It is the year they take the boy to the caves. It is the year after last when he trailed the slow moving caravan of pulled carts and horses and men: uncles, cousins and father, down the drive to the sloped edge of the bottomlands and his Baba brushed him away with his hand in the air like to move a fly, and said: enough. Go home
. Next year. Now it is that next year and but for the passage of days and days little about the boy has changed. His chest is not grown or round, his arms and neck are no thicker, the digits of his age are not doubled and just this morning he walks to and from the gathered caravan with the chalk sweet taste of mother's milk fresh on his tongue. Nonetheless, in a ceremony amongst themselves, the men: uncles, cousins, and father deign this to be the next year and the boy, his father's only son, will be a man in it and suddenly all the days thus far suffice. They pack him in among the supplies on the flat bed of the cart pulled by his father's donkey and his uncle's old rheumy-eyed mule and say to the boy: Now. It is time. It is time
Alone in the back of the cart the boy remembers years past when he was left alone to keep the company of girls who would tease him. Have left you behind again? You must not be man enough for the caves yet…or maybe you were meant to be a girl like us…come here let us pull down your chalvar to see
…Chided, the boy spent days on his roof, waiting for the return of the men. His eyes scoured the landscape of the Zagros and the flats and the distant line of the horizon and the boy wished for wings to ride and meet the men, join them or return. When they came back, only a few days after their departure, he held his breath to see them. A procession of the empty handed -- without carcass or prized ibex horns, without bazaar toys, salt or even sugar -- the men who were once uncles, cousins and father returned now hollow, deflated, and extinguished as wraiths; the gel and water of their eyes emptied out and the sockets filled with the bold shine of sharp glass. A procession of the exhausted and blind. And every year he waited at his mother's side, at his dog's side, at the side of the house, for the men to stumble past and for his baba to take him in his arms and then to bed where he would lie in the web of arms as the old man muttered, next year, son of mine, next year,
and fall into sleep of clutching and sweating and snoring that kept the boy curious and wanting.
Now it is his year and in preparation for the blindness the boy takes a good look around him. Alone in the back of the cart, he sits between the strings and stretched skins of instruments and flats of lavash, next to clanging copper pots and on top of rugs knotted by tiny hands of girls who are perhaps now old women, maybe now dead women who haunt the world with these intricate patterns. The boy lies on his back to see the blue expanse. He holds his small hand up against it flat and then in a fist, the lines of his skin elaborate against the blank sky, bird-less today and streaked across with white. He turns over onto his belly to press an eye between the spaces in the roughened wood slats and watch the earth roll beneath the cart in an endless succession of scrub, dirt, rock and bone and the boy concentrates on everything above and beneath and around him, careful to memorize the look of it all.
They travel a long time through the day on a dust path that strings village to village from which residents come forth to stand with hands idly in pockets or across the smooth tops of canes and squint at the movements of the men; to observe and say nothing. Across the day and across the land the caravan travels without stop. The boy pees through the slats of wood and takes water from the cask as the medley of men and burdened beasts move atop the arid earth that never belonged to anyone past the Parthians (once) and the Sassaniads (once) and the Mongols (once) and the Turks (just then) and the Russians (now and then) and the Shah (soon) and so the Kurdish clan moves on, to own whatever piece of land they step on or roll over or smash for just that single moment of impact and no longer.
Farther from home than he has ever been, the boy feels it too: at once in possession and at once dispossessed, and so holds close to himself, hands and legs and knees to the stomach, all of it sewn neatly into a skin. Evening spreads across the sky and the procession moves on, the eyes of man and the eyes of beast now similar in a common march of figures patient and erect, that hold soil apart from sky and push the western horizon of day from the eastern edge of night. The boy sits still, sees less and less, sings and finally sleeps.
They walk until the animals slacken in their pull and the men arrive in a darkness deep and empty enough to seem not an arrival but a pause. The boy sees the nothing and senses the nowhere and the men dismount and drink and order him find wood, tether the horses, arrange the sacks, go into the cave and lay down the rugs, yes, the dark cave, go
. And the boy goes into the absolute dark where the cold stone pushes all around him, full and heavy and smothering. He feels the entirety of the mountain atop him: timeless and sheathed in a thin skin of grass and moss. Inside it he is barefoot and steps on the spalled stones, compact and intricate with the details and dents of time and in a moment the cave wraps about him completely like a caul. In the dim hollow the boy recognizes no color or smell or touch but hears the ring of every sound -- his own breath, the horses neigh, his father's deep laugh -- as they chime within him and without. Quickly he rolls out rugs and arranges sacks and spreads blankets where he thinks to be here and there and the stone closes in until it is all he can do to sit in the noisy heartbeat of the dark, on rugs knotted by last years girls, maybe this years women or next years ghost, whose tiny hands flutter around him like bats.
In time the men come into the cave and the boy is relieved to tend to them with tea from the samovar and oil for their feet. He and his closest cousin run sticks together to coax fire and flame and the cave opens, no longer black and closed but red and centered, and the uncles, cousins, and father undress to the hot orange heart. They remove layers that shield them against sun and day, women and each other, and sit naked but for the cloth tangled loosely about the loins. All around him cave carvings flicker in the new light, but the boy does not see them, distracted as he is by the sudden presence of his family's flesh: gaunt or corpulent, hairy or barren, with nipples just like his and shoulders just like those on his boy body and remembers this to be his year and silently undresses himself alongside.
When the cave is filled with heat a pipe is lit and passed and the men: uncles, cousins and father inhale and exhale until the brown coals and the light of their eyes are one and the same. In his life the boy has distinguished the men by their discipline and silence, their warning and argument, their smoking and sleeping and spitting. In the lambent light of the cave, though, the men are indistinguishable, folded into a piece, a joined monad unified in motion and desire. They pick up instruments and rile their voices and together sing one song, in one breath, with one voice.
The boy tries to hum along but is distracted by the chronicles that emerge from deep in the cave walls; around him the cave walls are chiseled into animal bodies, human bodies, moon and sun. And the stone story goes: a crown, passed from hand to carved hand of figures robed and frozen, being passed, still passed, always passing, here, this land is yours, this land is yours, here, Parthian, Sassanian, Madig and Saladdin, this land is yours
. Further down bristle-covered boars and gigantic horses and round beasts with long un-coiled snouts walk amongst stalks of grain and grass toward the hunter king with his arrow and bow, toward their own capture and kill. Further still a man in a sharp crown holds the ankles of the dead boar in his hands, and the boar, upside down, bloodless and pierced through the neck, smiles with a twist in its lips. Women with harps in their laps, dead warriors spread out in layers of tangled limbs, the crescent moon and prickly sun and the stone story spreads around the boy's head, convincing and true. But for the faces -- smashed off, uneven, jagged and erased -- the boy understand the personalities in the carvings to be present, responsible for the evening's atmosphere, and reconciles the cold renderings in the rock with the live skin of the men who brought him here: uncles, cousins and father, who sit and sing now: full in breath, sentient and pulsed through with blood.
The Kurds have many fathers and those are three
The boy is drawn into his father's warm lap and held tightly against loosely clad loins. His baba points up to the triumvirate of human men sculpted shoulder to shoulder in the stone. The figures, dressed in wide pants and turbans each with long beards of stiff coils, are linked hand to hand, shoulder to hand, head to hand in a posture of victory
Just as I am your father you will one day father and the land has fathered us, the lines of Kurd blood do not cross but flow together from their time to ours, through those bodies and down into the bodies of son and son and father and son and king and son and me and you. We are aligned in our duty and our duty is to those three
The boy sees a man with sharp crown on his head, a man in a sheath of armor, a man who pushes a spear through the ground. His father pulls him in until the hairs on his chest tickle the boy's bare back and the old man's exhales wet the knots of spine on his neck.
We are the children born of Mt. Cudi where Noah's arc rested after the flood and our families are born of the animals and gardens of the survived, of God's chosen
So he is told and so the boy hears the taq beat and the sitar strings hum.
It was King Suleiman who wanted a harem of pale skinned beauties and it was the djinn who captured his harem of virgins and breed the Kurds, children born of mountain sheitans and golden angels.
And so he is told.
We survived the evil king Zahak who fed on the brains of Kurds until one by one we escaped to the mountains and that is how we came to live in these Zagros, to drink of the snow water and eat from cracks in the rock and grow into strong men, men of stone
And so he is told.
When you think of God, when you lay your head down and pray against this ground, they
the father circles a finger in the air and points to all walls of the cave at once will come to you
The boy leans back to nestle in his father's lap and smell the pipe and hear the chord of their one song. After a time he grows sleepy and can no longer distinguishe between the vision of his open eyes and the vision behind his closed lids. He imagines himself in round robes and mottled armor, his boy face heavy with an iron beard, his head arrayed in light; father and the son standing as victors atop the layers of bodies dead and flattened into the ground. He absorbs his fathers' breath into his back, accepts this new patrimony, gladly enters into the tight belonging of the cave and lets enter sleep and all of her entombed dreams.
In the thin light of dawn the men rise, dress, drink the samovars cold tea and abandon the cave to walk, without conversation, up the shale and grass of the mountain in whose bedrock they slept. A gauze of cloud covers the sky and their shadows float beneath them, muted and dull. The boy holds neither to his father's hand nor to his closest cousin and rises upward like the rest: loose of limb, given to the march, the wind, to the loom of sky and drop of earth. The mountain changes from the soft ground to scarps of jutting rock and stone broken apart by intermissions of loose talus. Young cousins rush to help older uncles with offers of hands and shoulders, crooks of elbows and sturdy waists, to steady the elders against the ungracious incline. The boy too offers his reed thin arms and narrow shoulders and is quickly pushed back by stern hands.
Na. Today you touch no one and no one touches you.
At the mountains crest a wind blows in all directions with sharpness enough to cut men into shards and strew them about, nameless and fragmentary, across the ginger desert below. Here men lean alone against the firmament and the boy watches as uncles, cousins, and father extend their arms, in the manner of birds, to keep balance along the craggy chine that leads to an even and welcoming plateau, the highest point along the crest. There they stand, hands pocketed or knotted behind their backs, to gaze at the Kurdish flats to the south or the vaulting Zagros to their east. From up high his father calls. The boy runs to the summons and is caught and kept as a feather is sought and fastened to his forehead by means of a narrow leather strap. Crowned thus, he is applauded and the men push him ahead to lead them into deep valley from which no life sounds or flies. They descend single file, the boy ahead, jolly in this new year and new game of manhood (and possible birdhood) and they walk silently until the land flattens and the wind ceases and they come to a narrow dell of aspen saplings whose leaves flutter green and gold in the afternoon sun.
The uncles remove shoes and socks to sleep or recline against boulders while cousins walk solemnly through the grove to gently touch the thin trunks of trees only a few years older than themselves. The boy follows in curiosity and zeal, hopeful for a game, a shout, a dash through the cool copse but is instead pushed around and out by a cousin who gestures him away.
Na na na. Not yet, later. Go. Your Baba calls.
Together, father and boy walk past the coppice to a deep crevice between rocks, through a swale of seeping water and soft moss grows atop the sharp stones. They move carefully into an escarpment where the mountain walls nearly touch and the ground juts at them from beneath and beside. In the indentures the boy sees night birds rock in a sheathed sleep as above them the sky, all day a great expanse, thins to a narrow grey blade. Aligned to his father the boy has no fear and they walk slowly to emerge from the tiny fissure into a meadow of new grass and thin streams. The boy runs to the nearest pool to drink and splash and watch his father crouch and disassemble a crude box made of rocks from which he unearths an ax and a black handled knife both of which he tests on the tips of his fingers, one of which draws blood. The father pockets the knife and shoulders the ax and calls to the wet, wondering boy.
Come. We must go back. It is time
Even before they arrive the boy can see the men gathered in a circle again beneath the trees. They are without fire or opium pipes or instruments and because they do not sit or stand, but pace in small steps back and forth among the trees, the boy is ill at ease. His heart pulses quickly as he shouts.
Why do you stand there? Where is the sitar and the daq? Who is going to light the fire
His closest cousin raises neither voice nor eyes and kicks the ground and the fallen leaves. The boy sees loose smiles slip out from his uncle's lips and his baba offers no explanation and gives no comfort; he grows an ax from his shoulder and a knife from his fist and the boy is no longer aligned to him and no longer cares for the game of the feather tied to his head or the ceremony of the caves and wants nothing but the criss-cross of his maman's knees and shins and the sad songs that sing him to sleep.
At the sound of a sudden clap the men: uncles and cousins take the boy by shoulders and head and lay him down at the base of the selected tree. He is held down, by who and how many he does not know, to stare up at the canopy of leaves that blot out the sky as hands clear him of pants and shirt and shoes (leaving the feather fastened to his forehead). When he is naked and cold and the men gather around him to sing and clap as if the boy were last night's flame. The are tight and close around him and he can feel the hot air of their breath, the drips of spit that fall out from their singing mouths and smell the musk on their skin. He opens his mouth to protest, but as in a nightmare, nothing comes. The sky above him fills with faces, a ceiling of flesh: lips, cheeks and jaws hang loose and ragged and pulled down by the force of an earth that draws all things to its center. And here the boy lies: bare and caught, lodged at the bottom of a well at whose edge men tremble before they fall.
The song stops. From all around a warmth of hands presses and the boy is touched and caressed until blood rushes to just below his middle, to the smallest part of him that only he knows and his mother knows and they know together, that fills now with a cold, flush fire that opens and closes in him again and again. His smallness stiffens and he is aroused and the boy begins to drown in a pleasure un-recognizable but for its proximity to wild agony. Deaf and blind from the opulent touch of the men on and over his body and his smallness, the boy is oblivious to the spectacle of his father ax aloft as he cuts apart the spine of the young tree that grows just above the boy's head. His smallness swells with pleasure and the ax falls, down again and again. Trapped as he is in the moment's wealth the boy feels no fear. He hears nothing of the fresh wood spliced above him and in his closed-eye ecstasy does not notice the black handled blade as it is kissed by the closest cousin (who laid against another tree just last year, when the boy was left at home) then passed from cousin to cousin to uncle to uncle to father to the oldest uncle who murmurs a single prayer Ya Ali,
before navigating the knife around and along the rigid organ in a cut, even and circular, that relinquishes the boy of skin and sanctuary for all the days of his next years.
With wide wet eyes the boy looks up at the faces he has always known, for he knows these men and no one else, to see their smiles and hear their song and feel their touch all over his bloodied self and he lets fly a keen, high and sharp, full with the vitriol and sorrow of one suddenly betrayed. A burn blossoms from the very center of him and spreads through blood and organ and ear and eye until finally day and light dissipate into a clouded haze and the boy is held aloft by a clutch of hands, young and old, and his limp body is passed thrice through the new split in his tree. The men sing, certain in their ceremony, as they clean and bandage him where he bleeds. They remove the feather from his head and fold it carefully around the slack cut foreskin and tuck the offering into the split of the tree before they sew it together like maids at a loom, stitching the broadcloth close. And the men sing.
Blessed is the bark by Madig to grow deep into the land.
Blessed be the boy by Saladdin to grow high atop it
So they sing and so they rejoice to carry the body of the boy, this year's man, back out of the grove up the valley and mountain and into the cave, unaware in their celebration that, like the tree, the boy too has been cleaved. Here opens the first crack to let in the fear and sorrow that will fissure through his whole life. As a soldier he will be deftly divided through the head, as a murderer cut open through the heart, and as an old man split so thoroughly that one side of him dies first, unbeknownst and long before the other, damned to serve in hell as half a man.