“Riggers” by RJ Barker

13 min read

We look after our own in this circus. As long as I’m ringmaster we always will.

The Riggers turned up at the camp one morning as we were starting to erect the Big Top.

Anywhere else there would have been screaming, running, fear, panic, but this is the Circus, strange is everyday. Five black figures strode out of the morning mist, buzzing at each other as they came to stop in front of the tent we’d spent hours laying out. They stood there; it was something about their arms and legs that upset me most of all, too long, too spindly. Too strange.

We tried to make them go away but they didn’t want to.

Andre, our strong man, ended up with a broken arm; snapped with such contemptuous ease that we knew, if they had really wanted to, they could have killed him. One flick of a triple elbowed, black carapaced appendage left Andre’s arm hanging uselessly at his side.

He screamed a lot.

Andre is a big man, ex-army and with a history of violence that had forced him away from the public and into our arms. He’d never lifted a finger against us, he was our protector, and with him beaten so easily we had few choices but to withdraw. Walk away and gather in small groups to curse and mutter. A couple of the crew suggested calling the police but that was never going to happen.

We look after our own, we sort out our own problems.

Outsiders make things worse.

Tommy the Dwarf noticed what they were doing first. Although we never mean to ignore Tommy he always seems to be on the outskirts of our conversations. Even within the tight-knit group of dwarves he’s shunned a little as if he makes them uncomfortable. He’s not the brightest, or nicest of buttons our Tommy, but we still love him.

“Look at what the fucking bastards are doing!” he shouted. Tommy swears all the time, as though he thinks his rough language can increase his mental stature.

The creatures were putting up our tent. Buzzing at each other from deep within those shining, black, barrel-chested bodies as they worked. One of them lifted the main tent pole, a task that usually took twenty of us pulling and sweating and heaving together. The four other creatures scrambled up the pole, holding thick steel mooring wires in chittered hands and buzzing in harmony.

The sound hurt my ears.

We drank bad coffee and watched as the creatures put up our tent in a third of the time it would usually take us. With that done they stayed aloft, hiding in the rafters among the web of high-tension cables. We didn’t know how to get them down and they seemed happy up there.

We went ahead with rehearsals as planned.

What else could we do?

We always wanted to hire some fucking bastard riggers anyway,’ said Tommy the Dwarf then he stared up into the heights of the tent, ‘fucking bastards’.

The Riggers didn’t bother us as we rehearsed so we decided to leave them up there. Not that we had a choice. Working out how to get them down could wait until it came to de-rigging the tent and besides, we had a show to put on.

There’s a right time for all things.

During the performance that night we discovered that the Riggers were territorial. Ellie, the trapeze artist went up in one of her arcing swings and never came down. At first, the audience became hushed, only the odd cough or screaming child breaking the silence as we waited. A scattering of nervous laughter pattered around the tent until, with a deft bow, a practiced smile and a crack of my whip I turned it into a deafening round of applause. You never let the audience know that anything is wrong. Up above me something with compound eyes the size of my head stared down from its place in the heights of the tent.

Ellie would have enjoyed the acclaim.

It was how she would have wanted to go.

The Riggers don’t have faces, just what looks like a tall and thin triangular mass of compacted hair, two small tentacles, in constant motion, stick out from the front of it and their massive compound eyes are slightly offset from each other; one half-way up the triangle of their head the other slightly higher. The lack of symmetry gives them a sense of menace that’s difficult to explain if you haven’t seen them. But it is there.

They are unsettling to look at, but so am I, if you get too close. My scars are mostly healed but you can see the thin web of white raised flesh that covers my skin. If you get near enough to look.

Which you won’t.

No one spoke to me about what had happened. Ellie had never been popular, the trapeze artists are often difficult to get on with and like to position themselves outside the tightly knit community of the circus. It’s a terrible joke but they are a highly strung breed. My mother and father were a trapeze act. I had heard that their circus had recently closed.

It’s difficult not to smile when I think of them being out of work.

Ellie’s husband, Joachim, was gone the next morning, he didn’t take any of his things. We burned his clothes and doled out the rest of his possessions amongst us, it’s the way things are done.

For the dead.

When it was time to move on the Riggers seemed to know, I don’t know how but they did. They brought down the tent and left it laid out as they had found it when they appeared.

Woven around the main pole was a thick band of brown hair.

Ellie’s hair had been brown.

We burnt the hair and the Riggers took over her empty caravan.

At the next town, we hired on a trampolinist.

Sometimes, on the nights when we are stopped between towns, I peer in through the window of the Rigger’s caravan. The interior is covered in grey webbing and along with its length pulse small, blue lights. On the webbing are suspended the Riggers, they have humanoid shapes but the absolute black of their shells turns them into floating silhouettes against the pulsing light. It looks as though someone has casually strewn them around the interior of the caravan, some upside down, some sideways as if gravity has no hold on them.

When they first arrived we feared them because they were alien. It’s natural, but after a time you learn to accept almost anything and get on with your life.

I learned that when I was a young girl.

Now the Riggers always put the tent up. We have to lay it out for them but it’s still a much easier task than putting the thing up ourselves. In exchange for putting the tent up, they get to live in the rafters during performances. They seem happy, sometimes we hear them buzzing to each other. I wish I knew what it meant.

The trampolinist lasted one show before she bounced just that bit too high. I’m glad we hadn’t had time to get to know her that well.

We tried all manner of the more spectacular acts but it always ended, unfortunately.

Our circus appeared in the newspaper. They referred to us the “Bermuda Triangle of Entertainment,” that brought us a lot more custom but of course it also brought the police. Always a problem. Not all of the circus people have visas or work permits so our staff halves when the police arrive.

It was a familiar experience: to walk around with the policeman while his men searched the caravans for evidence of foul play, all the while smiling and pretending nothing was wrong.
When we walked toward the Riggers’ caravan I tried to act normally whilst thinking of some sort of excuse or way of explaining them away. They buzzed more loudly than usual and I wished they would stop, it was sure to attract attention and made me feel like my head was about to explode. The policeman walked straight past the caravan. The only sign he made of being aware of something was to bat around his head with a hand, as if at a mosquito.

“Damn flies,” he said, as he motioned his men back to their cars. ‘You got any runaways hiding here? You should tell us if you have, it’ll go badly for you if we come back one day and find something’

‘Just me,’ I said and my face flushed with guilt. My younger sister would be fifteen now.

‘Was that a joke?’ he asked.

I said nothing. Sometimes it’s best to stay quiet and hope no one notices you

The policeman shrugged his shoulders and left. Human Cannonball joined us without an invitation. He wasn’t a circus person, he was a man bent on fame who saw us as a vehicle to amplify his own profile after reading about us in the paper. He laughed at the dwarves, he made fun of Oswald, the hunch-backed dog trainer, and he had no respect for me, his ringmaster. He was a big man who called himself Orlok, he’d heard it in a film somewhere and thought it sounded exotic. In reality, he was from a small provincial town and had no talent other than being hurled from a gun, and an innate ability to bully people he knew could not strike back.

Usually, Andre would deal with such people. But Orlok had come forewarned and with stories about how immigration dealt with those wanted for crimes in other countries. Andre went pale and wouldn’t approach Orlok. He said his broken arm was still healing and there was nothing he could do. He could still lift his weights though.

I wondered what Andre had done and then realized it didn’t matter, he was one of us now.

Orlok didn’t get up early enough to help with the tent so he never saw the Riggers. As the policeman, he was unaware of their caravan. He considered himself our big draw since we had no high wire acts. What happened was inevitable really.

He wouldn’t listen.

We talked to him about low trajectories and how bad things might happen if he tried to go too high.

“You’re circus people and you’re superstitious,” he flicked an imaginary something off his shoulder, barely bothering to acknowledge me, “I can’t abide by them, I got records to break.” He turned away from me to smear more oil on his bare, well-muscled chest.

That night the “Bermuda Triangle of Entertainment” claimed another victim. I can’t say I would have lost too much sleep about it if I hadn’t changed my usual routine.

When the audience had left I wandered into the performers’ circle and sat down. As a rule, after sunset, we don’t go into the top. We’re not forbidden to, if you don’t go too high the Riggers don’t seem to care, but still, the big top is a dark place and who knows what might happen in the dark?

A Drunk man: Heavy fists. A laughing woman. A crying baby.

I don’t like the dark.

I sat in the front row, earlier a large group of children had been sat there

They had laughed and smiled all the way through the show.

Children should laugh and smile. It’s very important to me.

As I sat there I heard a noise above the constant creak of canvas and wood as the tent strained against the wind. It wasn’t the strange hum of the Riggers talking to one another, something different, something alien.

Whimpering.

Human whimpering, a piteous sound. If a dog was making that sound I’d have shot it. I walked to the center of the ring, damp sawdust squeaking under my boots, and looked up. Out of the darkness fell an object, fluttering and twisting in the air, a strange snowflake that landed to glint up at me from the dirty sawdust; a crescent of moisture on one rounded end.

A single human fingernail.

I picked it up and returned to my seat on the front row wondering what to do and eventually deciding on nothing. I was watching a spider weave its web on the chair in front of me until it crouched down in the center waiting for food to fly into its trap.

The whimpering from above went on for a long time.

Eventually, I left. Thoughts of human whimpering. Thoughts of another me and another circus on my mind. Thoughts of all those performers who’d never interfered when the fists were flying.

Circus people are always looking for work.

The Riggers were totally uninterested in everything around them, uninterested to the point of being oblivious. One day a Rigger stepped on one of the Oswalds’ trained dogs as it walked back to its caravan after packing up. There was no malice in what the Rigger did. It didn’t do it on purpose or to hurt the dog, it was as if the dog wasn’t there for it. The same way they act around anyone who doesn’t infringe on their territory. One hard black foot landed on the dog, it didn’t even peer down with that great off-set, compound eyes. There was an audible “Snap!” as the carapaced foot crushed the animal’s spine.

The Rigger walked on, leaving the crippled animal screaming in pain and Oswald crying for his dog. Andre took a barbell and put the little creature out of its misery with a swift downward stroke. Oswald screamed and cried, consumed by grief he started after the Rigger but I grabbed him and held him back. He shrugged me off and stood alone, shaking and weeping to himself. A long time ago he’d withdrawn from human contact, his deformity making him shun most people, but he loved his dogs like they were his children.

He kept them safe.

Parents should keep their children safe.

“This can’t go on, we need to get rid of them, we need to. They are murderers,” he hissed.

Expulsion from the circus requires all of our input. A meeting. This one was especially rowdy, some fought for the Riggers, how useful they were, how they asked nothing and gave their strength. Others wanted them dead, Oswald led this faction, still crying. All hell broke loose when Andre told us he knew people who could get us guns if we needed them.

No one mentioned the trampolinist, or Ellie, or Orlok but they were outraged about the dog.

They are not bad people, my circus crew. They were scared and to tell the truth so was I.  The Riggers were so unlike us, and it was hard not to wonder what was going on behind those expressionless compound eyes. Most days I tried not to think about them. The meeting ended deadlocked, and as is always the case when they don’t know where to turn, they looked to me. 

Ringmaster, in and out of the ring. 

I needed to walk and think, I told them so and they sat back to wait.

I had the fingernail in my pocket, I took it out and looked at it. It was a symbol of pain.  They hadn’t hurt anyone I really cared about, yet, but who knew what they would do? 

Buzzing floated through the still night air and I followed the sound.

 It came from the far side of the tent, near the animal cages.  The sound as the Rigger’s foot snapped the dog’s spine sprang into my mind, I ran. Without a High Wire act, the animals were our big draw now.

All five Riggers stood in front of the bear’s cage. They held, what passed for them as, hands as they hummed. The bear was unharmed and pacing backward and forwards in its usual endless stalking of imaginary prey. After a few moments, the Riggers seemed to slump slightly and the towering black figures moved on to the chimps. They ignored the horses and the dogs, all the animals that were native to this country were passed by. 

The way the Riggers hummed, it seemed mournful, lost. 

My decision was made then, amongst the animals as I listened to the Riggers sing a sad lost song. No one should be alone, everyone needs some sort of family, a place they can be safe. Somewhere to be a home when your real home is somewhere you can never go back to.

The Riggers were part of our family now.

Maybe it was time we got a new trapeze act.

I wondered whether my mother or father would recognize me after ten years.

I had a letter to write, a job offer to send.

I wondered whether my sister would be scared too. I hoped she wasn’t too damaged.

A family reunion to organize. 

I would have to find a way to keep her off the trapeze though.

We look after our own in this circus. 

As long as I’m ringmaster we always will.

About the Author

RJ Barker is a multiple-award-nominated author of The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy, a softly-spoken Yorkshireman with flowing locks. He lives in the frozen north with his wife and son.

“Riggers” is available in paperback in Three Crows Year One and Issue #3 of Three Crows Magazine

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