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thanassis triaridis

 

 

 

THE FROZEN heaRT

OF

PROSPEROUS PEOPLE

 

 

 

 

For Christina Deligioridou,

Elisabeth Parisi,

Katerina and Petro Boukovina

 

 

 

 

Beyond the great mountains of the North - I’m talking about the mountains no traveller has ever returned from crossing - there lies a vast land of fertile valleys, dense forests and imposing rivers: a land that reaches the Crystal Sea. The name of this country is Prosperity and it is governed by the Wise King.

 

Of course it’s not the King’s real name - his parents called him Ioannis. Nevertheless, after a century of happiness, none of his subjects could remember his other name and so they just called him “Wise King,” since there was no other ruler as wise as him. There was simply no King as just and as generous; who’d changed the fate of his land and people forever.  It was at the beginning of his reign that the country took the name Prosperity, before that its inhabitants, who bore all the torments of humanity and hated one another with mortal seriousness, called it “Wolvesden”. Everyone’s only solace and pleasure was in the destruction and misery of everyone else. The Wise King was the one who abolished death, time and longing, after he’d already banished evil, fear and suffering, as well as God and the Devil and he’d made the frozen bat that brought the Age of Happiness the emblem of his land.

 

But let’s take our story from the beginning…

 

***

 

Many, many years ago when Prince Ioannis was just twelve years old, his father, the King of Wolvesden, called him over and said “My one and only darling son… I can feel my body and spirit slowly withering under the weight of worries and anguish in this land. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold on to life…  Our kingdom is tormented by horrific suffering, by poverty and sickness, and the souls of our people are filled with hatred, selfishness, jealousy and frenzied passions. When the time comes for you to succeed me - and I don’t think it’ll be long now - you must be ready to deal with all these wounds. For this reason, you must travel beyond the Great Mountains to see the world as soon as possible and get to know other lands and people; so that when you return and become king, you’ll be able to use the knowledge and wisdom that you’ve learnt to rule rightly and with justice. I’ll give you fifty kilos of gold and one thousand Royal Guards so you don’t have any problems on your journey.”

 

Ioannis immediately replied, “Father, with fifty kilos of gold and a thousand Royal Guards, one can’t get to know the world! I’ll set off tomorrow morning - by myself. I’ll wear simple, poor man’s clothes and carry a small saddlebag. The only valuable I want to take with me is your medallion with the Royal Seal.”

 

To begin with the King objected; however, after several weeks of Ioannis’ determined pressure, and in great admiration of his son’s boldness and precocious wisdom, he finally accepted. On their last evening together, he took the twelve year old to a room in the palace that was always locked. Ioannis went in for the first time: the room smelt musty and the walls, floor and carved wooden bed were decorated in blue velvet. On the velvet of the bed and floor were frightening red stains. Clearly moved, the King spoke, “It was in this room that your mother died, Ioanni, and it was here that you were born a few moments later. She was pregnant…and you were in her womb, when she went insane. First of all, she tried to kill herself by drinking the juice of the Red Plant and when that failed, she tried to jump out of the window of her old room. My doctors told me to bring her to this blue room and put bars on the windows and guards at the door. Months passed and I thought she was improving and took heart. Every evening, I’d come and watch her as she slept, until one night I fell asleep too. When I woke up, I found her lying in blood… She had taken the Royal dagger from my belt - I curse the law that says I must wear it till my death - and she cut her own throat.  With that same knife, a midwife tore her belly open and miraculously brought you out. The stains you see are her blood,” The King stammered, a knot blocked his throat, “always remember these stains… so you don’t forget that life is not something governed by the mind, but by something else… but what, I don’t know.”

 

Ioannis started the next day before dawn. It took him forty-five days to cross the Great Mountains. He slept in caves and in tree-trunks; when his food run out, he fed himself on snow and slivers of oak. His clothes became rags. Gradually, he stopped thinking and the only thing that concerned him was to find somewhere to survive the night and continue the following morning. At last, he reached sun-drenched fields and from there headed south towards the towns along the coast. To survive, he begged on roads and in town squares and, if he came across a village feast, he ate well. At one of these feasts, on a warm and magical night, he met Petran.

 

Petran was a gypsy, three years older than Ioanni. He had blue eyes and long fingers and at the feast, he played the panpipes and people gave him coins and bought him wine. When he saw Ioannis, he asked him where he was heading. Ioannis replied, “Where ever… I want to learn about the world. How about you?” Petron started laughing, “I am a gypsy, and I’m going nowhere. I just do what God pleases.”

 

Petran said he could make any sound with his pipes: he claimed he could mimic every bird song, the cries of animals and even the moan of snakes. He said he could cure fevers with his pipes, induce births before their time, bring flowers into bloom in winter and even raise the dead. He added “But these things are not my aim, my purpose is to play at feasts so that God and people hear me and are happy!” He asked Ioanni to follow him, as he needed a second person to play the hand drum and collect coins.

 

***

 

So it was that Petron and Ioannis started travelling together from town to town. They always moved against the daily route of the sun, as Petron was never to look at the sunset. It was said that if he ever saw it, he would awaken an ancient clan curse and would forever lose his memory and speech. They travelled through densely populated countries, ports, gorges and rivers; they crossed long bridges and rode rafts across stretches of sea. Then they would continue on again, finding horses to cross deserts and riding between bald rocks and sheer cliffs. Summers and winters passed this way, until one spring, they arrived in a country that was blooming and near perfection. They’d been travelling together for three years and had never stayed anywhere longer than one night, but in this land of hanging bridges and beautiful gardens, where the wind was warm and magically redolent with unfamiliar fragrances, the friends decided to stay for a second evening.

 

Finally, they ended up staying nine days in the City of Scents (that turned out to be the name of the country). They found nothing they didn’t like. The houses were made of yellow stone and the water of the river was the colour of violets. Everywhere ornate fountains burst with streams of water. At night the stars shone brightly above the bridges, temples and the Red Palace of the Great King. The women’s faces were beautiful and their eyes sparkled with passionate promise. For a whole week they did nothing except wander overwhelmed through the streets and lanes of the city.

 

When, on the seventh evening Petran put the pipes to his lips, the people in the small square where he played heard an exceptional sound. Everyone looked at him in amazement and admiration, Ioannis most of all, who’d never heard his friend play like that. Petran blew into his pipes for three hours and very quickly the small square and surrounding streets filled with crowds who listened to him in complete enchantment. When the gypsy stopped, everyone who’d been listening stood up slowly and walked past him; everyone of them leaving a piece of jewellery that they’d been wearing - some of them left a bracelet, others an earring or a ring. A small glittering mountain of jewellery piled up in front of Petran.

 

That evening, Petran confessed the truth to Ioannis, “Earlier on, it wasn’t me playing, the pipes just played themselves… I was just blowing into them, like the old gypsy that gave them to me said. It’s true you know: these pipes just decided that in this city they would play the perfect music you heard.” “Then, we must be in heaven!” said Ioannis to himself thoughtfully.

 

The next morning, seven riders dressed in red came and told the friends that the Great King wanted to see them in his palace. They followed and, after a little while, found themselves in the thrown room of the Great King. He was very tall (almost the height of two normal people standing on top of one another) and had a white beard that reached his waist. He immediately asked the friends to play the music they had played the night before.

 

Petran, brought the pipes to his lips and produced the same perfect melody. For three hours they all listened spellbound. When Petran stopped the Great King said to him, “Stranger, I have seen many things in my long life: I have seen lambs quarrel and a snake cry, but music like that I’ve never heard! It would please me greatly, if tomorrow night, you would play your pipes in front of the palace so that all of the people of the city may hear you. You may ask for whatever you desire in return and you shall have it.”

 

“Great King,” replied Petran with a steady voice, “I’m a gypsy and I play my pipes to please God and all people. I will play in front of your palace tomorrow and I want nothing in return except that you all listen to my music. Anyway, my pipes are playing themselves right now, I just fill my cheeks with air and blow.”

 

That’s what Petran said: and the chamber fell into a hushed silence - no one had ever refused the gifts of the Great King before. Then, whilst everyone was still holding his or her breath, Ioannis voice was heard, “Great King, I’m not a gypsy, I come from Wolvesden, a distant land beyond the Great Mountains and I want to ask something of you…” Everyone looked at the boy shocked by his insolence, but the Great King answered in a sweet voice, “Even though you didn’t play the pipes, I’ll grant you a favour, if only because you have such a proud and humble friend. So, go ahead, tell me what you want.” “I want you to tell me how you rule this country so well that looks like paradise!” replied Ioannis.

 

The Great King’s laugh resounded through the whole chamber, “And who might you be, who wants to know how a country is ruled? Why does it matter to you? Ruling is the work of kings and not drummers!” The boy didn’t lose his calm, “Great King, I’m not just a drummer, my name is Ioannis and I am the son of a King. And I too, will become King…” “Can you prove it?” asked the sceptical King. Ioannis stripped to the waist and showed him the medallion with the Royal Seal. “You are not lying,” said the surprised King, “come back late this evening and after I’ve finished with the affairs of state I will tell you what you want to know.”

 

And he received him that evening, in the thrown room once again, although this time, it was just the two of them. The Great King started speaking to the young boy, “Listen, young Prince, this land is not paradise, no matter what you think. Paradise does not, and will never, exist. It’s just you arrived in our city during the Time of Scents.” As Ioannis looked at him doubtfully, he smiled lightly and continued, “Don’t get confused, young Prince, I’ll explain everything. In our city, every six years there comes the Time of Drought when, for two years, everything dries out. Afterwards, the Time of Rain begins and that lasts for two years as well. Then there are the two years of the Time of Scents, which we are in now. As soon as this is over we will have the Time of Drought again and then the Time of Rains before the Time of Scents once more and so on - this cycle never ends.

 

"When we are in the Time of Draught, the crops are ruined, the food runs out and livestock dies; hunger, sickness and evil are the real kings of this city. People are transformed into beasts as hatred and feuding rule their spirits and actions…

 

"When the rains arrive, we are all at their mercy. The barrages we have built are destroyed, the hanging bridges we made collapse, streams overflow, the town is swamped by mud from the mountains and the houses of the poor are destroyed by floods. Then, only fear rules the people who lock themselves in their houses, terrified that if they go out onto the street, they will be washed away by the water and no one will find their body.

 

"And after all that, comes the time when aromas rain on our city. Sweet sunshine warms us in the daytime and a soft wind cools us under the star-filled nights. Then we work the earth once more and refill our stores, repair our barrages and rebuild our destroyed houses and bridges. During this time, everyone is indescribably more beautiful; they love life, God and each other passionately. Men wildly desire women and women abandon themselves completely. It is a time when joy and fun belong to all, just as all of us suffered under the previous trials.

 

"And so in this Time of Scents, our city looks like a miracle that bewitches strangers, leaving plenty, like you, thinking that they’ve found paradise. But those of us who live here know that for the Time of Scents to come, we must first live through the Time of Drought and the Rains and that even when the Time of Scents arrives, we know that it will only last a while, just until the next Drought. It seems to be our fate to feast on the most heavenly pleasures of life only after we’ve lived through sorrow, hatred and fear.”

 

That is what the Great King said and he took a deep breath, smelling the fragrances that floated in from the veranda with pleasure. Nevertheless, Ioannis had something more to ask, “If this is your Fate, as you said it is, Great King, then what do you do? Aren’t kings supposed to change the fate of nations?”

 

The King showed no annoyance at the impertinent question. “Listen, young Prince,” he said, “you should fear those who want to change the fate of people. My ‘purpose’ is simply this: to try to persuade myself and others to be a little more humane when we live through the Drought, a little braver when we’re inundated by the Rains and when Scents flood the city, to make sure they enjoy the pleasure whilst keeping in mind it’s not a gift to anyone, but the fruit of pain, struggle and fear that may have passed, but will come again.”

 

After thinking for a while, Ioannis asked him, “I don’t want to argue, Great King, but I don’t agree with what you say. I’m from a country where people live in pain and suffering without the slightest joy; so, I can tell you that I’ll do everything to uproot these trials and bring an age of happiness and prosperity  to my land!”

 

The Great King smiled condescendingly, “Since you speak of an age of happiness and prosperity, young Prince, I will tell you about something no one else knows. Many years ago, a strange lanky traveller came to this city. His eyes had an uncanny red glow. It was the Time of Scents - just as it is now - and he stayed in the city for three nights, asking to see me on his last evening. He introduced himself as the possessor of knowledge of Good and Evil. He had an enigmatic air and when he spoke he gave one a vague feeling of guilt. He asked me roughly the same things that you’ve asked. When I told him about the Time of Drought and Rain that come before the Time of Scents, he sighed deeply and said ‘humans are timid!’ I asked for an explanation, as I wouldn’t let a comment like that pass me by. He showed me a package he was carrying. It was a small black case sealed with wax, ‘Inside this box,’ he said, ‘there is a bat that froze as it let out its last breath. The breath of life will remain forever imprisoned within it. I found this mark of utmost darkness at the icy ends of the earth and I put it in this black case and sealed it with African wax. The king that takes the frozen bat out of its case will have the power to control perfectly the fate of his people for as long as he leaves it in sunlight. It is in your hands then, to conquer Drought and Rain and make the Time of Scents last forever…’ That’s what that strange lanky traveller had said to me… And suddenly he disappeared from in front of my eyes leaving the black case at my feet. For three hours till dawn, I sat motionless looking at the black case and thinking to myself… Of course, I was very anxious because if the lanky traveller with the red eyes was lying, he was an exceptionally good impostor; one who could even shock a king. If, however, he was telling the truth and I opened the case and brought the frozen bat into sunlight…well then, with one simple movement, I’d be able to control the fate of my people and conquer Draught and Rain as well as suffering, hatred, fear, evil and feuds. In brief, I could change life itself, once and for all…

 

"But, young Prince, I didn’t do it, because I became scared. It was not the same fear as the one we feel in the Time of the Rains, but much worse: inexplicable, icy and alien, a fear that told me perhaps the age of happiness would become slavery, that centuries of fragrance would fade, that if ugliness were banished from life, beauty would be exiled, if suffering were conquered perhaps love would be vanquished too… For all those reasons, I chose never to open the case with the bat that froze at the very end of the world. I spoke to no one of this and, even after all these years, you’re the first to find out. You will be king and must know as much as possible.”

 

“What did you do with the case?” asked Ioannis suddenly, fascinated by the story, “you must have thrown it into the fire?” The Great King sighed, “According to the customs of our people, any gift one receives may not be destroyed or got rid of, young Prince. I have it in my bedroom, even now, under my bed. I am the only one who has the right to enter - not even my queen or my son and successor can go in. I’ve given orders for it to be buried with me in my grave.”

 

***

 

It was just before dawn when Ioannis left the thrown room. He found Petran sleeping in one of the royal guest rooms. He woke him and recounted the whole conversation he’d had with the Great King. When he’d finished, he asked Petran to tell him what he thought; but Petran remained silent.

 

“But don’t you see…” Ioannis broke in, “ when it comes down to it, he’s just a faint-hearted man? He could open the case and save his people - but he won’t do it! What do the draughts and rains mean to him? After all he’s well protected in the red palace… He’s a coward, I tell you, and his cowardice is inhumane. He just sits there and philosophises whilst his people suffer terrible hardships. If I were in his place, if someone gave me such a gift, you’d see! Petran, I’d bring the Age of Happiness to my people, my friend, because there is an Age of Happiness! The Great King can say what he likes, an Age of Happiness means that there won’t be hatred and evil; no fear or feuding and no selfishness or violence between people! And I’d make it all happen, if I had the black case with the frozen bat!”

 

And saying those last words, Ioannis stopped suddenly and looked anxiously into the eyes of his friend for confirmation. Nearly a whole minute passed before Petran said anything, “Listen, Yanno, I’m a gypsy and I’m afraid of bats.”

 

“That’s just stupid, Petran!” said Ioannis, losing his temper, “The frozen bat doesn’t have a mind that can understand good and evil: it’s people who make that choice. And I’d expose this bat to sunlight to do good and nothing else!” Ioannis eyes were glowing feverishly as if he’d seen a vision. Another minute passed in silence before the young Prince, this time speaking very slowly, asked his friend, “You’ll be playing the pipes at the palace of the Great King this evening, won’t you?” “Yes, I’ll be playing tonight,” replied Petran. “And you’ll play so well that you’ll bewitch them all, won’t you?” “I’ll play because God created me to play the pipes and not because you want me to!” said the young Gypsy standing up, obviously annoyed.

 

As it turned out, that evening the whole population of the City of Scents gathered in front of the red palace to hear the youthful stranger play his pipes. The night was hot and the red full moon glowed in the heavenly dome. On the stairs of the palace sat the Great King and all around him were his family, councillors, priests, soldiers and even the palace guards (for whom the Great King himself had given permission to listen to the stranger’s enchanting music). The faces of the men were painted white and the women’s red, as they always were at the city’s great festivals. At one point the Great King gave a nod and Petran came out into the middle of the square and started to play a perfect melody on his pipes.

 

At the same time, a shadow slipped through the labyrinthine corridors of the red palace. It was Ioannis, who had stuffed his ears with wax so that he wouldn’t succumb to Petran’s music. And so, as all the palace guards were listening to the gypsy’s pipes, it wasn’t difficult for the young prince to find what he wanted. He quickly reached the door of the King’s bedroom and, using a hairpin, unlocked the seven locks that held it shut.

 

When he was inside, he wondered about what he was doing one last time: “I’m becoming a thief and abusing the hospitality of the Great King for the good of my people - may Justice on Earth and in Heaven judge me!” The black case really was under the royal bed. Ioannis took it and swiftly left, using the back doors of the red palace. He found a horse from the Royal Stables and in a few minutes was galloping out through the gates of the City of Scents having stolen the tool that would bring the age of happiness: a little black box containing a bat from the icy ends of the earth, a bat that froze moments before it gave out its last breath.

 

***

 

That’s how Ioannis left the City of Scents and set off on the journey back to Wolvesden. He felt that he’d seen all that he needed to know of the world. He had no regrets about stealing the black case, as it was useless in the City of Scents where the Great King would never open it. He, on the other hand, was going to use it for the good of the people of Wolvesden. The only thing that saddened him was that since  he had left so suddenly, he hadn’t said goodbye to Petran, his beloved companion from their years of wandering. He reassured himself by thinking the gypsy would understand that since Ioannis was destined to be King, he would have to put the good of his people above his personal feelings.

 

This time Ioannis followed the arc of the sun: his journey home, like his original voyage, lasted three years. This time though, the sunsets filled his heart with hope. He crossed the same deserts, passed the same rocks, went over the same mountains, rivers and seas that he had wandered through with Petran, until finally he laid eyes on the Great Mountains beyond which lay Wolvesden. He crossed the Great Mountains eating snow and living in caves and in the trunks of trees until one morning, he found himself in the capital of Wolvesden - the city he had left six years earlier.

 

When he got to the palace and asked to see his father, the palace guards and councillors did not recognise him. If it hadn’t been for the medallion with the Royal Seal, they would not have let him see his father who lay dieing in bed. The King had the terrible plague that was ravaging the whole country of Wolvesden. As soon as the frail King saw his son, he drew together his reserves of strength and sat up to talk to him.

 

“Precious son, after so much hardship it is a great gift from God…and a sign that He values me…that before He takes me up to Him, I’ve seen you return a grown man. A terrible plague - the most terrible to strike our land - hit us six months ago… and has been reaping our men and women in a deadly harvest… The time has come for me to see my beloved queen, your mother… Bury me next to her along with the knife that took her life and brought you into this world…Rule justly and with leniency, my son… and in suffering try to find faith and hope…”

 

As soon as he heard those words, Ioannis bent over his father and held him by the shoulders. “No father,” he cried, “we don’t need such hopes anymore! I’ve brought something with me, inside this little black case: it is the tool to abolish suffering, fear and hatred. Our country will be governed by the Age of Happiness and Prosperity, father…” He would have said more, but behind him he heard the voice of the first councillor: “Do not waste your words, Prince Ioannis, the King is dead.”

 

One hour later Ioannis was crowned King. He held the funeral for his father the next day without waiting for a period of national mourning that was the usual custom when a King died. When he threw the royal dagger into the grave, he felt a strange jump in his heart but it soon passed as his mind was on other things. After the funeral, his first act was to call a general council of the land and inform the councillors that in three days, all the people from every corner of Wolvesden, were to gather in the great square outside the palace. He would then open the black case in front of them all and uncover the thing that would change their lives forever. He ordered the stonemasons of the capital to build the tallest marble column, which he would then place in the square outside he palace.

 

So, on the third day, ravaged by the plague, hunger and poverty, the people gathered in the square outside the palace to listen to the new King. Unhappiness had made them suspicious and aggressive and many of them resented the King when they saw the tall marble column in the centre of the square: “A good king he’s turning out to be,” they said, “he’s building great marble columns when we can’t even bury our dead!” Ioannis came out onto the Royal Balcony dressed in black simple clothes, without a crown or purple robes and spoke to the people:

 

“Men and women of Wolvesden, I returned to our country yesterday, just in time for the last moments of my father’s life. I know all about the great plague that is killing our people… I know about our poverty, our unhappiness and the violence that brings this misery upon us. I know how you have all suffered and how you often curse the day that you were born… how it pains you to see your children being bullied, powerless to help them… Nevertheless, today will be the greatest day in our history! From today, a new age begins, and all our hardships will end forever. Inside this little black case, there is a bat that froze just before it gave out its last breath, far away at the icy ends of the earth. There is no point in telling you how I came to possess it, but when I take it out, and sunlight strikes the frozen bat, the fate of our land will change forever. I invited you all here to witness the action that will govern all our lives from now on.”

 

After he’d said these words, Ioannis leaned over and with a slow but firm movement picked up the black case, opened it, and with both his palms, carefully held the black bat up high. “Men and women of Wolvesden, this frozen bat will be all our hearts from now on: Our Heart, the Heart of the Age of Happiness… From today, from this moment, hatred, suffering and fear will stop tyrannising and crippling our lives. If we no longer feel these things inside us, then there will no longer be selfishness and feuding, jealousy or pride amongst us… and we will be saved from sadness, suspicion and despair… When our minds are free of all these things, we will then conquer hunger and poverty and eradicate disease!”

 

The people who had gathered in the square outside the palace listened in surprise: it was clear that the King believed in he was saying, indeed, he seemed positively certain. On the other hand, the story of the frozen bat was so incredible that most of the crowd passed him off as a madman, especially after they saw him raise the frozen nocturnal flying mouse in his palms, a creature so small that most of them couldn’t even see it.

 

But then a strange breeze blew through the square and they all suddenly felt inexplicably joyous as a feeling of solidarity and common destiny engulfed them. The new King no longer seemed funny or mad as he held the frozen bat high above them; he was a Prophet leading his people to the Promised Land. Frenzied clapping and cheers broke out. Yes, the frozen bat would be their heart from then on! And thanks to that they would be saved from their suffering and build an Age of Happiness. Without stopping their cheering, they watched Ioannis climb the marble column and place the frozen bat on its top. Once he was down and on the ground again he shouted with all the strength in his lungs, “No to hatred! No to sorrow! No to fear!” and the crowd responded with three drawn out  No’s!” that could be heard throughout the city.

 

That night the men and women of Wolvesden slept soundly for the first time in years. The problems that deprived them of sleep had not been solved but they simply no longer felt fear, jealousy or sorrow. They knew that now they had their Heart, the frozen bat that would lead them to absolute happiness.

 

In truth, even in the first few weeks the state of Wolvesden changed remarkably. The citizens organised themselves into teams to guard the wells and burn infected clothes; they scraped together food for the sick who were most exhausted by the plague and the most well off people happily gave up their houses so that they would become treatment centres for the sick. After a month the King’s council of doctors informed him that the plague was over.

 

All the other parts of people’s lives were incredibly changed: landowners went to the King (without being asked) and offered to share land with their tenants, merchants decided to offer their goods for free to anyone in need, labourers worked hard days without demanding wages, doctors started treating everyone without payment, barbers cut hair, academics gave lectures and no one wanted anything in return; whilst the lawyers and solicitors stopped working after the first three month as feuds and disputes between people had ended the day the frozen bat was exposed.

 

Six months to the day after he had taken the frozen bat out of the black case and exposed it to sunlight, Ioannis once again invited the people of Wolvesden to the Square of Our Heart, as everyone now called the palace square. Thousands of people, not just the inhabitants of the capital but men and women from all over the country, flooded the square and surrounding streets. King Ioannis spoke through a huge funnel his engineers had built so that the whole city could hear him.

 

“Men and women of Wolvesden, thanks to Our Heart our lives have begun to be really happy and prosperous. Until now, we thought that happiness came through the satisfaction of our brute instincts, at depraved feasts and we all followed our lecherous fantasies, but now we recognise that true happiness is to sleep well without a single worry and without feeling the hot fearful and hateful breath of terror on our necks. Now, we can see that true happiness is not laughter, but the absence of tears. True happiness is to live in a land where no one is woken by nightmares and where no one suffers from regrets. There is, men and women of Wolvesden, one and only reason that we are living in the Age of Happiness: it is because we all believe in one heart, Our Heart! That’s why, as of today, I’m abolishing God and the Devil and ordering the transformation of all churches into temples of Our Heart and all our priests will be its ministers. God and the Devil are needed only by the unhappy and for everyone living here, they are useless…”

 

So it was that in the space of a morning, King Ioannis abolished God and the Devil. No one resisted what he put forward though not of course out of fear, but because all of them (even the priests who had dedicated their lives to the worship of God and battling the Devil) agreed completely with what they had heard. King Ioannis speech was followed by a ten thousand-fold cry of “Long live Our Heart!” and that evening they all went to sleep truly proud of their age of happiness.

 

A year from the day that King Ioannis took the frozen bat out of the black case there were brilliant ceremonies across the whole country in its honour. The King spoke at a rally the brilliance of which had never been seen in Wolvesden before and his engineers built him a system of twenty giant funnels that could turn the slightest whisper into the sound of thunder. That day the King announced that the name Wolvesden belonged to the past and that from now on, the country was to be called Prosperity as the time of hatred, horror and fear had definitely ended - the land would prosper forever. He also announced the banning of all books from the past, as well as music and the arts; all these were useless now as they were created in times of sorrow, pain and death. He even went on to say that the schools of Prosperity would now only teach what was necessary for the Age of Happiness. They would instruct each person in the science or trade that they were destined for and nothing else. As soon as the King finished, a passionate ten thousand-fold cry rang out “Long live Our Heart!” and then the people of Prosperity went to their homes and fell asleep proud of their age of happiness.

 

The next year, at the end of the second year from the day the frozen bat was exposed to sunlight the King’s engineers installed funnels in every house of all the inhabitants of Prosperity so that everyone could hear all Ioannis had to say. In his speech, the Wise King (because that’s what everyone now called him) abolished colour from the country. His calm and composed voice was heard in every house: “Colours fool people and remove sadness from their lives and since we are living in absolute happiness they are now useless to us! From today, our only colour - the colour of our clothes, the colour of our houses, the colour of our flowers and trees, the colour of the sun, the moon and the stars, the colour of the sky, the rivers and the gleaming sea, the colour of sparks from our fires, the colour of our skin and our eyes will be black in all its shades. And the darkest and most absolute black will be the colour of Our Heart and only Our Heart!” As soon as his words ended, the men and women of Prosperity stood up straight and shouted loudly “Long live Our Heart!” and afterwards fell asleep proud of their age of happiness. And it really happened: the next day everything became black and white in the land of Prosperity.

 

So the years went by and Prosperity passed deeper into the Age of Happiness. On the third anniversary, the Wise King put an end to dreams, which in any case the people of his land had long since stopped having. In year four, he ended laughter, since, as he said, “it is a residue of the years of misery”.  On the fifth anniversary he abolished the family and people started living in tall monstrous buildings according to the work they did. At the start of the sixth year he put an end to history, as what good did it do anyone to remember the days of sorrow? Finally at the beginning of the seventh year the Wise King made his most triumphant declaration, “Men and women of Prosperity, from today, death is abolished in our land. Thanks to Our Heart and after seven years of hard work the royal doctors have managed to make the Potion of Immortality. Tomorrow, it shall be delivered to all of you and for all of you ageing will stop: children will remain children, the middle aged will remain middle-aged and the old old. Sickness will never touch us again and death no longer has any power over us! As a result of this, from today, sex and love between two people is abolished, as is childbirth. After all we, ourselves, are already perfect. The measurement of time is henceforth banned since we now expect eternity. Even the cry “Long live Our Heart!” is abolished as it’s now obvious: Our Heart will live forever and govern our Age of Happiness.” As soon as the Wise King’s voice could no longer be heard through the funnels in every house, everyone went quietly to sleep, proud of their Age of Happiness. The next day every inhabitant of Prosperity drank the black potion that ended death forever.

 

From that day forth time stopped in the land of Prosperity. The lives of its people looked like the journey of the grey sun that marked the dark days and dense nights in the land of Prosperity. The Wise King stopped talking through the funnels for the simple reason that he had nothing to say. Everything was perfect in his beautiful land. In any case, talking had been reduced to the absolute bare minimum phrases people needed in their work. Normal daily greetings like ‘Good morning’ and ‘Goodnight’ had fallen out of use as days and nights were always good and that was the way they would stay. The people’s routine was the same every day and since the people themselves remained exactly the same, they started to believe that they were always living out the same day.

 

Nevertheless, one evening something happened that startled the Wise King. His first cousin, Princess Anna, who was born on the same day as Ioannis, jumped from the roof of the highest tower of the palace and killed herself. It was the first death in the land since the day the people drank the potion of immortality. Under her pillow they found a note that read: “Since my King does not love me, my life is worthless.” Ioannis was very surprised when he read it. How was it possible for a person living in the Age of Happiness to fall in love like they used to in the days of misery and then kill herself? He immediately called his council of doctors and explained the problem to them. The doctors examined the body and afterwards remained locked in a room for three days and three nights until they could give Ioannis their expert opinion.

 

“Wise King, Princess Anna suffered from a condition that none of us has ever seen before. The most correct name for this is ‘Nostalgia for Death’ and we believe that it was caused by the fact that the centre of the rational part of the Princess’s brain had decayed whereas the part that controls longing had grown. The result was that she never understood that Our Heart was her heart too and so she longed for the past, for horror, misery and death.” “In other words, the problem has something to do with nostalgia.” Ioannis said to himself. He immediately gave orders for his doctors to make a potion protecting against nostalgia and longing, thinking that there may be others with the same disease as Princess Anna. “In the end, to be rid of death, one must end nostalgia too,” he concluded.

 

Around that time, almost unconsciously, he found himself outside the locked door of the palace room where, years before, his father had taken him just as Ioannis prepared to travel and see the world. It was the room in which his mother had died and where he had been born. He opened the door with the royal keys and went inside. On the walls and floor, everywhere in fact, the velvet remained: at one time it had been blue but now it was just grey. On the carpet there were black stains that had once been red. The Wise King tried to feel something in his heart but didn’t succeed. “Happiness is the greatest peak of humanity, beyond that nothing else exists,” he murmured to an invisible shadow. He walked out of the door and ordered the room to be demolished that same evening.

 

Not long afterwards the council of doctors informed the King that the potion against nostalgia was ready. For a long time the people of Prosperity had not heard the King speak to them through the funnels, “Men and women of Prosperity, from today the Age of Happiness is reaching its absolute limits! After fear, sadness, hatred, feuding, God and the Devil, colours, dreams, history, death, love and time, today we will remove our final obstacle: nostalgia. With the rising sun, the Kings servants will pass from house to house and give you all a potion against longing.” And that’s what happened: the next day all the inhabitants of Prosperity drank the potion against nostalgia and it became certain that they would never long for anything again.

 

Since then much time has passed - by our measurements of course, as for the people of Prosperity every grey day dawned the same as the last, without anyone being born or dieing or getting old or longing for the past. The Wise King felt completely justified in taking the frozen bat out of the black case as he had guided his people to immortality and eternity and his country to the highest limits of humanity. Every evening, he sat on the royal balcony and in the black darkness breathed the cold air of the Age of Happiness and Prosperity.

 

One afternoon the Wise King’s lieutenants arrived in the palace very agitated; they told him that a very strange old man had appeared in their land. He’d been standing in the Square of Our Heart since the morning and was getting angry and offensive. Ioannis immediately asked to see him and when they brought him in front of the King, he looked at him in surprise: the old man’s wrinkled skin was not grey, like the inhabitants of Prosperity since the day he had abolished colours, but yellow and the pupil of his one eye was a sinister blue. He had a dreadful appearance; he was very thin and swarthy, his clothes were wretched dirty rags whilst his blind eye was covered by a shabby cloth; he didn’t have any teeth in his mouth, he was holding a piece of wood in his hand and each palm had a thumb and just two other fingers - the rest had been cut off.  His surprise doubled when he heard the stranger cry in a creepy high-pitched voice, “You, Yanno, created this hell!”

 

The Wise King remained silent for some time straining his happiness-ruined memory before, in the end, he recognised him. It was Petran, the gypsy he’d travelled with for three years against the track of the sun. He immediately ordered everyone to leave the room so that he could be alone with the stranger. When just the two of them remained, Ioannis opened his arms to embrace the old gypsy as if he hadn’t heard what Petran had just said.

 

Petran, companion of my youthful wanderings, it’s true that after we parted on the evening I left the City of Scents, I never expected to see you again. I remember how you always travelled in the opposite direction to the sun and so I was sure that your path would never lead to my land. Come and let me embrace you! Afterwards we can sit and talk, we have so much to say… I’d like to know where you wandered after I left you in the City of Scents and how you ended up here. Did the Great King think you were my accomplice and lock you in prison or beat you? If that’s true, whatever you’ve lived through, whatever happened to you, your troubles are now over. You’ve come to the land of Prosperity, you’ll drink a potion and become immortal, you’ll drink another potion and never long for anything again and all that will be left for you will be the Age of Happiness. You will stay with us forever, just like one of us. In any case we owe you a debt of gratitude, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been able to take the black case containing the frozen bat.”

 

Petran listened to Ioannis words without moving, “I am a gypsy, Yanno, and I will die longing. Only the walking dead are immortal. You’ve opened your arms to me out of condescension and not love. The embrace you offer is that of the dead and I don’t want it…and there’s nothing that pains me more than the fact that I helped you steal the King’s black case.

 

“As the day after you fled the City of Scents dawned soldiers came to my room and took me to the Great King. He was sitting sorrowfully on his thrown. “Stranger,” he said, “yesterday your companion went into my bedroom and stole the black case that holds the absolute end… I know that you are not to blame anymore than I am responsible by telling him about its existence. You will leave the City of Scents today: continue your journey to the ends of the earth and if you ever come across a black and white world where people don’t laugh or cry, don’t suffer and don’t love, you will know that your companion opened the black case and froze the hearts of his people.”

 

"I left the City of Scents with a heavy weight on my heart. I carried on walking against the track of the sun, I walked through plains, deserts and mountains and I crossed four oceans selling my four fingers. I never looked at the sunset and never travelled with another drummer after your betrayal. And I always played my pipes to please God and people. As the cycle of my life was drawing to a close, so my hope that I would never come across a black and white land grew. I hoped that God had shown you the light and that you’d never opened the black case containing the frozen bat. Fifty years had past when I reached the Great Mountains and after crossing them I found myself in the hell you call Prosperity. In this country no one’s heart swells to the melody of pipes. You don’t understand, Yanno that this frozen flying creature you call ‘Our Heart’ has taken your lives and frozen the heart you hold in your bodies. You don’t understand, Yanno, that you are a nation of embalmed zombies!”

 

Ioannis responded to the gypsy’s words in a peaceful and steady voice, “I don’t hold your words against you Petran. You’ve lived your life surrounded by unhappiness and perhaps you just got used to it like so many others. The melody of your pipes is good for the lands of sorrow but in my country it is useless. You called me a thief and talk about hell and embalmed zombies… but look at my country Petran: there is no death, old age, hunger, unhappiness, hatred, feuding or brutality. My people don’t long for anything because the Age of Happiness and Prosperity has arrived and we’ve reached the peak of humanity.

 

“How can you call a land whose people will live eternally, hell? How can you call those of us who will exist forever without changing, dead? Everyone else, all the faint hearted, unhappy and murderous people will become food for worms! I don’t think of myself as a thief or guilty of betrayal as I was the one who had the courage to lead the human race to eternity and to endless happiness. Because nothing better exists than for people to live happily.”

 

At those words Petran replied almost screaming, “You don’t bear a grudge because you’ve been dead for a long time - probably from before the day you took the frozen bat out of the black case and exposed it to sunlight. Perhaps from the evening you plugged your ears with wax so that you wouldn’t hear the music from my pipes… Human happiness is only worth something when it sparks in unhappiness, life has value because death exists. You brought a frozen bat out into the sunlight and abolished life itself instead of its trials. Your people have no hope because it has no fear, it has no love because you abolished hatred and it has no faith because you abolished suffering. Your people are the living dead, Yanno, and that’s how they’ll stay. It’s better for people to be cowards, even unhappy and murderous than for them to have a frozen heart and the Age of Happiness you’ve brought them. Those who become worm food used to live, but you and your people are immortal without living. Humans live for a spark of joy amongst suffering. The Age of Happiness is not happiness, it is the End.”

 

Clearly and calmly, Ioannis replied once more, “Without doubt, Petran, you are crazy. Your years of wandering have ruined your mind. Everything you say is irrational and doesn’t rest on any logic… if you insist on believing anything else, explain to me how, if the frozen bat - Our Heart, that is - froze the hearts in each of our bodies, how come it didn’t freeze yours too? You wouldn’t then be able to think of all the things you’re saying now.”

 

Petran answered immediately, “I’m a gypsy, Yanno, and gypsies don’t have a goal in life. Our souls follow the wind like tender ears of corn. Believe it, the gypsy heart will never freeze, not even after we die. But if every other heart froze, the gypsies wouldn’t last long as we would wither from loneliness and die. That’s why I’m begging you, in the name of the music we once played together: shut the bat back in its black case and bury it in the earth so that the creature’s soul can rest. At least that way your heart and those of your people will thaw. I’ll leave your land this evening, right now in fact. But think about everything I’ve said, perhaps some of your past human stirrings and emotions are still inside you.” And with those words, the ragged old gypsy left the palace of the Wise King.

 

***

 

By the time Petran had left night had fallen and Ioannis remained thinking for quite a while. He then moved onto the palace balcony and from there looked out over his country and the capital of the land of Prosperity. Darkness reigned in the city and his people slept serenely. In front of the palace in the Square of Our Heart he could faintly make out the towering marble column where the frozen bat lay. It was the symbol of the Age of Happiness he had brought to his land so many years ago, this age of absolute and universal happiness that ruled the frozen hearts of the people of Prosperity.

 

For one last time he tried to comprehend the things that Petran had said to him, but he couldn’t understand the use faith, love and hope had when suffering, hate and fear had been conquered. “Prosperity is humanity’s supreme peak, beyond that there’s nothing,” he said to himself.

 

He went back into his royal office and called his lieutenants. They arrived feeling uneasy, as they were not used to the Wise King calling them in the evening. He gave their orders and commanded they execute them without delay. After they left he sat at his desk and wrote a general order to the country’s border guards stating that they were never again to allow a gypsy enter the Kingdom. If one were to smuggle himself in illegally then they were to be execute immediately, so that none of the freakish and accursed race whose hearts would not freeze and who refused to join the Age of Happiness would ever be found in their country again.

 

The Wise King’s soldiers found Petran just before dawn a little outside the city. He was sitting on a tree trunk and playing his pipes - in fact it was his music that led the guards to him. The order was specific and clear: not only were they to kill him but, as you can never be sure with gypsies, they had to cut out his heart and take it to the Wise King. The soldiers did what they had to without hatred and without remorse. By chance, they had never killed anyone before but since their action would protect the Age of Happiness they did it anyway. In their breasts beat the frozen heart of prosperous people. It did not surprise them that the gypsy didn’t resist and that when he saw them approaching, he just carried on playing the flute. After they finished their work the only thing that shocked them was that Petran’s heart burned like a red-hot coal.

 

 

[Translation: Leonidas Liambeys]

 

 

~

 

 

[The short novel ‘The frozen heart of prosperous people’ was written in the summer of 1998. It was published in Greek in Spring 2002 by Patakis Editions and it was republished in the collected edition Tears Stories of Thanassis Triaridis in Autumn 2010 by Digma Editions.]