For one week in summer, red cloth and steel polls transformed a vacant lot into another world. Strange creatures danced like demons, beautiful women tamed wild beasts, and ordinary men demonstrated a host of supernatural powers. The sideshow had come to town. The sideshow! The bastard child of the circus and the absolute bottom rung of the theatrical ladder. In the days before television swallowed the world, the sideshow was the ultimate in voyeurism. You could ride every roller coaster, play every game, eat every delicious treat the carnival had to offer, but it would be the sideshow you would remember forever. Some memories fade like the dawn, but others are destined to die with you.
A clear, blue Monday morning, opening day. The crowds attacked the carnival grounds like an angry swarm of locusts. Across from the row of rides was a long tent, purple and crimson, with a rickety, wooden stage near the entrance. A man in a white pinstriped suit and Panama hat stepped onto the stage and lifted a megaphone to his lips. Bentley, the sideshow talker. The bally had begun. “Ladies and gentleman,” he bellowed, “have I got a treat for you. This is, bar none, the greatest show in the galaxy. We’ve got beautiful, Hawaiian hula dancers, Marco the Magician, and Vesuvius the fire breather! We’ve got a cow with two heads! Guaranteed born alive, or we’ll hand you a crisp, clean hundred dollar bill! Come see the show, folks! We’ve got more thrills than a fish has gills! See Jade the sword swallower! When she swallows a light bulb, you can see it shine in her belly! Now, have I got a treat for you today! Come a little closer, and enjoy a free show! That’s right, free! Free as the air you breathe!”
At these words, a tall, curvaceous woman in a tiger print leotard climbed onto the stage. Wrapped around her shoulders was an immense, black and gold python. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Bentley continued, “this is one of the stars of our show, Sabrina the Snake Charmer! Show ’em what you do, honey!” Sabrina lifted the snake from her shoulders and, arms outstretched, presented it to the crowd. The women shrieked and moved back. A few men told their wives they were moving in closer to look at Sabrina’s snake but, instead, they helped themselves to an eyeful of Sabrina. Suddenly, Sabrina lifted the snake over her head and slowly lowered its head into her mouth. The crowd gasped. She opened her mouth and released the snake, kissing it gently. “Isn’t that great, folks?” Bentley said. “Of course it is! And that’s just one of ten acts you can see, all for fifteen cents. That’s less than a penny each! Still not convinced? Here’s Marco the Magician!”
Marco quickly donned his top hat and cape and boarded the stage while Sabrina rushed into the tent to get ready for the real show. She brushed past a tall man in a blue denim shirt, ignoring his hellos. The man in the blue shirt was entirely unremarkable, save for the fourteen-inch horn protruding from the center of his forehead. The Human Unicorn watched Sabrina hurry to her stage and deposit the snake in a large, bamboo basket. The Unicorn trudged back to his stage and waited for Bentley to “turn the tip,” or bring the crowd inside. Suddenly, Marco flew past him, holding onto his top hat with both hands.
“They’re on their way!” he shouted. “Get ready, Unicorn!”
In the sideshow, there were two types of performers: working acts, those who made their living with unusual performances, and human oddities, people who were amazing not for what they did, but for who they were. Human oddities like the Unicorn didn’t have to learn magic tricks or sword swallowing. They could just stand still and let the crowd stare. This particular sideshow had nine working acts. The Unicorn was unique, unique and alone.
The acts in the sideshow each performed from their own stage. The sideshow ran continuously, the ten acts repeating over and over. By the time the crowd reached the last stage, a new crowd was starting at the beginning. The Unicorn was last in line. He had twenty-seven minutes to wait.
The Unicorn closed his eyes and let Sabrina’s face fill his mind. Daydreaming, his mind wandered back three years, back to the day he had joined the sideshow. It had been six months since the thing had appeared on his forehead, and it just kept growing. The doctors said they couldn’t remove it without also removing a piece of his frontal lobe. He could be a drooling vegetable or a sideshow freak. What choice did he have? He was fired from his job and, desperate for work, he had joined the sideshow. Bentley led him into the tent and introduced him to the performers. Marco the Magician was sitting on a bale of hay. His assistant, Bettie, was in his lap. Jade the sword swallower and Vesuvius the fire breather were arguing over whose act was more dangerous. Ox, the strong man, was standing in between them, keeping them apart.
“Fellas, fellas,” said Bentley, “This here’s our latest acquisition. I think I’m gonna call him the Human Unicorn.”
“Holy smokes!” Ox gasped. “Is that thing for real?”
“He’s not a fake, a fraud, or a phony.” Bentley said. “This, my friends, is the genuine article, the real McCoy. Our little show finally has a bona fied freak!” The Unicorn blanched at the word. “Don’t look like that,” Bentley laughed. “This is a new world, Corny. Freak central! We’re all different here.”
But it simply wasn’t true. Ox was almost seven feet tall and completely bald but he still looked like a healthy human being. The others could simply change into their street clothes and go totally unnoticed.
Bentley introduced the Unicorn to everyone and then led him through the tent and out the back door, where more performers were relaxing. A tall, mousy man in a gray suit was introduced as Mouth, the regurgitator. His act involved swallowing rodents, frogs and other small animals, letting them sit in his stomach for a moment, and then bringing them back unharmed. His stomach muscles were so strong that he could even swallow a billiard ball and reproduce it on command. After that, the Unicorn met the knife thrower and his assistant, the Living Target. And then there was Sabrina.
Sabrina was the kind of woman pilots painted on the nose cones of bombers. She was beautiful but she wore her beauty like a costume. On stage, she was in control, alternately flirting with and frightening her audience. Offstage, she was warm, kind, and approachable. She treated everyone as a friend, even the roustabouts, day laborers who erected the tents. Even someone as bizarre-looking as the Human Unicorn.
The first night with the sideshow, the Unicorn couldn’t sleep. He pulled on a robe and walked out of his trailer. Sabrina was sitting outside at a picnic table, smoking. “I thought I was the only insomniac in the group,” she said. “C’mere. Have a seat and talk to me.” Nervously, the Unicorn sat at the edge of the bench. Sabrina gestured for him to move closer.
“What did you want to talk about?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Anything. What did you do before the sideshow?”
“I was a salesman,” he said, staring at his shoes. “Men’s shirts, mostly. After the horn grew too big to hide, my boss moved me into the stockrooms in back. He thought it could be fixed. He thought the doctors would do something about it but they couldn’t. Eventually, it grew so large that the other employees couldn’t stand to look at me. They said they would all quit unless I was fired. And that was that. I had no job and no way to get one, not looking the way I do. At first, my friends were concerned. They thought it was a tumor and I was dying… Everyone was prepared for me to get sick, languish in the hospital, and waste away. But my friends found out it’s a lot harder to live with someone who’s sick than to watch them die.”
Sabrina tossed her cigarette into the dirt and wrapped her arm around him, pulling him closer. “You’re not sick. Don’t you ever think that way! In fact, you should be grateful.”
“Grateful?” His mouth dropped open in shock. “What in blazes for?”
“If you hadn’t grown that horn, you’d never have met me!” Laughing, Sabrina hugged him warmly. Her smile was like sunlight. “Everybody here has a story. Doors in our life were closed, and the sideshow opened a window… Well, not a window. More like a greasy sewer grate. But it was a way out, and that was enough.” They sat together in silence, watching the stars dance across the sky. “You never told us your real name,” Sabrina said suddenly.
“Why would I?” the Unicorn said. “That’s not who I am anymore. I can never be that person again.”
Sabrina gazed into his eyes. “That’s alright with me. I like who you’ve become.”
As the weeks rolled by, the Human Unicorn adjusted to his new life. At first, he simply stood on the stage and let the audience gape open-mouthed at him. But soon, a few hecklers in the crowds insisted that his horn was fake, a carved and painted piece of wood simply glued onto his forehead. The Unicorn was forced to lean down and allow the audience to touch him. Later, Sabrina gave him a few brass rings she had stolen from the carousel. The Unicorn would invite children in the audience to play ring toss with his horn as the target.
One evening, after a long and particularly hot day in August, the performers gathered for a late supper in the main tent. Vesuvius the fire breather poured hot sauce on his spaghetti. After years of performing, it was the only thing he could still taste. Jade the sword swallower chewed slowly, carefully, washing down every bite with a sip of water. She had no gagging reflex anymore, so she was careful to avoid any chance of choking. Sabrina, normally full of stories and energy, was strangely quiet. She was wearing a simple, black dress that she had pulled over her leotard after the last show. She was just across the table but seemed far away.
“Is anything wrong?” the Unicorn asked.
“There was someone familiar in the crowd today,” she muttered into her plate. “Someone I knew in another life. I don’t think he recognized me… I wear so much makeup on stage. I don’t want to talk about it here, with everybody around.”
“No one’s listening,” the Unicorn said, trying to sound reassuring. “Bentley’s trading dirty jokes with the strong man again… Why was it so upsetting? I would love to see one of my old friends.”
Sabrina sighed deeply and set down her fork. “He wasn’t an old friend. He used to be my manager, back when I was a singer.”
“You were a singer? I never knew that.”
“It’s hard for me to speak of those days. I performed with a few big bands, jazz standards, mostly. Strictly small time. And then I met Wesley. He had connections in theater, the radio. He knew all sorts of important people. He promised he would get me noticed if I helped him with a… hobby. Boudoir photography. But he betrayed me. Instead of selling my music, he sold the photos. I was blackballed. No one would let me sing because of my ‘immoral lifestyle.’”
“How horrible! Maybe he’ll come back to the carnival tomorrow. Me and Ox will find him, and show him what for.”
“No, no. What if someone calls the police? If the police come to the carnival, they would cause trouble for everybody, not just you and Ox. There are a lot of grifters running the games, and the do-gooders would shut down the pickled punk show for sure. But I appreciate the offer. It’s nice to know I have you to look out for me.”
After dinner, the Unicorn was helping the Living Target wash the dishes. A large, tin bucket on a table served as a sink, and the towels were rags cut from old costumes. Suddenly, everything went dark. Two hands were over his eyes. Soft skin smelling of lilacs. Giggling laughter.
“Oh, you’re a real wiseacre,” Sabrina laughed. She snatched the Unicorn’s towel and tossed it on the table. Grabbing his wrist, she pulled him out of the tent, leading him to the trees at the edge of the lot. “Have a seat on that stump,” she said. “Good. Now pretend you’re in a suit and tie, and you’re taking your best gal out on the town. You have dinner, a few drinks, and then you head down to the theater. `Sabrina Swan’ is on the marquee, bigger than life. You come inside, take a seat, and the curtain rises. The band starts playing, soft and slow. And then, the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen comes on stage. She’s in a silver dress that reflects the stage lights like a lake under a full moon. And then she begins to sing.”
Her song started softly, almost too quiet to hear. And then she closed her eyes and let her soul fly free. In the dappled light through the trees, her simple, black dress was as beautiful as the night sky. She sang of heartache and dreams broken by the coming of the dawn. She sang of longing and abandonment and a lover’s embrace. Her song was a cry of anguish, then a howl of rage and, finally, triumphant laughter. Her song was an omen, and she sang the world to its knees. At last, she opened her eyes and smiled. She laughed, more than a little embarrassed. “That’s what I used to do,” she said, “before I came here. Did you like it?”
The Unicorn rose to his feet and put his hands on her shoulders. “That was simply amazing. You… you’re amazing.”
“What? I just…” Sabrina brushed his hands away and took a step back.
“I’ve never cared about anyone the way I care for you,” he said. “Every night, I fall asleep praying that I’ll dream of you. I want to be with you, Sabrina. I love you.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “I never meant… Earlier tonight, I felt like crying, and you were so nice to me. I wanted to repay you. I wanted… I didn’t want this.”
“But Sabrina!” he cried. “The doctors will figure out how to fix me, eventually. I can be a better man for you. A normal man.”
“I’m sorry.” Sabrina turned, stepped through the trees, and headed for the bunkhouse. The Human Unicorn collapsed, broken. The world had suddenly become a very dark place.
The sound of Bentley’s voice brought the Unicorn back to the present. Monday morning, opening day. It was three years later, and the crowd was headed for his stage. He forced a smile and turned on the stage lights. He went through his act on autopilot, reciting the same words he had said fourteen times a day, every day, for the past three years. Finally, it was Bentley’s turn to speak. He started talking about the blowoff, the extra attraction at the end of the show. The blowoff made sure the old crowds got out of the way in time for the new crowds to come inside.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bentley said, “Let me tell you about the Fiji mermaid…”
As soon as the crowd had cleared, the Unicorn jumped from his stage. He rushed past Mouth and the fire breather to Marco’s stage. Marco and Bettie, a redhead in a sequined bathing suit, were playing cards, using the “sawed in half” box as a table.
“Oh, it’s the Unicorn!” the magician said. “What brings you down here? Usually you just read pulp novels until the next crowd. Did you need a new one? I’ve got the new Shadow around here somewhere.”
“No, Marco. I’m fine. I just need to talk to you… alone.”
“Oh, really?” Marco raised an eyebrow and grinned, an exaggerated affectation he had perfected as part of his act. “Something tells me its lady troubles. Did you meet a townie? Some small town girl wants to see you after the show?”
“Nothing like that,” the Unicorn muttered. Turning to Bettie, he said, “Can you give me a moment with Marco? I won’t be long.”
“Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll go have a smoke out back.” She grabbed a robe from backstage and headed for the exit.
“Marco, it’s about Sabrina,” the Unicorn said. “I love her so much, but she feels nothing for me. I’ve tried to forget about her, but I can’t. For God’s sake, I see her practically naked every day. A man can’t take such things.”
“I appreciate your plight, kid, but what do you want me to do about it? I’m a magician, not a witch doctor. I can’t exactly whip you up a love potion.”
“But you don’t have to!” The Unicorn stopped and checked his surroundings, making sure none of the other performers were in earshot. “I’ve seen your act. Before you saw Bettie in half, you put her into a trance. Can’t you… can’t you do that to Sabrina?”
“What are you asking, exactly?”
“Make Sabrina love me. Make her forget about my deformity, and make her fall head-over-heels in love with me.”
Marco took of his top hat and placed it gently on the table. He rubbed his head, worried. “Hypnosis doesn’t work that way. I can’t make anyone do something they don’t actually want to do. I can hypnotize my assistant, sure. Or I can do someone from the crowd, make them cluck like a chicken or think they’re Bing Crosby, but it only works with certain people. The skill in stage hypnosis is finding people in the crowd who are willing to play along. The hypnosis can get them over their stage fright, but I can’t control their minds.”
“Please, Marco,” the Unicorn said. “I have a little money saved up. It’s not much, but you can have everything. I have a new silk shirt and a box of French postcards. You can have it all. Just do something. Help me, please!”
Late that night, the Human Unicorn was back in his bunkhouse, lying in bed and waiting for the oblivion of sleep. He was holding an empty bottle of whiskey, clutching it to his chest like a teddy bear. The trailer reeked of stale cigar smoke and old sweat. He hadn’t washed his bedding since the last touring season. A soft tap at the door. Groggily, the Unicorn climbed out of bed and pulled on the same pair of jeans he had been wearing for three weeks. He pushed open the door and gasped. There, standing in the moonlight, was Sabrina. She was wearing a pink negligee so thin it was nearly invisible. “Hello,” she said simply. That was enough.
The next morning, the Unicorn woke up in pain. Someone was pounding the inside of his skull with a sledgehammer. For a moment, he was afraid it was all a dream, afraid to open his eyes and see that she wasn’t there. But then he felt her move. She rubbed against him, her body warm and inviting.
“Morning, Sabrina,” he said. “I’m so happy you’re still here.”
“Did you think I would leave you?” she asked, offended. “What did you think this was? A one night stand?”
“I just wasn’t sure it had really happened. I was sure it was a dream… You at my door, our night together, your body above me.”
Later that day, Sabrina moved her things into the Unicorn’s bunkhouse. The trailer was barely large enough for one person but, somehow, she made it work. After everything was in place, the Unicorn sprawled on the bed and watched her get ready for the show. There was something soothing about watching her apply her makeup, like watching a painter at a canvas. It only took the Unicorn a moment to shave and pull on a clean shirt. They walked to the show, hand-in-hand, bathed in the warm glow of love.
Because the sideshow ran continuously, they were always on stage at the same time, performing for different crowds. She was only forty yards away, but it felt like another country. Somehow, he would have to wait fourteen hours until he could see her again.
Finally, the last crowd left the lot. The Human Unicorn stepped off his stage, sighing with relief. Outside, the moon cracked open and spilled a thousand stars across the sky. Sabrina was already there, waiting, in a white dress and heels. In her hair were some of the small, blue flowers from the edges of the field. Silently, she glided to him and took his hand, leading him through the trees to a clearing he had never noticed before. There, in the moonlight, was a white gazebo. A phonograph rested atop a small, wicker table. Sabrina climbed the steps and switched on the music. Leaning in close, she whispered in his ear. “Dance with me.”
Hours later, Sabrina and the Unicorn were sitting on top of their bunkhouse, watching the sun slide up behind the distant hills, lighting the sky on fire. The steel frame of the Ferris wheel glinted in the distance. The shadow of the roller coaster was like a long, black snake stretching across the midway. Far off birdsong hailed the coming of the dawn.
“We should sell our bunkhouses when we hit the next town,” Sabrina said suddenly. “If we pool our money, we can buy something nicer, for the two of us. What do you think of that?”
“I think that’s the best idea since God asked Adam for a rib.”
Holding onto happiness is like grasping at sand. The more you try to hold on, the quicker it slips through your fingers. The week vanished like a daydream. On Saturday, the rain came pouring down through a tear in the sky, filling the field with mud. The rain drove away the crowds and the carnival was forced to close early. The roustabouts took down the tents and the vendors packed their booths away. The performers piled into their trucks and pulled onto the highway, headed for the next show.
Marco’s truck pulled out of the lot, followed closely by the Unicorn. The other performers had left a few minutes earlier. The Unicorn wrapped his arm around Sabrina, smiling as she snuggled into him. “Who’s driving your trailer?” he asked.
“Bettie, Marco’s assistant,” she said. “She’s been learning to drive, so I told her she could take my truck. Besides, I couldn’t stand to be apart from you for the whole trip! It’s almost six hours to the next show, you know. That’s a long jump!”
Outside the windows, miles of farmer’s fields rolled by, endless, identical stretches of land. The fields gradually gave way to cities and highways. The steady rhythm of the road lulled Sabrina to sleep. She looked peaceful, almost childlike. The Unicorn sighed contentedly. Just ahead, Marco’s truck paused at an intersection and then slowly rolled through. And then everything was darkness and pain.
Groggily, the Unicorn opened his eyes. He felt as if someone was hammering a railroad spike into his skull. He wiped blood from his eyes and slowly, achingly, climbed out of the truck. Marco’s truck had been hit by another vehicle. Apparently a car had ignored the stoplight and collided with him. Half a second later, Marco had crashed into the back of his trailer. Cautiously, the Unicorn felt the wound on his forehead. He must have hit his head on the windshield. In the impact, his horn had snapped off at the root.
The Unicorn rushed to Marco’s truck and pulled open the door. Marco was bleeding from a wound in his neck. Next to him, in the passenger’s seat, was Sabrina. She wasn’t breathing. The Unicorn blanched. He stood motionless, his mind unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
Feebly, Marco raised his hand and grabbed the Unicorn’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he gasped. “She’s gone. My god! I’m so sorry!”
“What’s happening?” asked the Unicorn, stunned.
“Bettie wanted to learn how to drive,” he said, struggling for air. “She drove Sabrina’s truck and Sabrina road with me. She died in her place.”
“That night you came to me for help, I told you something about hypnosis. I said that I couldn’t control a person’s mind. All I could do was convince them of something they really wanted to believe. Later that night, Sabrina came to see you.”
“She had changed,” the Unicorn cried. “She was a different person. She finally, truly loved me!”
“No! You were the one who had changed. That night, I put you into a trance. I told you that Sabrina would spend the night with you and fall in love. You wanted to believe it so badly… She spent the whole week alone, in her trailer, while you were lost in a daydream.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” the Unicorn gasped. “You’ve lost so much blood… I have to get help!” The Unicorn stepped into the road, waving at distant cars. But, by the time help arrived, the Unicorn was the only one left alive.
An hour later, the Unicorn was lying in a hospital bed, his head wrapped tightly in bandages. When they came for Sabrina’s body, he had tried to fight them off. It took three orderlies to hold him back. They dragged him to the nearest room and threw him on the bed. He lied awake all night, staring at the ceiling. Eventually, his head would heal. Not even a scar would remain where his horn had been. Outside, the early morning light broke through a thick shield of clouds. There was a knock at the door. A woman in a white dress walked inside and sat down in a chair next to the bed.
“There you are,” Sabrina said. “I thought I’d lost you! I’m so glad to see you’re alright.”
“You’re dead!” the Unicorn screamed. “I saw them take you away. You’re dead.”
Sabrina gasped, visibly wounded. “I can’t believe you would say such a thing. They must have you on morphine. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Get out!” he howled. “Get out of my mind! You’re dead!”
The door opened and a nurse rushed inside. “What’s with all the shouting?” she demanded. “People are trying to sleep. I can’t have you shouting about death at six in the morning.”
“You don’t understand,” he laughed. “The snake woman still loves me! I may have lost my horn, but the magic still works! I’m the unicorn, and the snake woman will never leave me!”
The next day, he was transferred to the hospital’s mental ward. His shoe laces and belt were taken away, and he was given a padded cell in exchange. He was sedated and strapped to the bed. Sabrina walked into the room and smiled down at him. She had on a pink negligee and she was carrying a large, black bag. “I’m so sorry they did this to you,” she said. “I couldn’t help but feel responsible for what happened. But, don’t worry, I will be here to keep you company. Me and my pets.” She opened the bag and shook it over the bed, burying him in snakes.