Ashbury Corners was once a small place with a variety store the town’s few teenagers haunted on Friday and Saturday nights and a tiny pizza parlour with bright fluorescent lights hanging inside. The Royal Canadian Legion was an old red brick farmhouse and there was a drafty hockey arena that looked like a silver storage shed from the road.
But one thing separated Ashbury Corners from other rural towns: Franchesco Ballantine and his story.
Franchesco tried his story out on Mr Whelan, the barber, first, but he was nervous when he told him and his eyes kept shifting from the barber pole in front of the shop to a fixed point above the old man’s head.
"Uh huh, Uh huh," Whelan said looking at the barber pole too, waiting for customers. Next, Franchesco tried his teacher, Miss Jennings, but she’d only come to Ashbury corners in September and wouldn’t listen at all.
"Now stop that Franchesco," she said, "little boys who tell lies get punished in the end."
If you only knew, he thought when she said that.
Finally, he told some of his friends and that’s how he wound up standing in front of Macintosh Variety, waiting alone without going inside with the other children who’d heard his story and disowned him, casually kicking the red letter box and looking up and down the street for someone to come along.
It was late October and the leaves had been raked into orange/brown piles. The wind rustled the tops making a crinkle like wrapping paper being rolled into a ball and a percussion punctuated the gusts that was each one of Franchesco’s kicks.
Because he was always on the look out for opportunities to tell his story, he spotted the moving van when it was still only a plume of dust just over the horizon, and just before it came down the dirt and gravel road that was Main Street, he saw it bounce over the long abandoned railway tracks and shuddered. He pulled the strap for his overalls back up over his shoulder and stood to watch. After several attempts- the driver even managed to stall out in the middle of the road once- it backed into the drive of the Cromwell house.
Desirida Cromwell was last farmer in Ashbury Corners and when he sold 95 acres of his 100-acre farm to a developer it was, according to Franchesco’s father, the end of the town’s privacy and an entire lifestyle. Father had stood in the kitchen ranting to mother about how things would be overrun by widening roads flowing thick with minivans, houses that multiplied like mushrooms overnight, and strip malls populated by teenagers with orange or purple hair.
"Every family will have a wooden duck fridge magnet, a welcome mat for the Gap, and they’ll slow down when they drive past our house so their friends can get a look at ‘ the locals,’" he’d said.
Franchesco had been unaffected by his father’s doomsday talk; the whole adventure surrounding the Cromwell’s white washed home was exciting –maybe there would even be someone new to tell his story to.
So when the driver shut the engine off, Franchesco started to walk slowly toward the house. He left the sidewalk in front of the greying wood fruit cellar, crossing the lawn and crunching leaves as he passed the naked maple, dragging his feet through them so he almost missed the van door on the passenger side farthest from him slam shut. He looked up and saw Jessica Cromwell skip out from behind the van, into the driveway, and they stood frozen and facing each other on the front lawn.
They stood staring wide eyed like one looked supernatural to the other; Jessica spoke first:
"Hello," she said twirling her brunette curls with an index finger, shocked and excited at the possibility of finding a new playmate so quickly. Franchesco stood quietly trying to think of something different to say, but it really didn’t matter how hard he tried- and he tried every time he met someone new- the words were always basically the same.
"Wanna hear a story?"
"Sure," she said walking over to the veranda of her grandfather’s house and sitting down under a front window with a stained white curtain hanging in it. Franchesco rubbed his palms on the legs of his overalls and sat down beside her.
"I don’t tell this story to just anyone," (He’d start the same way every time since he noticed the effect it had on people: it made them feel special and grabbed their attention.) "but, because you’re new here I guess I could make an exception," he said looking at her from the corner of his eye; she was leaning forward with her hands on her knees staring at him intently.
He noticed he was wringing his hands in anticipation and quickly buried them under his legs.
"There’s a forest –a special forest- right outside town." He’d learned to be very careful with the build up, not to overdo it. "One night I was walking down Main Street, I was just thinking, and before I knew it I was right in front of the hill leading up into the forest."
Jessica was sitting on her hands now too, and she shimmied a little closer to him on the porch.
"I didn’t know it was special, not at first," Franchesco said, "but I thought, ‘There’s something about this’ and I started up. I was about half way up in the dark when I heard it."
He paused. He’d told his story enough to know when to stop and gauge the listener’s interest by saying nothing. Jessica, he was happy to find out, was hooked.
"Heard what?" she said, rocking forward and grabbing the fabric of her skirt at her sides.
"At first," he said calmly like he was talking to himself and hadn’t noticed her outburst at all, "it didn’t seem like much, just a noise from behind me. Then, it started."
He knew he was close now; he could see Jessica squirming beside him, but he had to be careful. The Juggler had made the rules, and as heard as he tried to get someone to go out to the forest with him, no one from town would go near the end of Main Street after dark.
"What…What started?" She was beside herself with curiosity and Franchesco thought maybe he shouldn’t tell her anymore, fearing her voice might bring the adults from inside out on the porch.
"It’s a circus," he said turning his head to look at her, " a big, rambling, everything-you-can-think-of good time. Why, it’s got more to it than all I’ve ever seen on television."
He was standing up now and looking away at nothing, but wide-eyed and smiling as though he was seeing it all again. But she was twirling her fingers in her hair again and he found he couldn’t look at her.
"The best thing is," he said looking down at the ground, " it doesn’t cost anything.. any money, I mean."
"Where is it? When can I see it?" Jessica said jumping down off the porch and standing in front of him.
"I can’t tell you right now, " he said jumping down off the porch when he saw the drapes part in front of the house. "At least I can’t tell you right here," he said over his shoulder as he left for home.
His father was sitting at the table when he walked into the kitchen; he knew by the way he folded the paper he hadn’t been reading it at all, that he was really waiting for him to come home.
"I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask if you’ve interested anyone in your story today?"He said. He asked Franchesco the same question everyday, and that night even his mother looked up from the sink with raised eyebrows where she’d been husking corn.
"Matter of fact," Franchesco said rubbing his palms on his overalls, " I ran into Desirida’s granddaughter today."
"No, not Desirida’s family," his mother said dropping a cob that hit the floor with a wet thunk like it was filled with water. She looked up from the corn to Franchesco’s father, who was staring at the boy.
"Franchesco, go up to your room now, your mother and I want to talk," he said.
He did, but he left the door ajar so he could hear them and climbed onto his bed, turning his head to watch the dark treetops from his window swaying in the gentle wind like underwater ferns waving a message to him.
"But something has to be done," his father said. "He’s a little boy. He can’t keep paying and paying just because he let curiosity get the better of him and went up to forest."
Franchesco heard his mother shut the tap off.
"I know," she said. " I know. Don’t you think I know all this? But Desirida and his family are getting ready to leave. He won’t go if that little girl goes up there with Franchesco."
He got up from bed and shut the door when his mother started to cry in the kitchen; he felt a hollow guilt for what he’d put them through, as though his soft warm stomach had suddenly turned cold and alien to him like a damp musty cave.
Franchesco rolled away from the window; it was too early for another visit from the Juggler tonight, so he would try to fall asleep going over his first visit to the forest, trying again to find something, some kind of loophole that would break the spell without having to take the little girl with the hair the colour of autumn leaves up there.
It had been a spring night and the rain had been falling all day so Franchesco stayed inside waiting for it to stop. He paced quickly back and forth looking quickly out from time to time like he was sure it shut like a tap when his back was turned. Just after nightfall he was sure it had finally ended when he heard drops squeezing from the eaves and splattering on the pavement, so he walked into the kitchen and stood in front of his mother.
"Mom, can I go down to the store and buy a comic book. The other kids are probably there by now."
"Alright Franchesco," she said , " but remember to walk by the forest on your way home."
She’d held his eye that night ; both his parents did when they talked about the forest to him, but the effect was the opposite of the stare’s intention: he always stopped and looked at the hill and the trees for a moment longer each time he passed by.
After he stopped at the store and not seen any of his friends there he walked aimlessly down Main Street. The humid air, he imagined, was cleaning the daylong hibernation from his lungs and he was carefree, splashing in puddles and crushing worms with his sneakers. He was watching them thrashing on wet pavement when he ran out of road and, looking up, saw he was at the edge of the hill bordering the forest.
It was dark and he looked up at the silhouettes of the tree tops in the moonlight that looked like they were reaching for the sky, desperately trying to yank free from their earthly roots, and, knowing what he was standing on the edge of, his heart started to race.
He put one foot ahead of the other and off the road, then the other ahead to meet it, and the excitement made him so giddy, he held a breath and ran up the hill.
He stopped when he couldn’t go on, and when his breathing returned to normal he realised exactly where he was and what he’d done to get there; he listened and looked around in the dark, but there was nothing- no rustling leaves on the ground or birds alarmed by his intrusion, just silence. That’s what made the twig snapping behind him as startling as a key clicking in a door in the middle of the night.
"Who’s there?" he said without turning around, hoping the convenience store gang had broke the rules too, that the forest was the best kept secret in Ashbury Corners, an exclusive boy’s club he’d stumbled on. No one answered, but another twig snapped behind him and a flickering light danced in front of his eyes, illuminating the trees in front of him in brief, strobe light, orange flashes. Feeling the warmth of burning wood and hearing it crackle, Franchesco spun around, his foot hitting a rotten railway tie with a moist crack.
The Juggler was right behind him wearing a black tuxedo with a bow tie and a white shirt with the collar turned up. He was spinning branches of broken flaming wood between his hands, exchanging the pieces back and forth with a smile of astonished pride.
"Hello little boy," he said, " I wasn’t sure if I’d still be able to do my part for the act, what with the wreck and all, but at least that seems fine."
He let the wood fall to the ground, bent down putting his hands on his knees, and looked right into Franchesco’s face.
"I don’t suppose anyone knows you’re here right now…do they?" he said.
By the dying embers at their feet, he could see the Juggler’s skin was the colour of plaster and drawn tight over his face, especially over the cheekbones. His breath smelled like the clear liquid his mother put on his cuts.
Franchesco felt the damp musty sinking in the pit of his stomach he got when he disobeyed his parents and something went terribly wrong, and he took a step backward never taking his eyes off the pale face.
"I’d better leave now," he said and turned to run.
And that was the first time he saw the circus.
They stretched out in pockets through the trees to the top of the hill- groups and individuals oblivious to each other’s presence. Half way up, an elegant couple moved through a sweeping ballroom dance under the moonlight to silent music; the man had a handlebar moustache and held his partner’s palm at shoulder level, turning in and out of sight through the woods.
Closer to Franchesco, a young girl in pigtails drove a unicycle between the trees like they were pylons, stopping here and there to rock back and forth, holding her arms straight out for balance.
"These.these are some of the performers, and some of the guests who got caught up in the aftermath of the train wreck that ruined our circus." The Juggler said moving up to stand beside Franchesco." They’ve all been dead – or rather half dead- for a long while. I suppose in transition might be a better term. Can you see them, very clearly, my boy? Ahhh.Good. Then, I’m afraid, you’ll have to help us."
Franchesco wanted to run but his legs wouldn’t move. He also felt he was caught in the middle of something he couldn’t run from anyway, that he’d opened the lid on something and only this juggler could tell him how to put it back.
"You see, my boy, for a variety of reasons, these people here are stuck in what your parents might call-should they be religious folks, purgatory. And seeing no one here has been able to find a way out on their own-and we’re not getting any direction from you-know-who upstairs, we’ve decided our only trump card is to look among you the living." The Juggler drew a breath and let it out, his shoulder falling with the exhale.
"But I guess our exuberance to get to where we want to go may come across a little strong, because we’ve made up some rules for this little game you people find a little frightening."
The Juggler put a hand on Franchesco’s shoulder that felt remarkably like the fish mother brought home from the market and the boy flinched.
"So, you see, until we can find the one among us who can help, we’re stuck here, in between worlds, are you my boy are it."
"It?" Franchesco said, hoping he might have heard wrong.
"Yes. IT" the Juggler said, smiling down at his clammy hand resting possessively on Franchesco’s shoulder.
Franchesco ran from the hill toward the familiar lights of Ashbury Corners; once back on the gravel and dirt of Main Street, he laughed to himself.
What amazing dark tricks the forest had played on his imagination.
For the next couple of days, he forgot about what he thought he’d seen. caught up in the normal routine of his childhood: there was a fair at the next town, baseball outside the arena, and a million unplanned adventures for a boy in the blissful grip of summer. He’d forgotten entirely about the Juggler and his menagerie when he said good night to his parents one summer night, climbed the stairs, and laid down on his bed to map out the next day’s adventures.
A pebble tapped at his window; the sound brought him back from his daydreaming for only a moment. Then..a second and a third. Franchesco got up and went over to his window, opened it, and looked down into the yard.
The Juggler was standing on the grass below with his hands in the pockets of his dark suit, looking up at the window and smiling.
"Where ya been, my boy?" He said, pulling his hands out and holding them palms up in a questioning gesture.
"We thought you might have forgotten us, so I’ve picked a spot out right here in your yard to bring the whole act." He looked around. "Might just bring it here every night until we get what we need," he said, putting his hands back into his pockets and starting back for the trees, whistling and kicking the dirt with his shoes.
It was those final words of the Juggler’s that kept Franchesco awake, jolting him up on one elbow in his bed, listening to hear if his mother was still crying in the kitchen below. But instead he heard his father’s deep resigned voice that seemed to vibrate right up through the floorboards like it was drilling itself through the very wood.
"I know. I understand about Desirda. I know about the little girl. But no one warned us, did they? They didn’t let us know what was really going on until it was too late. Oh sure he warned me to keep Franchesco away from the forest, and I thought it was all a little spooky, but never thought to ask. No." and his father’s voice came from deep in his chest. "No. The sooner someone else goes up there, the better for us."
Franchesco stopped fighting sleep; he’d been waiting to hear those last words from his father and now that it was decided what he should do, he rolled over toward the window, looked at the treetops barely visible against the dark sky and fell asleep.
He was still facing the window when he woke up excited and, for a second, he wasn’t sure why. When he remembered he dressed quickly and went downstairs where his mother was cooking breakfast. He sat down at the kitchen table without a word and waited for his father.
"Good morning everyone," his father said, looking down when he walked across the floor and sat down. His mother put the plates down in front of both of them without looking at either one and nothing more was said, but he knew what he should do had been decided.
Franchesco found it hard to concentrate all day; he knew he had to keep away from Jessica Cromwell until it was dark, but a strange nervous tick developed in his shoulder whenever he walked by piles of raked golden leaves that reminded him of the way her hair fell over her shoulders.
Still, he couldn’t help spend the late afternoon walking up and down Main Street, looking furtively at the window on the porch of the Cromwell house for any sign of those autumn curls. By the time the sunset, he had to hold himself back from ringing the doorbell and confessing his intentions.
It was dark when he saw the blind move and fall back into place and she finally came out on the porch; he watched her pull the door shut with two hands by the light over her head.
"Hi," she said when she crossed the street to meet him. She seemed so carefree and cheerful he thought she might have forgotten about his tale.
"Wanna hear the rest of the story?" he said a little too quickly, never taking his eyes off the door across the road and feeling those words strike and almost capsize him with the hollow guilt again.
"My grandfather said I’m not supposed to listen to you and I’m not allowed near the forest," she said starting down the sidewalk past Franchesco. "He’s asleep now," she said with her back to him, stopping and turning to look back so her hair brushed off her chest and crackled over the back of her sweater like autumn leaves falling down.
"So are we going or not?"
Franchesco raced to catch up with her and they walked down Main Street together, neither one noticing the drape had opened then fallen back into place in front of the Cromwell house.
When they reached the spot where Franchesco first left the road, he stood and marvelled at the silhouettes of the trees that were gently swaying in the breeze like napping sentries who’d stirred and were whispering the news of his arrival to each other. He’d been careful to tell Jessica enough of the story to hold her interest on the way there, but he left out the most sinister parts:
"Oh, they put on quite a show," he’d said as they walked down the road, " there’s ballroom dancers, bicycles and even a juggler."
"Stop that Franchesco," she’d said, smiling like she thought he might be flirting.
They stopped half way up the hill, at the spot where he’d first seen the Juggler.
"We have to be very quiet now," he said and she moved beside him so their shoulders were touching. Franchesco realized again how quiet it was and held his breath; he could only hear the blood rushing in his temples and feel the rhythm of her breathing by her arm brushing his. His foot searched the forest floor until he found an old railway tie. He tapped it and she stopped, gasped, and spun away from him.
He turned toward her and something drew his eyes up into the maple to the left.
The Juggler was sitting on a branch, holding the wood beside his knees and rocking back and forth, slowly gaining momentum.
"Ahh, I see you’ve brought a friend," he said flipping backward and landing on his feet to face them. He bowed to Jessica.
"I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of your company before."
Jessica backed up and grabbed Franchesco by the arm; she didn’t make a sound but he could feel her shaking. The Juggler spun around and held his arms up to the dark forest.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, front and center. If you please."
And the forest came alive.
Pale acrobats somersaulted from tree to tree, catching one another by the forearms and spinning around in mid flight. Luminescent couples danced formally to unheard music while others, more exotic and intense, flamingoed across the forest floor. A fat man swallowed a blazing stick and smiled and Franchesco and Jessica, holding the sides of his enormous stomach.
And there was no noise.
The Juggler put his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene, the back of his head moving as he followed the young girl furiously pedalling a unicycle around some saplings. Staring out over his vast menagerie, he started to speak to Jessica, who’d dug her nails into Franchesco’s arm. So was so close to him her hair was resting on his neck and bicep like a familiar pet.
"All of this is for you, my little girl," the Juggler said following a fox trotting couple, "if you’ll only stay and play a while."
Jessica started to blubber on Franchesco’s shoulder making his shirt wet with her tears and he put his arm around her.
"What’s more," the Juggler continued, ‘you’ll have the best seat in the house, a big show for your eyes only and, really, we’re not asking for much in return."
He turned around and took a step toward them as the acrobats hands slapped together in midair. The unicyclist focused on one tree, spinning around and around, appearing and disappearing in a mad frenzy and the dancers began to jerk and spasm as tough their music had started to play too fast. The Juggler took another step and held a hand out to Jessica.
"Funny isn’t it?" he said, ‘we have all the time in the world here and yet my friends and I grow impatient..Come now."
He bent over , put his hands on his knees, and his voice grew quiet:
"It’s all quite painless really, just a contract of sorts that matures with our freedom."
"No," Jessica said ,grabbing Franchesco’s arm tighter; he felt her hand ,hot and wet, pushing into his and her hair crackle against his neck. He squeezed her hand and looked at the Juggler determined she would both be leaving with him.
"Slowly," he said to her trying not to move his lips, " turn around and run down the hill toward the road on the count of three. Ready? One…two.."
A twig snapped from the bottom of the hill; he looked down and saw the beam of a flashlight cut trough the night like a conductor’s baton, moving back and forth in wide arcs. Franchesco spun around in time to see the Juggler disappear behind a tree and, as quickly as they had been summoned, the menagerie was gone.
"Jessica?" called a voice both children knew from behind the flashlight.
"Grandpa!" and she was down the hill into his arms.
Later that night Franchesco watched Desirida Cromwells’ car disappear down the road from his parent’s porch. He snuck into the house quietly and padded up the back stairs to his room, where he took his clothes off and sat exhausted on the edge of his bed, watching the bare trees out side his window for any signs. He was so tired he thought he saw Desirida's car a half hour later, driving past his house again toward the forest, but when he woke up in the morning, the sunlight convinced him he’d imagined the whole thing.
Ashbury corners grew into a lively suburban community. Teenagers poised and strutted their fledgling wings at the local shopping mall, which boasted four restaurants, an indoor track and field complex, and a four-pad hockey rink.
Franchesco Ballantine had stayed in his parent’s house after they took an apartment in the city. Age had mellowed the elder Ballantine, but whenever Franchesco brought his parent’s home and drove them down the four lane paved road that was once Main Street, his father would start rumbling and shaking his head in the back seat.
"There!" he would say from behind Franchesco, pointing. "Welcome mats! Mini vans! And look at the hair on that kid!" For the most part, they all got a big kick out of it, and Franchesco would tease his father by pulling up to stop lights, rolling his window down, and asking people crossing the road if they’d ever seen ‘a local.’
But when the car passed the spot where the forest had stood Franchesco always got quiet; his hollow guilt always retuned when they drove by the red brick farmhouse where he met the little girl years before.
Desirida’s farm had been sold, but he’d hung on to a five-acre strip of land running straight from his yard and ending in a small patch of forest at the back. His house was a lonely beacon from a forgotten time; drowned against a sea of vynil siding, super mailboxes and backyard gazebos. Franchesco heard only snippets of talk about Desirida from check out line ups, coffee shops, and passer-by in the mall, but everything he heard made the old man out to be a real piece of Ashbury Corner’s folklore- a real ‘local.’
The old farmer rarely left his house anymore, but the children who knocked on his door after the sun went down to see the drapes part in the front window, and the volunteers who brought his hot meals to him carried the same news around town of the fantastic story old Desirida Cromwell told.
Some said he was senile, others sane, still others crazy as a loon, but Franchesco felt an obligation to wait for someone to take the old man seriously enough to walk to the back of his property to where he had saved the trees, someone both curious and foolish enough to see for themselves if he was telling the truth about the ghostly circus he’d led back to his farm years before to save his granddaughter and one of Ashbury Corner’s little boys.
Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's. After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.
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