This story takes place in 1924…
From Chapter 1
Tuesday loved to ride the train at night. It was loud, but the rocking motion of the long line of cars hauling cargo, performers, and animals was such that it rocked her to sleep easily. Tucked under her burlap blanket and laying on fresh hay was as good a place to make her bed as any. A few feet away from her in the corner, a hole had grown progressively larger in the past few months thanks to the rotten wood there. On nights where the moon was bright she could even see out of it, watching the ground whiz past in a blurry rush of blue. Grass and rocks were sometimes discernible, but specific landmarks were not and she had to look through the boxcar door for that. The door was always open, even in the winter which was possible because in the winter the circus train traveled south, first into the Carolina’s and then Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. She knew that it would eventually take them into Mexico and it would be like summer down there until it got warm in the northern United States and southern Canada and they would return there in the summer.
A black woman sat in the open doorway peeling apples with a pairing knife. Tuesday watched as she peeled them in the light of the moon. She cut them and then dropped them into the metal pale with a crank operated masher attached to the rim beside her. They made a peculiar plunking sound as she dropped them in and she could hear them even over the noise of the train as it rolled over the tracks. The woman’s legs hung out over the edge of the doorway and beyond her Tuesday could see the landscape outside as the train passed through sleepy towns on the way to their next stop. Some of the towns had buildings with lights on and Tuesday tried to see what was going on inside the buildings as they passed them.
“You’re awake, Tuesday,” the woman said. The woman continued pairing her apples, a knowing smile appearing on her face in the moonlight. Tuesday sniffed and rubbed her nose.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“You’ve been sleeping in this boxcar with me for years, girl. You think I don’t know how my babies sleep?” she said.
Tuesday looked around the car. Along the wall lay several other children between the ages of five and fourteen, sleeping on the cold, moist hay. It had rained several days earlier and the water had leaked in. Tuesday found that if she could get past the first few moments of laying on the hay, it would warm up once she lay still with the burlap blanket drawn up over her.
The black woman, whose right name was Millie, took care of the girls and boys who belonged to the circus. Millie had come from a plantation in Georgia, born in servitude and now serving a different master who gave her wages. Millie’s hair was gray and nappy, though hidden under a scarf that she kept wrapped around her head. Her dress was stained with sweat around her armpits and the threadbare apron she wore up to twenty hours a day while taking care of her surrogate children. Millie sighed and put her head back. Without turning to look into the train car she said. “If you’re going to be up you might as well help me with breakfast.”
Tuesday knew better than to disobey Millie and got up from her sleeping spot, leaving the burlap blanket behind. She wore a white tank top undershirt and a pair of bloomers, but the most striking feature of Tuesday was the tattoos that covered her body from her neck to her feet. Nearly every square inch of her eight-year-old body was covered in intricate tattoos, a job requirement for her position in the sideshow. The soles of her bare feet did not mind the rough wooden planks of the rail car, as her hands and feet were well calloused from trapeze acts and tumbling.
Tuesday bent forward and placed her hands on the floor, swinging her legs up where her head should have been and walked on her hands to the edge of the train car and the door. She could see the ground moving quickly by as the train rolled over the tracks and the wind caught her hair, blowing it in Millie’s direction.
“I’ll not comb your hair more than once a day, Tuesday,” Millie warned her. “It will get tangled like that.”
“Yes’m,” Tuesday replied dropping her legs quietly, concentrating all the energy in her core and arms. She passed her legs and body through her arms, her palms planted firmly on the floor of the rail car and set her bottom between them. She kicked her legs out of the rail car door and Millie handed her the pairing knife, pulling the sack of apples closer to the girl.
“Where’d you get the apples, Miss Millie?” Tuesday asked.
“Mistuh Tyler got them at our last stop in Staunton,” Millie said. “He’s always looking out for you children.” Tuesday smiled and cut into the top of her first apple letting the blade ride along the curvature slicing the skin off in a coiled string. His first name was Tyler, but all the children called him Mr. Tyler out of respect for Miss Millie who insisted that the children not be familiar with their elders.
“I like Mister Tyler,” Tuesday said. She cut the apple in half and sliced out the core on both halves.
“He’s a fool,” Millie said of the sword swallower. “But he’d sooner go hungry than see you children go without.”
“I think I would marry Mister Tyler,” Tuesday said as she dropped the apple into the grinder. Millie began to turn the crank and the coil inside the slot began to turn, catching the apple inside and beginning to break it apart into a mashed form and falling into the pale.
“Mister Tyler is more than twice your age,” Millie said. “Besides you’re just a girl and shouldn’t be thinking about boys, never mind men like him.”
“I like his mustache,” Tuesday said. “It makes him look like a walrus.” Tuesday giggled and started in on another apple before Millie reminded her what her job was. She looked past her bare legs and knees down to her toes covered in dark inked patterns, symbols, and swirling designs. Tattooed on the top of each of her toes were little stars painted in a rainbow pattern. Tuesday had seen other children in the towns they visited, but none of them looked like her friends in the circus. Most of them were acrobats and tumblers, but she was one of the side show; members of what people in towns whispered about under the term freaks of nature. One boy, called Sam, had a furry face and body. At only twelve years old he looked like a furry dog, which was how he had gotten the stage name The Wolf Boy. Only a few of them were actually related, specifically the acrobats that Tuesday performed with. She shared her spot in the rail car with their youngest daughter Nicole who was nine years old. Most of the young children in the side show were part of performing families, but Tuesday had been acquired through a trade deal when she was a baby. She had been young enough to forget most of the experience of tattooing but Millie could remember the baby crying. The owner wanted to get as much out of the girl as he could and set the acrobats and tumblers to teaching her their craft as soon as was possible.
“Miss Millie, am I pretty?” Tuesday asked. Tuesday had seen the children in other towns and cities all over the country. Children in Mexico and Canada too, and none of them had tattoos. They looked freshly washed and well fed, leaving half eaten popcorn and cotton candy in rubbish cans and in the dirt outside the main tent of their three ring circus. She saw the way they looked at her in the side show, mothers and fathers appalled at such creatures as she and her other sideshow cast members.
“Tuesday, you is a child of God,” Millie said. “You is beautiful.”
Cover art ©2015 by Jennifer Johnston and Jennifer Johnston Illustration