All the King's Horses, All the King's Men

by Alexan­dra Seidel

Across from her on the bed sits a boy wear­ing the mask of a man. Not the kind of mask the wear­er knows about, not the kind they could take off.

“There be drag­ons! There be dragons!” He shouts it, almost like rav­ing, but she has learned to tell rav­ing from game a long time ago, knows his moods bet­ter than the nurs­es and doc­tors with their pills and their syringes. She offers a smile; anoth­er mask.

“Dragons, across the ocean,” she indi­cates the starched sheets, “keeping the prince.”


“But his princess is com­ing to save him!” She knows to sell the tale, has learned it in months and years of hard train­ing. Hard, because it is real. Train­ing, because she used to fail back then. No more. Every act, every retelling of the same old sto­ry, deliv­ered just so, a per­fect­ly per­fect­ed tightrope act. If she fell, there would be no one to pick her up. If she fell, there would be no hoof­beats com­ing for the shards, just an emp­ty ocean of starched sheets and bro­ken things.

His eyes grow wide as open doors, see far as pol­ished mir­rors. His mouth gasps at words he knows already; the man at least knows, but the boy has no memory.

“The princess is com­ing for her prince, drag­ons or no drag­ons. She is not your ordi­nary princess, not so pret­ty, but smart. She has a limp from when she tum­bled off a horse in full gal­lop, and some­times she squints. But she knows the alpha­bet of bees, the hid­den roads to the land of the twi­light peo­ple, speaks the tongue of grass, lizard, and robin. Her hair is thin as spider’s silk and she nev­er wears skirts, but she fights fero­cious as a cat with claws and teeth and she can run a whole day and a whole night with­out rest.”

The act is also this: she gets up off the bed with its foam white sheet, springs squeak­ing like ocean’s churn­ing as she ris­es. She becomes the princess. Her hair is too thick, and learn­ing to squint at will was hard. She favors her left leg, holds the right one stiffly. She nev­er wears skirts any­more, but who cares? Who cares about an inch of lace when you can have an after­noon of smiles, an after­noon in which the world wears the mask of every­thing is gonna be okay?

“The prince! The prince!”He bobs on the bed, ocean drift­ing, waves ris­ing with the mattress’s move­ment. So exit­ed, she thinks, as if the old can become some­thing new when­ev­er he wills it. Per­haps there is a magi­cian in him yet.

“The prince was the kind of prince that would make a good king, a just king. He was rid­ing fast through the fields on his roan horse one day when the drag­ons came and swept swept swept, descend­ed, clutched him in their claws and took him away to their tow­er beyond the sea so they could keep him there as liv­ing trea­sure, for all drag­ons are greedy, all drag­ons lust and take when they see some­thing worthy.” He had a great fall. A great fall a great fall a great fal­l…, she thinks, and the hoof­beats in her mind are blur­ring, echo­ing, ring­ing in her ears like sirens call­ing sailors to their arms as she imi­tates sweep­ing drag­ons and a prince flail­ing in their claws.

She twirls and makes the awk­ward look grace­ful, lifts one leg—the right one, the one with the limp—and both arms she arcs over her head, fin­gers join­ing: a bro­ken bal­le­ri­na. Beneath her, the linoleum floor that was made not to stain with puke and piss but would nev­er quite give up the stench, has become a dance floor.

“But the princess is cun­ning, and she will save the prince. She makes a raft from grass leaves she talked from the earth and from her very own hair.” Her fin­gers move through her own hair, auburn like some strands still left in the man’s, pulling and twist­ing, until she can feel the pain in her roots.

“Now, you might think that such a raft was a flim­sy affair, but not so; the grass that she asked to grow grew stronger than iron or steel and yet it was easy to shape into a raft, and her hair, while it was thin, was strong enough to pull a herd of ele­phants all the way from India to Europe or Chi­na or wher­ev­er you would want them pulled. The point is, her raft was mag­nif­i­cent, and that’s what it was called, The Mag­nif­i­cent, for all great things, even if they are just rafts, need a name.” And she thinks, yes, I name you Hump­ty. This will be my name for you. I can­not say or think the oth­er one. Cannot.

He is no longer sit­ting on the bed, but stands, claps his hands in excite­ment and antic­i­pa­tion. The ocean is lap­ping around his feet. His eyes nev­er leave her.

“The princess gets on her raft. For a sail, she has used her very own coat of vio­let blue, and she asked all the robins of the land to come, and with the flut­ter of their wings give her the wind she needs to get to the prince, to get to the dragons.”

She jumps to sit on the bed as any child does, as is part of the make-believe. He fol­lows suit, always the same, always new, and between them, the waves grow.

“The robins come and help, and even though they are tired, they don’t give up. The princess reach­es the Drag­on­land shore.

“Now, she has no weapons but her own wit; she will not fight the drag­ons, she will out­smart them. The prince is hid­den, and she will find him and sneak him away, and the drag­ons will nev­er know that they have been thwart­ed by a true hero!” She cov­ers her own eyes with her hands, same rou­tine, same pan­tomime, water cold with­in her.

He hides with the silent stealth that is nei­ther silent nor stealthy but all the shards have left him with; they could nev­er put him back togeth­er again, after all. This time, it is the closet.

“The princess waits until the night is black­er than the inside of graves, and then she starts look­ing for the prince.”

She makes a show of it, walk­ing the tightrope like she was born on it. She doesn’t think of the fall. Instead she thinks of what it must be like, look­ing look­ing, ever look­ing for the pieces, but nev­er find­ing all of them.

He gig­gles from behind clothes hang­ers and sweaters, and when she finds him, she puts a fin­ger to her lips, shush­ing him. She takes his hand and leads him through the room, cir­cles chairs bolt­ed to the floor and crawls under the table, also bolt­ed. The stench that clings to the linoleum is stronger once she’s on her knees, but she has learned to over­come this, has over­come the dis­gust that caused her to break her stage face with a gri­mace when­ev­er she has to touch her hands to the linoleum. She does not fall.

Some­times she motions him to wait; the drag­ons mustn’t see them. Final­ly, they get to the bed, which has become the raft of grass and spi­der hair.

She whis­pers. “They get on the raft and push it out to sea. The robins have flown home already, but the princess is crafty. She takes more of her own hair and makes it into a las­so. It takes her a few tries, but in the end, she man­ages to catch a shark with it and she uses her hair like a whip and makes the shark pull them away.” He is on his knees behind her, hold­ing on to her shoul­ders, while she holds the las­so, invis­i­bly fine.

“Once they are at open sea, she knows they have made their get-away. The prince is safe, and when they are at the shore of their home­land again, the princess lets the shark go, but she keeps the raft, The Mag­nif­i­cent, and the prince says that he will make it his flag­ship once he has been made king. And he did become king and The Mag­nif­i­cent his flag­ship, and he and the princess who was not beau­ti­ful but smart, lived hap­pi­ly, lived ever after.”

Once the sto­ry is told, she knows she has to leave the stage, fast—not hasty, but fast. She hugs, and leaves a kiss on his cheek. He will not let go, so she moves this way and that to free her­self. She knows of course the illu­sion in this: she will nev­er be free, but per­haps, she thinks, he real­ly is a magi­cian who can make you believe otherwise.

Her hand on the door­knob, she allows her­self just a sec­ond to close her eyes, allows her mind to ven­ture across its own inter­nal ocean.

“Bye, Dad.” Qui­et­ly, more whis­per than word, more to her­self than to him. The waves are so high.

She opens door, clos­es door, leaves, flu­id move­ments all. One blur all. Bro­ken bal­le­ri­na and tightrope all over.

She secret­ly knows she is the man-sized egg sit­ting on such a nar­row, nar­row wall. She also knows she can­not fall, not while Hump­ty still waits for her every Sun­day at three. There would be no one left to come for the pieces, no one to save him from the drag­ons if his lit­tle, unlike­ly princess were gone.

Alexan­dra Sei­del is a Rhys­ling-nom­i­nat­ed poet, a writer, and edi­tor.. Alexa’s poems can be found at Myth­ic Delir­i­um, Gob­lin Fruit, and else­where. Her first col­lec­tion, All Our Dark Lovers, will be released on Valentine’s Day 2013 from Mor­ri­g­an Books.

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