World Fantasy Convention: The Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours
On Saturday afternoon of the convention, four holes-in-the-shoes, dust-in-the-petticoats wandering minstrels offered up an hour of entertainments designed to lift the spirit and put the mind at ease. Never you mind that our minstrels were forced to move at the last minute from their assigned space to a suite on the tenth floor because NO YOU CAN'T BRING YOUR HOME-MADE COOKIES INTO THE KING ROOM (Did you know that forbidden cookies taste like unicorn giggles?) and NO YOU CAN'T HAVE SINGING EITHER (what kind of Lurch/Miss Umbrage wannabe was running that room, anyway?). Never you mind that halfway through the hour, the hand-painted backdrop slipped from its duct tape mooring and had to be violently ripped from the wall by one C.S.E. (Claire) Cooney mid-sentence. These women were professionals, and no cookie, singing or backdrop calamity was going to stand between them and the show.
Caitlyn Paxson kicked it off with a banjo, which she played with a most amazing alacrity while she sang "Rare Annie", a frightfully interesting piece about a girl, the corpse of her beloved and the ship they called home. Caitlyn and Claire made bright work of the melody while Amal El-Mohtar sang the harmony with a voice so deep it might have been measured in fathoms.
Then we heard from Patty Templeton, who read from her novel There is No Lovely End. Now, it isn't easy to write a convincing roadside apothecary show, and it isn't easy to bring the funny; period language is tough to write and so is humor. But she managed them both and made it look simple besides, with a reading style that opened her world like farmhouse door and invited us all inside.
"Martyr's Gem" was next, written and read by Claire. I'd heard tell of her readings, that they weren't to be missed, that she had a way about her. But this tale within a tale told by a storyteller rose up out of the page and danced in her telling until we were all gathered into its gravity like moons around a red jewel of a world.
Amal gave us the description of a most unusual beast after that, a parasite called the Weialalaleia that draws grief from its hosts the way a leech might draw blood. We learned stories about the creature told by grandmothers to soothe their sorrowful grandbabies. We learned its natural behaviors. We learned the many abuses visited upon it by those who don't understand its true nature. Never before have I heard of an animal who draws sustenance from sadness. One wonders why the Weialalaleia isn't kept like a sacred cat in every garden, house and temple in the world...
Thereafter the entire company performed an excerpt of Caitlyn's new novel in progress. Amal, Claire and Patty read the dialogue while Caitlyn narrated, and together they told another frightfully interesting tale involving a Ouija board, a handful of young people and a wholly unexpected encounter with a ghost.
Finally, Amal sang her poem "Stairs in Her Hair", which cannot be described in articulate sentences, which cannot even be spoken about in whole words. You must hear the piece for yourself. Here, let Amal's sister Dounya sing it for you:
When she fell silent the spell was broken, and we were returned to the fields we know, well-rested and a little bit changed. Such is the way of a good show.
It's worth mentioning that at dinner the night before, Jennifer Crow took a ring inscribed with runes from her finger, held it up and said something profound. She told us the early Scandinavian people only wrote the important things down, so she wore the ring to remind her that writing was sacred. On Saturday afternoon, Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlyn Paxson, C.S.E. Cooney and Patty Templeton reminded me that writers are the literary descendants of bards and skalds, who understood another sacred thing, that there is a well between poet and listener that nourishes them both. For that, they have my thanks.