Sef was the first one to wake up. He rubbed the sand out of his eyes and yawned before he could focus into his surroundings.
His father was sleeping in the corner to his left, hugging his pillow like some child. Sef chuckled at the sight. In the corner to his right, Sayyid al-Ahrs's arms were crossed as if he was already in some conflict. And there next to him was Malak who was hugging his father in his sleep.
It seemed that reality emerges only in our dreams.
Sef was still a little tired and decided to fall back onto the pile of cushions. The pillows absorbed his own heat and held onto it. He curled into the mass of pillows and basked in the artificial heat. He felt like a kitten who would curl itself into a ball.
He happily burrowed into the pile and rested his eyes.
Sef woke up again when his father started to call out his name.
"Sef, we are going to the tank."
He crawled out of the den of pillows. "What is the tank, Baba?" he asked tiredly.
"I will show you, but first you need to wake up."
Sef yawned and noticed that Malak and Sayyid al-Ahrs were both ready and eating breakfast. Sef's father handed him some rice and fish and he sat down to eat his meal.
"What is the tank, Baba?"
"It is called Banganga Tank, a massive pool of water where all people meet. We will trade a few things there and then move on to Mahikawati Neighborhood to find a ship that shall take us to Sin."
His father said that the tank was a short distance from the inn and said that they will not need the camels to carry their goods. Sef was not exactly thrilled by this decision but he was given the lightest pack, a load of cotton from Damascus, while his father carried a sack of dates, which were extremely heavy.
Sef thought of the idea of the Banganga Tank. He imagined a fairly large well where many women, vendors, and people gathered. He equated it to the market square in Damascus.
This estimation was very wrong.
They arrived at the Banganga Tank and Sef saw it pulse with life. It was not just a well, it was a huge rectangle of water with steps descending into it. He could not find a way to measure it or estimate its length, which shows how large it was to comprehend.
All sorts of people were within the pool bathing, washing, or simply socializing. Sef remembered that the village well was where all sorts of women would gather to talk about their family or gossip about nothing. Here, everyone gathered. The tank was a center of life, of community, of their culture.
They passed a few people standing around and stood by the edge of the tank. He saw his father take off his sandals, descend a few of the steps, and wash his feet in the water. Sef followed his father's example and took notice of the people around the pool.
He saw a few men in long, white shirts talking about nothing. But what astounded him were the women who were wearing colorful layered robes. As the women talked, they moved; as they moved the cloth would follow closely behind. Sometimes a blur of colors would catch his eye and he would see a woman speaking animatedly.
He wondered why women here were allowed to wear such vivid colors and patterned cloth but the women at home were not. His mother wore many colors but they were all flat and bland. In comparison, the women here could wear such bright and energetic fabrics.
"Sef." His father interrupted his train of thought. "Are you ready to leave?"
"Where are we going Baba?"
"We are just going to trade in this area. The main markets are inside Mahikawati."
"What is that?"
"It is a neighborhood where the Raja lives."
"Are we going there?"
"Not yet at least. Why do you ask Sef?"
"I am curious," he simply said.
"Do not ask so many questions that you forget the answers you have." His father stood up from the water and began to put on his sandals.
Sayyid al-Ahrs handed them their packs of trade goods and they began to explore the many vendors and stalls.
They sold many of their goods, but it was not a comforting thought. All they brought with them were packs of dried foodstuffs, packets of paper, and wells of ink. Sef did not understand why they could not sell the bolts of cloth they bought in Khandahar, the dyes from Merv, or the perfumes from Kabul. What prevented them from selling those goods in this marketplace? What was his father's reasoning? Why did he make this decision?
Sef tried not to question his father's intentions or deeds, but it seemed too easy now.
They walked through a few streets, and then Sef's father stopped them.
"I need to go inside the temple," he said.
"Why are you going inside Baba?" Sef asked. It was an appropriate question to ask after all.
"There is someone I need to speak to; an old friend."
"Do we have to follow you and pray?"
"Not at all. You can wait in the courtyard with Sayyid al-Ahrs and Malak."
Sef watched his father take off his sandals before ascending a large set of steps. His eyes rose higher and higher, slowly fixating upon the massive spiral tower. It reminded him of a slender mountain rather than a perfectly designed tower. There were no straight walls that held stairs, no flat surfaces, nothing that would make it look like a tower in the strictest sense.
But next to it was a beautiful, round dome. How could something so beautiful, aligned, and proper be next to something so...ugly? He meant no disrespect but the tower thing was certainly ugly looking.
He sat down on one of the steps, just as Sayyid al-Ahrs and Malak did, and saw the tank below them. It must have been pure luck for the temple builders to have found such an abundant source of water, or it must have been a great struggle to take the pool of water for themselves and build a temple next to it. Whatever the reasoning, Sef admitted that this was a nice place to put a temple.
He wondered what else was near this tank. What did families do to build houses nearby? What did businesses pay to place their shops here? Who could live here and why did they get to live here?
"Sayyid al-Ahrs, may I go see what is around the corner?" Sef asked.
"Do not venture too far from us," he warned.
"Yes Sayyid al-Ahrs," he said thankfully before leaving.
He turned left and followed the path away from the temple. He saw houses that looked well kept yet modest. He wondered who lived in these houses. Were they the priests who served the temple?
Sef walked past a little garden situated outside a house and saw a boy sitting at a small table. He was not wearing a shirt, like the others who sold their goods on the street or walked to some important destination, but three threads ran from his shoulder and across his chest. As Sef approached the child, he noted discarded pages of suns, stars, and clouds scattered on the floor.
The boy paid no attention to him because he was busy drawing. He had an air of superiority, of grandeur, and of power.
"Hi there," Sef said boldly. "My name is Sef. Can you speak my tongue?"
The boy blinked and opened his mouth. "I can speak many tongues."
The boy did not respond but instead turned back to drawing.
Sef took some offense to this boy. He was clearly ignoring him and it was extremely irritating. But he was going to try to be polite and mend whatever bridge he burned. "Can I draw too?" Sef asked.
The boy looked up at him, blinked rapidly, pulled a few sheets of paper from his stack, and handed him a pen.
Sef took the pen and tested it by drawing a little circle on the corner of a page. He knew what kind of pen this was, his father showed him one like this and said it was like a quill that stored ink on the inside, and began to draw something.
They sat in silence, independently drawing their own ideas.
"What did you draw?" Sef asked after finishing. "I drew my Baba."
The boy looked up from his own pictures and saw a messy scrawl resembling a man in a tunic. He looked at Sef who looked proud at his...accomplishment.
"Are you not finished?" Sef asked.
"I am done," he said quietly before handing him the drawing.
Sef was astonished. In his hands was a perfectly shaped and detailed image of a man. He could see the hairs forming on his beard, the shine in his eyes, the shadows creeping from behind him, and a million other details.
"Who is this? Is he your Baba?" Sef questioned.
"He is Raja Bhimdev, the kind ruler of Mumbai."
"Have you met him before?"
The boy held out his hand for the picture. He furrowed his eyebrows together before saying, "No. But I've seen him." He sounded unsure, confused even.
"Oh, alright then." Sef was not sure what to think of this boy. So he left him and his drawings to return to the temple.
"Ah there you are!" Sef's father shouted as he rounded the corner. "Why did you leave?"
"I did not go very far."
"But you could have gotten lost."
"But I did not."
"Please stay close to Sayyid al-Ahrs while I am gone," he pleaded. "I do not you to get lost in a city like this. Very few people speak our language and they may not be willing to help a child."
"Yes Baba," Sef conceded.
"We are going to Mahikawati so we can make a few arrangements. After that, we shall be done for the day and then," he put emphasis on that last word, "we can relax."
He nodded and followed his father through the streets to the next neighborhood.
Sef's father said that the heart of the trader can be found in the market. If such a statement was true, the hearts of these traders were beating slowly and quietly.
The Mahikawati market was very quiet, perhaps even a little too quiet for Sef's tastes. No one was shouting what "deals" they had now, no one was boasting of the qualities of their goods, no one was in any hurry. This was not a marketplace, it was a library.
They sat at one of the benches and Sef's father pulled out a few maps from the inside of his robe.
"I will need to talk to one of the sailors and see if we can hire their boat for passage," Sef's father said. "This marketplace is very close to the Raja's palace so all businesses are under constant scrutiny and the prices are very fair. Sayyid al-Ahrs, would you like to accompany me?"
"I shall. But first I must do something." He pulled out something wrapped in a red cloth and handed it to Malak. "Take it but be careful," he instructed.
"Yes father," Malak said before cautiously taking it from his hands.
"Do not leave the bench," Sef's father said. "We shall be back soon."
Sef nodded and watched as his father and Sayyid al-Ahrs disappeared into the crowd.
He smelled something in the air, something hearty and strong. It made his mouth water, his jaw slack, and his stomach growl for food. They did not have dinner yet and the sun started to set on the Mumbai skyline. The sky did not burn red with passion but it was close; it was on the verge of catching fire. He imagined the sky was the bulb of a flower and it would blossom any second.
It was a subconscious thing for Sef to get up and walk towards the smell. He was hungry, he wanted food, it was a simple need to satisfy, and it was deeply rooted in him.
But then he felt someone pull him back down to the bench.
"Where are you going?" Malak asked. "Did you not just hear your father say to not leave the bench?"
"But I was-"
"What?" Malak asked angrily. "What could have made you defy your father's word?"
Sef did not say anything. He wanted to say that he was hungry, that he had not eaten since their short snack at midday, but that suddenly felt inappropriate. That it did not feel wise. That it felt petty and stupid.
He felt petty and stupid.
So Sef sank into his seat and watched in...shame?
He wanted to prove that he could be an obedient son! He wanted to prove that he could be a strong man! He wanted to prove all of these things, and yet he could not. He seemed to fail himself.
Malak huffed and began to tap his fingers on the stone bench. He kept a hand on the object wrapped in red cloth and he occasionally pulled at the string that held it together.
Should Sef apologize? If he did, then he would admit his wrong but acknowledge that Malak knew what was best. If he did not, then he would be seen as an ignorant child with a silly temper. It was either be seen as a weak man or a strong child. Which one was better?
Sef needed to occupy himself with something to pass the time. He should not dwell too long on the ideas of reputation. He was not going to entertain the idea that he and Malak should appease each other.
He began to pay attention to the voices around him, the words, the people. Occasionally he would hear a bit of Arabic amongst the strange language his father used on the road to Mumbai.
But he was really astonished when he heard someone speaking fluent Arabic only a few steps away from him.
"Raja Bhimdev spoke to Asariri," a man in a long white robe said to a man in another long white robe.
"Lies are beneath you," the second man said as he scratched at his beard.
"But it is true! I saw him speaking to a woman who glowed!" the man pleaded. "She said that a gathering of monsters and demons were within the city!"
"If it is true, then why have the Bhramin not spoken of such a thing? Why do they still continue about their business when they should clearly be running up and down the streets in fear? Why have we not seen them consorting with the Gods, asking them for guidance and protection?"
"I do not know but-"
"Then you should not be so swift to listen to such women's gossip," the second man interrupted.
"Go ahead and get your lunch." The second man put a hand on his shoulder and added, "You have had a long day. The marketplace will still be here if you leave."
The first man was clearly distraught but nodded and left.
Sef wondered if there were others who could speak Arabic. He tried to filter out the foreign words and languages. He searched for the words he was familiar with within the crowd.
A man's voice caught Sef's ear. It spoke fluent Arabic and had an accent familiar to him. "Have you visited the temple?"
"Yes I have." The second voice sounded like it was from an older man. The accent was different from the first man. Sef searched for the two voices and he suddenly realized that it was coming from two men sitting on another bench a few steps away from him.
"Did you see the Acharya?"
"I have." The second man nodded and put something in his thwab. "He is so young but he is very talented. I think he shall be an excellent leader one day."
"And he is showing such good progress!"
"Did you not hear? A few men broke into a house but they encountered some guards waiting for them inside."
"They were sent by the Acharya!" the first man said excitedly.
"He must have eyes in the sky or a head for planning," the second man said in agreement.
"Or even both! Yesterday, someone tried to kill a woman in an alleyway but one of the Acharya's guards stopped the fool."
"It seems that the Acharya is better at protecting the people than the guards," the second man said with a hint of anger in his voice.
"And there is even better news!" The first man threw his hands into the air. "A Vetāla tried to eat a woman and her child in the streets last night but the Acharya's special agents dispelled the monster! I heard that they did battle with it while performing the mantras. And after they beat it unconscious, they dragged it to the temple, tied it down, and performed the funeral rites in front of it!"
"It must have been quite the event!" the second man said with surprise in his voice.
"I heard all sorts of people, even the foreigners and non-religious type, attended!"
"If this is what the Archaya can do now as a boy, imagine what he can do as a man!"
"The future seems very bright for him."
Sef wondered who this Archaya was. No, he wanted know what an Archaya does and how does one become an Archaya. It sounded like this person was a king of some sort or a ruler who had a great deal of power. But also, how old was he? The two men kept on saying that the Archaya was young but how young exactly? Was he eighteen? Sixteen? Even thirteen? But no matter how young or old this he was, Sef could safely assume that he was a strong and wise man. Only a man could hold that sort of power and do great good without causing harm or distress.
He saw his father and Sayyid al-Ahrs walking towards him.
"I am glad you two stayed put," Sayyid al-Ahrs said. "Malak you have done a good job."
Sef was glad that Malak did not say anything about earlier. He did not want to be punished for simply getting up from a bench. He watched Malak give his father the mysterious object wrapped in the red cloth before joining him at his side.
"We are going back to the inn to have dinner," Sef's father said. "Sayyid al-Ahrs, you can stay in the room. I have some business to address with the one of the government officials here. I am afraid that they do not permit the presence of guards."
"Perhaps we can wait outside?"
"The guards will surely see you. Who knows what they shall be ordered to do after that? It shall be safer if you do not come along."
Sayyid al-Ahrs felt that Sef's father was hiding something but he did not want to push the matter any more than he should. If he felt that he was making the right decision, then he should respect that decision. He was not hired to ask questions, he was hired to keep Sef and his father safe.
"Alright then," Malak's father said. "We shall wait for you in the inn."
"Do not worry, the guards will keep us safe," Sef's father replied.
"Are you sure?" Sayyid al-Ahrs asked cautiously.
"I am positive."
They walked back to the inn in silence and had dinner.
It was nighttime and they all decided to have a little nap. Sef and his father woke up Sayyid al-Ahrs and Malak on their way out.
"How long shall you be out?" Sayyid al-Ahrs asked. It was a reasonable question in Sef's opinion.
"I am unsure. You know how difficult these government types can be," Sef's father replied jokingly.
Sayyid al-Ahrs nodded and pulled out a book from his pack. Sef did not see the title of it but he imagined that it was about tactics or warfare. He could not imagine Malak's father enjoying a novel about natural philosophy.
They walked outside and Sef could still feel the heat licking at his skin even though the sun had set a long time ago.
They walked into Banganga Tank and Sef followed his father. Sef could tell that he seemed a bit confused, perhaps even a little worried, but he did not raise this concern.
Eventually they arrived at a small grouping of stands. There were many men here who spoke the language he could not understand. They were all speaking loudly, waving their hands in agitation, and occasionally stomping their feet or raising fists into the air.
Sef's father pointed to a bench where two men in thawbs talking. "Stay there while I go talk to someone."
Sef nodded and went to the bench. He watched anxiously as his father went to the men by the stall. He could not tell what they were talking about but he knew it could not be good. His father was scowling but nodding; he paid close attention to the other's words and spoke in turn. He was being very careful about what he would say and how he would say it.
He made sure to watch his father carefully. He was not sure why he should but something just did not feel...right.
"Did you hear?" A man sitting next to him started to a man standing in front of him. "The guards will be checking all of the houses."
"Again?" The standing man groaned, "This is the second time this week! What do you think they are looking for?"
"And other mythical creatures," he said sarcastically. "When will the Raja realize that there is nothing to be afraid of?"
"Until he thinks he is done."
"This mala better end soon." Sef's nose wrinkled in confusion at the unknown word. "I left Jerusalem to escape the random persecution, not to live in it again!"
Sef noticed his father was walking back to him and he ran towards him.
"Baba," he asked frantically, "can we go now?"
"Yes," he replied without looking at him. "We shall leave now."
They began to pass through the streets and Sef could feel his father pulling him faster to the inn. He wanted to hold his hand and receive his father's assurance, but...he just could not bring himself to do it. What prevented him? Hubris? Pride? Fear? It did not mean anything right now.
Sef heard someone shout, "Mūrkha," which seemed to be some insult for the guards. His father turned to the direction of the yelling and his face paled to the point where he looked sick. As they rounded one of the corners, he saw two guards banging on a door as they demanded entrance.
They picked up their pace and Sef could feel his feet burn and legs constrict. His father kept on going, occasionally pushing a person aside, and Sef struggled to keep up. Sef's father blazed onwards, never looked back, and fought to push forward; it seemed that he could leave Sef behind at a moment's glance. But what kept him from going too quickly was Sef.
He could not afford to leave Sef behind, he could not afford to lose him in the crowd, he could not afford to lose him.
They turned one more corner and were in front of the inn. They dashed inside, shut the door behind them, and ran to the room they shared with the al-Ahrses.
"Sayyid Ibn Altajr," Sayyid al-Ahrs said as he stood up from reading his book. "Welcome back. Wait, why do you look so tired?"
"You need to hide," Sef's father said urgently.
"The guards are coming," he whispered. "They are coming to search the houses and buildings for, I do not even know." He sighed in exasperation. "But they are looking for something and that much is certain."
"Malak." Sayyid al-Ahrs turned to his son. "Grab the weapons."
"Where are you going?"
"It is better if you do not know." He drew the curtains around the windows. "When the guards are gone, put this on the windowsill and light it." He pulled an oil lamp off of the table and blew out the flame. "Do not worry about us seeing it, we shall be fine."
"Are you sure you do not want Malak to stay with us? He would surely not be seen as a threat."
"But there is the slight chance that they shall. I cannot risk it."
Sef's father nodded and watched the two leave the room quickly with their packs. Before Sef could even register what happened, his father began to clean the room. He arranged the bags of goods, fluffed the cushions sitting about, and adjusted the rug so it lined up with the walls. After he was done, he picked up the book Sayyid al-Ahrs dropped, sat in a cushion, and began to read.
"Sef," he said after turning to the beginning, "do not say anything when they come in. Understand?"
He gulped and fearfully said, "Yes Baba," before taking a seat in one of the cushions.
There was no end to it-the waiting. It grew and grew and grew. It grew like a vile nest of insects. It grew like an ugly mold in a piece of bread. It just grew.
Sef wanted to know where they ran to, where they were hiding. Was it safe? Was it far? How would they see the lamp? Where would they put their packs? What if someone stopped them along the way?
A knock burst the silence like bells, gongs and cymbals. Sef nearly fell over in surprise but his father did not; if anything, he stiffened at the sound. He went over to the door and opened it carefully, not too quickly and not too slowly.
"Hello traveler," a guard said in mangled Arabic. "How is your evening?" Sef noticed that there were two guards standing outside the doorway. One was more sociable while the other seemed...not as social.
"I am fine," Sef's father said as he stood in the doorway. "My son and I have spent many days traveling and we are glad that we can finally rest. How is the evening for you and your partner? Are you enjoying the night together?"
"We are fine, thank you for asking. We had a small argument earlier but who does not?"
"All unions," he put emphasis on the word, "have their quarrels but I assume the period after is much more pleasant and enjoyable."
"Oh yes," the sociable guard agreed.
"So how may I help you?"
"We are simply looking around." He shrugged. Sef noticed that the sociable guard was not very nosy nor was he assertive like the people on the street said.
"Is there anything in particular?"
"No, we are just surveying who is in our city."
"You could say so. Is there anyone else staying with you?"
"Only my son."
"And the bags are," the less sociable guard began.
"They are my trade goods."
"Alright then," the sociable guard said something quickly in that unknown language before turning back to Sef's father and saying cheerfully, "Well thank you for your time. Have a good night."
"Thank you," Sef's father said before closing the door.
They waited around the door, listening for the guards voices as they knocked on each door in the inn, and waited. After some time the voices died away and Sef's father left the room.
It was tense for a while as Sef was alone in the room without his father or the safety of the al-Ahrses. Sef's father returned and wordlessly drew the curtains, lit the lamp Sayyid al-Ahrs used, and placed it on the windowsill.
They waited, switching back from the lamp to the door and back to the lamp. There was fear, anxiety, but also longing. It was not the romantic and emotional longing of lovers but the longing to know that a brother is safe. So they waited, consumed in their nervousness, and hoped for the best. They tried to push the horrid scenarios of the al-Ahrses being caught by the guards away but they still lingered in the back of their minds.
The door creaked open and Sef saw the sweaty brow of Sayyid al-Ahrs peek through.
"You are safe!" Sef declared.
"Yes," Sayyid al-Ahrs said as he lead his son in. "We are safe."
"What happened? Where did you go? How did you escape the guards?"
"All in good time," Malak's father responded while he put down the bags. "First, we should sleep and in the morning I shall tell you and your father what happened."
Sef was a little disappointed but he understood. Malak and his father were both clearly tired; their brows were wet with sweat, cheeks flushed, and ears red from the cool air. He respected their needs and held back his questions.
He watched as his father locked the door and blew out the lamp.
Darkness, it seemed, provided little comfort and security.