July 3rd, 1610
It begins with the players. Seven of them, six men and a girl, she in sequins and ragged lace, they in leathers and silk. All of them masked, wigged, powdered, painted; Arlequin and Scaramouche and the long-nosed Plague Doctor, demure Isabelle and the lecherous Géronte, their gilded toenails bright beneath the dust of the road, their smiles whitened with chalk, their voices so harsh and so sweet that from the first they tore at my heart.
They arrived unannounced in a green and gold caravan, its panels scratched and scarred, but the scarlet inscription still legible for those who could read it.
LAZARILLO'S WORLD PLAYERS!
TRAGEDY AND COMEDY!
BEASTS AND MARVELS!
And all around the script paraded nymphs and satyrs, tigers and olifants in crimson, rose, and violet. Beneath, in gold, sprawled the proud words:
PLAYERS TO THE KING
I didn't believe it myself, though they say old Henri had a commoner's tastes, preferring a wild-beast show or a comédie-ballet to the most exquisite of tragedies. Why, I danced for him myself on the day of his wedding, under the austere gaze of his Marie. It was my finest hour.
Lazarillo's troupe was nothing in comparison, and yet I found the display nostalgic, moving to a degree far beyond the skill of the players themselves. Perhaps a premonition; perhaps a fleeting vision of what once was, before the spoilers of the new Inquisition sent us into enforced sobriety, but as they danced, their purples and scarlets and greens ablaze in the sun's glare, I seemed to see the brave, bright pennants of ancient armies moving out across the battlefield, a defiant gesture to the sheet-shakers and apostates of the new order.
The Beasts and Marvels of the inscription consisted of nothing more marvelous than a monkey in a red coat and a small black bear, but there was, besides the singing and the masquerade, a fire-eater, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, and even a rope-dancer, so that the courtyard was aflame with their presence, and Fleur laughed and squealed with delight, hugging me through the brown weave of my habit.
The dancer was dark and curly-haired, with gold rings on her feet. As we watched she sprang onto a taut rope held on one side by Géronte and on the other by Arlequin. At the tambourin's sharp command they tossed her into the air, she turned a somersault, and landed back on the rope as neatly as I might once have done. Almost as neatly, in any case; for I was with the Théâtre des Cieux, and I was L'Ailée, the Winged One, the Sky-dancer, the Flying Harpy. When I took to the high rope on my day of triumph, there was a gasp and a silence and the audience -- soft ladies, powdered men, bishops, tradesmen, servants, courtiers, even the king himself -- blanched and stared. Even now I remember his face -- his powdered curls, his eager eyes -- and the deafening surge of applause. Pride's a sin, of course, though personally I've never understood why. And some would say it's pride brought me where I am today -- brought low, if you like, though they say I'll rise higher in the end. Oh, when Judgment Day comes I'll dance with the angels, Soeur Marguerite tells me, but she's a crazy, poor, twitching, tic-ridden thing, turning water into wine with the mixture from a bottle hidden beneath her mattress. She thinks I don't know, but in our dorter, with only a thin partition between each narrow bed, no one keeps their secrets for long. No one, that is, but me.
The Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer stands on the western side of the half-island of Noirs Moustiers. It is a sprawling building set around a central courtyard, with wooden outbuildings to the side and around the back. For the past five years it has been my home; by far the longest time I have ever stayed in any place. I am Soeur Auguste -- who I was does not concern us: not yet, anyway. The abbey is perhaps the only refuge where the past may be left behind. But the past is a sly sickness. It may be carried on a breath of wind; in the sound of a flute; on the feet of a dancer. Too late, as always, I see this now; but there is nowhere for me to go but forward. It begins with the players. Who knows where it may end?
The rope-dancer's act was over. Now came juggling and music while the leader of the troupe -- Lazarillo himself, I presumed -- announced the show's finale.
"And now, good sisters!" His voice, trained in theaters, rolled across the courtyard. "For your pleasure and edification, for your amusement and delight -- Lazarillo's World Players are proud to perform a Comedy of Manners, a most uproarious tale! I give you" -- he paused dramatically, doffing his long-plumed tricorne -- "Les Amours de l'Hermite!"
A crow, black bird of misfortune, flew overhead. For a second I felt the cool flicker of its shadow across my face and, with my fingers, forked the sign against malchance. Tsk-tsk, begone!
The crow seemed unmoved. He fluttered, ungainly, to the head of the well in the courtyard's center, and I caught an impudent gleam of yellow from his eye. Below him, Lazarillo's troupe proceeded, undisturbed. The crow cocked his head quickly, greasily, in my direction.
Tsk-tsk, begone! I once saw my mother banish a swarm of wild bees with nothing more than that cantrip; but the crow simply opened his beak at me in silence, exposing a blue sliver of tongue. I suppressed the urge to throw a stone.
Besides, the play was already beginning; an evil cleric wished to seduce a beautiful girl ...
Holy Fools: A Novel
- paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
- ISBN-10: 0060559136
- ISBN-13: 9780060559137