Rebecca had been sitting on the edge of her bed for some time. She was examining the lines on her palm, not with particular interest, but with the rapt expression of someone trying to remember something important.
What was it? A carnival perhaps. She had dreamt of a carnival and there had been a man with a white face on stilts. His pyjamas, impossibly long, were a lot like the ones she had owned as a child – pink with blue stripes. Or maybe it was blue with pink stripes; there was no way of knowing. She flexed her fingers, scarcely noticing them, as they lay in her lap. The dotted white gown that hung loose over her knees brought her back to the drab white-washed room, but only for a moment. It was not a carnival; it was a parade, one that her mind had fabricated of its own volition, stringing together memories from every parade her father had taken her to.
He towered over her, his hat pulled low over his eyes and his shoes making smart clicks on the dusty pavement. When they had pushed through to the front of the crowd, Rebecca saw his brown pinstriped suit whiz past as she was lifted into the air. Straddling his shoulders, a faded teddy bear under one arm, she looked out over the sea of people to the left as the steady beat of a drum grew louder and louder. In the distance a marching band had struck up a tune and led the way through the streets. The sound of trumpets filled the air as two lines of marchers went on by. Behind them, six girls in beautiful sequinned costumes, spinning gracefully in the air, showered the crowds with ribbons and confetti and gold dust. Behind them were two very neat rows of black horses, mounted by men in white uniforms. The clowns were following closely, a separate column of colour and chaotic movement. An infant began to wail loudly as a clown tickled his chin and darted back to the others. Rebecca twisted around in her vantage point, looking after the beautiful gymnasts in the front.
It was nothing like the one she had dreamt of. There were fire breathers, contortionists, elephants in richly embroidered silk draping and dancers in flowing gowns. There was a Chinese dragon that weaved through the narrow street and a number of small men with large moustaches who were playing the same tune on their guitars as they hopped past. Rebecca watched as a group of men in blue costumes came down the street, juggling skittles and fruit. One of them turned to her and winked and as she observed the painted face, she realized it belonged to her father. She looked about her and found that she was not as the parades remembered her. Standing by herself, fully grown, she stared curiously at her father's smiling face and raised a hand gingerly to wave at him.
Rebecca awoke with a gasp and nearly knocked over the IV stand. She massaged her hand where the tubes had been jerked. A fresh cloud of blood was blotting the gauze and she called for the nurse. Refusing dinner, she hung her legs over the bed until her toes touched the cold floor. Her stomach turned and she had to race to the bathroom. She spent nearly ten minutes retching into the toilet, shuddering against the white linoleum. When the strength returned to her bones, she lurched to the sink to wipe her mouth. A gaunt face that she did not recognize looked back at her from the mirror. The dark hair hung limply onto her shoulders and the dark circles under her eyes and bloodless lips added a terrifying quality to her appearance. Groaning helplessly, she staggered back to the bed where she became absorbed by the thoughts that lay beyond the lines of her palms.
The sun had set more than an hour ago, but there was still a warm pink hue to the clouds that hung low against the inky sky. The horrible reflection became more and more prominent in the glass windows with every passing minute. She looked past her dull eyes out over the city. She had grown up her and knew every block and every park. From the West wing of the hospital, she could see the quadrangle that made up the playground that was separated from the duck pond by a patch of trees. A train ran silently past the park, elevated by the tall iron columns. It weaved through the office buildings and then disappeared out of view. The train reminded her of the Chinese dragon. She imagined what it must look like from the inside and how many people were needed to manoeuvre it correctly. As she stared dismally at the spot where her parents' home was, she became aware of someone in the doorway behind her. It was a small figure, like a child's.
Rebecca pressed her palms against the crisp white sheets and turned her body to the door. It was not a child, but a small man. He looked intently at her. The silhouette startled her. She studied him for a moment – he was wearing shoes that were much too large for him and a large floppy hat. His long white socks clamped down on his red trousers at the knee. There were bells hanging from his cuffs and a number of paper flowers plastered to his bright green vest. He was an odd sight and Rebecca didn't think many people got such visitors at Astor Memorial Hospital. The little man held his gaze for a very long time, his pale blue eyes sparkling even in the partial darkness. Her heart was racing despite her protests; she couldn't decide what to do. Hadn't any of the nurses noticed this funny little man tottering about the place?
After a time, the little man turned as if to leave. He stepped out into the corridor, facing the right and then glanced questioningly at her before disappearing.
Rebecca's heart maintained its steady thudding but she had tuned it out. Slowly getting to her feat, fighting the nausea, she went unsteadily to the door. Peering around it, she found the nurse's station was empty and the lights had been turned out in the corridor. She noticed the little man was at the landing of the staircase just beyond the nurse's station. There was no one else about and it all seemed very strange to her. A tube-light at the other end of the corridor was flickering, and the shadow of a gurney pulsated against the walls. In the glow of the staircase, she noticed that his lips and face were painted. The bells at the end of his cap jingled cheerily as he hopped down the stairs. Rebecca stole from her room and went to lean against the railings. She saw his small colourful shape bobbing down the four flights. Barefoot and considerably weakened, she began her descent to the lobby. When she reached the bottom, there was no sign of anyone at all, neither the little man or hospital staff. The wound on the back of her hand was beginning to itch. Rubbing it lightly against the side of her dotted gown, she drifted down the brightly lit lobby. The bench by the stairs, which was usually occupied by visitors, was empty. The only sound in the entire lobby was the rhythmic drip-drop from the water cooler. Rebecca's tongue passed swiftly over her dry lips. Lurching forwards, she placed a paper cup under the tap and twisted it open with shaking hands. Gulping down the water in one go, the feeling of being made of air subsided.
She swallowed a second and third glass of water and tossed the cup into a bin. There was a chirrup from inside and she barely had time to react before an emerald green parrot clambered out onto the rim of the bin and cocked its head at her. The bird pecked at its feathers and turned its head to get a better look at her. A small smile broke out across her ashen face as the parrot bobbed up and down on the rim of the bin. It positioned itself and then took off, fluttering around the room before landing on her shoulder. Rebecca could feel the birds clawed feet press into her skin in a way that suggested it was being careful not to hurt her. Fidgeting under the curtain of her hair, it squawked again. She pulled her hair back and looked around the lobby, expecting one of the nurses to bustle towards her, wagging a finger saying, "no pets allowed, miss!" But all was silent. The parrot nibbled at her ear and she stroked its small smooth head. There was a buzzing sound and then the lights in the hospital went out completely. She stood in the square of amber light coming in through the frosted glass doors of the lobby. The lamps that lit the driveway outside seemed brighter than usual. Then something odd caught her attention.
Through the frosted glass, Rebecca could see shadows outside. At first they seemed random and uncoordinated but as she looked harder, the forms of several graceful bodies, turning and gliding in unison, became clear to her. She walked to the lobby doors and pulled them open, stepping out into the warm night air. Outside, in the parking lot that had been packed with cars, was a circle of dancers, dressed in palely coloured dresses, their hair pulled into a variety of styles, their crimson lips parted cheerfully. They moved swiftly, taking big strides across the tarmac, easing in and out of formations that must have looked fantastic from the air. She heard music, soft tinkling music, and looked around for its source. In a corner, the little man she had seen earlier was winding up a very old gramophone that shone gold in the lamplights. One of the dancers, an olive skinned woman with happy green eyes came towards her. Rebecca held her breath as she took her hand and led her forward. The parrot pushed off from her shoulder and flew up into the dark sky. In a heartbeat it was joined by dozens of other birds and the flock milled about overhead.
There was a flash of light from down the road as a jeep drove up to the hospital. Out of it came a hoard of musicians with an array of instruments. They ranged themselves into rows and columns, tooting and plucking and drumming out of time and making a huge fuss. Finally, when the man in front was satisfied, he raised his hat to Rebecca and bowed low. The green-eyed dancer beamed at her and ushered her to the front of the marching band. Still holding hands, the pair began to walk down the darkened road. As they walked, the unlit lamps glowed to life as if by magic and beneath them, figures were forming out of the darkness. A lion tamer, with a whip and hoop in one hand, stroking the ear of the beast with another, appeared to her and merged into the block of dancers and musicians. Further on, six men in stilts and top hats materialized from the night and joined the gathering. As they marched on, Rebecca's heart pumped blood through her veins furiously. A few young boys on unicycles rode out from behind a street lamp and crisscrossed before her then joined the parade. The trumpets blared happily behind her as every fell in step. Two men with coloured flags appeared as they went on. They bore a crest of sorts, and as they fluttered on either side of her, she noticed the carefully painted flowers and vines wrapping themselves around a large letter 'R'.
The birds swooped down from the night sky, adding sweet melodies to the marching band, and showering the road with confetti and ribbons. Up ahead, a Chinese dragon, with seven pairs of golden shoes was snaking towards them. Miraculously, the whole parade accepted it into its midst and the strains of a harp could be heard from somewhere. Rebecca walked on as the lamps continued illuminating themselves. In the dark, surrounded by the dancers and birds and instruments, the road looked unfamiliar, but she knew it was the road she had taken routinely to the meadow behind her parents' home where her father was buried. The memory was bittersweet and she inhaled deeply. The sound of the music filled her ears and she clutched the hand of the dancer tighter. The parrot returned to her shoulder with a declaration. The flags fluttered in the windless night. The lamps stirred to light as they covered ground.
In the distance, a street lamp came on of its own accord. There was a lone figure standing underneath it. As she came closer, she saw it was a man in a glittering blue vest and baggy trousers. His hat was askew and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He was occupied with juggling batons in his white gloved hands. Rebecca did not get a look at his darkened face until she was much closer. The juggler caught her glance and returned it with a laugh that was inaudible above the clamour. He winked at turned to walk down the road. They followed in happy ceremony. The street lamps began to dim and the parade moved into the darkness.