Descent into Royalty

18 04 2010

[fiction]

No cell phone for  a week was punishment enough to send my teenage daughter into fits.  Try no cell phone for a lifetime.  We add to that no internet, no text messaging, no blogging, no computer games.  That’s only a half-truth, though.  In reality, I’m stuck with no computer at all.  For that matter, I’m without electricity.  I don’t even have a land line.  I couldn’t call 911 if I needed to, and if I could, there would be no one there to answer it.  I have no car, but at least I have no gasoline to put into it.  When the sun goes down, I tell someone to burn something, and my home, my cold drafty stone prison, is dimly lit by a conflagration that makes my eyes water.  I spend the evening listening to someone play a song on a “stringed” instrument that I’m sure must be strung with actual cat gut.  The poor beast seems to holler with every tortured pluck.  The alleged minstrel hasn’t discovered homophony yet, either.  I’ve tried to teach him, but he seemed to think me mad for suggesting that he play more than one string at a time, and in retaliation he threatened to drive me mad, as if to prove him right.  I wonder often what might be playing on the old plasma screen, if such things existed, if there were any programming being broadcast anywhere.  I’d even take a little black and white cathode ray tube, if I could.  Forget the television.  I would give my kingdom for an AM radio to make me feel that there was life out there, somewhere.

The sun sets slowly, and the cold eats its way through these stone walls, right into my bones.  Tonight, I shall sleep on a sack of grass, the haunt of fleas and mites.  The servants shall have it heaped with lilac and some other flowers whose names I never learned, as if that helped.  My bed will be warmed by the fetid body of another man, my servant, because the men in these parts do not believe in sleeping next to their wives.  My wife seems to agree with that tradition, and so I am condemned to live like a student in an over-crowded frat house.  I spend my days in an uncomfortable hard chair, listening to the droning of stewards and bailiffs giving account of the day’s revenue.  So many heaps of that crop, so many piles of cordage collected.  And for entertainment, there’s a child with Downs Syndrome dressed in a jester’s outfit, doing his best to be silly.  If an award could be given to any person with the highest happiness-to-investment ratio, that kid would get it with no contest.  He’s got even less going for him than I do, but I don’t remember ever having a day quite as good as the one that he seems to be having at this moment.

I didn’t used to be in these miserable circumstances.  There was a time when a domain was something that followed the letters, “http,” a colon and a couple of slashes.  Now those were the days.  I lost hours in front of the computer, playing games and reading stuff I don’t remember.  Then I lost the rest of the time lying on the couch, snacking and staring like a zombie.  Between the two, there was always the MP3 player.  I had a job that I thought I hated.  I had a daughter that thought she hated me.  I was lower-middle class, but I had the world at my fingertips.  At work, I was the bottom of the totem pole, and I hated it.  Now, I’m a king, and I’m wishing I could be at the bottom again.  My biggest thrill is to drink melted chocolate from a small glass cup.  Did you know that glass is scarce here?  That’s why they have to cover the windows with great tapestries that keep out the sunlight.

Ah, but I’m a rich man.  I haven’t had a bath in weeks, can’t remember the inconvenience of having to wait for the tap water to get warm.  I smell like a compost heap.

My name was Edward Aisin.  I met a dope on the net who thought he had a design for a time machine.  I took one look at his plans and recommended a good psychiatrist.  A year later, I realized he was not far off.  At least, he seemed to have the theory of the matter down, solid.  With some spare parts salvaged from the junk in the garage, I made a flimsy hack job of a time machine.  It was mostly tape and glue, an entry for a fifth-rate modern art show.  The on-button consisted of two bare wires that sparked when they came together.  The device roared to life, and I wriggled through it, barely managing not to break it asunder in the process.

The next thing I knew, I was sucking on tepid milk.  Well, let’s not go into details, but I think I lost a month to mental development shortly after birth.  I must have wasted half a year in coming to my senses before I realized what had happened to me.  Oh, certainly, I went back in time, but my body did not go with me.  I was back to being imprisoned in a crib, in a world without satellite television, a world that barely had satellites.  I thought, then, what a wretched soul I’d become.  The freedom of adulthood was lost.  My car was gone.  My favorite songs had not been recorded yet.  My entire CD collection was gone, along with the very idea of a CD player.  I was a man trapped in a baby’s body.  I had to wait half a decade for the invention of the Atari, just so I could make little squares move across the screen and pretend that they were airplanes and submarines.  Science fiction movies had terrible special effects.  The internet had technically been invented, but no one had access to it.  Life had become boring as snot, and the spare parts and junk that I called a time machine must have stayed in the old time.  I imagined it would sit there and hum happily, until someone discovered it and unplugged it…except that it hadn’t been invented yet, so technically, I could turn it off myself if I wanted to…in a few years, but I’d have to invent it first.

But, who wants to drag through a few decades of dull childhood, endure puberty all over again and slowly return to the starting point, just to turn off a machine that I left running when I left home?  If I had known that it would not come back in time with me, then I never would have used the thing.  I thought I would come back as a middle-aged, overweight man, not return to the womb and live a rerun.  The second time around just wasn’t the same.  For one, there was no way I was going to let my mother boss me around.  I may be a child, but for crying out loud, I’m a grown man.  I was ten years old before I managed to scrape enough parts together to build another time machine.  By then, I devised a way to really go back in time.  The previous design had wedged me into the past, where I didn’t belong except where I already belonged, if that makes any sense.  I could only go back as far as I existed.  The new design was substitutionary.  I would trade places with something else.  I don’t know what I thought that thing would be, perhaps a rock, or a gerbil, or something.  I hadn’t considered that I might be stuck living life as a gerbil (oh, what a thought).  I wonder if I’d still want to raise a family, at that.

On the night that I had planned to restore my dignity, my father grounded me for my insolence.  Of course I was insolent.  He wasn’t going to ban me from watching television, because I was already banned from it, so I had to spend the evening holed away in my bedroom.  But, as soon as they were asleep, I sneaked out to the garage and activated the device.  It hummed and lit the garage with its eerie glow.  I could hear someone’s voice coming from it.  Eagerly, though somewhat wary, I crawled into it and found myself standing before a haughty, effeminate pansy, adorned with jewels and lace.  He was flipping his wrist in my general direction and telling me where to go.  Not knowing any better, I did what he told me to.  “Edward,” he said, “There’s a reason why I run things around here.  The sooner you learn it, the happier we’ll all be, so run along to your room, then.”

Being, by now, used to this treatment, I did what he said.  Down the long stone corridor, the servants lead me to my room, where my wife was waiting.  By the looks of things, she was expecting more than just me.  She looked like she could give birth at any moment.  I stared at her dumbly, wondering who I was and how old I was.  Five minutes ago, I was a child.  Two minutes ago, I thought I was a teenager, by the way I was being treated.  Now, with my pregnant wife before me, I wondered just how old I really was.  She looked…ashamed.

Philippa was her name, as I later discovered.  When I had married in my former life, we waited until we were nearly infertile before having a child.  We deemed it greatly important that our children, who turned out to be only one child, be blessed with all the wealth that we had been raised with.  In retrospect, I suppose we overestimated our own childhood.  As kids, we had nothing.  It makes me wonder why we waited so long.  I think it was simply that we could not bear to part with all of life’s trappings and freedom.  We waited and waited.  The house was never big enough, never had a big enough yard, and so on.

Now, I was practically a child, living in a castle, married with a child on the way.  As it turned out, I was still Edward.  I just happened to be a different Edward.  The fop in the hallway turned out to be a man named Mortimer, who slept with my mother and killed my father.  As it turned out, the hat on my head was a crown, but I needed a full month to come to grips with who I was, because I was treated about as much like a king as were the king’s dogs.

To think of it, I was a king!  What a glorious happenstance!  I went from the bottom to the top in a second.

But the joy was short-lived.  As I discovered, the real King Edward was a weakling.  He had allowed himself to come to this place where his mother’s paramour ruled the country while he sat in a back room and played the good little boy.  The father was dead at the hand of Mortimer, the philanderer, the adulterer.  I decided, then, that I would not be the obedient milksop that they had expected.  The moment my wife gave birth, our lives would be in grave danger, for we would have an heir.

Needless to say, I overcame my circumstances.  We killed Mortimer, and I assumed the throne as a real king.  When the real King Edward traded places with me again, he would find his life much improved.

A year later, I found myself bored out of my mind, wondering if I could be developing a case of sciatica, sitting on the throne and staring out the open window at the fading twilight.

Some people think that if they could go back in time that they would change the world.  Certainly, I knew much that the rest of the world did not know.  I knew that the Black Death was coming.  I knew a few things about hygiene, and I knew where penicillin came from.  But all of my advantage could not procure a single television.  Oh, man, I know so much more than these people.  Compared to them, I’m practically omniscient.  Yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember how to produce gun powder.  I tried to explain to some artisans how to engineer an aircraft, but while they could make the wings, they could not fashion the engine.  I told them how to make the engine, but they could not quite shape the steel, nor refine the oil.  I told them how to refine the oil, but they could not find how to drill for it.  On and on it went, one technology building upon another, yet, at the end of the day we still had nothing.  Anything less than a functional plane was nothing but modern art.  If we could not do that, then the time machine was well beyond our grasp.

To my horror, I realized that I was stuck in this world of the mundane, condemned to remain a king.  After a time, the amusement of riding on horses, impaling helpless porcine creatures with sharp metal objects lost its appeal.  After a time, the court musicians and dancers were nothing but a pathetic appeal against lethargy.  I had to get out, or I would lose my mind.  Therefore I outfitted the army with more soldiers, finer armor and handful of newly built trebuchets.  I don’t think that the old Edward had ever owned a trebuchet in his life.

It was a fine day, sunny and fresh.  We stood arrayed against the Scottish castle, ready to do battle.  They watched us from atop the walls, wary and unprepared.  The first shot from the catapult signaled the beginning of the siege.  Blood coursed through my veins with excitement.  This was the first bit of excitement I’d had in years.  In the next moment, the drawbridge lowered and a parley was had.  They wanted nothing to do with this battle.  But I had just spent good money outfitting my men and purchasing the new siege engines.  I would not have my fun spoiled by a bunch of cowards.  We refused their unconditional surrender and made them fight us.

A few hours later, we rode over the broken bodies of villagers who wanted nothing better than to be left alone, to live their ordinary lives.  We took our loot and returned quietly home.  Near the road, I spotted a column of smoke rising from a small knoll.  Veering off toward it, I discovered that it was a dugout home, a mere hole in the ground with a sod roof.  Looking in under the apex of the roof, I saw a young man, maybe seventeen, sitting on a stool and telling a story to a group of children.  His wife sat in the corner, working on some needlework.  When he noticed me, he leaped to his feet and hurried out to greet me, more in fear for himself than because of my celebrity.  “Your highness,” he stammered, “I am your humble servant.”

I looked at his dwelling distastefully and said, “Man, you’re living in a hole in the ground!”

“It is my home,” he said apologetically.  “It is not much, but I am pleased to have a roof over my head.”

I poked disdainfully at the sod.  “And I thought my life was bad.  What are you having for supper?”

At this, a worried expression fell across his face.  “All we have is a loaf of bread and two fish, but we’ll be happy to share it with you.”

“No, I don’t want your food,” I snapped.  “How can you live like this, man?  What do you do for fun?”

“I beg your pardon?” he asked.  “I tell stories to the children.  Otherwise, I don’t have much time for fun.  I am but a peasant.  Much work is required to live, but I am grateful.”

“Grateful?” I scoffed, “For what?  To whom are you grateful?  Me?”

“I beg your pardon, your highness, but I am grateful to God.  He has blessed me with a home, a family, and enough food for tonight.  I thank God because the rain falls from the sky, and the grass feeds the bagots, and there is milk for us.  I may not be a king, sir, but I am rich… in a way.”  He looked to his feet in fear of punishment, probably for claiming to be wealthy with respect to me.

I sat back on my horse and looked around at the fog rolling over the green grass, growing like a carpet over the downs.  A few feet away were a handful of goats grazing on the lawn.  The dirty faces of little children gazed up at me from under the roof.  The wife was watching her beau with adoring earnestness.  They were but kids with kids of their own, living in poverty, and this was all normal for them.  They were even worse off than I was.  They were far worse off, but they were happy.  At least, they were happy enough to marry and build a home and be a family.  They would not have the luxuries of a mere king.  They would not have the modern luxuries that I knew as a child.  They would never know all of the wonders and technology that I had grown comfortable with as an adult.  Yet, here they were, living in a hole, and they were happy because they had a roof, a scrap of food and each other.

I was a king, and I lost sleep over my lost plasma television.  I was never hungry, but I was never happy.  I was at the top of my world, but the bottom of my own heart.  I had everything, but I was thankful for nothing.  I wondered, almost seriously, if the peasant had come full circle.  I could almost stoop to try to live like that.

Almost, but not quite.  “Let’s go,” I commanded my men, and we continued home.  At least, I suppose it was as close to being a home as anything would ever be.

[/fiction]

Advertisements

Actions

Information




%d bloggers like this: