The Jester and The Washerwoman
The humming stopped him first. He reigned his horse to a brief pause when the sound drifted past his ears. The voice after it was not a very good one. It fell flat in certain spots, but it sent his heart racing. The horse beneath him pranced about impatiently. The cart behind them jingled with the tools of his profession.
It was heavy and his horse was tired. She wanted to get back to the castle, where her stall awaited her. He was the court jester, his horse bedecked in the flashy ribbons and fabrics. His suit was not as flashy as his impatient filly, but he was noticeable through the thick of the trees.
The castle was close, but the voice was closer.
“My savior comes from lilly land
And brings his song to me
He holds my hand through lilly pads
And shares his jubilee…”
He slid down from his horse. She gave a sigh and danced around on gold painted hooves.
“Now, now old girl. I’m just going to make sure there’s no intruders on the king’s land. She may be a spy, up to no good,” he said patting the horse’s nose.
She stomped her foot, showing him that she was adverse to the idea of playing hero, after the long journey they had just embarked on.
“I’ll be back! Just a quick peek.”
The jester slid off his multicolored coat. He purposely wore green pants and a dirtied white under shirt, so that in situations such as these he could sneak around unnoticed. He blended with the undergrowth and the trees as he crept towards the sound of the woman humming again.
When he came through to the creek that ran through the forest, he was startled to see a young woman knelt before it. She had a giant bundle of fabric beside her and her arms elbow deep in the brisk water before her. She dragged the brilliant white fabric from the water scrubbed it across the rocks, adding the harsh soap that turned her hands bright red in the afternoon sun.
She heard him stumble and turned quickly, her humming stopping and her eyes wide with fright. Without his colorful jacket, the jester was a half clothed man stumbling around in the king’s forest. The woman snatched up a pair of soggy undergarments and threw them at him.
He caught the soaking wet lacy things with his face and instantly began to lose his footing.
He tripped once.
And finally ended up in the creek on his back, with a mighty splash and a small shriek from the washerwoman.
In the distance the horse whinnied her concern and the jester came out of the water spitting and hollering to his steed to stay still. He apologized to the young woman, sloshing out of the water, taking half the creek with him.
He handed her the undergarments, with a face as red as her own. She snatched it from him, her face and hair dripping from his impromptu swim. He paused to stare at her, as she glared back, then heard the crash of his cart as his impatient horse tried to make her own way home.
He had to run through the woods and a good ways down the path to catch up with the old nag, snatching up his coat and bits and pieces that had been flung from his cart. As he stopped her and climbed back up onto her wide back, he strained his ears to hear if the washerwoman had recovered from her fright and began to sing again.
He heard nothing but the twittering of the birds and the soft babbling creek working its way through the forest.
He kicked the horse’s step up a bit and she pulled harder, eager to get back home.
When they neared the castle gates, the jester saw a great eagle flying overhead. In its great yellow claws it carried a giant basket filled to the brim with bright white linens. The bird soared down to the turret above the castle gates and set the basket carefully in front of a castle guardsmen. The guard paid the bird with a large fish and a little parcel wrapped tightly in leather.
It rose into the air again and flew back towards the forest. The jester watched it disappear before turning back to the last stretch before them.
The gates opened and the guard announced them to the courtyard. The king came to the doors to greet his favorite person among his court. The jester made him laugh and most importantly he brought back the best herbs and tobaccos for the king to try.
As the servants unpacked the cart and the grateful horse was led away to her bed, the jester walked with his king, his mind racing with thoughts of the washerwoman.
“Sire, who is the washerwoman in the woods?”
“What?!?” the king was surprised by the seriously posed question. Normally the jester was full of jokes and he could never tell when a punchline was coming.
“The woman who cleans the castle linens in the woods. Who is she?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know my good man. The linens have been picked up by a great eagle every day for the last two hundred years. No one knows who does them or how they are done, but as long as the eagle is paid a fish and a chunk of fresh bread and cheese, they come back brilliantly clean. No one in the entire kingdom has been able to match the price and quality of cleanliness.”
The jester stood back and looked at the king incredulously. Maybe this time the king would be the one to deliver the punchline, but the man was not one for making jokes.
The king’s face did not break into a smile, on the contrary he looked quite concerned.
“It is said that there is a cursed woman who lives out there. The eagle is her only outlet to leave the forest. Two hundred years ago, our king struck a deal with a witch in the forest, she wanted a piece of land of her own on the creek and in return she would wash the castle linens. The witch had a young woman to deliver the clean ones and pick up the dirty ones.
This young woman caught the eye of the king. He was a good man, but a greedy man. The king was married and had a young daughter, the witch’s assistant did not care for the advances of a man too old for her and even though she refused, he followed her to the creek one afternoon.
He returned to the castle and the young woman’s body was found floating in the castle moat, where the creek empties. The witch was not happy. She had lost a very precious thing, as the girl was her own daughter and the one who washed the linens, since the old woman was curled and gnarled from the rickets.
To earn her keep she would have to do the work on her own and this angered her. She refused to lose her daughter and her home to this greedy lustful man. So in the middle of the night she came to the king in the guise of a beautiful woman. He immediately invited her within his castle.
The old witch could not enter before, she had never been invited inside and her power kept her from trespassing. As soon as she was within she began to slaughter anyone within her reach. The old woman’s body may have been frail, but her magical power was immense and deadly. She could terrible and horrible things with the flick of a wrist.
The king hid inside his room for hours, crying and begging God to save him. His wife and young daughter were shoved into the room ahead of the old witch. She glared at the greedy king and he shrank from the steely gray eyes. He was terrified she would kill his family. He knew his lust could possibly take the only thing he ever truly loved, his precious, pretty little girl.
He watched as the witch killed his wife without even touching her, then she turned on him, holding his daughter close to her side.
‘You will not die, greedy king,’ she growled at him. ‘Instead you will live as you have doomed me to, without those you love the most.’
With that she disappeared from the room, holding his screaming daughter. The very next day the great eagle appeared with the basket filled with the cleaned linen and a message for the king. The linens would continue to be cleaned, as a clear and powerful message to the greedy king that his daughter still lived and would never return to the castle.
They say the witch still lives out there in the forest and the young girl that was kidnapped from this very castle, a royal princess of the kingdom, spends her days washing the linens.”
The king has sat in his throne by now and was holding a cup of cider out to his jester who stared at him in disbelief.
“I have never heard that story,” the jester said taking the cup and sipping it slowly.
“It’s an old tale. Each king is taught the lesson to not be greedy using that tale. The greedy king passed it down with the warning to always pay the eagle and send the royal linens. I don’t personally believe it. There is probably just some old woman out there that just doesn’t want to be bothered.”
The king chuckled and the jester relaxed a bit. Maybe the woman was just an apprentice of an old washerwoman. The family business or some such.
“Well my jester! Enough of fairy tales! What have you brought for me this time?”
The jester set his cup down, his head still trying to burn the woman’s face in his memory. He yearned to see her again. The king set upon him to present the tobacco he had gathered on his travels. The jester set about his work with the king, still thinking back to the woman in the woods.
The next day he waited patiently on the back of his horse. She was well rested and antsy without the cart weighing her down. She pranced about the courtyard in the steamy afternoon air, puffing and panting her frustrations. He stroked her neck and urged her to wait.
Then as the sun was beginning to make its descent into the horizon, the eagle appeared, carrying its heavy burden. The jester indicated to the gate guard to open the small gate and let him and his horse through.
When the eagle took to the sky again he kicked his horse into a grateful full stride. She tossed her head and enjoyed the run that he urged her into.
They followed the bird straight into the tree line. The jester watched the shadow flit across the dim path and when it veered off the path into the trees, the horse gleefully pushed her way through the brush to chase it.
The jester sank down over her wide back and held on tight as she got his idea and chased the quickly fading shadow. Then, before the sun had completely sank in the sky, the horse halted. The jester clung to her to keep from being flung over her head.
Just in front of them, the creek babbled its greeting and an old creaky house jutted out of a rock formation, a small garden in the back and smoke pouring out of a smoke house chimney.
He urged his horse back into the woods and tied her to a tree. She was strangely quiet and obedient as he shushed her and signaled his intentions to check things out. She merely nodded her head and stood still and quiet, her speckled brown and white body blending in to the brush without all her colorful ribbons to give her away.
The eagle landed on the porch and the young woman from the creek emerged to take the payment from its claws. She gave it the fish and it left the porch to alight high in the trees and eat its dinner. The other parcel containing the bread and cheese she took into the house.
As the door swung open, pushed by her slender hip, he saw an old woman sitting before the fire. She was a gnarled and tiny woman. The signs that this was the witch and the kidnapped princess were all there. He knew he must use caution.
The door swung slowly closed, but the young washerwoman was at the window and moment later, lighting a candle and spreading the bread and cheese on a low table behind her.
“Did you send the eagle back for tomorrow’s basket?” the old woman rasped from her dusty old chair.
“No mam, not yet.” The sweet voice said quietly.
“Well go send him girl! Before he gets lazy and spends the night in the tree again. You will need an early start tomorrow. They send the guest linens that day.”
The young woman bowed quickly and slipped back out the door. She called out to the bird and it ruffled its feathers and squawked from its high perch. It shook its fish at her, demanding more time to eat. She sighed and sat down on the step. It would not do her any good to go back inside. The old woman would just fuss at her until she was sure the bird was on his way back to the castle.
She heard the woman rustling around in the shack. The clink of plates let her know the woman was preparing her own bowl of stew and bread. She would eat when the bird was finished; usually when the stew was cold and congealed in the pot.
She rocked back and forth, humming the little lullaby her mother had taught her as a child. The old woman banged her cane on the wooden floor inside and silenced the happy tune.
There was a splash nearby in the creek and she straightened, thinking back to the day before and the silly man that had frightened her. She giggled a little, remembering his dripping breeches clinging to him as he had ran off through the woods.
A sharp cry brought her back to the woods and the strange splash she had heard. She got up, straightening her dirty dress around her legs. A small moan made her sink into the bush beside the shack and creep down to the creek side. There the same man, from the previous day, was sunk to his knees in the muck that bordered the creek beside the old house.
She covered her mouth, a giggle pushing its way forward suddenly. The man groaned again, pulling his knee right up to his chest, only to fall back into the rushing water.
“Damn it!” he muttered trying not to draw attention, thrashing quietly in the creek to regain his balance.
“Do you need help, sir?” she said quietly.
“Ah!” he jumped as she came out of the bushes. Falling again into the water. This time not so quietly.
“Shhhhh!” she hissed, glancing up at the trees. The eagle was still buried beak deep in his supper, thankfully.
She made her way down the creek bank a little away from him, where the mud was packed tight. It was the spot she and the old woman entered to take their baths. They used the mud to scrub themselves clean each night, the same mud that was clinging to the man flailing around in front of her.
“Get out into the water,” she said wading out to her knees, holding her dress up high. The old witch would have plenty to say about her having dripping wet hem.
He finally understood her and waded out into the water and around to where she stood. She went back to the bank quickly, as he sloshed up behind her.
“You must be quiet,” she shushed him again. “If she catches you here, I’m not sure what she will do to you! You need to leave now!”
“Not without you!” he said grabbing her hand in his wet one. “You’re her, aren’t you?? The kidnapped princess?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she hissed at him in a whisper. “And I told you, be…”
“Girl! Where are you girl?” the old woman was on the porch now. The eagle dropped its fish and immediately flew down to his older mistress.
The young woman snatched her hand away and ran towards the shack. The jester dropped into the bushes and watched as she made her way, barefooted, but quick, back to the impatient witch. The old woman banged her cane on the porch rails as the girl made her way up the steps.
“What are you doing girl?” she scolded.
“I thought I had stepped on a wasp, so I went down to the bathing pool to wash it. It must have been just a sharp stick. I’m fine now.”
“I don’t care how you feel!” the old woman yelled. “Do as I asked and get this bird his pouch!”
The young woman glanced behind her, relieved she couldn’t see the jester crouching in the bushes. She hoped he had left like she had asked him to, but he was still there in his camouflage clothing, hiding among the bushes and waiting.
She moved quickly to appease the old woman and was rewarded with a lukewarm supper. While she ate the witch made her way down to the bathing pool in the waning evening light. She sat on the edge of her chair waiting to hear any kind of sign that the jester had stayed and been discovered.
She let out a deep sigh when the old woman came through the door holding out her soiled clothing. She took the dirty clothes and went to get her own clean dress to change into.
By the time she made her way down to the rapidly cooling water, the sun had sank completely below the horizon and the sky was turning dark gray. She listened intently for the stranger she had left in the woods.
Not hearing anything she went to the pool and stripped off her dirty gown. The water got considerably deeper the further from the bank you got, so she was up to her neck within a short distance.
The pool was protected by a spell that the old woman had cast over it and nothing was there but her and the crystal clear, cool water, flowing gently around her.
This was her favorite time of day.
The only time for her to relax. The only time for her to be completely alone.
That’s why when a hand grabbed her foot, as she floated on her back peacefully, sent her sputtering under the water. She came to the surface, spitting and cussing. The jester surfaced in front of her, a sheepish smile on his goofy face.
“I couldn’t go without you,” he whispered. “You give me butterflies the size of bats.”
She giggled at the thought, but then splashed him in the face.
“I told you to leave you idiot. If she finds you…” she glanced around suddenly paranoid.
“Don’t worry about her. She snuffed the candle a few minutes ago. Your old mother snores like a bear.”
She smothered another giggle, glaring at him over her hand.
“I told you to go!”
“I can’t! I’m smitten!”
“You don’t even know me. That’s not my mother in that house and she’s a very dangerous woman!”
“Then you are her!?”
“Yes,” she sighed looking down into the water, she realized she was only in her undergarments so she sank back to her neck again.
“You’re the kidnapped princess?” he hissed in a whisper.
“Well sort of,” she replied. “I am the kidnapped princess’s daughter.”
“How can that be?”
“Well men like you show up and babies are made,” she said with a big grin.
He looked at her in disbelief. She laughed behind her hand and then looked at him seriously.
“A curse slows the aging process. It prolongs your torture this way. I was only five years old when the witch brought me here. I have only aged twenty years in the two hundred we have sat here in these woods. The time passes the same, but my body only grows a little each year.”
For some reason, this explanation made more sense to the jester. He took her hand to his lips. She did look like a healthy twenty-five year old. Though her hands were red and rough from the thousands of loads of laundry she had done in her long life, she was soft and beautiful with glossy brown hair that had been hidden beneath a head kerchief earlier that day.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her royal blue ones. He knew that color, the color that looked back at him when he spoke to his king. Those same eyes that filled with such glittering light when he laughed until tears poured from his eyes.
This blood line of royals had a liking for good jokes. The jester saw it as job security, he was full of them.
“Shhh…” the woman said, looking around suspiciously. “That damn bird is awful.”
She turned to show the jester a raised scar on her shoulder, the precise shape of an eagle’s beak. He moved forward and put his lips to it gently. She sighed and leaned back against his bare chest.
“You have to come with me,” he whispered in her ear.
“Why?” she breathed as he wrapped his arms around her. His hands tangled in her underdress and he turned her to him.
“Because I can’t leave you.”
“Then stay here,” she whispered as his lips touched hers. She giggled as he flicked his tongue across her bottom lip.
“I can’t. She’ll find me eventually,” he gave her a soft kiss and she closed her eyes.
“I know, but I can’t go. She will come after me.”
“I will hide you.”
“Who will take care of me? She has been my only companion for two hundred years. Her generosity keeps me alive.”
“I will take care of you.”
He kissed her again, before she could ask another question.
“I will love you.”
She melted into his arms and into his kiss. He tickled her with his soft funny shaped beard. He rubbed his hands up and down her tired back and whispered little jokes into her ear, as they floated around the pool, cuddling and kissing quietly.
There was a squawk and her feathered watchman landed on a nearby branch, sending the jester beneath the water and away to the safety of an overhanging willow tree. The young woman glared up at the bird.
“What bird brain!?” she yelled at it. “You want to nag me too.”
She flung water up at the magnificent eagle and trudged out of the water slowly. The bird fluttered its wings, gesturing its head towards the big basket sitting on the dilapidated porch.
“I have until morning, you feathered idiot. Go away and leave me to my bath.”
The eagle squawked at her, cocking his head to one side, he glared at her with a cold golden eye. She flung more water up at him before picking up the thin linen sheet to dry herself. He finally flew up into the trees, perching briefly to glare at her again and then took off up into the dark sky. She sighed and dressed, soft sounds of the jester making his way back to her.
She was in her clean dress by the time he made it to the bank. He grabbed her hand again and pressed it tight to his lips.
“Pack your things. Meet me here. I will get my horse. We can disappear together. My king will give us whatever we need.”
“I will,” she whispered.
He pressed his lips to hers again, taking her breath away. She laughed softly again and ran away to get her bag.
His horse was still waiting patiently and quietly in the bushes. He led her quietly through the brush to the spot beside the bathing pool. He had changed out of his wet clothes and when she came down the trail, he was already on top of his horse, his hand outstretched to help her up with him.
His old nag groaned to have the extra weight, but she obeyed him, eager to get away from the witch’s shack.
They went quietly and slowly until they made it to the path. The dark had come on sudden and the path was hard to keep in sight. Many times they had to stop and redirect the horse, who was growing tense in the darkness.
“Maybe we should stop for the night,” the young woman suggested. “I have a blanket I brought with me. We could make bed in the leaves and start again in the morning.”
The jester agreed and they bedded down, wrapped in each other’s arms.
The morning came quickly and it wasn’t very long before the witch realized her worker had flown the coop. She furiously screamed for the eagle to come home from his high perch in the nearby mountains.
He swiftly flew in and landed on the porch next to her.
“You idiot!” she shrieked. “Where is she?!”
The eagle squawked and regarded her with his golden eye. She slammed her cane into the wood of the porch.
“Find her! Now!”
The eagle took to the sky with a shriek of frustration.
The washerwoman heard the shriek and leapt to her feet. She snatched up the blanket, rolling the jester across the ground, covering him in leaves and dirt.
“Quickly, quickly! He’s coming!”
“Who?!? Who is coming?” the jester asked, scanning the forest.
“That damn eagle!”
“Shit shit shit!”
They jumped up on the startled horse and kicked her into a gallop. She was more surefooted now that the morning light lit the path. They broke out of the forest, into the clearing with the castle just within sight. The jester relaxed a little, seeing home, but it was short lived.
The wide shadow of the eagle stretched out over them. He felt the grip on his shirt tighten as the shadow seemed to bear down on them. Then she was being ripped from his back. Her fingernails shredded his shirt as she was pulled away by the big, strong talons of the eagle.
He turned in his saddle, flinging his arms wide to grab her, but he was too late and she was already disappearing into the sky. The bird and girl dropped behind the tree line and he forced the horse to skid to a stop.
He whirled her around several times before deciding to go to the castle and ask for help. He galloped towards the gates, yelling for them to open them. As he passed through them his heart stopped, a woman’s scream rose from the forest. It ripped through his heart, turning into the haunting call of the eagle and settling into silence.
When the eagle slung the young woman down at the feet of the witch, she felt as if every bone in her body had cracked. The pain of her landing could not prepare her for what the witch had in store for her.
“No one ever leaves without my permission!” the old woman growled into her face.
She leaned forward and glared into the frightened blue eyes before her. Her cane tapped impatiently on the ground. Her cold, steely eyes narrowed.
“I won’t tolerate this! You ungrateful brat.”
The cane came down with a crash again and the young woman’s body coursed with pain and fire. She curled on the ground, screaming as her human body died. Feathers sprouted from her slender back and claws pushed their way out of her bare feet. Her scream twisted and a beak poured out the shriek of pain.
The eagle hopped around in the tree, before taking off, startled enough by the magic to lose its obedience to the witch. She didn’t care. Before her was a slightly smaller eagle, trembling in fear and pain.
She pointed to the basket of linens and the bird obediently took it to the creek. Overturning it with its beak, it began to painstakingly drag the linens through the cold water. The witch twitched her head and banged the cane one last time before returning inside her home. The new eagle looked back sadly at the shack and continued its work.
The jester begged the king to help him, but the jolly man just kept laughing. He thought the jester had made up this preposterous story as an entertainment for him. He packed his pipe with his special tobacco and stared at the jester, chuckling through watery, red eyes.
“Please sire,” the jester started again.
“Guard! Don’t forget the eagle is coming for its payment soon. Take the fish to the guard tower before it is too late.”
The jester had an idea. If he could catch the eagle, maybe he could gain some sort of leverage with the witch. Maybe his washerwoman was okay and just being held captive. He ran for the guard tower and came out on top of the wall. The other guards looked at him as if he was crazy but shrugged and continued their conversations as he watched anxiously over the wall.
Soon the great shadow lifted out of the forest and the bird he thought he was waiting for came closer. Then he noticed something about the eagle that was off. It was smaller and more timid. It carried the basket as if the weight was completely new to it.
When the new bird landed he knew instantly it wasn’t the original. Something was not right and as the bird lifted into the sky he was leaping down stairs to make it to his horse.
He jumped up onto her bare back and she gave an angry humph in return.
“Let’s go girl! Hurry!”
And they set off after the eagle, who had already sank over the tree line. He knew where to go this time though and he made quick work of the journey. He wasn’t quiet this time. He crashed into the thicket surrounding the shack, leaving his horse behind.
The eagle sat perched on the porch, looking around timidly as the old woman moved around the garden slowly. He charged at her.
How hard could it be to kill an old woman and break a curse?
But she, of course, was not a normal old woman, and she stopped him with a sweep of her hand. She turned on him, her old face twisted in fury. As his neck began to snap and twist on his shoulders the eagle was moved to anger and she flew at her old mistress.
Her golden claws gouged the woman’s eyes and shredded her old face, but she stopped when she heard the sound of the jester falling to the ground. She was too late and though the old witch lie in a pool of blood, groaning in pain and clutching her face, the jester was not breathing, his neck broken and his body still.
The eagle hopped towards him, her head down. She stood on his chest and looked down on him with one dark blue eye. No movement from the rapidly cooling body below her. She squawked and lifted off him to take to the sky, her sorrowful shrieks piercing the evening air.
The eagle returned with branches to cover her lost love. She even dragged a white linen sheet over to cover him. She worked as the night darkened the sky.
She nestled by his cold body, watching as the witch slowly bled out and finally made one last moan. She thought that, maybe, as the witch died, she would be free of her curse. But her body was already forever transformed and her love was gone.
The silence of the night reminded her of how alone she was now.
Then a small splash made her small, sleek head perk up. Her beady eyes looked around the yard and she took to the air to find the source of the noise. At the bathing pool a great splashing was taking place and she spotted a great eagle flopping around in the cool air.
For a tense moment she thought maybe her jailer’s guard had returned to vex her, but this eagle was different.
He was more slender than the other and obviously less graceful. She squawked at him and startled him enough that he took flight out of the water, sending a spray towards her.
She squawked again, knowingly this time and he cried back to her in recognition. Picking at her with his beak as they wheeled up into the sky, she let out a joyful cry.
The two eagles soared over the castle walls, where the guard lugged the basket of linens out to be picked up. He threw his hands wide in confusion as they kept flying into the rising sun.
Now free of the toils of curses.
a Mad Cow Mob Production- 2016