Alas… by Kendall Defoe

Yes, you little monster, I did do some things right in this life. Considering all the things I could have done, I did well. Old now; perhaps not one who got brains working in the head, but I am still here. And I am going grey and tired…

And you want my story? You are almost grown now and I have never shared with you one word of my life. I will tell you this…

My mother, God rest her soul, died when I was quite young and left me to an uncle who would beat me when he was not drunk and indifferent to me (I was actually glad when I saw him with a tankard of ale). I finally grew sick of this and ran away from home, if can still call it a “home” of any kind. Know this: it is better to starve and die as a young man than to live a long life never escaping from pain. I notice that you are becoming dark in your thoughts and I warn you that this can become a manner that ruins one. Some have died from less.

Of course, I did not die. I found myself in the company of a group of itinerant dancers, comedians; performers of many shades. They had their functions in open air and would put on a performance for any audience willing to stand and watch for a moment. When they passed the hat, I was tempted to snatch whatever coins appeared. Yet, for the first time in my meagre life, I felt I was in the company of people I understood. Their manager (or the one I took as their manager) took some pity on me and made me rehearse an act where I would pretend to be Cupid (do not laugh until the tale is told, little H!) I had to fire false arrows of love at men and women (always men in female garb). I learned early on that I had a gift for such mimicry and soon there were other roles for me in the company.

The light is dim in this room. Open the curtains a moment, please.

I learned that I could sing and mimic figures I knew from various villages and towns we settled in for our performances. This was quite popular, and the manager was quite happy to see those extra coins making a way to his purse.

I did fall in love once. Ah, you seem surprised. At least you have not laughed! Listen… Her name was Therese. She was the daughter of a local alderman and would often follow us when we stayed on the western side of the riverbank during the summer season. I would begin the performance by singing a little piece called “Love Is What We Have Together”; very timely, I thought, when I consider what happened next. After, I would have a break of about three acts before I had to be in our drama. She was behind our second wagon, hidden as it was in the thick poplars and bushes.

What a vision to encounter in the summer light! You are young and think that love is new to you, but my old bones have felt as much as you will feel someday (soon I hope). She had long brown hair heavy with curls. There was a silver band across her forehead with something engraved upon it (I will explain this later). She made a gesture to me, took my hand and thanked me for the song. And that was all (watch your thoughts!)

I could see that her eyes were rimmed in red and I asked her what had made her weep. It seemed that my song had seemed too true for her. I was still holding her hand and when I moved to return to the dressing coach, she pressed a little stronger and asked when I would return to this spot. She meant the place in the trees but I thought she meant our entire troupe, so I said that it would be a fortnight. I felt that those unseen tears would return to her eyes. She told me that she would expect me there and moved closer to me. There was more that she wanted to say, but she was stopped by something I did not grasp (this I will explain to you, as well, when I can).

Do you know that a fortnight is a long time for love; a true lifetime when we expect an encounter with love? Again, I sang the same song, adding what the manager called a “strange motion” to my performance (whatever that meant). More than the usual amount of coins were collected after this performance and I noted several weeping faces before I was complete with my music. I once again returned to the second wagon. She was there; again the billowing halo of hair and the silver band. She had been crying, but there was the smile on her face that I wanted to be for me alone. Strange to say that, but I knew that she had to perform with a pleasant face for the people her father wanted to impress. But those smiles were just the average gestures of a good daughter. This special smile was for me.

She again took my hand, and I thought it was just to thank me, but she then raised it to her cheek. I can still remember that small warmth passing to my fingers and the feel of her skin still damp with tears. I finally spoke and asked her about the markings on her headband (no other words came to me). She said that it was a name from an ancient tongue. She was a student of languages and had the band engraved after a term of study with private teachers. I thanked her for telling me this, and it was now my turn to be still and not be able to leave the moment.

My dear Lord. It was a real kiss. I had kissed the men in our dramas (or nearly kissed them; it became banned between men and boys on stage). But the kiss that day was beyond anything my young life had known. What still surprises is that she made the action, a gentle peck on my left cheek. Maybe it was the look on my face or my lack of speech that caused her to do this and then leave without a word. She knew that we would be there for a few more days. I would again wait.

It was the end of summer. Our reputation as performers grew in that region. But the autumn was about to grab that country. What a long and miserable season that was! And winter found us trapped with barely enough rations for the few members of our company still with us. I should explain that over the previous few months we had lost three performers. Two were jugglers (not nearly as popular as they felt they should be, but no matter); the last performed the sounds of various birds. Him, yes, I missed. He and I would engage in an act where we would pretend to be two animals speaking to each other (a very popular act, believe me). He had died of fever and the manager left him in one of the towns to “recuperate” (still a strange word to me). This was a lie; he knew the man would die. This soon affected my relationship with him. However, I would once again be able to repeat my performance of animals (that is for a later story).

By spring, it was back to the same town by the same river with the same audience of children, adults and wanderers. We had added a new song to our collection. It was called “O What Can I Sing for You?” This one was humourous and sad; a combination that always worried me but seemed to please the manager. He wanted something less “heavy to make tears” (again, his words) when we performed. I needn’t have worried; people were waiting for us to reappear and would have accepted anything chosen. And it was at the second round of our tour in the same village that my eye caught sight of the figure of Therese. She was standing in the thick of the crowd with an older man whom I recognized as the alderman, her father. He was smiling and laughing; her face had a pleasant grin and she was covering her laugh. I returned to the second wagon to await both Therese and my cue. She did not appear, but I never forgot the look of delight on her face when I saw her in that crowd. I thought I would weep, which would help with the performance I would have to give with some newer members, and produce some more pennies for our esteemed company.

Is there more you want to know? I have been talking all this time without considering my listener. Should I go on?

Well, be still and I will tell you more…

It is a wonder how things can end. The alderman, never suspecting any sort of relations between his charming daughter and a rough performer such as I, mentioned my skills to other officials, who then sent word to various members of their small elite. All of us were then summoned to a private home for an “in-house performance” (the first time I ever heard of such a thing). This was practice for the nuptials of a nobleman and a distinguished lady.

This is painful to tell. Let me see how I can share this with you without adding to old tears. It was, of course, for the future wedding of my angel; the one I saw at the second wagon; the one I cannot forget, even on this cold night. There was never any word that it would be she and that fop (his father was responsible for some money-handling at the treasury). Oh, how terrible it is to see a love slip away! I now knew why she was about to burst into tears when we first met and how she forced her smile on when with her father. It was a long-term betrothal from the moment she was old enough to be considered a gift her father could use. We all learned this through the traded speeches of the respective mothers and fathers of both the future groom and angelic bride.

We performed during the wedding meal; me with the most painful forced smiles and laughter imaginable. The wedding itself was not for us (a small favour on the part of the alderman). We were already popular after my songs were heard, but stories were whispered as to how our company had never before given such a performance for such a crowd. Eventually, the request for songs began to echo through my distracted mind. The first song I performed there I can barely remember. It was just a pleasant trifle accompanied by cartwheels, juggling and dancing from some other members of our group. It was the second song that secured my place in the higher level of that society. The alderman, a little too involved with the wine and ale in his cups, bellowed a request for one of the songs “that made us bring you here.” I looked on the crowd, trying not to make too much contact with Therese’s gaze. And then I sang “Love Is What We Have Together” in a manner that gained the utmost silence and attention. Men and women who would have kicked me into the ditches and grasses beside their roads were held in thrall to my singing (my “heavy motion,” as it were). The tears, theirs and my own, soon returned and I ended my song staring into a sea of red-rimmed eyes following me to the retiring room.

Now, this next part might seem to be even more fantastic than what I have shared with you. But it is all true. It must be true. The other performers had commenced with their comedies and stories. I did not have to appear for what would be another half hour. And I was crying. I remember looking out through a window onto the darkness of the little village. Several bonfires were ablaze and I could see dancers silhouetted in the firelight. And I was in tears. I don’t know why. I just had to be. And when I turned around, there she was! Therese! Her eyes were red…

Should I go on with all of these details? Well, you are old enough. Off to school in a fortnight and only one young love in your life, from what I have seen. Sixteen now… I was nineteen and had only the one kiss from Therese. And now she was there, staring at me. She ran up to me and told me to hurry. She had asked one of her maids to stand in for her – her new husband and guests were too drunk or indifferent to notice – and she found her way into that room without notice. I asked her what she meant by “hurry” and was rewarded with a slight frown, a large smile, and the warmest embrace and kiss I had ever received in this life.

We did hurry. I remember what felt like a lifetime in ten minutes of bliss and her muffled cries. What bliss it was! All too young and not meant to last. She held my hand, kissed me several times (my face must have smelt of rosewater) and ran off to replace her willing deceiver. It seemed like a dream. But it was real. It was more than any imagining I have shared with you…

We had another short tour after the summer of that lost love, gaining three dancers and a talented mimic. I did not enjoy any winter season in the south anymore. The warm weather could not improve my ugly mood. My songs were still incredibly dark and sad. Even the amusing numbers were touched with melancholy and less of my usual joy. The manager, while noting the extra coins in his pockets, asked what the problem was and how he could help. That was a great false performance. I knew that he thought I was too old to still sing the songs that drew all those crowds. I do not boast here; I once saw him on the hunt for susceptible boys he could steal away from their homes and train. Sickening…

We did return north, once again, and I performed my songs. The crowds were still quite large. The manager must have noted this (no new boys were added to our company), but there was something new: a message. Fortunately, this was delivered directly to me on a folded piece of parchment with a wax seal. I recognized the image in it and almost fainted on sight: it was straight from the silver headband of my dear Therese! Another fortunate thing was that I had learned to read her language. After she had explained what was written on her headband, I made it my duty to pick up what I could through overhearing conversations in taverns, glimpsing the odd scroll or even (this was rare) book that I found. I read that I was being summoned to perform in front of royalty once again! I had to be at a special castle of the royal court in four days!

You will never know how you will respond to such things until they occur in your life. I knew no one from any company who ever received such a notice. I only knew of court jesters from talk among the citizens of the regions we visited. They were performers who could do the act of several men at once. They were the masters of our trade. And I felt, without any real proof of this, that this is what they wanted from me; what their highnesses requested with their letter.

I tried to avoid the eyes of the manager for most of that first day with the letter, but I should have saved my energy for the show. He had also received a letter with the same notice about the request. I was actually quite relieved when he called me to his cabin at the end of one show and told me of a caravan that would be glad to take me to the named district. I did not sense that he was glad to get rid of me. In all truth, there was a sadness about him that seemed to enter the air. We had known each other for so many years and now it was soon to end. He smiled and wished me luck. I thought that there was something more that he wanted to tell me and could not share. That still concerns me, even as I share this with you today…

Well, let’s not give too much time to what one regrets. I did take that caravan to the named district, departing from the manager and company with nothing but my sack filled with clothes, some other trifles, a few coins and food given by both the managers and some of the more generous patrons who loved the performances.

May I admit to disappointment? The castle seemed very insignificant to me. It was small; the stones in its body seemed to be falling away and it was also mouldy and damp. Yes, I did arrive as the darkness of early evening began, but I still felt that the dark could not hide what was obvious. It would need some change; some work to make it whole. I still wonder why they let it reach such a state and why that was the first thing that came to me on the night. Interesting thought…

When passed into the courtyard, I made sure that I had the letter in hand so that the guard would see me as more than just a ragged intruder. He really was a sight, standing there in the torch light. Piggy, hard eyes on a heavy fat face. He kept wheezing and snorting as he looked at the seal on the parchment. At least he recognized it. As I was led through a side passageway, he told me that I would have to prepare myself for the next evening’s performance and that I should not draw too much attention to myself. I agreed quietly with a nod of the head, but did not know why he was bothering to tell me what was already clear from the letter. It was then that I realized his mistake in thinking that I could not understand the language. I had not spoken when I crossed the bridge to the guard house; I had simply passed the letter to him. When I finally spoke to ask what was expected of me, he stopped, turned and looked at me with surprise. It then changed to a face of deep suspicion and I was sure that there was some private dungeon waiting for me. He asked how I knew the language. I mentioned my personal studies and attention to the patrons’ various tongues at our performances. With a sharp look, he turned and began his heavy trudge once again, only stopping once more to show me a spacious and barely furnished room that was to be my home for some time.

So, I eventually performed my act, saw more tears, received some praise, and was eventually “hired”, shall we say, to keep on performing. Your father was the one who wanted me to do all of those falls, tumbles and acts with his other skilled players. Your mother was very pleased with all of these shows, but she wanted to hear more of my songs. I had learned, and continued to learn, many new melodies, even creating some of my own. But the only ones she wanted to hear were the sad pieces. It made me think of how dark and depressing the castle was when I first arrived and how this may have led her to a deeper melancholy that my songs could echo. They continued to be filled with unfaithful lovers, deceased women haunting the lives of the men who had abandoned them, poisoned cups and willing drinkers… Once I remember being asked to perform for her privately and she burst into tears before I had completed the first chorus. I paused for a moment and asked if I should continue. And all she said was, “It’s so impossible what love makes us do.” And then she left her own room, leaving me standing there wondering if I had done something wrong. I soon walked out and never said a word about it to anyone… Except you.

No, you cannot share this with anyone, not even your uncle. He seems to be around more often and I know that he likes your company and seems a pleasant man to have around. And I am an old man now, remember? I can no longer give you rides on my back like in the old days.

Remember everything that I have taught you about the games and acting. You may find it helpful when you are away at school. Sixteen years old and they are sending you away from old Yor for a long time. You are a very lucky young man. You must remember to thank your parents for this gift.

Yes, I will be all right before you get back. The weather simply does not agree with me and I have the chills in my body. Remember to write, stay warm and do not fight with the other boys. You often seem melancholic and that can make you succumb to some of the tougher students who will not understand why you are not making a nuisance of yourself. Be a good boy and I will see you soon. Promise…

Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...