The Second King
When he died, he left behind his wolfhound and silver cup, and a hole exactly his size, tall as an oak door and almost as wide. His chasm followed her everywhere—abreast as she hurried through the snowy park (as forbidding in the dead of winter as it was inviting in the height of summer), by her side as she plucked musical notes at the weddings and baptisms that were sharp reminders of how she would now never be a bride or a mother, and next to her in the ancient sleigh bed where once they'd lain like two fingers crossed in a wish.
If she chose, she had only to move to the edge of the seemingly bottomless hole and disappear into it, perhaps leaving behind her own void—a slightly smaller version of her harp and not quite as shapely—that no one but the neighbors would notice and that not one of them would enter.
Each night she stood at her window, the hole by her side, as she remembered and wept, drinking from the silver cup until the wine turned salty and the pale moon bowed low to the rising sun. With her king gone, was there even enough to stop her from falling down the hole? There was the wolfhound to feed and brush each day, the gold-leaf harp he'd once gifted her, and the puzzle of the hole itself—for she'd heard of no one else with such a companion, why her?
She might have teetered between life and death like this forever, or at least until as an old woman the gods carried her down into the hole, if the mystery hadn't deepened like the winter days.
Once, while trudging through the park, the hole by her side a stark black shadow against the snowy path, she saw a young man skiing toward her, his hair like a copper pot upon his head.
"Fine morning," he called to her.
"It is, indeed," she said, and the skier smiled, although tinged with the frost of sadness, for he had seen the man-sized hole by her side and remembered hearing talk of her and her unfortunate malady.
Nonetheless, for a moment he slowed to speak with her because he was a young man with a heart in need of a home. And she, distracted, didn't see that the hole had slipped from her side until it appeared four sticks in front of the skier. With a cry, he veered off the path, narrowly avoiding the hole before skirting around a large pine and gliding once more onto the path that ahead had stopped several frightened onlookers.
"You should…" he called back to her. But what she should or should not do was shouted over by the jealous wind that came not from the sky but rather from the black chasm again clinging to her side.
Word of the incident passed like a dry cough between people, until the requests for her harp playing died and the instrument stood sheeted in a corner like a second woman in mourning. Now only the wolfhound kept her company, staying to her right side as the hole claimed her left, licking her idle hands and delivering her slippers to warm her equally still feet. She, in fear of the hole accosting another, had become a recluse locked within her house. Once, in the middle of the night, as an experiment, she quietly crept from under her covers and tiptoed toward the door. But the hole just as silently followed her, like an ocean of spilled ink, and she returned to her bed despondent, for by now the hole really was like a sea she could not cross that separated her from all others.
And so the woman lived, in a way, watching from her window as the seasons changed like beautifully costumed actors moving across a stage, and she the audience member hemmed in by a seat mate and with no part to play. One spring day she woke so early that she decided to steal from her bed again. But this time she kept going, out the door and past the only others awake at that hour: the squirrels teasing one another and of course the hole still clinging to her side. Arriving at the town's lake, she quickly shed her nightdress and dove into the chilly water, swimming far out to the cold center. There she floated on her back, suddenly weightless after many long months of burdens. Turning her head to the left, she expected to see the hole shimmering on the water. But it was gone. And it was not to her right, or anywhere around her, or even to be found in the lake's depths when she peered down.
It was then she remembered her king and how they'd once raced across the lake, with him letting her win, which led to a kiss, and that kiss to a delicious hour together on a carpet of violets in the surrounding woods. Her grief then overtook her, stealing her breath and leaving only one unwanted thought: How easy it would be to swim until she was over-tired, then swim no more. But just as the idea materialized, so did the hole shimmering like an oil slick by her side. And the woman understood that while her grief would not kill her, nor would it leave her.
One bright summer morning as the woman stood at her window watching the roses unfurl their soft flags of gold and pink and cream, and the robins in their red aprons gossip in the new grass, she heard a cry for help, which repeated, each time growing louder. In this instance the urgent cries of distress outweighed any danger presented by the hole, so she flew down the stairs and outside, following the cries until she was at the neighbor's field behind her house.
This man kept bees for making sweet candles and potted honey, and their small wooden cottages were a dozen miniatures of his own. Now next to the nearest bee house stood a girl, no more than eight years old, the source of the loud cries; her right arm covered with a blanket of busily shifting insects.
"What happened to you?" the woman asked, but already she could see the little house's open door and the honey dripping all the way from the child's elbow.
Before the woman could think of what to do, the hole slid forward. It was the first time it had left her side since the morning at the lake, and she felt relief as it detached from her—followed by horror as it skidded toward the child. Just as she moved to the girl, thinking to push her out of harm's way, even if it meant she herself would fall into the gap, the hole halted in front of the child and from its depths came a buzzing sound, like that of the bees themselves, yet deeper, louder, perhaps how their queen sounded when giving her orders. And the bees covering the girl's arm lifted as one and quickly disappeared into the hole, leaving only sudden silence in their wake.
Waiting for no further disaster to befall her, or for a lecture from the woman, the girl simply called her thanks and quickly set off at a jog across the field, presumably for home. The woman deep in thought slowly walked back to her own, the hole once again affixed to her side.
Word of this new incident was passed like a handshake among her neighbors, and public opinion turned yet again. The next morning the woman watched from her window as a steady stream of people left small gifts at her front door, including a bone for the wolfhound and a used pair of binoculars for her. The red-haired skier, now in hiking boots, made a great show of building a wooden bench perfect for two in her garden. The beekeeper delivered a candle as thick as his arm, while lastly the girl accompanied by a very old woman deposited a tall carafe of stout at the front steps.
Carrying it indoors, the woman on impulse poured the dark liquid into her king's silver cup and dropped it into the chasm by her side. It was the hole, after all, that had saved the girl. She had always thought that anything thrown into the hole would be like a rock into the lake. But instead the cup sank slowly into the man-sized void, where she imagined she heard a muffled burp that made the woman's eyes prickle, for it was just the satisfied sound her king had made each time he drained his favorite silver cup of beer.
That night the woman pulled the sheet from the ornate harp and fitted her own slender form against it in their formal embrace. Again the hole detached itself from her side and slid across the room next to the wolfhound, and the two made an attentive pair as the woman sang of love and kindness, jealousy and fear, her fingers moving among the harp's strings as though in search of something precious that had been lost, and her clear voice recounting the story of the past months.
With no doubt that within the hole was the woman's beloved (for in life he had been just a bit jealous and also quite a bit chivalrous), and after many months of enduring a half-life, the woman made her decision. Late that night she left her door open, laid out on the floor a bowl of water and the gift of the bone, and wrote and tied a note to the wolfhound's collar: My mistress has gone to join her king. In her memory, please care for me.
With her binoculars the woman looked out her window at the stars, ran her fingers across the harp one last time before covering it securely, then lit the big candle and, taking a deep breath—for though she was brave, she was still afraid—the woman took a quick, decisive step at last into the hole at her left.
When she fell into the void, it was not the quick drop of the bees, but rather a slow sinking like that of the silver cup, and it didn't seem that far at all. And though she had always imagined it would be cold—for wasn't that how death was always described?—in fact, she was quite warm, finding herself shrouded in something that felt like velvet but that also periodically gently squeezed her. It felt, she realized, most like the old caresses of her king.
"Is it you?" she whispered into the dark, since the lit candle had disappeared forever into the folds of whatever held her.
"Yes," her king whispered back, and she cried, for how she had missed his deep voice with the hint of a smile at its edges. "And no," he added.
In the ensuing silence, her eyes searching unsuccessfully in the dark for his dear face, she waited, her fear finally outrunning her love.
"While you've mourned me, stuck between life and death, I've been your counterpart, yearning for you here between death and life," her king said.
"Peace?" she whispered into the dark. "Now we're reunited, will we have peace?"
The unremitting blackness was one sort of answer, and her king had another, a tight hug of the soft velvet around her shoulders that made it impossible for her to move, all of it amounting to a feeling that she had been buried while still alive.
The wolfhound watched the woman sink into the hole and responded to her loss much more dramatically than that of his master, whom he loved but not quite as much as the woman: He howled. But the sound that came from him was more mournful than any dog's baying before him, so loud that it reverberated throughout the house and beyond it into the neighborhood, where everyone awoke almost immediately. Whether they had ever lost anyone they loved or had only witnessed it, everyone recognized the terrible sound of grief. And while a few rolled over and clamped their pillows over their heads against the noise, everyone else threw on their clothes and hurried toward the source of the piteous sound.
The copper-haired man sprinted, clutching one of his poles as a possible means of self-defense, and he and the immediate neighbors—the girl, her grandmother, and the beekeeper—arrived at the woman's house first. Covering their ears against the howling, they saw the wolfhound staring into the now double wide hole, for clearly two people were lost within it, a fact further confirmed by the note on the wolfhound that they untied and read.
Within the hole, the woman and her king could hear everything, from the wolfhound's bellowing, to the neighbors' clunky footfalls, to the skier's voice right near their ears. He had crouched down at the edge of the hole, intent on finishing the sentence he'd begun back on the snowy path.
"You should keep telling your king to go away until he does," he said.
Up above, almost all of the neighbors were by now packed into the woman's house, where the girl had tied the wolfhound to a doorknob. Her rhythmic stroking of his big back soon soothed him into silence.
"What do we do?" asked the beekeeper.
"Try to get her out," said the skier, adding quickly, "But not him. He belongs down there."
"But how?" called the girl from her station at the door.
"I have a thought," said her grandmother.
Down into the hole, something thin, solid, and rather cold slid, knocking against the woman's head. Grabbing hold, she knew by its feel and the leather loop into which she slipped her hand that it was a ski pole. It was not only a means of escape, but a sign that someone in particular wanted her back above ground.
"This is good-bye; I must go," she said into the dark.
"You must," said her king. "And yet you mustn't." The king's voice was weighted down with reproach, causing her to remember the many times he'd overruled her. "For while you clearly have everyone waiting for you up above, I have nothing to hold onto down here for all the rest of my un-life."
In the kitchen, the red-haired man could feel a frantic tugging on the other end of the pole, and with a cry of joy he began carefully pulling it back up from the other world to his, with the beekeeper clutching onto his waist for good measure to ensure the skier who had lost his heart to the woman didn't also lose his footing and tumble into the hole.
The woman clutched the ski pole as if her life depended upon it, which she knew it did. She could not live with grief anymore. What she wanted was to swim again in the lake, to stroll in the park in all its green finery, perhaps in some finery of her own, the wolfhound stepping jauntily by her side; she yearned to sing at all of the many upcoming summer weddings, and one of her greatest desires was to be free to stretch out alone in the grass and look up into the night sky punctured with stars—and to have them cast their glowing pinpricks upon her upturned face.
With a great pull as though landing an enormous fish, the skier and beekeeper behind him dragged the woman from the hole and onto the flagstone floor. There she smiled up at her neighbors, whose warm cheers chased away her months of darkness, and the spontaneous, enthusiastic kiss of the skier confirmed that to be faced with a live man was far superior to being followed by a dead one.
But the hole, while it shrank back to the size of just her king, was still stubbornly by the woman's side. While she finally abandoned her grief, her king's seemed to have magnified. From within the chasm burst the most terrible wails that silenced the crowded kitchen even more than the wolfhound's howls had.
The woman paused, now stuck between life and death—her shadowy king on her left, and the skier, the wolfhound, and her neighbors on her right. Searching among the pitying faces for some sort of guidance, and resting longest on the troubled face of the red-haired man, her gaze finally landed in the corner, and there she had her answer.
Breaking away from the group, she went to the grand harp and embraced it as you would a friend you liked well enough but could never quite love, before quickly pushing it swaddled in its gown into the black void by her side. While the living responded with a dead silence, the dead came completely to life.
"You returned! I knew you would!" cried the woman's king, as clearly as though he stood among them.
From the harp there was not a sound, perhaps because the shapely wooden stand-in for the woman was too muffled by the velvet embraces. As for the hole, it gave its own eloquent response, fading from black to grey, large to small, until at long last it was entirely gone.
Do you believe in happily ever after? The woman did, but that was because she chose it.
As early as the very next morning she joined her neighbors in relishing the finest summer ever known. After so many months indoors, she spent each perfect, sun-flooded day walking in the park with the wolfhound and the red-haired man, with whom she picnicked and made daisy chains, a silly activity only engaged in by children and lovers. And when she thought of her king, it was as she looked at the alternating shadow and light cast by the strings of her new instrument—sadness and joy, the repeating pattern in life—and pulled from them each time she played another song of love.
Lynn Mundell's writing has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Five Points, Tin House, The Sun and elsewhere. Her work has placed in the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions short and long lists and earned the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology, "Nothing Short Of". Her chapbook "Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us" will be published by Yemassee in early 2022.