Professor Lazzo’s Stupendous Flea Circus

Detail of flea circus handbill

Professor Lazzo’s Stupendous Flea Circus
by Jennifer Falkner

The professor rolls up his sleeve. It’s flecked here and there with gravy, with mud, possibly with blood, difficult to tell against the coarse weave and the ancient stains. He lowers his bared arm, thin and speckled with red bumps, onto the small stage. The fleas jump on hungrily. These ones hardly know what they are doing yet. Not like his last troupe. He’d hardly had to train them at all. Napoleon, Esmerelda, the Trojans. They went through their paces with every performance as if they were born to it. Perhaps they were. Perhaps there are actors, however lowly, however unrecognised in the world, who are born to act, to take on other names and others’ words. If they cannot — well, possibly they end up here, in a grubby boarding house in miserable London. They juggled, they fenced, they recreated epic battles as if it were a flea’s highest ideal of heaven. But this group, they’re not the same. Not the same at all. So fidgety. It took ages for them to learn not to leap off the stage, and even then, tying the harness around their bodies was more difficult than he’s ever found before. Perhaps that is the way with English fleas. If only there hadn’t been that sudden frost two weeks ago, then he might still have most of his stars performing their turn.

The child has been watching him train the new recruits. First he plucks them from her body and traps them in a special glass bottle. There, where the cork is only a few inches away, they learn not to jump high, to limit their world within strict parameters. She’s delighted with the tiny harnesses he ties around each in their turn. The professor has a jeweller’s loupe for this, a lucky find in a pawn shop in Marseilles. He appreciates how she clasps her hands on her lap to keep them from straying, how she watches intently, but always from a respectful distance. Most children want to crowd round, breathing on his performers, to touch them, to pick them up. He has to scare them a little to keep them in their place. But with this child, his voice never deepens to its satanic depths, his eyes don’t flash and snarl, and he doesn’t resort to long foreign curses. When she’s a little stronger, when she has a little more flesh on her bones, he may even allow her to feed them.

Jennifer Falkner’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Jellyfish Review, The Steel Chisel, Firewords Quarterly and Spelk, among other places. She lives in Ottawa, Canada. She can be found online at and @JenFalkner on Twitter.

Image detail: Evening Post (Wellington, N.Z.). The wonderful performing fleas! The world’s greatest novelty! The biggest wonder of the age! / Printed at the Evening Post Office, Willis Street, Wellington, [ca 1889]. Ref: Eph-C-VARIETY-1889-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.