The Emperor's Toy Chest

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, and flexible.

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 rear.

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

The many-oared 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.

Uncle's Bottles

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.