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The Golden Crown

There is a tale people here tell of a mysterious golden crown.

The crown, it’s said, appeared one winter afternoon outside the castle’s kitchen door. An old cook, dashing out to glimpse her son on his way home from school, struck it with her toe.

The old woman hopped up and down and gathered her spit, cursing the lazy gardeners for leaving such a boulder in her path. But when she glanced down, her tongue froze in her mouth. The crown lay, cold and erect, in the grass. The old woman shivered and bowed and crept backwards. Then, after a long moment, she turned and fled to the kitchen door, shouting for the guards.

A pair of guards sauntered out, following the old woman to the spot where the crown lay. Their heads were tipped back, hands laced over thick, wobbling bellies. Behind them scrambled out two curious junior clerks. Behind this an elderly doctor.

The round-faced guards nodded sagely, assuring the old woman that the crown was probably a trap, possibly a bomb, placed in her path by the king’s enemies. The elder guard ordered her to carry it immediately to the farthest reaches of the garden.

The junior clerks bobbed up and down on the balls of their feet, saying, Ridiculous. To think that someone would harm our king. In the name of Allah, they said. Ridiculous. They scolded the old woman, telling her the crown should have been brought immediately to the ambassador.

At this, the doctor huffed loudly. To bring such treasure to a foreigner!

The clerks lowered their bobbing heads and the guards frowned and chewed at the insides of their cheeks. The old woman, nervous for having been out of her kitchen for so long, nodded at the doctor and rushed back inside. The guards stood still until the doctor huffed again, then glanced around nervously and lifted up the crown. And so it was brought to have an audience with the king.

The king, just then, was flipping through page after page of glossy automobile photos. He traced their contours with his fingernail and imagined the soft, teasing smell of new leather, the river grass flattening in his wake. The dusty winds as he flew down desert roads. The dazzling golden crown startled him from his reverie, and he looked blankly around for his advisers. The four old men dipped and bowed and stared at the crown, then glanced at one another.

Beautiful, they said. The craftsmanship, praise Allah, is otherworldly.

The king studied the crown, his young brow furrowed. It did, indeed, appear to be beautiful.

From whom did it come? he asked.

The guards bowed and shook their heads.

Well, who brought it? he asked.

The guards reddened and knelt down, shaking their heads.

The king removed his tarboosh and rubbed at his forehead. Was it a gift from some clever and admiring subject? They were always sending in little brass mosques and other such knickknacks. But who would give such an expensive present and not want his name known?

And what a strange gift it was. What could he do with a crown? These were modern times, and modern kings did not need crowns. Crowns were heavy; they put a crick in one’s neck. They were among the burdens that monarchs no longer bore.

The king eased his fingers under the golden prize, raising it. His arm muscles shuddered, and he had to concentrate in order to keep it aloft. Much as he tried, the king could not tear his eyes away from the golden crown. He told his advisers he would be in all night. Then he carried the crown off to his favorite chambers.

A group of loud young men and women in European dress waited all night in the castle’s main hall, but the king didn’t join them. He didn’t descend at eleven or midnight, as he usually did, to speed through the desert roads in his newest car. Instead, he lay on a divan in his study, studying the crown. While it was there, he could think of nothing else. Such a thing must be a test, he thought. A test of his worthiness as king.

The next day, the king carried the crown back to his reception hall, setting it heavily on a cushion. He announced that he would not keep it.

His advisers were silent, their eyebrows raised.

No, the king said. This crown was a gift from Allah. As such, it should be a prize for my worthiest subject.

The four advisers applauded their king.

After the applause subsided, the oldest among them bowed. Perhaps, he said, Your Excellency would like to check with the ambassador.

No, the king said sharply. I would not.

The other advisers looked up, their eyes perfect ovals, their mouths perfect lines.

The crown is a matter that concerns a king and his people, he said. It’s no business of the ambassador’s.

As you wish, each of the advisers said in turn.

And so the young king’s emissaries traveled up and down the Nile, searching for the country’s most worthy subject. Brown-suited men wandered tight alleys and knocked on doors. They drove out to villages in big, rumbling cars and talked to fat oumdas, prayerful sheikhs, hard-working young farmers and quick-eyed merchants. They drank tea with the ambassador’s young clerks, leaning back under his slow-whirling fans.

A year came and went, and the clerks and emissaries could not agree on a worthiest subject. But after a long night of whiskey and bitter negotiations, they did agree that it should be one of three brothers.

The youngest brother was a poet and, praise Allah, he wrote verse that made the soul lift to the sky! The poet sat for hours alone in the dark, and some of his neighbors whispered that he received messages from angels.

The middle brother was a scientist. He had studied in the best European countries, and had come back to improve the lives of his country’s poorest. He invented and adapted gadgets to improve crops, sanitation, hospitals.

The oldest brother was a teacher. He wandered from village to village, setting up schools and teaching children to write and do sums. He laughed and scolded and, in his wake, young boys worked hard, acted well, and prospered.

During the long year of searching, the king had grown a little older and a great deal more bored. At the moment his advisers settled on the three brothers, he had just returned from an unhappy trip to Europe. All of the clothes he had purchased there were ugly and unsuitable. His newest car didn’t go nearly so fast as the last one. And his young friends had become dull and greedy.

It was a warm winter afternoon when the three were brought before him. The king clapped his hands and was greatly amused with the industrious young men, praising them in turn. He sat forward in his chair, asking each to talk about why he was the worthiest in the nation.

He watched their mouths as they spoke, spittle flying, their hands waving wildly. Such zeal made him uneasy, and he began to fidget as they rambled on. He searched the room for his advisers and saw, hovering in the shadows, an old woman wrapped in a heavy black mlaya, entirely covered but for her wide black eyes.

The king waved his hand, and the speeches stopped.

What are you doing here? the young king demanded.

Me? the old woman asked, her voice shaking. She dropped to her knees and kissed the floor three times. Oh, praise Allah, but these are my three boys. I have my husband’s permission to watch and see which among them is the worthiest.

The young king hesitated. The crown seemed to glow before him, blurring his vision, radiating heat. Sweat poured off his neck, and his face burned. There was a popping noise, and pain in his head swelled and swelled until he thought it might explode. He could no longer bear the crown’s presence, not for another minute. He lifted it, arms trembling from the weight, and pushed past the three eager men. He shoved the crown onto the old woman’s head.

Old woman, he said, you have provided the greatest service to the nation. It is you who raised these three young men. It is you who deserves the golden crown.

Such is the tale I have heard, and it goes no further.

But in truth, history whirled on. The ambassador’s senior clerk, who sat at the back of the hall, let out a brief snort and hurried out through a side door. Several other men nodded and whispered out doors and windows, or scurried themselves to spread the news.

The next day, the old woman rode home on a donkey. Her sons trudged alongside her, kicking at dust and stones. Each of the three brothers was deeply disappointed in his fate. Their three heads ached, knowing that the golden crown was but a few feet away, and yet lost forever. But as they shuffled on, they also acknowledged that the crown might well have been a curse. Each of the brothers thought, If I had won – and surely, if not for mother, I would have won – my brothers would have plotted against me for the rest of my days.

Better that mother has it, each of them thought as their tiny caravan neared the village.

A small girl waited at the edge of the village, holding on to the hem of her dress. She dashed away when she saw the young men, running to alert their father. The old man perked up at his young daughter’s shouts and put down his work, striding out to greet his sons.

Which of my boys is it? he bellowed. His voice called the men from their homes, and the women to their doors and windows. Chickens darted underfoot, and roosters strutted and scratched in the dirt.

Which of my boys has the golden crown? he bellowed again.

The three boys bowed before their father. They scratched their chins and looked behind them, into the empty lane.

Their father squinted at the raggedy group. His vision was bad, and their image wobbled blurrily before him, resolving slowly into clarity.

Why is that old woman wearing the crown? he shouted.

Because, father – the poet began.

The king could not choose between us, the scientist said.

We were equals, the teacher said.

So he gave it to mother, the poet said. To reward us all.

The village was silent except for the clucking of chickens, and the old man’s deep, rasping breaths.

The old man closed in on the group. The three brothers examined their cloaks and the gritty sand beneath their fingernails.

All my life, their father whispered hoarsely, I have slaved for you. So that you boys could have the best teachers. The best wives. The best positions. And when you finally have an audience with the king – of our great nation, the Mother of the World! – you are bested by an ugly old woman?

Not really bested, the scientist said.

She did, after all –

Quiet! the father whispered. The four of you, go indoors.

The old woman, who had sat silently astride the donkey, now slid to the ground. She touched her golden crown and, for a moment, thought of flying back down the lane, to the castle, to beg asylum there. But she did not. She followed her boys into the small mud house.

Well, the father said. There is only one way to preserve our family’s honor. We will go back out and tell the village that this was a joke. We will laugh and slap our knees and cook up a feast they will never forget.

And you, old woman. The old man’s face reddened, and the wooden table rattled beneath his fist. You will put this crown on one of your three sons’ heads. You were at the palace. You must have seen which boy the king meant to choose before an evil djinn tugged at his sleeve.

The old woman held still, her head bowed. She had never felt such a crush of emotion: it roared and shook her thin body, threatening to toss her to the ground. Her whole body quavered, and she could not think.

The old man raised a knotted fist above her head, growling. Her thoughts fell quickly back in order.

The old woman steadied herself and put both hands on her golden crown, removing it. She held it in front of her, allowing the dusky afternoon light to play across its many surfaces. This is but for the moment, she promised the crown. Then she stepped forward and placed it on her husband’s shaggy head.

Because it was you who taught them, she said quietly. You who made each man a success.

The old man looked out the window. His heavy jaw twitched. No, no, no, he said. This crown is for one of my sons.

It was you who created them, the old woman said. She stared at the floor, watching an ant march stolidly across the dirt.

The old man nodded slowly, fingers tapping against the wooden table. I did raise them, he said. I did slave to clothe and feed them. To find them the best teachers. To send them abroad.

Yes, the old man said with finality. The king was right. The crown was meant for me.

The three sons remained silent. They spent the night under their father’s roof, and then left soon after for their own homes. They never returned to their father’s hut.

Back in the city, powerful men seethed.

The ambassador slammed his hand against a stack of papers. Those monkeys, he shouted. Giving such a thing to a peasant! And a woman!

The ambassador called on his patrons and demanded money. He knew the crown would be better off where it could be appreciated. Respected. He sent clerks, armed with translators and a fistful of local currency, to buy the crown off the old woman.

Other men gathered in mosques and in cafés, arguing about the golden crown. Preserve it, some said. Melt it down, yelled a second group. We will use it to take over the country! shouted a third.

Men gathered their money and guns, and descended on the village.

The ambassador’s clerks arrived first. They saw the crown had been placed on the husband’s head, and were pleased. The old man grinned to see his wealthy visitors, and he invited them in. The ambassador’s clerks sat in the man’s mud hut for hours, drinking hot tea and eating dates and hard biscuits served by the young girl. They fanned their necks, which prickled and burned beneath dark woolen suits.

They asked to buy the crown, and the old man laughed. Laughed, and refused. The clerks grew flushed and angry, promising the man a beautiful house, a car, a new young wife. When they finally went away, they threatened to come back with guns.

Other men came too, men with quick hands and knives and large bundles of money. The old man refused them. He wanted nothing but his golden crown. He spent his nights awake, hissing and spitting, guarding it with the blade of his razor. He struggled to keep his eyes open, to doze only with his hands on the crown. But after several weeks, the old man fell into a deep sleep. The crown disappeared into the black night.

The king fled the country soon after that, living out his days in other men’s castles. The old woman and the old man both died, bitter and empty-handed. There was war, and peace, and the three sons prospered after a fashion. As did the daughter.

The crown has yet to reappear.

about the author <$author?>

M. Lynx Qualey ( fled no apparent persecution in the American Midwest for a life in the Middle East, where she writes and wrangles a one-year-old boy. Her work can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of Ink Pot, Cranky, Quality Women’s Fiction, Wild Strawberries and other fine journals.