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Captain Barfoot Tells His Tale

ISSUE:  Spring 1990
Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate.
Earth still holds ope her gate;
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!
Thomas Nashe—”Song”

Seeing is believing. And if you could only see the man for yourself, you would be willing to believe almost anything that is said about him and, very likely, anything whatever he said to you, face to face, his bright eyes lit from behind by some inner fire, his hard face a map of scars and troubles. Stout and sturdy as an oak stump he is. And clear enough he has been hurt so often and so much, hurt and healed, and that his skin and bones are whole and held together is some kind of miracle of nature. Or perhaps of art. There are some who are willing to venture that his skin and muscles, stretched tight over bones, most of which are bound to have been broken, some more than one time, yes there are some who (never in his presence) guess that he puts on his body like a tent over his bones, dresses himself with flesh as you might put on a doublet and hose, stretching, pulling, smoothing as best as can be, then holding in place, just so, with intricate laces and points, with hooks and eyes, with buttons large and small. As you cannot easily dress or undress yourself, so will Barfoot be in need of another pair of hands to put him together each day and to pour and pump into him the blood and humors and bodily fluids which give him life and character. And at night when he returns to wherever he keeps bed and chambers, why, there must be a great exercise of bleeding and draining and the pissing away of himself. Then the folding of skin and meat and inner organs and parts into a cedar chest. Hangs his bones, his anatomy, upon a hook and, nothing more then than a pure and invisible spiritual essense, lies down upon a bed, no weight upon it, leaving its sheets unmessed and unmarked, proving his presence only by deep snores worthy of a mastiff.

It would take a woman to do all that, to take him apart, piece by piece, each night and to put him together, like some child’s doll or puzzle, each new day. A woman with deft, quick hands and almost infinite patience. But, the most terrifying thought of all is this—what woman could love him? Try to imagine her and you shall feel your heart turn cold as a stone.

Oh, to be sure, in the taverns and ale houses where he is known, not to mention brothels and bowling greens and the like, they exaggerate (as is their wont in such places, inspired by drink and merry company) the terrifying aspects of Captain Barfoot. They will also, always in his absence, call him a swaggering crow, the very figure, out of life and much literature, of the war-stained, bloody-minded, hard-hearted, bitter-tongued veteran of battles and (much the same) nightmares. But this is not true. There is next to no strut and swagger, no vulgar bravado about Barfoot. Truth is he walks his way as light—and soft-footed—as some gentleman dancer waiting for the music to commence. His gestures are often as graceful and delicate as a girl’s. But this is lost to the beholder for whom the battered and brutal solidity of Barfoot is as emphatic as the flame and smoke and deafening report of cannon salute.

Like so many beings, great and small, virtuous and wicked, young or old, in this lost, late age of the century and the world (and, believe me, there are thoughtful persons who in their wisdom profess to believe that this world will end with this weary century and with the reign of the old Queen), like many others of these times, William Barfoot is not precisely what he seems to be. For one thing, it is his way to pretend to be something more and less than he is. And what he truly is, no man alive, probably not even the Captain himself, knows with any certainty.

For example, he is in all probability a dangerous man, as fiercely so as a primed and loaded horse pistol, considering the size and shape, the look and the style of him. But who really knows for sure? Who’s fool enough to wish to find out?

Meantime, among his tavern friends and acquaintances, he is taken and accepted as a creature of paradoxes and contradictions. Taken, too, to be a creature of habit, as dependable and predictable as a good German clock. Yet cheerfully he breaks his own habits and customs as often as not.

For instance. Barfoot is not known to be a man of much idle talk or many words. In the presence of facile and clever talkers, of the tellers of tall and elaborate tales, he will simply glare. Will fist his ugly face into a horrifying frown.

Captain Bar foot with a frown on his face has been known to silence a whole tavern.

And yet he has been also known, stepping into a silence he, himself, has created, as if he were someone stepping out of the dark into a puddle of lantern light, to begin to talk as if the only thing that stood between death and himself were the bright armor of his words.

Here is one of his digressions, this one on the subject of wisdom of wounds, the sapience of many scars.

“It is the peculiar folly of most whole and healthy men to imagine that those others who have suffered (as I myself have) from long and dread sickness and those who have (as I surely have) earned a rich reward, a treasure of scars and scabs, if not much else, in this vain and hurtful world, are somehow to be counted as fortunate, as if they have been blessed with an acquired coating of hardness. Like a snail in his little castle or the turtle in his shell.

“It is the common belief that the most maimed and wounded are somehow, by dint of their fearful losses, somewhat like saints. That time has taught them how, like the saints, to be careless of and indifferent to much that deeply concerns others.

“Having lost so much to the depradations of time and tribulation, they have very little left to lose now. And precious little to fret over or be anxious about. Having tasted deeply, to the dregs, all the worst that fever and chills, cuts and bruises and broken bones can give a man, having learned the lessons of that school, why, they are now imagined to be able to be fearless ever after. Having met with the dark man, this world’s schoolmaster, and wrestled with him to the very edges of the pit of hell, wrestled and then risen up again, not from the dead, true, but anyhow from darkness into light, risen up again and not hale and whole, either, but entirely touched and changed by the closeness of Death, just as Jacob was touched and shriveled by his Angel, they are believed by others to be in possession of some rare form of knowledge, if not wisdom then, at the least, a new way of knowing and understanding which is only taught in the school of hard experience.

“And it is this knowledge which, it is believed, leaves them somehow or other much less vulnerable to all future wounds than those who have been spared the same. That their knowledge allows them, after all has been said and done, to be blithely ready and willing and able to embrace every kind of pain and discomfort without any wince of fear.

“It is believed that their knowledge leaves them on good terms at least if not intimately friendly with Death. Death who, having failed the first time, will now be kind and mannerly, perhaps to take them away, bootless in their sleep with no more noise or shuddering than a cat’s breath.

“It is all a pretty kind of fiction.

“Do not believe any, not a word of it.”

By now this scarred and battered man, who has enticed everyone within earshot to try not to stare at his wealth of visible scars and lumps and hurt places, will have awakened their envy for his condition.

“You want to hear the truth of it, my friends? Truth is, I believe deeply and sincerely that Death has spared me thus far and for this long for the sake of something truly terrible. I believe that those of us whose fate and fortune has been to endure much and yet to be left alive, are being saved and prepared for something else, something worse than any of us is able to imagine.

“And what do I say to that? What can I say? What should I say?

“I say, good friends and true, let us fill our cups to the brim and drink to this moment as if it were to be our last.”

Pastime and Good Company

A wet rainy day is what it is now, wind blowing and gusting now from one direction and now from the other. Streets and lanes muddy as can be. Taverns full up and shops almost empty except for a few bored apprentices. Nobody much abroad or outside, if they can help it, except for common laborers and those others whose errands and business must be tended to, like it or not, in any kind of weather.

It is a day to stay inside if you can and be as close to a fire as you are able to.

So you can safely wager that Barfoot will not be caught outside in the rain. Wherever he is he will be warm and dry.

Most likely on a day like today he will be enjoying himself in the company of a pair, a brace is what he calls them, of large and cheerful young Dutch whores, the three of them in a commodious bed in a high chamber in a large house across the River from Westminster and near to Lambeth Marsh. Which will be rising slowly towards a flood on this day.

His soldiering days have taught him many good lessons concerning the various kinds and degrees of fear and discomfort and the great pains a man at war may have to feel and perhaps endure. Taught him, also, more than a few words of several languages, though often the same words in each. And he has also long since learned that there is genuine solace and good comfort to be gained from keeping intimate company with a large and healthy, and preferably untroubled, woman. Barfoot believes there is even more of the same sort of pleasure to be enjoyed with two women of that kind if they, themselves, are of an essentially kind and generous disposition. Others, including most women of every disposition, might not agree in general. And the truth is that Barfoot’s proposition is derived not from extensive experience, but rather is descriptive of himself and these particular two Dutch whores, the likes of which he might not find from here to Cathay or America. What is true is that here in London he has found two who can please him greatly and choose to do so. Most whores, abroad as well as in England but especially the English whores, have failed to lighten his heart. They are too tense and sour to offer much more that the simple meat of themselves. But these two, at least with him, are different. And he deeply enjoys the pleasures offered up by these two free and easy, undeniably simple, undemanding, milk-skinned young women. Sturdy and hearty as can be, they are as warm and harmless as cows in a barn. They are as wholesome to taste as fresh sweet butter or soft cheese on newly made wheat bread. These two are like twins, like sisters anyway. Perhaps they are kin to each other. Heavy-breasted, heavy-legged, broad-hipped, wide slow smilers with wide and smiling blue eyes. And with a fine white acreage of smooth white skin which is only very slightly, indifferently scarred here and there from what must have been for them, like almost everyone else, a touch of the smallpox sometime or other.

He is resting between them, as if they were the largest and softest down pillows in the bed, a fire filling the space of the chamber with its brightness and warmth and with the gentle swaying and dancing of shadows (and sometimes spitting and smoky when wind and rain pour down the chimney) and the tiny leaded windowpanes lashed and splashed by the bursts of rain. Between them, for a moment spent and lax, Barfoot is sunburnt as cooked meat or a roasted nut. While he lies there, still and content, half a breath away from falling into a deep sleep, they begin to tease him by playing a kind of child’s game and counting his body’s commodity of large and small scars. All the nicks and slices and gouges, burned places, brute stitchery of barber surgeons. All his earnings from a lifetime of wounds and from every kind of sickness known to man. They giggle with a wordless joy that such a man, such an ugly and damaged one, could possess such power, like some kind of mountebank or necromancer, to waken within them and then satisfy a hunger felt deeply from the roots of their hair to the tips of their toenails. His earthy, animal color and undeniable, indeed assertive, ugliness serve to make them feel more than merely whole and healthy by contrast; but also, if only then and only briefly, beautiful to behold and as light of limb and flesh as young children. It is somehow as if his hurt body can take on and steal away all their sense of hurt and heaviness.

And there is something more, something like a puzzle to be solved. For even as they play at the game of cataloguing his wealth of healed wounds, they are at the same moment tempted to imagine him as he might possibly have been without them, unblemished and intact. There is no way they could find the words for it, even if English were their native language; but nonetheless what happens is that familiarity works its way. The more they study his ugliness, the more beautiful he seems to become, if only in the secret places of the mind’s eye. But that is much, much . . .! For, in love and in lust, the mind’s eye is always the dancing master.

Now he smiles at them, laughs with them, though for a different reason. On the delicate, sheer edge of a sleep he will not, yet, be allowed to enjoy, he has to smile to imagine the shocked face of a young priest. Pictures the next occasion when he finds a priest and a safe and appropriate time and place to make his confession. It will give a priest, especially a young and inexperienced one, fresh from the seminary, too much to try not to think about.

—Father, try your best not to think about my two naked and delightful Dutch girls.

If you, a stranger to them all, were able to overcome the predictably queasy objections of your stomach, its seasick condition being composed of equal parts of fascinated curiosity, controlled disgust, and the worldly-wise fear of creating any offense by looking too long and too closely at him, and were thus able to study the outward aspect and appearance of Bar foot at your leisure, there is much you could learn. You can seldom, if ever, have witnessed anyone else quite like him, not at least among those still walking about this world and busy with its ceaseless, quotidian business. As if by some miracle or magic he possesses both arms and both legs, both hands and even each and every finger. Though the knuckles are somewhat scarred and swollen and one or two have turned vaguely black. He keeps both his eyes, too, if often mildly yellow and bloodshot and more and more, with years, squinting, brightly and in place, if nested among crowsfeet and little scars. His ears are somehow still whole and even decently shaped, neither clipped nor cut nor battered nor swollen. Lips are somewhat fat, to be sure, from too many brawls; and his nose is a wide and bumpy prominence. But all of it is there, and if it is not an object for envy or admiration, it is at least no worse to look at than many another. His teeth are as ragged as an old neglected hedge, and yet they are white enough (he is a careful man with his toothpicks and his tooth cloth) and solid and whole. He can and sometimes will smile and show his teeth like an old dog grinning to guard a buried bone.

Taken as a whole, then, his face and form are altogether better to look at than many a maimed and crippled beggar whom you might encounter at any street corner or churchyard or gatehouse. He can run and dance well enough, better than many young fellows, sits a horse with pride in his posture and with a delicate balance. And he walks about the City with an easy, insinuating military strut. Just as if his joints and thews and sinews are youthful and supple enough to do whatever he wills.

Truth is, though, and you know it at sight and without a second thought, Barfoot has known every kind of pain. Pains that others can only imagine and therefore must fear. If every kind of inflicted wound has marked him with its indelible signature, then likewise every known, and several unknown, sickness and disease seem to have made an inn of his body and rested there for a time. He has shared himself with fevers and chills, fluxes and poxes, rashes and itches. He has come through the sweating sickness. Not renewed or improved by it, to be sure, but not noticeably the worse for wear, either.

But that thing which astonishes all others most—for the people of England are justly and terribly fearful of it—is that he has suffered the Plague, taken sick with it and endured the worst it can do this side of death. And he can, sometimes, when properly encouraged and in just the right circumstances, tell the tale of how that was for him.

These sweet Dutch whores, for whom the summer Plague seasons of London are always a most fearful time, love to hear him tell it. How the Plague came and how he survived it. It is as if his story, on its own, might serve them to drive away the danger like a necklace of garlic. But there is more to it than that. It is also true—let it be here and now admitted— that as whores, therefore unlikely to be wives and never to be ladies, they especially and profoundly enjoy all tales of magical transformation. Tales where dirty straw can be spun into fine gold and warty pigskin turned into silk and, who knows?, even a whore from another country may suddenly believe herself, if only in fantasy, to be an English lady.

And also being of a more practical cast of mind, they like to take this as an emblematic tale of death and resurrection, a Christian homily.

And they are probably thinking that, by the time he will finish telling them his story, the best and finest part of him, perhaps the only part of him never yet wounded or scarred, though often taught humility through intensive hard labor, will have reawakened and proudly, handsomely risen up, eager once again to dance the oldest dance of this world.

. . . . We were in France, he begins, during one of the bloody little wars there. Were in garrison, defending a town. Place of no importance. One which you will never have heard of even if I could remember the name of it now. I cannot. And most likely could not find the place again if my life depended on it.

Goes on. How there were four of them, all Englishmen, living in the house of a baker with his family. How all things were well and went well for a time. No enemy to fight and no serious threat of any. The baker’s wife and several daughters were as friendly and entertaining to them as anyone could be. Taught them to speak some of their language.

. . . . And whenever the poor fellow, that baker, was gone out elsewhere, in the town or the countryside, about his business, which was often enough, those women taught us other French and froggy things. Things which were beyond the power of any words I knew then, even in my native tongue.

The sickness came on them and the town slowly at first, so slowly that they did not choose to notice or believe it. Denied it until the men in their own companies began to sicken and die of it. It was the Black Plague, the swelling kind, that swept into that town, and soon all around it, like an invisible fire. Burning them to death.

. . . . Came first the ugly and painful blue and black swellings all over our bodies. And worst in most private places. One by one we one and all sickened until soon no one in that baker’s house was left standing. Crawled and sprawled, we did, burning with fevers, shaking with chills, puking and beshitting ourselves.

Tells how they were by Law locked in the house. Fed by charity like prisoners. Until there was none left standing. None alive, as far as he could tell, but himself. And soon he was doubtful of himself because he could no longer make sounds to speak. If there had been anyone left to speak to. Could not smell the rot of the dead ones. Could not close his eyes to sleep or die. But soon could see only the ceiling of his chamber. At the last even the pain which had proclaimed he was alive was gone and he was only stiff and numb. Could feel himself cooling, stiffening.

. . . . Somehow I heard, not without meaning but with the utter indifference of a ghost, the doors axed and smashed open and thieves came in to loot. To steal the coins in our purses, the jewels off our fingers (thank God my rings hung loose; for when a ring was tight they cut off the finger to take it) and the clothes off our backs. I felt myself lifted and turned like a log of wood as they stripped me naked and dropped me again to the floor. And I remember how I saw the blue-black swellings on these thieves, themselves. Would have grinned then, if I could have. For here they were, dead men already, risking much for what little they could steal from us.

To what purpose? To buy a little more comfort before the Plague claimed them also?

. . . . Who knows? Not I. I have seen men risk their lives, nay lose their lives, by lingering on a battlefield to pick corpses clean.

. . . . If there is no limit to the cruelty of men in this world (and I know there is none), there is none, either, in the stupidity of greed.

. . . . I lay on the floor, benumbed, next to my dead and rotting comrades, thinking, like a child slowly falling into a deep sleep: We brought nothing into the world, neither may we carry anything out of the world. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

He woke from death or dreaming, whichever it was, in a heap of bodies, flesh and bones of others, many others, heavy on him. Could not move a limb or open his eyes. But could feel himself sweating. And feel, too, other kinds of human juices, not his own, dripping on him, crawling on his flesh. Could hear again, and what he was hearing was a creaking and groaning, not human but of wood. Could smell a nauseous rot all around him. Though he had no energy to puke and nothing to puke anyway. Only a bitter drooling at the edge of his lips. Heard, faintly, human voices. Living voices. Would have cried out, then, if he could have. Yet could not manage to make a sound.

. . . . Bit by bit and piece by piece, as if it were a kind of problem and myself, my life, only one part of it, I found myself thinking. Came to know that I was in a two-wheeled cart piled high with bodies, my own among them, and the cart groaning from the weight of its load of dead meat. And then as soon as I was able to imagine where I was, I began, slowly, to feel pain begin to reclaim first the suburbs, then the whole city of myself. In a while, I thought, I will have to move, somehow bestir myself, to ease this pain. And when I do that they will see me and know I am alive.

No such good fortune. Cart stopped and some men began to unload it, heaving the bodies into a deep hole in the ground where other rotting bodies already lay in piles. He could feel their gloved hands as they gripped him, wrists and ankles, and, heave-ho!, hurled him arse over head and a flashing view of blue sky and clouds before he fell among the dead bodies. Now pain was great and universal. Now his senses were as keen as ever. All but speech. Could neither speak nor groan. Could not form any sound. So formed words in his mind. Words of prayers. Prayed to Jesus and the Holy Virgin for his soul as he heard the cart rattle away and the voices of the men fade, too. He felt warm and sleepy, at peace, and dozed.

. . . . Next thing—it must have been hours later, for it was full dark when I opened my eyes—I felt a sharp and sudden pain and cried out. I heard myself! Then heard a gasp nearby and sensed a face close to mine. Smelled it, the stinking breath breathing in mine. And thinking—I would have laughed if I had remembered how—how strange it was that this living breath was more stinking and foul by far than the ripe-rotten stink of my fellow corpses.

Next he knew, again in bits and pieces, he was pulled, groaning from the nest of dead bodies, his bed of flesh and bones. Pulled slowly out of the hole and across bare earth, with much heavy breathing and frequent resting by his savior (if he were truly being saved), by his ankles. Dragged he was, but how long and how far he had no idea.

Later he was within some kind of rude shelter, some light from the dying coals of a small fire and his head cradled in the lap of an old, old woman, wizened, ugly beyond imagining or telling. And she was spooning a bitter broth, wooden spoonful by spoonful, slowly, and crooning a tune which may have been a lullaby.

. . . . Broth was bitter and foul to taste. God knows what mixture it was. But I did not gag. Swallowed it down like nectar and could feel, with each taste and swallow, warmth and life returning to my fingers and toes. To my limbs. Soon I could hear myself sobbing. Surely I was weeping for joy.

She stopped feeding him. Turned away to heap up the fire with fresh wood until it was blazing and filling the space of this shelter, hut or hovel, with smoke. Pulled him, gently, closer to the fire. As close as could be without cooking. Covered him with a rough blanket. He lay there looking into the heart of the fire, hearing rain on the roof. Watching the raindrops fall flatly through the smokehole of the roof, suddenly brightened, like clear jewels, by the firelight as they fell and spat and sizzled in the flames. And so, his head full of light, his body hot and sweating freely, he fell into a deep sleep.

. . . . When did I awaken? Best to ask when was I truly awake again. For I would wake often, briefly, between deep sleeping. And the old woman, saint or witch I shall never know, cleaned me and fed me the bitter broth of life and hummed and crooned songs which followed me into my dreams.

. . . . Weeks passed, I am sure, before I could sit and stand on my own, then walk. Weeks before I could walk outside, one tentative leg at a time like a man walking on stilts. It was spring and then summer and then the leaves were turning.

They could not talk to each other. For. the language she spoke to him was not French or any tongue he had ever heard of. Perhaps she was a Gypsy. He learned to speak a few words from her, and to sing some others, but no one, not even Gypsies, seemed able to understand him later when he used her words. Perhaps she was mad.

. . . . No matter there. A mad old woman in a mad old world. She was mad enough to give me back my life, to share that much of her madness with me. To feed me and clean me and, better than any physician I ever encountered, to keep me alive and allow me to heal. To find some plain clothes for me. Never mind where she may have found them or from whom they were taken. They were cleaned and brushed and aired, and I did not want to know. Even to find, somehow, a rusty old sword and the harness for it. So that, all in all, I looked to be what I truly was—a soldier.

. . . . And then at last to send me on my way.

. . . . It was a full year or more before I was free and able to come back to that part of the country again. I came back with money and with gifts. But could find no sign or trace of her. Nothing. Not any sign of the hut in the forest where we had lived together. Nor any indication of the great pit where they had heaped the bodies and bones of the townspeople.

The town was still there, to be sure, though much of it, including the baker’s house, roofless, fallen down, half-burned, picked clean. And only a few people remaining. Some old folks, shy and wild-eyed, shadows of themselves. Shrill wild children who ran in packs like dogs. Not anyone who remembered him or knew anything to answer his questions.

. . . . I began to believe that I could have dreamed it all. And in my degenerate sickness I could have dreamed such things. It is common enough. Except that I knew it was no dream. For it has been my fortune, for better and worse, always to know when I am dreaming. From my childhood until now I have known when I was dreaming. Which knowledge does not spare me from my full share of nightmares. But it can make the terrors of deep dreaming somewhat easier to bear. And besides . . . .

Here he shows his Dutch whores some few coin-sized, bruise-colored places on his body, scars almost lost among the worse ones clamoring for attention, hidden in his armpits and crotch and partly concealed by his thin hair, just behind his right ear.

. . . . Here’s the proof. Proof that I have come back from the dead. Proof that I have endured the Black Plague and returned to tell you about it.

Laughs then, surprising them.

. . . . Well, the truth is, he continues, that there must be many who, with a little luck, survive the Plague. I believe a man might be safer with the Plague than on many a battlefield. Somehow or other I have so far survived them both. I have walked in the shadow of the valley of Death. To what purpose? So that I can spend this rainy day with you.

Now they laugh.

He props himself on an elbow and with his free hand gently touches and teases the nipple of one remarkable breast.

. . . . Dreams, he says. Something more about dreams. Sometimes, like it or not, I dream I am sick with the Plague and living in that smoky little hut with the old woman.

. . . . And in my dream I find that I am very doubtful, untrusting. I fear she may be a witch. She will not give me my lifegiving bitter broth unless and until I promise to love her forever and to seal my promise with a kiss full on her mouth.

. . . . She is so ugly—uglier by far in my dream than in life or memory—that I fear she is the emblem or servant of Death and the Devil. Her breath has the stinking essence of every dead thing in the world.

. . . . I must make a free choice. It is not simply life or no life. For even though the broth may give me life and strength, her kiss may be a powerful poison like a toad’s. And will kill me dead. But I must make my choice. And I do so. I pucker up my lips and close my eyes tight and lean towards that face all full of warts and wrinkles and wild gray hairs and rich with the overwhelming stink of her breath.

And then?

. . . . Why then the dream always ends. And I find that I am wide awake and will never know what might have happened next.

What do you think might have happened?

. . . . When I finally kiss her, there is a great puff of colored smoke. And then she reappears, utterly transformed. I discover she has turned into you two.

And then?

. . . . See for yourself what happens next.


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