One-Shot Week Part 5: The Forest Clown (From Coulrophobia)
For today, here’s an excerpt from Coulrophobia, my best-reviewed book that nobody has actually bought. This was one of three different scenes I tried out for an opening, and got very good responses when I showed it around as a sample. So, here it is as a one shot:
Djani was seven, and he lived with his big brother Besnik in the woods at the edge of Town. If pressed, Djani might have been able to give the name of the town, but to him, it was only “the Town”. He could remember their mother, but not what had happened to her. He and his big brother stayed with families among their Folk, in whatever shelter the Folk had found: Horse-drawn wagons, relics of the halcyon days when they had had horses to draw them with; in tents; in improvised huts; in whatever outlying buildings could be entered unopposed. For one reason or another, the brothers never stayed in the same place twice.
“Stay close to me, Djani,” Besnik said, with the voice of a male just old enough to meet the bare minimum of manhood. “And keep back from the trees.”
“I know,” said Djani, making a point to step back from the line of beech trees that screened the path from casual observers. This was just at the outskirts of Town, where the Folk could walk at will, but still had to walk with care. Besnik had taught Djani the rules, as he had been taught himself, so forcefully and indelibly that one did not even remember learning them: It was no trouble if one of the Town People saw them; they would simply pretend not to notice. But the Folk could not let themselves be seen by a stranger from out of Town, or by one of the unmentionables born among the Folk but were no longer of them. For such would summon the Government Men, the hunters who searched the woods for the Folk, and took brothers from brothers and children from mothers to make them live in houses with the Town People and the ones who were not Folk. Except, now there was talk that there were no more Government Men, nor any more Government either. Now, so the stories went, there were only greedy men, and cruel men, and desperate men, among whom the last were as dangerous as any other. All of which meant nothing to the brothers, except that there was all the more reason to stay out of sight.
Besnik took a hard turn just as the screen began to thin. Djani glanced back. The edge of the trees marked a clearing on the side of the hills, overlooking the town. In the clearing were a proudly towering spire of white stone and the low-slung dome of a military bunker. The stone was a Medieval stele carved with things that harkened to still older days under elder gods: Stylized images of men, and beasts, and things seemingly abstract or wholly obscure; and largest and most centrally among them a thing like a man, with what seemed to be the curled horns of a ram. The bunker, on the other hand, was a miserable fungoid affair, reared within the last generation and already crumbling from age and wear.
Besnik whirled at his brother’s cry, and caught the boy as he fell. “Watch where you’re going,” he said. Nothing else needed to be said. The forest was thickest, here at the edges, where men came just often enough to kill the sizable trees while leaving saplings and seedlings to run riot. There was only a little ways left to walk, but it was a grueling trek, skirting, squirming and even crawling through trees that strove with each other to strangle the path.
Then the path opened abruptly into another clearing, at the center of which was a jumble of half-rotted vehicles, effortlessly dominated by a towering van. The van was big, tall and very ugly, with an extra meter of height and vaguely ghoulish look added by the upper hull of a smaller van welded into the roof. Beside it were a car and a trailer that appeared to have been improvised from two cars cut in half. Also in evidence were the debris that would be expected from a troupe of performers: prop weapons, including a bent rapier; rags that had clearly been colorful costumes; and an assortment of collapsible wooden boxes. The side of the van still bore a forlornly festive legend CIRCU I BUKOVAR.
“Is this the circus?” Djani said.
“There is no circus anymore,” Besnik said. “That’s why these are here. But it means a place where we can spend the night.”
“Maybe we’ll see clowns!” Djani said cheerfully.
“No circus,” Besnik said firmly, “no clowns.” He yanked open the door of the big van, took a good look inside and sighed. “Uncle Adrian and Cousin Belos were supposed to meet us here. I need to have a look around, in case they’re lost, or anything happened to them… or anybody else is coming. You have to wait here. Be quiet, and if anyone comes before I’m back, get in the van.”
Besnik hustled off. Djani waved good bye, and sat down smiling. He had so hoped that he might see another clown…
It could have been minutes, or hours, before he knew someone was coming. It wasn’t someone he saw, or heard, but he knew just the same, and the Folk would not have remained the Folk so long if they had not learned to act upon such intuitions. Djani darted into the van, and only then was there a sound: an almost ethereal droning, clearly from an instrument, but perhaps not exactly music. There was a hint of motion within behind a window as Djani looked out, into the deeper woods.
Even this little way in, the trees were old and big, and the spaces between them wide and dim. The first sign of motion was ivory white flashing briefly in a sunbeam. Then a patch of light on the forest floor briefly lit up a figure, clad in white and deep scarlet, and even as the newcomer darted into deeper darkness, the form only became clearer, the silhouette of a man with a nose like the beak of a bird and great ram’s horns curving out from his head. Already, Djani was stepping out of the van, smiling and waving, to greet a man in the lavish and unblemished costume of clown as he stepped out of the heart of the woods.
David N. Brown