Laughter too, wasn’t laughter used to cover up anything unpleasant, and weren’t clown’s laughter the phoniest laughs around? Whatever clowns were, they were not amusing to Donald.
His parents discovered that on his fifth birthday, when they took him to the circus. In his seven years on the planet Donald’s memories were few, but one stood out more than any other.
Sterling’s Traveling Circus it was called. Not much of a circus, really. They set up in a field on the edge of town, but the circus was kind of a big deal compared to the mundane day-to-day small town life most of the people in the area led. So his parents took him, a birthday treat, and he liked the sights, the smells, the food, and the animals. He sat rapt as the trapeze artists flew overhead and when acrobats rode the horses around the ring.
Then the clowns appeared, and he froze. Lots of clowns: big clowns, little clowns, fat and skinny, all painted with those jeering smiles, dressed in baggy clothes which held no real shape beneath them.
His parents hadn’t noticed his apprehension at first. They laughed along with the crowd at the clowns antics. Buckets of water that turned into confetti, vaudevillian pratfalls, ridiculous pantomimes. Donald and his parents had seats in the first row, only the best for Donald’s birthday. He was close to them, but he still felt a little reassured between his mother and father.
Then, one of the clowns came his way. It stopped right in front of him and looked at him. He sat frozen. The clown made some motions with his hands and then – POOF – a bouquet of paper flowers appeared. Donald screamed as everyone around him ooohed and aaahed. The tears that streamed down his face got his mothers attention and she tried to soothe him, tell him it was all in fun. The clown made a mock sad face at him, and put his finger to his lip and shushed him.
The clown was still right in front of him, and looked directly at him and smiled. Donald started to calm down a little and thought it might be alright for a moment. Then the clown did something that apparently no one but Donald noticed. Its lips parted slightly and one long, jagged tooth slipped out. It slowly pierced the clown’s lower lip and a small trickle of blood ran through the white greasepaint, down its chin. Then the clown was laughing and running through the sawdust to join his friends.
Donald’s parents finally had to take him home; he couldn’t be quieted at the circus after that. The trickle of blood haunted his dreams since that night. Right after the incident the nightmares were frequent, almost nightly, but now, two years later they only occurred once every two months or so. Donald was getting too big to get hysterical at every little bad dream. Some nights though they were true night terrors, and he would wake up sweating, tears streaming down his cheeks, and he would curl up tight beneath his blankets and wait for sunrise.
What Donald didn’t know was that when the clown was near he had put something in his mother’s purse, something small that Donald’s mother hadn’t even noticed until they got home.
“Look honey,” she said to her husband, showing him the small rubber clown she had found in her bag. “That clown must have stuck that in there when he was playing with Donny.”
“Well don’t give it to him now.” Her husband replied. “It’s liable to send him into another fit.”
So she put it away in her dresser, and thought that someday when he was older she would give it to him and they would laugh at how silly he had been.
Children are curious. Donald, now six, was playing in the house while his mother was in the backyard talking to the neighbor. He was exploring, and had already exhausted all the mysteries in the rest of the house, so he ventured into his parents bedroom. He looked in the closet, but that was just clothes and shoes. The nightstand contained only papers and booklets that he had no comprehension of.
His mother’s dresser however held all manner of things. Her jewelry box, which held the silver dollars his grandpa had given him before he went away, the ones his mom was keeping for him until he got older. Some teeth the tooth fairy had taken. How did they end up here? Donald was beginning to figure this one out, and soon the tooth fairy would go the same route as Santa did, into disbelief.
He opened a drawer. Nothing in there but bras and underwear. He opened the next one and froze. A clown! He had to stifle a scream when he saw the small rubber doll. He slammed the drawer shut. What was a clown doing in mommy’s dresser? He wanted to run from the room, but he didn’t want that thing in the same house as him.
He summoned up all his courage and opened the drawer. He looked at the clown, not sure what he wanted to do, but knowing he had to do it soon. His mother would not be out back much longer. He wished he had gone out to play in the yard near her instead of insisting on staying inside and watching cartoons.
He finally snatched up the doll and closed the drawer. He made his way to the front door, and as he did he could swear he felt the clown move in his grasp. He squeezed tighter and bolted through the house and out the front door. The only place he could think of to dispose of it was the sewer in front of the house. He hurled the clown through the grate, and it landed in the storm drain four feet below. Its brightness contrasted sharply with the black muck, and Donald could see it clearly, lying on its back, staring up at him. Then it raised its arm and waved at him.
Donald ran back into the house.
The next day, playing on the dead end street where he lived, he peered into the sewer. The clown was not there. ‘Good” he thought, ‘it had been washed away by last nights rain.’ At least that’s what he hoped.
A couple of weeks later he finally got the nerve to look in his mother’s drawer again. He grabbed the handle and slowly pulled it open and peeked in.
The rubber clown lay on its back, a small trickle of blood running down its chin. Donald did run screaming from the room this time, into the backyard where his mother had a hard time calming him down. He wouldn’t say what had him so upset, but he would never stay in the house by himself again after that.
In a small tent, miles away from where Donald lay sleeping, six figures sat around a table. The interior of the tent was bathed in the dull glow of a gas lamp. They were clowns, gathered about the table, laughing as perhaps you might expect clowns to do at night, when no one was around. Except the laughter was not jovial, it came more like a hyena-like, high pitched squealing outburst.
The clowns were still in full make-up, or rather, they were clowns. A clown is only a clown when made up to be a clown. These creatures were always clowns; they could never be ordinary men. They weren’t human at all.
The object of their amusement was a small child, a boy approaching his fourth birthday. One clown, in his baggy, polka dot outfit held the boy up in front of him, his face close to the child’s face, mocking its terror stricken look. The child started to cry and then scream while the clowns laughed, amused by the fear they were causing.
“Come on kid,” the clown holding him said, “don’t cry. You need to be quiet. Here, I’ll help.” With that he grasped the little boy’s tongue and twisted in free of his mouth and threw it on the dirt floor, where another clown pounced on it. Blood welled up from the boy’s mouth, vomiting down his chest.
“That’s better!” The clown smiled as the others howled.
Then the clown started to drink …
Carl Russell couldn’t sleep. He tried night after night, but he couldn’t do it. Here he was again, over near the clown tent. No one came near the clown’s tent, not at night anyway. The clowns always kept their lodging as far from the rest of the company as they could, and the other workers were fine with that.
When you worked in a circus you stayed to yourselves anyway, in your little group. Even now he should be with the other laborers in their trailer, sleeping. The clown’s business was the clown’s business and that was that. Besides, what he was suspecting the clowns of was absurd.
What did he care anyway? 52 years old and still wandering around with the carnivals. He had left home at 16 and soon the found that the only place he could get work was in the carnival circuit. Lousy pay, no family, no love, no life outside work. He didn’t even feel he fit in with the circus people. Most of the other workers, performers or sideshow freaks felt close to one another, like some sort of substitute family, but Carl never felt a kinship and he never stayed at one circus very long.
So why was he so worried about these goddamn clowns? In a few weeks he’d be out of here and working some other traveling show. Screw this circus and its clowns and everyone else in it.
He shuddered as he thought back on the night a couple of weeks back. He couldn’t sleep that night either, but just because he had indigestion. The food you got in his line of work often did not sit well with him, especially now that he was older. He went for a walk in the night air, hoping he would feel better. He hadn’t realized he had wandered close to the clown’s tent until he thought he heard what sounded like a child crying. More like screaming, a horrible wailing scream. He heard the clowns laughing maniacally, and then the child’s screaming stopped.
He had hurried back to his trailer and tried to forget the sounds and go to sleep, but the cries stayed with him and he could not block it from his thoughts.
So every night since found him near the clown’s tent, and on two other occasions he heard what seemed to be a child crying and then silence. It couldn’t mean what he thought it meant, the clowns couldn’t be murderers, could they? The thought seemed ridiculous, but what else could the sounds he was hearing mean? He needed to look into the tent, but the thought terrified him.
He was getting nearer to their tent when he suddenly heard a child screaming again. He made his way as quickly as he could to just outside the tent. The child’s cries had stopped, but his heart was racing in his chest and he had broken out in a cold sweat. He had to admit, he was terrified.
He wasn’t sure what he should do. He couldn’t just burst in there and demand to know what was going on, cold he? He felt helpless and weak, but his fear could not be surmounted and he stood frozen. Then he thought he heard something, a small noise, like muffled crying. The child was still alive!
He tried to gather his thoughts, to try to get the sick feeling to leave him, but he still felt nauseous and was still trembling. Then the clowns started howling again. He could make out the faint shadows of the clowns on the walls of the tent, they seemed to be in a frenzy. They were making strange guttural sounds, and seemed to be skirmishing over something, like a pack of wolves fighting over a meal.
He had to move, had to do something, so he quickly circled his way around until he noticed a small tear in the side of the canvas tent. The clowns had settled down now, so he had to be careful. He tentatively put his eye up to the hole, as if expecting a clown’s finger to suddenly poke his eye out with a giggle.
He peered in and saw the clowns sitting around the table, and in the gaslight they seemed harmless enough, like some cheesy painting they sold at flea markets. They were laughing good-naturedly, sitting around the way you might sit at a picnic table with friends in the backyard on a summer night. He slowly let out his breath, unaware he had been holding it in. No child, just clowns relaxing at night, perhaps planning tomorrow’s show.
Then he noticed on the ground, a child’s pajamas, crumpled and torn. He looked at the clowns again; his heart racing like it would explode. Now he noticed the clown’s greasepaint had run, smeared down their chins, their necks. It was red greasepaint, that was all, he tried to tell himself. No, it was blood, he knew it, and he saw one clown hold up something small and white, then crunch it between his teeth and suck the marrow out.
He pulled back from the hole in the tent and tried to control his nausea, if he vomited now they would hear him and he’d be done for. He steadied himself and looked back into the tent.
The clowns were still seated, laughing and joking, and it sickened him to realize that this was polite after dinner conversation. Suddenly their attention was drawn to the entrance of the tent. The flap opened and he saw something very small move into the tent. It was a tiny clown, not more than ten inches tall, almost like a small doll. It capered and danced its way across the floor where it ceremoniously bowed at the clown’s feet.
“Peebo!” the clown wearing the polka dotted suit exclaimed, “You’ve returned.”
“Yes.” Replied the tiny clown, “It has taken a little longer than usual, but the child is ready.”
“Good, good,” The clown smiled , “Tomorrow night little one, bring him to us!”
“Yes master.” And the tiny clown bowed again and trotted out of the tent and into the night. Carl backed away from the tent and made his way back to the trailer. What the fuck had he just witnessed?
The next night as Donald was in bed trying to fall asleep, he heard a noise coming from somewhere in his room. He peered into the darkness but saw nothing. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the moonlight streaming in through the window, and he wondered if he should just bolt from the room. He couldn’t. His parents were getting tired of him trying to crawl into their bed at night. He was seven and a half years old now, too old to be scared all the time.
Suddenly there was a slight movement on the floor, something in the darkness. Then he saw something dance into the moonlight. Donald saw what it was: the clown! The clown doll was in his room, dancing across his bedroom floor. He wanted to scream, but he sat frozen, unable to take his eyes off the clown. It cart-wheeled and spun, tumbling about on the carpet. Donald started to sob. There was a rising fear in him that told him he would never see the inside of his bedroom again, his mother would never hold him and fuss over him, all that was lost. Still he sat, transfixed by the doll on the floor, feeling himself becoming entranced by it’s movements and soon that’s what he was.
This night Carl was back outside the clown tent, and earlier than usual. As soon as the others had gone to sleep, he slipped out of the trailer and made his way here. Earlier that day he had spoke to one of the other workers and bought a gun, a cheap .38 caliber pistol. Unregistered weapons were fairly easy to come by in his line of work. He wasn’t sure how much good it would do against these things, but he felt better having something for protection. He didn’t even have a plan, and he was still holding onto some faint hope, telling himself that there was some other explanation he hadn’t considered, but he knew the truth. Still, something in head could not accept that clowns were eating children.
His thoughts were interrupted by a rustling sound and he saw something even harder for his mind to acknowledge. From the night sky came the little clown, gliding down on the wind. Behind it sailed a small boy wearing pajamas, and they landed gently in front of the entrance to the tent. The boy stared blankly at the small figure, which danced forward through the flap. The boy followed, disappearing into the tent. Carl stood there, holding his breath, frozen in disbelief and fear.
Then he heard the boy scream.
Without thinking he rushed into the tent, and he realized immediately he had made a huge mistake. He stood in the doorway, the gun still uselessly in his pocket. The clown in the polka dots held Donald with both arms pinned to his sides, off the ground and staring in wide-eyed terror into the clown’s face. The other clowns looked at Carl, seemingly amused, and he suddenly realized that there were only five of them.
The sixth clown grabbed him from behind, and placed one of his hands over Carl’s mouth. The clown hugged him tight with the other arm, and seemed much stronger than he should have. Carl tried to struggle, but he couldn’t budge. Then he felt breath on the back of his neck and heard the clown whisper in his ear.
“Watch.” It said.
Carl watched the clown lower his face, almost touching Donald’s nose. He saw the clowns mouth open wide, then even wider. He saw a mouthful of wicked teeth, too many teeth, sharp and twisted. The mouth opened still wider, as if the clown’s jaw had become unhinged and his whole head opened up. The clown’s mouth enveloped the entire lower half of Donald’s face. The gas light seemed to intensify, and fire burned in the clown’s eyes. The other clowns were braying and howling, a bone chilling, primeval sound. The clown then closed his jaws, and Carl heard a horrible crunching sound and the boy’s legs were thrashing the air frantically. Then mercifully the body went limp. Blood was running down the front of the clown’s polka dotted suit, and the other clowns were approaching him, licking their lips.
Carl passed out before he even noticed that the clown was no longer holding him.
Pain. Applause. Bright lights.
Carl opened his eyes and looked around him. He was in the main tent, on his back and looking up. The stands were packed, and he realized where he was. He was in the main ring, it was show time. He was in a large box, being wheeled out into the center ring. His feet protruded from one end and his head from the opposite end. His whole body felt like it was on fire. His face felt funny and hot, and he realized it was covered in greasepaint. He tried to open his mouth and the pain was unbearable. He could feel the wire, the wire that was stitched through his gums, holding his mouth shut. He started to cry. He knew what would happen next. He’d seen it a dozen times, but only now could he appreciate the trick. How many murders had people witnessed and never knew?
It was like sawing the lady in half, and the clowns had done it often. He imagined he was painted like the others that had gone before him. The clown in the box was always made up to be very sad, as he was now. Then the clowns, with much pomp and circumstance, would present the long knives to the crowd. The clown in the box would look on in what the crowd assumed was mock terror and then the big surprise would come and everyone would cheer.
‘If they only knew’ thought Carl helplessly.
At the center of the ring the clown with the polka dotted suit, after he was sure the crowd was quite satisfied that the knives were genuine, plunged them into the top of the box.
Carl felt the blades pierce him, one at the groin and one through the heart and he strained to scream against the wire holding his mouth shut. Then a large spray of confetti spewed form the box where the knives had entered, and Carl watched it fall to the ground like tears as he died.
© 2011 David Ferraris