With my eighty two years on this planet I have many stories to tell. But this is the one that started it all. It is not a story about spending over fifty years working in a single-employee post office. It is not a story of the loneliness around having no family of my own. Nor is it even a story about Bellvue with it’s two hundred and fifteen Kansas-native residents.
It is a story about me, John, at fourteen years old. And it is a story about her. And the plague that she wove upon the town of Bellvue and its people.
I saw the sign on the twelfth of July, 1951. I had rousted my best friend Andrew from his bed early that day, waving both the new .22 vermin rifle I had received on my birthday, as well as my former rifle, cracked stock and all. His screen door snapped shut minutes later as we ran through the fields to the grotto. I had been hunting cottontails for two years now, and the bounty I had brought home had earned me the shiny new Winchester which was now slung over my shoulder.
Andrew however, insisted on carrying his with both hands, each as far from the trigger as possible. I’m sure his mother would have had a heart attack regardless of how cautious he was being.
We stood before the previously barren clearing in shock. Before us was a sign of things to come. Not next year, not by Christmas, but this very night. The wooden letters were pegged to a thicket of scrap, held aloft and proudly announcing their exhilarating message.
“Bazaar Obscura.” The stained letters seemed to creak under the weight of their declaration.
Regardless of the words themselves, their true meaning snaked their way into our hearts. Nowhere did it say “Circus”. But the striped tents, mouldering tapestries, and iconic central ticket booth was enough to convey the fact of the matter. Andrew and I turned to each other, our jaws dropping in pure joy.
I brought no cottontails home that day. Dinner was to be an eternity. I could swear that my mother’s dress flowed in slow motion as she crossed the kitchen, back and forth, singing quietly to herself as she cooked. I leapt from my seat like a panther when my father came home. He didn’t smell quite so much of drink as he usually did around this time, and we spent some time talking about my adventure with Andrew that morning. The conversation ended as I had hoped, with permission to leave directly after supper. He even said that he might head over there later in the evening.
I felt better, but supper was still gruesomely slow. I knew I couldn’t risk asking to be excused early. Dad would not stand for that. So, I sat. I accepted my second serving with a smile, all the while my knee was pumping like a locomotive under the table. I offered to help with the dishes out of sheer desperation to move things along. My mother only smiled at me knowingly and gave me leave.
I was on my bike in under thirty seconds, and after convincing Andrew’s mother that I would not leave his side, the two of us were off to the Bazaar. Utterly unprepared for what we would experience that night.
One tenpenny coin gained us access and each tent had a nickel entry fee. Between the two of us we had gathered enough for three attractions and set upon discussing the merits of each as we passed the variety of stalls.
“From the rolling deserts of Egypt! Hamonen the Wanderer, Master of wild cats will awe you! His desert creatures have a hunger… for blood! Only five pennies! And you, yes you, can witness Hamonen and his monstrous cats! From the rolling deserts of Egypt….” The caller flashed his cane into the crowd as he spoke.
Andrew and I were true circus aficionados. We knew slangers and were positive that the cats in question would simply be large felines in a dark setting. The culmination of this particular type of show was to release the large house cats into the audience causing everyone to run outside, in fear of being mauled, with visions of cougars in their heads. I am no longer very sure that my assumption was correct in this case.
We decided to see “Savage the Strong Man!” who was touted to “have brawn enough to lift Atlas, the world perched on top.” There was something real about strong man acts that called to both of us. Maybe they did not have the mystical wonder of other offerings, but they were what they were advertised to be, happening right before our eyes.
I was incredulous when the single spotlight flooded the center of the tent. Standing, surrounded by the crowd, was a twig of a man. He must have been five foot four inches and all of ninety-three pounds, wearing only smallpants. His mouth was pursed and determination shone in his eyes. He did not speak or move a single inch. Andrew and I traded confused looks as murmering spread from one end of the tent to the other. Some audience members stood and the murmur became speckled with shouts and sharp remarks.
A cackle ran out as something flew past our row and bounced off the young “strong” man. I stood to look and saw a half eaten corn cob in the dirt at his feet. He did not react. He did not speak or move. The crowd began to twist and boil. Demands for refunds, insults, and random yips and shouts increased in volume just as the air became alive with projectiles.
He did not wipe the eggs or tomatoes from his face or chest. He did not buckle when a broken plank of wood caught him below the belt. Nor did he raise his arms when the first of several wooden folding chairs pummeled his wiry frame, drawing blood and bruising his ribs before our eyes. I watched the faces of people I had seen in town twist and smear with anger.The tumult continued, growing in intensity and variety, becoming more and more fervent upon directing punishment toward center stage.
Andrew’s hand grasped mine and held it vice-like, pulling me from the tent along with him. I looked away when I saw the tears welling in his eyes in an effort to let him keep his dignity. His run became a walk once we were far from the tent and he stopped me.
“Let’s go home.” He had clearly made up his mind.
I wasn’t ready to give up on the entire circus because of one bad tent. There was always one bad tent. We both knew that. I reminded him of the same. We had sat through mermaids with stitching across their tails. We had sat staring at an empty miniature circus as the performer described the actions of his acrobatic fleas in great detail. There was always a dud. Eventually he calmed slightly and I convinced him to see just one more show. I couldn’t explain the show we had seen, but knew that there was better before us. I have since grown out of such optimism, but at fourteen years old it was alive and well, along with a fearlessness I have not known since
“Choose you fight or romance? A farm hand or fair maiden? Hunter or Hunted, you decide! And if you haven’t seen enough grab a light! And explore the secret corners of Felix Felicity, the astounding Hermaphrodite!”
The poster beside the caller depicted a mustached man donning a top hat and vest. Below the waist though flowed a summer dress, pulled aside by the wind just enough to catch a glimpse of silky smooth legs flowing upward from a pair of crimson high heeled shoes.
Andrew and I both knew that we would never gain entrance to this tent. These were not shows for young Christian boys, as we had been schooled by ticket takers in the past. I decided that it was perfect. The perfect thing to shake Andrew from his reverie and get him as excited as I was once again. It took some convincing but Andrew finally admitted that he had looked forward to growing up so that he could finally see a show like this one.
We managed to hop a small wooden fence and circle behind the tent without incident. Once in place and preparing for a cautious entry, we were caught. I grabbed Andrew’s shoulder staring into the woods at the edge of the grounds. It was filled with eyes. Each one boring into us as they reflected the waning moon’s luminescence. After what felt like hours without change or movement, we uneasily turned and entered the tent. All the while knowing that our actions were witnessed.
Once we were through the slit in the canvas, we quieted ourselves at the back. The interior, being dark as pitch, hid us from discovery.
“Mmm. ugh” A groan broke the silence somewhere near the center. It sounded like the sound my father made pulling our heavy tiller across the field on a hot day.
“Egh.. egh” A small feminine voice joined shortly afterwards, in quiet desperation.
The varied grunts and pained noises continued to grow in frequency. While there was clearly no one near us, the center of the tent must have teamed with people.
The sound of a camera snapped in the air and for a moment the flash illuminated our surroundings. In that frozen instant I saw twenty people, so crammed into a small area that I could barely make out the separation of bodies. It took my unformed mind almost a minute to examine the single image that had come to light under the flash. One man’s thick leg jutted towards us, as two hands, both with painted nails gripped each other across them. The half-bared hairy chest of “Felix Felicity” rose proudly over the bodies before and below him. He was sat cross legged, upon the hips of an almost entirely obscured man, high heels pointing to either side of them.
Andrew clamped my hand once more as the next flash went off. The next split second exposure showed the same jumbled scene of bodies, this time containing more skin and less clothing. In that flash Felix Felicity had his face buried in the lap of Miss Spentler who ran the local grocer. And arched behind him was the man who had previously been beneath him, pushing Felix’s hips downward, slamming into the bodies beneath him. Then I saw the man’s face. It was the face of my father, sweat pouring into his eyes from his greasy back hair and his lips pulled far back from his teeth. He struggled back and forth like an animal trying to escape a trap.
I was out of there in a flash. Before I realized that my hand was now suddenly empty. I stood betwixt the lines of people drinking ale and making a ruckus as they tried to push from one tent to another. I was spinning around looking for Andrew, my heart racing at the thought that I had left him in that… that place. What were they doing in there? All those people? People I knew. Pushing and pulling at each other in the dark? I know now of course, but at the time it was so foreign as to be darkly miraculous.
I spotted him. Andrew was about twenty feet down the path. He was tangled in his own tumult of drunken customers. I shouted. He did not hear. I pushed toward him through the throng, ale spilling on me and curses spat at me as I made my way. I watched him enter a large tent at the very back for the grounds, slowly, as if being pulled.
There was no ticket taker for that tent. There was no sign. No booth. There was only the glowing candle-lit interior beaconing from the slit between the folds of the canvas. In my final steps toward the tent, I must admit, I forgot about Andrew entirely. I forgot about everything. My father, my home, even myself. There was nothing but this. This space. This place and this time. For one night only, this happening had come bearing it’s darkest fruits for Bellvue. But it was also here for me. I knew it. I accepted it. And in this muddled state, I entered.
There were three wooden chairs facing the unoccupied interior. I chose the chair in the center. This was my show. I was meant to witness it. For just a moment I saw a small shape slip into the private area behind the show, and knew deep in my heart that it had been Andrew. He was meant to be here too. Perhaps even more so than I. A smile betrayed my lips, though I could not tell you why. Not then. Not now. And I do not care to speculate.
The candles flared for a moment as the show began. I was an audience of one, accepting that this was right and correct.
A leg slowly peeked out from behind the backstage curtain. But this was not just a leg. It was the lightning flash. The entrance of a force that I would never understand jutting from behind the curtain to light upon the earth in wonder. And terror. Thighs and hips followed. A blur of soft oily flesh, caressed by a coiled wrapping. The dark skinned woman pulsed and quivered out from her secret place until she was undulating and exposed before me. She was entirely devoid of clothing or even jewelry, save the enormous snake that moved across her body as she danced to the rising music.
I watched her, mesmerized, for what felt like hours. Her body flowing like water, sometimes still and sometimes boiling like rapids. All the while that reptilian bulge dragging and pressing upon every part of her. Becoming one with her before my eyes.
I sat forward, gripping the base of my seat. The veracity of her dance had grown in swells finally culminating in a shocking scream rising from the formerly silent creature.
I knew that it was her name. And I was struck with an urge to shout with her.
My knees had become weak my body buckled at the waist. It was as if I could feel the life force flowing from my body, my lungs pumping air as fast as they could. An aching shameful shudder pulsed through my body, but I forced my head to remain upright. I was the watcher and I was to do my duty this night.
Watch, I did. I watched as she proceeded to a small table, and lifted a silver platter that shone like a crescent moon in the candlelight. As she turned and lifted something heavy from behind her private curtain. As she sat upon the single block of stone in the center of the tent. As she lowered the cleanly severed head of Andrew down upon the platter, and spread her legs while holding my intense gaze.
“Salome.” Andrew’s lips twitched, and the name creeped from the direction of the platter balancing his head upon Salome’s knees.
“Salome!” The whisper cut through me, though neither her nor Andrew’s lips moved. It was him. The beast that clothed her. The cold blood that dressed hers. The serpent had spake the third and final name, and it was to begin.
I had lost myself at that point, I think. I had become what she, and he, had meant me to be. Not the boy I had been, full of wonder and light. In that moment I was not John in any sense. I was the watcher. And I continued to watch.
My resolve did not waver when I heard the first trickles of dripping water. I sat perfectly still when the rich smell of urine and putrefying fish assaulted my senses. I did not falter as I watched a growing stream of brackish water now pouring from the fully exposed area between Salome’s thighs.
Even when the growing torrent of water began to churn over my boots, I sat and watched. As it reached my knees and I felt the flotsam of decaying carcasses bump against me in the deluge. Even when the miraculous horror rose to my neck, I sat still and watched. Until the foul current lifted me and the course of the waters took me from her. I kept my eyes on Salome as I bobbed and floated away, the torrent now pulling in others as it tore its way through the grounds. Five feet deep became ten, and trees began to uproot themselves among the men and women of Bellvue.
The final glimpse of Salome and her slithering familiar has stuck with me always. I saw the head of the serpent enter her from below her waist, and it’s thick stunted tail expertly find it’s way into her mouth. And I knew that my duty was now done. My watch had ended. And I fell away into cold peaceful darkness.
I awoke, soaking wet and shivering on the roof of the Bellvue Five & Dime on July 13th, 1951. I warmed myself as well as I could, and within a couple of hours I was rescued by an officer from two towns over, collecting survivors with his canoe.
He told me that the flood had killed almost a hundred men, women and children. He noted quietly that he recognized my name, and offered his condolences that he believed my father was among the “lost”. He told me that God was good but this was a tragedy beyond his understanding.
I envy the man’s lack of understanding. I envy his ignorance. There was happiness there. Stability. Things I was never to enjoy, for the rest of my life. Though physically unharmed, I was damaged beyond repair. I was broken and molded into something else. Something dark and alien.
I was the watcher from that night forward.
And each day since, I watched. I bore witness to many wondrous, atrocious and bewildering things hereafter. Salamoe was but the first of legions of forces to fall on my small town and weave their dark influence.
But at my age, now confined to my home, and to my bed, my days as the watcher are over. These are the golden days of the story teller. And for those who wonder and question and explore, and who hold little regard for closing their eyes, I have many more stories to tell you.