The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Second of Several Parts
A red carpet stretched the length of Haajj’s throne room. It ran beneath towering marble arches, between long rows of glistening soldiers, until it ended at the feet of Haajj’s throne. As always, he sat above any visitor, giving them only the briefest time. He was a Sultan with much on his mind. And they, as always, came to see the garden. It pleased Haajj. It was his garden. And his guests liked him for his garden. Then, not long after the boy had come, a young girl came. She was hardly what she seemed. Her beauty astounded. Her perfection enraptured. She was love in the heart. She robbed everyone of their selfishness.
She walked where she wished. None questioned her. The doors opened whichever way she chose. She wore no shoes. Her hair was white. Her clothes were mixed with green and gold. The sun danced through her legs and arms. She was as a little princess. In her every movement she somehow summoned beauty. Yet she glanced at all with a wary cleverness. When she entered the throne room Haajj leaned forward to see better who it might be. “Who are you?” he asked. “You seem a child and yet I think you are older.”
“I am neither.” The girl laughed sweetly. “I have come to tell you a story.”
“Surely,” said the Sultan, “you would rather play in my garden.”
“Surely.” The girl smiled. “I have come to see you!”
“I am a busy man,” said Haajj. “I am a Sultan! What time do I have for your story?”
“You will listen.” The girl shook a finger at him. “I will speak to you and you will listen. It is a long story. It touches upon you. You must listen to it all.”
Never before had anyone dared to speak to him so. “Yes.” He could think of nothing better to say. “Yes. You will tell me a story. I command you to tell me a story. You have traveled some distance to tell me a story, so it befits me to listen to your story. I am listening.”
The girl sighed, stretched till she stood tip-toe, then relaxed. “Once upon a time there was a poor plowman with barely enough land to feed him through the winter. He had no children. He had a poor little dog which always stayed by his side. And he had a wife with whom he shared his few possessions. He asked little from fate and fate answered with little. Yet one winter came when even all his summer’s toil left not enough to spread across a dinner table. The plowman felt his bitterness deeply. His silence broke and he angrily marched into the night. He would finally speak with fate.
‘I am a poor plowman!’ he cried. ‘Have I ever asked to be wealthy? Have I envied my neighbor? Have I stolen from my friend? Have I ever desired more than what befit me? Why must I suffer this daily sorrow? All I ask is to reap what I sow!’
With these words a dark being appeared before him. It seemed neither there nor absent. ‘Poor plowman,’ it whispered, ‘since you ask I am come to answer. You toil all your life and never asked for more than life. Among the loved you are beloved especially. I may grant you whatever you wish. You have lived poor in body yet rich in soul. You may still live so if you desire. Though it is winter spring must follow. Yet I may grant you more if you ask.’
‘I am old,’ said the plowman. ‘My bones are brittle. My wife cannot undo the knots she ties. The cold has carved a place out of our spirit. Even my poor dog cannot sleep at night for the bruising of his ribs. What will you grant me? I will live better if I may.’
‘So be it,’ the shadow answered. ‘Take your baskets tonight, with which you collect your harvest, and hang them, as many as you have, from the pomegranate tree. And, come morning, they will be filled with golden pomegranates. Yet, be warned, let none of the golden fruit touch the earth so long as you possess it.’
The plowman at once hung all his baskets from his only pomegranate tree. It being the depth of winter, and he being old and easily chilled, the plowman quickly went back to the warmth of his hut. When he woke the next morning he indeed found the baskets full of golden pomegranates. The poor plowman nearly danced for joy. He carefully pulled each precious basket from each branch. They were just what he needed. He went, that day, and bought enough food to last through the winter. All with one golden pomegranate.
A month passed. The plowman once again hung his baskets from the pomegranate tree. When he gathered them the next morning, he was drunk with delight. They were filled with twice as many golden pomegranates! And so, by the end of the day, he’d bought a house and farm with cattle, sheep, and horses. The old plowman relished his happiness. Yet each day seemed to breed more and more of the little desires in him. Soon, though his wife was content, he wanted just a little more.
And so, one day, he returned with his baskets fuller than ever. The old plowman’s wife looked at him unhappily. ‘I have never seen you walk so slowly,’ she sighed.
‘My load is heavy and I must not drop it,’ answered the old plowman. ‘My baskets are each full of a hundred pomegranates with which I shall buy so many workers.’
‘Your back is bent and your steps grow weary,’ answered his wife. ‘You do not dance as you once did, when you carried hundred pears in your sack.’
‘I shall buy a hundred workers,’ answered the old plowman, ‘and we shall dine upon pears, and we shall dance to music, night after night after night.
‘So many golden pomegranates will break your back,’ she answered. ‘Give some to your friends so they may love you and help you bear your burdens.’
The old plowman, however, wouldn’t listen to his wife. He was the wealthiest in all the country. He soon forget he had ever been old or poor. And soon he treated his friends with forgetfulness. Yet he was noticed by the emperor. When he learned that a plowman was richer than he, he at once set out to tax him until he, again, was the richer. The plowman, knowing nothing of the emperor’s plans, could do little when the tax man came. He was forced to give over most of his wealth. The old man was filled with rage and anger.
The very next day he hung basket after basket from the branches of the tree. The old man at once commanded his workers to carefully collect each one. And during the weeks that followed he gathered together a tremendous army. He meant to conquer the emperor. He couldn’t brook being taxed. He exercised his army day after day. He bought them uniforms, guns, and canons. He taught them how to quickly slay the enemy. He became a severe and cruel general.
No one loved him. Even the old man’s dog feared to walk beside him anymore. And when the dog finally perished, his master never noticed. In less than a year the plowman defeated the emperor and became, himself, the emperor. Yet the old man remembered only that he had struggled lifelong. He couldn’t remember the times he’d laughed or paused to play. He remembered only that discipline had brought him wealth. And so he robbed his country of any happiness.
‘Yet why must the people suffer?’ asked his wife. ‘For whatever reason fate has brought you here, if it has been cruel to you it has been good as well. Do not remember only the cruelty. Be good to the people. Be better than fate has been to you. If you cannot love your past, do not despise their future, sweet husband. Give them some joy.’
The old man brooded. Fate had indeed been cruel to him. He could not understand his wife’s words. His unhappy thoughts left him alone among his people. And when, one day, his wife would not come to him, then he was truly alone. When people came to him, his unhappiness left him easily angered. ‘If you are starving,’ he said to them, ‘then go back and scold the hands which idled in your pockets when it was time to sow!’ And the old man sent them away.
Finally, his unhappiness all but consumed him. He had everything he had ever dreamed of, yet no one to share it with. He taught his people by hardship, as he had taught himself. And he believed it was the best way to live happily. Yet none of these things brought any happiness. Each day left him lonelier than the day before. Each night he slept less. His mind grew thick with heaviness. His old heart grew small and weary with sorrow. At last he could bear no more. He returned to find the spirit which had granted him so many wishes.
‘Where are you spirit?’ he cried. ‘I’m tired! I’m old! I have a winter inside me so cold! And I… I can find no fire to warm it! Help me! Come out, spirit!’
‘I’ve come.’ The strange figure appeared before him again. ‘What is it, poor plowman?’
‘You must help me!’ The old plowman fell, weeping, to his hands and knees. ‘When I was poor, I had a wife! She loved me! If it were cold outside, then how gladly she loved me! If it were her moments of grace, the soft look of her eyes, or the sorrows of her changing face, I loved her nonetheless. She has fled! Spirit! – I do not want to be hated by all! I have been cruel! She has fled! Spirit! – I would give all to have her back!’
‘Kindness,’ answered the shadow, ‘cannot be given. It can only be offered.’
‘Giving? Offering?’ cried the old man. ‘They are the same!’
‘How can you know what another loves?’ asked the shadow. ‘Offer – and what is loved will be taken. Give – and what is given may not be loved.’
‘I desire only the happiness of my people!’ cried the old plowman.
‘And your happiness?’ asked the shadow. ‘Tell me where you have lost it, old plowman. You did not teach each plant how to bear its seed. You did not instruct each how to unfurl its leaves, nor how many leaves should be borne by each branch, nor how, in what way, nor in which direction each plant should spread itself over the earth. You loved each as it was and each, as it was, gave to you the fruit which nourished you. The good emperor is the good farmer. Do this and find happiness. If you do not, though you be surrounded by a summer of wealth, the winter which is in you shall freeze your heart till it stop with ice.’
‘I ask only to create happiness,’ wept the plowman.
‘Poor plowman,’ whispered the shadow, ‘would you control destiny?’
The old man clamored to his feet but the shadow melted away. Still he was resolute. If he could rule a land, he could command the world. He made his wish and hung his baskets from the tree. Yet he forgot the warning he’d first been given. No golden pomegranate could touch the earth. Yet to wish the world, a thing infinite in price, is to wish what created it. The golden pomegranates might have reaached into the sky but the little tree shuddered and, one by one, the baskets each slipped off their branches. Nothing could bear so much weight. The pomegranates turned to rock as they struck the earth, and the plowman’s wealth crumbled with it. The next morning, his empire was no more. The people turned against him. And his name was forever forgotten.”
“I like it not,” said Haajj to the little girl. “A plowman an emperor? Never! I like it not! It is too fanciful – too long! You spend too much time in the detail – too many words!”
“Alas,” said the girl, “which words would you have me take out? You have not listened to my story. And ’tis a thousand pities.”
Continued: The Fourth of Several Parts