Summer Growing, Weeder’s Day 7, Year of the Lion number 427; July 6, 1738 Agathon
We’ll start today’s journal entry with what happened yesterday. As we were heading westward following the Angwell River, we came to a small settlement the locals call Wardenswolf. It was late in the evening, we were tired, so we just rented rooms at an inn called The Refuge of the Premonition.
Apparently, the settlement and this inn were founded by a man who had made a modest living reading cards for people, and when he got tired of dealing with other peoples’ problems, he retired, brought his friends and family to this remote woodland area, and his family has been here ever since.
After the evening meal, before turning in for the night, Lena came to my room holding a bundle. “Remember those cotton bolts I bought in Blushik?” I had completely forgotten about them. She opened the bundle and held forth several brightly colored outfits. Loose-fitting, they were crafted to enhance rather than distract. “Try them on,” Lena prompted. I did and found they fit perfectly, though I thought they looked kind of funny. I’m used to wearing a simple harness and letting my natural fur cover the important things. “I’d never expect you to wear these normally. These are for your performances.”
“Wow,” I said. I tried a few basic moves and the outfits swirled and flashed with me. “Thank you! But…”
Lena explained, “Camara, Gerwyn’s wife, is an excellent seamstress. I’ve had her working on these behind your back. Don’t worry – she’s been paid well. I think she’s done an excellent job.” Gerwyn and Camara, if I hadn’t mentioned them before, were one of the couples in our caravan. Come to think about it, I don’t know that I’ve mentioned any of the others traveling with us. I should rectify that some time. Some other time.
I tried on all the outfits. One required a small adjustment, but otherwise, they were perfect. Lena went downstairs and announced to the innkeeper and the other four patrons that I would be putting on a performance tomorrow night. Since it is my first performance before a public audience, there would be no charge, but everyone was encouraged to bring their friends. Lena suggested that there would be at least one round paid for. That got everyone’s attention!
So the next day, Alani and I practiced for several hours in my room. I tried each of the dresses, including the one after Camara made the fix. Each outfit had a different look, which conveyed a different meaning or mood. Alani and I selected three for the first performance. She would play and sing the song while I danced. Between songs, Alani would tell jokes or something, while servers tended the audience, while I was offstage changing clothes. Overall, we were telling a story with dance and music. It was carefully choreographed and timed down to the minute. I looked forward to my first performance. The entire thing would be over in less than an hour, but I was nervous!
Before the show, Alani and I were in the room behind the makeshift stage. Alani was giving me advice on how to deal with the nerves. The Lena came in and said the strangest thing, “You guys are on in five minutes. Break a leg!”
Alani laughed and said that it means, “Good luck,” but I failed to see the connection. I certainly didn’t want to injure myself out there.
Finally, Alani said, “Focus on your performance. Don’t pay attention to the audience. They will clap along, shout, jeer, and maybe even say things that don’t bear repeating. Just do what we’ve been doing for the past month and you’ll be fine.”
We went out on stage, which was basically several heavy square tables pulled together and tied down so they wouldn’t move. Alani and I bowed to the fifteen gathered patrons. She went to the back corner and I moved to the middle, striking my first pose and waited.
“Today we tell the tale of Johnny. We all know him. He is our son, our brother, our cousin.” She began tapping an odd, syncopated beat on her drum.
“What makes you go abroad, fighting for strangers?” I started my dance. It was a slow, graceful dance that followed the song lyrics. I switched between miming the actions of the story, like soldier marching, and various twirls and, spins, and turns. “When you could be safe at home, free from all dangers.”
The song continued, telling of how a recruiting sergeant came to the town and enticed Johnny to come and fight for glory and honor in a far away war. Lines like, “With a leather coat, an iron shield, and a broadsword o’er your shoulder.” Johnny left the next day with the sergeant, and the verse ended with, “But how will you fare when there’s death in the air? Oh poor Johnny, what’ll happen to you?”
The chorus was repeated and I replaced the moves I had done but with more flair and excitement.
The next verse took on a darker tone. “There were arrows, bolts, and magic too. Swords and javelins thrusting through. Poor Johnny fell but the day was won, and the King is grateful to you.”
As the final verse was sung, my dance changed. Both arms and one leg curled up as though they were missing. “Oh they said he was a hero and not to grieve, over two wooden pegs and empty sleeves.” I fell to the ground as if crying, “You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg, the enemy nearly slew you. Oh, you’ll have to go out on the streets and beg.”
As the song repeated the chorus, the emotion of the song seemed overwhelming. There wasn’t a sound from anyone in the audience. Just Alani’s drum beat, her softly sung words, and the sound of my own labored breathing. Despite my outward emotion, my heart was beating at triple speed. I hoped it didn’t betray me.
I left stage to the dressing room and quickly changed into the next outfit.
When I returned, I was no longer Johnny, but the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The serving girls had finished their rounds, and when I came out, the audience had grown to over twenty-five.
Alani now played a lyre. She struck a chord and started straight into the new song. “There was a wealthy merchant, in Wailee he did dwell. He had a beautiful daughter, the truth to you I’ll tell.”
The story told of how she was courted by many men, but her heart belongs to Jack the Sailor. Jack, of course, is a nickname for John.
In this song, Jack went off to war to serve his king and country. She followed him, taking the guise of a man to gain passage. “Before you get on board, sir, your name we’d like to know. She smiled all in her countenance, they call me Jack-A-Roe.” The next line was spoken, not sung, “I see your waist is slender, your fingers they are small, your cheeks too red and rosy, to face the fireball.”
The war was ended, she went to the battlefield, and found Jack among the dead and wounded. The song ended with “This couple, they got married, so why not you and me?” My dance ended with me on one knee as if proposing.
Once again, I left stage to change. Wealthy Merchant was an easier dance than Fighting for Strangers. However, the most challenging dance was next, Poor Old Soldier.
This time, I start standing in perfect attention and held it, breathless, for the first line, “Oh, you poor old soldier, what will you become?” Alani was playing a mandolin. While similar to the lyre, it has more strings and, as such, can play a wider range of notes. And this song uses all of them, it seems. Poor Old Soldier is told from the perspective of an old, retired soldier who is looking back at his career, thinking about the men who were lost and what he might have done differently. This song has me using every corner of the stage as I act out the scenes. While there are fewer lyrics than the prior songs, the musical interludes are longer, allowing me more time to express the emotion of the story.
The final words, “Old soldier march on, march on,” had me marching zigzags across the stage like the perfect man-at-arms. As the last chord faded, I looked out at the crowd and saw the inn was packed. Alani put down the mandolin, got up and took my hand. Together we bowed as the crowd cheered and clapped. I had tears in my eyes as we left stage. My heart was going a mile a minute as the crowd continued to clap and cheer.
“Are you up for an encore?” Alani asked me. My strange look told her I didn’t know what she meant. “It’s kind of a show after the show. Let’s do Some Rival. Trust me, it will be worth it.”
Some Rival is a much shorter song, and I felt I could do it. I was energized by our reception. Lena opened the door for us just as we started that way. “Good! I was hoping for more. Isn’t this fabulous?” We came out on stage and the people – at least fifty people, if not more, were jammed into the tavern – cheered and clapped.
Alani picked up the lyre and played a single note. The crowd hushed. This dance was relatively easy, but quite energetic. “Some rival has stolen my true love away. So in old Faywin I can no longer stay. I will cross the dry desert and the far mountain crest, to find out my true love, the one I love the best.”
It’s a positive, joyful song, and a perfect cap on the prior three songs. As we finished, the crowd erupted into applause once again. Alani and I bowed as Lena came up onto the stage. She waited patiently for everyone to quiet down. “Thank you all for coming. It’s been a great pleasure, and I just knew that Kabize and Alani would put on a great show. As promised, everyone here gets a drink on me. I hope you’re here and joyous because they did a great job, and not for the free booze.” That got a bit of a laugh, especially when someone in the back shouted, “I’m here for the free ale!”
Lena continued, “We’re leaving in the morning, heading west to Wailee and traveling on from there. I’m sorry we can’t spend more time here as you guys have been great. Kabize and Alani might want to rest a bit, but if we can clear a table for them, I’m sure they’d enjoy a bit of libation as well.” She turned to face us. “When I suggested we do this, I never imagined it would turn out like this. You have my highest admiration!”
Coming from Lena, that meant a lot to me. And I think it did to Alani as well. It was well after midnight when we finally retired to our rooms. As tired as I was, I was too energized to sleep right away, so I spent the remaining hours writing this journal entry. Despite my nervousness, I think our first performance was a rousing success. Here’s to hoping that this success continues.
Previous: Through a Cat’s Eyes – 3.4
Author’s Note: The songs used in this story are slightly modified from Steeleye Span’s versions: Fighting for Strangers is on their Rocket Cottage (1976) album, There Was a Wealthy Merchant and Poor Old Solder are from Bedlam Born (2000), and Some Rival is from Storm Force Ten (1977). The minor adjustments were to make the songs compatible with the Neuith setting.