Fool Chapter 17



Jesters do oft prove prophets.

-  King Lear, Act V, Scene 3, Regan



"Blow, wind, crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" thundered Lear.

The old man had perched himself on the top of a hill outside Gloucester and was shouting into the wind like a bloody lunatic, even as lightning raked the sky with white-hot claws and thunder shook me to my ribs.

"Come in from there, you bloody decrepit old looney!" said I, huddled under a holly bush nearby; drenched and cold and at the end of my patience with the old man. "Come back to Gloucester and ask shelter from your daughters."

"Oh, ye heartless gods! Send your oak-cleaving thunderbolts down on me!

Burn me with your sulfurous and life-ending fires!

Singe my white head and reduce me to a pillar of ash!

Strike me dead! Let your wrath take fiery form and smite me!

Take me, spare no violence!

I do not blame thee, thou art not my daughters!

I've given you nothing and expect no quarter!

Do your horrible pleasure direct,

To a poor, infirm, despised old man!

Crack the sky! Strike me dead!"

The old man paused as a thunderbolt split a tree on the heath with blinding fire and a noise that would send statues to shitting themselves. I ran out from under my bush to the king's side.

"Come in, nuncle. Take some shelter under a shrub, if only to take the sting out of the rain."

"I need no shelter. Let nature take her naked revenge."

"Fine, then," said I. "Then you won't be needing this." I took the old man's heavy fur cape, tossed him my sodden woolen cloak, and retreated to my shrubbery and the relative shelter of the heavy animal skin.

"Hey?" said Lear, bewildered.

"Go on," said I. "Crack the sky, fry your old head, mash your balls, et cetera, et cetera. I'll prompt you if you lose your place."

And off he went again:

"Mighty Thor, send your thunderbolts to cease this weary heart!

Neptune's waves, beat these limbs from their joints!

Hecate's claws, tear my liver and sup upon my soul!

Baal, blast my bowels from their unhealthy home!

Jupiter, strew the land with my shredded muscle!"

The old man stopped his tirade for a moment and the madness went out of his eyes. He looked to me. "It's really fucking cold out here."

"Like being struck by a bolt of the bloody obvious on the road to Damascus, innit, nuncle?" I held open the great fur cloak and nodded for the old man to join me in it under my shrubbery. He crept down the hill, careful not to slip in the rivulets of mud and water that cascaded by, and ducked under the cover with me."

The old man shuddered and put his skeletal arm around my shoulders. "Rather closer than we're accustomed to, eh, boy?"

"Aye, nuncle, did I ever tell you that you are a very attractive man?" said Jones, poking his puppety head out of the cloak.

And the old man began to laugh, and he laughed until his shoulders shook and the laughter broke into a jarring cough, and that continued until I thought he might expectorate vital organs. I caught some freezing rain in my cupped hand and held it for him to sip.

"Don't make me laugh, boy. I'm mad with grief and rage and I've no stomach for jests. You should stand clear, lest a thunderbolt scorch you when the gods heed my challenge."

"Nuncle, begging pardon, but, you arrogant old tosser! The gods aren't going to strike you down with a thunderbolt simply because you asked them. Why would they accommodate you with a thunderbolt? More likely a carbuncle, festered and gone fatal, or perhaps a thankless child or two, being how the gods love their irony."

"The cheek!" said Lear.

"Oh yes, cheeky gods they are," said I. "And you named off a bushel of them, too. Now if you are struck down we won't even know who to blame unless lightning brands a signature in your old hide. You should have dared one, then waited an hour perhaps before calling fire down from the whole lot at a go."

The king wiped rain out of his eyes. "I've set a thousand monks and nuns to pray for my forgiveness and the pagans slaughter goats by the herd for my salvation, but I fear it is not enough. Not once did I act in the interest of my people, not once did I act in the interest of my wives or my daughters' mothers - I have served myself as god and I find I am little forgiving. Be kind, Pocket, lest you one day face the darkness as I do. Or, in absence of kindness, be drunk."

"But, nuncle," said I. "I do not need to be cautious for the day when I become frail. I am frail now. And on the bright side, there may be no God at all, and the evil deeds you've done will be their own reward."

"Perhaps I don't even rate a righteous slaughtering," sobbed Lear. "The gods have sent these daughters to suck out my life blood. It is punishment for how I treated my own father. Do you know how I became king?"

"Pulled a sword out of a stone and slayed a dragon with it, didn't you?"

"No, that never happened."

"Sodding convent education. Buggered if I know then, nuncle. How did Lear become king?"

"My own father, I murdered him. I do not deserve a noble death."

I was speechless. I had been in service of the king over a decade and never had I heard of this. The story went that old King Bladud had handed the kingdom over to Lear and went to Athens, where he learned to be a necromancer, then returned to Britain and died from the plague in service of the goddess Minerva at the temple at Bath. But before I could gather my wits for a reply, lightning cracked the sky, illuminating a hulking creature that was making its way across the hillside toward us.

"What's that?" I asked.

"A demon," said the old man. "The gods have sent a monster to take their revenge on me."

The thing was covered in slime, and walking as if it had just been constructed from the very earth over which it slogged. I felt for the daggers at the small of my back and pulled one from its sheath. There'd be no knife throwing in this downpour - I wasn't even sure I could hold the blade steady for a thrust.

"Your sword, Lear," said I. "Draw and defend." I stood and stepped out of the shelter of the shrubbery. I spun Jones so his stick end was at the ready, and drew a flourish in the air with my dagger.

"Come hither, demon! Pocket's got a coach ride back to the underworld for thee."

I crouched, thinking to leap aside as the thing lunged. Although it described the shape of a man, I could see long slimy tendrils dragging from it, and mud oozing off of it. Once it stumbled I'd leap on its back and see if I could cause it to fall and slide down the hillside, away from the old king.

"No, let it take me," said Lear. Suddenly the old man shrugged off his fur cloak and charged at the monster, his arms wide, as if offering his very heart to the beast. "Slay me, ye merciless god - rend this black heart from Britain's chest!"

I could not stop him and the old man fell into the beast's arms. But to my surprise, there was no tearing of limbs or bashing of brains. The thing caught the old man and lowered him gently to the ground.

I lowered my blade and inched forward. "Leave him, beast."

The thing was kneeling over Lear, whose eyes were rolled back in his head even as he twitched as if in a fit. The beast looked at me and I saw streaks of pink through the mud, the whites of its eyes.

"Help me," it said. "Help me get him to shelter."

I stepped forth and wiped the mud away from the thing's face. It was a man, covered with mud so thick it even ran out of his mouth and coated his teeth, but a man just the same, vines or rags, I couldn't tell which, trailed off his arms. "Help poor Tom bring him out of the cold," said he.

I sheathed my dagger, retrieved the old man's cape, and helped the muddy, naked bloke carry King Lear into the wood.

It was a tiny cabin, barely enough room to stand in, but the fire was warm and the old woman stirred a pot that smelled of boiling meat and onions, like breath of the Muses it was, on this dank night. Lear stirred, now hours since we brought him in from the rain. The king reclined on a pallet of straw and skins. His fur cloak still steamed by the fire.

"Am I dead?" asked the old man.

"Nay, nuncle, but ye were close enough to lick death's salty taint," said I.

"Back, foul fiend!" said the naked fellow, waving at the very air before his eyes. I had helped him wash away much of the mud, so now he was merely filthy and mad, but no longer misshapen.

"Oh, poor Tom is cold! So cold."

"Aye, we can tell that," said I. "Unless you're just a crashingly large bloke what was born with a willie the size of a raisin."

"The fiend makes Tom eat the swimming frog, the tadpole, lizards, and ditch-water - I eat cow dung for salads and swallow rats and bits of dead dogs. I drink pond scum, and in every village I am beaten and thrown into stocks. Away, fiend! Leave poor, cold Tom alone!"

"Blimey," said I. "The loonies are in full bloom tonight."

"I offered him some stewed mutton," said the old woman by the fire, without turning, "but no, he had to have his frogs and cow pies. Right fussy eater for a naked nutter."

"Pocket," said Lear, clawing at my arm. "Who is that large, naked chap?"

"He calls himself Tom, nuncle. Says he's pursued by the devil."

"He must have daughters. See here, Tom, did you give all to your daughters? Is that what drove you mad and poor even until you are naked?"

Tom crawled across the floor until he was at Lear's side.

"I was a vain and selfish servant," said the nutter. "I slept with my mistress every night and woke thinking of putting it to her again in the morning. I drank and caroused and made merry, even while my half brother fought a crusade for a Church for which he held no faith. I took all without thought for those who had nothing. Now I have nothing - not a stitch, not a crumb, not a coin, and the devil dogs me to the ends of the earth for my selfishness."

"You see," said Lear, "only a man's cruel daughters could drive him to such a state."

"He didn't say that, you daft geezer. He said he was a selfish libertine and the devil took his kit."

The old woman turned now. "Aye, the fool's right. The younger nutter has no daughters, 'tis his own unkindness that curses him." She crossed the cabin with two steaming bowls of stew and set them before us on the floor. "And it's your own evil hounds you, Lear, not your daughters."

The old woman, I'd seen her before. She was one of the crones from the Great Birnam Wood. Different togs and somewhat less green, but this was surely Rosemary, the cat-toed witch.

Lear slid to the floor and grabbed poor Tom's hand. "I have been selfish. I have thought nothing of the weight of my deeds. My own father I imprisoned in the temple at Bath because he was a leper, and later had him killed. My own brother I did murder when I suspected him of bedding my queen. No trial, not even the honor of a challenge. I had him murdered in his sleep without proof. And my queen is dead, too, for my jealousy. My kingdom is the fruit of treachery, and treachery have I reaped. I do not deserve to even wear clothes on my back. You are true, Tom, that you have nothing. I, too, shall have nothing, as is my just reward!"

The old man began to tear off his clothes, ripping at the collar of his shirt, tearing more of his parchment-like skin than the linen. I stayed his hand, held his wrists and tried to catch his eye with my own, to pull him back from madness.

"Oh, I have wronged my sweet Cordelia!" the old man wailed. "The only one who loved me and I have wronged her! My one true daughter! Gods, tear these clothes from my back, tear the meat from my bones!"

Then I felt claws clamp on my own wrists and I was pulled away from Lear as if I had been drawn by heavy iron shackles. "Let him suffer," hissed the witch in my ear.

"But I have made this pain," said I.

"Lear's pain is of his own making, fool," she said. With that I felt the room spinning and I heard the voice of the girl ghost telling me to sleep. "Sleep, sweet Pocket."

"Who's the muddy naked bloke snogging the king's noggin?" asked Kent.

I awoke to see the old knight standing in the doorway with the Earl of Gloucester. The storm still raged outside, but by firelight I could see the naked nutter Tom O'Bedlam had wrapped himself around Lear and was kissing the king's bald head as if blessing a newborn babe.

"Oh majesty," said Gloucester, "can't you find better company than this? Who is this rough beast?"

"He is a philosopher," said Lear. "I will talk with him."

"Poor Tom O'Bedlam, is he," said Tom. "Eater of tadpoles, cursed and damned by demons."

Kent looked to me and I shrugged. "Both mad as cat herds," said I. I looked around for the old woman as a witness, but she was gone.

"Well, snap to, majesty, I bring news from France," said Kent.

"Hollandaise sauce, excellent on eggs?" I inquired.

"No," said Kent. "More urgent."

"Wine and cheese complement one another nicely?" I further queried.

"No, you rasp-tongued rascal, France has landed an army at Dover, and there's rumor they've forces hidden in other cities around the British coast, ready to strike."

"Oh, well, that does trump the wine and cheese news, then, doesn't it?"

Gloucester was trying to pry Tom off King Lear, but having a hard time doing so while keeping mud off his cloak. "I've sent word to the French camp at Dover that Lear is here," said Gloucester. "I've made the case to the king's daughters to let me bring him in from the storm, but they will not relent. Even in my own home my power has been usurped by the Duke of Cornwall. Regan and Cornwall have taken command of Lear's knights, and with them, my castle."

"We come to bring you to a hovel at the city wall," said Kent. "When the storm breaks, Gloucester will send a cart to take Lear to the French camp at Dover."

"No," said Lear. "Let me talk to my philosopher friend in private." He pawed at mad Tom. "He knows much of how life should be lived. Tell me, friend, why is there thunder?"

Kent turned to Gloucester and shrugged. "He's not in his right mind."

"Who can blame him?" said Gloucester. "After what his daughters have done - his very flesh rising up against him. I had a beloved son who conspired to murder me, and just the thought of that nearly drove me mad."

"Do you nobles have any reaction to hardship besides going bloody barking and running off to eat dirt?" said I. "Hitch up your bollocks and get on with it, would you? Caius, what of Drool?"

"I left him hidden in the laundry, but Edmund will find him when his mind turns full to the task. Right now he is distracted by trying to avoid the sisters and conspiring with Cornwall."

"My son, Edmund, he is still true," said Gloucester.

"Yes, right, milord," said I. "And mind you don't trip on the honeysuckle sprouting from his bum when you next see him. Do you have means to get me into the castle without Edmund knowing I'm there?"

"I suppose. But I take no commands from you, fool. You are but a slave, and an impudent one at that."

"You're still angry over my jesting about your dead wife, aren't you?"

"Do the fool's will!" boomed Lear. "His word is as mine."

A slight breeze then would have knocked me off my feet, so shocked was I. Oh, there was still madness glowing in the old man's eyes, but so was the fire of his authority. A feeble, babbling wretch one moment, the next a dragon deep inside the old man barked fire.

"Yes, your majesty," said Gloucester.

"He's a good lad," said Kent, by way of easing the bite of Lear's command.

"Nuncle, bring your naked madman and let us go with Gloucester, to this hovel by the city wall. I'll retrieve my nitwit apprentice from the castle and off we'll be to meet up with the bloody frog King Jeff at Dover."

Kent rubbed my shoulder. "A sword in support then?"

"No, thank you," said I. "You stay with the old man, get him to Dover." I pulled Kent over by the fire and bade him bend down so I could whisper in his ear. "Did you know that Lear murdered his brother?"

The old knight's eyes went wide, then narrowed as if he were in pain. "He gave the order."

"Oh, Kent. Thou loyal old fool."

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