Senticles recounts his reluctant transformation from harbinger of bad news into herald of cheer and generosity during the second season’s A SOLSTICE CAROL.
“I don’t have a gift for you.”
“Gabrielle, you are a gift to me.”
Ho ho ho! Didn’t recognize me, eh? It’s 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 didn’t magically turn brown again. I’m 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 couldn’t resist sinking my teeth into. One wouldn’t take “no” for answer. The other had a way of convincing you “yes” was better for your health. Didn’t realize it then, but I know now I didn’t 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. That’s how I think of my toys anyway. Each one special. None exactly as I’d 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. Wasn’t so hard really, not with the smile they created on a child’s face. I didn’t know how much I’d miss that. Never dreamed a day would come I couldn’t let any of my “kids” go. Haunting me like sad orphans with no one to play with, no home to call their own. I couldn’t give up on making them. Couldn’t abandon them either. We became like hermits, me in desperation finally seeking other means for our survival.
That’s how I came to work for King Silvas. As to what I felt about it, I don’t quite recall. Yes, I did blame him for my predicament – banning Solstice because he’d lost his wife then. Everyone thought she’d died. That he didn’t honor her death or speak of her after out of overwhelming grief. Maybe it’s why we didn’t 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. Wouldn’t 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, I’d 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 must’ve done a pretty good job. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been as oblivious to 30 years passing by, leaving me so protective of the shell I’d become.
Even now I can’t 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 King’s men fling open the door. I announce the money must be paid before midnight or else. Can’t help but notice the huge tree decorated for Solstice. The guard captain sure did. He commands immediate arrest of everyone. Suddenly I’m in the middle of a tale only children would believe, except I’m the proof it happened.
A young redhead snatched me off to the side. In the blink of one of my doll’s eyes (a specialty of mine), a formidable dark-haired warrior ties the guards in ribbons from the tree. Would’ve dumped me along with them in the cellar, if the redhead hadn’t 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 she’d 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. I’d seen her in action. (She’s 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 she’ll do whatever it takes, if the peaceful way doesn’t 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 isn’t.
Stealthy woman catches me changing Silvas’ sentencing scrolls. “It’s nothing,” I tell her. “So’s your part in the plan,” she retorts. She doesn’t seem to get that whatever she has in mind could mean a jail cell. She points to the parchment I’d been working on, says I’ve already risked jail if Silvas finds out. “You’re braver than you think. Don’t deny your courage. Or the children.” Pfft. I’ll let you decide if it was her idealistic words that compelled me to return with her to the orphanage.
When we get there, Gabrielle’s 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 doesn’t necessarily mean dumb. I wouldn’t have survived as I did without deciphering the least sign of trouble. Didn’t take long to sense loads of it in the silent exchanges between those two. In this case, it’s pulling the wool over Silvas’ eyes – making him believe Xena is one of the Fates and Gabrielle the spirit of his wife Analia. Seems they’re 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? I’m fairly certain one of my tricks made him wet his pants. Ho ho ho. Ah, but I didn’t do as well with my other job – watching the donkey we’re using to hoist “ghost” Gabrielle. I’m fine until some guards get too close. I flee before the caper is finished. I’m a little disappointed in myself, but figure it’s for the best. I’ll 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 it’s 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. “What’s all this?” “Nothing,” I answer, which doesn’t 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 I’m not sure if I should worry more about my safe life slipping away, or that I’m losing it to a crazy woman. I try one more time to hold on. “I’m no hero! I’m afraid to stand up for myself or anyone else. I’ll die if I got locked up, crammed in a small space.” “You’re already living what you’re 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, I’m going to do that every Solstice Eve. Just see if I don’t!”
Gabrielle has tumbled down behind me. Xena raises a brow at us, but otherwise doesn’t 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 King’s 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 aren’t funny anymore. Besides, she’s 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 they’re 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 they’ll 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. Gabrielle’s distracting soldiers, sultrily whirling a hoop around her bare midriff, bopping them with bells. The children are catapulting porridge into enemy eyes. Xena’s whacking them with nut-filled socks.
Me? I’m 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 Xena’d taken him. His guards don’t recognize him in the peasant clothes she’d made him wear. His captain is livid. “You call yourselves soldiers? Getting beaten by women and children?” Like me, Silvas must’ve 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 didn’t 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 donkey’s hide from covering items of merchandise. The warrior wastes her many skills on lost causes with no profit in them. I wager you would’ve run the other way too.
Lucky for us, they had gifts in abundance you can’t hold or put a price on. Take Gabrielle. I bet she sees the good in almost anything. That mule, Tobias? Gabrielle crooned, “Isn’t 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 else’s 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 I’m 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 you’re on her good side. What I mean is, she’s 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 would’ve shown that without her openness to Gabrielle’s way.
There was this moment when we fought the King’s 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 … disables … the man by pulling a toy unicorn between his legs. She could’ve slipped back into doing what she was used to, what would’ve been the easier way for her. She didn’t. 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 they’d accomplished their mission, as it meant they’d 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. “Shopping’s 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?” Xena’s face lit up like a Solstice candle. “Thanks, Senticles. She already has.”
I know what she means. That “wisdom” about “You can’t teach an old ass new tricks?” Tobias and I learned it doesn’t 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. I’m already planning for next year’s Solstice Eve. Looking forward to dressing in that silly red suit. Throwing myself into spaces that once turned me yellow. I’m 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. I’m 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, I’m thinking “whack and smash” won’t be necessary anymore. The “ho ho ho” is mine. Kind of shook and bubbled out of me on its own. Oh, and a song I’m working on for Solstice. The tune’s 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, I’m calling it “Xengabells.”
Return to the Academy