Ori felt like he was suffocating in the stifling heat. It was the beginning of August, and it was disgustingly humid despite the late hour. The crickets and cicadas were uncharacteristically taciturn, their symphony of chirps low and languid. In a small town, there was no such thing as a nightlife, and so there was practically no noise at all to break up the eerie silence. The quiet felt empty in a way that gave Ori foreboding chills. He wished for the yowl of a dog or a creak of the floorboards, anything to assuage his loneliness. He was often awake long past the town had gone to sleep because of his insomnia, but there weren’t any nature noises to lull him to sleep tonight.
He threw off his blanket and swung his feet around, his soles pressing against the cool wood of his floor. The sky was milky gray as if it had been stirred with spoonfuls of sugary moonlight. The moon, full and swollen, shone directly through his window. The stars, strung across the sky like fairy lights, winked coyly at him. Not a single tuft of cotton candy cloud drifted through the sky, and all of the constellations were starkly visible against the inky blackness. Ori traced Taurus into Orion the Hunter, the constellation his father had named him after. His dad was an unashamed astronomy nerd, and his passion had rubbed off on Ori. He knew all of the mythology, especially the stories surrounding Orion and his steadfast hunting dogs.
Orion had been a masterful but arrogant hunter, even going so far as to boast that he could kill all of the wild animals that roamed the earth. Gaia, the earth goddess, angered by Orion’s prideful bragging, sent a scorpion to punish him. Realizing that he wasn’t able to pierce the scorpion’s armor with his bow and arrow, Orion fled to the ocean, where he was mistakenly struck by Artemis’ arrow while trying to escape. The gods refused to resurrect Orion, so Artemis immortalized him in the stars.
Ori didn’t know why his dad had named him after Orion. He wasn’t strong or brave, he had never hunted and had no desire to, and he was more of a cat person. Even so, it made him feel akin to the constellation somehow. Whenever his insomnia kept him awake, he’d play connect-the-dots, tracing familiar constellations and creating brand new ones. The still steadfastness of the stars helped tether him to the world, keeping things solid and simple when his thoughts were messy and chaotic. Too many times to count he had found himself draped over his window seat in the morning, his face tilted towards the sky like a sunflower.
He let the absence of sound envelop him like a cloak, swaddling him in the silence. Suddenly, Ori noticed another shining dot of light. It didn’t bear the telltale red light of a plane, and he didn’t recognize it as part of a constellation. The light streaked toward the ground like a shooting star, a thin tail trailing behind.
The silence was interrupted by a distant tune, the delicate, tinkly kind that usually accompanied music boxes. It was hauntingly beautiful, and Ori was immediately enthralled in its silky series of dips and peaks, the melody hypnotizing him until he was entangled in its web. He was a mouse, caught in the Pied Piper’s lure.
The song abruptly swelled to a cacophonous crescendo, so harsh that it hurt his ears. White light flooded his room, drowning everything else out in a brilliant blare. He felt dizzy and disoriented with the sudden burst of sight and sound. Seconds later, everything faded back into silence, leaving Ori blinking white spots out of his vision. Unlike the flare, the music lingered persistently behind. The crickets began chirping in full earnest, and it was as if life had been restored.
Ori didn’t know what had happened, but it felt surreal. He knew he wasn’t dreaming, but it felt like he was. Something still didn’t feel right, something that sat on the tip of his tongue dissolving like sugar. If he didn’t act now, he knew the feeling would melt away into memory.
He felt an insistent tug in his chest, pulling on him like the gravity of the moon. Against his better judgement, he gave in to gravity and followed the tug. It lead him into the hallway, down the stairs, and out the front door. He stood in his front yard for a moment, letting the wind run its fingers through his hair. There were no street lights lit on his street, and all of his neighbors’ windows were dark. He was struck with the thought that if something were to happen to him, no one would be awake to know. Even with this knowledge, he couldn’t resist the heave in his heart.
If he squinted, he could see the path he was meant to follow, a wispy trail of gauzy light leading towards the backyard. He blinked, and the air was empty. His curiosity won over his self-preservation, and he followed where the trail had been pointing, the grass dewy beneath his feet.
He had to shield his eyes from the harsh white glow. Light shone like spotlights from a large, crimson-and-white striped tent. Ori couldn’t believe his eyes. There was a tent, a circus tent, right in his backyard. He could hear the tinkly music again; it was coming from inside the tent. Ori was drawn to the tent by that same tugging in his heart. His feet stepped closer of their own accord, as if he were in a trance. He reached out his hand, his fingers engilded with the brilliant white light.
“Hey! You there!” a man shouted, striding forward from behind the tent. Ori stepped back, jolted out of his reverie. He was suddenly painfully aware of his shoeless feet and his sleep-wrinkled clothing. Even though it was summer, he felt a chill shiver down his spine like a jolt of lightning. “What are you doing lurking around my circus like a hooligan?”
“Oh, I-” Ori stammered. He’d never been called a hooligan before, especially not by a strange man trespassing in his backyard. The man was wearing a tall black hat and a shiny tuxedo, his salt-and-pepper hair slicked back with gel. He was a good head shorter than Ori, but he still felt intimidated.
“Oh, Master Agelast, don’t bother him.” Out of the corner of his eye, Ori saw a leg emerge from a slit in the tent. A graceful, golden girl followed. Her eyeshadow glittered with gold and guile, her cheeks flushed the color of a marigold and dusted with caramel constellations of freckles. With honey blond hair twisted into a tight bun and a dress crafted of glimmering feathers, she was the prettiest girl Ori had ever seen. She looked like Virgo, a starry angel fallen from the sky. “I’m Blithe,” the girl said in a silky, soft voice, extending her willowy fingers towards Ori. He shook her hand in awe.
“You shouldn’t be scaring away customers,” Blithe admonished. Master Agelast regarded her grumpily before turning away defeatedly. “He’s obstinate, but harmless,” she said, smiling effervescently. “Now, to atone for his rudeness, how would you like to see a show?”
Ori wasn’t so sure he wanted to wander into a strange tent, but it was impossible to deny this girl. Every word she spoke was smooth and serene, as if they had been dipped in honey. He nodded and allowed her to lead him inside. Going through the tent flap was like entering another world. The choir of crickets and the rustle of grass fell away, becoming the chatter of crowds and the melody of music. Blithe led him by hand through the masses of people so fast that he had no time to grasp his surroundings. Faces passed in a blur of pearly teeth, opalescent eyes and lustrous jewelry. Bodies pressed at him from all sides, threatening to swallow him up in their depths. But Blithe had a firm grip, and finally she pulled Ori free of the crowd.
He felt like he could breathe again. It took a moment for his mind to catch up with his eyes, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The interior of the tent was much, much more spacious than it seemed on the outside. A wide circle of sand sat in the middle, wreathed by rows upon rows of seats, each covered with a plush golden pillow. On second glance, the sand was not sand at all, but thousands of glistering yellow topazes, tourmalines, and jaspers.
“Do you like it?” Blithe asked breathlessly. Ori didn’t know how she could’ve expected him to say anything but yes. He could practically feel the potential humming in the air: the stories and wonders, the tricks and triumphs, and the magic and mystery. For a split second, Ori thought Blithe looked maleficently victorious, but then her face shifted back into a sunny smile. “You’re welcome to stay for the show, Ori.”
“But I don’t have a ticket!” Ori didn’t know why he protested or how she even knew his name, but he felt wrong staying without compensating. If his dad hadn’t raised a warrior, he had at least raised a chivalrous knight.
“Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it. Just focus on the show. And having a marvelous time, of course,” she added. “I’ve got to go backstage now, but have fun!” Before he could protest, she had vanished. Ori stood there, feeling helpless. Crowds began to enter the arena, shoving past his frozen figure. He was a rock in the stream of people, diverting the current around him. Eventually, he was the only one still standing. Everyone else had flooded into the stands, snatching up every last available seat. There was nowhere for him to sit, and a spike of panic stabbed him in the chest.
A movement in the corner of his eye snagged his attention. He turned, and it was Blithe. He’d recognize her bird-like, golden-bangled wrists anywhere. It was only her arm poking out from behind a curtain, but he felt reassured already. She was his guardian angel. Her hand pointed towards the front row, and Ori had to squint to see what she was gesturing toward. There, in the first row, was a single unoccupied seat. A burst of anxiety exploded inside his chest like a firework, but he pushed it away and struggled his way to the front. The isles were completely empty, and he stuck out sorely with his bedraggled clothing and self-conscious gait. Luckily, none of the circus-goers seemed to be paying attention to his awkward descent. They were all whispering excitedly, and Ori was able to overhear snippets of their conversations as he passed.
He tried not to catch anyone’s eye, but it was hard to ignore the people, especially the closer he got to the first row. The attendees slowly became more and more fancy and fashionable in their attire, and he felt even more out of place than he had mere minutes ago. He stopped at the beginning of the front row. The seat Blithe had pointed to was in the dead center of the row, and he’d have to wade through half a row’s worth of people to get there.
“No refreshments for me, boy,” the man at the end said, dismissing Ori with a wave of his hand.
“Uh-actually, s-sir, I’m trying to get to my seat.” Ori stared at his feet, willing to disappear. The man appraised him disapprovingly and sniffed in disdain, but he rose to his feet to let him pass. Like dominoes, the rest of the row stood up. Ori lifted his chin and walked like he belonged, trying not to bely the fact that he obviously didn’t. Half way through, he scrapped his plan and made a quick, clumsy dash for his seat. Hurriedly, he sat down, sinking into the soft fabric. He ignored the curious stares from his neighbors, focusing on the stage. Luckily, if his presence incited any judgemental whispers, they were immediately quieted by the dimming of the lights. A reverent hush fell over the crowd. The circus was starting.
With a groan, a platform bearing an elaborate, oversized music box rose from the center, the tourmaline and topaz spilling over the edge in rivulets and clinking to the ground. The grumpy man from before, Master Agelast, dipped into a deep bow, his top hat leaning so far forward it nearly brushed the ground. Music, exactly the tune Ori had heard from his bedroom, played, but the music box stayed shut. It was a work of exquisite art, carved from gold and dappled with yellow and orange gems. The lid was engraved with a bird, each individual feather etched in delicate detail. Sealing the lid was a clasp, the only simple piece in the entire contraption.
The crowd burst into noise. The stands trembled with the furious stomping of feet, and voices fought to be heard over the cheers and whistles. A woman nearby was actually crying from the sheer beauty of it all, wiping at her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief. Ori was silent, letting the raucous sounds envelop him. He didn’t cheer, though he did smile in spite of himself. The enthusiasm was contagious, inhaled directly into his lungs like star-studded oxygen.
The crowd died down as Master Agelast held up his fingers, counting down from five. With each lowered finger, confetti erupted from cannons. In midair, the pieces converged, shaping small, golden finches. In unison, the birds dove down, their wings sending ripples through the ocean of gems on the floor.
“Without further ado, let us begin,” Master Agelast said, his words punctuated by the birds imploding back into scraps of paper. He tossed his top hat into the air, holding out his hands as it tumbled gracefully, landing almost perfectly on his head. He adjusted it smartly, turning around to face the music box. With dramatic flair, he undid the clasp, flinging the chain backwards. He stepped back, and the crowd held its breath.
The box sprung open and the tinkly music wound up again, gradually growing louder and louder. At its crescendo, a pale yellow platform emerged from the expanse of velvety fabric inside, bedded with a layer of golden-hued pearls. And on that platform stood Blithe, her body effortlessly contorted in a penché position. Her lace leotard hugged her frame, showing the slender curves of back and the pale skin of her shoulders. A layered skirt of gilded feathers began at her hips, flaring out to accentuate her waist. The skirt hung down to her knees, showing off her lithe legs. Soft golden ballet slippers encased her feet, the ribbons twining up her calves like silken vines. The pedestal rotated slowly, but Blithe stayed steady, not a trembling muscle or a fluttering lash to betray exertion. As the she revolved toward him, Ori could swear he saw her glance at him. Their eyes met right as the tinkly music reached its aphelion.
Blithe stood on pointe, her arms arched above her. She lifted her head towards the sky, and the audience followed her gaze. She pliéd, jumping right as a trapeze dropped down and swung over her head. Wings unfurled from her back as she left the ground, extending out until they brushed the ceiling. Pearls were shaken off her feathers like golden raindrops, chiming melodiously as they hit the floor of tourmaline and topaz. Grabbing on to the bar, she flipped herself up and over, tumbling again and again until Ori was too dizzy to see straight. He saw her hands slip, and he lurched forward in panic as she fell. The crowd gasped, but Blithe was serene as she plummeted.
She didn’t thud to the floor like a fallen angel. Her wings, which had folded up as she fell, caught the air right before she hit the ground, buoying her up. Her fingertips skimmed the ground, drawing a line through the layer of gems. She flew around and around, creating a spiral whorling towards the center of the stage.
During this spectacle, Master Agelast had somehow vanished from the platform. Just as Blithe reached the heart of the stage, he reappeared with a honey-brown bunny in his arms. He tossed it high into the air.
Children shrieked as the bunny arced its way towards Blithe. She pivoted midflight and caught it gracefully in her arms. Stroking its ears to ease its quivering nose, she soared towards a small, pig-tailed girl sitting in the first row. She hovered in front of her, her wings beating up and down like a hummingbird, and nestled the bunny in the girl’s arms. She spun around, flying back to the center of the spiral, and flew straight up, coming to a perched position on the rafters. Her wings folded backward and she bowed, a single strand of her bun coming undone.
The crowd burst into wild applause, tossing up saffron colored roses and yellow-eyed daisies. Many wiped tears of pure joy from the corner of their eyes, staring at Blithe in marvel as she tiptoed off the stage. Assistants swept the gems back into place, cherry-picking out the fallen pearls and crumpled flowers. Ori used the distractions to slip away, hurrying up the stands and out into the hallway.
He needed to find Blithe.