Make Me Smile

Rebecca Fung

‘Pay your coin, see the wonders, the extraordinary, the freaks of nature …’

I am one of those freaks.

Every day people clamour to see our shows. Performance is part of my soul. I love the circus even – or especially – because of the mask of smiles hiding the hard work that makes every act seem such light-hearted fun. Make me laugh, make me gasp, make me smile! The audience demands it.

Make them hand over the cash, says my boss, Glen, the lion tamer.

There’s the strong man, strutting around, breaking huge logs in two with his bare hands, hoisting an ox into the air. Little children giggle at his bulging biceps. No one except the circus folk see Mr Strong when he collapses in a pool of sweat, or see that tree-trunk calf quiver under the strain. Only we know how much work goes into that swagger and that forced grin as he shrugs off the agony and the crowd cheers. Night after night.

If he doesn’t, it’s Glen and his lions. The line here is ‘Smile and Glen smiles with you’.

Fortunately, though, I’ve never had to worry. My act is the major crowd pleaser.

‘Over here, Lola, the great contortionist, performing acts the human body was never meant for on a HIGHWIRE, ladies and gentlemen. She will curve and twist her body into shapes you have never seen the likes of, all while tumbling ABOVE YOUR HEADS!’

Out I leap, a jump, a skip, onto the highwire. I stretch one leg high into the air and begin to spin on the point of the other. The crowd gasps.

Each limb of mine is a river. I’m a liquid person; my body can flow into any shape. A leg around my neck, my arms behind my back, and I throw myself into the air and land back on the wire. Now shall I twist myself into two, three curls, ladies and gentlemen? I can hear the audience scream and applaud and my soul laps it up and embraces it. That’s what my body is for – creating applause and then greedily soaking up every noisy bit of it. Yes, yes, more, more! I’m flowing, I’m tumbling, my limbs are curling and twisting into endless shapes and places. I position myself for my finale. My head flips backwards to touch the small of my back and my feet. My legs and arms spread, curl, stretch and then I finish with a smile and a kiss for the crowd.

I began doing this act when I was tiny and I’ve been soaking in the cheers ever since. Everyone loves the contortionist the most. She is so beautiful, so daring, she has the skimpiest costumes. When I’m up there I know it was all I was ever meant to do.

‘Just like I know I was meant to be with my snakes, forever,’ Neridah, the snake-charmer and my best friend, says to me. She dances beautifully as her snakes slither around her, waving her hands and enticing them to weave around her legs and up against her barely concealed pale breasts. The audience sighs.

‘All my snakes are proper venomous snakes,’ Neridah tells everyone. ‘I don’t cheat. I charm.’ Then she smiles romantically and keeps dancing.    

What isn’t romantic is snakebite. I was there. One unexpected flick of the hand in the wrong direction, and the snake hissed and pounced. Down went Neridah, and I was running towards her, wailing. Fortunately it only happened during rehearsal, said Glen. If the audience saw, what effect would it have on sales?

‘I was practising a different routine,’ Neridah muttered when she came to. ‘What happened? Where am I?’

‘In the town nearby. I found you a good doctor. The only doctor.’

‘Thank you, Lola. I will be fine … I mean, I need to be there for the next performance. The sales. The audience. My snakes, look after them, my lovelies.’ Then her eyes closed again. I patted her crumpled body.

Doctor Feinicott was very good. Neridah recovered quickly. I wanted to see her so badly but I was told I had to stay away so that the doctor could work properly and Neridah had the best chance of regaining her full health. When I was finally allowed to see her, she was sitting bolt upright in bed and looked so happy. I was glad I’d stayed away and let the doctor do his work. ‘I like deadly snakes to give my act a bit of oomph, but they have their downside,’ she confessed. ‘ Snakebite really hurts – don’t get it if you don’t have to!’

‘I’ll remember,’ I promised.

‘The doctor was lovely,’ she said. ‘Doctor Feinicott. A miracle worker. I feel better than before I got bitten.’

Neridah and I have always been there for each other and tonight I need her. I can hardly  believe it, but my leg feels a little stiff when I do my finale which I call ‘the Pretzel’. I still finish but it’s not quite as simple as it was yesterday, and it’s more of an effort to push my leg through. What did I do, sleep funny or something? However, I make it and give the crowd a huge smile, ignoring the little frisson of pain travelling through the muscles in my leg. It’s nothing, I think. These things happen.

As I’m getting changed, there’s a rap on my door. It’s Glen. A mangy old pair of lions prowl  by his side.

‘It’s getting old, Lola,’ he says. ‘Give the audience a bit more. Or you’re out.’ He cracks his whip. A lion growls and takes a step towards me.

I jump, and backflip away out of habit.

Glen laughs and cracks his whip again. The lion stops. ‘Not quite as fast as you used to be. Do you want to be out on the streets?’

‘Did you see the crowd? They love me. The biggest crowd in the circus, I’ll bet.’

‘It needs to be bigger,’ says Glen. ‘Or I’ll find another act.’

‘You couldn’t. I’m the best. I always am.’

‘Don’t flatter yourself, Lola. You’d be surprised how many young ladies can stick their leg behind their ear, if the price is right. And that fake grin of yours might fool a few in the audience but not me – and not the others for long, either. You’ve never been good at hiding your real feelings.’

‘You can’t – you wouldn’t – who else…?’ I trembled.

Glen smiles. ‘Have you heard of the Tootsie twins? They draw quite a crowd. Such a fresh act. They would be grateful for a regular job in a nice circus like this.’

‘All they do is wiggle their hips and pout!’

‘But so well! Everyone likes Siamese twins. You know I love you, Lola. I don’t want to throw you out of the circus, away from all of your friends. I don’t want to set my lions on you. Running out in the dark , in the cold , nothing to eat … I t’s no life for a pretty little thing like you. But what choice are you giving me, sweetheart? I’m a businessman. If you don’t fix your act, you may find audiences trading in pretzels, if you catch my drift.’ He cracks his whip once more, beckons to his lions, and then he is gone, striding out into the darkness. He means what he says.

Neridah comforts me. ‘The Tootsie twins have nothing on you, Lola. Glen won’t trade you for anything. He won’t get a new act. Oh, you silly snakey, all right, get some exercise.’ She let one of her snakes slink out of her basket and around the floor.

‘Everyone is replaceable. He says my act isn’t sharp enough.’

‘He’s wrong,’ says Neridah, sitting erect in her room as she always does now. Ever since her neck was fixed from the snakebite she sits straighter than ever. Her pose is queenly. ‘Listen to me, Lola. You will never be sent away, not so long as I’m here.’

‘Glen will send me away if I don’t do something. But what can I do? How much more can I do?’

‘You’re  perfect Lola, you always have been,’ she croons. ‘But I think there is a way to make you more perfect. I want you to see a man who really knows what he’s talking about. Not Glen, who can only think about dollars and cents. I want you to see Doctor Feinicott.’

‘Doctor Feinicott?’

‘Yes. Doctor Feinicott knows so much. He is remarkable. I think he may have something for you.’

So the next day, having sorted through and put together our savings, we’re sitting in Doctor Feinicott’s office. ‘Doctor Feinicott is a genius. He saved me from snakebite. He can save you too,’ said Neridah.

Doctor Feinicott does not respond to Neridah’s acclamation. He is staring at me. All my life, I have been to people looking at me. But not like this. He does not look with admiration or awe, but with studious interest.

I show Doctor Feinicott my act. I show him how I lift my leg higher than anyone and curve it around my body in ways others find stupefying and some say, disgusting. But they watch anyway.

 ‘Your legs and arms are not as flexible as they used to be,’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘You are a hundred times more beautiful and more flexible than any woman – but your limbs are growing stiffer. This is natural. This is what happens to most people in time.’

He is not being unkind. He does not sneer at me the way Glen did. He is simply watching my limbs and making notes. You can’t argue with someone so clinical.

‘We can do something about that,’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘Lola, I can make your arms as young as they were when you were contorting in your teens. They will never grow old. What do you think of that?’

It was as though a genie had jumped out of a bottle and had granted my greatest wish. ‘Do it,’ I said. ‘Make me beautiful. Make me twist and turn again!’

‘It won’t be easy,’ says Doctor Feinicott.

I think of being dragged out of my cabin by Glen. I think of him setting his lions on me and chasing me away. I imagine myself stumbling out past the huge CIRCUS sign which had protected me for years, away from the music, the cheers of crowds and the warmth of my friends, onto a lonely dirt path which led to nowhere.

‘I’ll do anything to stay in the circus.’

‘I’ll help,’ said Neridah. ‘I’ll do anything to keep Lola with me.’

‘Let me show you a little secret.’ Doctor Feinicott walks us to a door, unlocks it, and we all walk in.

Limbs of all sorts hang from every wall of the room. Arms and legs of all lengths and sizes. Is that a baby’s leg that I see curving towards me? But most of them are long shapely adults’ legs, strong and hard women’s and men’s legs.

Each limb is perfect. Two long legs are jogging rapidly together. Another pair appear to be waltzing – in mid-air. There are long gleaming arms and they reach out to me, fingers stretching as if to stroke my cheeks, and legs that curl and bend as if to show off a tumble. It reminds me of someone. It reminds me of myself.

Neridah emits a small scream, but she doesn’t run. She can’t help staring at the amazing array before us.

‘Prosthetic limbs,’ I murmur. ‘They’re so real. They look so strong.’

Is it repulsive that I feel some sort of affinity for the dangling limbs? All my life, my legs and arms have been so precious to me, their strength and flexibility have been my pride, my meal ticket, my life and love. Now, seeing them all around me, I feel as if I’m reunited with my family. I watch as a limb twitches its toes then does a quick high kick and I laugh as two legs synchronise in what would be the splits – if there were a pelvis to join them.

‘That’s because they are real,’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘These are not prosthetic. They are real arms and legs. Better than real, in many cases. Touch one.’

I reach out to a shin. It feels like real skin under my fingers. It’s even warm, like a real human. Nothing made in a factory could feel like this. I scratch it and a tiny flake catches under my nail and flakes off. The shin pulls away as my nails scrape it, in a swift, defensive movement.

‘Oh my …’ I say.

I look at Doctor Feinicott.  What are these?

‘I know what you may be thinking. No, I am not some murderer. I do not amputate limbs and tie them to walls, though that is the image I create. This is utterly scientific. I have grown these myself.’

‘Grown them?’

‘I simply need a few cells – easily obtained from skin and flesh and bones, borrowed from donors, even taken from myself at times. And I have grown legs and arms as proud and capable as the ones in front of you. Better than the ones that graced their donors, if I may say so myself. I understand how to nurture them, like a gardener growing a beautiful plant. I have several enhancing chemicals which I inject into them regularly which keep them as lovely and firm as they are now. The chemicals coat the bones with a shield so they will not crack under pressure. Other chemicals halt the aging process in them and make them extremely flexible. You can see my best examples over here. I can do the same for your arms and legs. I believe the chemical treatments will work even better on a subject attached to a body, a subject that has grown naturally rather than detached.’

I realise that Doctor Feinicott is now thinking of my limbs, not me, as the subjects.

‘We would inject you first, then insert an implant so the chemicals would automatically release into your body at the required periods,’ said Doctor Feinicott. ‘You would expect to feel a change in the flesh and tissue to some degree. The chemicals are of my own invention; I wrote a program for them and the messages are released through the chemical formula and into the flesh and muscle tissue to enhance your whole body. I could even write some more programs specifically for you; the possibilities are endless!’

Doctor Feinicott is sounding more and more eager. He gestures towards a set of six legs, all doing a little bend at the knee, then point, then an elegant kick, in synchronisation. ‘For instance, I have programmed some of these limbs to learn very complex movements. Watch them! This pair knows ballet better than any human ballerina you could find, because they are not hampered by the limitations of ordinary subjects. I’ve loved these limbs for a long time now. They are my children. I’ve always wanted to know how they would fare … if given the chance to dance in the real world.’

‘I could give them that chance,’ I murmur. ‘Oh, doctor! If this works, will my legs and arms look like these ones? Can I choose?’

‘I’m hoping they’ll look even better once you start using them, because you have years of training. Your own training, plus the programming we could add on to them … the combination would be the most amazing legs and arms on the planet.’

‘Then go ahead,’ I say. ‘Make my limbs strong.’

Neridah and I used up all our money on this first session with Doctor Feinicott, but he just wants to see his legs dance. We agree he’ll work for free so long as I show him how the legs move, and report on my progress for his journal.

The first set of treatments is possibly the worst. The doctor has me undress from the waist down and lie on a small table. There can be no anaesthetic, nothing to interfere with his chemicals. We want the maximum effect.

‘Just try to think of something else. Something calm, something you love,’ he says.

It is the maximum effect, alright. I could not think of anything greater. I scream and Doctor Feinicott is there, calmly adjusting his different bottles and needles and watching me scream.

A squirt of liquid is rushing through my legs. I am alert to every sensation in my body, and somehow trying to visualise helps me withstand it. Concentrate, I tell myself. Concentrate on one section of your leg and you won’t think about how much the rest is hurting.

I swear I can almost visualise rivulets of  colours rushing through my left thigh and then my entire leg is on fire, swelling, stiffening. No, concentrate just on the thigh, I tell myself. Little pinpricks are  rising on  my skin, and I scream.

I can hear Doctor Feinicott say, ‘It’s just temporary.’ His voice sounds so far away.

I want to scream until there’s nothing left inside me, and empty myself, including my whole leg, of any feeling.

Later, I am aware that my leg is spasming feebly, involuntarily, and my head rests on a pillow. There’s a little puddle of vomit in front of me, and I can smell myself covered in sweat.

‘You’re doing very well,’ says Doctor Feinicott. I nod. I’m just grateful that the pain has stopped.

‘Feeling better?’

I nod.

‘Then we’re ready to do the arms.’

After the first treatments, it is difficult to get used to my new, improved limbs. At first I cannot move them at all. I lie in bed and try to signal a finger or toe and they seem to not belong to me anymore. Doctor Feinicott, though, is excellent at helping me with overcoming this. He helps me focus on the different areas of my body that allow me to regain control. He gives me exercises so at first I can move one leg a bit then I can coordinate it with my other leg. I visit Doctor Feinicott and show him what I can do and he scribbles notes in his journal. The way he stares at me, so calmly, is unnerving. Soon I am scratching my ear with my foot with no trouble.

But it’s not just the ability to use my legs that I need to regain. It’s getting used to the feeling of them. They feel harder and bulkier, and I am not sure if this is a good thing. I am supposed to be beautiful and slim, and when I lift my heavier leg I feel a bit self-conscious.

‘You still are,’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘The limbs are more sturdy. The bulk you feel is more about their weight on the inside than any perceptible difference on the outside. You will need to get used to that. However, you are also much, much stronger. You can easily carry that extra weight. You just need to overcome the psychological burden of it.’

When I get off the table for the first time, I feel like my legs are made of steel rods. Maybe they are. Doctor Feinicott said my bones would be coated with something strong. He didn’t say what. My arms sag by my sides too.

‘Posture, Lola!’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘Hold yourself upright! Get used to your arms and legs!’

I have to get used to this new heavy feeling. I’m dragging my body. It’s hard to snap to it, to do even the basic jumps and stretches I used to when I’m not used to the amount of energy I need for each limb. But I need to adjust soon, Doctor Feinicott says, because I need to be into my next exercise session before the next set of treatments.

 ‘You don’t want your legs stagnating. Stretch, stretch, stretch!’

I stretch. It’s a strange feeling. At one moment one push isn’t enough to send my arms and legs wide, then I over compensate and I’m contorting in shapes I could never have imagined. My arms and legs are both steel rods and elastic, and the liquid metal I’ve always felt so at home with. Now, can I push my arms in a twist right behind my back, then pull them over my head?  I can, and I can twist them several times more!

I realise how amazing my limbs are. I can twist and bend them in ways I had not been able to before. I do not fear breaking them. I can feel how strong each arm and leg is. I am contorting and tumbling and Doctor Feinicott lets me loose in his secret room to dance with the strong limbs that dangle there. Here I’m at home; they kick and I show them a higher kick, they give me their programmed bend and stretch and I return it with one that bends lower and stretches higher.

I do all my exercises under Doctor Feinicott’s watchful eye.

The other watchful eye I’m aware of is Glen’s. I’m cutting rehearsals a lot to visit Doctor Feinicott.  Neridah covers for me as much as possible; sometimes I sneak out to the doctor late at night. Now there’s a rumour that I’m having an affair with some fat married village man. Glen seems to think this is at least more acceptable. Loose acts are intolerable, loose morals he can turn a blind eye to.

My new limbs are a weight to get used to, but they are amazingly fast and flexible, and they seem almost to  have a mind of their own. I don’t have to worry about doing the Pretzel. My legs and arms do it for me. They stretch and curl in ways I don’t even have to dream up. The Pretzel, which always drew the most oo hs and aahs from the crowd, seems so simple. I can do a Double Pretzel now!

It’s clear that Doctor Feinicott is excited to see his ‘subjects’ working so well.

‘They’re better than I had even hoped … oh, I think that right leg has a memory of its own, look at how perfectly it executed that kick, and how tightly it wraps itself around your neck!’

‘I don’t know how I’m doing it,’ I say, kicking behind my back rapidly. ‘I’ve never done that move before, but everyone will love it. I hope I can replicate it for the show.’

‘You’ll be doing it many, many more times,’ Doctor Feinicott promised me. ‘I choreographed that move and injected it into your muscle tissue memory. Your legs know it better than you do, now. You will literally do it without thinking. It’s better than I expected!’

It seems strange to have my legs and arms being discussed as entities separate from myself, but I force myself to smile and keep going. I have to force myself now, for while I am overjoyed that I can reach every movement of my exercises with unbelievable ease, my legs and arms ache. It is not the satisfying strain of a good workout – I’ve known that pain for years. It’s a different ache now, the ache of something foreign swimming in my legs, of my flesh pulsing and swelling and pushing against itself. It is how my new legs have been made, I remind myself. Every performer makes sacrifices, so just grin and get on with the show!

The next treatment is the implant.

‘Just hold onto the bar beside the bed and scream if you need to,’ he says cheerily. I watch the glint of silver as he selects the scalpel to plunge into my flesh.

My pillow is wet with tears and I’m sobbing, shrieking incoherently, but Doctor Feinicott works away. He has  slit down my right side. Something cold and hard is being pushed into me and I can feel him pushing a tube up, past where he cut me, up into my shoulder, and then down past my hip to touch the top of my thigh.

Then the other side.

 I close my eyes and try to picture myself out on the wire, the audience chanting my name. This is what it’s all about, I remind myself. As my legs and arms throb, I whisper with their beat, LOLA, LOLA, LOLA, and I screw up my face until Doctor Feinicott prises my fingers from the sides of the bed and tells me to take a little rest and then go back to exercising.

My legs and arms are in agony through the next practice, but one thing is for sure – my act has improved many times over. I take a leap high into the air – I won’t need a l aunchpad now, I can jump from the ground right to the highest highwire and land delicately on two feet. My whole body screams in pain but I push my mouth into a smile and stretch my arms behind me, round me, do a dazzling tumble backwards…

Neridah and Doctor Feinicott applaud. ‘You are more perfect than perfect, Lola!’ cries Neridah from her chair.

‘Not perfect,’ I correct them. I look at my face in the mirror. My eyes are baggy and red with the tears I’ve been unashamedly pouring out. There seems to be a little crease by my eye, where I’ve been scrunching up my face in pain. Neridah wordlessly dabs away my tears and helps me apply makeup. My face will not betray one sob I’ve let through.

I dazzle the audience in my next show. I can see Glen standing at the back. I throw him a defiant smile and tumble on to the highwire. Each piece of my flesh is throbbing, screaming at the audience, but it pushes me further. I will show them all, especially those old lions! I twirl, I flip higher in the air than I have done in my life, my twists are tight and my head curls backward, my legs curl around my waist, my arms stretch backwards and I fly, I fly! My legs do the series of neat kicks Doctor Feinicott programmed for me, and the audience goes crazy.

Then I complete with a neat Double Pretzel that leaves everyone shouting for more. Glen nods, gives me a smile and I know I won’t be leaving. Not tonight. Not any night soon. I look out at the crowds and blow my kiss. Thank you, thank you, this is what I was made for! I think of Doctor Feinicott and the treatments I’ve done, and those to come. Quite literally, it is what I am being made for.

‘Only one more official course of treatment to go,’ says Doctor Feinicott. ‘I want to add some extra compounds to that implant, and you need to undergo some tissue replacement to ensure you’re at your very best. Unless you want anything else. Let me know if you have any questions.’

It’s strange : it has  been a few weeks and the discomfort I feel, even the tingling and the sting in my legs and upper shoulders that stayed with me after the first round of treatments, has not faded. I’ve been willing for it to go away each night, but instead each treatment adds another layer to it.

Each night I worry about how the pain in my knees might travel upwards and betray itself elsewhere, that I may find a pimple on my face, a grey hair, or a tear in my eyes. I’ve stopped crying by sheer will as I know what havoc it plays with my eyes, but I don’t know how much longer I can simply will it away.

I turn to Neridah, sitting bolt upright beside me. She is never otherwise than bolt upright. And she never lets on to anyone how it feels.

‘Neridah … Does the pain ever go away?’

She smiles at me and for the first time I notice how forced her smile seems and how she never seems to change from that unnaturally erect posture. I have never seen her relax since she was bitten by her snake.

 ‘Lola, does it matter? We can perform, that’s what matters. We don’t have to leave the circus. Leaving you, that is what would hurt.’ Her hand brushes mine lightly and for a brief moment I forget the throbbing of my legs in the warmth of her friendship. Only briefly, but it’s enough.

‘Is there anything else you want to ask me?’ says Doctor Feinicott.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘There’s just one more thing, doctor. I … it hurts so much. I find it hard to smile for my crowd. They expect it though. But it’s so much effort.’

‘I warned you that it would not be easy,’ he says.

‘I know,’ I say. ‘But you can do anything. Make me smile, doctor. You can do that, can’t you?’

He hesitates. ‘I can put something in to push your lips on either side, and a calculation in them to move a little for authenticity, I can keep your eyes dry. … but it will hurt. You understand?’

I think of myself, tumbling on the highwire, not having to worry about my smile. My smile being in place for them forever. My lips forced up at the corners. My eyes never welling with tears, gloriously, stingingly dry, never puffy and red. No one ever knowing what I’m really enduring. It will hurt. But I have faith in Doctor Feinicott’s exemplary work. And the smile he will give me, I am sure, will be better than any smile I could force, night after night, even if the extra pain I have to endure means that what’s behind it will be a million light years away from what my face is expressing.

‘I know.’

Doctor Feinicott lifts his syringe and his knife and I close my eyes and submit. Hide me behind a smile, doctor.

It will all be worth it.

Rebecca is from Sydney and loves to write dark fiction. She also loves mandarins, owls and chocolates and can often be found on the sofa with her face buried in a book. Her ghost story, “A Little Peace” was selected for Midnight Echo’s “Best of” anthology, Dead of Night (2016).