The Sitting-Trade

by Terence Kuch

“There!” said Ral, the tribe’s tinker and dreamer.

“What is it?” asked Alv. He was looking up, because he was seated on the ground in front of Ral’s lean-to.

Ral lifted the object and turned it in a circle, giving Alv a full view. “It is a thing for sitting. I made it out of tree-parts.”

“It is a very curious thing, Ral,” said Alv. “What do you call it?”

“I am calling it ‘chair’ for the time being, until I think of a better name.”

“Honestly, I don’t see much use for it.”

“Here,” said Ral. “Sit down on it.”

Alv stood up, approached the chair hesitantly.

“How…?”

“With your back against this high part, Alv, and your bottom on this flat part.”

“Oh.” Alv sat. He squirmed, shifted his back and his legs. “This is no better,” he said, “than squatting, or sitting on the ground or on the low branch of a tree.”

“You will grow to like it, Alv, believe me. I have used it for several days now, out of sight of the tribe of course, and find it of great value. And it is a rare and beautiful thing, besides.  But now, I’m in need of a woolly mammoth skin for a blanket, as the days grow short and cold. So, very sorrowfully, I am forced to part with it.”

“I don’t see how getting rid of that device would provide you with a mammoth skin.”

“I know you have two mammoth skins, Alv; that’s really more than you and your wife need. If you will give me one of them, I will give you this chair.”

Alv scratched his head for a few moments. Then his face brightened. “I see,” he said. “You give me one thing and I give you a different thing. The thing you had becomes mine, and the thing I had becomes yours. Ral, your ideas may be strange, but sometimes they do make a kind of sense, I suppose.”

“I knew you would understand, my friend. Come back with a skin and the chair is yours. You will find it a great improvement in sitting.”

Shortly thereafter, Alv returned with a skin and the trade was accomplished. Alv proudly took the chair to his hut and showed Eri, his wife, how to sit in it.

“Alv, I look silly doing this!” she said. “We sit well enough now, without this…‘chair,’ you called it? And how can you see behind you, when you’re sitting in this thing? A wild beast may approach. You know how they prowl out there in the trees, waiting to charge in and catch us off guard.”

“Perhaps two chairs, back to back,” offered Alv.

“There are no ‘two chairs,’ Alv.”

“Ral could make another one. Then we could sit back to back, and keep watch for beasts at the same time.”

“But then we couldn’t see each other. And besides, we’d have to give Ral two skins, not just one, I suppose. No, Alv, take it back. Make Ral give you back our mammoth skin. Anyway, I think ‘trade’ sounds like another of Ral’s stupid ideas. ‘Chair’ is his stupid idea, too. And both are probably against the gods.”

Alv stood silently, choosing from among the village’s traditional ways of ensuring the silence of one’s wife.

Eri continued, louder. “And you know who will end up carrying this ‘chair’ on her back when we migrate to a new place, Alv? I will. I always do. I already carry the hut-makings, and the food supplies, and the grubbing tools, and the mammoth skins, although since you foolishly ‘traded’ one that’s a little less to carry, and the baby….”

Alv chose one of the traditional ways, and Eri was silent.

Meanwhile, Ral was reflecting on the ease with which he had acquired a wooly mammoth skin. It hadn’t actually occurred to him that there might be two chairs, but now he acquired and held that thought at just about the time that Eri, on the other side of the clearing, was having her final rant.

Ral crossed over the ridge behind the village, taking care to avoid beasts. He approached an oak grove, asked a whispered pardon of the earth-god Jeh, and hacked off several limbs. He trimmed them to size with his hand-axe, and brought them back to his lean-to. He scraped off the bark, tied the pieces together with thin strips of aurochs-hide, knotted them securely, then wetted the strips so they would shrink to a tight fit around the wood. When he was finished, he placed the new chair outside his lean-to and considered how to attract others of the village who might be willing to give him weapons or tools or skins for it.

Not long thereafter, Mar, the tribe’s chief, happened to pass by with his guards and accompanied by mother-priest Bre, with whom Mar was often at odds over questions of policy. They saw the strange object. Mar wondered if this was the same sort of device Alv was rumored to have. He stopped and questioned Ral, who readily confirmed the fact and offered to “trade’ the new chair for something of value the chief might possess.

Now, “trade” was a very new word to Mar. He asked Ral what it meant. Ral explained. Mar remarked that “engaging in trade” would ill befit a one of his distinction. If he were to want something, he said, he would simply take it. Ral, alarmed, offered the chair to Mar as a gift and prayed that he would confer some small boon upon the inventor of this useful device. Or perhaps a larger boon. Perhaps several.

Mar turned to Bre, and smiled. “Mother-priest, tell me if this invention of Ral’s is in accordance with divine will, or not.”

Bre pondered what the gods’ will might be in this difficult case, and what the risks of an erroneous revelation might be.

While she was thus engaged, Ral, in desperation, bowed his head and said to Mar, “Master, Please try out this chair; be seated upon it. I’m sure you will find it suited to one of your authority, and comfortable. Comfortable after you get used to it, I mean. Perhaps with a few fern-fronds as padding.”

Mar frowned, but said he would try it. He gestured to his guards, who helped him sit in the chair and then held it still, for it was on uneven ground. Mar experienced the chair. This was, he thought, not quite standing and not quite squatting. It gave him an entirely new view of things: above the ground but below the trees. And a steady view at that, not the constant slight wobble people use to keep themselves balanced when standing or squatting, or sitting on oak-limbs.

Mar told Ral he was pleased. Ral was greatly relieved, and thought he might actually live to see another sunrise. The guards were pleased that their master was pleased, for the chief was known, when displeased, to crack the head of the nearest guard with his war-club. And Bre now had the revelation she needed: “chair” was indeed pleasing to the gods.

So the chair was carried back to the chief’s hut and installed in a prominent place. The people will be beneath me, Mar thought, as they grovel before me, not on the same level. That is proper and fitting. Even that scheming witch Bre will have to look up at me, the gods please damn her evil soul forever to the dark regions west of the moon. There will be high dignity, Mar thought, in having a chair from which to pass judgment on one’s inferiors.

After more of this delicious contemplation, it occurred to Mar that he should no longer be called “chief.” He would be something grander: he would be King.

And so King Mar reigned in majesty. Ral was awarded an honor which he proudly wore on his chest. He began to use phrases such as “chair-maker by appointment to His Majesty.” He began to refer to himself as “The Honourable Ral.” He put two or three initials after his name. And then he made another chair just as good, in terms of fit and finish, as the king’s. Better, in fact, as Ral was becoming practiced in his art.

Now, this came to the attention of King Mar, who pronounced himself Displeased. He had tolerated Alv’s chair, although with misgivings. And he had acquired Ral’s second chair. But now there were three chairs. How many more would Ral make? The king’s chair would become just one of many. He called Ral to him, bade him kneel before the chair.

“Ral,” King Mar said, “you are a danger to the village with this mischief of chair-making. I would have my guards beat you to death with war-clubs, but considering your services to me, particularly this chair of which I have become quite fond, I merely banish you. Go into the oak-woods. Go far away. Never come back.”

“Your majesty,” Ral responded, “that itself would be a death sentence. Alone in the woods I would have to guard myself constantly. Fierce beasts would find me sleeping and devour me.  I have a better idea, sir.”

“What is that?” the king asked warily, for he knew of Ral’s trickery.

Ral painted an enticing picture with words, for his main trickery lay in doing this. “O King, I could make your chair better, more regal, than any other chair that ever could be; a chair truly fit for majesty. I would encrust your chair with white ivory of mammoth-tusk and shining green and amber stones found in the cliff-side. I would make the legs of mammoth-legs and the feet of noble aurochs-hooves. I would stain your chair with red from the blood of brave animals. I would take soft green moss and make delicate padding for the seat, for I notice you shift a little on the hard wood. And, greatest gift of all, I would give it a new name. The others may have ‘chairs,’ my lord, humble, workmanlike ‘chairs,’ but only you would have…a ‘throne!’ ”

King Mar glowed with pleasure. He contemplated how much that bitch Bre would hate his new eminence, how she would gnaw her tongue in rage. “Yes, Ral, proceed,” he said. “Turn my ‘chair’ into a ‘throne.’ And be sure you make no other throne but mine, ever after. Nor any other chair, either.” Ral swore to that and went to gather throne-makings and bless the gods for his narrow escape.

In time, King Mar’s wonderful throne was done. All the people came to gape and marvel at the king upon his throne, at the soft cushion of moss, at the jewels and ivory and fur by means of which the chair had become a throne, at its vivid red color, how King Mar sat above his people but lower than the trees. The king looked steadily at his people, and called them his ‘subjects.’ They were afraid and avoided his gaze, which pleased him greatly.

Bre was furious, but smiled at King Mar. The king smiled back at her. Each knew what the other’s smile meant. King Mar doubled his guard, tested their loyalty with spearpoints fresh-glowing from the hearth. Bre gazed with greedy eyes and moistened lips at King Mar’s mighty throne. “I shall have it,” she whispered to herself, over and over, “I shall have it!”

Bre mixed a special potion, and over it chanted an ancient charm. She chose one of the young spearmen to be the next king, to be her creature as long as convenient. His name was Ter. Bre used the potion on Ter and seduced him, whispered in his ear when he had finally exhausted his strength in her, told him that he would be called King Ter and reign on the now-resplendent throne. They sat upon the ground and told sad stories of the death of kings. They schemed how to assassinate King Mar, doubled guard or no. To herself, Bre planned what she would do with Ter after King Mar was dead, and how she would become king herself, and sit on the throne, and have subjects.

Thereby were set in motion the machineries of cause. Jeh, in particular, observed events with interest, for upon such small diversions does the humor of the gods depend.

Alv was seated on his chair one day, thinking that it was no longer quite so grand when compared with the king’s throne, but a fine piece nonetheless, a genuine Honourable Ral. But that day the king’s guard came to his hut and took the chair. “The king commands that there be no chair but his,” the senior guard said, “no matter if it is not a throne.”

Alv objected.  The guards hit him with their war-clubs. Alv fell down and lay still. The guards left, carrying Alv’s chair; then they burned it. Eri tried to comfort Alv. She could no longer speak, of course, having no tongue, but it did not matter: Alv was dead.

King Mar had his throne carried on the backs of two women whenever the tribe moved to new hunting and gathering grounds. When the women complained, they were punished. Gradually, the throne lost a few of its inset jewels, most of its ivory and fur, acquired dents, lost its color, its vivid red color, the color of blood from brave animals.

Ral hid his last remaining chair. He arranged to take part in an expedition to a far land, for he knew that King Mar would some day command his death so his throne would always be the only one. Once beyond the king’s reach, Ral deserted the expedition and set out for a country to the north, said to be rich in pomegranates and gold. But before he could get there it became cold and dark. Ral sat down under a tree and pulled his mammoth-skin around him, trying to keep warm. He was tired. His eyes closed. Fierce beasts found him sleeping.

Ter the Ambitious came to King Mar and told him of Bre’s plot against the throne. The king thanked Ter and asked what reward he desired in trade for this information. Ter, cunningly but naively, asked only for King Mar’s smile. The king smiled. Then he had Bre and Ter put to death.

The tribe wandered through many distant places, settling down for a time, then moving on. Kings died through war, treachery, or disease; new kings reigned. One year, the tribe by chance returned to the place where chairs had been made.

They found the remains of a strange wooden device. No one could imagine who might have made it, or why.

Oak trees healed; new branches grew. The ones nearest the ground were used, sometimes, for sitting.

Terence Kuch is an information technology consultant, avid hiker, and world traveler.  His publications and acceptances include Clockwise Cat, Colored Chalk, Marginalia, North American Review, Northwest Review, Slow Trains, Thema, and Timber Creek Review. He has studied at the Writers Center, Bethesda, Maryland, and has participated in the Mid-American Review Summer Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the Arlington (Virginia) Writers Group and the Dark Fiction Guild.