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Sunday, November 17, 2019

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A Florida Christmas Story

It was the night before Christmas at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex outside of Coleman, Florida. The air conditioning had failed again but the inmates, with some help from the guards, had done their best to give a seasonal atmosphere to the common room. Streamers and wreathes decorated the windowless, mold-stained walls, and a plastic tree shone with colored lights, its lower branches caressing a scattering of carefully wrapped gifts. At one end of the room a cardboard fireplace had been erected, on which bricks and stockings were painted. Inside the fireplace a lightbulb covered with red crepe paper glowed fervently. A table at the other end of the room was littered with paper cups and plates, and empty potato-chip bags, pop-tart boxes and plastic pop bottles, the remnants of the inmates’ necessarily humble Yuletide meal.

The inmates now gathered in a circle around the fireplace, and one of their number, an ample, dark-haired, square-jawed man with bushy eyebrows, moved forward to assume the chair by the fire. His bearing was confident, even authoritative. Whatever crime had resulted in this man’s incarceration, it seemed he was unrepentant. The identification patch on his black-and-white-striped uniform read 18330-424, and his right forearm featured the tattoo of a large and glaring heart, enclosing the torso of a naked woman with evidently-enhanced breasts, the word “Babs” beneath it.

The inmate pulled a wad of paper from his back pocket, unfolded it on his lap, and began to read:

It was the day after Christmas and good King Wenceslas, with pounding head and herniating stomach due his enthusiastic imbibing, over the previous many days, of roast venison and hot wassail, was mounting his customary vigil, eagerly scanning the snowy waste around his castle for the passing peasant who would serve as the recipient of his annual act of charity. The king’s long-time factotum, a page, a man whose considerable mental and physical stamina and notable organizational ability were marred only by his unquestioning loyalty and nauseating obsequiousness, was at his side, ready to identify said peasant as he passed by in the course of gathering, or seeming to gather, winter fuel.

The page was always amazed at the invincible credulity of the king over the many, many years that the two of them had performed, with metronomic regularity, the Imperial act of ritualistic charity. Invariably, Wenceslas took the appearance of a peasant at this time as a sort of miracle, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it happened every year and at precisely the same day and time of day. The king was also always oblivious to the implications of the fact that just a single peasant appeared, rather than the host that might have been expected. And the king never thought it odd that the peasant, inevitably collecting winter fuel, would wander out of the forest where such fuel was to be found, and into the open space in front of the castle and its moat, where nothing but the  dessicated carcasses of the King’s defeated enemies was to be garnered. .

The page well knew the reasons for these arcane phenomena. In the early years of the king’s reign, long before the king’s need to indulge himself in acts of systematic and personalized charity had fully registered with the peasants, the king and the page had one Christmas set off alone in search a peasant worthy of Royal Largesse. One had indeed appeared unexpectedly, in the afternoon of the Feast of Stephen, at the forest edge with an armload of faggots and, dazed perhaps by the bitter weather, had come close enough to the castle to be identified. Into the rude wind’s wild lament the king and page then sallied, together with the bewildered peasant, in the direction of the peasant’s hovel, struggling under the weight of the flesh, wine and pine logs that the king had, somewhat impulsively in the page’s opinion, ordered.

Due to the depth of the drifts, the pine logs were jettisoned. When the king and the page arrived at the hovel, announcing their intention to share the wine and flesh in an evening of jovial and egalitarian merriment, the peasant’s son was dispatched to reclaim the logs so that the hovel could be warmed and the flesh cooked.

Then the page opened the wine, being in the lucky habit of carrying a corkscrew with him at all times, the peasant of course having neither use for or understanding of such an implement. King, page, peasant and peasant’s wife proceeded to drink, passing the bottle from hand to hand since there was no appropriate stemware in the hovel. Placing his lips where the filthy peasant and his even filthier wife had placed theirs disgusted the page, but the king in his enthusiasm seemed unaffected, proposing one flamboyant toast after another.

Soon, famished and unable to wait for the arrival of the logs, they proceeded to consume the flesh raw, the king again tirelessly praising its quality and encouraging the others to eat, the page scrambling from time to time out of the hovel to toss the contents of his stomach onto a snowdrift. Eventually the king and the peasant passed out and the wife threw herself in drunken passion upon the page, who stopped her slavering gropings only by recourse to his brandished sabre. Finally, he shouldered the comatose king and made his way back to the castle, passing along the way the frozen corpse of the peasant’s son,  which lay beneath the collapsed pine logs.

The following morning, when the king heard from the page what had transpired, he ordered the page to devise a methodology that would make any future acts of charitable largesse more salubrious for those involved. The page planned for a necessarily more elaborate procession, one that involved the Royal cavalry, leading their horses in the king’s footsteps, each horse laden with the king’s favoured provisions and all the accoutrements necessary for a fine feast, including cooks to prepare it and servants to lay it on the table.

Unfortunately, the following Yuletide, the peasants heard about these preparations as they were in progress and, on that second Feast of Stephen, instead of one peasant appearing by chance at the wood’s edge, there were hundreds. The king was dismayed, but sallied forth anyway at the head of his procession, only to be mobbed. His knights moved to protect him, outdoing one another in their enthusiasm, and soon the field around the castle was stained with blood and scattered with peasant corpses.

The king demanded further, more subtle modifications, and let the matter to his page to institute. After much thought the page recommended to council of  village elders that a rational system, tied to an appraisal of need perhaps, or even a lottery, since it seemed to him that the peasants were equally destitute, be instituted, so that just a single peasant would appear each year. For some years after, accordingly, the elders turned up, one by one, at the wood’s edge, each clothed in his poorest rags and bearing an armload of faggots. Then assorted cronies of the elders appeared, then members of their families. Thereafter the privilege went to those able to pay the elders a price in the common currency of the poor—food, drink and women. Since the first two were invariably scarce among the peasants, the latter was generally proffered.

As the years passed the page often wondered at the willingness of the peasants to put themselves in the proximity of the castle on this day, given that the king’s charity was always acquired with great difficulty, and sometimes paid for with great suffering. But he understood that the historical and philosophical myopia of poverty breeds both infinite superstition and hope, and also that for the peasants these were difficult times. The incursions of armies of manic Poles at the northern frontiers, and of sociopathic Germans at the southern, had meant a cruel if necessary levy for the purchase of arms and hiring of mercenaries. Moreover, for most of these same years Bohemia suffered a series of crop failures and consequent famines. The page knew that the king, a well-meaning but readily distracted if not childish man, was ill-fitted to deal with these disasters, though history has well proven that no king has ever effectively dealt with them. Added to these problems were frequent plagues and harsh winters of deep snow and cruel frost. Under these circumstances, the page remained certain that the required peasant would always appear at the edge of the wood in due course, armed with faggots and hope, to take his chances.

So it was that, on the afternoon of this particular Feast of Stephen, just as the light was fading, the king perceived a movement at the edge of the wood. Anon, a figure was seen lurching towards the castle, and the king uttered his customary announcement that a man was in sight. As the peasant approached, the king asked his customary question concerning who this peasant was and where he lived.

The page easily recognized Robin Plainfellow, a clubfooted, hunchbacked swain who cultivated a low-lying patch of land at the forest fence, underneath the mountain  — the spot where from sprang Saint Agnes’ Fountain. This was a spring that, the locals never having had the time, energy nor resources to ditch and dyke it, and the king, due to the Poles and Germans, never the money, made Robin’s land as well as other adjacent properties into an unproductive bog. But Robin, while he had failed as a farmer, had profitably ploughed and seeded his wife, harvesting in the process a brace of prodigiously nubile daughters, one of whom had doubtless pleasured an elder or an elder’s son or crony and thus helped Robin to his opportunity to experience the King’s munificence.

“Robin,” said the King, savoring the name as if it were familiar to him. “It’s good old Robin, is it then, poor soul?” Following this senile inanity he uttered the usual command, which the page was by now well prepared to obey, and almost immediately Wenceslas emerged from the castle gate leading the customary procession.

The king uttered his familiar exhortations that everyone should follow boldly in his footsteps. His enthusiasm was not infectious, since all would’ve preferred to be back in the castle, close to a fire. But the king, now in a state of geriatric decrepitude, soon tired and fell silent. Thereupon, he had at first to be preceded by a group of his courtiers breaking trail in the deep, crisp snow, and then finally lifted onto a horse and carried with considerable solicitude.

Thus the troupe followed Robin’s faint spoor to his hovel. There they erected a pavilion, arranging within it tables and benches, and enclosing it with rich tapestries and carpets produced over the years for precisely and only this occasion. They set some pine logs afire in the centre and the cooks put in place their spits and cooking equipment. The servants set the tables with fine plate and cutlery. Robin and his wife and daughters were given the place of honor around the king, and the wine was poured. The king proposed his usual series of maudlin yet vociferous toasts while dinner was being prepared.

At first things settled into what by now had become a familiar pattern. The king soon fell asleep. Directed by the page, two knights lifted the king gently into a litter, attached the litter to a horse, and took him, snoring, back to the castle. The celebration continued unabated. Soon, however, the situation took an unfortunate turn. The knightly followers of Baron Boleslav, the king’s brother and a frequent visitor to the king’s bedchamber in the king’s absence, maddened by drink and the proximity of Robin’s voluptuous if somewhat redolent daughters, repeatedly ravished the young women, and even in their inebriated enthusiasm, the still-more voluptuous and much more redolent wife. Finally, a drunken cook tipped a vat of drippings into the fire, igniting the pavilion, which collapsed on the hovel and burned it to the ground.

Next morning, a chastened Wenceslas, on hearing the page’s enumeration of the previous evening’s festivities, broke into a demented wail. He informed the page of his intention to give up his throne, dress himself in sackcloth, and wander among the poor giving them only what little he could scrounge in his perambulations, just as Christ, the only person in history known to have successfully distributed charity, had done. Perhaps, the king mused in his enthusiastic delirium, God would even grant him what He had granted to his Son and some of the apostles, the gift to perform miracles in order to feed the multitudes and heal the sick.

The page promised to join his master in this endeavor. Though he doubted the efficacy of the king’s vision, he loved Wenceslas and he knew that, due to his years of unquestioning loyalty and his consequent failure to ingratiate himself with Boleslav, the king’s future was likewise his.

That very evening, Boleslay slew Wenceslas as he was busy in the cathedral muttering his customary recitatious litany of puerile prayers. Much of the king’s court, including the loyal page, fell victim in the ensuing slaughter. Subsequently, Boleslay governed the kingdom by acts increasingly extreme violence. The lives of the peasants were not of course much changed by it, Boleslay’s random brutality producing about the same amount of quantifiable misery as the charitable deprivations of Wenceslas. But the peasants missed Wenceslas, ultimately addressing their futile prayers for luxury and security to him.

The local priest, hearing these prayers, informed his masters at St. Peter’s, and some decades after his death Wenceslas was transubstantiated, at the flaccid gesture of a geriatric pederast in a pointy hat, from a pious moron into a saint.

A profound silence followed the imposing inmate’s story, as those with sufficient vocabulary to understand it absorbed its import, and those without slept on. A few hushed ejaculations like “asshole” and “prick” were silenced at a single stony glance launched from under the storyteller’s bushy eyebrows. Then the storyteller reluctantly ceded the chair of honor to a man who had learned to play the memorable parts of Handel’s “Messiah” with his armpits, and the audience leaned forward in eager anticipation.

2385 w. December 24, 2009

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

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