The Very Edge of Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, England 1322
(Oak Point Park, Midway City, Michigan, 1922)
The Sheriff of Nottingham was right behind him.
“I’m right behind you, scoundrel!”
And he would stop at nothing to make his arrest.
“I’ll stop at nothing to make my arrest, you fiendish outlaw!”
And so it was that the outlaw was running for his life.
“Your English accent is banana oil, Sheriff,” the scoundrel shouted. “Why don’t you go back to Bar-the-lona!”
The sheriff was gaining ground, but ahead lie the royal hunting wood of the shire, and an environment known better to him than any man.
In the wood, he was nobility, respected by all of the dwellers of the forest. Man and mineral, flora and fauna alike knew him as Robin, Prince of Trees!
“Hep!” and Robin caromed off the trunk of an old oak, grabbing a thick branch and kicking into a force out to gain some altitude. He landed, a little shakily, on the bough of another of these oaken sentinels, then turned and looked at his pursuer.
“Hep!” The sheriff mimicked Robin’s maneuvers, and his slightly taller frame (the sheriff was a year older, after all) allowed him to do so with ease.
“No fair! There’s no way you could do that!”
“Have at thee!” The sheriff called back when his own force out flung him closer to his quarry.
“Yikes!” and Robin hepped, stepped, and swept through the labyrinth of the woods, pausing only briefly to snag a couple acorns, which he would toss back at the airborne stalker.
“Hey! You almosth got me in the eye!”
With Nottingham behind him adopting variations more suited to his stature, the thief leapt downward, corkscrewing through a particularly crowded lattice of branches, and laughing gleefully as he wound, one-handed, around a lower bough, and gracefully landing among the fallen leaves.
A drifting and distant sound, carried upon the winds. “Dick! Bobby!”
“Toodle-loo!” he called back at the sheriff. With a mocking salute, Robin ran out of Sherwood Forest.
“I’ll get you next time, Robin!”
Dick Grayson’s mother was calling him, which meant he was late, which meant Roberto was even more late.
“On our way!” Dick yelled back in the general direction of the tent city.
It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, it was just that they took the fun way back from procuring lunch.
Dammit, Dick thought. I left the sack of sandwiches on the other side of the thicket.
This was going to throw everything off schedule.
Just as Dick began hustling back toward the tree line, Bobby emerged from the woods, with a cloth drawstring bag in hand, held high like a fresh kill.
“I think I just saved our lives,” Bobby said with a smile.
“Ugh, I guess I owe you one,” Dick rolled his eyes. “Last one to camp gets the liverwurst!” and he took off.
Bobby got stuck with the liverwurst sandwich.
Roberto “Bobby” Ramos was a runaway, and Dick Grayson’s best friend. The two were almost never seen far from one another, and they both slept in Dick’s tent whenever the circus stopped to make camp. Dick never really asked the story of Bobby’s past, but he was a gymnast in Spain, and that meant if he was going to be a part of the act, he was going to be a Grayson.
The Fantastic Flying Family of Graveproof Graysons were undeniably the stars of the show at the Ping, Ping & Hardy Circus – if you didn’t count Peanut and Shorts – but Dick never counted the elephants.
Bobby had only performed in rehearsals. He was only a year older than Dick, but he had hit a growth spurt that made some of the women performers say some things that Dick didn’t exactly understand, but (unfortunately) got the gist of. On more than one occasion, John Grayson (Dick’s father) had asked Bobby if he was really only eleven years old.
The plan was, if Bobby kept growing the way he did, to use him like an understudy. First for Dick, but eventually, for Dick, Mary, or John. As he developed, “Bobby Grayson” could eventually become a permanent part of the act.
For his part, Bobby would often tell Dick how he desperately wanted to be a part of the act now. He’d spent a year training, and he had the act memorized. Today was no different.
“I’ve been doing this since I could walk,” Dick explained. “You’ll get your chance.”
The two boys followed Dick’s mother and father to the sandbox that had been set up for outdoor practices. Bobby would practice first, going through the act front-to-back, and then Dick would replace him.
Bobby was executing like a man on fire today. His precision, his attention to detail, and his showmanship were all top notch.
Bobby landed, on the board with Dick’s parents, and Dick clapped hard, whooping for his best friend for an exceptional performance. His mother embraced Bobby, his father shook Bobby’s hand, and Dick’s face was straining from the smile that was plastered there.
Dick chalked his hands and ascended the ladder as Bobby climbed down.
In 1922, it was very uncommon to see a flying trapeze act without a net, but the Flying Graysons were hardly a common circus act.
The most exciting part of the act happened during the final third, and that part was the source of the Flying Graysons’ fame. Pyro the clown would begin juggling torches beneath the acrobatics happening above, and would stumble, dropping the torches onto the safety net which would burn away causing audible gasps from the audience (the torches weren’t solely responsible for the fire, a technician would set a timer at the beginning of the act that ensured the net went alight at the prescribed time).
It was all part of the show, but the ringleader would nervously run around saying “It’s all part of the show, folks!” using a trick of psychology to make spectators certain that it was anything but.
Tonight would be different, however, because Dick thought the best way to pay Bobby back for saving him from a scolding from his dad would be to fall during rehearsal (they rehearsed with a net, of course), and to feign a twist in his ankle.
So the net wouldn’t be set on fire tonight (because he’d never had the opportunity to do a proper “dress rehearsal”) but Dick would get to watch his best friend’s dream come true and it only cost him “resting his ankle” for the next three days while they were on the road to Missouri.
People would still be dazzled, and while Mary doted over “her poor son,” John had a knowing twinkle in his eye.
Bobby gave Dick a stern “you need to be careful,” but it was all for show – the older boy was clearly in on conspiracy.
When Dick’s mother and father had wandered off for their afternoon nap, Bobby ran over to Dick, almost knocking him over. Dick simply held up a hand and laughed.
“Don’t even mention it,” he insisted.
Tonight, the Bobby would be a real deal Flying Grayson.
“Hump! Hump!” John Grayson called out to the technician, Humphrey Hardison. But the jaundiced man was nowhere to be found.
“Richard!” He shouted, and spun around to see his son staring back at him.
“Hey pop,” Dick said, “right here!” John smiled for an instant, then crouched down to address his boy.
“Hump is probably busy, so I need you to step up tonight, alright?”
The boy’s shoulders dropped. “But I wanted to watch!”
“I know son,” John consoled. “You’ll have the best seat in the house though, follow me.”
The interior of the tent was dim, it was difficult to see, and the dirt floor shifted underfoot. The part of John that believed that his son actually had twisted his ankle hoped he wasn’t exacerbating the injury.
“How’s your ankle, Richard?”
“Not too bad,” he paused. “At least it’s not swollen.”
“Mhm. Here we go.”
Father and son had been following a cable which barely protruded from below the floor – invisible if you weren’t looking for it – running from the right platform to a canvas curtain which John pulled aside. Behind it, John stopped in front of a freestanding switchboard with a three-by-four grid of switches.
“One-two-three over,” John counted aloud. “One-two down.”
The switch was down.
“A ‘hot’ switch is on,” John explained. “Down means hot, which is easy to remember, because the net is below us, or down, and the net will get hot during the act if the switch is hot.”
“Down-hot. Down-hot. Down-hot.” Dick repeated to himself.
“So you’ll want to come back here before we start, and make sure this is,” John gripped the switch, grunted a bit, and pushed the switch up. “Still up, like this. If it’s not, push it up. Three over, two down.”
Dick nodded to confirm he understood.
“Remind me to give Hump a piece of my mind next time I see him,” John smiled at his son. “He’s making his own hooch and he’s gonna get us shut down.”
Mary Grayson’s smile was radiant. When she was just a girl she’d been studying at the convent, and Mother Superior told her she was very plain to look at, which was “good for a bride of the church.”
It was the first time she’d ever heard something so cutting. But the nunnery was exciting and conspiratorial at first, as though she were being given access to the Divine Mysteries; being inducted into a clerical order of women that shared a bond with a supernatural power that was unrivaled. But the study was boring. She loved to read and to analyze and to discuss, but – here there was no room for analysis. No challenges were brooked. She remembered very specifically when she’d become disenchanted with the idea of a life of devotion.
It was when Sister Julian said “It certainly doesn’t seem like you love books.”
She was crying on a bench downtown when she’d met the man she would eventually marry.
“Sister?” The man whispered. “Sister, has someone hurt you?”
It began with a free pair of tickets to the Ping, Ping & Hardy Circus. It rose to sneaking out after dark with Sister Martin. The climax was learning her mystery man was a part of an acrobatic family of tumblers. It ended with Sister Martin heading back to the convent alone.
Mary was shaken from her reminiscence by her son entering their trailer. She was running a brush through her hair when she turned to her only child and smiled.
“Dick!” She worried at the boy. “You have to stay off your ankle!”
She hurried toward her son and hugged him, kissing him all over his face. He breathed deeply.
“Oh sweetheart, I love you so much. You’re such a smart and talented boy. We’re the luckiest family in the world!”
Dick blushed at this, but he held his mother tight, and Mary squeezed him even tighter.
“I’ll see you out there, my handsome boy. Stay off that leg!”
She watched her son limp out of the trailer, and smiled into her mirror.
As his father, mother, and best friend began their climbs to the platform, Dick scurried back to the curtain with the switch panel. His father had given him a bucket of popcorn, which was his favorite, and he dug into the bucket, shoveling a handful of the buttery snack into his mouth.
Mom’s gonna kill me! He thought when he saw the grease stain on his nice shirt.
Slinking under the curtain, he saw Hump passed out on his stool, with an empty jar tipped over on the floor beside him.
“HUMP!” Dick’s whisper was a shout, but even with a push on the man’s leg, he barely stirred, just nodding his head and letting out a snore in reply.
The switch had been restored to the hot position, and Dick needed to turn it off before the timer burned their safety net off. Setting down the popcorn, he gripped the switch, and found he couldn’t get the leverage to push it upward.
His hands slipped on the kill switch, and he was just not tall enough to really put his weight behind it.
But Dick Grayson didn’t panic. He was a world famous acrobat, and he was quick on his feet. He stepped up two rungs of Hump’s perch, hearing an audible gasp from the audience. He smiled and gripped the switch again.
With a grunt, he pulled, and the switch felt stuck. He hopped down, wiping his hands on Hump’s dozing thigh, and tried again.
And Dick still didn’t panic. He stepped back from the switchboard, got a running start, and caromed off the stool, grabbing the switch and yanking it upward in a kick out that sent him two feet higher into the air. He spun in free fall, sticking a stylish three point landing in the dirt.
Hump just snored again.
Dick Grayson smiled. He grabbed his popcorn, and dashed out of the “control room” to watch the final part of the show.
Hump Hardison stirred on his stool, yawning, and scratching his stomach.
“That ain’t right,” he remarked, annoyed at the slick switch that controlled the pyrotechnics on the Grayson’s act.
He flipped the switch, and moments later, the circus was ablaze.
Pyro was juggling plain old bowling pins when the net caught fire, and Dick dropped his jaw. From this height, you could much more intensely feel the heat of the burning net. Pyro even dropped a pin, and he never accidentally dropped what he was juggling.
“It’s all part of the show, folks!” Mr. Daisy, the ringleader reassured the audience. He was always in character. “All p-p-part of the, oh my, all part of the show! Remain calm!”
Did I? Dick went through the mnemonic device. Down meant hot like the net below them would be burning. He was certain he’d flipped the correct switch. How did this happen?! No time. Calm down. Bobby is excellent.
And the Graysons didn’t miss a beat. Neither father or mother made any inclination that they were worried, and if Bobby tensed up, Dick didn’t see it in the graceful way he floated through the air.
He connected with Mary in a near miss Hocks Salto catch, interlocking hands with forearm, but something had been off, like she was lower on the swing.
Dick exhaled, realizing he’d been holding his breath, and watched as his mother deposited Bobby on the board (Dick assumed she was just being careful, trying to end things early.
A pirouette into a cut catch later, Dick’s father confidently caught his mother, certainly they would dismount now, but Dick’s heart sank; Bobby was back on the swing.
Dick panicked as Bobby kicked out of the swing just as his parents did the same.
The mid-air collision sounded like bare feet on hard floors, and was met by shrieks and gasps from the audience.
Two months later
Branch Brook Park
Newark, New Jersey 1922
The moon was low and full over Branch Brook Lake, its reflection on the water a shifting circle of silver. Dick’s head was hung low on the bridge over the Branch Brook Lake. Reflecting the painfully shifting circle of scenarios that would mean his parents and best friend were still alive.
Dick still blamed himself, but had continued the tour with the circus, largely stalking the camp, and occassionally assisting with set up. He’d been waiting for a coastal city, but Metropolis wasn’t for another three days, and he had to get out of this place.
Hump hadn’t been canned, and Dick largely avoided him, but seeing him slosh around the grounds at camp was always grating in a way that Dick couldn’t quite articulate.
Dick walked to the street, and kept walking until he saw a pair of headlamps, and stuck out his thumb. A motorbike with an empty sidecar buzzed up next to him, and the driver, a colored man, pulled off his leather cap and goggles, and looked down at Dick, the engine idling.
“Where you headed, young man?” The man’s voice was warm, like if maple syrup could speak.
“Downtown? I suppose.”
“I’m headed to Gotham City, but I suppose you could ride along and I could drop you off on the way. How does that sound?”
“I was thinking of grabbing a very late supper on the way, you wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?”
Dick had a couple dollars and some loose change, but he didn’t really have restaurant money.
Dick responded with a half-hearted smile.
“Okay, hop in. There’s a cap, should be your size in the bag there. Your parents know you’re taking a trip into town?”
Dick dug the leather aviator’s cap from the well-worn bag strapped to the back of the sidecar. It was a little big, but it clearly belonged to someone roughly his own age. He looked at the driver, but didn’t really say anything.
“That’s alright, son. I have a boy nearly your age, and we lost his parents just a few years back.”
Dick was confused. How did this fella’s boy lose his parents?
Probably just the way these folks talk, Dick thought.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Dick. Dick Grayson, mister. What’s yours?”
“My name’s Alfred. Pleased to meet you Young Mr. Dick.”
Alfred smiled again, and kickstarted the bike, the red taillight streaking down the road like the tail of a comet.