In a certain circus—one well liked because its acrobats were less polished but more spontaneous, its freaks were less perfectly deformed but rather more uncanny, its lion charmers were less confident and therefore more brave—there was a certain assistant who always misunderstood his tasks and got people killed.
His understand of language was very literal, but besides that, he had very little sense of the enormity of the consequences of his actions. All things were abstractions to him, and though he guided himself by simple virtues like honesty, bravery, diligence, and obedience in an attempt to do good, he could not easily discern when bad things had happened.
One of his early tasks had been to fire two daredevils—a husband-and-wife duo—out of a cannon. Noting the cannon’s shoddy build, and worrying that it would crack in the firing, he enlisted the circus’s strongmen to steal a large cannon from a decommissioned battleship as a replacement, and, seeing that the circus’s mostly cosmetic fireworks were unsuitable for the job, saw to it himself that the cannon was loaded with real, top-quality gunpowder.
At the show, the husband climbed into the brand-new, shining cannon, the ringleader counted down, and the assistant lowered the torch to the cannon’s wick. There was a deafening roar—at least a dozen audience members were deafened—as the explosive force designed to send a 500-pound shell over eight miles tore through the cannon. The husband’s body was blown instantly apart, and his bones and charred flesh slammed into the audience at the top of the bleachers, to raucous applause.
At this point, the second daredevil quickly ascertained what had happened to her husband, and what was about to happen to her, and climbed eagerly inside the barrel. The assistant was beaming, and she couldn’t bear to break the news to him that something disastrous had happened. She was still smiling at his sweet innocence when he lit the torch under her, sending her being into the oblivion and her body into the cheering masses.
That’s how it was in that circus. All of them enjoyed life, but they understood it as a journey full of spontaneous and serendipitous moments, and they decided not fret over the outcomes. They were the people’s circus—a circus that did not seek to smooth over the flaws of humanity, or of life, with an illusory slickness, but rather to show how it still contained wonders, wonders that made us fear the horrors a little less. And this assistant was a wonder himself, and contained wonder in his mind. So when he replaced the trapeze with bear traps, or fed the lower half of the satyr to the lions, or evacuated all the animals and exterminated all the people inside the tent with gas, nobody saw reason to complain, because the wonder within the world had not been diminished, so there was no real threat to life.
Then, the World Trade Center towers came down in New York. Though the assistant was not responsible, and though they still loved him, one circus performer, a security guard, began to feel it was his patriotic duty to turn the assistant in. Wonder, he had thought, was a thing of the past, and nobody should indulge in it any more.
He knew that many of the other performers didn’t feel the same way, but ventured to attract kindred spirits. He began blustering loudly in the lunch room, then stepping out conspicuously for a cigarette, hoping others would join him.
Eventually Ronald, a young, doe-eyed assistant, but one far better socially adjusted and more calculatedly self-serving than that senior, language-deficient assistant, stepped outside to talk with the security guard.
“I think he’s a menace,” said Ronald. “He’s just got no sense of pragmatism.”
“Do you have a sense of pragmatism, Ronald?” said the security guard.
Ronald nodded, and took a drag of the cigarette.
They decided that it was time for the assistant to have an accident of his own.
[to be continued]