Firelight was entering the circus wagon through a narrow open door when Nellie woke. The orange light was jumpy, flickering. It played over the walls of the roofed wagon and its collection of costumes, trunks, hoops, juggling balls, and other props. The air in the wheeled cabin was scented with woodsmoke and meadow grass.
She lay on a straw-filled ticking spread on the plank flooring. At her side, sharing the thin mattress with her, were an eight-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl, a brother and sister. Nellie was unable to communicate with them. They were Czech. She understood only German and a little Polish.
Always, though, Nellie and the children held hands as they lay together as the wagon rolled through the nights, with the brother and sister whimpering, “Matka . . . Matka . . .” over and over before falling asleep, and Nellie crying, “Mutter . . . Mutter . . .”
It was the spring of 1890, April or May.
Nellie Pelikan was twelve, and doll-like. She was small for her age, maybe four foot four or five. Her head bore a large corona of soft curls that were exactly the chestnut brown of her sad eyes.
She along with the brother and sister were wards of Willy Dosta, the operator of a one-wagon, one-horse circus. The show was one of hundreds of such gypsy affairs that toured Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mostly the Willy Dosta Circus rolled over the rutty roads veining the dark, thickly forested wilderness of the Carpathian Mountains along the boundary between Poland and Czechoslovakia. The circus depended on free-will offerings and seldom played to audiences of more than a dozen or so.
This night, as every night, Nellie and her companions had fallen asleep while Dosta was at the reins, searching for another hamlet where he could put down the show. At the time Nellie awoke, though, the wagon was off the road and stopped in a clearing. It was dark outside except for the flaring of a fire. It might have been in the dead of night or an hour or two before dawn.
She had awakened with an urge to empty her bladder. She squirmed this way and that on the mattress, hoping that she could hold off leaving the wagon until daylight.
Her discomfort grew and finally she rose from the bedding. The floor creaked beneath her bare feet. She tried to step more lightly. She did not want to disturb the sleep of the brother and sister.
She froze when she had padded to the open door, startled at the sight before her. Thirty or forty steps outside was Reiter, the Percheron horse that not only towed the wagon from place to place but also appeared in the ring of the Willy Dosta Circus. Reiter was a gentle horse, but freakishly massive, twenty hands, almost seven feet, and with the inky air blanking all details of the landscape around him, he appeared to Nellie to have grown to an even greater size. Not only that, but Reiter was glowing. His white-gray coat was fluorescing with crimson light. The great horse was tethered near a campfire, munching grass.
Closer to the fire, lying on a scrap of canvas, was Willy Dosta. His boots were on one side of him and his rifle on the other, and he appeared to be sleeping. Dosta, a Scotsman, was a man in his late thirties, with a broad chest, muscular arms, and the neck of a bull. His red mustache was so bushy it masked the entire lower third of his face like a bandanna covering the mouth of a stagecoach bandit.
Nellie shivered. She cowered at every sight of him. Even in sleep, his expression was one of sullenness. It had been that way since that spring night a month or two earlier when, as she cried and screamed and begged to be released, he penned her inside the circus wagon, latched the door with a lock, and then, with a shake of Reiter’s reins, took her from her family in Breslau, Silesia.
Nellie leaped the three feet from the wagon floor to the ground and struck out in a direction opposite from where Dosta lay, wading through a field of hip-high grass. When she had moved a hundred steps or so, she stopped, drew the hem of her nightshirt to her waist, and squatted to pee.
Her head had vanished beneath the top of the grasses when she heard a swishing in the field. Her heart started drumming. She remained crouched, trying to make herself smaller. Brown bears, lynxes, and wolves were everywhere in the Carpathians, but in an instant, she would see an even more frightful animal.
Dosta was at her side, towering over her. He had found her easily by following in the wake she had cut through the grasses.
With a single hand clenching her shoulder, he drew her up and then led her deeper into the grasses. Next, he pushed her to the ground, then dropped down himself and threw one of his heavy muscular legs over hers. He clamped his furry mouth over her lips. She could not scream. She could barely breathe. He slipped a hand under her nightshirt and moved it to her chest. He discovered only small, boyish buds there, and moved his hand down beneath her underwear. His fingers were scratchy and hard with calluses from gripping Reiter’s reins for hours each day. With his free hand, he slipped the suspenders from his shoulders and pushed down his trousers so the pants legs gathered around his boots.
He was gone when she awoke. She lay in the grass for a moment, looking up at the moon and stars, and then got onto her feet. From afar, as she was approaching the wagon, she saw that Willy was again sprawled out on his patch of canvas near the campfire. She reentered the wagon, and, waiting for daybreak, took her place on the mattress between the sleeping boy and girl.
She must have thought about escaping. But how? Every day the wagon penetrated deeper and higher into the wilds of the Carpathians. Was she a hundred miles from the family home in Breslau or a thousand? She could not have had any idea. She was never even sure of the country she was in. During their meanderings, Dosta and his charges continually wove in and out of regions in Poland, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and Romania.
Dosta had rarely spoken to Nellie before, except to issue commands. His relationship toward her became even more remote after the assault. He showed no signs of remorse and seemed to view the molestation as another demonstration that she was fully his chattel.
Nellie ached with homesickness for her mother and four brothers and sisters. But she sank into even deeper despair after the attack. She became preoccupied with one thought: she was going to burn eternally in hell.
Almost from the time Nellie Pelikan started walking, she had lived the life of a nomad. She had been an equestrienne and acrobat in Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus, a show operated by her father. Because she was on the move seven or eight months a year, her schooling was irregular. But winters, when the Pelikans were back in Breslau, she was enrolled in a school operated by Polish nuns. Because her native language was not Polish but German, she had trouble absorbing the lessons of arithmetic and history. Often the nun placed the dunce cap on her head and ordered her to sit on a stool in front of the class.
If Nellie had trouble concentrating on the secular subjects, though, she was attentive when the sister cleared the classroom of the boys and preached to the girls about the evils of fornication. A girl could commit no greater sin than to allow herself to be touched by another in her private areas, the nun would lecture. The sister would then open an oversize copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and, standing before the classroom desks, turn the pages to the illustrations showing wailing sinners in the fiery pits of hell. Some of the children in the pictures seemed to Nellie to be no older than she was.
“This will be your forever if you disobey God’s commandment to remain chaste,” the nun would warn. “The sinners you see here are still in hell today, and they will be there tomorrow and when all of you are old and gray. Once you enter hell, there is no escape. These sinners are there for the eternities.”
The pictures of the sinners stayed in Nellie’s mind. She recalled them in all their vivid details after Dosta’s attack.
Nellie was five when she had started appearing in the circus ring. She was, from the start, the star of Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus. She was also Eduard’s great pride. With her legs and arms akimbo, she balanced head-to-head atop her father. And as he rode a galloping horse Roman-style around and around the outdoor ring, she was perched on his shoulders, juggling oranges.
Each year, as Nellie grew older, she became more accomplished. By the time she was eight or nine, her performances were dazzling to behold. Her platform was the broad back of a loping white horse that endlessly circumscribed great rings in grassy fields and the squares of towns where Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus appeared. She threw cartwheels and forward and backward somersaults on the back of the smoothly cantering horse. She finished her turn in the manner of a prima ballerina, posing en pointe and seemingly defying all laws of gravity as her four-legged stage continued on and on in its rounds.
Nellie was joined by other siblings in the shows. Her younger sisters, Toni and Tina, appeared in the ring with Eduard, who juggled the pair with his feet. Adolph, the youngest of the Pelikan children, bounded high into the air from a springboard and then tossed somersaults before alighting on his feet. Julia Pelikan, matriarch of the family, had been a trapeze artist in her girlhood in Bohemia. But because there seemed never a time when she was not either nursing a baby or about to give birth to a new one, her appearances in the ring were limited now to singing and clowning.
Once the circus came upon a hamlet where Eduard sensed it could attract even a small audience, he would seek out a playing area. Adolph and his brother, Horace, would unhitch the horse from the wagon and brush away the animal’s road dust. Next, as Nellie and the other children were changing into their costumes, the boys walked around the village, banging on drums to let everyone know a circus was about to begin its show. At the conclusion of the performances, Julia and the children would weave among the spectators with tins in their hands, seeking donations. Not all of the proceeds came in the form of coins. Some villagers paid with loaves of bread or live chickens and rabbits. Because the countryside through which the circus traveled was sparsely populated, the family was never rewarded with big purses.
Still, the summers of trouping were happy times. The family enjoyed the adventure of traveling to new places. There was fishing and swimming in the streams almost every day. Most of all, the Pelikans considered themselves richly blessed because they were always together. Nights, after they were at rest from their travels and performances, they would all gather around a fire. Eduard would then dream out loud about someday when the family circus would have its own big tent, travel by train, and play only the bigger cities. His ambition would never be realized.
Eduard had been troubled for years with arthritis, a condition aggravated not just by the sprains and broken bones he had suffered over thirty years as a gymnast and professional strongman but also from decades of working and sleeping outdoors in weather that sometimes was icy and rainy. The arthritis worsened each year, and, in time, he also began suffering from rheumatic fever. There were days when he felt that a red-hot coal was glowing inside his chest, and, after the 1889 touring season, he was forced to quit trouping.
No one was sadder than Nellie. Although quiet and shy in most situations, she reveled in performing and hearing the cheers and applause of the always amazed audiences. She also exulted in the visible signs of pride her father had shown after each of her performances. What troubled her most about the collapse of Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus, though, was how its demise changed her father. He sank into depression and became snappish to her and the other children, and even to Julia.
When the family returned to its quarters in a tenement in Breslau in the fall of 1889, Eduard rolled the circus wagon into the backyard, removed its spoked wheels, and painted over the lettering on its side advertising eduard pelikan’s family circus. The wagon that had been the family’s summer home was converted into the quarters for a small cabinetmaking shop. Eduard sold the horse that had been in service to the family for dray and ring performances.
Willy Dosta must have been surprised at the condition in which he found Eduard in early 1890 when he paid a call at the Pelikan home and saw him in the cabinet shop. By then, Pelikan was bent forward at the waist like a burned matchstick. He needed a cane in each hand to walk.
From the time he was a boy, Eduard had been a saltimbanque, a member of a nameless tribe of eternally wandering vagabonds without nationality who lived under the sun and stars, and roved everywhere with trained bears and satchels filled with magic props, or maybe no possessions at all except for an ability to eat fire, swallow swords, or walk ropes.
Spring was just starting its greening. As always at that time, Pelikan was stirred by some unappeasable, almost instinctive urge to again take flight with the family circus. He would not be going out this year, though. He felt like a bird whose wings had been clipped.
He held his hands out for Dosta to see. They were curled into ugly claws.
“I used to be able to throw down an ox with these,” he declared. “Now look at them. I can hardly lift a soup spoon to my mouth. How does a man feed a family with hands like these?”
Because his earnings as a cabinetmaker were skimpy, Julia helped out by taking in laundry, including the bloody aprons of a neighborhood butcher. Late at night, while their children slept, she and her husband talked about the need to place the youngest of them in an orphanage.
Dosta recruited the children for his circus by approaching large families that were having trouble feeding their broods. He and Eduard had never been anything more than acquaintances, but as the operators of wagon circuses that snaked through the forests and rural arcadias, their paths had crossed over the years. Dosta regarded Nellie as the most naturally talented child performer he had ever seen. When he learned that Eduard’s failing health had forced him to retire the family show, he saw an opportunity.
Excerpted from Queen of the Air by Dean Jensen. Copyright © 2013 by Dean N. Jensen. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.