I have seen many a sideshow during my life. Don’t get me wrong. I am not one who enjoys gaping at “freaks” or mocking them. Rather, I was always drawn by the carnival atmosphere: the lights, the crowds, the smell of hot dogs and beer, the enticement of the barkers’ frantic patter and that promise of wonders which might lie in the tents behind them.
If there are any sideshows left, they probably only feature sword swallowers, double-jointed acrobats and accomplished jugglers—assuming they have not been absorbed by the Circus of the Sun.
Nowadays, many of the old exhibitions are eschewed by respectable people as cruel. The bearded lady, the dog-faced boy, or conjoined twins have, no doubt, been shuffled off to medical clinics that can treat their maladies and give them the opportunity for “normal” lives. Midgets and dwarfs now have organizations to advocate for their rights. Perhaps that is as it should be. But before that sea-change, I encountered an attraction more singular than any of these; one that cured me of my interest in carnival sideshows forever.
It happened on a balmy summer evening. The moon, high in the sky, was as round and as bright as a streetlamp. The lights on the midway winked mischievously, inveigling, urging us all forward to the last tent in the line of promised spectacles. As I passed each intervening marquee, its promoter’s chatter became a mere din of unintelligible words mixed with the others. The only call I could clearly distinguish was that of the distant barker at that last tent. It drew me on.
When I arrived, carried along with the rest of the throng, that barker pointed his cane at us and at the tent behind him. He called out all the attractions we would not find within: “This is no dog-faced boy. No woman with three mouths, no man with a foot growing out of his forehead. This, my friends, is something no one in the world has ever seen before. You will be the first! An experience you will remember for the rest of your lives. That you will recount to your children and your grandchildren. I will not even name the attraction. You shall be the ones to give it its name! Come! Be the first! Be not a mere observer, a voyeur. Be yourselves the ones to make history!”
Who could resist such a call? I and the others plunked down our money and entered.
Inside, it was very dark. Still, I could make out a small stage and chairs for us to sit in as for presentation of a theater piece. I began to wonder, with slight disappointment, if “theater” was all it would turn out to be. Then, the attraction entered.
At first, it was impossible to comprehend let alone interpret what our eyes saw. The attraction, still largely in shadow, appeared to stand upright, with legs, arms, and torso. The spotlight was focused only above the neck, where the head should be. And the light did reveal what appeared to be something in the general shape of a head. But it was as if, somehow, that head had been turned in upon itself; that is, inside out. The skull maintained a solid shape but the back of the eyeballs with their optic nerves and pulsing blood vessels faced us, not the front of those “windows on the soul” of which the poets and philosophers speak.
The nose was likewise inverted so that we saw the inside of the nasal cavity, the cartilage and its folds. And the mouth—where was the mouth? The lips were no longer visible, but rather the reddish pink mucous membranes of the mouth’s interior, bared teeth attached to inflated gums. The tongue, anchored into the hyoid bone, hung down from its root.
As astonished murmurs emanated from the crowd, the spotlight expanded, exposing the entire body to our view. The light was extended slowly—very slowly—to ensure we could take in every aspect of the creature’s anatomy and to give our minds time to comprehend what our eyes saw.
The rest of the body was much like the head, the skin turned inward toward the bone and thus not visible at all. Instead, muscle, tendons, fascia, and blood vessels of the arms and legs were bared for all to see. The organs hung on the outside of the torso: liver, pancreas, stomach, kidneys. The heart, hanging on the outside of the body as well, outdid the expression to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
From the arrangements of the organs, I could tell the attraction was meant to be human. Since there was no indication of a uterus, nor ovaries hanging like the rest of the organs, I concluded it must be a man. Where the penis should have been, that organ was also turned toward the inside of the body rather than away from it, leaving only the appearance of a hole on the outside.
What had been a murmur in the crowd now became a universal intake of breath that seemed, for a moment, to draw all oxygen out of the air. Then the general gasp let go and the oxygen rushed in again, erupting as a mixture of indignant cries: “It’s a fake.” “Yes! An obscene fake” “Let me up there to touch it, if it’s real!”—this last, shouted by one of the more belligerent men in the crowd. At least one woman fainted.
The barker banged his cane hard against the wooden floor of the stage, and shouted: “Silence!” When he got it, he asked the attraction if he were willing to have someone touch his organs to prove he was not a man in a meat suit. The attraction nodded agreement, and the barker said, “One. Just one. You may pick, so that you know I have not placed any schill amongst you.”
The audience picked an elderly man, someone who had lived many years and so, presumably, had seen many things. He walked slowly up steps to the stage. Hesitantly, he touched a bare muscle of the arm. It contracted. The man quickly withdrew his hand. Then, retrieving his nerve, he lightly touched an organ, immediately retreated in a horror that was unmistakably honest, and fled the stage. “What is this?” he cried. “What are you?”
“That is for you to name,” the barker called.
Some of the crowd rose to leave, apparently disgusted. One voice, louder than the rest, shouted from the tent’s exit, “This is the most obscene thing I have ever seen.”
But from the stage the barker continued to call for possible names, and some came: the Meat Man; the Slimy, Slithery Thing; the Guess What?; the Creepy Organ Man; and finally, the Inside Out Man.
At that last one, we heard muffled words coming from inside the entity standing before us. With our own hubbub, it was difficult to make out its words, but the tone and rhythm was indignantly scornful.
The barker hushed us. “You have come up with possible names for this Attraction, but as all human beings must retain their autonomy, the Attraction himself—and yes—it is a he—will choose the final name for himself.”
Since we had been promised that we would choose its name, there was some objection to the barker’s statement. But he slammed his cane into the stage again, so hard this time that it splintered the wood, and shouted: “Silence!” When we had quieted, he announced: “The Attraction will now speak.”
As the Attraction spoke, we could see the workings in and out of his inner cheeks’ pink flesh. His tongue whisked about freely in the air, seeking his teeth and the roof of his exposed inner mouth. His vocal cords vibrated like strings of a guitar. But the movement of his lips, turned inward and thus invisible, could not completely do the justice needed for formation of his words, and so the entire effect was a kind of gargling sound, as if he were speaking disembodied from under water.
What he said was: “You would treat me as a freak of nature. You express disgust at the contemplation of even touching me. But I am you when your packaging has been unwrapped. I am the reality of your existence that you do not wish to acknowledge—the inside makings hidden within your sausage-like skin. Your whole understanding of existence is inside out, your entire perception of the world inverted. But I. I am and shall ever be “The Naked Man.”
I do not know how long The Naked Man lived—or was able to live—with the contents of his sausage, as he called what is inside our skins hanging outside of his. Nor did I ever try to discover how he came to be in his condition. But I can no longer look at myself or any other human being without seeing our inner parts. Doctors or scientists would probably see a grandeur in the way those parts of our bodies are built, connect, and operate. But I am a layman and wish that I could wipe that vision of my insides from my mind.
Jessie Seigel’s fiction has appeared in Ontario Review; Gargoyle; Daily Science Fiction, The Satirist, and the anthologies Electric Grace and Furious Gravity, among others. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her work has been a finalist for a Speculative Literature Foundation grant and for the 47th New Millennium Award as well as a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner Creative Writing Award for the Novel and for the Eludia Award. In November 2021, her play, Tinker’s Damn, was performed in a reading by professional actors as part of the Rose Theater’s First Draft Series. Seigel is also an associate editor at the Potomac Review, and has a political column forthcoming at mywashingtonwhisperscom.