The circus smelled of magic, of popcorn, dung, and cotton candy. Miranda squinted as she entered, just like the book suggested. She followed the crowd through the gate, then slipped between the wagons, searching for something only half open eyes could see.
Magic dwells in the halfway places, in the between times and the long shadows that cannot be perceived with the eyes wide.
She’d borrowed the book without asking, the one with gold designs on the cover and a layer of dust marred only by her aunt’s knobby fingerprints. Miranda had read the bits of it that she could understand, cradling the tome underneath the covers in the late hours while her aunt slept.
That was how she knew the jugglers were only ordinary jugglers. It was how she knew the strong man and his dumbbells were fake. Miranda squinted at them all and found only disappointment.
Until she saw the bear.
He lay against the back of his cage, striped with the shadows of iron bars and wearing a pill box hat on his wide head. When Miranda squinted at the bear, his edges shifted. The dense, cinnamon fur melted and smoothed. Inside the bear, a man hid. Inside the cage, he stared at her with soft, brown eyes.
Miranda stepped closer, whispered. “I think you’re more than just a bear.”
“Careful.” The growling voice might have come from ursine lips, except the sound was behind her.
She turned and faced the ringmaster, complete with top hat, spangled shirt, and snake-slender whip.
“You seem to have wandered off track, my dear.” The ringmaster’s eyes flashed crystal clear. “Don’t want to get too close to old Boris. He’s a bit cranky.”
“I got separated.” Miranda’s feet shuffled as she walked away from the cage, but she couldn’t resist a glance back over one shoulder.
Boris sat with his big rear paws stuck out in front of him, each tipped with gleaming sickle claws. The hat leaned at an angle on his tilted head, and when Miranda’s gaze met those brown eyes, the bear’s muzzle dipped forward. Secretly, through squinting eyes, she saw Boris nodding to her.
More than just a bear.
“Let me show you the way back.” The ringmaster offered her a gloved hand, the one free of his whip. He added a deep bow and Miranda’s squint caught the glow of something hiding underneath his shirt.
“Thank you.” She smiled and slipped her fingers into the satin. The glove curled around her hands, and the man led her away from the bear.
“Now,” the ringmaster’s voice lost its gravel. His words flowed like honey, and his fingers turned hot against hers. “You’re here with your family today?”
“No.” Miranda smiled and squinted. She leaned her head to one side, trying to see what glowed beneath his shirt. “I only meant I was separated from the crowd.”
“Alone?” He snorted and gave her a look that put heat in her cheeks. “Such a pretty girl without anyone at all to escort her. That hardly seems right.”
Miranda tensed as a shiver traced along her spine. The blush turned to a chill as the man’s fingers shifted against hers, squeezing softly, sliding the fabric of his gloves across her skin. When she didn’t answer, he laughed, tossing his head and making the glowing thing dance beneath his spangles. What was it? She squinted at him, and saw only shadows wrapped around that spark of light.
“Young girls should be careful,” he said. “The circus is more serious than it appears.”
She wanted to tell him that she knew that, to brag perhaps, about what her squinting had revealed. But she also heard a threat in his tone. Or perhaps, it was only a friendly warning. Miranda smiled for him, smiled like a girl who couldn’t see a thing.
“Thank you,” she said. “For getting me back on track.”
“But of course.”
The ringmaster led her, his ring of keys jangling at his hip, to the big top. He ushered her inside the ragged canvas while Miranda imagined what he hid beneath his spangles. She thanked him again and watched him slip away into the crowd, shaking hands as he went, bowing to either side.
But never low enough to show his secret.
Miranda’s aunt had secrets too. They’d lived together since Miranda’s thirteenth birthday, since her parents’ death, and it hadn’t taken a clever girl long to discover the things the old woman hid. Miranda had many questions, but like most adults, her aunt offered half answers, dodges and partial truths.
The old woman refused to enlighten her, and by sixteen, Miranda’s patience expired. She’d taken the book, though many of the pages gave her a headache. She’d read what she could and filled in the rest with her own dreams.
Many truths can only be seen sideways, through half-open eyes. For it is the nature of magic to be hidden.
The circus bleachers had cracks, splinters that snagged at her skirt when she climbed them. Miranda chose a spot halfway up. She watched and squinted and imagined what sort of curse might turn a man into a bear.
Lights danced high in the tent. The crowds hushed, and Miranda’s thoughts swirled inside a head hungry for magic. The elephants had none. The bareback rider’s act held only luck and skill. Miranda watched each performance through eyes half open, judging, squinting, and, as often as she could, snatching a glimpse of the ringmaster’s shirt.
The acts only played at sorcery, casting a different kind of spell over the crowd. One tightrope walker faltered to the rumble of snare drums, and according to Miranda’s halfway vision, the trapeze artist flew without arcane assistance.
The circus lights dimmed. The colors faded.
At last, the ringmaster drifted to the center of the ring. He raised his arms, brought silence down along with them. Miranda scooted to the edge of her board, felt the bite of splinters, and narrowed her eyes. Glowing underneath the fabric of his shirt, something small.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!”
It moved when he gestured, swinging from side to side beneath the silk.
“Please welcome the star of our little show.”
Miranda had come to the circus to find magic, lured by the music, the colors and the smells. She’d dreamed of acts that defied the laws of nature, of a show that would fit into her fancies. Sparkling costumes and dancing animals. Feats of strength and things of beauty. All the things that had proven to be illusions.
Except for the bear and his ringmaster.
Watching from her rickety perch, Miranda imagined dark crystals. She’d read about curses cast beneath the moon, rituals that might trap a human’s soul in an animal’s body. In her imagination, she paired those spells with childhood stories. Had the ringmaster used his glowing secret to imprison Boris? She imagined the story, painting the circus around her with fairytale strokes. The bear became a lost prince, and the ringmaster a jealous sorcerer.
“Boris the bear!”
He rode out through a red curtain, trailing it like a cape for just a moment. His feet pedaled the impossibly small unicycle, and Miranda hardly saw the bear at all. Her narrow vision revealed his true shape, and her imagination filled the gaps, weaving her prince into a story of betrayal and powerful magic.
The crowd gasped. The bear raced round the ring. The iron keys jangled at the ringmaster’s hip, and the secret beneath his clothing glowed brighter. Miranda squinted and watched, certain on the third pass that Boris winked at her, that his eyes practically begged for help.
More than a bear entertained the crowd, and no one else could see it properly. No one else could break the prince’s curse. No one besides Miranda, squinting and planning on the edge of her seat.
Miranda went to the circus for three straight days to learn the ringmaster’s schedule. He haunted the wagons before the show, but after the final drum roll the man vanished from the grounds for at least an hour. The performers drifted here and there, but she could dodge them, make an excuse for lingering if caught.
Miranda sat in the back on the fourth day. She squinted at the spangled shirt and at the bear who was more than a bear, and she waited for the show to end. When the crowd filed out, Miranda shuffled with them, but she ducked from the mob before reaching the gates and retraced her steps between the carts. This time, she kept her eyes open and straight ahead. She kept a look out for the villain who had trapped a prince, and she moved her feet firmly, as if she belonged behind the scenes.
No one questioned her. The ordinary jugglers practiced by their cart. The fat lady smoked a cigar on a pile of tarps. Miranda might as well have been made of mist. Except that when she found the prince’s cage again, he was already waiting for her.
Boris sat near the bars with his paws wrapped around the iron. He lowered his muzzle when Miranda crept near, and his soft eyes never left her. The prince only she could see had been waiting for her to come.
“I have to hurry.” She whispered, suppressing a stutter of embarrassment and a brief surging of doubt that insisted he was only a bear. That vanished when the black lips moved.
“He’ll be back soon.” The bear’s voice didn’t growl as much as she’d expected.
“I want to help you.” Miranda shifted her feet, didn’t quite draw closer to the bars. “You are more than a bear, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” His huge head nodded. The little hat slid toward one ear. “I am much more than a bear.”
Miranda’s heart pounded. She looked into soft brown eyes and felt the magic tugging at her. “Were you cursed?”
“After a fashion.” Boris shifted his grip on the bars and his claws clicked against the metal. “I trusted the wrong man, and fell under the spell of the circus and its master.”
“And now you’re trapped?” Miranda stared at his paws.
“One of your claws is missing.”
“You’re a very clever girl.”
Miranda straightened her spine, lifted her chin and looked her prince in the eye. “Can I help you break your curse?”
“The circus is threaded through with iron,” Boris said. “But outside its boundary, I would be free of the ringmaster’s chains.”
Iron is the only thing that magic fears. Properly used, it can bind and break. It can hold and imprison.
A shiver writhed up Miranda’s spine. If she could free him, would the magic turn him back into a prince? Her dream shifted again, painting herself as the hero. She stifled the urge to giggle, or to dance in place. But when the bear pressed his face closer to the bars, Miranda shivered.
He was larger than she’d remembered. His claws made dagger hooks around the bars, but his brown eyes felt like a warm blanket. Miranda nodded and answered with her eyes half open. “What can I do to help?”
In the books she’d read, the prince was always very grateful. If she freed him, perhaps Boris would reward her, teach her about the things no one else would say. Perhaps, he would free her, too.
“Come at midnight,” the bear said. “They’ll have passed out by then.”
The between times.
Midnight. Miranda nodded. “Won’t the gate be locked?”
“Behind the big top there’s nothing but an old wire.”
“Oh. Okay. Is there anything I should bring?”
“Does a girl who squints at the world own a gun?”
“No. Um. I don’t, and my name is Miranda.”
“Then bring only your courage, Miranda. And come back when the ringmaster’s snoring rattles the wagons.”
She stepped away, then paused and thought about the dark, the size of the bear, and the fact that bears shouldn’t be able to speak to young women. No matter what her fairytales said. Miranda turned back for a final peek, but the bear with a prince inside lunged against the bars, pressed his huge muzzle through and growled with curling lips.
“Hurry. Go, girl!”
Miranda stumbled away, forgetting to care if anyone saw her. She jogged past the fat lady and the jugglers and saw only the blur of overly painted smiles as she went. She ran out of the gate, and not until the tent was a billowing mountain behind her did it occur to her that he hadn’t sounded like a prince at all.
The circus looked different in the dark. The colors grayed, and the breeze made a snapping shadow of the big top tent. Miranda crept around the back, through the brambles which lined the parking lot and over a scattered collection of rocks and rubble cleared from the field.
She found the wire and slipped beneath it, aware of every crunching stone under her feet. Every whisk of her jacket arms sounded like a car alarm in the darkness, and every exhalation made her freeze and listen for the sounds of an angry ringmaster.
During the final hours of waiting, Miranda had thought of something she hadn’t considered before. She’d wondered what a man who could make a prince into a bear might do to a girl caught sneaking through his circus after hours. As she slunk between the poles and looked, from one wagon to the next, Miranda’s heart raced. Her resolve wavered, and she squinted over and over, looking for the glow that would mean the villain had found her.
At the back of Boris’s wagon, Miranda stopped and caught her breath. He wanted her to let him out. Here in the darkness, Miranda understood exactly what he’d meant about courage. She reminded herself there was a prince inside him. There had to be a prince.
Her squinting had seen it.
Just when she’d convinced herself, when her lungs had settled and she’d decided to step into view, Boris spoke, right near her ear. “Are you ready?”
“Y-yes.” So close, that voice, and not courtly in the least.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I promised I would.” Miranda peered into the cage, forgot to squint and lost her breath at the size of him. A wall of fur, a clattering of claws, but also the soft brown eyes that watched her from deep inside him. “Are you sure they’re asleep?”
“Three bottles past drunk out of their minds,” the bear said. “Passed out but for the fat lady who is… otherwise occupied.”
“What do we do next?” Miranda thought, perhaps, she should have asked him about that earlier. She knew she should have when he spoke the next words.
“You get me the ringmaster’s keys.”
“Where are they?” She swallowed sawdust and pictured the glow beneath a spangled shirt, the long whip in a gloved fist. “I don’t know…”
“His wagon is the closest to the gate. His door will be open, and the keys will be inside.”
“Isn’t he inside?” She couldn’t do it. Miranda heard that much in the pitch of her words. She felt it, in the thumping of the heart inside her breast. “I can’t.”
Despite the stories, the magic, and her chance to be a hero, Miranda considered running back home as fast as she could and never, ever returning to the circus again.
“Miranda.” The bear’s eyes lowered, staring at her from behind his bars. His wide nose pressed against the metal, twitching, smelling her. “You forgot to squint.”
“Oh.” She closed her eyes halfway and found the prince’s face still wore the same eyes. “Oh.”
“You can do it, Miranda,” he said. “You can free me.”
The ringmaster’s wagon had a metal step beneath the door. It had no bars, only painted walls and a narrow window on one end. Miranda hovered outside, listening to the sound of drunken snores.
Boris had been right about that.
Miranda inhaled slowly and reached for the door handle. She stepped up and pressed her ear close to the wood. Snoring, loud and ragged from inside. She pulled the door open just enough, slipping into the wagon and a chaos of fabric and boxes. If there were shelves inside the ringmaster’s cart, they’d long since spilled their contents. The detritus of circus theatre lined the miniature room and only a narrow aisle had been kept free.
That led to a low mattress, and upon that the ringmaster dreamt away his booze.
The first thing Miranda noticed was his bare chest. The second was the ring of iron, the keys dangling from a peg in the wall, easily within reach of the door. She could snatch them and be out in a breath. When she squinted at the scene, however, Miranda’s attention was captured by the glowing amulet.
A single, sickle claw on a string around the ringmaster’s neck.
Miranda had never been intoxicated, never had more to drink than a sip from a friend’s glass. Just enough to let her know she didn’t care for it. She had no idea how drunk a man had to be not to notice someone taking off his necklace.
The bear hadn’t even mentioned it. She only needed the keys. But once that iron ring was in her grasp, Miranda’s feet kept moving. Before she could think, she was leaning above the sleeping ringmaster, squinting at the claw and imagining a way to get it free.
Cutting the thong would be easiest, but a brief glance around suggested nothing which might sever the cord. She held her breath, reached her fingers for the amulet and lifted it from his smooth skin. Easy enough, except now she held the thing and the ringmaster’s head still pinned it to his mattress.
Her hand wrapped around the claw. The glow transferred to her skin, made her fingers alien things. Miranda eased it over his head, watching his eyes, willing them to stay closed.
If only he’d roll over.
Warmth spread to her wrist, flaring, lifting all the little hairs along her arm. In his sleep, the ringmaster sighed and obeyed, rocking onto his side and freeing Miranda’s prize from his possession.
The bear claw hung in her grasp. The iron ring weighed heavily in her other hand. She didn’t have time to wonder how these things had happened. Miranda backed to the ringmaster’s door, froze in the entrance when he snorted and mumbled something she couldn’t catch.
Don’t wake up.
The claw warmed again. This time, she slid the thong over her head, put the amulet on and let the claw rest beneath her shirt. The ringmaster sighed, snorted, and Miranda eased out of his wagon and shut the door.
The step creaked when she descended. Something thumped inside the wagon. She clutched the keys to her chest and ran into the darkness. She quieted their jangling with her arm, silenced her heartbeat with a deep breath and raced to free the bear.
Boris waited, fur pressing through the bars and soft eyes shining. Miranda stopped beside the lock and raised the ring for her prince to examine.
“You did it.” His voice held no surprise. “Quickly. It’s the centermost key.”
Her fingers fumbled with the heavy metal. Miranda pried the middle key from the group. She fit it, neatly into the lock. The darkness behind her spoke before she could turn it.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The ringmaster had found them out. The bear’s voice whispered near her ear, hissed through gleaming teeth.
“Boris is more than he appears,” the ringmaster said.
“I know about that.” Miranda tried to sound brave, but her eyes fixed on the bear’s fangs.
“Do you?” A half dozen steps more and he’d stop her. Only a few breaths to decide.
“He’s magic.” She whispered it, but the sound carried in the dark, sounding too loud, harsh and too real. Adults didn’t admit to magic, not outright, and now she’d look like a foolish child.
“He is.” The ringmaster surprised her. “And magic can be very alluring.”
“No one will talk about it.” Her frustration put a tremble in the words. She turned her head, looking away from the bear.
“I will.” The spangled shirt sparkled in the moonlight. Its owner took a step closer, spoke to her like no adult ever had. “Boris and I have a bargain, one made by blood and magic. He traded his freedom for my protection, and now he’d use you to break our promise.”
“Liar.” Boris growled. “You are made of trickery and lies.”
“And you are a creature of magic, dangerous and desperate.” The ringmaster scooted a step closer. “He is a monster, girl. A halfway thing. His prison is for our safety. Do you believe that he won’t turn against you? That a thing of magic can ever be trusted?”
Miranda’s hand shook. The keys rattled and shone in the moonlight. The ringmaster’s voice flowed like the words in her aunt’s book. They made her head hurt. She turned back to the cage. The iron bars gleamed beneath furry paws. She saw the wound, the stump where a claw should have sprouted.
“I…” Miranda’s eyes lifted, caught her own reflection in the gaze of the bear prince. “I don’t know.”
“Please Miranda,” he growled. “Save me.”
Her hand moved. The key clicked in the lock. Around Miranda’s neck, a single bear claw flared to life. It burned her skin. The iron bars swung open, and the girl dropped to her knees in the dirt.
The ringmaster’s face grew moon pale. His mouth opened. Miranda saw him in slow motion, stretching to find his voice, to let his fear free. Boris was faster. Before the man could scream, the bear was on him. Before Miranda could scream, the ringmaster was dead.
She heard it in the crunching, the snap of bones, and she felt it in the heat of the amulet around her neck.
“Miranda?” Heavy feet padded against the earth. The darkness shifted, streaked with cinnamon. “Come out, Miranda.”
In the space beneath the bear’s wagon, Miranda cowered and shook her head even though he couldn’t possibly see it. At least, she prayed he couldn’t see it. Her hands gripped the claw in a vise, and her belly pressed to the cold dampness below the cage.
The long shadows. The halfway places.
“Miranda, we don’t have time for this.”
Miranda cringed when the muzzle appeared. The black nose twitched, caught her hiding, and Boris shifted his head to one side, pointing an eye at her that didn’t seem so soft now.
“There you are.” His lips curled when he spoke, showing large teeth. His voice growled with frustration. “What did you think would happen? He didn’t mean to let us walk away.”
“You killed him.” Tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes. In the stories the prince never killed anyone.
“Yes.” Boris blinked. “Thanks to you.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“I never could have touched him if he’d worn that.” The heat emanating from her new necklace confirmed his point. “Protection from bears. I sacrificed that claw in exchange for sanctuary, but my trust was misplaced. I was given a cage instead, a lifetime as a sideshow freak. So long as the ringmaster wore my claw, I couldn’t harm him. Now you wear it, and there’s no reason to remain in the filth.”
“You’re not a prince.” Perhaps the knowledge of what she wore made her braver. Perhaps it was the certainty that she was not, not ever leaving the filth while the bear was out there.
“I never said I was.”
“More than a bear,” Boris said. “You’ll remember. And I think we can agree it’s true, unless you’ve spent other nights conversing with bears in the darkness.”
“No.” Had he given her half truths too? Or had she only half listened?
“I thought not.” He blinked and grunted. His big body flattened to the earth, and his muzzle poked its way beneath the cart so that both his eyes could stare at her. “Are you coming out?”
“Now you believe I’m a monster?” His nose twitched above blood-stained lips. “But you know nothing of the torture I endured. Nothing of the man who died, either, a cruel man, free with his whip. I gave him an easy death, Miranda. It’s a great deal more mercy than he showed me. A long life in a cage, imprisoned, trapped in this half of myself.”
They stared at one another, the bear and the girl. Miranda tried to hear him, but her ears remembered the crunching, and her eyes pressed tightly closed.
“I see.” His voice drifted as he pulled away. “Your fantasy has fractured.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Keep your eyes shut. Don’t listen to the claws against the stones.
“I mean that girls who squint at the world often see only what they want to.”
Was that what had happened? Miranda felt the heat of Boris’s claw against her breast. She lay on it, letting the warmth of the amulet ease her panic. Had she only imagined a prince? Had she freed a beast or a man? Seen his truth or her fiction? Embarrassment flooded through her, even stronger than her fear. Had she really only wanted half the truth?
“Last chance?” His words softened now, his footpads already leading him away. “Be brave, Miranda.”
Her eyes fluttered open. Her dreams still whispered to her, but then, they’d only been half thought out. She watched Boris walk away, and if he shifted when he passed the circus boundary, if his furry outline smoothed and changed, she could almost convince herself she imagined it. The night fell silent as the bear vanished. After he’d gone, Miranda was alone in the darkness with a dead man, a ring of keys, and an empty cage.
In the morning, they found her locked inside the bear’s wagon. A juggler discovered the key ring a few yards away. He set Miranda free while the police cleaned away the ringmaster’s remains. When Miranda told her how the man had died, they all believed her. When she explained how the ringmaster had invited her back to his wagon, no one questioned. That he’d been drunk was never in doubt.
He’d boasted of his skill with Boris to impress her, had lured her to the bear’s wagon for a private demonstration. When the beast went mad, Miranda said, she’d survived by locking herself inside his cage.
They believed her because she told the story with her eyes wide open.
They believed her even though they never found the bear.
And though Miranda never took off the amulet, eventually, she could almost believe her story too. She could almost forget the sound of bones crunching, the voice of a man who was more than a bear.
And she only ever squinted once, years later, when a man with soft brown eyes offered to buy her a drink. Then Miranda clutched her amulet and looked with eyes half open, to see if there might be a bear inside.