NEA Literature Fellowships

Michael Downs

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(2006 - Prose)

From the short story "Ania"

A man wearing a red coat and a black stovepipe hat leapt into the center ring. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he yelled into a megaphone. "Children of all ages! Welcome to the big top! Welcome to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus!"

A brass band played a rump-de-diddly fanfare while horses, clowns, and dogs filled the rings. Ania's hands fell lightly on Teddy's shoulders and she watched, surprised, as the light in his face disappeared, replaced by fear. It seemed too much for him, all at once.

Then, the rings emptied -- animals scampering back to their cages, clowns disappearing in folds of the tent -- and trapeze artists appeared on platforms high above the rings. Teddy turned in her lap to hide his face in her side. Ania recognized a song the band played: "Stars and Stripes Forever."

At that moment, a flash of orange appeared on the other side of the big top, then climbed the wall of the tent. Ania thought it must be part of the performance, it seemed such a miraculous thing. But the crowd fell quiet, and then a thunder rumbled from all around and someone yelled, "Fire!" and the thunder exploded, flames charging up and across the billowing roof of the tent, people rushing from the bleachers, knocking chairs underfoot. A trapeze artist jumped from his platform, and Ania watched him twist through air to the sudden ground. She grabbed Teddy and chased the crowd, but at the bottom of the bleachers her foot twisted in a chair and she fell, her face scraping dirt, Teddy tumbling beneath her. Someone stepped on her; her ribs cracked and her breath shot away. "Mama!" Teddy cried, but heat struck the back of Ania's neck and she curled into a ball, screaming in answer to the screams in her ears, kicking her legs as people trampled them. "Let me up!" she shouted as she sucked and coughed black smoke. The heat wrapped round her, wave after wave sinking deeper until it was underneath her skin and invading her muscles and bone. She managed to stand, but with knifing pain her legs gave way and she fell again. Teddy, in a tantrum, his distorted face unrecognizable through soot and fear, slapped at the ground now strewn with peanuts from the empty bag he yet gripped with a tiny fist. Overhead, flames creeped from the blackness like sluggish lightning. Fire rained as a flap of the tent collapsed, swatches of fiery canvas falling on the panicked crowd and the snarling animals trapped in cages. A tent pole crashed near Ania and flaming ropes lashed her face and legs. She beat her arms against her burning skirt as a boy tumbled past, his shirt gone except the buttoned cuffs, the skin of his arms and chest turned black and puddled, and Ania reached for him, but the boy was too fast. And now even the ground burned, and bodies red and black writhed among the fractured chairs. "Mother!" Ania wailed to heaven, praying and cursing in two languages, defying everything, "Mother!" She wrapped her arms around Teddy and, though the muscles of her legs ripped with each step, she limped first one way and then another, forward then back, the heat so massive she couldn't breathe, her arms tingling as hair evaporated and skin blistered, a stink in the air worse than any she had known.

And then she stopped. She stopped.

Above her in the flames she saw a haloed face, shimmering through the smoke, and Ania squinted against the ash dust in her eyes to see more clearly the two scars, the placid mouth, the wide-set and beatific eyes of the Black Madonna. Teddy wailed but she heard him only at a great distance, his noise baffled by another sound that glided through her -- a rising, resonating chime. Ania closed her eyes, touched her dry tongue to her lips. When she looked again through tears, all her panic disappeared, and in its place Ania felt overcome by an exhilarating serenity, and she stepped toward the face, forward into the flames, reaching out to the hellish sky.

Michael Downs lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife and their two dogs. He teaches journalism using what he learned as a newspaper reporter in Arizona, Connecticut, Montana and Arkansas. For his life in literature, he is grateful to the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, where he finished an MFA degree in 1999. His short fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Five Points, Witness and other literary reviews. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, where he sets all his stories, following the advice of a mentor who once told him, "we write from where we get the wound."

Photo by Teresa Tamura

Author's Statement

While working as a sports reporter in Tucson, I was assigned to cover the
death - likely by drug overdose - of a local high school athlete. Quickly it
became apparent that the most fascinating thing about his death was not his
awful tale, but the way his friends and his neighborhood changed in its
aftermath. That story never made it into print. It wasn't the one I was
assigned, and I didn't have the skills then to tell a story outside the
standard journalistic mold. Since then, I've wondered and watched how people
live who stand on the periphery of news. Maybe that's because as a reporter
I always walked that same edge. Maybe it's because it is less obvious how
people are changed when they brush the edge of a vortex than when they are
in it. People on the Titanic suffered and struggled in expected ways, but
how did life change for the ones who fished their bodies from sea? My
fiction looks to those lives.

I am humbled to receive this fellowship from the NEA. Thanks to the judges,
the employees of the organization, and especially to those people who work
and pay taxes to fund these awards.