He is playing
with a million broken toys. -Charles Simic "The Emperor"
The Broken Face
It is a head,
dismembered, and difficult to put together. The hair, follicle by
spun silver follicle, must be inserted into the alabaster scalp, the
scalp laid like a crust over the brainpan. The teeth are the young
Emperor's favorites; he can place them anywhere. Molars up front,
canines centered, the rest buried in the hard skeletal jaw. The eyes
are the most difficult, the ears easiest. The pupils are black pawns,
dropped standing into the iris with tweezers; the ears are human,
The Vengeful Legion
They are red
ants, marching in centuries, bronze armored and crimson skirted. They
go to the wild North, to avenge the loss of the royal eagle standards
and the slaughter of the previous legion. The Emperor - no Roman -
watches the ants as they march out of the box, across the lion skin,
and under the door. The North is far away, the captured standards
precious to the barbarians. It will be many years before the triumphant
legion returns, eagles at the head of the column, shamed slaves at
The Moon Doll
She sits in
a woven basket by the window. Her frock is made of reeds and black
lace. As the moon moves though its phases, the doll slowly turns her
head to the wall, raising ivory hands to cover a weeping face. The
tears were taken from the tide on the day of the Emperor's birth;
the ebony hair from his mother after her beheading.
The Sunken Corsair
galley must be dropped into a full tub. Coral reefs and frozen sharks
line the trough's edge. From inside the sunken vessel, bits of gold
drift downward, silver plates, invaluable casks of ambergris. Upwards
float the rag-faced sailors, mouths gasping, scimitars scraping, pantaloons
ballooning. The captain of the corsairs, wearing a stolen crown, can
be found chained to the wheel, flask in hand, sneering.
The most precious
of the Emperor's toys. They are simply bottles, brought back from
his uncle's travels. His uncle laughs, takes him to the zoo, and occasionally
tells the truth. Some of the bottles are blue, others have very thin
necks, others have a drop or two still sliding around the bottom.
The Emperor blows across the tops of the bottles to make the sound
of wind, hoping his uncle will return soon. The caravan has been gone
over long, and bandits infest the passes. Fhooooooooom, come home,
uncle, come home.
The King's Ransom
The King has
been captured, and is held prisoner in an iron tower on the far side
of the lacquered board. The jailor, the King's cruel cousin, demands
an obscene ransom, and one must gather all the kingdom's wealth -
pearls, spices, gold, ivory, carpets, oils, slave girls, and camels
- to free him. Taxes need to be levied, and crafty janissaries sent
to collect. There is the option of escape, one attempt only, but failure
means many deaths, and the price is trebled. Ready to take the chance,
the Emperor holds the nine-sided dice. He holds them and holds them
and holds them.
No one has ever
taught the Emperor any card games. The diamonds, clubs, Queens and
Kings mean nothing to him. He knows they are a family divided, and
little more. It has never occurred to him to put the cards in order.
The Mincing Courtier
In full palace
regalia, a wooden servant stands at attention, obedient eyes downcast.
The stiff, red robes are filled with grime and dust. When a button
is pressed, the courtier is supposed to bow. The spring is misaligned,
however, and the servant merely twists, the painted eyes suspiciously
bright, patronizing and serpentine.
The Quarantined Star
The board is
the deepest mahogany, the moonstone pegs star-shaped. A labyrinthine
grid is then laid over the playing space, with a solitary star kept
in place. Then, one must construct constellations according to a given
set: the Wreath, the Blade, the Mirage, the Sandal, the Traitor's
Face. The walls of the maze dictate the placement of stars, and the
pace of play. The labyrinth rarely permits the Mirage, though the
Traitor's Face can fit most anywhere.
The Beautiful Shepherdess
There is nothing
unkind about her. Crook in hand, she smiles above a little woolen
herd of sheep, including one black ewe. Her dress is blue, her skin
is porcelain, her lips red, her bosom full, her hair like honey. The
Emperor arranges her and the flock on the floor, lying down beside
them, staring until he is able to sleep. The last image in his mind
every night is the beautiful shepherdess and her sheep, smiling safely
atop the thickness of the lion-skin rug. As he dreams, the clenched
dice bite his small, white palm. The glass-eyed lion looks on.