Fiction · 07/04/2012

The Emperor's Malady

The maladies started the day after the Emperor was crowned: First a small sneeze. Then a cough that trembled his ribs. Soon a brightness burned in his throat and flared up to his eyes. From there the maladies grew. A twitching brow. A receding hairline and an itchy scalp, the latter producing dandruff that dusted his shoulders. A clogged ear, just the one on the right, though the one on the left wouldn’t stop humming. A snaggletooth. A mole on his neck that sprouted two hairs. A crick in his neck. A curve in his back. A rash of red stars creeping down both arms. Fingers that twisted when he snapped. Hiccups that kept on coming. By month’s end, he suffered terribly. He developed a squelched esophagus that prevented him from swallowing. A bloated stomach that kept him constantly hungry. An ache in one hip and a thigh that constantly cramped. Kneecaps that popped, shins that split, ankles that clicked on rotation. A third toe bigger than the rest. A yellowed nail. A wheeze when he walked. Terrors when he slept. Uncontrollable weeping. And headaches. Many of them.

The royal physicians measured him with their instruments. They checked his tongue for discoloration, his eyes for clarity. They brought in phrenologists, alchemists, and even gypsy tea readers. They tried leeches and potions and exotic meats. They prescribed days of rest in a darkened room. They entertained him with jesters from other lands. They invited beautiful women who knew how to dance and old nurses with words to comfort him. They gave him jewels to dazzle and toys to delight. They forbade him to speak one week then encouraged him to pontificate incessantly for the next. They waxed the floors. They shined his shoes. They hung songbirds from his ceiling and surrounded him with adoring dogs. They juggled for him, sang to him, read him to sleep. They changed the fabric he lay on, the colors he wore. They told him to sweat. They told him to wear less. They had him write with his left hand. They had him write with his toes. They had him not write at all and only decree what he knew to be true with a wink of an eye, the one without the twitching.

Nothing they did made the maladies disappear. The royal physicians toiled endlessly, rotating in and out of the Emperor’s presence like figurines on a clock wheel. Examinations were daily and often took hours. When one malady was cured and the physicians left the Emperor to rest, another would appear in their absence. The court diminished over time and soon it was made entirely of physicians attending to the Emperor’s never ending complaints. Laymen were brought in only temporarily, and only as part of a cure.

Soon the effort spread through the entire kingdom. The people of the land were asked to put aside their personal woes. Wars were abandoned. Taxes forgiven. Achievements forgotten. Instead, all the Emperor’s subjects worked in hopes of ridding their leader of everything that ailed him. Farmers planted corn in hopes that its sweetness would whet his appetite. Tailors hung robes in hopes that their silk might soothe his rash. Bards composed ballads in hopes that their cadence might lull him to sleep. Explorers traversed dangerous seas in hopes that their discoveries might yield a cure. And children learned poetry in hopes that their chants might remind him of joy.

For decades the kingdom flourished and wept, each remarkable accomplishment surpassing the last, and yet the maladies kept returning.

And then one day, the Emperor became afflicted with something terrible, something that swept through his bones and leapt across his blood, so that he lay curled like a question mark upon his bed. His physicians surrounded him and placed their hands on different parts of his body, noting his symptoms and pondering this new challenge. Some crowded by his swollen feet, others noticed his wretched breath. Some wondered about his clammy hands, and others felt his shoulders shaking. Each in turn began to think of whom in the kingdom he might ask to create a cure for this new malady.

The Emperor shook his head. This malady was unlike anything he had ever experienced before. It shriveled his limbs and strummed his tendons and skimmed across his spine like a shivering knife. But he no longer wanted to tell them of this.

He looked at each of his physicians’ faces, these faithful companions. He searched for the window, past where the birdcage hung, and thought of the loyal people of his land. He wanted to speak before the malady snipped the chords of his throat, before it dried the moisture of his tongue.

I have only been afflicted with one malady before this, he said.

The royal physicians were silent. They believed this was another one of the Emperor’s maladies. Confusion and forgetting. They added this to their list of things to cure.

I was lonely, the Emperor persisted, but he could see they did not understand.

The day the Emperor died, the youngest physician went home and made love to his wife, listening to the litany of his name. The oldest hound, lying beneath the Emperor’s emptied bed, remembered the leg of a turkey he had hidden beneath a royal cherry tree seven years prior. Across town, the prettiest dancer gave birth too early to a baby who howled with red fists waving. And the sweetest nightingale jimmied loose the latch on her cage, hopped to the window where the Emperor’s eyes last rested, and flew.

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Karissa Chen is a fiction writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, Kartika Review, and Monkeybicycle among others. She received herMFA from Sarah Lawrence College and was recently the recipient of the diFilipis-Rosselli Scholarship at the Napa Valley Writers Conference. She has coordinated and facilitated creative writing workshops for incarcerated young men in Valhalla, New York and currently serves as the fiction & poetry editor at Hyphen magazine. You can find her on the web at karissachen.com.