KING Balthazar loved the freshness of his gardens and smiled to see the reflection of his ebony face in the clear water of the tanks.
And he loved the joyfulness, the commotion, and the abundance of banquets, and often his parties lasted till daybreak.
However, late one night, after all the guests had withdrawn, the king remained in the great hall, alone with a young slave who was playing the flute.
And it seemed to him that the melody was sketching in the air the outline of an empty space.
Then his heart grew heavy with sorrow, and Balthazar thought: “Could it be that one day I will retire from life like a satiated guest withdrawing from a banquet? Or will I always have the same thirst, the same hunger, the same desire for each moment and each day?”
And having thought this, he passed through the door of the hall and went out into the garden.
Out there, in the uncertain light of predawn, the garden seemed to float suspended. The mist obscured the clear outline of the tanks and diluted the shapes of foliage in the air.
Balthazar walked at length between the flowers and the palm trees until the sun came up. And when it was already daylight, he came to a small balcony at the far end of the garden. He leaned over the parapet and, there on the other side of the narrow street, he saw a young man leaning against a wall, looking at him.
Balthazar stood motionless, struck by the other man’s face. As if the face of the other had suddenly become his own. Or as if, for the first time in his life, he had seen the face of another man.
What had surprised him most in that face was its nakedness, its naked clarity. It was as if in that face the ceremony of life had removed its mask and reality had revealed, without any veil, the forlornness, the conscious pain, the essential condition of man.
It was the face of a thin young man, in which the bones revealed, with no equivocation, the ideogram of hunger. Sorrow rose from memory’s deepest dwelling place and emerged, complete, on the surface of the pupils. Patience, like a dusting of ash, had settled upon his brow, his lips, his shoulders. And in this patience there was such tenderness that Balthazar felt a sudden sharp desire to cry and prostrate himself with his face pressed to the ground.
And he asked: “You, who are you?”
“I am hungry,” the man murmured.
“Come in,” said Balthazar. “I will command that they serve you the best fruits, the best meats, the best wines. I will order them to wash your feet with perfumed water in a golden basin. I will command that they dress you in purple. I will order my musicians to play for your pleasure the most beautiful melodies. I will order the cittern player to come to you. I myself will place beneath your feet the most precious of tapestries, and I will sit at your side to free you from your solitude, and I will listen to your words so that you may partake of joy and so that the fountains and gardens of this palace may extinguish your sorrow.”
However, the man, hearing these words, became frightened. In the black face, leaning down in the white light of the balcony, he recognized with terror the face of the king. And he thought: “Oh, no! Why has the king called to me? I was looking at his palace and that, for sure, is a crime. I better flee before the guards get here.”
For that man, like all the very poor, knew that the world was governed by laws that persecuted them and condemned them, and for this reason he was afraid at any moment of being accused and arrested for some unknown reason. He was passing through a country that wasn’t his own and where everything for him spelled insecurity and fear.
And therefore he fled and disappeared panting among the curves of the narrow little street, without seeing the gesture with which Balthazar was beckoning to him.
And in the palace the king said to his guards: “Go forth and seek through the streets for a thin young man, dressed in rags, his eyes filled with patience and sorrow.”
However, towards evening the guards returned and said: “We found so many men in rags, sad and patient, that we didn’t know how to pick out the one you are looking for.”
And so, the next morning, King Balthazar, having taken off his purple robes, wrapped himself in a cloak of common cloth and left the palace, alone, in search of the man.
He descended through narrow sloping streets and, far from the triumphal avenues where the breeze made the hard leaves of the palm trees rustle, he searched at length through the poor neighborhoods alongside the river. The stevedores of the docks lifted their dark faces towards him, and a man selling cord sandals rested his tired gaze on the king. He saw men doubled under their burdens; he saw those who pulled carts like oxen, slow and patient as oxen; he saw those who wore shackles on their feet; he saw those who glided close to the walls, as silent as shadows; he saw those who screamed, those who cried, those who moaned. He saw those who stood alone, motionless, leaning against the walls, dazed, questioning, beyond the hoarse cry of the streets, the opaque silence, staring ahead at the straight road of silence. He saw those who caught small fish in the dirty waters of the river. He saw those with faces the color of rags and hands of ash, ash so light it would fly with the wind. He saw the green shadows, the kingdom of patience, the country of endless desolation, the realm of the abased, the left side of life, the land of the dispossessed, the bottom of the sea of the city.
And on the following day, the king called together his ministers and said to them: “Give orders for the distribution of my treasures and the distribution of the reserves gathered in our storehouses and our granaries. And divide all of it among the hungry and the poor who beg.”
Having heard this, the ministers withdrew to deliberate.
And after three days they returned and they answered: “Your treasures are insufficient to ransom all the slaves, and the reserves in your storehouses do not suffice to appease the hungry. Not even your power is enough to alter the order of the city. If we do as you have commanded, the foundations that support us and the walls that protect us will crumble. Your desire goes against the good of the kingdom.”
And the king answered: “I seek another law. I seek another kingdom.”
Then the ministers withdrew, whispering amongst themselves: “It will come to pass that he will betray us.”
On the following day, Balthazar made his way to the temple of all the gods.
And he read these words engraved on the stone of the first altar: I am the god of the strong, and to those who invoke me I give power and dominion; they will never be defeated and they will be feared like gods.
The king went on to the second altar and he read: I am the goddess of fertile land, and to those who worship me I give vigor, abundance, and fecundity, and they will be as beautiful and happy as the gods.
The king passed on to the third altar and he read: I am the god of wisdom and to those who worship me I give an agile and subtle spirit, a clear intelligence and the science of numbers. They will rule the arts and the crafts, and they will be as proud as the gods of the works they create.
And having passed before the three altars, Balthazar asked the priests: “Tell me where the altar is of the god who protects the meek and the oppressed, so that I can pray to him and worship him.”
At the end of a long silence, the priests answered: “Of that god we know nothing.”
That night, King Balthazar, after the moon had disappeared behind the mountains, climbed to the highest of his balconies and said: “Lord, I see. I see the flesh of suffering, the face of humility, the look of patience. And how can one who has seen these things not see you? And how can I bear what I have seen if I don’t come to you?
The star rose very slowly into the sky, to the east. Its motion was almost imperceptible. It seemed to be very close to the earth. It glided silently along, and not a leaf was stirring. It had been coming forever. It revealed joy, the wholeness of joy, without imperfection, the unsewn vestments of joy, the immortal substance of joy.
And Balthazar recognized it immediately, for it could not have been otherwise.
At that time, in the city of Kalash, Prince Zukarta established the cult of the golden calf.
The statue settled upon the multitudes its astonished, wide-open eyes, painted black and white. Deep in its pupils something like a question was emerging, as if it were surprised by the extent of its power. It was a young bull calf with small twisted horns, muscular legs, and a short, blunt, and furrowed brow. Its four hooves, firmly planted on the earth, gave the distinct impression of solidness and stability, reassuring the hearts of the faithful. And all over its body glittered gold, a compact gold, hard, heavy, dazzling.
In front of the idol, women bent down, shaking out their dark, almost blue hair over the bright marble of the steps. From the far reaches of the desert, from distant oases, from lost villages, men arrived to deposit their offerings before the altar: they had come to offer gold unto gold. And the good men of Kalash, judges and warrior chiefs, filed reverently past the bull calf. Behind them came the merchants, the vendors, the potters, the weavers. They kissed the steps of the altar and placed their offerings upon the ground: they brought gold unto gold. Even the priests of the moon with their acolytes and the faithful prostrated themselves, on their knees, with their heads touching the ground, before the new idol of Kalash.
Zukarta watched all of this with great happiness, for the cult of gold was the basis of his power.
There were few who did not come running to the temple, fewer and fewer. The very poor, the shamefully destitute, the abased, didn’t dare present themselves. They were like a race apart, for poverty was looked upon as the stigma of those whom the calf did not love. Deep in their souls, so humble they scarcely dared to think their own thoughts, the very poor, the shamefully destitute, were awaiting another god.
They and Gaspar.
A delegation of important men came to Gaspar’s palace. And they said: “Why don’t you present yourself at the temple of the calf? Could it be you don’t have gold to offer it? What have you in common with the rabble of the docks? Aren’t you, by chance, dressed in purple and fine linen like a king? Why do you defy the power of Zukarta? Could you be a traitor? The prosperity and greatness of Kalash lies in the cult of the calf. Have you sold yourself to our enemies?”
Gaspar answered: “I cannot worship the power of idols. My god is different and I believe in his coming, as the earth and the heavens have announced to me.”
Hearing this response, the tribal chieftains and the good men of Kalash said: “We will distance ourselves from you because you have distanced yourself from us and you have turned from our path. You may no longer take part in our assemblies. You will no longer be heard in our councils, nor will you partake in our festivals or banquets. And you will also have no place in our army. Our soldiers will not protect your house or your caravans. And you will be easy prey for bandits. You will not receive the protection of our laws, and our judges will pass sentence against you, and your righteousness will be like a fistful of dust. Like the rabble, you will have neither protection nor defense until you bow at the altar of the calf to worship the idols we worship.”
And Gaspar answered: “My god is within me like a fountain that does not flow away, and he is all around me like the walls of a fortress.”
Then the notables of Kalash shook the dust from their sandals and left the palace.
From that day forth, many calamities fell upon Gaspar. Bandits attacked his caravans and thieves sacked his palm groves. Mysterious hands threw stones at his house during the night and in the waters of his cisterns rotten fruit and dead birds began to appear, floating on the surface.
And the time of aloneness began.
Visitors no longer came to the cool inner courtyards of the palace and the flow of water in the tanks no longer accompanied the light murmur of conversation. Relatives and friends disappeared as if swallowed by the half-light and all things seemed enveloped in scandal and terror.
However, time was growing.
And Gaspar listened to the growth of time. Solitude had created a transparent space of clarity around him in which the seconds advanced one by one and the whole universe seemed on alert. The silence was like the same word repeated endlessly.
And bent over time, Gaspar thought: “What could grow within time if not justice?”
Kneeling on the terrace, Gaspar gazed at the night sky. He gazed at the high, vast, nocturnal vault, dark and luminous, simultaneously revealing and concealing.
And he said: “Lord, how far away you are, how hidden and how present! I hear only the resonance of your silence that advances toward me and my life barely touches the transparent fringes of your absence. I gaze around me at the solemnity of things like someone trying to decipher a difficult script. But it is you who read me and who know me. Let nothing of my being be hidden from you. Call to your clarity the whole of my being so that my thoughts may turn transparent and I may be able to hear the word that you have always been saying to me.”
At first it seemed to Gaspar that the star was a word, a word suddenly spoken in the mute attentiveness of the heavens.
But later his eye grew accustomed to the new brilliance and he saw that it was a star, a new star, similar to other stars, but a bit closer and brighter, and that it was gliding, very slowly, toward the west.
And it was to follow that star that Gaspar abandoned his palace.
The clay tablet had passed from generation to generation, from age to age, from hand to hand. On it was written that a redeemer would be sent to earth and that a star would rise in the east to guide those who sought his realm.
The tablet was a small rectangle of argil, blackened by time, with a fragile, wretched, worn-out look. It was a wonder that it had passed through so many centuries of opulence and collapse, of sackings, fires, and wars, without being lost. It was a wonder that it had managed to pass through the ambition, violence, turmoil, and indifference of man without being lost.
There it was, in the palace, lined up beside thousands of other tablets enumerating victories, battles, massacres, and riches.
Its letters were almost effaced by time and its script was so ancient that it had become difficult to decipher with any precision. Many readings were possible.
Therefore, King Melchior called together three assemblies of wise men so that together they could ascertain the correct interpretation of that most ancient text.
First came the historians, those who had learned all the wisdom of the libraries and who were familiar to the smallest detail with the script, the language, the habits, the customs, the annals, and the codes of law of ancient times.
The assembly met for a month in the king’s palace. It was the middle of summer and the heat lay heavy upon the balconies blinded by the sun. In the gardens, the palm trees creaked against each other with a metallic sound, their leaves sharp-honed and hard as the blades of saws.
Towards evening, the wise men would seat themselves in a circle in the inner courtyard of the palace. Melchior would preside. A fine trickle of water flowing through the tanks accompanied the discussions. Barefoot slaves moved about in silence, serving date wine tempered with snow from the mountains.
The circle of seated men encompassed an empty space, and a stone table had been positioned in the center of that open area. Upon it was placed the clay tablet. It seemed extremely small and insignificant in the midst of so much space and opulence. It seemed a piece of debris from a bygone era, something left behind by time.
During long debates, for thirty days, the wise men studied and examined meticulously every line of the ancient characters.
And on the thirtieth day, Negurat, chief archivist of the temple of the moon, arose and said: “I believe the reading that you, oh king, have made of this text is not the true one. For you read: ‘To the world a redeemer will be sent and a star will rise in the east to guide those who seek his kingdom.’ But in truth the meaning of this ancient text is quite different: in fact, the characters you have read as redeemer, in the remote era when this tablet was engraved, did not mean redeemer but actually great king; and the characters you have read as will be and will rise do not express future verbal forms, but rather verbal forms in the past; and the verb to seek is not in the present but actually in the past perfect; and where you have read to guide it ought to read, in accord with modern methods for deciphering ancient texts, guiding. As a result, oh king, quite the contrary to what you thought you were reading, this text does not refer to the future but rather to the past, and it does not announce the advent of any savior, but rather glorifies the works of a great figure of long ago. And so, the correct reading of this text, in my opinion, is the following: ‘To the world was sent a great king who, like a star, ruled over the East, guiding those who sought his realm.’”
When Negurat finished speaking, Atmad, the chief archivist of the palace, arose and said: “Great is the wisdom of Negurat. But the interpretation of this ancient script presents terrible difficulties. There is no doubt that in the text before us we must read great king instead of redeemer. However, I do not agree with what you have said about the verbal forms: I believe that the verb to be and the verb to rise really occur in the future tense. And I also disagree with the way in which you have read the words to guide, to seek, and kingdom. And, even further, I think that the verb to rise has in this case the meaning of rule over. So that, in my opinion, the correct reading of the text is this: ‘Into the world a great king will be sent who like a star will rule over the East in order to exalt those people who accept his power.’ For this inscription is in fact a prophecy, but a prophecy which has already been fulfilled. It is clear that the great king is Alexander the Great who dominated all the East unto the kingdom of Porus and who died, as you know, in Babylon.”
And when Atmad finished speaking, the learned old man Akki rose up and said: “I am filled with admiration for the wise words that I have heard. But the truth is that the reading of this most ancient text raises so many doubts and there are so many interpretations that we could propose that, truly, oh king, we can come to no conclusion.”
Then Melchior arose and said: “Go in peace and continue your studies. I will continue to question, to listen, and to hope.”
And the following month an assembly of scholars gathered in the royal palace.
Melchior presented them with the doubts and the interpretations of the historians, and for thirty days the scholars studied the text.
And on the thirtieth day, towards evening, with all of them seated in a circle around the stone table upon which the clay tablet had been placed, Ken-Hur arose and said: “Poetry doesn’t express itself directly. Now the text in front of us is a poem and for this reason has to be taken as a metaphor that doesn’t refer to the past or the present or the future of the world in which we live, but only to the interior world of the poet, which is the world of poetry, always turned towards becoming and towards hope. This text doesn’t speak of actual facts, but merely symbolizes the creative spirit of man.”
Then followed Amer, who said: “This text is a poem and lies, therefore, at the border of what is lived. The poem does not refer to that which is, but rather to that which is not. For nature is a box full of things from which the poet draws forth a thing that isn’t there.”
Then Amer’s brother stood up and said: “In a poem we shouldn’t look for meaning, for the poem is itself its own meaning. Just as the meaning of a rose is merely that rose itself. A poem is a perfect harmony of words, a balance of syllables, a dense weight, the splendor of language, a tightly woven fabric without flaw, that only speaks of itself and, like a circle, defines its own space, and in which nothing else can possibly live. A poem doesn’t mean. A poem creates.”
And the discussion having ended, Melchior arose and said: “I thank you all for your words. As for me, I will continue to seek, to listen, and to hope.”
Then the scholars withdrew and the king remained alone in the courtyard, before the clay tablet, listening to the flow of water and the fall of night.
And the following month there was a gathering of wise men at the palace. Melchior presented to them the doubts of the historians and the scholars and the new assembly deliberated for thirty days.
And on the thirtieth day Kish arose and said: “The ignorant multitudes bow down before idols, but those who think deeply know the solitude of the universe. What redeemer can we hope for? The universe is like a well-regulated machine that, without beginning or end, slowly turns through ages, eons, and cycles. In the constellations and the moons, in triangles and in circles, you will discover the laws of numbers that have proven true and that will inexorably continue to prove true. What redemption can we hope for?”
Then Maro spoke, saying: “The gods who once existed were extinguished long ago, and what we are worshipping is merely the ashes of the divine. Who is the man, in the age in which we live, who has seen an angel? Where is one who has heard, with his own ears of flesh, the word of Isis or of Assur? We live in bereft times and everything has turned deaf and blind. In a world of injustice and disorder, we try to survive like hunted animals. The ties binding us to a watchful universe have broken. We can beat our fists upon the ground. We can implore, with our head in the dust. No one will answer us. The eye that beheld us has gone blind. The ear that heard us has shriveled. Everything is alien to us, like a place that doesn’t recognize us. And the brightness of impassive stars gleams over our sadness. Who can hope that a star will move?”
Then Tot spoke, saying: “We are born to die. All of our hopes will turn to ashes. Where is the man who will not die? Even Alexander himself, the son of Amon, who established his empire from Egypt to the kingdom of Porus, died miserably in the palaces of Babylon. And yet his radiant youthfulness seemed to reveal the nature of a god, and his perfection was so great that no one could judge him a mortal. Who could have believed that his body, balanced and smooth as a column, his intelligence, sharp and clean as the sun, his direct gaze that made all things simple, his face brilliant as a banner, and his invincible joy would all die? Alexander, prince of Macedonia, son of Amon, the wonder of the people, carried man’s destiny to its furthest limits, to such a degree that everyone assumed that in him human nature had conquered the divine. But Alexander died in the thirty-third year of his life, at the peak of his strength and his glory, in the full splendor of his youth. And thus the gods have told us that man cannot overcome his destiny and that his destiny is the destiny of death. Therefore, oh king, what can we hope for? Nothing can change the human condition and in that condition there is no place for hope.”
When the wise men had retired, Melchior rose from his throne and approached the stone table. In the midst of the tall columns that surrounded the courtyard, the clay tablet seemed extremely fragile and small. But the king pressed his brow to the almost obliterated letters.
That night, after the moon had disappeared behind the mountains, Melchior went up to the balcony and saw that in the sky, to the east, there was a new star.
The city was asleep, dark and silent, enveloped in its narrow streets and confusion of stone steps. No one was walking any longer along the broad avenue of the temples. All that could be heard, from time to time, coming from the walls, were the cries of the sentinels making their rounds.
And above the world of sleep, above the tangled shadow of dreams in which men were lost groping, as if in a thick, humid, shifting labyrinth, the star, young, tremulous, and bedazzled, was igniting its joy.
And Melchior left his palace that very night.
Translated by Alexis Levitin
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.