As dusk dripped thick through a coffee filter brume, the edges of the sky blistered and curled in on themselves like a photograph aflame. The orphaned troupe Alamort marched - no, limped, dragged their fractured marionette legs over the macadamized road towards a sizzling neon sign, the vista bathed in its bright red panicked heartbeat. A plaque of hoary grout plugged the fossil veins of crack-toothed cobblestone, whispered salty scandal to their tattered shoes. Rainwater crept through seams in the jigsaw stone, trilling toward Canaan in days-long fingers of living mercury.
And they followed it, the five pairs of abandoned feet, walking the dew lines like liquid tight rope toward their aqueous juncture, to where the melted clouds converged in pulsating chrome puddles; at the grand and pompous feet of The Drug Opera.
Relic, Whimsy, Fustian, Antic, Sorry; kith ranging in years from seventeen to twenty-eight. They dissolved into a line, hand melding into hand like the grimy pearls that had merged to form squalid tarns in the gutters at their feet, all dizzy chins lifting with scurrilous reverence toward the princely aberration.
“It’ll do,” the words pitched gracelessly from Relic the eldest’s dry throat, “for tonight.”
Soaked in blushing rain, droplets stained red by the lambent beacon above their heads, they held their bold and motley bulwark steady. A breathing wall of rich harlequin patches and striped fingerless gloves, impenetrable by the colorless townspeople, the sooty phantasms whiffing by eternally.
Heralded by the clip of her sharp shoes, a woman wan and brittle as a newspaper page went trotting past the canaille. She was led by a fleecy pink poodle on a taut leash, both of their noses tipped up toward the denuding sky. Her passage stirred a guttural rumble, rising like vapor from the clammy ground; a rasping growl which soon swelled into a spluttering, spitting yawp.
“Piedini, no, no, no.” Antic broke the paper chain rampart and knelt down, placing a hand on the hirsute hind of the yipping, dog-sized spider at his feet. “Hush, my little basket fish. All is well,” he purled succor to his pet, stroking its left palpus until the tremble in its eight tufted, sopping legs subsided.
With one link gone, the rest of the catena cleaved apart, save for Whimsy and Sorry who refused steadfastly to hew the solacing cipher spelled in the lines of their clinging palms.
“You don’t expect they’ll just let us stay for nothing, do you?” Fustian turned to consult Relic in hushed tones. “You have some sort of plan, I assume, and one that doesn’t involve earning our keep by turning cartwheels and swinging from the rafters for these jossers?”
They clutched together, all, to confer. Tenebrous chattering rose on their steam breath, balmy words hitched together to spell out decisions on the cool air over their heads. Conclusion: they ought not tell tales of their heritage, their trade, the fire that destroyed their wagons and their big, scallion tents. Nor must they allow the set of their brows to speak of their terror, their loss, the acrid scent of their parents’ burning flesh. What would be best, it was decided, was to shuck entirely their bacchanalian pasts for the night, wring the carnival organs from their ears, wash the velvet flush of their formerly impregnable grind show lives from their faces and inhale the prosaicness surrounding them until it showed in goose pimples on their skin.
“Can’t we just tell them the truth?” Whimsy’s flaking white face paint was cracked with tear tracks both dry and fresh.
“Oh, yes!” Fustian chimed, bright with sarcasm, “ ‘allo, we’re a band of stumblebum merry-andrews and hack magicians without a useful skill or a coin among us. Please, mum, might we have a room?”
“Don’t be a twat, Fustian.” Sorry drew his twin sister into his arms and burrowed his nose into her hair, creased brow and narrowed eyes spitting scorn at his brother over skull horizon.
“Hold your whishts, all of you,” Relic scolded. He closed his eyes and sucked in deep through his nostrils to plim his clever head before continuing.
“Here’s what.” He toured the group, placing a finger upon each of his kin in turn as he assigned their new titles, “we’re a pistor, a pedascule, a pinder, a piner and,” saving himself for last, “a chirugeon.”
Fustian scoffed incredulously at being named schoolteacher rather than surgeon, while the rest murmured contentment over the fallacious professions they’d been gifted. Whimsy, in particular, seemed cheered at the prospect of being made a baker. She spun about in Sorry’s embrace, babbling excitedly to him about constructing a wondrous eighty storey sand castle cake in which they could live. Smiling, he pressed a ginger finger to her lips to silence her as the discussion around them descended back into tension.
It was concluded that they would send Relic in ahead, let him audit the atmosphere and the company, draw up maps, brand observations into his palms and return to his brothers with a full report. Be vigilant, he told them before entering. Be subtle fellows, protect one another and remember that no day will ever outweigh this one.
Their every vestige of false security was frankly extinguished by the crack of the door closing behind Relic. The remaining four were left standing in riven white and black makeup, the cruel culling from what had been a life of enduring, silvery saturnalia spelled out plainly in the eroding maquillage on their faces. These were not used to the circus away from the circus, to gruff milling mustaches and galloping stilettos. They were frightened, as much as they hoped their squared shoulders would not betray it; rattled by the open-open air beyond the flushed aegis of their bright, star swirl tents; panicked by the prodigious, swaying buildings that straddled the landscape and constantly threatened to crumble onto their crowns.
Four fragile centerpieces caught in an amaranthine carousel of stony spirits, sepia flecked apparitions swirling about them endlessly. Four singed kaleidoscopes and one twitching, puling spider in the midst of a rouged-window amphitheater, watching the glass anxiously for their brother’s messianic hand prints.