In all my days I had never been a man. My father would beat me but I never could please him. Other children would not play with me and when at 7 they became men they scorned me - I never quite understood why. Nor did I ever quite understand other people much. Whatever the cause of this, it must have been responsible for their rejection of me. Even the lowest villagers had no respect. By my opinion there was nothing wrong with me, even though I tried to find what was wrong. Witches' curses perhaps, bad lineage or stupidity I pondered. But I could be satisfied with no easy answer. As far as I was concerned I was perfectly all right, and did not deserve my treatment. This did not help me much, however. When I learned how people would not understand I tried to disguise my most cherished traits - my watchfulness of what was going on, my strange sense of humor, my honesty, optimism, and trust, my desire for knowledge, my opinions which were so different from everyone else's. But I still could be found talking about things people did not understand, or laughing maniacally in the street at some ordinary human transaction. When I was about 17 my father, who had raised me alone, passed away. I had no kin in the village, and was left to live on my own. When he was alive I had tried to please him, in spite of his constant frustration with me, and had tried to live like a normal person. But now that he was gone my ways of life fell apart unhindered. Having no skills and no job (my father had tried to teach me his cobbler's trade but I had no hand for it), I took to wandering around the village, getting food by whatever means came up - begging, stealing, short jobs for people. I was more destitute than I had previously imagined possible, and sometimes felt the twinge of guilt for what my father would have wanted, but I felt no need to keep up a solid existence. In light of the insanity of the world, it made no sense, and somehow just keeping myself amused and laughing was all I needed. Yet I wondered what I could do. After a while I noticed the fools. They were everywhere, yet I had barely noticed them before. Nor, it seemed did anybody else although their presence was taken for granted. There was always one to be found in the taverns, theater, in the courts of the king and the lords, or just in the street. The crowds that gathered, ugly and brutish, shouted for their entertainment and roared at the hapless, tripping dunces that were always there, but didn't seem to think much about them otherwise. I began to watch the fools more carefully, and I realized I admired their way of life; living freely, making fun of themselves and others, amusing people. So I decided to become a fool. I made a little costume, which I wore all the time. I tried to play my part to the fullest, which was not hard considering my sense of humor and that most of the people in the village accepted my final manifestation without a second thought. I had little contact with the others who had inspired me, perhaps because my still impoverished and dirty condition made me self conscious of attempting to associate with others, perhaps because they like me were antisocial by nature. But no matter where I went in the village there was always "work" for me and I was very busy learning how to perform. One day several moons after I had taken on my part, a lord who was passing through the village happened to find me laughing in the street about something. When he asked me what I thought was so funny I tried to explain, but I think I only bemused him. He liked me so much however, that he had me put in the back of one of the wagons in his procession and taken back to his castle to become part of his entourage. I got a good costume and practiced my foolishness to a polished art. Everything of course lasts only a finite time, and soon I was on my own again. But I continued my fool's tradition. I would go around the local villages, to the streets, taverns, or festivals and entertain and confuse people. This, I decided, was what I was meant to be. I liked the costume, and I could display my knowledge and nonsense without being persecuted. I could amuse people instead of being scorned by them. I even made a few friends; sailors, thiefs, tavernkeepers, people who had somehow seen enough of the world that they had lost their ordinariness. If ever I heard talk of wizards in a town I would seek them out, as humble as I could be, and study them, to try to understand the crumbs of learning that fell from their twisted staffs. I would also see others of my profession, sometimes yielding a choice spot to one who had been there first. We never talked, but we recognized each other as kin, and could look at each other in a way other people never looked at us. One day I was in an inn and there were a bunch of local men having a great drinking party in the courtyard. My show was over for the moment, and I was sitting in a dark corner eating bread and watching it all, marveling at how it got so big, like a living creature. One barterer, who had a wagon and traveled around between villages, drained his pint amid the din and confusion and suddenly met my gaze with eyes filled with a cold leering different than I had seen before. A glimmer of thought played across his drunken face, and he grabbed the two men nearest to him. "Hey!" he shouted, "Haven't you noticed there are a lot of fools around here lately?" His two friends bobbed their weaving heads, and murmurs of assent began to rise around the table. "Yeah! Seems like there's lotsa them" "Too many fools!" "Hundreds of them!" "Where'd they all come from?" "I don't know where they come from," the original shouter spit, attempting to gesture grandly, "but I've been down in the south and they said they had the same problem. They said it's happening all over the Country, and they heard about this thing they did over in Chaerbourg." He pulled a wrinkled piece of paper from the folds of his tunic and unfolded it. It was a picture, some kind of wood block print. He lay it down on the table and the rest of the party, starting to take notice, gathered around. "They called this A Ship Of Fools." The smirk on the clever brute's face was not a pleasant sight, and I began to contemplate my escape. "Hey, I've heard of this," another voice shouted out. "Yeah, me too!" "Ship of Fools!" "They're doing this all up and down the coast I heard!" "Too many fools everywhere it must be." "Hey, I have an idea! Let's make one of our own!" That was it; it all blew up and there was nothing I or anybody else could do about it. It's true there were a lot of fools around, and the men rushed out and gathered us all up. The village was on the coast, and they went down to the shore and got some fisherman to let them buy his worst boat. They herded us all on board, clumsily tacking up a couple of sails onto the rotting masts, and threw a few cripples and morons on board for good measure. Hooting and hollering, they pushed the ship away from the dock. As the ship floated out of the harbor we all stood on the deck, just looking out at the shore. I could not believe what had happened; I just stood and looked out. The silence of the passengers was broken by the loose flapping of the sails, and we slowly drifted out of view of the revelers who had put us on the ship. When we finally were out of view of the village, some of the people around me began to stir. "Alright, let's get started," said a tall bearded fool next to me. "See if you can tie those sails down correctly. We need someone at the tiller." From the crowd several of the older-looking fools began to spread out, moving to various areas of the ship, exploring, climbing rigging, tightening lines, tending to the sick and disabled who, not even fools, had been put on the ship with us. The bearded one turned to me. "You're new, aren't you? What's your name? I'm Cendrik" "Why...yes..." A small group was forming in the stern. "Where shall we go now?" "I don't know. What places haven't been contaminated yet?" "There's a place up north - Entskael..." Cendrik watched my astounded looks with a smile. "You'll soon get used to it, my friend. Come on, you look like a sailor!" All of us fools who hadn't had this happen to us yet were introduced, and were give shipkeeping tasks to do. By evening the older fools had figured out an area where the Ship of Fools hadn't been heard of yet, and we set course to that place, to take up our lives again in new villages.