Read an Excerpt
From Part I: The Curse
The lion-ape lunges from the tree
a moment too late;
Bahram Chubina's arrow has already
sealed his fate.
I gasp roughly. Beast and warrior glow white, burning, against the gold ground. The sun glints off the illuminated pages as it glints off the metal mar snake that twists around and around from my wrist to my elbow. My fists clench; I am aghast at dying, aghast at killing.
I turn, startled.
Mother comes in, her face unveiled she has not yet left the palace this morning. The pleasure of seeing the dark sliver moons under her eyes, her full cheeks, pulls me at once from the violence on the page to the sweet calm of our lives.
Father, the Shah of all Persia, has promised to find me a suitable wife soon. I will be the first adult male outside the young woman's family to ever set eyes on her bare face, to ever know her mysteries. Warmth threads up my throat to my cheeks. I stroke my short beard and smile broad to hide my thoughts.
Mother smiles in return. "You're reading the Shahnameh yet again?" She comes to my reading platform and bends over me. Her hair hangs wavy, freed from the braids that hold it tight at night and that she will rebraid before going outside today. It brushes my arm. With a fingertip she traces the spine of the lion-ape. "His eyes speak anguish."
Her words touch me with their femininity. Women speak through their eyes from behind the chador the veil that shrouds all else. They are accustomed to listening to the eyes of others, even those whose full faces show.
"Shall I read to you?"
"Battle stories." Mother wrinkles her nose. "I prefer Islamic verse."
"Islamic verse is in Arabic. These are stories in our own strong Persian. And they're not all battle. Let me read to you of Malika falling in love with Shahpour." Already I am thumbing back through the earlier pages.
Mother squats and catches my hand between hers. "Orasmyn, I've got a present for you. In my room. A book by Saadi."
The prospect intrigues me, for this great mystic, this Sufi, is known for mixing the spirit of Islam with the culture of Persia. But Mother's tone irritates. I pull my hand away. "I don't need help in choosing my reading."
"We all need help, Orasmyn."
"A prince doesn't."
Mother presses her lips together in a thin line. Then her face softens again. "I see you've done your prayers." Her finger now runs the part in the middle of my hair that I made during my cleaning ritual, the wudhu, before the prayers that precede sunrise. "Why didn't you come eat with us?" she asks. "Your father and I will be busy with festival duties most of the day. We had hoped to see you this morning, at least."
Today is the Feast of Sacrifices. Every royal family in every town across Persia has invited the poor to partake of the meat from the animal they will sacrifice this noon. Here in Tabriz there will be a double offering, for my family will add a sacrifice of our own to that of the local royal family. "I don't plan to eat on this festival," I say.
"Is that so?" Mother looks at me with curiosity. "You're dressed as a hajji a pilgrim." Fondly, she brushes the folds of cloth on my back.
I draped this white cloth around me as the sun rose. It is almost a year since I returned from my pilgrimage to Mecca. These days, when I go out, I wear my ordinary tunic under royal robes, though of course I carry prayer beads and wear a white hat always. But today I will stand in white cloth with the other hajjiha, a cloud of purity. "I'm assisting at the sacrifice."
"Ah." Mother nods. "Then I understand your fasting. But, son, my gentle prince, not every hajji must take part."
I hear the question under her words. As a child I ran from the sacrifices, from the spilling of blood. As an adult, I take no part in the hunts. Mother says I am like the flowers that grow in my treasured gardens, more tender than flesh should be.
Still, today I fight off trepidation. The sacrifice is compassionate; as my father's heir, I must understand that. The animal dies to commemorate the ancient sacrifice by Ibrahim. "Don't worry about me." I kiss Mother's hand.
"I'll leave you to prepare, then," she says, straightening up. "At the prayers before the sacrifice, be sure to make your rakatha your bows deep and low, and to linger a moment before rising. That way I can pick you out from the other hajjiha and send you my strength." Mother leaves.
Her strength? A prince should rely on no one. But it is too late to protest; she is gone.
I open the rear doors, which give directly out to my private garden for praying, my belaq. We have palaces in many cities, and I have taken part in designing the gardens at three of them. I work with a cohort of servants, planting, pruning, mulching.
My special fragrance garden around the throne room in the central pavilion of our Isfahan palace is continuously in flower. The carpet I stand on now depicts that garden. The border bands hold daisies and pomegranates and heads of lions. This rug makes my feet want to climb. We winter in Isfahan, of course, on the arid plateau almost completely ringed by mountains.
My yellow roses are at our palace in Shiraz. On the first day of spring, we celebrate Naurouz, New Year's, there, surrounded by flowering persimmons. I always beg Father to take us to Shiraz early, even as early as the end of February, so that we can feel the bade gulhaye sourkh the wind of roses that blows strong in the afternoon. Processions fill the streets with music and torches for thirty days. I throw coins with lions stamped on them to the people I pass. They throw rose petals in return. All flowers grow in Shiraz, but gulhaye sourkh roses are what they throw, because the rose is my favorite, Prince Orasmyn's favorite.
But Shiraz is too hot in summer. So we return north to Tabriz, the capital, where I tend my most extensive gardens.
I step outside now and pass through my walled belaq out to the public gardens. To the west stands the mosque. To the south and east and north stretches garden. My eyes follow straight pebbled paths interrupted at regular intervals by a series of steps, on and on, until the paths are lost in the trees and the mountains beyond. It is easy to fool myself into thinking the garden continues forever infinite.
I imagine I feel a wet breeze from the Caspian Sea to the east though it is more than a day's journey away. I emerge from the shadows of the portico and walk along a maddi a water channel to the reflecting pool. The people will gather here after the sacrifice to await the cooked meat. The pavilion on the north side will host the men, while that on the south will host the women. Columns hold up the roofs of the pavilions, columns spaced widely, so that one group can easily see what the other does. The voices will be loud and happy.
But right now the pool and garden are mine. The air is faint with white jasmine. Clover and aromatic grasses crush soft under my bare feet. Sour cherry trees fan out in star designs. I step up onto the talar, the platform overlooking the pool, and gaze at the black-and-white limestone colonnades of the palace. The early sun gives an orangish sheen to the stones, almost the color of henna, and an idea comes to me.
Mother said not every hajji must take part in the sacrifice. So nothing should prescribe the participation of those hajjiha who do take part. Joyous moment, I am free to choose what duties I assume.
I race to the animal enclosures beyond the mosque, to the camel-holding pen, hoping no one has beat me to the task. Preparing an animal for sacrifice is just as important a part of the feast as slashing its neck.
Kiyumars is already in the pen, stroking the large she-camel. But no one else is about. I join this servant with a silent nod. We've known each other all our lives we played among the herds of goat and sheep together as children; we tend the gardens of Tabriz side by side as adults we fall into an easy camaraderie now. Kiyumars puts henna on the head of the camel, turning her the orange color that guided my feet here now. All is well. I rub the camel's eyelids with kohl. She is docile, more docile than I've known a camel to be. Kiyumars takes a sugar lump from his pouch and puts it in the camel's mouth. Ah, now I understand her cooperation, for I have a sweet tooth myself.
The necklace shines from the open box nearby. It is made of tiny mirrors set in red silk with gold em-broidered leaves. Carefully I lift it with both hands and hold it under the camel's thick neck. Kiyumars takes one end, and together we fasten the necklace in place. It hangs before her chest like a banner.
Kiyumars dips his hands in the henna again. He turns to the camel, about to rub color into her back, when he gasps.
I look over his shoulder. At first I cannot see it. But now halfway up her single hump a thin line shows, where the hair doesn't lie perfectly flat. It runs two hands-width long.
Kiyumars looks at me with frightened eyes.
We both know what the scar means. Someone cut fat from this camel's hump, a practice of our people for millennia. But now we know, through the teachings of Muhammad, that the Merciful One expressly forbids it: Live animals are never to suffer at the hand of man. An old scar, to be sure. Nevertheless, this camel has been defiled.
"She appeared to be the finest camel, my prince. In the name of the Merciful One, this is truth."
"Was no other camel brought here yesterday and prepared for sacrifice?" I ask, though I can see the holding pen is otherwise empty.
"She is the only one, my prince." Kiyumars' voice shakes. An error regarding sacrifices could call for grave punishment. The local royal family holds to old Persian customs that go against Islam; they would have Kiyumars nailed by his ears to the wall out front of the palace, just as they do to those who break the fast during the monthlong celebration of Ramadhan. I wince at the thought. My hand instinctively takes his upper arm and pulls him close. My chest swells with the need to protect Kiyumars.
But is it written anywhere that a camel who has been violated in this way cannot be sacrificed? I recall no such prohibition, though I have to admit I remember more of the Persian folktales in the Shahnameh than of the Arab holy words in the Qur'an.
I could ask the imam the prayer leader just to be sure. But the Feast of Sacrifices is one of the two most important holy days of the lunar year so the Shah should know the rules that govern it. Likewise, the Shah's son should know. Consultation would be a sign of weakness.
The answer must lie within me.
This camel is imperfect. But all the camels in our herd have some defect or other. They have to. Such is the way of the world. This may be the best camel available, despite her scar.
Kiyumars puts both hands to his cheeks, forgetting the henna in his desperation and turning himself orange. "It is my thoughtlessness. Jumail is the only camel prepared for sacrifice. Forgive me, my prince."
Jumail? This is the Arab word for "little camel," not the Persian one. This camel clearly belongs to Islam. I reach high and put my hands over her muzzle, trying to pull myself up so I can look into her eyes. The camel stares at me a moment, then blinks and jerks her head away. But she doesn't bare her teeth. Jumail is ready for sacrifice.
I scan my memory for wisdom from the Qur'an. "The Merciful One forgives our dietary lapses more easily than most other lapses."
"Yes," says Kiyumars with hope in his voice.
Now I search my memory for wisdom from our people's traditions, wisdom my nursemaid Ava taught me. "And eating camel meat rekindles faith," I say softly.
"The people will be grateful," says Kiyumars. "Especially the sick, my prince."
I think of the sick, for whom half the meat of this camel will be salted and set aside. They will chew it all year long for strength no other meat can give. Nothing would be gained by failing to sacrifice this beast.
And I cannot believe the Merciful One would want Kiyumars to suffer for an innocent oversight. Indeed, if animals are not to suffer at the hand of man, how then can humans be allowed such suffering?
I fasten a necklace of bells around the camel, high up and tight, so that it rides in front of the arch of her neck. Then I stand tall before my servant, my friend.
Kiyumars bows to me. When he rises, he smears the camel's hump with henna, putting extra on the scar that disappeared with his first swipe. I add a strand of precious stones between the necklace of bells and the necklace of mirrors. After Kiyumars finishes coloring the camel's back, I spread the fine Kashmir shawl across her. She is ready.
Everything has been done correctly.
Or almost everything.
In an instant I am cold. It is nearly impossible to be cold anywhere in my country in the summer, even at the start of summer, even in Tabriz. Yet I shiver now. It is as though a tiny being flutters around my head, blowing and blowing. It as as though a storm begins.
Copyright © 2000 by Donna Jo Napoli