THE GREAT LEONARDO
adapted from The Great Leonardo by Erica Wagner
His heart was pounding now, like it always did just before he went out into the ring. He had
imagined he would get used to it: that his palm, curved around the handle of the thin black
whip, would cease to sweat, and that his chest would cease to feel constricted by the glittering
silver leotard. He had always dusted his armpits with talc; shifting from foot to foot he felt
the wet mineral slippery on his skin. He inhaled, flexed his arms and watched the muscle
bunch like the back of a dolphin curving through water. The smell reminded him of his
childhood. His father used to take him to the circus every year; there was a troupe that came
each spring and set up their tent on the village green. His father bought him candyfloss
and peanuts and they sat rapt, admiring the artists and their feats of daring.
Across from him, on the other side of the tent, they were rolling out the cages, one by one,
linking them together to form a train of ferocity. It was quite dark in the wings, he could not
see very clearly, but he could make out the shapes in the cages, moving, twisting in their
small spaces, and pressing their fur against the bars. He knew they sensed his presence
as much as he did theirs, and it made a vivid bridge between them, across the tent, across
the ring, waiting for the moment they would meet. At the moment when the cages were
opened, the ranks of seething, fidgety people usually became still, watching his glittering
smoothness move so easily among the huge beasts. They would think he had tamed them with
his whip and his strength, but that was not so. He knew that things could always happen.
After all the cats were wild. The sweat trickled down between his shoulders as he watched
the clowns roll about the ring or run up and down in the dimness of the audience.
It was almost time. Standing in the corner, the ringmaster was adjusting his brilliant coat,
pulling on his tie, clearing his throat. In their cages the cats waited. The ringmaster strode into
the ring. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen!’ he called. ‘The moment you have all been waiting for!
What more can I say? He needs no introduction. I give you The Great Leonardo!’
A little hop off his toes and he was running into the light, his arms and chest wide, his legs
pushing him gracefully out into the centre ring, seeing the cages out of the corner of his eye
roll to meet him. The clowns and roustabouts pulled the barred train into a semi-circle behind
him as he bowed deeply, his head nearly brushing the sawdust on the ring floor, his face set
still and stern. The crowd – from here they looked like bubbles on the surface of turbulent
water – shouted and whistled and clapped, twirled their brightly glowing torches upwards to
make small acres of spinning light.
The Great Leonardo let one arm drop slowly to his side and brought the other hand to his
mouth, one finger on his lips, in an exaggerated gesture for silence. There was whispering,
shuffling, giggles, and then quiet. He never spoke during the course of his act. The previous
lion tamer, Cat Man, had been hard of hearing, and had trained the animals with a series of gestures and claps without ever touching them. Cat Man had, however, spoken
to the audience. To keep them on tenterhooks, he told them of dangerous acts of daring,
of the extraordinary cunning of the animals and warned them of what was to come.
The Great Leonardo did not open his mouth. He clapped his hands twice. The roustabouts
jumped to the front of the cages and turned the keys in their locks. The doors opened in
a repeating curve, the roustabouts slipped out of the ring, and the cats glided out of their cages
to sit in a circle around him. The audience began to applaud, and then, recalling his gesture,
rustled quickly into silence.