“It’s been cold for weeks.” Philemon shivered as he shook his foot dry again, chafing his arms for warmth. The water gleamed dark and glassy.
Le Vieux said nothing.
Philemon chanced a few steps closer, trying to angle himself to catch Le Vieux’s eye. “I’ve never seen it go on this long,” he said. “Have you?”
“I’d ask Aurora if I saw her, but she’s so hard to find.” Maybe if he filled in the silence with words, he’d get the answers he wanted. Even if he wasn’t fully clear on the questions. “The zebras are skittish, too. It’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“The theatre is empty."
Philemon startled – he wanted an answer but hadn’t really expected one. He tried to follow Le Vieux’s gaze, but the way ahead was thick with mist, hazy and indistinct. Somewhere beyond it hung the vast red curtain, but that was all. There was nothing else to see.
Le Vieux sighed and turned, gripped Philemon pityingly by the shoulder, then hobbled away.
The wind had changed and the Innocent suspected the Trickster had noticed too. It was unusual, he thought, the way the Trickster kept focusing out in the distance, eyes sharp and calculating. He looked at the Innocent like that sometimes, but then the tension would break like a spell and something would follow, some kind of scary and vicious and bright and lively delight. The Innocent could never assign a single word to those things. He supposed that was by design.
But increasingly, no delight followed. Not a new one anyway. He’d catch the Trickster staring and he’d shuffle his feet, maybe clear his throat, and the Trickster would turn his gaze on him again and flash a dazzling smile as though nothing were amiss. But anytime the Innocent tried to ask, he’d be tackled by the dog, or chimes would sound in the distance, and all at once a fresh flurry of color carried him far away from whatever preoccupation kept pulling at the Trickster’s attention.
“Don’t worry,” the Trickster eventually assured him in the tone that always made the Innocent worry. He settled an arm bracingly over his shoulders. “Everything is under control.”
The Innocent believed it. He couldn’t do anything else. By now he barely remembered a world in which the Trickster wasn’t in control. So when he looked over his shoulder again the next time the Trickster wasn’t paying attention, he really did try not to worry. The Trickster’s smile was tight and his focus was far.
“I’m going to find her.”
“You can’t leave now!"
"The hummingbirds have migrated, why can’t I?”
“For once just stay! Por favor,” the Crying Woman implored, taking the Running Woman by the hand. “This isn’t the same as always, this wasn’t their time and it’s not yours either! You don’t know what awaits you, mija.”
"Well I’m not going to find out if I don’t go see for myself.” The Running Woman slipped her hand out of the Crying Woman’s grip, but the shine in her eyes betrayed her anxiety. She wouldn’t meet the Crying Woman’s gaze. “What if it’s something better? What if it’s a change? Someone has to fetch her and we can’t assume anyone else will.”
“It doesn’t have to be you,” the Crying Woman said softly. Tears threatened to spill. “We need you here, we need you to come back.”
“I will,” the Running Woman promised, and in a flutter of wings she was beside her again, gentle and soft and redirectable as the wind. “I always do. Here and there and back again, para siempre. ¿Recuerdas?”
The Crying Woman didn’t have the words. This was the only time they failed her, in this eternal coming and going, the time she needed them most. But still they stayed locked in her throat. All she could do was let her go and wait for the butterfly to flit back. Pray the wind would be in her favor.
“Please have faith,” the Running Woman said gently. “Isn’t that what she’s supposed to be? Faith made real?”
“You really don’t have to,” Bella Donna said for the look of it. Klara was abuzz with protest before she could even even get the words out of her mouth.
“Nonsense, nonsense, it’s no trouble at all.”
“I don’t want you to catch anything.”
Klara’s laugh chimed high and clear as she fretted around the living room, fluffing pillows here and rearranging coffee table books there. The low lamplight tarnished her silver bearings with gold. “I’ve never gotten sick, never even once.”
“Ugh, you’re a treasure.” Bella Donna sniffed thickly and accepted a steaming cup of tea from Klara, who added a generous dollop of honey without having to be asked. “It’s dreadful, I swear. How was Nico?”
“Wheezy.” At last Klara settled in a chair opposite Bella Donna’s couch, her spoon clinking delicately as she stirred her own tea. “But he’s always like that. His spirits were high.”
Bella Donna sighed her relief and sipped her tea – warmth bloomed in her chest and her aching bones relaxed whatever tension they kept insisting on holding. “Bless you, Klara. The perfect hostess no matter the setting.”
And she was. From the tea to the soup that followed to the constant insistence that Bella Donna couldn’t be a burden if she tried, Klara was the only person in the world Bella Donna would want to see her in such a state. When at last she convinced Klara that she was fine, she would take a nap and surely turn the corner tomorrow, she pressed a hand to her heart.
“Thank you. I’m so glad you came. Bring Cheri some of that tea when you see her, would you? It’ll soothe her voice.”
“Oh dear, good thinking.” Klara nodded as she bustled about, clearing up the dishes, her mind already whirring onto her next visit. “Wouldn’t want her to be out of a job! Have you heard?”
“What are you talking about?”
Klara lit up with the glow of unshared gossip. “Oh, this will cheer you! You’ll never guess–- she looks so different this time–-"
"They said shelter in place!”
They dove as one whole unit; caught up in the fray, Waz could hardly tell who they were trying to drag away from the door amid all the grabbing and yelling and laughing. He extracted himself at last, gasping for air, and shook his head at the heap of color and life that carried on wrestling itself into a tangle.
It became such a frequent game that Ela started keeping a scoreboard. How long could each Free Spirit last before they were pulled back to safety? The last time Waz tried his luck he lost a few feathers for his trouble, so he took to filming the chaos instead. His footage came out shaky and out of focus from laughter.
After that, and of course after dinner, they laid in a heap on the ground like they did most nights until one by one they crawled into beds or hammocks or whatever other sleeping space they’d made for themselves. Limbs criss-crossed over limbs, heads rested on stomachs, fingers played through braids. Lots of times Waz didn’t know who he was closest to until he sat up. The loft felt close and warm.
He thought about what it might be like if one by one they disappeared. Maybe it would be as easy as wandering off to bed, only they wouldn’t stumble out again the next morning. Maybe he’d be left alone again. Or maybe he’d be one of the ones to drift off first, never to know what became of the rest. The thought gripped his throat and chest, tight enough to choke, so badly it got hard to breathe.
Ela heard him fighting it and settled beside him. She carded her fingers through his feathers until his breath evened out once more.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Under her touch, surrounded by the gentle snores of the other Free Spirits, it seemed like a small price to pay for the little life they’d carved for themselves. It wouldn’t be his first choice, but maybe it would be his second.
A familiar tune found his ears, warm and sweet. Perhaps Ela had sung it before. He couldn’t catch the words, too exhausted to focus, but it steadied his breath and carried him to sleep at last.
“What song was that?” he asked blearily, rubbing his eyes the next morning. “The one from last night.”
“Hm?” Ela was an early riser, already halfway through making breakfast for everyone else. She hardly looked up from the frying pan. “What song?"
"You know, when you were sitting with me. You’ve sung it before.”
Ela shrugged, nonplussed. “I wasn’t singing anything. Maybe you were dreaming. Do you want hot sauce with these eggs? You’re up first so I’ll make them your way before anyone else can complain,” she said with a wink.
“I saw her again,” Yujin murmured. Omare shifted in surprise.
“So did I,” came the rumble from the opposite wall.
“You didn’t see anything,” Omare sneered, flaring at the first opportunity, and even though Rensai’s eyes were covered he was surely rolling them.
“Heard her, then,” he growled.
“Don’t bicker,” Jimaya said for probably the fiftieth time. She leaned her head back against the wall with a sigh. Both of them settled back reluctantly, mirror images of irritation. Idiots.
“Wish you could crawl back to your mountain hovel,” Omare muttered just when Jimaya had dared relax again.
“Right, because I relish every waking moment spent in your infantile company––”
“Shut up, both of you,” Jimaya snapped, and both had the sense to look at least a little chastened. She huffed. “This is the arrangement until it passes, and I’m not going to spend it listening to you two leap at each other’s throats. Right, Yujin?”
Yujin nodded, but of course Rensai couldn’t see it so he flashed a sickeningly smug look in Omare’s direction, certain he’d won whatever competition they’d mutually dreamed up. If Yujin hadn’t been resting on Omare’s chest, Jimaya suspected her brother would have lunged.
“What did she look like?” Omare asked Yujin at last, still glaring across the narrow room at Rensai.
“Bright white. Like a star. She was out on the pagoda looking at the fish.”
“Did you call to her?”
Yujin shook her head. “I didn’t want to scare her off. She noticed me after a little while, and I think she was about to wave, but I blinked and she was gone.”
A shiver raced across Jimaya’s skin. Hope hung tempting and risky just out of her reach. “Did she say anything to you?”
Yujin shook her head again but Rensai filled in for her.
“Whatever she has to say, it’s nothing we can understand.”
“How do you know?” Omare asked, eyes narrowed.
“I’ve heard her sing.”
The White Clown didn’t expect to miss the noise until silence set in. After that it was days upon days of blank monotony. He rearranged his home, lit candles, and paced over every inch of floor, wall, and ceiling available to him. Never in his life had he resented routine so much. The feeling came as something of a betrayal, foreign and unwelcome, as though a friend had suddenly turned on him.
His neighbors must have felt the same. They leaned out the windows, calling across to one another and sharing what little news they had to report for the day. Two homes on opposite sides strung a wire between their windows: the occupants took turns walking halfway across to the delight of the neighborhood, high above the cobblestones below, though they never went the full distance across. Inspired, another pair took to juggling across the street to one another, the silver clubs catching the sunset in brilliant flashes of gold. The White Clown beamed with pride. They knew how to take care of themselves. Community wasn’t so easily quashed.
In the evenings when it was too dark to juggle or wirewalk, the street turned to song instead. It began with just a few homes, never in the same place twice, but carried on down the street like candles flickering to life from one to the next. By the time it coursed around the corner and out of his sight, the song was one unified sound, the words lost to enthusiasm and desperation and gratitude, and it took everything in the White Clown to hold back his tears. He joined his neighbors at his window and listened. Ever the observer, never the participant, always the conductor.
So when the moment was right, when his heart was full to bursting, he beckoned and she came. The White Clown was so accustomed to having to wrangle his actors, so infrequently did they do exactly as they were asked, that when she arrived without fuss he could hardly believe it. She looked different than he’d seen her last but still there was no mistaking her as she walked calmly down a street that had stood empty for weeks upon weeks, arms outstretched to the world before her. Her song poured forth like quicksilver, light and fluid, seeping into every crack and cobblestone and flushing it through with light.
It was a song he knew, one they all knew, here on this street and far beyond, places the White Clown had visited or heard of or could never have even dreamed up if he tried. Whether they knew her language or not, the words called to them all like a lullaby, one nearly lost to the years behind them. But the White Singer and her song were a constant. Harbingers of change and rebirth. His old friend locked eyes with him, gifted him with a knowing smile, and with her glance came an encouragement and lightness he hadn’t felt in weeks, maybe even years. He let it fill him up, and as she continued her measured pace down the street, he wondered where else she had been and where she still had yet to go.
The entire street chorused her refrain behind her. They leaned out to see her, some shielding their eyes from her brilliance, some whispering the words with their fingers pressed over their mouths, awed.
“There is a love in me raging, Alegría. A joyous, magical feeling.”
People poured into the streets. Rensai winced against the light and the rest of them stared at him in shock. Waz won the game and wrenched the door open. Bella Donna burst into the saloon with a flourish, brandishing her drumsticks and a winning smile. The wind bore the Running Woman back home again. The Trickster rounded on the Innocent, clocked him on the head with his wand, and twisted out of reach with a laugh.
Beyond the curtain, Philemon could swear he heard the murmur of an audience.