I’m so excited to tell you that Olympia Knife, my second novel, will be released by Interlude Press on November 2. (If you’re in New York, come celebrate at the book release party at Bluestockings Bookstore on November 5, 7-9 PM!)
Here’s a little peek of the beginning:
by Alysia Constantine
This book is for all of us queer folk—not just those of us who are LGBTQ, but all of us who, because of the shape or ability of our bodies, because of our needs or our choices, live unseen, untethered, or outside the margins. Keep on keeping on, friends, because the world desperately needs us to stick around, even if most of its people don’t seem to know it. It is, in most of the world—certainly in my corner of it—a particularly hard time for folks on the margins. But keep on. Even when smaller minds prevail, keep on. When meaning is twisted, when speech is unmoored from truth, when you know that no one will see you, when gravity fails, keep on. Even when the world is upended, when hate scrapes you up and things look most dire, even then, friends, even then, please, keep on.
“All that is solid melts into air,
all that is holy is profaned,
and man is at last compelled
to face with sober senses […]
his relations with his kind.”
—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Excerpt from chapter 1: The Flying Knifes
The night her parents disappeared for good, Olympia Knife was watching.
She sat on the high platform with her legs dangling into the dark below and waited for her father to swing up, grab her ankles, and hurl her through the dark air to her mother’s arms. The noise of the crowd and the hooting calliope filtered up and mixed with the faint-but-never-gone tent smell of elephants and sweat and mildew.
Alban and Julia, The Flying Knifes, glinted silver like fish in the filmy dark, gaining speed and height with each dip of the trapeze. They called to each other, low enough that the crowd below couldn’t hear: Next one, love! Hup! Fly!
Sequined backs arching across the distance, Alban and Julia swung forward and stretched their arms toward one another. This moment was an ache, a longing, an imminence Olympia loved, the seconds suspended and stretching toward the inevitable moment when their hands would meet. The calliope held its breath. The crowd clenched. The moment Alban and Julia touched, there was a blaring flash of light like a cymbal crash, a dazzle of sequins, and they were, suddenly, gone.
The whole night froze in waiting. The upturned faces were still and luminous as pebbles under water. The swings dangled empty, only faintly creaking. Even the crickets outside went still until, in the next moment, everything broke into calamity. All at once, the crowd began to holler, and spotlights flew in crazy, searching circles. Riggers and clowns and tumblers clambered up the ladder until the platform shook with their urgent flinging and slamming. Someone grabbed Olympia’s waist and pulled her to his chest until everything was rough cotton and alcohol smell, and they were dropping down, like a heart falling, to the net below.
The audience had emptied out of the tent. The benches bare, the lights too bright, the grass trampled, the tent was vast and desolate. Crickets, in the quiet, returned to their chirring. That night Olympia slept in fits, curled in an open bin of costumes to be mended, while everyone else searched to find a body, a shoe, a sequin, a drop of sweat, some evidence of the vanishing Knifes.
They found nothing.
* * *
Alban and Julia fell in love before they spoke the same language.
Alban spoke only English, with a heavy Scottish accent—nearly impossible for non-Scots to decipher under the best of circumstances. When he got excited, his neck would flush red and his speech would race past the vowels so fast he sounded as if he were choking, and not a soul in the circus knew what he meant unless he employed a series of wild gesticulations (which he always did).
In the sticky-hot summer of 1888, Julia had come from France with a group of other wealthy young women whose parents had sent them on a tour of the States to find husbands. On their outing to see the circus, she had become enamored of the dashing, redheaded tumbler immediately. When Julia lingered outside his trailer in the hour after the show, Alban brashly—because he was usually brash—burst into the courtyard, pumped her arm vigorously, nodded at her red-faced compliments in halting English, and promptly invited her to dinner. Though she spoke only French, Julia understood, from the way he smiled and wound his arm around her waist and guided her toward the gathering tent, that he intended to take her to dinner with the rest of the crew. She went.
Through dinner, she smiled shyly while Alban waved his arms in the air as if to stir up the rapid babble of words he spilled endlessly (full mouth be damned) over the general hubbub of the community meal. Minnie, who, onstage, was known as the Fat Lady, smiled at them slyly, because anyone could see Alban was falling in love, and it looked to everyone as if Julia were happily falling as well. Shy as she was, she was drawn out by Alban until she giggled and sparkled, though most likely she understood none of the conversation. When Robin the Rubber Boy leapt to the tabletop at the end of the meal and entertained the crowd with his over-dramatic impressions of stage actors (who were, as a matter of course, made very flexible, always bending strangely or reaching for something), Julia laughed and clapped along with everyone else. When Robin, in his passion, kicked a glass of water into her lap, Julia jumped up, righted the glass, and mopped the table with her petticoat, then brushed the water from her dress and sat back down.
“Ai, lussey, yeh garta wibetta warteronyeh,” Alban told her.
Julia shook her head and widened her eyes, until Minnie took pity on her and translated by pointing to the empty water glass, then to Julia’s dress, saying, “A wee bit, a wee bit, un peu,” as emphatically as she could.
Madame Barbue, the Bearded Lady, who could have easily translated since she had descended from a family of French-Canadian fur trappers, sat back and chuckled happily at the scene. Julia smiled and stood again to brush her skirt, but Alban was on his knees in front of her with a cloth and a very red face, dabbing at the dress and looking entirely scandalized, before she could think what to do.
By the end of the evening, through Alban’s ceaselessly cheerful teaching, Julia had learned a few cautious words of English, and her heart had bloomed for the first time in her young life. At the end of the evening, he kissed her gently on the back of her hand, and she understood from this that she was to come find him before she traveled back to France.
Somehow, though they shared no language between them, Julia and Alban had fallen recklessly, intensely in love.
In a week, Julia went home to Hautefaye to say her goodbyes and carefully pack her dresses and shoes and books and her only piece of jewelry (a gorgeous filigreed hair comb), boarded another ship, and set sail back to America to join the circus and marry the tumbler Alban.
In just over a year, their daughter (a tiny, squalling, black-haired little thing Alban and Julia feared more than loved) was born. They called her Olympia, because the name portended greatness, and Julia had powerful secret hope for her, though Olympia was shriveled and weak and most often shook with helpless tears, even in Julia’s own arms. And so Olympia Knife came into the world misnamed and misunderstood, but fiercely and completely loved by everyone she knew.
From the moment of her birth, Olympia was never permitted stillness. She was passed from arm to arm at the group meals, both so that Julia could have a moment to eat and so that everyone could have the chance to cuddle such a delicate, precious thing. Alban and Julia gently tossed her, still wink-eyed and swaddled in blankets, between them to ready her for the swings high in the tent top. To calm her for sleep, her mother rocked her vigorously in her arms, swinging the baby high above her head until Olympia fell asleep. She quickly grew accustomed to movement, and stillness frightened her. Julia was forced to rock and dance while she fed her or tried to hush her crying, because the moment she stopped moving, tiny Olympia would throw herself into fits of screaming.
It was terrifying when Olympia cried, far more so than when any other baby did, because when Olympia cried, she disappeared. The first time it happened, Julia was alone in the trailer with Olympia, trying to get her to nurse. It had been a difficult time; Olympia didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to latch on to Julia’s breast, no matter what Julia tried. Everyone had a suggestion, even those who had never been near a baby, but none of the suggestions worked. Minnie had rubbed Julia’s breasts with butter in a last-ditch and rather creative effort to entice Olympia to latch, but nothing had come of it except a slippery mess (both Julia and Olympia had to be washed after that experiment) and a sick feeling in Julia’s heart.
Julia was alone with the baby. She dropped into the rocking chair they’d placed next to the crib, held Olympia—who was screaming as if she were being ripped apart—against her chest, and wept. She was tired and numb from the baby’s crying, and her breasts stung from all the abuse they’d suffered when she tried everyone’s nursing suggestions. The baby was as good as dead if she wouldn’t eat, Julia knew; she could feel the tiny body withering and growing thinner by the minute. Julia murmured to the baby, desperate pleas and enticements and encouragements in French, while trying to keep her own hysterical tears at bay. It was enough that Olympia was crying; if someone came into the trailer and found the two of them wailing together, they would surely take the baby away and lock Julia up in an asylum.
Suddenly, Julia’s arms appeared to be entirely empty, though she could still hear the baby’s crying and feel her weight on her chest. She felt Olympia’s fists punch and twist the delicate skin of her neck, felt her shiver with sobs, and heard her plain as day, but when she looked, nothing was there. Olympia had disappeared.
Julia was so stunned that her tears dried instantly and her cries became shouts. She called for Alban or Minnie or anyone to come help. It was clear that Olympia was still there somehow—she could feel her struggling, thrashing weight, but couldn’t see her. Balancing Olympia in one arm, she tried washing her own eyes with water until they stung, to no avail. She held the howling baby tighter, trying to soothe a melody out of her own voice, but it came out strangled with fear and only made the baby cry harder.
“Alban!” she yelled. “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi! No eyes!”
In moments, the trailer door burst open, and Alban was there, red and breathing hard, with Minnie the Fat Lady behind him.
“Julia!” he breathed, rushing to her. “What’s wrong? Where’s the baby?”
Julia burst into tears again and indicated her eyes. “No eyes!” she howled. “Aveugle! No eyes!”
Alban looked confused, but Minnie rushed to her side and held her arm.
“Julia, calm down, calme-toi, love.” She rubbed Julia’s back. “Can you see me?”
Julia nodded tearfully. “Can you see Alban? Can you see the cot?”
“Oui,” Julia said. “I see it.”
“You’re not blind, sweetheart. N’êtes pas aveugle. Calme–toi. Where is Olympia?”
Julia only wailed harder and held up her arms, which would have seemed to be empty were it not for the desperate screaming of the baby. Horrified, Minnie put her hand to her mouth. Alban began to search the crib, and the bed, and all the cupboards.
“Julia! Wartevya done?!” He overturned the crib, searched their own bed, rummaged through every cupboard. The baby continued to scream; Alban still could not find her. Julia stood, tears streaking her cheeks, and held her arms out, looking more and more desperate.
“Non, Alban!” She thrust her arms at him, but Alban would not stop.
“Get back!” Alban pushed her aside—the first time in their lives together that he’d been anything but absolutely loving and kind—and Julia began to sob harder. The baby continued to scream, and the racket only made Alban angrier and more desperate. Minnie pulled Julia into her arms to comfort her, but when she did, both Julia’s and the baby’s weeping grew louder.
“Oui!” Julia pressed her arms against Minnie. She looked wild. “Yes, yes, here!”
Minnie felt it, then: the scratch of tiny nails and the clutch of meaty little fists she couldn’t see. She stopped, looked at Julia in awe, and then touched the baby in Julia’s arms. She was there, she could feel her there; she knew it, but she couldn’t see her.
“Yes!” Julia urged again. “Yes! Here!” She took Minnie’s hand and placed it in the empty air by her shoulder, except that Minnie could feel—absolutely—the baby’s face, hot and wet with saliva and tears. Minnie ran her hand around the face, then up to feel Olympia’s soft hair, then down her back to feel the full weight of her scrawny body. She pinched what felt like a knee, and she heard the baby yelp.
Julia sniffled and held out her arms, and Minnie felt the baby’s body, suddenly, in her own arms. Olympia’s sobs quieted and she snuggled into the curve of Minnie’s neck. Minnie put her hand on her back, commenced rubbing, and began to pace.
“Alban,” she said quietly to the man, who was tearing up the trailer in his desperate search. “Alban!” Minnie said more firmly. She repeated his name until he stopped and looked at her.
“Alban, Olympia is here.”