The Hunchback

a tale by Eugene Marckx

In those ancient times the Mountain king, the River king, and the Valley king considered themselves brothers in the lineage of the Moon-Goddess. So, at last when the Valley king died, his two brothers along their retinues came to express their grief with the people of the valley. For two days and two nights, stories of the Valley king were recounted, and doleful songs were sung. On the third day his body was laid in the ground, and people high and low, old and young, dropped a flower and a handful of dirt upon that coffin until the grave was filled.

Then came the question: who would wear the king’s crown? The brothers conferred. As a boy, the Mountain king had attended the wedding of the Valley king. The River king thought back to the queen’s death long ago. They asked to see her grave. The old gardener led them to a hidden corner where her bones lay deep under a rose bush. The old king had watered that bush with his tears. The brothers could not remember any children the queen had borne.

It was a long-kept secret the gardener whispered. “A boy was born a hunchback. Our king could not look upon the crooked infant. He had the boy taken into the deep forest where he may have perished. But in these last years, our king kept asking his hunters for any traces, as if the boy might have lived. They told of a man, bedraggled and hunched. But they could never get close, never within hailing distance.”

The two brother kings conferred. They decided to lead a search party into the forest. They chose the king’s marshal to be in charge of the hunters. The man put a red hawk’s feather in his hatband and carried his strongest bow, which shot arrows farther than any other. The party entered forest that all the hunters knew, then into deeper forest that no one knew, hacking a trail for their kings’ horses. After a week, the two kings remembered they had other business calling them. They charged the king’s marshal to lead on in the search. The hunters spent week after week in this unknown forest, but it was their livelihood to kill, prepare, and cook wild game, and they enjoyed the adventures – all but the king’s marshal.

He had a dark desire to wear the crown himself. For years he had managed the king’s affairs. He knew the Valley kingdom better than anyone, giving orders, enforcing decrees, and collecting taxes. In his mind he was already king. He had only to find the hunchback – and to make sure the man didn’t live another day. Then he could offer himself to the two kings as regent of the Valley kingdom and in time take on the trappings, and the crown.

One morning as the hunters fanned out as usual into the wilderness, the marshal caught sight of a thread of smoke drifting from of a stone hut in the far distance, the first human sign in a good many weeks. In a small garden a man there labored on his knees – the hunchback, bearded and bent. Like any hunter, the marshal took care not to be seen. Barely moving, he strung his bow with an arrow, drew back, and took aim.

His fingers were about to release when the hunchback rose, turned, and looked toward him. The hunchback saw him clearly and smiled. The marshal had to put away his arrow. These two men climbed over the wild hedges and finally met. The story was told of the hunchback casting his smile over the gulf of hedges. The marshal’s arrow was not in the story. This was a new path. Who could know where it would lead?

The hunchback was crowned Valley king and lived in the castle. Each day he wandered across the land, with his crown cocked loosely above his ear, asking people about their lives. In his hunched and bent stature, he listened closely, and for this the people loved him. The king’s marshal reported to him just as with the old king. The hunchback asked him questions, listening closely, and this began to change the marshal’s outlook.

He too began to listen to those who carried out his orders. He found himself more tolerant of those who were late with their taxes or whose duties overburdened them. And he chased down reports of scoundrels and thieves. Men that once upon a time he himself had worked with in shady business, now he prosecuted and punished. These men felt betrayed by him. And he had to reckon with dark stains on his hands, stains he could never quite scrub away.

The hunchback king began to grow a garden of healing herbs and opened a house of rest for the lame and the ill. Many gathered there for healing and solace. One day a messenger came from the Mountain king to say that his daughter was ailing and likely to die. The hunchback listened closely to the messenger, then turned to the marshal. “I will pick sparrow thistle and red-root leaves into a sack. Ride with these to the Mountain castle. Ask the cook to steep them in a tea. Feed the tea in sips to the princess day and night. We may hope for the best.”

The marshal followed the messenger and entered that royal Mountain household. The herbs were steeped, and he himself fed the princess, spoon by spoon, day and night. On the fourth day her fever broke, and she began to recover. It was three months later, in summer, he saw her riding into the valley with her escorts. The princess came to thank the hunchback king and to see better this man with a red hawk’s feather in his hatband who had brought her spoon after spoonful of healing. Was it fate? In clear daylight she felt a deepening love for him. The marshal again was surprised onto a new path.

With great festivities in the valley and in the mountains they married. In days after the princess began working with the hunchback’s herb garden and house of hospitality. Through the years she bore children, boys and girls, to fill the castle with running and laughter.

One morning the hunchback king asked his marshal to walk with him through the countryside. As they hiked, people cheered them from afar. They walked on.

The hunchback whispered, “Do you remember when we first saw each other in the wild forest? I saw you aim an arrow at me.”

The marshal stuttered and then stumbled onto his knees before his king.

“Marshal, please stand beside me. You were so far away, but I saw something in you that needed healing.”

“My king, I must confess …”

“Yes, but right in that moment I saw that I too needed healing. And there’s never an herb for that, a sickness that comes over the heart. It shadows everything and everyone. It’s a sickness of need, a need to control, a need that never ends. I saw you, and I saw myself. I did not want to be king. You wanted the crown but in the wrong way. Do you remember? I saw your sickness. Then my own sickness leaped up in me. All these years we have been healing each other.”

“My king, I am so sorry, but how am I healing you?”

“My dear marshal, you have managed the kingdom’s affairs with insight and compassion. You have become a loving man. I used to believe myself happy only with animals and birds in the wild. But you allowed me time to love our people, to heal them and be healed by them.”

From that day the king and the marshal began walking together, like two brothers of the Moon Goddess. They walked throughout the kingdom to see how the people fared. Some nights the marshal went home and cried in his wife’s embrace. Their children came up, but she reassured them. “Your father is falling in love, so deep in love with our people.”

Not long after this, the hunchback passed the king’s crown to his marshal and returned to the forest, to those far shadows where wild creatures roar and cry out. The Valley people remembered him in stories and songs, and they prospered under their new king and queen.

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