There was a single mountain pass by which to enter or leave the country. But most of the year this was impassable. And those who took the trouble to climb up to it, looked down upon a desert on the other side of the grey mountains. And no small desert was this. Rocks, sandy plains, salt lakes, as far as the eye could see. Twenty-three days' journey deep was this desert. And beyond? A region with backward villages and a town fallen into disrepair. This was once the outpost of a flourishing and powerful realm. Now there was not much left but ruins, inhabited by a hotchpotch of impoverished tribes. Little wonder that the people from the country in the mountains barely came into contact with the rest of the world.
There was little reason to go out into the world. They did not need anyone. Rivers cascaded from the mountains through fertile fields into a lake full of fish, right in the middle. The woods yielded timber, game, and medicinal herbs. In the hills and valleys, everything was plentiful. Peace and prosperity had reigned for many centuries. The mountain dwellers told each other how their ancestors had discovered this land after endless journeying. According to legend, having decided to remain there, they had carried seven large chests filled with gold into the country. Indeed, the perfect hideaway for a gang of robbers on the run. But no-one mentioned this in the mountain kingdom.
The origin of the national treasure was not a seemly subject of conversation.
Once they had settled in this mountainous region and had founded a nation, the question remained what had to be done with the gold. In the spirit of the band of robbers, they decided that the treasure would belong to all of them collectively for ever. This implied that no-one was allowed to use, trade, process, or even move, the gold without permission from all the other inhabitants of the land. It was better to do nothing at all with it; or rather, only to use it for symbolic purposes, such as, holding the nation together. They appointed a king, who had to guard and administer the gold, but this ended in trouble. The robbers' instincts were too strong, people clearly still had to become used to living in peace. Eventually, they chose a queen as treasurer. They thought that a woman would watch over the treasure more wisely than a man. And so, generations of queens ruled over the nation, together with a council of the heads of the most powerful clans.
The seven chests brimmed full of golden objects, each of these with a history of its own. The crowns of kings, sacrificial plates, chalices and coins gave a good idea of the fanciful route that their forefathers had taken on their plundering expeditions. All in all, this was rather too much history for a young nation. To put this less than noble past behind them, the gold was melted down and used to decorate the palace. The most inconceivable things were made of gold. Mirror frames, furniture, cutlery, candlesticks, plates, stair rods, door handles, bookends, and so on. The queen's robes were richly embroidered with gold thread and she herself always had to be profusely decked out in jewels.
Officially, the gold still belonged to everyone, the queen was simply its keeper. But brigands are a suspicious folk. Hence, the idea was borne to make the palace permanently accessible to everyone. The people wished to keep an eye on their gold. It was laid down that the queen was never allowed to withdraw from the presence of her subjects. They were a rigorous sort, these mountain dwellers, because first of all, the palace was so designed that hiding was virtually impossible. Moreover, the law dictated that literally everything the queen did had to be done in public. This meant, not only a walk or a royal picnic, but also, a late-night drink by the fire. And moreover, the queen's conversations with friends, meals, visits to the bathroom, sleeping, and making love, literally everything had to be performed as if on the stage of an ever-open theatre. Century in, century out, the prevailing morals had preached sobriety and prudery. But the queen was obliged to be the exception to the rule. She lived in extreme luxury, surrounded by servants, bound day and night by ponderous rituals, doomed to a lifetime of exhibitionism.
Such a life would surely leave its mark on anyone, and so the queens were, or traditionally became, proud, shameless women, cursed with an intimidating form of cynicism. Although the queen had power as a ruler and treasurer, the drawback was that she could not hide anything. In order to survive, she could not help but assume a cool, unapproachable manner. Everyone knew her physical charms and peculiarities, her character, passions, interests, friendships, preferences, and bad habits. The queen was powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Mysterious as well as transparent.
There came a time when the governing queen was a tall young woman with ice-cold eyes and long black hair, who played her role with aggressive abandon. So much so, that the people feared her. And that was precisely her intention. In her heart, she hated the age-old traditions, but she had no idea how to change them. So, by her scandalous behaviour, she carried her public role to an extreme. She gobbled up lovers of both sexes and favoured revealing and risqué clothing, which shocked her prudish subjects. This was the queen's way of taking her revenge for being a hostage to the public eye. Notorious were her walks through the city, on days when the weather was fine. She would walk naked but for her jewels and some gold paintings on her body. From her ears, nostrils, navel, nipples and labia, pendants and rings dangled, linked together by graceful chains. She would dance, and the sun would dance in the gold that wound its way over and through her softly tanned skin. Her abundant hair would bounce on her shoulders and back. She would stride on and wave smilingly at the people.
Mothers dragged their children inside. Grown men turned away in embarrassment. Boys stared as if thunderstruck, looking white as a sheet. Older women hid their faces in their hands until she had passed. No-one dared to make a witty remark or to speak of the disgrace. This was their queen; it was their gold she was wearing.
One day, a small miracle happened, which no-one else witnessed. The queen was striding along, on her way to take a dip in the fountain in the large square, something that was strictly prohibited to anyone but herself. She passed the workshop of a goldsmith named Parnel. This Parnel was a grey-haired, middle-aged man, tall and silent. His eyes sought hers, and he did not see a queen, a treasurer or a Fury, but the woman he yearned for, with whom he wished to be alone. A woman without gold.
What she saw he did not know.
Not long after, the celebration of the Great Treasure took place. To prevent the queen from becoming too attached to her assets, and from imagining that they were her own, it had been decided long ago that, once in every three years, the gold would ritually be taken away from her. As always, the people gathered in front of the palace. The queen and the chieftains emerged from the palace and seated themselves on plain benches. Between the people and their rulers, the servants piled up all the gold from the palace.
This took nearly all day, but no-one minded. There were musicians and acrobats, pedlars with beer and sausages, and the weather was fine. In the middle of the square, a stack of golden furniture, candlesticks, taps and goblets arose. Finally, the queen solemnly placed a heavy chain on top of the pile.
This was the final object, the treasure was complete once more. Then an official came forward, dressed in an old-fashioned leather combat suit, full of belts and sheaths in which daggers and small hatchets dangled. He supervised the weighing of the treasure on seven large pairs of scales. Ancient scales, almost as old as the nation itself.
When it was ascertained that no gold had disappeared over the past three years, a resounding cheer went up from the crowd. This was considered a good omen. Not that any gold had ever been missing, but still...
After this day, the queen was allowed to retreat to her country house in the mountains for two months. Dressed in plain clothes, she would step into a shrouded carriage and leave town accompanied by a few servants and a lover. Nobody was allowed to disturb her during this period. Without gold, her private life was as sacred as that of her subjects.
During this period, the so-called Time of the Empty Palace, all the gold was melted down again into six-kilo chunks, which were distributed among the nation's goldsmiths. At the end of the two months, their work was exhibited. Everything was new, the treasure that tied them together had taken on an entirely different shape.
Was theirs an energetic nation or what? For ever young! That was written on their coat of arms. The newer and more amazing the goldsmiths' work, the more it was appreciated.
A jury deliberated in public, surrounded by the national treasure in its totally new form, and selected ten winners. The excitement of the people at these deliberations was usually great, and the jury took care not to antagonise the crowd. The winners were cheered and lifted into a carriage. They rode out of town, to the queen's country house. The next day, the company returned to the city in a festive procession. The queen, still deliberately dressed in drab or even shabby attire, put on her golden crown again in front of the people, decked herself out in chains, and entered her palace with a brand-new sceptre in her hand.
More than ten times in his life, Parnel had participated in the contest, and had twice been among the winners. As a boy, he had been in love with an earlier queen. Of course, just as now, in the deepest secrecy; a classic impossible love, which made it unbearable for him to visit the palace and, together with hundreds of others, watch her bathe, eat and play cards with her friends.
The sight of this gave him the urge to pick up his huge steel battle axe and smash the palace to smithereens.
Parnel had another secret. Every time he took part in the contest, he held back a few minuscule fragments of gold. He knew the margin of inaccuracy of the scales, and his theft was never discovered. Now, after more than thirty years, he had a lump of gold the size of a chicken's egg. One night, six months after the return of the young queen for whom he pined so sorely, he went to his workshop, opened his secret hiding place and picked up the gold he had been collecting all his life. He stood there in the semidarkness; it weighed heavily in his hands. This would be his weapon.
In great haste, he grabbed a kit bag and left the town. For a whole month, he laid low in the mountains, making absolutely certain that he was not seen by a living soul. Then he returned and made himself known in the big square.
My name is Parnel, and I have always believed that there was gold in the mountains. For many years I have been searching in vain. But now, after many weeks of digging in the right spot, I have found gold. Here, you only have to believe your own eyes! It is dirty, but it is pure gold.
And he showed the spectators the carefully mud-besmirched lump of gold in his hand.
The mountains are made of granite! There is no gold to be found within a year's travelling from this country! The only gold is that of our forefathers! Thus, some of the bystanders repeated the national myth. But three days later, in spite of all this wrangling, the gold fever held the country in its grip. Nowhere else in the world could the promise of new gold have roused more hysterical emotions. There was gold that did not belong to everyone, but could belong to anyone if he could but find it himself! At first, the queen and her council of chieftains ridiculed Parnel in an official statement. In vain. The exodus of gold seekers continued. Soon, the city took on a deserted appearance. Many a farmer even abandoned his homestead to try his luck at gold digging. Parnel quietly bided his time. With approval he saw that now only a few old people and small children were going to see the queen. The others had better things to do. The land was in an uproar. Old robbers' instincts came alive again.
When the first gold seekers returned, dancing in the streets, holding up nugget-filled pouches in their joyfully raised hands, the chaos was complete. To gain from their new gold, the mountain dwellers had to travel out into the world and exchange it or sell it. Another exodus began. The order in the mountain country began to falter and the queen sent for Parnel.
''Who are you?
I am just an ordinary goldsmith, Your Majesty
How did you find that gold? For centuries our scholars have been saying that there is no gold in the mountains.
And with good reason. I did not even have to find it. I gambled that it would be there.''
They looked at each other. The queen was speechless. Then she remembered that summer afternoon, her walk through the city to the fountain, the penetrating glance of the tall man with his short grey beard.
You were playing a dangerous game. What reason can you give me?
Parnel remained silent, and stretched his arm out to point at the queen's face. She blushed for the first time in her life. A beautiful sight, her eyes became softer.
He had looked into her.
The queen was confused, so badly even that she turned around and, in a soft voice, dismissed Parnel.
In the year that followed, the mountain kingdom fell apart into factions. The chieftains yielded to the gold fever and became involved in the organisation of the mining industry and the transportation of gold in armed convoys to faraway countries. The mountain dwellers were feared and admired throughout the continent. Nobody bothered any more about the treasure or the queen. The mountain dwellers once more became a mishmash of bands of robbers, although they were now stealing gold from the mountains, rather than from people. Once again, they roamed the world with chests filled with gold. They usually settled down where they got the most for it.
The land became emptier and emptier. Children and old people formed the majority. The three-yearly melting-down ritual fell into disuse. A handful of goldsmiths were still living around the palace, but they confined themselves to repair work and small embellishments to the treasure. No more renovations, this was old gold.
The new gold, from the mountains, did not need a shape. With it, you could conquer the world.
Then came the day that Parnel had so long been waiting for. He bought a small carriage, shrouded the windows and drove to the palace. A handmaiden was just brushing the queen's long black hair. Parnel caught her glance in the mirror. He smiled at her amorously, she blushed. The queen shook her locks loose from the girl's hands, and stood up. She took off the heavy gold chain, and placed it around the stammering servant's neck. Hand in hand with Parnel, she walked out of the palace. Rapturously. And they lived happily ever after in the country house in the mountains. Behind an impenetrable fence of golden barbed wire.
In their home, Parnel gave the huge steel battle axe a place of honour, grateful that he had never needed to use it.
translation OLIVIER / WYLIE