The Twelve Brothers (Part the First)
THE TWELVE BROTHERS
Once upon a time, in a happy, green and gold country of beautiful brown people, lived wise, kind King Abdu and Queen Rukiya, who had eleven sons. Each of the sons, in addition to being strong and handsome, was adept and skilled in at least one discipline: science, mathematics, music, architecture, finance, art, astronomy, agriculture, history, poetry, or religion. But all, Chinelo, Akil, Liu, Nizam, Fadil, Chijioke, Masomakali, Harith, Tabari, Jawhar, and Shawki, were, like their parents, wise in many matters and kind to every living being.
One day the royal family began a great celebration because the royal physician, Moyo, had discovered that Queen Rukiya was expecting a twelfth child. But Rukiya was filled with disappointment when her physician told her, a few months before she was due to bring forth the new child, that it would be another boy.
“I love my sons, but I had so been hoping for a daughter this time—to keep me company,” she confided to her husband the king. “I watch you with our young men, teaching them to hunt, to be strong, to be real men –and I envy your connection. The things you have in common.”
Abdu smiled and shook his head. “Some of our sons have more in common with you than with me. Jawhar, for example—“
“I mean,” the queen interrupted, “I want someone I can teach woman things. To pass on the knowledge my foremothers have given me.”
“Well, my heart, I suppose I can understand your disappointment,” replied the king, “but I am glad you’re having another son. After all, a daughter could never gain us a kingdom. She could only lose one.” It may have been her pregnancy affecting her, but the queen suddenly felt misunderstood –and a little insulted.
“Is that all you can think of? What your children can get for you?”
“My dear!” began the king, but the queen had stormed out of his presence. She ran into the royal suite and snatched off her royal robes before a waiting woman could help her. At first, Rukiya was so angry she noticed no one in the room with her, but as the other women kept touching her, trying to help her, she impatiently commanded them to leave her. Then she pulled out some traveling clothes --her husband’s shirts because she was too filled out with child to fit her own. After dressing hastily, and throwing together a few other things in a bag, she seized a pre-nuptial gift --a large, beautiful violet in an ornate earthen pot—and left the castle. No one had the nerve to stop her.
In the middle of a nearby forest, Queen Rukiya dropped, out of breath and sobbing, to her knees. She reached for the violets she had brought with her and placed them next to her knees. Then she began to dig a shallow hole in the rich, black earth. As she dug, she prayed: “Righteous Father, You know I am not ungrateful for my family. I dearly love my husband and my sons, but if –if You could –if You would. . . . I promise to raise her to be righteous as You are righteous, if You would just give me a strong daughter. And, please, if You would also knit her brothers’ hearts to her, I would praise You forever.” At first, Rukiya thought, amused, Isn’t this a bit much to ask Him? Then she remembered: He’s God! He can do what He pleases. So she continued, “ Oh, Father, I would that You would be pleased to grant my prayer, and that the answer to my prayer bring glory to Your great name.” As she transplanted the violet from the pot to the ground, Rukiya began to weep again. Her tears watered the violet.
In four months, Queen Rukiya brought forth her twelfth son, whom she and the king christened Adisa. (The little boy turned out to be as bright as his brothers, and manifested a propensity for languages.) And twenty-five months later, the queen was found to be with her thirteenth child.
The thirteenth prenatal celebration in the Great Hall of the Palace had roared on for about seven days, with ecstatic dancing, loud music, and the most savory foods, when the royal seer, Enobakhare, clothed from neck to toe in a stark white caftan, rose up in the midst of the revelers and cried out in an eerie, high voice:
"The birth of a thirteenth child
May not be cause for joy
Unless Queen Rukiya's child
Is born a thirteenth boy.
A woman child will bring
Sorrow upon the head
Of princes, queen and king;
Heed well what I have said.”
This announcement, of course, abruptly ended the celebration. Queen Rukiya, who was four months pregnant then and moody as a matter of course, burst into tears and ran from the Great Room to lock herself into the Royal Bedroom. None of her favorite handmaidens could comfort her, and once she emerged from her seclusion, even the King was powerless to do more than quiet her weeping. After the seer's portentous announcement, no one could find Enobakhare to ask for details or clarity. Misery covered Queen Rukiya's face for four months.
For five months, the twelve princes, having understood that the birth of a sister would somehow endanger their lives in particular, decided to live just outside the palace in a great, dark forest. They had agreed upon a signal with their father concerning the birth of the baby: they were to watch the parapet of the palace at the end of the five months for the appearance of a flag. If the flag was green, it meant that the Queen had brought forth another son, and the twelve could return in peace; but if the flag was white, it meant that the Queen had brought a daughter into the world, and the twelve sons should flee for their lives, never to return home.
At the end of five months, the twelve watched the parapet every day for three days, holding their breaths. On the fourth day, a white flag appeared, and the twelve strong and handsome princes left their royal home sadly, believing they would never see it again.
In the palace, although there was great mourning, King Abdu and Queen Rukiya could not help but love their thirteenth child at first sight of her, because the baby princess was so beautiful. Her skin was the color of smooth mahogany; she already had a full head of thick, soft, onyx black hair; her eyes were a wise, sparkly brown; her nose was a round button; her mouth was full and chocolate rose; she was plump and joyful, and even her voice, like a little bell, was a blessing to the ear. The princess seldom cried, and remained alert for long periods of time, apparently examining her new world with clarity. She had a tiny, deep chocolate star between her thick, black eyebrows. The princess' parents did not know what kind of person she would be, so they named her what they could see she was: a "little girl," Talitha.
As the years passed and the King and Queen mourned the disappearance of their sons, yet they rejoiced at every appearance of their maturing daughter, for rather than being evil, as they had feared, the Princess Talitha was, instead, good and powerful, kind and wise, as her parents and brothers had always been. In time, the Princess studied and excelled in each of the twelve disciplines her brothers had mastered. And in time, the King and Queen's greatest sorrow was in the fact that Princess Talitha's brothers would never know and delight in their sister.
Until Princess Talitha reached the age of eighteen years, she never knew she had brothers. Every member of the royal household had been sworn to secrecy. But early one day, while wandering through the green and gold halls of the palace, she came upon a room she had never seen before. Finding the door locked, the princess hesitated only a moment before removing two slender but ornate, heavy hair pins from her braided thick hair, and gently manipulating them in the lock until she heard the tumblers fall. The princess turned the copper doorknob and entered the room.
The room's walls were papered in green and gold; the room itself was full of clothing-- beautiful men's clothing: silk shirts, linen trousers, satin stoles, soft leather shoes, belts and boots, pure virgin wool jackets, pants of soft cotton—and all dyed in the most wondrous blood reds, jungle greens, earthy browns, ebon blacks, rich gold, and, of course, royal purples. Princess Talitha cried out like a baby with the pleasure of looking at and touching the dazzling array of clothing, hung carefully in twelve recesses along the walls of the room.
"Whose clothes are these?" she asked herself aloud. She knew they weren't her father's-- not all of them; many were too small or too young in design for her old, stuffy father the King. She had just noticed that a different monogram decorated all of the clothes in each recess when she heard a soft step behind her. Princess Talitha turned.
"These are the clothes of your twelve brothers, my princess," spoke the seer Enobakhare, enveloped in dead white. And the prophet told the princess her life story. By the end of the story (when the beautiful princess picks the lock of the mysterious door), Princess Talitha was sitting on the lush green carpeted floor, not feeling so powerful as she usually did.
"But what evil will I wreak upon them?"
"Who can tell, Princess?"
"Surely I can control my own will. I am not evil hearted. And true evil can only be deliberately, intentionally wrought, can it not?"
"Who can tell, Princess?"
"You can tell, Seer," replied the princess, finally standing in irritation. "You can tell me something. You will tell me something." The "or else" hung in the air, unsaid, but not unheard.
"Yea, Princess, I can tell this: the question is not 'what evil can you do?' but 'what evil can you undo?'" And before the princess could open her mouth, the Seer had turned and departed. (Enobakhare alone, among all King Abdu and Queen Rukiya's subjects, could leave the royal presence without permission.)