We left a little after sundown, skipping like a stone on glasswater down the old road that used to lead to other settlements, up north of the bay. Now it just spills out from Ciudad and empties at Tierra de la Agua, past the borderlands. Mostly it’s only used by water-truckers anymore, but we hustled down in a beatup old van we’d found on the outskirts and fixed up in secret that summer. In the dark the fires in the borderland shacks winked and flickered through aluminum doorways and the whole desert seemed to twinkle like dust in new light. We were poisoned with bloodrush; I dug my fingernails into the cracked plastic of the seat cushion as the van shivered its way past the flickering camps into the black beyond. Neither of us had ever been out this far before; we were surprised at how empty the borderlands seemed, none of the music and dancing and large sprawling families cooking meat over fires like they tell you about in school. The rhizome network of aluminum and plywood scrapbuildings that buffer Ciudad from the desert stood silent, each one watchfully openeyed firelooking like scarecrow guards in the close-beyond.
We drove straight through to sunup. We turned off the road just as the first light cracked the horizon, before we got close enough to Tierra de la Agua for anyone to notice us, and aimed the van towards Sola Mesa. Our tires kicked up great dustclouds, brown chokingwind that cut a path behind us like running your fingers along the surface of a bucket of water. The mountain loomed towards us in the distance; it cast the only shadow visible in any direction, the golem in the far-beyond. Despite the heat I could feel a coldness in my stomach, the eyethrobbing adrenaline of danger and farness, the long long desert ahead of us and behind us. Slowly, slowly Sola Mesa swelled, and as the sun pivoted around the mountain’s axis something like a figure was splashed with currents of daylight. As we drew nearer the figure remained, enormous, motionless, glinting in the sun. We felt like sailors arriving at Rhodes, this strange colossus for our welcome. When it was nearly upon us, we could see it in full: a mile-high man, made all of trash and broken things, surefooted and proud, a helmet made of old car doors and dumpster lids placed squarely on his brow, a garbageknight in trasharmor. His approximate face, the area at the front of his head that is, was squintingbright with sunbeams as we arrived at his feet. He gazed outward, unflinching, in the direction of Tierra de la Agua which was a nothing out past the horizon this close to Sola Mesa.
In the shadow cast by the Warrior of Debris we came upon plainbrick hut, still burned throbbingred from the sun even in the Warrior’s shade. Its only nonsurface event, a small portal that was probably a doorway, glanced lazily at us as we slowed the van to a crawl in front of it. It reminded us of the story we were taught in littleschool, about the turtle who built his house far away from everyone else, and anytime he saw someone he tore it down and built it up again even farther away, until one day he needed help but no one could hear him so he got eaten up by a fox. It was sort of eerie, to see it sitting there all by itself.
“Hey!” I yelled out, thinking maybe someone was home, or maybe wondering if the hut itself was going to answer me, “Anybody in there? We’ve come all the way from Ciudad and we think we’re about as lost as we could be.”
At this, a little silver and red ball wearing a white cape rolled out from the little doorway at the front of the cabin. After a minute of bodyshock, we focused in on the thing and realized that it was a man’s head, burned red as his house with skin pulled tight against his skull, with a long long white beard and a crown in his head made out of what looked like bits of old hood ornaments. He had a look on his face like he was annoyed to be interrupted from whatever he was doing, but thought it would be rude to make that clear, so after a second he pulled his frown into a bigtoothed grin. “Hello, travelers!” he called out to us, with his neck turned awkwardly to see up at us in the van windows from his lowdown doorway. “Welcome to the court of King Winslow of Winslow. You are welcome guests to my court, provided you observe the natural laws of civility and tact one should expect to show to a king. Now, how have you come to find yourselves so lost, and to where might your being unlost be directed?”
It must have been a full minute before either of us got ourselves together enough to answer him. “Umm… well, Mister Winslow, we’re-”
“KING Winslow, of Winslow!” he exclaimed, now visibly annoyed. “You would not walk into the court of King Arthur and call him ‘Mister Arthur’, now would you?”
“Oh! Umm, yes, of course, I apologize, your majesty. I’ve never met a… king before, and, well, I haven’t had muchpractice at being courtly, I suppose.”
“Well, see that it doesn’t happen again.” He began to emerge from his hut, pulling first his long, attenuated arms out past his head, then using them to drag the rest of his frame through the hole like a babyperson pulling itself along a carpet before it can crawl properly. As he stood and dusted himself off we could see how sicklythin he was, his waist appearing through his robes to be slightly narrower than his head, though as he stood we noticed that he had remarkable posture for a man his age. He wore a long black cloak, which must have been absolutely sweltering, even in the shade. “Now, how came you two young serfs to my court, all the way from that filthy hole you call a city?”
“We had heard rumors that there was a great kingdom out here at the foot of Sola Mesa…” As I said this, looking at this brickred figure, arms akimbo, whose whole figure was bent towards our van in its best attempt to seem menacing but who might just as easily been blown over by the wind as a paper doll, with his ridiculous chromeplastic crown and knotted white beard, it became clear that we had been the victims of a severe misunderstanding, or else a rather egregious prank. It seemed completely absurd to us that anyone would have taken this man seriously even as a man, let alone the king of a “great kingdom”. All the time spent on fixing the van, pulling parts out of junkyard cars at night and siphoning gas from borderland shuttles, the long long journey out here across the desert sands, all of it came crashing down on top of us as a total waste, just to see this old lunatic who’d been fried by the sun. The realization of all that being for nothing welled up inside and brought us to a bloodboil. “But instead all we’ve found out here in the heat of this goddamn desert is some old crackpot who’s about one chrome hood ornament away from a heatstroke! Who do you think you are, calling us ‘serfs’? What gives you the right to call yourself a king? What could you possibly be the king of, a bunch of sand? Your crummy little hut?”
‘King’ Winslow’s eyes widened up like saucerplates, seeming to balance precariously on edge atop the deep purple bags that held them, and for a moment I thought he was about to rush at the van and try to fight us. Instead, after a few heartbeats of wildeyed staring, he broke into a fit of uproarious laughter, such that his knees buckled and he bent over double, clutching his stomach with both his arms. We were, in all honesty, surprised that such a frail-looking man had the strength to laugh so heartily. As his laughter subsided and he returned to his full heights, he wiped a tear from his eye as he said, “You know, when you first arrived, I was worried that you might be some threat to me. It is not many who have the fortitude for the long, hot journey out here, especially not those coming from the horrible city. But now I can see you are just two fools who have no idea what kind of power you stand before. I am sorry to have disappointed you! Perhaps someday you will understand what you now do not. Farewell, serfs!”
With this, he turned and began walking towards his hut. But my anger and frustration had, by this point, overwhelmed my goodsense that we had best start back towards Ciudad if we wanted to arrive before nightfall, and I called after him, “Wait! You wait just a goddamn minute!”
He turned and looked at us over his shoulder. The good humor had vanished from his face, and as he turned and began walking towards us, his posture swelled in what seemed to be an attempt to intimidate us. “Listen, serfs! My patience with your tone and your impropriety has just about worn thin. I’ve no obligation to offer you an explanation of anything, nor do I think foolish servants such as yourselves would be able to comprehend the magnitude of my reign. But, if it will buy me a reprieve from your insolent presence, then I will offer you this much; I am King Winslow, of Winslow. I am lord and master of all that I am, the king of my own being, the emperor of myself. I call you and all your kind, the filth that populates that disgusting city, ‘serfs’ and ‘servants’ because that is just what you are: you are slaves to yourselves, your passions and lusts, your hungers and thirsts, the possessions you’ve built up around you in the prison you call a home. How dare you wretched creatures come out here to my castle and make demands of me? I am among the highest order of living beings, the highest nobility of the human race. I have shed all my hungers and lusts, mastered my passions. I have learned to savor hunger and become stronger for it. But that is a greatness that is clearly lost on the likes of you. So begone! Interrupt no more my revelry in myself and my power. Leave me to my kingdom.”
As he said this, he advanced towards the van, slowly but deliberately, until he was only about ten yards from the driver’s side door. When he finished, he stopped and planted his feet, doing his best to loom over us but coming just short of seeming really threatening. Perhaps, in another context, we would have been moved to pity for him; it seemed clear to us that these were the ravings of a madman, and that further arguing with him would do no good for anyone. But the heat and the looming cloud of wasted effort spurred me to harshwords, and after a moment I yelled at him, “Lunatic! Goddamn lunatic! You’ve no right at all to call yourself the king of anything! You think you’ve ‘mastered your passions and lusts’? Look around you, you old fool! You live in a wasteland! There’s nothing here for you to lust after; you’ve run away from all your temptations like a rat from the sound of a rifle. You haven’t mastered anything; you’re just a coward and a crackpot.”
For a moment, there was silence in the desert. Then, with a burst of energy and motion that took us quite by surprise, Winslow broke into a full sprint towards the van. He rammed his shoulder into my door like a football player, and then immediately collapsed on the ground. He let out a wild animal howl, and as he stood back up it was clear that he had dislocated his shoulder. He reached through my open window with his good arm and began flailing wildly, crying “For Winslow! For Winslow!” at the top of his lungs and attempting to hit us. We finally overcame our shock enough to realize we had to leave immediately, and as we hit the gas on the van and began speeding along the sands back past the Knight of Debris, we could see King Winslow shaking his good fist at us in the rearview mirror, his other arm hanging sickly off to the side.
As we entered the outskirts of the borderlands, the sun was just beginning to set. Outside the cluttertrash shacks, the borderlanders were dancing; it was nothing like we had imagined, no wild frivolity or drunken chaos. They all stood in neatly ordered lines, moving in perfect unison, looks of complete disinterest on their faces. They pivoted to watch us as we passed, none breaking time with the others but fixing their gaze on the van and watching us until we had passed from their line of sight. We held our breath and prayed for darkness.