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Seeker of Stars
By SUSAN FISH
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Susan Fish
All rights reserved.
As a little boy, I found the storms disorienting. My brother was thrilled by the coins they uncovered and the feathers they brought on the swirling sand. Once he even found a soldier's boot, which became the prize of his collection stuffed in the cracks of the wall. For me, though, the sandstorms obstructed my beauties. Each clear night, I stole from my bed and onto the roof to admire the stars. My parents must have known, but they closed their eyes to my habits. As long as I learned my lessons in the morning, my mother did not object. One night I stayed up nearly till dawn, watching shooting stars pierce the summer sky. The second time I complained or poked my brother, my mother fixed me with a stern eye and warned me that my nocturnal choices were not permitted to interfere with my daily work. While Salvi begged to know what nocturnal meant, my mother asked me if that was clear. Desperate to continue my rapture, I agreed, stifling both a yawn and the impatience that comes with fatigue. Where my brother moaned over our mother's insistence on our afternoon rest when the sun bleached the world diamond white, I learned to fall into deepest sleep the instant my head touched my bed. This way I found I gained an extra hour with my beauties.
"That one there, Melchi, is a lion. Can you see it?" Uncle Taz indicated the stars with his pipe. It took imagination to see the shapes he described, especially because for me it had been about the dance, the play of stars across the sky. The red one that came and went in the spring. The brightest one over the horizon. The unmoving one like a navel on the canopy. I could not quite see what he meant. So Uncle Taz went down to his room and lumbered back up with a stylus and a board. He was a merchant who traveled throughout the world, selling the rugs my father made. Several times a year he would return with his caravan empty—but he was always full of stories of the places he had seen, the exotic foods he had eaten, and the women he had known. At this point, my mother would glance at Salvi and me and quickly silence him. He also came with great bags of money. The first evening of his return, he and Father would sit up long into the night, sorting coins into their own kinds and calculating the profits and sales with the help of Uncle Taz's stylus and board.
Uncle Taz was a good merchant. I could tell that. His brown eyes were warm, honest, and full of fun. Salvi worshipped Uncle Taz and was spellbound by the coins. Every time one fell off the table, Salvi would leap to collect it, then claim he could not find it, all the time concealing it in his robes. Uncle Taz always allowed him to have one and then would wrestle the others from the nephew whose delight knew no bounds at this play. Then our father would clear his throat and Taz would grunt as we pulled him to his feet again. I always held back from the tussle, but I liked it nonetheless.
On those first nights, Salvi and I were permitted to sleep on the floor by the fire, and we curled together warm and sleepy on our bedding, falling asleep to the clink of coin upon coin, the rasp of the stylus, and the rich laughter of Uncle Taz. On those nights, our mother seemed like a young girl sitting happily in the firelight. Everyone relaxed when Uncle Taz was there. Our father pulled our mother into his lap after she had brought them yet another cup of wine, and he kissed her right on the mouth.
"A good trip, Taz?" our mother asked, lovingly pushing our father's hair behind his ears with her long brown fingers.
"Always, Daria, always," he said with a laugh.
We watched our father and Uncle Taz at work over the table, our father methodically adding or showing Taz his latest design, Uncle Taz interrupting with stories of the man who offered his daughter for a small stack of rugs.
"Not that I wasn't tempted." Uncle Taz laughed, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face.
I could see my brother picturing Uncle Taz's nomadic life. We knew that Uncle Taz and our father had taken over their father's work and that our lessons now were to prepare us to follow someday.
"How will we choose?" Salvi whispered to me one firelit night when our backsides had gotten too hot and we had rolled to face the fire.
"Choose what?" I asked. My face had already warmed.
"Who will get to travel and sell, and who will have to make the rugs?"
"I don't know," I whispered back. But I did. I knew that Salvi was far better suited than I to the work of selling. I liked the beauty of the mathematics my mother taught me and the magic of the pungent dyes that turned the rugs saffron and blue, but to spend the rest of my days as my father did, dyeing wool until my hands were as dark and weathered as old camel skin bags and splintered from tying knots, then falling asleep in my supper at night, seemed worse than being smothered. My friend Omar was eager to begin work with his father, but I could wait, perhaps even forever. I stared into the depths of the fire. What drew me to Uncle Taz's life was not the travel or the coins, but camping in the desert for the night. The stars were brilliant against the empty desert, he told me one night, and they seemed so low you could almost pluck one.
I had gasped, recalling my dream. For as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring dream of reaching for the unmoving star and grasping it. My body moves around the star in the glorious dance of the stars, while my hand receives tingles of light that run through my entire body. It is always my right hand and when I awake from such dreams, so real are they that I can still feel the tingle and I search that hand with my eyes for the imprint of the star or traces of starlight.
It was in the desert, Uncle Taz told me, that he learned of the star patterns, from the nomads whose camps he sometimes joined. Using a finger instead of a stylus, they drew patterns in the sand, showing Uncle Taz the shapes made by the stars. These Taz taught to me during our pipe sessions on the roof. The next time the sandstorm came, I did not sweep the roof clean but gathered the sand and drew the nomads' star shapes.
The stars grew as familiar to me as my mother's face—and as beautiful. Then one summer, as the stars shifted in their course, I began to see changes in my mother's face. Dark circles formed under her eyes, and her body and face began to swell. Alarmed, I questioned her. She patted my arm reassuringly,
"My little observer," she said with a smile. "Nothing passes you by. I am very well. How would you like a little brother?" This unsettled me. It had always been two: our father and Uncle Taz, Salvi and Melchi. It felt like a disturbance in the stars.
I was ten years old and Salvi was twelve when our mother gave birth to her last baby. In bringing this life into the world, our mother, our guiding star, died.
The child was a girl. There were never girls in our family. Our father was doubly grieved. He was lost, tangled in the cut threads of his life. He sat in the dark room beside our mother's body, rigid and silent as she.
It fell to Salvi and me to make arrangements for our mother's burial and for our new sister's care. The women of our village did all the work, but we were the ones who chose the burial cloths, the wet nurse, and the name for our sister.
"Her name is Daria," my brother announced as he handed the bundle to our mother's youngest sister, who wept and soothed the child at her breast.
Within the moon, Uncle Taz appeared, stricken and sorrowful but capable. He lifted the mantle of responsibility from our shoulders, commended our actions, and persuaded our father to eat. Over our father's protests, Uncle Taz stayed a full month, claiming he had always wanted to learn rug making, that it would help him sell better.
That month the stars lost their luster. I sat under their silence, their fixity. There was no brilliance, no dance. Still I sat on the roof, hard rocks for eyes, and grieved alone for my mother, who had gone farther from my reach than the stars. I erased the star shapes in the sand and tried instead to capture a likeness of my beautiful mother. I could not, neither in the sand nor in my heart's eye. Her hands I could remember, soft as olive oil, brown, warm, and strong, and I longed for their soothing touch as her face eluded me. I could almost see her, but I could not draw her. I put my head down in the sand and tasted its sour dryness.
Then I did feel a hand on my head, stroking my hair, soothing. It was Salvi. This was the first time he had touched me deliberately since we had fought as little boys. It was the first touch of genuine comfort I had had since our mother died. I clung to Salvi as I would hold tight to a tree in a storm, and we wept under the stars for our lost mother and the burden we shared together. At last my grief lightened, and I could breathe freely. Salvi and I talked that night for the first time. We talked of our mother—her meals, her hands, her laughter, how she eased our father's moods. We talked of our father, how he had withdrawn into his grief, how he had refused to even see our sister. Salvi and I took food each day to our aunt and watched the red squalling bud of an infant unfold into a gurgling brown baby. This Daria did not know that she, too, had lost her mother. We talked of the girl who was making our food, how her lamb was not spiced as our mother's was. We talked of our suspended studies. No one had mentioned lessons since our mother died. There were many holes in her absence, and we felt each one keenly. Periodically we wept a little, but the terrible knot of pain had unwoven and grief could now seep out as it would.
Salvi looked around at the sky above. "So these are your stars," he said, as though looking at them for the first time. "Impressive treasures, Melchi!"
I did not know whether he could see what I saw, or whether he was indulging me, but I swept aside the failed likeness of our mother and drew several of the star shapes for Salvi.
He laughed. "Only you could find a hunter in all those stars. Look, there's Leyla and there's her—"
I punched him. Leyla was the most beautiful girl in our village, and Salvi was starting to see her as a man would. He rolled over my drawing, laughing. When his ribald laughter finally stopped, he lay back and grew serious.
"Uncle Taz is leaving soon," he told me.
"Leaving? How do you know?"
"I heard him tell our father."
Salvi shrugged. "They can't agree. Taz wants me to go with him. To learn the ways, he said."
I looked at him, my heart choked with secret disappointment. "That's wonderful for you, Salvi," I said. "Think of the sights you'll see."
He grinned again and winked at me.
"Will our father let you go?" I asked, remembering that Salvi had said the brothers couldn't agree.
"Apparently he will," said Salvi. "It's you they can't agree about."
"Me?" Did Taz intend to take us both? It was a possibility Salvi and I had never considered. I realized Salvi was still speaking.
"—wants you to study with the astronomers, but our father says no, Melchi must learn more of the knots and dyes."
I fell on my back, and the stars swirled above me. Our mother had told us about the astronomers, the magi whose work it was to study and understand the stars. Our father, passing through the kitchen where we studied, had dismissed such work as foolish and impractical with nothing to show for it, like the old aunts who occupied their days counting grains of sand.
The possibility of studying with the astronomers dazzled me like a clear night full of stars. Then I thought of our father and knew in an instant how he would react. A blinding, choking sandstorm swallowed my dream.
"It won't happen," I said.
"Taz is offering to pay, Melchi. And you know how he can be."
"Not this. Not now. Who would help our father?"
"I could stay." Salvi spoke quietly. I loved my brother for that offer. Our father might dismiss my passion as foolishness, but Salvi and Uncle Taz did not. I knew I would not accept Salvi's sacrifice, but somehow his offer made me feel less trapped in the work I knew was my lot.
"You'll go, Salvi," I said. "But thank you, my brother, for understanding."
Salvi looked around again at the sky. "Understanding?" he said. "No, I don't understand, Melchi, what draws you to your stars. But when I see you, I think you are like those astronomers our mother told us about and that you should have your chance to learn."
I shook my head, not wanting to be seduced again by the impossible. "I'll learn here," I said. As an idea occurred to me, I said, "Salvi, if you hear stories about the stars, could you remember them for me?"
Salvi agreed. Then, eyes twinkling, he asked me in return if I were ever to discover a new star that I should name it after him. I agreed to this. We laughed, yawned, and went to bed.
For many, I expect, the transition between child and man is gradual, but for Salvi and me, childhood ended that summer night of grief and talk when the moon hung in the sky like a sliver of hope.CHAPTER 2
"You won't let Melchi do anything," Taz argued. "You'll do it all yourself. You're still young!"
"My wife was young too." Our father silenced Taz's argument, piling a stack of rugs into Taz's arms. When Taz came back for the next load, he had a new line of reasoning prepared.
"The king pays astronomers and pays them well."
Our father paused and considered this in silence while Taz tightened the ropes around a bundle of small rugs. Hope rose in my heart—and set again when my father shook his head.
"A few, maybe, but Melchi is not one of those city boys. For Melchi such knowledge would be unprofitable. He is young, and his fingers are ready."
I stopped listening and blindly loaded rugs onto the camels. They stared at me with unflinching expressions of resignation, which I tried to match.
As we piled the rugs higher and higher, each camel became a rainbow-hued mountain. Taz stuffed shoes and food between layers of rugs while our father warned him against marauders and thieves. When the balancing act was accomplished, we stopped for a late supper.
We gathered in the courtyard as we had each night since my mother's death. Somehow the open spaces seemed less empty than the house itself. The house would be emptier still when Taz and Salvi were gone. I could not think of it, or I would start to howl. Salvi shone with anticipation. His grief, unlike mine, was tempered by what lay ahead. Though he would have exchanged anything for our mother's life, her death had quickened the future he had longed for. We assumed this, although our father had not said so. I could not imagine our father would be so cruel as to dash Salvi's hopes, even though he continued to recline in the shadows without speaking while Salvi and I watched him, hopefully and fearfully. The girl Taz had employed to cook and clean for us brought out bowls of stew and fresh bread. I watched her silent, quick movements; she was a nervous night creature scuttling across the desert. Her presence in this house of men did nothing to fill the absence of my mother. The food may have been good, but it was not my mother's cooking; I ate simply out of habit, with no awareness of taste or smell.
As we finished our meal, our father nodded to Salvi.
"Gather your things," he said. Salvi jumped up with a yell that pierced the stillness. Now his fate was clear, and it was what he had hoped. Our father shuffled off to bed. He was over the paralysis of grief, but our mother's death had left him soured and hardened.
"I'll get my pipe." Uncle Taz gestured at the roof.
It was the only time on this visit that Uncle Taz and I sat together under the stars. He seemed to understand that my mother's death had closed the book of my childhood. He spoke to me now as an equal, and I dropped the "uncle" in front of his name.
"I tried, Melchi," Taz said, sand trickling through his hands.
"I know, and I'm grateful."
"You can learn from your father. He is a good man and a good rug maker."
"He misses your mother."
"It makes him lash out sometimes."
I smiled ruefully, fingering the bruise on my leg, where our father had thrown his sandal one day when I whistled as I walked through the workshop.
"It won't last forever," said Taz. "Our father was the same after ... our mother died. Be gentle with him, Melchi. And forgiving. Like Daria managed him." When Taz said my mother's name, his face twitched as though he was remembering a lost delight. I never knew whether Taz was in love with my mother, but he certainly loved her tenderly. And though he had many women, he never married.
As Taz turned to go down the stairs, he paused and put his hand on my shoulder. "You are a good man too, Melchi."
* * *
Before I knew it, Salvi was preparing to climb up with Taz, who sat with the ropes in his hands. One hand upon his camel, Salvi turned to me. "Thank you, Melchi," he said. "Don't forget our sister."
I had forgotten the baby, and when the dust stirred up by the caravan had settled again, it gave me something to do when our father spent the early morning with his ledgers. I loaded figs, wine, and bread and carried them to our aunt's house.
When our aunt expressed surprise over not having seen anyone from our household for several days and inquired after our health, I explained the changes that had occurred.
Our aunt chattered with surprise while I sat on the floor next to baby Daria on her goatskin.
"Gone with Taz?" our aunt repeated. "I guess you boys are growing up. How is young Reta doing?"
Excerpted from Seeker of Stars by SUSAN FISH. Copyright © 2013 Susan Fish. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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