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Some of what follows actually happened. All of it is true, even the parts that didn’t actually happen.
“I’ve been thinking of King Canute lately. In light of current events.”
“Really? I’ve been thinking of loading the dishwasher. Takes my mind off the mess we’re in.”
It was a pretty typical Wednesday in lockdown. I was thinking of what needed doing. She was thinking of either the meaninglessness of existence or a parable about the limits of secular authority. Either way, there were matters to consider. Such as whether the pots should all go on the bottom rack or whether a 12th century religious philosopher was just hijacking an old story to make a point about the glory of God.
“Load, if you think it’ll help. And before you ask, yes, the pots go on the bottom rack. This isn’t your first rodeo.”
“It’s always the first rodeo.”
“Stop changing the subject, and by the by, that’s a lot less zen than you believe. I was thinking of the account of King Canute and the Tide.”
I was sorting flatware. “Naturally. If it wasn’t for that incident on the beach, would anyone even remember his name?”
She glared at me. “Irrelevant. Everyone who remains famous for more than fifteen minutes has to be famous for something, usually only one something. We’re the short attention span species.”
Plates down, pots up. Flatware in the side rack. Each according to its needs. “So which version of the story were you thinking about?”
“At first I was thinking of the version where his flattering courtiers convinced him he was divine, so he put his throne on the shore with the tide coming in and ordered it not to get his feet wet.”
“I can guess what happened.”
“Guess again if you think that plastic spoon goes on the bottom rack. You’re likely right about Canute. He got his feet wet. Not to mention his royal robes. But that’s not the version people remember.”
“No wonder. Good for a chuckle, but no great moral lesson. Guys full of themselves will always get soaked, sooner or later.”
“Which is why I didn’t dwell on it. No, the more famous version. His courtiers are convinced he’s divine. Canute, who knows himself far too well, says it ain’t so. To prove it, he orders the tide to stay back and not get his feet wet. He gets his feet wet, and thus proves his case.”
I tackled the glassware and mugs next. “So what was his case? You don’t really think his courtiers actually believed he was divine, do you? I imagine some awkward silences about then. They’re like: ‘did His Majesty actually just do that? Couldn’t he play along? After all, we were just doing our jobs.’”
“Let’s assume both sides were sincere. I know, it’s a big assumption, but work with me.”
“I will if you’ll hand me that spoon. You were saying?”
“What Canute said whether he knew it or not. Secular authority is no more absolute than kings are divine.”
I started the dishwasher. “In other words, the tide is turning.”
(c) 2021 Richard Parks
Once upon a time there was a rich and powerful kingdom which no one remembers.
One might ask “If they’re totally forgotten, how can you tell us a story about them?” Simple—the kingdom may be forgotten but its stories are not. Kingdoms eventually fall, cultures collapse, but all stories need to continue is someone to tell them, and someone to hear. That’s me and you.
Now the monarch of this kingdom had a dilemma. His ancestors had long since realized automatically handing the crown to their eldest child made no sense. Maybe one accident of birth made those children royalty, but it was asking far too much of providence to grant that any one of them could be suited for the crown.
No, anyone wishing to inherit the throne had to show they had the right qualities. In a family with a lot of offspring, this was no easy feat, and often involved poison, sharp implements, and long falls from high towers. The current monarch had been relatively lucky; he only had one sister and had tricked her into joining a convent. Now he could feel his time growing short and he needed to choose an heir.
He didn’t have one.
Oh, he’d had children, right enough. His late Queen had been safely delivered of five of them: two girls, three boys. The girls were too much alike and thus managed to poison each other at the same tea party. One truly promising lad eliminated both of his older brothers in one epic but completely fake hunting accident, only to die himself one year later in a real one.
His Majesty was certainly not oblivious to the irony of the situation, but the problem remained.
“The system usually works but does not take the whims of fate into account.”
His Majesty’s only option was to send out a call to the other kingdoms in the realm, offering the throne to second and third sons and daughters of their ruling houses, since most royalty of the area was either closely or distantly related. Unfortunately, the other kingdoms were quite aware of the conditions in place to win that particular throne, and on the day set for the arrival of the candidates, only one young man appeared.
He was hardy-looking fellow dressed in forest green and carried a longbow in his hand and arrows in his belt. The king looked him up and down and pointed out the obvious.
“You do not look like a prince,” he said.
“I am the only son of a princess, and thus a prince,” the young man said.
“Who then is your mother? Do I know her?”
“You should. You once tricked her into a nunnery. She escaped. You won’t.”
With that the young man drew his bow and loosed an arrow so quickly that no guard had time to react. Even after the arrow struck him, the king could not stop smiling.
“My heir,” he said, as the light faded, “The system still works.”
©2021 Richard Parks
That was a lie of sorts. Nothing I’m going to talk about today has anything to do with musk oxen, nor shall I regard them in any meaningful way. I’m sure they are splendid creatures worthy of attention, but today in my head they were sort of random. That’s the way my head works.
See, what I’d actually meant to talk about today was getting my COVID vaccinations. That is, I recently got the second one and First Reader just got the first. I got mine right here in town at my pharmacy as a block of reservations suddenly became available after weeks of waiting. First Reader didn’t get a reservation until yesterday, on account of she’s a couple years younger than me and had to wait for the green light from the state to even look at appointments. For her, we had to drive twenty minutes. Not a big sacrifice.
Which (follow me here) explains the musk ox.
While COVID is a tiring subject it’s also *reality*, and four years of denying reality didn’t make it go away. Reality is like that. However, reading about all the people getting their vaccinations while I couldn’t even get on a wait list made my eyes glaze over. After a while it sounded like bragging and I wanted no part of it, as in mentioning anything about mine. Got the shot(s), didn’t break out in more spots, didn’t sleep for a week, and if anyone out there who uses FB, Instagram, and/or a smart phone thinks “they” need a microchip to track you… come back to reality. Now. That’s where the cookies are.
So, considering all that, we’re back to musk oxen. I wanted a title for talking about a subject very important but also very dull. Almost literally the first thing that popped into my head was “musk ox.”
Your guess is as good as mine.
As I’ve probably mentioned to the point of nausea, I’m from the American South. People in other parts of the country all seem to think they know what that means. so when they get to know me, it’s a mental hotfoot.
“But…you’re not like that!”
“Like what?” I ask in all innocence, and the conversation gets even more awkward from there. Yes, there are stereotypes. Some even aren’t that far off. A lot of it is bullshit and distortion and ignorance. However, in one regard I freely confess that I am exactly like that.
I do love my grits.
It’s my go to breakfast food and has been for a long time. Then I moved to New York state, for reasons far too complicated to get into here. I was resigning myself to having to order my grits supply online, until I found out they’re actually available here. That surprised me, right along with finding more people flying the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia than had likely ever been to Virginia, or any place below the Mason-Dixon line. Unlike the latter, finding grits was a pleasant surprise.
Then the year that wasn’t. Covid. Shortages of paper towels and toilet paper, which seem mostly if not entirely over, except for cat food, which is often in short supply. Then, for the past two weeks, our grocery has been completely out of grits. None. Zip. Nada. I mean, it’s not as if they’ve ever had a lot. Maybe one stack in the cereal aisle, but that’s it. Only now, isn’t.
I shall try to be brave, but this state of affairs simply cannot continue.
Sometimes writer research gets a little personal.
I recently had occasion to look up the difference between “hypnagogic” and “hypnopompic” hallucinations. The first happen when you’re falling asleep. The second, on waking up. Otherwise? No difference. Supposedly one symptom of narcolepsy…maybe. One article also stated that about seventy percent of people have one or the other at some point in their lives.
I dunno. That’s an awful lot of narcolepsy.
Or maybe it’s just the natural result of passing through a liminal (there’s that word again) point between waking and sleep. A transition where you’re not quite in one and not quite out of the other. And apparently a lot more common than one might think. Especially if that one is me.
Mine are the hypnopompic sort, apparently. I had my first experience when I was about eight years old. Scared the crap out of me. Perhaps it was the one-two punch of coinciding with my first experience of sleep paralysis. Are the two related? Maybe. They’re grouped together under the general heading of “parasomnia,” which covers almost everything related to sleep disorders. Night terrors, apnea, waking confusion, sleep talking, sleepwalking, paralysis, etc. And hallucinations, let’s not forget those.
Regardless, once I could move my body again more than a tremor, the air around me was filled with a swirl of small images of which I distinctly remember two: a boxing ring where two cartoon ghosts were fighting, and the other I swear was the Dixie Lilly Flour logo. The first was animated. The second, static. There were several others, but those two repeated, as if on a film loop.
No one knows what causes it. I mean, chemically they do. Something to do with phosphene. What triggers it? No idea, though in general parasomnia tends to run in families. My younger sister talked in her sleep. My mother and I both had occasional sleep paralysis. I’m the one who got the hallucinations.
Actually, that’s not meant to be sarcastic. I really was lucky. The hallucinations can be severe, terrifying, even debilitating. None of which happened to me, despite being weirded out the first time. These aren’t the sort of hallucinations that make you walk into traffic thinking you’re at the beach. Nope. I always knew they weren’t real, even that first one, and once I got over being afraid, it was much easier to appreciate how darned interesting they tended to be. You’re basically seeing dream images while you’re awake. I have seen everything from flying art-deco kitchen appliances to a two-foot tall glowing Pikachu floating over my nightstand.
It only happens occasionally. And, while I do find the subject interesting, as an old married man I’m really glad I didn’t get the “talking in my sleep” aspect. I’ve gotten in enough trouble for things my wife only dreamed I did. Imagine the trouble I could get in for things I dreamed I did. Though she did inform me that at least once recently I hummed a tune in my sleep. I hope it happens again since I’d like to know what tune I’m humming, but I still prefer the images.
And definitely no talking.