A Short Story
Dark times. As I trudged along the dusty trail, surrounded by weary companions and sparse landscape, many things occupied my mind, but that phrase was the one thing that kept coming back, rearing its head in the front of my consciousness. The recent rebellion against the king, my wife who was watching our home while I was away, my friend Amir who was watching her—scattered and worried was the best way to describe my thoughts as we traveled through that wasteland.
It was not uncommon for people to travel together on these treks. Pilgrimages were becoming more common each passing year, perhaps in reaction to the worsening circumstances of everyday life. Plague, famine, poverty—every man now was affected by at least one of these, and when times get tough, many men turn to God, searching for a higher power to intercede where they themselves are powerless. Along with hard times also come hard people who take matters into their own hands and resort to thieving, preying on lone and unprotected travelers. I had taken up with a group that varied from eight to ten members, depending on the stretch of road as people joined and left us. We were an odd mix of people. I know that at least four others with us were there for the same reason that I was, more or less on a pilgrimage, a journey for their faith. There was a pair of soldiers, who had been reassigned to the Holy City itself to help with the riots that threatened to tear the very temple itself apart. It was my fourth day with the group when Samad joined our little company.
The man himself seemed innocuous enough at first, with his long black robes. He kept to himself, choosing to hide in the deep cowl of his dark attire. He did not take part in any of our conversation, even when the blacksmith, Nathan, with whom I had been talking, asked his opinion on the rebellion. The man’s short reply had been quiet and dry, barely audible above the sound of our own treading feet.
“It will return to dust, just like each before it.”
With that, he had pushed past us to walk with the soldiers, who seemed content to walk in silence. Nathan and I had looked at each other, slightly taken aback, but I shrugged, and we had continued our conversation. However, that night as I had lain by the fire when we made camp, I could not move my mind from the mysterious man in the black robes. I had not caught his name, and as I contemplated his short reply from earlier, I found myself slightly intrigued.
The next day as we broke camp, I studied him. He was his usual quiet self. He packed his few belongings with skill and precision. He acted as though he had done this many, many times before and it had become such habit that he was not even thinking about what he was doing. What caught my attention most, however, was his expressionless face. His features remained stoic, unchanging the entire time, as though he cared nothing for what was happening around him. He seemed almost out of touch with reality; I found it fascinating.
That day as we walked along the dusty path I stayed out of conversation for the most part. I was too busy watching this mysterious man. I still didn’t know his name. I had asked the others, but no one had heard him speak much more than Nathan and I, and certainly nothing worth mentioning. The man was obviously very guarded. I watched him, and I am certain that he knew this. I didn’t mind that; he was an enigma, and any reaction at all would tell me more about him.
We stopped for lunch at high noon, and as I sat down with the others, he sat away from the rest of us, secluded as usual. He ate in silence, staring out over the barren landscape through which we traveled. He seemed lost in his own world, but still no expression of any kind entered his features; they seemed locked in a constant, cold, calculated look. The man’s eyes were gray, and his blonde hair was shaggy and unkempt. His chin was lined with stubble, and I chuckled as I imagined my wife telling me that she found him attractive, and having to reply that I was standing right there. But she wasn’t right beside me; she was a hundred miles away. The grin on my face quickly faded. At the sound of my chuckle the man turned and looked directly at me, and I realized that I had been staring and hastily looked away. I did not look in his direction for the rest of the meal, but I could feel his eyes on me.
That afternoon, we traveled onward, and Nathan and I began to talk about our destination.
He turned back to me. “And what of you Ethan? What brings you on this journey to the Holy City?”
My thoughts immediately flew home to my wife. Leah would undoubtedly be home tending the inn where she cooked. We had both saved our earnings for over a year so that I could make this journey, and, although I felt that it was somewhat unnecessary, I had never been able to say no to my wife.
“I go for the same reasons as you, more or less. Although I must admit, my wife is more devout than I. “
He gave me a curious look, and I hastily explained. “I fear God, don’t misunderstand. I simply have a hard time feeling obligated to him when he does not seem to have the same devotion to us, whom he supposedly loves beyond measure.”
I got an uneasy feeling as though I was being watched, and turned around only to find that the man in the black had been walking just behind me, staring at me. For all I knew, he had been listening to our conversation the whole time. He did not break his gaze, and, after a moment, I became so uneasy that I turned back around, shuddering. I had not heard him come up behind me.
Finally, we stopped to make camp, and soon everyone had eaten and was bedded down for the night. I listened as one by one they fell asleep, the sounds of snoring slowly enveloping the cool air. For some reason I found that I could not sleep, and as I tossed in my blankets, my mind returned to the strange man. I glanced at the place where he had lain down, only to find that his sheets were empty. I looked around, and I found him sitting right by the fire. I had not heard him get up, and there was no telling how long he had sat there, staring into the flames. I watched him for a moment, until suddenly he spoke, soft words in the same tone in which he had spoken the previous day.
“Ethan. Why are you still awake?”
I was taken aback. The man had never spoken to anyone in our company outright, not once. I stared at him for a moment, and finally managed to collect myself and answer him. “I cannot find sleep. I suppose I worry for my wife back home.”
He looked at me a moment, and then said simply, “Come.”
I blinked, and then got up and moved over to where he was sitting. The fire was warm, but it was more as a precautionary ward for wild animals. The man’s eyes never left me as I sat down beside him.
After a moment of silence as we stared at one another, I asked the man, “What may I call you?”
He turned and looked out into the night for a moment, and then replied, “I have been known by some as Samad. Abdul-Samad.“
Samad. It was an old name, and an odd one at that. “What does it mean?” I asked.
The corners of his mouth curved into the slightest hint of a smile, and he replied ruefully. “Servant of the Eternal.”
I blinked in the firelight. Servant of the Eternal. Who would name their child with such a name? A religious people, perhaps. I was not schooled in such things, regardless. I let the matter drop.
He spoke after a minute. “I heard you speak of your wife. What is her name?”
“Leah,” I replied.
“And she fears God? At least, more than you?” So he had been listening.
Slowly I nodded. “Yes. She is quite adamant about it.”
“So I gather.” The man’s voice was like soft silk. It was unnerving.
I cleared my throat. “Do you, Samad?”
The man looked up at the starlit sky above us. The glowing orbs cast off a little light, but the moon, just a sliver, made the night darker than usual. As he stared at them, he slowly said, “I believe in a Devil, and therefore I suppose yes, I do believe in God.” The way he spoke those words did not sit well with me. Something about him put me on edge, though I couldn’t put my finger on just what.
I sat in silence for a moment.
“Do you have children, Ethan?”
I turned and looked at him. His face was stone. Could he know? Of course not. I finally answered. “I do not.”
He stared at me, cold, calculating. “How long have you been married?”
I looked away. I did not like where this was going. “Seven years.” Seven long years.
“Seven…” He looked off into the night, as if he was deep in thought. “Such a long time to be together… and without children.”
I cleared my throat. “I don’t think we should—“
“Your wife is barren. She cannot bear children.” He said it with a certainty that I did not understand.
I stared at him. How did he know? I had told no one. “What… how did you know? How could you possibly know that?”
Samad looked at me with those cold, unflinching eyes. “I know many things, Ethan. I saw the way you reacted when the blacksmith spoke of his family. It does not take a genius to piece together that puzzle.”
I pulled my knees towards me and bowed my head. Leah and I had tried, Almighty knows we had. We both had wanted children, she for the sheer joy that newlywed women often have for infants, and I for an heir. During our second year of marriage, when we still had not conceived a child, we had asked a priest to come bless her womb, and we had both prayed fervently for a child. When we finally found the money to consult a physician, the man had spent an hour in the room with my wife before telling me that there was no way that she would ever bear a child. My line was done.
In the years since we had both pretended that we were all right with it, but I knew that neither of us had really reconciled with the idea. She prayed every night, devoted to a God that neither of us had ever seen, and I knew that there was more to her wanting me to go on this pilgrimage than just piety. It was the true reason for her asking, and my acceptance. It was our last effort to beg a supposedly almighty God for the family we both had once dreamt of.
“Why do you long for children so?” The soft voice cut the terrible silence that had settled over me.
I looked over at him, disgusted that he would even have the nerve to ask such a question of me.
“Why do I want for a family? Heavens, it is every man’s dream to want an heir! Someone to carry on his family name, to leave a legacy! The fact that I cannot brings my heart as close to hell as I have ever felt.”
He shifted and looked at me, and his voice became hard. “You know nothing of hell.”
I found this man unnerving. No, I found him disturbing. He had fished around in my life where he had no business dropping his nets. I glared at Samad, and shot back, “And you do?”
He turned his gaze back to the fire, staring intently into the heart of the flames. The light danced in his dead, gray eyes, and he stayed silent for a long moment. I waited for an answer, and finally, words slid from his lips.
“I do. And I will show you. Take my dagger.”
He tossed me a long knife that he produced from somewhere within his robes. I caught it deftly, surprised by the blade’s weight. I looked at him, puzzled. I held the weapon out in front of me, unsure of what he intended. “And what, pray, do you wish me to do with this?”
He turned his torso towards me and opened his arms wide. “Pierce my heart.”
I stared at him. The man was mad! “Excuse me?”
He did not blink. “Stab me in the heart, Ethan.”
I could not believe what the lunatic was saying! Did he actually expect me to stab him in the chest, right here in the middle of the night? I started to shake my head and tell him that he was crazy, when he grabbed my hands and plunged the dagger into his chest, burying the blade up to the hilt.
I stared in horror at the weapon protruding from his chest, unable to believe what Samad had just done. A gasp escaped my lips and I would have shouted had not the man’s cold hands clamped over my mouth.
“Quiet!” he said forcefully. “Look, you fool!”
Eyes wide, I could not understand how the man was still alive, let alone talking to me. I tried to break his grasp and call out, but his grip was like iron. “Be still, Ethan! Salaam!”
I stilled enough to look at him, and watched in disbelief as, keeping one hand still clamped over my mouth, he put the other on the handle of the dagger and pulled the blade free from his chest. I stared as white flesh knit itself back together and only a slight trickle of blood made it out through the opening before it closed completely. I looked up at the man’s cold, gray eyes in fear. What had just happened?
“Will you promise not to cry out if I let you go?” he asked me.
I stared up at him, and then slowly my head began to nod, almost of its own accord. He looked at me a moment longer, and then removed his hand. The moment I was free I scurried back a pace from him, a look of horror plastered on my face.
“What… what are you?” The words stumbled out of my mouth.
He raised one hand in reassurance, looked at me a moment, then replied, as if he had rehearsed this a thousand times, “I am an immortal.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “An immortal?”
He nodded. “I was a man, once. Not unlike yourself. Younger, but of the same spirit.” He looked at me a moment, and then continued. “I made one mistake in my life; one mistake only. I loved the wrong woman.”
My mind was still reeling. I watched as he placed the dagger in a small sheath strapped around his forearm. There was not a drop of blood to be seen on it.
I struggled to find my voice. “How was that a mistake?”
He looked away. “Kileh was loved by another. A servant of the Devil himself.”
“How long ago was this?”
Samad sighed. “More years than I care to count. Two thousand years before the Holy City even had a name.”
I stared. This man was three thousand years old?
“When he found that my heart also longed for her affection, and that she returned my feelings, the other went after me. When he found me, he called upon his Master, upon the dark powers at his disposal, and put a curse on me.”
Up until this point in my life, I had been a practical man. I believed in God, but other than the occasional healing I had never thought much for curses and miracles. Had I had this discussion any other night, any time before this, I would have dismissed this man’s claim as more religious babbling. Then again, I had never seen anyone’s flesh knit itself together after being stabbed in the heart either. My brain had recovered enough at this point for me to begin to listen to Samad, soaking in his story.
“What kind of a curse?” I asked hesitantly.
“He made me as I am now—immortal. That is to say, I would not die until the last of any of my descendants passes on from this life by natural causes.”
I looked at him a moment, my brain calculating. “Immortal? That is no curse. Any king would gladly give up his throne in exchange for immortality!”
Samad shook his head. “He would be a fool, then. I did not believe the man when he told me what he had done. I believed in curses no more than you do now. However, as my life went on, and I married Kileh, I found that I did not age the same as she did. We had children, beautiful children. I watched them all age normally, as they should, but you could not tell a year had passed since I had turned twenty. People began to notice. I was cast out of my village, my family shunned, declared a mystic by the healers. My family left me; they could not bear to grow old while I watched them slowly die, an ageless reminder of youth. I watched everyone whom I had ever loved die while I stood by, perfect in my youthful body. I tried every means I could to kill myself; none worked. Drowning, stabbing, jumping off of cliffs, all very painful, but none lethal.”
Everything the man said was completely insane. The absurdity of what Samad was saying was overpowering, and yet, the cold, dead look in his eyes told me otherwise. Not to mention the dagger. This man had been through a hundred lifetimes, seen ages come and pass, kingdoms rise and fall. I was humbled.
He looked at me then, and spoke. “You, Ethan, want for a family. For children, an heir to your line. I have had that; I have seen countless generations of my seed pass on. I have known great men and cowards, kings and beggars, all pass on and leave their legacy to their children.”
I looked at him, and even as I processed the profundity of his words, I knew that he was telling the simple truth.
“I know what a legacy is. However great, it will never be immortal. The greatest men I have ever seen are now forgotten by all, lost amidst the sands of time. Why then, do you yearn for that which is powerless?”
The question stunned me. I had not expected him to return the conversation to my plight. He looked at me, waiting expectantly for an answer.
I opened my mouth, hesitated, and then answered, “It is because it is I who has yet to know. And ignorance, even in matters of futility, cannot be content.”
I sat there, by the fire, as he studied my face, weighing my response. Finally he spoke. “Indeed.”
I pressed on. “I wish only for that of which I have been deprived. I yearn for a family, now as much for my wife’s sake as my own.”
Samad, hunkered down by the fire in his coal-black robes, responded quietly. “I know, and I understand. I have seen much; I have learned much from other’s stories and lives. Yet, as much as I know from experience, there are still things in life that surprise me. Irony—the one thing that I would dare to call God’s vice—has always intrigued me. And you, Ethan, and I—we are the epitome of irony.”
I looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean by that?”
He looked right at me and spoke without hesitation. “You are my last living descendant.”
I stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“The irony is this; while you lament the fact that your wife is barren, I, however twisted as it may be, find within your shame my own hope. This is the end of my long life. I will finally be able to rest.”
I suddenly felt faint. I was not only speaking to the oldest human being alive, he also happened to be my ancestor from three thousand years ago! I blinked as I regained my composure, apparently something I was making a habit of doing lately, and then managed a short, “Oh.”
Samad allowed a small, sad smile to appear on his pale lips. “Ethan, I know that it is a lot to take in.” A sigh escaped his lips. “You have desperately wanted, for the past seven years, an heir, a legacy. Am I correct?”
I nodded, my mind still reeling.
“So did I, and I received my legacy. I married my wife Kileh, we had our children, and I went on with my life. They grew old, and I watched their health deteriorate from a distance while I stayed perfect, flawless. They died, leaving me behind to go on with my life, if you could even call it that. And still on with it, for three thousand years now. My legacy has been incredible. Immeasurable. My seed has included generals, soldiers, kings, merchants, heroes, and countless other honorable men and women. For all its glory, however, it has also been my curse. “
He looked me in the eyes. “Ethan, I will be gone from you in the morning. I will disappear, and you will not find me again. Continue your pilgrimage. Pray to God for children. But when you find that you cannot, do not despair entirely. For your curse will be my blessing; your blight will be my freedom.” And with that, Samad smiled, truly smiled, for the first time that I had ever seen.
I looked up. “Why don’t you just kill me and be done with it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “You must die by natural causes. If I were to lay a hand on you, I would remain this way for all eternity. Besides, I have waited for three thousand years. What are another few decades to me?” He grinned.
We sat for a long time in silence. Finally, he got up, patted me on the back, and said, “Goodnight, my son. Salaam.” With that, he walked back over to his blankets, and went to sleep.
I sat by the fire for a long time after, mulling over what knowledge he had imparted to me. When I finally went to bed, I do not know. When I awoke the next morning, as the other travelers were stirring, I noticed that the spot where Samad had slept was vacant, and the man was nowhere to be seen.
I have not seen him since. I searched for him, but no one knew where he went off to after that night. My wife and I will not have children. She is nearing forty-five years old now, well past childbearing. And while we mourn for our lost legacy, I know that there is one out there who is rejoicing in our suffering. That when my life reaches its limit and I finally return to the earth, when my legacy finally turns to dust, so will Samad, the father of the greatest legacy of all.