September 10, 2020
Welcome to part 2 of “The Island of Slippery Souls.” Miss part 1? No worries! You can read it here.
That very same day, across the island, something unusual happened: The body of the king welcomed in the soul of the king.
It was a moment the kingbody had been waiting for, and it was the start of all the trouble.
Do you know about kings? Kings are silly creatures and can cause no end of problems if they aren’t kept busy.
That was true of King Hieronymus Clench, who sat on his throne that Sunday, surveyed the great hall of his castle, and sighed a ridiculous sigh.
“What is it, Dear?” said the queen.
“What is it, Sire?” said his knights.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” said the lords and ladies of the castle.
The king made a sad face. “Subjects, a kingdom needs order if it is to prosper. However, our kingdom has a problem. It is far too unpredictable. Since the souls are the cause of this chaos . . .“
There was a terrible silence in the Great Hall.
“. . . they must be removed.”
The Great Hall erupted in gasps. A serving boy, who’d just come in to refill the pitchers with cucumber water, gasped just to hear the gasping.
“Sire,” sputtered the queen, “surely you have the soul of a trickster in you. The people are happy.”
“I jest not!” shouted the king, rising to his feet. “They are happy, but they are not productive. A great kingdom is built on a foundation of endless glorious sameness! On our island, a body cannot make plans but that he has to change them every Sunday. A farmer should think only farming thoughts. A baker should think only baking thoughts. A wife should think only—”
“Wifing thoughts?” asked his wife.
“Exactly!” thundered the king.
The queen reached out and touched the king’s arm. She spoke softly, “Just wait for your new soul. You’ll see things differently.”
King Clench yanked his arm away. “I have been waiting, Queen, waiting for this day. Henceforth, I think only with my body.”
The king scowled and flicked his wrist, dismissing the nobles.
The queen waited for the hall to empty. “’Think with your body.’ What does that mean?”
“You’ll know soon,” he replied with a tight-lipped smile. “Quite soon.”
That night the king crept to the top of the Tower Number 3. Around and around the narrow spiral staircase he went, up and up and up.
He stopped at last in front of a thick iron door, fished a key ring from his robe, and found key Number 3.
Insert. Twist. Click click click went the tumblers in the lock.
The great door creaked open, revealing a terrible room. A machine loomed out of shadow, all iron and brass and wire and glass. There was a control panel to one side, covered with switches and dials. There was a chair at the front of the machine, but it was no chair you’d ever want to sit in, not if you didn’t want to feel its armstraps and legstraps tighten down around you. Behind the machine was a cylindrical storage tank, as tall as the king, with the word SOULS stenciled on one side. Extending from the back of the machine was an iron cone attached to a mechanical arm. The cone could be raised when not in use, or lowered like a hat onto the head of a person sitting in that awful chair. Coiled tubing ran from the top of the cone out through the roof.
King Clench clapped his hands three times in delight. He pushed the door shut— creaaaaak—and locked it behind him—click click click.
On the side of the chair was a large knob with the following settings:
Collect one soul.
Collect all souls: Kids.
Collect all souls: Grown-ups (except king).
Collect all souls: Old people.
(The last one was a feature he added in case he got thirsty.)
The king turned the dial to setting 3. “Tempting,” he whispered. “I could start right now.”
“Best test it first,” he decided. “I’ll start with one. If that works, I’ll harvest in waves.”
King Clench turned the dial to 1 and flicked the machine ON. He plucked a brass wand from a holster in the side of the machine and clicked it into a wire. He pointed it off into the night. A slight humming, the whir of a fan kicking in, lights flickering on and off, and the machine sensors looked for a soul suitable for suction.
Suddenly the lights flashed on all at once, strong and steady. The machine had found a soul.
King Clench made himself a glass of lemonade, and smiled.
Just as she did every Sunday evening, Clara Lightbody was reading in Arrow’s Poems for Gardeners. Tonight, she was smiling over the poem on page 22, “Song of the Unsung Beetle of Dung,” which began:
You, little farmers of the soil,
whose lives are filled with joy and toil.
Of you too seldom songs are sung.
But here’s to all who roll the dung.
Her new soul, the soul of a pirate, chuckled inside her.
Clara heard screams.
Letitia Lightbody’s panicked cries shook Clara from her reverie. She snapped the book shut and rushed to her door.
Letitia stood on the front porch, panting.
Clara reached for her. “What? What?”
“No, she’s in the house. I mean her body is. She’s with Ramon. Oh Clara,” Letitia’s voice cracked, “It’s like she’s not there. Her soul is . . . gone.”
Clara held her. “We’ll put it right, child.”
A few minutes later, Clara, Letitia and Ramon stood by Ellie’s bed, peering down. Letitia held Ellie’s hand. Ramon set a cool cloth on her forehead.
Ellie’s eyes were open, but empty. She breathed fast shallow breaths.
“Tell me what happened,” said Clara.
“It was suppertime —” mumbled Ramon.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t come this evening,” interrupted Clara.
“It’s okay, Mom. There’s nothing you could have done. She let go of her explorer’s soul. She was sad about it, I thought, but nothing out of the ordinary. After a little shake, she just went quiet . . .”
“And fell asleep,” said Letitia. “We carried her to bed.”
“We waited . . .” said Ramon.
“And then she woke up,” said Letitia.
“Like this,” said Ramon.
“That’s when I came for you,” said Letitia.
Clara knelt close, staring into Ellie’s empty eyes.
“Ellie? Ellie child? Can you hear me?”
“Sweetie? Would you like to come garden with me tomorrow?”
Quick shallow breaths.
“Maybe we can find another dung beetle.”
Suddenly, Ellie sat up and stared directly at Clara. “Remember the beetle,” she rasped. Just as suddenly, she fell back into an impenetrable sleep.
Outside the farmhouse, the world was full of nightsound and moonlight and growing things.
“Maybe some tea . . .” whispered Clara, hardly knowing what to say.
The three of them sat at the kitchen table for a long time without speaking, barely sipping their cups of peppermint tea. Clara gazed out the window, across the pasture toward her own house, getting dim in the deepening gloom.
Ramon spoke softly. “I have an idea.” He began to explain.
“You want me to go?” asked Clara.
Letitia squeezed her hand and said, “I can’t bear to leave her.”
“I can’t either, Mother,” said Ramon. “I can mind both farms.”
“My body is so weak,” said Clara.
“But your pirate soul is strong,” said Letitia. “You told us yourself.”
“Yes, you’re right. Let me get my things.” Clara pushed her chair back from the table.
“Wait till morning,” said Ramon. “Let’s give Ellie a good night’s sleep. Just in case.”
“Yes,” said Letitia. “Maybe her soul got lost.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” said Clara. “That must be it.”
Clara hurried back at daybreak, clutching her battered carpetbag. The bag didn’t weigh much—she’d only brought an extra pair of overalls, her copy of Arrow’s Poems for Gardeners, and a bundle of dried rutabaga knotted into a handkerchief.
Ramon and Letitia pushed the door open. They were pale.
“No change?” asked Clara.
They shook their heads.
“You were up all night, weren’t you?”
At that moment, the world decided to string a series of jewels onto the necklace of dawn. Soft buttery light. Spangles of dew on the pasture. A symphony of birdsong in the trees.
The universe was briefly beautiful, and then the jangle of a bugle overran the moment.
A messenger rode into the yard, dressed in purple and red, the colors of the king. He brought his breathless horse skidding to a halt in the yard. He didn’t say good morning. He simply pulled a scroll from his velvet vest.
“A proclamation from the king concerning souls,” he said in a bored voice.
As they are known to cause
and as disorder is the enemy
of any productive body politic,
be it hereby and henceforth proclaimed
to all citizens
that for their own good and happiness,
all souls will be gathered and detained
for further observation
until such time it is determined
that they may once again inhabit
our bodies and our kingdom
without threat of further disorder.
Clara was outraged. “That is ridiculous and it is impossible! Rounding up souls! I never heard such a thing.”
The messenger ignored her.
Collection of souls will begin
Now that we know
initial test results have been . . .
The messenger looked down his nose and frowned.
. . . successful.
Collection will progress from young to old,
in three successive harvests. We begin tomorrow, Tuesday morning, and the process
will be complete at dusk three days from now—
Please make ready.
Order is law.
Law is duty.
Duty is good.
Good is order.
And so on.
Harboring souls will henceforth
be punishable by prison.
Long live the king’s body!
The messenger rolled up the scroll and galloped away, but not before his tired horse gave a sympathetic look back at the Lightbodys.
Clara, Letitia, and Ramon staggered over to the porch swing and sat down, dazed. Hands fumbled for hands. Cheeks pressed into cheeks.
There was a cough from the house. They rushed inside.
Ellie was sitting in her bed. “Good morning, Mother. Good morning, Father. Hello, Grandma Clara.”
“The king’s plan failed!” said Clara.
Ramon and Letitia hugged their daughter.
Ellie patted their backs mechanically.
“Ellie, are you okay?” Letitia held her daughter’s shoulders and stared into Ellie’s eyes. Her empty eyes.
“Yes, Mother. Whysoever do you ask? I did have the strangest dream. I could do anything I wanted—play, wander, dream. It was terrible. So unproductive.” Ellie blinked slowly. Once. Twice. “Thank goodness it was just a dream. I must get to my chores.”
“Ellie,” whispered Clara. “What about the dung beetle?”
“Messy, messy creatures.”
Ellie rose from her bed and lurched past them. They heard the front door open and close.
Clara hugged her son and daughter-in-law.
“Mind my rutabagas. If the king will not listen to me,” she smacked a fist into her palm. “I will force him to.” And with that, she began her journey.
She had three days.
To be continued next week. …
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