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#87

Cherry Day




 

The Cherry Day holiday procession didn’t get under way until two hours after it was scheduled to begin. King Roland, wearing a festive green doublet chosen by his Steward, Terrence, drove a large cart decorated with blue and silver pinwheels and pulled by a pair of relatively youthful horses through the deserted streets of his town, heading West toward the Royal Cherry Orchard. His paltry few remaining subjects, excepting Terrence, who was still back at the castle tending to his duties, rode in the back of the cart. All twelve of them sat on mounds of straw and sipped wine from the cask that King Roland had allowed them to bring.

King Roland couldn’t help but wonder if any of his subjects in the cart were responsible for some of the personally insulting graffiti he saw scrawled across the walls of the abandoned buildings. Of course, he could never accuse them of treason or vandalism for the same reason that he couldn’t ask one of them to drive the cart for a change. One never knew what little thing might upset them. And if he were to upset them, they might leave him. A king with twelve subjects was barely a king, but a king with zero subjects was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

It had been a full year since King Roland’s monumentally ill-advised decision to attack and conquer King Sigmund’s kingdom. Those of his subjects who hadn’t been killed in the resulting massacre had trickled away, seeking kingdoms with Kings or Queens who didn’t make such costly blunders. After lowering taxes and repealing unpopular laws had failed to keep his kingdom’s population from dwindling, King Roland hit upon the idea of keeping his subjects occupied and distracted with a constant string of fabricated holidays. And it worked, or at least, it seemed to. The population leveled off at an even dozen.

But he had forgotten that he had promised his subjects a new holiday today, overslept, and come up with Cherry Day off the top of his head while staring down from his balcony into the blinking, expectant faces of his assembled subjects. When he had thrown up his arms and declared today “Cherry Day,” they had not cheered.

     As the outskirts of the town gave way to the countryside, the roads became more uneven and the ride became bumpier. The horses were slick with sweat and their sharp stink penetrated King Roland’s head. The stench of the horses, the thick, sweet smell of the wine, and the up-and-down lurching of the cart made King Roland want to vomit. The green doublet was too warm for the weather and the snail brand on King Roland’s cheek started to ache. He fingered the smooth, raised flesh and gagged at the memory of that third and final day of torture after his army had been routed and he had been captured; the way King Sigmund's men had argued over which brand to use – the snail or the cockroach – while he shrieked through a mouthful of rotten leather.

     Ritchie, Grayson the Blacksmith’s eleven-year-old son and the only child left in the kingdom, tapped King Roland on the shoulder. “Are we almost there?”

     “Yes, Ritchie, just over this hill.”

     “Why are we going to the cherry orchard?”

     King Roland faked some enthusiasm. “Because it’s Cherry Day!”

     “What are we going to do there?” asked Ritchie.

     “Have fun,” said King Roland.

     “In the orchard?”

     “Yes, in the orchard. We’ll pick all the cherries we want, we’ll eat as many of those delicious cherries as we can stomach, we’ll sing cherry songs, we’ll play cherry games, and I’ll teach everyone the Cherry Dance, if I can remember the steps. Then, later, we’ll all go back to the castle and Terrence will serve cherry pie and cherry ice cream.”

     “I prefer raspberries,” said Ritchie. “Cherries are actually my fourth favorite red fruit.”

     The progress of the cart slowed as the horses labored to pull it up the hillside. King Roland could hear their deep, shuddering breaths and the wheels of the cart creaked ominously. “Hold on back there,” he called over his shoulder to his subjects. They continued to chat, ignoring him. 

     At last the cart crested the hill and there was King Roland’s Royal Cherry Orchard. The trees were strong, healthy, a lush, magnificent green, and completely devoid of cherries. King Roland gasped and twisted on his seat to gauge his subjects’ reactions. None of them had noticed.

     Thomas the Beggar saw King Roland staring at them and said, “What’s wrong?”

     “Nothing,” said King Roland. “We’re – almost there.”

     The horses continued to plod on through the orchard, flies buzzing around their ears and landing on their foaming flanks. The cart rolled on leaving two narrow, parallel tracks in the long grass behind it. King Roland balled the reins in his fists and wrapped them around his fingers, his heart shuddering. He scanned every tree they creaked past for evidence of cherries - any cherries at all - but there was none. No cherries on the branches, no cherries on the ground. At any moment one of his subjects would notice the cherry-less trees and sound the alarm, and King Roland knew, he just knew, that he would be blamed. Then everyone would berate him and insist that he take them home so they could start putting their things into trunks and talking excitedly about how much better things would be once they got to Queen Delia’s kingdom. How could this have happened? It was cherry season! The trees were always bursting with cherries at this time of year.

     “Your Majesty?”

     King Roland tried to wring the doom out of his facial features before turning to Ritchie. “Yes, Ritchie?”

      “Why did the Growing Things God make cherries in the first place?”              

King Roland tried to steady his breathing. He saw something red on the ground and his heart leaped, but it was only a torn bit of red cloth. “Because,” answered King Roland. “One day the Growing Things God was eating a piece of cherry flavored candy and He thought to Himself, I should make something that tastes just like this. So, on this exact day, thousands of years ago, He created cherries for all of mankind to enjoy.”

     “Thousands of years ago?”

     “Well, more like millions.”

     “Oh,” said Ritchie. King Roland waited in agony for the inevitable follow-up question about the lack of cherries on the trees, but Ritchie seemed satisfied. A hot wind came crawling through the orchard and the pinwheels on the cart whirred. King Roland steered the horses to the north, desperately hoping that perhaps some of the trees down in the valley would have avoided whatever fate had befallen the barren trees they had passed so far. As the cart came along the upper rim of the valley, King Roland looked down the hill and saw, on the far edge of a large clearing, a group of eleven men in scarlet livery going up and down ladders and plucking handfuls of cherries from trees heavy and sagging with the bright, red fruit. On the near side of the men, every tree had been picked clean. Beyond the men, every tree glowed with a swollen abundance of cherries.

     Behind King Roland in the cart, his subjects had gone silent. The laughter and shouts of the men drifted up to the cart through the trees, clearly audible over the wheezing of the horses.

     “Who are they?” asked Kenneth the Baker. “Are they here for Cherry Day? Did you tell them they could pick your cherries, your Majesty?”

     “No, I did not,” said King Roland. “Let’s go speak with them.” He snapped the reins and the exhausted horses began to pull the cart down into the valley, weaving back and forth across the face of the hill. “Did anyone bring a weapon?” asked King Roland. No one answered.

The cart reached the bottom of the hill and King Roland stopped it just short of the clearing. The horses’ heads drooped. King Roland peered out from between the trees at the cherry thieves. Five of the men scurried up and down tall wooden ladders that they had leaned against the highest branches of the trees. They sang and joked as they worked, plucking cherries and dropping them down to five more men on the ground who collected the cherries in large wicker baskets. An eleventh man picked up the filled baskets and loaded them into a cart much like King Roland’s, although this cart was attached to a team of two powerful oxen.

     “King Rudolph’s men wear scarlet livery,” said King Roland. “Those are his men. He’s robbing me. He’s plundering my weakened kingdom.”

     “Let’s go home,” said Lillian the Reformed Whore. “We can’t fight them. Look, they have swords right there. Leaning against that wagon.”

     “I agree,” said Grayson the Blacksmith. “We should go before they see us. I don’t want Ritchie to get hurt.”

     King Roland swiveled on his seat and glared at his subjects. “You’d all love that, wouldn’t you? You could all talk about what a disappointing failure Cherry Day was once I’m out of earshot. Maybe you’d send messages to family members in other kingdoms to inquire about how fun their holidays are. Do you see all these bare trees? All the bare trees we’ve been passing? King Rudolph’s been stealing our cherries for days! Maybe weeks!”

     “I don’t think cherries are ripe for weeks,” said Constance the Midwife.

     “Perhaps they started before the cherries were ripe just to spite us,” said King Roland. “They’re ruining Cherry Day.” He spat into the grass, the snail brand white against his flushed cheek.

     “We don’t mind,” said Lillian the Reformed Whore. “We know you just made Cherry Day up a few hours ago. It’s not that important to us. Let’s go back to the castle for the pie and ice cream. Please. Please, your Majesty.”

     King Roland turned his back on his subjects, slumped forward in his seat, and watched King Rudolph’s men with his upper lip curled in hatred. Then he took the reins in his hands, gave them a sharp snap, and shouted “Yah!” The horses lifted their heads and looked back at him, blinking tragically, but King Roland was unmoved. “Yah!” he shouted again, and he gave the reins another snap. The horses groaned forward, and as the cart emerged from the trees into the clearing, King Roland said, “All of you stay in the cart unless I say otherwise. That’s a royal decree.”

     One of King Rudolph’s gatherers on the ground looked up and saw King Roland’s cart approaching. He gave a shout and the men on the ladders turned and watched the slow progress of the cart for a few moments before climbing down from their perches at a leisurely pace and grabbing their swords. By the time King Roland halted the cart ten yards away from the men, they were all standing in a line with their swords drawn and wide, arrogant smiles on their faces.

     King Roland dropped the reins and stood up on the seat of the cart. The green doublet, soaked in sweat, clung to his back. Nonetheless, he managed to look regal, somehow. “Gentlemen, you are on my land without permission. You are picking my Royal Cherries without permission. And you are facing me, the King of this kingdom, with drawn steel. I insist with the full weight of my authority that you return to your lands at once. And leave those cherries here.”

     A man with a scraggly, orange beard and a dirty bandage across the bridge of his long nose stuck the point of his sword in the earth and leaned forward on it, his wrists crossed over the hilt. “Hey Soapy,” he said to one of his companions. “What do we call this king again?”

     “King Snail-Face,” said Soapy, a tall, chinless man with black hair that hung in his eyes.

     “That’s right,” said the first man. “And how much respect do we afford King Snail-Face?”

     “Zero respect,” said Soapy. “We take his cherries without asking. We wave our weapons in his face. Our women sew his likeness into insulting quilts. And we kill him like a sickly dog if he tries to stop us.”

     King Roland felt unsteady standing on the seat of the cart, but he didn’t want to get down on the ground where he’d be in easy stabbing range. He ignored Soapy and continued to address himself to the first man. “What is your name, sir?”

     The man grinned. His teeth were a sinister white. “I’m Virgil.” He turned his attention to King Roland’s subjects, huddling frightened in the back of the cart. “Well, look here. You brought the whole kingdom. The whole dozen. A kingdom in a cart.”

     “No more,” said King Roland, his voice icy and steady despite the weakness he felt sprouting inside of him. “Get out of here.”

     “Just take the cherries,” said Kenneth the Baker with a whimper.

     “No!” shouted King Roland. “The cherries stay!”

     Virgil laughed and turned to his men. “Kill the horses.”

     Two men stepped forward and before King Roland could react, they each drove their swords into the horses’ necks. Hot blood spurted out and the horses fell to their knees, sighing in what sounded like relief. They flopped onto their sides, still tangled in their harnesses, and one of them managed a faltering, wet scream while the other lashed out twice with its hooves before the men stabbed their throats again and their eyes went dark.

     Constance the Midwife cried out in terror and Ritchie hid his face against his father’s chest, sobbing. King Roland shook both fists at Virgil. “An act of war. An act of open war. My allies will come to my defense and you’ll die like those horses, Virgil. All of you will. I swear it by – by Cherry Day.”

     King Rudolph’s men looked at Virgil for a cue, and when he burst out laughing, they joined him. "Allies! King Snail-Face got so lonely in his empty little kingdom that he made up some imaginary allies!" The men who had butchered the horses laughed as they wiped their blades on the wet flanks of the fallen animals, Soapy danced a halting jig while he laughed, and another man, whose mouth was full of King Roland’s cherries, laughed so that King Roland could see the red pulp on his tongue and teeth.

     “Now,” said Virgil as he wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. “We’re taking your cart and your subjects. Hup!” In one quick motion he jumped up on the seat next to King Roland and gave him a spiteful shove. King Roland, taken by surprise, fell hard, landing flat on his back, his head bouncing off of the ground. Woozy, he slowly got to his feet and staggered a few steps backwards. His subjects watched him in despair. More of them were crying now. Even Thomas the Beggar, even Lionel the Disgraced Knight, even Julian the Pig Farmer.

     “Cut those dead horses loose,” shouted Virgil to the men. “Bring our cart over here and hook this one to the back. The oxen can pull both.” He turned and smiled down at King Roland who looked up at him with bleary eyes. “Oxen are much stronger than horses. Much stronger.”

     King Roland felt too dizzy to stay upright so he sat down in the grass. He avoided eye contact with his subjects and tried to think of a plan. He couldn’t. All he could think of were new holidays. Justice Day, Royalty Appreciation Day, Selective Forgiveness Day, Dangerous Experiments Day.

     “So long, King Snail-Face,” said Virgil as the oxen plodded forward and the linked carts started to roll away. He sat on the seat of the front cart, the back of which was filled with the baskets of King Roland’s cherries. “Now that your kingdom’s empty you can probably raise those taxes again. We’ll be back for the rest of the cherries all this week.” King Roland’s subjects in the second cart didn’t call out to him. They didn’t even look up. The rest of King Rudolph’s men walked alongside the carts with their swords on their hips, drinking the last of the wine from the cask in King Roland’s cart. The whole procession was soon out of sight, although King Roland could still hear his enemies viciously impersonating his commands.

     King Roland got back on his feet and stood doubled over with his hands on his knees. When his head cleared after a few minutes, he stood upright and started the long hike back to the castle. He had to rest several times on the climb back out of the valley, leaning against the trunks of his trees and tucking his sweaty hair back behind his ears. After another twenty minutes of walking, he took his soaked-through green doublet off and left it hanging over a low branch. Maybe he’d come back for it. His head was feeling better than it had since he’d woken up. As he walked, he spotted a cherry lying in the grass near the base of one of the smaller trees, somehow missed or ignored by King Rudolph’s cherry-stealing crew. He picked it up and popped it into his mouth. It was delicious. King Roland took a few minutes to look for more, but he eventually gave up and kept walking. The taste of the cherry lingered in his mouth, tart and rich.

     The sun was setting by the time he got back to the castle. The smell of freshly baked cherry pie hung in the Royal Feasting Hall. King Roland limped into the kitchen and found Terrence, lightly dusted with flour, eating a bowl of cherry ice cream and reading a book of juvenile poetry.

     “You’re back,” said Terrence. “Is everyone ready for pie now? You’re later than I expected.”

     “I’ll take some pie,” said King Roland. He sat down on a stool and rubbed his aching calves with his hands. “But everyone else got captured. Or liberated, depending on your perspective. I had to walk back.”

     Terrence turned his book upside down on the counter and picked up a knife. He walked over to the pies resting on the cooling rack and cut a piece. He balanced the slice of pie on the blade of the knife and carried it back to the counter where he dropped it on a plate in front of King Roland. He added a dollop of cherry ice cream. King Roland took a few bites and then said, “This is great, Terrence.”

     “So now what, your Majesty?”

     “First,” said King Roland through a mouthful of pie and ice cream. “We add Cherry Day to the Drop List.”

     “Consider it done,” said Terrence.

     King Roland pushed his empty plate away and stood up. “Next we replace Cherry Day with Stay In Bed Day. Unless I think of something better before next year. We’ll see. We’ll pencil it in.”

     “I have to say this, your Majesty. That doesn’t sound like a very appealing holiday.”

     King Roland looked at Terrence for a moment and then said, “Follow me.”

     The two men walked out of the kitchen and through the dining hall. They walked down a long hallway, their footsteps muffled by thick rugs, their way lit by torches. After several twists and turns they came to the East Tower, the tallest in the castle. A soft breeze swirled down through the tower as they mounted the steps, one after another, Terrence following King Roland, until they came out into the open air high above the empty kingdom. The silent streets of the town were drenched in the light of a scarred half moon.

     King Roland spoke. “Cherry Day was a complete disaster. Correct?”

     “Yes,” said Terrence.

     “Listen,” said King Roland. “Imagine you could hear down into the streets of town. What would you hear? Any complaining?”

     “No,” said Terrence, smiling and leaning against the chest-high wall that ran around the perimeter of the tower. “I’m imagining it right now. No complaining.”

     “Terrence,” said King Roland. “If I told you to clean up insulting graffiti in town tomorrow, would you threaten to move to a different kingdom?”

     “No,” said Terrence. “I live in this kingdom.”

     “Better get some sleep then,” said King Roland.

     “Our days are numbered, aren’t they, your Majesty.”

     King Roland shrugged. “Maybe everyone will forget about us.”

     “Sort of makes you wish Lucius the Armorer hadn’t taken the key to the armory with him,” said Terrence. 

     The two men went back down the stairs of the East Tower, opened up another cask of wine, and fell asleep in the conservatory talking about how nice it would be if one of them knew how to play the harpsichord.

      

 




Discussion Questions

  • What would King Roland have had to do in order to keep you as one of his subjects?



  • Which of the holidays mentioned in the story sounded like a holiday you might like to celebrate on an annual basis?



  • What’s worse: Nagging Responsibilities or Probable Eventual Doom?



  • A lesser man would say, “No horses were harmed in the writing of this story.” Would you laugh at that lesser man’s attempt at humor? If so, would that make you a lesser man or woman as well? Why or why not?



  • Imagine you’ve just woken up and you remember that you promised your subjects a holiday today. What holiday would you offer them? How would it be celebrated?



  • Keep in mind that I wrote this story before the idea of doing Bedtime Stories had even occurred to me. So I’m not King Roland, the holidays aren’t the Bedtime Stories, and the dozen subjects aren’t you guys. Why would you even think that?