The Ephemeral Man
The old man was dying. For a long time he had sounded like the sandstorm around an oasis, when the sand attacks the palms and the loose bark of the trees is torn away by the dry, howling wind. There were better nights, especially after it had rained and the air was more humid, but they were becoming rare.
I tried to make his last days as comfortable as I could, but the thing he needed most, rest, he would not have. He wanted to talk all the time, remembering scenes from his eighty-three years on Earth, forty of which I had spent with him. He wanted me to prop him up in his divan, sit down next to him, and talk, talk all through the day and into the night.
“Mashood, remember when I found you at the fruit market? You were twelve. You had just pinched a… what was it? A grapefruit? A peach?…” he’d start, and I would gently correct him.
“It was a pear, Master.”
“That’s what I thought, a peach… and then you ran into me, and I blocked your escape. The fruit dealer wasn’t very happy with you, was he? He lifted you right off the ground by the ears.”
The memory still burned my earlobes. “He did, Master, and he would have done much worse, had it not been for you.”
“Yes, it is funny, isn’t it… I was there right at the moment that I could help you, and you ran into me, and not someone else. And even then, I wasn’t looking for a little boy to become a servant, I had servants aplenty. But there was something-”
I had heard this story a million times already, but I asked him, “What was it, Master, that made you take pity on me?”
The light from the single oil lamp in the room glittered in his eye. He looked at me and smiled. “You had an intelligent look in your feisty eyes. I could see you were clever, just like that, at a glance. And intelligent servants are a rare breed indeed.” He burst into another fit of coughs that shook his desiccated little body.
I tried to offer him some wine blended with water, but he only watered his lips with the liquid, then pushed it away. “I wasn’t expecting to find someone I could train to be my assistant, but as you know, Life has a way of finding things and letting things be found,” he said and closed his eyes.
As I started back from him, to go and prepare his meagre supper, he surprised me by moving his hand and grabbing me. “Did I act right that day? Did I do what I was supposed to when I paid the grocer, and calmed him down so he wouldn’t sell you off for a slave to the Syrians? Or did I interrupt the flow of your life, causing it to be derailed and thwarted, and not what it was to have been?”
I took his hand and placed it back in his lap. “Master, you know my life has been the best possible after you rescued me.” I wasn’t lying. The streets of Nishapur were not an easy place for orphans. We all dreamed of better lives, but I was the only one of the ragged gang of snot-nosed rascals who lived past twenty years.
“Oh well. The lives that we live and the ones that we could have lived are all just reflections of sunlight in the River Oxus. There is no life that should have been picked from all the possible ones.” He lay back and breathed in, sounding like a broken reed flute. “We just act out one of them, on a whim, like the wind picks up leaves from the ground and drops them on the ground again.”
Having delivered this, he lay silent for a while, and I thought he dozed. I went to pick up the fruits and ground millet he liked to have with some goat milk, but when I returned, he was looking at me with a twinkling eye. I served him his meal, and he ate with more purpose than on many an evening. He ate all I brought him, and thanked me. I put the bowl away and sat next to him.
“You have served me well, Mashood. I took a gamble when I picked you from the dust and installed you in school. Only three years after that you were able to help me in my calculations, and I would not have completed the Ephemeris so soon had it not been for you, my friend. And without the Ephemeris… no calendar, and without calendar, no reputation, fame, and all this. The Sultan would have thought me just another useless mathematician.” The old man lifted his hand and waved across the room. “And now I will leave all this, for naught.”
My heart was crying because of the truth in his words. “Master, you will be remembered for all eternity for your work. I am just angry because it is called the Jalali calendar, and not the Khayyamite calendar.”
He closed his eyes again, weary and worn. “Sultans come and go, caliphs arrive only to depart, and mathematicians leave the Earth behind. Only the Sun and the Moon and the planets will see us all out, and names will matter even less when no one is here to use them. The Calendar itself will work until the end of days, regardless of whether anyone uses it. It will follow the laws of the heavens.” Another spasm of coughs. The few leaves left in his tree would soon flutter to the ground. “The only laws there really are, you see.”
“I will remember you, and my sons after me, and their sons. Your memory will not die.”
“That’s kind of you, Mashood. Really. But the thing is, all will end someday, your line, the state, the caliphate. And I don’t mind that one bit.” I fluffed the pillows behind his back and stood to leave him alone for a while.
He sensed I was going away. “Mashood? I want you to do something. You must go to doctor Abdul-Hakim and tell him to read the letter I sent him. He will know what to do. Go now, he will not mind you arriving this late.”
I promised I’d go there right after having my supper, but he insisted I go straight away. So, I picked up my robe and stick, and made my way to the doctor’s house. As soon as he saw me at the door, he said, “Right. Tell your master I will be ready. Thank you,” and he closed the door in my face. I was not really clear on what was happening, but it was not for me to ask such questions. I went home and had my supper.
Later that night, some time before the sunrise, I could hear Master calling for me with a weak voice. I scrambled to him and asked, “What is it, Master?”
He said, “What time is it, Mashood? Has the Sun appeared already?”
“No, Master, but it will rise soon. The eastern horizon is red.”
“Do you remember the daybreak we watched in the great Tower of Isfahan?”
“How could I forget, Master? It was a glorious Vernal Equinox morning, and your Eternal Calendar was launched that day.”
He smiled, and it was the Master of bygone days for a second before me. “The only eternal thing about the calendar was the Universe it measures. Besides, you must remember how they tore down the Observatory when they deemed it was not necessary anymore. That will happen to every institution in this world – someone will come and say, who built this? And why is it not torn down already? But now, my friend, I ask you to take me to the roof. I want to see the sunrise.”
“It is cold outside, Master, and the wind will not do you any good. It is better to lie here and be warm.” But he was adamant, and began to rise from his bed. I had to help him up, and I more or less carried him upstairs to the roof after I had dressed him up in warm clothes. I took with me some pillows so I could prop him up against the wall, and he could see the sunrise as it meant so much to him.
He smiled his thanks, and said, pointing at the Sun: “Mashood, look – that is the only thing in our world that will not decay with time. My time is exhausted now, and all that remains for you is to bury me. Abdul-Hakim will help you, so right after I die, go see him again. Oh! see the Sun! Isn’t it beautiful?”
I looked through squinted eyelids, and it was truly a magnificent display of colours and brightness, with all imaginable shades of red on the Eastern horizon. Omar watched with open eyes, as if he wanted the Sun to burn him out of his body and make him free. When he didn’t blink after a minute, I knew he had left his body and was now among the stars. I closed his eyes and said a short prayer, although I am quite sure he could not have cared less for one. Then I picked him up and carried him downstairs. My wife and sons came to say goodbye to him, and then I covered him in a sheet and carried him in my arms across the waking town to doctor Abdul-Hakim.
“Ah… he is gone. Please put him on this table, and then you must go and tell the Sultan of the passing of this great man. I will have him ready for you to bury him by early afternoon. Go now.” And Abdul-Hakim ushered me out of the door. I watched for a moment as the sunlight crept down the whitewashed walls of his house, illuminating the dark recesses of the houses on the narrow street.
Then I went to the Palace, told the gatekeeper what had happened, and watched as he sent a runner to notify the Sultan. Of course they would not wake him up at this hour, but as soon as he was ready for the day, he’d be told so he could attend the funeral.
I walked home and allowed my wife to serve me breakfast, but I could not eat too much. I just thought of the end of an era, and how everyone would now come by and praise him, not to accord him the elevated status that belonged to him, but to elevate themselves in the eyes of the Sultan and the elite. It made me sick to think how they would use him to advance their own status; then I remembered his words and they soothed me. He did not care what had happened, or what would happen – only this moment was something to consider.
The day passed in a daze, but then I remembered I had to go and collect the body from Dr Abdul-Hakim. When I got there, I was surprised there was not one, but two bodies. Both were wrapped in a similar, unadorned but clearly expensive sheet of white muslin. “Mashood, this was his last wish. You are to take Omar’s body to the cemetery, and let the Sultan and the high society bury him. I know there’s a plot ready for him among the dignitaries. Wait until all have left, then return here, making sure no one follows you. I will then tell you what to do next.”
I was really confused by now, but as it was not my business to ask what my superiors meant, I merely bowed and carried the light burden of my former Master to the cart. When I pushed the cart out to the bright sunlight, the crowd of mourners was already waiting for me, complete with the Sultan and his court. I took my place at the head of the procession and walked up and down the streets to the Palace cemetery. With all due rituals, we buried him on his right side, facing Mecca.
As instructed, I went to the good doctor’s house again after I was left alone at the cemetery. He told me what to do next.
“Mashood, there will be a second burial today. In this sheet lies a body, which you must take to the hills and bury there. I have a map for you with which you will find a cave which has been chiselled into the hillside, for the purpose of receiving this body.”
“Who is this?”
“It is the body of a nameless beggarman who died this morning.”
“What is this all about?”
“Mashood, when Omar was still in good health, but his years began to advance, he came to me and arranged thus: when he died, I was to find the body of a pauper, lay them side by side, and then take his heart and put it in the other body. The beggar’s heart is now in Omar’s body, buried with all the respect of the society.”
“I still don’t understand!”
“Simple: this is Omar’s last act of charity. You see, he wanted the man, who had nothing on Earth, to have a respected burial for his heart at least. And for his own heart, he wants nothing; he told us time and time again how we are but drops of water in the river, on our way back to the sea, and then to rain again back to Earth for another life. He wants you to take this body, and his heart, to the hills so he can see the Sun rise every morning through the eyes of a poor man.”
The doctor rubbed his eyes. “Now, the cave is small – the body will only fit in a sitting posture. The Syrian stoneworkers have cut a covering slab. Cover the grave and try to make it inconspicuous. The workmen assured me the grave will not be visible from thirty feet away.”
I took the body from the table. It weighed about the same as Omar’s and I knew it was not at all hard to find dead paupers in Nishapur. Dr Abdul-Hakim provided me with a donkey and a map, and as I was quite familiar with the mountains, I was sure I would find the place. The doctor bade me farewell and closed the door to his house, and I set out towards the hills. The map gave me a few points along the trail, but distances were schematic. I was glad the doctor had supplied me with food, fruit and water. Out of the town and at the foothills, I had a rest and a snack, and then took the little-used path that led up the hills.
Three hours or so was all it took for me to find the curious stone which had been marked out in my map. It was a natural rock, but someone had used a chisel on it and carved an arrow on it, but such an arrow that would only be seen by someone in the know. I glanced left and right, and seeing no one, took the body on my shoulder and clambered up the gradually steepening hillside.
I found the marker stones and turned right as instructed, and found the shallow grave just where the map said I would. I lay down my light burden and looked around. It was a perfect place for burial, high above the hustle and bustle of the world, where caravans would be seen as ants and the only birds to be seen were eagles circling in the rising air.
The hole in the ancient mountain was just big enough to take the little body I put in it. The covering slab was a feat of stonework; it was perfectly formed to fit the hole snug and tight. I took some dust from the ground and mixed it into a paste on my plate with some water from my waterbag; then I applied it to the seam. It masked the remaining lines from the opening and the grave would indeed be invisible from ten feet away.
It was late in the day now, and I decided to stay there for the night. It wasn’t the most comfortable of nights, what with no firewood, and only a saddle blanket for warmth. Still, I felt I had to stay there and see the sunrise.
And when the sun rose the next morning, I said my morning prayers as I had been taught to, but after that, I said one of my Master’s poems:
Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
“The Flower should open with the Morning skies.”
And a retreating Whisper, as I wake–
“The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
I said goodbye to my Master’s eternal heart, collected my kit, took the rope of the donkey, and started down the hill, to go and live the rest of my own life.