Translated from Spanish by Steven J. Stewart
The First Fire Eater
Eunus was a Syrian and a slave, ingenious and rebellious. In the year 133 B.C. he became (though he never knew it) the first bona fide fire eater in the Western World. He was the leader of a slave revolt in Sicily where he took several cities and even crowned himself king. As proof of the divine destiny guiding him, he led his desperate troops spitting fire, smoke, and sparks. He held in his mouth a nutshell filled with fiery material, embers and sulfur, breathing through its perforations, like a bellows over hot coals. In the Cirque du Soleil he would have been a great artist. When he was taken alive, the Roman mob merely quartered him, in a show that was undoubtedly interesting but impossible to repeat.
Icarians and Antipodists
In the bas-reliefs of Ancient Egypt there appear women performing Icarian feats. Icarians, like antipodists, juggle with their feet. The one uses objects, the others use children. Do-gooders complain that the children are put in danger. But they’re treated with great care. A well-trained child is hard to replace.
On one occasion a child who had been propelled high in the air by his father’s feet refused to come down, and he was adopted by a family of tightrope walkers. The child lived from then on in the heights and got used to sleeping on the slack cord without even letting go of his pole. When the circus would be disassembled and transported to another town, the tightrope walkers would tie a short rope for him across the bed of the truck. In his later years he became a good friend of the protagonist of Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, though, perhaps because he was a commoner, he’s never mentioned in the book.
Bellerophon and the Chimera
Once every show, sometimes twice a day, Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus, kills the Chimera.
Bellerophon is attractive and wears clothes that show off his Greek-hero musculature. The hind part of the Chimera’s body is a snake’s tail, it has the torso and front legs of a lion, and it has an odd-looking goat’s head that kicks out flames.
Bellerophon places a piece of lead on his lance point. The flames coming from the Chimera’s mouth melt the lead, which turns to liquid in its mouth and kills it.
The fight, of course, is an act. Exiled from their place and time, Bellerophon and the Chimera share a lot of memories. Over and over the beast pretends to die to the applause of the stupid audience members, who also fail to believe that Pegasus can fly in spite of seeing it with their own eyes.
Gaetulians and Pachyderms
They tell of the Numidians of the North, the Gaetulians of the plateaus, and the Garamantes of the desert who inhabited the Sahara. They tell of the Gaetulians, experts with javelins, forming part of the Roman armies as ancillary troops, unlike the Garamantes. They tell of the Gaetulians caring for the elephants on the voyage across the sea which would finally take them to Rome and its circus, where they would be obligated to kill them for the pleasure and diversion of nearly the whole populace and some poets, like Statius and Martial. They tell of the crossing being long and hard: the Gaetulians and pachyderms, hardly used to traveling in boats, got seasick. They tell the pathetic story of a Gaetulian who fell in love with his elephantess and chose to drive his javelin into his own heart rather than murder his beloved, moving the masses to spare her life. They tell of the birth, almost two years later, of an elephant who was somewhat stupid but nevertheless learned in just a few months to handle a javelin with its trunk. They tell a lot of wild stories, in Rome just like everywhere else, that are hard or impossible to prove.
The victory over the Carthaginians assures Rome of a supply of exotic animals from North Africa for use in its circus games. Bloody public battles are organized in the arena, risky but not necessarily fatal for the men who get involved. During his second consulship, Pompey offers for the first time an elephant battle. The iron barriers protecting the spectators barely resist the furious charge of the beasts that are fighting to escape. They’re being chased by Gaetulians with javelins.
After their failed escape attempt, the animals gather in the center of the arena and trumpet their death song. The spectators, perhaps more frightened than moved, call down curses on Pompey, according to Pliny in his Natural History.
Since human beings aren’t aware of the existence of parallel universes, Pliny is ignorant of the fact that, simultaneously, the Gaetulians are crushed by the pachyderms, who topple the barriers and savagely take over the streets of Rome and that, for that reason, we pachyderms are here telling this story and somewhere else it’s the Gaetulians and somewhere else it’s the javelins.
It’s All Relative (851)
It’s all relative. On my planet I won beauty contests, I was the equivalent of the earth’s Miss Universe. Here I’m a circus freak, says the sad female from Alpha Centauri, shaking out her vibrating appendages. All in all, who can say she’s lying?
The King of the Martian Pygmies
Phineas Taylor Barnum was the greatest promoter of circus freaks in the history of humanity. His agents scoured the whole world looking for deformities that were sufficiently terrifying to be exhibited for money. Not content with authentic horrors produced by nature, Barnum also displayed all types of fake freaks, living or embalmed, like the famous Feejee mermaid, a trick that caused hysteria among the inhabitants of New York. The Feejee mermaid didn’t look like a woman. It was a phantasmagoric little creature with a pained expression, made from a simple deception: a stuffed salmon tail sewed onto the body of a monkey.
On the other hand, the tiny little man that the Barnum Museum used to exhibit in formalin with the pompous title of “King of the Martian Pygmies” was in reality an inhabitant of a planet that orbited our star, Epsilon Eridani. I recognized him immediately and stood there, with tears in my eyes, saying goodbye to my friend, while the indifferent crowd passed by.
Ana María Shua (1951-) has published over forty books in numerous genres: novels, short stories, poetry, drama, children’s fiction, books of humor and Jewish folklore, anthologies, film scripts, journalistic articles, and essays. Her writing has been translated into many languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Korean, Japanese, Bulgarian, and Serbian, and her stories appear in anthologies throughout the world. She has received numerous national and international awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, and is one of Argentina’s premier living writers.
Steven J. Stewart was awarded a 2005 Literature Fellowship for Translation by the National Endowment for the Arts. His book of translations of Spanish poet Rafael Pérez Estrada, Devoured by the Moon, which was published by Hanging Loose in 2004, was a finalist for the 2005 PEN-USA translation award. His book of the selected microfictions of Argentinean writer Ana María Shua was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2009.