Sunday, 30 January 2011

The King in Yellow

The ambulance turned out to be for Julie; she had been pregnant and had taken something, some abortifacent to end it. Only she hadn't known how far along she was, and she hadn't listened to whoever had sold her the drug, and... well, it was messy. She had collapsed in her sister's kitchen, landing in the dog's food bowl, and her sister had found her two minutes later, pale, gasping, and being head-butted by the hungry dog.
I sat in the hospital corridor, inhaling deeply and trying to hide it, waiting for the nurses to decide that Julie was strong enough for a visitor. No-one else wanted to tell her the bad news -- the baby, despite being a whole trimester premature, had survived and appeared to be doing well.
The disinfectant they used in the hospital, which I kept inhaling as deeply as I dared, reminded me of the desert, and the King in Yellow.
It wasn't long after I'd encountered the psychotropic sand, perhaps the next day or the day after. I'd spotted some rocks sticking out of the sand, and although it was somewhat aside from the path I hoped I was sticking to, I decided to detour and take a look. If nothing else, they were higher than the sand dunes, and it would be nice to see if there was anything other than sand and sun on the horizon. It took longer to get there than I expected, even though I'd learned by that point that everything appears closer than it actually is in the desert. I did find that the quickest approach was never to take my eyes off it though; whenever I looked away it seemed to try to sidle off and hide. I'd been out in the sun for too long by then to find anything odd about this either.
The rocks were, of course, sandstone, and showed signs of weathering, which I took as a sign that it did occasionally rain in this yellow aridity. They went both up and down, forming a deep canyon that stretched away and turned round corners, and put me in mind of a World War I trench. I could almost hear the crack of rifle-fire, and I could easily spot places to sand-bag and uncoil the barbed wire. I resisted the temptation to go down and play soldier, finding instead a narrow stone tower with a staircase carved around the outside. I followed the steps up, and then in, and then I stopped.
Inside the tower was a room with a paved floor with only a thin scattering of sand across it. The walls were carved with images in panels, that seemed to lead around the room in a dramatic spiral. A throne, or at least a large, ornamented chair, carved from yet more sandstone, was placed at the golden ratio; the point where the two arms of a cross would intersect were they drawn of the length and breadth of the room. Sitting on the chair, was an ancient man dressed in heavy yellow clothes: a thick yellow jacket of brocaded silk, heavy yellow trousers that might have been dyed leather, and yellow Caterpillar-branded boots.
"Look around," he said. "See the history of this place, and understand why I'm here."
"Who are you?" I said. His teeth were yellow when he opened his mouth to speak, and his skin appeared jaundiced.
"The walls will tell you," he said, a yellow, forked tongue flickering over dry lips.
"I want you to tell me," I said. "You're here in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, and you want me to start reading the walls like an archaeologist? If you've already done that, then save me some time and tell me yourself!"
"I carved the damn walls so I wouldn't have to!" His voice started to get louder, but then it cracked and went squeaky, and although he tried hard not to, he started coughing after he finished speaking.
"That was a bit silly," I said. "If you're going to do that, why are you still sitting here? No-one's going to read the walls if they can just ask you instead."
"Just read the damn panels. Or at least, read the last two. They're at the bottom, over there." He pointed, a skeletal finger jutting out from his jacket like a twig on a dead tree.
"No." I was too tired for reading, and his strange insistence was getting on my nerves. "I don't actually care who you are. I'm just here for the view."
"I am the King in Yellow, and I order you to read those panels!"
"I am Lady Muck, and... where the hell are the windows?"
Finally I realised that all the light in the room was emanating from the King in Yellow, and if I ignored its yellowish cast, it was the same sparkly, shiny light as Mordechai had had shining around his eyes.
I turned round and walked out immediately, ignoring what sounded like some kind of fit happening behind me. I got about a hundred yards from the rocks before the tower I'd climbed collapsed in a cloud of dusty sand and an echoing crash like thunder over the desert.

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