THE MERRY JESTER • by Kevin McNeil

The marionette was carved from a single block of wood and painted to look like a court jester. Purchased from a small shop on the outskirts of Prague, the jester had been left to Matthew when he was just a child. An adult now with children of his own, Matthew knew the jester was valuable — antique and finely crafted — but that didn’t matter, since he would never consider selling it.

The marionette was impressive to look at, despite its chipped paint and worn edges. It wore a red suit with a white ruff and a red hat with three gold bells. It had movable joints at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, which clacked pleasantly when the strings were manipulated. With confident strokes, the maker had carved a brilliant smile into the jester’s wooden face.

Matthew grew up on stories about the jester, told to him by his parents and his grandparents. They told him the jester was one-of-a-kind, created by an artist who only produced one-of-a-kind works. They told him the jester could talk, and that it had incredible secrets to tell, if you knew how to listen. And they told him the jester would protect him–that if he believed, it would keep him safe.

Mathew kept the marionette in the home’s only formal room, hanging from its cross-shaped control bar, where it could be seen, yet remain out of reach. He no longer let anyone play with it — not his wife or his children, not visiting friends or relatives or their children. People were careless, and he was not willing to take the risk.

It took years for Matthew to overcome his doubts and realize the jester’s true potential. Superstition, followed by trial and error. Skepticism gradually progressed to certainty. First a child’s cough or his wife’s cold, then later, more serious ailments. A herniated disc. A heart murmur. Time spent with the jester nearby — looking over you — cured all of these things. Matthew had no way to prove it, nothing that would convince the medical or scientific communities, but he learned to have faith.

For Matthew, his daughter was proof enough. Her diagnosis of leukemia shocked their family and had been followed by days and nights of grief and tears. Matthew hung the jester in his daughter’s room, over her bed, where she could see it and where the jester could see her.

Late at night, while his daughter slept, Matthew caught himself thinking that the marionette’s worn paint mirrored his little girl’s pale skin. Only the jester’s broad smile set them apart.

The doctors could not explain his daughter’s recovery. They dismissed it as a fluke, maybe a miracle, and Matthew and his family went back to their happy, healthy lives and their pleasant smiles.

Late at night, Matthew worries about what happens to the sickness and disease the jester takes from his family. What if a neighbor or friend or stranger is suffering for his family’s health?

So the jester hangs from its cross in the corner of the home’s only formal room, a wide wooden smile on its face. Every day, Matthew stands in front of it respectfully and offers his thanks. He sometimes thinks the jester might be on the verge of speaking, but it only smiles its constant smile.

When Matthew looks at its smile he tells himself the jester is happy in its role as his family’s protector.

Deeper down, Matthew suspects he knows the reason why the jester does not speak — that he knows exactly where his family’s pain goes. Matthew suspects that if he were to stand close to the marionette, and place his ear to the worn wood like someone listening to the ocean through the opening of a conch shell, he would hear the merry jester crying.

Kevin McNeil reads slush for Lightspeed Magazine and is an editorial assistant with Nightmare Magazine. He is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2012, and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson, in 2011. A New Englander currently living in California, find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.

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  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Matthew’s concern for everyone–and not just his own family–really made this story stand out. I thought there were some phrases that needed a little more refining, so I gave 4 stars instead of 5. I’d like to read a collection of stories built around Matthew and the jester.

  • Technically a well-written piece.

    However, I didn’t really see the logic behind the MC connecting the Jester with miraculous curing properties.

  • Paul, you are trying to apply logic to a leap of faith.

    Because “A” happened three times and the only common denominator was “B” therefore “B” must cause “A”. It’s a belief, not logic. Beliefs do not have to be rational.

  • SarahT

    I think Matthew is worrying needlessly. After all, his parents said that the Jester would not only keep him safe, but had “incredible secrets to tell”. Someone needs to tell Matthew that illnesses aren’t like objects. When a person casts off a sickness, it doesn’t necessarily have to be picked up by someone else.

    Very interesting story!

  • Roli Bhushan-Malhotra

    Wonderful story. I have one like this too.

  • Randy

    Very good story. Many people I know beleive in the power of their own “jesters”. Well done. Thank you.

  • There’s no dialogue in the story, and yet I feel that it is saying so much. I like the tone you have employed and the fear you have woven throughout. I also liked the touching last paragraph. Matthew fears for the jester almost as if he were human too: this is a valid response because we know how much the puppet means to him.

  • Kevin. This is a wonderful take on the animated marionette theme. A jester as an empath is a clever approach. Nicely done.

  • Anne Sullivan

    Don’t we all have some superstition, good luck charm, patron saint even, that we believe will protect us? The marionnette serves his purpose well in this story. I liked it!

  • Ryan Ashe

    Gret story, I was really attached to it. I hope you write more!!!

  • Jimmy TP

    Wonderful story! It left me with a sense of curiosity and optimism. My old Czech marionette is sitting in a box in the basement. I think i’ll pull it out tonight.. Seriously. The flu is running through our house.

  • Owen Finn


  • Somehow, this was creepy and touching at the same time. Great flow and a lot of emotion. I agree with what Justin Davies (#7) said. Very well done.

  • joannab.

    terrific story. touching and lovely.

  • Hey Kevin, it’s a great story. The shift to present tense was a wee bump for me, but otherwise, just terrific.

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    Interesting story- could picture the jester.

  • For me, the story did not deliver all that it promised. And it felt like it needed a little more technical work to reach its potential, including on the end. Only as I read the merry jester as a Christ figure (the cross-shaped control bar) does the story hold together and have meaning. Even so, I would have liked Matthew to listen at the end, and not just suspect.

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  • Great story, Kevin! Congratulations!

  • Excellent. Tension builds towards the end. Gretchen Bassier’s comment (#13) pretty much expresses my reaction.