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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The cold blade lodged in my throat like it always did, the glare of the spotlight hot on my face. What I had to do was hold the sword for a few moments, my tongue pressed against the base of my mouth, and exhale as I lifted it out, its edge sliding against my throat, between my front teeth. Afterward, I was meant to quickly bow and move ringside so the stallions could rear wildly, followed by the standing elephants, then Sarro, the ringmaster, who whipped the air to sparks. It wasn’t hard to know what went wrong. I tasted my saliva souring, and as the drums crescendoed into a rush and a piercing stillness took the tent, the blade turned, catching on my molar and digging into my gum. In the version of the story I planned to tell Miles, I would blame my sweating palm, the widening of my throat with a gagging cough. I wouldn’t tell Miles it happened just as I decided to look for him in the crowd—the shock of his greying hair, a bright polo pulled tight with muscle—and realized he wasn’t there.
It took me a long time—or, it felt like a long time—to be able to think all this through: the neighing of the horses as they were held back. My careful lean onto the padded orange gurney, the doctor whose job it was to gently hold the silver hilt, which winked with light as I passed beneath the entrance marquee. My eyes glazing with warm tears. The sudden cold of the night, the reminders to breathe. The distant chirring of crickets. The vibration of the metal in my throat with the revving ambulance, nurses with hands over their mouths in the ER.
I didn’t know until a few days later, after I was discharged, that Miles had left me a voicemail, given me a reason. Is this a good idea? he said. There was a pause I would hang on in the months that followed, considering what that silence had meant to him. It sounded like he was eating as he spoke, his attention split between me and something else. The first time I listened, I swallowed so hard it felt as if the blade were back in my throat, pitching it open, willing me to respond. Look, I heard him sigh into a finish. I just don’t think this is a good idea.
• • •
It would take me a few years to return to performing, though I’d practice raising the sword in my kitchen and bedroom during nights when I couldn’t sleep, its blade catching moonlight through the windows. Things would be different. I would be more careful, hold the sword every time as if it really could kill me if only I blinked the wrong way. And when the spot rose again from the worn dirt of the ring and onto my face, its heat on the bridge of my nose, I wouldn’t be looking for Miles. I would bow, let it linger. I would stand outside the tent after shows talking to families, promising that the sword is real. I would wait a few years and throw the old sword away, but before I would I’d look for any indication of the accident—a scratch, a film of dried mucous. But there would be nothing; I would be able to see my whole face in that blade.
At some point during my time away, the show added another act. I see it each night now, from under the stands, between the legs of families. Sarro calls it The Vanishing. It’s placed just before the bows. Three clowns, some new hires, stand against a white wall that’s rolled to the center of the ring. They each strike a pose against it, as if blown back by a great wind. There is a piercing flash of light—the whole tent briefly consumed with a golden mist. And when sight returns, there it is. Applause takes the tent in a fever. All three have become silhouettes, shadows.
Tonight, I ask Sarro if I can sit in the audience to see it. It’s one of our last runs of the season. He says okay, that I owe him. I nod and walk around to the back. Several rows are empty, and I sit near the exit. The air is sour, sweet. I wonder what I look like in the ring from this distance. I wonder if there’s ever a way to see myself like that—really.
When the time comes for The Vanishing, I make a point to watch for what happens to the clowns, but the light is too bright. I blink, and I miss it.
After the show, I find one of the contortionists at his spot outside the tent. He doesn’t look like he wants to talk—his black under-eye makeup has smudged to grey—but I ask him anyway. “Where do they go?”
“Hell,” he says, plucking the cigarette from his mouth. “Even I don’t know.”
Peter Kispert‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice Magazine, South Dakota Review, Columbia: a Journal of Literature and Art, and other journals. He is an editorial assistant with Electric Literature.