The orphanage was a dusty place, and dimly lit. No matter the time of day or year, beams of speckled sunlight dared enter only at oblique angles, illuminating narrow slivers of buckled, faded wooden floors. Arranged haphazardly to conceal particularly unsightly water stains were great Persian rugs with fantastic designs, also choked with dust. As if to compete, the musty aroma of mildew hung in the air, a permanent resident of Wonderlodge Home for Children. The must and soot were perfectly warranted; the orphanage was actually a Victorian cottage predating the village of Slumber Cove itself.
The building’s classification as a cottage was somewhat misleading; in truth, it stood austere and grand, tiny shuttered windows dwarfed by a colossal Moorish spire like the Taj Majal’s. Some of the other boys and girls found the place oppressive—scary even. Especially in the rain. I, on the other hand, saw (and smelled and heard and otherwise sensed) nothing but magic.
Its nooks and crannies begged to be explored—laundry chutes and dumbwaiters leading to unknown places, pointy gables that had been converted into box rooms and attic space and then completely forgotten. My exhaustive exploration of the grounds, of course, was done in secret. During playtime, I’d steal away from the others and slip into some dark corner or other. Though it took an entire childhood to fully discover the place, the slow revelation—the magic of it—made all the lonely waiting worthwhile.
There came a time when I did not have to seek out magic; it came to me. At the age of seven, I was abducted by a small band of clowns.
But only for a week.
They were your standard issue circus clowns—joyfully sad, provocative, creepy but not sinister or stabby, jubilant and vaguely inappropriate. They exhibited all the qualities one would want from a circus clown. Only they did not take me to the big top or a carnival. Instead they took me to strange, exotic places far away from buttered popcorn, cotton candy and screaming children. They took me to places with strange names (that could not be found on any map) and places with no name at all (which I did not bother looking for on a map.) Far away places where birds swam and fish flew, where lakes reflected in skies and not the other way around. I saw upside-down sunsets that tickled the stars. Looking at them, I felt jubilantly sublime and sublimely jubilant. I felt ecstatic melancholy and somber whimsy and a number of other things difficult to describe.
Later in life I would recall them only vaguely, as if from a dream, and yet never fully forget them, as if from a nightmare. Wherever they came from or continued to dwell, the poetic things I saw and felt hinted at what lay ahead—all the horror and beauty life promised.
My final night with the clowns (though I did not know it would be at the time) I saw the birth of a star. The clowns never spoke a word the entire week, but somehow they told me the star was mine. That it was more than a ball of gas; it was a whole world awakening. My world.
I was returned home after a week, in one piece.
The staff asked over and over again where I’d been off to. But I’d never spoken a word since arriving at the orphanage shortly after birth, so my silence was received as customary.
A week later I was adopted out to a middle-aged couple with frosty silver hair.
They quickly became Mum and Pop, the first I’d ever known. They came with a brother and sister—a built-in family.
I began speaking, and stopped seeing fish that flew or birds that swam. The clowns only visited in my dreams.
Until they didn’t anymore.
Eventually, even my dreams were clownless.
I studied business and became an entrepreneur. I married and bought a home in the suburbs with a white fence and an orange tree in the yard.
My wife Zoe became pregnant a year into our marriage.
The night Zoe was due to give birth (or so we thought) her labor turned out to be a false one. The hospital staff sent me home but kept her for observation should there be an encore performance.
The moon was hanging full and low when I passed Slumber Cove’s only orphanage. Silvery light frosted the treetops and the peaked roofs. The great Moorish spire of Wonderlodge Home for children thrust higher than all the rest, silhouetting itself against the enormous cratered disc.
For some reason, I pulled over.
Twenty minutes later, I found myself still parked, gazing at the iconic image like a postcard sent to me from childhood. I’d driven by the landmark countless times, but rarely if ever thought of my childhood there—the long lonely waiting or the magic that made it all bearable.
But tonight, the half of my brain that was not anxiously fretting about impending fatherhood, the responsibility that came with it, the part of me that was considering running away, dwelt in that nostalgic place known as childhood. Just beyond the iridescent halo of the harvest moon, a tiny star was burning brighter than the others. Signaling to me. I recognized it as my star—the one bestowed on me by clowns. The one whose birth marked the unfurling of a world.
It suddenly came to me: when the clowns had appeared to abduct me, they’d not shown up on foot or arrived in a taxi. They’d climbed one-by-one from that old, rusted trunk in the orphanage’s basement. It had been off-limits, but I’d found a way to get in through a crawlspace in the back yard.
For some reason I found myself stealing across the narrow sidewalk, skirting the great Cyprus hedge that hugged the property, slinking past the porch and the kitchen windows, careful to remain in shadow. What are you doing? I asked myself. You’ve got a mortgage and mouths to feed. Sanity to preserve!
The crawlspace was still there, its louvered hatch askew as it always had been, partially shrouded by overgrown weeds. I threw it aside as quietly as possible, eased myself into the mysterious dark. The trunk was there, exactly where I’d left it: slid up against a mildewed cement wall beneath the stairs.
I gazed into the dark recess, wondering what it would take to pry the thing open—a crowbar? A sledgehammer? And if the clowns were still available, would I have the guts to steal away with them and leave the life I knew behind? Half of me wanted it more than anything. The other half would miss my wife, my unborn son, the connections I’d made in life. Why couldn’t one have both, I wondered—the magic and the connection for which it was a substitute? I’d learned in college most of man’s endeavors were driven by fear. But when we obeyed it or stuffed it away in a trunk, the clowns went with it—the inexplicable, the indefinable, the inconvenient. The blinding beauty between the cracks in life’s façade, the possibilities of true imagination that make life worth living.
I decided to return to my car, and my life.
But first, I’d slide the trunk away from that mildewy wall, just a bit, out from under the splintery stairs and into the light. That way, should some kid be adventurous enough to explore the endless nooks and crannies of the dusty old manor, he might stumble upon it, and what climbed out of it just might make all the lonely waiting worthwhile…