The Thief of Laughter

by Liane Whittier

When Laimah was seven, she lost her laughter.

Until that day she had been an ordinary child, of ordinary joys and sorrows, perhaps more fanciful than most: she was a child who saw bricks of gold where others saw roadside beer-bottles caught by the sun, and dreamed of dragons' wings when she watched the neighbors' kites over the field. At the same time she was blind to the world's darker turns, as children can be who have never known death or privation or pain.

But three days after her seventh birthday she became a child who did not laugh, and that is a strange child indeed.

Her mother was a gentle woman named Nadia. She had been beautiful, until worry burned the youth from her and turned her coal-dark hair to ash. Laimah was her only child, carried with her from a land where poppies bloomed like carpets of blood and the distant thunder of gunfire rumbled on the horizon. Nadia fled before that storm broke, bearing her daughter to a safer shore. They had no other family in the world.

After Laimah lost her laughter, she still slept, and ate, and went to school with crayons and lunchbox. But she did these things without joy, and only when told. She did not smile; she did not play. Her skin grew pale and her eyes grew dark, and a shadow fell over her home.

Nadia took her daughter to a priest, who offered prayer and held out his bowl. She went to a doctor, who offered pills and held out his pen. But when Nadia had given her last penny to bowls and bills, Laimah's smile did not return.

In desperation, Nadia began seeking hope in rumors and tales, and so learned of an old woman with a great reputation for wisdom. Some said that she was a witch, while others said she was not, but was rather so old that she had seen everything in the world, and now could be surprised by nothing. Nadia did not know what to believe, except perhaps that this woman might help. She set out to find the crone.

The old woman lived in a bad part of the city, where the narrow streets stank of curdled dreams and gaunt-faced wraiths slunk among the abandoned buildings. Hard-eyed young men stood sentinel on the corners, forbidding as ever an ogre was in his woods. But Nadia had dressed in rags, as had many a supplicant before her, and she crept by without their notice.

Fierce black dogs, with blazes of orange over their hearts and eyes, stalked inside the fence that enclosed the old woman's home. They growled when Nadia approached, and showed their teeth, and she stopped, for she did not know how to pass them. She might have stood there all her life if the door to the house had not opened.

"Who are you?" asked the crone in the doorway. "Why are you here?"

"My name is Nadia. I am here because my daughter has lost her laughter."

"Ah," said the old woman. "Then you had better come in."

"But the dogs?"

"Will not bite one of good and innocent heart." The old woman smiled, a wrinkle deeper than the rest. "Have you forgotten your fairy tales?"

To that Nadia had no answer, though she had many doubts. But she went past the dogs, and they did not bite, and so she came to the door.

Inside the house smelled of smoke and roses. Nadia sat, and the old woman poured tea.

"When did your daughter stop laughing?"

"Three days after her seventh birthday."

"Where did she go on that day?"

"To school, and to the woods behind our house. She has played there for years."

"Then it is the Gray Man you want," said the old woman. "The thief of laughter. You will find him in those woods, if you know how to look."

"And how is that?"

"With the eyes of a child: open to wonder and blind to fear. Only then will you be able to see the lures that he sets and the paths that he walks, for he does not leave them out to adults."

"What shall I do when I find him?"

"You must take his tooth. You will know the right one when you hear it. A mother knows the sound of her daughter's laugh."

"How can I keep him from harming me?"

"Ah, now that is the trick," said the old woman. "Those who can see the Gray Man are often defenseless against him. Remember that you are not a child, even if you choose to see the world's wonders like one, and that the terrors of the night hold no fear. You know what real fear is, dear lady; you know very well. It is more than the tricks of fairies. Remember that, and you will be safe from harm. But remembering is not always easy."

"Thank you," Nadia whispered. "How can I thank you?"

"A blessing will do. A mother's blessing is a powerful thing. And remember me when you find someone else who has lost her way. I grow lonely with so few visitors."

So Nadia blessed her and left the city in her cloak of rags and returned to her home by the woods.

The next morning she went out to the forest. Now Nadia had lived in her house for years, and through every morning's coffee-steam she looked at the same scrubby patch of woods. Yet she had never truly seen it. What was there to hold the eye? Two acres of spindly trees and ragged brush, a scrap of land worth nothing. She had seen its borders on a plat, mapped out in black and white, before ever she set foot on her land.

But knowing the borders of a place and knowing what lies inside are two very different things, and already Nadia knew that something terrible lurked within her woods. At the edge she hesitated, seeing all the half-real monsters that waited under the trees. Then she thought of her daughter, and plunged in -

- and came out twenty minutes later, her gardening shoes caked with mud and the neighbor's cow staring at her with dumb, placid brown eyes.

She had seen nothing. Nothing dangerous, nothing wondrous. Only sticks and leaves and dirt. Nadia frowned, turned about, and strode back. Again she saw nothing to slow her step; again she emerged into the ordinary. Fear rose like bile in her throat: if she could not find the Gray Man, how could she steal his tooth?

Now it is said that there is magic in third tries, but perhaps it would be truer to say that there is experience; for in trying twice, one has learned what does not work and that the failure was no fluke. Certainly this was so for Nadia. As she stood outside the forest, lost in her own backyard, she put aside the haste that had twice failed her and reflected on the old woman's words.

What did it mean to see with the eyes of a child?

She had not been a child for a very long time. Hardship withers innocence, and hardship had blighted Nadia's life almost as far back as she could remember. But there had been a handful of years, before her homeland fell into terror and ruin, when she had believed the world a magical place, and had felt invulnerable under her parents' eyes.

Nadia squatted among the dead brown leaves, her knees creaking in the cold, and tried to imagine how the forest would look if she still had that happy, mistaken belief.

She could not. But as she crouched there, low to the ground, she caught a flash of color amidst the late autumn drab. Tiny pansies, fine as fairies' embroidery, dappled the forest floor with violet and gold. Nadia had never noticed them before. She wondered if her daughter had.

She followed the pansies in a little way, trying to trace their spread, and while she was looking she noticed a rat's skull lying beneath the stems. Or perhaps it was something stranger. The eyes seemed too large, the yellow teeth too sharp.

If she could find the rest of the bones, she might know what the creature had been. She ventured in deeper, drawn by the small mystery. And then she forgot it, as she glimpsed red-and-white toadstools that sparkled with new-fallen dew, despite the frost in the air. A wisp of tinkling bell-music, broken up on the wind, caught her ears and drew her in; she left the mushrooms neglected.

The forest had never been this large, Nadia thought vaguely, as she followed the drift of the song. Surely she should have reached its borders by now. But the trees that surrounded her were taller and closer than the spindly young things she'd seen on her first crossing. These were great grandfathers of the wood, shaggy and gray-bearded with moss. Bright mushrooms sprouted beneath them. Pansies wreathed their roots in colorful lace. A path snaked between their trunks, and Nadia stepped onto it as though she walked in a dream.

The path led to a tiny, thatched cottage. A thread of smoke curled up from its chimney. Its half-open windows were frosted like sugarpane, and a familiar fragrance wafted from them as Nadia drew near. Not gingerbread, as she half-expected, but the scents of her own childhood: honey and roasting pistachios and the buttery sweetness of asabia el aroos in fresh syrup.

She knocked on the door.

A woodcutter answered. His cheeks were round and red as a blushing apple's, his hair white as cotton-wool. Friendliness crinkled the corners of his eyes - and yet those eyes, so black behind their half-moon spectacles, sent a chill along Nadia's spine.

"Please come in," he said. "I was just setting the table." And he smiled.

That smile shattered Nadia's illusions. Until that moment she had half been under the forest's spell. Each step, each small wonder along the way had done its part to persuade her of the magic of possibilities, so that she was willing to accept ancient trees growing in her scrap-woods and a strange cottage offering sweets from another life. But she had never been easily enchanted, and the old woman's words had kept her wary.

His teeth were not his own. They were too small: children's milk-teeth in a mouth broad with age. Gray rot corroded their edges, so that he seemed to smile with a mouthful of smoked cheese. The teeth were unevenly decayed; some were wet charcoal stumps that might drop out at any moment, while others were just beginning to show their stains.

One of them was Laimah's. But Nadia could not yet tell which.

The rest of the man's appearance was equally strange under its friendly illusion, which had slipped like a carnival mask knocked askew. He was much shorter than she, and far too gaunt to be human. His hairless skin was a pearly gray, and his long fingers ended in fine, transparent claws. He wore scraps of clothing that humans had cast off over the course of a thousand years, pieced together with no regard for fabric or design. Every thread was some shade of gray.

As Nadia looked away from the man, trying to hide her shock, she saw the rest of her surroundings with clear eyes. The original images lingered as shimmering phantoms, but beneath them she could see the true forms. The cottage stood revealed as a heap of cracked timbers and tilting stones, with bits from a half-dozen other houses poking out at random. The trees were leafless and long dead, their trunks pocked with beetle holes; the toadstools beneath them were squat and misshapen. But the pansies were real.

"Won't you come in?" the Gray Man repeated. He did not seem to notice her alarm.

"Yes," she said. The word wavered but it came. "Yes."

His smile widened, and he beckoned her in.

The mirages continued. Glass-fronted cabinets lined the walls, papered in blue and white and laden with curiosities. To Nadia's eyes these trappings of a country home were transparently unreal. She saw the crooked shelves propped up with rocks and rusting nails; she saw that there was no wallpaper, but only blotches of mold creeping over the wood. And she saw that the ornaments which filled the Gray Man's home were all the same under their illusions: jars of clouded glass, each containing a single child's tooth. Every tooth was so withered and twisted that Nadia would not have recognized it if she had not seen the stumps in the Gray Man's mouth.

Spectral laughter echoed around those ruined teeth, so faint that Nadia could barely make out the sound. It was high, mad laughter, tinged with hysteria. Each ghostly voice was a child's. She did not hear Laimah's among them.

"Do you like stories?" the Gray Man asked as he led her down the tooth-lined hall.

"Good ones."

"I tell the best. Would you care to listen?"

"No." Nadia drew in her courage with a breath. "I am here because you stole my daughter's laughter, and I will have it back."

"Will you?" The illusion made the Gray Man's false eyes twinkle with grandfatherly amusement. Beneath it, he bared his stolen teeth in a snarl. "How is that?"

"However I must." She forced bravery into her voice, and then made herself believe it. "You say you tell the best stories. I challenge you to a duel of tales. If I can tell one better than yours, then you must return my daughter's tooth."

"If not?"

"Then I will give you one of mine."

"Agreed," he said, and this time he smiled with both faces. He opened the door to a parlor at the hall's end. Dust and powdery leaf-mold covered the furniture under its wholesome illusions. "Sit, and I will tell you tales such as you have never heard before."

Nadia settled herself on a stool that time and worms had turned to cork, and the Gray Man began.

Afterward she could never remember what his tale had been about. Not a wisp of plot or personality lingered in her memory. Nor could she describe the feeling of the story: any attempt was as fruitless as trying to recapture the thunder of an orchestra with a single, untrained voice.

But while the telling went on, nothing else in the world was real.

She listened. More than that: she hung onto every word the Gray Man gave her. She nodded knowingly at the characters' foibles and gasped at their fates. She cringed at their torments and flushed at their indignities, and when they triumphed, she felt a little thrill of her own. And she laughed - oh, how she laughed: at the silly and the happy and the unexpected, and sometimes because there was simply nothing to say. Such was the magic he wove.

There was, however, one weakness in his story. It was well hidden; she might never have noticed it without the old woman's warning. But forewarned, she saw the hole as surely as an archer spots a missing dragonscale.

The Gray Man did not know fear. He did not know sorrow. Ageless and friendless, the fairy-teller lacked any understanding of human grief. To Nadia, who had so long lived in the shadow of loss, his words rang false as his illusions.

And so she took her turn.

"I grew up among poppies," she said. "Have you ever seen fields of poppies? Seas of red between the mountains. That is what I remember. I wonder if they still grow there, or if the soldiers have burned them all.

"We fled the mountains when I was too young to know why. My family settled in a small village to the south. It was nearly empty when we came: nothing but ruins and bullet scars, the people all gone. I used to build dollhouses out of the rubble. I had to imagine the dolls.

"We grew poppies. There wasn't land enough to live on anything else. We planted the flowers in small plots, close to the village, so we would not have to wander far to tend them. I used to wonder if anyone was buried beneath the plots; I wondered if anyone grew poppies over our dead. The poppy is the flower of forgetfulness, but it is always other people's memories they cover. Our own, we run from.

"At harvest we went out with knives and cut crosses into the pods. They wept, and we collected their tears, for the pain of flowers numbs our own. And this is a valuable thing.

"We boiled the tears and sold them to a soldier without a uniform. I imagine he sold them to someone else, and spent the money on weapons; exchanging old griefs for new ones was a common bargain then. Whether or not it was the one he made, it was soon enough ours.

"The little we had from the flowers was supposed to carry us across the border. There wasn't enough for anything else. Not for a dog to sniff out mines. Not for a doctor, not for medicine, even if there had been anyone able to sell us anything stronger than hope." She pushed back the gray veil of her hair, her face still unlined beneath. "My mother and I lived to make the crossing. She saw my daughter born, and then she passed. I will not let you take what I have left."

"And that is your story?" the Gray Man asked.

"That is my story."

"You believe that is better than mine?"

"Yes," Nadia said. "Because it is true."

The fey creature frowned. Then, as the fullness of her words struck him, he howled. He stamped his feet; he gnashed his teeth; he shouted terrible imprecations. His illusions melted in his rage.

The woodcutter's smile and the false cheer of his cottage dissolved like smoke in the wind, and the Gray Man stood revealed as a creature of shadows and rags, standing in a hovel of scavenged ruins. He gnashed his teeth so hard that they popped from his mouth like beads from a snapped necklace. He stamped his feet so violently that he tore himself in two, and Nadia saw that there was nothing inside his rags but shadows and the echo of trapped laughter.

And then he was gone, and the cottage with him, and Nadia stood in the scrub-woods of her own backyard. A tangle of wind-knotted rags flapped on the thorns of a dead bramble before her; a handful of small teeth lay scattered like breadcrumbs in the leaves underfoot. She stooped toward them, and heard the whisper of faraway laughter, and picked the one that sounded most like her daughter's.

Then she plucked one of the pansies that still rose bright from the loam, and twined it around her fingers, and went home to see Laimah smile.