He set his pen on the velvet cushion in front of the throne. As king, he loved creating this annual contest for the poets. Three of them remained from the thousands who competed. They had arrived from the farthest provinces and from within the capital itself, and it was down to these three men seated below him.
The royal quill rested on the cushion and he smiled down. The one on the right, Attar, showed apprehension with knitted eyebrows. In the center, Shams licked his lips in anticipation. On the far left, Abd Qadr carried a blank, bored expression.
This bothered the king, this look with nothing to say- no reaction.
He clapped his hands three times; the heavy rings caught the light streaming in, and cast prisms on the walls.
“We begin this contest with a poem on the sun. Each one of you will take this quill and write for one minute and no longer. When you are all done, you will read them out loud.”
He wanted Abd Qadr to squirm and so began with Attar.
As Attar and Shams each wrote furiously, they shivered when the time was up, stars in their eyes. Abd Qadr held the pen lightly and finished his poem before the gong sounded.
Attar read first:
“A perfume of light on a chariot of atoms,
A battle with the dark opens the
day in orange streaks of cannon,
Ruling with both domination, forcing sweat on our brows,
He also soothes and provides shade,
Only to leave us starlit, awaiting his return.”
Next, Shams rose quickly holding his paper up for all to see:
How dare you leave our side,
How dare you move away from your lovers
The moment you come.
Your light birthed me and will kill me
And I won’t know you!
How mad you are, how cruel!”
Abd Qadr didn’t shift his gaze from the floor in front of him. His parchment looked untouched. He waited a very long time after Shams sat down. He closed his eyes and said:
“Sun, I cannot find you,
King, I cannot see you,
Blackness is illuminated.”
The king squirmed and accidentally kicked the cushion off the dais and the pen rattled on the colorful tile floor.
He had been known to dismiss poets he did not like, dismiss them without their heads, and still Abd Qadr would not look at him.
He felt the urge of his tongue to lash out. Attar and Shams were busy shuffling their prayer beads while Abd Qadr was still.
When the servant restored the pillow and pen, his tongue relaxed.
“Again. This time a poem about…me!”
After each had control of the pen, Attar and Shams stood and read their florid prose- exacting revenge on subtlety or truth- elevating the king into a history that never happened. Battles lost were now won. Barren wives conceived triplets. Famined villages held bulging storehouses.
Abd Qadr didn’t pick his paper off the tiles when they were done. Instead, he reached forward very slowly, crunched the paper into a ball and put it whole, into his mouth. He chewed for long seconds- the other poets inching away so as not to interfere with the imminent descending blade.
As he swallowed, he smiled and looked directly at the king. The king relaxed… he didn’t want to relax. He wanted to feel like a king; feel heavy- but instead he felt lightness in his body, lightness in his being.
He felt confused as Abd Qadr stood, bowed his head slightly, turned and walked out of the room. His footsteps slid on the smooth floor, not a sound interrupted his rhythm, not a movement from king on down dared to twitch.
As the door closed, the king stepped off the dais and ran after him.
When the door to the grand chamber shut, the two other poets approached the throne and placed their papers under the pen on top of the pillow- each fighting for whose would be on top.