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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