Amy Sisson is a writer, reviewer, librarian, and crazy cat lady currently living in Houston, Texas. Recently, her short fiction has appeared in Escape Pod, Perihelion SF, and Abyss & Apex. In 2015, Amy began a short fiction reading project, and blogs about her favorite stories at www.amysisson.com.
Ménagerie in Motion
As Armand’s Amazing Traveling Ménagerie arrived on the outskirts of Beauvais, a young girl, perhaps ten years old, ran up to the trudging, overburdened man. She had a dirty but earnest face and wore ragged shoes and boys’ clothing. An alert-looking squirrel perched on her shoulder.
“You’re here, monsieur!” she shouted. “We’ve been waiting for you.” The squirrel chittered in agreement.
Armand gave the girl a tired smile and bid her to run ahead and spread the news that the Ménagerie had come again. His progress along the dusty road from Honfleur had been slow. Not only did he have an unusually large girth for a man who made his way through the world on foot, he also carried a great many items on his person.
Armand had a cart, to be sure. It was pulled by Bernadine, a mule so old that many children believed Armand when he said she had been present at the original Nativity. The cart contained a cooking pot and utensils, some firewood, several large sacks of animal feed, and an emergency tent in case the Ménagerie was caught by inclement weather between villages. But most of the cart was filled with hinged wooden crates holding the Ménagerie’s many animals, snuffling and jabbering so loudly that they almost drowned out the creaking of the rickety wooden wheels. The larger animals followed behind the cart, some but not all of them on leads.
And because the crowded cart had no room to spare, that left Armand to carry not only odds and ends, but also some of the smaller creatures that disliked riding in the cart or walking under their own power. The hedgehog, Felix, for example, would not budge unless Armand carried him using a strange cobbled-together leather harness with a handle. Armand told Felix that he looked like a silly hedgehog portmanteau, but Felix was content to take in the view from his slow, swinging vantage point.
Similarly, the lynx kitten, Arrow, had taken to sitting on Armand’s right shoulder and nestling into his neck. Poor Armand feared for his own posture, knowing the kitten would soon undergo a growth spurt but might well object to being dislodged from his favorite perch. In addition, Armand’s large hat, which was fashioned in the shape of a rowboat, now served as home to at least three of the Ménagerie’s birds, which had argued and jostled until they’d finally arranged a bed of twigs to their mutual satisfaction. Last but not least came the yellow angelfish, which floated along behind Armand on a tiny lead attached to the animal-master’s belt loop.
Indeed, the Ménagerie in motion was an astounding sight.
The problem was that the Ménagerie was not in motion quite as often as it needed to be. It now boasted a total of thirty-seven creatures (Armand needed to update the painted sign on his cart to account for the two new ferrets), all of which had to be fed twice a day. If Armand happened to be in a town or village at mealtime, he could make a little show of the feeding, sometimes earning an extra coin or two while he was at it. But when Armand was between destinations, stopping for a feeding meant at least two lost hours spent unpacking the food, sorting and filling the bowls, ensuring that Arrow kept to his own dish, coaxing the finicky rabbit, Presto, to eat his pellets when no fresh carrots were available, and finally packing it all up again. The Ménagerie had become unmanageable for a man who was not getting any younger, but Armand simply could not refuse any of the animals that adopted him—not even the ones who could barely perform, and who he suspected had joined the Ménagerie to take advantage of the generous (albeit vegetarian) meals and travel opportunities.
The answer, Armand knew, was to find an apprentice. But who? The centuries-honored profession of traveling entertainer seemed to lose prestige year by year. Why, just last month, at the Guild of Entertainers’ annual gathering, the Magnificent Mathieu had retired, without a successor, from his one-man traveling magic show. Armand had thought he would never see the day that Mathieu retired! But retire he had—in fact, that was how Armand had acquired Presto. He was not sorry, for he was fond of the little rabbit, in spite of its propensity for disappearing and reappearing in the oddest places. But to have his magnificent Ménagerie simply fade away into obscurity? It was unthinkable.
For that reason, Armand had tried to visit more towns and villages than usual during the past several months, in spite of his fatigue. He carefully observed the children who flocked to his shows, trying to spot a boy who might do as an apprentice. Alas, so far he had been disappointed. There’d been one bright lad back in Aurillac whom the animals seemed to like, but it turned out that the boy had already been promised as apprentice to the local farrier. Ah well, perhaps Armand’s luck would change here in Beauvais.
Two hours after his arrival, Armand wearily counted the few coins tossed to him after the animals’ feeding. Then he packed the animals’ dishes back into the cart and led Bernadine over to the stable where the Ménagerie would spend the night. Armand himself looked forward to a large bowl of stew—vegetarian, of course—and a soft bed at the Poule Heureux pub and hostel.
Armand looked down and saw the girl once again, this time looking nervous instead of eager. The squirrel remained attached to her shoulder as if it would never let go.
“I, I wondered if I might . . . come with you,” she said.
“Come with me . . . to the pub? Are you hungry? I can buy you a bowl of stew if you like.” Armand found it just as difficult to say no to children as to his animals.
“No, Monsieur, I would like to come with you and your Ménagerie. When you leave Beauvais, I mean. I want to travel with you.”
Armand didn’t know what to say. A girl! Why, the thought of a female apprentice had never occurred to him. He studied the youngster’s eager face. She had large gray eyes and hair that might be blonde when washed. She was thin and didn’t look particularly strong. But the squirrel obviously had confidence in her. And was that a mouse peeking out of her front shirt pocket?
Arrow, the lynx kitten, crept over to sniff quietly at the girl’s shoes and rubbed his chin on her ankle. She was a natural with animals, then. But surely her family would never allow such a thing.
“My dear, I just don’t see how . . . what is your name?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Adèle. I can see you certainly love animals. But to travel with the Ménagerie. . . it’s no life for a girl, my dear. The road is dangerous, full of thieves, and worse.”
“Wouldn’t the animals warn you if thieves tried to sneak up on you?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” Armand said. “More or less. But even so—”
“I beat up a boy who was teasing my dog last week,” she said matter-of-factly. Only then did Armand see the small terrier peeking out at him from around the corner of the stable. “And another boy once tried to take an apple from me. He never tried that again.”
“But . . .” Armand said weakly.
“Your mule is too old to pull this heavy cart,” she said, changing the subject.
Armand sighed. “I fear you are right, Adèle, but I have no other mule, and besides, Bernadine refuses to be left behind. I found a farmer a few months ago who was willing to pasture her, but she kicked up such a fuss that I could not leave her.”
Adèle considered Bernadine thoughtfully.
“Are you staying another day, Monsieur?” she said after a moment.
“Why yes, I shall do two shows tomorrow and leave the morning after,” Armand said. Beauvais was one of his favorite stops, and he always stayed at least two nights when he came here. It was funny, though, that he didn’t remember having seen Adèle on any of his previous stays. But children changed quickly at that age, and he hadn’t been in Beauvais for at least a year and a half.
“Merci, Monsieur, I shall come again,” she said, and vanished as quickly as she’d arrived. Arrow looked at Armand and gave a loud miau.
The next day, Armand put the animals through their paces of the midmorning show by rote, noting that Adèle had not come back after all. It was a shame, for he had almost thought…. He tried to concentrate on the show. He still loved performing, truly, but somehow it seemed harder and harder to carry on. After the show, he returned to the pub and attempted to fortify himself with a hearty noon dinner of potato gratin sans bacon.
During the second show, which he always ran just before twilight, Armand asked for a volunteer from among the watching children. As always, nearly every one of them raised a hand. Armand was just about to give a surreptitious signal to Ombre, the raven, indicating the sturdy-looking boy in the front row, but Ombre did not wait and instead flew straight to Adèle, who had appeared at the back of the crowd without Armand noticing. The girl grinned and came forward with Ombre perched on one shoulder and her squirrel on the other.
This particular part of the show called for the child to hold a ring through which Arrow jumped, and then move the ring at Armand’s direction so that the little lynx had to jump higher or with more dexterity each time. Armand instructed Adèle to stand first next to an old tree stump; eventually he would have her stand upon it to show that Arrow could leap surprisingly high for a kitten.
Adèle stood in the spot Armand had indicated and held up the ring. Armand clapped a beat, signaling his audience to join in. Adèle grinned again, and without waiting for Armand’s next command, she gave a slight whistle. Arrow’s ears instantly perked up, and as he scampered across the clearing toward the ring, the squirrel leapt from Adèle’s shoulder to the ground and fell in line behind him. Ombre, too, followed suit, skimming along the ground behind Arrow and the squirrel. They leapt, or in Ombre’s case flew, in a neat line through the ring, in perfect time to the children’s clapping hands. Once they were through, Adèle rushed to the other side of the clearing and struck a pose, this time with the ring held low to the ground. Again, the mini-parade went through, and Adèle continued to find new positions that the trio navigated with a joy that Armand had not seen from any of his animals in months.
The show ended as usual, with the entire Ménagerie “singing” a quite passable rendition of “Frère Jacques,” and the audience responded with an enthusiasm that warmed Armand’s heart. The children clustered around, asking Armand questions and petting the animals. Armand scanned the crowd for Adèle but she was nowhere to be seen, so he went over to a small knot of children who had lingered near his cart, arguing over which animal was their favorite.
“Pardon, mes enfants. Did you happen to see the little girl who was holding the hoop? I believe her name is Adèle?”
“Yes, monsieur, she lives on a farm outside of town that way,” a boy said, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of Honfleur.
“Her parents are farmers?” said Armand.
“Oh no, monsieur, she is an orphan. She works there, for food and a place in the barn.”
“I see,” Armand said, his hopes rising. “Do you know how I might get a message to her, or to the farmer?”
“I can take it for you, monsieur, but I don’t know if she can read,” the boy volunteered.
“Ahh, of course,” said Armand. He pondered a moment. “Could you perhaps go and simply tell her that I wish to speak with her?” He handed the boy a coin.
“Oui, monsieur,” the boy said, and ran off.
At the pub that evening, Armand enjoyed a bowl of cabbage and leek stew, and a generous portion of brown bread with fresh butter. He even had a mug of ale, feeling himself to be in a celebratory mood.
The next morning, however, Adèle did not appear. Armand was discouraged. Had the boy not delivered the message? Had Adèle changed her mind about wanting to come with him? He had planned to leave, but instead he asked the proprietress to spread the word that he would stay another day and give a single encore performance in late afternoon with new routines to dazzle and delight. He kept some backup tricks for just such occasions; he would not want to cheat the crowd by showing all the same stunts over and over.
At the show, Armand once again looked for but did not see Adèle. He noticed that the animals seemed slightly listless compared to the day before; hence, the encore show was not entirely a success, despite the children’s obvious appreciation of the ferrets’ new ball-tossing routine. Resigned, Armand fed the animals, went back to the pub and ate supper with far less gusto than the evening before. He went immediately to bed afterward, wanting to make an early start on the long trek to Carennac.
The dawn chill had not yet worn off when Armand and Bernadine led the motley procession of subdued animals from the stable the next morning. Gazing at the array of drooping tails and ears, Armand could not shake the feeling that his beloved Ménagerie was doomed. He trudged even more slowly than usual, lost in his thoughts without the animals’ usual chatter to rouse him.
Two hours later, Armand wearily eased his bulk onto a fallen tree trunk to rest. He sat carefully to avoid dislodging Arrow from his shoulder, and it was only then he noticed that Arrow was not there. Armand lumbered back up to check the cart in case Arrow was attempting to raid the food stores, but there was no sign of the little lynx.
“Arrow!” Armand called, trying to keep his anxiety in check. Arrow had been on his shoulder when they’d left Beauvais, of that he was sure. At what point had the kitten disappeared?
Armand took a deep breath. There was no need to panic, he reminded himself. Lynx or not, Arrow was still a kitten, with all of the curiosity that kittenhood implied. He’d probably spotted something in the woods along the road, and scampered off to investigate it. Surely he hadn’t gone far.
Ombre cawed from his perch atop the tallest crate in the cart. “Ombre, of course!” said Armand, relief flooding his voice. “Find Arrow, Ombre. Go on, now.” He made a circling motion with his finger, at which the raven flew up and around in ever-increasing circles. Armand, in the meantime, turned to check the cart again, this time poking into individual crates in case Arrow had hunkered down for a nap underneath someone else’s bedding. Several of the nocturnal animals protested half-heartedly, with sleepy squawks and yawns, as Armand prodded beneath their straw, but they settled back down quickly once he moved on to the next crate.
Almost an hour later, Armand heard Ombre cawing to announce his return and glanced up hopefully, but there was still no sign of Arrow. Armand felt ready to cry. Here he was, hours from the next village. And without knowing when and in what direction Arrow had gone, he couldn’t be sure whether Arrow was behind or ahead of them on the road. Behind was more likely, of course, but could Armand really afford to turn back, losing both time and potential income?
No, he couldn’t, yet Armand stood up straight with renewed purpose and made the decision to turn the Ménagerie around. The process required a great deal of maneuvering in the narrow roadway, and Armand winced to see Bernadine laboring under the heavy weight of the cart. Once the awkward turn was completed, she began trudging back towards Beauvais, her long ears flattened against her head in dejection.
As the ragged group approached the crossroads that would put them back on the trail leading directly into the village, the animals resumed their chittering. The intersection was bounded by high crops on all sides, but as Armand turned right, he stopped suddenly. There, sitting on a small cart to which a sturdy young mule was harnessed, sat Adèle, swinging her legs as she waited patiently. Her terrier barked a greeting to the Ménagerie, while the squirrel and mouse climbed onto Adèle’s shoulders to get a better view. Arrow sat beside Adèle on the cart bench, licking one paw with a complete lack of concern.
“Arrow!” said Armand, relief plain on his face.
“I’m sorry you had to come back all this way,” Adèle said, her gray eyes full of equal parts apprehension and hope. “It took me longer than I thought it would to get the mule and cart, and when I got to the crossroads I wasn’t sure which way you’d gone. So I just waited, and then when Arrow came I knew you wouldn’t be far behind. Do you like the cart?”
“Do I like the cart?” Armand said, puzzled.
“Oui, monsieur,” Adèle said. She leaned toward Armand and whispered, “I got it for Bernadine. We can put just a few small things in it, but I wanted her to know we still need her. Harvey can pull the big cart, of course.”
“But how did you—” Armand stopped. “Never mind. There will be plenty of time for you to tell me everything. Welcome, mon cher. Welcome to the Ménagerie!”
Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/