The Tale of a Prime Minister and a Golden Bedbug

 

Es war einmal ein
König,
Der hatt’ einen
großen Floh.... 

    Does not matter when, does not matter where, but there lived in one country a Prime Minister. Unlike his predecessor, a grumpy old man, a stamp collector and a staunch conservative, our Prime Minister was a rotund, jovial middle-aged man with a small bald patch and endless energy. He liked to grow Chinese roses in his garden; he invented a reward-reaping machine, and patented a special medicine against too much thinking. In his free time, the Prime Minister attended to state affairs. He was somewhat of a liberal, and his court was always full of Western ambassadors as well as Eastern goods.
    His life was wonderful—until the trouble came.
    A junior clerk from the Ministry of Difficulties by the name of Alberto Polites was looking through some ancient documents. In a 16th-century chronicle, he found a reference to an even older chronicle, which mentioned that in the old times Prime Ministers were elected for a four-year term.
    And it was decided to schedule elections.
    Not because people did not like their Prime Minister—how could one not like such a nice man?—but solely in order to uphold the historical tradition: the fourth year of his term was about to end.
    Dr. Stamm, the Minister of Education, became a Liberal Party candidate. The Conservatives put forward the former Prime Minister, a grumpy old man called Zubski. Alberto Polites became the campaign manager. Elections were scheduled for the next January.
    And it was already October.
    Our poor Prime Minister sat in his bedroom and looked at the fire in his fireplace. Brown leaves were flying behind the window, the Prime Minister’s bed was cold, and he did not feel good. He drank two tablespoons of his medicine against too much thinking, and a big glass of rum. But the sadness did not leave him.
    At this moment, the Golden Bedbug fell down from the ceiling.
    The Prime Minister looked at the insect sadly. “I could squash this bedbug,” he thought. “But will I feel better after it? Let him live.”
    The Bedbug was touched by the Prime Minister’s kindness. “Listen,” he said, “being sad will not make things any better. Instead, let me make true three of your sincere wishes.”
    “But what will you ask in return?” asked the Prime Minister sadly. “Nothing,” replied the Bedbug, “only that you provide me with food and drink and keep me close to yourself.” “But representatives of your species normally feed on human blood,” said the Prime Minister, “would you not require my blood?” “Oh no, - cried the Bedbug with disgust, “don’t you see my golden skin? Though I was born in such a lowly image, fate gave me the mind of a man, and not of a simple one; so I drink not blood but Burgundy and Mosel wines; above all, however, I prefer Scotch. My table should be as exquisite as my appearance.”
    Unsettled by such boasting, the Prime Minister went back to the subject of three wishes, and found that the Bedbug was quite serious about it. “Why then do you need my table and my court if you are such a great magician?” our hero cleverly asked. “You see,” the Bedbug picked his teeth with a crystal toothpick that appeared in his thin fingers, “while my livelihood depends on people, I have no power to force them to obey and serve me. Thus I reach my goal through a reasonable exchange of services, without calling on my magic—which would not work anyway in this case.”
    “Wait a minute,” cried the Prime Minister, “if so, then what are you good for? If I order you to destroy my enemies, would you be powerless to do it?”
    “Oh no,” replied the Golden Bedbug, “you see, that would be your wish, not mine; and I can make any people’s wishes true, if they are sincere. But would any of you wish something good for me, your benefactor? This is why I only ask you for food and shelter but for nothing more. You people, such a truly beastly race you are! Just spend one of your three wishes on me; just wish some riches or a small crown for a poor bedbug, but no! You say ‘go, bedbug, go, we do not need you anymore,’ you force me to go away, and I cannot do anything since I have no power over you.”
    The Prime Minister thought hard, while the Golden Bedbug, with tears in his eyes, sat in a fancy chair in front of him. “Well,” said the Prime Minister, “but what if I wish something three times, here and now, and you made all three wishes come true—why would I feed and keep you after that?” “Oh no,” replied the Bedbug slyly, “excuse me but it would be very foolish to spend all your three wishes at once; these are not three walnuts or three cigars: things are much more serious here. Look, for example, do you want your country to be the first on Mars? I give you a spaceship right now—go! I guarantee a safe and comfortable flight there and back.”
    “Well, this is tempting,” admitted the Prime Minister, “but why has nobody yet been to Mars with your assistance?” “Oh,” - sighed the Bedbug, “life is short, and people are much more concerned with Earth... Another example: would you like to have a cure for cancer? Your uncle died of it, remember? But you would be saved; moreover, you would be a savior of humankind, with the Nobel Prize and all the fame.”
    “This is tempting as well,” replied the Prime Minister, “but tell me, why did scientists search for this cure for many years and nobody approach you?” “I approached many myself,” confessed the Bedbug, “but they all wished for money or a career, and nobody ever mentioned humankind. And I could do much more: I could make all people healthy and happy, I could remove war and poverty, borders and laws, make everybody’s life perfect—just wish for that! and it will come true.”
    “My God, “cried the Prime Minister in amazement, “so why has nobody made this wish?!”
    “If everyone were rich and happy, the envy would disappear,” sadly replied the Golden Bedbug, “and people always want to live better than others. So they always wish happiness only for themselves, not for everyone.”
    “But you could wish it for everyone,” tried the Prime Minister, “if you have such power...” “Ha ha,” laughed the Bedbug, “don’t you see that I exist only due to people’s vanity? Who would feed and keep a poor Bedbug if everyone was rich and happy? Who would need me, a hapless parasite?”
    They sat silently facing each other for a long time.
    “Very well,” said the Prime Minister, “stay with me. I will think and tell you my first wish tomorrow.” Next morning, Alberto Polites was on TV. The first week of the campaign showed that the old man
    Zubski was clearly going to win the elections: he shouted and cursed the Prime Minister much louder than anybody else. The Liberal candidate, Dr. Stamm, only got 28% in the polls: many people did not like him because he wrote the textbooks they used as schoolchildren. Our Prime Minister only got 5%—all due to Alberto Polites who was on TV every night diligently explaining why it is much better to change the government every four years.
    Then they showed an animated advertisement paid for by the Conservatives. Our good Prime Minister was shown as a bloodthirsty Indian, and the old Zubski as a noble cowboy. Eventually the Indian was hanged, quartered, and fed to four alligators.
    The Prime Minister shuddered, turned off the TV, drank two glasses of rum, and went upstairs to the quarters of the Golden Bedbug.
    Fresh from his bath, the Bedbug slowly drank icy champagne when the Prime Minister lumbered into his bedroom. 
    “Bedbug,” uttered the poor ruler, “please rid me of my enemies!” “This is your first wish” - noted the Bedbug. He dreamingly raised his beautiful eyes to the ceiling and said a few words in Latin. “Amen,”— whispered the Prime Minister, leaving the bedroom on tiptoes. He turned on TV again and found the news.
    They reported that:
            - The old man Zubski just died from a heart attack
            - Alberto Polites was jailed as a foreign spy
            - Dr. Stamm resigned from his campaign due to undisclosed reasons
            - Yesterday polls were in error: a recount gave 97% support to our Prime Minister
    “And I have two more wishes!” - thought the Prime Minister in excitement, coming out to the balcony. Then he remembered the old Zubski, turned pale and crossed himself.
    “This is what you wished for,” - the Bedbug told him from the upper balcony. He stood there smoking an expensive cigar and observing the small country and adjacent regions with his cold eyes.
    Half a year has passed, and a new trouble came.
    The court of Prime Minister was always full of Western ambassadors. Mr. Qwerty, the most important of them all, happened to dislike Eastern goods, which also abounded at the court. Shortly, the Prime Minister faced an ultimatum and a draft of a peace treaty that mentioned exclusive trade rights for the West.
    The Prime Minister was forced to sacrifice Eastern sweets for Western chewing gum. Still, Mr. Qwerty, the ambassador, did not rest: now he wanted a part of national security as well. So it started: custom fees got canceled, coastal shots were fired, and city folks got restless. A Western sailor got hurt in a brawl—as it turned out later, by his own mates and not too seriously; but that did not matter. Next morning, two legions of Western infantry entered the country to protect their citizens, and camped right there on the palace square.
    The Prime Minister looked and looked at all this: what if they start shooting? He was scared but was not yet willing to spend his second wish.
    But as soon as the first shot was fired (someone crossed the square in a wrong place), the Prime Minister stormed into the Golden Bedbug’s quarters. “Bedbug, please,” begged the Prime Minister, “do rid me of my friends!”
    The Bedbug who had become quite fat, sipped his Scotch, and said “That’s the second one,” and then a few words in English.
    The Prime Minister went out to the balcony. The square was clean. Sun just came up, pigeons quietly walked on the square, and here was Mt. Qwerty running to the palace to apologize, and to ask for permission to depart. That was gladly given.
    “What else could threaten me if I have gotten rid of everything?” - thought the Prime Minister happily. His life became even more splendid than before. Humming of his reward-reaping machine could be heard all over the palace, his Chinese roses were in full bloom, and he drank liters of his patented medicine against too much thinking.
    This medicine, however, was not popular in his country. And people started thinking. These were neither the Conservative enemies nor Liberal friends, neither the rich merchants nor poor relatives—just simple people.
    At this time there lived a poet named Sandor. He sang about love (any true poet, whatever he sings about, sings about love), and love in this country was mostly found among simple people, maybe because they were poor and never had to buy it.
    Once, Sandor heard humming of the reward-reaping machine from the palace, or maybe he even saw the Golden Bedbug who used to smoke his cigars on the balcony. And Sandor wrote his Ballad About a Sound.
    It was April, and sounds were easily born in the clear air.
    The ballad was full of love and anger. One could hardly finish reading it: one’s eyes lit up so that the paper with handwritten lines caught fire.
    And then, at night, came the first thunderstorm of that spring. It reached the square and stood in front of the Prime Minister’s palace. One could hear its faraway thunders and see its lightings zipping through the darkness. 
    The frightened Prime Minister ran upstairs where the Golden Bedbug was drinking cognac on a luxurious sofa. “What should I do?!” cried the poor ruler. The parasite’s eyes flashed. “The doing should have been done before,” he replied. “But it is not too late to make everybody happy, to build the heaven on earth,” babbled the Prime Minister, “I have one more wish, haven’t I?” “Is this your sincere wish?” asked the Bedbug. The Prime Minister did not answer.
    “See,” said the Bedbug, “your soul is not able to wish such a thing; and I cannot force you. So it cannot be done.” “Then destroy this!”- the Prime Minister pointed toward the window with a trembling hand. “Destroy what?” asked the Bedbug approaching the balcony. “Please be specific! One can destroy the leaders, an army, or a crowd. But one cannot destroy people’s love and people’s anger—it would mean to destroy the people altogether.” “So destroy them!” screamed the Prime Minister in madness. The Bedbug thought for a moment. “Yes, I could do that,” he said, “but you are also a man. Who will then feed and keep me?”
    The Prime Minister fell into a chair. “I did not mean ill to anyone”, he whispered. “They will enter now, and I will vanish; but I do not want to vanish without a trace!” “Should we consider it your last wish?” – asked the Bedbug without turning. “Great,” - he made a gesture with his hand.
    At that moment, the balcony door opened, and a man called Belk stepped into the room. Belk used to work as a pharmacist but now was mostly a small crook. Using the thunderstorm as a cover, he wanted to help himself to something from the palace.
    And he succeeded.
    I do not know the details, but next morning President Belk was on the palace balcony, looking peace- fully down at his small country, which had no more rich or poor. It had only obedient people who never did much thinking. There were no poets among them.
    And the President had two more wishes left.
    By the way, the palace gallery got a new statue that day: a life-size one of the former Prime Minister. With a dignified expression on its face, the statue is the last in a long row of realistic, life-size statues of former kings and presidents.
    The gallery still has a lot of empty space. 

 

    28 July 1973
    Karasuk, Novosibirsk Province,
    Russia