No one remembered when the first clown had arrived, smelling of fried dough. It hadn’t seemed like an occasion to mark. Someone is having a birthday party, they thought, or they’re part of a school play. But then more clowns came.
The townspeople consulted one another: Excuse me, did you order a clown? Of course not. It wasn’t you either? Every day, they appeared by the clownbusload, a crowd of them at the transport terminal with their short pants and their overstuffed trunks. They adjusted their noses in the reflection of the aluminum siding of the special buses they arrived on—buses which the people of the town were not allowed to leave by—and took off with the kind of militant determination available only to very single-minded people with absurdly large shoes.
Clowns were not new to this or any town (there are people in every tuck of the world receiving clowns), but these were dancing clowns. And the more the people tried to say they were just going to work or school, or just going to chuck rocks over the Fence—which was, to them, like throwing pennies in well—and could they just get on with it? the more determined the clowns were to make them laugh.
The dancing clowns operated according to the Mandate of Laughter: “To make the world’s miserable laugh.” The town was known as the toughest place to clown in the Miserable World because the clowns’ Mandate was impossible to fulfill.
Here, the kind of guffawing laughter practiced by the clowns, and by most people, had long been phased out of practice. Audible laughter is a social invitation issued to bring people together. But togetherness is a problem in a town where a square populated by a crowd of laughing people could turn quickly into silent rubble—a town experiencing frequent changes.
It was not that the people in the town had no sense of humor, it was simply that the nature of their laughter had changed in volume and physiological process. You see, the people of the town laughed psychically. This evolution allowed them to communicate laughter across great distances.
This was unacceptable to the dancing clowns. The expulsion of audible laughter was a sacred gift of health and spirit essential to their Mandate, which they were failing. A scathing report on the Miserable World said so. It detailed their failure with facts and figures and very small percentages.
Some of the clowns resorted to underhanded tactics. They cornered the townspeople in dark alleys and held weapons to their throats. “Laugh,” the clowns commanded. “Don’t you know you must laugh, or you will die?” This is truly what they thought, for they laughed often, and they were alive and dancing. Well, the pistols all shot water, and the switchblades turned out to be combs. (Several townspeople had their Adam’s apples raked raw by comb teeth.) But it was whispered among the clowns that there was technology on the other side of the Fence that could make a person laugh.
Everyone wants to do what they think is a good job. The problem is that most people don’t ask the job “Is this good for you?” or “Do you consider yourself to be a job?” So, let’s say you were a dancing clown, and you believed in your Mandate above all, what would you do? To what desperate measures might you resort?
There was a boy in this town—call him Anything You Like, everyone else did—who wanted for things to simply remain the same. But this was an impossible wish because his town was always changing. Always going, people complained, from bad to worse.
Anything You Like—AYL for short, who has the time? was the smallest of six brothers who shared one cramped room in a houselet at the edge of town. Also in the houselet lived his mother and his father, a chippie vendor whom everyone still called Father Clementine, though his land had been fallow for years. There were two main roads in AYL’s town: the good road, along which vendors sold food and foam noses on their donkey carts, stray dogs searched for water, and children walked to school; and the rubble road, which was deserted and empty of all life. It is well known that every animal can be an omen, depending on its posture and the number of its company. The rubble road offers nothing in the way of prediction or future. Yet it was not born that way. It too had been a good road, lined with a television station and a kindergarten and a community center and a market. Until the elevation changed one day, and it turned into rubble.
On AYL’s birthday, his brothers took him along the rubble road to the field that ended at the Fence. Normally, there was nothing there aside from dried-up mud clumps and sun-faded red foam noses, but they had found something new: a rocket, which his brothers gave AYL for a birthday gift. It was a poxy little rocket, dusty and unspecial, but not spent.
“Fire it over the Fence,” they told him, “and we will make you the oldest brother for a day.” (The oldest brother could not object because he was under the floor of their houselet and could not come along.)
The brothers hated the place beyond the Fence because it was off-limits. Theirs was a special and confusing hate reserved for the places one has never been allowed to know. If they got too close to the Fence, a voice from the other side commanded: RETREAT. THE SPACE IN WHICH YOU ARE PERMITTED TO MOVE ABOUT HAS ENDED. RETREAT. OR WE WILL MAKE YOU. If the place did not exist, they would still not go, but not because they weren’t allowed. They didn’t think they would very much mind not going to a place that didn’t exist, which is why they wanted to make it gone with the rocket.
“Kneel,” they told AYL, and helped him steady the poxy little rocket on his shoulder.
“What am I aiming for?” he asked them.
“The sky,” said his brothers.
“But where does ours end?” He liked the sky, and he didn’t want to hurt it.
“Don’t be stupid,” said the brothers because they didn’t know.
And the poxy little rocket, for its part, thought how good it was there on the boy’s shoulder.
Well the rocket was a dud, of course, it had to be, and so the brothers left it where it failed to launch, but it had other methods of travel.
For several days and nights, the poxy little rocket hung around the back door of AYL’s houselet, sneezing and begging to be let it, until AYL smuggled it into his bedroom, where he hid it from his brothers.
The brothers slept in two pushed-together twin beds. It used to be that the sleeping shapes they arranged their twenty-four limbs into were very architectural. Some brothers slept columnally to buttress the canopy of bodies that formed vaulted arches and pendentive domes. They won many awards for synchronized sleeping. But that was before the oldest brother got caught in a change of elevation and went beneath the floor. Now they are no longer symmetrical, and they sleep helter-skelter, like a shaken box of matches.
AYL stashed the poxy little rocket under the brothers’ bed. He swaddled it in a shirt he had outgrown, and it began to take on his features. The rocket laid awake for several nights witnessing the changes to its form. Its boycoming was silent and undramatic: a slow loosening into its fleshy hull. On top of the rocket, five brothers, and below him, one more. These ceaseless murmurations of the under-brother were a comfort to him in this time of acute transformation.
Back when the oldest brother still slept with the others, he gave excellent advice, but now there were complications. He was AYL’s favorite brother no matter where he slept, but he had spent so long now underground that he no longer made sense in the usual way. You see, nothing was ever in a fixed position where AYL lived. Since things were always changing (getting low, becoming gone), the words that everyone spoke and wrote above the ground were practiced at adapting to the changing position of things. They could jump out of order and rearrange themselves after they’d been spoken. But under the ground was a constant place, and the brother’s words—now accustomed to fixedness—were disordered by the changing world of his brothers above.
The poxy little rocket, however, had no trouble understanding the under-brother. Inside his brain, he was not all boy, though he was getting closer. A good enough approximation that AYL could send the rocket to school in his place for poetry day, which he hated. It all sounded to him like his brother under the floor, mixed up and substitutional. A puzzle when he wanted only answers. On those days when AYL sent the rocket in his place, he spent his whole hooky day lying flat on his stomach with his ear pressed to the floor, listening to his oldest brother below. If he had been a rocket instead of a boy, he would have known what his brother was saying again and again: Get up, Get up, Get up.
Ever since his oldest son got low in a change, Father Clementine had grown sad and sluggish. He couldn’t hear the boy under the floor and thought he had become gone. Some sad days, Father Clementine only slept and watched clowning marathons on television and could not work. On such occasions, the brothers took turns manning his chippie cart in his place.
AYL used to hate the chore, but now he no longer minded because he had a twin to keep him company. AYL and the rocket swept the sidewalk in front of the houselet free of clown debris—chitter-chatter teeth and popped balloons and dropped brochures of all the places the clowns would rather be.
In the near distance, a single clown hovered, lost in thought.
A child skipped by and reached for the columns of shining plastic chippie bags, but her mother slapped her hand away: “It’s too early in the day.”
AYL and the rocket squinted up at the sun, which determined the correct time to begin eating chippies.
“What flavor do you think the sun eats?” said the poxy little rocket.
“Sun cream and onion!” said AYL and smashed a bag between his hands so that it went POP and the chips inside confettied the air. Then, attracted to the sound, a pot full of clown laughter went POP POP POP, loudening near. The insane colors of clown pants streamed into view, burning bright stripes into their vision.
A trio of clowns was having an argument:
“Absolutely not,” said the clown with the biggest shoes, then heaved an afterthought chuckle.
“Come now, Jacobo, look at her,” a less neon clown gestured to the hovering clown in the distance. “All alone like that. We clowns are supposed to have each other’s backs.”
“Haha your sympathy is touching, Pepe, but you look, too. And you, Mumpey. Tell me what you see.”
“She’s floating!” said AYL, who was also looking.
“She hasn’t got any legs!” blurted the rocket.
“That’s not very polite,” said the clown called Pepe, as he fiddled with the fit of his minuscule hat.
“Why not?” said the poxy little rocket.
The clown called Jacobo bourguignoned with laughter. “Hahaha, see? The boys understand,” he said. “That clown over there is legless, and we are dancing clowns.”
To demonstrate, Jacobo did a jerky squat-and-spring action, which the other two clowns were compelled to join. They moved like a triad of angry sentient plungers.
“And besides,” chortled Jacobo, still plunging, “what could possibly be funny about not having legs?”
“I, for one, think it’s very brave to clown against the odds,” said the clown called Mumpey, who was now quite breathless.
“What do you mean brave?” said Jacobo, his legs halting to a stop. “I have two dancing legs. Are you calling me a coward, Mumpey?” Jacobo cracked a huge grin and squirted ink from his boutonniere into Mumpey’s white face.
“Of course not,” Pepe stepped in. “I’m sure he thinks your legs are exceptionally brave.”
Mumpey doubled over and clawed at his ink-blasted eyes: “The very bravest!”
As the triad argued amongst themselves, the legless clown floated over to the chippie cart. She had a red nose, but it wasn’t foam, just painted. And she didn’t wear a wig. Her hair was pleasant—the exact color and texture of a large pile of wood shavings.
“I’m sorry, Madame clown,” said AYL, who had been instructed to be polite to everyone, even clowns. “We don’t sell clown goods, only chips. But if you take the good road to the center of town, you will find many there who do.”
The legless clown twitched her painted nose huffishly. “Oh, I don’t need any clown goods, thank you,” she said. “I am a good enough clown. Could I have a bag of tomato-flavored?”
They were not supposed to feed the clowns; it was not advised. But the poxy little rocket fetched her a chippie bag anyhow.
“Oh my,” said the legless clown. “A rocket! Why you look so very boyish! I’m Paeon.”
“How could you tell?” said AYL?
Behind them, the other clowns were embroiled in a dance battle. It was unclear who was winning.
“Actually, I’m almost a boy,” said the rocket who was indeed was.
“My mistake,” said Paeon. “Of course you are. You know, I was married to a rocket once.”
“Is that what happened to your legs?” said AYL.
“No,” said the legless clown. “I have bone cancer, and the doctor cut them off to stop the spread, but it isn’t done. I can still feel it changing me inside.”
Suddenly the rocket felt very sad, and his eyes, which had once been molecules of urea nitrate, began to leak.
“Where?” said the rocket, straining his leaking eyes to see the sites of change. “Where is it now?”
“Everywhere,” said Paeon.
“Do you miss how you were before?” asked the rocket.
It had never occurred to AYL that the rocket might miss being simply a rocket. AYL missed all sorts of things that used to be one way but were now another. Like how his mother and father used to put on soft music and talk late into the night. He missed hearing their voices sieve through the wall of his room. He missed the time when his under-brother made sense and slept above the floor. And he missed something else, too. Something he couldn’t name because he’d never had it.
Paeon shook her head and her wood-shaving hair bounced about. “I wasn’t a clown before I got sick. I’m glad I am one now.”
“I used to be a rocket,” the almost-boy told Paeon, “so I can see why you thought that.”
Paeon smiled but did not laugh. “Yes, I thought that might be the case.”
“What are you changing into now?” the rocket asked.
“Whatever comes after,” said Paeon, her red nose twitching unreadably. “Well, rockets or boys or somewhere in between, you two must look out for each other, especially in these changing times.”
“You there, lady clown. A word?” Jacobo called to Paeon.
Paeon scrunched up her nose and gave the boys a wink before floating over to the triad. “Yes?”
“Did that boy over there who is identical to the other boy say he’s a rocket?”
“No, he used to be one, but now he’s almost a boy.”
“Right,” said Jacobo, squeezing his foam nose in thought. “And uh, Haha, how long has he been a boy, exactly. Not too long?”
“I don’t know. I only met him today, same as you.”
“Tell me, does he seem of good Haha humor?”
“I would say so. No less than usual.”
“And does he laugh laugh?
“Of course he does, they all do.”
“What? Behind our backs?” said Jacobo, outraged.
“Boys,” Paeon called over to them, “Will you laugh for this clown?”
“He has to do something funny first,” said AYL.
“Haha It’s such a pity about your legs,” said Jacobo.
“But dancing is one of the great gifts, second only to laughter.”
“I have other gifts.”
Suddenly a bright and violent thing turned the air loud and changed the elevation, brought things low. Where once the boys and clowns were all standing, now they were all on the ground. It had happened north of them, too far away to see much but a cloud of dust. But where there once were tall apartments there, cafes, men on camel-back, now there were not. All were laid low.
Everyone checked themself for holes and for hurt, all of which was minimal. Only the legless clown retained her elevation. In a gesture of goodwill, she floated over to the others, as anyone might, to lend them a hand and help them to their feet. The boys felt safe in the shadow of her hovering body. Somewhere a child began to cry and then abruptly stopped, remembering that the same thing had happened only a few days earlier.
Paeon, the rocket, and AYL spent a great deal of time together after that. They were not natural companions: consider the differences in their species, age, and the number of limbs. But somehow, they fit together. Not easily, like puzzle pieces—but more like water, salt, and flour: completely unalike apart, but luck and work and a warm, sunny spot could make them strong and good and whole. Their days meandered like most people’s. A little thing happened that was mostly forgotten when the next little thing happened:
Paeon taught them about pen pals and encouraged them to write a letter. They liked pals, and pens were fine, so they decide to write one and paper airplane it over the fence.
“Hello!” It said:
“I am AYL and I am a rocket! Sorry he took my pencil. We are actually boys that’s what I meant and we live here, where do you live?? Please tell us all about it because we have never been anywhere but here. Do you have tons of annoying clowns? What chippy flavors do you have do you have gunpowder? Sorry he is always thinking that would taste good because he used to be a rocket and I’m like that was would taste sooo bad. Unless you have that where you are. Unless you’re a rocket too. Do you know where your sky ends and please describe how it is right now? What is the farthest thing away you can see? Is it us at the bottom of the world? Can you see us waving? Hiiiiii. Love, boys.”
The boys got a letter back. “DESIST,” it said:
“THE SPACE IN WHICH YOU ARE PERMITTED TO COMMUNICATE HAS ENDED. DESIST OR WE WILL MAKE YOU.”
Paeon grew weak. Travel left her breathless, so she floated in place and AYL and the former-rocket came to her. They liked to lay down and have Paeon float over them to see if they could feel where her legs would have been. “We can’t feel them!” they squealed in the shadow of her wood-shaving hair. And this not being stepped upon delighted them time and again.
AYL and the rocket played a game where they climbed up onto each other’s shoulders, made their bodies stiff, and said FIRE, the one below tickling the one above until they toppled. AYL imagined being on his under-brother’s shoulders as he held a lit match to the soles of the former-rocket’s feet, but he was nearly a boy now, and his feet only bleed. (Though not enough of a boy to know what pain was.)
Paeon bandaged the former-rocket’s feet. Her changes were coming very fast now. They made her gasp sometimes or cry a single clown tear. Even so, her hands worked deliberately but with a measure of gentleness. And she never tickled the former-rocket’s bare feet, not even on accident.
And so on until the poxy little rocket was a boy completely, AYL was less of one, and Paeon was gone.
“I hate the changes,” AYL sobbed to his brother under the floor. It was embarrassing to cry, but the former-rocket had left him, along with AYL’s brothers, to do boy things. And Paeon had left him to become whatever comes after. And he was all alone.
“It’s true what they say: bad to worse. No one ever gets more, they only get less, lower, gone.”
Under the floor, AYL’s oldest brother considered his youngest brother’s words.
“I wish the changes would get gone,” AYL said tearfully. “I wish they would all undo themselves and that everything would be just the same as it was before, the same as in the beginning!”
He couldn’t have known that the former-rocket had come back early from hucking rocks over the Fence to play with AYL. He couldn’t have known the former-rocket had his ear to the door of the brother room, that he was having his feelings hurt for the very first time. And oh! how it hurt the parts of him he couldn’t name. Were they bleeding? And who would bandage his feelings with Paeon gone? And then he was mad, so mad! How could boys feel so much so quickly? Mad at AYL, at Paeon, at his boycoming, so hot and boyrockety! But with no way to ignite, the only thing to do was run away hard. Who cares where? Nobody. Nobody. Nobody!
“You can’t undo the changes,” came the under-brother’s muffled voice.
It was the first time his words had made sense to AYL, and he wished they hadn’t. He laid face down on the floor and cried into a chink in the stone. In a magic story, this would bring his brother back above.
“You can’t undo the changes,” his under-brother said, “but you don’t have to change down.”
AYL wiped his nose on the floor. “But what else could I be?”
“Anything you like.”
The former-rocket, now-boy runaway woke up to find he was not in his usual waking place: the brother bed with five other warm boys. He was alone in a cold room so dark he was blind. And he was bound to a chair. He tried to call for help but his tongue was pinched in place by a metal device that clamped down more fiercely the more he tried to wriggle it away. The now-boy tasted foreign metal in his mouth, and the hot-salt bloom of his own tongue’s blood. A bad new feeling gripped him.
And then something warm and soft moved about his bare feet, brushing past his ankles and nipping gently at his toes. An odd comfort in the awful dark.
From the deeper shadows, a hail of giggles. The flop of very large shoes echoed into every corner. A balloon popped in the darkness sending forth an explosion of laughter shrapnel.
A moment later, the lights flared on. He was in a large warehouse teeming with clown props. Three horn toots heralded the approach of a very tiny bicycle, which careened into the now-boy’s view carrying the beetle-legged Jacobo.
“I just can’t resist a hilarious entrance!” the clown belted.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” said the boy.
“I never planned on boynapping, you must believe me. You’ve just put me in such a tragic position Haha.
The warm thing at the now-boy’s feet rubbed against his sole. It was soft and familiar, the exact color of wood shavings.
“But fear not!” Jacobo cackled, “I am not entirely bereft of my clowning sensibilities. I pulled that rabbit at your feet from a hat to keep you company while you slept. Usually a magician’s domain, but we do dabble.”
He proceeded to launch into a clown monologue, circling and circling the now-boy on his tiny bicycle: “I am a legacy clown. My family has been dancing clowns for as long as anyone can remember. My grandfather was Corgorgio the Wobbly—able to make filled performance halls puke with laughter simply by walking onstage. And my father showed equal promise. Everyone said he would have been Clownminister one day, but his life was Haha hilariously cut short in a clown car accident in Granada.” He honked his nose in tribute.
“I have honored his memory my whole life by making others laugh. I have clowned all over the Miserable World and brought such joy to the wretched of those places! I once cured a whole village of stage-four viral melancholy! That’s how delightful I am!
“But this place has challenged my disposition; I can admit that now. I have done a soft-shoe number with despair—I shudder to say the word; it’s forbidden to clowns. But no longer! When I heard about you and the peculiarity of your transformation, I knew I’d been presented with a golden opportunity.”
“Wah ngee?” [Why me?]
“Because you are miserable.”
“I’n nah” [I’m not], said the now-boy. “I’n a woy now.”
“You can be both,” said Jacobo. “Many boys here are. Now rocket—”
“Fine. Boy,” Jacobo agreed, “I need you to laugh. Like this: Hahaha!” he demonstrated. “As a new boy, it is my hope that you not yet have been indoctrinated into the perverse tendencies that rule the spirits of the people in this mirth-forsaken town, that you will be persuadable. So give it a try, boy!”
“Wuh I kanh lahs wih ihs—” the boy began to protest, but Jacobo eked an interruptive laugh.
“Oh ho! Hahahaha!” His face flushed red under his clown-white makeup turning him the chalky pink of antacid liquid. “Oh, I’m sorry, what were you saying? It’s just that you sound so hilarious when you try to speak with that clamp on your tongue.”
“I schled I kanh lahs wis ihs schling ing ny ngouph [I said I can’t laugh with the thing in my mouth].”
The rabbit bopped his ankle with its tiny nose, which was so vibrantly red it almost appeared painted. Then it threaded its whiskers between the now-boy’s toes, and he giggled in his head. He was very glad for this rabbit. Its tiny, happy whiskers a secret joke Jacobo could never know. Even the rabbit’s fur, its pleasant color, made him less afraid—almost giddy. The rabbit was also very funny. The now-boy’s head filled with psychic laughter. He had never met a rabbit before; were they all so funny, so familiar?
Jacobo frowned. “No matter, I bought the device in your mouth from the other side of the Fence. Their technology is really a marvel. Supposedly it can drag the laughter right out of you.”
Jacobo pulled a single-knob switchboard from his pocket and turned the dial until the small metallic whir of its awakening sped into a full and frightening buzz.
Or rather it should have been frightening. The hallmarks of terror were all present, but the rabbit was just so hilarious, and the jokes were so fast and the laughter so entirely head-filling that there wasn’t room for fear.
“Come on, boy,” said Jacobo. “Spit it out! HA!” he barked. “HAHAHA!”
“AHHH,” said the now-boy, who had begun to hover with the levity of his mind, which pulled the rest of his body like a helium balloon lifts its string.
“Blasted machine,” the clown yelped and did a very angry plunger dance. “If they sold me a two-bit piece of flimflam . . .” He cranked the dial from Gleeful to Side-Splitting, all the way to UPROARIOUS.
The now-boy’s laughter boomed silently. There was too much now for a single head, so he sent it to the townspeople. The wood-shavings-colored rabbit climbed aboard the boy’s lap as he rose, and Jacobo, preoccupied with his rage, re-mounted his tiny bicycle and rode furious laps around the warehouse.
From the good road to the Fence, the people of the town received the boy’s laughter in their minds. Gushing, filling, rising laughter. It sounded to each of them like the lightest, funniest thing they’d never heard, and before they could be alarmed, they had begun to lift off the ground—an imperceptible hover at first, a pleasant light-headedness—then true floating: hilarious, unafraid buoyancy, until even Jacobo began to lift off the seat of his tiny bicycle, his giant shoes hovering an inch above the petals.
The boy sent his laughter to the houselet that had fostered his boycoming: to Mother and Father Clementine, to the brothers above and below, and especially to AYL.
Everyone in the houselet hovered together. They swam through the air out the door so they wouldn’t be bound by the ceiling. All of the townspeople ascended together until they could see over the Fence. They could look down over the people and the town on the other side, and a voice called out:
DESCEND. THE SPACE IN WHICH YOU ARE PERMITTED TO, UH, RISE IS… THIS IS AN UNREASONABLE ELEVATION! But the townspeople’s ignored the voice. And when they were at a comfortable height, they basked in their weightlessness, returning to the ground only when they were ready.
AYL, however, did not stop rising. He liked up; he thought he’d go a little higher, and he liked the higher up even better, so he kept at it. And the now-boy kept laughing to him. The boy felt he could laugh to AYL forever. And AYL thought he’d like to be a big orange balloon in the sky, so he floated up to the sun.
The next morning, at dawn, it was AYL who rose over the town. He shone over everyone on both sides of the fence, but he shone in such a way to tell his townspeople that their sky did not end but extended as far as they could see and farther. For a sun, this is laughter.