By Cassandra Hamm
Mahzar sat cross-legged on the sandy floor and gripped his staff to still his trembling hands. Suluboya’s painted face stared at him from the corner of the tent as if waiting for him to renounce his promotion.
“This is the will of the tribe,” he said to the idol. “I did not choose this. Nor did I choose Devrim’s actions.”
Suluboya’s displeasure with him could elongate the drought. Many Colkisians would perish if the Hayat Oasis ran dry. But how could he atone for his shame?
The tent flap shivered, and a dark face poked through. Mahzar’s breathing eased. “Sila, my darling.”
Sila lowered her eyes and dipped her face toward the ground. A blue ortu wrapped around her head, hiding her thick black hair and protecting her from the sand and sun. Blue for water. She, too, was praying for rain. “Forgive my intrusion. I simply wish to assist you in your preparations for the ceremony.”
“Your assistance is appreciated.”
Kneeling, Sila set down a bowl carved from cactus and filled with blue dye. She brushed some of the sand from his cheeks in vain. Sand nestled in the folds of his tunic, clung to his skin, coated his hair. Soon they would pour water over his face to cleanse him, but they could never remove the sand. They could never fully purge his guilt, either, unless Devrim reneged his claims.
Sila smeared the dye over his cheekbones, then swept her finger up to his forehead, forming an archway. The dye cut a line down his nose and lips and dotted his cheeks. She gently kissed his lips, creating a smudge of dye on her own. “You will make a good elder, Mahzar.”
How could he take the mantle of an elder when his son had denied the gods?
“Mahzar.” Sila’s slender throat bobbed with her swallow. “Forgive me. I have asked Devrim to attend the ceremony.”
“What?” Mahzar stood, nearly knocking over the bowl. She joined him moments later, keeping her eyes down. His only wife, his beloved—and she had done this! His shoulders shook. “You have dishonored me, Sila!”
She stepped backward. “The ceremony requires—”
“He has disgraced our family!” He slammed his staff against the ground. “How could you ask me to grant him such a privilege?”
Her kohl-rimmed eyes widened. “He is your son.”
“He forfeited that title when he spurned the gods!” The idol of Suluboya glared up at Mahzar, reminding him that he was responsible for this blasphemy. A good father would have raised his son so that he would not stray.
Sila touched Mahzar’s arm. “He loves you, Mahzar. He longs to see you.”
“I have no desire to see him.”
“I want you to see him.” She withdrew her hand. “I want to see my son anointing his father for service to our people. Who will do it if not Devrim? Who?”
Mahzar turned away from her prodding gaze.
“I cannot do it. A child must do it. And he is your only child.”
A miracle child. A blessing from the gods, birthed at the end of a year of fasting and prayer. A child who had shirked his birthright and those who gave him life.
“You could restore his honor,” Sila whispered.
Mahzar clenched his staff in his fists. “I will not.”
“You question me?”
Sila shrank away. “No, my husband. I merely request that you consider—”
The tent entrance rustled, and his desert flower departed.
Who will do it if not Devrim? Her question echoed in his mind.
He scowled, grabbed a fresh waterskin and cloak, and ducked outside. With each step, he used his staff to test the shifting sand. He shuffled toward the tent of Head Elder Rahmi amidst the noises of ceremonial preparation—laughter, song, prayer.
Mahzar’s stomach twisted. Sila could bear no more children. Someday soon, too soon, he might have to wed a different woman to beget another heir, but a new wife wouldn’t solve today’s problem. Perhaps the young warrior Cevahir would be willing to perform the duty. Cevahir had at times been like a son to Mahzar—but that would break tradition.
“Father.” Devrim emerged from behind a nearby tent, holding out his hands as if calming a wild tehdit. A scimitar hung from a belt around his slender waist.
Mahzar stiffened. Not here. Not in the open. Only a few days had passed since the public denial, but to him, Devrim’s face seemed foreign. A shadow of a beard touched his jaw. Where had he been staying? What had he been eating?
“Mother said I could come to your ceremony.” Devrim knelt and bent forward until his nose brushed Mahzar’s sandal.
Mahzar jerked his foot away. “Your mother does not make my decisions.”
Devrim stood and adjusted his koruma so that it shielded every strand of his dark hair. When had he grown past Mahzar’s height? “But she seemed so certain—”
“She did not have permission to speak to you.” Mahzar swallowed hard. “You have lost the right to be in my presence.”
“Father, you need me for the ceremony.”
Mahzar sipped from the waterskin. The liquid trickled down his throat and sated some of the burning but not his raging emotions. “I will find someone else.”
“The honor goes to the firstborn.”
“You have destroyed your honor.”
“I’m still the same person.”
“The same boy who disregarded his family to pursue his own whims?”
Devrim’s chest heaved up and down. “I know I hurt you, Father. That was never my intention.”
Mahzar clenched his jaw. How he wished that the elder’s robe would sweep away this shame like the wind swept away the sands. But people did not forget.
“The gods were already angry with us,” Mahzar said. “It has been moons since the last rainfall. They could have relented, but now you have brought more reproach upon us!”
“Gods do not control the rainfall.” Devrim lifted his hands to the sky. “Nature does what she wants.”
Such blasphemy! No greater than the last, though. “You do not mean that.”
“Would I utter words I did not mean?”
My son, you do not realize how wrong you are. “Profess your belief, Devrim.” Mahzar’s mouth was as dry as the sand beneath his feet. Please, return to the truth.
Devrim raised his chin. “I will not.”
Mahzar closed his eyes for a moment. I am sorry. He wasn’t sure which of the gods he was addressing. He had failed all of them. And, worse, he had failed his son.
“I still love you, Father.”
“How can you insist that when you have humiliated me?”
“This is my choice. It is unrelated to you.”
“It affects me! And your mother and all the Colkisi!” Mahzar released a ragged breath. Others were watching, listening, even if they remained inside their tents. He did not need to build a reputation as a man unable to restrain his emotions or his son. “I am your father, Devrim. I deserve your respect.”
“I respect you, Father, but not in this matter.”
How could he be trusted to lead the tribe if he could not even lead his own son? “I am the head of this household. You believe as I tell you.”
“No.” Devrim’s dark eyes glinted. “I cannot participate in a religion that I wholeheartedly oppose. It goes against my honor.”
“Who are you to talk of honor?” Mahzar gritted his teeth. “Honor involves respecting your patriarch.”
Devrim reached out and stroked Mahzar’s cheek with his smooth hand. “That is why I want to be with you at the ceremony tonight. I don’t always agree with you, and I will make my own choices, but I will honor you, my father.”
Mahzar kept himself rigid even though his body threatened to crumble. If he allowed his son to anoint him, both would regain their honor. But how could he overlook a heinous offense?
Devrim jerked back with a cry. “Father!” He withdrew his scimitar from its scabbard and sliced downward, narrowly missing Mahzar’s chest. The blade cut through the yilan’s head a hair’s breadth from Mahzar’s foot. Its legless body writhed, and pale green venom dripped from its fangs.
Mahzar’s eyes bulged. How could he have been so careless? He should have heard the hissing, noticed the disturbance in the sand.
Devrim wiped his scimitar on the sand, smearing black blood. “Be watchful, Father.”
What could he say? Gratitude seemed unworthy in the wake of a rescued life. Mahzar stared at the decapitated predator and shivered despite the heat. “I—I need to visit Head Elder Rahmi.” So we can discuss whether you should be exiled.
“Of course, my father.” Devrim sheathed his scimitar and met Mahzar’s gaze. Several heartbeats passed before Devrim, eyebrows knit together, spoke. “I did not defy you on purpose. I love the Colkisi. I simply could not live a lie any longer. I—”
“Goodbye, Devrim.” Mahzar hurried away. Listening to his son’s pleas only clouded his mind with emotion.
But how could he have peace when he should be dead, and the son he planned to disown had saved him?
Mahzar bowed deep enough to press his forehead to the sand.
“Mahzar.” Head Elder Rahmi rose from his cross-legged position. His blue sleeves drooped nearly to his knees. “Greetings, old friend. I trust you have been weighing my counsel regarding Devrim.”
Mahzar worked his jaw up and down. “I have.”
“Ordinarily I do not allow the violation of tradition,” Rahmi said, “but your situation is different. Your son has committed the highest of blasphemies and will be banished from the tribe unless he recants. Has he promised to do so?”
If only. Mahzar slowly shook his head. But Devrim had also saved his life. In some sense, did that restore his honor in the eyes of the Colkisi? Or did it only restore honor in the eyes of his father?
“Then he shall become an outcast and can no longer anoint you for the ceremony.”
Mahzar flinched. His son would be condemned to eternal wandering, alone and forgotten by his tribe, his family.
“We must select someone else.” Rahmi clasped his hands together. “Did you have anyone in mind?”
Cevahir, the strong young warrior who had recently brought back a tehdit for the tribe, would be an ideal substitute. But Mahzar couldn’t stop remembering the scimitar flashing through the air, the pained eyes, the quiet confidence. Words slipped unbidden from his mouth. “If Devrim anointed me, that would restore his honor.”
Rahmi’s thin lips tightened, bunching the wrinkles on his sun-scarred face. “It would. But you have no obligation to him. He has betrayed our deepest convictions, our way of life itself. He is unfit to be one of the Colkisi.”
Mahzar leaned against his staff to steady his shaking legs. “I know.”
“Then who will you choose?”
Why couldn’t he have met with Rahmi before Devrim? The decision would have been easy. He would not have been burdened by his son’s sorrowful face, the passion in his voice, or his quick hand. But Mahzar could not grieve the gods or his tribe further. He was supposed to be stronger than this.
“Cevahir,” he said finally. “I choose Cevahir Abboud to anoint me.”
Rahmi’s mouth crinkled into a smile. “You are a wise man, Mahzar. You will make a fine elder.” He clamped his hand on Mahzar’s shoulder. “For the good of the Colkisi. And may the rain fall swiftly.”
“For the good of the Colkisi.” Exhaling, Mahzar gripped Rahmi’s opposite shoulder.
When they let go, Mahzar bowed and exited the tent. Each of his thoughts dragged him in different directions. To honor or dishonor. To love or despise. To forgive or expel.
He had committed to a path. Why, then, did he struggle to accept it?
He lifted the waterskin to his mouth, but no liquid dribbled out. Frowning, he started toward the Hayat Oasis. He could backtrack for a camel, but if he encountered Sila, she might ask about his conversation with Rahmi, and he was not ready to answer.
How could she think of welcoming Devrim back into their tent, into their lives? How could she love him so fiercely that she would ignore apostasy against the gods who gave them breath, protection, purpose?
The Hayat Oasis shimmered in the heat waves on the horizon. If he hadn’t been so familiar with the terrain, he would have suspected a mirage, but the water stayed solid and real throughout his trek to its edge. It amounted to no more than a pond. Rain had not replenished it.
What should I do now, Suluboya? He hoped the goddess of water could hear him even though he was not in the temple and had no idol to pray to. Should I allow Devrim to be cast out of the tribe?
He dipped his waterskin into the silvery surface. A blue-painted man with hollow eyes gazed up at him. If Devrim left the oasis, he would never have the opportunity to reconcile with the gods. And Mahzar would be separated from his son forever.
Mahzar wanted his line to be passed on through Sila and no other, to see Devrim wed a wonderful woman, to hold his grandchildren and teach them virtue. He wanted to witness his son growing into manhood.
Perhaps Devrim was already a man. He was no longer a skinny boy trailing his mother around the camp. He had the agility to slay a yilan mid-strike.
Mahzar drank deeply from the waterskin, but the liquid did not refresh him. “Forgive me for what I am about to do,” he whispered to whatever gods were listening.
“I present to you Mahzar Qureshi.” Rahmi spread his arms wide. His gaping sleeves quivered. “Tonight he will join the holy order of elders in the Colkisi tribe.”
The other elders wore expressions as unreadable as the sand. The bowl of blessed water sat unattended on the ground. Colkisians surrounded them in a circle, each tribe member vying for a better spot.
“Under his joint rule, the gods willing, our people will have water and prosperity,” Rahmi added.
Sila, her hands clasped, stood at the front of the crowd. Beside her, Devrim had dressed in his finest tunic and tied his hair back to reveal his bristled jaw. A lump formed in Mahzar’s throat. Yes, my son is a man.
Rahmi unfolded an elder’s dark blue robe. “Mahzar, come forth.”
Mahzar moved to the center of the circle, where Rahmi shoved his hands into the large sleeves. The coarse material settled against his frame. Clouds rumbled overhead, obscuring the stars.
“Now for the ritual cleansing—”
“I have changed my mind about who will anoint me.” Mahzar kept his shoulders back and his head high, though his insides quaked.
Rahmi’s eyes, sharp as cactus needles, pinned him. The crowd murmured. Mahzar motioned to Devrim, but no fire shot from the sky. Instead, the crowd quieted as every eye focused on the blasphemous son.
Devrim’s mouth parted, and Sila squeezed his shoulder. The tender look she aimed at Mahzar could have melted him into the sand. No, he could never find another wife, and he would never need one.
Devrim stepped into the center of the circle and retrieved the carved-cactus bowl from the ground. Mahzar held Devrim’s gaze. “I honor you, my son.” Even if you disobey. Even if you shame me. You are still my son.
Devrim’s hands shook so intensely that he fumbled with the bowl and water sloshed out. Tears streamed down his dark cheeks.
Mahzar knelt and dipped his head. His heart sang within him.
“I honor you, my father,” Devrim murmured.
Water soaked Mahzar’s hair, flowed from his eyes to his nose and mouth, and dripped from his beard to land on his elder’s robe. Newly cleansed, he stood. The silence hung heavy around them, thick as a sandstorm. Mahzar clasped his son’s shoulder, and Devrim returned the gesture before blending into the crowd.
Rahmi’s clenched jaw was the only indication of his unrest. Lightning crackled in the desert sky. Would he rescind his decision?
“May the gods bless you as you help lead our people. Welcome to the holy order of Colkisian elders, Mahzar Qureshi.”
Slowly, then swelling, the people roared their approval. The sky mimicked the sound, unleashing the provisions she had been storing up for such a time. And the rain fell upon the Colkisi.
Cassandra Hamm is a writer who has always been fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind. She received her B.S. in psychology and continues to apply her knowledge to her characters. In case the reader is wondering, no, she does not psychoanalyze everyone she meets. One of her passions is helping other writers, and she does so through her work as a community assistant for the Young Writers Workshop and as a teacher for Young Writer Lessons, both of which are affiliated with The Young Writer. She can be found online at CassandraHamm.com, where she posts prompt-based stories meant to entertain, encourage, and inspire, and on Instagram @cassandrahammwrites.