Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Needle and the Knife

A short story in draft form hot off the espresso; check back for final revisions!

This story happened long ago, in a far off land, in a kingdom now long forgotten. In that distant place there lived a king; he was one of the kindest kings to ever walk the earth. He ruled his people with justice, with love, and with a tenderness that a father shows toward his children. Although he had the treasures of the earth at his disposal, he lived a modest life of virtue.

A virtuous man is always able to attract a beautiful woman and this king took as his wife a woman who was not only beautiful, but also kind, and industrious. Like her husband, she did not use her station in life to oppress people, but used it to improve the lives of others. Together they had a daughter possessing all of the gifts that her parents shared between them. Her childhood was spent developing those natural gifts and cultivating a saintly disposition. She was the greatest gift the king and his wife had ever received. She was growing into a fine woman and the king would have traded all of his possessions to preserve her goodness and innocence. It happens that when a man desires something as strongly as did the king, the fates intervene to swiftly grant his deepest wish.

While riding his horse through his territories, the king came across a man who had fallen into a well. He would have died for certain had the king not stepped down from his horse and pulled him out up into the light of day. The man he saved was a soothsayer, a sort of prophet of old, one who lived an ascetical life that weakened his body but strengthen his soul. With clarity of mind and soul, he could see things others would miss; it was this gift he used to repay the king for saving his life.

The soothsayer said, “I see you live a life of great virtue and that your kingdom is well governed. Our world does not well preserve kingdoms as great as yours. Instead it tests them to see how deep the virtue runs. As my gift to you I will tell your future. You can rest assured and live your days knowing that the virtue you have sown runs very deep indeed. It will last for all eternity and be spoken about for all generations that others may learn from your example. Your kingdom will soon be tested greatly, it first will be destroyed and then raised up again; the new kingdom will be far greater than you had ever dreamed possible. You will die before you see the second kingdom built, but you and your wife will supply all of the means necessary to see your fortunes restored. A mighty leader will rise up and will take from every surrounding king a portion of his wealth. Countless piercing blows will recall the memory of your wife, and your justice will be meted out sharply with a knife. By the sharpness of these tools and the skill of the striking hand, all other kingdoms will be brought low, and yours will rise to mighty heights.”

The king was troubled by the words and asked, “But what of my daughter, will she survive?” “She will indeed,” replied the soothsayer happily. “She will be the one to use the knife and inflict the piercing blows and by that restore your kingdom. She will marry another king and their kingdom will last for all eternity. Though it began with the spilling of innocent blood, no other kingdom will prevail against this one.”

With that the soothsayer smiled and conjured up a sandstorm that caused the king to shield his eyes. When the sand had stilled itself again, and the king was able to open his eyes, the soothsayer was gone. On the ride home he pondered all that had been said. He told his wife and she too was greatly troubled by premonition. They both had the practice of preserving a gentle spirit as far as they were able, and resisted falling into despair at the pending trouble.

That evening as they said good night to their daughter, they warned her of the soothsayer's message. She promised that she would never do anything to cause them shame. To assure them further, she took a vow to dedicate her life to God and forgo any temporal power; she would not do violence to other kings. That they could rest more easily, she vowed to remain a virgin so that no descendents of hers would ever rise up in order to seek revenge in the kings name. They kissed her gently on the forehead and as she went off to bed, they retired to attend to their usual evening tasks.

With their daughter's promise in their hearts, the king and queen felt a tremendous calm come over them. They sat close to each other working on their crafts as they often did in the evening by the fire. They sang to each other as they immersed themselves in the arts which they each had become skilled at doing. The king had a custom of carving small toys to give to the little children; he used a sharp knife with a jeweled hilt; he cherished the knife and kept it especially for this great restorative task. The queen sat stitching clothing with a golden needle; she would give the clothes as gifts to the children of the kingdom, distributing them personally as she walked amid them. Although they could have paid someone to make these things and often did, they never lost the love of making things themselves. The queen had handed down the talent of sewing to her daughter, and although she did not carve, she had learned from father how to sharpen the knife to a razors edge.

That night as the daughter lay sleeping and the king and queen were lost in their recreation, and thunderous herd of horses breached the walls of the kingdom. A rough band of blood thirsty savages took the palace by storm killing the king and his wife before they had any chance to realize what was done. Hearing the commotion, the daughter had the wisdom to stay hidden in her room until daylight. When she emerged to find her parents dead she knew the soothsayer's words were coming true, she was grief stricken but she remembered the promise she made to her parents the night before. She would not seek revenge and now with everything lost, she thrust herself into the arms of God, who alone could absorb a grief as great as this.

She fled, barefoot and dressed only in sackcloth, which she slept in at night for penance. The only thing she took with her was the knife from her father's hand now cold with death, and the golden needle still clenched by her mother's corpse. She took these to remember them and fled to the extremities of the territories her father had ruled so kindly. The needle she stuck into the hem of her sackcloth and the knife she kept hidden beneath a fold under the cord that formed a belt tied around her waste. With these possessions alone she traveled the earth, not dwelling on what was lost, but hoping always for a means of restoring her father's good name without resorting to violence.

Years went by and the woman bore the look of peace that comes only to those who have chosen mercy instead of vengeance. The greater the mercy they have shown, the greater the peace that comes upon them. She lived as a traveler, moving quietly from place to place, never calling any one place home. She survived by mending clothing, using her mother's needle to mend the tears, remembering her fondly each time the needle pierced the cloth; her work was exquisite and in the place that she had mended, you would never find another tear.

As the years passed, a new generation of kings grew up to take their place in the world. As it is said, the sons of great men are not always great men themselves. This new generation of rulers was weak and desperate to hold their reign of power. Their fathers had benefited from the good king's rule and he kept peace over such a vast territory, that all of the surrounding kingdoms were effectively his domain. None of the neighboring kings had to worry much about anything, and they grew lax in raising their children feeling that they would always have security. It is hard work to raise children and to raise virtuous ones capable of bearing the weight of a crown takes daily discipline and patient formation.

This present generation bore rudely the responsibility of their reign and as if to warn everyone of this point, the crowns and robes of their fathers did not fit at all. Their royal dress was as ill-suited to them as they were to ruling. The crowns were inevitably too small for their fat heads, and their robes too long. In fact the problem was not with the royal costume that had been handed down to them but rather with the way they treated their bodies. Their fat faces were made so by overeating, and taking excess food that in justice belonged to their subjects. Their bodies bore a hunched up shape like those of men too lazy to work. Their spines, like their personalities curve inward; they pitied themselves for feeling so desperate amid their riches.

It was the servant of one such king who came to the good king's daughter, pleading with her to apply her sewing talents to make a new robe for this particular king. He said he would bring her any cloth in the world, if she could outfit the king in a way that at least gave him the appearance of competence; how a man dresses greatly impacts the feelings both he and others have about his abilities. To dress appropriately is often the a sure sign one takes his duties seriously.

Coming to the palace, the woman felt a twinge of remorse, entering the large gates reminded her of her father's palace and the wisdom with which he ran his household and his kingdom. In her former home there had been a strong sense of order, of belonging and of love. That sense of home was not found in this palace, and the opulent displays of wealth seemed foreign to her, event though she more than anyone had a right to live in such a palace. She had long forgotten the wealth she once had access to; it seemed paltry when weighed in the scale against her parent's death. She was brought into the courtyard and through to the very chamber where the king sat with a sagging posture upon his throne. The offer to bring her any cloth she desired was made again, this time by the king himself. He said he would gladly bring in any of the finest silk or golden thread even if his army had to pillage a thousand villages to obtain it.

The woman spoke kindly to the feeble king and said that her skills were in mending, and that if she would leave the robes with her for 3 days, she would mend them in such a way that the finished garment would be far superior than anything made from new cloth. Although he was not accustomed to taking the recommendations of anyone, this king bent to the appeal of the woman, still barefoot, thin, and dressed in sackcloth, yet more beautiful than anyone the king had ever seen. When inner beauty springs from a purity found deep within, it cannot help but overflow out to the surface.

The king, already improved by her presence, asked what she needed to do complete the work. She said, “If you can provide me a small room, with a window large enough to let the moonlight in, I will complete the task in 3 days. I have everything I need.” The king did not think it was possible that she could make good on this promise. So little with which to work and such a small amount of time. Yet she firmly maintained she had everything she needed. He said, “I do not believe you shall accomplish this task but if you do you I shall pay you any sum you state.”

The woman went to a tiny room at the top of a tower that looked like a minaret. There the moonlight shone all around her and the fragrance of jasmine filled the air with heaven's scent. It reminded her of her mother and of a song she used to sing. The feeble king's servant carried the robe up the winding stair case and there left the woman alone with the garment to do her work.

She sat for many hours in prayer and contemplation, reflecting on the task at hand. Finally, as night was now approaching, she drew out her father's knife and sharpened it against the stone of the tower's wall. She ran her thumb across its blade and once she was certain it could be no sharper she she cut a single thread three inches up from the hem of the king's robe. Once cut, she pulled the bottom away rending the cloth swiftly and with a strength one would not expect from a woman who looked so gentle. She rolled up the fabric she had torn and placed it neatly to the side. Her mother had always taught her to keep her workplace tidy, and habits such as these live long in a person who learns them as a child.

When you tear a piece of fabric, the path of destruction will follow the path of the cloth's design. That is to say, the straightest line of fabric is not from cloth that is cut, but rather from cloth that is torn and is allowed to take as its finished edge one of the natural limits of a thread from which it was woven.

From this straight edge, she removed one more piece of golden thread. From the hem of her sackcloth she took her mother's needle. Threading the golden needle with the golden thread, beneath the golden stars, all shone brilliantly under the moon. What treasures we would posses if we but looked to heaven each night and counted there the jewels above our head. No princess found on earth could bear the weight of a crown so bejeweled. She held her head high; her stellar jewels were suspended by the heavens themselves, their weight resting on the velvet skies. Here her royal birth was not forgotten by the heavens, and God himself placed this crown of stars on her head each night.

When she ripped the robe, the sound of the shredding could be heard far below and rumor began to circulate that the woman was ruining the king's clothes. The peasants began to say she was making a fool of him by suggesting she could improve an old garment and in three days emerge with something better than before. That she could do this with seemingly nothing and working only from the light of the moon and stars seemed now a preposterous tale. The villagers, as is often the way among people who are poorly governed, began speculating, speaking, and spinning stories of their own about the woman, the king, and the embarrassment she would cause him.

The king wanted his servants to storm the tower and pull the woman from the task. He had to show his power to the people whose rumors where growing irksome. The servant who had originally called for the woman's help reminded the king of his promise to give the woman all she needed to do her work. What she said she needed was three days, and since this was only the night of the first day, to drag her from the tower would not only be breaking a promise, it would remove the possibility that the job might in fact be completed to the king's standards and according to the promise of the woman. Reluctantly, the king agreed to wait. When there is nothing left to do, waiting is an onerous task.

As so often happens when we are longing for something we want, time seems to stand still. The first day seemed an eternity, and the second twice as long. The king could not eat fearing at once the potential humiliation that would result if the woman had duped him, at at the same time he could not contain the hope that she might in fact make him appear as the king he longed to be. Unable to eat, he paced the ground beneath the tower, his mind swinging like a pendulum between and the bright hopes of a splendid future and the dark shadows of despair. He reflected on his kingship for the first time since it had been given to him.

Manic thrusts, from one extreme to the next, are often found in kings, in artist and in madmen, all suffering from the grand illusion that one gesture, one thought or one act will suffice to bring about a sudden and permanent change. Such change, even if it does come is never permanent and the best improvements to our lot are found not in grand momentous swings but in slow and steady plodding. In rhythmic subtle gestures that form a habit over years. Those habits lay the foundation for character and that character the cornerstone from which to build a life. This truth, and many more besides the good king's daughter knew well, and she had been working steadily all night at a pace that had just the proper amount of urgency for the occasion. She was not hurried, but neither was she lax; she pierced the fabric with the golden needle at about the same pace the sun moves across the sky. Fixing her eyes as the sun does upon the spot where it is, not where it has been nor where it will be soon.
On the morning of the third day, she made the final stitch in the hem of the new garment. She paused a moment letting out a gentle sigh of relief. It was perfect. I was exquisitely made and just right for the king. As she gazed upon her work, she looked up to heaven praising God for the gifts she had been giving. Lost in this prayer, she had not heard the footsteps climbing up the tower stairs. It was the king. Now almost breathless, he grabbed the robes demanded that his servants help him put them on. Nervously, the servants draped the garments on the king and adjusted them as he stood in the centre of the tower. They fit perfectly. The woman had made good on her promise.

The king was astounded at how the robe now felt on him. He took the woman by the hand and said,”I will give you anything you ask for making me look so much better! Anything at all!” The woman said, “I don't require anything, but if you would like to give me the scrap I cut from the hem of you robe, I will gladly accept it. I would hate to see so fine a piece of cloth go to waste and I'm sure some day I will find a use for it.” “That's it?” laughed the king. “I offer you anything, and you ask for the thing that would be thrown away? You can have it surely, but you must also accept a place at my court so that when I need you again you will be close at hand. You will have riches and privileges and honour.” “Thank you”, she replied “but I have had those things already and they do not last.”

The king would have spent more time trying to persuade her but by now his courtiers were surrounding him offering compliments and flattering words about his new appearance. The princess slipped away unnoticed and by the time the king had realized she was gone, she was nowhere to be found.
She wandered again living as she had before roaming from one kingdom to the next. The reputation of her work always seemed to arrive at a location just before she did. She was always kept busy mending the garments of kings so that they could fit them better. Each time she worked as before; each time the results were just as exquisite. She took as her only pay the piece that she had cut and that would have been thrown away. Along the path she stitched these pieces together and made a beautiful blanket, that brought together all of the kingdoms in a way just like her father had. She was pleased with her work, but not proud.

As the women was truly royal, it comes as no surprise that when the three Orient Kings met her on the way to offer their gifts to the new born king, they invited her to travel with them. She joined their caravan and after the kings had left their gifts, she stayed behind and offered hers. She gave the new born king the blanket she had made from the castoffs of all the robes that she had mended. Knowing this king would be the one to rule the world she devoted herself to him. Thus everything foretold by the soothsayer came true in the end.

The End

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