بخش 05

کتاب: ملت عشق / فصل 5

بخش 05

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PART ONE - Earth

THE THINGS THAT ARE SOLID, ABSORBED, AND STILL

Shams

AN INN OUTSIDE SAMARKAND, MARCH 1242

Beeswax candles flickered in front of my eyes above the cracked wooden table. The vision that took hold of me this evening was a most lucid one.

There was a big house with a courtyard full of yellow roses in bloom and in the middle of the courtyard a well with the coolest water in the world. It was a serene, late-autumn night with a full moon in the sky. A few nocturnal animals hooted and howled in the background. In a little while, a middle-aged man with a kind face, broad shoulders, and deep-set hazel eyes walked out of the house, looking for me. His expression was vexed, and his eyes were immensely sad.

“Shams, Shams, where are you?” he shouted left and right.

The wind blew hard, and the moon hid behind a cloud, as if it didn’t want to witness what was about to happen. The owls stopped hooting, the bats stopped flapping their wings, and even the fire in the hearth inside the house did not crackle. An absolute stillness descended upon the world.

The man slowly approached the well, bent over, and looked down below. “Shams, dearest,” he whispered. “Are you there?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but no sound came out of my lips.

The man leaned closer and looked down into the well again. At first he couldn’t see anything other than the darkness of the water. But then, deep down at the bottom of the well, he caught sight of my hand floating aimlessly on the rippling water like a rickety raft after a heavy storm. Next he recognized a pair of eyes—two shiny black stones, staring up at the full moon now coming out from behind thick, dark clouds. My eyes were fixed on the moon as if waiting for an explanation from the skies for my murder.

The man fell on his knees, crying and pounding his chest. “They killed him! They killed my Shams!” he yelled.

Just then a shadow scurried out from behind a bush, and with fast, furtive moves it hopped over the garden wall, like a wildcat. But the man didn’t notice the killer. Seized by a crushing pain, he screamed and screamed until his voice shattered like glass and flew all over into the night in tiny, prickly shards.

“Hey, you! Stop screaming like a maniac.”

“…”

“Cut that awful noise or I am going to kick you out!”

“…”

“I said shut up! Do you hear me? Shut up!”

It was a male voice that shouted these words, booming menacingly close. I pretended not to hear him, preferring to stay inside my vision for at least a bit longer. I wanted to learn more about my death. I also wanted to see the man with the saddest eyes. Who was he? How was he related to me, and why was he so desperately looking for me on an autumn night?

But before I could sneak another look at my vision, someone from the other dimension grabbed me by the arm and shook me so hard I felt my teeth rattle in my mouth. It yanked me back into this world.

Slowly, reluctantly, I opened my eyes and saw the person standing beside me. He was a tall, corpulent man with a hoary beard and thick mustache, curved and pointy at the tips. I recognized him as the innkeeper. Almost instantly I noticed two things about him: That he was a man used to intimidating people with tough talk and sheer violence. And that right now he was furious.

“What do you want?” I asked. “Why are you pulling my arm?”

“What do I want?” the innkeeper roared with a scowl. “I want you to stop screaming, for starters, that’s what I want. You are scaring away my customers.”

“Really? Have I been screaming?” I muttered as I managed to pull myself free from his grip.

“You bet you were! You were screaming like a bear with a thorn stuck in its paw. What happened to you? Did you doze off during dinner? You must have had a nightmare or something.” I knew that this was the only plausible explanation, and if I went along with it, the innkeeper would be satisfied and leave me in peace. Still, I did not want to lie.

“No, brother, I have neither fallen asleep nor had a bad dream,” I said. “Actually, I never have dreams.”

“How do you explain all that screaming, then?” the innkeeper wanted to know.

“I had a vision. That’s different.”

He gave me a bewildered look and sucked on the ends of his mustache for a while. Finally he said, “You dervishes are as crazy as rats in a pantry. Especially you wandering types. All day long you fast and pray and walk under the scorching sun. No wonder you start hallucinating—your brain is fried!” I smiled. He could be right. They say there is a thin line between losing yourself in God and losing your mind.

Two serving boys appeared just then, carrying between them a huge tray stacked with plates: freshly grilled goat, dried salted fish, spiced mutton, wheat cakes, chickpeas with meatballs, and lentil soup with sheep’s-tail fat. They went around the hall distributing them, filling the air with the scents of onion, garlic, and spices. When they stopped by my end of the table, I got myself a bowl of steaming soup and some dark bread.

“Do you have money to pay for those?” the innkeeper asked, with a flicker of condescension.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “But allow me to offer an exchange. In return for the food and the room, I could interpret your dreams.”

To this he responded with a sneer, his arms akimbo, “You just told me you never had dreams.”

“That’s right. I am a dream interpreter who doesn’t have dreams of his own.”

“I should toss you out of here. Like I said, you dervishes are nuts,” the innkeeper said, spitting out the words. “Here is some advice for you: I don’t know how old you are, but I’m sure you have prayed enough for both worlds. Find a nice woman and settle down. Have children. That will help to keep your feet on the ground. What is the point of roaming the world when it’s the same misery everywhere? Trust me. There is nothing new out there. I have customers from the farthest corners of the world. After a few drinks, I hear the same stories from them all. Men are the same everywhere. Same food, same water, same old crap.” “I’m not looking for something different. I’m looking for God,” I said. “My quest is a quest for God.”

“Then you are looking for Him in the wrong place,” he retorted, his voice suddenly thickened. “God has left this place! We don’t know when He will be back.”

My heart flailed away at my chest wall upon hearing this. “When one speaks ill of God, he speaks ill of himself,” I said.

An odd, slanted smile etched along the innkeeper’s mouth. In his face I saw bitterness and indignation, and something else that resembled childish hurt.

“Doesn’t God say, I am closer to you than your jugular vein?” I asked. “God is not someplace far up in the sky. He is inside each and every one of us. That is why He never abandons us. How can He abandon Himself?” “But He does abandon,” the innkeeper remarked, his eyes cold and defiant. “If God is here but does not move a finger when we suffer the worst ends, what does that tell us about Him?” “It is the first rule, brother,” I said. “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” The innkeeper immediately objected, but I could see that my words had surprised him. “How is that any different than saying God is a product of our imagination? I don’t get it.” But my answer was interrupted by a ruckus that broke out at the back of the dining hall. When we turned in that direction, we saw two rough-looking men yelling drunken gibberish. With unbridled insolence they were bullying the other customers, snatching food off their bowls, drinking from their cups, and, should anyone protest, mocking them like two naughty maktab boys.

“Somebody should take care of these troublemakers, don’t you think?” hissed the innkeeper between clenched teeth. “Now, watch me!”

In a flash he reached the end of the hall, yanked one of the drunken customers from his seat, and punched him in the face. The man must not have been expecting this at all, for he collapsed on the floor like an empty sack. A barely audible sigh came out of his lips, but other than that he made no noise.

The other man proved stronger, and he fiercely fought back, but it didn’t take the innkeeper long to knock him down, too. He kicked his unruly customer in the ribs and then stomped on his hand, grinding it under his heavy boots. We heard the crack of a finger breaking, or maybe more.

“Stop it!” I exclaimed. “You are going to kill him. Is that what you want?”

As a Sufi I had sworn to protect life and do no harm. In this world of illusions, so many people were ready to fight without any reason, and so many others fought for a reason. But the Sufi was the one who wouldn’t fight even if he had a reason. There was no way I could resort to violence. But I could thrust myself like a soft blanket between the innkeeper and the customers to keep them apart.

“You stay out of this, dervish, or I’ll beat the hell out of you, too!” the innkeeper shouted, but we both knew he wasn’t going to do that.

A minute later, when the serving boys lifted up the two customers, one of them had a broken finger and the other a broken nose, and there was blood all over. A fearful silence descended on the dining hall. Proud with the awe he’d inspired, the innkeeper gave me a sidelong look. When he spoke again, it sounded as if he were addressing everyone around, his voice soaring high and wild, like a marauder bird boasting in the open sky.

“You see, dervish, it wasn’t always like this. Violence wasn’t my element, but it is now. When God forgets about us down here, it falls upon us common people to toughen up and restore justice. So next time you talk to Him, you tell Him that. Let Him know that when He abandons his lambs, they won’t meekly wait to be slaughtered. They will turn into wolves.” I shrugged as I motioned toward the door. “You are mistaken.”

“Am I wrong in saying I was a lamb once and have turned into a wolf?”

“No, you got that right. I can see that you have become a wolf indeed. But you are wrong in calling what you are doing ‘justice.’ ”

“Wait, I haven’t finished with you!” the innkeeper shouted behind my back. “You owe me. In return for food and bed, you were going to interpret my dreams.”

“I’ll do something better,” I suggested. “I’ll read your palm.”

I turned back and walked toward him, looking hard into his burning eyes. Instinctively, distrustfully, he flinched. Still, when I grabbed his right hand and turned his palm up, he didn’t push me away. I inspected the lines and found them deep, cracked, marking uneven paths. Bit by bit, the colors in his aura appeared to me: a rusty brown and a blue so pale as to be almost gray. His spiritual energy was hollowed out and thinned around the edges, as if it had no more strength to defend itself against the outside world. Deep inside, the man was no more alive than a wilting plant. To make up for the loss of his spiritual energy, he had doubled up his physical energy, which he used in excess.

My heart beat faster, for I had started seeing something. At first dimly, as if behind a veil, then with increasing clarity, a scene appeared in front of my eyes.

A young woman with chestnut hair, bare feet with black tattoos, and an embroidered red shawl draped over her shoulders.

“You have lost a loved one,” I said, and took his left palm in my hand.

Her breasts swollen with milk and her belly so huge it looks as if it could rip apart. She is stuck in a hut on fire. There are warriors around the house, riding horses with silver-gilded saddles. The thick smell of burning hay and human flesh. Mongol riders, their noses flat and wide, necks thick and short, and hearts as hard as rocks. The mighty army of Genghis Khan.

“You have lost two loved ones,” I corrected myself. “Your wife was pregnant with your first child.”

His eyebrows clamped down, his eyes fixed on his leather boots, and his lips tightly pursed, the innkeeper’s face creased into an unreadable map. Suddenly he looked old beyond his years.

“I realize that it’s no consolation to you, but I think there is something you should know,” I said. “It wasn’t the fire or the smoke that killed her. It was a wooden plank in the ceiling that collapsed on her head. She died instantly, without any pain. You always assumed she had suffered terribly, but in reality she did not suffer at all.” The innkeeper furrowed his brow, bowed under a pressure only he could understand. His voice turned raspy as he asked, “How do you know all that?”

I ignored the question. “You have been blaming yourself for not giving her a proper funeral. You still see her in your dreams, crawling out of the pit she was buried in. But your mind is playing games with you. In truth, your wife and son are both fine, traveling in infinity, as free as a speck of light.” I then added, measuring each word, “You can become a lamb again, because you still have it in you.”

Upon hearing this the innkeeper pulled his hand away, as if he had just touched a sizzling pan. “I don’t like you, dervish,” he said. “I’ll let you stay here tonight. But make sure you are gone early in the morning. I don’t want to see your face around here again.” It was always like this. When you spoke the truth, they hated you. The more you talked about love, the more they hated you.

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