IT DIDNT TAKE us long to pack our things, since we had so very few. I put one change of black mourning clothes into a hand-knotted saddlebag along with some heavy blankets to sleep in, and filled as many jugs as I could find with water. The morning of our departure, neighbors brought us gifts of bread, cheese, and dried fruit for the long journey. Kolsoom threw a handful of peas to divine whether it was an auspicious day for travel. After determining that it was excellent, she raised a precious copy of the Quran and circled our heads with it three times. Praying for a safe journey, we touched our lips to it. Just as we were setting off, Goli took a piece of dried fruit out of my bag and slipped it into her sleeve. She was stealing something of mine to make sure that one day, I would return.
I hope so, I whispered to her as we said good-bye. It pained me to leave her most of all.
My mother and I were traveling with a musk merchant named Abdul-Rahman and his wife, who escorted travelers from one city to another for a fee. They often journeyed all the way to the northeastern borders of our land, looking for musk bladders from Tibet to sell in big cities. Their saddlebags, blankets, and tents smelled of the fragrance, which commanded princely prices.
The camel that my mother and I shared had soft black eyes that had been lined with protective kohl, and thick, bushy hair the color of sand. Abdul-Rahman had decorated his pretty nose with a strip of woven red cloth with blue tassels, a kind of bridle. We sat on his back atop a mountain of folded rugs and sacks of food, and held on to his hump. The camel lifted his feet delicately when he walked but was ill-tempered and smelled as rotten as one of the village latrines.
I had never seen the countryside north of my village. As soon as we stepped away from the mountains life-giving streams, the land became barren. Pale green shrubs struggled to maintain a hold on life, just as we did. Our water jugs became more precious than the musk bladders. Along the way, we spotted broken water vessels and sometimes even the bones of those who had misjudged the length of their trip.
Abdul-Rahman pushed us onward in the early-morning hours, singing to the camels so they would pace themselves to the cadence of his voice. The sun glinted off the land, and the bright white light hurt my eyes. The ground was frozen; the few plants we saw were outlined with frost. By the end of the day, my feet were so cold I could no longer feel them. My mother went to sleep in our tent as soon as it was dark. She couldnt bear to look at the stars, she said.
After ten days of travel, we saw the Zagros Mountains, which signaled our approach to Isfahan. Abdul-Rahman told us that from somewhere high in the mountains flowed the very source of Isfahans being, the Zayendeh Rood, or Eternal River. At first, it was just a pale blue shimmer, with a cooling breath that reached us from many farsakhs away. As we got closer, the river seemed impossibly long to me, since the most water I had ever seen before had been in mountain streams.
After arriving at its banks, we dismounted from our camels, for they were not permitted in the city, and gathered to admire the water. May God be praised for His abundance! cried my mother as the river surged past us, a branch flowing by too quickly to catch.
Praise is due, replied Abdul-Rahman, for this river gives life to Isfahans sweet melons, cools her streets, and fills her wells. Without it, Isfahan would cease to be.
We left our camels in the care of one of Abdul-Rahmans friends and continued our journey on foot on the Thirty-three Arches Bridge. About halfway across, we entered one of its archways to enjoy the view. I grabbed my mothers hand and said, Look! Look! The river rushed by as if excited, and in the distance we could see another bridge, and another gleaming beyond that one. One was covered in blue tiles, another had teahouses, and still another had arches that seemed like infinite doorways into the city, inviting travelers to unlock its secrets. Ahead of us, Isfahan stretched out in all directions, and the sight of its thousands of houses, gardens, mosques, bazaars, schools, caravanserais, kebabis, and teahouses filled us with awe. At the end of the bridge lay a long tree-lined avenue that traversed the whole city, ending in the square that Shah Abbas had built, which was so renowned that every child knew it as the Image of the World. My eye was caught by the squares Friday mosque, whose vast blue dome glowed peacefully in the morning light. Looking around, I saw another azure dome, and yet another, and then dozens more brightening the saffron-colored terrain, and it seemed to me that Isfahan beckoned like a field of turquoise set in gold.
Copyright © 2007 by Anita Amirrezvani
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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