Inquiring Minds

     The air was thick with the sound of grasshoppers as Clopin and I cuddled on the grass by the river. The summer evening was humid and the sun that was setting in the sky left dying purple clouds behind it, like bruises on the blue arms of Krishna. Words are trying to come out my nostrils instead of my mouth - they don't want to be articulated.
     "Clopin." I finally managed to whisper, mindful of disturbing the sunset.
     "Mmmmm." His voice was drowsy in my hair, where he was nuzzling lazily.
     I bit my lip and continued quickly. "I think it would be improper if you stayed in the tent while Francoise is with us. I think you should stay in the children's tent."
     He stopped nuzzling me abruptly, and his grip tightens about my waist. "Improper?" he hissed back. But now that the worst part is over the rest is not too hard.
     "Yes. It would be - indecent. The others would begin to talk. I really think its for the best if you wait until Francoise has left us before moving back in."
     He pushed me up and onto my feet violently, standing himself and whirling me around to shake me aggressively. "You, you who have never once before cared if what you've done is indecent or improper or reflects badly on us, now all of a sudden you've acquired social morality? All of a sudden you're eager to avoid a scandal?" I wrenched myself free and glared up at him. "Well, what did you want me to say?"
     "The truth would be a nice beginning," he thundered back.
     I took a deep, shaky breath and couldn't answer. He's waiting with the smug look all men get when they think they've won. I could say its because he was the one who hurt her - but an image of his hurt eyes when he realises what I suspected held my tongue. And he takes advantage of it.
     "You can't bar me without just cause," he says softly, but not meanly.
     I gave a sulky sob and whipped my fingers lightly across his chest. "It's only for the nighttimes, and you only ever want one thing then." I told him spitefully.
     He grabbed my wrist, yanking me a step closer, glowering down at me. "That's as much a lie as your what-will-the-neighbours-say excuse, and you damned well know it, Herlikin. How could you say that? You think she'd want anything more? You think" and he pulled me another step closer and hissed venomously into my ear "that she even does? She's playing with you, a nasty little game for her own amusement---you're not anything to her."
     "That's not true!" I cried wildly and he shook me, his grip tightening down hard.
     "Don't be a fool, Herli! Her games aren't games. She's not interested in you beyond what diversion you give her while she's here!" I can barely see him for the stabbing light in front of my eyes, and my heart is racing wildly. I know its true, but how can he say it so brutally like that? ---Instead of flying at him like I would normally,I let my breath out in a slow hiss and narrow my eyes with a sly grin. It seems I've learned some tricks from the Rouen Bird after all. But my voice is still my own as I say, in measured tones, "You're wrong. You didn't see, did you? The way she looked at me, how she smiled, what she said? You're wrong about everything."
     You bite me and I'll bite back harder.
     His lips are white as his grip presses down on my wrist so hard I gasp and feel as though my bones will break. Without loosening his grip he masks the sudden flare of wild jealousy in his eyes, my pound of flesh, and sneers at me.
     "Nice try, Herli. But let me make it very clear to you - if she persists in stringing you along, if you insist upon allowing her - neither of you are going to be very happy with the way things turn out."
     And with that he released me, turning and stalking away.

     Ugly purple marks have risen on my flesh by the time I got back to the Court, muttering angrily under my breath. I'd watched him turn away from me, and again there was that tingling in my legs, bidding me to do what my pride wouldn't allow. But I'd come back, and marched agitatedly to the tent, flinging back the flap as hard as I could and walking in and kicking the table hard, then an exclamation of "ouch!"
     Francoise laughed at me from the corner and I jumped. She, the inadvertant cause of all this angst, and I'd forgotten she was there. Despite her laughter, there was a curious warmth in her eyes as she looked me over with my hair all mussed up, and my hot cheeks.
     "Would it be too terribly cliche of me to ask if there is trouble in paradise?" She asked, with dry humor.
     I pouted and slumped down on the cushions nearby her. Times like this I usually ran to Colombine - my confidante when my troubles were with Clopin - but Colombine was out of town. I punched the cushion next to me savagely, then rubbed my sore wrist. Francoise laughed again, and glaring at her I saw a living spark in her eyes.
     "Don't laugh at me!" I said fretfully. You caused all this with those big brown eyes!
     As though she heard that thought she widened them at me, and then said "What else should I do? Do you expect me to hold you like a baby to my breast?"
     My heart lurched, because I could tell she chose the phrase, with all its implications, deliberately. She was playing a game alright, and waited with calculation ever hovering in her gaze for my reaction. I steadied my eyes on her and spat out.
     Her eyes twinkled with amusement and her shoulders shook. I frowned at her terribly. "Stop laughing!"
     She shook her head, and picked up my hand, pressing it between her warm brown ones. "Herli, you walked in here, hurt about your husband, looking for someone to cry to, and now you're throwing invitations about with your eyes! What a ridiculous little animal!"
     I was concentrating too much on the fact that she was touching me to pay much attention to what she said - it seemed an uncharacteristic gesture. Until then I'd associated physicality and elusiveness with the bird, distance and friendliness with Francoise. Who is this woman? In cutting her open, what did Clopin let loose?
     The wind changed, and she dropped my hands suddenly there and more lines creased their way along her forehead.
     "For god's sakes can you throw that incense out?" she snapped irritably."It's been driving me mad all day long. Are you trying to stifle me? I feel like I'm choking."
     I sat back on my heels. "Sandalwood! This is an excellent scent for the home! Why, I should think - " Francoise began beating on the sides of her head with the palm of her hands, a look of frenzied irritation on her face. "Just put the damn stuff out," she snapped, and alarmed I leapt up to throw out the dishes of incense that were burning around the tent.

     Clopin did not come home that night.

     Two evenings later I came home to Francoise in high spirits, despite the fact Clopin had ignored me steadily, despite the fact that the bruises on my wrist had blackened, and despite the fact that I could see Francoise was aggravated by her situation - and by me. It was a sweet afternoon, hurried along with a little breeze and the perfume of summer travelling upon it, first teasing my nostrils then being carried away again. I had arms full of wildflowers for her, and I was imagining cornering Clopin and making him forgive me. I wanted to feed them both and make them smile. I leapt into the tent and landed at Francoise's feet with a grin, scattering petals and leaves all over her blanketed feet. "I've returned!" I declared grandly. "Did I surprise you?"
     She gave me a quirky grin. "With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes - I heard you five minutes ago. You won't be catching any more birds with trappings like that, little kitten. Not healthy ones anyway." She tossed a few of the stalks strewn over her aside.
     "Don't throw them like that!" I exclaimed. "They're for you!" She raised an amused eyebrow at me. "Do you think you're courting a maiden from the countryside? Perhaps I should blush and keep one under my pillow?"
     I blinked at her. "I thought you would like them."
     She raised a finger poetically. "Doth imprisonment in a gilded cage, with fair view of gentle sky and tender earth beyond comfort the bird? Nay, it doth only serve to deepen its sad tones."
     "My, you're melancholy today." I said indignantly. She laughed sharply at my graceless response, then sighed and shifted restlessly. "I've been stuck in this dark, cramped little space for two days without being able to move lest these stitches split. I've got a curious little cat---however charming and hospitable--- who paces around me relentlessly and who simply adores asking questions." There was a note of frustration to her voice, but I was more annoyed she'd broken the stalks of the flowers I'd given her.
     "Perhaps I wouldn't pry so much if you gave me an answer to them!"
     "Well, doesn't that tell you something about asking them?"
     "I told you everything you wanted to know about me!"
     She raised her eyebrows again, jagged black marks on her face. "My dear, I think you've failed to grasp the concept of tact. I do not answer questions about myself, regardless of how much charity I've received from others. I will return what's due, but if you expect me to pour out my heart, you're bound to be disappointed. It's a common gypsy sentiment, dearest." My chest tightenened, and I could feel a prickling in my eyes as she stared at me, her expression clear and demanding. I began to pick the flowers up hastily. "Fine, I'll throw them out," I snapped, at a loss for anything else to say, scooping them up and turning to stand. Quick as light, she arrested me by the wrist with one strong hand. "It's not that I didn't appreciate the gesture," she said, somewhat kindly, but I didn't hear her for my gasp of pain - she grabbed me by the wrong wrist. Her fingertips were cool and smooth as she pushed my bangles up and traces the bruises there, and she looked them over with a little frown of curiosity. "Get caught in a trap, kitten?" she asked me quietly. I snatched my wrist back.
     "Clopin was angry and not thinking." I said sullenly as a way of explanation, and she gave a little nod.
     "Ah, of course. Angry and not thinking - that's always the most convenient excuse they have." I caught my breath a little. Could we be getting a little closer to home?
     "You sound like one who knows," I said nonchalantly, but she was far too clever for that.
     "I do - but one can learn easily through observation as well as experience, no?"
     I pouted and wondered whether I should go so far as to ask outright - but she leapt ahead, picking a wild rose up from the bunch that had fallen from my arms again, and examined it thoughtfully. "The benefits of travelling as I do - and being the unnatural beast that I am - is that wherever I go there is a new truth to take place, a new reality to become. What happened before that has little bearing on what happens next, because it is ever changing and I, for my part, am never the same." She carefully plucked a small petal from the rose. "Even if it's not entirely noticeable. And if I do return to somewhere I have been before, I have the security of knowing that what happened before did not altogether happen to me - " she turned the rose around in her hands. " - and so it may never have happened at all." Another twist of the wrist. The rose vanished. I allowed a widening of my eyes as she centered her own on me and smiles.
     I heard myself starting to talk. "Perhaps you don't always need a role, Francoise," I say softly, searching her eyes desperately, for anything else, no matter how small. Her smile is tugged up further at one corner and her eyes narrow and soften a little at the same time.
     "Maybe I'm not. Maybe I just drive everyone else into one. That looks very beautiful there, Herli." She reached a free hand across, and brushed it against my ear, shifting whatever was behind it so it slipped against my cheek. Petals. The wild rose. Now I wonder - Her hand fell lower, one long finger tracing a path down my jawline, and instantly my heart picked up its thundering rhythm. I can feel a flush spread from my chest up and over my neck. She raised her hand and traced it down my cheek again, this time with the backs of her fingers, and I was too enthralled by the brown of her eyes to notice any deliberance there.
     "You're like a doll," she said to me. "Small and pointed and pretty and colored. No wonder Clopin builds walls around you."
     "I'm not a toy," I told her breathlessly, wanting her hand to trace its way down my face just once more, but instead she slipped it down my neck, which was better and worse at the same time, and grins at me with sudden wickedness.
     "No. But you like to be one." Even if she was just playing a game she wouldn't have stopped me if I - Clopin was looming in the back of my mind. I'd have been sick with guilt if I had. I pulled away from her touch though my neck immediately felt cold.
     "I have to feed my children," I managed to say, and she threw her hair back.
     "Of course! The proud spawn of Clopin's loins! Don't tell me they've been forced out of their homes as well?"
     "No, no. They have had their own tent since they were four. Clopin insisted upon it."
     She laughed at that. "I bet he did!"
     "He didn't want to scandalise their young ears!" I burst out laughing with her, remembering how I'd missed them so much the first week they left that I had slept in their new tent with them, to Clopin's consternation.
     "I haven't seen them at all since I have been here - are you afraid of the effect I might have on them - I might entice them to journey out on the spicy roads of France, protected only by their own lunacy and a deck of trick cards?"
     "No," I said frankly. "Though Clopin might be."
     "Ah, ever my nemesis," she said cheerfully, and glanced at me. "I'm surprised the two of you don't have more, actually. Children, that is." She might as well have reached into my breast and squeezed my heart dry.
     "There have been...circumstances."
     "Ah." She's content to leave it at that, but I'm not. "I lost the second one. Detlene now." It's been a while, but I can still feel the hollowness, the echoing sound of loss. She doesn't say anything, just continues to watch me quietly. I don't know why I told her, of all people. Only Clopin and I knew. And she had made it clear she wouldn't be swapping confidences with me.
     "Do you like children?" I asked suddenly.
     "I like them in my audience." No, that's not good enough this time, Francoise.
     "Yes, but do you like them, do you like to listen to them, to watch them play, to play with them?" She shifts her jaw and jerks her head to one side.
     "Children are good little creatures. I enjoy their company."
     "Do you have any children?" She jerked her head to the other side and narrowed her eyes at me. "Have you had children? Have you lost any? Would like you to have one?" She couldn't seem to fathom the questions.
     "Why are you probing like this? Are you expecting to gain something from it?"
     "Because I'm curious."
     She sneered a little. "You know what they say curiosity did to the cat."
     "No, but I'd love to find out!" The comment broke the tension a little and she almost smiled. "Be careful what you wish for," she said darkly.
     "You don't know what I wish for." Her eyes gleam.
     "I bet I could make a fairly accurate guess. Madame Trouillefou has all the opacity of a window pane."
     "You haven't answered my questions." The smile drops from her face as though she'd wiped off greasepaint. "Are you really from Rouen?"
     "Herli," she began,and glared at me. The candlelight threw wide black shadows over the walls. She was right. The tent did seem cramped. The ceiling seemed lower. I went on. "How old are you?"
     "Herli," she repeated. "Please stop." Her voice wavered, and her eyes darted nervously from one side of my face to the other. There was a yammering little voice in my ear telling me to shut up, but my mouth spurred on with a will of its own.
     "Have you ever fallen in love?"
     "Herlikin. Stop, or I cannot be sure of what I'll do. What on earth could you want of me?" It was as though she'd lifted the edge of a mask from her face, and I just had a glimpse of the flesh underneath - if I could just get my fingernails under the rim and lift it all off, I could see what was there.
     "What do I want? You appeared out of nowhere as though you fell from the sky! You have a mask you treat as a entirely separate persona, your skills, oh, marvel, exceed even Clopin's, you prance around at once like a djinn and then a demon - you make me think you're generous and kind,and then malicious and provocative. And Francoise, I'm not as empty-headed as you might think - I know that's not all there is to you, though you try to make us think it is - there's more there, more than these adorable masks you're constantly wearing. That's what I want, dammnit! I don't care at all for your damn cartwheels or your magic tricks or your cute little melodies, all I want to know is what you've got suffocated underneath it all. What in god's name could I do with the knowledge that makes you so suspicious of me? I'm not going to try and pretend to understand you, or kiss better wounds of the past, I'd just like to listen to you - and to see YOU. You interest me, not sardonic Francoise or mischevious Bird. Just you." I wanted to go on and say something else, something that would persuade her of the earnestness of my claims, the truth in them, but my voice caught and I knew I might very well cry if I tried to keep going. It would be a silly thing to cry over, so I flipped a desparate wrist at her and turned on my back, chewing on a strand of red hair, clutching at one temple. I stared down at the blanket beneath me, the intricate pattern sewed in by my grandmother, the threads criss-crossing one another a hundred times on their way around the hem. I couldn't follow the trail consistently with my eyes.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000