Brownie sighed deeply and used one finger to smudge the smiling face made of sticky tack on the wall. She thought about making it frown, but decided her already burdened mind couldn’t sustain the depressing effect. Instead, she poked two eyes and a garish smile into the tack with the end of her pencil. In the end it wasn’t much better than a frown. It looked like one of those Greek comedy masks: white and pasty and fake like a clown. Clowns, with their presumed identities and startling antics, had made Brownie uncomfortable since her childhood. The worst part was the face paint; it made the person look ugly and gaudy. Circuses were tainted by clowns. The maudlin exterior must be a cover-up for something twisted, disjointed.
Thinking about clowns made her think about other things that she was afraid of: elephants, and somersaults, and the ocean. The ocean was perhaps the worst of all. You could only drown once, but before that was a host of dunkings beneath the endless waves, and the desperation of trying to get breath before another pulled you down.
The imagining of it was the worst thing, just like with the others. Brownie’s
head had never been crushed by an elephant, her neck had never been broken by a somersault, and a clown had never tormented her. Each of these things just carried their fear with them.
“I guess even good things carry fear, like giving birth and getting married and graduating college and opening a present.” She picked at a scab on her forehead. It was a bad habit she had, especially when she was deep in thought. She tucked her fingers under her chin to avoid picking, and turned her eyes to the CD on her desk. She looked away again. The face on the back made her think of people that she wanted to slap, like Leonardo DiCaprio. If only good music didn’t have to be ruined by association, like the song from Doctor Zhivago that she wasn’t supposed to hear. As she was thinking these thoughts, the sounds of “It’s a Fine Life” from Oliver! flew into her room from the living room TV. A few minutes later the smoke alarm went off, stopped, and began again. She heard frozen peas ping!-ing as they were poured into a pan for supper. It would have been too noisy to think, except that the sounds were what gave Brownie inspiration. The supper bell rang, so she put her pencil down and got up from her desk.
As she ate her meal, culling out the peas from her rice for separate consumption, she kept thinking. There was a thought, still gray and bulging because she hadn’t thought of it yet, in the right side of her brain. She felt it getting ripe, but she couldn’t hurry it. Pretty soon it would open up all by itself, and be a color like apple-blossom pink or “Camiyasa”, the color of her bedroom at the old house in Florida. That color was a light, bright aqua. Her current bedroom in Pennsylvania was also greenish, but more yellowy-green than bluish-green. It was called “Garden Party” on the sample strip. Who came up with those names, anyway? Naming paint was probably a fun job. Brownie would have been good at it; she loved naming things. She’d had a name for nearly every bird that visited her feeder in Florida. She even named the birds she couldn’t tell apart, like the chickadees or the titmice. The cardinals were the easiest to name, and so were the house finches since some of them had immature plumage or mites that infected their eyes. She had always felt bad for the birds with mites. They’d sometimes be half-blind, with one eye swollen shut to nearly the size of a Cheerio. But there wasn’t much she could do to help them; their impairment kept them on edge and she was never able to catch and treat them. She remembered the hours she used to spend at her bedroom window, with her blinds down and the pane opened just enough so that she could slip her hand through to the ledge on the outside. That was where she put seed. The birds congregated there at her window, and she loved watching them from her room. It was better than a movie; the characters were real and she was the only one who knew them. She would become caught up in the plight of persecuted birds, and would be deeply pleased when regular customers brought their new young to her feeding station. She’d never been able to catch an injured bird through the gap in the blinds, but she’d fed a chickadee that way. Her hand had been covered in peanut butter and seeds, and a chickadee had hurriedly picked a sunflower seed from her fingers. It had taken a long time, and patience. The metal ridge that the window fit into had dug painfully into her wrist and hand. But things like that, Brownie reflected, can only be done if someone has patience. It takes a lot of work to help wary animals become friendly. It takes a lot to make them trust you.
Brownie had wanted wild animals to trust her for as long as she could remember. She’d been close a few times, but they never really forgot their fear. Rabbits were a good example. When she was close by, they kept their eyes on her and feigned preoccupation with nibbling and hopping a little. They pretended not to be alarmed by her presence, but all the time they were judging the danger and preparing to make a dash for it if she did something sudden. They acted comfortable but they never trusted.
“I wonder if people are the same way?” Brownie thought.
Maybe people take work and patience, even more than wild animals. Are we nonchalant to hide our fear and mistrust? Are we wary of the hand stretched out to feed us, afraid that it will suddenly grab and kill us? Is this fear learned from experience, or do we just carry our fear with us?
We must all be wearing masks, painting ourselves to hide what is twisted, disjointed. Association taints us all. We’re all infected with something, something that makes us ugly and sad. Why are we afraid to frown? Our plastered-on smiles are even worse.
“I wish we would show our true faces”.
The thought was pulsing now, and turning soft colors like a new butterfly’s wing being pumped with blood for the first time. Brownie was back at her desk, and her feet were jiggling to the sound of Mozart.
Maybe without a mask the ocean cradled you, and drowning was as lovely as dancing to Tchaikovsky. Maybe then a somersault was a tumble of joy, and an elephant only broke coconuts under his feet. Little brown children would drink the milk before it drained away, and they’d ride the elephant with ease, and without a harness. They wouldn’t be wearing masks, and they wouldn’t be wearing anything at all…
...If it wasn’t for something that happened. Something that made us sick, and infected everything we touch. If men didn’t fall.
The thought broke. Blood red, it filled Brownie’s head and ran down onto her fingers.
“What does blood have to do with everything? There is always blood!”
There is always blood. Only blood can wash the blood from our hands, but it must be God-blood. There’s no other panacea. Blood frowns so we can smile; it weeps so we may laugh.
Blood…panacea…heals our sickness…takes away our fear…drowns us once for all…wipes off our paint in red, liquid love.
Brownie stuck out her left hand and smudged the sticky tack again. But this time she didn’t press a face into it. She let it be what it was, and stuck a picture on her wall.