It’s not the hottest summer of their red-nosed lives, but it is a close call. The Verona apartment complex becomes a desert oasis, wavering at the edges. The pavement burns and bubbles as cats mew irritably from their windowsill perches. Clotheslines criss-cross taut between balconies; the garments hanging from them–once colorful, patched flags–are now bleached bone.
“This isn’t a normal drought,” neighbors whisper to one another between balconies, licking the desiccated insides of their mouths.
The rooftop water tank is all but empty. They lean down over the balustrades to stare at the courtyard, where children and dogs are too exhausted to play, flowers have turned themselves into brown husks, and only splashes of graffiti color remain.
The Clown King’s throne is an overturned plastic bucket. Her troupe sits around her, skipping stones against dry ground, dreaming of rain. The ice-cream truck avoids their neighborhood, yet they can still hear its far-off ghostly music.
“That’s it,” the Clown King says. “Something needs to be done.”
“We’ve been doing something,” her troupe replies. “We’ve been doing nothing but somethings for a week now.”
Every night they have climbed down the stale communal staircase with the peeling ocher paint, and they have arranged themselves around the courtyard, looking up at darkened windows and the omniscient moon. They have danced, danced, danced for the rain to come. The few raindrops that graced them sizzled, then evaporated upon hitting the scorched concrete. Then they stopped altogether.
“I know,” the Clown King’s parched mouth soothes. Her gaze moves over the spray-painted walls and chalk-marked ground. “So it’s time to try something else.”
There are untold secrets sometimes, and they burrow into the soil, dehydrating it. They float up to hide among the clouds, shriveling them.
The Clown King and her troupe paint signs and hang them around the Verona apartment complex. They sit in the courtyard again, under the meager shade of a laurel, and they wait. Soon, the first residents trickle into the yard.
“A secret revealed, you said, to make the rain fall?” Mr. And Mrs. Capulet, the couple from apartment 303, ask timidly.
The Clown King, sat on her plastic throne, nods patiently.
“Our daughter. She’s not herself. Something’s changed her, made her dull and gray and skittish, ever since she met the Montague boy.”
The Clown King looks upward. Wisps of cirrus clouds paint themselves against the sky.
Next comes the Montague couple. They are the landlords occupying the entire fifth floor, the only one not waterlogged or falling apart. “Our son,” they say, “our bright and beautiful boy, has been bewitched by the Capulet’s daughter.”
The tentative clouds that had formed overhead now disperse, no sign of rain to come.
The Capulet’s daughter visits the yellow-dusted courtyard next. Juliet, with her neat braids and her haunted eyes that are unable to meet the Clown King’s gaze. “Every night I pack and repack my bags to run away,” she confesses.
“With the Montague’s boy?” the Clown King inquires.
Juliet flinches. “No.”
“Where would you go?”
Romeo, the Montagues’ son, stalks around Verona, huffing and puffing. He complains about the rotting trash, the sun in his eyes, the people living in the apartments below his. The Clown King waits, but he doesn’t request a hearing with her. In fact, he avoids looking in her direction altogether. He kicks at a black cat lounging in the sun. He whistles at the women coming home from work.
Clouds have converged over the rooftops since Juliet’s confession. There’s not enough of them to hide the relentless sun, but they carry the promise of what’s to come if the truth is unveiled at last. An ozone scent, sweet and pungent, tickling everyone’s noses.
The Clown King goes home to her troupe in apartment 207. The harlequins, pierrots, and mimes close the curtains to scheme in peace and shade. “When all somethings have failed,” they say, “there’s only one thing left to do.”
It goes like this: a fake letter from Juliet asking Romeo to meet in Verona’s basement laundry room. A troupe of clowns already waiting in the shadows. There’s no violence. Like the rainclouds above, there’s only the promise of what’s to come. Red-faced, snotty-nosed, Romeo cowers beside the row of washing boards as the troupe of war-painted clowns looms around and above him.
I didn’t do anything to her turns into It wasn’t my fault, just look at her, soon turns into I won’t do it again, I promise.
An admission of guilt. A plea for mercy. A secret finally revealed.
Thunder rumbles outside the basement window like a beast awakening. The Clown King and her troupe leave the weeping Romeo behind. He will face the judgment of his people soon enough. The Clown King will make sure of it.
She turns her face to the sky as dawn progresses to soft-edged morning. Her troupe gathers around her as the people above run to their balconies, then down the stairs in robes and slippers, tongues out to catch the cool salve of heavy drops.
This rain will feed the flowers’ colors. It will no doubt bring to light more secrets, great and small, flotsam and jetsam. But for now, the Clown King allows herself to remain still while everyone around her erupts in motion. The wide-open skies wash away the angry rictus and greasepaint frown in swirls of gray down her face, until her skin gleams nacreous with raindrops.
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. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.