In the fall of that year, the circus came to town. They carried a dead clown with them.
This wasn’t a sideshow exhibit. The circus had some of that kind of thing, yes, but mostly they had feats of strength and daring. They had pretty girls dancing through the air on a high wire or a trapeze. They had a fortuneteller. And they had clowns, though one fewer of them now. The wagons creaked along under the trees, leaves drifting down around them, and no one spoke of it. Of him. They rode into town with one cart shrouded in black.
The town was any other town, less dusty now that the autumn rains had started. The outlying fields had been shorn close, the stubble catching the golden afternoon light when the circus rode past. A white house peeked out from a fold in the bare hills.
Their juggler preceded them, and the flags on the wagons–yellow, because it was fall–stirred in the inconstant breeze. The juggler was clever. He negotiated for them, when that was necessary, and he weighed the mood of the people they encountered. He knew when to shout to draw a crowd, when to signal for the horses to prance. He knew when it was safe to wink at a young miss, and when to just swing back up into a wagon and roll through without stopping.
Even he did not know what to do with this town, with its silent children coming to line the main street. A few followed the increasingly awkward parade, their wide eyes showing interest, but no words were uttered. One of the townswomen came out of a cottage. She carried a baby. There was expectation in her eyes, but it wasn’t the excitement the performers usually caused. A traveling circus is a transitory joy, a surprise, a wonder. It flaps through the world like a butterfly, never staying long.
The juggler drifted closer to the nearest wagon, uncertain of this peculiar welcome. The town wanted something–what was it?
When more townsfolk came out to lead them to a flattened clearing, it became obvious that they were expected. The juggler announced the next day’s performance to smiles and nodding, and then they were left to settle themselves. The sun set in the quiet. A few younglings snuck close to peek at the performers, and their musician picked a fast tune on the guitar while the contortionist tucked his feet under his chin and walked on his hands. In a burst of contrived whimsy, one of the high wire girls seized the contortionist’s feet and they waltzed together around the clearing in the firelight, their shadows flickering behind them in a dance of their own.
They doused the fires earlier than was their wont. They set a watch against the long night, and almost all of them slept lightly.
But they put on the show. It was what they did. They started with the sword swallower and the strongman. There was applause, but no cheering, no gasps of shock or amazement. By the end, the performers had ceased speaking themselves, as though the silence were catching. The noise of the trained horses was louder than that of the crowd. The trapeze artist twisted in midair to utter silence, returning to earth like a falling dust mote. They finished with the fire-eater, and even his carefully controlled flamboyance garnered nothing more than polite interest in the afternoon sun.
They were packing up, having written off the town as an inexplicable loss, when one of the older women approached. She wore a cream-colored shift dress, with dried flowers caught in her thick wavy hair.
Not quite Ophelia, not quite Lear, but with something of both in her appearance. She had been at the performance.
“Where is he?” she asked, and they all stopped. A bird sang in the bright stillness.
“Whom do you seek?” the juggler finally returned.
“Your dead. You brought him with you, and we have need of him.”
The fortuneteller handed off the reins of her horse and joined the juggler. She had been the one to convince them to leave the clown unburied, to take him with them along the route. The stars embroidered on her purple skirt winked silver in the sunlight. The juggler shifted a step back, ceding responsibility to her.
“What need could you have for our dead clown?” she asked, and it was less of a question than the beginning of a negotiation.
The woman smiled, something of both relief and triumph in her expression. “He is our harvest king,” she explained. “This year we had a boy born to the village, and yet none of our men have died when the summer ended. None of the travelers passing through have died. We must have a death to balance the birth. The harvest is in, and yours is the last group we expect along the road through the winter. He must be with you.”
The fortuneteller considered this. “He is our dead. Why should we give him to you?”
“The seasons are in our care. The harvest has come and gone, and the winds of winter will arrive soon. To have spring return, we need to bury a man in the house on the hill. We require a harvest king to balance the new babe gifted us this year.”
The fortuneteller considered this. She was not unfamiliar with the trappings of mystery–the gauging of response, the careful generality. Yet the dream had been specific. The clown had to come with them. His destination was not where he had breathed his last. Was it here? “Such a balance would demand a man of your town, would it not?” she asked.
“The bargain our founders struck with the gods allows for us to adopt a king from elsewhere, if it is necessary.”
“Does this bargain also require silence?”
“It does. Only one of us is allowed words. Another will be chosen to speak for us once I am gone. When we accept an outsider, well… The dead are long past speaking.” The woman in the cream dress turned.
“Bring him,” she said simply, and began walking. Overhead, a cool wind slipped through the tattered clouds. The strongman took the reins of the horse hitched to the black-covered wagon, and he joined the juggler and the fortuneteller in following the woman. Slowly, the rest of the circus fell in behind them, and the townspeople behind them. The bells on the horses rang softly.
The white house was nearly empty inside. It had earthen floors and a simple wooden table across the back wall. The clay bowls on the table held an assortment of harvest food–apples, squashes, cabbages. The fortuneteller went inside, the clown in his shroud carried over the threshold by the strongman.
“Place him in the center,” the woman said, and the clown was stretched out on the ground. “Though he traveled widely, this man was a true son of the town, and he is claimed in death by a family who regrets his passing. Who here will mourn for their son?” the woman in the cream dress asked, and an older couple from the town emerged from the crowd and stepped into the house. The woman was older, and as she entered she draped a black cloth over her shoulders and head. Her face was lined with passing years, and something like grief deepened those lines. She knelt to touch the clown in his shroud gently, and then retreated. She averted her gaze from the body. The older man with her gazed down on the clown, his expression solemn but with strain showing around his tight lips. He put an arm around the woman, his hand finding her elbow unerringly.
The circus performers shifted from foot to foot. This must be the adoption process, repatriating an outsider to be part of the town. None of them had known the clown’s actual family, but perhaps it was good that someone claimed blood tie and would also remember him.
From the crowd, a thick-bodied man made his way into the house, collapsing to his knees in front of the corpse. “Brother!” he groaned, tilting forward until his head was on the clown’s wrapped breast. The woman in the dress and the older couple all stiffened, wide eyes and tense bodies conveying their alarm. The live man’s chest heaved with a sob, his hands clutching at the dead man’s shroud, but no further words came from him. The three townspeople slowly relaxed, shoulders lowering and hands unclenching. The woman in the cream dress still wore an expression of unease, but she made no motion toward either the dead clown or the living “brother”.
Standing off to the side, only the fortuneteller was able to see the devastated “brother” slip something into the folds of the shroud. Even she couldn’t see what it was, the gesture so fast and the item so small.
The man slowly stood, wiping his cheeks with the heel of one hand, and joined the older couple where they waited.
“Who from his outside companions will speak for the dead?” the woman in the cream dress asked next.
They took turns, each entering the white house to speak of the clown and his life. The juggler, the trapeze artist, the fire-eater and the others laughed and cried, watering the dirt with their remembrances. The woman waited near the table until all of them were done. Then, very simply, she said, “We give our son back to your keeping, as summer sleeps during winter’s time on the world. We thank you for his life and his death.” She set the bowls upon the ground.
She shut the door behind them as they left. The townspeople drifted back to their fields and homes.
Standing outside, the woman asked, “Do you want his remains to come back to you?” She folded her hands together, tanned fingers weaving amongst each other with the ease of long practice.
The fortuneteller smiled at this generosity. It had been a strange afternoon, but she had not expected the town to worry about the clown’s ashes once their ritual was completed. “He knows our routes,” the fortuneteller replied. “Set him free upon the wind, and he will find his way.” She paused then, considering asking more about the strange bargain kept by the people living there. It was clear that more was encapsulated in that deal than just care of the seasons. The woman in the cream dress gave her a look that she had used herself more than once, when a customer sought more answers than she was prepared to give.
Sometimes, you had to let the mystery be. She decided to let the town keep its secrets to itself. The fortuneteller nodded to the town speaker, and with that, the circus folded up their black cloth and continued on.
They moved through the towns along the fall and winter route as though tracing a constellation. Silver Creek, Aborn’s Mill, Norwood, Ocala, Alum Rock, Mabury. These the lights visible in the winter sky. Children laughed and raced alongside the wagons. Dogs barked and people stared in wonder. Sometimes, they remembered the clown and drank to his memory.
In the silent town, snow fell and no one spoke of it. The chimneys carried smoke upward, equipment was mended or newly built, and they waited. Spring came, in its time. The snows receded from the fields a little with each rainstorm until the mud was exposed.
On the hills nearby, green shoots pushed through to the sun. One of the children brought the woman in the cream dress to see this, and she nodded once in satisfaction. Over the next few weeks, these shoots grew long slender leaves. Then blooms raced across the hillside in a bright yellow blaze. Within a month, the plants had almost encompassed the white house. Only the roofline remained visible.
The bees flew softly from flower to flower, a drowsy buzz encircling the building.
Elsewhere, with the warming of the weather, the circus put away the velvets and stout fabrics of winter for the silks and gauzes of the hotter seasons. The fire-eater had his yellow trousers, woven though with gold threads to match the winking metal on his fingers and wrists. The juggler had a wine-red vest with beads of jet in a subtle pattern. The fortuneteller put away her purple for sky blue.
Sometimes she woke in the night, heart racing from dreams she could never remember. Only the dread stayed with her on waking. The performers flung and sang and leaped and gestured, each to their calling. The wagons carried them from town to town.
Then, one day, the blooms on the hillside near the silent town died. With a great folding back, all of the flowers drooped and then withered under the bright sun. As the plants flattened, the house became visible again. One of the children came on the run to the woman in the cream dress, dragging her to the house in a panic. The woman stood in the fold between the hills, contemplating this sudden change.
The walls of the house glared whitely amidst the dead plants. Even the bees had fled.
This was like no spring she’d ever seen. The house should have remained ensnared in growth almost all summer–they would enter it again once the leaves flared bright on the trees. By then the earth would have taken the body of the previous harvest king, leaving only the shroud to burn. The door should not be accessible now–but there it was, like a baleful eye. She turned to the frightened boy who had brought her there, and said simply, “Bring him.”
The thick-bodied man strode easily up to the house, trailed by a few more wary children. He wiped his face as he came with a cloth, having come directly from chores. The young boy leading him stayed a few steps away rather than pulling the man by the hand. The thick-bodied man looked over the landscape as the woman had, noting the devastation surrounding the white house. He smiled.
“What have you done?” the woman in the cream dress demanded sharply. “You must reverse it! You know the bargain struck by–”
The man shrugged, cutting off her words with words of his own. “I made a new bargain,” he said in a deep, resonant voice. It was not hesitant, this voice, nor did it seem unused to speaking. The woman in the cream dress froze, alarm ricocheting through her. The man laughed, and all of the children bolted at the sound. The woman found her own words locked in her throat, fright constricting her muscles in response.
“The earth will provide such an interesting crop this year–you’ll see.”
Before the woman could untangle herself from fear, the man turned and walked away. He did not go back to the town, but instead struck out across the fields.
He sang as he went, and the sound was as chilling as a January wind.
One day soon after, the door of the house in the hill opened. The clown emerged from the earthen-floored room and stood on the doorstep, blinking in the sun. What had happened? Why had he woken in this place, wrapped in something that looked like a shroud? He looked around at the fields and the sky, gauging the time of day, the time of year. Strange words rose to his lips, in a language he didn’t understand. He considered them, debated their meaning and intent. He stuffed them back unspoken, not liking the sense of them in his mind. As he shifted, something fell out of the cloth he’d woken in. It disintegrated as it fell, blowing away like ashes on the breeze. The ashes gave him the same feeling as the strange words had.
Everything was so quiet. He didn’t like it. He wanted to be back with the other performers, trading stories and jokes in the firelight, making the crowds laugh.
Draping the cloth around him as best he could, he started toward the town he could see across the field. The circus would be well into the summer circuit by the time he caught up with them. He would need to obtain supplies for his long journey.
As he walked, he wondered why the town was so peculiarly still. There were no voices that he could hear, and he would have expected to see more hands in the fields. The plants seemed almost blighted–it must have been a bad winter. No matter. He had questions aplenty for when he found someone. His mind was full of words that needed to be spoken.
As a writer, Rachel is a determined optimist. After all, something even more horrifying is lurking just around the next corner – or under the bed. And then there are the nematodes. Her fiction has been published in places like Digitally Disturbed (https://www.infiniterealmsbookstore.com/product-page/old-farmhouse-by-rachel-unger), Broadswords and Blasters, Polar Borealis, Unfading Daydream, and the City in the Ice anthology from Alban Lake Publishing. You can find her online at www.fictionbuffet.com.