POLING: Breathing messages into eternity

Dean Poling


During the dusty afternoon hours when the sunlight poured through the windows on empty tables before the evening’s customers would walk through the door for food, mostly drink and, for some, a night’s lodging, the tavern’s keeper showed a group of three men several antiquities.

For the keeper rather considered himself a collector of fine items: certain baubles, certain furnishings and tapestries, certain items from other cultures and from other eras than his era which would one day be named for his monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.

Really, though, he wasn’t so much a connoisseur of antiquities as he was a tavern keeper, a massive man of a tavern keeper, who demanded payment for his generous servings of wine and spirits, and a talented gamesman, who understood and abused the full advantages of the old saying, Never bet against the house.

Be ye a weary traveler, a merchant, perhaps, in London, and you made the mistake of drinking too much grog in this keeper’s shop and then doubled such foolishness by gambling against him, he expected full payment of your losses which were to be his gains. Much to the relief of the tavern keeper’s victim-guests, he did not demand coin, though he expected as much if that were all available, he would gladly accept small items and treasures from their packs and goods.

Through the years, the tavern keeper had accumulated numerous treasures which he would often display during the slow tavern business of his afternoons to other collectors and merchants. Ones who could afford to match the merchandise’s value with the amount of coin they would pay him.

He preferred his tavern empty of all other customers save potential buyers of his collected goods on such afternoons. Being a businessman, however, who was also in the business of running a tavern, his tables were open to any who may wish to sit, as long as they were eating and drinking. And paying, of course.

On this particular afternoon, the tavern keeper had one guest sitting in the shadow of one table between windows. This guest had purchased a pint and then had nursed it for seeming ages as he scribbled endlessly at the table. Not only had this guest purchased just the one pint, he insisted on discarding his writings as crumpled wads onto the swept floor. The tavern keeper worked hard to ignore this guest as he showed his collection to the three men, the collectors, whom he had invited this afternoon.

“Gentlemen, here you will find an item from the ancient, stygian mysteries of far-flung Egypt,” the keeper said to his three invited guests with a magnificent sweep of his hands. “Consider the mastery of skills, the artistry of its preservation. Consider the great risk I take in showing you such an artifact in these uncertain times from the land of the infidel.”

“Egypt?” asked the first of the three. “Really? How can we be certain of such a claim?”

“You are learned men,” the tavern keeper said. “Far more learned than I. Yet, even a novice such as myself in the art of collection has come to recognize the work which you see before you. Have come to recognize and appreciate the depths of history which binds he who lives in the present with the past from whence this artifact has come. Bound all together with generations past come to present all by the simple act of possessing this item.”

Before the three invited guests could respond, the man seated at the table, cried “Fie!” and crumpled another piece of writing onto the floor.

The tavern keeper and the three men should just as well have stared at the man seated at his table; the way they willed themselves to ignore him completely commanded their full concentration. For the crumpled page had dashed any spells of far-flung Egypt.

“You have assessed our mission correctly,” said the first of the three to the tavern keeper. “We do, indeed, seek artifacts of history. Touchstones to the past. We seek antiquities that bespeak of a past greatness that will bestow additional prestige on the greatness of such a personage who may possess said items. Yet, pray good man, do not mistake artifice for artifact.”

“You would insult me,” the tavern keeper said. “I am no fox who has entered a henhouse a fortnight past and now wishes to sell you rotten eggs as treasured goods. Nay, my good friends, I have spent so much time in the selection and distribution of such goods that I am in danger of becoming a relic myself.”

The tavern keeper smiled and the three invited guests laughed.

“Very well, my good man,” said the first of the three. “Show us your charms with the charm of your wit. For we do love history, but we love the story within the history and the wit of the present that foretells the wisdom of the ages.”

“Oh, ho,” the tavern keeper said, his belly expanding with his inhalation, “if it is a story you seek then let me tell you the tale of the tragic prince of the Orient and the seven virgins who died in the creation of this next item ...”

“A pox on it all,” said the man at the table, crumpling yet another page, and littering the floor.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the tavern keeper said with a wide smile budding the blooms of his cheeks. “You there, aye, you seated at my table for so long that your pint threatens to besot the cup due to your lack of attention in introducing its contents to your lips.”

The tavern keeper allowed the full breadth of his massive frame to loom over the uninvited guest. In a hushed tone, the tavern keeper addressed the seated man.

“Now, see here, my friend, I do not care if you prefer to die of parched thirst, but your inattention to your pint would, alas, parch my coffers which thirst for the coins of he willing to quench his thirst,” the tavern keeper said. “So, good fellow, drink up and be merry some place else with your stingy consumption for I have those here to whom history is paramount and we shan’t be bothered any more by your scratchings, your oaths, nor by your littering my floor as if the wreckage of your musings were the Spanish ships sunk by Her Majesty’s navies.”

The tavern keeper’s voice rose as the man rose from his chair. “We thirst for history, my rude friend. We thirst to possess a measure of greatness which your isolated brain cannot fathom. We seek the finer things, yes, my friends? Now, get thee gone and do not again lightly cross the threshold of Falstaff’s Tavern.”

With the uninvited guest gone, the tavern keeper bent over to retrieve one crumpled page. With a wheeze, he unfolded the page.

“One moment, dear fellows,” the tavern keeper said apologetically to the three. He roared for a man in his employ.

“If this scribbler, this stingy poet who signs himself W. Shakespeare ever darkens our door again,” the tavern keeper said, handing the crumpled paper to his employee, “send him away faster than darkness comes the nights prior our Lord’s birth. As for this refuse, toss it in the fire. I have history and greatness to discuss and we can’t have worthless trash littering our floor.”

Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.

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