The Emperor is not dead
On the first day of the crooked hoe festival, which preceded the wheat and yam harvest, the provincial elders arrived to implore the Emperor’s traditional annual blessings. The Elders were accompanied by the distinguished representatives from the seventy-two provinces of the Empire as well as the herald drummers and the praise singers.
But at the palace gate they were apprehended by the emperor’s wife. ‘The Emperor cannot see you today’ she said ‘He is currently having his breakfast. He does not want to be disturbed’.
The elders grumbled among themselves at first, and then the whole entourage fell silent as they retreated, because no one argued with the Emperor’s wife. They all went away perplexed: It was not like the Emperor to turn anyone away from the palace without granting them his royal audience, except Koko the clown, of course, but not his esteemed elders and the whole gaggle of dignitaries from the four corners of his kingdom.
But who could challenge the emperor? The entire kingdom of Banania was his to rule as he saw fit. He was descended from the mighty warrior who had dropped from the skies during a battle amongst the gods. The Emperor had inherited mysterious powers. He could feed a thousand people with a morsel of wheat kneaded in the hollow of his hand and the dew drop collected in a single ear of corn. He could be in different places at the same time. All the stars in the sky were his eyes, and all the leaves on the trees were his ears.
The following day Banda, the grand chief of all farmers, and the superintendent of the communal barns arrived on his magnificent white horse. He was accompanied by seven servants and four footmen. He was draped in regal garments and adorned in the paraphernalia of high office. He had come to confer with the Emperor about his concerns over the poor yield of crops and the refusal of some of the farmers to make their allotted contribution to the royal barns.
But he was stopped at the palace gates by the Emperor’s wife. ‘The Emperor cannot see you’ she said ‘he is currently having his afternoon nap’.
Taken aback and nonplussed by the unexpected reception, he tarried.
‘No, you cannot wait until he is ready’, she insisted ‘The Emperor does not want to be bothered today – he will call for you when he wants to speak with you.’
Although the illustrious statesman was incensed, he restrained himself from showing his displeasure. But it was too late. The Emperor’s wife had spotted the intense shadow that crossed his face, and she duly marked him down for future prosecution.
Banda turned round with his entourage and went away fuming. He could not argue with the Emperor’s wife, it simply was not done. It did not matter that she was a mere savant girl before the Emperor married her. Of all the choices of suitable women across the empire; eligible daughters of prominent folk and landed gentry, who had been groomed for that such high stature, foremost among them, of course, Banda’s own sister, he had to marry some illegitimate wench raised in the servant’s quarters. For many reasons, Banda often wondered at Emperor’s fitness for his position after all.
On the third day, the Red priest and the Brown priest arrived at the palace. Everyone in the land knew that it was a profound portent of doom to see both of them together. People hastily turned away as they spotted them from afar. The herald drummers and the praise singers trailed them at a respectable distance, beating a sonorous rhythm and chanting a dolorous song. Whatever it was that the priests were going to see the Emperor about had to be of the utmost urgency.
But as they arrived at the entrance, the emperor’s wife appeared and turned them away, ‘The emperor cannot see you today’ she said, ‘he is currently having his royal bath’.
The Red priest started to say something, but she cut him short with a single gesture of raised open palm of the left hand, and froze him with a forbidding gaze ‘No, the emperor can simply not be burdened by your palaver today, please go away!’
Many moons passed. No one else had set eyes on the emperor except for the emperor’s wife. Not his mother who had been banished to a small house at the edge of the precincts because she had incurred the displeasure of the Emperor’s wife. Not Aduka, the head servant who, despite his craftiness and dishonesty, was most trusted by the Emperor and his wife. Not Simila, the Emperor’s hugely influential and most averred uncle; Not even the Emperor’s favourite dog who had since, mysteriously, disappeared.
The crooked Hoe festival was the worst that had ever been held in the history of Banania. There was little food, and they quickly ran out of wheat wine. Most of the guests went home hungry and disgusted. All the food had been pilfered by Banda and his cronies. He had sold off most of it to foreign merchants, and the proceeds had gone to various elders of the land as bribery or other forms of appeasement. Although He used to be an extraordinarily hardworking farmer, but since he had been appointed the Custodian of the communal barns Banda had become fat and lazy - like all the other province elders, he had turned into a thief, a liar and a glutton.
There was unrest throughout the empire. They had a particularly unremarkable harvest. Rain had stopped falling, causing the earth to become scorched and barren. Fires broke out in the market squares. People murmured and grumbled among one another. The herald drummers beat a sombre rhythm and the singers routinely broke into long laments that sounded like a parade of elephants in distress. They sang of the miserable state of the land, and they carried rumours about the Emperor’s uncertain welfare. It was widely averred that the Emperor had been befallen by an unspeakable sickness; others said that he had lost his mind and some were saying that the Emperor was dead. But the singers and the drummers were paid with gifts of food and treasure by various sponsors to put about the rumours, each one according to his own interests.
One of the sponsors was Banda whose loathing for the emperor was an open secret. He harboured malicious thoughts about the Emperor which he had often confided in his wife, Wahala, and she, in turn, had told other people “in confidence”. Banda secretly paid the drummers and the singers to spread the rumour that the emperor was dead. As there was no heir to the throne, he could be in with a chance of becoming the Emperor himself. He was even prepared to organize the mercenary bandits and thugs to do the Emperor in should the opportunity present itself.
Another sponsor of rumours was Simala, the Emperor’s uncle. He was feared and hated in equal measure throughout the Empire. He was renowned for his wickedness and his impish smile. It was generally considered that what made him smile was the pain and misery that he was thinking of inflicting on common folk. Nothing pleased him more than the suffering and humiliation his servants and the poor people who surrounded him. He was a warlord with his own personal army. He lived off vast swathes land which he appropriated during the transition period of his brother’s death and the ascension of the current emperor. He was hugely favoured by the emperor who was happy to turn a blind eye while Simala revelled in his ill-gotten wealth, and a disproportionate allocation of the communal grains went to him for “services rendered”. But powerful as he was, even Simala was not allowed access to the Emperor, by the Emperor’s wife, and he had no clue about the Emperor’s state of being. So he gave sumptuous gifts of exquisite hide and trinkets of ivory beads to Anansa, the chief drummer, to promote the rumour that the emperor had gone on a crucial, long journey and would soon be back. And all those who had been disloyal to him in his absence would be put to the sword.
Even the emperor’s wife resorted to bribing the praise singers to get her own stories heard. She arranged a secret meeting though her head servant Anuka. Soon they were singing that the Emperor was in the best spirits. He was going through a long period of deep commune with the spirits of the forefathers that would make him immortal and more powerful than any Emperor that had ever lived. But then she caused further suspicion by parading on the palace balcony in the emperor’s robes.
One person who never needed to pay the praise singers was Mawisa. He was the oldest man in the empire and he had succeeded three Emperors. There wasn’t a single person who knew more about the empire than Mawisa. Some people believed that Mawisa was born an old man. Others thought Mawisa could cause his face to appear in the moon. When he spoke, the winds blew hard and carried Mawisa's words to the four corners of the empire. It was rumoured that Mawisa had been taken into slavery by the Emperor’s grandfather as a punishment for being too outspoken. But that caused the gods to frown on the Emperor, and he had to release Mawisa, with ample compensations. Mawisa was the voice of reason and conscience in the Empire. It was him who insisted that if the Emperor did not make an appearance then people would have to assume the worst. Unlike everyone else, he was not afraid of the emperor’s wife. He was the only one who could ask the questions that everyone else wanted to ask, but even he did not get an answer.
The Empire of Banania remained in limbo for several moons. The heavens became sealed; rain refused to fall and the principal rivers shrunk. Deadly diseases took hold of the land. Hunters came home with no meat and traders had nothing to trade. Parents went hungry for the sake of their children because the communal barns were running dry. People cried out in anguish against the elders and mass demonstrations broke out across the Empire. The herald drums were strident and aggressive in their beats, and they sounded like the rumblings of an ominous storm.
Then one day the Emperor’s wife announced that the emperor had emerged from his spiritual commune and was going to throw a grandiose feast during which he would show himself to one and all. This provoked a rapturous cheer across the Land. They held fetes and pageants all over the Empire to celebrate the Emperor's magnificent health. The drummers beat a hearty tempo and the praise singers burst out in spontaneous eulogies to the Emperor's wife. The sun began to shine, and the earth was moist with rain once more. And the people waited for the special day.
The day finally came. The chiefs and elders of the land arrived at the palace with their distinguished train of emissaries and chaperons. The traders and the farmers brought gifts of grains and wine for their Emperor; the drummers and the praise singers saturated the air with euphoric songs and pounding beats that rocked the earth in fevered rhythms.
But they were met at the palace gates by the emperor’s wife. ‘The Emperor cannot see you today’ she said, ‘he is exhausted from his arduous meditations and would like to have a rest’.
The collective murmur that ensued was like an evil growl from the pits of hell, or the sound of anguish emitted by the dead and forgotten souls of smitten warriors. Thunder erupted from the drums and the singers burst out in discordant chants that sounded like a stampede of raging bulls. They sang of an Empire in disarray; of a litany of misfortunes across the land; of the fate of a realm with its affairs in the hands of a witch and a horde of scoundrels pretending to be leaders of the Land. They sang of an Emperor unseen, and soon the air was pervaded by the pulse of a mantra that quickly gathered pace: ‘The Emperor is dead! The Emperor is dead! The Emperor is dead!’.
‘No, the Emperor is not dead’ insisted the Emperor’s wife, ‘But he is ill’ she admitted at last.
Mawisa spoke for the people, in his familiar authoritative voice, and demanded that, ill or not, the Emperor must avail himself for all to see. But the Emperor’s wife dissuaded them, ‘You all know’, she appealed, 'that it is not proper for subjects to gaze on Emperor in repose. Moreover, you will only make him wearier with your rowdiness’.
In the end, it was resolved that the Red priest and the Brown priest should go in and see the Emperor, and return with their report.
When the priests emerged, they were wearing sumptuous new robes and carrying precious gifts and their servants were bearing several baskets of grains and savoury food. ‘The Emperor is not dead’ they declared ‘He is in remarkably fitful spirits, and he sends his warm regards. He implores his subjects to be patient’. The people were satisfied, and they all went back to their homes.
That same day, Anuka, the head servant, found that the door to the Emperor’s chamber was open. He went in, and he discovered a terrible secret. Now Anuka was an exceedingly greedy and selfish man. Like the chiefs and elders of the land, he was a thief, a glutton and a liar. His mind was in turmoil over what he had seen, and he thought terribly hard about how he could use the discovery to his own benefit. He decided to hold a meeting with Banda. ‘I have a tremendous piece of information which could be of interest to you’ He told Banda, ‘But I expect my due reward before parting with it’, whereupon Banda promised Anuka payment in Ivory, silver and gold.
Next, Anuka approached Simala with the same proposal. Simala promised him a large plot of land in the fertile valleys where the stream never ceased to flow.
Then finally Anuka approached the Emperor’s wife and told her what he knew and that he would be willing to keep it quiet given the right reward. The emperor’s wife was more generous that the other two. She immediately gave him the Emperor’s signet ring which on its own was worth an unspeakable fortune, and then she promised him an allocation of the communal grains and a grand title of honour.
The following day she convened a meeting of the elders, including the Red Priest and the Brown Priest. She put on the Emperor’s robes and sat on the throne. The Grand chiefs did not raise any objections because they had all received gifts from the Empereor's wife. She arraigned Anuka at the centre of the gathering and accused him of stealing the Emperor’s signet ring. He was duly searched, and the ring was found on his person. She promptly decreed that Anuka should be put to death at once. Anuka wailed in a way that a grown man had ever wailed before, as he was dragged away. Simala rocked on his seat with laughter. Nobody listened to Anuka as he blurted out what he had discovered in the Emperor’s chamber. Right till the time he was launched from the gallows, he didn’t stop screaming.
Mawisa heard about Anuka and was even more resolved to expose the truth of the Emperor’s whereabouts. He accused the priests of dishonesty. He accused the drummers and praise singers of complicity. He accused the Emperor’s wife of wickedness and deception. He accused the people of apathy. “My people are like sheep”, he lamented “they all bleat with the same voice of helplessness and ignorance. But yet they each possess a special talent which is useless in their hands and will only fulfil its true worth if pooled together as one whole.”
Shortly afterwards, the emperor’s wife invited Mawisa to the palace to see the Emperor for himself. But on the day of the appointment he had a dream that he was wearing his robe inside out, which was the worst possible sign, so, he sent one of his servants instead. He was musing under his favourite orange tree that evening when he heard the melancholy drumming and singing of a dirge. The voices carried clear across the land. They sang of a colossal legend of wisdom and sincerity. They sang of the incorruptible Mawisa who had died on his way to the palace.
When Mawisa heard this, he quickly sent a message to Anansa, the chief praise singer who promptly replied back to Mawisa’s relief, and assured him that he would immediately put out an erratum. In the meantime, Mawisa would have to keep a low profile. He posted his servants at the entrance and the four corners of his compound to watch out for the thugs and henchmen of the Emperor’s wife. But he was dismayed to hear Anansa leading the praise singers and drummers in the same fallacious dirge of his alleged demise. His dismay turned into shock horror when his own servants started insisting on his death. ‘But I’m here’ his voice broke as he wailed in exasperation, ‘I’m not dead!’.
‘No, you’re dead’, retorted the servants, ‘you’re just in denial’. They were wearing impressive, rich garments, and carrying sumptuous gifts, courtesy of the Emperor’s wife.
The emperor’s wife was exceedingly pleased with the way she had handled everything. She could hardly believe how gullible the people were, and how they could so easily be bought. Everything was superb as long as she had taken care of the two fake Priests, the treacherous herald drummers and praise singers and the fraudulent chiefs and elders of the land. Even Simala was on her side, as long as she allowed him to carry on extorting the subjects and misappropriating the communal coffers to his heart’s content. Mawisa had gone aground and was no longer a threat. Hopefully he had quietly died of some dreadful disease. The only fly in her ointment was Banda. She’d had it in for him since that day when she saw the disdain on his face, and she was aware that he had been feeding the praise singers with malicious rumours. Her mind would not rest until she’d gotten rid of him.
By this time, the empire was creaking at the seams. Open rebellion had broken out among the rank and file of the soldiers and the palace guards. The elders and clan heads were fighting among each other over scraps of communal grains. The old and the young were dying of hunger and disease. Strange things were happening throughout the land. Farms where unexpectedly bursting into fires, people were disappearing, and the youths went on the rampage beating up old men and women. A dark cloud hung permanently over the Land. Birds no longer sounded like birds and mice no longer sounded like mice.
Mawisa had fled into the jungles of because he feared for his life. He lived in a makeshift shed under the baobab tree, at the edge of the empire, bordering the Empire of Malaria. He lived on wild fruits and roots like a lowly beast. He had been there for 40 days when a hunter called Ekeji stopped by. When Mawisa heard the hunter’s voice he fell on his face at once, because it was the voice of the Emperor.
‘Emperor, what are you doing here? Everyone in the Banania has been asking after you’.
The young hunter was equally surprised ‘Please, get up, old man’ he said, ‘I am not your Emperor. I am a poor hunter from the nearby lands of Malaria.’.
When Mawisa looked at him, he was even more aghast. The hunter looked like the Emperor in every single detail, right down to the solitary pimple in the hollow of his cheek. He talked like the emperor, he smiled like the emperor, and he even coughed like the emperor. Mawisa told Ekeji the hunter about the plight of Banania, and how he had come to live in the jungle all by himself.
Ekeji told Mawisa that he had a twin brother who he had never been seen because he had been stolen shortly after they were born. Mawisa thought about this for a moment and then said, ‘You have to come with me to Banania’.
By nightfall, they were in the little house where the Emperor’s mother was banished, guarded by the emperor’s guards. She had been long forgotten by people who believed that she had lost her mind or was suffering from leprousy and had been locked away from public view.
When the guards saw Ekeji, they thought he was the Emperor. They bowed down as he went in, paying attention to his strict instructions not to tell anyone what they had seen.
The emperor’s mother wept when she saw Ekeji. She knew at once that he was the emperor’s twin. She broke down and confessed how, with the aid of her servant, she had stolen a baby from across the border and hidden her own baby girl. Everyone expected her to bear a son who would be the future emperor. The Emperor was extremely pleased to have an heir and no one suspected a thing. The baby girl grew up in the palace under the care of the maid servants. Everyone assumed that she was the daughter of one of the servants and her real mother never spoke to her.
The boy grew up into a respectable young man and was groomed to be the next Emperor. Although he was expected to marry the daughter of the Chief Hunter, he became drawn to the delicate, dreamy eyed, servant girl and decided to marry her against the wishes of his father and his mother. And since the young man became the Emperor things had not been the same again for the empire of Banania.
Meanwhile, the Emperor’s wife finally conceived of a plan to get rid of Banda: She was going to make his own wife assassinate him. The plan was going to be sure-fire. Everyone knew that Banda’s, wife, Wahala, was greedy, vain and heartless. First, the Emperor’s wife cajoled Simala into seizing Banda’s prime farm. And then she sent her servants to burn down his house in the middle of the night. Banda and his household escaped unscathed from the fire, but they had to move to a smaller quarters. Banda was soon fending off his beneficiaries, and hiding from his debtors, and Wahala was living far beneath her accustomed lifestyle. When the Emperor’s wife invited Wahala for the annual Women’s fete, she was pleased to notice that Wahala was the only one not wearing the latest fashion, she had lost weight, and she was a pale shadow of her usual ebullient self. Sensing that Wahala was ripe for the harvest, The Emperor’s wife let slip that she was about reshuffle the posts of the grand chiefs. Sadly, her husband’s position as the custodian of the Barns was no longer certain, because she thought a woman could do the work better. ‘You are the most suitable for the job’ she told Wahala, with a confidential smile.
Wahala’s eyes watered, and she swallowed hard as she thought of all the wealth and power she would wield in her own right. Aside from the Emperor’s wife, she would become the most powerful woman in the Empire. Then the Emperor’s wife said ‘The only snag is that there will be considerable opposition from your husband and those who have enjoyed favours from him…’.
It worked. That night, before daybreak, Banda was dead.
Now in full control of the affairs of the Empire the Emperor’s wife invited Simala, the two Priests, the Elders and Chiefs, the herald Drummers and the praise singers and all men and women of influence to a grand banquet. The people attended with an overwhelming sense of anticipation. The singers and the drummers had already been sounding out that a momentous announcement was imminent. News of the banquet reached Mawisa and Ekeji, still holed up in the house of the Emperor’s mother, on the edge of town.
On the day of the banquet, the palace compound was filled with dignitaries and guests. There was more food and wine than any banquet that had ever been held in the history of the empire. The servants rushed about, carrying enormous trays and bowls of porridge, meat, soup and gigantic gourds of wine. The head of the High table was Simala. He filled the enormous bamboo chair, looking resplendent in his flowing white robe and grinning from ear to ear. The Red and the Brown Priests were sitting on either sides of Simala, wearing equally opulent clothes and the same smug expression.
Finally, there was a rustle as the people stood up to welcome the entrance of the Emperor’s wife. She was dressed in a spectacular purple, gold and black velvet robe with lavish silk head gear adorned with peacock feathers. She held an ornate royal fly-whisk in one hand and the decorated staff of office in the other hand. Two young maids followed behind her, ahead of four savants bearing Emperor’s crown on a special stool with a pair of carrying poles.
Moments after the Emperor’s wife had taken her seat, the palace courtier rang the royal bell, and everyone fell silent for the Emperor’s wife to speak.
‘Listen, everyone, I have a something to say’ all breaths were held, and the whole Empire waited to hear, ‘The Emperor has passed over the staff of duty to me and declared me as the Ruler of the land in his absence. He decreed that I should wear the crown as he was lying on his deathbed...’.
There was a strange numbness as the people seemed to absorb what she had said. Was the Emperor dead? Then Simala rose and raised his hand.
‘The Emperor is dead; long live our new Empress!’
The people erupted in a loud cheer, which dwindled into a chatter as they began feasting on the banquet. The drummers beat a galloping rhythm of pomp and razzmatazz, and the singers chanted in a festive spirit.
But then there was a sudden commotion that worked its way from the palace entrance to the centre of the square where the feast was taking place. Ekeji had appeared, followed by Mawisa, and everyone was falling prostrate as he passed. When the Emperor’s wife saw him, she made a choked whimper and fell down from her chair in a faint. Ekeji stood in front of the High table and stared directly at Simala and the Priests. For once, Simala was not smiling. His mouth was still stuffed with food and his eyes glistened with and explosive mix of anger, shame and fear. The two priests clambered out of their chairs and scurried for the exit, tangling up themselves in their robes and tripping over the people lying prostrate on the floor.
Under Ekeji as Emperor over the years, the Empire of Banania gradually returned to normalcy. Although Mawisa declined to be the Emperor’s right hand man, he remained active in an advisory role in the affairs of governance. Simala fled into exile but, one day, he was ambushed by thieves and beaten to death. The Red Priest and the Brown priest continued in their deceitful trade, but they lost most of their following when a new religion became popular among the people. As for the Emperor’s wife, she was never seen in public again. Many rumoured that she had gone mad, others though she had caught a horrendous disease and was confined to a small house on the fringe of the Empire.
Due date: 20 Dec 2010
Working Title: Till death us do part
Rough synopsis: Story of a man who was obsessed by the prospect of growing old which had been caused by watching his parents die of debilitating disease in the old age. Limited in his career choices by his low self esteem he works as a university librarian for 40 years. He is in a surprising marriage to a feisty woman with a first class and a PhD in Psychology who considers him as a specimen for her research and is not necessarily bound by their wedding vows.