Oskar was eleven when he first used it. Still a boy, too young to be told his parents had perished at sea. Looking back, he was surprised his father had even explained it to him…
No, that’s right – Oskar had found him using it. He was maybe eight or so then, and after waking from a bad dream he wandered down the corridor in time to see his father disappear into the room opposite the master bedroom. It had always been locked, and so a curiosity filled Oskar. Memories of the bad dream disappeared in an instant and he tip-toed the rest of the way, pausing at the door. It was a small, simple room, with a spluttering torch on the wall casting long shadows over the scene.
His father stood hunched over a large leather sack, his hands clenched in front of his face. His body shook with exertion and Oskar remembered clearly how odd his white knuckles had seemed on his normally ruddy hands. Slowly, the king clasped his hands as if crushing something between his palms. He rubbed them together and Oskar saw a thin stream of dust fall into the gaping bag. The dust glistened in the light and sent bright reflections across his father’s face.
When the dust stopped, his father straightened up and sighed. Only then did Oskar make himself known.
“What’s that, father?” he asked. The king smiled as he turned and did not seem surprised to see him.
“Oskar! It appears Fate has decided I will share this with you now. I had thought a bit older, well…This bag allows me to take away my worst feelings, and grind them into dust to settle here, so that I may rule as well as I am able.”
“I had a bad dream,” Oskar said. His father chuckled.
“I think a bad dream we can sort out ourselves. It will grow full eventually, so I must be sparing with my bag.”
Oskar nodded. He knew his father had been greatly saddened by Sir Peter’s rebellion. Sir Peter had been a good servant and his execution, though necessary, had been deliberated at length in the court – Oskar had listened at the door.
At eleven, the night he was crowned the new king, he had found the key in his father’s wardrobe and unlocked the room for himself. It was as before – the torch on the wall, which he lit with a trembling hand, and the bag slumped in the corner. He ground up his pain and let it trickle into the bag.
Now twenty-three, and in a dozen years of war, famine and plague, King Oskar had filled the bag. He stood over it the night his young wife passed away during childbirth, and a few grains of her death spilled over the rim onto the flagstones. They glinted menacingly at him. But what harm could the dust do? Oskar turned to leave the room, but a vision clouded his brain, its power pulling him to his knees. He was back touring the villages nearby, seeing the plague victims piled outside the houses, their dead faces grinning taut over their skulls. The sadness was as deep this time as at the event itself, and when the vision cleared Oskar rushed to pick up each grain. They burned his hands like white-hot coals, but he needed to put these memories away again. As he brushed the last few into the bag, they disturbed new grains which slid over the coarse lip and onto the floor.
The corn famine. Diseased ears rotting in the fields, while his subjects wasted away. The flood that carried off an entire village. Frantically, blindly, he scooped these specks off the floor. The nomad hordes that rode through the coastal towns, pillaging and murdering with abandon. Still more grains spilled, more visions came.
There was a knock. Oskar looked up, he was back in the room, in the castle, though he could feel the visions tearing still at the corners of his mind. The midwife stood at the open door, holding a bundle in her arms. His newborn son. Heir to all this suffering.
Oskar stood, walked slowly to the midwife and took his son from her. Bade her leave them to mourn. Closed the door. Walked back to the bag, and laid his son atop it. And wept.