Ioni Hollande had always been likened to a shooting star. It was the connotation that sneaked its way into everyone’s mind, regardless of how or when they had first laid eyes on the fox-haired girl, making them wonder if they might be able to place a wish upon her freckles and just how long it would take for it to become reality. Though a flattering thought at first, it had the side effect that people – already more susceptible to believing in the supernatural through the circus’ atmosphere – became quite demanding around her, barely hiding their intent behind half-hearted compliments. Over time, what had started as an innocent nickname, therefore, turned into a bitter aftertaste accompanying each and every one of her performances, until it became hard for her to find the strength to step out in front of the audience at all; until the alleyways between the circus’ tents seemed to close in on her like an everchanging labyrinth and, until she started to wish for the ability to fall – not from the sky – but from the surface of the earth, a reverse meteor into a cloudless universe.
Inexplicably, it happens to you too. As soon as she opens the door – flushed, late and with the sun, stars and the moon all painted onto her face – you only vaguely remember the thoughts that had occupied your body mere moments ago. Instead, you are filled with an overwhelming feeling of calmness, as she falls into a chair not far from where you are sitting, her long, red hair causing a whiff of autumn-scented air to dance across your face. Her smile seems electric, contagious and you can’t help but return it. Fox-girl, you think, shooting star.
The term ‘pause’ had never existed in the circus’ vocabulary. It simply kept going, giving show after show, through sunshine and rain, on weekdays and weekends, during snowstorms and desert-like periods of dryness. No matter the outside conditions, there was always some sort of performance going on, whether intended for an audience of a hundred people or for the artists’ enjoyment alone. Neither Christmas nor New Years could deter the circus from its regular schedule and yet there was one night where the lights remained dimmed and the music was no more than a suggestion, a whisper comprised of birdsong and the occasional rustling of the surrounding branches. In the clear winter night, they were nakedly swaying to the melody of the wind, having been abandoned by their leaves already weeks ago. Yet, it was not the trees or the nightly birdsong that was so significant of these hours of darkness, but the thousands of meteors zooming across the cloudless sky, symbolizing the peak of Geminid season – and Ioni Hollande’s birth.
Having been born to two aerial acrobats, the nickname of ‘shooting star’ would have come naturally even without these special, galactic circumstances. And yet, it was the Geminids that inspired some of the circus’ more spiritual members to go so far as to argue that the falling stars might have whispered the suggestion into her mother’s ear during childbirth, promising her a healthy and ever-smiling child with the ability to transform mere wishes into reality. Though neither of the girl’s parents was ready to truly believe in these, more absurd ideas, they both knew that in having been born whole and healthily, Ioni had indeed already fulfilled a longstanding wish, defying the odds and surprising more than one doctor, who had previously told her parents that their dream of having a biological child would never come into fruition. Proving everyone wrong by simply living, Ioni was soon treated like the circus’ most precious commodity, handled with the careful touch of snow-white gloves and the love of a community, unique to a band of people travelling, living and performing together for the sole purpose of a smile. And so, it didn’t take long for her to fulfil also the second part of the prophecy, as she was soon known for the happy bounce in her step and the smile ever-present on her freckled lips. This smile shone even brighter once she finally started her training in the world of aerial acrobatics, always flying and falling, a prodigy on the trapeze, a shooting star inside the highest one of the circus’ tents.
As she got older, the circus became her life, her job and her home. She lived her days happily following its magical pattern, relishing in the ability to paint a smile on other people’s faces through her performances and cherishing the bonds she had long since created with the other artists, talking, laughing and learning from the unlikeliest of people. For, who could have guessed the dompteur had a deep understanding of human history and an endless interest in the political and social developments of the world; who would have taken the magician for a highly sensitive person, caring so very deeply about the state of the earth and the environment, and who would have possibly thought the contortionist spoke seven languages fluently and aimed to learn more with every city, state and country they passed on their ongoing journey? These were her friends, the only ones she had ever had and yet also the only ones she ever really needed. They helped her grow into a curious young woman, aiming to walk through life looking on the bright side, without prejudice and always helping others, wherever possible. Soon this innate wish of making other people happy, of looking for strangers’ deepest wishes, however, started to change her life more than it ever seemed to change theirs. And before too long, other people’s dreams become her nightmares, leaving her empty and hurting, like a mere shell of the person she had once so happily been, for wishes had a way of avoiding fulfilment until the right time had come.
Her words are as transfixing as her smile. You hold your breath as she speaks, painting her experiences into the air for the whole room to see – and to believe. It’s not difficult, though maybe it should have been, as the story resembles the plot of a book more than anything you had experienced in real life until then. Still, you never doubt a single syllable falling out of her mouth, describing the circus and her life spent high up in the air, explaining the importance of a smile and how sometimes, even they seem to need a little convincing to shine: “In the end, it’s easy”, she promises, and somehow you find yourself believing that, too.
As the years passed by, things got easier and harder. Some months saw her drowning in a crowd of people, unable to catch a breath or fighting the currant in a self-imposed horror land of unfulfillable dreams, unimaginable to anyone outside of her shoes; others, experienced a fierce and positive version of Ioni, confronting her own decisions and finding solutions to help herself – if none of the people around her. Meanwhile, they believed because they wanted to believe, trusted because they needed to trust and told their stories, even though no one had asked to hear them. Over time, it was all she could do to slowly retreat from her performances, leaving a gaping hole in her own heart and the high tent that had housed her talent for so many years. She continued to travel with the circus but started to break out of the prison-like confinement it had started to become, almost as soon as the train had stopped and the tents had been set up for the next big hurrah. She would hide in the anonymity of new cities, distancing herself enough from the crowd to feel her heartrate returning to normal, to taste the oxygen in the air and to have a smile spread – once more – on her face. For that was – and remained to be – what it was all about for the shooting star, hiding behind the face of fox-haired girl.