Looking back, no-one could remember when the clown first appeared on the corner by the park. Everyone agreed that it was sometime last spring and, weather permitting, she came a few times a week until the leaves fell from the trees and the days grew cold and crisp. Many would say that she had come even when the weather was wet and dreary, remembering her specifically because she had brightened their day. It was a busy corner, one of those places that truly took the pulse of a city. Here the park, the financial district, a sprawling teaching hospital, a university campus and a historical neighbourhood where gentrification occasionally tried to exert an influence but never really took hold, all came together. It was an interesting place, a place filled with movement and prosperity, punctuated by the resting, often slumped, posture of both the poor and tired and the well-off and tired. A place imbued with noise and distractions, focused intentions, lazy dreams.
In the absence of pictures, the descriptions of the clown often differed. Everyone remembered the flower painted across one eye and the spray of foliage along the other and down the side of her face, but were rarely in agreement as to which side they inhabited. Some remembered an inky, indigo background sprinkled with small lavender diamonds that caught the sunlight and sparkled. Others remembered the neon pink lips (a shockingly perfect match to her gloves) or the white dot of a nose. Some talked about her hodgepodge outfit that left a mixed feeling of circus punk and formality trailing in the air behind her. Usually, if one gathered up all of the impressions that lingered over the course of the day, they would come together to form a reasonable approximation of her look.
She arrived with a large rucksack slung over her shoulder. Even with her costume and makeup, one could be forgiven for mistaking her as part of the crowd. She carried herself calmly and in a way that suggested she was passing through to somewhere more important. Never would you have guessed that the corner by the park was where she had always intended to be. It seemed that there was no particular pattern or rhythm to how and when she chose a specific location. Sometimes she would stake out the same spot for days. At other times, weeks would go by before she returned to one that she had previously used. Once she had chosen, the performance (if that is what you wish to call it) would begin.
Suddenly, her manner would change. She would remove the sack from her back and place it on the ground. Standing behind it, so that her face could be seen by all those around her, she would close her eyes and take a deep, slow breath, relaxing her shoulders and planting her feet firmly on either side of the bag. When she opened the sack and looked inside, she gave the impression of feeling surprised by what she found there. With muted wonder she would pull out each item, placing it carefully near her feet. A loosely rolled felt cloth, forest green, the size of a small blanket. Two compact foldable camp stools. A tiny, barely knee-high, sandwich board painted amethyst purple with yellow lettering, the colour of sunflowers. A black velvet bag, heavy with something about the size and shape of a soft ball that spread and bulged earnestly when it was placed on the asphalt.
Her movements were careful and theatrical, but never exaggerated, sprinkled with expressions of delight and satisfaction. She unfurled and smoothed the green felt and positioned the two stools on it, facing each other, approximately one metre apart. The sandwich board was placed either to the left or the right of the felt. If ever anyone discerned the algorithm that determined its location, they did not say. It seemed to orbit the space without ever really following a path. The lettering could now be plainly read, “The I-See-You-Clown – Please sit.” And below that, a small inset sign that could be slid to one side and removed, which, at a moment like this, read, “Closed.”
The clown would sit on the stool facing the crowd and, with a deliberate meditative gesture, turn to pick up the black velvet bag. By this point, she had an attentive audience made up of those who knew what was coming as well as those who were simply passing by that day, drawn to the colour and silence of the spectacle. Always, there were some who watched, surprised to discover that they were holding their breath.
She would hold the black velvet bag to her heart. Closing her eyes once more, she would breathe slowly and silently. Sometimes barely a minute would go by, sometimes it would be closer to three or four, but always, she would sit and breathe. Always, those who watched would exhale more deeply than they expected to and those who rushed past would find that they needed to look away, lest they too slow down and get caught in the moment.
When she was done doing whatever it was she did, the clown would smile gently and open the bag with relish. Delight dancing in her deep brown eyes, she would slowly spill the contents of the bag in a semi-circle around her feet, across the felt mat. Marbles. Marbles of all sizes and colours would dance and roll and push against each other until they settled. Waiting. For that is the only word anyone who ever saw them could use to describe the way they sat there: waiting. Then the clown would reach out to the sandwich board, slide the “Closed” sign, flip it over and return it to “Open.” She would place her hands in her lap, lower her gaze to the marbles, the mat, or the centre of the universe (one of these, surely) and she would wait.
Sooner or later, someone would be brave or foolish or curious enough to sit on the stool across from the clown. As they sat there, perhaps they thought about a moment from their childhood, or that their feet hurt, or that this was a strange but welcome diversion from their busy, busy day. Whatever it was, they would find their thoughts softening into the moment, as the clown waited, like the marbles, for a beat, and then another.
Slowly, the clown would raise her eyes from somewhere far below, to the hands of whoever sat before her. From there, without stopping, her gaze would rise to their neck, their chin, their face. Finally, as if she never really expected it, as if the human who sat before her was utterly a surprise and yet completely welcome, the clown’s gaze would meet that of the person sitting on the stool across from her. And she would smile.
Emanating as it did from that surreally painted face, the smile could not be said to be a normal or even beautiful one. It was enchanting. It reached right into the heart of the one being seen and held it warmly. It seemed to speak volumes, yet the clown remained silent. In fact, she never spoke a word. Ever. Her actions were dictated by impulses invisible to observers. Sometimes she would lean in conspiratorially; at other times, she would raise her hands in praise to some unseen deity, or lean back and look upon the person before her as if they were both in on some private joke. Unquestionably, she indicated the need for their continued attention. Patience, her gestures would say, there is something mysterious hiding here and I may need some time to find it.
Then, she began to search among the marbles at her feet, occasionally looking from the person to the marbles and back again, as if to compare or contrast, but her search would go on. When the clown found the marble she was seeking, she bent for it with a mix of joy and gravity, enthusiasm veined through with something of the sacred. The marble was plucked from the green felt as if taken from some long-ago pagan altar.
The clown held the marble for a moment, precious and shining with meaning, like a pearl in its oyster’s shell. At this moment, she always paused to confirm that she had chosen the right piece. Moving her gaze from it to the person in front of her, and back to the marble, she invited them to look into its depths. They did, with uncomplicated longing. What was it about this colour, this exact marble, that had managed to capture their essence? It was tempting to shake it all off at that moment. Sometimes it happened. Some might get this far into the arrangement and abort it altogether. From time to time, they jolted from their stool as if an eject button had been pushed. Or they might simply scoff and scowl, rising from their place with disdain for the clown or themselves. Most were enraptured by what was happening to them, between them. For most, the act of sitting down was agreement enough.
And so, they fell sweetly into the invitation to look at the marble nestled in the clown’s day-glo pink gloves. Their breathing slowed and deepened. Their world grew quiet, or at least quieter; time stretched and twisted into something less linear and organized than they usually understood it to be. The clown, the marble and the person all hung there together, while the galaxy spun them at dizzying speeds. In the space between one heartbeat and the next, the clown would take the marble between her fingers and offer it, placing it into the hands of the one who sat across from her, folding their fingers around it and looking again into their eyes. A simpler and reassuring version of the smile would pass between them. It must be said that by this point, many would start crying. If they needed to, she would let them sob for a while, holding their hands around their marble. Never making a sound, never saying a word, she would wrap them in silence. Whether cleansed with tears or otherwise, eventually each person would realize it was time to get up and go on with the day. Occasionally, that was harder than they ever thought possible.
And the clown would go on. One person, then another and another. She would see them until she couldn’t see any more. She arrived following the currents of time as she sensed them and she would leave the same way, packing up just as slowly and deliberately. Sometimes people would insist on giving her money and she would take it graciously, putting it in her pockets. Marbles cost money, after all, someone would say. She never held out a hat, never asked to be recompensed for her labours. She would walk off into the busy city. Silent, with a face full of flowers and stars, she would disappear.
Maybe something happened that the clown did not expect. It would begin with those who had sat on her stool. They found it increasingly difficult to return to work, growing restless and dissatisfied. Eventually, they arranged to take all of their vacation days and then an extended leave of absence. They bought face paints and a collection of odd clothes. And yes, they bought bags and bags of marbles. Out into the city, they would go each day, walking for hours, their pockets full of marbles and a sign hung around their neck that read: If you stop, I will see you.
Eventually, there were clowns of different shapes and sizes wandering throughout the city. When the story was taken up by the national media, when tourists returned home with marbles and stories of magical clowns, the phenomenon grew larger. Strangers and friends began to take random moments with each other, exchanging small tokens, looking into each other’s eyes and saying, “I see you.”
Or maybe none of this happened, because on the first day the clown returned home, her body ached from the strain of it all. She wiped the makeup from her face and sat hunched over, on a waterproof stool, in the shower. She sat because she was too weak to stand and afterwards, she lay on the bathmat for almost 30 minutes, unable to do anything more than breathe and rest. When she was dressed in clothes that were comfortable – clothes that would neither lay heavily nor irritate – she returned to her room and crawled into bed with two heating pads. Despite timing her medications well and ensuring that she had enough food and water, her body was signalling its fierce objections. She had known her illness would not tolerate the activity in the long run, but she had hoped for more than one day. She had hoped for something doable if unpredictable and difficult, at least. But the wild force inside her would not be appeased. She knew that now. It had been worth trying though. It had been worth whatever pain and weakness, whatever flare-up of symptoms, she was now facing. It had been worth it.
Or maybe not even this much had happened. Maybe she was too weak and sensitive to even try, no matter how worthy the endeavour. Maybe the illness she lived with was too well known to her by the time the vision had come to even permit serious consideration. Maybe all she had was the ability to write about it and hope that the spirit of the thing would have meaning. Perhaps between the writing of the words and the reading of them, something of the vision’s magic could take hold and the reader would know that she was gazing at them as the clown would have. The same stretching and twisting of time, the same embrace of silence and space, might wrap them both in its mystery. Like dolls nesting one inside the other, the reader would open to reveal the writer, the writer opens onto the illness, untamed, in harmony with nature. The illness unveils a clown with flowers and stars painted on its face. The clown opens to a marble, the universe glowing at its centre.