Two more months passed
Two more months passed, and the shelf brought many customers into the crystal shop. The boy estimated that, if he worked for six more months, he could return to Spain and buy sixty sheep, and yet another sixty. In less than a year, he would have doubled his flock, and he would be able to do business with the Arabs, because he was now able to speak their strange language. Since that morning in the marketplace, he had never again made use of Urim and Thummim, because Egypt was now just as distant a dream for him as was Mecca for the merchant. Anyway, the boy had become happy in his work, and thought all the time about the day when he would disembark at Tarifa as a winner.
“You must always know what it is that you want,” the old king had said. The boy knew, and was now working toward it. Maybe it was his treasure to have wound up in that strange land, met up with a thief, and doubled the size of his flock without spending a cent.
He was proud of himself. He had learned some important things, like how to deal in crystal, and about the language without words . . . and about omens. One afternoon he had seen a man at the top of the hill, complaining that it was impossible to find a decent place to get something to drink after such a climb. The boy, accustomed to recognizing omens, spoke to the merchant.
“Let’s sell tea to the people who climb the hill.”
“Lots of places sell tea around here,” the merchant said.
“But we could sell tea in crystal glasses. The people will enjoy the tea and want to buy the glasses. I have been told that beauty is the great seducer of men.”
The merchant didn’t respond, but that afternoon, after saying his prayers and closing the shop, he invited the boy to sit with him and share his hookah, that strange pipe used by the Arabs.
“What is it you’re looking for?” asked the old merchant.
“I’ve already told you. I need to buy my sheep back, so I have to earn the money to do so.”
The merchant put some new coals in the hookah, and inhaled deeply.
“I’ve had this shop for thirty years. I know good crystal from bad, and everything else there is to know about crystal. I know its dimensions and how it behaves. If we serve tea in crystal, the shop is going to expand. And then I’ll have to change my way of life.”
“Well, isn’t that good?”
“I’m already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends had moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it hasn’t been too bad. The shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be. I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I’m used to the way I am.”
The boy didn’t know what to say. The old man continued, “You have been a real blessing to me. Today, I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.”
It’s good I refrained from saying anything to the baker in Tarifa, thought the boy to himself.
They went on smoking the pipe for a while as the sun began to set. They were conversing in Arabic, and the boy was proud of himself for being able to do so. There had been a time when he thought that his sheep could teach him everything he needed to know about the world. But they could never have taught him Arabic.
There are probably other things in the world that the sheep can’t teach me, thought the boy as he regarded the old merchant. All they ever do, really, is look for food and water. And maybe it wasn’t that they were teaching me, but that I was learning from them.
“Maktub,” the merchant said, finally.
“What does that mean?”
“You would have to have been born an Arab to understand,” he answered. “But in your language it would be something like ‘It is written.’”
And, as he smothered the coals in the hookah, he told the boy that he could begin to sell tea in the crystal glasses. Sometimes, there’s just no way to hold back the river.
* * *
The men climbed the hill, and they were tired when they reached the top. But there they saw a crystal shop that offered refreshing mint tea. They went in to drink the tea, which was served in beautiful crystal glasses.
“My wife never thought of this,” said one, and he bought some crystal—he was entertaining guests that night, and the guests would be impressed by the beauty of the glassware. The other man remarked that tea was always more delicious when it was served in crystal, because the aroma was retained. The third said that it was a tradition in the Orient to use crystal glasses for tea because it had magical powers.
Before long, the news spread, and a great many people began to climb the hill to see the shop that was doing something new in a trade that was so old. Other shops were opened that served tea in crystal, but they weren’t at the top of a hill, and they had little business.
Eventually, the merchant had to hire two more employees. He began to import enormous quantities of tea, along with his crystal, and his shop was sought out by men and women with a thirst for things new.
And, in that way, the months passed.
* * *
The boy awoke before dawn. It had been eleven months and nine days since he had first set foot on the African continent.
He dressed in his Arabian clothing of white linen, bought especially for this day. He put his headcloth in place and secured it with a ring made of camel skin. Wearing his new sandals, he descended the stairs silently.
The city was still sleeping. He prepared himself a sandwich and drank some hot tea from a crystal glass. Then he sat in the sun-filled doorway, smoking the hookah.
He smoked in silence, thinking of nothing, and listening to the sound of the wind that brought the scent of the desert. When he had finished his smoke, he reached into one of his pockets, and sat there for a few moments, regarding what he had withdrawn.
It was a bundle of money. Enough to buy himself a hundred and twenty sheep, a return ticket, and a license to import products from Africa into his own country.
He waited patiently for the merchant to awaken and open the shop. Then the two went off to have some more tea.
“I’m leaving today,” said the boy. “I have the money I need to buy my sheep. And you have the money you need to go to Mecca.”
The old man said nothing.
“Will you give me your blessing?” asked the boy. “You have helped me.” The man continued to prepare his tea, saying nothing. Then he turned to the boy.
“I am proud of you,” he said. “You brought a new feeling into my crystal shop. But you know that I’m not going to go to Mecca. Just as you know that you’re not going to buy your sheep.”
“Who told you that?” asked the boy, startled.
“Maktub” said the old crystal merchant.
And he gave the boy his blessing.