Now all that remained of the old parade had ended here. Some of the cage wagons stood upright in the deep waters of the canal, others were tilted flat over on their sides and buried in the tides that revealed them some dawns or covered them some midnights. Fish swarmed in and out of the bars. By day small boys came and danced about on the huge lost islands of steel and wood and sometimes popped inside and shook the bars and roared.
But now, long after midnight with the last trolley gone to destinations north along the empty sands, the canals lapped their black waters and sucked at the cages like old women sucking their empty gums.
I came running, head down against the rain which suddenly cleared and stopped. The moon broke through a rift of darkness like a great eye watching me. I walked on mirrors which showed me the same moon and clouds. I walked on the sky beneath, and something happened. . . .
From somewhere a block or so away, a tidal surge of salt water came rolling black and smooth between the canal banks. Somewhere a sandbar had broken and let the sea in. And here the dark waters came. The tide reached a small overpass bridge at the same moment I reached the center.
The water hissed about the old lion cages.
I quickened. I seized the rail of the bridge.
For in one cage, directly below me, a dim phosphorescence bumped the inside of the bars.
A hand gestured from within the cage.
Some old lion-tamer, gone to sleep, had just wakened to find himself in a strange place.
An arm outstretched within the cage, behind the bars, languidly. The lion-tamer was coming full awake.
The water fell and rose again.
And a ghost pressed to the bars.
Bent over the rail, I could not believe.
But now the spirit-light took shape. Not only a hand, an arm, but an entire body sagged and loosely gesticulated, like an immense marionette, trapped in iron.
A pale face, with empty eyes which took light from the moon, and showed nothing else, was there like a silver mask.
Then the tide shrugged and sank. The body vanished.
Somewhere inside my head, the vast trolley rounded a curve of rusted track, choked brakes, threw sparks, screamed to a halt as somewhere an unseen man jolted out those words with every run, jump, rush.
“Death is a lonely business.”
The tide rose again in a gesture like a seance remembered from some other night.
And the ghost shape rose again within the cage.
It was a dead man wanting out.
Somebody gave a terrible yell.
I knew it was me, when a dozen lights flashed on in the little houses along the rim of the dark canal.
“All right, stand back, stand back!”
More cars were arriving, more police, more lights going on, more people wandering out in their bathrobes, stunned with sleep, to stand with me, stunned with more than sleep. We looked like a mob of miserable clowns abandoned on the bridge, looking down at our drowned circus.
I stood shivering, staring at the cage, thinking, why didn’t I look back? Why didn’t I see that man who knew all about the man down there in the circus wagon?
My God, I thought, what if the man on the train had actually shoved this dead man into the cage?
Proof? None. All I had was five words repeated on a night train an hour after midnight. All I had was rain dripping on the high wire repeating those words. All I had was the way the cold water came like death along the canal to wash the cages and go back out colder than when it had arrived.
More strange clowns came out of the old bungalows.
“All right, folks, it’s three in the morning. Clear away!”
It had begun to rain again, and the police when they had arrived had looked at me as if to say, why didn’t you mind your own business? or wait until morning and phone it in, anonymous?
One of the policemen stood on the edge of the canal in a pair of black swim trunks, looking at the water with distaste. His body was white from not having been in the sun for a long while. He stood watching the tide move into the cage and lift the sleeper there, beckoning. A face showed behind the bars. The face was so gone-far-off-away it was sad. There was a terrible wrenching in my chest. I had to back off, because I heard the first trembling cough of grief start up in my throat.
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