Royal Decree by Henry Presente

Named for the greatest of his great grandfathers, a king who earned his land by blood and bravery, Malakeye stood four inches above the next-tallest boy who dared approach the sky.  He walked himself to school, a responsibility that his mother, finally finding work taking care of another child, was forced to bestow upon him–and he, seeing no better alternative, accepted with pride.  He helped ferry his neighbor Susana’s carts of memorabilia to the bus stop when the sun beat the strength from the old woman’s arms, but inflated the tourists’ premonitions of nostalgia for jealous gods and their marble homes.  Not through words–but by example–did he guide his young cousin toward the prompt completion of homework and the sober admiration of comic book heroes who valued justice over revenge.

A king descended from kings, and yet Malakeye cursed the thickness of his accent, even as he read the street signs silently to himself.  And at school, the other children laughed and called him “Malakka” when they heard his stomach grumble and the curly-haired teacher handed him a stale pastry from her own lunch bag.  And walking home, as he listened to his sandals slap the cobblestones, he found no comfort in how much longer the echo lived than in Aleppo’s corridors (where the jagged edges of debris shredded sound before swallowing it down), and this filled him with shame, a creeping shame that climbed higher every time he accompanied his mother to the weekend market and she remarked–with amazement in her eyes that somehow still sparkled after four months in Athens–how beautiful the architecture, how safe their family, how lucky to have had the right friends.

So, one evening, when the room he shared with his mother and cousin (and two other people who spoke Arabic with two other accents) was bursting with a body heat that pushed out on the thin windows with beads of condensation, Malakeye permitted himself a respite.  Stealing down the stairs, he walked to his favorite sandwich shop, a store whose wares he had never tasted but which had wide-enough windows to allow him to stand outside and spy on the astounding transformations occurring within:  a procession of strange-looking people buying familiar-looking sandwiches, and in touching the meat and bread to their lips, somehow taking on the appearance of humans he could recognize, of neighbors even.

And this king descended from kings stared at the shawarma eaters while an hour’s worth of winter winds wore at his toenails and blasted his cheeks.  And yet, when he finally allowed himself to shiver, it was not from the cold, but because of a new, icy resolve:  someday soon Malakeye vowed to marshal his forces, overthrow the cowardice that had taken reign over him, and as his first act returned to power, command himself to feel at home.

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Henry Presente has published fiction with Four Chambers, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, helped save enough energy to power 1 million homes for 1 year, and shared a beer with a gold-toothed dancer named Jesus Christ, who couldn’t wait to dig his tired toes into a sandy beach come weekend.

Photo credit: Terri Malone

Audio: Henry Presente


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