from String Weavers

by Linda McCracken

Chapter 30

Six of the men from various acts and shows of the circus gathered around a wooden table late one evening playing five-card stud under a single kerosene lantern hung from the supports of a small tent in the back lot. On the floor were splashes of straw that had been thrown on the ground to dry out muddy spots. The result was that the smell of wet hay and burning kerosene permeated the air.

A slug of moonshine was their shared refreshment as they passed a jug around the table. Michael was among the group, his first invitation to join this fraternity of men. However, when the jug came his way, he handed it to the next man without taking a swig. He’d seen the ravages of shine on the body and the mind of his uncle and he wanted no part of it.

The first hand was dealt. Alphonso, propped with pillows in the only armchair, bragged, “I reckon, in my time, I’ve known the pleasure of a beautiful woman in most every state we traveled through.”

“Best not let Mary, your wife, hear you braggin’,” countered one of the rowdies.

As Colonel Perkins cleared his throat, Michael turned toward the Colonel who sat to his right. “Hell, Alphonso, you’d have to haul ’round a ladder if’n you was to get serious ’bout anyone but a midget whore or your wife.” The Colonel hopped off his chair and rose to his full three feet two inches. He simulated the ole in-and-out with such exaggeration that the other men howled in surprise.

Michael could feel a flush of embarrassment rise from his neck to his forehead. He watched Alphonso to see how he took the ribbing, but Alphonso was laughing, too, and seemed undisturbed by the reference to his lack of legs.

“What about you, Colonel? You didn’t have all of those children playing tiddlywinks, now did you?” countered Alphonso.

“No sir, there’s no woman alive who hasn’t at least wondered what it might be like to make love with one of us little people.” With that he licked his lips and fluttered his tongue, which left the others, all except Michael, in stitches. He didn’t know what to think of the Colonel’s latest facial gesture.

Michael straddled a chair with his chin propped on his arms crossed over the back. He tried to smile at appropriate times but didn’t catch the nuances of their motions, though he’d heard Uncle Ray say and do similar things as Ray and Ricky sat around the fire at night at the still, bragging about the size of their privates and resulting conquests, Ray as a young man and Ricky in his imagination according to Uncle Ray.

The attention shifted to the rotund Edgar. Feigning embarrassment, he said, “Boys, you know I ain’t the most attractive man on this earth. You even know I’m not the best-smelling specimen of the human race, but what you don’t know is I know the secret to a woman’s heart.” His eyes met every pair of eyes and he nodded as his lips pronounced the last phrase.

Everyone grew quiet. This enormous man was saying he knew what each, in his own way, yearned to know—the secret entrance to the domain of womanhood. Edgar reached for his chips and muttered, “Raise ten cents.”

The others looked incredulous. The ultimate truth of the universe was offered and withdrawn in a blink of an eye. “What is it?” they all said in unison. One of them added, “What do you know that the rest of us somehow missed?”

Catching the others off guard, Michael laughed out loud. “Don’t you guys know? Why I thought everyone knew the secret to a woman’s heart.” Michael wanted to somehow show he was a little knowledgeable. “Uncle Ray told me when I was not much bigger than Alphonso and the Colonel,” and he pointed using his upturned palm toward the privates of the two short men. Then he waited in silence for what he said to sink in.

There was some laughter that twittered round the table at his joke about their friends’ endowments, but Mac was quick to correct Michael. “Can’t tell a man by his stature, Michael, but guess you haven’t had much experience with such.” The Colonel and Alphonso winked at Michael and smiled. Michael sighed within himself in relief.

“Ah, shucks, if that was it, Gregory the Great, the giant, would have women lining up by his tent. So far I ain’t seen any women going after him at all,” the rowdy commented.

“Maybe he has more than any woman can handle,” commented Mac while studying his cards as he raised Edgar another dime. A few snickers circled the table as the men returned to their game.

Belinda, the oldest and prettiest of Sheik Abdula’s troupe, sashayed around the tent flap at that point and joined the game. She turned a bentwood chair around on Michael’s left, straddled it as he had, thrust her two breasts, barely covered by her peasant blouse, over the chair back, and threw fifty cents onto the table. “What’s the game, boys?”

Michael, sitting to her right, got only a sideways view of her endowments, but that was enough. As he took a deep breath, the scent of something sweet and enticing wafted his way. The faint touch of her knee against his pants leg was overwhelming. He was back on the road near the country store in the Narrows with Mae’s hand touching his for the first time. The effect was to make him feel like he hovered above the ground. He was grateful he was sitting; his knees would not have held him and their shaking would have been fodder for more teasing.

All of the braggadocio of the previous moments evaporated in an instant as all eyes riveted on the soft pinkness that was on the verge of escaping the confinement of her thin cotton blouse. Michael was not alone in his feelings. All the men were as distracted as he was. It became apparent when within a half hour Belinda took all the money on the table.

The group was exhausted and the inebriation of the moonshine was causing yawns all ’round, despite Belinda’s voluptuousness. Belinda swept her winnings into a small bag she wore across her body. She smiled. “Thank you all. This was fun.” With that she dismounted her chair and sauntered out the way she had come. The men looked at one another and then at Michael and the Colonel winked at Mac.

“Quite a game, ey, Michael?” the Colonel said leaning back against his chair. “There’ll be others.”

Michael took a deep breath. “I hope so.”

Mac answered. “Oh, there will. There will.” And he winked back at the Colonel.


Chapter 31

Some days after Michael arrived at the circus but not long after the first poker game, Mr. Shelby, impressed by Michael’s mind-reading the first night of his work as a weight guesser, talked Professor Zambizee into giving Michael his own tent on the midway. Michael was nervous because he couldn’t rely on his visions to consistently appear, but Mr. Shelby, not really understanding how Michael had come up with some of his predictions, said that they would plant people in the audience, people he called shills, so Michael could pretend to know what they were thinking. He’d practiced with shills all morning before his first performance. They all had their parts down pat. That added a little to his confidence. Also, Mr. Shelby would be outside the tent doing his spiel and was to be on stage later and introduce Michael. Mr. Shelby would pick up on bits of information as the crowd waited outside the tent before the show began, and he’d select audience members for participation. He’d feed Michael what he heard just before and during his performance in a sort of code. Mr. Shelby’s promised assistance gave Michael the final reassurance he needed to make his debut.

Michael saw the sign outside his tent that read “The Albino Duke of Denmark,” which depicted a royal crown and images of what Painter thought Denmark looked like from descriptions by some of the European performers—a castle, fine horses, and beautiful flowered walks. Below the Denmark sign was the statement, “Clairvoyant from a Royal Family.” Painter’s work, both striking and alluring, pleased Michael, though he wasn’t sure at first about the meaning of the word clairvoyant. If it meant Michael knew things, which is what Painter told him it meant, he hoped he knew the right things, and that the right people would be the ones asking.

He entered the tent, his venue, Mr. Shelby had called it. On the stage that had a skirt of rough canvas, unnoticeable because it was the same color as the straw that covered the ground, was Michael’s throne. It was a chair with arms painted bright blue with gold embellishments. One gold velvet cushion sat in the seat. Michael climbed the steps on the side of the stage and ran his fingers over the gold. It was stunning, the more so because to his blurry vision the gold and blue had run together from a distance. He sat down, careful not to muss his white satin suit. He scooted back so his head touched the top of the chair. He felt like royalty.

“Circus people invent their own reality,” Lady Jewel had told Michael. “And it works for them.” That caused Michael some discomfort; they stretched the truth and he was unsure of the righteousness of such behavior, having learned the power of the Truth from the Church of the One Savior and from Granbecca. But even Granbecca sometimes withheld hurtful truths, like Michael’s rejection by his father, until he was old enough and strong enough to hear them.

As Michael fingered the tassels on the pillow’s corners, Mr. Shelby walked into the tent, interrupting his reverie. “Your Royal Grace,” said Mr. Shelby, removing his roughed-up hat and bowing before Michael. Michael felt his face flush. “It’s our job to fabricate, prevaricate, and insinuate, in an effort to create the improbable and unlikely.” As he straightened, he looked directly into Michael’s eyes. “The tricks occur in the yokels’ minds. They see what they want to see and fashion the truth to suit them.” Michael wondered if Mr. Shelby had read his mind. He bobbed his head at the older man in agreement.

“There’s a Dr. Freud from Austria I heard about in New York who says we have two types of minds. The first he calls the conscious mind. That’s the part we think of as running things, you know, taking care of business.” He put his hat back on his head in a matter-of-fact manner. “But it’s the second mind, the unconscious, which works beneath the surface to protect, conjure, and understand the world of symbols and deeper meaning.” He turned his back on Michael and walked toward the outside. Then facing him he said, “That, my young friend, is the target of the circus. If you bring to the surface unconscious material, you release a potential that is unknown to most all of us.” Michael squinted to see Mr. Shelby’s expression. He was saying something important that was ringing true inside Michael.

“It’s as if a child with unlimited memory capacity has been locked away with supernatural powers, impulses, images, and intuitions. His memory creates a world of endless possibilities.” Mr. Shelby took three steps toward Michael. “That’s where all the ‘Great Enchanters’ dabble and the place where rubes both fear and long to go. It is where the greatest delight and incredulity can be found.”

Michael needed to think about this and he concentrated to remember Mr. Shelby’s words. Great Enchanters was something Granbecca talked about when she read from the Bible about false prophets and witches in Acts. Was Mr. Shelby telling him he should be a Great Enchanter? Michael wasn’t at all sure about that.

“You see, amazement is the primary goal of the performance. Ticket sales pay the bills. But money goes up in direct proportion to amazement.”

Mr. Shelby’s words transfixed Michael. Was Mr. Shelby somehow reading his uncertainty about using deception and trickery to fool the Towners?

“Do you want me to become a Great Enchanter?”

“Do you want to be?”

Michael didn’t want to be a false prophet, but he did want more than anything to please this man.

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, if you want to make money for the circus, you should at least work at this, Michael. It is clear you have a quick mind and some sort of gift for knowing people. You’ll just be using those, not some kind of magic. Right?”

Granbecca often talked about Michael using his gifts. That was something good.

Mr. Shelby sounded like he knew enchantment first hand. “Were you once a Great Enchanter, Mr. Shelby? You seem to know a lot about them.”

Mr. Shelby smiled. “I guess you could say that all barkers in circuses around the world are enchanters, but Great Enchanters are more. I do know the difference.” And before Michael could ask his next question, Mr. Shelby went out through the tent flap.

Michael would have to ask him again if he had been a Great Enchanter because really he hadn’t answered. If he had been, why did he stop?


Chapter 32

The night stirred with a brisk breeze. Lightning danced at a distance against the horizon. Inside the tent, however, the air was close and stagnant. Michael opened the flap on either side of the tent while he awaited the noise of the people approaching. The flickering light from the kerosene lanterns hanging around the tent’s edge translated into butterflies in Michael’s stomach. He felt in his pocket for his strings and, while he waited, wove as many figures out of the strings as he remembered. The activity calmed him.

Lost in his own thoughts, Michael was startled back to the present as Mr. Shelby closed the flaps and walked to the stage. In his hand was a white cane. “Here, Michael. This will give you dignity.” He put it before him and used it not as support, but as a prop, as if he were a dandy, before handing it up to Michael. “It should also help you stand easily.” Then he gave him some hints of what he’d heard on the midway. Michael pocketed his strings and Mr. Shelby left to barker in front of the wagons, with special mention of the new act, the Albino Duke of Denmark, and Michael’s amazing precognitive powers.

People sauntered into the midway and went to several other shows before filing into his area. They found him on his throne. Michael didn’t smile or relay his discomfort. Mr. Shelby said it was better to present a blank slate.

As his eyes roamed the audience, his heart leapt. Standing on the second row was Wahali, his Indian friend. Michael had asked Lady Jewel about Wahali as he got to know her better. She replied he wasn’t with the circus at the moment and dismissed him. The thrill of being part of the circus had overwhelmed Michael from the moment he set foot within range of the smell of elephant manure, so he asked no more. Now the glow of his two meetings with the Cherokee showered him with new confidence and genuine excitement. But what if Wahali recognized him? He might reveal his true identity. There was nothing to be done now except to proceed as planned and hope that Wahali wouldn’t betray him.

Mr. Shelby began his spiel about the newest act to appear under the banner of Professor Zambizee’s Circus and Mystical Menagerie. Michael could hear his elevated pitch outside the tent. “Ladies and gentleman, big and small, I bring to you the incredible Albino Duke of Denmark, the clairvoyant of a royal bloodline with imperial skill. So that the Duke can concentrate on the activity of your minds, I’ll serve as monitor and relay questions from the audience to His Royal Highness.”

Stepping into the tent and joining Michael on the stage, Mr. Shelby pointed to a young woman in her late teens and to her mother who clutched her worn leather purse to her chest. Both had spoken to him outside. “Yes, young lady. You say you’re thinking of something that happened not long ago, known only to you and your mother?” The girl nodded. “First let’s establish something. Do you or have you ever known or been in the employ of the Duke?”

“No, sir,” they replied in unison. The older woman adjusted her straw hat and shifted her eyes up in the direction of the small feather on its right brim. The younger woman looked at the rest of the audience with complete innocence.

Mr. Shelby looked at the Duke and inquired, “Do you have any information you registered in this young woman’s unconscious mind?”

“Hello. How are you this evening?” Michael stood before his throne. “I hope the weather hasn’t been too hot for you? I know your mother’s asthma can be triggered by these dry and dusty days. Perhaps we’ll get some rain tonight.” Both women looked at one other in shock.

Out loud in an astonished voice, the mother said, “How could—how could you know about my asthma?” The crowd applauded and moved a little closer to the stage.

For an instant, Michael’s knees were jiggling almost as much as his eyes. Mr. Shelby looked at him and winked with the eye away from the audience. Michael took a deep breath and then spoke with clarity and assurance. “Young lady, you returned from a trip to visit your aunt, I believe, in Atlanta. Your aunt took you to a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and sparkling silver.” He looked straight at the young girl. “I believe you would’ve enjoyed that chocolate parfait more if they’d left off the nuts. By the way, how did you enjoy shopping in the big department store? Have you worn to church the blue, um, no, I think, violet sundress with little yellow flowers yet?”

The young woman squealed with delight. The crowd was with Michael now, and his shoulders straightened more and he took a step forward using the white cane to lean back as Mr. Shelby had done. He felt even more in command of the stage.

Mr. Shelby moved on to choruses from the audience. “Me, me, let me have a try at it.” It was like Michael was a new toy developed for their pleasure. Mr. Shelby stopped in front of a teenage boy and his girlfriend. “Name, please.”

“Robert Allen Martin, sir,” the young man pronounced with precision.

“You have an experience perhaps you and your young girlfriend might share, but no one else knows about?”

The crowd twittered at that comment, as all looked a second time at the lithe young woman at his side.

“Yes, I am thinking of an experience.”

“Mr. Martin, is it the time you and your sweetheart were lost for five hours in old Mr. Langston’s cave? If that’s the time, I believe, yes, I’m sure you told her father you had car trouble on the way home from the Majestic. Is that the event you were thinking about?”

The couple looked at each other in utter bewilderment. The woman blushed and said, “He promised me he’d find his way out with his new compass.” Several catcalls came from the back, and the couple looked sheepish together.

Michael looked down on them. “If you plan to marry in November, you best be telling your folks, unless you plan to elope.”

“Enough, enough!” cried the young man. “Stay out of my head! Nobody’s s’posed to know until next Sunday’s dinner!” With that the crowd roared its approval.

“I don’t believe a word of it!” shouted an old farmer dressed in overalls, a plaid shirt, and a worn straw work hat. The old fellow’s cheek bulged with a wad of tobacco. He turned his head and spit into a corner. “Enough of them kids! Let’s see you read my mind, you fancy ass duke!”

Michael smiled and beckoned him forward. The tent was hushed. Mr. Shelby stepped off the stage, moved beside the farmer, and exclaimed, “Duke, it sounds like we have a disbeliever in the house. Would you take a crack at reading this man’s thoughts?”

“To tell you the truth, there’s not much there.” The crowd broke into guffaws and belly-splitting laughter. The farmer looked angry and more determined as he rose to his full height.

Michael paused for the longest time before he spoke. “You always wanted children, and it nearly broke your heart when your sweet Lilly died of blood poisoning. Now about all you do is a little farming, a little swigging, and a lot of pestering of others.”

The audience buzzed in response. All eyes looked at the farmer. His nostrils flared and then his eyes softened. He shook his head but didn’t speak.

It was Michael’s turn again, and he spoke with a clear strong voice. “Mr. Turner, you could get a lot of pleasure if you were to buy that matched set of donkeys Mr. Elton has for sale. Yes, you could build a little wagon and take it to all the local fairs. Kids would love to ride in it. I’m sorry to bring back such pain, but maybe the donkeys would be a help in your loneliness.”

Michael had the people in the palm of his hand when Wahali walked to the stage and took a hard look at him. Mr. Shelby froze. Michael knew Mr. Shelby didn’t know about the past connection between Wahali and him, but Michael saw that Mr. Shelby recognized something in Wahali’s expression that frightened him. “Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, that ends tonight’s performance. If you feel charitable, drop a few cents, a dime, or a nickel in this jar on the stage.” He placed a canning jar on the corner of the stage near the exit from the tent. “Every extra penny will go directly to the young duke and help him get back to his country.”

Before Mr. Shelby could hurry the audience out of the tent and on to the next show, Wahali said, “My thoughts have been far away of late. I’d be interested if you can tell me the nature of my thoughts and their outcome.”

Michael hesitated as he looked into Wahali’s eyes. There, Michael saw sadness and a woman lying in a bed, an older woman. He didn’t know who it was. He’d never seen her before yet he felt he knew her. Then the scene was gone and he spoke, “Your heart is heavy with a loss. Someone has been ill a long time. I believe you were out in the woods, doing something…Yes, I see you surveying the land and mapping the mountains and streams. You sensed the illness of this person who you loved. You went home and you are very sad because you did not get to say goodbye.”

Shock showed on Wahali’s face. The crowd was ecstatic. Michael was unsure where all the words he had spoken came from, but he was frightened that they had upset Wahali.

“Have a good evening, friends, and thank you for coming.” As the crowd filed out, Michael called to his audience. At the same time he reached into his pocket, retrieved the Indian head nickel he had carried since childhood and gave it to Wahali. Wahali stared at the coin but said nothing. “A friend of yours told me you might be here someday and asked me to give this to you if I ever saw you,” Michael added, almost as an afterthought.

Wahali palmed the nickel and when he opened his hand, it had disappeared. A scowl clouded his brow, but when he looked up at Michael, he chuckled.


Chapter 33

As soon as the last of the locals disappeared beyond the tent flap and the flap was tied down, the cast and crew swarmed around Michael. Michael, however, only wanted to talk to Wahali, who had disappeared. Michael stretched his neck and searched the tent with his faulty sight before the last Towner left. However, there was no shiny black hair to be seen either in the last of the crowd or in the performers who remained. The young girl, her mother, the teenage couple, and the old farmer praised his performance. The first performance went without a hitch, as far as they knew. Relieved, Michael joined in with the celebration of the birth of his new act. He admitted he enjoyed the ruse played on the Towners. He basked in the comradeship of being a trouper, a circus insider. His new family delighted him. Pride was a sin, but he felt pleased with the skill with which they had all played their roles. A little ghost of guilt over lying flickered through his conscience, but the warmth of acceptance evaporated it.

Mr. Shelby walked up. “Wahali’s been away from the circus for several months. Michael, how in the world did you know about his mother and what he did? Did you have your own shill planted?” Everyone laughed at the thought of Michael playing a trick on the circus people, especially Mr. Shelby, but they stepped back to observe his response. The thought that he was capable of fooling them pleased Michael. That was the biggest compliment of all.

Michael was saved from having to reply and the awareness of the others became of little consequence, however, as Wahali appeared around the side of the stage at the back of the tent. “Boy of Light, you found your way to the circus!” Michael was overjoyed that he remembered him. Wahali embraced him and the same solid connection he had experienced on the creek so many years before was reestablished.

The lack of difference in their heights surprised Michael. When last he saw the Indian, Wahali looked down on him, and Michael was like a child compared to Wahali’s strength and agility. Now they peered eye to eye with one another. Although Michael had slender shoulders, his strong arms and muscled legs almost matched Wahali’s. Michael smiled as he noted how much they were still a study in contrasts. Wahali had darkly bronzed skin and pitch-black straight hair banded around his forehead with a rawhide string. Michael’s hair was corn silk white and his skin was alabaster. He was lank, fine featured, and lean to the bone like boys who are almost men tend to be. Wahali was a fully grown man, a powerful presence.

“I like your glasses and mustache and beard. They threw me off. They change your face and give you a more sinister look.” Wahali laughed. “But I know you do not possess an evil eye. Do your eyes dance yet behind that green glass?”

Michael removed the dark glasses. His eyes were in constant motion jiggling back and forth and all around.

“Ah, Boy of Light, it’s good to see you!”

“So, you know one another?” commented Mr. Shelby as the others looked on.

“Yes, we met many years ago on a creek near my home.”

“Yes, Mr. Shelby, Boy of Light is a great fisherman and map maker. What he does not see with his eyes he sees with his feet.”

“Is that so? Michael is a man of many talents, as we are discovering. It is good to have you back, Wahali. Do you have new maps for us?”

“Yes, I’ve already delivered them to the Professor. I think they will make our journeys easier in the year to come.”

“I hope so. The changes in the riverbeds have made getting to mountain towns treacherous for the elephants and wagons.” Mr. Shelby looked from Michael to Wahali as if he was missing something and he wanted to discover what it was.

“Will you be staying with us for a while?”

“Yes, I plan to reopen the concession with Painter. Maybe we can make the circus some money.”

“That ole man is worth his weight in cow manure, or gold, as one might call it,” countered Mr. Shelby. “He has seen to those pachyderms well, but we have missed your expertise at the numbers game and he will be glad to have you back to use your slight of hand. He needs to make some money for the circus, not just collect it from the Professor or the Towners.”

“I am glad to be back.”

“And is your mother ill?”

“No, she went to the Great One while I was away, but I have been home and seen the rest of my family and know that all is well with them.”

“I am sorry to hear about your mother. Again, good to have you back.” Mr. Shelby made his way out of the tent then and the other members of the circus, except Wahali and Michael, followed.

Wahali looked at Michael with a frown. “How is it that you come to be here, Boy of Light?”

“I came to find you,” Michael admitted as he lowered his head and looked up into Wahali’s eyes to read his reaction.

“You did? Why me?”

Michael was too embarrassed to let Wahali know how much his words had meant every time they met, but something told him to tell him anyway. “You were always kind to me. You called me Boy of Light. The people of the Narrows don’t see me that way.”

Wahali looked at Michael, his face solemn for an instant, and then a broad grin spread across it. “So here you found many people see you differently. Circus people are not always kind, but they saw a person who had value.”

“Yes. Yes, I guess they did.” Michael bit his lip thinking back about the people he had met, the contrast with the people of the Narrows and the Church of the One Savior. “And most everyone has been kind,” he finished, not mentioning Luke or the mean voices he heard in his head.

“Good.” Wahali made his way out of the tent. Michael followed.

The Towners had left. The shows were over for the afternoon. The rest of the performers and crew had gathered in the cook tent for a light supper. Michael and Wahali joined them.

As they entered the area where many makeshift tables and benches had been set up, Michael heard a familiar voice. “Why, you ole redskinned scalper, when did you get back?” It was Painter and he came toward the two.

“Not long ago, you ole black devil.” With that they clasped hands as if to shake them, but Wahali surrounded Painter’s gnarled fingers with his own. The endearment in their voices was not lost on Michael. “Are you ready to set up the game again?”

“Yes. Are you back long enough to run it? I shut it down months ago. I have the wits, but I have lost the quickness in my hands needed for the Twenty-One Game. You’re the best I ever saw at both, except your uncle.”

“Thanks, but I think you want to see money rolling in and not have to work to pocket it.” Wahali teased Painter, but Michael knew how Painter liked someone else to do the heavy lifting.

“Painter was partners with my uncle for many years in a booth they ran on the midway,” Wahali explained to Michael. “When my uncle died, Painter and I ran the booth.”

Painter smiled with a faraway look in his eyes. “There was no one like your uncle.”

Michael didn’t know what to say, but he wanted Painter to know he appreciated his contribution toward making the Duke of Denmark a success. “The show turned out great, Painter. Thanks for the signs and the banners. Is that what Denmark really looks like?”

“I seen a lot in my lifetime. Traveled everywhere I ever wanted to, right here.” He pointed to his head. “You don’t need to run all over the world to be smart, and I never been to Denmark, but the Ranellis have and they told me about it.”

Michael understood Painter’s ability to visualize something that someone described. After Granbecca died, he had sketched her as she had been while peeling apples for his favorite pie. Michael had wanted to remember all about her before the memories dulled. Later he sketched her by firelight the way she had been when she was young and beautiful as Uncle Ray described her when he’d had too much to drink and was rambling about their youth.

When the moon was bright enough on his trek away from the Narrows, he drew likenesses of Mae, with her long curls down her back, and Gracie, his cousin, who must’ve looked a little like a young Granbecca. The night before he had sketched Painter, the Professor, and Lady Jewel. He attempted to capture Mr. Shelby, but his likeness remained elusive. Only Michael’s father’s portrait had been as difficult to draw.

Turning to Michael, Wahali said, “Painter, do you know my friend, Boy of Light?”

“Sure do. He helped me with my elephantizer business the first day he arrived, but as you can see, they found other work for him since. Damn good hauler, though!” Michael grinned. He was relieved to be the Duke of Denmark instead of shoveling elephant manure. He was brought back to the conversation when Painter inquired, “Michael, how do you know Wahali?”

“I met him a long time ago on a creek near my home.”

Painter shook his head in acknowledgement. “So you must have finished the maps,” he asked Wahili.

“Yes, I turned them over to the Professor when I arrived. No more elephants getting stuck in the streams, Painter, at least not because we don’t know where the water is.”

“The streams can change from year to year, so, as I was doing when we first met, I go out ahead of the circus and map any changes. That year I was drawing the original maps. Now I put in changes each time we return to a section of the circus’s route.” Wahali explained all this for Michael’s sake, though Michael remembered most of what Wahali said from his meeting with his Indian friend the night he got lost after fishing.

“You call the Duke of Denmark ‘Boy of Light.’ We call him Michael.” Painter commented to Wahali.

“Michael? I think you told me your name long ago, but Boy of Light is what stuck in my mind. Which do you prefer: Boy of Light, Michael, or Duke?”

Michael had not thought of himself as the Duke except on the stage. “I—I think Michael.” Looking from Wahali to Painter, he said, “I suppose I’d best be Duke when I’m in this here costume.”

Painter chuckled. “You ain’t much of a boy anymore, and you ain’t a man yet, but you’re right ’bout staying in character ’round those Towners.” Wahali agreed.

Michael wondered what would qualify him as a man. He’d never thought about it before, but he knew he felt very different from the boy he’d been in the Narrows.

Linda McCracken, mother of four, worked for many years as a teacher of special children. When her last child went to college, she started using her spare time to write for her own pleasure, and later for a larger audience.

About String Weavers—With themes of bigotry, restitution, and reconciliation, String Weavers is the story of an albino boy born in a mythical valley between peaks of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains during the years between World War I and World War II. This excerpt takes place after the boy, Michael, arrives at a circus that he finds welcoming and where he is considered a young man of many gifts, not evil or unlucky. These chapters introduce the characters that shape Michael into a man.