The woods ran in a half-circle a little way round the hamlet Kafr-Hanoon –and beyond was the lake. Several people had their cattle, sheep or goats pasture there. These people sent either their little boys or girls, or the elderly, to look after the herds. Sufian had made the Poet’s flesh creep with stories about wolves eating people’s stray sheep around the woods. But this first day there rolled by peacefully. The Poet returned with no sheep or lamb missing. Little by little, he grew accustomed to this piece of work. And right from the start he chose not to mingle with the herd-boys or -girls or even the elderly. He would keep his herd away from those and sit somewhere on a small rock or nestle against the trunk of a tree and read a book.
At sunset the Poet would herd the animals back to their shed, and after dinner he would recline in bed and read for some time before sleeping. And days went on in this way until one night when he could not sleep because of the thought of Sultana. He thought and wept all through the night. And as dawn came he decided to repent of his past sins. He determined to say his daily prayers regularly and, simultaneously, make up for all those prayers he had missed. So instead of five it would be ten prayers daily. He started this at dawn. And after breakfast he led the herd to the woods. He spent much of the next five nights in worship and penitence. And he read religious books and the Quran more than anything else. Soon he gave up reading in the woods. Instead, he fashioned out a flute and began a habit of playing on it while he was with the herd. This habit soon drove him far away from books and nightly prayers. It made him think of women more than anything else. And the ‘woman’ who had just attracted him now was but a girl of twelve…the daughter of Boutros. This girl pastured her father’s sheep in the woods, not far from the Poet..
The Poet did not know the girl’s name. But he named her, though, ‘Hasnaa’, Arabic for ‘beautiful’. Sufian was not at Kafr-Hanoon these days, and the Poet only wished Sufian had been there. For had it been the case, the Poet would have used him as a messenger. Sufian spoke Coptic, the language which Hasnaa spoke. The Poet understood little, and evidently could not reply in Coptic. But lovers –all lovers– do not always need –at least at the beginning– to speak the language of the beloved…
So the Poet did not wait for Sufian’s return from his father’s home. He decided to make his first endeavours. He began by bringing his herd closer and closer to Hasnaa’s, but without approaching her in person. Each day, he himself got closer. And now he began to eye the girl up. And sometimes he fastened his eyes on hers. She did not react, though. But her looks purported that she was well aware of the Poet’s satanic endeavours. Sufian’s absence lasted more than the Poet could bear. He could no longer read. By day he played on the flute in the woods. By night he thought of Hasnaa, and sometimes of Yamna. Even when he prayed he could not concentrate on his prayers…
One day he resolved to go into action. He waved to the girl from a short distance. She stared at him. He smiled. She did not smile. He babbled out words. She did not reply. He rose to his feet and took steps towards her, smiling. She too rose, uttered a low cry and scurried away. “I’ve done it!” the Poet muttered, his heart throbbing. And he started to count the hours to the trial…
At sunset he hurried the herd back to the shed and returned to his tent. His apprehension had now reached its peak. He knew he had exposed himself to the full fury of Assem. At dusk he prayed with tears in the eyes and a fire in the heart. Immediately afterwards two well-set young men darted into the tent and each gripped the Poet by an arm and they dragged him out. The Poet did not protest. He only whimpered. Assem was waiting beside a wooden cross. Without awaiting a signal from him, the two men stripped the Poet to his trousers and tied him up to the cross. “You can go now,” said Assem to the two men. “And come back to me early in the morning.” The two men saluted and moved away. When they had gone out of sight, Assem turned to the Poet and slapped him twice in the face. The Poet burst into bitter tears.
“Now you have done this to my friend’s daughter,” Assem growled, his eyes blazing with rage, “next time you’ll do it to my maid or –who knows?– to my grand-son!”
As the Poet began to beg for mercy, making mad excuses, Assem slapped him once again, harder than the first time, and glared at him contemptuously, and turned round to go back to his compound.
The Poet spent that night on the cross, weeping and cursing himself and praying to God to deliver him from this ordeal. Early in the morning the two young men came back with whips in their hands. Assem stayed aloof and watched as the two men set to thrash the Poet. When the Poet’s voice had gone hoarse from crying, Assem walked over to the two men and made them a sign to withdraw and go away. When they had gone, Assem turned to the Poet and said:
“From the cross you’ll go straight to the grave!”
The Poet was already breathless. His head hung on his chest. The naked part of his body clearly bore the red marks of the whip. Assem moved away and did not return until the sun was most painful on the body. He did not come alone. Boutros and the girl were with him. The Poet had glanced at them all, without moving his head. Boutros and his daughter stood a little way to the Poet’s left and Assem on the right. Now the Poet raised his eyes and nearly went mad at the sight of a knife in Assem’s right hand. Tears gushed from his eyes, and he trembled all over. Assem laid his left hand on the Poet’s right shoulder and turned his eyes toward Boutros, waving the knife.
“Shall I cut off his head?” he asked Boutros.
The Poet was terrified out of his wits. And he begged breathlessly for mercy. Boutros gazed at him for a while then he answered firmly:
And as Assem raised the knife to fulfill his friend’s wish the
girl cried, “No! No! No!”, and buried her face in her father’s gown. Boutros signed to his friend to wait. Assem moved the knife away from the Poet’s throat and turned toward the girl. In the meantime the Poet went on beseeching pardon. The girl uncovered her face and glanced at the Poet, then flung herself again at her father, blubbering, “No, dad, don’t kill him!” Boutros cast an affectionate look at her and turned to Assem and said, “That’s enough! Set him free!” Assem glanced at the Poet and turned his steps toward Boutros and said:
“Boutros, I’m sorry for what’s happened. Let’s go!”
And the three moved away, leaving the Poet on the cross.
In the afternoon the Poet was in bed, alone. It was not until the next morning that a physician came to see him. And all the while he whimpered and moaned. But three days later, he got much better, and he began to yearn to return to the pastures to see his beloved –Hasnaa. She was such a charming girl; and it simply was hard to resist her. The next evening Assem came into the tent and sat quietly by the Poet on the mattress.
“How are you?” Assem asked, displaying some sympathy.
“Quite well, Sir.”
After a momentary silence Assem said, looking away from the Poet:
“Whom do you blame for this?”
“None but myself. I avow my guilt.”
“I nearly thought you’d got a heart quite attuned to worship. But –alas!– you’ve disappointed me. Why did you do it? And with such a young girl –a child even? What has happened to you, Salman?”
The Poet’s eyes filled with tears. Assem looked at him.
“I want to repent,” the Poet burst out.
“That’s enough,” replied Assem, after a pause.
“No. I want to heal the wound in the girl’s heart. I still have to make amends to her.”
“How?” Assem smiled.
The Poet hesitated for a moment, and then replied in a shaky voice:
“I want to give her the lamb you gave me.”
Assem roared with laughter. And after a moment’s reflection he said:
“Tomorrow I shall take you there to give her the lamb. Right?”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Assem and the Poet were well received by Boutros. Hasnaa accepted the gift with what looked like avidity. She was indeed surprised and happy. She was even happier when she learned that Assem would give her father three sheep in compensation for the loss of three of Boutros’ sheep when she had scurried away home.
That same day Assem told the Poet to put the animals out to pasture. And the Poet was happy with this. For he would be able to see his beloved from time to time. But his happiness ended the week after. It was utterly dark outside when Assem sailed into the tent with a lamp in one hand and a basket, a sword and a knife in the other.
“Get up!” he said as he entered.
The Poet sprang from his bed and gaped.
“Take,” said Assem, as he laid on the carpet what he was carrying in his hands. “I want you to go to the woods now and bring me, in this basket, the head of the wolf who ate Boutros’ sheep. You know I’ve paid three of mine for that! Now get up and be quick!”
The Poet stared at the master, then at the materials on the carpet, and then vacantly into space, before he looked up at Assem and said:
“Are you sure there’s going to be only one wolf in the woods? This very night?”
“Yes! Now get up! At once! What are you waiting for?”
For the Poet this meant the end, the end of him. But he stood up, picked up the basket and the weapons and put on his shoes and left the tent. The farther he went from the tent the weaker he felt at the knees. And he thought… What to do now? Go away? Where? How? Go to the woods?… to kill the wolf and bring its head– how? Him kill a wolf? But that’s madness! Utter madness! In the desert around Lehreem he had always shirked going where he suspected there to be a wolf or a lion. And on the Poet trudged, looking left and right. The nearer he drew to the woods the faster his heart beat. He stopped a few yards away from the woods to take breath. So far, he could not believe that Assem had actually meant what he said…It was very cold now. And the Poet shivered with cold and terror. Although Assem’s wolf was nowhere to be seen the Poet could not yet venture to enter the woods. The first thing he thought suitable to do was to have a walk round the woods. And he set off at a slow trot, looking in every direction and holding the sword at the ready. And suddenly he was totally aware of what he was doing. He awoke to his opportunities. He now took Assem seriously. And consequently he had to chase the wolf and kill it and bring its head in the basket. Hadn’t he, the Poet, said that he should avail himself of every opportunity to acquire a manly heart? This was the best of all opportunities. All people had stigmatized him as a coward. Now, he had to avenge this insult… And while the Poet was busy steeling his heart, a wolf, somewhere on the other side of the woods, howled. The Poet nearly wetted his pants. He was immediately gripped by an impulse to run away. But where? How? He stood rooted to the spot, and tried to overcome his terror. And he thought all the while… Assem had meant what he said. There was now a wolf. Maybe it was this very wolf that had eaten Boutros’ sheep… But what to do? Chase the wolf? The Poet’s heart throbbed fit to burst. The wolf –or the wolves– howled again. The Poet plucked up courage and raised his eyes up to the sky and jabbered out prayers, and then moved off hesitantly…in the direction of the howl. He went along the edge of the woods, being still unable to go through the trees. Soon his sham courage faded away. And yet he plodded on his way, looking in every direction with a sharp eye and listening with a sharp ear. And now and then he stopped to get his breath back. The wolves –now the Poet was sure there was a herd of them– howled again and again. The Poet slowed down and almost went on tiptoe…And now he stopped. He could move no farther. He had already reached quite the middle of the second side of the woods. He was panting and, despite the cold, he was in a sweat. He faced the trees, but every moment he turned this way and that to make sure he had not trapped himself. His hands trembled, the sword now felt heavier. His eyes were rolling. “Where are they now?” he thought. “Here we are!” the wolves seemed to reply at once. For they now howled just a little way from him. Startled out of his wits, the Poet just raised his eyes to the sky and mumbled prayers. He waved his unwieldy sword and strained his eyes to see what was coming towards him. A wolf appeared between the trees and glared at him. The Poet nearly went mad at the grisly spectacle. He ran even farther backward while he kept facing the wolf’s eyes and teeth. And here was the dreadful moment at last! The wolf gave a short jump and slowly headed straight at the Poet. Another wolf appeared behind, and a third. And the Poet was nearer and nearer to madness. And no sooner had the first wolf given the first real jump in the direction of the Poet than a long arrow shot through its sides. The two other wolves let out a mad howl and flew away through the trees. The one which was hit lay on the ground growling and moaning and wriggling in convulsions, just a few yards from the Poet. The Poet’s terror had not abated, though. And while he stood gazing at the dying creature on the ground, a thin, short arrow zipped just a few inches past his nose. Aghast, he turned quickly toward where the shot had come from. He could descry nobody, and real terror gripped him. He stood there petrified until a human voice broke this jungle silence. The Poet recognized the voice at once. It was Assem. The Poet could not believe his ears, nor his eyes, when he saw Assem coming towards him from the place where the wolves had first appeared to him.
“You’re still a babe, poor boy!” Assem said smilingly as he rested his hand on the Poet’s shoulder. With the other hand alone he carried a sword, a bow and arrows. The Poet could not speak. He felt ashamed.
“This is another step on a long way you have to go,” said Assem softly. “Shall we walk back home?”
The Poet turned his steps to the compound. Assem wound his arm round the Poet’s back and they moved off unhurriedly.
“Tell me, Master,” said the Poet suddenly. “How did you know that the wolves would be in the woods this very night? When I saw Mr Boutros home I heard them howl only three or four times?”
“I wasn’t quite sure of that, but I had made up my mind to send you tonight. Now, just forget all about this, and think of the future. What about your readings? It seems the girl has absorbed all your attention, eh?”
“No, no, Sir. I’ll be reading more and more.”
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER