God’s Work – Callie S. Blackstone
Most came to the circus for the spectacle of the clowns and the lions, for the cotton candy and
the souvenirs. They filed into the big tent where they crammed together and stared down into the ring.
Let them have it. The lights were always too bright for me and the smell of the sugared nuts was
cloying. I hated the crowds. I always came toward the end of the night.
I would purchase my ticket and clutch it in my hand. After the evening ended I would find
fragments of damp blue paper on my palm. I didn’t bother to wash up; I would just fall into bed and a
long series of dreams filled with primary colors. They were populated by stark images of men hanging
upside down by their feet or falling out of burning towers. These dreams were heavy and would sit in
my throat for days. They tasted of bitterness, of copper coins found at the bottom of a lake that longed
to drown any who dared enter it.
Every summer I selected my best dress, made of a pale blue floral fabric that was soft against
my skin. After I slipped into it, the garment familiar around my hips, I hitchhiked to the big top. There
was always some lonely man pursuing the naked exotic woman draped in snakes at the freak show. He
would always pull over at the sight of me, attracted to the low cut of my dress and the way my breasts
glowed pale under the moon. My role was to laugh emptily at his jokes, to lightly place my hand on his
knee, to allow him to dream up a life between my thighs. I had to falsely join in with his excitement
over the snake handler. It was my own sleight of hand, my own magic trick. When he inevitably pulled
into the parking lot, his ancient truck rumbling, I would jump out and run to the ticket booth, my
giggles lining the night. I would give the woman a long, knowing look as I shoved the cash to her. The
ticket always manifested quickly. He would spend the rest of the evening scanning the crowds for me,
lonely and confused.
He wouldn’t find me anywhere. I wouldn’t even have to hide. My favorite part of the circus
garnered little interest or respect from others. The act did not advertise violence, sex, or birth defects to
gawk at. There was just a small tent, separate from the main attraction and the series of structures
reserved for the freak show.
All of the other tents were striped with red and white. The fabric of the tent I desired was so
dark it blended in with the night. I would spend the year after each visit considering the details of my
most recent experience: my chauffeur, the way the wind felt against my bare legs, the distant sounds of
awe. I always tried to place what color the tent was, but it shifted in my mind. Sometimes it was navy,
sometimes purple, sometimes black. It was a color so dark you could not find it unless your eyes were
trained to look.
My eyes always saw.
The encounter always started by laying out the money. We did not have much and I had to
save every year for the experience, sometimes taking odd jobs or shamefully slipping dingy coins from
my sister’s piggy bank. Maybe this was the reason I got the results I did. Maybe it was punishment for
that youthful wrongdoing.
Over the years I learned she wanted things besides money. The money was mandatory, but she
was deeply pleased by other things. The corner of her lips would lift if I brought her natural oddities:
long golden feathers I found under the full moon, stones with holes worn through the centers, roses I
had grown and dried between pages of the family bible. Her eyes glittered in the dimness of the tent.
She would evaluate the money and my offerings slowly, counting currency and caressing each
item. After she evaluated a bill or a flower, she would meet my look. The whites of her eyes felt sharp
in the dark. I would quiver, her energy running up and down my body. I started every circus season
with the mantra that I would be brave, I would not shake. I would swallow the lessons I received
without question. Yet, every trip was exactly the same. I would always be the 13-year-old who first
entered the tent so many years ago, pulled by something indescribable.
My family always thought I went to the circus to find a young romeo. My friends were
convinced I was spending my time kissing a boy under the lights of the bigtop. No one understood my
obsession with the event and my need to spend all of my money on it. In reality, my date was a woman
who looked older than my grandmother.
Once she finished examining the offerings, she reached beneath the silk colored table and
pulled out a wooden box. My quivering would intensify. I could not contain myself, no matter how
many years I sought this out. I was shivering despite the summer heat, despite the warmth coming off
She placed the box on the center of the table and removed her hands from it. She stared at me.
The only movement was the candle light dancing in her eyes. I heard the sounds of the circus as if from
far away, happy sounds of music and elephant calls and the laughter of children. None of it mattered. Her
eyes were dark and I felt myself sinking into them. Deeper, deeper. Her eyes asked silent questions. Was I
strong enough to endure this, to step over this threshold, to part the veils? Was I worthy? The offerings
were only one minor step of the process. They merely granted me the right to be evaluated. The place was
dark and warm and suffocating and despite this, I was shaking all over while she appraised me.
After several minutes, she placed her hands back on the box. Despite how worn the wood looked,
it opened without a sound. The backs of the cards were cross hatched with white and blue, a soft and
gentle pattern against the dark background of the tent. She placed the deck in front of me and gestured to
it with her eyes. It was time.
The space behind my eyelids was the only place darker than the small tent. I breathed in deeply
and took in the exotic smell. I had been going to her for years, and the scent had become familiar. I was
never able to name it despite spending several hours in the local department store, hovering over various
perfume bottles. I breathed in slowly and felt my body settling. My soul found its seat in the bowl of my
hips. It was this moment that reassured me I was where I should be. Everything was coming together. My
body stopped shaking.
I kept my eyes closed and placed my hands on the deck. I focused on my breath, in and out and in
and out, and the feeling of the cards against my hands. The backs were not smooth; it felt as if each blue
line had been etched on to the cardstock individually. As I sat, I slowly became aware of the energy the
If the woman in front of me was ancient, the deck of cards existed millenia before her. It was
wise, it knew things. It had watched humans cycle through the same series of joys and pains for centuries.
I could feel it finding me to be a silly girl, going through the motions all other girls did. The deck came to
this determination in a flurry of loving laughter When this feeling of divine humor overcame me, I felt as
if the cards were giving me permission. I gently cut the deck.
I flipped the card over.
It was the same card. Every time I went to the tent I pulled the same card. When I received the
card for the third year in a row at sixteen years old, I ignored that the previous premonitions had come
true. It was easier to push the results away, to believe that the woman was merely scamming me and
choosing to show me the same card over and over every year. It was easier than accepting the horrifying
Despite my doubts I returned to the tent the following year. Part of me felt big and powerful, as
all people on the cusp of adulthood do. I felt I would be able to catch her in her tricks, to prove it was all a
facade. I would demand she return all of the funds I had given her over the last four years, funds I had
earned from scrubbing floors and picking fruit under the hot sun. I would be able to walk away from the
whole thing and return to a life in which such tents, such women, and such messages did not exist.
That year, I entered and tried to act calmly, normally. I felt the firm set of my face. My mouth
was stiff. She saw my face and immediately broke into a large smile. When I pulled my card and saw the
same one, she gestured for me to cut into the deck for another. This had not occurred during my previous
visits. The same card was pulled. Over and over, to the point where it felt like I had pulled more cards
than the deck held. She met my eyes and tilted her head, the smile still playing on her lips. I closed my
eyes, swallowed my pride, and received my message.
Every year, the same card. Every year, a terrifying message that foretold what would happen
before my next visit.
Why couldn’t I stay away? Why did I torture myself so? Why couldn’t I find some young man to
buy me cotton candy, to embrace me as I pretended to be afraid of the lion act? Why couldn’t I lead a
These questions implied that there was an option for me to decline the blue dress, to ignore the
man, to stop myself from walking through the still summer night to her tent. I would never come to
understand what drew me to her every year, but I was drawn, and I had to go. There were no options. Her
message was mine to receive.
I always took in the card completely when I pulled it, even though I had seen it several times over
the years. The image was unevenly framed with a white border, as if created by hand. It featured a sky as
black as the one outside the tent. The sky slowly transitioned to clouds cross hatched with thin black
lines, ominous things that warned of an approaching storm. They hovered over the remainder of the sky,
which glowed yellow and unworldly over a blue mountain bruised with pink. In the foreground of the
image the ground was dark and muddy. A man lay face down in the mud, draped in a scarlet cloth that
was as brilliant as the red pooling from his head. Each year I counted the swords in his back. The blades
pinned him down so he could not move and could not escape the oncoming storm. He was held down by
the weight of the world. One, two, three, ten in total.
I gazed into the card until the familiar image lost its shape, just a blur of dark colors, all black and
red and suffering. My eyes always slipped closed at this point. It was time. The message was coming.
Sometimes there were several messages–sometimes only one. Every year the scenes unfolded in
front of me as if I were daydreaming. But the scenes were logical–the timelines made sense, the dialogue
was believable. The characters were all people I knew, the people that populated my small town.
That first year I went–when I was thirteen–I received two messages. The first featured a neighbor
boy, small and cherubic, going ice skating. He wore an oversized woolen hat and mittens. The flesh that
peaked out from the fabric was pink with the cold and his breath fogged the air. I sensed it was the first
time his parents allowed him to skate without them. I sensed they had been taking him to the lake for
years, just as my parents had done for me, and all parents did for theirs in our community.
He tentatively moved forward on the ice, looked back over his shoulder at his parents. They
provided the encouragement he was hoping for, and he was off. He began to glide around the lake with
ease until his skates caught the rim of an ice fishing hole and he fell in. My body felt like it had been
plunged in frigid water, like it was twisting and turning. I began to gasp for air.
The images of the boy weighed heavily on me throughout that first autumn. I often found myself
waking up gasping for air, freezing. My family became concerned when I wore heavy sweaters despite
the warm weather that lingered in September. They grew angry when I started taking too much time in the
bathroom, sitting in the bathtub and using up all of the hot water. It was never enough. I went frigid that
I was napping under several blankets, when I was woken up by hysterical crying. Alarmed, I ran
down the stairs and found my mother comforting a woman I recognized. After I blinked the sleep out of
my eyes, I realized it was the woman from my vision. The child’s mother had been moving from house to
house throughout the community, screaming like a banshee, screaming for the son who would never
I received visions of deaths in that tent every summer since that first year–all kinds of deaths, but
primarily unexpected ones. Brutal accidents involving farm machinery, a rabid dog biting several people
in town, a man shooting his wife and her lover. The visions always matched the stories we would hear
Was I to play God? Was I to warn others about the messages that unfurled before me? The deaths
of the people I had seen lay heavy on me. The drowning boy lay heavy on me. When I walked down the
street, my neighbors’ faces seemed to ask Why did you do nothing? My dreams were filled with the
demise of others and the bizarre image of the man pinned down by swords.
And even if I wanted to warn others, how? I imagined life before these experiences. I thought of
my 12 year old self, my younger sister, parents, neighbors. No one would have believed it had someone
approached them and told them they were going to die. I feared what would happen if I tried. What would
my mother’s beloved pastor think? I pictured the churchgoers in their pews, standing and pointing toward
the door when I entered the building for services, as I always had since I was a young girl. I pictured
people turning their faces from me on the street, or worse.
During my seventeenth year, I received a message that a local boy planned to go to a party after
his high school graduation, chug beer, and drive the family’s ancient truck back home. But, he would
careen off the road, the vehicle flipping over and over until it became his final resting place.
This was to happen several months later. I had time to plan. I explored various ways of delivering
the message, and tested the results in my head. I finally decided I would don the guise of a concerned
citizen prior to the graduation ceremony. I stole some stationery from the school and sat down to write. I
littered my letter with bible verses and spiritual turns of phrase about spare the rod, spoil the child, and
the dangers of alcohol abuse. I warned his family of the dangers of allowing their son to go out that night.
I realized they heeded my warning when I saw the boy glumly walking the streets for days after the party,
his eyes focused on the ground.
I became the messenger from that day forward. I wrote letters and delivered them in the middle of
the night. I always bundled myself in a hat and scarf so my identity would remain hidden–even if the
temperature was soaring. I began to hear whispers about the letters throughout town. I even overheard my
mother discussing it with my father one night over the familiar sound of a beer bottle cracking open.
There’s someone in town, she had whispered, doing God’s work.
Folks were tentative to listen to the messages at first, but I eventually became a local legend. If
someone received a letter, they listened. The letters never required much, anyway: practice safety on your
farm, shoot a dog once it foams at the mouth, keep your legs closed to evil men.
People were living past their death dates and thriving. The community overall was improving.
Church attendance had increased. People were more polite at the grocery store. The bars were slowly
emptying, alcoholics somehow realizing that it was time to make a change.
I wanted to ask the ancient woman outright if acting on the messages was what I was supposed to
do. I wanted to ask her why I was drawn to her. I wanted to ask how such a powerful woman had come to
find herself at a circus. When I actually visited, I could never find the words to form these thoughts out
That year she gazed into my eyes for a long time. I sensed that she lowered her head slightly,
once, as if to acknowledge my work. Her demeanor hadn’t changed; there was no external difference
from before I began the work and after. I took both of these as a sign and I continued to steal stationary
and paper from various places around town (many seemed to leave it out rather carelessly at that point, as
if openly inviting the communications). I stayed up late into the night and wrote by candlelight. The
familiar scent of the tent would linger around me while I worked. I could never locate the source.
This process became second nature. I received, I transcribed, I delivered, people beat death. I still
dreamed in visions, but they were not as graphic as they used to be. The young boy often visited me after
I delivered a letter, and I believed his face contained some forgiveness.
Sometimes I would meet the eyes of one of the recipients while I was walking down the street.
We would look deeply into each other for a long time. Their mouths would open and move as if they were
searching for words. Yet, nothing was ever said. I remained the same young girl that no one took very
seriously, the same young girl that had a secret lover at the circus.
I received the same vision at the end of every visit to the tent. It was the most disturbing vision I
ever received. My body inevitably clenched when the messages about townspeople faded. My stomach
churned. I wanted to flee but I felt paralyzed. It was coming. My death was coming.
I watched myself die every year.
The final vision grew longer and more detailed every time I received it. It always began with my
legs, the familiar scar, my fingernails chipped from the household chores I performed daily. I sat on an
unrecognizable seat lined with old material in an unrecognizable, hazy place.
My death was never actually revealed in the visions–I instinctively knew what was happening–
until my twenty-third year. I was twenty-three and I knew how I was going to die.
I watched as a large pair of hands–tanned and chapped and grim–wrapped around my pale neck
until it grew redder and redder, until I struggled, until I dropped limp. Death by murder, death by the
hands of a man, I could no longer breath, the air was heavy with incense, I was choking and gasping.
I came out of the trance and found my face wet with tears. I could not stop crying. I looked up
and found the woman gazing at me intently. My mouth was struggling for words but it would produce
nothing. I begged her with my eyes despite the fact she never talked. She merely watched me for a
moment and placed the card back in the pile, straightened the deck, and put it back in the box.
I felt like I was drowning. How could I write a letter to myself? Should I tell myself to avoid all
men? I thought of my father at home, how he often fell into bed, his fingers caked with dirt from the
fields. I thought of the men in my town. None of them were ever truly clean. It was a dusty place. The
people stemmed from the earth. The hands could have belonged to anyone.
As always, she pulled a secondary box from beneath her table and opened it. There was a series
of cookies in it. I chose one and contemplated it. The cookies were unlike any displayed in the town
bakery or on the church platters. They were pale half circles. Put those back in the oven, my mother
would have said of them. Imagine giving people underbaked cookies!
I felt her eyes on me and when I met them she did not look happy. She turned slowly, as if she
needed to move gingerly or her whole body would fall apart. She placed a small glass on the table and
poured golden beer into it. I nodded and placed the cookie in my mouth. When I closed my eyes, it was
not to receive a message, but to savor the flavor. It was mild, and I could never place it. My mother was
surprised when at 15 I began experimenting with baking. I had always hated kitchen work. Despite many
attempts, I was never able to identify the woman’s secret ingredient.
The beer was warm and mild and the sourness paired perfectly with the cookie. The process of
eating and drinking always gave me a few minutes to calm down before I left the tent. Accepting the food
and drink was her way of saying goodbye. This had always been very clear to me without any
instructions. Once I left, I never looked back.
Outside, the air was cooler and I could breathe. I stretched, trying to release the tension from my
muscles. The dress I wore slowly rose on my thighs and the breeze licked my skin. My murder weighed
heavy on me.
The circus grounds were quiet now. I began to walk past the freak show tents and watched as the
performers disrobed under the light of the moon. I watched as a man peeled off his shirt to reveal images
of blue birds on his skin. He met my eyes, held them, and grinned. His eyes looked black and hungry and
I began to run back toward the big tent, my heart in my throat. I was still unable to make words, to cry out
NO or STOP or HELP. When I looked back I saw the man bent over, laughing alongside a man half of his
I continued to run past the freak tents until I reached the main attraction. The wind blew ticket
stubs and empty popcorn containers around. The quiet was periodically interrupted by performers as they
slowly trickled out of the tent. Many looked tired. Others giggled into the shoulders of their companions,
Another show put on successfully. Another night of messages given. I stood watching, my mouth
agape. Would these people know about the woman in the small tent? Would they be able to help me?
Would one of them be the one who killed me? I could not move my body, let alone my mouth.
I heard steps approaching and turned my head toward them. I backed away as the man came up to
me. He said nothing, but merely nodded towards the exits. The message was clear. The show was over. It
was time for the audience to go home. I looked around. Everyone who remained on the circus grounds
was bedecked in feathers, in jewels, in leotards of a dizzying array of colors. There were no normal
people left. I did not belong to this crowd. But I had not been normal for some time.
I slowly left the circus grounds and exited to the deserted road. My visits generally never lasted
this long; I usually exited with others, even if they were stragglers who took too long picking out their souvenirs. It must have taken me some time to receive my final message, to savor the old woman’s ale.
I was miles away from home. I didn’t have a single quarter to use a payphone, not that there was
one around anyway. I turned back to look at the circus grounds, but the gates had been closed. A black cat
peered at me between the posts. I took a step back toward the entrance and the animal hissed. The
message was clear.
It was time for me to leave.
The moon was pregnant and glowing. A strong breeze rustled the leaves and rippled my dress. I
had only walked for about a quarter of a mile before the ancient truck pulled over and the man leaned out
of his window, gently waving a grimy hand. The brown leather seats were like those of any truck in town.
I could imagine the way the leather would stick to my thighs and how fragrant it would be in the summer
I had been pulled to the tent for several years. The pull to the truck was much stronger, stronger
than anything I had ever experienced. I wanted to scream, but my throat had run dry despite the old
woman’s beer. Not there was anyone around, anyways. I wanted to run, I urged myself to run. But my
body didn’t listen and my feet moved toward the passenger side of the vehicle, toward his grin looming at
me in the night. I smelled the beer on him, I smelled the salty peanuts, I smelled something much darker.
The door worked more smoothly than I expected on such an old, decrepit vehicle. The scent of man and
leather became overwhelming. He kept the windows up. I gripped the seat, my hands clammy. I knew
what was coming.
It was God’s work.
Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Plainsongs, Lily Poetry Review, Rust+Moth, Prime Number Magazine, West Trestle Review, and others. You can find her online home at calliesblackstone.com.
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