Troubadours ushering in the passage of the King Andéol felt shoved to the side. Before he knew it he was in the alleyway, and the crowd blocked his return to the street.
It would have been easier to scream louder than a waterfall then to fight one’s way back. He shrugged his shoulders and walked down the dark canopied walkway. It was a bleak year and a bleaker month that began the Maying. There was some employment to be had at the festivals and but only if he could juggle it all.
He knew not how he would pay for the rent in his hovel of a room. A miserable cold room in winter, sufferable in the stifling heat of the summer where no circulation of the air was possible in that bleak corner of the house; but in the spring a wonderful room facing the sun in the morning that made all the rest of the year, including the fall’s leaky roof – bearable. He lived for May – the only time of the year he could really make a living. This was his month, that and the memory of Beltane in his youth.
He stopped. Was he lost? The street sounds had died away to a dull roar in the distance. There was no wind, but there was a whine. What was it? An instrument of some sort, he had heard it before, in his youth, no, in his long lost now childhood. A curious wind-driven instrument that had not been seen by anyone around here. He followed the sound. The alley twisted and branched and by the time he had stopped he was already half-lost and now following the meandering path he delved deeper into the labyrinth of the Free Merchant Quarter, with its Armenians, and Jews, Gypsies and the occasional Cathayan.
“The Ethiopian Lamentation” – it stopped him again. It is here Andéol heard the whining curious sound he had not heard for at least four decades. The sign was in black letters, stenciled or painted on a white stucco wall. A large intricate cross was painted next to the words. There was a small window with curtains and opaque glass, and a door, slightly ajar – a wooden door reinforced with metal bars and black with rust nails. A whiff of cinnamon came from within, that and wine and figs. He paused.
Something recalled. Dreams of the long forgotten summer where he recalled horses of the finest stature and the women veiled and dancing, one who played the kebero madly and then took him by the hand into a flowery garden; darkness and the moon in the sky glistening crescent against a starry blackness. A male figure holding a torch, caverns… descending into them by long stairways. Then the seas, the high seas full of salty seclusion in the anonymity of a vast emptiness. Andéol stepped out onto the deck and was about to plunge into the depths of the green and steel water when the sound of a bell woke him from this sense of otherworldliness. He crossed the threshold of hope into the abode of the place.
The room was dim, but some light filtered through the small alley window. There was additional light from the back room with larger windows and a wide open door. The place was filled with jars and barrels – a spice shop, but also with old wine bottles. Dust comingled with pepper, he sneezed. A bearded man with the dark complexion of an African came out. He wore an Arab’s robe and had the Moorish sense of dignity in his bearing. An aquiline face, with eyes sunk deep but glistening with intelligence.
“Blessings in the name of Christ, I am lost…” Andéol began.
“Amen, and may the good news be upon you,” replied the Ethiopian and walked up to the doorway.
“If you are lost, walk down this way,” the merchant said pointing to the left, “and then turn at the iron portcullis, “you will reach the main wall, follow it to the right and you will be at the Damascus Gate, follow it to the left and you will be at Saint Joseph’s.”
“But maybe I am not lost…” Andéol replied, suddenly put off by the immediacy of the possibility for escape.
“If you are not lost, this is a shop, I sell spices, wine and Ethiopian religious artifacts, icons, shawls and the like. I also have some silverware…”
“It is the first of May… my birthday. I was going to take a stroll to the lake, as I always do, but the King has come to visit the Merchant Quarter and the crowd blocked my passage, I suddenly found myself here…”
“An auspicious sign, surely in need of good wine to celebrate the day with…”
“Music… I heard a strange musical instrument that I had not heard since I was a child, is it from here?”
Washint. He remembered suddenly. His heart stopped for an eternity as the Amharic song came back into his ears. It pierced the very depths of his heart – those depths beyond the mind and the gut, there, where the food of the ancients resides. He started to walk as if in a trance towards the sound of the washint in the other room, from the bright lit room beyond; but the merchant stopped him.
“My daughter is in there…” said the merchant, his hand on the chest.
“My apologies,” and he fell to the merchant’s feet, “I am Andéol Marcou de Bayeux, a minstrel-balladist, and I am lost… but I think seeing the washint and hearing it will make me find my way again, please forgive my imprudence and allow me but a moment…”
The merchant, deeply moved helped him up. They looked into each others’ eyes; the merchant’s bearded face to the poet’s clean shaven one. Andéol could now see the Ethiopian’s eyes, they were full of love and admiration but also of profound worry.
“I am Yohannes Qedemi from the city of Ankober, if I let you follow your instincts to hear the sound of the washint up close you will see my daughter playing it and you will see her other instruments as well. She plays the krar and the kissar, she plays the masenqo and the sistrum; for her name is Hathor and her countenance is that of Bast. If you see her, you will fall madly in love with her and there will be no hope for you; you will either die of a broken heart or you will steal my daughter from me. As you are a fellow Christian I cannot let you die if I can help it and as I am a good father, I cannot let just any eager man steal my daughter, my greatest possession from me.”
They stood like that in silence for a while. Andéol realized that he had been led this way, by the silent stirrings of his heart and by the accidents of the day and the chronology of his life. He suspected the same was true of Yohannes. He questioned himself, but as he was a minstrel who was ultimately chance-employed and as the man he was standing next to was a well off merchant, cold reason crept up his spine and prevailed for a moment to snap him out of the hypnosis of the washint. As long as the girl didn’t pick up the kissar and started to sing, he was safe…
“You say she has the countenance of Bast?” Andéol said suddenly and with a dare.
“I do, she is a like one of the wildest cats of the plains; she is a gepard with the skin of a panther, any man would be hard pressed not to drown in her eyes, and find oblivion in the sound of her soothing voice.”
“But can she cook?”
“What a terrible question to ask!”
“If she is Bast, she is a cat, one does not buy a cat in a bag. If I cannot see her, I should know her skills, I am a minstrel not a gambler; the life of a musician is tough enough. It is good that she can play, that would be of use, but what of it? Can she cook, can she sew, is she well trained and a good woman all around, can she clean the house and are her hips made for child bearing?”
Yohannes was aghast. “She is not an object to haggle over, nor is she a beast of burden or a slave girl to look to her wares. You dishonor me, you dishonor my daughter and you dishonor my house.” And with these words the Ethiopian merchant was about to throw Andéol out when the latter stopped him with a few well placed words…
“I do none of that, I am proposing.”
At this, not as surprised as he ought to be, the merchant pulled up a chair, then another one. He walked to his counter and brought two silver goblets and some wine. After he poured them both a drink he drank his cup quick and poured himself another.
“You are a brave man, or a desperate one,” said Yohannes.
“So are you, and God brought us together,” replied Andéol.
“God and the sound of a washint,” said the merchant drinking his wine quick and refilling his goblet again; “I taught my daughter how to play all the instruments myself. I have no other children, only her. She is attractive with the radiance of youth; how she will age, you can decide from a small cameo I have of my wife who passed away a few years ago. I am getting old, and I need help in the store, and if I were to die who would take care of my daughter? Who would protect her?”
“This is indeed a good a point. May is a good month. Though I have no money, and no prospects for year-round employment, I do know how to cook, it is a skill I learned when I was still a child. So, between cooking and music and some exotic spices, maybe we can supplement our income with a tavern.”
“You would not mind an African wife?” asked the Ethiopian merchant examining Andéol’s pale hand in the dim light.
“We are brothers in faith, why should I question what my future wife looks like, if her father is honorable who am I to haggle over the details?” Replied Andéol pointing to the merchant’s heart.
“You will make a lousy merchant, but that can be fixed,” said Yohannes and he reached out his hand, “come meet my daughter, and when you fall in love with her, remember to name your firstborn Tewedross if it is a boy and Mentewab if it is a girl.”
“As long as the wedding takes place in May,” Andéol winked.
They walked through the white door into the large sunlit room and there the traveler found his oasis. She was un-veiled, but looking away from there, and as they walked in her father had announced that he was coming with a prospective husband so she covered herself up immediately. She was very young and very frightened, and she looked at Andéol with hope and at her father with pious filial fright.
At her father’s command the girl unveiled and Andéol did all he could to not sink to his knees, for he recognized her as the girl from his childhood, the one who walked ahead of him through the winding pathways of a long lost now garden filled with flowers. Not knowing his train of thought the young pretty girl smiled at his reaction, thinking he was overly sensitive to her charm, and some of her fight ebbed away.
“What is your name,” Andéol finally asked when he recovered his composure much to the girl’s and the father’s shock. She looked at her father for permission to speak, and he smiled and then nodded.
“My father calls me his Hathor, but my real name is May.”
May 2, 2014