Salman could now see on the horizon a vivid green point at which the heated sky seemed to kiss the wide sea of grilling sand. The sun, having mulishly gripped the zenith, would not budge an inch and stayed there spraying the world with intolerable fire.
After a long way now there was no bird flying overhead, no beast wandering below. The green point on the horizon was now becoming bigger and clearer. The camel was half-galloping, half-gamboling.
At long last, Salman could see a fine line of near-white water. As he reached its faint extreme, he began to see vapours rising unhurriedly from the boiling water. He sighed and patted his camel, who moved on along the rill meandering across the wavy stretches of sand. Now Salman resumed his tunes and songs. The flute was wavering between his fingers, which now looked singed by the baking sun. The camel was now just plodding on his way along the rill –which was growing smoothly into a noisy stream.
At one of its turns, the stream would vanish amidst the palm-trees that made up this luxuriant ‘forest’. It was from beyond the ‘forest’, from some few mountains there, that the stream came flowing, burbling– indifferent to what was going on all around. Even when flowing past the Amir’s palace the stream would not change. It did not make any difference between the palace and any of those abodes, humble and lustrous alike, which had chosen to stand on its banks.
The Amir’s palace, which actually looked more like a fortress than a palace, stood lonely on one bank. Only exceptionally huge, thick palm-trees had grown as a natural fence around it. The earthen outside walls of the palace radiated a nice colour which enhanced the beauty and the quiet of the whole area. Reddish brown intermingled with vivid green to make a cheerful show. Far beyond the trees surrounding the palace, anyone could build his house. On the opposite bank, facing the palace, stood nice houses that told much about their owners. In the rest of the ‘forest’ –it was rather an oasis– about a thousand people lived in small houses, clustered in groups of ten to twenty, to form madasheer. All these madasheer had to be loyal to the Amir.
The camel was taking Salman to Aït Abed, his madshar, about a mile away from the palace. All along the way a few people were about their monotonous daily chores. But the noise that could then be heard came more from birds and dogs than from people.
Salman was dressed in the manner of the people of Lehreem –for this was the name of the oasis. Every man had to wear a sky-blue robe and wrap a black shawl round his head. The women were free to choose the colours of their gowns and shawls, and they could show more than the face and hands, if they so desired.
Salman had just turned thirty. He was rather thin in face and body. He had an unkempt beard. His eyes were brown and his eyebrows, like his beard and moustache, looked as if hennaed. His carious teeth were yellowish, except for one premolar, which had grown rather black. He had a long, thin nose and hollow cheeks.
As soon as Salman alighted from the sweltering back of his camel, a teenage boy rushed to him and shouted:
“Good evening, Our Poet!”
“It’s not evening yet, boy!”
“Where have you been?”
“Go and tie the camel up to the palm-tree. I’ve been to the market. Isn’t Monday market-day?”
The boy grabbed the halter that hang from the camel’s neck and strolled towards the palm-tree to tie up the camel.
“Has anyone asked for me?” Salman inquired, handing a basket to the boy, who was now standing by.
“Tonight must be a feast! I see a lot of meat in the basket. And fruits…”
“Ask my father! I’ve learned some people had come from the palace.”
“I don’t know.”
“Is your father in?”
Salman strode up to one of these several houses that made up the Aït Abed madshar. It was, as all its sisters, a simple house made of poor stone and clay and roofed over with palm-branches and slates. Salman found the boy’s father at the door of the house.
“Allah’s peace be with you,” Salman said in a sweet voice.
“Peace be with you too,” replied the other cheerfully. “Come in.”
Both walked into the house. They sat side by side on a simple blanket in one of the house’s four rooms.
“How was the market today?” asked the boy’s father, looking at the floor.
“As always: a fair of camels and dates.”
“Fine men grow on camel-meat and dates, don’t they, Salman?”
“Some. Others grow on mutton and exotic fruits.”
“I am not talking of those. I’m talking of the people of Lehreem.”
“Still, those I meant do live in Lehreem, don't they?”
“They’re not of our blood and flesh. They’re imposed upon us, don’t you remember?”
“Unfortunately, they will never go.”
“Two men came from there.”
“They said the Amir was expecting guests. And you must be present. Foreign poets will be there too.”
“Rubbish!” Salman sighed before he added, “I wish I’d never come into being!”
“You are praised there!”
“For what? For telling lies to the Amir and the Amira! I must be ashamed of myself.”
“That’s your fate, Salman.”
“No. That’s a punishment.”
“Are you going?”
“Against my will. I’ve begun to fear the Amira.”
“How do you mean?”
“I feel she’ll soon find out.”
“Keep faithful to your God. Never be afraid of your destiny!”
“My fear is unfortunately growing more and more mighty than my faith. I don’t know what to do. My life had been quite happy until I got to know this Amir. It then veered and obstinately refused to clear up. And now my ways can no longer be mended. That vamp of his has brought me from a sane man down to a silly dandy-”
“Salman, keep faithful to your God. Never be afraid of your destiny. I’m your elder brother: I know more that you do. I’m almost fifty, twenty years older that you, have you forgotten? A man does not fear anything, you know. Have a cup of tea with us now and take a rest. Then go and see to your status at the palace…”
After tea and a few hours’ uneasy sleep Salman left his brother’s house and headed straight towards his own. As he neared the door, the boy, who had been sitting there, sprang to his feet and interposed himself between his uncle and the door. From the boy’s wide eyes emanated quite a palpable glow of infantile vanity. Salman smiled.
“I won’t let you in until you tell me!” said the boy.
“I tell you what?”
“How long shall I be waiting before I could become a great poet like you? I’m now thirteen, you know!”
Salman’s hands fell as two hunks of ice upon the boy’s burning cheeks. The boy luxuriated greatly in their gentle caresses. Salman spoke as he removed his hands.
“It’s no good being a poet!” he said, smiling awkwardly.
“Among all the poets I’ve known so far there has been no one you may envy. They’re all miserable, all in all!”
“I won’t believe you! How could one living all the time with the Amir at the palace not be happy? Keep honest, Uncle Salman! Don’t tell me lies! I’m not a child!”
“I hope you’ll never be a poet. Let me now go!”
“No! Not before you tell me!”
“I tell you what?”
The boy began reciting proudly, although somewhat sadly, waving his right arm in the air:
‘You’re a honey
No money can buy.
You’re the power of a flower
That doesn’t die.
You’re the way a swallow would follow
When it first can fly.
When I need you by night,
You are far, by a star;
There, in the glowing sky!
When I need you by day:
You are there; you play;
And, in my shack, alone I die!
And if ever you come
I wish you wouldn’t come
For when you come
I ruthlessly die!’
Salman laughed. The boy blushed slightly, but kept on staring at his uncle.
“How do you find it, you Poet?” he asked proudly.
“That’s too much for a boy like yourself! You’ve quite an old head on your shoulders. Yet I hope I’ll never see you at the palace.”
“You envy me, Uncle?”
“If you stay away from the palace, all the poets of Lehreem will envy you!”
“You must be a crazy drunk, Great Poet! You’re just driveling! You can go now. Peace be with you… Great Poet!”
The boy stepped aside and broke into a run. Soon the silence came back to the spot. Salman sighed and paced onward. He opened the door, which had already been unlocked by the boy.
Now a soft light radiated from the candle Salman had just lit. The yellowish red rays sparkled all around. Salman was reclining on a small, silken blanket. In one corner of the room there was a table on which lay a pile of manuscrïpts. In another there was a small wooden cupboard.
After some time, it was twilight. Salman knew it by the pale colour of the sky that could be seen through a small window behind the table and the cupboard. So he had to go out for the ritual ablutions and then the Dusk Prayers.
A handful of people had come to attend the prayers. When these were over, the men present gathered out at the entrance to the mosque. Salman knew they were going to have a puerile chat. So he simply apologized and left, saying he was not feeling well.
He got back to his house. After a short rest, he moved idly into the kitchen to prepare his dinner.
Salman’s dinner was not ready yet when hard knocks came to disturb the quiet of the little abode. He rose reluctantly to open the door. He found two men he knew well. Each of the comers, dressed in the manner of the Palace Guard, was clutching the reins bending from the bit in one hand and holding a small basket in the other.
“Good evening, Our Poet,” said the guards together.
“Good evening,” echoed the Poet listlessly.
“His Highness the Amir will dine tonight on roasted doves,” said one of the guards, smiling. “In this basket you will find some.”
The Poet took the basket calmly.
“Her Highness the Amira will dine tonight on a roasted gazelle,” said the other guard with a mocking look in his eyes. “In this basket you will find some. Her Highness did not forget to add some bread you must not have at home.”
The Poet took this basket too, with the same calmness, and said:
“Tell His Highness the Amir and Her Highness the Amira I love them both.”
“So you will be present at the palace by this time tomorrow,” one of the guards said sternly. “Neither His Highness the Amir nor Her Highness the Amira will ever be able to stomach any probable absence of yours. I don’t want to be rude, but I must remind you that you will not come for nothing.”
“Bring some marvelous song in your throat,” explained the other guard.
“I shall come,” answered the Poet.
“So have a good night, Our Poet!” said the guards in unison, and mounted their horses. The Poet waited till they disappeared into the dark, then he headed for his brother’s home. He took out the bread and passed what remained in the two baskets on to his nephew, who answered his call. When he was back, he went straight into the kitchen. The meal was not ready yet. But he remained there, sitting on a stool, and thinking of what was awaiting him at the palace.