In the shade of an oak tree, a dozen people wait for the gypsies to arrive.
The woman, in a silky dress, enters the outdoor dirt ring. Daringly, she jumps onto a galloping horse. Then she kneels on its back before stretching her legs out behind.
After she dismounts, it's the man's turn. He leaps onto the horse and stands upright. He vaults from side to side, long dark hair flowing down his back.
The people ooh and ahh as he juggles, then skips deftly over his hat in mid-air, landing on the horse's back.
"He's a daredevil!" says a voice from the shade.
To the people under that oak and thousands of others roaming the grounds of the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, this is just a show, part of their $17.95 package.
But to 23-year-old S Caleb Carinci Asch, this is life. He's part of Orlando's popular Arabian Nights dinner show and recently he performed in the acclaimed Cavalia in Europe.
He grew up traveling the country with his parents at these fairs. He didn't wear shoes until he was 11. Never even went to school.
Now he says he is in love — with his counterpart in the act, 21-year-old Eva Slavtcheva, who comes from a circus family in Bulgaria. They call themselves gypsies and want to spend their lives together, performing in shows, doing daredevil stunts.
They sneak kisses between sets, and sometimes more.
Her parents don't approve, though. The mother cornered Asch once and warned him to stay away from her daughter. This, she told him, is not a life they want for her.
• • •
Yet, this is precisely what Asch's parents have always wanted for him.
Ciara Carinci met Carl Asch at a fair about 26 years ago. He was a musician and, when the fair left, she went with him. She turned her sense of "knowing" about people into a job reading tarot cards. They converted a 1969 Greyhound bus into their home. When she got pregnant, he offered to swap his flute for a briefcase, but she had fallen in love with a musician and didn't want any other life.
Yet they questioned their decision to raise a child on the road.
Was he missing out on school?
Did he need siblings?
Should they give him a "normal" life?
Ultimately, they said no to all of those questions and joined other parents living on the road with the traveling festival.
Rather than playgrounds, their kids found fields or swimming holes. As the community moved from fair to fair, people came, people went. They felt safe, never locking their rigs, buses and tents. If someone broke down or had no food, the others helped.
They are performing artists and artisans who create a feast for the senses. They make glassware and pottery. They play lutes and clash swords in a make-believe village based on the Renaissance era. Hawkers peddle sparkly things, plumed hats, furry foxtails and fairy wings.
His parents gave him the one-letter first name "S" — short for a family name — although he goes by Caleb. From an early age, he was fascinated with World War II. In his travels, he met veterans from the war and he listened to their stories. His parents quizzed him on spelling lessons from treetops as he climbed. They tested vocabulary as he jumped on a trampoline. At times, they said, they hired tutors.
But mostly they just studied his behaviors. "His being would tell us what he needed," said Carinci.
When he was 2, he flawlessly mimicked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He turned a perfect cartwheel. At 4, he announced he would be an archeologist-ninja-healer.
"He recognized himself," she said.
On the weekends, his jobs at the fair included running with a fake dead rabbit while the falcons chased him.
He was 10 when his parents bought a house in Pinellas County. Finally, he had his first bedroom. They lived there while the fair took winter breaks. Asch learned to stay inside during school hours after police questioned him. The family was skirting the law, but believed in what they were doing.
Many people wouldn't understand. "I didn't agree with their yardstick," Carl Asch said.
The younger Asch was playing with knives at age 5 and, at 13, became the youngest certified stage combatant, his father said.
He learned to speak French and, at 15, got an apartment alone in Orlando to train for Arabian Nights.
This is where he met Slavtcheva, a shy girl who had just moved from Bulgaria. Her stepfather taught him to flip on horseback and called Asch his best pupil.
"He has a feeling for the horse," said Peter Avramov. "Combine that with acrobatics and you get someone like Caleb — very talented."
He still performs there during the week, while returning each night to his trailer in Tampa and performing for the Renaissance festival on weekends. He can't extend his pinky because of a recent break. He once broke his foot, and sustained third-degree burns from a fiery hoop.
It's worth it, as far as he's concerned. When the crowd is responsive, it's a beautiful thing.
"You make them cry; you make them laugh," he said.
• • •
Asch stays on the festival grounds after it closes each evening, so he can care for his two horses. Regulations push the others down the road to a campground.
At 10 p.m. on a recent night he is making dinner for Slavtcheva, and an actor who works with him as a clown, Don Gonzalez.
His horse cranes its head into their open trailer.
"Mattie, you're such a dog," he says reaching up to offer a bite of the sweet potato he's chopping.
He explains how he won this horse's trust, by giving it confidence. It wants to be under him to keep him from falling, he says. He speaks the horse's language. When he plays his guitar standing on its back, it trots to the pace of the music.
His guitar is propped next to a bookshelf holding the Catcher in the Rye, Cat's Cradle and Tom Robbins' Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, his favorite.
Stuck to his refrigerator is a hand-written page he copied from Narcissus and Goldmund, the story of an artist who wanders medieval Germany in search of his spirit.
Natures of your kind with strong delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully. …
"I read that to you, Buzi," he says to Slavtcheva, calling her by a childhood Bulgarian nickname for her rosy cheeks.
She remembers. It was over the phone one night when they were apart.
They had stayed up till sunrise on their first date three months ago, outside his trailer by a fire.
Slavtcheva lives with her parents in Orlando, where she, too, works for Arabian Nights, shining a spotlight on Asch as he flips from one horse to another.
Her parents used to perform with those same horses, but now the mom sells tickets and the dad serves meals to patrons. They want their daughter to work in business, become a lawyer. She's taking classes at a community college, but on weekends she has joined Asch's festival act in Tampa. Eventually, they plan to go to Europe where they say people respect equestrian performers.
"Europe is the place to be," he says.
"I'm all for it," she says.
For now, he is choreographing a new show for a circus in Canada. It will be a smoky neo jazz scene, he says, a kind of vaudeville act.
His mother is helping design the costumes. His is a suit and tie, ascot and top hat. Hers is a sexy flapper dress.
They plan to leave in May. A few days before, she will tell her parents — if they don't read about it before.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.