David J. Wingrave
The curious king adjusts his beard, buttons his disguise, and visits the supermarket. In the grocery aisle he grabs several packets of mixed salad and tears them open. Customers stare as the king jumps up and down on scattered crudités.
“Is this how you people eat?” he shrieks. “You do weird stuff to cabbage?”
Two security guards arrive and beat the king with sticks. The king protests. He is their noble sovereign. His assailants glance at one another through dark glasses, then toss the king onto the hard concrete of the parking lot.
The king grumbles back to his palace, climbs the tallest tower, and stands by the window. Then he inspects his many portraits. Then he orders a cup of peppermint tea. Then he sends it back and demands wine. The king is agitated; he feels disconnected and locked-in. He meets the blind gaze of a marble statue and with disgust thinks of his own wet body. His people baffle him and politics no longer excite his interest.
The first minister is at the drawbridge. And he has bad news.
“My liege,” he pants, and steadies himself against a wall. “Your highness, the western provinces are in revolt.”
The first minister thinks it best to send in the army. As it happens, the king agrees. But over the years he has come to despise the first minister, an establishment stooge, a bore, a dimwit, the voice who wheedles and nags.
The king sends everyone in the western provinces five thousand dollars instead. Despite the triumphant announcement and a ticker-tape parade, the newspapers call for free and fair elections. The king wonders if he could do more to encourage beekeeping.
The king has reached sixty-eight years of age and his hands tremble, sometimes, when he combs his hair. He has a nipple ring no one else has ever seen. His heart judders if he exerts himself. His bedchambers overlook the capital in all its hurried colour, and from the eastern balcony the view stretches to the mountains.
The king has watched his city creep toward those mountains year after year, like mold across bread. At a certain point he began to think of it as a contest. The city sped ever greedier toward the mountains; the mountains appeared to grow ever more solid. He anticipates the clash: city vs. mountain, mould vs. bread. Who will surrender when the first white roof meets the cold purple stone?
The morning sun washes through the city streets and up the palace walls. The jeweled gown still lies handsomely across the king’s broad shoulders, and he has only recently begun to avoid photographs of himself. He has heard, somewhere, that local honey cures hay fever.
The royal doctor makes a call.
“Clean bill,” he says, bundling up a stethoscope.
“Well something’s up,” sulks the king. “I can feel it.”
“Your stateliness,” says the doctor. “Even if I were to write you a sick note, the ceremony would simply be postponed until tomorrow.”
The king’s personal food-taster arrives with nine-tenths of a light snack. The doctor snaps shut his bag. The king sighs.
In the Palace of Reception, the walls are decked with heraldic banners and the ballroom strewn with meandering aristocracy. A celebrated explorer has returned from parts afar. Trumpets blare.
After the ceremony, she strides around the rose garden with the king in tired pursuit.
“I have traveled to many distant lands,” begins the explorer, flinging her arm in the direction of a peacock topiary. “And I can tell you one thing, sire, about the great mess of humanity that has spilled across the globe: everyone is nice. Everyone is friendly. Everyone is welcoming and hospitable and keen for contact to progress smoothly and the meal to be shared and the hand shaken; meet the eye, your honor, and you will see that, in the end, everyone just wants to be left alone to grow tomatoes.”
“Alone,” repeats the king.
“And I will tell you one more thing,” says the explorer. “Everywhere is covered in trash.”
The king is no longer listening. He is thinking of the royal doctor—how much his glasses remind him of a certain foreign prince who many years ago visited the kingdom. Maybe he should buy the doctor a house or a diamond, or have him beheaded or something. But the king’s back aches from all the striding and gesticulating, and the thought dissolves.
“It was revolting,” continues the explorer, stamping her foot, “Frankly, I’m glad I was born when I was.”
Partridges quiver in the fields. The explorer’s long hair billows to remember its years at the prow. Over the Palace of Reception, the sky deepens to an imperial blue.
The only other person to see the king’s nipple ring, beloved Prince Alexandr, is dead.
“The Palace of Strategy should be renamed the Palace of Crappy Insulation,” grumbles the first minister. He shivers. Draughts ruffle his paperwork. He is having trouble paying attention to the king.
“If you could… run it past me one more time, sire,” he says.
“I’ve made myself perfectly clear.”
“That’s true,” says the first minister, nodding. “Certainly. It’s just… I’m trying to get a hold of, I mean, to fully grasp… what it is you’re proposing. You want liquor licenses…”
The king slumps in his throne.
“Not for babies, man. With babies. A liquor license distributed with your firstborn.”
“I see,” replies the first minister.
“You’re the one who was complaining about the birthrate,” says the king. “This will encourage couples to have a first child and then, later, encourage them to have a second.”
“Yes, I see,” says the first minister. He tugs at a few stubborn nasal hairs.
“Two different kinds of encouragement,” says the king, knitting together his fingers.
A follicle surrenders to the first minister’s probing fingers. His nose begins to bleed. Recently, he has begun to wonder about the future.
The sharpshooting king buttons his disguise and visits the zoo. His custom-built rifle makes light work of three giraffes and a panda. “Too easy!” he screams as he fires off another round into the elephant enclosure. “Is this how you hunt?”
Two guards arrive and beat the king with sticks. The king protests. Don’t they understand? The animals, mounted in his study, will live forever. The guards toss the king out onto the hard concrete of the parking lot, where he sits a minute and feels the throb of his injuries. He sighs. He paws at his torn disguise. Then he clenches his fists and stands up. The king sneaks back into the zoo via the service entrance.
“Where are your bees?” he asks a keeper.
“We have an apiary in the visitor center,” the keeper replies. He leans on his rake. “Yup. If you hurry, you’ll receive a free jar of zoo honey.”
“Really?” says the king.
“No,” says the keeper. “We’re not a farm. You need to go to a farm.”
The king keeps his disguise buttoned tight and visits a farm. He is stung repeatedly by angry bees and then beaten with sticks.
The king has begun to wonder about his disguise.
The first minister receives a midnight visitor. It’s all arranged. He anticipates the knock. He sits at his kitchen table with the lights off. Still, he’s startled by the knocking.
The knocks that suggest a particular knocker.
Shadows: those made by buildings, by foliage, by clouds in their transit across the moon. Next, the quick shadows of a door opened briefly and the deep shadows of a concealed stairway leading to a small, disused room. The shadows retreat from the brightness of an elegant brass lamp. There are nods, strange handshakes, whispers.
The first minister worries about the whispers. To those who listen, the loudest sound is quiet, indistinct speech.
“It has been a long time, first minister.”
“Not so long, Owl.”
“Time passes more quickly when you’re needed. I have had nothing but the sky for company and the purple stones for conversation.”
“Already with the hermit bullshit,” says the first minister, with more venom than he intends. “You’ve had food and freedom. Come spend some time in the capital if you want to understand deprivation.”
The midnight visitor scans the room. “You seem to have done all right for yourself.”
“Baubles,” snaps the first minister, but a second later his shoulders relax and he attempts a smile. The midnight visitor smiles back.
Rummaging around in the bottom of his wardrobe, the king unearths a shoebox full of old Polaroids. He remembers the box. Knows the photographs will mostly depict his inauguration. Knows that, with more behind than ahead, you cannot simply plunge into the past and hope to resurface serene.
The king thumbs the lid.
Crowds on the platform. White lace at the elbow. A big smile, stuffed into one corner of his mouth. Plumed hats. The king feels the air around him thicken, as time’s edge is momentarily forgotten.
“Hello, I am your king.”
“Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
“Prince Alexandr, Alex, from the moment I saw you, the throne was lost.”
The king is just trying on some old phrases, in the darkened wardrobe.
A candle is seen flickering in an abandoned tower. Hooded figures dart behind corners and, when pursued, vanish into the gloom. A certain cross-section of the national guard receives a coded summons. The first minister, nervous in a cowl, paces up and down the beach and studies the horizon. He waits for the tide’s flat rush, for news, and for the dawn of progress.
The king is the only king to secure ninety-eight percent of the vote, one hundred and one percent of the time. The king is committed to electoral reform. The king’s office is hereditary, for security purposes. The king first appeared at the head of an angry mob. The king has worn the uniform. The king has burned the flag. The king has redrawn the map. The king can trace his ancestry back to the First Men. The king’s name appears on mountainsides, in tea leaves, in the wisps of strange clouds. The king is secure. The king has an unparalleled record in community outreach. The king appreciates a challenge. The king can go up as well as down. The king was appointed by a sacred goat—that’s just the way we do things around here. The king respects his elders. The king commits to international treaties. The king demands change. The king has only just arrived, and he has things to be getting on with. The king fell to earth with his wings aflame. The king emerged from the sea, from a sulfurous lake. The king was borne into our arms by the winds of fate, and our love is as boundless and deep as the ballot box.
The king receives a vision. During the night, his ancestors’ pale spirits process through the bed chamber. The kings and queens of old surround him in all their gaseous nobility. They suggest an admin day.
The king wakes up groggy, but in the shower there occurs to him a brilliant wheeze. He’ll have an admin day! If he is to comprehend his people he will need statistics, forecasts, data. From now on, all his proclamations will be based on a thorough familiarity with the demographics. The efficient and perceptive king will shift a tax here, tweak a retirement age there; the clockwork of his realm will be hacked and oiled and grasped and he will no longer have to rely on random visions.
“A splendid idea,” says the first minister.
“Yeah, my idea,” replies the king.
From the crowded shelves in the census room the king selects at random one of the hide-bound tomes. It’s filled with a long list of his subjects’ names. They all begin with F. The king worries what such a lack of creativity might mean for the economy. The king worries all day, and when through Gothic windows the sun begins to set like an egg cracked onto the horizon, he yawns, closes the volume, and tries the door. Locked from the outside. The fretful king sits back down.
Someone claiming to be the king’s daughter is at the drawbridge.
“Actually,” says the first minister. “She’s already unpacking her things.”
The king sighs. In the guest suite he finds a young woman dressed in grey and black, folding clothes into a chest of drawers and stacking paperbacks on the windowsill.
“So where have you been?” he asks.
“The moon,” she replies.
The king studies her with a confused expression.
“Oh Daddy,” she says, helping him into a chair. “Of course not. Didn’t you get my postcards? I’ve been in the city.”
The king’s expression is unchanged.
“You know, the city. The city! It’s, well… how can I explain? It’s something less to do with how the city actually appeared, but a confluence of how I thought at the time,” she says, “how I thought at the time and how the people I knew thought at the time, and that specific stage of life. But the stage was different for all of us. It was hardly anything to do with the buildings or the monuments or how the districts were laid out, or where the river ran. Or, it did, it had a lot to do with all those things, and also the furniture I collected from the curb and the weirdo ticketing system for the metro, which wasn’t actually called the metro, but something I can’t pronounce. And the color of the taxis! Oh! And how if you removed a few of the routes from the bus map the remaining lines looked like a pineapple. But you had to discover that in one of three or four specific cafes…”
The king has never before seen this woman, but he is having an excellent time, learning about pineapples.
We are going to kill you.
Where now is beloved Prince Alexandr?
The king buttons his disguise and visits an isolated monastery whose residents practice lives of non-violence. At least, tries to visit. He doesn’t make it out of the palace. On the spiral staircase he bumps into the first minister.
“Who are you?” asks the confused politician.
“Why, your noble sovereign,” replies the king.
The first minister laughs. “That’s a good impression,” he says, then gestures at the stairs leading to the king’s chambers: “Better keep it down. Drink?”
In the first ministerial office, the first minister uncorks a bottle of whisky the color of wood varnish.
“I presume you’re with the international observation team,” he says. “Don’t let me influence you, ha-ha.” The first minister holds up his hands in mock defense. “No, no. Look. I’m kidding. We love our king. I think I can say without hyperbole that he is the greatest individual to have ever existed in the entire history of the known world.” He suppresses a burp. “Excuse me, I mean, multiverse.”
The king is touched; the king is moved. Cradling his whiskey, he reaches for a small picture frame set on the first minister’s desk.
“You have a son,” he says.
“And a daughter,” says the first minister. “They’re amazing kids. When you take a job like this… well, they’re amazing, that’s all. They seem to know that, for you, by which I mean me, they represent this conflict, represent a selfishness. I want to spend all my time with them, but when you take a job like this… look, I know that power corrupts. I’ve seen the movies. But when you take a job like this you must believe, at least in the beginning, that you will be the exception, that you won’t be a disappointment to so many, who have literally staked their lives on—what? Essentially luck and your administrative skills and whatever sacrifice you are ultimately willing to make. Amazing kids.”
The king dumps his damn disguise at the damn dump. He will meet his people face-to-face. He cannot deny his position, nor theirs. He orders several villages torched and the survivors brought before him.
“Where did you get those sticks?” asks the king, as the villagers shuffle into court.
The bruised king pays a visit to the doctor’s surgery. Sat in the king’s personal waiting-room throne is the king’s personal food-taster.
“You’re not me,” says the indignant king.
“I…” says the food-taster.
“I’m me,” says the king.
Constellations overlook the purple mountains. The purple mountains overlook Sunhus, the royal court. Sunhus overlooks the capital, in all its late-night sleepiness. The king is tucked up in bed. The velour curtains are drawn. The door is slightly ajar.
The first minister overlooks the king.
The first minister has had too much to drink. “The problem,” he says, though it’s not clear if he realizes he’s speaking aloud. “The problem is that change happens just gradually enough… such that… people merely believe in the concept. Our people… they would never deny the idea of change, but at the same time, they deny that change is the state of the kingdom. But it’s the only thing that has ever happened. Is this making sense, your majesty?”
The king rolls over and begins to snore.
“Exactly,” says the first minister. “Exactly.”
Since childhood, I have intervened in the lives of snails, worms, caterpillars, and other small, soft things. Slugs being the exception: there is no easy way to pick up a slug that finds itself crossing a wide tarmac plateau, no easy way to carry it to the nearest patch of vegetation. A twig is nearly useless, a leaf inefficient, fingers unthinkable. I have known only one beloved prince for whom this prejudice was reversed, who found snails to be adequately equipped and caterpillars suitably mobile, but, when he encountered a slug, discovered that their naked repulsiveness excited his sympathy. Now that he has gone away, it is not without guilt that I pass a drying slug as it makes its desperate, slow way across a baking patio or up a burning wall, though the threshold for intervention is rarely breached. Forgive me, slugs. There are some legacies that wither at the approach of thought, as your bodies to salt.
The western provinces have spent all their dollars on honey and are in revolt again. The first minister begs to send in the army. The sensible king thinks about it for an afternoon, then has the first minister executed and sends in the air force instead. The explosions can be heard as far away as the capital, where people walk home quickly, staring at the floor. The king wonders if he could do more to encourage beekeeping.
In the rich soil of a martyr’s grave, under the shade of an olive tree somewhere in some other kingdom, as the bees fly cursive from flower to flower and the scent of goats wafts up from the valley, the last marrow in Prince Alexandr’s bones is digested by specialized bacteria.
David J. Wingrave is a graduate of New York University’s creative writing program. His work appears in n+1, Guernica, Carve, and elsewhere. He lives in Brighton, England.