Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Photo: Wolfgang Hasselmann
Authors Note: This story is inspired by Hafiz’s poem “Bring the Man to Me.”
Before reading it, I recommend reading Michael Holt’s blog on that original poem.
Between the sun and the desert sands lay a scene. A cruel slave master sat and looked before him at his servants and the slaves they watched over. He watched as they created his vision: structures built to reach beyond the sky while the wills of men collapsed beneath their weight.
In the sea of slaves was a man who had long ago forgotten himself. His back was scarred with the hills and valleys of strikes he no longer felt. With his gaze kept to the ground, he had learned to allow each strike to chase the spirit from his eyes along with the painful hopes that it once carried.
And yet, beneath his broken stare, another story was told: one of tears and of a heart that still remembered. Long buried beneath abandoned dreams, the heart still whispered to him sometimes in his sleep.
It spoke of a boy who had played in his land of sun and sand. It had filled his imagination with worlds around him of myths and of spirits, and their invisible kingdoms filled with beauty and adventure. It told him the story of the natural world around him as he would watch the clouds as they danced and played with each other before moving apart once more. He would smile at the insects and ants as they burrowed into the sand and he would think of the worlds within the dunes, and the stories the creatures would tell the spirits of the lands above.
The heart spoke of a mother who had looked on with love at her son, and called him her sweet heart. She would watch him lay on the sands outside their tent as he caressed and spoke to the earth. She would look at this soul as he communed with the world and made it more beautiful in his mind. And she would dream of what the new life she carried inside her would one day bring too.
The heart spoke too of a father who brought a different gaze. It was the gaze of a man who knew the world and of its pains—a world that could crush spirits and swallow lives in its tides without a ripple. And in the boy, he saw a spirit that could collapse and a heart that could not survive. And so when the father could tolerate his son’s fantasies no longer, he would tear the boy from his dreams and bring him to the tasks of the world. He taught the boy the skills of life and to be with the world as it was.
Within this simple life, the boy found joy. But even in this small corner of the world, the sea of life would visit. The mother had been given a promise of a new life, but in its tides, life had stolen the spirit of a new child the mother had expected. When this tide had receded, the boy asked the father what had happened, and he told him the baby had not been made for this world. The mother too, had gone. She would sit and stare blankly in front of her but would no longer speak. The father told the boy that her spirit had gone to be with the child, and perhaps one day, she may come back. So the boy would sit and play by his mother’s feet, sometimes holding her hand and quietly waiting for her return.
And sometimes the tides turned the other way. The boy remembered when the puppy appeared. He’d woken up and felt its cool fur against him, and heard the whispers of its voice and the coolness of its nose against his skin. He had laughed and felt joy again. No one had known from where it had come, but the boy looked at its golden fur and knew it was from the sands below. He would play with the puppy and laugh, seeing it so alive. As he played, sometimes he would notice his mother looking at them both and thought he recognised her—before she disappeared back behind her eyes again. And so the dog became the boy’s companion as he grew. Each morning, the boy would wake up and see his friend asleep beside him, then call the puppy’s name and watch as his friend’s eyes would slowly open and fill with happiness at seeing the boy, and at being alive once again.
But here too, the shifting tides of life would return. As the demands of his age began to come to the boy, the father became harsher and would no longer tolerate his waking dreams. He would sometimes strike the boy to bring him back to the world. But one day, the boy’s friend would not allow it. As the father struck the boy, the dog leapt up to defend him. As the boy was thrown to the ground, he watched as the dog attacked his father, who turned his rage towards the dog, striking him again and again with a contempt and anger built over years. The boy’s chest tightened as he screamed for his father to stop, then he watched as his friend whimpered and ceased to move before a stillness filled the air. As the scene before him filled his mind, the boy felt his scream rise up within him and explode as it burnt through his being, filling him as he knelt to the ground in pain. And no longer able to hold it, the boy ran. Away from his home, the boy ran, his throat burning with pain as he turned his back on the yells of his father and the silent words from his mother’s noiseless mouth. His feet pushed down against the hidden worlds as he ran to escape from his home. He moved ever faster yelling still until his throat no longer made sound, and he collapsed unconscious beneath the face of the Sun.
When he opened his eyes, it was night. He found he was in a cage, his hands and feet bound in chains. He was surrounded by the hunched figures of many others, each sitting on the floor of the cage, huddled over with their backs to its door. He had tried to ask where he was and how he had gotten there, but the figures would not answer. Their empty gazes would stay pointed at the ground before them, unwavered and unblinking. And so the boy knew he had become a slave.
As time had passed, the boy grew and became a man, and learned the ways of slavery. Keeping his eyes to the ground, he directed his actions as he was guided by the whips of the servants to do. And yet, at night, as he slept on the floor of his cage, his dreams still spoke. Each night, they became more insistent until on the night of a full moon, they had yelled, and his hopes had awoken him. Opening his eyes to the night as he had many times before, he had found himself looking at the cage door. He had sat up and reached out for it, finding that it was unlocked. Silently as he touched it, it had swung open. Too surprised to wonder if it had always been so, the slave stared at the door for what seemed like many hours. Then ever so tentatively, he had stepped outside it, only to find the slave master standing before him, as if he had been waiting for him.
The slave was taken from his enclosure and tied to a wooden post. His eyes looked at the post before him as he heard the sounds of the whip striking his back. He felt his jaw clench as the whip continued, insistent, as gradually the scars on his back began to reopen, and his eyes welled with tears. The cracks in the wood seemed bigger now too, and the slave stared at them. By the light of the moon, he saw the ants that moved in and out of them and imagined the cities they had built beneath the surface, and felt the wonder of those worlds once again. His eyes filled with tears as he felt his chest burn. His legs collapsed beneath him as he began to cry before the pain made him unconscious.
When the slave awoke, it was still night, although he did not know if it was the same one. He lay beneath the sheet of stars and the orb of the moon, and looked before him, finding he had awoken to the sight of the cage door once again. His body still ached from the strikes as he made his way to his feet. Approaching the cage door, he pressed against it and found that it gave way once more. Looking behind him, he saw the huddled silhouettes of the other slaves as if they had never moved. And in the silence of the desert night, he left the cage.
His shackled feet struggled over the smooth sands cooled by the night air as he traveled, moving ever forward towards the light of the moon. Eventually he found his way to a cave and in the dark, he dropped to his knees in exhaustion and prayer. In a voice not spoken since his screams tore at the desert’s stillness, the slave began to speak to God. He told God the story of his heart, the one that had remained silent for so many years. He asked God to give him help. And he asked for hope. Then, in his final words, he asked God to do as He willed, and fell into a sleep.
As time passed, the slave was awoken by sound. As he looked up, silhouetted by the moon at the mouth of the cave was a rider. The slave watched the movements of the rider as he motioned out of the cave towards open possibilities beyond but the slave did not believe him and so he tried to run, but his shackles made him fall. The slave struggled to get back up and to run once more, but the rider stood before him, and although the slave resisted, he felt himself guided back to the rider’s mount.
As he was pulled forward, he felt his spirit start to break again. His feet slowed as his shoulder curved forward and he looked down to the ground. He felt the rider come to a stop and dismount, then stand before him. Beneath the stars and moon, the rider and slave stood before each other, with only the sound of the quiet crying of the slave held in the desert’s silence. As the slave looked at the ground, he saw the light of the waking sun begin to open up the world once more. Feeling its heat upon his back, the slave felt the gentle hands of the disciple cup his face then raise his eyes to meet his.