from Cuneiform

Hadjar bore seven children. Aga Akbar was the youngest, and he was born deaf and mute.

She knew it even in the first month. She saw that he didn't react. But she didn't want to believe it. She never left him alone, and no one else was allowed to stay with him for long. For six months she kept that up.

Everyone knew the child was deaf, but no one was allowed to speak of it. Until, finally, Kazem Khan, Hadjar's eldest brother, felt it was time to get involved.

Kazem Khan was a free man whose habit it was to travel through the mountains on horseback. He was a poet who lived alone on a hill outside the village, but always had a woman. In the light of his window, the villagers saw a different woman every time.

No one knew what he did, or where he went on his horse.

When the light was on, people knew he was at home. The poet is home, they said then.

Nothing more was known about him, but when the village needed him he was always there to help. At moments like those he was the voice of the village. When the riverbed suddenly filled and flowed over and the water ran into the houses in the village, he was there on his horse and knew how to stop the flood. When several children had died unexpectedly and the other mothers were fearing for their own, he suddenly appeared on horseback with a doctor behind him. And any bride or groom of the village was honored to have him show up at the wedding.

It was this same Kazem Khan who came riding into Hadjar's courtyard. Without climbing down. he sat in the shade of the old tree and shouted: "Hadjar! My sister!"

She opened the window.

"Welcome, Brother. Why don't you come in?"

"Will you come to me this evening with your child? I want to speak to you."

Hadjar knew that he wanted to talk about her son, and realized she could no longer hide him.

When evening came she bound her child to her back and climbed the hill to the house that the villagers called a fallen jewel among the old walnut trees. Kazem Khan smoked opium, which was generally accepted and even seen as a sign of his poetic nobility.

He had prepared the burner, his pipe was lying in the fresh, warm ash, and the fine slices of yellowish-brown opium were on a plate. The samovar bubbled.

"Take a seat, Hadjar. You can warm up some food for yourself in a bit. Feed your child if you like. What was his name again? Akbar? Aga Akbar?"

Hesitantly, Hadjar handed the child to her brother.

"How old is he? Seven, eight months? Go and eat, I'd like to be alone with him."

She felt a heavy load on her shoulders. She couldn't eat, and she began to weep.

"No, don't cry. Don't act so pitiful. If you hide him away, if you simply give up, you'll make him stupid. For the last six or seven months he's seen nothing, done nothing, he's had no real contact with his surroundings. Everywhere I go in the mountains I come across deaf, mute children. We have to let everyone talk to him. All we need is a language, a sign language. And we'll have to come up with it ourselves. I'll help you. From tomorrow on, you've got to let others to take care of your child as well. Let people make contact with him, each in his own way."

Hadjar took her child into the kitchen. There, once again, she burst into tears. Tears of relief.

Later, after Kazem Khan had smoked a few pipes of opium and was light and cheery, he came and sat beside her.

"Listen, Hadjar. I don't know why, but I feel that I must have something to do with this child's life. I never felt that way about your other children. Especially since their father was that nobleman. And I want nothing to do with him. But before you go, I must tell you a few things, things that are important for your child's future. That nobleman must also know that I am Akbar's uncle."

The next day Hadjar took Akbar to the castle. Never before had she shown one of her children to his father. She knocked on the door of his study and went in, with Akbar in her arms. She stood there for a moment, then laid him on the desk and said: "My child is deaf and mute."

"Deaf and mute? What can I do to help?"

It took a moment before Hadjar could look him straight in the eye. "Let my child bear your name."

"My name?" he asked, then fell silent.

"If you give him that, I shall never come here to ask you for anything again," Hadjar added.

Still the nobleman said nothing.

"You once told me that you favored me, and a few times you said you respected me. You said I could always ask you for what I needed. So now I'm asking you; let my child bear your name. Only your surname. I am not asking for an inheritance. Let Akbar's name be put on paper."

"Feed the child, don't let him cry like that," the nobleman said after a while. Then he stood up, opened the window and shouted to his servant.

"Bring the imam to me. Immediately. I'm waiting."

The imam was not long in arriving. Hadjar had to wait in another room.

The conversation took place behind closed doors. The imam wrote a few lines in his book. Then he drew up a document for the nobleman to sign. It was finished in no time. The imam went home on his mule.

"Here, Hadjar. This is what you asked for. But there is one thing you must not forget. Keep this paper hidden, and keep it a secret. When I die, then you may show it to others."

Hadjar hid the paper under her clothes and tried to kiss his hand.

"You don't have to do that, Hadjar. Go home now. And come see me often. I have always said it, and I say it again. I do favor you, and I will always want to see you."

Hadjar bound her child to her back again and left. As she went down the mountain, she knew that she was carrying a child with an old and important name: Aga Akbar Mahmoodi Gazanvia Gorasani.

The document proved a worthless piece of paper, for when the nobleman died his heirs bribed the village imam to scrap Aga Akbar's name from the will. But that didn't matter, for Hadjar had not expected an inheritance for her child: the name alone was enough. His father was famous, and his roots lay there in that old castle on the mountain at Lalezar.

When Akbar grew up, he married and had children. And although he was a lowly carpetmaker, he remained proud of his lineage. He carried the paper with his long name wherever he went.

Akbar often talked about his father, and especially wanted his son Ismael to know that his grandfather had been an important man, a horseman with a rifle on his back.

The nobleman was killed by a Russian. But exactly who his killer had been, no one knew. Was it a soldier? A policeman? Or a Russian thief who had sneaked across the border? The mountains where Aga Akbar and his forefathers lived were on the border with Russia, at that time a part of the Soviet Union. The southern side belonged to Iran; the northern slopes, with their perpetual deep snow, belonged to Russia. But what that soldier, or the Russian army was doing there in those mountains, no one knew.

The only reminder of the murder was a story that lived on, thanks to Aga Akbar.

Whenever he and his son were home alone, Akbar would tell the story to Ismael, who then had to play the horseman. He himself played the Russian soldier, with a long army coat and a cap with a bright red hammer and sickle.

Ismael rode on a cushion and wore a wooden rifle on his back. Aga Akbar put on his coat and hat and hid behind a big cupboard. A rock on Saffron Mountain.

Now Ismael had to ride his horse. Not too fast, not too slow, but with restraint, like a nobleman. He rode past the cupboard, and at that moment a head appeared. The horseman had to ride on for a few yards, until the soldier jumped out with a knife in his hand. He took two or three giant steps and planted his weapon between the shoulders of the horseman, who fell to the ground dead.

The story was probably based on fantasy, but the death of his mother was one thing Aga Akbar had experienced for himself.

"How old were you when Hadjar died'?" Ismael gestured. But Aga Akbar had no sense of time.

"She died when a flock of strange black birds came to roost in our almond tree," he signed back.

"Strange birds?"

"I had never seen them before."

"But when was that, when those black birds roosted in the tree?" Ismael signed.

"My hands were cold and the tree had no leaves and Hadjar no longer spoke to me."

"No, I mean, how old were you? How, how old were you when your mother died?"

"I, Akbar. My head came up to Hadjar's breast."

He was nine or ten at the time, Kazem Khan told Ismael later. Hadjar lay in bed and was deathly ill. And Akbar crawled under the blankets and held her tight.

"Were you holding your mother when she died?" Ismael gestured.

"Yes, that's right . . . but, how did you know?"

"Uncle Kazem Khan told me."

"I crawled under the blankets. Whenever she was sick, she would talk to me and hold my hand. But she wasn't talking any more, and she didn't move her hand either. I was afraid, very afraid, I stayed under the covers and didn't dare to come out any more. Then someone grabbed me, a hand from outside, and tried to pull me away. I held Hadjar's body tight. But Kazem Khan pulled me away. I cried."

The next day the oldest woman of the family spread a white cloth over Hadjar's face. Men came with a coffin and took her to the graveyard.

Excerpt from Cuneiform copyright © 2000 by Kader Abdolah. Originally published under the title Spijkerschrift by Uitgeverij De Geus, the Netherlands. For further information please see www.degeus.nl.