THE ENCHANTED CHAIR
So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as
And the moon be still as
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
– Lord Byron, Go no more a roving.
The steady beam of the sun that evening had begun to soften slowly and its silvery rays no longer burned the body but only settled on it soothingly like humid flurries; and with the gentle breeze of the sea wafting about with tiny debris on its wings; and the sonorous refrain of birds gliding above the sky, he knew that the evening was opportunely suited for his kind of work. So pulling his leather boots which lay close by his side, and which were still sleek from seldom usage, with their soft bodies encrusted with brown lacquer, he gently slid his legs into their slender soles; and taking with him as he rose to his feet his small hoe and fine basket filled with green seedlings, he quietly made for his little orchard just a few strides away from his home, where he planted fresh vegetables and tended lush flowers.
He was a florist and a vegetable grower in suburban Lagos. In his vegetable garden which was situated close to a little spring, he built himself a small hut under whose fine awnings he sought sanctuary when it rained, or when the sun became too unfriendly. But the sky today was so gay that he knew it would not rain, and the sun shone so mildly that he felt there would be no need for his hut. It was in this kind of whether that he did the finest work in his garden, but it never came always, though he anxiously awaited it. And now that it had come so unexpectedly, he was determined to put it to good use. He crouched down immediately over the huge ridges of earth he had made and quietly began to plant the floral seedlings in his basket into their enormous bowels, casting admiring glances at intervals over the many flowers that were already in bloom; and throwing his hand languidly to catch their shimmering petals and ponytails; and to feel their freshness: especially the pink roses which he loved so dearly, the alpine thistles that always tickled his palms, the Amazon lilies, climbing lilies, tapering lilies— all bursting with life and rich with sweet smelling scents. Looking across the lower end of his garden, he cast over the ridges the multitudinous vegetable seeds in his palm which he collected from his basket, so that they all scattered everywhere on top of the ridges and on the broad palms of plant leaves, and he hoped that none of the seeds fell beyond the boundaries of his garden, or into the sparkling spring.
The birds continued to sing their sweet songs mingled with the relentless rustle of the spring, and he felt the humid wind caressing his face, his bristles and his nostrils. A baby was crying a few poles away from where he was, and he could hear the voice of the mother trying to mollify him with lullabies and local hymns, and when he looked up in their direction he wondered whether the crying would ever seize, for it seemed, judging from the shrillness of the baby’s voice, that he was more in need of nourishment, and perhaps, an agreeable playmate and fresh milk, than he was of local lullabies and hymns. After a little while within which time he was deeply absorbed in his work, now ever more determined to go farther in his planting than he had earlier planned, ignoring at that point the plump grasshopper that had just descended from a nearby shrub into his basket and was nibbling away quietly at his vegetable seedlings, ignoring also the yellow butterflies that had settled on his shoulders and were crawling slowly up his neck, fluttering their broad wings as they crawled (and he seemed to be enjoying the tingling sensations produced on his nerves and follicles by the tiny legs and soft wings of the butterflies), so that he wished they would not go away; and, for a while, lost in momentary raptures, he became unaware of himself and of what he was doing; unconscious even of the vegetable seedlings in his palms and the fact it was he that was planting them, so that he did not know when the friendly butterflies flew away and the little baby stopped crying.
He knew that the baby’s mother must have pressed something edible into his mouth after he had cried so inconsolably, maybe a biscuit, he thought, or a ripe banana, or some other nibbles; or better yet something, although not edible in itself, but was nonetheless sufficiently soft and tender by which something edible can be passed into the mouth of a baby, like a feeding bottle by which a baby suckles pap or suckles tea, or her mother’s nipples, by which he suckles milk. And just when he thought the baby had finally stopped crying so he can work with a settled mind, he began to hear his tiny voice echoing across the spring, but his crying, this time, came only in short snatches; and his voice was no longer rasping but soft, and he imagined that the baby must be chewing something sweet indeed, and wondered why he was still crying despite the juicy morsel in his mouth, and despite that he was enjoying the morsel. The baby kept on whimpering in soft watery tones, and at measured intervals— eating whatever it was the mother had given him and crying at the same time. He thought that this baby must have a definite streak of ingratitude to his character, for in his own reckonings, the baby had not shown any considerations at all for the mother’s sufferings, who, at that time, he imagined, was also at her own garden maybe tilling the ground, or watering her vegetables, or mowing the weeds that must have sprouted from the ridges in her garden. He imagined that mothers are quite awesome and perhaps the noblest of all creatures. The resilience of their will and stoutness of their spirit awed him. Their ability to willingly take on immense sufferings and to sacrifice so much for their children, at their own expense, and for the sole purpose of advancing the family’s fortunes made him wonder. He imagined that the whimpering child must be strapped somewhere in the mother’s back, thereby adding to her burden, including the burden of the garden. He shook his head silently, and the incident called up in him old memories of childhood, in those early days when he was still a teenager, their neighbour had given birth to a baby boy on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence and she was ecstatic with joy. In those days their town was not very safe for newborns because it was filled with idle women and elderly men with scary eyes, grey hairs and fiendish toenails; especially their own compound which people said was a coven of witches, and the compound of their neighbours which they thought was a phalanx of wizards, and then the small river in their town which had a profusion of white sand, was their concourse where they had their congresses at night, and sometimes in the early mornings: howling and shrieking ecstatically, feasting on the blood of their victims, especially newborn babies, whose fresh sap of life, according to legends, was their staple diet. The men in their community usually married many women and when they died, their eldest sons inherited their young wives in addition to their own wives, so that every compound was normally filled with people and the atmosphere was always alive with mutual suspicion of witchcraft and evil intent. And because their community was girdled by rivers and streams, and their people were mainly fishermen and women, almost every compound was usually suspected of harbouring one witch or another. Their neighbour, who loved her baby so dearly, and who was also a good Christian, or better still a half-hearted Christian, did all she could to protect her baby from the fangs of these forces. She burned incense day and night and from morning till dawn; she rubbed a certain cream on the baby’s body which was said to have the power to repel witches and to ruin witchcrafts; she prayed as well and normally sprinkled her baby with holy water in the morning hours, and at nightfall she would smear him with olive oil. The baby continued to grow, such a handsome chap he was at that time, and the mother loved and pampered him exceedingly, though he was always crying and sobbing. After some years she spent breeding and nurturing her baby, shielding him from the swords of witches and from the paws of night marauders, watching him with raptures as he learned how to crawl on the ground, admiring the playful way he grasped her utensils with his little fingers— babbling and giggling happily as he crawled up to mummy; and when the baby had grown some years later, she was painfully shocked when she realized the baby was actually an imbecile. But she pampered him still, and showed him even greater affections, and never allowed the fact of his deformity detract from the tender love and fondness she had for him.
A gust of wind came by and gently roused him from his reverie. Then he dipped into his basket and flung the tiny vegetable seeds in it towards the south end of his garden. Looking down the lower end of the spring, his roving gaze caught the nudity of a young girl whom he imagined must have finished working on her own mother’s garden and was now washing her body in readiness to go home. She was fair in complexion, with a slender figure and long curly hair, and her body glistened with natural beauty. “In which hidden garden had she been working since morning that he did not see her up until now?” he thought. He wondered which of the farmers in that vegetable grove could have begotten such a gorgeous girl. Straining his eyes further, far beyond the stretch of his own garden, and beyond the reach of the shrubberies, he fancied that the girl’s young breasts, which were still in bloom, were as plump and beautiful as the blooms of his pink roses and Amazon lilies, and that her slender arms which she threw about the spring in graceful waves, were as elegant as the foliage of his own flowers. A rabbit scurried down the spring, and another one followed immediately: they were now two in number, very fat and plump, and he wished he came with his sling.
He bent down again to resume his planting, but felt at that point a sharp searing cramp somewhere around his waist, and an overwhelming sense of lethargy slowly engulfed him; so that with the soft beam of sunlight falling steadily upon his head, the lulling whirr and drone of the august wind, the sweet song of birds gliding overhead, and the soothing spring— all made him feel intensely weak and drowsy, and he said he must go over to the hut in his garden to have some rest. He shambled out of the garden beaming with such happy smiles, as like a little boy whose mean father, after several hours of boring studies, told he could now go and play; or better still the way an adventurous damsel shambles out of their home into the waiting arms of the society when she finds that her fussy parents are out of the country.
There was this magical chair in his garden made of strong ropes and fine woods, which looked like a chaise longue, with soft cushions on its broad base and a cozy armrest and a headrest; which stood beguilingly in front of the hut, overlooking his fresh vegetables and flowers with its charming countenance, and he imagined that this enchanted chair, as he often called it, which had lain out there for so long in that boring grassland— in loneliness and solitude— must be in need of a happy company, and so he sallied forth to offer him his company forthwith. He cradled his basket with his left arm, and grasping his hoe by his right, strode towards the enchanted chair with a smiling face. He placed his basket under the warm shadow cast by the broad eaves of the hut, away from the reach of the rays, so that his vegetable seedlings and the delicate tendrils of his flowers would not wilt under the sweltering beams. He pulled off his leather boots and gently cast them aside under the shadows. Then he slid onto the enchanted chair and stretched out himself languorously upon it like someone in a beach.
Indeed whenever he sat on or lay upon this grey elongated chair overlooking his lush vegetable garden, festooned with his exotic flowers, and the rustling spring; he often felt as though he were in a real beach, for he did not imagine there was any other beach more soothing and natural than the one in his vegetable garden. He adjusted himself comfortably on the headrest and flung his arms on the cushion. He would only rest for a while, he murmured, after which he would continue with his planting. He craned his neck down the lower end of the spring to see if the young girl was still there washing her body, but she had already gone. He knew that it could not have been very long since she left and wondered which way she followed that he did not see her when she left. But this was a vegetable grove, he reflected, a grassland filled with many trees and pathways; she could have followed any of the narrow pathways nearest to her home. He sighed wearily and then closed his eyes in splendid bliss. He was feeling sleepy, but he did not want to sleep, he only wanted to rest for a while and then continue with his planting. His eyes were still closed but his eyeballs kept on rolling within his eyelids, his nostrils flaring and his lips twitching in raptures as he savoured the serene garden, and the endless rustle of the sparkling spring; the soporific breeze, as well as the trees which kept on caressing his cheeks, so that his face shone with bright smiles as he lay on the enchanted chair. He was still musing with himself and relishing the splendours of the garden when he slept off.
Now everywhere remained calm, but the trees and shrubberies kept on whistling in low tones as the wind droned away. It was then afternoon in his homeland, and many men in their neighbourhood were seated in their various compounds conversing with their wives and children as they were wont to do. The day was sunny and the wind was cold and his own mother was about to start cooking their evening meal. He wanted to surprise her that afternoon. So he gathered his net and copper hooks, and another big rubber bottle filled with warms and fat roaches which were the baits he used to entice fish away from their cocoons and crannies into the claws of his hooks, and into the snares of his net; and with them in his hands, he made straight to the lake in their village where his kinsfolk did their fishing.
It was such a huge shimmering lake, and was so enormous that it stretched beyond the boundaries of his homeland, beyond the vast network of bridges in their town, and it coursed down through the foot of the towering mountains in the outskirts of their town, joining another magnificent river which flowed down south. Sometimes he wondered whether it was actually supposed to be called a lake, or a sea, because when he stood at the shores and threw his eyes far above the lake as he normally did, he could scarcely make out where it ended; though he definitely saw the gigantic heads of mountains huddled up together like a league of fiery deities overlooking the lake and his homeland with a proprietorial glare. When he arrived at the shores of the lake, no one else but he alone was there, and he became vaguely afraid and wanted to go home immediately. But then the lake-view was so magical and was bristling with the beauty of nature; and the translucid sun, which shone ever so softly, had successfully lured the numerous species of fish in the lake away from their ancient hearths, to the bank of the lake, where they now flit about and dance around in the soft beam of the sun, so that he could not resist the urge to remain there. There were numerous canoes in the bank of the lake and each belonged to one of his kinsfolk who used it for fishing and with which they ferried travelers and tourists from one end of the lake to another. He climbed onto one of the canoes, actually the one that belonged to his father, and then began to row with it to the lower edge where the big fish stayed. He was about to throw his baited net when he noticed the strong sultry wind blowing from behind him, pushing trees aside, raising enormous swirls of dust and leaves over the lake. The wind continued to blow so violently that it began to row his canoe toward the middle of the lake, the deeper end; down the bridge in their town, through the foot of the mountains, until he found himself in the middle of the lower river which flowed more rapidly; rowing and pulling his canoe along to a place he did not know. He screamed and yelled for help, but no one heard his voice because the whole place was lonely and wore the terrifying appearance of a desert. The birds were fleeing for their lives, the numerous species of fish that had come out to warm their bodies in the sun had all disappeared, the crickets had crawled back into their burrows, the men of his village must have all dispersed and retired into their various huts with their wives and children, and his mother must have finished cooking, waiting for him to return, — he was the only one out there in the lake, ensnared in the turbulent storm. It did not take long before the rain began to fall. It was such a heavy rain and it descended down the earth in violent torrents. The lake began to swell and soar in the wake of the rain, rippling turbulently with violent waves, stretching deeper and deeper into the recesses of the forests, overrunning the grasses and shrubs in the fringes; and the dark green algae that coated the surface of the water like a polythene sack—the lakeside mushrooms, the dulses and scum, had all been sundered in the howling wind. The rain fell in torrential sheets and the storm rocked the canoe with relentless malice— it was as though the world was on the brink of the apocalypse. He covered himself and his canoe with a tarpaulin so that it would not become filled up with water and thereby sink into the lake. He was gravely terrified, and his heart kept on racing violently as his canoe wobbled from one end to end, flowing down the dale with alarming speed to a place he did not know. After several hours of deadly downpour, the rain slowly began to relent, and by the time it finally came to a halt, it was already midnight. But the water continued to flow down the broad runnel with amazing speed, rowing his canoe along with it.
He did not exactly know where he was, but he fancied that he was in a valley, a wooded valley; and the river continued to flow down the valley. He used his tarpaulin to cover his body and closed his eyes as the canoe sailed smoothly. The birds were chirping on the trees and he could hear the whistling of insects in the grasses. It was a lovely night, he sobbed, spent in the middle of a river flowing with grace. He saw a silver-coloured briefcase sailing along his side and was amazed at the strange object. He rowed his canoe a little closer and grabbed the briefcase with his hands. It was a sleek and exotic case, and he imagined it must belong to one of those foreign sailors who brought goods into the country from Whiteman’s land; and that perhaps the owner of the case might have died, or that his ship might have been drowned in the storm. He was gazing intently at the briefcase, admiring its glossiness and silvery sheen, and wondering most anxiously what it was that was inside it. It may be shipping documents, he reflected, and the receipts of the goods they were carrying, and other sale of goods papers that sailors routinely carried along with them as they cruised from country to country. He held the briefcase aloft, shook it frantically, trying to divine the contents and to know what it was that lay hidden in it, but he did not hear any noise, though he imagined that the briefcase was portly and quite heavy. He tried to open the case but did not know how to go about it. In his curiosity he began to batter at the case using the oars with which he paddled his canoe, and when, after feverish attempts, he successfully opened it, he was pleasantly startled by what he saw: wads and wads of British pound sterling— crisp, sleek, sizzling with the fresh smells of newly printed currency— all tied together and neatly arranged in orderly rows within the capacious bowel of the briefcase, and with the elegant seal of the Bank of England boldly emblazoned on them. He was breathless, and his tongue became watery with excitement, and he could not believe this was really happening, anymore than he could persuade himself that he was not merely dreaming. He glanced around furtively, just to ensure that no one was within reach of his canoe, or his eyes or ears; and when he was satisfied that no one was in the vicinity of the river, he let out a loud excited scream.
After some time he spent admiring and caressing the crisp currency, he began to think about what he would do with the money, about how prudently he would spend this rare fortune; and now that he was considering it, he said he would first of all build a house for his mother, an excellent house that could properly be called a home, with all the good things of life fitted in it; and then he would open a grocery store for her in their town which would be the biggest store in their own district; and of himself, he reflected he would in the mean time travel abroad to the Whiteman’s land to study in his country, and learn his language, which according to his father was power; and to eat his food and drink his wine. But when he reflected further on the possibility of making the acquaintance of white ladies; those lovely and cheerful creatures he had once or twice seen on the television screen, with their smooth willowy bodies and neatly chiseled nostrils, their pink lips and scarlet dimples and cheery eyes; he closed his own eyes in ecstasy to savour the delightful thoughts, and then opened his mouth wide, imagining that he was already in the Whiteman’s place, eating his food, which no doubt must be delicious, and would invariably be leavened with some cheese and apples; and drinking his wine with some transparent tumbler, and a pipe, and with a sliced lemon placed on the rim of his tumbler, dripping it’s succulent juice into his wine for flavour; and he would be seated in a seafront or in the front of some waterfall, with the charming wind and icy mountains, in the gay and happy company of white ladies.
He was still sleeping in his canoe, his lips slightly parted in raptures, when he heard a grating sound at the base of the hollowed wood and he realized when he uncovered himself, that the little craft had anchored itself at the foot of a rock near an unknown island.
The sky had not yet cleared completely from the darkness of the previous night, and the birds on the trees, along with other creatures of the forests, were still having their early morning benediction when he alighted from the canoe, with his sleepy eyes and full lips still glowing with faint streaks of saliva from the night. He recalled with gratitude how he nearly died the other day when his canoe got stuck in a turbulent storm and how he had quietly resigned to faith when the storm became too unbearable, tossing and hurling his craft violently from one side to another, and he quietly covered himself inside his canoe; and in the midnight, when the storm finally dropped, he had fallen asleep, only to be awakened this morning in an island he did not know. He pulled his canoe out of the river which now flowed into a sea on the threshold of the island and firmly secured it in a rock. He sat down on the rock, and was looking over the sea, which had a faint blue colour on its crystal surface and also deep down, just like the crystal colour of the sky in the wake of the rainy season; and he was amazed at the interminable stretch of sparkling water, the sheer boundlessness of the sea, and he could see the waves rising and falling as though falling from the sky or from a fountain in some tropical mountain, and rising from a spring in a wooded lowland bordering some lush green meadow; and he felt the cold wind of the sea settling on his face, and smelt its frosty freshness with his nostrils. As the day was getting brighter and brighter and the grey hues of the morning being cleared by the rising sun, he began to hear the soft touch of someone’s feet upon the fine sands of the island descending down to where he was. He did not know whom it was, was not even sure it was a human being; but the soft gentle feet kept on strolling down the sandy island with such pleasing grace and grandeur, and he became afraid and could not turn around, for fear it might be some dangerous animal or a spectre from the sea world. When he lifted his eyes he saw the graceful shadow of a young maiden cast upon the surface of the sea waters, with her long curly hair nestling on her shoulders and her hands clasped across her belly, her head inclined down behind him as though she had seen a god.
“Good morning, my noble King,” the young maiden greeted, still gazing at the fine sand of the island. “I am happy you have finally arrived.”
He was struck by her soft voice which rolled down his ears like music, and when he turned round to see the young maiden whose voice he’d just heard and whose splendid features he’d seen on the sea, he was pleasantly charmed by her appearance and for a while he did not utter a word in response, but only kept on wondering whether she was really a human. And, looking now at her light skin, her height and her graceful bearing; he fancied she must be the queen of some unknown kingdom, or an empress, but he finally arrived with the decision that she must be the goddess of the sea.
“But I am not a king,” he replied with alarm. “My name is Benjamin, I am from Bonny; a riveraine kingdom in the south of Nigeria.”
“I know who you are, my King,” said the young maiden, “and I know where you come from. But now that you are here, on the shores of this great sea, marooned in this island, you have hence become my king; keeper of the sea, owner of the island and the Greenwood Castle, and my noble lord and husband.”
Benjamin was overwhelmed by her charming words; she had said so many sweet things in a short while and he would have been blushing heavily if he didn’t have a chocolate complexion.
“Greenwood Castle?” he said, “What is that?”
“It is my father’s kingdom, on the pinnacle of the island, bequeathed to me when he died.”
“You own a castle?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And you live there by yourself?”
“No,” replied the princess, now lifting up her eyes; she settled her gaze slowly on Benjamin’s face and for the first time he saw her eyes starring directly into his. “I have many servants and wards, and the citizens of my kingdom work in the castle.”
Benjamin was greatly amazed. He stole a curious glance at the top of the island which was adorned with white sand, and he could not believe there was a kingdom on the pinnacle of that island anymore than he could believe there was a castle in that kingdom.
“It must be a very busy kingdom then,” Benjamin observed.
“Yes it is, and the citizens are friendly, too.”
“So what is the name of your kingdom?”
“Numidia,” she said. “The kingdom of Numidia.”
“That sounds like a great kingdom. I’ve never heard of it before, though I’ve never heard of many kingdoms in my life, apart from Bonny, the one in my country.”
The princess laughed. “It’s a great kingdom,” she said casually, “I know you will like it.”
“Why are you out here alone, in this lonely island, without any maids or servants?”
“My orderlies are up there,” she replied, “waiting for me to arrive with their king and master.”
Benjamin did not understand what she meant by king and master, more so when she addressed him as her noble lord and husband. He was curious, curious to know many things—her name, to see her kingdom and what it looked like, and especially to see her castle; and to understand what she meant by her king and husband and noble lord as well. But Benjamin did not want to push her with too many questions. He imagined that that may be the way young maidens of their land welcomed male strangers in their kingdom, by calling them their husband and noble lord. There are as many cultures in the face of the earth as there are kingdoms, said his father, long time ago; and as many languages as there are tribes. One should always adjust when he finds himself in unfamiliar climes.
“When my father the King died seven years ago,” the Princess said, “he had no son of his own, no heir to succeed him to the throne; and my mother, the Queen, had died the previous year when I was eleven years old. I was then too small, and could not be crowned the ruler of the kingdom in my father’s stead. Bassey, who was the king’s adviser, became the Regent of the kingdom and has been holding that position on my behalf for seven years now. He will relinquish the throne, according to tradition, when I become of age. In three days time, the entire kingdom will be commemorating the seventh anniversary of the King’s death, and the nineteenth anniversary of my birth, in which day, and by which time I shall have become nineteen years of age. And it is at this age that a prince or princess of Numidia is deemed fit and mature to assume the throne of the kingdom….”
“Are you saying in the next three days you will become the Queen and Ruler of Numidia?” Benjamin said impatiently, with a curious and excited face.
“Yes, that is how it ought to be,” the Princess replied, “but Bassey, the Regent, will not hear of it. He said he would not in all conscience hand the rule of the entire kingdom over to a teenage girl, that it would place the throne in great peril, and the entire kingdom in jeopardy. He is very good with words, perhaps the finest orator in Numidia, and council members agreed with him.” The Princess looked down to hide the melancholy on her face. He was a stranger, whom she did not know before now, but in spite of that she had already lost her heart to him, and she wished he would hold her by her waist, pull her close to his breast and give her a warm and comforting hug.
“So he has stolen your father’s kingdom from you,” Benjamin said, and felt sorry for the Princess.
“No,” she replied, coming closer to where he was. She quietly sat by his side, upon the rock on the foot of the island, and Benjamin caught the fragrant whiff of her perfume and the rich delicious smell of the cream she rubbed on her skin. “He did not steal my father’s throne from me. Bassey is a wise man and was very loyal to my father when he was still alive. He is only doing it in the interest of the entire kingdom, to protect it from attacks by the neighbouring kingdoms and buccaneers who constantly assail our fortresses, trying to plunder our gold reserves, and to conquer the kingdom of Numidia so they can take control of our oil fields and diamond mines.”
Benjamin’s head swelled up and shrank again in raptures at the mere mention of these vast treasures. He stole another curious glance at the top of the island and wondered whether the Princess was not merely sharing a joke with him, or telling him one of their local fables or fairy tales by which they entertained strangers, and introduced them into the vast riches of their oral tradition. For he can hardly believe that up there on the top of that island existed all these treasures she had enumerated. But the Princess was a gentle soul, and her candour was almost palpable; he could feel the truth of her words with his fingers and could literally taste it with his tongue and lips. He imagined it must be a rich kingdom, the kingdom of Numidia, in the sandy island, bordered by the great sea, in which part of the world he did not know. He glanced at the Princess’ hands and saw the golden rings on her fingers, and the bangles on her wrists, and the rich necklace that was strung around her neck, with a diamond pendant which dangled above her chest.
The princess wiped off the small patch of sand on her gown, straightened it out and then continued: “But Ebenezer the High Priest has decreed that Bassey must relinquish the throne to me once I find a husband of my own choosing who shall become the King of Numidia, and I, the Queen; and who, according to the customs of our land, shall be the keeper of the sea, the owner of the island and the Greenwood Castle with all the vast treasures and riches in it.”
Benjamin was looking at her intently, struggling to hold himself from swooning and falling into the sea.
“He also said,” pursued the Princess, “that the man who shall be my husband, and the next King of Numidia, will be a stranger sailing from the west of the continent, from a faraway land; and that one day, I shall find him at dawn, seated on a rock at the foot of the island overlooking the great sea. And since then, for the past seven months, I have been coming here alone, every morning, in search of my husband and lord. And today, may heaven bless this day, for in finding you, my love, Numidia has found its new king and the ancient throne of our kingdom will finally be restored to where it rightfully belongs.” She encircled Benjamin with her arms and nestled her head upon his shoulders. For the first time in his life Benjamin was genuinely stunned and short of words. He simply shut his eyes, and with the dim glow of smiles on his face, quietly embraced the princess.
As they climbed up the sandy island, the cold sea-breeze wafted across their faces, leaving them with its refreshing dews, pulling at the Princess’ pink coloured gown, with the grey lace on her collar, and the one around her waist, and by which her short sleeves were beautifully adorned. He was holding the Princess by the hand as they climbed, and within that short while, he wondered what a small and lovely world they lived in, a world full of exciting treasures, sweet-looking damsels and beautiful creatures; a place, where people, wholly unknown to each other, completely unfamiliar and from different climes, meet one another in some memorable place that providence alone divines, and after a short while in which they made acquaintance, they were now holding one another by the hand like old friends, climbing some steep island which looked like a sandy mountain; and looking into the bright sky, they could both see the cheery prospect of a happy union. As he amused himself with these thoughts whilst holding the dainty hand of the Princess, it occurred to him just then that up till that moment, the Princess had not told him her name, and that he had not even bothered to ask her about it. He swallowed the little puddle of saliva that had collected in his mouth, moistening his dry throat, and then he said: “You haven’t told me your name, my friend.”
“Awwn!” the princess gasped delicately as they rolled over the sand, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before now. My name is Lillian,” she said, “the daughter of King Zacky James, king of Numidia.”
“Oh!” Benjamin exclaimed, “How sweet your name sounds—Lillian, the Princess of Numidia.”
“You are funny,” Lillian observed excitedly.
“Am I?” said Benjamin.
“Yes, you are.”
When they got to the peak of the elevation, Benjamin was awed when he beheld the enormous plains of the island, its sheer vastness and limitless landscape, now undulating here, now straightening out there, with beautiful houses and trees lined on the fringes, built in orderly rows; and hundreds of people going about their daily affairs, and he could not believe that such a place ever existed on earth.
“Waoooh!” he exclaimed again and again, “This place is beautiful.”
“I told you!”
“It’s lovely— look at those lowlands, look at those trees… look at those grasslands….”
He moved forward to admire a small brilliant tree that was standing nearby, with its branches bursting with sweet-looking red fruits.
“Are these peppers?” Benjamin said, feeling the fresh fruits with his fingers.
“No,” replied the Princess, smiling brightly, “they are cherries… sweet cherries.” She said, reaching out her hands and plucking some of the plump fruits. She threw one into her mouth and it dissolved quickly on top of her tongue. And then she pressed another one gently between Benjamin’s lips and it filled his mouth with its honeyed juice. And just then, still licking this delicious fruit, he recalled one memorable phrase he had heard in the past, some years back, about a land flowing with milk and honey and he had wondered where that land actually was; and now that he was here, in this wonderful place, founded on the pinnacle of an island, surrounded by a blue shimmering sea, with its vast undulating landscapes and lush grasslands, he could not think of any other land flowing with more milk and honey than the kingdom of Numidia.
Part of the things that struck him was the well paved alleys and smooth lanes of the kingdom, coated with tar and with different types of houses on either side. As he was busy admiring the luscious scenery and licking the sweet cherries the Princess gave him, there arrived at that moment a four-wheeled royal carriage drawn by two well groomed horses, with another three fine ones behind on which the princess’ maiden attendants and orderlies rode.
“My people are here,” the Princess said. “It’s time to go.” When they entered the carriage, the horses trotted at a sedate pace along the solid plains of the island bordered by tall trees, and as they rode through the alleys, the citizens of the kingdom began to wave at the princess’ wagon, singing songs of praise and throwing fresh flowers on the road.
“You must be very popular with your people,” Benjamin observed leaning towards the Princess.
“Yes,” she said waving at the admiring citizens.
“They are very much in love with you.”
“So were they with my father.”
Benjamin leaned backwards on the carriage and was evidently enjoying the ride, was enjoying himself, looking at the network of brick houses, the swaying palm trees, the great many alleys and boulevards, and the lively and rollicking citizens all filled him with bliss, and he wondered again as the wagon glided by, what hidden treasures there are on earth, the many places of adventures; and the provincial man, with his narrowness of mind and vision, confines himself in his own country, thinking it the best, quite ignorant of the immense fortunes and adventures that abound in other places. Who in his homeland would ever believe, and not regard him with suspicion, or reckon him totally mad, if he told him that he chanced upon a kingdom founded on the plains of an island, with beautiful houses and maidens and fruits? He noticed that the citizens of the kingdom rode mainly with horses and cabriolets, and the more wealthy ones pursued their occupations on carriages. There were no cars, there were no fumes and smoke and noise. It was a perfect kingdom, he thought, filled with peace and serenity.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“The castle,” replied the Princess. “We are almost there.”
As they rode, he thought about what the Chiefs of Numidia would do when they saw him with their Princess, and whether the people of Numidia would welcome him in their midst, or regard him as an intruder or enemy of the kingdom. He felt a sudden rush of fear sear through his spine, but he held himself together, and pretended to be in high spirits: he did not want the Princess to notice his unease.
They were still a little far off from the heartland of the kingdom when he began to see the solid outlines of the Greenwood Castle. When he beheld its vague forms for the first time through the cold misty air, he immediately thought it was a huge mountain; but as the wagon drew nearer, and the hazy air became clearer, he imagined, with great wonder hanging all over his face, that it was a cathedral, where Numidians worshipped their god; but of the latter, as much as of the former, he was still not totally sure; and being thus uncertain and unwilling to inquire, just as the carriage drew nearer and nearer, he thought yet again that it might be a mosque, for he had not seen any cathedral of that height, with all those golden domes and powerful vaults and towering pillars.
“This,” the Princess said, “is the castle I told you about. It is called the Greenwood Castle, the seat of the kingdom of Numidia.”
There were many guards at the entrance of the castle, and they all bowed to the Princess as the wagon rode in. There were also a number of wealthy-looking men fitted in noble robes, conversing in low tones, and he knew at once, from their lordly appearance, that they were court officials or politicians holding one office in the kingdom or the other, and he became afraid when he caught one or two of them glaring suspiciously at him.
“Welcome to your kingdom, my lord,” the Princess announced happily when the wagon came to a halt.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Benjamin protested nervously, looking at the court officials who were still glaring at him. “I am afraid, I feel dreadfully frightened. I don’t know what I’m doing here, in this strange country. Please take me back to where you found me—I beg of you,” Benjamin said and was about to cry.
“You must be strong my lord if you ever wish to be the king, and if you ever wish to command the obedience and loyalty of your subjects,” the Princess admonished. “The beginning of the downfall of any kingdom is when its throne manifests its weaknesses in public. The beginning of the fall of any king is when he demonstrates his weaknesses before his subjects.”
“I am not a king, Lillian, don’t you understand? I am a fish farmer, the son of a peasant—I want to go back to my mother.”
This was the first time he had called her by her name, the Princess reflected, and she imagined he must be frightened indeed. She went close to him and held him by the hand and implored him not to be afraid, but only to remain calm, cheerful and dignified, that he would understand her later, and would be grateful to her for it eventually.
When Benjamin had calmed down, the Princess led him gently to her own chambers, and ordered her maidservants to take him to the pool-side and give him a good bath. It was a memorable experience. The only woman that had bathed him in his life was his mother when he was still a baby; and today, he was being bathed by two young maidens who were almost naked, and in a royal pool, carved in ancient stones, though he felt shy and always flinched instinctively when the soft hands of the maidens dangled towards his genitals.
Everything moved swiftly and in excellent order in the castle. Maids walked up and down carrying baskets full of vegetables and fruits from the garden to the store. Guards were stationed at various corners heavily armed with swords and shields, wearing their steel armour and their bodies were covered with heavy garments made of copper and silver. There was a roar of voices echoing from the gallery. It seemed the nobles of the land and council members were having their meeting in the Great Chamber. The Princess wondered why she had not been informed, but was immediately told that her presence had been required by the council, but only that she was not around when they began.
Benjamin had changed his outfit by this time and was now wearing a flowing robe that was given to him by the Princess, which made him look quite stately, distinguished; and with his new hair style and pair of sandals reaching up to his knees, the citizens of Numidia who saw him thought he was a Prince visiting from a friendly kingdom, and they bowed to him in reverence and treated him like royalty. Was it not as his father once said, that when a man carries himself like a king, he will be treated as a king, and one day, he may end up becoming a king. Benjamin had not yet understood what was happening to him, but he was enjoying himself all the same. The Princess marveled at how handsome he appeared wearing the robe; although she knew he was good-looking the first time she saw him, but she never imagined he would look so princely. He ate his food quickly. The Princess’ eyes fell admiringly on him. He wasn’t looking at her, his mind and eyes were fixed on the young lamb and stew he was eating. When he was done, he drank wine from a silver goblet— the wine was quite rich and sweet, just like the sweet cherries; and he smiled looking now at the Princess, who was also smiling looking all the while at him.
The following morning the entire kingdom wore a festive air as the citizens and the nobles prepared to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the death of their king and the nineteenth anniversary of the birth of the Princess. People went up and down carrying several bouquets of fresh flowers and baskets filled with grapes and vines harvested from the royal garden; and others worked in the basements where the grapes were distilled into gins and the vines into fresh wines—so that the castle was once again a beehive.
The Princess did her utmost to hide Benjamin from the eyes of the nobles, from the ears of the great council, and especially from the sight of Bassey, who was the Regent, and who himself wanted to marry the Princess, to perpetuate his hold on the throne. But presently someone entered into her chambers, and lo and behold, it was Bassey.
“How is the Princess doing this morning?” he said with a good-natured smile.
“I am doing great,” she replied. “How about you, Your Majesty?”
“I am fine,” he returned curtly, coming closer to where she stood; and instantly the smiles on his face vanished. “Who is this—visitor or whatever—I hear you’re hiding in your chambers?”
“Answer me!” he growled, and his eyes roamed round the room in fury.
“He…he… is a Prince….yes, a Prince!”
“A Prince?” said Bassey incredulously, “May I ask from which kingdom?”
“I can’t tell you now Your Majesty,” she returned softly, beaming her alluring eyes on Bassey. “Come on, Your Worthiness, don’t ruin the surprise. I’ll bring him to you at noon so you’ll meet him.”
That same hour the Princess took Benjamin and they rode to the White Monument, west of the island, to see Ebenezer, the High Priest of Numidia; and to present Benjamin before the great oracle. He was an old man and was praying when they arrived, so they waited for him to finish, but unknown to them he had already seen them. He was facing the White Monument of their deity Osiris, who was the goddess of the sea, and he did not turn back afterwards, but only inclined his head in supplication. He did not look at the Princess, he did not see Benjamin; he was merely facing the monument and from there he addressed them with the following words:
“At cockcrow tomorrow there will be a solemn jubilee and great ceremony in our land, one in memoriam of the King, and one in honour of the Princess. At sunrise the purification will begin, and by nightfall Numidia will push the reaches of history when a man from a foreign country is made king in our land. It is the wish of our deity. It is what Osiris-- the goddess of the sea -- has decreed, and no mortal can decree otherwise. It is not always that a king is borne abroad. A queen may rise from an alien land, but a king must always come from the kingdom itself. You are a lucky man Benjamin, for you have found great favour in the eyes of our goddess. And by this time tomorrow, you will be crowned the new King of Numidia, keeper of the sea, owner of the Greenwood Castle. May her name be exulted.”
Bassey and other council members were greatly outraged when they heard the proclamation of the goddess. But there was nothing they could do about it. The words of Osiris were final, and her powers were as boundless as the sea itself. Ebenezer explained that the goddess was all out to exact her vengeance on the lords of the kingdom and upon the peasants themselves, because of their indolence and debauchery, and their irreverence as well; for the goddess would sooner hand the throne of her kingdom to an alien, than to place it under the care and control of a decadent tribe.
The next morning a solemn ritual was made in honour of the king and for the repose of his departed soul, and thereafter was followed by a series of gaieties and merriments in commemoration of the princess’ birth. At noon, the purification was done by the seaside and when the sun had gone down, Benjamin was crowned the nineteenth King of Numidia in a colourful ceremony in which the Princess was given to him as bride. Before now the Princess had told him about how Numidians were very much in love with good words, and about how just easily their brains were turned by well-crafted speeches and their souls swiftly stirred and steered towards the part of submission and obedience by flowery words than by mere threats. So when Ebenezer pronounced him the new king in the banquet chamber before the lords and nobles and the citizens of the kingdom, Benjamin rose with his golden crown and royal robes flowing with opulence, and with this new grandeur, he calmly approached the lectern. He was there alone. The Princess sat on her throne behind him, and Ebenezer was seated next to her. The queer eyes of the lords, the nobles, and the anxious gaze of a million citizens fell upon him. His spirit soared blissfully but his heart suddenly began to sink in fear. Benjamin did not give—what in the learned circles of this kingdom—would be regarded a powerful speech, but his rendition nevertheless was effectual, and although it rankled all through with the lords of Numidia who still questioned the wisdom of the goddess in choosing a stranger over their eminent selves; and whose gloomy faces still wore the sceptical tint of great malcontent; it however rang true to the ordinary citizens and inspired hope in the hoi polloi, and that, the Princess said, was what mattered most. When he had finished his speech which was acknowledged by universal cheers, the Princess scrambled to her feet, and upon reaching the lectern, planted an iconic kiss upon Benjamin’s lips, caressing and cuddling him warmly, much to the admiration of the young maidens of Numidia, much to the jealousy of the men of the kingdom, and definitely to the irritation and annoyance of the disenchanted nobles and lords. Ebenezer the High Priest who, apparently was in high spirits after listening to the speech, now rose to his feet and began to wave coaxingly at the crowd: “long live the king!” he cried, “long live the king!” but there was no response, everyone kept mute; an awed silence reigned in the hall. But like a demented High Priest, he continued yelling alone: “Long live the king! Long live the king!! Long live the king!!!” and then, just like a dying ember in the forest that was awakened by a draught of wind, the citizens began to roar along with their High Priest, starting with those in the furthest end, to the ones in the middle row, and soon, the banquet chamber began to heave and tremble with cheers as all the citizens joined their Priest in hailing their new king. It was not until they all began to rise to their feet that the lords and nobles who were seated in the front row slowly and shamefacedly joined the citizens, the High Priest and Princess Lillian in their triumphal song; and everywhere in the kingdom, the castle, and the surrounding hills and valleys all throbbed with one ecstatic chant: “Long live the king! Long live the king!! Long live the king!!!” And this chant, this universal chorus of triumph echoed down the dales and comingled with the waves and ripples of the sea.
It was already evening and by this time the soft beam of the sun was no longer bright but only cast a dim yellow glow upon the sparkling spring. Little birds flit about his vegetable garden twittering with thrills, ruffling their plumage and washing their bodies in the spring, sucking the sweetened sap in the blooms of his flowers, dressing their nests and nettles which were lodged between branches of trees—getting ready for the approaching night. It was one of these little birds that roused Benjamin from slumber that late evening when it flit upon his bare chest and benignly dropped a generous blob of warm excreta upon his breast, which wakened him from his heroic adventures in wonderland, and ultimately wrenched him back to the real world. And even now that he had woken Benjamin could still hear the receding echoes of that triumphant chant pulsing rhythmically somewhere in his mind—all hail the king!— and it continued to ring and ring in the recesses of his mind, until he finally became sober and collected, then the triumphant chant slowly died away.
Benjamin was dismayed when he realized he was no king, that there was no kingdom anymore than there was castle; and more painfully, that there was no princess. And that he was merely napping upon some strange chair under the rustic hut in his vegetable garden. When he stood up the little bird had gone, and he quietly flicked away the excreta. He considered whether he should resume his planting, but he no longer had the spirit to work, and moreover the sun had already gone down and the night would soon arrive. He would continue his work tomorrow morning. He must go home and rest now; it had been such a tiring day.
As he gathered his tools and turned his eyes homeward Benjamin thought about his delicious dream. He thought about Numidia, the kingdom of wonder, of which he had not too long ago been made king; and he thought about the magnificent castle whose name he could no longer remember. Everything about his dream was now slightly vague, now slightly hazy; but the only person that remained green in his memory was his friend and lover, Princess Lillian. He could still see in vivid details the crimson gown she wore on her birthday and the seraphic smiles that glowed on her lips and on her dimples when she tossed that delicate fruit into his mouth.
His father once told him that the man that never dreamt any dreams never went far in life and that the beginning of all greatness lay in dreaming about it. He believed he would one day be a king and would have a princess as his queen and they would both live in a magnificent castle. He believed ultimately that it was not impossible for an alien to be made king in a foreign country. But then he remembered soon thereon that he had had similar dreams in the past while sleeping on that same chair. In the past, he dreamt that all the stones in his vegetable garden turned to diamonds, and people came down to the grove with bags of money to buy his diamond stones. Today, he dreamt about a princess, about a castle, and about a kingdom. Indeed he had had several more of such dreams, and all the times he had them, it had always been while he was sleeping on the enchanted chair. He was now a few poles away from his home, and as he plodded along carrying his tools, the golden rays of the evening sun glistened on the spring, and he realized looking into the golden sky that if the sun could warm the day, and the moon could lighten the night, then there was nothing impossible for the man with a strong will. He walked on wearily and soon disappeared into the little opening that was the entrance to the place he lived.