The following is from Yuri Herrera’s novel, Kingdom Cons. In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts & minds, the Kingdom is shook to its core. Part surreal fable & part crime romance, Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage & power. Yuri Herrera was born in Actopan, Mexico. He won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. He teaches at Tulane University.
Dust and sun. Silence. A sorry house where no one exchanged words. His parents a couple of strays who got lost in the same corner, nothing to say to each other. That was why the words started to pile up, first in Lobo’s mouth and then in his hands. For him school was brief, a place where he sensed the harmony of letters, the rhythms that strung them together and split them apart. It was a private discovery, since he couldn’t see the lines on the chalkboard clearly and the teacher took him for a fool, and he confined himself to the solitude of his notebook. And it was out of sheer passion that he mastered the ways of syllables and accents, before being ordered to earn his keep on the street, offering rhymes in exchange for pity, for coins.
The street was hostile territory, a muffled struggle whose rules made no sense; he managed to endure it by repeating sweet refrains in his head and inhabiting the world through its public words: posters, papers sold on street corners, signs. These were his antidote to chaos.
He’d stop on the sidewalk and run his eyes again and again over any random string of words to forget the fierce environs around him.
One day his father put the accordion in his hands. Coldly, as tho instructing him on how to unjam a door, he taught Lobo to combine the chord buttons on the left with the basses on the right, how the bellows trap and release air to shape the sounds.
“Now hold it good,” he said, “This is your bread.” The next day his father went to the other side. They
waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.
He never took notice of the calendar. It seemed absurd because days were all alike: do the rounds of the tables, offer songs, hold out your hand, fill your pockets with change. Dates earned a name only when someone took pity on themselves or another by pulling out steel and shortening the wait. Or when Lobo discovered hairs cropping up or things getting bigger on his body at will. Or when pain hacksawed his skull and struck him down for hours at a time. Endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time. That was how he spent it.
That, and learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.
Every night Lobo went back to the place where he boxed down, to stare at the cardboard and feel his words grow.
He started writing songs about stuff that happened to others. He knew nothing of love but he’d heard stories, so he’d mention it amid wisdom and proverbs, give it a beat, and sell it. But it was all imitation, a mirror held up to lives overheard. And tho he suspected there was more he could do with his songs, he didn’t know how to go deeper. It had all been said before. Why bother. All he could do was wait, carry on and wait. For what? A miracle.
It was exactly as he’d always envisioned palaces to be. Supported by columns, paintings and statues in every room, animal skins draped over sofas, gold doorknockers, a ceiling too high to touch. And more than that, it was people. So many people, striding down corridors. This way and that, attending to affairs or looking to shine. People from far and wide, from every corner of the earth, people from beyond the desert. Word of God there were even some who had seen the sea. And women who walked like leopards, and giant warriors, their faces decorated with scars; there were Indians and blacks; he actually saw a dwarf. Lobo sidled up to circles, he pricked up his ears, thirsting to learn. He heard tell of mountains, of jungles, of gulfs, of summits, in singsong accents entirely new to him: yesses like shesses, words with no esses, some whose tone soared up so high and sank so low it seemed each sentence was a journey: it was clear they were from nowhere near here.
He’d been out this way long ago, when still 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 had settled among simple folk and turned the 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 gleaming city on the fringes of a city in squalor, a city that seemed 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 know that theirs is 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 come to sing for the chief.”
The guards glanced at him like a stray dog. Didn’t even open their mouths. But the Artist recognized one from the cantina encounter and could tell that the man recognized him, too.
“You saw he liked my songs. Let me sing for him and it’ll be good for you, watch.”
The guard wrinkled his brow a few seconds, as if imagining his fortune. Then he approached the Artist, shoved him to the wall and frisked. Satisfied that he was harmless, the guard said:
“He better like you.” Then dragged him in, and when the Artist was on his way, he warned, “Round here, you blow it, you’re fucked.”
Finding no good space for himself at the party he thought it better to wander among the guests. Until the music started and a sea of sombreros rose up, looking for action on the dance floor. Couples configured and the Artist found himself ricocheted from hips and elbows. Some fiesta, 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 managed to corner himself and take it in without getting in the way: so elegant, the sombreros; so suave, the violence with which those thighs pressed together; and so much gold, dripping off the guests.
Awestruck, the question took him by surprise. “Like what you see, amigo?”
The Artist turned and saw a blondish man, weathered and elegant, who sat in his chair giving him a What Do You Think? face. He nodded. The man pointed to an empty seat beside him and outstretched his hand.
He said his name and then stressed: “Jeweler. All the gold you see, I made. You?”
“I make songs,” the Artist replied. And no sooner was this out of his mouth than he sensed that he, too, could begin repeating, after his name: Artist, I make songs.
“Have a drink, amigo; plenty here to get you going.”
Yes, indeed, it was a banquet. On every table was whiskey, rum, brandy, tequila, beer, and plenty of sotol; no one could complain about the hospitality. Girls in black miniskirts topped glasses the moment they were raised, or if you wanted you could go over to a table and pour as much as you liked. The promise of carne asada and roast kid hung in the air as well. A waitress put a beer in his hand, but he didn’t so much as touch it.
“Now don’t go thinking they paint it red here all the time,” said the Jeweler. “The King prefers kicking it with the people, in old saloons, but today’s a special day.”
He glanced side to side before leaning conspiratorially toward the Artist, tho everybody knew:
“Two kingpins coming in to make a deal and he’s got to treat them right, go all out.”
The Jeweler leaned back in his chair, smug, and the Artist once more nodded and looked around. He felt no envy for the gold-worked belt buckles and snakeskin boots the guests had on, tho they were dazzling; but the outfits the musicians on stage wore, 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, majesty chiseled into his stone cheekbones. He was laughing raucously with the two Lords flanking him, both of whom might have given the impression of power, but no, not the force or commanding air of the King. There was one more man at their table, one who’d also been there at the cantina the other day. Less elegant than the Lords, or more round-the-way: no sombrero, no buckle.
“That’s the Top Dog,” said the Jeweler, seeing where he was looking. “The King’s right-hand man. Punk’s got balls, fearless as they come, but he’s cocky as shit.”
Better be, if he’s the Heir, the Artist thought.
“But don’t say I said so, amigo,” the Jeweler went on, “no gossip allowed. Way it works here is, you make nice with the pack, you’ll do fine. Like you and me right now, we just made friends, right?”
Something in the Jeweler’s tone put the Artist on edge, and now he did not nod. The Jeweler seemed to sense this and changed the subject. Told him he made jewelry only 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 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, tho the heat lingered. He stood among the musicians, said Just follow my lead, and launched in. People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it. He’d asked endless questions to find out what went down, 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 only for the King but also for the down-and-outs he kept under his wing. Beneath that enormous vaulted ceiling his voice projected, taking on depths it never had in the 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, the crowd showered him with whistles and applause, the elegant musicians clapped him on the back and the Lords accompanying the King headbobbed in contentment and pooched their lips in—the Artist hoped—envy. He climbed down to pay his respects. The King looked him in the eye and the Artist bowed his head.
“I knew you had talent as soon as I saw you,” said the King, who, it was known, never forgot a face. “All your songs that good, Artist?”
“I do my best, sir,” the Artist stammered.
“Well, don’t hold back, then: write; stick 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, fit to burst into tears and 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 caught his attention. He looked around. And at the same time, the man spoke.
“I’m the Manager. Take care of accounts. You never ask Señor for money, you ask me. Tomorrow I’ll take you to a man who does the recording. You give him everything you write,” the Manager stopped, seeing the Artist’s eyes wander. “And don’t stick your snout where it doesn’t belong; don’t even look at a woman who doesn’t belong to you.”
“Who does that one belong to?” The Artist pointed to a trussed-up girl to cover his tracks.
“That one,” said the Manager like he was distracted, like his mind was on something else, “belongs to whoever needs her.”
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 falling prey to an absurd panic, fearful of what he sensed was about to happen, but more fearful of succumbing to that other aroma, the Artist accepted the Girl’s delicate hand and allowed himself to be led from the hall.
From Kingdom Cons. Used with permission of And Other Stories . Copyright © 2017 by Yuri Herrera.