Currently in the pipeline is a moderately emotional post about how I’m about to turn 30, but before the doom and gloom I thought I would share my submission for this year’s World Nomads travel scholarship.
I’ve been applying for the last couple of years, mainly for fun and to practice writing without swearing. The story takes place in New Mexico and explains my lifelong fear of clowns. Enjoy!
A hand grabbed at my sweater, pulling me under the desk. My backpack went flying, scattering pens across the floor. She pulled at my sleeve again. “GET DOWN!”
“Wait-WAIT!” I repositioned myself next to B, my friend. We had only come into the school to get some art supplies. I hadn’t expected to find myself hostage in a classroom. “B, are you going to tell me what’s going on?” She motioned at me to ssssh! and shuffled further under the table. The rest of the students followed, trying not to make a sound as footsteps approached.
It was 2000. I was 10 years old and had accompanied my parents on a return visit to New Mexico. We were staying with friends on the Zuni reservation. It was my first time living in a Native American community, and the first time I had ever been held hostage under a desk. To say I was confused was an understatement.
I dared to sneak a look around the side of the desk and saw a small group enter the room. They were dressed in masculine clothing and were shirtless. That wasn’t particularly unusual, it was mid-August and incredibly hot. What was unusual to me were their faces. Each person wore a clay mask that covered their face and neck. Each mask carried two bulbous eye holes plus a slit for the mouth. It was impossible to tell who was underneath it and suddenly, I was terrified.
I looked over at B in panic. Why hadn’t she warned me about this? Was this a regular occurrence? Was I about to be kidnapped?
We waited for what seemed like an eternity, as the masked group made their way past the desks. They hovered near the door for a few minutes, motionless. Then, eventually, they left without a word.
“So we’re not being kidnapped then?” I asked, a little too loudly, as we clambered out from our hiding places. The others looked shaken, but not surprised. I hadn’t realised until then that even a few teachers had been hiding with us.
Everyone looked at me in horror. B sighed and, for the seventh time that day, gave me a look that said why did I bring her again?
“Nope,” B said, her first words to me since the invasion. “Nobody’s getting kidnapped. But you can’t speak when they come,”
“THIS HAPPENS A LOT?!” Even back then, I struggled with controlling my filter. Another disparaging look from B’s classmates. Everyone went back to their art projects as if nothing had happened, and B and I left for her house.
As we walked, B explained to me what I had just seen. They were a sort of pueblo clown, she said, but with infinitely more power. When a member of the community donned a clay mask they temporarily abandoned their personality and became possessed, for want of a better word. While they were present as comical figures in the community, they also acted as servants of a Zuni deity who, if you were badly behaved, might pay you a visit. It had happened to her once before, she explained. She’d been visited by the deity for fighting with her brother and it had scared them both enough to never misbehave again. “That was why everyone was hiding under the desks,” she explained. “They don’t want him to come,”
As I returned to my parents’ trailer that night, I thought about the clowns and how they acted as comic relief and something altogether more sinister. What would it have been like at home, I thought, if we’d had this kind of additional discipline? Would I have behaved better at school?
It wasn’t the last time I saw the clowns, of course. I saw them a few days later at a ceremony in the pueblo. They provided a sort of comedic sketch in the local dialect and, at one point, one of the members pointed to my family and I and everyone laughed and applauded. I never found out what they said, but even when I returned to the UK weeks later, I never forgot the clowns, a force of good and bad that I’d never expected to find.