She leaned forward, bringing herself closer to the edge of the cliff. She often wondered whether everyone could see the way she saw. Especially when she was on the rope with her head between her legs, or hanging from the trapeze, her heels underarm. She thought then, can they see these lights? These shapes on top of the spectators’ heads, their most secret secrets untangled against my tangled body, and these darknesses in their palms, and the birds in their mouths, can everyone see them?
She peeked over the edge. A steep fall, then jagged rocks. Then water.
These birds, crammed between their teeth, are they swallows?
The man pulled her back. “Be careful,” he said. “You’ll fall.”
She pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t say things like that to an acrobat. It’s bad luck.”
“Does Lady Bird care about such things? Born on the rope. Isn’t that what the ring master says every night?”
“You think you know so much about me, don’t you?” Her eyes fixed on the ocean, she caressed the wooden box that lay between them. She tapped the crudely carved spade on the lid. “But I know nothing about you.”
“You know everything. Why do you talk like that?”
“What’s in the box, then?”
A gush of wind ruffled his hair. The girl shuddered in her transparent costume.
“You could have at least changed before dragging us up here,” he said.
“What’s in the box?”
“Why is this so important?”
She looked around. A wasteland. Can everyone see this? she wondered. The beach beneath them almost beaten by the tide. The pleasure wheel fading in the distance, its lights dim and pale. And the circus tent, off-white specked with desolation.
“Why are you so scared?” He reached out, his fingers brushing her cheek. “You know my life before the circus means nothing.”
The girl pulled her leg over her shoulder, pushing his hand away. She peered at him behind her thigh. No secrets over your head, no lights. Who are you? Why are you hiding?
“You say that, and yet you hold onto that box,” she said.
“Let it go. It’s just a box.”
“Throw it in the sea then, why don’t you?”
“Can’t you leave me this one thing? Everything else is yours,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint. Merely a statement.
“Everything?” she asked. “Even your lions?”
“Yes, even them. Say the word and I’ll bring you their heads.”
She put her leg down and glared at him.
“I would never do something like that.” Her eyes softened. “Bring me their heads… Silly.”
He chuckled. “I always had a flare for the dramatic.”
“True.” She rested her forearms and chin at the edge of the cliff and thrust her pelvis towards her head. She then bent her knees and hung her feet over her face. She looked at him behind her soles. Nothing. How are you hiding? You are the only one who can. “What’s in the box?”
“Oh, come on. Milk. It’s just milk.”
“Yes, snake’s milk.”
She frowned. “Very funny.”
“All right,” he said. “A watch.”
She sat up and put her ear to the lid. “I can’t hear anything,” she said. “Be quiet.”
“I’m not making any noise. It’s the wind. The waves.”
“Hush them, then. What kind of a useless tamer are you?”
“Do you enjoy hurting me?”
“There is no watch in there. Tell the truth.”
“It’s dirt from my birthplace.”
“You were born on a ship.”
“You forget nothing.”
She remembered the first time he entered the circus tent, his lions on a leash, the box tucked under his arm. She was hanging upside down above the ring, yet she saw no shapes. No darknesses, no birds. Most people hide their secrets in their hearts, at the back of their heads, or under their tongues. Where are his? she had wondered. “Tell me.”
His face grew serious. He studied her small feet, dangling over the edge. “Fine,” he said, “I will. But you won’t ask for anything ever again.”
“It’s two pieces of paper. One holds my name.”
She laughed. “Your name? Aren’t you the Desert Lion?”
“Aren’t you Lady Bird?”
“All right. And the other?”
“You said you’d tell me.”
She stared at him counting three breaths, an old balancing habit; one, earth, two, sky, three, my body in between. “Show me,” she said with the fourth.
“You promised not to ask for anything else.”
“I lied. Will you open it?”
“Why are you doing this? You know I can’t refuse you anything.”
“That is why I do it.”
“I’ll have nothing left.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Am I?” She put her weight on her palms and lifted her waist from the ridge.
“All right. All right. Sit straight.”
She obeyed. She sat cross-legged by the box and waited.
He fished for the small key hanging from the chain around his neck. He opened the box, pulled out two yellowed sheets and handed them over.
“Is that your name?” she asked.
“It doesn’t suit you.” She glanced at the second page, then looked at him.
He gazed at the horizon, silent.
“Was that all?” she asked.
He nodded again.
“Why keep it for so long, then?”
“I just wanted to have something that was mine,” he said. He retrieved the pages and put them back in the box. He locked it and tossed the key in the water. “Are you happy now?” he asked.
“Very.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Is that a birdie between your teeth?
They sat side by side, shoulders touching. He stared at the sharp rocks underneath.
She suddenly turned to him as if she’d just remembered something.
“I’m working on a new number. Want to see?”
“It’s not perfect yet,” she said, and threw herself over the edge.
A swallow soared by, almost brushing his cheek.
Natalia Theodoridou is a UK-based media & theatre scholar. Originally from Greece, she has lived and studied in the USA, UK, and Indonesia for several years. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, among others. She is a 2014 Rhysling Award nominee. Her personal website is www.natalia-theodoridou.com.