The Battaile of the Mudde
by Anthony Tardiff
“Dude, can you come over?”
“I’ve got homework,” I said, staring at the mounds of it spread across my desk.
“It’s kind of urgent.”
I sighed and swapped my phone to my other ear. Vincent’s voice had that edge-of-panic quality I’d come to recognize. “Don’t tell me,” I said. “You melted your mom’s toilet again.”
“You turned Mrs. Nedry’s gardenias fluorescent again and she called the UFO hotline.”
I closed my eyes and groaned. “Your homework ate your dog again.”
Worse? My eyes popped open. It had taken us three hours to hunt down and kill the homework. His mom had not been happy at what the chase had done to the house. She still wondered where Brandy had gone. What could be worse?
“It’s” — Vincent’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper — “a girl.”
“You created a girl?” I knew Vincent had trouble talking to girls, but this was ridiculous. Besides, he had a massive crush on Melissa Kells, the head of the drama club. I couldn’t imagine him even thinking about a different girl.
“I didn’t create her,” Vincent hissed. “I brought her.”
“You bought a girl?”
“No! Sheesh, Dave. Listen, why don’t you?”
“How can I when you’re hissing like that?”
Vincent raised his voice a little. “I brought her. Forward. In time.”
My hand gripped the phone. This was a new one.
It’s not the easiest thing, being best friends with a mad genius. I suppose I should be happy that Vincent’s version of mad is not the “Mwa ha ha, watch me blow up the world” kind, but the “Why do you think bombarding my dissection frog with gamma rays is a bad idea?” kind. His mind works very, very well — along a very narrow track. He can calculate as fast as any computer I’ve ever seen. He can infer the relationships between diverse scientific concepts and theories, making connections no one has ever thought of before. He just thinks differently than everyone else. Unfortunately that applies not only to science, but to everything. His mind lacks the usual little checks and balances that make other people think, “Maybe creating glow-in-the-dark flowers in my neighbor’s yard is not the most useful application of a brand new energy technology.” Vincent creates astonishing things, but what he does with those things is astonishing in a whole other way.
“Okay,” I said, using my patient, do-not-panic voice. “Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.”
“Well, I heard Melissa talking the other day.”
I sighed. Melissa was mostly oblivious to Vincent, but that didn’t stop him scheming and planning to get her to notice him. It was only luck — and timely intervention by yours truly — that, so far, she hadn’t. “And?”
“You know how they’re doing that medieval play this year? Well, she was complaining that the costumes didn’t look right. She said she wished she had a real medieval outfit, so she wouldn’t look so Renaissance Faire.”
“So . . .”
“So, I decided to get her the real thing. I modified my quantum borer and locked it into the fourteenth century. It was easy. I can’t believe I never thought of it until now. I just re-calibrated the zurgon to match the frequency of the quantum pile, which meant that —“
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Remember what I said about the science stuff.” I couldn’t follow it, so I didn’t want to hear about it. “Just tell me what happened.”
“Well, I looked up fourteenth century dresses and set the borer to look for something that matched that material and cut and so on, and specified that it should match Melissa’s size. Then I pulled it forward.”
“And I forgot to tell the borer to make sure the dress was empty first.”
My head made a thunk as I let it fall into the books on my desk.
“And now she’s in the kitchen. Eating pie. I can’t understand a word she’s saying. Well, okay, I can understand some words, but they don’t make sense! And I can’t send her back until the quantum borer recharges, but I don’t know how long that will take. And my mom will be back in an hour! You need to get over here. Please, Dave!”
“Right,” I said. “On my way.”
Vincent met me at the front door. “Keep your voice down,” he said. “She’s busy with the pie. I don’t know what she’ll do when she sees two of us.” Vincent had always treated girls with the caution due to dangerous and unpredictable animals, but this time he might be right. A fourteenth century girl in the the twenty-first century — who knew how she would react?
She was standing in the kitchen, holding a plate with a piece of blueberry pie. It had a single bite out of it. I could imagine Vincent’s thought process when faced with this unexpected result of his experiment: feed it and keep it busy until help — me — could arrive. Somehow pie had struck him as a suitable offering. The girl didn’t look particularly interested in the pie, though. She was holding it politely, and standing very straight and looking curiously around the kitchen. She wore a long, light blue dress that hugged her waist and flared into a wide skirt that touched her ankles. Her tight sleeves reached all the way to her wrists, and long strips of cloth hung from the ends of the sleeves almost to the floor. Dark hair spilled down her back.
“That’s her,” Vincent hissed, unnecessarily.
The girl turned to look at us. Her dark eyes met mine, and suddenly I wished I had taken the time to change into a clean shirt, or at least brush my hair. She looked steadily at me, not smiling or frowning, just looking.
I cleared my throat. “Ah. Hi there. How are you?”
The girl looked puzzled. “Hi there?” she said, questioningly.
“Good to meet you,” I said.
“Gode mette?” Her face brightened. “Ah, hast speche? This oon —” she gestured at Vincent “— bableth as an ape.”
I laughed. “What are you talking about?” I said to Vincent. “I can understand what she’s saying.” She sounded like she had a very thick accent, was all.
“This wight hath eek?” she said, looking curiously at Vincent. “I ful fayne leere so.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s been like that since she got here,” Vincent said. “It’s driving me nuts. Sometimes I can understand her and sometimes I can’t. What I really need is — Oh!” He spun on his heel and rushed off.
“Ah,” I said. “He does that, you know. He has an idea. I hope.”
The girl cocked her head and a tiny frown creased the corners of her eyes. She was trying to understand what I was saying.
“My name is Dave,” I said. I pointed at myself. “Dave. David.”
The corners of the girl’s mouth lifted in amusement. “Al hayl, David. I am highte Katherine.” She pointed at herself. “Kate.”
“Good to meet you, Kate,” I said.
“Gode mette, sir.” She smiled. She had a slow, mysterious smile, with a hint of secret amusement around the eyes. As I watched, her smile turned to a questioning frown, and I realized I was staring at her with my mouth open.
“Ahem,” I said, looking away.
Vincent came charging back into the kitchen, holding his laptop and typing into it furiously with one hand. He skidded to a halt. “Feed it Chaucer,” he mumbled, staring at the screen. “Cross reference with the online Middle English dictionary. Throw in a natural language dictionary and that urban slang site, what’s it called . . .”
Kate looked at him with those amused creases around her eyes. “Is this carl thy knave?” she asked, cocking an eye at me.
I stared at her. “Uh . . . his name is Vincent, and he’s a nice guy, really.”
Her eyebrows shot up, and she laughed. “Indeed, he is ful nice,” she said. “But is this carl thy knave?”
“Um,” I said.
“Ah ha!” Vincent said, making me jump. “Try it now!”
“Uh . . . how now, brown cow?”
Vincent gave me a withering look. “Not you, dummy. Her.”
“Oh.” We both looked at Kate. She looked back at us questioningly. “Say what you just said,” I urged.
After a moment in which the girl seemed to be running my words through some inner translator, she repeated, “I asked if this carl be thy knave.”
After a slight pause, a flat voice from the laptop said, “I asked if this dude is your servant.”
“Yes!” Vincent said. “It works. My translator works!”
“‘Dude?’” I said.
“Oh, I fed it a natural language dictionary so it would sound more, well, natural. That must be how it translated ‘carl.’”
“Oh,” I said. “Hey, nice! Great idea, dude. Or, ha, should I say, great idea carl?”
The girl looked curiously at the laptop, but it didn’t seem any stranger to her than what she had already seen. “Hath yon thing cognisaunce of my speche?” she asked.
“Does that thing get my yacking?” said the laptop after a moment.
“Yes,” I said, smiling at her. She smiled back, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
“Good,” Vincent said. “Now all I have to do is reverse the translator so she can understand what we’re saying, and then I can tell her to take off her dress.”
The doorbell rang.
Vincent went white as a sheet. “That’s Melissa!” he said. “Quick, get her out of that dress!”
“Vincent,” I said, “it is a very, very bad idea to tell this girl to take off her dress. Do you understand me?”
He looked puzzled for a moment, and then he turned from dead white to beet red. “But-but-but,” he stammered, “I told Melissa I would have it ready for her!”
“You told Melissa to pick up the dress even before you even had it?”
“I knew it would work,” he protested. “And it has. It’s just . . .” He gestured helplessly at Kate, who was looking from one to the other of us with her eyebrows arched in amusement. I prayed she hadn’t understood any of what we’d said.
“Well, go get the door,” I said.
“You get it!”
“You invited her.”
“Just let her in,” Vincent said, pushing me out of the kitchen.
As I left, I heard Kate say to Vincent, “Yon swayn hath a fair visage, but ful litel witing.”
“That guy’s hot, but he doesn’t know jack,” the laptop said.
I felt my face burn, and cursed myself inwardly. I was acting worse than Vincent with Melissa.
When I opened the door, Melissa was standing there, as stylishly beautiful as she always was. She looked a little surprised to see me. “Oh, hi, um . . . Dave, right?” she said.
“Hi Melissa,” I said. “Vincent’s in the kitchen.” I wasn’t surprised that she needed a moment to remember who I was. Growing up next to Vincent, I’ve sort of slid into the role of protector and guide. Vincent’s genius needs safeguarding, and not just from his own creations. He’s hopeless in public. At school everyone thinks he’s a nuts. Well, okay, maybe he is a little nuts, but they make fun of him for it. The problem is that they think he’s harmless. If they only knew the horrors I’ve prevented from being visited upon them! (Monstrous, regenerated frogs in the biology lab, for one.) Not that Vincent would do anything mean on purpose. He doesn’t even notice that he’s being bullied. As for me, as his self-assigned defender I suffer from a sort of social collateral damage. But as long as no one calls me Igor, I’m fine with it.
Melissa followed me into the living room, looking a little wide eyed at the decor. Vincent’s mom was proud of his scientific bent — though she would probably draw the line at dog-eating homework — and had several of his inventions on significant display, much as other mothers displayed their sons’ artwork and sports trophies. But Vincent’s inventions were complex tangles of wires and shiny chrome bits (Vincent had a thing for chrome). To top it off, the quantum borer, which was probably Vincent’s biggest invention yet, was in the living room because there was more space there than in Vincent’s room or the garage. The overall effect was as if a robot factory had set up shop in a 1950s diner. Melissa gave a low whistle as we walked past the quantum borer. “Vincent’s kind of an inventor, isn’t he?” she said.
“Yep,” I said.
“Does any of his stuff work? I mean, does it really do stuff?”
“Yep,” I said, smiling a little. And then we were in the kitchen.
“Hello Vincent,” Melissa said, and then she saw Kate. “Oh my God, it’s perfect!” she said, her voice rising into a cheerleader squeal that made me wince. She rushed over to Kate and started circling her, staring at her dress from every angle. “It looks just like a real period cotehardie!”
Kate’s eyes widened a little and flicked back and forth between Melissa’s legs — bare under her shorts — to her face and back again. Her lips tightened, very slightly.
“Oh my gosh, Vincent,” said Melissa, turning to look at him. “How did you find it?”
As their eyes met, Vincent went rigid. Eyes wide. Lips slightly parted. Breath frozen. Classic symptoms of pretty-girl-panic. I gave him a surreptitious kick to reboot him. “Oh, um, I just used my quantum borer,” he mumbled. “I just re-calibrated —“
“This is Vincent’s friend, Kate,” I said, stepping in before Vincent could go into a science lecture.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Melissa, turning. “I was so excited about the dress. It’s nice to meet you. Is the dress yours?”
“Gode mette,” said Kate, slowly, and gave a doubtful curtsy. “Why is thyn array likerous?”
“Nice to meet you,” the laptop on the kitchen counter said flatly. “Why are you dressed like a bimbo?”
Melissa looked startled at Kate’s Middle English, and even more startled when the laptop spoke. “What the —?” she said, looking from one to the other.
“Kate’s, um, really into the Middle Ages,” I said. Then, in a burst of inspiration, “She’s an actor, too. A method actor.”
The frown on Melissa’s face cleared, and she laughed. “Wow,” she said to Kate. “You’re really good! You said that with a completely straight face. Is that real medieval talk?”
“It’s real Middle English,” Vincent said, regaining some of his composure. “My laptop translates it so we can understand it.”
“Seriously?” Melissa said, turning to Vincent. “That would rock in Mr. Harpsteader’s class.”
Vincent flushed beet red.
Melissa turned back to Kate. “Where’d you get that awesome dress? It’s perfect. Well, mostly perfect.” She stood back and regarded it critically. “There’s something missing. It’s too . . . too . . . Oh, I know. Here.” She grabbed Kate’s hand and pulled the startled girl through the back door and into Vincent’s back yard. “Stand right here.” She rushed to the hose that was hanging against the wall of the house, uncoiled a length of it, turned on the faucet — to Kate’s fascinated astonishment — and sprayed a good quantity of water over the flowerbed that bordered the house. Then she bent down and grabbed a fistful of mud. “To give it that authentic medieval touch,” she said, and she splattered a generous handful of mud on Kate’s dress.
Kate gave a cry and leapt backwards. “What maner jape is this?” she said. There was fire in her eyes. She looked at me. “This wenche is dronke.”
“What kind of a joke is this,” the laptop’s emotionless voice drifted out from the kitchen. “This chick is plastered.”
Melissa took a step backwards and raised her hands. “Whoa, whoa,” she said. “It’ll come off. It’s just dirt and water.”
“Thy wit is overcome,” said Kate, giving Melissa a dagger look and brushing at the mud, but only succeeding in spreading it across her front.
“You’re out of your mind,” said the laptop.
Melissa laughed. “Wow, you’re really into it,” she said. “What school do you go to? You should totally join our drama club.” She picked up another fistful of mud.
“Take heede, jangleresse,” said Kate, holding up a warning hand.
“Watch it, chatterbox,” said the laptop.
Melissa laughed again, and pulled her arm back to spatter more mud on Kate. But before she could, Kate’s hand came around. There was a resounding smack.
And then there was a long silence.
Vincent, standing next to me in the doorway, gave a low moan and slumped against the door jamb.
Melissa stared at Kate in astonishment, the red marks made by Kate’s hand slowly fading from her cheek. Kate glared back at her, breathing hard, fists clenched. Then Melissa’s eyes narrowed, and she flung her entire fistful of mud right into Kate’s face.
Kate reached up, very slowly, and brushed the mud from her eyes, which were glittering dangerously. “Now trewely, hou soore that me smerte,” she said, very calmly. “Er we parte though shalt be quit.”
“Now for sure, much as it hurts me,” the laptop droned, “before we’re through you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Kate bent, gathered a two-handed scoop of mud, and flung it all over Melissa. Melissa stumbled backwards and fell on her backside in the mud of the flowerbed. She raised her arms to shield her face as Kate, like an avenging angel about to strike, raised another fistful of mud above her head.
I was shoved violently against the doorframe as Vincent pushed past me and bounded into the arena. He grabbed Kate’s arm before it could descend. She ripped herself away, and the mud went into Vincent’s face instead.
But now Melissa was on her feet, shouting and flinging mud, and between the two of them they quickly had Kate in full retreat. She was cut off from the flowerbed and the mud, and could only try unsuccessfully to deflect the gobs that were now flying thick and fast.
Then she looked at me. “Worthy knyght,” she called, and paused to dodge another mud gob, “Worthy knyght, loveth ye nat chivalrye?”
Kate dodged some more. “Have ye no manne’s herte? Allas! Conne ye be agast?”
I prickled. I didn’t need the translator, which wasn’t picking up her voice through the sounds of the fight, to get the gist of what she was saying.
Suddenly Kate stopped dodging. She stood still, letting the mud spatter across her now filthy face, hair, and dress. She spread her arms out from her sides, and looked up at me with pleading eyes. “My knyght, thy lady nedes thee!”
That did it. I leapt into the yard, scooped up a gob of mud in each hand, and, coming up behind them, reached around and deposited one gob in Vincent’s face and one in Melissa’s.
They turned on me immediately, but Kate, shouting gleefully, slipped behind them to the flowerbed, and soon Melissa and Vincent were caught between two mudslingers. “Stynkyng swyn!” Kate shouted happily, landing a particularly large mud glob on Melissa’s head.
“Yes, have some mud, pigs!” I said, putting a liberal portion of the same down Vincent’s shirt.
It wasn’t long before we had Vincent and Melissa sitting in the flowerbed (by this time the flowers were not in good shape, but hey, at least they weren’t fluorescent), shielding their heads with their arms. As I kept them down, Kate scooped up as much of the now-dwindled mud supply as she could and prepared to deliver a final blow. But then she stopped, and let the mud drop from her hands. I followed her lead and stopped, too. There was a silence.
Kate extended her hand to Melissa. “It hath been a gode battaile,” she said. “But now passe over. I am merciable. I profre peese bitwene us.”
Melissa, a little wonderingly, took Kate’s hand and let herself be pulled upright.
Then Kate turned to Vincent. “Though hast stryven mightily for the honour of thy lady,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “And to thee, also, I profre peese.”
Vincent clambered to his feet and shook her hand, gingerly.
“And thus we are accorded,” Kate said.
There should have been something ridiculous about this mud-spattered girl standing in a suburban backyard and offering terms of surrender with all the dignity of a queen, but somehow there wasn’t. Even the little smile at the corners of her mouth did not take away from her courtliness. She seemed to know how silly we were all being, herself included, and yet she was still making reference to something greater, bringing its loftiness to the muddy squalor of the flowerbed. I had the thought that it wasn’t a bad way to look at life — seeing both the silliness and the dignity, intertwined.
Kate turned to me. “Thou has corage as thou has might,” she said, curtseying. “Thou art a trewe knyght.”
I bowed, feeling my face burn.
“Well!” said Melissa brightly. “Me thinketh that you needeth a bath-eth.” And she turned the hose on us. Kate screamed, but there was laughter in it.
In short order we had all, including Melissa, been doused with the hose, but we were still muddy when we trooped into the kitchen again, dripping on the tiles. “I could use a real bath,” Melissa said, ruefully wringing muddy water out of her hair.
“A bath!” Vincent hissed to me. “That’s it!”
“That’s what?” Melissa said, overhearing.
I caught Vincent’s idea. “The dress,” I said. “Melissa, would you mind taking Kate upstairs and starting a bath for her?” Melissa stared at me. “She’s in character,” I explained. “You’ll have to show her how it all works.”
Kate was staring at us curiously. “No,” I said, “Not kidding. Vincent, you better get her one of your mom’s skirts.”
A skirt and blouse were fetched, and Vincent and I waited downstairs while Melissa turned on the faucets. Delighted snatches of Middle English floated down to us.
“Boy, she doesn’t let up, does she?” Melissa said, coming back. “You’d think she’d never seen a bathroom before. Where did you find that girl, Vincent?”
Vincent and I looked at each other. “It’s kind of a long story.” I said. “You’ll have to ask Vincent about his inventions.”
Melissa gave Vincent a puzzled look. He blushed and gestured awkwardly at the quantum borer. “It’s, uh, recharged,” he said, pointing to a blinking light amidst the chrome and wires. “We can send her back now.”
I felt a twinge.
Kate came downstairs, somehow managing to look poised and graceful in Vincent’s mom’s slightly-too-large blouse and skirt. She was carrying her dress, neatly folded, under her arm. It looked like she had tried to wash it at the same time as she had washed herself. She looked at me and smiled, and I was acutely aware that I was still damp and muddy.
Vincent stepped forward. “May I, er, may we, er, may she have your dress?” He pointed at Melissa. Kate looked confused, but with more gestures and different phrasings she finally understood. She gave Melissa a warm smile.
“Yes, certes!” she exclaimed, handing the dress to her and flicking her eyes over Melissa’s bare legs again. “I niste thou had lost thy gyte.”
“Yeah, sure,” the laptop said. “I didn’t know you’d lost your gown.”
Melissa looked like she was trying to decide whether to laugh or be offended.
“She is aright nice,” Kate said in an aside to me, looking fondly at Melissa.
“Nice?” Melissa said, smiling back. “Well, that’s —”
“She’s sure dumb,” the laptop said.
“Hurry,” Vincent said, “My mom’s going to be back soon.”
We all walked over to the quantum borer on the living room. Kate must have remembered having arrived near it, because she seemed to grasp immediately that she was going back. “Is the sweven doon?” she said to me.
“Is the dream over?” said the laptop from the kitchen.
I swallowed and nodded.
“Was never sweven so queynte,” she said. “But a sweven worthy for to drawen to memorie, for hath thou, noble knyght.”
“I’ve never had such a bizarre dream,” the laptop said, “but it’s a dream worth remembering, since it has you, noble knight.”
There was that little smile about her lips, and I had the sense again that she was laughing and being serious at the same time. I felt myself stand taller.
Vincent flicked a switch, and there was a deep, reverberant thrum. Kate started to fade. “Far-wel, faire falle yow!” she said, and then she was gone.
“Goodbye, and good luck,” said the laptop, dismally.
Melissa said, “What. The. Heck.” She gaped at the empty space where Kate had been, then at Vincent, then at the space, then at Vincent again. Vincent grinned shyly back.
I looked thoughtfully at the borer. “So,” I said, “How long does that thing take to recharge?”
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Selected): An Interlinear Translation.
Translated by Vincent F. Hopper. Hauppage, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1970.
Forgeng, Jeffrey L. and Will McLean. Daily Life in Chaucer’s England, 2nd ed. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 2009.
Stratman, Francis Henry. A Middle English Dictionary. Revised by Henry Bradley. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1891. http://books.google.com/books?id=4rIVAAAAYAAJ
About the Author
Anthony Tardiff punches sharks while walking through high desert away from towering explosions, and he doesn’t even look back.
He is married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and has three very young boys who are honestly rather cute because they take after their mother.
He is an instruction librarian at a university library in the beautiful Inland Northwest, and he contemplates mountains on his daily commute. (Mountains speak profundities.)
He is also a science fiction writer.
About the Narrator
J. J. Campanella is a scientist, teacher, and writer who lives in beautiful Northern New Jersey with his family and collection of singing potatoes. He has been a well-known story narrator and scientific voice-of-reason on the StarShipSofa Podcast for the last eight years. He has his own story website as well — Uvula Audio–where he narrates different books in the public domain, as well as tales from his own specially touched brain-pan.