J.B Polk

Dedicated to Lola Kiepja, the last pureblood Selk’nam (b.?–1966)


People who met Dr Megrelian for the first time believed it was his real surname. They also assumed he was a college-educated physician well-versed in the complexity of human malformations and similar afflictions. His birth certificate, however, revealed his true identity. He was Benjamin Cecil Calhoun, also known as Benny, a half-literate resident from Harlan, Iowa, a remote village with only a church, a general store, and a scattering of 10-acre farmhouses in various stages of disrepair. 

Born and raised in poverty, Benny received his first pair of shoes from the very man whose name he would eventually assume and whose five-cent nomadic show pitched tents on a vacant parcel of land behind the Calhoun homestead one fateful morning.

“Three dollars for the lot, and you can also use the outhouse and the water pump,” Benny’s father, Silas, offered.

“How about we strike a deal?”  Dr Megrelian, a shrewd businessman with an good eye for a lucrative deal, engaged in the age-old art of haggling.

“I’ll give you two dollars and ten cents for the whole thing, plus one day’s work for your kid. He looks like a smart boy who can help us get ready for the show.”

Silas hesitated. 

“That, plus a new pair of shoes—Macy’s patent leather. Phil the Midget got his legs chopped off a few months ago,” Megrelian added.

Phil’s legs had been sliced off at the Sioux City station by an Akron train when he was unloading trunks and other equipment on the wrong side of the tracks. His friends had worried for weeks that Phill, who’d lost three pints of blood, would check out.  But despite the accident and his achondroplasia, he was able to pull through since he had just married the Giant Woman and had not yet consummated the marriage.  After the accident, he sat in a wheelchair customized to his even more petite body, selling popcorn, beer, and show tickets, and he no longer needed the shoes he’d bought for the wedding and wore only once.

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” Silas, who could drive as good a bargain as Megrelian, responded.

“And you can have my boy for a dollar a day. With the rye and soybean harvests months away, there’s no work in Harlan.” 

“Deal,” the good doctor agreed, handing over the money and the shoes. 

But after two days, the circus had barely recouped its investment in a town whose farmers could ill afford to pay five cents to watch mediocre freaks, including a legless midget, and their clumsy antics, so the troupe decided to leave—this time with young Calhoun in tow.

“There’s no future in Harlan,” Benny said as he waved goodbye to his father.

“With the Doc, I’ll travel the world and make a name for myself. I might even send you some money,” he claimed, which, in retrospect, turned out to be not exactly a lie but an empty promise. 

During Benny’s third year of touring with the circus, Megrelian, who was approaching his seventh decade and suffered from crippling headaches, lost interest in and hunger for all worldly pleasures, including booze, food, and sex. Most of the performers had moved on to greener pastures, and the Giant Woman, unable to deal with Phil’s condition, had fled with the Siamese twins who had joined P.T. Barnum.  The nomadic act was on the edge of collapse, with only Benny, Megrelian, the Midget, and an elephant named Bertha remaining. 

The Doctor’s headaches turned out to be aneurysms that one day exploded like quasars, so they buried him under a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert while Benny, blessed with a good nose for business and a dislike for poverty, inherited not only the entire traveling spectacle but Megrelian’s name as well. 

To get some cash permitting him to recruit fresh attractions, Benny sold Bertha to a park ranger who’d always wanted an exotic beast to keep him company in Arizona’s Lost Dutchman State Park.

“How the devil will he feed her in the desert?” he pondered, handing over the animal but did not inquire. He needed the money, and the pachyderm was old and emaciated and would have seen the wrong side of the grass very soon anyhow.

With no performers to exhibit, Megrelian-Calhoun was eager to find someone to pique the macabre curiosity of freak show spectators. He happened to run into Sergei Levchenko, an 18-year-old from St. Petersburg and figured out that people would pay big money to view the Russian’s tiny third leg, the remains of a parasitic twin dangling from his crotch. Benny gave him Phil’s leather shoes for his two good feet and had a shoemaker create a two-inch copy of a third one.

While passing through Wickenburg,  the circus stopped at a local diner where Karl Peters, a sous chef and an Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome sufferer with velvety skinfolds all over his body, caught Benny’s eye. Amazed by the man’s flesh trying to escape from the confines of his unbuttoned shirt, Benny offered him a job.

“We’ll showcase you as the Elastic Man. You can stay in Phil’s caravan until you get your own,” he promised. 

Peters, bored with sous-cheffing and the customers’ threats to do a wedgie with his butt skin, accepted gratefully, hung up his grease-stained apron, and moved into the Midget’s wagon.

Charlene Atkins, aka the Lobster Girl, joined the show in Tennessee. Her genetic condition caused her fingers and toes to merge into claw-like extremities. 

“All you’ll need to do is sit in a barrel filled with seaweed and water and make crustacean-like noises with a pair of castanets,” Benny instructed, and she was overjoyed to become part of the troupe. 

The rest of the artistic ensemble they picked up on the road included Susie, the bearded woman, and Stephen Jefferson, who could twist his joints and play the piano with his back to the instrument. In all honesty, he was a lousy performer, and the only two tunes he played reasonably well were Ta-ra-ra Boom De Day and Oh, My Darling Clementine.

As years passed, the traveling spectacle went from state to state and village to village. With the original Megrelian long gone and fertilizing the Sonoran Desert flora, Calhoun, now in his thirties, vowed to make the show bigger and better than any other. And, remembering his boyhood hunger pangs, he promised never to return to Harlan or any other region of Iowa, rural or otherwise, until he became rich and famous.

“I’ll be damned if I go back,”  he told his employees as they gathered in the evenings after each event, calculating the proceeds and fantasizing about making it big.

Although his mathematical skills were limited to adding dollars and cents with the help of an abacus, Benny worked hard to make the business a success. He fought his way through the cryptic language of newspaper articles and stored information for future use. That’s how he learned about two opportunities that were meant to make him rich and turn the freak show into an international attraction. 

The first was the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, also known as the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The organizers estimated that over twenty million people would visit the technological marvels and amusement rides, each paying a dollar a day.  Benny reasoned that even if only a fraction attended the circus’s performance, he could retire before the age of forty.

The second piece of news came from an ad in the Kansas Gazette which said that Sam Dixon, a wool and hide merchant recently returning from the continent’s southernmost edge, had brought a female aborigine and her offspring. He won her playing poker in the Straits of Magellan and reasoned that exhibiting the two for the enjoyment of county bumpkins would get him extra cash. 

“A buck to view, two bucks to touch,” the sign in his shop window announced. 

Everything was fine until the mother bit off the finger of a man who tried to touch the kid after paying his two dollars.

“One clean snap and his pinkie was gone! The dumb expression on his face was worth the money I paid for the doctor’s bill. And I also had to return the two bucks!” Dixon chuckled at the memory. 

“That woman’s teeth are as sharp as a piranha’s. We can’t find the finger because she must have swallowed it. The only problem is that no one is bold enough to clean her cage now, so she sits in her muck all day, clutching the baby and crooning some crazy stuff no one understands.”

Fed up with the situation, he placed the ad.

“Real South American savage. Young and healthy. Price: 30 dollars. Child, cage, and chain for free.” 

If Benny got there in time and offloaded the woman and her infant from Dixon, his show could compete with P.T. Barnum or the Ringling Brothers, who were also heading to St. Louis. 

“Just imagine!” he said to Phill. 

“We’d make a fortune! Two bucks to touch!”

After three days, they finally reached Lawrence, a hamlet on the bank of Clinton Lake where Dixon’s house competed in grayness with lichen-covered boulders squatting on the shore like overturned tombstones in a derelict graveyard.  

When the convoy arrived, the merchant was cooking something in a large aluminum pot that smelled like rotting haddock, overcooked rice, and green kale.

“I try to get a pot ready for the week. There’s no way I’m getting into the cage more often than that,” he explained, stirring the foul-smelling liquid with a wooden spoon. 

“Just remember. Don’t stick your hands through the cage bars. The chain is long enough for her to move around. Do as I say, or you’ll end up as one of the freaks in your show,” he chuckled, pleased with his joke.

The cage, which was about 10 yards from the lake, had a tin roof and a floor lined with an old carpet.  The mother, entirely naked, slumped in one corner, her infant on her hip, sucking on one of her breasts.

As soon as he saw her, Benny knew she was the one he’d been hunting for – a true Amerindian savage never previously exhibited in the human zoo industry. Although she was huddling on the ground, he could see she was plump, with milk-busting breasts. Her entire body was painted crimson with black and white stripes and dots, and a white stripe encircled her eyes like a scary mask. Her hair was long, black, and rigid, most likely oiled with animal fat.

“Ain’t she cold?” he asked Dixon. 

“She’s used to it. The sun barely rises above the horizon where she comes from. Her people live just a stone’s throw from Antarctica -that massive sheet of ice at the end of the world where there is nothing but snow, snow, and more snow.”

His tone was scornful as if he could not understand why anyone would want to live in such a place. 

“She probably swam with seals in the half-frozen ocean,” he continued.

“Her people can outswim dolphins and often compete with humpback whales for speed and resistance. I tossed her a blanket to cover the baby last week, but she just chucked it back. She has some pride, that one.”

Throughout the conversation, the woman never looked up, muttering to herself.  

“J-ák t-ēlken, j-ák t-ēlken…”

“What’s she saying?” Benny asked.

“How would I know? I’m not even sure it’s a language. The shepherds down by Tierra del Fuego call them Selk’nam. They say they are barely human, but apparently, they communicate whistling like parakeets or puffins.”

“The European settlers are trying to get rid of them because they’ve no notion of private property and slaughter their sheep as if they were wild sea lions. They pay two dollars for a pair of testicles or a breast and one dollar for a child’s ear. Fewer than a thousand are left, so you’d be getting a collectible at a discount.” 

“Before they’re  all gone,” he added as an afterthought. 

Phil, who sat in the wheelchair behind them, inched towards the cage. 

“She’s one unattractive lady. And the young’un… phew, I’ve never seen an uglier child. Despite her size, my ex-wife was really pretty…” he said but stopped under Benny’s warning stare. 

“Watch out! Not so close, or you’ll not only have no legs but might also lose an arm!” Dixon warned, laughing uproariously.

Phil beat a hasty retreat.

“So, whatcha say? Taking her or not? Thirty bucks for the lot—woman, child, and cage. You can also take the pot of grub for the road, ” Dixon urged.

“Done!” Benny exclaimed. 

“We’ll load her onto Charlene’s wagon and head out.  Must make it to St. Louis in three weeks.”

“Just give me the money and take her. I no longer want anything to do with her. In the payout for the lost pinkie, I spent more than I got from her. Just be careful when you drag her out. She might not look like much, but she’s fierce. And fast. I saw her people snap tree branches like twigs,” Dixon said.

The merchant pocketed the six five-dollar bills Benny gave him, then moved away to a safe distance, watching him approach the cage.

“There, there…” Benny chanted softly.

“I won’t hurt you or your child. Just come out nice and easy, and I promise you’ll have a good life with us,” he continued, knowing she couldn’t understand a word he said. And anyway, everything he said was a lie. She and the kid would be chained to the cage for the rest of their lives.

“Be careful, boss; she might lurch, and then you’ll be gone,” the Midget said, wriggling in his wheelchair.

Benny inserted the key into the keyhole and unlocked the door. The woman didn’t move. 

“How dangerous can a woman with a baby be?” he wondered as he moved farther into the cage to loosen the chain.

He kept saying, “Easy there, easy,” as he’d heard horse whisperers do in Iowa. He relaxed because she still didn’t stir and seemed unaware of his presence. 

Then fate intervened again. She was on top of him in one great leap, the infant still clutching to her breast, and from someplace, perhaps from under the carpeting, she retrieved a bone fragment sharpened to razor-blade sharpness. 


Blood spurted from Benny’s severed jugular, coating the woman in sticky red. Before dying, he comprehended where the missing pinkie had always been. 

Phil tried to back out, but it was too late. The woman flipped the wheelchair over and sank her teeth into his shoulder, tearing into the muscle and cutting through to the bone. Phil screamed, trying to shake her off, but she clung to him as a hungry puma might stick to a seal before the coup de grâce. When she noticed he had fainted, she let go and stepped towards Dixon, who ran for his life.

She was breathing heavily, surveying the carnage around her, while the child, still on her hip, sucked contentedly on her blood-splattered breast.


Leluachen ran. She ran as never before, not even when she’d hunted the swift Magellan guanacos for meat and fur. 

“Hold on to ahm’s neck, Kreeh. Hold tight, and ahm will run like the wind that whistles along the Wintek plains. We’ll be home soon,” she whispered, never missing a step. 

“J-ák t-ēlken, j-ák t-ēlken… my child, my child,” she repeated over and over.

Baby Kreeh, hardly two years old, held onto ahm’s neck unquestioningly. She would not let go. Mama said they would go home. Mama knew. 

Leluachen ran as if she were racing along the K’ami Lake shore far, far away, where the world ended abruptly, where there was no more land, grass, or trees but only a vast, limitless ocean. A cool breeze ruffled her hair, singing a Selk’nam melody her grandfather used to play on his whale jaw harp. 

 Mahuin, mahuin hikuenkr, 

Now the kloketens are far away.

Their ankles are tired.

Beautiful heart,

Head of rock…

 She chanted into Kreeh’s tiny ear. The ear that white hunters would pay a dollar for but which they would never have.

She looked back. No one was following…She stepped into the lake, holding the child close to her chest.

“Listen to ahm carefully. Close your eyes really, really tight, and don’t open them until ahm tells you to. Until we are back home. Until we are free. Do you understand?”

The little girl nodded.

One step, two, three…

When Kreeh’s feet touched the surface, Leluach was up to her waist in the water.

 Four, five, six…

“Now, Kreeh, now! Close your eyes.”

Her lips grazed the girl’s head.

“It’s a pity my daughter was born after the cruel white man had destroyed the Selk’nam. We should have been allowed to keep our way of life with bows, arrows, and fur clothes. Our way of life in the land the foreign men call the Land of Fire, but that truly is the Land of Ice,” she reflected, saddened. 

She knew there was nothing to go back to. The only thing awaiting them was men with sticks that roared like sea lions and spat out flames. Nothing but to be killed, maimed, or exhibited in human zoos like her and baby Kreeh. A buck to view, two bucks to touch…

Seven, eight…

Water sloshed around Leluachen and her daughter, hugging them in its comforting arms. She was swimming again with dolphins back in the cold, cold canal that the foreign invaders called the Beagle. 


She extended her hand towards Temaukel, the Selk’nam God and the only witness to their departure, ready to gather them into his embrace.


She disengaged Kreeh’s arms from her neck, letting the child sink to the bottom of the foreign lake that, from then on, was to be their home.

About the Artist

Polish by birth. J.B Polk currently lives in Chile. Her first story was short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, more than 80 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest for her story about Victor Jara, a Chilean folk songwriter.