Translated from Pashto by James Caron
How it was that God had blessed this man with so much, now that is a long story. But by now, all the people around ‘Sir’ marvelled at the extent of the money—both green and red—that he had at his disposal. His money was uncountable; so were his dazzling array of cars, his multitude of bungalows, and his other various assets. He had commissioned one of those mansions that people have nowadays, furnished with marble and stone, that he had just moved into two weeks ago. He had never even dreamt of anything like it in his life, nor had the barest imagination of any of these bounties ever crossed his mind for even a single day.
These days there was no one standing in his path, nor did anyone else even approach the corners of his sight: he had no rivals. If he wasn’t a king, he certainly was no less than one. The greatest of kings faces limits, and cannot imprison or kill anyone without reason, but even these powers were at this Sir’s fingertips, to the extent that whenever he would meet a friend, he’d ask in jest:
“Tell me who has displeased you lately; whom can we send off to heaven today?”
But it wasn’t really a joke; he really had made numerous people disappear. Whenever he left the house, he would be accompanied by six or seven cars filled with armed men. Our elders, who remembered such things, said that they had never even seen kings travelling with so many bodyguards.
Across his chest, he wore two belts full of bullets rather than a single one, as was the custom; and he never let his fantastically valuable pistol out of his presence even while sleeping. But despite all this, he was never able to shake a deep sense of fear, and in addition to other people, he was even afraid of his own shadow from time to time. He feared even his relatives, his friends, and his bodyguards.
God only knows what got into him today. Maybe he happened to think about old times, before all this. But he called out to one of his servants:
“Bring me that album full of photographs of my village, and my youth!”
The servant ran off to look for it, and in the blink of an eye he had placed the album there before him. He gazed at each page of the album over and over, and, looking at the pictures in those heavy moments, he began reliving an entire lifetime gone by. In threadbare clothes, feet naked, there he was: out grazing cattle on the prairies, carrying wood down from the mountains, bringing wheat to the village flourmill. He relived every single picture in turn. He looked through, studied, the entire album from beginning to end. Then abruptly he got up out of his place, walked over to one side and picked up a prayer rug, and unfurled it on the floor before him.
He carried out two extra cycles of prayer; and at the end, he loudly proclaimed his thanks to God, saying:
“Dear God, I am so thankful to you. May you never show me difficult days like those again! Keep me safe from that oblivion and from the plots of men!”
And as he got up from the prayer, he called out to the servant again:
“Bring me the current album!”
The servant needed more details:
“Sir, which one?”
“The newest one! The one showing all the different people I have met!”
The servant ran off this time too, and after fetching the album he placed it in front of the Sir. Sir opened the album. He studied the first and second photographs. The first one was a picture of him with the ambassador of some country or another, while the second showed him sitting behind a table next to some minister. He studied them intently.
He picked up the album and looked at it closely: bringing it close to his eyes; holding it further down and regarding it from a distance, repeating this sequence a couple times. He did the same with a few other photographs, passing them before his eyes. Then he put the album down on the table with a slap. Bitter thoughts inadvertently rose up to confront him, and as he suddenly came face to face with a deep hatred in the bottom of his heart of these photographs of himself, a question slipped out of him in his shock:
“These are pictures of me?”
His servant answered, distressed and at a loss as to what he should do:
“Yes, qurban! You have, of course, seen these numerous times before. These photos show you in your rightful place alongside some very prominent individuals.”
He wanted to say something else; but Sir answered him too quickly:
“What’s going on; why do I look that way?”
His servant searched in vain for an answer:
“Why? What’s wrong?”
This time, as Sir spoke, he didn’t address only the servant whom he had been talking to. He raised his voice to ask everyone within earshot a question to which he only wanted a single answer:
“Am I old?”
Everybody answered at once, speaking over each other:
Then he asked:
“Do I really always look at the ground like this?”
Of course, they all answered again:
And just as immediately he asked:
“Then what’s going on? Why, in every one of these pictures, do I have this wrinkled forehead and hidden eyes, always looking at the ground?”
And then he picked up the old album.
“And why am I not that way in these old pictures? Look! Look at me on the farm, picking up a bundle of firewood in the mountains, grazing the flocks of sheep on the prairies … ”
He abruptly shoved the album in front of one of the servants:
“Look! Look how good I look; I don’t have that bitter forehead, and I don’t have those hidden eyes … ”
He put the album back on the ground, and turned it for the servant to see once again:
“Don’t you lie to me. Tell me! How kind am I? Have I ever wrinkled-up my forehead like this into such a scowl?”
One of the servants answered promptly:
“To imagine another man as kind and as happy as you … perish the thought! What rubbish are you talking?”
Then he pulled out the new album:
“So then why did this one come out with my forehead all crumpled up in a scowl? Why am I looking down in every single photograph?”
One servant exclaimed in surprise:
“Are all your pictures like this?”
Another of the servants answered for him:
“Oh, yes! Ever since God bestowed him with such an exalted rank among men, he has always looked this way in his photographs! I just don’t understand; what is going on?”
With these words, the Sir fell into an even deeper reverie, sunk into even deeper thought; but these words from another of the servants catapulted him back into flight again:
“The issue isn’t with the Sir; the issue is with these wallahs. Whenever our master has his picture taken, the photographer seems to fall under some kind of spell."
Sir believed what that servant said, and was comforted by it just the tiniest bit. He was beginning to say something, but he hadn’t yet figured out exactly what, when the doorbell of the mansion rang. The doorman reached the door and announced:
“Sir, a number of men have arrived and they would like to see you.”
“Who are they? What do they want?”
“They say that they are artists, and that they’ve brought some paintings of you!”
Instead of answering, he started looking at the paintings of former kings hanging all over the walls, and began speaking to himself, loudly:
“I don’t know … which king should I hang them next to?”
Then he became lost in thought before coming back soon enough:
“Well, fine, I should choose the best one for this room. I can decide on the others later.”
He turned to the servant:
“Ah … you’re still here waiting. Please, show them in!”
The servant jumped to it, and an instant later, the painters were standing there in the glorious audience of the Sir. Nervous, hands trembling, the painters uncovered their work one by one and brought it under the Sir’s exalted gaze. But the Sir had not even finished looking properly at the first painting when his heart started palpitating and his own hands began shaking, and a second later he went red with anger. His face got redder with each painting he saw; and as he looked at the last one, he shouted abruptly.
“What is wrong with you all?! Is this really the way you think my face looks?”
The most experienced of the painters spoke up:
“Your face …? Why? What is it that you are worried about?”
Sir bristled with rage:
“Yes … but … So why are my eyes squinting like that? Are my eyes really so scowling like that?!”
His servants offered a chorus of support:
“Of course not!”
But the painter spoke up again, fear tinging his voice:
“Sir, if we were to draw the Sir in some different way, the result would no longer be the Sir. This is exactly the face that you have. I wonder if you haven’t looked at yourself in some time; you might check your albums for confirmation.”
Of course, this pushed the Sir into a rage!
“I certainly have studied myself carefully! It’s you painters who have some malicious spirit lurking inside you!”
Then he called out with authority to one of the servants. The servant brought the albums, and Sir commanded the painter:
“There, look at them all! Is that how I look in these pictures? Do I look like your paintings? I should be looking better, with these new buildings and new clothing. Your paintings should be looking better! Are these photographs and these painters from two different planets?”
He gave the album to the painter.
“Here, I’ll give you a reward—a big reward, I say—if you can find a single scar on my face or such a wrinkled-up forehead!”
Who knows what got into his heart at that point, but he left abruptly and headed over to a long mirror standing on the other side of the room, and began looking at himself. But this time the mirror wasn’t showing him what he had always seen before, or perhaps his eyes weren’t. He started thinking that this time, there was some issue with the mirror. It just wasn’t showing him the picture he was looking for. He saw those same squinting eyes, and that same creased forehead that the painters did. He also noticed that his teeth were no longer shiny and regular. The more he looked at his image, the more he was relinquishing his own long held image of himself. But this one frightened him. His heart was palpitating and he was growing red, beads of sweat on his face. He felt like he was on the verge of crying out. But then one of the painters, who had been looking at the album of older photos, broke in suddenly:
“Sir! There’s no need to be upset! I can definitely paint a beautiful picture of you, but I do have one condition.”
Like a clap of thunder, the Sir responded:
“Tell me, what condition? I’ll give you anything; even if you want someone eliminated, I can do it!”
“No, I don’t need a reward. Just give me the independence to paint you outside of all these mansions and gardens.”
Sir’s mind did not fully comprehend this, but he also did not ask for any elaboration, and he shot back hastily:
“Yes, whatever you want to do. Just make sure you spare me from these squinting eyes and that forehead.”
Then, without even extending his hand, he left for his bedroom.
Sunk in thought, it was as if all this was consuming him: the chairs and furniture, the fine carpets, the pictures of the kings. He suddenly detested it all. He couldn’t stand the thought of seeing anyone, and instructed his servants to turn even his most powerful visitors away. But no matter how long he lay in bed his heart would not rest. He kept getting up for walks in the garden. Perhaps the magical voices of the birds, or the sight of the sparkling, speckled fish in his pools, or the color-laden breeze of the wind through his roses would change his mood a little bit. But none of it affected him in the least. His fundamental state of mind had shifted since the event of the mirror and the images. Whenever his lost sleep would catch up with him, his dreams would frighten him even more; he himself became the demon haunting his own dreams.
He was plagued by one recurring dream: he is organizing a great feast in his mansion. Nothing is lacking: there are beautiful dancers, bottles of spirits, and foods of all sorts. Attending to this cornucopia of hedonism are the sorts of guests for whom even kings would find spare moments in their schedules. But the gathering isn’t even half over when it suddenly all changes into an inverted, hellish setting, the guests’ faces the same but suddenly animalistic, chasing after one other. He flees to the roof of the mansion, says a small blessing, and throws himself off the edge, but instead of hitting the ground, he is flown off to his village like a sparrow. He’s busy now, working in the fields. He’s in the mountains, on the steppe, in the field. Slowly as he works in the fields and in the wilderness, he transforms back into a human shape. His color blooms back into his skin and he’s happy. He gives thanks and praise.
And, dreaming this, he would wake up and look around, lost in thought again.
Just then, the doorbell rang. A second later, the news came that the painter had returned with the painting. This news was like the morning breeze refreshing the roses outside; and his face bloomed with color in the same way. Then he began looking at the paintings of the kings one by one, trying to figure out where he would put his own portrait. He was still absorbed in the paintings when the door to the room opened. A tall and thin painter entered, and with trembling hands he placed the portrait on a table and presented himself front of Sir. But Sir was so absorbed in thoughts of the portrait that the idea of pleasantries scarcely entered his mind; he did not even pause to extend his hand in greeting, but asked from a distance:
“Did you bring it?”
Without even waiting for an answer, his eye fell on the picture. He picked it up off the table. His eye was immediately drawn to the face. He studied it for some time, looking at it, and looking at it some more. Without addressing the painter, he exclaimed loudly to himself:
“Excellent! Yes! This is exactly what a portrait should look like.”
He felt a rush of almost exalted happiness, so much did his soul open up. But when his eye shifted to notice his torn clothes, and his bare feet standing in the earth of the field, all this happiness suddenly escaped from him once again in the blink of an eye. All the color drained from his face and he faded out of focus again. All his cold, snowy feelings returned, his skin went sallow, and a yellowish tinge began to predominate. Then his anger was inflamed, and hatred and rage lodged themselves in his body once more. In this anger he abruptly threw the painting on the ground in front of him. It tore down the middle, and the frame in which it was encased cracked as well. And then he started laying into the painter with a burst of questions:
“Don’t you understand who I am? Whose portraits should my face be hanging next to?”
The Sir’s wrath had almost entirely robbed the painter of his power to speak, but in a tremulous voice he managed to say:
“Sir, I understand … but … your picture cannot take this shape that you want, amid these gardens and this … mansion …”
The painter took a breath and began to finish his thought:
“You granted me freedom …”
“Fine! Let me have these squinting eyes and that wrinkled forehead! I can’t revisit a life gone by. Let me stay hideous like this; I don’t have to leave these mansions and I don’t need any beauty!”
Then he turned to face the painter again.
“You artists are my enemies, my competitors. I understand everything about this. I also understand that I have no friends in this world, but no one can forcibly bring me back into the past!”
And then he repeated:
“Leave me to my squinting eyes and my wrinkled forehead!”
But this time, no matter how enraged the Sir had become, the artist answered with a little more fortitude:
“That is your decision! But you understand that the cure for those squinting eyes and that wrinkled forehead is found only in where I situated you; no other place will do it!”
That hit the Sir like a rifle bullet. He shouted with every bit of power he had, calling the attention of all his staff, who soon appeared in the room. He raged at the painter:
“Get out, and don’t let me see you again!”
It was like a police alarm had gone off inside a wasps’ nest. All his bodyguards swarmed on that frail old painter and dragged him out in an unknown direction, thrashing him as they left, and the Sir was trembling with anger with sweat running down his face. He shut the door to his room with a mighty slam.
He gathered up the pieces of his broken portrait, and then buried his eyes into the picture he assembled. Seeing his face brought back a bit of his effaced happiness, but he was disgusted to look at his torn clothes and his bare feet and his menial labor in the field. His frustration returned; he had no idea what to do. Finally he decided that he would save the face, and get rid of the rest. And so he threw the other pieces outside in a rage and held just the face before himself, and he was soon completely occupied in gazing at himself.
But what a strange illusion! With the face separated from the other pieces, it gradually, almost imperceptibly changed. The eyes slowly squinted shut and the forehead resolved itself into a mass of wrinkles. This time, along with the scowling eyes and the wrinkled forehead, his teeth slowly, steadily protruded. The picture frightened him deeply but he steeled himself, telling himself that he was just projecting the rage that he felt onto the image; it couldn’t possibly be this way. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again a few times. But nothing worked. If anything, the picture was only getting uglier. He was completely beside himself with shock.
Finally he walked over to the mirror. He looked at himself. The longer he looked at himself, the deeper grew the creases on his forehead; the more squinted his eyes became; the more his incisors and canines projected outward. Seeing this, his forgotten dream of the night before came rushing back. No matter how he tried to look away, there was not enough strength in his eyes to avert them; and however much he tried to open them, they would not emerge out of the scowl. And then he lost even the strength to stand up, and with his heart beating faster by the second, he collapsed. He whispered a pleading prayer:
“Dear God, I would be happy to die in this mansion with this position, but don’t send me back to those old times!”
He said this, and then picked himself up and looked back at the mirror. This time he didn’t see his squinted eyes, protruding canines, or wrinkled forehead, or, rather, not just those things; he saw his changing demonic essence from his dream the night before. An abrupt shriek escaped from his mouth, and his body hit the ground with a loud slap. He sat there muttering and with some white flecks of froth at the corners of his mouth. His servants all gathered around, looking at the Sir’s grand misfortune, hands to their cheeks in wonder and puzzlement.