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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