Dressed in robes of vertical black and white stripes, Jamshed and Abduvali, carrying his own instrument, followed Ozoda through the darkness, fire light dancing upon her long, bell-sleeved white dress embroidered in black at the hem and cuff.
Abduvali bowed to Ergash then took his seat behind the fire; Ozoda, off his left, took her position a step behind and held open hands at her navel.
Ergash motioned Rahim closer and spoke soft. “He is going to tune the singer and the audience, set the mood. When he is done, he will look to you for the tanbur. Hold it by the base and the neck when you give it to him.”
Though similar to the tanbur, Abduvali played his stringed instrument with a bow. His slow hand a weaver of solemn dreamscapes, minutes into the song Ergash returned with a slow and steady beat of the drum, each pulse anchoring Abduvali’s solo, preventing it from floating aloft and carrying the people away.
Nigora, covered in black from head to toe, stepped into the orange glow, and sat between the fire and the musicians.
Exchanging with Rahim his instrument for the tanbur, Abduvali, maintaining the slow rhythm, altered the melody as Ozoda proceeded to haunt the night with her voice.
“There is no pleasure in watching the garden in bloom,” she lamented. “Your face, the moon, shares its light through the night, illuminates always my heart.”
Jamshed returned the sentiment, then sang of intoxication, a broken heart, a lost mind.
Twice the two alternated verses, then sang together: their hearts afire, their tears bloody rivers, they asked themselves where they would go, and, perhaps more important, they asked with whom.
The spaces between verses gave Abduvali opportunity to improvise upon the original somber mood. Rahim concluded the man nothing short of a master, the creator of a rich series of variations upon lyrical and musical theme held together with cross stitches, fan stitches, seed stitches and star stitches.
Their voices returned and brought with it clarity not just to the occasion, but Rahim’s life. He’d heard the word before. Enough times he could just about shrug it off. But not now. Here in the desert, listening to them sing the word in a way he never imagined it could be expressed. That he could not shrug off, for it hit him like a brick.
His soft tears turned to bleeding and Jamshed asked a question Rahim could not help but suffer: had he aba—? He shook his head and pulled his shaggy hair. He couldn’t have. He yanked harder, but no matter how many hairs he ripped from their roots, the question, a tenacious tick, remained:
Had he abandoned his Layla?
“May I die for you.”
Jamshed’s concluding line kicked him in the back of the knee and shoved his head down. Ergash’s drum throttled his heart. Hadn’t he heard that very same beat the time the man in Condus laid his neck across the executioner’s table?
“May I die for you.” It should have been a question, yet Jamshed didn’t inflect the way you do when you ask one. Was it a question he posed, or a request? Did he ask “may I” as in can I please die for you? Or did “may” mean “might,” as in “might I” as if death, a once distant possibility, hovered nearby, silent and in the shadows.
Ozoda responded to Abduvali. Rahim lifted his head. She sang of a pigeon who, after realizing how far away she’d flown and how long they’d been separated, wrote a letter to his Beloved. The lyric contained a play on words: the feather for the pen, the pen for the feather. Rahim sat and rested the cap in his lap, and thought of his home and his Layla. More than just a part of his life in childhood, in her he could find his home. After spending the night with the couple along the dunes to the east of the Sewil Sea, Rahim had come to the conclusion that when you really thought about it, a married couple differed little from a home. And thus, Rahim knew, listening to Abduvali and Ozoda, that Ergash was wrong: as long as he remained separated from her, Rahim would never set foot in his home again.
“Free from love that is deficient,” continued Ozoda, “is the beauty of the Beloved/ And how lovely it is when the stricken sees your face/ How much more when the hands that hold his tear-streaked cheeks embrace the hands of the one he loves.”
Rahim envied of the man on the executioner’s block.
Did his inability to answer the question mean his love contained a deficiency? Rahim chewed on his trembling lower lip. He turned the cap end over end. Would he forever be doomed to hold his own head in his own grief-stricken hands, never to hold hers again?
Ozoda belted out an undulating falsetto.
Toes and fingers stiffened like iron, curved like raven’s claws.
Rahim’s incendiary scream drowned out Ozoda’s beautiful voice.
Zaghali shuffled to his side; Ergash motioned him way, took the boy by the forehead, and eased him flat to the ground. The pain the pain just just below just below the level of containment slithered from the base of his spine to his head. He pressed his eyes closed and, using his breath as Zaghali taught, tried to mitigate the ferocious influx of searing excruciation.
Millions of exploding suns scorched him, burned him to a black crisp.
As a child he’d often wondered what would happen to the color black when black got burned.
Continuing to burn, and burn and burn, now he knew.