It was a brightly coloured building that many found nauseating to look upon. In contradiction of its supposedly cheerful exterior, I have known unwary strangers to become melancholy just by unwittingly leaning on its gaudy stonework, or when attempting to gaze in through its rainbow-tinted windows. More alarming still is the peculiar reaction of children as they pass by the house, for without fail their faces will always turn towards the jesterís colourful abode and display aspects of sheer terror.
The jesterís house was very rarely spoken of by the locals of our town. The changes that have taken place in it have confirmed to us all that it is now far from being the place of joyful exuberance it once was. For although on certain nights there is laughter heard coming from within the walls of the house, its quality is always, without fail, that of insanity. Despite this fact, I have previously heard whispered rumours that the jesterís house has no living occupants, and that the fool responsible for the townís good humour died many years ago, even though no-one remembers his funeral, or can successfully trace his obituary.
Not so long ago it became clear that a disturbing transition was underway in the jesterís house. First of all was noticed that the brightly coloured paintwork, that which had remained unaccountably immaculate for all these years, had suddenly begun to flake and fade. Although nothing was actually said to me about this odd fact, I noticed the concerned looks of the townsfolk as they walked by the house. Soon this house will be as grey and forbidding as my own abode, I thought, and my face almost cracked into a smile. My own house, being adjacent to that of the jesterís, is perfectly placed for observing any such changes in the exterior, and over the next few days I witnessed the entire paintwork, that which had for so long remained immaculate, flake away in tiny strips and float to the surface of the street. The result of this was that the second face of the jesterís house was then put on display. But what was being indicated by this sudden change in appearance, I wondered, and what would be the next step in the transition of the house?
Sometimes I believed that my fascination with the jesterís house stemmed from something more than my own abode being located directly adjacent to it. Certainly I had an intrigue with the amnesia the whole town had suffered in regard to the fate of the jester, perhaps even subconsciously likening it to my own form of self-imposed amnesia which had so successfully eradicated all memory of my formative years. This sullen countenance I now owned had gradually become my own concealing paintwork, yet deep within me was a fear that even one escaped smile could crack open my Ďmaskí and release the Ďforgottení period of my childhood years.
One night, as I slept with my bedroom window slightly ajar, I woke prior to midnight and heard the sound of rain pouring from the heavens. Somehow I knew that another change beyond my current conception was starting to take place. The streets are beginning to fill with tears, I thought, as I turned over and drifted back into unconsciousness. And although my sleep remained dreamless for the rest of the night, I awoke to experience the feeling I had been watched over for the entire period by some jocular presence in the dark.
As I gazed from my window that morning I was intrigued to see how the dampened streets of the town had helped to provide the next stage in the ongoing transition. For the flakes of paint, now moist and sticky, stuck to the sole of every shoe that trod on them. Thus the previous coloration of the jesterís house (the outer essence) was being walked throughout the streets and into the homes of the townsfolk. With this fact I slowly became aware that some contrived joke was being deliberately played on the townís population, for as the day grew older the outer brickwork of each house became as brightly coloured as a jesterís costume.
I cannot deny that being a witness to this reversal of roles was to some degree quite amusing: a town full of fools had now been fathered by the jesterís house in what seemed to be a dying act of the jocular kind. As I thought of this absurd analogy, the flicker of a smile played across my features. The jesterís house and my own, like two grim visages amidst a sea of sickly colour, faced each other and appeared to be linked more closely than ever before. Now only the rainbow-tinted windows of the foolís house, like the eyes of the soul itself, remained to create any kind of contrast. Also, I now realised the self imposed suppression of my formative years had, without doubt, also erased key factors that were vital in understanding the joke currently being played on the townís occupants. Yet now I understood that more startling revelations were growing closer all the time, and so remained content to wonder what the space of one more day might bring.
The next night, as I slept soundly in my bed, I was abruptly woken by the following sentence being shrilly spoken in the darkness of my room: "The pot of thy mirth hath joyfully overflowed!" This sentence was repeated three times, although the first time I made only partial understanding of it do to my disorientation at being so abruptly woken. In hindsight my full coherence of this message resulted in a reaction that was truly disturbing, for without knowing why, I suddenly burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. I did not sleep again that night, and as soon as the light began to filter through my curtains I left my bed and began a morning vigil.
Only a short time later I noticed a group of children walking towards the jesterís house. They walked with abnormally slow movements; their heads bowed down as though resigned to some terrible fate. If they do summon enough courage to knock at the door theyíll probably run like the wind straight after, I thought. Yet I was soon to be proved wrong when the boy at the front of the group approached the house and rattled the rusted knocker, that which for so long had remained totally unused, yet had once been fashioned into the smiling face of a fool. He rattled loudly on the door and instantly I heard a chorus of malicious laughter that was either very close to me, or somehow within my head. However, I had no time at all to dwell on this alarming fact, for in an almost threatening fashion the door of the jesterís house swung opened and the children entered within.
During the rest of the morning I watched small groups of children approach the jesterís house in woeful fashion, and though after knocking at the door they were always quickly admitted, never once did I catch sight of whoever waited to greet them beyond the threshold. Quite naturally I was troubled by so many children entering the foolís house after such a radical transition had taken place, yet also I was filled with an unaccountable quality of glee for which I felt no shame. Perhaps my morbid outlook had now been pervaded and reversed to the extent I believed that the presence of youth would restore laughter to that formerly shunned house, or maybe my real delight was in their probable fate.
By early afternoon the street was empty and still. The town, it seemed, had been utterly drained of its youthful element. Although I remained gazing from my window in constant vigil, I never saw another soul, neither child nor adult. Soon, however, I noticed a new aspect of the transition was underway, for upon the streets and houses began to fall a quality of darkness which had no right to exist at such a time of day, and within the space of one more hour it had turned into a midnight blackness, as though a giant shroud had been placed over all the town. Frightening rumbles of thunder echoed through the air, and on one occasion I saw what appeared to be a multi-coloured fireball smash through the roof of the jesterís house.
To witness such an all-encompassing change as this (even while safely inside my own house) gave me a sense of being enveloped within a murderous zone that had become void of all human attributes; morality was now dead and the value of worth was precisely nothing. My aim was now to summon enough courage to leave my own abode and investigate the jesterís house. This amount of courage, I admit, took some hours to muster, but eventually I ventured into the street. With only a torch to light my way through the all consuming dark, I walked with false bravado towards that house of tarnished joy, but in arriving at the grey entrance door with the rusted knocker, a wave of acute fear struck deep inside me. What awaited me within could only be something infinitely more powerful than myself, I thought, something that ruled human emotions and to a certain extent life itself.
As soon as I had rattled the knocker the door swung open with a violent motion, so quickly I entered inside. Up until that moment I had never considered that the house might be haunted, but from somewhere deep in the inner darkness came a faint jingle-jangle of bells. At least this house is in keeping with its projected theme, I thought, unlike some houses that are more of a joke, more a den of deceit than any jesterís house could ever be. But when I shone my torch around I saw piles of brightly coloured bones on the floor, and realised that every child that had ever entered the house had been brightly stained throughout body and soul. The room was otherwise empty apart from a green and yellow foolís costume suspended from the ceiling by a long wire and hook.
At once I experienced an overpowering urge to wear that costume, but soon found that it hung in a position just out of my reach. Realising that the solution could only be located in the bones, I searched through them by the light of my torch until I came across a femur that I was certain would do the trick. Sure enough I easily managed to remove the costume from the hook with it, then quickly exchanged my own shabby clothes for the foolís abandoned uniform of merriment. Although a little baggy on me the fit was certainly passable, and there was no denying that just the wearing of it filled a recent inner emptiness, or perhaps I should say a form of mental hunger.
Again I heard that faint jingle-jangle of bells, this time accompanied by the sound of cynical laughter. Instantly I realised just how much I craved to wear the foolís cap! The house concealed many secrets in its dark rooms, that much was quite obvious, its capacity to project ridiculous cravings being just one mystery. But I was eager to explore. As I walked under a low archway into another room, my torch suddenly flickered a few times and the light died out. Something like a loud sigh filled the darkness around me, then a glow of emerald light hung in the air and appeared to be forming into a definite shape. Soon I could make out the bones of a skeleton hanging from the ceiling, the noose still fastened around its neck. At this time a voice whispered sharply inside my head.
"Here in the dead jesterís house you are already dead!"
Simultaneous with this I saw those very words light up the darkness of a wall with large emerald letters. A fleeting smile of amusement passed over my face. That some unknown occupant of the house, some faceless entity that hid in the dark, had thought to intimidate me by using such childish scare-tactics made me want to jig with laughter! I neared the luminous sentence and gave it inspection to find it was formed of bones melded together and wired into the wall. All of the Ďdís used in the sentence, I noted, were formed of two melded femurs with a skull attached just to the left at the bottom. Using all my strength, I managed to bend back the wiring that held the first letter Ďdí of the word Ďdeadí in its first usage. With a little more persuasion it came away from the wall, and then I had myself a most desirable little skull-lantern. The glow from the other letters in the wall died away at this point as though in absolute disapproval.
"This is your rainbow-tinted mother speaking," said the intrusive voice in my head, "and this is not the time for idiot jokes to flow. First you must return to the grind!"
From directly behind me came a clatter of sound that caused me to swing around and hold out my newly acquired skull-lantern. In itís emerald glow I saw the skeleton which had formerly hung from the ceiling was now just a pile of bones on the floor. A mirthful cackle filled the room and I looked up to see a square of orange light where a hatchway had opened. As I continued to gaze upwards something was thrown down, and with another mirthful cackle the hatchway in the ceiling was slid shut again.
Whatever had been thrown down had landed in the dark quite a few yards away from me, yet I was able to see a luminous quality about it that made its detection a most simple task. The Ďdiscardedí item I soon found to be a large black sack emblazoned with an image of a luminous green skull. Quite naturally I was puzzled as to the reason why this should be thrown down to me, knowing only that some colourful scheme was now well underway in which my involvement was the vital ingredient. Yet all reason now seemed in the process of being replaced by the absolute need for jollity, and when I heard again that intrusive voice speaking in my head, I smiled broadly as though in welcome of some secret advisor. This time the spoken words were: "If you want to play the fool so badly, youíll really have to put every bit of yourself into it." And then I knew that my guiding force (claiming with pretence of first hand knowledge) meant to imply that the skeleton, which had just clattered to the floor of the room, had once been my very own.
Never having given credence to the idea of reincarnation, I must admit that I found the absurdity of this claim to be spectacularly funny. Yet with my sights now being set on forthcoming acts that would soon lead to complete jollification, and in my increasing eagerness to wear the foolís cap as my own, I decided that the only appropriate course of action to take was to humour my guiding force. And so, picking up each bone before me, I placed them within the sack and patiently waited to see what would then come to light. The answer to this was provided when the hatchway again slid open and carefully lowered down through it was a long wooden ladder.
"Come up and see me some time!" cackled a shrill voice from above, and then two objects landed with a jingle-jangle of bells in the darkness. Holding my skull-lantern by the femur, I lowered it to the floor and swept it slowly from side to side as I walked in search of the newly arrived items. The tingle of excitement I felt while searching through the dark was quick to turn to a whoop of delight when I came across a soft yellow slipper. It was, I saw, turned up at the toes with three tiny silver bells attached in that same region, and would certainly produce a most delightful sound when in motion. Only a few yards away from it I found its soft green partner of the same style, and at once set about discarding my own dour shoes and replacing them with these slippers of merriment. When I found them a perfect fit I could contain my excitement no longer, and so danced and pranced about the darkened room, swirling my luminous lantern around like a macabre baton. But once again my sobriety was to surface and spoil my fun, for without warning, the glow of the skull-lantern died away to nothing.
"Theyíre a perfect fit," screeched the voice from above, "and since you like to dance so much, you may come to the ball!"
I cannot deny that at this time I felt to some extent cheated. My celebration had not been overdone, I felt, and would befit any potential jester who had just taken a few steps nearer reaching his ultimate goal. I looked up at the square of orange light in the ceiling and walked back to where I thought the bottom of the ladder would be located, tripping over the sack of bones just before I reached it.
When I began to climb upwards the touch of my slippers turned each rung of the ladder to a luminous green or yellow in sequence, though I must admit my jingle-jangle progress was made only very slowly due to the bulky sack I carried. Yet eventually I passed up through the hatchway and into a large room where, amidst piles of brightly coloured bones, a large furnace glowed orange and led to a conveyor. In the darker part of the room I saw a rainbow-coloured ball of crackling static that appeared to encircle a black-cloaked figure, her wizened old face gazing at me triumphantly as she hovered slightly to her left and pulled a lever. The furnace erupted into full fury and awaited me with mouth open wide, but despite its tremendous noise I heard her voice clearly in my head, "If you want to play the fool so badly, youíll really have to put every bit of yourself into it!"
After emptying the sack into the furnace and closing the large iron door, I walked to the end of the conveyor and eagerly awaited the result. Soon piles of colourful powder travelled in a sparkling journey towards an area where metal siphons filtered down to rows of waiting paint pots.
At this final stage I needed only to add water and the task
of repainting the jesterís house could begin again. Perhaps, upon
its completion, I will be allowed to wear the foolís cap. If not the
joke will most certainly be on me.
© 2004 by John B. Ford
courtesy by John B. Ford