The King’s View
“I’m done with that view. Show me something else,” the King ordered. Dutifully the King’s courtiers unfurled a scroll which appeared in back of the large wooden window frame that stood in the middle of the room.
“Not that one. Another!”
The courtiers unraveled two more before the King settled on a scene depicting a grove of giant sequoia trees. The King laid back and surveyed the scene. The path between the trees revealed burls on some of the redwoods with wood chips strewn across the dirt path and a sky that was barely visible under the huge branches. In the foreground a squirrel munched on a nut oblivious to the rest of the world. The King had never seen a squirrel before, and it was the fury creature which caught his eye rather than the enormity of the trees.
When the King tired of that image, he called for another. Behind the improvised window frame, the courtiers unraveled a painting of the desert. Mesmerized, the King demanded to know “Who painted this one? Bring him here.”
Mohammed, one of the Palace’s oldest scene painters, was brought before the King. Motioning with his arm, the King inquired, “Tell me about this one.” Mohammed took a deep breathe. How does one describe the magic of the desert to one who had never left the Palace, to someone who had only been shown the world through the makeshift window, and had no experience of nature or life beyond the rooms of the Palace.
At his birth, the windows of the Palace had been boarded up by the old King and Queen so that the young prince would never be tempted to venture out and would be protected from those who wished him harm, of whom there were many. The King, now in his late twenties, had never set foot over the Palace threshold, never seen his own stables, or felt the wind on his face. He knew nothing of sunshine or mountain lakes. Everything the King had ever seen had been through the images that the Palace painters had put before him.
Though the King was an intelligent man, understanding the deep mysteries of the desert did not demand intelligence, but something more visceral. Mohammed tried to describe the beauty of the desert as if talking to a blind man, which in some ways is exactly what the King was.
“Your majesty, the desert is a magical place with hot sands that can appear pink in a certain light. The wind creates ripples in the sand dunes that can break up the monotony of the endless expanse of land. Blinding gusts of wind will wrap around you like a lover’s arms until you lay down and surrender.
People who traverse the desert wear long flowing white robes to reflect the heat from the blistering sun. At times the sand is too hot to walk on, horses would burn their feet if they even tried. There are no roads in the desert, but instead people use camels to transport them and their goods in a long, slow parade. The stars are their only navigation system.
Despite the protective layers of clothe you wrap around your head, grit will find its way into your mouth, your eyes, and between your teeth. And you will be thirsty my Lord. There is nothing as parched as the lips of a man who is roaming the desert. Optical illusions-called mirages- appear, leading you to water that appear real enough only to evaporate when you arrive at their source. And when you drink the warm water from your canteen it is tinged with the taste of metal that is wet but never refreshing.”
The King leaned forward intent on learning more about this enchanted place of great beauty and great despair. When Mohammed was finished, the King asked “If it is as you say, why do men go there?”
Mohammed turned the question over in his mind before responding with an answer the King would not be able to understand, for he did not understand it himself. “No one goes to the desert alone,” he began. “A deep community is forged in a place like that and though you are never alone in the desert, each person who travels through the desert will be put through many tests. No one goes into the desert and comes out unchanged.” Finally, Mohammed concluded “I think, your Majesty, man goes there to find himself.”
While the King’s days in the palace were devoted to reading and reflection, they were not without entertainment. The King’s parents had made sure that he had adequate stimulation so the desire to go beyond the palace walls would not present a temptation. People from far and wide were brought in for tea or dinner, dancing or conversation. After the King’s parents had died, the Royal entourage had kept up this tradition so that the King would not grow bored.
Eloise had been brought to the King for just such a purpose. Although respectful in every way, she was a bit free spirited and spoke quite openly with the King. Her royal blood made her a princess in her own right but she was disinterested in the title and privileges that accompanied them.
“Where will you go next,” the King inquired as Princess Eloise had been detailing her adventures on an African safari where she had encountered the most magnificent and frightful creatures.
“I should think I would like to take to the seas on a voyage to see icebergs and glaciers, perhaps some polar bears and whales.”
“An adventure like that would take you very far away and I would not see you for a frightfully long time.”
“That’s true,” she said lowering her head so as not to see the hurt in his eyes. “But I could not live the life that you live, in a castle that you never leave. I follow my heart and my wide- open eyes. My soul needs to wander to be free.”
“And so it should,” replied the King as Princess Eloise took her leave.
Over the next few days, the courtiers were unsuccessful in finding any views that would lift the King’s sullen mood. Trampolines artists, chess matches, gourmet meals with fine wine also fail to engage him. The chitchat in the antechambers of the palace coalesced around the opinion that the King was longing for his Princess.
The King called for Mohammed. “Show me one of your views. One that I have not seen before.” Mohammed scurried out of the room to select a painting he hoped would restore the King to his usual humor. The King had tired of Swiss mountain lakes, vast tundras, breathtaking waterfalls. The King had been moved by the view of the desert, but Mohammed’s was inclined to go in the opposite direction and hung his painting behind the window frame while he waited for the King’s reaction.
“What is this?” asked the King as he studied the red awning and brass tables that shimmered in the sunshine, taking note of the crowd which spilled outside onto the sidewalk.
“It is a painting I keep in my room from a time I spent with my parents in Paris.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s called ‘a café’ my Lord.”
“And what purpose does it serve?”
“People go there to drink strong coffee as thick and black as oil from impossibly small cups. But somehow the amount is just right. They go there to meet up with friends and discuss politics and poetry, family and food. They go to laugh and have fun, to nibble a bite or sip a drink.” The King nodded as if he had a personal experience with just such of place, which of course, he did not.
“Do you think Princess Eloise might be at a café?”
“She might very well indeed.”
A few days later, at noon, while the household was busy preparing the midday meal, the King slipped out the front door and stood on the top step. He drew a breath, then lifted his chin and closed his eyes. For the first time, he felt a warm breeze blow lightly over his face. He took two steps down onto the garden path where the odor of the horse stables wafted in his direction. It was not a pleasant smell, but the King did not mind. He startled at his own shadow delighted to find that it was accompanying him.
As he continued down the garden path, he imagined people would think he had gone in search of Eloise. He knew that he would not be able to find her, and she would not want to be found. As he distanced himself from the Palace and his life, he contemplated all the things he would do. He wanted to row a boat, and climb a tree. He thought he would begin his new life by visiting a café. Anything could happen.