The Painted Face

Author: Rollin T. Gentry

A series of video clips play on the large screen behind the podium, low budget re-enactments, as a smooth, male voice narrates: fear of heights, fear of the dark, snakes, and spiders. Primitive humans making simple mistakes leading to their demise. All dead, but their tribes never forgot them.

Dr. Janis Everett takes a deep breath and steps to the podium. To the crowd of potential investors, she says, “Genetic memory is a window into our past. With the next round of funding, we hope to begin treating common phobias.” She pauses, thinking, I should stop here before I make a fool of myself. But she doesn’t stop. “Before I conclude, I would like to present one last phobia, which on the surface seems trivial compared to the others. But ask yourselves, ‘Why couldn’t a clown be as deadly as a poisonous snake?'”

Around the campfire, half-naked, dirty people watch a prehistoric clown entertain. Choluk’s long hair is tied up high in pigtails bound with cords of leather. Drool runs down his beard, and his nose is tinted red from the juice of berries. This is not the first time he has acted the fool for the chief. In fact, he loves to make the chief laugh; he loves the chief. Choluk acts drunk and falls down; everyone laughs. The voices Choluk hears are the gods speaking, are they not? When he saw a mouse die after it had eaten the red berries, the gods told him what to do. He dried the berries, ground them to powder, and hid them in his leather pouch.

Choluk bounces around on all fours like a monkey. When everyone is laughing, he empties the poison into the chief’s cup. The chief will now become a god. He continues his act until the chief falls backward, gasping for air. Choluk readily admits his deed. The warriors of the tribe execute him, but they never forget how the laughter distracted them, how they underestimated the fool. And they will always remember his painted face.

Another scene begins.

In Mongolia, a fat man dressed in fine silk sits on a throne. Before him, a juggler stands on one foot, keeping four rocks in the air. The juggler used to be a hunter among his people before the king’s army made slaves of them. He wears the white face paint and clothes of a woman. When he drops a stone, he feels the crack of the whip.

The juggler asks in a little girl’s voice for three torches to replace the stones. The king motions for the guards to comply. The king wants to see if the fool will catch himself on fire. After successfully juggling the torches, he asks for three swords, saying that if he fails, he might very well cut off his manhood and really be a woman then. The king laughs and orders his guards to swap the torches for swords. Keeping the swords in the air, the juggler flirts with the guards like a concubine. They mock him, slapping his face, and laugh until they are out of breath.

In that moment, the juggler hurls the swords at the king, pinning him to his throne, straight through the heart. Before the guards can kill the juggler, he shouts, “For my wife and daughter, you pig!” But the king is already dead.

The screen goes dark. The house lights brighten.

Then like a crack of thunder, sudden applause, and people standing.

Dr. Everett relaxes her grip on the podium and smiles the faintest smile. It seems she isn’t alone after all.

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