A thread of stars divides the false and true:
The caravan was camped in the blistering heat of the noon sun. Bright awnings strung across the waggons gave a little desperately needed shade. Prayers over, the men played dice. The few women chatted listlessly, or dozed.
A slight, dark-haired woman sat apart from the rest. She was well aware that the other women considered her a whore and that the men expected her to be sold tomorrow, so she had avoided everyone except Sayyid as far as possible.
Now she was thinking of just two things: bathing tonight and arriving at the caravanserai tomorrow. One of the slights would then prove true.
Ummar pushed the coins fitfully around the counting board, calculating the return to each merchant on a newly arrived cartload of indigo. That was what he did. His ability to calculate the best, and fairest, prices for speculators and traders alike was legendary.
Fortunately it was also deeply ingrained, for today he was distracted. He was having trouble thinking of anything other than the silk caravan somewhere to the east. The outriders had arrived just after evening prayers. Tonight, maybe tomorrow morning, then, his wait might be over.
Of course, there might be no new documents. After all this waiting, Sayyid might have nothing for him. Ummar tried not to contemplate that thought. He clapped his hands and summoned a boy to fetch a brass jug of hot mint water. The boy pushed his way out through the curtain. Ummar returned to his calculations
Darkness, punctuated by stars. The woman floated in the cool water, the tiniest ripples gently caressing her body. She had many complex exercises at her disposal, but those would come later: for the moment it was enough just to be clean. As the dirt of a week's journey fell away, so did the anger and frustration.
She looked up for the sign of the lady, and found it. As she held it in her mind, the ripples became a pleasure and her mind finally accepted that she could do nothing more about the day the true dawn would bring.
Ummar looked up at the stars and mentally checked off his own private list. It had been a long time.
Years ago, knowing his penchant for mathematics, Sayyid had brought him a set of brightly-coloured texts held tight between two carved wooden strips. It had turned out to be nothing to do with numbers, but he had kept it because the pictures were interesting. From such a small beginning, a lifelong interest had blossomed, and now Ummar had twenty or more such documents.
The collection included a new document from last year: parts of a manual for prediction using stars and the first crescent moon. This had fascinated Ummar since he first bought it. Once he realised that there were sections missing, it had almost become an obsession to reconstruct them. Finally admitting defeat, he had asked Sayyid to find another copy. Which should arrive with the silk caravan.
As the sky turned a lustrous turquoise, caravan-master and tax collector finally reached agreement on the body-price for a young, dark-haired, slave. Throughout the transaction she had stood impassive, hands chained in front of her. Now there was a hint of amusement in her intense eyes as they peered over the scarf that covered the rest of her face.
Money changed hands: the two men embraced. At this signal, a crowd poured out of the caravanserai and in seeming chaos began to unload the waggons. The girl looked on, seeing the careful order in the apparent chaos and thinking it an appropriate metaphor for what was to happen next.
Sayyid led her into the courtyard. It was cool and pleasantly shaded, with a small fountain at its centre. Ummar hurried out. He looked at the woman. Her robe emphasised rather than concealing her lithe figure and trim, though well formed, breasts. Ummar was, however, thinking of documents and star-charts.
"Here is what you sought," said Sayyid simply. Ummar looked at Sayyid and at the woman, confused. Then, regaining his composure, he hurriedly motioned them upstairs and into his main room. He did not buy slaves and prostitutes, no matter how beautiful, and wanted no one to think that he might.
"What is this?" asked Ummar "What are you thinking of?"
"The price is still as we agreed, although clearly the transportation costs have been higher than I anticipated." Sayyid smiled. There was a brief rattle of chain behind him and Ummar turned to see the woman holding her arms out in front of her.
"Bound, yet free" she said. Without the scarf her face was pretty, her eyes laughing. "I am Shamela," she added. Sayyid smiled and silently left the room.
"You have memorised the missing sections of the text?" asked Ummar, recognising the phrase from the divination document. He was trying to piece the situation together, and failing miserably.
"No, Ummar," she said, pulling at the loose end of the robe and letting it fall "I am the missing sections of the text." In the slightly coarse words of a centuries-old wedding poem, Ummar's bowels moved with joy as the light finally dawned.
Naked, Shamela was truly beautiful. Not classically so, admittedly, but with a poise and confidence that made her even more distracting than simple nakedness would account for. And how he loved her. He had never encountered such confidence before. She was the document? Not mere stars and symbols, then.
He had recalled what he could of the text, re-casting what he had assumed were symbols as reality. There had been a lurch in his heart as he finally realised what he had started. But there was no backing out now. Cups, water, wine: he had searched for an acceptable response, to try to indicate what he thought he now understood.
Finally he had settled for towels and a bowl of warm rosewater, had bathed her, tentatively at first but then with increasing confidence. Reverentially, an appropriate act of supplication - he had been surprised and flattered when later she had reciprocated, gently, treating him as an equal, confirmation that everything was right. Even the arousal, later, sharing sweet mint water, had seemed right, not shameful. He had never felt that way before.
She was sleeping in the inner room. Ummar remembered the reckoning for the silks, which should have been completed last evening. It wanted an hour until morning prayers. Ummar summoned the boy to fetch mint water. There should just be time to complete the calculations and then rouse Shamela. He was already anticipating the conversation after afterwards.
Prayers had been said. Sayyid had been paid, the merchants and speculators had been paid. Ummar and Shamela sat in the shade of the courtyard, with Ummar's "star documents" laid out on a bright silken cloth.
"Sayyid brought them to me to add to my collection of mathematical texts. I simply saw a divination manual. I had no idea, until last night, what the 'first mystery' might be." Shamela saw his eyes stray and smiled kindly.
"A divination manual is precisely what you are meant to see. The system actually works, by the way, if you fill in the missing sections from observation. But if you realise that there is more, and seek it, then eventually you will find it. Now, shall we proceed to the second part?" Ummar's face reddened beneath the dark tan and she laughed. "Well, that too, much later, but you will see that there is more. Line up the missing sections." He laid the documents out carefully. She nodded approvingly and he looked more closely.
"Well, if so much is to come later, then the If the stars, too, are stars, not a symbol but an actuality..." said Ummar. Shamela smiled.
"Tonight" she said simply, and he nodded. One had, after all, to earn a living.
They lay, side by side in the moonlight, beneath a tapestry of stars. He tried not to be distracted by her lilting voice, as he listened to her explanation of symbols. He knew many of them from the documents, but now he had to grasp their meanings in a new context. Confident, his mind would race ahead making assumptions, only to have Shamela patiently rein him back from yet another false track. Eventually, however, a shiver ran down his spine as everything fell into place.
She made him repeat the sequence, lying there. He had difficulty working out why she was doing this, until suddenly he saw that knowing it was not quite enough. When he felt it, she reached out for his hand and they stood. They faced each other for a moment and again he felt arousal. He was tempted to kiss her but thought better of it and simply held her hand a little more tightly, leading her inside.
In the lamplight, he reached for a tablet and stylus. Removing the wooden cover, he made a confident series of incisions in the wax, drawing the whole from memory. A single 'tut' of impatience betrayed him when the ends of the sequence failed to match perfectly, but he stilled it and sat back to think. There was plenty of time - it was three days yet until the new moon.
He was disturbed by a shadow and turned to see Shamela holding a small jug and two of the tiny cups he used for mint-water. Recognising the wax seal of the strong local wine, he shook his head "I do not" but then the realisation struck that here was another missing section. This was another confirmation: once, at least, this too must change. There would be enough firsts on the night, he though, then nodded to her. She poured the tiniest measure. It burned like fire but was at the same time cloyingly sweet. He coughed.
"So, then, now I know that this is to be a cup." He smiled, then reached for the tablet, erased two marks and deftly joined the sequence. "Is it always like this?" he asked.
"I have been this way but once," she replied, "so 'always' is a meaningless term. But it was so for me." She sipped daintily, then offered him her cup. Again he took the tiniest mouthful. Again it burned. "Can it be made in time?" she asked. Ummar laughed.
"Here," he said "all things are possible. I could have a dozen by morning." Then he looked down at the tablet. "And therein lies our problem. Even if I ask for just one cup of stars, there will soon be a dozen and by nightfall, every hawker within a hundred miles will be selling them. There are no secrets here, so everything must be hidden in plain view."
"Just like the missing sections of the documents," commented Shamela.
"But the only symbol that will work for a cup is a cup. There can be no missing sections."
"This is not part of the exercise." said Shamela, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then heading through the curtain to the back room.
"But still it must be solved," mumbled Ummar, folding his cloak as a pillow and composing himself on the couch. Surprisingly, sleep came easily, and with it a half-dreamed tapestry of stars.
He decided not to discuss the matter with Shamela until he was sure. They prayed together, and drank mint-water. Then, before working on his books, he paid a visit to one of the metal workers in the lower gallery.
The tiny shop had barely room for the old man and his tools. Bedding hung from a hook on the wall.- its space now occupied by stacks of bowls of all sizes, plain and workmanlike, much like the one he was making now. Ummar's eyes sought out the pile of silver in the corner: brass, after all tainted rosewater. Imagining again slender wrists and hands holding the cup for him to drink, he selected one of about the right size.
He offered a little less than an outsider would have paid, but only if the rim could be extended by a thumb's breadth in one hour. Shrugging, the man took the coins, put aside his current workpiece and rummaged for a piece of metal about the right size. Money was money. Ummar turned and left him to it.
He had completed his figures before the hour was up, so he returned to the shop. As he expected, the bowl was ready. He ran a long fingernail over the joint, nodded and left. The old man would doubtless treasure the thought of having put one over on Ummar, but would certainly keep it to himself for fear that Ummar caught wind of it. Money was money, after all.
He returned to his rooms. Now, when he was alert, was the appointed time for their next study session. The outer room was empty, so he was able to place the bowl in his chest unseen. Then he went through the curtained door. Shamela was sitting there, with cushions arrayed on the floor. She motioned for him to sit, moistening a cloth with which to refresh his face, a simple act that instantly relaxed him. She helped him to lie on the cushions and made sure that he was relaxed, then lay alongside him, their hands just touching.
"We are almost there." she said. "Today, breathing". There was no longer any need of the documents. He relaxed his body as she had already shown him, her gentle voice seemingly planting new instructions directly into his mind as he did so. For a wholly natural action, thought Ummar, breathing now seemed extraordinarily difficult. Eventually, though, the world did indeed seem to change and the thread of stars, now so familiar from other contexts, became apparent. Then he ceased to worry about breathing or following instructions.
After prayers that evening, Shamela walked out into the desert alone. She had done this for the last two evenings, to get, she said, the lie of the land. Tonight Ummar's familiar pangs at being apart were tempered by the need to complete another task, one that had become intensely personal. Appropriate or not, when she left, she would have something beautiful to take with her. He took the bowl from the chest and placed it on a cloth in front of him. As he had surmised, the metalworker had skimped on the job and simply sweated new metal onto the old.
Grasping the rim firmly, he managed with some difficulty to pull the two sections apart. Setting the bowl itself back in the chest, he now laid out carefully the various elements he needed for the next task. The tablet with the sequence written out on it from yesterday, more wax and the small spirit lamp he used for erasing the tablets. Dividers and a pair of scribers completed the tools. He began by gently heating the metal so that he could rub wax onto it.
He treated himself to a small sweet wine as he waited for it to cool. Now that he no longer choked, it had begun to seem pleasant to the taste, which would make for less awkwardness later. Once the metal was cool, he slowly and methodically marked out the pattern with dividers and stylus, checking each measurement several times. As he checked his handiwork, traces of the euphoria from the earlier exercises returned and he really needed no further confirmation of his correctness.
Eventually he wrapped the metal hoop in some silk cloth and carried it to Akhmed the jeweller. His rooms, in the upper gallery, were in complete contrast to those of the metal-worker. Neat and tidy, with a separate sleeping area for the family, the rooms would be bright and airy in the daytime. Now they were lit with expensive oil-lamps.
Akhmed probably lived better than he did himself, thought Ummar, with just a trace of rancour. But then Ummar could not complete the task without Akhmed. He explained what he wanted, agreed that the work would be completed by noon and paid an inordinate sum in advance. As an afterthought, he paid more money for a small bag of finely powdered nut-husk. By the time Shamela returned, he was home, busy using the powder mixed in wine to burnish the remainder of the bowl to a deep rich patina.
Ummar rose early, bathed and robed, then sat and for old times' sake read through the document that had started all this. Had he known where it would all lead, would he still have looked for the missing sections? Probably - it was almost as if the knowledge had sought him out, rather than the other way round. Too late anyway. Tonight, everything would change forever. This one night he would gain the world and lose... everything.
His affairs were in order. One final load of spices remained unaccounted for, and this morning he would spend ensuring that the provisions for his broker were perfect. True, there would be other caravans, other cargoes, but, after tonight, they would be different. He sealed the last pouch and called for the boy to take it to Sayyid's man. Then, restive, he asked for hot mint water once again, and finally left for Akhmed's rooms.
The jeweller was sitting at his bench cutting the delicate pattern of a charm against the evil eye with a blade so fine as to be almost invisible. Ummar waited until he stopped and then coughed. Ummar unwrapped a silk package on the bench and there was the hoop, its fine tracery of holes absolutely beautiful in the sunlight. It was unnecessary, but for appearance's sake he held it between fingertips and examined it. Then he nodded, paid the balance and left. Almost running downstairs like a small child, he found a quiet, shaded doorway and drew the bowl from his pocket. The rim fitted it perfectly. He smiled softly to himself, then re-wrapped both parts and placed them in his pouch.
Shamela was waiting when he returned. The afternoon would be spent together in quiet contemplation, but first he had a task, and for once he allowed himself a small indulgence. Reaching into the pouch, he placed the larger package on the desk. Then he undid her robe, let it fall, lifted her left arm and placed the hoop of metal onto the wrist: a bangle.
"If I may be irreverent for a moment," he said "I believe the correct words are 'behold, I show you a miracle'".
He held out the bowl. She took it, instantly grasped the point and fitted the two halves snugly together.
"Clever," she said "and a perfect metaphor." She replaced the bowl on the desk and the bangle on her wrist, undid Ummar's robe in turn, and embraced him. Their bodies touched all the way down.
Despite himself, Ummar felt nervous as he followed Shamela into the desert. Atop a low dune, they placed their robes on the ground and waited, sitting hand in hand. As the stars turned, Shamela gauged the moment perfectly, pouring the wine, kneeling and holding the bowl. Ummar rose. As he knew it would be, the first crescent moon was perfectly reflected in the dark liquid. He shivered.
She rose, proffered the cup and he drank. He held the cup for her and the slight pattern on the rim was just visible. He breathed. Threads of stars aligned, knotted, un-knotted. From somewhere he heard words he had previously only read:
"She was created before the oceans met the skies and before the rim divided the sea from the land and before the skies were given their breadth."
And against all of his worries, the correct responses, verbal and otherwise, rose un-bidden, and the world was made aright.Much later, as the moon dipped once more below the horizon, they robed and walked together back towards the caravanserai. There were no words to express what had passed, and each still felt the divinity in the other. By some unspoken mutual agreement they walked slowly, prolonging a moment that would never come again. Reaching the rooms, they lay for the first time together, not bothering to disrobe. Both slipped instantly into the sleep of blissful exhaustion..
In the cool of the pre-dawn they stirred, mere mortal man and woman together, and reached out and turned to each other. Somewhere in the back of his mind Ummar had a brief sensation of being watched, but if Shamela felt it too, she had no qualms and simply silenced him with a kiss. Now the ecstasy was theirs alone. Then Ummar dozed again. On the edge of consciousness a single happy thought brought gentle laughter: "I've been in love with documents all of my adult life, but I've never made love with one before".
Much later, they were washing each other in the now habitual bowl of rosewater.
"I never expected to fall in love with you" she said.
"It had nothing to do with the bowl," he replied "I loved you from the moment I set eyes on you".
"I know" she said, echoing the sentiments of women across the centuries "and I loved you from the moment your face betrayed you. Of course the magic will work without so deep a love. What had to be done simply delayed the moment of human expression."
"And made it all the sweeter."
"Indeed" she smiled. Then she sighed. "Love changes much, but it cannot change all. You know that I must travel on."
"I had realised. The secret must pass. A spice caravan leaves in three days and I have arranged for you to travel as the broker for my musk and copal. They are much in demand, you know, amongst the Christians, and I thought that would give you the freedom you needed." Shamela's face betrayed her surprise at his perception. "And the funds." he added. She paused.
"That was both perceptive and kind" she replied after a moment "but this much changes. I will need a month to work, of course, but then I will return. With a handsome profit, I suspect, but also with a Christian woman who has been chosen to travel East, in my stead. I sent a messenger on my second day here. The woman will have been chosen by now, by lot, as was I." Ummar started.
"You knew? Even then?"
"I knew. As you yourself said, the secret must pass. And now" she smiled "we mere mortals have something important to do." She gently took his hand and led him through to the back room.
Dawn was just breaking as the procession made its slow progression from the caravanserai. Seated beside the driver of a waggon-load of barrels was a woman, her hair bound and her face masked with a dark scarf, wearing Ummar's livery. Ummar himself stood at the window, watching as the early light caught the burnished bangle on her left wrist as she raised her hand in silent acknowledgement. He looked thoughtfully at the silver cup by the bedside. Then he turned to his counting-table. A few months was remarkably little time to wait for a caravan to return from the west.
copyright ©2001 Pithukuf