Mahmoud has appeared before in our magazine and I’m rather proud of his blossoming as a writer. I actually met him a few years ago in a food court. Strange things, them food courts…
The Seeds of the Empire
By Mahmoud Sharif
An approach to the mystery of life was narrated to scribes. The story laid the stages of the journey. A journey set with pitfalls, and traps with respect to the secret values and laws of the universe. The precise outcome of this story hardly matters for what withstands time seals its truth.
In the seventeenth century, in the kingdom of Spain, at the height of the Habsburg era, a metal smith drudged very late at night. He hammered under the heat of the furnace, forging blades, knives and horseshoes. He worked in the summer nights and the wintry mornings, pouring molten copper, sweating and panting, bending and cutting, pounding and clanking, with the dazzling sparks.
His name was Rodriguez, and he lived in the city of Bilbao.
Every night, before he went to bed, he counted what he had saved: golden escudos, copper bullions, and silvers piasters, dusting them before hoarding them inside his coffer.
When work was scarce, he meandered the alleys, stooping, with his hands in his pockets and eyes downcast. Rodriguez was stubby, of medium height, with strong arms. His hair was charcoal black, and his skin swarthy, with a moustache, and a beard trimmed all the way up to his temples. He walked gazing at the young working seamstresses, or peering at mothers breastfeeding their children. His eyes fixed on all newlywed couples with a somewhat withdrawn look; one that was always pensive.
Passers overlooked his scowl, and his long face as he watched children holding their parents by the hand.
Rodriguez slept alone in bed, cut off from the world. If one day his bed swallowed him down, and sucked him into the depth of the abyss to swirl into the gallows of the underworld, no one would ever notice. No one but his mother, for she was the only one concerned when he lost appetite and brooded constantly. As days faded away, as months and years drifted away, the burden of living lingered on.
Ultimately, Rodriguez decided to change his fate.
The metal smith courted country women but was spurned. He wished upon a shooting star but saw no progress in his life. He tossed coins in a fountain without results, learnt the Lord’s prayers, and even asked gypsies for advice; they drew him into the occult world, then he inquired about charms, spells and amulets, until he found someone.
The meeting was set at night, in the cemetery, where ghouls roam through the transient space, where the moon is buried in the sky and the stars mourn it, like orphans before the hearse, singing a dirge to their dead parents.
Rodriguez followed the man, as they walked amongst the graves, tombs, and shrines. He glanced behind him. His eyes rolled left and right. A shiver ran through his back. The hair on his nape bristled.
They sneaked into a mausoleum, under the shroud of darkness, while the gate creaked as it was shunted. They sat on the ground facing each other. The stranger lit a candle. The room brightened, but the air inside was saturated, too thick to breathe, it felt pungently hot and squeezed on their lungs.
The stranger was an old man. He was dressed in a monk’s frock, with ashen hair, and a beard that reached down to his slim belly.
“I am the magus,” the stranger began. “I have travelled the world, and know things which others do not know. What can I do for you?”
Rodriguez answered, stopping at intervals, or slowing, to catch his breathe. He spoke as he glared at the candle. His hands wriggled, his head stirred forward, then backward, then back and forth. He whispered his story, now and then lifting his right hand, pointing an index to his right, or stroking his beard.
The old man’s eyes opened and his forehead wrinkled. He nodded with a flat face that conveyed no expression. His shadow flickered behind him. Rodriguez finally said,
“I am like an ant, or a stone, left alone, without a destiny. I need your help.”
The old man looked down, his eyes twinkled.
Both men were breathing, inhaling with strain, glancing at each other with their mouths shut. A dark gloom permeated the room, a moribund silence made the wait tedious, and then the gate creaked with the breeze. On the ground, the candle dwindled.
“I have something for you.”
The old man slipped his right hand into his pocket then withdrew a leather drawstring pouch.
“Inside this pouch, you will find seeds,” he said.
Rodriguez stared at the pouch. He failed to notice the pointed eyebrows of the old man, and the smile.
“These seeds are magic,” the old man said. “If you plant them, they will grow. And they will sire fruit. Once the fruits are ripe, they will yield men and women. Yes, indeed, these seeds harvest human beings.”
“Follow the wisdom of the magus. Honor these seeds and they will honor you,” the old man added.
He handed the pouch to Rodriguez, who offered him a pouch filled with gold coins. Rodriguez eyed the pouch of seeds in his right hand.
The old man stood up and recited final rules and directives, of how and where to plant them. The candle died. He vanished into the edge of the night.
While armies were waging wars in Europe, colonies were up for grabs in the Americas. Rodriguez set out to travel to South America.
Hombre prevenido vale por dos . A man prepared is worth two men.
Rodriguez mastered new skills: how to farm and how to graze animals. He mastered the geography of New Spain, and the language of native tribes. He collected all the money that people owed him, put all his savings into his coffer and, finally, kissed farewell to his mother. She was the only one who cried for him.
Rodriguez boarded a merchant galleon that sailed for South America. After two months at sea, it docked at Santo Domingo. Rodriguez disembarked, and a few days later, caught a patache boat which took him to the port of Cartagina. There, he found boatmen with a barge whom agreed to take him into the rivers inland. They navigated the rio Magdalena in a southerly direction until a sudden rain showered on them. They had to anchor in the town of Mompós. They went ashore to wait for the rain to end. Rodriguez waited alone, distanced from tobacco merchants, slave drivers and gold traders. He quietly sauntered the cobbled streets with his eyes downcast.
When the rain stopped, they reboarded the barge, and sailed the river in a southerly direction until the river split into two. They carried on, through the rio Cauca in a westerly direction, for four days, until they docked at Santa Lucia. Rodriguez disembarked on his own with all his belongings: an ox, his coffer, tools to plow the land, and most precious of them all, the magus’ seeds.
Rodriguez forced his way through the jungle, with guidance from locals. He marched a distance behind the guide, clenching his musketeer sword. His head swiveled left and right, he halted to all unfamiliar sounds. They treaded the rocky tracks, the muddy earth, and the treacherous people.
Finally, he found the Promised Land.
It was a forested hill with a river at the bottom. It took in the greatest intensity from the sun’s rays, with sunshine falling in an angle perpendicular to the hillside. It had a rich soil, a cool climate, and a meagre rainfall.
He established his home there.
He cut the trees down, cleared the land, uprooted the stumps, plowed and tilled the soil. Then, he purchased goats and sheep to chew the remaining leaves, brushes and weed. He dug crude water canals to irrigate the soil.
It was a harrowing life of labor, with neck and back pain. He drudged day and night, without a break, in happiness and sorrow. He ground himself to his work, with soiled hands, sullied clothes, and sore feet.
When the land was finally cleared, he planted wheat, corn, and potato. He built for himself a cabin on top of the hill, and when the crops were ripe, he pruned them and sold the surplus, then bought clothes, another ox, and more cultivating tools.
The seeds were clutched in his right hand.
There were seventeen seeds in all. Eight were brown, eight were green, and the last one, the largest amongst them, was pink.
‘The brown seeds will sire sturdy men, the green seeds will bear lovely women.’ The magus had told him.
Rodriguez seldom lay his eyes off the pink seed. He was wooed by its carnation hue, and its crescent shaped form.
The pink seed will blossom into a woman. His woman. A woman who will love him, ease his loneliness, and bear his children. And they will prosper together in this new land, have a family, live off the land, live happily, and let not hunger nor poverty befall them.
Time moved on, he was patient, a new harvest bloomed.
One year elapsed since he had settled in the Promised Land, and now the soil was ready. Rodriguez opened the pouch. His forehead crimpled. His eyes blinked, a smile wrinkled on the corner of his cheeks. He took a deep breath.
Only a small batch for now. Only a few seeds to prepare the place for the next ones. Rodriguez withdrew four brown seeds, and four green seeds, then sowed them gingerly.
‘The harvest will bloom after four years.’ The magus had said. Gigantic leafy stalks will grow. Plants thrice his height.
Thereafter, he harvested barley, potato, and corn. He milked the goats and sheep, and forged new blades and knives.
One morning, he sat up on top of the hill, looking over his magical plants below. He glared at the stalks swaying with the wind, at the leaves, and the emerald colored flowers.
But then, the foreground blurred, he felt the ground twisting to one side. The sky tumbled before him, and the river spun in a whirlwind. Shapes and forms appeared and disappeared. He closed his eyes.
His past delved inside his head.
He remembered noblemen in Bilbao, and the authority that they held. He remembered friars and the reverence that they channeled. Rodriquez remembered the hidalgos, the caballeros, and the titulos, their august upbringing, and their wellborn lineage. He recalled their names, and their titles, remembered the military commanders, and their ranks. He remembered all the lettered men and the respect bestowed at them.
He recalled everything.
And as the memories faded away, his eyes opened, and his sight lingered on the eight plants and their incipient buds.
“Men and women will spring forth, all their children and grandchildren will be faithful to me.” Rodriguez told himself.
“We will build a new society, conquer new lands, lay the pillars of a new civilization, establish new laws, and rewrite history.” He was sitting on the ground resting his elbows on his knees.
“We will build a new Empire. An Empire as great as Rome, Egypt, or Persia. A dominion that will last a millennium. I will fight the Habsburgs, the Bourbons, and the Ottomans. I will be crowned emperor Rodriguez the 1st.”
So he said, and time wended its way. Rodriguez built new cabins, and beds. He bought new farming tools, horses, and fabric to clothe his subjects. But his money was dwindling. He thought about the men and how to shape them as soldiers to fight, and how to build his golden throne and crown.
One year after he planted the seeds, the stalks had grown twice his height.
“I will build my palace here,” he said. “And here I will establish the capital of the empire. My mother will come, and live with us. Women will seek her blessings. The pope will canonize her, and she will become the patron saint of the people, venerated by all. ”
On the second year, Rodriguez pruned the branches, patted at the raw female fruits, and peered at their sensuous forms. A series of images sprang forth, of how they would look like. He chose a name for the first four women: Carla, Maria, Catherina, and Sophia.
On the third year, disaster struck.
Floods inundated the farm. It was a deluge coming from hell. The horses died. The ox died. The cabins were wrecked to pieces, and the farming tools were lost. His dear plants drowned. He saw them drifting into the swamp. He saw them pale as if ghosts had taken their place. He saw them crooked and curved, somewhat yellow, somewhat white, their roots swaying with the wind.
The world before him crumbled.
He implored the Virgin of Begoña and pleaded to Archangels Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. He made a promise to fast. He stood under the moon, and felt it cry with him, he saw the hummingbird moan, and the crickets grieve with him at night. But yet, eight seeds were left. And the pink seed was still there, with him, in his right hand. Rodriguez wiped away the tears.
“After this defeat, I will soon be victorious.” He whispered.
He lay his eyes on the pink seed. She will be the queen. No, Empress. She will be the Empress, yes. The empress with the sweetest name. Her name shall be Isabella, she will be an inspiration to mankind, the paragon of virtue, praised by poets and revered by children. The earth shall bloom before her feet, and the sky will glow up above her.
Isabella will be the last one sowed, once the land is ready for her, once the farmers, foot soldiers, and maidservants will be there. Once all the subjects will be present, to bow before her.
El amor todo lo iguala. Love smoothens life out.
Rodriguez grasped his shovel hoe, then toiled the earth, working as hard as before. He bought new farming tools, bought goats, sheep, two ox, and a horse. He toiled and toiled, until his arms and legs became numb, until his back hurt, until he teetered. But a constant worry glided in the air. There were no more coins remaining in his coffer.
The land was now ready, he planted the eight remaining seeds. The last batch before Isabella.
The labor and the time lost wasn’t in vain, for the outcome at the end would be the world cowed at his feet. All his subjects would be at his call to kneel before him.
In the meantime, Rodriguez built a garden for Isabella, in which he planted roses, tulips, and carnations. He also built a swing for her, so that she may delight in the afternoon breeze, serenading him. He planted cornflower and an apple tree. He smiled at the sight of swallows singing to him.
“I will honor your birth with a festival every single year,” he said.
It was an auspicious season in the meadow. He rested well, leaning on his back, with hands behind his head, as he contemplated the clouds and beheld at the sun, as it glittered back at him.
“Isabella, I will have your portrait minted on every single coin.”
So Rodriguez waited, sitting idly as time went by, watching the magical plants bloom. Isabella, the pink seed, was still inside his pouch.
“Isabella, will you have blond or brown hair? Will you be tall with blue eyes? Or perhaps short?” He asked himself.
He persevered for one, two, and three years. The wheat, and other harvests were plentiful. His livestock grew, giving birth to lambs and kids. The river brought forth delicious salmon which he feasted on. The fish, the plants, the grass, and the trees were colorful and bright, as bright as the rainbow after the rain. Bees sipped nectar from his tulips, and butterflies basked on the apple tree.
In the fourth year, all his hopes crumbled into pieces.
Fungi killed the crops, and the magical plants.
Rodriguez slumped on the ground, as if crushed by the weight of his own sins or, as if pulled down by a vengeful leash. His throat dried out. His face turned grey and his eyes closed.
There was no more sense to this. No more seeds left. Only Isabella remained. Rodriguez faced the earth. He knew that she was not yet born, but that she was out there somewhere condoling with him. There was no sun, and no life, only mysteries that he couldn’t explain and Isabella held the keys to their spiritual home.
The river ran its course next to him, unabated.
Rodriguez drew Isabella out of his pouch, and looked at her.
Isabella will come, she will lessen his grief, and cast away the evil spell. She will pull him up, and together, they will build the realm over the heaven and earth. She will bear his offspring. The hour will surely come.
The pink seed dropped from his hand. Rodriguez dozed off.
In that dreary state, he remembered what the magus had said:
‘The pink seed will reap in one single night.’
But he could not survive one more day unless Isabella will be there to bring him life.
Three days later, horsemen from the Muisca indigenous tribe came to pay him a visit. But they found the body of Rodriguez on the ground, facing up. A frozen smile etched on his face. There were also footprints on the ground. There were dried leafy stalks, and they noticed the fallen apple tree, the dead plants, and the goats and sheep lying dead. The chief picked up a woman’s hair. They were wavy and hazel. They were long, and soft on the touch.
One among the horsemen pointed at the body’s neck. They noticed ligature marks on it, and fingernail wounds. The eyes were dewy red.
They noticed the stomped ground.
Another one pointed at the other side of the river. Tall invasive plants had bloomed on that side. All the men could smell a fragrance. A warm breeze laden with the perfume of fresh fields, and carnation. A little later, it turned into a putrid smell of brimstone. They sniffed it and felt a sudden drop in temperature, and tingles on their skin.