In the final decades of her rule that was characterized by an intense yearning to preserve memory, Mon Jiera, Reina of Lusan, Protector of Bisyas, and First Citizen of Danao, decreed the creation of a precise replica of her three maritime kingdoms.
Those were days of incontestable bounty and quiet peace, when the network of roads and island-spanning bridges were new and led to uttermost parts of the kingdoms, when fishermen did not have to go beyond a cigarette’s distance from the deep harbors to make a day’s wage, when being a policeman was a part-time job due to the indolence of the dwindling number of criminals, and when the theatrical recitative was at its creative zenith, inspiring narratives about knowledge and devotion, mostly in the vulgar tongue for the edification of the masses.
Within the Royal Enclosure of Lusan (that part of the grand manse where royalty of old celebrated with tuba or witnessed beheadings), Mon Jiera summoned Simon de los Santos, multi-decorated architect, composer, playwright, perennial beauty pageant judge and champion stock car driver; at forty-eight years old, already famous for the intricate pneumatic fountains at the Gate of Idad, the choreopoetic transliteration of Ibn al Faran’s Gestures Under Rainfall, and for being the five-time off-road record holder of the Seibu Annual Rally.
“Favorite,” the withered Mon Jiera addressed him. “Would you say that, under our rule, our lands have come to a remarkable state of prosperity?”
“I would, My Queen,” Simon de los Santos replied, with a graceful bow.
“And would you say that what we have built with our hands and hearts will last forever?” the queen asked.
“My Great Lady,” Simon said, choosing his words with care. “Only the human spirit is immortal. That, and the legacy of free will, beauty, and law that we pass to those who come after us.”
“But will we be remembered?” the queen asked. “Will everything that we have created, all that we have worked for, will everything be remembered as things are?”
“ ‘As things are?’ “ Simon repeated. “Books will be written, of course, My Queen; paintings, murals, photographs commissioned. But those cannot possibly cover everything.”
“We need everything to be remembered,” the queen said, closing her eyes. “Everything.”
“But—” Simon began.
“Favorite,” Mon Jierra interrupted him. She opened her eyes and looked directly at Simon. “You will undertake a task for us that will make all your previous achievements pale like virgins about to be taken by brutes.”
“As you will, My Queen.” Simon nodded, smoothing the near-invisible wrinkles on his white linen suit. “I am your servant.”
“Yes, yes,” the old woman said. “And spare no expense. We will wear our funeral shroud soon.”
A gasp resounded throughout the Royal Enclosure, flitting from lips to ear to lips, from courtiers to officers of the court, before escaping down the hallway in the mouths of secretaries and serving boys, and from them to the scullions, washers, mechanics, deliverymen, and gardeners on the palace grounds, then off into the polished streets where beautiful brown-skinned women with dark hair trembled in sadness, and handsome men with broad noses daubed their eyes with handkerchiefs, and into the mosques, gas stations, mercados, food courts, amusement parks and massage parlors where obese men’s hearts were given a double workout, and finally into the broad countryside and beyond, across the islands to the satellite towns, villages, and crofts, where the news was met with great sorrow.
“Oh, no, My Queen,” Simon de los Santos protested, rising daringly to his feet. “It cannot be true!”
“Spare us your theatrics, Favorite,” the queen said, gesturing for him to resume his initial kneeling position. “There is no true palliative against time. Now, we possess no charm to reduce our kingdoms to the size of a biscuit and keep them in a glass box. We do not believe that the miracles of science can etch the lives of people on to strangely flavored particles. And we do not think that people in heaven keep track of who has done what.”
“True,” Simon de los Santos interjected. “That would be quite prideful.”
“Indeed,” the queen said. “And in the absence of magic, science, and religion, what do we have left to keep the memory of who we were and what we did, what we achieved, when we yet lived?”
“Art, My Great Lady,” Simon de los Santos replied, with moisture in his eyes. “Free-willed, beautiful, lawful art.”
“You will create, beginning this very day and without relent, a replica of our three kingdoms as they stand. You will capture the spirit of our people and all we have built. It must be exact, faithful, and true. You will perform this task with all your talent and all your strength.”
“With all my heart, Great Lady,” Simon de los Santos said softly.
“We intend to see some semblance of its wonder before we close our eyes for the last time, Favorite,” the old woman on the ornate throne told him. “Now go. Begin.”
“At once, My Queen.” Simon de los Santos stood, bowed, and walked away on legs weakened by the impossible weight of the Queen’s imperative, and when he was alone in his car, lit a cigarette, tuned the radio to sentimental love songs, and thought about glassworks, cartography, and the flickering nature of memory. Then he began to drive home, taking the opportunity offered by every stoplight to make calls on his cell phone to people he knew and to people who knew people he didn’t know.
Eight months later, Mon Jiera, pale and tired, was informed over breakfast, by one of her attendants, that Simon de los Santos’ miraculous replica was completed.
“Impossible,” the queen said, staring at the half-eaten soft-boiled egg in front of her. It took the better part of the day for her royal retinue to convey her, with the barest of pomp, to a large field on the outskirts of the capital, where a huge tent housed Simon de los Santos and his labors.
Her traveling throne was set securely on a narra platform in the tent’s dimly lit interior. As the platform slowly ascended to thrice a man’s height, she steadied herself, squinting into the shadows that offered tantalizing shapes and forms.
A lone spotlight suddenly illuminated Simon de los Santos, broad shoulders squarely set inside a crisp, white linen suit, standing on some lesser elevation.
“My Queen,” he addressed her, his amplified voice echoing in the vast interior. “After months of dreams and labor, I humbly present Your Majesty’s three kingdoms!”
At his signal, hidden voices began to sing, as lights shone in structured sequence, revealing Simon de los Santos astride the Cordil mountain range, rendered in miniature. All around him, forests and lakes and plains sprawled outward, gleaming roads racing toward coastlines. Provinces and their capitals glittered like gemstones, slender bridges arched across water linking island to island to island. Every single geographic feature of each of the three kingdoms, every famous river and volcano and plateau, was on display, eliciting murmurs of delight from the courtiers and officers that stood below the queen’s platform.
When everything on display was fully lit, when artificial waves lapped against the shores of the multitudes of islands, and when all the tiny rice fields transformed from paddies into bountiful harvest, synchronized to the rhythm of a troupe of dancing girls, Simon de los Santos raised his eyes toward his queen, certain in his heart of his success.
Mon Jiera, unmoving and unmoved by the spectacle, met his gaze. “We cannot see the cities; they are too small. Do better. It is not as things are.”
And with that pronouncement, the show was over. As the queen’s platform descended, Simon fought back the sudden nausea that enveloped him, rested a hand against the nearest mountain peak, obliterating vast tracts of miniscule forests, and thought about what to do next.
When the queen and her retinue had departed, Simon de los Santos addressed the dejected crowd of set and lighting designers, miniaturists, geomancers, gardeners, cartographers, carpenters, engineers, electricians, musicians, historians, documentarians, reporters, caterers, dancing troupes, and child volunteers.
“Clearly, my friends,” Simon said, stretching his trembling arms to full extension, “everything needs to be bigger.”
The nearby province of Lagun was selected as the site for the next replica. When those who dwelled there were informed that their entire province—every road and field and house and mango grove—was needed, the general response was to give way to the queen’s will and to begin the task of uprooting themselves. With the provincial boundaries determining the edges of the site, Simon de los Santos and his growing population of workers and specialists and their families and hangers-on settled in and began to work. Over the next decade, doctors of forestry and mathematics, their famous university transplanted to another province, teamed up with landscape designers to render the archipelago in perfect scale, while oceanographers, animatronics experts, and animal rights advocates worked with officers of the Queen’s Navy to ensure the veracity of every beach, cove, and estuary, as well the appropriate distribution of each locality’s maritime wildlife. Massive tractors and excavators, powered by liquefied petroleum gas, flattened hills and shattered rocks. A network of polyvinyl chloride pipes stretched from Lagun Bay and created a new coastline, submerging all the small towns in a line from San Padro to Alamin, from Luisan to Silong. With an escalating portion of the kingdoms’ budget allocated to the immense project, materials arrived on the site via helicopters, ten-wheelers, and barges. Work never stopped, except out of respect for Ramadan.
In the midst of all this, Simon de los Santos kept everyone and everything on schedule, his furious concentration undermined only by rumors of the old queen’s failing health: that she had suffered multiple strokes that had left the majority of her body paralyzed; that her fatigued heart had been replaced with a mechanical marvel that permitted her no dreams due to its incessant whirring; that her mind had fallen prey to the disease of forgetfulness.
Over the course of years, he fought back the temptation to stop, to say that it was enough, to rush to his queen’s side, to simply be there for her as she faded. But a challenge was a challenge, and Simon de los Santos was never one to accept failure, no matter how well-cloaked by extenuating circumstances. It was only when he was satisfied, after a period of intense personal review and scrutiny, that he declared the marvelous replica completed and sent a brief formal telegram to the queen’s Office of Communications.
It took the queen, on an intricately-designed wheeled conveyance encased in a delicate glass bubble, with Simon de los Santos mounted on a champion racehorse, accompanied by her retinue and palace security in various vehicles, thirty days to tour the province-sized scale model of her three kingdoms. Through it all, she kept her opinions to herself, permitting her guide every bit of space his narrative required, as he gestured to this mosque or that tree-lined hot spring. On his part, Simon de los Santos left no detail unmentioned, drawing her attention to the transition from dry season into wet with an elegant flourish of his hands, a signal for the aerial team of meteorologists and hydraulic engineers suspended above in a balloon to make rain. But he also could not help but look at the old woman behind the glass, her shrunken frame covered in Bengut blankets, despite her bubble’s climate controls. As he wondered how well she remembered him, he noted that it was her silence that affected him the most. Even as he mouthed his practiced words, he could not help but sense the fleeting nature of her attention. The old queen’s movements were so economical that Simon de los Santos often thought she had stopped breathing, and was utterly relieved when the tour was done.
She gestured to him from within the bubble.
He slowly knelt in front of her, ignoring the arthritic pains he had developed due to his own advancing years.
Her lips moved, and he strained to listen but could hear no more than a soft whirring from inside the bubble. He turned his face to one of the officers of the court for help.
“Her Majesty remembers you and commends you on your good work,” the official said.
Simon de los Santos permitted himself a sigh.
“But Her Majesty says that everything is still too small,” the official continued. “Everything is too small to remember; that memory must be writ large; and that the streets stand sadly empty. It is Her Majesty’s will that the scale be larger.”
Simon de los Santos stared unseeing at the ground, beset by sudden phantom aches.
“You are to start again.”
When the queen and her retinue were long gone, Simon de los Santos rode to the lone radio station that once served to broadcast his regular instructions to everyone involved in the project. He stared at the microphone for a moment, before taking out several sheets of paper. Then he began to read from the papers in his trembling hands, quietly thanking every project team leader. At a certain point he stopped, set down the congratulatory list he held, and spoke into the microphone.
“My friends and colleagues, on behalf of the queen, I thank you for all your time and effort. I personally thank you for your commitment to seeing the project through. You are released from your duties as this part of the project is complete. Go back to your true homes, with pride in your part in this tremendous achievement. Goodnight and goodbye.”
During the next three years leading to Mon Jiera’s demise, these are the things Simon de los Santos did not do: make new plans for a larger replica, entertain questions about the mysterious next phase of the project, encash any of the monies allocated for the continuance of the project, judge any beauty pageants, nor watch the races.
Instead, he did two things: he waited, and he kept himself abreast of all the minutiae of the dying queen’s medical conditions.
When he was informed at four o’clock one morning by his sources that the queen’s final day had at last arrived, Simon de los Santos dressed himself in his customary white linen suit and made his way in the predawn darkness to the suites on the top floor of the hospital, where the queen waited for death. Upon seeing the queen’s favorite, the officers and ornaments of the court respectfully accorded him privacy, the guards stationed at the door being the only other people in the room.
“My Queen,” Simon de los Santos softly said, brazenly taking her small leathery hand in his.
Mon Jiera, barely recognizable, opened her still-bright eyes.
“My Queen,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
She nodded once, and with great effort.
“Do you remember what you asked me to do for you?”
No, she offered, looking at him uncertainly.
“You tasked me to create a replica, so people could remember things as they are.”
Her eyes widened with understand.
“The first one I built was too small, and the second was still not big enough to encompass memory.”
Her brow furrowed slightly.
“For the third and final replica, I realized three things. Firstly, it was as much for you, your memory, as it will be for those who come after all of us. Secondly, there is an insurmountable problem of scale. And thirdly, I cannot build you what you asked for—but I can give it to you.”
She looked at him.
“Will you let me show you, My Queen?”
With great tenderness, he carried her in his arms, the vanished strength of his youth belied by the quiver in his hands, to the nearby armchair next to a window.
And, her hand in his, they waited.
When dawn came, its radiance spilled first over the distant mountains, turning shadows into vibrant greens and browns. Then the roads sprang gently into the light, grey and black and white, stretching and winding and intersecting in the city, as the first motorists and bus drivers drove their vehicles of red and yellow and blue and silver. People began to appear: joggers, newspaper vendors, delivery men, schoolchildren in their khakis, in ones or twos at first, then as the sun rose, in clusters and crowds, as the city roared into life.
When the sun was higher in the sky, when every tree and monument and lake and building was enveloped in sunshine, Mon Jiera sighed her thanks, leaned her head against her favorite, and took one last look at Simon’s replica.