Some Children Wander by Mistake
The circus seldom came to the towns in the north. They were too scattered, their populations too poor to justify the expense of transporting animals, sideshows, and people down neglected roads in order to play to sparsely filled seats for a week. The bright colors of the circus vehicles looked out of place when reflected in the rain-filled potholes of such places, and the big top itself seemed to lose some of its power and vibrancy when set against gray storm clouds and relentless drizzle.
Occasionally, some forgotten television star would pass through for a week of pantomime, or a one-hit wonder from the seventies might attempt to rustle up a weekend crowd in one of the grim, boxlike clubs that squatted in the larger suburbs, but the circus was a rare visitor. William could not recall a circus ever coming to his town, not in the whole ten years of his life, although his parents sometimes spoke of one that had played early in the year of his birth. In fact, his mother said that she had felt William kick in her womb as soon as the lights went down and the first of the clowns appeared, as though he were somehow aware of the events taking place outside his red world. Since then, no great tent had occupied the big field out by the forest. No lions had passed through here, and no elephants had trumpeted. There had been no trapeze artists, no ringmasters.
William had few friends. There was something about him that alienated his peers: an eagerness to please, perhaps, that was the flip side of something darker and more troubling. He spent much of his spare time alone, while school was a tightrope walk between a desire to be noticed and a profound wish to avoid the bullying that came with such attention. Small and weak, William was no match for his tormentors, and had developed strategies to keep them at bay. Mostly, he tried to make them laugh.
Mostly, he failed.
There were few bright spots to life in that place, so it was with surprise and delight that William watched the first of the posters appear in shop windows and upon lampposts, adding a splash of color to the dull streets. They were orange and yellow and green and blue, and at the center of each poster was the figure of a ringmaster, dressed in red with a great top hat upon his head and mustaches that curled up at the ends like snail shells. Surrounding him were animals-lions and tigers and bears, oh my-and stilt walkers, and women in spangled costumes soaring gracefully through the air. Clowns occupied the corners, with big round noses and painted-on smiles. Sideshows and rides were promised, and feats never before witnessed in a big top. “From Europe,” announced the posters, “For One Night Only: Circus Caliban!” The performance would take place on, of all dates, December 9, the date of William’s tenth birthday.
It took William only minutes to track down the circus folk responsible for distributing the posters. He found them on a side street, using a stepladder to put up the advertisements for their great show. A cold north wind threatened to make off with a dwarf in a yellow suit who teetered at the top of the ladder as he tried to staple a pair of posters together around a lamppost, while a strongman in a vinyl cape and a thin man in a red coat held the ladder steady. William sat on his bicycle, watching them silently, until the man in the red coat turned to look at him and William saw those great curly mustaches above a pair of bright pink lips.
The ringmaster smiled.
“You like the circus?” he said. His accent was funny. Like became lak, and circus became sow-coos. His voice was very deep.
William nodded, awestruck.
“You don’t speak?” said the ringmaster.
William found his voice.
“I like the circus. At least, I think I do. I’ve never been.”
The ringmaster staggered back in mock surprise, releasing his hold upon the ladder. The dwarf at the top stumbled a little, and only the actions of the bald strongman prevented the ladder from coming down, dwarf and all.
“You have never been to the circus?” said the ringmaster. “Well, you must come. You simply must come.”
And from the pocket of his bright red coat he produced a trio of tickets and handed them to William.
“For you,” he said. “For you, and your mother, and your father. One night only. Circus Caliban.”
William took the tickets and held them tightly in his fist, unsure of the safest place in which to put them.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” said the ringmaster.
“Will there be clowns?” asked William. “There are clowns on the posters, but I just wanted to be sure.”
The strongman stared at him silently, and the dwarf on the ladder grinned.
“There are always clowns,” said the ringmaster, and William thought that his breath smelled very sweet, like bull’s-eyes and gumdrops and jelly babies all mixed together. “It would not be a circus without clowns.”
The dwarf descended from the ladder and the three men moved on to another lamppost and another street. After all, they were here for “One Night Only,” and there was much work to be done if that night was to be as special as it could possibly be.
Over the course of the next week, more and more circus folk began to arrive in the town. Rides were assembled, and sideshow booths appeared. There was the stink of animals, and many children gathered at the edge of the field to watch the circus take shape, although the circus folk kept them back behind the wall by warning them that the animals were dangerous, or by telling them that they did not want the surprise to be spoiled. William tried to spot the clowns, but they were nowhere to be seen. He supposed that they looked like ordinary people most of the time, until they put on their makeup and their big shoes and their funny wigs. Until they did that, there was no way of telling if they were clowns or not. Until they dressed up and made you laugh they were just men, not clowns.
On the night of the performance, while his tummy was still full of birthday cake and fizzy drinks, William and his mother and father drove into town and parked their car at the edge of the great field. People had come from all around to see the circus, and a HOUSE FULL sign stood beside the ticket caravan. William could see the grown-ups clutching yellow admission tickets. William’s tickets-the special free tickets given to him by the ringmaster-were blue. He did not see anyone else holding blue tickets. He suspected that the ringmaster couldn’t afford to give out too many tickets without charge if the circus was only in town for one night.
The big top itself stood at the center of the field. It was black, with red trim, and a single red flag flew from the topmost support. Behind it were the performers’ caravans, the animals’ cages, and the vehicles used to transport everything from town to town. Most of them looked very old, as though the circus had somehow transported itself from the middle of one century to the beginning of the next, traveling through time and space, its animals ageing but unchanging, its trapeze artists now very ancient but blessed with the bodies of younger people. William could see rust on the bars of the empty lions’ cage, and the interior of one of the caravans, glimpsed through an open door, was all red velvet and rich, dark wood. A woman looked out at William, then pulled the door closed to prevent him from seeing anything more, but William briefly caught a glimpse of others within: a sullen fat man whose naked body was reflected in a mirror as a young girl bathed him by candlelight, her own figure barely concealed by the thinnest of slips. For an instant, William locked eyes with the girl as her hands moved upon the older man, and then she was gone and he was left with an unfamiliar feeling of disgust, as though he were somehow complicit in the commission of a bad deed.
He followed his parents through the sideshows and rides. There were shooting ranges and hoop toss, games of skill and games of chance. Men and women called out from behind the stalls promising wonderful prizes, but William saw nobody carrying the big stuffed elephants and teddy bears that stood arrayed on the topmost shelves of the game booths, their glass eyes gleaming emptily. In fact, William saw nobody win anything at all. Shots were missed by those who regarded themselves as fairground marksmen. Darts bounced from playing cards, and hoops failed to land around goldfish bowls. All was disappointment and broken promises. William could almost see the smiles beginning to fade, and the cries of unhappy children carried on the breeze. The hucksters exchanged glances and sly grins with one another from their booths as they called to the new arrivals, the ones who still had hope and expectations of success.
William was not aware of drifting away from his parents. One minute they were beside him, and the next it was as if the whole circus had shifted slightly, moving silently in a great circle so that William no longer stood among the rides and games but at the very periphery of the performers’ caravans. He could see the lights of the sideshows and could hear the sound of the children on the merry-go-round, but they were hidden from him by vehicles and tents. These looked more dirty and worn than those close to the big top, the fabric of the tents shabbily mended where it had torn, the panels of the caravans slowly decaying into rust. There were puddles of waste on the ground, and a stale smell of cheap cooked meat hung on the air.
Uncertain, and a little afraid, William began to pick his way carefully back to his parents, stepping over guy ropes and avoiding the tow bars of the caravans, until at last he came to a single yellow tent that stood apart from the others. Outside stood a red jalopy decorated with balloons, its wheels misshapen and its seats balanced on huge springs. William could hear voices speaking inside the tent, and knew that he had found the clowns. He crept closer and lay down on his belly so that he could peer beneath the bottom of the tent, for if he was seen at the entrance, then they would surely send him away and he would learn nothing more about them.
William saw battered dressing tables with brightly lit mirrors above them, the bulbs powered by a humming, unseen generator. Four men sat at the tables, dressed in suits of purple and green, yellow and orange. They had oversized shoes on their feet. Their heads were bald, but they wore no makeup. William was faintly disappointed. They were just men. They were not yet clowns.
Then, while William watched, one of the men took a cloth and doused it in liquid from a black bottle. He looked at himself grimly in the mirror, then drew the cloth across his face. Instantly, a line of white appeared, and the rim of a big red mouth. The man wiped himself again, harder now, and circular red cheeks appeared. Finally, he hid his face in the cloth, rubbing furiously, and when the cloth came away it was covered in flesh-colored makeup and a clown stared back from the mirror. The other men were engaged in similar activities, rubbing away the cosmetics that concealed the clown faces beneath.
But those faces were not in the least bit funny or engaging. True, the men looked like clowns. They had big smiling mouths, and oval shapes around their eyes, and big red circles fixed on their cheeks, but their eyeballs were yellow and their skin looked puckered and diseased. Their bare hands were very white, reminding William of cheap sausages or lengths of uncooked dough. The clowns moved listlessly, and they spoke in a language William had never heard before, more to themselves than to one another. The tongue sounded very old, and very foreign, and William felt himself grow increasingly afraid. A voice in his head seemed to echo their words, as though someone close by were translating for his benefit.
Children, the voice said. We hate ’em. Foul things. They laugh at what they doesn’t understand. They laugh at things they should be afraid of. Oh, but we know. We know what the circus hides. We know what all circuses hide. Foul children. We make them laugh, but when we can…
We take ’em!
And then the nearest clown turned and stared down at William, and the boy felt moist hands gripping his own as he was dragged beneath the canvas and into the tent. Two clowns, unseen until now, knelt by him, holding him down. William tried to cry out for help, but one of the clowns placed a hand over William’s lips, stilling any sound within.
“Quiet, child,” he said, and although he still spoke in that strange language, William understood each word. The clown’s painted mouth smiled, but his other mouth, his real mouth, remained grim. The other clowns crowded around, some with a little of their old makeup still in place, so that they seemed half human and half other. Their irises were entirely black, and their eye sockets were rimmed with bright red flesh. One of them, now with an orange wig upon his head, placed his face very close to William’s and sniffed at the boy’s skin. Then he opened his mouth, revealing very white, very thin, and very sharp teeth. They curved inward at the bottom, like hooks, and William could see great spaces of red gum between them. A tongue emerged, long and purple and covered with tiny barbs. It unfolded like a fly’s, or the end of a paper whistle, slowly uncurling from deep in the clown’s mouth. The tongue licked at William, tasting his tears, and it felt to William like having a thistle or a cactus rubbed against his face. The clown stepped back, preparing his tongue to lick again, but another clown with blue hair, bigger and taller than his fellows, grabbed it between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed it so hard that his stubby nails punctured the flesh and yellow liquid dripped from the wound.
“Look!” said the clown.
The others drew closer, and William could see a streak of something pink upon the orange clown’s tongue before it was released to slide back into its owner’s mouth with a slapping sound. The blue clown raised his finger so William could see what was upon it.
It looked like pink makeup.
Instantly, William was dragged to his feet and brought to one of the dressing tables. He was forced into a chair, and an old cloth handkerchief was stuffed into his mouth. William struggled and tried to cry out, but the cloth smothered the sounds and the clowns held him in place. There were hands on his shoulders, on his legs, on the top of his skull and beneath his jaw, keeping his mouth closed on the gag.
And then the clowns descended upon him, their long tongues unfolding from their mouths, their breaths stale with the lingering taste of tobacco and alcohol. He felt their tongues upon him, licking his face, scouring his eyelids and his cheeks with their tiny barbs, exploring his ears and his lips and his nostrils as they covered him with their saliva. William closed his eyes tightly as his skin began to burn, the pain like the stinging of nettles. Just as he felt sure that he could take no more, the clowns stopped. They stared down upon him, and now there were real smiles beneath the painted ones as their tongues withdrew into the cages of their mouths. They backed away, revealing William’s reflection to him.
Another William stared back at him from the mirror, this one pale-faced and yellow-eyed, with a fixed smile and rosy-red cheeks. The blue clown rubbed William’s head gently, and a handful of William’s dark hair came away in his hand. The other clowns joined in, running their sharp nails through William’s hair until there was nothing of it left but a few stray strands. William’s face crumpled, the tears flowing freely now, but the clown smile never left his face, so that he seemed to be laughing even as he cried, crying harder than he had ever cried before, crying for all that he had now lost and that would never be his again.
“I want my mum,” whimpered William. “I want my dad.”
“No need,” said the blue clown. His accent was thick and foreign, like the ringmaster’s. He looked very old. “No need for family. New family now.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” said William. “Why have you done this to my face?”
“Done?” asked the blue clown, and there was real surprise in his voice. “What done? Done nothing. Clown not learned: Clown chosen in the mudderwomb. Clown does not become: Clown is. Clown is not made: Clown is born.”
And the show went on that night, while William’s parents searched and searched for him; and the police came, and laughter rose from the circus tent as the clowns drove on in their happy jalopy and gave balloons to the children, the hated children, and when they left there were smiles on the faces of nearly all of those in the audience, except for the very clever children who sensed that there was more to clowns than bright suits and funny cars and oversized feet, and that if you were wise you didn’t laugh at them, and you stayed out of their way, and you never pried into their business, for clowns are lonely and angry and want company in their misery. They are always seeking, always searching, always looking for new clowns to join them.
The Circus Caliban was gone the next day, and there was no sign that it had ever visited the town. The police looked, but William was never seen again, and a new clown was added to the act of the Circus Caliban when next it appeared at the edge of a forest in a country far, far from this one. He was smaller than the rest, and seemed always to be looking into the laughing audience, searching for the parents that he still hoped would find him, but they never came.
And his teeth fell out and were replaced by sharp white hooks that were kept hidden behind shields of plastic; and his nails decayed to hard yellow stumps at the end of soft, pale fingers. He grew tall and strong, until at last he forgot his name and became only “Clown,” and a great clown he was. His tongue grew like a snake’s, and he tasted children with it as they laughed, for clowns are hungry and sad and envious of humanity. They travel from town to town looking for those that they can steal away, always marking the child that kicks in the womb, and always finding him upon their return.
For clowns are not made.
Clowns are born.