A Dervish among the Graves of Ghazni, by Tanvir Ahmed

He merged the two seas coming to meet each other
Between them, a barrier they cannot cross
O dervish! Annihilating the self is the very name of lasting existence.
                      ~Khaja Yahya Kabir
Excerpted from The Sayagi-Khana of Katib Dilkhasta:
Among the strange happenstances and peculiar mischances of ancient times is the story of a dervish in Ghazni who dwelt only among the dead.
This was not, in and of itself, unusual. The annals are overflowing with friends of Allah who made cemeteries into their abodes. Baba Abdal of Herat was known to hold court among the headstones of Khiyaban. Far to the west, in the lands of Syria and Egypt, Jamaluddin Sawi once did much the same. But even among the ranks of death-drawn mystics, this dervish of Ghazni stands out.
For one, he was never known to utter a word to any living person. He neither asked for alms nor accepted any that were proffered. People would sometimes see him drifting barefoot through the graveyards, clad in a tattered goatskin, head and face clean-shaven. They took to calling him Dervish Chughak, for he reminded them of a sparrow, so restless and brittle.
Now this Dervish Chughak subsisted only off what could be found in cemeteries. Often he ate berries from the mulberry trees shading the tomb of mighty Sultan Mahmood. In leaner times he could be seen chewing grass from more ordinary graveyards. He would drink straight from the old well next to Hakim Sanai’s mausoleum, paying no heed to looks of approbation. Some sick-hearted individuals gossiped, after burials, about whether Dervish Chughak might have a sinister taste for meat.
If the accusations of vagrancy and cannibalism disturbed Dervish Chughak, he did not show it. He simply kept roaming the graveyards of Ghazni, steady and careless as the rhythms of time.
Zubair cannot remember when he first came to Kalan Qala. The Sahib says he was born in the east, in India, but even at the grand age of twelve, India is only a hazy notion. Zubair’s whole world is the fort and its sandstone halls, its gleaming cedarwood lattices, the shade of its plane trees, the wasteland stretching beyond its ramparts. Such splendor for only three souls: the Sahib, Zubair, Farishta.
Farishta! Even her name is enough to rattle his young heart. She is of an age with Zubair, old enough that the Sahib has begun pulling her into a more reclusive world. They have to be more careful now: exchanging their careless flights of old for the cellars from which the Sahib has Zubair fetch ice, the flat rooftops where one can escape the heat on summer nights. They are not yet old enough to feel the gorge yawning between a servant and the Sahib’s daughter.
There are others who serve the Sahib too, though they do not live in Kalan Qala. Every month a caravan crosses the waste to the fort’s iron gates, dust billowing beneath their camels’ hooves. These nomads in their colorful robes never come farther than the courtyard. They unload provisions with bangled hands, keep their tattooed faces turned from Zubair’s. As if he is the strange one.
Less often comes the cavalcade: a column of horses flowing swift above the plain, pennants snapping over helmed heads, swords slung across rich robes. These riders do not wait outside like the others. When the cavalcade comes, the Sahib is less tolerant. Zubair’s eyes have been shadowed by bruises for being slow with the wine, undercooking the meat.
“They make him nervous,” Farishta says, after one such visit, one such punishment. She is lying on the hay next to Zubair in the empty cattle shed. The roof cuts across their vision; the firmament’s midnight glow silvers the world.
The Sahib, nervous? The thought is baffling. The Sahib is the one who makes others nervous. Weeks can go by without Zubair looking directly at his face. He keeps his eyes on the hem of the Sahib’s robe (black, edged with gold thread), the edge of his beard (shot through with gray), the twist of his mouth (commanding, downturned).
“Who are they?” Zubair wonders, not expecting an answer. He is surprised to hear one.
“They come from the king.”
“King? What king?”
This question appears to test the limits of Farishta’s knowledge. “The king of the country. He also rules Persia, I think.”
Persia, Zubair is given to understand, is something larger than a fort and its vistas. What exactly this means is beyond him. “What does the king want with the Sahib?”
“Agha helps him. Does things for him, the things no one else can do.” Farishta picks up a straw and tightens her fingers. Soon there is smoke curling out of her fist. The straw begins to blacken. Ash drips to the hay.
It is happening more and more often. Small black handprints appear on Kalan Qala’s walls where Farishta touches them. She can understand the camels’ gossip when the nomads bring supplies. She tells Zubair of recurring dreams in which she meets men whose faces are wreathed in white flame. The things no one else can do.
“If the Sahib is helping the king, why would his men make him nervous?” Zubair says.
Farishta frowns. She moves her head, and a shadow slides across her cheek. Zubair wants to reach out and brush it off, but he keeps still.
“There’s something happening in the country. People are fighting. Agha doesn’t like it. He says chaos is the worst thing to happen to a country, that it’s worse than murdering people. That ‘a hundred years of tyranny are better than one day of anarchy.’”
Now it is Zubair’s turn to frown. “I don’t understand.”
Farishta sighs. “Neither do I.”
Her foot brushes his, and he forgets all about anarchy and kings and the Sahib’s frown. Their fingers knot in the hay. Farishta is humming a birdsong tune.
This is Zubair’s world. He knows it will be thus forever.
It is well-known that on Thursday evenings, after the call for dusk prayer, many people in the neighborhood of Ghazni’s Bost Gate visit the grave of Khaja Adina. They light lamps near the saint’s mud-brick dome, sometimes tying wish-threads to the silver-leafed oleasters around it. The nearby graves are dappled by the shadows of women, stray dogs, and Dervish Chughak.
One evening, as Dervish Chughak probed the oleasters’ boughs for olives, he overheard the conversation of two nearby widows. They were trading news of the rebellion that had engulfed the kingdom for over a decade. The king’s cavalry had been able to surprise the rebels in their camp in the Sulaiman Mountains, the camp thought to have been so cleverly hidden. Strange, the widows murmured, how the king was always one step ahead.
It had been thus for years. In the beginning, the rebels’ victory had seemed assured. The Mongol king to the north was wildly unpopular. Bad enough that his messengers and officials were entitled to bread and board in every village. When they began demanding bodies for their camps, cobblers and weavers and smiths, it had been too much for most. There was hardly a family in the south without someone in the uprising.
But the rebels’ luck had quickly soured. Unseasonable dust storms slowed their marches and damaged their stores. Strange plagues swept through their pack animals. Worst of all was the way the king always seemed to know of their movements. Even with the people’s support, victory was a far thing. The most they could do was try and stay alive.
Dervish Chughak heard the women’s worries, but was hardly paying attention. His eyes were on a crow in the branches overhead. It was an exceptionally fat and attentive specimen, with a silver underbelly. It stared back at Dervish Chughak with naked interest. By the time it spread its glossy wings and flew, the women had long since left.
Some evenings later, Dervish Chughak was wandering a different cemetery on the outskirts of Ghazni. Some of the graves there had headstones; most were marked only by colorful pennants. He knelt by a newly fastened green banner and pressed his face to the cloth, breathing deep. For a moment he could smell a hint of Eid musk, taste the sweet crumble of roht on his lips, feel a rose threaded into long locks he did not have.
“I’m close,” he murmured, not quite to himself.
As if in response, gooseflesh rippled down his arms. His gut lurched, as if he were about to plummet.
He’s found you again, the voice said, echoing in the hollows between his bones. Deep and sweet and feminine.
“I’m close,” Dervish Chughak said, not paying attention. “I can feel death’s veil. When I touch the pennants, when I sleep in the tombs’ shade. I am so close. All that is left is to part it.”
You can’t part the veil from the side of death. You need to go, before he gets here.
“And start again?”
You’ve done so before.
“Too many times.”
Don’t destroy yourself for a dead woman. The voice was already fading.
“Don’t go,” Dervish Chughak said, but he could feel her slipping away. He raised his voice. “I’m close. I can part the veil, I can bring you back, I can do it. I’m so close, Farishta!”
But he was alone again among the dead.
Zubair is in the courtyard, beating dust from the Sahib’s rugs, when his heart starts to pound. He can feel the blood drumming in lines along his skull; iron bitterness floods his mouth. He looks up at the Sahib’s tower, haloed by the setting sun, and starts running.
It is like this now, at the age of twenty. He has lashed his spirit to hers, and her moods drag it along on their paths. Each drop of saliva he drinks off her lips, each cut from her nails, each stifled moan in his ear makes it worse. He can be washing out a latrine pot when sudden pleasure yanks at his innards; he can be thrown deep into sorrow while simply baking bread.
Zubair does not care. Why would he? Farishta is his world, his hereafter, whatever lies beyond both. This is simply one of the gifts that come with loving someone who can do what Farishta can do. He would love her even if it were not so.
But this time is different. There is a wildness to Farishta’s feeling, something that shades on panic. Zubair bounds up the stairs to the Sahib’s study with a stick in his hand and a sickness rising in his throat.
I’m coming for you, he says silently, casting the promise ahead of him.
The wood of the Sahib’s door is aglow, the dying sunlight falling over all its calligraphy wrought in red gold. There are raised voices behind the portal. Zubair slows as he approaches, cocks his head to listen.
“Agha Jana, please,” Farishta is saying. Her voice sounds as if it has been torn up by thorns. “I’m begging you not to do this. Do not make me do this.”
“How can you even think such a thing?” If Farishta’s voice is ragged, the Sahib’s is a burning wind rolling over the mountains. “My own daughter would have me turn traitor?”
“There are deeper loyalties than those owed to a king. I’ve read it in the books of your own library. Philosophers and storytellers, they all condemn tyrants. And he is a tyrant, Agha.”
“He has been responsible for every scrap of food that has ever passed through your lips,” the Sahib says. “He raised me up when I was nothing, nourished me when others would have mounted my head above the city gates. I owe this country nothing, and neither do you.”
“He is making you his partner in murder. We’re scholars, not soldiers—we shouldn’t be scrying for rebel camps, sending curses on men we do not know!”
“We are people of our word, and we do not abandon those who did not abandon us.”
Farishta pauses. “You do what you have to, Agha Jana. But I have no part in this.”
“You will do as you are told.” The Sahib’s voice drops.
“I don’t have to be here. Not for this—” Farishta’s voice snaps off at the wet crack of flesh striking flesh.
Pain scythes through Zubair’s jaw, then again through his stomach. He crashes wide-eyed through the door.
Sunlight flares through the lattices, half-obscuring the books and rarities in the room’s niches. Farishta lies on a brightly patterned carpet, a line of blood running from her mouth onto the collar of her red robe. Over her stands the Sahib, his foot raised for another blow to her midsection. They stare at Zubair on the threshold.
The words tumble from Zubair’s mouth uncontrolled. “Don’t touch her.”
For a moment the Sahib only stares. Understanding floods his face, disgust sours his expression.
“You?” he says quietly.
“Agha Jana,” Farishta begins.
The Sahib’s mouth twists. He slashes at the air with an empty hand. Zubair is wrenched off his feet and slammed against the lattices. The Sahib is advancing, his hand outstretched.
“You’ve done this to her,” he says. “This is you.”
“No!” Farishta snaps, getting to her feet, but the Sahib ignores her. There is a spark dancing across his fingernails.
Zubair tries to speak. Not to him, to her. To say sorry. He cannot get the words out.
“You’ve brought this on yourself,” the Sahib says, and he flings the spark.
He sees the red blur of Farishta moving too late. The spark catches her in the chest, blossoms into an inferno.
Cloth and skin and bone peel, blacken, snap. The fires billow into her hair and race down her limbs. Farishta does not scream. She only spins to face Zubair, her lips burning off her teeth, her eyes brighter than the fires, brushing his chest with her fingertips, and she pushes.
Then Zubair is flying, splinters of the lattice tearing at his arms, the wasteland blurring beneath him, flung distant from Kalan Qala, his tears muddying Farishta’s ashes on his face.
Of the extraordinary circumstances reported about Dervish Chughak is that, as he roamed barefoot across the wide earth, he would sometimes leave behind ashen footprints.
Zubair does not know where he is, nor does he care. He lies on the sandy plain where Farishta has flung him and waits for the sunlight, the crows, the wild dogs to claim him. He cannot see the difference between these deaths. He merely welcomes whichever comes quickest.
It is the nighttime cold that nearly takes him. He stares up at a garden of stars, ash-strewn limbs trembling in the breeze. A sliver of moon is limping across the sky.
Get up, he hears a woman’s voice say. He does not hear with his ears. It echoes inside him somehow, moving from the liver up toward the ribcage, vibrating between his backbone and ribs.
He breathes an answer through cracked lips, from a cracked spirit. “Farishta?”
Get up, Zubaira. I didn’t save you to die in the desert.
“You should not have saved me.”
Get up, Zubair Jana. If you don’t get up, how will you find me?
This breaks through to Zubair’s clouded heart. “Find you?”
I’m here. On the other side of death’s veil.
“What does that mean?”
You bound yourself to me, don’t you know I bound myself to you?
“You are still here,” Zubair says quietly.
No. Farishta’s voice grows fainter the stronger Zubair’s becomes. And yes. There’s a veil, Zubaira, and I don’t know how to cross it.
“I’ll find a way,” Zubair says. “I’m coming for you, Farishta. I promise you.”
She is gone, and he is awake. His limbs cannot stop shaking, and his teeth rattle. Death shadows his body and spirit. He does not care. He forces himself up onto unsteady legs. Sets one swaying foot in front of the other.
Voyaging into the desert, to part death’s veil.
Dervish Chughak was standing by the Citadel at dawn, staring up at the rebels’ heads stuck atop it. Death clung to the place. There had never been a moment, over the past decade, in which the Citadel had not been graced by rotting rebel flesh. The veil was very thin there.
He is coming, Farishta said.
“I’m not ready,” Dervish Chughak murmured in reply. “I need more time.”
You don’t have it.
“I can feel it. The way across. It’s here, Farishta, in Ghazni.”
You can find it elsewhere, Zubaira. The earth of God is vast.
The stirrings of panic rose in Dervish Chughak’s throat. “And what if I lose it? What if I have it here, and I lose it?”
I don’t want this for you.
His answer was raw. “The only thing I want is you.”
Dervish Chughak could not tell if she heard his last remark. Farishta’s presence was an unsteady thing, there for a few heartbeats and never any longer. It was not enough. It would never be enough. Not until he tore through the veil and held her spirit and drew it back by his love.
He leaves his name in the desert. Where it once rested, deep in his liver, there is only desire. It churns for days as he walks without food or water, his peeling feet sand-scoured until their nails leap away in fright. With each step his torn robe comes more and more undone. He does not pay attention. He has a mind for one thing only.
A Kurdish caravan finds him, homeward bound for Isfahan. There he wanders into the mosques and listens to the sheikhs’ lectures, ears perked for a specific knowing. From an Arab mullah he hears about the differences between the deaths of minerals, plants, animals, humans, and saints. He eavesdrops on the students of a philosopher discussing the cosmic architecture of the hereafter. In the ecstatic evening dances of the Jamali Sufis he once glimpses a black door bound in curling ironwork. He reaches for it, but it is already gone.
Months later he is in the unwalled quarters of Bukhara, the beating heart of the Mongol king’s power. He has made himself a butcher’s assistant. The nomads come in the spring with their herds, trading cattle and sheep and goats for long-bodied Turki mares that sell so well to the south. He recognizes some of their bangles and tattoos.
He pays far more attention to the way the knife saws across a bleating sheep’s throat, the quickness by which wool reddens, the instant in which pleading eyes lose their light. Sometimes he is the one looking into the animal’s eyes, holding it steady while the butcher moves unseen from the side. On other occasions, he will wield the knife himself. Afterwards he peels back the split cords of the throat to find death’s secrets, digs through offal to track the course of a life.
Then he is on a dusty plain outside Lahore, wielding a gravedigger’s spade. He lowers one shrouded body after another into the earth’s trust. He comes to understand how the earth never betrays that trust. His body is perfumed by dust and sweat and the scent of spoiled flesh. It is there, outside Lahore, cradling an old weaver’s body into the ground, that for the first time, he feels the veil flutter against his being.
Slowly his feet learn to find the unseen fault lines slicing through existence, the subtle threads of unbeing woven into the world. He moves from one graveyard to the next: Tashkent, Kashgar, Mastung, Uch, Bahraich, Gaur. With each step, he moves closer to the veil. With each breath, he repeats his promise.
“I’m coming for you.”
When the Mongols took Ghazni, they gathered its people in the Loyak Mosque and slaughtered them. They pulled the mosque down and left the bodies there to rot. Later, when people from the countryside came to investigate what had happened, they found the piled corpses and knew not to be fools. The story spread, and the near country submitted peacefully.
Of the Loyak Mosque, nothing remained but a single ruined wall and a burnt plane tree. Though it was not marked as a grave, Dervish Chughak knew there were seven skeletons still beneath it. He sat there often, their anger throbbing in the earth under his limbs. He was there, head bent, shaded by barren boughs, on the evening the Sahib of Kalan Qala found him at last.
The Sahib rode into the Loyak Mosque’s ruin on a tall bay mare. He wore a traveler’s ready-made robe and pleated turban, well-spun but unremarkable. His beard was more white than black, and the lines around his mouth ran deep. He seemed to be nothing more than a tired old man. The two swordsmen riding behind him held themselves with more pride.
The Sahib looked down at Dervish Chughak. When he spoke, his voice was raspy and hollow. “Have you finally stopped running, Zubaira?”
Dervish Chughak glanced up at the Sahib. The memory of a bruise rippled under his eye. He pushed off that memory, trying to push himself away with it.
The Sahib frowned: an expression from another time. “Say something.”
Dervish Chughak closed his eyes.
“Say something!” the Sahib repeated. “You bastard, you pissant. You cost me my daughter’s life. You destroyed my heart by poisoning hers. What do you have to say?”
Dervish Chughak put a hand to the earth, searching. He pushed the world to the edge of his senses. Where are you? There was only his body, the skeletons bunched beneath it, the earth that lay between them. Where are you? The tremor of his breath, the beating of his heart. Where are you?
It was not dust he felt beneath his hand then, but the silk folds of a veil.
Here, Farishta whispered.
Dervish Chughak smiled.
“What are you doing?” the Sahib said, his face darkening. “Are you laughing? You steal the very brightness from my eyes, and you laugh?” He turned to his two companions, his teeth gritted. “Take his head and bring it here.”
The swordsmen dismounted and drew their blades. Steel had not been bared in the Loyak Mosque since the Mongols’ coming. They advanced on the smiling dervish. They flinched and stopped when he opened his eyes and looked at them.
It was a woman’s face staring at the swordsmen, sharp and dark and drawn with rage. There was no mistaking the slice of her jawline, the sweep of her lashes, the arch of her brows. The plane tree’s shadows tumbled down around her. For a moment it almost seemed as if her face were wreathed in long curls.
The blood flew from the Sahib’s face. His daughter’s name hovered on his lips, but he had no breath with which to voice it.
Farishta raised a hand, twisting her wrist. The swordsmen’s heads twisted with it, snapping in unnatural angles. She got to her feet as they toppled at hers.
“Agha Jana,” she whispered, and wept fire.
It is known that, in the years after the Mongol conquest, an unexplained inferno destroyed what was left of the Loyak Mosque.
Records kept by dutiful secretaries of the Ulus Chaghatay Mongol kingdom show that, around the same time, payments and monthly provisions due to a small holding in the Sulaiman Mountains called Kalan Qala were discontinued. The landholder, one Ghiyasuddin Kharkash, who began his life as a woodcutter outside Gardez, also stops appearing in the royal registers from that moment onward.
The registers themselves came to a close within the year. Despite years of setbacks, the rebels in the south began to win one victory after another in their war against the Mongol king. Their bad luck had apparently reached its end. Following the battle of Dandan-i-Madar, the forces of the Ulus Chaghatay finally withdrew from Ghazni, Shorawak, Teginabad, and the region of the Sulaiman Mountains. The people were left to rule themselves, for a time.
The story of Dervish Chughak also came to an end. Neither the people of Ghazni nor those in any other city report him flitting through their graveyards after the war’s conclusion. It is assumed that he died and found his fate in the stomachs of dogs and the gizzards of crows.
The location of Kalan Qala was lost to time. To this day, there are none who can point it out among the many other ruins dotting the country.
However, there is a story remembered by some in the Pawinda caravans, who cross the Sulaiman Mountains every year, bringing horses southeast from Bukhara. They recall how, late in the days of Mongol rule, some of their ancestors came upon a windswept fort in the foothills. They crossed into its courtyard, curious about the halls they had never before seen, and stayed for the night.
In the night, some curious eyes reported seeing a thin figure lying alone on the rooftop, staring carelessly at the stars. But others say that there were two figures there, a young woman and a young man: fingers knotted, the girl humming a birdsong tune.

Tanvir Ahmed (he/him) is a scholar of religion desperately trying to placate the spirits of the rebellious Sufis about whom he writes. He holds a PhD from Brown University and is currently based out of Vienna. His short fiction has also appeared in Strange Horizons. You can find him crawling along the moth-eaten edges of centuries-old Persian manuscripts, or alternatively, on Twitter @tnvyrahmd.

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