The King’s Wings
A Contemporary Fairy Tale for New York City
by Thaïs Miller
Dedicated to Anne Sexton and Jesse Ball
“The king summoned the girl
and locked her in a room full of straw
and told her to spin it into gold
or she would die like a criminal.
Poor grape with no one to pick.
Luscious and round and sleek.
To die and never see Brooklyn.”
–Anne Sexton, “Rumpelstiltskin” from Transformations
While the kingdom flourished, the king languished. King Octavio was handsome, even when bored, with a trimmed beard and eyes the color of coffee. No matter how many jesters and jugglers were called to the court, none could excite him. He pouted, slouched in his throne, crossed his arms, and sighed. His bride-to-be, Merrindra, sat to the right of his gold-tinted throne where he lounged longingly. She would touch his hand but he would pull it away. Neither her wine-stained lips nor her blackberry hair could entrance him for long, or so the men and women of the court would cover their mouths and whisper. They observed the king daily from their bleacher-like seats on the sides of the room.
Amongst the trapeze artists and fire eaters, an elderly man appeared. His beard was frayed at the edges like a worn out cat. He was a blind mute. In his trembling hands, he carried an accordion as large as a radiator.
“Ha!” called the court clerk, “Surely this cannot amuse the king. Go home, Grandpa.”
But the man had traveled many days and nights to be there. He had waited his turn in the queue. All this the old man revealed by pointing and shaking his fingers behind him toward the crowded entryway.
The king rolled his eyes. “Very well.”
So the old man unclipped his accordion and pulled apart the sides. The instrument sucked air like a baby taking in his mother’s milk. Then the old man pushed the sides together.
“What wheezing and wailing!” called the court clerk, “Like an animal being beaten.”
All the court put their hands over their ears.
“This man cannot play!”
All groaned except King Octavio, who sat still and amazed.
“What is it?” Merrindra’s elbow nudged him as she covered her ears.
But Merrindra could not hear him, the music being so awful and loud. She could not see what the king could see: behind the old musician had grown an enormous pair of marigold and burgundy wings. Huge feathered and scaled apparatuses as organic as they were fierce.
“Stop! Stop that noise!” called the clerk and the old man obliged him.
The king blinked and the wings disappeared.
“Off with your head!” the king yelled at the clerk.
“But why?” a woman stood in the court bleachers. She wore a purple hat with two large horns. “The clerk was merely relieving our pain.”
“Because I am the king! So it must be!”
The clerk was executed and the accordionist asked to return the next day.
Next noon, some of the lords had left the court. Bickering, a messenger told the king, they were bickering.
“Bring in the accordionist,” called the king from his throne. The king’s crown grazed the ten-foot gold embroidered ceiling like a finger touching a monk’s illuminated manuscript.
The old man shuffled his feet to the front of the court. He stood four-foot-nine. The old man handed the messenger a paper. It read:
You are so far away, your highness. Would you not hear better coming down?
The messenger delivered the note and the king descended from his throne.
“Hi.” A young woman with cornhusk hair crouched behind the geezer. “This is my father, Armand. I’m Esmeralda but you can call me Izzy.”
The old man began to play and his wings were revealed again. So, too, were his daughter’s, which were green, bronze, and amethyst. The king noticed her lift her feet above the ground. But no one else in the court saw this. They had all shut their eyes as though to keep the music from penetrating their brains.
“You can have wings, too,” she whispered as though remarking on the weather.
“Too?” asked King Octavio.
“Yes.” The girl’s eyes smiled though her lips did not curl. The king felt his heart beat in his throat.
“Stop that racket!” begged the messenger.
“But there are sacrifices.” Izzy nodded to the messenger who was now grabbing the accordion out of her father’s hands. The music stopped.
“To the gallows!” called the king to his messenger.
“But why?” asked his servant.
“Because I am the king. So it must be.”
The messenger was executed and the accordionist and his daughter were asked to permanently stay.
In the woods outside the court, the king would secretly meet Izzy and her father for midnight flying lessons. King Octavio would hop in the air and flap his arms only to stumble to the ground. No wings grew on his back.
“How much shall I pay for the wings? Two cattle? Ten?”
The girl laughed. Her wings flapped against his cheeks. She pulled him toward a pomegranate shrub and pushed away the leaves.
Between the fruit, the king saw his bride-to-be. No. It was not her but a reflection of her, blurred as though in water. But the image was standing and moving, holding the hand of a small boy.
“You cannot marry. You cannot conceive your heir,” said Izzy. “That is the price.”
“But why?” asked the king. “Why can’t I have it all?”
The girl shrugged. “I heard a fairy tale once of an island between a river and a tidal strait where tall, rectangular castles sprouted like plants and touched the sky. The people worried there. At first, only the mid-career ladies fretted and some of the lords brooded. But soon everyone was distressed because they had to decide how they could have it all. Could they afford to stay in the castles on the island? Could they afford to stay and wed and reproduce and spend time with their reproductions? Some would move and marry and populate and play with their populations. Some would not marry or spawn. They had to decide and so will you.”
The girl pulled the king away from the bushes. The images of Merrindra and his son were haunting and beautiful. They dissipated like smoke.
“I have made my choice,” said the king.
The courtroom was empty but for the king and a notice saying: VILLAGERS REVOLTED. Warring lords had seized arms against their workers and each other. While the court had attempted to pleasure the king out of his boredom, the rest of the kingdom had gone overlooked.
King Octavio flew to his throne. Enormous wings of black, gray, and white reached either wall of the courtroom like a giant newspaper. Then he sat, alone. A clock ticked. His crown tilted to the side.
“Music!” called the king and Izzy ushered her father into the room.
“I brought friends,” Izzy announced.
As the music blared, dozens upon dozens of other winged men and women and horses and dogs appeared, all in startling colors, all flying. King Octavio saw a fly with an extra pair of golden wings. They laughed, drank and ate but they hardly ever talked to the king. They danced but none of them knew how to cook or clean or bathe.
So the courtroom slowly but surely decayed. The curtains became dusty, shredding in the wind. The paint and gold peeled from the ceiling. The winged ones would steal it and keep it in their teeth. The warring outside raged without relief. King Octavio slumped in his throne, his cheek resting on his fist. While the kingdom flourished, the king languished.
Thaïs Miller originally made up this story when she was 10 years old. Since then, she became the author of The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009) and Our Machinery (2008), both released by Brown Paper Publishing and available on www.amazon.com. She currently teaches adult creative writing through the Gotham Writers Workshop. For more information about her education, publications, and readings, please visit her website.