ISSUE 22 : JULY-DECEMBER 2016
It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.
I was there when it happened—the emperor’s grand parade. Everybody was excited. Ever since the two tailors came, the town had been talking about it: the clothes made of the finest, most exquisite fabrics in the world; clothes that, rumor had it, were so lofty and noble that they could not be seen by the feeble-minded.
Looking back, nobody really asked why the emperor was so obsessed with clothes or parades. Nor did we ask why we ourselves were so excited. Perhaps we did not yet learn to question why we do the things that we do. All I remember was that everybody was talking about it. Even though, just like today, it was not easy to earn a living in those days, everyone—men, women, and children—wanted to watch the parade; and on the day itself, the whole city was full of people: the farmers let go of their plows and the fishermen their nets just to watch the spectacle.
Perhaps we all wanted to forget how difficult our lives were.
The parade started with much pomp and grandeur. The palace gates opened as the trumpets were sounded, and then marched the foot soldiers, the knights, the ladies-in-waiting in their beautiful dresses. Finally, accompanied by two handsome pages, came forth the emperor.
As soon as the emperor emerged, people gasped and sang praises of how beautiful his clothes were. To be honest, at first I really didn’t see anything; what I saw was his grotesque nakedness. But very soon—I swear—I thought I could see a faint veil enveloping him. As he walked across the moat towards the town square, I could even imagine a halo of gold surrounding him. And so I joined the crowd in amazement and wonder.
Then suddenly, a little child cried: “But he has no clothes!”
At first no one paid him attention: I only heard because I was close enough. I saw the fear in the eyes of his parents as they tried to hush him, but the boy was stubborn, and kept repeating: “But the emperor has no clothes!”
The crowd, unsure of what to do, fell silent, riveted by the boy’s words, partly out of astonishment, partly out of fear. The boy kept shouting, beginning to wonder why nobody would respond, let alone agree with him. The silence of the crowds only amplified his cries, until almost everybody could hear them.
Then, while we were still transfixed by what was going on, the royal guards came, and without saying a word, took the poor child away, muffling his mouth with their hands. His parents were too terrified to resist, and the best that everyone could do was to act as if nothing had happened. The parade went on; the crowd kept cheering, but I could sense that something had changed, and I did not dare look at the emperor, fearful of what I might end up saying or thinking.
It was only when we finally got to our homes that the people talked about what happened, and that we admitted to each other that the emperor had no clothes.
By then, we found out that the boy had been killed, but nobody dared ask why, or how. We were angry and anguished, but most of us remained silent. Only when the emperor dared to parade again in his repulsive nakedness did the memory of the boy inspire us to finally shout in unison the truth: a shout that would eventually lead us to the palace gates and finally into the throne room, where we, at long last, realized that we had been blind not just to his nakedness, but to his tyranny.
We knew in our hearts that the boy ought to be a hero; an example for generations to come. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of our own guilt; the conspiracy of silence that would haunt us to our graves. Thus, we told the rest of the world that we had listened to him from the very start.