The Terrapin King -- Christopher Rowe
I am a terrible liar, so this story is most certainly true.
For sixteen years, from the day I turned 68 until the day I turned 84—nine years ago now—I served as a page in the court of the Terrapin King. Before I turned 68, I did not know that terrapins had a king, or that they even needed one.
I’m still not convinced they need one.
He came to me disguised as an orderly in the facility where my children housed me after their mother died. He looked as human as me, and I am a wholly human person, something that sixteen years in the service of the Terrapin King proved to everyone’s satisfaction.
“Just the ears,” the Royal Walker Under Ladders Man once remarked. “His ears are the only thing that might not be taken to be pure human. All that hair.”
I was not provided with any means of grooming myself at court. My beard grew to my waist in those years and my nails were only kept short by my chewing them. I was allowed to bathe in the old mill pond on the castle grounds, though, every other Clayday. The days of the week varied. The length of the weeks varied. I depended on the Royal Baker of Ammunition to tell me the day to bathe. She was the closest thing I had to a friend there, and once, on a bet, she shot me with a .410 shotgun fitted with a slug barrel. The slug was made of sugar, and it melted before I could dig it out of my thigh.
My duties were onerous. I was an old man, infirm, when the Terrapin King took me, and I had never been a strong man even when young. It is true that in sixteen years I was never given the same task twice, but every one of the jobs I performed required great physical effort.
On the first day, I carried a book bound in the skin of a crane around the circumference of the Great Green Tower three hundred and thirty-three times before delivering it to the throne room. The Terrapin King ponderously extended his head and blinked his great green eyes. “I’ve already read that one,” he said.
The pages of the book were blank. I’d checked.
On the last day, I washed and brushed the luxurious gold-red hair of the Countess of Everything You’ve Ever Lost. She hummed the whole time, and before I was finished, I had forgotten my youngest daughter’s name.
The days between, I did 5,839 other things.
The Terrapin King was capricious, but wise. This is what I was told, and I never saw any evidence to the contrary. He was a killer and a savant. He could expound on any and everything, and without warning he would sometimes dart his head out and close his great beaked jaws around some luckless servant or courtier, ending them.
I believe that I was taken from the facility at random. I believe if I had been assigned another room, then whatever hapless soul was assigned mine would have been taken. I cannot prove this. Perhaps I wish it.
Wishes are, of course, terrifying things, as I was told over and over by the Royal Baker of Ammunition.
“I once wished for an electric oven,” she said. “And he gave me one but baked me in it at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes, turning me once at the halfway point.”
There was no point in asking who “he” was.
“After that,” she said, “when I’d forgotten being cooked, I wished for a mother. He gave me his, even though she died long ago. I still sleep in her shell. She pricks me with sewing needles when she doesn’t like the direction of my dreams.”
Myself, I never dreamed during my time at court.
I have never dreamed since my time at court, either. All of my mind is taken up with memories of pointless, impossible tasks and cruel, impossible people. When I sleep, what I do is remember. While I am awake, I try to forget.
These are the changes I underwent while serving the Terrapin King, other than growing a tangle of beard, and growing older.
I learned to understand the language of crickets, and can still interpret their songs on summer evenings, though they are very, very banal songs.
My poor vision became perfect.
I regrew the kidney that had been removed when I was fifty-nine.
I lost all my teeth.
I found them again.
“Why don’t you petition for a pardon?” the Royal Baker of Ammunition asked me on my last day there.
“I haven’t committed a crime, that I know of,” I told her.
“Why else would you be here?” she asked.
I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “Capriciousness?”
“On whose part?” she asked.
Ah, I thought. That is an excellent question.
I thought it, but I didn’t say it.
So later that morning, when I went before the Terrapin King to receive my 5,841st assignment, I asked, “May I go home?”
“After you wash the Countess of Everything You’ve Ever Lost’s hair,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. But before I turned to find the Countess, I asked, “How will I get there?”
“I suppose I’ll take you, if you can tell me the way,” he said.
The facility had burned or been demolished or anyway, had disappeared. He left me in a weed-choked lot between a highway and a dingy-looking office park. I was wearing the pajamas I had been wearing sixteen years before, and in my spotted hands I held a pair of scissors and a mirror.
I trimmed my beard and went to find a payphone, but by then, they were all gone.
Everything else I ever knew was gone, too.