The footprints were as big as my snowshoe, the narrow heel a crisp outline, the impression not more than a couple of hours old.
The clown tracks beelined from the forest edge toward my campsite, then grew more erratic as they disappeared between dark spruce trees hunched under their winter burdens. I shuddered, picturing it stumbling through last night's snowy darkness: hands flapping in the cold, grinning fiercely, a low hoot escaping its winter-roughened lips. With my heavy down sleeping bag pulled over my head, I hadn't heard a sound, relying on the campfire to keep away predators.
I plodded to where the tracks entered the clearing, the slush sticking to my snowshoes. The sun had risen above the mountaintops, warm for February, warmer than all previous weather records.
A clump of coarse orange hair clung to a hemlock twig, sodden with mud. The email from the game warden had been accurate—the clowns had left hibernation early, the earliest yet, the unusually high temperatures triggering abnormal metabolic changes.
The troupe's cave would be much farther up the mountain. I pictured melting ice dripping off the cave ceiling, streaking their greasepaint as they lay curled around one another like rats in a nest. With blank expressions and creaking joints, they'd unfold themselves, straighten their faded blouses on their too-lean frames, and honk softly. Then, they'd burst forth from the cave, one after another after another after another after another, bewildered by the bright sunshine, wanting to sate their terrible hunger.
What could one biologist do? I'd soon finish my dissertation on the wild clowns' shrinking range but there could be no future in coulrology. Since my study had begun, frown lines had etched an oval around my mouth.
At my campsite, I methodically stuffed a daypack for the trip up the mountains. The rest of the gear and food went into my larger backpack. I hefted it, looking for a suitable branch to suspend it from, to keep it safe until I returned. A small bag tumbled out, yellow kernels gleaming beneath plastic packaging. My reserve food, my comfort food. I picked it up slowly.
I put the last of the logs on the remnants of yesterday's fire, although I'd return tired and cold tonight, and fed in scraps of wood until flames fingered up. The last of the butter coated the cooking pot and softened the clinking sound the kernels made as they bounced. A puff of acrid smoke crept out from beneath the lid and I shook the pan harder. I should have waited for coals but, then, patience is not one of humankind's virtues.
• • •
Walking in snowshoes takes practice and constant attention to detail. I managed to drink from my water bottle without stopping, juggling the container from hand to hand as I brushed aside wet branches and forged on upwards, inserting my feet into the softening footprints.
My dissertation advisor was convinced that wild clowns would be extinct by 2030. She wanted me to change to cockroach studies and offered to line up space station projects. Her voice rang in my head, drowning out the muttering birds and creaking branches. You can't base a career on a dying species. Don't back a loser. Get out while you can.
I grew warm, opening the ear flaps on my fur-lined hat, letting the breeze flip them up.
As I hiked, hemlock gave way to spruce, which shrank in stature but not in age. Did a hundred-year-old tree have more wisdom than a sapling? I hoped so. I hoped humankind was gaining more than bare knowledge as it slaughtered thousands of species and chased thousands of others into unsuitable environments.
Wild clowns had their own niche in the ecosystem and every right to perform as nature intended. Every right to hibernate, arise, and eat their fill. Suddenly chilled, I drew my ear flaps close again.
The increasingly slushy tracks zigzagged through the undergrowth, always uphill. Sometimes a slip of the foot made my snowshoes clang together like a bell. Once, a rabbit dashed in front of me and I windmilled my arms, barely keeping my balance on the steep slope.
The hike gave me a chance to think, to ruminate on the crazy swirling globe we call home. I watched clouds skidding across the sky and pictured the world's animals and people as if we were all under one gigantic blue canvas roof. It didn't matter if climate change was man-made or not, clowns would soon parade out of the tent behind woolly mammoths and dodo birds. My future children would only ever see clowns in captivity.
I threw a snowball straight up and caught it. At this moment, caught in time until the terrain levelled, I could pretend it wasn't so.
• • •
The afternoon wind slapped my face as I entered the high meadow. Tracks of varying size and depth criss-crossed the snowy expanse. A curving, wide-mouthed cave entrance slashed through the rock face beyond. Drying sweat made me shiver.
A raven honked. I jumped and then made myself turn a deliberate circle, my overlapping tracks creating a daisy pattern in the snow. No wide white teeth gleamed, no broad half-moon eyes stared at me from the dim forest. The troupe should be far away, hunting until dawn.
The wind increased. I took a quick population estimate from the tracks, not even measuring out a plot, anxious to get back before dark.
That distinctive smell—a mixture of musk, decaying rubber, and decomposing sawdust—billowed out of the low cave. At the dirt-littered entrance, I awkwardly knelt in my bulky parka and snowshoes, then hesitated. I could stick my head in. But why take the risk? The clowns would need me in one piece if I was to be their spokesperson.
From far up the mountain, a distant hoot sounded, low and long, silencing the chatter of the birds.
I pulled the filled baggie from my daypack and gently shook it out on a rock by the entrance. As I headed back downhill, I glanced back at the mound of popcorn—unsure if it was a placation, a gift, or an admission of guilt.
Copyright © 2016 Holly Schofield. This story first appeared in the anthology Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her short stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, and many other publications throughout the world. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.