A Tale of the Two Lands
There were two doors of iron bars in the cell, one for access from the floor, and one for access from the ceiling. A key squeaked and screamed in the rusty lock on the upper door and then it swung open, screaming again. The King walked in, as kings do, on the ceiling and gave the captured, condemned thief an appraising, even admiring, look. The thief, Piers, was hung upside down on the wall, so it was almost as if he were looking down on the King whose head was some twelve feet above his feet. He had no reason to hope for a reprieve or pardon, but ever polite, he said, “It is an honor, your majesty.”
“I am grateful you find it thus,” said the King, “I consider it a certain kind of honor to garner the respect of so brazen a man as yourself.”
“Is it to that which I owe the honor of your visit, your majesty?”
The King smiled, “Indeed. I wanted to meet the man who stole my crown. I congratulate you on your resourcefulness, though I deplore the action itself.”
Piers nodded in acknowledgement, and his head swam with the effort. “Forgive me if I come short of manners, your majesty,” he said, faltering, “but I am near to fainting. I’ve been hanging this way for over an hour.”
The King clapped his hands and two guards came in through the bottom door. They looked up respectfully with their hands upraised.
“Invert the thief,” he ordered.
“Yes, your majesty,” they said, and quickly set about unchaining, inverting, and rechaining the grateful Piers. He passed out from the rush of blood out of his head, but woke up shortly to find the guards gone and the King still on the ceiling, patiently waiting. His servants had brought him a chair, and he was sitting, looking very comfortable.
“Better?” asked the King, solicitously.
“Yes. I am grateful.”
“It wouldn’t do to have you die before we finish speaking or before you can be executed before the public.”
He had nothing to say to that.
“What,” asked the King, “were you planning to do with my crown?”
“Does it matter now?” said Piers.
“Call it curiosity.”
“With all due respect, what reason have I to satisfy your curiosity? I shall be dead in a few hours. It is not as if I gain anything by telling you.”
“True. True. But you neither have anything to lose. Will you die without revealing anything more of yourself? Will you not have some testimony to your cause and cleverness?”
He considered that. It struck him suddenly, now that he was in less danger of an aneurysm, that the King might be in his cell for some ulterior motive. He thinks there might be others who know how to do it. “I don’t know that it really matters,” he said, evasively
“A pity you think so. You were really very clever.”
“Wouldn’t you rather know the how than the why?” he asked, “Isn’t that what you are really digging for?”
Surprised, the King answered, “No, not at all. We know exactly how you did it. Hot air. A dark night. Slug shoes. There is no mystery there. I merely want to know what you were planning to do with it.”
Chagrinned, he stayed silent.
“Just because we know how you did it, does not make it any less ingenious, my clever thief. I very much admire your resourcefulness. You are the first subject in two hundred years to rise and walk on royal soil. You used a method no one has used before. Very clever, indeed. But to what end? Why? What would you have done with the crown?
“You could not wear it in public. Indeed it was constantly trying to fall back down here while it was in your possession for it belongs to royal ground and not to subject ground. You could not be King. Who would have bought it? I cannot believe that a man who came up with such a clever and dangerous plan would not have had some end in mind?”
He thinks me very ignorant of its workings or he is testing me to see how much I know. He considered the use of it all. I have no confidants, no allies.
As if he could read Piers’s mind, the King said, “Will the secret die with you?”
He thought. He thought of the hateful mass of royal ground that was always there one thousand feet above the subject ground and had no right to be there. His grandfather had told him the tale his grandfather had told him, of the time of chaos before the order of the two grounds had been established. That there once was a time and still were grounds somewhere where the sun shone directly from dawn until dusk each day and did not have to be reflected by mirrors somewhere high on royal ground down to subject ground for most of the day so crops of frogs and toads could be grown. And he thought of his wooden girl whom he had carved, awakened, and loved, who had been taken away to royal ground until she had been used up and then was untied and let go. She had fallen into his frog patch and broken to bits, beyond repair. And he had burned her and collected the smoke and ashes as they rose so they would not ascend to royal ground.
“Was it for hate?” asked the King, who had been watching him keenly.
“Am I so transparent?”
“You do not wear your heart on your sleeve as most subjects do, but I am very good at reading your hair. It bristles so.”
He held his tongue.
“Were you a toadstool herder or a frog farmer?”
It seemed a harmless question and so he answered it. “I was a frog farmer. Toads too. My patch was small, but the reeds grew high and the frogs, as they ripened on the ends, sang beautifully when water dripped down from royal ground. The toads whistled like wind chimes in the breezes.”
The King smiled, “It is our pleasure to send rain and zephyrs to our subjects.” When Piers did not continue, the King asked, “You seem very happy at the memory of your farm. How came you to be discontented?”
He did not answer. They who were not content with their flesh wives and had to steal wooden ones from their subjects did not deserve to know. A voice from beyond the upper door called out to the King, “Is it close to time? I want to see him.”
“No, my love,” said the King, turned to face the door, “You know how it upsets our subjects to see women of flesh. They think you very ugly.”
But Piers tried hard, stretching and craning his neck to see the flesh woman. She was too far back from the doorway.
He heard the voice say, “Does it matter if he is upset? He is to be executed, soon.”
“My sweet,” said the King, “We inflict only the pain we must. I will not torture him as well as kill him.”
“But I want to see him!” The voice rose an octave.
“No, my sweet, I’m afraid not. It just wouldn’t be proper.”
“But I want to see him!” The voice was now a shriek.
Patiently, the King said, “Think of something else you want, my sweet.”
She was huffing and spitting somewhere beyond the door.
“I want cake! When we get back to royal ground, I want you to give me cake!”
“I think we have some, my sweet. I will spear one for you when we get back.”
“Fine! And when we get back, I’m going to beat Mr. Upton’s wooden girl with the drapes.”
There was a long sigh from beyond the upper doorway and then the flesh woman said, “I am going then, my head is giddy from being so far from the ground.”
The King looked down at him and said, “Women. How fortunate you are not to know the troubles they cause. It is far better, I think, the way that it works for subjects, how you crawl out of subject ground at the proper time and carve your girls from wood hewn out of that ground when you desire them.”
Piers felt his face burn.
“Oh,” said the King, “have I upset you. Your are red and your hair bristles so.”
He said nothing but fumed in silence.
“I see,” said the King, “You did it, because you had a grievance. Was your wooden girl chosen for special purposes?”
He could hold it in no longer. “My woman was dropped back into my frog patch when you were done with her.” He shouted it. He screamed it.
Not at all taken aback, the King said, “Not I, but some member of the court, surely. Well, merely dropping her was very tacky. I’m sorry for that. I promise you I shall have a word with the court about that. Used girls should always be lowered back to subject ground with ropes of mushroom wire so they don’t break. I’m very sorry about that.”
“She was mine,” said Piers, “and she was special.” And it happened all the time. One girl in five was taken away and only one in ten of those was lowered back down on wires. They were dropped most of the time. Even if they did come back whole, they were never able to lay eggs in the subject ground again before they went back into the ground themselves.
“Well, she was only a wooden girl, my boy. You can make another very easily.”
He had nothing more to say. No one who had never spent six weeks making a girl and waking her up could ever understand how special one was. They don’t know how to love up there on royal ground, he thought. And he hated the King as he looked at him.
The King watched him with a sad expression and finally said, “So it was for revenge. How did you find out that the crown was the hinge of the two grounds?”
He looked up sharply, but held his tongue.
The King said, “Were you going to bargain with it, or hide it, or try to destroy it?”
He had meant to destroy it, to take his carving tools and grind it down to dust.
“I can see that you meant to destroy it,” said the King. He heaved a sigh of his own, not a melodramatic sigh such as the woman had heaved but a serious, heavy sigh of deep sorrow.
“Well, I can’t believe you knew the consequences of such an action. I can’t believe you really meant it. Was it a symbolic act?”
“Symbolic,” he barked out, “Symbolic, no. I wanted to make you and the royal ground go way.” His grandfather had told him that the royal ground had come when the first King had forged the crown and that it was the crown that was sovereign over it.
“You want to turn the world upside down just because you lost one, wooden girl? I’m very disappointed. Can you imagine what it would be like? The sun would shine directly on subject ground and burn the subjects. Rain would fall from the sky and floods would come washing away the crops. The toad and frogs would not be bound to the reeds but would grow to enormous size, and wander free hunting you. No. Such a thought is an abomination.” The King sighed again. “It is for the best that you be executed.”
The woman’s voice rang out again from beyond the upper door. “Are you coming soon?” she asked, waspishly.
The King shook his head ruefully at Piers, turned, and said, “I thought you were gone already, my sweet.”
“Well, I’m still here, and I’m waiting.”
The King nodded and said, “I’m almost done, here, my love, almost done.” He turned back to Piers as he rose from his chair. He smoothed his royal robes and put his hands behind his back. “Just so you know, my boy, just so you know, by capturing you, my guards saved the world. Had you destroyed the crown, the two grounds would have crashed together, smashing all to bits.” He shook his head. “Any survivors would have to have dealt with all the things I just mentioned, and,” he let his voice fall to a confidential whisper that barely reached Piers’s ears, “The women would have come out of the ground and, if you’d lived, you’d have had to deal with this for the rest of your life,” he gestured surreptitiously at the door.
“I’m not comforted,” said Piers.
“Well, be that as it may.” The King turned to go. As he stepped through the door, he paused, turned back and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you.” He nodded and left. The door was pulled shut, squealing on its hinges, and locked behind him.
The lower door opened with the same noise, and the two guards came in and took Piers in chains from the wall. They led him out into the open air. There was a crowd nearby, looking over the fence. A band was playing, and a food was being sold on sticks of reeds. He ignored them. He looked up to see the King and his retinue ascending back to the royal ground in carriages pulled upward by ropes of mushroom wire. He turned his eyes from the sight. They led him into the pasture full of wild toadstools. He was staked to the ground, and the toadstools eased over his way. There were nervous titters of anticipation from the gathered crowd. He closed his eyes. The toadstools arrived and sniffed him and then slowly began to nibble.