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Once Upon a Time

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The Pierrot Rouge was never one to stay still.

“I do not mean sit still forever , my red friend. Just until tonight.” 

The Prince was the oldest toy in this attic. True to his name, he spoke and moved with the air of nobility. He had the self-satisfied air of someone who had elevated doing very little to an art form.

“I’m sorry, who are you again?”

The Pierrot Rouge knew perfectly well who the Prince was; had, in fact, understood the hierarchy and arrangements of the attic the moment he was dumped into it. But he preferred to keep others guessing at his cleverness, and just as the Prince had elevated idleness to an art, Rouge had perfected the art of pressing people’s buttons.

“I am--well I would think that is self-evident. Regardless. I am merely attempting to explain that \there is a nightly procession…”, and then, because he could not resist the urge, “... which I lead , and that is when you can let out all your impulses and your artistry. Until then, can you do your new comrades-in-arms a favor and sit still?”

The Pierrot Rouge could not.

“It is not in a toy’s nature to sit still,” he told the Monkey with the Broken Cymbals. Monkey tilted his head to one side, listening intently.

“A toy that sits still is just decoration. And you know what humans do when they are bored?”

“They play music!” said the Monkey as he brought his cymbals together. Rouge cringed as they created a sad crashing sound that came to a grinding halt.

“No! They redecorate! Are you even listening to me?” 

As soon as he spoke he realized he was the one not listening at this moment. The Monkey’s face fell as he looked at his cymbals. He gently touched the cracks running through them and hung his head. 

“What happened to them?” asked Rouge, gently.

“I was dropped. There was a young child. Her excitement to play was greater than her dexterity. So now my cymbals are cracked and they abandoned me, here in this attic. I have no use anymore.”

“That is not true!” Rouge had begun speaking before he knew what he was going to say, his brain sprinting to keep up with his voice. “I understand that is what you think and that’s what the Prince and all the other toys think, but that’s not what I see. I see…” 

He paused as his eyes took in the quiet, dim-lit attic. Toys were sitting or lying down in groups, passively waiting for the nightly procession.

“I see freedom. I see a place where we decide who we are. No clumsy children, no indifferent adults; only toys and the games we decide to play.”

A strange feeling had come over him. Was this… purpose? Was this a mission? Or was he just bored? The feeling quickly passed as the Monkey’s voice broke through his thoughts.

“But look, red man. My game is music.” 

Monkey lifted his broken cymbals to the ceiling. 

“And I cannot play anymore.” 

He brought them together again, once more making the same sad, shuddering sound. 

Something clicked in Rouge.

“My simian friend, no! Do you not see it? The music is inside you, inside all of us. Maybe your calling is another form of art. There discs you hold are sturdy, are they not? They can be used for something more physical than music! This attic is a playground, a circus where you perform only for the most appreciative of audiences: performers! You are agile and you are fearless ; let us see what we can build for you!”

Together, they stacked the metal discs along with other discarded bits and bobs from the attic. Every night, they added a new broken toy, a baby carriage, some other bauble, creating a new tower with each moonrise. When Monkey finally climbed the tower and laughed, giddy at the exhilaration of towering above them all, Rouge gracefully took his leave.

But still, Rouge could not sit still.

Exploring the attic further, he discovered a dusty, disused puppet theatre and its five marionettes, tangled in red silken thread. They had been created to dance at the behest of those that held the strings and were unused to being masters of their own fates.

“Our arms are heavy with no one to pull the strings, Rouge,” said one marionette.

“We are tangled and tripped up by our strings when we dance, Rouge,” said another.

“What is a puppet’s purpose without a puppeteer?” asked a third.

“Your purpose is what you make it,” said Rouge.

“Is this why you spend so much time with all the toys? Is this what you’ve made your purpose?” asked the first puppet.

Rouge sputtered, at a loss for words.

“No, no, he is looking for a companion. He is lonely and alone and needs a friend,” said the second puppet.

“Preposterous,” he snapped. “This is not about me! I’m here to help you!”

“Well, yes, as we said, that is your purpose,” patiently explained the third puppet.

“Listen, forget about me. We were talking about you ! Your strings are holding you back, yes?”

“Yes. They tangle and they knot.”

“But what if the strings were cut?” asked Rouge. “Could you not use them to fly?”

The Aerialist flew first, tossing the strings over the theatre’s sturdy beams and flying high above his four sisters. They gasped in worry then delight as he twirled in the sky. Rouge helped each of the sisters join their brother in the sky, and departed only when all five were safely in the air.

And yet, Rouge could not sit still.

Pacing restlessly across the attic, Rouge walked straight into Le Titan: true to his name, a giant of a toy. Titan was, as ever, hunched over, his hands claws, his face a sneer. 

Titan hissed at Rouge. Rouge instantly fell in love with the grouchy toy.

“What is it that your heart desires, you giant, you brute, you hulking chunk of toy?”

“I want you stop look at me.”

“But I like looking at you.”

“Stop liking it.”

“Yes, certainly, let me press that button.”

Titan tried to escape from Rouge’s persistence, hiding his face behind his hand, but there was only so much room in the attic. Eventually he reached the dollhouse and began to climb its facade, hoping the Rouge would not follow.

“Oh yes! This looks fun!” Rouge scrambled halfway up the dollhouse without thinking twice.

“What you want from me?” asked Titan, holding onto a window ledge for support, dangling halfway up the dollhouse.

“I want you to jump! To soar! To fly!”

Titan frowned. “You first.”

Rouge did not blink or respond. He simply leaped backwards, tumbling down the wall.

Once again, Rouge’s conscious mind was reduced to passenger as he plummeted through the air, toward the ground. He braced for the impact, but was surprised to find he did not hit the ground. Against all reason and laws of nature, the ground gave, deformed, cradled him, and after a timeless moment, spat him back out, upwards. Before he knew it, he was back in the window where he started.

“How you do that?” sputtered Titan. In his surprise, he forgot to grimace. 

“A magician never reveals his tricks.” he laughed. “Just jump, you silly goose. Let the ground take care of everything else!”

Le Titan was many things, but a coward was not one of them. He let go, stepped into the air, and before he knew it, the floor cradled and held him. And then he soared upwards.

“We should try from the roof,” said Rouge, taking Titan’s arm and pulling him further up the wall.

Again Rouge jumped and again Titan followed. When Titan’s feet were back on the roof of the dollhouse, he stared into Rouge’s eyes. He did not realize he was standing up straight or that his hands had relaxed. That tension faded away. All he saw was Rouge’s eyes.

Rouge reached out and gently squeezed Titan’s hand. They nodded to one another and gracefully leaped off the ledge together. On his way down, Rouge turned his head to look at Titan. He saw the smile spread slowly on the enormous man’s face, and he knew he wanted to look at this face until the end of his days.

“If you happy now, why you no sit still?” Titan asked, a touch of concern in his voice.

The two of them had moved into the dollhouse where they first played and soared. They had made it their own, decorated with discarded shiny things and a nightlight wrapped in colorful foil.

“I wish I knew, my love,” said Rouge, pacing about the house. “This restlessness is new to me.”

“You need new project,” Titan said. “Project always make you happy.”

“You are right, of course, as you always are. But I’ve helped so many toys now, and it has never been enough. After the next project, I will return to this moment again.”

“No, you need special project. We go to Prince’s parade tonight. I pick you project.”

The Lost Ballerina was not a toy, not precisely. The previous inhabitant of a broken, treasured music box, she had not even known she could escape that prison until the Prince invited her to join one evening’s parade. Her porcelain limbs were brittle and Rouge wondered if she would ever truly lose herself in her dance. But dance she did, a whirlwind of movement that entranced all that watched her.

“You help her!” Titan said, pointing.

Rouge considered leaping into her meticulously-crafted path, helping her to loosen her limbs and truly lose herself, but he quickly discarded the thought.

“No, my love. She has already transformed herself,” Rouge said. “She has no need of helpful interference from me.”

As the Lost Ballerina rushed past Rouge, eager as always to reach the front of the line, her rustled skirts distracted him for just a moment; and in that instant, his eyes caught a glance of a new yet familiar doll following in her wake.

A Pierrot Clown. Not like him, not quite, but close enough that he had to catch his breath. A painted porcelain mask gave him an air of intractable sadness mirrored in the darkness of his clothing. Flashes of color appeared as he danced, strings of fabric attached to his clothes that only came to life as he twirled. Beneath the air of melancholy, Rouge recognized it at once: the same coiled, playful instinct he found within himself.

This new Pierrot could become so much more. There was joy beneath the mask, hidden from everyone but him, perhaps even hidden from his own inner thoughts. But caught in his love for the Ballerina, he could not see that potential. His terror over losing her chased away any chance of becoming something she did not expect.

That simply would not do. Action was required, and Rouge was thrilled to be of service.

“This your special project now?” Titan asked, indicating the porcelain-faced Pierrot with a nod of his head.

“No,” Rouge said, laying a hand on Titan’s unreasonably muscular forearm. “ You will always be my most special project. But I think there is much I can do for this one.”

The Pierrot Clown was impossible to find on his own, but where the Ballerina danced, he would be sure to appear, dancing just out of her sight. 

Rouge watched them from the shadows. The Ballerina dancing, twirling, pirouetting, and some safe distance away from her, the Pierrot going through weak imitations of her motions, the grace and litheness of her dance not suited at all to his form.

Rouge did not hesitate. He leaped between them, blocking the Ballerina from the Pierrot’s view.

“What now?” he asked, challenging his brother-in-kind. “What will you do without your Lady to inspire you? What will you become?”

But unlike Le Titan, Pierrot did not respond well to challenges and goading. With the Ballerina cut off from his sightline, Pierrot wilted back into the shadows and sat on his haunches.

“You cannot ignore me forever. I can be most persistent.”

Still Pierrot did not answer.

“Fine then,” snapped a frustrated Rouge. “If you insist on hiding behind this mask, away it must go.” And with that, he pulled the porcelain mask off Pierrot’s stunned face.

“You take his mask?”  Le Titan was not pleased.

“That not very nice! That not belong to you. You give that back to him!”

“Absolutely not,” snapped Rouge.

Titan took a step back, not expecting the ferocity of this reply. Somewhat remorseful, Rouge modulated his tone, speaking more softly to his lover.

“Titan, I apologize. I should never yell at you. But no, I cannot return the mask. He refuses to listen to me, and he will not see that imitating her is not his purpose. I’m doing this to help him.”

Titan looked at Rouge doubtfully. 

“You say you help. What Pierrot say?”

“Nothing! That is precisely the problem! But without a mask, a Pierrot can become anything at all. I speak from experience here.”

“Okay. We hide mask. But I no like it.”

Rouge prayed Titan’s faith in him was not misplaced.

For days, the Pierrot Clown remained out of sight, and Rouge grew bored waiting for his re-emergence. He watched the Lost Ballerina instead. There was more to her than he had previously considered. She attempted new, more complicated steps, but her bustling skirts hindered her progress and she stopped out of frustration. Rouge reconsidered his previous sentiments. She wanted to become more than he had considered, but her own fears kept that metamorphosis at bay.

“What a duo these two could be,” he said to Titan that night. “They were made for each other, but they don’t know it yet.”

“That happen often?” Titan asked.

“Not nearly often enough,” Rouge replied, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Once, twice, three times, Rouge attempted to grab the Ballerina’s attention, but always he failed. She would momentarily glance at him, perhaps reminded of the Pierrot Clown, then look beyond him for someone else. 

“How can I help her if she won’t even look at me?” Rouge grumbled to Titan.

“Why you angry at me?”

“What? Oh--oh no, Titan, I would never be angry at you. This project is...”

“Special project is hard.”

“Yes. My special project is a lot harder than I bargained for.”

“But special project is important.”

“I think so. I like to think that what I do here is important.”

“More important than Titan.”

“Never! I… I have not been around much, have I?”

“I understand.”

“How can I entice her, help her to do what I know is best for her?”

“Maybe you not do it,” Titan said. “Maybe other persons better enticers.”

Rouge stuck his tongue out at Titan, assuming his lover was making a joke at his expense. But as he mulled the words over, he suddenly understood. 

“You really are not supposed to be smarter than me.”

“Not smarter. Not stupider. Different kind of smart.”

“I suppose we all are, Titan.”

The Lost Ballerina happened upon the puppet theatre while practicing her steps. She paused to stretch her legs and froze upon seeing the Aerialist spiral upwards.

Out of sight, Rouge watched as the former puppets invited her into their practice. She shook her head.

“I cannot fly with these skirts,” she explained.

“Then remove them!” laughed one of the puppets. “We can help you create a new costume.”

The Ballerina appeared doubtful but followed the four women into the recesses of the theatre. Within an hour she re-emerged in a new costume to the approval of the entire troupe.

The Aerialist extended a graceful hand to the Ballerina and carried her upwards, twirling, until she giggled in delight. They returned to the ground breathless and her voice caught in her throat.

“I wish I knew how to thank you,” she began, only for the Aerialist to shake his head with a smile.

“There is no need. Once upon a time, a mischievous red clown aided me in discovering myself,” the Aerialist smiled at the memory. “And now I pass that gift to you.”

In the shadows, Rouge’s eyes shimmered with tears. True, he had asked the marionettes not to reveal that he had made them aware of the Ballerina, but he saw now that he never had to. Sooner or later, she would have wandered into their theater, and they would have always helped her. They would have always paid it forward.

He had not considered himself a ripple in a pond until now.

He was surprised to find the Pierrot Clown waiting at the dollhouse steps. It was momentarily difficult to recognize him without his mask, which was cracked in two and clutched tightly in his white-gloved hands. Slumped against a wall as he was, it was hard to see the vibrant dancer of before. The Clown was heartbroken, and Rouge silently berated himself for causing the pain.

“My face,” Pierrot said, holding up the broken pieces to Rouge.

“I’m so sorry,” Rouge said. “I only wanted to hide it from you--only wanted you to see what you could be without it. But I can be very clumsy sometimes and I…”

“It does not matter,” the Pierrot Clown gently slipped the pieces into his pocket. “Help me become beautiful enough that she never gives the Aerialist a second thought.”

“You already are, you silly goose,” said Rouge as he pulled his twin into a hug. “Your outside does not yet reflect the inside yet, that is all. A fixable problem, no?”

The Clown looked at him hopefully.

“Well then!” Rouge said. “Have you considered adding some color to your ensemble?”

Rouge and Pierrot arrived at the theatre just as the Ballerina returned to the ground. She giggled, dizzy from the excursion. Pierrot emerged from the shadows and she froze in an instant. Disentangling herself from the red silks, she danced towards him.

“You?” she asked, recognizing him at once.

He nodded, too emotional to respond with words, and turned away, convinced she was gone forever. The Ballerina hesitantly embraced him and lay her head against his back.

From the shadows, Rouge watched, hoping that Pierrot would understand. He only breathed again when he saw the clown take her hand in his own.

And there we are, he smiled. A perfect match.

Rouge wanted them to understand all the toys recognized their new identities, to encircle them in the care only a community could grant. He repositioned a handful of mirrors as they danced. When the duet reached its completion, he stepped out, his image reflected through the mirrors until it appeared a sea of red surrounded the couple.

“Nyssa,” Rouge bowed towards the Lost Ballerina in recognition of her new name. “And Janus,” he repeated the same gesture towards the Pierrot Clown.

“Welcome to a world of limitless possibility.”

The evening parade came and went. For once, Rouge did not join the Prince’s call. He returned to his dollhouse and to his Titan, relishing the quiet after days of excitement.

“Will new favorites take attention?” Titan asked as Rouge entered their home.

“You are my only favorite,” Rouge said, joining him on a faded doll’s couch. For once he happily sat still.

“Besides, they have become as they were meant to be. That is all that interests me. My interest in you is the only constant.”

Titan grunted an assent, and Rouge did not ask for more. He lay his head in Titan’s lap and closed his eyes in contentment.

“You the Prince” whispered Titan softly. “Not him, not anyone else. You .”

Rouge smiled yet stayed silent. To acknowledge Titan’s momentary lapse of emotion would only embarrass him. It was enough to know his beloved cared. Anything more would be too great a step forward for this nebulous connection between them.

“Now no more projects?” asked Titan, hoping to keep his love to himself in the immediate future.

“Not yet,” grinned Rouge. “I have yet to help the Green Bird fly.”