Come, Best Beloved. Come sit with me, and I shall tell you a story.
Far away, in a country on the other side of East, there is a garden filled with only red flowers. No blue blossoms, no pink or purple petals. Only red. They say it is because the hearts of lost loves are buried there, and that is Truth, but it is not the only Truth. All the stories from the sages and all the songs from the balladeers tell of the lovers and the broken-hearted, and the hero Abd al Alim who braved the Endless Ocean and crossed the world to find the heart of his own Best Beloved. But the story that should be told is of the first flower of the garden and the woman who tends it, from the first whispers of dark in the evening until the last shadows of night flee to the sky at dawn.
Many years ago, in the time before the great minarets and temples, in a small village, in this country on the other side of East, Death came for the soul of a man. The man was not a king or a sorcerer; he was not a wise vizier or brave general; he was not a great man — but he was a good man. At his grave, the community had gathered to mourn: they beat their chests and rent their garments and shouted their grief to the heavens.
So great was their noise, that astride his great white camel, even Death paused, and for a moment all the world was still. Then Death spoke to the people, “You would desire this man’s return?”
The villagers cried out, “Yes, yes!” and wrung their hands and tore their hair and begged Death not to take the man.
Death looked about the barren lands and at the waiting grave and, weary from his travels, wished (as he had done many times before) for a place to rest and refresh himself. He spoke: “I cannot give life without taking life. But I would have a garden here with warm winds, cool water, and beautiful flowers. Who would build me this garden and tend to it? In exchange for this man, who will take his place and become Caretaker for Death’s garden?”
The wind blew across the hard ground, and the people shuffled their feet and would not look at each other.
Death raised a hand to the man’s friends and bid them to come closer. “To spare your friend, will you serve Death? Will you build me a garden with the sweat of your brow and the dust of the earth?”
And the man’s friends spoke. They praised his honor and courage. They cheered his charity and kindness. But none stepped forward. “Our fields will lie fallow and our homes will go untended. It is not yet our time.”
The man’s wife cowered as Death’s hollow gaze turned to her. “Will you spare your husband and serve Death? Will you let hoe and rake bend your back and twist your hands?”
And the man’s wife spoke. She praised his love and fidelity. She spoke of his protection and generosity. But she did not step forward. “My life is full with my children and my children’s children. It is not yet my time.”
The man’s grown children cried and clasped their families close as Death turned and spoke to them. “Will you spare your father and serve Death? Will you let the wind and rain batter your body and the sun scorch your skin?”
And the man’s children spoke. They praised his wisdom and his teachings. They spoke of his caring and gentleness towards them. But they did not step forward. “The world is a dangerous place and our families are young and require protection. It is not yet our time.”
Then the crowd stirred as an old woman pushed to the front. Her body was stooped with age; her skin was brown and wrinkled, and with eyes as faded as if they had witnessed one hundred years upon the earth. It was the man’s mother, and she stepped forward and looked boldly upon Death. She spoke in a voice as soft and as dry as the Northern winds. She offered Death her heart, and said only, “I will.”
Once again Death paused and all the world was still. Wrapping his jalabiya more tightly around himself, Death stretched out a hand, and before all of assembled, a garden bloomed across the dry, broken ground. It was a garden with green trees and bushes, singing birds and cool fountains, and at its center was a single flower. It was a flower as red as the blood of the woman’s son when it spilled into the sand. A flower as tall as he stood the day he became a man. A flower as soft as the silken burial cloths of the people beyond the mountains that she buried him in.
But her son lived again. He stood at the edge of the garden and opened his arms, and then clasped his mother so tightly, she could feel the beating of his heart.
“It was not yet your time,” he whispered.
The crowd bowed their heads, shamed.
The mother let her silent tears speak of her love and her goodbye. They would not meet again for she now belonged to Death, and the living may not enter Death’s garden.
And so my Best Beloved, lovers meet and lovers part and lovers are lost. So the garden grows. And when their hearts fly to the country on the other side of East, the Mother of all Broken Hearts is waiting to tend to them. Hers is the first story and the last story and she will continue, Best Beloved, every night as we sleep, from the first whispers of dark until the last shadows of night flee to the sky at dawn.