Fiction / March 2016 (Issue 31)

Glory of Last Abiding

by Douglas Penick

For Emilio in Bali


Silence rests softly in the golden air as sweet opium smoke moves from lungs to heart. I look without moving my head. Ah, there is my brother, and there, six male cousins, and an uncle or so, all wreathed in smoke, almost asleep on their gilded divans which seem to float like little golden funeral barges on the polished teak floor. Looking just like this, when the time comes, will they be borne away to other realms.

But I, I do not lie down. I am the ruler. I sit and do not move. A gecko, overwhelmed by the narcotic smoke falls from the ceiling and lands on the floor with a plop. Languidly, a servant moves to pick it up. How gently she moves, bending her knees and the line of sky-blue silk on her skirt's border suddenly taut, a line like the prow of a ship. Now, she stands, and it is gone.

The two white men, seated awkwardly on chairs, have noticed her and the look of condescending disapproval has, for a moment, vanished to be replaced by baser lust. Dutchmen, the climate of their homeland must be very different. They use white cloths to mop heavy sweat from their sickly pale faces. How much would she cost? I can see the thoughts in their strange blue eyes, as they exchange a knowing glance.

I do not know what my stuporous if beloved relatives see in their dreams. But I know that in my dream, I see them. Is it not said that I am the living form of Vishnu, the preserver? And indeed it is so. Opium or not opium, spicy food or not food, intrigue or no intrigue, pungent rice wine or not rice wine, soft skinned lovers or no lovers, lackeys or no lackeys, my world is the dream of a god. And while it swirls around me like so much smoke, I do not move. The thought does not occur.

The Dutchmen have bribed my brother, three uncles and as many cousins to gain oil concessions. Correctly they assume that much of the money will end up in my personal treasury. Their smug belief that they have corrupted me is however mistaken.

Rarely do I speak. The smallest gestures suffice. For it is my function to look on this world, and, by looking on it, convey blessings. It is my function, not to move and to be seen, in all my impossibly elaborate splendor, not to move. It is enough that I am among them.

Tomorrow I will be carried by eighty warriors on a golden palanquin beneath a huge vermilion parasol. I will be seated on a throne sixty feet high to watch the funeral of my uncle, dead of plague, a lecherous cowardly man who schemed and plotted with many a foreign envoy to sit on this very throne. I will not even blink.

Horns and drums will fill the air amid towers of incense. Tens of thousands, shouting, laughing, weeping will throng every inch of the city. Priests will go into trances or pretend to. Three of the uncles' wives will throw themselves into the cremation fire. Then there will be a feast. Lithe dancers in gold will perform sacred dances. These will be the dances revealed to my great ancestor who slept with a goddess and was shown the cycle of the dance that unfolds within the seasons and the hours.

Throughout the day, spies masquerading as servants, wives, guards, priests, advisors will whisper to me. The priests, the visitors, the military, traders, inventors, my relatives, ah yes, always gossip there and I will hear it all. Whatever is developed or grown in my kingdom, whatever is brought into it or taken out of it, whatever kinds of power are coveted: everything will be known. This chatter forms a web of channels covering the entire realm.

I will need to act in some cases. And from my whispered commands and slightly lifted finger blessings will flow down like water from a mountain stream and irrigate the land. For just as I eat and sleep and drink and make love, I command, for I am indeed among them.

The Dutchmen will watch the procession and the ceremonies from a place of honour. Their thinning golden hair will shine in the sun as their white scalps turn red. They are new occupants in my world, but they believe they know its secrets and control its fate. Money, they think, has given them that power. I look at them impassively, and they shift to return my gaze. I do not move when they nod. They turn away.

They cannot imagine I know how soon, very soon my world, my beautiful ancient world will vanish. Its time is over. There will never be another royal funeral. I take bribes and spend money and forestall the moment when the gunboats and the armies will arrive. I will not survive.

But for now, there is no need of anything, and I watch the motes of dust dancing like innumerable islands in the sea of molten light reflected off the polished floor. And as I do not move my gaze or my attention, in each of those glittering specks hovering in the air, I see the palace of another god, clear and radiant. Some are blue, some silver, some copper coloured, some red, more colours than an infinity of rainbows dancing in the light. In each, a god-king sits unmoving with consorts and attendants all around him. And before him, tiny performers manipulate their puppets for his entertainment. And these puppets are all the beings of all the universes in existence. There are as many such realms as there are atoms in all the ocean of galaxies in all of time. Each has its god, palace, retinue and subjects.

A smile in my mind. No one but a god who rules can know or contemplate the profound peace of this vision. As I rule the world, this is the smile I share with the infinity of gods who sparkle in wave upon wave of light in realms without number.

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