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The King's Face by Leck Fischer

Translated by Eileen Macleod

I shall never forget that day in August...A midday peace lay over the courtyard and the children's sandpit, when Agnes suddenly threw down her spade and would not play any more, and squatted down by the wall which was warm from the sun and the heat of summer. The fowls sat lazily on the soft soil under the chestnut tree, and up in the house the blinds were drawn whilst Grandpa and Grandma had their after- dinner nap. Even the cobbler's workshop with its wide, shiny windows was empty. The world went softly on its way in the little Danish town until it was once more time to work.

"What do you want to do then?" I looked disappointedly at my sister, who was three years older than me, and went on patting my sandhill, which was going to be a castle. She was ten, and always the leader.

"Shall we go up and look at the King's picture?" She got up with a jump and stood kicking little hollows in the sand—"Grandpa won't be up for an hour, and I've been up there before. He's got a red cloak on—the King, I mean—". "You've been up there..." I couldn't say anymore. We were allowed to so everywhere except up into the loft. The house itself with its large living quarters, and the shop had been explored long ago. Over the workshop the pigeons lived in a cooing mass, but in the loft over the outhouse Grandpa kept a wealth of strange things that he wanted to have to himself.

A shaky ladder led from the peat shed up to the forbidden place. Agnes had told me that the King's picture was up there, but she had not let out before that she had really seen it.

"Are you coming?" She sauntered a few steps and tempted me with her calm indifference. It was so exciting that I dropped my spade and left it there—the sand heap was not to be made into a castle just now.

Agnes crept up first. One rung of the ladder was loose and she stepped as lightly as a cat up on to the next whilst with her back she pushed up a hatch. Behind me stood a wall of stacked turves which shut the light out. The sweat stood on my forehead from excitement. "Come on." She knelt down and I crept up and eagerly grabbed the hand she held out to me. Anxiously I passed the loose rung and reached the top.

There really was something to look at here. Agnes closed the hatch and we were alone with the stored treasures and the cobwebs and dust of many years. Over by the chimney hung some of Grandpa's old great coats and on a chest stood a sewing machine. Piles of cake boxes, shoe boxes and old newspapers were stacked right up to the top of the end wall.

"Can you see out?" I looked at the sloping window covered with spiders' webs, and Agnes lifted me up and pointed to the trees in the garden and the water, which the dirty glass transformed into an unreal view that I did not recognise. Then she took my hand and led me over to the newspapers.

"Here's the King." She pointed and moved an engraving of the Battle of Isted which fascinated me because it showed Danish soldiers vanquishing an enemy in flight. It was only when she pulled the King out into full view that I became impressed. The frame was nothing much, and the glass had gone long ago, but there was the King on his throne, with his son and his grandson and his grandson's little boy, and they all had crimson cloaks or robes over their shoulders. The King was a nice kind old man with side-whiskers.

"Isn't he grand?" Agnes expected praise.

"Yes," I answered humbly, for I had never seen such a picture before.

"Of course, he's dead now. The other one is king now—that one."

Agnes pointed again and enjoyed showing off her knowledge. "The King got ill, just like Daddy and died of it, and now we'll play hospitals." She moved the pictures and arranged some newspapers. In a moment she had made an excellent bed for me.

"But if Grandpa..." I tried to raise objections. If Grandpa came up, he would see at once that the things had been moved.

"He's asleep. Now you're ill just like Daddy, in hospital and I'm your nurse." There was no more to be said, and I lay down on my bed of sickness with a cake box for a pillow.

We were only too familiar with illness. Father had been ill for six months and came home from one hospital only to be sent to another. Everything had changed because of Father's illness. Mother was quite unlike herself, and we were alone at Grandpa and Grandma's. Nobody had said when we would be going home.

"Now you must lie still. A patient always lies still." Agnes gave this information and disappeared behind the chimney. When she came back she had a white cloth over her hair—I noticed that it was an old hand towel; the red monogram sat in the middle of her forehead, like a jewel. She also brought a rug with her. It was made of little pieces of cloth of all colours, and the dust hung in a cloud over me as she shook it.

"You must have this over you, and then I'll go down and get your medicine." She tucked me up in spite of my protests. It was unbearably hot in the low-roofed loft and I could not bear having anything over me. The rug was a heavy as a feather bed.

"And now you're not to move until I come back." She opened the hatch and disappeared through the floor. It was always like that. I always had just to lie, or stand or sit whilst she had the amusing part of the game. I stretched myself and kicked the patchwork rug away. And then the dreadful thing happened. My heel hit something at the side and the King's picture split, with a dry scrunch, right across his bearded face. The pieces curled backwards to either side and disclosed an old, yellow newspaper. It seemed to me as if the world had come to a shivering standstill. Hesitantly I crawled over to see what I had done.

The King's face could not be saved. I bent down and with fumbling fingers, I tried to hold the pieces together, but some of the old King was missing. What would Grandpa say? Now it was quite impossible to conceal our visit to the loft and he had forbidden it. He must have had a reason for the ban. Perhaps he had put the picture there specially so that we should not touch it.

I struggled to my feet and moved a few steps away, horrified. I hoped wildly that the King would again look sadly at me when I turned round, but my hope was not fulfilled. I tried several times, but it was no good. Only the old newspapers stared at me.

And then suddenly I heard somebody calling my name. Grandpa was calling from the courtyard, and it was not yet his usual time for getting up. He had never before cut short his after-dinner rest. And he called me again, his tired old voice coming nearer and nearer.

I stood petrified, nobody was going to get me to leave my hiding place. Agnes ought to be ashamed of herself, waking Grandpa to tell him that we had been up in his loft. And she little knew what had happened later on—there, by my newspaper bed stood the headless King in his crimson cloak bordered with ermine.

The steps in the courtyard became more distinct—Grandpa came through the door of the outhouse, Grandpa was touching the ladder up to the loft.

I still stood there. I was so frightened that I hardly dared to breathe when Grandpa slowly raised the hatch, stuck his grey head up through the floor and beckoned to me. His voice was not angry and that increased my fright, he was much more than angry, he was sad and distressed about it as he called to me: "Come down, my boy, we must have a talk together."

Step by step I climbed down the ladder. It was worse than I had expected. Grandpa didn't say a word. He didn't scold me and he didn't smack me. What ever would happen when he saw the broken picture? He took my hand, and we went out into the daylight, which blinded me. We walked slowly over the cobble-stones of the courtyard and in through the door to his office. It was a dreadful walk—we were to be punished together, Agnes and I—it was as bad as that.

She was there already, sitting on the settee under the window with Grandma, crying, and they didn't look up when we came in. Over on the big green desk lay a small sheet of white paper which slid across the top as we shut the door. It filled me with despair to think that our naughtiness was so bad that both the old people had got up.

"I have something to say to you." Grandpa took my face in his hands and his touch was loving and clumsy, as only a man's hand can be when it is difficult for human beings to help each other, and his voice was strange and croaky. His mouth trembled—"I must tell you—your Daddy is dead. We have just had a telegram." He looked helplessly at me and fumbled with the white paper which rolled itself into a ball in his broad hands—"We have just had a telegram."

"Is Daddy—?" I looked round in bewilderment and understood. It was queer to see Grandpa with tears in his eyes—and Daddy was dead—no, I couldn't believe it, my Daddy.....

After that the day was as new as a shiny unused thing. We went about in the big house and were quite unlike ourselves, we spoke softly and were clean and neat, and we dared not settle down anywhere. The castle in the sand-pit never got finished.

And in the evening I told Grandpa about the King's picture. He sat at his desk looking vaguely at me, as if he didn't understand what I was talking about.

"The King," he said, "what do you mean?" He was very tired. The wrinkles in his face seemed suddenly to have become deeper. Slowly he took his spectacles off:

"Never mind, my boy, what does it matter now." That was all. And then his look again became distant, far away from the boy who had struggled with his fear in order to tell of his sin.

I felt a great, clean and rich happiness. In the midst of my sorrow I was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of relief. Now it would not be hard to go go to bed at night and get up in the morning. Father was dead, but that was all right again.

And it was only many years later when doors closed themselves to the widow's son, that I fully understood how much I had lost on that hot August day when my ailing young father died and I tore the King's face with by heel.


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