Zuleikha glanced both ways. It were as though she were commencing a Muslim prayer, a namaaz, which back in the cold rain of Glasgow, would have been normal, routine, even, but which here, in this assertively Roman Catholic country, seemed almost blasphemous. She tried to conjure up the face of her son, Daoud, but could not. She sprang up, tried to breathe. Zuleikha was a scientist, not a penitent.
As soon as she emerged into the room, she realized that the structure down which she had been descending was neither a well nor a tower, but an enormous chimney whose upper portion had been removed and on whose hearth she had been standing. She brushed her clothes down as well as she could. She was in a small, low-ceiling’d room whose walls seemed to have been whitewashed fairly recently.
At the opposite end of the room was a doorway from which protruded a single brass hinge. Beyond, the space opened out into a much larger chamber, again, totally bare and with whitewashed brick walls, but at whose centre, reaching almost to the flat ceiling, there stood a pink, cubic structure some twenty feet square.
The surface of the structure seemed to be peeling, so that as she walked slowly around it, Zuleikha was able to make out several layers of stone at once: white, pink, bluish-grey, black. Right around the top, there was a narrow band of stone into which had been carved the angular letters of a script which looked like a mixture of Greek and Kufic.
Immediately beneath this was a broader area occupied by images colored in pale yellow, green and purple pigments, and there were two such scenes on each side of the cube. Beneath a heavily pregnant vine, she made out the figure of what she thought was Dionysus, while on another panel was Pan. Both deities were surrounded by archaic, horned goats, or goat-antelopes, or muscular sheep. But the dominant theme around the cube was that of the incarnations of Persephone, from fertility goddess to Queen of the Dead. The interesting thing was that in places these pictures had been overlaid with other images. Drawings of musicians, some in Arab clothing, others dressed like Mediaeval northern Europeans and one even resembling a Norman knight from the Bayeaux Tapestry’s depiction of the Battle of Hastings. The musicians included women and they held all manner of instruments: gitterns, oddly-shaped fiddles, bagpipes, a Jew’s harp, various types of drums and tambourines, a small recorder and a single hurdy gurdy, but most prominent and varied of all, several ouds. And watching over the entire scene, eating couscous speckled with raisins, badams and pine nuts and no doubt listening to the music that really, in ten centuries or more, never seemed to have ceased, were the three great sultans: chess-master and Lord of the Saracens, Manfredi; al-mu’tazz bi-llah Rujari; and Emperor Fredericus Secundus, the Stupor Mundi. Zuleikha wasn’t sure how she knew all this stuff, but then her attention wavered and she could have sworn that at one point she saw a woman dancing between the panels, dancing through time and space as though from one agora to the next, from the time of bone and horn, through the bronze gleam of Hamilcar Barca and the gold leaf of Byzantium to the era of the three emperors and beyond.
Further down the cube were pictures of chimaerae, women with bodies shaped like those of lutes, whose hair turned into gardens of fig trees and children whose fingers became waterfalls. She felt as though she was standing at the summit of one of the hills she had crossed earlier on her way to this villa or palazzu or whatever it was. The air smelled of almond and sorb apple blossom, of asphodel and narcissus, the scents of early spring that normally were placid and understated like an English cup of tea, but which thrown together in this enclosed space, now were overpowering in the aromatic decadence of their music. And there was music coming from the cube, she was certain she could hear it, somewhere deep in her head. Not sound, not the noise of instruments, but something that held the quality of music, the transfiguring of form, the leap across history, the intersection of the physical and spiritual that threw up windows, portals, what in another place she might have called insights, intuitive realities, illuminations.
On the walls of the room, Zuleikha began to make out the symbols, aleph, beth, gimla, daleth, and then she wondered whether this might have been a burial chamber of the Marranos, the Jewish converts who sometimes had continued to practise their old religion in secret and who had been rooted out and burned, here, in Sicily, at the hellish hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps, when persecuted, a spirit would secrete itself in airless grutti, in sea-bed jars and inside the hearts and voices of human beings. And at times, the music seemed to attain the coherence of words, so that it was as though Zuleikha was picking up an ancient radio broadcast from the darkness of space:
. . .petra disprizzata, cantunera di muro 1.
And it was as though the force of the music had thrown this great stone block from out of the mouth of the Mountain of Mountains and carried it to this place, where, long before the palazzu had been constructed, the cube had burned down to the very bedrock of the island.
She laughed, as she wondered what Archie McPherson, back in Scotland, would’ve made of all this. Archie, the shipbuilder, the man of steel and iron, the man whose life had been like a folk song, the lonely, horrible, dying bastard. Sweat ran into her eyes. She blinked several times, threw back her head and drew out a hankie. But instead of the hankie, there, in her hand, was a man. San Giuseppe ru Casteddu Nivuru 2. The saint’s right hand protruded slightly from his gown, as though enticing the believer to follow him down into the deepest shafts of the mine, the shafts into which no one ventured any more, the mine that had been sucked into emptiness by the ghosts of those who had died beneath its yellow fumes, by the contadini who had been burned to the bone by its white-hot magma. The music was much louder now, the smell was almost palpable and it was as though through the music, Zuleikha could see right into the interior of the cube. And she could see that it was filled with nothing but light, light from which she was shielded by layers of stone, paint, mosaic, stucco, by every accretion that had formed the skin of the complex, polytonal organism called Sicily. The images began to move between panels so that it became impossible to attribute a particular picture to a specific scene and dizzyingly the cube itself seemed to begin to move, to spin, to become almost liquid.
And then, from the substance of the cube, at a level around seven feet from the floor, eyes began to form, eyes that were black at their centers, while the smell emanating from the structure grew stronger, the music, louder, until with the density of sensation, Zuleikha felt that she might lose consciousness altogether. And it was the music of the wheat as it burst, full and green and speckled with carmine, through the heavy moistness of the soil, and the notes caught sharply in her throat with the pungency of zàgara. It was the music of all the earth that rose up beneath the widening sun, an octagonal music that bit her in the neck and infused her body with a delicious poison that turned the balls of her eyes upwards to gaze again at the gold and white stucco, at the vaults and shadows of statues which lay buried in the walls of this secreted oratory deep in a disused sulphur mine.
And at the heart of the music, there was the face of basalt black that had been cut, burning and molten, from the mouth of Mongibeddu, the fire mountain, Gibel Utlamat, and it was the face of Wali Yusuf of Sicilia, Yusuf of the great palaces, Joseph the Just, the Miraculous, the Bethrothed, Nutritor Domini, Joseph of box-makers and carpenters, of travellers and the dying, of the inner soul, the Old Man of the Lily. And behind everything, was Beautiful Joseph of the Nile, the Moon of Canaan. And the face was weeping tears of liquid sulphur, tears of rage at the priests, the bishops, the kings, and at all those who burned forever in a lake of sulphur, who burned for their sins, for the life of each child they had murdered down in the tunnels of the lemon-stone tomb. The face was singing an old lament, a Scottish lament for the African’s body that had been washed-up in white and bloated pieces, on the southern beaches of Sciacca, Licata, Pantelleria and Lampedusa, for the African who a thousand years ago had brought irrigation, palaces, mathematics and most of the fruits of the island, but who now disembarked as, seventy years earlier, Sicilians of the family classes had arrived on other shores as slaves, beggars, hookers, people with swarthy, mysterious lives. As-salaam alaikum. Al Banurmu, Mars’Allah, Sirako, Rogos, Qalat al Nisena, Katane, Gergent. Peace and granaries. The markets of Al Madina. The people of the scirocco, peace be upon them, who bathed in the holy, spring water of sacred gebbias and who brought forth revelation to the land and the sea. The Congolese, Ethiopians and Malians who nowadays were captured like bluefin tuna from the depths of the ocean, the people who swirled upwards through the chambers of death, and who now lived amongst the shit and spunk of the Vuccinia and who eeked out a living on the edges of death row vara and who were stuck in sweat-cellars, spending their lives being played shamelessly upon the fingertips of the Honorable Men, the Men of Respect who, when asked what they do, reply that they direct cars to resting places in the excessively well-protected mandamenti of Palermo.
The lament was for the intelligent goats who find ancient, buried cities beneath the thrones of archbishops, for the shades of ragged children and tightly swaddled babies who drink milk from goats’ udders and who sing to the flickering dance of nache 3 lights, and it was the song of the Lady of the Chain, of the carusi, those bones of the earth who emerge from the zulfare during only the deepest, blackest of nights to howl madrigals at the empty moon, of the penitents with bleeding heads, of the curatuli who commune with the stars and with the face of the beautiful Joseph, all of these joined now with the grizzled emirs of Kasr Yanni and the dancing animals cut into golden sandstone and the sugar dolls of the devil as, together, they sang laments across the still emptiness of the mountains. The forgotten songs, the songs of those rushing towards death. Ad Mortem Festinamus 4.
And the saint was weeping, too for Archibald Enoch McPherson, peace be upon him, who at that moment in the great metropolis of Glasgow, was sinking into a final unconsciousness and for all the shipbuilders, roofers, plasterers and their wives and children who had been poisoned by those same lords of silver and gold who had filled the Temple with their heinous breath, with the substance of their foul, sulphurous lungs and who continued to receive great medals and honors and peaceful, spiritual deaths at advanced ages with several generations garnered around them like petals, like devotees, disciples, acolytes. There were no devotees or disciples, no family at all, around Archie’s deathbed. Only the faded images, their lower parts half-hidden behind colored winding-sheets, of dead lovers who danced on brass balconies, lovers who spun in the arms of the juggling spider, lovers who screamed in the music of arks and the songs of aeroplanes, the lovers who with their bare fists, punched holes in heaven. Peace be upon heaven.
And Zuleikha reached out her hand, the bones of her fingers wrapped tightly around the black body of the saint, and she placed the saint’s form upside down in the niche which had opened up in the cube. She felt that somehow, the statue had led her here, that she had been drawn to this hilly place in the heart of Sicily, to this village of San Giuseppe ru Casteddu Nivuru, to this palazzu in the middle of a sea of wheat, to this node of penance, by the power of a face, by all the faces of Yusuf, the Prophet, the Technicolour and the Black, San Giuseppe of the Night, the man who in his dark nakedness, had risen from the face of the zolfara, the sulphur-mine. She had been drawn there by the music of the Hebrew, the Catholic, the Muslim Yusuf, the architectural restorer, the patron of causes lost and dying, of dead airmen, of whores, jugglers, soldiers, sufis, poets, of n’er do wells, of those who were lost in wells, Yusuf the Greek with his face of light. And now she was returning him to the tomb that lay beneath all the layers, to the red porphyry residence of the soul of Sultan Rujari, whose blood flowed to the place where all the knowledge of the ages was stored, knowledge that awaited a new revelation, a different justice, a law which in a vision of beauty would be administered by dishonorable women.
And there, in the middle of the great stone cube, was the face, the body, of Daoud, of her son, Daoud. He was asleep and was nine-and-a-half months old and his skin glowed with a perfect lustre, his hair, distributed over his forehead just as it had been, in life, each strand, purest gold beyond measure. It was as though he had been captured at the very moment before death, caught, deep in the night, in the midst of a perfect sleep in his cot, in the act of taking his last breath. In death, he would remain immortal. His eyes, perfect sapphires. Yaqut, jachitu. Yes, naturally, that’s right, she thought, David was here, cut into the dry stone of Black Joseph, and not six feet under the sodden soil of Glasgow’s Cathcart Cemetery. David, Daoud. His spirit resided in the arms of the saint, he played happily among the ghosts of lost carusi, he was protected and sung to as he never had been, in life. No, that wasn’t so; she had sung to him, she had sung sestinas till her voice had grown hoarse, till her breath had died within him, and even after he had been taken from her, she had sung to the empty walls which once had been kissed by his shadow, had tried, through the music of her mothers, to bring him back, just for a second or two, just for the span of a single, warm breath.
Zuleikha felt the music, as though it were a muscle, grip her body and thrust her down onto her knees and then press her flat onto her chest, so that she was prostrated like a nun or a slave. The tears burned the skin of her face, branding her with the soot and bone dust of this place, turning her face black like that of the Old Madonna. And she wept and worshipped at the same time. She wept for her mother, the beautiful woman with whom she had never made her peace. And she wept for Archibald of the Blue Asbestos, the flying man who had started all this and for whom at last the box had come. And she wept for the disarticulated skeleton of her own, long-dead child, of Holy Daoud, buried in the children’s section of the Cathcart Cemetery among the plastic windmills and the faded streamers, the dog-eared teddies that had been propped up by strangers against the headstones of tiny graves.
And there, sprawled on the floor of the zolfara, her lips kissing the stone that had been yellowed with dust and age and the heavy tread of calloused skin, she swore obedience to Saint Joseph, she swore always to be his slave, to do his bidding, to follow the path which he had laid out across continents, across time, faith, spirit. The ground tasted bitter, like human seed, but then she and the cube were moving together, as though enveloped in a single skin and as though through the spirit beatitude of the spider, they had become one.
1: …the rejected stone will become the cornerstone of the wall.
2: Saint Joseph of the Black Castle.
3: nache = old-fashioned lights (Urdu)
4: Ad Mortem Festinamus = We rush into death
‘Joseph’s Box’ is published by ‘Two Ravens Press’. To read more stories linked to the novel, and to buy the book, please go to: www.josephsbox.co.uk