I used to cycle to work along a road lined with giant trees. Under these trees there came to live a homeless man. He arrived one day, seemingly out of nowhere. In the mornings he took a bath in the nude, lathering himself with soap where he stood in the shadows. His skin was very dark and from across the street he looked like Grace Jones. During the day he was gone. Around dusk, when I cycled home, he was at his tree again, seated on a stump, surveying the world.
There was a footpath under the lane of trees and one afternoon I decided to push my bicycle along it. The man was seated on his log as though supported by an invisible, high-back chair. His legs were crossed and his hands rested in his lap. He might as well have been at a private harpsichord recital. As I drew near he turned to me and did a little wave. It was like a benediction, really, and it seemed to signal that I should approach.
I leaned my bicycle against a tree and looked around. The area around him was clean and swept and his few belongings were neatly bundled between the flanges of raised roots. There was a crude sign nailed to his tree. It read Kingdom of Magila.
“Hello,” I said.
He nodded gently.
“I’ve seen you from across the street,” I explained, “the last few weeks.”
“Oui,” he said. “I see you too.”
He gestured in the direction where I would be from his perspective.
“Where are you from?” I asked. “The Congo?”
“Oui,” he replied with a nod. “The DRC.”
He gave a wry little smile.
“Democratic Republic,” he added with some irony.
I wondered for a moment how bad things must be that you’d leave your own country to go and live under a tree in another.
“How long has the war been,” I asked.
He looked past me as though he hadn’t heard.
“My home was on the Ebola river,” he said, “in the north.”
“Oui,” he said, “like the sickness. We say Legbala.”
“What language is that?”
He smiled a row of white teeth.
“Lingala,” he replied.
I had the strange sense that he was looking down at me, the way he sat, even though I was the one standing.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Magila,” he said after a moment’s pause. “Prince Magila.”
He pointed at the sign.
“Oui,” he said and nodded. “Bienvenue.”
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I had never met a homeless man with such a sense of space.
“My father was a king of the Mongo people,” he explained. “Therefore, I am a prince.”
I wondered what he meant by a king, and why he hadn’t said the king, but I decided to ignore that.
“So, Magila,” I said, “this is your kingdom now, here, by this tree.”
He nodded politely and looked around.
“Oui,” he said at length. “Prince.”
“Prince Magila, s’il vous plaît.”
He did a micro-smile to convey that calling him Prince was the least I could do under the circumstances.
“My father is dead,” he added. “When I return to the DRC, I shall be a king. Here I’m a prince.”
It took me a few moments to realise that he was serious. While I marvelled at his poise, I wasn’t about to call him Prince either.
“How long have you been away?” I asked instead.
“Seven years,” he said. “A long time.”
“Seven years is the measure of Man,” he remarked.
I didn’t know what he meant by that.
“How do you live?” I asked.
He spread his hands and shrugged.
“In kindness,” he said.
“I see,” I lied.
“Like in the DRC,” he added.
“Kindness in the DRC?”
“The King lives by kindness,” he confirmed, a far-away look on his face. “He rules, but it’s kindness that allows him.”
“His subjects?” I asked.
He motioned for me to try other options.
“Oui,” he said with distaste. “The King cannot work. The people must support him.”
I wondered how much money I had in my wallet.
“This is something the Prince understands,” he added.
It was clear that he wanted this unpleasantness dealt with as soon as possible.
“I don’t have much money on me,” I said and fumbled with my backpack.
He looked away. I took out the only note I had and presented it to him.
“Merci,” he said with a little nod. “The Prince cannot accept it.”
I was taken aback for a moment but then he gestured at a tin that sat on the ground beside him.
“In there?” I asked.
“The Minister of Finance,” he explained. “The Prince makes allowances when far from home.”
Things were taking on a dream-like quality. I wasn’t giving alms to the poor. I was paying my taxes to the King.
I greeted him and turned to go.
“You must visit the Prince again,” he called out as I pedalled away. “Soon.”
Over the next few days we nodded at one another as I cycled past on the opposite side of the street. Then, one morning, he was gone.