My beard has grown attached to me...
'Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming.'
– FLUTE, (1.2.307) A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“The original American Pallas Athena, wonder at her visible wisdom and masculinity! Step this way ladies and gentlemen, the great Pallas Athena this way!” Francis could hear Johnnie trying to attract the punters outside the display tent. Bless him, it was a tough job and it was a miserable night. The rain splattered wetly against the heavy canvas, and the wind crept in to set the candlelight flickering. It wasn’t the weather that kept them away though. It just wasn’t the same anymore. The freak shows had lost their shine, become tarnished by their familiarity and the dawning realisation that its inhabitants were genuinely human. She’d only been with the Biggins & Biggins Company for a few months, she’d thought it would be her big break, but even in that time she’d noticed the decline in visitors. It worried her; there wasn’t much call for her kind around.
Francis Amelia Walker was a bearded lady and used to be one of the strongest draws for travelling shows across the Eastern seaboard. But not now. Not even Job and Daniel, the identical brothers joined at the hip, were enough to pull people inside the dank ring of tents that they’d pitch sporadically on the outskirts of towns.
“The great Pallas Athena, come and have a gander m’am, sir! Only a dollar a time…”
Francis sighed. There was something a little sad about her job now. She used to like putting on costumes and the theatrical makeup. She’d spend hours brushing and oiling her beard, waxing the ends into elaborate curlews and using the hot iron to make her hair into a frighteningly shaggy mop of auburn ringlets. But in this moment, with a distracted, flirting couple sheltering from the storm and only the gormless eyes of one snotty-nosed bespectacled child in front of her, she couldn’t help feeling pathetic, and the loneliness of it made her shiver inside the ridiculous Grecian dress. She felt the beginnings of tiredness prickle her neck, which made her sit up that much straighter. The boy sniffed and she started gurning at him to try and raise some kind of reaction. He merely repositioned his glasses, wiped his nose on his sleeve, swallowed once and then became slack-jawed and still again.
As she twisted the ends of her impressive facial hair idly between her fingers, Francis dwelt on her predicament. Without her livelihood she had nothing. No family, no home and nowhere near enough savings to sit back and rest on her laurels. She could apply to be a shop girl; she was clever enough with numbers, sailed through her arithmetic classes at school. But they’d never hire her as she was, and she couldn’t bring herself to be parted from her beard just yet. It wasn’t just her living, it was a part of what made her herself, part of her identity.
Johnnie’s voice brought her back to the present. The boy had gone, and Johnnie was trying to urge the lovebirds out into the rain. She sighed at the way they clasped hands, the way the man sheltered the woman under his jacket, the adoring look in her eye. Johnnie lolled towards her, the lanky frame making his movement awkward, making the too-short sleeves of his jacket noticeable. Francis grinned at him. He reminded her of a brother she once had, before the cholera epidemic hit her hometown. Johnny looked nothing like family though. His tall, boyish blondness earned him a few catcalls now and then, but it was nothing compared to Francis’ visage. Her beard spread downwards, a thick and full five inches from her chin. Above this was pale, clear skin and an aquiline nose. Dark brows sat above dark eyes, brown and deep and brilliant. Her form was on the broader side, but her expansive bust was hidden beneath the beard and if she were to dress in a suit she could pass for a portly man. The hands gave her away though. They were small and fine boned, and soft as velvet. Johnnie grinned back at her.
“Good work tonight Frannie” Only Johnnie called her Frannie, she didn’t seem to mind it when he said it.
“Don’t pull my leg love, it’s not detachable like Janet’s is.” Janet was Francis’s caravan mate. She’d lost her left leg to frostbite when she was small and had accumulated a collection of detachable appendages. They got progressively bigger as she’d aged and she’d display them whilst visitors listened to her stories and examined the stump of her thigh. As customers sought out bigger thrills, however, she’d learnt to perform acrobatics with the troupe the younger Biggins had picked up in Russia. She claimed that seeing a cripple fly through the air was more impressive, but she kept all her prosthetics. Some sentimental value still clinged to the things and they were wrapped up and stored underneath her bed.
“Well, you can’t expect too much on a night like this one. It’s so damned bitter.” Johnnie helped Francis down off the small stage and they stepped towards the exit. “Mr Biggins wants to see you Frannie, he said to bring you right after closing. And not to take no for an answer neither.”
“All right Johnnie, I guess this was coming. Lead on Macduff.” He looked at her quizzically, his brows drawn together. “It’s Shakespeare you cretin.”
“No it’s not. I think you mean ‘Lay on Macduff’.”
“Oh ho, not so soft headed after all! Better make you mine before some other gal gets to noticing what a brainbox you are.” She took his arm and snuggled in at his shoulder.
“You couldn’t stand me. I snore.”
“Oh is that right, well, the other ladies can have you then. Can’t be putting up with a snorer, even one as clever as you.”
They chuckled and trod boldly out into the swampy clearing. Some of the crew had put palettes down to form a make shift walkway, but even so the bottom of Francis’s dress was three inches soaked in mud by the time she knocked on the door of Wallace’s caravan. The door was painted a beaming yellow that seemed to shine in the dark, and glistened where the raindrops clung to the gloss.
“I’ll leave you here Frannie, I’ve got a date with a bookie.”
“Alright love, see you tomorrow all being well.”
“G’night.” And with a swift peck on the forehead, he disappeared into the darkness beyond the pools of lamplight. Johnnie always kissed her on the forehead. He’d explained once that he found the scratchiness of her whiskers disconcerting, but she liked the affectionate gesture, there was something sweet and brotherly about it.
She knocked on the door again and, hearing a muffled indication to enter, she stepped over the threshold into the relative warmth of the cabin.