The Story Made of Glass
Dahnash was dreaming.
In his dream, the city was white and blazing in the sun. The boys had crowded around him, their arms outstretched, their eyes beseeching, until it seemed in his dream, as if they had merged into one boy with many arms and heads and eyes. But Dahnash did not need one boy in his dream, he needed many boys. So he split them apart and he sent them to the north and to the east, to the south and to the west of the city, and he told them to spread the word.
The audience they summoned was crammed into the corners and side streets off the square. It felt good to be soaking up the heat from the crowd, which now seemed hotter to Dahnash than the heat from the sun.
He was ready. He raised his arms and the people were hushed. His boys sat in a semi-circle in front of him. The words were building in his chest and throat. The crowd leaned towards him, rapt.
But the words did not come.
Dahnash pushed his tongue against his teeth. Nothing. He tried again. Only a noisy breath. His audience was not restless yet, but he knew that it would come, and quickly.
When he opened his mouth for the third time, he could feel the vibration rumbling in his chest, and a sudden push from inside his body, up his throat; his tongue moving in a way that it never had before, and then… a hail of glass fragments spewed from his mouth. Glinting in the sunlight, flying fast, out from him, streaking over the small brown heads of the boys.
Dahnash was excited. Never before had his words flown so far or so fast.
The crowd began to scream, as the shards embedded themselves in cheeks, and necks, and arms. Their cries turned to shouts of rage, and they flung themselves towards him.
In his dream, the bloodied hands of the mob did not reach the body of Dahnash. Instead his boys rose as one from their kneeling position and turned to face the crowd. He watched as their tiny bodies vanished under the surge of his audience.
Dahnash made to shout aloud, but the glass came ever faster from his throat.
The Story For The Goats
Then he was awake.
The burrowing snores of the herders turned in his head. Their tent stank of feet and the stale air of a night shared with fifteen bodies. Beside him their sleeping forms seemed blurred in the grey dawn light—less real than the dreams of the city he had just left. His arms, stiff and cold, still reached in front of him for the dying boys.
His nights always seemed to circle the same story now, Dahnash thought, the story of the boy lying in an alleyway, killed for the coins that Dahnash had given him.
These mornings just after waking were the worst. These were the times, before the business of the day began, when the longing in him was greatest. Sometimes he did not know if the hunger he felt was for the boy to be living again, or was only for the stories and for the audience that he had lost. He clutched at his blanket and tried to calm himself. The rhythmic snores of the herders continued to call and answer to each other around the tent. These men may have taken him in, but even in sleep he would never belong here, he thought.
His body intruded now, making itself felt. The pains in his back, the gumminess of his lips, the urge to piss. He struggled up from the greasy cushions that he had slept on and limped out of the low tent.
The sun was rising, cracking itself on the sharp and broken teeth of the mountains behind him, and the camp was already stirring. He cowered over the fire, and drew his blanket tighter against the whip of the morning sand. The women heated goats’ milk for the herders’ breakfast. Then the animals would be driven onwards through the hills to look for pockets of scrub. Dahnash would help as always with the gathering of wood, and the fetching of water.
As he crouched at the morning fire, and sipped his tea, he considered it again. In the stories he used to tell, a dream was never just a dream—it was a portent, a signifier of things to come. Wives dreamed of returning husbands, weary from battle. Merchants dreamed of losing their great wealth. Young men dreamed of princesses, and of liberating djinn from dusty oil lamps.
He wondered if his dream was not merely a retelling of his past, but rather might have something to say of his future? Could not this vision be telling him that he must attend to the other boys who were living, and not only to the one boy who had died?
He would go. He would go back to the city and seek out those other boys. They would not blame their old master for what had happened. He would sit with them and they would drink tea together. Dahnash would be welcomed. He would once again be beloved. And now as the desert wind began to blow especially bitter around him, he imagined himself back in the city, telling a story to his boys. This was why he would go.
He could not go. He knew he could not go.
Later as he walked with the women to the well, he could see the flare of the white walls of the city. They would not be back this way for months. But the herders were selling, and today Dahnash could see the archway of the northern gate.
‘Do not come back here,’ his sister had hissed, as she had passed him a bundle of his clothes outside the city walls that night. ‘No one wants you here anymore—not your stories, or your boys, or any of it. The next time their stones will not miss you.’
He had argued about the fairness of that. Not with her though. She had slipped away in the darkness. No, back then Dahnash could make his arguments and tell his story only to the goats. He thought sometimes that this was the only story that he had left in him anymore. A story worn thin from repetition. A story without embellishment, or cleverness, or joy.
This is the story that Dahnash told to the goats: ‘There once was a storyteller who paid young boys to bring an audience to hear him. Among these boys was one who we shall call the Catastrophe. One day a man killed this boy in an alleyway for his money. The people in the city were angry. But they could not find the murderer. So they blamed the storyteller for causing the boy’s death and they ran him out of the city.’
The goats would patiently chew as they listened to Dahnash. But as he told and retold it, Dahnash had begun to grow angry with the people of the city, and with the murderer. And yes, angry also with the boy that was the Catastrophe.
On the way back from the well, he carried the water pot awkwardly. The women stared at him as it tumbled from his straining fingers. He watched the precious liquid leak into the sand. He said to them, ‘Today, I am upset.’ But the herder women did not understand him. He did not use the words of their language.
After he had spilled the water in the shadow of the northern gate, Dahnash thought, I could walk through that gate, and I would be inside the city. They are not waiting for me inside the walls with sticks. I could go, and I could see.
As he entered through the gate, he looked left and right, expecting to be recognised and expelled. But no one came for him. He could smell chickens roasting, and hear the pop of cumin seeds in cooking pans. He could see the dyers working on the rooftops, their arms and shoulders stained flaming red and cobalt blue. The people walked by him with their jugs of honey, and their bales of cloth, tall ones and small ones, in
rough tunics, and fine coats threaded with gold. He looked at the faces shadowed in windows, at the old men spitting from doorways. The familiar thrum of the streets warmed him.
He would head for the heart of the city—for the finest mosque in the region, and to the place where the great souk throbbed. Where, as evening fell, the oboe players with their covered baskets, and the fire-eaters, and the storytellers would gather. Where Dahnash used to speak. He closed his eyes and he could see it again in his mind.
As he began walking south towards the great souk, he thought that of all of them, he would most like to find Ahmad. He recalled how Ahmad would stretch his arms out, begging them to recognise the wonders they had just heard. How the crowds used to give generously. Ahmad was the first and the best of his boys. This was the one he would visit.
The Various Histories of the Boy Ahmad
‘Cure your shyness!’ one of the sellers in the spices souk shouted to him, waving arak tree root and camomile flowers. Tables piled with seeds and the desiccated rinds of lemons and limes lined the alley. From inside darkened rooms, moon-faced men beckoned to him, vowing relief from all calamities.
‘A secret blend of 45 spices,’ swore another man, grabbing his arm. Dahnash shook himself free from the man’s grasp, but bumped against an upturned box heaped with grains of paradise and powdered myrrh. The stall-owner glared at him. Dahnash staggered down the steps of a narrow street to the left, and sagged against the wall. Perhaps he had walked too quickly without stopping, for he found now that his feet seemed heavy and that his breath was troubled.
He began to think how unlikely it was that he would still find Ahmad in the square. Ahmad would not be frozen in place like some character waiting to be brought back to life in one of the stories that he used to tell. No, Dahnash should go to the neighbourhood where the scribes worked—they were the readers and the writers of all the business of the city—there he would learn where he could find Ahmad.
The scribes and their customers huddled together in pairs in shaded spots around the neighbourhood square. None of them paid any heed to Dahnash.
‘Do you know a man called Ahmad?’ Dahnash said to an old man bending over a broom on the steps outside the bathhouse.
The old man stopped his sweeping and clutched the handle of his broom with spindly arms. ‘What is the family name of this Ahmad?’ he said. Dahnash shrugged.
‘He studies the stars with a lens made of glass,’ Dahnash said. ‘He sells gold rings and bracelets. No-no! He trades silks and the finest spices from the East.’
The old man began to sweep again. ‘I do not know any such person,’ he muttered. His mouth had curled downwards, and with a speedy flick of his brush, he swept the debris from the steps towards the feet of Dahnash.
‘Perhaps you know Blahmad and Khahmad?’ Dahnash said, but the man only shrugged. ‘Cassim down the street makes maps, he will know where these people can be found.’
‘I do not know anyone by those names,’ Cassim said. He was a precise and off-putting man, with narrow fingers and a fastidious air.
‘They used to bring people to the square to hear the storyteller Dahnash.’
‘Oh him?’ Cassim said, ‘He and those boys were always looking for a short cut. But it came to a bad end.’ He shook his head.
Dahnash flushed. ‘Do any of those boys live around here still?’
‘There is one I think… by the name of Ma’aruf,’ Cassim said.
Dahnash did not remember a boy with that name. Was he the one who had brought the five gold pieces from the silk merchant? Or the boy with the voice as loud as a bell?
He must head further south to the carpet-sellers to find this man Ma’aruf, but he decided not go through the great souk. He would go west, and south, then turn back into the sun again.
In the souk of the carpet sellers, the men stood in the street offering tea for the weary traveller and promising the most magnificent rugs that Dahnash was ever to see. They were hung from the highest points in the walls, and stacked in doorways. Each carpet told its own story—the tree of life in indigo and orange, arches of ivory leading to the eye of the lotus flower. Finally he came to the place where Cassim had said that the man Ma’aruf lived. Dahnash shivered and he wished for an instant that it was Ahmad in his fine house that he was visiting.
The Story of the Poisoned Scribe
Ma’aruf was frowning at his reflection in the washing bowl when he heard the knock on the door.
‘Kifah!’ he shouted, ‘I’m late already—please see who it is!’
The house was silent, except for another insistent tap. Ma’aruf dried his face and stomped across the courtyard to the door.
He squinted at the figure in the morning light. The old man was stooped, with dusty clothes, but his eyes stared into Ma’aruf’s, looking for something. Ma’aruf stuck out his round belly. Let this beggar see who he was calling on. Then the old man said, ‘It is I, Dahnash.’
Dahnash, Dahnash… Ma’aruf winced at the aging body, at the shabby tunic and sandals. This was not how he had imagined their meeting again.
‘I used to tell stories and you…’ the old man trailed off. He looked unsure of himself.
‘Come in for a while,’ Ma’aruf said. ‘I cannot stay long though, I am expected at the carpet shop of my father-in-law.’
Dahnash followed Ma’aruf into the reception room, then stopped to stare at the blue mosaic floor and the turquoise flowering rugs. Impatiently Ma’aruf gestured for him to sit. But now Dahnash was running his fingers along the plaster carvings in the doorway, as if he had never seen such things before. It was only when Kifah arrived with tea and fruit that Dahnash stretched himself on the floor cushions across from Ma’aruf.
‘So where have you been?’ Ma’aruf said.
Dahnash tugged on the arm of his tunic. For an instant, Ma’aruf was a child again in that square staring up at Dahnash as he pulled at his sleeve, desperate for that moment when he would begin to speak.
Dahnash said, ‘I have been travelling extensively, collecting stories for the brother of the Sultan. I went to the furthest corners of this blessed land, all for the pleasure of the Sultan’s brother.’ He waved a hand away from his body, as if to indicate great distances travelled in style. Dahnash opened his mouth to say more, but the words did not come. He put his hand against his throat.
‘If it’s money that you want…?’ Ma’aruf heard himself say, as he twisted the rings on his finger back and forth.
‘No, no! In fact it was Ahmad that I was looking for. Can you tell me where he lives?’
‘I do not know anyone called Ahmad,’ Ma’aruf said.
Dahnash stood, relieved. ‘I thought that you were one of the boys who used to bring people to listen to my stories.’
Now Ma’aruf stood too. ‘I am one of those boys.’ He smacked his hand once against his chest. ‘We used to come in the morning. You gave us money if we had brought enough people to you.’
‘There was Ahmad, and Blahmad, and Khahmad, and… Thahmad.’ As Dahnash counted them out on his fingers, he felt there was something not quite right about the list.
‘Ahmad and Blahmad… then why not Ch’ahmad and Dahmad also?’
Dahnash leaned forward, hopeful.
‘The families of Firuz and Maghuib have moved away. Kafur is dead now,’ Ma’aruf said. ‘Salih is in prison. Harun is a beggar. Who is to say what name you gave any of them on any morning, or any evening? Then there was me, Ma’aruf.’ He stopped, waiting for the light of recognition in the other man’s eyes. But nothing came.
‘And of course there was Ajib,’ Ma’aruf said, ‘but it was only after you played your part in the death of Ajib that you ran off, isn’t that right?’
‘Yes,’ Dahnash said, ‘there was…’ He could not say the name. The words withered in his throat. With each moment of silence he could see the disgust grow on Ma’aruf’s face.
He could not say to Ma’aruf that he created stories about the boys every time that they met, shifting histories that swirled around each child, about loyal camels and lost gold. Or that he told these little stories in his head so that when the crowds came, he would not stand with dust in his mouth and no words. And Dahnash could not say that he did not remember one particular boy or another, because they all had drifted from his mind after that one boy died in the alleyway.
As each moment passed, he could feel the tightening grip in his chest, and the strangle in his breath. And he thought to himself, is this what it feels like to die?
But then suddenly and quietly—at that moment when he thought he could not endure any more—a sensation engulfed him that he had not felt in many years. The words were falling from his mouth, easily, dreamily, as his eyes fixed elsewhere.
This is what Dahnash said: ‘A long, long time ago, I had a story in my head. A sprawl of a story. Too long to tell on a hot afternoon in the square. I asked a scribe to write it down for me. We used to meet in the night when his other work was done, and I would speak until his hand grew too sore to write. This story of mine was three hundred pages long and not yet finished, when the scribe died—may Allah sanctify his soul. And now I am close to death myself,’ Dahnash coughed, and pointed to the teapot.
He rolled the glass back and forth between his fingers. Finally he said, ‘The scribe was poisoned. He had been sleeping with his neighbour’s wife, they said. The neighbour slipped into the scribe’s house and put poison in his ink.’
Ma’aruf sighed with pleasure. He felt that old desire to slip again into the story. To wait for the next word, and then the next. There would be nothing else. For a mad moment, Ma’aruf wanted to give himself over to it again—wholly as he used to when he was a boy.
Dahnash continued: ‘With every word that the scribe wrote, the reed drew the poison into its tip, and its stem, and then into his skin. Every drop of ink that fell on his fingers, every time he touched the written page, his body sucked more of the poison into him. They said that his tongue grew black, and his nails grew black, and at the very end, even his eyeballs grew black with the poison.’
‘Awful,’ Dahnash said, as he stuck out his tongue and widened his eyes, so that Ma’aruf could imagine the blackness of it all. He took another noisy sip of his tea.
A small voice uncurled itself in Ma’aruf’s ear, and asked him if this could be true. If Dahnash had really known a man who was poisoned with ink. If he had truly gone travelling with the Sultan’s caravan.
‘May I have another of your fine apples?’ Dahnash asked.
Ma’aruf passed the plate with grapes and figs and slices of yellow apple to Dahnash.
‘Such an unusual thing, this death,’ he said, ‘I never heard of it.’
‘It would be a great pity to put value only on that which you have heard already, don’t you think?’
Dahnash hummed for a minute, an odd tuneless thing that pushed Ma’aruf further back into his cushions. Then he said, ‘It was a shameful thing, to sleep with another man’s wife. The husband was proud, and the scribe’s own family were proud. Perhaps that is why the people did not speak of it.’ Dahnash stared at Ma’aruf, challenging him to contradict this.
‘Please continue with this history,’ Ma’aruf said, blushing. ‘Where is your manuscript now? Did the jealous husband take it?’
‘No,’ Dahnash said, ‘even after they put the scribe in the ground, the rage of the husband was not spent. He swore to burn down the scribe’s house. So I waited until after nightfall, and I climbed the wall of the scribe’s garden. I stole into his writing room, my hands wrapped in cloth to protect them and I began my search. Dawn was breaking before I finally found the poisoned manuscript among his papers. I stuffed it in a bag, and lost myself in the city streets.’
Dahnash chewed on a fig and he thought for a bit.
‘I divided the manuscript into three parts, and buried each one in a separate place,’ he continued.
‘Why would you do that?’
‘It was easier to hide in smaller pieces,’ Dahnash said, as he crammed another slice of yellow apple into his mouth.
‘Why did you bury it at all?’ Ma’aruf asked. He could not help it, he was being sucked into this crazy story. Surely, Dahnash would not be so brazen to come here if this tale was not true?
‘Would you pour me another glass of your fine tea?’ Dahnash said, ‘My throat is dry.’
He was tired now, tired with this effort. But as he looked at the skeptical face of Ma’aruf, he reminded himself that the listener loved the story, and loved the man who told the story. What else had Dahnash now but the shards of a thousand memories, sharp and shining in the sun? What else could he do but continue?
‘Why did I bury it?’ Dahnash repeated. He closed his eyes. ‘I thought I wanted it back. To have the story heard through Egypt and Syria and Persia. But the dead scribe was my friend.’ His body sagged. ‘Suddenly the story was nothing but stains on a page. What is a word, when there is a worm? What is a story when there is flesh, and death, and decay?’ Dahnash clutched the cloth of his tunic.
‘And now that I am nearing death myself,’ he said, ‘now I want this story to be found again. Perhaps even to finish it some day,’ Dahnash nibbled at the last of the grapes. ‘And that is why I came looking for my boys—to tell them this.’
He felt emptied of words, but it was not bad, this new thing that now sat between them in the room. He would visit Ma’aruf again the next day, and tell him more of the scribe and the beauty of his lover, or of the dangers that Dahnash had faced when he tried to bury the second part of the manuscript. Perhaps Ma’aruf would bring his wife, his friends to hear this story… perhaps he could go to other houses and tell other stories…
‘So you want my help to find this buried manuscript?’ Ma’aruf asked.
‘Ahh—yes, perhaps,’ Dahnash said.
‘Believe,’ Ma’aruf whispered to himself. He squeezed his eyes shut. He was expected at the shop, where truth was found only in the hard heart of each carpet knot and in the weight of coins in a man’s purse. He felt a hot wash of sorrow over him. Dahnash in his exile, with his old man’s body, was not the only one who had lost something since they last met.
Ma’aruf stood. ‘Let us go this very morning and find your pages.’
‘Perhaps we may talk again of this tomorrow?’ Dahnash said, ‘My journey here has tired me.’
But Ma’aruf was already lifting Dahnash up by the elbow. ‘We should dig up the first part before the sun gets too high. Wait a moment.’ Ma’aruf vanished from the room.
Dahnash leaned back against the wall. He thought about running from the house, but he knew that he would not be able to do that. He had embarked on something and he must finish it, or he would topple and fall. He must convolute, and entertain, and do the things he always used to do. If a wife with a thousand and one stories could prevent her husband from killing her, then Dahnash surely could do a lesser thing with a couple of tales of his own. If he did his telling well, Ma’aruf would not mind in the end.
Ma’aruf had already returned, clutching a shovel and a leather bag with provisions from his wife. He kissed Dahnash on both cheeks. ‘Let there be no more delay!’
The Story of the Burning Woman
The sun was climbing in the sky as they left the house.
‘It is many years ago since I buried this story,’ Dahnash pressed the tips of his fingers into his closed eyes. ‘First we must go east towards the mountains.’
As they walked through the streets Ma’aruf talked.
‘Do you remember that story you told about the master of disguise who forgot his own name? What about the one where the Sultan turns into a monkey to spy on his favourite wife?’
‘Of course,’ Dahnash nodded. His mind raced down the streets ahead of him, to the left and to the right, looking for a good place to bury a manuscript.
Finally, he stopped where the buildings were largest with spacious courtyards hidden behind high walls. He pointed to the highest wall on the street. Only the underside of the orange tiles edging the top was visible from where they stood. Small holes in a carved door offered glimpses of an empty garden and a large house, with shadowy windows.
‘I had forgotten how high this is,’ Dahnash said, ‘perhaps we should return another day with a ladder?’
Ma’aruf shook his head. ‘We will ring this bell by the door and explain ourselves,’ he said. ‘We’ll promise the owner only a short interruption and we’ll leave the place with the hole filled in, taking only the manuscript which is yours in any case. A little unorthodox to be sure, but nothing to be worried about.’
Dahnash grabbed Ma’aruf’s wrist as it shot towards the bell.
‘I buried this manuscript in the darkness,’ Dahnash said, ‘and there was nothing orthodox about my coming or going that night. If we tell the man of the house what we need now, then we must also explain how the manuscript came to be there.’
Ma’aruf pondered this. Then he pointed to the house beside them where the darker stones were gapped and crumbling. ‘There is another way.’
Dahnash watched as Ma’aruf inched his way up the lower wall, puffing as he reached for every hand- and foothold. Finally he reached the top and risked a tentative wave. He dragged himself along the length of the lower roof. He knelt, then squatted and finally stood, clutching the orange tiles. There he stayed, pale and swaying.
‘Shall I come and get you?’ Dahnash said. He had dropped the leather bag and had already taken a step towards the wall when Ma’aruf spoke again. ‘No, I was—I was just…’
‘Just admiring the view,’ Dahnash called up to him. ‘Just thinking how you might stop and take some tea, no doubt! Have that tea. Compose an epic poem perhaps—we have time!’
Despite himself Ma’aruf laughed. Scrambling, he managed to pull himself onto the higher roof.
‘It looks like no one’s been here for a while!’ Ma’aruf called, ‘But it’s a long way down…’
‘Take your time,’ Dahnash said. His back hurt from all of the standing. Ma’aruf swung his legs over the inside edge of the roof. His torso, then his head vanished and Dahnash heard a soft thump on the far side of the wall.
‘Dahnash—come quickly!’ Ma’aruf hissed from the open doorway, He was looking wildly up and down the street, his grinning face red and streaked with grime.
Dahnash tapped the fingers of one hand off the other, as Ma’aruf led him through the gate. His next story would need to be cunning enough to lead them safely away from this garden, or the only digging done would be for his own grave.
The courtyard was so much smaller than Dahnash had hoped, and overrun with grass and weeds. The trees were bushy with neglect. Shrivelled apples gave way underfoot as the men walked through the garden.
‘How did you get in the last time?’ Ma’aruf asked, as he took the shovel from Dahnash.
‘The lady of the house had at one time given me a key.’
‘Well, there’s no one here now to give keys to anybody.’
‘Not necessarily,’ Dahnash whispered, ‘there might be someone watching us…’ He squinted at the top window, shadowy behind a carved wooden balcony, ‘… perhaps an old woman, invalided now, but once a great beauty. They say she waits for her nephews every week to bring water and provisions. She will not leave the house where she betrayed the trust of her one true love with another much less worthy…’
Ma’aruf looked up at the top window, which was slightly ajar. He said, ‘Surely the nephews would clean the garden when they came…’ But he shivered. ‘Let us not delay—where did you bury the manuscript?’
Dahnash closed his eyes and said: ‘It was the clearest night. The city had grown lazy with the heat. I waited until the moon hung high and small in the sky. Then I came to the courtyard.’
‘With the key,’ Ma’aruf said.
Dahnash nodded. ‘It was a different garden then. The fruit seemed to glow in the moonlight. A wooden canopy stood to the left, with a cloth covering it, so that the lady of the house could sit in the sun. It was very beautiful, even at night.’
As Dahnash spoke these words, he could see the silver wash of the moon on the house and trees, and the grey sheen of the polished stone path. He could smell the mint and the jasmine in the garden, and the heavy scent of the orange and lemon trees. And in the midst of those smells, he thought he could detect the scent of the lady of the house. Could it not become true, by the saying of it and by the believing of it? Could it not become true that in the corner of this garden a manuscript was buried?
‘It’s coming back to you now,’ Ma’aruf said, clapping his hands together, ‘I can see it in your face.’
So Dahnash pointed to a corner and he walked to the oldest tree in the garden. It seemed to consist of the trunk of not one, but many trees coiled around each other, twining shapes like the blackened body of a woman trapped under its bark. Dahnash put his hands on the trunk for a moment and said, ‘I have buried the manuscript here.’
Taking three steps away from the tree, he stuck his heel through the scrub into the soft earth. ‘It is here. I am sure that it is here.’
Kifah and her father would not have listened to Dahnash, Ma’aruf thought, as he took the shovel in his hand. They would have closed their ears to him. But they, obsessed as they were with the warp and the weft of their rugs, would have missed out on this adventure. Already Ma’aruf’s faith had been rewarded. Already he had shown his courage in climbing the wall. And now he would dig for the manuscript. Who knew what wonders, what magic lay in those pages?
Ma’aruf grasped the shovel in both hands and began to dig. There was great satisfaction at first, the blade cutting cleanly into the surface of the garden, revealing darker soil where there had been dusty green.
‘Do you remember the boy Ajib at all?’ Dahnash asked the digging man. He wondered if it was too early to ask.
‘Of course I remember.’ Ma’aruf’s face had a calculating look. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Well… what do you remember about him?’
‘He was the cousin of Maguib and Ali. I remember he was skinny, but he was a very poor runner. One time he went to buy a bag of honeyed figs in the market. He lined us up one beside the other, and after we begged him enough, he gave each of us a single fig.’
‘I remember after he died,’ Ma’aruf said. He had stopped digging. ‘For three days you did not come to the square. Firuz and I waited for you, but you did not come. Then on the fourth day, the sister of Firuz said that you were in the square again.’
Dahnash raised his palms towards Ma’aruf. ‘We do not need to talk about this now—’
But Ma’aruf was agitated. There seemed to be little forgiveness in his tone. ‘No, I wanted to tell you this. I went to the square.’ He yanked the stopper from his jug and poured the remaining water over his head.
‘And you were there. But you did not move when you spoke.’ Ma’aruf no longer looked at Dahnash. ‘Your tunic was dirty as if you had fallen down. You started one story, and then another. Not one story was finished by you on that day. Then the crowd began to shout at you and they began to throw things.’
Ma’aruf dragged the toe of his sandal back and forth across the ground. ‘I took nuts from the sister of Firuz, from the bag that she had with her and I began to throw them also at you.’ He dropped his head. ‘Then you didn’t come back. I thought that you saw me throwing the nuts and that’s why you didn’t come back to us. Because of what I did.’ He looked now at Dahnash, waiting for him to speak, but the older man held his head in his hands, and he did not look at Ma’aruf.
Ma’aruf turned back to his shovel, and he began to dig again. He dug quickly, grunting as he heaved shovelfuls of earth out of the hole.
Dahnash remembered. The shock of the first apple against his body. Each story he had started on that day led only to an alley and to the name of a dead boy. He remembered the heaviness in his throat. The sudden awareness of himself, of his arms, of his tongue. The words slowing. The coldness of the square. The people standing before him with thin lips and folded arms.
Until the arms became unfolded and reached for things that could be thrown. They came in a swarm after that first apple—more fruit, and small stones used to weight the canvas on the stalls, even shards of broken pots. He did not wait for their breath on his neck or their fists on his body. He ran from the place where he had built palaces with a sweep of his arm, where he had stolen gemstones for them, and unlocked dungeons with his words.
A wave of blackness descended on him. But still Ma’aruf continued to dig.
The back and sleeves of Ma’aruf’s tunic were stained with sweat and filth from the hole. He stopped for a moment and took a rasping breath.
‘You’re sure this is where you buried it? Not in the far corner over there, or…?’ his arm flapped outwards, as if to encompass a multitude of other possible holes in many other gardens.
‘I’m sure,’ Dahnash said, forcing himself to stand, then pace.
‘I remember the shape of this tree,’ Dahnash said. ‘I have told you that the woman of this house was once a great beauty, but I did not tell you the history of how she became a recluse.’ He waited.
‘No, you did not tell me this.’
‘This woman’s beauty was matched only by the jealousy of her husband. He burned her body and her hands,’ Dahnash said, ‘when he found that she had taken a lover. You did not hear of this at the time? The people in the souks talked of nothing else for weeks… surely your parents, or your uncles told you this story? Surely they talked about this foolish woman who risked everything for a penniless writer?’
He looked earnestly at Ma’aruf, as if expecting some glimmer of memory.
‘No,’ Ma’aruf sighed, ‘I haven’t heard of this woman either.’
‘They said that he built a huge fire in this very garden and that he twisted the lover’s stories tight as a club in his fist. When the flames burned at their highest, he told her that he would burn her in her own clothing unless she confessed. But still the wretch would not give him the name. So…’ and Dahnash gasped for breath, clenching his own tunic as if he wished to fling it into the imaginary flames that roared in front of his face, ‘… so he held those burning stories to the hem of her dress, and he waited until the flames melted the skin on her arms, and her legs and her belly, until no man would ever covet her again. Only then did he put the flames out, and leave her to keep vigil at this window above us.’ Dahnash sucked the breath back into him. ‘But now, because of the honest work you have done here,’ he extended his hand to Ma’aruf to help him out of the hole, ‘only now do we know what really happened!’
‘What is it that we know?’ Ma’aruf asked, frowning. He stabbed the blade of the shovel into the soil.
‘The husband must have seen me digging in the garden that night. When he retrieved the manuscript, he assumed his wife had taken a lover, who had left this as a gift for her.’ Dahnash flopped to the ground, holding his head in his hands. ‘It was my manuscript that burned this poor woman. And that is why the hole is empty!’
Ma’aruf’s brow furrowed as he tried to order the questions in his mind. ‘But—didn’t you say before…?’
‘Let us not dally here too long,’ Dahnash interrupted, nodding towards the shadowy window on the top floor. ‘They say that the restless spirit of the husband still haunts the garden, waiting for the woman’s lover to return.’
‘So where did you bury the second part of this great work of yours?’ Ma’aruf said, as the carved door slammed behind them. He longed to shake Dahnash until his few remaining teeth rattled in his head.
‘It is buried in an even more inconvenient spot,’ Dahnash said. ‘Shall we meet again another day to look for it?’
Ma’aruf considered this. He longed for the sweetened tea and the leafy refuge of his own garden. But then he thought about the face of Kifah, and the face of his father-in-law, as he returned with empty hands after several hours of work.
‘No,’ Ma’aruf said, with an edge in his voice, ‘we shall not waste this day without retrieving at least some of this manuscript.’ He set the shovel on one shoulder. ‘Where did you bury the next part exactly?’
The Story of the Devil In The Rocks
‘We are going to a place outside the walls of the city,’ Dahnash said, ‘I will tell you more when we get there.’ They walked in silence to the northern gate. Dahnash indicated a circle of rocks beyond the walls with wells of sand between them.
‘It is here,’ Dahnash said, pointing to a dark rock with a crooked line of white stone in it like the horn of an animal.
‘Do not touch the devil’s horn,’ Dahnash snapped as Ma’aruf made to trace his fingers along the zig-zag of white. ‘Do you not see the white marks in each of these stones? Have you not heard the curse of the devil in the rocks?’
‘No, and I don’t want to hear it either,’ Ma’aruf said, frowning. ‘I thought you said the second place was more inconvenient than the first?’
‘It seemed so at the time, I suppose,’ Dahnash sighed. He needed to do better than this. ‘… I was hurried, with still two pieces to bury, perhaps that is why I remember it so.’
Ma’aruf grunted. ‘Before I start,’ he said, ‘are you sure that this is the exact spot?’ There was no kindness in his tone, and Dahnash thought, I should’ve told him in the garden, or when he was smiling and swinging his legs on the top of the high wall. But there was only one thing that Dahnash could say now: ‘I am sure—I took six steps from the rock with the horn of the devil in it.’
‘And there are no stories of famous murderers, or thieves or seducers who would have taken it, as far as you are aware at this time?’ Ma’aruf insisted.
The eyes of Dahnash looked to the left and right, but he had no alternative. ‘There are no murderers or thieves or seducers who have taken this manuscript, as far as I am aware,’ he said.
He made himself laugh, a thin reedy sound even to his own ears. ‘But what are we, without the stories of the thieves and seducers?’ he said. ‘Without them what have we, but the weight of the sun bending our backs, and work to be done until the grey light at our ending?’
Ma’aruf did not reply. Perhaps he had not heard, for already he was turning the top layer of sand over the rocks that surrounded them. With each shovelful of earth that came out of the ground, Dahnash seemed to have less water in his mouth and less words in his mind that he could use. He rose from his perch on the rock and he began to pace.
Ma’aruf kept digging. With each cut of the shovel into the earth, the bitterness rose in him. Dahnash was a fool with his fanciful stories, but perhaps he was the greater fool for believing in them. The sweat dripped over his eyebrows. His fingers began to feel like the flesh was too big for his skin. He had been right to turn away from these childish things all those years ago. Back then, his faith in them had brought him only disappointments. And now it was no different. His back was sore, and his arms were sore, but some perversity kept him digging, and he vowed to punish Dahnash for this foolishness. So he widened the hole away from the mark that Dahnash had made between the rocks.
‘I promised my wife to go to her father’s carpet shop this morning,’ Ma’aruf wiped his brow and leaned on his shovel. ‘Because I did not go, he will need to work longer today.’ He forced the shovel into the ground again and grunted, lifting more earth over his shoulder to the growing pile behind him.
‘But I am honoured to help you find the last work of your friend, the scribe. What did you say that his name was again?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Dahnash said.
‘Oh but it does matter,’ Ma’aruf said. ‘My wife’s name is Kifah, and her father’s name is Harun. Talk to me about your friend the scribe as I dig, I would like to know more about his history—about his name, his family, and the street where he lived. As you tell me the details of the man’s life, perhaps the memory of his famous murder will come back to me.’
Ma’aruf broadened out the hole, lifting the smaller rocks with his hand or with the leverage of the shovel, until it was wide enough and deep enough for him to lie in it. He continued to dig as Dahnash stuttered over the details of the dead scribe, giving him a name, a family, and situating him in a street far from the house of Ma’aruf. Still Ma’aruf gestured for Dahnash to continue. So he was forced to provide the details of how the scribe had learned to write, and why he had never married, until the day he began his ill-fated love affair with the wife of his neighbour. ‘No stories,’ Ma’aruf would say whenever Dahnash began to tell an interesting anecdote about the scribe. ‘Just tell me the facts and details of his life.
‘It is an honour to dig up the work of such an upstanding man. Of two such upstanding men,’ he said, bowing to Dahnash. ‘Although I am puzzled that I never heard of such an unusual murder as a poisoned inkwell. They still sometimes talk about the death of Ajib, not every day, or even every month. But sometimes when we see a boy who bosses his friends on the street, or when a child dies, we remember also the death of Ajib.’
Dahnash continued his pacing, round the hole that Ma’aruf was digging, until he feared he would fall into it.
‘The sun is hot now, Ma’aruf,’ he said, ‘we should dig again tomorrow.’
Ma’aruf flung the shovel out of the hole, narrowly missing the legs of Dahnash. ‘Enough of this now!’ he shouted, ‘admit there is no manuscript here! There never was.’ He struggled out of the hole.
Dahnash was silent for a moment. He could not say, There is no manuscript. It would mean that the story had failed. There had to be another way. He closed his eyes. There was always another way. The start of something fluttered in him. He took a deep breath, swelling himself with the words he must say.
He extended his arm towards Ma’aruf and he screeched, ‘You! I’m not telling you where the manuscript is buried. You only want it for yourself!’
‘You only want to take it from me!’ Dahnash taunted, hopping from foot to foot.
‘But you were the one who told me to dig here,’ Ma’aruf said.
‘No!’ Dahnash pointed a finger at Ma’aruf. ‘I was testing you. And now I see the greed in your eyes,’ Dahnash said. ‘My name is still remembered in this city, and you? You still love the gold—the fine rings on your fat fingers tell me this!’ He made a play at grabbing at Ma’aruf’s hand.
Ma’aruf pulled his arm back. ‘You see?’ Dahnash called. ‘Even as a child you loved money. I saw that even then.’
‘It was not like that at all!’ Ma’aruf was screaming now in the face of Dahnash. ‘It was Ajib who loved the gold, everybody knew that—even you knew that. He would count it out and lend it out, but he always got it back. He never gave but the smallest amount to his mother. It was Ajib!
‘Even you, with your head gone soft from pirates and princesses, knew that! So you had him out in the morning, and in the evening, scouting the crowd for you. If there was someone who had sold cloth or spices, or someone from a wedding party, you would know about it, and he would run back and forth for you. You knew this! Everybody knew this!’
Oh yes. Dahnash did know. He remembered that now, remembered how Ajib would say that he did not want to listen to stories, he wanted to listen for the clink of coins in people’s purses. How Dahnash had laughed at that one, before he sent him out to bring another old man to him, who only wanted to go home, but who was bullied into paying to listen to the great Dahnash.
Ma’aruf pulled Dahnash by the elbow back around the wall of the city, and through the archway of the northern gate.
The Stories of Ajib, and the Stories of Ma’aruf
Ma’aruf was angry. With each step that he took through the city streets, he stoked that anger. He would bring him to the carpet shop, and fling him on the doorstep, so that Dahnash could see how his fooling had disrupted a business. But Ma’aruf thought of the skeptical face of his father-in-law and he decided against it.
He would bring Dahnash to the square where he used to speak. There Ma’aruf would gather the people and Dahnash would confess to them that he was a man with no morality—a trickster and a fraud. But Dahnash would only tell some threadbare story about the Sultan and his brother, and the people would laugh at him. They would laugh, and they would say ‘Ma’aruf must also be an idiot to have a friend such as this.’
So he decided to go to another place, where Dahnash would be forced to admit what was real and what was not.
Dahnash was sweating. The heat of the city sat heavy on him now, and the winding streets seemed narrow and tortured. Beggars snapped at his ankles. Hawkers screeched at him from their stalls. Even the women on the streets seemed to glower and jostle him as they passed. The stench of cooking food was turning his stomach.
‘Ma’aruf?’ he called, But Ma’aruf did not want to hear.
Ma’aruf was bringing him to the great souk—or worse to the square. Dahnash tried to pull away from him, but Ma’aruf tightened his grip and kept his onward march. Then he veered off to the right, and suddenly they were there. In the alleyway where Ajib had died.
‘Look at this place,’ Ma’aruf said. He had let go his grip of Dahnash, and the old man slumped against the wall. ‘This place is real. Something real happened here. Just as something real happened in the place where his mother buried Ajib.’ He looked at Dahnash, waiting for him to say something. ‘These are real places where real things happened. Don’t you see the difference?’
But Dahnash was not thinking about the words that Ma’aruf had spoken. He had not been in this alley since Ajib had died. He hadn’t wanted to. Couldn’t. Now he felt overwhelmed by the fullness of the place—the tilt of the chalk-washed walls against his palms. The curve and spike of grey shadow down the alley. The arches closing over his head to stop the topple of buildings. Above him a narrow strip of sky, precious, tentative. He had told and retold this story to himself so many times that it had become reduced and bare. It had lacked the fullness of the place, and, of course, of the person, of Ajib. Dahnash was not sure that he could endure the fullness of the place.
Inevitably, he began to imagine the boy, the setting of the sun streaky red, and the cooling dusklight in the alley. The man following him, perhaps calling to him. Dahnash ran his fingers along the wall, what happened here? Did the boy struggle, did the thief always intend to kill him? Did they know each other? And the boy, did he think he could escape? Did he fight? Did he kick? Did he acquiesce? How did the fear claw at him? He would never know these things. They would spin ever outwards without stopping.
He would never know these things, but the origin of it and the ending of it were fixed. He had given Ajib the money, and Ajib had been killed for it. There was no story he could tell that could change that. The boy was dead. And Dahnash had a hand in it. But as he stood in this alley now, and as he ran his fingers along the wall, Dahnash realised that he had wasted twenty years telling and retelling himself a story that was not the right one. His story should’ve also been about Ajib.
Ma’aruf was waiting for Dahnash to answer him. But the old man was looking at the walls, the earth, the sky. Not even acknowledging Ma’aruf. Not seeing him. Ma’aruf felt a swell of anger in him. Dahnash had never seen him—his gaze had always been elsewhere.
Ma’aruf thrust the shovel at Dahnash. ‘Dig!’ he shouted, ‘dig now as I have dug for you all day.’
Dahnash gaped at the proffered shovel.
‘See how it feels to dig for something that is not there,’ Ma’aruf said.
Dahnash looked again at Ma’aruf. He looked at his stubby feet in brown sandals and at the irregular weave of his red tunic. He looked at his short fingers with the bitten nails, at his small belly bulging through his clothes, at his round face and his thin beard. He looked at his long nose, and long eyelashes, and at his dark hair cut tightly on his head. At his eyes. There were no more stories he could tell in this alley to win over Ma’aruf.
‘Where do you want me to dig?’ Dahnash asked. The shovel felt heavy in his hands.
Ma’aruf indicated a spot beside them. He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms tightly across his chest.
Dahnash ran the tip of the shovel back and forth across the compressed earth in front of him. He positioned the blade and stepped onto the upper edge of it. Only the tip of the blade entered the ground. Huffing, he pushed away a small amount of soil. He went again, half scratching the dust and dirt away. Already his arms hurt, and his back hurt. He wiped the sweat from his eyes. Again he pushed down on the shovel, again with little effect.
Ma’aruf had closed his eyes. And Dahnash, although his body ached, continued to scrape at the surface of the earth. With each lunge that he made with the shovel, he looked again at Ma’aruf, who stood as if blind at the alley wall, his chin dropped to his chest.
And so Dahnash continued, scratching at the hard, dry earth in front of him until a tiny mound of soil reached his ankle, and until he could see yellow lights dancing in front of his eyes.
‘Tell me a story, Ma’aruf,’ Dahnash said. The breath wheezed out of him now, and he stopped for a minute, clinging to the shovel handle to keep himself upright.
Ma’aruf opened his eyes. ‘You really have learned nothing today!’ Spinning away from Dahnash, he lurched back down the alleyway. He must compose himself. He should hurry back to his wife and to his father-in-law.
Ma’aruf stumbled forward. His foot caught in the uneven earth beneath him. He sprawled to the ground, his vision clouded with tears.
He must rise. He knew he should get out of this alleyway, and return to his old life. Once he left this place, he knew he would never see Dahnash again. He would be free from his tales of poisoners and burning women. He would be left without his manuscripts and moonlit adventures. Instead he would endure the tightening twine of his obligations. Until some day he would be as old as Dahnash himself and he would run his own shop, and warn his own son against the foolishness of fairy tales… He knew he must rise.
Gently Dahnash helped Ma’aruf up. He wiped the dust from his cheeks and his beard, and he brushed the earth from his tunic. ‘If you will not tell me a story, then tell me the details and the facts of your life as I dig.’
Dahnash tugged at Ma’aruf’s sleeve. ‘As you have listened to me, I must now listen to you.’ He dropped his head a little to show his contrition. ‘Now come.’
He took Ma’aruf by the arm and led him back to the pitiful pile of earth he had shovelled. As he began to dig again, Dahnash said, ‘In the middle of the facts and details of your life, if you would like to tell me a story or two, then I would not mind that either.’
Ma’aruf closed his eyes. He did not want to speak. But the words were tripping, fizzing on his tongue.
This is what Ma’aruf said: ‘My mother Reh dreamed of an enormous cedar tree for ten nights before the night that I was born…’