Umar was turning another pot, not an urn, but a small round-bodied thing to hold spices or perfumed wax for a lady. Yusuf kept the wheel going steadily with his feet, as he had these seven years.
The man in white did not stop his pleading. He held out money—“please, anything, please, please!”
He was a young man, too young to court Umar’s services. He wore the fine clothes of the northerners, he himself was not far removed from his migrant ancestors. But he bowed and scraped in their crude clay hall, sullying his feet on the packed-dung floor.
Umar moved within a dream, every motion certain and slow as a river. His gnarled hands fetched a polishing stone and held curve to curve, burnishing the jar in a way that seemed to take no effort at all.
Yusuf knew better.
The man groaned, he gnashed his teeth, tore at his clothes. His wife lay at home in her bower, a mixtures of cloves and beeswax sealing her nose against the air, draped in cool cloths. She would not last long in the summer heat. The man was desperate.
Umar stopped, and laid his tool down. The jar glowed amber in the tallow-candles. Later Yusuf would be tasked with rubbing its sides with oil to make it shine even more. Umar reached for the shelf next to his stool.
“Take this,” he said. The young man looked up with hope.
Umar took a pouch from the clutter and held it up to the man. “Take this and give it to the cremator. Good salt. My last.”
The young man swore with rage, twisted his hat in his grasp. “How can you—why?” he gasped, “why-why-why-WHY!”
Umar sat unmoved by the storm of grief. “My friend, I cannot do it for a good reason, I cannot do it for a bad reason. I simply cannot do it.”
The young man stared at Umar, gaping, as if he had taken a sudden step onto nothingness.
“The earth take you,” he spat, “the earth take you and all the other shit here!”
The cane door could not slam, so it broke instead. That was not sufficiently dramatic, so there was a thump and a bleat from the yard as the grieving man gave one of the goats a kick.
Yusuf, half-risen from his spot, sat down at the wordless urging of his mentor. After seven years he had developed an understanding of Umar’s unique language. Others found him to be a terse man with little to say, little on his mind but earth. But Yusuf knew the man better than anyone alive, could detect through subtle gestures what words could never truly express.
And now Umar was tired, a sad kind of tired, and Yusuf knew that even the pillows stacked behind him could not cradle his spine sufficiently, no bed could. When Umar arose in the morning and went for his daily wash Yusuf could count the knots in his back, bolls of flesh that sprouted painfully in the old man’s body, their roots extending closer to his heart with every dawn.
Umar gestured the boy to him, took his face with gnarled hands for a moment, and then snatched up a lamp from the table. Together they left to the cellar, storage for jars made generations and generations earlier. Here were the jars of Umar’s grandfathers, and here would be the jars of his descendants if Uma had not died in childbirth. Here were the red-lidded jars that would never be opened, here were the black lids to open at weddings and births, here were the brown jars to be opened only once every generation. Here was where Umar made him take, as a tonic, at least a spoonful of the honeyed mixture from an open jar every morning. When the boy had first arrived Umar had clucked his tongue at how clearly his bones showed through his skin. Now Yusuf gently took the spoon from his mentor’s hand as it shook with the effort of holding the utensil.
Umar held his hand and looked off at the far wall. There was a shame in his eyes, and a distance.
“Yusuf,” he said finally, “tell me what you know of urns.”
Yusuf worked quickly to clear the sticky mouthful and replied “nothing much, master.”
And Umar smiled, because this was the answer he prized in his pupil. But again: “what do you know about making them?
After seven years Yusuf could say he knew quite a bit about the whole process: mining the clay from the extinct riverbed, tempering it with just the right amount of dung, impressing the surface so that future generations could read the lines like letters, and shielding them with potsherds in the bonfire. But to him, it did not amount to much. He knew the process, but not what went into it, and this he told Umar.
Umar smiled and patted the boy’s face. “Then I will rot your mind with my meddling.”
They set to work on another jar. There was a tinge of sadness to the air, though Umar did not show it and Yusuf tried to chew it down. With gentle care the old man guided his hands, told him stories he had heard before and stories he half-remembered and stories that he should have known already and all those days Yusuf felt the old man filling him up like warm wine. When he raked the ashes on the eighth day he felt almost giddy, drunk with knowledge, though he sobered upon meeting Umar’s gaze.
They stood the urn in the workspace. It was as tall as a man’s shoulder and half again as wide. This was, Umar said, how his father had taught him to do it, and how it should always be done.
“Now,” he said, turning to Yusuf, “bring me these spices.”
Yusuf took the paper with trepidation. He tried to lose his way to the market, but his feet knew the path too well. He bought in bulk, from the northern traders who crowded out the city’s native hawkers like seagulls, ducking his head in apology to no one.
Next, though he hadn’t been asked, he went to the apiary. The keeper wasn’t home, but his daughter, with rope-braids to her waist, was and took his order. He blushed and ducked his head again as she pondered the amount of honey, sent for a donkey to carry it and a little brother to escort it back.
Umar had moved the urn into the cellar by the time he got back. He had never seen the old man so exerted, he had cast his shirt aside, sweat pooled in the dips of his arms and his navel.
“Good boy,” he grunted, “just in time, help me settle this.”
They settled it next to a slender, more gracefully curved jar, which had a woman’s blue beads dangling from the catch. Yusuf admired his jar—as he had come to think of it now—against the delicate figure of the other jar, crude, perhaps, but solid and durable. Umar’s next words chilled him from his momentary pride.
“This jar, Yusuf, is it big enough?”
“Big enough?” he responded faintly, “for what?”
But Umar was already unlacing one sandal and motioning for a boost. When Yusuf lifted him to the edge the old man kicked off the other sandal and slipped into the pot.
“Ah, it’s tight.” Yusuf could hear the thumps as the old man arranged himself. “Yusuf?”
Yusuf did not want to respond. He wanted to break the jar, never make another one again. “Yes Umar?”
“Will you bring me honey?”
Yusuf numbly fetched the first canister from the yard, where a nanny had been tearing the leather stopper with her teeth. When he got back the jar was silent. Yusuf’s courage failed, he halted, load hugged awkwardly to his chest.
An impatient thump from the inside of the jar. By themselves, Yusuf’s hands uncapped the honey and sent it sludging down the sides. Two, three bottles of honey. He imagined Umar was up to his knees now.
He paused, the last drips dangling from the lip of the bottle.
“Fetch me spices.”
Yusuf did, as well as ashes from the fire and cream from the morning milk. Umar sighed as they washed over him. Yusuf heard splashing as he churned them into his bath. Two more bottles. Three more. They were almost gone.
He was glad for the break. He finally allowed himself to look inside the urn. Umar looked relaxed, despite sitting cramped in a jar that would not even let him put his legs down. His back and his joints must have pained him terribly, but Umar smiled and sloshed gently as if in the valley springs.
“My wedding beads, Yusuf, bring them to me? And my hat?”
Yusuf fetched the necessary items, from the house shrine and the bedside respectively, and lowered them down into the urn.
“Forgive an old man his vanity,” Umar chuckled.
Yusuf nodded, though he knew it wasn’t really a question. On a sudden impulse he lowered his head down into the urn, almost unbalancing into it, and pressed his lips to the old man’s forehead. Immediately after Umar laid a sticky hand on back of Yusuf’s head and returned the gesture, leaving honey smeared between his eyebrows.
“Now” he said, eyes suspiciously bright, “you know what you must do.”
And Yusuf did, though he tried to scare himself into thinking he didn’t. He glugged the very last bottle over the side and set it aside, wiping his face.
A sudden slosh as Umar’s face appeared above the edge. “A word, my boy.” And Yusuf nodded his head because he did not trust his voice.
“Use a red lid for me. No use in poisoning a new generation with my tired old body.” And gently, purposefully, Umar let go of the lid and drifted beneath the surface again.
Yusuf, once he could stand, did as asked. Then, because he felt he needed it, he took a tonic from another jar. It was Ulsha, Umar’s great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle, who had lived through wars and droughts and invasions to die at the princely age of seventy-four. His was a heady liquor, strong, and Yusuf let the man sit on his tongue for a moment, begging for strength, begging for them to adopt him as Umar had.
The next day, there was still someone to make the urns. And there was always something to fill them with.