Old Man Finney left his birch cane at home when the Mood Circus came to town. It was a fine cane, honey-colored, peppered with whorls, and not obnoxiously straight. He had made it himself, in Lake George, just before his children imagined themselves as grownups, gone. After that, the scent of cut birch made Finney cry, so he fashioned the handle from a knot of oak and polished the whole with a strong veneer.
He never left the cane at home, unless the Circus was in town.
By now, he knew the harbingers — the melancholy dreams, sparked with essence of hysteria (he wasn’t fond of those), food that tasted of emotion — hamburger laced with fear, lettuce salted with resentment. Finally, he’d hear the bells, and follow.
He’d find them near an ocher-colored building, warm bricks lit with sundown. Those bells cast liquid shadows, dangling from their cords. Beneath their inky thumbprints, stood the ringmaster in his emerald top hat and his cryptic, mesmeric smile.
The Circus cost a quarter, a fee waived for little children, tramps, and soldiers.
Finney always found himself in the same room at the start, in the washed-out blue of Solitude, the scent of persimmon and salt, and a woman in azure who blew a single bubble that floated, always out of reach.
From there, it was a crap shoot. Sometimes, he ended up in Anger, with its equatorial temperatures, its smell of cordite and mold, its podiums where spectacled monkeys delivered sermons mixed with diatribes.
There was always Grief, a grey room of mist where he stubbed his toes on uneven slates and tasted sour kidney beans and liver. Or Jealousy, with its crooked mirrors. Pride was a room full of rubble that he felt compelled to climb. Once, he’d been lost for a week in the Corridors of Shame with their sticky-note reminders of all his little failures. The Circus kept you, as it liked.
In Happiness, a dwarf in a pink tutu handed out lollipops flavored with euphoria. People got lost in that room. The bouncers had to haul them out, with detours through Swamps of Bitterness, the Briar Patch of Cynicism. Once, they deposited a troupe of old professors in the Tar Pits of Uncertainty. They were never seen again.
Finney liked Surprise with its raucous scent of onions, its trumpet-blasted eggs or cream puffs or meringues. He disliked the cluttered mess of Boredom, and was overwhelmed by the emptiness of Goofy. With Awe and Curiosity, he could never remember what he’d seen, or learned, or left behind.
He had a favorite room, of course. It always smelled of sunlight in October, a crisping, generous tang. Water trickled in a rivulet, as cold and clear as birth. Compassion — here, he didn’t need his cane. And when he left this final room, the Circus fading off behind him, he took along its gift of faith and the ringing clarity of shadow bells on ocher.
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