Matt Swetnam

But they were sullen, these monarchs in love, and they were sullen because they knew this: they were not people in the way that others were people. Their works were not the products of their bodies, and their bodies were not the products of their intellects. They did not move through the world; instead, the world moved through them, and its demands--there were profits that needed taxing, and there was land that needed conquering--forced them into existence. The world needed ink on decrees, and the ink on decrees needed pens to produce it, and pens needed hands to hold them, and these hands were monarchs' hands, and monarchs' hands came attached to monarchs' intellects, though these intellects met no worldly demand and were merely incidental to other stretches of need. So, when monarchs finished the daily work of signing, they fell into sullenness, and they stared through windows or into mirrors, and they paced across their parquet floors and pulled splinters from wood with the soles of their shoes, and they sighed. Somewhere, they had beloveds. Though these beloveds found themselves in lands whose languages and tax structures were different--alien and comfortless--from the ones they'd known in their parents' monarchies, and though they were thus sullen themselves, monarchs in love supposed that they might find their beloveds, might say hello.

A first errand: complete it during boyhood: meet your beloved, the second daughter of a monarch of some far-distant monarchy, when she disembarks in your country: as you travel to fetch her, ride pierwards and survey a landscape and imagine taxes, and rehearse a word of her language chosen at random from a book compiled by one of her monarchy's astronomers or saints or aphorism-mongers: fetch the daughter, and say the word: the word--would it mean finished in your language, or town, or cauterize?--will elicit something that you must recognize as a smile: fix this smile in your head, because it will take this monarch's daughter years enough to recognize your taxes when she sees them, and it will take her longer than that, even, to learn to smile in your language, in your monarchy, where tongues come in paler colors and eyeteeth come in sharper forms, where lips never tremble with sadness, only purse in rage.

For whole days, for whole weeks, monarchs in love could not find their beloveds, could not say hello, and though they searched their palaces and their parks for their husbands, their wives, monarchs never chanced across the people whom they had supposed--in idler hours--were their intimates. Months passed, and monarchs finally recognized that their little hunts had taken them again and again along the same paths through their palaces, their parks: they left their offices and walked down hallways lined with the expensive mirrors that their fathers had installed, and they ducked through doorways painted their grandmothers' favorite colors, and they strolled through the greenhouses where their spinster aunts had crossed generations of daffodils for decade after decade, and they turned homewards just before crossing the lacquered oriental bridges bureaucrats had ordered built because they supposed them stylish, once.  Monarchs searched those places whose value they understood, but beloveds could not understand matters of worth, and monarchs realized too late that they might find their beloveds only by forcing themselves to search abandoned places, moneyless places. Now monarchs left their offices and walked down corridors whose ceilings crouched half-frescoed overhead, half sunset-with-clouds and half water-stained-plaster the spitfoam-white color of a beloved's native sky, and they opened doors and looked through dusty rooms full of outdated furniture still inexplicably fashionable in a beloved's distant homeland, and only then did they see their beloveds at windowsills, staring out over trees imported from the south, trees that struggled in green-browns and green-grays against early October darkness, and just as monarchs opened their mouths, just as their vocal cords tensed in their throats, they felt their aides' hands clutching at their elbows. Monarchs listened when their aides whispered. There was more work to be done, aides said, so these monarchs who had brought themselves to the point of love could return to their offices and feel no need to be in love any longer. At this news, these men, these women always smiled.

A second errand: complete it during early womanhood, before rumor of fruitlessness can take seed in gossipers' heads and bear fruit on gossipers' lips: fetch a rose from your greenhouse and bring it to your beloved, the third son of a monarch of some far-distant monarchy, a son who was once a priest, who was defrocked on a father's orders when his monarchy needed a treaty signed with yours: mumble with your eyebrows, raising them and lowering them as though you knew what you meant, and mutter a word and point to one of your body parts and indicate the land you see around you, your land: when your beloved reaches toward you to take the rose from you, take his hand and press the stem of the rose into his palm, and be quick, and do not worry about thorns, because time passes: lead him to the bedroom your father had decorated with metal furniture painted lead white: press your lips to his, and maybe in this you will insult him in his language even as you beseech him in yours, but press more firmly, and force him, because time passes, to provide for you an heir whose necessity is an insult in both his language and in yours, but you need an heir nonetheless, time passes: give birth to an heir: monarchy must not pass.

When thunderheads carried summer heat into monarchies, when sweat and lightning forced a monarchy's bureaucrats and ambassadors to flee northwards or up the slopes of mountains, when these men took their work with them, monarchs in love could no longer avoid saying hello to their beloveds, and so they found their beloveds strolling through parched gardens as though the day's warmth was welcome, and they said hello. Monarchs did not wait for their beloveds to respond, and instead they proposed outings: pleasure cruises, nights spent eating crab and drinking iced port, hunts. Hunts, beloveds repeated, and though monarchs could not know whether beloveds wished to participate in their old bloody rituals or whether they had merely murmured the word because it had been most accessible, most memorable for them, monarchs hurried off anyway and ordered their aides to make arrangements with the stable-boys and kennel-keepers and the silent men who staffed the bestiaries. A set of stormy days kept horses too frightened to risk riding, but a week later, two weeks later, monarchs and their beloveds dressed themselves and met in front of stables and inspected their reflections in the oil used to grease their guns and mounted their horses and rode off into far parklands. Monarchs looked at their beloveds and smiled, and beloveds looked at their monarchs and grimaced, and monarchs looked at their beloveds and grimaced, and beloveds looked at their monarchs tried to speak, hazarded sentences whose nouns had grown ill-fitting suffixes, whose verbs were conjugated into past present and future at once, whose adjectives were hidden in crowds of articles affixed to nothing. Monarchs raised their guns and shot at underbrush pheasants and missed. Beloveds raised their guns and raised them higher and shot at hawks perched on the limbs of dead trees, and monarchs winced. By the time they opened their eyes again, beloveds had fetched their hawks from the ground, had snapped their necks if the birds still lived, had plucked long feathers and offered them to their husbands, their wives, had dropped the beasts and raised their guns again.

A third errand: complete it during that listless period of middle age when the prospect of completing anything seems illusory: an heir has turned six, and it is time to name her: though you will want to name her Land and Taxes because those are the most important things, pretend, for a moment, that an heir is important for reasons other than these two, that she deserves some name more than Monarch, more than Land and Taxes, and pretend that she is a person worthy on her own: send word to your beloved, and let her choose a name for the heir from among a group of names that are fancies on your mother's name: Christine, Christiane, Christiana: when your beloved returns word to you, retreat to your set of offices and sign a decree making this heir your heir, making this child your daughter, and do not worry what your beloved thinks about the fact that you have claimed this child for yourself: from her set of leisure-rooms she has already dreamt that she has a Land and Taxes of her own, and she has already compromised, and she has already allowed you to choose a name from among some fancies on her mother's name: Mari, Marie, Maria: in shadows, at night, your daughter is your beloved's daughter, too, and though these daughters are different daughters, Christiane in offices, Mari in leisure-rooms, pretend that this dichotomy of soul is a gift: encourage your heir to treasure this gift by refusing to share it, by keeping the two parts of herself separate, just as you have kept the two parts of yourself separate: never mention that when you are not your father's heir-and-monarch you are your mother's Wilhelm, and trust that your beloved will never mention that when she is not her mother's second daughter she is her father's Anya: never tell your daughter that to be Henry and silent Wilhelm, Eleni and silent Anya, Christiane and silent Mari— never tell your daughter that to be these things is to know already what it means to be a monarch in love, in love with a sullen beloved, with a foreign beloved.

Months after beloveds picked the last bits of feather from beneath their fingernails and licked the last spots of blood from their knuckles, they found themselves staring through windows again, unable to understand the positions of the things they looked at in their monarchs' tax structures. Beloveds were desperate for this understanding. Without it, they could not transform any of the things that surrounded them into promise of money, and so they were left surrounded by the discolored lace of the local lacemakers, by the animal stink of tanneries miles away, by farms and orchards that produced grains and stonefruits that they could not recognize, even though they ought to be able to recognize them, now, decades distant from their fathers' amaranth, their mothers' greengage trees. Whenever beloveds studied, whenever they finally understood that tanners who housed their operations in buildings made from stone were taxed at rates thirteen-sixteenths as high as tanners who housed their operations in buildings made from wood, monarchs signed decrees: now, because stone was scarce, because the wooded stretches of forestlands newly acquired in war needed clearing, tanners' taxes were matters of nineteen-sixteenths stone-over-wood, or of eight-sevenths stone-over-wood if tanners tanned sheep hide as well as steer and cow hide. So beloveds rarely left palaces, looked only at things whose value was incalculably low and never worth taxing, and though beloveds made for themselves lives populated by dwarves and entomologists' samples and old handkerchiefs, most of these things only served to bore them, and beloveds drifted in and out of sleep, and, and in their sleep, beloveds knew that dwarves and insects and handkerchiefs were not in fact things enough to make a life from, and during those moments early in days when the smell of downfeathers and distant coffee was comforting enough to allow beloveds to forget a world, beloveds wondered if they could feel beloved again, if they could ride pierwards and board boats and return to the monarchies they knew. When beloveds cried out for their monarchs, they never meant their husbands, their wives.

A fourth errand: complete it when your molars have been pulled, when you are left to labor at chewing with your eyeteeth only, when you can feel the pulse of migraine even before you open your eyes in the morning: your heir, your son has turned thirteen, and the time has come to find for him a beloved of his own, so call your secretaries and your ministers into your offices, and if your beloved comes at your call, too, do not worry too much about him: unroll a map and point to a monarchy, here, and listen to a secretary explain a monarch's children's retardation, and point to a monarchy, there, and listen to a minister whisper about barrenness of issue, about rumor of pederasty, and point finally to a monarchy not too far distant from your own, and listen to your beloved cough and speak of an uncle married and in residence at a palace in that monarchy, an uncle who has written of that monarch's daughter with some esteem: decide, and call a secretary and instruct him to draft for you a letter in two languages, in your language and in a language another monarch might understand, even though that monarch's children are retards: pace across parquet while you wait for a reply: when it comes, do not bother to tell your heir that you have found for him a beloved because there is time enough to tell him during a ride pierwards, when you hand your heir a book composed in another language, when you explain to him that he is now--that he will be soon--an heir in love.

Monarchs in love suspected the worst of their beloveds. After months, after years, an awareness settled over them, and they saw that their beloveds kept around themselves the worst sorts of things, dwarves, insects, handkerchiefs, and monarchs wondered about these things while staring out through windows, while summing and totaling the taxes they earned from those haymakers, there, baling hay with nickel wire, baling a first bale, a second bale, a first levy, a second levy. When monarchs turned away from windows and paced instead across parquet, they pitied their beloveds, whose fathers' monarchies, mothers' monarchies must have been so poor that monarchs there taxed even dwarves whose fingernails grew in not as nails but as hair, even insects that gleamed dully, brass and tin, even handkerchiefs passed from nose to nose without washing. But monarchs in love envied their beloveds, too, because their beloveds had found some little solace where they could now find none. Even though monarchs signed decrees and instated taxes and understood their lands, their mud, their parquets and windows, time passed, and now, when monarchs rode out into their lands, through their mud, they understood that they saw cottages and tanner's workshops and orchards only as taxes. Though they knew that a newly-thatched cottage and a tanner's workshop lately taken up production of camel leather and an orchard of pear trees grafted with crabapple branches all meant taxes, monarchs could not understand what meaning amaranth thatch and camel hide and crabapple blossom had, because these things were new to them, unlike the slate shingles and kid leather and cherries of their youth, and monarchs envied their heirs for their familiarity with such things, because, like time, worlds pass. The world that these monarchs had loved passed, and they were left with nothing, with pens and with blank paper and with ink but without words they could use to describe any of the things they saw. So monarchs retreated to old hallways, to old familiar glass--windows and mirrors--and monarchs wondered what it was that still remained to them, and they lied to themselves: love, they supposed, remained, because they were monarchs in love, and where were their beloveds, anyway?

A fifth errand: this errand is so simple that you can complete it from your bed, when you are very old: you know, you have always known, that this is the last of the things you must do for your monarchy: die: before you die, call for your heir, your daughter, and look into her eyes--and ignore the fact that you have never done this before, never, never--and promise her happiness, because soon she will be a monarch, and, more than that, she will be a monarch in love: next, call for your beloved, and if your beloved has died already, forget that fact for a second time or a sixth time or a tenth time: look into the eyes of your beloved, now, and if your beloved has died already, forget this fact and look into her eyes anyway: in those eyes or not-eyes, see that your life and her life were the same, made bitter by so much desire: look around again: you are dying, and you have been taken by an understanding, and you must communicate it, now, because this understanding has seized you, has seized all of you: pause: whisper to your heir, and tell her to call for a pen and some paper, and see that she is leaning forward, failing to comprehend, and whisper louder, now, strain your voice, and let her know, try to let her know: you chose your foreign minister in a fit of ill-temper, and he must be fired, he must be fired!







This story started as an exercise in insincerity, as a collection of unconventional punctuation and other formal tics, but at some point I realized that I had approached this insincerity so sincerely that the story, as conceived, was a failure. It was at this point that I recognized my fondness for it.