UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Once there was a king who suddenly found he could no longer sleep. After three days and nights without rest, he decided to ask his seventeenth wife if she had any idea what ailed him.
"What," he grumbled, "have I done to deserve insomnia?"
Although she tried to stifle the snort, it escaped. The king heard, and he immediately signaled for the guards to take her away.
What was her name again? She looked an awful lot like Elsith, wife number eight. So fatigued was the king that he honestly couldn't remember.
"You're a brutal bastard," his anonymous spouse screamed, struggling unsuccessfully against the men who were dragging her from the throne room. "That's why you can't sleep! That's why!" She had realized there was no longer any point in keeping her mouth shut.
"No, that's not it," the king calmly replied, regaining a little of his regal composure: "We're rather pleased with ourselves right now."
Later that day, still unable to sleep, the king consulted his country's finest physicians. They were thoroughly baffled. Yet one precocious young doctor ventured a guess: "Perhaps it is where his majesty rests his head that is the source of the problem."
Reluctant to have word leaked of what might appear weakness, the king ordered the immediate disappearance of all the physicians. Nevertheless, he judged the precocious young doctor's idea worth investigating.
That night, the king replaced the cornhusks filling his pillows with goose down. Yet he remained unable to keep his eyes shut for even a minute. Desperate to rest, he resolved to try something else, and moved next to cashmere cushions filled with marshmallows. But they too were no good; he still couldn't sleep. He tried silken cases layered with freshly plucked hair from the most beautiful children of his realm. Again, no good. No matter how soft the surface on which he laid his head, the king couldn't manage to get any sleep. In fact, the more yielding his pillows became, the more restless he grew.
Mulling over this fact, the king decided to invert his approach, to place his head on harder, rather than softer, surfaces. The next evening, he stuffed gold-which he'd always loved-into plain cotton pillowcases. To his amazement, he had a solid half hour of rest with his new pillows. However, that was it. The king concluded that he needed to place his weary head on something even more unforgiving. To his delight, he managed almost twice as much shut-eye with a burlap sack of rocks under his head.
Several more experiments with headrests soon after followed, everything from sea shells crammed into chain mail bags to rusty nails wrapped in perforated shark skin. The king gained a little more time under with each new abrasive headrest. Yet something still wasn't quite right.
Not until he laid his crowned head directly on broken glass did he begin to feel he'd drawn close to a solution to his insomnia. The night he pressed his skull into the bright, jagged mound, he enjoyed nearly a full night's rest.
The following evening, somewhat refreshed and able to reflect on his progress, the king hit upon the final answer to his dilemma. He removed his crown-which he had hitherto worn day and night-and planted it at the top of his mattress, its gleaming points directed toward the sky. Then he lowered his head onto the crown and fell into the deepest slumber anyone in his kingdom had known for a long, long while.
Noel Sloboda is the author of the poetry collection Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008). His fiction has appeared in Keyhole Magazine, Skive, Sein und Werden, Haggard and Halloo, and a variety of other places. He currently lives in Pennsylvania, where he serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival.
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