J. Michael Neal
© 2012 Melancholy Donkey Press
William de Quince sat in the hollow, staring up at the full moon. He idly dug in the sand with a knife while off to the left his horse’s stirrings broke the still quiet of the desert. His saddlebags contained all of his material possessions and barriers of language were the only thing preventing him from choosing a random direction and riding into a new life. Of course, that was the impulse that had led him to the Holy Land in the first place.
It didn’t occur to him to question whether he should go on, but he did wonder how he should do so. He couldn’t bring to mind any articulable reason to ever rise and ride back to Jerusalem. A sudden yearning to never move again filled his heart.
Tempeste gave a sudden, nervous whinny that punctured his reverie. He looked around sharply, searching for whatever hint of danger had spooked his mount. The glint of the moon’s light reflected from a pair of yellow eyes atop the low ridge to his left and, as he focused beyond them, William could see the outline of a great feline crouched there.
He and the cat regarded each other silently for a few moments. At last concern for his equine companion motivated William into movement where fear for himself had failed to do so. He rose and walked slowly up the slope. The cat remained still save for a languorous lashing of its tail. As he approached, William could make out a pattern of dark rosettes on its fur.
The creature emitted a low rumble from its throat and William realized that he’d left his sword where he’d been sitting. He carried no weapon beyond a knife more useful for eating than fighting. He eased between the two beasts but otherwise came to a stop.
As he looked at it more carefully, William comprehended a grace about the leopard. Its muttered growls and twitching tail betrayed a sense of agitation unconveyed by the rest of its posture. He was sure that it could pounce swiftly should it choose, but foremost in his thoughts was that it was the most exquisitely beautiful thing he had seen in five years.
With a loud hiss the cat uncoiled and fled down the opposite side of the low ridge. William rushed forward, but by the time he had reached the crest it had disappeared into the dark. Minutes passed as he strained his eyes in the hope of seeing it again. Finally, he sighed and returned to the spot where he’d been sitting. He lay down under the open sky and sleep stole up upon him.
He dreamt of the leopard. It lay stretched out and relaxed, completely at ease. William felt helpless under its gaze, but there was no accompanying sense of weakness or fear.
It spoke to him. “What would you have of me, human?”
“You know what it is that I want.”
“The power of desire is formed by the articulation, not the hearing,” it said. “Your need to speak remains even if I have no need to hear.”
“I wish for something that I cannot have.”
The cat yawned, displaying its great fangs. “Then you must name some other desire.”
“I have searched across thousands of miles to no avail. The quest has turned to ash in my mouth. My loss has driven desire from me. I have none beyond that which is unattainable.”
“You are searching in the wrong place, William de Quince.”
“Where then should I travel, Creature?”
“The other way.”
“So I should return to England?”
The same rumble that had been a warning in the waking world now sounded like laughter. “No matter which way your eyes face, what you seek will always lie in the opposite direction.”
“Is this a riddle?”
“If you choose to interpret it as such.”
“Could you not provide the answer?”
“Dreams never speak clearly, human. We are but rogue strands of thought putting the things you already know together in strange ways. You must think about us upon awakening in order to understand what we mean, by which time we can no longer speak to you.”
Willam awoke with a start as someone shouted. As he sat up, a white horse and rider started down the slope. “Hola, Faranj,” the rider repeated.
By the time he had achieved full consciousness and sat up, the horse stood over him. The youthful rider looked down. “Do you speak the language of the Rumi?” he asked in Greek.
The young man wore the long tunic and loose pants of the local natives and a long scarf wrapped around his head and shoulders. The clothes were pale blue and white. “Our word for the Byzantines. Do you speak Greek?”
William shrugged. “A bit. Only what I picked up as we traveled through their lands.”
“I have little Latin and no French, so it’s the best we’re likely to do. Unless you speak Arabic, of course.”
“Greek it is then.”
“Do we intend to talk to each other?”
The youth laughed. “Of course.” He waved at the empty hollow. “Who else is going to entertain me?”
This produced more merriment. “I am, I admit, endlessly amusing, but today I feel a yearning for company beyond Gameela here.” He patted the neck of his horse. William noted that he wore no beard.
“I’d prefer to be alone.”
“Faranj, I’m not sure I trust you to be alone.”
“I can’t hurt anyone out here.”
The stranger adopted a serious mien. “No fire. No bow. I don’t see any water or forage for your horse. You could die out here, Faranj.”
“Would that be such a bad outcome?”
“Your Greek is better than you claimed.”
William shrugged. “Shouldn’t you prefer me dead?”
“Then the world would be a less interesting place,” the rider said. “I have no desire to see you dead.”
“Aren’t I your enemy?” He continued to sit at the feet of the horse.
The youth laughed. “You are no one’s enemy, Faranj. The Fatimids and the Seljuqs hate each other far more than they hate you. Someday perhaps they will resolve their differences and turn to fight you, but for now they each see you as a possible ally, not a foe.”
”What of all of those we killed in Jerusalem?”
“The powerful care little about such people.”
“Perhaps I deserve to die, then.”
“Oh, no, Faranj.” For the first time his voice was serious. “Your punishment shall be to teach me your language and teach me your culture so that I may understand why I should not wish for God to strike you all down for the barbarities you have perpetrated in our land.”
“Who are you to impose a punishment upon me?”
“I’m just the person who happened by, but do you deny the justice of this, Faranj? To die would be easy, hardly a punishment at all.”
“If there is a god, surely I will be condemned to hell. Is that insufficient punishment for you?”
The rider laughed again. “You best me there, Faranj. But I bring hope as well. Truly, have you done anything that merits an eternity of punishment? As you teach me, so shall I teach you. There is joy in the world as well as despair, though you seem to have forgotten this.”
“Happiness is beyond me, I fear,” William replied.
“Happiness is beyond no one and in my presence it is not only possible, but inevitable. Misery flees from my touch, Faranj.”
The rider arched backwards until his hands rested on his horse’s hindquarters and then kicked his legs up into a handstand. He held the position for a moment, tunic bunched around his shoulders exposing a thin cotton shirt. Then he pushed off and jackknifed his legs, landing on his feet behind the horse.
“Impressive,” William said without inflection. With a better look, he realized that that the newcomer was a full head shorter than himself and looked even younger close up.
“I see you will be a hard test of my powers, Faranj. We have much work to do.”
“You will be as old as I am before you will bring me happiness, boy.”
“Will I?” The eyes flashed mischievously. “It is fortunate that I am patient, then.”
“What is your name?”
“I have many names, but you may call me Ali.”
“Very well, Ali, since it appears that I am stuck with you. I am William de Quince.”
Ali bowed. “Peace be upon you, William de Quince. We shall spend much fruitful time together, inshallah We shall start by finding forage for our horses.”
That afternoon, Ali began to learn French. They began with the simple but quite laborious process of conversing in Greek after which William would translate each comment into his own language. It seemed an inefficient way to teach a language, but it had proved impossible to keep Ali focused on any one subject.
It also led to William translating only about a third of all that Ali said, since he didn’t stop talking while the older man tried to formulate each sentence into French.
“You are French, then?”
“I was born in Normandy, but my father was a part of the army that conquered England and I have lived there most of my life.”
“Why did you come to our land, William de Quince?”
After providing the translation he answered, “The weather.”
Ali raised an eyebrow.
“It is always cold and rainy in England.”
“I can see that providing motivation to leave, but wouldn’t al-Andalus provide the same benefits with less travel?”
They were on horseback, walking slowly with no apparent destination in mind. William’s gaze focused on the horizon. “There were others coming here. The Pope called for the Crusade.”
“And yet you claim to prefer to be alone.”
“I made a mistake.”
“I am not convinced that you are giving me complete answers, Faranj. Rest assured that I will come back to these questions.”
As if constant chatter were insufficient to keep him occupied, Ali frequently engaged in displays of acrobatics or horsemanship. That he could maintain a handstand while Gameela trotted was the least of them. Some were so breathtaking and William doubted that he had ever met anyone who could duplicate them. The Arab and his white mare seemed to move as one.
“For what purpose have you learned these feats?” William finally asked.
Ali laughed. “Do you not enjoy watching them, Faranj?”
“They are impressive.”
“You enjoy watching and I enjoy performing. Is that not sufficient purpose to learn anything?”
“If one is a court jester.”
“Truly? You have but one individual who bears the burden of making you laugh and you look down at him? How foolish. No wonder you are miserable, William de Quince.”
“Is it that different here?”
“Alas, no. We have stumbled upon one of the great follies of mankind, I fear. Not enough happiness. Perhaps it is why we spend so much energy killing each other.”
“You object to killing?”
“Not always, but most killing, yes.” Ali smiled. “As I said, people are interesting. Each death makes the world a less fascinating place.”
“Are there not evil people in the world who should be killed?”
“There are people who commit evil deeds. Sometimes it is best to kill them before they commit more such deeds, but I am unsure that there are truly evil people.”
“I have seen them.”
“Have you? Who are they?”
“Men I fought with at Acre and Jerusalem and the other cities we sacked.” William did not translate this.
Ali reined Gameela to a stop. “Tell me, William de Quince, why did you massacre the population of the Holy City. Was it truly merely the urges of evil men?”
“I do not believe you, Faranj. Men’s motivations are rarely so simple. Tell me the fullness of why you slaughtered so many people.”
William sat motionless for minutes before answering. “It is the custom in the West. If a city rejects an offer to surrender and it must be stormed, then it is sacked and its inhabitants are put to the sword.”
“So it is fear that prompts you to kill. You fear dying in the assault and so you wish to scare the defenders into surrender.”
“In part. Yet we kill innocents as well as those that bear arms. We rape and we pillage. Is that not evil?”
“Without question. You have committed great evil, but it is the deeds that were evil. I do not sense that you are evil, William de Quince. If you were, your deeds would not weigh on you so heavily.”
“Islam must be a strange religion, Ali, for you to hold such views.”
The laugh was musical. “I am a poor Muslim, Faranj. I hold many heretical views. Do not expect others you meet to think as I do. You could receive an unpleasant surprise.”
“I will keep that in mind.”
“There is a stream just beyond that hill.” Ali pointed in the direction they had been riding. “It is a suitable place to camp, with water for the horses.” He dismounted from a handstand again, but this time off to the side. “I have business to attend in the desert. May I trust Gameela to your care?”
William nodded solemnly. “I will tend to her as if she were my own. And I will think upon what you have said.”
“That is good, Faranj, for I intend to hear your laughter tomorrow.”
He dreamed of the leopard again that night. It padded silently across open grasslands. William could see occasional trees of a sort he’d never before seen dotting the landscape.
“Come with me,” the great cat told him.
William followed. They passed a massive herd of beasts, antelope and a strange black and white horse whose presence confirmed to him that it was a dream. They walked on.
“Where are we going?” William asked finally.
“We are hunting,” came the reply.
The panther stopped and turned to gaze at him. “Only you can know what we are after, William de Quince.”
“I have no wish to be a hunter.”
“Then what is it that you want?”
“To be a husband. A father.”
“You chose a strange land to fulfill those desires.”
“Could you at least move your mouth when you talk? If I have to listen to a talking cat, I’d prefer one that actually talks.”
“The feline mouth isn’t really designed for human speech, you realize. It won’t look much less strange if it moves.”
“It is my dream. Could we do something by my rules?”
“A fair request.” The lips and tongue moved to a fair approximation of a human’s. “So why are you in the desert many miles from anyone who speaks your language if your desires are familial?”
“Because I had a family and I lost them.”
“That’s not much of an answer.”
“This is as far away from England as I could imagine. I didn’t want to be reminded of them. I wanted to escape.” William turned and started walking towards one of the strange trees.
“And how have you done at that?”
“Poorly. I see my wife in every shimmer of heat.”
“Then it is time to try something else.”
He stopped and turned. “I was hoping to die.”
The leopard looked at him. “You spent a full year fighting the locals. If you were really trying to get yourself killed I can’t say that I’m impressed with your capabilities.”
“That makes two of us. Instinct always took over. So I walked out into the desert so that I couldn’t fuck it up.”
“Someone else came along and fucked it up for me.”
“Do you mean me or the boy?”
“Perhaps this is the family you were meant to find.”
“That would be proof that God truly does despise me.” William sat down abruptly.
“He seems like a decent sort to me. Charming, even.”
“I care nothing for charm. I desired silence.”
The cat padded over to him and sat on its haunches. “You are done questing then?”
“Questing for what? All I see over there are a couple of trees that look like they were planted upside down and have their roots in the air. What good will those do me?”
“I’ll have you know that those trees are marvelous for climbing up into. They provide a great view of the plains.”
“Okay, what’s that supposed to symbolize?”
“Hell if I know.” The leopard rolled its muscular shoulders in the approximation of a shrug. “I just like watching the world go by from their branches. Sometimes I’ll drag a carcass up there so I can eat without the lions or the hyenas interrupting me.”
“I thought this was supposed to be one of those prophetic dreams where you’re God and everything that happens has some deeper meaning.”
“I hate to break it to you, but either I’m really just you asking yourself questions or I’m more of an enigma than you were counting on.”
“Wonderful. Can I expect you every night now?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Oops, looks like we’re . . .”
William sat up, disoriented by the sudden transition from sleep. It was still dark. The moon, no longer quite full, illuminated the camp. The horses were mostly quiet. He looked up to the sky, counting stars in an effort to return to sleep. It came very slowly.
He woke to the smell of roasting meat. Ali tended a fire, back to him. William observed the young man quietly for a few moments. Even squatting there, the youth radiated an aura of grace.
He stood up and moved next to the fire. “What are you cooking?” There were four long skewers of meat in the flames.
Ali looked up at him and smiled. “Goat.”
“You’ve been hunting?”
“No. I carried a message to a local tribe when I left you last night. They gave me what you see as a gift this morning.”
“I pictured you hunting. I dreamed of a leopard that spoke with a voice uncannily like yours.”
Ali laughed. “Did this leopard tell you anything interesting?”
“Only riddles and sarcasm.”
“I am sorry that my voice couldn’t provide you more guidance in the night.” He sounded far more amused than apologetic.
“Why should it be different at night than in the day?”
“You wound me, Faranj,” Ali cried. “I led you to the stream, did I not?”
“You left me to find it myself.”
“Now you are just trying to be sullen, and not very convincingly.”
William idly kicked at the sand. “I still have no idea what we are doing.”
“Tell me, William, where it is that you wish to go.”
“Is this another metaphorical question?”
Another bark of laughter. “No. To what place do you desire to travel?”
“At some point I must go back to Jerusalem. I wouldn’t recommend you travel with me. Not yet. The fires still burn too hotly, and I do mean that metaphorically.”
Ali removed the meat from the fire and held a skewer out to William before removing the others. “That is where you intend to go?”
William shook his head. “Someday I will. Today I do not wish to go anywhere. It’s more effort than I can muster.” He took a bite of the goat meat and found it to be fatty and unlike any meat he had tasted. It wasn’t bad but didn’t really measure up to the meats he was used to.
“This food will last a few days. I will show you the sights of the desert. Then we can decide where to go to continue eating.”
“Why not just stay here?”
“Because movement is good for you. If your body stays in one place, your soul is inclined to do the same. The time to stay still is when you like where you are, not when you don’t.”
“You are not as young as you appear.”
Ali stood up. “No, William de Quince, I am not, save in spirit.”
“Who are you?” He continued to eat between comments.
“Who am I? That is not the first question I am usually asked when someone begins to comprehend my secrets. I am Ali, carefree wanderer of this desert.”
“You are lying to me.”
That produced a raised eyebrow. “You asked a very slippery question, Faranj. Who we are is transitory. I am exactly who I said I was, but I do not promise that this is who I will be tomorrow. I have other roles that I play, but none is pressing at the moment. This is fortunate, for I enjoy being Ali.”
“You said no one asks who you are first. What question then do they ask you?”
“They ask me what I am, of course.”
“What are you?”
“To that I am afraid I must give an incomplete answer. I was born in Damascus. I am a trained warrior and an outstanding rider. I am skilled at survival both in the wilderness and at court. I am 104 years old. As I have said previously, I am a poor Muslim but happy in my heretical beliefs. Is that a sufficient answer?”
“You are more than human.”
“Of course I am. So are you.” He wiped the juices rolling down his chin. “We are all much more than merely human. It would be a poor world if we could all be described so simply. Even a rock is more than just a rock.”
“You are some sort of spirit or fey creature.”
“I could continue to torment you with philosophizing, William de Quince, but I shall let it pass. You are wrong. I am human, though I will admit that at least one of the things I am in addition to being human is unusual and, indeed, would come close to matching what you mean with your accusation.”
“What else are you?” William insisted.
Ali grinned mischievously. “You wish to strip me of all of my secrets right now? What would be the fun of that? I have given you my age, so be content that you have unraveled one piece of my mystery. Try to figure out the rest. What I will say is that secrets come in threes.”
“Then I have two left to discover.”
“Indeed. Meanwhile, I will try to unravel your secrets. Be forewarned, William. When we stop to prepare camp, I will ask you who you are. I hope that you will have an answer prepared for me.”
The day passed with Ali teaching William about the desert while learning more French. The Englishman silently admitted to himself that his companion was very good at absorbing language, at least vocabulary. His facility with grammar was more problematic.
It was midafternoon when Ali shouted triumphantly. “I knew you were capable of laughter, William de Quince.”
“It was an accident,” the knight growled. That was true. In the immediate aftermath of the incident he could not pinpoint what had been said that prompted his outburst. And such it was, not one of the bitter, mirthless chuckles he had offered at previous moments. He found himself trying to recover his bad mood. A part of him wondered why he would bother to do so, but it didn’t stop him.
“Admit it, my friend,” Ali added. “No melancholy can withstand the force of my happiness.”
“It was but a passing fancy,” William replied. “My depression remains unconquered.”
Ali smiled. “I accept the challenge you offer me. Stay with me and you shall once again be numbered among the living.”
“Much to my consternation, I find that I have never stopped being alive.”
“There is a vast gulf between merely being alive and actually living.”
William brought his horse to a halt. “Why do you care whether I live or die? I would think that you would be happy to let me continue to live in misery.”
“Have you listened to me at all, William? I do not wish anyone to live in misery. If someone deserves death, then it is best to kill them and be done with it. If they do not deserve death, then neither do they deserve to be unhappy. Redemption depends upon seeing the good in the world and not just one’s own sin.”
“And so I am just a task for you?”
“Ah, there you find the mark. No, you are not just a task for me for me to accomplish, William de Quince. Or, more accurately, you are a very complex project tied up in my own regrets.” William opened his mouth to respond, but Ali held up his hand. “Yes, I have regrets. What separates us is that I see so much more. Do you wish to know why I will not leave you here? Why I am determined to see you on the road to happiness?”
“If I let you tell me this, it will bind me to you, will it not?”
“That is an interesting observation. Perhaps, but any binding will be one that you place upon yourself. Do you wish me to answer?”
William contemplated for only an instant. “Yes. Why am I so important to you?”
“William de Quince, you remind me of my son. Specifically, my second son. My youngest child.” Ali ignored William’s sharp hiss. “He is the only one of my four children who is still alive. He lives in Damascus.”
Ali looked wistfully into the distance somewhere over William’s shoulder. “He is old now, old and bitter. He was not always such. As a boy, he was playful. He was such a smart boy. Much smarter than I, to be truthful. And so it did not escape him when he became older than I in all ways but the simple passage of time. He realized what that meant. When he was but 25, he recognized that he would grow old and infirm and eventually die, while I remained vital.”
A sharp pain filled William’s chest and squeezed his heart. “And you remain happy, knowing this?”
“Faisal has asked much the same thing of me and I will give you the same answer I gave him. The water flows downstream. The sun sets in the west. I am merry and content with my life. That is a part of what I am. I will not apologize for it.”
“It must be hard.”
“For me or for him?”
“You spare no regret for the parent who must watch his offspring grow old and die?”
William looked into his eyes. “It doesn’t seem that your misery drags you down.”
Ali laughed as loud as William had yet heard him. “Ah, you best me, Faranj. You speak the truth. I am, indeed, happy with my lot and so it would be inappropriate to waste sympathy over my pains. I must express my gratitude that you save your concern for my son. At the same time, I would hope that you can understand that the similarities between you and he have prompted me to hope that I can do better this time. I failed him, William. He could have been . . .” Ali’s voice trailed off for a moment.
“Forgive me. I was engaged momentarily in the ultimate sin of a parent and almost said that he could have been great. I think he could have been, but that is irrelevant. Far more importantly, I think he could have been happy. Had I just known how to prepare him for the realizations I should have known would come. Had I understood him.”
“You wish for me to take his place.”
Ali rolled out of his saddle, feigning an inability to remain seated. That it was fake was demonstrated by the effortless way he rolled on the ground. “Ah, and you wonder why I like you, Faranj.” A coughing fit overwhelmed him as he tried to talk over his own mirth. “You cut to the heart of the matter. I suppose, in a way, that you are correct. Rest assured, William, I do not mistake you for Faisal. You have much in common, but more than enough differences that I in no way confuse you for him. You are not my surrogate son, but you are, perhaps, a chance for me to get something right.”
“I’m not sure that I see the difference,” William offered.
“No, perhaps you don’t. How old are you?”
“I’m 38 years old.”
“Yes, there is that. Faisal was only 18 when I began to lose him. That is a big difference. You are far more fully formed than he was. William, please remind me of that if I ever start to treat you as a child, for that would be a disservice to you.”
“Rest assured that I will let you know anytime that I feel that you are patronizing me because of my youth.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Ali said solemnly as he swung himself onto Gameela’s back again.
William almost failed to recognize the extent to which the whole exchange had destroyed his attempt to remain withdrawn and sullen. “You son of a bitch. I almost laughed again.”
“There is plenty of time for that,” Ali replied.
The question came as soon as they were off their horses that evening, before even setting up the camp. “And now, my friend, it is time for you to answer my question. Who are you?” Ali asked
William sighed. “I am not sure.”
“Then make it simple. Who are you right now?”
He shrugged. “I’m William de Quince, an English knight a long way from home. I’m tired and thirsty and ready to strangle an over-aged adolescent who has no capacity to shut up.”
That produced a laugh, of course. “Very good. We can establish who you are more generally at a later time.”
“Is the rest of my story that hard to figure out?”
“I can guess at some general shapes, but none of the specifics. But that is of little relevance. What you are willing to say is as important as what I am able to hear.”
William looked at the ground. “It doesn’t seem that it should be hard.”
“In good time, sir. I can wait until you are ready.” Ali strode off to get water, leaving William to arrange a fire.
He didn’t dream of the leopard that night. He didn’t dream at all. He went straight from wondering if he wanted to dream to the smell of roasting goat. He turned a gruff expression towards the young man at the fire. “Don’t you ever sleep? You were still out wandering the desert when I went to bed.”
Ali looked back over his shoulder. “Of course I sleep. I do so with the same enthusiasm that I do everything else and so I need less of it. Be happy, my friend, and you will not only enjoy life more, you will have more of it to enjoy.”
”Marvelous,” William grumbled. “Word games.”
“You just don’t like goat meat and the taste of it has soured your mood.”
“There is nothing particularly wrong with goat meat. There is nothing particularly right about it, either.”
“You think that it is uninteresting?” Ali grinned. “I take that as a most serious accusation.”
“It’s not exciting, certainly.”
“What would be exciting?”
“Whatever the leopard eats.”
“Why the leopard, William?” Ali asked after a sharp bark of laughter.
He shrugged. “I saw one a couple of nights ago. It was eying my horse, but it fled when I approached it.”
“That is interesting, for leopards are not common around here. I don’t recommend walking up to one, either.”
“They’re even rarer where I come from. I wanted a closer look.”
“It does take only one to make an impression,” Ali agreed. “However, in answer to your question, the leopard has a tendency to eat goats. So we have come full circle.”
“I’ll try to be excited by breakfast, then.”
“That’s the spirit, my friend.”
William frowned. “That was a very roundabout way to get me to agree to eat the goat.”
“I am very cunning, Faranj.” Ali inspected the meat and then put it back to roast longer. “When I met you, I was considering a visit to some of my cousins. I have decided that perhaps that is still a good idea, if you will accept my invitation to join me there.”
“I’d prefer not to talk to people. Yourself excepted, of course.”
“Ah, but that is the beauty of it. None of them speak Greek, so you won’t be able to talk to any of them.”
“I have a suspicion that you are tricking me somehow,” William replied.
“Tricking you? Never. It is nearly four days ride to their town. You can think about it along the way. If you decide to decline, we can just not travel the last mile.”
William shrugged, unable to form a decent reason to say no.
The succeeding days went much the same. Ali joked and cajoled. William smiled more and had a harder and harder time remaining sullen. Ali’s attitude was infectious.
The leopard stayed out of his dreams.
Early on the fourth day, Ali reined to a stop at the crest of a low ridge. A dusty town spread out at the base of the far side. William looked down on it, the first settlement, the first other people that he had seen in more than a week.
“Before I ask you whether you wish to meet my cousins, William, I have a different question. Truly, what brought you from gray, rainy England to this land?”
The knight continued to look down at the buildings silently. Many minutes passed, perhaps the longest stretch Ali had gone without speaking since they had met.
“My family died,” he said at long last before lapsing back into silence.
Ali let his horse drift sideways until their knees touched and offered a slight, easy smile of sympathy.
“I had a wife and four daughters. Other men kept telling me I needed to have a son. Anne felt guilty about producing only girls. I suppose I should have felt the same, but when I looked at them I was incapable of disappointment. They were so beautiful.”
“What were their names?” Ali asked quietly.
“Guinevere was the eldest. Then Annabelle, Margaret, and Esther.”
“You will have to tell me about each of them, William, and your wife as well.”
He nodded, but made no effort to say more.
“We will trade stories of our children.”
William tried to say something and his voice cracked several times before he managed it. “I was gone. It was summer, five years ago. We were campaigning in Wales, a part of the island we haven’t conquered yet. Nothing else had happened in years so everything seemed safe.
“The Vikings came that summer. Northmen raiders from across the sea. They don’t raid like they used to.” He laughed without a trace of mirth. “Of course not. The boldest among them conquered Normandy a century ago. Then they conquered England. Those were my ancestors. We were the ones manning the longboats. My family got rich making the same raids. It has been fifty years since that many of the Northmen assaulted England as did that summer. We had all thought that the great raids were a thing of the past.
“We were in the woods when we got word of the raids. I wish I could say that I had a vision of doom. I didn’t. There is so much coastline. My family was on such a small part of it. I worried briefly, but dismissed it in favor of worrying about my own life.
“It was three weeks before we got word. My brother’s manor had been sacked. No mention of who had been killed or who had survived. I felt fear from that point on. I couldn’t leave then; what would have been the point? It was all over, one way or the other. Alive or dead.
“They were dead, of course. All five of them. I don’t know how, exactly. No one alive saw the attack. It was sunny when we arrived home. After an entire summer of rain it was sunny, as if God were mocking me. I never got to see their bodies. I went straight to their graves in the churchyard. The five of them are in a little row. I would go out there in the middle of the night and lie down. It was almost as if I could feel them sleeping next to me, but it brought no comfort.
“I came to forget. I wanted to find a place where I didn’t see them behind every tree. Where I didn’t hear their voices in every room. I think I was mad. I wanted to kill. I’ve never been like that before. When I was younger I felt the excitement of combat. That mix of fear and thrill and the conviction that only your skill at arms will see you through the day.
“But I never really wanted to kill. I have, I think. I mean, I think I killed back in England. I know I have here. But the battles I was in were all so confused that I could never be sure. I was always just as happy that it was so. I could pretend that it was just a game.”
“But this was different. After they died, I did want to kill. An anger consumed me. And so I heeded the Pope’s call to come to this land, to free the Holy Land from the heathens.” His words were bitter. “That didn’t matter to me, just the promise of death and distance.”
“That’s why I came: to kill. That it was your people mattered to me not at all. And I came to die. It would have been better if I had simply resolved to die and skipped the killing.”
“This world makes the killing very easy, William.” Ali’s voice was soft. “Maybe it would be better if we all valued each others’ lives more and our own less, but that would be a different world than this one.”
It was as if he didn’t hear. “It was as if I was possessed. I can’t claim that it is true. I can remember making all of the decisions to slaughter, but it is as if I did so at a distance from my own body.”
“You are wrong, William. You were possessed. Perhaps not by Shaitan or his servants. Perhaps it was just that dark side that we all have within us that took you over and wouldn’t let go.”
“Whatever it was, it left me standing in a church of Jerusalem. I looked down and saw that I stood in blood up to my ankles. From right there, without turning my head, I could see three bodies that I could remember killing. Murdering, really. That’s what it was.
“What have I become?”
“What have you become, William? It sounds as if you aren’t any different now than you were before. The question isn’t what you have become. It’s whether what you were for a time consumes you.”
“Should it not?” Anguish twisted his face . Tempeste shifted uneasily as his hands twisted in the horse’s mane. “Can there ever be enough good deeds to outweigh the things that I have done?”
“Do not think of a balance, my friend. No action ever removes another. They are not sums.”
“Are we never rid of our sins? Do they weigh on our souls for all time?”
“No, William,” Ali said quietly. “That is not what I mean at all. We must let go of our sins. They are not us.”
“You tell me there is no penance to be paid for sins as grievous as I have committed?”
Ali smiled. “Let me speak at length, for this is not a simple thought. Of course there is penance to be done. But it does not wipe away our sins. They remain a part of us. Penance serves two purposes. It should remind us of our sins so that we do not repeat them, and it should offer recompense to those we have harmed. Not to remove the sin, but because we owe them a debt.”
“But I do not . . .”
Ali held a finger to William’s lips. “Hush. I am not finished yet. And it is important to realize that just as you cannot wipe away your sins, neither can they wipe away the good that you do. You remain the person that loved your daughters in a world that does not always prize little girls as it should.
“William, you were trying to tell me that you cannot offer recompense to those you harmed. You do not know who they were or how you could help them now that they are dead.”
“I can’t.” It was a strangled whisper.
“So you must move on. What’s done is done and you can’t change any of it. So you must resolve that you will be a good person going forward. There is no balance for you to achieve. That’s a senseless idea. Just be the best man you can be.”
“How do I avoid becoming that beast again?”
“There are two things that will stop you. The first is your own conscience. Now you know what you might do in the extremes of despair. Even without the second thing, I am confident that you would never behave so again.”
William looked at him dubiously. “I hope the second thing is more reliable than my own conscience.”
Ali laughed, the first sound of happiness since they had stopped on the ridge. “It is incredibly powerful, William, for that second thing is me. Even should your conscience fail, I will not let you descend to those depths again.”
“You would kill me first.” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course not.” Ali almost giggled. “I will make you laugh. That alone will keep you from evil.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“I am sorry if you feel that I am making light of your troubles, my friend. It is just that I see so much good in you that I cannot help but laugh.”
“I’m glad that one of us can.”
“I will teach you about yourself, William. Before I am done with you, you will understand the things that I see.” He turned and looked down at the town. “Now, do you wish to meet a small part of my family?”
William de Quince thought for a moment. “I do.”
As the two of them approached a compound within the town, a group of children emerged, shouting, “Al Fahad! Al Fahad!” Ali jumped off of his horse and scooped one of them up in his arms. He did so effortlessly despite his slight frame.
The sound rapidly spoken Arabic assaulted William. He felt a pang as a swarm of kids surrounded his new friend. In a strange land it seemed so familiar despite his inability to understand any of the words. Despite the ache, he felt a sliver of joy watching them.
“You are very popular,” he called to Ali over the din. That seemed to intensify the curiosity that had been growing among the mob about him. A couple of the older children, looked up at him, obviously wanting to ask him questions.
Ali said something to them that included William’s name. It induced more laughter.
“I’m afraid to find out what you just told them about me,” William said.
“I told them that you eat bothersome children,” Ali replied. “They don’t seem to believe me.”
William swung his leg over the saddle in order to dismount. He was immediately surrounded by children. “How many of them are there?”
“I don’t know. They never stand still enough to count. It’s half a clan.”
A middle aged man in white robes emerged from the villa. “Ali al Fahad!” he yelled, followed by more Arabic. He strode up to the two of them, eyeing William.
As he approached, Ali said, “This is my cousin Mohammed. Actually he’s my grandnephew, but to keep things simple, everyone becomes a cousin.”
“How many generations have come after you?”
“We’re on number four. You’re making me feel old.” He laughed.
“You are old.”
As Ali and Mohammed conversed, William amused himself making faces at a couple of the bolder children. They giggled and shrieked as he engaged in a more complex pantomime. They were interrupted by a sharp comment from Mohammed. The boys ran back into the villa. William looked at Ali with an expression of worry. “Did I do something wrong?”
Ali laughed. “No, my friend. It is time for afternoon prayers. The faithful are supposed to pray to God five times a day.”
“You do not.”
“I said that they are supposed to. I am not a good Muslim and sometimes fail in the observances when I am on my own. However, I honor God in my heart and while I am here, I do my best to adhere to expectations. So I will go inside now. You are welcome to follow me and I can show you where you can wait for us to be finished.”
William followed Ali into the cool, moist air that lay behind the villa doors. He was left to sit alone beside a fountain in the shaded courtyard, listening to the burbling of the water. A few minutes later a woman brought him a clay goblet. “Here you are, my lord,” she said in perfect Greek.
William started. “Ali said no one here spoke Greek.”
“He is often forgetful, my lord.”
William laughed. “I am only a third son. To call me anything more than ‘Sir’ is to elevate me beyond my station.”
“I prefer to err on the side of caution, my lord.”
“Wise, but I am merely William de Quince, minor knight. Address me however you will. Shouldn’t you be in praying?”
“I am Christian like you, Sir William.”
“Ah. If you will stay with me a moment, I would be interested in talking to someone who knows Ali.” The water was cold and clear and greatly satisfying.
“I am expected in the kitchen, sir.”
He nodded. “Perhaps later, then. What is your name?”
The servant gave him a guarded look. “Haidee, sir.”
“Well then, Haidee, perhaps I will talk to you later.”
“I look forward to it, sir.”
Haidee left. William got the impression that she didn’t look forward to it at all.
William spent most of his time at the villa playing with the children, nine boys of various ages. With them, the lack of a common language proved to be less of a hindrance. He started the afternoon just wrestling with them. The sounds of delight filled the courtyard.
After the exertion had finally taken its toll, one of the older boys produced a chess set. They passed several hours teaching William the game. It turned into a team sport, as a couple of them helped the foreigner make his moves. Despite the help, it took him a while to grasp the object of taking the king. His confusion did not prevent all involved from enjoying themselves.
It was early evening when Ali came out to rescue him from the hoard. “You have a way with them, my friend. We have heard the shouts of joy wherever we go.” He smiled broadly.
William looked embarrassed. “It was nothing.”
This only drove Ali to laughter. “Why do you make so little of it? Your own pleasure has been as audible as Hamid’s.” Ali grabbed the shoulder of the most rambunctious of the boys.
“I am unused to being happy,” the Englishman admitted.
“So very true,” Ali replied, delighted. “If you do not stop playing, you will be so happy that no one will recognize you. Fortunately, I have come to save you. It is time for eating.” He said something in Arabic to the children, who ran off, the eldest hurriedly collecting his chess pieces and board.
William, suddenly famished, followed closely behind Ali.. “What have you been doing while I was playing,” William asked.
Ali made a sour face. “Being bored, mostly. Mohammed wanted to know what things I had seen since I last visited. He is a good merchant and a good father, but deathly dull to talk to. He cares nothing for the interesting things in life, just the price of dates in Aleppo or the quality of the carpets for sale in Damascus.”
They arrived in the dining chamber after Ali reminded him to remove his shoes. Once they were eating, William was astonished at the flavors. After days of goat meat following a lifetime of English food, he delighted in the varied tastes. He asked Ali the names and ingredients in dishes and sauces. He was particularly taken with a mint sauce. Ali laughed when he put it on everything.
“Do you always eat like this?” William asked as a third course was brought in.
“No. They turn it into a special occasion when I arrive.”
After a while, William became aware of the attention paid to them by Haidee while she helped to serve the meal. Anytime he looked, she was staring at one of the two of them. Though she hid it quickly whenever she saw his gaze turn to her, he caught expressions of dislike and as he conversed with Ali he thought he saw jealousy on her face.
Later, after the meal was complete, William seized an opportunity to speak to her. “Have I done something to offend?”
“No, sir,” she replied. Her face dropped into a blank expression.
Unconvinced, he continued. “I apologize for whatever it is. I am sure we will not be staying long and Ali will take me back out to the desert.”
“I’m sure, sir.”
The jealousy had reappeared for just an instant and William almost gasped with realization. “You love him, don’t you?”
“You don’t know anything about it, sir.”
“I saw the way you watch the two of us.”
He almost missed the spasm of anger on her face before she suppressed it. “There is no point in thinking of what cannot be.”
“I am sorry that the differences between you are so great.”
Haidee almost snarled in return. “You have no idea what the differences between us are, or aren’t.”
He was taken aback by the open hostility from a servant and then something dawned on him. “You think he loves me.”
“I know that he loves you.”
William pondered the implications of that. “Of all of the obstacles in your path, I am certain that I am not the one to worry about.”
Haidee glared at him. “I repeat, you know nothing about this.” She turned, ready to leave.
“What does al Fahad mean?” he asked.
She looked over her shoulder at him with eyes empty of spark. “It means ‘the leopard,’” she said in a hollow voice.
They spent another day at the villa, and then rode into the desert again. “You are smiling and laughing easily, William. Had I known that family interaction would have this effect on you I would have taken you sooner.”
“Thank you, Ali. You are right. It was what I needed.”
“Is there something wrong, my friend? Where are the loud denials of being happy?”
“I give up. It’s not worth denying.”
“It is obvious that you like people more than you let on.”
William looked down at his saddle. “The hatred was an aberration.. Before my family died, I was like this most of the time. You haven’t so much created this new man as you have dug deeply enough to unbury him.”
“That is good. I have shown you the desert, William. Now I wish for you to show me the city. It has been decades since I have been to Jerusalem. I rarely travel to any large city these days. I wish to become reacquainted with large masses of people.”
The knight felt uneasy. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. I couldn’t bear for it to be known that you were better at meeting my people than I am at meeting yours.”
“As we unbury you, William, it is time to put all of your ghosts to rest. Jerusalem is the place it must happen. Along the way, tell me of your daughters and your wife. Let them no longer be a burden on your heart, but share them so that they carry it instead.”
“Are you a poet?”
“Sometimes. I’ve tried my hand at almost everything over the years. Except fishing. I’m afraid of boats.”
William almost choked. “You’re afraid of something?”
“I am a land creature. I can cross a river, even swim it, if I need to. But to go where I can’t see the shore? That terrifies me. If the boat sinks, which way would I swim?”
“Any direction will do if you can swim well enough. You’ll always reach land eventually, if you go in a straight line.”
“I am buoyed by your confidence in my abilities. Still, there is only one thing that could get me to cross the sea.”
“And what is that?”
Ali looked at him with a sly smile. “Only if I wanted to go to some place surrounded by the sea, someplace to which I couldn’t walk, would I willingly traverse the water.”
“Like England.” William’s voice was even.
“Like England. I will see it someday.”
There was a stretch of silence. “I don’t think I want to go back,” William said at last. “Nothing remains for me there except bitter memories. It is better for me to remain here.”
“That is understandable, my friend. If you change your mind, I will accompany you. If not, I shall make the voyage someday without you. I am patient. Even if I must wait until you are in paradise, I would see your homeland.”
“Do you truly think that we will be together so long?”
Ali drew his horse to a stop. “You spoke with Haidee at the villa.” It was a statement.
“I did. She is jealous and said things whose meaning was unclear to me.”
Ali chuckled. “You understood the meaning of them perfectly well, William. You are merely uncomfortable at that meaning.”
“I suppose.” He stumbled over his next sentences. “I mean, I have heard of such things between men. I have even known a couple . . . I mean, a few . . . who I suspected of lying with each other, but . . .”
Ali’s mirth only grew louder. “I appreciate your bravery in not shying away from the subject, William, but love can take many forms. It does not require us to lie together.”
“I suppose, but . . .” His sentence ended in a sputter.
“Your face has turned a delightful shade reminiscent of a cherry.”
William stopped trying to speak and just glared.
“Haidee was unusually wicked to you, my friend. I see no need to be embarrassed about the thoughts you are having, but if any of us should be embarrassed, it is her, not you.”
He managed to choke out an answer. “What do you mean?”
“I enjoy making you puzzle out my secrets, William, but I will share the second with you if only to reduce your confusion.” Ali repeated the method of dismounting he had shown on their first meeting, flowing through the handstand and then the flip onto his feet.
“Haidee failed to share with you one vital piece of information. This is the source of your confusion.” He lifted his tunic over his head. “I am grateful, for it allows me to reveal it myself, though I’m sure this will only replace one form of confusion with another.”
As Ali stepped out of his trousers, William regained his voice. “What are you doing?” He pulled on the reins, directing his horse away from the undressing Arab.
Ali stood in his shirt and underclothes. “I am showing you something, silly man. Something I very much doubt you would believe if I just told you. Stop running away. There is nothing to be frightened of.” He removed the blue shirt, revealing a small pair of breasts.
William watched, transfixed.
“I’m sure you can guess what’s coming,” Ali said. He took off the last of his clothes, standing in the sand wearing nothing but sandals and a turban.
Except that ‘he’ was nothing of the sort. “I am a woman, William. I am not truly Ali. I just go by that in my travels. My name is Is’ad, which means ‘Bringer of Happiness’ in our language. My parents named me well, don’t you concede?”
William sat on his horse, unsure what to say.
“May I get dressed again, William? The sun is very hot today.”
Willilam nodded, unsure of his voice.
“Thank you.” Is’ad continued to talk as she did so. “So that is how you should take the revelation that I love you. Perhaps it shouldn’t make a difference, but to you it does.”
“Why?” William asked at last.
“Have you not learned that that is a broad question that can lead uncomfortable places? Why do I love you? Why did I reveal myself just now?”
“Why do you pretend?”
“Ah, you meant it in a simple way. Is that not obvious? Does the life I enjoy seem to you like one that the world would allow a woman?”
“No,” he conceded slowly.
“I pretend to be a man because you have a freedom that a woman can never enjoy. I am allowed to roam the desert. I can make unscheduled stops to visit family. Do you think that I could have lived a century and more with my life limited in the ways it would be if I remained Is’ad for all to see?”
William shook his head. “But Haidee knows. And your son knows.”
Is’ad laughed. “My whole family knows, and more. It is not hard to discover that the ancient one who wanders the desert is female, if you are curious. What I call my secrets were really just secrets from you, not others.”
“But if they know, then how does it work?”
“We pretend. There are zealots out there who object, but they are few. There are more who disapprove but lack the courage to say so openly. I found though, that most people care more for the appearance of propriety than they do for propriety itself. So long as they can pretend that I am Ali, they don’t concern themselves with who I actually am.”
“Is it ever difficult to pretend to be someone else?”
“Almost never. I know who I am and I can give people what they want. I have played the role of Ali for so long that it is easy to do. It saddens me that women are held in the roles assigned to them. I am unusual in how I was allowed to find my freedom. Once I was in my thirties but still looked sixteen, I think my family was grateful that I found a way not to be there. I was an oddity before I decided to be a man.”
“I suppose.” William grinned. “And besides, there is one more secret still unknown, by me at least. I cannot yet guess it, but may I assume that it only added to the oddity?”
“You may assume what you wish, William. I will not confirm it, but there is that possibility, of course.”
“Very well. I will take you to Jerusalem, but only if you promise me not to reveal that you’re a woman. I’m going to have enough questions to answer as it is.”
“I can do that, William.”
The Englishman took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I love you, yet.”
Is’ad nodded as she remounted her horse. “That is fair. Besides, I still have a secret left.”
William told Is’ad about his family. It proved to be easier than he had feared. He suspected that it was easier to talk about knowing that she was a woman, but didn’t investigate that thought very far. He spoke of Guinevere’s intelligent, quiet seriousness and her quick, graceful hands. Annabelle had been merry and talkative; Is’ad reminded him of her in so many ways, if not athletically, at least socially. Esther died so young that all William could remember of her was innocent beauty.
Of his daughters, he talked about Margaret last. “She was stubborn. Her mother called her willful and I had to bite my tongue and pretend to be angry with her when she was disobedient. I sometimes found myself wishing she were a boy, so her perseverance would have been called a virtue. When you talked about pretending to be a man, I thought of her. She would set her jaw in a way that you could have plowed a field with her chin. I think I loved her more than any of the others. I shouldn’t say that. I loved them all and I should have loved them all equally, but it is true.”
He looked over at Is’ad. “You would have liked her, I think, and I think she would have liked you.”
“Thank you, William. I would have been honored if any of your daughters had liked me.”
They remained in Jerusalem for just six days. William explained his absence by saying that he had needed time alone. He introduced Ali to all and found that his willingness to talk about his travels depended entirely upon how someone reacted to the presence of an Arab.
He also realized that he was searching for those among his brethren who expressed remorse for the massacre that had accompanied their conquest. He was disappointed in how few did.
“You expect a lot of them,” Is’ad told him. “Those who volunteered for this Crusade are probably less likely to feel remorse than those who stayed behind. And those that do undoubtedly feel reluctant to show that.”
“I wonder why that is.”
“Think back to when you were telling me the same things, William. Do you remember how raw you felt? It caused you pain to say these things.”
“And yet I did so.” He spat on the ground as something hard clutched at his heart. “Those who volunteered were the thugs. The people Europe is better without.”
“You wanted to feel pain, my friend. You told me, at first anyway, because you wanted to hurt yourself. Isn’t that true?”
“It is true,” he admitted.
“These people do not. Those that feel remorse want the pain to go away. They want to forget. They want that part of themselves to die.”
“Isn’t that what I wanted?”
She smiled. “No, William. I don’t believe that that’s ever what you wanted, but it certainly wasn’t true by the time I met you. You wanted to live. You were desperately seeking a way to do so. I provided the excuse you needed. If I hadn’t come along, perhaps you would never have found one, but it was your desire that caused you to speak.”
He nodded. “You are right. I wanted the pain. I needed to feel it. Before that, I was just numb. For three years, I’m not sure I felt anything.”
“These others are like that. Most of them will be numb for the rest of their lives. There are few that can confront the pain and dive into it. Without doing that, they will never feel it and never move past it.”
On the third day, they entered the temple where the worst of the slaughter had occurred. William knelt and wept.
They left the city at Is’ad’s insistence. She said that she needed to see the open sky at night, that she loved the city, but could only stay there for short periods. William felt relief. He wasn’t sure he liked the city at all. They returned to the sands.
It was the night before the full moon when the leopard returned to his dreams. Is’ad had left the camp before dusk, saying she needed to take care of private business. William said nothing.
Once he was asleep, William found himself looking up into a tree where the cat sprawled along a large limb.
“I was afraid you were never coming back,” he said.
“I take my time,” it replied.
“The last time we met you implied you might be with me every night. And then you vanished.”
“Are you accusing me of misleading you? That’s what dreams do.”
“What value can dreams have if you so easily mislead?”
“Who said we have value?”
“Lots of people, some of whom seem to know what they are talking about. Philosophers. Priests.”
“Always be wary of people who seem to know what they are talking about, especially if they claim to be priests or philosophers,” the leopard offered.
“Now you’re trying to mislead me.”
A low rumble emerged from the spotted throat. Perhaps it was laughter. “I never said I was trying to mislead you. Dreams do so by their very nature.”
“And now that we’ve had this discussion you’re trapped in a maze. You think I will mislead you, but that merely opens up the possibility that what I say is true and you think it false.”
“You are, indeed, enigmatic.”
“It brings us back to my previous point. My purpose is simply to get you to think about things differently.”
“You don’t seem to be having a lot of success.”
The cat stood and clambered down the trunk of the tree. “Truly? Do you deny thinking very differently than you did when we first met?”
William snorted. “That has nothing to do with you. I think Is’ad can take the credit for that.”
The creature sat down at his feet. “Are you so sure that it is that simple? That you had nothing to do with it?”
“I’m saying that you had nothing to do with it.”
“Doesn’t that bring us back to the question of what I am?”
“Is’ad taught me to start with asking who you are. I think that seems like a more appropriate question at this point.”
“Who am I? I’m a cat with a penchant for eating goats and asking obscure questions.”
“I meant it more prosaically. Are you me? Are you God? Are you Lucifer? Maybe you are Is’ad.”
The rumble came back. “I am at least one of those things.”
Abruptly William sat down next to the leopard. “I don’t think I need incomprehensible questions any longer. If I ever did.”
“If I were to disappear, you’d still be faced with them. Life is endless questions.”
“At least I would know where they come from.”
“Did you ever figure out what we are hunting for?”
“Life, I think,” William replied.
The cat started to rumble again and William finally recognized it as a purr. “What about love?”
“Is love not a part of life?”
“Now you are the one who sounds enigmatic.”
“Maybe you are me, then.” He found the purring very soothing.
“Perhaps. William de Quince, I think this may be the last time we meet, at least in this way.”
“I was just starting to like you.”
“Then decide who I am and who it is that you are starting to like.”
“Now you sound practical.”
“Forgive me.” The leopard turned to look at him with its yellow eyes. “I will leave you now, William de Quince. We’ll meet again, I’m sure, if you recognize me.” The cat faded away, leaving only its purr.
It took him a moment to realize that he had woken. He still heard the purr. Turning to his left, William saw the leopard lying on the ground only a few feet away, head up and regarding him.
“I thought you said you were leaving,” he managed.
The cat offered no reply save to continue purring.
William looked around and saw their camp. Is’ad was nowhere to be found. He returned his gaze to the cat. “This is not dreaming.” His words hung there, in the middle ground between a question and a statement.
The leopard yawned, showing off its long fangs.
He sat up and pivoted so that his whole body faced his visitor. “Who are you?”
It responded by rising. He held his breath in trepidation as it closed the remaining distance between them. Its manner was devoid of overt threat, but William was struck by the enormity of its paws and felt an aura of menace from the beast entirely divorced from any actions it took.
That presence didn’t altogether dissipate when the leopard lowered the top of its head and rubbed it against his shoulder. Hesitantly he reached out and touched it behind one ear and gently scratched.
The cat emitted a whining sigh and, in contrast to the grace with which it had done everything else, artlessly flopped down on to its side. It leaned against his leg and the purrs increased in volume.
Bemused, William continued to pet its head. He stopped only when it rolled onto its back, all but demanding that he stroke its belly. He complied.
He fell into a reverie that was broken a few minutes later when the leopard stretched out its neck and licked his arm. William jerked back with a cry as the tongue abraded his skin. The sudden noise spooked the cat, which sprang up and away from him. It crouched a few feet away and hissed.
The knight discreetly checked his arm as he crooned soothing words. It didn’t appear to be bleeding, but he was surprised at the amount of irritation one brief swipe had produced. Clearly the teeth and claws weren’t the only dangerous weapons the animal possessed. He also dismissed any ideas that the cat possessed more than an animal intelligence.
Slowly the cat relaxed and sat down outside of his reach. William was content to watch the leopard. He longed to continue to feel the thick fur, but if his guess was right, he would have other opportunities as long as he didn’t frighten the creature.
The stand-off continued until near dawn. At last, the leopard flicked its tail and launched itself into motion away from him. He contemplated trying to follow it, but decided to wait for confirmation of his thought. The cat disappeared into the scrub.
William laid out a breakfast of dried figs, bread, and hummus. A half hour after the sun rose, Is’ad strode into the camp, full of good cheer. “You have a meal all prepared,” she exulted.
“I figured you would be hungry after last night.”
Is’ad looked at him curiously. “Perhaps I ate already.”
“I doubt it,” William replied. “You were here all night.”
“Truly? You would think that I would remember it.”
“Would you? Do you remember what you do when you are the leopard?”
“Ah!” Is’ad cried. “You have divined my last secret. Indeed, on the three nights around the full moon I wander the desert in the form of the cat.”
“So when they call you al Fahad, they mean it literally.”
Is’ad shrugged. “Literal and metaphorical can often be confused with each other even before you mix in magic. With it, the difference is often meaningless. Does being a leopard three nights a month literally make me one? Is it a useful metaphorical statement given that my human personality isn’t like that of a leopard at all? And the most important question, am I human at all?”
“No. You’re far too cheerful to be human.”
“There are things that anger me,” Is’ad replied laughingly.
“I have never seen it happen.”
“Perhaps it is just that you never do anything that would make me angry, William.”
“If I don’t do anything that would make you angry, then you just don’t get angry.”
Is’ad’s musical laugh rang out. “I am old, my friend. Things that would once have made me angry now amuse me.”
“Ah, so you laugh at me instead of losing your temper.
The comment did nothing to contain Is’ad’s merriment. “You will have to try again to say that with the proper sarcasm.”
William took a deep breath. “I really appreciate that you like to laugh at me. I thought we were friends.”
“Better. Not yet convincing, but better.”
“That was my last effort.”
“It was a valiant one, William, but you cannot hide your recognition that I laugh at you because I like you.”
“I refuse to affirm that. Let us return to the fact that you are a cat.”
“Sometimes,” Is’ad insisted.
“Sometimes. Is that why you don’t age?”
“Truly, I do not know. One sage says it is a part of the curse. Another says it attracted the curse. A third says they happened independently. With that disagreement, I do not pretend to know.”
“But it is a curse?”
“That all of the sages agree upon. But William, do I behave as if I am cursed?”
“No. That is one thing I can say without hesitation. The idea that you are cursed does seem ridiculous.”
“The lesson is not to trust the sages. How could it be a curse? For three nights each cycle I get to experience something that others can only dream about. The only pity is that I remember none of it. .”
“Then why does it please you if you can’t remember?”
“Have you ever been a leopard, William?”
“I . . . actually, I’m not sure.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“I told you that I’ve dreamed about a leopard. You would not confess to knowing anything about the subject. .”
Is’ad feigned extreme indignation. “I merely said that it wasn’t me that you were talking to in your dreams. That is true. Not only was I not a talking leopard in your dreams, I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been a talking leopard anywhere.”
“You also pretended not to know anything about the real flesh and blood leopard I saw that night before we met.”
Is’ad shrugged. “You have me there. But it was not truly a lie. I was protecting a real secret. I do not tell everyone I meet that I am a magical creature.”
William laughed. “You actually look like you feel guilty about that.”
“Do I?” Is’ad grinned. “In this one instance I bow to your superior wisdom. Shall I grovel at your feet?”
“No,” William said, unable to stop laughing, “but you do need to serve me breakfast.”
It was the next day as the broke camp that William brought up a subject that had consumed him since they had entered Jerusalem. “Is’ad, I think I can answer your question.”
She looked at him quizzically. “Which question is that?”
He laughed. “The one that you never ask me, but that I can see you thinking.”
“I love you.”
She threw her head back and roared. “Of course you do, William. I knew that. I was just waiting for you to be comfortable saying it.”
“How should we proceed?” he asked, slightly worried.
Is’ad pursed her lips. “I do not know. Why must we do anything other than what we have been doing? We can ride where we please. Money need not concern us, as I can always get what is needed from my family in exchange for the various things I can provide. You have a share of the spoils of Jerusalem waiting for you there, if you can ever bear to touch it. What needs to change?”
“Should we not marry?”
“That would be wonderful. I will happily proclaim to God that you are my husband whenever you wish.”
“Nothing more than that??”
“Why should we need anything more than that, William? You will know we are married. I will know. And God will know. Who else should care?”
“Is that how it is done among Muslims?”
“William, as always I will remind you that I am a very poor Muslim. God knows my heart and He can judge it how He pleases. Why would he need any other human to approve of what I do? Either it is good or bad and He is the best judge of it.”
“I will accede to this.”
“As you should. Before we do any of that, though, I must remind you of something. You will grow old and I will not. You will look at me and wonder where your youth went. Do not pledge anything without looking into your heart and asking whether that will make you bitter.”
William looked up at the sky. “I have asked myself that several times a day. All I can see is that I am the lucky one. Never will I be challenged by the question of whether I think my wife is still beautiful. Never will I need to see her old and infirm, knowing that there is nothing I can do to help her. I do not pine for youth, love. I will be happy just to see it in you.”
“Thank you, William.”
“It is you I worry about. There will come a day when I am old and infirm and there will be nothing you can do to help. I will die, while you are still young. How can you think that the hard part will be mine?”
Is’ad reached out to touch his cheek. “I will always have my memories of you. I will be sad at your departure on that day that it comes, but I hope you will not be offended when I say that my life will go on. I am not made to be wrapped in sorrow, William. It is not within me.”
“Then I will die happy, knowing that your happiness lives on.” He smiled. “Loving you is akin to immortality, Is’ad. I know that memories of me will live as long as you do. Even if nothing is ever written down, I will live forever. In the end I have but one question.”
“What is that, my love?”
“I don’t know whether I should ask this of you, of the leopard or of God. Why me? What did I do to be so lucky?”
“You realize that I can’t answer for either of the others, do you not?”
“I do,” he said solemnly.
“My answer to you is simple. Respect. From the moment a wandering traveler accidentally stumbled across your campsite, you treated me with respect. No matter how young you thought I was you took what I said seriously. You evaluated me by my words and actions. That never changed.
“You came along at the right time. I didn’t realize it until I had been with you for a few days, but I was tired of being alone. I watch people when they learn my secrets. There is always at least one of them that, when I tell them, I can see their eyes change. Their opinion of me changes, inevitably for the worse. All chance of seeing me as an equal vanishes. I am either lesser, or other, and they close me out.”
“Huh. I must be less demonstrative than I thought,” William replied, “because I certainly looked at you differently when you took all of your clothes off in the middle of the desert.”
Is’ad laughed. “That is true. I will concede that your mind was quite distracted for a few moments. Nevertheless, you didn’t let your,” she drew out the next word, “ardor change the way that you treated me.”
William growled. “I am afraid that I am going to have to disappoint you, then, because that ardor is demanding that I treat you differently. It is most urgent.”
Is’ad arched her eyebrows. “Oh, really?”
Not long thereafter, the desert rang with her shout of, ”Hola, Faranj.”
Is’ad al Fahada walked down the gangplank and onto the dock. Ashore for less than a minute, she exulted in how green it was. William had never mentioned the color and how different it made everything look. She decided that once she had seen all of England, she would need to find other places, with yet different colors, to visit.
First, though, she had an entire island to explore. William had warned her about the parts that he insisted weren’t England at all. She hadn’t let his worries about danger dissuade her when he was alive and she wasn’t going to start now that he was dead.
She wandered into the streets of Southampton, observing everything around her. The world smelled different, too. She was far from certain that she liked the odors of an English city, but for now the newness sufficed to thrill her.
She stopped a man walking the other direction. “Excuse me. I am named Ali and I am a stranger in your country. Could you tell me how to find an inn where I might get some food and sleep for the night?”
He turned and pointed to a nearby building. “Look for a sign like that, though I wouldn’t recommend any of the places in this part of town. I would hate it if a stranger to this land judged us by the alehouses along the docks. Go north on that road until you see a sign with a crimson serpent. They’ll treat you properly there.”
“Thank you, though a great friend told me so much about England that I hardly feel a stranger.”
“Are you from Spain?”
“No, farther than that. I am from Syria. My friend came there on the Crusade.” She felt no need to mention that it was the first of the Crusades that had brought William to her nearly a century past.
This took the man aback. “Indeed, you are from a great distance. I welcome you to these shores after a long journey. My name is William. William Bellman. Tell the innkeeper that I sent you. He’ll treat you well.”
Is’ad laughed. “William must be a very common name here. That was how my friend was called as well.”
He laughed along with her. “Indeed there are many of us.”
“I hope that I will see you again, William Bellman.”
“As do I. I am sorry that the weather is so miserable.”
“I would have it no other way. My William talked often of the rain and I am glad to see it as he described.”
She took her leave and started north.