King For A Year
There was once a merchant whose only son had been saved from drowning by one of his slaves. The grateful merchant did not just grant the slave his freedom; he also gave him a ship filled with the best of everything and said, ‘Go to the lands across the sea – sell these things and all the money is yours to keep.’ The freed slave thanked his master and went off on his voyage.
But he did not get to sell anything. When he reached the middle of the ocean a storm rose and the ship splintered into a thousand pieces. All the sailors drowned and the precious cargo sank to the sea bed a hundred fathoms below.
The slave managed after much struggling to reach an island. When he recovered and looked around, he saw no signs of his ship or its crew. He was very crestfallen and sat down on the sand in despair. When evening fell, he got up and decided to walk inland. There were huge trees there, and then a vast grassland. In the very middle of that stood a great city. Crowds milled about the gates carrying blazing torches. As soon as they saw him they hailed them saying, ‘Welcome King! Long live the King!’ Everyone then greeted him with much pomp and put him on a ceremonial coach that took him to a huge palace. There the servants brought him clothes fit for a king and dressed him with care.
Everyone called him, ‘King!’ and scurried about to carry out every command. He was completely taken aback and thought he had gone mad and was imagining all of this. But gradually he found he was fully awake and full possession of all his senses. He then asked, ‘Why are you doing all this? I cannot understand why everyone is calling me King either or paying attention to every word I say?’
Then one of the oldest ones there said, ‘King, we are not people – we are all ghosts, although we all look just like humans do. Many days ago we had all prayed to be given a ‘living king’; because who else is as clever as a real live human? Since that day we have never had a day without a human to rule over us. Every year, a man arrives and we make him king for the year. Just the one year, mind you. At the end of the year he has to give up all of this and we take him back to the desert where there is nothing but a few fruits to be found and one has to dig through the sand all day to find a mug of water. And then a new king arrives and so on – this has been going on year after year!’
Then the slave King said, ‘Well, tell me – what kind of people have you had kings before I came along?’
The old man said, ‘They were all very whimsical and careless. They spent the whole year in fun and games without a thought spared towards what waited at the end of the year.’
The new king listened to all this and for a few nights he could hardly sleep for thinking about what would happen to him when his year as king was up.
He then called for the wisest men in the kingdom, and he asked them with great humility, ‘Please advise me – so that I can prepare for that horrible day at the end of the year.’
Then the oldest and the wisest of the old wise men said, ‘King, you came here empty handed and empty handed you must go – but you may do whatever your heart desires in this whole year. What I propose is that you should send experts from this country to your own and get them to build houses, plant gardens and plant crops. People will settle in the places where you will do this. As soon as your reign here is over, you can go there and start ruling them. The year will pass easily enough but what I propose is a lot of work; so start doing all the things as soon as possible.’ The king immediately sent off people to the faraway desert with all the things they would need – seeds to grow trees and fruits, seedlings, machines to drill wells and build roads, so that the desert could be transformed into a paradise.
When the year was over, the subjects took back his silk umbrella, his gold crown and his sceptre, stripped of his robes and put back his old rags before they put him on a ship and sent him to the land of the deserts. But it was no longer a desert, for it was filled with houses, and paved streets bordered by neat gardens. There were people in each house and they all came and took him to his palace and placed him on his throne with a lot of fanfare. The king who had ruled for just a year now prepared to rule for a lifetime.