'There's a lot of trouble in my country,'' Tony confided one morning in our Ethiopian garden. ''I'm 'fraid we might have a war.'' I brushed a fly from the worry pucker between his eyes and wondered what particular disaster might upset a widely traveled foreign-service four-year- old. ''Do you mean back home in America?'' I asked.
He shook his head emphatically. ''No, not America,'' he said. ''I'm talking about Witzicle. Witzicle,'' he repeated, rolling it on his tongue. ''My own country.''
I could hardly wait until he was in bed that night to share Witzicle with his three big brothers.
''Yeah, we know about it,'' Galen said matter-of-factly. ''It's Tony's country.''
''He's the king,'' Jonathan explained. ''He's setting up his palace in the blue box.''
''We aren't going to dump our stuff there anymore,'' Tim added.
The iron-bound ''blue box'' had cradled our household effects on the ocean voyage from Washington to our East African home in 1957. Propped up on bricks near the overhead tank that caught our drinking water, it had already served as a stage for home dramatics and as a stable for a short-lived baby burro. In its new role as imperial palace for the Kingdom of Witzicle, it would need a drastic housecleaning.
Next morning, I ducked under the clothesline and skirted the water tower to check it out. Tony was squatting in the sun, perspiration puddling his cheeks, as he poked parallel rows of eucalyptus twigs into the hard red earth. ''Building my Imperial Highway, Mom,'' he explained. His grubby hand guided me toward the open end of the blue box. ''Want to look around the palace?''
Wads of hay still clung to rough wood walls inside the box, but center stage was cleared for a kitchen chair teetering atop a smaller crate. ''My royal throne,'' Tony said. ''I'll need a pillow to sit on. And two for my feet.'' He paused for my approval. ''Kings always do, you know.''
''Of course they do.'' I picked some straw from his hair, recalling a photo his father had snapped of Emperor Haile Selassie seated beneath a ceremonial silk umbrella, his regal feet primly placed on scarlet cushions. ''Maybe Tim can make some from our old curtains.''
Tony scratched a flea bite thoughtfully. ''I'll need a royal robe, too,'' he reminded me.
Almost overnight the Kingdom of Witzicle became part of our lives. Modeled on the ancient feudal land of Ethiopia, Tony's ''own country'' was a blend of his observations of court protocol and our own casual American ways. Household members were amalgamated into Witzicle with surprising ease. Our puppy, Rudolph, became an imperial lion, protecting us from bandits and free to roam the palace grounds like the feline pets of his imperial majesty, the Lion of Judah himself. Tony's bedtime companions, Beaky, the one-eyed penguin, Horace Bear, and Einstein Elephant were members of the imperial bodyguard, their uniforms fashioned from ragbag scraps by the king's mother, who sometimes slipped his brothers an Ethiopian 25-cent piece to ''help build Witzicle.''
The problems of converting the blue box into a gracious palace seemed at first overwhelming. Walls required repeated spraying against flies, fleas, and stable odors. Often the young monarch was out surveying his realm before breakfast, overalls sagging with palace blueprints.
As Tony's country took shape, our family adapted to a Witzican way of thinking. ''Let's see,'' his father would murmur at bedtime. ''Where are the king's pajamas?''
One morning, his brother Jonathan was out in our back yard strengthening Witzicle's city walls. Some bandits had broken into the palace and swiped his royal crown, Tony reported. But we needn't worry. Tim was making another. Tim helped, too, on the king's Sunday-brunch costume: a pillowcase sham twisted toga-like over his skinny shoulder and decorated with bones and beads.
One night, we returned late from an embassy reception to find all four sons on their knees before a Sears catalog ''ordering a dress uniform for Tony.'' The local Addis Ababa radio had reported an upcoming visit from the king of Greece. Haile Selassie would be in formal regalia. Naturally, Tony too wanted to look especially nice.
Months later, a brave-looking United States Marine suit of scarlet and blue arrived at the height of the big rains. Oceans of mud flowed down our road and fell in a waterfall over the back wall. The Kingdom of Witzicle was inundated. As the waters rose, the 37-pound monarch mopped his palace and struggled to keep royal furniture from floating into the lower garden. Keeping his new dress uniform clean became yet another concern of our kindly houseboy. ''You forgot to bow to the king, Wurku,'' Tony reminded him gently. ''But that's okay. I was wondering if you could make a royal banquet for some 'portant visitors?''
We were deluged with visitors, all of them 'portant, for word of Witzicle had reached the English kindergarten on Embassy Row. Had I heard, amused mothers wondered, that our children were planning an imperial race track at the foot of our vegetable garden and a guest palace next to the garbage pit?
ONE day a cardboard ''WELCOME TO WITZICLE'' sign appeared on our front gate. The friendly greeting signed by ''King Tony I'' was repeated in swirls and blobs that rather resembled Amharic, the tribal language of Addis Ababa. Spoken Witzican, according to the king, sounded more like Chinese.
Soon there were two Witzicles: Upper Witzicle in the backyard and Lower Witzicle down by Tim's pea patch. The Imperial Highway joined them together via a wide swath through my roses. A cache of confidential maps under Tony's bed hinted at a subterranean Witzicle as well, ''too secret'' to talk about. Witzicle also traveled on my husband's inspection trips to provincial coffee farms and clinics -- six of us in our Land Rover -- parents up front and boys in back, along with bodyguards Beaky, Horace, and Einstein. ''There's a little bit of Witzicle in every country,'' Tony explained when we wondered about its geographical boundaries.
Witzicle had more than its share of troubles. Daily we learned of catastrophic floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. For a while it looked as if the Russians might be invading Witzicle. Sometimes the big brothers lost patience. ''How should I know if something's wrong in Witzicle?'' a tired Jonathan retorted during one sweltering desert journey. ''It's your country, Tony.''
But in general, the family followed Witzican events with interest and contributed technical assistance to the developing nation. Older son Galen rigged up a printing press that turned out Witzican dollar bills picturing the American eagle and the Witzican ''mongrel.'' He ran off Witzican driving laws, as dictated: Witzicans could operate a car at two years of age. At age 5, they could drive fast.
Jon and Tim sketched postage stamps of native Witzican flora and fauna. First- day covers of flies and hyenas, bushbuck and butterflies piled up on the bedroom floor next to stern profiles of King Tony the Great. All Witzican stamps were ''rare,'' but a real collector's item was the ''Smelly Mountain'' issue depicting the burial mound of a late monarch, ''the stupidest king of all,'' Tony sighed. ''They just pushed dirt over him and called it Smelly Mountain.''
The king's birthday occasioned a week of rejoicing. Tony's brothers lighted a eucalyptus bonfire between the water tower and the clothesline, just as Ethiopians did on special holidays. The Imperial Highway was lined with fresh twigs, the palace festooned with maskal daisies, and the imperial lion's cage buried in bunting.
The diplomatic list for the party included seven best friends from kindergarten who paraded through Witzicle to the ''Marine Hymn'' on Galen's accordion. Tim carried the Witzican flag. Jon pulled a wagon bearing King Tony on cushions under a beach umbrella down our dirt road lined with goats and burros.
Toward the end of our two-year stay in Ethiopia, my husband and I began to wonder how the small king of Witzicle would adapt to America, a place he could barely remember. Some of the royal trappings could go with us: The flag, the Smelly Mountain stamps, and the dress uniform could be tucked into air freight. The blue box, bulging with household effects, would follow by ship and could be set up in our Washington yard.
But Tony knew it wouldn't be the same. Suddenly, nothing was the same. As departure neared, our dog Rudolph was given to neighbors, and, at our landlord's suggestion, the walls of Witzicle were flattened and grass seed scattered over the Imperial Highway. When we moved into a hotel, Tony fretted over his country.
The plane trip to Cairo, Athens, and Rome was as diverting as we hoped. Tony was shocked into momentary silence by the Roman ruins. ''How did it happen, Dad?'' It wasn't until we boarded the SS United States that he again anguished over Witzicle. He told us he had received a cable from his people: WHERE IS KING? WE LOOKED ALL AROUND AND AROUND.
Tony squatted on the cabin floor fashioning bits of metal and sparkplugs together to make a radio. At dinner he reported he had wired the Witzicans: KING IS SAFE ON BIG BOAT. He hoped the captain would let him build a fire on the top deck. We persuaded him to wait a few days until we reached home.
The modest bonfire a week later in our Washington back yard could scarcely compare with the spectacular eucalyptus blazes in Ethiopia. But Tony and his brothers stayed up late toasting marshmallows and laying plans for the future.
After the last embers had died away, he radioed again to his people: DON'T WORRY. KING TONY SAFE IN AMERICAN WITZICLE.
The next day he started first grade.