Friday, October 1, 2010
When the people heard of Prince Vessantara, they thought of his long black hair, his glossy mustache and the scent of women that rolled off him like roses. When they saw his chariot approaching over the yellow dunes that had baked in the suns for much too long, then they exclaimed, “Prince, oh Prince.”
When the people heard the prince was coming, they fell to the ground and let the flaming sand burn their knees. The sun burned them as it always had, as it continued to do, for the sun knew no mercy. The sun had forgotten them. The sun had become angry. The sun was lustful and raging. The sun shone down on them with love so hot that it strangled the throat of the very man she loved. And so the sun burned them, as it did each day, but when the prince rode over the dunes, the light became pure fire. Flaming heat followed him wherever he went. Each little city and town, along the dirt paths and sandy landscape. Sun followed him like a glowing shadow, trailing him as he crossed country and continent searching for the black stamens of the mudak plant. Beside it would be the woman with the purple eyes, the master with his whip and the mind that turned elephants to gold.
The prince went to search every cave in his mountainous land, every village. He went over the protests of his loyal people and the pleas of his own young wife. He came and went, staying in his palace just long enough to eat, bathe and produce an heir. Each time he left her on the marble steps of the palace she begged,
“Stay with me my love.”
And each time he said only,
“I must go.”
And she wept. Her sobbing could not be heard over the sound of the chariot wheels turning over the road. The King would wrap his arm around the young princess’s shoulder in a gesture of paternal consolation, but in his mind’s eye would be the face of the purple eyed woman. His heart joined his son, his body could feel the bounce of the chariot and the restless yearning of the boy’s young heart. He could see the long roads stretched out ahead, the nights of endless stars and the campfires that burned away nearly all thoughts of home.
The Prince found the woman with the purple eyes, met her not in a bed of silk, but in the chilly air of a dark cave high in the mountains. They nearly reached heaven standing so far above the earth, the clouds became their ever-changing door and from where they sat so deep in the cave, they could hear the wind howling outside. The woman with purple eyes sat across the fire. Her long white hair was matted and tangled and she chewed the spices of the mudak plant with him and spit into the fire so that it hissed. Her wrinkled tan flesh hung loose over her bones but she could move quickly dancing around the fire and catch hold of a doorway if one came by. When she caught one the prince would pass through and she would wait for him to return, holding the door open. It took great strength, but the woman with purple eyes could do it despite the terrible weight of the doors.
There came a time when she held the door open for three days, the longest she had ever gone and still she held it, hoping he would return. He had gone too far into the land on the other side of the door, searching always for the master with the whip. This time he had gone too far and not turned back in time and the woman with purple eyes grew weaker and at last slipped, letting the door slam shut.
Prince Vessantara had no choice then but to find the Master, but the world he now inhabited was strange to him and riddled with peril. Decades passed within that world and 5 years in his home land. At last he met the master who gave him only part of the secret and then cracked his whip to open a new door for the prince to return home.
He returned to the palace, but could not be comfortable. They shaved away his long beard and the servants whispered about how unnaturally the young prince had aged. His young princess said,
“You are not my husband. The husband who left me has never come back.”
Prince Vessantara nodded,
“You are right. I am not the husband that left you.”
The King had grown ill in his son’s absence and died shortly after his return. Prince Vessantara was crowned King, but ruling a kingdom mattered little to him. He longed to discover the rest of the secret that had been imparted to him by the Master.
His ministers asked for a son. Without a son the administration was weak, but the princess would not touch the strange Vessantara, she waited for the husband who left her to return. The ministers suggested concubines, but Vessantara would have none. At last, unhinged by her woe, the young princess declared that King Vessantara was an impostor, an assassin that had murdered the young Vessantara to usurp the throne. The people were outraged. They asked that he be punished. There was much debate among the ministers.
Prince Vessantara was banished when the red Moondam tree dropped its ocean scented flowers, looking more like a sad flower in winter than the masculine tree they all knew it to be. The night was crying with several of the young villagers. Tears flowed from their eyes and nose. Mouths opened and shut with nervous ticks. They remembered the young prince that had left them in his chariot.
The old Prince exclaimed,
"The ministers do not understand. The princess does not understand. The people do not understand. I am not the young prince that left long ago, but still I am Vessantara. You banish Vessantara from his father’s palace.”
Then slowly, in sadness, he turned his back once more, looking into the shadows and finding only unopened love letters sent from a flowery hand. The letters, gleaming white under the full moonlight, still had much to say, but they required effort. A quick motion of the wrists, a jab of the fingers and a voyage of the eyes.
He walked towards the urn that contained his father’s ashes and kissed it and cast a sorrowful eye upon his wife, Princess Maddhi, to bid her goodbye.
The princess did not beg,
“Stay with me my love.”
Vessantara did not say,
“I must go.”
He simply went away, looking for the spice of the mudak plant. Looking once again at the mountains for the woman with the purple eyes, looking for the master with his whip and the mind that turned elephants into gold.