On Friday and then again on Saturday evening, I drove south to the Sarasota Contemporary Dance studio for the first installment of what turned out to be a fantastic collaboration. My friend and world-class cellist Natalie Helm came up with the idea: Bach Immersion Concerts, a one-of-a-kind exploration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. The idea is to present “a multi-sensory interactive live performance,” and that’s exactly what happened.
You can learn more about the Bach Immersion Concerts on Natalie’s website, here.
Inspired by the Bach Suites, I wrote a short story entitled “The Queen’s Cookfire.” It was said Bach wrote the Cello Suites as though the cello itself could write its own music. That’s why I told Natalie that it is very much inspired by the idea of becoming, of being who and what we are meant to be. Who are we? And what are we meant to be?”
I hope you enjoy reading it here as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Queen’s Cookfire
Bundled against the cold, the boy sits near the crackling fire, along the lonely edge of the wintertime woods. The silverleaf oak, juniper, and tall pines are barren. The low light of gray clouds sifts through long-fingered skeleton branches which reach to the desolate sky. He rests on the snow-dusted path with the last of the tired men along a line of similar small encampments. The trail leads down to a final valley before it meets the imposing black rock walls of the white-capped Eastern Mountains.
The men have come from the far towns and villages along the great southern ocean. Most are older, gray beards and thin hair, faces and hands marked by the unforgiving sun and hard lives lived on the salty sea. They are not used to the cold, pulling their cloaks tight against the unforgiving wind.
A small, round pot rests on an iron rod over the modest cookfire. Thick broth boils. One of the old men leans over to stir.
He begins to sing a song, lilting and quiet, soft and low. The song tells the story of a glorious warrior, brave and true of heart. Strong and tall, a hero to men, nearly invincible, the fabled hero defeats every enemy. The boy wonders if it is a song the warrior himself wrote. He watches the older man stir and sing with haunting reverence.
The boy pulls his hood low again, not only for the sake of the bitter wind. The five men warming their hands and spooning out stew do not recognize the flushed face. Now, on the eve of a war for humanity, is no time to take a chance.
But the boy is hungry. Quietly, he leans forward, holding his small wooden bowl in one hand.
The old man dishes out a meager spoonful. He glares at the boy, silent. His song has been interrupted. The look says that is enough and there will be no more.
The boy sits back against his meager pack on the cold, icy ground, grateful for what he has been given. It has been a long, perilous journey to the mountains.
As the old man continues his song, the boy looks up the line to the next encampment. The men and boys there look much the same, certainly nothing like the hero of the ballad. Four, five around a small fire, trying to cook, singing their own quiet songs and telling stories of home in low tones. It is the same at the next encampment, and the same at the next.
These men at the edge of the woods are somber. There is no merrymaking to be had, for they are not soldiers. The cold inevitability of death is as real as the gale through the trees. Old men and young boys, all ill-equipped for war in the northern lands against barbarians, monsters, and beasts which, to them, have only ever been legend. They wear thin wool cloaks, worn sandals. Fishing knives strapped to their sides, homemade clubs, rusted daggers and splintered shields.
Far beyond the crest of the slight hill, much further down the line, the boy can see bigger fires. And opulent tents as well. Men wear shining armor which glints in the dim winter light. Horses are gently cared for by squires. Men carry long swords and heavy maces, thick shields, and intricate, feathered helmets. These are the encampments of the soldiers of the Empire. These warriors, whose ranks have been thinned by protracted war, who will be on the front lines of a battle to which all men have been called to serve.
The boy looks around his own fire again. He tugs at his bedroll, ensuring it covers the hilt of the long, silver sword hidden underneath.
The men have stopped singing and have begun telling stories of the creatures living in mountains to the east. One man claims to have seen the sharp-toothed goblins who dwell in the dark caves. Another describes a monster with a man’s body but a jackal’s head. Still another tells of beasts with no name, only razorback jaws and beady black eyes. Each description of the nightmares of the mountains is more vivid, more horrible than the last.
Without warning, there is a sudden, tiny voice behind him, abuzz, a whisper on the wind. It is almost more a thought than words.
He half-turns, but can only catch a glimpse of the fluttering sprite in the corner of his vision. He gasps, for it is the glimmering winged sprites he fears most. They see through the lies of man, they bear witness to one’s true purpose.
“The war you have long sought in which to prove yourself is neigh,” it buzzes against his ear. “Yet even now you question your place among the ranks.”
No, he answers in barely a whisper. The others around the fire do not take notice.
“Then why,” the sprite dares to fly closer, “do you hide your true self?”
“You know why!” he says too loudly. The older men stop and glance at him. He pulls in a breath and quickly eats a bit of stew, shrugging his shoulders.
“These men need a hero, not one who hides before the first blow is struck,” the sprite laughs.
“You know why I must hide,” he says, more quietly this time.
“I know why you must hide from your father,” the sprite buzzes happily.
“My father…,” says the boy, a catch in his voice. But he cannot finish the thought. After all, what is there to say — to say to a mystic creature taunting him from behind the stump of a tree, a magical creature that already knows the truth.
His father — not one of a long line of fisherman from a small town. Not a farmer or a merchant, not a butcher or a baker, not a craftsman or a builder, but a king. The great King of Ephresia, the kind and benevolent ruler of the very fishing villages and towns and hamlets of every man and boy sitting around the small cookfires at the back of the line, making peace in their own way before war.
Ephresia, small, distant, a forgotten sliver of land beyond the wide Aganor Plains, beyond the burning sands of the Devil’s Desert, beyond the great, rushing Badfourke River.
Small, the smallest of the twelve kingdoms of the Empire.
Small, but filled with big-hearted, proud fishermen — fishermen, and fathers and mothers and children and the old and the wise and the young and the foolish — all who love their kingdom. All who love their king.
The people of Ephresia love their king with a devotion and a loyalty that drives them to unfamiliar woodlands and mountains where evil gathers, where dark-hearted creatures plot to destroy the world of man. They gather at the king’s behest to defend not just their kingdom, not just the Empire of the Twelve Realms, but the world.
And these fishermen from small villages and towns along the Ephresia coast join the ranks of soldiers with loyal hearts. They gather what few weapons they have, gather what they can carry, and march north.
They march north to fight an enemy they know only in legend because of their abiding devotion to the great king. Their love of the king is undying, as it is for his wife, the benevolent, beautiful queen.
They fight wicked monsters in the name of the king and queen’s oldest child, a wise, kind son who leads the King’s Guard to the west and will, one day, should he survive the war, be a king in his own time. These ill-equipped men fight creatures born of evil in the name of the royal family’s second child, another son who, a better swordsman than his brother, stands somewhere on the front lines, deep in the valley among the tents and the well-armored, prepared to command a legion into wretched battle.
The fishermen of Ephresia come to the penultimate fight for mankind ready to die in the name of the king and queen’s third and fourth children, daughters — twins, and proper young women of the court. Their mother, under cover of night, brings them books with stories of the world and beyond to read in dim candlelight. It is a desperate act, an ever-fading hope for enlightenment before they are married off to princes in neighboring kingdoms, all in the name of tradition.
The poor, old fishermen and villagers of Ephresia march towards inevitable doom in the name of undying loyalty to their beloved king and his beloved family… including his youngest child.
A brave child. A loyal child. A proud child of the Ephresian Kingdom.
A child born with an insatiable spirit for adventure.
A child born with a servant’s heart.
A child born with a soul devoted to the people of Ephresia, mirroring the devotion shown to the king’s own family.
It is a loyalty that transcends even death. And it is why, at the cold, desolate edge of a frozen wood, within earshot of the cries of raging trolls, does the king’s youngest daughter, hidden under the gray hood of a cloak, defy her father and take up arms.
Her loyalty to her people is why she will spurn a thousand generations of unjust traditions dictated to her since birth. It is why she will fight for her family. It is why she will put away the midnight books and the promise of faraway princes and fight for the people of Ephresia. Loyalty and honor are how the princess will become the warrior she was always meant to be.
The battle looms.
“You can still go back,” says the sprite in the ear of the youngest Princess of Ephresia.
With renewed spirit, she whispers back, “Never,” and hears the sprite giggle with pleasure, for the meddling creatures love resolve as much as truth.
The princess takes a deep breath and pulls back her hood, defiant, ready for war. Ready to lead. She draws the gleaming sword, the one she has stolen from her father. Uncovering the shield bearing her royal family crest, she stands tall and proud, a siren of unbounded victory.
Cold wind blows as the cries of the beasts echo in the desolate mountains. The old fisherman stirring The over the cookfire drops his spoon, gasping as he kneels before her.