Third place, Spring 2023
Picture by Ali Kose at Unsplash
A year from now, sitting in the comfort of Cafe Kanzler, the journalist will ask,
Why did you risk it?
And you will say,
I missed the smell of the circus.
So, you ran away to the circus? he will quip in that Yankee twang, and you will reply,
No, I flew.
You stand before the telegraph pole, the ghosts of popcorn and lion-musk in your nose. You recall the talcum powder dancing in your spotlight; the shimmer of your blue-black breast in its leotard. Horst Klein- Trapezkunster Wunderbar. Your name in lights.
Now you are swallowed by the night and begin your ascent. This will be your greatest performance.
There is more than one way to break a city. They slashed it with the scar of concrete; with the loops of barbs stitching wall to sky; with broken glass glimmering like tears on pavements. They break the bodies of those who run with bullets. They break it through the imposition of silence and punishment of those who dare to speak out. Like you.
You are blackballed in the GDR, cut off from your performance of flight. They broke your wings.
But hope remains an unbreakable thing. You have heard the tales of the escapes; the tunnels, a hot air balloon, the couple hidden in a compartment below the circus tiger’s cage. You listened on the clandestine wireless to the speech by the handsome, young President. He said freedom is indivisible. It cannot be split. Ich bin ein Berliner.
You inch up the pole until you reach the taut wires you will cross. You recall the starlings lining these wires, the iridescence of their plume against the bleak Berlin skies. You remember the silk feel of your leotard, the gasp from the audience, your arc like a murmuration. The muscle memory of movement adding up to something like grace.
Balance and precision are the antidote to breaking. You drop, sensing the gap between fall and catch. When you grasp the wire between your hands you let out a guttural grunt like a forced prayer to a long-forgotten god. You move hand over hand along the wire, legs and back supple and gripping. Bending is your embodied defiance to the forces of gravity and State. Every moment you await the spotlight, the heckle of a dog’s bark, the bullet.
There is an inevitability to the numbness of your hands given the coldness of the night. There is an inevitability to the fall and the sick thud of your body. Yet, you are alive and as you look at the street name, Bernauer Straße, you laugh. The dawn breaks in pinks and golds across the city like confetti falling across this divided land. Your arms lie at odd angles but there is more than one way to break your wings. You are Horst Klein and you have migrated east to west. For you, the iron curtain has fallen, and the smells of the circus await.
Judge Anika Carpenter says:
“The storytelling within this story gives this historical flash a wonderful rippling feel. It speaks of the need to keep important stories alive, to pass them on. It also invites us to ponder some vitally important questions – who is allowed to perform, to create, what in this world prevents artists from making their work, who decides what we see, what we read.”