On the ferry to the island, I saw a man dressed as a jester. His image flashed into view in my side mirror as I sat there half-dozing behind the steering wheel. It was midday as we chugged along across the sound, and the sun glared off the smattering of pickups and SUVs and vans on the deck. For a second, I thought I had dreamed him.
I turned in the seat and looked out the back window, and there he still was, just his head and what looked like the end of a fishing rod visible. He was standing out on the back of the boat. He was looking up at the sky, not squinting. Farther behind him, a flock of gulls followed the boat. His head slowly lowered until he was staring straight at me.
I spun and sank back into my seat, slumping so that I wasn’t visible in the side mirror. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to some kind of street performer who fished, or some fisherman who was heavily into cosplay. I was tired and hungry. I was looking forward to seeing my old friend Virginia, getting the tour of this odd little island that wasn’t close to much of anything, drinking a beer or two, getting away from the world, if only for one night. She would probably know the story of the jester. She knew all the stories.
The ferry docked and I was one of the first off, and Virginia met me in the parking lot next to the abandoned Coast Guard barracks. Virginia was wheeling around an oxygen tank fitted with tiny clear tubes that swooped up to her nose.
“You hadn’t mentioned this,” I said.
“There are some things I’m not going to talk about,” she said. She tapped the silver canister. “This is one of them. The first rule of oxygen tank club is, you do not talk about oxygen tank club.”
She pulled a plastic bottle from her back pocket and handed it to me. Bug spray.
“You’re going to need this,” she said. “The mosquitoes are no joke here.”
The jester trudged off the ramp of the ferry, carrying only his fishing pole. I asked Virginia if she knew who it was, and she just shook her head.
“You get a lot of people in costume out here?”
“In the summer, there are occasional infestations of pirates. Lately there’ve been mermaids, too. Never seen a jester before.”
I had been hoping for at least a sliver of adventure. Maybe seeing Virginia for one night after so many years wasn’t going to fix my life, but if it did, all the better. On the phone she’d said something like, “I’ve got something important I want to give you, you have to come pick it up.” This was suddenly a very different sort of trip, one that included an oxygen tank.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was one of Virginia’s pranks. When we were younger, she stole this gimmick off of WKRP in Cincinnati, and always had a bandage on some visible part of her. She wore one across the bridge of her nose for a year solid. Every time someone asked her what had happened, she said that she couldn’t really talk about the details. An oxygen tank. I wouldn’t put it past her.
“What do you think he wants?” I asked.
“Let’s say…” Virginia said, and then she paused. That was the introduction to all her great improvisations.
“Let’s say he wants me. Call him Death’s Fool. See his staff?”
I squinted and saw that the fishing rod wasn’t a fishing rod or a normal walking stick. At the tip there was a little doll-sized figure of a jester, also holding a staff.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’ve never been much afraid of anything–you know that–or even if I was, I would just run toward the fear, not away from it. But that right there is Death’s Fool, and maybe he doesn’t notice me yet, but he will. Stay out of his way when he makes his move.”
Virginia bent over at the waist and started coughing and laughing at the same time, holding her hand up to fend off any possible assistance.
I laughed too.
“I think I could take him,” I said. The skinny jester with the funny stick had left the parking lot. “I’ve been working out. Krav Maga. Needed to drop some pounds.”
I opened the passenger door so she could get in. “Your Krav Maga workout is no match for Death’s Fool. Besides, he came here on the boat with you. How do I know you’re not working together? Here, let me drive.”
Twenty-five years earlier, I’d watched as Virginia head-butted a would-be thief, a guy who walked into the bar where she was working and leaned over the counter trying to grab money from the cash register. She knocked him flat out. She called the cops with one hand while fishing some ice out of the cooler and holding it to her forehead with the other.
“Well, maybe he’s gone now. I don’t see him anymore.”
“He’s still there. Where’s he gonna go? Striding off into the Atlantic? He’s probably waiting in the lobby of the inn right now.”
Virginia had been the caretaker of Blackbeard’s Hideout for a few years. She knew I wasn’t particularly happy sitting in a cubicle designing catalogs for a medical equipment supply house. Now there was an oxygen tank. We talked on the phone maybe two or three times a year, and she always asked me to come visit, and finally there I was visiting. Hadn’t actually seen her live and in person in twenty years. She was going gray. I was too.
Virginia was my oldest friend.
“I guess we won’t be going for a run on the beach,” I said.
She went to get in the driver’s side of the car, pulling the oxygen tank behind her.
“No run on the beach, no swimming, no diving, no horseplay.”
“Whatever you say.” I looked back toward the sound, where the ferry that had dropped me off was already chugging back into the distance.
Virginia started the car and we pulled onto the main street, what seemed like the only street. Surprisingly, she obeyed the 25 mph speed limit. Speed limits had never really been her forte.
To our right was the harbor, mostly empty docks. To the left there were houses and the occasional restaurant or bar or kayak rental hut. Nubbin’s Grill. The Rusty Cutlass. All of them still boarded up for the off-season, even though it was a warm March. Then a low brick wall around a small cemetery, iron gates with an anchor motif. Death’s Fool sat on top of the wall, staff in hand, staring off into the distance. I pointed him out to Virginia.
“Want to see if he needs a ride anywhere?”
“Hell no,” said Virginia.
Just as we rolled past he looked over at our car and smiled. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me or at Virginia. He had no teeth.
We lurched to a halt, clouds of gray dust billowing up from the gravel lot at the side of Blackbeard’s Hideout. I moved slowly, deliberately, trying to match Virginia’s pace as I retrieved my bag and walked past the nineteenth-century pointing finger sign up to the screened porch that was seeded with rocking chairs. The building was a dark two-story hulk, more barn than hotel, down a side street from the main road. A fan inside the engine compartment of the car spun to a stop, clanking. Beyond the hotel, the side road curved off to the left. There were vacation houses with white picket fences, and everywhere the gnarled scrub pines.
Virginia went in first through the screen and front doors, not locked. Inside the lobby was a big open space, concrete floor with doors all around, a balcony with the same, all of it dimly lit. There was an old Cheerwine machine that whirred away. There was a pool table, and there were bicycles stacked against the wall. I spotted Virginia’s unicycle, the one with the zebra print seat. There was also a small boat built into the floor that said Adventure on the side. Virginia walked around and stepped through an opening into the boat, which evidently was the reservations desk. She slid a brass key on a diamond-shaped fob over to me. “How about Room 102? It’s right next to the caretaker’s apartment.” She gestured to a door, cracked open, near the boat.
A scraggly white cat with bent whiskers and chewed-off ears shambled out from the opening into the lobby. “You remember Lightning,” she said. The cat made its way toward us, in no hurry. I did remember Lightning. Lightning had been her cat when we were kids, decades ago. I remembered Lightning zooming around her parents’ split-level house. Lightning stalking my shoelaces. Lightning shambling into the room to deliver a huge cockroach corpse to me. Maybe Virginia always got white cats and always named them Lightning and this was Lightning Mark Two, or Mark Three. No way it could be the same old Lightning, unless she’d had him cloned. I tried to think if she’d ever mentioned pets in her calls or letters, but couldn’t recall.
“Meow,” said Lightning, walking into the boat and then jumping onto the desk chair and then the desk. Virginia proffered her hand, and Lightning bonked into it. He batted at the oxygen tubes as if rearranging them, then settled down on top of a big leather-bound book.
“Give him a scritch,” she said, so I leaned over and tickled him under his chin. He’d always liked that. All cats like that. This couldn’t be the same Lightning. His fur was so thin, I could see the pink skin underneath. His purr was a loud thrum, just like the old Lightning’s.
“He’s happy to see you,” she said.
Lightning stood up and bonked against my shirt, leaving a patch of white hairs. Then back to my hand. I picked up my bag and took it to room 102. On the door, a spray of dried flowers hung from a nail. The stems were dusty gray, but the dried blossoms were red with yellow tips.
“What’s the flower?”
“Blanket flowers,” she said. “We call ’em Joe Bells. Joe Bell: jilted lover from further up the coast, wandering the island. Folks left him baskets of food, and he returned them filled with blanket flowers. Then one day he was found in his boat, dead, surrounded by the flowers. That’s the story, anyway. I’ve got them planted around the swimming pool. They grow anywhere–might as well be weeds.”
“What does Lightning think of Joe Bells?”
“Lightning is more interested in the vole, shrew, and mouse population. As far as flora goes, he’s a purist. I grow catnip for him in the herb garden.”
Lightning had come over and was patiently waiting for me to open the door to room 102.
“Is this place built on a Native American burial ground? Do you often get the urge to type the same sentence over and over during the winter months?”
She laughed but then immediately started wheezing in spasms. I rushed over but she waved me off.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Sounds fine to me,” she said. “Don’t worry, we don’t have a room 237.”
The room was more rustic than piratical, with a double bed, a red Naugahyde recliner, and a wooden dresser. The carpeting was worn through in spots and lumpy in other spots. No television. The window was half-covered by a bright red curtain tied back with rope. I threw my bag on the bed, then pulled out my toiletries bag and put it on the sink in the tiny bathroom. Lightning had followed me into the room and made his way from the recliner to the top of the dresser in two tentative hops. He slumped down and lay there with his head over the edge. It looked like it would be very uncomfortable, even for a cat. It also looked exactly like how Lightning, the Lightning of my youth, had lain on the coffee table in the living room of the split-level house where Virginia lived.
I was startled by a sound outside. At first I thought it was a dog snarling. Lightning didn’t move from his spot. I went to the window, standing far enough back so that I wouldn’t be seen. In the side lot of the hotel there was a spindly young boy, no more than twelve. He had a plastic cutlass in one hand, and wore a long black coat belted with a red sash. On his head, a black pirate hat, which bore a skull and crossbones logo, in case there was any doubt.
“Arrr!” said the boy. Over and over, while shaking his cutlass at the air, at the building, at all the points of the compass. He would stylishly pose for a second, hands on hips, then start up again with the yelling and the swordplay.
I let the curtain fall all the way across the window, not wanting to incur the wrath of the tiny buccaneer.
The one piece of art on the walls was a print of a coat of arms, very English, a busy array of lions and unicorns and crowns and roses. At the bottom, a banner read “Semper Eadem.” Instinctively I pulled my phone out, but there was no signal. I walked over to Lightning.
“Lightning,” I said, “can you translate, hmmm?”
Lightning stood up when I said his name. I reached over to give him a pat, and he leaned back on his back legs and clutched my hand gently between his front paws. He held on for a few seconds and then let go, back onto all fours. It was, of course, something that the old Lightning had done many times.
“Where should we go eat, Lightning?” I asked. “Let’s go talk to Virginia.”
She was sitting in the reception desk boat, absently spinning a little ship’s wheel that was bolted to the desk.
“Yeah. One of Blackbeard’s ships was the Adventure. The other was the Queen Anne’s Revenge. They found that one. Never found the Adventure, though.”
“And here it’s been sitting in this hotel all along. You should notify the historic preservation office. Hey, what’s with ye olde coat of arms in my room?”
“That is, perhaps not surprisingly, Queen Anne’s.”
“The Latin bit? The slogan?”
“Semper eadem: Always the same.”
“Good luck with that, Queen Anne. Hey, they got any restaurants on this here island?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve got tacos and pan-Asian and a wine bar and a bakery and a pizza place. And seafood, of course. And none of them are open for the season yet. The pub is open, where you can get all the fried brown food you’d ever need. But let’s just eat here. I can make sandwiches, and I’ve got beer. You still drink beer, right?”
“I still drink beer.”
“Besides, Death’s Fool might spot me if we went out somewhere.”
“I’ll protect you.”
“I don’t think you’d be much up against Death’s Fool. We should stay here with Lightning. Death’s Fool hates cats. It’s like an allergy. Confuses him. It. Them. I don’t know what gender Death’s Fool is.”
“Let’s go with ‘him,'” I said.
Lightning entered on cue and went into the boat. Virginia pulled him up into her lap. He hung his head down over the ledge of her knee.
“When do I get this artifact of great importance? Is it some of Blackbeard’s treasure?”
“You in a rush? Ferry doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning.”
I shrugged a shrug that Virginia had seen a thousand times before.
“All right,” she said.
She turned up the regulator knob on her oxygen tank, dumped Lightning out of her lap, and got up.
“I can get it, just tell me where–“
“I’ll get it, hang on.”
She went into the caretaker’s apartment and then came back with a dark blob in her hands. When she got back in the boat, she tossed it over to me.
It was my old Norfolk jacket. I’d bought it at a thrift store sophomore year. I’d been in an extremely brief tweedy British explorer phase. Then Virginia had taken it from me, saying it looked better on her than it did on me. Which was true. She would roll the sleeves up and wear it as a top in cool weather, stashing beers in the voluminous pockets.
“Still fits you,” she said.
“Only because of this ridiculous diet I’m on.”
“Looks like it’s working.”
“Well, this is awkward. I show up here empty-handed, and you’ve given me this jacket.”
“That’s not a jacket, that’s a historic artifact. Also, it’s your jacket, remember?”
“Yeah. You know what else you could give me, Virginia? Wisdom.”
“Could I say anything more eloquent than ‘Hang in there, baby,’ the line from the old cat poster? You want platitudes? I’ve got books full of them–my ex started sending them to me. I guess he feels sorry or that’s his ass-backwards way of apologizing or something. Live, keep going, all that.”
“I’ve tried living and keeping going.”
“Me too, and look where it’s got me.” She thought for a moment. “Seriously? Okay, Virginia’s rules. Follow your obsessions. Honor complexity. And, I dunno, maybe take up unicycling. Although it’s probably too late for you to take up unicycling. But you knew all of that already.”
“Excuse me again, will ya?”
She went back into the caretaker’s apartment, moving slowly. I thought about obsessions and complexity as I rummaged through the pockets of the jacket. I tried to think of the last thing I’d been truly obsessed with, but nothing came to mind. In the jacket there was half a tube of old butter rum Life Savers, a butane lighter, and a packet of sugar. One of Virginia’s party tricks was opening a packet of sugar and drizzling the grains through the flame of a lighter, which when done correctly produced a big stream of crackling fire. Always a hit on the back patios of rental houses and dive bars, and only one time did a fire extinguisher have to be deployed. I wondered when the last time was that she’d done that trick. I wondered if she still had the knack.
She was gone for a while, long enough for Lightning to go investigate, and then finally they returned together.
I brandished the lighter and the sugar. “Can you still do this one?”
She rattled the plastic tubes that led to the ever-present tank. “I don’t really go in for tricks anymore, especially ones that involve open flames.”
She came over and sat next to me on the couch.
“There’s an island story, one that I actually believe. A ship wrecked off the coast here, one carrying a circus and menagerie. Circus costumes washed up on the shore. Carcasses of hippopotamuses, giraffes, camels, lions, and tigers washed up on the shore. But two horses survived and roamed the island for years, performing circus tricks for anyone they came across in hope of getting a treat. Eventually they just faded into the herd of wild ponies that already lived here. I think about those two horses a lot.”
Lightning smashed into my leg. I leaned down to pet him. I could feel bumps, growths, under his patchy fur.
“You know, Blackbeard tried to go straight,” she said. “After blockading Charleston for weeks, he surrendered to the governor. Promised he’d stop with all the pirating. He moved inland, married a local woman. His fourteenth wife, by some accounts. Didn’t last, though. You should go see the Point. That’s point with a capital P. Most historic part of the island. Blackbeard died there. In the Adventure.”
“The boat that’s never been found.”
“Yeah. Walk out of here, turn right and then head down the road to the lighthouse, then keep going past it. Look for a green gate and an informative plaque; that’s where the trail to the point starts. Stay on the trail. Keep an eye out for Death’s Fool. And for mosquitoes. You might want to spray yourself again.”
“Aren’t you going to come with?”
She coughed again, wheezing wetly into her hand. “I’m tired. Maybe I’ll work on a trick for you, that one with a playing card and a shot of whiskey and a shot of water. Go on. If you leave now you can watch the sunset from there. Take a flashlight.”
I took a flashlight, doused myself with more bug spray, put on my sunglasses, and set out.
I walked out to the road, where there was a Canada goose milling around by the roadside. Just as I turned right, it fanned out its wings and started honking at me. I kept going–it was only a bird–but then it attacked, flying up and pecking at me. I batted at it, which I’m sure looked hilarious to any islanders watching. It was a lot better at dodging me than I was at dodging it. I fell backward onto some crushed gravel. The bird did not let up, flying over and continuing to jab at me. I heard a window slam open from the hotel.
“Stand up and take your sunglasses off!” she said.
Still under attack from the goose, I complied as quickly as I could.
“Now spread your arms out.”
I did that, and suddenly the goose backed down and backed away.
“You okay?” she said. I shook the dust off of myself.
“I don’t think it broke the skin. I thought they only attacked when defending their young?”
“You thought wrong. That one, he’s lonely. Been hanging around here, not paired up. Single male goose. The seasons are so weird now, I’m not sure when he’ll migrate. If he’ll migrate.”
“So you have a special power of kinship with animals now, too?”
“No, I’m just not a dingbat who goes wandering around not paying attention. Now get going.”
I found the green gate past the lighthouse. There was a slot at the bottom of the informative plaque that contained one lonely, sun-bleached informative brochure. I stuffed it in my back pocket. I wished that there was a brochure on all the various diseases and conditions that required use of an oxygen tank. My phone was still useless. No bars.
The trail ran by a white picket fence next to an old house. After the house, the fence changed into stacks of driftwood, some of it hung with shells and horseshoe crab carapaces. After some sandy hills the fences stopped, and I entered the maritime forest. The gnarled live oaks had already sprouted new leaves, so I was surrounded by a canopy of green. The trail ran up and down hummocks, past salt marshes and yaupon thickets, with no sign of habitation of any kind.
I felt alone on the island, as if I might as well have been back in the time of the pirates. The only noises were the noises of birds, birds that I could not identify, chirping and peeping and squawking. I tried to imagine walking over the next rise and finding Blackbeard and a convocation of fellow pirates there. I skimmed the brochure as I walked and learned that indeed this exact area had been where he and his men holed up in between plundering runs. And that the largest convention of pirates ever had been held there, right there. There was no trace, just sandy soil and trees. Then I got to the cistern and the grave.
I consulted the brochure again. The round brick cistern was covered now. The twentieth-century owner of the property was buried there next to his horse. He must’ve loved that horse. I wondered which one of them died first.
I kept going on the path. The trees thinned out and now it was mostly high grass and then over a final dune there was the sound, placid in the fading rays of the sun. Directly ahead of me in the water was where Blackbeard had been anchored in the Adventure when he was ambushed and killed by the Royal Navy, his body swimming around Lieutenant Maynard’s ship three times after it had been beheaded. There were no boats nearby that I could see. Far to the south was another island at the other side of the inlet.
I tried to imagine it in the early morning hours, in 1718, multiple ships occupying the channel. Cannon fire, guns and grenades, ships ablaze, the clank of cutlass and dagger. The groans of men killing and being killed. The sun was sinking low now, setting the water on fire.
And as I stood there, balancing on a cinder block against which the corpses of two jellyfish beat in the rhythm of the waves, someone ran into my legs from behind, knocking me down on onto all fours in the shallows. It was the pirate boy.
“Arrr,” the pirate boy said, brandishing his plastic cutlass.
I still hurt from where the goose had pecked at me, and that gave me the idea to fend the boy off in the same way. I stood, pushed my sunglasses back on my head, and spread my arms wide to make myself as big as possible.
The boy ran at me and whacked me in the crotch with his toy sword. I collapsed.
“Arrr!” he said again, emphatically. Then he ran up the beach, toward some lights in the distance. I rolled over to a sitting position and waited for this new pain to subside.
It was starting to get seriously dark, so I retraced my steps down the path and back to the hotel.
Virginia had left the porch light on at the hotel. Moths big and small bashed themselves senseless against it. The door to the lobby was open, and I trudged in. My shoes were full of sand, and even though I’d doused myself in spray, I still had a couple insect bites. Plus the aches and pains inflicted by the goose and the pirate boy. I needed a drink.
“Get any good photos?” she said.
“Nah,” I offered. I didn’t mention the pirate boy. If she had secrets, well, I could have secrets too. “What are my beer options?”
“Just random cheap stuff, I’m afraid. I don’t drink much beer anymore. Switched to vodka and grapefruit a while back. Get some vitamin C with my vitamin A. The fridge is in my apartment, check it out. And fix me a drink.”
I went and got a random cheap beer and made her a vodka and grapefruit.
We sat on the screened porch, me and Virginia with Lightning playing the part of the elephant in the room. Virginia turned the light off so the only illumination was the occasional sweep of the lighthouse.
Lightning took an interest in something on the other side of the screen, standing on his hind legs and pawing away without extending his claws. When my eyes adjusted, I realized that it was the goose.
“Your familiar is good at making friends,” I said.
“Oh yeah, they’re pals, at least as long as they stay on either side of the screen. And the goose visits Lightning pretty often. If you take my hint.”
I took the hint. That’s why I said: “Tell me a story.” It was one of our oldest routines. One would say, “Tell me a story,” and the other had to make up something right then. Virginia had always been a lot better at it than I was.
“Tell me a story about Death’s Fool.”
And so she did.
Once there was a citadel in the mountains ruled by a Queen. The citadel sat on a plateau at the top of a pass. There were seven gates, and the gate to the east was called the Gate of Cats, and the gatekeeper there was a man with a son and a daughter. The Gate of Cats sat at the top of a long, steep climb up from the valley below, and the doors of that gate rarely opened.
But one day, there was a rapping at the gate, and the gatekeeper was not there to hear it, for he was at the temple lighting incense and praying to the gods. The son and the daughter–their mother had died years ago–were there, and sat listening to the sharp knocks, four at a time and then a long pause and then another four, and so on.
Finally the daughter went to the gate and slid the spy door open. The son crept up slowly behind and watched.
“Let me in,” said the thing beyond the gate. Its voice sounded like the stone wheel that the miller used to grind grain. The thing at the gate rode a goat sidesaddle. The goat was bigger than any goat that the daughter had ever seen. Behind the rider, a rooster perched on the goat’s rump.
“Who calls at the Gate of Cats?” said the daughter. She had heard her father say this before.
“Death’s Fool,” replied the thing on the goat.
That doesn’t make sense. You said that Death’s Fool was allergic to cats.
Okay, it’s the Gate of Owls. Happy?
It carried a staff, at the top of which there was a figure that looked like a miniature of Death’s Fool, which in turn held a tiny staff, at the top of which there was an even tinier figure, and so on. Death’s Fool gently touched the ground with the tip, and the rooster crowed, and the goat bleated, and when these things happened, the locks and latches to the gate clanked open. The boy and girl ran off to find their father. Death’s Fool nudged the gate, and it slowly swung wide open. The goat shuffled through the gate, past the rocky ground of the pass and onto the flat packed earth of the citadel.
When the boy and girl got to the temple, they found their father the gatekeeper lying supine beneath the altar. A rivulet of blood dripped from his open mouth. The children screamed and cried. But they were not alone in the temple. The gilded doors of the royal chamber opened, and the Queen emerged.
“O Queen,” the daughter said, “Death’s Fool is here!”
But the Queen paid them no mind. She rushed straight to the body that lay beneath the altar, and the children gave way, because she was the Queen. She knelt and felt the chest of the gatekeeper, which no longer held a warm, beating heart. She turned her face away from the children.
“Go home,” she said. “Go back to the Gate of Owls.”
The children did as the Queen said, because everyone did as the Queen said. They rubbed their tears away with their sleeves and walked down the aisle between the benches and out into the sunlight. But they did not go to the Gate of Owls, because outside was something even more wondrous. Lying on top of the grave where she’d been buried, dressed in gauzy white that could not possibly have been the same shroud she’d been buried in, was their mother, pale and whole again. Her bright hair shone in the sun. They ran to her and embraced her.
“I have been dreaming of you,” she said. “And now you’re here.”
The children were so amazed that all they could say was “Mother! Mother!” and hug her more and cry more.
“Where is your father?” she asked, and that shocked them back into what they’d witnessed only moments before.
“Father is dead!” they cried.
“Well then, there’s nothing we can do about that. Come with me, children.”
And with that their mother stood, as nimble as a fox, and took them hand in hand back in the direction of the Gate of Owls.
As they walked, their mother began to sing a song, and it was a song the children had never heard before, and the song went like this:
At break of day
We sit and weigh
The rights from wrongs
The words from songs
We pull and push
We taste and touch
The games we’ll play
At break of day
As they walked along the Queen and her Guardian Prime, her constant companion, rode past them. The Queen’s horse wore a bell, and everyone knew its tone and knew to kneel and avert their gaze when the Queen rode by. The children heard the bell and fell to their knees and stared at the ground, but their mother did not. Their mother remained standing, and turned toward the sound, and there was the Queen, swaying as she rode along, with her fiery hair and upturned nose.
Their mother snorted at the Queen, as if she were a pig. But before the Queen could respond–and surely this would mean some kind of punishment–from the opposite direction there was the cry of a rooster, and there came Death’s Fool aboard his great goat. The Queen tugged the reins and stopped her horse, and waited as Death’s Fool arrived. The goat shambled up the street until it stood in the shadow of the Queen’s horse.
“Who are you?” said the Queen.
“I am Death’s Fool.”
“We have known Death here.”
“I am not Death. I am Death’s Fool. Today is my day, and this place is my place now.”
Death’s Fool wore motley in stark white and black, off-kilter stripes and patches that were hard to focus on. Death’s Fool shimmered in the sunlight. The rooster had black and white feathers, and the goat was white with a black mask and mantle.
The Queen commanded the Guardian Prime to banish Death’s Fool. The Guardian Prime rode up past the Queen, but then the rooster crowed and the goat bleated and at this, his horse stopped and would go no further. The Guardian Prime dismounted and moved toward Death’s Fool, but then before he could touch the nose of the goat, the rooster crowed again and the goat bleated, and the Guardian Prime could go no further.
“I am going to sit on your throne,” said Death’s Fool to the Queen. “And if I want to dance a jig, I shall stand up and dance a jig. And if I want to play a tune, I will rip out your shinbone and make a flute of it. And if I want to beat a drum, I will tear out your skull and tap it like a tabor.”
The great goat stirred and shifted in the direction of the palace.
“Stop,” the Queen said. “Take all the treasure that you can, but leave this place, and come here again no more.”
“Very well; it is done,” Death’s Fool said, and touched his staff to the ground, and though no one could see it at the time, the treasures in the royal storehouses vanished. All the gold, all the silver, all the rubies, everything. Death’s Fool continued, unimpeded, on to one of the gates in the west, and left the city and was never seen again.
The mother took her children by the hand and led them along the path to the Gate of Owls.
When they got to the gatehouse, the children broke down in tears, for even though they had regained a mother, they had still lost a father.
Their mother packed as much as she could into satchels for the three of them, and worked the locks and latches of the Gate of Owls open, and led the son and daughter out and down the steep path.
The little monarchy in the mountains eventually faded away. And no one knows what happened to the mother and her children.
So, there’s your story.
That was not the end of the night. We stayed up and talked.
We talked about old times, people and events from years ago, some of it rehashed to death and some of it things I hadn’t heard in decades. We talked about Butts on Parade, each of us blaming the idea on the other. We talked about that one summer I spent watching Monty Python reruns in the basement of her parents’ house after getting off my shitty job polishing tabletops at the furniture factory. We talked about the circle of fifths, which she once again tried to explain to me and which I once again could not fathom at all, given that my musical career ended with the recorder in the sixth grade, whereas her musical career had extended all the way to the island, where she would sit in with the cover bands that played the pub at the height of the season. We talked about the time that she entered the father/son swim meet with her dad and they cruised to victory, pissing off the other families, him wearing a Speedo and doing the backstroke with a cig in his mouth and her in an American flag one-piece. I talked about how she was my diving board hero when we were kids.
“You always had that ability to land on your feet.”
“You don’t land on your feet in the water.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Until, until, until.”
She raised her drink and said, “Here’s to the Adventure.”
“To the Adventure,” I replied, and clicked my beer against her glass.
We talked and talked and then she said, “I want you to have something else besides the jacket.” So we talked about that for a while.
And then she was tired, and went in to bed. I stayed up a while, finishing off a third beer, wondering who else I’d have to battle to get off of the island.
In the morning I drove to the ferry, Virginia in the passenger seat and Lightning in her lap, the Norfolk jacket and Lightning’s dish in the floorboard. I stopped in the parking lot. We both got out. She spread the Norfolk jacket on the seat, and Lightning curled up on top of it. She closed the door.
“Come back when you can’t stay so long,” she said.
“Well, I know how to get here now. So when I can find the free time, I’ll come down,” I lied.
We hugged, for the first time that trip, and I felt just how little there was left of her, and she pushed me away and smiled.
“Okay, that’s it,” she said.
I got in my car and got in line to roll on to the ferry. And then we were pulling away, and I got out and left Lightning asleep in the car and stood near the fantail as the boat chugged out of the harbor, looking at Virginia, who waved every so often just to make me wave back. In the distance behind her, I spotted the jester, slowly walking toward her.
Richard Butner’s short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, been shortlisted for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Fountain Award, and nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. He has written for and performed with the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Aggregate Theatre, Bare Theatre, the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, and Urban Garden Performing Arts. His nonfiction, on topics ranging from computers to cocktails to architecture, has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers. He lives in North Carolina, where he runs the annual Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference. He and Harry Houdini have used the same trapdoor.
“Adventure” is reprinted from The Adventurists, Small Beer Press, 2022.