First, a Note from the Author:
Shakespeare for Squirrels, essentially, is a murder mystery set in the fairy wood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Our reluctant sleuth is Pocket of Dog Snogging, a diminutive court jest who has washed up on the Greek shore with his enormous apprentice Drool, after being set adrift by the pirate crew he was raiding with. In this scene, Pocket, unaware of the magical properties of the fairy wood, thinks he has been killed by Blacktooth, the captain of the guard, and because no one could see or hear him, he thinks himself a ghost, at least until he runs into the fairy king’s jester, Robin Goodfellow, the intrepid Puck.
Well, death was a darkling dollop of dog wank. Neither paradise nor perdition as promised. No shining gates to welcome me into the bosom of those I had loved, nor pit to pull me onto the pikes of mine enemies. No angels sang me into sweet slumber, nor did a thousand barb-dicked devils bugger me senseless. Even of peace was I deprived, for as my spirit wandered in that poxy wood, worry still wrinkled my bruised brow over Drool, sadness over lost love still weighed heavy in my heart, even hunger still dug at my gut. Had I known hunger would follow me into the undiscovered country I would have taken more time for lunch before shuffling off this mortal coil.
And what an ignominious death it was! Death by dunderheaded official? I grieved for myself, for despite the most minor snag in character or smudge of misdeed, in life I had been fucking lovely. I thought to rend my clothes in grief but halted as I had only the one outfit to serve me for a death that might go on for a dogfuckingly long time; instead I leapt onto the fallen tree trunk from behind which I had watched Drool and the Mechanicals being led away by the watch, and I cried out to the empty forest: “Woe! Agony! And Despair! I am slain! I am slain and I grieve for a barren, broken world deprived of my delight.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut your festering gob, you wanker!” cried the puppet Jones, who had persisted in chattering on without my help.
Oh, I had before lusted for the grave, years ago when my sweet queen was murdered, even for a moment when the wave over- turned our boat and the briny deep pulled me down, I felt an instant of relief—surrender to sweet oblivion, only to be yanked back to a confusion of quick bright things. But if this were truth, even then there would have been no rest, but penance to wander sodden and sullen to the jabbering cadence of a self-possessed puppet. At least poor Drool might have been spared capture, and would now be licking berry juice from thorn-pricked paws while pert and nimble Cobweb stood by with eyes like harvest moons full in amazement. Poor dribbling giant, beyond my reach or rescue, but not my concern.
“Why not just let me drift in the dark!” I shouted to any gods who might have been listening. “Let me be to un-be!”
“So,” said a bloke’s voice, close enough behind to startle me. “Newly dead, are you then?”
I nearly fell off the log turning toward the voice. There, in the hollow of the broken, moss-covered stump from which my own tree had fallen, sat a nearly naked fellow, as pale as the moon, his head a mop of black curls that he shook out of his eyes as he grinned.
“It would seem,” said I.
“Won’t be needing that jaunty jester’s hat then, will you?”
I touched my hat, black and silver satin like my jerkin, three tentacles, each as long as my forearm, once tipped with gaily jingling bells, now denuded, bell-less, sad and silent. “I quite like this hat.”
“It’s smashing. And will be more so once it graces my melon.” He jumped onto my tree and scampered to me, held out his hand. “I’ll have it.”
“You will not have it, thou unctuous little hedgehog,” said I. He was shorter than me by a head but sturdy. He was barefoot and wore nothing but a loincloth belted at the waist with a vine. A doeskin pouch hung at his hip.
“Come on, hand it over. You can’t use it, you’re dead. No one can even see you.”
“Well you can see me, can’t you?”
“Right, but I’ve got special talents, don’t I, a person of the forest.
Normal, city folk can’t see you.” He leaned in and I could smell the odor of moss or something green coming off him. He whispered, “Because you’re dead. Dead, dead, dead. You are an expired fool. A ghost. Now, hand over the hat, I’ve some tricks to perform, and they will appear even more wonderful if I am wearing a proper hat.”
I stepped away from him, looked him over. Besides being small and pale, and having disturbingly wide green eyes, he had ears that came to gentle points. I hadn’t noticed them among his dark curls at first.
“The Puck, I presume?”
“Called Robin Goodfellow.” He bowed deeply. “Jester to the shadow king.”
“The shadow king?” The consort, I guessed, to Cobweb’s mistress, the night queen.
“The shadow king, Oberon. I craft clever japes in his court, trick and transform and make good sport. Bring him laughs and hoots and smiles—provide sweet respite for a while. Take the form of winsome filly and beguile the stallion horse’s willy. I can put a girdle round the Earth in forty minutes—fetch a flower from every land I visit. Take the form of a three-legged stool, when auntie sits, dump her bum-bruised like a fool. I am the merry wanderer Puck, a player of jest, a changer of luck.”
“And plagued by rhyme, evidently,” said I.
“And you are a meager ghost. No station nor skills.”
I stepped up. “I know a thousand songs in seven languages and ten thousand bawdy jokes in a thousand voices. I can throw a dagger and pierce a plum thrown in the air, then spear two more before the first one lands. I can juggle bottles, plates, clubs, swords, mooring pins, and fire, in odds, evens, and all at once if need be. I can scale a rope to the height of the battlements without using my feet, and descend it headfirst without using my hands. I can leap to a man’s shoulders and do a double somersault off them, backward, laid out, to land as soft as a cat. I can play a lute, lyre, drum, or pipe, compose a song extempore with a verse to every lord or lady at court. I can stand on a bareback horse at full gallop, while juggling and singing a song. I can pick any lock ever made, recite Homer in Greek, Petrarch in Latin, and throw my voice to a vase or puppet without moving my lips. I have bloody skills, Goodfellow.”
“Well the puppet can do his own talking, can’t he?” said Puck. “He’s got a point there,” said the puppet Jones from his spot on
the forest floor.
“So, just mortal tricks?” said Puck. “No real talents? Powers?”
“Waste of a good hat, really,” said Jones.
Suddenly, it occurred to me why others had always found the puppet so annoying—with a will of his own he was a right prick- thorn. I jumped from the log, snatched Jones up, and shook him at the Puck.
Jones said, “Give the stick a bit of a buffing while you’re at it, would you, mate?”
“How is this wooden-headed ninny speaking without aid?” “Perhaps you have but slumbered here and this is all a dream.” “It’s not a bloody dream, thou barking dongfish. What goes?” “Magic, I reckon,” said Puck. “Shame you never learned.” “There is no bloody magic!”
“Said the bloody ghost.” Puck giggled.
“I am not a ghost.” I tossed the puppet away. “If I am a ghost, why do I not see my deceased loved ones? How is it I can move objects corporeal?”
“Buggered if I know,” said Puck. “Issues unresolved? Wrongs to be righted? Revenges to be taken? Perhaps you’ve a bit of haunting to do before you drift into the eternal never-again. I don’t make the rules. The Puck deals in jests, japes, and magic.”
“There is no magic,” said I, my conviction somewhat drained by the sight of Puck’s leaping from the log and descending slowly to the forest floor as if lowered by a crane. “Bollocks,” I muttered. “Even now I am sent by the shadow king to cast a spell on young lovers.” He dug into the pouch at his hip and retrieved a funnel-shaped flower blossom and held it up to the light streaming down through the forest canopy as if trying to catch sight of a spirit hiding in there. “The potion, squeezed from this purple roofie flower collected in the west, if dropped upon the eyelid of a sleeper, shall cause them to fall deeply in love with the next creature they see.”
“Bollocks,” I repeated, with some incredulity.
Puck sniffed the funnel tip of the blossom, as if to test the aroma of the potion. “I have two, if you’d like to give it a go. Oh, but no one can see you . . . Oh, that won’t do, will it? Sorry.”
“Perhaps a drop or two on some unsuspecting victim for your- self?”
“Oh, I have no need of such potions, as I am an excellent lover. Of great renown. Very much in demand, is the Puck. What only today I have seen two queens, a joiner’s wife, and a marmot shagged.”
“Yes, rather like a large squirrel. Lovely creatures. Live in burrows.”
“I know what a marmot is. You shagged a marmot?”
“Went right to the rodent without a proper ‘well done, lad’ for the other lot. That’s just disrespectful of a fellow fool’s work.”
“A woodchuck, you shagged a woodchuck.”
“Unfriendly,” said Puck.
“Fine, well done with the two queens and the other tart.” “Better,” said Puck. “Sure you don’t want me to use a flower on
you? Might help someone see past your sour aspect.” “Still a ghost.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“But if you know a way I might help my apprentice . . .”
“You have an apprentice. I never had an apprentice. Want to trade for him? I have these smashing love potion flowers. I know a lovely marmot I could introduce you to.”
“He’s been taken by the captain of the watch.”
“Oh, Blacktooth, there’s a nasty bit of business. And his leftenant, Burke, twice as bad.”
“Drool’s a great empty-headed giant, but gentle, and loyal as a spaniel—he won’t do well in a den of blackguards. Help me, good Robin.”
“Would that I could,” said Puck. He tipped the roofie flower as if toasting me with a tiny chalice. “Duty yet due to the shadow king. But I can send you the right way. I know where they’ll take him.”
“I’ll have the hat.” He stowed his magic flower and held out a hand.
It wasn’t as if I would need it. Would I even last on this mortal plane long enough to help Drool? I pulled off my coxcomb and handed it to him.
He fitted it over his curls and began to march in a tight circle, singing:
“Up and down, up and down, “I will lead them up and down, “I am fear’d in field and town,
“Goblin, lead them up and down.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Puck!”
He stopped, pulled the hat off. “What?” “Where do I find my apprentice?”
“I’ll have one of them daggers at your back, too.”
“In your arse, you will. I’m down one already.” I snatched one of my daggers out of its sheath, flashed it by his nose.
From Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore. Used with the permission of the publisher, William Morrow. Copyright © 2020 by Christopher Moore.