Book I: Memento Mori
Being a court dwarf is no easy task. I know because I failed at it.
But before I tell you how I failed, and how I ended up imprisoned in this star-crossed coach, bumping up and down bone-rattling roads, I will tell you a little about myself. My name is Jepp, and I was born fifteen years ago in the town of Astraveld, twenty miles south of Utrecht.
To call Astraveld a town is probably not quite correct — it is more of a crossroads, and a dangerous one at that, set among lands claimed by both the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestant North. Astraveld was a real town once, when my mother was young; with long, flat stretches of green fields, cows and chickens, a harvest festival, a small church, and a dirt square where farmers traded eggs and barley, and visiting merchants plied spices and cloth. But when the Protestant North rose up against Spain, most everyone fled except my mother's family and three or four others. My grandparents realized they needed a different livelihood, independent from their pillaged lands, so they opened an inn that served both Catholic and Protestant alike, until the day my grandfather was stabbed in the heart by a drunken Spanish soldier who mistook him for a spy. Even after this tragedy, my family stayed: bound by the stars, my mother said, to a town that had been their home for as long as anyone could remember.
A few years later, my grandmother died, and my mother become the sole mistress of the family establishment. She proved a formidable businesswoman. As the traffic of war flourished, she hired the remaining families of Astraveld in various capacities, and her inn, like the Ark itself, sustained the inhabitants of our much reduced town.
It was at this inn that I was born, as skirmishes continued around us between the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestant North. My mother would not talk about my birth, just that she loved me from first sight. She was broad-shouldered and stout with a brown mole on her left cheek. Her eyes could flash stern enough to shame the rowdiest drunk or — upon viewing a mewling kitten or another of the hapless creatures she so enjoyed — crinkle with mirth. The remaining families of Astraveld, who felt deep gratitude toward her, showered me with affection and praise. As the popularity of the inn grew but I did not, I attributed the laughter and smiles of passing travelers to the love owed me as prince of my mother's spirited kingdom.
Our inn consisted of two stories — the first contained an open room in which the eye was immediately drawn to a large hearth, where orange flames crackled and roared under a great cauldron of bubbling porridge. Circling the fire were mismatched chairs and tables — abandoned by various townsfolk as they fled the uprising — and beneath them, always, gaming cats — their eyes squinting gaily as they scanned the floor for mice. Two or three girls hired by my mother carried pewter mugs of ale from behind the bar and delivered them with loaves of black bread and small bowls into which they ladled the porridge. The ale was watered down, the porridge bland. The rich, pungent odor of sweat and hops soaked into a traveler's hair and clothes. And yet, especially after a long journey, such as the one I am forced on now, the cozy room and its companionable smells offered the very respite a weary soul desired.
Although fealty to my mother prevented the Astraveld families from ever remarking upon my condition, my mother could not always control the yaps of travelers, especially after they had emptied several mugs of ale. I remember still the first time this happened — I was seven and playing with one of the cats, dragging a piece of string before it by the fire. Two men in dirty burlap coats, their potato noses red with ale, were watching me and, in my mind, admiring the industry with which I drew the creature after its prey. With hearty laughter, they calculated something on their fingers and then, with a red-faced grin, one of the men called me over. I walked up to them fearlessly, expecting some kind word or compliment. But as soon as I reached him, the man hoisted me up on his lap. Then he seized my string and, dangling me in the air by the ankle like a hare, began to measure me with it.
"Three feet and an inch!" cried his companion. "That's what the dwarf is. I am sure of it!"
I did not have to struggle and cry out, as I would at other times ahead, because in a flash my mother was there, slapping the man who held me with such force that he dropped me, and I tumbled into her apron. The terror I felt ebbed as she enveloped me in her arms.
And so I learned the word that would come to supplant my name. But I thought not of myself as a dwarf. I was Jepp to my mother, Jepp to the families of Astraveld, Jepp to the regular travelers who greeted me warmly and brought me gifts. My favorite among these was an alphabet primer with which I taught myself to read. But there was also the body of a spiny mer-creature with a tiny snout; a wooden knight; a yellow finch that escaped its cage and was eaten by one of the cats; a pair of stilts that allowed me to tower over all. The sea of humanity that passed through the inn was my school: I heard stories of the New World, of sea monsters, of men who gazed upon the celestial spheres, of foreign courts, of new dyes for paint, of cities teeming with pageants and universities, of churches that soared up toward God like the tower of Babel itself.
My height was just a fact of life — the real mystery that captured my imagination as I grew in years was my paternity. When I was very young, my mother had insisted that I had no father. She claimed that she had conceived me after staring at a turtle that had come between her and the well. But gradually, when I developed no hump or shell, I began to doubt this provenance, and my suspicion turned to the few remaining able-bodied men of Astraveld.
There was Pieter, our brewer, a quiet, pockmarked man, who carved me a small wooden horse. But he had sired two burly, red-haired sons, who lifted barrels of ale over their shoulders as lightly as the horizon heaves up clouds. With my dark hair and eyes, I could not imagine these fair Atlases to be my brothers.
There was Farmer Helmich, whose rough hands were oversized for the rest of his short-limbed frame. His wife, Jantje, was so full of chatter that she gaped in between tales like a fish gasping for air. But Helmich only had eyes — or rather, ears — for his wife, beaming at her like a perpetually amused audience. They had no children.
Willem, who could read and write figures and helped my mother keep track of what was bought and sold, told me tales from the Bible and about the pagan heroes of Rome. Long and thin as a flute, he lived with us at the inn; and of all the men, I would have liked him best as father. But when I hinted this to my mother, she averred that he had no interest in matters of the flesh and laughed so merrily that I knew it to be true.
I turned my attention to the cast of travelers who paraded through the inn — the soldiers, merchants, scholars, farmers, monks, gentlemen, servants, fortune-tellers, and musicians. I did not know what I was searching for — a familiar look in a stranger's eye, a tender gaze at my mother? By some sign, I believed, my true father would reveal himself.
As I waited, I envisioned each man in the fated role, and how my resulting life would be in court, on stage, in university, or on the battlefield — as the son of a king, a hero, a man of action — a son reclaimed to live a life of adventure and renown. These were my boyish fantasies, but in my bed at night, the stars unblinking in the cold sky and my candle crying waxy tears, I would have been happy enough with a simple country man, so long as he claimed me as his own.
At fourteen, I was not much taller than I had been at seven, though my thoughts and feelings took up a much greater part of me. My mother and Willem alone seemed to understand this; visitors to the inn continued to proffer toys and pat me upon the head. I began to spend less time there, retreating to the barn with the cats or settling myself in the crook of a tree root with a book about the lives of the saints, which I had collected in addition to my primer. The urgency of finding my father seemed to wane. When I dreamed, it was of perfect loneliness — a hermit in a cottage, a monk in a cell — a sublime vision of what I already felt and assumed to be my lot.
My mother thought my melancholic humor was the result of idle hands and put me to work. I sat in a corner of the great room, in view of the hearth, washing mugs and bowls in a wooden bucket. But even though I labored now in the heart of the noisy inn, I was as removed from the commotion and stares as I had been in the field or barn. I kept my head down, focusing on my task, reciting stories in my mind to while away the time. When spoken to I spoke, but I did not seek out company. "What ails Master Jepp?" my mother was asked. "Growing up," she would say. Some would laugh, thinking this a jest, but some understood.
It was on a busy autumn night as I dragged my rag over the dregs of porridge stiffened in a bowl, that I became aware of someone staring at me. There was nothing unusual about this — I was accustomed to stares from new visitors. After glancing up at a dapper, bearded man with a feathered cap and a ruffed collar, I concluded him a stranger and his curiosity the familiar sort. But his dress struck me as uncommonly fine, and his manner odd: unlike most strangers, who after a time lost interest and turned away, this man continued to gaze upon me, his mug of ale untouched. When one of the girls brought him porridge, he waved it away and then stopped her to ask a question.
"Jepp," I heard her say.
"Jepp," he repeated. He stood up, removed his cap, and bowed grandly in my direction.
With pulsing heart, I recalled my boyhood fantasies. Though I did not see my features reflected in the man's face, I felt certain that he was the instrument of my fate. Of this, sadly, I would not be mistaken.
From Jepp, Who Defied The Stars by Katherine Marsh. Copyright 2012 by Katherine Marsh. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.