She wakes up with the dawn each day to patrol the edges of the island like a sentinel. Secures the boundaries, checks the horizon for unwanted visitors. The waters are invariably still, the sky a cool blue stretching for miles. Here, in the center of this enchanted lake, Mona is alone, except for the lion. She relishes the solitude inside her soundproof cottage, but she must never forget why she came here, why she must keep watch against intruders.
She remembers the difficulties involved in building this sanctuary, gathering the supplies, cobbling it together over many days and nights. The necessity of escaping The Amazing Muldoni had given her the strength to do it. Just thinking of his handlebar mustache and the giant cage he kept her in, spray painted metallic gold, fueled her arms to swing the axe again and again. She cut down practically every tree on the island for timber. She lashed pieces of wood together with braided ropes made from branches, and she collected stones and rocks to cover the floor like the inside of a castle.
She could have used her powers, but she chose to do things by hand. To save her strength for things she needed to conjure into existence. Like the venomous eels that filled the lake, that would attack any stranger who entered the waters. Like the hundreds of egg cartons and thick pieces of foam she lined the inside of her hut with. The soundproofing is important, because she won’t risk hearing voices that ask questions, on the chance someone manages to get past the eels.
This is the reason Muldoni bought her from her father, for a measly five hundred dollars. He wanted her special skill to be the headlining act in his sideshow of wonders and astonishing revelations. She is the woman with all the answers. Ask her anything, and she is compelled and obligated to tell you the truth. When will you find true love? Will you ever have children? Is there going to be another world war? When will you die, and how, exactly?
When her father drove her to the edge of town where Muldoni’s circus tents dotted an open field, she sat in the passenger seat and listened as he explained her curse. “You’ve been in my protection all these years,” he said, “but once I hand you over to Muldoni, you must do exactly as he says.” He told her that if she disobeyed her new master in any way, her powers would cease. “It’s like an invisible contract,” he said, “written in the very cells of your body by the women who came before you.”
She thought about her mother then, whose extraordinary abilities had involved levitation and weather control. The one thing she never seemed able to do was to stand up to her husband, Mona’s father, forever inventing new methods to appease him. Mona recalled the sound of her plaintive voice, pleading with him at night for forgiveness. Especially that last night, before Mona found her stiff and cold on the kitchen floor. Before her father said it was an accident, a misunderstanding. Mona signed the dotted line underneath her father’s name at Muldoni’s desk, and she scrutinized the ringleader’s sneer, the black holes of his eyes. Perhaps it’s true, she thought, perhaps I must obey him.
For six months, Muldoni let the line-ups build and curve around the corner of the tent, never turning away a paying customer. Mona told women their babies would not live; told old men they weren’t long for this world. She told wives their husbands were cheating, told grandmothers their long-lost cat got crushed under the wheels of a car. She couldn’t stand it anymore, the look of hope transforming into dismay, the way their eyes widened, narrowed, went blank.
She didn’t want to answer any more questions, ever. Her powers were not worth Muldoni’s unending appetites, his calloused fingers against her skin. Not worth the pain she saw crease over the brows of her customers every single day. She waited until everybody was asleep, the lion tamer, the contortionist, the trapeze artist, all snug inside their caravans. She rose inside her gilded cage, having no need for the key that Muldoni wore around his neck. She broke the metal shackles that bound her wrists with a muttered incantation. The lock on the door clicked open under her gaze, and she tiptoed past the other cages filled with snoring exotic animals.
Mona expected that once she performed this act of disobedience, she would be stripped of her magic. That she would feel empty, or exhausted. Instead, strength vibrated through her limbs, she shivered with more potential than ever. And she knew that her father had lied to her. That certainly, he’d been responsible for her mother’s death.
As Mona crept past the lion, he opened one golden eye but closed it again when she put a finger to her lips beseeching his cooperation. She paused, and an idea formed in her mind. She waved her hands over every cage, the latches lifting and turning, the doors swinging loosely ajar. Some of the acts in the show were here by choice; grifters and swindlers trying to make a buck. The animals though, should be free, and Mona whispered words of protection as the two tigers darted off into the night, the zebra trotted into the woods, and the elephant lumbered heavily into the distance.
The lion, however, followed Mona with persistence, and so she transformed him into a mouse and kept him inside her pocket until they reached the island. Restored to form, he paced the beach, a stealthy guardsman, while she forged their new home, their fortress of solitude. They lived together for a year in peace, working quietly at reinforcing their stronghold.
After countless days of blessed uneventfulness, a black stain appears where sky meets water, moving towards them steadily. Soon, Mona can see that it is not only Muldoni, but her father also, the two of them sliding over the lake in a motorboat, shooting at the eels with pistols. Fine, she thinks, let them come, and her body sings with anticipation.
Later, Mona strolls with a light step over her small patch of floating land. She can still see the look of terror on Muldoni’s face, the final glint of understanding in her father’s countenance. When she leaned down to pass the mouse through the bars of the shiny cage on the sand, they looked at each other, bewildered. “You’re angry,” Muldoni pleaded, “but you can’t keep us locked up in here forever.” She’d laughed then at his audacity.
“Mona,” her father commanded, “do as you’re told and let us out of here.”
It never occurred to them to ask her a question. That the one and only thing Mona was compelled to do was to answer with the truth. Had they uttered a simple query, she would have told them what was about to happen. That she knew everything, because she’d stood in front of her mirror, looked into her own eyes and asked herself what happened to her mother. That karma existed, and that it was here for them both. Instead, she walked away and ignored the deathly roar of the lion, blocked her ears against the terrified screams of her prisoners.
Now the lion is resting, his muscles relaxed in the sunlight. He licks the last traces of blood from his paws, contentment spreads through his great haunches. He blinks heavy lids and stares into Mona’s eyes as if to ask, “Have I done well?”
She crouches beside him and runs a hand over the glossy mane against his neck and replies truthfully, “You are a very, very good boy.”
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her work has recently appeared in Ligeia Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Ghost parachute, Flash Frog, and elsewhere. Her short story collection Flight Instinct is forthcoming from ELJ Editions (2022). Follow her on Twitter at @sbdobbie and look for stories coming soon in Variety Pack and Bending Genres.