People quickly developed the practice of talking at me. It was obvious that they didn’t expect me to listen, or else I’m sure they wouldn’t have told me many of those things, but of course I listened. I had a keen ear for it, whether it was perched on a bench next to a stranger or sitting patiently at the dinner table of someone who had decided to take pity on me and invite me inside. Most of them were kind people, if a bit strange. I daresay that the children were the sanest out of all of them, but, judging from the sidelong glances that they gave me when they thought I wasn’t paying attention, my opinion didn’t hold much weight in such matters. I was, after all, just a jester.
The sound of cutlery and chewing ground on some fraying nerve as I perched on my seat in one of the wealthier houses of the small mountain village of Jonelo. The children –two little girls and an even younger boy– missed their mouths half the time they tried to take a bite, so intently were they staring at me. Five minutes had passed since their father heaped my plate full of meat and assorted vegetables, and I had yet to touch any of it. While they sat on their rumps all prim and proper, I crouched on the seat of my chair with my knees propped up against the side of the table and my hands set idly on top of them. It was quite as if they had propped a dog up at the table and were wondering if such would make it capable of civility. I’m sure they had more confidence in a dog behaving civilly than one such as myself.
I couldn’t help myself: I raised my chin and whistled quietly at them.
Their father –who had been in the midst of a long-winded tirade about what peaceable people they all were and how they would welcome any guest into their home if only they were as humble and polite as I was– cut off mid-sentence to give me a confused and mildly offended look.
The children’s faces, however, brightened.
One of the girls sat up and tried to whistle back at me, but fell short on account of the fork still hanging out of her mouth. She got a stern look from her mother, but the other two looked like they wanted to try too. They couldn’t see that I was smiling at them from under my mask.
“Aren’t you hungry, Mister Jester?” said the sister, the picture of innocence.
“Honey, don’t be rude.”
“But he hasn’t eaten—”
The girl went quiet, tucking her fork into a pile of mashed potatoes as she gave me an apologetic look over the length of the table. The look tugged at my heartstrings, but I couldn’t but continue to smile in sympathy for the quelled curiosity of the youth. She meant only the best, of course, but her parents were aware that presenting a meal to me was symbolic in nature at best. By the time the evening was through, I would consume not a crumb of it, wouldn’t even have touched the silverware neatly arrayed to either side of it. I was a fixture at the table, an ornament of sorts, such that the children looked upon me with renewed fascination when the time came for me to unfold myself from the chair and sweep the dishes off to the kitchen.
They followed me.
Ruby, the eldest of the three, skipped ahead to take the plates from me and set about soaping them up in the sink. Unfazed, I reached for the towel, but Lee cut in to snatch it with a giggle. Cleo, too young to pilfer anything from me, simply stood there staring. Correction: he was still young enough to steal my heart, and I made sure to tousle his hair before climbing up onto the counter to watch them work.
Already up to her elbows in dishes, Lee canted her head at me. “How long are you going to be in town for, Mister Jester?”
“Probably not very long,” her sister replied for me. I reached out to pluck up the soap dispenser, peering at it as I listened. “He doesn’t like to stick around very long, now do you, Mister Jester?”
I found it in myself to shake my head at her, all the while dribbling some soap onto the washcloth when she presented it to me. As she got back to work, I deposited a drop of soap onto each plate in turn, careful and delicate because these artifacts here are not for me to ruin.
“Are you going to stay the night here with us, Mister Jester?” the little girl chimed.
I started to shake my head again, but Ruby had me covered: “It’s rude to offer without mum’n’dad’s permission, Lee.”
“But they didn’t even offer! What if he leaves before we get to ask?”
“You still shouldn’t ask without telling dad. You’ll get in trouble.”
“But I want him to stay! Don’t you want to stay, Mister Jester? We could play together.”
I couldn’t help but pause in dishing out soap as my attention was drawn toward Cleo, my own head tilting at the statement.
“That’s right, Cleo,” Ruby said. “He has big horns. He might not like you pointing that out to him.”
I tilted my head at her.
“Big horns,” the little boy said again, and I looked back to find him still staring at me.
Setting down the soap, I reached up to pat at the sides of my head, and then nodded at him. It didn’t surprise me that that was the feature his young mind had latched onto. I scooted myself down from the counter and hopped over to crouch down in front of him. I peered into those curious eyes of his from the depths of my mask, then turned my head to present a horn.
A peculiar sound greeted my ears.
It was a sniffle.
And when I turned my face back to him, I saw that it was not curiosity that I had read in his eyes, but a most infantile expression of fright. I felt my breath catch. Don’t do it. Oh no, oh please don’t…
I held up my hands, tried to placate him. It’s okay. It’s alright.
But his huge eyes were welling up with tears.
Oh please don’t. No…
He hiccupped and whimpered. Then sucked in a deep breath and proceeded to wail.
Plates dropped. An exclamation of alarm from the other room. The father came diving in from where he had been watching in the doorway. The mother materialized a moment later.
I staggered up to my feet and back from the child. In the flurry of movement, the only solid thing that I could grasp was the terrible sound of his screams, because, as plain as day, I was his nightmares come to life. He simply couldn’t process that. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t my fault. I have since assured myself that it wasn’t my fault, but I fled all the same.
I was that flicker of movement sweeping back toward the periphery of the commotion.
I was the quiet silhouette that edged past it all into the other room.
I was the shadow that turned the doorknob and slipped out into the night.
I could hear his cries long after that town was out of sight behind me.