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The promise had been made. Like any promise it sealed a commitment, but in a golden orb of hope and expectation. In the days that followed, the promise became a sort of roaming vision to Baz, a mysterious open door, imbued with the power to propel him into the future, to see himself as something more than he was.
The stranger had appeared, it seemed, from nowhere. He wandered into the village coupled with a horse whose dark satin coat he stroked rhythmically. Every so often he would whisper in the horse's ear. Then he would smile or laugh as though they were sharing a secret or a private joke. That made Baz wonder, with a touch of envy, if the stranger could speak the language of horses, or if the horse knew the stranger's tongue.
The stranger knew his destination. He didn't hesitate but went straight to the door of Baz's home, the last in a row of dwellings built of pale mud and stone. It was nearly sunset. The day was closing its large weary eye and the light was giving way to a sleepiness that made the stranger's presence even more commanding. His sudden appearance was a subtle reminder of the very enigma of existence.
Baz sat on a low wooden stool in the courtyard, a patch of pressed earth framed by smallish trees which, at this time of day, cast shadows much larger than they themselves. He was shelling nuts, separating the meats into a woven basket. The nuts had been drying for weeks now and it was time to open them, sample their ripe fruit. Tomorrow he would take them to the market to sell. He looked forward to that. The market seemed to Baz like the pulse of life with its colorful stalls where vendors sold dyed silks and cottons, dried fruits and beans, tea, spices, and clay pots baked in the sun to a brittle hardness.
In Baz's village, as in all places where each day appeared to be the same, etched in the shadow of the day before, strangers were a welcome intrusion, arousing curiosity, and sometimes suspicion. But strangers evoked something more: the notion that the village was connected to something much larger and more meaningful, giving significance to the small square of earth that defined it.
For several hours Baz had been shelling nuts, all of them much the same: the texture of their fine, thin skins, their meats, both hard and soft at once, the little knob that projected from their round fat bellies. His fingers had fallen into a repetitive motion, finding the weakness in the tough shells, applying pressure, then extracting the nut without breaking it. It was now summer, with hot, dry days that rolled into each other indistinguishably. Baz had often found himself wishing that something would happen to break the routine. He knew it was only a matter of time before the rain would come. It always had, and the earth, like himself, was a creature of habit. But as he sat shelling nuts, he longed for it to happen sooner, bringing weeks, months of wetness, changing the dress of the world. But he knew, too, that once the rain did come, it would soon become as monotonous as the heat had been.
Baz got to his feet and rested his eyes on the flowers in the garden, their bright colors rendered more intense by the sunset. He stared defiantly, willing their petals to fall, releasing that bottled-up energy, which, like his own, longed to escape. Then he lifted his eyes and fixed them on the figure walking toward him.
In the deepest recesses of his mind, Baz had been waiting for this moment. Now that it had come it was like the rain, bringing both relief and expectation. A few years back another man had ridden into the village. He had offered to take Baz's older brother and teach him a trade. A year later his second brother had left. Baz was the last, the third son.
"Your turn will come," his mother had said as Baz watched his brothers depart with a mixture of sadness and envy at what could only be seen as opportunity. "It is in the law of threes." The law of threes had dictated his very existence on this earth, his birth, his sex. And he suspected that his mother was right. It would dictate his parting someday.
His brothers had gone willingly, eager for change.
"You will return when you've learned all there is to know." That's what the man who had taken his second brother had said. Baz had thought then that he might never see his brother again, certain that no one could glean all there was to know in a single lifetime.
* * *
The stranger left his horse in the shade of an ancient plane tree. He did not tether it but allowed it the freedom to roam. Then the stranger walked up the rough stone walkway that led to Baz's door. There was no need to knock. Baz's mother had seen the visitor and was there to greet him. She had never turned away a stranger. It was not her way, or that of her people.
"I come from the west," said the stranger. "I have been traveling since sunrise." He had come from the mountains where the land deepened in depth and color. "I am moving toward the desert." The desert was where the land faded, becoming shallower with each step.
"Please come in and have tea with us," said Baz's mother, opening the door ever wider. Baz bowed slightly before the man, his elder. Then his father appeared and took the stranger's hands, as was their custom. "Welcome," he said.
The house smelled of dried spice, of tallow for soap and candles, of familiarity to Baz. He knew that the visitor would inhale this familiarity not with the same value or attachment that he did, but with an otherness, a newness. This made him sorry in a way. And as he tried to follow the stranger's gaze he saw his own surroundings differently, acutely aware of how perceptions were formed by habit. The rough woven cloth on the walls, the humble wooden objects his father had carved that lined the shelves, even the odor of nut oil rubbed into his skin, became foreign, strange, and otherly.
The white walls and beige tiled floor guarded the coolness of days, of time passed. But the fiery red cushions huddled comfortably around a low wooden table spoke of warmth and welcome.
The stranger seated himself across from Baz, folding his legs and placing his palms on his knees. Baz's mother brought the tea, a blend of jasmine and rose leaves, and a plate of sugary sweets. Then she took her place to the left of her son.
The visitor stroked a scarf wound loosely around his neck. His tunic with its wide bands of red, blue, and orange meant that he probably belonged to some tribe. Its loose weave and color made him look almost comical. He had come from afar. In Baz's village, they dressed in finely woven ivory, white, and beige, tones that reflected the sun. Only when the rains came did they don darker shades.
The stranger sipped his tea slowly, savoring each mouthful, rolling the hot liquid from one cheek to the other like a tiny ball. He picked delicately at the plate of sweets, playfully popping them into his mouth.
"Ahh," he sighed, satisfied. Then his eyes settled on Baz's father, who was refilling the cups of tea and whose hands gave away his trade. He was a craftsman, a wood-carver, but he was slowly losing his sight and feared that he wouldn't be able to work much longer. The stranger's gaze moved into the distance, to the room at the end of the house where Baz's father turned his creations. His father knew that this was the work he had been born for, and he settled into it each day with quiet dignity. In that room he felt a oneness that linked him to his creations, and to all that was. But he knew, too, that this work was not for his sons. He was as sure of it as he was that the rising sun was bound to set.
The stranger did not introduce himself but got right to the point of his visit. "I have come from Kallah, a weaving town," he said in a booming voice. "Surely you have heard of it," he added, slowing his words, nearly whispering. He was like a bard telling a tale, imbuing each syllable, each phrase, with suspense. He waved his hands in the air, another gesture that told Baz that this man was from afar. The people in Baz's village were more subdued, discreet. Without thinking, Baz let his eyes fall on the man's hands, which now cradled the teacup. They were large, with long graceful fingers, but the nails were hard-looking, framed in a thin line of dirt that traced the edges of his fingertips.
Suddenly the stranger put down his teacup and reached across the table. "So who have we here?" he said.
"I'm Baz," said the boy.
The stranger held Baz's hands in his own like a treasure. "There is always a need for young hands like these," he said. Then he tilted his head to one side. "Somewhat soft," he said, smiling. His teeth were pearly white and his gums pink. "But agile and nimble. Not the hands of a wood-carver, I'm afraid, but the hands of a weaver, yes."
The stranger released Baz's hands, then reached for his tea. He was practiced in the art of persuasion and knew that he must allow time for his words to settle into the minds and hearts of his audience. He already knew the answer to what he was about to suggest, but he waited patiently, making the proposal in due time.
"You, my boy, will be an apprentice to one of the greatest weavers in Kallah." He turned to Baz's mother and father. "He will learn the trade in return for his keep. Then in some future time he will be free to continue, in a superior role." The stranger paused. "Or return home," he said carelessly, the tone of his voice suggesting that Baz would never do that. The stranger turned to Baz. "As he wishes." Then he distanced himself, his eyes following the rays of light that had burst through the window, creating a pattern of dancing stripes across the floor.
"Do you wish to go, son?" Baz's father asked.
Baz did not have to think or reflect. He knew the answer as well as he knew his name.
"Yes," he said.
So the promise was made, and sealed in a show of clasped hands, his mother's small and soft, his father's square and rough, Baz's own long and nimble, and those of the stranger tinged with dirt.
"I will continue my journey," said the stranger, getting to his feet. "But I will return before the new moon."
Baz led the stranger out to where his horse was waiting next to the plane tree. "What is your name?" he asked.
"I do not have one name," said the stranger, frowning. "People call me many things. What would you call me?"
Baz did not have to think long. "You are the Man Who Loves His Horse," he said.
This made the stranger smile.
* * *
Baz reviewed his life, all sixteen years of it, with the sweet nostalgia that always comes before a parting. A film of dust settled like a pastel haze, covering any unpleasantness. He thought of the departure of his two brothers who had yet to return.
"I'll be back," he said to his mother. He repeated these same words many times to himself as if the repetition of the phrase would ensure its coming to pass.
"Of course you will," said his mother, hanging the washed clothes in the sun to dry. They were worn to a comfort much like Baz's own life.
In his mother's gaze Baz saw the soul of a woman who was seeing her child for the last time. Despite that, Baz did not think for a moment that he wouldn't go, nor did his parents, who shared the knowledge that they were doing what was right. They knew not where this came from. They could barely describe it beyond the feeling that sometimes in life certain things were meant to be. And this was one of them.
"Maybe the stranger won't return," said Baz's mother with a half smile.
Baz breathed in her scent, a mixture of smells coupled with sounds. In the corner sat an instrument that she played, some strings attached to a wooden frame. Baz had no idea where it had come from, only that it was something she'd always had, one of those things with no discernible origins, no real beginnings. It was simply there, a part of her.
"Maybe," said Baz, smiling back at her, attempting to build suspense into an event that had none because they all knew the truth. The stranger would return.
* * *
As Baz prepared for bed he lit a candle and watched the flame begin to flicker, mirroring the agitation he felt inside. He tried to stop it with his eyes, but it jumped even higher until he gave up.
He drifted into sleep, dreaming of water. A man appeared who wished to buy him. The man was smiling. But then the water rose, engulfing the image. And the night that had seemed so long when it lay ahead was suddenly over. The following days flew, too, until it seemed there were mere minutes between one moon and the next.
Text copyright © 2012 by Kate Banks
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Peter Sís