THERE WAS NO NEED for the screaming. The freak was pretty shocking, but he was chained up inside the cage. I think the people who screamed did it for fun, the way people scream on a roller coaster, not because they were actually afraid.
It was the wolf-man. He was very ugly, with hair all over his body. He only wore a piece of cloth around his middle, like Tarzan, so we could see his hairy legs and belly and back and arms. He had a long bushy beard, which covered most of his face. His eyes were yellow and his teeth were red.
He shook the bars of the cage and roared. It was pretty frightening. Lots more people screamed when he roared. I nearly screamed myself, except I didn't want to look like a baby.
The wolf-man went on shaking the bars and jumping around, before calming down. When he was sitting on his backside, the way dogs do, Mr. Tall walked on and spoke.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, and even though his voice was low and croaky, everybody could hear what he was saying, "welcome to the Cirque Du Freak, home of the world's most remarkable human beings.
"We are an ancient circus," he went on. "We have toured for five hundred years, bringing the grotesque to generation after generation. Our lineup has changed many times, but never our aim, which is to astound and terrify you! We present acts both frightening and bizarre, acts you can find nowhere else in the world.
"Those who are easily scared should leave now," he warned. "I'm sure there are people who came tonight thinking this was a joke. Maybe they thought our freaks would be people in masks, or harmless misfits. This is not so! Every act you see tonight is real. Each performer is unique. And none are harmless."
That was the end of his speech and he walked offstage Two pretty women in shiny suits came on next and unlocked the door of the wolf-man's cage. A few people looked scared but nobody left.
The wolf-man was yapping and howling when he first came out of the cage, until one of the ladies hypnotized him with her fingers. The other lady spoke to the crowd.
"You must be very quiet," she said in a foreign accent. "The wolf-man will not be able to hurt you as long as we control him, but a loud sound could wake him up, and then he would be deadly!"
When they were ready, they stepped down from the stage and walked the hypnotized wolf-man through the theater. His hair was a dirty gray color and he walked with a stoop, fingers hanging down around his knees.
The ladies stayed by his side and warned people to be quiet. They let you stroke him if you wanted, but you had to do it gently. Steve rubbed him when he went by but I was afraid he might wake up and bite me, so I didn't.
"What did it feel like?" I asked, as quietly as I could.
"It was spiky," Steve replied, "like a hedgehog." He lifted his fingers to his nose and sniffed. "It smells strange, too, like burning rubber."
The wolf-man and ladies were about halfway down the rows of seats when there was a big BANG! I don't know what made the noise, but suddenly the wolf-man began roaring and he shoved the ladies away from him.
People screamed and those nearest him leaped from their seats and ran. One woman wasn't quick enough, and the wolf-man leaped on her and dragged her to the ground. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, but nobody tried to help her. He rolled her over onto her back and bared his teeth. She stuck a hand up to push him away, but he got his teeth on it and bit it off!
A couple of people fainted when they saw that and a bunch more began yelling and running. Then, out of nowhere, Mr. Tall appeared behind the wolf-man and wrapped his arms around him. The wolf-man struggled for a few seconds, but Mr. Tall whispered something in his ear and he relaxed. While Mr. Tall led him back to the stage, the women in the suits calmed down the crowd and told them to return to their seats.
While the crowd hesitated, the woman with the bitten-off hand went on screaming. Blood was pumping out of the end of her wrist, covering the ground and other people. Steve and I were staring at her, our mouths wide open, wondering if she was going to die.
Mr. Tall returned from the stage, picked up the severed hand, and gave a loud whistle. Two people in blue robes with hoods over their heads ran forward. They were short, not much bigger than me or Steve, but with thick arms and legs and lots of muscles. Mr. Tall sat the woman up and whispered something in her ear. She stopped screaming and sat stiff.
Mr. Tall took hold of the wrist, then reached into his pocket and took out a small brown leather pouch. He opened it with his free hand and sprinkled a sparkly pink powder onto the bleeding wrist. Then he stuck the hand against it and nodded to the two people in the blue suits. They produced a pair of needles and loads of orange string. And then, to the amazement of everybody in the theater, they started to stitch the hand back onto the wrist!
The people in blue robes stitched for five or six minutes. The woman didn't feel any pain, even though their needles were going in and out of her flesh, all the way around the wrist. When finished, they put their needles and unused thread away and returned to wherever they'd come from. Their hoods never slipped from their faces, so I couldn't tell if they were men or women. When they'd gone, Mr. Tall let go of the woman's hand and stepped back.
"Move your fingers," he said. The woman stared at him blankly. "Move your fingers!" he said again, and this time she gave them a wiggle.
Everybody gasped. The woman stared at the fingers as though she didn't believe they were real. She gave them another wiggle. Then she stood and lifted the hand above her head. She shook it as hard as she could, and it was as good as new! You could see the stitches but there was no more blood and the fingers seemed to be working fine.
"You will be okay," Mr. Tall told her. "The stitches will fall out after a couple of days. It will be fine after that."
"Maybe that's not good enough!" someone shouted, and a big red-faced man stepped forward. "I'm her husband," he said, "and I say we should go to a doctor and then the police! You can't let a wild animal like that out into a crowd! What if he'd bitten her head off?"
"Then she would be dead," Mr. Tall said calmly.
"Listen, buster," the husband began, but Mr. Tall interrupted.
"Tell me, sir," Mr. Tall said, "where were you when the wolf-man was attacking?"
"Me?" the man asked.
"Yes," Mr. Tall said. "You are her husband. You were sitting beside her when the beast escaped. Why did you not leap to her rescue?"
"Well, I...There was no time...I couldn't...I wasn't..."
No matter what he said, the husband couldn't win, because there was only one true answer: he had been running away, looking after himself.
"Listen to me," Mr. Tall said. "I gave fair warning. I said this show could be dangerous. This is not a nice, safe circus where nothing goes wrong. Mistakes can and do happen, and sometimes people end up a lot worse off than your wife. That's why this show is banned. That's why we must play in old theaters in the middle of the night. Most of the time, things go smoothly and nobody gets hurt. But we cannot guarantee your safety."
Mr. Tall turned around in a circle and seemed to look everybody in the eye while turning. "We cannot guarantee anybody's safety," he roared. "Another accident like this is unlikely, but it could happen. Once again I say, if you are afraid, leave. Leave now, before it is too late!"
A few people did leave. But most stayed to see the rest of the show, even the woman who nearly lost her hand.
"Do you want to go?" I asked Steve, half-hoping he'd say yes. I was excited but scared as well.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "This is great! You don't want to go, do you?"
"No way," I lied, and slapped on a shaky little smile.
If only I hadn't been so scared of looking like a coward! I could have left and everything would have been fine. But no, I had to act like a big man and sit it out to the end. If you only knew how many times I've wished since then that I'd fled with all the speed in my body and never looked back...