By Elle Juliette
Already shot with sleepiness, I followed his tail lights all the way up for what felt like a century, the time ticking by in a maddening parade of minutes as we wended towards the festival campgrounds. I was excited and curious, curious about the process of resurrecting the Renaissance to entertain patrons in a living theatre, about the team of lively carnies at Levine Leather that I’d soon call co-workers and friends. We’d been hired on as part-time help, charged with donning the best of our Renaissance wardrobe and coaxing festival goers into purchasing shoppe merchandise, and tonight, on the eve of opening, we were reporting for duty.
“Tink”, the store manager, was an over-the-hill grad student with a very serious smoking pipe whose sympathetic eyebrows, blushing cheeks, and long, thin nose gave him the air of a gracefully aging woman. “Well, shoot me in the head!” he bellowed in welcome as we ambled up in the dark, toting our weekend bags. He gestured to the storefront, already mostly complete with merchandise, and we took it in: leather bands and bracelets, masks and flask cases and two black mannequins near the register, dressed in leather cuts of cloth and already posed for tomorrow’s show—and, most of all, the leak-proof leather mugs that were the shoppe’s pride. This was the world before the dawn, the setting of the stage for tomorrow’s step back in time. Jon and I traded a look of glee and I, tired as I was, leaned forward on my toes, excited to meet the gang.
The bunk room was abuzz with unpacking and arranging as we walked in, and one by one, we met the cast of characters. The town apothecary, as he called himself, sat with his hands on his knees on one of the bunks, explaining to all who would listen that he was just a guest here, not a permanent fixture. Two women stood before their bunks in t-shirts and shorts, strapping themselves into beautiful cages of boning and fabric. As I watched, their bellies disappeared, moving up and up and up into their bosoms until they were top-heavy with it. The corsets set them in stiffly feminine hourglass shapes, but they wheeled about with ease, used to their uniforms. The faire was a half-baked stage of performers trying out their costumes and testing their voices. And I would soon be one of them. We shared a chair, my man and I, as Tink went in search of a bunk for us.
Nick Levine himself was a knobby older man with leathered arms and razor-thin reading glasses clipped to his crew-necked shirt. His knees leaned together in their cargo pants on the couch across from us with a resting smile peering out from beneath his silvered bush of facial hair. He shuffled over to us to make introductions as the town apothecary blathered on about the location of his store. Mr. Levine, by contrast, staggered to speak, his aphasiac sentences hanging in fragments for long moments as his thoughts slowly took form. However, when he retook his seat and whittled away at the leather strap he held, his hands spoke fluently, feeling over the leather and imparting to it some gentle suggestion, a firm instruction, and responding to it secretly, like they were intimate friends. I marvelled at him, this man the team called “Grandpa”, and the way he worked, as if leather work would be the last skill left in him at the end of his days, as if it were a main element in his makeup, as if tomorrow’s show would simply be a showcase of his true life.
In my sleep-deprived state, they were all tremendous and fascinating, and I adored them. These were the sort of people who found a job in working the Renaissance Festival, ones who would slip from one character to the next overnight with the opening of the festival, who would fade back into their interesting selves after the last cannon, and I smiled wildly at them, rifling inside myself and finding the spirit of a carnie bubbling to the surface.
I was in love with Jen. Jen with her rounding dimensions was charming in her sociability, and daring; a dead ringer for a young Mrs. Bennett once she slipped into her corset and with the mile-a-minute mouth to match. She produced a plastic shot glass from nowhere and wedged it into her ample bosom, made fuller by the corset. Fixing us with her gaze, she made an abrupt flourish with her hand towards her shelved flesh, the set of her mouth asking, “You gonna do this or what?” Jen, a half-baked entertainer, the life of the green room, the dressing room hype before the show. I stepped right up as she filled the shot glass with rum, spilling a little, spilling a lot. After the briefest pause, I dove in for the shot.
Outside of our shoppe, the world was a strange mix of past and present. The too-jaunty thrust of Disney music dithered forth from invisible speakers at the shoppe across the walkway, and a merry band of shoppe workers spun about, drawing furs and tails from buckets and hanging them on racks and displays. Down the street, a corset shop full of bunk rows of racks spilled light out into the courtyard before it. Women in jeans pulled garments from carboard boxes at their feet and hung them up one by one. The sign out front read Heart’s Delight. I looked about in turn at each of the shoppe workers, superimposing their costumes, as I imagined them, on their bodies. The night was deep and pregnant with expectation, heavy with grogginess, sharp with the smell of liquor. We worked ourselves into the merry movements of tomorrow’s characters. Jen held me on her lap like a doll, squeezing my sides, and midnight crept toward us, finding us drunk and happy.
There were full fairies and gypsies in the bunk room come morning: women binding their hips with bands of belly dancer bells and tying flower garlands to their heads, and men, strapping on shin guards and topping their heads with three-pointed hats. I blinked at the makeshift green room, even as Jon climbed down from our bunk and pulled his muslin tunic over his head. The world of the Renaissance. It was here, come in the night, a creature from long ago brought to life.
Tink appeared, the pleasant old woman gone, replaced by a rugged, leathered warrior. We were all characters today with our parts to play. Half an hour until cannon. Half an hour until curtain. Show time.