COUNT ORLOFF, THE HUMAN WINDOWPANE, cowered in a corner of the dining tent be- side an overturned chair.
“I won’t shatter,” he said. “It won’t happen.”
But still the acrobats threw stones. One hit his thigh with a dull thud, and the pair of acrobats moaned.
“Break this as the next one hits him. It will make the right sound.”
A second after the rock struck his shoulder, glass shattered and he heard a yelp of pain. He peered out from behind his arms.
Thardo, the Defier of Poisonous Reptiles, scowling face edged by the black storm cloud of her hair, held the neck of a broken bottle. An acrobat’s head was bleeding. His eyes leapt from Thardo to his friend and back again. She stepped away from the tent flap so they could leave.
Thardo carried Orloff back to his sleeping car, her arms thin rods of iron around him. She laid him in bed and cooled his bruising skin with a damp cloth. On his grey blanket she placed an opium pipe. It had a long bamboo stem and a ceramic bowl, which was plump and round like a doorknob and dotted with red flowers. “For the pain.” She pressed a lump of opium, folded into a square of waxed paper, into his hand.
As the smoke rose, his heart swelled; his limbs sprang up like branches suddenly freed of snow.
FROM THE EDGE OF THE CROWD, Orloff watched Thardo. Wearing flowered silks that left her arms bare, she held a viper. For a few moments she was still, gazing at the audience with her hard, dark eyes. Finally, she shook the snake, which flashed up and struck her. The audience gasped. Thardo pulled the snake from the wound and held it out to an assistant. With the viper looping from his outstretched arms, the assistant hurried offstage, passing, on his way, a tall man in a grey suit and stethoscope, striding towards Thardo. The physician pierced Thardo with a syringe and drew out some of her tainted blood. Thardo took the syringe from him with a nod, then injected the poison into a rabbit she had kept waiting, caged at her feet.
“Watch,” she said, and pointed as the rabbit writhed. Toeing the creature aside, Thardo stood there, her flowered silks surrounding her, and did not die.
After the crowd had gone, Thardo found Orloff.
“The stable boy brought me,” he said. “Must have forgotten to come back.”
He was in her arms again, the left one bruised and swollen, the world bouncing around him as she walked.
They sat with the train at their backs, light from the clowns’ barrel fires flickering through the gap between the cars.
“You were born like this?” She gestured at him with her chin. Spectators could see light through his stomach, watch his heart beat and his blood circulate.
“I was fourteen,” he said. “Some kind of wasting disease.” He had spent hours wondering if it would be easier if he had always been this way. If he did not remember so clearly the rush of air as he ran, soft grass under bare feet.
They watched the waxing moon over the field as though they might see it ballooning before their very eyes.
That night, Orloff’s pre-sleep dreams were consumed by Thardo, eclipsing his memories of wind and the expansion of his chest.
Orloff began to ask the stable boy to bring him places he knew Thardo would be, and to forget him there. Thardo carried him home each night as snake bites swelled and deflated, purpled then yellowed on her arms.
“Carter—the physician—cuts up the rabbits,” Thardo said. She pulled a stray thread from his blanket. “In the morning before he’s had anything to drink.”
“Do you think that’s horrible?” She did not look at him, so he did not answer. “He draws diagrams of their insides. There’s a big stack beside our bed.”
Our bed. Orloff turned away so she could not see through him; pulled the blanket tighter to hide the compression of his heart.
“Come visit,” Thardo said, and brought Orloff to her sleeping car. When they arrived, the physician was standing at a small vanity, applying pomade to his moustache. He smiled at them through the mirror, finished, then turned.
“Count Orloff,” he said. “Welcome.”
The physician poured three glasses of whisky as Thardo settled Orloff into an armchair. When Orloff declined the glass, the physician poured the drink into his own.
He spoke for a long time, his words curving lazily with the smoke from Orloff’s opium pipe.
“Medical anomaly,” the physician said. He refilled the glasses. He said “milk,” “liquid ammonia,” “gunpowder,” and “the rabbits.” He kept returning to the rabbits. Orloff watched the smoke: thick, a cloud passing over the moon.
Thardo adjusted the pillow behind Orloff’s head.
“He’s explaining how I don’t die,” she said. Orloff laughed. She didn’t die because she was Thardo, Defier of Poisonous Reptiles, fearless and iron-strong.
“But you,” said the physician, and kept talking. In a corner of the car, a rabbit slept in its cage. Orloff watched its white curved sides rise and fall. A fly was beating itself against the glowing glass of a paraffin lamp.
“May I?” The physician was standing next to him, whisky-scented. He brought the lamp so close Orloff could feel the heat reddening his skin.
“Truly strange,” the physician said. “Can’t understand it.”
Orloff was fourteen again. Confusion and horror arrived in the farmhouse. With each doctor’s visit, confusion was edged away by grief, but the horror remained. And the pain descended, a little more each day, like a swarm of dark flies alighting on him one by one, until, blanket-like, they covered him.
Thardo was beside him then, leading the physician away. The heat pulled away from him, and the sharp scent of cloves from the physician’s pomade; in the coolness, he exhaled and closed his eyes. For a while he could hear their voices, Thardo’s low laugh, and then he heard nothing.
HE WOKE TO FIND THEM ON THE BED, their bent limbs catching shadows, her breasts and belly reflecting light. For her, he would trade his memories of running. She moaned, fell back, shattered the white pillowcase with her loose black hair.
The stars and barrel fires were dying when she took him home. He let her think she had woken him with a soft squeeze of his shoulder. He turned his face so he could not smell the cloves, whisky and sweat.
She lowered him onto his bed. He wanted her to leave, but instead blurted, “stay.”
She studied him. Laughter would have been better, even disgust. Instead, she looked puzzled, as if the lamp had spoken, or the rabbit had asked to be her lover.
“He’s kind,” she said eventually. “Under the curiosity.”
When she left, pain clattered against him: hundreds of winged insects frantic in a glass shade. Someone need only touch him now, and he would shatter, and they would be free.