Editor's Note: This story has been illustrated by two artists: one of Quail Bell's illustrators, Rachel Jones, and the author of the story, Gregg Williard.
In a far away kingdom the people were killed for their skin. It was flayed, cured and stretched over hollowed trees to make drums for the king. Such drums were highly prized for their ability to be heard over vast distances with no diminution of signal or sense. With these instruments the king alone wielded the power to direct his armies, trade envoys and spy networks, and control what little his own people knew of the outside world.
But one morning the people woke to the sound of a new drum. Its pulsations had a unique resonance that seemed to reach deep into their anguished hearts. The people drank in the sounds, thirsting for respite from the martial menace of the king’s beat. If the king’s drums were like having a jar of angry bees inside your chest, the new drum was a mother’s song to her child.
The king raged: what drum was this? Only the royal drums, and their rhythms and register of awesome power could be played. Surely that must be the only music his people could hear, would ever hear! Who dared to send these messages without his consent or control? No one knew who the new drummer was, or where. And no one in the court knew what the new rhythms meant.
“Ah-ha!” chortled one of the more pedantic of the torturers. “You contradicted yourself! You said the drummer is drumming on his own flayed skin, and…”
“No Excellency,” the prisoner rasped. “Actually my exact words were, ‘It is the drummer who has given his own skin to the…’”
“Silence, dog! The wording doesn’t matter! You know perfectly well that your explanation is illogical! If your drummer is playing on his own tanned hide he would hardly be playing because he’d be dead!”
“Yes,” the prisoner conceded thoughtfully. “I did say, ‘the drummer who has given his own skin.’ However…”
“However, shit! You’re saying that being flayed is a precondition for playing this ridiculous drum, and being able to understand it?! In other words, dead?! Is that what you’re telling me??!”
“Well, not exactly.”
The torturer had been at his work for hours without a break and screeched with a desperate fatigue. He drew his knife to cut the prisoner’s throat but reconsidered; the prisoner’s answers would displease the king, who made no distinction between the bearer of bad—or in this case insane, news, and the news itself.
He sheathed his knife and poured water over the prisoner’s battered head. The prisoner choked and gasped and fell back on his rough pallet with a thud.
“All right,” the torturer growled, “What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?”
The prisoner struggled for breath. “The thing is, Excellency, one among us is said to have survived the flaying! The great one has found a way to not only endure the pain, but actually re-grow the skin that was taken for the king’s drums! What’s more, the ordeal has taught him, and us…taught us all a new language… given us power to hear only the one drum, and live..!”
The torturer had no words for this absurd story. He gaped at the now unconscious prisoner for several seconds, then shook him roughly.
“What is the message of your drum? What is it saying? Answer me!” But the prisoner was already dead.
It was obvious: they were counting on his reputed vanity, narcissism, grandiosity and power-mad paranoia to make the prospect of listening in on their secret language irresistible, not to mention acquiring their secret method for surviving the royal flaying! What they didn’t know was that his reputation as a sadistic madman was an artfully cultivated performance, designed to instill fear and hatred in his people so as better to rule them. Beneath this façade he was a cool master of action and thought—a far wiser monarch than the people deserved. But wait—the drum was all a silly fantasy to begin with! Let the people have their fancy! Let them listen to their non-existent drum-jabber! The king had a good laugh, then ate, drank and had his way with his favorite eunuchs, slaves and soon to be skinned ex-wives, far into the night.
But his sleep was wracked by doubts and devils and he woke pushing his bed mates away in a rage. What if the story of the drum were true? Then he would have to learn how to play and understand the drum, and truly know the people’s “secrets.” The prospect did not exactly cheer; despite the efforts of the royal ethnographers to preserve and celebrate “folk culture”( and the political necessity to be a “man of the people”) the king did everything he could to avoid actual contact with his filthy subjects, and the appalling vulgarity of their speech, manner and “thought." Their “folk culture”-- a dismal parade of ugly trinkets, dull-witted fables, pointless proverbs and pathetic social conventions-- could reduce the king to convulsive vomiting and incontinence for days. But it was time to put aside his distaste and act for the greater good.
The king roused his most skilled flayer from his sleep. When the dazed artisan arrived the king told him he wished to know the flayer’s art. Now.
“But,” he cautioned, “it must be done without infliction of pain, injury or death. I intend to flay myself, fashion a drum, and play it on my own. The people speak of a secret art to defeat pain and cultivate new skin. I will know these secrets, and hear their thoughts.”
“But your highness,” the chief flayer sputtered in shock, “you have always said that extraction of the skins must be done in the most painful way possible!”
“I don’t care what I said! Attend to what I am saying now! “
The artisan protested that such techniques were unproven and dangerous, but when the king described the consequences of disobedience he said, “On second thought there may be a way. An obscure technique from beyond the mountains, spoken of in the marketplace.” It involved taking very small patches of skin, one at a time, at specific nerve sites. In the proper sequence and with the administration of a rare physic and gingered simples he believed that being flayed, while still an unpromising source of amusement, might be effected with a minimum of pain. Using these small pieces of skin tiny drum heads for tiny drums might be made. Enough of these small drums played together might rival the sound of a full sized instrument. The king had the artisan take an oath of absolute silence and ordered him to begin his lessons.
The king was an apt pupil. He only suffered slight discomfort when he peeled the first patch off the top of his arm. A longer strip down his thigh and sharper pain came next, but the king gave all his attention to the drying and curing process and soon the “hide” was ready and the first drum completed.
It was a tiny thing, the size of a coffee cup. When he “beat” the drum by tapping his fingertips on the hide a new sound could be heard, distinct and rich even at such a diminutive scale. He locked himself in his chamber and tapped for hours and days with aching fingers, suffering a kind of pre-keyboard carpal-tunnel syndrome in pursuit of the secret language. Finally his efforts were rewarded. His finger tips flew with a furious life of their own. The voices of the people slowly emerged. What he channeled shook him with raucous laughter. Of course!
Beyond the boring and moronic fixations on sex, food, babies, weight loss, the marketplace and sport; beyond the sordid gossip, hayseed calumny, chattering avarice and 2-bit intrigues; beyond the pitiful superstitions, conspiracy theories and ignorance of history or the world, beyond it all the people’s drumming was about him! His insatiable bloodlust and sadism! His insane rages and ruthless vendettas! His boundless loathing for the people he ruled! Oh, how they feared and hated him! What a horrible figure he cut! What a deathly shadow he cast! It was exactly as he’d hoped: the people believed his brutal facade, believed even more that his endless—and paradoxical-- appetite for the people’s fear, adulation and love would compel him to listen for more, listen for any sign of the worshipful awe and terror his supposedly barren heart so craved. And so, needful of bigger drums to hear more, he would be tricked into carving off progressively bigger sheets of his own skin until he was just another denizen of the flaying chambers – a flame red, grinning specter of exposed and pulsating muscle, suffering unimaginable agony at the faintest suggestion of a touch, or breeze.
But he had the secret drug that would protect him from pain, and he had the healing poultices to restore any skin so removed! Thus equipped he set to work with his delicate instruments of silver and crystal to excise more pieces of skin, this operation displaying a level of artistry that rivaled his teacher’s finest work. With the help of an ingenious mirror array and the touch of a born flayer the king coaxed moist flakes of epidermal lamina, gauzy thin, from the back of his neck and across his shoulders down his backside, buttocks and legs. Such a richness of skin would make a huge drum head, a booming monster of a drum! His excitement curing , stitching and stretching the hide was tempered only by the searing pain across his back. He slathered on a generous dollop of the pain relief and skin-growing salve and felt immediate relief. Soon his skin would be growing back again and in the meantime he could play and hear the rest of the people’s delightfully paranoid rants, their hilariously primitive imprecations, their terrified wonder at their merciless and magnificent king!
In a fever of activity he cured, dried, soaped and oiled the great swath of his skin and secured it to its base. When it was tight and taut he slapped the head with abandon. This time, their drum –his drum -- sounded a different rhythm: not the despairing wail or fearful lament but a bold, vibrant, playful song.
Laughter. They were telling jokes. Jokes about him.
What’s the difference between the king’s dick and a snake used as a fan belt on a 50 year-old tractor?
What did the king say on his first date with the baboon when she showed him her behind?
Did you know that the king can’t get it up unless one of his boyfriends crawls under his robes and…
What did the bartender whose daughter was raped and murdered by the king say when his highness walked into the bar and said, The drinks are on me!..?
The king who?
The king who puts his thing into a baboon when…
The king laughed again, though perhaps with the subtlest diminution of gusto: obviously another effort to draw him in, provoke his anger and make him careless! But again they had badly underestimated his disciplined mastery of ego and emotion. Nothing they could do would rile him! He played on with abandon until an unfamiliar grabbing pain began to seize up his back. Consulting his mirror device he saw an eruption of weeping scars. The muscle was again freshly exposed as the re-grown skin dissolved in a roiling froth of dead, sweetly-foul tissue.
The king grimaced and snarled. Sweet indeed! Of course he’d seen it coming! The “secret salve” to restore his skin and blunt the pain was another trick of the people! It would work for a short time but quickly decompose into a flesh -eating acid. But he’d taken the precaution to have it analyzed before applying it to his skin. The royal chemists suspected it might be too unstable once decanted, so the king had ordered a corrective tincture in the event that skin restoration broke down. He rushed to one of the many statues bearing his unrecognizably idealized likeness. With a few cunning slides of parquetry-hidden panels its base sprang open to reveal crystal ampoules in a satin cradle. He splashed a few drops of the corrective and the pain quickly receded. He resumed his playing. The next messages he channeled traded the vulgar bongo come-ons for a narcoleptic voodoo parradiddle: trying to scare him with stories of bodies drooling flesh and muscle, convulsing to the agony of a breath or a touch. The skin, the drum said, is the body’s largest, least understood organ! Did you know that, if the skin on an average person’s body was laid out in one piece, it would measure almost 16 by 21 feet in area?
16’X 21’?! The king’s enthusiasm for his new flaying hobby fed eager calculations; if he were to use the skin covering the front half of his body as well, he could easily double the size of his drum and extend its range and voice…
Realization of their wiles came like a blow. They again presumed to trick him?! To scare him, confuse him, outwit him?! The king’s rhythm faltered and his breath caught; through vision pin-holed in a grip of rage he saw himself strangling the life out of each and every one of his subjects with the languid care of a pleasuring concubine addled and pliant on the poppies’ lambent spell. The king slapped out another message in violent, stabbing beats -- Do you really think you can outsmart your king? !-- then sputtered and gasped and flung the drum across the room, sending it crashing into the statue with the precious skin solution inside.
His fury vanished in icy shock; he’d left the cabinet doors open, and the drum had shattered the exposed bottles of flesh restorative. The king wiped what he could of the yellow-white fluid off the floor with his gown and wrapped it around his aching shoulders. What remained of the fluid soaked into his skinned back. Nothing to worry about! His royal chemists could supply enough of the restorative to last him a lifetime!
He found his breath again and smiled. On reflection the skin treatments conferred something like immortality, and, (combined with the growing size of his new drums and their widening “reception” of the people’s communications) a very real kind of omniscience as well. A little temporary tenderness to touch or air seemed a small price in exchange for the gift of such powers, and so he rang for his attendants with his poise restored.
He punished them for being too prompt. When they cowered he hit them again for not appreciating the joke. When they laughed he hit them again for disrespect. When they neither laughed nor cried he hit them again for not showing their genuine feelings. Finally tiring of the game he instructed them to return with another supply of the skin treatment, cautioning them to close the door gently lest they disturb the air. Then he returned to his drum.
He relaxed into the spell of hands on skin, slapped falsetto voices from the drum head’s tinny edge, paddled hypnotic to its thrumming center and then back out again. Master now of all the voices and stories, no one could speak outside his hearing; no one could escape his voice.
Then the drum head ripped.
It should have been expected: after learning that increased tension on the drum head meant more range and power he had perhaps tightened the cords with excess zeal. No problem. He would simply make the next drum of thicker skin – (a double layer from his front and back side?)—then secure the hide with tougher lines, and cure and rinse the skins with a thicker bonding agent and gum. He stared through the slit in the drum. It took a special kind of person—a true king—to look into such an abyss and see opportunity where the common people would find only despair. It was good he was the king. The people were truly blessed.
Magnanimity ceded to chagrin; where were his servants? His duty never ceased. Now more beatings must greet their return. And the pain down his back burned on. Noblesse oblige!
Without care he peeled away his cloak and yelled in agony. The silk had adhered to his back and took the top layer of skin with it. He had long delighted in the accounts from dying prisoners of how flaying actually felt, (as recorded by his special corps of field anthropologists charged with preserving authentic folk culture). Now he marveled at the poverty of their expression. A mere graze of silk slashed like a barbed whip. Free of the gown his muscles spasmed and wept an angry puss. The faintest touch of a breeze exceeded a typhoon of fire and knives, but letting the cloth touch flesh was far worse. Bitter tears and spittle drenched his magnificent chin. So the people’s designs of vengeance had come about after all! The corrective to the flesh-eating salve and the skin restorative potion were being withheld, his attendants, guards, flayers and chemists all part of the plot!
He staggered to the drum, hacked off an intact patch of the hide and stretched it crudely over a smaller base. He drummed without regard for art or display, rudely entering its world disguised in the voice of a rare essences trader enquiring about more salve. He endured the cacophony of street merchants and fakirs, prophets and pundits, money lenders and rabble rousers, gossips and doomsayers, cranks and quacks – the tawdry junk and sickening piety that was “the world of the common folk.” Eventually a few voices separated from the herd. They answered that, while they had heard of such a salve, they had no knowledge of how it was made or how to acquire it. “HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT! WHAT DO YOU MEAN?!” the king drummed back with wild hands. “I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT SUCH A POTION IS WELL KNOWN IN THE MARKETPLACE AND ON THE STREET!”
There was a long, impertinent silence. The king waited. Speaking first would be a profound loss of face, worse than any torment of the flesh. But the pain overwhelmed. Finally he beat out another demand for information, and bore the further indignity of being interrupted before finishing. “We say again,” the people’s drum replied, “that we know nothing of this salve that restores skin. But who is this that speaks to us now? You say you are a dealer in essences and potions, but your drumming bears the touch of the king.”
The king tried for a jocular rhythm: “Ho ho! We all know the king is dead! Besides, the evil one was ignorant of the drum’s meaning!”
“Our beloved king will never die! Who speaks thusly defiles his name! Be warned, charm peddler, speaking in the rhythms of the king and blackening his name are offenses that call for death by flaying!”
“Wait a second!” the king drummed back in panic. “You don’t understand! I am the king! I am drumming on skin taken from my own body, and am suffering greatly because the skin restorative is being withheld by my enemies! Identify yourself! You will be handsomely awarded for your loyalty!”
The reply came without hesitation. “You just said the restorative came from the street…”
“Yes, yes, what I meant…”
“…and that the king was evil and that you were a dealer in potions! Now you claim to be the king? what kind of fools do you take us for?! Clearly you are a traitor and an enemy of the king who has stolen the secret language of the drum, known only to his highness and his seconds!”
The king’s hands froze over the drum. Lies and mockery! The skin over the drum was flaccid and sank to each stroke. His palms seeped blood, gone black to the air. The last drum beats thumped a cripple’s gait into the silent air. Then the livid shriek of bright muscle anguished across his back, rippling fat and clear as a sausage casing filled to burst.
This new gambit of the peasants – to pose as devoted subjects and attack him as the traitor –would normally intrigue and divert. But the pain took him to other diversions before he could think of a proper response. He’d fed on his plans for vengeance through much of this ordeal, but now realized the well of his hatred was run nearly dry and that he was far from the other side of this particular desert of trials.
He fell to his knees and rolled over on his back. The friction with the floor sent him into shock, and a jagged white blank behind his eyes scintillated to his screams.
There was no way to escape save the drum. He crawled back to the instrument and groaned for mercy, like any man. Pain cautioned his beating hands into a dead, two note dirge, a cowed shuffle to the whip or the gallows or the stake. Time staggered as well, then stopped.
When he woke the pain was gone. He rose from the floor and stretched, stroked, caressed and admired his silken new finery of skin. He searched in his flay mirrors for cancers, pustules, warts or moles. There were no signs of a hidden pox, melonomic curse, tumored cicatrix or suppurating pock. No cutaneous escharsion, lentigous wen, pruritious lesion, decorticated taint or necrotic cank. The skin regeneration had worked after all!
He smiled, feeling something perilously close to affection for the braying idiocies of the marketplace and the street. My people! Such fools! Such children! Never again would he endure the brain dead blathering of these backward, smelly troglodytes! Henceforth he would have all men, women and children in the kingdom surrender a piece of their skin for one massive public address drum, adding to the diaphragm a large stitching of his own hide. On it he would play day and night educational and self-improvement programs to at least try to raise the level of taste in this poor country of his. The people! How did he ever become saddled with such a motley mass of barbarity? But now the folk had been ennobled by a special bond with their king, who had deigned to taste their pain, and learn their tongue! His would be the only drum again!
An unlikely bouquet of fellow-feeling tempered the king’s summons into a sprightly glance of the gong. He savored the shivering tone through a dozen more calls for the flayer, who arrived pallid with terror and certain of his imminent demise. The king received him with a bright smile and a hearty, “Happy to see you!” Though the king’s unpracticed civility more closely resembled some novel art of menace; the master flayer sank to his knees begging for mercy and had to be dragged back to his feet by the weirdly genial monarch.
“Don’t be afraid, my friend,” the king said. “Your lessons have changed my life! I’ve gained new skin, new ears and eyes and heart and mind through your teachings. Now I play a new drum!”
He coaxed the still wary flayer into a cushioned chair previously reserved for the king, who clapped for sweet meats and ale while the master flayer tested the chair for hidden springs and blades. Food and drink arrived. The king urged refreshment, oblivious to his guest’s new fear of being poisoned. Eating feverishly the king called his full retinue of servants to join the master flayer in his chamber. He re-stitched, re-strung and re-stretched the torn head of the drum. They would all witness his new gift for the peoples’ rhythm, and know a new king schooled in the common folk’s pain.
He played as never before. He shamed the dead hide into a singing, resonant life beyond life, reveling in the stunned awe that blanched his guests’ faces as his hands flew over the drum head with a hummingbird’s speed. He drummed, and re-entered the peoples’ tawdry world, though now with a new detachment and compassion. He drummed, knowing It was not their fault they were so vulgar and dumb! All they ever knew was the momentary satisfaction of their basest needs, wallowing in a toxic diet of celebrity scandal and vicarious violence, sexual prurience and censorious hate, shopping, food, sex, the appeal to fairytale gods, the shrill mendacity of their deal making, money-lending and desperate greed. Lust and gluttony! Intrigues and squabbles!
Something had to be done! He would use the drum to teach the people the true arts of civility, discrimination, restraint and decorum. He would teach them to read, and to love books. He would instruct them in the ways of refined taste and sensibility-- for music and art, food and wine, fabric and finery, the design of gardens, buildings, public fountains—all would be elevated under his tutelage and care. His people would become proud wards of their king, and citizens of the world.
What the king saw as stunned awe in the faces of his audience was more accurately horrified fascination, for the king’s drumming was extraordinarily deficient in power, grace or sense—a bedlam of arrhythmic blows, like mood music for the fevered syphilitic or the terminally deranged, though the speed and ferocity of the king’s “play” approached an almost aesthetic chaos. As communication it was no less disturbing, broadcasting a barrage of nonsense syllables leavened only by obscenities and taunts. But the real horror was the unchecked growth and unraveling of the king’s skin. It loosened and billowed in a milky drape off his arms and face, quickly swelling beneath his gown to the bursting point. A sickening loamy scent filled the hall, overwhelmed by the smell of cooking meat. Orange flames and white smoke sprang out of the drum head, climbing up the king’s shapeless body and wrapping his head in fire. Another second of spitting juices stung the air as his still regal features broiled bright red, then golden brown, then black. He tottered for a moment, then his carbonized frame crashed into the remains of the drum, now an impromptu burial urn of charred meat, bone, and ashen cloth.