Edward Morris’ short story ‘The Star-King’

The Star-King
by Edward Morris

Le Journal Français
Private Collection, Item 41-A
Single cahier, acquired Montmartre, ca. 1900
Carot, Jeunet et fils, Rare Books
Handwritten; (order pages by number and name)
Signatory: (illegible)
Concierge on Duty, Hotel Belleville
For effects of the Deceased:
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
*“
TO MR. W.P.”
*
Overture: [separate, unmarked]
We are all in the gutter, dear W., but some of us are looking at the stars.

A Childe made old, who caused public excitement and gave rise to many strange conjectures, lounged across a divan, smoking innumerable cigarettes, sketching with a piece of charcoal by the window. Outside, he could hear bees, and smell roses from somewhere close. The dim hum of Paris was like the wheeze of a distant concertina. Now and then, the shadow of an indignant pigeon or crow would pass down the long white chintz curtains of this room in this rooming house, with the bleakness of a Ukiyo-e reflection.

As it was in the Ukiyo style, the reflection was never the same as the object. The portrait the trembling, crow-tracked man-boy eked out upon the newsprint, stroke by stroke, was a selfportrait, yet never truly himself.

But This was the moment, when even he began to behold the Big Picture, the one behind the one he was essaying at. This was the Thing Which Went Click.
That click left the old writer gasping, half-dead, yet somehow still alive, in a fierce last stand, all he could gamble remaining to ride on the last and greatest of human hopes in this age that was mostly done Gilding and presently beginning to Mechanise.

Down in the Rue d’Auseil, the rolling of a martial snare-drum came nearer and nearer. Its echoes struck back tinny notes from the wall. That single tin soldier marched away, in process, a thing of the purest afternoon whose eyes begged no release as he left the crash of his instrument in the artist’s ringing ears…
Then once more, as it always ended up, the aging neophyte put pen to paper, and began anew.
*
Canto 1: Coronation of the Star-King

ONCE Upon A Time, for all the best faery stories begin that way, don’t they? Children?
ONCE. Upon a time, …Two poor and humble woodcutters came a good league hence home through a dark, deep wood full of snow, having lost the right road not long back, but full of other ideas. When they looked toward the clouds, there were ocean waves and strange black holes where the skies and stars had been, and two sinking suns in place of the former single Moon.
“We enter the Faerie Kingdom,” the eldest woodcutter said fearfully, pointing to those black stars low over the hills, winking. In the wind, they heard tattered, jaundiced hides rustle, and felt the fingers of some seeking, jaundiced, eyeless Light that could nonetheless still see.

“Hecate’s work, or the rot of me own brain from various vices,” the younger woodcutter told him back, “It makes no odds to me. The old Moon dies a cold death tonight, even the staring owl no longer sings, and only the little foxes sleep warm. If a thing is so, it is so, and at present it is terribly cold.”

On through the deep drifts they trudged, in hobnailed boots, with frostbitten fingers, white as millers at the wheel. At length, the forest thinned, and down in the valley below, their village, its lights, their joy, the stars of Home the same strength as those above, in brightness.
Then they remembered that at Home, the gold stayed in the sky, always out of reach, let alone grasp. For them, starvation in a new land was the same as it had been in the Old, except that here, the Queen prayed to a different god, and there were no lands for anyone who prayed to theirs. But as they trudged onward, and barked and carped about their miserable lot that month, this strange thing happened:

From the heavens, there fell this very bright and beautiful star, slipping down the side of the sky, sinking, sinking to Earth with a flash, in a grove of trees not half a mile hence. The star was gold, in hue. Theirs was a footrace, unbidden, frostbite and sore feet and all.

And gold there was, lying on the snow, in a glass box, a tatterdemalion Cloak of golden tissue, wrought with stars, wrapped in many folds, crown’d with many crowns. White curls, within strange seals, and glass, a faery babe asleep.
But for this treasure, the poor woodcutters’ hands were now empty, their empty homes
awaiting, in the cold. Neither was a place to bring a childe, but without strength they sat, not able to leave what they had found, in any good faith.

The second woodcutter’s faith, and family home, were ever-so-slightly larger. He took
the babe from the aerolite, wrapping the childe in the starry cloak he found there. As the two woodcutters trudged home, Little-Faith berated the elder the while. The second woodcutter had no ear for it. For the babe was singing to him, in his head.
He hung said sad head, at Goodwife’s sight. “I have a changeling,” mumbled he,“It weren’t right to leave the craithur in the snow—”
But his own wife shoved him aside. “Two girls and never a boy to help me with the heavy work when you’re gone?” was all his Jenny said at first, “La’, but what if he’s an ill omen, and what will I do to nurse him? But…”

Knowing what was to come, the woodcutter merely averted his visage, so that Goodwife Jenny could not see the smirk. ‘Oh…but he’s so beautiful,” ended that particular line.
“He is a Star-Child,’ her man answered humbly, and told her the manner in which he’d been born again, into their own humble manor.
But after a scant few moments, Jenny bade him, “Hoosh, hoosh, yeh great silly man, and get a look about youse..” Her mother’s brogue and lilt rang in her voice as she spoke and gestured all around them, her eyes as wide as a child’s at Hallow-E’en.
The baby’s tatttered Cloak was making the windows fog up, burning away the frost all around the edges of the hearth’s hot ring whose reach was never far enough. In the crackle of faggots from the stove, they heard the sounds of drums, as to war, and rumours of War, straining and snapping at joist & beam, vibrating every nail & peg, rattling shutters like sabres in the heavy air, under the desolate sky. Past that warm place was the way to the freezing city of dome on dome, tower on thousandfold tower, the way to the Wicked Queen, but not just then.

The yellow wind that brought the Childe to their doorstep, the yellow smoke that gifted Moses o’er their transom, entered every square, seized every avenue and palace, stole across narrow bridges, crept out in the fine icy sleet that pounded the pavement with glittering, glittering, glittering glass,sifting every pane, drifting heaps along the sills, covered them with stars and diamonds, melted, and ran again, again, within, whilst brown mice bobbed behind the hob.

The woodcutter’s good wife felt all this, then turned to look at her man, eyes wet with tears.
“What shall we call him?”
As they spoke, they bedded the bairn with Erin, the youngest daughter. “Dolly,” Erin
pronounced in her sleep, and scarcely roused. This was outvoted by the senior officiant.
“John,”Jenny said firmly, After your father.” (The green jewel in amber, around the boy’s swanwhite neck on its fine silver chain, they wrapped in the Cloak, locked in a box, and buried beneath the heaviest boulder in the dooryard, for that was ever the Way. )

*
Bare-limbed and but a toddler, panpipe in hand, John the Singer of Ballads would trudge after his father, through the woods, piping songs that he wanted to open doors that would derange the human flock. Songs of dynasties in his home, in far Carcosa, great cities on shining lakes, Demhe and Halì.
The young Star-King dreamed a tattered cloak that was never his to wear, for it was scarlet beneath,as was his home. Scarlet cinders, he told the family, out in deepest Space. He was last of an Imperium, end of the family line, the Last King. The last Star-King.

The Truth was ever so much more convoluted, and in any case, his adoptive parents, and Erin and Annie, merely let John sing his songs, spin his yarns, do his tricks, and be.
They let him Be. He sat at the same board with them, and was their playmate. Every year, he became more beautiful to look upon, white and delicate as a frozen marble koi-fish come alive and swimming in the bowl. His curls were like the rings of the daffodil, his body like the narcissus of a field where the mower comes not, eyes violets by a clear-running stream, his lips the palest sick rose.

The slender, fair-haired boy in his floating mantle grew ever more lovely. The purity of John’s face, whose weather was often as variable as an April day: In the morning, grave, dignified and sweet; at noon, laughing, capricious; at evening, whatever stirred the depths of the heart. Yet John turned his beauty to the good. His sisters made him humble, open-handed, taught him the magic spells of Kindness, and genuine concern, the incantation, “Here, play with my toy.”

The other children in the village, no matter their parentage, learned, they learned…
When some of them learned evil names, and how to pick up sticks, and stones, they learned the nature of John’s Cloak that came from the stars. Those kinds of boys learned that they could not touch him, and in fact were never seen again, before John even became aware of what the Cloak had done, and where those village louts had in fact Gone.

Before “John” grew all the way aware of what he could Become if he gave in to it, donned that tattered mantle of flesh, and let his star-hands reach through all the worlds.
nOn the loom of Sorrow, and by the white claws of Pain, had that Cloak been woven. “This dies with me,” John sang under his breath, and locked the box again; replaced the dirt, the rock, the robe of tattered gold, the diamond-studded diadem, the sceptre, the fair raiment of a King, but not the jewel around his neck, again.

(His Mama knew, watched from the window, and never remarked on the matter, but from that day, looked somehow more at peace, somehow more herself than she’d been since she was a green girl. )
When John wore the Jewel, he saw the beautiful freaks, the ones born wrong, and let them Be, let them shine, not just where-e’er they learned to, back in the dark, at home, or for only the eyes of immediate kin. He coaxed that kind out into Light, and sometimes accompanied. His parents, and even the old village priest could only be proud, for there was only the place for John he made by being himself.
*
Meanwhile, beyond the woodcut and the fief,twice-locked behind the palace wall, the ward of the old King was John’s most constant playmate, and taught him the lute, the harpsichord, instruments he might never otherwise see. When Edward, that commoner-prince still kept at court, had been but a week old, he was stolen away from his mother.
There was no father listed. She died of grief. The old King acknowledged Edward as heir, but was sick and long out of favor by the Council.

No one ever told Edward which one of the paintings in the Great Hall was her, or if, and why the pane of polished glass forever made Edward an outsider. But when Edward looked in John’s eyes, they were Princes, they were Kings. John was anodyne from pain, restoration from sickness. For this, Edward risked a whipping every day he brought the albino boy from the woods anywhere to play.
Where he could, Edward looked for Beauty, and found little of it at Court, or in the rich
clothes they made him wear that chafed his skin. When he and John played, they dressed as urchins, wodwo in Fenian hoods; the colors of the forest, the shoes of running, the sandals of fey Hermes teaching the secrets of Art in secret to the two of them, lonely worshippers whom Beauty loved.

Never before had two felt so keenly, or with such exquisite joy, the magic and mystery of beautiful things. Who were their elders to keep them from Empire over all the habitable Earth? It would be done. It would be done. They would be Kings. Together. Hand in glove. The nations would rise and look upon them…
**
On the eve of his seventeenth Midsummer, John returned home with his pipes; barefoot, grass-stained, exhausted, whiter than the morning star. A smile played and lingered about his boyish lips like the very laugh of Narcissus, and lit up with a bright lustre his violet eyes, as he brought back many a tale from the children in the village, open-mouthed, asleep in midretelling like some young animal of the forest newly snared by a hunter called Prince Morpheus.

John’s big sister Annie hid her smile when she saw him, sprawled on the couch of home and hearth, half-beneath a blanket of puzzlement, his expression priceless. Annie did not see what screamed behind this angelic tableau.
This was John’s Dream:
*
JOHN’S DREAM:
In Peacetime, Have conquers Have-Not, who dies making too little upon which to
live, who treads the grape while Have drinks the wine. Through sunless lanes creeps Poverty with hungry eyes, and Sin with sodden face. Misery wakes them, and Shame sings them to sleep until they don’t want to wake up on their own any more….
John’s dreams never stayed in place. As he drifted off once more, he sprawled in a court of Dream-kings, with pages entering to disrobe him with much ceremony, pouring rosewater over his hands, strewing the petals across his pillow, and more besides. He didn’t want to get up. He would get up in a minute, just after… OH GOD

But then,he blinked and he was entering aMill, glowing with the light of raiment he would not wear, his eyes bright gold. The walls dripped and streamed in the fog and filthy air. Gaunt weavers and sickly children bent at their work, lifting battens, pressing threads, pinched with famine, shaking, trembling.
The young Star-King gave a loud cry and woke, and through his own window, he saw the Moon hanging in the air. John fell asleep again and dreamed, and this was his dream until the long grey fingers of Dawn clutched at the fading stars:
The Star-King dreamt he was wandering through a dank wood odoriferous with pines, hung with strange fruits and beautiful poisonous flowers. Different sights of which he could not retain even the least definitive outline continued, and the sense of sinister change and breathless expectancy was suffocating.

Overhead in the sky, the stars of Dream were doing things no stars should. Surging and
lapping, growing madblack. The last light faded from them and went out, Awaiting the
inevitable removal of such temporary conventions as render human existence possible,
The brooding Prince of Truth stared steadily back toward Carcosa, under high Dream-stars which, too, passed, as the planets blew in drifts like autumn leaves, and a greater Dark summoned frost across the stars . And he remembered the cries of the Earth when he killed it screaming, as he lay dreaming the other way he could have Learned to be, if no one let him be.
If no one let him be. But they let him Be. His father found him in the snow and they let. Him.
BE.

This conquered the heart of the last Star-King, and turned him from home for the last time. On and on he went, till he reached the outskirts of the world. A cold mist followed him, and watersnakes ran by his side.
Like Fever in a robe of flame he passed through the multitude, and touched them, and the grass withered beneath his feet. And out of the slime at the bottom of the valley crept dragons and horrible things with scales, and the jackals came trotting along the sand. And the young King wept, for even at peace he was still the more powerful Monster.

And he grew pale, and said: ‘For what King do thou toil?’ And the people answered: ‘Look in this mirror, and thou shalt see him.’
And he looked in the mirror, and, seeing his own face, he gave a great cry for he wore no Mask, and never had, or would. And the young King’s eyes filled with tears, and he bethought not the murmurs of the people.
‘Is this a king’s apparel? And with what crown shall I crown myself, and what sceptre shall I grasp? Shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned? The wild boar roots up the corn in the valley, and the foxes gnaw the vines upon the hill. In the salt-marshes live the lepers; they have houses of wattled reeds, and none may come nigh them. Beggars wander through the cities, and eat with dogs. Canst thou make these things not to be? Is not He who made misery wiser than thou? Wherefore I praise thee not for this that thou hast done, but bid thee park thy royal carriage, walk, and look.”

And the stars passed through their entire life-arcs in John’s dreams, and left him watching all alone amid the ruins of Eternity as they began to reignite, the galaxies came back on like electric lamps at twilight, and what was Broken became Made.
And the bright sunlight came streaming into the room, and from the rowan- and linden-trees of the garden the birds were singing. And lo! through the painted windows came the sunlight on him, And the sun-beams wove around him golden cloaks of his own influence.

In his hand, the dead staff blossomed, Easter-lilies white as pearls. Strong as a god he glittered.

Gold light brought him live. The jewelled shrine flew open.The saints in their carven niches seemed to move.
The young King came down from the high altar, and passed home through the midst of the people. But no man dared look upon his face, for it was like the face of an angel,
Yet in his own mind, he was scaled like an adder, his eyes the black spots of a plump graveworm curled in a chestnut shell. He dared not even think of what followed, even in the spring sunshine, reassured by the bustle from the street, redirected from the death-sweat of Duty on his heart, most of the time:
The day has always come. The vaulted roof vanishes, and we raise our seared eyes to the fathomless glare, To the black stars of our own ends, the wet winds of Halì tossing the clouds, the towers of Carcosa rising behind the moons we show our madness, as the sun doth see our shame.

Or did, Until his old friend knocked, For Things had changed.
“I am myself but a slave, yet may I give thee thy freedom,” Edward told John,
“For thou hadst pity on me first. It is hard work to always be alone, with never a friend
you can have in honor, and that love that is offered means the whole rest of the world when it is found. I know it, we know it, All who have nothing and no one and give our
whole souls, un-questioning, when we love, still knowing the end.”

The color about Prince Edward’s neck deepened and whitened with every breath. He’d cut a rose from the bush out front with his penknife, and now pressed it into the young Star-King’s weird webbed hand. “You are mocking me, “ John told him, “And making light of my misery.’ But when they arrived, the gate of the palace opened for them, and the priests and the high officers of the city ran forth to meet them, and they abased themselves, and said, ‘Thou art our Lords for whom we have been waiting.”
John believed none of it. “How say ye that I am beautiful, for I know that I
am Evil to look at?’

But the nobles were on their knees, As though before a King and Queen. And Edward
remained deadly serious.
“I would wash your feet with my tears.” Edward fell about John’s neck and kissed him, and brought him into the palace, and clothed him in fair raiment.
And over the city that stood by the river, John and Edward ruled in Justice and Mercy. To the poor they gave bread, and to the naked they granted raiment. And there was peace and plenty in the land.

THE END
**
CANTO 2.) EACH MAN DOES NOT DIE
I read this again, remembering (as I do each time I dream,) my incarceration and release.
What ails me, to wear a face like this? While I was inside, I rarely betrayed my sorrow, even to myself. Self-deception was no longer even a mask, for me,though Night shed that serpent-skin, and bared the stifled sob behind it. When the day broke,the scales fell back of their own will. Yet still there comes that breathless expectancy. I wake in the morning with my heart beating, and all day the excitement increases until I fall asleep, to recall the same experience.

The day they let me go, after eighteen months, I kissed the flagstones in Picadilly, then stood erect and looked with sick mole’s eyes upon the sun in full glow (nothing like myself.) Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with Words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, more precious than jewels, more soothing than Music, more awful than Death!

My wor(l)d had been between those dank stone walls. I had to build one again, however
briefly, knowing not for whom I waited, save my Self, which had but shifted with the years, not really changed.
I could still look to the glass, To the summer sky, and fields of flowers whiter than snow, with hearts of pure gold, though I had killed the thing I loved, and bled upon that plain

But when I came here to the Rue d’Auseil in Paris on that tramp steamer, not long later, I crept along, making my feet move, feeling a dawning sense of responsibility for some old scandal, long-forgot, as if I deserved every second of anything.
I’d got loose. Now I stumbled the best I could, and said some of these words aloud, all the while gazing on the malignant hatred of those last rays, face to face. The human soul is always free, and should fear nothing, but to be the object of so much hatred is truly, physically painful. It actually kills.

At the sunset of my life, I came to a bridge where the Keeper cried “None shall pass
without Wisdom.” I laughed at him. “There’s still Time..” He smiled, and bade me pass, though the madding crowd shrieked that I’d come too late to that Palace.
Yet, having lived with my eyes open, I dreamt that I awoke. So plainly did I hear the midnight bells, and the wind in the tree-branches, that even now I tremble, robed in harlequin clothes and clown white, missing a tooth, a Truth.

The Truth rots behind bars in my dreams. My tooth rotted out. I affixed it to one bell
on my cap of Fools. If Innocence is Beauty, who but Death can compare With my own pallid mask? Death approaches, tells me I am paler still, and very beautiful.
Then He holds up the canvas. There is Some defect in it, or the paint, a gangrene beneath the picture that spreads like a sponge drawing blood a horrible colour not quite in the spectrum that turns flesh to green cheese. What creatures artists are, like an awful dream we all once had that bled into the wake.

My portrait’s in ruin. The Reaper’s my mirror. I do not wear my scarlet coat where the shadows in men’s souls lengthen to monster size at the death of afternoon, when twin suns sink, and darkness fills my cahiers with old blood.

Self-preservation writhes in the throes of Banality, where all Horror dies, drowns, drags down with it, All. Terrible in simplicity, irresistible in Truth, it stoops and binds the stars, one by one, & turns them black & boiling in the jaundiced sky. The splendid diadem of Verse upon my head until the end, my pretty corpse in this white silk robe….

The supreme note of Art will spread from continent to continent like an infectious disease. Human nature itself will break beneath the strain of these words of purest poison. Yet the rank and file merely see a scroll of yellow foolscap, scrawled by a croaking sodomite All Art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that Art really mirrors. When critics disagree, we can forgive a man.
Yet each man does not stop. I shall be Queen, boys, Queen in Carcosa when the Dawn comes
with the workhouse key.
*
For Wilum Pugmire and Joe Pulver,
Parents of the King.
**

 

Edward Morris was born on Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina, and grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania (home of the Slinky and the Harrison Narcotics Act). Upon graduating Temple University with a B.A. in Film, he did a tour of duty in the Bay Area as a boho columnist for Allen Cohen’s Open City, then emigrated to Portland, Oregon for reasons of sanity and gainful employment.

Edward lives and works in Portland. He hosts the monthly variety show The Hour that Stretches at Ford Food and Drink and spearheaded the Portland release party of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Shriek: An Afterword” with local contemporary Jay Lake.

His work has appeared in Interzone, Nowa Fantastyka, Oceans of the Mind, and numerous other wonderful publications. Edward and Texan author Lou Antonelli collaborated on a number of stories. As well, Mr. Morris attended WorldCon to roll up his sleeves and volunteer at the Interzone table. He welcomes all correspondence to: Dante3000@gmail.com 

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