They say (though God knows best) that long ago, in a country at once mountain and river and town and meadow, forty wandering dervishes stopped on the roadside for noon prayer and were slain by bandits. Or a foreign army. Or maybe infidels. Maybe even an army of foreign infidels.
They say a great many things, and some of them might be true.
The only thing that everyone agrees upon is this: the dervishes were strung up by their feet from a lonely plane tree while their murderers took turns beheading them. The moment the last head fell to the dust, the noonday sun was folded up in the sky, plunging the world into the dark. For one day and one night, a terrible wind howled across the country like the horns of a tribe of djinns. People thought the Day of Judgment had come.
The morning after, when the wind died down and the sun dared unveil itself again, an old farmer in the foothills went to check the scrap of land where he grew millet. He found the pale stalks bent in reverence under the weight of the forty dervishes’ severed heads. The farmer, whose brow was bruised by a lifetime of his own worshipful prostrations, gathered the heads in a cedarwood chest and took them up the mountainside. He placed the chest in a small cave, marking it with a makeshift pennant—stitched in the workshop of his devotion from his spare pagray.
That season, the farmer’s yield was greater than any he had seen before. The earth of his field turned rich and dark. A canal that had been dry since his grandfather’s time began running thick with sweet water. Taking heed, other people began journeying up the mountainside to burn offerings of oil and lamb fat. Within a year there were seventy markers crowding the cave’s threshold: simple white banners, brightly-patterned nomads’ flags, a few lovers’ kerchiefs, some tattered pennants reclaimed from faraway fields.
One age overtook the next, and the country kept suckling on the blessings of the Forty Heads. In the valley next to the mountain, what had once been a sleepy town, its name unknown to the historian’s pen, ripened into the seat of a kingdom. The town exhaled its might into the country and the reins of power were wholly in the hands of its king. There was, if not peace, order and plenty.
Through the years the Forty Heads kept watch from their cave, content with their condition, until they were not.
• • •
It should be known that the widow who brought this trouble down on the Forty Heads never meant to do so. She belonged to one of the Ghorbati clans that had settled in the valley, and, when a summer plague snatched away her husband’s spirit, she had no means of living except her family’s old craft—printing paper amulets from etched tin blocks. But it was her family who refused to stretch out a hand when she needed help, punishing her for the sin of marrying outside their folk. Nor would the king’s scribes add her name to the charity rosters. The poor-tax was for the community of believers, not star-worshipping vagrants.
The widow did her best to survive until one day, after having eaten nothing but lentil paste for two weeks, she went to the Cave of the Forty Heads for a blessing. In a fit of desperation, she reached into the chest and took one of the heads. Perhaps she meant to make a shrine of her own, to eat off the charity offered there; perhaps she merely wanted the gentle rain of the head’s baraka to fall on her for a time. Even she could not say in the moment.
It did not matter. She never even made it out of the cave with the stolen head, for the shrine’s caretaker saw the bulge beneath her colorfully-patched tsadar and came at her with a willow switch. The widow narrowly managed to escape the blows and fled, though the curses aimed at unclean Ghorbati filth struck home.
The caretaker replaced the head, still muttering imprecations against unbelievers destined to become the fuel of Hellfire. He assumed the matter to be resolved.
But the Forty Heads did not feel the same. That night, they held court in the cave by starlight and the devotees’ last guttering lamps.
“The widow’s touch has made one among us impure,” one of the heads said. “Something must be done.”
“The laws about a widow’s touch were written for living men,” a second head opined. “How can you be sure that it still binds us now?”
“Besides,” a third head added, “are we even sure that all of us were men before? It has been such a long time, I can hardly remember.”
“Of course we were men,” the first head said. “Do you not hear the living when they come? They visit the Cave of the Forty Dervishes’ Heads. Who has ever heard of a woman dervish?”
“We must think of those who visit us,” a different head said. “If one of us has become unclean, it may be that we will lose the strength to shape this country’s fortunes for the better. And what would we be if we cannot do that?”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
So it was that in the hour before the call for dawn prayer, as the summer night breathed a last cooling wind into the valley, a single yellowed skull tumbled down the mountainside into the gloom of exile.
• • •
It was only after many weeks, while propped up above the royal palace’s Gate of Felicity, that the banished dervish’s head allowed itself to take a name.
Whatever name it claimed in life had been forgotten long ago, and there had been no need for one since. It had simply been one of the Forty Heads, like the rest of its fellows. Those first moments spent exposed to the elements had been harrowing; for how could one find their way in the world when they had only ever known themselves as one of many?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the immediate aftermath of exile, the dervish’s head had sought out the company of its own kind. The cave was hardly the only place in the country where severed heads were to be found. There were always several in the nearby town: highwaymen’s heads mounted atop the gates of the king’s palace, a murderer’s skull at a niche in the marketplace, a heretic’s rictus grinning above their newly-confiscated property.
A few were deeply unpleasant persons, spillers of innocent blood whose spirits were already fraying off the bone. Most had sadder tales of undeserved death and unfulfilled desires. They lingered only a while longer.
“And what of you?” an unfortunate former cook said to the banished dervish’s head, after having told its story. The two were side-by-side atop the Gate of Felicity. From its vantage there, the dervish’s head could just make out the mountain at the edge of its sight.
“What are you called?” the cook’s head said, pressing the question.
The sun was slipping below the horizon, evening shadows kissing the mountainside. The dervish’s head looked in the cave’s direction, where its former companions were doubtless sheltered under stone and wood and each other’s company.
“I am Sartor,” the dervish’s head said, for what else could it be now but an “uncovered head” forever exposed?
“And what misfortune brought you here?”
For a while, Sartor did not know how to reply. “Not one of my choosing,” it said at last.
“Is that not the case for all of us?” the cook’s head said. In life, they had been a woman working in the palace kitchens. When a bowl of poisoned stew nearly claimed the vizier’s life, it was assumed that the assassin had come from the growing Lettrist sect; for the vizier had ever been a most strident opponent of their claims to find the Holy Creator’s secrets in the alphabet’s sweep and cut. Questions were asked, the cook’s attendance at a weekly Lettrist gathering was discovered, an example was made.
How was Sartor to explain its own sorrow to such a being? How could it express what it meant not to lose a body, but to be forced into personhood? It was as the poet said: the reed flute could only sound its pain after the reed was cut from the reed-bed.
Sartor struggled to find the words as night swallowed the world. In the morning, when it was at last ready to speak, it noticed that the cook’s spirit had already gone.
Sartor might have faded away too in time, had it not been for a strange and unforeseen event. Following the cook’s execution, the Lettrists among the town’s merchants and artisans barricaded the marketplaces and raised flags of revolt. The vizier, still passing blood from his poisoning, urged the king to send troops at once. But before the horses could be saddled, a pacifist dervish knocked his begging bowl against the court’s doors and suggested a different gesture.
By royal command, the cook’s head, along with the head of every other executed Lettrist, was taken down and shrouded in white Egyptian cotton. The heads were taken to the paupers’ grave next to the lonely plane tree beyond the town wall. It was a calm and beautiful spot, home to a revered local saint’s mudbrick tomb. Funeral prayers were offered and the market was opened once more.
No one knew that among the heads tumbling into the grave was Sartor, caught up in the sudden purge. The shock of being seized was exceeded only by the horror of having the earth close up overhead. Caught in the press of inanimate bone, Sartor’s fresh panic seeped through the ground. Exile was one thing, being forced to take a name another, but how could this fate be endured?
Sartor’s spirit was running wild under the earth, so much so that it almost did not hear the message brought by the mouse that had just tunneled into the fresh grave from the nearby saint’s tomb.
Greetings of peace, friend, and do not fear! You are not alone.
• • •
Once, before the king, before even the town, one of the Beloved Prophet’s progeny rebelled against the Caliph and was executed by that wretched sovereign’s general. Or his governor. Or a traitor. Maybe a traitor who was rewarded by being made a governor.
They say a great many things, and some of them might be true.
In any case, the unlucky saint’s head was sent off to Damascus so that the Caliph might make a drinking cup out of his enemy’s skull. The decapitated body, however, was buried in the country where it fell. A handful of the saint’s followers maintained the grave in secret across the years, and when the tyrant’s dynasty was extinguished, as all dynasties inevitably are, they were free to inform the world about the blessed grave of Khaja Sar-Burida, the “beheaded saint.”
At least, that is what they say, Khaja Sar-Burida said to Sartor, by means of another subterranean messenger. It has been so long, I’m afraid that I have forgotten it myself.
It is the same with me, Sartor replied, and with all those with whom I once was. All that I recall of ourselves begins with the stories related by caretakers and pilgrims, about the storm that brought us Forty Heads to where we were. But it never bothered me overmuch, not when I had them. We meant something as the Forty Heads that we never could have been while apart. Not that any of them cared about that in the end.
The two conversed constantly, sending messages by every possible means: the cooing of pigeons, drifting leaves fallen from the plane tree’s boughs, a dog that had limped over to get its broken paw healed, the one-eyed serpent living inside the tomb.
They were wrong to banish you, Khaja Sar-Burida said.
They were considering the common good, Sartor said. The common good comes first.
They were considering how to preserve themselves, and, in doing so, they destroyed themselves.
Sartor was perplexed. What do you mean?
My friend, it is the Cave of Forty Heads, but there are not forty heads there.
It was not something that Sartor had considered. What do you think that means for them?
Who knows? Khaja Sar-Burida did not seem overly bothered.
We passed through the ages together.
Would you return, if you could?
The question took Sartor aback. Of course.
It is where I belong.
But you are no longer one of the Forty Heads. Were you to return, it would not be to the Cave of Forty Heads but to the Cave of Thirty-Nine Heads and Sartor.
You mean to say that they would not welcome me, Sartor said.
I mean to say that it does not matter whether they would or wouldn’t, my friend. Not since the moment you decided that you were you.
There was palpable despair in Sartor’s reply. I never meant for this end.
Our stories are always ending, dear Sartor. That is the beauty and the joy of it. If they are always ending, they are also always opening onto something anew.
How does the world open for us trapped here in the dirt?
Khaja Sar-Burida seemed almost affronted. Don’t tell me that you have not thought of it! Is it not something, that you are Sartor and I, Sar-Burida? What a thing it would be were we to truly meet. What a future awaits what we might become!
To be part of a body again! It was a bold idea, something that had never before occurred to Sartor. The ferocity of its longing was unexpected: desire for the sheer solidity of shoulder blades, for the audacious span of outstretched legs, for the lightning delight of a hundred bones threaded together.
But if we were to do that, Sartor said, you would no longer be Sar-Burida.
There was a time before I was Sar-Burida. Why should there not be a time after?
So what would we be?
That is for us to find out. If you would do so with me.
Khaja Sar-Burida wasted no time in urging the creatures around the tomb to begin widening the underground pathways toward Sartor. It was an ambitious effort, one that met with repeated setbacks. The two distracted each other with tales of the past and news of the world. Sartor regaled its new friend with the gossip spread by severed heads in town about the town criers, the scribes, even the king. Khaja Sar-Burida shared some of the wishes and hopes of the Lettrists who often frequented its tomb.
The path grew steadily longer and wider. For the first time, when Sartor dreamed, it was not of the mountain.
• • •
The plane tree’s agony rang deep through the earth, drawing Sartor awake. A portrait began to form through the web of fever-bright pain: men marching in with axes and adzes, hacking the worshippers’ prayer-strings from the stately boughs.
It so happened that there had been another attempt on the vizier’s life, this time with a quick knife after Friday prayer. The Lettrists were suspected and no dervish’s intercession would suffice. The merchants’ properties were confiscated, the artisans were put in fetters, the heretics’ favored shrine was set to be razed.
The plane tree dug its roots into the earth, but to no avail. The king’s workers roped their mules to its trunk and set them to pulling. When the tree fell, it took the southern wall of Khaja Sar-Burida’s tomb with it.
They’re here, Khaja Sar-Burida sent.
This is not your end! Sartor replied. This is not our end.
The Forty Dervishes’ Heads had blessed the land for ages, uprooting evil eyes and bad voices and the effects of misaligned stars. Sartor, it turned out, was a different sort of being.
At the walls of Khaja Sar-Burida, one of the workers swung his adze badly and struck his own foot, crushing it. Another’s axe slipped as he cut the plane tree’s trunk, tearing a gash across his companion’s leg. The mules bit and bolted as men tried to bind them to the brick. When they went home for the night, not one man escaped terrible nightmares.
And the next morning, they were back at work. What were some unhappy mischances when compared to the king’s displeasure?
They’ve reached my tombstone, Khaja Sar-Burida said, in a trickle of blood from an injured worker’s hand. Do not fear, dear Sartor. You were not alone before, and you will not be after. I fear that we will not speak again in this world. But everything ends, my friend, and, if everything ends, separation will too. Remember that, and be at peace.
In the dark under the earth, Sartor listened to its friend’s message. It remembered the dreams they had exchanged. It thought of what might have been. It recalled all the endings from which it had begun: the storm following the dervishes’ beheading, the exile from the mountain, taking on a name. Our stories are always ending, Khaja Sar-Burida had said, and they are always opening onto something anew.
You were not wrong, Sartor said. But we might choose our endings and beginnings, too.
As the marble slab above Khaja Sar-Burida cracked under a worker’s adze, the noonday sun suddenly folded up in the sky, plunging the world into a sudden dark. Without warning, blood began seeping from the grave as if from a split vein. The men lowered their tools as the earth trembled underfoot.
A terrible wind howled in from the east, as if a royal procession from the Unseen Realm was passing through with all the clamor of its flutes and drums. People thought the Day of Judgment had come. The workers grabbed each other and ran at once. They did not hear (indeed, could not hear) the shout shaping that gale—the exhalation of a final breath that had been held for ages until it was time to let it out, to let an ending and beginning take place all at once.
• • •
The town criers made their way through the lanes, bearing the good news: by virtue of his mercy and insight, the king had declared the tomb of Khaja Sar-Burida a holy shrine. Workers would be sent to build its walls high with quarried stone. Plane trees would be planted around those walls. It would be a marvel of the age.
When the work was completed, the king had a marble tablet raised above the grave itself emblazoned with curving sulus letters. The tablet told the story of how the king had been visited by Khaja Sar-Burida in a dream and had thus decided to tear down the old, insufficient building so that a new one could be raised.
Everyone who saw the slab ignored it. Few of them could read anyway, and none were as stupid as the court scribes believed.
Among those who visited the newly-opened shrine of Khaja Sar-Burida was a Ghorbati widow in a colorfully-patched tsadar. Her circumstances had improved ever since she had laid hands upon a dervish’s severed head. A new mother had bought one of her printed talismans for her ailing infant and spread news of its efficacy; before long, there were women and midwives knocking at her door every morning. She had bread and okra most days of the week, and, during the Eid that had just passed, she had even treated herself to mutton. For all that, sometimes she still felt as if someone had tied a stone to her soul and cast it into the river’s depths. It was to settle her spirit that she occasionally visited the shrine of Khaja Sar-Burida.
One night, after one such visit, the widow dreamt that she came before a headless skeleton wrapped in a frayed burial shroud, the spaces between its bones stuffed with tufts of sargaray grass. “You knew my friend,” Khaja Sar-Burida said to her. “I can feel it upon you.”
“Your friend?” said the widow, wide-eyed.
“My dear friend, Sartor. Come to me. I will tell you the story and you can tell me yours.”
She went and learned at last about what had happened to the dervish’s head. She shared her own part in the story with Khaja Sar-Burida. She fell quiet as her companion told her of how Sartor had chosen its own ending, of how the earth around the tomb had fallen silent since that storm-swept day, filled now with nothing but unliving bone.
She promised to tell the story, to peel the skin back from the tale and pick out the seeds of falsehood, and offer a taste to any who might want it. And every so often she can even taste it herself: in the moonlight falling upon the tomb of a headless saint and upon a woman’s colorfully-patched tsadar as she tells this story, saying a great many things. All of which are true.