The Street of the BooksellersAuthor:
The Merriest Gnome of All aka tryfanstoneWritten for: killabeezCharacters/Pairings:
Many, many thanks to beta ***. Small town, somewhere on the edge of the desert. After the Gathering.
The Street of the Booksellers
The Imam at the mosque on the corner has a hacking cough and the pick-ups on the speakers are corroded. Morning stumbles forward crackled and dissonant when it should blaze into life, but it's been six centuries since the Prophet rode out of the desert and that's a long time to stay faithful. Nevertheless God is emphatically great, on the cusp of sunrise, every day of the year.
Sometimes the Imam makes his student climb the tower and greet the sunrise. Inescapably, the entire marketplace is acquainted with every nuance of the Imam's performance and the boy hasn't the same warble, although he can hold a note for longer. It's one reason why Duncan hasn't climbed the narrow stairs of the minaret and, fumbling, rewired the mosque's antiquated loudspeakers. There's a shuffle to the Imam's slippered step on stone and a hesitation to his voice: better the boy learn now while his master is still alive. Better the boy learn. Charity, clarity, the word of God, and by the will of God and the voice of the old Imam let it be Allah the All-Merciful and not Allah the Vengeful who governs this small community after the man's death.
Consulted, Methos discards fundamentalism and evangelism paired with a sideways slip of the tongue and proffers sticky honey and sesame sweets from the Tunisian baker. For all Duncan knows of the world outside, after the Gathering, peace could have come down like a dove on all shades of faith alike. Or Mecca could be in flames and Herat with it: Hokaiddo could be the new Jerusalem. He doesn't know. Nothing seems to have changed. Nothing changes. There'd been a television once, Al-Jazeera for news and Egyptian soap operas for entertainment, but when the signal failed it had vanished. In fits and starts, Methos catches the internet when he can. Headlines come in tidbits and rumours, via the newspaper vine of the marketplace and the voices of the woman who does the laundry and the boy who cleans the house, talking. The winds from the desert, the lightning, the storms, that's yesterday's news, last year's. The habina prefers Egyptian politics and English football.
The first time Duncan stumbles his way across the marketplace it's for nothing more than a blow by blow account of the Chelsea vs. Manchester United cup final, and all Duncan gleans is that the economy's fucked and nobody likes the West. That's not been news since 1969. Conversation comes with the smell of Syrian apple tobacco, peppermint tea sugared and sharp and served in tiny glasses on silver trays: the water bubbling in the hookahs, the shuffle of cards and the clack of the chess pieces, men gossiping. Yes, he lives above the bookshop on the market. He's Scottish. Yes, like Braveheart.
It feels good to get out of the house.
That evening, dinner's half-warm and half-eaten on the stove and the flatbread is wrapped on the kitchen table. Methos grunts at him, something about time and tide waiting for no man and that he's late. Image in Duncan's mind's eye, he's stiffly limber on the couch and frowning over the laptop. Cables roll under Duncan's feet and curl away under the furniture, and the cotton of Methos' robe follows them down. Sitting, hard, on the couch, Duncan tugs on the unselvedged hem of a sleeve. "You missed me." It's been three months. He's still unsteady on his feet at inopportune moments.
"Nothing to miss," Methos says, and shuts the laptop, ping snap. "You should have sent the boy for me." There's a note to the tone of his voice says he's irritated, and the couch rocks and sighs as he gets up. Their couch is old, colonial French, battered and elegant. Footsteps, almost soundless in straw sandals, cross the tiles, and from the kitchen earthenware clunks and chimes as Methos ladles ratatouille into bowls. It's easier to say nothing. By night, spoken silence melts into ease, and the next day Duncan goes back. At his elbow, their sweeper, so rigorously tutored by Methos the boy's almost shaking with fear.
Nothing and everything is news in the habina.
Old news is Methos' business. In the close stacks of hand printed pamphlets and battered foreign novels and newspapers, tracts and prints and overpriced papyrus scrolls, Methos whiles away the afternoons at his laptop. Men come and go, bringing him poetry and letters, writing to their sons in Dubai and their daughters in Amman. He brings home Arabic poetry and overprinted legends, elegantly embossed under Duncan's thumbs. Handmade paper is rough at the edges. The word of God is sacred: the words of men are the tools of Methos' trade. At night, he reads.
They share a mattress, harsh cotton twill under fine cotton sheets, stacked on an iron-framed bed held together by faith and rusted bolts. Rhythm to the day, Methos breathes lightly, asleep. He curls in on himself, neat as a cat. In summer, there are unrolled mats under the stars, still sun-warmed even when the night chills the roof: in winter, they sleep under the wainscoted iron bars of the marketplace window.
In the morning, after the Imam falls quiet the caged starlings, woken, send sunflower seeds pattering onto the tile floor. Outside a donkey brays, surprised by sunrise, and the sharp hooves of a herd of goats clatter over the heat-cracked concrete of the road. Here this town has abjured singularity and no saint lies buried in the garden of the mosque. Here Alexander, living or dead, did not build nor inhabit a mausoleum. The desert breeds only dates and camels. The Turks built a railway, the English destroyed it, and the walls of the French fort contain only the counters and telephones of the Cairo bank. Even the archaeologists have been and gone twenty years past, leaving behind them only a mound of ancient, crumbled mud brick to which the marketplace children lay siege.
In the kitchen, Methos keeps an amphora of water. Sweating out through the rough-fired fabric of the pottery, it evaporates, cool, into the afternoon heat. He brings home cracked Ottoman tiles, thick-glazed with stylised embossed tulips, smooth-slipped Roman moulded bowls and Victorian glass bottles with marbles rattling at their necks. He brings home seedlings of sage and saxifrage, scenting the kitchen with their bruised leaves, handfuls of anise five-pointed sharp and liquorice sweet, flaking rolls of cinnamon bark, and iris root balls, messy with tendrils. An orange tree in a pot, a Chinese puzzle with eight intricate carved pieces. Glass perfume bottles and an embroidered shawl and two starlings in a bird cage. Their wings are clipped, but this Duncan realises only once he has unlocked the cage door. They're not a metaphor. Methos is not that allusive. Like the bustle of the marketplace, like the clatter of the woman in the kitchen who cooks and cleans and washes, like the sound of the boy brushing sand from the roof and the floors, the rustles and croaks of the starlings ground Duncan in the here and now.
Evenings, Methos brings upstairs books from the shop and reads out loud, and Duncan sits cross-legged on the couch or at his feet and listens. There's an aching familiarity to the sound of Methos' voice, but like Majnun wandering in the desert Duncan has mislaid the expectations of the past. He can remember, vividly, other places and other times, but not himself in them: after, he had walked out of the sun blind, and Methos had been waiting.
"Did we sit like this before?" Duncan asks, and above him Methos stills.
"Yes," he says.
"I don't remember," Duncan says.
For a moment, Methos' hand rests heavy on his neck. "You will," he says, and then his fingers lift. The pages of the book turn. Minutes later, he says, "I should find you a sword."
A week later, he does. The boy rises earlier to brush the sand from the roof as well as flour from the kitchen floor. He carries water from the well when the pipes are down, buys produce from the market, takes Duncan to the habina, spends his afternoons sitting in the corner of the bookshop drinking American Coca-Cola and dreaming big city dreams. He wants a horse, to dance at weddings. At the habina, he says nothing.
The first time Duncan re-learns the formal kata to the sound of Methos' voice, Methos tells him, "I'm not your teacher." But he was someone's teacher, once. The beat of his voice is as steady as the ticking weights of an infinity clock. Growing slowly back into the spaces and shapes of his own body, Duncan listens. Later, he'll ask questions.
They're between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where the first plant was cultivated, where the first city was built. Here, this town with its rattling pickups and coughing goats, its single mosque and dusty habina and battered marketplace, its empty houses, its shuttered streets and silent women. It's been a year and three months since Duncan stumbled out of the desert and found Methos waiting for him. Two summers, one winter. Night comes quickly here, and the shadows of it darken Duncan's closed eyes. A year ago, when the light changed, he could see nothing.
There's a moment when he can ask, "Why are we here?"
On the couch, shifting, Methos closes the book. "We're waiting for someone," he says.
"I don't know," Methos says. Then he says, "It's different this time. There's two of us." His voice is puzzled.
"You didn't expect me," Duncan says.
Methos laughs, a half stifled, surprised snort of humour. "No," he says, and adds, "I'm glad you're here."
Then he opens the book again.
Between them, never silence. No other man is recognisable by the sound of his coming in Duncan's head. It's not discordant, that heavy, certain recognition, but it's unique to Methos. As Methos, asked, hears Duncan.
No other man, until one morning, before the Imam calls the faithful to prayer, before the market wakes, the notes change. It's the smallest alteration in tone, an echo almost lost behind familiarity, only discernable because Duncan's had little to do but listen. He knows, something will change. Today.
Heavy with expectation, Duncan lies awake under the thin coverlet until Methos stirs beside him.
"You hear it?"
"Yes. We need to go. Can you bring water? We'll take the jeep."
It is Methos' then and not borrowed, the battered old army jeep in the yard, and the engine fires up on the first try and runs loud in the cold of the morning air. The noise of it drowns out the sound of the town waking, the startled birds in their cage, the boy coming stumbling from his mother the widow's house, and warns both the goatherd and, later, the small creatures of the desert of their approach. They drive until the sun comes up, warm on Duncan's face, and then on into the morning. When Methos lets the jeep slide to a halt and kills the engine, it's almost midday
And also, almost, quiet.
There is a word for the sound one grain of sand makes, moving. A million grains breathe like the wind. The desert is never silent. Even the footsteps of an ant send sand scattering across the dunes and the footsteps of a man can be heard long before the man himself is seen. Counterpoint, the jeep's engine ticks, cooling.
A man walks out of the desert. His footsteps are sure and certain, and like Duncan two years before he comes naked from the sun, unclothed by the quietness of his stride. His breathing is strong and steady, and he does not walk as Duncan did, blindly searching. Although, as Methos had waited then, so now does Duncan. Sliding out of the passenger seat to the sand, he turns his face to the shade of the man's shadow, falling across his skin. Almost, he can see the light change.
A hand touches his face. It's not Methos' hand, which is cool and finely muscled. This hand is warm and broad, strong, this man's skin is scoured smooth by the sand. It's a familiar touch, a man Duncan knows and cannot place. He turns his cheek into the palm of that hand.
He says, this man, "Mac." His voice is accented, as Duncan's is, frustrated or tired. They are kin, then, or of the same place.
Then the man says, "You." He is not surprised. He says, "I should have known you would be here. What name is it you go by here?"
Methos snorts. "I could have been anyone. You, I was expecting. He was a surprise." But Methos' voice is lighter, relieved. There's a sword, under the blankets.
"I didn't dare hope," the man says. Connor says. Connor, his cousin Connor, the Highlander, born like Duncan under the shadow of Ben Slieve four hundred years ago. Far from here.
Duncan says, "Connor," and feels rather than hears Methos' suppressed start. "You came back." He's smiling. He can feel it in the stretch of the muscles on his face, lifting, happy.
"Now he remembers," Methos says, aggrieved and proud.
"I'll always come back," Connor says. He lets his hand drop. "And one of you best have a flask. It's thirsty work, dying."
Methos, of course, does, although it's a Syrian blend Connor nearly spits out. "Two years, and this is the best you can do?"
There had been death. That, Duncan remembers, although not the how and and the why of it although the memories cluster at the edges of his mind. They'll come, muted now with time and understanding. The Gathering happened. He is still alive, and Connor, and Methos. Maybe others. Amanda. Possibly Joe. Possibly, it is Joe Methos talks to, late at night bent over the laptop, his fingers busy on the keys.
Connor says, "Does it begin again, now?" He's not the kind of man who likes not knowing.
Methos says, "Who knows?" and starts the jeep.
In the small shower off the hall, Connor bathes, and then they talk of small things with the undercurrent of greater beneath their voices. There is broiled lamb with apricots, and rice. Like Duncan, Connor eats with his fingers, as neatly as any child of the desert. He borrows Duncan's clothes, and a pair of sandals, and then a sleeping mat from the roof.
It's different, lying in the same bed as Methos, knowing. Duncan's slept like a child for months. Now he's startlingly aware of Methos' presence, the warmth of his skin, the sour sweat smell of him, the rustle of Connor unclothing in the other room, the way Methos breathes. He knows Methos' skin by touch in darkness as well as his own. He should wait. Methos has been waiting years.
He can't. It's been a muted heat all night, but suddenly, the need to touch blazes under his skin. He knows the arch of Methos' back and the shape of his mouth, the moment when his eyes close and the small lines by the corners of his mouth. Methos has slept under the shelter of his arm, and he under Methos'. They were friends once, neither less nor more than whatever it is they are to each other in this bed.
Duncan says, "My dear."
Beside him Methos rolls up onto his elbow and stays there, poised. He says, "Was there something you wanted?" But he's amused. It will show, in the curve of his mouth and the poise of his shoulders.
Smiling, Duncan reaches out a hand and pulls him down. He says, "Yes," and Methos comes as easily into his arms now in darkness as he has ever done in light. There's a debt between them Methos will never tally and Duncan cannot repay, but he starts here, with the surety of touch.
Later, although Methos is stifled silent apart from the quickened, helpless rasp of his breathing, the bedstead squeaks and rattles against the plaster. The starlings flutter uneasily in their cage and outside the door, Connor shuffles his bedding together and stumbles up the stair to the quiet of the night. Palm spread out over Methos' heart, fingers under the curve of his back, attuned to nothing more than the living flesh of the man under him, Duncan smiles. Here in the dark he is as sure of himself now as he was twenty years ago, walking through the pale sunshine of a Paris autumn.
He says, "Now?" and Methos arches against him, unexpectedly and desperately willing.
Afterwards, awake, Methos is nothing more than a shadow against the first light of the sun. Pleasantly weary, sated, Duncan reels him in, tucks Methos' head down against his own shoulder where, occasionally, it belongs. Sometimes it's like this, when Methos is strung thin and it's Duncan who carries them both. Slow rearrangement, he folds himself around the man in his arms, touch leaching away the tension of a night's surrender. They're not built to yield, neither he nor the man in his arms, and Methos had.
"You sleep like a crusader," Methos says, cross, and Duncan laughs.
Almost, it's time to leave.End