The King and his Two Daughters
I like to tell them stories. Every night they gather around me, holding onto my legs, dragging me to the nearest chair. I always protest, I like them to think that I’m putting up a fight, that I have far more important things to be doing then reciting silly tales. I am being playful of course, being with them is everything. They are mine, and I count my blessings every day. They are the life in my world, when everything around me is rubble.
I remember that moment well. It was after supper, and they were waiting. I watched them sitting quietly by my feet. They were gazing up at me. I smiled, teasing them by taking large, deep breaths. I knew they were wanting me to speak. They stuck out their tongues, being cheeky. I began, knowing they would hang on my every word.
‘Once upon a time there was a King and his three daughters…’
They began to giggle. They had heard this story before.
‘And he loved them very much. Only, he wanted to know how much they loved him. So one day, he asked.
“Daughters,” he said, “how much do you love me?”
The eldest daughter spoke first…’
At that point, my tallest girl grinned. ‘I love you as much as humans love water,’ she said.
I looked at her for a moment. Her smile faded slightly, and I realised it was because I had stopped smiling back. I broke the silence by ruffling her hair.
‘The King was pleased with that answer,’ I said.
Her eyes sparkled. ‘What happened next?’
‘Well,’ I said, nipping her chin gently, ‘then he turned to his second child. “Daughter,” he said, “how much do you love me?”’
It was my youngest’s turn to speak. She wrapped her arms around my neck. ‘I love you as much as humans need air.’
I looked around the room where my babies sat. The concrete ground they lay on was covered by mouldy carpets. Carpets that covered deep holes, like the mouths of monsters that could swallow my daughters whole. The yellow walls were cracked and slumping inwards. It was then I noticed the air, and how it tasted like chalk.
My tallest girl put her hand on my shoulder. She looked tired, as if she had belonged to the world for far too long. I shook my head, waved her off, gestured to her to sit back down beside her sister. She was too young to look like that. So I smiled and cleared my throat. I was going to finish their story.
‘The King was so happy,’ I said, ‘that he laughed and laughed and hugged his daughter tightly. Finally, he turned to the last princess, who stood some feet away.
“And how much do you love me, daughter?”
He did not expect her answer.
“I love you,” she said, “as much as food needs salt.”’
I pulled a face, imagining the King’s look of shock. My babies had quickly forgotten about me. They were laughing again.
Encouraged, I continued. ‘The King frowned, thinking her answer was weaker than her sisters’. Believing that she didn’t love him enough, he cast her away. She was forced to leave the castle, and travelled from city to city, unable to find her heart’s desire.’
My daughters listened carefully. Even though they knew the outcome, they wanted to hear what happened next. Most importantly, they wanted me to say it.
‘Eventually, she found a new home in a new castle. There, she cooked for royalty, making the most delicious food. One night, at a party, she wore fine clothing and danced all night. There she met a prince, who fell in love with her. He proposed, and they planned to wed. Across the lands, invitations were sent, including one to her father. He travelled to the castle and sat down to eat, along with the other wedding guests. Only, the princess was clever and she asked the kitchen to cook food without salt. The guests were disgusted! They couldn’t eat the food. When the King asked the prince why the food was cooked without salt, the prince replied, “we wanted to show you that food needs salt.”
Immediately the King thought of his lost daughter. He sprang up from his seat, “Where is she?” He cried, “My daughter! My daughter!”
She appeared to him, and he grabbed her hands. Immediately he asked for her forgiveness. He told her that he realised that the salt was a symbol. How clever she was to use that symbol too, because if food is inedible then how can a human being survive without it?’
I stopped then, unable to continue. The girls looked at me, surprised. I had told this story a thousand times. They had heard it just as much. They knew the ending, and that was not it. So I excused myself, telling them that I was tired, and that it was past their bedtime. They moaned and huffed and crossed their arms, but I was stern. Eventually they conceded. Their tiny bodies flopped onto the mattresses on the floor. My tallest girl’s feet were peeking out from under the blanket. I kissed them and she laughed, curling them up towards her sister. It was then I noticed her bones, how they danced along her skin as she moved. I rested my hand on her arm, I could wrap my fingers around it. I let go quickly and covered them up.
That night I sat with my daughters for a long time. In the distance, I could hear a familiar popping sound, rippling through the night. The girls were anything but restless, they were very tired, so it didn’t take long before they fell asleep. Once I was sure they were dreaming, I kissed their tiny heads and cried.
A few hours later there was silence. In that moment’s quiet, I asked myself, ‘how much do you love your daughters?’
It didn’t take long before I could find an answer. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to play on grass and not on sandy ruins, not to return home with shrapnel in their hands. I wanted the sky above them to be filled with birds and not with bombs. I wanted them to go to school, to learn and grow. I wanted life for them. But to start with, all I wanted was for them to have food, water and air.
I remember looking at my daughters, knowing how this all would end. First, I would tell them there is no water, then no food, and as the walls around them crumble I would tell them stories as they lay on a mattress in a room covered by mouldy carpets. That was what I had to do. Tell them, that no matter what, there would be a happily ever after.
This short story was written by Karen Quinn, for Oxfam’s Write to Refuge event. To mark World Refugee Day, Oxfam’s Write to Refuge is back in Bangor Carnegie Library, 15 June at 7pm. There will be a reception with live readings and a photography exhibition.