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 ... She took refuge in a convent while her lover, a clown, tried to rescue her, disguised as a nun. They were discovered by the evil suitor, who swore that if he could not have the girl then no one would, only to be foiled by the sudden appearance of a monkey, which leaped onto the villain's head, allowing the lovers to make good their escape.
The play was indifferent; the players themselves all but exhausted by the heat. Business must have been very bad, I thought, for the players to come to us. An island convent can offer little more than food and boardnot even that, if rules are strictly applied. Maybe there had been trouble on the mainland. Times were hard for itinerants of all kinds. But Fleur loved the performance, clapping her hands and shouting encouragement to the squealing monkey. Next to her Perette, our youngest novice, looking rather like a monkey herself with her small vivid face and fluffy head, hooted with excitement.
The act was nearing its end. The lovers were reunited. The evil priest was unmasked. I felt slightly dizzy, as if the sun had turned my head, and in that moment I thought I saw someone else behind the players, standing against the light. I knew him at once; there was no mistaking the tilt of his head, or the way he stood, or the long shadow cast against the hard white ground. Knew him, though I saw him for no more than a second: Guy LeMerle, my very own black bird of ill-omen. Then he was gone.
This is how it begins: with the players, LeMerle, and the bird of malchance. Luck turns like the tide, my mother used to say. Maybe it was just our time to turn, as some heretics say the world turns, bringing creeping shadow to the places where once there was light. Maybe it was nothing. But even as the dancers capered and sang, spat fire from reddened lips, smirked from behind their masks, tumbled and rollicked and simpered and stamped the dirt with their gilded feet to the tune of tambour and flute, I seemed to perceive the shadow as it crept closer, covering scarlet petticoats and jingling tambourin, screaming monkey, motley, masks, Isabelle and Scaramouche with its long dark wing. I felt a shiver, even here in the midday sunlight with the whitewashed abbey walls buzzing with heat. The inexorable beginnings of momentum. The slow procession of our Last Days.
I'm not supposed to believe in signs and auguries. All that's in the past now, with the Théâtre des Cieux. But why see LeMerle, of all people, and after all these years? What could it mean? The shadow across my eyes had already passed and the players were coming to the end of their masque, bowing, sweating, smiling, flinging rose petals over our heads. They had more than earned their board for the night and supplies for their journey.
The foregoing is excerpted from Holy Fools by Joanne Harris. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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