His name means Black Eyes, and his eyes hold a saltwater sheen when he sees her for the first time in years. “Old friend,” Karagiozis tells the Clown King, “we meet again.”
When she hugs him, she feels how skinny he is under all his rags and swagger. His right arm, thrice as long as the left one, wraps around her waist like a moon tenderly orbiting its planet.
“What brings you to my humble abode?”
The Clown King swallows her bitter guilt for seeking a reprieve from her troupe of harlequins, pierrots, and mimes, no matter how brief. Swallows the leftover scent of rotten carnival apples and sharp seaside salt, too. “I thought it was time for a change.”
What she doesn’t say is, My paper crown was getting too heavy for my head. My head too heavy for my shoulders.
Karagiozis laughs as he leads her inside his rickety hut, engulfed in the shadow cast by the Sarayi, the Vizier’s palace. He knows a thing or two about feeling trapped.
There are more children inside than the last time she visited. They are hungry, and they are crying, baby birds stretching small necks, not enough earthworms to go around. She wishes she came bearing better gifts than the hard candy and limp balloons inside the pockets of her baggiest şalvar.
The Clown King holds a baby on her lap, light enough as to be made of shadow. A slip of a thing. A silhouette. “What have you been up to?” she asks as Karagiozis brews fine-grained coffee over the fire. He knows how to soothe a weary soul. Will even read her fortune in the brown dregs, if she asks him to.
“This and that,” he says, cross-legged on his patchwork quilt atop the dirt floor. The children tumble over him, a flock, a litter. The Clown King thinks of collective nouns. Of her troupe back at the seaside carnival of funhouse mirrors, and her heart squeezes with longing. “Their mother’s left me again. Will you take care of the little ones while I work tonight?”
His courtesan robes are dyed like a starling’s plumage, while his red-painted lips peek through a glimmering veil. She’s known him long enough to remember that he’s circled through most known occupations (teacher, doctor, hunter, gatherer) and some that have yet to be invented (hacker, influencer, roboticist). Last time she visited, he was a minor opium den celebrity, sat on tasseled gold cushions. People left him wine offerings in exchange for touching his right hand, covered in henna, penning poems or prophecies.
Now, it seems he’s gone back to basics. The Clown King claps as Karagiozis twirls before her, black eyes rimmed with blacker kohl, sheer chemise displaying his hair-dusted chest, his belly-dancer’s abs. His knees and elbows, wrists and ankles, are so knobbly they resemble pins, articulating his patchwork body. He leaves for the Sarayi in a cloud of agarwood perfume, and she sets to lullabying his children. They snuffle and mumble in their sleep, curled up together. Again, she thinks about her troupe. She left them so she could remember who she is without them, but all she knows now is that she’s lonely. Bereft. A small fist squeezes her finger. She lets it even when the pressure begins to hurt.
When Karagiozis returns, the night has grown diluted, the sky like milk through black coffee. His magpie eyes twinkle as he whispers, “Have a smoke with me.”
Behind the hut, by the meagre herb garden, he opens his robes to reveal imported cigars and local rosewater-and-almond lukums. They’re not the only revelation. Bruises on his neck, deep and brazen. The Clown King’s fingers hover but don’t touch. When he smiles, she presses her lips to the spot between his eyes, tastes his grit and hope, sweat-salty like the inside of a mollusk. Not a pearl yet, but made of iridescent nacre nonetheless.
“I am a thing that goes goosebumping in the night,” Karagiozis says and laughs himself silly.
He lights their cigars with his long, long arm–he could always do plenty of fun things with it–and exhales toward the stars. She raises her head too, reassured by the knowledge that her troupe, her people, are also seeing the same stars wheel and wink above.
“Go back to them, little king,” he says without looking at her. “I’ll be alright. We always are, eventually. Resilient stuff, our lot.”
“I know,” she replies, but she worries anyway. Always.
They reminisce some more about their shared history. Remember when we bedded Fatme, the Ottoman princess? When we ran afterward to escape her father the Vizier’s wrath? Remember that show we put on, swallowing flames and vanishing coins, clowns and shadows clinging together? How my latest get-rich-quick scheme backfired most spectacularly and you were there to collect the pieces?
Eventually they go back inside, cigars extinguished, sweet lukums saved for the children’s breakfast. Karagiozis and the Clown King lie face to face in the dark, stroking each other’s goosebumped skin. She touches his hunchback, which carries uncomplainingly all his people’s hopes.
“Sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a shadow, an articulated puppet made to dance against a scrim.”
She nods because she, too, knows a thing or two about feeling trapped. “It takes some courage to snap your rods and become your own puppeteer.”
Karagiozis’ eyes reflect the afterimages of stars. The Clown King counts them, and speaks the name of each constellation, and each of her troupe members. In her sleep she’s dancing with them across the sky, articulated shadows bathed in stardust.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, Baltimore Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.