The doorbell rang at last. When she answered it she found a boy of about eleven or twelve standing in the lane, with several bags of food and a thick bushel of reeds.
‘You should be at school,’ she said when she brought him in- to the kitchen.
He did not respond. His face was beautiful and doll-like and he was looking towards the bird wings hanging on the pink wall. He had placed the bags on the dining table and was using his grimy sleeve to absorb the perspiration from his forehead and upper lip, holding his gaze on the wings. He went towards them and reached out with a ﬁnger and touched the lime green feather of an Alexandrine parakeet.
‘Does the man with the straw hat live here?’ he asked. ‘The one with the elastic going over his shoulders.’
‘They are called braces. Or galluses.’ ‘Gal…lu…ses.’
She held up the bottle of Rooh Afza he had brought, crack- ing open the seal on the cap. ‘Would you like a drink of this?’
He seemed uncertain. ‘I overheard the lady mention some- one named Helen,’ he said. ‘Is that you?’
‘Are you an inﬁdel?’
Helen had been looking into one of the bags. She raised her head but not her eyelids. At the beginning of high school, when she was fourteen years old, a teacher had asked her to stand up in class and ‘justify taking the place of a Muslim’.
‘Are you a servant here?’ the boy continued. ‘You don’t look like one.’
When she ﬁnally glanced at him he nodded towards the Rooh Afza bottle. ‘I am a Muslim, I can’t accept a drink from your hand.’ And he added, ‘You should know that. Shouldn’t you?’
At nineteen, Helen was old enough to remain unsurprised by occasions such as these. She had always known them and could not have separated them from the most basic facts of her existence. Still, sometimes she was caught oﬀ guard.
She watched him from the kitchen window as he crossed the garden at an unhurried pace and left the house, stopping twice on the semicircular path through the grass, to look up at the ripening fruit or some creature moving in the branches.
She put away the items of food, and divided and bound the river reeds into brooms. Afterwards she carried the alumini- um stepladder to the study and unfolded it below the model of the Hagia Sophia. She stood there for a few moments: even from the topmost step of the ladder, the book would be too high up. She needed something to nudge it with, and she went back to the kitchen and unhooked the giant wing of the trum- peter swan and returned with it, the feathers blindingly white when she walked through the rays of the sun on the veranda, almost a detonation.
As she climbed up with the four-foot wing she thought of her mother who would use this ladder to dust the upper reaches of walls and shelves in this house. She recalled the story of her parents’ ﬁrst meeting. Grace had been ﬁfteen years old at the time and was a servant in someone’s house, and she had approached a passing policeman one day in a distraught state and demanded that he arrest a certain seventeen-year-old gardener’s boy from a nearby house. ‘I cannot stop think- ing about him!’ she had declared. ‘Each night the thought of him keeps me awake, and all day I long for him. I demand justice!’ Looking for a few moments of amusement, the police- man had followed the spirited, indignant girl as she led him to her criminal. He was entirely unaware of her, of course, and was speechless now, to ﬁnd himself accused of being her incre- mental killer.
Helen arrived at the top step of the ladder – ‘This is where the wolf lives,’ Grace would say – and she stretched the wing of the swan cautiously towards the book on the small windowsill. The tip of the last feather fell just short of making contact with the book’s spine, and she raised herself onto her toes to attain the extra inches. There was a dull, indistinct noise from some- where below her at that moment, and she glanced down to see that the boy from the shop had appeared at the door to the study.
Carefully she brought her heels back down to the metal sur- face of the step. She had neglected to lock the door after his departure.
‘Did you forget something?’
He was looking at her and the expression on his face was somewhere between a sneer and a swoon, his body partly con- cealed in the shadow being thrown by a shelf. As he advanced into the room Helen saw that he was in fact trembling, the sharp length of the knife in his right hand moving to and fro as he approached the ladder.
‘What are you doing?’ she said with shock.
But it was the walk of a sleepwalker. It was almost as though he was being pulled forward by the knife, his arm outstretched. She wished she could reach up and grab the bottom edge of the Hagia Sophia to steady herself but it was out of reach. The touch of the wing had set it swinging gently above her.
He had arrived now and placed a foot on the ﬁrst step. It made her think of a gardener or a gravedigger about to break ground with the shovel. There was nowhere she could go. He was a child but he had a naked ten-inch blade and she was pre- cariously balanced, a terriﬁed lightness in her soles.
‘What do you want?’
In a tranced, slightly submerged voice, he said, ‘I have to see.’
‘What do you have to see?’ ‘Christians have black blood.’
She recognised the bone-handled knife as being from the kitchen out there.
‘Who told you that? It’s red, just like yours.’
She could see both his determination and his fear much more clearly now.
‘My mother told me. I have to see.’ The metal creaked under his weight as he rose another step. If he wished he could cut her leg but he was in another place.
She was about to swipe at him with the wing when her phone rang on the desk. And it jolted them both.
He whipped his head towards the device blinking among the papers.
‘You have to go,’ she said. ‘Right now.’ He looked at her and raised the knife and she decided to lie. ‘I am expecting someone. That’s probably them ringing to say they’re almost here. You have to go.’
For the next few moments, as the phone continued to ring, he seemed in a paralysis of will and she touched his shoulder with the outermost feather. And it was as though she had ac- tivated a mechanism. The knife made a sharp metallic sound on the marble ﬂoor when he dropped it. He stepped down and slowly walked backwards, looking abject.
She felt reality seep back into things.
Turning around at the door he vanished out of the room as suddenly as he had appeared.
She climbed down and went to the kitchen and poured her- self a glass of water. She drank a few sips, her other hand resting on the surface of the table. Her limbs seemed numb, but just a few moments later she was running towards the front door. She opened it and saw that he was about to disappear around the slight curve in the lane. He stopped when she called out but he did not turn around immediately. When he did look back she waved at him to make him return.
He arrived and stopped just beyond arm’s reach. She opened the safety pin she had taken from a drawer in the kitchen and with it she quickly stabbed the tip of her index ﬁnger and held the drop of blood towards him.
‘It’s red. I want you to promise me you won’t try to injure someone else.’ His face was wrenched with emotion, but she said ﬁrmly, ‘Look at it. You’ve seen now that it’s not black. Look at it.’
There was a silence. When she tried to say something fur- ther, he ﬂinched, and then he covered his face with both hands and gave way to tears quietly.
‘I am sorry.’ ‘Promise me.’
‘I promise,’ he said.
Excerpted from ‘The Golden Legend’ written by Nadeem Aslam, published by Penguin.
From the acclaimed author of Maps for Lost Lovers and The Blind Man’s Garden, a brave, timely, searingly beautiful novel set in contemporary Pakistan about a community consumed by religious intolerance.
When shots ring out on Grand Trunk Road, Nargis’s life begins to crumble around her. Her husband, Massud—a fellow architect—is caught in the crossfire and dies before she can confess to him her greatest secret. Under threat from a powerful military intelligence officer who demands that she pardon her husband’s American killer, Nargis fears that the truth about her past will soon be exposed. For weeks someone has been broadcasting people’s secrets from the minarets of the city’s mosques and, in a country where the accusation of blasphemy is currency to be bartered, the mysterious broadcasts have struck fear in Christians and Muslims alike.
Against this background of violence and fear, two outsiders—the young Christian woman Helen and the mysterious Imran from Kashmir—try to find an island of calm in which their love can grow.
In his characteristically luminous prose, Nadeem Aslam reflects Pakistan’s past and present in a single mirror—a story of corruption, resilience, and the hope that only love and the human spirit can offer.
About the Author:
Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan and now lives in England. He is the author of five novels, including The Blind Man’s Garden. His work has been longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He has won the Kiriyama and Windham Campbell prizes and the Lannan and Encore awards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.