The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
One bite. That’s all she thought she needed to satisfy her hunger. One bite of the funnel cake. No more than that. There was no need for more. A single bit of food would have satiated her starving stomach. She, Margarita, knew there was food nearby, carnival food: cotton candy, funnel cakes, pop corn, corn dogs, pretzels. But she didn’t care for the taste of salt and mustard together on her pretzels.
The scent of frying dough, of peanuts roasting, the smell of sticky sugar from the cotton candy, it made her stomach move inside her body, twisting, turning, churning. The pangs associated with her hunger tempted her, defied her will, to leave her seat and run, not walk, to the food concession trailer. But Margarita was so mesmerized by the spectacle inside the cage in front of her, that she could not, would not, leave her spot.
She and more than twenty spectators shared the bleachers with her. Gawkers, really, a crowd made up of kids with parents, parents with children, mothers, fathers, but mostly adult men, very few women, one of which was Margarita. Some teens there just to impress their dates.
Margarita sat alone. She sat in the front row closest to the cage. The cage itself was small. Margarita sat so close to it, that she could smell the the straw inside it. A not so pleasant scent, vivid, like burnt wood or dirty laundry, or dry leaves, or perhaps dust, but mostly strong urine. The strongest smell did not come from the straw at the bottom of the latticed cage. She was certain about the origin of the smell however, the occupant of the cage resting on the straw.
The straw itself was a pale dirty yellow. There was also a clock in there. A timing device that appeared frozen to spectators who did not stick around long enough to notice that it was marking time, moving its hands without the ticking sound. The main attraction though, was the strange individual caged inside, by choice. He wore black tights, skin tight, so tight, Margarita had noticed, that it accentuated the sharp, protruding bones of his ribcage. Margarita was intrigued. She was curious about the lattice cage that held the straw, the clock and the man in the tight black suit, who, according to the many, many, bright and colorful signs around him, had voluntarily caged himself to set some sort of world record, a record for the amount of time the man inside the cage, with ribs protruding, and eyes half closed, wearing the determined look of a dead man, or nearly dead, could go on fasting. He is going to die, thought Margarita, but they can’t let him die, she thought, they will not let him die, that’s for sure.
Surely they will not let him die in there, alone in that lattice cage. Those butchers would not let him die. They cheat! That’s it, thought Margarita, they will remove him from the cage and feed him meat, or whatever food they can get into him. Margarita felt cheated. She knew they could not let him die. Although, she was a bit uncertain, that uncertainty is what kept her coming, it was the ambiguity of the entire spectacle that kept Margarita there. She sat there, every other day, and paid the admission price at the door, to watch the man inside the lattice cage, mostly, because she was tormented by the thought that he might actually, one day, collapse and die.
Those like her, without the knowledge of the man’s intentions, thought it was a trick, another carnival freak show, a debasement of humanity. They knew for sure the man was cheating. They would not, could not, let him die. They, the butchers that guarded the cage, would not let him die. If they let him starve to death, Margarita thought, the show would stop. If they let the man die, she wandered, would they stop the clock? Would the butchers eat all the food, the meat meant for the man?
Margarita mused: if he dies, there will not be a show. Death equals no more show. No more show. That could not be. They would not let that happen. After all, she reasoned, the cage was the most popular attraction at the carnival. The stands were always filled with people. Filled with a rotating crowd of gawkers who came to ogle the man in the cage, expecting him to die, to collapse in front of them. Margarita noticed the young adults, the non-believers. The ones who taunted the man. The loud ones, accusing him of cheating, of hiding food under the straw; of having paid the butchers to stop the show just as he was about to faint, so he could go back stage and eat and drink until he was satiated, so the show could continue. Margarita had noticed that the man in the black tights, rattled his cage when words of fraud reached his ears. He, the emaciated man, was enraged inside the cage when word of fraud was spoken. He spat and shook the lattice bars keeping him in. The bars were the only protection to the onlookers outside.
After many days Margarita had become convinced, she did not think the man a fake. She had become concerned, at times, for the man’s welfare. He was a human being, after all, she thought. He is not an animal. He is human, just like me, like us, like them, like all of us. He just wants to reach a certain apotheosis that will give meaning to his life. Margarita thought so. Her thoughts were responsible for her many sojourns to the carnival, to watch the starving man inside the cage, letting time be marked by the silent clock sharing the cage with him. A calendar would be more helpful. It would allow him to keep track of the amount of time, to mark the days he spent inside the cage with his rib cage protruding yet still further. But the man had chosen a clock instead, which, in Margarita’s mind, was a mistake. He would be better served by a calendar where he could mark the days, not the hours, or the minutes, but the days, the weeks, the months, he valiantly endured without a morsel, without a bite of food.
It had become something of a routine for Margarita to sit in the front row of the only spectacle that had any meaning to her. She came weekends, too, to watch the man not eat. She brought a notebook with her now. Margarita kept a tally of the days the man had spent inside the cage. She felt proud to be part of the spectacle, even indirectly. Margarita tallied the days: altogether, forty days, so far. Forty days the man had spent inside the cage. As far as she could tell, without any food, fasting. The man looked emaciated, close to death.
The will not let him die, of course. Margarita was convinced now, she thought deeply about the spectacle. She wrote down words that came to her mind as she watched the caged man watching her, with half opened eyes. She had even written it down words in large block letter in her notebook, the same notebook where she kept tally of the number of days the man had spent inside the cage: FREEDOM, BUTCHERS, TEMPTATION, TORTURE, RAGE, CAGE, EMACIATED, AGAIN, AGAIN, ABANDONED, NO CLOCK, ADMIRATION, INDIFFERENCE, DISTRUST, METAPHYSICAL, RELIGIOUS, SOCIOLOGICAL. In tiny letters, on the margin, next to the tallied the days the man had been caged, she had written, like an afterthought: “the duality of man.”
She had developed a great admiration for the man inside the cage. If he were not there, Margarita thought, there would not be any reason to come to the fair, there would not be any meaning to my life. She watched the man inside, and watched the people come to see him. Although some in the crowd seemed indifferent to the man’s suffering, she trusted that the man’s intentions were sincere. There was no reason to think that he was cheating, that he was doing this for no apparent reason. She felt the sincerity of the man’s intentions.
Margarita sat across the cage. She saw the man wetting his lips with water from a glass. At that moment, she felt strong enough, and daring enough, to approach the cage. She moved much closer than she’d ever dared to. Perhaps, Margarita thought, the man was reaching out to her. She saw how he had thrust his bone-thin arm between the bars to reach her. Margarita thought this was an invitation. After all, she thought, she’d been coming to the carnival explicitly to see the man inside the cage. She’d been there so many times now, that it was truly possible, that the man had seen her, noticed her presence, and realized that she was also trapped. That Margarita was trapped outside the cage. The man was offering his hand to placated her fear, to offer her a token of friendship, of camaraderie, a clear and present reason to be alive.
Margarita approached the cage. The crowd of onlookers quieted down. Margarita could feel the iron bars of the cage pulling her close, as if she were magnetized, and that the polarization of the metal bars and herself were opposite. The man inside the cage stood still. The crowd was still. the wind was still. The merry music from the merry-go-round was gone. The smell of frying dough from the food trailer was gone. The carnival barker was quiet. Margarita reached the cage. She froze. She sensed the hunger pangs she’d felt before, heard rumblings from her stomach, that fateful first day when she came to the carnival, were also emanating from within the ribcage of the man inside the cage. She came closer, until the smell of urine stopped her.
The rusting bars holding the man inside the cage gave off a distasteful odor too. The man himself reeked of sweat and death. The man’s protruding arm grabbed Margarita before she could back down. He hooked her by the waist and pulled her to the metal bars. She felt a sudden rush inside her heart. She couldn’t think. She panicked. Words whirled in her mind, boldly, the words she’d written in the notebook. Each word came rushing to her head like phantoms: FREEDOM, BUTCHERS, TEMPTATION, TORTURE, RAGE, CAGE, EMACIATED, AGAIN, AGAIN, ABANDONED, NO CLOCK, ADMIRATION, INDIFFERENCE, DISTRUST.
Margarita pulled her head away as far as she could, to keep the man away from touching her face. The man held on to her tightly, he would not let her go. The butchers guarding the man did nothing. In fact, she noticed, they laughed, the crowd began to laughing. Margarita started to cry... The butchers laughed louder. The crowd of cowardly spectators laughed. They laughed, laughed, laughed. The emaciated man’s arm, even with his enfeebled strength, would not let go. She felt the piercing bones of the man’s arms pressing her against the solid bars of the cage. When Margarita regained her courage, she spoke: a single word, a single syllable, uttered in despair: she whispered: Freedom!
The man on the other side of the iron bars, inside the cage, whispered back to her: “Ich will nicht sterben!” Then the man’s arms went limp, and he collapsed in a heap onto the filthy straw.
He was buried by the butchers together with the straw.
The Carnival master replaced him with a black panther.
No one ever came to see the panther gorge itself with meat.
Margarita never returned to the carnival.
© Oswaldo Jimenez March 2014
Told you so!
Here, here, listen to this one: enjoys sea-bathing, bright sunlight, human emotions, the simpler pleasures, and on the intellectual side, thinking clearly...