Josh Russell ~ Two Suburban Folktales

The Ship With Three Decks

But the old sailor had brought along the bar­rel con­tain­ing the water of long life, in which he immersed the youth’s body, only to see him jump right back out as sound as ever and so hand­some that the king’s daugh­ter threw her arms around his neck.” The man with can­cer stopped read­ing from the arti­cle he’d found online and looked up at his col­orec­tal surgeon.

Kamat’s water-of-long-life clin­i­cal tri­al,” his sur­geon said. “The results do look promising”—the man’s heart rose up—“but your HMO doesn’t cov­er trials”—and then fell.

Nevertheless, the man’s HMO did cov­er the removal of a malig­nant tumor and ten inch­es of his colon. Not dying from Stage 3 can­cer was objec­tive­ly won­der­ful, but the man envied the healed youth’s instan­ta­neous recov­ery. The man shuf­fled along a hos­pi­tal cor­ri­dor so he wouldn’t get blood clots in his legs, his surly twin sis­ter hold­ing his elbow so he wouldn’t fall. The youth gained for his ail­ments a princess’s ado­ra­tion. Instead of an appoint­ment sched­ule for chemother­a­py, the youth inher­it­ed a kingdom.

Nothing good comes from com­par­ing your­self to peo­ple on the inter­net,” the man’s sis­ter opined.

A cowork­er from HR vis­it­ed him the day he came home. “Dude, after I heard about your can­cer, I went to the doc­tor. Mine’s Stage 4. It’s in my liv­er and my lungs. But at least we’re not as fucked as Steve. He has a brain tumor.”

When first he’d been diag­nosed, the man had felt weird­ly spe­cial. Nothing unique ever hap­pened to him. But it turned out every­one had had can­cer, or they had a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of can­cer, or they too were in the process of los­ing innards and hair. It was as if every beg­gar­woman were a fairy, every goat shat gold coins, every cat were an obscure roy­al suf­fer­ing a curse. At first this depressed him—he want­ed to be sin­gu­lar, not part of a team whose mem­bers pinned col­or-cod­ed rib­bons to their lapels and had 5K runs in their honor—but as he grew stronger he began to under­stand it was bet­ter to be part of some­thing so com­mon it earned him but a few weeks of atten­tion and pity. Better to be alive, to lie on the couch and lis­ten to the rain on the patio umbrel­la while on the mut­ed TV a base­ball game in sun­ny Los Angeles gen­tly unfold­ed like a piece of enchant­ed parchment.



Let us leave the young woman sleep­ing and turn back to that king who didn’t want any daugh­ters. Not that he was sex­ist; nei­ther did he want sons. The emper­or was a man who had tired of court life, so he spent his days trav­el­ing about the world by him­self in dis­guise, con­vers­ing with the stars and plan­ets. He texted his daugh­ter and woke her. We all have sev­en dou­bles in the world, so they say. The daugh­ter showed her fiancé the mes­sage, and he said, “Your dad’s a douchebag.” She told the sto­ry of her moth­er, from the time she had been tak­en to the woods by the hired assas­sins up to the moment of her mar­riage. The fiancé want­ed to be sup­port­ive, but he’d heard this sto­ry before, and he wor­ried anoth­er text from her ass­hole dad would trig­ger anoth­er sto­ry about her unhap­py mom, so he looked at his watch and pre­tend­ed to be sur­prised, remind­ed her he had to be up ear­ly for work, got out of bed and put on his pants, and set off through the woods, which part­ed to let him pass. These trees are very cour­te­ous, thought the youth, but sor­cery is sure­ly afoot here. Back at the cas­tle, the princess got more texts. In Africa I saw can­ni­bals who are not men, but locusts; in the dessert I saw a mad­man who had let his fin­ger­nails grow twelve meters long to dig for water; in the sea I saw a fish with a shoe and a slip­per who want­ed to be king of the oth­er fish, since no oth­er fish pos­sessed shoe or slip­per; in Sicily I saw a woman with sev­en­ty sons and only one ket­tle; in Naples I saw peo­ple who walked while stand­ing still, since the chat­ter of oth­er peo­ple kept them going; I saw sin­ners and I saw saints; I saw fat peo­ple and peo­ple no big­ger than mites; many, many fright­ened souls did I see, but nev­er so many as here in Pocapaglia. This Arby’s sucks big time. Children, chil­dren, just fan­cy: my sec­re­tary was my sis­ter-in-law, and I nev­er sus­pect­ed it! Meanwhile, her fiancé was hap­py to find a fig tree heavy with fruit. He ate ten, twen­ty, thir­ty, only to dis­cov­er he had sprout­ed a horn for every fig eat­en. The trees snig­gered as the fiancé freaked, then they felt mean for laugh­ing. They took him off to show him sil­ver kitchens, where sil­ver chick­ens roast­ed over sil­ver fires, and sil­ver gar­dens where sil­ver pea­cocks spread their tails. “Courteous trees,” the fiancé said, “thank you for show­ing me such won­ders, but what must I do to be rid of these horns?” Day had dawned, and the bride­groom turned into a tor­toise and crawled off to begin his jour­ney around the world.


Josh Russell’s Suburban Folktales have recent­ly appeared or are forth­com­ing in EpochWestern Humanities ReviewDIAGRAM, and the ACRE Books anthol­o­gy A Very Angry Baby. He’s also pub­lished three novels.