Two Tales of Terror - EXCERPT
Bela was the king. Everyone knew that. What was this sturgeon head going on about? Retire? Take on an apprentice, not another assistant but someone to eventually replace him? Never, he was Bela, king of the circus, the great Bela, Bela the clown.
Urdung mumbled on, as owners do, about revenues and attendance. That was of no concern to the great artist. Yes, Bela would admit, the boy was nimble, not as nimble as he had once been, but nimble. Yes, he would admit that this boy had an aptitude
“Add him to the cast,” Bela had said. “Add him to my retinue. He can paint his face with teardrops and wear baggy shoes. Perhaps he can do a fall or a tumble. Yes, the audience loves to see a young clown tripping over his own feet.
“But my replacement? My understudy? No, not him. I am Bela, king of the circus, the great Bela, Bela the clown who overcomes death.”
Urdung, knowing this was hardly true, muttered, “But people no longer laugh at your act.” Fewer came, but they still laughed. Who does not want to laugh at death?
“Clowns are not funny,” Bela had once said; “we are the embodiment of terror, the terrors hidden in the heart. Of loneliness, futility, helplessness, rejection; and I, Bela, am the embodiment of death. People do not laugh at my costume or my paint. It is not my great gold nose or my pointed shoes with their bells they come to see. If I used red instead of black to form the triangles on my white face, it would not matter.
“It is my death and resurrection that matters. If they cannot be guaranteed a seat in Heaven, if they cannot be sure of resurrection, they can for a few kopecks come to the circus and laugh.”
Andropov, that professor from Krakow, had nodded his head and had furiously taken notes. Had he written that fine paper? Had it been published for all the great minds to read? Bela did not know. And if it had, Bela would not have read it; Bela did not know how to read.
As a child, Bela had not been a good student. “Oh, his mind is quick,” the headmaster had said, “but his mouth is quicker. He is the clown always. Playing to the audience with a tumble here and a pratfall there. Joking, joking—never serious. The teachers don’t want him in the classroom; they send him to me—to sit on the bench outside the office. Even there he does not sit quietly. He shows no remorse. He shows no respect. He plays the fool for the secretaries, the visitors, and especially the other children who are told to sit on the bench.”
Scoldings did not help. Beatings did not help. The priest spoke to him. “You will die and go to Hell!”
Bela made a face and began to melt, to act as if he were melting, in the awful flames. He writhed and shrank into himself, all the time screaming, not in terror but with shrieked laughter and exclamations of make-believe pain. Then, when he had collapsed into a heap on the floor, he rose again, in silence, as if a phoenix from his own ashes, until he stood on his tiptoes, reached up so that his hands could touch the top of the priest’s head. “And I condemn you to Heaven,” he proclaimed to the priest’s and his parents’ horror.