The Coronation Trials
It was the eightieth year of the reign of King Amade the second. He was a hundred and twenty-five years old. In spite of his age, he still stood a couple of inches above the tallest members of his cabinet, dressed in white, in very sharp contrast to his very dark, almost charcoal-black complexion. As was the custom of the Okwere people, this was the king's eighty-fifth appearance. It was four weeks after the New Yam Festival in the Okwere people's calendar; the only time that the king appeared in the open. The town crier had proceeded before the king's entourage, beating his gong and shouting:
"Make way! Make way! Make way, for the king, is here," he said every five hundred meters until he had covered the expanse of the town.
About an hour later, the town crier was followed by the king's flute player. He played the flute a few paces in front of the king's entourage. The walk down the hill from the king's palace to the town plaza took over an hour. No one knew exactly why the entourage walked at an unusually slow pace, but it was not so strange when you hear the people shouting, "The king shall live forever." Well, it seemed that the king was going to live forever, but nothing was said about him not ageing. King Amade was very old, and it was a miracle that he could walk at all. Each king of the Okwere people literally lived forever since their deaths were never publicly acknowledged. When a mortal could have died of old age or ailment, the king only went into retirement in his inner chamber to give way to the next and younger king from his lineage.
The King's yearly journey to the plaza was to outline the goals of his administration for the year. Among the things he talked about were the royal projects for the year, new amendments to the law of the land, the part of the area that would be farmed and the portion that would be left fallow and so on. Each statement is made as a decree, which must be agreed to by the royal cousins. The royal cousins were a family from a different part of the town who were recognised as part of the royal family that relocated a very long time ago. After the king makes a point, the flute player would mark it by playing a tone. Then the town crier would carry a written document containing the decree and walk from one end of the plaza where the king stood to the other end of the square where the royal cousins were.
"King, it is as you have said," the leader of the royal cousins would concur. Technically, the cousins could reject the decree of the king but that had not happened in the eighty-five years that King Amade had reigned and no one could remember a time when the king's order was overturned. When the royal cousins agree, a servant of the king would throw out a strand of delicate palm frond to signify that the decree had been adopted.
The king had just read the fourth decree when his knee buckled, and he could not hold his own weight anymore. Before the spectators could realise what was happening, the members of the entourage, barricaded the king in. Among them were powerful men capable of lifting the king and taking him home. But the king could not be seen as weak or sick or tired, which was the idea behind having him walk many kilometres from his palace to the plaza. He could have been driven, but there was no better way for the king to show that he was well except to walk and be seen by his subjects the only day in a year that people are allowed to see him.
With the king barricaded in, it was not possible to see him, but his voice was heard as he continued to read out the decrees. When the proclamations had all been read, the king's entourage returned to the palace maintaining the barricade they had formed earlier. Two days later, the town crier announced the retirement of the king to his inner chamber. The king's throne was vacant and must not be that way for long.
Barely ten minutes after the town crier had made the round, the chief priest that helped in the selection of the next king was seen walking from his residence at the boundary between the town and the evil forest where the bodies of people killed by the gods are submitted. In one hand, he carried his handheld fan made of white animal skin. On the other hand was his walking rod, made of cast iron with tiny bells attached. A leopard skin was used to dress the walking stick, making it look like what he carried was nothing more than a leopard skin. But it was no ordinary stick, it was a magic stick. One day, during the ceremonies that preceded the new yam festival, the priest was said to have dug the rod in the ground and commanded it to grow a plantain plant, and it did. The villagers witness the plantain grow and bear fruits which were eaten by those that were not afraid. In his head, the man wore a red cap made with beads. Across his waist, tied a red wrapper, leaving his bulging torso bare. As he walked, the bells on his rod jingled, drawing attention to him. The people came out to watch him, but he paid them no attention. When he arrived at the king's palace, they knew why he had come.
The royal family had assembled four young men from the King's lineage to be assessed for suitability for the throne. The priest had barely sat down when a fifth man was presented by the royal cousins. The people from the royal family protested his addition because it had been hundreds of years since a king was produced by the royal cousins.
"The law allows for the royal cousins to produce kings; therefore, I will allow this. It behoves on the nominees of the royal family to outperform him," the priest said.
The present selection of King was the first that the chief priest ever supervised, but his predecessors had passed down the requirements of a king over generations and the priest, as his great-grandfather before him, knew what he had to do. First on his list was courage. To test the courage of the nominees, he required them to go into the vast forest and return only when they had killed a tiger or a lion. The five men headed out with nothing but bows and arrows. As the left, their families knew that not all of them would return. Eight days passed before the first one responded with the head of a tiger he had killed. It was Igodo, the oldest grandson of King Amade.
Igodo was a fine gentleman, raised in the palace and educated in foreign lands and groomed to someday be king. He was almost as dark as his grandfather but not as tall. He was the best marksman in all of the kingdom, and his family had high hopes for his future.
The men had only two more days to return, with or without their kill. On the evening of the tenth day, Odogwu, the nominee from the royal cousins returned with the head of a lion. There was a great argument as to the validity of Odogwu's kill and his qualification to remain in the race, but the priest ruled that it was not yet sundown when he returned; therefore he must stay in the competition.
Odogwu was a tall, lanky farm boy. His father was the former town crier before he died. He had to take care of his family by tending to the farms and hunting animals. As a result, he had become powerful even though his body frame would suggest otherwise. Before his kinsmen called upon him to represent them in the competition, he had never visited the king's palace. So he was very impressed with the opulence of the castle and intimidated by the royalty that lived in it. The way they stared at Odogwu, he was sure that he was not wanted there. When he was in the forest, he had decided that he would not hunt: he would stay there for the ten days to satisfy his kinsmen that he had done his best, then he would return home and continue taking care of his family. If the lion had not attacked him on his way back to the town, he would have been out of the race and back to his family.
Igodo and Odogwu competed in other tests: strength, patience and stamina. Only one test remained: wisdom. Among the criteria used for the selection of the king, only one had evaded the appropriate solution from the beginning of time. Igodo and Odogwu had answered all the questions except that one.
The people were all gathered within the premises of the king's palace. The two men stood in the middle of the circle drawn by the spectators as they gathered to witness the event. The last test was seemingly the simplest of all the trial that the two men had passed. In front of them was a pot made of the calabash.
"In this calabash were dead and living praying mantis. I will insert my hand in the calabash and bring out a mantis. You will take turns and tell me whether the insect in my hand is alive or dead. The person that comes up with the higher number of correct answers wins," the priest said in a loud voice. The crowd cheered. The priest inserted his right hand in the calabash, clenched, brought it out and raised it up. To, Igodo he asked:
"Tell me, Prince Igodo, son of Nweze, is the mantis dead or alive?"
Igodo thought about it for a moment. I am the rightful heir to the throne, and the king never dies. Would he present me with a dead insect? No, he decided.
"It is alive, wise one," Igodo answered.
As soon as the words left his mouth, Igodo saw it in the chief priest's face that he had failed it. The chief priest opened his palm, and the dead mantis fell off. Next came Odogwu's turn. The priest asked him:
"Is the insect dead or alive?"
Odogwu figured that the praying mantis had thorny hands that would pierce the priest's palm if it was alive and he picked it up. Judging from its size too, Odogwu did not think that the priest's hand was big enough to give the praying mantis enough space to breathe and remain alive.
"It is dead, wise one," he replied.
The chief priest opened his palm, and the praying mantis flew away. Three hours into the test, neither of the nominees had gotten a correct answer, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated with each failure. Igodo was confident that he would get it right eventually since his opponent had been failing too. If he could get a single answer correct, he would win. However, after another two hours, neither of them was lucky enough to get a correct answer. It was almost nightfall when Odogwu decided that he would not continue depending on his intelligence. The insect was being held in another man's hand. There was no way to correctly predict if the insect was dead or alive.
"It is your turn now. Dead or alive?" the priest asked.
"Wise one, whether or not the insect is alive is in your hand," he answered.
The priest was not expecting that answer. "Excuse me?" the priest said.
"The insect is in your palm. I believe it is alive now. But if I say it is alive without acknowledging that the ultimate power of life and death of that insect lies within you, you may squash it and thereby kill it. If I say that it is dead, you may let it fly away. So, I submit that whether or not the insect is alive, it is in your hands."
The priest opened the palm of his hand, and the mantis flew away. He was proud to have been instrumental in selecting Odogwu as the king. A king needed to know the limits of his power and how to accord others respect for the power they possessed, and that was the objective of the last test.
Odogwu was crowned the king of Okwere that night. His reign brought peace and prosperity to the land and, like all other kings of Okwere that came before him, he lived forever.
Authored by: @churchboy
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