After being scooped off the beach—drooling and twitching next to the child who, in captivity, had inexplicably disappeared—the Monarch was weeks later still confined to his bed. He had taken to describing, spontaneously and with gestures that made him ache for days afterwards, grandiose schemes for the recovery of his kingdom. Interrupting their lunch, he called his advisors in and told them hurriedly about his plan for a series of state-funded apothecaries in all the villages and cities. They took notes as they always did and left the chambers when the Monarch’s energy was spent. Outside they shook their heads in sadness. “So excitable,” they would mutter; “It’s a pity, what’s happened.” It was difficult to watch the disintegration of a mind, still more difficult carrying on the deception. However, what else could they do? Apothecaries? This could not be what the Monarch really wanted.
When the Monarch died a few days later and his final will was read out to the advisors and the chancellors, there was no laughter at his utopian dream, only the sad down-turning of gazes onto the marble palace floor. There were certainly the resources in the treasury to fund such a dream, and indeed great need of it in the desolated kingdom. But how could they be expected to understand, or believe, such a change of heart? True, there was one among them inclined to think the Monarch’s madness was no madness—a final clarity in the end of life, perhaps, or something more—but his is another story. And for the moment even he, with all the rest leaving the ceremonial hall, was forced to wonder without satisfaction what it was that had happened, what it was the Monarch had seen.
It was noon. The Monarch lounged on the balcony, which looked out on the final destruction of the Capper sea-folk, and sighed. Five feet back a servant girl began to sweat. Was he not satisfied with his tray of exotic juices? But she was lucky. His sigh was directed at life itself, which was far more insipid.
The scarred priest had called it ennui.
When after ten years of struggle the Monarch subdued the last of the Seven Princes and assimilated his army and assets, there was nothing he could not do—only, he had grown so used to conquest that he could not desire nor think of anything else. And so he went after this spice trade and that gold mine, sequestering so much wealth at the center of his kingdom that he caused the whole world to slope towards him, like a stone at the center of a map. Now he had control of the pearl trade, but the truth was the royal coffers could get no fuller. He was only playing a lackluster game with himself, waiting for something to happen and all the while creating the very conditions that ensured nothing would.
For years it had been this way—anything he desired plucked from reality and brought before him: oysters, silks, concubines, empires. He had learned too late how much savor in life comes from resistance. Even the pleasures of killing were quickly exhausted for him, and now to raze a village wasn’t enough—he had to have the sons kill the fathers, the daughters kill the mothers. He did worse things, too, unspeakable things, so that he might feel something, even pain. But of course it was never enough, and daily he wondered where those golden years of his youth had gone: when the kingdom was in ruins and strangers were stoned at village gates, when the fickle and slipshod ways of the vigilantes were the meager substitute for justice and it was anyone’s guess whose home would burn next—when, in other words, the ascending monarchy was useful and welcome. And so each day the frustration grew until every slave, every advisor, every ambassador, trembled to be near him. He would lash out with his knife-edged sceptre, as though he could release the passion hidden in the chests of men and have it flow into himself. He would stab at citizens in the street. Now his subjects knew him as the Mad Monarch. He hated it, and hated more that he could not stop it and could only command torture and death for whoever spoke the words.
Once, when the scarred priest was yet without his scars, he told the Monarch that Elyon, the High God, was displeased by his impersonations of Her; indeed the priest went further, saying not only was the Monarch not Elyon but something worse, perhaps the worst condemnation theologically possible—Elyon’s Shadow. The Monarch looked at himself that night and found, without horror, without pain, that it was true. He had the priest tortured and locked in the dungeon anyway; the rest he killed, knowing now the opinion of the religious. There were rebellions, naturally, but he paid his army well. When it was over he hid the fact that there was one priest yet alive; he hid also that, on occasion, the Monarch found himself descending the dungeon ladders and facing the scarred priest, whose gaze fascinated and angered him.
“Turtle soup,” muttered the Monarch, and it was brought. Soon, bored, he made the gesture for one of his concubines to approach. The servant girls averted their eyes. I might end it all tonight, he thought as he undressed. Then again, I might not. But then he paused, with his robe at his feet, thinking he might weep, and sent the concubine away. But tears did not come, and he grew tired of waiting.
That evening, the Monarch again felt something coming. Not tears, something else. His military advisor was speaking hurriedly to him about a growing insurrection in the North; the Monarch ordered him away. He ordered his servants away with their trays of oyster and crab. Alone, he could feel it coming stronger and went to the high, arched window. The night pulsed with energy and against it he felt old. There were places on his face the starlight could not enter, behind the wrinkles.
That was when Elyon said to him, “There were two foxes crouching in meadow. One looks at the flower, the other eats it.”
The Monarch did not believe in Elyon. He did not believe in anything more powerful than himself—he had forgotten how. And so he neglected to respond.
“However inadequate your Scriptures are,” Elyon went on, “there is at least that passage. It’s something you might pay attention to.”
“I do not read the Scriptures,” the Monarch found himself saying.
There was silence. A waiting silence.
The Monarch said, “Who are you?”
“I am Elyon.”
Goosebumps rose. The darkness of his chamber shimmered, alive with intention. Still, the Monarch said, “How do I know you are not a voice in my head?”
“I am voice in your head,” said Elyon. “But I could just as well be a glowing orb hovering in front of you. Would you like me to be a glowing orb?”
The Monarch said nothing.
“You are right. It does not matter how I appear to you. I am Elyon, Maker of the World. I made the Seas of Fortune and the thousand spices of the Southern Reach; I made flame and I made the breeze and I made the space between the stars. I made the stretch of time, the distension of space, the inner dimensions you call Mind. I made you, tyrant.”
Silence again. The Monarch went across the room and listened at the door. On the other side one of the sentry shifted. The Monarch went back to the window. Already the encounter was irking him. He was not used to being addressed without permission.
He said, “They say you created the world from chaos. Some also say you created it from nothing. Which is it?” When Elyon did not answer immediately he waved his hand in annoyance. “No, I don’t care. What do you want with me, Elyon?”
“I was like you, long ago,” said Elyon. “And so I have sympathy on all tyrants, on all who eat what should not be eaten. I have heard your heart’s cry. I can feel your bitterness. So I have come.”
The Monarch said—for in his interrogations of the scarred priest he had become familiar enough with the Scriptures—“But you call yourself the God of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. That is why I do not worship you.”
“But that is not so,” said Elyon. “I am all things to all people. I am also the God of the tyrants, the rulers, the powerful.”
The Monarch looked around the dark room, his eyes like spearheads. “You said you were like me. How? I have burned the seven Nations to the ground in the fire of my hate, and made the world so hot that I melted my own heart in my chest—”
“—and you are nothing now but a pillar of ashes, angry at your own existence, angry at everything that reminds you of your existence—Yes, I know.”
The Monarch froze, then spat. “Well, so you know.” He was breathing heavily, casting about the room with his eyes, frustrated to find no purchase. At length he said, “Be gone then, Elyon, for I have no use for your taunting.”
But Elyon did not go.
“I know what you crave, tyrant, and I did not come to taunt you. You shall have what you desire. You shall know what it is to care for life again. But first, you must do something for me. You must, not a servant. There are none of your shortcuts here, tyrant. No one can do your soul’s work but you.”
The Monarch said, “Do not patronize me, Elyon.”
“You will build me a place of worship, a humble temple without gilding as bright as the sun and without spires higher than the flight of the raptor. You will not fill the temple with a thousand chimes and a thousand candles, and you will not place cushions where you kneel. Without these things you will worship me, every morning and every evening. You will worship me for five years, and when you have done this, I will show you something that will make you young again and fill your heart with care.”
The Monarch’s face, ever stony and resigned, seemed to fall now, betraying a disappointment so unfamiliar to its muscles that it became a distorted and half-formed thing.
“Five years? This, Elyon, I cannot do.”
Silence. The Monarch sat on his bed, his eyes looking sadly out at the night. He knew that given so long a time he would surely despair and end up with his own sword through his chest.
At last Elyon said, “If it is too long for you, tyrant, then I will make it shorter. Worship morning and evening for one year, and I will give you what you desire.”
Still the sadness did not leave the Monarch’s eyes. He knew—he, a man who found himself restless even an hour into a game of chess, a man who threw a fit when the servants were seconds late with his wine—that it was too long.
And so Elyon said, “A month, tyrant. Only a month.”
If there was ever a moment in all this and what was to come for the Monarch to grow suspicious of Elyon, it was this moment. But the Monarch said, “One month,” and felt the presence leave the room.
The Monarch’s architects, used to designing impossible wonders that took decades to build, were confused by the project, but relieved. And so the Monarch was within days beginning his month-long trial.
It was strange for him, spending so much time outside the flash of gold and silver, breathing un-incensed air, kneeling on prayer mats made of peasant’s twine. Strangest of all was doing something he did not feel like doing. Still, he knelt there every morning and every evening.
He felt nothing at first but that annoyance, and then just nothing. He began to grow worried that he was not doing it right, that he was missing something, botching some formula, and had soon convinced himself that he did not know how to worship.
So he had the scarred priest instruct him.
At first the priest—nervous, distrustful—gave him a mantra, “Thy beauty forever,” which he was to say over and over, moving the words from his lips to his head to his heart. But, on trying this, the Monarch knew there had to be more; indeed he suspected the priest of hiding something. On torturing him, the Monarch learned the truth. The mantra of highest worship for Elyon was this: “Creator God, I beg clemency for being only a man.” This, however, the Monarch found not only distasteful but contradictory, for was it not the fault of the Creator that he was made a man? And, moreover, if this were some great evil, why should it be himself begging clemency and not the one who had the power to act otherwise?
He questioned the priest further, who trembled on the rack as he spoke: “Contradiction is the heart of faith; nothing makes a man so humble.” But the Monarch could not understand the worth of humility and said as much.
It was at this moment that the priest, so near death, decided to rebel in the last, small way available to him, and spat at the Monarch. “Elyon is the God of slaves, not of Monarchs!” he hissed. “It’s demons that say otherwise. You are damned, you tyrant—damned.”
Within minutes he had expired.
Despite his doubts the Monarch tried the mantra and felt something in him stir. It was unpleasant, but it was something—And perhaps, he thought, true religion is meant to be unpleasant. So it was that the Monarch worshiped a whole month, and when it was over Elyon came to him.
The girl was kneeling near the lapping waves and building a castle of sand; when the Monarch strode near, she did not flee as all children do but stayed and watched his approach. He saw that she had a crooked back and a distorted face. The monarch did not like sickness and usually killed the sick when he came across them, because he preferred not to flee and did not know what else to do. So the Monarch might have had her killed if she had not spoken.
“You have worshiped me a whole month, and you do not recognize me? Ah, but it is hard for a tyrant to worship something greater than himself, and I do not blame you for missing your aim.”
“I have done what you asked,” said the Monarch, annoyed at having been surprised this way. He gestured for his guard to disperse. “I’m entitled to the vision you promised me.”
Elyon blinked and stood. She wiped her hands on her thighs. “You are right, tyrant. You have suffered much. But before I show you my vision, first you must suffer still more while I lecture you.”
“Go on,” said the Monarch, impatient.
“There are two ways that a tyrant can fight the ennui which is the inevitable result of omnipotence,” said Elyon. “First, the tyrant can try the way of destruction.” Elyon kicked down the sandcastle with her tiny feet. “This is least effective and yet the most practiced. At the very height of opulence the tyrant languishes, ordering heads brought to him on platters and the desolation of whole empires.
“Second,” said Elyon, kneeling now and shaping the sand back into turrets with her tiny hands, “the tyrant can try the way of creation. At the height of his ennui, if the tyrant but dares lower taxes, dares plant orchards in villages and design aqueducts for the cities, dares build a palace for the worship of someone not himself, he will feel the very thing he craves.”
The girl stood then, awkwardly because of her back, and looked directly at the Monarch. A sea breeze swept past her, making fire of her blond hair. For the first time the Monarch saw the sadness in the eyes, and seeing this, he remembered what Elyon had said—“I was like you, long ago.” And he knew what was to come.
There is a way in which a poorly crafted goblet, or shoddily constructed chair, feels like a thing “made” by someone, as perfect goblets or chairs do not. The Monarch had never felt this way about existence itself, experiencing it as we all do as a perfect thing, always there, unmade and irreducible. Now he could hardly believe he had called the world real.
It was but a distant memory now, horded deep in the mind of Elyon the Creator, but it was enough. It began as an unbearable sadness, and it was mixed with such horrible regret and anger that the Monarch choked with his very being. And then he began to see it—though “see” was an infinity away from the right word. What mad wonders had been standing before Elyon had destroyed them stood again, and the Monarch’s eyes were stabbed through with their beauty. Light here was more than light; darkness more than darkness. The living quality we feel in the plants of our world was there even in its stones and rivers, and the intentionality we feel in other people was there in its plants. There were people, too, but he knew this only by their shadows, as it were, for if even the stones and metals were alive here then the people were something more; their very presence betrayed some super-intentionality which gave his heart pangs. Perhaps the Monarch lasted a second here, perhaps a year; but he felt a million things, and each pulsed with more hurt and joy and wonder than the whole of existence. He could see deeper patterns, too, vast edifices taken in at a glance, complexities and immensities all shimmering with an extra-physical glow, a radiance that came not from within but from without, as though significance itself caused them to shine. These were things only suggested by the grandest spires and mountains and oceans of the Monarch’s world, and just seeing them was too much—he was a ghost in this world-before-the-world, not made to see it, and as he collapsed on the beach and the royal guard came running, the Monarch had on his face an expression that none of them could fathom.
Bio: I am a social worker armed with a B.A. in Literature and a M.A. in Theology. My fiction and poetry have featured in Presence, (parenthetical), Frogpond, Lyrical Passion, Ancient Paths Online and Contemporary Haibun Online, among others.