Baba Ayub stated his name. “I come from the village of Maidan Sabz,” he said.
Do you have a wish to die? Surely you must, disturbing me in my home! What is your business?
“I have come here to kill you.”
There came a pause from the other side of the gates. And then the gates creaked open, and there stood the div, looming over Baba Ayub in all of its nightmarish glory.
Have you? it said in a voice thick as thunder.
“Indeed,” Baba Ayub said. “One way or another, one of us dies today.”
It appeared for a moment that the div would swipe Baba Ayub off the ground and finish him with a single bite of its dagger-sharp teeth. But something made the creature hesitate. It narrowed its eyes. Perhaps it was the craziness of the old man’s words. Perhaps it was the man’s appearance, the shredded garb, the bloodied face, the dust that coated him head to toe, the open sores on his skin. Or perhaps it was that, in the old man’s eyes, the div found not even a tinge of fear.
Where did you say you came from?
“Maidan Sabz,” said Baba Ayub.
It must be far away, by the look of you, this Maidan Sabz.
“I did not come here to palaver. I came here to—”
The div raised one clawed hand. Yes. Yes. You’ve come to kill me. I know. But surely I can be granted a few last words before I am slain.
“Very well,” said Baba Ayub. “But only a few.”
I thank you. The div grinned. May I ask what evil I have committed against you so as to warrant death?
“You took from me my youngest son,” Baba Ayub replied. “He was in the world the dearest thing to me.”
The div grunted and tapped its chin. I have taken many children from many fathers, it said.
Baba Ayub angrily drew his scythe. “Then I shall exact revenge on their behalf as well.”
I must say your courage rouses in me a surge of admiration.
“You know nothing of courage,” said Baba Ayub. “For courage, there must be something at stake. I come here with nothing to lose.”
You have your life to lose, said the div.
“You already took that from me.”
The div grunted again and studied Baba Ayub thoughtfully. After a time, it said, Very well, then. I will grant you your duel. But first I ask that you follow me.
“Be quick,” Baba Ayub said, “I am out of patience.” But the div was already walking toward a giant hallway, and Baba Ayub had no choice but to follow it. He trailed the div through a labyrinth of hallways, the ceiling of each nearly scraped the clouds, each supported by enormous columns. They passed many stairwells, and chambers big enough to contain all of Maidan Sabz. They walked this way until at last the div led Baba Ayub into an enormous room, at the far end of which was a curtain.
Come closer, the div motioned.
Baba Ayub stood next to the div.
The div pulled the curtains open. Behind it was a glass window. Through the window, Baba Ayub looked down on an enormous garden. Lines of cypress trees bordered the garden, the ground at their base filled with flowers of all colors. There were pools made of blue tiles, and marble terraces, and lush green lawns. Baba Ayub saw beautifully sculpted hedges and water fountains gurgling in the shade of pomegranate trees. In three lifetimes he could not have imagined a place so beautiful.
But what truly brought Baba Ayub to his knees was the sight of children running and playing happily in the garden. They chased one another through the walkways and around trees. They played games of hide-and-seek behind the hedges. Baba Ayub’s eyes searched among the children and at last found what he was looking for. There he was! His son Qais, alive, and more than well. He had grown in height, and his hair was longer than Baba Ayub remembered. He wore a beautiful white shirt over handsome trousers. He laughed happily as he ran after a pair of comrades.
“Qais,” Baba Ayub whispered, his breath fogging the glass. And then he screamed his son’s name.
He cannot hear you, the div said. Nor see you.
Baba Ayub jumped up and down, waving his arms and pounding on the glass, until the div pulled the curtains shut once more.
“I don’t understand,” Baba Ayub said. “I thought …”
This is your reward, the div said.
“Explain yourself,” Baba Ayub exclaimed.
I forced upon you a test.
A test of your love. It was a harsh challenge, I recognize, and its heavy toll upon you does not escape me. But you passed. This is your reward. And his.
“What if I hadn’t chosen,” cried Baba Ayub. “What if I had refused you your test?”
Then all your children would have perished, the div said, for they would have been cursed anyway, fathered as they were by a weak man. A coward who would see them all die rather than burden his own conscience. You say you have no courage, but I see it in you. What you did, the burden you agreed to shoulder, took courage. For that, I honor you.
Baba Ayub weakly drew his scythe, but it slipped from his hand and struck the marble floor with a loud clang. His knees buckled, and he had to sit.
Your son does not remember you, the div continued. This is his life now, and you saw for yourself his happiness. He is provided here with the finest food and clothes, with friendship and affection. He receives tutoring in the arts and languages and in the sciences, and in the ways of wisdom and charity. He wants for nothing. Someday, when he is a man, he may choose to leave, and he shall be free to do so. I suspect he will touch many lives with his kindness and bring happiness to those trapped in sorrow.
“I want to see him,” Baba Ayub said. “I want to take him home.”
Baba Ayub looked up at the div.
The creature moved to a cabinet that sat near the curtains and removed from one of its drawers an hourglass. Do you know what that is, Abdullah, an hourglass? You do. Good. Well, the div took the hourglass, flipped it over, and placed it at Baba Ayub’s feet.
I will allow you to take him home with you, the div said. If you choose to, he can never return here. If you choose not to, you can never return here. When all the sand has poured, I will ask for your decision.
And with that, the div exited the chamber, leaving Baba Ayub with yet another painful choice to make.
I will take him home, Baba Ayub thought immediately. This was what he desired the most, with every fiber of his being. Hadn’t he pictured this in a thousand dreams? To hold little Qais again, to kiss his cheek and feel the softness of his small hands in his own? And yet … If he took him home, what sort of life awaited Qais in Maidan Sabz? The hard life of a peasant at best, like his own, and little more. That is, if Qais didn’t die from the droughts like so many of the village’s children had. Could you forgive yourself, then, Baba Ayub asked himself, knowing that you plucked him, for your own selfish reasons, from a life of luxury and opportunity? On the other hand, if he left Qais behind, how could he bear it, knowing that his boy was alive, to know his whereabouts and yet be forbidden to see him? How could he bear it? Baba Ayub wept. He grew so despondent that he lifted the hourglass and hurled it at the wall, where it crashed into a thousand pieces and its fine sand spilled all over the floor.
The div reentered the room and found Baba Ayub standing over the broken glass, his shoulders slumped.
“You are a cruel beast,” Baba Ayub said.
When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color. Have you made your choice?
Baba Ayub dried his tears, picked up his scythe, and tied it around his waist. He slowly walked toward the door, his head hung low.
You are a good father, the div said, as Baba Ayub passed him by.
“Would that you roast in the fires of Hell for what you have done to me,” Baba Ayub said wearily.
He exited the room and was heading down the hallway when the div called after him.
Take this, the div said. The creature handed Baba Ayub a small glass flask containing a dark liquid. Drink this upon your journey home. Farewell.
Baba Ayub took the flask and left without saying another word.
Many days later, his wife was sitting at the edge of the family’s field, looking out for him much as Baba Ayub had sat there hoping to see Qais. With each passing day, her hopes for his return diminished. Already people in the village were speaking of Baba Ayub in the past tense. One day she was sitting on the dirt yet again, a prayer playing upon her lips, when she saw a thin figure approaching Maidan Sabz from the direction of the mountains. At first she took him for a lost dervish, a thin man with threadbare rags for clothing, hollow eyes and sunken temples, and it wasn’t until he came closer yet that she recognized her husband. Her heart leapt with joy and she cried out with relief.
After he had washed, and after he had been given water to drink and food to eat, Baba Ayub lay in his house as villagers circled around him and asked him question after question.
Where did you go, Baba Ayub?
What did you see?
What happened to you?
Baba Ayub couldn’t answer them, because he didn’t recall what had happened to him. He remembered nothing of his voyage, of climbing the div’s mountain, of speaking to the div, of the great palace, or the big room with the curtains. It was as though he had woken from an already forgotten dream. He didn’t remember the secret garden, the children, and, most of all, he didn’t remember seeing his son Qais playing among the trees with his friends. In fact, when someone mentioned Qais’s name, Baba Ayub blinked with puzzlement. Who? he said. He didn’t recall that he had ever had a son named Qais.
Do you understand, Abdullah, how this was an act of mercy? The potion that erased these memories? It was Baba Ayub’s reward for passing the div’s second test.
That spring, the skies at last broke open over Maidan Sabz. What came down was not the soft drizzle of years past but a great, great rainfall. Fat rain fell from the sky, and the village rose thirstily to meet it. All day, water drummed upon the roofs of Maidan Sabz and drowned all other sound from the world. Heavy, swollen raindrops rolled from the tips of leaves. The wells filled and the river rose. The hills to the east turned green. Wildflowers bloomed, and for the first time in many years children played on grass and cows grazed. Everyone rejoiced.
When the rains stopped, the village had some work to do. Several mud walls had melted, and a few of the roofs sagged, and entire sections of farmland had turned into swamps. But after the misery of the devastating drought, the people of Maidan Sabz weren’t about to complain. Walls were reerected, roofs repaired, and irrigation canals drained. That fall, Baba Ayub produced the most plentiful crop of pistachios of his life, and, indeed, the year after that, and the one following, his crops increased in both size and quality. In the great cities where he sold his goods, Baba Ayub sat proudly behind pyramids of his pistachios and beamed like the happiest man who walked the earth. No drought ever came to Maidan Sabz again.
There is little more to say, Abdullah. You may ask, though, did a young handsome man riding a horse ever pass through the village on his way to great adventures? Did he perhaps stop for a drink of water, of which the village had plenty now, and did he sit to break bread with the villagers, perhaps with Baba Ayub himself? I can’t tell you, boy. What I can say is that Baba Ayub grew to be a very old man indeed. I can tell you that he saw his children married, as he had always wished, and I can say that his children bore him many children of their own, every one of whom brought Baba Ayub great happiness.
And I can also tell you that some nights, for no particular reason, Baba Ayub couldn’t sleep. Though he was a very old man now, he still had the use of his legs so long as he held a cane. And so on those sleepless nights he slipped from bed without waking his wife, fetched his cane, and left the house. He walked in the dark, his cane tapping before him, the night breeze stroking his face. There was a flat rock at the edge of his field and he lowered himself upon it. He often sat there for an hour or more, gazing up at the stars, the clouds floating past the moon. He thought about his long life and gave thanks for all the bounty and joy that he had been given. To want more, to wish for yet more, he knew, would be petty. He sighed happily, and listened to the wind sweeping down from the mountains, to the chirping of night birds.