A fire lighted our patch of desert. Only some sand, our blankets, and our trading bags. I watched the flames sparking towards the heavens, dancing upwards, and flickering into darkness. They seemed to light the stars. Javed sat across from me, cross-legged. His tight-fitting beard was framed by black hair cut just below his ears. He contemplated a private reverie and held a piece of blackened meat near his lips. We rarely knew his thoughts, but his reticence never bothered Freni or me.
Freni cuddled beside me, her legs outstretching towards the fire, eyes gazing at the stars. Her red hair flowed to the sand and a smile played on her lips. I watched firelight twinkle in her gorgeous eyes.
“Iskandar,” she whispered. That is the name I took back then. I leaned back until my eyes leveled with hers. I smiled as she asked, “Is there more food?”
“Here, take mine. I’ve had my fill,” Javed grumbled. Freni leaned up to take it, thanked him, and leaned down once more to look at me. “I’ll unpack the tent.”
Freni ran her hand over my chest and held my ruby necklace in her hand. She popped the last of the meat into her mouth, and with a half-smile pushed herself up. She skipped towards my trading bag, danced a pirouette near the fire, and hummed as she unfolded a piece of cloth.
Always flitting this way and that. Always I watched her. Pretty.
As soon as she’d finished, I collected stakes and a hammer from our bag. Javed held his own hammer, and I opened my palm to offer him a half-dozen stakes. He took them all in a manner that suggested he’d rather work alone. He preferred that, though it never seemed his kindnesses to Freni and me made him completely happy.
We left the solitude of that night’s patch of desert and walked into one of the surrounding town centers the next day, as was our custom. Javed, for all his silence, talked readily to merchants, and Freni, for all her carefree dancing around me, shied away from strangers – from the men’s lustful eyes, from cruel self-interest. Oh, no stranger admitted his feelings aloud, but behind pleasant words lived a secret that made liars of them all. And Freni talked only to people she trusted and locked herself onto me when new eyes looked on.
Perhaps she accepted Javed only because he never spoke, and therefore never lied, and perhaps Javed spoke to strangers because he accepted their lies. He had secrets too, when at last he chose to share them.
A solitary man came to our stall, owning nothing save a pouch of coins and cheap cloth on his back. He browsed our table, and his eyes lit up when he spied Freni and raised hopes of an instant attraction, a connection that might save him. He lifted a feeble hand, offering a halted greeting, and Freni, recognizing his manner, folded herself into my protective embrace. The man’s hand fell, his words stopped, and he looked quickly down at a table, then up at the impassive Javed. The man exchanged with him a few distracted words and some of his coins, and left with exactly what he needed but less than he wanted.
Hectic days at a market place could discompose even Javed. On clement days when clouds shielded villagers from the sun, almost everyone nearby would come to stockpile meats and breads. Many times outside our own stall, men and women argued bitterly over the last loaf or the last slice of meat. Wounded and starving from a long journey, one man spent his diminished energy to yell at a sick-looking woman, who complained of her children’s hunger and the death of her husband, over his priority for the food that remained. Such arguments never ended rationally. Never was a compromise made or an understanding met, and even the cool-tempered Javed would raise his voice to prevent fights.
Freni turned to me on such occasions. “I long for the night, Iskandar,” and I would draw her in close.
“Sh. I know.”
“These people are evil. Why can’t they love each other? Why can’t they share as we do?”
“I don’t know, Freni.”
“I love you.”
“Sh. I know. I love you too.”
As years inexorably passed, Freni became ill. As her fever and cough worsened, Javed and I feared the worst, although we assured Freni she would recover. We gave her nearly all the water, and when she would accept food, let her eat most of our portions. When her appetite slackened in the last days, she refused even a morsel. On the morning of the day she died, she announced her readiness to leave. I told Javed, and we agreed to stay with her at the camp and not go into town to trade. Freni died just after noon.
“Iskandar? Iskandar!” She pleaded with all the strength she had left, and I felt as though a knife ran through my side. I ran to her where she lay and squeezed her hand. I wanted to tell her everything would be fine, but I could not coax sound past the lump in my throat. Freni raised her free hand limply and let it fall upon the necklace on my chest. “I love you,” she murmured. She tugged on the necklace and brought my lips to hers. She pulled away to gasp for air, and it was her last deep breath.
I buried my head in Freni’s hair. I wanted to say so many things to her, but no words formed. I held her tighter and tighter, hoping that my caress could convey my love for her and my gratitude for her company.
Inevitably, I felt Freni’s slow exhale blow past my ear and heard no inhale. I felt her heart beat against my chest, but her pulse slowed and stopped. I wanted to see her spirit dance upwards and light the stars. The sun beat down, yet a chill wriggled down my spine.
Javed put his hand on my shoulder, but I could not look at him. I do not know how long we stayed before he grabbed a shovel and chose a burial place safe from marauders. I asked him to mark the spot, for I wanted time alone with her. I removed my necklace and lifted her head but stopped: I wanted to engrave the necklace with our initials first. I whetted a knife and carved “I.F.” into the gold backing. Around her neck I hung my token. It did not glow nearly as brightly as her vibrant hair. I kissed her forehead and held her hand. We remained until sunset.
“Iskandar.” Javed crouched by my side. I heard him force the shovel into the ground beside him. I slowly rose with tears streaming and left the scene for an indescribably long time.
Javed and I continued travelling and trading. Merchants mouthed pleasant-sounding lies about their sympathy. I was not sure how Freni would have reacted. I expected a hug that did not come, and its absence stung me.
Javed and I still set up tents every night, and we still ate full meals, but the stars stopped twinkling and the fire no longer danced for me. I thought only of the darkness to which each spark inevitably surrendered. Javed continued brooding, and for the first months after Freni’s passing, I joined him.
Javed broke the silence with a rasp. “You … You miss her, don’t you?”
I looked him in the eye. “Yes,” I whispered. Silence.
“I wish I did.” I did not quite know what he meant. “She made you feel alive, didn’t she?”
Over those past few months, it is true, I had not had much feeling for anything; nothing seemed to matter as much since she had gone.
“I suppose she did. Yes. She did.”
“I wish I felt something like that. The best things are worth missing, I think.” Again a silence, then, “I do not know if care about the memories of an old man, but I am sure you remember the day you travelled into the city alone, and I stayed behind with Freni? I cannot remember what you were intending to do … ”
“I had to take one of the bags to be mended,” I smiled, remembering Freni’s bright hair and warm smile on the morning I bid them both good-bye.
“That’s right. I remember now. I enjoyed her company that day, even though I’m sure she found me frightful.” He chuckled.
“No, no; I am sure not! I am sure she found you … reliable.”
“No need to be gentle. I was silent until lunchtime. Surprise! Then I figured I had known her for a long time, and although I’d been next to you and her the entire time I always felt solitary. I decided I would tell her.”
“About everything. About her and you, and how I wish I could confide in someone. And how I hate the lying merchants as much as she does, even though I deal with them. And how I hate the lusting men, both for her sake and because no woman ever looks at me like that. No one needs me, not even you, Iskandar, and I daresay you’re the best friend I have.”
His words shocked me. I valued qualities of his which the merchants left unnoticed. His silence conveyed a certain arrogance to many, but Freni and I knew him to be humble and generous. “No, Javed; I do need you!” I kept from him that I mourned alone until that night, and would have healed alone without his talk.
He averted his gaze and smiled wryly. “I am too quiet to have found someone to love me, Isk. And now I’m an old man, and it’s far too late.”
I did not reply, and he finished his food in silence. When he rose, his shoulders seemed to stoop more than usual, and he fumbled with his hammer while erecting his tent as though he had lost the dexterity of his youth. He was indeed aging.
I finished my food and arose as sprightly as I always had and built my tent with an inexhaustible deftness.
We continued our trading business for the next several months. Merchants offered sympathy less often, and although I thought of Freni, my recollections stopped producing tears. Javed and I worked and ate in silence. I regarded him as having a certain dignity, and I wanted to bestow something upon the man who would never have anything.
In the course of things, Javed grew ill and, in the course of things, passed on to Freni. I buried the man who had lost his life – the only gift he ever had – and taught me what it was to have no one. Impossible.
I, older than both of those departed, resigned myself to the fact my time was coming. I stayed in an isolated part of the desert and waited for days, months. But illness did not plague me. Youth did not abandon me. I came to the devastating realization I could not die. I wandered for I know not how long. Was I cursed? Blessed? Was there a purpose in my immortality?
For what I think was the next thousand years, I wandered from village to village, city to city, continent to continent. I remained unmarried, but I regret there were stretches of decades when I spared not a thought for my first true love or my life of trade with Javed. The cause of my immortality lay beyond my comprehension, and my life became unbearable, but eventually my thoughts belonged to them, and I longed to return to that time. Might seeing them, somehow, allow a conclusion, if not for my strange life, at least for my grief?
After a series of occupations, I found myself working as an archaeologist, and my university commissioned me, by coincidence, to excavate the desert I had once traded in.
“Frank,” called Turner, using my name of my current lifetime, “take these.” The anthropology head slapped a plane ticket on my desk. “You fly out tomorrow. We found another burial ground out there.” My heart beat quickly, and I thanked him, a strange curiosity overtaking me. Perhaps my time for reconciliation had come.
On arrival, Sue nearly ran me down at the runway. “Frank, Frank, you have to come over! You won’t believe what we found – the way these people were buried, the sand mummified them. We have two-thousand-year-old people perfectly preserved.” I almost did not want to go. I was scared she was there. I was scared she was not.
I looked through about fifteen graves before I saw the woman with red hair. Her eyes were gone, the skin on her face was cracked, her nose pinched, her neck contracted. It could have been her, it could – but what was the amulet on her neck?
The ruby necklace was too much of a coincidence. I felt as though someone grabbed my shoulder, forced my knees into the sand beside her, and my hand onto the necklace. I turned it over, and saw the unmistakable “I.F.”, though the letters were now outlined in greenish rust. I whispered her name.
“What’s that?” Sue asked.
“Wow, she is the prettiest one I’ve seen here so far. Dr. Turner is gonna be stoked. He would have been content with a bit of research, but we can mount an entire exhibit with the stuff we found.”
I had no words. I was thankful Sue left and no response was required.
We brought Freni along with a group of “treasures” on the flight back with us. I resented the idea of presenting her and the others at an exhibit for careless outsiders, those self-interested merchants of History. And poor Freni. She hated strangers, and I felt duty-bound to protect her from them, although I had no power to stop the exhibition from going forward.
The exhibit premiered sometime in March, and I made a point of showing up early to miss not a moment of the night’s odd eulogy. I expected to be the only one to care. I arrived before anyone except Turner, who stood guarding the entrance from public view.
“May I go in?”
“Yeah, Frank, go ’head. Good work on this. You’ll make me look good in front of the board again this year. Oh, take this, before I forget.” He removed a few pages from his briefcase and handed them to me. “These are lab results for a test that Sue ran on some of the fragments found in an adjacent burial site. I need you to look at these tables tonight – your expertise is invaluable, and we’re gonna be grilled in tomorrow’s meeting.”
I accepted the packet. Probably I would look at it, but I needed to go inside to protect Freni, at least symbolically, from the greedy eyes of indifferent strangers.
I walked to where she lay at the end of the exhibit, this portal through my past. I sat on a bench across from the display case and stared at her profile. I had written the sign that lay on the glass above her:
Notice the expensive silk dress, blouse, and robe, as well as the ruby necklace. This woman had status and wealth, and her survivors wanted her remembered. Here lies a woman well loved.
A middle-aged woman was first to walk by, and intoned the words on the sign with an unfittingly haughty air. She turned to her family and asked a boy, “Isn’t she beautiful?” Not knowing what else to do, he shook his head in agreement. Neither cared for the person, just for her red hair, her pristinely preserved face, her clothing.
A stream of a thousand people passed through, cooing in amazement, or shrugging indifferently, or sometimes ignoring her. At the very end, a young man passed through, and he and I were alone with her. He stood and read the sign and looked down at her face.
“‘A woman well loved.’ Hm. That’s sad. Who loved you? What became of them? What’s your name? What’s your story?” He muttered these things over a period of minutes, all under his breath. “You’re not just an exhibit, are you? I’m sorry.” He rose, and noticed me. He gave a quick nod, and apologized for thinking himself alone. I nodded in reply, and he left, leaving Freni and me alone.
“I’m sorry, Freni, but at least they’re not all liars, hm?” How I wanted her to face me, to lift her arms and embrace me, to kiss me. “I’m sorry about the others, Freni. ‘I love you.’ Sh. I know. I love you too.”
Finally I turned my back and slowly crossed to the exit. I needed no further reminder of what I had always carried with me. A mark, a yearning. A stamp on my soul of a time I could never return to.
Snow piled near the street, yet a warm breeze rippled my hair. Was I imagining? I closed my eyes and I heard her breath. I knew her touch. I felt her kiss. At last.
I was home.