Prince Valiant

We lived on Riverside Drive then, in the apartment once occupied by Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. I imagined a bird from a faraway land, fluttering through the big open rooms of our apartment, hovering by the window that looked out on the Hudson, yearning to be free. Back then, animals could talk, and I could accept anything. I was that young. On Saturday mornings, I ran into the living room and turned on Ricochet Rabbit. He flashed before me, starting as a dot on the screen and ending that way, too, when I turned him off. My brother told me to open my mouth and pitched pennies inside until I choked on one. I looked out a window one day to spy 100 policemen, marching in uniform down the street. I did not know why and did not ask. If, on another day, I had looked out the window to see 100 dragons, riding the air above the Hudson, I would have accepted this, too. There is nothing beyond acceptance when the world is new. One evening, my mother, drying me off with my animal towel after a bath, said we had to close the bathroom door or we would let in a giraffe. I screamed when she closed the door, “No, I want to see the giraffe! Let it in.”

On Halloween I was told that I would wear a mask, and so I wore it all day. The mask was plastic. Prince Valiant. As I wore it, the mask became wet and hot from my breath. At dinner, I ate with it on, trying to topple my milk and spoon peas through the little mouth hole. Invincible and unmoving, I watched my brother and sister fight through the little eye holes, breathing fierce hot breath through the nose hole. Halloween. This seemed good. I wanted more. Someone knocked on the door, and my sister went to answer. When she came back, she had our neighbor with her, a woman even older than my father. The woman’s eyes were wide, and she was shouting, and so we all left the kitchen and our meals and ran downstairs, my mother carrying me, Prince Valiant. I raised my arm as we ran down the stairs, my invisible sword clenched, ready to meet the enemy on the field of battle. From the street, we watched flames leap from our neighbor’s window. I looked up at the flames and watched as little birds of smoke flew from the broken glass to meet us, and I thought Halloween was good. Halloween was a neat day because you wore a mask and watched your neighbor’s apartment on fire and then the fire trucks arrived and men in uniforms ran around with hoses. That night, I dreamed that I drank my milk, but from the bottom of the glass, an eyeball was staring up at me. I dreamed I was back in my baby carriage in the park, and my mother left me there and said she’d be back in a minute. Then it grew dark, and she wasn’t back. When I awoke, I ran to the kitchen, where my mother and father were talking over the newspaper at the dinette table. I didn’t have my mask on anymore, but my face still felt hot and wet, and I couldn’t tell them what I had seen. But my mother asked me if I wanted cornflakes, and my Dad was already up, so he reached in the cupboard and opened the box, and a bunch of cockroaches poured out and scattered on the floor where my father dropped the box. He screamed, “Elaine, kill them, kill them!” and that’s what she did, stepping on the roaches, as I watched and waited to take a gander at the next thing in line.

About the Author

Robin Hemley

Robin Hemley is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction and the winner of a number of awards including two Pushcart Prizes, the Nelson Algren Award, the George Garrett Award, and the Independent Press Books Award.

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