Ndue Ukaj was born in Kosova. He is a writer, essayist, and literary critic. To date, he has published four poetry books, one short story collection, and two literary criticism books. He won several awards, including the national award for best book of poetry published in 2010 in Kosovo. His literary works have been published in distinguished international anthologies and journals and have been translated into many languages.
The dream of the emperor
By Ndue Ukaj
Everyone is afraid of dreams, and I was convinced of this when I heard of a great emperor – who belonged neither time long ago nor to very new times – to whom a dream had shattered his heart so much that it had led him towards death. All this had happened on a very cold April that was not remembered by a living person, and on a day when the emperor has remained whole alone at the majestic palace.
People – neither before nor today – might not believe that the emperor, the most powerful man, before whom bowed all people, could remain as cuckoos only in the majestic palace, but behold such a thing has happened and that night for him turned into a nightmare.
At that time, activities were held all over the country to mark the twentieth anniversary of his almighty power, the glory of which – it was said aloud – was immortalized everywhere. And from morning till late in the evening, there was talk of glory and heroes, and great attention was focused on the final moment of the jubilee year, that on the great feast, in the great square, where the great statue of the great emperor should be placed.
It was spring and the days were very cold, but no one was talking about it. On the contrary, the people were anxious and spokes only of glory, after which endless crowds marched.
Since it was a jubilee year, the emperor had become more generous, so he easily distributed gratitude and decorations for people.
People were afraid and just a few were those who wished to be left without one, and whoever did not pursue glory was not seen well in the eyes of others. This had made someone baptize that spring as the season of decorations, but there were also a few who dared to say that this was the season of madness.
Surely – in those days it was too difficult to resist the euphoria of glory. Few wanted to stand aside and not become a stakeholder in the country’s historical merits. But some here and there could not wait to do their job and get rid of the past twenty years. Such uncertain ones would go home, close quickly the doors and windows, and fly to the realm of sleep, the only place where their eyes could dream whatever they wanted.
“Half-spring,” said the second high-ranking official in the power of the emperor, sad with the foggy weather as he walked with him through the garden.
Indeed, spring had come, but the people and the earth were not warm, and the surrounding mountains were still covered with the last snow, and the flowers bloomed with huge difficulty through frost and winter remnants.
The sky was clear that day, but the sun wasn’t warm, and when it went behind the mountains and left the country in darkness, no one was bothered about it.
That day passed in a tumult, and in the evening, things got too confused, so that the emperor remained alone in the majestic palace, which, of course, was defended by gatekeepers at the outer gate, and two others, mighty and trustworthy, at the entrance of interior.
The emperor’s wife and two children had gone for a feast fare away and they would not return home that night.
When the light was fading like a broken candle, the emperor greeted the palace officials coldly and immediately experienced disparate feelings, which withdrew him, as two enraged crowds pull a strong rope, meanwhile, when he shook hands with the second official of his power, coldness of death pierced his body. And with those miserable feelings, he closed the door and the sound of the key horrified his legs.
In that dull environment, called the majestic palace, no sound was heard except the heartbeat of the great emperor who had lost his composure and could hardly wait for the realm of sleep.
When it became night and darkness covered the ground, as a black blanket covers an exhausted head, he took care to close every door and window, and slowly climbed to the upper floor, where he usually liked to spend the late hours of the night.
On this night outside the majestic palace, everything was quiet, but no one would believe that inside of the enormous palace, the emperor was all alone. Because all of his people sided with him. Those who cursed him when they closed the doors and windows, but also the worshipers who received daily functions and decorations from his strong hands. But such a night happened, and now the mighty one could realize how great the kingdom of darkness was and what fear it could cause – the walls and loneliness – phenomena that his kind of rulers usually never experienced. Thus, disturbed and with crippling thoughts, he had to endure until the new day dawned.
After a few minutes, he found himself in the great corridor of the majestic palace, where complete silence reigned, so much that one could hear his heavy breathing and his slow footsteps. In that space, he looked around with mixed feelings; the good ones haunted him, while the bad ones rose like a wave in the troubled sea. He remained silent, looking around and wondering: what can a great and powerful emperor do when he is alone at home?
This was not a question, but a cruel silence.
In that confusion of bad thoughts, he looked at the clock and saw that sleep time was far away, and, not knowing what to do until that wonderful clock of sleeping struck, he moved like the disordered one looking for something and he does not even know what. He occasionally went out the window and watched very carefully the movements through the city, but a sense of emptiness eroded him, especially when he saw how the lights became scarce and the few shadows took the form of ghosts.
That night everything seemed to turn, calm in the storm, light in the dark, safety in fear. It was such a night, when everything seemed a little, except the darkness which was too much and heavy bullet.
The clock was moving at the usual pace in the majestic palace quietness, in which he did his best to gather himself and do something. So, about twenty o’clock, he went out the window and wanted to see the moon, but it was covered with gloomy clouds. He then took a book of ancient stories but did not read more than three pages. Then he made himself an appetizer, with olives, some cheese, dried meat, and a glass of wine, but he couldn’t eat anything and did not drink the glass of wine. It seemed to him as if darkness had entered deep into his eyes and the boat of his thoughts was being attacked by strong waves.
It was useless to believe that he could be relieved of the anxiety of that night without the new day dawning so that all sorts of images came to his mind: the faces of people he loved and hated, well-built houses and such that they had left desolate.
Then the mind led him to the lives of people in prisons or to those who feared the persecution and sadness of the bars of the jail.
I want to feel what it means to spend a night without a human soul and surrounded by walls and darkness – he said, gathered himself, and stood up. With a sullen face, he went again to the window, from where a large part of the city center could be seen.
But, outside, the sky was not clear, so the darkness was thicker and more frightening than in the other night, for example, when the sky could be clear and full of stars. Well, the majestic palace in these circumstances looked like terrible hell.
The emperor’s head was boiling with erratic thoughts, coming and going like turbulent clouds in the sky. And immersed in a world of contrary feelings, he rejoiced to see that the hour of sleep was approaching, a time he had been following for so long. He immediately dressed with his nightclothes, looked out the window once more, from where the dim lights of the city seemed reduced by the strange fog that could not be seen from the ground.
In these foggy days, people feel desolate – he said to himself – but few knew how leaders, emperors, presidents, rulers felt, those who were said to own everything. At that moment, he almost shouted: they too feel desolate, empty, even though they have the power to make what they want. But their power was because people never believed in such a thing and did not even attempt to learn it. And this was perhaps one of the greatest calamities of the human race: they are thirsting for freedom, but they easy bowing under the ruler’s power.
Indeed, people – neither yesterday nor today – had never learned how the ruler felt on a lonely night when he was left alone and the darkness faced each other. Surely – if they had known such a thing – their slogans would have been quite different and the messages quite contrary to the ones they usually held in their hands.
Just before midnight, when the old day was nearby to give way to the new day, his heavy body turned off the lamp and submitted to the power of sleep. This was the only power in which the rulers, like he, had no hand. It was not long before the emperor was furiously seized by that power, but he stayed under it for a very short time, as a bad dream woke him up after an hour and a few minutes later. He looked at his watch and saw that he had slept very little. He was all anxiety and the anxiety was greater than all the imperial power.
He lays motionless in bed and after a few minutes, got up, wiped his face, and, when he remembered the dream, it seemed to him that something had collapsed in his head. His heart shattered and fear gripped him. Then he began to hate himself and his power, because the most powerful man in the country, for a moment felt the unluckiest man in the country.
Alone and in that endless darkness, the walls of the house looked like hungry shadows, that were looking at him and waiting to tear him apart, and he in front of whom trembled all the people, those moments felt nothing.
The morning was far away, and the emperor did not know what to do in the remaining hours, as it seemed to him to separate an abyss from the new day, and during those hours it seemed to him that everything was rolling to hell. A faint pain pierced him beyond, as he wandered in the realm of great darkness and with a broken heart recounted, the moments of the dream and waited for the birth of a new day, but different from what his people expected.
He knew how there was no cure to heal fear and sadness because if there were one, the emperor would have it first.
Dark thoughts had taken over his head, and not knowing what to do, he got to his feet and slowly moved around the house, where, although there were small lights, it seemed to him that the darkness was endless. Then he recalled the dream again.
He had dreamed as if he were in the great square of the capital, in the endless space where a large crowd of people had come from all over the country and were waiting for his appearance. He was well dressed and was accompanied by the black-clad guards. The carpet where he passed was surrounded by flowers and large letters of his name, and through it, he walked proudly between endless joy and shouts in honor and glory of his name, so much that the shouts frightened the birds in the sky, which took the flight to find a quieter place. He looked at the birds and walked smiling through that crowd towards the podium where, according to the plan, he was going to give a speech in front of the people. As soon as he came to the pulpit, the crowd erupted in cheers, but when he finished speaking, he felt a sharp sting in his heart that almost knocked him to the ground.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, in that euphoria, the soldiers who stood frozen, took orders from the main general and fired several times in honor of him. Then came the final moment: to unfold the great statue of the emperor, but, when they undressed the statue, instead of his figure, the face of the great poet appeared, whose name was engraved in capital letters and gold-colored.
Suddenly there was a great commotion, and the crowd was utterly perverted. Some shouted screaming and some laughed as much as they could, while most broke the slogans they held in their hands and stepped furiously on them with both feet. Whistles, screams, and loud laughter were also heard. Fellows with sad faces, as if death had fallen on them, quickly ran to cover the statue.
The shamed emperor was stunned and resembled a statue where any bird could piss.
No one would have imagined such a great embarrassment for the empire, but such a thing made his dream, so there was no one to hold him accountable.
People could not believe that the mighty emperor could be saddened, let alone feared since it was unimaginable to think that such a great and powerful man could be feared.
What would the citizens do if they knew what he was feeling in those moments? Would they wake up and outbreak his power, or would they fall asleep and wait for a new day coming? But people did not know anything, because dreams happen in intimate moments, when man plunged into the deep of darkness, into a gentle unconscious.
Overwhelmed, he looked at his watch and saw that it was two after midnight. He wished to flee somewhere and escape from that cruel dream, but an emperor could not do such foolish and naive deeds.
No – he knew there was no choice for him, expect to burn in the hell of that dream – not knowing what to do with the loneliness – the dream and the darkness until morning when the light would conquer the black darkness again. He knew that he could not fight with dreams: neither with cannons nor with the army, so all he could do was get used to it.
In the early hours of the night, the people were asleep, along with a large portion of humanity sleeping and awaiting the new day. He expected the same thing, but not like the days before: happy and full of plans.
The clock was moving at its own pace, but it seemed to him as if it had stopped somewhere. After a few minutes of movement, he sat on the bed and turned on the big lamp, but he did nothing to dispel his dark thoughts.
And you cannot imagine what the emperor wanted at that moment! He wanted nothing more than to be in the realm of the darkness of sleep, embraced by a loved one, without the ghost of a dream and the scorching loneliness, but things had taken a different path and the river of his thoughts was badly troubled.
The emperor had never coveted other people, but those moments he willingly wanted to be in the world of millions of ordinary people who were asleep and having beautiful dreams.
Only he was awake and without his wish, meanwhile, in front of him stood the portrait of the poet who appeared to him in a dream, to whom he never wanted to see his muzzle, not even in any wrinkled photograph, let alone in the dream and on such a cruel night.
Surely, his only wish at that moment was to see the first sparks of the new day, but the morning was far away and he knew that he would never be relieved of the heavyweight that had fallen on him. He had to get used to being humiliated and keep the dream in the deep prison of his heart, so as, not to become the object gossiping in the whole country.
People may say that the emperor does not tolerate humiliation and punishes anyone who can imagine such a thing with the harsh laws of the empire, but whom can he punish for a degrading dream. He knew he could not imprison his dreams, so all he could do was turn them into the prison of his heart and learn to live ashamed and in the dark.
The one whom all men feared was now afraid and saw the nails in his hands, but could not remove them.
The emperor had always hated dreams and had never had the intuition to explain them, even, he had never wanted to hear about the messages that could hide them, but that night he strangely remembered a dream his wife had told him 0 when frightened he had told her that he had seen her bathed in blood, only two days before two of his accomplices had been shot to death.
When you are awake and struggling in bed, the clocks move extremely slowly, while when you happen to wake up from a nightmare, then the morning seems beyond the abyss.
The remaining hours for the emperor became crueler and crueler. He got up from the bed again and made quite erratic steps across the room, and, after a few moments, crashed like an oak falling on the bed. The pillow, which had been made just for his head, seemed to him as if it had been made of stone and held a heavy bullet head. Overwhelmed he rolled back and forth, begging sleep to snatch him into the world of half-death, but he had fled millions of miles away from sleeping.
After a while, he got out of bed again, took two painkillers pills, and as soon as he swallowed them, he said to himself: even the army, the security services, and the endless power I possess cannot save me from the dream.
Only when he saw that morning was approaching did a feeling of a little joy pervade his body. In those moments he begged the sweet power of sleep to take him with him to the white peace, but as the hour approached the new dawn, his thoughts became even more sorrowful and he felt endless torture.
Never in his life had he felt the need for someone’s small hands to touch him lightly in the majestic palace, in that big room, in that big and cruel bed, to caress his heavy shoulders and to close his sorrowful eyes. The hand of the gatekeeper would suffice him at that hour for such a soothing.
To be conquered by darkness and dreams, for him it was as if it had been conquered by an enemy army, which without warning had entered the majestic palace, disarmed the gatekeepers, taken the people of the house captive, and set new rules.
Spinning through the mud of memories, he remembered the many paths he had taken to come to power, the many friends he no longer had, and the prisoners who lay endlessly in dark prisons, and others rotten under the ground.
And, cursing and mourning, the new day dawned.
The emperor, despairing and exhausted, started the new day, where he had planned meetings, visits, invitations, and important signatures for millions of people.
After dressing in a black suit, he drank a coffee and rejoiced when he heard the doorbell ring of the senior protocol officer holding notes for meetings and gatherings. He greeted him coldly and gave him a strict order to cancel all the meetings of that day and no one would allow him to enter to him. Then, he went to the reading room and closed the door, and stayed there for a long time.
He did not dare to tell anyone what he had dreamed and what tormented him so much. He said to himself that that grief was only for him and he had to change it and keep it in the deep prison of his heart.
Around nine o’clock, his wife returned home and noticed his changed face and a tinge of sadness in his eyes, but he justified it with the bad weather and the bad sleep he had had.
He could not imagine telling anyone that humiliated dream, which could spread like lightning, and the gossip could hardly wait for such news to become the headline of the empire.
You know – the emperor is afraid of a dream – the second important official could be laughed at and this news in a few hours would cross the whole country, up to the border protectors. Therefore, he did not dare to take the dream out of the prison of the heart and let others understand how easily an emperor could be humiliated.
The emperor knew very well that science, with its dizzying developments, had failed to do anything to cure people of the fear, dreams, and sadness they cause them, so it had to get used to it.
The story of this dream was revealed a few years after the emperor’s death and among some notes found in the clutter of his letters, which, among other things, showed how he had never reconciled himself to the humiliation caused by the dream. In those notes, he had told of the cruel days of that cold end of April, which he had spent disturbed in mind and crushed in spirit. Whereas, in one place he had said that the kind of leaders was no more afraid than of dreams, where the conscious and unconscious desires of man rested, such as were drowned daily by evil leaders like him.
A few weeks after that night, as understood from his notes, the emperor was seriously sick, but the news was kept hidden until the moment he died. The great feast in his honor was never organized, nor was the bust ever shown. In the last notes of his diary, he had shown that an illness was eroding his health, and only he and his doctor were aware of it, and the last word that remained among those notes was: “a cursed dream.”
Meanwhile, next to it was a letter entitled: “Dreams are cursed, murderous because they erode the power and nail the cross daily, with their poisonous spears.” He further stated in the letter that after that night, he had never felt well, and at the end, he wrote:
“That dream placed me to the accursed world from which there was no teacher to save me. Power and security do not help me at all. Neither added care. I have been very upset for several weeks. I’m bitter with anyone and everything. I have made it rare to meet people. I do not sign any important documents. I have not visited any place.
That dream crossed me and that April of great expectations, turned into cruel April. Every time I wake up, it seems to me that it touches my corpse, it seems to me that I am dead and embodied in another body. This is no ordinary sorrow, this is hell, far more devastating than Dante’s hell. I did not experience the month of May, which I love very much. I did not go to the premiere of the show I was looking forward to. The doctor visits me every morning and tells me I’m too sick. I can see on his face that there is no hope for me. The wife and children are sad and want to know what I’m suffering from, but I have decided not to get anything out of the prison of my heart as long as I am alive. That cruel night and that dream I will take with me to the grave. Now, I don’t know how long my illness will last, but it seems to me that I will not wait for the golden autumn that I love so much. From the day I was left alone at home, I am troubled and it seems to me that a torturous hand is inside me.
Outside everything seems ordinary. People are afraid, but they do not know that the emperor is afraid for the miracle of my kind. Now I know that no one can live by killing dreams. There is nothing that I can do about it. A dream killed me …”
(This short story was published in the book “The kingdom of the dreams”, Onufri, Albania 2021)
Translated from the Albanian by Edita Kuçi Ukaj