The four stories of When the Circus Comes to Town and Other Stories grew legs!
Original cover art for When the Circus Comes to Town by Deb Borsos, Argenta, British Columbia
In 2012 Canadian Stories magazine ran a writing contest that included a self-published book category, with a ten-year window. When the Circus Comes to Town, originally published in 2002, just squeaked in. It won an Honourable Mention 2012 for Best Self-published Book.
As if that wasn’t pleasing enough, the next year—and unknown to me—there was a children’s book category and When the Circus Comes to Town was entered. The result? First Honourable Mention 2013 for Best Self-published Children’s Book.
The four stories of When the Circus Comes to Town are set in the Village of Kaslo on the shores of Kootenay Lake, British Columbia. They follow the capers of Tess Darling as she works through many predicaments, such as how to deal with Hammy the biggest bully in town, and how to set up a business—a worm farm—to overcome a major problem: no money. And Tess has an uncommon affinity for bears.
“The New Marvel of Us” is one of these stories. It was included in the 2013 October/November issue of Canadian Stories magazine. Ed Janzen, publisher, added this qualifier: A Children’s Story. Read with Caution.
You’ll have to read the story to find out why. It follows this introduction.
I still have some copies of the original self-published book available. If you’re interested, please inquire.
For more information about Canadian Stories magazine, visit their webpage here.
Visit visual artist Deborah Borsos, Airheart Designs, here.
Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. (2013). “The New Marvel of Us”. Canadian Stories, 16(93), 9-12.
The New Marvel of Us
by Margot Maddison-MacFadyen
My mom was born with a birthmark on her side, just at her waist. Everyone says it looked like a bear’s paw print and because there was another one, though smaller, on her hip on the other side, it looked as though a bear had given her a hug just before she shot into the world.
You can’t see it anymore. As she grew it faded. But I saw it in an old photograph of her when she was sixteen, visiting her grandparents in Palm Springs, wearing a tiny hot pink bikini, standing beside a swimming pool as blue as the desert sky and holding a putter as though she’d been practising her golf.
In the photograph, that hug was clear as the freckles on her nose.
The weird thing is that I have the exact same birthmarks, but they haven’t faded.
Of course I am only thirteen, and I hope that, like mom’s, they will eventually. But in the meantime, I have them.
And there’s no way I will wear a hot pink bikini, nor even show my belly, so no one knows. It’s a huge secret. Please don’t tell.
A mother and her two cubs, grizzlies, the same ones that have been all over town for the last two weeks, were on our porch last night lounging like it was theirs, and they tromped all over mom’s garden, squashing the cabbages and tomatoes into the earth.
Mom says our family has an affinity for bears and bears have an affinity for our family and that I should get used to it. She says bears are a lot like us and have a huge lodge way up in the mountains where the King of the Bears lives with his Queen who has amazing, powerful eyes. If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to the Bear Lodge, you must not look directly at the Queen, she says, and you’ll notice that all the bears look just like people once they have taken off their bear robes and hung them on wooden pegs lining the length of the great hall.
I thought of this, of our apparent affinity, as I heard them down below me through my open but screened window, the mother grunting, the cubs answering. Their pungent smell, a mix of wet dog, compost, and freshly dug soil, wafted into the house; and their presence, the feel of them, pushed like a magnetic force right through the walls. I thought about calling out to them, about saying, Sister, what are you doing on our porch? but decided silence was best, though I do think dogs and cats and some birds understand perfectly what is said to them, and don’t think bears would be any different.
But I imagined the mother bear’s paws as big as baseball mitts and her claws as long as pocket knives and her teeth as huge and thick as laundry pegs, and I was hushed into silence and wiggled down into my blankets like a turtle into its shell.
Then they were gone and I must have fallen back to sleep, for at first light I was awakened by shots fired off in the distance that reverberated like thunder through the valleys above our sleepy town.
Then Heath was calling from the porch.
“Tess, get up lazy bones! The fish are rising like crazy,” he said. “I’ve got the keys to dad’s boat.”
“What time is it?” I called back.
“Yeah, come on. It’s excellent. There’s a hatch.”
I have always loved Heath and, over the years, I have gotten used to his spontaneity. Sometimes it leads to trouble, but usually it leads to fun and adventure.
Since kindergarten he’s been my best friend, even though he had to put up with taunts from other boys who said playing with a girl was weak. We both like biking, skate boarding, fishing, cards, chess, and other board games, like Monopoly, and we do homework together. We’re both good at Math, but I’m a little better at English, and he’s a little better at Socials, so we help each other out. It’s a perfect arrangement.
But recently, our friendship has changed. Last summer some of the other girls tried desperately to get his attention. They splashed him out on the raft at the beach, they threw sand at him, they pushed him into the water.
And one girl, Rosaline, spread stories about me around town that weren’t true. The worst thing she said was that I’d stayed the whole Saturday night of May Days in a tent at the campground with a couple of Nelson boys.
Then, the next day, after I’d heard the rumour, and cried and raged like an angry she-bear, she’d acted like my friend and wanted to go fishing with me, after she’d heard Heath was going, too.
Heath’s soft brown eyes had swung in her direction and he’d said, “There isn’t enough room. Besides, we want to fish.”
And that had been that, and our friendship had grown even stronger.
But it’s a year later, and it’s starting all over again down at the beach. The difference is now I know that I want Heath to be more than a fishing buddy or the guy on the other side of the table when we’re playing chess or cards.
I want to hold his hand and, maybe, even to kiss him. But I’m not sure he knows my feelings, nor how to let him know.
“Okay! I’m coming. Gotta throw some clothes on,” I say. “Hang on to your horses. How about getting my gear from the shed?”
“Right. Don’t be long. I’ll wait in the lane. Hey! There’s bear scat right up here on your porch!”
The bears’ musky presence presses upon me once more, and I feel scared and wonder if I should stay close to home today, but it’s Heath asking me to go fishing . . . so I spring out of bed and pull on my oldest, worn jeans that are pale blue and thin in the seat and my purple t-shirt that says on the back across the shoulders, Grow A Tree, words which are arched, rainbow-like, over a picture of an oak acorn about the size of a cantaloupe.
Barefoot, I brush out my hair, which is beginning to get summertime golden streaks, and I braid it in two long and thick pigtails. Then I carefully wash my face, brush my teeth and gargle with Scope for at least a minute.
Downstairs, I slip on flip-flops and head outside.
Heath is wearing his usual cutoffs and an old burgundy plaid shirt, which is only partially buttoned so that the breeze catches it, sending it fluttering over his shoulders.
“Let’s get going,” he says. “What took you so long?”
His dad’s boat is moored between two floating logs at the Kaslo Boat Club. The smell of boat gas assaults my nostrils, but I soon get used to it, and the creaking and squeaking of boats rubbing against their moorings is at first sharp to my ears, but it fades into the background.
The boat is about eight meters long and has an inboard motor. In the summer, the canvas top is permanently off and stowed up front under the bow with the life jackets.
Heath digs out two light-fitting ones and I put on the one he hands me, even though I hate wearing it.
He turns the ignition and, after a few minutes of rumbling engine and bubbling water at the back of the boat, knocks it into reverse and we back out of the slip. We pass the 10 m.p.h. sign that, though old, stands stalwart against all sorts of weather, and we pass the yellow Boaters! Stop the Spread of Eurasian Water Milfoil sign that is metal and looks like someone used it for target practice as little round dents deface it, making it look like it has goose bumps.
He gives it more gas, the nose shoots up out of the water, then planes, and we are off to the mouth of Campbell Creek, directly across the lake, wind whipping our hair into our eyes.
Setting out our lines, we troll slowly back and forth across the creek mouth, hoping to catch at least one kokanee.
I think of Nalmu’qtse, the horned-headed lake monster, sleeping coiled somewhere beneath us as there isn’t any wind. As the story goes, if there is wind, especially a sudden assault, it means that Nalmu’qtse is active, for he rises to the surface, transforming into a giant swan beating its wings upon the water, causing whitecaps to gallop the lake.
But, it is blissfully calm.
Here we are, just Heath and me, all by ourselves.
What do I say? What do I do?
Mom has been no help at all. She carries on like I am still ten years old. The other girls wear a bit of make up, like lip gloss, and they may even add eye liner and mascara to their faces, but I tried it and looked ridiculous. They wear bikinis or really tiny shorts with t-shirts rolled up and tucked in under their breasts, but as I already told you, I won’t. If I have to wear a bathing suit, it’s a one piece, and I always wear a t-shirt over it.
Mom says I am modest. I think I am self-conscious and I berate myself about it constantly, but I can’t change.
“Ha!” says Heath, tossing his head in the direction of his rod tip, which is bouncing just a titch, “I think we’ve got company.”
The other rod is quiet. Then: ZEEEE. A fish has taken the bait and is on the run.
Heath’s an expert. He takes the rod out of the holder and walks the line around to the other side of the boat as the fish is running under it and off the bow.
I jump to the other line, reel it in, stow the rod, climb into the driver’s seat and give the engine a bit of gas in order to keep up with the fish.
“This is a mother!” says Heath. “Here it comes back the other way!” And he walks it around to the stern.
I put the engine in neutral for a few seconds, then pop it into reverse and slowly, ever so slowly, creep up on the line. That’s when Heath begins to take up the slack.
He plays the fish for another five minutes or so, then manoeuvres it to the side of the boat. I am ready with the net and scoop it into the air. This is the part I don’t like, for I think I see terror in its odd flat fish eyes, and wonder what sort of aquatic life I am taking from it.
Heath bashes its head with a small bat and it goes limp. He removes the hook from its jaw, gets out the fish knife from the tackle box and we gut it right there, throwing the entrails back into the water.
“It’s a beauty!” says Heath.
“It’ll be good for dinner tonight,” I say, a bit sadly.
“Are you going soft?” says Heath.
“Maybe I am,” I say, wanting to tell him what’s really on my mind.
“Is something wrong?”
“Absolutely not. I’m fine.”
Looking at me quizzically, his head turned to the side, he says, “Let’s pack it in for the day. We’ve got a nice one to take home to the parents. Want to jump a few cliffs?”
Cliff jumping is not my favourite sport. One has to be daring and fearless to survive, I’ve found. For one thing, the cliffs we jump, the ones across from Kaslo Beach, are very high. They loom like battlements and cut straight down through dark water to unknown icy depths where You Know Who might be sleeping.
For another, if you do jump, if you make the leap, when you hit the water it feels like a steely knife of glacial chill has stabbed you in the spine and the pain carries on up to the base of your neck, then back down to your fingers and toes, and you are utterly paralyzed until the will for life explodes in your brain and like an immobile frog suspended in water you suddenly dart for the surface, lungs heaving.
But, not able to say what I am really feeling, though I can tell he knows I am out of sorts, I nod in agreement.
When cliff jumping at this spot, you have to bring your boat in around back to a natural cove where an avalanche of rock spills into the lake. There you tie it as best you can to a boulder and clamber up the rocks to the cliff top above.
It is no different today, except that as we near the spot, we notice huge birds circling in the air above us.
“Turkey vultures,” says Heath. “You don’t often see them around here.”
I am the first off the boat, bounding off the bow with the rope.
I smell something evil as soon as my feet land on the ground.
“Hurry!” I say, encircling a big rock with the rope and tying it down. “Something’s crazy wrong here.”
Behind the scruffy bushes that begin at the tree line above the water, a bear is sprawled on its back with a strangled, startled look in its glazed eyes. Dried blood cakes its fur and hundreds of flies graze its immense body, swarming around it like minuscule blood-licking bats. Its intestines and organs lie drying and scattered next to its body, and its limbs end in stumps like thick broken baseball bats where the paws are severed and missing.
A cub has suffered a similar fate and is lying, a grimace on its puppy dog face, under a tree up above its mother’s carcass.
I am sure this is the same bear that has been haunting Kaslo at night for the past couple of weeks, the same bear that was on my porch just last night. And one of her cubs is dead, too. The other one, if it got away, must be nearby, maybe even watching the grotesque scene from up above.
“Poachers,” says Heath. “They’ve taken the gall bladders and the paws.”
The sight of the broken and maimed bodies is too much to endure. I try to get away, but can’t, as tears blind me. I stumble on the rocks, fall to my knees, and then puke.
And I puke again and again until there is nothing left to come up but bile.
Heath is at my side, kneeling down, holding my pigtails back from my face.
“Let’s get back in the boat,” he says.
His arm across my shoulder, he guides me down and over the rocks to the water’s edge. He scoops me up, places me on the bow, and I crawl over the windshield and into the passenger seat.
He heaves on the rope I have tied to the rock and, when it is free, throws it over the windshield, leaping onto the bow and vaulting into the driver’s seat. The engine bites at once. He kicks it into reverse, swings the nose around, pushes it into forward, and accelerates as fast as possible away from the scene of unnatural and horrible death.
I lean over the side of the boat, catching the spray and throwing it onto my face and into my mouth to wash away the bile.
I cannot believe I have puked in front of Heath.
I must look disgusting, my hair wet and stringy and maybe even still pukey, and I can’t stop crying. How will he ever like me as a special girlfriend now?
I may as well move to Kansas.
When we reach the middle of the lake, he cuts the engine, and looks my way.
I want to roll up in a little ball and stuff myself in the glove compartment.
But then I notice he doesn’t look too healthy either with no colour in his face and his eyes black and glassy. His nostrils are flared and he runs his hands, shaking, through his hair.
We look at each other for a long, long time.
“Bears are a lot like people,” I say. “It was like seeing murdered relatives. They thought they were safe, but someone killed them.”
“They were beautiful. But they shouldn’t live so close to people. They’re dangerous to us, and we’re dangerous to them when we live alongside each other.”
“But we have an affinity. Mom says so.”
“Remember the Butler’s shed last year?”
I nod. A grizzly had wrenched the door right off its hinges to get at what Mr. Butler figured was one unwashed tuna can the bear could smell through several layers of plastic.
“What did your mom say about that?”
“She said that people’s carelessness would destroy the bears. And she wished they would go back up into the mountains where it was safe for them because if they didn’t something really terrible would happen. And it did because they’re dead and their paws have been cut off with a saw.”
Tears well up in my eyes again.
Then he comes over and sits in the same seat as me, offering his shirt sleeve as a handkerchief to dry my eyes, and he puts his arm around my shoulders.
“I think we’d better tell the R.C.M.P. about this,” he says.
“Shall we go there now?” he says.
I shrug my shoulders.
“I think we should, right now, too, so they can get over there to do an investigation. Poaching is illegal.”
“Heath,” I say, astonished at my own voice, not believing what I am hearing me say. “Will you still like me after this? After crying and, well, and . . . puking?”
“Will I still like you?”
“All those girls at the beach?”
“They’re always trying to get your attention.”
“They’re lame. Most of them are, anyway. Last summer one of them, Rosaline, kept leaving notes taped to my bedroom window asking me to meet her at the park at midnight. Do you know how stupid that made me feel?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I say.
“You’re my girlfriend,” he says, squeezing my hand.
“I wasn’t sure about that,” I say.
“Well who else would be?”
I can’t say Rosaline, so I just say, “Don’t know,” and feel like crying all over again, but for a different reason.
We run the boat up onto the sand of Kaslo Beach, which is only two blocks from the R.C.M.P. Detachment, and together, hand in hand, we set out to find Sergeant Kalstrom.
The few kids who are already sunning themselves on the warm sand gawk at the new marvel of us as we pass them by.
Heath stayed until midnight and we played cards, drank tea, and made plans for the rest of the summer. And we had held hands.
My six-year-old sister Zoe drank tea with us, ate bread and jelly, and coloured pictures.
Mom fluttered around us like we were injured baby robins fallen from their nest.
When he thought I couldn’t stay awake any longer, he’d gone home, saying, “See you tomorrow, Tess. Let’s go to the beach . . . together.”
It takes a long time to fall asleep, but eventually I do.
Later, there is a smell of bear musk, and I awake to a quiet snuffling whimper, not quite a human sound.
The orphaned cub is on our porch, calling, but his bear relations, the Bear King and the Bear Queen with her amazing, powerful eyes, cannot hear him.