This is the kind of Friend
You are –
Without making me realise
My soul’s anguished history,
You slip into my house at night,
And while I am sleeping,
You silently carry off
All my suffering and sordid past
In Your beautiful
Yusuf had the largest hands of any man in the entire Hatay province. Even bigger, rumor had it, than Munah-the-Fisherman who had once wrestled a giant squid from out of the blue sea. Even grander some folk said than Coskun-the-Generous, who could hold eight ice creams in both his hand without crushing a single cone.
His hands had been revered since he was a small child. The Holy Man, in particular, had watched them with great interest.
‘He has Keeper’s hands,’ he had gushed. ‘Our village has not had a Keeper for over two hundred years. Yusuf is a blessing. He is a blessing to all of us.’
Yusuf’s mama had politely nodded. Yusuf was indeed a blessing. Her ninth such blessing in as many years.
As a child Yusuf was made to sleep in goatskin gloves and forbidden to play anything but Tavla and cards. It embarrassed him deeply to have such beautifully kept hands. The other boys had wild stories etched upon their skin; scars from fist fights and pide burns, brazen scratches from climbing trees. But Yusuf’s hands were soft and supple. They smelt of sweet rose oil.
‘You have Keeper’s hands,’ his mama said whenever he complained. ‘They do not belong to you my child. They belong to all of us.’
But Yusuf did not want Keeper’s hands; he wanted Skinner’s hands instead. Skinners made good money he’d heard, especially those with big hands like his.
Now when he was sixteen Yusuf was taken from his mama. Led away by the Holy Man up to Jebel Aqra.
‘Don’t despair,’ the Holy Man said as they walked the mountain’s ragged slopes. ‘Once you have become a Keeper you can come back home to us.’
He then left the boy on the bare limestone peak and returned back to the village.
Yusuf was gone for exactly ten years – one for each digit that spanned his great hands. At first he had stubbornly resisted becoming a Keeper at all, arguing petulantly with the gods that he would make a better Skinner. But as time passed, and his temperament slowly mellowed, his dreams of such menial work gradually ebbed away too and he began studying the Keeper’s Edict, carefully learning every word.
A Keeper is a chosen vessel whose hands are not his own. His only purpose is to hold the burdens he is given throughout his life. In the day he should keep them in his open hands but at night he may let them sleep in the crook of his arm. He should listen whenever they speak to him but never answer what they ask.
Remember you can never break what has been truly broken!
When Yusuf eventually returned to the village only the Holy Man and his mama could recognise his face. Gone was the boy with the unruly tongue and the frown of a put-upon. Instead was a man with black untamed curls who used his eyes to speak. Such beautiful eyes too; the colour of ripening almonds – with long, blinking lashes that fluttered like small wings.
Yusuf’s mama begged him to remain in the village but the years on Jebel Aqra had made him humble so he lived up among the mountains nearby. A cave not far beyond the village walls where the evening sky cast lavender shadows across his rock-strewn home.
Now as a Keeper Yusuf only had one duty which was to keep the burdens he was brought. Burdens brought just before dawn’s light by way of a special courier.
‘Merhaba Keeper,’ the courier always said. His greeting never changed. ‘I have a burden from the Holy Man that he has asked for you to keep.’
Yusuf would then welcome the courier in from the night sky and they would sit on hard cushions and sip apple tea. After they were finished the courier would open his silk purse and gently place the burden in Yusuf’s outspread hands. They weren’t really burdens though that were put in Yusuf’s hands but rather broken hearts. Hearts that Yusuf would keep in his own great hands until they were whole and healed again.
The first few days were always the most difficult for Yusuf as he tried to rebuild trust in something that was broken. Most days he spent in silent meditation or humming Sen Bir Güzel Meleksin in his sweet, tender way. His only task during these precious days was to provide comfort to the broken heart, which nestled like a wounded animal in the curve of his great hands.
Later as the heart grew a little more robust he would take it out wandering among the bouldered landscape. Or down by the stream, where the water danced like scattered diamonds and the fish blew bubbles high into the air.
At night he would sleep with it in the crook of his arm or if it was afraid he would bring it to his chest where it would rise and fall like a boat out at sea.
Once a week the Holy Man came to see Yusuf, bringing him kibbeh and fresh garden figs.
‘How are you, Yusuf?’ the Holy Man would ask.
Yusuf’s response was always the same. His life was simple with little luxury but there was a freedom in this way. His only lament, if he were honest, was that at times he was lonely and he missed the weight of a loving woman. But Yusuf knew, as he had always known, that a Keeper’s hands no matter how great would never be able to keep a wife as well. So he saw no sense in vexing the Holy Man with such an unsolvable thing and instead replied that he was feeling fine if not a little weary.
‘Weariness is to be expected,’ the Holy Man replied.
Now usually after some weeks had passed or sometimes many months the heart would begin to stir again. Gently sighing and then stuttering softly, trying to find its voice once more. Yusuf would hold the heart to his ear and listen to what it said. Sometimes it told him everything. Other times very little. Some wept and bled with wrecked despair; others quietly mended all on their own. Each heart healed in a different fashion just as it had broken
Often as they became stronger they became more curious as well and would begin asking Yusuf questions to pass away the time. Yusuf answered most (though the Edict forbade him to) for Yusuf had found no harm had ever come by answering simple questions.
‘What is the secret to Adana kebabs?’
‘Ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent love. If you don’t make them with love something in the flavour will be lost which is not fair on you or on the lamb for that matter.’
‘Who do you think are the more romantic –poets or mathematicians?’
‘Why mathematicians, of course. Think of how sensually curved the number 8 is when compared with a rigid t.’
‘Why must the birds sing through all the night? Don’t they wish to sleep?’
‘Birds are selfless that’s why they sing. So no one feels alone.’
And every time Yusuf answered a troubled heart it would nestle deeper in his hand.
Finally, as always, there came a night when the heart began to thump so triumphantly it would keep Yusuf from his sleep. Then he knew the heart was healed and the courier would return. He never grieved to see them go in fact it gave him peace somehow.
Usually the next he would walk down to the village to visit his mama and eat pomegranates. In the evening he would meet his many brothers and enjoy a night at the local tavern. Occasionally he might enjoy a woman too, although over time he became fearful that he could break their hearts whenever he walked away. So he did this less and less. It made no sense to be a Keeper if you were a Breaker then as well.
Now Yusuf kept hearts for the next twenty years. Each one brought to him in the same careful manner, always before dawn by the same humble courier. Nothing much changed except the dark curls around Yusuf’s temples, which elegantly and without argument, slowly attired themselves grey.
But then one evening came a vicious storm which blew bitter winds straight through Yusuf’s sleeping bones. He woke suddenly, shivering in his bed, and rose to shut his window. Peering out into the night sky his eyes became transfixed by a faint ginger glow, bobbing wildly along the mountain path. Surely it was too early for the courier now? It was only midnight or just beyond.
‘You are early,’ he shouted from the door.
‘No,’ replied the Holy Man, ‘I fear this time I am too late.’
Yusuf immediately ran to the man. The Holy Man was not a young man now – his gait was far from steady.
‘But where is the courier?’
The Holy Man came inside the cave, removed his hood and shook his head.
‘This heart, my son, it could not wait and the courier was not at home.’
He then handed the heart straight over to Yusuf, whose almond-washed eyes widened with surprise. This heart he could feel was barely alive and bore a wound as black as loss stretched across its skin.
He took it in his hands and sat on the stool he kept by a small fire. He sat there all night while the Holy Man slept, he did not move except to breathe.
The next morning the Holy Man stirred with first light and saw Yusuf sitting with the heart.
‘You may lose this one,’ he warned gravely as he readied for the journey home.
Yusuf nodded but did not speak. Keepers rarely lost a heart and Yusuf had not yet. But he had always known that such a thing could occur.
Some hearts when broken simply did not mend.
For the first days Yusuf did nothing but sit. He drank only tea and ate figs stuffed with walnuts. All of his energy he saved for his charge which lay like a limp kitten upon his skin.
But then after six nights he noticed the tiniest ribbon of pink running across the heart – like an unravelling string, the tiniest of bleeds. Each day it grew bigger; it grew a little wider too. Fanning across the great wound like a slow spreading fire.
Soon Yusuf started taking the heart out for walks. Light ambles near his home, pointing out desert foxes and buntings in the sky. Days were passed in soothing silence. Silent weeks as well. Just the gentle putt-putt of a broken engine trying to start again.
Then one morning when the sun was low and the birds were waking from their dreams, Yusuf took the heart to collect some figs. The walk was a rugged one between narrow mountain passes and Yusuf held the heart close to his chest.
After some time he took a pause in a rock crevice, and it was then that the heart finally spoke for the first time.
‘If I were a fig I should be afraid of you.’
‘Really?’ replied Yusuf, raising both eyes.
‘Well you eat so many of them.’
‘I like figs. They make me happy.’
The heart took a deep breath.
‘Then when I go home, I shall eat figs too.’
Later the same day as Yusuf bathed in the stream, the heart spoke again.
‘Why do you always wash with lemon soap?’
‘Because I like the smell. It makes me happy.’
‘Well then I shall wash in lemon soap when I return back home.’
And Yusuf smiled again.
Then in the evening as Yusuf strolled amongst the rock-ribbed land, the heart questioned him once more.
‘Why is it that you spend so long walking in nature?’
‘Because when I am in nature that’s when I feel free.’
‘Well then I too shall walk in nature when I return back home.’
‘This is good,’ said Yusuf, perching himself on a flattened rock.
The sun was setting now, streaking the lavender sky with rose pink ribbons just like the healing heart.
‘What about you,’ Yusuf finally said. ‘What makes you happy?’
The heart stopped still for a minute.
‘Not much right now.’
‘There must be something.’
‘Rose-flavoured lokum. Soft and sweet.’
‘Then when you are better I shall send you some from Haci Bekir in Istanbul. They make the best of all.’
And the heart was happy too.
Yusuf and the heart then began to speak every day. Hours spent in deep discussion. Poetry and music seemed to please them both but politics left them sore – to the point that they soon agreed to leave this topic alone just like an old married couple. Why bicker about such dirty things when you could sing about so much else?
Goat skins and fresh dates:
The colour of different olives;
The invariants of Cahit Arf.
And with each new discussion the heart would grow stronger though it still wept at times and deeply grieved. But whenever this happened – as it did less and less – Yusuf would simply draw it to his chest and teach it how to breathe once again.
‘Listen,’ he whispered. ‘Can you hear my heart beat? Hold onto its rhythm. It’s strong enough for two.’
Sometimes though when the heart bled too much he would try to distract it – bring it out from itself.
‘See that cloud shaped just like a horse.’
‘Listen to the howl of the desert wolf?’
‘Look there is a bird falling from the sky!’ as happened one late afternoon.
And sure enough the bird did fall with a sudden thump at his feet. Yusuf knelt down beside it and to his surprise it began inching slowly towards him as if it were drunk.
‘It’s alive,’ sobbed the heart though it was a cheerful sort of sob.
‘Yes. Although I believe it may die soon.’
‘But it is alive right now. Quickly, you must take it in your hands.’
‘I can’t,’ replied Yusuf. ‘I must keep you in my hands.’
But the heart insisted. ‘I can rest on both your knees. If this bird is going to die it should at least be loved.’
Reluctantly Yusuf sat on the ground, put the heart on his knees and cupped the bird in his enormous hands.
‘Now what,’ said Yusuf after some time had passed.
The bird was not dead and yet it did not stir either. He could not stay like this forever. He must keep the heart again.
‘Perhaps we should take it home and build a nest.’
Yusuf shook his head. ‘No. Nature will know how to keep this bird; I must give it back to her.’
So he opened his hands and to their astonishment the bird flew away with strong, beating wings.
‘It’s a miracle,’ cried the heart.
But Yusuf shook his head.
‘I believe the bird was only stunned. It wasn’t dying after all.’
He then took the heart back in his hands. ‘How do you feel?’ he gently whispered.
‘I missed your hands,’ replied the heart, burrowing deeply into his skin.
Later, as Yusuf was collecting firewood, the heart spoke again.
‘Have you ever been in love?’
Yusuf paused to think. ‘I believe that I have loved every single heart I have held upon my hands.’
‘But that love is a duty, an obligation, don’t you think?’
‘Yes but it is still love, is it not?’
The heart fell silent. ‘But what about the love that makes you light. That makes you free even of yourself.’
Yusuf was quiet. ‘No I suppose not.’
The heart did not speak again until the following day.
‘So I suppose you have not had your heart broken either.’
And Yusuf shook his head.
Eventually the time came when the heart was healed and ready to return home. On their last night together the heart slept tenderly across Yusuf’s chest.
But in the middle of the night Yusuf suddenly awoke.
He realised he could not feel the heart beating at all. He held his breath and listened.
He called out to the birds to stop their night songs and held his breath again.
Then slowly in the silence he became aware of a solitary rhythm. It seemed that the beat hadn’t gone at all. It had simply joined his own.
Early the next morning the courier came and took the heart away. Yusuf did not watch it leave. Instead he fixed his too bright eyes on a flock of birds floating freely across the sky. He watched them disappear into the sepulchral sky and then lay upon his bed.
After a week his old mama became worried. The pomegranates had remained uneaten on her table. She sent for the Holy Man to find her son.
‘May I join you?’ he asked when he reached Yusuf’s cave.
Yusuf jerked his head towards a nearby boulder and the old man sat down.
Neither of them spoke. Preferring instead to watch the early evening shadows lay darkening bruises across the rocky land.
‘Isn’t it splendid how well the last heart healed,’ the Holy Man finally said. ‘Never have I seen such a hopeless case. I believe now it is stronger, even stronger than before.’
Yusuf raised his eyes at the news. ‘So the heart will not return?’
The Holy Man nodded his head.
‘It was never meant for you my son even though it was truly yours.’
Yusuf eyes began to blink steadily in the dusk light.
‘Tell me,’ the Holy Man continued, ‘for I am curious – about this heart and you. What did you do for all that time?’
Yusuf sighed before he spoke. ‘We walked a lot. We talked a lot too.’
The Holy Man made a quiet clicking noise with his tongue. ‘But surely you must remember what the Edict says about speaking with the hearts.’
Yusuf shrugged his shoulders.
‘I have kept every heart until it healed. I have protected every one. And yes I have answered each and every one and they have all been cured again.’
‘Yes but don’t you see that now you have come too close?’
Yusuf frowned, his voice was defiant.
‘But the heart has healed. It is even stronger now.’
‘Yes,’ replied the Holy Man, his voice sounded weary. ‘The heart is stronger but you are not. The Edict isn’t just there for the heart’s sake my son it is there for the Keeper too.’
And as these words fell to the ground Yusuf suddenly understood what the raw pain was he had felt all week deep inside his chest. Like a fire he knew that would never die out until it had burned everything hollow and left nothing behind.
He lowered his head; his skin began to tremble. For Yusuf knew as all men did that there could be no Keeper for a Keeper’s heart. Their hearts were too big for any person’s hands – there was no way to stem their wounds
The Holy Man reached out to stroke Yusuf’s hands. How beautiful they were, so strong and comforting. The finest hands he had ever known.
‘You should come down to the village,’ he said gently. ‘You will be more comfortable there. People will care for you. You won’t be alone.’
Yusuf shook his head. The cave had always been where he lived. It made sense to him that he remained there now.
‘Can you do one thing for me,’ Yusuf asked the Holy Man as he prepared to leave for the village.
‘Send rose-flavoured lokum from Haci Bekir in Istanbul. Make sure it is soft and sweet.’
The Holy Man smiled though it was cast like a half moon and reached for Yusuf’s shoulder. ‘You were a blessing, ‘he said as he turned his back. ‘You were a blessing to all of us.’
Joanna Galbraith was born and raised in Australia but currently makes her home in Basel, Switzerland. Her short story publishing credits include: The Fish of Al-Kawthar’s Fountain, a short-story forming part of a book anthology entitled Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness and published by Norilana Books in July 2009, as well as The Moon-keeper’s Friend, a short story forming another Clockwork Phoenix book anthology subtitled Tales of Beauty and Strangeness also published by Norilana Books in July 2008.