The sugar house was situated on high ground where all the chocolate in the world hardened into place. The chocolate made a base for the house, with underlying strength both for a ground floor and a cellar, as well as a second floor and garret. The sugar family lived there, a king, a queen, and two pawns, sons as they called them, even though each thought, perhaps, he was someone else. One thought he was a bishop, and the other dreamed he might be a knight.
Now in the afternoon, the bright crystals of this sturdy sugar house gleamed, and everyone was happy. The sons had been raised very carefully, on the best of ideals, each of them little more than sugar, their parents thought, stirred in whole milk.
On the other hand, below this plateau, beneath the clear radiance of the sun, in such full view, was a rain forest that only tempted those who imagined it, a place of lucid scents and crawling vegetation, mired in wetted, clay-like earth.
Perfection is never very easy when you are young. Young men are invariably tempted by what they see. The two sons one day spoke to their mother, the queen of the realm. The older of the two, the would-be knight, said to her, “We get tired of sugar all the time. We need an adventure. Will you talk to Father, and convince him to let us go?”
Hearing this—protected, as they all were, from the enticement of the other world below these many pinnacles of sunlit sucrose—the queen herself was tempted by the thought, which circled her mind like a butterfly. She decided she would go to the king. In this way, the young men might be satisfied in their lust for adventure. Everything was subject to the king’s approval.
At this moment, of course, the king stood on his own chocolate parapet, overlooking the extent of his confections, ignorant of what had been said between the queen and their sons. Indeed, he reflected solely on the beautiful state of things good fortune had brought him, yes, in spite of his own handful of guileful and wicked dreams.
The queen, her sons in tow, surprised him. She was forthright, unhesitating. “Why, I ask you, Lord, shouldn’t those below us, far below, in the forest, share in our prosperity, and no longer bask in darkness?”
“Indeed,” the king answered.
“Indeed,” the queen said. “Why don’t we send these two, our sons, down, to convert those less fortunate, less able? Could they not, then, redeem, yes, and enlighten them, all those cast in shade? Such a task will make our sons strong in virtue. All the world will be one cake.”
The king thought about this a moment. He paced the parapet. “Ignorance is not natural,” he said. After a moment—because his sons now waited impatiently on his decision, which would be irrevocable—he added, “Why shouldn’t those below us, in so many ways, have their own sugar houses, and live as we, as a testimony of our grace and understanding?”
“You’re absolutely correct,” the queen said. “One must never be afraid of change.”
They resolved, the king and queen, then, on the spot, yes, to send them, these sons, down to the forest below. Neither of them, as a matter of truth, had seen it. Armor was prepared for the knight, and a robe, miter, and crosier for the bishop, and they set off together.
However, approaching the gate, made of so much fudge, the knight and the bishop conferred together, unaware their father the king was following behind. The bishop said, “Are we not individuals? It is one thing to desire something. It is another to be commanded. If I am forced to go in this manner, I’ll just move about there, aimless, for a time, and come back. I won’t take any confessions. I’ll refuse, even though I am a bishop.” To show his disgust at this thought, the bishop pounded the chocolate at his feet with his crosier, snapping the fragile candy cane stalk.
The knight agreed with him. “Anything that far below can’t be more than an insect. If we pour chocolate over them, they’ll never be more than chocolate covered insects.”
With this, the knight mounted his steed of Dark Dutch, and the two—knight and bishop—took the path that led straight down. But the knight’s steed quickly stumbled and the bishop lost his footing, probing with a damaged crosier.
Seeing their reluctance, the king was angry. “If you do not descend, as I have commanded,” he said, “if you fail to convert, instruct, and otherwise improve what you find in the forest, I’ll dip your necks and heads in whipped cream, I’ll steep your hands in molasses. Go. Do not come back until you have done what I say.”
So they went, hiding their irritation, rather than invoke their father’s wrath. And, by and large, they had to believe—alone, only these two, now as they descended—the trip was uneventful. Nothing came in their way, either to waylay or frighten them. Their path was open, settled, and serene.
However, farther along, after a day, perhaps an hour, it was difficult to tell which, moving steadily toward what they knew was swamp, the forest all about them greened. A rotting smell edged its way toward them. Their own shadows, trailing them, evoked sodden, slick growth. They heard howls, beating wings, and found themselves—after a time, yes—working their way through spider webs, nothing else, silk squares, geometric, indelibly neat. They avoided the lattices of branches, sidestepped stones which resembled their own faces, not a trace of sugar near them, anywhere in sight, and their own formal expressions, it seemed to them, mired in reflection, such sunless, cancelled pools, roots, tangles, half sunken things.
“Not one of these creatures, possibly only illusions, I say,” the knight said quickly, “will listen to us. Our father is crazy, even if he is a king. If one, yes, one, of these subjects, as I call them, refuses a single suggestion of mine, I’ll skewer, spit them all, and we will have a feast, you, I. We’re alone now, Brother. No one is watching us. No. No one.”
The bishop, exhausted, hungry already, answered him quickly. “I agree with you,” he said. “Our attempt to improve anything here could prove fruitless. But, eat flesh? It is a sin to eat flesh. We won’t be able to digest any of it. And we may be changed into something else.”
“Just one taste,” the knight said, and immediately sent his lance into the first crawling thing he saw before him—which happened to be a crocodile. It took only two thrusts of his lance.
“This is too tough,” the bishop said, already eating. It had only been so many minutes, the body quickly separated into its pieces. The bishop winced uncontrollably, biting into the hide, which wasn’t cooked, but raw. The knight’s lance was soaked in blood. “What wonderful blood,” the knight said. “It makes me dizzy, to see such blood.”
“Even so, Brother, remember what I’ve told you,” the bishop counseled, at the moment he had the head of the crocodile in his mouth. “We still need to talk to them, my brother, my friend. Father expects not less than this. We can’t simply eat them, these creatures. We have to address their hearts, their minds, transform and inspire them, into something else, something better, I say. Have you forgotten Father’s words? Have you?”
The knight wouldn’t listen to this. His face suddenly became different, darker. “Have you tried the tongue? This really isn’t bad, you know. In fact, it’s lovely.” Some of what he said was lost in chewing. “Try it, do!”
But the bishop held back, and saw what was happening. The knight ate still more of the tongue. Then he belched. The bishop said, “You’re growing darker. Look at you. You look like pitch.”
The knight stared. Yes, he snarled. “You’re making this up, Brother. You’re making everything up here, I say. There’s no truth to this.”
But the bishop wouldn’t let the idea go. It was visceral. He only shook his head. “I’ve one word to describe you, now, Brother. This is absolute. Mud. In fact, you remind me of the forest, this swamp. There isn’t any difference between. You. The swamp.”
“You lie,” the knight shouted. “You can’t even see what lies before you, a world of repast, of good taste, and now I’m stronger, by what I’ve eaten. I know this. I am a man. Nothing else.”
That said, the knight thrust his lance quickly, yes, which he’d cleaned meticulously, after their feast together, into the bishop’s belly. Then he severed his body from his legs, and the bishop’s sugar, alas, spilled to the ground, and vermin feasted on it, tangling and untangling sugar from dirt, crystals from hard, igneous crust.
The knight looked on his brother, as if to deliver another blow. It wasn’t needed.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t think we ever really liked each other. I’ve never liked him. He only quarreled with me, and this, then, was a bold, decisive stroke. We never were close, that I can remember.”
The knight, alone, without a companion, determined he would descend even further. And, as he moved about, descending again, deeper, yes, hardly careful in his steps, the colors he saw before him intoxicated his very vision, having never known or imagined what reds are, violets, yellows, amber, of such clear magnitude, all woven, congealed, perhaps confused, yes, possibly, with vision itself, and he was now, more than he had been before, hungry, famished, without limits. He said what he felt. “This place is without reason. It has no reason, anywhere, in what it is, and there is no such thing, when it comes to this.”
Yet how equally vast it was, all the same, and inexplicable. Nothing anywhere, in his imagination, at this moment, connected to the idea of appearance, or any discernable reality of what it is to live, time itself a misunderstanding, a misapprehension, a wisp of concern. A turn of earth.
“I like this,” he said to himself. “I think I’ll go back, home, yes, and I will kill them, both, king and queen. I no longer look like them. I hope they are there.”
But suddenly, there came a torrential rain, and rainbows circled the horizon round, yes, and there was no path to be seen, or anywhere, as he thought, to be found. The knight squinted at swamp and sky, and he melted. In such an instant.
The queen, awake now, on her hillside of sugar, in her chamber, beyond the parapet even, over the projected view, after her afternoon slumber, now did raise herself off her pillow and looked, now, at her husband—lover, yes, king, yes, of all this sugar. “Our sons are dead,” she said. “I have a feeling they are no more. I know this to be true. They no longer are our flesh.”
The king, not surprisingly, very much so, said to her, in response, or maybe despair, “Is this really true? You wouldn’t lie to me, now, would you?” He studied her face. “This is surely, my love, merely a dream you’ve dreamed, just now, perhaps a nightmare. Tell me it isn’t so.”
Immediately, the king went down, to the swamp, yes, and found nothing of his two sons, no trace of either one, or the other, or so much as pieces.
“We must mourn them,” he said to his queen, returning, tired by the effort, by the long, not so long, journey, down, up, up, down, sometimes falling to his knees. He was exhausted.
“What did we mean,” he said, “sending them out so, like this? We didn’t waste them, I think. We knew what we were doing. Yet I can’t remember, precisely, what it was we had in mind.”
The queen had a smile on her face, a lovely face, after all. “No matter,” she said. “You see, I’m pregnant again.”
“You aren’t lying, are you?” The king was confused. Was this true?
“Would I lie?”
The king, busy now, sorted through things, penetrating his drawers, his pockets, his secret passages, looking for what his command had meant. Yet he could find nothing intelligible—either to him, or anyone else.
“What are you doing?” the queen asked, uneasy.
“Well, I’m not sure what I’m doing. But why don’t you tell me about your dream?”
“How should I know my dream? I can’t remember.”
“You have to know. Tell me. I demand you tell me.”
“First, there was nothing. And then there was.”
“Go on. I encourage you.”
“And then there was nothing once more.”
“Tell me something I can believe.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“And our sons?”
“I told you what happened to them. Why don’t you think of something else?”
Craig Curtis has published widely over the last several decades. His work has appeared in New England Review, Cream City Review, Chicago Review, Carolina Quarterly, and Wisconsin Review, among others. He lives in Idaho.
This story appeared in NDQ 83.2/3 (Spring/Summer 2016), 83-87.