The Charlatan's Boy

A Novel

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The Charlatan's Boy by Jonathan Rogers

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Excerpt

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass.

I’ve run across folks claim they know everything about their birthday—where it happened, who they was with, what day it was. But if you really press them on it, turns out they don’t remember no more about it than I do. They only know what somebody told them.

I don’t care who you are—when it comes to knowing where you come from, you got to take somebody else’s word for it. That’s where things has always got ticklish for me. I only know one man who might be able to tell me where I come from, and that man is a liar and a fraud.

Every time I asked Floyd how he got me, he give me a different story. One time he told me he found me squawling under a palmetto bush and took pity on me. That didn’t seem likely since I never known Floyd to take pity on me or anybody else.

Another time he said he bought me from a circus man who was getting out of the business and selling off his animals. Said he mistook me for a monkey and the circus man was gone before he realized he was tricked. Which might explain how he got me, but it still don’t explain why he kept me, does it?

A couple of times Floyd told me my real mama give me to him because I was too ugly to keep. I truly am one of the ugliest fellers you’re liable to meet. I’m short and wiry—sort of monkeyish, I reckon. I got one blue eye and one green, and they’re closer together than most folks find pleasing. Instead of having two eyebrows, I got one long one that don’t know where to stop. My ears is too little, but the way they stick straight out from my head makes them look too big. And my chin is so bashful it just sort of hides all day in the shade of my bottom lip. You can’t even tell where my goozle stops and my chin begins if you don’t look close. If you ever seen the feechiefolks in one of them puppet shows, you know about what I look like. If you want to know the truth, I’m pretty sure that’s why Floyd kept me.

Back when villagers still believed in feechiefolks—which wasn’t that long ago—Floyd made his living by giving lectures about feechies and charging a copper for a look at a genuine, real-live he-feechie. Which was me. He dressed me up in muskrat and possum hides and slopped gray mud all over me the way feechiefolks are said to do, and we went from village to village in that crickety wagon of his, from one end of Corenwald to the other.

When we come to the edge of a town, Floyd stopped the horse so I could get in my box, and he shut me in. It was a wooden crate with air holes drilled in the top. Floyd used to keep his dancing bear in it before I come along, so it was pretty roomish for a scrawny feller like me. Floyd painted the outside with a picture of a blackwater swamp with alligators and craney crows and those swell-bottom cypress trees with graybeard moss hanging down so spooky and lonesome. And words painted all over it:

PERFESSER FLOYD PRESENTS: THE WILD MAN OF THE FEECHIEFEN SWAMP! SEE A GENUINE HE-FEECHIE ALIVE AND IN THE FLESH! AMAZING! ASTONISHING! YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE LIKE HIM!

There I’d sit while we rode that last mile or so into the village. Sometimes it was so hot the sweat made the mud run down my face and into my eyes, but it was peaceful in there, with the wagon creaking along and little sticks of sunlight poking through the air holes while bugs and little bits of dust floated in the brightness.

Rolling into one of the villages in my box, I felt like I was worth something. Folks in that village was going to give Floyd a copper coin for the pleasure of looking at me. I wasn’t just an ugly little boy with no mama or daddy. I was “AMAZING! ASTONISHING!” I was something them folks hadn’t ever seen before. When the wagon squeaked to a stop, Floyd set up a footbox like a little stage and started his patter.

“Laaadies and geeentermen!” he hollered, sort of stretching it out like he was growling it. “Laaadies and geeeentermen! My name is Perfesser Floyd Wendellson, collector of the rare and the beautiful, and the world’s foremost authority on feechie life and habits!”

My box had a knothole in the side panel, and when I hunkered down, I could see the villagers gathering around the wagon. Things get quiet in the villages, so the commotion of a stranger pulling up in a wagon and hollering about feechiefolks fetched a crowd right off. And once the villagers was in earshot, they wasn’t going anywhere. You never seen anybody could hold a crowd like Floyd. He cut a fine figure in his shiny coat and squared-off hat—so tall and straight. His black mustaches wagged when he talked, and even folks who didn’t believe a word he said couldn’t wait to see what he was going to say next.

I knowed Floyd’s patter by heart. He rearranged the pieces pretty freely, stretching it out if folks was slow to gather, or leaving parts out if folks seemed restless, but the main points of the speechifying was the same every time, and they was pretty simple:

First, Floyd was the bravest adventurer ever to pole a flatboat and the only civilized man ever to come out of the Feechiefen Swamp alive.

Second, for one night and one night only, Floyd was giving a lecture in the village hall—a lively report of his travels with a full account of the habits and customs of the feechiefolks, the wild and mysterious native inhabitants of the Feechiefen.

Third, Floyd’s lecture would include the displayment of a he-feechie he had brought back from the swamp, the only genuine feechie to be found in the civilized world.

Fourth, everybody in the village was invited to come listen to Floyd’s lecture for the small price of one copper coin per person.

Sometimes Floyd started in on all the other so-called feechie authorities—how they’d just find a ugly boy, diaper him in muskrat pelts, slobber him with mud, and call him a feechie. How them other feechie experts was all just charlatans and frauds and only Floyd had the real thing. It took some gumption to tell such a barefaced lie as that. There aint a lot to admire about Floyd, but the man does have gumption. Sitting in that box and listening to Floyd run on about what a fine specimen of feechiehood I was, can you blame me for believing it myself?

“Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp” is a heap better than “ugly boy whose mama didn’t want him.” When it comes to Floyd’s tales, you got to pick and choose what to believe anyway; I figured I might as well believe the tales I liked the best.

And I never believed them feechie tales more than in the five minutes just before the box flung open. By the time Floyd got to my cue, I was about to bust I felt so feechiefied. “He’s really quite harmless”—that was my cue. When
Floyd worked them words into his patter, I commenced to yowling like a panther and growling like a bear and howling like a wolf, thumping around in my box and putting up such a ruckus as you never heard in your life. I kept it up until Floyd whapped on my box a few times with his cane.

It didn’t take much of that business to get the crowd whipped up pretty good. I know Floyd and me was supposed to be the show, but the crowd made a pretty good show their own selves, and I liked nothing better than watching it through my knothole.

A few younguns run off hollering; the rest found a grownup to hide behind. They looked like a nation of popeyed squirrels, peeping out from a forest of trouser legs and ladies’ skirts. Some of the womenfolks raised up their eyebrows and clutched handkerchiefs to their chins, and some of them glowered at Floyd for bringing such a dangerous critter into the midst of their peaceful village. The menfolks mostly kept a brave face, putting on smirks as if to show they didn’t believe Floyd had a feechie in that box. But behind most of the smirks you could see a little doubt.

Floyd made like he was as surprised by the commotion as anybody—like this wasn’t the same routine we done five or six times a week as far back as I could remember. He stammered and acted flusterated, like he was throwed off and was struggling to get his wagon back on the path. Really he was just giving the smart alecks in the crowd a chance to pitch in. There was always at least two or three of them fellers around.

“What’s the matter, stranger? Cat got your tongue?”

“I used to believe in feechies too, Perfesser. When I was a baby!”

“How about a unicorn, Perfesser? If you got a unicorn, I’d gladly pay a copper to see it.”

“Maybe you should take your feechie show to the next village. This village aint got enough idiots to make a suitable audience.”

The hecklers figured they was being original and clever. They figured they had the upper hold on Floyd because they was taking him off his script. They never understood that they was the script. No smart aleck ever said anything Floyd hadn’t already heard a hundred times before. And he might have played like he was flummoxed, but Floyd always had both hands on the reins.

He picked out whichever heckler looked to have the most gumption and the least back-down, and he give him a look of astonishment, like he couldn’t believe somebody would doubt his word. Then he raised a trembling finger to point at him.

“You, sir,” he said, and he sort of nickered it like a horse—“Youhoo-hoo-hoo, sir”—like his feelings was so hurt he couldn’t talk right. “Do you suggest that I am a fraud and a liar?”

The smart aleck jutted out his chin, stood up a little straighter, and said, “You said it yourself, stranger, not me.” It
played out that way every time. You’d have thought every smart aleck in every village in Corenwald had studied Floyd’s script. Floyd had him where he wanted him.

“Am I to understand, sir, that you don’t believe there is a living, breathing he-feechie in this box?”

“Sounds like you understand about right.”

By now the other villagers was egging on the smart aleck, and he was puffed up like a rooster. I couldn’t help feeling
sorry for a feller who was about to get so completely and utterly used up.

Floyd could put this quiver in his voice like he was working hard to control his feelings. “Then perhaps, sir, you would like to step up here and see for yourself.”

Well, what’s a feller going to do? Even if he was starting to feel balky and jubous about the whole thing, he couldn’t back down in front of the other villagers. So he made his way to the front, and Floyd give him a smart-alecky bow and swoop and made room for him on the footbox.

Floyd stood there with his hand on the lid of the box for a good long while to give everybody some time to think about what might happen next, and the quiet and the waiting felt just like the minute before a storm cuts loose.
I hunkered there waiting for the first crack of daylight at the opening of the box lid, and when it come, it was a whole new rumpus. I sprung out like some kind of wildcat and scrabbled up onto the smart aleck’s head. He was so discombobulated, he didn’t know what to do, and I perched there while he staggered around and waved his arms, and I beat my chest and hollered, “Ooooliee, ooooliee, ooooliee!”

Meanwhile, the crowd was hollering and scattering and giving me plenty of room to cut whatever capers I might want to cut. Younguns was crying and dogs was barking and the grownups was doing a poor job of hiding their alarm. I yodeled some more and did a couple of back-over flips and scrabbled up a tree, and there I crouched where the crowd could get a good look at me. And when I was in the tree, and the villagers was on the ground, and there was a safe-ish distance between us, I could see the fear and panic melt into something more like fascination. And didn’t I feel interesting!

About that time, Floyd marched over to the tree and started his palaver again, and it was like a spell was broken. “I’m terribly sorry, ladies and gentermen. He’s usually quite docile, I assure you. If you’ll give him some room…” Then he talked to me, real gentle, the way a good horseman talks to his horse. “Grado, Grado…” Grado was my stage name.

My real name is Grady. If I had a last name, Floyd never told me what it was. “Grado,” he said, “it’s all right. Nobody is going to hurt you. Come to Perfesser. Come back to your box.” I jumped down, and everybody sort of gasped and drew back, but Floyd grabbed hold of my arm and walked me back to my box and shut me in it.

That’s how we fetched folks for Floyd’s lectures. And we fetched them too. Some nights it seemed like every man, woman, and child in a village paid their copper to hear Floyd talk some more and to get another look at me. Floyd’s lectures was entertaining enough—one lie after another about how he poled a flatboat across the Feechiefen and how the feechiefolks had welcomed him into their tribe and initiated him into their mysteries.

Some of that foolishness Floyd got from old nursery stories, but most of it he just made up. He’d change things from night to night, just to keep it interesting I reckon. Some nights he said feechies had magical disappearing powers, and some nights he said feechies was just so skilled at camouflage that they only appeared to disappear. Some nights he said feechies was peaceable, and some nights he said they was bloodthirsty savages. Some nights he said they was human, and some nights he said they was swamp monsters, and some nights he said they was elves of some kind. Just according to his mood on a particular night.

Then he brung me out. “Grado here is a full-grown feechie,” he said. He said that when I was four years old, and he
said it when I was twelve years old. “As you can see, feechies are much smaller than we are. And considerably uglier.”
Wasn’t we a pair? Floyd made his living by telling lies, and I made mine by being ugly. It wasn’t a bad living either.

But it didn’t last forever. Even in the smallest villages, even far away from the cities, the time come when nobody believed in feechies anymore, and we had to figure out other ways to make a living. Here’s what I want to know: what is this country coming to if everybody’s got too civilized and skeptical to pay a copper to see a real-live feechie boy?


Excerpted from The Charlatan's Boy by Jonathan Rogers Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Rogers. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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