Wake the Elephants

Spring is my favorite time of year because that’s when our traveling carnival goes on the road. I hate wintering in Arcata ‘cause it’s boring and there aren’t any kids my own age. There’s only my brother, Con, to talk to, and Mr. Albert. He’s a capuchin monkey, Mr. Albert, I mean, not my brother. It’s more fun talking to Mr. Albert.We live with Dono, our grandfather, but the carnie folk are our real family.

Our last show of the year is always Labor Day and then all the shows are winterized. A bunch of carnies go to Florida because the weather is warmer so you don’t have to keep your animals in a stable—Dono says stabling is expensive. He’s always worried about money. He says people don’t come to traveling carnivals like they used to because they want to go to theme parks like Disney World. Sometimes he stays up drinking with the other carnies and they get to saying that the carnival is dying and we gotta do new things to keep the rubes coming. I’ve got a ton of ideas but they think I’m just a kid.

In the winter, we live in a cabin. I called it a shack once and Dono got so mad, he clipped my ear, which means he hit me but good. I always called it a cabin after that.

Anyways, we don’t go to Florida for winter. We always stay in California because it’s near Mom. She’s in a special home for people who can’t take care of themselves. She never talks much when we visit but sometimes she says my name. She was real pretty and still has long hair. She smiles when I brush it sometimes. It’s kind of a lopsided smile because her mouth doesn’t work properly on one side, but it’s still a smile.

But come spring, we hit the road. We always meet up with other carnies in Wichita since it’s halfway between California and Florida.

We do a tour going up through Iowa and Wisconsin, hitting Minnesota in the summer, then South Dakota and Wyoming, finishing back in California. There are a lot of the same shows each year and my favorites are Jude and Mabel. Jude does a show as the Human Ostrich where he takes challenges from the rubes to swallow stuff then sicks it up again—stuff like cigarette lighters, keys, even lightbulbs, but that’s pretty dangerous if the glass is really thin. It’s a cool act. Mabel, his wife, is a Popeye, and she can do this gross thing where she pops her eyes out then puts them back in. Someone always faints—it’s awesome.

I like Sid the Clown, too, and sometimes Con acts as his shillaber: that’s carnie speak for someone who pretends he’s one of the rubes to get them spending their money. Rubes are what we call people who aren’t carnies. They’re not like us—our home is the open road, that’s what Dono says. People like us aren’t made for four walls.

When we’re on the road, we live in our RV. Dono has the bedroom, so Con and I sleep on a pull-out on the floor. If it’s hot, I sleep outside. I don’t like being shut in anywhere.

My job is to get Jacob Jones ready. He’s my pony and my best friend after Mr. Albert.

I’ve seen a lot of places. I’ve been to Chicago and Las Vegas, walked through Times Square and swam in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. I like the Grand Canyon but my favorite place is Carhenge. That’s in Nebraska. It’s a huge wheat field, and they’ve got all these cars have been planted in a circle and stuck in the ground. They’ve even got a ‘62 Cadillac. And they’re all painted gray to make them look like they’re made of stone. It’s awesome.

My brother’s real name is Falcon and mine is Kestrel. He says we have dumb names and he hates being a carnie. He can’t wait to leave. When he says stuff like that I get a funny feeling in my tummy because even though he’s a douche, I don’t want to be left with Dono by myself. But Con says he wants to get a job where he earns a ton of money and can buy a big house to live in. Houses are stupid—they don’t go anywhere. But he’s always reading books so he can go to college and leave us.

I’m too dumb for college or even high school, that’s what Con says, and I guess he’s right because I can’t read. I’m going to be eleven next year and I can’t read more than my name. So what? There’s a ton of stuff I do real well. I can ride Jacob Jones bareback and do loads of stunts like somersaults. Dono taught me and his dad taught him. He says our family on his side are carnies from way back and his grandfather spoke Shelta. Dono calls shoes ‘guilimins’ and clothes are ‘tugs’. We have other words that only carnies know: games are ‘joints’, a food stand is a ‘grab’, and rides are ‘poppers’. It’s like a secret language than only carnies speak.

Dono doesn’t allow grifters because it gives carnies a bad name, and anyone who steals another carnie’s poke is dead meat. We get a lot of gazoonies joining the carnival, some of them are college students who think it’s going to be an easy job, but it’s not. On show days, we all have get up real early to feed the animals, then they’ve got to be exercised, but not too much because they’ve got to be ready to perform. And all the tack needs to be cleaned and polished or mended, because it gets a ton of hard use. Costumes have to be washed and mended, and you gotta check your stock of pancake, especially for the ladies and trapeze artists—you want the audience to see your eyes, even when you’re fifty feet up in the air and they’re sitting in the cheap seats. You gotta make sure your props are all working. You don’t want your show going belly up because the props aren’t in the right place. Dono would knock me into next week if I screw up like that.

Performing in front of an audience is the best thing ever. Then I’m not a dirty carnie, but someone who makes them laugh or clap or scream when they think I’m going to fall off Jacob Jones (I never do, I only pretend to fall off).

After I’ve performed, I have to walk the ponies to cool them down, then get them cleaned up for the evening show. We used to have a blacksmith travel with us, but Dono couldn’t afford it anymore so we have to know where all the blacksmiths are on the road in case Jacob Jones or one of the other ponies throws a shoe.

My other job is to walk around with Mr. Albert, and the rubes pay a dollar to get their picture taken with him.


That’s Dono yelling my name, so I make quick because today is our first show day in Abilene. The advance man had gotten the posters put up before we arrived, and last night we were hitting midnight before all the jobs were done. The Ferris Wheel was the biggest job and only the most trusted carnies work on that. One bolt outta place and you got a lot of dead rubes. Bad for business, Dono says.

“Go wake up the elephants, Kes!”

We have this huge ride where the cars are in the shape of elephants, so waking them up means setting the ride a-going.

I grin real big because ‘waking up the elephants’ is carnie speak meaning that we’re ready to open the carnival.

“Roll up! Roll up! For the greatest show on earth!”



Kestrel is the main character in The Traveling Man (Book 1) and The Traveling Woman (Book 2), the first two books of the Traveling Series. He also has a supporting role in Roustabout (Book 3) and Carnival (Book 4).

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