The Mummer's Curse
The Mummer's Curse

"You'll catch your death." My mother had lived in Florida a long time, and her weather perspective was sun-damaged.

I said nothing.

"Would it be a bad idea to listen to me once in a while? Might make a good New Year's resolution."

In hindsight, that wasn't a dumb suggestion. Alas, one doesn't get hindsight until it's too late to use it, so I didn't listen to her suggestion to listen.

Nor did she stop nagging. "I can't believe you're dragging a grandchild of mine along with you," she said. "The high is supposed to be five degrees. It says so in the paper here."

The Southland paper was always full of happy news and it was always the same: EXTRA, EXTRA! ROTTEN WEATHER EVERYWHERE ELSE.

And, indeed, damp, bone-crunching misery had been our lot for a while and was predicted as well for the first day of January.

"I told you to come here for winter vacation," she said. "It was eighty-four today."

I had called to wish my parents a happy New Year and had, in a desperate but ill-chosen attempt to make conversation, mentioned that Mackenzie and I were taking Karen, my sister's older child, to the Mummers Parade the next morning. In fact, we three parade-goers were spending a quiet New Year's Eve together at home, the better to have hangover-free eyes and ears the following day.

I thought my folks would be impressed with this show of domesticity. I was spending New Year's Eve with a six-year-old. I thought they'd happily misinterpret that as a sign I was headed in what they perceived as the right direction. But the only direction my mother ever clearly perceived was hers, be it philosophical or geographical.

"Five degrees there and beautiful here," my mother repeated.

Ever since she moved south, the woman has suffered from the delusion that I crave data on comparative atmospheric conditions. The greater the disparity between the mercury hither and yon, the more urgent her need to share this news. Had they only invented the Weather Channel sooner, she'd have been a natural as its anchorwoman.
"We took a walk," she said. "On the beach. At sunset. Daddy and me. Tonight." Semaphore-speak, telegraphese, teensy sentences, as if my mind were too frostbitten to absorb more than one fact at a time. "It was balmy. I was sweating by the end."

"Make sure to wear sunblock," I said briskly. "You don't want your face looking like beef jerky. Meanwhile, I'd better check on Karen and…"

"Poor child will freeze."

"Stop making her sound like the little match girl. It's her cultural heritage."

"Freezing or matches?"

"The Mummers' Parade. If we needed to strut our stuff on a warm day, we would have been born in New Orleans. We're tough, we're Philadelphians. Having our parade on the least likely day of the year seasons us, makes us all that we are."

"Karen doesn't live in Philadelphia," my mother said. "She lives outside the city. They have their own traditions."

I pictured the Main Line denizens in their duck-patterned golf pants playing banjos and doing the Mummers strut around the eighteenth hole. It did not compute. "I think clipping coupons is their folk tradition, Mom, and it's not entertaining to watch."

"Oh, Amanda," she sighed. We were ending the year as we'd begun it, with my mother vaguely disappointed in my choices and actions. At least there was symmetry.

"Hey, Karen," I said the next day as we shivered on the sidewalk. "What's two and a half miles long, sixty-nine feet wide, twelve feet high, and covered with feathers?"

"A riddle," she said. "Good! But is there a knock- knock part?"

When I shook my head, she gave up. "The Mummers Parade!" I said, although it was difficult making merry through clattering incisors. As we watched the last of the parading comics, I recalled why I'd skipped the last several dozen parades. The air and wind acted like a sushi-master's knife on my skin. The environment was sufficiently evil to make in-person parade-watching a spectator sport for masochists, but not evil enough to postpone the event. Parades were rescheduled when rain or snow endangered the expensive and fragile costumes and instruments. Nobody worried about endangering spectators.

"What this city needs is the sense to stage an outdoor extravaganza when the weather's decent." Mackenzie said this with a wink and a good-ol'-boy drawl that was meant to, but didn't, take the edge off his words.

It would, indeed, be lovely if so oversized and lavish a spectacle were held when there was a hope of benign weather. Instead, it's an annual challenge, our gritty Yankee street game—Mummers vs. Mother Nature. Both show up in full regalia and do battle from dawn to dark. The contest generally ends in a tie.

But this isn't something else to blame on Philadelphia, something the city could arbitrarily change. "It has to be now," I said.

"Why?" Karen asked.

Mackenzie cringed. Or maybe it was only the cold that put the crease between his eyebrows and made him say. "Not again."

I ignored him and turned toward Karen. "Because mumming has roots back a thousand years or more," I said. "The Druids made noise to scare off demons in the dark part of the year. People in different parts of Europe wore masks and costumes—in fact mumme means mask or disguise in German. They gave plays for their neighbors, all at the time when the old year was dying."

Mackenzie slumped as if his backbone had abruptly dissolved.

Why had I suggested this outing? As I recalled, it followed a heated debate over whose parade was better. This was based on pure hometown boosterism, given that neither one of us had ever actually seen the other's event. But Mardi Gras gets such excessive PR, I had virtually spectated.

"Obviously," Mackenzie had said. "Mardi Gras is better known because it's better."

I had to educate him. "Wrong. Mardi Gras is a capital-S social event—as in Society. It's status to belong to a certain Krewe, and I'm sure not just anybody can join. The Mummers put on as spectacular a production—but they're working class and always have been. This is a folk celebration, not chronicled in the Society pages. These are people who don't keep detailed records of their every move or declare that there's a pecking order of social correctness within their clubs. There are rivalries—good-natured and based on skill or success or style, and the members have to like a new guy before he's accepted, he needs to be sponsored, to come to a few meetings—"

"So it's a closed world, too."

I shrugged. He was correct, but it was a different sort of closed universe, and there was still a vast difference. And so I had dared Mackenzie to a parade-exchange. As a bonus, I tossed the detective a professional incentive, the question of what had become of one Theodore Serfi.

The Tuesday before Christmas Serfi had attended a weekly meeting of his Fancy Club, then disappeared without a trace. Since then, there'd been persistent rumors that he was now being served as a pasta topping, an ingredient in a rival family's blood sausage. Bus and billboard ads for King's Sausage had been unofficially augmented, so that they now read Whose Blood is in King's Sausage? The understood, if unverified, answer was Ted Serfi.

I had a different theory. "Years ago," I told Mackenzie, "Mummers kidnapped men and held them hostage until New Year's morning, when they'd make their captives march with them. Maybe Serfi will reappear with a new brigade. Maybe this is a gimmick, a historical reminder."

Mackenzie thought Ted Serfi. who was reputed to have been "connected," had been "Hoffa'd," as he put it, and at any rate, was a missing person and not a homicide detective's concern. But in a show of good will, he'd said that if Ted Serfi came strutting along, prisoner of a rival brigade, he'd be happy to apologize for his cynicism.

Another reason for my attending was an article I was writing about the Mummers. Correction: an article I intended to write. As faculty advisor to the school newspaper, I was dared by the editor-in-chief to verify or disprove the expression, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." He was writing a feature about our faculty, based on that dreadful maxim, so what could I do but accept the challenge? I, too, would commit journalism. I would write and sell an article of my own.

Although I'd already prepared my Pulitzer acceptance speech, I actually hadn't yet had time to write more than notes. What I had done instead was share each interesting factoid I discovered. In the course of doing so, I also discovered that Mackenzie and I did not always agree on what was interesting and what was not.
Even as I watched a ribbon-bedecked passel of comics strut by, I had three-by-five cards at the ready. Unfortunately, it was too chilly and complicated to take off my mittens and retrieve the cards from my bag.

"Are those men Druids?" Karen asked.

"Aunt Mandy will answer all your questions in her article," Mackenzie said. 'That is, when she finishes it. Which will, of course, be some time after she begins it."

"Your mean streak is wider than Broad Street, Comus." I gestured at the parade route.

"Mean?" Mackenzie said. "Comus?"

A year and a half of guessing what the damned C. K. stood for, and I was no closer. "Comus was the god of revelry. Of mirth. Song, dance, and wine. But you're too mean to have that name."

"He isn't mean," Karen said.

He wasn't either mean or Comus, simply the unbearable sort who did what he said he was going to and who thought everybody else should do the same. He expected me to write the article, wanted me to because I said I was going to and because I wanted to. And he knew I was afraid to actually do it, to risk proving that nasty adage true. And so he tweaked and poked, and I acted outraged and found excuses galore, and the article continued to pend.

"Are they Druids, Aunt Mandy?" Karen asked again, giving me a reprieve.

"No, but they might be the great-great-how-many-great-grandsons of Druids. And of a whole lot of other people who brought their New Year traditions to the new country. The Finns masqueraded, and the Swedes started the year by shooting off guns—in fact, the people we call Mummers really call themselves Shooters."

"But they will not be shooting today," Mackenzie said. 'They don't do that anymore. Haven't for a long time."

Karen looked relieved.

"The English put on a Mummers' Play, Scotch-Irish men dressed in women's clothing—"

"Like that," Karen said, pointing at a male comic dressed in the traditional Wench style, with a flouncy dress, golden shoes, and long pigtails. She and her male counterpart, The Dude in a sequin-trimmed tuxedo, were out of the minstrel show tradition, but Mackenzie shot me a look and I didn't say that out loud. Instead, I stayed with the European influences. "As I was saying, the Germans wore masks and disguises, including one as an early kind of Santa, called a Belsnickle."

"He was one mean Santa," Mackenzie said.

I beamed at him. He wasn't sneering, or yawning, he was participating.

"I think maybe I could write your article myself," he said. "In fact, maybe I should."

I turned off the beam.

Karen looked wide-eyed at the idea of a mean Santa.

"Like Santa, the Belsnickie wanted to know who'd been naughty or good," I said, "but unlike Santa, when he found the naughty ones, he whipped them."

"And the good ones?" Karen asked. "Did they get presents?"

"Their present was not getting whipped. Santa quality control has improved a whole lot over the years. And looks. He had ugly, strawy hair and beard, and a mean face and plain clothes, except for his fur-trimmed pants."

Fur. I shivered. Even the nasty Belsnickie got to wear it. It was not P.C. to think of it, but I did. However, the only fur I own was home, meowing and clawing the furniture.
In all honesty, it would have been nice if those Scottish, Irish, English, and German people had decided to celebrate the spring solstice. Then, I might not feel as if a Phillips screwdriver had been inserted in my forehead. How had New Orleans known to pick up on Lenten traditions instead? I flashed with irrational resentment—those rich Southern folk had snatched the good season and left the freezing cold for poor, hard-working Philadelphians.

"Anyway," I said, "people have been celebrating this time of year, and in ways like this almost forever, but in Philadelphia, all the separate traditions combined and became this very special parade."

Mackenzie looked near-comatose. He spoke in a flat voice, as if telegraphing news to me. "You needn't feel obliged to tell the child everything you know."

"She asked."

"When kids ask why things are the way they are, grown-ups say, 'Because I said so,' or, 'It's how we do it, that's why.'"

"That'd save a lot of time in the classroom as well."

Suddenly, I'd become The Woman Who Tells Too Much. My desire to share ideas hadn't annoyed him until we were living together. "And you say you love history," I muttered.

"I do. As well as the saying: 'Everything in moderation.' And that includes Mummers and exposure to foul weather." He pulled up his parka hood and faced a group of comics who were ridiculing none too subtly some national political leaders.

We stamped our feet and rubbed our hands while our breath made smoky patterns. Savvy Philadelphians cultivate friends with apartments or offices overlooking the parade route. I resolved hereafter to base friendships on real-estate access, not compatibility.

I had been concerned about how a six-year-old, conditioned to special effects via TV, movies, computer screen and control pads would react to an ancient, handmade spectacle. We'd come after the Police and Fireman's bands had passed, and a goodly portion of the enormous comic division as well. Since then, we'd inched forward as early-arriving spectators left. We watched, as best we could, a troop of comics in season-denying hues—intense apple green, hot pink, butter yellow, and electric blue—both on their satin and sequined costumes, their triple-tiered umbrellas, and often on their faces.

Before the civil rights movement of the Sixties, many of the clowns would have been in minstrel's blackface, but nowadays their makeup was less offensive and more interesting.

And years ago, whatever the color of their faces, the comics and everyone else in the parade would have been male. Dressing in drag was and is a favorite way of clowning around, and female impersonators were still preferred to the real thing, but female-females, after their own struggle, could also now participate.

The family in front of us—friends and relatives of the springtime group—called it a day and we moved up to the barrier. Karen giggled as a straggler comic—his face something other than human behind its frosty lilac glitter—reached out his forefinger and painted a lilac stripe down her nose.

And all of a sudden, the chilly nonsense on the street seemed the only right way to bring in a new year and I understood its evolution and rationale. Outside beyond us, the forest was deep and frightening and frozen. Anything could happen in its dark recesses. But not here, with its insistence on bright color and sound, its smiling music and clowns. Not here.

"How soon will your buddy be on?" Mackenzie was not a parade person. To me, there is something magical about people putting their hearts and imaginations on display. turning their raucous happiness into music. And there's something mystical about living behind a mask, creating an entirely new identity, not necessarily human, if only for a few hours. So much of our lives seems devoted to insisting on who we are, on asking to be noticed—and then, this, an encasing, removing, reversal, one day of the year.

All that leaves Mackenzie cold, no matter the temperature. He fidgeted much more than Karen.

The buddy he referred to, Vincent Devaney, was a Philly Prep teacher who'd helped me with my research. He had, in fact, suggested the topic, and he was the main reason we were shivering our way through the first day of the year. Four months ago, he'd joined the faculty, after majoring in biology at Temple University and, as far as I could tell by his interests, minoring in Mummering. Or maybe it was the other way around. A third-generation New Year's Shooter, he was bent on educating people about things both scientific and mummerific.

"Vincent's in a Fancy Club," I said.

"And that means?"

'There are four divisions. We're still watching the first, the clubs in the Comic Division." I waved toward the street, where more comics, the Mummers closest to the original carousers, the least organized, the most spontaneous, and the most numerous on New Year's Day, strutted by.

"And the Fancy Division is second—next?"

"Yes. The Fancy Clubs, the ones with the frame suits."

"Which means Vincent will be on soon, then?"

It was like talking to a child, except that the real child was less of a pest.

Mackenzie pulled a paperback out of his pocket, looking up only when a new group approached and sometimes, a second time because of the quality—as in excellent or horrifying—of the band hired to accompany them. The Comics and Fancies are allowed to have music played—but only on instruments not used by the String Bands. The combination of bongos, bells, and whatever else was left, was often less than pure delight.

Nonetheless, Karen, mouth half-open, eyes wide, watched a very young boy done up as a stylized Harlequin. His small suit was a mosaic of spangled diamond shapes that made him look like a fluid stained glass window topped by a glittery cap. "I would like to do that." Her voice was hollow; she sounded like a possessed baby in a horror movie.

"It probably looks like more fun than it is," I said. "It's even colder out on the street. The suit's heavy with all that stuff sewn on it, and they still have a long way to go before they reach the judges' stands."

"I would like to do that," she repeated in her lovesick, mesmerized voice.

No wonder. The splendiferous boy glittered, and sparkled. He wasn't bundled and huddled on the sidelines. He was the center of attention, a star, making merry, dancing to the music. High on his life and not yet, presumably, on the spirits that reputedly kept his elders warm this winter's day.

"Yessss," Karen said.

My sister would probably never let me see her daughter again. I was supposed to support the idea of a Main Line life, beige and tailored, not one featuring feather boas and golden slippers.

Mackenzie was less entranced. "Wish they'd speed things up," he said.

"Why? Does the Mardi Gras rush by at Mach speed?" By way of answer, he took a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose. "This is on TV," he said softly. "The whole thing. We could go home, light a fire, make a pot of coffee, snuggle on the sofa and see it. Or better still, tape and fast-forward it. Make them strut double-time. One turn and twirl per man allowed. It's not like you're takin' notes or doin' anythin' you couldn't do at home."

Guilt, guilt. Didn't he understand that my hands were too cold to hold a pen? "You Southerners are hothouse flowers," I said. It wasn't a rational answer, but it was my only counter-argument to his irresistible idea of being comfortable.

But just as I felt on the verge of retreating, the first Fancy Club's banner car arrived. Not Vincent's club, however. People applauded as they sighted the sea of approaching figures, hundreds of undulating feather-trimmed jewels.
I, too, felt a rising excitement. I hoped I never became too sophisticated to be dazzled by the pure extravagance of the spectacle.

"I have to go to the bathroom," Karen announced. "Bad."

"We'll have to hurry," I said.

"Don' I wish," Mackenzie said. The speed of the parade had not picked up, which was lucky, because it felt a very long time making our way out through the crowd. "Excuse me, excuse us," I said countless times, weaving through the now-deep throngs. Mackenzie remained at the barricades, holding our space. After we'd tripped over dozens of feet and annoyed countless spectators forging our way out and around the corner, we waited in line near urban outhouses rocking in the wind. And despite the distance and bluster, we could hear the pleasant cacophony of the music. I kept one ear tuned to it, trying to tell if a new group was nearing.

The music was temporarily stilled when Karen had completed her task, so on our way back, we stopped for hot pretzels with mustard for all, but mostly for Mackenzie as a peace offering.

We munched, stomped feet, and waited for the next group, timing the wait with puffs of frosty breath. Mackenzie, with no subtlety, looked at his watch. "How about lying and saying you sat through the whole thing?" he asked behind Karen's back.

"I can't leave before Vincent marches. What if the camera doesn't come in close enough to see him? How will I tell who's who?"

"Why would it matter?"

It seemed a debt I owed. Vincent Devaney had let me peek into his world. I could at least witness its day of triumph.

Teaching was important to Vincent. It supported him, his wife, and young son. He seemed good at it and enthusiastic. But mumming was his passion, the world of the Mummers his community and true village, the Mummer's year his meaningful calendar. He was nearly distraught when rivalries, both personal and financial, surfaced within his club and threatened to end its existence. They'd patched themselves together enough to make it to this day, and it was important that I be here, because nobody was sure they'd survive till the next parade.

Mackenzie's mournful exhale resembled a dragon's snort. Then, despite the fat pretzels and the thermos of hot chocolate I'd brought, he went off to find more food. To kill time, I thought.

The light became subdued, as if the sky were on a dimmer, and the wind continued to pick up, blowing a debris-laden swath down the wide wind-tunnel expanse of Broad Street. I thought about the String Bands, the Clubs still back at the starting point with miles to maneuver before they reached the judges' stands at City Hall. What did they wear under the satin and feathers to avoid freezing?

And then the next banner car slowly approached, and it announced Vincent's club. His group—several hundred strong—approached with difficulty. A fancy suit is as ornate as its name implies—a piece of handiwork. with towering plumed and constructed "hats," or back- pieces, face masks, ruffed collars, and trains often so enormous they require page boys. And every inch of man and suit is lavishly decorated.

But a Fancy Club member could also wear a frame suit—a hundred pounds of wood and metal covered in silk and lace, like a hoop skirt that begins at the neck. It takes strong shoulders to carry a structure two dozen feet in circumference all the miles and hours of the parade, even with wheels on the vertical struts. And that's on a still day.

In a stiff wind like the one now blowing, capes can act as sails and frame suits seem hell-bent on either skidding out of control, taking their man along with them, or collapsing into heaps of wood, steel, and fabric.

A frame draped and covered in iridescent panels approached, surrounded by men in silver suits with feathertrimmed capes made of filmy layers of shimmering colors—a rainbow billowing over gold and silver cloth. The frame suit replaced the recognizably human with pure texture and ethereal color. It was a moving octagonal tent with a gryphon head, a glorious monster whose chiffon and feathers blew wildly in the wind.

This, then, was the real descendant of the medieval demons the ancient noisemakers held at bay. Here was the monster, possessed and owned. Under control.

Almost. The suit lurched and bucked, as did another suit, a variation on this one's mother-of-pearl coloration. It was a mark of pride to be strong enough to endure hours of carrying the weight of a frame, plus a headpiece that could add another hundred pounds, but today, being trapped in the center of one must have felt less of an honor and more of a punishment as the forms waged war with their wearers.

One tent seemed in more trouble than the others. The men around him, capes flapping, helped steer the frame, which careened like a ship in a storm. Civilian helpers crossed the barricade and added their strength to steady the form.

The one visible part of the man was a portion of his face, weighted below with the enormous frame and dwarfed above by an outlandish headpiece that threatened to buckle or take off in flight. He was painted as Pierrot, with dead-white makeup and features drawn in black. Below the right eye was a fifty-carat "ruby" of a red tear.
The head, overshadowed by its costume, looked toylike. Another frame suit approached. I scanned for Vincent Devaney. but it was impossible to distinguish features with collars and panels blowing every which way. And, in fact, I didn't know if Vincent was wearing a frame. He had worked on one with a friend, but they had also worked on a regular suit, deciding to toss at the last moment for who would wear which.

Karen's teeth chattered. I sniffed the hollow smell of approaching snow. Enough was enough. I couldn't spot Vincent, even though I knew this was his club, but I could nonetheless compliment him on his splendor. Time to go enjoy another all American tradition, like central heating. "After C. K. gets back," I said. "it might be a good time to—"

"Not l-l-leave," the wanna-be Mummer wailed. "I'm n-n-not cold!"

"I don't want us to get sick, and—" I became aware of a rising murmur across Broad Street, a something-is- happening sound. I expected to see an overturned or wrecked frame suit, but I didn't.

People pressed forward. The noise level increased.

Mackenzie returned, both hands holding hot dogs.

"I c-c-can't see!" Karen wailed. We'd lost our vantage point as people jostled for a better view of… something.

Mackenzie passed me the franks and lifted her onto his shoulders, making her a human periscope. "Now, can you?" he asked.

"Yes, but there's only the same stuff." She'd stopped stuttering, but now she sounded peevish. The noise across the way became less diffused, sharper, marked by shouts. "And people pointing."

"At what?" Mackenzie asked with more interest than he'd heretofore demonstrated.

"At the barrel-man," Karen said. I assumed she meant a frame suit. "He's disappearing."

"Falling down?"

Mackenzie sounded frustrated. He did not like viewing things secondhand, but at the moment, his sight-line was blocked not only by an enormous man who'd moved in front of him but also by Karen's mittened hands, which she held across his eyes.

"Yes," she said. "No. He's not falling down. His head is."

And then I, too, saw it—just as spectators on the other side screamed and surged onto the street. The gryphon-headdress sank, lower and lower, until the man's face was swallowed by his frame. His headpiece banged on the suit, ostrich feathers and golden sequins skewed and wobbling. The pearly lace tent swayed but stopped moving, and as if a contagious and debilitating disease had spread out from it. the other marchers, in ragged sequence, slowed, then stopped, and the music of the hired band dribbled to a halt.

I looked at the other Mummers, tried to make them out, but their disguises worked and I had no clue as to whether I was seeing Vincent Devaney.

"Is there a doctor here?" a voice shouted from the ranks of the Mummers. "Heart attack! Help!"

His words carried on the wind. The unnatural silence had slowly spread backwards up Broad Street as clubs and spectators realized something was wrong.

A woman pulled free of the crowd, a young boy holding onto her hand. She lifted a silver-embroidered panel and put the boy's hand on it, as if mooring him, while she ducked under, inside. How strange, I thought, to have to examine a man with a cloth-covered jungle gym on his shoulders. I wondered for how long the noise, the wind, the wheels, and the strong support of his suit would carry along a man having a heart attack, a man who was unable to gesticulate or to be heard above the music and the crowd.

The woman climbed back out, shaking her head. Now, the area grew preternaturally quiet as everyone leaned forward to hear. Mackenzie quietly transferred Karen back to the ground. I could sense his muscles tighten inside the parka.

The doctor's words rippled across the street, carried on dozens of voices. "Sorry. Sorry. Sorry."

"He's…"

Dead, dead, dead. The word was passed with dull finality. "Dead" in near-whispers that reverberated as each person took hold and transferred the word to the next.
I wondered how the doctor had reached her conclusion so quickly. Had she tried to revive him? Used CPR? How could she be so sure?

Someone may have asked her that, because she put up a hand. Once again, her words were relayed back and across, making what she said all the stranger and more upsetting.

"This man was shot."

Shot! Shot! Shot!

It seemed impossible. He'd been in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people for hours, and not uninterested passersby, but spectators watching him, his chest surrounded by steel rods, wooden framing, and cloth.

But it had happened. The Shooter had been shot.

My mother had been right. He'd caught his death.

 

© Gillian Roberts.