Unexpected Guests

      The next day I awoke in a foul mood which continued without respite towards them for the rest of the week. Strange, one can always say what they know to be the truth about themselves - but should anyone else point it out...woe betide them. I avoided the tent as much as possible, and anytime I had to spend in their company I either ignored them or attempted to provoke. What fanned the flames was the fact that they were seemingly unperturbed by it. Of course, neither had any idea I'd overheard their little chat - but they could hardly not notice my behaviour. I'll steel my ego and venture that they were used to it. Surely, when I refused to perform with Clopin that week - and when he came home those evenings and found me chatting merrily in the Center to whomever would listen, only to greet him with a scowl and an agitated twitch of the skirts, he realised something was amiss. And when I did not weigh Francoise's ears down with questions, or aim actions intended to spark a witticism or clever trick - she must've noticed, too.
     But the both of them continued with their peace in a neverending back and forth, sometimes almost unbearably clever, other times simply amusing - although I didn't let a smile pass my lips. I hated it. They shared songs and anecdotes - Clopin's long and colorfully involved, Francoise's riddle-like and removed.
     To be fair to my skills at provocation, however - my wounded pride got in the way. To successfully irritate Clopin the way that I wanted I would have to flirt with Francoise - and the discovery of how she saw me made even the thought of it humiliating. As for herself - she was apparently imperturbable. And so I was annoyed, and the effort to not take it out on anyone except the two of them was tiring.

     It was a listlessly hot Sunday, late in the afternoon. Many of the rom were lazing idly in the heavy cool of their tents, sleeping off their noontime indulgences and midnight exploits. I found myself wandering around the vurdons of the kumpania Francoise had come in with. I had managed to divine Francoise had no vurdon of her own - just a canvas sack with a few elusive contents. My intention upon beginning my walk had not been to snoop - only to get away from the two of them back in the tent - but when I caught sight of a tiny green cart, tightly covered with canvas, I'd strode over to it before I was even really aware. The cart I recognised - Christophe's, he generally kept paint supplies in it. But the old canvas which covered it - it was Francoise's. Her prescence hung over it like incense - a strong, palpable aura. The canvas was even the same color as her skin, and for a few moments I entertained morbid fantasies of what family relation she had murdered and skinned. I fiddled with the cords binding the canvas down, and wondered why she, who liked to keep her private life her private life, would leave her possessions out in the open like this. The answer swept over me with a breeze that made my hair stand up on end - of course, no one would dare go prying into her things. One just knew it was a foolish thing to do. Yet even while I thought this my ringed fingers were fumbling with the cords, pulling at the knots, and I was glancing surreptitously through a curtain of hair around me. So I was a fool.
     I knelt down beside the cart, and yanked the canvas up. Perhaps I had been expecting a group of demons to come shrieking out, for I was sorely dissapointed when I saw nothing but the most ordinary - the clothes she had worn on the road, various props for her performances - an eyebending color that was probably her performance garb - and that was all. The blood was rushing through me guiltily - I'd never done anything like this before - but I still reached out a hand and pushed and poked at what was there. On some level I realised I was looking for something, although I had no notion of what. The bright color was her costume, and it broke apart into many colors as I nudged at it - then I froze as my hands brushed a hard outline consumed in its folds. My heart was racing now as I fumbled with the costume, pushing aside its voluminous layers to get at this object. My breath stuck in my throat as I finally laid a hand on it, feeling the leather - and the feathers - and slowly withdrew it.
     It was the Bird mask.
     I breathed in short gasps as I looked at it and it looked back up at me . I had been raised with masks for a living, and I knew alarmingly well that when one keeps an identity for so long...it's more than the sum of its inglorious parts. To touch a mask is to touch a personality - and you can feel it. I could feel it now, the Bird, in my hands. It was as beautiful and as manic as ever - but the power it had when Francoise wore it was considerably softened. My mind began to construct emotions for it, staring down into the empty eyes. It longed to be given life again. It was frustrated at being kept wrapped up and concealed in the cart. It wanted its wearer to give it its voice and its dances and tricks.
     It wanted mischief.
     The blood rushed to my cheeks. Finally, I leapt to my feet and hastily covered Francoise's cart again, bundling the Bird into the large pocket under my skirts. Then I returned to the tent. They were grinning about something, my husband and she, but the second I entered, Francoise's head snapped up with a distant look, and she searched me over with a strange expression. I looked back at her with a question in my eyes and after a few hesitant seconds, she looked away from me again.
     My husband smiled cheerily at me and beckoned to me with one long gloved finger, but I sniffed and tossed my hair back as I passed by him. Never one to be put off, he shot out a lean arm and got hold of my skirts, pulling me back.
     "What do you want, big-nosed fool?" I asked him irritably as he sat me on his lap. He smiled at me and ran two large hands through my hair.
     "Just to enjoy your exceedingly pleasant company, snappish kitten." he told me.
     "Are you sure my lack of perfection won't bother you too much?" I reiterated and he looked at me in surprise.
     "When has it ever?" was the smart response, and I pinched his nose hard. He laughed at me and then spoke softly. "I'm going out now, for awhile. Why don't you come with me?"
     I knew what he wanted and why he wanted to go. However, I wasn't terribly fond of him at that moment.
     "It's my time with the moon," I said, not bothering to lower to my voice, and his smile fell. I pulled myself off his lap and eyed Francoise who was looking agitated.
     Clopin sighed and got to his feet, tightening his sash and stretching like an alley cat. "Well, in that case, I'll have to amuse myself."
     "Don't wear your hands out," I said snakily, and he shot me a look before shrugging.
     "Well, at least I know the reason you've been so unsociable this week." Ah - he knows I hate it when he blames any of my irritation on that - even more so when it's not true. He tipped his hat to us. "I'm off, ladies. Adieu."
     Neither of us said a word, and with a despairing glare he left the tent. He wasn't gone three seconds before Francoise turned to me stiffly. "Where did you go before?" There was a questioning urgency in her voice, and I stared at her for several moments before answering.
     "Just for a walk."
     She narrowed her eyes slowly at me. "And what did you find? Because one gets the impression that you found something."
     I gave her a half smile. "You're right. I met up with an old friend of yours. I brought it back to say hello."
     I reached under my skirts and pulled the Bird mask out, holding it up for her to see. She drew in her breath sharply, and her eyes glimmered brightly. Her mouth opened a little in alarm.
     "A very grievous mistake, if well intentioned." She spoke more softly than usual, a waver in her voice. "Please give it to me, Herli." A long brown hand emerged from the cushions, trembling slightly at the fingertips. My lower lip was slack and I continued to stare at her. I looked at that tremor and felt a wash of sadistic pleasure. "I don't think that's a good idea. We wouldn't want you breaking into performance and ruining the stitches, would we?"
     She gritted her teeth tightly. "Listen, Herlikin. Don't do that." She reached her hand forward again, palm open - but I stepped back, the mask just out of her reach.
     "Just to look, not to touch," I taunted. Her eyes glassed over, and her arm began to buckle as she held it outstretched.
     "Listen," she said again, and her voice cracked with panic. "Choose another way to be angry."
     "Maybe I'm just too self-centered to know any other way. And didn't you say that I shouldn't make 'every gesture into a ballet'? Well," I said harshly, "this is a gesture...and now who's making it into a ballet ?" I gracelessly brought the mask up to my face, and for a moment the Rouen bird had one green eye and one blue.
     "Forgive her, Father, for she knows not what she does," Francoise whispered.
     Something took over me. I'll be poetic and say that it must have been the mask. I struck a birdlike pose and began to cavort ludicrously, in a vicious burlesque of the Bird's finer acts. Francoise watched, and I wondered where I had seen the expression on her face before. It occured to me later that it was the same way she had looked after the dagger had entered her ribs - a calm, anticipatory kind of shock. I finished with a dervish-like spin, and whipped the mask off with crazy elation.
     The instant the mask was gone from my face, I was knocked off my feet.
     Francoise swept a leg into my ankles, and I crashed to the ground, bones stinging. A vicious blow slammed into my breast bone, trapping my arm, and I felt my breath rush out. Another arm cracked up underneath my jaw and immobilized my head. My vision reeled as my legs, too, were mercilessly pinned down.
     "That, my dear, was the most fantastically idiotic thing you could have done," a cold voice said from above me. I forced my eyes into focussing on Francoise's form above me. I started to babble, but the arm surged up under my jaw again, clamping my teeth shut.
     "Not a word," it hissed. Fury stirred up in me again, recovering from the initial blow. I pushed up against her, scrambling like a mad cat to get away. I was only crushed downwards again. I thrashed harder, and with a terrifying speed I was being jerked upwards and thrown across the floor, an iron grip wrenching me by the hair. Tears came to my eyes as she pulled back, bending my spine and straining my scalp.
     "Now," it said quietly, and a sharp hand lifted the mask into my view. "Do you have any idea what this is? It's very charming, isn't it? Harmless, for the most part. Well, dearest, so is Francoise. Very charming, and harmless for the most part, that is to say." The mask grinned down at me, and a stray feather drifted onto my reddening face.
     "Did somebody fail to mention to you," the voice said, in a softer tone, "that two parts make a whole?"
     The grip on my hair loosened, and my neck complained loudly as it was released. I began to sit up, but was pounded back to the ground. I yelped as a hard hand connected with my shoulder.
     "Ah, no no! They won't give you up quite so easily. Together, they have enough spite in them to make you look positively amorous in comparison. Nicely delineated, one needn't take worry. Our cuckoo here," it raised the mask again, "is under supervision of an audience. And our dearest alter-ego is quite mature enough to take care of herself, as riddled with human faults as she might be, n'est-ce pas? Either one of them would survive - for a limited time, naturally, but survive - on their own. To be honest," it said, leaning in confidentially, "I would put my money on Francoise. The Bird, while it has its occupational merits, is a little abstract...can you breathe?" It interrupted itself. I nodded as best I could, half terrified and half mesmerized. "Then I must not be pressing down hard enough. Getting older, wouldn't you know it? At any rate. The point of this friendly little oratory was actually summed up in your gregarious little taunt - you must pardon my long-windedness, I so rarely get a chance to pipe up. Could you repeat it?"
     The blood rushed to my face again, and through my clamped teeth I managed to whisper it.
     "Yes! That's it! 'Look, but don't touch.' As much as Francoise loves intimacy - oh, don't look indignant, it doesn't suit your features at all - as much as she loves intimacy, it's a dreadfully bad idea. If she'd had her way we'd all be calmly cloistered in a very dull little - oh, I won't get into it. Fractured, aren't I? Suffice to say we two," it smiled conspiratorially at the mask, "would be dreadfully unemployed. But, as luck would have it, a little good old madness, mayhem and, thank god, tragic fate gave us our opening. I was, of course, consigned to a mainly managerial position. I had a good solid nine or ten years in complete command. Marvelous, vicious times. But at first it was all rather uneven! We were all exceedingly different in taste and mannerisms, and none of our schedules ever agreed. One moment this and the next moment that. But inevitably, over the years, we all began to get along - and I dare say that certain elements are rather indistinguishable now. It'll be positively fascinating to see if we ever achieve total synthesis. I'm looking forward to it. It gets very stuffy in the back of this head, I admit! There's only so much thumb to twiddle. Well, enough about us. I simply had to pay a visit - with the Bird wandering off on that pretty face of yours and Francoise a little too perturbed to help herself, there was nothing left but for me to step in and knock a little sense into you - figuratively and literally, it's turned out. I would estimate that only one or two other people - let's call it one and a half for kicks - have a real idea of what's going on! And one of them, is sadly, dead." It made a gruesome noise as it drew a finger across her throat. "Long ago and far, far away. Both of them were terrible threats - one was positively obsessed with Francoise, and the other was rather enamored, I'll blushingly admit, with me. But you, my dear, took an interest in all three, if I'm not mistaken. Bravo. You've done a marvelous job. You even got to meet me, dusty old relic that I am. Now, I'm afraid that I've used up all my time. I have places to go and things to do when I get there. In the meantime, I'll congratulate you once again for your outstanding efforts, and leave you to clean up your own mess. As for you," it added, turning back to the Bird. "Welcome home." It grinned darkly, and laid a sharp kiss on its beak.
     When her face turned slowly back towards mine, it was Francoise's. She gazed silently at me, her vision tracing from the dark arm crossing my chest up to my eyes.

     "Angry," she said quietly. "And not thinking."
     She let me up, gingerly rising to her feet. As an afterthought she put a hand to her ribs.
     "There's no blood," she murmured. "I think they'll be alright."
     I stood up tremblingly, averting my eyes. There was a long space of silence, during which she awkwardly lifted her hand to her hair and smoothed it down. She drew her hand back down and looked at it for a moment, then dipped down to the ground. She stood up again with the red gloves in her hand. As an afterthought, she looked at the mask in her hand, and for an instant she turned, mouth open to ask me to hold it. She stopped when she saw my face, and gently set it down on a cushion instead. With a sad deftness she pulled the gloves on, one a shade darker than the other. Then she picked the mask up, and turned it towards her face, so she and the Bird look into each others' eye. "Meddler," she said hoarsely, and a smile crept onto one side of her face. She let it fall to her side and turned to me.
     "I apologize," she said, enunciating the I.
     I tried to say something, but couldn't.
     "And by way of your apology," she almost whispered, "would you be so kind as to put this back where it belongs?" She held the mask out on one finger to me. The half-smile slowly spread into a full one, and I found myself gently taking it. Then I found myself crying.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000