The Hunchback

a tale by Eugene Marckx

The valley king died. After his many years of quiet prosperous rule, the people gathered, along with kings from neighboring lands, to remember and express in doleful song their grief and deep respect. When his coffin was lowered into the grave, each of them in passing dropped a flower and a handful of dirt upon that coffin until the hole was filled.

Afterward the question was laid out: who had a right to wear the king’s crown? So the kings conferred. The mountain king recalled as a boy the wedding of this valley king to a queen. The river king thought back to her death so long ago. They asked the servants if there were signs anywhere of her grave. The old gardener led them to a hidden corner of the garden where her bones lay beneath an old rose bush, which the old king had watered with tears. They asked if she had borne a child with her king.

He whispered, as in a long-kept secret. “The boy was born a hunchback. Our king would not look upon him. He had the infant taken into the wild forest where he should perish. But in these last years our king kept asking his hunters for any trace, as if the boy had lived. They reported glimpses at times of a man, bearded and bedraggled and hunched up. But they never got close, never within hailing distance.”

The two kings conferred. They decided to lead a search party into the forest. They chose the old king’s marshal to be under them in charge of the hunters. The man put a red hawk’s feather in his hatband and took along his strongest bow, which could shoot an arrow farther than any other.

The party ventured into the forest that all the hunters knew, and then into the forest that no one knew, hacking a long trail for their kings’ horses. After a week of this the two kings remembered they had other business calling them, yet they charged the king’s marshal to lead on in the search.

These hunters spent week after week at it, but it was their livelihood to kill, prepare and cook wild game, and they were enjoying these adventures, all but the king’s marshal. He had a secret wild desire to take up the crown himself. He had always taken care of the old king’s affairs. He knew better than anyone how to run the kingdom, giving orders and enforcing decrees and collecting taxes. In his mind he was already king.

He had only this bit of a task, to find the hunchback, if he lived—and to be sure that he didn’t live another day. Then he could recommend himself to the two kings as regent of the kingdom and in time take on the trappings of royalty.

One day, as they fanned out on their own across wild terrain, the marshal came upon a clearing with a stone hut in the far distance, the first human sign in all these weeks. Smoke drifted from the chimney, and outside in a small garden a man labored, a hunchback, bearded and bedraggled. The marshal saw him there on his knees tending his plants. Like any hunter, the marshal was careful not to be seen. Quite gradually, without seeming to move, he placed an arrow into the string of his bow, raised it, drew back and aimed.

He saw the arc the arrow was to fly. His fingers were just about to release when the hunchback rose up off his knees and looked toward him. The hunchback saw him clearly and smiled at the marshal, who could do nothing now but put away his arrow. These two strangers went climbing over and through the hedges and finally came to meet. And in their meeting the story was told of how it happened, with the hunchback casting his smile out over the gulf of hedges. The marshal’s bow and arrow were left out of the story. And so he was surprised upon a new path in life.

The hunchback went to live in the king’s castle, but each day he wandered the valley, with his crown cocked over his ear, asking people about their lives. He listened closely, and this made them love him dearly.

The king’s marshal reported to him just as with the old king. The hunchback listened and asked him questions, and this began to change the marshal’s outlook. He became more understanding of those who carried out his orders and more tolerant of those who were late with their taxes. His work wasn’t such a strain anymore. He could look people in the eye without struggling for an advantage.

For his part, the hunchback began a garden of healing herbs, and he opened a place of hospitality for the lame and the ill. Word spread of this and many were brought there to try and find healing and solace.

One day a message came from the mountain king that his daughter was ailing and fading, likely to die soon. The hunchback king questioned the messenger and listened closely. Then he turned to the marshal standing beside him. “I will pick sparrow thistle and red-root leaves into a sack and you will ride fast with them to the mountain castle. Have the cook steep them in a tea to be cooled and given to the princess in sips through the night. We may hope for the best.”

The marshal rode with the messenger to the mountain and entered that royal household. There he oversaw the steeping and he himself fed her, spoon by spoon, through the night. With dawn her fever broke and she improved.

About three months later, as summer began, the marshal saw her riding with her escorts into the valley. She came to thank the king and to see clearly for once the man she recalled from her fever. Was it fate? Or did this man with a red hawk’s feather in his hatband really bring her spoonfuls of healing? She found in clear daylight a deepening love for him. And once again the marshal was surprised upon a new path in life.

They married with great festivities in the valley and in the mountains. In days after the mountain princess became interested and involved with the hunchback’s herb garden and place of hospitality. And through the years she bore children into that household, boys and girls to fill the castle with running and laughter.

Then one morning the hunchback king asked his marshal to walk with him through the countryside. As they hiked the fields and farms the people saw them from afar and cheered. They walked on.

“Do you remember the day we first laid eyes on each other in the forest?”

The marshal stuttered and stumbled a bit, and then knelt before his hunchback king.

“I saw you aim at me,” said the king. “And I saw something in you that needed healing. You were so far away and strange.”

“My king, I must confess…”

“Yes, you meant to strike me down. But in that moment I saw that we both needed healing. And there was never an herb for that. That sickness comes from the heart, and it casts outward on everything and everyone. It’s a sickness of needing to manage and needing to control, and its needing never ends. I saw you and I saw myself. I did not want to be anyone’s king. You wanted the crown in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Do you remember? I smiled at you. I saw your sickness, and it matched my own sickness. So now we are 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 grace and compassion. You have grown into a loving man. I used to believe myself happy only with animals in the wild. But you have allowed me time to love our people, to heal and be healed by them.”

The king put out his hand, and his marshal took it and rose to walk beside him. From then on he began walking with his king as often as he could, to feel the love coming from their people. They gave him the same affection they gave their king. Some nights he went home to his wife and cried in her embrace. Their children came up but she reassured them. “Your father is falling in love with our people, so deep in love.”

Not long after this, the hunchback king passed his crown to his marshal and went into the forest again, into those far-off shadows where wild creatures cry out in anguish. The people of the valley kingdom ever after remembered him in stories and songs, and they prospered in the care of their new king and queen.

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