The strings of my father’s oud were broken. Unchanged for five cycles, the gutted strings snapped in the humidity like the arthritic sinews in his hands. Soon, mine was the only music left.
I sat by my father’s sandaled feet, the heavy bowl of my instrument resting between my legs. My left ring finger cramped as the final note resonated and hummed a gentle vibrato with the hot wind.
Children and their watchful parents lined the tent, listening with feigned indifference. My note rang. Surrounding brush and the heavy fibers of their tattered robes absorbed its final sigh.
When the venom took father’s hands, it damned him and rendered him feeble, unable to perform. There was no cure, the Crones said. Its cause was unknown. I refused to play without him until ghastly visions of my mother guided my unwilling hand.
A child sneezed like thunder claps and broke the lingering silence. My father tapped his foot, and the onlookers retreated. His yellow toes wiggled in the dirt that filled his shoe.
“Why that song, daughter?” He asked.
“Because you said it was her favorite.”
“It was.” Memories of her struck him. Deep wells around his black eyes filled. Tiny droplets ran down the dry canyons of his scarred cheeks, concealed themselves in the ruts of his face, and vanished. “And do you know who wrote it?”
“You did, Baba.”
“Yes.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and straightened his back. He wrote it for her during her final weeks. This was before the Crones’ assurances that her health would outlast his wandering the wasted lands for a remedy. In her moments of lucidity, she would happily hum the melody through her cracked lips. When he returned from the wastes, she was gone, and his limbs were ruined.
He stopped playing after that.
“So tell me what you did wrong,” he said.
“I’m slow. And the notes move too fast for me,” I said.
“This is all true, yes. But you’re forgetting something. It’s the most important part,” he hinted.
“My oud was out of tune?”
He shook his head. The white cloth around his neck unraveled. “Feeling. You must feel the notes. This only comes through possessing a true understanding of your subject.” He gestured for my oud. “Here, I will show you.”
I obliged, supporting the oud with both hands as I gave it to him, ashamed of my apprehension that his hands, which children mocked, would not be able to hold the instrument as they once could. But father clutched it in spite of the indelicate claws that had consumed him. There was pride in his eyes and poison in his limbs. He settled into a familiar position and smiled.
A smile like rain to end ancient droughts.
He watched the strings vibrate in anticipation. He brushed them with his knuckle to relieve them of their burden.
Father searched for notes with his fretting hand. His plagued fingers, which spent the recent months making crescents in his palms, refused to obey. Shadows of rage touched his face as he looked twice at his ailing hands. The strings whinnied under his touch, then brayed like horses. I strained to hear past fumbled notes, to focus on his intentions and the meaning behind his clumsy movements. But the sweat on his brow was distracting.
Some foretold his arrival. They dreamt of gold and woke somber with silver in their pockets. They dreamt of oceans and found small puddles seeping through the barren land.
In these visions, they all saw the shifting tail of the night sky dragon.
The Crones looked to the bright stars and the patterns they told. After three nights, they called Council and announced that the fallen traveler would be arriving within one cycle. Their dreams were true dreams.
The same visions afflicted my sleep. I knew it to be a parting gift from my dead mother who once told me of the traveler.
I told father.
“You mustn’t tell anyone,” he ordered.
“But this could bring us wealth. The Crones are revered. I could be like them. Replace them, even. This is what mother would have wanted for me. This is why she gave me the visions. She did it for us. We would never worry about food or clothing again. And now that you can no longer travel and perform…”
“Tal, you will not tell anyone,” he interrupted. His face was red. “I forbid it. I will not have you exploited like she was. You cannot. This is not the life I want for you or that you should want for yourself.”
He left. Our argument was over. I peeked from the tent and saw him float like a phantom through the camp, hands hidden beneath overlong sleeves.
The pale stranger arrived in our camp on a night that obscured the skies beneath a gray cloak. He entered without ceremony or introduction.
He carried a golden rebab. Dark fabrics that hid the stars tore above him. The rift followed him, ripping with his movements and revealing the giant stars inside longing for their departed. I knew their names, these glittering diamonds. I knew that without him those heavenly images were incomplete, a dragon without a tail.
He was glowing. His face stoic.
But the Crones said that he was a glimmer of his former self. His stay, they said, would not be long.
Even the howling gales quieted to hear the stranger speak. His celestial voice cooled our fires and darkened our torches.
His name was Ath-Thu’ban.
He would be with us for three nights.
When he arrived, my people had been meandering through the wastes for sixteen months, discarding pieces of themselves in the unforgiving dirt.
That night, as Ath-Thu’ban walked to the center of the encampment, we stood still. He moved his lithe form with pantherine grace. Nearby the forgotten coals burned, orange then black. None noticed. Our hearth was walking among us.
Ath-Thu’ban sat on the ground with folded legs and pulled a slender bow of olive from the sky. The rounded bowl of his rebab, small and worn, clawed and broke the unforgiving dirt beneath it. Its neck stretched above Ath-Thub’an’s head.
His bow glided upon the strings before making sound. It worked over them with subtle trepidation. The wind parted for his song and swirled.
It was perfection.
Dawn neared and the visitor retreated behind the mountains with the moon.
“What did you hear tonight?” We had returned to our tent. Father was at his cot. His shadow danced in torchlight.
“I heard everything,” I said. “Everything. It was a marvelous story. Filled with so much suffering and joy. I heard the beating of their wings, the Dragons, and I wept when they left us for the heavens. I felt his pain as he was sent away from them to walk among us.” I thought of his white eyes.
Father listened intently as he removed his scarf. “What did you hear, Baba?” I asked.
“Your mother’s voice,” he said. “I heard her voice, and I felt complete.”
“Do you believe what they say about him?”
“That he can make our wishes come true.”
He thought for a moment. “I’ve heard those stories, too. From your mother, yes? She used to tell you that to make you sleep. To make you not fear the night. I see why you would want to believe in him, Tal. But nothing is free. I’m certain of that.” He struggled to remove his sandals as he spoke. His clumsy gestures betrayed his outward composure. Lines on his face darkened in frustration.
“I’ve no doubt that this traveler is special. His music even touched me. But, then again, I’m an easy critic.” He grinned. “Still, is he the star she said, I mean, they say he is? I think not. But I don’t know. Nor do I care.” He rolled over, barefoot. “I’m through with this mystic babble. And so are you, Tal. No more visions. No more talk of this nonsense.”
“The Crones say that he can rid you of the venom.” I blurted out. My face was instantly flush but he could not see that with his back to me.
“Not without a price,” he said. “Not without a price.” He blew out the lantern.
“But I trust him.” I said in the dark.
“No,” he said. “You want to trust him. You want to believe.”
On the second night of his visit, Ath-Thu’ban visited members of the camp in their huts. Father was the only one who turned away his song. Ath-Thu’ban looked at father from our threshold. He only stared for a moment. His unblinking yellow eyes examined father’s limbs. I watched from inside as the traveler turned away, the glowing rebab on his back fading as he walked away unaffected.
Father demanded I play my oud for the remainder of the night. Content that dawn was coming, he retired.
I slept through the midday heat and woke to find the torches already lit for dusk.
“You over slept,” father said.
“I was weak from before. My arms and fingers are aching.”
“Such practice makes you strong. It will prepare you for what’s to come. The life of a true musician.” Concern washed over my face and gave him pause. “What do you want more than anything, daughter? And don’t dare speak to me of a life with the Crones.”
“I want to be a musician like you were, Baba. To travel and perform.” A half-truth. I wanted him to be whole again, for us to travel together.
“We can make that happen. See?” He smiled and beat his broken hand on his chest. “You don’t need wishes. Everything you need is right here.”
Father left me for the market, and I wandered alone through the camp.
I decided to seek out the visitor.
The square was bustling with controversy. Firan the shepherd looked taller, but his back slanted like a cracking post and he walked as if his feet were different sizes. Jamal, the butcher, had arms as thick as the lambs he slaughtered, but his voice had left him. His legs bowed. There were others like them. New, but broken. They all lined the streets, feed for the gawkers, basking in unwanted attention.
Wafts of ginger and cardamom filled my nose. I looked to the hill and saw the Crones in their tent creating a powerful ward to block meddling spirits.
Part of me remembered the same scent pouring through our tent as mother spent her final, helpless days.
Then I saw a gentle light gliding over the hill. Strange colors danced with the dry brush. Through the center of camp, I heard faint music coming from the valley below.
I walked out of the camp to the hilltop and saw Ath-Thu’ban alone in the valley with his rebab. The bow in his hand was level with his shoulder. He had angled his instrument so its sounds echoed off surrounding hills and vanished into the thick cloak of night.
Many breaths passed before the note ended and Ath-Thu’ban spoke. “I see you there. Please join me.” I walked down the hill and slipped on a loose stone.
He lifted his head, and up close I saw oceans in his obsidian eyes and pearl waves breaking within. These were mysteries I can never comprehend.
“They make wards against me now. It seems I’m not what I was.” I heard remorse in his voice.
“I was the one star. The followed one. But, by heaven’s grace, the skies shifted. And I fell, a lowly comet out of favor.”
I sat in quiet awe, unsure why he would confide in me. He continued, “I came here long ago when you were nothing but dust. Even then, my powers were fading. But one believed enough to sustain me for another generation. Now even that sustenance has withered because of my actions.”
“My mother?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Your father.”
He sighed and began to rise. “I leave tomorrow. When I do, I will be forgotten. My time here will be a tall tale the old tell children on solstice nights.”
“I have been thinking of you every day since she left us for the Better. I cannot forget you. You must let me hear your song. Let me make my wish.”
“I’ve taken enough from your family. Look to your father’s hands and see what I’ve done. See how I failed him. Look to the sands that carry your mother’s bones and understand that I failed her, too. I am weak because I could not save her. He pleaded with me to take his hands, his life’s work. In exchange, I would rid her of that which poisoned her. I tried, but it was too late. I betrayed him that night in the desert. And he is right to deny me tonight. You should do the same.”
I saw truth in his eyes.
“Please, then, make it right. Make him whole again.”
Without speaking further, Ath-Thu’ban picked the olive bow from the dirt and played a song only I could hear.
I closed my eyes and wished.
Three weeks later, I sat atop the Crone’s perch and relished the silence. My new companions looked to me fondly as they wrapped me in their red veils. We stood together, a blanket of crimson. Our visions were the threads that united us. They welcomed me to my new life while the ground around me was cracking and dead.
My father played to those healthy enough to listen. Their faces locked in collective bliss. His deft fingers glided artfully over fresh strings. Each note he played with youthful alacrity, urging the song forward into the next stunning movements.
Finished, he set his oud gracefully on the pillow next to him and waved sheepishly to me with spread fingers across camp. I looked fondly over my folded hands and clenched my brittle fingers that had failed me days ago. I looked up to the nascent stars in the purple sky. One star of shifting colors looked back. I could not remember its name.
Reshad Staitieh is from Kansas. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he daydreams of barbecue, shorter commutes, and more time to write. Reshad is a practicing attorney with a background in music.