THE HARLEQUIN LOVER

A SANTHARIAN FAIRY-TALE

 
Master Tribell's Miraculous Narrations   
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Introduction. This is a tale as recorded in Master Tribell's "Miraculous Narrations", Scholar's Edition. Some stories go and some will stay but the harlequin lover dances today. Painted faces and coloured frills, what lies behind few ever knew. Among the moves his story beckons, sit awhile and learn to listen. Seek your love and love will follow, haunting you like a phantom’s shadow. Find the one who is the other and outside here you’ll cease to wander.

 

ith quivering hands, the old woodworker lovingly added the final details to the face. It was a strange face, beautiful and enchanting in its strangeness, one that enthralled and held its admirer captive with just one glance. How should I describe it? Words will forever be inadequate but if I could paint a mental image, it would go something like this.

It was a pale white face, shaped like a heart and tilted at an angle from the body, to give the suggestion of thought. Azure eyes set into the wood gave it (or should I say ‘him’) an unearthly quality, an inanimate thing that seemed to demand that you think otherwise. The dark outline around the eyes made it deep and contemplative. The lips were something else altogether. At first glance, one would think that it was smiling at you, that mischievous grin that harlequins often wear but on closer look, one would realise that it is just the red paint that made the smile, not an overly luscious one, but enough to give the illusion of happiness. Without all that paint, it would be a terribly sad face, heart-breaking in essence. Staring upon it, one cannot help but wonder what stories are laid to rest behind that mask.

The clothing worn by the puppet was at best inconsequential, at worst offending in its gaiety- a stark contrast to the deep thoughtful face, as much as it was skillfully sewn. I do not care for the clothes, but the face, oh the face… that which has haunted me on many a waking nights, something that I believe I will not easily forget.

The old woodworker placed the freshly painted harlequin puppet on the shelf, a lone figure amidst an array of oddities. How lonely, I thought, if only there was another like him to share his solitude… and as if reading my thoughts, the old woodworker replied, “there was once another…” turning at the same time to look me in the eye. I was struck by his nostalgic countenance and I knew there was a story to be heard. Having a great thirst and curiosity for stories, I found myself a seat uninvited, knowing for certain that he would take it as a cue for him to tell his tale, as is the way of the elderly…


A long time ago, in a town near the mountains, there once lived a young man who was a harlequin by profession. In those days, the towns were a little less busy and the roads less traveled. People were more open in their expression as unfamiliar faces were far and few between. Yet, the harlequin man, as he was called by the young children of the town, was unreadable. Harlequins were not common then and neither are they now, but they were great entertainment, with a wonderful ability to mimic those around them, silently or otherwise.

In the day, this young man would dance the lives of the everyday for his keep and on special occasions, he would dance, with the help of hand-puppets, the story of two lovers. Now, these were no ordinary lovers. They were the son and daughter of the two richest household in town and were the envy of the ordinary folk. If anything, they were far from star-crossed. Their families were only all too happy to be joined in marriage and all the town looked forward to that day for they knew it meant consecutive nights of feasting. And so you can imagine the movements of our young harlequin who depicted the joy and anticipation in a mixture of long melodious moves that spoke of romance and successions of flighty steps that depicted the excitement of the town.

And so the day of marriage came to pass and the town scrubbed anew for this day that was to be marked by a great celebration. As was customary, everyone brought gifts but perhaps the strangest gift of all was a pair of harlequin puppets, a male and female. The puppets were perhaps the most exquisite the town had ever seen, refined in woodwork and painted delicately. The giver was a stranger passing through. These puppets, he said, had a life of their own and as long as they were never separated, the newly-wed lovers would always be one. If the people were not so caught up with the feasting and dancing, they would perhaps have asked themselves why would such an unusual gift be given by a complete stranger, or perhaps questioned the ability of puppets to have a life of their own but in the good spirit of the occasion, the gifts were accepted in gratitude without questions or doubt and the celebration went as well as any could go.

That said, being superstitious folk, the lovers proceeded to guard their harlequins with care, afraid that any harm that should befall these puppets would have implications for them. But, as with all great stories, happiness is often succeeded by pain and tragedy the way pride comes before a fall. The harlequins were lost soon after the birth of the first-born child. They had mysteriously disappeared as if they were meant to curse the marriage. The couple soon fell into despair and consumed by the thought that something would happen to them, they allowed their sadness to rule their lives. Perhaps it was coincidence or perhaps it was witchcraft; the stranger came again and to him their woes they repeated, claiming that upon losing the harlequins they could no longer feel the love they once had for each other.

As is usually the case when dealing with the powers of magic, the couple’s happiness could be redeemed at a cost—that of their first-born. They were horrified at the prospect and wanted to drive the stranger away, adamant in professing that the love for their son was more valuable than anything in the world. But the stranger stayed and requested them to remember their days of happiness, telling them also that they could conceive again and one son was no loss. The seeds were sowed and they eventually succumbed. The son was given and the illusion of happiness restored. The couple believed they were happy but they never conceived again. Over the years, the seeds of doubt about the exchange grew in them until one day, the thought grew so big they went mad and died.

It was a morbid performance to be playing at festivities but the crowd loved it for it had all the earmarks of a storyline they enjoyed: love, magic, the lurking of evil, mystery and the irresolute. The story always ended with the couple passing away but puppets were pretty figures and it was hard to feel sad while staring at the always-smiling face of the harlequin man. There was no doubt that he was good at what he did, his movements always conveying the emotions he depicted to pin-point precision. But while the crowd was willing to allow themselves to be swept up in the whole romance of the performance, they never carried it beyond that and the magic of it ended when the curtain fell. Yet, unknown to them was the truth behind the story, the impulse of the harlequin man to perform that story again and again.

Unknown to all, he was the young son that was taken away at a young age, trained as a curse to be a harlequin. While he owned the male harlequin puppet, he had not the female and until he finds the female puppet, he was destined to be a harlequin, his truth lost to the world and his emotions forever concealed, unknowable and unknowing. The connection was not something simple town-minds could easily make and that was part of the curse, to perform until the person with the female harlequin revealed herself (and it would be a ‘her’ as his prophecy dictated). The town he was currently at had not shown much promise and it was only a matter time before he moved again.

In his mind, he was doomed to love and doomed to fail. He could love no one but the phantom image in his mind. He did not know what she looked like but he could only love her and no other. The years went by and still she remained as part of his imagination. How could he not see himself as doomed? He had become the male harlequin—the lover but not the loved for who could ever love a harlequin? To all he was just a mask, a façade that filled himself with the lives of others he acted out so much so that in time, he too would lose a sense of himself, becoming truly an empty shell whose only purpose was to be filled.

Such was the prophecy given to him:

It was quiet in the clearing as the harlequin danced,
Once for the memory and twice for the One
Whose image plays as a phantom’s shadow,
Doomed to love and born to follow
Sheltered in the shadows of the over-reacher,
Trees whose branches go each the higher
The silence of infinity that stretches beyond
A time that traps and renders forlorn
The dancer in the middle counting his steps,
Burning with fervor against time’s threat
Basking in the moonlight as upon a stage,
Turning with grace as each move is made
For each is a memory that has no end
Telling a story that could not be penned
And so life’s path the harlequin takes,
Until the day his debt his paid
Find the girl who has the other,
And outside time he’ll cease to wander.

The harlequin lover existed outside time. He had no memory of his family or village, and few memories of the enigmatic master who raised him without revealing his face, choosing instead to live behind the mask. He only knew that his parents had left him a debt he had to pay, incurred by the loss of the puppets and made worse by the selfish love of his parents. In return, he was doomed to seek for love in silence, wandering through the years, never aging and always lonely, trapped within time yet living outside it. He was not allowed to tell his story in writing nor in words so his only way was to dance and hope that somehow, it would lead him back to the path of life. The dance of the harlequin was both the curse and the gift of his master who turned him out at the age of puberty, never to be seen again.

From the mountain town the harlequin lover moved and he was to move for many years before he came to a village near a forest at the other end of the continent. At first glance, it was like any other village but something hung in the air like a thick fog on a cold morning that would not go away. If there was a word to describe it, it would be something close to despair. The people of the village found no joy in living. They did their work well and lived well enough but it seemed that that was all they did. They had no capacity to take in entertainment and for once, the harlequin found himself at a loss. He felt for them and understood despair only all too well. For the first time in his life, the harlequin lover thought beyond his own situation and put aside his despair that had been eating at his heart. He wished for happiness, not for himself but for those around him. He danced his best and tried to bring them some semblance of laughter. It took a while but one by one, the villagers learnt to put aside their work to watch his daily performance. They started to smile and then one day, someone laughed and with that one, the others followed.

What is joy if one could not share it? The harlequin himself felt joy that he had never felt before and with that joy, his dreams of his phantom love went away. In its place, another dream came. He dreamt of the woods beyond the village, dark yet welcoming, full of shadows yet lighted and peaceful. It called to him like a lover, caressing his sleep and warming his bed, coming to him each night with a taste of indescribable bliss. Then one day, unable to bear it any longer, he took his leave from the village and went on his journey to seek the woods. They were sad to see him go but bade him well for from him, they had received the gift of laughter, more precious to them than fruits of labour.

The closer he got to the woods, the more intense the dreams and it drove him to seek the woods with growing anticipation. He had no idea what it was that was calling him save that he had to go and seek. The journey was not long but for the pining soul, it felt twice as long and rest was only a source of frustration.

The woods were dark and menacing, not at all welcoming the way his dreams made it out to be. In the nights, the shadows danced and the trees that surrounded him with their far-reaching branches, filling his heart with fear, made bearable only by the thought of what was beyond. In the nights, there were lights that beckoned within the shadowy spaces between trees and along with these lights, voices called. It was with great restraint that he did not leave the path, lighted as well but dim to the point of invisibility. On the seventh night, he came to a copse of trees surrounding a clearing, where for once, the moon shone through in a direct beam of light, coming to rest right in the centre that was empty of trees. He knew at once what he was to do and in that circle of light, he danced. He poured his heart and emptied his soul, filling his steps with all the years of pain and loneliness, each move more emotive than the last till it climaxed in his parents’ death and with his eyes closed, he lay on the ground, finally exhausted from all the years of dancing and puppeting.

When he opened his eyes, he saw her, she who was the dream that had haunted him for most of his life, looking at him with a smile upon her pale but beautiful face. In her hands she held the female harlequin doll and to him, she said, “I have been waiting for you a long time. I have always been here and I have always known you, seeing you the way you see me, in my mind and in my dreams. Like you, I was doomed to wait for the other that had the doll, paying a debt that was given to me by my parents. The wood is my home and in it, I am not confined by time, sustained by what the wood could provide. I had to wait for the day that you learnt to love that which was outside your own despair and beyond a selfish desire to find me only for the sake of breaking the curse. You had to love me not for the prophecy but for myself and now that you have, the curse has ended.” With that, she took his hand and they crossed over the clearing together, away from the dark and into the light.

As he ended the story, the old woodworker slipped into his own world, staring at the harlequin doll and then closing his eyes as if trying to hold on to the magic that he had woven for a little while longer. The silence was pregnant, filled with meaning and if I may say, magic. Not wishing to rupture the moment, I quietly got up and slid into the street and away into the night for the story had ran beyond the setting of the sun.

Some questions are not meant to be asked and not all stories can be explained. In my heart, I thanked the woodworker for his story but as to why the harlequin meant so much to him, I left it unspoken. Stories are better when you do not know everything that led to its creation and sometimes we have to be content to leave it as that, believing that all stories find their own place and time as it always is in the magical ways of the world.
 


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