Chapter 2 – Escape

Each day Amsiggel went to school in the mosque. He respected the teacher and tried to memorize the words written on his slate, but his mind wasn’t really on his lessons. He often looked out of the window. He thought of the squirrels playing among the rocks. He thought of the honeybees buzzing in the orchard, the frogs croaking by the spring, the blackbird singing in the poplars beside the river. He remembered all he’d seen in the forest and asked himself, “How does a straight tree grow from twisted roots?” He thought of the hearthplace beside the spring and asked himself, “Why does smoke go up and water down?” He recalled the dust storms that spring up in the evening and wondered, “Where does the wind come from? Is it the trees that stir the air, or the air that moves the trees?” His thoughts travelled through forests and crags, and his imagination carried him into the realm of the clouds and the stars of heaven. And many times he suffered the stick for not knowing the words on his slate.

One day he came home and found Grandfather sitting in the doorway. “Grandad, some things I just can’t understand!” he said. To which the old man replied, “The shade cast by a palm tree lies far from its roots. Keep looking for the answers, son, till you find what you’re after!”

In those days Amsiggel’s mother was expecting a third child. She had a hard time of it and the baby was born dead. She grew weaker, and got so ill she could no longer get up from her sleeping mat. For two months she lay between life and death. Her husband came back from town and saw how she was: she could no longer do the housework. So he divorced her and married another. She went back to her parents, and three months later she died. The new woman of the house had no time for Amsiggel or his sister Tazzwit. As the old-timers say, “An orphan’s feet raise dust in the rainy season and spread mud in the summer drought!” They wanted to marry Tazzwit to a man in town who had lent her father some money. She’d never seen him, and she knew nothing of him: she was thirteen years old. She cried and cried, and Amsiggel could find no way to comfort his sister, for he too was overcome by many tears. Four days remained before the wedding party.

That night thieves came. They dug a hole in the wall of the village shop and took the money box. At daybreak the shop people came from house to house asking everyone where they had been that night. They found all the villagers had been at home, except for Amsiggel. That night he’d gone out to follow some shooting stars, wanting to see whether they were falling in the forest or on the other side of the mountain. Igider told them all he had seen Amsiggel going out in the direction of the shop.

Straightaway they went, and dragged Amsiggel from his bed. They threw him into a deep storage pit and left him there with nothing to eat or drink. Amsiggel just didn’t know what had happened. He heard the other boys reciting in the mosque, but nobody came to see him. Two days and two nights he stayed there, with mixed up thoughts going round and round in his head. Then some men of the village came and pulled him out, and began to beat him with sticks saying, “That’s what a thief deserves!” Then they drove him out of the village and through the fields, throwing stones after him.

Amsiggel climbed the track up the hill towards the forest. He walked until he was exhausted and could go no further. Fainting away, he fell down beneath a fig tree. As he slept he was suddenly awakened by the voice of a girl. Turning over he recognized Tazzwit. She ran to him: “O Amsiggel! What’s happened to you? What’s all this blood on your face?” “You can see how I am,” he said, “but I really don’t know what happened!” She took his hand. “Come, we’ll go back home!” she said. “No!” he replied, “The family don’t want me, and neither does the village – they chased me away with stones! I’m going to look for a safe and peaceful place.” “Well in that case, I’ll come with you!” said Tazzwit. “No, this path is too hard for you.” he replied, “You’d never make it.” “Even if it’s hard,” she insisted, “what have I left at home except drudgery and ill-treatment?”

At that moment came a sound like whispering in the leaves of the fig tree. “Seek and you’ll find,” it said, “Seek and you’ll find!” As they turned, they saw Grandfather coming towards them. “O Grandad,” exclaimed Tazzwit, “Was it you who said that?” “I didn’t say a thing, my dear,” he replied. “So why have you come out to the forest Grandad?,” asked Amsiggel. “Go now Amsiggel!” he replied, “God has ordained for you to ask and seek. Look how vast this world is! Go and search everywhere till you discover the whole truth – till you know everything as it really is and understand what is hidden from us.” Tazzwit spoke up. “Grandad, I’m going with him!” she said. “Go, you too, my dear.” he replied, “Your brother will look after you. I know the man who wants to marry you – he’s a drunkard. Best for you to be far away.” Then the old man looked at them carefully. “Listen!” he said, “There’s something more I want to tell you. Don’t worry at all about what’s kept safe for you. I’ve got it hidden till you return!” Then he raised his hand, and Amsiggel and Tazzwit kissed the top of his head. He stood up and started back to the village. Amsiggel and Tazzwit set off along the track.

“What did Grandad mean,” she asked, “about what is kept safe for us?” “He has something.” replied her brother, “and I don’t know what it is. He knows something we don’t know.”