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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Poet of the Invisible World

A Novel

Michael Golding

Picador

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

One



No matter how tired they were from the week's labors, no matter how dull from too much baghali polo the night before, no matter how eager to praise God or make tea or milk the cow, there was no one in the tiny village of Al-Kashir who was not stunned by the news that early that morning, in the slant-roofed shed behind the mud-walled house, Maleeh al-Morad had given birth to a bright-faced, screaming boy with two sets of ears. The midwife was so startled when the head popped out that she simply stood there, dumbstruck, as Bina Mardavi, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Maleeh al-Morad's neighbor, stepped in to assist with the birth. A quick-witted girl with dark eyes and large feet, Bina was not afraid when she saw the second set of ears. On the contrary, she was eager for the child to come all the way out so she could see if it was equipped with two of everything. When it finally sprang free, however, the girl was disappointed. For with the exception of the ears-which were placed side by side, like pairs of matched seashells-the flush-faced infant seemed perfectly normal. As she reached for the sewing shears to sever the umbilical cord, she considered giving a quick snip to either side of the head. What use could four ears possibly be to the child? When he was old enough to speak, he would surely thank her. But since she did not possess the knowledge to stop the blood she assumed would gush forth, she decided to leave him as Allah, in His great wisdom, had made him.

As soon as Bina Mardavi returned home and told her father about the ears, the news spread like wildfire. The fat jelly maker left a bowl of sliced apples to turn brown in the sun as he dashed through the fields to tell the ironsmith's wife; the ironsmith's wife left a large pot of lamb stew to scorch on the hearth as she hurried next door to tell the soap and cheese maker; the soap and cheese maker left his goats to go hungry as he raced through the streets to tell the village schoolteacher, who was instructing the children about prime numbers. By the time the children ran home and told their parents, their parents already knew: Maleeh al-Morad-who had lost her husband only three months before-who had eyes so green they caused people to stare-who made the best poppy seed cake anyone in the village had ever tasted-had given birth to a monster. A reptile. A freak.

"Maybe they'll fall off," said Shakiba Benoud. "My sister's first child was born with two sets of eyebrows. But on the third day, the extra set fell off."

"Maybe she can sell him," said Sepantem Verdat. "My cousin told me that a baby with two heads was born in her village and the Caliph bought him for sixty denars."

"Maybe it's a sign that we should stop talking so much," said Abbas Rashad, "and try to start listening better."

Only Maleeh al-Morad seemed unfazed by the fact of her newborn son's ears. Only she thought the infant a paragon of beauty. A newly crowned prince in her arms. At first she just gazed at him, thrilled by the instant bond between them, lost in the wild love that poured from his eyes. But eventually she reached out her hand and touched the ears. They were perfectly shaped and soft beyond belief. So she began tracing gentle figure eights around their edges-the sign of infinity-delighted at how this made the child coo.

In truth, Maleeh al-Morad had known, long before her child was born, that he would be different from the rest. For on the night before the wheel of her husband's oxcart splintered and he went sailing over the edge of the cliff to his death, Mahsoud al-Morad had awakened from a dream.

"What is it?" asked Maleeh al-Morad, as the large man lay there panting.

"The baby-"

"What about him?"

Mahsoud al-Morad searched the darkness for what he'd seen.

"Tell me!" cried Maleeh al-Morad.

"I can't remember. But I have a feeling we may have to keep him indoors."

At these words, Mahsoud al-Morad rolled over and returned to the last slumber he would ever know. But as the sorrowful weeks passed by, Maleeh al-Morad felt sure that what he'd said was true: the child inside her was somehow marked and she would only know in what manner when it was born. As the moment drew near, she imagined her baby with a pig's snout, a dog's tail, covered in thick fur. So when Bina Mardavi lowered the infant into her arms and she saw the ears, she felt a wave of relief. At least he would hear her when she called.

She realized, as she held him, that she had to give him a name. She considered Farzad, which meant "a splendid birth," but it seemed too boastful. She considered Niyusha, which meant "a good listener," but it seemed too obvious. So instead she chose Nouri, which meant "light," followed by Ahmad, which meant "praiseworthy," and then she threw in Mohammad, figuring how could it hurt. This was followed by the nasab, ibn Mahsoud, to denote his father, and the nisbah, al-Morad, to denote his tribe. Nouri Ahmad Mohammad ibn Mahsoud al-Morad. Regardless of how many ears the child had, it was a lovely name.

At first, Maleeh al-Morad took the villagers' reactions to her baby in stride. Latifeh Rashad, who was pregnant, had her husband, Azim, scatter garlic across their threshold to prevent her from catching whatever had caused Maleeh al-Morad's baby to be disfigured. Farid ben Ismael fell to the ground and shouted verses from the Qur'an whenever he passed their house. But Maleeh al-Morad simply lay in the grass, threading daisies around her baby's ears and singing songs to delight him:

There once was a child with a gift so rare-

O hear! O hear! O hear! O hear!

That the moon and the stars could not compare-

O hear! O hear! O hear!

It was only when she saw the fear in people's eyes when she ventured out to buy cheese or headed off to the mosque that she began to sense he was in danger. It was only when she was reminded of the village baby who'd been born without a tongue and been set on fire that she began to grow alarmed. And it was only when the double-edged dagger came flying through the kitchen window, piercing the sack of lentils that hung above the hearth, that she knew she would have to remove her child from the tiny village of Al-Kashir before it was too late.

* * *

THE CITY OF TAN-ARZHAN WAS LIKE a jewel in the headdress of an Arabian prince. Famed for its great mosque, the Darni Sunim, which had risen to splendor nearly a century before, it had everything a modern city should have: a town square, a public bath, a counting house, a grand bazaar, a public garden (with a running fountain), and three schools, one for each level of education. The layout was square, with four main corridors running from the central axis, and though the northeast quadrant was primarily for the wealthy and the southwest quadrant was primarily for the poor, there was a surprising absence of strife between the classes. Whatever one's lot, life was better in Tan-Arzhan than almost anywhere else. Even the rats felt lucky to roam its colorful streets.

Habbib al-Adib had lived his entire life in Tan-Arzhan. Born in a tiny hovel to an elderly baker and his wife, he'd grown up in the streets, his only education the chores he learned from his father, the prayers he learned from his mother, and the lessons he culled from the twists and turns of the day. He was a happy child, possessed of a sweet, gentle nature. He expected nothing and-with the exception of a leaky roof over his head and three daily meals-nothing was what he got. Like that of most people in the town, his life was set out for him. He would bake with his father until his father was no longer able to bake. Then, if Allah saw fit, he would bake without him.

No one had anticipated the crushing of his hand, which happened on the morning of his twelfth birthday. He'd risen at dawn to help his father with the kneading. Abu al-a-Din-son of Ahmad al-a-Din, one of the richest men in the city-was getting married that day, and Habbib's father had promised to deliver four dozen naan-e sangak, six dozen naan-e barbari, and as many rosewater-and-pistachio balls as he could fashion between the lighting of thetanoor and the chiming of the bells to commence the feast. Habbib's father had never received an order so large. But Mohsen Jawiri, who'd been hired to do the job, had been in bed for six days with a bad stomach flu. So Habbib's father had been asked to step in and he needed Habbib's help.

"Just think of it!" he said, as he roused Habbib in the milky light. "Ahmad al-a-Din has invited everyone to this wedding! If they like what we make, we'll be up to our asses in work!"

Habbib didn't think about the future too much, so his father's words washed over him like the morning mist. And rather than resent having to work so hard on his birthday, he felt that the great outpouring of bread marked the significance of the day. He also knew that his father would set aside a few rosewater-and-pistachio balls for them to have that evening and that if he worked hard he'd be allowed to sleep as late as he wished the next day.

They worked all morning, Habbib kneading the dough and then watching as his father shaped it into rounds and loaves, which he baked to a golden brown in the tanoor. Then they loaded up the cart and made their way through the dusty streets until they reached the impressive home of Ahmad al-a-Din. They were led into the kitchen, where a vast team of workers was sweet-braising chicken and pan-frying lamb, then out into the lavish garden that lay at the building's heart. Dotted with cypresses and fragrant lime trees, trimmed with low hedges and graced by a shimmering pool, it would have been enough to take away the young boy's breath. What truly amazed Habbib, however, was the enormous, jewel-encrusted elephant that knelt at the center of it all.

"If I'd known it would be like this," whispered Habbib's father, "I'd have given Mohsen Jawiri a case of the runs years ago!"

As the wedding party had not yet returned from the mosque, there was plenty of time to place the loaves and rounds in an artful manner upon the table, and as they began to do so Habbib's father was suddenly struck with the idea of making a great pyramid out of the rosewater-and-pistachio balls. It took close to an hour for him and Habbib to raise the structure, and they were just placing the last pastry on top when the doors to the garden swung open and the wedding party, flushed with excitement, poured in. Habbib had never seen anything so splendid in his life. The groom, in his white robes, was like a prince from a fable and the bride, in her turquoise veils, was so lovely he had to avert his eyes.

The guests hummed and buzzed as they spread through the garden. Then a great hush descended as Ahmad al-a-Din stepped forward to give the toast.

"We rejoice that our son should be blessed with such a wife! May Allah the Magnificent smile upon you both!"

He raised his cup high and the guests raised theirs.

"May Allah smile!" they cried, giddy with joy. Before they could take a sip, however, the overweight sister of the groom jostled the table-which toppled the pyramid-which sent the fragrant rosewater-and-pistachio balls sailing off in every direction.

Habbib should have just stood there. The pastries, after rolling on the ground, would not have been edible even if he'd been able to retrieve them. But his body was much quicker than his mind and before he knew it he was down on all fours scrambling after the wayward balls. He saw the enormous elephant raise his foot as one of the pastry balls came careening toward him, but he could not stop himself from reaching out for it. And even as the foot came down, he could not foresee how that moment would change his life.

The scream of pain that issued from Habbib was so loud the bride's mother lost her hearing for three days. Yet the cry only made the startled elephant freeze, causing the tremendous weight of his body to bear down on Habbib's hand. When they finally got the creature to raise his foot, the damage was done. With the exception of his thumb-which had managed to remain outside the crushing weight-Habbib's hand had been smashed to pulp and he would never use it again.

When the pain subsided and the bandages were removed and the fact that their son was now a cripple had sunk in, Habbib's parents tried to figure out what to do next. It was clear that the boy could no longer help with the baking, and he would not get far by depending on his wits. So the only thing they could think of was to pay a visit to the small band of dervishes who lived on the outskirts of the city and see if they would take him in. It was not the sort of life that they'd envisioned for their child. But they were old and poor and at least he'd be taken care of when they were gone.

Habbib was still recovering from the shock of the accident when his parents carted him off to the Sufi lodge. Yet the moment he passed through the narrow gate, he knew he was home. It was a simple place with a series of cells for the dervishes, a refectory, a courtyard, a library, and a small chapel mosque. And despite the fact that Habbib did not show the least sign of spiritual yearning, the brothers were happy to take him in.

It soon seemed as if he had always been with them. They gave him the task of sweeping and as he was able to grasp the broom with his good hand and tuck it up tightly beneath the arm of his bad hand, he found that it was a job he could perform. He swept and he swept-his little head bobbing as he labored each morning, his voice murmuring, "Good rest to you" as each day came to an end. He liked the brothers. They were kind and quiet and spent most of their time in either prayer or some form of service to the community. He especially liked Sheikh Bailiri, the leader of the order, whose eyes were like an ocean and whose smile was like the shining beacon of a lamp. And though Habbib always remained slightly apart from them-a worker, not an aspirant-respectful of God, but not inflamed-he was aware that it was a good life, and he was grateful to have it.

Time passed. Childhood gave way to adulthood. And Habbib swept. A few of the dervishes died. A few new ones arrived to join the order. And Habbib swept. His life was as steady as the summer rain. As ordered as a leaf. As predictable as nightfall. So he was unprepared-on that overcast morning, as he made his way out along the river toward the market-when the air shuddered-and the sky opened-and the dearest companion of his life fell into his arms.

* * *

IT TOOK MALEEH AL-MORAD ten anxious days to devise the intricate plan that would whisk her baby to safety. The first thing she did was send word to the tiny village of Dursk, where her cousin Hamid lived, to say she was coming. Dursk was a three-day journey away, as far to the east of the city of Tan-Arzhan as Al-Kashir was to the west. She did not explain why she was coming or that she would not be leaving anytime soon. She simply asked Hamid to prepare a small bed and toss a few extra carrots into the soup.

The second thing she did was to arrange for Akbar Zartouf to take her and Nouri to Dursk in his rickety milkwagon. She chose the oily milkman for two reasons. In the first place, he rarely uttered a word, so he was unlikely to tell anyone about her plans to leave the village. In the second place, he was old and coarse and overweight, so he was delighted to accept her body as payment for the trip. So on the morning before the morning on which she wished to depart, she went to his filthy hovel to negotiate the terms.

"I'd prefer no kissing."

"No kissing."

"Or biting."

"No biting. Can we remove our clothes?"

"Yes. But you must close the curtains."

"There are no curtains."

"Then you'll have to find something to cover the windows."

"All right."

"And you'll have to bathe."

He swatted away an insistent fly. "Anything else?"

Maleeh al-Morad thought for a moment. "How long?"

Akbar Zartouf raised his forefinger. "About so." He paused. "Maybe a bit smaller."

"I meant how long will it take?"

"Oh." He paused. "About twenty minutes?"

Maleeh al-Morad shook her head. "Ten."

Akbar Zartouf shrugged and the deal was struck.

It was a vile experience. His hands were calloused, his skin was greasy, and he smelled quite strongly of goat. But as Nouri's safety was at stake, Maleeh al-Morad lay back, fixed her eyes on the gourd-shaped stain on the ceiling, and let the repulsive milkman have his way. He grunted and spat curses and his belly was so large he kept slipping out of her. But she held on tight, until at last-with a cry of "Bismallah!"-the fellow was sated.

The rest of the time was spent preparing for the journey. Maleeh al-Morad knew that if her child was to be free of persecution he would have to keep his strange gift hidden from men's eyes. So she drew the large trunk from beneath her bed, removed the dress in which she'd married, and with a pair of shears cut a series of long strips from which she fashioned a covering for his head. It took a number of attempts to get it right. The first made him look like a fledgling pirate, the second like the offspring of some lunatic sheikh. But eventually she managed to create a tiny head garment that succeeded in portraying him as an ordinary, if slightly eccentric, child.

On the morning of the departure, Maleeh al-Morad awoke before dawn, dressed, and headed out through the village carrying a small cloth satchel and little Nouri in his basket. The mist was so thick she could barely see; it swirled in damp clouds about her head as she hurried along. When she reached the home of Akbar Zartouf, he was strapping a canvas tarp over his milkwagon. Without saying a word, Maleeh al-Morad handed him the satchel and basket, which he proceeded to lower inside. Then she climbed in after them, he closed the tarp, and the journey began.

It was a bumpy ride. For the first hour, Maleeh al-Morad lay curved around the base of a wooden milk drum, her head resting on a small pile of rags, little Nouri sucking contentedly at her breast. Only when she was sure that the wagon had traveled well beyond the limits of Al-Kashir did she unfasten the tarp and peer out. The sky was beginning to lighten and the sight of new trees and new houses filled her with hope. Perhaps life in Dursk would be a new beginning for her and her child.

Toward the end of the first day, they reached a village called Nashtam. After eating some bureg and a small sack of figs that Maleeh al-Morad had packed for the journey, Akbar Zartouf tucked the wagon behind the local alehouse, laid a blanket across the seat plank for himself, and left mother and child to sleep between the drums. The following morning, he rose, tossed a few carrots to his horse, and pissed loudly against the alehouse wall. Then he climbed into the wagon, grabbed the reins, and led them back upon their course. The plan was to skirt the city of Tan-Arzhan by crossing the River Tolna, which ran along its northern edge. Then they'd sleep that night in a village called Sourd and-if all went well-they would arrive in Dursk before sundown the following day.

That second morning was cool and clear, the sky freshly painted a perfect blue, the air laced with gillyflowers. As they were now quite a distance from Al-Kashir, Maleeh al-Morad sat in the front with Akbar Zartouf, humming to Nouri, who lay sleeping in her arms. There were no fears to assuage and no problems to solve. There were only the golden fields and the wheeling birds and the steady creaking of the wheels of the wagon as they made their way along.

The sun was at its zenith when they reached the River Tolna. The river was not very wide, but when Maleeh al-Morad saw the flimsy network of struts and ties they were to use to cross it and the silvery water that churned far below, she felt an impulse to throw herself and Nouri from the milkwagon onto the grass. Sadly, the justification for that impulse came a few minutes too late. For they were already on the bridge when Akbar Zartouf placed his hand on Maleeh al-Morad's upper thigh-which caused her to jerk her body away-which caused Akbar Zartouf's mangy horse to lose his footing-and by the time the bridge buckled and the wagon went sailing over the ropes it was too late to jump free.

As she plummeted to her death, Maleeh al-Morad could not help but wonder that her end should so perfectly mirror that of her husband. She felt sure, though, that it was not the end for little Nouri. Even as she squeezed a lifetime of love into the split second of their good-bye, she saw the man strolling along the distant bank, gauged the distance between them, and knew, as she hurled the child in his direction, that he would not only catch him but care for him.

If it had been Pandor the saddlemaker who'd been walking along the river, Nouri's fate would have been to sit strapped in a chair beneath a banner that read "The Wonder of Tan-Arzhan" while people dropped coins into a silver bowl. If it had been Karim the deaf-mute, his fate would have been to remain locked in a toolshed and to be fed kashk through a narrow grate. If it had been Fetnem the butcher, his fate would have been to be beheaded in the shit-smeared alley behind the pigsties. But thanks to Allah-the Preserver-the Compassionate-it was Habbib who was strolling along the river that day, and into whose arms the child fell. He'd been thinking about the herb garden he'd planted outside the window of his cell. Salim Rasa, the order's cook, had given him some sage and some basil, but Habbib longed for mint. Just one or two leaves would give zest to his morning tea, and on those special occasions when the brothers prepared lamb, a few handfuls would transform the entire dish. He knew mint was prolific-his mother had planted some when he was a boy and in a few months their backyard was ablaze with it-so as he walked along the river he kept his eyes on the ground, hoping to spy a few sprigs to carry home. Only when he heard the strange whooshing sound and perceived something hurtling toward him did he raise his head. Then Allah smiled and Nouri fell into his arms.

To the end of his days, it would remain the most penetrating moment of his life. And when it was clear that the child was unharmed by his flight-and that no one was going to come rushing out of the woods to claim him-the man with six fingers tucked the baby with four ears into the crook of his arm and they headed off to begin their new lives.



Copyright © 2015 by Michael Golding