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Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
— Isaac Watts
THE POEM HANGS ABOVE my dressing room table, cut with razor precision from a book. It curls around the thumbtacks that pin it, edges stained by age and atrophy. A favorite of Joseph Merrick, the one known as the Elephant Man.
When I discovered Merrick’s affliction, it comforted me to know I was not alone. I sleep sitting up, as he did, my heavy, tumor-covered head resting on bent knees.
He died at twenty-seven, a few years older and deeper into his illness than I. The autopsy revealed he lay down to sleep—an attempt at normalcy—and asphyxiated. Killed by the disease that consumed him.
Now I lay me down to sleep … I pray the Lord my soul to keep … If I should die—
I turn off the lamp before I finish the thought. Dawn breaks and it’s time for breakfast. I stare at the closed door of my trailer and my weak legs quiver. I force myself to stand. To resume my place as one of the freaks in the sideshow.
Concentrate to make intelligible sounds through the tumors in my throat. Customers and circus people alike revile and mock my appearance, never hearing me in my words.
Neurofibromatosis? Elephantiasis? Freak. Monster.
I step out of my trailer. The Big Top stands tall, silhouetted in the morning light, arising from slumber to grace the sky with color and beauty.
“Mornin’, Jarod.” I turn to see my friend Tiny, the circus strongman.
My words are slow, but formed with care. “Good morning to you. Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
Tiny squints at me from his great height. “Nope. Waitin’ for you.”
“You don’t have to do that, Tiny.” Each word is a pain I force through my throat. I wish he wouldn’t wait for me. I could remain hidden longer in the darkness of my trailer.
“No problem,” Tiny replies. His stomach growls loud enough for me to hear.
“Well, come on. Breakfast awaits, and you must be very hungry.” I make sure Tiny doesn’t hear me gasp for breath after this long discourse.
Tiny shortens his stride to match my limping gait until we step through the opening to the cook tent. Conversations die. Hundreds of eyes focus on me. I falter.
Tiny’s big hand lands on my neck, easing me forward to the food line. I wince. I am never … touched. I take a step, far enough for his hand to drop. Eyes to the ground, I approach the food line and fumble a tray into my hands. Conversations resume behind us.
“What da hell ya want, Freak? Eggs or pancakes?” The big, burly cook stands on the other side of the production line, spatula in hand, stomach falling over his stained whites. His cook hat covers stringy hair, and his unshaven face sneers at the space above my head. “Speak up!”
“Don’t,” growls Tiny from behind me.
“Din’t mean anythin’,” the cook mumbles.
“It’s all right, Tiny,” I interject. “One piece of bread and eggs.”
Placing my order on a plate, the cook holds it out. As my fingers touch the edge, he lets go. The plate shatters on the wooden floor, splattering eggs on my pants and around my feet. The room erupts in laughter. So many days the same.
I make a slight movement towards the mess, but Tiny stops me. “No. He picks it up.”
He turns his glare to the performers and crew. Their laughter dies. Tiny faces the cook again. “Get him another plate. And this time, hand it to me.”
I shuffle down the line as the cook obliges. Tiny leads the way to the nearest table with two seats. As we sit, everyone at the table rises to leave, half-empty plates left behind.
I stare at a greasy food spot on the table, and Tiny slides my plate in front of me. I glance over at his. Without asking for anything from the cook for himself, his plate is filled with a mountain of meat, eggs, and toast. When my wandering eyes stop on his face, Tiny grins and bows his head.
“Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.” His diction is perfect.
I eat my breakfast. The tumors inside my mouth and esophagus make meals … unpleasant.
“Can I ask you a question?” Tiny asks.
I swallow through the pain. “Anything.”
“How can you stand it?”
I clear my throat to hide the desperation in my voice. “It is my life.”
Tiny blinks, but keeps his eyes steady on mine.
Soon, we meander back to my trailer. “You want to watch me lift?”
I turn in a slow circle. The beauty of the day dazzles me. People buzz back and forth, worker bees swarming before gathering the honey for their hive. Water spraying from a hose glistens with rainbows in the early sunlight, sequined outfits drape nearby. On the midway, multicolored game booths stand as soldiers, awaiting every fool in town to try his luck.
I stare at the sideshow tent. My eyes water, changing the glittering view from crystal clear to an impressionist painting. Now I lay me down to sleep … I pray the Lord my soul to keep … If I should die before I wake … I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I blink and answer Tiny. “No, you go on. I think I’ll just lie down for a while.”
About the Author
KATIE STEPHENS is a retired music teacher and curriculum writer, currently pursuing the world of fiction writing in Fairfield, Ohio. — standardishue.com