There Must Be Blood (Elizabeth R. McClellan)

For Honest Lewis

“There must be blood”—
the unbreakable law
of revolutions and fairy tales.
This I knew. We grow up knowing.

The emperor was cleaning out
the granaries we had filled for winter,
the burse, even—kitchen maids whisper—
selling off the priceless things,

things that belonged not to the king
but to the kingdom in perpetuity.
For cloth no one had seen but only heard of.
Servants see ​everything.​

And servants have mothers and uncles,
sweethearts and old friends,
outside the city, far from the excitement—
but no one had a story of the sumptuary

taking all our stores to produce.
Time was, my grandmother said, the king
belonged to the land, and died in the winter,
sometimes, to feed the land if it hungered.

Now we hungered. Now there was less,
less of everything, and prices went up,
but wages stayed the same, bellies grumbled,
the oxen were all ribs and resignation

in the picked-over fields. Fights started,
neighbors creeping into gardens at night, noses
broken when discovered. It was untenable.
Hunger brings out the predator in us all.

The emperor has no clothes
became the password. The sign.
The mark of the revolutionary.
The watchword of the revolution.

The king’s guards were hungry
with the rest of us, with their mothers,
uncles, sweethearts, neighbors.
None of them had seen a scrap of fabric, twist of thread.

All of them saw a better future.
Even a ruler by divine right is a man
with heart and lungs and blood
that can spill onto the land

when the land starves. A child’s tale
of long-long-ago, but there were those,
holding fast to life despite the gnawing inside,
who remembered when it was so,

and a child, a slip of a thing
whose parents had starved to keep it alive,
whispering the emperor has no clothes
as the coup was planned, patterned, basted,

sewn up like the finest velvet and linens,
only the finishing details left to customize.
We were cautious, despite our distracted emperor.
No one knew the appointed day

until the royal announcement,
patronizing invitation to marvel
at the wardrobe that was stitched
from a year of our misery.

We pretended. We oohed. We aahed.
We sent up a continual murmur of praise,
marvel at our ruler’s new clothes, his thieving tailors
smiling in their bespoke finery.

The child knew the signal, pointed,
shouted, the emperor shamed & naked,
his penis shriveled, his chest sunken,
and then there was blood,

blood everywhere in the street,
the palace guards skewering tailors
and ruler on signal, as we had planned.
No coup is bloodless, but this one washed off.

Now the emperor has no clothes,
for we have no emperor, nor will again,
though it is difficult that the peddlers avoid us
and the child I took in cries out in dreams of death.


Elizabeth R. McClellan is a gender/queer demisexual disabled poet. Their work has appeared in Star*Line, Apex Magazine, Dreams and Nightmares, Utopia Science Fiction and many others. They are a multiple time Rhysling nominee and past winner of the Naked Girls Reading Literary Honors Award. In their other life they are a domestic and sexual violence attorney. 


image: Lindsay Hargrave