The first thing is we smell smoke.
The Living Skeleton – Isaac to his friends – is the only one still stuck upstairs with me. He’s got one foot on the fire escape, skinny ribs slipping between window and sill, and he’s shrieking at me. ‘Come on Annie!’
My legs are not my best feature – never have been – but now they’ve rooted like winter wheat and I can’t move. Panic seals up my throat. I have to rip my tongue from the roof of my mouth.
‘Come where?’ I gasp. ‘Through a slit of a window or straight through the wall? That fire escape’ll never take my weight. Get help. Just try Isaac, try.’
It’s the most I’ve ever said to him.
The Museum is both work and home to me. The top floors accommodate many of the live exhibits but Isaac and I are the only ones still upstairs today. He’s having trouble with his digestion and has taken the morning off. I’ve been getting ready for the afternoon show: taking as long as possible and wanting to be left alone. There I am, all dressed up as Lady Macbeth. Out damned spot: even larger than life.
Isaac’s face goes red and I know he’s about ready to wash his hands of me. He opens his mouth but then closes it again as his impossible bones slide away through the gap. Shoes clatter on the ironwork. Then my legs buckle and I hear the hiss of a hundred steam trains as the blackness threatens.
Smoke stings my nostrils and brings me back, sharp. A squeeze of real fear sends me scrabbling across the floor toward the window. I put my hands on the panes of glass, find my knees, and hoist myself up enough to look out.
Broadway. The circling crowd on the street below tip up tiny doll faces and point. Blood pumps noisily in my ears, competing against the wail of bells outside and the roaring fire behind me, eating its way up the stairs. I manage to stand. Then I take a firm grip of the window sash and pull it up as hard as I can. Pain streaks down my shoulders, my toes grind against the wooden floor. It lifts a little. The window opens enough for a normal person to crush their ribs through, but impossible for me, for the giant, Anna Swan.
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‘Just look at you, Anna.’ Mother used to shake her head over the sight of me with all the wonderment of a child surprising a butterfly out of a rose bush.
My parents weren’t for Barnum in the beginning. His agent came down the track to our weather-washed house near Tatamagouche Bay and ran the gauntlet of all my brothers and sisters marauding about the yard. Mother and Father listened to him with arms folded and Scotch wariness glinting in their eyes. I hid behind the pantry door; caught a sight of tweed, of shining shoes, of a waxed moustache. Out there, he was almost a match for me in freakery.
New York City. Piano lessons. Books to read. An exhibit, but a prized one. The second time the man came with his offer, hands were shaken.
There are so many people down there on the street. They’re pointing, calling, running back and forth crazily between the fire trucks. They’re pouring out of the buildings opposite and from around the corner on Ann Street. I have to keep the fire away. I run to the door, slam it: push across a display case with a two-headed calf and a threadbare push-me-pull-you. I tug at the table – that won’t budge – but I strip down the drapes and push and poke them, wadding my makeshift barricade like a pastry-chef trimming a pie. Then I back away to the window and hunch beneath it, clutching my knees, balled up in prayer. These are bad minutes.
‘Get away from the window! Now!’
The voice shocks me. My shoulders lock up. I have time to think – Irish? – and then one look at his grim face, one glimpse of his axe, sends me scooting away across the floor as the fire fighter smashes through the window.
‘Don’t be afraid!’ he calls. When I don’t move: ‘There’s no time for this.’
‘But the fire escape won’t hold me.’ Stiff, but suddenly calm, I get to my feet and watch his eyes track upwards to my face. That stops him.
‘I’ll be back,’ he says. Tears burn my eyes as his footsteps follow Isaac’s and I’m alone again.
Barnum looked me up and down like a prize sow, made a few notes in one of his books and put me on a stand next to Colonel John Nutt. The Colonel stands about as high as my knee. I’ve got nothing good to say about him, yet I’ve stood next to Nutt and smiled till my lips dried up. Every night, from my very first night in the Museum, I’ve lain curled in my bed, picturing my mother’s tearful face as I waved farewell. I’ve cursed myself as the greatest fool of a girl there’s ever been.
They say I was just born large and kept right on growing. That it happens that way with some folk. But my family loved me. They took no more notice of my size than it took to step over my legs when I sat on the floor to eat my dinner, or when they had to wait while I stooped and twisted my way out of our cottage door. I went to school and loved it. I thought I’d make a teacher, a good one too. For that I had to go to Truro and board with my aunt. I figured that the children would stare at first but that they’d soon settle to me and I’d do fine. I hadn’t bargained for the adults. Not for the staring on the street, or the sniggering and name-calling from the men as I walked home from school. It wasn’t like the Bay where everyone had watched me grow, year after year. Father came to take me home.
Barnum’s man arrived three months later. Of course my parents said a straight-out no, but Barnum doesn’t deal in nos. And I was seventeen, desperate for a life. I wanted to learn. I wanted to see, and if that meant being seen, well, I thought it was a price I could pay. Thought it right up until Mr Barnum gave me a quick once over and then sent me up to meet the rest of the inhabitants of the American Museum.
That fireman said he’d be back but I know it’s impossible. I’m trembling. The noise and the heat of the fire are coming for me. Perhaps the best thing would be to just open the door. To let it in. To get it over with. I’ve thought about death. But I’m swaying back and forth and a painful splinter of laughter climbs up my throat because I’m beyond counting the number of times I’ve wished I was dead. I’ve longed to be away from these gross bones and distended limbs, my drooping face, my hands, my- Lord! – There isn’t a particle of flesh on me I don’t despise. Yet here is death coming for me and suddenly I’m screaming inside, “I want out! Let me out! Get me out!”[img_assist|nid=20518|title=(null)|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=300|height=385]
Something’s happening. I’m aware of a change and it takes me a moment. Then I realise it’s the sounds from the street. The bells are not ringing. The crowd is subdued. There’s a thin mist of smoke in the room now, but if I keep low the air is still clean enough to breathe. I crawl back to the window. Glass scrapes my hands and knees but I feel nothing. I look down again. Everything’s stopped. From building to building every particle of road and sidewalk is taken up by men and women staring up at the fire consuming the Museum. Directly below I can even make out people I know. There’s Isaac and little Colonel Nutt. There’s that Josephine with her hirsute son. Next that girl – the Circassian Beauty – I haven’t even troubled to find out her name. And Millie-Christine. Although both twins gave me shy smiles, I’ve ignored them and tried my hardest not to stare. I’ve kept myself apart. I couldn’t stand to look at them. I couldn’t bear that they were looking at me, or that we were all so different, and yet our difference was the very thing that made us all the same. But now? What would I not give to hear the Two-headed Nightingale sing, to watch men scratch their heads and peer at the Feejee Mermaid, even to stand next to ugly old Nutt while he winks at all the pretty girls passing through our halls.
People are pointing at something on the ground. I squint trying to see what it is. The something is moving upwards. There are two men. There is a crane. The men in the crane are waving. One is tall; one is shorter, fatter, with a high bald dome of a forehead. Unmistakably Barnum. The crane grows up past my window on the fifth floor. Barnum and the firefighter are in a cage, still a floor below. But they’re rising all the time. Hope slithers into the gaps between my ribs.
‘Here!’ The firefighter climbs in the window. He winces as the smoke catches his throat. Barnum holds a large white handkerchief over his face. His eyes bulge meaningfully toward me but I can’t understand a thing. I stand rigid, a dumb mannequin, as the firefighter winds thick ropes around my waist and under my arms. He binds in my skirt to my ankles. Then he somehow plucks from the sky a green blanket, slung with ropes like a hammock. He pulls me towards it and I see what they mean to do.
I don’t hesitate. I lie on my front in the hammock and it’s tied up like shoelaces across my back. The firefighter climbs back into Barnum’s basket. I hear them shout. Ropes creak. Air slips between me and the floorboards. It feels…wonderful.
And it is wonderful. I’m fearful: slung like a sausage, five floors up, swinging out of a window over a crowd of hundreds. I’m afraid: the ropes might fray, something could rip, I could slide from my casing and plummet into the ground below. But beyond that, it feels wonderful. I’m weightless, a feather. I am nothing and everything. I’m the great proud figurehead of a galleon setting sail from her harbor for the very first time. It’s the longest, shortest, coldest flight any Swan has ever taken. As I bump down amongst the hands and hollers of the firemen I’m gasping and laughing and coughing and shaking and smiling. I’m alive.
‘Annie!’ ‘Anna!’ ‘Anna!’ They’re all here. I’ve never felt this way. It’s as if everything inside me is broken and mended in the same moment. The others clutch at me and I cling to them. I’m beyond thought, oblivious to the fire and the work going on around us trying to save the building.
Someone puts a blanket across my shoulders. One of Millie-Christine’s hands holds mine. A scalding cup of tea is pressed into my
other hand. Hot and sweet, it settles me back to earth.
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Then: ‘Hush up, girls.’
We all turn at the sharp sound of Isaac’s voice. Only a step away I see the pale balding head framed by baby black curls. His back is straight, his arms spread wide. A press of reporters leans in to hear him. Barnum lets them have it in style.
‘Here’s your headlines, boys. Here’s the news. Just write the name Barnum. P-H-I-N-E-A-S, T. Barnum. And ask your readers this boys! Ask them who else could find a crane so fast in New York City? Who else could set that crane to winch a girl measuring seven foot tall and weighing too many pounds out of a burning building? Who else boys? Why – nobody else, that’s who. Only Barnum!’
Then he strides off into the crowd, crushing hands and nodding, balling his fists on his hips and shaking his head.
Slowly it comes to us that we have nowhere to sleep, no work, no American Museum and yet we know we’ll be all right. We have Barnum.
Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh. In 2010 she won the Random House Canada Student Writing Award and a novel excerpt, Charlatan, was published by the University of Toronto. Her current project is a novel about murder and terror plots in 17th Century London. Kate and her family live near Kennett Square.