A New Ringmaster
Maxwell stuck close to his master’s feet as they wandered through the travelling show. It stunk. It was more than just the gathered smell of humans and their machines and waste, like in the city, though there were more than enough people to leave the scent of sweat and tobacco heavy on the air. It was almost enough to mask the scents of frying and roasting meats, sugared doughs, and other treats. It was not, however, nearly enough to cover the even darker scents beneat: pain, anger, blood, piled animal waste, rotting vegetation, soured raw meat, and a deep sadness.
The beagle knew where those smells were coming from, and they were so pervasive that they turned his stomach. Not enough that he refused the tidbits his master offered him, but he knew he would need to eat some grass and probably vomit once they got back to the familiar confines of their trailer on the outskirts of the show, where the smells were less strong. There were a few other dogs, leashed and heeling to their masters as he was, and none of them looked any more comfortable to be here than he was. The cats, dozens of them and all over the place, seemed immune to the suffering of others, as always, and wandered freely wherever they wished.
“Ah, you lucky, blank fortune!” one of the vendors advised his master, holding up the plain white slip of paper that had been inside the freshly fried wonton shell. “Blank mean make own fortune! Make wish when eat cookie, good things happen!”
His master laughed, and called out to the crowd, “So you see, a lucky fortune for every customer! Come and see what fate has in store for you! Madam Shen’s fortunes are never wrong! Only a penny each!”
Of course the fortunes were never wrong; they were vague and mass produced with platitudes like “money will soon come your way” or “good weather in your future.” Maxwell followed close to his master as the human crumpled the blank piece of paper in his hand, casting an angry glance at the not-at-all Asian woman who ran the booth. She would be getting a yelling at later, and hopefully nothing worse than that. When the crispy bits of wonton fell from his master’s hand, the dog hastily snatched them from the dirt and crunched them down. There was no use in letting a tasty snack go to waste, after all.
They wandered towards the bigtop, his master chatting up the occasional customer, touting one show or the other depending on what he felt might interest his current mark. They passed by the entrance to the massive tent, tracing the outer edge to the rear. Where all the animals were kept. Where things went on that the patrons to the show never saw. Where the bad scents were so heavily concentrated that Maxwell had to cough and choke to hold in the contents of his belly, determined not to give up those tidbits just yet. He could hold on until after the show shut down for the night, at the least.
Long whips lashed out to slash across the flanks of the elephants as they were herded into the entrance, their parade part of the opening act before the ringmaster, Maxwell’s master, would begin the show for real and introduce the trapeze artists. The long scars left by previous lashings and the fresh cuts would be invisible from the stands, but the beagle could smell the fresh blood and the old pain on the great, grey beasts. As he waited with his master for the signal to enter and begin things, the dog wished a wish that he had wished many times and had never had fulfilled: he wished that things could change so that the animals didn’t have to hurt.
Then came a hurrying gesture from the stagehand watching through the curtains as the elephant parade reached its finale, and Maxwell perked up his ears and frolicked in a facade of happiness as he followed his master through the rear entrance of the tent. If he didn’t pretend to a joy he didn’t feel, he would be punished afterwards. Not nearly as badly as the other performing animals would be, but enough to make him wish that he had behaved appropriately.
There was something different this time, though. Normally, they would dash through the dark tunnel that stretched a third of the way towards the center ring of the performance area, then they would dance out to the cheers of the crowd, and Max would perform a few tricks before his master began calling out the main acts. This time, though, the darkness of the tunnel seemed… thick, heavy, strangely fluid. The sounds he expected to hear from the waiting crowd were different, not cheers and talking but… chattering, chittering, hoots, yowls.
The beagle could see the bright exit of the tunnel and pushed towards it. It was like trying to run through snow or deep mud, fighting him with every step. Behind him, he could see the starlight dappled rear entrance with its stagehand, smell the same old scents of anger and pain and waste and blood, the moans of injured beasts and the sharp commands of trainers and the crack of whips and canes striking flesh. Beside him, he could make out the outline of his master, high boots, tight pants, a tailed coat and tall hat. And in front of him was the bright light, urging him forward, urging him onward, urging him towards something newer and brighter.
Maxwell ran towards the light, pushing against whatever was trying to hold him back with all of his might. Then it was like pushing through a sheet, finding a tear and worming through. He dashed into the light, and found the world changing around him.
As was normal, he reared up to dance along on his hind legs and gaped in surprise at what he saw, nearly coming to a halt save for the fact that he had to continue forward momentum to stay erect. Even as his master threw up hands to garner a greater cheer from the crowd, he was fading. From solid and present to ghostly to barely a reflection on glass to gone, vanishing entirely. The crowd, likewise, was fading. The sounds of them, the smells of them, all faded, becoming background before disappearing entirely. In their places stood and sat those whom he had heard in the tunnel, creatures of the forest and of the city, clapping hands and hooves and paws together and letting out hoots and chitters and squawks of cheer.
Maxwell stumbled to a halt, pausing to turn and take in the crowd of beasts, watching as they changed, taking on shapes more akin to the humans they had replaced, clothing appearing on them as concessions and prizes faded into existence along with apparel. His gaze moved lower, looking around the ring itself. The elephant handlers had vanished along with all of the other humans, and he saw the elephants themselves changing as the crowd had. From lumbering along on hind limbs in forced rears, their bodies shifted to become more humanoid. The cloths draped over their backs became encircling suits that clung to muscular forms, the balls and dumbbells and other tools of their performance now grasped in hands that showed off the strength of their arms instead of held in trunks.
Glancing down at himself, the beagle found himself garbed in a red coat, dark pants, knee-high glossy leather boots. On his head he found a tall tophat, his forepaws now hands, both gloved in white. One hand held the baton his master had wielded to direct the show, the other a hoop through which he was supposed to jump. He jumped slightly as a group of leopards went racing by him on either side to leap and tumble across the floor, performing flips and cartwheels, bounding towards their assigned ring.
Max glanced back over his shoulder towards the entrance tunnel and saw a trio of bears in outlandishly colorful costumes, ridiculously large shoes, and painted faces gesturing urgently for him to move forward.
“The show must go on,” the beagle chuckled to himself, feeling a joy and wonder rising in his heart. “I guess Madam Shen was right after all…”
He bounded towards the platform at the center of the ring and up the stairs to throw his hands into the air, basking in the variety of sounds the crowd threw towards him from their various maws and muzzles and mouths, the clean scents of fur and feather and scale and skin, without any of the pain and blood and anger that had been present before.
“Ladies and gentlemen, dames and sires, beasts and birds and lizards and all others, welcome!” he greeted them all. “Welcome to the greatest show on earth!”