While Aaron Weiss seems to weave a tangled web of puns, jokes, and sideshow imagery into what is a nearly incoherent collection of run-on sentences, much can be gleaned by what he has to say about how life - sans most of the animal characters - is going for the Circus that has ever been in the background of all our characters’ stories.
While no main character or narrator is ascribed to the lyrics of Fiji Mermaid, I tend to identify them with the thought processes of the Carnival Barker who crops up again in the song “Julian the Onion”. Indeed the constant barrage of tongue-in-cheek descriptions fit rather nicely with a barker’s brand of speaking. In any case, numerous themes begin to crop up as we go through this stream of consciousness description of Circus life in the wake of Mother Elephant’s derailment of the train. I will attempt to take each verse line by line to assemble a coherent picture from the confusion.
So how has the Circus been affected by the mass animal exodus? It seems it is doing poorly, having to rely on lesser sideshow acts that are themselves falling into disrepair. The safety nets used in the high-wire acts need stitching, but the patches just won’t take [Stitch up the nets but the patch won’t stay]. The beds of nails used in the magic shows lay on piles of hay in storage, useless [as the nail beds rest in the calico hay]. As opposed to the magnificent display of animal beauty that took center stage before the derailment, it seems the central attraction in the Circus is now a hoax, much like the Cardiff Giant: a stuffed monkey sewn onto a fish and coated in macrame, then displayed as a sham Fiji Mermaid [the Fiji Mermaid dressed in macrame’s wading].
Prominently weaved into these descriptors is the idea that the Circus, or perhaps the narrator or Carnival Barker, is sensing a turning point coming [road in the fork and a bend in the spoon, turn cut short as a shadow at noon]. A need for change is in the air, and he knows that a crippled Circus can not continue much longer under these conditions. His worldview, in essence, is crumbling around him. No longer does the institution appeal to him because it can no longer provide for all of his needs, both physically and spiritually, and probably monetarily in short order. Confidence in the Circus is waning like a once bright full moon, disappearing like wax dripping from a burning candle [melting like wax as that once full moon’s now waning]. The replacement acts added to the Circus in lieu of animal entertainers have been insufferably boring [Ersatz acts, an insufferable bore], and even the sharp shooting archer’s popular show has become as dull as a jester’s wooden sword [‘Sharp Shots,’ dull as a harlequin’s sword]. The narrator sums up his thoughts succinctly when he exclaims of Circus life, “Doing whatever we wanted, without remorse or restriction, no longer holds much pleasure for me [When doing as you please doesn’t please you anymore].”
Not even a fire-eater sideshow can impress the audiences these days. The Carnival Barker might as well charge people a nickel to watch asparagus grow for all the excitement they display [Stick of the match at the paraffin show, drop a nickel to watch the asparagus grow]. In desperation, the barker has turned to cheap guessing games, hiding a stone under one of three shells and letting guests pay to guess where it is [“The stone in what shell?”]. But much like the hidden stone, happiness and fulfillment seems fleeting and illusory for the Carnival Barker, a man that always relishes being one step ahead of his audience [you sure like to know, now don’t you?].
At this existential crossroads, the Carnival Barker’s examination of Circus life turns inward. He seems to feel like a cure for his depressing state will never come to him [a loom in the heir as the medicine came], and even the problem itself seems hard to properly define. For him it is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, tangled like hair in the mane of a horse [to the nest of the mare of the mystery claims]. The narrator here seems to come to something of a revelation. For so long the animals served as scapegoats, the quality (or lack thereof) of their performances serving to provide blame if the Circus wasn’t doing so well. But in the absence of the animals, the Circus is failing [but you’ll miss having someone to blame for your sadness, now won’t you?]. An institution like the Circus can only survive as long as it’s victims are willing to play along. When the people, or as is the case here, the animals, take charge and derail the old rusted-track mode of Circus thinking, the entire worldview falls apart, revealing it for the macrame dressed abomination that it is. No longer a means of support and comfort for it’s proponents, the institution can barely stand.
Jokingly, the Carnival Barker and his cohorts now consider other lines of work. Maybe baking [Well, maybe there’ll be a bakery hiring - we’ll need a little bit of dough to get by]? Despite the jocular attitude, this is quite a frightening personal crisis for the Carnival Barker to find himself in, and in his fully institutionalized mind, he has a difficult time defining how the Circus can have betrayed him so. How did this happen? Did the idea that this life was no longer viable come to him from someone else, or did he himself dream it up [Did you come knocking on my door, or did I come to yours?]? Completely entrenched in the Circus dogma, the idea of himself no longer finding solace beneath the striped tents seems inconceivable. Despite appearances, this must be some trick, some false idea washed up on the shores of his mind from some unknown, alien place [Whose ship came washed up on whose shore? And from what ocean floor?]
In the end, it is the over saturation of the Circus to his institutionalized mind that seems to win. The Circus, with it’s familiarity and willingness to allow excess, proves to be too much of a temptation, like a scantily clad woman [there wasn’t much to that dress of hers]. Nonetheless, the Carnival Barker’s internal struggle is far from over, as he claims to feel stuck like a horse in quicksand, desperately wanting out, but unable to escape his temptations [I felt stuck in my body like a horse in quicksand]. His last line reads like a hopeful plea to this alien ideal that had momentarily awoken him to the decrepit life around him. Perhaps it is the same ideal that Mother Elephant served. Perhaps the Carnival Barker has been given a glimpse of the wild possibilities outside of his closeted institution. Is it Mother Elephant’s loving God who was knocking at the door of his mind, desperately hoping that it would be flung wide to reveal the freedom out there?
“Didn’t you come knocking on my door?” the Carnival Barker whispers to himself, before returning to his tired games in the Circus sideshow.