flight

Flight of the Valkyries

In Short Story by Amanda Pampuro

As evening made its entrance, the white spotlight in the sky touched the windows of its worshipers, illuminating dust lingering over powder puffs and fairies in preparation for flight. On the brink of fifteen, it fell on Marina to brush the snarls out of the younger pixies’ hair and coil their buns tight enough to bring tears to their eyes. Around her, the other girls concentrated on wriggling their growing bodies into shimmering leotards, so at first no one noticed the man lurking at their window.
“Sit still. This has got to stay in place. You know Aunt Celina, over at the popcorn stand? She used to do the trapeze,” Marina warned. “When she was your age, she had long, beautiful hair, just like you. Until one day, her ponytail broke loose during the triple twist and got wrapped all around the bar. She was too cocky to look before she leapt so she got ready to swing for the jump just like she always did. One, two, three—she went for the launch and her hair held her back like a leash. She dangled like that one long second, high above a full house. She hung just long enough to figure out she needed to scream, and then she fell.”
“What happened?”
“She fell. You only get to fall once. Broke both her knees and both her hips. Never healed right either.”
“So that’s why she’s so damn crabby…”
“So that’s why you sit still when I’m tryin’a fix your hair.”
“Ow! Okay, okay.”
Marina silenced the other gigglers with her gaze. All except for one deep, dark chuckle made at her expense.
Masked by the moon, the apparition leered into their window, the realization of every blood-toothed tale they were told before bed—to Clara, he was the inbred bootlegger without a nose. To Carousel, he was the hitchhiker who carried in his pocket the eye teeth of every driver who picked him up. To Ferrari, he was the pinstriped swindler crushing the flowers of young virgins behind the animal cages. While the trailer shook with their howls, the fierce fairy queen dove at the window and clocked the craggy old man with her wooden hairbrush.
“You old pervert.” Marina threw a half-empty bottle of pop at the remnants of his hairline. He retreated and she grabbed tins of eye shadow. She grabbed dance shoes and dead batteries. She hit him right in his crooked spine at nine yards with the powder puff. “Yea, you run away you weasel-hearted hassle. You want a show? Come back here again and I’ll show you my knife routine—”
Marina’s threats dissipated into the chorus of lions as Carlos hobbled toward the big tent. The elephants never let the big cats crow without a comeback, and there were more pigeons and parrots and doves in the show than anyone could count. Since the day Carlos was born in a pile of hay, their longing for faraway jungles always calmed him.
He used to wake at dawn and sneak into the strong man’s tent, easily lifting the one-hundred pound weights without once waking the giant. He compressed his abs in two-thousand sit-ups before taking a sip of water, and inflicted a special torture on his hands to make his fingers as strong as steel.
But that was no longer the man he found in the mirror. He touched the forehead’s pitted landscape. He saw himself touching it, this pale imitation of the moon, but could not figure out how that had become his face.
The only other person old enough to say whether or not Carlos the Uncanny’s story was true was Rolling Rose Circus’ own founder, Missus Margret Rose. And she made a habit of never intervening in these kinds of disputes.
“You can’t believe in magic if you don’t believe in magic,” she’d flick her cigar. Or she else she’d light a new one and say, “Just ‘cause the tooth fairy retired doesn’t mean there’s nobody else to take up her place.”
It began decades ago when Carlos—sprite, flexible, and invincibly young—decided to see just how fast a human could fly from the trapeze. He forced out his legs and pulled them back to a sweep again and again. To the stirring crowd below, he seemed to swing back and forth a full five minutes. The audience started jeering, but Carlos kept swinging until the only thing in his ears was the music of Wagner. Then and only then, he threw himself into the air, a blur of blue and gold, flipping with lightning speed.
When he was supposed to land however, instead of feeling the bar in his hands, he felt the stability of the platform beneath his feet. Suddenly he was bowing beside the rest of the troop. No one else seemed to have noticed, but Carlos swears he slipped through some kind of tear in time and lost about fifteen minutes of his life.
And it kept happening. Every time he performed the Flight of the Valkry, that little hole grew a little bigger. After four or five times, he realized it was doubling. But Carlos never missed the minutes. He never missed the hours. What was the aftermath of sore muscles compared to the heaven of complete weightlessness? He wouldn’t trade it for all the roses they threw at his feet. He wouldn’t trade it for the bottle of wine they passed around the truck bed on the road. Everything else he did between towns—stretch, grind chalk, admire dancers, ravel and unravel cables—meant nothing in comparison.
Then he started losing years.
Soon after Carlos celebrated his seventeenth birthday, he performed the Flight and found himself standing before his twentieth. The girl he remembered kissing in the cotton candy stand last week wore lipstick now and was getting hitched to the operator of the Scrambler. Carlos ran around the compound, learning all the names of the children who had been born since he left and presented them with candy. If that wasn’t strange, he silenced the clan at dinner with a touching, but mournfully belated eulogy to Jade Trade the Thai Tiger who died of pneumonia the previous winter.
“Did she die again?” snickered a plain-clothed clown.
“No, but maybe the murderer’s guilty conscience finally caught up to him!” said another.
“Let him make his speech,” chimed in the sad clown. “He’s drunk. Everybody gets to speak when they’re drunk!”
By show time, Carlos considered himself just about caught up. Only as he was climbing the hundred-foot ladder did he question whether or not he should perform the Flight. He knew perfectly well what would happen if he went through with it, and yet he couldn’t help but long for that momentary feeling of freedom between the bars. Perhaps he knew telling himself this would be his last flight was a lie. Perhaps he believed it. Upon finding the pouch of soft chalk right where he left it, Carlos dusted his fingers, leaped off the platform and let muscle memory take over.
He swung his legs to gather momentum and rolled more than a dozen times through the air. Carlos the Uncanny tumbled faster than he had ever tumbled before, and when he felt the ground beneath his feet, he raised his arms in victory for an unamused audience.
He had suddenly arrived in the year of Valium, silicone breast implants, acrylic paint, AstroTurf, Andy Warhol, and sarcastic teenagers.
“Well, pops, I got something to show you too,” a caramel-haired acrobat was telling him. “I’ve been working on it all month, and I think it would be great for the bars. If you could teach me the ropes, I bet I could do it in the air.”
“Sure let’s see, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid—my name’s Celina, Celina the Celestial.”
“Whatever you say, kid.”
In the decade he had missed, more animals were mourned than Carlos ever met. Instead of playing at catch-up, he devoted his time to training the pint-sized pixie. She was great on the ground but awkward as a fish in the air. With practice, she got better. Near the end of the season, she was nearly as good as she said she was and they put her porcelain face on the posters. But like anyone hungering for greatness, Celina’s accomplishments never quite satisfied her.
“You have to teach me the Valkry, pops. You have to!”
“I can’t.”
“Please, please! You’re already getting too old to pull it off. Someone else has to know it so we can keep it in the family.”
“I can’t teach you something I don’t know.”
“Just show me once pops, and I’ll figure it out.”
This time Carlos told himself it would be his last leap. He told himself he was doing it for the future of the Rolling Rose and that Celina really might be the only other one able to pull it off. Really though, the apprentice didn’t have to ask twice. It had been years—albeit months in his mind—since his last performance, but there wasn’t a muscle in Carlos’ body that didn’t miss it.
So he climbed the long ladder and jumped into a world where mankind launched probes into space and piped oil thousands of miles across Alaska. It was a wonderfully fast world, full of hope and possibility until Carlos found Celina. The casts had come off, but her legs were still painfully crooked as she used her strong acrobatic arms to drag the rest of her body along.
“Pops, you know what happened.”
“I’m going to make it right, kid. I’m going to make this right,” Carlos muttered as he climbed the long ladder. He told himself if he did backflips instead of front flips, he could reverse this—he could move backwards and catch Celina before she fell.
That of course is not the way it worked. Instead, Carlos continued forward to the world of the Internet, airbags, and genetically engineered roses. Propped up on legs weakened by age, he found himself exiled to the ticket booth nose to nose with the gap-toothed, sweat-stained crowd squeezing into line. Instead of applause, they stomped their impatient boots in the dirt and howled at their sugar-stoned kids to quiet down. The marching band that used to make a parade out of the event had been replaced with a recording and Carlos’ shimmering spandex with faded corduroys. Like the patient thief swearing his innocence, the wizardly man told anyone who would listen he was so much younger than his body.
Time and time again, Marina warned the girls to make sure they locked the windows, especially on the nicest midsummer nights. “You know old Carlos ain’t right in the head.”
“Did he fall too?”
“Shut up and hold still.”
But the girls did not. Even with twenty minutes to curtain call, they wouldn’t let up until Marina retold the tale of Carlos the Uncanny.
“All right, all right. The short version. No, he didn’t fall. Something else happened, something some say is worse. You know, he taught my mom, and Carousel’s mom, and Aunt Celina the trapeze too? He was a very good teacher, because he was a very good performer and he was very famous for his Valkry trick. Did more aerial flips than anybody ever did before and he landed himself, with no one to catch him.”
“Just like you?”
“I’m not there yet.”
“Just like you.”
“They called the Flight of the Valkry ‘the trick of the gods,’ and one day while Carlos was doing it, Thor decided to show what happens when you put that on the posters. A big storm rolled in and the tent trembled under growing quakes of thunder. They should have called off the show, but it was a full house and Mrs. Rose hated to have to refund all that. Carlos should have climbed down and said ‘forget about it,’ but he could never turn down a crowd. Then in the middle of his routine, a beam of lightning sliced through the tent. Zapped right through his chest. Must have stopped his heart. But he didn’t fall. To the crowd’s amazement, Carlos the Uncanny followed through, landed, and took his bow. He put on a show no one has ever forgotten, but it came at a price. They say the lightning bolt shot his brain full of hot blood, so while his body grew old he stayed the same childish boy inside…”
When the show started, Carlos abandoned the front gate and made his way to the great tent. Every night, he took a seat near the back and watched the world’s most beautiful fairies defy gravity.
There was one girl in particular, the oldest of the trapeze artists, whose performance completely took his breath away. Lately, she had taken to flying solo, and as she did, she flipped faster and faster, coming closer and closer to the edge of physical possibility.
Though he warned her what would happen if she flew too fast, an acrobat like Marina would never give up her wings for such a story. So as she neared the Flight, Carlos clung to her like a shadow. When she caught him, she aimed pop bottles and powder puffs at his head, but even her most impassioned threats couldn’t scare him away.
Carlos knew he needed to be there after the Flight when she reappeared. Marina would need someone to fill in the growing gaps of time and, more importantly, someone who believed her.

About the Author

Amanda Pampuro

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Amanda Pampuro cut her teeth reporting for the Guam Daily Post. Her fiction has since been featured in 3AM Magazine and Storyboard, her reporting in the Atlantic’s Citylab and Voice Media’s Westword. “Flight of the Valkyries” is one of 15 stories from her collection “The Party’s Over.”