I waited in line behind twelve other clowns at the fae portal from the Underland into the clown car.
We did two shows a day, collecting emotions. This performance, we were also on the hunt for a new child, which only happened sometimes.
Underland day was bright, with blue sky and a few snowy clouds, no surprise; it was the favorite daytime weather of the high fae, who set the climate here. Sometimes I longed for a nice, clean, Earthly rainstorm, not the slam-banging, thunder-lightning-and-drenching storms the high fae were so fond of because drama almost let them feel something. The air tasted of stepped-on grass, fresh pine, the sour-sweet scent of magic, and ripe berries. At my feet, tawny cats-ear flowers nodded on tall stems. One brushed my black-and-white-striped thigh and purred.
The portal, set in the side of a grassy barrow, looked like an arch of stones embracing misty blackness. From the mist drifted the faint strains of an oompah band and crowd noises, the scents of sawdust, popcorn, and sweat. Clarisse, the fae masterclown, cocked her white-skinned, bald head. Her long ears twitched as she listened for the music hook that would cue us through the portal.
Clarisse had decided that for this performance I would be a cross between a human and a zebra. Each of the clowns in our troupe had animal parts, most of them natural to the fae involved. As a changeling human, my only natural animal part was great ape, but Clarisse thought that was too easy. She changed me into different non-ape animals every day.
A bristly black-and-white mohawk started above my forehead, crossed my head from front to back, and followed my spine down to the small of my back. A short black-and-white coat of glossy hair covered my skin. My nose and mouth stretched forward into a mulish black snout. My ears stood in furry ovals above my head, and I could move each one separately. My feet were hooves, and my black fingers clumped together as though I wore black mittens. I had a tail like a lion’s, only striped.
Clarisse had given me my new form earlier in the day, and I had practiced moving in an Underland meadow: tumbling, leaping, stumbling, rearing, rolling, running on all fours, walking on my hind feet, walking on my hands. Zebra was not my favorite shape, but not the worst, either. Better I liked the forms with wings, though the wings were never big enough to support my weight. It was interesting to have six limbs.
I looked toward the jewel stream. The trees there bore stone fruit: emeralds, rubies, diamonds, topazes. Inedible. Nearer, a berry bush showed large, juicy red berries among thorned branches. I was hungry. I wondered if there was time to graze.
Merle, the clown ahead of me, poked me with her pointed fingertips. “Tess!” Her slender face was yellow. Her nose was the colorful beak of a toucan. Lime-colored squares surrounded her black eyes; she had no eyebrows. Her mane of black feathers trembled, and the multitude of black ruffles that fluffed out at her waist shimmied with agitation.
Only she and I remained in the Underland. Everyone else had already tumbled through.
She grabbed my wrist and jerked me forward, then shoved me through the portal with a large, floppy shoe to my butt. I tucked into a ball and rolled out onto sawdust and shed spangles, then leapt to my feet and stumbled toward the others, with Merle just behind me, whacking me loudly on the rear flank with her slapstick. A roar came from the crowd. I hoped it was delight.
I took a tumbling run, two handsprings and an airborne somersault. Merle swatted me again, and I reared and brayed, then cartwheeled away from her. On all fours, I cavorted around the ring, with Merle chasing me and tripping over her giant shoes. Pomegranate, the height of a six-year-old child, her animal part manifesting as a monkey, leapt onto my back, dug her small, strong hands into my mane, and kicked me into running even faster.
We raced around the main clown act in the center, where Clarisse had climbed into the driver’s seat of the clown car and chased a menagerie of animal clowns around the ring, trying to herd them toward the clown hospital in the center. The others crept, flapped, slithered, or galloped, trying to escape.
Laughter and shrieks rolled through the audience as the fae clowns tickled fancies.
I rose on my hind legs, pawed toward the tent top, and glanced up at the tall poles with the collector fae at their tops. The collectors began as flapping, limp, striped sacs with tiny faces at the top, and gaping mouths. As the audience reacted to the acts, the collectors drank down stolen joy and fear, tension, terror, delight, frustration, until they swelled to gargantuan proportions.
Pomegranate chattered like an enraged monkey and tugged on my mane, which hurt. I dropped to all fours. She steered me to chase Merle, who shrieked and fled. Merle dropped the slapstick, and Pomegranate leaned to pick it up. I raced faster and caught up with Merle, delighted as Pomegranate plied the stick against Merle’s haunches. Merle flapped her feathered arms and twisted, trying to escape us.
When we came to a gap in the wooden barrier surrounding the ring, Pomegranate leapt from my back, Merle rolled over and shook sawdust off her ruffles, and I rose to my human height—not so very tall; both my parents had been short, and I was fourteen when I joined the fae circus; I hadn’t grown since then, though I thought I had been with the circus for years. We scampered into the audience, nudging people, tweaking noses, stealing popcorn or knocking things over, chasing each other, and tonight, searching for a new child to steal.
Children laughed at us, petted us, shrank from us, tried to hide behind each other. Adults, too, seemed upset or amused, some trying to shove us away, some laughing, some revulsed.
I found a boy, a small dark-skinned boy who looked older than his size. He did not back away from me or lean toward me. He just watched as I nodded my head and snorted and four-footed my way down the row to where he sat. When I reached him, he stroked my muzzle. I whickered. His eyes widened, and he turned to the girl beside him, who looked enough like him to be his older sister. “Nancy,” he whispered, but she had turned to watch Merle, a row behind her.
He was a One, I thought, but he had a sister, and she was still alive. He had a life that was working. I danced down the row away from him. Sometimes when we were on the hunt for new children, there were two or three who would suit, and sometimes there weren’t any. I hoped Merle hadn’t noticed me pause by the boy.
Pomegranate chattered and leapt between rows, pushing hats down on heads as she vaulted past people, leaning to look into terrified, upturned faces, tugging on clothing or hair, and baring her small, pointed teeth.
A teen girl touched my cheek, and I turned to her. She had horse yearning in her face. I remembered what that was like, back when I was innocent, before I killed my little brother and the world went dark. I would have done anything for a ride on a horse. There was a farm at the end of the road where we lived, a tiny rural outbreak on the edge of the city, and I had taken carrots down to entice the horse to the fence just to feel those bristly whiskers and that hot breath on my palm as the horse nipped the carrot with huge teeth without ever touching my skin. Her eye was so big and dark and liquid. I imagined she looked at me with love. She let me stroke her soft white nose and scratch the white blaze between her eyes. The girl who lived there rode her sometimes. I stood by the fence and watched as the horse trotted over the grass, the girl atop, posting fluidly so she seemed to float above the animal. I had wanted that feeling of being up away from it all.
I whiffled the horse-mad girl’s palm. She fed me a piece of popcorn. I cocked my head and studied her with my left eye. She looked the age I used to be. Her eyes were clear, though, her enchantment untouched by tragedy. I twitched and moved on.
Two rows higher, I found another One. He was skinny, in clothes a little too big for him, as though he had once been larger and had shrunken. He hunched in on himself, sitting with eight rowdy kids and two adults who might be parents or chaperones. His gaunt face was tight with hidden feelings; his arms crossed over his chest, with his hands buried in his armpits, but even so I saw scars on the outer edge of his wrist.
I snuffled him and brayed as the other children tugged my mane and pulled my tail. The kids laughed as they hurt me. They pulled harder. I shook my neck and shoulders to dislodge hands from my mane and whipped my tail out of a little boy’s grip, slapping his face with the brush at my tail’s end. The One I had chosen stayed locked inside himself, only his eyes alive, and the jitter of one knee.
Pomegranate raced from above as I ran away from the clutching hands and laughter. She skipped down the row I had abandoned, tweaking the children, tickling them, pinching them if they pinched her. She stopped in front of the One and plucked at his sleeve. He leaned away from her, then let his arm down. She pulled his hand out of its fist and turned it over so she could look at his palm, then peeked under the sleeve at the wrist, marred by braided scars. She kissed his hand. He jerked it away from her, but it was too late. She had left her scent there, a trace he would not be able to wash away.
In the ring, Clarisse drove the clown car around and around, siren cycling up and down, racing toward and then away from a rickety little building with the word HOSPITAL on it. Animal clown paramedics shoved injured animal clowns into the car while it ran down other clowns, and still other clowns tumbled out the back, adorned with bandages, to sprawl in unlikely or impossible poses and be run down by the car again.
Merle caught up with me. She had her slapstick again, and she whacked me on the thigh. I scampered back down to the ring. Pomegranate leapt over two rows of laughing audience members and landed on Merle’s back.
The riggers for the fae aerialists waited in the wings to set up for the next act. The frantic music spiraled up into its crescendo as Clarisse hopped out of the car, which, driverless, chased her around the ring, all the bandaged and zombified clowns tumbling or shambling after it. The car ran Clarisse down: she disappeared beneath it. The clowns capered and cheered and dived into the car. They didn’t come out again.
Merle and Pomegranate and I were the last to dive into the clown car. Cold, chilly mist claimed us, then spat us out into Underland day, where we tumbled over each other and shoved ourselves to our feet. This time, Clarisse let me gallop off to the berry bush, where I discovered that to my zebra form, thorns and berries and branches all tasted good.
Clarisse shifted me back to my human form before we returned to Earth to do the midnight gleanings and cleanings. My hair was still striped black and white, but my skin was tan again, my fingers separated again, my feet had toes again, and my tail was gone. She strapped the stock, a section of Sloter wood, to my back with leather and buckles. It tingled against my shoulderblades, potent with potential. I shivered, remembering the night the fae had come for me.
The tent was silent, cold, and dark when we returned to it. Clarisse opened a little bag and let out a raft of firefly fae, lighting the inside of the big tent with spots of green glow, enough for us to see by. The sawdust was flattened. Popcorn still scented the air, along with musty human and animal smells. Worker fae went to do their jobs.
I thought of making a run for it. I could slip under the edge of the tent and off into the night. But everyone in our troupe had touched me, some leaving larger traces than others, and they would be able to track me. Once they caught me, I’d be in for new punishments, harsher than the ones I’d gotten the first two times I had run.
There was no way for me to truly escape.
Besides, if I stayed too long on Earth, my memories regained their power. The worst one: the day my little brother Bud came into my room and broke my doll Amora, and I chased him to the stair railing and pushed him over. Perfect fury and righteousness flowed into that push, and after the crash and crunch of my brother on the floor below came sickness that sent me staggering, fear and sorrow; other feelings took longer to arrive, and still lurked under the layer of quiet in my brain that being in the Underland gave me. Later memories bothered me here, too: how my parents tried to live with me after Bud’s death, but never loved me again.
In the Underland, all those memories slept.
Pomegranate climbed the tall poles to fetch down the collectors. They were heavy with a brew of mixed human emotions, swollen to weather-balloon size. I waited on the ground to seal their mouths for transport, and Winnie, part horse, let me fasten them to her special harness. When we had gathered them all, Clarisse sent Winnie back through the portal. We would be sorting the emotions and bottling them all the long fae night. The high fae paid in power for fresh, clean emotions.
Clarisse studied me, Pomegranate, and Merle. Pomegranate had hidden her long, prehensile tail inside her jacket and unfurred her face. Without fur or her monkey muzzle, Pomegranate looked unearthly beautiful, what I used to imagine all fae looked like. Merle no longer had her toucan beak or wings, and her skin was gray instead of yellow and green. She still had a long, beaky nose and a small, pursed mouth. She and Pomegranate had dressed in normal human clothes and glamoured themselves to look more human. Despite decades of practice, they weren’t very good at it.
I wore a dark hoody and black slacks and shoes. Not enough protection against the cold settling around us. Pomegranate and Merle wore dark clothes, too.
Clarisse walked us to the tent’s entrance. Outside, the rest of the circus, sideshows, games, and rides, was still and dark, skeletons of fun. A half-moon shone on the dormant ground.
Pomegranate lifted her nose and sniffed the air. She located the trail left by the One and headed off. Merle and I followed.
The fairground where we’d set up the circus was in the middle of a residential area. The midnight moonlit town had the slowed pulse of a small place, the whisper of cars on pavement irregular and not near. We walked down the centers of the streets. Houses were small and many, few with a second story, most dark. In some, television light flickered against curtains. In others, a light in an upstairs room might signal someone reading in bed. Frost turned lawns into bristly stubble, and trees were black silhouettes.
A big dog on a chain lunged and barked furiously at us from behind a fence. Pomegranate flung a sleep spell at him. He dropped.
Merle muttered. A sandy spell brushed my cheek. It was the “don’t notice us.” She should have cast it before we left the fairground.
The trail led us to a large, ramshackle, three-story house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Its paint was peeling, and one of the downstairs windows showed a star of cracks. Behind the house was a cemetery. Three of the upstairs rooms showed light, and behind the largest window downstairs, bright television flicker and the muffled sounds of broadcast talk. A veranda fronted the house, its posts clutched in ivy vines. Sagging chairs and a welter of kid bikes crowded the porch.
Pomegranate pointed a skinny finger to one of the lit windows, the second-story one to the far left. We went to the house and climbed one of the porch supports to the veranda roof, then walked across to the window, all without a sound. Yellow curtains hid the room beyond.
Pomegranate curled her fingers into claws and scratched at the window.
She scratched again, a fingernails-on-chalkboard sound.
The thud of feet hitting floor. The One parted the curtains and stared out at us. His mouth dropped open. He was wearing wrinkled pajamas with little race cars on them, and his hair stuck up in tousled spikes. Behind him, a narrow bed with one moth-eaten beige blanket lay in disarray, an open book on it.
I knocked on the window frame and signaled for him to open the window.
He glanced over his shoulder. His room was small, with just enough room for the bed, a battered dresser, and a bedside table with a lamp on it. The door into the room was closed. It had a poster of a Goth band on it.
He unlocked the window and pushed it up four inches, then leaned so he was looking through the crack.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“We’re from the circus,” I whispered back. I did the talking during these collection runs; the other two hated using human speech, and couldn’t be convincing in any case.
“What are you doing here?”
“We’ve come to take you away.”
He backed away from the window and crossed his arms over his chest. “What?” he muttered.
“Are you happy here?”
“No!” The word burst out of him. He slapped a hand over his mouth and looked behind him. No sound came through it except the murmuring of the television downstairs. “It’s the worst foster home I’ve ever had,” he whispered.
“We want to give you a new home,” I said.
He blinked, stared at my striped hair. “Are you the—were you the zebra?”
“And she was the monkey.” He pointed to Pomegranate.
“Right.” I hooked my thumb toward Merle. “And she was the toucan.”
“Clowns want to kidnap me?”
“Of course,” I said.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Come with us. You’ll figure it out.”
He shut the window in our faces and dropped the curtain.
Pomegranate pinched me and showed all her teeth.
“Wait,” I said. We heard the boy moving around in the room. A little while later he opened the curtains and shoved the window all the way up. Now he was dressed in jeans, a shirt, a blue jacket; he had on hightop tennis shoes, and a full backpack. The dresser drawers were open, and the book on his bed was gone.
He slid out of the window to stand beside me on the roof.
“Hang on a minute.” I unbuckled the leather straps and lowered the stock from my back, then slipped it through the window into the One’s room.
“What’s that?” he said.
Merle stuck her hand in and tapped the activation spell on the stock. It writhed and stretched, shot out limbs and a head, twisted and hunched and unfolded into a replica boy with a blank face.
“What? What? What?” the One said.
The stock reached through the window and gripped the One’s hand. The One jerked and tried to back away. Pomegranate held him straight and steady until the stock had his imprint and released him. It stood at the window, a gangly boy with scarred wrists and other, odder scars scattered across its chest and arms. It shut the window and closed the curtains.
The One struggled in Pomegranate’s grip. She lifted him and jumped off the roof. Merle and I followed. We landed soft as dandelion down on the street below, then raced away, carrying the One.
In the big tent, Pomegranate finally set him down. He slumped on a bench, his face pale and his mouth half open. He blinked repeatedly. Finally he looked around and saw me. “What just happened?”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Everyone leaned forward. This was a crucial moment.
“Rex Armstrong.” He looked up at the firefly fae. They flew to surround us. Mudgrub and Arnesty were sweeping up old sawdust and laying down new for tomorrow’s show; even they had paused to hear Rex’s answer. Clarisse stood in the ring, hands on her hips, studying the One.
“Rex, I’m Tess. This is Merle, Pomegranate, Clarisse, Mudgrub, and Arnesty.” None of these were our true names; they were use-names. Clarisse had my true name in her pocket, and sometimes she pinched it. “We’ve come to take you away to a new life.”
“But that thing—and we practically flew—and they don’t
Arnesty and Mudgrub were even lower caste than clown fae. They looked like big men slapped together from rough dark clay, which was pretty much what they were.
“Life is a lot more amazing than you ever thought,” I said.
“I guess—” he said, and swallowed.
“Trust me,” I said, and thought, never trust anyone who says trust me. “I’ve been where you are. This is better.” Really, that part was true. I couldn’t have survived my previous life; the clown fae had come for me when I was trying to figure out the least painful way to kill myself. There were things I liked about my current life—especially the fruit in the Underland, and some of the magic.
“Couldn’t be worse,” Rex said.
Another thing one should never say. “Here’s the thing, Rex. You might have noticed we’re using magic. Right?”
“Magic,” he whispered. He pressed his hands against his cheeks.
“That’s how we made that boy to replace you. These others—” I gestured at the others “—are fae. Kind of like fairies, only not tiny, and not cute.”
“Fae,” he repeated.
“Right. And I’m—or, I used to be, I guess—human. Now I live with the fae, and I never have to see my parents again.”
“You don’t want to see your parents?” Rex asked. “I wish—oh, I wish mine were still alive.”
I shrugged. “We can’t do that, but we can take you someplace nicer than this. Will you come?”
Everyone leaned forward again. We needed an unforced yes.
“What happens when we get there?”
“There’s food and shelter and music. There’s work. There’s new friends.” Did I believe this? In a way. Food, shelter, music, work, check. Friends? Not as I used to understand friends. Then again, I didn’t deserve friends.
“Okay,” he said.
Merle gripped his hand and led him to the clown car. Leaving Mudgrub and Arnesty behind to finish prepping for tomorrow’s show, the rest of us followed through the mist into the Underland.
Rex stood on the grass and looked around. It was still day, and the air was warm, fresh with grass and clover and flower scents. “Wow! Wow! Wow!”
I handed him some berries from the nearest bush. We all watched. He put them in his mouth and closed his eyes, lost in bliss.
Clarisse nodded. He was ours now. We had his name, his agreement, and he had eaten from our world. He wasn’t getting away.
“Can I have more?” Rex asked.
“Sure. As much as you like.” I spread my arms. “Look. There are lots of different kinds. Just don’t eat the white ones. And those ones that look like jewels? Yeah, they are jewels. You could break your teeth on them.”
“This is so great,” he said. He ate more berries.
“The grotto is this way,” I said. The grotto, where someone would have spread the emotions out on the big tabletop for us to sort. Pomegranate jumped on my back, her legs going around my waist and her arms around my neck. I hitched my hip to settle her comfortably and started walking. Rex joined me.
Let him find out in his own time that clown fae were amongst the lowest caste fae, the workhorses, the spat upon, good for processing things the high fae needed, but otherwise relegated to the fringes of the settlements, underground, unseen and unheard, doing work too dirty for the beautiful ones. Clarisse had been high fae once. I hadn’t yet figured out what crime she had committed that sentenced her to work with us. I listened and hoped someone would let it slip. Information gave me my only power.
Pomegranate clicked her teeth near my ear and swatted me on the butt. I picked up the pace. Even the lowest liked to lord it over somebody.
I smiled at Rex.