Tuesday 23 June 2020

The Tongue-Tied Piper

by Anne Forrest


Hanging among the hams and bunches of garden herbs, the atmosphere in the palace kitchens was one of uncertain quiet. The maids and servant girls moved from pantry to cold-room to laundry room with a growing dread about them. The only sound was a sad little tune beautifully played on a reed-flute.
     Suddenly: ‘The Queen is dead! Long live the King!’ And over the court-crier and his bell, pandemonium broke out in the halls and state-rooms above.
     Never had thyme and rosemary and lemon mint scented the pantry with such melancholic nostalgia. This was the end of a magnanimous era.
      From the reed-flute, laden with a great sorrow, a keening and mournful cry filled the kitchens.
The benevolent Queen Europia suffered pitifully in her last half year but the poison had worked without suspicion. King Brexio and his men are now in charge. Within a week of half-hearted mourning most of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council had been sent to the Tower and the Treasury purse locked against coins being distributed among the poor and sick for food and shelter; as had been Queen Europia’s benevolent way.
     King Brexio headed the table with men to the left of him and men to the right of him. Black drapes covered the mirrors; sticks and sconces held black candles that gloomily lit the room. By now barrels of small ale had been emptied into sewage pits and flagons of real ale were brought in by the tousle-haired, stunned-looking serving wenches; not before some of them had been used by the men: one decrepit retainer brayed as he’d clutched handfuls of petticoat and rode the woman like a donkey.
     Outside the chamber door in a little cloak-room crouched a young girl of fourteen years or so; this child was bright of mind and though she had a tied-tongue, she sang like a river fairy and created haunting melodies on a reed-flute. Her music mesmerised people whenever they heard it; often she could be seen swaying in the street with hordes of villagers following her until, clapping her hands and laughingly, she sent them back to their chores. Her pretty face was marred by a lip that looked as if it had been caught by a fishhook, and her speech was indistinct until one got used to it. Zarinda was a foundling. The kitchen women had discovered her while pegging out sheets in the field; she, no more than a helpless chick thrown from a nest was as bare as she had left the womb a few hours previously. Bulrushes had saved her from being swept away to the coast on the waters of the chattering mountain stream.
     Conspiring with the kitchen maids, Queen Europia, who had always wanted a girl-child, allowed the infant sanctuary in the kitchens where the maids petted and indulged. At every opportunity Queen Europia bid the child into her chamber and there, taught her to read music and some sampler-sewn letters. Once, when she was but five or six, Zarinda remembered Queen Europia divulging to her a momentous theory: she said her very own lady-in-waiting had had such a lip, and that she suspected that her son, Crown Prince Brexit, had violated her and made her with child. When the lady-in-waiting disappeared mysteriously and the infant was found, the Queen said she was sure Zarinda was her granddaughter. She went on to say that she would never be able to prove this and could give the child nothing except a magic spell which would only work if she was indeed, of royal blood. She taught Zarinda to use her forked tongue to reverse words and song – this, the Queen explained, could reverse an action to extricate her from an unbearable situation should she ever find herself so. The child did not need ever to reverse herself from anything as she was well-cared for most of the time and soon forgot the conversation and all it held.
     Prince Brexio disapproved of his mother’s involvement and if he caught sight of Zarinda in the courtyard, would kick her like a dog; he would order her reed-pipe to be snapped in two as his cruel, black heart could not bear to hear such sweet notes. Taking this waif in, he said, was evidence of his mother’s soft control and weak mind!
     Now, the child with a fishhook lip shrank behind fur-trimmed capes and cloaks and top-coats. She shivered and shook and her heart leapt uncontrollably as she heard: 
     ‘Order!’ A gavel came down. King Brexio banged the board and eased himself into a maudlin speech: ‘I loved my Ma-ma once...upon...a…time,’ his voice, a honey-disguised indulgence for his soft-hearted mother, ‘but she had become too, too tolerant…and I do not need to tell you how, nor to what extent upon our country this has manifested itself.’
     One of his ministers agreed: ‘We are overrun with undesirables, with the useless cripples and idiots, with the sick and those who roam the streets.’ Then others joined in and the murmur rose until a cacophony of voices called: ‘We must be rid of them. It is now your time, your majesty.’
     ‘Now is the time to put it right!’
     ‘We must start as we mean to continue!’
     ‘We must return to being a strong race and rid our land of weak, helpless subjects.’
     They bayed like dogs at the kill.     
     The new king spoke now with a cold, haughty voice: ‘There will be no more hand-outs to the needy. We will invest our gold and silver to our own advantage.’ He continued: ‘Let us pledge allegiance!’ This they did in a dark and bloody ceremony and before the small light crept in to claim the dawn they had branded the serving girls on their buttocks in celebration. 
     Zarinda was paralysed with trauma until she heard the retreating maids weeping and whining like beaten animals. She followed them to the kitchens and wept with them as she poured salve upon their hurt. She promised them she would listen and spy at every opportunity to keep abreast of the court’s plans.
     The next day the courtiers met to set out new rules for the land. They worked with the words from their new king ringing around the room: ‘Somehow we must rid our land of dependent people who drain our coffers.’
     ‘Aye, indeed, your majesty.’
     ‘It is long overdue!’
     ‘So it is, sir, so it is.’
     ‘I rule over one thousand subjects,’ Brexio reminded them. ‘Once, our Utopian realm was as pure as the streams that pour plentifully from the natural springs. Now is it murky with the weak, and our once mighty race is being diluted. This decline should have been halted years ago. Our ruination is the result of my dear, departed Ma-ma doing nothing to hinder it!
     ‘God rest her soul.’
     ‘Aye, Aye…’
     ‘Indeed,’ said the king signing a careless cross upon his richly decorated chest.
     Trembling, Zarinda, close to a knot-hole, kept a watch from her hide among the cloaks. She saw Brexio’s new Secretary of State carefully take up his quill, dip it in black ink and proceed to draw up a new constitution. He spoke the words to a silent room: 

At the command of His Most Excellent Majesty King Brexio, this once important and powerful land known as Britia will return to its original state, universally recognised and signified by its own stamp and culture. It will revert to a people of strength where the survival of the fittest is the natural way. Its armies will grow in that strength. It will use its currency to purchase the best apothecary and good fodder for its true subjects and animals. It will plough back all its energy into its own land until, as a superior people, it conquers the earth once more.
Therefore – at the command of His Most Excellent Majesty King Brexio - his Faithful Servants at Court, Members of Parliament and the Upper House, will rid the land of undesirables, namely: the addle-brained, the lame, the hunchback, the crooked limbed, the disfigured, the old and withered who have forgotten the grave, the illegitimate, the whores; wandering groups who live under the stars, and those with dubious coloured skin.

     Zarinda watched the king and his men take up ink and put their mark on the document. She shuddered, touched her lip. Inside, her belly became that of a liquid pool.
By and by the King’s men gathered the feeble-minded, the cripples, he with a bulbous nose and a red stain down his cheek, the child with a stunted foot; the suckling mother with no spouse; two dwarves and a large-headed simpleton in a Bath-chair: and Zarinda with the scored lip. The midwife and the goodwife had been tortured until they revealed the woman with four breasts, the boy-girl child and the one with badger-like hair down the length of his back. Now, over six-hundred villagers crammed tight into the holding pens. 
     How would the king get them to leave his village? He declared he’d once heard of a musical piper who led away rats to their death by drowning and children to an unknown destination. A plan began to form in his wicked mind. The kitchen bastard! The one with the fishhook lip and clucking speech. He knew she played haunting notes which lulled the peasants into following her. He would force her to lead the misfits away.
     Contacting a network of men and women who would pay for slave-labour and who had a special use for little children of both sexes, the King struck up an illegal bargain which brought him in a huge amount of gold. Zarinda was selected from the pen, dressed in fancy clothes and given a silver-plated reed-flute; she was told to play and play and dance onwards until she reached the sea where boats would take the villagers to a better place. Horrified, having listened to the King’s plans, she knew where the poor villagers were heading and what kind of life they should expect!
     The allotted morning dawned and Zarinda was made to do the King’s bidding. Over the hills and along the lanes and tracks went the misfits, all helping each other to keep up with the rest; some stumbled and died on the way. After some days they reached a viewpoint overlooking the sea and there were the waiting boats. Zarinda knew she would have to act quickly to save the people. Recollecting the Queen’s gift all those years ago, she tried using the spell by speaking words backwards to reverse the plight they were all in but her voice kept breaking and dissolving into heart-wrenching sobs and speech became impossible. What should she do?  
    Now she could hear unhealthy excitement in the voices off the boats.     
    ‘Come, come!’ waved a man, and a woman shouted, ‘this way, this way! Keep playing your tune and advance then you will all be saved and taken to a better place…’
     Zarinda felt beaten. She was unable to help the people she had led to a dreadful fate. She began to play her flute but her tied tongue clicked and she found she could only play the notes backwards! The sound was ugly and discordant but as the notes flew about drunkenly, the crowd began to turn around in wonder and made way for the piper to take up the lead whence they had come. Her tied tongue! Her forked tongue had back-played on the flute! Zarinda realised that the spell Queen Europia had given her worked and proved she was a Princess! Her people cheered and drowned the calls of the boat people and with energy anew, they followed the now-royal-blooded reed-flute piper who led them back to the village. Once there, the lame used their crutches and callipers to unmercifully beat King Brexio and his men to the ground; as they lay dying, the four-breasted woman teased them and made them choke on their milk while whores pissed on them; the badger-haired boy and the two dwarves sat bare-arsed on their faces. In revenge, the kitchen maids took knives and branding irons to their manhood. At last, King Brexio was dead. Long Live the Queen. Zarinda’s cacophonous notes filled the air with royal music.                                                                                                 

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