Fiction: Patricia Robertson

Patricia Robertson (MA Creative Writing ‘83) is the author, most recently, of The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. The title story was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. Her first collection of fiction, City of Orphans, was nominated for the British Columbia Book Prizes. She has served as writer-in-residence across Canada.

 

THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER

It was the fourth day of Ramadan and the calligrapher’s daughter sat, as she always did, with her qalams of sharpened reed, her inks of soot and copper sulphate bound with wine, her burnished paper. From the kitchen came her sisters’ chatter and the smell of harira, the dish that would break their fast that evening. As the youngest she ought to be among them, chopping and stirring, measuring and tasting, but the calligrapher’s daughter was exempt from such chores. From the age of two, when she had traced, with her finger, the whorls and flourishes of her father’s manuscripts, he had treated her as his apprentice. He taught her how to hold the pen, gave her scraps of paper on which to practise. —Look! he had said then.

—She is in love, as I was! Her sisters muttered to each other about sorcery, enchantment, other dark spells.

—She is the pearl of my old age, their father answered. And when people said Lesou alhaz, what a misfortune, the calligrapher has only daughters, he replied —Allah, praise be unto Him, has consoled me with a daughter with talent.

At seven the calligrapher’s daughter was writing letters for her neighbours. At twelve she began transcribing her first Qur’an. At fourteen she received her first commission: a suite of poems by the magnificent fourteenth-century Grenadine poet Ibn al-Khatib, to be transcribed on gazelle’s vellum and presented as a wedding gift from a Fez princeling to his bride. When not working she spent hours in her father’s library, which held a Qur’an that was said to have once belonged to the great Baghdad scholar Ya‘qūb ibn Ishāq al-Kindī. Its pages were stained with salt and ocean spray, its binding frayed, but merely to hold it, or so the calligrapher’s daughter believed, was to feel inspiration from the Divine Radiance flowing into one’s fingers. Its anonymous creator, whoever she was—for the calligrapher’s daughter was certain it was a woman—deserved, of course, no credit, as her father had long ago taught her. All credit belonged to Allah, who had sent the Qur’an to humankind as a talisman of the Hidden Book known only to the Lord of the Worlds Himself. For, as the Qur’an said —If all the trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas more were ink, the Words of God could not be written out to the end.

Now, on the fourth day of Ramadan, the calligrapher’s daughter was beginning the most important commission she had ever undertaken—that of a Qur’an for the Sultan himself. It was to be a gift from the grand vizier of the court, to be presented three months hence on the fifth anniversary of the Sultan’s victory over the Portuguese at the battle of Ksar El Kebir, when he had vanquished five hundred ships and eighteen thousand men, with nine thousand dead and the rest taken prisoner. An almost impossible period of time in which to complete the work, yet it was difficult to concentrate with her stomach gurgling from hunger. The calligrapher’s daughter picked up one of her pens, dipped it into the pot of gold ink, and began drawing an arabesque within one of the shamsahs, the little suns that illuminated the margins. While she worked it was as though her father sat beside her, guiding her hand, murmuring instructions about the pressure of the pen, the angle of the nib, the purity of the letters. —Handwriting, he had told her when she was still small, is jewellery by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect. It is also brocade woven by the reed pen with the thread of understanding. He himself was too old, now, to do the work—his hand shook, his sight had dimmed—but every day he came to inspect her own, to hold it up against the light that entered through the narrow window. —Yes, daughter, here on this page you have achieved perfection, he would say. —The perfection, that is, that Allah allows us to claim, though all our work is imperfect compared to His. Sometimes he took a pen and deliberately marred one of the still-wet letters, making her cry out—she couldn’t help it.

—Perfection is for Allah only, he always said. —Let us remain humble by never forgetting.

—Handwriting may be jewellery and brocade, her sister Sa’aida said, but when the time comes I want my wedding dress woven of real silk, not words. Even if they are from the Qur’an. A statement that had scandalized everyone else, though the calligrapher’s daughter merely smiled. Wedding dresses, no matter how finely woven, fell apart, but the words of the Qur’an lasted forever.

*

At sunset every day the calligrapher’s daughter laid aside her pens and joined her family for the evening meal. The others laughed, recounted the latest gossip, teased each other, but the calligrapher’s daughter sat silent, filled with the words she had been transcribing. —Another serving, sister? her eldest sister said, and added mockingly, Even you cannot live on words alone.

Afterwards the calligrapher’s daughter returned to her table and worked by lamplight far into the night. Her father cautioned her against spoiling her eyes, but the truth was she had no choice if she was to complete the task in the time allowed. She prayed for a steady hand and a pure heart. One could not rush, especially when transcribing the very words that the Prophet himself had uttered, peace be upon him. Still, human deadlines—and especially those of a sultan—had also to be respected. Besides, the household depended on her earnings, now that her oldest sister was a widow and the husband of the second-oldest was ill. Apart from her four sisters and three brothers-in-law there were eight grandchildren, the youngest a mere few weeks’ old. She had a feeling about this youngest, a girl named Maryam after her grandmother. The calligrapher’s daughter could already see, in the baby’s fat fingers, the potential for holding a qalam as though she had been born for nothing else.

*

On the nineteenth day of Ramadan, after sunset, the grand vizier himself paid a call. His arrival sent all the women into a frenzy of preparation. Tea must be made and served in the ornate pot kept for special guests, sweetmeats chosen and set out on a tray, the vizier’s horse stabled, his servants given something to eat. The calligrapher’s daughter heard all the commotion outside but paid no attention. She had long ago learned to resist the temptation of the streets. She continued working steadily even when the grand vizier entered the room, accompanied by her father leaning on his staff.

—No, no, the grand vizier said as her father, scandalized, urged her to cover her face and rise. —I see she is hard at work, and the deadline is short. He bent over the table and scrutinized the page she was working on, where the heading of Surah 68, The Pen, was enclosed in a glowing rectangle of gold, crimson, and blue. —Magnificent, he murmured. —Truly, you are guided by the hand of Allah, as Zayd ibn Thabit himself must have been.

There was no greater compliment than to be compared to the Scribe of the Prophet. The calligrapher’s daughter bowed her head as her father said —Really, your honour, you are too kind, much too kind. My daughter is young still, she has not come into her full powers, she—.

—Then she will astound the world when she does, the grand vizier said sharply, and turned on his heel. At the door he said —An extra hundred gold benduqi if you can complete it a week early. I should like to have it displayed at the Palace for all to see.

—An extra hundred benduqi! her father muttered after the vizier was gone. —The man cannot be a true Muslim to speak so. Perhaps he is a convert.

The calligrapher’s daughter said nothing, but a quiet pride filled her. She must be careful, she knew, not to let such praise go to her head. Still, it was gratifying to receive such approval when she was still young enough to savour the sweetness. Her father had been well into middle age before receiving his rightful due for his skills. —What a shame, one of her sisters had said then, that Allah sends almonds to those without teeth.

*

The completed Qur’an was indeed delivered early to the vizier. It was presented to the Sultan in an elaborate ceremony, to which the calligrapher’s daughter, as a woman, was not invited. The next day it was displayed on a silk cushion on a marble table in one of the visiting rooms of the palace, and thousands lined up to see it. A messenger in a glittering turban arrived on horseback at the calligrapher’s house, bearing a purse with one hundred benduqi in it in addition to the fee the calligrapher’s daughter had already been promised. She gave the money to her father for distribution to the household, retaining for herself only enough to buy new pens and more copper sulphate.

A week later another messenger arrived. He bore a scroll with the Sultan’s seal on it, addressed to the calligrapher’s daughter herself, commanding her to appear at the palace after Friday prayers. The calligrapher’s daughter re-rolled the scroll with trembling fingers. What was the purpose of this command, addressed to her, a mere scribe, and a woman at that? Had her work displeased the Sultan after all? He was known to be capricious, mercurial, someone who did not suffer fools gladly. The palace, so it was said, held three hundred and fifty rooms, lavishly decorated with ivory, gems, and cedar wood, a pool made of Italian marble and gold, and vast gardens where fountains played. And also an underground tunnel leading to a jail where thousands of prisoners were held captive.

On Friday a troop of the Sultan’s own royal guard arrived to escort her to the palace. Her sisters, who had helped choose the kaftan she was to wear, trilled and fluttered, but the calligrapher’s daughter thought only of how she might never see them again. She squeezed little Maryam tightly and bent low over her father’s hand. —A great honour, my daughter, her father murmured, though she thought she caught a flicker of anxiety in his voice. She took with her her pens and inks and paper, in case his majesty commanded her to write something there and then.

At the palace she was led through room after room, each more dazzling than the last. She was almost dizzy with its splendours when she was shown into a small alcove hidden behind a plain curtain. There, seated on a cushion on the floor, was a man dressed in a simple brown djellaba, a Qur’an open in front of him on a cushion. Could this really be the Sultan? He motioned her to a low stool nearby. The calligrapher’s daughter sank on to it, trembling.

—I come here daily, the Sultan told her, to remind myself that I am a mere servant of Allah, like other mortals, though I rule a sultanate and own five thousand slaves. I come to be reminded of The Knower of All, Whose mysteries have no end. And the first mystery is this: Why did The Hidden One give such power as you possess to a woman?

—Your Majesty, the calligrapher’s daughter stammered, but the Sultan waved a hand. —Of course you do not know. Only The Knower knows. Then tell me this: Why is it that the Qur’an you prepared, all honour be to The Glorious One, dazzles me so much I cannot look at it?

Again the calligrapher’s daughter found herself stammering.

—I keep it on a lectern by my bed, the Sultan went on. —And when I wake in the night, it glows with a strange light, and the letters blaze like letters of fire. Who taught you such craft?

The calligrapher’s daughter stared at him, unable to answer. The Qur’an, in her own humble estimation, was certainly the most beautiful she had ever made, blasphemy though it might be to think so, yet in her own hands it had never glowed and blazed in the way the Sultan described. —Perhaps, she finally murmured, what you are seeing is a pale reflection of the Light Itself, Your Majesty.

The Sultan was silent for a long time. —Last night, he said slowly, this is the surah that blazed out at me: If someone kills another person—unless in retaliation for someone else or for causing corruption in the earth—it is as if he had murdered all mankind. And if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he had given life to all mankind. The Sultan raised his eyes. —Tell me, was it you who arranged that this surah should be emphasized above all others?

The calligrapher’s daughter was so terrified she couldn’t speak. She shook her head and opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

—I see you have brought your instruments with you, the Sultan said softly. —I will have a room prepared for you where you may work. You will be my guest until you can answer my question.

*

Her family understood her new situation to be the greatest of honours. The calligrapher’s daughter, however, understood that she was a prisoner, even if her cell was the most luxurious room she had ever seen. What answer could she give the Sultan? If a certain surah blazed like fire, that was the will of Allah—it had nothing to do with her. Perhaps the Sultan’s guilty conscience was driving him mad. Perhaps the souls of the many who had died in battle hovered round him at night, erupting into his dreams.

The calligrapher’s daughter sat at her desk day after day, with her pens and inks and paper, but her talent seemed to have deserted her. Either she smeared the ink, or she chose the wrong pen, or the paper itself seemed to resist her. She tried prayer and rest and fasting. Nothing worked. She took to walking in the palace gardens, among the groves of lemon and myrtle, the cooing of doves and the splash of the fountains. She saw arabesques in the grape vines, and dazzling shamsahs if she glanced upward at the sun. Perhaps the praise had gone to her head after all, and she was being reminded that The Shaper of Beauty Himself was in charge, not her. Hadn’t He created the first pen, after all, and commanded it to write?

She was sitting by a fountain one day when she saw a figure dressed in white strolling through a grape arbour in the distance. As the figure came closer she saw it was a man—a Christian, no less, judging by the green fleur-de-lysed cross embroidered on his white mantle. He could only be one of the Sultan’s prisoners. She flung her veil across her face, a movement that must have attracted his attention, because he started and then bowed low. —My apologies, Your Highness, for intruding on your solitude here. The sun was in my eyes, I failed to see you. He bowed again and began to withdraw, but the calligrapher’s daughter put out a hand.

—You are not intruding at all, sir. Nor am I a member of the royal court. I am a prisoner, like you.

The man—young and fair-haired and bearded in the Christian manner—stared at her. —You, Your Highness? He spoke Arabic surprisingly well, though with an accent. —But you…. He shook his head, baffled.

—I am a calligrapher. I was commissioned to produce a—she hesitated at the thought of pronouncing the name of the Divine Book in an infidel’s presence—a gift for the Sultan.

Unfortunately I displeased him. So here I am.

—And I—the Christian again gave one of those peculiar bows—I am Frei João Álvares of the Knights of St. Benedict of Avis, taken prisoner in battle on the fourth of August, 1578. He gave a huge sigh, and the calligrapher’s daughter fancied that she saw the glitter of tears in his eyes. —The one where our young king himself was slain, God have mercy on his soul.

As he crossed himself, his head bent, the calligrapher’s daughter averted her face and spoke to the myrtle hedge. —Surely, sir, your compatriots will ransom you?

—The Portuguese treasury has been emptied in our attempts to ransom all the prisoners, Frei João Álvares replied wearily. —My own hopes must rest instead on my fellow knights, and on Our Lord and Saviour, whom I serve.

The calligrapher’s daughter shuddered. Still, the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, had urged that all peoples of the Book be treated with respect, even if they chose to ignore the latest revelation. This man had been a prisoner for over five years. He might never see his native land again.

—Your Sultan has been most gracious, Frei João Álvares went on. —He allows me to worship in my own way and to have the full use of his libraries, which contain many Christian books. But all I wish for is the sight of the spires of Santa Maria Maior towering over the roofs of Lisbon, where I will give thanks to the Virgin for my safe deliverance.
But surely this handsome young man had a wife whom he also missed? Frei João Álvares smiled. —I am a friar. A kind of— He floundered about for the right word in Arabic. —I have taken vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience. I serve only God and Christ.
The calligrapher’s daughter had heard of this peculiar habit of Christians, that of celibacy. Such a renunciation of joy could only have been devised by men who worshipped a man nailed to a cross. Still, deluded as he was, this man’s future, like her own, depended on the whim of the Sultan. They might have been two flies trapped together in a spider’s web.

—You have been most gracious, Frei João Álvares said, but I am wearying you with my misfortunes. Let me, in recompense, ask if I might bring you a book from the Sultan’s library. Some light reading, perhaps, that will help pass the time—
The calligrapher’s daughter shook her head. She had no wish for anything but the Qur’an itself.

—Surely there is something I can bring you, Frei João Álvares said.

—Perhaps … She hesitated, not wishing to have the Sultan’s attention drawn to her. —Yes, she said at last, boldly, there is something. If I might see the famous Pearl Qur’an they say the Sultan’s ancestors brought with them when they were expelled from Al-Andalus….

There—she had said it. She wondered if Frei João Álvares would object, but he merely bowed again. —As you wish, he said. —I will request the Sultan’s permission.

This time the sun was in the eyes of the calligrapher’s daughter, and when she looked again he had disappeared.

*

Permission came a few days later, delivered in the form of a note written by the Sultan’s secretary and delivered on a silver tray incised with gold. The note ordered her to follow the slave who brought it. He guided her through the many rooms of the palace to a separate wing, where two guards stood at attention in front of huge doors made of cedar, carved with peacocks and birds-of-paradise. One of the guards unlocked the doors with a massive key fastened to his belt and swung them wide.

The calligrapher’s daughter stood there dumbfounded. Stretching away into the distance was row upon row of shelves, each one rising from floor to ceiling, containing what must be thousands of books and scrolls and manuscripts. A domed ceiling of azure blue sat above it all like a lid on a sugar bowl, only the sweetness this bowl held was for the eyes and the mind. Half-dazed, the calligrapher’s daughter stepped across the threshold.  Surely she was dreaming. She wandered up and down the shelves, not daring to touch anything.

At last she came to the section that held religious treatises, including several illuminated Qur’ans under lock and key. On a nearby table an old leather case had been set out on a cushion, a magnifying glass and a wooden page-turner beside it, evidently for her use. She sat down reverently. —Subhan’Allah, she muttered under her breath, and opened the case.

From the first glorious pages to the last, she had never beheld such a magnificent Qur’an. Written in the Maghribi script of Al-Andalus, it was both familiar and strangely exotic, bringing tidings of a lost world that must have been much closer to God. Whether it was the quality of the ink or the smoothness of the paper or the richness of the ornamentation, the calligrapher’s daughter did not know, only that no one in her own fallen age could ever produce a Qur’an like this one. She turned the pages in increasing despair. What was the point of her own work, compared to this? When she came to the last page she closed the book gently, returned it to its case with infinite care, and stumbled out of the library.

The sun had set, but the calligrapher’s daughter barely noticed. Nor did she notice the magnificence of the rooms as she was led back to her own, where she threw herself on her divan. Clearly her life was over. There was no point in being a calligrapher when the most exquisite Qur’an ever created by human hands already existed. But if she wasn’t a calligrapher, what was she?

She had lived for naught. She was being punished twice over for her overweening pride. She lay there tearless in the darkness, too anguished even to mutter one of the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah.

*

All the next day she sat in the gardens, where the lemon trees had lost their colour and the fountains themselves had turned to ash. Toward evening she heard someone say, O calligrapher’s daughter, and looked up. It was Frei João Álvares. Had the Sultan kept his promise to his Christian prisoner and allowed her into his library?

To Frei João Álvares’s surprise and horror, the young Muslim woman began to weep. What had happened? For a long time she could not speak. At last she said, in a voice so low he had to bend to hear her —He who wants will have nothing, and he who desires nothing will have everything.

—Forgive me, said Frei João Álvares politely, but I’m afraid I don’t—

—I wanted to create the world’s most beautiful Qur’an. I thought it was to honour Allah, but now I see it was to gain acclaim for my talents. Now I have witnessed a Qur’an that surpasses anything I will ever be capable of.

—May I? said Frei João Álvares, and sat down beside her on the bench, taking care not to touch her kaftan. —If you will permit me, I should like to tell you a story.

The young woman gulped back her sobs and nodded.

—Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a young man of my own order, a Knight of St. Benedict, who dedicated his life to producing illuminated copies of the Bible. Frei João Álvares noticed that the young woman seemed to stiffen, but he went on: —The young man became known for his skill and his holiness, and in time, when he was no longer so young, a new king was crowned who asked the young man to be his personal chaplain. Soon afterward, the new chaplain visited the king’s libraries and came across a magnificent Bible produced by a group of monks in a distant Irish monastery. The chaplain was overwhelmed. He went to the king and told him he could no longer serve him. When the king asked why, the young knight said, Because I have discovered a group of monks who are so enlightened that it is as if the Bible they produced is on fire. I must seek them out so I may learn from them. The king, as you can imagine, was most displeased, and told the knight that he could not refuse a royal appointment. On the contrary, your majesty, the chaplain said, I have been ordered to serve a yet greater majesty than your own, and that is a summons I dare not disobey. The king wanted to throw him into the deepest dungeon, and it was only the intervention of the master of my order that at last persuaded him otherwise. As for the chaplain, he left Portugal for Ireland that very day and was never seen again in his native land.

There was silence for a long while, except for an occasional sob from the calligrapher’s daughter. At last she said, wiping her eyes with her veil—which by now was rather soggy

—Why did you tell me this story?

—Because you are like that chaplain. Worldly honours do not satisfy you. It is to the dissatisfied that God—Allah, as you know Him—calls. Perhaps He is calling you.
There was another long silence. At last Frei João Álvares said, You are perhaps thinking that it is impertinent of me to compare you to a Christian?

—No, the calligrapher’s daughter said. —I do not matter. But to compare the revelation of the Qur’an, dictated by the Angel Jibra’il himself to Muhammad ….

—The Angel Gabriel also revealed the forthcoming birth of Jesus to Mary, Frei João Álvares said. —And your faith accepts Jesus as one of the Messengers of God, does it not?
The calligrapher’s daughter nodded, with some irritation. Who was this Christian to be lecturing her about the tenets of her faith?

—Perhaps, said Frei João Álvares, we are all sons and daughters of the same God, whatever name we know Him by.

—Why, said the calligrapher’s daughter wonderingly, are you not angry with us? You fought for your faith against us, and you lost. Why are you not filled with hate?

Frei João Álvares paused, as if considering his words. —Five years provides much time in which to think and ponder. During that time I have learned Arabic and talked with learned men. The Sultan’s personal physician is a Jew. One of his most trusted advisers is a Christian. And the holiest man at court may be the slave who feeds the Sultan’s peacocks. Under the skin all blood is red, is it not?

*

In the morning, after her prayers, the calligrapher’s daughter asked for directions to the peacocks’ enclosure. She watched as an elderly black slave unfastened the gate and entered, carrying a bucket of grain. The peahens and their chicks came scurrying, while the male followed more slowly, spreading his lordly tail. It shimmered in the sunlight, an iridescent fan of green and blue and gold that changed from moment to moment. Like a living page torn from the Hidden Book, the calligrapher’s daughter thought. Nothing, not even the Qur’an she had seen in the Sultan’s library, could begin to compare with such an infinity of hues and tones and colours. The slave swept out an arm, scattering the grain, and the chicks and hens bobbed and wove and scuffled with each other in pursuit of the food.

When the bucket was empty, the slave took some chopped-up fruit from a pouch at his belt and knelt. At once the birds began pecking it out of his hands. Several of the peahens nibbled his ear or pecked at his hair, as if he were one of them. After the fruit was gone they still lingered, while the chicks darted in and out between his legs. One or two of the hens allowed him to caress them, as if they were some strange family, peafowl and human. A verse from a surah from the Qur’an—Surat Al-‘An`ām, The Cattle—came to the mind of the calligrapher’s daughter: There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but forms part of communities like you.

At last the slave rose, picked up the empty bucket, and passed again through the gate, fastening it behind him. The calligrapher’s daughter hurried over to him. What must it be like, to be in the presence of a page written by Allah Himself? She blurted out her question, but the slave, instead of speaking, opened his mouth and pointed inside.

He had no tongue.

The calligrapher’s daughter was horrified. Had he been deliberately mutilated when he was captured? Then how had he and the Christian friar conversed? The slave bowed low, turned, and disappeared into the servants’ quarters of the palace. The calligrapher’s daughter watched him go and then knelt in the dust beside the enclosure, her fingers gripping the palisades.

*

That evening the calligrapher’s daughter wrote a letter to the Sultan. This time the pen flowed like breath across the paper, and each letter seemed to rise up of its own accord. Your Majesty, the calligrapher’s daughter wrote, I have the answer you sought to your question. Look to your slave, the one who feeds the royal peacocks. For did not the Prophet, peace be upon him, say, All creatures are the family of Allah, and He loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family? Compared to this slave, all the Qur’ans in the world pale into insignificance, including mine. Therefore, Your Majesty, I beseech you to allow me to return to my home and my family, where I will practise my art with the humility I have learned.

It is not recorded whether the request of the calligrapher’s daughter was granted by the Sultan, nor whether Frei João Álvares ever returned to his own country. But it is known that many more Qur’ans flowed from the pen of the calligrapher’s daughter, and each of them glowed with such fire that a new name was bestowed upon her—the Illumined One.

“The Calligrapher’s Daughter” was originally published in Tesseracts Seventeen.