Senticles recounts his reluctant transformation from harbinger of bad news into herald of cheer and generosity during the second seasonís A SOLSTICE CAROL.
"I donít have a gift for you."
"Gabrielle, you are a gift to me."
Ho ho ho! Didnít recognize me, eh? Itís Senticles. Changed my trademark from "squeak" to a belly laugh. Working on a jolly image. I know - quite the surprise for a fat old mouse used to hiding in his hole. Afraid to stick his neck out, afraid of his shadow if he did. No, my gray hair didnít magically turn brown again. Iím still stout as two kegs of ale. But just about everything else changed.
You see, I got a surprise gift this past Solstice Eve. Came packaged as a couple of lionesses I tried my best to scurry away from. Between them they trapped me. Used my fear and shame to do it, somehow making it cheese I couldnít resist sinking my teeth into. One wouldnít take "no" for answer. The other had a way of convincing you "yes" was better for your health. Didnít realize it then, but I know now I didnít stand a chance.
They were crafty all right. No quarrel with that, being a toy maker myself. I appreciate good workmanship - the art of combining a little of what you know, a little of what happens on its own. Having the confidence to take a hand in something. Patience to let it develop in unexpected forms. A lot like raising children I imagine. Thatís how I think of my toys anyway. Each one special. None exactly as Iíd pictured, but usually better in some respect that makes you overlook the flaws.
In the beginning I worried about sending them off for gods know what fortune in careless little hands. Wasnít so hard really, not with the smile they created on a childís face. I didnít know how much Iíd miss that. Never dreamed a day would come I couldnít let any of my "kids" go. Haunting me like sad orphans with no one to play with, no home to call their own. I couldnít give up on making them. Couldnít abandon them either. We became like hermits, me in desperation finally seeking other means for our survival.
Thatís how I came to work for King Silvas. As to what I felt about it, I donít quite recall. Yes, I did blame him for my predicament - banning Solstice because heíd lost his wife then. Everyone thought sheíd died. That he didnít honor her death or speak of her after out of overwhelming grief. Maybe itís why we didnít condemn him more. Why we carved ourselves to his will, resized our celebrations to fit behind closed doors. Why I accepted becoming his clerk when he outlawed making toys. The job was easy and mindless enough for the pay. Wouldnít interfere with what I did in my shop. Silvas and I had been young together, before he became King. Perhaps I thought it his way of sparing me from destitution.
At any rate, I gradually became numb. Numb to his hardening heart. To the legions of poor people shuffling through his court, punished harshly simply for seeking food, shelter, a little enjoyment. Numb to my role in documenting his cruelty with the stroke of my quill. Oh, Iíd alter a number here, a word there, to lighten sentences when I could. Shuffle home to lose myself in my own little world. Pretend I could leave the other outside. Although, I mustíve done a pretty good job. Otherwise I wouldnít have been as oblivious to 30 years passing by, leaving me so protective of the shell Iíd become.
Even now I canít quite believe Silvas had turned hard enough to throw children out in the street. Yet there I was on Solstice Eve, eviction orders in hand, accompanying guards to an orphanage late with its taxes. The Kingís men fling open the door. I announce the money must be paid before midnight or else. Canít help but notice the huge tree decorated for Solstice. The guard captain sure did. He commands immediate arrest of everyone. Suddenly Iím in the middle of a tale only children would believe, except Iím the proof it happened.
A young redhead snatched me off to the side. In the blink of one of my dollís eyes (a specialty of mine), a formidable dark-haired warrior ties the guards in ribbons from the tree. Wouldíve dumped me along with them in the cellar, if the redhead hadnít recognized my name. "Senticles? Of course! When I was a little girl, I had a toy you made. It was a wooden lamb whose mouth would open when you pulled its tail. I loved that toy!" As much as I appreciated what sheíd done and said, I had a feeling my carefully constructed existence was about to fall apart.
I tried to sneak off to no avail. Mind you, I had no idea who I was up against, not that it mattered. Xena was scary enough without what I heard later. Iíd seen her in action. (Sheís a "physical person" according to her friend Gabrielle, which is like calling me "chubby.") They press me into some plot to save the children. Gabrielle insists they do so in the spirit of Solstice, "without breaking heads." The warrior stipulates sheíll do whatever it takes, if the peaceful way doesnít work. She makes me show her where the King lives. I pray this will be the last I see of her, but of course it isnít.
Stealthy woman catches me changing Silvasí sentencing scrolls. "Itís nothing," I tell her. "Soís your part in the plan," she retorts. She doesnít seem to get that whatever she has in mind could mean a jail cell. She points to the parchment Iíd been working on, says Iíve already risked jail if Silvas finds out. "Youíre braver than you think. Donít deny your courage. Or the children." Pfft. Iíll let you decide if it was her idealistic words that compelled me to return with her to the orphanage.
When we get there, Gabrielleís telling the kids a story. They express dismay when the character comes to a bad end. "We could change the story," she tells them, glancing at Xena. My heart skips a beat. Numb doesnít necessarily mean dumb. I wouldnít have survived as I did without deciphering the least sign of trouble. Didnít take long to sense loads of it in the silent exchanges between those two. In this case, itís pulling the wool over Silvasí eyes - making him believe Xena is one of the Fates and Gabrielle the spirit of his wife Analia. Seems theyíre going to guilt him into seeing the error of his ways.
Scared as I am, I go along. Help them devise the necessary illusions. Maybe a little payback for my old playmate? Iím fairly certain one of my tricks made him wet his pants. Ho ho ho. Ah, but I didnít do as well with my other job - watching the donkey weíre using to hoist "ghost" Gabrielle. Iím fine until some guards get too close. I flee before the caper is finished. Iím a little disappointed in myself, but figure itís for the best. Iíll have had my brush with bravery, but not to the point it hides my true colors. Perhaps this will convince Xena to leave me alone before itís too late. Problem is, these women have a pretty mean one-two punch.
This time Gabrielle finds me. Sees the rows and rows of toys. "Whatís all this?" "Nothing," I answer, which doesnít work with her either. She gets all excited, starts carrying on about how every child in the orphanage can have a gift. Finds a big sack, begins stuffing it, suggests we can hide it until the right time. Wants to disguise me in case we run into guards. Now Iím not sure if I should worry more about my safe life slipping away, or that Iím losing it to a crazy woman. I try one more time to hold on. "Iím no hero! Iím afraid to stand up for myself or anyone else. Iíll die if I got locked up, crammed in a small space." "Youíre already living what youíre afraid of," she tells me. "What are you going to do about it?" Pfft. And she was supposed to be the saner of the two?
Suffice it to say, what I did still boggles the mind. Sliding down the orphanage chimney. Sprawling on the floor with soot covering my face. Decked out in a red hat and suit, a white beard glued to my chin. Does my crash to earth knock sense into me? No. Seems to knock the fear and shame out. I spring up hooting like an overgrown kid. "I did it! I did it! It was dark and cold as a grave, but I just grabbed my sack of toys and - ho ho ho ho ho! - down I came! And you know what? I liked it. I did it! It was fun! By Zeus, Iím going to do that every Solstice Eve. Just see if I donít!"
Gabrielle has tumbled down behind me. Xena raises a brow at us, but otherwise doesnít bat an eye. Says is if what she sees is only slightly abnormal, "The recruits have arrived." We warn her why we made our unusual entrance - the Kingís men about to storm through the front door. Even Gabrielle voices doubts we can prevail without bloodshed. "Back to business as usual, right?" Xena gets this strange expression. Surely it means a seasoned warrior like her realizes our ridiculous circumstances arenít funny anymore. Besides, sheís been champing at the bit to - as Gabrielle put it - "slash and crash."
Oh, she snapped to battle mode, all right. Commanding the kids like theyíre real soldiers. Assigning them defensive positions, arming them with unconventional ammunition. She positions herself confidently before the door. When the guards burst through, I expect theyíll get another taste of that round weapon of hers. Instead, she yells, "Let the games begin!" and tosses marbles in their path! Soon the air fills with all manner of flying objects. Gabrielleís distracting soldiers, sultrily whirling a hoop around her bare midriff, bopping them with bells. The children are catapulting porridge into enemy eyes. Xenaís whacking them with nut-filled socks.
Me? Iím having the time of my life. I grab some metal ornaments and deck my first attackers with perfect strikes to the helmet. "Ho ho ho," I say, my fingers cockily lodged in my belt. For my next victim, I load a little bow. "Go ahead," I warn coldly. "Make my day." He does, when he advances and I nail him with a candy cane. Meanwhile, Silvas comes up from the cellar where Xenaíd taken him. His guards donít recognize him in the peasant clothes sheíd made him wear. His captain is livid. "You call yourselves soldiers? Getting beaten by women and children?" Like me, Silvas mustíve felt the insult. What were we? Chopped liver?
Silvas stalks toward his men. Our troops (me, Xena and Gabrielle) fall in behind. The battle rages until the hail of our artillery - goose feathers exploding from mightily wielded pillows - sends the guards retreating, to quote Silvas, "like rabbits." The King joins our victory cheer. His eyes grow wide. Melana, the orphanage caretaker, has entered the room. He recognizes her as someone else. "Analia?!" Turns out she didnít die, but left him in disgust. He begs her forgiveness, which she grants. He gets both his humanity and his wife back. Henceforth lifts the ban on Solstice celebrations, decrees a secure home for the orphans and promises our village will be a good place to live.
Talk about Solstice gifts, the one Gabrielle and her trusty sidekick brought turned out the best of all - a present to appreciate what we already had, what we feared lost or out of reach. Sure, their tinkering in our affairs seemed suspicious at first. Two strangers pop up bearing little more than the scraps on their backs. The cherub-faced redhead squanders their few coins saving a donkeyís hide from covering items of merchandise. The warrior wastes her many skills on lost causes with no profit in them. I wager you wouldíve run the other way too.
Lucky for us, they had gifts in abundance you canít hold or put a price on. Take Gabrielle. I bet she sees the good in almost anything. That mule, Tobias? Gabrielle crooned, "Isnít he sweet?" Sweet or not, the rest of us figured him all but useless for our plan. He ends up saving our skin. Might save someone elseís too. Came back through town later with a young family headed for distant parts - a four-legged gift to them from Gabrielle no doubt. Yup, she managed to bring out the best in Tobias like she seems to do with that warrior.
Um, not that Iím comparing Xena to a mule or anything. Noooo, no, no, no, no. Gods no. Nice woman. Once you get to know her. And, um, if youíre on her good side. What I mean is, sheís a lot more than the "in your face" hellion her opponents experience. Has talents beyond fighting and acrobatics. Surprising humor, playfulness, creativity. Insight and patience. Subtlety when it suits her. A definite flair for the dramatic, judging from her ability to play the different Fates so convincingly. Not sure she wouldíve shown that without her openness to Gabrielleís way.
There was this moment when we fought the Kingís men. A guard making fancy moves toward Xena was getting on her last nerve. She growls, "Gabrielle, give me a sword." Gabrielle hands her a toy one. Xena gives her a look and tosses it away. Instead, she Ö disables Ö the man by pulling a toy unicorn between his legs. She couldíve slipped back into doing what she was used to, what wouldíve been the easier way for her. She didnít. Enjoyed not doing it. Made a cynical coot like me choke up a bit, witnessing her determination to deliver Gabrielle her happy ending.
I was almost sad theyíd accomplished their mission, as it meant theyíd be moving on. Well, actually, I discovered their original mission was buying each other Solstice gifts. Before they left, Xena stopped by my shop to pick up that wooden lamb for Gabrielle. I tried not to smile too much, so pleased she was with her idea. "Shoppingís a major campaign for my friend. Lots of rules - no spying, peeking or spending too much." I detected a bit of mischief too - beating Gabrielle on her own field. "I could give Gabrielle some hints," I offered. "You know, so she can give you something nice you need?" Xenaís face lit up like a Solstice candle. "Thanks, Senticles. She already has."
I know what she means. That "wisdom" about "You canít teach an old ass new tricks?" Tobias and I learned it doesnít have to be true. I take pride in that. For having a hand in shaping my destiny, letting others help it become what it was supposed to be all along. Iím already planning for next yearís Solstice Eve. Looking forward to dressing in that silly red suit. Throwing myself into spaces that once turned me yellow. Iím hoping to start a tradition others will one day follow. With the right coaching, costume and padding, anybody could be the next Senticles.
Of course Gabrielle deserves credit for the original plan. Iím staying true to it - donkey and all - along with the improvised chimney bit. Xena gave me the idea for stuffing goodies in stockings, maybe hanging them above fireplaces. No pillow fights though. Fun as that was, Iím thinking "whack and smash" wonít be necessary anymore. The "ho ho ho" is mine. Kind of shook and bubbled out of me on its own. Oh, and a song Iím working on for Solstice. The tuneís been ringing in my head ever since Gabrielle bopped those guards with bells. Not sure of the words yet, but I know the title. In honor of my benefactors, Iím calling it "Xengabells."