Blesok no. 63, November-December, 2008
The Dancer’s Haik
She had brisk, light steps. But all that ease concealed careful calculation. Each of her movements through space spoke a word. So as not to reveal everything, so her words would be even more inscrutable and deep, she danced in a precious haik.
He was a clever and restless boy. His father was a weaver of haiks, continuing the family tradition, which went back eight generations. Periodically, someone in the family succeeded in weaving a haik of astonishing beauty. It happened once in each generation; when the weaver completed the haik, he fell into something resembling mental dullness and physical exhaustion. It lingered for a few days, during which the whole family prayed for the recovery of the weaver.
When it happened in the first generation, the family was considerably bewildered—and frightened. They considered various hypotheses for why that strange fatigue persisted, what caused it, what kind of consequences there might be… Meanwhile, the family members carefully allocated their money, in case the weaver did not recover, so that they would be able to survive until the first and at the time only son of the weaver began to work.
The weaver not only recovered from that strange, perfidious illness, but he also began to weave with much greater speed, as if he wanted to make up for lost time. So thought those who saw him, and they were delighted by the skill of his hands. Only he knew that a beautiful haik is the result of slow and determined effort. Deep within himself he had yearned to weave such a thing, even if it were his last haik, but the thought of obligation to the family drove him to work with half a mind, thinking more of the next haik than of the one he was weaving at the moment. The work provided extra income for the family, of course, so that when the weaver of the third generation, after working three weeks on a single haik, fell into unconsciousness, the family was not overly worried; their prayers were not so urgent, for everybody knew that it would only require a few days before the weaver would return to his work. His haik was placed alongside the other two. Here I do not mean to say that it was more or less beautiful than the others, for the family cherished each of these haiks as a special treasure and relic, respecting the sufferings of its creator. Each was wonderful, enchanted, and beautiful, having its special quality, so there was no way to compare it to the others. When one of the haiks was separated from the others, you undoubtedly would declare it the most beautiful in existence, but the haiks were kept together, and they had something of their own, a distinctive imprint. Some said it was the seal of fate, others of beauty.
The weaver then would work with more of the same cloth, but nothing ever would be near as beautiful as the haik that had hurled him into such heavy bewilderment.
In the sixth generation, a weaver arose who wove two haiks of magical beauty. He wove the first just a few months after he took over the trade from his father. The women in the family, especially the older ones, saw this as some kind of evil omen: it seemed to them to come much too soon. The weaver of the sixth generation overcame his illness after only two days, which was both pleasing and frightening. It caused the women to stay out of his way, as if he were an intruder in the house. The men coming out of the mosque, after the weaver began to weave again, after sitting long at prayer, began to deliberate aloud about him. His father said that it would bring sudden disaster, and everyone agreed with that. Nevertheless, they all knew they could not assume anything about the weaver and his work. So they gossiped, and it seemed to them that their words flew off, as though evaporating into the sky above, and the emptiness they felt afterwards was as though they had been left with not even a cloud. The oldest of the weaver’s brothers battled against the power of the words that swarmed in his head and managed to contain them behind pursed lips. He never said that he would continue the work of his brother, because he knew that the family could have only one weaver in each generation. The family’s weaver was in some ways isolated and more prominent than the others, like a mosque and its minaret. And everything revolved around him, as if around the mosque. The discussion of the men went on, until the twilight began to pour its shades of dark blue over them.
When he was a boy, seemingly nothing interested him as much as stories did. Hours passed by whenever he came upon a good storyteller; he seemed to devour the words, and long after, the stories he heard would reverberate in his head. He wanted to create visual images of the stories as he alone imagined them. At first he created them behind closed eyes, and then he started drawing them on the walls of the house.
More than anything he liked the tales about the fortress…
It was on one particular night: walls were beginning to grow up around the city. The whole city was on its feet to see this marvel. The walls appeared as unexpectedly as a flower that blossoms and withers all in one day. But the walls remained.
The commotion was not as great as one might suppose, but no one slept that night. Terrified, they looked at the stone structure that began to encircle them. They sought the answer in prophecies and in old books, and they sought the answer in their own sins. When the walls stopped growing, they understood that the answer had to do with their valor; the city was protected by an insurmountable fortress, and everyone within began to feel more secure.
The following night, the city was again on its feet. This time the uproar was much greater. The foundations of the city began to shake. At the eastern part of the city, in its walls, a fissure opened up and widened so quickly that the people began to run in panic to the opposite, western part of the city. And suddenly everything was calm. Out of nowhere, having never existed before, a river appeared in the new canyon.
Now the fortress was open, and some feared that they would be vulnerable once again. Others comforted themselves that now they would have to defend only one side of the city. A third group was happy that the city was once again open to the world. The air became easier for them to breathe, and the hardships that the walls imposed on them almost vanished.
They called the river Rumel. It flowed toward the east, greeting the light of the new day…
These were some of the images the boy kept within himself. That river excited him in an ambiguous way. When he was in front of it, he felt fear. When he was within it, it seemed to him that he saw the history of the city. He compared his own visions with the stories about the city and saw that they coincided. Not only that, but it also seemed to him that he knew many more details than the storyteller did. Then he tried to convince himself that too many details could strangle the story, even the stories he nurtured himself. He believed that when he grew up, he would become a storyteller. He retold the stories within himself, he altered some details, he embellished them in ways that he thought would make them better, and he awaited the day when he would begin to tell stories. However, he was the oldest son of his father, and he had to inherit the trade. He became a weaver.
In the dark-blue colors of dusk, the river became threateningly ferocious. The weaver stood before it, and it seemed to him that he heard the voice of his brother, the voice of his father, mixed into an unbelievable cacophony of unrecognizable words. Often, standing thus along the river, he wished to declare that he wanted to be done with everything, even with weaving, along with the knots of the haiks… Even with the family, if need be. However, he kept quiet and went on weaving, fearful of the results, just as earlier he was fearful when he looked at the river. Somewhere within him glowed the belief that everything would change for the better if he tried to be rid of the work completely, but then he thought that his entrance into the river was that which changed life for him and it mingled with his thoughts as if his thoughts were incomplete knots of a common, white haik.
They say that every family has its own curse. The curse of this family was embodied in precious haiks, and the weavers carried it within themselves as if constantly passing through purgatory on the trail of repentance. Some in the family believed that the curse could become even more terrible, especially now that the young weaver had rushed into the trade so early.
He did the work as though nothing special was happening, or would happen. In general he did not notice that the women were behaving as they were, nor did he seem to notice what the men were doing. The cacophony of nearby voices agitated him when he stood alongside the river, but he left the answers to time.
He bore the beautiful haik within himself, but the more time passed, the feeling of exhilaration slowly turned into a memory, with the taste of ground mint.
The weaver fell in love with a girl. It is not important what the girl looked like or what her qualities were, nor is it important how the whole thing happened; it is important that this love refined the weaver, and several manifestations of this feeling appeared in him. First of all, he was less attentive to the weaving, so errors showed up in the haiks. This in turn brought admonishing looks from the family, especially from his father. But if love is blind, then it is blind to reproaches from the surroundings. Second, and to a certain extent a cause of these errors, the weaver more often saw the image of the girl in the haik he was weaving at a given moment, and that image was their only medium of communication. The eyes of the girl were in that image, but the soul within them constantly eluded the weaver’s gaze. So, he looked into part of her body, yearning for her entire soul. Some say that yearning is one of the things that propels us forward. The weaver worked patiently, but even more mechanically, and he looked into the eyes of the girl before him. He went to the river, but it seemed that the river no longer frightened him. He felt as though he stood before a large, calm lake. He went into the river, and nothing happened, nothing changed. He feared that he had lost the stories, but as soon as he began to recite them to himself he understood that everything was here, and the idea was clearer to him than ever. He thought that now, finally, he could weave a haik from words, but confusion tossed that idea into the current of the river.
He wove patiently, or rather fell into a kind of lethargy, and even stopped considering the sanctity of the creation. He looked into those eyes. When he finally succeeded in discerning the first glow in them, something changed. It was as though he had needed stimulus from some other place. As though alone he was incapable of producing the magic. It alarmed him. He no longer wished to be confronted by such doubt. Some say that Doubt is a signpost toward Truth. He wanted to know that everything he had made was his creation. This confused him. Something compelled him to sit and get on with the work as he should, but at that moment he understood that he might be dependent on some other person. The thought raged within him, and it seemed to him that he was being torn to pieces from many directions. Nevertheless, he sat down and began to work. Perhaps he felt some kind of obligation to the creation. Stories poured out of it, but he could not keep up with the torrent. Events intermingled in the haik of words, and it seemed that everything was scrambled together. Complete sentences did not form, and it was clear to the weaver that no one would succeed in reading his stories this way. Still, something did not let him weave in a more deliberate way. It seemed to him the sooner he finished the haik, the sooner he would greet the girl. That thought, of course, was not very logical; the lover casts aside logic as if it is something occasionally attractive but always completely useless. He began to believe utterly that he would see her after the completion of the weaving, so much so that her eyes never left his sight. Sometimes he thought that he was hearing her singing, and it so strongly burned in his bowels that he had to try to escape from it all. Of course, that did not work. Nothing worked for him. Her songs began to call out from the deepest corners of the night, and his sleep became interrupted and bad. He dreamt that he planted flowers for her, but it was as though somebody kept stealing the buds of every blossom, and he had to start over and over again, in a perfectly endless circle. There was no way he could pick one of the flowers, no way to present one to her. When he opened his eyes, dawn would be arriving from the river, and he would sit down to work. He rushed toward the end, with a feeling that he was on a two-humped camel galloping through a hellish desert. He rushed almost blindly, occasionally thinking that in his haste he had not noticed some oasis, but he consoled himself that he would see the next one. However, he went on seeing nothing but fine golden sand and the bright sun. That which came out from under his fingers was very different: it contained all colors, and all the colors fit together in perfect harmony. The words were jumbled together, and the stories in the haik became completely incomprehensible, but the colors were part and parcel of the divine. The haik was ready and it was magical. He assumed that one who might want to read his creation would require a special key, and for a long time he considered how he might provide one. That which made this haik different from all others was exactly that key: the weaver decided that the haik would be for dancing.
Lake Haik was agitated, and to Jasus Moa it seemed to dance before his eyes. He was pleased about what he had accomplished. Very pleased. Things in Lasta had developed just as he desired, and now they had a new king. Now he could calmly go about doing as he had planned. To build a city according to his own liking, upon a religion that he believed everyone should profess. The old king had not possessed it. To him it had been important to build stone churches, and the blinded people even named the place after him. Lallibela, damn it! Such an ugly name.
What had compelled him to start is still cause for wonder. They were nomads, and the idea of building something was hardly logical. But he had begun and did not let up, as long as he continued thinking it was still not enough. Only she knew why. His wife knew. The church had forced her into that marriage. The church tore her away from her family and town, so she would be that nomad’s wife. He, in fact, had to build in repayment, and his stupid citizens believed that he had become pious overnight and had begun to worship Christ. He built all kinds of monuments to Him, from churches to ordinary wayside crosses. The people separated stones from the earth, chiseled them so they would fit together better, and they raised themselves toward heaven, propped up on those stones. They said that work is easier when the purpose is known in advance. He, Lallibela the Nomad from the line of Zagve, convinced them that it would be better this way: God would have mercy on them and grant them many more pleasant days, so they could travel much farther and much faster. In every direction an oasis would welcome them, with rich fruits, and the sky would be calm when they slept under it. Surely, not all believed, but the infidels vanished so quickly into the foundations of the new buildings that, in general, they are not worth mentioning.
I left Debre Damo in order to become a better man. I left that town in order to carry the message among the people, so they would see. I was glad when they told me that he had begun to build, and anyone in my position would leave there.
He welcomed me graciously when I arrived, and he let me begin teaching and spreading His message. I gathered people around me, and we all trusted in what the Nomad had envisioned. We encouraged the people in the building, telling them what was required and that it should be worthy of The Merciful One. I was the one who ordered that infidels be walled up in the foundations. I thought there was no greater sacrifice than one’s life. I had to maintain the faith among the people. I had it within myself, and passed it along to all. The Nomad gave me complete support. Oh, when I think of how naive I was!
They are telling me about wild hordes that will be tempted by my buildings. Their power is as wild as they are, their faith different from that of those who gave me a woman and peace for my people, and their music is devilishly licentious. Like my woman in her thoughts.
Perhaps we will need to move from Bunja.
He knows my thoughts. He found out somehow. Maybe that horrible monk saw something in my eyes. I will have to find a way to be free of him. It will be a grave sin if the monk is a prophet… No! No one must know my thoughts.
I see her in the morning, when she greets the day. She is in my prayers, but the Great Jasus told me that it is a sin to fall in love with someone else’s wife. He threatens to banish me from Bunja if I don’t tame my thoughts. I should not have told him. Now he says he has a mission for me. He will appoint me permanent escort of the King.
That’s not what I need. I need to look at her when the King is not around. I should not have told him.
He said that to me so plainly, as though it was about something very ordinary. Then I realized that he lacked true faith. I was angry, but I kept quiet and contained myself. We left to relocate. Tekle Hajman was like one stunned that day. That morning he saw her and she glanced toward him, and the smile she directed at him still glowed in his eyes. I assumed a clever pose when I ordered that they follow him. I realized that I would have to get rid of him. We departed to resettle, and all the great buildings dedicated to Him were left abandoned. I realized that he lacked true faith.
She has her eyes on another man. She is forgetting her obligations. She is somewhere else when she talks to me. I will have to kill again. So as to hold onto her, so she will be mine alone. I ransomed her from the Church, I fulfilled my duties! Now I will resettle my people to a place where they will be more secure from the wild hordes that are advancing. Then I will take care of that dirty business. They are telling me about some monk with peculiar eyes. Maybe he is the one. Oh, Jasus, just you wait and see!
I know they are watching me. The eyes of Jasus are everywhere. I think he stuck me with the King so I would keep an eye on him. I don’t want to see her when she he is next to him. Then she doesn’t pay any attention to me.
The ember that glows in his breast arouses my blood. It is as though he is blind. But there is a gleam in his eye. Would he commit a sin for me…? Not just that, but he would take me before my husband’s eyes, if I would just look at him.
“Do you have peculiar eyes?” he asked me as I assembled my students. I lowered my glance so he did not see my anger, so as not to forewarn him, so he will not be able to protect himself when I fall upon him. “My eyes are the eyes of your obedient servant, My Lord,” I said, and my students lowered their glances toward his feet.
The caravan is as long as my longing for her is great.
He is constantly looking back, toward his teacher. If I just find the place! We will settle down, we will defend ourselves, and I’ll have no more need of him. I will destroy him right before her eyes! This young one with me will be able to take over his duties.
– Yes, My Lord?
– Do you trust your Jasus?
– Yes, My Lord. He is my teacher.
– Do you trust the horse that is carrying you toward our new home, Tekle?
– No, My Lord. The horse does not know where to go if I do not show him.
It’s as though he suspects something. As though he is testing me. I would not dare admit that I don’t trust the Great Jasus, even if it is so. I have to stay alive, to be near her, to hear when she calls me. I don’t know why he asked me about the horse.
I am looking at the nape of his neck. His skin is black and stretched from the sun. If my husband were to die, if he were thrown from his horse right now, who would be king? The terrible Jasus Moa, or would they wait for me to give birth? But I am carrying no fruit in my womb. I don’t want his child.
“Jekuno,” my father said on his deathbed, “don’t forget that you are a prince!” Don’t ever forget that, you, my son, Jekuno Amlak, you, Prince of Amhara. I hear the sand shifting under the horses’ hooves. My father’s voice is all around me. It’s good that only I hear it. My people are tired.
They told me about some large lake. Perhaps we will settle there. The people are tired. The horses move more slowly. Perhaps we should stop, so they can catch their breath.
A horse is trotting toward me. Who is it, Tekle?
– The Prince of Amhara is coming, My Lord.
– I would like us to stop, Your Highness. My people are tired.
– We shall stop presently. A lake should appear in front of us.
* * *
The lake is in front of us. It smells. I have to find a way to be safe from his power. If he has decided that we settle here, I will go on further. My God will show me the way.
I feel her eyes on my back. She is not… she is not indifferent. I should snatch her up and we should flee… I should leave the Teacher, and the King, and my nation… What good is a nation if I don’t have her… The sun is as strong as my love.
At every opportunity he told me that I was a prince. As though he was afraid that I would forget that. However, I could never forget that, because every breath I take is the breath of a prince. My people are my people alone. I will settle them in the place that is best.
He did not seem surprised when the Prince of Amhara told him that he wanted to stay. He told him that he could keep his people, if he remained his loyal subject. His face was like a cold stone when the Prince said he would keep all his own people.
The terrible Moa went up to him, muttering something in his ear. The Nomad glanced at Tekle and smiled. At dawn, we went onward.
I had to let him stay. If he resisted once, he will always resist. It is better if he is far from me. He will be easy prey for the wild hordes that are coming. He will weaken their forces, making the work easier for me.
Jasus has gotten himself out of it. He knows more than I was able to guess. When I think about it, it was clever on his part that he decided to renounce her in order to hold onto his life. The young man will carry on his work.
Now I am my own master, father. Now I am master of my own people. The shore of this lake is our new home. Be with me still. I am beginning anew.
– Do you trust the horizon, Tekle?
– Yes, My Lord.
The absence of Jasus Moa is liberating for me. I would like us to get there, I would just like to stop. I want a window under which he will pass. I want an arch under which the swallows will build their nests.
“Let this place be called Debre Egziabeher, and here let His name be glorified!” the priest Jasus Moa told us that morning. And the people began to build. Even I said, “Let His name be glorified!” My nation had a new country, my nation took on a new faith. I knew that I would lead them, even after I was gone.
The mornings are nice in Lasta, because she lets out her breath here.
Tekle Hajman, the young man, is no longer so young. There is wisdom in his eyes, and my nation is prospering in Lasta. She does not love me. Ten moons have passed, and she does not love me. The seal of Jasus Moa is stronger than I thought.
Do something, Tekle Hajman, my love!
It is time to go on the road. The horse beneath me and the horizon before me. Jekuno Amlak summons me. It is time to do something.
I knew that Tekle would accomplish everything. In just the way I had thought. In just the way that is right. Lasta is growing and His Word has greater power. Now is the time to strike. Once and for all. It is time for Jekuno Amlak, the Prince of Amhara, to go after what is his.
Once and for all.
This land smells of her. Even after so many months. I know my way. I am spurring this horse so as to hear her voice more clearly, to meet her in the thud of hooves.
Jasus Moa decided to leave. My people are brave, father, and they will take what is rightfully ours.
– You are no longer so young, Tekle.
– Time is a healer of pain, Teacher, but the body cannot resist.
– I understood that you have increased your force, Tekle, and that you know what should be done.
– I will try to convince him, Teacher.
– You really still love her, Tekle?
My eyes are blind without her.
His silence is his pain. And time just amplifies it.
– You will be part of my nation, Tekle Hajman, if we manage to achieve Truth.
– By all means, Prince of Amhara. By all means.
* * *
Dreams of blood visit me, and things do not brighten in the morning. I wake up in pain, and I lie down in pain. Does he sense my tears?
Powerful rains have chased me for days, but the way keeps growing shorter, so I am rushing toward her.
– I gathered that you were in Debre, Tekle?
– I was, My Lord.
– What did you bring from there, Tekle?
– A word from the Great Jasus.
– I don’t want to hear it.
– Your wish is my command, My Lord.
He is here. He came. It is better now. Now the dreams do not frighten me. I know whose blood will flow.
– We will be greater in number after this, because the Truth is with us! Be strong, my warriors, and the whole kingdom will be ours! His Word will go before us, even to the place where the unbeliever rules!
Fire and sword, and our raised banners. Now nothing will hinder us. My army is great, made up of strong men, mounted on strong horses, armed with swords and spears. No obstacle will stand in its way, because the Truth is with us!
The ground rumbles from his force. It is time to strike. Once and for all.
They are coming. I hear them. Let them be received calmly to be destroyed to the last man. This kingdom is mine, for the ages. There are no hordes. They were not going to appear. Someone has deceived me. The liar will be punished, but first let them be received calmly and firmly. To the last man.
She loves me. That is my truth, that is my justification. She loves me.
Lallibela sends only one rider against this army?
– Glory to you for all time, Prince of Amhara!
– Who are you?
– A faithful pupil of the Great Tekle, and your obedient servant, My Lord!
– Where is the army of Lallibela?
– It is your army, as if it is the one behind you. Lallibela is no more.
We have established the Truth so easily?
I will need centuries to find repentance for my evil, but she is by my side and the road is wide. I took only one haik for her, but it is as if I had given her the kingdom the way she looks at me.
* * *
My heart sings by your side, Tekle Hajman, my love. This evening, in this haik, I will be yours, and every night and day thereafter, as long as there is a sun in the sky and air in my breast.
Along a great river I will raise a tent and those who know not of my evildoing will come to hear His Word. With these hands I will clothe them, weaving for everyone until I have redeemed myself for my love.
Skopje, 1997 – April 28, 1999
From “Sandglass”, Magor 2002
Translated by Richard Gaughran