In the middle of the Summer day's heat, at an inn, like inns stood back in the day, arrives a youth. Obviously he comes from afar : he's well tired, and carries upon his cloak a good portion of trail in tiny installments. His appearance betrays no great means, though his manner suggests rather the gentleman ; perhaps a misfortunate scion of a great house, once noble and wealthy, now left chiefly with the former, unsupported by much of the latter.
As he comes in, breathing hard from tiredness, he nevertheless greets loudly in the general, and seats himself by the side, among so many travellers headed each his own way. Some nod quietly at his greeting, some even answer him to some degree, but chiefly everyone minds his bowl, or his stein. The youth bids the servant bring a quart bread, some cheese and a measure of the more affordable wine.
Seated as he is among so many, they presently ask, one as another : whence he comes, where he's headed, to what end and for what purpose, whether he has living parents or other relatives... whatever it is travellers with no clear mind of cause and effect ask each other whenever they blindly run into one another.
He gladly answers : that his name's Johni ; that he has a sister, born as him in the same day, only she with the dusk and he with the dawn followingii ; that they two always, from the earliest age even, fight, but in earnest and without respite. Their parents, seeing them always at each others' throats, and seeing that as they grow older their fighting only worsens, eventually chased them both away, to go forth in the world, she one way and he the other, and find their fortune.
His sister, he follows, found hers well, and is now a great lady, always a welcome courtier at many princely and even kingly courts, and just as often welcomed by the guilds, and merchants, and especially by the common man blessed with ready monies above what becomes his station and his parents' lot -- like incense burning always and in all places seems to somehow find its way of going with any kind of prayer, so his sister constantly and everywhere somehow smiles nearby all manner of expenditure ; while he himself, moving always from place to place, to serve now a master, then another, never seemingly achieves much, but stands as is to be seen, his whole fortune upon his person and little else besides. Then he sighs deeply at the unfairness of the wheel's spinning.
"Who knows, my boy", throws in an old fellow, "it could be you have your own part in all of it. Who knows what failing or weakness, to drive you always to serve different masters, and in the end not manage, strong youth as you find yourself, to set coin upon coin."
"This could be so, what can I say ? But as to failing and weakness, I know in myself no other besides the one I was born with : that I can not abide my sister. My rotten luck then sees to it that I can scarcely walk a mile without running into her again, and again, and then again. Whenever we meet, I can't keep myself, but rush to give her what for. Why, no further than last night I had a showdown with the little miss. Her friends beat me within an inch of my life, I have no complaint ; but at least I salted my souliii and paid her at least a portion of what salaryiv she's earned herself.
Then as he takes a drink he recounts, for who has time to listen, how it went.
"Yesterday, walking through the king's camp I heard trumpet, and ran to see what was going on. There, among a large crowd ever gathering a crier with a large paper coif was screaming at the top of his lungs that whosoever cares to is welcome tonight in front of the king's own tent, to hear there for free and with no pay the song of a famous ass, recently arrived from the University, whom the king had with great expense sent abroad to places of high learning, so as to learn there the art of singing. Upon hearing such ridiculous nonsense I began to laugh. Imagine, if you will : the learned ass!v But then, having finished loading my Master's cart just in that time, I went by to see how such a wonder could play out. For I know the voice of both ass and mule, as well as donkey, and horse even -- fine voices indeed, for what they are, and superlatively adequate to the beast such as it stands and all its needs as they ever arise. Any equine could indeed live out its whole length of life and never encounter cause of complaint, nor as to the service its own voice does it, nor as to the margins of its use thereof. But as I know them and their voices, just so I know any such wonder as song is not their lot, nor ever is to be permitted them, howsoever high or whatever kind of schooling notwithstanding. Singing in donkeys' no matter of schooling, but of nature. So there I went, and found myself a spot, aside the great and impressive gathering : there was one Duke and six or seven Earls besides three March Lords, all with their women and their servants and then Captains with their wenches piled in ribbons thicker than the Duchess, and thicker almost than the Duchess' servant girls, and then all sort and manner of common idiots, awaiting flies with mouths agape. The whole field was lit by candles caught in colored paper bags, and right in front, against the crowd, a little pile of dirt surrounded by flowers, and behind it, seated, the King and the Queen and the Other queen and a third woman, and a few young girls, and then behind them lined the court, first and foremost among which none other than my own sweet sister! Dressed even brighter than the Queen herself, head, and bosom and arms sparkling in untold diamond rain. I waited for some time, pressed in the back among the crowd, but presently they brought the ass out, and there it stood! All four hooves firmly upon its destined pile of dirt, there stood the famous singer, covered in a silken drape all embroidered in silver, various decorations hanging from its strong neck, all kind and manner of shiny thingamajigs affixed here and there, plus ribbons and tassels and sashes and gnats. There followed a deep silence, and thereupon the ass set to singing. What do you think ? Carnival in Venicevi! With trills and variations!"
Here John stopped, choked by irrepressible laughter. But how were those common people to know what is this Carnival in Venice, or what are trills and variations ? So one asked
"And then ?"
"Then, after the beast of burden brayed on for nearly an hour, my dear sister (whom I had been eyeing all the while) stood up straight on her two hind legs, started clapping maniacally, then rushed over to the dirt pile, grabbed the ass by its neck, kissed either jowl and then, taking a bracelet off her own arm placed its long ear through it. Then everyone else, first to last, started clapping like the dumb while yelling like the deaf -- bravo and encore!"
The primadonkey thanked them most dignifiedly, nodding its saltshaker of a head now to the left, now to the right, and then started again with the braying. And my dear sister, by every bloodcurdling neigh, nodded her head in delight throwing it roses and looking sweetly now at the King, now at the Queen, now at the other queen... I could take it no further : just as the ass was working its way through the scale superlatively I put two fingers to the mouth and whistled my best. Everyone gave a start : 'Who ? Who dared ?' Through the tumult I could distinctly hear my sister, 'This impudence could only come from that rascal of my twin brother!', she was saying. Immediately they all set upon me, and each as could reach took me to slaps, elbows, punches and kicks ; they spat and harangued me ; and after they had enough of this salty amusement they kicked me out of the camp like so much broken crockery, which, in all honesty... But anyway, there I sat a little to gather my soul about me again, then stood up and left limping. For a long, long way I could still hear the braying of the ass and the clapping of the crowd, and bravo and encore. How do you like that ?"
Just as John's coming to an end with his story, lo and behold there comes before the inn a large carriage under princely arms, followed by a bunch of courtiers on horseback. They stop to give the horses a breather ; and out of the carriage comes a glory of a court Lady, resplendent as the Sun, well dressed and better furnished, quick of foot and young of years, narrow of waistline, ample of bosom and elegant in demeanor -- altogether beautiful and even moreso attractive. As she holds her head up and looks over the place, out bursts John from his corner,
"There she is, there, look at her! That glorious success of my sister, lo and behold!"
"Not even here am I rid of such abject failure as I had the misfortune of following me out of our sweet mother's womb ?"
"Not even here!" retorts John laughing. "Wheresoever you may go, I'm sure to be there too. We might walk apart, you quickly, flying above the road in your princely carriage, and me slowly, crawling in the dust on mine own two feet, yet meet we must. I'll never leave you alone ; I'll forever crack you over the mouth, s'as to find out : whom over whom ?"
"Mind your own mouth, nutmeg." starts the woman in a rage, but quick as she is yet she isn't quick enough. Before anyone could lift a finger, John comes upon her, hitting her in the face, palm squeezed in a fist, first from left to right then back from right to left and then back again. Under his fists her jaw bone gives way easily, and so the whole rest of her skull, as if made of wax or maybe melting snow. Barely had one of the courtiers time to yell out "Miss Progress!!!" before her entire head's bashed in, bloodless and quiet. Then her whole body dissolves as if in a fog, and then she is no more, just an empty dress left behind, crumpled at John's feet, and a princely carriage waiting emptily for its burden, horses still attached, looking on confusedly.
Everyone is looking at each other, bewildered ; and as they do there comes before the inn another large carriage, just as under princely arms as the first, and followed by a bunch of courtiers on horseback just like the others. They stop to give the horses a breather ; curiously regard each other, then quietly merge just as out of the carriage comes the exact same glory of a court Lady, just as resplendent as the Sun, just as well dressed, quite as beautiful and attractive. As she holds her head up and looks over the place, she spots John standing by a hollow copy of her dress and yells out, "Murderer!"
In a moment the courtiers, all, both first and second batch, together fall upon him, hitting each whichever way. But John Lacksensevii, thoroughly unperturbed in the storm of blows all landing upon some portion of his person, calls out "You may hit me all you please, I'm well used to such carresses. But for now, let me just ask my beloved sister : when's the ass to sing again next ?"
"What's it to you ?"
"It means the world to me, dearie. I wish to know, so I may come and listen some more. I love it to madness, more than everyone alive..."
"Let me tell you, everyone alive loves it!" she starts, blushing under his sarcastic sweetness. Then she turns around to the travellers gathered at the inn : "See this here misfortunate, good people ? Every one of us, the King, the Queen, all the peerage and the whole of the people, me and you, we all like it ; he alone doesn't. All of us, me like you, we're all idiots, only he, the big deal, he's special. He and he alone knows what's to be liked or not, in any disagreement between him and no matter who or how many, he's certain and all others in the wrong. But that's still not enough : he's sent on a mission (by whom, nobody knows) to ruin the fun and merriment of a whole world. What the..."
"Listen here, my boy" started someone at a table, "she has her point : if everyone likes it, what's it to you ? Why do you mix into it ?"
"How could they like it, poor soul ? An ass ? Singing ? Carnival in Venice ? And variations ?!"
"If they like it ? Don't you hear them say so ?" joins in another.
"Listen here, young'un" starts a harder one among them, losing his temper "why are you hard headed and won't take a hint ? What if we, here gathered, should like it as well ?"
"How could you like such a thing, my good man ?!"
"Just like that. By liking it. What, we're going to ask for your permission to like it ? Check him out! But who do you take yourself for ?!"
"It's not a matter of who I am!" yells out John, by now well warmed up. "It's a matter of, can such be liked ? An ass ? Singing ? Huh ?"
"Don't scream at me, lest I crack you one. If we like it we like it! What!"
"Let him be," comes in another, "if that's his opinion..."
"Let him save his opinions for his mother and his father, not go about trying to cram it down our throats!"
They all start talking together, over each other, one this way, the other that... Miss Progress cheers everyone on very lively, you can tell she's having a ball of a time. John screams louder than everyone
"You must not like it!"
"Why not, Lacksense!"
"It's not something to like!"
"What, because you say so ? We all like it, here you go, just so you choke on it!"
"Then if you all like it" yells still louder John, "forgive me for saying you're all a bunch of..."
"A bunch of what ?"
"A bunch of asses even moreso than the donkey's son."
Lord have mercy, what fire catches then upon poor John. They go to work on him, slaps and kicks and jabs and stomps, and hit him for Jesus, Mary and Joseph over and over again. One drops him for exhaustion and another picks him up fresh, they break with his head every pot, glass and half the woodwork in the place while the sister takes to her carriage and leaves singing, followed by the double measure of courtiers astride. Nor does John yield, either, screaming all the while "Asses!" over and over again.
They leave him goop and each go his own way. John gets back up, well satisfied for public congress to last ten lives, dusts himself off as if he had been merely sleeping the whole time, then calmly says to the publican who was looking pityingly at all the shards and debris on the ground :
"It's not possible, my good man! An ass, be it howsoever kingly or universitarian, to sing ? Carnival in Venice ?! With trills ?! Think yourself..."
"Go towards barren lands with your nonsense!" returns the innkeep. "Don't you see what scandal and what damage you have caused here ?"
So off goes John, with easy step, the devil knows which way, no doubt to find himself a better one.———
- This story is loosely based on "Ion" by I. L. Caragiale, a century-and-a-half old Romanian piece. [↩]
- The day in those times starts with the morning prayer. [↩]
- Ancient expression, denoting deep and unlikely satisfaction of fundamental need. If you're curious to see how it goes, eat no salt whatsoever for a week, then help yourself to some ; and think all the while that in older times salt wasn't nearly as accessible as these days, but rather expensive, so plenty of people had to often do without. [↩]
- Ayup, salt. [↩]
- Hence the expression, "laughing one's ass off". [↩]
- Paganini's version of that old Napolitan song. [↩]
- Just another name for regret. [↩]