You and Mark, your little boy from your first marriage, stand together on the bank of the Arkansas. You let your boots squish into the dark sand and you hope that Mark feels the sand squish beneath his boots. You hope that he experiences it like you did at his age—with pleasure and wonder and a sense that if this is what sand feels like, what must rocks or snow or mountain lakes feel like? The water in front of you winds its lazy way past, swollen with winter runoff. It is the beginning of spring but the air still has an old touch of winter in it when the wind blows straight across the water. You tell him to put his hat on and to show him you mean it, you reach down and pull it out of his hip pocket and hand it to him. He says, “What about you, Daddy?”
You say, “Daddy’s don’t get as cold as little boys. You’ll see when you’re a daddy someday.”
You realize this might be hypocritical though, so you reach into your pocket and pull out your old knit hat and put it on your head.
“There,” you say.
The little boy looks up at you, his gray eyes squinting and a trace of a cold smile on his thin lips.
Over the sound of the wind and water you hear Monica’s voice. She’s shouting. She says, “Time for dinner, boys!” You look down to see if Mark heard her, but he did not, or, if he did, he’s not paying attention. He is captivated by the water and sand. You pretend, for a moment, that you have not heard her either.
“Where’s it going?” he asks and the answers that come to your head are all scientific, that it is going to go to meet another river and then it is going to go to the gulf and then to the ocean and that all water has always been here since the beginning of time. You start by saying, “Well, this river is the Arkansas and it connects to another, bigger river.”
“Which river?” he says.
“The Mississippi, a really big one,” you say.
“Well, you know how long it takes us to drive to Grandma’s house?”
“Farther than that.”
“That’s pretty far.”
“It sure is.”
He walks a little closer to the moving water, his steps hesitant. You are close behind him. The river is not very deep here and if he happened to fall in somehow, it would not be difficult to pull him out and warm him up, but you are not taking any chances. Mark squats down on the bank before he gets to the water and his small, white hands begin to scour and dig in the sand until he uncovers a wet, black rock. He stands and says, “Look.”
“That’s pretty cool,” you say and he hands it to you. You use your thumb to wipe away the grains of sand clinging to it. The rock is round and smooth, having been shaped by the river and sand and mud over centuries upon centuries. You go to hand it back to him, but he is digging in the sand again.
“Hey, pal. Here’s your rock back,” you say.
“You can have it,” he says without looking at you. He is concentrating on the sand, concentrating on scooping handfuls of it away, concentrating on the shaping of a hole, making it deeper and wider. You put the rock in your pocket and you squat down next to him.
Monica’s voice comes through the wet air again. “Dinnertime!”
You stand up and say, “I think Monica wants us to get washed up for dinner.”
“I don’t want dinner,” he says.
“Well, I think Monica wants us to come to dinner. I can hear her calling for us,” you say.
He does not say anything, but he keeps digging.
“Come on, pal,” you say.
He does not respond.
“Mark, we can come back after dinner,” you say.
“Daddy,” he says, “Look. I found a little kingdom.”
You are sure of what he said, but you don’t know what to say to it. As soon as you find some words you say, “You did?”
Mark says, “Look.”
You squat down again, this time closer to him. He is pointing to the small hole. It is no more than ten or twelve small handfuls of sand wide.
You say, “There’s a kingdom in there?”
“Yeah,” he says and he is looking at you intently, his little eyes wide and now appearing more black than gray.
“Well, show me.” You are doing your best to be a better parent.
He crawls around to the opposite side of the hole , his back to the river, and then points to the middle of the hole and says, “Here’s the little castle where the king lives. He lives there with his horses and his knights and they have lances and swords and shields and they keep all those things in the castle.”
“Oh yeah?” you say.
“Yeah,” he says, “And over here is where the farmers live. They grow corn and they have sheep and pigs and other animals. They make sure to have enough for themselves but they give some to the king too because he is out fighting with his knights a lot so he doesn’t have time to grow them for himself.”
“I see,” you say.
“Over here,” he says, and points to the opposite side of the hole, “Is where a bunch of trolls live. They’re bad. That’s who the king and the knights are always fighting. They have axes and things like that and they’re always shouting and howling.”
“Howling?” you say.
“Yeah, howling. They howl at the king and his knights because they’re always mad at them.”
“Because they always win.”
“The king and his knights?”
“That’s good. Why are the trolls always trying to fight with the king?”
Mark thinks for a minute and his eyes roll back and he says, “Um, because they’re bad.”
“I see,” you say again, “They keep fighting even though they always lose?”
“Yeah. Trolls are very stupid,” he says.
Suddenly, Monica is right behind you. She says, “Are you guys coming? It’s not easy to keep that hash warm on a tiny Coleman stove.” Her long blond hair is swirling in the wind behind her and her arms are crossed.
“I’m sorry, baby. Mark just found a kingdom,” you say because you don’t know what else to tell her.
“A what?” she says.
“A kingdom,” you say.
“What are you talking about?”
“Mark, show Monica the kingdom you just showed me.”
He is still bent over the hole, digging it deeper and deeper. You think that his little hands must be painfully cold, but if they are, he is not showing it. He does not look at her, but he says, “I found a kingdom.”
Monica doesn’t say anything at first. She looks at you and you shrug your shoulders. You say, “That’s why we haven’t come to dinner yet.”
“Daddy, look at this,” Mark says.
You look at Monica and then at him and say, “What have you got, pal?”
“Look,” he says and beckons you over.
“Can Monica look too?” you say.
He looks up and studies both of you and says, “Yeah.”
You squat down across from him and Monica sighs and steps over to the hole and squats down next to him.
“Can you show me your kingdom, Mark?” she says.
“It’s not mine. I just found it. It’s a little kingdom right here,” he says and points to the hole.
“Show Monica where the king lives,” you say.
He points to the middle of the hole and says, “Here.”
“Where are the knights?” you say and he points and says, “Over here.”
Monica looks at you again. Her eyes are squinting but you can see something behind the intent of the squint, like she’s trying not to let you see her curiosity. You smile and shrug your shoulders again.
“Well, how about the princess? Where does she live?” Monica says. The question sounds very casual to you.
“I haven’t found her yet,” Mark says. He shifts from a squat to a kneel.
Suddenly, Monica pulls off her gloves and scoops a handful of sand out of the bank next to Mark’s hole.
“I think I found her,” she says.
“Where?” Mark asks.
“Right here,” Monica says and she points to the center of the hole she has just made. “See her?” she says.
Mark studies the hole. You follow his gaze and you see he is straining to see to what exactly Monica is pointing. You are quiet for a long time, you even hold your breath. Then Mark finally says, “Yeah,” and you feel your heart leap in your chest.
“Do you think she could come over to the kingdom?” Monica says.
“Yeah,” Mark says, and smiles a little.
“Here she comes,” says Monica.
You say, “Oh no, what about a dragon?”
He’s over here,” says Mark and he scoops out another hole.
“I see him,” you say.
“He looks mean,” Monica says.
“That’s the bad dragon,” Mark says, “But there’s a good dragon too. He lives next door to the king and helps to protect him. He can fly and shoot fire from his mouth.”
You nod your head and then look up for a minute. The sky is getting darker and the sun has gone down a little, casting long, orange strips through the clouds. Dinner is cold now for sure. Pretty soon it will be time to crawl into the sleeping bags. Just beyond the place where Mark is kneeling in the sand, the river hiccups and gurgles and rolls to a meeting with another river far, far away.
Paul’s work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Relief Quarterly and at the Burnside Writers Collective. He is currently enrolled in the certificate program in fiction writing at the University of Chicago’s Graham School. Visit his blog.