Terese Svoboda ~ Accordion

The clown sang from a kitchen chair she moved in front of our piti­ful water­fall, a rivulet, not a riv­er, and shoved air into her accor­dion in whin­ing accom­pa­ni­ment. O‑ee, she sang, or some­thing in French, her not-native lan­guage but one she affect­ed when hap­py. She was not in uni­form but vis­it­ing us, with child and part­ner. Behind her, in the tiny pond made by some of the stopped-up rivulet, insects cho­russed for dark­ness, and night was drown­ing the day.

That’s what I actu­al­ly said, affect­ing poet­ic speech when, in the half-drunk dark, I couldn’t see lis­ten­ers cringe or form What with their lips. Not that speech was ever so audi­ble over the loud­ness of the tune of the accordion.

The clown’s daugh­ter played hand­sie with my son. Unbothered by the afore­men­tioned bugs who preyed pond­side on flesh uncov­ered in this last flush of sum­mer, the kids were mes­mer­ized with hit­ting each oth­er, and didn’t put out that attrac­tive odor, until they did. The clown put down her instru­ment to com­fort her bit­ten six year old. Mine, only three, was enraged by the sep­a­ra­tion on top of the blood-suck­ing, and cried even loud­er. The clown’s daugh­ter, sob­bing in tan­dem, spot­ted a flut­ter­ing sheet below the water­fall, and sang out Dad!

I was nev­er sure that was the case. He could have been oth­er­wise. There was no resem­blance between her and the elfin red­head who put his fin­gers to his lips for Quiet! and repo­si­tioned the sheet he held over the water. My hus­band, stand­ing stal­wart on the riv­er bank with a faux spear of fork-lashed-to-pole, matched our three year old except for his earnest smile, so intent on stab­bing either of the two fish who tan­ta­lized under the water­fall, or his foot. When the sun was out, these fish were eas­i­ly vis­i­ble in the shallows–but so was his shad­ow. If the spear failed, the sheet was to seine them.

Insane, said the clown, and we all agreed.

She still wore her clown tur­ban and mut­tered, now that the kids had gone silent, obey­ing their fathers, that it could be used as a scoop on the fish bet­ter than the sheet that had a ten­den­cy to hes­i­tate when thrown, alert­ing the fish. We’re not after eels, said her part­ner. She became obsessed with eels after we went to France, he explained, flut­ter­ing the sheet as if the fish­es were bulls in a bull ring. Eels will swim into tur­bans. Or at least one.

I had kissed this mate of hers once in the damp room of a pot­tery facil­i­ty we shared, years ago, pre-chil­dren. The room was indeed damp and also dark, and for weeks I had tend­ed my clay struc­tures inside solo – there was so lit­tle room with all of his plates and pots for any­one else. But he’d just fired his, and when I turned from admin­is­ter­ing slip to a crack in the wall of some­thing I’d made, there he was, at the time clown­less, and thrust­ing his lips for­ward. I met them, my pot of slip between us. An assis­tant showed up just as our lips twist­ed into some­thing more seri­ous, wend­ing her way between the clay forms. In the bright light over the pot­tery wheels we returned to, we nev­er fol­lowed through, not to men­tion the cat­a­stro­phe of an air pock­et inside one of my pieces explod­ing a whole kiln-full of his pots. I was sur­prised to see him at a recent school ori­en­ta­tion, escort­ing an actu­al family.

But the clown, who could not love her? She was still singing, sad and then not, smil­ing big like a real professional.

The fish, unlike the insects, proved not to bite. They swam at our feet – even the clown, accor­dion deflat­ed, had joined the two hunters bank­side – and when the sheet bil­lowed down, the fish fled to cracks in the riv­er rocks.

The clown’s accor­dion sighed when she col­lect­ed it from the lawn where it had fall­en and her girl yawned, the burg­ers grilled ear­ly, hav­ing stuffed us all sleepy, and my son’s chas­ing her had exhaust­ed even him. But when the clown with the girl in her arms and I with my stag­ger­ing son approached the back door, two deer stood on the steps. Without antlers, I expect­ed hero­ics from the men behind us, throw­ing them­selves on their flanks and bring­ing down steaks, but the sound of them pulling the tabs off the deers’ beers was what caused their retreat.

They watched us from the tree line. They weren’t lurk­ing, I explained to the girl who had wan­dered into the kitchen, alarmed more by the two men’s riotous replay of the fish that got away. Deer like to eat at dusk, I told her any­way. The clown jerked open the fridge to give her milk, and her face looked, well, more clown­ish in the bright light.

We pulled out or made up six places to sleep, includ­ing both couch­es. I told a sto­ry about a lot of deer food left in a tree trunk that cheered up the chil­dren, while the clown wheezed her instru­ment at appro­pri­ate moments, and even­tu­al­ly the chil­dren slept. We praised the screens on the porch, and what did the pot­ters’ arched eye­brow mean when he poured a fourth beer for every­one? Was he tak­ing up clown­ing? Were they arched at me? He insist­ed we need­ed a dip in the riv­er to clar­i­fy his point about the dark­ness of water ver­sus that of the beer.

Everyone took off what they were wear­ing. Only flash­es of bare skin lit the way down the path to the actu­al riv­er, a dis­tance quick­ly cov­ered due to clouds of insects. I made a noise hit­ting the cold just like the oth­ers’ O God, then the cool couldn’t be resist­ed. Each of us took a cur­rent and looked at the moon. Long ragged strips of cloud crossed it, and then light­ning by the time we real­ly looked. The clown, a big woman in the way of clowns, stood a half foot over the pot­ter, the riv­er part­ing for them, the wind help­ing. I want­ed to butt my head into their encir­cled arms but instead rain began falling all at once, noth­ing that both­ered any of us at this point except the clown who heard her daugh­ter cry out in the dis­tance over the next boom of thunder.

We shrugged off the water. Tomorrow we would walk the mag­ic for­est behind the riv­er and teach the chil­dren to blue their mouths with berries. I would fall into a swamp try­ing to iden­ti­fy a mush­room, but right then, under the light­ning, nude and wet, the night so damp and his hand brush­ing where the crease of my waist was bent try­ing not to slip on a rock that I could not get pur­chase on, I flailed for my husband’s shoulder.


Terese Svoboda pub­lished her sixth nov­el, Roxy and Coco, and her third col­lec­tion, The Long Swim, this year.