“Do you think he beats her?” “Without a doubt.” The two men stood behind the cars of the train that carried the Bastian Brothers Travelling Show from town to town sharing a smoke. Overhead the clouds had gathered in black and grey. A storm was brewing. And the air had become charged with a restless anticipation.
If it had been up to Larry and Hal they would have cancelled the show altogether. The animals were agitated sensing the change in the atmosphere. It was the big cats that seemed to feel it the most. Both of the men worked with the lions. The cats didn’t like to work in a storm. They were jumpy and irritable and both Larry and Hal knew that was when accidents happened.
The man they were talking about was Jim Caffey, who worked with the tigers, with the help of his wife. Jim was a brute of a man. Hot tempered and impulsive. More than once the other trainers had seen his wife with a bruise along her cheekbone or under her eye.
They weren’t surprised. Jim Caffey was the last person that should be working with the sensitive tigers. For all of their sakes they wished that Jim would hold it together. His poor wife bore the brunt of his anger. But only because at the heart of it all, Jim Caffey was a coward.
The men walked back toward the camp. In the tiger cage Jim’s wife was putting the animal through a gentle routine. They stopped for a minute to watch her. The two seemed to be in sync in the way that most trainers dream of. They watched the way Julia moved through the cage quietly and without menace. The picture of grace and trust.
It was like the tiger and the woman were in a dance and when she leaned down to kiss the tiger’s nose it nuzzled her marking her as its own. It was a beautiful thing to see. Then Jim Caffey stepped into the ring. Julia froze, eyes wide. “You want to get the fuck out of here,” he spat.
“That poor woman,” said Hal. “That’s no way to treat a lady.” The peaceful scene was ripped apart by the presence of that man. In the distance the sky rumbled. Larry and Hal carried on. It was time someone did something.
“You want to talk to Joe about it?” asked Hal. “Yeah, I’ll do it,” replied Larry spitting in the dirt. “I don’t like what’s happening. Just because Caffey has been around awhile it doesn’t mean he’s an asset. You ask me he’s a goddamn liability.” “Amen to that,” said Hal.
Julia lay on her bed exhausted. Her back was killing her and the tender spot just under her ear throbbed. For ten years she’d been putting up with his bullshit. Why? She supposed it must be love. But now she didn’t know how much more she could take. How many more days of waiting for him to snap, always walking on eggshells, trying to gage his mood.
She’d seen the two men watching. It was humiliating. Enough. She made a decision and closed her eyes and at last, she slept.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.” Joe Booker was used to complaints. When you ran a show this big there were bound to be problems. But this particular problem didn't seem to be going away. “I want you to say he’s gone.” Larry was about to lose his cool. “Look Joe, you know as well as I do that this kind of thing is bad for morale.
It affects everyone, it affects the animals. All I can say is that I’ve got a bad feeling.” Joe sighed and took a drag from his cigar. “Okay,” he said, pulling a bit of tobacco from his lip. “But not tonight. He’ll finish the show and tomorrow I'll tell him he's done.” Larry let out a breath. “Thank you.”
One more night. Larry walked back to the caravan to find Hal. All they had to do was get through tonight. The sky let out a rumble and the first drops of rain began to fall. With any luck the storm would pass before the first act went on. The cats weren’t on until the end. He relaxed. Everything was going to be ok.
Julia woke and stretched. The spot behind her ear still hurt but it wasn’t as bad. She needed to sleep before a show. She needed to be relaxed. She felt better. Better than she had in awhile. Julia liked storms. The way they blew in and cleaned everything up and left again. The air was electric and crisp. It felt good. She drew in a deep breath and got to her feet.
Jim spent the afternoon avoiding his wife. She irritated him. She was too soft. She belonged to him in the same way his animals did. And he treated her the same way. Behave. Do as I say or pay the price. Why was that so hard for her to understand?
He carried a bucket of fresh meat down the lot to feed the cat. Big cats performed better after a good meal. The thought of his wife slid through his mind. She’d better not say word. He wasn’t really worried. He was pretty sure the dumb bitch knew her place by now. But maybe it was time to cut her loose. He felt good about that. He could do better.
Jim let himself into the cage and threw a couple of roasts out into the straw. He didn’t see the cat but she was probably sleeping. He bent down and pulled the hose through the bars to fill her water. Outside the air had gone eerily still. The calm before the storm? He listened for a moment then went back to what he was doing.
Julia peered out from behind a hay bale. Jim Caffey didn’t even have time to scream.
Larry and Hal stood outside the cage with Claire. The news of her husband’s death didn’t come as a shock. She knew that Julia loved her. And that one day it would come to this. She calmed the cat while the men pulled Jim’s mangled corpse from the cage.
Julia nuzzled Claire’s hand leaving a red mark. Outside the rain stopped and the skies cleared. Nobody blamed the cat. It was the storm. Accidents happen in a storm.
“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, welcome to the show. Tonight you will be dazzled by the likes of which you have never seen. Acrobats and trapeze artists risking their lives far above the crowds, dancing ponies and ferocious beasts and our very own ‘Claire, Lady of the Tigers!’ Julia had never performed better.