The Banquet Sarah Rolinski
He’s draped in music, wearing linen from head to toe, dancing his cold, pink feet across the green. Bees touch his legs but never sting. His world is perfect, the sun beams down, and his palms are kissed by his lovers. They feed him purple grapes that stain and taint his lips one by one. We called for a feast in the summer heat; the women dance in chiffon, wind kissing the hems of their skirts. He’s the ruler of this kingdom, the entire monarchy. He’s celestial and elegant, making anything and everything exquisite.
His lovers kiss his bare feet as he sits in his throne waiting to be fed. He asks me questions while being adored. Everything must be quick, like tearing hair out of one’s head. He says I can care for the kingdom, damn the women and praise the men. He says those are the duties of a king, but a queen may be different; he says I am the queen of peace, already shimmering in sunlight, and he says to not be shy, for all will love me after the day’s work is done. He sits on the white throne, and decides to throw one leg over the other, and the lovers step back, waiting for his feet to be still. A woman garbed in white and holding a bottle of perfume kneels before him. She takes the bottom of the bottle and breaks it against the throne. What is left she dips her long brown hair into and runs it along his feet. He stares at me, lips puckering just a little, and raises one eyebrow. He waves them away, and they all scatter. He says to listen.
He says I must listen to the people, compliment their exquisite wear when they come to see their queen, apologize for not looking presentable even if I do because it shows humility and they will deny it and say that I look very beautiful. It’s a king’s job to please the people in terms of their needs for a true god. He says he did not begin as a king of violence, but that is what has happened. I grab his hands suddenly and whisper under the music playing across the field. I ask what happened that night. He wraps the curl of my red hair around his finger and smiles wide. Nothing, he says, nothing… I’m simply sacrificing myself for the good of this place, he says. I draw back. He sighs and gulps and grabs my hand again.
He says he has done something very wrong, and it will all be cleared up and defined after he is gone. For today, we should celebrate the life of a king with immense amounts of food and melodies which brush past the people like wind. He says the coffin has been prepared for him, adorned in white-- what he will wear inside is ready. He stands up from the throne, grabs my chin, kisses my forehead, and whispers that I should dance. He holds my hand, squeezing it as we enter the throng of musicians and performers. They all cheer at the sight of him. I comply with dancing but find that I am terrible and take a seat at the table that is set up under the massive oaks. The tablecloth is white, and all the dishes are on silver platters, the engravings intricate and small. The cakes are frosted and arranged in circles on the towers, the pig is roasted, the apple inserted in its mouth already, and the tomatoes are still on their vines, spilling over the sides of the platter. I pluck a ripe grape from across the table and pop it into my mouth. He’s lovely, holding hands with the dozens of people that gathered today, and kissing their women’s hands to dance. They are wild, their feet stomping the ground, out of time with the music.
He leaves the women alone to dance a little more and comes to sit down next to me. That seat is not for the king, I say, and he rests his chin on my shoulder, asking if I was jealous that this was a day dedicated to him. I ask him if he knows how he’s going to go, and he says someone is to tell him soon. But isn’t it your choice? I ask. No, sadly, the people choose how their king goes, he says, and I ask if he is afraid. He says of course, but this is what the kingdom was raised to believe, and that’s how he will leave it. He sighs and leans back in his chair, rolling a grape between his fingers. Dear sister, he says, you have to be at peace with this decision. I don’t say anything. He says it’s not murder, just forced suicide, and that it’s much better like this than finding him dead on the palace floor.
I ask him why he isn’t upset, but he says he can’t spend his last hours being enraged with the people who sent him here. He asks me if I knew why he didn’t choose the palace for such a feast and festival, and I answer no, that I am only here because he asked me to be and the nobles requested me. He says he wants to be killed with a little crowd surrounding him, their bellies full, and to be placed on the water with wreaths of flowers around his little dead head, but I ask why he held it out here, under the vast oaks with the wine and music, in the sun and in the open, for all people to come. He says his death was to be public for a reason and whoever wanted to come and watch could. One of the nobles comes and hands me a silver cup of wine, and I gratefully gulp half of it down in one sip.
He rises and goes to the throne, which has been moved to the head of the table. He clinks the side of his silver cup, and everyone goes to a seat, the little girls giggling and being shushed by their mothers, the young men staring at the trays of food, fathers swirling their cups around and smelling them at the rim. He says he wishes to make a toast to the kingdom, now my kingdom. He says that the people were his first love, the land his second, and the society his third, but that his first love didn’t break his heart despite what a first love usually does. He says the food here is rich, the water is clean and fresh, any fruit plucked from any tree is ripe and ready. Everything is in its tidy place here, and he says he stepped out of line, and that is why we are gathered today, to punish him for his crimes and let everyone see. He says he is very sorry to go, and he wishes to take back what he has done, but he cannot. He apologizes several times between talking about things he loves about his kingdom, and how his death will be the ultimate satisfaction to the people he has harmed. I lean over to one of the nobles and tap him on the shoulder, and he turns around and stares at me, as if he’s shocked I’m talking to him.
What does he mean when he says he has crossed over the line? I ask. He doesn’t respond, but he shakes his head and widens his eyes. Why can’t you tell me? I ask. He says it’s not the king’s wishes to allow me to know, but I say he cannot keep me from knowing forever. He says no, but until his death, he can. He turns back around to my brother and watches him throw his cup around and grab the hand of a woman sitting near him. He goes down the line, kissing the tops of people’s heads, hollering and holding his sides from laughter. A woman a couple seats down from me says what a kind king and it’s a shame he has to be killed. I sit in my chair, linen draped over my legs and fidgeting with the desserts on my silver plate, watching my brother make an utter fool of himself.
He was crowned the king after our father was sent off, and our mother died from sadness from never seeing her husband again. After my brother was crowned, the kingdom was in a state of rebirth, like winter to spring; people were enjoying their work, were thankful for what they were given, bringing flowers to the castle, talking in the streets, writing and producing art. The kingdom was alive and thriving-- I don’t know how he accomplished it, but he did, like a snap of his slender fingers.
I ask around for the reasoning behind his execution today, and no one answers me. I’m begging people, but they all say no. Once everyone has eaten, the musicians conduct a couple more dances as servants clear the table of empty platters and remove the wine-stained tablecloth. He comes behind me and brings me under one of the oak trees, holding my hands tight. He says they have decided his execution, and he wishes me to be away, preparing the coffin when they do it. His throat will be slit, quickly and he’ll be dead under two minutes, he says it’s a fast and willful death, he says this is goodbye. He takes my hands closer to him touching his chest and kissing the surface of them as I begin to shake, my lip trembling. He says I will do my job more gracefully than he did his, I will please the people and they will love me as long as I stay within the boundaries set for the kingdom, I will be living lavishly and I will be taking control of a place of great potential and prosperity. He says he loves me, he is terribly sorry for leaving me, he knows I have no one left. He holds me to his chest, running his fingers through my hair and kissing the top of my head as I sob into his chest. He lets me go and goes to the nobles who are waiting for him yards away. I stare into space, the sun glaring into my eyes as the people bring a coffin wrapped in white fabric and place it on the grass. I see my brother behind a tree, adorned in white, his bare feet kissing the ground and leaning against the trunk, wiping under his eyes.
One of the nobles walks from behind the tree and announces that the king is about to be executed, and there will be a period of music and dance during the final act of his life. I run to the king, he grabs my hands with surprise, saying he has already said goodbye, but I beg for him to tell me why he is being killed. He gulps and shakes his head, but I squeeze his hands and stare at him until the nobles shoo me away. I hear the grass rustling, and a body hitting the trunk of the tree, but I don’t dare to look, only listen intensely. The knife is drawn, the metal echoes, and he coughs, violently, trying to catch his breath, and he screams and hollers, even the most joyful of music couldn’t cover up the screams. He continues to cough until it sounds like gargling, and all the while my body is tight and goosebumps coat my skin. His labored breathing comes to a stop, and I hear the weapon thrown to the ground before the nobles grunt and his head slams against the trunk. I look over; he’s strewn across the ground, blood dripping from his neck to the grass and along his arms, down his chest. He’s entirely covered in it, looking as if just baptized. I immediately break into tears as do the nobles, but they wipe up the blood and wrap his neck up. They see me and nod once, not saying anything, but sit at his feet, waiting for the bleeding to stop. Minutes pass, my feet become sore, and my eyes can take no more crying. They take him out from behind the tree. The music stops. The people are still and stiff, not even a bird chirps. No one cries, but simply stare at their king, wrapped in white and his own blood. They gather around the coffin as the nobles lay my brother inside, and they sprinkle flowers, pressed and fresh, over his body, pour perfume over him, leave their pearls inside. The children put their wooden toys inside, the men put their silver daggers, the women their gold jewelry. A man yells at the top of his lungs and says Long Live the King! The lid is put on top, sealing it shut. The nobles and a couple of others lift the coffin and lay it gently atop the water. It starts to drift away, quietly and peacefully. The women throw out baby’s breath and lilies, crying out Long Live the King! and the men watch silently, their hats to their chests. We are quiet until the coffin is merely a speck on the quiet water, and the nobles take me by the wrists, asking me if I’m ready. They lead me to the throne placed in the middle of the vast field and gulp as I lower myself onto it. A noble says that I have mournful eyes, and I sob before my people.