Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Once upon a time there was a red-shirt boy and a yellow-shirt girl. The boy wore the same red shirt every day. It was made of cotton and was worn and frayed at the edges. The girl wore a different yellow shirt every day. Her shirts were made of silk and they were always bright and clean.
One day, while walking on the beach, the red-shirt boy met the yellow-shirt girl. They stopped not ten meters apart and glared at each other, not saying a word.
“What’s the matter?” the boy said. “You don’t seem to like me.”
“I don’t,” said the girl. “My parents taught me to be wary of people in red shirts.” The boy looked down at his red shirt. Sure, it was far from beautiful but he was still proud of it.
“That’s odd,” the boy said. “My parents taught me the same thing, only they said to beware of people in yellow shirts.”
“How can that be?” said the girl. “Each of my friends likes yellow over red.”
“And all my friends,” countered the boy, “like red over yellow.” The yellow-shirt girl knitted her brow and frowned.
“We really have to get to the bottom of this,” she said, “It is a real conundrum.”
“How can we do that?” said the boy. “Your parents say one thing while mine say another.”
Suddenly the girl beamed. It was the first time the boy had seen her smile. It made him feel all warm and mushy inside.
“I’ve got it!” the girl said. “We’ll take the matter to the King.”
“Are you crazy?” said the boy. “The King lives in a palace surrounded by water and guarded by soldiers. We wouldn’t be able to get past the main gate.” The yellow-shirt girl turned and pointed to a large beachfront house.
“In recent years the King has been in poor health,” she said. “He now prefers living here rather than the city. The salt air is good for his health.”
“I still don’t see how we can go and see him,” said the boy. “After all, he is the King. Why would he waste his time with us? We are nothing to him.”
“My mother told me the King loves all people–young and old,” the girl said stubbornly. “Come on. We have a big question, worthy of a king.”
With great reluctance the red-shirt boy followed the yellow-shirt girl down the beach. “This is madness,” he thought. “There is no way the King will see us.” Still, the red-shirt boy had to admit that the yellow-shirt girl had pluck.
Arriving at the King’s gate, the yellow-shirt girl and the red-shirt boy were stopped by a royal guard.
“Halt,” said the guard. “By what right do you approach the residence of the King?” The yellow-shirt girl bowed politely and said: “My friend and I are here on a matter of great importance. Only the King can help us.”
“I’m sorry,” said the guard. “His Majesty is resting at the moment and is not receiving visitors.”
The red-shirt boy was about to say: “See, I told you so,” when a deep, authoritative voice came from behind the high brick wall.
“Show the children in,” the voice commanded. “And while you’re at it, have one of the servants get two chairs. I want my guests to be comfortable.”
“But, your highness,” the guard replied. “I’m under strict orders not to admit any visitors.”
“Please do as I say,” the King said with an edge to his voice. “My duty is to my loyal subjects, be they great or small.”
“Yes, your grace.”
In a matter of minutes the red-shirt boy and the yellow-shirt girl were sitting on wooden yard chairs before the King. Though old and tired, the King was mentally alive and alert. His deep brown eyes danced with warmth, intelligence, and understanding.
“Now what can I do for you?” the King said with a smile.
The red-shirt boy was still too stunned to speak so he let the yellow-shirt girl open the conversation.
“We have a problem,” the girl began. “My parents told me yellow shirts were good and red shirts were bad but his parents told him that red shirts were good and yellow shirts were bad. We respect our parents but we need to know who is right and who is wrong.”
The King’s smile vanished from his face.
“That’s not an easy question to answer,” the King said.
“Not even for a king?” the girl asked.
“Especially for a king,” the King said. “Tell me. What is it about your friend’s red shirt that you don’t like?”
“Well, it’s old and dirty in spots. I would’ve thrown it away months ago.”
The King turned to the boy.
“The girl has a point,” he said. “Why do you like that shirt so much?”
“It’s the only one I have,” said the boy. “My father is a fisherman. He works hard to feed and clothe the family. I know he wants to buy me a new red shirt but he doesn’t have the money.”
“I see,” said the King snapping his fingers. A servant appeared out of nowhere.
“Bring a page’s shirt for this boy,” the King said firmly. “And make sure it’s red, not yellow.”
In a matter of minutes the servant returned with a beautiful red shirt made from the finest silk in the land. Putting it on, the boy felt like royalty. The King beamed.
“Does the boy meet with your approval now?” the King said.
“He looks much better, almost handsome,” the girl said frankly. “But I still don’t like the color. Why couldn’t it have been a yellow shirt like mine?”
“Perhaps the boy likes red as much as you like yellow,” the King said cryptically.
“I do prefer red,” said the boy. “Strange, I only started to hate yellow around the time my father said we didn’t have enough food for the family.”
“That’s silly,” the girl said. “What can the color yellow have to do with hunger? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t,” said the King. “Whenever a question seems odd, whenever a question seems out of place, there’s often a great truth behind it. During my long reign, I’ve learned one thing: When in doubt, side with the poor. Now listen up. I’ve three questions for you. Answer them together with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ First question: Are your brains about the same size?”
“Second question: Are your stomachs about the same size?”
“Third question: Are your hearts about the same size?”
“Then why,” said the King with a smile, “do you like different colors?”
“Because our parents told us so,” the boy and girl said in unison.
“Fair enough,” the King said. “I’d be the last to pit children against their parents. Still, you must remember that I’m more than a king. I’m the Father of the Country. Do you know what that means?”
“I’m not sure,” said the girl. “But doesn’t it mean that you’re the lord of life?”
“Not at all,” laughed the King.
“Then you’re our leader,” she said.
“Yes, that’s part of it,” said the King.
“I think I know the other part,” volunteered the boy.
“And what’s that?” asked the King.
“That–that–that you love us all equally.” The girl giggled.
“What’s so funny?” said the King.
“How can a king love all the people equally?” the girl asked. “Some people in the kingdom are smarter, richer, and more important than others. Anyone can see that.”
“Oh, really,” said the King. “That’s most interesting. Tell me. What’s your favorite toy?”
“My Furby,” said the girl enthusiastically. “It’s so adorable!”
“What’s a Furby?” said the boy.
“You don’t know what a Furby is?” the girl said incredulously. “A Furby is an electronic toy that can learn how to speak when you teach it new words and phrases. A Furby is not only expensive but also hard to get. The company only makes a limited number of them. Many of my friends are jealous that I own one.”
“Oh,” said the boy.
“And what kind of toys do you have?” asked the King turning to the boy. Even in his new red silk shirt, the boy felt hollow and empty inside. He looked down at his empty hands.
“I don’t have any toys,” he said shamefacedly. “When not helping my father to fish, I go down to the creek and make little clay statues. It isn’t easy but it is fun.”
“I bet it is,” said the King. “I wish I’d been allowed to do that when I was a boy.” The yellow-shirt girl looked at the King in disbelief.
“Excuse me, your highness, but how can you say such a terrible thing? All your life you’ve had anything you wanted. Indeed you’re the most blessed man in the land.” The King’s face became clouded.
“Being a bad king is easy,” he said slowly and deliberately. “But being a good king is difficult, most demanding. True, I can snap my fingers and people will obey me. But only on lesser things; not on matters of substance. As a young king, I had to work hard to win over powerful people and groups. I began with a number of projects and ideas but over the years I have narrowed my mission to one, noble goal: for my people to love and respect one another. That’s all I want now. For don’t you see? Each of my subjects has a great role to play in the development of the country, in the advancement of the nation. The poor, for instance, are nearer the land and the sea. They therefore understand life better. In fact every time I sit down to eat a meal I give thanks to the farmer who grew my rice, to the fisherman who caught my seafood.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way,” said the girl.
“Neither have I,” said the boy. Indeed the thought that one of his father’s fish might be working its way through the King’s stomach and intestines at this moment filled the boy with great joy and satisfaction.
“I also give thanks to the middle class,” the King said. “They’re the ones who keep our modern way of life humming. They’re the ones who run the businesses, build the houses, educated the young, and care for the sick and the elderly. The rich are the ones who cause me the most trouble. Many are decent people but their immense wealth and power often goes to their heads making them beasts, totally out of touch with the rest of us.”
“But you are the richest of the rich,” the girl said.
“I know,” said the King wearily. “But, to be honest, I only wear fancy clothes and live in palaces and own huge amounts of real estate because that’s what other kings have done before me, because that’s the role people want me to play.”
“What other role is there?” asked the boy.
The King was silent for a moment.
“Remember I spoke about being a good king or a bad king?”
“Well, all good kings have only one dream,” said the King. “And I have carried the burden of that dream with me now for more than fifty years. This dream is lodged deep in my heart, so deep in my heart that even the Queen does not know about it. But I will speak of this dream to you, my children. For indeed my days are numbered. Soon I shall leave this life but you must carry on.”
Both the red-shirt boy and the yellow-shirt girl leaned forward hanging on every word the King said.
“All I want, all I’ve ever wanted,” said the King, “was for my people to think for themselves, for their country, and for mankind. Every man, woman, and child has a place in this kingdom–a comfortable niche where they can better their minds and open their hearts. Money can never do that. Power can never do that. Only love can. So I ask you, my children, what’s more important: the color of your shirts or the love you have for each other?”
“The love we have for each other,” the red-shirt boy and the yellow-shirt girl said with streams of joy flowing down their cheeks.
“How can you prove that?” said the King. “How can you show that love is greater than red or yellow? Words are not enough. I must have a demonstration from the heart.”
The red-shirt boy and the yellow-shirt girl remained silent for a number of minutes. Finally the boy broke the silence.
“We–we–we’re about the same size,” he said hesitantly. “I’ll give her my red shirt to wear if she’ll give me her yellow shirt to wear.” The King’s eyebrows shot up above his steel-rimmed glasses.
“What do you make of that proposal?” the King said to the girl.
“I’m willing if he is,” she said. “My parents will be furious, but I must do what’s right.”
“Then let’s do it,” the boy said.
“All right,” the girl said. “But let’s exchange shirts behind the tree over there. I don’t want to look silly before my king.”
The red-shirt boy and the yellow-shirt girl went behind the big tree. In no time they emerged as the yellow-shirt boy and the red-shirt girl. They walked back to the King and sat down gingerly before him. Both looked a mite uncomfortable.
“Well,” the King said diplomatically. “How do you feel now?”
The yellow-shirt boy squirmed slightly in his chair.
“I don’t know exactly how to describe it,” he said. “I feel rather odd–like I’m living in another person’s skin.”
“I feel strange too,” said the red-shirt girl. “Only I feel a bit detached, not as secure as I was. Still, I feel close to the earth, nearer to the birds and the wind and the sky. It’ll take some getting used to but I’m not afraid. Inside I feel warm and alive.”
The King looked at the red-shirt girl and the yellow-shirt boy and smiled.
“The sun is going down,” he said. “You’d best be going home. I don’t want to worry your parents.”
The red-shirt girl and the yellow-shirt boy took their leave. The King watched as they walked side-by-side out the gate and onto the beach. Then something strange occurred. The yellow-shirt boy reached out and took the red-shirt girl by the hand. She did not try to resist. Indeed she met his touch with equal boldness.
The King continued to watch as the figures of the boy and the girl grew smaller and smaller against the background of the sand, as their red and yellow shirts slowly merged into a soft and glorious orange. The King stood transfixed. He’d never seen such a splendid orange, not even on the robes of his holiest monks.
“Ah,” he said reverently. “It has finally come to pass. The battle between the yellow-shirt girl and the red-shirt boy is over.”
Author’s Bio: Girard Richard Christmas is a seventy-year-old retired American ESL teacher. As a young man, he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand and Western Samoa from 1973-1978. He subsequently taught English in China, Japan, and the United States. Mr. Christmas is the author of two books: Reports of My Death: Beyond-the-Grave Confessions of North American Writers and The Orawan Poems. He currently lives in Bangkok.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)