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The Sensitive Sons
A queer "Queen Bee" retelling by James Penha
In ancient times, the two teenaged sons of the sultan of North Sumatra wearied of a palace life they found tedious and announced to their father that they would be traveling incognito throughout the island in search of fun and, if they were really lucky, wives. The sultan whose own youth had been rather notorious before he settled into the chores of a royal did not object, but his eldest son Hatta who relied on the companionship of his brothers, was despondent. The sultan described his heir as a sensitive young man uninterested in hunting or whoring but fond of music, poetry, gardening, and even cooking. Often, Pasha Hatta worked with the kitchen chefs to create wondrous desserts for his family.
Hatta had little in common with his brothers, but he did enjoy their hijinks and their jokes. He had long ago accepted their giddy appellation for him, BayGay, an abbreviation for badang-gadi or, as we might say today in our language, boy-girl. The pasha, after all, was well aware that he was more than just sensitive. He liked men. He, like too many other royals around the world, could easily have taken advantage of this stable boy or that footman to fulfill his desires. But Pasha Hatta was in truth sensitive—sensitive to the integrity of others. He was a good man.
Although he had often to intervene when his brothers’ romps threatened others—Hatta was the eldest after all—he knew they were, at heart, good pashas as well. He missed them, and determined, some weeks into their absence, to find them. It was not a difficult chore since the brothers left in their wake a trail of gossip and broken hearts to follow. He found them, naked and filthy, sleeping among the dogs under a longhouse in Central Sumatra. “Brothers,” Hatta yelled, “I would embrace you, but you really are disgusting.”
The youngest pasha Rexi opened his eyes and shook his brother Rizky awake. “BayGay!” they screamed in unison.
“What are you doing here?” Rexi asked. “Not looking for girls, that’s for sure.” He poked Rizky in the chest, and the two guffawed.
“Looking for you, brothers,” Hatta replied. “And I might ask you the same question. In fact, I will. ‘What are you doing here?’”
“It’s a long story, BayGay,” Rizky said. “Did you bring any money?”
“Can you buy us sarongs?”
When his brothers had cleaned up and wrapped themselves in their new sarongs, Hatta asked them if they were ready to go home.
“We are having far too much fun to go home,” Rizky said as Rexi nodded in smiling agreement. “Come with us, BayGay, and we’ll make a man out of you.”
“I am already a man, but come with you I will.”
The three brothers, heading in no particular direction except that of camaraderie and adventure, passed a huge anthill on the side of the road they walked. “Rexi,” said Rizky, that thing is taller than you.”
“Not for long, brother,” said Rexi, “let’s flatten it.” And the younger brothers proceeded to kick at the base of the anthill.
“Look at the ants running around like crazy people,” Rizky screamed. Hysterical. They are hopeless.”
“Stop!” cried out Hatta. “The ants are not the crazy ones. They are trying to save their eggs. You must not hurt these innocent animals, Brothers. Please. Let them live in peace. Do it for me.”
“Oh, BayGay, you really are the most sensitive of men,” said Rizky, his foot stopped in mid-kick.
“But we love you so much, BayGay, we will not harm the ants,” said Rexi. “We will do it for you.”
The brothers shook their heads before breaking out in laughs. They hugged each other, and continued down the road, until they stopped at a lovely lake in which a flock of ducks swam.
“I think we have found our dinner,” said Rizky.
“I know just what you mean,” said Rexi. “If we each catch one, we will have a grand feast of grilled ducks for our lunch.”
“No,” cried out Hatta. “You must not hurt these innocent animals, Brothers. Please. Let them live in peace. Do it for me.”
“But we are hungry, BayGay,” Rizky and Rexi complained in unison.
“I told you I have money,” said Hatta. “Certainly enough to buy a hearty meal of rice and vegetables at the next inn we come to.”
“Vegetables,” grumbled Rizky and Rexi.
“Oh, BayGay, you really are the most sensitive of men,” said Rizky.
“But we love you so much, BayGay, we will not harm the ducks,” said Rexi. “We will do it for you.”
After lunching, the three brothers continued down the road. Soon they spotted a bee hive high in a tree on the side of the road. The nest was so plentiful with honey that the sweet stuff dripped down the side of the tree.
“A perfect dessert,” said Rizky. Hatta agreed, and made to fill his hand from the cascade.
“There’s a lot more where that came from, BayGay. If we light a fire at the base of the tree, the smoke will force the bees to flee, and we can carry off all the honeycombs.”
“No,” cried out Hatta. “You must not hurt these innocent animals, Brothers. Please. Let them live in peace. Do it for me. There is honey enough in the excess from this nest.”
“Oh, BayGay, you really are the most sensitive of men,” said Rizky.
“But we love you so much, BayGay, we will not harm the bees,” said Rexi. “We will do it for you.”
The three brothers used their fingers to gather the honey that dripped down the tree from the hive.
“A gift from the gods,” said Rexi.
“A gift from the bees,” said Rizky.
Hatta smiled with pleasure from the honey and from his bothers as the three, satiated, continued down the road.
As night fell, the brothers spied an imposing castle in the center of an curiously unguarded courtyard in which, here and there, the brothers tripped and stepped over stone birds, squirrels, cats, and dogs. They passed a stable in which stood stone horses and made their way across a moat via a bridge that traversed it. The doors to the castle were wide open. There was no sign of human life without or within the castle, save at the far end of a great hall where a candle lit the face of a little old man sitting at a long table.
“He, at least, looks like he’s breathing,” said Rizky.
“Although,” Rexy noted as the brothers approached the old man, “his complexion is as gray as stone.”
“Father,” said Hatta to the little old man, “are we welcome here?”
The little old man remained silent, but rose and ushered the brothers to an adjoining room and bade them take their places on the three chairs along a dining table on which a marvelous banquet was laid out before them.
“Hey, BayGay,” called out Rizky, “pardon me if I help myself to a turkey leg!”
“And me to that ham!” laughed Rexi.
Hatta filled his plate with rice and vegetables. “We dare not be rude to our host. Help yourselves to all he has offered.”
The little old man served the brothers decanters of wine. Hatta sipped a glassful; his brothers drank directly from the flagons until they could barely move to follow the little old man to their bedrooms, one for each of the brothers.
Before entering his room, Hatta turned to the little old man. “Were you expecting us? It looks as if you were expecting three visitors. Are we the three?”
The little old man quietly uttered his first words of the night. “You are the one. You are the—” The little old man lowered his voice to a whisper. “Sensitive pasha.”
In the morning, Rexi awoke to the breath and the stare of the little old man who beckoned the youngest brother to dress and follow him to his desk where he rolled out a manuscript. The little old man spoke to Rexi. “This castle was cursed by a foolish and selfish king whose three beautiful children lay sleeping in a chamber at the top of the grand staircase. They sleep without waking until a person of royal blood performs three almost impossible tasks. I offer you the opportunity to break the curse.”
“And what is the prize if I succeed?”
“You become the next king of the castle and, if you wish, marry your choice of the three children.”
“Then bring on the tasks.”
“Look here,” said the little old man who pointed to the manuscript.
As the author of the curse on this castle and on my children, I ask a noble royal, first, to collect before sunset the 1000 pearls my children left scattered under the great banyan tree in the back of the castle.
“I’m off to find those pearls,” said Rexi, and he headed to the rear garden of the castle.
He neglected to ask the little old man what penalty he would face if he failed to succeed in the task.
Rexi spent all day filling his pockets with pearls, but as the day darkened he had collected only 990. When the sun hid beneath the horizon, all the pearls Rexi had stashed popped out from the bag like fireworks. Rexi, himself, turned to stone where he had crouched in search of ten more pearls.
Rizky and Hatta remained confined to their rooms that day although the little old man brought each of them wonderful food and drink as well as miraculous games and mechanical toys to occupy them.
The little old man hailed Rizky the following morning and led him to his desk where again the curse was explained and the first task revealed.
Rizky also neglected to ask what might happen if he failed in the task, but when he saw the statue of his brother near the banyan tree, he figured it out.
Rizky spent all day feverishly searching for pearls but collected only 777 before he too turned to stone.
Hatta remained confined to his room that day although the little old man brought him wonderful food and drink as well as miraculous games and mechanical toys to occupy him.
The following morning, the little old man hailed Hatta and led him to his desk where again the curse was explained and the first task revealed.
“Did you offer this same task to my brothers?”
“I did,” said the little old man.
“And did they fail?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Why else would you ask me to complete it?”
“You are a wise as well as…” The little old man’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Sensitive.”
“You don’t have to whisper that word to me. I know who and what I am.”
“Apologies, dear Pasha. I know you know who you are, and indeed that is why I called you here.”
“Called me here?”
“I am something of a sorcerer as well as the king of this castle.”
“The king? Then you placed a curse on your own castle… on your own children?”
“I did, young Pasha, because I am not wise. I am an awful fool. Kings and sorcerers can be fools, you know. My son is… was… is… sensitive… and when he told me so, I was angry—”
“You damned him. You imposed this curse… but now you ask my brothers and me to undo it? Why don’t you undo it yourself with a grand poof it’s gone?”
“I cannot. The curse can only be lifted by a sensitive royal who performs these three tasks.”
“And how’s that?”
“Because even though I cannot undo my own curses, I have learned to provide loopholes in case… in case…”
“You come to regret the malevolence you create.”
The little old man let his head fall to his chest. “Yes, young Pasha, yes. But in this case, your completing the three tasks will bring a joy to this castle that could never have arisen otherwise.”
“And what if I fail?”
The little old man remained silent.
Hatta raised his voice. “And what if I fail?”
“You will be turned to stone.”
“Unless there is another sensitive royal to save us all.” The little old man did not whisper.
“And my brothers?”
“You will find them as you make your way to the the banyan tree.”
“They are well?”
“They are at peace.”
Hatta grabbed the arms of the little old man and lifted him in the air. “I should throw you against the wall and kill you.”
“You should. But you need me to save your brothers. If you complete all three tasks, you will bring them and the whole of this castle back to life.”
Hatta dropped the little old man who fell to his knees. “Please, young Pasha, essay the first task.”
Hatta wept to see his brothers at the banyan tree and swore to save them by completing all three shores. As sunset approached and he had collected only 999 pearls, he screamed out his frustration. As if in response to his despairing cry, an army of ants—the very ants he had saved from his brothers’ mischief—searched the soil surrounding the banyan tree until they found, undulated, and deposited at Hatta’s feet the thousandth pearl.
Hatta turned to his brothers, smiled, and said, “I shall see you again tomorrow. And soon I shall see you move.”
The little old man embraced Hatta at his return to the castle and directed him to deposit all the pearls in an embroidered bag.
“Aren’t you going to count them?” asked Hatta.
The little old man actually chuckled. “No need. If there were fewer than 1000, you would be one more piece of statuary. Eat now and sleep well, young Pasha. I will see you in the morning to tell you of the second chore.”
And see him he did. The little old man approached the still-sleeping Hatta in his bed and stared at the young pasha until he wakened. Hatta started before realizing that it was the foolish king of the castle holding a key in front of his eyes. “This is the key to your room,” said the little old man. “There is one much like it that will open the chamber in which my children sleep all too soundly in their beds.”
“And where is the key?” Hatta asked.
“At the bottom of the pond on the other side of the banyan tree.”
“And how did it get there?”
The little old man hesitated before admitting, “I threw it there.”
“I thought as much. And the second chore—”
“Is to bring me that key.”
“And if I fail?”
“Do not fail.”
Hatta embraced each of his brothers as he made his way to the pond. “I shall not fail you,” he whispered to each of them.
The pond was not huge, but neither was the key. Hatta stripped down leaving his clothes in a pile on the side of the pond as he waded into the water. Holding his breath and forcing his eyes to remain open, he scoured the perimeter of the pond without success. But when his head bobbed above the water, he saw a flock of ducks dropping from the sky and landing on the surface of the pond. These, of course, were the ducks Hatta had protected from his brothers. They dove as if fishing, but in fact, they quacked joyously when one great drake appeared with a key in its bill. The bird swam majestically to Hatta and delivered to him the key.
Hatta bowed to the drake before turning to dry land where he dressed and made for the castle.
The little old man did not, as Hatta expected, collect from him the key.
“You will need this key,” said the little old man, “for the final chore. It is the key to the chamber in which my children are sleeping in their separate beds. They are wrapped in their blankets so that only their faces—their identical faces, their beautifully identical faces—appear. You must decide which of my children is my eldest, the prince, my son.”
“Your sensitive son,” Hatta added.
“Yes, my sensitive son. Before he slept, as was his habit, he had a spoonful of honey. If you, my young Pasha, are yourself sensitive enough to smell the scent of honey remaining on my son’s lips, you will have won everything.”
Hatta smiled as he followed the little old man to his children’s bedroom. Hatta unlocked the door to the chamber with the key the drake had retrieved from the bottom of the pond. Only the faces of the two princesses and the prince were, as the little old man had said, visible. And, indeed, they were identical.
Hatta heard in his ear a buzzing. The Queen Bee from the hive he had protected from his brothers had followed him to the castle. She, of course, could certainly discern the odor of honey and signal to Hatta which of the three royals was the prince. But Hatta waved off her help. He walked to the central bed, leaned in close to its inhabitant, inhaled deeply, and kissed the lips of the slumberer who, awakened and aroused, wrapped his arms around Hatta and kissed him deeply in return.
The little old man jumped for joy and exclaimed, “You detected the honey! You are that sensitive.”
Hatta let go his lips from the prince to reply, “I can’t tell bee’s honey from syrup. But I know a sweet young man when I find one.”
As the princesses woke up and rubbed their eyes in confusion, Hatta roused the prince from his bed and bade him come with him as he ran from the chamber.
“My legs,” the prince called out, “are rather yet too stiff for running.”
“I shall be your helpmate now and forever,” said Hatta who returned to the prince and bore him up with his arm around his waist.
As they walked toward the banyan tree, they saw statuary come to life: courtiers and workers, horses and dogs, frogs and birds, and finally, as Hatta wept uncontrollably, Rizky and Rexi.
“Oh, BayGay, you really are the most sensitive of men,” said Rizky.
“Well,” said Rexi, “pointing at the prince Hatta held, “maybe one of the two most sensitive of men.”
Within weeks, the little old man, again dressed in his finery as king, officiated at the marriage of his three children: the princesses to Rizky and Rexi; the prince to Hatta.
Not one person in the kingdom who had suffered the insensitivity of stone objected to the wedding or, eventually, to the coronation of the two sensitive sons as their monarchs.
Expat New Yorker James Penha (he/him) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha
Copyright © 2023 by James Penha
Published by Orion's Beau
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