Abdi was generally an unexcitable fellow, but it was difficult even for him to suppress the anxiety that rose within him as he waited now. He batted his thoughts around the corners of his mind and fidgeted with his hands while strangers around him spoke to one another about their past encounters with the land’s king.
"It's been years for me. How long has it been for you?"
"I've never met him, actually."
"Really? There was a time when I came every year."
As his peers talked to one another, Abdi kept quiet, unsure of what he would have to say to these strangers around him. Instead he focused on how the cool tile felt on his feet, which he had used to walk for two days from his village to the palace. When he looked down the corridor, he saw citizens who were clearly not from his small town. Some had darker skin, some lighter, and the dialects that whispered off the walls sounded odd against his ears.
The people waited to speak with their king. Some carried days’ worth of goods, and between the moments where fragments of the line would shuffle a few feet forward, these travellers set down their items and readjusted their backs. The smell of feet lingered since many were either barefoot or in sandals. Periodically, a baby would cry before a frazzled mother would shush it. Conversation continued around Abdi.
"I wonder how long we'll be waiting."
"Once, I was here for six hours before making it into the throne room."
"Do you think it will take that long today?"
"There’s no telling. The king's a popular man when times are tough."
Abdi remembered the stories his grandfather used to tell of rich, healthy land and the stability it brought. Meanwhile, Abdi’s family was growing accustomed to financial struggles. He didn’t have to ask his neighbors for their opinions in order to know how they felt. He knew their attitudes had dissolved into an exhausted anger toward circumstances, and he assumed that the people in line with him now felt similarly.
The king was a good king, no doubt. After all, he made a point to individually meet every citizen who waited in line for him. But harvests were slim and that was undeniable. It was only two months ago that Abdi, his father, and his brothers were instructed by a government official to, “for the good of the people,” they were assured, double their grape contribution. A week later they were met by a separate official, who requested the standard portion and could find no record of the previous exchange — or even the man who claimed to be with the government. The mystery was one that received weeks of speculation on his father’s farm. Abdi’s oldest brother, between violent bites into his disappointing rations of bread, explained how he was convinced that the whole affair was nothing more than a clever exploitation from the town one day west of them.
It seemed instances like this one were spreading both in intensity and frequency, leading each town to strengthen its security and leaders to talk of building higher walls. It was the worst kind of resentment: one that was never spoken of and that sought no resolution. Yet it bubbled up within his family and his village as well as between cities and, finally, toward the king and his government. This resentment harbored within Abdi, though he tried to silence it with words like “temporary,” “season,” and “someday.” They offered him little comfort.
His wife was kind and understanding and his son Raif was bright, but Raif was to be married off someday. He was the only child to carry on the family after Abdi’s death someday, and Abdi knew what sort of disadvantage Raif would face with an unstable income and stock in an unprofitable farm. Quietly Abdi wished that Raif’s intelligence and charm could be enough to lead to marriage, but he thought back to that awkward first encounter with his wife just days before their wedding and knew that this wouldn’t be so. While his brothers and father argued with one another about the best way to make up for lost resources and, as his most irrational brother argued, get revenge on those who did them wrong, Abdi determined that meeting with the king couldn’t be the worst approach, especially since he could no longer trust a lower-level government official. Perhaps there was some insight the king had that could help Abdi and his family before resentment turned into violence.
"When's the last time you met him?" Abdi turned over his right shoulder and lowered his gaze several inches to meet the wrinkled face of a man who grinned up at him. This man was missing several of his teeth, causing his friendly smile to look goofy and rather out of place compared to his low voice and scruffy facial hair.
"Pardon?" Abdi replied.
"The king! The king!” The man jumped and clapped his hands together. He repeated, “When's the last time you met him?"
"Oh. Well, I came here when I was a little boy.”
“Ah, yes, you were a little lad.” The man said, as if Abdi’s answer somehow jogged a memory he had. He continued inquisitively, “You didn’t come alone?”
“No, I came with my father,” Abdi had found himself so lost in the puzzles in his mind that he couldn’t humor this stranger with aimless chatter. Seeing that there was no point to this particular interaction, Abdi turned to face the front again, perhaps pointing too much of his back at the short man than was necessary. The man seemed to accept this for a few minutes, smacking his lips loudly but leaving Abdi with his own thoughts. Suddenly he gasped and poked Abdi’s back.
“I remember you!” He insisted. Now Abdi’s irritation subsided to exhaustion.
“I’m sure you do,” he muttered back.
“You have four brothers and your father brought all of you to the trading camp years ago,” he said, satisfied as Abdi turned to him curiously. “Oh, but that could be anyone! You think I’m making it up. But I remember your family. Your father is Berk and your family sells milk and grapes.”
Abdi looked down shamefully. “We don’t sell milk anymore.”
“Ha! But you admit that I remember you!” the man cackled. Abdi was tempted to forgive the man’s insensitivity because of how delighted he was at his own victory.
Abdi felt the defeat. “Yes, I suppose that you do.” With that, he turned his back once again and continued inching forward with the line.
The fact that someone remembered his family wasn’t terribly surprising. Abdi remembered spending many of his young days at the local trading camp with his father and brothers, where they sold the crops from their estate. Though the camp was now a desperate affair comprised of poor men, it was once a bustling blend of buyers and vendors, and Abdi’s father was among the greatest of them.
It was time to pass into the throne room. Abdi was surprised that the king’s space was so simple. He remembered that the atmosphere used to leave him in awe, but now he saw that this must have had very little to do with the room’s decor. Abdi almost smiled, vaguely remembering what it was like to be a child.
This room, in contrast to the hallway, was extremely quiet. Abdi could see the king sitting on his throne, which was perhaps the reason he found himself straightening his posture and clearing his throat politely. The size of the room disabled Abdi from hearing conversation taking place at the throne, which he noted to use as comfort when his turn came around.
As the moments passed by, Abdi indulged in prolonged glances in the king’s direction. It only became easier with every step forward he took. Now, nearing the front of the line, he could see the king quite well. The people around him, who had remained silent for the first several minutes in the throne room, now whispered with one another, taking in the space together.
“Do you think the king knows about the increased taxes?”
“I would suppose so. Don’t you think he knows about everything?”
“Maybe. Who’s that man next to him?”
“That’s his advisor, Muhtar. When he retired as military general, the king chose him out of ten thousand men to serve by his side.”
Abdi followed the conversation and glanced to the king’s right. Muhtar was much older than he expected. It appeared that breathing took a heavy toll on him; Abdi could see his body heaving all the way from across the room. Muhtar’s eyes, or at least what Abdi could make of them from a distance, seemed kind and aging. They paired well with his hunched posture. This man was certainly older than even Abdi’s father, which Abdi didn’t encounter often. He could feel his heart rate accelerating as he shook off the idea that he could ever be as old as Muhtar.
“Make way!” suddenly cut through his thoughts. A stout servant quickened his pace as he guided a group of four men into the throne room.
“Pardon us,” he gently pushed Abdi and his neighbors aside. When he reached the center of the room, he turned to the curious and indignant people in line. “Attention!” His voice grew louder until it sounded perfectly suited to the large space. Abdi determined that he had given this speech before. “This will only be a few minutes. These men are here as volunteers.”
Whispers built up in waves and then quickly plunged into silence as the king rose to his feet. He and Muhtar walked slowly and gracefully to meet the group in the center of the throne room. The king, appearing younger and younger with each step toward the crowd, held out his arm for Muhtar, who clung to it with his left hand and his cane with his right. No one spoke a word. It was only when the king and his advisor reached the servant and the group of young men that greetings began and the line of people seemed to breathe out all at once.
Abdi saw that these newcomers couldn’t have been from the same parts of the nation. They each looked quite different from the other, particularly in the shapes of their faces and in the way they carried themselves. One in particular caught Abdi’s stare. Whereas the three had faces lightly graced with imperfections and wrinkles, this man’s was smooth and of perfect complexion. His hair was full and dark and his eyes were large with a thick bed of lashes. When he spoke, as he did when he introduced himself to the king as Can, his voice was healthy and his words finished with as much polish as when they began.
Abdi’s short friend tapped on his shoulders excitedly. “You know what those folks do, don’t you?” This time, Abdi’s curiosity overwhelmed him and he leaned down to hear what story the man had to tell.
“No, what?” he replied.
“Why, they’re volunteers!”
“Yes. They said that already.”
“Oh,” the man paused and looked confused. Abdi wondered if the man was taunting him now that he finally wanted to hear what he had to say.
“Where are they from?” he asked, urging the man along.
The man ignored his question. “That young one there is an orphan.” Abdi looked at Can again, surprised with this news. The king, Muhtar, and the young men conversed quietly while the servant shuffled back to the room’s entrance and welcomed a chain of men carrying large burlap bags over their backs.
“Betcha don’t know what’s in those bags,” the man guessed aloud. Abdi shook his head. “Those are supplies. Ha! And you thought it was food. No, no. A town just east of Ankara was ravaged for all its food by its neighbors just four days ago. Those volunteers are going to rebuild the village. And you see that old man next to the king?” He stretched out his arm and pointed to Muhtar. “He’s the one that sends them off with their blessing before they go.”
Abdi looked at the group again, now transferring the sacks onto handcarts. After observing each member, he decided he longed for the advisor’s position. Muhtar, this creature of wisdom recognized by the king, was able to remain in the courts daily, right by the king’s side. Abdi wondered what sort of immense success this man must have seen while serving in the military.
He watched Can amble over to Muhtar, who placed his hands on Can’s shoulders. Abdi witnessed a strange look in Muhtar’s eyes. He thought it was a look of sadness or concern. But the longer he watched, the more he wondered if it was a look of envy. He shook his head at the thought of it. It would make no sense for a man in Muhtar’s position to envy anyone in this room save the king, let alone a young, orphaned man left to do grunt work around the nation.
The hunched Muhtar weakly pleaded with Can that he, too, would heave a bag onto his back and join this time. A miserable smile stretched across Can’s face as he shook his head and embraced his elder. Abdi marveled at this as the men said their goodbyes and rolled their carts through the archway they had entered through. As Can wheeled by Abdi, they caught glances and Can flashed a gleaming smile at him. Abdi merely gaped before turning back and watching the king guide Muhtar back to their position at the throne.
It wasn’t long before it was Abdi’s turn to speak with the king. A servant guided him to the throne as a nervousness swelled up inside him. He shook as he kneeled before the king. When he looked up, the king’s eyes were piercing but loving. Muhtar looked calmly into the distance, and Abdi couldn’t determine which of these people was more fascinating to him in that moment.
When the king prompted him to speak, Abdi froze and nearly choked as the ravaged town came to mind. He felt foolish explaining that his family had been tricked by their neighbors, especially after a team of volunteers just left for their journey. But the king smiled upon him and asked him to rise to his feet.
“Muhtar,” he called softly to the man on his right. “Please record this man’s story and grant his family a pardon from taxes next month. He is Abdi, son of Berk.” Muhtar nodded slowly, happy to serve the king but disinterested in Abdi. The king spoke again to Abdi, “Tell your family that you can use the next month to build your resources and make up for the misunderstanding with your neighbor.”
Abdi nodded quickly.
The king reached out his hand and allowed Abdi to kiss it. “Thank you for visiting today. You’re welcome anytime.” The servant by Abdi’s side waved him over to Muhtar and trotted back toward the line to accompany the next citizen to the throne. As Muhtar scribbled his notes in the leather book beside him, Abdi tried to keep himself from staring into his eyes. He was overcome by a blend of envy for Muhtar’s position, terror at his age, and awe at his rank.
When Muhtar completed his annotations, he finally looked up and met Abdi’s gaze. His voice was quiet and his words only barely broke through his coughs: “Go, and be prosperous.”
Abdi returned home nights later. His wife, not concerned with the impending budget crises, craved a detailing of his trip and a description of his well-being.
“How was it?” she wondered. Before Abdi could answer her, Raif assailed him with questions about seeing the king.
“What is the king like? Is he really big? Was he nice?”
At times, Raif’s eagerness was endearing to Abdi. But as his thoughts consumed him and his restlessness increased, he could only let his mind drift while his son rambled off his questions.
Raif continued, “Did you become friends with him? Will I get to meet him? Can he come for dinner?”
Abdi thought about that fleeting moment when he spoke face-to-face with the king, but quickly realized that it was the observations and conversations preceding it that had most enraptured him.
“Dad,” Raif whailed. “Are you listening?”
Abdi looked down at him. “Let’s sit for our dinner,” he suggested. At that, his wife guided them to the table, which was filled with plates of rice and bowls of figs. She pulled out a chair for him and then helped Raif into his place before bending down into her seat and placing her hands neatly in her lap.
“Daddy,” what was it like to talk to the king?” Raif asked again.
“It was nice.”
“What did he say? How long did you talk to him?”
“Honestly, son, our conversation was not very long.”
At this, Raif furrowed his brows. “Why?” he puzzled. Abdi shrugged and explained that the king’s time wasn’t something to be wasted. The answer wasn’t enough to satisfy anybody at the table, but it was enough to prompt the quiet Abdi needed.
When Raif saw that he wasn’t going to receive the answers he was looking for, he used his fork to shovel olives around his plate.
“Raif,” His mother said gently, not needing to ask him out loud to eat his food instead of play with it. Raif slumped back in defeat.
“If you aren’t hungry, then go off to bed,” Abdi chimed in. Raif couldn’t argue too much with his father’s reasoning, seeming to finally accept that this meal wouldn’t reveal anything about the king. Without saying a word, Raif pressed his palms against the edge of the table and scooted his chair back until he could stretch out his legs and his toes could touch the floor.
He made one last attempt. Raif turned to his parents on his way to his room and pleaded, “Can you please tell me about the king tomorrow?”
Abdi answered his son much more sternly than before. “There’s really nothing to add to what I’ve already told you.”
Raif examined Abdi’s face, seeming to search for an answer as to why he was being so evasive. He bit his lip and tried to mind his manners, but once Abdi signaled for him to leave the room, he couldn’t hold it in much longer.
“Dad, I think you just didn’t get what you wanted,” he mumbled.
Abdi’s scoff hid a hint of a chuckle. “That’s nonsense. He gave us what we needed to make it by next month,” he retorted.
“But that’s not what you were really wishing for. And that’s why you’re disappointed.” Abdi watched his son disappear into the darkness of his room.