Melissa Chen | Art by Diya Mirji
Teacher raised her ruler and looked grimly over her spectacles at the pupils seated before her.
“Now wait for the bell,” she warned. Nobody stirred from their desk but— Fingers drummed. Pencils tapped rapidly. Rubbers were dribbled. Papers were crumpled and uncrumpled. Fingers brushed and flipped through pages over and over. The whole back row seemed to silently swat an invisible fly buzzing madly around them. A quiet whimper badly contained floated from the corner, and all sweaty tight faces turned and shoes and seats squeaked to investigate the source.
Almost as if the sudden movement triggered it, the bell rang. The room exploded. Laughter and yells mixed with the sharp bright peals of the bell. Fists and arms raised, punching the air. Books slammed.
“School’s out! School’s out!” Someone started the cry which was soon taken up by all. The swirling crowd of children squeezed out the narrow door, and regained its blobby form outside. Without a pause they scampered into the still summer air. The air started at the disturbance but the movement, laughter and smiles imbued it with a new joyous quality. The bright white sun beamed overhead. The grass tickled at the childrens’ calves, the sky an endless blue above them. Their feet were so light they did not trample the little yellow flowers and daisies scattered about the field. They crossed the field in a blink, and popped over the fence. All long the foot of it they threw down their bags and packs, and charged and rolled and tumbled down the hill.
There was no need to collect themselves, not even a second’s break to upright themselves.
“The vendors! The vendors!” The chorus grew, spreading so quickly it was impossible to figure out the one who had started the cry.
Like a bubbling stream, tumbling and tripping but always carrying on noisily, carelessly and happily, they ran across the flowered fields, jumping fences and skirting around big-porched houses and stuffed barns.
Mrs. Wheelwright stuck her pinched face slowly out the garret and shook it. “The children have gone whirlyhead,” she said, scowling.
Mr. Wheelwright stuck his equally gloomy face out and shielded his eyes from the glare. “Aye.”
On and on they went! Flying over the light bouncy grass. The hotness of the day seemed only to give them energy, not sap it. The sunshine was warm on their skin, bright on their hair. Little noses raised up to the air, testing it.
At last they stopped before a small field, still swirling and restless as moving water will be even when it has at last struck something than can hold it for a while.
In the field, tables under tarps were laden with delicacies. Women and men, with tough, wide-brimmed hats to fend off the blaring sun, sweated profusely over these tables. Hands trembling with the demands of great precision, they poured light golden funnel cake batter in calculated, intricate webs into the sizzling mad oil. Terribly anxiously so not to overcook anything, they flipped tender ribeye steaks over hot iron grills. They bit their lips and with worried, straining eyes counted over and over and once over again to ensure they had the right quantities of bread for gooey cheesesteak sandwiches and potatoes for fries and caramel to coat the glistening green candy apples and cookies and sausages to meet the demand of the estimated average number of fried cookie and hot dog consumers even with a margin of error and surely did someone pre-order the right amount of paper sticks for the fairy floss? And then, at the table closest to where the children watched restlessly with watering mouths and delighted eyes, was the speciality of the county. No other summer fair, not that anyone knew of, had this wonderful delicacy.
With sleeves carefully rolled up, the adults in charge of this absolutely important confection, mixed bowls of dough in beautiful colors. They shaped this dough, rolling it out in plump long strands that snaked all the way down the table. Then with the familiarity of years of practice they lashed the dough, swirling and braiding it. Knives flashed as they cut the rainbow dough. The pieces of dough would be chilled now, but this evening plop plop they would fall into vats of hot oil, fished out, frosted and distributed to the county folk as their beloved wildly colored Rainbow Whirlyheads, somehow also the origin of a familiar county phrase.
“Whirlyheads! Whirlyheads!” The children, at last impatient, took up this cry. The cry seemed to embolden them, and they at last descended onto the tables.
The adults cleared their hoarse throats and took up yells themselves, battling to keep the order as they defended the goods. The sanization hazards! Now, watch out for the hot oil! You’ll all have plenty to eat this evening! Now that’s raw! You don’t want a stomachache do you? At last the children were defeated. Only little Paul had managed to seize one of the carefully guarded rainbow lollipops.
“The grounds! The grounds!” yelled the children, refusing to let anything ruin the mood. Hollering and whooping again they raced away. The adults took off the gloves and wiped their massively sweaty foreheads, sighing that the children had gone whirlyhead and the sugar tonight was certainly not going to help the case.
The fairgrounds were right by the cooking field, so the children did not need to run far. Again they quieted a bit and huddled and watched. Carefully, with a full awareness of the damage that must not be done to the items, men and women carried all sorts of large heavy fragile objects, fragments and pieces of the fair, through the big entrance. In front of the entrance, to the side, by a pile of tent covers and stand coverings, a magician and a clown, stood. Brows furrowed in concentration, they practiced their crafts. The magician was trying a trick, muttering and berating himself harshly, for what must remain concealed kept revealing itself, and everything seemed to slip through his fingers. The clown was growing ever more red in the face to match his nose, as he timed his attempts to blow up a balloon and twist it into a little animal as fast as possible to optimize time, and tried to attract the attention of the magician, who was too focused on his tricks to listen much less laugh at the clown’s jokes.
The children hummed in a huddle like a swarm of little honeybees, and then approached.
The clown, pleased at the audience, beckoned them around. The magician hastily stopped his practice, for he knows a magician never reveals his tricks, even when they are terrible. The clown cleared his throat and tried his very best joke.
There was only silence. A cough. Little Paul had nearly choked on his sweet. “Tough crowd,” said the magician, a little too gleefully. “Kids these days,” the clown muttered, giving the magician a dirty look. He turned and aimed a kick at his balloon cart with his oversized shoe, adding a nasty word for emphasis. The children blocked their ears. “Now! Now!” The children unplugged their ears and broke out in a frenzy, shrieking in guilt and excitement. Before the clown and magician could react, little hands had snatched up all the balloons tied to the clown’s cart, and those that did not get a balloon grabbed hold of a big rainbow tent covering and pulled.
“Hey! Hey now!” roared the clown. But the children were off dancing too lightly and quickly for the big feet of the poor clown. The adults setting up the fairgrounds paused in their hard work and looked at the rainbow colored balloons and tent covering flapping away. They had never seen a such summer where the children have gone so whirlyhead. They had better not tear the tent covering.
The children burst into yet another empty grazing field. “Blanket toss! Blanket toss!” they yelled, and swirled around for a bit before they had spaced themselves evenly about the rainbow tent covering, and each grabbed a hold of the edges.
“Here, let Little Paul go first!” Little Paul, still sucking on his lollipop, obligingly clambered onto the tent covering and slip and slid to its middle. The children who had stolen a balloon passed their treasure to Little Paul to hold, so that they might have both hands free to play blanket toss.
“One! Two! Three!” The children heaved their arms upward with all their might, and the covering sprung upward, ballooning above the children’s heads. For a moment all their eyes were filled with the sunlight shining through the thin sheet of rainbow swirls. The children laughed in the hued light. Then at last the air left and the covering deflated, floating and settling down softly. Little Paul was gone.
All the children sobered at once and gulped. “Why, where has he gone?” “He was right there.” “I’ve found his sweet.” The children put down the covering and gathered solemnly to gaze in horror at the lollipop on the ground, with blades of grass and a bit of dirt stuck to it.
“Oi! Oi!” The children looked about. “Oi! Oi! Up here!”
All of them looked up. Little Paul clutched a fistful of balloons, drifting in the air at about the level of the treetops. His face, sticky around the mouth, was laughing. His tongue was stained rainbow, and he had lost a shoe but did not seem to notice.
The children looked at one another. Something settled within all the pits of their stomachs. No one cracked a smile. “Why, he must come down.” One of the children bent back her head and cupped her hands around her mouth. “You must come down, Paul!”
Little Paul kicked his feet midair in delight. “He’s gone absolute whirlyhead.”