“Why am I here?” I ask curiously.
“Because you’re gay for Shakespeare and Renaissance crap.”
“Okay, continue,” I nod. This is true.
“. . . but I don’t see why you’re here, Ryan,” Bree asks. Last Sunday, the siblings and I piled into Mom’s Excursion (it has Sirius Radio) and drove off to Clarksville, MD to visit the autumn Renaissance Festival. All of us (well mostly) had anticipated the visit for some time, eager to don silly hats, hurl knives, and consume enormous portions of period foods (i.e. ye olde cheesecake-on-a-stick). For the majority of my family including Brigid, this encompasses the whole of their interest in the Ren Faire, since everything else is ‘useless history and culture stuff.’
Thus, Ryan’s clear enthusiasm greatly perplexed Bree. As we neared the entrance, he began to dance up and down beside me, clearly excited to don large pointed hats and articulate Shakespearean sonnets and . . .
A young lady in period garb stands by the granite gateway grabbing tickets and welcoming ‘travelers’ with a bored British accent: “Yeah, yeah. Go on, ya wanker!” or “Have a bloody barking good time . . .” Her dress slipped down by her shoulders and chest heaved upward to reveal large mounds of nubile flesh, already glistening in the morning sun with sweat and . . .
“Beer,” Ryan says, his voice quivering. “I suddenly have a hankering for Naughty Dog pale ale.”
“Nevermind, I get it,” Bree sighs again. “Boys . . .”
Thankfully for Bree, sights greeted the eyes (other than a plunging neckline). After weeks of grey rainy weather, the autumn sun finally emerged to celebrate the harvest festivals. Leaves carpet the paths between the glass blowers, minstrels, and sugared almond stand like a vast quilt, pathwork hues of fire, apples, pumpkins, and nutmeg. More stubborn relations high above adhered to branches like crumbs on sticky fingers, providing mottled pools of shade over high-wire acts, picnic tables, and performing Shakespeare troupes.
“So where we going?” Rodney asked, attracted to the smell of warm pecans. A Ren Faire virgin, Rodney had eagerly anticipated this weekend, and I hoped to absorb some Shakespeare, a mass by Palestrina, and of course . . .
“Puke and Snot!” Shannon shouted, scanning the entertainment schedule. “They’re on at twelve. If we hurry, we can grab some seats near the stage. Otherwise, we may get hit by a carrot.”
“A carrot?” Rodney asked.
“Well, he chews them up first . . .”
Puke and Snot as usual pack in a large audience. Personally, the art of verbal repartee died with Abbot and Costello, and Hope and Crosby. Everyone aims to imitate it but few really achieve mastery. Now Puke and Snot perform the same show every year: same jokes, same lines, same stupid puns, and I swear to God, Buddha, and J.R.R. Tolkien that at the show’s finale, everyone laughs themselves into tears. Thus, I wasn’t too bothered by the absence of culture.
After the show, we decided to stay for the sword-swallowing, and in the few minutes between acts, I strode over the buy some cinnamon-sugared almonds. According to medical research, almonds are full of antioxidants, which reduce cancer and heart disease; thus, enveloping them in a crust of crunchy sugar only improves their appeal. I bought a large bag for about twenty bucks, and proceeded to flirt with the ‘Almond girl.’
“Do they ever sting you?” I asked.
“Huh?” The girl donned a cute gypsy-style costume, complete with scarf and dangling loopy-style earrings, through which several dozens of hungry honeybees buzzed attracted by the pots of warm sugar.
“The bees,” I pointed. “Do they ever . . . you know, get you when you’re not looking?” Just call me Murph Suave.
“Not really,” she replied, thinking with a subtle lip bite. “The other guy that works this station . . . yeah, he gets stung a lot. Several times. But I’m lucky so far. Guess I’m not that sweet.”
Now at this point, a truly charming guy would use this opportunity to insert a smooth rebuttal, something like “Hell, cinnamon and sugar ain’t got nothin’ on you, babe!” but more sincere and not as awkwardly creepy. Unfortunately, I am neither charming nor smooth, and my brain refused to suggest anything helpful but a few lame Knock-Knock jokes and the molecular formula for caffeine. What can I say? The cerebellum is a real bastard sometimes.
“Oh, I doubt that’s the case. Just be careful!” I said, thanking the cute gypsy. Behind me a line had formed; others were waiting for a chance to purchase pecans, almonds, and a welcoming smile. I returning to the sibs just as the sword-swallower began his act. The guys had chosen their seats well, although the guy in the row ahead stunk of week-old cheese. Privately, I dubbed him ‘Limburger.’
The sword swallower proved rather decent, mixing in magic and humor with the obligatory blade, sword, and kettle-spoon down the esophagus. Even Bree appeared interested enough to stave a glance at her cell phone. All but one seemed to be enjoying himself. From dirk to claymore, Rodney could not endure the sight of potential self-mutilation, always finding something else for his eyes to alight upon: roots of an old oak, the stain on his cuff, the t-shirt on the guy behind us (It was pretty funny: “If zombies are coming, I’m tripping you.”).
However, his eyes became quite focused when the sword-swallower introduced his belly-dancer, laced with bouncing costume jewelry. At once, I recognized my gypsy friend from the almond-cart (sans honeybees), shaking and smiling, and cursed my reticence, Knock-knock jokes, and a slow-witted brain. And caffeine too, just for good measure. Still my eyes never left her once throughout her performance. Of course, neither did Rodney’s or any other male in the audience for that matter. Once the sword-swallowing recommenced, the momentary spell broke, large men shifted restlessly once again on the benches, and Rodney feigned disinterest, fixating his gaze on airborne dandruff flakes that salted Limburger’s oily curls.
With love lost and courage renewed, our motley crew weaved the way through the crowds to the axe throw in a vain attempt to regain our manhood. The Ren Faire offers all kinds of skill challenges including throwing stars, knives and archery, but the axe throw garners the greatest crowd mostly for the spectacle, humiliation, and of course pure badass-ery connected with hurling blades in public. It’s a guy thing.
The goal of this game is to hurl your axe at an overturned tree stump marked at its center with a large red heart. If you succeed in impaling your axe in the heart, a page heralds your achievement to all within earshot and awards the marksman a shrunken replica, a wooden medallion emblazoned with a miniature heart. They call it a “Woody,” the Badge of Masculinity. This goal is not without its challenges though. The axes are dull, the stumps well-worn from multiple glows, and most men (like yours truly) cannot throw with sufficient force to pierce a tree stump made of styrofoam much less oak.
Still Dad succeeded in earning his medal several years ago, so none of us can back away from the challenge. Shannon, Rodney, Ryan, and I stepped before our stations to grab a ‘stupid hat:’ a hardened leather helmet adorned with pig ears, pink sequins, and other equally effeminate adornments. State law demands safety, not self-respect. Meanwhile, Bree stood several yards away behind a tree, cheering.
“Good luck! Don’t make me look stupid!”
My first throw imbeds the axe deep within the earth, maybe a yard or two shy of the target. Somewhere in the crowd, Bree groans loudly. Ryan is more successful, embedding his first throw deep in the stump, but nowhere near the heart. Rodney collides his axe with Shannon’s mid-flight, knocking both to the ground. By the final attempt, my axe finally closes the distance, bouncing off target before dropping shamefully into the mud.
“I think my axes were faulty or overly . . . weighted.”
“It’s my stump. It was too hard to penetrate . . .” Ryan began. “What?!”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
“If so, a rather implausible one.”
“Very mature guys,” Ryan sighed.
“Look, I did it!” Rodney shouts beside me.
“Isn’t that the axe handle?”
Indeed, somehow twirling in the axe the handle of Rodney’s axe imbedded itself into a hidden notch in the tree stump. This – unusual – victory however was short-lived though as one of the game’s wardens informed us that prizes are only rewarded to the those that cut the heart with the axe blade. Thus, we shuffle off back to Bree, our manhood once again in shambles, shattered by babes, blades, and bureaucracy. The triple threat.
Luckily, food always remedies shattered pride. Rodney suggested turkey legs; Ryan chose soup (“The girl that serves the clam chowder is gorgeous.”). I thought about more sugared almonds but decided against it. Too much sugar in one day would prove detrimental: too little taste and not enough substance. Same goes for those serving them, I suppose. And with a sigh to my estranged manhood, I followed my siblings into the crowds.