We all have things that we’re afraid of, from the mundane (spiders) to the profound (spiders). Tessa Fontaine’s greatest fear was losing her mother — and after suffering a series of debilitating strokes, this was imminently becoming a reality. Despite her precarious health, Fontaine’s mom decided to defer a dream no longer and tour Italy with her husband — a courageous, if not medically advised, adventure. It was also just the cue her daughter needed to cross off a bucket list item of her own: Join the circus. Like any other job, a certain skill set is required, one that Fontaine (not so convincingly) espoused. But she was a quick study, and over the course of a season with the World of Wonders, the last touring sideshow in America, she learned to eat fire, charm snakes, become a human flashlight, and...lose her head. Here, Fontaine describes how an unexpected hiccup in that act almost made her lose her sh**. And in her memoir, The Electric Woman, she talks about how facing your fears, whatever they may be, will serve you well under the Big Top--and in life.
I hear buzzing. It is the unmistakable drone of a bee, close, inches from my face and echoing in this wooden box I have just stuck my head inside, this wooden box in which we are both now trapped. The bee must have been resting on the wall when I stuck my big dumb head in here, and now I am an enemy who has just taken up half the space of this world. I catch a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye, and my heart clenches. Not just a bee. It’s a yellowjacket.
I’m a sideshow performer—fire-eater, snake charmer, electric woman, and more, and every thirty minutes, I lose my head. The curtain parts and there I am, arms flailing like a hungry zombie, seated in a big wooden chair, my body in a hospital gown, my legs kicking so the audience knows I’m real even though I have no head at all. I am Miss Olga Hess, the Headless Woman. I’m a medical mystery. Appearing to rise out of my chest like an IV holder is a metal pole with rope lights that dangle down like blood. That’s what the audience sees. What the audience cannot see is the small wooden box with mirrors on the outside, inside of which is my head and today, right now, this yellowjacket.
It is too late for me to slide my body back out of the chair and hope the yellowjacket leaves because I can hear the final thwacks of the throwing knives landing around the woman standing against the board. I’m up. The yellowjacket swoops near my forehead and I let out a silent shriek. My music cue begins, a piano tune that sounds like the intro to a detective show. The talker introduces my act: Miss Olga Hess was in a terrible car accident, her body flying one way and her head the other, never to be found, and so the only thing I can do is stay. The yellowjacket dive-bombs my ear. I flinch, squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear the talker approaching. The yellowjacket flies alongside my neck. I can feel its wind, its stinger sharpening inside its body as it prepares to stab me. The talker pulls back the black velvet curtains surrounding my small stage and reveals me, the headless wonder, alive, the strangest of them all.
Where is the yellowjacket? The buzz grows louder and then a little softer, a panicked zigzag as it tries to point itself home but finds the edge of the box, my face. I am holding my breath. Tears are rolling out the corners of my eyes. Can the yellowjacket sense that if it escapes the box, leaves the circus tent and reaches the chain link fence corralling the carnival, a tree with billows of white flowers will feed him as the world tries to propagate itself? Does he feel the nectar calling him out of here, and does he know all he has to do is land on the petal, step with his tiny legs onto the pollen, then make his way home to the queen, to his army of brothers? Does he know how much he’s needed elsewhere? And what will he do when, any moment now, he finds my human face, smelling like canned tuna and the big salty drops of sweat dripping down my skin because it is a September mid-afternoon in Kansas on black asphalt in a heat wave?
I reach my arms into the air in front of me to show the audience I am alive, and this time, because I desperately want to escape this box, my arms thrash, my muscles clench, my tendons quiver with extra passion. This is the performance of a lifetime. I imagine the yellowjacket stabbing my eyelid, biting my jugular. But I cannot move. I will not break the illusion. If I jerk away from the pole or spasm in fear, the audience will see my chest separate from the metal, the shadow of my shoulders; they’ll know who I am when I am whole. I’m a box-jumper, a woman who runs between illusions—spider woman, four-legged woman, sometimes-devoted daughter—and squeezes her body into boxes so that she might amaze the audience. I am part of a long tradition of women who have lost parts of themselves. I can be whole only when nobody is looking at me.
* This piece was originally published on May 15