In the summer of 1898, Santana Lopez joined the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie as it toured the states of the Upper American Midwest. She also fell in love with the knife thrower's daughter.
Chapter 1: Bread and Circuses
Saturday, June 25th, 1898: Tekamah, Nebraska
The truth is that Santana has never even seen the circus, but Puck says that the truth doesn't matter anymore.
That's what he told Santana when he checked her into a boarding house in Manhattan under his surname two weeks ago and of what he reminded Santana when he finally met up with her again at the depot in Omaha only just this morning.
Now Santana repeats Puck's words like plainsong to herself as she runs over the plan in her mind. It doesn't matter that she isn't a famous fortuneteller from Europe and that she knows nothing about fire dancing. It doesn't matter that she and Puck aren't actually in any way married.
Nothing matters except impressing Puck's employer and getting on the payroll.
Santana owes Puck so much; even if she works for months, she might never be able to repay him.
The countryside outside Santana's window lies low and flat, pleasantly green, if scrubby. The sky in Nebraska seems bigger than the sky in New York, the kind of blue that dye and paint can never exactly replicate in fabrics or on canvas mattes or the sides of buildings. The bigness of the land and air somehow makes Santana feel exposed—like everyone can see her and she has no place to hide. She takes small comfort in the fact that she can only watch the scenery clack by through the safe square of her cabin window for now.
If Puck notices Santana fidgeting, he doesn't say aught about it. Instead, he slumps down in his seat beside her and tugs the brim of his hat lower to cover his eyes so he can sleep. He rests a broad palm on Santana's leg, his touch warm and heavy.
In first class, someone might balk at his boldness, but in this back cabin, no one pays much mind to his action at all.
Santana wishes she could sleep, too, but something trembles deep inside her, nervous as a baby bird, its purple heartbeat close to the raw, pink surface.
Puck and Santana's train arrives at the Tekamah depot just after noon, and a driver from the circus meets them at the platform. He arranges their luggage in the back of his wagon before helping both Puck and Santana join him on the bench.
Just like Santana suspected on the train, now that she finds herself out of doors and beneath the afternoon glare, the sky feels too big and everything sprawls, unsettlingly open. Save for the depot itself and a few buildings along the main street of Tekamah obscuring her view, Santana can see in all directions, almost to the horizon. The sun pounds down, heating her legs under the heavy calico of her skirts like clay in a kiln. The earth radiates with the warm, even scent of baked dirt and copper.
For his part, the driver ignores both Puck and Santana, focusing instead on steering his mules through a section of grass until they find the road, driving them towards the town just a half-mile or so off from the depot. Puck pulls his hat brim over his eyes again, paying no mind to either Santana or the bumpiness of the ride. With the babble of the depot fading into the distance and only wagon joint-creaks and mule hoof-clops filling the silence otherwise, Santana suddenly feels desperately, impossibly lonely.
The circus wagon passes other wagons along the road, as well as a man on horseback, who gives Santana a nasty look when her eyes meet his. Even after staying at the boarding house, Santana still isn't used to all the unspoken rules she never knew existed until she found herself on her own. Though she's committed the rules to memory now as best she can—painstakingly, to avoid penalties—she still doesn't understand the first thing about them.
The driver smirks at her a little.
She supposes she must look surprised.
Only after a minute does Santana realize that the driver must know how it is, that he is, at least in this one way, like her. She hadn't thought of it before.
Shaken, Santana turns her attention to the town. She sees that Tekamah has a broad, dirt main street lined with brick and wooden storefronts, along which she spots stores, a barber shop, and a church. Somehow, Santana had expected Nebraska to look like the untamed wilderness of one of Mr. Fenimore Cooper's novels, but she finds the place both boringly well-kempt and surprisingly devoid of trees.
Little pockets of people, none of whom look a lick like Santana, mill in twos and threes along the road. As Santana stares into the hoi polloi, she finds other people staring back at her. She tries not to let her eyes linger and instead focuses on where the driver steers the wagon: past the end of the main street, beyond the houses, beyond a small cemetery flowered with moldering whitewashed crosses, to a small, sparse grassland just outside the town.
Coming up along the road, Santana feels her heart thrill inside her chest.
She sees the circus for the first time in her life.
The wagon hitches to a stop just outside a row of white canvas tents—a small, impermanent city rising up from the plains. At the far side of this city sits a magnificent big top with a blue-striped canopy. Dozens of smaller white tents rise up on the part of the premises closer to Santana, each tent pinioned to the ground by ropes and stakes.
Multiple billboards flag along the center line of the campsite, painted in bawdy parrot hues, announcing the acrobats, Bearded Lady, pachyderms, and "famous Little Malibran of Seville, who can shatter crystal by the clear pitch of her voice alone." The biggest billboard of all flaunts the name of the venue itself: the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie.
Wagons, both ornately decorated and plain, flank various tents, which flap with movements and rebound distant noise, casting long noon shadows, lanky, over the flat earth. The pale canvas of the tents swallows up sunlight and reflects it back brighter above the campsite, creating the illusion of a heavenly circus haloed in white light.
Santana has never seen anything so beautiful or strange before.
Puck jolts as the wagon halts and looks between Santana and the driver, groggy and disoriented, stretching himself out of his nap. He smiles at Santana.
"Welcome to the circus, ladybird," he says, voice scratchy from sleep.
It's the first time he's really spoken to Santana since Omaha.
Puck takes a moment just to smile at Santana and wake himself while she looks back at him.
He is handsome, Santana supposes, a bit too swarthy for his own good, but better off than she is, with an idiot smile when he's really happy and a devilish smirk otherwise. He wears his dark hair shorn short and always seems to have a glint in his eyes. When Santana first met him, he walked with a heavy limp, favoring his left leg, but after eight months under her father's care, he bears no sign of his old injury.
Puck knows his own charm—the trouble is that Santana doesn't. Puck either thinks Santana likes him much more than she does or doesn't care if Santana likes him at all. Ultimately, Santana can't tell which way it is with him, and she doesn't know which option might prove worse for her, in the scheme of things.
The driver lets himself down from the wagon and gives the mule closest to him an appreciate pat on the rear before heading around to the wagon bed, from which he procures Puck's rucksack and Santana's valise. He flashes Puck a questioning look, and Puck shrugs him off, gesturing for the driver to set the bags on the ground. As the driver shuffles to unhitch the mules and lead them away, presumably to a stable or pasture Santana cannot yet see, Puck fixes in on Santana, eyeing her up and down like an artist considering his half-finished portrait. His attention makes Santana nervous.
"What?" she asks.
Her voice sounds sharp in her own ears.
Santana seldom means to snap at Puck, but she somehow ends up snapping at him an awful lot anyhow. Right now she snaps because she feels uneasy for having finally arrived at their destination and also because she dislikes the way Puck keeps staring at her like she's the only glass of lemonade in town on a sweltering day. She considers apologizing to him but doesn't. Puck never seems to mind her tone anyway.
He pokes his tongue between his teeth and says, "Before we go in, let's fix you up a bit, huh?"
"Fix me up?" Santana repeats, not sure what Puck means.
"Yup," says Puck. "First off, we can't have this"—without asking, he reaches up and removes Santana's hat, snatching it off her head and tossing it the ground beside her valise—"and you should wear your hair down. You'll look more exotic."
He snatches at one of the pins keeping Santana's bun in place, but she swats his hand away, annoyed, before she can stop herself.
"I'm sorry. What are you doing?" Santana says, not really sorry at all.
Puck's hand retreats, and he grimaces. "Ow!" he complains, acting much too hurt, given the weakness of the blow. "Ladybird! No gypsy woman wears her hair all trussed up like that! You want to sell this to Mr. Adams or not? This is the circus! You have to show some theatricality!"
Santana takes a minute to consider what Puck tells her, holding herself at arm's length from him. She doesn't know what Puck means by theatricality, exactly, but she does know that circus folk have a certain ignominious reputation, for her father told her so when he first took Puck on as his gardener.
Slowly, Santana reaches up to her head and, daintily and with much more dignity than Puck would have afforded her otherwise, slides the pins from her bun, letting her hair down. She then tucks the pins into the hair just behind her ear, hiding them from sight, more than a little indignant as she does so. Immediately, her neck feels hot, her black locks soaking in sun warmth. She shakes her head until her hair lies flat and then runs her fingers through it, combing out the kinks.
Puck stares at Santana in a thirsty way that makes her wish she could be invisible.
"Much better," he says approvingly.
"Anything else?" Santana asks, sounding much bolder than she feels. Without her hat to shield her eyes, Santana has to squint at Puck. He probably thinks she's glaring at him; she probably is, at least a little bit.
"Not unless you got a crystal ball handy," Puck shrugs, hopping down from the wagon, boots landing heavily on the earth, before extending a hand to Santana to help her to the ground, as well. Puck retrieves his rucksack and Santana's valise and hat before giving Santana a second look. "Come on," he says. "It's time for you to join the circus, ladybird."
Puck leads Santana into camp, his hand on her shoulder, acting as her keel. He steers her through the periwinkle shade in-between tents and the brighter patches of sun on the open stretches of grass, turning her as he needs to. For as much as Santana bristles under Puck's touch, she also feels secretly glad that he doesn't make her trail after him again like he did at the depot in Omaha.
Santana waits to see her first circus person but finds the camp—or at least this section of it—strangely empty; she wonders where they keep all the clowns and acrobats but then hates herself for asking such a stupid question, even in her mind. She hears the low lull of human noise drifting in from somewhere but can't see anyone around the tents.
Shouldn't there be more people at the circus?
Before Santana can ask Puck the whereabouts of the other performers, she and Puck reach a certain tent, bigger than the others surrounding it but much smaller than the big top, and Puck gestures for Santana to stop.
"All right," he says in a low voice. "You remember the plan? Just let me talk to Mr. Adams. He'll probably ask you for a demonstration. All you have to do is read his palm and mumble some mumbo-jumbo and he'll take you on, easy. Don't worry about the fire dancing act yet. It's simple. I'll show you the moves later today or tomorrow, maybe. At the very least, he'll hire you as a cook or a seamstress, seeing as you're my wife now, but, with any luck, he'll take you for a performer—that way, you'll get a bigger bit of the pot come payday. All you have to do is show him what your granny taught you, got it, ladybird?"
"My grandmother never taught me to read palms," Santana reminds him, ignoring the familiar hurt in her chest at the mention of both the old lady and the lessons that she taught.
"Well, Mr. Adams doesn't need to know that, does he? It's like I told you before: Reading palms ain't really about telling the future anyway—it's about telling folks what they want to hear about themselves. Besides, even though you can't read palms, you can read cards. Just put on a good show and we're set."
Puck gives Santana one last once-over, patting down some fly away hairs at the top of her head and smoothing invisible rumples in her sleeve before she dodges away from him, avoiding his touch. He smiles at her, neither idiotic nor devilish—just encouraging.
"You'll do fine," he promises. Without waiting for Santana to respond, Puck turns to the tent, parts the flaps, and sticks his head inside the door. "Mr. Adams?" he calls. "Brought someone to see you!"
Santana doesn't hear anyone reply, but the next thing she knows, Puck grabs her by the wrist and pulls her through the tent flaps anyway.
It's shady inside the tent but also stuffy and somewhat claustrophobic.
Once Santana's eyes adjust to the sudden change from bright outdoors to dim indoors, it surprises her to find the tent furnished like a sitting room, complete with a settee pushed up against the side wall; a center table; several cushy chairs; and a pretty Oriental rug, woven in burnt oranges, greens, and jewel-toned reds, thrown over the grass.
A haze of peppery, vaguely floral smoke hangs in the tent, stinging Santana's eyes and filling her nose and throat. The smoke shrouds the two human figures in the tent aside from Puck and Santana—one of them seated on the settee at the wall, the other sitting at the center table, right leg crossed over his left at the knee. Both of the men appear considerably older than Puck and nurse clay pipes, taking last puffs as Puck and Santana draw closer to them.
The man at the table stands, dousing his pipe and leaving it behind, and steps forward through the smoke. "Noah," he says, beaming as he clasps Puck by the arm and then claps him on the shoulder. "Aren't you a sight, my boy! You look like you've healed well."
Puck smiles his idiot smile. "Yes, sir. No burn marks or anything," he jokes.
The man chuckles and gives Puck's back another firm clap. "Good, good! I had started to worry you might never return to us. I'm glad to see you well! So I hear you've got yourself a little wife now, hm? I have to say, I never thought I'd see the day you settled down, you scoundrel! Come on, let's meet the unfortunate girl."
The man smiles good-naturedly, turning his attention to Santana, waiting for Puck to make the introduction. The other man stands up from the couch with a grunt and steps over to join the group, as well.
Santana can only assume that the man who called Puck a scoundrel is Mr. Adams, considering that he's the best-dressed fellow in the tent. He wears a tailored green sack coat over a handsome satin vest, an apricot Ascot tied at his neck, and a straw boater atop his head. Even in the low light of the tent, he strikes a bright and vivid figure, like a Monet portrait.
Though he's shorter than Puck, he carries himself in such a way that he seems imposing, almost lionish. He has dark hair and a long face, with severe brows and a well-trimmed beard and mustache framing his small, smirking mouth. When he speaks, his voice booms as if amplified through a bullhorn. His build is burly, and the strong way in which he carries himself reminds Santana of the Greco-Roman wrestlers she used to see sketched in the advertisements of her father's sporting catalogues.
The other man—the one who has yet to speak—is nothing but squat, and, if Santana considers it honestly, repulsive. He wears just a shirt and vest with no jacket to cover his bulbous belly, his sleeves rolled tight to his elbows. Yellow sweat strains the armpits of his shirt, as well as his collar under his neck. He has no tie, but he does sport a small black bowler cap that makes his head somehow seem smaller than it is.
Once he steps to within two feet of Santana, she can actually smell him, the stench of hot flesh, pipe smoke, and poor hygiene hanging all around him. He has beady eyes and a round nose and wears his dark hair clipped short. Acne scars pock his face and his skin looks wet and clammy, even from a safe distance. He furrows his brow at Santana, like she impresses him as little as he impresses her.
"Mr. Adams," Puck says to the man in the green jacket, "I'd like you to meet Santana Puckerman."
Santana can't help but cringe at the sound of his last name in place of hers. It hangs over her, ill-fitted, like her grandmother's dressing coat did when Santana used it for a costume as a child.
Lopez, she thinks in her mind, gritting her teeth. Lopez, Lopez, Lopez.
She must make a sour face because Mr. Adams looks amused at her.
"Santana," he says, turning the name over on his tongue like a new flavor. "Santana. That sounds... Spanish."
Puck nods. "Yes. She comes from the finest Spanish gypsy stock. Her family has lived outside Madrid for—"
Mr. Adams cuts across Puck. "Can we make it Rome, instead?" he says, scratching at his chin.
Santana swallows a gasp, surprised at Mr. Adams' brusqueness.
He circles Santana, as does the other man. They both eye her up and down like auctioneers appraising a horse before they put it to market. Santana feels amazingly self-conscious, more so than she ever has in her life before. She doesn't know what they're looking for in her—some flaw of form or giveaway as to her unworthiness—but she suddenly feels as though everything is wrong with her, like she's either too much or not enough in every possible way.
Her back stiffens and she holds her head up, even though her eyes dart to the back of the tent and the ground and look anywhere but at Mr. Adams. Her fists ball at her sides and her breath catches in her chest. Mr. Adams and the other man don't stare at her the same way Puck does—there's no thirst in their eyes—but somehow their gazes make her feel just as uneasy as do his.
"Rome?" Puck asks, confused.
"Yes," Mr. Adams nods. "It's just that, with the war, Spain is quite unfashionable at the moment. We can't get around Santana's untoward pigmentation, but we can appropriate her a more favorable nationality, wouldn't you say? She doesn't have an accent, does she?"
Mr. Adams doesn't seem to be addressing Puck anymore; his eyes fix on Santana's face, waiting for her to speak.
Santana startles under his attention, not sure how to respond. She reels from the idea that anyone could simply assign her a new nationality, as if it were that easy. If nationality were something a person could change about herself, Santana would have picked a different one three weeks ago, immediately following her father's funeral. She isn't even Spanish in the first place—that's a lie Puck made up to impress Mr. Adams—and she certainly isn't Italian.
"I haven't," she splutters.
Mr. Adams nods, brow furrowed. "Well, can you feign one?"
"Pardon?" Santana asks, confused as to whether Mr. Adams would prefer her to have an accent or not. Her whole body flutters with nerves. She feels her pulse pick up in her neck and bites her lip. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Nobody wants an American-born fortuneteller," Mr. Adams says bluntly. He scrutinizes Santana a second longer and then repeats, very calmly, "Can you or can you not affect an accent?"
Santana searches inside herself, wondering if she can. She's never pretended such a thing before. She thinks of her grandmother, of her rounded t-sounds and wide vowels, and nods gingerly.
"Yes, I believe I can," she says, mimicking her grandmother's accent, putting lifts and flares into her words that she's never used before while speaking English.
In her own ears, it's a poor imitation to the beautiful cursive of her grandmother's speech, but the attempt seems to satisfy Mr. Adams nonetheless.
"Very good," he says staunchly. "The country folk won't know the difference between Spanish and Italian anyhow. You sound exotic. You can pass."
The word stings Santana more than it ought to, but after two weeks spent at that god-awful boarding house in the Tenderloin district, it gets at something deep inside of Santana that she never knew existed before her father died.
Thinking of her father still rattles Santana; on the one hand, she feels as grateful for and attached to him as she always has, and particularly now that she knows how he protected her while he was alive, but, on the other hand, she feels a niggling resentment toward him for not warning her about her situation before he died—for not telling her that a world existed beyond the quiet garden walls at the bachelor cottage.
And she misses him, deep, like a wound-ache.
Since his passing, Santana has learned a whole slough of new words, and quickly: bastard, mulatta, nigger, boot-lip, can't pass.
They've rung in her ears ever since his funeral. They're part of the rules that Santana can never seem to get right.
"Now," says Mr. Adams, ignoring Santana's flinching, if he sees it. He turns back to Puck. "You did say she's skilled in the arts of chiromancy and cartomancy, did you not, Mr. Puckerman?"
"Yes, sir," Puck says quickly.
A loud scoffing sound cuts through the conversation, and, for the first time in a full minute, Santana remembers the presence of the squat man, who now takes his turn to speak.
"Our last fortuneteller was a damn waste of space," the squat man says meanly, his face blotchy and bloated like a rotting tomato. "She couldn't tell her left from right, let alone a fortune!"
Mr. Adams smirks. "Well, Mr. Puckerman assures me that his wife is genuinely gifted, Ken. We might as well audition her."
Santana's heart clenches in her chest. Puck flashes Santana a look over Mr. Adams' shoulder.
Don't ruin it.
"Have you cards on hand?" Mr. Adams asks Santana, his smirking mouth lifted at the corner.
Santana shakes her head quickly no.
"So a palm reading, then?" Mr. Adams suggests, holding out his hand like a gift for Santana.
For a second, Santana hesitates, torn between the imperative to take Mr. Adams' hand and her every instinct telling her that crossing that boundary would be a bad idea. It's part of the rules that people like Santana oughtn't to touch people like Mr. Adams, but it's also a rule that when a person like Mr. Adams gives instructions, a person like Santana ought to obey them, and fast. Santana feels a burn deep inside her, her whole body seized with nerves.
Everyone waits for her, staring.
Move, Santana commands herself. Move, and she jolts, her hands reaching out an instant before her thoughts catch up with them in accepting Mr. Adams' proffered palm.
She's never read anyone's palm before in her life.
Holding Mr. Adams' hand in her own, Santana can't imagine what there is to read in a palm at all. Mr. Adams' palm is flat and pale, hairless and uninteresting in its topography. Lines trail across it like rivers sketched in pencil on a map, and, though Santana knows that reading palms somehow involves deriving meanings from those lines, she hasn't any ideas as to what those meanings should be.
Puck told Santana to tell Mr. Adams what he wants to hear—the trouble is, Santana doesn't know Mr. Adams well enough to know what that might be.
All Puck has mentioned to Santana about Mr. Adams is that he's the man who owns the circus and that he footed the bill for Puck's surgery after Puck injured himself on the job. From the foolish, enthralled schoolboy way Puck talks about Mr. Adams, Santana can tell that Puck holds Mr. Adams in high esteem and seems to want to please him.
Santana supposes she can start with that.
"You are a man greatly respected," Santana says in her false accent. "In times of trouble, your employees look to you for... help."
Santana raises her eyes from Mr. Adams' palm to his face, checking his reaction. She finds him wearing his same amused smirk, impassive. Santana doesn't know how to interpret his expression. Does Mr. Adams like what she's saying at all?
The thing is that Mr. Adams' smirk isn't precisely like Puck's—it isn't devilish or rude. It also isn't his full smile; Santana knows that from when Mr. Adams laughed at Puck earlier and his whole face turned up into a wide, jocund grin, his eyes nearly disappearing behind his lifted cheeks. If anything, Mr. Adams' smirk seems to conceal his real smile, like he has to hold his mirth in so that the people below him will regard him seriously. Santana has the impression that if he felt free to do so, Mr. Adams might laugh more freely.
So Santana hazards a guess.
"You have a hidden passion," she says slowly, careful lest she upset Mr. Adams. When he says nothing, she continues. "You have great responsibilities, and you must withhold the better part of yourself from your associates." She considers for a moment, wondering what might constrain Mr. Adams to keep to himself in check, as she must suppose he does. "You have had experiences when people have... misunderstood you. You seek not to repeat those experiences."
"That's enough," Mr. Adams says suddenly, retrieving his hand away from Santana's grip. Santana starts, terrified that she's said something wrong. She looks up from Mr. Adams' palm and finds his smirk gone, replaced by a narrow, unreadable expression.
"Sir?" Puck asks, sounding just as nervous as Santana feels.
"She's gifted," Mr. Adams says. "Quite the astute people reader—though she'll have to learn to look more at her patrons' palms and less at their eyes if she wants to convince them of her prowess. Also, she must say you will more. Speak of the present as though it's the future." He gives Santana a reproving nod.
"So she's hired?" Puck infers.
Mr. Adams nods, the smirk returning to his face. "Yes," he says. "Her complexion doesn't quite match those of the rest of you gypsies, but she is beautiful, in her own way, and sufficiently talented. I think she'll have quite the act." He walks back over to the table, his back turned to Puck and Santana. "We'll call her Madame Rossetti and pitch her as a gypsy from Rome. I'll have the boys start work on her marquee tonight. They'll have it ready for her by the time we reach Worthington. Now, Noah tells me you can read cards," Mr. Adams says directly to Santana. "Is that so?"
For a second, Santana considers lying. After all, she already impressed Mr. Adams enough as a palm reader, so why must she impress him with cards, as well? She could tell Mr. Adams that Puck is mistaken, and she doesn't know the first thing about tarot at all.
It would be safer that way.
"Can't have a fortuneteller who don't read cards, ladybird," Puck mutters over Mr. Adams' shoulder, staring at Santana like he's trying to will her to say the right answer with his eyes.
"I—I can," Santana stammers.
"Good," says Mr. Adams, smiling his full smile again, his eyes sinking behind his cheeks. "Well, we'll see what we can't do about finding you a deck, then. Ken!"
Ken jolts from where he had just retaken his seat on the couch, standing to attention. "Sir?"
"Take our new fortuneteller to see a lady about a costume, why don't you? I think that Mrs. Schuester is busy fitting the equestrienne outfit today, if I'm not mistaken, so perhaps deliver Santana to Ma Jones, if you can?"
Ken motions for Santana to follow him out of the tent. She sends a pleading look to Puck, uneasy at the thought of separating from him when he's the only person in the camp whom she knows beyond just a name, but he doesn't seem to notice her concern. Instead, Puck flashes his devilish smirk at Santana, retrieving their luggage from the ground.
"I'll find you later, ladybird," he mutters, patting Santana on the shoulder as he exits the tent.
Ken nods, impatient, and motions again for Santana to follow.
They don't make it two steps before Mr. Adams calls after them.
"Mrs. Puckerman?" he booms. "Welcome to the circus!"
Stepping from the darkness of the tent to the bright sheen of outside temporarily blinds Santana. When her eyes adjust, she finds Ken sneering at her.
"You're lucky it's a down day, missus," he says sourly, "or otherwise I probably wouldn't have time to do this for you."
"Down day?" Santana repeats, not sure what Ken means.
"Down day," Ken affirms.
He sounds impatient, like Santana is somehow deficient for not knowing the term. Santana feels something curdle in her stomach. She finds herself disliking Ken more and more by the minute.
"Most Saturdays, we don't put on shows. We use the time to catch up on work around the camp. You are accustomed to work, aren't you? Better be, because I don't have time for shiftlessness. I run this place tight enough that you could bounce a dime off it, you hear? I don't care how pretty Noah Puckerman thinks you are. You're still on the line with me, and if it turns out I don't like you, I'll say some words to Mr. Adams and Mr. Fabray and have you red-lighted faster than you can blink, got it, gypsy?"
Santana has no idea what red-lighting is, but the way Ken spits the term from his mouth like it's dirty makes her think it's probably unpleasant, whatever the case may be. Santana doesn't want to upset anyone on her first day, so she just nods, and quickly.
Ken eyes her up and down again; he seems to appreciate her silence and deference. "Okay," he says thickly. "Now let's see if we can't find someone to get you to Ma Jones. She'll fix you up well enough."
Without waiting for Santana to reply, Ken turns his back on her and starts walking away through the tents. Santana scurries after him, not sure if Ken has taken an especial dislike to her or if he simply dislikes everyone he meets equally.
For a man who waddles to make his way, Ken certainly moves fast; Santana has to jog to keep up with him as he navigates through the labyrinth of tents and wagons, towards some unknown destination.
Turning between two smaller tents, Santana spots her first circus folk: a tall, lean man and a shorter woman.
They stare at Santana like they've never seen anything like her before, which is perhaps funny, given that she's never seen anything like them at all, either, outside of in books.
Their eyes look deep and almost black, and Santana can't read them. She wonders about the rules for someone like her looking at people like them and them looking back. The man extends a battered stainless steel coffee pot to the woman, pouring coffee into the little aluminum cup she holds, but neither one of them ever looks away from Santana.
Even though they wear street clothes—the same kind of street clothes one might see on the sidewalks of New York—they still seem strange to Santana, like they came from the moon instead of just the other side of the world. All the same, Santana can't help but feel that she's the strange character in this scene, not them.
Ken leads Santana past the duo quickly and without introduction; she slings a glance over her shoulder once she and Ken pass the circus folk, more questions in her mind than she can count, and sees the man muttering something to the woman, staring after her.
After just a few more turns and quick paces, Ken comes to a halt outside a tent even bigger than the one inside which Santana met Mr. Adams, situated just beyond the big top. A wooden sign in block letters hangs over the lintel of the tent door: LADIES' DRESSING TENT.
Ken clears his throat.
"You'll have to go inside on your own... from here... now," he says awkwardly, as if it's indelicate for him to mention that he, as a man, shouldn't just wander into a ladies' dressing tent—like even referencing the rules aloud is somehow bad.
"All right," Santana says, awaiting further instruction.
Ken glances up at the sign over the door again and actually blushes. Suddenly, Santana finds herself disliking him less than she did before; he's blustery but obviously a bumbler, too. Her father would have called Ken an idiot, if he had ever met him.
(Santana would have had to agree.)
"Just find someone and ask for Ma Jones," Ken says. "Tell her that Mr. Adams hired you as a fortuneteller and that she needs to fit you up as a gypsy."
Ken pauses and Santana thinks he might say more, but he doesn't. He doffs his bowler and wrings it between his hands, beady eyes shifting nervously between Santana and the door. He opens his mouth and then closes it.
"Should I...?" Santana prods, leaning towards the door, and Ken just nods. Santana turns away from Ken, eager to acquit herself of his company. She parts the canvas flaps on the tent door and lets herself inside without another word.
Santana finds that the dressing tent feels less stuffy inside than Mr. Adams' sitting room did, maybe because it sits under the long shadow of the big top instead of directly in the sunlight or maybe because it's bigger and more spread out than Mr. Adams' tent inside in general.
(She can't help but feel a little bit like one of Mr. Poe's protagonists, poking through doors without first knowing what's behind them.)
Heaps of clothing and various trunks clutter the inside of the tent, and framed fabric partitions divide the room into makeshift changing stalls. A few upright mirrors stand haphazardly in open spaces, casting weird reflections off each other here and there.
There are definitely more circus people in this tent than Santana has seen yet today in one place. A whole troupe of young, skinny girls about Santana's age chatter in a queue leading up to two flustered-looking older women.
About half of the young girls are dressed up in pretty red riding habits with black collars, veiled top hats, and white gloves, while the other half of them are dressed in nothing but their underclothes, bloomers and corsets on display for everyone to see.
Of the two older women, one of them is also clothed in a riding habit, and the other dons a work apron and sits on a stool, taking quick, furious measurements of the girls approaching her in the queue.
Several young seamstresses surround them, calling over the girls who finish in the line and hemming their costumes according the markings that the older woman has left on their skirts.
At first glance, the scene appears chaotic, but as Santana draws closer, she realizes that it's actually a well-organized system, with all the women moving like cogs in a clock.
As Santana approaches the scene to within a few paces, Santana overhears the older woman in the riding habit barking instructions to the girls in the queue in a language that Santana doesn't understand. The woman's words sound harsh, and she waves a riding switch in the direction of the girls, many of whom shy away from her, frightened like misbehaving students in the face of a disciplinarian teacher.
The woman in the apron likewise shouts instructions over the hubbub, though in her case to the younger seamstresses stationed to the side of her. She calls out measurements and criticizes their stitching—in English, so Santana understands.
She seems to be at the head of this enterprise.
Santana gathers her courage and sidles up behind the woman. "Excuse me, ma'am?" she says, struggling to make her voice heard over all the chatter. "Ma Jones? Mr. Adams sent me to see you."
The woman looks up from her work, affronted, and glares at Santana with such intensity that Santana nearly stumbles backwards.
"Excuse me?" she repeats, venom in her words that Santana hardly expected to hear. "Do I look like Ma Jones to you? What are you thinking?"
All Santana can think is that the woman has the most unsettling eyes she's ever seen. Santana has never met a mad person before, but she's read about them from Mr. Doyle, and she can't help but suppose that if anyone ever had mad eyes, it would have to be this woman, who doesn't seem to know how to blink. Santana can't help but feel like the woman hates her already.
The woman is small, fair, and, save for her unsettling eyes, pretty. She has delicate features and wears her honey-colored hair up in a bun. She appears well-groomed and even made up a bit. Santana can only suppose that whatever Ma Jones looks like, she doesn't look anything like this woman does.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Santana stutters. "Ken just told me to find Ma Jones so I could get my costume. I thought that maybe—"
"Well, I'm not Ma," the woman says huffily, as though she can't think of anything more offensive than Santana's honest mistake. "I'm Theresa Schuester, the ringmaster's wife and the head seamstress around here. Normally, I would be the one to fit you for your costume, but as you can see, I'm very busy at the moment, so Ma will have to deal with you."
Though Mrs. Schuester has a sweet voice and her words come out candied, there's also an undeniable meanness to what she says, much more so than if she were to actually shout. In the past two weeks, Santana has had a lot of people talk down to her, but she still isn't used to the way it stings her whenever people do so.
She isn't an idiot.
In this case, she just didn't know any better than to think that Mrs. Schuester was Ma Jones.
Until recently, Santana had never really had anyone hate her before, but now it seems like each new person she meets hates her a little bit more than the last person did. She suddenly feels very lonely for Puck, not because she's fond of him but because he likes her—or parts of her, at least.
"Do you happen to know where I could find Ma Jones?" Santana asks, hoping that Mrs. Schuester will send her on her way without any further meanness.
Mrs. Schuester scoffs.
"Well, I can't very well get up from my work, now can I?" she scoffs, turning her attention back to the trembling girl in a riding habit waiting in front of her.
She eyeballs the girl's skirt—a tad too long—and draws a quick, harsh line across it. The older woman standing at her side holding the switch barks something at the trembling girl, and the girl scurries over to one of the younger seamstresses, already waiting for her, needle and scissors in hand.
Mrs. Schuester shakes her head, annoyed. "I still have twelve more measurements to take before supper, so you'll just have to wait until I'm through before I can take you to Ma," she says.
Before Santana can make any sort of reply, the tent flaps part and someone else enters the room. Santana turns to see a heavyset young woman with skin darker than her own stride into the room, wearing a scowl.
The young woman has a face that's round and soft like ripened fruit, with pretty, dark eyes and pouting lips, her hair woven into fishtail plaits atop her head. She moves with the determination of a locomotive and the self-possessed indignation of a gentleman war marshal, carrying her skirts hitched up to her ankle in one hand and a wooden cooking spoon, brandished like a rapier, in the other.
Santana has never seen anyone so magnificent in her life.
"Mrs. Schuester!" the young woman booms, by way of greeting. "How am I supposed to get supper cooked with half my kitchen in here, sewing stitches for you? Are y'all crazy?"
Everyone in the tent stops, cowering. Even the woman with the switch and Mrs. Schuester recoil.
"Ma," Mrs. Schuester stumbles, her eyes rabbit-wide and frightened. "I was just looking for you—"
"Like the devil you were, Mrs. Schuester!" Ma says, cutting her off sharply, waving the wooden spoon in her face. "You've been hiding from me all day because you knew I'd have something to say to you about taking all my girls!"
The young seamstresses flanking Mrs. Schuester shudder and divert their eyes, and the girls in the queue huddle together, hanging as far aback from Ma as they can.
As for herself, Santana doesn't know what to do or how to act. Santana partly wants to laugh because she takes certain delight in seeing how Ma Jones frightens Mrs. Schuester, but Santana also doesn't want to do anything to get on Ma's bad side, seeing as how everyone seems so submissive to her.
Santana finds that she wants Ma Jones to like her very much, though she can't precisely say why—perhaps because no one else has liked Santana yet today or perhaps because Ma Jones secretly impresses Santana very much.
(Maybe because Santana realizes that Ma Jones is like her, almost.)
"You know as well as I do that I have to get these costumes fitted before we hit Worthington," Mrs. Schuester pouts.
"And you know as well as I do that if I don't get some help peeling the potatoes and kneading the bread dough, ain't nobody gonna eat tonight, including your skinny self!" Ma retorts, folding her arms over her chest.
For a second, Mrs. Schuester is speechless; she seems very small, seated on her stool with Ma Jones towering over her. Her mouth hangs open and she looks away from Ma, at first aimlessly, but then fixing on Santana. An idea seems to catch hold of her.
"Well," says Mrs. Schuester, "before you can do anything else, Mr. Adams has an urgent task for you: you need to help—," she pauses, realizing that she never actually asked Santana's name.
"Santana," Santana supplies her.
"—Santana find a costume. Mr. Adams just hired her as a—"
"—as a gypsy fortuneteller and she needs an outfit before we hit Worthington."
Mrs. Schuester smirks at Ma Jones, satisfied with the little bit of power she just regained over her. For her part, Ma Jones looks thoroughly annoyed. Ma glances over at Santana.
"Mr. Adams hired you?" she repeats, incredulous. She looks Santana up and down, seeming thoroughly unimpressed. For the second time today, Santana wonders what it is that people want to see when they scrutinize her.
"Yes," Santana answers, hesitating as to whether to call Ma Jones ma'am or not; the rules blur a little on this one.
Ma heaves a sigh, clearly burdened. "All right," she says, looking at Santana like she's a dirty room that needs cleaning before the company arrives for parlor games. "Come with me."
Ma lowers her wooden spoon and leads Santana away from Mrs. Schuester, the woman with the switch, and the queue of girls in riding habits, past the young seamstresses and through a maze of room partitions to a haphazardly arranged pile of traveling trunks, all in various states of unlock.
She looks at Santana, sizing her up.
"A gypsy?" she repeats.
"Yes... ma'am," Santana says, not sure on the decorum.
Ma makes a scoffing noise but doesn't say anything to Santana. Instead, she starts rooting around in the traveling trunks, opening them and pulling up harlequin fabrics and leather belts, examining each unearthed clothing article before quickly moving on, clearly dissatisfied with her findings.
As Ma searches, Santana stands behind her, not sure what to do with herself or how to help with Ma's work, feeling just as out of place as she has all day. Ma Jones sinks to her knees and mutters to herself. Eventually, she pulls out a white blouse with airy sleeves. She seems to deem it appropriate and tosses it over her arm to hold onto for later.
"Where did we put that skirt?" she mumbles to herself, eyeing the assembled trunks with her bottom lip between her teeth.
Santana glances at the unchecked trunks—about half a dozen in all—and winces, wondering if they'll have to check all of them for the missing skirt. Some of the trunks have labels on the side of them: MEDIEVAL, WESTERN, CLOWN PROPS & MISC., TIGER COLLARS ETC., FRONTIER, EUROPEAN.
"How about that one?" she offers, gesturing to the EUROPEAN trunk.
Ma Jones looks between Santana and the trunk, annoyed with Santana for suggesting that she search it and annoyed with the trunk simply for existing.
"Listen," she says roughly, her gaze falling on Santana. "You best swallow any pertness you brought with you from wherever you come from, girl, you hear? You may be yeller to them, but to me you're just another mouth to feed and something distracting me from the job I have to do. You ain't better than no one. Once I get you this costume, you better stay well clear of me, miss, because I don't have time for nonsense. Everyone around here is the same to me, so just save it because I don't want to hear nothing about it. Understand me?"
Santana doesn't understand even a little bit—she doesn't understand why everyone in the circus seems so unfriendly or what about her causes everyone she meets to immediately dislike her; she certainly doesn't understand all the invisible rules in the world, and she doesn't understand a word Ma Jones just said. She stares at Ma, dumbstruck. Unable to think of anything safe to say, she only nods her head.
So much for getting Ma Jones to like her.
Despite the lecture she gave to Santana, Ma slides over to the EUROPEAN trunk and props it open, taking Santana's suggestion, peeling through the trunk's contents until she seems to find something she likes. She nods approvingly.
"You're gonna have to take this in," she says, producing a long, layered skirt in multiple colors, one tier in blue, another in berry red, another pink, another brown, another slated gray, and all of them flowered, with little mosaic designs.
Santana's eyes bug. She can only imagine what her grandmother would say about her wearing such a bombastic pattern. Ma Jones hands the skirt over to Santana; it rests heavy in her arms. The skirt probably has about fifteen yards of fabric to it, all wound in under layers and little fringes. Ma Jones stoops over the trunk and comes up carrying several bright, silken scarves, colored in lively reds and purples, as well as some jangling bangles, a leather belt, and a bracelet made from tin coins, passing them over to Santana in turn.
"You know how to sew, don't you?" Ma says.
Again, Santana nods, overwhelmed by her new costume. Do they really want her to wear such a garish outfit when she performs in the circus?
"Good," Ma says curtly. "Now let's go find you a sewing kit and get me back my kitchen girls so I can send you along and make all y'all fools some supper."
The sewing kit Ma provides for Santana contains nothing more than a spool of black thread, some scissors, a handful of pins, and a single steel needle.
Ma turns the supplies over to Santana, setting them atop Santana's costume in her arms, and then sends Santana out of the dressing tent, ordering Santana to "stay out of the way until supper."
Of course, at this point, Santana doesn't know what would constitute being "in the way;" she has no idea where she is and isn't allowed to be around the camp, and she can't work up the nerve to ask any of the various circus folk milling about outside the dressing tent for instruction.
Whatever Santana expected from the circus, this certainly isn't it.
After earning herself a few glares for standing in the middle of a walking space, Santana sets off to find a quiet place to sew, darting in-between various persons—all of them in plainclothes—as she makes her way away from the dressing tent.
Not knowing where else to go, she wanders back in the direction of the wagon that first brought her into camp, using the flag waving over the big top as a landmark by which to navigate.
Without Puck or Ken leading her, Santana takes her time walking, imbibing all the sights she didn't get the chance to observe on her first jaunt through camp.
She sees empty chaw tins and colored beads lost in the grass and loose boards and buckets propped alongside various structures. She passes all manner of people, ranging from two small towheaded children laughing at a grasshopper trapped, springing, between their dancing footfalls to men hauling unwieldy, hay-stacked wheelbarrows across the camp.
Her gaze catches anything that moves, and everything seems interesting to her, from the loud snuffing noises she hears in the distance to the way the sun in Nebraska seems to hang in the center of the sky, even though it's long past noon now.
As she walks past them, Santana brushes her fingers against the canvas on some of the tents, familiarizing herself to their touch. She notices that some of the tents have numbers or initials painted on the sides. Without a context, the markings mean less to Santana than would Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Now that she finds herself at the heart of the circus, Santana realizes that the camp stands divided into two main sections, one comprised of smaller tents—where Santana presumes that the circus folk make their accommodations at night—and the other of the big top and sideshow tents, with Mr. Adams' tent and the dressing tents situated roughly in-between.
The billboards block the residential side of the camp from the business side, though Santana doesn't know if that's to protect the privacy of the performers or to prevent the public from interacting with them outside of shows.
Santana passes her first circus freaks as she walks: two ladies, both enormous, one taller than most of the men Santana has ever met in her life, with broad shoulders and arms like tree branches, and the other round like a globe, with soft, white skin, fair under the sun. Santana tries not to stare at the women, even though they interest her, but feels somehow like magnets attract her eyes to them; she can't look away, no matter how much she tries to.
For their parts, the women don't seem to notice Santana at all; they walk past her like she's invisible, so close that Santana catches a snatch of their conversation.
"—but I've got a brother who depends on it," says the tall lady in a deep, almost mannish voice.
"Well, if the investor comes though—," the round lady answers, her voice decidedly younger and more girlish.
Briefly, Santana feels like she's nothing but a pair of eyes in this world, watching everything speed past her as she stalls. She's talked so little today, and nothing she's said has really mattered. She sees everything, though. She sees more than she can even process.
It takes a second for Santana to move again even after the two ladies pass by her.
Eventually, Santana finds herself back at the wagon. Standing on tiptoe, Santana arranges her new costume and sewing kit on the wagon bench before using the jockey box to boost herself up onto the seat alongside them.
Now that she doesn't have to carry her costume anymore, Santana can actually examine it. Running her hands over the skirt, she discovers that it comes with several thin leaves of petticoats underneath. Will it be heavy to wear, Santana wonders? She hopes not, considering that she may have to participate in Puck's gypsy fire dance act with it on.
Continuing her exploration, Santana finds that the blouse Ma gave her has no shoulders in it—that is, that it's like the sort of shirt that a saloon girl might wear. Santana cringes to imagine what her grandmother would say if she knew that Santana had even considered wearing such an immodest garment. Unfortunately, Santana knows that she hasn't really a choice but to wear it. Ma Jones gave it to her, so it will have to do.
Like Puck says, the circus is all about theatricality.
Though Santana has never much enjoyed sewing—too tedious and repetitive—her grandmother made sure that she was well-accomplished in the skill, to the point where, after years of practice, Santana possesses a clever hand and a tight stitch.
One thing Santana does not possess, however, is the ability to make precise measurements without a measuring tape.
Since Ma Jones didn't give Santana a measuring tape, Santana finds herself eyeballing the alterations—a task made nearly impossible being that Santana can't even see the skirt on a model and instead must eyeball it lying flat on a bench.
She holds the skirt up to her own hips and notes that it is several inches too long for her, but, beyond that, there's not much she can do.
Of course, Santana's grandmother would balk at so much guesswork, but, then again, Santana's grandmother isn't here, is she?
Santana sets about pinning the hem of the skirt, hoping that she won't ruin her very first circus costume by the time she finishes taking it in.
Hemming the skirt is a long, tedious job, made worse by the hunger gnawing at Santana's stomach. Santana hasn't eaten since she had supper at a boarding house in Omaha last night, and between the relentless heat and the fact that she didn't take either breakfast or lunch today, she feels the fearful kind of dizzy, all but punch drunk beneath the afternoon sun.
Ma Jones mentioned making supper, but Santana has no idea when she'll next see a meal. Her hand wobbles, and she has to keep teasing out her stitches and making them again because her lines don't look straight and her threads won't stay taut. She can't keep track of time without a watch or clock to go by, but she does notice the sun finally moving from the center of the sky towards the distant horizon, shifting to hit the left side of her face. She squints against it, woozy and annoyed.
She almost starts crying when she nicks herself with the right-handed scissors that she can hardly use because she's left-handed.
For the most part, very few people pass by Santana seated on the wagon, but then a half-dozen men, all of them darker than Santana, saunter over late in the day, bags of tools hung over their shoulders. They sling hard looks at Santana, like she hasn't the right to perch atop the wagon bench.
Too tired to move and beyond annoyed with all her hard luck, Santana actually dares to glare at these would-be critics, as if challenging them to bodily remove her from the place if she really oughtn't to sit where she is.
(On another day, Santana might pay more attention to the rules, but as the afternoon fades, she could hardly care less. The rules gray in this situation anyhow.)
For a while, the sun gets brighter, but then the day starts to cool. A shadow from a nearby tent stretches partially over the wagon, but offers little relief to Santana, her skin tightening under the blistering sun. Santana feels parched and on the edge of collapse. Her thoughts start to swim in themselves like pollywogs in a mud puddle. Her hand shakes as she sets the last few stitches on the hem, stomach hurt with hunger.
A voice jolts her out of her near-delirium.
"Hey, ladybird! There you are!" Puck calls, wandering across the grass, something Santana can't very much see concealed between his hands, devilish smirk on his face. "I brought you a present, direct from Mr. Adams to you," he says cheerfully, revealing the mystery object: a deck of cards.
Suddenly, Santana feels ill from more than just the heat and hunger. Puck bounds up onto the wagon bench beside Santana, careful not to sit on her skirt, and passes the tarot deck over to her for examination.
It's a French deck, beautifully illustrated in lush greens, happy golds, blood-deep reds, and jeweled blues, the characters on the card faces all expressive and handsome. Santana flips to the first card, the Fool, dressed in flowing primary motley, and the next in line, the Lovers, naked and clasping hands under a beatific angel god. The deck is all out of order.
"Will these work well enough?" Puck asks, quirking an eyebrow.
Santana feels a pang of dread. "Sure," she says, worried that they'll work too well.
Puck glances down at the skirt spread over Santana's lap. "S'pretty," he says lamely, running his fingers over the fabric, like he just can't help but touch the design.
(Sometimes Puck reminds Santana very much of a little boy. She finds she likes him best in the moments when he does.)
Santana scoffs. "It's not pretty now that I've ruined the hemline."
"Well, why'd you go and do that?" Puck asks seriously, pulling a face. Without waiting for an answer, he taps Santana on the thigh and rises from the bench. "Come on, ladybird," he says. "Let's get your sewing kit back where it belongs and clean up before supper. What do you say?"
Santana doesn't say anything; instead, she commences stuffing her borrowed sewing supplies back into the little beaded sack from which they came and folding up her new costume, eager to get supper as soon as possible. Puck offers his arm as a rack for the clothes and Santana obliges him, draping her new skirt, blouse, and scarves over the crook of his elbow.
Santana knows that her sewing job looks atrocious—her grandmother would have smacked her ear for putting in such sloppy stitches, were she around to see them—but Santana doesn't care to fix it, and especially not now as the light has grown dimmer overhead and everything feels so long and spent.
Just like he did earlier in the afternoon, Puck hops from the wagon to the earth and then offers a hand to Santana to help her down, as well. She sets a palm on Puck's shoulder and leaps, landing with an oof on the grass. Puck carries Santana's costume while she carries her little bag. He leads her back towards the ladies' dressing tent.
In the hours since Santana last walked the camp, the shadows between the tents have grown tall and now boast deep, cool umbrae. Puck links his and Santana's free arms together as they walk, and, for once, Santana doesn't really mind Puck's boldness, enjoying the way he guides her along, using his strength more than hers, like a tugboat pulling a ship into harbor.
They make it about halfway back to the dressing tent when a loud, rude sound trumpets through the air, startling Santana and stopping her in her tracks. Her eyes go wide and her heart leaps in her chest, quick as a rabbit sprinting for cover through a field.
"What was that?" she jolts.
Puck laughs in response. "That's the big bull elephant," he says matter-of-factly, as though it's usual to hear elephant noises on the plains of Nebraska or anywhere outside Africa or India, really. "He's just wondering where his supper is, same as us."
Maybe it's just because she already feels woozy, but Santana finds it impossible to even nod in response. Her heartbeat pounds in her ears. She must look stricken.
"You okay, ladybird?" Puck asks, stifling his laughter.
Santana gulps down her fear. "Yes," she says breathlessly. "It just spooked me, that's all. Wasn't expecting it."
"Well, that's your trouble, right there," Puck says knowingly.
After returning the sewing kit to one of the young seamstresses in the dressing tent, Santana follows Puck to the residential side of camp, where he eventually stops outside one of the small canvas structures.
"Home sweet home," he says with his idiot grin, lifting his arms to show Santana, as if the view will impress her.
From the outside, the tent appears to be maybe just a bit taller than Puck himself in height and about eight feet in length, four feet in width. It's a wall tent with a pitched roof and four corners, made from canvas on the top and sod cloth on the sides, white all over, with stakes tethering it to the earth.
Puck wastes no time in showing Santana inside, crouching as he slips though the door flaps, Santana following after him.
Without waiting for Santana to even get her bearings, Puck asks, "What do you think, ladybird?" as proud as if he had just given her the grand tour of a magnificent European castle.
Honestly, Santana doesn't know that there's anything much to think about the inside of this tent. It's small and hot inside, the canvas at the top of the tent still saturated with afternoon sun heat, even in the fading daylight.
A low, short cot—nothing more than a hammock of fabric stretched over the bare, wooden frame of a bed—lines one wall. An oak stool sits in one corner beside Puck's rucksack, a rolled bed mat, and Santana's valise and hat. A stainless steel travel toilette set, complete with basin, perches atop an empty, overturned vegetable crate beside the cot, near the tent door.
A half-finished carving of an eagle's head lies alongside a whittling knife atop the stool, the eagle's screaming beak and glaring eyeball emerging from a clumsy, unfinished hickory handle. Chips and castoff fleck in the grass around the legs of the stool.
Aside from the carving, nothing inside the tent distinguishes it as Puck's domicile, in particular.
A couple of lazy daddy longlegs meander along the tent walls and ceiling.
Puck drapes Santana's costume over the cot, as if setting a sleeping princess to rest.
For some reason, it hadn't occurred to Santana that she and Puck would be sharing a tent until now. It makes sense, she supposes, considering that Mr. Adams believes that they're married.
But the thing is that they're not actually married.
(Santana's grandmother would start praying to every saint in the Letania de los Santos if she knew about Puck's and Santana's sleeping arrangements.)
(There's only one cot.)
"It's nice," Santana says shortly, both because she hasn't anything else to say and because she feels incredibly tired and hungry, to the point where she can scarcely speak.
Puck mistakes Santana's stiltedness for impatience, oblivious to her concern about sharing a tent with him. "We can go head over to the mess pit, if you like," he offers lamely. "They haven't rung the bell yet, but maybe we could help Ma stir the pot until the meal's fixed."
Santana pinches at the bridge of her nose, feeling a headache brewing there and at the sides of her skull.
"You okay, ladybird?" Puck asks warily.
Until today, Santana had never spent so much time outdoors before in her life. She feels hotter, more exhausted, and dirtier than she can ever remember feeling all at one time. It seems like everyone except Puck hates her around this place and she can't for the life of her figure out wherefore. She isn't certain if she would prefer to sleep or to eat, but she knows if she doesn't do one or the other of those activities soon, she'll likely keel over on the spot.
"It's just been a long day," Santana replies honestly.
(A long week, few weeks, month, year, really.)
Puck offers her a sympathetic pout. "You'll feel better once you eat something," he promises.
As Puck and Santana walk towards the mess pit, Puck takes the opportunity to fill Santana in about the who's who of the circus.
"'Course you know Mr. Adams now," he says, beaming like a proud son namedropping a famous father. "And Ken—he's the head foreman around here, in charge of all the supes. He talks a big fuss, but he ain't spit, hardly. He's scared of the elephants and wouldn't know how to make conversation with a pretty lady if his job depended on it."
Santana laughs, pleased that someone else seems to share her feelings concerning Ken. "He turned brick red when he dropped me off at the ladies' dressing tent," she notes.
Puck smirks and nods, tipping the brim of his hat as he and Santana pass by the same Chinese man and woman Santana saw earlier in the day.
"Who are they?" Santana whispers, as soon as she and Puck get out of earshot from them.
"Them?" Puck says. "That's the Flying Dragon Changs of Peking." He lowers his voice and brings his mouth close to Santana's ear, so he can speak to her without anyone overhearing. "Nobody knows whether they're brother and sister or man and wife. They don't speak a lick of English and mostly just keep to themselves."
Santana can't help but chuckle at how serious Puck sounds.
Puck straightens up. "Now you met Ma Jones, right? Because she's the most important person in this whole damn camp."
Puck nods solemnly, "Yeah. She's more important than Willy the Ringmaster, ol' Kenny Boy, and all the supes combined."
"'Cause she's in charge of the grub," Puck deadpans and Santana smiles.
"Well, that certainly qualifies her in my book," she agrees.
Puck and Santana are not the only members of the circus company who show up early to supper; a large group of people of all sizes and ages mill about the mess pit—which is really just an open space in the middle of a ring of tents and not a pit at all.
At the heart of the space sits a smoking fire with several deep-bellied Dutch ovens in it. Multiple low benches and stools surround the hearth. A few long tables flank what Santana supposes must be the mess wagon, and a blue fabric canopy hangs over the longest of the tables, suspended on upright poles.
Six or seven girls, most of them darker than Santana—some of them the same seamstresses Santana observed earlier in the day—scurry around the fire pit and table, stirring various dishes, kneading dough, and peeling root vegetables with paring knives.
In the center of them stands Ma Jones, her hands on her hips, directing her kitchen staff as a general would field troops, sending this girl running here and that girl running there, yelling at the little children trying to stick their fingers into uncovered pots to back away from the table and chastising the grown men gathered around the hearth for lousing about without offering their help to anyone.
She seems exasperated but also strangely at peace—like she's right where she belongs in the center of the whirlwind.
The sun has begun to set in earnest at the horizon now, casting a fervent orange glow over the plains. Somehow, the gloaming has a muting effect upon the chaos of the mess pit, making its noise and movement seem softer than they are.
For a second, Santana's breath catches; something about seeing so many people doing so many things in one place returns that impossibly lonely feeling to her. In that instant, it seems clear to her that she has no part in the circus clockwork—that even surrounded by crowds, she is entirely, unspeakably alone.
"Puck!" a voice calls through the hubbub.
Santana turns to see a young man about her and Puck's age emerge from out of the crowd, waving his hand and grinning. The young man has yellow hair and a very wide, pink mouth, turned up into a crooked smile. He's taller than Puck and solidly built, with broad shoulders and a cheerful bearing. Another boy stumbles up behind him, dark haired and even taller still. This boy has a shuffling gait and wears a stunned expression on his face. Both of the boys are light-skinned, more so than Puck.
"Sam! Finn!" Puck crows, drawing them each into a rough, manhandling embrace in turn. He smacks Sam—the yellow-haired boy—hard on the back.
"You're back!" Finn says, smiling, punching Puck on the arm in a weird imitation of Puck's violence with Sam. His punch seems clumsy and his stunned expression permanent.
"Sure am," Puck says slyly, smirking his devil smirk. "And no worse for the wear, either! I'm ready to win back my money from you chuckleheads." He points a warning finger between the two of them. "Euchre on the train tomorrow?"
"Sure thing," Sam agrees.
"Good," Puck says firmly, doffing his hat, folding it, and stuffing it under his belt at his waist.
"Now who's this?" Sam says, taking note of Santana for the first time. He smiles at her kindly.
"I was getting to that," Puck says. "Don't rush me." He adjusts his belt over the hat, tongue between his teeth and then straightens up. "Sam, Finn, I'd like you to meet my wife, Santana."
"Your wife?" Finn splutters.
"Yeah, moron," Puck says meanly, punching Finn in the arm much harder than Finn punched him just a second ago. Finn flinches, pained. "My wife," Puck repeats in a menacing tone. He narrows his eyes, silently daring either one of his friends to make something of his new marital status.
"You meet her in New York?" Sam asks, awed.
"Damn straight," Puck says. "Her pa was the surgeon who fixed up my leg after the accident. He hired me as his gardener while I healed up, and what can I say? Santana and I fell in love in her backyard." Puck smiles his idiot smile, like what he just said is actually true.
Santana feels something knot deep inside her. She grits her teeth, knowing that this is the lie to which she and Puck agreed before he checked her into that boarding house in the Tenderloin district. They have to pretend to be married so that Puck can take care of her, so that people will treat her right, so that she has somewhere to be.
"Pleased to meet you, Santana," Sam says warmly, extending a hand to her.
Finn just stares.
"Puck," he mumbles, "She's—"
Before Finn can say the word they're all thinking, Puck punches Finn again and hard. "Shut up," he says through gritted teeth. "She's what I am—a gypsy," he snarls, as if saying the lie with enough conviction will somehow make it true.
(Puck is a Jew, not a gypsy—and Santana isn't even that.)
Santana's eyes flit to the ground and then back to Sam. With more than a little trepidation, she accepts his offered handshake. "Pleased to meet you, too," she mumbles, uncomfortable touching someone like Sam, even though he invited her to do it.
It's then that the bell rings.
By now, the sky has turned to purple around the edges, bruised like a dropped peach. A crowd circles around the fire pit, some folks taking seats on the benches and stools, others standing behind the sitting area. Little gnats buzz through the air, coming out for the night. The noise from earlier hushes as a man with yellow hair steps forward, standing at the head of the fire pit, the blue canopy behind him. For a second, Santana wonders if the man will make a speech.
"That's Sam's pappy, Mr. Evans," Puck whispers, answering a question Santana hasn't asked. "He's our head clown, but he says the—"
Puck's sentences smothers when Mr. Evans clears his throat. Mr. Evans removes his hat, holding it at his waist. On cue, about half of the people assembled remove their hats, in kind. They bow their heads and clasp their hands in front of them. The rest of the company just stares off, suddenly interested in the setting of the sun or fixed on the food Ma has spread over the table.
In a gruff voice, Mr. Evans prays: "O Lord, bless this day our bread and vittles. Grant us forgiveness, forgive our shortcomings, offer us strength, and let us be in your service always. Bless us in our travels on the morrow and preserve us from harm and injury. Watch over our animals, our tents, and our children, as you did Israel's, lost in the wilderness. Give us hope in our differences. Succor us in mercy. In Jesus' name, amen."
As Mr. Evans prays, Santana can't help but glance around at the company, some of them attuned to the ardent cadence of Mr. Evans' voice, others of them actively ignoring him. Until today, Santana had never seen anyone refuse altogether to participate in a prayer before.
When Mr. Evans closes his prayer, the half of the company that had their eyes closed and heads bowed mumble amen along with him; the other persons just grumble and set to moving. Santana wonders if maybe it should offend her that not all the circus folk pray, but somehow she finds herself secretly fascinated.
(She could have never told her grandmother, but Santana can't imagine God, not even in those falling moments between waking and sleep.)
With the prayer done, the company springs back to life, with Ma Jones and her serving girls rescuing the Dutch ovens from the coals and transferring them, steaming, to the tabletop, and almost everyone else forming a queue leading up to the table. Ma's girls dispense metal dishes to the folks coming through the line. The company members then serve up ladles full of food that Santana can smell but not yet see onto their own plates.
"Come on," Puck says, snatching at Santana's sleeve and gesturing for her to join him in the queue. "Let's go get you something for that headache of yours, ladybird."
They hurry to join the back of the line, sandwiching themselves between a plain-looking middle-aged man and Finn. The air smells alive with savory flavors and campfire choke.
Santana feels so hungry she could eat just about anything, if it came to it.
Thankfully, as it turns out, she doesn't have to eat just anything, as Ma's supper tastes just as delicious as it smells.
The meal consists of potatoes and cured ham in gravy, stewed until soft in a Dutch oven on coals, and hot biscuits with butter and red current jam. It isn't anything like what Santana was accustomed to eating at the bachelor cottage, but it does remind her of the fare the doyenne served at the Tenderloin boarding house.
Santana and Puck sit on the grass to eat, surrounded by other seated folk, a forest of slack legs and skirts swaying around them in the deepening twilight. Gnats and moths buzz around their heads, as does the conversational chatter of the assembled circus folk.
Every once in a while, someone will pass by their sitting spot and greet Puck, and Puck will introduce Santana to the person as his wife. To a one, Puck's acquaintances glare at Santana as if she's done something to wrong them. For her part, Santana tries her best to remain polite, but feels something hardening inside her, growing resistant. She focuses on enjoying her meal but can't help but wonder what unspoken rules she must be breaking in order to elicit so much dislike without even having said anything.
Once Santana finishes her food, Puck leads her over to the far side of the mess wagon, where they encounter a couple of serving girls sitting alongside two steel tubs filled with water and suds. Santana wonders from where the tubs came, but doesn't allow herself to ask Puck her question. She thanks the serving girls for taking her plate and they stare at her, lips tight on their faces.
"Come on, ladybird," Puck says. "You don't want to miss it."
"Miss what?" Santana asks.
"The dancing," Puck smiles, guiding Santana back around the mess wagon towards the fire, which now flares in full orange hue.
Sure enough, Santana spots several men in rumpled suits procuring instruments from leather cases: fiddles, guitars, a banjo, tambourine, hand drums, and an autoharp all emerge from their carriers as the band members take seats around the fire pit, close enough to catch the glow so they can see their instruments.
Just then, a wagon pulled by a tall horse rolls up behind the fire. On the flatbed of the wagon sits a full upright harmonium with a shaggy-headed, bearded man sitting at its bench. The band members scoot their stools close to the wagon.
"Here's to another week down!" a voice calls over the scene, and Santana turns to see Ken raising a tin cup to the assembled company, tipping his bowler to them.
A few people cheer in response.
Santana watches in awe as a full hoedown blooms out around her, the company scrabbling to clear the benches and unused stools out of the way and to push back the supper table, making space around the fire.
She listens as the band tunes up their instruments, bows squeaking over strings until they find ripe notes to pluck, fingers babbling out arpeggios on thrumming guitars, the harmonium mumbling as the bespectacled band leader pumps its pipes with air. The company chatters in anticipation.
"You want to dance, ladybird?"
Santana jumps, having momentarily forgotten about Puck until he spoke.
The truth is that Santana hasn't ever had a proper dance with anyone before, at least not when it counts. A part of her longs to dance so much that the intensity of the desire almost frightens her—like the want is so deep and sweet that Santana can't fully think about it or else it will swallow her—but the better part of her fears, lest she make herself look a fool or somehow break rules without realizing it just by dancing. She shivers and then stills.
"No, thank you," she mutters.
(Santana tucks her longing away like a secret lover's photograph in her locket heart.)
"Suit yourself," Puck says. "I'm too bushwhacked to really dance anyway. It'll still be fun to watch, though." He sounds resigned.
As the man at the harmonium raises a hand to the rest of the band, cuing them to take their playing positions, Santana feels a thrill. The fiddles play a high, happy starting note, bright and lively even against the dusk, and members of the company step out onto the dance floor, some coupled, others in groups of three or four. On the count of three, the band breaks into a giddy, cavorting tune, sweet and made for kicks and spins. Santana thumbs at the calico of her skirt, her whole self eager with a sort of placeless excitement, so much so that she doesn't trust herself to speak.
She must smile without realizing it—sometimes she forgets to mind her expressions when really she ought to do so—because Puck leans over and winks at her.
"There's a dance like this almost every down day, if you ever change your mind," he says knowingly.
Men twirl their pretty ladies, spinning in the firelight. The company laughs and claps along to the tune and Santana laughs, too, though she's not sure at what. Despite the length of the day and her poor reception with her new coworkers, Santana feels amused, caught up in the music and the moment, stars making their first winking appearance overhead in the plum firmament.
"You sure you don't want to jig, ladybird?" Puck asks over the music, smirking at her like he knows all her secrets and likes them to a one.
"No, no," Santana demurs, looking away before her smile tells Puck another story.
Her gaze skirts the fire, looking across the way to the other side of the circle formed round the dance floor.
And then she sees them: blue eyes staring at her.
The eyes blink when Santana meets them—they're pretty and cattish, the kind of blue that dye and paint can never exactly replicate—and Santana feels her breath catch.
(She thinks it's because she's surprised.)
The eyes belong to a girl, probably about Santana's age.
For a second, Santana can't bring herself to look away.
Santana takes in the girl's sun-kissed skin, the freckles dotting her nose and bare shoulders, the graceful arc of her neck, her windswept hair, thin cobalt dress, and the way her pink lips part like opened flower petals all at once, the way one would the first impression of a Homer painting.
Santana can't help but wonder for how long the girl has watched her. Without knowing why, Santana suddenly wants more than anything just to speak with the girl, who interests her more than anyone else Santana has seen yet today or maybe ever, actually.
"Don't mind her."
Santana flinches, broken from a trance. For the second time in just minutes, she's forgotten Puck standing at her side.
"What?" Santana splutters.
"That's just the knife thrower's daughter," Puck says, shrugging. "She and her daddy are just as strange as they come. She don't mean any harm by staring, though, I'm sure."
"Sure," Santana agrees quickly, glancing back towards the girl to pair this new epithet with her face.
But the girl isn't there.
Confused, Santana scans the crowd and then the dance floor. The knife thrower's daughter isn't anywhere she can see. The girl disappears so quickly that Santana almost wonders if she perhaps just imagined her, except that Puck acknowledged her existence.
"You sure you don't want to dance?" Puck asks.
Santana can only shake her head, distracted.
(She feels the same way she sometimes does waking up from a dream: like she really must remember something she can't grasp.)
"Suit yourself," Puck says again, amused at her airy answer.
At half past ten o'clock, the dance dissolves, the musicians packing up their instruments and the company disbanding to head away to their respective sleeping places. By the time Puck leads Santana back to their tent, Santana feels like she's already dreaming, like she fell asleep hours ago and all of this is just some wash.
Stars hang in the boundless indigo sky and a yellow quarter moon lights the plains from overhead. Her bones feel tired and her eyes feel tired, as does every thought in her head. She doesn't think she has ever stayed awake for so many hours in a row in her life.
For his part, Puck respects Santana's sleepiness, keeping quiet as he leads Santana through the residential section of camp, one hand pressed to the small of her back, guiding her down the tent rows. When they reach their tent, Puck parts the tent flaps for Santana, nodding her a silent After you, and Santana stumbles inside, finding the space wonderfully dark and still.
"You done good today, ladybird," Puck says in a scratchy voice, and before Santana can process what's happening, he leans down and chucks his forefinger under her chin, lifting her face so he can kiss her.
His lips press clumsily over her whole mouth in the dark, his skin hot with leftover sun heat even hours after dark, stubbly and rough against Santana's face.
The kiss is quick and almost violent—Santana's lips feel smashed, more than anything—so much so that she and Puck don't even trade breath with each other.
It's also Santana's first.
It happens and then is over. Afterwards, Santana can hardly even perceive its ghost upon her skin.
"You take the bed," Puck tells her. "I'll use my mat. We got an early train to catch. Going to Minnesota. I'll wake you when it's time to go."
As Santana lays still, the darkness deep and cool around her, the night cricketing with bug chirps and the muffled sounds of distant voices and the rustling of the earth, she wonders if a first kiss shouldn't linger longer.
She thinks of tarot cards and wooden spoons and of the soreness in her fingertips from stitching her new hems.
Mostly, though, she thinks of blue eyes staring at her from beyond the fire and of the strange fluttering in her chest she feels when she remembers how the knife thrower's daughter stared at her. Her thoughts swim further and further out to sea, her throat turning thick and breath slowing.
(The knife thrower's daughter leads her, dancing, into dreams.)
Author's Note: Special thanks to Han at socallmedaisy for being both my beta and generally awesome!
And, yes, Ma Jones is Mercedes Jones.
Letania de los Santos : Litany of the Saints