THE FEAR OF CLOWNS
As dark as the night was, the smoke coming from the fire was thicker, and blacker, and blotted out the sliver of moon that hung low in the sky. The moon watched things more closely on Halloween night, and watched keenly, and tonight there was much to see. The man, well into his middle years and groaning with every movement, leaned into the fire and spat and listened to it sizzle as it bubbled atop the once red nose. The nose was quickly losing its shape and pooling with the rest of the mess under the makeshift bonfire he’d made. He stood in the center of a clearing that was lit only by the fire and where he had set up a colorful tent towards the trees. Along the tree line he had hung balloons that were hanging low in the cool air and which nodded to one another as if in agreeing on something secret. Deep in the woods something moved and he spun around to see what it was and saw only darkness and turned back to the fires. It wasn’t time yet for what he was waiting for so whatever else might be moving out there didn’t concern him.
The fire did though.
In the fire the clowns were mess of rubber and greasepaint and one of them, the fat one, was still kicking at the bottom of the pile. The fat one’s leg slipped from the fire and its ridiculous yellow shoe tapped in the dirt and the man frowned and picked up his shovel, intending to cut it off but the foot stopped moving before he could get there and the flames caught up with the forgotten limb and swallowed it. A log gave way and the bodies and they all sunk a foot lower into the pit and the muck there that refused to catch fire. One of the clowns rolled onto its side and its dead eyes fell on the man and he couldn’t help but stare at it for a moment, caught within the emptiness before he broke the gaze and spat into the dirt and splashed lighter fluid onto it. He dropped the lighter fluid and shovel and went over to his lawn chair and sat heavily into it, the seat sinking under his weight and stopping only when it bottomed out on the ground. He was miles from town but still watched the woods to make sure no kids were fooling around out there and that no one else had noticed his fire. This was one of the clearings that had been made some fifty years back when people still were still trying unsuccessfully to log this part of the forest and nothing had grown here since then. The area was just barren and beaten down and was a perfect place for a fire.
A perfect place for a circus.
The man watched the clowns burn, the ten of them collapsing one by one atop one another, their make up running white then red, their satin and silk jumpsuits crackling and once in a while their noses sounding off before popping altogether and melting with the rest. There was more noise in the woods and he ignored it again. He’d heard the stories that these woods were haunted and it wasn’t that he didn’t believe what he’d heard but more that he didn’t care. Whatever was out there could stay there, and he’d stay where he was and hopefully that would suffice. He had been coming here for a good long time, the power here too strong to deny or find elsewhere, but so far he had had no trouble, and that was how he hoped it’d remain. The sound had put him on edge though and he stood up and looked over at his tent and wondered if it was too early for the scotch he’d brought with him. He scratched at himself, first his belly, then his crotch, and looked down at his arms and at how hairy they were, like his father’s arms had been, and his grandfather’s arms. He had their arms, yes, but he had everything else that was theirs too, and he laughed a sad, cold laugh that floated off into the woods and disappeared. He moved over to the fire again and the clowns were just bones now and the fire was getting low. He stared into the dying embers, felt something heavy in his chest and pushed it aside and looked for movement in the pit that wouldn’t be there yet, not quite yet but looking just the same. He heard another sound in the woods, as of something approaching and he smiled and pulled a small jack-knife from his back pocket. That was for him, that sound. He pulled the blade open with his eyes still on the fire as the last of the flames seemed to fall down into the embers that glowed with secret knowledge and as soon as that happened he sunk the silver into his palm and held his hand over the pit which sizzled as soon as his blood hit it.
“Let them arrive.” He uttered to the darkness and took a step back from the pit.
His eyes were keen on the embers and beneath them, watching for movement and in the woods there were more sounds and he smiled. His hand stung as the blood poured from it but once he had sewed it up it would scab, it would heal, and eventually it would scar, as the rest of him had scarred over the years. The holiday took a lot out of him every years but it was worth it, it had always been worth it. There came a sudden sound like a loud sigh and the fire suddenly seemed to go out a moment and the night pushed in closer as the clearing was sent into complete darkness. The man pulled a mask free from the waist of his pants and slid it over his head and adjusted it He closed his eyes and in that blackness he felt the heat of the fire rise, saw the light of it through his shut lids, and when he opened his eyes he saw the world no longer as a man but as something more, something less – seeing everything as something old and dangerous. Around him Halloween was winding down but for him, things were just beginning.
The woods were full of the music of arrival and the fire raged at the night and within the flames there was movement. He got to his knees, his body groaning, his back moaning, but he smiled past the pain, past the weakness from the blood that he’d lost, and past the chill that was creeping into the night. The movement became substance, became form, and from the now roaring fire crawled the small form of a child, an infant dressed in a blue satin jumper with red buttons on it and on its face was painted an expression of indifference. The baby pulled itself free of the flames, unburned and unharmed, and began crawling towards the man. As it left the ring of the bonfire another child began to emerge from the flames, this one a girl with her face painted red and gold and with a look of anger, and as she was free a final child crawled out of the fire and this was another girl done in black and white makeup and with a look of surprise painted on her face. The three children crawled to the man and he laughed a great, deep laugh and as he did, so too did they, their laughter coming in short bursts that came first as coughs, then cries, then full throated howls of laughter that sprang through the woods.
The noise in the woods rose to a great clatter of snapping twigs and breaking branches just as the babies made it to their father and from the darkness shapes appeared. Out of the woods arrived more children, all of them dressed as clowns, none older than a teenager, and all of them silent as they emerged. Each of them was dressed in an elaborate or shabby fashion depending on how their faces were made up and each was done to look different than the others so that together they formed a circus macabre. The children left the ring of trees and walked into the clearing and towards the man, who stood up and smiled beneath his rubber mask, its bulbous red nose and thick red lips shining in the light of the fire that was beginning to die again.
The children gathered in a loose circle around the man in the rubber clown mask and then were still. The man spread his arms out and told them one and told them all – “From ash did you come – from ash will you return. From paint are we born, and through paint do we live. And from pain…shall we make joy.”
He said the words as he had said them for twenty Halloweens and the children, all of them quiet as he spoke, looked at him in silent reverence. Having said this, the man knelt down and touched each of the babies on the forehead once, a light, tender caress, and as he touched them there was a faint blue light that went from his hand to their head and with that each of them slowly pushed themselves so that they knelt, then stood, wobbling but standing, and with every passing moment they grew another inch.
The man grinned down at his babies, then up at the rest of his children and spread his arms wider, nodded, and the children came closer.
“Your brothers and sisters died so you might live. Their pain gave life to your joy. It is their blood that fills your veins. They were born from their brothers and sisters, just as I was born of my father and grandfather. We are born out of the acorns of a great family tree, and old family tree whose roots reach to the center of time and it is to our ancestors that we owe honor for all we have. I have birthed you from the sorrow of ash so you could spread the happiness of your gifts to the world. Now, my children – welcome your new siblings and go give the world its laughter, give the world its joy, and I will see all of you in a year.”
The children gathered together and made a line and walked past the man one by one, touching his hand as they did and then touching the heads of their new siblings before they headed towards the darkness and the world, each in their own direction. The infants were the last ones left and they were toddlers now and the three of them reached up to touch their father’s hand and he looked down at them and laughed.
“No, no, no, not you three. Not yet. In a year perhaps, maybe two you can join the rest of your family but I have much to teach you first and you have much to learn. For now watch your brothers and sisters leave us and know that you will see them in a year. “
The toddlers wrapped themselves around the man’s legs and watched as the last of their brothers and sisters, the last of the clowns, were lost to the darkness.
The man suddenly let out a small cry which startled the babies, remembering he had forgotten something, and he called out to the woods –
“Remember my children, remember I love you. Remember your daddy loves you.”
There was the echo of laughter in the woods after that, somewhere off in the dark, but it too faded and the man was left alone with his three babies. The fire died out completely and the man clapped his hands together and the balloons all began to glow dimly with green light that illuminated his camp and the man made his way towards his ragged big top and the children followed, wobbling after him. The man stopped at the entrance to the tent and jumped into the air and spun around so that he faced the babies, who looked at him with their mouths wide. He honked the nose of his mask three times at them and the children started to laugh and he joined them then turned and headed into the tent. They would remain there a week, and by the time they left the woods the babies would be a full two feet taller and it never ceased to amaze him how quickly they grew up. But for now it was time for rest and sleep, for all of them. It had been a long year and a new one had just begun and there was much to do. So much to do. But through it all they’d laugh. Oh how they’d laugh.