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John Natoli

Once upon a time, in an age before memory, there was a kingdom ruled by a greedy and suspicious king. His every moment was overpowered by fears of intrigue and betrayal. He held all his many possessions under close watch within his fortified castle, keeping constant inventory. He felt that his status as king was tied directly to his possessions. His father was a mighty and respected king whose image he could never live up to, and as such, he coveted his accumulated riches and opulence as the only substance of his kingship. Because he trusted no one, he rotated his guards and counselors regularly, never becoming close or friendly with any. Using his wealth, he promised reward to any in the kingdom who would expose another’s treachery. In this way, he turned his subjects against one another, creating a kingdom of backstabbing and distrust.


As a child, he had never been accepted by other boys, living in the shadows of the castle, always suspecting that their whispers were directed against him. He was loved by no one. Whereas his father was strong and just and the kingdom accepted his rule, the kingdom begrudged the king his riches, which they knew were hidden away, while the peasants lived in squalor and even the upper classes were pitted against each other for the table scraps of the royal table.


But despite all the king’s riches, there was one possession which he desired more than any. In his secret heart of hearts, more secret than any treasure in the depths of his vaults, was a man who ached to shower a child of his own with the purest, richest of love. His heart knew it had been wronged and wished for nothing more than to right the wrongs of his childhood one by one through his own child. He wished for this so strongly that at times, he felt as though this child already existed and had been stolen from him.


His queen feared him in his violent outbursts, but in her closeness to him had glimpsed hints of a buried purity in him. For many years they tried to have a child but never conceived. The king felt that he had been singled out by the gods to suffer, besieged and unfulfilled, but in truth, no woman in his kingdom had given birth to a child in twenty years. His kingdom was known throughout lands far and wide as The Barren. “A pit filled with riches and devoid of laughter,” they whispered with pity and disdain.


On a cool, dark night in late summer, he snuck away from the castle through one of many secret passages out to the rocky shore. The stones glistened under a full moon and rattled under the crashing waves. He walked for many miles, almost unthinking, engrossed in self-pity and desire for a child to heal his wounds until he stumbled on the sliding stones, falling to his knees. As the briny water flowed under his legs he looked up to the moon and beseeched, “Oh Moon, you mock me! Your belly fills and births each month in eternity out of reach, while I in my prison have only a wife with eyes empty of love and a belly empty of child.”


He lowered his hands onto the stones and wept, his long beard soaking with salty tears and sea spray. The rocks undulated beneath the waves and a voice like tinkling glass could be heard beneath them. 


“I could give you the child you desire, but you would only lock him away like some treasure to be coveted. That is no way to raise a child.”


The king groveled and begged pitifully. The voice went on.


“I will give you a child, but you will not lock this child away. The moment your child is born, a poor young woman in your kingdom will also give birth. This child will be stillborn and I will replace it with your child instantly. The woman and all others will believe your child to be hers and raise it as such. You will never know who has your child and, I warn you, any attempt to discover this will end in mortal disaster for your child. When your child reaches the age of 16, they will find you, and you both will know the truth. This is the only way you will ever have a child.”


The king agreed to his fate and laughed silently. No child had been conceived in The Barren for so long, it would take no effort at all to locate his.


As the following weeks went by, something very strange became known throughout the land. Hundreds of the kingdom’s poor young women had become pregnant. The kingdom rejoiced and mustered what offerings they could to give thanks to the gods. They assembled a huge festival and The Barren saw color, heard laughter and felt joy in the streets for the first time in many years. Meanwhile, the king despaired, now knowing he had no chance of finding his child. He cursed his fate and the happiness of all those who had finally conceived children. But, his wife had also conceived, and was overcome with both joy and grief, as her husband had told her all about his encounter with the voice on the beach.


Over the months, somehow their anticipation and dread drew the king and queen closer together. Knowledge of impending loss narrowed their focus. They spent days in their chambers, with their hands upon her belly, feeling the flutter of the life within, singing and talking to it. He became obsessed with ingraining his voice into the mind of his child, so that someday it might recognize him. The king recited every story he could think of until he ran out of tales and began telling his unborn child stories of his own childhood. He released ages of painful memories, stories of the scorn of his peers, the coldness of his father, his mother’s illness and death. And an unbelievable and unexpected thing happened — the king ran out of self-pity. His next story was not so much a tale as a prayer. He prayed that his child would be happy, would have many young friends, would be loved dearly by dedicated parents and deep down would know his noble soul.


On the day the child was born, the king had nothing left in him but thanks. To his own surprise, he could offer nothing but gratitude as his wife labored. He promised to wait patiently for the day he would meet his child and thanked the gods for his nine months of intimacy. He locked out all the staff from the chamber and held his hands beneath his wife as she bore down into a final contraction. A child just barely slid into his hands, wet with birth, then vanished.


The king and queen wept together for a long time. He helped her to the wash tub and bathed her gently. He held her for many days, comforting her and reminding her of a future day when they would know their child. The castle attendants all assumed that the child had died.


Eventually, they ventured out of their bedroom and heard the talk being discussed throughout the castle. On the same day of their child’s birth, hundreds of other children had also been born. The kingdom was overjoyed. But, being mostly very poor, they struggled to care for so many new children.


The king, knowing that his child was among them, but knowing not where, walked solemnly into his vault of riches and knew what he needed to do. Though he had come so far in the preceding nine months, he hesitated. Suspicion grew from the shadows of his mind. What if this was all some trick? What if his child never actually found him? What if his child was dead, stolen by the voice? But something in his heart had shifted. He now had a wife who loved and respected him, with whom he had shared joy and pain. He had a child.


He called for his most moral counselors and his most intelligent advisors and instructed them to develop a sixteen-year program of investing his wealth for the betterment of the peasantry. In shock, they began planning repairs of irrigation, roads, homes and health. When it became clear that there would still be many riches left over, the king instructed them to provide a flat income to every peasant for sixteen years. Raising the standard for every citizen was the only sure way to ensure that his child would have the upbringing they deserved.


But as the king watched the activity in his vault, which had been sealed for so long like the vault of his heart, he knew that this wasn’t enough.


The king assembled the kingdom’s most respected poets, songwriters, musicians, headmasters and headmistresses, nuns, priests and schoolteachers. He decreed that all children in his kingdom were to be treated as no less than royalty. They were to be showered with love, attention and respect. Songs of happy childhoods were written and sung through the streets. Poems of loving parents were penned and recited around hearths. Citizens who showed special care to the children of the kingdom were raised as examples. Small acts of kindness to children were openly recognized and praised.


The kingdom turned its attention fully to its children. They walked freely through the streets and were cared for by everyone they met.


All traces of treachery and suspicion left the kingdom as the people shared the privilege of raising their Royal Children. The streets, homes and shops were filled with warmth and laughter.
The king himself even left his castle and began occasionally walking the streets, playing with children and shaking hands. 


For sixteen years, he watched the Royal Children grow. His heart grew and they all lived inside it. As each day went on, he felt more and more that every child, not just one of them, was his own.
And the people loved their king. There was an almost holy sense among the people that the king had sacrificed his child so that they might all have their own. His generosity supported this rumor. 


The Royal Children, having been showered with love, attention, support and respect grew into loving, attentive, supportive and respectful young people. They treated each other fairly and their elders with gratitude. As children not just of parents but of a community, they had the freedom to choose their trades and learned them with passion and diligence. The kingdom flourished as elders had young ones to receive their knowledge. Throughout lands far and wide, The Barren became known as The Kingdom of the Royal Children.


The king decided that on the sixteenth anniversary of the birth of the Royal Children, he would hold a huge festival and give a speech from his royal balcony. After hours of celebration, song, dance and food, a crowd of thousands, some from distant kingdoms who had come to see the magical kingdom, poured around the balcony and awaited the king’s speech. When he stepped into the open, the cheering was deafening. But the king was pensive, almost somber.


“On this day sixteen years ago, I thought I lost a child. For sixteen years hence I have watched our kingdom grow and flourish. I know now that my child is out there with you. You are all the Royal Children of the Kingdom.” The king then told them the story of the voice on the beach, of the pregnancy and birth, and most importantly he told them how proud and grateful he felt to have watched them all grow. As he told his story, his voice drummed like the stones of the shoreline so many years ago. His words, laden with unhindered emotion, carried over the crowd.


A young man stepped forward.

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