FALL 2013 (Issue 80)
 

Maya Kanwal

Mailee and the Saint of Horses


The kumhaars of Pakistan, they have a book. It is called "The Potters Book" and
you might yet uncover a crumbling manuscript in the Storyteller's Bazaar in Peshawar if
you ferret out the current whereabouts of Haji Fazal & Haji Abdur Raheem & Sons,
Booksellers. This tract would affirm to you that Adam was the first potter, wielding tools
brought by Gabriel from Allah. You would know that Noah, then Abraham, then Isaac,
then Moses and then Muhammad carried on Adam's work and entrusted it to the kumhaars
through seven hundred patron saints of the profession.

But most precious to the potters among you would be the tutelary verses for the
Digging of the Clay, the Kneading of the Clay, the Setting of the Pots in the Kiln, the
Opening of the Kiln, and every step of your craft in between. Your wares would be blessed
if you could chance upon this guidance. There is one copy however that you would not
find.

It is dust now, buried with the blind saint who stole it from his own father the
master potter, the ustaad of the kumhaars. The son spied his father the ustaad struggling
with the parchment by the glow of the kiln, crackling those stained, translucent pages sown
to cardboard, the cover gnawed away by worms. The boy knew that his father, who would
never admit this, could read none of it; that the man knew only the places and sounds of
the few verses taught to him by the ustaad before him.


This boy, not yet blind, learned to read while the other kumhaar boys treaded the
week's ration of raw clay with their feet. He pretended religious fervor so that his father
begrudgingly handed him over to the mosque's maulvi to whom the boy said, "Teach me to
read and not just recite." But once he could read, the boy did not return to the mosque, nor
to his father's workshop. Instead, he frittered away his time molding clay horses like those
in the stories he read. And though his idols repelled the adults, the kumhaar boys back
from the clay pits with their donkeys would gather by him at sunset to listen to his yarns
until their mothers chased them home with canes.


That he was destined to be the next ustaad did not move the boy to industry, and
this stoked his father's ire so that he was cut off from the task of creation and relegated to
fueling the kiln with cow dung.


And this boy, not yet a saint, was first loved by a girl whose name no one could
remember--it had vanished with the death of her mother. They called her simply, “mailee,”
dirty one. She loved the ustaad's boy because when he called her Mailee, it sounded
instead like "one from the dirt." For she liked dirt and the shapes it could take. She would
watch sodden lumps dance on her father's wheel and take life in his fingers as she ground
black stones for her paint. And before her father had even reached for his wet cotton thread
to cut away a new pot, she knew what vine would trail around its girth, and what flowers
would bloom on this vine, and no two pots she painted were ever alike because she knew
their spirits.


The ustaad's boy, who loitered in every workshop except his own father's, saw the
soul in Mailee's painting, and one day he showed her how to trace verses from the Potter's
Book onto some water pitchers. They were caught by his mother as he guided Mailee's
brush hand with his own.


Now the ustaad's wife would not have her son taken by a lowly motherless girl,
even if her father was a kumhaar. So she dragged the boy by the collar and threw him in
front of his father's wheel. She flung the pot that the children had been so intent upon at the
father's feet as well. It exploded on the ground with a thunder that released her tongue from
decades of shackles. She assailed her husband for raising a son who would dilute their
solid blood into so much slip. Consumed by her own rant, she did not see that the boy was
writhing on the floor from the pain of shards in his eyes.


The ustaad did not perceive the state of the boy either, nor did he hearken the rest
of his wife's tirade when he discerned on a fragment of the shattered pot a part of the
blessing for the Opening of the Kiln.


"Where did you learn this?" he demanded of the boy, lifting the broken piece into
his lap. His words were gruff, but not too harsh, because he was torn between a sense of
pride that his son knew the sacred verse, and a pang of jealousy that someone had partaken
in the revered knowledge that was his to guard until he chose to pass it on. He had never
thought his son cared for the Potter's Book and its lessons.


"Tell me where you learnt this, boy!" he repeated more urgently.


The boy replied only with a howl, his fists to his eyes.


They washed his eyes for many days, but he never saw again. He could not read
anymore, and the other boys had no time to visit with him. They said that surely, he had
been punished for making idols in the likeness of horses. Mailee came to him every day
and his mother allowed this, inwardly guilty for having been instrumental in his plight, but
outwardly proclaiming that it was Mailee who was the cause of his ruin, and so it should
be Mailee who cares for his needs.


Under the girl's vigil, he healed. And during this time, he taught her how to mold
horses from clay, for his fingers could still see as well as ever. When they tired of horses,
they adorned the walls of his room with verses from the Potter's Book in raised clay. But
he refrained from touching her hands now, guiding her only with his gestures and his
words.


She wondered every day what would bring him back to her, but she realized that he
was broken somewhere deeper than his eyes.


In the time it took for the boy's pain to abate, the ustaad and his wife had another
child. He sensed their grief lighten and confided to Mailee his relief that they saw another
future. But one day, the new child skipped back home reciting absurd rhymes he had
picked up in the alleys, and so the ustaad brought him in to his older brother's room.


"Teach him all of the verses from our book so he can be an even better kumhaar
than me one day," he asked of the older one.


"But don't you know father," said the elder, "that these verses are for all craftsmen,
and not just the potters?"


The father stood astounded. He leaned on the shoulder of the younger child to
steady himself.


The elder was emboldened by the effect he had on the ustaad. "I will teach him the
entire truth of these words so they can sustain him in any path he may choose," he
continued. "But I will not put these verses through your potter's sieve so that all he is left
with is the small grit of your world."


"You speak poison..." The father pointed his finger at the elder one, his voice
shaking at the abomination. "You change the book to suit your purpose."


"How do you know?" The elder said this turning towards the younger boy so that
neither the father nor the little one knew who was being addressed.


It was then that the father told the elder that he was banished from his house and
the clan.


"But father, it is our book that first revealed to me a world beyond our own."


It made no sense. It did not matter. Banished. He was banished.


He asked for one more night during which he prepared to leave. Among other acts
of cleansing, he scraped down the walls of his room. And after that he did not go far. At
the edge of the village he built himself a hut out of mud strengthened with straw that
Mailee gathered for him. Around the hut he built a wall on which he began to place clay
horses of every aspect. Mailee watched him scar the feet of each horse and scar the ledge
of the wall so the horses would be joined to the wall by the sun so firmly that not even the
monsoon winds could rend them off.


The villagers all avoided the hut, but one stormy day a despondent man on his way
to the village in hope of an apprenticeship with the kumhaars took shelter with the blind
boy. The boy told him a parable of his own creation to lighten his burden. The man forgot
about the lessons he had come to seek from the kumhaars and asked the boy what he could
do for him in return. The boy asked only for a horse in payment.


"A horse?" The man worried that he was too poor to afford the wisdom of this blind
youth.


"A clay horse will suffice," said the boy, and the relieved man left. The boy then
scratched his story into the wall of his hut.


The man was grateful and when he next returned, he brought not only a clay horse
but also three other supplicants. The boy found no difficulty in summoning the power of
the stories within him and soon the Saint of Horses saw more visitors and sent forth more
creations into the world than did the workshops of the kumhaars.


The ustaad and Mailee watched all of this with trepidation.


Since business trudged along, the ustaad told the others, "Never mind. Keep the
hand to the wheel and the true word will help us prevail. His tales are just the dazzle of a
desert mirage."


But Mailee, she knew better. She often visited the mud hut that was now decked up
like a true saint's shrine. Beneath the adornments, the walls were layered with tales
scratched upon tales. However, neither the glitter, nor the wisdom moved her and instead
she craved only his nearness. Yet he would not take her hand. The glint of the mica and
tinsel in his room seemed to deride her.


"Why do you do this to your room?" She meant the garish decoration.


"It is the scaffold for my next story," he answered, waving at the web of scrapings,
illegible by now.


She would not give up. When people began to come from so far that they did not
know to bring a clay horse with them, she began to grind down the discarded mistakes of
other potters and fire her own clay horses. She gave them away at his doorstep so no
visitor would be turned away without an audience with the Saint. She listened to every
heartache they narrated, and heard every story the Saint recited to them in return, revealing
new paths to them. With her practiced hand, she began to fashion horses more elaborate
than any seen before, so that in the mind of the people, she too melded with the legend of
the Saint and was written off for lost by the clan.


Once she began sending in her horses, she noticed a change in the Saint. When
handed one of hers, he lingered on each for a while, tracing the curves, feeling every rise
and fall on the body. In her joy, she began to paint her horses. He could not see the patterns
himself, but his visitors were so enthralled by the pieces they held that they hesitated to
part from them and only did so after describing to him in detail the ornaments on their
offering.


Then one day, she enshrined a horse in a webbing from a paste mixed from her own
kajal. This one she took to him herself and told him what he held in his hands.


"And what is your sorrow, Mailee?"


Because he spoke as if he could not guess, she left even more cracked than before.
For the first time, she felt a bitterness well up within her. She marched to the ustaad's
house and demanded loudly, "Where is your book, ustaad? Can it teach me what I need to
know because I have not found the answer in all these years."


The ustaad would ordinarily have ignored her and continued at his wheel. But
some relentlessness in her voice compelled him to get up and go search for his Potter's
Book. He had not opened it since the night of his final words to his elder son because it
would be like ripping off the scab that had hardened with time and protected his heart all
these years.


"Follow me," he said, and took Mailee into his courtyard. He asked her to wait
there and shuffled off to his bedroom. She heard him rustle about in there for a while and
then she heard a ripping and a slamming. The ustaad hurtled out of his room, his hair wild.
The ustaad's wife and little boy rushed out of the kitchen and cowered at his visage.
"It is not there," he informed the world. Then he screamed at the sky, "The word is
gone!"


The crows in the courtyard took wing, their caws echoing the ustaad's wail.


That day, Mailee walked away without the word but with a new understanding.


After that the ustaad's fire never turned out pitchers that could hold water and the
kumhaars of the village saw no more customers because it became known that their pottery
had no soul, as if it was not blessed. Much of this was said by the continuing stream of
visitors to the Saint of Horses, and their tales spread across the land.


And then one day, the ustaad died from a wasted heart. Mailee watched from afar
as the gravediggers prepared the earth to receive him. As they dug deeper, they hit upon a
clay of a hardness not seen before in that area. Because of this, they tired of their labors
and had to break for the sundown prayer before continuing their work. In the descending
dusk Mailee made her way to the unfinished grave, knowing full well the injunction
against women in graveyards. She picked up a pointed rock that lay in her way and brought
it into the grave with her. In the dank hole, she scraped out some of the unyielding clay,
hiding it in her bosom when she was discovered.


The village had tolerated her wandering ways thus far but this desecration was too
much to bear. In their general sorrow they did not even ask for an explanation before
sentencing her to twenty lashes.


She bore the lashes with ease, her mind on her lump of clay. As she healed, she
kneaded it until her fingers were calloused, but it finally gave and she molded it into a
horse. Once the totem was fired, she knew it needed no adornment. She took it in to the
Saint who had no need to ask her why she had brought him another offering. He had heard
the talk from the village, so when she came into his hut, he received the horse from her
hands in silence.


She watched him lift his pillow that lay at the head of the ledge that was his bed.
He pulled open a trapdoor underneath and lowered the horse into the opening. Then he
took her hands and told her how two pieces of clay must both be scarred before they can be
joined.


She never saw that horse again until the day he died many years later. Then she
buried it along with the Saint, as she did the remains of the Potter's Book that the horse had
stood upon all those years.