The Middle Prince
by Dean Francis Alfar
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
With a smile and an open heart, he gave away every viand and fruit and sweetbread, every egg and nut and pickle, every wrapped, dried, stewed and preserved bit of food, everything he had, to the delight of every fish.
Within moments, all his provisions were exhausted, consumed by the disbelieving fish that were used to a certain paucity of comestibles. Each one, in turn, began to speak in its own clear and distinct voice, spouting prophecies and oracles, legends and secrets, maxims and ancient sayings, descriptions of things buried for thousands of years underwater and of things that fell in or drowned only hours earlier.
They pronounced the names of every ship that had sailed the Celibate Sea, enumerated the lost loves that sailors pined for, and repeated every word of every poet, privateer and passenger who had ever known the ocean, exhaling sighs and hopes and dreams and curses in the precise language in which it was first spoken.
The middle prince soon found himself unable to bear the weight of the fishes’ declarations, and clutched at his bleeding ears vainly in an effort to stifle the power of the multiple assertions. The last thing he remembered hearing before he lost his ability to comprehend the vision of thousands of coruscating mouths and slipped into darkness, was a voice that said: “There is nothing more precious than a love foretold, and nothing as equally damning.”
HE KNEW HE WAS DREAMING when he opened his eyes. He was in the royal atrium, surrounded by the exotic flora - gifts of envoys and nuncios of faraway lands from the time before the distressing condition of the kingdom’s collapsing buildings.
He followed the sound of calamitous sobbing and found himself in the trapezoidal open heart of the palace. There he saw the Sultana, cradling a broken earthenware jar. Neither water nor wine but blood dripped from the container at an incautious pace, matched drop for drop by the tears of his hysterical mother.
When he woke up, his heart was as empty as his sea vessel, both oddly heavy and oddly light. There was not a single fish within his squinting span of vision, nothing but the unbroken jewel radiance of the Deep Waters — aquamarine, peridot, lapis lazuli, and the most luminous sapphire - beauty enough to sear a man’s vision forever, loveliness enough to kill.
As he took off his helmet and wrapped his turban around his eyes to protect himself from the impossible brilliance, he thought about his brothers, his mother, the miserable quest, his vainglorious hope, the babble of fish, and of what it meant to be alive.
Thus blindfolded, the middle prince did not see the sad corpse that floated past, whose skin, formerly dark as earth on a moonless night, was dyed an inconsequential indigo.
He passed many days oblivious to many things. When he grew tired, he slept. When he grew thirsty, he extended his miraculous cup into the unseen waters and drank his fill of sweet water. When he grew hungry, he thought of nothing at all, except for everything all the fish told him.
Little by little, he began to unwind the turban, allowing his eyes to get used to the glare of the sea. He had decided to go on living, slowly becoming convinced that the failure of his brother was in no way his fault. It was part of the story that everyone was trapped in and someone had to fail first, after all. So he steeled his heart and sailed on, on his diet of converted water and piscine words.
When he found a mermaid (her hair the texture of the finest seaweed — a braid would pass through the eye of a needle) beached against a cruel finger of rock, he helped her free. He asked for no reward and was offered none (she was more frightened of him than of slow death in the sun).
When he came across a sea lion (his mane bristling with tiny crabs, each one no larger than a pin) weeping on a stationary azure wave, he did not react to its threats and howls but simply removed the painful urchin spine in its paw. The sea lion offered him a look of contempt before the wave started moving once more, enveloping the creature in its frothy embrace (it was more embarrassed than angry that a man had done what it was unable to do for itself).
When a sullen horse head (its eyes dim opals, covered with salt and cloudy with despair) came floating by, he took it on board for a night and listened to its tragic story. When the dawn came, the horse head whispered its thanks and turned into foam (it knew that some things, like a maiden’s trust, once lost, were lost forever, and wanted only a sympathetic ear).
It was in this manner that the middle prince remembered the advice of his mother’s Vizier and helped those he could. His arms and legs moved mechanically through the motions as he tried to ignore his small but growing suspicion that he didn’t truly care about the problems of mermaids and sea lions and misplaced horse heads.
HE FOUND THE UNMISTAKABLE ISLAND of the Coral Crone soon after. It jutted out of the sea like a jagged blade, calcareous and richly red. When he could go no further in his vessel, he took off his gem-sewn inner robe, threw it into the sea and watched it sink faster than a heartbeat. Satisfied at his caution, he placed his extraordinary wooden cup within his belt and dived into the water.
The beach was not red but white, marked by thousands of bones of mariners and adventurers misled by faith, hope and love as much as by courage, conviction and wonder. He chose his path carefully at first, respectful of the dead, but soon found it impossible to continue inland without stepping on the bleached remains. He muttered countless apologies under his breath as he navigated towards the red line where the coral was free of the bones that cut the tenderness of his feet.
Where the coral began, the middle prince came across an old woman, hideous to behold. Her face was a complex geography of every road that ever existed; her left eye was bloodshot and twice the size of the corrupted right one. A large swath of her mouth had been burned away, revealing four miserable teeth the color of cheerless ivory. She stared desolately at a small pool of brackish water beside her, her wrinkled skin hanging loosely over her sharp bony features, her breath tortured and shallow.
“Pardon me, good woman,” the middle prince said. “Are you the Coral Crone?”
“No,” the hag fixed her mismatched eyes at him. “No, I am not she. Perhaps I was, once. Perhaps. But no. No. Her tower stands some distance behind me.”
“Thank you, kind lady,” he said, as his eyes were drawn to the pool of stagnant water she had been looking at.
“Forgive me, but is this the water you drink?” the middle prince ventured with some hesitation.
“What if it is?” she asked him, thinking about how once she had longed for this line of questioning, the games, the riddles, the tests of wit and skill and craftiness, but no longer.
“Here,” he said, offering from his belt the marvelous wooden cup that converted any liquid into drinking water. “With this you can—”
“Thank you, but I already have one,” she interrupted, raising an identical cup in her trembling hands. “A young man of crystalline complexion took pity on me and gave me this not an hour ago, before heading off beyond where I sit. He lifted the curse that bound me here and freed me from this horrid place.”
The middle prince stared at her, wordlessly accepting the truth that sometimes kindness was redundant.
“I’m just resting a bit before I go off and see what is left for me,” she said, shuddering with anticipation. “If there is, in fact, anything left for me.”
The middle prince regarded the cup in her hands and the cup in his. He suddenly felt very tired, as if an inexplicable weight threatened to crush him where he stood. “Well, take it anyway,” he told her, laying his cup before her.
The old woman raised a finger but he cut her short with a weak smile before following his younger brother’s footsteps, his own feet tremulous on the irregular ground.
AT LAST HE FOUND the tower of the Coral Crone, an oddly smooth-faced and solitary structure stretching halfway to the clouds, with no obvious door and only a single window to break its unremitting evenness.
He saw his delicate brother suspended on an almost invisible gossamer cord halfway up the tower. On the youngest prince’s back, a young maiden dressed in seemingly endless rolls of unrelieved scarlet silk clung fearfully.
“Take us down, my prince,” he heard the girl cry faintly, as the pair swung in place, bedeviled by the winds that swirled around the tower.
In that moment, the middle prince understood two things: first, that they could proceed no further down because of a shortage of rope; and second, that they could not go back up because the diaphanous cord was growing thinner by the moment, its subtle filaments breaking against the weight of two people.
“Brother!” the youngest prince sang out when the middle prince came into view. “I seem to be in an uncertain circumstance.”
“Yes,” the middle prince replied, “Yes, you are.”
“Forgive my manners, brother,” the glass prince said melodiously as more of the insubstantial rope gave way. “This is the Coral Crone, on my back.”
The middle prince nodded to the woman once, betraying no sign of surprise at the startling youth of the Coral Crone.
“We would both welcome some opportune kindness,” his brother sang once more, as he and maiden suddenly dropped a breath-taking distance down the tower’s featureless face before stopping just as abruptly. His screams, robbed of melody, reminded the middle prince of the Vizier’s final bit of advice: to show kindness.
In his mind, the middle prince wrestled with a conundrum that wore down his exhausted heart. It was obvious to him that his brother had already succeeded in the penultimate part of the quest, which was to steal that which was most precious to the Coral Crone. Given the evidence of his eyes, he surmised it was the Crone herself. Now both his brother and the maiden were imperiled.
If he acted kindly, as he was both advised and requested to, and assisted them somehow, then he would lose the quest. The youngest prince would return home in glory and he, the middle prince, would suffer the fate that he wanted to resist.
If he did not act kindly, as was the unchanging and expected behavior of all older brothers in all the tales, then he would be punished in some manner and also lose the quest, because that was how things always were.
He understood that whichever action he chose, he would lose. All that mattered in the scheme of things was the youngest prince, and certainly the dubious situation involving the fraying cord would resolve itself as it needed to. But he didn’t want to risk watching his brother shatter into uncountable pieces.
As he stood there in silence, watching the erratic pendulum swaying of the two tiny figures, he thought about nature of stories and noticed his bleeding feet.
“Her scarlet robes,” the middle prince shouted against the wind. “If you tie them to your own cord, there should be enough length to get down to safety.”
“He’s right,” the Coral Crone said, blushing as she momentarily weighed the matter of propriety with the matter of sudden death. With a speed born of desperation, she and her glasslike rescuer began unraveling and knotting the swaths of her silken robes, as the malicious winds tossed them about.
Without a word, the middle prince turned his back to the predictable outcome of his brother’s situation. He took the same path he’d taken earlier and came to where the old woman sat with her two miraculous cups.
“Listen,” he said to her. “You mentioned you wanted to see if there was anything else for you. Well, I’m about to leave and I have a ship. It can accommodate both of us if you’re willing to endure some discomfort.”
“I’m used to discomfort,” the old woman said. “But what of your quest? What of your brother?”
“I think it’s done. He’ll be fine,” the middle prince shrugged. “I thought I could change things, but now, I don’t really know.”
“So where shall we go?” the old woman asked, idly scratching her swollen eye.
“I don’t know either,” the Middle prince said, extending his hand to her.
The old woman held his hand and stood with a grimace, and together they crossed the beach of bones, heedlessly crunching the bones of those that died without fulfilling their destiny, and swam to his vessel.
The middle prince tried thinking about quests and consequences but his careworn heart offered no answers and little solace. It was then that he decided that if he was going to be turned to stone or blinded by thorns, then it could happen now or tomorrow or a year and a day from the moment that he inhabited. And that he was not going to stop in his tracks and wait for the seemingly inevitable to occur.
“The island looks so small from over here,” the old woman said, shivering as the sea winds blew at her wet clothing. “And to think, it was once my entire world.”
“I know what you mean,” the middle prince said, with a sad smile.
And with nothing but the pair of marvelous cups and the clothes on their backs, they sailed past the island of the Coral Crone, past the Deep Waters, and into the ocean beyond that had no name, beyond the reach of story or destiny or love foretold.
They sailed into the open waters without looking back, sharing a certain stillness and silence as the wind dispersed the dwindling scent of olives in their wake.
Copyright © 2006 by Dean Francis Alfar