Goodbye Milky Way

Published in the first edition of the Ziauddin University Atlas, 2016. 

So much depends
On the condensation in the eyes of a lover
The trembling fault
In the silent breath before a kiss

Unintentional ends
Laced in songs of forever
A hesitant thought
Flickering before a superficial wish

Sahr Jalil

“TELL me a story,” she said, snuggling up to him as they watched Rigel and Betelgeuse twinkle overhead.

“Alright,” he agreed. “But just one, okay?”

She said nothing but he felt her smile in the dark beside him and he was glad.

“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a beautiful girl who – ”

“Why do all your stories have beautiful girls in them?”

“Maybe because I haven’t found one yet,” he teased.

She elbowed him feebly and he laughed.

“Fine,” she said. But he knew she wasn’t angry. “Go on.”

“Okay, so once upon a time there was a beautiful girl,” he paused, meaningfully, “who danced.”

“She danced so well that all who watched her were mesmerised into silence. And it was not uncommon to see tears glistening on the cheeks of her audience, for in her graceful movement they saw the fragility of life and the transience of existence.

“Now there was a benevolent prince who lived in a castle not too far away and when he heard about this extraordinary dancing girl, he was exceedingly anxious to see her for himself. So he dressed up in the garb of a wandering mystic and set off to satisfy his curiosity. He travelled for many days – he was a benevolent prince after all, not a benevolent navigator – but eventually succeeded in finding the little tavern where the dancing girl was.

“Making his way to the front of the crowd, the prince waited anxiously to see the girl and – when the curtains finally parted – he couldn’t breathe, for she was indeed lovelier than the moon. The girl danced with her eyes closed, losing herself in the music and when she finished, she stepped forwards to curtsy, looked into the prince’s lovelorn gaze and promptly froze, blushing fiercely. That was all the prince needed to see. He jumped onto the stage, tore of his disguise and got down on one knee. The crowd burst into grudging applause and soon the two were married and would have lived happily ever after except – ”

“Except what?” she asked.

“Except that this was a time of change. The era of kings and queens was at an end and the time of this-ism and that-ism was about to begin. The fires of revolution were spreading and, though the prince was benevolent, he was also a prince and he realised that it was only a matter of time until his people realised that, too. He had not forgotten how grudgingly they had applauded. He had not forgotten at all.

“So one night – a night just like this one in fact – he took his princess by the hand and led her up the stairs to the highest tower of the castle. And as they stood under the stars, watching the fires of a new epoch burn in the distance, he asked her to dance one last dance for him. And when she finished, he took her in his arms and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh and cry and cry and laugh. And then they stood quietly at the weathered battlements, watching the familiar night fade away into an uncertain dawn.”

“Wow,” she whispered. “What did he tell her?”

“No one knows. But if I had to guess – if you were that girl and and I was that prince – this is what I would have said to you:

“One day, the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy. And the Earth will be no more. And in that blaze of light, all that we’ve loved – the places where we lived and we met and we kissed and we cried – will be lost into the coldness of space. But I’d like to imagine that as the debris of what we once were journeys out past the suns and the supernovas and the comets’ icy tails, our stardust will fall on a young planet. And millennia hence, two young lovers on that young planet will look into each other’s eyes and draw back, amazed. For in those eyes they’ll see something of you. And in those eyes they’ll see something of me. And across the eons and across the light years, for a moment, you and I will be together again.”

She said nothing but he felt her sleep in the dark beside him. And as he watched Orion wheel across the heavens – as Hypnos weaved his ancient spells – he felt her warmth beside him, holding back tomorrow, and he was glad.

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Life is a Caravanserai

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,

How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp

Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

Omar KhayyámThe Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám

ONCE upon a time, there was a great empire. The empire was so vast that its ends were shrouded in mystery and barbarian lands clung to its edges like rotting vestiges. Sometimes, a few armed bands would venture near the borders — like unruly children — craving acknowledgement. But for the most part, the empire lived in peace and harmony.

Now, there was a righteous king who ruled this land and one day he decreed that a great road was to be built from one end of the empire to the other. Since the land was as wealthy as it was large, this presented no great fiscal challenge, merely a logistical one. Soon, the dedicated — though rusty — bureaucracy creaked into action and, reluctantly, the first stones were laid.

Many moons waxed and waned before the final stones were — equally reluctantly — placed, but the job was done and the great black road stood resplendent as a testament to the magnificence of the empire.

The king, however, saw that though the road had made trade infinitely easier, there was still one problem left to tackle. The poorer merchants couldn’t afford to travel, not because the road was taxed but because the cost of the journey included food and lodging. The king was a good man and so he decided that the funds of the state would be best applied to easing the difficulties of his subjects, in the hopes that they would adore him, instead of merely being indifferent. Consequently, the first inns were constructed; a hard day’s journey from each other by the side of that great road.

Now, finally, the bureaucrats had done something truly marvellous. These inns, or caravanserais, were nothing like the crowded, claustrophobic cities that dotted the landscape, rife with crime. No, these were small and warm and safe, filled with the promise of good food, good wine and a soft bed under the stars.

As evening approached and the ancient fires of the sun cooled, the weary traveller would see the caravanserai beckon to him, like a gentle mistress, whispering of sleep and sustenance. And as he lay down, gazing up at the stars, he would ponder on the swirl of milk spilled by a divine hand, carving a path across the night sky. Did he look at that far, far older road and wonder where it began, where it led and who had traversed its many paths, planets and mysteries? Or did his weary eyes wander, just before sleep overtook them, to the far end of the caravanserai and the battered doorway of Tomorrow?