Lit Up — January’s Prompt: Winter
The morning was slate and stone cold. It was hard to tell when the night ended and the day began. A dog howled in the darkness. The horse demurred when he lay the blanket and saddle on his back. He loaded the horse up with a few provisions; he was used to carrying heavier loads. It wasn’t often that he’d take him out in this weather. No soul went into a winter storm without good reason. He fitted the bridle and did up the reins. The horse whinnied. He led the horse out of the stable. He knocked some of the snow, piled up like a mountain of yogurt, off the roof. Across the yard, he saw his wife standing at the door of the house, wrapped up in her shawl. He had talked to her about the boy. He could see the worry in her eyes. He threw up his hand. She stepped inside and waved goodbye. He nodded and led the horse onto the desolate road covered in a blanket of soft snow.
The boy lay as still as a winter’s night. His breathing was shallow and short. His mother sat red-eyed and awake at his side. His sisters were weeping in the kitchen. His father had dragged the doctor out in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snowstorm. The doctor examined the child without a word. His face was expressionless. The boy’s parents looked at him with indignation, gratitude, and desperation.
“He’ll need some antibiotics if he’s going to get out of this,” said the doctor.
The mother nodded.
“But, I’m all out,” he held out his palms. “The flu has hit us hard this year.”
The father’s face flushed. He held back from punching the doctor in the face. “Why the hell did I bring you here in the middle of the night? What kind of doctor are you?”
“No one’s left the village in weeks. Nothing can get in. We’re snowbound, see,” there was a softness in the doctor’s voice. “I’m sorry. Your only hope is to pray that the storm passes.”
The mother cried into her hands. She had already lost a baby boy last year.
“Then I’ll go by foot,” said the father.
“You won’t get very far I’m afraid. This weather will consume you,” said the doctor. “Unless…” The doctor rubbed his mustache. “Do you know anyone with a horse? It’s risky, but a horse and a smart driver could make it.”
Farid was a trader who knew the old mountain roads like the back of his hand; he could find his way into town blindfolded. This isn’t as bad as ’51, he told the horse. The horse trampled slowly through the snow, then stopped. Farid loosened the reins and nudged him with his boot heels. The horse didn’t move.
The valley below was socked in with fog and a fine mist met the mountain peaks in the distance. Farid slid off the horse. He examined the road ahead. It was one downward icy slope. Farid grabbed the reins; his horse hesitated at first; he pulled harder and nudged him forward. He guided the horse up the hillside, then meandered back down to the road where the sun shone it’s first stifled rays.
He rode to the side of the house, under a canopy of trees. He loosed the bridle and the horse exhaled a deep breath of white vapor. Farid tied him to the post and fished out some feed from the sack and placed it on the driest part of the canopy floor. He took out some flatbread from the victuals his wife prepared him; the oil had hardened. It was as stiff as a board. He crunched through a few bites and then threw it back in his sack. He put a blanket over the saddle and then went around to the front of the house and tapped on the door. He heard voices inside. Then the door slowly creaked open. A man had a circumspect look on his face stood in the half-light.
“What do you want,” he said.
“Joseph, it’s Farid.”
“Farid from Ein Delbi? How did you get all the way down here man? Come in, get in out of the cold.”
Farid walked in. The warmth rose to his cold nose and down to his icy toes. Joseph motioned to his wife and offered Farid a seat next to the wood burning fire. “Tell me Farid from Ein Delbi.”
“I’m on my way to Malatya. I’ve got to pick up something for my brother. His son’s got some kind of chest infection.”
“We’ve got a lot of that going around here too. My wife’s aunt passed away a few weeks back. This winter has been hard on the young and old. I hope he makes it through.”
“God willing,” Farid leaned back and breathed in the warm humid air.
Joseph’s wife brought in a coffee tray and put it on the table between the two men. They nodded at her; Farid mumbled thanks, and then she left the room. Joseph poured the steaming black coffee into each demitasse. Then he went to the other side of the room, to a glass cabinet. A wooden cross hung on the white stone wall above it. Joseph pulled out a bottle and poured two shots; he left the bottle on top of the cabinet and then put the glasses on the table next to the coffee cups. He handed Farid a cigarette, lit it and took one out of the packet for himself.
“You came on horseback?”
“The roads are all closed. It’s the only way to get anywhere.”
They talked about the local trade and local politics. They talked about the new republic and the old country. They talked about Muslims, Christians, Druze, Armenians, and Jews. Farid stopped talking, and then stopped listening; he was thinking about his horse and the journey ahead. He thanked Joseph and left.
The world outside was as desolate and white as he left it. The green of the pine trees looked dark blue against the white of the snow, and the pale stone houses look drab and unoccupied. As Farid left the village he felt the world around him becoming bigger; it enveloped him in his aloneness.
He thought about what the mountain would have looked like in ancient times. He could feel his ancestors traveling along the same path. They were passing him with their crude carts, through ancient cedar forests. He thought of all those trees that had been cut down and taken to the port of Byblos, to be sent up and down the Mediterranean.
He was just a man on a horse, making his way to town. His tracks wouldn’t alter history. He was one of the few to travel down this blue mountain in a snowstorm, in the middle of one of the worst winters. He thought of the mountain folk who had been forgotten, their tracks erased with time. His story will be forgotten one day too, when the old serpentine roads get widened and cars built stronger. He imagined the day when the mountain spirit would become obsolete.
Farid and his horse arrived in Malatya. Most of the shops on the main road were closed; only a few had their lights on. All the road side stalls were boarded up. He looked for the green cross at the end of the empty street. He tied the horse to the tree opposite the pharmacy; he rubbed the horse all over with the palm of his gloves, wiping the snow off his back, then he covered the saddle with a blanket.
He tapped on the window of the pharmacy. Farid peered in and saw no one. An incandescent bulb burned low in the middle of the room. The shelf behind the counter was empty except for a few nondescript bottles. Farid embittered at the notion that he had come all this way to find out that the pharmacy was out of stock. He kicked at the aluminum siding, the windows rattled; Farid shouted out for someone open up, or he’d break down the door himself and take whatever he needed. A man responded to Farid’s ire with his own repertoire of insults, then he told him he’d be down in a few minutes to unlock the door.
“What kind of candy stand are you running here?” Farid looked at the empty shelf, and then looked at the man.
“No one’s come from the city in weeks. We’ve got people with the flu and I can’t do anything for them.”
Farid grabbed the man by his collar, “I’ve got a boy half way to the grave. If you don’t get me what he needs his death will be on your head, got it.”
The man looked at Farid’s horse standing in the cold, “Where’d you say you’re coming from?”
“Up the mountain.” Farid squeezed harder.
“Okay, take it easy; I’ll see what I can do. I know someone who brings things,” he made a small motion with his hands. Farid knew what he meant.
Farid loosed his grip and patted the man on his chest, “You’re a good man, thank you.”
Farid walked his horse down the main street and followed the directions the pharmacist gave him. He held the reins in close and told the horse that this trip wasn’t going to be a waste of time, and that they were going to save the boy. He hoped that the child would have the strength to make it through the day.
Farid rapped his dry knuckles on a small wooden door. The door opened and a tall young man with broad shoulders stood in the doorway looking at Farid and his horse. Farid took out the doctor’s note. The man motioned for him to come in.
“No thanks. I’ll wait out here.”
“Okay, suit yourself, just a moment.”
The man closed the door. The horse neighed and Farid rubbed her long nose and brushed the snow off her brown coat. He told her that they were going home soon.
The man opened the door, and held a paper bag in his hand.
“Let me see it,” said Farid.
The man handed Farid the bag. Farid took out a brown bottle, uncapped it and smelled it. Farid handed him all the money his brother had given him for the price of the medicine. The man nodded his head and smirked. He held out two fingers.
“You dirty son of a bitch; you’re charging me double. I’ve got a sick kid at home. Where’s your compassion?”
“Listen, I went through the trouble to bring you what you needed, and I make my price. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ve come down the mountain in a snowstorm. I’ve been out here for hours. I’ll show you trouble.”
The man didn’t flinch. He dropped his hand and patted his waist. “Take it or leave it. Don’t make trouble.”
Farid pulled out his stash of cash from inside his coat pocket and handed it to the young man.
“Thank you,” he said and closed the door, leaving Farid and his horse standing in the snow.
Farid found an old tin siding on the side of the road; he brushed it off and filled it with water from his canteen and then set it down. He loosened the bridle and the horse drank. He told him that he wouldn’t tell his brother about the young man. God knows what I’ve done today; it’ll come back to me somewhere along the way, he told the horse.
Farid dreaded the long climb back up the mountain; they wouldn’t be home until after the grey sky would disappear into the pitch black night. The horse was stronger than Farid had expected. The icy patches had melted and he steadily climbed up the mountain road. Farid sipped warm tea from the thermos Joseph’s wife had prepared for him. Farid thought of nothing in particular except getting back to the warmth of his home. The sun peaked out of the swirling dark clouds, and the heavy mist lifted from the valley. A spotted eagle sailed over his head and disappeared into the trees. Farid could see the sea miles below. The sun’s illuminated performance lasted for forty-five minutes before descending into the Mediterranean. Farid and his horse were close to Ein Delbi at dusk. He guided the nervous horse the rest of the way on foot. When Farid reached his brother’s house, he was already waiting outside in his thick wool coat.
“I thought we almost lost the both of you,” said the brother.
“You mean he’s gone,” said Farid.
“No, but he’s weakening.” His eyes were red and tired. He didn’t blink.
“I’ve got the stuff you asked for.”
The brother threw his arms around Farid and began to cry.
Farid took the horse back to the snow-covered stable. He threw down a pile of grain into the trough. He pulled off the reins and undid the bridle. The horse nuzzled against him and then bent down to eat. He unhooked the saddle and lay it on a hay bale. He locked the gate behind him and stood in the still night. It had stopped snowing. He looked up and saw, for the first time in weeks, stars twinkling in the midnight blue.