There was a juggler in the village and her name was An.
Juggling had been her passion from earliest youth. She had seen it done when the players came to the village and she had realised at once that it was the thing she wanted to do. She found in it a kind of freedom; it allowed her to express what was in her in a way that nothing else did.
She decided, having come of age, to make it her profession.
When the players next came to the village, she asked about joining them. The leader of the troupe was too busy to meet her and discuss the matter, naturally, but one of their administrators kindly agreed to do so.
“We’re in no need of jugglers at this time,” the administrator said.
“Oh,” said An.
“But I’ll tell you what. We are very keen to encourage diversity in the arts. It is so important. I hear that the King needs a new juggler. Why don’t you go in for it?”
“Thank you so much,” said An humbly. “How do I apply?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that. I’m just tipping you the wink, you know.”
“I’m ever so grateful,” said An.
“Don’t mention it. Now, where can a person get a decent cup of coffee round here?”
So An asked around, and the best guess of her friends was that she would probably have to go the Palace where her application would be considered, they imagined.
And so she set out.
At the first village she came to, she sought lodgings at the inn and she told the Landlady about her quest. “Oh, do you juggle?” said the Landlady. “It must be lovely to be creative.”
“Oh, well, you know,” said An, blushing.
“Tell you what,” said the Landlady. “The Burgher’s always on the lookout for jugglers. Why don’t you try him?”
“Well, I’m off to see the King,” said An doubtfully.
“Yes, but there’s no sense passing up opportunities on the way, is there?”
“No,” said An.
“I mean, no offence but you might not get to be the King’s juggler.”
“No,” said An.
“You’d have to be awfully good and there’s bound to be a lot of competition.”
“And then where would you be?”
“You’re quite right. I should apply to the Burgher.”
So next morning An went round to the Burgher’s house where the Burgher was just finishing his breakfast.
“Excuse me, sir,” said An.
“Well?” said the Burgher.
“I’m sorry to be a nuisance,” said An, “but are you looking for a juggler?”
“Could be,” the Burgher grunted.
“Would you,” said An, “would you consider me?”
He thought for a moment. “What can you do?” he asked.
An took her materials out of her bag and prepared herself. She took up her stand and she started to juggle the three balls. She showed him the basic moves at first, and then, as the rhythm built up, she varied it, one ball going higher than the others, so that the sequences changed and the rhythms altered, then she held a ball back and threw it with the next, then what was the same became different and what was different made its own pattern, and movement became music which swelled and rolled following its own logic, building like a fugue until the balls themselves became an irrelevance, mere markers of the exquisite design she had woven in time and movement and then, without fuss, dismantled once more as the three balls returned to her hands and stayed there.
She bowed and waited for the Burgher’s applause.
His face bore no expression at all, and he had not moved one muscle through the whole performance. Even his unblinking eyes gave no clue to his response. Now it was over, but he did not move for an age, until in a moment he stood up and silently left the room.
An waited, but no one came. She finally turned and left the house, hot and humiliated. Outside, a man was standing, chewing a straw.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m the Burgher’s Secretary.”
An told him what had happened.
“It’s all quite in order,” said the Burgher’s Secretary. “Naturally you wouldn’t expect an important man like the Burgher to come to a decision just like that. The Burgher has many calls upon his time. Everything has to be done in the proper sequence, you know. You need to wait your turn like everyone else. You can’t think he would make a special case for an ordinary person like you.”
“No,” said An.
“I would give him three months. That’s about the optimum turnaround time. If you are unsuccessful you will not be contacted. No feedback will be given and no correspondence will be entered into. The Burgher’s decision is final. Good day to you.”
“Good day,” said An.
At the next village that An stayed in, things were different. She was heartened to see that the Arts were fully organised there under a man called Gaz. He wore a leather jacket with a white vest and a chain round his neck, and anyone could see from the way he held his body that he was a man to be reckoned with.
Gaz kindly consented to watch An juggle and even to give her some feedback.
Once An had completed her performance which wove for him a symphony in movement, he made a little sound at the back of his throat and smiled.
“First of all,” he said, “that’s really good, for a beginner. Really. I mean it. There were some nice tricks in there. Now. You did want feedback, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said An.
“Not enough balls.”
“You haven’t got anything like enough balls there, love,” said Gaz. “You need at least five or six to keep the audience’s attention. There were bits in the middle I found my attention drifting. You want to be watching that. Or hatchets. I’d watch you juggling hatchets. Your stakes just aren’t high enough. See what I mean?”
An said she saw what he meant.
“Then it’s too short. It’s all right as far as it goes, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nowhere near long enough for a proper performance. Short form’s simply not marketable. Who’s going to turn up just for three minutes? It doesn’t make economic sense.”
“But,” An ventured, “this is all I’ve got.”
“Well, there’s your problem right there, isn’t it? Give us more, darling, more of everything. Longer, bigger, pizzazzier. And above all, loads and loads more balls.”
When An left the village on the following morning, her step was slower and more dragging. The Palace was in her sight, high on the far hill. She would be there before the morning was through. But her heart was heavy. It scarcely seemed worth while continuing. After all, what had she to offer the King? Three minutes of simple juggling with three balls. No one would bother even to glance at such stuff when there were others who could juggle four, five, six balls, or cleavers, or hatchets, and not just for a few minutes but for hours on end. The whole thing was useless.
And yet, despite all this, she continued trudging along the winding road to the Palace, knowing she could not turn back, because underneath all her timidity and unsureness there was an immutable core of her being which could not be destroyed or diverted and which told her to stay firm to her resolve and to continue on her course.
She arrived at the Palace gate and a guard asked her business there.
“I am here to juggle for the King,” she said.
“I don’t know about that,” said the guard, scratching his chin. “No one’s said nothing to me about no jugglers.”
“Well, could you ask?” said An, and she blushed at her boldness.
“All right then,” said the guard. “Stay here.”
There was a long wait before he came back. There was another man with him.
“It seems it’s all right,” said the guard, and the man said, “Come with me.”
“Sorry about that,” said the man, leading her down a wide corridor through the Palace. “I am the King’s Chamberlain. The fact is we haven’t had as much uptake on the juggling opportunity as we expected.”
“Oh dear,” said An. “Where did you advertise?”
“I’m sorry?” said the Chamberlain.
“I mean, who did you tell?”
The Chamberlain looked at her coldly. “One does not tell people about these things. It is their responsibility to find out. Ah, here we are.”
They were standing in front of large, ornate double doors with gold-leaf decorations and shiny handles. An caught her breath and felt suddenly as if there were not enough air.
“Is this…? Is the King…? Is he really…?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” said the Chamberlain. “He’s waiting for you. Well, are you ready?”
An took a moment to check her bag of tricks, then straightened her jacket, smoothed her hair, drew breath, and said quietly, “Yes.”
As if by magic, the doors opened and An stepped through into the large, dreamlike Throne Room, at the end of which sat the King in his full regalia, as he ever was and ever will be. An walked endlessly across the expanse of space. She found herself all at once in front of the throne, the King looking at her incuriously but with a solemn unblinking gaze which she tried to avoid.
An curtsied, then she set down her bag, found the three balls, croaked “If it please your Majesty,” and started to juggle.
She did not know at first what she was doing. Her entire being, except the automatic part which kept the balls in the air, was quite paralysed. Then she came to herself and concentrated. This was her chance. She varied the sequences, changed the rhythms, held and threw, put all she knew into every moment. Something started to emerge like a bloom and she tended it until it flowered in an instant such as she had never known. Even as the balls flew, she smiled and almost laughed. She allowed her movements to become looser and freer, and her sense of enjoyment was visible in her performance. She broke through into a level of perfection that even she had never realised, and held it without fear until, knowing exactly the right moment to end, she ended.
And as she stood there, the performance over, she raised her head and looked at the King, and she saw he was standing and applauding wildly, an ovation all by himself, his eyes gleaming and his face split with a most wide grin. “Yes! Yes!” he cried, “this is she! This is my juggler!”
A moment later, it seemed, she was standing outside in the corridor again, and the Chamberlain was shaking her hand and congratulating her. “Well done!” he said. “Very well done indeed! May I be the first to congratulate the King’s new Juggler?”
“Thank you,” said An, dazed.
The Chamberlain was guiding her away now, and explaining her duties. Banquets, feasts, ceremonial levees, private audiences… all these things, of which he told her in great detail, went over her reeling head.
“Do I, er,” she said at last, “do I live in?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, we are quite a modern set-up here. You will commute in the normal manner.”
“Oh, er, good. So as to the salary?”
“You know, the, er, the money?”
An stopped, embarrassed, as she saw the honest incomprehension in the Chamberlain’s eyes.
“Yes,” she said, summoning that final deep reserve which had brought her this far. “What do I get paid?”
“You’re an artist,” said the Chamberlain. “You do it for the honour and, of course, the exposure. Follow me, I’m sure I’ve seen a cupboard round here that you can change in.” He paused and looked at her. “That is all right, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said An.