Two brothers scooched down a narrow lane and slumped breathlessly against an adobe embankment. Their backs, slick with sweat, instantly caked in reddish loam.
“Shhh,” whispered the older one. “It’s about to begin.”
And as sure as the fulgent moon shone in the night sky, there began a quiet humming from behind the clay wall.
At first it was barely audible, a faint murmuring of driftless notes. But then came tribal beats. The clattering of wooden stones. Until finally a melody mellifluous and sweet; it was as if every note had been dipped in untamed honey.
The brothers ate them greedily, like a pocket full of sugared almonds.
Later came pulsating melodies that made the boys want to dance. Throw their arms to the stars. Gyrate and turn hips. Other tunes, however, had an almost sirenic rhythm. Sensual and slow, causing them to arch their backs in stiffened, incandescent desire.
“But who is the musician?” whispered the younger brother, catching his breath.
“Why it’s the Button-Seller from the Souk, the one with the five daughters.”
“You mean the one with the crude tongue. Surely you are lying to me, my brother.”
The older brother twisted his ear.
“I tell no lies to you.”
“Well, then what instrument is he playing?”
“His backgammon board, of course. Take a look for yourself,” said the older brother, hoisting the young lad high upon his shoulders.
At first the boy saw nothing. Just a huddled courtyard, overgrown with jasmine vines, and two tortoises nibbling studiously on wilted leaves. But then slowly as his eyes adjusted the Button-Seller appeared and—just as his brother had said—the man was in the deepest throes of a game. Except he wasn’t playing a traditional bout, full of sharp moves and cups of spilt tea. No. It was more like a performance, a recital of some sort. Every rub of the checkers bringing forth a different song; every toss of the die the beat of Mizhar drums.
“O, I should like to play like him,” the boy sighed as his brother lowered him back to the ground.
But his brother shook his head.
“Many men have tried, my boy. Not one of them has come close.”
Indeed, it was a well-known fact that some of the more determined folk had even gone to see Farah (the designated street mathematician, largely because he could use an abacus with only one hand) to plead with him for an explanation on how it was that the Button-Seller’s board should sing while theirs remained mute, not even a hum. Surely, they had reasoned, music was nothing more than an equation of notes and there must be some algebraic formula to guide them on their way.
But Farah had shaken his head solemnly.
“X,” he had declared (and with some regret). “Was never designed for such evanescent things.”
Disheartened, the men had left the mathematician and gone to the Holy Man instead. But the Holy Man—after much deliberation and a trough full of figs—could only conclude that the Button-Seller had what he called a God-given talent—a blessing from Allah— that no one ought deny. A gift that meant the Button-Seller would always play songs willed from the great God above and that he would always win. Indeed, who were they—mere mortals after all—to challenge a tradition God, himself, had overseen.
Now of course the townsfolk—being a generally righteous bunch—accepted the Holy Man’s declaration or at least nodded their heads at his words. But if you had asked them privately what they really thought, most would have answered in a different vein altogether. Although they would have only ever given their answer while crouching down by the Barada River, which, though barely a trickle, still made a muffling swoosh when you stooped down low enough. And there amidst the swoosh they would have admitted they were perplexed (maybe even a little miffed) as to why the Button-Seller, in particular, had been given such a gift. For it was not as if he were a pious man or gave generously to God. A twisting tongue, blue as cornflower, and graceless in his poise. More hair on his back than kind thoughts in his head, and a skull the shape of a garlic bulb, ears that hung like bats.
“It seems only fair,” they would have whispered by the swoosh. “That beautiful music should come from a beautiful soul.”
“And a local one at that!”
For the Button-Seller was not a city man. He had come from the tussocked lands. And while his blood may have been dyed in the same crimson cast, there was something to be said for being born within the sweep of the ancient city gates; for inhaling sweet jasmine from the moment you were sluiced. Tempering you somehow.
Now although it was clear that this Button-Seller had indeed been blessed, he was also ungenerous, and obnoxiously so. Trading his buttons as if they were exquisite jewels; dubbing them precious gems rather than plastic, bone, and wood. Casting off customers who came in shabby dress. Refusing to haggle—not even one quirsh!
“Why, look at that man with his pants all exposed. Fancy begging me for a button. What a disgrace!”
“But Button-Seller,” said his shop neighbour, an affable cobbler called Samir. “Surely that is why the poor soul has come to you at all.”
“Well, tell him to leave. This will not do. Darkening my fine shop with his slovenly, disrobed manner.”
And so it went on, day in day out. Customers gradually depleting. Sales rare to never.
“But surely you must try to sell something,” his wife gently pleaded over their nightly kibbeh. “Especially since we have five growing daughters whose manes are in need of the best Argan oil.”
But the Button-Seller simply laughed and wiped his greasy chin. “O, they shall have the finest oils and you some dazzling heels. Just let me play and win my game. You know I always will. Why, even the Holy Man says it will be so.”
And with that he gathered up his board and went to play the streets. As he did every evening. Sometimes in cafes or beside courtyard fountains where pregnant, green watermelons merrily bobbed to his tunes. And slowly as the dusk air began to ripen with smoke and nargileh, the crowds would keenly gather to listen to him play. And though he blunted the sweetened air with his terrible, cursing tongue, the women would come with their children too, and the cats would stop their nightly yowling. The birds would cease their chatter.
And money would be thrown deep into the well of his lap.
And he would play on undefeated.
Now there came to the city one summer evening, a deadening, torpid heat. Knocking the buzzards from out of the sky, butterflies from the trees. Wilting children like neglected pink roses. Bringing poplars to their knees. Crowds soon began gathering in Dawamneh Square, begging for the Button-Seller to play them a tune. Anything to distract them from the ghastly heat; from the sound of trickling sweat in their ears.
Mostly the Button-Seller played with Samir, who always lost with a smile and a kind word to the bees. But then later came a caliginous stranger with red, licked lips. Wearing boots strapped with razor buckles and a charcoal-ink hood, he emerged from the assembled crowd with a certain brassy swagger.
“Hey you, Jargulieh,” the Button-Seller shouted when he saw the strutting man. “Come play with me. Let me wipe that smile from your face.”
The hooded stranger approached the Button-Seller, still wearing his bold grin.
“O I shall play you, my cursing friend, although I am afraid you cannot win.”
But the Button-Seller merely strung out another salty word before taking his first throw of the game.
They say that the music that followed on that sultry, summer night was the most entrancing it had ever been. That his songs brought with them a quiet sort of ecstasy that ascended from the square all the way to the craning moon. That the fish in the Barada River began to weep plump salty tears and the stars began winking in hushed, soulful unison.
And yet despite all of this beauty, this magnificent harmony, it soon became apparent that the hooded stranger was right. The Button-Seller could not win. Loss fell upon loss, and yet the Button-Seller persevered. Playing until his fingers began bleeding from their bones and his songs one by one finally petered away.
“Where have all my songs gone?” he shouted angrily at the hooded stranger.
“Your songs?” replied the man, a glint in his emerald-cut eye. He then stood up from his stool, a wicked laugh in his throat, and flicked open his great, black cloak. Then with a turn of his gloved hand, he revealed a stitched inlay of tiny silver hooks. The Button-Seller peered closely and let out a curse. For there hanging on these neat hooks were millions of little notes: quavers and crotchets, minims and semi-breves.
“I am their keeper now.”
The watching crowd gasped and wrung their arms. The Button-Seller simply swore.
“Give them back to me this instant. They do not belong to you.”
But the hooded stranger shook his head. “Your tongue is too coarse for such pure things. I am their saviour now.”
Immediately a babble of agreement rippled through the crowd as they listed all the profanities they had heard that night alone. And the Button-Seller, having heard the crowd’s rumble, quickly lowered his eyes to the ground. He could feel his heart shrinking to the size of a seed because he knew, right to the very marrow of his tussocked bones, that the hooded stranger was right. Who was he to possess such beauty when he uttered such filth in their presence? Perhaps the Holy Man’s God was wrong.
He turned to his song’s captor, his arms outstretched.
“Find me a bar of Aleppo soap and I shall rinse out my tongue right away.”
But the hooded stranger shook his head.
“There is no second chance, my friend. The music is now mine. But do not worry. I shall take good care of them. Very good care indeed.”
He then disappeared with the songs swinging from his coat hooks, leaving the Button-Seller slope-shouldered and utterly shamed. Indeed his grief almost made the townsfolk feel sorry for what had just happened, though, if you had asked them what they really thought they would have answered in a different vein.
“Perhaps he deserved it,” they might have whispered by the swoosh.
“He needed humbling in his ways.”
Now, even though the townsfolk had thought the Button-Seller was in need of a lesson, it didn’t take long before they lamented what had happened. The streets had lost their harmonious scatterings, the air its wistful songs. Even the crack of the Button-Seller’s mischievous tongue seemed charming now that it was gone. Indeed, some even went as far as to say that the town had been delinquent to lose her songs in this way when perhaps all that had been needed was a little firm chastisement.
But no trace could be found of the dark, hooded stranger to persuade him to change his mind.
Then came dirty rumours filtering down from the north: the Button-Seller’s songs were being sold in dun alleys. They weren’t in some safe haven as the stranger had alluded, sweetly humming and lilting to themselves. No. They were being sold to the highest bidder, traded like camel hooves, and for all manner of nefarious reasons. To butchers who slaughtered animals with blunt, filthy knives. Barbers who cut men’s ears more often than their beards. Thieves, cads and philanderers, cheats and tax collectors, all whistling the Button-Seller’s songs as if they were their own.
“Such terrible fates,” the townsfolk concurred down by the swoosh. “Even more terrible than the Button-Seller’s cursing tongue.”
Now when the Button-Seller learned what had happened to his songs, he immediately began shouting and banging his fists.
“Come,” he roared to his amiable friend, Samir. “Let us go find this hooded rogue and fight him to the end.”
Samir glanced doubtfully down at his arthritic right hand and then across at his improbable friend. Surely this hooded stranger could take them both out with his burly cape. Wasn’t that the very reason they hadn’t fought him the first time round?
But the Button-Seller seemed certain he could tackle this man now. Now he had been revealed as nothing more than a two-bit thief. Claiming to be the song’s saviour when all he really did was swindle them. Fancy shaming the Button-Seller in the back of his own streets. Why, nothing sharpened a man’s fists more than being so unfairly cast.
It took the men three days to find the hooded stranger, eventually spying him sprawled under the shade of a plump lemon tree.
“Hey crook,” the Button-Seller curdled. “Yes. You.”
The hooded man rolled over immediately (which spoke volumes of his dubiousness) and smiled at the seething man.
“You!” He smirked. “Come to give me another tune? To lose another song?”
“No. Bandit. I have come to free mine.”
And with that the Button-Seller leapt so ferociously on top of the hooded man that even the watching lemons began to shiver in their dappled skins. And the Button-Seller wouldn’t stop despite the hooded stranger’s pleas until all that was left was the man’s bruised body and the strips of his black cloak scattered all around him.
“Why, you fool,” said the hooded stranger, pointing at his savaged cloak. “I might well have stolen these songs from you but it is you who has destroyed them now.”
The Button-Seller gazed down at the torn shreds strewn across the ground. And sure enough, amongst them lay a jumble of notes and a twist of songs so deeply entangled it was impossible to tell where one note ended and the next one began. Not one of them sang. All strangled and mute. He fell to his knees, a quiet wail in his throat.
“What have I done?” he wept to Samir.
His friend crouched down beside him, placing an arm around his broken frame. Nearby slumped a crochet that Samir poked at gingerly just to see if it was truly dead.
The crochet winced.
Samir poked it again.
It gave out a yelp.
“Look,” said Samir excitedly, poking the crochet once again so it let out another, more indignant yelp. “Look, this note is not broken, it is only bruised. We can fix its lungs, I’m sure.”
The Button-Seller peered closely at the yelping crochet and then across at the bleeding stranger. A small, satiated smile crept across his lips.
“So who is the fool now?” he taunted the naked man. “All scrawny and exposed without your wretched cloak. Come, Samir, we must take back these songs. We must save them one by one.”
And with that the Button-Seller began scooping the notes up into his arms while the hooded stranger watched, stripped bare and sullen. A scowl slowly crept along his red, licked lips. Not because he was naked and his cloak was all in tatters but because he knew in his scoundrel heart (as scoundrels always do) that a man can never be defeated when he believes in his own tune.
The Button-Seller and Samir returned quickly to the city. Their stride was neither triumphant nor thoroughly subdued. They knew they would have to work hard if they were to unravel every note; that their touch would need to be silken; their patience long as rope.
The Button-Seller, in particular, took on the task with devoted toil. Polishing and buffing each note like he would his precious buttons. Mending their broken hearts as he quietly mended his own tongue.
Finally, after many months the notes were declared ready, their lungs fit for song, and the Button-Seller called the crowds to come hear them once again. However, instead of playing them on his wooden board and gambling on their souls, he simply released them to the sky and the craning moon above.
“What are you doing?” shouted the crowds in great glee.
“Why, I’m letting them swoon with the cicadas and the trees. Just like the God-given gifts we all know them to be.”
And from then on the city streets were filled with constant song, causing delight and great merriment amongst all those who lived there. Even leading some of the townsfolk to admit by the muffling swoosh that though the Button-Seller may have ears like a bat, his soul was one of gold.
And the Button-Seller himself never uttered another curse.
Not even in his sleep.
Joanna Galbraith has been writing short stories for ten years. Born in Australia, she currently lives in Tuscany, Italy, with her one-eyed cat and a lot of olives trees.