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Brushing the Fifth Estate | 2015 | Sufferer and Observer


We stand awkward between the earthloving beast and the cool, hot electronic angel.  

-Greg Bear

Night of the Kukari

Am I selfie-ing right?

I wander the Sinterklaas festival in Rhinebeck, too old, too unaccompanied, too unchilded to be the target demographic. Amber is busy running a pop-up art shop, Daniel is occupied with his new friend Kest. Kristina may show up later, but she also may not and she is not presently here to alleviate my aimlessness. The best sense of purpose so far came from the urge to not be underneath the looming stilts of a variety of clowns and out of spitting distance of the fire-breathers.

I spin my tarot ring. It lands on the ten of pentacles, telling me to indulge my wild side. I don't know what this should signify until I run into Holly and her parents.

"Caitlin's friend can't be a kukari. He's too sick," Holly sighs.

"I'm so sorry. That's what everyone wants out of life," I say, not sure what level of sympathy this declaration demands. "What is a kukari?"

"A costumed beast," she says. "They are following the Moon Queen around at the parade." The jewel of the festival is a half mile long spectacle comprising a dozen different Christmas mythologies and much that makes no sense outside of itself.

"So it is an open position, then?"

Earlier and in hopes she might provide distraction, I had stopped in to see Caitlin at her store, Zephyr. As we spoke, she busied herself cutting and hot gluing streamers onto a Styrofoam and glitter moon scepter she will wield tonight in her royal role. She made no mention of beastly assistants then, though she did let me know that the Sinterklaas festival is largely run by people who have, at best, adult children. "They aren't doing this for their kids," she admitted. "This is their Burning Man."

Burning Man?

Stepping through her door again, I say, "So, I hear you are in need of a kukari?"

She warns me that I will be uncomfortable and flips through her phone to show a few muddy green pictures, but it is difficult to discern scale. Still, the ring has given an edict and I will yield to the fates.

Holly leads us circuitously back to her apartment, where her parents leave to check into their hotel room across the river. No accommodations can be found on this side of the river. The festival is far too good of business for that.

Holly is the ice queen, a role for which she was born as much as Tilda Swinton. Throw a bit of glitter on her face and the universe would promptly grant her freezing powers as a sort of apology. "Oh, you cannot already turn the world to eternal winter with a glare? My golly, let's remedy this!"

She talks of her busyness and her dearth of romantic luck, though she follows this up with an assertion that she doesn't have time to date until she finishes her Master of Fine Arts degree in August. I don't have much to say beyond my nods-practical love abstention seems prudent for artists and I would have gone that way had Amber not found me before I built up a nacreous shell-so I listen and affirm.

Holly drives us to the Starr Library, the point from which the parade will burst forth in a little under two hours. The basement and lawn are occupied by fifty strangers in various states of costume.

The cold bothers her slightly.

Holly introduces me to Suzy, an older and harried-looking woman who is responsible for the kukaris. "What exactly is a kukari?" I ask immediately.

Suzy feeds me some line about it being an Eastern European Christmas monster. Given that I have been doing research on Christmas traditions and characters around the world-my hobbies tend toward specialization people only have on teen supernatural dramas-I have to express curiosity. I can rattle off at length about Swarte Piets, Krampus, Perchta, and their ilk. Kukaris, however, may just be a product of Suzy's imagination, which is as good an origin as any. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came from a Montgomery Ward worker, after all, so why can't Suzy have kukaris?

She directs me to what could best be called a velour ghili suit, urging me to put it on immediately. The parade is not scheduled to begin for another hour and a half, but I know better than to argue. She tells me that I shouldn't attempt the head until the very last moment. I grasp its chinrest and give it a tug. The helmet weighs at least forty pounds, which is thirty more than I expected and thirty-five more than could be comfortable as I gambol through Rhinebeck.

"That's... sturdy," I say.

Suzy smiles benevolently, either missing or ignoring that her co-kukuris might prefer a trifle less architecture enclosing our heads.

The basement of the library grows crowded with all the drummers, stilt-walkers, polar bears, story-tellers, and clowns that had been wandering the festival. Prior to seeing them all together, I operated under the misapprehension that they were more or less just volunteers wandering instead of a regimented portion of the festival. A dozen people prep dinner for them all, though it is only a bit after four and far from dinner for anyone outside a nursing home. As I am dressed in a hand-sewn monster suit, I look covetously at all the people stuffing their faces until, from a sense of the brutal unfairness of strangers eating food potentially intended for my stomach, I eat the most delicate burrito of my life.

As we line up, I become completely aware of the suits deficits. Despite wearing only a t-shirt and jeans beneath the costume, having stripped off everything else for fear of overheating in the basement, I am broiling. I have to consciously urge my shoulders not to shrug, since they are already cramping against the weight of my burden and I've yet to begin the slow march. Just as debilitating, the mask affords almost no vision-Suzy opines that she will have to make the eyeholes larger next year-and all noises in my periphery are muted almost into nonexistence. I am sure I won't have to see or hear at I dance through Rhinebeck.

Mr. Quackenbush reborn. Do you see?

Despite my cramping (and growing annoyance at the Native American dancers twenty feet in front of us, who stop the parade for several minutes at a time so they can perform a complete dance), I cannot disappoint the children. Whenever one seems frightened of me-and I do cut an unsettling figure in the night-I shuffle over to them and offer either a silly dance, handshake, or fist bump. Only one reacts with adolescent petulance, snarking that monsters don't have human hands. They do if severed from snotty teenagers, darling one.

I am in too much discomfort to do anything less than working to the hilt to be amusing. If I trudged through this role, as my shoulders demand, I am going to resent this experience and only hurt more. I need the distraction of being a clown, which is certainly my bestial nature. I notice that the other kukaris, including our taskmaster, are far more reserved in their frolicking, which seems to defeat the point of being an eight-foot tall monster surrounded by music and children.

I strip off the suit as soon as Suzy says I can, leaving me in jeans and a t-shirt, the latter soaked with sweat. Never have I felt more relieved to be so bare in the December elements as when I remove the cursed head and leave it behind a curtain in a storefront. I can only hope she throws the costumes immediately into the laundry, since I have lost at least a pound of moisture.

I find Amber, knowing I have a finite amount of time before my body reaches equilibrium with the night and I start freezing, then trudge the half a mile through emptying streets to return to the library.

"Aren't you cold?" asks Amber, shivering in three layers.

"I can't be cold yet. I have kukari powers and limited energy!"

Soon in Xenology: Christmas

last watched: Kung Fury
reading: Hyperspace
listening: Regina Spektor

Brushing the Fifth Estate | 2015 | Sufferer and Observer

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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