Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chapter Eight: The Leatherman's Diary - October 14, 1868

The smell of leather is the smell of my father. Always and forever. I remember, before I can remember, like the taste of the teat. Like the smothering warmth of my fair mother's embrace.

So was leather to my father. He'd come home from work perfumed with that strong sultry musk of cured leather. And that is my earliest memory. One that has never changed. Always, the scent of a new purse, or belt, or saddle, and my father's warm features, those he carried as a young man, a young father, appear before me.

I don't remember the father I left behind. That father was a stranger to me. Is a stranger to me still.

But the scent of leather, my father, means joy and security and love. A child's helpless, selfish, wholehearted love for a man as big as a house. A man whose arms could reach to touch the ceilings of our home, impossibly high. A man whose embrace could take my breath away. A man whose mere arrival could fill me with wonder and laughter. This was my father. The scent of leather and joy.

And the scent of my doom.

I sit with the scent of my father now.

Thick and sharp, the leather needle still needs a rap with the tinsmith's hammer to pierce the thick leather pieces I've found out behind the tannery.

My winter woolen coat is in shreds after six seasons in this most inhospitable climate. It welcomes in the chill, and invites it to stay the night.

Leather clothing, I know, will keep the wind out, and seal in the meager warmth my body's furnace burns.

Three days’ work on this coat. It is not fashionable, but it is functional. As heavy as a cowboy's saddle, it will at least keep my shoulders dry in the winter blizzard and the summer thunder. It is shingled like a leather roof. One scrap of leather overlapping the next. But each scrap is irregular like the stones in the New England stone fences which are sometimes my only companion in the long walks between towns.

I am not the man I was. I am still nameless, and silent. But I own muscles in my legs and arms that did not belong to my former self. And I am thinner by twenty pounds. Not enough food, and a bounty of labor.

I've learned that begging alone will not always win me a meal. I've chopped wood, and built walls, and have limed and cleaned the pits of privies on those white shingled farms.

I garden some, but my remote patches of vegetables must be protected from deer and raccoon, and I am rarely the victor.

Some people are generous. Some not. Some guard every potato with a jealousy that most hold for gold or love. Others invite me to pick fruit from their trees, and hold the ladder for me as I do so. And send me away with pockets filled with fruit.

I've found some friends. And I've found some who treat me as if I am the man I pretend to be. Nobody. Yet even these, who don't address me, barely look at me, will give me a meal if I show them I am hungry.

For the most part, this is a country of generosity. But where there is meanness, it is as bitter as the raddish leaf.

I have found nights of great hunger, of great fear, and of even greater cold, when even the heat of a small fire could not be coaxed from wet tinder. And I possess no fortune.

As I watch my finger push the great needle through the thick leather, and see the thread follow through like mankind after history, I remember the hard, dark, thick hands of the men in my father's warehouses.

On my visits to the warehouses, where the air was always as solid with big black flies as it was with the pungent scent of leather, I would seek one of those men out. His name was Hafiz, after a great Persian poet, or so he told me. I sought him because of all the men, he was the only one who found the time to look up from his work and spare me a smile. He was the only one who would let me feel the fine leather of the doe and compare them to the coarse, rugged leather of the pachyderm.

And there were leathers of all kinds in those dark warehouses in the tropics. But the deep shadows of those warehouses, and the lengths of shade thrown by the piles of cured skins were no defense against the dusty heat of the desert village outside.

We lived in Persia in the city of Tabreez, in the province of Azerbijan, from a year after my birth until I was ready for university. In those years, I knew several other boys from the continent, with whom I attended a private school in a green oasis, called "The Sanctuary" by the European businessman who lived in the city.

The European homes surrounded the sanctuary. Though they looked little different then the mud colored homes that dotted the city. The only difference between the rich and poor, I was to learn later, was the height of the great walls which surrounded nearly every home of any value.

The men of these homes traveled out of those homes each morning and onto the ragged paths and narrow sunbleached streets of the city where they dealt in commerce, not of their land, but of goods manufactured in this land to be shipped back to France, Denmark, England and Germany, and sometimes to the Americas. They dealt in hand-fired lacquered tiles, carpets, coarse china, tobacco, rugs, coffee and glass, stone cuttings and gold and silver brocade.

In the sanctuary, the European men and women felt safe. Though they often did not speak the same European language as their neighbor, they recognized it, and were able to create a friendly, if primitive, form of communication based more on Western and Christian conventions than any other similarity.

It was the exotic danger of the neighborhoods on the outside of the sanctuary that was the biggest temptation for a young boy.

I could stare from the hot flat roof of my home and see a constant movement of humanity, swathed in clothing, mostly white, moving in small groups of two and three. At first I would venture out of the sanctuary only with my parents, to go to market, of to visit the leatherworks with my father. On these trips I was alternately elated and frightened for my life. Dark men with flowing robes, and wild eyes, stared out at me from whiskered faces as if I were something they were considering for their next meal. Women, veil upon veil, with only black eyes uncovered, would not meet my gaze at all. And the children were everywhere, half-naked, arms outstretched to my father. They did not look like children to me, but like shrunken adults. I never saw a child of the streets, smile.

Later I would wander the neighborhoods near the sanctuary with some other European companions. We walked with a naive and stupid impunity. We were white and European, and this, we thought, was shield enough to keep harm at bay. In fact, we were never hurt. We knew the language, and we bartered at the market like our parents did. We bought food we didn’t crave, because we could, then we gave it to the beggars who surrounded us as we walked.

We strolled with an imperial air that must have angered these natives as much as it made us feel like invincible men.

Then one German boy disappeared. I remember the search they made for Gunther. They never found him. He wandered away during a school day, and it was all anyone ever saw of him again. As I recall, there was a suspect whom the magistrate picked up, and there was a trial, of sorts, and there was, in fact, a hanging. But we heard, as boys will always hear, that the man caught was paid to confess, and that he turned his money over to his family before he died. His life was a sacrifice for their survival. It was yet another resentment for his community to carry in their hearts.

Gunther's disappearance did not keep us in the sanctuary, though it was what my parents demanded, and even when my friends could not follow, or were too afraid to join me, I went alone.

On one journey I ventured down a narrow alley just off the marketplace. As I walked back through the alley it seemed to get narrower still. Staircases cut into the sides of the building and ran up to second level dwellings, and the exotic smell of cooking and spice was everywhere.

At the end of one of these buildings, the alley narrowed so that only a single person could pass through at a time. There was an archway, and a short tunnel, and at the end the sun was blindingly bright against a bleached wall.

I walked through the tunnel and found myself in a large courtyard. It was filled with fruit trees, several looms, a few goats and chickens, and a slowly running fountain surrounded by beautiful flowering bushes, which hung heavy, on this day, with large violet and red flowers.

Sitting by the fountain was a man. He was slight. His head was wrapped tightly with the colorful cloths which designated he was a religious man, and his headdress was piled so high that it appeared as if he even the slightest breeze would topple it.

I walked over to the fountain, and he did not turn to look at me. I stood behind him for a moment, out of fear, or respect, I will never know. He was motionless. I moved my feet, to make some noise, and he still did not turn.

I circled the fountain, but found, upon arriving on its far side, that I could see only the top of the old man's turban.

I climbed up onto the wall that surrounded the fountain. Yet still I could not see. A flowering vine, whose sinewy limbs must have been centuries old, twisted like a wooden waterway over my head.

I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up. But I trusted the vine more than I should have and it gave way, toppling me into the water of the fountain.

Though the day was hot, and my inadvertent dunking refreshed me, I was disturbed to find that when I climbed out of the fountain the old man was gone. I never got the opportunity to get a good look at him.

I searched the courtyard, but found that I was the only one there. I headed toward the alley and back out toward the marketplace.

"This is not the place for curious little white boys," a voice came from somewhere behind and above me.

I turned and saw no one.

"But if you seek the truth, the truth knows no color, and the truth loves the brave."

Again I turned but saw no one.

"Come back into the garden my child, if it is enlightenment you seek."

I walked back into the courtyard, and there, standing where he had been sitting before, was the old man.

He was taller than I had imagined he could be. Taller than most of the natives I passed in the streets and alleys everyday. The scarves on his head covered most of his hair, but long wisps cascaded to his shoulder where they joined a beard that seemed to explode in every direction, covering a bare, browned, wizened chest.

"Hello, child. My named is Ahmed. What truths do you seek."

"I don't seek any truths," I replied.

"Then what are you looking for," he asked, and smiled.

"I'm not looking for anything," I said. "I'm just looking."

"A boy looking is a boy looking for the truth."

I blinked into the sun.

"I must go. My dinner will be ready soon."

"When you return," he said as I began to turn, "We will speak. And I will help you find what you're looking for."

When I turned to tell him again that I wasn't looking for anything, he was gone.

1 comment:

Peter Dobkin Hall said...

Ed: good to see that you are still extant -- & still pondering the mystery of the Old Leatherman!

Peter Dobkin Hall