Languages drop from Joe’s lips easily. Nicky struggles with survival phrases in lingua francas- What Hurts in Dari and Can you breath- nod yes in Swahili and How can we help in French, but Joe can easily lose himself in the sea of a new language’s words and come up swimming, not just stringing together sentences but swallowing poetry, drama, and music. In Ughyur, Bosnian, Zapotec, Spanish, Tamil, Sylheti, Albanian. The shelves of his books line their lives. That is important to Joe, that people be seen not just as they always seem to be in western news reports - as the bodies in the ruined city- but as poets. As storytellers. As humans who struck fire with language that will survive and burn anew.
Joe recites Khachatur Abovian to calm the fractured nerves of a former schoolteacher ripped from his home while he and Nicky rush to forge passports and visas for the teacher and his wife and his seven children to make new lives in America. In a post war displaced persons camp he speaks Yiddish, reads Sholem Aleichem and Avrom Sutzkever from paperbacks pulled from the fires and then decades later in the dust of Baghdad, Arabic and al-Sayyab. And he listens, listens even more than he speaks. He listens to stories upon stories of war and loss and human suffering with his ears and his eyes and heart and a clasped hand that says, I do not claim to know your pain but I have felt my own.
Nicky sets arms and delivers babies and administers vaccines and sorts endless boxes of quinine tables and bandages. He speaks with his hands, mainly, and his bedside manner is different from Joe’s. He learned long ago to keep lollipops in the right pocket of his jacket. The first language Nicky learned to speak was the sea and the second was the wind, and spoken words come to him slower, with less agility, blending into occasionally archaic jumbles. He means to ask an assistant for an antiseptic wipe at one point, has to dig through his mind through the piles of once vital vocabulary bleached useless by time, military jargon for battles lost nine hundred years ago and colloquial derja words for plants and crops gone extinct under the tides of modern monocropping, and comes up sputtering, asking if anyone, perchance, has a neckerchief?
The linguistic stumbling of an unlettered genovese sailor versus a middle class trader’s son who learned to love the written world on his mother’s lap.
It took Nicky a human life time to master spoken Arabic, in a few of her many varieties, with her tricky mazes of roots, more decades of listening and stumbling through conversations and gentle corrections than the average human mind could take before his own readujsted to the beauty of a world described through roots with all things connected to each other.
It took him another life time again to master fusHa, the complex turns of phrase and imagery and unwritten short vowells, and a brush and then pen always felt far more alien in his hands than a sword did. (Although the precision of a pen prepares him well for the precision of a scalpel, and that, perhaps, is the instrument with which Nicky writes history.)
A thousand years ago, in the same city who’s people Joe and Nicky will die again and again for to try and pull from the ruin, the man then Yusuf wrapped his hand around the hand of the man then Niccolò and guided him through this mysterious world of written letters. Alif-ba-ta-thaa and then nun-qaf-waw-lam-alif,
For the first time, Niccolò wrote himself down.
The script contained other mysteries and hidden trap doors. The disappearing mem that could get swallowed by lam and alif and the mysterious shape-shifting ta marbouta and the categories of sun and moon letters that lent the marks on a page a tangible quality, the burning Mediterranean sole that Niccolò’s people marked their years by and la luna by which Yusuf’s people knew their own time by.
When they had reached their first truce in the battlefield and had to learn how to say things beyond various threats and claims of the name of God, they’d each had to remake the world in a new image, relabel everything they’d thought they’d known. Shams, the enemy man had said over and over again, pointing up, and Niccolò hadn’t known if he meant “sky” or “blue” or “above” or “God” or the color “blue.” Niccolò had drawn a line in the sand, the past running to the future and tried to map out the different tenses of his own language he didn’t fully understand himself, only knew how he’d use them in a sentence. He’d hatched an x in the middle for now, drawn two little stick figures and two blobby horses, us he’d said in zenaize, then future, right of the men, past, left.
“Ahhh,” the man who Niccolò now knew as Ana Ismee Yusuf, nodded. He stood up and pointed right. “Lelshar’.” To the left. “Lel’arb.” He smiled and Niccolò thought it might be worth dying, just to see again. “Si, si. Io capiscooo.” He stretched his syllables out in a deadpan imitation of a puffed-up Genovese noble, and Niccolò laughed himself.
Several lifetimes later and Niccolò tries to label his world anew again in writing. Yusuf writes out words in large, blocky script on pieces of scap paper, marks the harakat around the words carefully in red ink. He tacks باب to the door and سَرِير to their bed and even أنا to himself. He holds up a piece of paper to the sky outside, the sun blinding their eyes momentarily before they repair. الشَّمس, the first word. Yusuf even attempts to stick قِطّ onto Amira, the sharp eyed street cat who’s wormed her wait into their household. The scratches that earns him heal quickly.
It takes Niccolò far longer than he wants anyone to know before his mind properly started to see a word and see it as a word, something more than a collection of letters but a thing that existed, definitively, in God’s world. بَيْت, what he and Yusuf have now had in Basra, Palermu, Fustat. مُحيط, like the Mare Nostrum. فَتاة, a girl like like the sister he left behind.
And then the door was opened, and Niccolò could read, or at least, understand this process of reading for himself, and more than that, he could see this part of Yusuf, so crucial to the soul he nad come to love and this heart he now held in his own. Yusuf loved words, and books, and writing, he loved his Book as the word of God to his prophet and he loved his books as connection to the mother who had first taught him suras and his father who wrote in three languages, and, he had once told Niccolò in the quiet safety of their bed, in the night, with the first boy he had ever loved, the other star pupil at their madrassa with whom he would lie composing lines of poetry under a lemon tree.
Niccolò thought of Yusuf reading in the small, cool courtyard of the house in Damascus that would for this lifetime be their home, his mouth moving silently in prayer as his fingers followed reverently over the verses. He thought of Yusuf moving elegantly through the world, his speech dry and witty or educated where his own felt blunt, trading jokes and barbs back and forth in the tea house and the market. But mostly, Niccolò thought of Yusuf writing, face still with all the steady focus and silent reverence of prayer, bent over a carved rosewood writing desk, the sunlight streaming in through the windows setting his curls on fire. And his hands, so strong, so reliable, moving unerringly across the page, line after line of the script that Niccolò once feared and mocked because he feared but which he now knew could contain all the beauty of the world.
He practiced by writing to the those he loved but no longer walked the world.
Oum, today sun bright. I see roses in market. I think of you, when I see roses in market.
Abba, in house of God happy I know you are, happy makes it me.
Maria, to read you will love, i know. Your son man now. Good i know. Peace to you.
Niccolò burned the letters in a fire and hoped God would make it so his 'aa'ila could read them. Yusuf and Niccolò were both young in the business of being immortal. They had not learned to shoulder the pain of it yet, so they faced the loneliness, together and alone. Niccolò thought that he saw the appeal of letter writing, then, imagined a world in which he could have written his family from the Holy Land, told them that no matter how many infidels he killed to cleanse this world for the Cross he felt no closer to holiness himself, told them that the one he killed and killed and killed again he had found holiness in, told his parents that their son died and died and did not die. That he missed home, the rocky shores and fishing villages of Liguria, but that he missed them more, because his family was his home, even if there were things about him that he hid in the darker parts of himself because he knew they would never understand.
His sister’s grandchildren- or maybe her great-grandchildren, he wasn’t quite sure- were still alive, probably, but there wasn’t a way they’d respond well to the idea of a relative who’d have been forty years past death even without war sending them letters written in the alphabet they’d been taught to hate, if they could read at all.
With the ashes of his letters, he let his family go, and prayed God would look kindly upon them, and show them mercy, and grant them peace and understanding. Every century or so, he’ll check in, he vowed, even from afar, because he owes Maria that much. He hoped her son or his son or his son has not wasted his life to die in a war on foreign soil like he did, or that her daughter or her daughter or her daughter has not been left a widow.
Yusuf’s family still lived in Tunis. His sister Maryam took over the trading business after his death and made the al-Khaysani family a great name and funded many hospitals and houses of learning. News of her death reached Palermu weeks after the burial, and it was one of the few times in their long, long lives that Yusuf had to walk for months alone, to process a grief as large as the world. He let the waves of the sea and the sand of the desert swallow him again and again, and when he did not die, he rose and lifted his head to the sky and swore he would make the world as good as she wanted it to be. In every city they go to with a cathedral or even a baked mud church Niccolò lights candles for Maria and for Maryam. Santa Maria, madre de dio, they’ll pick up one day, in a language centuries off from existing. You know she is named more times in our book than yours, Yusuf told him in one one of their many cycles of death and coming back, when Niccolò called out for her, bleeding out on the sand.
When Niccolò found Yusuf again they stood with their hands clasped at her grave outside the medina and then they prayed and set off again. New cities, new tongues, new people. To avoid suspicion, they alter the sounds of their names to match the sounds of the city. Yusuf and Naaqid. Giuseppe and Niccolò. Nikolai and Iosef. Every death is shorter.
Yusuf forges the documents and the names, barters and trades, even makes several seperate respectable fortunes as a merchant of cloth and then spices before even claims of pomegranates doing wonders for one’s health start to wear a bit thin and they have to fake their deaths again. He writes, and though home quickly becomes what they can carry, he keeps sheaths of poetry in tiny, perfect script in his saddlebag, recites long poems as they make camp in the desert. Some were written by and for men like them. Others Yusuf tweaks the gender of, chooses inta over inti. Every time they die they leave a generous waqf behind.
Niccolò takes care of the horses, and then he tries to take care of people. He learns as much of these strange healing arts of the east as he can from Yosef, and then from a doctor in Basra and a Jewish apothecary in the city of Fustat. It is not blasphemy to try to know the body, he is deciding, it is not sacrilige to try as hard as one might to save a life. At some point, the knowledge goes beyond what he can remember or what a diagram can tell him, and so it’s in Damascus that Niccolò decides, even with his previous failed attempts at the aliph-baa, to ask Yusuf to teach him how to read.
And he does. It takes time, years, before he can, before he feels more man than child with a pen in his hand and he does not smear ink across the page. And there are limits. He is never a poet. His language is always more practical than- and this is a word that will not exist for centuries but that colors his memories even still- than romantic. For him a heart is a thing of halves and chambers that somehow powers blood around the body, and it is no less beautiful or mysterious for that. He reads and takes notes on Al Razi far more than Abu Nuwas or al Muttanabi. Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine astounds him just as Ferdowsi’s perfect schemes of monorhymes entrance Yusuf. His sentences do not flow into rivers like Yusuf’s do. They build squat, strong houses. They encode information that Niccolò can leave behind when he dies, only to return to a century later and find that have been added on to by scholars after him, the foundations for someone else’s palace. Sometimes, the things he thought were true are completely washed away in the flood of some new discovery, and he prays and begs the forgiveness of all those he caused unnecessary pain in his ignorance.
But even in his clumsiness, the power of words surges through. Yusuf’s words and his love of words surges through to Niccolò in the years of learning, until Niccolò loves words too, just as Niccolò’s love of the sea and her many tempestuous moods and promise of infinite freedoms filters through to Yusuf. Yusuf translates texts for Niccolò from Greek and Persian into Arabic, and just as with Mary and Maryam centuries ago on a battlefield, Niccolò spots the substratum of the ideas of the classical authors that he had once believed the basis of his own civilisation that he would go to the sword to defend, translated and passed down and sewn into a no longer foreign script. There are words Yusuf does not know how to translate. They will never, ever know all of the words. The prospect is thrilling.
And Yusuf’s love of words surges up into Niccolò’s love of Yusuf too. It took him about three weeks after their initial truce to realise the man was soft, which then took him a few decades to find more endearing than annoying. That he liked sweet things and flowers and goddamn useless hobbies like calligraphy and drawing complex borders of tulips and interlocking knots along the borders of his writing papers. And he knew he was a good poet, to his own ears, that he fit words together nicely. But being able to read Yusuf’s poems, even the unfinished snippets he leaves scattered around the house, is something else entirely. A glimpse into being seen, by the person who sees him best. But God above, he doesn’t think anyone alive has had their eyes compared to the beauty of the sea after the desert quite so many times, or wrung as many turns of phrase from the has the double meaning of عَيْن.
“The world,” he says one night as they sit and watch night descend softly upon the City of Jasmine. It’s a city to make even the woman who will come knocking at their door in a matter of decades feel young and insignificant, and even the colloquial name suits Yusuf’s pretensions annoyingly well. Steam from cups of tea curls into the evening air. The smells of horse shit and rosewater both on the air. The calm cradle of the evening after the maghrib prayer. “You see it …” He does not know how to end it.
“How, then, do I see the world, hayati?”
“You see the stars above a battlefield. You see the stars and then the fields that will grow again after the ashes are tilled into the soil. You see stars as gems, and the windstorms of the desert is the finest music, if you would believe your poems.
“And you are angry that I have seen the good in the world? I would not call the man who came to a foreign land to kill the infidel and came to spend a hundred years learning best to save their lives a man who does not see beauty in unexpected things either.”
He looks for a word, any word in his mind that has learned so many. Unchanging would not be right for the man who once killed him so many times and learned Greek and Latin to read him the words of the Apostles as they were written, who has accompanied him on pilgrimages to Antioch and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He has changed as much as Niccolò has. No, it’s something-
“You are looking at me as you look at your patients.” Yusuf reaches out and brushes back Niccolò’s hair. He kisses his forehead. A kiss from Yusuf, no matter how chaste or how many, still sends lightning through his body.
“As if you were ill?”
“No. You look with such focus upon the world, with so much kindness about how to help it heal.” For a time whose number has since gone beyond count, their hands interlink. “We cannot save the world, but we can save some, and by saving some, we can save the world. We will work to repair what is broken.”
“I have found cause of your affliction.”
“What do you consider me afflicted by, Doctor Al-Zenowaizi?”
The word romantic is still more than six centuries out, although they’ll soon wander through Europe during the heyday of the romance, and Yusuf will even write a few himself in Occitan and Provençal. For now, though, the word carries the implications of Roma and the waning Basileion Rhomaion to the north, to the al-Rum rite of the Damascene churches he now celebrates the Eucharist in, the river of his faith turned down a different course. For now, though, the word romantic remains firmly in the future. No, it’s something else he thinks of.
“Hope. You have a most serious case of hope.”
“And what do you suggest as remedy, Doctor Al-Zenowaizi?”
Niccolò pulls him in for a proper kiss, long and deep and hot and sweet and bitter from the tea. He loses himself in the warmth of his body, his hands in the curls of his hair, and he thinks how blessed he has been by God that this is the man he has been destined to spend forever with.
“Albi, I do not think there is one. I think you have been cursed with an incurable case of hope.”