Fiction: Human Obligations

Margaret Chen, BFR Staff

In supplication the queen and king had knelt at the bottom of the steps, their foreheads pressed against the cold floor. But now their heads were lifted, their necks cranked back. The queen’s heavy crown sagged into her nest of dark hair, her face appearing all the more ashen. In the king’s arms, the baby shifted sleepily to the side. Below the statues of gods, the priest stood in his ivory robes between two columns of billowing curtains, as silent as the rest.

The frieze held for no longer than a second. Having no part in the prophesy, the queen moved first, extending her graceful arms to tear past the space between her and her husband, to grab at her child. The king turned away on instinct, and the queen collapsed at his feet, anchoring herself to his leg. Her sobs echoed the hallowed room.

Ceremonial blankets shrouded the baby’s young frame. The king parted the fabric where it covered the young, squirming creature’s face and then watched it with some morbid fascination, as one would stare at a fly caught in a web. The queen’s pleas he ignored, perhaps thought them to be a crow’s call. When she clawed at his thighs and gouged out flesh, he did not flinch.

Of course, the king looked and felt disgust at the existence of such a creature. Meat wrapped in bone, more liquid than bones—human children were such soft beings. One slip of the hand: one splotch on the ground. It would not be difficult to do, not at all—the man could feel his own grip slacken then, no doubt, to a point where he could not stop the child from falling even if he tried—give in, let temptation take him by the hand, let gravity guide it to its course—let this small sacrifice secure his own mortality—

The baby must have been feeling quite chilly at this point, because it cried. The wail stuttered at first, then lengthened, piercing through the infected air. It would be surprise, more than anything, that forced the king—clean, smooth-faced, and beardless; altogether shockingly young—to wind his large hands around the baby’s delicate waist. To hold the little thing, gently, against his own chest. To listen to the boy’s screaming declaration of his own life. To feel his son’s small chest flutter with his first intakes of the world. To continue himself of this little soul’s continued existence.

Then, gone.

Then, the queen rocking the baby to her chest clear against the other side of the room—mother and son, both, sobbing blindly. Her fingers shone, wet and red, and bloody little ovals dotted all over the baby’s blanket.

Shame battered the king to the floor; he sank into his pile of white robe. The corrugated curtains above them twisted and sashayed like the dresses of those mad maidens who lived their days in the ancient legends. Together, the humans in this house of the gods breathed, in and out, in and out.

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