A hubristic, imperious king gets his in the wake of an unnecessary skirmish with a pod of some of the ocean’s most intelligent creatures…
by: R. Hunter Whitworth
Last summer was one of the hottest on record, so I don’t know how the King even survived to begin with. I never once saw him drink water or apply sunscreen in the three hours a day he was out there on the beach in the afternoon. He would just sit and grow red in the face beneath his extravagant hat, and sweat would pool under the folds of his neck at his regal ermine collar.
It happened the same way every day. First, the heralds would come blow their long brass in advance of his arrival, sweating in pantaloons and heavy jackets. A space would clear on the sand and the King would come lumbering through the reeds and long grasses of the sand dunes and stand glowering in the cleared space until his trumpeters ended their fanfare. The herald would roll up the carpet behind him and erect a shade above his chair. The shade was as deep a red as the King’s robes, and tassled with gold. A cupbearer and a food taster would stand in positions of honor at his right and left side, staring blankly ahead unless reacting to a herald who would announce, as necessary, the King’s hunger and thirst.
We all got used to it.
His cape dragged, deep red velvet and lush and as thick as a cartoon sandwich. He stood on meaty calves, and had a density and weight to him very much unlike the slender teens it was my job to stop from drowning.
An emissary from his majesty arrived at my lifeguard stand one day, about thirty yards from where the King sat, and informed me that in the unlikely event that the King took to the waters, and in the even less likely event that he required aid, I was permitted to save his life but I was required to do so in a manner that did not make it appear as though he needed my assistance.
That same emissary came to me later, on my lunch break, and took one of my three slices of cold pizza, which he said belonged to the King by sacred birthright.
While scenic, it is maybe too charitable to call the two-mile stretch of sand that’s been a part of this town since before it was a town a beach. There was a rash of drownings two summers prior and so the town board voted to put lifeguards on duty. It isn’t even the ocean, just a stretch of river grown deep and wide a couple of miles up from where it empties out into the sea. Local legend has it that it was once rife with pirates in need of a quick hiding spot, and that somewhere beneath the waters is a ship that one pirate sank and went down with himself rather than surrender to the authority of any governance.
One time, a jogger with headphones stepped on a corner of the King’s cape. The King immediately made a formal declaration of war, stating that anything worn by or adhered to the King became part of the King himself, and a physical assault on any part of the King was tantamount to an affront to the entirety of the King, by definition, and therefore the entirety of the monarchy, and therefore an act of open rebellion. The King’s war on jogging lasted the rest of that week, and consisted mostly of ineffectual barricades and lines of knights whom the joggers would politely avoid.
I was mostly concerned with the other lifeguard, Lacey. I spent a lot of time contemplating how the light would catch the wires of her hair when the sun hit an afternoon spot in the sky, and the force with which she’d performed her compressions on the CPR dummy while we were training. The muscles in her forearms had looked like they might pop out of her skin, and there was no distracting her from the rhythmic precision of aligning her pumps — as instructed — with the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” She told me in training that if I wasn’t willing to break someone’s ribs to get their heart pumping, I wouldn’t be worth shit as a lifeguard. I told her that I thought I might be more motivated in the event of a real emergency, but she was unconvinced.
Sometimes the King would just stand, staring out over the water.
We’d see the same families for about a week, set up in the same spots. We’d get dads who didn’t want to get in the water and moms who’d set their chairs up right on the edge of the subtle waves. You could always tell a vacationer from a local because a local rarely brought anything aside from maybe a folding chair and a brown bag that I’d turn a blind eye to once they started drinking out of it.
Anyway, The King never got in the water, and he seemed to have a complete disdain for the sand, so I don’t know why he wanted to come to the beach in the first place. He had a thick white beard and a significant tiredness in his eyes. It is wearisome, I have found, to have authority. My friends with fast food or car wash jobs would tell me how lucky I was to spend my days on a beach for money, and it was impossible to describe to them how exhausting it was trying to stay aware of the whole beach at once, and how monotonous it can be when all of your nightmares are about other people drowning.
Lacey had a mean stare, which she had honed in previous summers lifeguarding at pools, freezing kids where they stood when they failed to abide by the rules, and which she ended up using on me just once, when I deserved it. I can’t say for sure that she didn’t have the same troubled nightmares that I did, but authority fit her in a way that I could only ever do my best to fake. It wasn’t hard to see her up in the lifeguard chair and imagine her as a coach or a principal.
The King’s calves, I’m not joking, were almost as big as pineapples.
One day last summer, fish started popping up out of the water and landing on the sand. They would flop for a few seconds and then a dolphin would erupt out of the river, eat the fish, and wriggle back under the water. This was a phenomenon of nature, an act that only takes place on a few beaches around the world. The dolphins that swim up in the river would slap the bass that congregated in the shallows up onto the dark sand with their tails. Then, they’d build up enough momentum in the water to charge up onto the shore and gobble the fish. They were sophisticated enough to help each other back into the water, sometimes, but could also be seen competing with each other for the same fish.
It was hard not to smile at the small miracle of nature we witnessed, at the display of cooperation from an intelligent species, and at the families trying quickly to pack their belongings and retreat up the sand from a barrage of fish. At least one family had a son who saw a dorsal triangle creep up out of the water and was disappointed when it wasn’t a shark.
The grey hides of the dolphins glistened wet and slick in the sun and drew coatings of sand onto themselves as they writhed and rolled back into the water.
The King himself was no great fan of the dolphins, and in fact seemed to perceive them and the attention being paid to them as a threat to his authority. He made another formal declaration of war, and entered anyone who wouldn’t take up arms against them into a registry of treason. Each morning when the King arrived, his herald would unroll the registry and read it loudly, one of the King’s musicians blowing long farty notes on his horn to emphasize the shame associated with the names on that list.
As the summer kept on, Lacey got more and more tan, and her dark hair developed blonde streaks that would drop loose around her face, even when she pulled her hair back. Her seriousness never changed, the stance of attention she was in even when she sat in her chair, the tone of her voice when she’d confront a potbellied dad about his glass container, the way she cracked her knuckles.
I trusted her much more than I would have trusted myself. I hoped many times a day that if an emergency was going to occur, it would be closer to her than to me.
The King felt that his authority extended as far seaward as the horizon, and so it was obvious to him that the river fell under the purview of his royal hand. At one point he attempted a new strategy, and levied taxes on the dolphins, sending his herald to collect every third fish that was swatted ashore and bring them to a pile at his feet. The pile rotted, and stank to heaven, but it seemed at least to appease the King for a few days.
When he was finished being content with the fish, the King turned his attention landward, and tried to extend his holdings by an annexation of the dunes and tall grass and the ratty boardwalk. He wanted his power, which extended off to the blue-gray horizon and beyond, to start back at Riverscape Lane. He wasn’t able to raise much of an army from the traitors on his shore, but when his claim was met with no resistance from the dunes, he declared a victory for the crown.
The next day, the herald brought wineskins, boiled fowl, charred vegetables, pies filled with meat and pies filled with fruit. A minstrel played what I would later learn is called a lute, even as he spent enough time with his wineskin to eventually find himself laying in the sand behind the banqueting table. The King had declared victory over the dolphins as well as the dunes, and tradition demanded a profound feast.
The long wooden table seemed to sink further into the sand with every new item piled upon it, the scents that would waft as each dish was revealed from under its cloche were intoxicating. From somewhere, the King’s servants uncovered silverware and chafing dishes and immaculate white napkins.
Lacey’s gaze softened during this banquet of conquest. I was finally able to say something to her that broke through, that got her to think of me as something more than a weak-willed fellow lifeguard who compressed dummies’ chests at the wrong rate and with insufficient vigor.
She confided in me that although she had been skeptical at first, I had proven myself to be a worthy partner and a lifeguard she believed in. She told me that the weakness of my compressions had made her very nervous at first, and she pushed me softly in my chest to make fun of them. Then she invited me up into the stand with her, which was wide enough for both of us, and we shared a glass bottle Coke that I had seen her take from a woman with a floppy hat.
After the war with the dolphins, the King became increasingly paranoid. He feared a counterassault from the waves, and seemed to worry about overextending himself with the new dune territory. He ordered constant patrols by mounted knights, and had soldiers walking knee-deep out into the water. They’d come out for an hourly break to sit, and their ankles would drip and cake with sand.
The King had developed, too, a fear of insurgency from within, and began constantly questioning his servants and demanding elaborate displays of loyalty to the crown. He made his minstrel stare at the sun to prove his love, and he made a knight stand all day up to his neck in the river. This in addition to his growing fear of an uprising from the dunes and of an attack from the dolphins whose defeat he had celebrated without ever fully believing.
The next day, Lacey witnessed me see a teenager barge through the protected dune grass and do nothing about it, and she hit me with her stare. Whatever we had started to have, I knew, was gone. It was hard to focus on guarding the beach after that when Lacey wouldn’t talk to me, and with paladins hoofing up the dunes, and soldiers sloshing around in the water. The King brooded, staring out over the water with bloodshot eyes under a furrowed brow, drinking more and more wine and trusting fewer and fewer of the people around him.
I remember making a show the following day of getting onto someone about their dog being off-leash, near enough to Lacey’s chair that I knew she could hear me so that she would see how committed I had become to the law of the beach, despite my slip up with the teenager, and that my effectiveness as a lifeguard would be uncompromised by heartbreak or frustration, and that she could still trust me.
I looked up at Lacey, and saw that she had shifted so as not to look at me, her hair pulled over her ears, and a towel wrapped around herself. So I brooded next to the King for a day, drinking confiscated bottled beer and training my own bloodshot eyes on the same imagined threats on the horizon.
(The terms of our companionship were unstated but intuitive: for every three sips I took, the King demanded one himself, and assigned a personal secretary to pass the bottle back and forth between the two of us.)
When the revolution struck, Lacey and I were both on duty, paying close attention to a youth group who had arrived on a bus in the morning. They were rowdy, splashing around while the King’s patrols waded, but were not breaking any rules. This worried the King too, but they ignored him.
I was watching, in particular, the one kid swimming in a t-shirt, bobbing around, flailing his arms ineffectually, occasionally drifting away in the water from the kids he was there with. Lacey was not speaking to me, but I could tell that we were aligned over our concern for this, the likeliest kid to drown of the entire summer, by my estimation maybe the most drownable kid on the planet.
The first arrow punched right through the neck of the King’s herald, and he dropped his goblet of wine and his long brass horn and fell to the sand. His final kicks stopped once a wave washed upon him and took the red of his blood and wine back into the river.
A volley of arrows found the mount of a paladin, whose legs were pinned under the horse and broken in its fall. The King’s own cape was struck, and the shoulder of one of the knights in the water. The painted men emerged then, with cutlasses in their teeth, and ran through the youth group to meet the King’s guard.
I saw a painted man stab through the gut of the King’s cupbearer, while another wielding two swords held off a mounted paladin before another drove a lance into his heart. The sand of the beach ran wet and red, the cries of battle must have carried miles across the water. Several of the youth group were concerned with the buttressing of a sandcastle that one painted man narrowly avoided crushing.
The King, with his eyes full of a panic that I had never seen, even at the height of the dolphin insurgency, called men around him and took shelter in the middle of five outward-facing elite guards.
I kept my eyes on the fat youth, who kept splashing in the water even as the rest of his group took snacks and fruit drinks further up the shore. The King’s aquatic patrol were felled all around the youth as arrows found the gaps in their armor and they struggled their wet bulk towards the shore to provide aid to their King. Still, he played on, but seemed to be inching deeper.
When it took the kid several seconds longer to resurface after diving, Lacey’s dead sprint beat mine to the water’s edge. It was hard for me to find reliable purchase in the billows of his shirt and the smooth blubber beneath it, but together we were able to drag him up onto the shore, and he lay there breathing heavy like a beached whale, and I smacked his face until he opened his eyes.
Lacey really looked at me then, for the first time since we had watched the sun set over the water from up in our chair. It had grown dark, and the painted men were lighting their conquest by torches, the flash of which flickered in Lacey’s grey eyes. As a circle of painted men enclosed the groveling King, she reached out over the sputtering boy and took my hand in hers, and squeezed hard like she was trying to rescue me.
R. Hunter Whitworth lives and teaches in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, a dog, and a cat. His work has appeared in SubTerrain, Dappled Things, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Threepenny Review.