Lagniappe

 

This page is dedicated to "a little something extra" which will change from time to time according to the prevailing winds. It might be a humor piece or an essay or a poem, or a rant, or a fairy tale, or all of them mixed together. 

The Monument 

      When King Yildiz passed the hundred and fortieth year of his reign, he decided that he was getting old. No longer could he wrestle twelve of his champions at once. No longer could he break the neck of a bull with the edge of his thumb. No longer could he ride for twelve days without rest. He couldn’t even drink all night and not be out of sorts on the morrow, or take three concubines to bed and satisfy them all. He began to reflect on old age and death, to regret the follies of his youth, the precious moments he had wasted. He began to wonder how he would be remembered. 
     “You should have a monument,” said his grand wazir, Yezdigerd. 
     “A monument? I like the idea, Yez. But what sort of monument?” 
     “A statue carved out of a mountainside!” 
     “Too unrefined.” 
     “A palace built in the clouds, constructed of angels’ wings!” 
     “Too ethereal.” 
     “A pyramid greater than the pyramids at Giza!” 
     “Unoriginal.” 
      Yezdigerd subsided. “I’m sorry, my lord. They were only suggestions. I’m not an artist.” 
      “Yes, Yezdigerd!” cried Yildiz. “That’s what I need! An artist!” 
      “My lord has only to command it, and I will bring him a hundred artists.” 
     “I don’t need a hundred artists, but only one. Find me the finest artist in my kingdom, Yezdigerd.” 
     The wazir bowed low. “It shall be as my king commands.” 
      Yezdigerd had not become grand wazir by being a fool. Charged with finding the finest artist in the kingdom, he did not go to his Minister of Mosques, his Minister of Glittering Mosaics, or his Minister of Marble Monstrosities. He went instead among the painters, sculptors, woodworkers, goldsmiths, and weavers of the kingdom. Such folk are not shy in their opinions. But they do tend to somewhat narrow views. Each artist Yezdigerd questioned named the greatest practitioner of his own craft. This might have caused difficulties, save that they all named the same man. The greatest painter, sculptor, architect, even the finest tailor and flower-arranger in the kingdom were apparently all the same man: Zawi ibn Ziri. The wazir proceeded to search for Zawi. 
     He was not an easy man to find. It turned out that Zawi ibn Ziri was a wandering dervish, a man of no fixed abode. It was even more difficult to find evidence of Zawi’s genius. Though magnificent paintings, statues, fountains, mosques, even whole parks had been described by Zawi’s admirers, not even a single clay model or chalk drawing could Yezdigerd unearth. It made him uneasy. 
      Finally he ran the artist to ground in a melon stall only a stone’s throw from the palace. The keeper of the stall had gone home to nurse her sick husband, and Zawi tended the business for her. He had amused himself by arranging the melons in such a truly harmonious manner that they were absolutely irresistible to passersby – which meant that he had to continually rearrange the remaining melons as his stock was depleted. When Yezdigerd passed the stall on an altogether different errand, the lone pristine melon left looked so mouth-watering that he simply had to buy it, and so he met Zawi ibn Ziri. The artist seemed a nice enough fellow, though a bit rough around the edges, as dervishes are apt to be. 


     Yezdigerd asked Zawi about his work, and the dervish mentioned some murals in the mosque of Umar. “I have been in the mosque of Umar. There is nothing there but blank walls!” 
     “That’s true,” answered Zawi. He mentioned some statues he had carved for the tomb of Dinash ibn Tamin, a wealthy merchant. 
     “I have seen his tomb! Nothing but bare granite, without a trace of ornament!” said Yezdigerd. 
     “You are correct,” answered Zawi. He described the gardens of Musa ibn Nusayr, the eminent physician. 
     “Lying dog! The house of ibn Nusayr is surrounded on all sides by sand and gravel!” 
     “No question but you are right, effendi. Would you have me enumerate my sins further?” 
      “Your sins?” Yezdigerd was not far from concluding that the dervish was at best a crank, and possibly a madman. 
      “Aye, effendi. There is only one true Creator, Allah ar Rahim ar Rahman, and anything we little men make is but a lying mockery of the true Creation. Time and again have I given into temptation and indulged in my need to create beautiful things. Men crowded around my work and praised it before Allah, but Allah heeded it not. In my shame and repentance, I’ve destroyed everything I’ve ever made, as soon as I had made it. If you wish to experience my work, I can only say, enjoy your melon.” 
     It wasn’t an answer Yezdigerd appreciated, but the king had demanded the finest artist in his kingdom, and Zawi ibn Ziri was that man. Besides, the melon was excellent. The next day, he presented Zawi to King Yildiz. 
      “You are the finest artist in my kingdom, Zawi ibn Ziri?” asked the king. 
     The dervish bowed low, and apologized. 
     “I am getting old, Zawi.” 
     “The elephant bathes in sand like the sparrow,” answered the dervish. 
     “I will die soon, Zawi.” 
      “The ostrich will eat even stones,” answered the dervish. 
     “I want you to build a monument for me, Zawi ibn Ziri, so men will remember me when I am dead. Will you do this for me?” asked the king. 
     The dervish looked the king up and down. “I will need fifty gardeners,” he said. 
      “They are yours.” 
     “And a hundred masons.” 
     “They are yours.” 
     “Two hundred carpenters.” 
     “They are yours.” 
     “Complete privacy.” 
     “You will be like a community of hermits.” 
     “And ten years’ time.” 
     The king sighed, then nodded his head. “Only remember that I hope to see it before I die.” 
     “There will be time enough for that,” said the dervish. 
      So the king sent Zawi ibn Ziri away to the forest beyond the city with three hundred and fifty workmen, and none of them was seen or heard from for ten years.  
     The years were not kind to King Yildiz. He no longer wrestled with his champions. He drank wine only with his meals. And he entertained his wives with stories of his vanished youth. But his back remained straight, his eyes remained clear, his heart remained sweet. It was his wazir Yezdigerd who had truly aged.             What a shriveled, palsied, winking, blinking, muttering old man on a stick he had become! What a persnickety, crotchety old curmudgeon! Though the kingdom was awash in peace and prosperity, though his daughters grew up like gazelles and gave birth to sons like lion-cubs, Yezdigerd never felt a moment’s peace in ten years’ time, and it was all through worrying and wondering about Zawi ibn Ziri and the monument he was building. What would it be like? Would it be finished on time? Would it be worthy of King Yildiz? It was all very well to say that Zawi was the greatest artist in the kingdom, but who knew if he could even draw a straight line? If Yildiz were displeased, where would the blame fall? On Yezdigerd himself, of course. Oh, Zawi might lose his head because of it, but those dervish fellows hardly seemed to care if they were dead or alive. It was himself who would be forever disgraced if the monument were not perfect in every respect.   
     So ten years went by without a decent night’s sleep for Yezdigerd. At long last he found himself in the middle of the week-long celebration of Yildiz’s one-hundred-fiftieth birthday, a festival that was to culminate in the unveiling of the monument. Now he couldn’t sleep at all. Amid all the feasting, all the toasts, all the fireworks, all the dancing, the thought grew in his mind that the monument was certain to be a disappointment. No, not a disappointment, a disaster. No, a catastrophe. The presentiment grew in his mind with the certainty of tragedy.                 Finally, on the night before the king’s birthday, when everyone in the palace had gone to bed but the servants in the scullery, Yezdigerd got out of bed, woke up his groom, and rode away into the forest. He simply had to see the monument with his own eyes before the king came near it. 
     Riding in a dark forest at night is no occupation for an old man. The horse went round and round till Yezdigerd felt so lost and hopeless that he would have simply laid down and died had not his anxiety over the monument been greater than his despair. He decided to follow the path of the fireflies, till he realized they were not fireflies but will ‘o’ the wisps, so that he almost turned back till he realized they were not will ‘o’ the wisps, but torches. He followed the torchlight till dawn opened up the sky, and the path opened into a garden in the middle of the forest. 
     And what a garden it was! Green and cool and tranquil, wide and luxuriant, laid out so harmoniously that it erased all the fear accumulated over the years and almost restored Yezdigerd to his youth. 
     He was greeted warmly by three gardeners, and he praised their work effusively. “This garden will certainly stand forever as a monument to King Yildiz,” he said.       The gardeners laughed at that. “This isn’t the monument,” they said; “the garden is only meant to put you in the proper frame of mind for viewing the monument. Ride on, if you would see a sight worth seeing.” 
     So Yezdigerd rode on, but the seeds of doubt had been planted once more in his mind. When he reached the center of the garden, however, his doubts were again allayed. There rose up before his eyes an immense dome of snowy marble, so cunningly constructed that it seemed all of one piece, like an eggshell, and covered with hundreds of friezes and standing sculptures, each one itself a masterpiece. He was greeted warmly by three masons, and he praised their work lavishly. 
     “Truly outstanding,” he said, “truly a fitting monument for the greatest monarch the world has ever seen.” 
     But the masons only laughed. “This isn’t the monument,” they said, "but only the casing for it. Enter, if you would see a sight worth seeing.” 
     So Yezdigerd walked in, but the seeds of doubt once more were planted in his mind, and they sprang up and bore fruit as soon as he entered the dome, for in all that enclosed space, all those white walls converging toward heaven, there was -- nothing.
      Not nothing, not exactly. 
      In the very center of the dome, spiraling thinly upwards like a curled wood-shaving, there stood a stair, a stair which seemed impossibly narrow, impossibly delicate, impossibly high. Yezdigerd felt a hot panic, and then a cold fury. He raced to the stair, where three carpenters sat idling on the lowest steps. 
     “Where is your master?” he cried, “Where is Zawi ibn Ziri?” 
     Two of the carpenters ignored him. The third merely pointed upward. 
     Yezdigerd followed the pointing finger, craning his neck back as far as he could, but he couldn’t see the top of the stairs. He sighed a weary sigh, and began to climb. The stairs corkscrewed halfway to heaven. Yezdigerd had to stop and rest several times, but fear prodded him onward and upward -- the king would be coming soon. The stair became narrower and narrower, till he began to fear that it would simply come to a point, and he would either fall off or be impaled upon the point. 
     Then all at once, he was at the top. He teetered on a small platform, barely large enough for three or four men, with no wall or railing at all. Below him spread the great white dome, the wide green garden, the shadowy forest. Not two feet away was Zawi ibn Ziri, completely oblivious to his presence, jumping up and down, waving what looked like a red flag. Was he signaling someone? Zawi ibn Ziri looked not down at the earth, but up at the sky. Was he signaling the angels? It could only be the madness. 
     “Zawi ibn Ziri!” called the wazir, and he could hear the rising hysteria in his own voice, “the king is coming! What about your promise? Where is the monument?” 
     The dervish continued to wave his ragged flag up and down. “I’m just finishing it,” he said calmly. “What do you think?” He stared at the wazir with the unembarrassed grin and the blank bulging eyes of a madman. 
     Yezdigerd knew that his worst fears were realized. All was lost. He took the artist by the shoulder and said to him sadly: “Go down, now, Zawi ibn Ziri, go down. The king will arrive soon. There’s no hope that you will live, but if you throw yourself upon his mercy, you may not be tortured too terribly before your death. Go down, Zawi.” 
     The dervish nodded his head, still with that blank look in his eyes. “The melons are ripe,” he said, and went down. 
     Yezdigerd watched him descend. Zawi ibn Ziri lurched and staggered going down, placing his feet any which way, so that he almost fell off the stair several times. Then he sat down on his bony bottom and bounced his way down, one step at a time. The wazir watched in mounting disbelief. “Mad, and drunk into the bargain!” he said to himself. 
      Then he heard the trumpets of the king in the distance, and he sat down on the platform to cry. His ruin was complete. Soon he would have to face Yildiz, his beloved monarch, with no monument at all, only the sun and the morning air.              Presently he heard the king and his retinue upon the stair. He didn’t even dare look up. 
     “Yezdigerd, here before me, my faithful friend!” It was the king’s voice. There was silence for a while, and then: “Yes. Magnificent. It’s everything I hoped for, and more than I dared dream.” 
     “My lord?” asked the wazir dumbly. He looked up at Yildiz, who had obviously been taken mad as well, for the king was staring with undisguised admiration at a monument which simply was not there. 
     “Well done, Yezdigerd. Go down and fetch Zawi ibn Ziri to me. I met him as he was coming down the stair. I must thank him in person, and decide how to reward him, though I don’t know what reward would be adequate, unless he wishes to be king after me. Go down, Yezdigerd.” 
     The wazir arose in a dream and descended the stair. His eyes were blinded with tears, and his step was the step of a very old man indeed. He felt so dizzy that at length he was forced to sit down on the steps and bounce his way down just as the dervish had done. And so he came to the point, almost half-way down, where Zawi had stopped. Yezdigerd plopped down next to his artist. 
     “Well?” asked Zawi ibn Ziri. “The king – approves.” The artist nodded his head vigorously, smiling from ear to ear. “And I don’t need to feel guilty about it.”               “Guilty?” 
     “It will destroy itself every night, and a new one take its place.” 
     “Hm … I see. Well, the king wants you to come up. He wants to thank you, to honor you.” 
     “If the king wants to thank me, he’ll have to come down. I will never go up again.” 
      “Not go up? The king commands it!” 
     “Nevertheless, I can’t go up.” He stared at the wazir and pointed to his blank eyes. 
     “Blind as a bat, I’m afraid.” 
     Yezdigerd stared at the artist now. He felt a prickling along the back of his neck, and a sudden chill. 
     “Master,” he asked slowly, “when I came upon you at the top of the stair, what were you doing?” 
     “Polishing it.” 
     “It?” 
     “It.” 
     “It? What is it?” 
     “The monument, of course. What monument other than that would be fit for the greatest king the world has seen?” 
     “Other than?” 
     “The sun.”


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