Monday, June 29, 2015

A Fire on Dunwich Beach

The boy opened up the tinderbox and tried to start a fire in the pit. The waves lapped the edges of the beach, burrowing into the sand as if trying to erode the continent.

"That's not real flint, you know," the girl said as she watched the boy.

"What?" the boy said. He temporarily stopped striking the rock against the heavy black metal. "Of course it's flint. It's written on the box."

"It's fake flint," the girl said. "Artificial. It's actually called ferrocerium. Real flint works differently."

"Well, this one's not working at all," the boy said. "I can't fucking make it work."

"Here," the girl said and pulled out a box of matches. She struck one and it burst into a small flame.

"Great," the boy said. "So you wanted to watch me try in futility to light this thing like a stone age man."

"Don't be such a baby," the girl said. She tipped the match sideways and then raised up a piece of paper, setting it on fire, then blew out the match. Then she lowered the burning page into the firepit and watches as the fire spread outwards. "You wanted to come here."

The boy rubbed his hands in front of the fire. "Yeah, well, I didn't like sitting around the house. You didn't happen to bring any marshmallows, did you?"

The girl shook her head. "No food. Just the fire."

"Yeah, thanks," the boy said. "Hey, let's tell some scary stories."

The girl smiled. "Really?"

"What? You know of anything better to do?"

The girl shrugged. "I don't know any scary stories. But I do know a fairy tale."

The boy put his hands underneath his armpits and crossed his feet. "I'm not picky. Go on then."

"Once upon a time," the girl said, "there were two kingdoms who were continually at war. One was ruled by a king who boiled with rage. The other was ruled by a queen that simmered with hatred. The war between the kingdoms had lasted for generations beforehand, the reason for the war lost to history itself. The war was all the people knew, all the king and the queen knew.

"But one day, the people decided it was enough. They had fought and killed and fought and killed and it had done nothing. It was time, now, for peace. So it was decided that the King of Flint and the Queen of Flames were to be married."

"The King of Flint and the Queen of Flames?" the boy said. "Really?"

"Shut it," the girl said. "I told you this was a fairy tale and this is how fairy tales go." The boy made an imaginary zipper close across his mouth and gestured for her to continue.

"Their wedding was a historic occasion. Everyone for a thousand miles came to see them wed, for everyone knew that this at last was the end of the endless war. Even though they hated each other, each one would be forced to stay with the other or else the war would go on and on.

"But something strange happened on their wedding night. Something nobody anticipated: they fell in love. When they awoke the next morning, they were glad to be wed because now they had a bond that could never be broken. Now they could merge their kingdoms and be one, be whole.

"But the war had also twisted something inside them. They felt love for one another, but the anger and the hatred still seethed inside them, seeking release. When their subjects came forward with requests, they would laugh and make them walk across burning embers. And if someone displeased them, they would open them up and stuff them with burning coals. Their proclivities grew monstrous.

"Finally, the people had enough of it. They stormed the palace and chained the king and shut the queen in the highest tower. The next night, they took out her out and made her watch as they burned him."

"I thought this was a fairy tale and not a scary story?" the boy said.

"It is," the girl said, "you just aren't listening." The boy shrugged and rubbed his hands in front of the fire again.

"The Queen was now left with nothing but her hatred and her anger. It rose from her skin like steam and one day, still locked up in the tower, she put on her wedding dress and burst into flames.

"The people thought that was the end of it. No more King, no more Queen. But the fires continued. Houses burnt for no reason. People would find burns on their arms and faces, as if touched by fire. The kingdom was soon deserted, the people scattered, thought cursed by all those around them.

"But if you were to find this kingdom and walk through the blackened husk of a palace, you might see the King of Flint, still in chains, and the Queen of Flames, still in her wedding dress, as they dance around one another."

"Sounds like a ghost story, not a fairy tale," the boy said.

The girl picked up a stick and poked the fire. "Every story is a ghost story if you wait long enough."

They stayed on the beach until the sun rose and the fire was only a memory.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Skin and Sorrow

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a child queen.

Before I tell this tale, I must explain that this tale has been told many times in many ways. Sometimes it is called "Donkeyskin" and sometimes it is called "Thousandfurs" and sometimes it is called "The King Who Wanted to Marry His Daughter." In these tales, the Queen dies and the King declares that he shall only marry someone as beautiful as she was...and the only one who fits that description is the King's Daughter.

In these stories, the King's Daughter first demands impossible items -- dresses the color of the sky, the moon, the sun -- and then a skin to hide in. In some tales, it is the skin of a magical donkey, in some it is the skin of a cat, and in some it is the fur of many animals stitched together. Hiding in these skins, the King's Daughter then escapes her incestuous father and finds happiness somewhere else.

In the Sorrowlands, however, the tale ends differently. In the Sorrowlands, the King's Daughter marries the King. She stays a child in this tale. She becomes the Child Queen and her tears turn her into the Child Queen of Sorrows. But the King is protective of her, so fiercely protective, that he will allow none to see her except himself.

And when he dies, of course, there is always someone else that finds her and protects her.

This tale has been told many times and in many ways.

"The King is dead," the town crier calls as you wander through town. "The King is dead and now all must hear the proclamation of the Child Queen of Sorrows." The town crier looks like he has been taking his job a bit too literally, all things told: his face is wet with tears. "Hear this proclamation: the King is dead and the Child Queen asks us to choose another King for her."

"This must be a sad occasion," you say to someone standing nearby. Their cheeks are red and wet as well. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"'Tis not the King I'm sad for," the man says, "but the Child Queen. Her protector has gone and no one is left to help her." He steps forward to the town crier. "Here, I shall sign up to be her protector, to be the new King."

You watch as more and more people sign up to be the new King. But there can only be one King at a time, so now there must be a contest. The next King, like the one before, must find and bring forth an impossible item, something that can "change the world with one stroke."

The contest will last until sundown and then the new King shall be chosen.

You find this process interesting, so you go to the palace at the center of the Sorrowlands at the day's end to see if someone has brought forth the impossible item and you bring your pen and paper to record what it is. The palace is cold and even with everyone inside, it still seems empty. You wonder about the servants -- are there any? And what, exactly, did the King die from? You start to ask someone standing next to you, but then the Child Queen appears.

She is the most beautiful child you have ever seen. Her eyes are...her hair is...her skin cannot describe it. Just looking at her is making your eyes tear up. Through the tears, her face distorts and you can see something wrong with it, but then you wipe your eyes and it's gone.

Without even saying a thing, those who want to be the next King (which is basically the whole town) bring forth what they believe is the impossible item. With every shake of her head, you hear sobbing. No, he won't be her protector. Next. Next.

You hardly realize you are the next in line until you are right in front of her. All you are carrying is your pen and paper, but it appears that this is, in fact, the answer to her riddle. These items can change the world with a stroke.

She beckons you to lean down and she touches your face, feeling your skin. Her hands are cold like marble. The more you look into her eyes, the more you realize that this is what you wanted. She is the only thing you need in your life. The King is dead. You are the King. And you must protect her.

This tale has been told in many times and in many ways. In the Sorrowlands, however, the King's Daughter doesn't disguise herself with donkeyskin or catskin or fur. Instead, she uses a different disguise. She wraps herself in your skin.

Long live the Child Queen of Sorrows.