Gemma Bristow, writer

Something New

Philadelphia, 1793

"It's round!" Lily exclaimed, plumping into her seat.

The building was perfectly circular, its central ring open to the sky.

Pa smiled. "'Circus' means 'circle'."

Lily had wanted to visit the circus ever since it had opened. But she'd found it hard to imagine what it would be like. It was the only circus in America. Even most of her friends hadn't seen it. Esther Drummond had, but Esther had only simpered about some boy riding a horse.

"Although this is new for us," Pa said, "circuses are very old. They date back to Roman times. Romans loved their shows. Rome was a republic, you know, like these United States are now."

"What's a republic?"

"It means we don't have a king any more. We have a President, chosen from among us." He chuckled. "That's a bit of a circus itself. And talking of the President — ."

Pa raised his eyebrows.

Lily shot upright. "What?"

"Since it's your birthday, he should be here, don't you think?"

Lily followed Pa's pointing finger. Across the circle, in a compartment hung with drapes, sat a man in a grey wig. He looked perfectly ordinary. The only thing not ordinary was the way that other people, as they passed on the way to their seats, leaned over to greet him and shake his hand.

"That's the President?"

"General Washington himself."

"What's he doing here? It can't really be for my birthday."

"He must want to see the circus. To see if it's as good as a Roman one."

Even before the show began, Lily knew she would have the best story to tell in school. Esther Drummond hadn't seen the President!

As the spectacle whirled before her, flying bodies in glittering clothes, she kept looking at the President to see if he enjoyed it. He was too solemn to hoot and stamp, but he clapped heartily the riders who did such clever tricks on horseback. And she swore he held his breath when a girl walked on a wire over their heads.

In the final act, horses cantered in a ring, round and round, their riders somersaulting from one to another. Again and again the riders jumped, landed, jumped, until Lily, biting her knuckle, could scarcely believe that no one fell. When at last they dismounted and took their bows, the applause was so loud that the roof would have come off had there been one.

Lily could no longer remember if the circus was something new or old. She clapped wildly anyway. So did General Washington.

"Oh, it's the best birthday!" She leaned close to Pa's ear. "And the President loved it. Only — ."

"Only what?"

"Shouldn't he have had a better seat? People's heads were in his way."

"He had a box."

"But — ." Lily thought about kings in books. "Shouldn't he be out front?"

"Look around." Pa smiled, gesturing at the ring. "It's a circle. There's no front, no back. Everyone gets pretty much the same seat. You, the President; yep, even Esther Drummond."