Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Unseen (part 24)


At the top of the hill I stop for a moment to catch my breath, looking down the slope into the valley. The snowy crags of volcanic mountains are visible in the distance, the sea of evergreens below me is punctuated here and there by islands of bright green deciduous trees in new leaf, and the rising moon is reflected in the curve of a freshwater lake, but dwarfing everything else are the two impossibly steep spires and the gaudy green-and-yellow stripes of a circus tent just below me.

Good. I was afraid I might have missed them again. I pick my way carefully down the hill -- there really isn't much of a trail here -- pause behind a tree to watch the crowd, crunch across the gravel road, bypass the ticket line, put a breath charm in place and slip inside unnoticed.

The tent smells of sawdust, popcorn and horse dung. Workers scurry around, putting all the last-minute preparations in place before the crowds are ushered in. I wait in a dark corner, and when someone calls "Doors, people!" and the first audience members begin to trickle in, I quietly join them and find a spot in the bleachers.

Raffini's is a small family-owned circus, and like many other old-fashioned forms of entertainment, it's only a matter of time until it folds. The family worries constantly about how to keep the lights on, how to pay for groceries and feed the horses, how to make it to the next town. Once the whole troupe lived on concession popcorn and peanuts for three days. Sometimes they put up the banner "HELD OVER DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND!" as a way to pull in a little more money. One of these days they'll pack the tent away for good -- or they'll publicly burn it, one huge final spectacle for the fickle crowds -- and the performers will retire or take their chances with the big ones, Ringling Bros. or Cirque. Meanwhile, they continue doing what they love for as long as they can.

The show begins with fancy equestrian riding. Performers bounce on and off their horses, juggle with swords, balance other performers on their heads. A small boy is in charge of bringing the horses into the ring, one by one, and each time he pantomimes a desire to ride with the others, but his father solemnly shakes his head. Finally the boy rides out on a huge white stallion, doing the most amazing backflips and frankly outdoing all the other performers. The crowd cheers for the little guy, then laughs as the father and the other performers chase after him, to no avail. It's entertaining enough, but it's not why I came here.

Clowns invade the ring. In keeping with the Raffini name, they wear grotesque Venetian-style masks instead of clown makeup. I duck my head and stare at the bleachers, reflecting that the troupe probably chose masks over makeup as a quick-change tactic, so the audience doesn't realize it's all the same performers. Clever, but that doesn't mean I have to like clowns. I wait until the crowd applauds with finality, and look up to see the last of the clowns, in a flying harness, going straight up toward the top of the tent where the trapeze artists stand in wait.

He's up there, the tallest of five performers. From this distance it's hard to tell how old he is -- his body language suggests a younger man, but the best guess is that he's in his mid-forties. He glides out on the trapeze, lean and lithe and absolutely sure in his movements. And I remember what I read about him in a somewhat pretentious Times article from the late '80s, just after he joined the troupe: "The youngest Raffini, like a Baryshnikov of the big top, seems to float of his own accord as he performs -- as though he were more comfortable in the air than on the ground. One senses he was born to fly."

One senses that. There really is something special about his performance. And now that I have a good idea of his body language, it's easy to pick him out from the rest of the troupe in other acts. He's no slouch at juggling or at stage magic, but his real forte is aerial work -- anything that launches him high above the crowds. He's fearless in the air, and the audience loves it. From what I can hear, he gets well-deserved cheers and hoots from the crowd while taking his final bows.

But I'm not there, of course. I've already ducked out and circled around to the back yard, where all the makeshift living quarters are hidden from the audience. Circus people tend to make themselves scarce after the show, to keep the magic intact; that, and this troupe has got to be dead tired after that performance, so I don't have much time. I reach down into the very bottom of my backpack and bring out my commonplace-book and the other object, neatly wrapped and tied in white linen. I unwrap it carefully while I wait.

There are a number of ways to do this. I've tried them all by now, and learned which ones work well, which ones work occasionally, which ones never work. Sometimes the simplest ways work the best. So as the performers enter in ones and twos, I wait for Pietro Raffini. When I see him I affect the most starry-eyed pose I can think of and practically latch on to his arm, gushing.

"Mr. Raffini? Oh, wow, it's really you. I -- I'm a big fan, you were AMAZING tonight, I just... wow. Could you, uh, I know you're busy and I don't want to keep you, but could you sign my autograph book, please?" I present him with a blank page of my commonplace-book, and he smiles and graciously signs it. I keep up the steady patter of adoring fangirl talk, watching him carefully. He is tall, has dark hair. His eyes are set rather wide apart, and they are also dark. His nose has a funny curve in it that suggests it was broken at one time. And his mind... well, he has no memories before the age of sixteen. That's why I'm here.

"...really appreciate it, I've followed your career for a long time. You know the papers say you joined the circus when you were a teenager and worked up to becoming the owner. Is that true?"

"Yes," he says tolerantly. "That's true. I don't mean to be rude, but--"

"And that you had some kind of amnesia?"

He looks up, startled. "Well, yes, that's true too," he says. "But where did you read that?"

"I can't remember," I lie. "Probably the Times. Is it strange not to remember who you are?"

Pietro Raffini gives me one piercing look. "Ma'am," he says, "you must understand something. This circus took me in and cared for me and gave me a place in this world when no one else would. It's everything to me. It's my family. I may not remember who I was before I joined the circus, but I remember well enough who I am because of the circus. Have I made myself clear?"

I act cowed. "I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't mean to offend."

"And now I think it's high time--"

"Wait!" I say. I've come too far not to ask him now. "I know it's an imposition, but with your ability as a magician and all, I wanted to ask: what do you make of this?" And I hand him the object.

He takes it, puzzled. "Some variation of the Chinese linking rings, am I right?" he asks, turning it over and over in his hands.

"Yes, I think so. Anyway, there's a trick to opening it."

Pietro Raffini doesn't give up easily. He inspects the object for a full five minutes before handing it to me with a shrug. And I take both ends, twist gently, and it comes apart into two equal pieces.

"Let me see that again," he says, and for another three minutes he tries to put it back together without success. He's absolutely determined to figure out the trick, but I know now that he can't.

A statuesque blonde -- his wife -- comes up alongside him. "Pete," she says gently, "dinner is getting cold. I think it's time to say goodnight." And Pietro Raffini admits defeat and hands the pieces back to me without a word. I thank him again as the two walk away, talking softly together.

So he's not the one I'm looking for.

I click the object back together again, tie it neatly in its linen covering, return it to the bottom of my backpack. I put away my commonplace-book, an object Pietro Raffini was happy to sign for a star-struck fan without any indication that he knew what it was.

It's strange, to feel both disappointed and happy at once. Disappointed because once again I've failed, but happy because, whatever else might be in his past, Pietro Raffini loves his life now. He has something he does well, he has a family that loves him, and he has a reason to live. The empty part of his mind has been filled with the richness of his current existence. He's happy with his place in the world, and I can't help but be happy for him.

I guess I just wish...

Well, it doesn't matter. All it really means is that I'm still free of human entanglements. I can go where I like and do what I please. I don't have to think about feeding my family or paying the vet bill or even making it to the next town. My life is easily as rich as his, without all the baggage of worry that comes with it.

I'm fine.


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