Many years ago there lived an emperor who had a heart so big and full of light it blinded him. Some may say there are many worse crimes than to surrender to the expanse of a guileless heart, and some others may know the fate of the blinded emperor.
He was the only son of a great old warlord and his wife. He came after years of wearying battles and lack, and seemed blessed from the moment of his conception. A time of calm followed his birth and swept through the land. He was a symbol of hope and peace that the people had longed for, whilst his mother had longed for the safe return of her husband each day of the wars. And as his parents felt so victorious with his arrival, they vowed to make his life one of celebration. They wanted to ensure his every desire was fulfilled and that he knew what glee there was to be had in life. With this vow, they locked away all their past afflictions.
The young emperor boy was fawned over and doted upon by all who came to see him. And who wouldn’t adore such a happy good-natured boy? He was taught to be gracious and appreciative of all he came into contact with. All the people in the land were so very thankful for the good life his birth heralded. Each year his parents marked the month he was born with a lavish party at the palace, where anyone who could entertain in any form was invited in to please the guests – from painters to acrobats and harpists to unicyclists. For weeks the palace would be filled with merrymakers and scores would line up outside the gates waiting to be called in. The land rejoiced as the aging emperor father and his wife did.
As the years went on, parents across the land began instructing their children to take up professions in the arts in the hope they might one day be invited to the palace to entertain the palace guests. And whilst there were still old tradesmen such as carpenters and bakers and merchants, the people of the land were encouraged to love their work, to take pride and passion in their daily chores. The carpenters made stairwells that swooped allowing people to glide off them; bakers made cakes that floated in the air before melting in the mouth; merchants sold wares they truly took delight in and passed on this mirth to their patrons. And of course everyone flourished. It was a time of prosperity and abundance. What a joy living was for all.
On the boy’s tenth birthday, to mark a decade of fine living, the grandest banquet yet was arranged at the palace. There were entertainers invited from all over the land, artists who had spent years honing their crafts. A jolly show master welcomed the guests and led the applause for the marvellous acts: there were angel-winged flutists suspended from the glassed atrium in the centre of the palace, masked fire jugglers on stilts, cartwheeling waiters and operatic ushers. Wine flowed from seemingly never-ending fountains and sweet treats could be plucked from every surface. It was certainly an elaborate show and the guests were amazed and thrilled at such a sumptuous display.
And then at midnight, the lights were dimmed for the final act. Everyone hushed and made a clearing in the centre of the atrium. A small steam train made of gleaming gold began to chug forwards into the centre of the palace floor. In each compartment there appeared to be a small person or perhaps child merrily waving – it was hard to tell whether they were real or simply lifelike dolls. They were dressed as soldiers, duchesses, clowns and queens. As the train chugged and put-putted further in, the last carriage came into view – attached to it was a giant gilded water lily.
The chugging of the train came to a halt and a silence fell over the guests. The show master clapped at the birthday boy and motioned him to step forwards. The boy stepped towards the water lily and inspected it in wonderment. It really was made of solid gold and had tiny details etched into every single inch of it. As he bent closer he saw there was a big clockwork key on one side of the lily. The boy turned the key but nothing happened. He tried again and once again, and then he heard a sound like the opening strains of an accordion. He then turned the key several times and was greeted with a bellowing sound that made him totter backwards.
The gold petals began to move slowly and he was close enough to hear the mechanisms of the flower begin to work. The petals gently eased open and there, inside the lily, was a little girl, prettily curled up in the centre. She stretched out her arms and inside her palm there was a pocket-sized replica of the golden water lily. She offered it to the boy who smiled and took it from her. He inspected this miniature version and noticed the tiny clockwork key. He wound it up and then a sweet soft music began to play.
The little girl stepped out of the water lily on her tiptoes and began to dance. Round and round she spun, her copper hair streaming around her to create an auburn glow. Her delicate pale arms wavered above her head, whilst her graceful legs moved as though they were one.
The guests were enchanted by the little dancing girl and tittered amongst themselves in appreciation. As she danced she smiled brilliantly at the boy with such sweetness that he was struck – spellbound and entranced – immovable as stone. When she finished her dance, the party began to disburse, but the boy remained, fixed to the spot. As the guests moved away from the atrium, he went forwards to where she had danced and knelt down, touching the cool marble floor stones. As he raised his hand he saw his fingertips were dusted in a fine golden powder. He brought his fingers to his lips and knew that he had been given the greatest gift he would ever receive.
The following day the boy asked that the girl be moved to the palace to dance every evening. She was brought to his chambers at dusk with her tiny gold musical water lily and she danced until the boy fell asleep well into the early hours. Every night was the same. He would settle himself in a mound of silken floor cushions, wind up her water lily and she would dance before him, her blazing hair swirling around her slight frame and beautiful smiling face. The boy’s parents expected the infatuation to wane over time as most little boy’s infatuations usually do, but the boy was loyal to his flame and saved every evening for her whilst his days took on a golden glow. He watched her dance – night after night, month after month, year after year. He was in love – madly, tenderly, irrevocably.
The sweetness of the boy’s love spread about the land and all rejoiced with him. What harm could his infatuation cause? It was so innocent and pure. A boy’s love. But his parents were old. They were old when he was born, older when he met his dancing light and now older still. Though all denied it, it was natural that at one point they would leave their son, their emperor boy would inherit the palace and have to take his turn in ruling the land. Those days came with much sadness but slowly they came, first the old emperor himself and then his good wife departed.
The palace council were perturbed – though the emperor boy was becoming a man, in so many ways he was still a boy, not educated in the courses of ruling a land. They prayed the happiness that had come with his birth would continue through his reign despite the sadness from the loss of his beloved parents. And for a time their prayers were answered.
The people of the land grieved their lost lord and lady but held faith in the new young emperor. And for a time the emperor heeded their advice and took into consideration their concerns. They stressed that at this difficult time it was of utmost importance that he take a wife in the hope of producing an heir to continue the line. They introduced a myriad of becoming women from neighbouring palaces, but the emperor refused to be unfaithful to his dancer. The council disapproved of his choosing a partner of such questionable origins, but eventually they had to concede – better he marry this dancing girl than none.
As a sign of respect for his parents’ recent passing, the wedding was a simple affair. There were no flying flutists, stilt-walkers, cartwheels or operatics. However as the sun set, burning the sky vermilion to black, the emperor wound up the golden water lily and his sweet bride danced through the night for all the guests to see. She had grown into an exquisite young woman, beautiful beyond words. And to watch her dance was mesmerising. She danced with loving eyes and smiles only for her groom. But for the first time the emperor suddenly became aware of all the enraptured eyes and smiles upon his new wife. His uneasiness grew as she spun around and around creating her golden whirl, and so he stopped the evening short, feigning tiredness.
The wedding night was sad and strained, the emperor weeping in the bed of his bride. He wept at his behaviour, at his losses and those he had suddenly started to fear he would face in the future. He vowed that night to use any means to keep his love just as he had in simpler times over the years. The land, the palace, all his riches – they meant nothing to him. With his parents now gone, she was all he had of any value in the world. She was his parents’ finest gift and he would do everything in his power to look after her.
In the days that followed the wedding the emperor instructed a secret chamber to be constructed leading from his bedchamber, accessed only via a small dark passageway with an even smaller iron door at the end. He insisted only one key was made for the door lock and he wore this next to his heart right up to his dying day. He filled the secret chamber with the finest tapestries, glittering crystals and ancient books from all over the world. A grand bed was carved from the best wood, adorned with silk drapes and jewelled-hued cushions and pillows. And in the centre of the room the floor was laid with gleaming gold tiles for his flame to dance upon.
And here she would dance for him, night after night and till long after the emperor had fallen asleep. When she was sure he was asleep, she would tiptoe over to the bed and wrap her aching body around his until she fell asleep herself. In the morning the emperor would wake up, cry with relief that she was still there and then leave the chamber, locking the door to ensure no one would be able to steal away his love. Then only as the sun went down in the evening would he return. Every night was the same.
The emperor’s wife understood the wretchedness her husband felt at the loss of his parents, he had known no pain prior to their passing. As well she understood his deep love for her and wish to keep her safe lest he lose her also. And of course she too had loved him since they were children, they had grown up together, he was all she really knew. So she said nothing and submitted to his will. She knew he had been brought up to live a life of joy and this she tried her best to give him.
But over time the splendid confines of her secret chamber began to lose their brilliance. The tapestries started to fray, the crystals dulled and she had read all the books from cover to cover. She looked at their luxurious bed and wept inside at the weight of heartache it carried. And that was not all. She had begun to change. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the sunlight, it ached her muscles and made her feel weak to ponder on it for long. She looked in a small hand mirror and noticed how ash grey her hair looked and how she had begun to lose her lustre. Her skin seemed loose and her bones felt frail and brittle. She was withering away.
She wondered if the emperor saw these changes, but when he came to her every night his eyes were misted full of love and longing. And every morning he woke with relief that he hadn’t lost her while he slept. As long as she was there, he didn’t see anything else.
One evening as the water lily played out its familiar tune, the once beautiful dancer was spinning around and around on the golden floor tiles and her weakened bones gave way as she fell to the floor in agony. The emperor was distraught and agreed – after suffering the harrowing whimpers of his wife – to allow the palace surgeon into the secret chamber. The surgeon’s heavy prognosis was that one of her crumbling legs had snapped right through and must be replaced. What horror. The emperor’s flame might never dance again. He resolved that he would have the land’s finest craftsmen create the most glorious unbreakable new leg for his sweetheart. His wife wept and knew that her husband would do all he could for her.
As she woke up after her new leg had been fitted, she looked down and saw it was made of solid gold. She didn’t have the heart to say anything to her husband when she saw how his face shone with happiness and pride. As days wore on she tried to make her new leg work but it was just too heavy. She spent nights dragging her frail frame across the floor in the hope of pulling herself up to dance, but it was no real use. She sometimes managed to pull her body up but then the weight of the gold leg would pull her down again. And then one fateful evening she heard a crack as an excruciating pain shot through her body. Her other leg had given way and she crumpled to the floor.
This time she pleaded with her husband to not use heavy gold for her new leg. She understood he had just been giving her the best he could, but she explained she needed something light if she hoped to ever dance again. It pained him to hear he had caused her such misery, and of course the emperor agreed he would find the best solution.
When she woke she discovered her two legs had been replaced with light wooden poles attached with metal screws and hinges. The emperor beamed at her through cloudy eyes and explained that the ends were shaped into points to help her spin faster when she danced. She searched his face and saw his love, his innocence and purity. She saw a face that had been sheltered from pain and inside a boy that had been raised on joy. He was blameless and she wept at the sadness and stupidity of it all.
And so in time she learned to dance for him again. Not as before certainly, for she struggled to pull her body up off the floor and she hobbled grotesquely on her pincer legs. But before his watery eyes and with the music tinkling, in some way in his mind, she danced. And he continued to love her blindly. He promised to take much better care of her from now on and would stay in the secret chamber for weeks on end, not venturing out or answering to the calls of anyone. He ignored complaints from his council that he was neglecting his people, that he was putting the palace and land in danger – nothing mattered but her. And eventually the council left the emperor and his wife alone. They knew they had lost reason with him and that his poor wife had no way to reason with him either.
The emperor could not see they were both getting old, that the years locked in the dark were not good for them. His eyesight was getting poorer and his health was failing. Some days he could not even move from their bed. Sadness dripped from the walls where the tapestries hung threadbare. And one morning he did not wake with relief that his dancer was still there. His wife tried to rouse him but there was no flicker of life. In desperation she took the key from her husband’s chest and dragged her damaged body across the floor. She attempted to lift herself high enough to reach the lock, but she was too small, far too weak and she kept slipping down by the doorframe. She called out for help long into the day and night, but no one could hear and no one came.
It took the palace guards two weeks to remove the iron door and break down the wall to the secret chamber. They found the small paper-thin body of the dancer wrapped around the emperor’s. He and the bed were dusted in a fine golden powder. And from under the bed they heard the tinkling sweet soft music coming from the water lily, the key turning around and around.
Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved
(First published in ‘Tales of A Lovelorn Clown’, 2013)