No. 51: Helen Phillips
Q. What appeals to you about extremes, the “either … or,” to the extent that you made this story revel in them?
The story does appear to revel in extremes: “And thus life was good and bad, abundant and lean, ecstatic and tragic, blessed and cursed, all at once, on and on, forever and ever, until the end of time.” Yet the simultaneity of these positives and negatives is meant to create a sense of balance, a sort of giant zero, neutrality rather than extremity, complexity rather than an either/or. This is one way of articulating (though not necessarily embracing) the ups and downs of human existence.
Q. “A fire, a flood, a drought, a debt.” Why does it seem like fairy-tale worlds are always a few moments from complete disaster? Does that make you love them or does that make you a little afraid of them?
Fairy-tale worlds are always a few moments from complete disaster because the real world is always a few moments from complete disaster (if not in the throes of it). I love fairy-tale worlds for offering us concrete manifestations of the anxieties that underpin our daily life: the dead brides our attic, the wolf in our grandmother’s house, the witch awaiting us in a cottage made of candy, darkness and death and deceit. Like the protagonists of fairy-tales, we often find ourselves surprised as we stumble into situations that demand greater courage than we think we possess. Fairy-tales offer us a series of metaphors that can, at their best, embolden us and reduce our loneliness as we confront our own monsters.
Q. Do you have any idea why the Queen and King are so committed to the idea that life has to be one extreme or the other?
My intention is not so much that the Queen and King are committed to one extreme or another, but rather that they are exploring multiple possible futures. I’m intrigued by the infinite “or”: the word “or” appears 13 times in this 900-word piece. The endlessly forking paths of any given life. The narrative imagines a series of different scenarios for this couple, and posits that neither of them can predict their emotional responses to events that may or may not happen, yet the story ends with the ominous suggestion that whatever does happen, they will wound each other at some point. Which—spoiler alert—is true of every relationship.
Helen Phillips’ story, “One of Us Will Be Happy; It’s Just a Matter of Which One,” can be found in The Mauve Issue of Fairy Tale Review.
“One of Us Will Be Happy; It’s Just a Matter of Which One”
Once upon a time and for all time, a Queen and King sat on twin thrones. They were young and beloved, this Queen and King, for she was famous across the land as a wife who valued above all else the happiness of her husband and he was famous across the land as a husband who valued above all else the happiness of his wife. A never-ending line of their devoted subjects wound through the long hallways of the castle and out onto the high road. These subjects stepped confidently into the throne room, their simple shoes softly slapping the marble floors, which were checkered with slabs of black and white like a chessboard. There was nothing servile about the behavior of the subjects; they were treated with dignity and behaved with dignity.
The subjects would place before the Queen and King the riches of their fields and streams, their forests and barns. Sunflowers would pile up, and sheaves of wheat, and the skinned bodies of small mammals. Great baskets of eggs and wooden boxes filled with honeycombs. Heaps of wool and heaps of silver fish; piles of pumpkins and piles of stones. At times these riches were accompanied by or replaced with devastating news: a fire, a flood, a drought, a debt. The lips of the Queen and the lips of the King would rise and sink accordingly, up into smiles of bounty, down into frowns of grief. The subjects well knew that joy shared is joy doubled, sorrow shared is sorrow halved, et cetera.
And thus life was good and bad, abundant and lean, ecstatic and tragic, blessed and cursed, all at once, on and on, forever and ever, until the end of time.
Sometimes young women would arrive, in pairs or in a flock; these girls danced upon the chessboard, singing folk songs that sounded at once strange and familiar, like something heard in the womb. The King did not know if it was the Queen who arranged these performances for him, or if some castle ringmaster called for the girls. They danced, shedding their garments as they went; how exquisite the varying shades of their skin, how luminous their eyes and stomachs.
Yes, the King was acutely aware of them, of the heat between his legs as they threw themselves into the air and across the cool marble. And the Queen, too, was acutely aware of them, of the ways in which the shapes of their bodies aped and diverged from the shape of hers.
Did she call for them in order to bring pleasure to the King, or to taunt him, or to tempt him? The Queen herself did not know the answer to this question; indeed, had a different answer to it at each hour of the day.
Someday the King would step down from his throne, would go to one of these young women, would vanish with her down a hallway, would return to his throne sometime later, a changed man or an unchanged man. Someday the Queen would watch the King step down from his throne and go to one of the girls and take this girl to a tower in the far reaches of the castle, where he would presumably drag his finger from the center of her forehead downward, and then would release a cry that arced over the castle and down to the throne room where the Queen sat, listening. And when the King returned to his throne, she would love him the exact same amount as before, or would love him slightly more, or would love him quite a bit less. It was possible that her skin would begin to peel away until she reminded herself of the small skinned wild creatures their subjects brought to the throne room. It was possible that when he reached for her (his palm still sweaty with another woman’s sweat), his hand would feel like a knife. Or perhaps when he reached for her (his palm still sweaty with the joy of another woman’s sweat), his hand would feel as exuberant as fire, and the Queen would touch the joy.
Or perhaps the King would never act upon the heat between his legs; perhaps that heat would cool and shrivel. Perhaps the Queen would live out all the days of her long life luxuriating in the King’s unmarred devotion to her, and would scarcely notice the moment when death arrived for her amid the blinding brightness of that devotion, which all along had kept her as close to paradise as a woman could ever hope to dwell: safe, warm, calm.
Or perhaps the Queen would come to see herself as a jail warden, an impossibly heavy ring of keys slung around her waist, guarding the smallest, most absurd jail cell in the universe: a tiny barred box just big enough for an old man’s penis.
The Queen and King sat on their twin thrones while the parade of subjects poured its momentary riches, its fruits, its girls, onto the chessboard before them. Once in a blue moon, you might be lucky enough to overhear him whispering to her or her whispering to him.
“One of us will be sad,” he or she would say, “it’s just a matter of which one.”
And you might catch the other replying: “One of us will be happy; it’s just a matter of which one.”