Chapter 3: The Honey Thief
Ahmad Hussein was a perwerrish dahenda, a beekeeper, a maker of honey. This is a craft honoured amongst the Hazara since honey is the prince of foods and the process by which it is made one of the marvels of the world. It is the bees who make the honey, not beekeepers, but to know where to place your hives, and when, is the first lesson of making the bees work for you. Ahmad Hussein knew exactly where to place his hives and a great deal more. People said, “The bees work for Ahmad Hussein as if he was their king.” And this was true. Ahmad Hussein was not an ordinary person. Bees obeyed him. Animals obeyed him. Sheep and goats obeyed him. He was honoured by the Hazara but even strangers who were not Hazara respected Ahmad Hussein. When they saw his eyes, they knew that he was close to God in some way, and if they had thought of doing him harm they would change their minds.
Ahmad Hussein worked alone, but once in so many years he took on an apprentice and trained him in the craft. He had trained two of his own sons, but one had died of poliomyelitis at the age of twenty, and the other, who had shown even greater promise, had married into a family of tinsmiths and now made his living in a workshop far from the mountain pastures.
It happened that Ahmad Hussein was ready for an apprentice in the spring of Esmail Behishti’s death and he chose Abbas from amongst the many boys who asked him to train them. He chose Abbas as a mark of respect for Esmail, who had been his friend and was once his master, and also because he knew that the boy was grieving. Kindness had come Ahmad Hussein’s way in the person of Esmail, and because of that, he had some kindness to spare for this boy who had loved Esmail.
Ahmad Hussein’s bees lived their lives in special boxes of white and blue, known as sanduqe assal. He had many places for the hives, some of them a great distance apart, and in each place one hundred boxes stood amongst the grass and the wildflowers. I have said that it was one of Ahmad Hussein’s gifts that he knew where to place his hives. Such a skill is not uncommon, but it was rare for a beekeeper to take as much time as Ahmad Hussein in choosing a site. He did not say, “I will place the boxes in the field,” and leave it at that, as Abbas came to know when he walked the fields with Ahmad Hussein in the first days of his apprenticeship. Ahmad Hussein strode down each side of the field and across from one corner to another. Often he would stop and think.
“Why have we stopped here, Abbas?” he once asked the boy, and Abbas said, “Sir, I cannot guess.” It was Abbas’ habit to address Ahmad Hussein as “Sir” whenever he was asked a question. Ahmad Hussein did not say, “Relax, call me by my name,” for he knew that the boy would find that difficult for a time. He also knew that Abbas was concentrating more on his grandfather than on beekeeping. But that would change, too.
Ahmad Hussein looked about left and right, behind, ahead. He looked at the sky. He looked at the grass. Then he said, “Abbas, what do you think of this field?”
Abbas said, “It’s a good field.”
“Yes, but is it the right field, little brother?”
“Yes, it is surely the right field.”
“But is this the right place in the right field?”
“Yes, it is surely the right place in the right field.”
“Should we have a look at another field?”
“No, this is the right one, Sir.”
“Why is it the right one?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then will we look at other places?”
“Sir, I can’t say.”
“Abbas, I have a question for you. The question is this: can a bee catch a cold?”
Abbas smiled. “Can a bee catch a cold? No. It is impossible, Sir.”
“It is not impossible. A bee can catch a cold.”
“How do you know?”
“I have seen a bee sneezing.”
“No!” said Abbas. Then before he could stop himself, he said, “God will punish you for telling lies!”
Ahmad Hussein laughed. He was teasing Abbas, but when a boy was as full of sorrow as this one, perhaps teasing could help.
“I have seen a bee sneezing,” said Ahmad Hussein. “When I said, ‘God bless you!’ the bee said to me, ‘You say, ‘God bless you,’ Ahmad Hussein, and yet look where you have placed our house? You have placed it where the cold wind comes across the field!’ It was true. I had placed his house where the cold wind troubled him. So now I am more careful. Now I place the beehives away from the cold, and away from the afternoon sun. Do you see now why we must take our time when we look for the right place in the right field?”
Ahmad Hussein spent five days teaching Abbas all of the things that had to be taken into account when placing the hives. Twenty-five judgements had to be made, he said, before the hives were set down in a field, and he not only told Abbas the twenty-five judgements, he wrote them down on paper when the two of them ate their lunch on the fifth day.
When Ahmad Hussein had finished his lunch, he said, “Do you know, Abbas, something happened in this field when I was your age that I would like to tell you about. Will you listen?”
Abbas said, “Of course, Sir.”
“I came to this field all those years ago looking for the beehives of another man. At that time, I knew nothing of bees but I knew I liked honey. So I came here and stole the honey, just enough to satisfy my desire. It was the third time I’d stolen honey from the hives. Does that surprise you?”
Abbas was blushing. He said, “Surely you didn’t do such a thing!”
“Oh, yes,” said Ahmad Hussein. “I had the devil in me sometimes when I was a boy. I stole the honey. But because it was my third theft, someone was hiding in the grass and waiting for me, waiting for the honey thief. Before I knew it, a man had hold of my neck. A stick came down on my behind, once, twice, twenty times, and I screamed and struggled. They were hard blows! Very hard! Then the beating stopped and I stood crying and rubbing my behind – dear God, how much it hurt! The man who had beaten me with the stick – he was watching and laughing. He said, ‘What did you enjoy most? The honey or the beating? Or was one better than the other?’”
“Did you apologise for what you had done?” said Abbas. He was shocked to hear that his teacher had stolen the honey. Such a thing would never have occurred to him.
“Did I apologise?” said Ahmad Hussein. “No, Abbas. I picked up a stone and threw it at the man. It hit him on the arm. Then he chased me all over the field, this very field in which we’re sitting, down that way and over there, by the trees. He caught me, of course – he was very fast, faster than me.”
“And he beat you again?” said Abbas.
“No, he didn’t beat me again. He held me by my ear and laughed. Then he said, ‘Now you will work for me!’ and he took me home to my father and told him that I must become his apprentice. And why? Because when I had stolen the honey, I had not angered the bees. This is a rare thing, to steal honey without making the bees angry. The beekeeper saw that I had something special to bring to the craft.”
Ahmad Hussein drank some water from his bottle and passed it to Abbas.
“The beekeeper who beat me that day, his name was Esmail Behishti. You knew him well.”
Abbas’ eyes opened wide. “My grandfather!”
“Yes. That famous man, your grandfather.”
Ahmad Hussein could see that Abbas was distressed. Perhaps it was hearing that the very man he was mourning had once been capable of beating boys with a stick. Or perhaps he was upset to hear that Ahmad Hussein had thrown a stone at his grandfather, even though it was so long ago. He left the boy alone with his thoughts for a few minutes, then he said, “We’ll put the hives here, in this place.”
Together, Ahmad Hussein and Abbas walked back to the far side of the field where the horse and cart had been left, and the hives.
That day and the next and for weeks and months, Ahmad Hussein taught Abbas how to find the right places for the beehives. He taught Abbas slowly. All of Ahmad Hussein’s lessons were slow lessons. He taught Abbas to respect the bees. He said that the bees knew that they would be robbed of their honey, but they made it anyway. If a bee was a creature with a mean spirit, it would make no honey and starve itself to death to spite the beekeeper. Instead, the bee made enough honey for himself and his tribe and enough for Ahmad Hussein, too.
In those weeks and months of slow teaching, Ahmad Hussein taught Abbas to respect the bees. The boxes of blue and white were the factories of the bees, Ahmad Hussein said. Inside the boxes, each bee did his work, according to a plan devised by God. He said God made his plan for the bees a very long time ago, when He first saw the need in the world for bees. Each bee had a brain. Into this brain God put the plan for making honey. The home of the bees at that time was not in white and blue boxes, but in hollow trees. To hold the honey, the bees made a khani zambure within the hollow trees. They made it from wax. Where the bees found the wax is a mystery. The khani zambure is made up of many small shelves, and on each shelf the honey is stored. It was the intention of the bees to eat the honey all through the year. But one morning many years ago, a man of great intelligence, a Hazara, discovered the factory of the bees in a hollow tree, and he tasted the honey. Because of his great intelligence, the first beekeeper of the world built hundreds of boxes of white and blue where the bees could live in greater comfort than in a hollow tree. And the bees made honey for him and for his family.
Ahmad Hussein showed Abbas the khani zambure, the honeycombs, inside the boxes. They were like trays that could be lifted out. They dripped with the honey of the bees. But when the trays were taken from the boxes, the bees became angry, so it was necessary for Ahmad Hussein to wear a veil and gloves and to chase the bees from the boxes with a strange device that made smoke. Bees don’t like smoke. It gets in their eyes, just as it gets in the eyes of people and they fly away for a time.
The anger of the bees raised a question in Abbas’ mind: “But my grandfather saw that you had a gift for stealing honey. You didn’t make the bees angry.”
“That was luck. Bees are always angry when we take their honey. But maybe it was a bit more than luck.”
Something was troubling Abbas, as Ahmad Hussein could plainly see.
“What is it?” he said. He was very patient.
At first, Abbas was reluctant to say more, but finally he spoke up. “Sir, are we not stealing the honey of the bees? Are we not stealing their food?”
“Certainly we are stealing their food,” said Ahmad Hussein. “It would be a lie to say we are not.” Then he added, “I make the bees work for me. They are my slaves.”
Ahmad Hussein looked at Abbas sideways with a smile. He knew that the boy would be shocked to hear him say that the bees were his slaves. In the past, many Hazaras had been made slaves by powerful people in Afghanistan.
“And the sheep, too, are our slaves,” said Ahmad Hussein. “And the goats. And the horse here that pulls our cart. But there is a difference, isn’t there, Abbas?”
“Surely!” said Abbas. Then he said, “Is there?”
“When a man is a slave, his heart breaks,” said Ahmad Hussein. “That is the difference. The bees are angry, but their hearts are not broken.”
The trays from the hives were taken to a wonderful machine that Ahmad Hussein carried with him on his cart. Abbas was fascinated by all machines. He saw science in their workings; science and its laws. But the machine had to be set up carefully, and Ahmad Hussein made sure that Abbas understood each step. So painstaking was Ahmad Hussein that Abbas’ excitement got the better of him and he began to hop from one foot to the other.
“Abbas, what is troubling you?” said Ahmad Hussein, though he knew well. “Do you want to relieve your bladder?”
“I want to see the machine making honey.”
“If you want to see the machine making honey you must be patient. Can’t you see that the machine has to be put together with great care?”
“Yes, yes, I can see!”
“Do you think the machine puts itself together?”
“No, it doesn’t put itself together!”
“Who puts the machine together?”
“Ahmad Hussein, you know the answer!” said Abbas. It was the first time he had addressed his teacher without saying, “Sir.” “It is you who puts the machine together!”
“Then how can I put the machine together if I am watching you wriggling in your trousers?”
The machine came in six parts. The biggest part was a pair of large steel wheels enclosed by a metal covering. Between the two rims of the wheels, inside the covering, slots had been made. The wheels stood on a welded frame and on this frame the wheel was made to spin very fast when a handle was turned. The handle was attached to a smaller wheel with teeth on it, called a cogwheel, and this smaller wheel combined with a wheel still smaller, called a pulley wheel. The cogwheel and the pulley wheel were joined by a belt of rubber. At the bottom of the wheel a drum had been fixed, and from the drum ran a length of rubber hose.
Ahmad Hussein slid the trays into the slots of the machine. It was possible to put ten trays inside at one time. When the machine was full of trays, Ahmad Hussein sealed it shut and turned the handle. At first he turned the handle slowly, then he turned it faster. The speed of the turning made the honey fly out of the trays and gather in a reservoir at the bottom. The honey then dripped through a rubber hose into big tin buckets. After a time, instead of dripping out of the rubber hose, the honey began to flow into the tin bucket.
For Abbas, this was the first truly happy day he had known since the death of his grandfather. His delight was written all over his face. Ahmad Hussein said, “Do you see what has happened, Abbas? The bees go to the flowers and from the flowers comes the nectar, the assal. Inside the factory boxes of the bees, the nectar becomes honey. And now the honey flows into bucket. Is this not a great wonder?”
On the journey back to the village that evening in the cart, Abbas carried in his lap a large metal tin of the honey made that day. In the tray of the cart behind, a further twenty tins of honey were packed into four wooden boxes. Ahmad Hussein said, “Tomorrow I go north to the forest hives. The honey of the forest hives tastes different. Will you come? Will your father agree?”
“I think he will agree,” said Abbas.
“And you – will you agree?”
“I will certainly agree.”
“Is this a life you might choose, Abbas, the life of a perwerrish dahenda?”
“Gladly, Ahmad Hussein.”
“A slave driver – will your conscience permit it, Abbas?”
The country they passed over was all Hazara. They didn’t have to fear being robbed, something that could happen in other parts of Afghanistan. As the horse picked out its path, Abbas sat in thought. Ahmad Hussein didn’t make a sound for a half hour other than to murmur snatches of songs. But when he thought it was time to interrupt the boy’s thoughts, he nudged him with his shoulder.
“Are your thoughts a pleasure to you?” said Ahmad Hussein. “Share them with me.”
Abbas remained silent for a minute more, then he said, “Do you believe that bears can talk?”
“Can bears talk? A strange question! No, a bear cannot talk except to another bear.”
“Have you ever seen a snow leopard?” said Abbas.
“Yes,” said Ahmad Hussein. “In the high mountains I saw a snow leopard. It carried a dead weasel in its jaws.”
“But a snow leopard can’t sing, can it? It can’t sing songs, as we can?”
“No, a snow leopard cannot sing.”
“Someone told me that snow leopards could sing,” said Abbas. “And that bears could talk. I didn’t believe him, but then I began to doubt my own doubts.”
Ahmad Hussein called to the horse, “Hi, hi! Stay awake!” To Abbas he said, “I was told the same stories.”
“Yes?” said Abbas.
“Yes,” said Ahmad Hussein. “By the same storyteller.”
Chapter 6: The Music School
It became known as the music school, the small house outside the town on a mountain track too rocky for a horse and cart and no longer used by goatherds. The house had once been owned by Ali Hussein, the wool-dyer, but when he went mad his family took him to Mazar-e-Sharif to see a famous Uzbeki doctor and he never returned. The house was seized by Ali Hussein’s creditors and finally sold to Karim Zand, a stranger to the town and according to everyone who met him, as mad as the wool-dyer.
He came to the town in the time of Shah Zahir, the son of Shah Nadir, shot by the king- killer, Abdul Khaliq. Why Karim Zand should have chosen such a small town in the Hazarajat for his home was a mystery at first. Those who saw him enter the house for the first time said that he brought no possessions with him other than a long leather case, a bag of lentils, another bag of rice and a basket of turnips. Nobody knew anything of his origins either, and he had no interest in making friends. Even stranger, he wasn’t Hazara. The whole village was Hazara apart from two families of Uzbeks, known as “the navigators”, who had lost their way in a storm twenty years earlier and wandered five hundred kilometres off course.
Suspicion of strangers is as common amongst the Hazara as amongst any other people. The villagers watched the house that had once belonged to the wool-dyer to satisfy their curiosity about the new owner, and also to make sure that he was not a spy in the employment of Shah Zahir. It was thought, too, that the house of the wool-dyer might be cursed since it acted as a magnet for desperate people. Some of the older people of the town claimed that the house had been occupied by madmen even before the time of the wool-dyer. And where was Karim Zand’s family? In Afghanistan, people are never judged alone but as a member of a family. If a man or a woman acts strangely, we look for the origin of such behaviour in the mother and father, or in the grandparents, or even further back. Someone might say, “Oh, it is only to be expected that so-and-so goes about the town shooting cats, for in the time of the demon Dost Mohammad his great-great grandfather was known to eat earthworms.” To appear out of nowhere with no family seems a type of deception.
Certainly Karim Zand looked like a madman, there was no doubt about that. He was very tall and his bones carried hardly any flesh. His beard was red but his hair that grew like the fleece of a goat in winter and fell over his eyes was grey and black. It was thought that Karim Zand must have dyed his beard with henna like the Sunni Turks but those who’d glimpsed him from close range said no – his beard was red by nature. He never wore a hat or a turban – true madness.
The Hazara are as suspicious of strangers as any Pashtun or Tajik, as I say, but we are different in this way: we let people be, given time. It can be explained by our long history of being thought suspicious ourselves. A man like Karim Zand comes to live amongst us and we imagine that he might be desperate or dangerous. But when a month passes and two months and three months, we say, “His beard is red, let it be red.” Or we say, “He eats turnips, he drinks nothing, it’s his insane business, surely!”
It was true that Karim Zand ate only rice, lentils and turnips, so far as anyone could see. Maybe at night he hunted hares and lizards and ate them – nobody knew. No cooking fire could be seen in front of his house. No smoke rose from his chimney. An idea was suggested by the chief of the village, Nadir Ali: “He is a Sufi. God feeds him.” It was an idea that excited everyone until Ali Hussein Mazari, (known as “the traveller”, since he had lived in Iraq) said that no Sufi would dress in the fashion of Karim Zand.
“Sufis dress in white,” he said. “And no Sufi would grow a red beard. They pray all day and all night. Who has seen Red Beard pray?”
After Ali Hussein spoke, Karim Zand became known as Red Beard by some people, and ‘”the new madman” by the rest. If Karim Zand was not a Sufi, he was likely a mystic of some other sort. Some mystics were a burden to those they lived amongst, some were a blessing, and it was not yet known which Red Beard would be.
It was late in winter when Karim Zand came to the house of the mad wool-dyer and it was spring before the people of the village came to know the most important thing about him. One of the wives of the brick-maker Mohammad Barzinji had taken the track past his house to look for herbs in the four small valleys called the Claw, which took stream water from the mountains down to the Hamet River away to the west. She had her daughter Latifeh with her and an old dog whose nose had been split down the middle in a fight with a donkey. As they passed above the house of the madman on their return from the valleys of the Claw, Mohammad Barzinji’s wife suddenly dropped the sack full of herbs she was carrying and threw her hands to her ears.
“Merciful God our Great Master!” she cried. “What noise is that?”
The daughter, Latifeh, was not terrified in the way her mother was, but instead stood still with her head on one side listening closely. The dog with the split nose was listening too, his ears pricked in a manner he hardly bothered with in these days of his old age.
“It is music,” said Latifeh. “Listen, Mama. It is the music of Karim Zand, it is coming from his house.”
But Mohammad Barzinji’s wife wouldn’t listen. She ordered her daughter to pick up the sack of herbs, and both mother and daughter with the dog loping beside them hastened down the track to the end of the village.
The wife of Mohammad Barzinji began crying out at the top of her voice as she stood in the little clearing at the end of the village. This was the clearing where farmers brought produce down from the terraced fields in the higher valleys to sell in season, and it was the place where a small monument of hard stone had been shaped by a mason to mark the site of a massacre. That was decades earlier, the massacre, when six Hazara men and one boy had been shot by the soldiers of Abdur Rahman.
On this morning early in spring the small clearing was empty. It would be another week before farmers carried down their new onions and snow peas and green beet. But it took only a minute or two for the clearing to begin filling with those who’d been startled by the loud cries of Mohammad Barzinji’s wife.
“I heard it in the hills!” she was shouting. “Latifeh was with me! It destroyed my wits!”
“Heard what?” Mohammad Barzinji’s wife was asked.
“A sound not from this earth!” she wailed. But Latifeh said, “It was music.”
The people of the town were much more inclined to listen to Latifeh, who was known for her quiet temperament, than to her mother, who had been in a strange state since a moth had died in her ear. But no more questioning was required, for the music that Latifeh spoke of could now be heard by all. Such a strange matter, for music to be heard in the village; in normal times, it would only be at weddings when musicians were hired from far off that such sounds would fill the air.
“Who can explain this?” people asked, their eyes wide with surprise.
“The new madman,” said Latifeh. “It is coming from his house.”
Twenty people made their way up the rocky track to the house of the new madman, Red Beard as he was now called, but more properly, Karim Zand. With every step the crowd took the music became louder and sweeter. It was surely the instrument known as the rubab that was producing the music – that much was obvious. Everyone knew the sound of the rubab from weddings, and also from a strange device that played music when a small package was pushed into a machine with batteries. Such a device was once brought to the village by a scholar from England, a cheerful man with a fair beard and spectacles whose trousers were so short they showed his knees. He had been searching far and wide in Afghanistan for people who knew songs from ancient times.
I will say something more here about the rubab. It is an instrument that makes music with twelve strings that are plucked and stroked with the fingers. It has a belly like a lute, but not so broad and not so deep. The rubab is the great musical instrument of Afghanistan, although it said to have originated in Iran at a time when Iranians called their country Persia. To master the instrument requires a long period of training, beginning with an apprenticeship that might commence at a very young age. It was no wonder that Karim Zand was thought to be mad, for the masters of the rubab are a strange breed to those who know only the beauty of the music the rubab makes, but not the way in which it is made.
On that day in spring the people of the village knew that they were listening to music made by a master. Each was glad in his heart that the new madman had turned out to be a madman of the better sort – one who did something useful. He could have revealed much more difficult tastes. When the wool-dyer went mad, he walked about the village unclothed and claimed he was a lizard. If the new madman intended to sit in his house all day and night without eating or drinking, what harm in that if he also played his rubab? But then something unfortunate happened. Just as people were beginning to clap their hands and sing little bits of song to go with the music, the madman himself, Karim Zand, with his huge red beard burst out the front door of his ruin of a house and roared like a bull.
“Clear out!” he shouted. Then he went back inside his house and slammed the door behind him.
The people of the village didn’t take the warning seriously. Why should they? The man was mad. He had no idea what he was saying. After a few minutes had passed, Karim Zand began playing the rubab again, and people began to clap and sing again – not everyone, just those who wanted to show that they didn’t take orders from a madman.
But Karim Zand again burst from his doorway and commanded everyone to clear out. Again, he was ignored. Then he appeared to give up on being granted the privacy he desired. He played for another hour and kept indoors.
Amongst those listening to the madman was a boy of fourteen by the name of Abdullah. The boy carried through life the misfortune of silence. From the moment of his birth, not a sound had come from his mouth other than croaking noises such as a frog might make. After the age of four, he ceased making the frog noises, either because he no longer could or because his father hissed at him and told him to say nothing. It was said that his silence had something to do with colour of his eyes, a bright green like wet vine leaves, unknown amongst the Hazara. He was thought to be an idiot, although he was capable in every way other than speaking and wrote his Dari script with clarity unequalled amongst the children at the school he attended for three years. He prayed in silence and those who saw him at prayer wondered how God would know of his existence when his voice could not carry his devotion to Heaven. He lived with his uncle, Mohammad Hussein, for as if having a child who couldn’t speak was not enough of a disaster, the boy’s father had died when Abdullah was only seven years old. He had eaten the flesh of an owl he’d found in the hill pastures – an unwise thing to do, for the owl was not native to the region – and Abdullah’s father should have known better. Besides, the owl was dead. Abdullah’s mother remarried when he was nine years old but her new husband, who made his living as a tooth-puller and limb-setter travelling from village to village would only take on Abdullah’s two older brothers. He considered Abdullah cursed.
The music of the rubab came as a great revelation to Abdullah. He heard voices in the music when others heard only the sound of the strings. He sat with his legs crossed, as close as he dared to the madman’s house and listened with a smile on his face. It seemed to him that the rubab was telling a tale that had no end; a story such as Abdullah had only ever known in dreams. But the music produced yet another response in Abdullah. The people of the village who noticed him smiling to himself said aloud, “Look! The idiot is trying to speak!” Without being aware of it himself, Abdullah’s lips were moving soundlessly. “One madman is talking to another!”
Every day for a fortnight the people of the town gathered to listen to Karim Zand playing the rubab, and Abdullah was always amongst them. It seemed that the madman preferred to play late in the afternoons and often his music continued well past the time of maghrib. Most of those listening would drift off to the hussainia to attend to their devotions and touch their foreheads to the turbat, but Abdullah remained outside the madman’s house for as long as the music lasted.
This time-wasting of Abdullah’s could not go on. His uncle Mohammad Hussein had work for the boy, who was really now much more than a boy; fifteen is very close to the time at which you are considered an adult amongst the Hazara – it was certainly that way for me. In spring the apple trees of Mohammad Hussein’s orchard attracted small blue beetles that climbed the trunks and if left unchecked, would lay eggs in the blossom that would later ruin the fruit. It was necessary to wrap coarse cloth soaked in a poison made from ragwort around the trunks to kill the beetles off. But some beetles would survive the poison. It was Abdullah’s task at this time of the year to go from tree to tree, capturing the beetles and crushing them with his fingers. He also carried baskets of soil from the sunless valleys below the village up to the orchard. Finally, it was Abdullah’s responsibility to keep the soil of the orchard fertilised by adding the ash of wood fires and the dung of sheep from the mountain meadows.
So Abdullah was forbidden to go to the madman’s house in the afternoon. Mohammad Hussein’s words were law in his household, and Abdullah would not disobey. But nothing had been said about not going to the madman’s house at night. Abdullah left his bed when his uncle and his uncle’s two wives and the five children of the family were asleep and sat on the rocky ground close to Karim Zand’s small house. It was his hope that the madman would begin playing the rubab late in the night, as unlikely as this seemed. Abdullah kept his vigil for two hours each night for five nights on end without ever hearing a single note of the rubab’s music, but on the sixth night, although no music came from the house, he at least saw Karim Zand himself step from his front door and stand gazing up at the moon. Abdullah remained still, even when the madman noticed him and took three huge strides to loom above him.
“Will you feel the force of my hand on your head?” the madman roared, and he lifted his fist as if in readiness to strike Abdullah. The boy kept his peace in a way that must have impressed the madman because he lowered his fist and accepted from Abdullah’s hand a small piece of paper on which some words were written. Karim Zand turned the paper about this way and that until the light of the full moon illuminated the words: “Teach me.”
“‘Teach me?’” said Karim Zand. He looked down at Abdullah, and his long face and nose like the beak of an eagle and the great tangle of his red beard gave him the look of a monster. “Teach you to hide in the shadows like a wolf? Is that what I should teach you? Teach you to destroy my peace?”
Abdullah climbed to his feet. He looked the madman in the eye without fear. Then he put two fingers to his lips. He made a sign with his hands, spreading them out from each other like a bird unfolding its wings. It was a sign that meant, “I can say no more.” A man might make such a sign at a certain point in an argument when words have failed to settle an issue. But Abdullah wished Karim Zand to understand that he had no power to speak. Karim Zand frowned and put his hand to his chin, as if in doubt about the boy’s meaning. Then he said suddenly, “Will I kill you now? Will I strike you dead where you stand?” and he again lifted his fist. Abdullah didn’t make a sound, nor could he. He stood his ground. Karim Zand said, “God’s grey hair!” – a strange expression, and not the sort of thing that a pious man would utter. “You are one of the silent ones?” Karim Zand motioned for the boy to follow him into the house.
The house indoors was as poor as we might imagine. An oil lamp of the sort you might purchase in a bazaar for five hundred afghanis threw a feeble light across the floor, which was no more than the soil on which the foundations stood. In one corner of the room folded blankets formed a bed simpler than a toichek. Two pots and two pewter plates stood on the hearth of the fireplace in which a few embers blinked in the gloom, showing that those who said no smoke ever rose from the madman’s chimney were not paying attention. On the earthen floor two rugs were spread, one of high quality, the other not so special. Four cushions rested on the rugs. On the bare mud-brick of the walls such garments as the madman possessed hung from hooks. One of two smaller rooms served as a wardrobe where a number of small ornaments sat on shelves – a tortoise made of stone, coffee cups, drinking glasses with gold rims. The other room was Karim Zand’s washroom.
The rubab that had been the cause of Abdullah’s bold plan to meet the madman and make his request rested on the largest of the cushions. Beside it lay another instrument, a tula, a pipe made of wood with stops and a mouthpiece. Its coating of varnish shone in the light of the cheap lantern.
Karim Zand said to the boy, “Make yourself seated.” Once Abdullah had lowered himself onto a cushion, he looked up at the towering figure of the madman. In the light of the lantern, his red beard and hooked nose and fierce gaze gave him the appearance of one who intended harm to the world. Abdullah wished to say, but could not, “I honour you and your music.” Instead he pointed at the rubab, then at the place in his chest where his own heart beat.
Karim Zand spoke. “Would that the whole world had ceased to speak! If you had uttered a word to me, I would have kicked your arse!”
Abdullah nodded. Then he pointed again at the rubab, and again at his heart.
The madman sat on a cushion facing the boy, and put his two hands into his beard, pulling at it in a way that seemed to help his thinking.
“‘Teach me’!” he said at last. He threw back his head and let out a great roar. “ ‘Teach me’! Ha!” Then his mood appeared to change and he said, “Perhaps I will teach you. Or perhaps I will cut your throat and cook you. But if in my generosity I agree to teach you, how would you pay me? Now, go home.”
Abdullah went home, of course – what else could he do? But he came back the next night with a new note, and this time he was brave enough to knock on the door of the madman’s house. Karim Zand came out wearing a more fierce expression than ever. Abdullah thrust the note at him. The note read, in the beautiful handwriting that Abdullah had taught himself, “I will work for you at the end of the day when I have finished my tasks for my uncle.”
Karim Zand read the note and his anger died away. Once again, he took the boy into his house. This time he made him tea. He sat before the boy, and had this to say: “You say you would be my servant. Why would I wish for a servant? I am a man alone. Do you see a wife? Do you see children? Go home!”
Abdullah did as he was commanded. But once again he returned, and he carried a new note for the madman. Karim Zand said to the boy, “What, are you more of a fox than a human being? Do you stay awake all night finding ways to be a nuisance?”
But he read Abdullah’s note. What the boy had written was this: “Teach me for the sake of my soul.” The words must have found their way to the heart of the madman because he allowed Abdullah to come inside, and he made him tea. He sat stroking his chin for some time before he placed not the rubab but the tula on the rug before the boy. He said, “This is the instrument for you. The rubab must be part of your education from the age of five. The tula you may learn now.” Karim Zand picked up the tula and put it to his lips. Within seconds the dark little house with its unplastered walls was transformed into the garden of an emperor filled with the song of nightingales. Karim Zand placed the tula on the cushion once more and said to Abdullah, “Pick it up.” When Abdullah reached for the instrument with gladness, Karim Zand said, “Wait!” Then he pointed at the top of the tula and said, “Do not pick it up at this end, by any means, unless you wish to offend me.” Then he pointed to the bottom of the tula, from where the music emerged. “Do not pick it up from this end, by any means, or you will certainly offend me.” Finally, he pointed to the middle of the tula and said, “Do not pick it up here, by any means, or you will offend me and I will use the instrument to bruise your skull!”
Abdullah was baffled. How should he grasp the tula if not at either end and not in the middle? He reached out his hand once, twice, ten times, twenty times, and each time he withdrew it. Finally he climbed to his feet, brushed the tears from his eyes and went home.
All through the next day while he crushed beetles in his uncle’s orchard, he thought about the tula, and how it could be taken up in such a way that the madman would not be offended. He could find no solution. He thought to himself, “The master does not wish to teach me.”
All the same, his mind kept returning to the problem, but without reward. In the night he went to the house of the madman, driven by desire to learn the tula. He thought, “I am becoming mad myself! Will that satisfy the master, when I am also a madman?”
Karim Zand sat the boy before the tula. “Now, pick up the instrument. However, I am a man quickly moved to anger. If you pick it up at this end, I will beat you to within an inch of your life. If you pick it up by this end, I will tear the skin from your bones and feed you to the ants. And if you pick it up here between the two ends, I will make myself a breakfast of your entrails.”
This time, Abdullah didn’t consider anything except his desire to hold the tula. He reached out and grasped the instrument and held it firmly. He expected a blow from the madman, or even worse, the flash of a sharp knife. Instead he saw on the face of Karim Zand a smile that stretched from his left ear to his right.
“You see?” said Karim Zand. “It is not so difficult to pick up the tula.”
Abdullah’s second lesson was to learn how to listen. Karim Zand played the tula for an hour and the boy’s task after that hour was to say nothing, which was not so difficult because he could not speak. But Karim Zand questioned him when he stopped playing. “Did I not make myself clear, beetle?” (He had begun to call Abdullah, “beetle.”) “I said, ‘Say nothing.’”
Abdullah lifted his hands as if to say, “But nothing was said!”
“With your mouth, you obeyed me,” said Karim Zand. “But with your eyes, you went chatter chatter chatter! This is what you were saying: ‘The most beautiful music!’ But that is not what I want to hear. When you learn the tula, you will not want to hear those words either. It is not beauty we seek with the tula. It is only the truth. Do you think the truth is always beautiful? No. The truth is sometimes beautiful, but often it is ugly. In the city of Shiraz where I once made my home, I saw a man who had lost his wife to the plague. Then his children followed. He had loved his wife greatly and his children were the light of his life. When the pain was too much for him to bear, he thrust his hand into a saucepan of boiling oil and held it there. That is the truth about love. If I tell the story of this man on the tula, I do not wish to hear you say with your eyes, ‘A beautiful tune!’ Do you understand now?”
So Abdullah listened with his eyes on the rug on which he sat. When Karim Zand had come to the end of the music for that night, he said, “You who has no voice, what did you hear?”
Abdullah couldn’t answer.
“You heard voices. But not the voices of people. Come with me.”
Karim Zand took the boy outside. The night was black, with clouds hiding the stars and the moon. Karim Zand spoke. “Listen. In the heavens the clouds are travelling from the east to the west. They have a voice. The moon that is hidden has a voice. Each star that you cannot see has a voice of its own. The mountain that stands above us has a voice, and the mountain behind it. The wind has a hundred voices. The bears in their caves have their own voice when they stir in their sleep. The fox has its voice as it searches for the eggs of the bulbul, and it has another voice when it hunts hares. The tula alone knows the voices of the world. Now go home!”
Before he put his foot to the track that led to his uncle’s house, Abdullah reached out his hand to shake the hand of the madman. The door of the wool-dyer’s house, now that of the new madman, was open and the light of the cheap oil lamp fell across the threshold. As the madman accepted his hand, Abdullah noticed something he had not noticed before. The madman’s left hand was badly scarred, all the way up his wrist.
It was not long before Abdullah’s uncle, Ali Reza, discovered that the boy was leaving his bed each night. Ali Reza had a soft spot for his nephew, whose fate it had been to have a foolish owl-eating father and a hare-brained mother who ran off with a tooth-puller. And Abdullah was a boy loyal in his affections and attentive to his tasks – Ali Reza commended these qualities. But there was another reason for Ali Reza’s fondness for Abdullah. A fortune-teller had come to the village once, a Jew who wandered the world with a donkey for transport and a rooster for company. The man had been cast out from the tribe of Jews for having stabbed a rabbi, but for what reason he’d stabbed the rabbi he wouldn’t say. The Jew had also had the company of a woman from the land of Syria who followed the faith of the fire worshippers, and it was she who was thought to give the fortune-teller his information about the future. The Jew told fortunes not by reading the palm of the hand but by running his fingers through his customers’ hair. He did this blindfolded, and so was able to count pious Muslim women amongst his clients. When he felt the hair of Ali Reza, who had approached him in an idle moment, he said without hesitation, “That boy of yours will bring you honour, of that I am sure.” Ali Reza asked which boy he meant, since he had three sons. The fortune-teller responded, “Why, the boy with jewels for eyes.”
Ali Reza asked the boy openly why he left his bed each night. Abdullah took his uncle by the hand and led him through the village and up the rocky path to the house of the new madman. He knocked on the door twice, then paused, and knocked a further three times. This manner of knocking had been taught to him by Karim Zand, who would not come to the door for anyone but Abdullah. Karim Zand showed his most fierce expression to Ali Reza, but agreed at last to talk to him. In this way, Ali Reza heard from the lips of the madman himself that Abdullah, the beetle, was learning to play the tula. He was amazed, of course. At first he didn’t know whether the boy should be scolded for keeping secrets and beaten with a stick, or praised for his ambition. In making up his mind, Ali Reza recalled the words of the Jew with the crazy wife who followed the faith of the fire worshipers. “That boy with jewels for eyes will bring you honour.” Ali Reza thought to himself, “The Jews are a strange people, certainly, but the Prophet Himself showed them respect. Perhaps they know things concealed from uneducated people such as myself.” Another consideration was the part that music had played in the traditions of the Hazara. “Imagine a nephew who can fill the house with the music of the tula,” he thought. He allowed his nephew to continue with his instruction in the art of music-making.
Karim Zand was a very strict teacher. He gave this warning to Abdullah before the boy had blown a single note on the tula: “This is a simple instrument, beetle. But inside it lives all that is known about the world. In forty years, I have only just begun to learn what it wishes to tell me. You will learn what I can teach you, God knows how much that will be. You have a skull and a brain within. But how much use will that brain be to you? We will see. In four years, if you have shown you are more than the fool you seem to be, you can play in public. Not before.”
Abdullah was a good student. The madman gave him special exercises to aid his breathing. Even a clever student of the tula might take a year to master breathing, but Abdullah showed progress within just three months. Before a year had passed, he had learned enough of the great body of the tula’s music, known as the radif, to play three full song groups, called dastgahs, or forty-five goushehs, each gousheh being a complete melody from the bygone days of the madman’s native Persia. It could be seen that he had a gift. And because he had no voice of his own, he had also developed the skill of listening. No one would have guessed, but the madman had a great deal to talk about. Perhaps it was because Abdullah did not interrupt him that he was willing to talk so freely. His tales were full of magic. He told Abdullah of a great master of the tula from the land of Iraq who could make stones rise from the ground and float in the air with his music, and of a horse who was cured of the colic by a sequence of notes that the Iraqi master alone knew. He said that there was a tree in Takht-e-Jamshid, the forest close by the city of Shiraz, that wept tears when a master of the tula of that city played beneath it.
The story that Abdullah thought about longest was that of the Persian king who commanded a master of the tula to play for his young wife sorrowing after the death of her first child. The wife of the king had grown as pale as bones that bake in the desert and would accept no food and no water. The tula master, Ali Masoud Zamanzadeh, played in the mornings and again in the evening for a month and then a second month, and little by little the poor woman returned to health. When Zamanzadeh tired, the wife of the king brought him dishes of walnuts and pistachios and served him with her own hand. She prepared rosewater for him, and sat dishes in a circle around him in the royal apartment – kashk-e baadenjaan, carefully prepared with rich whey, and boulanee, and koo-koo-yeh morgh with the flesh from chickens normally reserved for the king himself, and fresh caviar each day from the Caspian Sea packed in snow from the mountains. Zamanzadeh grew plump on the food the queen served him, and the queen too grew plump with a new baby. She said to her husband the king, “Zamanzadeh must play the tula for me each day while I carry the child, his music gives me strength.” The king agreed, but with some reluctance, for the queen seemed to speak of nothing but Zamanzadeh’s music, and Zamanzadeh was a handsome man with a black beard and mustachios that curled at the ends.
The queen’s time came and she gave birth to a boy who announced his health with his first loud cry. The queen had never in her twenty years shown herself so full of the joy of life. It was she who fed the baby boy from her own full breasts, and it was she who washed the baby each day in a basin of polished stone. Zamanzadeh the tula player remained at the palace, as pampered as ever, for the queen would not hear of him going his way to make the poor living that is a musician’s fate.
The king took great delight from his baby son, just as any father would. But at least once each day a voice like that of a snake with the power of speech hissed in his ear: “King of Persia! Is the child yours? Can you say that he is?” When he could bear it no longer, the king devised a plan to test the feelings of Zamanzadeh for his wife. He called a woman of his court to him, not a woman of importance, one whose task it was to train the dancers of the court, nothing more. He told her to prepare the most beautiful of his dancers for a strategy he was devising. The woman brought a girl by the name of Ashada to the king, at fifteen already renowned for her beauty and for the grace of her dancing. The king told Ashada that she was to dance in private for the tula player, Zamanzadeh, and that she was to grant Zamanzadeh his every wish. The king said, “There are ways in which a woman can please a man.”
Ashada danced for Zamanzadeh as the king had commanded. The king had concealed himself behind a screen in order to watch. And what woe this brought him! Ashada danced, Zamanzadeh watched on without smiling, Ashada drew close to him and filled his senses with the perfume that bathed the silk of her garments, Zamanzadeh shook his head. The king watching in secret took Zamanzadeh’s discomfort to mean that he loved the queen, and could not bear to look at another woman, no matter how beautiful. What other explanation could there be? So desirable a woman as Ashada spurned in this way?
The king prepared one final test; this time of the queen’s affections, since the punishment he had in mind for Zamanzadeh and the queen and even for the baby prince was so fierce that he would not act without certainty. He had a famous craftsman of Isfahan make him a toy of great cunning, a mechanical bird of pure gold that would lift its wings and sing when a hidden spring was released. The king called the queen to him, and the baby prince, who was now a year old, and the tula player. He told the queen to place the boy on the rich Hamadani rug that covered the floor, and the queen did as she was instructed. The king asked Zamanzadeh to leave his tula on the rug, three paces from the baby, and Zamanzadeh did so, of course. Then the king placed the golden bird on the rug by the tula. When the king released the spring, the golden bird raised its wings and sang. The prince crawled across the rug with delight to where the golden bird sat beside the tula. Before the eyes of all – the king, the queen, Zamanzadeh – the baby reached for the tula in preference to the golden bird. The king in his grief with his own sword struck off the head of Zamanzadeh, and of his wife. His baby son was given to a tribe of Arabs.
This story meant more to Abdullah at his age than it would have meant some years earlier, for he had fallen in love with a girl of his own age who came to the village in summer with her mother. The girl, whose name was Leila, sold mulberries and apricots from the orchard of a landowner in Kabul, a man who had seized Hazara land in the terrible years of the Third Rebellion. The landowner was not the worst of those who had taken possession of Hazara land for he allowed Leila’s father to retain thirty percent of the crop for himself. Many Hazara from the time of Dost Mohammad onwards were compelled to farm land that had been stolen from them for ten percent of the crop – a bitter life to lead.
Another boy of sixteen, a boy with a voice, a boy with a mother, might have spoken to
that mother of his feelings, and the mother, if she had good thoughts about the girl, would have spoken to the boy’s father, and by this process, an agreement would be made that in such-and-such a time – perhaps five years – the boy and girl would wed. But a boy without a voice is no prize.
The pain of a Hazara whose love is hopeless is like that of any other person, but with this difference: the pain is to be concealed. The Hazara in their history have not enjoyed the leisure of romance. If you are a Hazara with a broken heart, you do not tell the world. What would you say? “I am sick with love, pity me if you will”? You would be scorned. People would say to you, “Has the King sent soldiers to steal your land? Have you been turned out of your home with nothing but the shoes on your feet? No? Then calm yourself and go about your work.” Abdullah told no one. But a plan formed in his mind. When the remaining three years of his promise to the madman were over, he would play the tula for Leila, and his music would take the place of the words he couldn’t speak.
The temptation to play the tula for Leila before the three years had passed was great. Of course it was. In the winter he barely saw her, and when spring came around again he longed to take a stool and sit at the place where she and her mother sold their fruit and play certain tunes he had mastered that would surely melt her heart. Although he rarely glanced at her, he had seen much to admire. She was modest, she was obedient to her mother, she smiled often. Once in the early days of a new spring she allowed her eyes to meet his for a fraction of a second. But that moment lived in Abdullah’s memory as if he had glimpsed paradise itself.
The madman had a keen eye and it wasn’t long before he noticed the melancholy that robbed Abdullah’s eyes of their brightness. It was Karim Zand’s custom to sit before Abdullah while he practised listening to the music of the tula. If the boy made a mistake, he would say, “Don’t distress yourself. Play it again.” But if Abdullah let his concentration lapse, the madman would spit on his hand and use the hand to slap Abdullah’s face. Mistakes were one thing; a wandering mind was another. And it happened that the madman was compelled to slap Abdullah at least once each week in the months after Leila came into the boy’s life. One night after Abdullah lost the thread of a simple gousheh, the madman put his hand to his chin and studied the boy in silence.
“Love has come into your life,” he said after a minute or more. “Love, and trouble. One is the shadow of the other.”
Abdullah nodded his head. The madman, who had already shown the tender side of his nature to the boy on many occasions, reached out and took the tula from his pupil’s hand. Then he held Abdullah’s hand in his. He said, “You live, you breathe, the time comes when you love. Is it the mulberry girl at the market?”
Abdullah was amazed. How could the master know such a thing? He, who never left his house.
Karim Zand prepared tea for the boy. Then he sat before him again.
“My wife,” he said, speaking softly, “was of your people. She was Hazara. If you had seen my sons, you would have thought they were your brothers. The plague took them, all three. The doctor would not tend to them. I offered to pay him in gold. He said, ‘I do not treat Hazara.’ This was in Iran, where your people live as slaves, many of them. I buried my wife and my sons in one grave, I travelled for twenty years to lose my sorrow. Then I came here, to the poorest house in the poorest village of my wife’s people. This is where I will die.”
Abdullah put his hand on his heart to show his sorrow.
“What can you offer the family of the girl?” said Karim Zand. “Nothing but the tula. If you play for her now, she will say, ‘How beautiful!’ But that would be a disaster, for your music is not beautiful. You would feel flattered, you would never become a master of your instrument, never. You must hope that she will remain unwed for two more years. Have courage.”
But the madman had something to add. From the hearth of his fire he picked up a smooth stone. Before Abdullah’s amazed eyes, the madman split the stone in two. Within each half of the stone lay golden coins.
“When the time comes,” said Karim Zand, “these coins will build you a house of your own at the top of the village. You will play the tula there for your wife, beetle. Now go home.”
Two passions ruled the life of Abdullah as he passed into his seventeenth year: his love for Leila, and his desire to master the tula. Each passion fought a daily battle with the other. He watched Leila grow to womanhood and closer to the time when she would become a wife, and he was powerless to reveal to her and to her mother the voice of the tula. Yet he had exceeded the madman’s hopes for him as a student of the tula, and he could draw comfort from that, if possible. His fingers danced on the stops of the instrument as if all the life in his body had given itself to the radif. He was competent to play beside Karim Zand when the madman turned to the rubab. The master allowed the boy to lead him through changes to familiar tunes as if making a long and triumphant journey to the far side of the world and back again. The madman saw the boy concentrating with all his will; he saw pride. But he did not see happiness.
The day came, as if was certain to come, when Abdullah could keep what was in his heart to himself no more. He stopped in his labours with the baskets of soil as he passed Leila and her mother selling fruit. He lowered his basket from his shoulder and stood gazing at Leila, against all custom. Courtship amongst Hazara, as amongst all Muslims, is never open. Strong passions may fill a young man’s heart but he masters them and allows his mother to carry out her duty. After months of questioning, months of thinking, the young man’s mother may permit her son to drink tea with the young woman he has chosen. Most mothers would not think that a boy has the brains in his head or the experience of life in his heart to make an intelligent choice of wife for himself. But here on this day, in a village of the Hazarajat, a boy without a voice stood in the market square and without any power of speech, declared his love for Leila. It was only because he had no voice that he was spared a terrible rebuke from the girl’s mother and from the people of the village. But if those same people had watched closely, they would have witnessed something rare, for a smile came to Leila’s lips and she did not look away. Leila’s mother called to Abdullah, “Young man, have some manners!” She would have slapped her daughter as a mother should but that Leila whispered to her, “No harm is done.”
Abdullah went that night to the madman’s house with a note written in the well-formed letters that he was known for. He sat with the madman, drank some tea, then passed him the note. It read: “Master, permit me to play for the young woman Leila, I beg of you.” The madman read the note twice, three times.
“If you break your promise,” he said to the boy, “you will offend me in my soul and my curse will follow you all your life.”
Abdullah carried his pain about with him for a further week before presenting his note to the madman once more. But the answer he received was the same: “If you break your promise, my soul will be offended.” Abdullah made his request a third time after a full month had passed. But this time, he wrote more words, just as heartfelt. “If I cannot make my life with Leila, it would be better for me if I had not been born.”
The madman gave the answer he had given before.
Late in the season of apricots, in the very midst of Abdullah’s suffering, the young woman Leila called his name as he carried wood-ash for his uncle’s orchard through the marketplace.
“Yes, I know your name,” said Leila. From amongst the folds of her dress she took an apricot, full of sunshine. She gave it to Abdullah. From behind her, Leila’s mother called her sharply, “What, is this a generation without shame? Come to me!”
Abdullah carried the basket of wood-ash to the orchard and emptied it beneath the apple trees. Then he sat and gazed at the apricot. Leila would return to her own small village in another day, and who could say that he would ever see her again? It was more than he could bear. “At least,” he said to himself, “let her hear what voice I speak with through the tula.”
He ran down the path from the orchard, all the way to the house of the madman. He was prepared to knock on the door, but the door was open, a strange thing. Inside the small house sat Karim Zand with his hands folded on his lap. On a cushion before him sat the tula. Abdullah paused for a few seconds. Karim Zand was not looking at him, but at the embers of the fire in the hearth.
“Master, please forgive me,” he wished to say, but in place of words he touched his heart. He snatched up the tula and ran from the house. He kept running without drawing more than three breaths until he reached the market square where Leila and her mother were packing away the rush baskets in which they offered their fruit. They looked at Abdullah in surprise.
He sat himself on the low wall that divided the little monument to the slaughtered from the market area of the square. A small number of people paused in their packing to see what strange business the boy had come on. It was a bright day, a day of high blue skies and small clouds combed into strips by the wind. Abdullah put the tula to his lips without any idea of what he would play, but within seconds the square was full of a music like the singing of bulbuls. Those who had lifted their heads out of curiosity now stood entranced. Hussein Anwari, the rope-maker, said to no one in particular, “Now here’s a miracle! The boy has taught himself from the birds!”
Abdullah played on and on. He followed paths through songs he had barely attempted before. So rapidly did note follow note that people began to gesture toward Heaven, as if the angels themselves had blessed the boy. Since Abdullah’s songs had no beginning, he himself did not know where they would end. He saw Leila in her enchantment watching and listening as one person listens to another with a secret to tell. When at last he lowered the tula, an agreement between these two, Leila and Abdullah, was complete, more surely than if they had put their names to a contract before the gaze of a mullah.
Joy comes into our lives always within range of sorrow. The two are sisters. It was Abdullah’s task to return the tula to Karim Zand once he had revealed his voice to Leila, and to the people of the town. He walked the path back to the madman’s house slowly, fearing that his master would rain curses down on his head. He had betrayed Karim Zand. He could not ever ask for forgiveness.
The door to the house once owned by the wool-dyer who lost his mind stood open, as it had an hour before. His head bowed, his heart torn as if by the winds of a terrible storm, Abdullah stepped inside the house with the tula held before him. There he found Karim Zand, bent over a cooking pot on the fire, his back to his visitor. When the madman turned, he looked Abdullah up and down. Nothing was said for a time which may have only been one minute, but which seemed to Abdullah like an hour with his hand in a fire. At last the madman climbed to his feet.
“After all,” he said to Abdullah, “it is not so difficult to pick up a tula.” Then he bent to the hearth and opened the strange stone. He took six gold coins from inside the stone and placed them in his student’s free hand.
“Take the instrument home with you,” he said. “Bring it with you tomorrow.”
Abdullah fell to his knees in relief. He attempted to take the madman’s hand, that he might kiss it, but the madman scorned the gesture.
“Here,” said Karim Zand, and raised the boy up. “Now go home.”
Abdullah took a step to the door, but the madman called him back. “So that you know all your life, beetle, remember what I tell you now: God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient. Go home, beetle.”