The tents appeared in the middle of the night, without preamble. There was some heated discussion at city hall, because not even the mayor knew they were coming. They must’ve worked out something though, because the gypsy circus stayed. Our town wasn’t big enough to support even a fair, so this was big news. That was how I found myself with my older brother Tommy and his friends that evening. I was just fifteen then, and though we were small town now, my mother hailed from Boston. There was no way she would cut me loose to run around on my own, but if she’d known how bad Tommy and his friends really were, she would’ve known I was much better off alone.
“How much money you got?” Frankie asked, punching my shoulder. Of the three older boys, I hated him the most. He regularly hit, kicked and ridiculed me, while my own brother laughed about it. He was twice my size—I was a runt back then—but I dreamed of the day I could stand up to him. Stand up to them all.
I gave him the twenty Mom had given me, but not the five I had tucked in my hat bill. If nothing else, I wanted to sneak a candy apple later. Dad was a dentist and we didn’t have things like that around my house.
They abandoned me when we walked inside that midway. I’d never been to a circus before. There weren’t many rides, but huge tents loomed everywhere. Barkers told us to come one, come all—see the magnificent beasts of the wild, or the horrifying freaks of nature. I laughed at that one. I’d ridden in with the freaks of nature.
Still, I wanted to see a lion. They looked so majestic on television. Reluctantly, I parted with $2 and stepped inside.
The tent smelled of sawdust, sweat and dung, but inside were the most fantastic creatures I’d ever seen. I picked a peanut off the ground and fed it to an elephant, then sat on a bench to await the show. The lions were my favorite part. I knew they were big, but I never expected anything that huge. I held my breath when the lion tamer stuck his head in one creature’s mouth. Its incisors looked as long as my fingers. Its back teeth, which I knew were called carnassals from a book my dad gave me, worked like scissors to cut and tear meat. No way would I ever have had the guts to stick my head in there.
After the show, I debated spending another $ to watch the same show again, but I really wanted that apple. As I made my way to the food trailers, a girl called out to me.
“Read your fortune for $1.”
The sight of her took my breath. For the rest of my life, I’d dream about her face. I wish that she could’ve seen her own fortune instead of mine that night. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.
I stared at her, transfixed. Her eyes were two different colors. I wondered if by contact lens, to look more striking. One was icy blue and the other brown, like mine. The effect was jarring, even more so because she was lovely. Long, black hair, full lips, dressed like a genie from a TV show with her smooth, tan belly bared. Hormones trumped hunger, and I let her lead me into her tent.
She took my palm and stretched it out in front of her. She talked for a while, giving me vague predictions. Then she gave me a long look and said, “You need to stand up for yourself. Do not let others control your fate.”
I always wondered about that later, if she really saw that. It proved to be good advice. I wish I’d heeded it.
She walked me out after my reading, her hand tucked into my arm.
“Well, what do we have here?” Frankie boomed. “The little monkey has a girlfriend.”
Her hand tightened on my arm and then she smiled. “I’m taking a break.”
Frankie caught her arm as she tried to walk by, and Tommy and his friend James blocked her. I wanted to tell them to leave her alone, but my voice was a frog hung in my throat.
“Hang on,” Frankie said. “I got a dollar. I want my fortune told. Matter of fact–” He leered at her. “What will a ten get me?”
To my horror, he grabbed her waist and pulled her against him. She struggled free and snarled something in a foreign language. Then she spat on his shoe. Frankie backhanded her, then dragged her into the tent. I turned to run and James tripped me. I went sprawling into the dust and my mouth filled with blood. James hauled me up and I heard a click as he opened the switchblade he always carried. He pressed it against my back.
“One move and I’ll slice your spinal cord,” he said. “Snitches end up in ditches.”
It only lasted a few minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. They brutalized that girl. I heard her struggle at first, then nothing. That nothing terrified me. I was crying, blood and snot choking me. People walked right on by and nobody seemed to notice something was wrong. Something was horrible.
The newspaper said her father found her, naked and beaten in that tent. It was two days before she could give the police a description. I was relieved when the police pulled up in front of our house.
“Don’t you say a word!” Tommy hissed. “Or I swear on my life, I’ll end you.”
I wish I could say that I spoke up, told the police everything, but I didn’t. I thought her description would be enough, and the DNA. But I misjudged small town politics. Frankie, Tommy and James spun some story about the girl being a prostitute and soliciting them for money. They said she grew angry when they didn’t have enough and threatened to cry rape if they didn’t bring her money. They said another gypsy had beat her to make the story look real. The judge closed his briefcase and let them go.
We walked outside together. I have never felt so sick. Ashamed. Tommy and his friends stood beside me in their fresh suits and ties, looking like altar boys.
An old gypsy woman approached. She muttered something, then made a sign in the air with her gnarled finger. Frankie stepped toward her and James caught his arm. The girl sobbed against her father, her beautiful face still swollen and discolored. She whispered something to the old woman and pointed at me. The old woman’s eyes narrowed and she made another sign.
“That’s enough,” my father said, and led us away
The circus disappeared, and within a week, my brother and his friends were dead. Tommy got his hand caught in the garbage disposal at the restaurant he worked after school. As it chewed his arm, they thought the pain was making him delusional because he was screaming about the lion’s teeth. He bled out before the ambulance got there.
James fell off a ladder while he was helping his father patch their roof. The fall severed his spinal cord.
Frankie died the most horribly of all. He wrecked around Johnson’s Bend one night and his car caught on fire. Rescuers said they’d never forget his screams. I figured he’s still screaming and burning in the place he went.
I dreamed about the old woman every night. She said, “Your crime is silence. You stood quietly and let evil reign. Thus, sealed your fate.”
One morning, my tongue felt funny. When I peered in the mirror, it looked like a piece of bark was attached to it. It felt like bark, too.
Mom was still in her room, so I didn’t bother her. I somehow knew it was my time. I went to the woods behind our house.
My steps grew heavier as I walked, and I could barely drag my feet through the leaves. When I looked down, my legs no longer looked human. They were forming into a tree trunk. Roots curled from my toes and spiked into the ground. I raised my hand to feel my tongue and my arm froze there. Bark raced down it, falling in place like Legos connecting, covering what was human.
With no surprise, I saw the girl walk out of the woods.
“I know it wasn’t your fault,” she said. “I begged my Babba for mercy. She said you must learn a lesson. You will be a tree until you grow and mature enough to bear fruit. When the first apple falls from your tree, you will be human again. I hope you will always stand up for yourself and others after that.”
It took three years, but I am still thankful for that lesson.