“What makes a man a king?” A young pauper asked as he sat on his father’s lap. They sat meekly on the side of an alleyway near the town square, under the shadow of a hill where a majestic castle stood. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the townspeople who never gave them more than a glance, they waited and prayed for a few sympathetic people to spare them a coin or two for their daily meal.
The father shifted his gaze from their cup, half empty with coins, to his son. He looked at his son with a thoughtful demeanor and replied in a hushed voice, “A man is a king when people believe he is.” The boy looked up at his father, confused, “What do you mean by that, Papa?” “You see, son, as long as someone believes that man is a king, then he is a king. One may sit on a throne, but if nobody believes that he is truly a king, then he is no king,” replied his father.
The young pauper stared at his father, filled with more questions. Truly his father was a wise man, despite living as a vagabond living in the streets, begging for alms. The boy pondered on his father’s words. He remained fairly silent except for a few words of gratitude he and his father uttered to the handful of people who dropped a coin or two into their cup. The day went on, and the boy leaned on his father’s arm as he watched the merchants in the market crying out their wares, the townspeople bought their needs for the day and occasionally some little trinket or a delicious treat. His eyes watered at the freshly cooked mutton chop on the corner of a merchant’s table. In his heart he desired to take it, run off, and eat it like a wolf would descend upon his prey. However, his father had taught him not to steal. Even in their squalor, it was important to have honor.
As the sun finally went down, the father picked up the cup and poured its contents on the palm of his hand. He meticulously counted each and every piece of silver they had accumulated for the day. The boy watched his father anxiously, crossing his fingers and praying that they had enough to buy food. His father breathed a sigh of relief, much to the boy’s delight. “Go to the baker man and ask him if he has anything left, and give him this,” whispered the father, handing his son the money. The boy took the money and waved goodbye to his father, then took off running to the baker’s shop before the baker would throw out the bread.
The baker whistled as he cleared up his shop for the night. His shop was unrecognizable after hours, so quiet and still after a long day of work. He picked up the leftover bread and walked outside to dispose of it before mold would set in. In the nick of time, the young pauper arrived just as the baker stepped out the door, carrying stale rolls and loaves that weren’t sold that day. “Excuse me, mister,” called out the boy in a tiny voice. The baker looked around and eventually found the short, scrawny figure that was the young pauper staring up at him with fatigued eyes. “Could I buy one of your loaves?” asked the boy. The baker took pity on the boy and beckoned him to come closer. “Pick the one you want, boy. Better you have it than the dogs.”
The young pauper smiled, and took great pain in choosing a loaf that would satisfy both him and his father. He took the largest one; it was still relatively soft and not as stale as the others. He reached out with his little hand and offered the baker the coins which he and his father had collected. The baker closed the boy’s hand and said “Keep it, you’ll need it for something else. I won’t take money for something I would throw out, anyway.” The boy stood there, shocked. His face lit up and exclaimed “Thank you, mister, I won’t forget this.” He waved goodbye and ran back to his father, coins in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, his face beaming with joy.
“Get out of here, you scum!” the young pauper heard a commotion from the corner of the alleyway where his father was waiting. He saw torch lights from the corner. And once he took a peek of what was going on, he saw two guardsmen, carrying torches and spears, standing in front of his father. One of them stooped down to where his father was sitting and growled in a raspy voice, “We don’t take too kindly to garbage like you in the square.” His father looked down and pleaded with the guardsmen, avoiding their gaze, “Please, sirs, I have done nothing wrong. Let me go in peace.” At that moment, a guardsman struck his father with the pole of the spear and shouted, “Don’t talk back to me! Who do you think you are, you damned beggar? How dare you?” The other guardsman placed his hand on his comrade’s shoulder and said, “Let’s go, we have to finish our patrol.” The first guardsman stood up and pointed at his father, “If I ever see you here again, I’ll have you flogged!” he exclaimed angrily.
As the two guardsmen walked away, the young pauper ducked into the shadows of the corner he was hiding in until he saw their torches fade into a different alleyway. He ran as fast as he could to his father who was nursing a small cut on his forehead. “Imbeciles, if only you knew,” whispered his father, under his breath. “Papa! Are you alright?” exclaimed the boy, his eyes welling up with tears. “I’m fine son,” said the father, “We better go somewhere else before they come back.” The father took the boy by the hand and walked away from the alleyway where they had been the whole day. “Why were they so mean to you, Papa?” asked the boy. His father looked down and replied with a pained smile, “It’s just their duty to keep the town clean, son. To them, we are not as clean and beautiful as they are.” The young pauper was visibly upset. “But why did they have to hurt you?” he cried. As tears rolled down the boy’s face, the father’s veiled pain melted away into a mask of stoic wisdom. “That’s just the way the world works. Men are cruel to one another. The strong prey on the weak, and the weak have no strength to fight back.” The boy did not fully understand the words his father said, but he was satisfied with the answer. Illuminated only by moonlight and flickering candles in people’s windowsills, the young pauper and his father trod carefully through the town’s streets so as to escape trouble.
They arrived at the top of a hill overlooking the town. There, they sat down under a large tree as the young pauper handed his father the bread that was gifted to him by the baker. The father held the loaf up to the heavens and got on his knees to give thanks for it. He did this every time they received a meal, and the boy could not understand why he does this and for whom, but he finds solace in seeing his father so solemn and vulnerable in a moment of peace such as the one he was seeing. His father then stood up, ripped the loaf in half, and handed the larger half to his son. The young pauper wolfed down his share; his father watched him with a smile, then soon took small pieces from his own half and started to feed himself. The young pauper had quickly finished his meal. Seeing this, his father decided to hand him what remained of his own share. The boy was stunned, he looked at his father, confused. “It’s okay, you can have it. I’m not that hungry anyway,” the boy’s father said with a smile. The young pauper knew that a lie hid behind his father’s kind smile, but it was wrong not to accept a gift from his father, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.
The father stared out into the night sky above the town. It was silent; the only thing that could be heard within their vicinity was the sound of stale bread being chewed by the young pauper. After he had finished, he leaned on his father’s shoulder as he usually did in their little corner near the town square. His gaze shifted toward the castle, whose lights shone nearly as bright as the moon and stars above. “If only you were a king, Papa. We would live in a big castle with lots of food with servants we could order around. And the soldiers wouldn’t bother us!” “I wish that sometimes, too,” laughed his father, “but we are gifted with freedom much like the birds that fly in the sky. If you were a prince, you couldn’t just go anywhere you’d like. There’s beauty even in what little we have. It’s a matter of making the best of what happens.” The young pauper smiled. His father truly was a wise man.
“You should go to sleep, son,” said his father. The boy couldn’t bring himself to sleep even if he shut his eyes. “Could you tell me a story, Papa? I can’t sleep,” begged the young pauper. His father beckoned him to rest his head on his lap. He looked up at the stars and began his tale. It was one that the boy had heard before, but he never tired of it. The tale of the king who had nothing.
Once in a faraway land, there lived a young king. He had a vast, rich kingdom and a mighty army under his command. The king had also asked for the hand of the hand of a young fair daughter of a duke in marriage. Their marriage was not only bound in power but in love. He had everything, except for one thing. This king wanted a son so that he might pass on everything he had and make sure that the people had a good king once he was gone.
The queen, however, was barren. She could not produce any children, which troubled the king. He could not sleep for many nights on end. “What will become of my kingdom and its people?” he thought. He prayed for days on end that he would be blessed with a son. Fate smiled upon the king. Soon, the time came when the queen became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a son. The king was overjoyed at first. However, tragedy struck as the queen soon became gravely ill and died shortly after her son’s birth. The king fell into a deep depression, and locked himself away in his queen’s chambers, hiding himself from the people. For nearly a year, he would only talk through a keyhole and receive food through a small opening in the door. He also refused to name his son out of spite. The boy was left in the care of nurses and maids at that time.
Almost a year after the child’s birth, word had come from the far east that an emperor from a distant land was on the warpath. Nobody could stop him. If a ruler did not pay him tribute, the emperor would destroy their city and take over what remained. The king received this warning from messengers of the great emperor. He refused to pay tribute, which led to tens of thousands of soldiers marching into the king’s city. With their leader hiding behind the castle’s walls, the city’s defenders were scattered and soon overwhelmed by the sheer might of the emperor’s army.
The king, knowing all was lost, stripped off his royal garments and ran into his child’s chambers to pick the boy up. He could hear the soldiers of the emperor storm into his castle. The screams of the helpless and the sound of steel clashing against steel could be heard throughout the halls. The king went to the cellars near the kitchens and crawled into the sewage system. There, carrying his son, ran through miles of unspeakable filth. The city’s invaders could not find any sign of the king, and decided to burn the city to the ground, hoping that the fire would consume him.
To this day, nobody knows where the king is. Some say he is dead, while others say he hides among the poor, common people. The king lost his wife, his city, and his power. He is no longer lord of that land, and he may carry no possessions, but in the deepest parts of his heart: he knows that he is king.
Once the father finished his tale, the young pauper stretched out his arms and yawned. As he chose a more comfortable position on the grass, with his head lying on his father’s lap, he mumbled sleepily, “Papa, even if we have nothing, to me you are king.” The boy closed his eyes and would soon be visited by the sandman. His father looked at his son, who was fast asleep.
Hidden away from the boy was the father’s despondent demeanor and downcast eyes. The father placed his hand on the boy’s head, and shed a tear for all that he could not provide for his boy. Quietly, he whispered a prayer for provision and guidance to help lift them out of their suffering. The father looked up and stared at the castle in front of the hill where they were. He felt a deep sense of longing and sadness, which he knew he alone would carry as he lived out the rest of his days.