Yuri Herrera: Kingdom Cons
Translated by Lisa Dillman
It was just as he’d always imagined a palace to be. Supported by columns, with paintings and statues in every room, animal skins draped over sofas, gold door knockers, a ceiling too high to touch. But more than all that, it was the people. So many people, striding down corridors. This way and that, attending to affairs or eager to excel. People from far and wide, from every corner of the earth, people from beyond the desert. There were even, God’s honest, some who’d seen the sea. And women who walked like leopards, and giant warriors, their faces decorated with scars; there were Indians and blacks; he even saw a dwarf. He sidled up to circles, he pricked up his ears, he yearned to learn. He heard tell of mountains, of jungles, of gulfs, of summits, in singsong accents he’d never before heard: words with no esses, yos like shos, some whose tone rose up so high and down so low it seemed each sentence was a journey: it was clear they were from nowhere around here.
He’d been through these parts long ago, back with his parents. But back then it was a dump, a hellhole of waste and infection. No way to know it would become a beacon. The royalty of a king determined these things: the man settled among simple folk and turned filth to splendor. Approached from afar, the Palace exploded from the edge of the desert in a vast pageantry of gardens, gates and walls. A city of splendor on the fringes of the city, that seemed only to reproduce its misfortune on street after street. Here, the people who came and went thrust their shoulders back with the air of those who belong to a prosperous dominion.
The Artist had to find a way to stay.
He’d learned there was to be a party that night, set off for the Palace, and played his only card.
“I’ve come to sing for the chief.”
The guards regarded him like a stray dog. Didn’t even answer. But the Artist recognized one from the cantina encounter and knew that he recognized him, too.
“You saw he liked my songs. Let me sing for him now and you’ll be set, you’ll see.”
The guard furrowed his forehead for a moment, as if envisioning fortunes. Then he approached the Artist, shoved him to the wall and frisked him.
Satisfied that he was harmless, the guard said, “He better like you.” He dragged him in and when the Artist was on his way, warned, “Around here, you screw up, you’re fucked.”
He couldn’t find a good spot at the party so decided instead to wander among the guests. Until the music started and a sea of sombreros swelled, looking for action on the dance floor. Couples configured and the Artist found himself ricocheting from hips and elbows. Some shindig, he thought. He’d scoot to one side and a couple would come at him in three quick steps, scoot to the other and the next one tripped him on a turn. Finally he found a way to corner himself and observe, out of the way: so stylish, the sombreros; so seductive, the violent thrusting thighs; so much gold, dripping off the guests.
Awestruck, thus, the question took him by surprise.
“Like what you see, friend?”
The Artist turned and saw a weathered man, blondish and elegant, who sat in his chair giving him a How’s it hanging look. He nodded. The man pointed to an empty seat beside him and outstretched his hand.
He said his name and then added, “Jeweler. All that gold you see? Made by me. What about you?”
“I make songs,” the Artist replied. And as soon as he said it, he sensed that he, too, could begin repeating, after his name: Artist, I make songs.
“So belt one out, amigo, you got plenty of hooch.”
Indeed, it was a banquet. Each table overflowed with whisky, rum, brandy, tequila, beer, and plenty of sotol, so there’d be no grumbling about the hospitality. Girls in black miniskirts topped up glasses the moment they were raised, or you could pour yourself whatever you wanted, if you preferred. And the promise of carne asada and roast kid filled the air. A waitress slipped a beer into his hand, but he didn’t so much as touch it.
“Don’t think they raise Cain around here all the time,” said the Jeweler. “The King likes to let her rip with the people in old dives, but today’s a special day.”
He glanced side to side before leaning over to the Artist as if he had a scoop, though everyone knew:
“Two kingpins are coming to make a deal so he’s got to treat them right, go all out.”
The Jeweler leaned back smugly and the Artist nodded again and looked around. He felt no envy for the gold-worked belt buckles and snakeskin boots the guests wore, although they were dazzling, but the outfits the musicians on stage had on, those were something else: black and white spur-print shirts with leather fringe. There by the band, close enough to make requests, he spotted the King, his majesty chiseled in stone cheekbones. He was laughing raucously with the two Lords flanking him, both of whom gave an impression of might but not the power or the autocratic air that radiated from the King. There was one other man sitting at their table, who’d also been there at the cantina the other day. He was less elegant than the Lords, or more like people from other parts: no sombrero, no belt buckle.
“That’s the Top Dog,” the Jeweler said, seeing where he was looking. “The King’s right-hand man. That punk’s fearless, ballsy, but cocky as hell, too, yes he is.”
Better be, if he’s the Heir, the Artist thought.
“Don’t say you heard it from me, friend,” the Jeweler went on, “no dirt allowed. Way it works here, you get along with the pack, you do fine. Like right now, you and me just made friends, isn’t that right?”
Something in the Jeweler’s tone put the Artist on alert, and now he did not nod. The Jeweler seemed to sense it and changed the subject. He told him he only made jewelry to order, whatever his clients wanted, and that’s what you should do, too, Artist, make everyone look good. The Artist was about to respond when the guard who’d let him in approached.
“It’s time,” he said. “Hustle on up, and ask the boys to accompany you.”
The Artist stood nervously and walked to the stage. On the way he sensed the shape and the scent of a different sort of woman but refused to turn his head and look, though the heat lingered. He stood among the musicians and asked them to play “They’re on My Tail,” and launched into it. People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it. He’d asked endless questions to find out what happened, to compose this song and present it to the King. It told of his mettle and his heart, put to the test in a hail of bullets, and had a happy ending not just for the King but also for the deadbeats under his wing. Beneath that enormous vaulted ceiling his voice was projected, taking on a depth it never had in cantinas. He sung his song with the faith of a hymn, the certainty of a sermon, and above all he made sure it was catchy, so people would learn it with their feet and their hips, and so they, too, would sing it, later.
When he was done, he was regaled with whistles and applause, the elegant musicians clapped him on the back and the Lords accompanying the King bobbed their heads and pursed their lips (the Artist wanted to believe),with envy. He climbed down to go pay his respects. The King looked him in the eye and the Artist bowed his head.
“As soon as I saw you I knew you had talent,” said the King, who, it was known, never forgot a face. “Are all your songs that good, Artist?”
“I do what I can, sir,” the Artist stammered.
“Then you just write, you got nothing to worry about; stick around with the good guys and it’ll all go your way.” He nodded to another man, standing nearby, and said, “Take care of him.”
The Artist bowed again and followed the man, wanting to burst into tears, blinded by bright lights and his future. Then he took a deep breath, said to himself, It’s really happening, and came back down to earth. That was when he remembered the silhouette that had called his attention. He looked around. Meanwhile, the man spoke.
“I’m the Manager. I take care of accounts. You never ask Señor for money, you ask me. Tomorrow I’ll take you over to see a man who does the recording, and you’ll start giving him everything you write,” the Manager stopped, seeing the Artist’s eyes wander. “And I’d watch it before you go sticking your snout where it doesn’t belong; don’t even glance at another man’s woman.”
“And who does that one belong to?” asked the Artist, pointing to a dolled up adolescent just to cover up.
“That one,” said the Manager distractedly, his mind on something else, “belongs to whoever I say.”
He turned back to the Artist, measuring him up, then called the girl over and said, “The Artist here has made Señor very happy; treat him well.”
And overcome by an absurd panic, fearing slightly what he sensed would happen next, but fearing more that he’d succumb to that other scent, the Artist accepted the Girl’s delicate hand and allowed himself to be led out of the hall.