The Giant

Adapted from "Among the Wonderful" by Stacy Carlson MFA '04

The year is 1842, and Phineas T. Barnum has transformed a dusty natural history museum in New York City into a hall of wonders. Barnum’s American Museum is a heady combination of science and entertainment, and includes an assortment of performers collected from sideshows and carnivals around the world. The performers, who live in apartments on the fifth floor of the museum, include Maud Kraike, a bearded lady, and Ana Swift, the unhappy professional giantess who is one of the novel’s main characters.

Size Matters

Maud had found a fourth for the whist table in Mrs. Martinetti, eldest of the Martinetti family of acrobats. The 10-person Martinetti family, the Marvelous Monarchs of the Air, performed in the theatre twice daily wearing orange-and-black winged costumes. They drew a huge crowd, mostly Italian immigrants, for every one of their shows. Out of everything in Barnum’s museum, I was sure the Martinettis made him the most money.

Though her furniture was not substantial, Maud’s room was an Aladdin’s cave of richly patterned rugs and tapestries draped upon every surface. The table was made of two stacked trunks and lit by several standing lamps pulled close.

“Ana, come in. Everyone else is here,” Maud said when I appeared. I ducked under the frame and closed the door. Mrs. Martinetti looked more like a grand-mother than an acrobat, apparently proving that the two occupations were not mutually exclusive. She perched on the edge of her seat, preposterous next to Mr. Olrick, the Austrian Giant, who immediately rose to greet me.

“Miss Swift, good evening. We’ve not yet had the pleasure of acquaintance.” His voice held no trace of an accent. “I met the other giant last night, the Chinese fellow. I wondered when I would have the pleasure of meeting you.”

“Mr. Olrick,” I returned. I suppose I could not ignore him forever. “I didn’t know there was a third giant in the museum. That’s an awful lot, don’t you think?”

“No one sees him very much; he stays shut up in his room,” said Maud.

Mr. Olrick had a pleasant enough face: a softened rectangle creased at all corners. His lips were entirely obscured by a mustache of unfortunate proportions. A trademark, perhaps. He wore some kind of military uniform. I enjoyed the touch of an equal-sized hand for a moment, and even imagined what it would feel like against my cheek, gently, or else roughly clasped in passion. I could make a fortune if I married a giant publicly, of course. I despised the idea, just as I despised other giants, especially the men who must see me (as I also see them, however fleetingly) as a potential lover. Why is it assumed that I belong with others of my kind? Why double something that is already enormous?

No thank you, I will stay firmly away.

“We were discussing this rain,” said Maud. She gestured me toward a less-than-substantial chair. “But now we can dispense with trivialities and get down to the business at hand. Mr. Olrick has limited experience—”

Mr. Olrick huffed. “I’m sure I can hold my own, my dear.”

“Ana, I’ve paired you with Mrs. Martinetti, whose skills we have not yet determined, as she does not have English.”

“Fine.” I rested gingerly on the seat across from Mrs. Martinetti.

“Ana, will you oblige us with the first deal?” Maud picked up the deck, which was emblazoned with a gold-and-scarlet coat of arms. The cards gave a satisfying snap and hiss as I shuffled. Mrs. Martinetti cut the deck and I dealt out the hands, turning the last card face up.

“Diamonds trump,” I announced, and the game began. Maud led with the queen. Mrs. Martinetti followed with a three, and Olrick quickly played the king.

“Mr. Olrick!” Maud gasped. “Have you played this game before?”

“Well, yes,” he sputtered, reddening. “But it has been some time.”

“You do realize that I am your partner?”

“Yes, of course. Ah, I see my mistake now. I apologize.”

I finished the trick with a five. Olrick led the next with a nine.

“Actually I haven’t played since my convalescence.” He directed this remark to me as I won the trick with the 10. “My mother and I had 11 months together, while I waited for my bones to strengthen.”

Of course he had to bring up his convalescence.

“We played all kinds of card games, and then in the evening when my brother and father were home, we played whist.”

“You were ill?” Maud played the 10 of hearts.

“Some giants”—I interjected, with a clear inflection of boredom—“have a period of time, usually around the age of 12, when the skeleton grows faster than the body can support. I’m surprised you haven’t heard this story before, Maud.”

Olrick continued to prattle about his virtuous mother nursing him into Monsterhood, and of course I remembered my own bed rest, but I would die before mentioning it aloud. A full year flat on my back was nothing to share with others, a full year longing to peel myself out of the thick skin coat that fit less and less as the weeks marched on. People from town sent crate after crate of books, and I read them all and asked for more. One day my mother came home with a set of three volumes wrapped carefully in a sackcloth with the corners folded like an envelope. She handed them over and stood there, her eyes boring holes into me with an expression I didn’t want to understand.

The Giant in History and Literature. I never did find out from whom those books came or what it took to procure them. But for good or ill, the Titans became my great-grandfathers, roaming the earth to make war with the gods. Goliath. Gilgamesh. From behind the misty curtain, Ohya and Hahya stepped out of the centuries as my distant sisters. But in the second volume, on page 117, a hateful prophecy was delivered: Through time it has been observed that Giants seldom, if ever, live to see their 40th year. Earthly forces pull their organs to premature deterioration; their frames, though massive, are brittle and precarious, not meant to bear the weight with which they have been endowed.

At first, still trapped in bed, I masked my horror with noble thoughts: as an example of this ancient and powerful race, I must gracefully bear this strange sentence. Rise above, so to speak, the inevitability of this verdict.

But when you came into the room, Mother, with a cup of broth steaming in your hand, you rushed to me. What ails you, daughter? My thin veil of dignity instantly dissolved to tears. You pulled the book from my hand. You took the whole set away, as if that could erase what I had already read. As if my aching bones, each throbbing step, each time I massaged a leg or shoulder or saw myself reflected in a window was not a reminder that my body is nothing but a death cage.

Mrs. Martinetti proved an attentive player but not much of a partner, since she barely looked up from her hand and never uttered a sound. We played on, with Maud and Olrick taking the next two tricks.

“Which war was it, where you fought, Mr. Olrick?”

I couldn’t help myself, though I knew it was cruel. “I see a nice row of medals on your lapel.”

“Well.” Olrick reddened again. “The truth is, none.” He paused to play the four of clubs. “This is a costume.”

“Ah, a costume,” I agreed.

“You see, my clothes, and all of my belongings, were lost somewhere en route from Chicago. If it had happened in the past, my manager would have taken care of the arrangements for a tailor. But Mr. Barnum has been unresponsive to my predicament. It was only yesterday I found the name of a tailor, so it will be another week, he said, at least, before I have something else to wear. Until then, I’ll just have to feel silly in this.” He was clearly embarrassed. I let him take the next trick, as reparation.

“You know what I’ve been wondering.” Maud leaned in and lowered her voice. “Ever since I saw them—or him—I’ve been suspicious. The conjoined twins. Have you met them yet?” We hadn’t.

“They live next door.” Maud nodded in the direction. “Ever since I saw them, something has rubbed me the wrong way. A certain awkwardness in their movement.”

“Well,” said Olrick. “Given their condition that’s hardly surprising, isn’t it? Are they conjoined at the usual place?”

“Yes, but that’s just it. Usually conjoined twins are quite graceful. They move as naturally as we do. They don’t know any different. But these two, they seem … clumsy. And they fight.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Olrick.

“I’m just saying, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen a gaff.”

“A gaff couldn’t have made it past Barnum’s scouts, Maud.” I had seen two or three instances of a relatively ordinary person impersonating an oddity over the years, and I’d always wondered at their motivation. There had been a dog-faced boy who actually attached his fur with epoxy. My mind always drew a blank when I considered what might drive a normal person into the life of a performer of that sort.

“And one of them would have to be deformed already. How would they move like that if each of them had two normal legs?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time, is all I’m saying.” Maud took the next trick with the ace of diamonds. “That makes a game. I believe Mr. Olrick and I have made two points.”

Mrs. Martinetti silently and sternly dealt the next hand, and we had taken two tricks before Charity Barnum glided into the room without knocking.

I hadn’t seen Mrs. Barnum since I visited her apartment. She wore the same dark dress with a thick lace collar, and her pale hands clasped at her waist. She walked to the center of the room and stopped, swiveling her smooth and oddly boneless-looking face toward each of us, one after another. She even opened her mouth slightly, and a frightened look came over her, as if she had just realized she did not know how to speak. She bore a striking resemblance to the automaton on the fourth floor.

“Mrs. Barnum!” Maud rose. “I thought you would never accept my invitation, so I filled the fourth seat.” She gestured helplessly at Mrs. Martinetti.

Olrick jumped up, looking vaguely relieved. “Madame, please. Please, sit. You may take my place.”

Mrs. Barnum glided to the chair and sat down. She picked up Olrick’s discarded hand. Her hands shook terribly.

“Mrs. Barnum. Is something the matter?”

“Are you unwell?” Maud leaned forward.

Mrs. Barnum put down the cards and tried to steady one hand with the trembling other. “I’m afraid …” She looked into the eyes of Mrs. Martinetti. “She’s been so ill, my daughter. I thought it would be all right, but—” Mrs. Barnum turned in her chair to look at the hallway, now shaking uncontrollably “—I think she’s not. She appears to be …” Her jaw hung open as if she were waiting for the last word to emerge of its own accord. She pointed out the door. “She’s in there.”

Olrick went to find a watchman while we followed Mrs. Barnum to her apartment. The rain pounded against the windows. Mrs. Barnum led us into the small nook of a room behind the kitchen. Helen lay on the narrow bed, her blankets flung back as if she’d dreamed her way out of them. Damp tangles were stuck to her forehead, and Mrs. Martinetti went to the bed and peered into the girl’s half-closed eyes. I expected her to still be alive. Mrs. Martinetti felt the girl’s forehead, then her wrist. I waited for Helen to cringe, to flick her hand away from the old woman’s grasp. Instead Mrs. Martinetti snatched her hand away from the child.

“Morto.”

Maud put an arm around Mrs. Barnum.

“I didn’t think it would be so fast,” Mrs. Barnum said, her voice high, piercing. “I thought I could call the doctor in the morning.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Maud whispered.

Mrs. Martinetti pulled the blanket up over the child, and Mrs. Barnum leaned heavily against Maud. I watched the lump of Helen’s covered head for a toss, an awakening. She was dead, though, of course.

“Mrs. Barnum?” A watchman in a dripping overcoat appeared in the doorway with Olrick behind him. When she saw this man, Mrs. Barnum jerked herself away from Maud and nearly tumbled into his arms. “Thank God someone has arrived. Have you found a doctor?”

“We’ve sent two men out, ma’am. They should be back shortly.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Barnum turned from her new position, held up by the watchman, and appeared to see us for the first time. A bearded woman, two giants, an elderly acrobat, and a dead daughter.

Maud moved toward the watchman. “You won’t need a doctor, sir. She’s—“

“Get out!” Mrs. Barnum shrieked, waving her arm toward Maud. “All of you!” Only the watchman was startled by Mrs. Barnum’s outburst. We filed out of the room. As we crossed the living room, Caroline emerged bleary-eyed from the other bedroom in a wrinkled blue flannel nightgown. “What’s happening, Ana?”

“All of you … people. Just get out!” Mrs. Barnum’s voice held the slick edge of delirium. Caroline froze as she heard it.

“Well if this doesn’t get Barnum back to the museum,” hissed Maud in the hallway, “I will certainly doubt his humanity.” She paused before going into her room: “At least now he’ll finally pay us.”

Stacy Carlson MFA '04 has worked as a historical ecologist, hot springs caretaker, freelance editor, and assistant wilderness guide. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Post Road, In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, and Inkwell. She was awarded a 2010 residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program and received the 2003 Dana Portfolio Award. She lives in Oakland, California with her partner Jason Seecker and their daughter, Djuna.