Horacio Fortunato was forty-six when the languid Jewish woman who was to change his roguish ways and deflate his fanfaronade entered his life. Fortunato came from a long line of circus people, the kind who are born with rubber bones and a natural gift for somersaults, people who at an age when other infants are crawling around like worms are hanging upside down from a trapeze and brushing the lion’s teeth. Before his father made it into a serious enterprise, rather than the idle fancy it had been, the Fortunato Circus experienced more difficulty than glory. At different times of catastrophe and turmoil the company was reduced to two or three members of the clan who wandered the byways in a broken-down gypsy wagon with a threadbare tent they set up in godforsaken little towns. For years Horacio’s grandfather bore the sole responsibility for the spectacle: he walked the tightrope, juggled with lighted torches, swallowed Toledo-steel swords, extracted oranges and serpents from a top hat and danced a graceful minuet with a female monkey decked out in ruffles and a plumed hat. His grandfather, however, managed somehow to survive bad times and while many other circuses succumbed, obliterated by more modern diversions, he saved his circus and, at the end of his life, was able to retire to the south of the continent and cultivate his garden of asparagus and strawberries, leaving a debt-free enterprise to his son Fortunato II. The scion lacked his father’s humility, nor was he disposed to perform a balancing act on a tightrope or do pirouettes with a chimpanzee; on the other hand, he was gifted with the unshakable prudence of a born businessman. Under his direction the circus grew in size and prestige until it was the largest in the nation. Three colossal striped tents replaced the modest tarp of the earlier hard times; various cages sheltered a travelling zoo of tamed wild animals; and other fanciful vehicles transported the artists, who included the only hermaphroditic and ventriloquist dwarf in history. An exact, wheeled replica of Christopher Columbus’s caravan completed the Fortunato Family Famous International Circus. This enormous caravel no longer drifted aimlessly, as it had in his grandfather’s day, but steamed purposefully along the principal highways from the Rio Grande to the Straits of Magellan, stopping only in major cities, where it made an entrance with such a clamour of drums, elephants and clowns – the caravel at the lead, like a miraculous re-enactment of the Conquest – that no man, woman or child could escape knowing the circus had come to town.
Fortunato II married a trapeze artist, and they had a son they named Horacio. But one day, wife-and-mother stayed behind, determined to be independent of her husband and support herself through her somewhat precarious calling, leaving the boy in his father’s care. Her son held a rather dim picture of her in his memory, never completely separating the image of his mother from that of the many acrobats he had known. When he was ten, his father married another circus artist, this time an equestrienne able to stand on her head on a galloping steed or leap from one croup to another with eyes blindfolded. She was very beautiful. But no matter how much soap, water and perfume she used, she could not erase the last trace of the essence of horse, a sharp aroma of sweat and effort. In her magnificent bosom, the young Horacio, enveloped in that unique odour, found consolation for his mother’s absence. But with time, the horsewoman also decamped without a farewell. In the ripeness of his years, Fortunato II entered into matrimony, for the third and final time, with a Swiss woman he met on a tour bus in America. He was weary of his Bedouin-like existence and felt too old for new alarms, so when his Swiss bride requested it, he had not the slightest difficulty in giving up the circus for a sedentary life and ended his days on a small farm in the Alps amid bucolic hills and woods. His son Horacio, who was a little over twenty, took charge of the family business.