From “The Traveller’s Song” (The Doctrine of Affections):

Miran, like everyone in his family, can find his way in the dark, and I, like everyone in my family, can make the sounds of animals, and that is why he chose me. We were returning to our homes after our afternoon of duty repairing the wall. He had been quiet all day, none of his usual boasting about how soon he would be a man and free from our pointless, childish chores. He grabbed at my sleeve and whispered to me, excited. “Do you know,” he said, “that when the travelers pass in the night on the way to the city they sometimes get off their mules, and lead them, walking.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. Because they’re tired of riding. Because they want their animals to rest and need less water. Because they’re sick of the stink. I don’t know. But they do.”

“So?”

“We’re going to steal a mule.”

Miran had many plans to gain wealth. They grew in fantastic detail when he shared them with me while we packed mud in the cracks between stones or laboured, stooped over, gathering biroud for our mothers. I don’t know if Miran realized how much his foolish dreams affected me. The frustration and despair I felt at our narrow, repetitive lives were as deep as his, though I didn’t complain loudly the way he did. Sometimes, fevered by the sun and his hot excitement, I would believe his plans and try to imagine what I would do with the riches I would share in if I helped, but the stupidity of each scheme would become clear to me in the cool of the evening. Falling asleep, I would vow not to be fooled again. But this was different. He didn’t dwell on the nights he would spend afterward with women. He didn’t arrogantly allow that I could help if I wanted to. He needed me, and his plan did not depend on his impossibly fooling people into thinking he was a man or on everyone believing his absurd claims and giving their gold for things that didn’t exist.

The travelers sometimes walk their mules as they pass in the night on the way to the city. The ropes on the necks of the mules are long, so the travelers are far away from the animals, at least ten paces. Perhaps it is in fact the stink of the beasts and not sympathy that drives the travelers to walk instead of ride. When the sky is clouded and the nights are dark, they can’t see. They don’t need to because they are on the trail, they can feel the animal at the end of the rope, and they can hear its snorting and snuffling. We would wait for a dark night. Miran would lead us with his family’s night eyes to the trailside, where we would wait, and when a traveler passed and Miran knew he was leading his animal, we would walk silently beside, and slip off the rope, and he would lead the mule away. I would take the animal’s place, tugging on the rope like the animal, making its noises, walking on till Miran had secured the mule and come back for me. I would drop the rope and run with him, and the traveler would be in the darkness and know nothing except that his mule was gone.

In the cool of that evening I lay on my cot and felt a heat inside me.

For five nights the sky was clear, bright with star and moonshine. In the days Miran said nothing to me and I said to myself that his scheme was only that, a scheme, a foolish, boasting lie, but if that had been so he would have talked about it.

On the sixth night I woke, not knowing why. My mother snored, my father moaned in his dream, and my sisters breathed together in their childish rhythm. I left my cot, put on my robe and stepped into the entrance of our hut. I could see nothing in the darkness, and I heard nothing. I shivered and took two more steps. “We will do it now,” said Miran’s voice, and he took my hand. Looking at where he should be, I saw only a shadow. He gripped my hand and we walked out of the village.

We waited by the trailside, but the travelers did not come.

The following night again the darkness was complete. I heard them, and soon they would be by us, and I thought, could we really do it, steal a mule, steal a man’s fortune and make our own? My fear of what would happen if we failed rose with my desire for change and escape, filling me with a steaming confusion of longing and dread. Hours seemed to pass with the sounds no closer, and I thought surely the dawn would come before the travelers, but then I could hear them on the trail in front of us, I could smell the disgusting animals, and I waited for Miran to move us, but he only gripped my hand.

“Why don’t we do it?” I said, my voice shaking.

“They’re riding,” said Miran, disappointed, despairing, and the sounds passed, and we returned to the village.

Miran ate little of his meal at noon the next day. He made less effort to avoid work, he did not talk and joke, and the few times he looked at me it was as though he was asking me for something, or asking me to understand something. The next day he did not appear at the well where we gathered, and at the day’s end I learned he was ill.

For four days Miran remained in his family’s hut, visited by healers, by his uncles and aunts. It was harder than ever to go on, gathering the materials with which our mothers would make things that no one would ever use, repairing a wall that had never and never would enclose and protect the village. At moments my anger and frustration gripped me so fiercely I had to fight back tears.

When he reappeared he was thinner, but he was the old Miran. He talked, joked and boasted, and even more than before he made me the target of his rude jests. But he would not speak to me alone.

I didn’t have the wit to respond in kind to Miran’s rough insults. I tried to escape into my dreams of being a man and ending my drudgery, but I could no longer imagine my manhood as a relief, could picture it only as a new, more frustrating and complicated life of obedience to rules and habits that no one could explain. On an afternoon even hotter than usual, walking in a group back to the village, while the others laughed at me, sharing in Miran’s mockery and in their relief that I was now his exclusive target, I said, “I am all those things but I am not a coward.” They ignored me and continued their laughter.

In the dark night I arose and waited, and Miran was there.

We stood by the trailside in the cold darkness. The first thing I heard was someone singing. Because it lasted only a moment I thought I was imagining, but I heard it again some minutes later, then after a longer pause I heard it yet again and I was sure it was louder.

I could make out no words at first — only a few deep notes rising and falling. Then the other sounds of the travelers reached us, the distant rustle of their movements, the snorts of the animals. Then the song.

Miran had his hand on my elbow, holding it. “It won’t be long now,” he whispered. I heard the snort of a mule, then again the bit of a song, loud enough now that I could tell it was in a language I didn’t know.

They were upon us. Miran stepped forward and drew me along, and we were walking beside the mule, and Miran placed my hand on the mule’s warm flank, then took my hand again and in it placed a rope, and the mule stopped, and I continued. Miran whispered to me, right in my ear, “neither am I a coward,” and he was gone in the dark.

I could see nothing. I held the rope at the height of the mule and walked, scarcely believing that it was really my hand on the rope, my eyes looking into the darkness, my feet carrying me forward toward something impossible. Only when I felt the rope slacken slightly did I remember and give the mule’s snort, twice as I’d heard it.

The man took up the slack in the rope and sang.

This wave of deep notes rising and falling moved me. I found I wanted to walk, and I knew then that it must have been so for the mule. I snorted and heard the notes again. It was a conversation between the mule and his leader, the mule asking, “How much farther?” or “Why must I continue without water?” or “Why am I a mule?” and the answer each time was the same: “Walk on to hear me sing.”

I don’t know how it is that I can make animals’ sounds. Everyone in my family can, just as Miran and his family can see in the dark and every family in the village can do something the others can’t. One family carves, in another all can run faster than everyone else in the village, and in yet another everyone, even the smallest child, knows exactly what the weather will be. I waited, though I wanted to hear the song. I did not want to draw attention to myself and make the leader wonder why his mule was being so noisy.

Where was Miran? He would need to go a distance to find somewhere to tie the mule, and then he would need to return, and even he would have to move slowly in the blind night, and he would have to catch up to us. Without light it is hard to judge time, and I didn’t know whether I would see him at any moment or whether really it had only been moments since he left, but I began to worry. Miran did not need me now and suddenly it seemed nothing connected us anymore besides need.

Then I began to worry that the man would decide to ride his mule again. I would have to let go the rope and run, but I would be lost and wander in the night. If the day came and I was alone, and if someone from another village found me, what then? It couldn’t even be thought of.

I wished I had told Miran that I did not mean it when I said I was not a coward. To ease my worry I made a snuffling mule sound, and the man sang again, twice over this time, the same series of rising and falling notes. It reminded me of stories my mother used to tell me about the sea, and I continued walking.

People in our village sometimes sing, of course. My mother sings to my sisters when they are sick, and she says she sang to me as well, but I was too young then to remember now. Her songs have no words and they do not move up and down in a pattern. Her singing calms my sisters and lulls me too, if I stay to listen. The notes this man sang were different. They felt like they were leading somewhere, and when he stopped it was when something had ended but something else needed to begin. It made me want to continue walking, not that I had any choice. But where was Miran?

The ground under my feet grew harder, rockier. I did not recognize it and knew we had come a long way. A lot of time must have passed. If the sky began to lighten I would have to leave. I hoped that it would be dark enough to elude the man who would certainly chase me, but light enough for me to see and to try to find my way home. Why had Miran abandoned me? Was it because I had said that I was not a coward and had insulted him? Had he planned it all along? I snorted and heard the music.

In the distance, at the horizon, I imagined I saw the sky less dark. I believed that it was my imagination, that I only felt myself to have been walking for hours, and that really it had not been very long. At any moment Miran would be beside me. He would take my arm, whisper urgently, and we would disappear together. I abused myself for being weak and imagining.

The light at the horizon grew brighter, I was sure. At one moment I thought that it was the strangest dawn I had ever seen, the light so yellow, and feeble, and illuminating so little of the sky, and the next moment I knew that it was not the dawn, but the city.

The leader sang, the only time he had done so without my having made a noise first. It was the same song, only it continued, repeating the pattern, almost but not exactly the same, and the difference more than ever made me want to move and for the song to continue. I found myself hoping that everything would somehow be solved, and that somehow I would be with him and could ask him to go on, to sing this song that I knew had to have an ending, unlike anything I’d heard, ever, in the village.

I could see the light of the city, but still could not see the man in front of me. The light did not yet brighten our path. There was still time for Miran to come. But soon all would be lost. I would have to drop the rope and run.

If I did not run, the man would turn, or the man behind me would see and cry out. What would happen? I would be murdered there, on the spot. I would be taken to the city and sold. I gave my mule’s snort and heard the song again.

In front of me then, in the light from the false dawn of the city, I saw a shape, not just a shadow, but the hint of the shape of a man. Miran was not coming, I knew. The man behind me would see me just as I saw the man in front of me. I dropped the rope and ran.

I heard men shouting and the sound of their chase. I ran away from the path, tripping and falling in the dark, jarring my body and my senses on the rocky ground, stumbling and running again. They did not give up the chase but they did not get nearer and finally I knew they would not catch me. Finally I stopped running, and when I heard nothing I fell to the earth and could not stop myself from sobbing. I had escaped, but I was alone with the dawn coming, and my village was far behind me. If I tried to return I would certainly meet strangers and my doom.

I remembered bitterly my dissatisfaction with my village life, my childish wish for change, my impatience to grow, my feeling that the work I did had no meaning. I would have given anything to be there, to be exhausting myself dragging heavy stones to the wall. I would love that life now, love it, but it was gone.

I did the only thing I could. I walked on toward the city. If the stories I had heard were true, it was the only place where I would not be a stranger. I would offer my labour for food. I would learn to imitate the sounds of machines. I would find the man who sang to his mule and hear the end of his song.

© Paul Headrick, 2009