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Son of Harad: 3. The Message from Dashmir-of-Ghibli
But three years has changed nothing. Rather, it has made things worse. Now the whispers are louder – they are not just vivid, bloody nightmares. Now they crawl over his skin during the daytime, as he sits in the infernal sun, doing nothing, recovering from the nights, semiconscious. Now they prick at his neck, so that his hand will twitch, and his stomach wound – that old stomach wound – will begin to sting. And every wound now, blazing alive…
He leans his brow against his hand, clenches his teeth, feels the ache of unshed tears. Left them, left them, left them – and now he can never go back. For she must hate him, and little Qudamah – dear, little Qudamah – must despise him as well. And he knows also of the customs. The husband who abandons his wife and son…
He cannot return. He is too ashamed to return. For he has become a pitiful beggar, a wretched drunk, sleeping in the streets, vomiting at noon, disgusting the passersby. And perhaps he is mad, perhaps they were right, so long ago in Minas Tirith, when they called him Boromir the Mad. For he can still hear those Barad-dûr whispers, that muttered Black Speech, tickling his ear, so that the hair on the back of his neck rises. And he can never sleep, never sleep… Even blind drunk, he cannot sleep, he fears it… And so his life has become a mess of drunken wanderings, a constant haze, where he will wake in strange places, sometimes robbed of all the meager coins he has managed to scrounge up, sometimes still bleeding from whatever wounds he has received.
One bottle. He has finished one. He calls for another.
And the tavern is swelling with activity now because it is becoming night – not that he ever notes the passage of time – and he sits at the furthest table, in shadow, avoided and ignored. Ai, Munirah! Ai, Qudamah! How he desires to see them again, to feel their embrace, to smell his son’s hair and taste his wife! Every single night, every single night he thinks of them and drinks so that he can forget to miss them, forget that he is a husband, a father, forget how much he loves Munirah, how much he would want her here, to stroke his hair, kiss his neck, embrace him. Every single night, every single morning. And every single night, he fails to forget, and, instead, the drink makes him remember more clearly, so vivid, the beauty of his wife, of her deep, black eyes and heavy eyebrows, her thick, dark hair, how it felt through his fingers, and…
He drinks, leans further into his palm.
“Ah, Amir, it is one of those nights.”
He looks up, blinks. Sitting next to him: the other beggar, the old, wizened Omran. Omran is a dark-skinned man from Ghibli, missing all of his teeth except the canines, his eyes yellow and wet. He has been here, in Dashmir, in this tavern, begging outside and drinking inside, for more than ten years. Boromir dislikes him, is sickened by him. But tonight, so drunk, as every night, he tolerates his presence. And so he nods loosely, begins to pour another drink.
“Aye, it is one of those nights…”
“White Amir, what does Old Omran always say? Eh? What does Omran say? Take them out of your mind and throw them away! Like rotten rubbish! Bah!”
If Boromir could, he would throttle the old goat’s throat. But he can barely sit, and so instead he simply snarls, “Get you gone, you wretched old filth…”
And Omran is about to yell something back, to spit, when suddenly the tavern’s burly owner, Farraj, bustles over, grabs Omran by the bony shoulders, pulls him up and begins to shove him out. For even though Boromir and Omran are both beggars, Boromir is better behaved.
And so Fat Farraj manhandles and jostles and forces Old Omran back out onto the street, yelling and cursing and spitting and swearing all the way, simply because he does not like him. Fat Farraj then returns, brushes his palms together, plops down next to Boromir, claps him on the shoulder.
“I like you, Ehmir,” Farraj says gravely. “You are quiet. But careful with your poison, my white friend, for I want no sick customers – eh? Understand?”
Boromir cannot guarantee that he will not be sick tonight. But he nods slightly, jostled by this enormous man’s grip, confused by his gesticulations. Fat Farraj’s son, the gangly Mundhir, is managing the bar now, and Farraj likes to talk. And so here he is.
Smoke. Laughter. Blurs.
“You are thinking of your woman and your little son, eh?”
Boromir grunts. He does not want to talk about it.
“What are their names? Qubilah and…?”
Boromir does not remember ever telling this obese man the names of his loved ones, but he might have, once.
“Nay, nay,” he grumbles, “not Qubehlah, she hates that name. Munehrah. My wife is called Munehrah… and my son,” a belch, “Qudamah.”
“Yes! Now I remember,” Farraj affirms. “Well, you have a long face tonight, my white drunkard. Try one of the women, yes? Come, I am pitying your long face, I will pay for you. Try with one of the women. Long faces make unhappy customers.”
Boromir is having trouble managing this conversation. He cannot decipher Farraj’s Ghibli accent tonight. But he understands enough to shake his head vigorously, grab the bottle of mirtem and pull it towards him, protective.
“Nay, Farraj, please. I desire no woman.”
It is hot in the tavern, what with all the smoke and people, and Farraj is sweating. Disgusted, Boromir turns away, drinks from the bottle – one long, long, long swallow, burning down, warming him, bloating him, the artificial heat – never true heat, the heat of his beloved Munirah, when she used to brush her fingertips over his hairline and jawline and nose and then bless his eyes with two kisses – one, two – and smile when he teased – what did he used to say? What was their typical jest? He cannot remember anymore, it is slipping away…
Boromir decides something. He needs to do it before he can no longer hold a quill.
“Farraj, I need to send a letter.”
“Aye, bring me a quill and parchment. I will pay. And find me a boy – I must send a letter.”
“Now!” Boromir snarls, voice cracking, trembling.
Farraj raises pink palms.
“Very well, very well, calm down.” He scowls. “And enough of the mirtemil, eh, Ehmir? We’ll find a Messenger to send your letter and then upstairs with you for a nice, long sleep. Mundhir will find you a room.”
Boromir drops his head into his arms, too dizzy to stay upright, and he needs to regain enough sense to pen his letter, his precious letter. And so he drops his head, wearily, knocking slightly against wood, and mutters,
“Aye… Thank you, Farraj…”
Another slam against the back.
“You are very welcome! It is because I like you, Ehmir! No sleeping outside with the beggars tonight, no, the white prince sleeps inside tonight!”
And Boromir feels a hand reach into his pocket to retrieve his last few coins, another slam against the back, and then he fades…
Back awake. Back awake. The boy has arrived. It is time to pen the letter. Ink, a quill, parchment. Are they humoring him? Boromir sways. He chokes down a wave of nausea, closes his eyes to relieve the spinning in his head. The boy is waiting. How long has he been waiting? Eventually, Boromir takes the quill, aims, dips, aims again, leaning forward on one elbow to brace himself, and writes:
My beloved wife, Munirah,
It has been three years. I am in Dashmir,
I love you,
With trembling hands and tears in his eyes, he folds the letter, takes the wax, seals it, brings it to his nose, inhales, and gives it to the boy.
“This goes to Abbas, in Beshabar.”
Qudamah is ten years old. He walks along the dusty road, lugging the bucket of water with both hands. The sun – beating down, burning, sizzling – so bright, he squints in the midday sun. And the dusty road, empty. The poorest district of Abbas – outside the city walls – where ramshackle shanties lean crazily against each other, and the stomachs of the children are bloated with starvation. Qudamah is not that far yet – his stomach still caves in, exposing the ribs.
He has not yet learned how to tolerate hunger. Not like these children, younger than him, who were born into such poverty. No, he was well-fed when Bapu still lived with them. But now he starves with the poorest of Abbas, and he and his mother have thinned into brown skeletons, so that their skin has stretched over their cheekbones, and her eyes have sunken, and he sometimes cannot sleep for how hungry he is.
He has learned that if he fills his stomach with water, the worst of the hunger subsides. And so whenever his mother sends him to the well, he first hauls up the bucket and drinks as much as he can, so much that he swears he will burst. And then he lowers the bucket, and fills it again, and pours it into his own bucket, and then begins the long, sloshing march back home.
He remembers what it was – he remembers what life used to be like. It feels so long ago, so, so long ago. Almost a dream. He sometimes thinks he dreamt it all, and that he has always lived in the shanty with his lonely, skeletal mother. He sometimes thinks he never had a pale father, and the color of his eyes is only a strange accident.
Because he knows that if he thinks of what life used to be like, if he remembers, he will go insane with thinking, brooding, hating. And so he chooses to forget, to ignore that figure burning in the back of his mind.
The shanty. He steps inside, dragging the bucket with him, goes into the dirt-floor kitchen where his mother is working with the meager grains they have for their daily meal. His stomach aches to see the food – and he once again has that cruel impulse, that cruel desire to eat it all for himself, and tell his mother to go away and find some other food.
Instead, he drops the bucket on the ground, kisses his mother on the cheek, feeling the bone, and then goes outside, behind their home, in the patch of dirt where his mother hangs up their linens. He goes to see the bird. He keeps a bird in the dry-withered tree by the linen line. Or rather, a bird sometimes visits him. A large, multicolored, feathery bird. It squawks and stretches its wings and lets him stroke its beak, for he is familiar. And the bird has made its nest on the mud roof of the shanty next door – the abandoned hut where sometimes the taryâk addict lives. Qudamah has never seen the addict, but he has smelled the taryâk coming from inside, and his mother always warns him to never, ever visit or talk to the man.
But the bird is fair game, and so Qudamah approaches, mimicking bird-chirps, holding out his hand, hoping the bird will come to him even though his hands are empty. He calls the bird Saad, for good luck.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, Saad – Saad.”
The bird flaps its wings, squawks. It is perched high up on the tree today.
“Pssst, pssst. Saad – come here, Saad.”
Nothing. The bird is being stubborn today.
Qudamah drops his hand, shoves both hands into his frayed pockets, kicks at the dirt. And when he looks over the ragged wall separating his home’s patch of dirt from the road, he sees the bobbing head of a Messenger arriving. The Messengers wear yellow caps, and this bearded man is holding a handkerchief up to his mouth and nose, as if he will catch some sickness simply by being in the poor quarter. Qudamah watches the Messenger knock on the wall by the entrance, and he hears his mother beckon the man inside. Qudamah does not want to go through the formality and self-pitying disdain this man forces on him, and so he lingers outside, watching Saad dig his beak into the muddy roof of the taryâk man’s home.
When Qudamah hears the rustle of the front curtain, and sees the yellow cap bobbing again along the wall before disappearing down the road, he runs back inside, back to the kitchen. And his mother is seated now, holding the letter in one hand while the other hand has risen to her mouth. And as Qudamah approaches, he sees that there are tears streaming down his mother’s face, and the hand which holds the letter is trembling.
“Oma? What is it?”
His mother cannot reply, and so she simply covers her eyes with her hand, shakes her head. Qudamah rushes forward, pulls the letter from her. And he sees an untidy scrawl, smeared words, a dark stain. And he skims to the bottom, and there he reads:
I love you,
And now his heart is thundering, the blood is pounding in his ears, and his own hands are trembling. He reads the letter three times, frantically, and then he studies all the smears and marks and blotches – and the shocked joy, that instinctive response, has warped into something else after the third reading – turning into a fiery hate which threatens to burn through him if he does not do anything. His father, his father, his father – and this wretched existence, all because of that man - and so Qudamah throws the parchment, not caring if he rips it, and bolts out of the kitchen and out of the shanty and down the road.
He remembers when he rode the carts into the city with his friends, and they would go play games amidst all the crowded kasbah streets of Abbas. But now most of his friends will ignore him if they see him – and his new friends are those swollen-stomached children, with their brittle bones and blank, milky stares.
Today he goes into the city, running down the main road of the poor quarter and then following the city walls until he reaches the Western Gate. And there are mendicants and taryâk sellers and prostitutes and sleepy guards and all those people that linger by the gates of Abbas. He runs past them – the guards say nothing to this bone-thin urchin; he knows they do not have the desire to chase him through the city streets. And so Qudamah dodges out of the way of a few passing khemil and carts and he gets off the Old Road which leads to the Holy Square. Instead, he takes to the side streets, where all is dim shadow against the dusty-muddy buildings. And he sees a few city children scuttle away from him as he runs past, but he does not care, and he does not feel the desire to strike them – to beat them – as he sometimes does. As he sometimes must, he has learned, or else the older urchins will beat him for apparent weakness.
No, he runs now through these winding alleys, where the flat buildings are built so close that he must sometimes turn aside as other men walk past. And the great hanging sheets of white canvas, white linen, connecting the buildings, and – when he looks up – he can see the wide balconies of some homes, and he can catch a flutter of a drape – and his thoughts inevitably return to that time when his father and mother lived in such a home, before he was born. When everything was good.
He is going to the Ghibli Quarter, for he knows they hold a market today and there will be a throng of people. He pulls up his headdress, wraps, covering his mouth, for he does not wish to be recognized – his old friend Numair lives in the Ghibli Quarter – even though, Qudamah thinks, it is pointless since his pale green eyes always give him away.
After passing another narrow corner, the alleyway opens up into a small square – the Hani Square, named after one of the great Ghibli Princes from long ago – and here they are holding the market. Mostly, the Ghibli men trade in mûmakil goods – the glinting ivory tusks, the tough meat, the enormous teeth. Or they continue this cultural passion by painting mûmakil on every surface they find – on every curtain, every blanket, every robe, every tiny slab of desert gem. Mûmakil plates and mûmakil spoons and mûmakil cups. Amphorae where the mûmakil dance around the curved surface. Qudamah always used to call Numair a mûmako – it is a name the Ghibli men are often called, a barb at their oliphaunt obsession. But Qudamah knows that if he called a Ghibli man a mûmako now, he would receive a beating.
Long ago, Qudamah learned that begging does not work. For he would sit in a corner of an alleyway, tiny hands outstretched, waiting for charity. And he hated the looks that people gave them – those carefully avoided gazes as the men and women shuffled past, urging their children along. Sometimes, an old woman or a young soldier would drop a few coins into Qudamah’s hands, but at the end of the day it was not enough to buy a single flat bread.
And so Qudamah steals, as most of his fellow urchins do. Today he dodges past men and women, he pulls coin pouches from bags, nips them from stands, stuffs his pockets with precious jewels and gems and discarded ivory shavings. And with nimble fingers he slips away everything his eye catches – for even though his mother has often said that to steal is a sin, that it is sinful to hate one’s father, that the One and the gods curse men who seek more than what they already have – Qudamah knows that to live like this, as a beggar, fatherless, hungry and hated, is as much a living curse as one could find in all his mother’s Duzax tales. Things cannot get worse than this.
But today they did, for he did not want to hear a drunk father’s ramblings – if he loves us, he would never have left! – and so Qudamah has come to this market to steal away whatever he can find, heedless, angry, daring someone to come and stop him.
“Qudamah,” a voice calls.
Qudamah stops, startled. His hand is still in his pocket, and he turns away from the mûmak ivory stand. And there, standing behind him, is Numair’s mother. The old woman has ever been kind to Qudamah, and she is watching him now, her dark eyes squinting shrewdly. He meets her gaze, motionless. Waiting. And Numair’s mother is holding a basket, she has just visited the meat market. And Qudamah’s eyes flicker to the red, raw meat wrapped in the sticky-tree leaves, and, nudging against it, the dried meat for traveling. He swallows.
“How is your mother?” Numair’s mother asks.
Qudamah nods. He pulls away the headdress to talk, ever cautious not to jingle the coins in his pocket.
“She is well, mâdar,” he hesitates before adding, “How is Numair?”
“He is well, abini, thank you for asking.”
And Qudamah smiles. Only Numair’s mother insists on calling him abini when all others have long since stopped. Even Numair – his supposed best friend from when they were little – the last thing he said – filthy half-pale…
“Enjoying the market?” Numair’s mother asks, her eyes narrowing.
Qudamah nods. “Yes.”
There is a pause. And Numair’s mother’s gaze sweeps over Qudamah, taking in his patched clothes, his bony limbs, his prominent cheekbones. He feels himself being observed, and inadvertently he lifts his chin. He does not want this – he does not want pity from this woman.
But Numair’s mother’s expression eventually softens, becomes sorrowful. And she digs through her basket before pulling out a few strips of dried goat meat, wrapped in the green leaves. Qudamah immediately steps away – he does not want to receive this, even as his stomach is screaming for it – but Numair’s mother simply grabs his small hand, places the meat in his palm.
“Take this to your mother,” the woman says. “I don’t forget the days of your father, and you have always been good people. Take it.”
And so Qudamah nods dumbly, unable to say anything – for he is torn between thanking her and rejecting the gift and running away from all of this for she said the days of your father. All he can do is nod, and she smiles, bends forward, kisses his hair before blessing him softly and turning away, disappearing back into the bustling market.
His will crumbles during the walk home. The meat’s scent is tickling his nose, making his mouth water, causing his stomach to revolt and churn. He has not even made it back to the Old Road when, hidden in an alley, he sits on a step, rips away the leaf covering, eats all of the dried meat. Stuffing his mouth, kicking away the clawing beggar-children, he eats, chews, swallows convulsively. Smearing the fat over his chin and jowls, salivating in his haste, forcing all of it down until his stomach begins to ache.
And then, it is finished. He stares at the empty leaves, glistening with the residual grease. And his stomach begins to hurt – he should not have eaten so much, so quickly. And his mother…
He weeps when he thinks of her. Of what he has done. And his stomach begins to churn fire, it hurts, and he cannot stifle his hiccuping sobs, the tears streaming down his cheeks. And so he burrows his face in his arms, leaning over his knees, and cries – feeling suddenly ten years old again. One of the beggar-children creeps up to him, places his hand on his knee, jostles a little. But Qudamah pulls away, pushes himself against the wall, not wanting to be seen or heard.
And once his cries are spent – and he wipes his eyes, his nose – a long, slow inhalation-exhalation – he stands, considers for a moment, and then throws down the leaves and goes running back towards the Ghibli Market.
He finds Numair’s mother on her way out of the market. She is walking away from Hani Square, and Qudamah catches up with her in one of the alleyways.
She turns. “Qudamah?” And, seeing the pale trails on his cheeks, his reddened eyes and nose, she asks, “What is it? What has happened?”
“I – the meat – ” he cannot still the trembling of his chin, and so he covers his mouth with his hand, looks down at his feet. But he cannot tell her, no, he cannot tell her, he is so ashamed he thinks he will weep again. And so, stuttering, “Some – the older children, they – they took it – ”
Numair’s mother makes a sympathetic noise. “Oh, my dear, I’m sorry. Here, here.” She digs through the basket, pulls out another packet of dried meat wrapped in leaves. And she puts this in Qudamah’s wide pockets, stuffing it deep. “Keep it here, abini, and don’t let anyone know you have it. Now run home, it’s almost dusk and they will close the Gates soon.”
“Yes, mâdar. Thank you, mâdar.”
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