A DERVISH WEARY OF WALKING in circles over the hot sands of the desert used to bring his vagrant body to the first hardy haloxylon shrub or moist tamarisk which invited him into its slim and fragile shade, and from inside that shelter he used to shut his bright red eyes, and then the heat of his body, beating like the taut skin of a kettledrum, would cool from a sheer lack of strength, and also as the only possible response to the weak wind wafting in from under the distant wing of a late-morning, wandering wasp.
Then he would try to nudge himself gently along behind that lady wayfarer of a wasp, and only the first step into the air felt like falling; the empty place under his heart used to shift soundlessly, or more precisely it would slacken, loosen like a saddlebag with its ties undone, pouring out sand onto the desert—but he would need to keep his balance, to navigate the elastic currents of air at his belly and between the soles of his feet. He would need to then either cross his legs under him to coax out of the surface currents and spirals a stubborn, sparse coolness, or straighten out to his full length, his flexible feet paddling towards the small, far-off point where that temptress the wasp, in free flight, as if borne on the fine whiskers of the force of gravity, had already disappeared….
One day, as he pitched through the flexible strands of the afternoon air, sensing the rhythms the air made as it struck his feet, the dervish heard not the warm, familiar whistling of a butterfly’s pollinated wings flapping as it frolicked in the springtime, but rather a long, throaty scream let out into the air in a rhythm just suited to his abrupt, high leaps. His whole being yearned to turn in that direction, and his body, obedient, worked to follow it. The sound was swelling louder, and first it took the form of a swan; but it was a seagull, like a rainbow arching through the pure air, its calls penetrating like a lance through the secluded places. The wildness of that loneliness startled him, and drew him closer in. In his lifetime, the dervish had never seen a bird as free as he was himself, and just like the dervish, the bird was soaring on the long, narrow strands of air, and at that the dervish, enchanted, also wanted to float through the springtime heavens, but he lost count of the strata of air underneath him as he hesitated over the bottomless blue depths. And he saw that under him was not the blue of the sky, but of the ocean.
The dervish suddenly knew that to be so, once the bird perched on the sandy shore; and the dervish was amazed to see that the desert, in its vastness, housed another, unexpected element: here the waters of the sea gathered in heaps, just like the waves of the sand. He walked behind the bird along the sandy shore, and he read the inscriptions printed by the gull’s narrow feet in the moist sand, and gazed upon the designs in the pearly shells, and beheld the calligraphy of the seaweed. Now the soles of his feet, accustomed to the weightlessness of the air, felt burdened by the water seeping up from under the heavy, dense sand. The waves rumbled in the distance.
Just before the sun set, the sand brought him to an inlet. There, fig and persimmon trees were growing. Tall, stately cypresses stood guarding them, and to let his face catch the friendly, wayward sun, the dervish sat down beneath a fig tree. But the sun slid across his joyful face, then chose its own habitual refuge, though it was true that it became entangled in the tattered rags of the clouds that had long ago gone limp; but just then, its evil twin the moon started out on just the same journey, and as it crested the peak of its path, brushing right past the very tallest cypress, the dervish heard a folk song, emanating from inside the frothy waves of the sea. Alert as ever, he turned toward that sound, which was a voice like a bell around the neck of a lost goat wandering the desert, but the voice disappeared, leaving behind only fragile, heart-shaking threads. Yet the air seemed too thin to set them jangling.
The sweet ache of that missing voice lasted for a short while, and then the sound of that song, like a fine jewel, began again. The full moon was reflected twice over, in the sky and on the water, and there, up to her waist in water, stood an astonishingly beautiful maiden combing her hair, while the waves moved as if to pull that wide-spreading hair out to sea. A black cat walked, humming, in circles. Small golden fish, startled by the black cat’s shadow, scattered in commotion and confusion along the black face of the water. The dervish was spellbound, and as he leaned back against the fig tree, he wished this miracle could go on forever, just like the black sea, emerging from the pitch black sky and returning to it.
The dervish cast his gaze toward the water, and the little golden fish swam across his moist eyes, and they set his ears ringing; and then a clamoring began as of dozens of ringing bells, and then, with a splash of—oh, Allah!—long, fishy tails!—forty mermaid sisters materialized on the surface of the waves, and they moved in an ancient circle dance around the one, lone mermaid, who sent her gentle waves out toward them all.
On this two-mooned night (and this night was their Night of Destiny), when the mermaids enraptured men to come to their side and captured their souls, either transforming themselves into women or remaining fish in the sea, sly and slippery as ever—on this double-mooned and destiny-filled night, the mermaids took into their arms the dervish dozing under the fig tree, thanks to the sharp smell of the steppe which radiated off him and clashed strangely with the salty scent of the ocean. The mermaids brought him before their queen.
“Who are you, and what do you seek?” she asked, her hair rippling like the waves themselves around her. The dervish did not know what to say. After all, as he had always followed the fate written on his brow by God, and traveled the paths suitable to the currents of the world, he had never known, before now, what a question was. Even now his heart, free of doubts, like a shawl with no knots, had led him to this place, and he was following his heart along the currents of his path. And then, how to make sense of the impetus that had led him here? How to unravel the push to the future that lay hidden before him in the mermaid’s question? What was past had passed, the future was unknown, or more precisely, if someone knew it, it was not him; and for that reason, the dervish chose to remain mute. In that moment of silence, his eyes took in the mermaid’s free-flowing hair, her cold arms and neck, her two breasts round as bubbles, dripping with water, her navel, deep as a passage back to ancient times—or, in a word, he beheld things that could occupy and fill the silence that reigned as he stood mystified at how to emerge out of that last question.
But this evening, the dervish did not choose the mermaid queen. This night was indeed the mermaids’ Night of Destiny, and on the ground and over the water of that two-mooned night, the mermaids drew in and intoxicated two-legged men, and hoped to perhaps, in melding with them, bring forth some muscular roe of their hips and peel the scales away from their skin or, on the contrary, transform again into hideous, bug-eyed fish, slipping off to the black muteness of the bottom of the sea. No, instead, the dervish looked to another.
He chose a mermaid who was sitting and burying herself in the sand to be his own confidant and companion for this night of love and fornication. She was unmoved by this night, and she looked upon these lovelorn mermaids not so much as competitors, but as sisters. Their conversation started at a very far-off point, and neither the mermaid nor the dervish intended to be the first to show their interest. And this conversation, surrounded by the single mermaids swimming in an envious circle around them, was wondrous. First, the genteel politesse of this mermaid provoked the dervish’s anger. She never violated the boundaries of the innocent patterns she had learned, though the dervish was trying to cleave through these slippery bubbles; the very attempt revealed more about him than about her, and the mermaid remained firmly within the boundaries of her clever eloquence; she spoke word after word, and she described how she had not kept her very first human soul for herself, but rather presented it to her own infant, who now lived among human beings. As they conversed, the mermaid dined upon some seaweed, and the dervish, in the meantime, was preparing a new question. He knew where they were going, but every new question he attached to his hook could, at any minute, backfire on him; he could have drowned in the obliterating depths of that clever conversation.
But that evening the dervish, not hiding his eyes, learned the price of love: a wandering man’s legs. At that, he looked at his own sturdy limbs, relaxing under the water, and then he realized it was not he himself, but rather his legs, that were the part of his body that preserved the sense of the sand and air, the plants and the bottom of the sea, the rocks and the mud, and he knew then that walking and wayfaring were more valuable to him than passion.
For another hour, without revealing their hidden intentions, they sat in conversation, and then, using the evening prayers as an excuse, he told the mermaid he would pray for her child, too, and he returned to his old fig tree.
He gave praise to Allah, but his runaway thoughts fled back to the mermaid. However much he strove to take shelter in the good and merciful bosom of the Almighty, it seemed the same amount of force was impelling his furious red eyes to return to the bosom of the mermaid, and the scaly armor descending downward from it.
He wavered between God and the mermaid, and hastily he finished up his prayer, which had now transformed into a curse; and suddenly he saw that the mermaid had come to join him under the fig tree, praying awkwardly for her son. The disgust already born in him from her artificial answers again infuriated the dervish, but in the moonshade under the fig tree, the scent of her body, so near, overcame that disgust. He touched the mermaid’s body with his hand and caressed her smooth skin, and asked, “So, you have come?”
“Yes, and what of it?” she answered him.
“Will you stay with me?”
Now he was asking the questions, now he was the one who found himself constrained by doubt, and for that reason, the mermaid seemed to understand his questioning mood; and what was to happen next, between them, in the sea and there under the nighttime shelter of the fig leaves, took on a completely different aspect, because as he was buried in doubt, the mermaid doubted, too, and that must have been why she cautiously touched the dervish’s legs, and asked, “Do you mean it?”
It was not the dervish’s heart but his legs, so accustomed to their own dimensions, which unexpectedly ached at the crossing of this boundary, and with the caution of a clerk drawing up the accounts, he asked, “What if, instead of my legs, I give you my two arms?”
“No. That is unacceptable.”
“Both my arms and an eye?”
“No, only the legs.”
“Only the legs!”
“All right, just this one leg, for half the love….”
Such a laughable, meaningless offer. Swatting that very leg with her strong tail, the mermaid moved swiftly to the sea, and there her sisters were busy loving each other, the choppy surface of the black water glowing with their golden scales.
The dervish was at ease with his own shame. The shame was now irrevocably mixed up in the pit of doubt. Now he returned one more time to pray again to the Loving Spirit who, in his everlasting exile, had always been free of shame; and the dervish paused, for ten cool minutes, behind a sand dune, and then at once, as he emerged, he walked back to the sea. All around him the mermaids were swimming, some alone, some in pairs, and others already in the form of ugly fish, before their return to the uninhabited depths. He was looking, among them, for the beloved witness to his own wavering disgrace.
The full moon sank down beneath the horizon of the sea, and the night seemed to be entering a night of its own. Or perhaps it was the morning twilight by the time the mermaid appeared in her usual way, with shellfish and seaweed visible between her lips. He waved to her like an old friend, and the mermaid returned his greeting with a smile. The dervish did not move to meet her, but instead approached their leader. The queen was still dispatching waves of vexation all around her, and she was charming, but in that charm there was some sort of bare-naked shamelessness, as much as any body shamelessly stripped bare.
“And now what do you wish?” asked the queen.
“For you to send her to join with me!” said the dervish boldly, and these empty words only proved his previous feelings. He spun about and strode away from the sea. Again he moved through a circle of shame, and all of them saw it and understood it, especially those eyes which thrust their gaze, like hooks on a line, into the dervish’s back…. The dervish could smell the meat hooked on the line he had cast, and he strode off over the drying sand towards the cypress standing guard in the distance.
As the dervish was praying in bewilderment, she came. The dervish met her with open arms, but she slipped from his hands and sat down on the sand. “Are you still unable to overcome your lust?” she asked.
Could this be an unanswerable question? Because a confirmation would be too little, but a denial would very much resemble a confirmation. In response, he attempted a kiss in the mermaid’s tangle of hair, and soon enough, everything the dervish had amassed, in all his years and all his travels, disappeared, and all of a sudden he said it—“I love you.”
All the meaning of this phrase was evident in the stress he placed on each word. He started it all with his own self, of course, and the “you” was much quieter, just an afterthought, attached haphazardly to the verb, the love. Realizing that in an instant, he hurried to add the words the mermaid was waiting to hear. “And I am prepared to give you both my legs. That is what you asked, I believe?” His hands held the mermaid’s cold waist, then moved lower, sliding over her thighs, but when he moved to pull his hands in towards himself, he felt scales pushing back against his movements.
“Yes. But now I don’t want to,” said she, simply and unexpectedly.
“How is that?” asked the dervish, confused. “Why? How is that?”
“Because,” said the mermaid, in a manner just as stupid and self-assured, as if taking refuge again in the clever eloquence of their prior conversations.
“What does that mean?” he asked, trying to penetrate through his own confusion, while at the same time pressing his lips to her belly. The mermaid resisted neither the question nor the kiss, instead leaving him with his torment and yearning.
“You know, I…. I need to go. They are waiting for me.”
“Who? The purple seaweed and the shellfish?” He fired those bitter words sarcastically in the mermaid’s direction.
“Listen, sit a while with me anyway.”
“No, I need to go,” she answered, and she blew him a quick kiss goodbye, and with a flick of the tail she landed in the water, leaving just a breath of salty vapor and a grit of sand between the dervish’s teeth. That was all that remained of her.
He sat for a long time under the fig tree, not understanding what had happened. His sore head was spinning, and he let his tousled hair hang down over his legs, which seemed to have had no use and no value for some time now in that pre-dawn desert; what passed through the dervish’s heart then is something known only to himself and to Allah, and maybe to the mermaid, too, who had vanished at that hour when the black and white threads dividing the sea from the sky could not possibly be distinguished. But whatever he may have been thinking, just as it happens at that hour in the desert when the sun sinks its teeth into the plum of the sky, the dervish started to tear and claw at his own legs, until, whether from the pain passing out through him, or the shame of it, or out of love, he wailed out loud. It was this great wailing, from the very center of his heart, which finally jolted him awake.
The sun was setting over the sand, and the first early-evening serpent to emerge scrambled away from the dervish’s feet and buried itself under a heap of sand at his side; as it darted away it shed its rattling silver scales, and the haloxylon shrub, crooked and blind, shuddered as it passed.
Translated from the Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.