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Friday Flash Fiction: Enter the clown

March 23, 2013

Livia held the linen curtain to one side and stuck her head out. It was hot and stuffy inside the litter. And she liked to watch the slaves. Their backs were slippery with sweat, like brown fish, and you could see their muscles moving as they carried Livia with her mother through the Roman streets. They were very strong, but not as strong as Pater.

“Livia!” said Mater sharply. She thought it was improper. Livia opened her mouth to make some retort but was immediately distracted by a noise from above. It sounded like –


The noise crashed into the slaves at the front of the litter. They collapsed and the litter pitched forward, flinging Livia into the confusion.

She recovered quickly, and leapt upright, standing back from the heap of bodies. At the top was – she supposed it was a man. It was the right size and shape, more or less.

Quid es?” she demanded.

The man looked at her.

Not two minutes ago he had been inhaling sawdust and checking whether his bells were on straight. Then, the world had gone – whump! – and he had been falling, and had landed…

Landed, in fact, on two strapping lads in loincloths. He began to clamber off them. They were groaning slightly and cowered away from him. He didn’t blame them. The bearers from the back of the litter had set down their end and helped their bruised comrades to one side.

“Quid es?” insisted the girl.

He looked at her again. His brain was trying to put two and two together. Two and two, unfortunately, were not co-operating. A world in which he was being addressed in Latin by a young girl in a purple toga after having fallen from the sky onto a pair of individuals who were, apparently, slaves – in such a world two and two no longer necessarily made four.

It did cross his mind to make out that he was a god fallen from some celestial chariot, but he was in enough trouble without trying to fabricate on a subject the locals would know much more about than he did. Not that the truth – whatever that was – looked any better.

“Ego – sum – ” he scratched his memory for schoolboy Latin. “Sum scurra.”
“Scurra?” She looked puzzled. “Quid est scurra?”

Quid, indeed. He thought it meant “clown”, or something like it, but he had never seen the point of Latin in school. Barry – for that was his name, and a great handicap it had been to have such a prosaic name in the clowning business (his stage name was Bonzo) – had run away to the circus after a fine education and what many would have seen as a privileged childhood, if you didn’t mind the beatings. But even the best-educated of clowns faced with a situation like this would start to feel they were losing their grip on reality.

He shook himself.
“Um,” he said. And then – “In circo?”
The girl stared at him for a moment and then light appeared to dawn. “Estis de caelo? Circum ire voles?”

Barry didn’t understand the words, but the girl was smiling widely, and giving off all the signs of having reached a conclusion posing no immediate danger. He nodded weakly, hoping there would be no more questions.

The girl gasped, and –

Augusta Paetina had lost patience. Propriety be damned, she swished aside the curtain and stepped out of the litter. With barely half a glance she noted the state of her litter-bearers, who were beginning to collect themselves. The rest of her glance took in a dishevelled barbarian in outlandish garb, and the even more shocking sight of her daughter kneeling in the dirt beside him. Kneeling!

“Livia!” The girl was no end of trouble.
“Mater!” said Livia in an excited voice – the rest was lost to Barry as Livia poured out a torrent of Latin to her mother.

It was not, of course, lost on Augusta Paetina, and it was vexatious indeed. She did not like to be imposed upon by strangers, especially foreigners. However, it did not seem wise to snub one who had fallen from the heavens. She had never been a particularly religious woman, but that didn’t mean she was ready to upset the gods merely for the sake of a little dignity. Even barbarian gods, she was told, could pack a pretty fair thunderbolt. Besides, her mind was already racing to look at this from some angle of benefit to her family.

Finally she nodded, and gave directions to her bearers.

They would take the barbarian to the circus. The emperor would know what to do with him. And afterwards, perhaps, there would be games.


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