Alexander Fleming: has a terrible habit. He’s piggish in his patterns, and clutter follows him everywhere. Clean counters are beyond him, and he trails socks behind like mushrooms.
has a holiday coming, and no-one to clean up his lab for him. It’s easier to shut the door tight, pretend not to see, like a lockbox of paper and Psetri and culture kicked under the bed, where the socks are.
has a wonderful time, and returns to a strange smell and a stack of Staphylococci with mould squatting in it like an exile, like a leper.
(has a caravan full of fungus, a felt over every surface; who knows what infections are there? The keeper cleans it from a distance, his clapper in one hand and a hose in the other and a burning desire to scrub his hands off.)
III: THE RINGMASTER
Eradication: “I don’t think so,” says Variola minor, top-hatted to the Rat Man. “You’re locked in here. I have a contract, and there’s no holiday time in it for you. I don’t pay you to disappear.”
The Rat Man smiles with yellow teeth, a grin out of a box that’s been nailed shut and set on fire. “No harm in asking,” he says. “I wanted to stretch my legs before the bones stiffened, but I suppose I can do that here.”
“By the way,” he says, “have you seen the leper? There’s a problem with one of the freaks.”
The trouble with the top hat is you have to do everything yourself. The ringmaster follows a trail of small pale ribs, traces the Rat Man to Jenner’s cage. He doesn’t expect the bones on his back, the silent shove, the heavy hands around his neck, the freak breath stink in his face.
Burial: There’s a body on the ground. Singular.
This is unnatural. The Rat Man is used to mounds and masses (pits the size of orchard fields) (and clumsy carts) (and fire).
“Don’t worry so,” says Mary, on her rounds. “Accidents happen, of course they do. I know that as well as any.” The Rat Man doesn’t answer and Jenner gets a milkshake for services rendered.
“Oh, that naughty thing,” she says. “I’ll back you up, I will,” she says … “if you want a pit then I’m sure we can dig one.” She leans against the van and fans her face – red and good natured and dreamy. “I’d like to see New York again,” she says. “I’ve been missing the food and the fright and the fever, that old stone bitch in the harbour.”
Evolution: “He did his best but now he’s gone,” says Columbine, her dove grey dress in loops, a hammer in her hand. She likes the clean geometry of coffins, the way they straighten death. “I suppose we could use a replacement.”
(“Time to ring the changes” says the leper)
“I have some experience with hats,” says the magician. In the mortuary (a caravan that’s flecked with spots) (and Pestilence the ox in traces) she washes the body in bat spit – both faces – and packs the puppets into suitcases (smiles to see she is not one of them).
“You need a strong man for the job,” says the blockhead, “and a subtle one”. He slides the coffin to his shoulders, back bowed against the strain. “I know how to deal with punters.”
(“Yet not how to dig” a pit the leper says)
Microscopy: Columbine is grounded by her callipers, and cramps with damp palms at the high open spaces – she’s a creature of earth metals and leather, none of which belong with birds. She’s brought a toffee apple – plump and scarlet as sunset and sequins, a pretty bribe for a sky high view, for the girl who swings above them.
Scarlet’s good-natured and guileless, a natural with children. They love to watch her fly, singing lullabies for rhythm. “How can you see down there?” she says, “with everything around you?”
“You’d be surprised,” says Columbine, “at the little things you see close up” – she’s got a good eye and knows it.
When Scarlet starts to swing again, blood apple at her lips, she sings about the roses, red roses and ashes
(ring a ring a ring a ring)
The Puppeteer: “I’ve done my part,” says the Rat Man, tails wrapped around his wrists and wriggling. Yellow ribs act as vanguards. “Administration bores me. It was fun at first
(quarantines and confinements and confiscations)
(blockades and boneyards)
(spies and surveillance)
and then it wasn’t – these things cannot hold the interest of a purist.
“You want a new master. It won’t be me. I’d rather bide my time, raise my babies. This circus is only a little place after all, a canvas Petri plate of poison. Soon I’ll lose interest and leave again, go my own way. No poxy puppeteer can stop me.”
Classification: The blockhead stops the leper out behind the circus tent. He brings flowers like bribes, the thorniest he can find, and infected – crawling with worms and ants and beetles. The armadillo drools in pleasure, the scuted scales gleaming. It hoes in like a harvester and chews with its mouth open.
“Come, my friend,” says the blockhead, “come and canvass for me. We’re more alike than that filthy batted thing – only a virus, she’s barely alive, no bacteria will support her. She’s worse than a freak – that hat’s gone to her fat head, and she cares more for those flying devils than a master really should.
Come barrack for me, convince your mates, and I’ll reward you for it.”
Purification: The girls are gathered in a clearing with kerosene and kindling: “what creepy little things they are,” one says.
(“If I bent like that I’d never need the net.”)
(“My skirts come off more easily than that!”)
(“Look at what he’s done to my hands, the dirty sod!”)
They’re out a dolly maker as well as a ringmaster; there’s a tiny little theatre that now will go to waste, with red and ragged curtains all painted up with plums. And while Scarlet’s lighting tapers and blowing on the bonfire cinders the other two are chatting about pulleys and thin strings: the dove girl’s little tongue is as smooth and sweet as butter. She unknots Mary’s aprons, straightens out her corset strings.
“You want to be master so badly?” says Mary and misses the mark, if not by much. “I spend time enough on stage already dodging knives,” says Columbine.
Cross Immunity: The leper sloughs into view the armadillo behind him, trailing dirt. He has it on a lead, and jerks its head – ignores the mournful eyes, the pale-ridged shell.
“Can someone look after it for a bit?” he says. “I have to feed the freaks.”
This is the truth, but not all of it. The clapper bell is truth enough for anyone and he’s had a sufficiency of facts.
(“Can someone look after it for a bit?”)
(“Squeeze it and please it and catch what it’s selling.”)
He doesn’t ask his tuberculoid twin, knows he’s caught what he can already. He and his allies are immune to armoured charms but there must be someone he can sway.
“Give it to me, the poor beast,” says Mary. “It can keep company with me and the candy floss. Popcorn and corndogs and armadillies, oh my.”
Inoculation: “You poor sap” she says to Pierrot, “so dumpy-down and lonely – I didn’t mean to make you cry, it’s really quite distressing.
(You’re not the first to lose a wife, you know.)
“Come have some soup” she says. “Our Mary has been cooking. A nice meat broth will set you right; your friends have come to cheer you.
(That’s right, get it down you.)
“Just put those buzzing things away – no wonder you can’t think straight. See Cholera has brought some fun, a new instrument to tempt you: that lovely polished gleaming shell – it’s a charango, darling.”
(You don’t have to listen to it now if you don’t want to.)
Hazardous Material: They’re not close family, don’t even share a phylum, but the harlequin feels kinship with the Rat Man nonetheless: a similarity of purpose that springs over the gap between proteo- and firmicutes.
It’s a connection born of catapults and grainy-powdered envelopes, of rat fleas and rice flung from planes, of cattle cakes and stockpiles and infection. Good times, they were – the cover-ups and concentrates, the gleeful, gleaming panic like puppets cut half-loose of their strings and left to dangle until someone comes to tidy them up.
It’s enough to start them talking. “Are you sure you want the job?” he says and the harlequin shrugs just like a dizzy dope. Not for a song she doesn’t, but Columbine can tell her what to do and how to cope.
“That one’s always liked to watch,” he says but her own black boils are so wet and nicely rounded the harlequin wonders who can blame her?
Experimentation: There’s bad blood within the microbes, angry stirring in the ranks. No-one wants to follow in the footsteps of a freak:
(soldiers and sharecroppers and syphilis) (the guards in Guatemala) (the scientists of Tuskegee) (and the rare unspoken subjects cruelly exposed to cures without consent or leave – or the ability to get out of it).
A bacteria should shudder to think about it. No one should want to be a king, to have the human touch. There’s too much paperwork for one, budgets, bills, and banners, the brainless chatter of the crowds. And the top hat is stuffier than it looks, a snob of a hat, and precious. It won’t work for pretenders.
Resurrection: (The king is dead.)
There’s a black top hat like a hollowed out crown, with grease stains and skin flakes, a red hunting jacket, a hippo-hide sjambok.
The acrobat child has sores on his neck, the lymph nodes a pretty open red, and everyone smiles and pats his head as he passes. It’s equal parts pleasure and pity – there’s still growth spurts ahead and he’s already too big for the family, too inflexible, so it’s no great loss for anybody but him. Also, his hands are too pretty.
The harlequin does not have pretty hands: they are sore and swollen, diamond-broken with black lesions and she is proud of them, reluctant to stroke the kid’s plump little paws. They give her the creeps. But it must be done: one touch is all it takes. The lymph sores fade for a penny, the top hat’s no longer empty, and Columbine is happy.
(The king is dead. Long live the queen.)
Infection: Oxen cart caravans to the horizon. In the ragged ruts behind them weeps the acrobatic child. His skin is perfection, his neck pale and unswollen, disgustingly trim.
“I don’t know what to do any more,” he says. “I’ve got no skills but gym and I’m not even very good at that. I don’t belong anywhere now…”
“Come for a walk,” says the Rat Man, beside him. His skeletal hands are squirming and black. “And have a rat. They’re good company, go on.” The one on the left has a bent whisker, the one on the right a broken claw.
“What’s that one called?” says the acrobat child. “That’s Mort,” says the Rat Man. “And that one?” “That’s Mort too. They’re all Mort.”
“It could be Minnie,” says the child, but “so could you” says the Rat Man. “Now be quiet, give it a cuddle, and come along, Mini.”
Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and The Dark, amongst others, and she’s recently published a sci-fi/science history novel, “The August Birds”. Her short fiction has been BSFA and Sir Julius Vogel shortlisted.