The Cloth

Against the glow of a calm fire the young boy and his father ate their cooked lamb quietly within the dark confines of their hovel high on the Meccan hillside. They had just finished their evening prayers and were both famished from a day of trading trinkets in the city bazaar for whatever they could get for them. Every so often a cold wind swept through the home and fanned the fire they enjoyed, its warm light dancing and casting misshapen shadows across the dirt floor of the room. While picking at his lamb meat, the young boy gazed into the fire as he had done so many times before, wondering which parts of the kindling the flames would excite next. His father broke him out of this trance by warning him that he shouldn’t gaze for so long into mysteries that he couldn’t for the life of him understand at such a young age. The son heeded his father’s advice that evening and finished whatever meat remained at the center of the thali. When the father finished the rest of the lamb, he boiled a tin kettle of strong black coffee, and both of them sat in silence for a time, sipping on the dark, bitter brew.

“Tomorrow,” said the father, “I will not accompany you to the bazaar. You are quickly becoming a young man, and you will have to go by yourself.”

An awkward warmth seeped into the heart of the boy, as going to the bazaar alone would only result in being bested by the other, more experienced traders. These traders would undoubtedly be much more aggressive and predatory in their tactics than he could ever be. His eyes widened and searched his father for any excuse he could give for not sending him into the fray alone, but the old man offered none, and so it was decided that evening that he would venture from the hillside into the heart of the Meccan capital and hope that he brought home at least some of his self-respect. The father, sensing that his son was frightened by this decision, finished what remained of his charred coffee and rummaged through his burlap sack of goods that warmed by the fire.

He pulled out a small package from the sack. It was wrapped in waxy brown paper and stitched up tight by strong thread. His father peeled off the packaging to reveal a soft turquoise cloth that had been neatly folded within. He passed it to the boy who was instantly charmed and fascinated by its beauty, its edges embroidered in geometric shapes of gold and the center of the cloth stitched in the patterns of the most careful Arabic calligraphy that read, “there is no God but the One.” The cloth smelled of aged saffron, and a chalky dust layered its weave. Even though it was made from cotton, it felt like the finest of silks and was too fragile to hold for very long. The father returned it to the hollow of the wrapping and handed the package to him.

“I know we don’t talk about it much,” said the father, “but when your mother wandered the streets of the city, both hungry and cold from the desert winds, she found me in the bazaar and implored me to serve as your guardian, as she didn’t have any food to feed you. You were too young to remember, as you were just a small baby then, and when your mother gave you to me, I wrapped you in this very same cloth that I’m giving you now. I’ve kept the cloth from you, because I thought that when you became of age, you could sell it and start a new life for yourself.”

The boy gazed at it with wide, bewildered eyes. He felt comforted and secure holding it, as though it were the only security he had left, now that his father had ordered him into the bazaar.

“The indulgences we sell aren’t getting us very far, you and I. No one is buying them, and when we do sell them, we are getting half of what we originally paid. The meat tonight was the last of our rations. There is no more, and our supplies are running low. You will have to fetch a high price for the cloth. Otherwise, you’ll go hungry, which is why I’m suggesting we separate for a time.”

The boy never realized it would come to this. For most of his life he had been following his father through the few bazaars in and around the twin cities of Mecca and Medina. Trading was a skill he never possessed, and he had always assumed his father would carry him until he himself grew old and tired. He never expected their time together to end so soon. He somehow expected his father to nurture and care for him without the realities of hunger getting in the way. They always did without, and it was fine for a time, but apparently things had to change.

He didn’t want to weep in front of him, as he thought his father would respect him less for doing so. Traders, after all, had to be very keen and wary of such emotions. It was a disadvantage to have them. One becomes vulnerable that way. He suppressed his tears and remained stoic. He was helped by the charisma of the fire, its flames licking what remained of the few desert branches it fed from. A sweet, mellow smoke filled the small hovel, the fire devouring the wood with a slow and steady exactitude that seemed to harness a greater, more divine force. Even after spreading his blankets down for sleep, the boy continued to watch the glowing crimson embers of the fire burn, until the flames themselves were overcome by the darkness of the hovel. He fell asleep quickly thereafter, his father snoring lightly beside him.

On the next morning, his father bid him farewell by placing his hand upon his head and muttering a short prayer. He did his best to hide his tears then, and while he couldn’t understand what the prayer meant, he assumed that it would somehow protect him from whatever turbulence and anxiety the action in the bazaar would bring.

“You should not sell it for anything less than ten rials,” said his father of the cloth. “You have to be firm and insist on that price. Otherwise, you will have been cheated. Do you understand?”

The boy repeated his instructions until his father was satisfied. When he opened the door of the hovel, a brilliant, white sunshine flooded his vision, and an intense heat seeped into the pores of his skin. At first the sunlight blinded him, but after wrapping his head in white cloth, he adjusted to the climate and made his way down a rock-strewn trail that led into the center of the city. He tread silently on the jagged rubble and debris that littered the trail, and when others from neighboring villages joined him after a good hour of methodical walking, he made sure to look tough and remain both silent and cautious. He kept his eyes peeled to the ground and tucked the package securely into the twine that kept his garments in place. And while no one talked to him directly, he was aware of the calculating whispers of those on the road who commented on his poor dress and child-like appearance.

“He will certainly be taken advantage of,” he heard one of these voices say.

As the trail grew more crowded, these voices all seemed to be whispering the same in unison. Even the most remote of their palaver somehow related directly to him, and as the trail gave way to a paved road at the base of the hillside, the dry desert dirt that swirled in the wind had also swept away whatever fragments of confidence he had started the day with. Yet he kept silent and strong with his eyes fixed forward and the package at his waist snug and secure against his body.

The paved road quickly transformed into a small village with a kebab stand and a general store. One story shacks, both sagging and sullen, soon succumbed to marble mosques, outdoor restaurants, and two-story buildings that were sturdy and white-washed, their lacquered wooden shutters protecting its inhabitants from the blare of intense sunlight and road-dust that burned in the air. The road pinched into a narrow lane where a car or two buzzed through the procession like strange insects. These lanes were soon joined by other roadways and side streets that fed into the dazzling network of the metropolis. The mosques, filled to the hilt with believers keeling below tall, white domes, were both high and august, and the ongoing din of conversation that seemed to engage every pedestrian cleared the air of the same guarded silence that stalked him on the hillside. The odor of cooking meat and mild incense made him hungry and a little tired, but he knew he had to continue towards the bazaar and save these luxuries for after he had fetched the highest price for the cloth.

As he approached the bazaar, he discerned its canopy of white canvas tents rippling in the hot breeze. He heard the rough din of the shouting matches between the toughest of traders and the most uncompromising of customers. The traffic on the roadway festooned into a carnival of color. Stalls on the both sides of the street sold hand-woven rugs from Iran, leather jackets and accessories from Pakistan, gold-threaded robes from North Africa, and Chinese textiles that were rolled onto heavy cardboard tubing and stood erect, like rainbows, behind colorful salespeople and their equally illustrious buyers who yelled out their best offers. Pushcart vendors sold skewered meats and kebabs, and buyers wore their best garments in what amounted to a parade of Arab fashion. Collapsible awnings that swung out from the storefronts hid the street from the sun, and as soon as the heat became too much, large white tents shaded most of the haggling, negotiating, and sudden bursts of emotional reasoning that distinguished this volcanic oasis from other towns and villages outside of the city.

Usually the boy quietly followed his father down these crowded side streets, but now that he was alone, the bazaar had a much different feel to it. He sensed that beneath the bazaar’s spectrum of colors, expensive imported products, and hoarse shouts of traders haggling over prices, there was an invisible darkness in which the real elements of hunger and desire lay buried beneath a cosmetic surface. He had always known of this predatory darkness, or at least he had sensed it on visits with his father, but it was his father who usually confronted it while the boy watched from a safe distance. His father had often hoped that he would be able to manage this darkness one day – to make trading more of a sport than the fulfillment of predatory hunger and zero-sum conflicts – but now that he was alone, he was rife with timidity and soon lost some of his father’s skills. He could only stay tough and hope that no one cheated him or goaded him into selling the cloth below its set value.

From a distance he eyed the activities of one particular stall that lined the street. Apparently, the trader and his stubborn customer were arguing over the price of what seemed to be a thin silver bracelet that was clearly meant for a young woman’s wrist. The heavy-set customer soon ended these negotiations when the trader refused to sell it to him at the price he wanted, and the boy thought it the perfect time to approach this frustrated customer with the cloth he carried. He moved in cautiously behind him and tugged on his trousers. The man then turned to face him, and the boy gasped at what he saw.

This was no ordinary man. He wore a blood-red turban, heavy gold earrings, and an embroidered vest that hid a tan-collared work shirt beneath it. His skin was thick, red, and robust, a handlebar moustache gracing his upper lip, and his teeth were like heavy white blocks in his mouth. A long, deep scar cut into one of his ruddy cheeks, and emblazoned on his arm was what appeared to be a military insignia of sorts. The boy also noticed braided gold epaulets on his shoulders, distinguishing him as some sort of authority in the city or a high government official. He looked perturbed by the intrusion, but before he could swat him away with his heavy, brick-like hands, the boy quickly tore through the stitching that held the package at his waist together and unfurled the brilliant turquoise cloth that had been with him all along.

The official, awestruck by the cloth’s inescapable beauty, examined its fine thread and fingered the heavy gold embroidery at its edges and center. Apparently he had never seen such a cloth before and decided that it was a gift that rivaled the thin bracelet he tried to buy earlier. The official’s hard, cold scowl suddenly transformed into a seductive smile, the white blocks of his teeth glowing like polished marble, his frustration waning, and a subtle twinkle in his eyes restoring whatever strategies had failed him earlier. He licked his lips and breathed in a heavy gust of hot, desert air, as though a dead beast had been brought back to life.

“How much do you want for this worthless thing?” asked the official.

“What price do you propose?” asked the boy.

“Why this is nothing but the handkerchief of a peasant. I’ve seen this a million times before. It can’t be worth anything more than five rials.”

The boy, however, knew a little better than that.

“This is a very special cloth that dates back many generations. It is a magic cloth and will bring comfort to whoever owns it. I’ll be willing to sell it for ten rials, nothing less.”

“Why you insolent little monkey,” thundered the official, “do you know who I am? How dare you insult me with your offer. Ten rials for a filthy scrap of cloth? I can easily buy such filth elsewhere for far cheaper than that. But I tell you what – since I am an official of high distinction around these parts, you and I can make a deal that will give you even more benefit than the price of that silly little thing you have there.

“Do you see these honors on my chest? I am a man who is well-respected by the powers that control this unwieldy city, and if you sold that thing to me for, let’s say, seven rials, why I’d connect you with some of the most powerful people in the kingdom.

“Imagine yourself working your way up through the chain of civic command, only to prosper with the knowledge and skill that comes with shrewd politics and honorable governance. This entire city is controlled and maintained by some of the wealthiest men in the world. Not only will you intimately know the powerful statesmen who enforce our daily laws and customs, but you will have a chance to harness the power your downtrodden peasantry has sought after for so long. Imagine inspecting a line of troops or attending banquets with world-renowned dignitaries from all over the world, or having the satisfaction of crushing a rebellion with the wave of your hand.

“I’m offering you a chance at the reigns of power, my friend – an opportunity, if you will, to be a part of the political class that rules all of Arabia. Wherever you go, you’d be treated with the highest respect. People will respect you, fear you, and love you for the power you wield. The food will always be plentiful and your peasant masses will revere you as their long-lost messiah. Can you imagine the power of that? Can you imagine what a man you’d be? For seven rials you can have all of that. Just lower your price, and this city will open up to you.”

By this time visions of grandeur had broken the seals of his imagination. The boy could think of no other life better than that of a man who had the power to control and maintain the vast complexities of the city. The offer struck a deep chord within him, as heavy silver thalis, thick with moist and tender meats, simmered in the juices of his mind. He could also see himself in regal dress, talking politics with the Sultan himself, or trading jokes with the commanders of vast armies, all of this under the high dome of a luxurious palace he calls home. He even imagined himself exercising his fierce power over the migrants who whispered things about him on the trail that morning, and how he would somehow force them to their knees in worship of the power he had achieved. They would never whisper bad things about him again.

All of this came into clear focus, and just before he gave his consent to the official, who stood there smiling and twirling the ends of his moustache, a bright blade of sunlight broke through the open sides of the tent and illuminated the gold embroidery stitched into the cloth. The refracting light snapped him out of his vague imaginings, and he quickly recalled his father’s instructions. He tore himself away from these superb visions of power and summoned the same rigor and toughness that he carried down the hillside with him.

“Ten rials only,” said the boy finally. “Nothing more.”

The smile of the towering official above him soon tightened, and his angry, threatening scowl returned. His cheeks filled with scorching hot blood, and the twinkle in his eyes shot back a sharp darkness that would have immediately cut him to bits had he not stepped a few paces back from him.

“Why you dirty little rodent, do you know what the penalties are for conning a city official? I’ll throw you in prison for the time you’ve wasted me. Come here, you filthy rat – ”

The official tried to grab hold of the boy, but since he was a few paces away from him already, his heavy hands could only grab his shirt, which immediately tore as the boy stumbled back and ran into the thickest part of the bazaar. His small frame served him well as he weaved among the torsos of wandering pedestrians, the official behind him yelling vulgarities in the middle of the road and stomping his feet in heated madness. The boy then fled the bazaar and finally found rest on the outskirts of the marketplace, his heart beating beyond his chest and his panic and alarm at almost being thrown in prison subsiding into fatigue.

After his panic passed, he was left with nothing but utter disappointment for ruining an otherwise glorious future. Luckily he still had the cloth, as he thought he had lost it during his escape. By this time, though, the cloth had lost its smoothness and was wrinkled and manhandled in his fist. He unfurled the cloth and tried to smooth the threads back into shape. It was just then that a slim man in a white, seer-sucker suit and wide-brimmed safari hat emerged from the chaos of the tents and smiled at him graciously.

“Hey, boy, what have you got there?” asked the man.

A renewed confidence lifted the boy from the doldrums. He displayed the full beauty of the turquoise cloth for this man who grazed his manicured fingertips against its fine cotton fibers and translated the Arabic calligraphy at its center with a small, leather-bound book he had been carrying.

“Hmmm, ‘there is no God but the One.’ Very interesting indeed,” mumbled the man while translating the calligraphy.

His broken Arabic accent pegged him instantly as a traveler from a land far away. The boy had rarely seen a suit of such high quality on anyone in the bazaar before, and his pale white skin, pink lips, and azure eyes suggested a noble upbringing and a class membership rarely seen in these humble parts of the city. The man’s wavy blonde hair was something he had never seen on anyone before. The boy took a liking to his suave and courteous manners as well as his peculiar speech, which made his Arabic sound more romantic and complex. His language was fluid and less guttural, as though a date tree was lodged in his throat. The musky odor of his cologne also added to this portrait of a middle-aged tycoon who would never chase after him like the brutish government official had. There was something awkwardly civilized about his overall demeanor, and his first confrontation with this new brand of civility calmed his anxieties and allowed him to feature the cloth more boldly against his body.

“Yes, I see, that’s quite a cloth you have there. How much are willing to part with it?”

“Ten rials only,” the boy sputtered.

The traveler poked at his chin and thought about the offer in a relaxed pose reserved, it seemed, for wealthy men. He swept his hand through his sun-bleached scalp and ruminated on the offer for what seemed like several minutes. The boy thought he had finally made the sale and imagined himself immediately rushing to the nearest kebab stand, a ten-rial bill in his fist, chewing on thick slices of sweetness cut from large logs of lamb-meat warming against electric burners. His mouth watered, and his empty stomach growled in pain from imagining the meat smothered in yogurt and then eaten with a warm, buttery flat bread. But just when he thought he’d eat again, the traveler stumbled upon an idea that made his eyes widen with excitement.

“I tell you what,” said the traveler, plucking an ivory-colored business card from his wallet, “I work for an import/export firm in London. It’s one of the largest trading firms in the world. We have offices in twenty countries, from Europe and the Americas, all the way to India and into the jungles of Asia. Our stock has been rated one of the best by the wealthiest investment houses in all of Great Britain.”

He also pulled from his wallet what appeared to be an ornamented paper that had the same gritty texture of a rial note he once held.

“Do you see this?” asked the traveler, waving the paper in front of him. “This is a one-pound note, and it is worth at least ten times the value of the cloth you have there. Ten times! Can you believe it? If you sell me the cloth for no more than eight rials, I will get your papers from the British embassy nearby, and you can leave this desert wasteland and come work for me. I can show you how to profit from goods like these by buying them extraordinarily cheap and selling them to well-to-do clients who will buy this same trash in bulk for very high prices. In other words, what are common items for peasants here in the kingdom are all exotic luxury items for the upper class in the civilized West, and if you work for me, I guarantee that you will make a small fortune in your first few years.

“Imagine leaving this squalor behind and traveling the world, staying in five-star resorts instead, and returning from your travels to a city mansion in South Ken, eating as much chicken curry as you bloody-well please. You can then invest your small fortune wisely, and when you’re old enough, have children of your own and send them to the finest schools on the continent. They can then go on to become doctors, lawyers, or businessmen after finishing university.

“You can have a family is what I’m saying, and a prosperous one at that. You’d avoid the cycles of poverty that are crippling your race of people and gain your freedom from all of this slavery such a poverty imposes on you, but only if you agree to sell the cloth to me at eight rials, nothing more. Just think of it – eight measly rials, and you can change your stars – alter your destiny is what I’m trying to tell you. You’d never be hungry or left wanting again!”

The traveler handed him the one-pound note, and the boy rubbed its coarse texture between his thumb and forefinger. He gazed at the crowned head of the woman on the face of it and was enraptured by the small watermarks that proudly displayed a royal crest or seal of sorts from the faraway country the man had traveled from. The single line of gold thread stitched into the note was probably worth more than the value of the cloth alone, its radiance easily dwarfing that of the cloth that he was now willing to part with. Visions of dressing up in fancy suits clouded what little of his trading acumen remained. He imagined having piles and piles of these one-pound notes, and he would buy what he truly wanted – a ticket out of Arabia on an ocean-liner. He had seen pictures of these vast, floating cities pasted to crumbling city walls, and who really needed this poverty, he asked. His mansion in South Ken would rival the most exquisite palaces of the Arab princes, and there was much more to follow, if only he dumped this cloth and followed the traveler to the life of his dreams.

Suddenly a muezzin from high atop the minarets of one of the local mosques called the believers to prayer, and even though his voice was smooth and enchanting, the muezzin’s song broke him from his visions. He soon remembered how much money he needed to get for the cloth, and to his own amazement and horror, he sputtered out again, “ten rials only,” and stood firm and resolute on this final offer.

The traveler quickly snatched the one-pound note from his fingertips and returned both the note and the business card to his wallet.

“I just can’t understand you people,” said the traveler, shaking his head and talking to himself in his own foreign tongue. “I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime, and you deny that for some cheap and ugly cloth? It makes me wonder sometimes why the poor usually stay where they are in life. It’s not like we don’t offer them opportunity, because we offer it to them every day. It’s just that they’re either too lazy to work for it or too stupid to know when they see it. And then they complain that the government is not taking care of them. I mean, who do you think bought those clothes on your back anyway? It’s people like me who are taxed to the hilt so that you can afford to lie around all day and live off of our charity. And meanwhile blackies of your kind come over by the boat-loads and expect to live side-by-side with us and marry into our families by doing nothing but begging and stealing and sleeping all day in those gypsy caravans that serve as your only contribution to our society. Savages, the lot of you. You can’t even learn how to read and write, and then we open our borders up all over Europe. God, maybe Hitler’s right.”

The boy, of course, couldn’t understand a word he said, but by the look on his face, the traveler was clearly angry with him. Luckily, he didn’t threaten him like the official had, and he sighed in relief as the traveler finished his rant and headed towards another part of the bazaar. Nevertheless, the boy still experienced a deep sadness over the loss, as he could have made a good and prosperous life for himself in a much different part of the world. Life didn’t have to be so difficult, he thought, as the muezzin’s chants ended and the believers along the walls of the over-crowded mosque bended at their knees and offered prayers. He longed to take full part in these rituals too, but alas, he didn’t know how to read and so never learned what the holy book said about, what seemed to be, a very punishing existence. Yet these punishments didn’t last for very long, as a sweet, perfumed incense wafted through to the perimeter of the bazaar from a black tent that stood far apart from the traders’ stalls.

He knew from earlier travels with his father that he should avoid this one particular tent. Actually, his father had forbidden him from going near it, but he never gave a clear reason as to why. The incense happened to be so seductive that it carried him to the tent’s opening that flapped against the breeze. An alluring ghazal played on a small transistor radio from within, and he also heard several young women giggling playfully. He remembered that this was where stressed-out traders came to “unwind” after their hectic working hours.

He thought himself too young to enter, but his genuine curiosity for what had been forbidden, along with the mélange of the powerful incense, seductive ghazals, and girlish laughter pushed him through the opening with his turquoise cloth flung conspicuously over his shoulder. He looked like an emissary from another province of the kingdom or an important diplomat for one of the crowned princes. When he stepped inside, however, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

His cautious footfalls tiptoed on soft Persian rugs that cooled his blistered feet. A gust of cold air from within the tent subdued the heat from outside. From every corner of the room large, plush pillows were assembled like heavenly beds upon fluffy clouds. A couple of tired traders lounged on these oversized pillows and smoked from large, heavy hookah pipes that stood like statues next to them. Their bloodshot eyes, billowing clouds of smoke, and slow movements showed that they were clearly under the influence of some strange medicine that seemed to carry them into faraway worlds. But what astonished the boy the most was the dozen or so dancing women in the middle of the room wearing next to nothing at all. They wore jeweled lingerie and their faces were veiled by transparent pink chiffon. He tried to hide within one of the folds of the tent, as watching the display was a bit too much for his surging hormones, but before he could leave safely, the women heard his footsteps, and suddenly all eyes were upon him, as he was caught in the spotlight of their feminine gaze. After a moment or two of silent bewilderment, the girls broke into the same girlish laughter he had heard outside.

The boy blushed crimson red and hurried to find the exit. The madam of the establishment, however, floated near from the other side of the room and blocked his attempt to flee.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here? A young boy snooping in my parlor?”

Her stubby, jeweled hands held him by the shoulders, and she grinned mischievously, as though wanting something from him.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk – a very naughty boy,” she announced. “What shall we do with him, girls?”

A bunch of them giggled again, and one of them cheered, “let’s give him a bath!”

Another said, “let’s see him dance, front and center!”

And a third said, “let’s give him a rubdown. The poor thing looks like he’s tired and lost.”

Another round of giggling followed these deliberations.

One of the hoary traders in the corner took a long toke from his hookah pipe and cynically declared, “If only I were young again.”

It all seemed a little too fantastic for the boy, who was both excited and also very afraid. He didn’t know where these interjections would lead and feared that he would never return to his father again, as the old madam sells him into the services of North African tribesmen or some other terrible fate that only this giggling gang of gypsies could devise.

A large wart on the madam’s cheek, as well as her jagged, ash-stained teeth, pigeon-holed her as the brains behind this particular operation. He would have much rather fallen into the laps of the soft warm bodies dancing happily in the center of the room than be held by the collar by the brutish madam. To his benefit, the girls begged that he be allowed to stay for a while. The madam, however, had other intentions. The boy followed her eyes to where the turquoise cloth hung from his shoulder. The madam stared into the depth of its color, and while rubbing the soft, fragile thread, her grin turned into a warm smile. She unhooked her hand from the back of his neck and bid him a fond welcome.

“Why don’t you stay with us a while,” she said, leading him to the women who now danced to the music uninhibitedly. She clapped her hands sharply and said, “Sasha, come here at once.”

From the middle of their writhing circle emerged a woman whose long black hair flowed to her waist and whose silky fair skin had been slicked with fragrant oils. She wore a light make-up that accentuated her natural beauty and a wet lip-gloss that moistened her full, ruby-red lips. She glittered as she walked, and the pink transparent veil was the only scrap of clothing covering her voluptuousness. Naturally, the boy couldn’t pull his eyes away from her abundant chest, jeweled navel, and long, meandering legs that seemed more wholesome to him than the thick butter-cream his father fed him as a child. He was immediately overwhelmed by this, the most beautiful woman in the room, her hazel eyes begging him to come closer and rescue her from all of this insanity.

“Not so fast,” said the madam, her pudgy hands holding him in place. “First, you must give me something for her. How much would you give to spend the evening with my best girl?”

“I don’t have any money,” answered the boy, as the rest of the girls gasped in dismay.

“No money, eh? Well, maybe we can come to some other arrangement.”

“I’d like that very much, madam,” said the boy.

After all, he had the love of his life right there before him, and he promised himself that he would run away with her far beyond the kingdom’s borders. They could finally live in peace, and even though they didn’t have any money, he would find a way to take care of her and honor, respect, and obey her wishes for the rest of his days.

The woman in front of him smiled coyly. She too seemed to be enamored of him, and he quickly turned to the cloth that hung from his shoulder. He recalled his father’s instructions but would have rather given the worthless scrap of cloth away for a one-time shot at escaping the oppression of the city with the girl of his dreams by his side. In the city he would always be disadvantaged and lame, oppressed and sickly, dirty and impoverished. This woman would wash away these titles of despair and keep him fulfilled and happy in their mutual love. His eyes connected with hers, and they both knew it was right and just and wholesome and divine that they should belong to each other for the rest of their lives. But then a blast of warm desert wind blew through the tent’s opening, taking the turquoise cloth that sat on his shoulder with it. The cloth unfurled in the gust of wind, and all of the women gasped at its aquamarine beauty floating in the air. It settled gracefully on the carpeted floor between the woman and the boy. The woman he had fallen for lost her focus and gazed in amazement at the wondrous cloth. It then seemed to absorb all of her attentions, and as soon as she looked away, the boy regained his composure and grabbed the cloth from the floor. His confidence and toughness returned, and he said in a forceful tone, “ten rials only, madam.”

The madam yanked him by the collar and shoved him out the tent’s opening.

“Get out, you little thief, and don’t come here again, or I swear, by God, I’ll have your throat cut wide open! No one insults my best girl that way! No one!”

The boy found himself on the outside of the tent accosted and maimed by the murderous light, his body supine on the jagged rubble that scraped his backside. He searched for the cloth and found it crumpled and dirty beneath his back. A sharp pain struck his body, and for a while he just lay there in the dirt, his eyes squinting into the blinding white sky. He picked himself up slowly, and just before retreating to the hills, he caught a glimpse of the woman who had captured his heart. She had since crumbled to her knees in the center of the tent, her hands covering her face and her Ledaen body shaking with sad and broken tears.

Soon the sun began to set beneath the tops of the burnt mountains, and shadows slowly crept out from under the sharp rocks and scattered pieces of brittle wood that pockmarked his slow climb to his father’s hovel. Along the road other traders walked gloomily among debris that signaled the end of the metropolis and the beginning of a hilly wasteland that stretched for thousands of miles in all directions. These were the people who had failed, who lost money, who got the short end of the stick. The boy had walked this trail at this particular time of day countless times before, usually with his father leading the way. This time of day had been reserved for the beggars, the downtrodden, the indigent, the woebegone, and the unrighteous. These were the freaks, the lepers, and the deformed walking in loose procession to their squalid shacks on the hillside. This somber march of humped backs, hacking coughs, and blistered feet soon thinned out as the sun’s power lost its edge to the twilight. The darkness enshrouded his mood, which vacillated from burning anger to frigid depression, and now he had to face his father who would probably shut him out of the same hovel he grew up in.

He fought the urge to lash out at the immortal God who had stolen his bountiful future from him, but he quieted the beast stirring within him and understood that the light would never extinguish from the stars hanging above him. He thought that perhaps, one day, he could carve out a simple life for himself in the mountains – a poor, nomadic life, yes – but an existence nonetheless. He had little idea what he’d do, but at least this simple one seemed possible. His thoughts then returned to his father who would ultimately be disappointed with the son he had raised. Both his father’s natural skills and hard work built the humble abode on the hill, and although it was only a meager hovel, filled with failures and disappointments in every corner, it still remained a proud tribute to a poor man’s labor. Yet he knew himself an adopted son, a bastard of the bazaar, and while he carefully studied every nuance of negotiation, he soon realized from somewhere deep within him that he would never be as successful as his father was. His father, and his forefathers before him, carried such talents through their line – talents, he suddenly discovered, that he never had. He again stifled his urge to cry, and when he finally entered the hovel in the darkness, a small fire suppressed his tears and gradually warmed his bones.

His father was bowing his head in prayer in the corner of the hovel when he arrived. His father stopped what he was doing and quickly attended to him. The boy could no longer contain his emotions, and, trader or not, he had no choice but to let his tears loose before the man he admired most. The old man dropped to his knees and embraced his son more strongly than ever before. The boy spilled warm tears on his shoulders, and he too couldn’t help but weep.

“You have come back to me,” said the father, “But why?”

The boy loosened his fingers, and the turquoise cloth he had clutched so tightly fell to the ground. Even though it was caked in dirt, its thread still held together, as though it were some sort of small miracle.

“My son, there is something I must tell you. There is no reason to cry.”

“But I couldn’t sell the cloth,” cried the boy. “I tried, and I tried, but I couldn’t sell it.”

The old man held him close and wiped away his tears with the edges of the fabric.

“When I was a young boy,” he said, “my father gave me this same cloth, and your great-grandfather before him. From somewhere within the origins of our family line this cloth has been handed down through the generations. My ancestors were very skilled and experienced traders. They were great at what they did, but you see, not one of them was ever able to sell this cloth. We all had to make it through the same torment, and now that this day has come, I know in my heart that you are truly my own son. I know now that you were born to me, and I shall never leave you again, I swear it.

“So come, dry your tears and gather your things. Tomorrow morning we shall leave this place of sadness and head into the desert, towards a land where we can live in peace and prosper like our ancestors once did. We will leave the cursed place, and I swear, I will never leave you again.”

Harvey Havel is a novelist and freelancer who teaches writing at SUNY Albany. He is a former staff member of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and CBS News Radio. Mr. Havel has published three novels, Noble McCloud, The Imam and Freedom of Association, all of which are available online and at fine bookstores across the country.