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 Epoch, Western Humanities Review, DIAGRAM, and the ACRE Books anthology A Very Angry Baby. He’s also published three novels.