My family tree is in a poor state. Over the years, and every so often, I attempt to revive it. I pull my gloves on – you need gloves with my tree – and rummage through the sparse leaves, searching for a promising new bud or some forgotten fruit. Instead, I pull out clothes manglers, salt miners and poachers…
Aah, yes, the poachers. Two great-great (and maybe another great or two) uncles, Matthias and William, nice young lads but hungry, who were caught and hanged in a notorious case at the time. You can read about it here if you like that sort of thing.
Anyway, I started thinking about the people who could trace every inch of their heavily- laden branches. The people who have dates and photos and paintings and diaries going back centuries. What must it be like to be so aware of where you came from? To live with the weight of their own tree?
This is part of a little novelette I’m writing…
My brother, Tam, was born when I was already two. We were close in age, but he was born a boy and I was not. His official title was Tamerathen, Prince of the Five Towers. One day, when he became king, he would be King Tamerathen XX, the twentieth of his name. When I wanted to annoy him, which was most of the time, I called him Number Twenty.
“Dinner’s ready, Number Twenty.”
Or: “You could grow turnips behind those ears, Number Twenty.” This, always, in front of his friends.
At sixteen he was taller than me. More handsome than I would ever be pretty. He had a sweet nature, and a way with people and animals that I did not have. He would make the best of kings – a hundred times better than my father – and I would be proud to serve him. But, until that time came, it was best he didn’t know that.
The portraits in the Great Hall were huge, eating up the wallspace five portraits high with a large amount of painted velvet and glistening horses, and an awful lot of fat, roly-poly kings, thin, measly kings, ratty-looking ones and happy, smiling ones. Throughout these variations, one thing remained the same. The eyes. As blue as the deepest ocean on a sunny day. Almost turquoise. And wide, wide open. Our line had startling eyes, unsullied by the browns and greens and inferior blues of marriage partners. When I was younger, Number Twenty and I would busy ourselves at dinner trying to spot the foreign kings among the portraits, for diplomacy decreed that the odd worthy neighbour should occupy a space on our wall. They were mostly related by some degree.
“Brown eyes there.”
“Third row from the oak chest, fourth one up.”
“Are you sure? They look blue to me.”
Tam infuriated my mother by getting up in the middle of a course and climbing on chairs for a better view of the eyes. “They are brown!”
There was one portrait missing. Seventh row to the left of the clock, second one up. Nothing hung there and there was just a rectangular-shaped gap. I always wanted to ask about it, but never did. It was a space which was so obviously empty for a reason. The emptiness was a statement. It was only after I was told about Falandria, in a whispered conversation behind a closed door, that I realised. The gap on the wall was Falandria’s space. Falandria, who brought the kingdom to its knees.
“What did she do that was so bad,” I whispered back to my nursemaid.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said, and pretended to lock her lips with an invisible key to show the conversation was over.
Well, I got older. And still she didn’t tell me.
Maybe she lost that particular key.
What you noticed, when you ate your dinner in front of all those portraits for almost eighteen years, was how the subjects expressions change. Before Tamerathen the First, though the artistry is crude, the kings wore a look of sly superiority. They looked regal, but smug about it.
The first Tamerathen, about a third of the way along the wall at the very top, was the first king to look different. He wore the new crown lightly, and it shone on his head, but his expression was one of pure enlightenment. He looked like he was not of this world.
The others followed, all peaceful and solemn, with an air of absolute authority. Until more recently, about three quarters of the way along the wall, past the fireplace. Then things changed.
The changes were subtle. Like I said, I ate opposite them for eighteen years and it took me a long time to notice. The kings began to look like they felt the weight of the crown. It seemed heavier and had lost some of its sheen. The kings’ eyes were wider. They almost looked startled. The corners of their mouths started to slip downwards. Lines appeared. Jowls. And bellies. Near the end of the wall were the biggest bellies and the wrinkliest frowns.
My father, though in his tenth year as king, was not up there yet. On the wall there was space only for two more portraits. My father’s, and my brother’s. One below the other to finish the last row of five. Rumours and legends abounded on this matter. When the wall ended, when the last two places were filled, what would become of our line?