The oak she leaned her back against was twisted, gnarled, and bent —
A fitting place for one last song, one final grand lament.
Beyond its boughs a sweeter sight: a lush and verdant glade.
With shaking hands she clutched her lute
And sat upon a surfaced root.
The coughing minstrel wiped her blooded mouth before she played.
Deep black and crimson boils upon her skin made plain the blight
Of London Town had found her still, despite her hurried flight.
Her once proud face was ashen grey: infirm, alone, afraid.
How halting came those first few notes —
Tense passengers on leaking boats —
But still, upon her sylvan seat, the fading minstrel played.
In time, the faltering tune she plucked grew stronger, full, and rich.
Though fever blurred her sight and mind, her fingers found their pitch.
She wove and stitched a haunting dirge, reclining in the shade,
And after that a lively dance:
A galliard she’d heard first in France
Upon a street where she and poorer lads had often played.
Her music drifted through the glade and its surrounding trees
Afloat upon a gently wafting lily-scented breeze.
For audience she’d but birds and leaves, until a boy surveyed
Her from across the grassy dell.
Regarding her, he stood a spell,
Then sat upon a rounded rock to hear more songs be played.
Though she knew not if her new friend were real or fever dream
The minstrel strummed with urgency a new-imagined theme.
Her watcher, grinning, tapped his foot and with the music swayed.
No others came to hear or see
The minstrel’s lute-spun elegy,
Yet for this boy, and for herself, the dying minstrel played.
She played a moonlit summer’s night, and bitter winter’s cold,
And twilight years she’d never meet where she’d grown grey and old.
A thousand thousand passions lost, and promises unmade,
And all that had not, would not come.
All this and more came flowing from
The battered silver-painted lute her dancing fingers played.
The minstrel paused a while, inhaled a strained and fragile breath,
Then in a deep-rasped tone she cried her last defiance of Death.
Her cracking voice rang out revolt against all things decayed,
And hurled her grief into the praise
Of gentler, simpler, lighter days.
With all she was, with all she’d been, the minstrel sang and played.
The young one sat in muted wonder listening to her song,
For though its singer’s voice was harsh, her words were sweet and long.
He stared, agape, until the minstrel ceased to sing and laid
Her head upon the knotted oak.
She gave her lute one final stroke,
Then, choking, crumpled on the spot where she had bravely played.
In two weeks’ time, the lad came back to dig her final rest.
He set the silver lute upon her blacked, decaying chest.
In memory he took her brooch, a shackled swan of jade,
Then buried her beneath the stone
Which he had made his listening throne,
And etched these words into its face: “SHE FELL — BUT FIRST — SHE PLAYED.”
© 2020 Thain Emrys Bertin
Artist Melozzo da Forlì (1438–1494)