Angel Wings and Death's Embrace
A Night Circus Short Story
Madame Cybelle shuffled her deck of tarot cards, their edges were gilded but worn from years of use and handling. The fortune teller wore a thick veil that obscured her face but I pictured her in my head. I imagined her wise old face lined with wrinkles and her thin lips pressed in a hard line. Candles flickered around us casting shadows along the tent walls. My mind conjured images of terrifying creatures and shadow monsters coming to take me away as if I didn’t belong here but instead elsewhere. I swallowed nervously as I tried to clear my head of unpleasant thoughts but the silence made it hard. Madame Cybelle had not uttered a word since I stepped into her tent, into her world of fortunes and fates. Her deafening silence and the flickering candlelight gave one an unsettled feeling and I grew more and more anxious as the seconds ticked by.
As if she sensed my growing uneasiness, Madame Cybelle laid her deck of tarot cards on the table before me. With a sudden flick of her wrist the fortune teller split the deck into three stacks and gestured for me to choose one. Instinctively, I pointed to the middle stack. She selected the top card from the stack of cards I had chosen and set it face down so I could not yet glimpse my fate. Next, she combined the three stacks of cards into one once more. She then selected two more cards from the top of the pile which she also laid face down upon the table before me. The old fortune teller set the deck of cards aside leaving only the three face down cards.
Through her dark veil I could faintly make out the outline of her eyes. With the flickering candlelight there was a flash of color and I gasped softly in surprise. I had only caught a glimpse but from that glimpse I knew she was blind. Her irises were a milky white which was a stark contrast to the black veil covering her face. I was not entirely sure but for a moment I thought I saw a flicker of amusement cross her old face. It was fleeting, gone just as quickly as it had appeared.
Madame Cybelle tapped a card, drawing my attention once more to the cards before me, before slowly turning it over. I held my breath as I waited. The fortune teller studied the card a long moment before flipping the two remaining cards over as well. Still, I waited. She was blind but yet something told me she could see. She could see the world in a way that others could not.
“You’re searching,” the fortune teller said in a raspy voice. Hearing her finally speak took me by surprise and it took me a moment to understand the words she had uttered. “You’re searching but you have forgotten what you are searching for. Like a lost soul searching for salvation, aimlessly wandering like a ghost.”
Her words seemed to echo and reverberate through me. Something began to stir. A long forgotten memory perhaps? Something deep inside me told me it was important. That I needed to remember. But, the harder I tried to grasp the memory the harder it was to hold onto it. It was resisting, disappearing further into the recesses of my mind. Part of me wanted to remember while the other part did not.
What was I searching for?
What have I forgotten?
These questions continued to dance in my mind. “I am not lost,” I finally said but my words sounded weak as if I did not truly believe them.
The fortune teller simply shook her head, “You will remember soon, child. Only then will you find your way.”
“Can’t you tell me what it is I have forgotten or what I am supposed to be searching for?” I pleaded.
“No one can tell you that, not even I. You must first open your heart and once you do I am sure you will finally understand.”
I pondered the blind fortune teller’s words as I left her tent. The night was still young but the black sky was already speckled with twinkling stars. They looked so far away but for some reason I felt if I reached far enough I might be able to touch them. What would it be like to be a star shining in the sky? Would it be lonely? I imagine it would be hard to feel lonely when surrounded by so many other stars. I admired the night sky and it’s blanket of stars for a few moments longer before taking in my surroundings.
I was standing in a courtyard of some kind surrounded by tents of various sizes. Small tents and large tents, all with white and black stripes. Was this a carnival or circus of some kind? I couldn’t remember. But, for some reason it all felt familiar. Like I had been there before. The sensation was strange but also comforting.
I wandered into one of the larger tents which I discovered was the acrobat’s tent. I watched mesmerized as they practically flew above the audience’s heads who watched in awe from below. A girl soared from one swing to another with the easy grace of a dancer while another acrobat dangled from a silk rope all the while twisting her body into precarious shapes. I watched silently as the acrobats moved through the air unfazed by the hard ground waiting for them below.
A young girl standing close to me whispered to her father, “Look daddy, there is no net. What happens if they fall?” I, too, wondered the same thing because, indeed, there was no safety net to be found. I heard gasps and my attention was drawn to a small acrobat who had flung herself through the air but there was no rope or swing for her to grab onto. Her white sequined leotard shimmered under the tent lights and behind her two beautiful luminous wings sprung from her costume.
For a moment the audience was stunned as we all watched the angel descend lower and lower until the girl next to me screamed, “She’s going to fall!” But, just as the acrobat with the angel wings reached the point of no return her arms outstretched and another acrobat caught her. He appeared so suddenly that no one noticed him because all eyes were focused on the angel falling to her death. His legs were hooked around a swing while he hung upside down, his muscular arms supporting the angel’s weight with ease. The audience clapped and whistled with delight.
It all felt strange. The rush of adrenaline, the delighted audience, the feeling of soaring through the air. It felt familiar. Something tugged in my mind like a memory trying to surface. It was unfocused and I could not make sense of it. Someone was screaming and the sudden feeling of falling and just as sudden the feeling of nothing at all. My head began to ache and I stumbled out of the tent desperately needing the fresh air to clear my muddled mind and memories.
“Who am I?” I whispered to the stars but they did not answer.
“Hot cocoa!” A vendor said in a deep, booming voice. I turned to see a large man with an expertly styled mustache handing out black and white cups of cocoa to waiting patrons. Steam billowed from the cups of hot cocoa and danced and swirled in the night air. The smell was utterly enticing and I felt sure that I would like hot cocoa if I could only taste it. A sudden need to try the dark and rich beverage overwhelmed me and I found myself shuffling towards the man with the mustache as he handed a cup of cocoa to the young girl and her father who had been standing next to me in the acrobat’s tent. I waited patiently behind them and when they took their cups of cocoa and moved away I stepped forward.
“One cup of cocoa, please.” The man with the mustache did not answer. I frowned. Mr. Mustache stared past me while twirling his mustache as if checking to make sure it was still there. “Um, excuse me, sir," I repeated, waving my hand in front of his face to catch his attention, "One cup of hot cocoa, please.” Again, the Mr. Mustache did not answer. His eyes did not meet mine even though he was looking in my direction. It felt as if he was looking through me and not actually at me. I shivered and stepped out of line in frustration.
Why couldn’t he see me?
Why didn’t he respond?
I looked around at the people laughing happily as they shared their sugared treats and clapped as a fire breather swallowed a ball of fire before spitting the flames into the air, creating a mini firework show for the people in the courtyard. Among those people I spotted the little girl drinking her cocoa while watching the fire breather, her eyes wide in wonder. Her father’s phone rang and he stepped away to answer. I took a deep breath and walked over to her. She was small, maybe seven or eight years old. Her nose was speckled with freckles and she wore a bright red scarf which made her red hair stand out even more.
“Hello,” I said gently. She tilted her head, her big blue eyes searching for the source of the greeting. I moved closer, placing myself directly in front of her. “Hello,” I repeated and smiled. Her eyes finally met mine and I let out a breath I did not realize I had been holding in fear that she, too, would not see me.
“Hello,” the girl said and smiled brightly at me. “Are you one of the acrobats?” she asked, her nose wrinkling as she did. Her question caught me off guard. “What do you mean?” I asked in confusion. The girl pointed to my clothes. “Your clothes match the other acrobats we saw in that big tent. You're wearing a sparkly white costume like the girl with the wings. Do you have wings too?” The girl asked excitedly. I looked down and realized the girl was right. I was wearing the same white sequined leotard as the other acrobat. It shimmered every time the light hit the sequins sewn into the white fabric. I stared down at my costume, perplexed by this new discovery. Was I an acrobat too? Was that why everything felt so familiar?
“Madison, it’s time to go,” the girl’s father said, pressing a button on his phone, ending his call. The girl ignored him. “Daddy, look! It’s one of the acrobats. Isn’t she pretty? Can I be an acrobat too when I am older?” The girl’s words bubbled out of her in her excitement but her father only frowned in response. “What are you talking about, Madison? There is no one here.” The girl made a face and pointed stubbornly at me. “She is standing right there, daddy. Don’t be rude. Her name is…,” the girl trailed off realizing she did not know my name. She quickly turned back to me. “What is your name? My name is Madison and I am seven and a half years old,” she said, proudly. I laughed because the whole experience seemed absurd but the girl’s earnestness and her simple question filled me with a strange pleasure. My name. She wanted to know my name. I opened my mouth to answer but nothing came out. I realized that I did not know my name.
I stood frozen, paralyzed with panic, unable to answer the girl while she stared at me, her head tilted, waiting for me to tell her my name. “Madison, enough with your silly pranks. Your mother is waiting on us so it’s time to go,” Madison’s father said impatiently, grabbing the girl’s hand and tugging her gently behind him. “But,” Madison said, looking back over her shoulder at me. Her father was already pulling her away, ignoring her pleas to stay, and soon they disappeared into the crowd.
I stared after them. Helpless and lost like a ghost. That is what the old blind fortune teller had said. She said I was like a ghost, lost and searching for something. She must know something, anything, that can help me. I turned and ran toward the fortune teller’s tent.
“Why can’t I remember?”
The sounds of children laughing and the oohs and ahs of spectators rang out as I ran past. It was all so familiar and almost nostalgic.
“Who am I?” I said aloud to the air and to the night sky. The moon shined brightly like a beacon amongst the sea but there was no answer. Only silence.
I soon found Madame Cybelle’s tent but hesitated at the tent’s entrance. Reluctant to cross the threshold. Afraid of what she will say and even more afraid of what she won’t. I wrapped my arms around myself protectively.
Do I want to know?
Do I want to remember?
These were the questions I asked myself as I stood outside the fortune teller’s tent. I didn’t know the answers to these questions. My head began to ache again as if warning me to stop but I knew I could not remain like this forever. Unseen and unheard. Aimlessly wandering and alone. I remembered the feeling of Mr. Mustache staring through me and how he could not hear me. I remembered how Madison's father could not see me either and thought his daughter was playing a prank. I had felt alone and trapped but when Madison spoke to me the feeling disappeared and was replaced with a sense of hope and longing. I wanted to feel that again. With a sudden determination I stepped across the tent’s threshold.
The tent was empty and dark save for one lonely candle sitting on the fortune teller’s small table. “Hello?” I said into the darkness but there was no answer. My shoulder’s slumped and I turned to leave when the solitary candle’s flame shifted illuminating a gilded edge of a tarot card. I moved closer to the table where the candle and the tarot card lay. I stared down at the card laying face up before me. A grim reaper with skeletal features stared back. At the base of the card written in a small script was the single word, “Death.” I sucked in a breath and reached trembling fingers toward the card but a small gust of wind swept the card away before I could grasp it. The card spun and danced. I watched with a mixture of fear and fascination. I noticed that the candle’s flame and the flaps of the tent were not moving; only the card seemed to be affected by the strange wind. When I looked again the tarot card was resting upon the table once more but now it was face down. The grim reaper was no longer visible. There was something written on the back of the card in a messy script. I picked up the card and read what was inscribed:
“Death is not an ending. It is simply a new beginning. A rebirth. Like a butterfly who emerges from a cocoon. The caterpillar must first die before the butterfly can be born and set free.
This word echoed in my head and in my soul but the thing I must remember is still too far to grasp. I realized that I am back in the acrobat’s tent once more, unaware how I got there. There was something about this tent. Almost like a magnetic pull that drew me there. There were fewer people in the crowd now that the night grows late. Still no one seemed to notice me. A man bumped into me spilling his soda and he turned angrily towards me but simply stared past me, through me, and disappeared from view. I did not focus on the people around me. Instead, I focused on the acrobats themselves. There was something I must remember.
An acrobat, a girl with pale blonde hair in a shimmering leotard danced across a thin wire. The wire was so thin that it was barely visible. It gave an eerie feeling that the girl was simply dancing across the air itself with nothing standing between her and the ground. Her steps were light as a feather but confident like she has done this performance a thousand times. There was no fear in her eyes. Only confidence. She stopped when she reached the middle of the wire and raised her arms above her head like a ballerina. The girl held the pose for a single moment before gracefully diving into the air. The crowd gasped around me but my attention remained fixed on the girl. Again, it appeared that the girl would plunge to her death as she continued to fall. But, just like before another acrobat swung into view and grabbed the girl’s outstretched arms before swinging through the air once more. The crowd cheered.
I felt a sharp pain. A feeling of something familiar. I closed my eyes tightly as the pain grew sharper, enveloping me. A memory, the same one that I had earlier, began to surface. This time, however, the memory was more clear, more tangible. I could now grasp it. I could see it clearly.
I was soaring through the sky, adrenaline pumping through my veins as the crowd clapped and cheered for me. My white leotard was dazzling under the lights and when I leapt into the air two translucent wings sprouted from my costume. I was an angel. I was free. I was flying. These were the thoughts that ran through my mind during this strange memory. The single second where I was suspended in the air felt like an eternity but then it was gone. I felt the rush of air pushing against me, my wings flapping behind me. The falling sensation used to scare me until I learned the feeling of being caught. A friend taking my hand and the falling would cease and flying would begin again. But, this time, the falling didn’t stop. My exhilaration quickly turned into terror as I stretched my arms toward those hands. The hands meant to catch me so we could continue to fly together. The tips of our fingers brushed against each other but it was a second too late. I could see it in their eyes. The sudden realization and fear reflected in them and mirrored my own thoughts and fear. I fell and would continue to fall. There would not be anymore soaring through the sky. Only falling. My wings could not save me. I closed my eyes as the crowd began to scream or maybe it was me who was screaming. I did not know. I only knew I was falling and there was no one to catch me.
A cold sweat ran down my spine as I opened my eyes. I was still in the acrobat’s tent. I swallowed hard as a lump formed in my throat.
“I died,” I said quietly to the air and the sky but this time someone answered.
“Yes. You died,” replied a voice from beside me. A man with shockingly pale blonde hair that appeared to be more white than blonde stood next to me. He was staring up at the acrobats and I couldn’t help but notice the multi-colored robe he was wearing. It was calico colored like a cat and it struck me as odd. I looked around at the people surrounding us in the tent but they too were staring up, their attention fixed upon the acrobats. “They cannot see us,” The man in the calico robe said, his gaze finally meeting my own. His eyes were blue but pale like his hair and for some reason they looked sad. He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to speak.
“Are you an angel?” I blurted. It was the first thing I thought of but as soon as the words passed my lips I already knew the answer.
The stranger in the calico robe chuckled, amused by my question. “No, I am not an angel. Some call me Death while others call me the grim reaper. Personally, I do not like either of those names,” the stranger said, wrinkling his nose.
The small gesture reminded me of the little girl named Madison who also wrinkled her nose. She had also spoken of names. “Then what name would you like to be called?” I asked, thoughtfully.
The stranger, sometimes called Death and other times called the grim reaper, looked surprised as if no one had ever asked him that question before. He was silent for a long moment before he finally spoke. “I think,” he said, pausing, “I would like to be called Blake.”
His answer caught me off guard and I laughed at the ridiculousness of such a simple name for Death. “Why Blake?” I asked, still chuckling to myself.
“Because it means both fair-haired and dark. It has a conflicting meaning and I think that fits me pretty well,” Blake said with a smirk.
I nodded in approval. “You know I pictured Death as a black robe wearing, scythe carrying kind of figure. Not someone named Blake wearing a rainbow colored robe.” I said, nodding at his calico robes.
Blake shrugged, “I hear that a lot.”
I smiled in reply. He stretched out his hand to me and for a moment it reminded me of the hands I had once reached for but never grasped. Blake smiled warmly, waiting patiently.
“Are you ready to go?” Blake asked, his hand still outstretched.
I hesitated and looked back towards the acrobats. I watched them fly one last time before turning away and taking Blake’s waiting hand. “I’m ready now. Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
Copyright, Jessica Burns Piraino, 2021
About the author
Hi, I'm Jess!
I'm a full-time marketer but my dream job would be to sit in cafes around the world while I write short stories & sip coffee.
I am an amateur mixologist so you can usually find me in the kitchen mixing a new cocktail recipe.