Genesius? That’s a queer name. No, I can’t say I’ve ever known a fella with a name like that. Not sure I would want to neither. Hearing what you say about the fella you’re looking for, it makes me think of a young swordsman I knew by the name of Jaq. Didn’t you say your name was Jaq? I guess one or both of yous was lying about it. Now, don’t fuss. Lots of folks passing through here lie about their names, and a lot more than that too. Don’t make much difference neither. How folks act when they’re passing through is the only thing that makes a difference. Do the right thing, and people around here are always ready to let a stranger forget their past. The land regrows every season. Why shouldn’t folks too?
The swordsman I reckon you’re looking for, his voice is what I remember most about him. It made him seem older than he was. On account of that voice, you’d easily figure him to be ten fifteen twenty growing seasons older. Every now and again, you’d chance to see him smile or laugh, and you’d see his youth. He didn’t do a lot of it neither. Smiling or laughing. When he did, his youth jumped right out at you. His eyes were something else too. They was a real right blue. Kind of tired most times. Could get cold and hard too. Real cold and hard, but I recollect them being tired most times, like older folks sometimes get when they’re waiting to die. He was too young to have that kind of look in his eyes. Even so, you believed it in him.
He came through here when the war was still deciding what kind of war it would be and who it was going to be between. Not sure if it was even worth calling a war out here. Most of them big battles happened nearer the cities and bigger towns, like they normally do. Not much out here to interest kings and popes and lady popes. Around here it was more like a general kind of madness than war. And that’s saying something too. War ain’t never quite sane. I’ve seen my fair share of it, fought in some too, and what we had out around here wasn’t ordered enough to be called war properly. There was maybe a few skirmishes down in the valley beyond the river, when things was wrapping up. Up around here, it was mostly irregulars stomping around and causing trouble. Thugs really. Warlords, I suppose you could call them, if you wanted to make them feel good about themselves. Once or twice every moon cycle, some new thug would come through just as he pleased, saying he served one side or the other. He and his little gang of thugs would cause trouble, demand coin, food and any man of fighting age, willing or unwilling. We saw a lot of them for a good while. We was ripe for the picking, I reckon. For as far as you can walk in any direction, everyone went undeclared on account of the split in the church. None of us see much difference between the Mother and the Father when it comes to praying, even if it’s only the priestesses who see fit to come up here to help us with it. None of us was ready to side up with one part of the Church over the other, and we sure weren’t going to fight for thems who was fighting to control the tax collectors neither. Not even if the moon went bloody again. Not ever.
With the war busying itself down by the towns and cities and the gangs making nuisances of themselves in our parts, Jaq, or whatever you want to call him, when he first turned up around here, I pegged him as a thug looking for a gang of his own. It was plain to see that he was a stray. The sword and filth made him look every bit the beast. To see him as any different, you’d have to have him clean up and know him for a little bit. I only got to know him because I was the warden around here back then. As such, I had the sweet holy privilege of dealing with the thugs and gangs whenever they came through. I did my best to keep everyone calm and get the whole thing over without any harm coming to anybody. Them or us. Come to think of it, if we hadn’t been dealing with some thugs when Jaq was passing through, I’d wager none of us never would have known him. This little bit of hamlet we have growing here is bigger now than it was back then. Back then, it wasn’t much more than a few homes clustered together to make things easier for families sharing the work of the fields. No real market to speak of like the one we got now. Them families working them fields over there still live near the clearing we used to use for buying and selling when the odd trader passed through. Didn’t even have a building for the tax collectors yet. They’d set up a tent whenever it was their season for coming through. My family’s land is beyond there, where the guildsmen keep their places now. My uncle, after he got tired of farming and hunting, he was the first around here to try selling labour instead of food. My pa used to say he only started setting up around there because he was too tired to walk further with his tools after crossing the creek. There wasn’t even a sanctuary here yet, and the priestess says they already looking to make the one we got now into a temple. We’ll be a honest-to-goodness town before long, if we keep at this pace. Back then, we was so small, Jaq wouldn’t have noticed what he was walking through because there wasn’t much of anything to notice. It was only when one of the thugs I was dealing with tried to recruit him that he woke up to the world around him — and us, only because we happened to be there when he opened his eyes.
Judging by the look on your face, I get the feeling you don’t know how it works with these thugs when a war is on. To my eyes, you don’t look much like a fighting man yourself. Religious, I’d say. Something about the way you carry yourself. Like you’re never through with praying, even if your smile says otherwise. Here’s what they do. Some thug or another, they collect the strays, you know, orphans, men without land, men without family or women to watch over them, men looking to get away from their past or men too excitable to stay put on one piece of land for very long. One of the bigger or smarter or more hungry strays gathers some of the others together, scares or flatters them into a little gang of their own, and they head out together to make their lot in life by causing trouble for others. They declare for one side of the war or the other, and go around threatening farmers and hunters, taking what they can get and gathering more strays as they go. On account of the war and their declaration, they do as they please, telling themselves it’s fine and good because it’s all part of helping the war. Gives them something to belong to, I reckon, and a convenient excuse to do whatever they want while feeling good about it. The bigger the war the better it is for them. Like the one we just had with everyone fighting for God or justice or whatever it was. Makes the excuse of their thieving easier to make. If they are lucky and smart enough, they collect enough strays together and start calling themselves an army. They all start wearing the same colour, maybe force some old woman to make them a pennant, and before long they head for the nearest city to find a proper army and someone with a fancy title and offer themselves up for the real fighting. Most of the pretend armies don’t come back in anything other than pieces, but, if the leader picks the winning side or switches sides at the right time, he might get a fancy title and control over whatever land he claims is his once the fighting’s over. It’s an old line of trade. I’d say the oldest. Some say it’s the other one. Not me. Small men thinking they bigger than they are and turning violence into control of what don’t belong to nobody, that’s almost as old as the land itself. That’s how the Duke we got now started. Won’t be long now before his castle is built and his grandchildren think they always owned these parts. He never even came looting around here. I heard from families who hunt and farm down near where his castle is being built that he wasn’t even enough of a fighter to lead the gang he was a part of when they headed out to join the war. I suppose they like the talkers more than the fighters down by the city.
As far as I can recollect, when Jaq came through, I was dealing with a talker. I can’t remember which faction they was declared for. Doesn’t really much matter either way. It was a wet, cool, gray sort of a day, a little bit before the first moon for planting, right around when the season starts to think about turning over but isn’t really set on doing it yet. Being the warden, I was working my way through the little drills we developed for whenever these gangs turned up. Most of these strays don’t really know much of life beyond their own daily lives. Yet somehow they all act and talk and demand the same. It’s like they all apprenticed somewhere together. It’s curious how that kind of behaviour seems to be built right into them. It’d make you laugh, if it wasn’t so dangerous. Could be that there’s only one sensible way to take what you want without consideration of others, and they all end up there after they do it a few times. It sure seems like someone taught them all how to do it. But it may be all one long stumbling accident. No way of knowing, I suppose. It’s a shame too. Outside of war or famine, when we have nothing to share, we always do our best to help strangers passing through. Some poor soul traveling far from their own land needs all the help they can get, and if we is ever made to travel somewhere we’d be thankful for the same hospitality too. It’s a shame. Stray men so quickly lose sight of how we is all joined by the land. Their thieving poisons it for everyone. We have to stop sharing sooner than we might otherwise because we know them gangs will always be turning up before long. I suppose that’s the trick of being a stray. No one to show you what’s right or wrong, so doing wrong comes easy. It’s a shame.
This is how I recollect it happening. I’m talking things through with the talker, who’s a skinny little guy, not built for fighting. The smarter thugs learn pretty quickly that, no matter how tough they are, the more they get through bullying and threats than actual hurting and fighting the better, so they rely on guys like the one I’m talking to, even if they don’t much like it. For our part, we learned long ago that, first things first, we clear out all the young men and women as soon as any of them thugs turn up. When a war is on, we have plenty of hiding places nearby and all over. It’s real easy for folks to melt away without any of these strangers being the wiser. By the time we get to the talking and bullying, there is nothing but oldens left. Even for strays, the sight of oldens is enough to calm them down. They was children once too and no one really loses respect for the oldens. Thank the Father for that. On the day I’m remembering, I’m talking it through with their talker, explaining it like I always do, telling them what we have and don’t have, telling them that the war don’t mean much to us, that all the young men have already been rounded up by someone else, and that the young women and children were sent far away until the war is over. Into this little parley walks Jaq, scrawny and wearing a sword. I spot him over the shoulder of my talker, who doesn’t really notice. He’s too caught up in his own voice and the feeling he’s convincing me that I really should give up the last of our winter grain because he serves whoever he says he’s serving. They don’t seem to get that their talking is just another kind of violence, but I guess it makes them feel better about the whole process. Main thug is getting bored by it. I get the feeling he wants a fight, and he’s looking for a reason we aren’t giving him. Over talker’s shoulder, I see the main thug move like a bull at the gate. The sight of Jaq’s sword must have got him excited. Jaq’s so lanky he must have seemed like the perfect prey. Young, scrawny and armed. That’s perfect picking for a thug. Fair game to threaten and maybe even kill, if he decides he don’t want to join up. Set an example for the others too. The other strays don’t even notice anything’s happening until the main thug starts barking at Jaq. Even from where I am, I see Jaq change, from tired to hard, when the thug’s dagger comes out of its scabbard.
I’ve never seen a head fly off a man’s shoulder like that before. Like I said, I’ve seen my fair share of war. I’ve seen all kinds of horrible, but I ain’t never seen anything like that. In a battle, with so many men piling into each other, every which way, as bad as it can get, no one ever lets loose a true killing stroke. Most men die later, on account of their wounds. What I saw happen, it was so quick and so true, I didn’t much believe it myself, even after seeing it, but I saw Jaq do it again more times than I care to admit. I suppose, because it was so quick, the others in the gang didn’t see right away that they was outclassed. Three of them charged in with clubs thinking they had the numbers, I guess. Fwoop, fwoop, fwoop. First a leg, then an arm, then another head goes flying. Bodies and bits of bodies hit the ground before the men who used to own them even gets to voicing their pain. Blood was gushing everywhere. It was like a fella was working at the pump of a well, in a hurry to fill a bucket, but the bucket was the ground. The one stray who didn’t make a move, moves now. He runs like he won’t stop until the moon rises. Talker finally notices that something ain’t right. He turns and sees what I see. A tall skinny boy covered in blood standing over two headless corpses and two agonizing men gushing blood and writhing their last. Through all of it, there’s them piercing blue eyes, like death’s own, watching the last of the gang running away. Those eyes turn on us, and I notice — only because I almost do it myself — talker pisses himself right there and then. Maybe it’s that pissing that saves him or maybe Jaq don’t tie him to the dead and dying at his feet. Talker doffs his cap, does an about face, and walks slow and steady away from Jaq, never looking back. Me, I’m so scared that I only do what comes natural. I offer him some bread. We always bring out some bread and a bit of meat whenever we are dealing with thugs. It helps get them to thinking there is more to get from talking than fighting. I’m not sure if it is the food or because he sees that the danger is over, but Jaq’s eyes go tired again and his body eases with them. Jaq wipes his sword on one of the gushers, who is making the last bit of noise he will ever make and accepts the bread. I’m so dumbfounded by what I’ve seen that I don’t even think to offer him the chance to clean up before eating. He doesn’t think to ask neither. He just gets to chewing away at it, covered in gore and filth. When I think of it now, part of me wants to laugh, but it was too horrible for that.
It was Seren who decided we better clean him up. She was out quicker than a mouse talking at him as soon as he started chewing on that bread. She must have seen the horror from wherever she was hiding, but it didn’t make any difference to her. She took to him right away and never was afraid of him, not like some of the others around here. She looked past the violence and saw only the tired young man underneath it all. Before long, without really asking him about it, she led him over to the spot in the creek where people clean themselves up. She kept an eye on him too, shooing people away who turned up to gawk. The story of what he done spread pretty quickly, whether people saw it or not. I reckon it was that cleanup more than the food that got him to stay for a bit. Cleaning up can do that to a man sometimes. You forget how good it feels to be clean, and, when you remember, you don’t want to go without it for a while. I’d like to say he stuck around because it was quieter but that wasn’t so. For the first little while, he did a lot of fighting. If he was around when the thugs turned up, they couldn’t resist going after him and, whenever they did, they ended up dead. Word got around about this invincible swordsman and even more thugs turned up. Could be they reckoned they could make their name by taking him on and winning. I won’t bore you with the details, but we buried a lot of stupid men that spring. Thank the Mother, they finally stopped coming. Learned to stay clear. At the get go, folks weren’t too happy about all the fighting and violence. They blamed Jaq for it, without ever saying it plainly as people around here sometimes do. Seren kept an eye on everyone and made sure it never boiled over into anything nasty. Once the thugs stopped coming, everyone stopped chirping about Jaq and turned to being grateful for the calm he made. I can’t say most people liked him on account of him being a little too queer to be liked by most people. They appreciated him, I’d wager, once the fighting was done. Easier to appreciate too, when he wasn’t covered in blood and making a mess of the ground with body parts.
Jaq stayed in these parts for a good handful of growing seasons, right through to the end of the war and a season or two after that, but he never really rooted to the place. Kind of feral all of the time he was here. There’s cats around here more domesticated than he was. He didn’t do a lot of talking, even with Seren. Never really asked for anything. He stayed in people’s barns when the weather was rough. I figured it was a phase, and he’d eventually get comfortable, get married, and start a family. After the war, plenty of women tried turning him into a family man. War is hardest on the women. Makes the pickings slim with all the killing. Some of them have no choice but to try to domesticate the wild ones like Jaq. For some reason, Seren wasn’t ever one of them trying to make a husband of him. She always took to him more like an older sister, if you asked me. Even after the thugs stopped coming around, Seren was always making sure he cleaned up every now and again and made sure he was eating regular. Once the other women sorted out that she hadn’t marked him as her own, she did her bit to help whoever was trying to put a bridle on him. Never seemed all that interested in women. It may be there was something on his mind that prevented him from looking in their direction. Can’t say for sure.
Seren? You can see her, but she won’t do much talking about Jaq or much anything else. She’s under one of them little stones behind the sanctuary. She was one of the first we buried there. Sad story, that one. Maybe six or seven months after Jaq stopped coming around, she settled on a man of her own. Acacius was his name. Odd choice for her, if you ask me, but others thought so too. He was one of the few men around here who went off to the war by his own choice. Fought for the Pope, and all he got in the way of thanks was an arm that didn’t work so well when he came back. I don’t much recollect what he was like before the war. Too young for me to take notice. After he came back, we all got to know him real well. He was prone to getting angry for no cause whatsoever. He could go from calm to a righteous storm in no time at all. Lot of people steered clear of him and more would have too, if it hadn’t been for Seren. Was probably best Jaq weren’t around any more, on account of Acacius getting too rough with her more often than not. Not my station to tell a man and a woman how they should live together, but never did understand why Seren didn’t put his boots outside the door. She was a fine woman and didn’t need to settle for any less of a man than she could get, even if she weren’t no blushing virgin anymore. Some women, I reckon, get to liking a fella when they’re too young to know no better and lose all sense of good thinking. I heard from my wife that the two of them only talked once or twice before the war too. It must have been some kind of good talking because it was enough to make her lose all sense of reason. Maybe that’s why the loss of her baby affected her so much. First births normally are rough and hers was no exception. She came pretty close to dying too. Baby didn’t live much longer than a couple of days, which isn’t so strange for the first one. Even so, she was never quite right after that. Sometimes you would catch her at night, walking around with two jugs of water, naked to the world, acting like she was looking for somebody. If Acacius didn’t show up and start beating her, she’d normally end up down by the creek. Women around here liked to say she’d make like she was cleaning someone. Some said it was her baby. Others said Jaq. Some said both and would wink at you like that meant something. I don’t know about that. I don’t know about any of it. I watched her one night and it looked to me like she was only pouring water all over the place. People believe what they want to believe and like stories with a bit of drama in it, specially if it is hidden away and out of sight. What do I know? Women know all kinds of things I can’t wrap my head around. They always figuring things out between people when all I see is two people who sometimes yack at each other. The only good to come out of it was Acacius clearing out of here a month or two after she died. No one had any patience for him once Serene was gone, and they let him know plain and simple.
For my part, I have no idea why Jaq stopped coming around. He had already become a part of the habit of living for me, and I was so used to the notion of him being around that it might have been a whole moon cycle before it dawned on me that he wasn’t coming back. Not sure why he left, but I’m not sure why he came neither. We talked a bit every now and again. He didn’t say much about himself or his past, but you kind of figured he had reason not to, so you didn’t ask. He was a pretty quiet fella. Sometimes quiet men need a break from all the noise of the world. Maybe he needed some time to regrow. Maybe he was hiding from something. It don’t matter much to me. While he was here, he never harmed no one who didn’t try to harm him first. He was always respectful of the oldens. He even kept an eye on the bitties if they ran a little too wild. He was a good man, when he was here, whatever he might have been before or whatever he became after. If you ever do catch up with Jaq, be sure to let him know that he’s always welcome back here, even if his real name is all queer like the one you said at first. If he don’t already think of this place as home, I reckon it could be a home for him in no time. Ain’t that peculiar? Now that I say it out loud like that, it gets me to thinking that might well be the reason he left. Could be he’s the kind of fella who won’t ever feel much too comfortable in any place called home. He ain’t likely alone in feeling that way neither. He may be alone, but he ain’t by himself, if you see what I’m getting at. Can’t say why there so many men like him, but it gets me to thinking it may explain why them wars keep coming back season after season. War only seems to make sense to thems who don’t understand home.
Why I do believe that you are inquiring after our one and only Feste. What an extraordinary coincidence. Just last night, I was thinking on him for a goodly while, and I haven’t thought on him in the Father only knows how long. I should best say that it wasn’t on account of any particular reason that I have not given him much thought in a goodly while. Nor, I should also best say, it wasn’t on account of a lack of fond memories. No, now that you’ve got me wondering on it, I suppose I’m not like to think on Feste only because he slipped so easily into and out of our lives, without so much as a second thought, I am sure. Why was I thinking on him last night? Well, I suppose it must have been the moon. Did you happen to see it last night? It rose quite late, so I’d wager not. To look at you now, I’m quite sure you wouldn’t ever have any cause to be up so late, but, let me assure you, it was a moon like no other. Like a big pail of milk. Shimmering in the sky. And would you believe it, it wasn’t even full? Tonight, it will be an absolute wonder. I should do my absolute best to stay awake for it. You should too, and then we’ll both know what the other is thinking on when we look up at it, after our having talked today.
Feste wasn’t his birth name, of course, but, having a queer name isn’t at all out of sorts for the members of our little troupe. The long-standing custom of our company is that any of the players may choose for themselves whatever stage name they feel in their heart. So many of us find our way here as orphans or runaways or otherwise looking to leave our past behind, it is the one gift we can all freely and easily give to each other, and the one gift we all want in return. Mind you, some among us are more attached to our birth names than others but not our Feste. As long as he was among us, he would only ever answer to Feste. I surely doubt anyone in our troupe ever learned his birth name. I can assure you that I did not, and, I am also sure, I knew him as well as anyone around here. I had always imagined Feste’s birth name was something simple and common — not unlike yours, Jaq. Genesius? Now that is unexpected. I suppose some mysteries are best left unsolved. Regardless, whatever his birth name may have been, he will always be Feste to me.
Do you know, the very first time I laid my eyes on him, I knew he had the makings of an excellent player. His features were perfect. Masculine but fine enough to be easily redrawn in a feminine light. His ears were a touch on the side of large, but a wig or hat can easily hide that particular deficiency. His build was long and slender, and he carried himself with a certain grace which, under the right tutoring, could be transformed into feminine poise. Best of all, he had a calm and centered strength of presence which is so important for the stage. He commanded attention without even trying, even when he was standing in a crowd or hiding himself in some corner of the room. Now I expect you, like most people, believe that the best players are those who have a larger-than-life personality. While that make of person will always have his place on the stage, thank you very much, the true actor is always found among those men who command attention without trying to command it. Dramatic roles and the very best comedy require a strong but empty presence that some possess and very few can cultivate. A player with that kind of presence becomes a vessel that makes true whatever is poured into it, and there’s nothing of the man to disturb or displace what it takes in. Believe you me, whenever I spot a man with that divine quality, I encourage him to join the theater. If I spot the same man and discern in his features the makings of feminine beauty, I demand it!
Now, seeing as you know Feste, I’m sure you have anticipated the very great challenge that awaited me. His voice! It was entirely at odds with his finer feminine qualities. Oh, I suppose it was attractive in its own right, but it aged him terribly, and I had already imagined him striding the boards in some of the greatest roles of the stage. Deirdre! Parsimony! Rhoswen! Those beautiful and powerful women don’t speak with the voice of a — oh, I don’t know, what was it like — an ancient prophet? Had I some desperate need for older players, his voice wouldn’t have been much concern, but there’s always plenty of aging men hanging around past their prime, looking to reclaim their fleeting glory. Look at me! The same can also be said of young men. Young and unproven talent is rarely in short supply. No, above all else, theater needs men who can play women and play them well. Blessedly, fate not only conspired to bring Feste to me, but it also conspired to permit me the opportunity to reconsider my first judgment regarding his voice.
I can’t for the life of me remember who first brought Feste to our little theater. The name and face escapes me now, but it will return to me, if I don’t dwell on it. Whoever it was, it astonishes me even today to think they brought Feste to our company to work as a stagehand rather than to have him audition. Can you believe it? Feste was so slight. Too poised. One look at him, and it was plain to see that the Father had never intended him for manual labour. I can only imagine that whomever discovered Feste met him under the most unlikely of circumstances. I suppose I also find it comforting to know not everyone shares my eye for talent. As it was, Feste was much stronger than he looked, and rose to every physical challenge put to him. He was very hard working and diligent, which are qualities I also look for in a player. Natural talent, believe it or not, often handicaps a man. He can easily become trapped in his early and too-easily-won successes. He never evolves. He stagnates. He becomes a caricature of himself. Hard work can overcome almost any handicap, but natural talent almost always breaks a player’s will to work, which is the gravest threat of all. Feste was also well and truly smitten by the magic of the stage. It was plain to see! Most of our stagehands are common labourers, ruffians and dullards. They care little for the magic that their daily toil makes possible. Feste was different. Whenever he had a moment to himself, he’d watch the players at work. It wasn’t a casual or animal interest either. He was studying us, studying our work, trying to understand how the fantasy of the play became the truth of the stage.
Blessedly, as I have previously foreshadowed, the stars — and my own insatiable curiosity — eventually aligned. We were working on a production of “The Widower’s New Wife,” which, as you may already know, features a number of minor characters who are little more than background scenery — their gowns bringing much needed colour and energy to the stage. As is so often the case, on account of these minor roles being too small to attract reliable players, one of the men dropped out of the production mere days before the play was to meet its first audience. It is a perennial challenge, but I never tire of throwing a fit when it happens. In this instance of fury, I rhetorically suggested that we might have to conscript one of our stagehands into the role. To my unexpected delight, Feste spoke up, and volunteered to play the part. Let me tell you, I made quite a show of deciding if I should even consider accepting his offer. Truthfully, as soon as he spoke up, I began to devise a plan. He would be perfect for Manon. She’s on stage for much of the play, in the company of the eponymous new wife, but only has a handful of lines, which could easily be given to the other ladies-in-waiting, allowing me to keep Feste’s mouth shut and to make full use of his wonderful features. I imagined at the time, it would be my only opportunity to see him in full costume and makeup and to take stock of my initial appraisal of him. I had to seize the opportunity. Needless to say, as you might have rightly guessed by now, I had been quite wrong about his voice. The transformation was remarkable. In full makeup and costume, what had once seemed completely at odds with the very nature of femininity suddenly became perfectly congruent with it. Like two notes that transform the quality of each other when played in unison. What had once sounded ancient and profoundly unfeminine now felt timeless and perfectly suited for a young beauty who was wise beyond her years. It was beguiling. Enchanting. Even sensuous. The transformation was remarkable, and I could discern no effort on his part to encourage it. He simply was who he was, and, seen from a new light, he was transformed into a true beauty of sight and sound.
As stunning as his beauty may have been, the craft of theater and the art of femininity on stage is not so easily learned. There is much more to playing the part of a woman than looking and sounding the part. He had to stand differently, move differently, speak differently, breathe differently, and so on and so forth. There is so much detail and nuance to learn and master, a man could spend a lifetime perfecting it. It is truly a wonder that a woman can learn it in a single childhood. Thank the Mother, in the time that we had left, Feste managed to learn to stand as a woman, but, whenever he moved, he was very much a man in woman’s clothing, so I elected to conceal his movements behind the comings and goings of the other women on stage. It wasn’t ideal but, for such a minor part and for such a frivolous play, it was sufficient. Much more importantly, his appearance in the play made his enormous potential plain to see for everyone who had eyes to see, so I was able to secure for him a second small role in one of our other plays already rehearsing. I had to ensnare him lest he return to his life as a stagehand, letting his wonderful gifts go to waste. To my great relief, he accepted the role and, perhaps, more importantly, my offer to tutor him in the finer details of femininity. Before long, he moved from background roles to supporting roles, and, much sooner than even I had expected, he took on some of our less demanding leading roles. Our audiences were smitten. Punters began to ask for him by name. The play itself no longer mattered, so long as he was in it. He was, I can assure you, on the path to fame and fortune. To help him on this path, I felt, he needed a signature role to call his very own. A role which would recreate for the audience that magical moment when Feste first transformed from a man to woman for me. He was a true beauty, of that there could be no doubt, but the transformation itself was the finest magic. Because I could think of no play that made possible that moment of transformation, in a fit of hubris, I decided to write the play myself.
For the plot, I brought together a few different motifs that were popular at the time. A handsome Duke falls in love with the moon and refuses to marry any princess that is presented to him. To pressure the Duke to do his duty, his father refuses to allow his younger sister to marry, until the Duke takes a wife. Naturally, the sister and her fiance devise a plan to ensnare the Duke in a marriage. As fun as all of that may sound — and I assure you it is the kind of frivolous nonsense that attracts punters of every sort — the crux of the whole piece is that Feste, playing the moon, appears before the audience for the first time when the moon is disguised as a man. When the moon is the moon, up in the celestial heavens, he speaks her lines unseen behind a screen. Thanks to this very simple contrivance the audience encounters Feste first as a man and only ever sees him as woman at the very end of the play, when the moon reappears dressed as a woman to declare her love for the Duke, making possible that magical moment of transformation I had experienced. It was a wonderful moment, I can assure you, and it took incredible coordination backstage to make it possible and — not a word of a lie — it was completely missed by the audience. Most of the punters, believing what their eyes told them, thought we used two different actors. The transformation was so remarkable they wouldn’t believe it was the same man. I suppose it’s fitting somehow. The very reason for the play’s existence was utterly lost on them. And that, my friend, is the true tragedy of theater. The audience is your lord and master. Whatever your intentions may be, the audience sees whatever they want, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Oh well, no matter, thanks to its frivolity, the play was a resounding success, apart from some griping from Feste’s more ardent admirers, owing to his very brief appearance in the play. Feste was set, even if the play wouldn’t make his name in the way that I had hoped. For those of us who knew and understood what actually happened on stage, it would forever be his play, and, so long as audiences loved it, the part would be his to play. He had his whole life laid out for him, and, would you believe it, he indifferently cast it aside.
I can’t help but recall it, as if it were a scene from a play. Feste was sitting where you are now. The very same chair. I explained that the play would be staged again in a few months and, if it was as successful as it had been — and I assured him it would be, punters were already asking after it — he could expect it to run every year for years to come. He seemed happy, and, without skipping a beat, he asked me who would be playing his part. “Why you, of course,” I said, not realizing what he had in store for me. “Oh, I can’t play the part,” he said, as if he were saying nothing. “I will be leaving at first light tomorrow.” I laughed, believing he was kidding me, but, when he didn’t laugh along, I saw he was serious. “Why,” I asked, “why would you leave now? You have everything here. You have the family of the theatre. You have the security of a wonderful role that will keep you in coin for years to come. Why, Feste, why?” He answered, “there’s nothing left for me to learn.” I jumped out of my chair. “Why of course, there is! You’ve barely scratched the surface of theatre. You’ve barely begun your journey. There’s so much more for you to learn.” He seemed to consider the possibility of this for a moment, and then said, “Even if there is more of the craft to learn, in the end, all of it is only about pleasing others.” I was stunned. “Oh Feste,” I cried, “don’t let one little misunderstanding take theatre from you. Being misunderstood is a part of living. We all misunderstand each other all the time. We do our best and struggle through it. Theatre is no different than any other living, in that respect.” Feste smiled, which even now seems strange to me, given what he was about to say next. “I’m not bothered by the audience’s misunderstanding of our play,” he said. “I’m not particularly interested in pleasing people. I had hoped there would be more to theatre than that.” I had hoped there would be more to theatre than that? Mother’s honest truth, that’s exactly what he said. Queer, isn’t it? What do you suppose he was looking for? And where else in this world do you suppose he might find it, if not in the theater. It was baffling. It seemed so utterly pointless.
His decision, I will also plainly admit, was devastating for me, but, truthfully, it made little difference to our company. We had other players who could play the part well enough. Their transformation would never be as impressive as Feste’s, of course, but his transformation was so remarkable it had been entirely missed by the audience, so, from the perspective of our lord and master, it made little difference. Some companies, I’m told, even play the part with two different actors now to avoid the struggle of the quick change. His many admirers were disappointed by his sudden disappearance, but they are a fickle lot and easily found another beauty to take his place. Theater waits for no man, I can assure you. It was, I will admit, devastating for me because it meant I would never see his transformation again. I would never see how he might evolve as a player. He had so much potential and so much to learn and discover, I was sure his journey was going to be remarkable, and I had hoped to be his guide and witness to it all. I will admit I also felt slighted. I could not — I can’t — understand how he walked away from the very world I had worked so hard to find and make my own. Had he left to marry or to care for his aging parents, I might have been able to make sense of his decision. He wouldn’t be the first player who gave up the dream of theater for the reality of living, but he seemed to give up on it for no other reason than a blind restlessness, with no particular goal beyond leaving wherever he happened to find himself. How could he give up so much for so little? A man, on the stage, can live a thousand lives, take a thousand journeys, be true to himself or be whomever he pleases. Anything is possible on the stage! He could have experienced all that could be experienced, and he threw it all away. For what? Nothing, as far as I can tell. If it was adventure and discovery he craved, he had it in his grasp right here with us. No, I don’t think I can forgive him for that, even if I would be very happy to see him again. I’d take him over any moon on any day, of that you can be sure. If you do ever catch up to him, be sure to tell him that. This old and fading player would be very happy to see him again, but please don’t tell him the truth about him not being forgiven, not that it would matter much to him, but I wouldn’t want him to know I miss him that much.
Genesius, yeah no, I remember him! Hard to forget a name like that. Thin lanky guy with the deep voice. Eyes bluer than that sea. Hardly doubt I’ll ever forget him. We used to chat everyday here on this very beach. More like, I chatted and Genesius listened. I had my skin, he had his skin, and we’d watch the sea. It was nice. When it got too hot, we’d go for a swim. Good times. Good times. Not sure where he went in the end, or where he came from for that matter. Come to think of it, I never asked and he never said anything about it. Plenty of other things to chew on, I reckon. Too many people walking around with too many secrets. Letting them out only fusses the here and now. Why even ask after them? When the sky is blue and the sun is bright and the skins are full, enjoy the good while you have it. Father knows they won’t last. Him and me both.
Living is easy here, mate. You should think about staying for a while. That’s what I tell everyone who makes it here. Genesius stayed for a good while and he seemed to like it alright. If you’re a friend of his, you may like it too. Plenty of game in the commons to keep a man well-enough fed and, if you need some coin, plenty of farmers who are always in need of an extra hand or two to get something or other done. Church don’t take much interest in the place. Never has, which is odd, if you ask me, because if there’s a paradise to be had in this life, this is it. No politics to speak of. That war that happened, it didn’t touch the people here one bit. We only knew anything about it long after it was done, when all the ex-soldiers found their way here. Got right busy for a while, not like it is now. Quiet again, which is nice. They came here to recuperate, I reckon. Not physical wounds, even if there was plenty of that going around, the wounds on the inside, the wounds people can’t see and that aren’t easily explained. If you’re missing a leg, people might be a little more understanding of you being out of sorts and not ready to get back to the way life was. For them other wounds, it ain’t so simple. Harder to make sense of. Not that I would know anything about it. Never had any interest in soldiering, weapons or fighting. Me and my brothers might have fought when we were bitty, but that wasn’t much more than horseplay. I can’t say I’ve ever fought a man, outside of a few stormy words. What I do know about is whatever I hear from people and, for a goodly while, I was talking to a lot ex-soldiers on this beach, let me tell you. From all sides of the war too. Both sides of the Church and the different claims to the throne, all of them different fellas were killing each other not that long before and here there wasn’t so much as a loud argument. It’s the sea, I reckon. Puts a lot of life into perspective. The sun and sky help too. Can’t fault the air neither. I suppose a man could fight in a place like this if he worked at it, but how could you? Look around! There’s plenty of beach for everyone. If the fella next to you decides that he don’t like you, move on! Plenty of beach for everyone. Move on, find another spot, and mind your own business. Moving on, now that’s something I do know about. I’ve done a lot of moving on in my day. A chatter box like me ain’t welcomed by all company, and I learned pretty quickly to move on and not fret about it. Can’t change a fella who decides he don’t like you whether he has a reason to or not. Mind you, some people lash out before there’s even a chance to move on. Never had that problem here, not even with the ex-soldiers. Back on the mainland, a fella’s liable to straight out challenge you or worse, once he decides he don’t like you. I never had any problem walking away from a duel, let me tell you. I can also do without people flashing a dagger in my face on account of not liking my way of talking. Ask me to leave and I’ll go. Don’t need to bring steel into it. I reckon people lash out so easily only because they feel so trapped. The moment anything else adds to that feeling, they got to lash out because they have too much of it already. That’s my thinking on it. When people feel free, like they do around here, there’s no cause to lash out, even when people ain’t right on the inside.
Genesius never lashed out. He was more like a good sea. Calm and smooth on the surface, even if you know it’s always moving somewhere underneath. Good listener too, which I liked plenty. Enjoyed a skin. He could drain them quicker than me, and, let me tell you, I’ve seen the bottom of more skins than most fellas. He never turned nasty or sad or even disagreeable, like some fellas do when they go deep into a skin. More like, he became more agreeable. Like I said, he didn’t really talk about himself. After a few pulls, he might pick up on some idea or other I was chewing on and work on it a bit for himself. There you go. That reminds me. We used to sit over there most days. Well, Genesius sat over there, and, most days, I would join him after making my rounds. Always there’s some folks out here I need to jaw at for a bit whenever I see them. A couple of those regulars were two older fellas who sat inside the tree line up over there on our left. They were regulars, like Genesius and me, and had been coming to the same spot for as long as I can remember. See, one day, Genesius and I are sitting in our spot, pulling from our skins, me talking up a storm, and I work my way into talking about the reason for living and such. Genesius wasn’t much interested in other people so, with him, I’d talk about matters others avoided. I don’t go in for what the Church says about it, how the Father’s plans for us are so big we can’t understand them. Even if that’s right — and who am I to say the Church is wrong — I reckon I need a reason for myself, for living my life. Why am I here? Why do I carry on? I’m jawing away trying to put these different bits of thinking into one way of thinking and, those two regulars I mentioned before, they walk past me and Genisius on their way for a quick dip in the water. Those two, they were as constant as the breeze. They’d stroll down from their spot, take a quick dip and stroll back to their spot and do it all over once they got too warm again. Regular like, all through the day. So, those two guys are on one of their strolls, passing us again, and, on the other side of my waving hands, I see Genesius is watching them go by. Not obviously. Out of the corner of his eye. They take their dip, they pass on their way back to their spot, and, as I am about to move from one thought to the next, Genesius says to me, “Those two have it sorted. Look how they live. Every day of their lives they are living how they please. Enjoying the sun and the sea, no worries about yesterday or today. No cares. That’s the answer to your question, right there. Those two guys. There’s the meaning of life.” Or something like that. I can’t remember it word for word. It’s been a couple of years, and I’ve had a few pulls from the skin, if you get what I’m saying. That’s the spirit of what he said. So, I get the feeling that we are on the edge of something, so I let what he said linger there for a bit, as I turned it over in my head, not even speaking out loud what I am thinking, like I normally do, because I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much. After we take a couple of more pulls from our skins, I say this to him: “They sure do. Those two fellas have got it sorted. Look at them, it’s as plain as day. What does that say about you and me? We come here every day. We do as we please. We enjoy the sun and the sea. What have they got that you and me don’t? Doesn’t that mean we’ve figured it out too?” Now I’m not going to say Genesius looked shocked. He’s not the kind of guy who ever looks shocked. There was a look on his face that wasn’t like his normal look. I reckoned he was going to say more too, so I kept my mouth shut while he watched the sea for a bit longer. This time, we’re quiet long enough that those two regulars pass back and forth while we’re both waiting to hear what he’s going to say, and then he says, “it never occurred to me. The whole time I’ve been here, watching them, it never occurred to me.” And then he went quiet again for a little bit more, and, after another pull or two, he says — and I’m pretty sure this is exactly what he said because I’ve been repeating it to myself for a while now — “I wonder what else I missed along the way?”
Then, he got up, left, and never came back. Never saw that son of a mare again. I kept looking for him for a whole growing season, hoping maybe he had gone off to work a farm. I should have known he wasn’t coming back when he left his skin behind that day. I’m not fully sure what happened. As best as I can make out, something about what I said to him set him into motion again. I wonder sometimes, if I had answered him differently — or not all — when he said what he said about them two regulars, I wonder if he might never have gone off. If I hadn’t said anything, I fully reckon you might have caught up to him right here next to me on this beach. I only answered him the way I did because I always had the feeling that beneath all of his quiet there was a lot of churning going on. Some fellas are quiet because there’s nothing going on. Others are quiet because of all the churning. I learned that from talking to all of them ex-soldiers. I had got it into my head that if I could help him come up with an answer to whatever was causing the churn it might help him settle down. Be at peace and enjoy what we had. Not let all of this go to waste on account of all that churning. Instead, it set him into motion again! And I can’t make sense of why! Why would a fella do that? He sorts out, as far as I can reckon, that he’s living the life he was meant to live, and then he gets up and walks away from it. I’m not even fussed that he left without saying anything. I’m not that kind of fella. I can’t divine a reason that explains why he left, and that’s what sometimes vexes me. If you ever do find him, you ask Genesius that question for me, “Why did you leave paradise after finding it?” And don’t let him avoid giving you no answer neither. If he falls quiet, you wait him out until he has no choice but to speak, whatever is churning away on the inside. Mind you, it won’t do me much good one way or the other, if he tells you. Maybe it will give me some peace imagining that someone out there other than him might know the answer. In the meantime, I’ve got the sea, the sky, and my skin. All in all, I can’t say much bad about that, even if I tried.
A PDF of the complete novella is available here.