the ways i knew you (on the death of a great man)

by Aqeela Naqvi

When I was five, I found you
in the smiling curve of numbers.
 
I sat in the pale morning sunlight of
a Sunday School classroom painted
the yellow of tender summer peaches.
The wind from the fan caressed my face in rounds,
the buzzing gape of its mouth first turning this way
then that, and I found myself following its breaths
as I drew the curves on lines of binder-folded paper:
99 names of 1 God, the First and the Last of existence, Allah
124,000 Prophets delivering 1 message, the last of all, Muhammad
12 Imams stemming from 1 purified family, the first of all, Ali

 
and your number’s weight became the scale
against which I measured the rest of the world.

○ • ○

When I was eight, I heard your voice
in the whispered stories of winter’s airwaves.
 
The cassette player clicks, the shutting of a door
for privacy while the tape changes to the other side.
The mitten falls from my sister’s lap as her sleeping
head adjusts itself on my shoulder, its weight like the
weight of sleep on my eyelids, like the weight of snowflakes
turning into ice on the windshield of a December night.
The wheels’ motions rocking me to sleep as I hear stories of
kindness (you extended a hand to the poor while bowing in prayer)
bravery (you roared, the Lion of God, the banner of truth in battle)
mercy (you smiled, baking bread to help the woman who cursed you)
 
and your words became the steady rope I used to string
the compass of my conscience around my neck.

○ • ○

When I was thirteen, I saw your smile
in the secrets of the dark side of the moon.
 
I looked up at the stars and wondered at their beauty,
wondered at the Hand that could fashion such constellations,
wondered at your brother whose night journey visited them,
wondered at you, who knew their paths better than the earth’s.
I breathed in the scent of spring, unable to fathom the caliber
of one – both the warrior and the mystic, the king and the beggar,
the highest peak and reaching valley, the paradox and the answer.
I traced the inky words of the Last Revelation and wept,
finding them reflected in the streaming motions of your stars,
finding the sky’s written truth manifested in the earth’s living man
 
and your name became an unfolding path of dancing starlight
a journey to the place where meet as friends the horizon and the sea.

○ • ○

When I was sixteen, I fell in love.

The leaves changed colors and fell from the trees,
and I found myself changing and falling with them.
When we first met, I took your hand simply because
your mention mimicked the curve of my index finger,
and because holding on was what I best knew how to do.
As you grew with me, I befriended the cadence of
your stories, because bedtime was a place of warmth,
and the sway of your cloak was a comfort to my resting eyes.
When we began to speak, I was entranced by your questions
and, having no answers, I clung to them with the intense
certainty that belongs only to one who til now has been uncertain.
 
I held on,
thinking that the holding was in the teaching,
that I had learned you in the scope of sunlit classrooms
that I had made room for you while gazing out twilit windows.

But when I saw the age of fruits and ripeness pass
the fleeting suns roam between the sapling and the tree;
the whistling of the winds and the dwindling of the leaves;
the eventual blossoming of a freshly awakening world;
I realized my folly:
for the barest branch has never had to ask the flower
to hold its hand after the winter’s song.

And this bud had never learned to blossom—
Your flower existed in it all along.

○ • ○

So I fell in love with you, my flower,
not because my youth was spoken to of your beauty,
but because my aging witnessed it with its eyes;
and having seen the perfection of the Master’s painting
I could not unsee; could no longer delight in imitation.

Having seen,
could not now accept the ragweed’s unfurling
as the flower’s blooming.

I loved you, not for the number of petals on your crown
but for how you showed – when crushed, still give your fragrance
I loved you, not for the name written in my parents’ eyes
but for how at birth, that name was already imprinted in my soul
I loved you, not for being told of the noble light in your prism
but for how, though I saw, still boundless rays remained to be seen

I fell in love,
For my branches had been shaken dry by grief
and I yearned for a refuge from a brewing storm.
I searched not for empty lanterns in order to find warmth
But searched for Warmth and then found lit lanterns.
I searched not for leaders in order to find the truth
But searched for the Truth, and then found its Leader.

○ • ○

There are many infinities,
but I found the greatest in your name, O Ali:
for through your gate, I found the city of my Prophet;
and through my Prophet, the kingdom of my Lord.
 
And, after loving in this infinite way, I wept.
Because until now,
I had not yet known what it meant
to truly grasp your hand
and thus,
what it meant
to lose you.

○ • ○

I am five and I count the nights in threes: 19, 20, 21
I am eight and I hear of an assassin, the story of your death
I am thirteen and I face the question written in a bloody sky
I am sixteen and I feel for the first time love’s oldest tragedy.

I am now.
(I have not known, loved, wept;
I am knowing, loving, weeping.)

You are not dead;
you are dying dying dying, in my arms.
The blade that was raised did not strike,
but is now striking,
and I am watching,
as peace is broken in the place of peace
and I rush to cradle your head in my arms
whispering, O my Ali, my Leader, my Imam
and the blood is seeping, whether from my eyes
or from your wound, I do not know anymore.
 
I am wiping it from your brow, mixing with my tears
and you are saying to me in your tender voice,
Why do you weep, my child? I am returning home…
This death is nothing to me, my sweet one,

“I am like a lover being united with his Beloved,
like a person looking in a dark night
for a well where he could pitch his tent,
and is overjoyed to find it…”

With what tongue can I tell you?
As your breaths slowly fade from my fingertips
as I feel my soul shorn apart and left in tatters
that I do not weep for who is moving on,
but for those who will be left behind.
I weep for the loss the world will see after you:
for the grief that will come
for the storms that will come
for the tides that will come
for the underwater screams
souls lost to the sails of your ark…

for the hearts that will harden into stone
for the nights of children, searching for their protector
for the days of widows, looking for their guardian
for the tyrants that will rise, the heroes that will fall
for the ghost of your memory
for that unheeded call, “Ask me, ask me, before you lose me…”

○ • ○

The sky weeps in shades of red.
The sun sets on another day of sorrow.
My heart is trapped in the alleys of timelessness,
remembering: the raising of the blade
the falling of the Lion of God.

I am 5 8 13 16 I am living I am dying,
all my ages at once and I have remembered
I am remembering I am trying to remember:
in the mind’s volcano I desperately search
for the embrace of your roar,
but only find the ashen arms
of my heart’s
whimper.