Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Short Story: "The Great One"

This longer piece is possibly my favorite story among all the ones that I've written. If I've done my job, you'll find this tale to be gently humorous, slightly oddball, and yes, even meaningful. I based one of the two main characters on my closest friend since childhood. However, this character is a fictionalized version, and any appearances to the actual "Don Juan Spiffy" are purely coincidental. The other main character is also based loosely on a real person, whose story I discovered in the pages of a National Geographic many years ago. Hope you enjoy it!

Our story begins in the only village of a small kingdom on a small island in Indonesia, not so very long ago...

Than Nam, the leader of the Coconut People, stood upon his purple mushroom throne, his ostrich-feather pen in hand, writing upon the Great Notepad. The words flowed from his pen with the authority of a king, or a god. To his people, he was both. These words were his commands. For Than Nam had not spoken in over seventy-two years.

"Let the good times roll!" wrote the Great Leader, and added, "Eat, drink, and be whoever you are."

The Coconut People bowed before Than Nam, and shouted simultaneously: "As you desire, O Great One!"

The festivities were intended to be a celebration of life. It was Bin Kai The Adequate's birthday, and a party was always in order on occasions such as these. But to Than Nam, the celebration was a sort of going-away party for his life, as he feared his own death was near. His years on earth had now totaled eighty-four. His once-frail body was now quite feeble. He had once stood tall, even though he had always been short. Now he was merely short.

Yet the uncertainty which Than Nam now felt was not because of his impending death; rather, he concerned himself with the question of who would succeed the throne and rule the living. Than Nam had outlived all of his rightful heirs. The only individual on the island who was almost royalty was Inikiki, whose mother had had a fling with the Court Jester.

With a sad heart and a heavy frown which accentuated the deep, numerous wrinkles in the old man's face, Than Nam scratched his bald head and sighed, knowing full well what must be done. He disappeared behind the stage where he had stood to signal the commencement of the day's festivities, and ran slowly to his Royal Tent.

Once inside, Than Nam sorted through the stack of junk mail he had received in the past two months. He tossed aside the unwanted magazines, the Publisher's Clearing House entry forms, and pleas for money transfers from remote locations in Nigeria in order to find the specific letter he sought. But he couldn't seem to find it anywhere.

A week and a half ago, among the piles of weekly fan mail he received from all over the world, Than Nam remembered reading a real eye-opener. It had come from a young American boy, and the proposition the boy had made was truly incredible.

Where was that letter?

After several hours of searching the small tent, Than Nam finally spotted the curious piece of mail, and opened it up.

In microscopically small handwritten cursive, the letter read:

"Dear Mr. Than Nam,
I saw your picture in an old copy of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and read all about you, and I was just wondering if you're still alive. If you are, I would just like to know if I could please have an autographed picture of you or one of the Coconut  People? I am collecting Dr. Pepper cans to take to my local recycling center so that I can earn enough money to come and visit you, possibly within the next 12 to 15 months or so. Oh yeah, and if you ever get tired of being 'The Man' over there, just let me know. I'd be glad to take over for you. Seriously!
Your fan,
Don Juan Spiffy"

Could the great Than Nam really relinquish all his power and rights as the Coconut People to some dumb kid? And an American kid, at that? Than Nam let the thought cross his mind, cross his eyes, and his fingers and toes. Perplexed and more than a little apprehensive, he knew what he must do. He would have to meet that kid.


Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in a lush green cornfield in Iowa, a wild-eyed, chubby American boy was sitting and thinking. The boy was nearly seventeen years old, but he appeared to be around forty. The boy often sat and thought here in the field. His parents thought he was a lunatic, and they might well have been correct in their thinking. But on this day, there was a purpose for his pondering.

The night before, he'd had an experience which was far too real to be ignored. The great Than Nam, the leader of the Coconut People – that oddly appealing, strange, and mysterious man whose picture he had cut out of an old magazine a year earlier – had appeared to the boy in a dream. 

Being mute by choice, the Great Leader, of course, did not utter a word. Instead, the old man simply floated on a pillow of air with his index finger extended, drawing smiley faces in the neighboring clouds.

Then suddenly the old man's expression changed. It now bore a grave, urgent stare; and with it, the gnarled fingers of the old man's hand turned round and beckoned the boy to come to him.

Still dreaming, the boy had stood and taken an actual step forward, and awakened suddenly as his head slammed into his bedroom wall.

The dream lingered in the boy's head, along with a sizable lump, and he tried in vain to decipher it. Why would such a great and powerful leader such as Than Nam take time out of his busy schedule to appear as a figment of some random kid's imagination?

An avid soda drinker, the boy had collected enough cans over the long summer that – in addition to a minuscule stash of cash he already possessed – he now had nearly enough funds to make the trip to Indonesia that he'd been planning. If only he could accomplish this task without his parents finding out.

Oh well, he figured, they'll find out about it in the newspaper if I die. The boy lacked common sense, but he more than made up for it in enthusiasm. Sort of.

At that moment, since he had already warmed up his brain with some serious thought, he decided to envision what it would be like to actually get the chance to succeed the great Than Nam. The boy irrationally considered the possibility that his crazy dream might somehow be a foreshadowing of things to come.

Imagine me, the boy thought, Don Juan Spiffy, the leader of the Coconut People!  It was certainly a tantalizing thought. What marvelous things he could do with such power and prestige! Imagine me, he thought again, living in the Royal Tent, scratching out my Royal Decrees on the Great Notepad with my Royal Ostrich-Feather Pen!

But that was enough thinking for one day. The mind is a terrible thing if you don't waste it a little.


The Coconut People had been staring up at the sky all day long. Finally, around sunset, the airplane flew over and deposited its passenger. The people let out a collective gasp as they realized that the boy's parachute had failed to open. Than Nam's eyes widened in horror as he watched the future of his kingdom plummeting toward the rocks below at break-neck speed, destined to be crushed on impact.

A little less than four weeks ago, the Great Leader had contacted the American boy and had sent him a one-way plane ticket to the nearest airport. A charter plane would then take him the rest of the way to the island of the Coconut People.

The boy was overjoyed to have been chosen to succeed his hero, and was surprised to find that his parents actually didn't mind his leaving at all. They had always supported the boy's crazy whims, because as they said "it's just a part of growing up." The truth was that they had never really liked their son that much anyway.

Meanwhile, Than Nam's health had rapidly deteriorated. His fevers and coughing spells had become an everyday occurrence, as had his growing dependence on homegrown pain medicines. Sadly, the old man had lost nearly all sense of direction, time, and reality.

The Coconut People, upon hearing the news about the successor – an American kid, of all things! – were at first reluctant to submit to a new leader. After all, Than Nam had ruled them for their entire lives. But maybe things would work themselves out in the end. After all, here was the boy, falling from the sky toward certain death.

At the last possible moment, the bravest and most loyal of the Coconut People, Inikiki, stepped beneath the falling boy with his arms outstretched to catch him. The boy fell in precisely the right spot, but the force of the fall – coupled with the boy's prodigious weight – knocked Inikiki backward, snapping his body in half with a sickening crack.

As Don Juan Spiffy scampered to his feet, he turned and glanced at the mangled mass of arms, legs, head, and torso that had recently been Inikiki, and thanked the dead man for his sacrifice, bowing gracefully and sighing regretfully. Scattered whimpers of sorrow were heard throughout the crowd, but Than Nam knew that there was little time for weeping.

The Great Leader rushed over to his Great Notepad, and wrote. "To our revered visitor: The Coconut People and I are honored to have you grace us with your presence, and subsequently to take over our meager little kingdom. To The Coconut People: Go and bury Inikiki in the sea, and utter great words on my behalf in his honor. I must now converse with our next monarch."

"But," replied Don Juan Spiffy more humbly than was necessary, "I am not yet leader. I am only myself."

"Yes," wrote the old man, "but tonight I die. Tomorrow, you are leader."

The two briefly suspended their conversation and bowed their heads in respect as Inikiki's body was gathered up in a sack and dragged respectfully to the sea.

"But," replied the boy, "how can you know, O Great One, that you will die tonight?"

"I will kill myself." The letters of the words the old man had written seemed to sear a hole in the parchment paper of the Great Notepad.

"But you mustn't, great Than Nam, sir," pleaded Don Juan Spiffy. "You must first teach me of your ways. You must impart to me your lifetime of knowledge so that I, too, may be a great and wise leader."

"Greatness and wisdom," wrote Than Nam, "are worthless. All that matters is that you can pretend to be great, and that you can imagine yourself to be wise. If the people never notice, then they never need to know. All that matters is the appearance of wisdom and greatness."

"Are you truly great, O Great One? Are you truly wise?" The boy raised his eyebrows, a faint glimmer of hope and eagerness shining in his eyes.

"No," the old leader spoke aloud, and added, "that is why I have chosen you. One cannot pretend forever. One day it is time to move on. That day, that time, is now."

"You spoke!" the boy cried. "You spoke aloud! Why here, why now?"

"Why not?" Than Nam said. "But no one else must know of this. The Coconut People have lived their entire lives under my command, and they have never heard me speak. If they had, they would have heard the uncertainty in my voice. They would have sensed the quiver in my speech. They would know that I was pretending. They must never know."

"So," replied the boy, "Must I also not speak? Must I hold my tongue as you have done for so long?"

"That is entirely up to you," replied the ancient leader. "If you have nothing to hide – speak. If you are truly great – speak. If you are good at pretending – speak. But I must never speak."

The boy did notice a slight quiver in the old man's voice, and knew that the things he had said must all be true.


That very night the feeble, sick old man took a bite of a special poisoned cookie in the presence of all his people and their soon-to-be new leader. Than Nam collapsed back onto the purple mushroom throne, sighed silently, and breathed his last breath.

There was much weeping, as the Coconut People mourned the death of their Great Leader, their wise and powerful king and god. Many more wept as Don Juan Spiffy himself carried the old man's body to the raft by the sea. The boy helped the people – his people now – cover the dead leader's body in flowers and shrubbery, and push the raft out to sea, never to be seen again.


Over the next fifty years, Don Juan Spiffy ruled the Coconut People wisely and fairly. Not once did he disgrace the name of his people or that of their former leader. Throughout the world, he became known as the greatest and wisest leader of them all, even though his kingdom was among the smallest. And he spoke to his people in the clearest, most confident tones that a man could – for every word he spoke, he truly meant.

The Real Than Nam – this looks like the same picture I saw 
in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC all those years ago; 
but that one was, of course, a lot less grainy and it was in color. 
That headband he's wearing is red, and his toga is mustard yellow. 

Another picture of the real Than Nam. His followers affectionately 
called him "Dao-Dua" – I don't know what that translates to in English.

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