[Editor's note: a version of this story appeared in my friend Sébastien Doubinsky's excellent bi- or tri-lingual periodical Zaporogue, which you can find here. Seb has at least two books forthcoming from the excellent Black Coffee Press sometime in the next year or so (including his excellent Goodbye Babylon, which was published in the UK under the title The Babylonian Trilogy and in France under... you get the idea) and by the time I finish writing this sentence will have written and/or translated three or four more excellent books in three or four more languages. This story is notable for being one of the very few things I've written recently that will not eventually be fitted for use in my forthcoming novel. Probably.]
The Reluctant King
Alfred the Coward stepped carefully down the shoe-worn steps in front of the library. Shallow grooves in the stone from the treading of shoes, countless, over years and years of students walking to and fro. Even a stone can be worn down, he thought, even marble or in this case granite from a quarry in somewhere in. He carried two books under his arm and headed across the grass for the shade of an elm tree. Fraxinus Americana, Alfred read on the brass plate affixed to the tree’s broad trunk. American Elm. Not many of these left, I suppose, he thought. Wasted by disease, the beetle who carried the disease from tree to tree or anyway bug of some kind. Dutch elm the disease was called, but killed American elms with Dutch efficiency. The men from the city came and chopped down the whole row on our street. The noise from the chainsaws. Like shooting a horse, he thought. No use. Books I’m carrying might have been pulped from that dead wood. Still no use.
He sat down in the shade. The new day was warm and moist, and the morning sun had just risen above the slate rooftop of the library. The lowest branches of the elm filtered some of the sunlight through a network of summer leaves, and their complex shadow swayed in the light wind. Alfred opened one of the books and flipped through the first few chapters without interest. Wonder will the rain hold off until evening, he thought. Right now doesn’t look, but these storms move quickly. Two nights ago came out of nowhere, over the blue hills I can see from my north-facing window, so out of the north. Unusual because most weather travels west to east. Part of the trouble with the world, he thought. Underneath right now the root system absorbs groundwater from the soaked-in rain, dredges the water back up through the trunk to the branches. The leaves need rain for strength, but also sun for photosynthesis. Producing air. Birds sitting on the branches, fluttering, chirping. Never know the names of birds. These are sparrows maybe because most birds you see are sparrows. Sarah said.
She would not come tonight, again, he thought. Only when I don’t expect. Some trick to that. Some extra sense. Nothing happens except when I’m not looking. He picked a small stone out of the earth at the base of the tree. The stone was round and smooth, with an irregularity, a small dark spot, on the underside. The top of the stone was lighter than the bottom, bleached by the sun. Alfred fingered the stone. Cool to the touch and absurdly smooth, he thought. Worn by rain same as the steps were worn by human feet. He tossed the stone a little distance. A bird flew down from the tree to inspect the stone. Thinks it might be food, he thought. All day long look for food, then sleep. I have so much trouble sleeping. No need to look for food, just go the dining hall and heaps of food in steaming piles on my plate. Tonight maybe chicken and a bit of salad for balance. The bird looks for food and I eat the bird. Not this bird. Still, a hawk might, if hawks are here. Never seen one, floating in the currents like on television. Everyone is prey. I don’t remember a single prayer, thought Alfred. Haven’t been inside a church in years.
A figure approached Alfred across the grass. Looks like Robert, tall and thin with shirttails flapping as he walks, he thought. Like the hanger’s still in his shirt, bony shoulders, narrow neck.
Aren’t you going for breakfast? asked Robert, stopping a few feet from where Alfred sat.
Alfred gestured to his books. Need to get some reading done. Class at eleven.
Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. Robert reached one bony hand to the back of his neck, scratched lightly.
Better late than never.
O that’s clever. I wish I’d thought of that, said Robert.
Alfred squinted up at Robert. Why doesn’t he sit down? Makes me nervous looming. Sit down or move on.
What kind of class?
English. We’re reading romantic poems, said Alfred. I mean from the period of the Romantics.
Keats died of tuberculosis. Consumption as it was called then. The wasting disease.
Yes that’s very helpful. I’ll be sure to mention that fact to the professor.
He was only twenty-five or something, said Robert. Not much older than us.
I suppose that’s true. Keats was a bell struck once, with a heavy hammer, in the distance, thought Alfred. You hear the fading of the sound rather than the sound itself. But the sound never fades completely. What does echolalia mean? I remember looking it up just the other day.
What does echolalia mean? asked Alfred.
Echolalia, repeated Robert. I don’t know. Did you read it somewhere? Echolalia.
No, it just popped into my head. I came across it a few days ago. I think maybe something Sarah said. Obviously it has something to do with echoes.
Robert stood for a moment, silent, in the gathering heat of the day. I’ll leave you to your reading, he said after a while.
Okay. You doing anything later?
Robert shrugged. He held his palms slightly outwards in a gesture of helplessness. No plans. Call me if you think of something.
Maybe, said Alfred. I’ll see you. When he held his hands like that he was the picture of Christ. Except for the lack of beard, and also now Jesus was said to be a black man. But pictures of Christ from paintings. Except for the beard. His hair’s not dissimilar, though, in length. Also lank and greasy, as you’d expect. A holy man would not take many baths, I think, he thought.
Alfred watched Robert walk towards the dining hall, which sat at a right angle to the library. The dining hall was made of red brick with white wooden columns. Those are Ionic capitals, he thought. Ionic, Doric, Corinthian. Everything I remember from Ancient Greece.
A gust of wind rustled the branches above his head. One or two of the birds flew off. Shading his eyes with his hand, Alfred peered in the direction of the sun. A few thin gray clouds scudded across the sky, moving fast. Down here the wind is calmer, thought Alfred. In the atmosphere things are more turbulent. The air is thinner and colder and changeable. When you fly in a plane you may encounter sudden pockets of rough air and the plane may drop, suddenly, in certain extreme cases hundreds of feet in a second.
He turned back to the book in his lap. The book had nothing to do with Romantic poetry. It was a novel by a French writer from the nineteenth century, translated into English by a fin-de-siècle British lady who had translated many books. Must have become easy after a while, he thought. Don’t see how you can produce things in that quantity without falling back on habit. With translation you’re always left to wonder if the book is a reflection more of the translator or of the original author.
You don’t seem yourself lately, said Alfred.
Sarah stretched across his bed, her hair wet from the shower, dressed in a light-blue blouse and gym shorts.
Who do I seem like, she asked. She was leaning on her elbows, watching the sunset fade outside his window.
I don’t know. Not yourself.
Don’t know what to say to that. I am myself. How can I not seem like myself? I don’t know any other way to be.
No, it’s just, you’re always sad and you don’t want to talk to me about things. You don’t get interested the way you used to.
Maybe I’ve told you everything I’m interested about. Maybe we’ve used up all possible topics of conversation. Anyway, I don’t feel particularly sad. You may be projecting.
Alfred sat at his desk and pretended to work on a paper for a class. He had a few sheets of paper covered in notes, and an open book on the desk in front of him. He held a pencil in his right hand. The pencil was covered in teeth marks.
I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think I’m projecting. But it’s possible I’m wrong about your mood. I don’t have much experience with other people.
That’s not true, said Sarah, craning on the bed to face Alfred. You have more experience than you need. You have a surfeit of experience. You have me. You have yourself. By measuring one against the other you can draw any conclusion you need, and you have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. That’s better odds than with most things.
I’ve never had any luck with numbers, said Alfred, turning back to his work.
That was the last time, he thought, sitting under the elm, four days and counting. I try not to notice or let her absence bother me but what else? Alfred dug his fingers into the small hollow left by the stone he had picked out. He loosened clumps of black earth and flicked them with thumb and forefinger into the grass. The clumps disintegrated on impact. Earthworms churn the earth, building tunnels, an endless, unseen lattice. We need the earthworms because they till the soil, turning and turning the compact earth until it loosens and can absorb the rainwater on which all things depend. Once I bit into an apple I’d plucked from one of the trees in the faculty gardens. There was a worm in the apple and I bit it in half. I spit the worm and the piece of apple from my mouth and chucked the rest of the apple into a bush. Some worms can regenerate themselves from even half. Or maybe I killed the worm, I don’t know, he thought.
He inspected the nails on the hand that had rummaged in the dirt. There was a thin line of dirt under each nail. He tried to clean the nails with a pencil he had wedged in one of the books as a placeholder. Only makes things worse, he thought.
Alfred returned the pencil to its place in the book. Again he leafed through the book’s pages, without reading. This is not the book I wanted, he thought. Nunc ipsum, tamen. I will not knuckle under the weight of ideas. I will not say uncle.
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