The Kingdom of Gotha
By Sam Martone
HERE, AN IMAGE OF YOUR FATHER: Leaning against the bow of a borrowed ship. From his profile you can see he isn’t happy. He isn’t sad either, simply studying the waves like he could draw his sword, cut open the belly of the ocean and find what he’s searching for tangled in the undertow. He doesn’t know where else to look. The bottom of the sea, the mouth of a whale, those may be the only places left he hasn’t scoured, turned upside down, emptied out. But your father is a man who knows a sword can only do so much. You could talk to him. Maybe he’d tell you something. It would be easy as buttoning a button, but remember: your hands, they are tiny, child-soft. Your fingers are uncalloused and imprecise. Buttoning a shirt isn’t second nature yet. Still your father helps you into your clothes every morning. Still you don’t know how to soften his resolve, to shepherd words from his mouth like you can with the ship’s crew, who repeat every word they say whenever you want to hear them again. Soon the ship will dock, your father will step off the gangplank onto solid land and the countdown to his end will begin again. You play this moment over and over in your head, powerless to stop any of it.
AN IMAGE OF YOUR MOTHER: [file not found]
THE KINGDOM, FROM A DISTANCE, FROM ABOVE: Solid white walls cornered in blue turrets, a bustling mess of a courtyard sprawling inside. You stand with your wife on a bridge suspended between two peaks, looking at your distant destination. She squeezes your hand. In your wagon, monsters growl and burble contentedly. Cliff faces frame the kingdom, the way it might look on a postcard, something from home. It looks like no castle you’ve ever seen.
AN IMAGE OF YOUR MOTHER: Leaning against her sea foam ’67 Dodge Dart. You only know its color from stories—the photo is black and white. Her hair is so short, she stands so far from the camera, the first time you saw the photo, you thought she was your father. The wind ripples across her sleeves. The clouds hang flat and gray over Iowa like lakes in the sky. You’ve looked at the photo so much you remember it like you were there, like you focused the lens and took the shot, but you know this was long before you were born, long before the idea of you even existed.
NOW, THE KINGDOM, CLOSER, AT GROUND LEVEL: The whites and blues dull and fade. Up close, with mountains sawing the horizon behind you, the kingdom looks smaller, like every castle from the outside. On that bridge, you were so sure you’d come to these gates and feel as though you’d arrived, that the ground would shift to fit the shape of your feet. But this land does not remember you. The guards do not open the doors in welcome. In your voicelessness, you cannot explain who you are, who you were, who you might’ve been. Walk around the perimeter of the high-walled kingdom. When you arrive at the small cottage in the shadow of the castle wall, knock on the door. The man who answers the door will look familiar. He will recognize you immediately. He will pinch your arm to make sure you are real. Then, he will weep.
AN IMAGE OF YOUR FATHER: Standing in a narrow kitchen, holding a rotary phone to his face, its black cord curled and tangled. In the photo, he is your age, maybe younger. He wears a wrinkled button-up shirt and a half-smile you recognize from pictures of you. Every time you see him here, the phone book open in front of him, a toaster oven gleaming on the counter, you wonder who he’s listening to on the other end, if there’s anyone on the line at all or if it’s just the steady note of the dial tone. When you look in the mirror, you see yourself becoming him. You say something, in his voice, and pretend he hears you. You wonder if he’d be surprised by your transformation.
THE KINGDOM, INTERIOR: Your father’s friend, having ascertained that you are real, alive, here, takes you to the castle gates, insisting you must see the king, your father’s brother, your uncle. The white castle walls enclose a whole village—a pub, an armory, a church, a shop, even trees, a pond. This kingdom protects its people. A flag with a great green bird flies over every home and storefront. This was once your home, in a time you don’t remember, a time that might not have happened were it not for the people who tell you it did, it did. You approach the throne where your father once sat. Maybe it would be easy to take your rightful place, to live a quiet life with your love, to send soldiers and tamed monsters to continue your search. Your uncle is overjoyed to see you. He wants to relinquish his crown, place it on your head, but the chancellor discourages this. There is a task you must complete to prove your lineage. A cavern you must enter to retrieve the royal insignia. There is always a task, a cavern, an object you must pocket. You can do nothing but agree. You turn to go just in time to catch your wife, who is fainting, like she did in the mountains, it wasn’t just the thin air after all. Her face is flushed, hot. Now you are sure: something is wrong. Curse under your breath. Everyone you’ve ever loved has left you. You don’t know why you thought this would be different, but if destiny is determined for you to be alone, maybe you are the hero. Shake this selfish thought from your mind. Carry her upstairs, where people who can care for her are already rushing to you.
SOMETIMES: It’s hard to keep all of this straight. A castle might look like home from a great distance, but lose all distinction when you approach the doorstep. A ship might unfurl a towering sail in port, but fit snugly in a bottle when it enters open water. You witnessed your father’s murder, but sometimes you expect to find an envelope warming in your mailbox, his name scrawled in the corner. You remember being a baby in your mother’s motionless arms, but years later your father believed she was out there, somewhere, fighting to be found. A dream can feel so real you wake up believing it was, weeping or terrified or overjoyed by what sleep built, and a memory can be all wrong—only an image of what happened, a photograph, one angle on the moment. You aren’t anything but these errors, stacked on top of each other, animated to make up one whole life. Start again, remember it all better this time. Make different decisions, or none at all. You’ve lived aboard a ship. You’ve lived in a cottage in a village in a small, insignificant corner of the world. You’ve lived in a dorm room. In an apartment complex. In a house in the desert. Maybe you were born in a castle. You can’t escape the memory of your father’s death, and you carry no memory of your mother ever having been alive with you, with him. But you remember a dream—no, not a dream—you remember waking up one morning in a bed on the second floor of an empty house. You remember going downstairs and calling for your mother, your father. They had always been here before, in the kitchen making waffles or reading the newspaper in the living room, flapping out the local news spread like inky wings. They had always woken you up, called your name, sometimes even entered your room, kissed your cheek, whispered your name into your ear, It’s time to get up. You remember climbing back upstairs, stretching your boy legs to take two steps at a time. You remember, now, being really, truly scared, like you’d never been before. They were not in their bedroom. Your mother wasn’t in her office, where stacks of sketches and poems littered her desk. Then you heard a soft chuckle, a voice in the walls. Mom, you yelled, Dad, and her voice floated down to you, Up here honey, and you climbed up to your father’s office, a room you so often forgot existed, a room so blue it was nearly white. The first time you’d seen it, as a boy even younger than the boy you were then, you named it the Cloud Room. Now, you don’t remember the staircase up to the Cloud Room, if it was hidden behind a door, if it was iron or wood, if it spiraled or slanted, but you remember peering into the room from halfway up the steps, your eyes peeking in just above floor level. You remember seeing your mother, looking over your father’s shoulder at something on his computer screen. Seeing them and being so glad they were there and not, as you had just before so surely believed, lost, gone, taken or, worst of all, left—having decided they did not want a son, or at least not the son you were. You stood there watching and they talked, unaware of your presence, your mother’s hand on your father’s shoulder, their words a low bright babble, not the kind of words you remember for sharp-hewn edges and blunt meanings but for the taste of them on your tongue, as if you were speaking for them, and you looked past your parents to the one small gray-lit window, through which you could only see a square of clouds, a framed portrait of sky. If you were to look out, you might see anything. You might find yourself in a tower hundreds of feet in the air with no way down, a beautiful knight on horseback looking for princes to rescue. You might find yourself in a castle on the top of a beanstalk, your parents the size of giants. You might find yourself in a northeast city you’ll one day forget, but you’ll remember your parents here, with so much love coursing between them as they wait for the moment you will emerge in the Cloud Room and they return to being parents, and then, like they’ve wondered where you are at precisely the same time, both look up and see you seeing them and smile. There you are, he says. This, you remember.
Sam Martone lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.
Image: The Avenue of Knights, by Bernard Gagnon. Used with permission under creative commons.