Almost every afternoon,
they wrestled and swarmed to be the one to sit in the dentist chair.
For whomever sat in the dentist chair was ruler, monarch, benign dictator,
the physical manifestation of the will of the people. That was the decree.
Leanne and Shara's
father found the chair in some castoff furniture auction. He dragged
it home on a whim, and added it to his collection of bar stools, fake
maple cabinets and pastel dish strainers. "They may come in useful,"
he told his wife surveying the things gathered hodge podge in their
Perched on a battered
picnic table, the dentist chair paid court to bales of wire, spare
tires and a broken refrigerator, door sprung open and sagging with
rust and tree sap. The sun had cracked its leather seat; and stuffing
burnt the color of pale goldenrod poked through the ripped leather.
"Scarecrow fingers," the kids would yell and pull it into wisps that
floated, light as dandelion fluff.
that summer, Leanne, Shara and their friends played until dusk, surrounded
by elms, pepper and orange trees, the ground coarse with pebbles,
golden poppies, spiky leafed weeds and matchbox cars. They played
until the clear light dulled into blunt night.
Caught in the
falling light, they played all types of games: tag, hide and seek,
London Bridge, dodgeball, and hopscotch with squares scratched neatly
in the dirt. They played counting games and jacks, eenie meenie minie
mo, catch a tiger by his toe, if he hollers, make him pay fifty dollars
every day, you are not it.
But eight year
old Leanne was always "it", the smallest, weakest, the last and the
least, the last to be picked or asked. Catch a tiger by his toe; but
Leanne rarely caught anything, neither balls nor people nor jacks.
But they belonged to one another stitched together by the knowledge
that this is how it always was and always will be. Hemmed in by the
sound of their mothers' voices calling them home, they flew around
each other like fireflies drawn by the heat and light of each other's
But of all their
games, the dentist chair was their favorite. They laboriously printed
on the back of one of Rebecca's misguided spelling papers, "Will get
to be King and tell everyone else what to do." Then each one signed
with a prick of blood.
On another hot
muggy dusty summer day a very long time ago, a Georgian doctor saddled
his gelding, tightening the straps so slowly the horse wondered at
what his master was doing. The doctor had just signed a treasonous
document separating himself from his divinely appointed monarch.
In this existence,
he possessed only a few things; a wife, five children, his honor,
his blunt thick hands and a chestnut gelding with a rosette fetlock.
And he wagered them all on the belief that no man should be held subject
to the whims, fancies, complaints and humors of one man no matter
how divine his blood and lineage. In the sunlight, the doctor's hair
glinted the same pale yellow as the dentist chair's stuffing.
ferocious whenever she scrambled her way to the chair. She bit and
scratched, leaving marks red as spider bites. Her small tennis shoe
shod feet sent the other kids tumbling from the table and all the
King's men couldn't .... But Leanne could.
Her sister Shara
just stood in awe watching her, Leanne usually so quiet and biddable,
the other kids picking on her, teasing her until Leanne cried hot
and dazzled with frustration. "Crybaby, crybaby."
threw the dodgeball so hard, Leanne gasped, her breath having no place
to go. On Saint Patrick's day, they scribbled green crayon hearts
and trees on her blue plaid skirt. Then they pinched her anyway, fingernails
hard as black beetle pinchers. But they believed they liked her. She
was one of them.
Shara never thought
of protecting Leanne. She knew it would simply make it worst, draw
the line, pick sides, declare war, duck, duck, duck, goose. Leanne
needed to learn how to belong, adopt the chameleon game, accept her
But now Shara
started to wonder. She was approaching thirteen, adolescence being
some unknown land where perhaps monsters dwelt with scales intricate
as a Damask rug. She was beginning to question the warp of their lives,
the pecking order, the idea that they will always be what they are,
a thread dyed a single color. She was changing so why couldn't the
colonies," tongues wagged in 18th century London; but the traitorous
doctor simply wanted to create a new world. But in their eyes, he
belonged to them, a second class colonist, a goose among ducks. There
was no place for a new world in the folds of the old. Hierarchies
and patterns had already been determined.
The doctor glanced
up at the swinging wooden sign above him, a carved rooster vainglorious
with plumage who trumpeted the name of the inn in bold dark letters.
When he was a young boy in England, he sighted a hanged pickpocket,
thirteen-ear olds, crow-pecked eyes, the strands of his hair plucked
for nests. They let the pickpocket hang until his bones were scoured
by sun and rain and frost. He served as a reminder, the sin of wanting
more than what the world had rendered you.
But in the presence
of the dentist chair, something surfaced in Leanne. At first, Shara
murmured bewilderedly, "Leanne, what are you doing." She caught herself
almost saying, "Don't play so rough." But startled by this taint of
mother in her voice, she clamped her mouth shut with the abruptness
of a snapping turtle or a gallows trapdoor.
Leanne was the
youngest; her initial entrance into their games was a favor, a gesture
of grace. There was protocol in games, hierarchies of privilege; but
Leanne wanted transformation, desire budding beneath her skin like
hard tight wings. She didn't want to be poor weak Leanne anymore.
She wanted to be what her tormentors were, offhand and treacherous
of the others would stare at Shara with narrowed eyes as though Leanne's
fierceness was an infection, some taint in their family's blood; they
were sisters after all.
The others usually
let Leanne rule once she fought her way to the chair. It wasn't worth
insurrection. Besides it was their rules that embodied, emboldened
her. Once enthroned, Leanne usually just perched there, itchy and
restless with satisfaction while the others jumped rope, played jacks
or freeze tag. Maybe it was the prick of summer's ending, a narrowing
of light or life; or maybe the seeds that had drifted into the chair's
stuffing took root and bloomed, sending strange pollen into the air;
But today when
Leanne acquired her throne, she opened her mouth then closed it and
then pronounced ... "I can tell you to do anything," she said, her
voice slightly wondering, as though she wasn't certain of the world
the words were leading her to.
peered up from a scattering of parrot bright jacks.
"I can tell you
to do anything, it's says so here," Leanne repeated pointing to their
proclamation thumbtack to the chair's back.
"I guess," Richard
answered with a shrug.
"But you all
signed in blood."
They started to
shift nervously and nod their heads, bobbing marionettes all in a
row. They had signed, their bloody signatures dry as dead twigs.
"So you have to."
And they had to;
they signed. They consigned their selves, their fortunes and their
his name, the Georgia doctor thought briefly of hiding his wife and
children in case this liberty thing became a bloody pratfall. But
he had pledged them, had pledged everything to rid himself of a king,
King George III, who wasn't even that bloodthirsty just stubborn,
mad and German.
Startled by the
firmness of Leanne's voice Shara paused in her dayreaming. Her knees
brittle with scabs and bruises, she had been leaning against the fence,
peering through the wooden slats at two high school boys working on
"Bring the milk
crate over here," Leanne ordered.
No one moved.
"Bring the milk
crate over here," and her voice became even more assured. Dragging
his feet, Richard snagged the blue latticed milk crate disturbing
hard winged beetles that scuttled from the light, black as grapeshot.
said pointing at a patch of weeds in front of her; and there it went.
Shara almost halted the game; but then she stopped. The game had already
started, a game both new and inevitable.
imperiousness almost prim in its control, Leanne ordered Tom to find
a piece of square metal, an old cookie tray,, serving platter or tin
"Now the executions
will begin," Leanne announced both frightened and exhilarated. For
a moment they all stared at her, bewildered as internal hierarchies
shifted, hidden and profound as an earthquake. You have to maintain
a hierarchy, a pecking order; with ranks and reputations sharp as
When Eileen questioned
her bloodthirstiness, Leanne answered that if God commanded the dogs
to eat the marrow of Jezebel's bones, she could order heads to be
chopped. And she smiled, her body burnished and tingling as though
she was riding a roller coaster plunge. The others just shrugged or
sighed. They all remembered Preacher Dowlin telling of the Jezebel
feast, telling them about sin and blood thick as blistered paint.
The doctor knew
another story about an old world thick and stiff with arrogance, tradition,
with the way things always were. On maps, they drew fantastical monsters
in the land beyond known boundaries. But to escape the monsters of
the old world, his family braved the monsters of the new by boarding
a ship when he was eleven. The doctor wanted a new world possessing
neither guillotines nor kings, which is why he was willing to catch
a tiger by the toe and ride it even to the gallows.
And today, the
kids had discovered a different world. They were snared in Leanne's
excitement, little woodcocks and sparrows; besides they had signed
in blood. They promised. So they lined up to be executed, a line orderly
as a classroom line, Leanne calling out their names, a roll call of
The blue plastic
milk crate performed as execution block, a dented cookie tin played
the guillotine blade. Tom the tallest kid, served as the guillotine.
He whistled through his teeth, a sly wishing sliding scraping noise
whenever he brought the blade down on a bent neck.
of the moment approached the block like real executions. Tom tied
all their hands with hunks of old baling wire before he resumed his
post of executioner. Now that he had been appointed executioner, Tom
presided solemn-faced with the gravity of his station, heavy and solid
as a falling apple, except for that whistle.
Jeanne had to
be dragged pleading and crying across the sticky prickly ground. She
was the crybaby now. Others darted disdainful looks at their king,
grumbling silently she was only a stupid baby; but they still lay
their heads on the milk crate, the weeds stitching a rash on their
knees. And when the cookie sheet guillotine grazed the back of their
necks, they death gurgled, screamed and rolled twitching, a pantheon
of hammy stage actors.
who simply put her head down on the crate, somersaulted over, scrambled
up an elm and refused to come down until she was pardoned. "I ain't
gonna die," she said, shaking her head until her braids slapped the
net of interlaced elm branches.
to mercy; touched Eileen's head with a grubby gentle hand. "I forgive,"
she said and then corrected herself, "We forgive." And Eileen spun
chanting, "I don't have to die, I don't have to die, but you do,"
until she collapsed from dizziness, the world blurring in her eyes.
was never called. She stood by the chain linked fence and watched.
"You didn't change anything," she wanted to tell Leanne. It wasn't
a new world, just a new game. Leanne simply inverted the world. And
the wild rawness of Leanne perched on her throne frightened her.
No one person
should have that power, the doctor thought remembering the sway of
the hanged pickpocket, his body stretched by its own weight. They
called his king "Farmer George." A farmer could wring a chicken's
neck so why couldn't a king snap a subject's neck? But he shouldn't.
The doctor offered
his gelding an apple, the horse's soft nose snuffling the palm of
his hand. He watched the sun slowly fall from the sky, swallowed and
lost in a horizon of trees and church spires. The doctor knew if he
and his friends lost their revolution, they would be beheaded, hung,
shot at dusk; surrounded by watching crowds; their shadows interlaced;
the ground hard and prickly; chicken pecking at the gravel; their
wrists raw from the ropes.
"Off with their
heads," Leanne ordered serene in the world she has created.
The last shall
be first. And only through blood would things be equal. Catch a tiger
by his toe and if he hollers, make him pay. And Leanne was going to
make the world pay for all the teasing, baiting, pulled hair and balls
thrown too hard.
She took all
the cruelty inside until it became for a moment her bones and blood.
Shara stared intently
at her sister knowing that they had left each other behind, a continent
filled with mythical monsters between them.
The blood wasn't
real, but it was. Death was being tagged "It", the pause, hush, gasp
between one game and the next. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down; but
then we rise from the dead. Even though the twisted wire left engraved
lines on their wrists that lasted for days.
The doctor created
a new world. But like a horse needing a bridle, his new world still
needed order, rank, blood and falls from grace. Was the possibility
of his death real for him, real as the ink blot on the palm of his
hand, the quill pen softer than rope or wire. This new world would
be the death of something, perhaps the death of him.
Or did he believe
in the magic words, "We forgive?" Olly Olly oxen free, you are not
it, click your heels three times. Whatever he believed, he still shivered
thick with excitement, passion and wonder; watching as something died
and something became; and it would never be as it always was even
if they all died.
He did wonder
if everything would blur before that moment of death or would the
world be sharp as a washed blade, the executioner whistling "River
in the Pines," each pebble bright as a sun, death a clear line between
now and soon. But soon is always a death, the present dying, an old
world, we all fall down.
All summer, the
days scattering like beads from a broken necklace, Leanne had watched
Shara slip away from her into some land she couldn't even see.
cried out in a high wild voice as she watched the sun slide into the
mountains. Perhaps now Shara would come back to her.
Sundstrom was a Stegner Writing Fellow at Stanford
University and has published poems and short stories in
Threepenny Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, and several
other small magazines. "I am also sporadically working
on a one woman show which I performed as a work in
progress at Climate Theatre in San Francisco years ago.
I exist as the devoted feeder and caretaker for two guppies
named Fin Rot and Floater. Floater tends to be the more Zen
serene of the two.
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