Maurice Bentonville the second hitched up his overalls, adjusted his milk-can crown, and peered through his toilet-paper-roll binoculars. His perch? A cottonwood stump. His kingdom? The river streaming by. His subjects? Trout, catfish, carp, sharks, beluga whales, crabs, crawdads, worms, water striders, and hippopotamuses.
He hadn’t yet seen any hippos, but they were somewhere in his kingdom, Mo was sure of it. Hippos flap their tails when they poop, spreading their excrement all over everything with gusto. Mo had once done the same thing, though less dramatically since he had the birth defect of having no tail. Afterwards, the queen mother had explained that little boys and kings did not spread their poop around. That’s when Mo decided he’d better get some hippo subjects to do the job for him. As king, he worked hard to make sure that everyone got to have some fun, even if it wasn’t him.
“Wind from upriver,” Mo muttered to himself. He swiveled on the cottonwood stump, scanning his surroundings through the twin holes of his binoculars. They smelled of wood pulp and cheese crackers. “Water up three crab holes. Sunny. Scudding clouds. Bird pooping on branch.”
Mo completed his circuit and let the binoculars drop to the end of the shoe string around his neck. Then he hopped off the cottonwood stump and tromped along the bank, keeping abreast of the current. Every now and then something caught his eye, a cream-colored pebble, a speckled feather, a shimmering lure. He plucked these off the ground or scraped them out of the mud and slipped them into his overall pocket, the one he called “collected tribute.”
The river streamed beside him, rushing and soft in the many colors of the queen mother’s sea glass collection. It sang him his favorite song. When he was younger and not so smart he’d tried to put the song in a bottle to carry with him. It hadn’t worked of course. So he’d made a new plan. One day, when he was older and wiser, he’d leave the queen mother’s house. He’d build a castle here on the banks of the river with a floating bed and a floating throne. The river would sing to him all day and all night.
“Hello,” said Mo. He’d followed the bend to where the river bank scalloped, and the water slowed and turned a deeper color. Pale forms darted and hovered below the surface, fins drifting and then churning. Mo came to the fish hole to greet his subjects and give them things for fun, and sometimes things for health. Yesterday he brought them spinach for strong bones and eyeballs. They hadn’t liked it either. But today he’d brought something different, something better. Mo pulled a bulging ziplock out of his second overall pocket, the one he called “gifts for subjects.”
He tugged the seal apart and tossed the contents into the fish hole one handful at a time. It took a while. Finally he turned the bag over and shook the last few crumbs onto the water. He stowed the ziplock, looped his thumbs in his overalls, and watched his subjects. They zoomed here and there, mouths opening and gulping, inhaling his gift. He smiled and nodded. “You like it too.” Part of him wished he could have had more of the gift for himself, but he’d learned his lesson with the hippos. He’d be a good king and share the fun he couldn’t have.
“Bye,” said Mo. He left the fish to their feast and walked further along the bank towards his favorite log jamb. It looked like a castle with logs stacked up and down, long-wise and tall-wise. Some had huge twisted roots like battlements, others bobbed in the water with green leaves still rustling from their branches.
Mo had nearly reached the log jamb when he heard a noise. He stopped and cocked his head, listening. His milk-can crown slid sideways. Mo pushed it back. The sound came again, faint but more distinct. His name. “Mo!”
“Already?” Mo frowned, squinched his eyes, and peeked at the sun. Then he tapped the plastic watch on his wrist, but the river had stopped it working long ago. He shrugged and pulled his binoculars to his eyes. “Log jam straight ahead.” He swiveled on his feet. “Stand of trees. Old eagle nest. Blackberry bush. Queen mother!” Mo yelped, turned on his heels and ran towards the log jam. His crown tumbled from his head and bounced into a pile of river stones but Mo didn’t stop. His face had gone white, his eyes large. His binoculars bumped against his chest as he ran.
“Mo!” The queen mother’s voice struck his ears with force. “Maurice Gregory Bentonville, come back here right now!”
Mo gasped for breath. His feet slammed against the bank. He tripped and skinned his hands, got up again, hopped onto the log jam, and rushed from one trunk to another. Water gushed and burbled beneath the jumbled branches. The river’s song didn’t soothe him anymore. Mo bit back a wail. The logs tipped and bobbed under him. He slipped, and his shoe splashed into the water. It came out squishy wet. The color of the river changed from sea glass to murky green the farther he got from the bank.
“Maurice!” cried the queen mother, her tone high and frightened. “What are you doing? Come back!”
But it was too late. With one last jump, Mo reached the final log. It drifted from the mouth of the jumble like a loose toothpick. His feet thunked along the trunk. It dipped and wobbled beneath him. Mo screamed. He lunged for an upright branch and wrapped his arms around it, crushing his binoculars against the bark. He panted, shaking from head to toe.
Safe now. He was safe.
The log creaked. It shuddered and moaned. The river caught its submerged arms and pulled and sang and pulled. Mo didn’t move. He couldn’t have if he’d wanted to. He had turned into a stump.
The log floated loose. It settled into the current with a soft hiss and meandered downstream.
Mo stared at the muscled river, carrying him along. Water striders skimmed on the surface. A dragonfly zoomed past. He looked back at the bank. The queen mother stood on the mud, white-faced and open-mouthed, growing smaller and smaller. Her arms hung slack at her sides. In one hand she held his milk-can crown. In the other, an empty cake pan.