Fool Chapter 12




Having set the course of events in motion, I wonder now if my training to be a nun, and my polished skills at telling jokes, juggling, and singing songs fully qualify me to start a war. I have so often been the instrument of the whims of others, not even a pawn at court, merely an accoutrement to the king or his daughters. An amusing ornament. A tiny reminder of conscience and humanity, tempered with enough humor so it can be dismissed, laughed off, ignored. Perhaps there is a reason that there is no fool piece on the chessboard. What action, a fool? What strategy, a fool? What use, a fool? Ah, but a fool resides in a deck of cards, a joker, sometimes two. Of no worth, of course. No real purpose. The appearance of a trump, but none of the power. Simply an instrument of chance. Only a dealer may give value to the joker. Make him wild, make him trump. Is the dealer Fate? God? The king? A ghost? Witches?

The anchoress spoke of the cards in the tarot, forbidden and pagan as they were. We had no cards, but she would describe them for me, and I drew their images on the stones of the antechamber in charcoal. "The fool's number is zero," she said, "but that's because he represents the infinite possibility of all things. He may become anything. See, he carries all of his possessions in a bundle on his back. He is ready for anything, to go anywhere, to become whatever he needs to be. Don't count out the fool, Pocket, simply because his number is zero."

Did she know where I was heading, or do her words only have meaning to me now, as I, the zero, the nothing, seek to move nations? War? I couldn't see the appeal.

Drunk, and dire of mood one night, Lear mused of war when I suggested that what he needed to cast off his dark aspect was a good wenching. "Oh, Pocket, I am too old, and the joy of a fuck withers with my limbs. Only a good killing can still boil lust in my blood. And one will not do, either. Kill me a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand on my command - rivers of blood running through the fields - that's what pumps fire into a man's lance."

"Oh," said I. "I was going to fetch Shanker Mary for you from the laundry, but ten thousand dead and rivers of blood might be a bit beyond her talents, majesty."

"No, thank you, good Pocket, I shall sit and slide slowly and sadly into oblivion."

"Or," said I, "I could put a bucket on Drool's head and beat him with a sack of beets until the floor is splattered crimson while Shanker Mary gives you a proper tug to accentuate the gore."

"No, fool, there is no pretending to war."

"What's Wales doing, majesty? We could invade the Welsh, perpetrate enough slaughter to raise your spirits, and have you back for tea and toast."

"Wales is ours now, lad."

"Oh bugger. What's your feeling on attacking North Kensington, then?"

"Kensington's not a mile away. Practically in our own bailey."

"Aye, nuncle, that's the beauty of it, they'd never see it coming. Like a hot blade through butter, we'd be. We could hear the widows and orphans wailing from the castle walls - like a horny lullaby for you."

"I should think not. I'm not attacking neighborhoods of London to amuse myself, Pocket. What kind of tyrant do you think me?"

"Oh, above average, sire. Well above bloody average."

"I'll have you speak no more of war, fool. You've too sweet a nature for such dastardly pursuits."

Too sweet? Moi? Methinks the art of war was made for fools, and fools for war. Kensington trembled that night.

On the road to Gloucester I let my anger wane and tried to comfort the old king as best I could by lending him a sympathetic ear and a gentle word when he needed it.

"You simple, sniveling old toss-beast! What did you expect to happen when you put the care of your half-rotted carcass in the talons of that carrion bird of a daughter?" (I may have had some residual anger.)

"But I gave her half my kingdom."

"And she gave you half the truth in return, when she told you she loved you all."

The old man hung his head and his white hair fell in his face. We sat on stones by the fire. A tent was set in the wood nearby for the king's comfort, as there was no manor house in this northern county for him to take refuge. The rest of us would sleep outside in the cold.

"Wait, fool, until we are under the roof of my second daughter," said Lear. "Regan was always the sweet one, she will not be so shabby in her gratitude."

I had no heart to chide the old man any more. Expecting kindness from Regan was hope sung in the key of madness. Always the sweet one? Regan? I think not.

My second week in the castle I found young Regan and Goneril in one of the king's solars, teasing little Cordelia, passing a kitten the little one had taken a fancy to over her head, taunting her.

"Oh, come get the kitty," said Regan. "Be careful, lest it fly out the window." Regan pretended she might throw the terrified little cat out the window, and as Cordelia ran, arms stretched out to grab the kitten, Regan reeled and tossed the kitten to Goneril, who swung the kitten toward another window.

"Oh, look, Cordy, she'll be drowned in the moat, just like your traitor mother," said Goneril.

"Nooooooo!" wailed Cordelia. She was nearly breathless from running sister to sister after the kitten.

I stood in the doorway, stunned at their cruelty. The chamberlain had told me that Cordelia's mother, Lear's third queen, had been accused of treason and banished three years before. No one knew exactly the circumstances of the crime, but there were rumors that she had been practicing the old religion, others that she had committed adultery. All the chamberlain knew for sure was that the queen had been taken from the tower in the dead of night, and from that time until my arrival at the castle, Cordelia had not uttered a coherent syllable.

"Drowned as a witch, she was," said Regan, snatching the kitten out of the air. But this time the little kitten's claws found royal flesh. "Ow! You little shit!" Regan tossed the kitten out the window. Cordelia loosed an ear-shattering scream.

Without thinking I dived through the window after the cat and caught the braided cord with my feet as I flew through. I caught the kitten about five feet below the window as the cord burned between my ankles. Not having thought the move completely through, I hadn't counted on how to catch myself, kitten in hand, when the cord slammed me into the tower wall. The cord tightened around my right ankle. I took the impact on that shoulder and bounced while I watched my coxcomb flutter like a wounded bird to the moat below.

I tucked the kitten into my doublet, then climbed back up the cord and in through the window. "Lovely day for a constitutional, don't you think, ladies?"

The three of them all stood with their mouths hanging open, the older sisters had backed against the walls of the solar. "You lot look like you could use some air," said I.

I took the kitten from my doublet and held it out to Cordelia. "Kitty's had quite an adventure. Perhaps you should take her to her mum for a nap." Cordelia took the kitten from me and ran out of the room.

"We can have you beheaded, fool," said Regan, shaking off her shock.

"Anytime we want," said Goneril, with less conviction than her sister.

"Shall I send in a maid to tie back the tapestry, mum?" I asked, with a grand wave to the tapestry I'd loosed from the wall when I leapt.

"Uh, yes, do that," commanded Regan. "This instant!"

"This instant," barked Goneril.

"Right away, mum." And with a grin and a bow, I was gone from the room.

I made my way down the spiral stairs clinging to the wall, lest my heart give out and send me tumbling. Cordelia stood at the bottom of the stairs, cradling the kitten, looking up at me as if I were Jesus, Zeus, and St. George all back from a smashing day of dragon slaying. Her eyes were unnaturally wide and she appeared to have stopped breathing. Bloody awe, I suppose.

"Stop staring like that, lamb, it's disturbing. People will think you've a chicken bone caught in your throat."

"Thank you," she said, with a great, shoulder-shaking sob.

I patted her head. "You're welcome, love. Now run along, Pocket has to fish his hat from the moat and then go to the kitchen and drink until his hands stop shaking or he drowns in his own sick, whichever comes first."

She backed away to let me pass, never taking her eyes from mine. It had been thus since the night I arrived at the tower - when her mind first crept out from whatever dark place it had been living before my arrival - those wide, crystal-blue eyes looking at me with unblinking wonder. The child could be right creepy.

"Do not make yourself a maid to surprise, nuncle," said I. I held the reins of my and the king's horse as they drank from an ice-laced stream some hundred miles north of Gloucester. "Regan is a treasure to be sure, but she may have the same mind as her sister. Although they will deny it, it's often been the case."

"I cannot think it so," said the king. "Regan will receive us with open arms." There was a racket behind us and the king turned. "Ah, what is this?"

A gaily painted wagon was coming out of the wood toward us. Several of the knights reached for swords or lances. Captain Curan waved for them to stand at ease.

"Mummers, sire," said the Captain.

"Aye," said Lear, "I forgot, the Yule is nearly on us. They'll be going to Gloucester as well, I'll wager, to play for the Yule feast. Pocket, go tell them that we grant them safe passage and they may follow our train under our protection."

The wagon creaked to a stop. Happening upon a train of fifty knights and attendants in the countryside would put any performer on guard. The man driving the wagon stood at the reins and waved. He wore a grand purple hat with a white plume in it.

I leapt the narrow stream, and made my way up the road. When the driver saw my motley he smiled. I, too, smiled, in relief - this was not the cruel master from my own days as a mummer.

"Hail, fool, what finds you so far from court and castle?"

"I carry my court with me and my castle lies ahead, sirrah."

"Carry your court? Then that white-haired old man is - "

"Aye, King Lear himself."

"Then you are the famous Black Fool."

"At your bloody service," said I, with a bow.

"You're smaller than in the stories," said the big-hatted weasel.

"Aye, and your hat is an ocean in which your wit wanders like a lost plague ship."

The mummer laughed. "You give me more than my due, sirrah. We trade not in wit like you, wily fool. We are thespians!"

With that, three young men and a girl stepped out from behind the wagon and bowed gracefully and with far too much flourish than was called for.

"Thesbians," said they, in chorus.

I tipped my coxcomb. "Well, I enjoy a lick of the lily from time to time myself," said I, "but it's hardly something you want to paint on the side of a wagon."

"Not lesbians," said the girl, "thesbians. We are actors."

"Oh," said I. "That's different."

"Aye," said big hat. "We've no need of wit - the play's the thing, you see. Not a word passes our lips that hasn't been chewed thrice and spat out by a scribe."

"Unburdened by originality are we," said an actor in a red waistcoat.

The girl said, "Although we do bear the cross of fabulously shiny hair - "

"Blank slates, we are," said another of the actors.

"We are mere appendages of the pen, so to speak," said big hat.

"Yeah, you're a bloody appendage, all right," I said under my breath. "Well, actors then. Smashing. The king has bade me tell you that he grants you safe passage to Gloucester and offers his protection."

"Oh my," said big hat. "We are only going as far as Birmingham, but I suppose we could double back from Gloucester if his majesty wishes us to perform."

"No," said I. "Please, do pass through and on to Birmingham. The king would never impede the progress of artists."

"You're certain?" said big hat. "We've been rehearsing a classic from antiquity, Green Eggs and Hamlet, the story of a young prince of Denmark who goes mad, drowns his girlfriend, and in his remorse, forces spoiled breakfast on all whom he meets. It was pieced together from fragments of an ancient Merican manuscript."

"No," said I. "I think it will be too esoteric for the king. He is old and nods off during long performances."

"Shame," said big hat. "A moving piece. Let me do a selection for you. 'Green eggs, or not green eggs? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to eat them in a box, with a fox - '"

"Stop!" said I. "Go now, and quickly. War has come to the land and rumor has it that as soon as they've finished with the lawyers, they're going to kill all the actors."


"Aye," I nodded most sincerely. "Quick, on to Birmingham, before you are slaughtered."

"Everyone jump on," said big hat, and the actors did as directed. "Fare thee well, fool!" Then he snapped the reins and drove off, the wagon's wheels bouncing in the ruts of the road.

Lear's train parted and watched as the team pulled the wagon by at a gallop.

"What was that?" asked Lear when I returned.

"Wagonload of knobs," said I.

"Why do they hurry, so?"

"We commanded it so, nuncle. Half their troupe is ill with fever. We want them nowhere near your men."

"Oh, good show, then, lad. I thought you might be missing the life and were going to join their troupe."

I shuddered at the thought. It had been a cold December day like this when I'd first come to the White Tower with my mummer troupe. We were decidedly not thespians, but singers, jugglers, and acrobats, and I a special asset because I could do all three. Our master was a crooked Belgian named Belette, who bought me from Mother Basil for ten shillings and the promise to feed me. He spoke Dutch, French, and a very broken English, so I don't know how he managed to secure the White Tower for a performance that Christmas, but I was told later that the troupe that was supposed to have performed had suddenly taken ill with stomach cramps and I suspect that Belette poisoned them.

I had been with Belette for months, and except for the beatings and cold nights sleeping under a wagon, I had received little but my daily bread, the occasional cup of wine, and the skills of knife-throwing and sleight of hand as it could be applied to purse cutting.

We were led into the great hall at the tower, which was filled with nobles reveling and feasting on platters of food such as I had never seen. King Lear sat at the center of the main table, flanked by two beautiful girls about my age, who I would later find out were Regan and Goneril. Beside Regan sat Gloucester, his wife, and their son Edgar. The intrepid Kent sat on the other side next to Goneril. Under that table, at Lear's feet, a little girl was curled up, watching the celebration - wide-eyed, like a frightened animal, clinging to a rag doll. I must confess, I thought the child might be deaf or even simpleminded.

We performed for perhaps two hours, singing songs of the saints during dinner, then moving on to bawdier fare as the wine flowed and the guests loosened their hold on propriety. By late in the evening everyone was laughing, the guests were dancing with the performers, and even the commoners who lived in the castle had joined the party, but the little girl remained under the table, making not a sound. Not a smile, not an eyebrow raised in delight. There was light there behind those crystal-blue eyes - this was not a simpleton - but she seemed to be staring out of them from afar.

I crawled under the table and sat next to her. She barely acknowledged my presence. I leaned in close and nodded toward Belette, who stood by a column near the center of the hall, leering lecherously at the young girls who frolicked about him. I could see the little girl spied the scoundrel, too. Ever so softly, I sang a little song the anchoress had taught me, with the lyrics changed a bit to adapt to the situation.

"Belette was a rat, was a rat, was a rat, was a rat,

Belette was a rat, was a rat, was a rat, was a rat,

Belette was a rat who ate his tail."

And the little girl pulled back and looked at me, as if to see if I had really sung such a thing. And I sang on:

"Belette was a rat, was a rat, was a rat,

Belette was a rat, was a rat, was a rat,

Belette was a rat, who drowned in a pail."

And the little girl cackled - a broken, little-girl yodel of a laugh that rang of innocence and joy and delight.

I sang on, and ever so softly, she sang with me,

"Belette was a rat, was a rat, was a rat,

Belette was a rat - "

And we were no longer alone under the table. There was another pair of crystal-blue eyes, and behind them a white-haired king. The old king smiled and squeezed my biceps. And before the other guests noticed that the king was under the table, he sat back up on his throne, but he reached down and lay a hand across the little girl's shoulder and the other upon mine. It was a hand reached across a vast chasm of reality - from the highest position of ruler of the realm, to a lowborn orphan boy who slept in the mud under a wagon. I thought it must have been how a knight felt when the king's sword touched his shoulder, elevating him to nobility.

"Was a rat, was a rat, was a rat," we sang.

When the party died down and noble guests hung drunk over the tables, the servants piled onto the floor before the fire, Belette began to move among the revelers and tap each of his performers, calling them to gather by the door. I had fallen asleep under the table, and the little girl against my arm. He pulled me up by my hair. "You did nothing all night. I watched." I knew there was a beating in store for when we got back to the wagon, and I was prepared for it. At least I had eaten some supper at the feast.

But as Belette turned to drag me away he stopped, abruptly. I looked up to see the master frozen in space, a sword-point pressed into his cheek just below his eye. He let go of my hair.

"Good thought," said Kent, the old bull, pulling his sword back, but holding it steadily aimed, a hand's breadth from Belette's eye.

There was a sound of coin on the table and Belette couldn't help but look down, even at the peril of his life. A doeskin purse as big as a man's fist lay before him.

The chamberlain, a tall, severe chap who looked perpetually down his nose, stood beside Kent. He said, "Your payment, plus ten pounds, which you shall accept as payment for this boy."

"But - " said Belette.

"You are a word from your mortality, sirrah," said Lear. "Do go on." He sat straight and regal on his throne, one hand pressed to the cheek of the little girl, who had awakened and was clinging to his leg.

Belette took the purse, bowed deeply, and backed across the hall. The other mummers of my troupe bowed and followed him out.

"What is your name, boy?" asked Lear.

"Pocket, your majesty."

"Well, then, Pocket, do you see this child?"

"Yes, majesty."

"Her name is Cordelia. She is our youngest daughter, and henceforth shall be your mistress. You have one duty above all, Pocket. That is to make her happy."

"Yes, majesty."

"Take him to Bubble," said the king. "Have her feed and bathe him, then find him new clothes."

Back on the road to Gloucester, Lear said, "So, what is your will, Pocket? Would you be a traveling mummer again - trade the comfort of the castle for the adventure of the road?"

"Apparently, I have, nuncle," said I.

We camped at the stream, which froze over during the night. The old man sat shivering by the fire with his rich fur cloak wrapped around him; the garment so full and the man so slight that it appeared he was being consumed by a slow but well-groomed beast. Only his white beard and the hawk nose were visible outside the cloak - two stars of fire shone back in the cape creature, his eyes.

Snow fell around us in great wet orgies of flakes, and my own woolen cloak, which I'd pulled over my head, was sodden.

"Have I been so unfit as a father that my daughters would turn on me so?" asked Lear.

Why, now, did he choose to stare into the dark barrel of his soul, when he'd been content all these years to simply scoop out his desires and let the consequences wash over whomever they may? Bloody inopportune time for introspection, after you've given away the roof over your head. But I did not say so.

"What would I know of proper fathering, sire? I had no father nor mother. I was reared by the Church, and I'd not give a hot squirt of piss for the lot of them."

"Poor boy," said the king. "As long as I live, you shall have father and family."

I would have pointed out that he had himself declared his crawl to the grave commenced, and that given his performance with his daughters, I might do better to go forth an orphan, but the old man had rescued me from the life of a slave and wanderer, and given me a home in the palace, with friends and, I suppose, family of a sort. So I said, "Thank you, majesty."

The old man sighed heavily and said, "None of my three queens ever loved me."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Lear, I'm a jester, not a bloody wizard. If you're going to keep diving into the muck of your regrets then I'll just hold your sword for you and you can see if you can get your ancient ass moving enough to fall on the pointy part so we can both get some bloody peace."

Lear laughed then - twisted old oak that he was - and patted my shoulder. "I could ask nothing more of a son than he give me laughter in my despair. I'm off to bed. Sleep in my tent, tonight, Pocket, out of the cold."

"Aye, sire." I was touched by the old man's kindness, I cannot deny it.

The old man tottered over to his tent. One of the pages had been carrying hot stones into the tent for an hour and I felt the heat rush out as the king ducked inside.

"I'll be in after I've had a wee," said I. I walked to the edge of the fire's light and beside a great bare elm was relieving myself when a blue light shimmered in the forest before me.

"Well, that's a woolly tuft of lamb wank," said a woman's voice, just as the girl ghost stepped out from behind the tree upon which I was weeing.

"God's balls, wisp, I've almost peed on you!"

"Careful, fool," said the ghost, looking frighteningly solid now - just a tad translucent - snowflakes were passing through her. But I was not frightened.

"Warm thy grateful heart,

In the king's family,

But for his royal crimes,

You'd not an orphan be."

"That's it?" I asked. "Rhymes and riddles? Still?"

"All you need for now," said the ghost.

"I saw the witches," said I. "They seemed to know you."

"Aye," said the ghost. "There's dark deeds afoot at Gloucester, fool. Don't lose sight."

"Sight of what?"

But she was gone, and I was standing in the woods, my willie in my hand, talking to a tree. On to Gloucester in the morning, and I'd see what I was not to lose sight of. Or some such nonsense.

Cornwall's and Regan's flags flew over the battlements alongside Gloucester's, showing they had already arrived. Castle Gloucester was a bundle of towers surrounded by a lake on three sides and by a wide moat at the front - no outer curtain wall like the White Tower or Albany, no bailey, just a small front courtyard and a gatehouse that protected the entrance. The city wall, on the land side of the castle, provided the outer defenses for stables and barracks.

As we approached, a trumpet sounded from the wall announcing us. Drool came running across the drawbridge, his arms held high. "Pocket, Pocket, where have you been? My friend! My friend!"

I was greatly relieved to see him alive, but the great, simple bear pulled me from my horse and hugged me until I could barely breathe, dancing me in a circle, my feet flying in the air as if I was a doll.

"Stop licking, Drool, you lout, you'll wear my hair off."

I clouted the oaf on the back with Jones and he yowled. "Ouch. Don't hit, Pocket." He dropped me and crouched, hugging himself as if he were his own comforting mother, which he may have been, for all I know. I saw red-brown stains on his shirt back, and so lifted it to see the cause.

"Oh, lad, what has happened to you?" My voice broke, tears tried to push out of my eyes, and I gasped. The muscular slab of Drool's back was nearly devoid of skin - his hide had been torn and scabbed over and torn again by a vicious lash.

"I've missed you most awful," said Drool.

"Aye, me too, but how happened these stripes?"

"Lord Edmund says I am an insult to nature and must be punished."

Edmund. Bastard.

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