Isle of Dogs Part 2: excerpt
In June, on Midsummer Night, Ruth sat in their apartment in the tower, reading a collection of Schnitzler’s short stories, her belly like a watermelon, kicked day and night by Renee, who, like her future Consort, seemed anxious to get on with it. It was a typical day, other than the fact that the Palace had been decorated with lilies, sheaves of green wheat, and grape vines; the banquet tables laid with crystal, gold, and silver; the ballroom floor waxed and buffed; and the kitchen alive, the smell of baking bread and smoked boar slowly filling the air. Extended family would convene to eat ham and celebrate Midsummer Night with bonfires, dancing in their best whites, deep into the night. Young Rulers would ride out together to drink and fuck in the woods, while she and her babies read books, alone in their room.
Phaedra lay on her stomach humming, in a purple shirt and leggings with a pink skirt, picking crayons out of a wrecked box and smelling them, placing some in a pile by a drawing pad and replacing the rest, while Sargon chased Cawdor, and Duck watched TV, her bonnet visible above the back of her chair. The lunch dishes were piled up on a tray in the corner, and the white lace curtains fluttered in the open windows. Three days of violent storms had given way to a crisp high-pressure system. Doc Hughes had confined her during the storm, convinced it would bring on labor. She was surprised when Albion arrived with the afternoon coffee and the news that the Vice President, addressing a conference of Mayors in Albany, would arrive shortly, ahead of the guests, and wished to visit them.
Sargon rode in on horseback from Cold Spring Station with a small contingent of guards. Ruth, Duck, Doc Hughes, the children, and Balfour met him at the inner gate. Sargon dismounted Herculaya, and Little Sargon and Phaedra flew to him. “Papa” she shouted. She did not notice his reticence, but Ruth did, compared with how he greeted the dog.
While the horses were being stabled, they walked the long graveled drive up to the portico and around to the more intimate rose garden entry, off the White Sitting Room. Here, the staff melted away to their duties, leaving the Ruler alone with Ruth and the children. Sargon spoke to them in the impersonal voice he had used to address the conference until some time had lapsed and Albion entered with a tray of lemonade and pogsca, which Ruth had not had since Mrs. Tucker left. She ate the biscuit, and her heart filled with the flavor of home. And then a painful stab in the stomach, choking it back.
The Vice President sat in the largest chair, upholstered in snow leopard. Little Sargon grasped his knee and pulled himself up, followed by Phaedra, who said boldly, “No, Sargon, I’m sitting in Papa’s lap.” Ruth’s eyes bugged out and she could barely catch her breath, but Sargon laughed as he used to, and said, “Papa has two laps! Come my child. I’s been too long. And look how big you’ve grown. You will be a princess soon, ready for ruby slippers.”
“Princesses don’t need ruby slippers, Papa, they have ghost feet, and ghost feet don’t care about the cold.”
“Ho ho, I see you’ve learned all about princesses! But you know, here in America we don’t have kings and queens and such, do we now? Long ago, during the First Revolution, we declared our independence. Do you know what day that is we celebrate?”
“Passover,” cried Little Sargon, “When we got free!”
Phaedra solemnly shook her head no.
“Ah, you disagree with my little Ruler. Very brave indeed. Perhaps one day you will be a great counselor to your Lady and your Sire, like Robin is. Would you like that?”
“I want to be a Martian Princess, Papa.”
Big Sargon frowned. “Then you would have to penetrate the abandoned mines of Mars.” He intoned the final word with gravity and said, “But tell me, when do we celebrate the First Revolution?”
“With fireworks and swimming! July the 4th. I gave my liberty crown to Enrico Stuffy Bear. Come, Papa, to our rooms.” She craned her head back to look up at him.
Big Sargon squeezed them together and started to tickle them. “I’m gonna get you now!” They dropped to the floor and he chased them around the white room, between bone chairs, polar bear settees, and ivory-inlaid tables with vases of calla lilies until, out of breath, he landed on his butt at Ruth’s feet, his dress jacket rumpled and hair pulsing with the weak light of an aging man. “Oh, how I’ve missed this.” He rested his head against her thigh and said in a low voice, “Is it true that your time nears? Renee is so distracted with worry.”
“Why doesn’t she come to visit?”
“She won’t come to Midsummer this year.”
“What, what?” she asked in a whisper, gazing down at the flat, coarse hair with a dim wash of blue at the roots.
“The fleet is on maneuvers in the South Atlantic.”
“The Baby Renee will be all alone here.”
“She will have you, and me, and the children, and Balfour and Cawdor. What do you mean she’ll be alone? Are you alone?”
“Yes, of course I am. I never see you. There is no one to talk to. I read. Soon I won’t have that.”
“But you’ll be nursing.”
“A cow, you mean?”
“I like when it squirts out,” he said, smiling.
“Oh you like that, do you? You enjoy leaking.”
“Licking. And licking leaking boobs is even better.”
She slapped him softly and said, “Kiss this,” pointing to her lap.
“I’m afraid of hurting you.” Rulers had strange ideas about sex, superstitions about sperm and ova and the interplay of quantum energies.
“What’s good for Mama is good for baby, or so the old midwife says.”
“When do you speak to old midwives?”
“This is the Hudson Valley, Sire. Many strange things happen here.”
“Yes,” said Phaedra, who had been listening. “The Headless Horseman rides at midnight, burning wicked children in the woods.”
“I think old Duck has been telling tales. Perhaps it is time for a real education.”
Ruth scoffed. “She’s not yet four. Do we not develop the imagination before reason, as a hedge against insane rational certainty?”
Sargon gripped his head. “You and Robin! I’m not a Philosopher King,” he snorted. “Not Demetrius of Phalerum.”
Phaedra shook her head. “Shsh, Papa. In America, we have no kings!”
Little Sargon plopped down on Sargon and held up his arms. “Flip!” he commanded.
“Goodness, you’ve grown.” He grasped the little Ruler’s fingers and flipped him, again and again.
“Do we have an appointment?” Ruth asked.
“Later,” he said.
After the long feast, when the dowagers, emeritus Senators, great aunts and uncles, tuxedoed cousins, and the last of the young Rulers had ridden off into the approaching dawn, Sargon came to her room. Hours later, as she sat alone, sleepily sipping bark tea in a sunny window, her water broke, dousing the lingering buzz in her nerves.
On Little Sargon’s fourth birthday, his Sire gave him a box of toy soldiers. They were stored in the closet across from Ruth’s bed, under a steep eave. Ruth, dressed in grey linen pants and a black T-shirt that said je suis desole above a cartoon of a yellow duck with an egg emerging from its ass, sat on a chair by the window next to the bed, her pale, unhappy face framed by naked autumn branches. Cawdor lay curled up beside her and Little Renee, who was two, and very large, nursed, her eyes tracking the conversation. “Goddamn it,” Big Sargon said, seeing how low the doorway was. “I don’t remember having to crawl in.”
The Vice President got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the closet. Little Sargon squatted down about five feet back from the door, hugging Balfour, watching. The scent of cedar and mothballs that was always in the air grew sharp. A smile haunted Ruth’s face. “They’re in here somewhere, I know it.” His giant buttocks shook from the effort. He cursed, and there was the sound of falling crates and glass objects rolling. Ruth covered her mouth with her hand and laughed. “Ahh!” A muffled cry of victory. He backed out dragging a wooden crate covered in dusty spider webs. “I was twelve years old when I put these away. Renee and I used to play with them all the time when Bard 2 was in office.”
“What’s in the box, Papa?” his Scion asked, and then, pointing at the webs, “what are those?”
“Cobwebs. Surely you’ve heard of them?”
Renee pulled her head away from Ruth’s breast and stared with large black eyes at the cobwebs, her lips parted and slightly swollen. She reached out her left hand, grasped at the air, and squirmed off of Ruth’s lap, dropping to the floor. Her hair was jet black with a faint glow of dark blue, and hung straight down to her shoulders, like mylar threads. She was barefoot, in a long grasshopper-green shift that reached to her knees.
“Yes, in books and monster movies,” said Phaedra, who was sprawled out in stocking feet on the bed, dressed in yellow pants and a purple sweatshirt that looked like she had never taken it off, reading a magazine. She flipped the pages deliberately and scanned them as if she were looking for something. “But we’ve never seen them. It’s not the same thing.’
“No, indeed it is not.” Big Sargon smiled and walked over to the bedside, stooping uncomfortably, and stroked the pale blond hair on the back of her head. “You are so smart, do you know that? You get it from your mother. I wish the House and the Senate were full of thinkers like you. Then we would get something done. Instead they bicker. Cowards.” He moved to the foot of the bed, where the ceiling was highest, and said to Young Sargon, “Well now, you can fight it out, see, with these. Let me show you.” Phaedra jumped out of bed and squatted down, resting her head on her crossed arms. He dumped out the small, intricately painted metal soldiers on the floor. Out came the artillery pieces. There was a troop of space elephants and armed bears on motorcycles. Renee, Young Sargon, and Phaedra stared at the tumbling pile of two-inch figures, an entire world in a dusty old box.
Little Sargon asked, “What do you do with them? Do they move when you tell them to?”
Big Sargon looked at the heap and began to recognize individual soldiers by their chips and scratches, by the looks in their eyes. There was no distance in time. “No, it’s not that kind of a toy. It’s a toy that does nothing at all. You have to pretend.”
A toy that did nothing. Little Sargon wondered what that meant. They had living dolls, foot-tall automata they could chase around the enclosed yard next to the orangerie. They had real live dwarf elephants, mastodons, camels, and bears that were brought by the zookeeper for them to play with in their toy circus.
Big Sargon smiled and then became stern. “Now then, you have to put them away when Mama tells you to.”
“And Duck?” he asked.
Sargon chuckled. “And Duck. Especially Duck.”
Ruth, who had been silent, said, “Sire, thank you. What do you say, children?”
“Thank you, Papa! Thank You Papa! Thank You Papa! Thank you!”
They lugged the box, reverent and determined (though neither knew what a toy soldier was), to the outer hall at the bottom of the stairs, with the fuzzy gold carpet and the low-pitched ceiling. Little Renee toddled in on pudgy bare feet, lugging the lank rag doll, Pugsley, a clown with red star eyes, blue yarn hair, and a crooked yellow mouth. In the box was a rolled mat of black oil cloth. “Here,” Phaedra said, pulling it out. “It looks like a map. Let’s unroll it.”
It was almost the size of the hall. The ends could be approached from the caves, the low-ceilinged areas on either side of the stairwell. Phaedra’s cave was on the right and Sargon’s was on the left. This designation came from a mash-up of two of their favorite books, Stone Age Lives, about a young Neanderthal boy named Mulligatawny who falls in love with a human girl named Claudia, and The Atlas of Lost Kingdoms, a compendium of vanished empires that included a chapter devoted to Uvegvaros.
Little Sargon’s cave had a wooden chair and a ball, a toy piano, and a living doll named Ed, which the President gave him when he turned three. Phaedra’s was more elaborately appointed, with two child-sized wingback easy chairs; a bookcase crammed with their most essential volumes, as well as the books Phaedra wrote and bound with string; an easel; cans of paint brushes, pencils, and crayons; and a toy stove that worked. This was where they hid when Ocba was after them.
It was a star map. A red line across the middle divided it into two zones. Little Renee dropped to her knees and crawled to the center and sat. Sargon looked up and exclaimed, “Renee!”
“Renee,” Phaedra sang. “What side do you want to be on?”
Without hesitation, Renee pointed to Sargon’s side.
“You sit next to him, then.” Renee didn’t move but glared at her. Phaedra picked up a soldier and became absorbed by the detail. He wore a silver spacesuit with a gold badge above the visor, engraved with letters and numbers. Seals, tubes, and rivets, even the face behind the faceplate, were rendered precisely. She imagined homuncular Ruler slaves with tiny hands and single-bristle brushes painting in the eyelashes, the crinkles in the corner of the mouth. She said, in Duck’s accent, “Behold, I come to revenge the mothers murdered by Martian Lords!”
Phaedra stood him up on a circle close to the center line, and returned to the pile on the floor. She picked up three more. “Here my Generals sit in Council, awaiting orders from Vesta.”
Renee crawled off the board and sat with her feet out in front of her, sorting through the soldiers. Lips and eyes dilated, she selected a space cannon and carried it over to the front of the board, placing it on Little Sargon’s side. She pointed its muzzle at Phaedra and said, “Boom.”