The Douen King of the Mangrove by Phedra Deonarine

The sugar plantation on the island caused the air to smell of burning sap. The black ash from the plantation covered Parbati’s land. The sensitive plant in her garden didn’t like when the plantation was active. Its leaves closed tightly when the ash fell. Parbati brushed the ash away, dirtying her hands while the leaves sprung out like the wings of dragonflies. On top of dirtying her land, the plantation had released the dogs that ate her parents on her doorstep when she was a child.

By the time Parbati was eleven, her parents had taught her how to weave baskets from tree branches, and how to tell which plants were poison. The night the dogs came, her parents hid her in a basket she’d made. They covered her with cloth that smelled like tree sap. Her father kissed her forehead. “They won’t suspect you if you smell of trees. They don’t think trees are cunning, and they can’t understand stillness. Guard the land.”

The dogs didn’t take long eating her parents, but they didn’t enter the house. Parbati heard a whistle and the sound of the beasts running away. She fell asleep in the basket. When she awoke, she gathered her parents’ bones and boiled them in vinegar. She brushed off the dead flesh and wove it into a cloth. She wrapped the bones in the cloth and buried the parcel in the front yard. She planted a sensitive plant over the spot and kissed it, whispering, “I’ll keep you clean and guard the land.” The next morning the plant covered the front yard, opening and closing its leaves at the slightest touch.

Parbati was alone. She wove the cloth for her own clothes, and sewed her dresses in rough patterns which didn’t fit properly but covered her body. She grew vegetables in the backyard. She never got sick. She ate soup made from her vegetables and drank milk from the wild goats she milked every morning. The goats lived in the mangrove near her house, and were accustomed to her pretty, dark face. They let her squeeze their udders. She liked the sound of the milk leaving their bodies.

Her favorite thing to do was to hunt for crabs. The crabs came out at the full moon. They lived inside the mangrove, along the muddy banks of the brackish water. They peeked out from among the hanging roots with their pincers clicking.

She knew to be careful of the mangrove. She’d seen grownups sneaking through the mangrove from the plantation, trying to get to the river just beyond it. The mangrove’s branches curled around their limbs and hoisted them over their treetops. The branches held the men high above the ground, sucked the meat from their bodies, and crushed their bones into a pale dust. She looked away when the women were hauled up. Sometimes, she cried out to the grownups, but they didn’t hear her because her voice was weak.

She learned that it didn’t matter that they couldn’t hear her, so long as she was safe. She saw that only the living branch-like roots were a problem. She mimicked her father’s stillness and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness to see which branches were dead and which were alive. Dead branches gleamed like gold in the moonlight, and she parted those away. The living branches, though, were a deep black, and the slightest touch caused them to wrap around moving bodies. She moved carefully among the dead branches, and found the fat crabs which feasted on the layers of crabgrass at the foot of the trees. She packed the crabs in her basket and took them home. She starved them to make their meat clean before eating them.

Now, she thought that this night was like any other night with a full moon on the island. She spotted a fat blue crab on the banks. Its claws were poised over its head. She could tell they would be succulent. She waited for the moonlight to reveal the dead branches and crawled towards the crab when it was safe. But the crab was alert, and with each step she made it crawled further away from her deeper into the mangrove. She followed. The mangrove became denser. Parbati was worried that the moonlight wouldn’t penetrate and that she’d be sucked up by a tree, unable to eat the crab.

Finally, the crab stopped and Parbati made to grab it, but a hand reached down and plucked it up. At first, Parbati saw nothing, but she remained still until her eyes adjusted. She saw a figure so black it seemed made of the darkness between the trees. It was a man, older than her fourteen years, but younger than her father. He was taller than she with a lean body and a flat stomach. There was something wrong with his feet. They were turned backwards. His lower torso and upper thighs were covered in a thick fur. Parbati couldn’t tell if it was his own fur or a thick cloth, but it was different from her rough clothes. She liked the difference.

The creature held the crab while addressing Parbati. “You’re young, aren’t you? But not quite so young. Tell me, have you bled yet?” He inclined his head. “Slightly rude of me. I’m Bois, and I’m the Douen King of the mangrove. This is my kingdom. Now, answer me.”

It was so long since she last spoke that her throat felt tight. She croaked out, “Yes. I’ve bled.”

“Not many, though. Fifteen cycles, I’d say. Has it been fifteen cycles?”

“Yes.” She was pleased to be asked. She’d kept count since she first saw blood between her legs and tied a cloth there to catch the blood. Here was someone who seemed to appreciate her diligence, and knew she wasn’t a child.

“Oh, so you’ve kept count! That’s very good. So few do. They find the first exciting and then stop counting. I’ve found it a strange habit. I’m pleased you’ve kept track.” He kept the crab in his hand, walking up to her as the living branches wrapped around the dead branches pulling them out of his way. “The cycles of the young can be a bit unpredictable. I prefer those a bit older. Would you like to see how I track the time?”

He pointed upwards without waiting for her response. Parbati saw several grown women hoisted up by thick branches, their mouths gaping. Parbati had to look closely because their faces and limbs were wound so tightly to the branches of the trees that their bodies were almost indecipherable from the trees. But their abdomens were oiled and shone with long glistening tubes pumping the women’s blood out into the center of the mangrove.

“Their cycles are like clockwork. Eventually they stop and then their bodies feed the trees. It’s a marvelous way to track the time. I didn’t need to before, but sometimes the ash from there,” he pointed towards the plantation, “blocks the sky and I have trouble knowing when the moon is out. Then I came across this little secret and really, it’s far more suitable to a king than the moon. As a king, I have to be punctual. Plus, the method keeps me observant.”

“Do you need all those bodies?”

“Well, it’s part of the landscape now, and I think it adds a distinguishing feature of my kingdom. I hate imprecision and I love creating my own method. This solves both, you see. Or perhaps you don’t. Don’t you find it rather beautiful?”

“The trees seemed prettier before.”

“Well it can be difficult to understand the pleasure of beauty. Let me try to explain. Why do you eat the crabs? Do you need them?”

“No.”

“Do you like the taste of their flesh, and plucking them out of the muddy ground, starving them clean, and sucking their meat?”

Parbati thought of how lovely the crabs looked in her hands before her put them into her basket. She thought of the sound of their shells cracking, and the succulence of their meat. “Oh, yes, I like that.”

“Now, look again.”

It was true. The faces were beautiful, as were their stomachs glistening in the moonlight. It helped that she couldn’t hear them. “Yes, I see now!”

“Just a bit of training.” He wagged his finger. “You’ve more talent than most. I should’ve known, given that you counted your cycles. That and the fact that I know you.”

“How can that be?” she asked,

He held out his palm. It was full of powder heaped in a dome. He used his hands to funnel the powder into a single stream that formed a femur. He smiled. “This is your father’s bone. You buried it under your land. It became soil and now, it’s mine so you see, that makes you my child, too. Would you like to see one of my trees from the inside? I think the intricacies wouldn’t be lost on you, seeing as you’ve shown promise. Though of course, promise can be misleading and doesn’t amount to much without training.”

Parbati wanted to go with him, especially as he kept a firm grip on the crab. Plus, she’d never seen the inside of a tree before. She wanted to see how trees worked.

The Douen King stuck his finger in his mouth and puffed out his cheeks, stretching his body to the size of the tree. He reached for the center of the branches with his hand and pulled on the branch, suddenly shrinking to the size of Parbati’s palm. The crab fell out of his hand, and plopped onto the ground. Parbati went to pick it up, her eyes still on the Douen King. She stopped when she saw the Douen King shake his head. He leaned over the edge of the branch and stretched thin and long until he reached her. He held her wrist and pulled her up the tree, the branches zipping out of the path he cleared. She landed on the branch, seated with it firmly between her thighs. He shrank back to the size of her palm, and climbed the short distance of the trunk which fanned out into branches curling upward. He beamed. “Look inside the trunk.”

The trunk was hollow, and deep, and quite wide. Thick veins ran down the insides glistening like the wings of dragonflies. “It’s empty.”

“Oh, yes. Always is, or at least at the start. Would you like to go inside? I can give you all the tastiest crabs if you do, in case the pleasure of experience isn’t enough. These crabs will be lovelier than anything you’ve had. You only starve them before you eat them. I’ve seen you do it, so you can’t deny it. I’ve watched you since you started hunting on my land as a child, before you started to bleed. Starving them may make them clean, but it’s shortsighted. The proper method is to feed them properly first, not just pluck them up after they’ve grazed on wild crabgrass and who knows what else. I give them herbs. The herbs cause their meat to be seasoned by their own bodies. You’d need patience, and of course a feeding and starving schedule. I can train you, and teach you patience. You haven’t got much.”

“I do, though,” she replied.

“Oh, you have some. You’ve tended your father’s house. But you haven’t as much as me.” He gestured toward the trunk’s opening. “If you stay in there I’ll give you all you could wish to eat and a clean room. You won’t have to tend house, and find food, and make your hands rough. I’ll visit you, and be your friend. Even more, I’ll give you honey for your voice and make it strong again.”

Parbati didn’t wish to leave her father’s house. She’d cleaned it every day for years. She wove rugs for the floor and thatch for the roof. She cooked in the backyard and ate in the front. It was hers now, and it kept her safe from the prowling plantation dogs. And the plants! Her sensitive plant which loved her! How could she leave it behind? Still, the promise of crabs, all fat and tasty, was appealing. And there was her voice. She missed it. It’d been so long since she’d spoken to someone else.

“Yes, I’ll go in.”

He smiled. “I must help you get in. It’s very deep and the sides are smooth. No one else can move through these trees.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and lowered her into the trunk.

It was dark at the foot of the tree, but still the Douen King shone. She marveled at how smooth his skin was and how strong his body looked. The room was round with a flat base. She saw the treetops and the mass of hanging roots, and every now and again, the sky, which seemed small and strange from the center of the tree. She remembered her promise to her father, but the king treated her like an adult. She turned and face the king instead of the sky.  

“The tree will keep the room clean so you’ve no reason to feel ashamed if you need to do your ablutions,“ the king said. “Only clean things are allowed in here. You’ll want for nothing. It’s very big in here, if I do say so myself.”

“My home is bigger.”

“Ah, but you had to care for it. Your voice grew weak there. You had no one. No, you’ll be more comfortable here. You just can’t comprehend leisure is all. It’s quite big. You’ll like it soon enough. Now, let me bring you something to eat.”

He stretched, pulling himself over the edge of the opening. He returned with a crab wrapped in herbs. The crab was dead. Its pincers were hacked in half, and its white meat stood in the place of its claws.

“You don’t even need your teeth as I’ve seen you do when you crack open the shells with your jaws. I’ll give you fresh crabs, and break their shells. You can rest, and lounge and practice your voice here.”

“What shall I say?”

“Anything, and as loud as you like. No one will hear you. It’ll do wonders for your voice, and you’ll learn so much. Things you’d have never thought to even think of. Oh,” he held up a hand pinching his nose with the other as she made to start eating, “Please, don’t eat until I leave. It isn’t anything against you, I just don’t like to see others gorging before I eat. I’ll have dinner soon, but I always see to my guests first.”

He stood at the top of the tree and stretched away from the tree, growing larger until he blocked her view of the sky. He was so big that the shadow from the top of the tree she was in fit snugly between his eyes. The sky seemed full of blackness. It hurt her eyes. She blinked and looked up, but he was gone.

Parbati decided to eat. She’d never tasted anything so delicious. The meat tasted of herbs  and goats’ milk. She ate until only the shells remained and dropped them onto the ground. The tree swallowed up the shells. She felt a pain in her limbs. Her hands and feet had grown to twice their size, but her torso and head remained the same.

“My hands and feet,” she cried. “They hurt.”

No one answered. She looked up at the sky peeking through the branches. Dawn was coming. She’d no wish to say anything more. She curled up and fell asleep.

~*~

She awoke at dusk. A cricket perched at the top, rubbing its legs together. She tried calling to it, but it hopped away. Her hands throbbed, but it wasn’t the searing pain from before. A puddle of water was near her feet. She was sad that she missed the rain because she always liked watching it fall. She was pleased, though, that her hands were large because she could scoop up more water to drink.

Shortly after she finished drinking, the Douen King appeared at the top. “Ah. You’ve woken up. I suspected you would. Dusk is far more civilized than daytime. You’re coming along nicely.” He rubbed his hands. “I’ve rigged up a little pulley system here to lower in your food. Doesn’t it make the tree look like a well? Perhaps you can’t see it, but it does. You’re in for quite a feast!”

“Did you bring me honey?”

He scowled. “Not this time. Honey is hard to find in the mangrove.”

“You promised me. For my voice.”

“See, didn’t I say you needed to learn patience? Now, I shall add gratitude to the list.” He signaled for her to remain quiet. “I’ll bring you honey as soon as I can. In any event, don’t you want to see what I’ve brought you? I’ve brought you crab, of course, because you love it, but I’ve also brought dumplings. You already have water, but I’ve done you one better and made you a cool pitcher of lime juice. I’ve half a mind not to give you any because you seem fixated on the honey.”

Parbati was hungry. “No. Please. I can wait.” He didn’t move, so she continued, “I am very grateful. Thank you.”

“Good girl. Training is hard on everyone, isn’t it?”

He lowered a bucket in. She found packages inside wrapped neatly in banana leaves. She unwrapped the packages, pleased with the greenness of the lime juice and the softness of the dumplings.

“Beautiful,” she said.

“Yes, they’re well-wrapped, aren’t they? You do find them beautiful, don’t you? I’m pleased you noticed. I wasn’t sure if you would or if you could.”

Parbati rubbed her hands. “My hands and feet hurt.”

He sighed. “Patience and gratitude. Didn’t you find that you could drink more water with them that size?”

She nodded, though she remembered the pain more.

“Well, see, they serve a purpose. They look wonderful. I say this as someone sensitive to beauty.”

“But they ache.”

He scoffed. “Well, of course it hurts. Processes to create beauty always do. You’ll come to love the look of them and cease this endless complaining. I’ve my own dinner to attend to. Last night’s was wonderful, thank you for having the manners to ask.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

“See that you do. It takes effort to do the things I do, you know. Just because I’m a king doesn’t mean I don’t work. Unlike others, I have pride in my craftsmanship.” He ran his hands over the glistening veins which ran through the trunk. “Quite a bit of pride.”

He left her to eat her meal. He was right, it was a lovely meal, only her hands were a bit unwieldy and made using the pitcher difficult. She didn’t want to complain. It didn’t matter. No one could hear her, and it didn’t to stop the dull ache in her hands and feet.

~*~

By the second night he hadn’t brought her any honey, but her voice was getting stronger, or at least her throat didn’t hurt as much.

Her hands and feet, though, continued to grow. She was trying to unwrap one of the crabs for supper when a tiny voice cried out, “Don’t you remember me, Parbati?”

Parbati saw a twig opening and closing its leaves. It was a piece of her sensitive plant. She plucked it from the center of the crab’s flesh. “Oh, my little dear! I missed you. I’ve been away, but I didn’t forget you.”

“But you did.”

And she had, because while her hands and feet ached, it was nice to be fed, and to have a room which cared for her. Even though she missed her plants, she didn’t miss stooping to clean their leaves and uproot weeds.

She didn’t say any of this. Instead, she kissed it. “How are my plants?”

“The Douen King has been stealing into your land. He tears out your plants and feeds them to his crabs, and then he feeds them to you. He plans to fatten you until you’re stuck in this tree. He wants your limbs to get sucked into the bark of the tree and then you’ll never be able to move.”

“But my torso is the same.”

“Yes. That’s why he keeps you. He plans to keep your womb. He wants your blood to pump up these veins on the sides of the tree. The blood will join all the others to help him keep time. You don’t understand his movement. It’s different from yours. He is the master of the trees and he means to eat you with the cunning of everything green.”

“Can I escape?”

“Stay awake when it rains in the day. Weave the strands of silk hidden among the raindrops together. You’ll spot them because they will gleam. Make a cloth out them and hide it under you when the Douen King comes to feed you. The largeness of your hands and feet will help to hide the cloth. Distract him by speaking, but remember to hide the cloth.”

“What should I say to him?”

“He doesn’t care so long as you feed off the plants from your land and think only of the meat from his. When the cloth is long enough, throw it up when it rains. The falling silk will pull it into the sky and you can climb up. I’m dying, but you were kind to me and brushed the ash from my face and I’ve remembered.”

“What would you like?”

“To be eaten by you and have you know that it is me.”

Parbati held out her tongue and the plant wrapped its leaves around it. She pulled in her tongue and closed her lips and felt the leaves open in her mouth. She crushed it between her teeth and tasted its sharp greenness. She scooped the crabmeat into her mouth. It tasted of dead flesh. She forced herself to swallow and didn’t cry at the shooting pains in her body. She settled herself so that if it rained, she’d wake up and start her escape.

~*~

Once the drizzle started, she squinted. She spotted a raindrop which looked like spider’s silk. She plucked it out of the air and waited for another and wove them together. It took a long time, but she was a fast weaver. By the time the rain ended she had a sheet large enough to cover her body. She folded the cloth under her when she heard rustling in the treetops and smiled up at the Douen King.

She remembered the advice of her plant. “May I have some plants to eat? I don’t want crab anymore.”

“Plants? Oh no. OI don’t eat plants and I couldn’t stomach wrapping them for you to eat. Juice is one thing, but leaves and stems being crushed between your own teeth is just too uncivilized.”

“But you feed them to the crabs. You told me so. I remembered.”

“So you have! I didn’t think you would remember such details! Yes, I do feed plants to my crabs. It’s alright for them. They aren’t like us, are they?” He winked, conspiratorially. “For myself, no. I wouldn’t eat plants. I couldn’t.”

“And me?”

“You as well.”

“Did you bring me honey?”

“You ought to stop asking for it. It’s rude. Your voice is getting stronger if you ask me. Must be my friendship working these wonders!”

“Is honey hard to find because it’s the rainy season? Aren’t the bees making it?”

“Quite impressive. Yes, the bees make honey, but it’s awful to go finding their hives in all this mud.” He shook his head. “A shame about you! I knew you had potential, but one sometimes hopes to be proven incorrect. Ah well, the march must continue, mustn’t it?”

Yes, she supposed it must. She listed as many facts about honey and bees as she could remember. The Douen King kept applauding, and marveling that she knew these simple facts never guessing what she kept hidden under her.

~*~

Parbati had enough cloth to fold into a cushion under her. She waited for the rain. Once it came she made the cloth into a rope and flung it at a falling strand of silk. The silk pulled the rope up. Parbati clutched the end until she was just above the tree in which she had been kept.

She started climbing. Each pull upward made her hands and feet grow smaller. She climbed until her hands and feet were the right size. She looked down and saw her house and the land around it covered in ash. She then looked beyond that and saw the plantation.

There was no one in the fields, only steam powered machines. She saw green stalks being ripped up by machines with shiny teeth attached to steel rollers. The machines sometimes hissed when there was too much steam but continued to rip into the stalks. Behind the fields she saw smokestacks churning out ash.

She looked under her and saw the Douen King. He stretched himself until his head was above the trees. He was shouting at her, but she couldn’t hear because she was too high. She plucked apart the threads just under her clutch. She felt his lips brush against her soles. She plucked the last thread holding the cloth together under her clutch and let the cloth float down.

The cloth rippled out as wide as a river. It fell on the Douen King. He froze, then shattered and fell back into the mangrove. The cloth continued to ripple out, growing larger. It covered the mangrove and the plantation in a sliver film.

Parbati let go and fell down, closing her eyes as her mouth filled with a sharp greenness. She bounced on the surface of the rippling cloth. She saw two lumps heading toward her. They were the dogs from the plantation, stocky beasts with large snouts and clipped ears and clipped tails covered in a silver film. She kissed their foreheads as they tried to sink their teeth into her pelvic bones. She plucked up a wave of cloth and pulled it over her head covering her body with it. Her body felt as light as air. She growled playfully and scratched behind the ears of the beasts as they kept trying to eat her. She bounded away calling to them to chase her. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t be heard, only that the dogs followed her. And they did. They followed her, and for the first time in her life, she laughed.

Years later, people cut asphalt roads deep into the forest and erected structures of glass and concrete. But, it was known that if you were still, you’d see the Parbati playing with the beasts of the plantation, all of them with their teeth bared as they ran over the land of the long gone Douen King, and the powdered remains of her father’s house.

Phedra Deonarine‘s work has appeared in PRISM: internationalEvent MagazineThe New Quarterly, and among others. She is currently working on a collection of fairytales.

Which writer does Phedra think would be the best or worst Supreme Leader, and why? “Sir V.S. Naipaul. I don’t know what kind of Supreme Leader he’d be, but I feel like he’s one of the few writers who would willingly assume the role. After all, he did once write ‘The world is what it is.'”

Art — Aleksandra Apocalisse was born in the USSR, from which her family fled when she was only 6 years old. She spent most of my childhood and young adulthood in Brooklyn, New York until she moved to Portland, Oregon in 2015. There, she is living the dream; spending the days outside with my dog, playing in the dirt, hanging out with plants, and expressing her dreams and innermost musings through art. She also loves animals, reading, learning about nature, getting lost in music, and traveling to tropical jungles.

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7 Responses to The Douen King of the Mangrove by Phedra Deonarine

  1. Jackie says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story. Thank you, Phedra!

  2. Suraiyya says:

    Was absolutely entralled by this! It held my attention all the way which is pretty hard for me these days.
    I loved that you named her an East Indian name.
    Also now i have a craving for curried crabs and dumplings.

  3. Ayana R says:

    Phedra..
    I could not stop reading this once i started. The imagery is amazing. I felt, heard and tasted everything, down to the nostalgic sadness at the end. Thank you for this. I love it.
    AR

  4. Such a visual narrative. I felt as though I were a participant in that mangrove.”They don’t think trees are cunning, and they can’t understand stillness.” that gem of clarity which set the tone of the story. Beautiful my dear, well done!

  5. Fantastic imagination and detailed description. A delicious tale. You’ve done it again, Phedra. Made me see, touch, and especially taste the strange,beautiful, scary world you created. And I felt such an emotional connection to that dear Sensitive Plant. Thank you for this.

  6. Champagne says:

    This piece is so imaginative and wild! I love how visual the magic of the mangrove is, and the dynamic of Parbati and the Douen king is gripping.

  7. April Graham says:

    Absolutely gorgeous and terrifying! A real sense of place, yet magical and strange. Love love love it.

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