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The Old Hok Wisdom

The royals of Beflou eat to capacity and don’t stop. Once full, they dispense with swallowing. They chew up their food and—having exhausted flavor, texture, moisture—spit it into little bowls dedicated for that purpose. This removes the stomach’s arbitrary constraint. This relieves them of the burden of determining how much is enough.

The royals of Sastrán announce aloud not only what they want at any given moment, but also what they don’t want. “I will not wear a scratchy cloak against my back. Or my neck.” “I cannot own a painting concerned with regret.” “I do not pine to attend a wedding where the officiant resembles too closely the groom.” They like to proclaim a non-desire out of thin air, elaborating on it apropos of nothing. They mention it regardless of the subject at hand, and notwithstanding the lack of apparent reason to speak or think of it at all. This confirms for everybody in earshot, and for themselves, their weight in the world. Clearly: if the slightest, strayest notion that feathers the backs of their skulls has a significance worthy of utterance, then their real concerns must move the very planet.

The royals of Erc-Tichteff speak in the second person when you and I wouldn’t. They do this out of an atavistic solipsism. They believe, as a matter of identity, that they’re the center of the universe—and moreover most of its important parts—and so assume its lesser inhabitants are sensitive to their every remark and supposition. The king, for example, might say to himself about a disobliging finance minister, “That man is nothing but a favor-monger. You [referring to and in fact addressing the finance minister, though he is nowhere close by] need to educate your fool’s mind and discipline your focus.” The second person deploys even in reference to dead people: “I’ve always found Gadre Sax’s compositions wanting. You [referring to and in fact addressing, yes, what once was Sax and is now a decidedly unprolific pallet of bone and worm] tended to repeat the motifs too conspicuously, too insistently. And why did you always favor the bleating-flute like that?” The royals of Erc-Tichteff are trained from an early age to speak as if every word were a fluttering fire-fringed banner stretched from one mountaintop to another—every syllable heralded by trumpeters so numerous that between fanfares, whole acreages are denuded in feeding them.

One day the eldest prince of Sastrán meets the youngest princess of Erc-Tichteff. Indeed, they sit next to each other at dinner. The queen of Beflou has asked her matron to ask her superintendent to seat these two together. She thinks they make an adorable couple. The king of Beflou doesn’t object, because even his inimitable grandfather—the celebrated poet who won two wars and could do a standing jump over the head of a man his height—failed to stem the low-grade but toxic bickering between Sastrán and Erc-Tichteff. The event in question is the opening dinner at the demi-millenary celebrations in Beflou. Notables come from all over. They’ve accepted invitations to celebrate 500 years since the kingdom’s birth.

(The date, like most official ones, suffers the discrepancy that comes of sacrificing historical fidelity to ready remembrance. It’s been only 492 years since the First King finally merged the Duchy of Feint and Sastrill with the tribal lands of the warring Hok peoples. It’s been 500 years not from the union itself, which required eight years and the planting of uncountable tracts with bodies (embalmed only in their own caked blood, anointed with the impatient sweat of brothers-in-arms working at burial while thinking to the next battle), but rather from the Replete Visitation of Torsher. It’s been 500 years, that is, from the date on which the First King, then called Torsher of Hok, came to Feint and Sastrill to offer his war knowledge and the assistance of his 800 mercenaries against the northern powers. The duke, though a mere duke, chose to keep his seat rather than give respect. Such a waste. Had the duke risen and come forward to greet his guest, Torsher would have had the benefit of a sweet target at shoulder level: a throat, provocatively white, taut from a chin inclined for maximum haughtiness. But the throne, as was then the custom, sat elevated on a plinth. When Torsher hurled his sword across the room, therefore, it didn’t impale the throat but rather the duke’s genitals and, behind these, the femoral artery in the right leg. The duke pissed a river of blood before he himself slid down the plinth steps like a raft and settled in the shallower eddies.

What did the duke’s guards do? Nothing, except in vain. When things were finished, these sprawled on both banks like great cats sunning after drinking and bathing.

Generations have remembered Torsher’s cutlass. It features in the Sastrán peasantry’s favorite oath: “By Torsher’s cutlass, every one of your flea-bitten goats that chews my fence will end a corpse.” “By Torsher’s cutlass, if your mother tells me again how clean she kept her house when she was raising her children, I will clean my serving fork with her eye.” But this too is a calculated inaccuracy. It was a greatsword that Torsher hurled point-on those thirty feet. But none except three—Torsher and the two warriors who accompanied him inside, that is, the few who were there and survived—would believe for an instant, let alone five centuries, that a greatsword could be flung the length of a throne room. And so, from the start, his prudent men crowed about a cutlass for plausibility’s sake.

(Don’t blame the progenitors for all historical corruptions. We in the present day continue capable of them. Most, for example, believe the kingdom’s name, Sastrán, to be a derivative of “Sastrill,” a nod to the predecessor duchy from which the kingdom derives its ancestry. People think this because the old tribal languages died generations ago. In fact, the two names have nothing to do with each other. Sastrán is an old Hok word meaning “do not trust.”))

The famous spittoon bowls of Beflou are covered only partway. They resemble pies of porcelain with a wedge of top crust missing. The uncovered portion accommodates a stream of expectorated food. The covered portion conceals the sludge, once deposited, from view. While the base of the bowl is level, the inner floor tilts toward the covered part, encouraging the contents to slide into obscurity. The Beflouvinite spittoon is famous for many things. One of them is this: no matter how one tries, one cannot thoroughly clean it without breaking it. Like the master sauce in Eastern kitchens, like the heritage yeast in Western ones, the Beflouvinite spittoon is a legacy, carrying the residues of past meals into the next. The usual regimen of cautious rinsing ensures only that the caking inside grows so insidious that there’s no distinguishing it from the porcelain underneath, no detecting it even as the ullage shrinks over the decades.

In normal circumstances, a Sastránesque royal will use his characteristic negative formulations like salt in food—moderately, judiciously. When he is nervous, though, he tends to yammer in this twice-removed prose, both negative and counterfactual. As his speech turns compulsive, it also races; it swells in scope and ambition; it runs wild and starts fires of absurdity. Here, at the demi-millenary banquet, the Sastránesque prince finds himself saying to the princess things he wished his mouth had consulted him about before loosing, things he’s confident she’ll have no good idea how to answer.

He says a lot of things, and finally he says:

“I do not care to remember talking with you.”

The Erc-Tichteffian princess—grandiose by heritage, sensitive from youth, skittish amid the felt scrutinies of a grand occasion—is appalled. At best the prince has openly insulted her. At worst he has dismissed her. The Erc-Tichteffian princess—furious that she let herself admire the prince’s gingerbread smell and proud cheekbones and (notwithstanding the things coming out of them) kind lips—chooses to believe the latter.

From the table she snatches the closest Beflouvinite spittoon and cracks it against his skull.

The spittoon breaks into three pieces. A negligible fluid dampens the prince’s head and shoulder. It is scant because he spat out a single bite, the only one he’d taken. A powdery plume of sullen orange, like burnt light, rises from the point of impact. This last, this column of airborne talc, is the spittoon’s residue, partly calcified and entirely escaped. It blooms over his head. It billows over both their heads, very, very slowly, in the very slow way of most treacherous things.

The odor is so rancid it makes one resent everything: the air for harboring it; life itself for requiring the breath that actuates it. Nostrils.

A scandalizing quantity of this foulness coats the prince’s person. But he ignores this. Instead, he extends his hand. He reaches out a finger. Toward the face of the Erc-Tichteffian princess. With it he wipes a coppery spot of nastiness from her cheek, otherwise a provocative white, taut from sternest disapproval.

She watches his eyes carefully. As the hand approaches: does he mean harm? As the finger touches: is he just being tidy? As the fingertip works tenderly: is he playing for favor? As his eyes leave hers alone, and don’t bother with opportunities to play for favor, and instead scan her with concern for other places of possible taint: she’s sure she’s run out of questions.

This is how she knows this is the man who will finally—forever—relieve her of the burden of pretending. This is the man to make her the center of his life, and most of its important parts. She understands now the truth behind his rude remark: nobody wants merely to remember the thing he’d instead like to keep forever.

“You,” she says, “though undeserving, have met your life’s love.”

Offensive words. But he hears only the music in them, none of their affront. Already he knows her too well. Not once at this meal, not once in her life, has she made proper use of the second person. This is how he knows she is not addressing him at all. She is addressing herself. She is congratulating herself.

The Beflouvinite spittoon, of course, is famous for many things. And the most famous example is still on display, in the summer palace, to this day. Glued back together, the three pieces from that fateful night show only the barest seams. This particular spittoon remains the symbol of a prosperous realm, a vital union forged out of three marginal and anachronistic nations. Because everybody knows the rest of the story:

They marry.

They merge their kingdoms.

And after they sack Beflou, and after they exile from its territory every male able to heft a sword (be it greatsword or cutlass), they live—these royals of New Hok—exaltedly ever after.

George Choundas has fiction and nonfiction in over forty-five publications including Southern Review, Harvard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Subtropics. His stories have been selected for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions 2015 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is winner of the New Millennium Award for Fiction, a former FBI agent, and half Greek/half Cuban. His interests include films with scarabs.