Zoetrope: All-Story

The Buttercup Mousetrap

Yiyun Li

1. Meet and Greet

“Good day, sir,” Nick says to the stranger, who is lying in Nick’s nest. He is surprised that someone could find the hidden place. He himself often gets lost when he looks for it. He always pretends to have another destination in mind. Sometimes the nest is tricked, and reveals itself. 

In the nest is a bed of dry grasses, wilted rose petals, feathers lost by hasty birds, sloughs abandoned by cunning snakes. Over the bed is a canopy of willow branches that were once supple. The nest is Nick’s, and now a stranger seems to think nothing of usurping it. 

The man sits up and makes a gesture of adjusting a robe and a headdress, though he wears only a nightshirt and his head is bare. “ ‘Sir’? No, sirrah, that’s no way to talk to me,” the man says. “My liege, my most gracious sovereign, your royal majesty!”

Nick squats and sets a palm on the man’s forehead. It is pleasantly cool and dry. “You mistake me, sir,” Nick says. “I’m nobody’s liege.”

“I am,” the man says. “I’m telling you that’s how you should be addressing me.”

“Are you my liege?”

The man appears baffled, or pained, or in need of a sneeze. “I’m someone’s liege,” he says. “I may as well be yours.”

Nick looks at the man, who is wax pale. “Don’t ever get too close to a bonfire,” Nick says. He has a habit of warning a rabbit about the snares in the field, a fly about the frogs fake-dozing by the pond, a dove about the visiting hawk. Naming the menace is all he can do for the endangered. No one pays attention to him, but there is always another rabbit, another fly, another dove who one day may heed his counsel. 

“I shall, and I must, do anything that pleases me,” the man says. “I am a king. Or, if I am not now, I was once. And I should be still.”

“I was a weaver once, I am not a weaver now, and I wouldn’t say I should be still,” Nick says. “Should is like an arrow. You shoot should any direction, you injure someone.”

“Like Cupid’s arrow. If you think about it, that’s exactly what that little rascal does. Shoot an arrow that says, you should love this person, or, you should love that person.” 

Nick looks around. He hopes this madman does not attract Cupid’s attention. Nick does not want him to be shot at, nor to become an inadvertent target himself. Cupid is known for shoddy marksmanship. 

“But if I cannot use any word I like, if I cannot think any way I want, what’s the point of being a king?” the stranger says. 

“Are you a king?”

“I should be.”

“Then you are not.”

“I was unkinged.”

“By whom?”

“By you-know-whom.”

“I don’t know.”

“Henry Bolingbroke. Have you heard of him?” 

2. The Middle Ground

Henry Bolingbroke. Nick repeats the name to himself. The more he says it, the more he thinks he should have heard of it, and yet the more bizarre it sounds to his ears. But this doesn’t alarm him. Sometimes he says his own name a hundred times to achieve the same effect. It’s like touching your earlobe with a feather from the underwing of a young chick. You can’t make yourself wiggle and giggle, but you can feel reasonably tickled by how strange things can be. “Henry Bolingbroke. No, I can’t say I’ve heard of him.”

The man looks disappointed. “Then you would not have heard of me, either. I’m Richard.”

A Richard who calls himself a king. Nick studies the man, trying to find a royal hint or two. 

“I am not he.”

“Who?”

“You’re looking for the lion skin.”

“Am I?”

“Or you’re looking to see if I have a lump on my back. I am not he, either.”

“Is there a hunchbacked king named Richard?”

“You don’t seem to know your history very well.”

“That’s because I don’t know which history is history. Each year, there is a new version of the same old history, like flowers returning in the spring.”

“Are they not the same flowers?”

“Certainly not. Flowers are temperamental—”

“Kings are temperamental, too,” Richard says. 

“—and things temperamental do not last,” Nick says. How he dislikes an interrupter of his sentences. He once saw an illusionist cut a woman into halves and rejoin the halves as a whole. No sentence interrupter has that magic. 

Richard appears not to have heard Nick’s verdict on kings and flowers. “Still, you should know some basic facts of history,” he says. “Facts don’t change. They’re the roots.”

“You can’t see the roots unless you dig them up. Then what? Dead flowers can’t even be temperamental.”

“So you must remain ignorant of facts to benefit from history that may as well be hearsay?” 

Richard looks displeased, but Nick is accustomed to people looking displeased. People are often displeased, for any minute reason. Nick is pleased, all the time—with what, he needn’t know. Let others name their concrete discontents. Nick’s contentment can be content-free.

“What I’m saying is,” he says, “you can have any number of regulations to determine any number of things and non-things. Say, alcoholic drinks and nonalcoholic drinks, dairy products and nondairy products, aliens and non-aliens. But facts and nonfacts? They are a tricky pair.”

“How so?”

“Give me a fact.”

“I am a king—that’s a fact.”

“You are not a king—that’s a nonfact, then? But it is also a fact,” Nick says. “What’s something that is both a fact and a nonfact?”

“Methinks you are playing a not-so-clever game with me.”

“Yes. If a game is too clever, people become suspicious and they don’t want to play.”

“How so?”

“A jumper constantly reveals his limit,” Nick says. “A stooper can always stoop lower.”

“You’re speaking with a king. A king neither jumps nor stoops,” Richard says. “Let’s do this again. You are a fool—a fact.”

“Aye, a fact as solid as my name. You are not a fool—a nonfact.”

“What’s your name?”

“Nick Bottom.”

“I’m glad I don’t have a name like that.”

“Why?”

“Because no one takes you seriously if you are a Nick Bottom.”

“But why would I want anyone to take me seriously? You wanted to be taken seriously, as a king, and that is why you were unkinged.”

“There has to be a middle ground between a king and a Nick Bottom.”

“What’s the middle ground between a fact and a nonfact?” 

“You tell me. It’s your game.”

“Rich Top.”

“What?”

“You can change your name to Rich Top,” Nick says. “A better name than Nick Bottom.”

“Impossible.”

“Rich Impossible?”

“You are impossible.”

Nick thinks about the other words people have used to describe him, and decides that this one is his favorite. “I’m impossible, am I not? I’m Nick Bottom the impossibilist. That shall be a good new trade for me.”

“Why do you need a new trade?”

“I used to be a weaver. Then there was an industrial revolution, so it’s no longer possible for me to be a weaver. There hasn’t been a revolution that makes it impossible for me to be an impossibilist, has there?”

3. Finders Keepers

“Now, tell me, Rich, why are you in my nest?”

“I didn’t know that it was yours. Besides, in theory, everything belongs to the king, so your nest is mine.”

“You know for a fact that it is not yours. And we don’t live in theory.”

“How do you prove that?”

“That we don’t live in theory?”

“That it’s yours.”

“Ha, I always knew someone would ask that,” Nick says. He takes a piece of bark from beneath the dry grass. On the bark, written in charcoal, is Nick’s Nest. “This is how I prove it.”

Richard studies the bark. “Why do you call it a nest if you are not a bird?”

“But are you sure I am not a bird?” 

“Where are your wings, if you are a bird?”

“Where is your crown, if you are a king?”

“You are impertinent.”

“How else can we be but impertinent to each other?” Nick says. “We can be pertinent only to ourselves.”

Richard thinks for a long time, his waxy face wrinkled with befuddlement. Nick preferred it when it was smooth. 

“I don’t understand you,” Richard says finally. “Speak again. Make yourself understood.”

Nick scratches his head. His entire life has operated on the impression he gives people that they are smarter than he. No one wants to stoop to understand a fool. But this Richard who calls himself a king, what impertinence makes him want to understand Nick? 

“I can’t, sir, make myself understood,” Nick says. “That’s not what I am known for.”

“What are you known for?”

“Dreaming.”

“Have you ever dreamed of being a king?”

“Now that would be impertinent. No, I have never dreamed of being a king—”

“You don’t even know how to dream. How can you be famous for dreaming?”

That unmagical interrupter again! “—but I once dreamed of sharing a queen’s bed. That’s better than being a king.”

“The queen would not be a queen if not for the king.”

“A king can be unkinged,” Nick says. “A queen’s head can be chopped off. But a queen’s bed is always a queen’s bed.”

Richard looks again at the piece of bark. “Do you have a quill?”

From behind his ear, Nick produces a feather, which he found on his morning walk and was about to add to his nest. 

“Ink?” Richard asks. 

“No, but I can make some for you,” Nick says. He takes off his left shoe and spits on the sooty bottom. 

Richard wrinkles his nose but does not disapprove further. He dips the tip of the feather in the black goo, crosses off Nick’s name, and writes his own—Rich’s Nest.

“A queen’s bed can stop being a queen’s,” he says. “Just as your nest is now mine.”

Nick thinks. “Why do you want a nest? You are not a bird.”

“I do not have a crown or a throne, and yet I am a king,” Richard says. “So I can have a nest even if I am not a bird.” 

“You can have your own nest, but not this one. I’m very particular about not sharing my nest.”

“I’m not asking you to share it. It’s mine alone.”

4. The Distance Between Two Fools

How easy it is to change one name to another, but the nest, Nick thinks, the nest is still his.

“Why do you want my nest?” he asks, in the same coaxing tone as when once he parleyed with a snake found sunbathing in the same spot. 

“Because I am in pain,” Richard says. 

“In pain? I can’t see that. What I can see is that you are in my nest.”

“Then this nest is pain to me.”

“Then leave it!” 

“But I would rather be in pain than out of pain,” Richard says. “I well know what it feels like to be in pain. It’s in character for me. But out of pain? It’s akin to being out of business.”

“Some businesses do go out of business,” Nick says. “A king can be unkinged.”

“But a pained Richard cannot be unpained!”

“All right, all right,” Nick says soothingly. “But why is my nest pain to you? If it is pain to anyone, it should be to me.”

“You said the word should should not be used,” Richard says. “Why your nest is not pain to you, I don’t know, but it is pain to me, and I don’t want to leave it.”

“Why is it pain to you?”

“It reminds me that, once upon a time, I had a queen.”

“And you miss her bed?”

“I miss not missing her bed,” Richard says. “A true conqueror should never feel the necessity to conquer.”

“Speak English, Rich.”

“I am rather, am I not?”

“Speak Bottom’s English.”

“Once upon a time, I had a queen whom I did not love. And because I was a king, I was free not to love her, I was free not to share her bed, and I was free to laugh at her pain.”

“I wish all the kings in the world were like you.”

“Why?”

“Then all the Bottoms in the world could be free to dream of the queens’ beds.”

“That is rather vulgar, Nick.”

“It’s within my right to be vulgar. My name is Bottom.”

“You can be individually vulgar, but when you talk about all the kings and all the queens and all the Bottoms, you vulgarize by generalizing.”

“Wouldn’t you say, Rich, that general vulgarity is better than individual vulgarity?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” 

“I would. Always take a general position in life. The more general, the more foolproof.”

“Why must a position be foolproof?”

“Because fools always want to prove others wrong.”

“What do non-fools want? To prove others right?”

“To prove themselves right.”

“That wouldn’t make them non-fools, only lesser fools.”

“Allow me to vulgarize again by generalizing,” Nick says. “The line between lesser fools and non-fools is like this track, left last week by a passing snail. Here, do you see?”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Precisely. The line between lesser fools and non-fools is as real as a fabrication.”

“And the line between fools and lesser fools?”

“Like the abyss between you and me.”

Richard looks at Nick and at himself, and then at the space between them. “I don’t see the abyss.”

5. Two Turnips, One Nest

The abyss is there, Nick thinks, clear as day, yet Richard claims not to see it. What an abysmal king.

“Have you ever been in pain?” Richard asks. 

“I’ve had toothaches, headaches, elbow-aches, toenail-aches,” Nick says. “But I can’t say I’ve been in pain.”

“When you suffer from those aches of yours, are you not in pain?”

“A tooth or a toenail may ache, it may call itself in pain, but it is not I. A part does not have the right to claim for the whole.”

“Are you saying I am exaggerating when I say I am in pain?”

Nick comes closer and strokes Richard’s left eyebrow. “Is it aching, this eyebrow of yours?”

“It’s aching underneath.”

“So no surface pain?”

“No, but eyebrows don’t usually ache.”

“Then think yourself lucky. Some people are in so much pain it hurts even to frown.”

“That thought is of little help to me.”

“Yet perhaps enough for you to leave my nest?” 

“Why do you insist on removing me?” 

“Why do you insist on remaining unmoved?”

“I think better this way.”

“Do you mean, you think better when you’re in my nest? And your thoughts were of poorer quality before you landed in my nest?”

“I think better when I’m in pain.”

“Were you in pain before you were in my nest?”

“I was, and I am, and I will always be,” Richard says. “My fate is to be a king or to be in pain.”

“You needn’t sit there like a brooding hen to be in pain.”

“A brooding cockerel.”

“Still, shoo.”

“What’s the point of shooing me away? You can’t shoo away my pain.”

“I can get you out of my nest.”

“Wherefore?”

“So I can occupy it myself.”

“So you can be in pain, too?”

“I am never in pain, in or out of my nest.”

“So you can think better?”

“Nay, I think not.” 

“So why do you wish to occupy your nest?”

“So I can sleep.”

“Will you make me a nest like this, so I can have a place to remain in pain and think?”

“I can’t make a nest for you, but if you would please leave my nest, I’ll sleep. And if I fall into a good dream, I’ll ask the fairies who made this nest for me to make one for you. I’ll ask them to put it right next to mine, if you’d like that.”

“And if you fall into a bad dream?”

“It’s still only a dream.”

“And I’ll still have my nest made by the fairies?”

“No. That happens only in good dreams.”

“I can’t take the risk, then,” Richard says. “If I leave your nest, I may never get my own.”

“If you don’t leave my nest, you will never get your own.”

“You can make another nest, next to this one, and call that yours. Wouldn’t that suit us both?”

“It suits me not, my dear Rich.”

“Why not?”

“What do good performers—of which I, Nick Bottom, am one—do? We move a few people, help a few people—primarily, to become lesser fools—and leave the rest of the world unchanged,” Nick says. “If I do not move you, and if I make myself a greater fool by giving up my nest to you—”

“And the rest of the world remains unchanged, your achievement is the same,” Richard says.

“Stop interrupting me!”

“Of course. Please continue.”

Nick realizes he’s forgotten what he’s yet to say.

“Don’t you think good performers should move a million people, help a million people become lesser fools, and change the world?” Richard says.

“Now who is vulgarizing?” Nick says. “A million people! Even if you wish to move a million turnips, there are bound to be a shrewd few that decline your scheme.”

“And one shrewd turnip shall be named Nick Bottom.”

“And one shall be named Rich Top.”

“Isn’t it a good thing not to be the only shrewd turnip in the world?”

“Just as it’s a good thing not to be the only fool in the world.”

“Come, come,” Richard says. “Let’s share this nest of yours. I’m beginning to think that, with you around, I shall be in less pain, even if you can’t move me.”

Nick smiles. “And I shall be resigned to become a lesser fool.”

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