The phone alarm sings its melody at six thirty, and I begin my slow rolling on the carpeted floor. My typical exile. There are ill-defined darkly aches in my legs beneath my woolly checkered jammy-pants, and there are acidic grumblings in my astro-gastro-gut. I know it’s a long way to standing up, but I have to get there.
By six fifty I’m outside holding the trumpet case awaiting the child-king who is still being processed, confined strictly to the bathroom until the final moment, by the matriarch. I am staring up at the slightly more than half moon, which I more and more believe is like a big blown-up bug eye, perhaps that of a Robber fly or blue damselfly. It could be a frog eye, too, I reflect, but I decide it belongs to a blue damselfly because then it’s easier to imagine (I’m aware I’m forcing the pareidolia) that there is a gigantic one of those up there staring at or past me; its body, obviously, is camouflaged perfectly in that shade of way-too-early sky blue.
The other eye, meanwhile, is looking off toward Eurasia, North Africa.
When the child-king joins me at the outer edge of the gravel he remarks spiritedly, “What a bright moon this morning, how pleasant it is.”
“Yes, yes, although it almost disturbingly resembles a bu—… well, never mind.”
I stop myself. I don’t wish to ruin his satisfaction. Perhaps to him the moon is just the moon and all is as it should be. Perhaps so, even though he and I both know in a moment a bigass ineluctable bus with all kinds of alarming blinking lights and screechy brakes will pull up and beckon him on and be off. A bus with a number, not even a name. A bus that is useful but not nearly as friendly as Thomas the Tank Engine.
Inside the house I close the door and lock both locks then raise both hands toward the ceiling and call out in my barely-more-than-newborn voice, “Dah Dah! Dah-daw-duh!”
The matriarch reciprocates in her amused way and we settle in at the table. She has provided me a plastic bucket, just about, full of dry cereal. She brings the hardcore coffee, no frills, bitterer than fuck, how we like it, or how we take it regardless of how we like it.
“Bon appétit, matriarch,” I say.
She picks clusters of granola from her bucket and dumps them into my pile and says, “I hate granola now. I used to love granola but now I can’t stand it, really.”
“You’re evolving,” I say. “I’m sure there’s something to it all.”
“You know another thing I realized I don’t like anymore in the night when I couldn’t sleep--fuck, we might be totally done-skees today, by the way, because I didn’t sleep and I feel sick…”
“What’d you realize you don’t like, Queen?
“Basketball. In Yugoslavia I used to love basketball, as you know. I loved watching it, I adored certain players. Now I can’t stand it—although maybe it’s not even the game itself, but the spirit that often attaches to it, you know?”
“Sure. I’m guessing this has something to do with the commercialism involved, the obscene sums of money?”
“No I don’t think so. Or maybe that’s a factor. But I don’t think it is contingent on the economic system surrounding it; it’s something more intrinsic, hard to define.”
“Fine, Queen. I get it.”
After a moment I add, “And that’s because nobody understands the Queen like I understands the Queen.”
I make an exaggerated simple-happy face and place unadulterated light of childish innocence in my eyes and make my waist, ass and legs wiggle energetically in the chair. For a prolonged moment I transform into a very young child and this is my signal to the Queen that I am totally devoted to upholding peace and protecting the Kingdom.
As she only smiles conspiratorially then tends to eating, I enter into thought. I think: even though our castle lacks a drawbridge out front or stone battlements replete with crenellations up top, we do have a kind of moat—made of dipping land and jungle and a creek when it rains hard—which wraps round three-fifths of the house and acts as natural deterrent to would-be pillagers. As far as other defenses? Well there’s me, and I am naturally intimidating-looking and, though perhaps still ultimately untested, doubtlessly quite effective in close-quarters physical combat, that is, if it ever comes to that.
We sip. Boy, if you could drink a hair shirt… I want to say but don’t.
I stir the dry cereal flakes and clusters, as if searching for something. I know she doesn’t like that; it irks her; it is one of her pet peeves. She says nothing now, though, and I think: pet peeves is not such a bad name for those minor irritating things about me, since I am not wholly unlike a royal pet around here.
The thought pleases me, perhaps more than it should, and I know it’s not only because I have always wished I could lead a double life—the second as a domestic cat, some kind of beautiful tabby who always knows just how to curl in or stretch out its body and is loved and adored infinitely by its human host family.
The Queen and I are sitting, of course, always sitting, in our little love seat couch by the living room window when the child-king ventures along. From the bus stop a couple houses up, he comes first into view past the pine tree hedgerow which divides our lot from that of our only direct neighbors, then he turns in, walking behind my rotting Corolla then in between the Queen’s vehicle and mine, crossing the gravel sea, then down the concrete steps—not unlike those I once climbed at Teotihuacan whilst freshly drunk on tequila—then up the porch’s rickety wooden stairs to the door.
When the child-king enters he is in serious mood. Slightly breathless, he explains that at the bus stop there was a man in a black Lexus—not a father, or at least not a person ever seen accompanying or picking up any child before. And the man wore an overt scowl—“essentially predatory” are the words he uses, and the Queen and I look at each other as if to say, Essentially predatory? And the kid’s barely ten.
The child tells us he looked back precisely three times on his walk to the house; once, to see if any kid was getting in that car, and none did; the second time, just to see, but the car was just sitting there; the last time, just to see again and finally the guy was slowly pulling away, the vehicle seeming like “a great stalking jaguar disappointedly sauntering away.” For the second time the Queen and I look at each other in awe bordering on consternation, even though this is merely the latest illustration of the child-king’s increasing maturity and striking facility with language. Privately, we now refer to these similes of his as his “visions.”
The news is unsettling, and the Queen reprimands herself for being so negligent, or so absorbed in her work, as to fall into the habit of not waiting for the child’s arrival each day at the stop, which would obviously be safer.
Starting the next day, the Queen and I will be there—waiting, deterring.
Next morning. My typical exile. This time the phone’s melody comes as a legit surprise, as does the Queen’s quavering voice calling to me from the bedroom; her words are like a newborn calf struggling to stand.
I had been fast asleep, doused by lavish dream. It’s hard to flip the body, push the floor, rise.
Twenty minutes later, I find that the way-too-early blue of the sky is accompanied today by wide tiger stripes of pink. The moon is a more precise half-circle. It is frigid, and I feel a presentiment of shivering in my ribs, feel my tummy shrink in and the organs there working. I feel my organs more and more these days.
The child-king approaches, remarks on the moon and I validate it, like punching a parking ticket. He notices, points at the broad pink streaks. “Like tiger stripes,” he says, and I say, “How’d you know that? Man, your powers are growing every day now.” He thanks me, and soon the bus comes. When I tell him to have a good day and he says goodbye I behold the softness of his voice, the fragile spine of it. It seems out of tune with his precociousness. But he seems not afraid, and I must be courageous. I’ve never told him how scary I find the idea of climbing on that bus each stark morning.
Inside, the Queen has the coffee ready and the cereal in the usual containers. Bowls would be too prosaic, predictable; milk would be lavish, unnecessary.
She is out of sorts, I can tell, and she says it’s because she couldn’t sleep. “You are lucky to have been out here, really, because the boy kept tossing and turning, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the earthquake.”
“In my country there was a terrible earthquake. It ripped through the area where my grandfather was born. My mother wrote me a huge email and I made the mistake of reading it before bed last night.”
“I’m sorry, Queen,” I say simply, inadequately. I am aware of being out of sorts myself. My dream, far less consequential than a real-world devastation affecting thousands of people, is still flashing in my head.
“That’s all you have to say?” she prods petulantly, justifiably.
I could push myself to make baby gestures, speak baby gibberish, and this would signal my undying devotion to the kingdom and sum up my twin apologies—one for her country-folks’ extreme suffering and the other for not being able to satisfactorily emote about it.
But I can’t do the baby bit now—it wouldn’t be genuine. She continues instead.
“Where it hit, in this area of the Balkans, there was already two and a half meters of snow. That’s much taller than you. Then the quake came, making avalanches, and these people, mostly sheep farmers, had their lives instantly wrecked. No ambulances, fire trucks, are getting through. Are you understanding?”
“I understand, Queen, and I hate it.” Of course it is true. I despise the reality.
In my dream I had been enrolled in a special elective class in high school—porn-making. I was as I am currently—37, but it was definitely high school. Quite a contrast between these lingering scenes and the ones the Queen is painting.
I decide to dispel the racy images and dopy-horny feelings from my mind’s eye and concentrate on the catastrophe. After all, the Queen is suffering too.
She says: “Imagine, up in those mountains, your house suddenly collapses, you see your animals you rely on to live dying, sliding away, and you’re looking for your family. Maybe you call to your son or to your mother and hear their voice coming back, but there’s no way to…”
She pauses before finishing. “Rescue is delayed for maybe weeks. And it’s so cold.”
I put my hand on her leg, rub lovingly. “It’s terribly unfair, I know. Don’t imagine the worst. All these movies, they tell us to picture the worst, but don’t.”
She nods and her voice comes out softer. “You’re right. I’ll just concentrate on praying for them.”
I decide to steer her mind back to a direct concern of the Kingdom.
“Remember, today we go wait for Him at the bus stop. Here there are no great tremors, but there are jaguars.”
Happily, she takes my words in the right way. Her look conveys sober agreement.
I feel that, for the moment at least, we’re doing all that we can.
Warren J Cox hails from the Washington D.C. area but has long settled in beautiful central Virginia, where he lives with his small loving family. Working as a freelance editor, writer, and visual artist, the great share of his time is divided between his many creative projects and in making escapes to the mountains or sea for much needed renewal and communion with nature. His work has appeared previously in The Fluvanna Review.