This is Hamelin, Woodhenge, or anywhere they swear that their forefathers never sacrificed children. The calendar indicates that it is the tail end of this interminable winter. The snow—up to the woman’s iridescent, striped knee socks—blocking her old school’s gym entrance says otherwise. The ritual will have to be held.
The stage stands at the north of the gym. The faux backdrop—cellophane vines and roses, papier-mâche streams, and plastic leaves—exudes a chilly aura.
The woman finds Heimrich the Magnanimous and Proppo on the stage. Heimrich is in a form-fitting suit and thin tie. Under a crimson wig, Proppo wears an oversized coat and mismatched polka-dotted and checkered suspenders. A bulbous navy nose hangs off his face. They had worn much the same outfits twenty-five years ago. They had stood at the same spots. A few clownishly long steps away from one another, the magician and his clown practice juggling.
“You’re dropping balls, Proppo. Have your hands finally atrophied? You’ve yet to find me a suitable replacement.”
“I can’t catch ’cuz you can’t throw, O Magnanimous one. And I’m not ready to be put on ice just yet, am I?”
The clown drops another ball.
“How am I to bring in spring with you constantly mucking up the act?” says the magician.
“Good evening,” the woman says, after clearing her throat. “I believe I might be of service.”
“And who’re ya, then, missy?” Proppo says.
“I am an old volunteer of yours, Heimrich. And I offer myself as your clown.”
“What? Ya think I wears these bloomers ’cuz of ma figure? He’s already got a clown, don’t he?”
“Much to my annoyance, the buffoon has a point,” Heimrich says.
“This inept failure?” she says. “What if there’s another volunteer who doesn’t find Proppo convincing? Another little girl who just won’t laugh?”
“Now ya watch your tongue,” says the clown.
“Take me on, Heimrich. Has this would-be clown garnered any laughs for you, ever? Even during trivial performances?”
“Is this a wayward student of yours, Proppo?” asks the magician.
“Never seen her in ma life.”
“I will have to ask you to leave,” says Heimrich. “We have much to practice.”
“The children will be here soon,” the woman says. “Do you think the same trick will work twice? Would you risk spring?”
Twenty-five years ago, all the children in the town were introduced to the dreaded season. None of them had ever lived through “true winters,” as the girl’s parents called them. Then, one day, when the forecasts had augured clear skies, the town was drenched in a blinding blizzard.
No birds flew and voices froze in throats.
The children were called to walk, alone, to their school’s gymnasium for the ritual. Some of them were lost to the snow and never mentioned again. Silence was the town’s way.
The ritual was as nameless as it was timeless. No historical texts made any direct mention of it. Scholars wrote only that endless winters suddenly gave way to spring. The townspeople feared that their very words might render it powerless. They only referred to it in the oblique. A week of dark skies and parents might ask each other, “Think we’ll need to gather the children this year?”
The ritual involved a verdurous stage, a crowd of children, an unwilling volunteer, a magician, and a clown. The volunteer was to laugh. Through them the other children laughed and the laughter became spring.
Before the mantle of ritualistic clown or magician could be passed down from performer to performer, a trial of skill was necessary. The junior magician or clown would challenge their senior. For clowns, the senior magician served as audience and adjudicator. For magicians, the clown fulfilled this purpose. The victor, triumphant, formed or retained their partnership with the other senior entertainer. The loser exited the town, taking the miasma of defeat with them. During the worst winters, the defeated performer would march into the cold to join the unnumbered other clowns, magicians, and children the town had discarded over the seasons.
Even back then Proppo was ancient. A long tweed coat draped over wrinkles and bones. The girl’s parents whispered their doubts about this old clown and this new magician, when they thought she wasn’t listening. Proppo, it was believed, had only been funny because of his old magician. He was a failure of an auguste, a red clown; meant to be the brunt of the joke, except he never knew what the joke was.
Heimrich the Magnanimous had inherited Proppo: his mentor had died before the young magician could challenge him. It was known throughout the snow-cloaked town that this untested magician had never lived through true winters. He wasn’t much older than the children, in the town’s eyes. How was he to halt a winter he had never experienced?
“Only a miracle will save us,” her mother said as the girl walked—all bundled up—into the blizzard.
She carried in the unmelting snow and her parents’ doubts on her shoulders. Steel chairs squeaked against the linoleum floor as the children found their seats in the gym. No child wanted to be the volunteer. No one knew how the victim was selected.
Heimrich believed that laughter sprung forth only when preceded by fear.
He opened the show with a somber, “Good evening.” Bowing, he pulled out a neon-green dapple of light.
“I have in my grasp Pan’s Tinkerbell,” he said, shaking the light up and down. The story was widely known. Tink was the girl’s favorite character.
He wrapped his fingers around the phosphorescent pixie. Small streams of light burst through the cracks of his gloved hand. The magician raised his fist to his mouth, highlighting his face with a pallid sheen. In one swift motion, he gulped her down. He stuck out his glowing tongue at the children.
Proppo, missing a few beats, struck a petrified face, in incompetent mockery of the crowd. He clapped. His claps signified that the girl, and the other children, were to clap as well. To bring back Tink, like they did in the story.
Applause filled her ears with the sound of heavy rain, drowning out her own claps. The other children clapped until Proppo stopped. But not her.
She kept clapping, not stopping even when the magician said, through the booming speakers, “Now, I’ll need a volunteer.”
“No, bring back Tink,” she screamed. “Spit her out!”
“Ah, I think I hear her,” laughed the magician. Ears pricked, he craned his neck from left to right, echolocating his prey. Proppo, meanwhile, mimicked the squirming children. He would point to random members of the audience and start shaking—pantaloons blurring with the motion.
As the girl’s claps echoed, Heimrich dragged her onto the stage.
“Ya parents were a li’l too lax with ya, weren’t they?” Proppo says. “Ya should know better than to speak so free of the ritual.”
“And you,” the woman says, “should have abdicated your position long ago.”
“Why do you seek to be my clown?” Heimrich says.
“Ya Janus-faced lout. Don’t ya go entertainin’ this amateur. Whenever the old magician beat ya for muckin’ up a card trick, who’d ya come runnin’ to, eh, boy?”
“Shut it, Proppo,” the magician’s voice fills the gymnasium. “Girl, my question stands unanswered.”
“To ensure spring’s arrival,” she says.
“What rubbish,” says Proppo. “One look at ya and I can tell ya don’t give a damn ’bout spring.”
“Do you even believe in the ritual?” asks Heimrich. “Those of your generation tend towards skepticism.”
“You’re right, Proppo, I don’t care if this town drowns in eternal winters. But I’m no skeptic. Truth is, twenty-five years ago, you stole my laughter.”
Proppo bursts into silent laughter, slaps his knee, and wipes an invisible tear from his face.
“So ya think we thiefed ya laugh? And where’d we put it then? Up ma bum?” he says, bending down and sticking his head between his legs.
“Not you, Proppo. Him,” she says, eyes trained on Heimrich. “It was he who played the trick. He who broke tradition.”
“So ya come gunnin’ for Proppo’s spot, then, eh?” says the clown. “Ya think that’s how ya get ya laugh back?”
“Your hunt for your laughter is futile, I’m afraid,” the magician says. “I’ll let you in on a little trade secret.”
“Boy, don’t ya do it now. You’re not a clown. It’s not yours to tell.”
“And would you stop me, Proppo?” says Heimrich, bridging the gap between them in long steps. Towering over the clown, he says to the woman, “See, clowns lose their laughter upon taking up the mantle.”
Her face remains unchanged.
“I’m aware. I’ve studied what I could of the greats, from Buffo to Zavatto. I’ve even studied you, Proppo. No appointed clown truly laughs. There is little behind the makeup. But their eyes shine, mouths open, and lips stretch to meet the smile painted on their faces. The laymen in the audience believe them genuine. And I’ll take imitation over nothing.”
“Oh, you do have to admire her tenacity, don’t you, Proppo?” Heimrich says.
“Heimrich, how long we been together now? Ya grew up in ma hands, boy. It was me who first called ya Magnanimous. C’mon, like ya said, it’s ’bout time we went back to practicin’.”
“Time,” says Heimrich, “time holds little meaning. Days, minutes, years—all nothing. There is only winter, and spring.”
The magician hoisted the girl up on the stage with one arm. He planted her center-stage in front of a large, paper tree. Her school lacked spotlights but they were unnecessary. No matter how tiny the stage made her feel, everyone could see her.
Covering his microphone Heimrich said, “On my cue, curtsey.”
Bowing, Heimrich extended his arms towards the girl to introduce her to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” screamed Heimrich, “I present to you, again, Tinkerbell!”
Proppo clapped, expecting the crowd to applaud, but the children were silent. The girl remained immobile. She thought that the magician, who now cast her a furious glare, would eat her as he had eaten Tink.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know how to curtsey.”
“Turn around,” said Heimrich, “the buffoon is going to make you laugh.”
The girl did so on command without even asking what a buffoon was. Proppo, the spindly branches of the cardboard tree behind him, stretched her a smile. A loud snap erupted behind her and the clown’s navy nose disappeared off his face. He sniffed the air with his aquiline nose, forming a fleshy circle.
Proppo felt all around his face for the blue bulb, poking himself in the eye and digging through his ears. The clown’s quest for his nose ended with him rifling through his pantaloons. Finally, with a shrug of his shoulders, he gave up.
Heimrich snapped his fingers again and a maroon nose apparated onto Proppo’s face.
She was to laugh, this much the girl understood. But it was all she could do to stay in her shivering skin.
The girl turned back around to Heimrich.
Clapping, she said, “Bring Tink back.”
The magician ignored her request. His chest heaved up and down, like a seething dragon’s.
From behind her, the girl heard Proppo say, “Now, c’mon missy, we’re in need of ya laugh, not ya applause.”
“Did you not find the buffoon’s antics funny?” asked Heimrich, neck tightening with each word.
“It was a trick, a stupid trick,” the girl said, bruising her palms with relentless clapping. “Bring her back.”
“A trick? No, no, no, you know nothing of tricks. Here, let me show you.”
The magician snapped both hands and was now juggling three balls—violet, amber, and chartreuse. His wrists barely moved, each flick an immaculate reproduction of the former. The balls formed a mesmerizing, shimmering arc above his head.
With another snap, Heimrich threw one of the balls at the girl’s forehead. She flinched, stopped clapping to protect her face, but it didn’t hit her. The ball had disappeared into the air and the magician was now juggling two balls.
“Proppo, old Proppo,” Heimrich says, with something like pity in his voice. “You must not beg. It is undignified. But I cannot risk it. Spring will not die with me.”
“Since ya was a boy, I’ve weathered your insults, I have. But now you’re insulting the craft. Tradition says the clown—I, not you—decides on his challenger. Like Zavatto picked me and Buffo picked him.”
“If we hadn’t bucked tradition all those years ago, winter would have made statues of us all.”
“So what’re ya sayin, boy? You’ll cast off Proppo, just like that?” says the clown.
“No, no, no, nothing as silly as that. Our young firebrand could prove to be a disappointment, no? Two clowns will still compete. The winner, as always, will have the magician’s vote. And, well, we know what happens to the loser. I task you both with a simple endeavor. Make me laugh. Do you accept Proppo?”
Proppo, about to burst into dry tears, begins.
“So I were walkin’ down the street the other day, right?”
“I’ve heard it,” Heimrich says. “No, you must both recreate—through mimicry or other such craft—the performance wherein I apparently stole our upstart’s laughter.”
The woman steps up onto the stage in one stride.
What will the old clown do? He had a bit part that evening. What did he remember of that performance? The magician, the woman is sure, has a thorough recollection of it, so proud is he of his trick. So proud is he of his improvisational perfidy. She remembers every detail because, for twenty-five years, she has been incapable of thinking about much else.
Still, she is no fool; reaction is always more genuine than action. She will let the clown go first. She is content to simply be up on the stage finally, standing so close to the magician’s elongated form.
Proppo reaches into his coat and brings out three noses—silver, gold, and emerald. He juggles them. All he remembers of that evening is that he had caught some balls, so there must have been juggling.
The woman curtsies to the magician, the clown, and the invisible audience beyond the fourth wall. She waits. When Proppo slips up, throws a nose too high, she flinches, the way she did when she was a child. Only, now, the woman stops herself mid-flinch, wrenches an imaginary nose from the air, and juggles it.
The magician kept disappearing balls right before the girl. After he threw one, he would reach into his suit with his free hand—the other busy juggling the two remainders—to replenish the disapparated ball. He did it so many times that she stopped flinching.
His consumption of Tink, the girl thought, had been a trick. But she hadn’t properly understood it. It was sleight of hand coupled with whatever dark art this was. He hadn’t eaten her. The magician had sent Tink wherever he was sending these balls.
The girl looked to the crowd of children beneath her. Though they were tinier because of her position on the stage, they seemed gigantic. She could make out every detail on their inchoate bodies. A strange warmth was spreading through the crowd. She saw it in the shining blacks of their eyes and slight upward turns at the corners of their mouths. What did they see that she couldn’t?
When the magician flicked his wrist for the final time, the girl followed the blur. She turned back. Only to see the clown, pity cracking his makeup, juggling a glistering peacock’s tail of balls.
She remembered flooding the expanding stage with cold sweat, heart beating in rhythm with the frantic applause of the children.
The girl turned back around to face the magician, to see his neon-stained teeth, but she only caught his side, low in a bow to the crowd.
The children broke out in uproarious laughter. But, she, their cardinal, was not laughing. How could they? Everyone knew the volunteer was to laugh first. The resounding laughter left the girl on a vertiginous precipice. She saw spring in the children’s eyes, heard it in their ringing voices, felt the warmth radiate from their cheeks as color returned to them. But the girl had never been so cold in her life.
Though for the rest of her life she would feel frozen, on the stage, the show was over.
The show is over. The hardwood where she stands is drenched with sweat. The air is warmer. Proppo’s noses—he had dropped each one as she continued her mimicry—lie strewn around the woman. She continues juggling air, matching Heimrich’s blinding speed all those years ago.
Light clapping stops her. The sound of gloves barely touching one another.
“You, you are my clown,” the magician says, through laughter.
Proppo walks towards the left wing of the stage, where the stairs are. He is too old to jump down the front.
As he walks off, she cannot help but mime his slumped shoulders.
“Brilliant, just brilliant,” says the magician. She mimics laughter.
“Proppo, one minute,” Heimrich says before leaping across the stage. With one swift motion, he yanks off the old clown’s pantaloons, suspenders, wig, and coat; skins a dying animal. He hands them to the woman, neatly folded.
Proppo—only in white briefs—rubs the red, painted smile off his face. His nipples are fleshy rubies in the cold. His white makeup stops at his neck, contrasting sharply with the grey-pink mass that is his body. He exits, stage left.
“We haven’t time to fetch you new clothes, dear Tinkerbell,” the magician says. “We’ve much to practice.”
She is silent until Proppo is out of earshot.
“No, Heimrich,” she says. “You have much to practice. I am off. I thank you for the name, though, I think I’ll keep it. And the clothes.”
“What is the meaning of this?” the magician says. “The children will be here any minute.”
“Then entertain them, O Magnanimous one. Work your magic. Make them laugh. Bring in spring.”
“The ritual dictates a magician and a clown,” Heimirch says through gritted teeth. “You would abandon our town to winter?”
“There are other towns. Warmer towns. And a good clown is always in demand.”
She heads for the blizzard outside the gym doors, Proppo’s baggy clothes slung across her shoulder. Heimrich shrieks behind her.
“Winter will find you, girl. My tongue may freeze in my mouth, frostbite may eat my nails, but—wherever you roam—winter will find you.”
The woman simulates laughter again, in silent peals.