Weekend Fiction: Juan the Magnificent

Juan the orphan joined the Circus Invisible on the afternoon of his ninth birthday, but he spent that morning, like any other, wandering his neighbourhood of Sant Pere looking for something to eat. Stomach grumbling, he picked his way through the darkened alleyways hung with loops of washing and lined with convenience stores, hair parlours and family shops that only sold pyjamas or underpants.

He shivered in the spring air and ran halfway down Calle Princesa. He turned a corner and almost collided with the other members of his gang, Pepé and Slippery-Iñaki who were lurking opposite an ATM smoking cigarette ends and trading mock blows.

"M-m-morning, c-c-compa's," said Juan.

"Morning, st-st-stutter," mocked Pepé and Slippery-Iñaki in unison. Juan ignored them as he always did. Perhaps it was the cold air, but his tongue felt more sluggish than normal that morning.

Stamping out his cigarette, Pepé nodded toward an odd looking trio approaching the ATM. The oldest of the three was wrapped in a patched great coat and had a nose that protruded like a vulture's beak. He was accompanied by the tallest man that Juan had ever seen.

Next to them, and more disconcerting than either, was a girl with ocean green hair tied back in a greasy ponytail. She hopped from foot to foot as though her feet were on fire, but it was the way that she stared at Juan that bothered him the most. He pondered his own dirty feet until she looked away.

As the giant worked the ATM buttons with fingers as thick as bread rolls, Pepé counted to three and drop-kicked an empty can into a dumpster opposite the machine.

Beak-nose, the giant and the green-haired girl all started at the noise and, as normal, Juan darted forward to snatch the money from the machine just as it fluttered into the metal tray.

And that was when it all went wrong.

Quick as a flash, Beak-nose caught Juan by the wrist. Yelping in surprise, the boy sank his teeth into the old man's wrist and pulled himself free. Turning, he dived between the legs of the giant and found himself face-to-face with the green-haired girl.

He dodged left then right, but she hopped back and forth in front of him like a toreador, parrying his attempts to escape. Juan skipped to the left again, but this time she fixed him with eyes full of storm clouds and stepped aside.

Attracted by the commotion, a police officer on the other side of Calle Princesa shouted at Juan to stop, but the boy ran full tilt into the gloom of the Barrio Gotico. Pumping his arms and puffing like a steam train, he cut across the stone courtyard of Plaça San Felipe Neri and skidded past its dead fountain. Sliding to a stop, he ducked into the chapel of Santa Teresa, whose walls were still pockmarked from a loyalist bomb that had fallen there one sunny morning in 1936.

Juan dropped to the floor and rolled beneath a pew where dust tickled his nose and his tongue throbbed. He counted to ten as the thudding in his chest ebbed. The sunlight in the church pulsed and he became suddenly aware that someone was standing over him.

A meaty paw grabbed Juan by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him to his feet. The boy stood face-to-face with the giant that he had just robbed. Behind him stood the little girl, her dirty braids now hanging to a waist dappled with silver scales that curved to a fish's tail. Next to her stood Beak-nose, who scowled and pointed to the half-moon of teeth marks on his wrist.

"Hold on to him, Little Anton" said the old man, "he bites."

"Yus, Polydorus," said the giant in a voice so deep it resonated in Juan’s feet. He pinned the boy's wrists with one of his huge hands while the old man went through Juan's pockets. Beak-nose retrieved the rainbow fold of notes he found, fanned them under his nose and sniffed.

"Three-hundred-and-twenty Euros", he said, "a nice haul too. Who's been a naughty boy then?"

"L-l-let me g-g-go, f-f-f-u-fu-fish-face", wriggled Juan.

"Depends", said Polydorus running his hand across his tiny forehead, "do you have any special talents?"

Juan shrugged.

"Can you smell what people are going to say before they say it, for example?" said Polydorus, leaning towards Juan and sniffing.

"Or maybe", said the Mer-girl, "if you flap those big ears of yours you can fly?"

Juan scowled and poked his aching tongue out at her. And that was when it happened.

With a sound like an unfurling blind, the pink blob of Juan's tongue just kept on coming and coming. It slid out like an eel, rolled about like an elephant's trunk and lay glistening on the floor. Juan made a gurgling sound as surprised as anyone to find his mouth filled with the taste of dust and stone.

"Bravo!" cried the mer-girl, drumming her tail on the floor with excitement.

"Mlurmgh!" replied Juan.

"Magnificent!" exclaimed Polydorus, "you're in, my boy, you’re in!”

He clapped his hands three times, at which all the members of the Circus Invisible, disappeared just as the police officer arrived at the church.

After examining every hiding place, he took off his cap and scratched his head, puzzled at how the little urchin had escaped. He crossed himself beneath Santa Teresa's painted gaze and sat on the church steps in the sunlight, watching as the leaves from the lemon trees dropped one-by-one onto the silent stones of Plaça San Felipe Neri.

THE END

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