Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade picked her up a day outside Denver. Jackson wouldn’t stop for a cow on the tracks, but he stopped for this little thing, with her pale hair and paler eyes. Brought the entire train to a stop to scoop her from the tracks with his long arms.
I wrote those words sometime in 2004. I had no idea where they would lead me. “Vanishing Act” was first published in Sci Fiction by Ellen Datlow, and has been reprinted in CIRCUS: Fantasy Under the Big Top.
While the stories are connected, you don’t have to read them in any certain order.
Vanishing Act – SciFiction (reprinted in Circus: Fantasy Under the Big Top, 2012)
I was working with the quarters when she began to wail, rolling them across my fingers before trying to turn them into nickels. The steam whistle crowed as we crossed the state line, Colorado into New Mexico, and she came alive as though submerged in hot water. The quarters tumbled off my fingers, onto the floor where they lay as she shrieked, curled her hands over her ears, and moaned. Her face was creased with pain; for a moment, she looked like she’d been raked with hot metal.
Ticket to Ride – Fantasy Magazine #4
Jack focused again on the ticket. He picked it up, between thumb and forefinger, and a thrill ran down my spine. Jack licked his lips and I felt his tongue’s wetness against my own mouth. Who had given him the ticket? It didn’t matter. He would come now, into my tent. I would try again. It had been so long, an entire season. My bones felt loose under my skin.
Liminal – Fantasy Magazine
I was already dead when the train came, but still I heard that whistle. Felt the keening wail all the way into my bones that were no longer bones. I could feel, too, the warmth of the railroad track, beneath hands that were not my own. Gemma’s fingers curled around the rail and the last rumbling of the cars rolled up her arm, into her shoulder, to curl around her neck like a scarf. Sombra reached for Gemma, hauled her easily into the car while the scent of old hay and animals rose around us. Horses, I think it was horses, as we three flopped there and waited for the train to lurch into motion. It did not.
Lady Marmalade – Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The lime rind is slick between her brown fingers and she looks up to Jackson’s face which peers through the caboose’s side window. Weathered, lined, still the color of a baby’s belly in the gloom of pre-dawn. Beth is not her name, though she responds well enough to it by now. Perhaps one of the countless jars that line the wall of the caboose-turned-bakery contains her real name, but if so, it is pushed well to the back, gathering dust, cobwebs, forgetfulness. She has not forgotten; she cannot.
Artificial Nocturne – Beneath Ceaseless Skies (July 2013)
Rosemary and mint drip from the impossibly long fingers of Maman Floss as she spreads cooling bat grease across my shoulder. I keep my eyes closed, her voice wrapping around me in a contralto so soothing I forget the constant pain that radiates from shoulder to fingertips. She tells me: If I had broken you earlier, chauve-souris, you would not feel such agony. I should not have taken you, but sometimes you see a thing and cannot resist. You can see what it should be and make it such.
Wrought Out From Within Upon the Flesh — The Dark #2 (December 2013)
Cassandra coils within the glass confines of the jar, pale eyes staring at those who roam beyond. They in their suits and day dresses; they who dare to stare at her. She is beautiful, beyond compare. She knows this in a way they do not, but in a way they will come to understand. She arches her neck and mouths part in wonder. It is not her neck they linger on. Gazes slide down that column of flesh, over the curve of her shoulder and down the length of her arm. Her arm is a golden river, curving at the elbow with a kind of perfection they have never seen, have only imagined. Their eyes come to the narrowing of her wrist and here — here — they draw breath.
We, As One, Trailing Embers — Beneath Ceaseless Skies (May 2014)
We two live as one, but also as two when we are able. When night deepens and the park grounds grow quiet, we can let everything else fall away. When night deepens, we each close our eyes and pretend the same thing: we are a single being, we are alone in our body, we make every choice on our own, for our singular self. We pretend there is but one torso rising from this pelvis, only one head and only one heart. There is not another arm or wing to find our selves entangled in, nor another set of our eyes staring at us. In the darkness, there is only one.
Inland Territory, Stray Italian Greyhound, Vignettes from the End of the World (April 2014)
At the end of all things, there remains this: the battered circus train moving through a smudged charcoal world. This train — those who know the train best call her she, her, sister— serpentine and sure, knows that at the end of these rails — even if broken — there will be something, someone, somewhere. The train says so.
Splitskin, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (April 2015; to be reprinted in Transcendent, Lethe Press, 2016)
Gugán was always my khaa yahaayí, my soul bound into the flesh of another while yet part of my own. From beginning to the end, Gugán’s bones were my bones, his breath my breath. He moved as sun and I as moon, reflecting and eclipsing the other in eternal dance, one standing brighter for the other’s shadows. The immortal ghost of him—khaa yakghwahéiyagu—remains with me even as I speak these words. Hear him speak with my voice if this pleases, using my tongue as if it is his own, because it is. We were born with two spirits, never only male or female, but revered for the way we walked both paths, each unable to exist without the other.
Blow the Moon Out, Giganotosaurus (novelette – August 2015)
In those moments before, in the dark of the woods, we were near perfect likenesses of each other: faces round and curious, not having lost the plumpness of youth; eyes brightened by the possibility that lay at the end of our journey; coats buttoned up proper and bags carrying all we thought we needed still neatly zippered closed.
One might look at we four and say sisters, but we were not. Beneath our exteriors, we were as different as sun and moon, as Earth and Mars. Each might hang in the same sky, but one burned with its own light while the other could only reflect what was thrown its direction; one exploded with water and life while the other hung as a dry husk, millennia dead.
Cloud Dweller, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (May 2016)
At the familiar contralto voice of Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, who was neither a duchess nor a Romanov, Vasily Agranovsky lifted his gaze from his triangles of cold, buttered toast, and sat a little straighter. In the St. Cloud Hotel’s bustling Starlite Dining Room, the duchess joined him at the table uninvited, her loose kaftan embroidered with gold and ivory combining with her imposing circumference to swallow the chair upon which she perched. She appeared a fluffed owl upon a branch, not the reigning fat lady of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade.
The Kraken Sea (Apex Book Company, summer 2016)
It began with a dragon in the pouring rain, the beast barely held at bay, balanced upon two thin steel rails. Steam poured from its black mouth and guts, billowing through the damp gloom. A brief spark of after-rain sunlight caught within its glassy green eye, against sharp metal tooth, and when the steam gave way, young Jackson could see it was no dragon, but a train. The train was headed as far west as it could go and Jackson, aged fifteen-and-one-half, in the Year of Our Lord 1893, would be on it.
Ebb Stung By the Flow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (July 2016)
We are a train, tonight comprised of eighteen cars. Our shape and size are dictated by the needs of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Sometimes we are smaller, and sometimes we stretch long. Inside, cars can expand for miles, with golden savanna, gray tundra, wildflower meadow; inside, cars can be but a thin metal frame around towering chalk cliffs. Outside, seawater rushes in our wake, and sometimes, arctic snow.
The Three-tongued Mummy, Apex (May 2017)
For a penny, the three-tongued mummy will tell you your fate. The three-tongued mummy will speak to you in sibilant whispers of the waters at the edge of the pier, the way they lick the stones as if in an effort to climb onto the pier itself. But the edge of the pier is slippery with mosses that the mummy cannot name, so the water always slides back into its place. One day, the three-tongued mummy says, you will slide down with it. When you do, you aren’t at all surprised, but the glimpse of the moon over the edge of the pier does surprise you; the mummy never mentioned the moon, nor how clear the craters looked across the half-shadowed edge.
Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
They say that when you go to the sky-reflected ocean and strip yourself as bare as the day you were born, the water will take you in. It will hurt—don’t fool yourself. The transition between one life and the next is never without pain or grief. When you hit the water, they say your human form will be stripped away. You will be rendered down, but not away. You will become what you always sought to be: free.
The Grand Tour, a collection from Apex Book Company (June 2020)
“Readers looking for a dreamlike diversion will find plenty to hold their interest” —Publisher’s Weekly
Step right up! Come one, come all, to Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. The steam train may look older than your great-grandmother’s’ china, but within her metal corridors are destinations you have only ever dreamed. They’re real, friends, each and every one—and yours for the taking.
Witness Rabi, Vanquisher and Vanisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. Dare to visit the Beauty and the Beast, our conjoined twins who are terrible and tortured by turns. Sample Beth’s marmalade, the sticky sweetness containing the very memory of the day you turned sixteen, and your beloved’s lips touched yours once and never again.It’s worth the price, traveler. Jackson’s Unreal Circus is where you can be whoever or whatever you want. Whether it be a ride on the Ferris wheel, slipping inside a skin that is not your own, or the opportunity to live as you never have before—it is all possible on this, the grandest of tours. The train beckons you—come, come!
For the first time, E. Catherine Tobler has compiled a collection of her popular circus stories. With nine stories ranging from the first publishing within this universe to a previously unpublished piece, this is your ticket to her magical world. Welcome to The Grand Tour.
Contains the following destinations:
“We, As One, Trailing Embers”
“Blow the Moon Out”
“Ebb Stung by the Flow”
“Every Season” (original to this collection)
“Inland Territory; Stray Italian Greyhound”
Also features a special introduction by Hugo-nominated author A.C. Wise! Includes interior accompanying art by Tressina Bowling.
Cover art by Cyril Rolando
ISBN (TPB) 978-1-937009-81-6