What is Death, O King?




The ruler speaks in philosophies as he moves through the city streets, stepping over the beggars who ask him for a coin, bread, anything and to them he says what is a coin, what is bread, the world is complicated good man and we cannot be sure of anything.


But the beggar is sure that he is hungry as he watches the ruler go on his way. And for a time, the people follow. They wish to hear the words of the one who has ascended into a place of power, for power is all there is to be had in this world, and he has it, and so they jostle to be near him. To hear the wisdom he shares with indiscretion.


For months and years the morning walk draws a crowd and he imagines that perhaps they don’t just follow him; they love him. Perhaps they don’t just admire him; they worship him. He speaks ever louder, louder, a master of all things–the trees, the dust, women, men, children, sex, everything he sees he understands. There is no more mystery to be discovered–no unknowing–for he has the knowledge of good and evil and with this knowledge there is no longer a need to be curious, no longer a need to turn around and look into the faces of the ones who are behind you.


And on this goes for a decade now, the ruler walking the streets and shouting wisdom for the benefit of those he ruled.


Until one day, the ruler decides that he will choose one of his followers to bless–a commoner, a nothing man–to be given special counsel for whatever problems he is enduring.


But when he turns to select someone, no one is there.


The people walk to and from the market. They speak and laugh together. Children chase each other in the streets.


I had a dream last night, the ruler declares. A dream layered with great revelations.


No one even looks at him.


He is all alone.


And in his bed that night the ruler realizes that he has been made into a fool. They had pretended to love and worship him, but this is a mockery. A game! He sees them now. Laughing at him. The old ruler walking the streets talking to himself, and no one had the goodness to let him know. They are trying to overthrow him. He knows it. They will come for him tonight and seize his crown. They will burn the throne.


Yes, the inevitable has arrived.


A shadow. Another. They surround him now, shadows and demons from the depths of hell.


Listen, he says out loud. Listen to how they mock me. And the ruler calls for soup, tea, something hot to soothe him back to sleep, or was he awake, he no longer knew the difference between sleeping and waking. What he wishes for most of all is to be in the streets, walking with his hand placed delicately in the pocket of his robe, speaking about the patterns of birds, they come and go, he might say, they move with the seasons just as the crops do, all things, all things, but here we are enduring all seasons in one place, fools we are, and behind him he would hear the murmuring of awestruck followers, he wishes to be there and offer something back to the world, but they abandoned him. They mocked him. He would hang them all.


He would set their miserable houses on fire and cast their children into the sea. He would break their bones while they were still alive. Tell them, shadows, tell them what I will do.


The shadows dance and the wind blows wild outside the window.


Tea, soup, where is it.


Kill or be killed, that is all. Tonight he will not be killed. Not tonight. Tonight they will understand true power, he will make them. This will be the greatest lesson of all, and they will beg to return to the days when he walked peacefully through the streets.


Damned fools. Fools who have no appetite for wisdom.


Tea, soup, where is it.


The ruler sits up in bed and then dashes across the room to not be captured by the shadows. He opens the door to find the guard is not there. Taking a candle from the wall, he walks the halls of the palace to discover it is empty. The guards are gone. The help is missing. Everyone is gone.


He is all alone.


Until he isn’t. Until the door comes down. Until the same beggar who once asked him for a coin, bread, anything rams a spear through his heart and looks into the dying ruler’s eyes to ask, “what is death, o king?”