By Andrew Stiggers
Diether swept the floor of the empty stage, bustling about with his broom in near darkness, the faint candlelight flickering from the side curtain as a draft played havoc offstage. It didn’t bother him – he was used to living in the shadows.
“Why are you sweeping?” a child’s voice called out.
He stopped and looked out to see a small boy sitting in the empty auditorium. The theatre doors should have been shut by now, he thought. “Why am I sweeping? Well, someone has to do the work.”
The boy nodded and smiled, his face lit up by the candles mounted along the walls towards the back of the auditorium.
“Listen, boy, tonight’s performance has finished. Why are you still here? Where are your parents?”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll leave soon and catch up with them.”
Diether had no time for children. He went back to his sweeping.
“Are you with the theatre troupe?” the boy called out again.
“No.” Diether brushed harder, facing the floor of the stage.
“What do you do?”
He stopped again and rested his hands on the top of his broom. Studying the smiling boy, Diether knew the lad couldn’t see him clearly on the darkly lit stage. “What do I do?”
Maybe he’s not so bad, Diether thought. Not like the others. He scanned around to make sure there was no one else in the auditorium. “Very well.” He placed the broom down on the stage, made a theatrical pose, his hands out in front of him, and took in a deep breath. “I am a minnesinger. I am –“
“What is a minnesinger?”
“What is a minnesinger? I don’t believe it. What do they teach you at school nowadays?”
“Nothing about minnesingers.”
“Minnesingers were medieval singers – famous, noble poet-singers who played at all the German courts. They wrote and sang the most beautiful songs in this world.”
His family were descended from one of these minnesingers, and generation after generation had passed down the songs and taught each other how to sing them. It was the same for Diether – his father had shown him dozens of illustrated poems on ancient manuscripts and taught him the ancient way of singing. Diether learnt them quickly, even composing and singing his own lyrics. His father was astonished when he first heard him sing. You are truly a gifted minnesinger, my son. No one can take that away from you.
“So can you sing?” asked the boy.
“Of course – I am a minnesinger.”
“Will you sing a song for me?”
“All right, but just one song, and then afterwards you need to go home. What is your name?”
“So, Friedrich, listen.”
Diether took his position centre stage – the flickering light still barely showing the outline of his figure – breathed in deeply… and sang. He chose a ballad in a melody created centuries ago, singing in High German with a rich, deep voice, slowly and in strict rhythm, rolling his tongue over each word, emphasising every hard consonant.
Fly high up and away, my sweet,
Through woods and hills and leas.
Fly with the nightingales,
Through all the kingdoms and the lands.
Fly to my soft, soft bed of grass,
And rest thine gentle head on me.
For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet.
There was passion, emotion in Diether’s voice. Tears welled up. With such a depth of heart and feeling it was as if he sang with the voices of his father and the many generations of minnesingers before him.
The boy stood up on his seat and clapped loudly. “Wonderful!”
Diether took a bow.
He was happy the boy appreciated the song. If only everyone else did. He thought about the vulgarity and base humour of the play performed this evening. Diether had watched the audience’s reaction from behind the side curtain. The townspeople all laughed coarsely as the dwarf in an oversized black hat tried to prod the female actors with his droopy sword, before swigging beer and throwing food about and dropping his baggy trousers in front of the audience.
The House of Comedy, the new Freiburg theatre was called. Sadly, this was what the public wanted these days – to gawk and laugh at the bizarre and grotesque on stage.
Well, Diether was no buffoon. No Pickelhering, Hanswurst or Harlekin clown, or whatever the latest fad was. As his father had pointed out, he was a talented minnesinger, the last of their kind, but Diether had discovered no one wanted to listen to old songs of love any more.
“Right, you should go home now, boy.” Diether stooped down to pick up his broom.
“Could I hear some more?”
“You promised to leave.”
“Please, sir.” The boy stubbornly sat back down in his seat.
Perhaps there is still an audience for the minnesingers after all. “Wait there. I have an idea.”
He went backstage and rummaged through the wardrobe room. Diether normally wasn’t allowed back here. “Move out of my way,” one of the actors once said as she rushed in to get a change of costume during a performance. “You shouldn’t be here,” another said. “Get back to sorting out the props.”
He regarded the clothes and masks. His parents had always told him that it was all right to be different. It doesn’t matter what others think. Just be yourself, Diether. He’d really wanted to believe them. When he was a boy he used to dress up in fancy costumes like the ones hanging here, and try to play with the other children, pretending to be a real minnesinger. He’d thought he could impress them with his singing but it hadn’t made any difference. They still teased him and threw stones at him.
Returning to the stage dressed in a knight’s uniform and wearing a half-visor helmet, Diether discovered that Friedrich had moved to the front row of the auditorium. The boy was swinging his legs beneath the seat in excitement.
Diether stood to attention as he addressed the auditorium and set the scene. “My noble lords, ladies … and Friedrich … I want you to cast your mind back to the past, to the Middle Ages, to a time when the great cathedrals were being built and the Crusades were being fought.”
The more Diether talked and gestured, the more he edged towards the front of the stage and further into the dim light of the auditorium, feeling confident behind his visor.
“I am Meister Diether von Freiburg, one of the world’s greatest minnesingers. Having returned from Jerusalem as part of the Emperor’s entourage, I have travelled from court to court through all the Teutonic lands, reciting myths and legends, telling of the glories of the German people and winning every singing contest thrown at me.”
Friedrich clapped again.
The knight dramatically slumped his shoulders and looked down at the stage floor. “But I am now sad.” He peered up at Friedrich through his visor, waiting for a prompt.
“Why so, Meister?”
“For I have not found my lady love, the woman of my dreams – my muse. It is my greatest hope one day to meet her, and woo her with my tales.” Diether gestured to the imaginary audience. “Do you wish to hear one of those tales?”
“Yes, Meister.” Friedrich’s legs swung wildly under his seat.
“Very well. Imagine the ancient lands of Franconia and Swabia –” Diether held out his hands “– and let us begin.”
* * * * *
There once was a knight who traversed the lands on horseback, travelling far and wide. One day he stopped at the side of a road, alongside a hedgerow full of flowers, and heard a voice.
“Are you lost, Sir Knight?”
He surveyed around but could not find where the voice came from.
“May I help, Sir Knight?”
He looked down at his feet and saw a badger at the entrance to a hole beneath the hedgerow. “No, I do not think a badger can help me.”
“Very well. Every year I make my way to see a lady at her tower, hoping to profess my love to her. I see her on her balcony, combing her long, fair hair, but before I dare call out to her I become afraid and leave the tower. I then travel far and wide for a whole year until I have mustered enough courage to try again.”
“Why are you afraid, Sir Knight?”
“I am beneath her station. I am but a mere, lowly knight and I am fearful of her rejecting my advances.”
“But you do love her?”
“Yes, with all my heart.”
“Then do not be afraid. Love is within us all, regardless of our station, of who we are in this world. She may love you too. Talk to her, woo her and you shall find out.”
The knight knelt down and smiled at the badger. “You are right, badger. You have helped me.”
“Be brave, Sir Knight, and go. Go to your lady.”
* * * * *
Love is within us all.
Friedrich clapped again, standing on top of his chair.
Diether stared at the empty auditorium. He really did dream of finding his one true love – an impossible dream, he knew. He imagined her, red hair with rosy cheeks, adorned in a golden dress, sitting on a stone bench surrounded by flowers.
“Can I be a minnesinger, Meister?”
“Well …” Diether scratched the top of his helmet, pretending to think. “You must be of noble blood. Are you?” The boy eagerly nodded. “Yes, of course you are. Come and stand next to me.”
Friedrich clambered up onto the stage.
“You must first swear a pledge. You must pledge to bring joy and happiness to all. Do you so swear?”
“Good. Remember: the minnesinger always sings about honour, duty, nature, but most of all – and this is very important – he sings about love.”
“Next you need to learn how to stand and project your voice. Here, like me… That’s right. Now let’s hear you roar.”
“Absolutely. Like this … Roar!”
The boy laughed and then he tried. “Roarrrr!”
“Excellent. You’re now ready to recite some poetry.”
“But I don’t know what to say.”
“Just use words such as bliss and happiness and fair maid. Go on, you’ll be fine.”
“I … You bring me … such happiness … my fair maid.”
“Very good, but you have to put more of yourself into the words – be more expressive. Again.”
“You bring me so much bliss and happiness, my fair, lovely maid.”
“That was wonderful. We will make a minnesinger out of you yet, young man.” Diether patted him on his back. “Now stand here at the front of the stage and face the audience. Good. Imagine a packed house with the whole audience all sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting on your every word, on every gesture you will make.” Diether smiled.
The boy stood with puffed up shoulders, legs apart.
“Apprentice, stand straight, stand proud, for you are the last of the minnesingers. You have sung well – for Germany and your one true love.”
A ray of light from the auditorium entrance shone directly through Diether’s visor and momentarily blinded him. “Now take your bow with me.”
Diether could see them all. His fellow minnesingers – poet-musicians from across the German lands. They were there to congratulate him and cheer him on. His patron the Emperor, sitting on his throne, waving his hand. The King of Bohemia holding his trusted falcon. Herr Dietmar von Aist, together with his lady wife, clapping in the front row. The dukes of Anhalt and Brandenburg looking up at him as they played chess to one side of the auditorium. Walther von der Vogelweide smiling, a large white feather on his hat, a peacock in full fan up above him on the balcony. And Count Conrad von Kilchberg, gloriously adorned in golden antlers. All in their flowing robes with crowns and swords, some holding pipes or lutes or drums. Even Tannhäuser was there at the back of the auditorium in his white hooded robe, a black cross emblazoned on his chest, standing next to several horses tied to a post.
“Do you see them too, Friedrich?” Diether whispered as he stood straight and dignified before taking his final bow, the stage light madly flickering and then fading to black.
* * * * *
The candle lit up again.
“There you are, Friedrich. Your mother and I have been searching everywhere for you.” The boy’s father had returned to the theatre.
“The minnesinger was showing me how to sing.”
“Why, the man next to me on the stage.”
The boy turned round. The knight was gone.
* * * * *
After placing his broom away, Diether went to the wardrobe room where he hung up the costume. On his way out he passed a mirror and caught sight of his reflection. A disfigured face riddled with lumps and bumps, a grossly enlarged forehead, and one partially closed, swollen eyelid stared back at him.
He’d been a beautiful boy when he was first born, his mother had said, but then it all changed, getting worse year after year. I’m sorry, son. Fleeing from all the boys and girls who threw stones at him, hiding at home, finding work that nobody else wanted to touch – reduced to sweeping the darkly lit, empty stage in front of an empty audience, and always alone.
Before leaving the backstage of the theatre he sang quietly to himself, For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet, and then blew the candle out.
Andrew Stiggers is a short story writer. Born in Paris, France, he has lived overseas including in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cameroon. He studied English Language and Literature at the University of Reading in the UK. His short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies, and his achievements include being the Winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories/Essays category), Winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, a Finalist for the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2015 and an Honourable Mention for the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition 2016. He was also a recipient of a New Zealand Society of Authors Mentorship in 2015.