AN HOUR before the last opening act of El Castillo, half of the trapeze team was still missing, the fire breather was busy reading his horoscope in a newspaper, and one of the jugglers was taking a nap on worn-out leather sofa at the far left corner of the stage.

Edmund Reducido wanted to check on the missing trapeze team, tell the fire breather the merits of practice and shake the juggler until he wakes, but he knew better. At exactly nine o’clock the show will start, and the audience—around fifty to sixty people and nothing more—will give an indifferent applause and go home.

The nonchalance was expected, even by Edmund himself. His employees were there simply to earn and not to entertain. There was no objective reason for anyone to see acts that everyone had seen before in bigger venues, by better performers. And besides, the acts were the unchanged set it was years ago, with routine replacing the sense of wonder it once evoked.

After the final show, the employees would leave and the lights would turn off, this time permanently. Thirty years of whimsical and sinister attractions, and tomorrow, it would just cease to matter. He could continue to run the circus without operating at a loss. Malls and computers were vicious rivals, beasts that even the most skilled tamer cannot confront. Suddenly, he remembered his grandfather’s—the man who built the carnival during the early eighties—favorite expression: “A circus is not a circus if it is not immaculate,” he said. His grandfather tapped his wrinkled finger to his temple, and told him, “Acordar, acordar.”

Wika tungo sa kapayapaan

The last night of the circus was inevitable, but at least he could make a spectacle out of it.

The lights of the entrance had to be turned on. Wanting to do the work himself, Edmund walked towards the step ladder in the stage. A few seconds passed, and his phone rang. Still a few feet from the step ladder, he pulled out his phone and read the message. It was from a prospective buyer he contacted three weeks ago. The message said, “Can’t do 1.2. Area not very viable. Lower to 900K or I’m backing out.”

It would have consoled me if El Castillo would be demolished and the lot used for commercial ventures. At least it would be reinvented, be given a breath of life. Instead, it would remain vacant. Termites would devour the wooden floors and dust would blanket the walls and the unclaimed props. The metal bars that were inundated by the sweat of back-breaking acrobats would rust. The only place where the carnival would exist is on memory, where people would still be pulled by its hypnotic attractions.

Fixing his gaze on the message, forlorn at the latest rejection, he continued striding, unwittingly, towards the edge of the stage until he fell and landed on his bottom.

The dampness of the still unswept floor embraced his body, keeping him immobile and mocking him as if to say, “This is futile.” The idle chatter among the performers turned into hushed whispers. Some stifled a chuckle. Three contortionists rushed to help him stand up.

Imahen ng Santo Niño de Cebu, bumisita sa Maynila

People loved El Castillo once. Families went there on weekends by instinct. It was even featured in the local newspaper twice. The headline of one proclaimed, “Whims and Screams at San Roque.” The other, a feature story, was about his grandfather titled “The King of El Castillo.” It even had his photo–hair slicked back, a dark suit, a poised smile–and was accompanied by lengthy account of his life. Towards its end, when asked about what made his business successful, Geronimo Reducido merely said, “We tumble, we somersault.”

When Edmund was a boy, it was a marvel to see the circus in full swing. There were toys, there were candies, and the horror trains made children like him weep for hours. Men with cropped hair juggled pins and knives of gold and green with mathematical precision. Clowns goofed around and picked on the audience. Young girls in ponytails soared through the air, spinning and spinning, while everyone watched gaping in awe and concern until burly men caught them in mid-air. A bald man on the center of the stage ingested fuel, then placed a torch inches away from his face as he breathed out searing, boasting flames. And then, a deafening applause.

The problem was there, in the word itself. People knew and admired the circus, but not anymore. The thrill people felt was in the forgotten past. The news articles had become yellow and crumpled. The children of his boyhood became tired and cynical men who found solace in travel and alcohol with their own children familiar to different kinds of entertainment.

Portrait of a Thomasian hero

Once Edmund asked his six-year-old niece if she wanted to see El Castillo. “We have people who can fly and can breathe fire,” he said. His niece plainly said no and returned to watching an animated video of fairies taking a stroll by the river.

He heard chatter from outside. The missing half of the trapeze team finally came and greeted him, the scent of cheap beer leaking from their shirts. The contortionists started stretching. The sleeping juggler finally woke up and started to practice. People still came to see them, but definitely smaller compared to the crowd there was before.

To his performers, this was nothing more than another night of the same repetitive performance. Still, with a nervous optimism, he wanted them to juggle, to bend their bodies and to flash wide smiles as if this was their first night. He wanted his show to have sprightly movements synchronized with the signature rhythms of a carnival, where the audience will be enthralled and amazed for one final time.

The lights dimmed. The audience sat and waited.

With bittersweet clarity he imagined it: two figures at the trapeze, preparing, gaining traction. Then, with great strain, they somersaulted in midair, reached the pinnacle, hesitated for a moment, and then started to glide downwards. Zendmond G. Duque II



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