The Mountebank

Stories such as these, they begin as we mention the breeze
Or the sound of the wagon wheels turning against the rutted road
The chickadee puffing its dark neck, chirping beak full of seeds
A crows call, perhaps a warning – there was still a chill in the morning
But the day gave way to quiet explosions of sunshine
A coyote trotting along the adjacent hillside turns its pointed triangular head
Only for a moment, then disappears over the distant dotted ridge
And I should mention the breeze, or have I already?
Wafting desert sage and sullen clumps of light clay earth
A startled vole darts into its den
A tempo of tired clopping hooves echoes
Against the faded barnwood and pastoral pretentions
A little white chapel perched upon a verdant mound
A plain, unmarked box on the outside, what does it conceal within?

The driver, gaze fixed upon the bobbing equine head
Pretending not to notice the pale and flowery bonnets
And the skins of men ripened brown and leathery
Suspicion glancing sidelong from beneath brimmed shadows
Falling across faces weathered and concerned
Heads turn to pause and spit as the wagon rolls past
The bearded barkeep looks up from his mung sop and stained apron
Pausing for a moment, then continuing with the circular wiping
While the wagon passes the opening in the doorway,
And settles alongside the saloon sitting silent in the morning
the sound still creeping in, reverberating
The slowing of long and steady hooved beats
Transform from the heaviness of horses clipping clops
To the softer, quicker beats of a man’s boots
Across the hardened dirt and onto hollow planks of the bar stoop
He leashes his steed to the corner most post
And unfurls the brightly painted canvas placard
Which sags against the side of the wagon
Featuring an unblinking and radiant eye,
Gazing steadily from the spiral shell of a strange snail
Touting a cure-all medicinal tincture of worldly renown
Which promises to youngen both body and mind
Two pennies a vial, and a free nightly puppet show.

The puppet show recounts the journey of a brave explorer long ago,
Who went a-plunging deep and fearless into dark and mysterious faraway lands
With fragments of arcane, unfinished maps and fractured legends passed by wagging tongues
An expedition into mountainous places and wellsprings ringed by mounds of violets
Where the travelers pause to soak their worn and weary feet
Carrying carefully moistened cloths which nestle and preserve
An elusive snail plucked from between the shaded dew drenched rocks
High upon mountain peaks shrouded in temperate morning mists
A prize sought by many who had merely been looking in the wrong place
Returning across wooded and grassy flatlands with poisonous insects and venomous snakes
Regaled by tales of a baby minded king gone mad, become a vicious tyrant
And the ensuing overturning of his tyranny and liberation from their bondage
The mad king descending the wildly twisting stairwell of an infantile mind
No longer able to rule, having alienated all of his supporters
Who now betray him and bury him to his neck in a nest of stinging ants
While down the mighty valley river floats the intrepid explorer, victory in his capture
Of this, the rarest species of snail, oozing a most unique and precious lacteal slime,
the prize of a lifetime spent scouring ancient dusty tomes and withering scrolls.

As the puppet show concludes, the onlookers sit aghast, stunned in wonderment.
Yet there is no applause, only the growing chatter of voices
as night after night the crowd disperses
Returning to the cover and safety of their homes
as the sun sets behind the faded purple hills.
And when the darkness has fallen amid the hush of the evening,
One by one they return to the wagon, two pennies in hand
Slinking amongst the shadows, scarves and bonnets drawn
The chirping of the crickets pausing as they pass
Coins clicking as they tumble into the small and decorated chest
And away they creep again, a tiny vial of milky liquid
hidden in the folds and pockets of their weather worn garments

On worship day they come streaming into the little white chapel
Where from the pulpit, an impassioned rebuke is delivered
With accompanying condemnation, denouncement, and damnation
A closed fist pounding at the lectern as the spittle scatters
The listeners turn and glance tacitly, all guilty, unaware
The secrets they all keep from each other quietly festering in them
Bursting into a tempestuous and swirling zeal, with shouts of excitement and rejoice
Turning to calls for an intermediary, a proxy, an ambassador of virtue
One to represent them all and wash them clean again
To drive this devil, this diabolical dybbuk out from within their midst
Aroused with the fervor of the devout doctrinaire, they stand and shout
Each one of them more vociferous than the next,
Suspicious glances melting into nods of agreement
Each of them more theatrical, more indignant than the last
A vote is cast, an emissary selected, reluctant but willing
Another puppet show begins with a hand concealed, controlling
But the hidden hand tickles a different puppet’s backside now
And thus, were they each absolved of their secret sin
And plucked from the lake of fire at the very moment
That their earthly flesh began to burn and blister