40th Anniversary Feature: KING OF HEARTS, QUEEN OF SPADES — an excerpt from Hex
By SARAH BLACKMAN
BWR Genre Editor, Fiction, 2005-2006
My father stared at me. You can imagine: his hands on either side of his plate, his chop growing gray as it leaked into the peas. We sat that way. Then my father lifted his fork and knife and cut a bite out of his meat. He chewed it, never taking his eyes from my face, and took a long, deliberate swallow out of his cup. “Now, let me tell you a story,” he said. And this is what it was:
“Once there was a King who had need of a Queen. Never mind why; it was something political. His advisors proposed they search far and wide for the most beautiful or virtuous or well-read maiden in that or any other land, but the King was a practical kind of guy who liked to get things done.
“Just find someone in the village,” he said. The advisors weren’t pleased with it, but what were they going to do? They all went down to the village.
Once they got there, they were struck by a problem. The village didn’t have the best reputation in the world. It was a pretty dirty place, all littered about by swine and turnips and other villagey things. The people were naturally suspicious of governmental authority, and usually so grimy and bent up in their sack-clothes as they hauled around their heavy loads that it was really hard for the advisors to tell who was a fair maiden and who wasn’t which was a criteria they thought was kind of important even though the King had said he didn’t care.
One of the advisors was of a scientific bent, and he proposed that they find the new Queen through a process of systematic interrogation involving calipers and precisely weighted scales and reams and reams of graph paper. That sounded okay to the other two advisors in theory, but, as one of them pointed out, they hadn’t brought any of those materials with them and they sure weren’t going to get something like that in the village where the only things for sale seemed to be swine tonics and economy sized boxes of powdered cheese.
Another one of the advisors was a man of faith who had played around with the idea of going into the seminary for awhile when he was in his twenties, but then he had met his wife and one thing lead to another. Now he had ten kids, all daughters, and he felt a little pissed off at God, but also scared at being pissed off at God, so he walked around all the time with a tension headache.
“Why don’t we just round up a bunch of them,” this guy suggested, “and take them to the river. We’ll strip them and scrub them down and go along the line making them recite something, maybe the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer, just to make sure no one’s a retard. If we had them all in a group like that, one of them would probably stand out.”
The other two advisors thought this was actually a really great idea, particularly the part about stripping the women and scrubbing them down, but then the science-minded advisor pointed out that most of the women on the street were in town with their husbands. While that wouldn’t matter to the King—he was the King!; there wasn’t anything too complicated about making a husband disappear—it was statistically very probable that it would matter to one or more of the village men who, guided by their genetic predisposition toward rash physicality, might make things kind of sticky.
The third advisor was named Beemis and he was new on the job. Originally he had thought of this gig as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but the longer he stayed at court hanging out with the King’s advisors and cooks and pageboys and stewards of the crown, the more he began to think that he’d made a tactical error.
“Just stick it out,” his mother had told him. “Keep your head down. Suck it up. Put your shoulder in.” But Beemis was ambitious. By thirty he wanted to be his own boss, and by forty-five he wanted to retire and buy a condo on this roving, twenty-story ocean-liner he had read about where you did your grocery shopping port by port (wine in Marseille, bread in Gibraltar) and every night smartly dressed couples played pinochle on the aft-deck under the light of a gibbous moon.
If he couldn’t figure out how to get the King’s attention soon, he was going to try to move into a lateral position in the court of one of the country’s neighboring allies, but this would mean buying a whole new wardrobe in that kingdom’s colors and having to learn a new language. No country stayed allied with the King for too long, so potentially he’d have to do military service fighting against a lot of guys who he’d gone to college with and played with now on a softball league, none of which he particularly wanted to do. What Beemis wanted most in the world, the secret desire of his heart, was for the King to notice him and call him by his name. While the other two advisors stood in the street and argued, Beemis was mindful of the time and getting jumpy.
Finally, after they had gone round and round on the cost effectiveness of going all the way back to the castle for calipers versus the relative likelihood that their insurance plan would cover injury by mob violence, Beemis said, “I’ll be right back,” and took off trotting down the street and into a dog-leg alley where he was lost from sight.
“Jesus, that guy,” said the second advisor, but nevertheless he and his colleague sat down on the side of a watering trough to wait.
Before too much time passed—they took in a Punch and Judy show and bought fried pies from a vendor who was selling them out of a tray he wore round his neck—Beemis returned and
with him he had a woman.
“Who’s that?” asked the scientific advisor, but the man of faith rose to his feet and exhaled, “The Queen…”
He was right, that’s who it was. Or at least that’s who she was going to be. She was wearing a brown dress of some scratchy material and sturdy blue shoes; not much to look at, but she seemed tidy and under the plain exterior it was clear that she had potential. Put her in a dress with an embroidered bodice, powder her face and slap a coronet on her head, and they would have the bonafide article. So what if she couldn’t tell her oyster knife from her sorbet spoon or discourse on classical sculpture? She had clean eyes and a pretty good smile which she showed them from behind Beemis’s shoulder where she was standing as if she were shy.
“Hi,” she said, and that was that.
The next morning the advisors introduced the girl to the King and he said that was fine and the whole court started making preparations for the royal wedding. Even though the King was in a hurry—his political situation had gotten more urgent—a royal wedding has to be done a specific way so it would be a least a week before the girl became the Queen. Meanwhile, she was free to roam about the castle as, once the seamstresses got her measurements, no one really needed her for much. She spent a lot of her time in the royal library. She couldn’t read, but there were big tapestries there which showed pictures of lords and ladies riding horses through the forest. All around them were animals they hadn’t yet noticed peeking out of the leaves or hiding in the undergrowth. Also, the King kept a lot of atlases on hand and the girl like to open them at random and trace the strange rivers and shorelines with the tip of her finger. She hadn’t had much opportunity for schooling in the village, and she thought it was really great how, no matter where it started, every one of those rivers eventually ended up at the sea.
Soon enough, the week had passed and the day of the wedding came. The girl was gotten out of bed very early by a team of hairdressers and dress-fitters and makeup artists and aroma-therapists who powdered and pinched and puffed and pried her into her wedding array. It was elaborate, to say that least: her hair so high it jangled the crystal of the chandeliers as she walked, her skirts so wide she wedged in the door and had to be pushed through like a cork being rammed down the neck of a bottle. She looked great, really swell, they all assured her, but she couldn’t know for sure because there weren’t any mirrors in the castle big enough to reflect the whole display at once.
When she was all ready, her team of dressers melted away and an elderly footman named Harold took her down the hall to the throne room and then, to her surprise, past the big empty thrones, through a curtain, down another hall and into a part of the castle where she had never been. There he opened a door and, after another little issue with her skirts, ushered her in to a hot, close room with purple velvet curtains pulled tight over the windows, floor to ceiling mirrors on the walls and smack in the middle a huge, canopied bed. There weren’t as many people there as she had expected. Beemis, for one, and the other advisors. Then some lords and ladies who were standing around the room in the finest wigs and hose, rustling and talking to each other, though they straightened up when she walked in.
“Great,” said the King, holding out a hand to her. “Tell Mrs. Zuckerman good work,” he said to Harold, leading the girl to the center of the room where there was an end table sitting next to a short step-ladder and turning her to face the court.
The rest of the ceremony passed in kind of a blur. The King officiated his own wedding and there was a whole file folder full of official documents to read. The courtesans tried to seem interested, but there was a lot of shifting weight and stifled yawning, and for most of the wedding there wasn’t anything for her to do but stand there and smile and every now and then, at the King’s cue, repeat something he had read.
Then, the King said, “Now for the proofs.” He told her to get up on the stepladder, which she did, and prop her left foot on the top step, which, balancing a little awkwardly in her silver heels, she also did. When she was steady in this position, the King knelt down before her and lifted a velvet sac she hadn’t previously noticed from its place on the end table. He began to peel up her skirts, layer by layer, passing them up to her to hold so that soon she could no longer see what he was doing directly because there was so much fabric pressed under her chin and had to watch instead in the mirror. When the King finally got down to her bare legs, there was a different kind of stirring among the courtesans. She hadn’t expected any of this and felt ashamed. Her legs were so white and skinny in the mirror they looked like some other kind of thing entirely!
The King opened the velvet sac with a flourish and pulled out a pair of silver shears. He opened and shut them twice for the benefit of the courtesans and then used them to snip the two sides of her white lace panties and pull the fabric away from her crotch like a magician pulling a scarf from the top of an empty hat. The bath attendants had done their job well so everything down there was trimmed tight and blonde, and the King, for the first time paying a little attention to the fact that it was a body there under all those clothes, stroked her thatch admiringly. Then, with the index and ring finger of his left hand, her pulled her lips apart and held them open while he dumped the remained contents of the sac onto the carpet. She gasped in shock. Five rough-cut rubies fell out of the sac and rolled around on the floor.
One by one, with a little flourish each time, the King inserted the rubies inside of her, pushing the first one up as far as he could with his middle finger, then using each stone to push its neighbor higher up the line. This was a little painful, but there was no blood and the King was fast. The whole thing was hard on Beemis since, it turns out, this was his sister, the only girl he knew who could be reached on short notice, but in the end he got what he wanted (the King had even patted him on the back a few times and called him Blemis, which was close) and his sister didn’t seem too much the worse for the wear. She even looked a little proud up there surrounded by so much floating fabric and hair, chin raised, eyes locked on the mirror. Soon enough the ordeal was over and she was married. She was the Queen.
For awhile, everything went well. As the Queen, she had a lot more free time than she had as a villager and she took up landscape painting and learned how to make lanterns out of rice paper and paste. The King got along with her well enough, and he liked the feel of the stones rubbing the tip of his cock as he fucked her, which he did pretty regularly despite his busy schedule. But then one day, as she washed up in her marble and platinum bathroom after a particularly vigorous session with the King, the Queen felt a sharp pain in her stomach and one of the rubies fell out of her vagina onto the tile. She was upset, but she guessed it probably wasn’t that big a deal. It wasn’t like she’d ever had rubies up there before, and the whole thing had seemed like more of a symbolic gesture anyway. Nevertheless, she took the stone into the King’s drawing room where he was relaxing on the sofa reading the paper, and told him what had happened. He shook his head and put the stone away in the velvet sac which, even though it was empty, he kept on his person at all times.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the stones fell out of her one by one. Without the stones, the King didn’t find her as satisfying. She was loose down there, flaccid feeling, and even though he tried lots of different positions—her on top, backwards on top, from behind and squeezing her creamy white ass-cheeks together for a little extra traction—he couldn’t finish inside her anymore and had to get her to take him in her mouth or do it with her hand. “C’est la vie,” said the King, who had lots of other options. After that, he left her alone. She was still the Queen, but word must have gotten around somehow because people looked at her a little differently. It made her paranoid and she took to wearing her hair down over her face and skulking in the corridors. She got involved with a number of irritating causes and became a major supporter of community theatre. Whenever she ran into Beemis, she pressed him into serving as her escort to the dog show or the ballet and, as she wouldn’t allow him to either quit or transfer and the King had long since forgotten his name, she generally made life miserable for him out of a spirit of revenge but also pity because she knew some things he did not about the nature of the world.
Sometimes, she would go into the room where her wedding had been held and lift the velvet sac from the end table where the King kept it now that the rubies were back inside. She would spill the stones out on the coverlet and sort them, holding them up to the light and peering through them, piling them in her palm and testing their weight. But, no matter how old she got, nothing ever changed with those rubies. That’s all they were, just rubies, though she could never accept it and so lived a long and tedious life.”
This is what my father said to me. And with that, my life in his house had come to an end.
Sarah Blackman is the Director of Creative Writing at the Fine Arts Center, a public arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina where she lives with the poet John Pursley, III and their two daughters. Her story collection, Mother Box, is forthcoming from FC2.
This story is an excerpt from a chapter of her novel, Hex, the first half of which can be read at spoliamag.com.
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