My Heart is Promised to the King

 

By

 

Victorino Briones

 

     “Do you love your King, Tareq?” the man asks me.

     He is dressed in white and wears glasses. He has a long face, with a beard, soft hands, his fingernails are trimmed, clean and polished. On his chest is the imperial scorpion insignia. He is an important man. My commandant addresses him as Minister as he goes out and leaves us alone in his office.

     He introduces himself as Minister Ismail Najjar and begins to explain to me the work that the King has been doing. Our country, K--, lies nested within Jordan, Syria and Israel. We often have to defend ourselves against terrorists. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes tensions to rise in the region. As mediator in the area, the King is like the good uncle in an unhappy family who settles quarrels, says the Minister. Without him the Middle East would explode into war.

     “Yes, of course. I fight for him, sir,” I say, repeating what my sergeant has taught me to say. I recite this to him even though I joined the military mostly to earn money for my family. Being the eldest child, I have become my family’s breadwinner.

     “I have an important duty for you,” he says.

     He shows me a folder with my name on it. It says “Tareq Hakim, medical file.” I fear that he is going to say that there is something wrong with me. A year before I joined the military, doctors took a chest x-ray and a sample of my blood. They passed me and a year has gone since I trained in a camp near the border, learning how to shoot bat cannons and defend my country.

     The minister pulls out a sheet paper from the bottom of the file and shows me a typewritten statement with red pen marks on it.

     “Do you see this? It says that you are a match for the King.”

     “What does that mean, sir?”

     “It means that you and the King have the same blood type among other tests done. Now I must tell you a secret. You must promise never to reveal this.”

     I nod my head.

     “The King’s heart is sick. The doctors call it cardiomyopathy. What that means is that his heart is like an inflated balloon about to rupture inside his chest. Eventually it must be replaced. So far the King is fine. But months or years from now, no one knows for sure just when, he will need a new heart.”

     Now I am afraid. Does this man intend to rip off my heart out of my chest?

     “Does the King need my heart, sir?” I say.

     “Thousands have been tested, and your heart is the best match we have found. The King does not ask you to make this sacrifice without recompense. He is willing to pay you, provide for you and your family.”

     Suddenly I remember my father who died three years ago and left us with little or nothing. I loved him but the reality is that my family is very poor.

     “How much will he give for my heart, sir?”

     “All the money you and your family need. Perhaps more.”

     “A new house for my mother?”

     “Yes. I know that you have two younger brothers and a sister. They can study in the best schools, if they wish.”

      “What if I say no, sir?” I say after reflecting for a while.

     “It’s up to you, Tareq. But think of the good you will bring to your family, to the kingdom, and the region.” he says as if he is pleading with me. “Will you promise your heart to the King?”

     I tell the Minister that I will think about it. It is not every day that one is asked whether he wishes to die for another man, King or not.

     I return to the barracks where my platoon is still asleep. Lying in bed, I think about my life and how much I am worth. I calculate how much money I can earn if I live ten years. Fighting in the military, I am paid 850 dinars a month. I spend nothing for food or clothes or other things because I eat and live in the barracks. I send the whole 800 dinars to my mother and she spends the money to feed and clothe my brothers and sister. But it is never enough. I keep enough to buy a train ticket home every six months. A good house can cost up to 50,000 dinars. I do the math. Perhaps if I work hard and become a sergeant in ten years, I can begin to earn twice as much. But honestly, I do not think I will ever earn enough to pay for a house for my family, even if I work hard for twenty or even fifty years.

     “How much am I really worth?” I ask myself. This is a question that no one like me thinks about seriously because the answer is always “almost nothing.” Through the window beside my bed, I look at the stars in the night sky. A pair of them belongs to my father looking down on me from the heavens. What should I do, father? Should I exchange my life for the King’s? Readily I accept my death to rescue my family from poverty and the choice seems easier if I think of it in this way. Many years ago, while my father was still alive, I thought I would study in the university. I was in the top of my class in high school and I dreamed of becoming a teacher or a doctor. After father died, I learned to support my family, help my mother. Now I am a poor soldier with no rank and, I think, that if I’m lucky, if I do not die in some battle, I will live at least until I am fifty-three like my father. He died in bed from pneumonia because we couldn’t bring him to the hospital. If God is good, then he will spare me an early death. The Minister’s offer is not only fair but generous. I will never be able to earn that much even if I live five lifetimes. Right now, my mother lives in the slums. She is afraid to walk around because a drunkard or a stranger high on drugs in the street might stab her for no reason. And what am I here on this earth for if not to take care of and protect my mother and my younger siblings? I must do the best I can to keep them safe from harm.

     Before the sun rises, my answer is yes, and I send the message to the Minister. By afternoon, I am instructed to transfer to the palace. I bid good-bye my comrades. I tell them nothing of what the minister and I discussed and answer their questions simply by saying that the minster has a different plan for me.

     I write a letter to my mother before I leave the barracks. I tell her that she should be happy because Allah has blessed us today. An official will see her and move her and my siblings to a new house in a good neighborhood, close to the main mosque where she can pray every day, make offerings for her husband, my father. She will receive a monthly allowance and have enough money so that she doesn’t need to work anymore. She can stop being afraid to walk alone in the street during the night.

     Before I left home to join the military, I told her that I would never forget her and my brothers and sisters. I told her that I would be back. I embraced her and promised to take care of her. Today I am keeping my promise.

     In my first draft of the letter, I explain the source of my good fortune, mentioning the minister’s offer and my strong heart, which will be used to replace the King’s sick one. But after reading over the draft, I tear it up. I cannot write about my death to my mother. News such as this requires that I sit with her, look into her eyes, hold her hand and let Allah guide the words that come out of my mouth. I finish a new letter without telling my mother the reason why the King has given me and my family money. I will wait until the next time I visit her to make my confession.

* * *

     The Minister brings me to the Palace, where I will live until my heart is needed. He shows me my room, with my own bed and pretty curtains, and paintings of mountains and forests in a far away place hanging on the wall. I have my own bathroom. Servants bring me tea and food on a tray. I have seen places like these only on television or in the movies.

     A week later, I receive a reply from my mother thanking me for the new house and the money she has received. She describes the furniture, the running water, and the joy in my brothers’ and sister’s faces upon opening boxes filled with new clothes and shoes for them.

     “What have you done to make the King love you so much?” she asks.

     I explain that the house and money are my gifts to her. I tell her that the King is grateful to my parents for giving birth to me. This is not a lie as I realize that I have only my mother and father to be grateful for. My blood that comes from both my father and mother is responsible for this perfect match to the King’s.

* * *

     One afternoon, the Minister returns to ask how I am doing. He brings his wife and two daughters over to meet me in the palace garden. He asks me whether I know chess, and I say that my father and I used to play. He brings out the wooden pieces and arranges them on a black and white checkerboard. As we sit there, he asks me about my family.

     “They’re doing well,” I reply and show him the letter I received from my mother thanking me for the house.

     He says he is glad and asks if I need anything.

     I inquire whether I can start a small garden of my own to grow vegetables. My days are mostly idle and I am getting restless. As a home gardener himself, he sympathizes. He says that he will see to my request.

     I ask whether he might have books I can read. To pass the time but also to enrich my mind, I say. My mother taught me how to read from the Quran, though often I yearn to search for other books as well. The Minister is surprised. Not very many soldiers are able to read, much less for pleasure.

     “What else is there to do?” I say.

     He will bring a pile of books from his house the next time he visits. I can also go to the Palace library, though the books there are old and mostly religious texts. The Minister, on the other hand, owns translated works from many parts of the world.

     While he stares at the board, pondering the best way to capture my unguarded queen, I ask him what he would do if he were me. Would he give his heart to save the King?

     He looks at me, observes his wife in the corner of the garden sewing a button in his shirt, his two girls playing with dolls by the fountain.

     “I have many reasons to say no,” he answers. “But many more reasons to say yes.”

     He seems to love the King like a brother, or a father. And he loves his country like a son.

     The Minister gives me a blank notebook and a pen.

     “What is this for?” I ask.

     “I sense that you have many thoughts in your head, Tareq. Try putting down your thoughts on paper and see what comes out.”

     As he collects his family and prepares to leave, he encourages me to call him by his first name, Ismail, when we are by ourselves.

* * *

     A month after I moved into the Palace, I ask the Minister for time off to go see my mother. He agrees and lends me a car and driver.

     I weep for joy when I see my mother in the living room of the new house. She is surprised to see me standing in front of her, and rubs her eyes to make certain she is not dreaming, then bawls me out for not giving her advance notice. Soon I am surrounded by my brothers and sister thanking me for the gifts I have brought them.

     My mother takes me outside to show me off to the neighborhood. “This is my good son,” she says to everyone she meets on the road while clutching my hand.

     Though not more than fifty, she looks older. She used to wash clothes and sell household items, decorative walking canes, key chains and postcards to tourists in the corner of the public market. Father repaired umbrellas and shoes in a stall beside hers. Back in the house, I ask her to sit down so that I can tell her my news. But I find that I lack the courage to confess to do so. I am afraid to see her eyes well up with tears. The television is on, and the King is giving an interview. Hamas terrorists have launched missiles into Israel, killing three women. Israel has retaliated. Another war is looming. Our King has asked the two warring nations to a meeting to end the violence.

     “He is a good King,” says my mother.

     I nod in agreement.

     I bid my family farewell and promise my mother I will write her every week. She embraces me. She does not wish to let me go. “Stay here, stay here, my son,” she says to me.

     “I have my duties to the King, mother,” I say and kiss her one last time before I leave, promising to be back soon.

* * *

     I must eat only healthy foods and exercise daily. A doctor comes to see me once a month to check my blood pressure, listen to my heart and take blood samples with a syringe. I am in good health, he announces. But he suggests to the Minister that my other needs must also be met.

     One evening, after dinner, three girls are escorted to my chamber. At first, I am confused. They look too pretty, dressed in fine clothes, to take the trash out, make my bed, or clean the room. They enter without saying anything. They look around, amused and giggling.

     “You must be a very important man,” one of them says.

     The one in front, the elder of the three says to me, “You can chose one from among us or have all three of us at once. It doesn’t matter. We are all paid up.”

     I must have blushed because they all laugh.

     I have never had sex with a woman before. With no money, it is hard to find a good companion, or pay someone in a whorehouse.

     I scratch my head and admit that I have never done it before. The women gather around me, undress me while they undress themselves, and touch me until I am fulfilled. I do this once a week for about six months. At first, I was eager because I am young and energetic. But then, one evening, a girl called Haneem appears together with the other girls.

     Haneem is small with long black hair tucked behind her ears. Her big eyes look down at the floor. She appears sad. I ask her if she wants to come to my room. She kisses my hand, and I ask why the long face. She says she is grateful to be chosen.

     Haneem was born in the same village where I grew up. We exchange stories about the neighborhood, about the mosque we both used to pray in and the people we both know.

     We lie together in bed, but I am embarrassed to touch her. She takes my hand and puts it over her breast. I can feel her heart beating fast. I feel better knowing that we are afraid together.

     Eventually I ask Haneem to stay with me in the Palace. The other girls stop coming when they realize I will not choose them. After six months, Haneem dares ask me about what I am doing in the Palace. She guesses that I guard the King but without carrying a weapon.

     “I ask only because I have fallen in love with you,” she says.

     I tell her everything. I tell her about my heart and how the King needs a new one to continue to lead the country. I tell her about the house and the money that my mother receives in exchange. I tell her this was my choice.

     She seems surprised. “I’m afraid to love you, Tareq,” she says.

     One evening, after we have been lovers for almost six months, Haneem wakes me up. “Do you love the King more than me?” she asks.

     “I love you more, of course,” I answer.

     “Then let’s leave here. Go start our life together somewhere else. You do not have to die for him.”

     “I have accepted a duty, Haneem,” I say. “I do not wish to break it.”

     “This sacrifice you are making is too great, Tareq.”

     “Great or not, it is what I have agreed to. I will see it through.”

     She turns her back on me. I rest my hand on her shoulder and feel her sobbing. I hear her say faintly, “You love him more.”

     I do not know what else to tell her.

     The following morning when I wake up, she is no longer lying beside me. I wait for her to return, but she never does. Other girls appear at my door and I ask them about Haneem. They say that she has left the city. To where, they do not know. I am uncertain whether I will see Haneem again.

     I tell the girls that I would rather be by myself.

* * *

     Suddenly I am awakened by the Minister. He says that the King has collapsed during a gathering in Saudi Arabia. He is being flown back here.

     “Is it time, Ismail?” I ask.

     “Yes. Prepare yourself,” he says.

     Soon I am sitting in the hospital and waiting inside a white room. I bring the notebook that the Minister gave me so that I can write one more time to my mother. I will ask him to deliver it to her, to tell her that I died in a battle. I am sure he can make up a heroic story about how I was killed while attempting to save a comrade.

     The Minister enters my room and says that the King wishes to see me. Ismail’s eyes are troubled. “Now I must confess to you the truth, Tareq.”

     “What truth?” I ask.

     “The King was not aware of you and this heart transplant. I have only told him now. He is angry with me for working around his back. Now he wishes to talk to you.”

     I go to the King’s room where his wife and his young son are also present. Tubes are attached to his arms, and oxygen is being pumped into his nose. From time to time, he gasps for air like a fish out of the water. His face is pale, and his lips are bluish. He looks weak. The King orders everyone else to leave.

     “What is your name, my son?” he asks when we are alone.

     “Tareq, sir.”

     “So you are willing to do this? Sacrifice yourself for me?”

     “Yes, sir.” I do not hesitate with my reply.

     “You are young. You have much to live for.”

     “I know that, sir. But this is a duty I have accepted. Minister Najjar has compensated me and my family generously.”

     “A life is worth much more than any amount of money, my son.”

     “Not if that money helps my mother and my family, sir.” I describe to him the house I have given them, the new life they can look forward to.

     He does not seem convinced with my reasoning, so I say that I sacrifice myself in the same way that he dedicates his life for the country. Isn’t that the same?

     He looks at me and I do not know whether he is satisfied or not. He accuses the Minister of putting words into my mouth, providing me with convenient ideas, bargaining with me to force me to take this deal. He calls Minister Najjar back into the room and whispers something in his ear. I am close enough to hear the King say that he does not wish to undergo the operation. He will not permit the murder of a stranger to save his own. The Minister shakes his head no.

     “You must try something else to keep me alive instead of snuffing out this boy’s life this early,” says the King.

     The King holds the Minister’s hand and forces a promise out of him not to let the surgeons replace his heart.

     As the King has refused the transplant, the doctors have been ordered to think of something else to keep him alive. If they cannot, he is content to die. In the end, surgeons decide to insert a small apparatus, a pacemaker, to help his heart. Miraculously, the King lives. After a month in the hospital he is strong enough to walk back to the Palace, where he continues to recuperate.

* * *

     After the King is back in the Palace, I ask the Minister to allow me to help the King while he recovers. I can walk with him in the garden, I say. The Minister agrees.

     I meet the King and his wife in the garden. He walks with a cane, but has a smile on his face. He is a good King-- that is what my mother says all the time. He thinks of his people. He yearns for peace.

     We talk about trivial things such as the tasteless food he must eat, the many medications he must swallow each morning, his aging body. He unbuttons the top part of his shirt to show me the round machine on his chest, hidden under the skin, that keeps his heart beating. He tells me about his wife who worries about him, and his son who is too young to be a good King. “He is eager to rule,” says the King. “But unfortunately knows only how to order people around.” He shakes his head.

     “He is young, sir.”

     “He needs to grow faster,” he replies.

     He mentions the constant struggles in the world, of nations trying to live together, but mostly fighting each other. War and revolution seems so constant these days in the Middle East. He talks about the troubles of war in the same way others talk about the changing weather.

     I show him the small vegetable garden that I have started on the Palace grounds. He is impressed. He talks about his recovery, laughs about the doctors who think he is about to die.

     “You are a young man, Tareq. You have yet to live your life. When I met you in the hospital and you said that you were ready to die for me, I realized that I must find the energy to live in order for you to live also,” he explains to me.

     “I am living my life through my mother, my family,” I say to the King.

     I tell him that I am not afraid. If Allah wills it, then let it be done, I say. He should not be angry with Minister Najjar. He is only doing what he thinks is best.

     “You speak like an old man in a boy’s body. You do not wish to see the rest of the world? To become part of it?”

     “This is my world now, sir. And there are many wonderful things around me.”

     “I will admit to you, Tareq, that when the Minister told me about you and the sacrifice you were willing to make for me in the hospital, at first I felt selfish. To myself, I said yes, make me live, whatever it takes. I am only a man and I am afraid to die. But when I saw you, I admitted to myself that I would be more afraid to live afterwards, knowing that someone else died to save me. It may not be today, Tareq. But I hope that years may pass before I accept your heart to replace mine.”

     “I am prepared to wait, sir,” I say.

* * *

     Three years later, Haneem appears at my door. She has not changed, though she looks even sadder than the last time I saw her. She tells me that she has gone back home to bury her father and take care of her mother, who died also that year. She said that she was sorry for not writing to him, but she was trying to forget about him.

     “I missed you,” I say.

     “Have you forgiven me? I was very afraid when I started falling in love with you because I know you might not be there much longer.”

     “I am here now.”

     I propose to Haneem later that night, and we will be married next week. Why wait? There is little time on this earth.  

     I introduce her to my mother, who embraces her like a daughter. We have the wedding in the new house. Alhamdulillah Praise be to Allah.

* * *

     After three months, Haneem announces to me that she is pregnant. I lift Haneem off her feet. I am very happy today like a well fed bird who sings and sings.

     After my infant son is born and he is handed to me, I look into his face and see features of myself and Haneem looking back at me. I recognize my eyes, Haneem’s lips and cheeks in the baby’s face. I am saddened that I may never witness my son grow up, watch him fall in love, come to me for advice about girls, get married and have his own children. I am both overjoyed and sad. How can two opposite feelings exist at the same time? Only true miracles can make one feel as profound as this.

* * *

     Eight years pass since I promised my heart to the King. I have had a good life. I have a wife and a child. My mother lives in a good house. My siblings study in the university and have a future ahead of them. I think about how this life will go on forever.

     One evening, Ismail knocks at my door and says that it is time. The King has been admitted to the hospital. He has lost consciousness and will die soon if the transplant is not performed.

     I kiss my wife and say good-bye. She serves me tea one last time, takes my hand with both of hers. She cries, then rests her face on my hand. Last night as I lay beside her, I wrapped my arms around her and felt her breathing, her chest moving until we were breathing together. Our love has been a love of many farewells. Our life together has been enriched with the anticipation of our separation. Each day, we have lived our lives to the fullest not knowing when we would not see each other again. We have already said a thousand farewells, but we both know there is only one true farewell. And it has arrived.

     I kiss my young son as he holds his mother’s hand. He is only four years old and he does not understand yet what is happening. He will keep only vague memories of his father. I hurry to write a final letter for him.

     One day, I hope, my son will feel proud that my death should have contributed to the King’s and the Kingdom’s survival. I look back to that first time I met up with Minister Najjar, a man whom I call by his first name, Ismail, my friend, who offers me this great honor. I would not change anything even if I had the chance to go back in time. I have a wife, a child, and my family is taken care of.

     “I write this for you, my son. I am sorry because I will not be here to take care of you. I will need to go away to a far away place, a place where it makes it impossible for me to return to you. Here I kiss the paper at the bottom of this letter and circle that kiss with a pen. At night, before you go to sleep, you can rest your cheek on my kiss and know that my heart remains beating strong for you and your mother. Once you are old enough to understand, your mother will confess to you the truth about my story, about her story, about our story together. Know that I have promised my heart to the King to keep you safe and away from harm.”

     Enna lillah wa enna elaihe Rajioun. To Allah we belong, and to him we will return.

 



Editor's note: When this story was submitted, I asked Victorino it is is meant as a parable about suicide bombers. I think his reply is worth adding to the story:

 

Dear Frank,

This is not a parable about suicide bombers. The two are very different in that Tareq's "suicide" or sacrifice does not harm anyone else except himself. His sacrifice is supposed to benefit the King, the Kingdom and his family. A suicide bomber, however, intentionally harms and kills total strangers. 

The idea of the story began about two years ago when I met a woman at a party describing that her job was to design the interior of a large 747 plane. She had recently received a curious contract from a rich Middle Eastern monarch and she was asked to include a fully functioning operating room. I was intrigued by this idea. Also, I have heard of a Jordanian King who kept two or three young heart donors wherever he traveled. Just in case.

The story is an exploration of death and by doing so we hope to glimpse a fragment of the meaning of life. Tareq tried to rationalize his existence at one point by mathematically quantifying how much he is worth. How much money could he earn in his lifetime? In the end, we see that his existence reverberates beyond his own life and into his son, his wife and his family.

 

Victorino Briones is a medical physician and research scientist currently residing both in the United States and the Philippines. Aside from his medical degree, he also has a Master of Arts from Boston University in the Department of Creating Writing and a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University, Washington, DC.


 


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