The Magician and the Butterfly: Part One

I remember the day the circus came to town as if it were yesterday. It was towards the middle of harvest, when the cornstalks were heavy with grain. It had been a good year for us farmers with a mild winter and plentiful rain. As a result, we had a little more than usual to spend on luxuries.

Sabine, my wife, and I had gone into town to choose fabric for new bedroom curtains. Our old, gingham ones were faded, and she had her heart set on a sunflower print that she had seen in Jody McAllister's store. It would provide something for her to do in the winter, she told me, although I secretly suspected that she'd give the work to the Adams widow. (Sabine hated sewing as much as she did housework, and I'd seen her pay Tracey Adams more than once for darning socks or mending ripped shirts. I never rebuked her for it though, because, if anyone needed extra money, it was Mrs Adams.)

Anyway, I was helping Jody move rolls of fabric from the storeroom into the shop, when I heard Sabine calling me to come and see; that there was a circus in town. By the time that Mrs McAllister and I had rushed out of the store, a crowd had gathered on the sidewalks and on the street-corners to watch the parade down Main Street. Children screamed with excitement and attempted to get close enough to touch the elephants, only to be restrained by their mothers. The old people of the town looked suspicious and disapproving. They saw circus performers as little better than ragtag drifters and shiftless thieves; reminders of the Depression. Above all, though, it is Sabine who still stands out in my memory. She was standing at the edge of the road, waving her green, silk scarf at the caravans and cheering. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks flushed. She was easily the most beautiful woman in Caldecott. A butterfly among moths, Melanie Judd, our neighbor, whispered to me as she stood next to me. (Melanie was also the editor of our local gazette, because of her way with words and the fact that she was an 'incurable busybody', as Sabine put it.)

However, I must admit that even I was excited about the circus. It had been a while since one had visited Caldecott County - most considered our town too small for their attention; hardly worth the effort of pitching their bigtop. Which circus had thought differently? I read the gold script on the banners the elephants were holding - 'The Gamesmaster's Circus of Delights.'

On the very front wagon, a small, bald man, dressed in a green suit and silver cape, bowed and flourished his spangled top-hat. I guessed correctly that he was the Gamesmaster. On either side of his caravan, two women rode white horses, standing on their hands so that their short skirts fell down around their waists. I heard Melanie cluck disapprovingly and mutter that they were hussies. Behind them, a six-armed juggler, whose caravan had 'Spiral' painted on its side, had three concentric rings of balls, knives and bottles spinning in the air. 'Logan the Lionhearted' was next in the procession - a short, ugly man, dressed in a safari suit complete with pith-helmet, who was sitting on top of a cage of lions. Next to him, on the road, the clowns ran amok to the delight of the children - pulling down each other's baggy pants to reveal spotted boxer shorts and squirting each other with water from their soda dispensers. Acrobats followed - cartwheeling and tumbling - next to the wagon on which 'Strong Guy' was standing. He was lifting one-ton weights with his hand and I thought how useful someone like that would be come harvest time. He could probably reap a field by himself, before carrying the corn into the barns. Finally, bringing up the tail of the procession, was a solitary, black wagon painted with silver stars. It appeared to be empty and the legend on its side proclaimed that it belonged to 'Renard, Master of the Ancient Mysteries'. Melanie nudged me and said that she didn't think much of Renard, if he didn't have enough sense to show up on time for his parade. I began to laugh, when, in a puff of glitter and red smoke, a tall, slender figure was standing on top of the caravan.The crowd was silent, save for some whistles and awed applause, and my eyes went to Sabine. She was smiling, like a cat that had gotten into the creamery, and clapping her hands. (She told me later that the magician alone would be worth paying good money to see.) Renard bowed, a mischievous grin on his face, and disappeared with a boom that was like the crack of thunder. Where he had been, a white dove flapped its wings before taking off into the sky. That was the first time I ever saw the magician with whom my wife would run away. . . .

You know, it is strange how you can know someone and yet not know them at all. Sabine and I had been acquainted since we were children. Since she was a scrawny, hipless thing with a habit of getting into fights. (Grace and refinement came a few years later with a figure that caused more than one boy to be sent to detention for not listening to the teacher!) We had been best friends from the day she had beaten up the school bully for me. I remember seeing her standing in front of this teenage giant, arms folded in front of her flat chest, green eyes flashing. She told him to leave me alone, or else she'd pound him. Amazingly enough, when confronted with this little hellcat, the boy backed away from me, muttering his apologies. There was always a wild streak in Sabine. Something that didn't belong in high-heeled shoes and ear-bobs. Something that longed to be free.

In the end, it caused our marriage to crumble - farming has always been an unpredictable game, and, to counter that, a man needs a dependable woman. Someone who will have a hot dinner on the table at the end of the day and keep the children quiet. Someone who will shoulder the burden. I guess I was stupid to fall for someone who was as changeable as the weather - all sunshine and smiles one day, and stormy temper the next. However, in the beginning, her unpredictability was the exact reason I loved her.

I don't know how to describe it so you would understand. I'm a simple farmer, not a poet or magician, so I'll stick to the simple facts. It was sugared words and trickery that took my wife away from me, after all, so I won't remember her with them.

My mother had wanted me to marry Brett Morton (who I took as my second wife after my divorce with Sabine was made final.) Told me that Brett would make an excellent farmer's wife - hard-working, solid and uncomplaining. Her hands were as quick to mend torn sheets as they were to help birth calves or reap corn. She was attractive as well with her thick, straw-colored hair, plump body and brown eyes.

By then, however, I had fallen for Sabine. It is funny how people in books and television serials always know the moment they realize they love someone, as if there was a before and after. I can't say that I ever experienced that. For me, friendship had become love, like a seed becomes a plant. It would be a waste of time to guess when one ended, and the other began.

Consequently, when I told momma that I wanted to propose to Sabine, she was disapproving. Beauty and elegance weren't two qualities that a sensible farmer looked for in a bride - a strong back, housekeeping skills and broad hips were the general requirements. Sabine was too dainty to be happy with me, she said, too ladylike to run a home by herself.

In retrospect, I guess she was right. The domestic tasks, in which my mother had taken such pride and pleasure, were chores to Sabine. She hated getting down on her knees to polish the wooden floors of our cabin, or weed the small vegetable garden with which we supplemented our diet. She was happiest when she was curled up in an old chair on the porch, a book in her hand, sunning herself. The women used to make fun of her behind her back in their quilting circles - calling her idle and praising my patience for putting up with an odd, green-eyed cat like that. My mother was less subtle. She used to take pleasure in slipping barbs of hurtful gossip into her conversations with Sabine, as if to punish her for marrying me. I saw what it did to my wife - how humiliated and miserable she was because of their spite. No matter how hard she tried, she could never be Brett Morton.

I suppose that was why she lashed out at me, she had no other target for her anger. She couldn't confront the women of the town without seeming like an eavesdropper, or attack my mother's innocent-sounding remarks without seeming like a paranoid fool. Like a bobcat caught between two hunters, Sabine snapped at me in order to protect her pride. Hating me because I was my mother's son. Hating Caldecott for the people who called it home. Hating the farm because it had belonged to my father. It was the wild streak in her.

That is why I don't blame her for leaving me for the magician; for springing the trap that had held her captive. I remember Melanie Judd's report in the paper on the scandal - how she had said that Sabine had been a butterfly that I had held for a short while before she had flown away into the enormous sky. Her words reminded me of Renard's dove, spreading its wings for the first time. . . .