Quite possibly you will think I'm insane, if not just for writing this, then certainly for publishing it. It's just a fable, but it's also the only thing I've ever written that I like. If you like it, please share it and leave a tip. We could use it.
Once upon a time not too different from our own, a billionaire happened to meet a prince. The billionaire liked the shirt the prince was wearing and asked him where he got it. The prince told him and an assistant of the billionaire's sent off for a thousand of them.
As soon as the shirts arrived and were hurried through security, the billionaire tried one on.
“Hmmm,” he thought, frowning at himself in the mirror. “Doesn't look quite right.” He instructed one of the many people standing around to await his any instruction to get that prince on the phone.
No one dared tell the billionaire that they had no inkling of which particular prince he might have been referring to. Instead they called the owner of the shirt company and asked him.
“Though I'm glad to hear a prince wears our shirts, I'm afraid I know nothing about it,” the owner of the shirt company replied. Upon hearing this, the billionaire bought the shirt company and raided its pension plan and fired the boss and everyone else and shut it down.
Finally someone figured out a way and called the prince. The prince was asked to hold for the billionaire.
When he came on the line, “Look here,” the billionaire said instead of hello. “I got these shirts you told me to buy - "
“Hold your horses,” the prince said. “I never told you to do anything.”
“Quit nit-picking! I got the shirts. OK? And they look nothing whatsoever like yours. What the hell is up? Did you get yours specially made? And who by?”
“No. Mine are just very old. Could that be the difference?”
Though the billionaire measured his money in the thousands of millions, he measured his time by the millionth of a second, and so, thinking, “I have not an instant more to waste on this idiotic prince,” he threw the phone at someone who caught it and hung up on the prince on his behalf.
The billionaire ordered that his laundry department hire an additional 100 workers and to wash and dry each of the thousand shirts a thousand times apiece. “Chop chop!” he said. “And fire those worthless mooches the minute they're done!”
Steam rose from the stacks of the laundry department as the shirts were run day through day and night through night. Eventually, some were ready to be presented to the billionaire.
He stood before a towering mirror and tried one on. He was disgusted. Because his top-notch laundry department had taken the greatest of care of the shirts in order to avoid whatever fate might await them for any minor flaw, the shirts had hardly changed at all.
This time the prince didn't have to hold for the billionaire’s phone call, for he was off seeing something of the world, and the best places in the world have no phones at all.
Upon the determination of his staff as to the whereabouts of the prince, the billionaire ordered his best parachutist to drop into whatever the hell jungle that moron of a prince was in and to get some answers before he got mad.
Lying upon a cool rock beside a blue stream in a hot jungle, the prince watched as a plane flew overhead and a parachute blossomed. He watched as the parachutist expertly maneuvered between the high vines and leafy branches to land beside him.
“Your Highness,” the parachutist said, “I come from him who does not like his name spoken but does like to have his orders carried out.”
“Your Highness?” the prince asked. “Where did you get that from?”
“Isn't that what you call a prince?” the parachutist asked.
“Oh, for the love of Mike,” the prince said. “Is this about the shirts?”
“Yes, Your Hi-er-prince.”
“Bob,” the prince said.
“Bob?” the parachutist asked.
“Yes. Bob. My name is Bob.”
The parachutist told the prince all about washing the shirts.
“Wow,” the prince said. “They must be really clean."
“But they look nothing like yours.”
“Well, mine have never been washed like that.”
“How have they been washed? Did you get them dry cleaned? And look, it's going to mean my job if I don't go back with a straight answer. Or worse.”
The prince lay back on the rock and said, “Oh, mostly they've been washed in all the rivers and streams and ponds and puddles and troughs and cisterns everywhere I've gone. Wrung out and had the dirt and sweat and blood slapped out of them against rocks and blocks and cobblestones and then wrung some more. They've been dhobied to death, I suppose.”
“Dhobied?” The parachutist asked.
“You haven't parachuted many places, have you? Dhobies are the admirable fellows who take the clothes of a thousand people a day and beat and wring the dirt out of them and then use an undecipherable code to separate the clothes and get them back to their rightful owners. A good dhobie, my friend, never - ever - gets it wrong.”
‘This the boss isn't going to like,’ the parachutist thought. The billionaire doesn't even like to shake hands. Washing his clothes with other people's mixed in? Oh, boy.
“And,” the prince added, “dried by the sun and settled on by the dust. The dust of the cities and the plains and the dust of the streets and the trails and the dust of the dead and the dust raised by the feet of children playing soccer with squashed rats. Diesel truck dust, coal dust and moondust. Et cetera, et cetera. Dust, dust, and dust.”
“Now I know what they mean when they say, 'You don't want to know,’” the parachutist thought.
The parachutist radioed the intel to the airplane circling overhead, said good-bye and walked off into the jungle.
When he received the message the billionaire fumed.
“What does that damned prince think this is? A battle of wits? I'll show him.”
The billionaire instructed his espionage department to take the shirts, secretly find the prince, follow him around and get the shirts dhobied or whatever the hell it was called by all the same dhobies or whoever the hell did his. “I don't care how you do it -“ everyone quaked as he hollered - “Just do it NOW!”
The chief of espionage devised an intricate plan. He sent his recruiters across the globe to hire a hundred backpackers and deposited them in the wake of the prince - “Bob,” the billionaire had scoffed - with orders to get each of the shirts dhobied a hundred times. In this way the task was accomplished quickly.
When the shirts were returned to the billionaire's headquarters and sterilized they were delivered to him.
The first one he tried on had a tear in it. The second one had a stain. Another had what appeared to be the toe prints of a child and the squashed noseprint and whiskers of a rat.
“So…,” the billionaire said. “He wants war.” His words echoed through the hall.
The general staff of the billionaire's personal army was summoned. A table with model boats and planes and tanks and troops on a map of the world was set up in a bunker. A hasty but overwhelming campaign was planned and set into motion.
“Just remember one thing,” the billionaire said when they finished late at night. “It is I who will personally deliver the coup de grâce. The moment of triumph will be mine and mine alone!”
* * *
The prince was playing a prelude on a broken piano angled atop a junk heap outside the ruins of an old maharajah's pillaged palace when he heard a motorcycle chugging and struggling to ride to him. The prince played the beautiful prelude to the end.
“Sir!” the motorcyclist said, snapping one of his gauntlets up in a salute and standing at attention in his uniform. He held an envelope.
“At ease, kid,” the prince said. “This is about the shirts, isn't it?”
“Sir,” the motorcyclist said, “above my pay grade, sir.” He handed the prince the message. “I was told to wait for a reply, sir.”
“I see. Then the reply is - N e v e r.”
Though people like to say ‘Don't kill the messenger,’ messengers of billionaires know that billionaires neither like nor are guided by proverbs.
“Please reconsider, sir. There's a whole - if small - army arrayed against you.”
“I can not change the answer,” the prince said, “because it's the truth.”
“It's your funeral, sir.”
“Possibly,” the prince said as he turned back to the crooked keyboard.
One of the world's too, too, too many skinny and mangy dogs lay near the prince and the piano on the junk heap. His ribs stuck out over the tummy full of the only real lunch he had ever had.
“How'd that lunch go down, Basso?” the prince asked the dog, naming him on the spot. Being named made the dog feel as good as the prince's delicious lunch had, and he tapped his flea-bitten on the broken stones and smiled and looked at the prince with love, and it was the first time Basso knew love, for even his mother had died before she had had a chance to love her puppies.
“Glad to hear it, Basso. You're a fine fellow. I'm going to play something special for you.”
Basso was wagging gently and just dropping off for a nice little nap when a sniper's bullet split his skull in two. The prince stopped playing the piano. A few out-of-tune notes drifted off into a sudden mist.
The prince went to Basso and with a tear in his eye said, “You were one hell of a dog, Basso. How lucky I was to have known you.”
With one hand the prince opened the smashed lid of the piano and with the other he gently lay Basso on the harp. The prince rummaged around the old junk heap until he found something - part of the lens of an old broken magnifying glass that the maharajah had used to burn butterflies to death when he was a boy on his way to becoming a king whose head would itself one day be chopped off.
The prince, squinting through a tear, focused the sun through the lens on the old piano's wood. The bright spot of light got brighter and brighter until it smoked, and the piano went ablaze, and before long the entire junk heap was transformed into the greatest pyre any dog had ever been cremated on. And in spirit low in the sky Basso looked on and left with love.
As the fire burned and raged and beautified for the prince a hideous moment, a cadre of soldiers and armored vehicles, all bristling with guns, appeared all around him. Mounted on a magnificent chestnut mare with deep brown eyes, the billionaire drew close to the prince at the edge of the enormous bonfire and peered down at him.
“So, smart guy!” the billionaire said, drawing each word out to derive maximum value from it “Who. Is. Laugh. Ing. Now?”
The prince said, “Hello, Sweetie,” to the horse. “Aren't you a pretty girl?”
“Who, I said, IS LAUGHING NOW?! “the billionaire demanded, drawing and aiming a black pistol as long as a sword at the prince.
The prince looked up at the billionaire and said, ‘If anyone is laughing I would advise them to stop.”
“You, you fool, are in no position to advise anyone of anything.” The billionaire cocked his pistol.
The horse was wondering what 'Sweetie' might have meant - she didn't know but she did know she liked it - when a lick of flame startled her and made her flinch.
“Don't you worry about a thing, Sweetie,” the prince told her. “Everything's cool.”
She looked at the prince and her golden mane rustled as she stretched her neck to offer him her muzzle.
“You bitch!” the billionaire yelled at the horse. He kicked her viciously with his spurs.
“You are going to have to stop treating animals this way,” the prince said.
The horse stirred. The billionaire spurred her even more brutally.
“Sweetie,” she heard the prince's voice say in horse in her head, “you don't have to take that.” And she rose up and bucked and dumped the billionaire straight into the fire.
“Get out of that fire,” the prince said. “It's taken.”
The prince pulled the dazed billionaire from the fire. He patted out some little patches of flame on the billionaire's emblazoned uniform and said, “There. Now stand up and tell me what this is all about.”
Groaning and rolling his eyes and pulling his hair, the billionaire sputtered, “The shirts, you idiot! The shirts!”
The prince looked down at the shirt he was wearing.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “All this for a shirt? Tell me something - er - what's your name?”
“Mister Moneybags is good enough for them” - he pointed his nose at his mercenaries, who chuckled appreciatively - “so it ought to be good enough for you.”
“Your first name.”
The billionaire sighed. “Bob,” he said.
“Oh,” the prince said. “Same as me.”
“Right,” Mr. Moneybags said. “A prince named Bob. You want me to believe that?”
“Obviously you believe whatever you want, starting with that crazy prince stuff. Get this through your head. I'm not a prince. I'm just some guy named Bob.”
“Whatever,” the billionaire said.
“Here's the secret,” the prince said. He took his shirt off and handed it to the billionaire. Then he turned and started to walk away.
In horse in her head, Sweetie heard what she could have sworn, if horses only swore, was the voice of her prince - calling her. She trotted up beside him and touched him on the shoulder with her nose. In return, he patted her on the cheek.
“Ahhh - let them go,” the billionaire said. But the sight of his magnificent horse walking beside the prince was too much for him. He spotted his pistol on the ground and picked it up and began to very carefully sight along the barrel, his face pinching with sour concentration.
A shot cracked through the silence like a narrow little sliver of thunder.
It was the motorcycle messenger who stood with his pistol leveled in case the billionaire needed another shot. He didn't. He fell flat on his face. All the other soldiers, as well and thoroughly trained as they were, automatically pointed their guns at the messenger.
“I knew it would come to this sooner or later,” the messenger thought.
First one of the soldiers, then another and then the rest saw that Bob and Sweetie had turned to look at them. There was a gentle sound of clicking and clacking as safeties were catched and triggers released and guns were lowered.
Bob sliced away her saddle and pulled the hard bit from her mouth. Over the years these would form the center of a new junk heap, though whether it would ever be visited again is not yet known.
She asked him up. He stepped from his boots and rose. She felt him lean in her mane and whisper in her ear.
And in horse in her head she heard… Sweetie.