Featured Prose | July 27, 2016

seth fried

“The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk” by Seth Fried depicts the eponymous tyrant in his castle . . . sleeping. Yes, even tyrants need to sleep, eat, and take care of themselves. Tyranny isn’t all beheadings and war. Can a tyrant really sleep like the rest of us? Does a tyrant even relax? If a man is supremely evil, is he nevertheless still human? Fried’s story personifies evil, and the result is chilling.

Seth Fried is a recurring contributor to the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” His writing has also appeared in Tin HouseOne StoryElectric LiteratureMcSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Kenyon ReviewMissouri ReviewVice, and many others. His short stories have been anthologized in the 2011 and 2013 Pushcart Prize anthologies as well as The Better of McSweeney’s Vol 2. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée and their two goldfish.

“The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk”

By Seth Fried

 

 The Tyrant in His Fortress

He is seated on a throne, looking bored. An empty hall lit dimly by high sconces. The stone walls and vaulted ceilings amplify every sound. And yet, all is silent except for the sputtering of the flames and the rasp of the tyrant’s breath. He leans forward as if to make a grim proclamation but instead lets out an abrupt and high-pitched sneeze.

The tyrant is twisted in blankets on the bed in his chamber, his pale legs twitching in his sleep.

The tyrant stands before a banquet table burdened with food. He places a single grape in his mouth, or a candied almond.

Despite his tremendous power and cruelty, he is only a man. He must eat. He must rest. He must occasionally stare vacantly or sneeze. But when his subjects imagine these activities taking place within the tyrant’s fortress, they are perplexed.

Their interactions with their ruler are episodes of great spectacle and casualty. One bright summer afternoon, the necks of forty men snap at the ends of forty nooses. Another twenty men are quartered by teams of horses that the tyrant’s men have draped in mock-festive caparisons. Howls. Whinnying of the horses.

These displays are so ubiquitous that the people of Ten Kurk have become more or less accustomed to them. Though they never hesitate to mourn their dead or curse the tyrant, they have learned to regard his cruelty itself without much alarm. If an innocent man is loaded into a cannon high up on the bulwarks and then fired out over the ocean or if he is dropped into a cauldron and scalded to death, most citizens will simply accept this new tragedy as one of the sad facts of the day.

Whereas the tyrant’s quotidian necessities have been elevated among his subjects to the realm of superstition. In Ten Kurk, the folktales are brief stories in which the tyrant peels an apple, takes a nap, relieves himself. “Once long ago,” an old man says as he sits before a fireplace, addressing the grandchildren gathered at his feet, “the tyrant asked his chambermaid for a fresh blanket.” The children look up at their grandfather in wonder, as if they are being told far-off, impossible things.

 

The Tyrant’s Cruelty

Rather than coercing his subjects toward some end agreeable to him, the tyrant punishes them indiscriminately, giving them no indication as to how they might appease him. A man returns home to find his family butchered. A young woman is seized at random and set on fire in the middle of a busy street.

It is easy to understand the motivations of a man who is cruel to others for personal gain, someone who commits sinister acts on account of ambition, but the tyrant’s behavior is more difficult to interpret.

In his Meditations he writes, “If I were forced at knifepoint to choose between feeding a starving child or burning my favorite robe, I would make the necessary sacrifice to ensure that the child died.”

 

 

The Tyrant and Rebels

Though the majority of his subjects have abandoned all hope of resisting him, every so often the tyrant will commit such an outrageous act that a young hero will attempt to organize a rebellion.

This is always an exciting time in Ten Kurk. Oh, what a privilege it is to be young and to have a castle to storm. To spend some hopeful night bivouacked in the woods to the north of the tyrant’s fortress. The stink of bonfires and the grave sound of pledges being made between comrades in the dark.

Though nothing will come of it. The tyrant will have planted a traitor among the rebels, and their camp will be ambushed in the night. If an assault is made on the fortress, the rebels will find its defenses too daunting. They will die pathetically beneath high spires in clouds of their own musket smoke. Even so, as they look up from the field of battle to his impenetrable defenses, the rebels will be grateful that they had a fortress to charge at in the first place, that behind all their woes was an entity unmistakably at fault.

 

The Tyrant and Nature

Occasionally a storm moves through Ten Kurk. In the calm that follows, citizens come up from their cellars to find trees uprooted by strong winds, wheel carts and chicken coops swept up and smashed in the street. Occasionally they will also see in the distance that the tyrant’s fortress is missing a turret or that one of its heavy walls has been damaged.

Even with his men hard at work making repairs— scaffolding visible over a breach, loads of stone making their way up—the sight of the fortress in such a state never fails to remind his subjects that the tyrant’s power is nothing compared to all the forces that operate beyond his authority.

The tyrant is usually so relentless in his rule that his will can seem all-encompassing. By committing atrocity after atrocity, he creates a world for his subjects that is defined solely by his disdain for them.

But these sudden acts of nature reveal the world to be something more complicated, a chaos of fates centered on nothing, directed at no one. A flash of lightning splits an oak tree, a river floods a town, a lion eats its cub, a star in the night sky extinguishes itself. When measured against nature’s raw, impersonal destruction, the tyrant’s crimes against his subjects begin to seem theatrical, ludicrous.

It is for this reason that natural disasters are very much to the tyrant’s advantage. After a storm has passed and his fortress has been repaired, he arranges to have any evidence of the damage dragged into one of Ten Kurk’s public squares. A massive rubble of dark stone. When his people look on it, there is a sudden air of acceptance and even approval of the tyrant’s authority, as if they have been reminded once more that beyond the illusion of his supremacy lies oblivion.

 

The Tyrant with His Servants

The tyrant must be able entrust the various mechanisms of his government to a large number of loyal servants. While to a certain degree he is able to motivate them through fear, he is not able to punish them as indiscriminately or as severely as he does the people of Ten Kurk. If the tyrant were to murder his servants capriciously, it would not be long before the resulting disorganization would begin to threaten his ability to exercise his cruelty over Ten Kurk as a whole. He is therefore forced to maintain his staff of servants by showing them favor. When conducting official business, he is patient and soft-spoken. He greets bad news calmly and accepts the advice of his councilors graciously.

His subordinates know that this demeanor is not the result of a natural benevolence on his part. Gifts, privileges, commendations. These boons are only the most superficial aspect of a grand and complex animosity.

The tyrant rings a bell, calling out for a drink of water in the middle of the night. A boy enters and holds the cup to his lips as he drinks. The tyrant pats the boy’s hand and thanks him.

Even this young boy understands perfectly that the tyrant’s mildness is only a broad manipulation. At the same time, he recognizes that his own willingness to serve the tyrant is a manipulation along the same lines. The tyrant is kind to the boy in order to ensure his loyalty. The boy waits at the beck and call of the tyrant in order to escape any possibility of angering him. The two act falsely in order to attend to their own best interests.

It is the same with everyone, the boy thinks as he wipes the tyrant’s chin with a cloth. The truth is rarely told between people. Nor should it be. Only a fool storms through life, giving voice to whatever comes to mind, offending those around him in the name of blind honesty.

The realization that they are playing the same game with one another causes the boy to feel in league with the tyrant. As he goes back to his stool in the outer chamber to await any further middle-of-the-night commands, he feels an affection for the tyrant that he just as quickly recognizes as part of his own charade, his efforts to escape future harm. Love, evasion. Clemency, a will to conquer. The boy sits on his stool in the dark and remarks in a whisper, “To those like us, there is no difference.”

 

 

Defending the Tyrant

The Tyrant’s Trial is a popular game in Ten Kurk, played in taverns and alehouses. An effigy is made by drawing a scowl onto a sack of grain and placing it on a stool so it is understood that the tyrant is sitting there, awaiting judgment. Participants take turns standing next to the effigy and making lawyerly speeches, a practice originally intended as an opportunity to voice their many grievances. But over time these articulations of their own outrage grew too redundant and obvious. Thus, the game evolved.

The object is no longer to prove his guilt. Rather the game is to see who, through wit or persuasion, can make a convincing argument in the tyrant’s defense.

As the participants become more inebriated, the speeches are met with even greater outbursts of laughter and adulation.

A man takes a contemplative pull from his mug of beer and begins his defense: “If the tyrant wishes to rule us cruelly and we wish to be ruled fairly, who can say which side is more just? How can one desire be weighed against another?”

This sentiment earns the speaker a round of applause, which he quickly cuts short with a raised hand, indicating that he has more to say.

“Now, some might suggest that the tyrant’s desire to be cruel harms many, while our desire to be ruled fairly harms none. But if we rose up and compelled the tyrant to rule us fairly, it would be us doing harm to a man who favors our subjugation. By overruling him with force, we would be behaving identically to him.”

The crowd begins to whoop and stomp for the speaker’s masterful equivocation.

“And if . . .” he takes a drink, “any man here were to justify our actions by making the aforementioned claim that a greater number of people are harmed by the tyrant than would be through our liberation, he would essentially be arguing that the tyrant’s behavior could be considered fair were one simply to increase the number of tyrants so they exceeded the number of citizens, in which case justice itself is arbitrary.”

The crowd rises to its feet and gives a vigorous ovation. As the applause finally wanes, another speaker takes the floor.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins in an admonishing tone, “how can we know the tyrant has committed any crimes at all? Our only knowledge of him is derived from our senses, which tell us more about the frail workings of our own bodies than about the true nature of the world. . . .”

The game will carry on like this for hours. Outlandish arguments blurring the lines of morality. Providing the participants with a delirious freedom.

“We are not even able to prove,” the new speaker continues, “that there is a ground beneath our feet.”

Members of the crowd begin to cheer and whistle and laugh so hard they weep.

 

The Tyrant’s Dungeon

In the way another man of privilege might enjoy a private wine cellar or collection of art, the tyrant maintains a small dungeon for his own entertainment. When it pleases him, he visits the lower levels of his fortress to observe as his guards tie various prisoners to the breaking wheel, lay them bound beneath bladed pendulums, burn them with hot coals.

The tyrant is fascinated by torture despite the fact that he has no appetite for the resulting gore. He is enthralled by every inch of the pendulum’s descent, but becomes visibly bored once the prisoner’s torso is split. If he is struck by a smattering of blood, he is both startled and repulsed. Rather, he prefers simply to be in the presence of those who are in the grip of pain, those who have been plucked out of their inner depths and brought back up into the anguish of their own flesh, a state of being in which all existence is reduced to an animal outwardness.

In the center of his dungeon is a rack with a ratchet specially made so the ropes attached to the victim’s extremities can be tightened as gradually as possible. With each progression, the tyrant watches the victim’s face and dictates his observations to a scribe or takes them down himself. As the pleas for mercy start, the screams of despair, he leans in closer, hoping to catch some liminal moment when that which was hidden in his victim’s spirit will come rushing to the surface.

During these torture sessions, a surprising number of his victims experience a peculiar and transcendent exhilaration. They tend to be those subjects who despised the tyrant most, those whose lives were so preoccupied with their anger toward him that his cruelty began to take on a profound significance.

When such people are executed by the tyrant, they find themselves to be the sole focus and object of the same cruelty that had provided their lives with a certain semblance of meaning. As the horrors perpetrated against their flesh increase, so does this perceived sense of importance. They are eventually moved beyond pain and grow silent. Their faces become serene. Within them, those final degradations become a great welling-up of validation and tormented gratitude.

On the off chance that such an individual is executed not in the tyrant’s dungeon but in public, the people of Ten Kurk are invariably moved by the awful clarity in the victim’s eyes, a look of unbounded tranquility. These victims are inevitably revered in the public memory; they are elevated in the popular myths as saviors and saints.

 

The Tyrant on the Subject of Evil

“Many claim to know what evil is,” the tyrant writes in his Meditations, “but their thoughts on the matter are always far from rigorous. This is because the distinction itself is irrational. At best, the recognition of evil is an expression of emotion.”

 

The Rulers of Other Lands

Travelers tell of places ruled not by one person but by bodies of landed gentry. While the tyrant openly admits that the distinction between himself and his subjects is an artificial one maintained through the force of his will, the aristocrats of other lands claim that their rule is based on a natural superiority. Any misfortune that befalls their subjects is believed to result from the inherent deficiencies of those subjects.

In these lands, young men born into poverty are forced by necessity to work in the mills, where they are either maimed by the machinery or broken down by the punishing work and low wages. When these men’s bodies and minds inevitably begin to fail, they are ridiculed for their laziness. Young women are sent to work in wealthy manors, where many of them are assaulted and end up carrying the illegitimate children of their employers. These women are then accused of impropriety and relieved of their positions.

Faced with these accusations, the men end up believing that they were indeed lazy for having had their arms ripped out at the sockets—the swift, soulless grinding of the mill cogs resounding in their memories like some final recrimination. The women believe that they were imprudent for having been held down as teenagers and raped. They believe every violent, ugly thing that their attackers whispered to them as their young faces were pressed down painfully against marble floors.

The tyrant, on the other hand, is strangely preferable in that he makes it a matter of public record that his victims are innocent. His chief executioner gestures to a small figure kneeling on the platform with his arms bound. He announces over the noise of the crowd, “The condemned is to have the flesh removed from his face, arms, chest, and legs, so that his body may be poured over with molten lead. He is sentenced to death in this manner. . . ” Here he will stop to consult a scroll handed to him by one of his assistants before adding, “. . .for no reason.”

 

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