Around midnight two horses were racing south across uncharted country, along mysterious paths. On the back of one of the horses sat the Poet, on the other Marqus with Yamna seated astride close to his chest. Yamna was still unconscious.
"Are we going anywhere particular?" the Poet inquired, after about a one-hour ride.
"All roads lead to freedom," replied Marqus with perfect aplomb. "What matters now is that the woman should recover as soon as possible."
"Maybe we'll have to halt somewhere to give her a rest and feed the horses," the Poet said in a surprisingly calm voice.
"Yes, my friend. I mean to ask some of these villagers on the way to house us for a day or a night."
"But they would be paid for that, I suppose?"
"I've some money on me," Marqus said, after some hesitation.
"Did you take-"
"Yes. Some." After a pause, he added, "Be careful: keep your arm at the ready. Danger lurks everywhere."
As dawn approached, the weather began to turn nasty. The sky was gradually covered with thick clouds. A cold wind blew from the west. The Poet felt exhausted, after a several-mile ride across now level, now rolling country. Marqus had to halt from time to time to make sure that he would pick the safest path, the one that would offer some cover. Yamna was still drowned in her deep sleep. The Poet had many a thing to say, but he could not afford to bandy words with the leader.
And thus went on the ride until the Poet and his companion found themselves making their way into a little cluster of hills. Once they reached these hills, they could ride no further. Day was already beginning to break and a light, fine rain had begun to fall. The two riders stopped at a small, secluded grove. The Poet was the first to alight because he had to help Marqus take the woman down carefully. Once Marqus had sat under a tree and placed Yamna on his crossed legs, he commanded the Poet to unsaddle and hobble the horses, and then said:
"You see, Salman, it's drizzling. We have no other course but to ask somebody for shelter. And you see I have-"
"I see," the Poet interrupted, with beating heart. He understood what he had to do.
"So would you go?" Marqus resumed in a friendly tone.
"Yes. I'll try. But don't go away from here!"
"Of course, I'll stay here."
The Poet moved off. He stood on top of a knoll and looked about him. He saw a lot more rises going up and down, partly covered with green. A good number of groves lay scattered here and there, just like houses. One of these houses stood lonely on one side of a hill. The Poet made for it. The rain still fell in very thin showers, and the path leading up to the house was quite arduous. The Poet just tottered in Haroon's floppy clothes until, at long last, he was by the house. It was a very humble, mud-walled cottage with a small wooden door. The door was shut. A small dog which was roaming around started to yap at the Poet, who preferred not to knock, hoping that the dog's yaps would arouse the curiosity of the people inside. The rain stopped suddenly, but rain-clouds were still in the sky. The Poet waited but nobody opened the door. So he knocked. A teenage boy dressed in brown opened the door.
"Peace be upon you," the Poet began uneasily.
"Peace be upon you too," replied the boy.
"Is your father in?"
The boy stared at the Poet, then vanished behind the door. After a moment an old, huge-bearded man came out. He as wearing a long, white undergarment.
"Peace be upon you, sir," the Poet said in the same tremulous voice.
"Peace be upon you too," replied the old man, looking inquiringly at the Poet's face and clothes.
"Mm-er-sir, ahem, excuse me, sir, would you– do us a favour?"
The old man gazed, frowned, coughed and said:
"You're welcome. What's the matter?"
"What shall I tell you, sir? Well, a man and I have come on horse–back from Tlemsen." And after a brief pause, the Poet gasped: "There's a woman with us. This woman is ill and needs some rest."
"Where were you going?"
"To the south," replied the Poet breathlessly.
The old man stared fixedly at the Poet and asked:
"Who's the woman with you?"
"She's my companion's woman," said the Poet in a mumble.
The old man bowed his head, pondered for a while, then said, as he moved to go into the cottage:
"Well, wait a moment."
The Poet waited anxiously for the old man to reappear. The old man came out at last, wearing a light yellow gown. The lad stood behind him.
"Where is the woman?" the old man asked.
"There," replied the Poet, pointing to the grove where he had left Marqus.
"So let's go."
And they went down the hill, the old man propping himself up on the lad's shoulder. And on the way, the old man asked more questions.
"What's wrong with the woman?" he asked.
"I don't exactly know, sir," the Poet answered after a slight pause.
"How long has she been ill?"
The Poet sighed and stalled.
At length, he said:
"She often falls ill, sir."
The old man then fell silent, until they reached the tree under which sat Marqus with Yamna on his legs.
"Peace be upon you," the old man said as he stood looking at the woman.
"Peace be upon you too," echoed Marqus.
"It seems the woman has fainted, hasn't she?" the old man remarked as he knelt to sit next to Marqus. The lad sat beside him.
"Yes, sir," replied Marqus. "You see, sir, the situation allows of no delay. The woman needs something to be done for her urgently."
"I see," said the old man with a donnish look. And after some silence, during which the Poet and Marqus waited impatiently for relief, the old man stood up and said:
“I can allow the woman to be treated in my house for a day, or a day and a night. But you’ve got to hand in your arms and look for somewhere else to stay. My cottage is too small to house you all.”
Marqus and the Poet looked at one another inquiringly, then Marqus turned to he old man and said with a grateful look:
“That would be very kind of you, sir.”
“Then let’s go,” replied the old man. “Give me your arms and take the woman up to my cottage.”
The Poet handed the arms to the old man and Marqus tottered to his feet and followed on the heels of the old man, who still leant upon the boy’s shoulder. The Poet did not go with them. Marqus had given him a sign to stay and keep watch on the horses.
The Poet sat under a tree and looked on as the old man, the boy and Marqus trudged on their way uphill to the cottage. In the meantime he mused. What to do now? He had so far mastered his jealousy, which was no mean feat for an amorous young man like himself. But how long would he be able to stand Marqus’ uncompromising spirit? One mind said to him now: “If you’ve got any sense you’d better get up, mount a horse and go away!” But where to go?...
The little company reached the cottage. The Poet simply looked on as all four vanished through the small wooden door. Then Marqus reappeared alone outside. After a while the old man appeared, too, and moved with Marqus down another path than the one they had taken before. Soon afterwards they went out of sight.
The clouds rolled away as the sun rose higher and higher. The Poet waited impatiently for either Marqus or the old man to join him. So far no strange creature had appeared nearby. But, unarmed, the Poet had good cause not to feel secure here. Who knows? His heart pleaded with him to take a horse and go away, anywhere away. Even though unarmed. But he was also too weary to set out on a new journey. So he stayed, and waited.
At long last Marqus appeared, with the old man and another man. These two climbed up toward the cottage on the hill and Marqus down toward the Poet. Marqus carried a small basket in one hand. Soon he was seated quietly beside the Poet. He took from the basket a loaf of bread and boiled eggs and gave them to the Poet. The Poet took this and began to eat in silence. When he finished, he turned to Marqus and said:
“I’m very tired. I want to get some sleep.”
“Right,” replied Marqus laconically.
The Poet looked about him and his eyes fell on a spot carpeted with fallen leaves, to which he moved, and then lay on his side and closed his lids. Soon he was asleep.
When the Poet awoke some time later he found Marqus sleeping nearby and the horses tied to a tree each. He rose and began to stroll about quietly. A slight breeze blew in the grove. After a few moments’ stroll the Poet moved to sit beside Marqus and waited for him to wake.
Marqus awoke around noon. He gathered himself and sat upright next to the Poet, who looked at him dreamily. The Poet made to speak, but hesitated and then remained silent. Marqus noticed this and spoke.
“It’s hot, isn’t it?” he said.
After a small silence, Marqus invited the Poet to stroll around the grove. The Poet rose wearily and started to shuffle at Marqus’ side. The Poet was reluctant to talk first. So Marqus spared him the trouble.
“Do you know where we are going?”
“No,” replied the Poet, curiously.
“No, I don’t, by God!”
“I can’t. Please tell me.”
“We are going to Lehreem!”
“What’s that you say?” said the Poet, after a pause. He wondered whether his companion was sober. For his breath stank of wine.
“Don’t you want to get Sultana back?” Marqus said, trying to preclude the Poet’s doubts.
“Excuse me, Marqus, but your mouth smells of wine. I think wine has loosed your tongue a bit.”
“On the contrary, I’m very sober.”
The Poet gazed for a while, then hung his head and fell into silence. Several questions crossed his mind, but he preferred putting them to himself. It occurred to him that Marqus only wanted him to think thenceforth of Sultana and forget all about Yamna. Marqus’ words had indeed started him thinking of Sultana. But couldn’t Marqus be serious when he said what he said? Why not, the Poet thought, Marqus could do that! He’s a brave man and full of tricks… Soon the Poet felt dizzy. “Let’s sit down,” he said.
The Poet and Marqus sat side by side in the shade of a tree. And both kept quiet, each waiting for the other to speak next. To The Poet, it all seemed like a beautiful, crazy dream where he saw himself and Sultana together, embracing each other, weeping into one another… But the soonest Yamna sprang to his mind the beautiful dream crumbled.
Soon after lunchtime El-Hussein, the boy who had accompanied the old man, came down to the grove and told the Poet and Marqus that the old man –his grand-father– asked them to lunch. He also reassured them that they needed not worry about their horses. So Marqus and the Poet rose and went with the boy. The old man and another man were waiting in a small, poorly furnished room next to the cottage’s door.
“This is Ben Mahmood, our physician,” said the old man to the Poet, indicating the middle-aged man who sat next to him.
“This is Salman, our guest,” said the old man to the physician, indicating the Poet.
The Poet and Ben Mahmood bowed slightly and shook hands. Soon El-Hussein came in carrying an empty bucket and a cup of water. He went from one man to another as they washed their hands. Then he left and returned with a plate of chicken and vegetables that the he set in front of his grand-father.
The boy brought bread in another plate and went out. As the men began to eat, the old man turned to the Poet and said:
“Don’t be shy! Make yourself at home.”
“Oh, he’s so hungry he could eat a horse,” said Marqus to the old man, grinning. “But you really must tell him to eat!”
“No,” said the old man. “This cannot happen under my roof! He must eat.”
Everybody chuckled. Then there was silence. Suddenly, the old man looked up at the Poet and said:
“Your friend Marqus has told me his story. Now tell us yours.”
The Poet hedged and hesitated. He wondered what Marqus might have told the old man. What kind of story? Had he said anything about Haroon?... The Poet was puzzled what to say. Marqus glanced at him, then at the old man and said, grinning:
“He’s rather unsure of himself. Don’t waste words on him!”
The Poet was anything but happy to hear this. It was sometime before he was able to speak.
“Frankly,” he said suddenly, trying his best to avoid Marqus’ eye, “I was once a poet. And it so happened that I galled my amir. So he tried me and sold me into slavery. The slavers sold me to a Jew in Tlemsen. And then everything had gone rather smoothly until last evening when my master got some bad news. He was shocked and he tried to kill his wife and me but, thank God, my friend Marqus intervened and saved us.”
“I quite believe you,” said the old man, “but- your story is a little bit strange. Why should your master kill his wife?”
“She’s a Muslim,” the Poet explained. Marqus turned and gaped at him.
“Even though!” the old man said, laughing quietly. “A Jew would not do that on an impulse! I don’t think your master had really meant to kill any of you in that way. A Jew, to my knowledge, would rather internalize his passions and wait for the right moment to take the best decision possible- wouldn’t he, Marqus?”
“Oh yes, of course!” replied Marqus, chewing and sniffing.
The old man gazed at him a long while. But Marqus, who noticed this, just lowered his head and stopped eating.
“But a Jew remains a human after all,” Ben Mahmood put in politely. “And any human in such a situation would do the same as that Jew.”
“Possibly,” the old man commented, without looking at anybody.
There followed a long silence. Then Marqus asked after Yamna. Ben Mahmood reassured him…
After lunch, Ben Mahmood invited the Poet and Marqus to his own home, a cottage standing in its own grounds on the other side of the hill. Ben Mahmood conducted his guests into a small, airy room and stayed with them until they had tea together, then he left them to have a sleep.
The sky was aglow with the setting sun. The Poet and Marqus were sitting side by side in the shade of a tree near Ben Mahmood’s cottage. Ben Mahmood had just left them and gone somewhere down the hill. The Poet, who was contemplating the beautiful sun, glanced at his companion and said, suddenly:
“Where have you drunk wine today?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“I want some.”
“Ah!” said Marqus, looking as if he had just recalled something. “That reminds me! You said the Jew’s wife is a Muslim. How’s that?”
The Poet stalled for a while. Then he yielded to an irresistible impulse to tell all he knew. He told Marqus all he had himself heard from Yamna. Marqus insisted on hearing more. And the Poet told him more. Everything, laying a particular emphasis on what had happened on his bed. And as he unfolded his stories, Marqus looked at him with eyes as red as the sun at that moment. He was astounded. Ben Mahmood came back and the Poet broke off.
The Poet and Marqus spent that night at Ben Mahmood’s cottage. Their horses were brought up and tied up to the tree outside and the saddles were taken into the cottage. Little talk passed between the Poet and his companion in the rest of that day. As to Ben Mahmood, he talked about the landscape and the ways of the people…
Early on the following morning Ben Mahmood saw Yamna. The Poet and Marqus waited outside the old man’s house. The old man remained inside to assist the physician. After about an hour and a half Ben Mahmood and the old man came out to tell the two companions that Yamna was a great deal better, but she still needed a longer respite. Then all four men went to a nearby weekly market. Only the old man took a donkey and the other three went on foot.
On the way to the market, Ben Mahmood asked the Poet to tell him his full story. Without any hesitation or haste the Poet began: “Well, I was born…” All the others listened –or so they seemed– with interest. When the Poet’s tale came to a close, the old man glanced back at him and said, smiling:
“Hey Salman! Children would find your story a delight to hear. But take it from me, never tell it again to grown-ups!”
But the Poet did not mind this. He just chuckled like the others.
At the market-place, the old man invited the three men with him to a cup of tea at a café-like shop. As all sat down on a mat in a half-circle, with the tea-tray in front of them, Marqus said suddenly, lifting the cup of tea to his thick lips:
“Salman told me yesterday that he wanted wine.”
The Poet felt ashamed, but kept quiet.
“Is that true?” the old man asked, looking askance at the Poet.
“Yes, I said that,” the Poet replied uneasily. “But I didn’t mean it. I was just joking.”
“Good,” said the old man, turning to Marqus. “Muslims are prohibited from drinking wine. Only Jews and Christians can drink it, isn’t it so, Marqus?”
“It is! That’s what I know, sir,” replied Marqus in his guttural voice.
“But tell me, Marqus,” said the old man, rubbing his nose, “what do you think of Islam?”
“Islam as such is good, and so are Christianity and Judaism. But when I look at Muslims or Christians or Jews, I begin to doubt whether religion –any religion– can be of some use to man.”
“How?” asked the old man, now stroking his huge white beard.
“Well, just look at people now. Wherever you go there is a war. A man kills his brother just for a plot of ground. Another man kills his friend just for a woman. A master subjects his slave to torture and all kinds of humiliation…”
“But do you deny the existence of Allah?”
Marqus held his breath. Then he said, looking at the floor:
“That’s not the question. Well, what amazes me, really, is that everywhere I have gone I’ve always seen people fear people more than they do God. And this–”
“And what about you?” the old man interrupted. “Are you a good Christian? Do you pray?”
Marqus stalled again. At length he replied:
“Well, in my youth I used to go to Church. And even when I was sold into slavery I still kept some faith in my heart. But my experiences have made it hard for me to believe any longer in–”
Marqus hesitated, then said:
“I can’t explain myself well, sir.”
Ben Mahmood intervened and changed the topic. Curiously, he mentioned Yamna once and then began to talk of the fair sex…
It was Marqus who paid for the tea. He also paid for all that the old man and Ben Mahmood bought that day. The Poet had just watched and mused.
On arrival from market that day Marqus warned the Poet in private not to voice any wish to go away. “Let them expel us,” Marqus said. But the old man and Ben Mahmood did not seem in a hurry to send their guests away. Three endless days rolled by and the guests were still there. The Poet spent the days with the old man, helping him with the monotonous daily chores. Marqus chose to spend the days with Ben Mahmood. And both the Poet and Marqus would spend the nights at Ben Mahmood’s cottage. Yamna, who was getting better and better, stayed at the old man’s home. Marqus and the Poet had not as yet been allowed to see her.
On the fourth day, the Poet lunched with the old man, as usual, in his cottage. Both began to eat in silence. After a while, the Poet let out a small sigh. The old man looked up at him and said:
“What’s the matter with you?”
The Poet raised his eyes quickly and fastened them on the old man’s wrinkled face. He made to speak, but said nothing. He lowered his eyes again. The old man said:
“Tell me, what’s the matter with you?”
The Poet sighed deeply and said:
“You will not understand me!”
“What shall I not understand?”
“I love Yamna,” replied the Poet, after a pause.
The old man, who must have detected in the Poet’s voice pain and torment, gave a sigh, and then said, as he lowered his eyes:
“I myself was dazzled by her beauty, and so was Ben Mahmood. And you told us that it was Marqus who had saved you –you and the woman. I think it would be idle to pretend that one could stand in his way. So far you’ve noticed I’ve tried hard not to raise any questions.” He hesitated for a moment, and then went on, “I could well have said, ‘So Yamna is not Marqus’ wife! Whose woman is she, then?’ But I did not want to trigger a fight under my roof. See?”
“I see,” said the Poet with a moving sigh.
The old man looked up at him and said:
“You ought to thank Allah for the mere fact that you have restored your freedom. If you lost this woman, you might come across a myriad of other women! The whole future lies before you.” The old man’s voice began to tremble suddenly: “I think the woman wouldn’t acquiesce in marrying any of you, if I’m any judge. She has dropped me a hint that she would like to stay here, with us.”
The Poet frowned. His heart beat faster than a moment before. He wondered whether the old man was just beating about the bush. The old man noticed the Poet’s bewilderment and broke off in the middle of a sentence. After a while he spoke again. “The weather’s fine these days, isn’t it?” he began. The Poet just gaped at him.
A whole week passed and neither the old man nor Ben Mahmood asked their guests to go. Marqus’ money diminished daily. He began to suspect ‘the generosity’ of these two men here. He talked with the Poet about this, and the Poet’s reply was: “Do whatever seems best!” On the eighth day Marqus was very forthright.
“Mr Larbi,” he said to the old man, in the presence of Ben Mahmood and the Poet, in the shade of a tree, “we are very much obliged to you. We thank you for all you have done for us over all these long eight days. Ahem– Now, I think it’s enough. We shall go.”
“Go?” asked Larbi, “Go where? Why not stay with us? You should have thanked God night and day for having saved you from the Turks. I still wonder how you have been able to get up to here without being caught by the Turks. No, you will stay with us. You personally can stay Christian as you are. No one will harm you. Besides, how could you go now?” His voice shook. “Let me be quite plain with you: the woman can’t go with you. Oh let me say: I can’t allow her to go with you, now!”
Marqus reddened. The Poet’s countenance turned grey. Ben Mahmood stifled a smile and coughed slightly. Larbi glared hard at Marqus. Marqus finally lowered his fiery eyes and kept quiet. Everybody else kept quiet for a very long while, during which each seemed to be thinking in his own way about the same matter. Then, Larbi coughed suddenly and said in a calm voice, looking at the ground:
“Tonight we’ll settle this matter.”
Nobody spoke next. They just glanced at the old man and then looked away from him.
Nightfall seemed too far away. The Poet was on tenterhooks. The old man allowed him to stay at his cottage until sunset. And there the Poet lay on a blanket and meditated… Yamna had enthralled all these adult men, and these men had been about to come to blows. Why? For a beauty that that raised their bestial desires high above their reason… A man who cannot love at first sight such a beauty is an anomaly. That’s absolutely unchallengeable. But to fight for her? No!... And what about him, the Poet? What about Yamna herself? No one had given a moment’s thought to their own feelings. Both were treated with selfish apathy… Yamna was suddenly set on a pedestal for her beauty, but, unfortunately, not for her person. Nobody cared that she was numbed with grief. Nobody gave a serious thought to her unhappy past… Nobody loved her!...