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A Nightingale Sings In the Gardens of Cordoba

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In those years the city was the abode of many wise men and women. It was ruled by the Caliph, the wisest of all, and under the Caliph, in as many circles as there are rings on an astrolabe, studied the astrologers and the mathematicians, the doctors and the musicians, the poets and the alchemists. In the city there were many gardens and many libraries.

The city was built on a hill. Over the years builders had quarried and terraced until where there had been stone, now there were huddled little houses with brave terracotta tiles and scarlet geraniums in every window box, and great universities with open colonnades and quiet squares, where students read and talked quietly of the path of the sun and the moon and the stars, and the functions and formulae of numbers.

Below the city, at the base of the hill, ran a river so old it had carved a great gorge in the rock, through which it ran somberly, in darkness, and over the gorge there was a bridge. The bridge was built of pale stone that sparkled in sunshine, and along it ran the road which travelled from the castle where the king lived, to the heart of the city.

Photogen and Nycteris walked over the bridge. The sun was behind them, and their shadows on the stone were long and sharp-edged, so that Photogen’s sword stretched forward to the walls of the city and Nycteris’ books weighted their feet.

“And look!” said Photogen, “The plain is crowded with wild animals and the river full of fish. I will bring back to you silver trout and golden deer – a live deer, Nycteris, that you can feed from your hand – and you shall tell me what you have learned, so that I may travel with you.”

Nycteris said, “Only, do not be gone too long.” Her hand, slim and dark, rested lightly in Photogen’s, for they had faced many dangers together.

“I will not,” Photogen promised, and when he smiled at her, his smile shone as brightly as the sun.

For many months they were happy. They had a little house built into the walls of the city, so that Photogen could rise early, pick up his spears and stride out into the morning. He would spend his days exploring the forest and the plains, where there were many strange creatures, and there he would hunt only enough that he and Nycteris might eat, content to explore a world that was new and beautiful in its freedom. In the city, Nycteris spent her days in the libraries of the university, often rising late and reading long into the night, delighting in this new world of words and ideas, for she had been starved of both and could now feast. To each the other brought home their joys, Photogen laying jewelled feathers and gleaming river stones in Nycteris’ hands before he laid his head in her lap, and listened to her tell of the great dance of the stars or the pattern of crystals in the rocks he had unearthed. Yet, little by little, Photogen found Nycteris traversing paths he could not follow. For her he had learned to love the night, but when her eyes grew dim with words and her hands tender and soft on the pages of her books, even the beauty of the evening, when his sun dipped a golden head to her silver moon, could not call her from her study. All the joys of the daylight world, so recently discovered, faded beside the call of her books.

“I have found wild strawberries by the river, where the jasmine blooms,” Photogen would say softly. “Come and watch the stars with me.”

“In a moment,” Nycteris would say, if she looked up from her book. “Beloved, let me just finish this page...”

There came a day when Photogen, rising with the sun, passed as he left their bedchamber Nycteris, retiring to her bed in the last light of the moon, her book still in her hand. She smiled at him, but her smile was a weak shadow of what it had once been, and her eyes did not shine for him as they used to do. In that moment, fear struck Photogen as sharply as the cold dark of the night had once done, for he could see that they were far apart, and yet his heart still yearned for hers. He thought of Watho, who had cared for nothing but knowledge, the witch who had imprisoned himself in daylight and Nycteris in night, and wondered if Nycteris too would lay aside love for the dry scratches of ink on a page. Terror, blinding, gripped him by the throat, both for himself and for her.

But the Photogen of the city was braver than the Photogen of the castle, for Nycteris herself had taught him both how to face his fear and how to love, so that in his heart he held both true courage and humility. If, Photogen thought to himself, my beloved is lost to me, then I must follow her, for I promised never to leave her.

That day Photogen did not leave their little house by the city walls, but instead turned back into the bedchamber. Throughout the long day he held his sleeping wife in his arms, and while the sunlight shone through the pierced windows of their house and crept across the jewel-bright carpets, he considered how he might fight this battle. Here was no wolf, to be vanquished with an arrow: all his feats of arms had no place within the pages of Nycteris’ books. To this struggle he must come naked, for Photogen could not read.

As the moon rose, so too did Nycteris. Surprised as she was to find Photogen by her side, she still flung on her old gown and hastened to find her books. “Tonight we are discussing light!” she said to him. “Light, Photogen – all the colours of the rainbow, and how they are made!”

Outside the window the moon was thin, a sliver of silver, and the stars bright in the velvet darkness of the sky. Photogen looked up in wonder, for he had forgotten the beauty of the night. “Oh!” he said. “How lovely the stars are!”

“Quite so,” said Nycteris, who had mislaid her almanac. “Dearest, have – ah, yes, here it is!” All hustle, she hastened for the door.

“Wait!” Photogen cried. “Might I – may I come with you?”

For a moment, when Nycteris hesitated in the doorway, Photogen thought she would say no, and his heart quailed in his breast. But Nycteris smiled then, and held out her hand. “Of course,” she said. And so it was that they walked up together through the narrow streets of the city, hand in hand, and the little breeze from the hills danced with the ribbons of Photogen’s sleeves and the laces of Nycteris’s petticoats just as sweetly and playfully as it had done in the gardens of the castle.

That night he sat in the gardens of Cordoba, the stone still sun-warm under his feet and the wind scented with roses, the water of the fountains starred into silver under the faint light of the moon, and listened to Nycteris and her teachers and fellow students debate rainbows. Photogen could not, as the students did, reach for a book or quote a reference: he did not know the language or pathways of this scholarly hunt, but he had begun to learn. And as he sat next to Nycteris, the woman next to him had turned and smiled, and said, “It’s good to see you here.” She was a woman whose hair was white and whose face was creased with the sweetness of her smile, and when she spoke her words were short and plain and easy to understand, although every student bent their heads to her voice. Photogen, wondering, marked her name.

The next morning, he rose early as he had always done, but instead of turning to stride over the bridge, he walked up through the streets of the city to the library where the woman studied. He found her there, and bowed in greeting. Then he said, “My lady. Would you teach me to read?”

“Yes,” she said.

Of all the quests Photogen undertook in his life, this was the hardest. To struggle through the bird-print scribbles of picture books and atlases seemed senseless, when the sun played outside the window and the breeze sang of sweet meadows and shaded glades, but Photogen had only to look at Nycteris’ face, ever more distant, to turn back to his struggles. It was spring when he had sat in the garden. It was summer when, at last, he turned his face up from his books with startled wonder and the knowledge that the scratchings on the page were not just pictures, but symbols which carried meaning of their own. Wisely, his teacher had given him, not the mathematical treatises she herself loved, but tales of valiant corsairs and brave travellers. “The sand-” Photogen said to her. “It is as if I can see the desert before my eyes!”

“Yes,” she said.

“Does he live?” Photogen asked her. “The knight? Does he find his lady?”

She said, smiling, “This you must discover for yourself.”

After the knight, there was the wise princess, and then the wicked, jesting corsair with his faithful crew, and the woman who span story after story, night after night...

One morning, Photogen rose very early. The sky was black, the moon full, and as he walked to the rose garden, he must carry a lantern in one hand, so that his shadow danced behind him all he way up the hill. In his other hand, he carried a book. In a little alcove, shaded by a pierced screen, so that the light of the moon was all patterns and diamonds, he found his wife. It was, as he knew it would be, the end of her day: the students were gone, and she was packing up her books.

“Nycteris?”

“Photogen!” she cried, surprised.

“We have not been close lately,” Photogen said gently, “And I have missed you. Would you – the moon is fading and the sun yet risen. You are tired, and I am still half-asleep. Would you sit here, in this garden, and let me read to you a little?”

There was a nightingale singing in the trees at the end of the garden, and the grass was softly damp with dew.

“I-” Nycteris said, and remembered, not only how very tired she was, and how frustrated the convoluted lines of her arguments, but how the simplicity and wonder of the children’s books she had read in such darkness had coloured her imagination, how music and song had lifted her very soul. She remembered that this was Photogen, her husband, golden and beloved of sunlight, whom she loved. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. I would...I would like that, Photogen.”

“Thank you,” said Photogen. He sat down on the bench beside her, and opened the book. “I found a story I thought you might like,” he said. “Lean against my shoulder. I brought your cloak, in case you were cold...This is a story of when the world was young...” he began.

And so, for many weeks, Photogen rose as the moon set, and finding his wife, would read to her of foreign lands and marvellous beasts, mountains that breathed fire and ice-covered seas, and Nycteris would turn away from her books and listen only to the sound of his voice. Lulled and delighted, she was cradled in his words, until the first rays of the sun struck the domes of the great mosque to gold and Photogen would pick her up in his arms and carry her to their own house.

Yet at the same time Photogen could not but learn a little of Nycteris' quest, of the great arc of the sun and the elegant parabola of the moon, of the language of light and the counterpoint song of the stars, and in doing so was awed at her courage, for it seemed to him that these were great and burning paths against which his own seemed small and selfish. But he could also how the ill-tempered politics of the university darkened Nycteris' eyes and set her mouth, how that shining path of knowledge braided and frayed, and wore at her heart, so that even her great courage failed...Still, he longed to walk beside her, to balance her learning with the joy of the living world, to study at her feet so that they might share both worlds....

Towards the end of summer, there came a night when Photogen closed his book and told his wife a story, not of someone else’s making, but his own. He told her of the dappled sunlight in the forest groves and the small, questing creatures of the woodland: he told her of the dancing pattern of leaves on a merry stream, and the scent of juniper, and the bright red berries on the trees and the tiny, starred white anemones nestled in the soft green grass. His voice was low and tender, and the story he told was simple, of a man who travelled through the forest, but Nycteris stirred at his side and turned her face to his, holding her breath.

“Oh!” she cried, when the story was finished. “Oh, Photogen! If only this could be true!”

“Would you-” Photogen said, and had to swallow and catch his breath, for hope had bloomed sharp and pitiful in his breast. “Nycteris, we could – I could show you – would you come with me?”

Nycteris was very tired, for the night's discussion had been long and taxing, the kind of discussion where every word must be defined and hedged about and confined, but in Photogen’s story she had found such an echo of joy she could not but wonder. Slowly, she got to her feet, and held her hand out to his, and remembered when they had loved each other more than hunting or books... “I will,” she said. “Of course I will.”

Silently, hand in hand, they went out of the city, down the hill, and over the bridge. The sun rose as they crossed the water meadow, and Nycteris raised her face to its bright light, unafraid and joyful to feel its warmth on her skin. She was not afraid, now. “Oh, Photogen!” she cried. “Oh, Photogen!”

“Look,” said Photogen. “There are daisies here, just like our own, and in a moment they will uncurl – do you remember? And the forest is full of such creatures – there is a deer no higher than your own knee, and so tame it will eat from your hand – I promised you one, once. Will you travel with me?”

Nycteris stood still, and clasped his hands in hers. “As you travelled with me,” she said, for it was only now that she realised how Photogen had followed her. It was with wonder and joy that she looked again into his dark eyes, and her own were bright with sunlight. “Oh, Photogen, I have missed you,” she said. “I have – oh, there are such wonders here, but – I promised you we would always be together, and yet I lost my way.”

“I, too,” said Photogen humbly. “But there were wonders too, for me – and we shall have a whole lifetime to share them.”

“Oh!” Nycteris breathed, surprised into joy. “How could I have forgotten!” She let go of his hands only to spin in circles on the grass, smiling. “I have missed the feel of grass on my feet – and the wind – oh, Photogen. I miss our own river, and the noise the wind makes in the trees...”

Photogen caught her close, smiling. “Then shall we go home?” he said.

“Oh, yes!” said Nycteris. “And we shall never leave each other again!”

And indeed, they did not part again, in thought or deed, in this world or the next.