Joanie loved her gramps, but she most certainly did not love clowns. Still, as she sat against the wall of the playroom that her grandfather had made for her, she held onto the little clown doll with the dark fuzzy hair at the sides of his head, the tiny purple hat on his bald head, the blue shirt, and the red pants, and the ever-smiling face.
She waited for him to answer her questions.
Joanie closed her eyes and tried to think of all the things that reminded her of her gramps. Like telling one of the many goofy jokes he taught her. Like hearing the crickets chirping outside her window, which reminded her of the story he would tell her, of why the crickets chirp. He told her that in the natural world, crickets chirped to find mates, so they could get together and keep making more crickets. But in the magical world, the world that existed right beside the natural world, the crickets chirped to keep away malicious spirits.
That’s how it started, years ago, when Joanie was a little kid, maybe four years old. That’s how Gramps began teaching her about the magical world.
“There is the magical world and the natural world,” he would say. “They need each other and they balance each other. Once upon a time, they were wide open to each other. Most of the gateways that were once open between the two worlds are closed now. They should stay that way, until we are prepared for them to open again. Because there are wonders in the magical world. But there are also horrors. Sometimes, though, some of those gateways will open.”
“Like on Halloween?” Joanie once asked. She knew to ask the question after hearing the story a few times. She learned to ask the same questions every now and then, because Gramps would give the same answer, but with a little extra when she asked again.
“Is that the real reason why people wear costumes? So they can hide from the bad stuff that comes through the gateways?”
“Wearing a mask against the darkness does not always protect you.”
“What about guards? Isn’t anyone guarding the gateways?”
“Funny you should ask that,” Gramps said. They were in his living room and he glanced up at the mantel over the fireplace, where there were a few knickknacks arranged. One of them was a little clown doll.
That was the time Gramps told Joanie the story of one such guardian, the one who summoned laughter.
“The Summoner of Clowns,” Gramps called him.
Gramps explained that there were many kinds of things that came through many different kinds of gateways. Most of those things were harmless. Some things were wondrous. Some were terrible. One of those terrible things was what he called the “white shadows.”
The white shadows fed on human happiness, and as they drained joy, they would leave behind sorrow. After years of misery, years of being hollowed out, a person afflicted by a shadow would perish of sadness. The white shadows were like disease. Sometimes they spread. But not always. Sometimes they afflicted a single family for generations until every line of that family withered and died, sucked dry of all light and joy.
One man realized what the white shadows were and what they were doing, and he found their weakness. The white shadows consumed joy, but they could not bear great bursts of joy all at once. They could not bear laughter. It could not drive them off forever, but it would fend them off for as long as it lasted.
When a family or town was stricken with the white shadows, laughter was impossible to come by. This man struck upon an idea. He would summon people from outside of the family or the town to perform short plays and diversions meant to provoke laughter. To protect these others from being afflicted themselves, the man hid their faces and forms behind bright colors, and he hid their names behind one name, the name of their new profession, clown. The bright colors that hid them from the white shadows were also meant to provoke joy and cheer. So the white shadows were driven off, and would stay away so long as the clowns remained.
And so the man came to be known as the summoner of clowns.
When the world was younger and there were white shadows everywhere, clowns too were everywhere, singing, joking, tumbling and tripping, summoning laughter in the direst of times, when there was no other reason to laugh.
“I don’t know about any other family’s story. I only know about our own.” Gramps said with a solemn expression the very first time he told Joanie the story of their family’s connection to the white shadows. He rolled up the sleeves of his red checkered shirt and Joanie sat up straighter and focused. Grammie was still alive then. Joanie remembered the scent of berries and the funny, high-pitched giggle that her grandmother had.
Joanie would hear the story many more times over the years, and each time Gramps would add some grimmer details.
Their family had what might be called a legacy. Going back several generations, there were always clowns in the family of different kinds. Harlequins, jesters, and fools. Bright colors splashing their clothes, marking their faces. Most modern family members thought it was just a strange and interesting part of family history.
But there were always a few at the least who were aware of the truth. There were always a few who knew why there were clowns.
How it happened was not certain. Family records were incomplete. There were rumors of a curse, of someone foolishly tampering with forces that no human being should tamper with. The family developed its own connection with the magical world, its own gateway. Through that gateway came affliction. Through that gateway came the white shadows, bringing nightmares so vivid that sometimes the person having them would become lost in them. It was not horror and terror that marked these nightmares, but terrible sadness and despair.
After clowns became commonplace, families afflicted with white shadows would appoint protectors from within their kin, often the jolliest among them, the comical to counter the grave. Joanie’s grandfather was a jolly man; for a while he even worked as a clown himself. The burden of protecting his afflicted family had passed to him without his knowing. Wars had taken his grandfather and father from him before they could tell him. His grandmother too passed when he was a young child. Only his mother was left, and all she had to give him was the strange collection of antique clown puppets.
When he was a young man, Gramps learned about his family history, about the clowns and the legends of a curse of sadness from aunts, uncles, and distant cousins. Recent generations believed that the family was afflicted with mental imbalance. Gramps told Joanie that there was a period in his life when he thought so too. He was troubled by dreams that dragged him into great despair for no reason he could perceive. And there were periods in his life when he thought the difference didn’t matter, because there was no “cure” for either magical or natural illnesses of the mind.
He had inherited a pristine collection of clown toys. One day, desperate for some relief from his crippling nightmares, he went through the collection, and he came upon something that truly made him question his sanity.
A small doll, with a purple hat on a bald white head, dark puffs of hair stuck to the sides of his head, blue button-down shirt, red pants, and an ever-smiling face.
The doll spoke.
He told Gramps all about himself. His name was Persimmon. He explained what was giving Gramps his nightmares, making him wake feeling drained of life, sapped of will, and dizzied by apathy. He explained why it felt as if something or someone were drinking all the joy and happiness out of him. Because something was. The white shadows.
Persimmon had been a magical creature once, more mischievous than malicious, according to him. As punishment and penance, he was cursed to inhabit the body of the toy clown and protect seventeen generations of a family that was afflicted with white shadows. It would be his path to redemption.
It took a long while, a lot of searching through family history, and many visits to many doctors, but Gramps eventually became convinced that he was sound of mind. That Persimmon was who he said he was, a creature punished to be bound to the form of that doll until he had succeeded in protecting the family. If the family were to perish before his sentence was done, Persimmon would perish with them.
Then came the day that Gramps introduced Joanie to Persimmon the clown. She was eight-going-on-nine.
When the clown first spoke, to introduce himself, Joanie started then frowned.
“How can you talk without a mouth?” she asked.
“Magic,” the toy clown said.
He had a gruff but young-sounding voice. He was propped against the wall. Gramps sat nearby, but merely watched and let the two get acquainted.
Joanie leaned toward the doll. “What do you really look like?”
“This is what I really look like.”
“Really?” Joanie frowned. “Do you have to look the way you do?”
Gramps couldn’t help but to chuckle then as the toy clown began to mumble under his breath.
“Sorry, Pers. My granddaughter isn’t too fond of clowns.”
“You can’t even move,” Joanie said. “How can you help us fight the white shadows?”
“You can’t fight a white shadow with your arms and legs,” Persimmon said.
“I know. Gramps already told me how. All I have to do is laugh.” To demonstrate, Joanie chuckled.
“It’s hard to laugh when you’re depressed,” Persimmon said. “That’s when they can come closer. That’s when they can get you, even if you’re not sleeping. That’s when I can protect you. Because I can laugh for you.”
Joanie crossed her arms and stared at the clown. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
“Have you ever wondered why you’re afraid of clowns?”
“I’m not afraid. I just don’t like them.”
“All right, fine. But there are people who are afraid of clowns. Why should that be?”
“It’s the white shadows’ doing. They find ways to influence the people in this world sometimes, instead of just drinking their happiness. Ever since clowns arose, they began putting images in people’s minds of clowns doing wicked things. Bright colors turning dingy. Kind eyes turning cruel. Laughter turning to snarls.”
He sighed so deeply that Joanie felt a touch of pity for clowns, or at least for Persimmon.
“We became associated with the very horrors we were trying to protect you from,” Persimmon said.
“You know, Pers. You’re not a real clown.”
Persimmon sighed again and began to mumble under his breath.
“Would the white shadows get you too?” Joanie asked. “If you couldn’t laugh?”
She did not know it, but Gramps had asked a similar question. He had asked many of the same questions she would soon ask Persimmon. But Gramps let the toy clown answer.
“They could probably get me if I didn’t laugh, but I can always find something to laugh about.”
“How? How can you laugh whenever you want to and mean it? Don’t you ever get sad or mad? How did you become a clown instead of something else?”
“I became a clown because it’s poetic justice to become the thing that you used to hate and fear.”
“Are you the reason our family is cursed? Were you the one who messed with things you weren’t supposed to mess with? Did you open the gateway? Is that why your punishment is to protect us?”
“No…but come to think of it, that would really be poetic justice.”
“Who put your spirit in the doll? Did you do it? How?”
Joanie frowned at the clown. She frowned at Gramps, who pressed his lips together and shrugged.
In the first year after meeting Persimmon, long before he became a grandfather, or a father, or even a husband, Gramps vowed to find a way to break the curse upon his family line, to sever the connection, to close the open gateway. He recruited Persimmon in his cause, for if the curse were broken, the spirit within the clown would be free of his penance. Others had tried before Gramps. Others had recruited help, help to cast spells, to seek out visions outside of their dreams, to alter their perceptions in the hopes of seeing the gateway, or even seeing the white shadows that passed through it into the dreams of their unwilling hosts. Persimmon had tried to help several other protectors, until he gave up and resigned himself to stay with the family through seventeen generations. Gramps failed as they all did.
But he kept trying all his life. Gramps put up wallpaper of clown faces that were always smiling and always watching. He had learned some nuances in the ways of clowning. In days long past, jesters would amuse and fools would tickle. But their aim was to make others laugh. Clowns were different in one regard. Clowns did not just aim to make others laugh. They too laughed, not in satire or weariness, but in earnest joy. They laughed when others could not laugh.
Gramps began to keep all the clowns he had inherited around himself as he sought ways of breaking the curse. In time, he met his future wife. She made him happy enough for his dreams to turn benign for a long while. All was well. He began to put away most of the antique clown collection, at least from the parts of the house where their entertained company. But then, his wife began having nightmares. She began feeling drained of life. She began looking haggard. And what was worse, it happened when she was pregnant with their first child. Joanie’s only uncle. All that while, Gramps had kept Persimmon close, but in his study. Persimmon warned Gramps to restore some of the other clown antiques to their places. They were only objects, spirit-less. But they served as barriers, like the walls of a house, or at least the walls of a tent.
Gramps did as he was advised. He even began to add to the collection. He bought a jack-in-the-box. He would play it when he saw that his wife was having a nightmare. The jack managed to fend off what was afflicting her, and when she grew well enough, Gramps’s own jolliness kept the white shadows at bay. But Gramps had to stay vigilant. They had their first child, then their second, and a third. Then fourth, but not least, Joanie’s mother. Gramps was in his forties by then. He was happy, and he was vigilant. He had to find clever ways to make sure his family did not get rid of the clown antiques and paraphernalia. No one was particularly fond of any of it. Aside from his regular job, he began working as a clown for some extra money, and also so he would be armored and ready. Life had kept him too happily busy to give his attention to the severing of the curse until his youngest child entered high school.
Gramps began his mission anew. He pesterd Persimmon until the toy clown helped him by remembering details of family history that were contained in no records. He grew older and older. His children had children, and while all of them loved him, only one of them stayed close. He began to teach little Joanie. Year after year, she learned and questioned. She too grew older.
Then it happened. His best reason for laughing, his most powerful guardian, left him. Joanie’s grandmother died. Joanie had just turned ten. Not too long afterward, Gramps grew ill and became bedridden. The nightmares returned. Saddening nightmares that were sucking the life out of him.
When Joanie was eleven-and-a-half, Gramps slipped into a coma. Joanie visited every day. She held his hand and tried to laugh, to ward off the white shadows that she could not see or feel, but sensed in the strange reflections that glinted off the food tray and the metal pole that held up all the stuff her gramps was hooked up to. She tried to laugh out loud. There was no power in her laugh. No joy in it. There was nothing to laugh about.
But she had to find a way to laugh. She was the next one. The next guardian of their family. The burden would pass to her just like all of Gramps’s clown stuff would pass to her. With sadness in his eyes, he had told her so. Gramps had not found a way to un-curse them. But he had protected his family with his laughter. And when he could not laugh, he had summoned the clowns.
Joanie went to the play room that Gramps had made for her. Laughing clown faces adorned the wallpaper. She sat barefoot and cross-legged against the wall, and pulled Persimmon into her lap. She told him, as she had for days, weeks, and months, all the things she had tried to help herself laugh. She remembered and told dozens of jokes to her grandfather that he had first taught her. She thought of funny and ridiculous things that had happened to her, like the time she was recovering from a cold and blew out the biggest and grossest booger she had ever seen. It looked like some kind of new sea creature. At last, in desperation, she had tried to tickle herself. None of it had worked. She thought she could actually see her grandfather wasting away. And that only made her more miserable.
They sat in silence for a while. Joanie just wanted to be sad that she was losing her gramps, without feeling guilty for feeling sad. She couldn’t save him just by laughing. But she still felt guilty.
“I can’t make myself pretend to be happy,” Joanie said, more to herself than to anyone. But Persimmon answered.
“No one should ever pretend to be happy. That’s weird.”
“No it’s not. People pretend because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or their own feelings. Didn’t Gramps explain all this to you?”
“We never spoke much, aside from planning the annihilation of the white shadows.”
“Can I cut your hair?”
“What! No, I don’t have much to begin with.”
“Will you miss Gramps when he’s gone?”
“Not really. I’ll probably see him again sometime, unless I fail in my penance.”
Joanie’s eyes widened. “So, there is life after death.”
“Something like that, provided you take good care of your soul while you’re alive.”
“What happens if you don’t?”
Persimmon didn’t say anything for a while.
“Do you turn into a white shadow?” Joanie asked. “Or one of the other bad things from the magical world?”
Still the toy clown did not answer.
“What happens to the souls of the people who die of sadness because of the white shadows? Do they have a life after death?”
And still, Persimmon said nothing. He was only ever silent when the answer to her question was something he thought she was too young to hear. (Or when he was asleep.) That’s why she would ask him the same questions every now and then, just like she had done with Gramps. Before, Persimmon relied on Gramps to tell him when Joanie was ready for a specific answer. Once Gramps was gone, Joanie would have to find another way to show the toy clown when she was ready for the truth.
“Persimmon, tell me again. How do we break this curse on my family?”
At last, he spoke. “You have to find a way to laugh forever.”
“I think that might be impossible.”
“Then you might just have to settle in and prepare to fight for the rest of your life.”
Joanie sighed, closed her eyes, and bowed her head.
“You won’t be alone,” Persimmon said.
“I know.” Joanie opened her eyes and frowned down at him. “That’s why I’m bummed.”
Persimmon started laughing. He laughed and he laughed. Joanie stared at his still and smiling face. His laughter didn’t sound creepy and clowny. It sounded like regular laughter. Joanie started smiling, reluctantly, then giggling. Soon, she was laughing with him.
Unbeknownst to them both, Gramps passed on in that moment, carried into the afterlife on waves of his granddaughter’s laughter, carried beyond the clutches of the enemy that had afflicted him throughout his life. Persimmon suspected something when he sensed the swirling of restless and thwarted spirits around the brightly colored, clown-filled room. And he laughed all the harder, knowing that the white shadows were swirling around Joanie, because they had failed to capture her grandfather. Persimmon’s laughter held them off, but Joanie’s laughter chased them off.
Joanie would protect her family now. She would be the jolliest among them. But she would not always be able to laugh. Unlike Persimmon, she would sometimes be sad, sometimes angry, sometimes scared. In those times, he would protect her. He would laugh for her.
And he would hope for her. He would hope that she be the one to break the curse. That she would guard her family with more than a collection of lifeless antiques. That she would do more than become a clown, or even gather a troop of clowns. That she would do what none of her ancestors before her had done. That she would become a true summoner of clowns. A summoner of laughter forever.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Summoner of Clowns” by Sanjay Patel.