When rumors of a Russian army marching toward Tashkent first reached its bazaars and tearooms, Grandfather shrugged and said, “Khokand, Bokhara, St. Petersburg–it makes little difference to whom we pay our taxes. How much we pay never changes.” When the river dried up and Ali and Salim had to stomp through the dust halfway across the city to the wells every other day, Grandfather frowned and said, “Always it is the same way, but it never lasts. Soon they will leave, and we shall have our water again.” When the Russians set up camp outside the city wall, Grandfather chuckled and said, “As much as a rat may like eggs, he cannot lay siege to a henhouse.”
Ratt-dop! Gak! Pop-pat-hup-hop! The popping and cracking that woke up Ali recalled the hailstorm that had damaged crops all over Tashkent the previous fall. Through the window, dawn dimmed the stars. Yawning and rubbing his eyes, he stumbled out into the backyard and looked around. No clouds anywhere, and still the sounds continued–pattat-tat-pat-tat!–if not hail, then the crackling of twigs in a fire.
Grandfather was gone, his bed unmade, so Ali ran over to the barn. Salim lay curled up on his pile of straw, still asleep. Ali grabbed the coarse hair on his brother’s upper arm and gently tugged it this way and that, until, with a low growl, Salim stretched out and sat up. He shook his head and shoulders, sending pieces of straw flying in all directions, and his eyes slowly focused on Ali.
“Can you hear it?” Ali said.
Salim stretched out his neck, scrunched up his face, and turned his head back and forth. He mimed clapping.
“Yes, like hail, but no clouds,” Ali said.
Grandfather? Salim signed.
“Gone, I don’t know where.”
Ali left Salim to wait for Grandfather, ran down the street–normally bustling with early-morning activity, now deserted–and knocked on his friend Yusuf’s door. It opened a crack, and Yusuf’s older brother Kadir peeked through, his face taut with alarm.
“Ali! What are you doing here?”
“I, Grandfather’s gone, I thought, I don’t know…”
Kadir opened the door just wide enough to stick out his head and look up and down the empty street.
“The Russians attacked,” he said. “They’re inside the city walls. You can hear the guns, can’t you?”
“Go home and stay there, Ali. In the streets, it’s dangerous.”
The Russians! Inside the city! Past shuttered storefronts and deserted markets, Ali crept toward the gunfire, his heart threatening to punch through his ribs. The sounds came in waves from different directions, until, all of a sudden, they were very close, scary close, so he backed away and around a corner.
And found himself face-to-face with a striking apparition, tall and gaunt, all straight lines and sharp angles, with a pallid face behind a thick, long black beard, wearing a black robe and a tall black hat that seemed to suck in sunlight, and brandishing a great silver double cross, the lower crossbar longer than the upper. Behind, and around, crowded dozens of soldiers, bristling with guns, but the energy that seemed to vibrate the air around this figure was far more terrifying. The creature peered at Ali, smiled, and raised high the cross.
Ali turned around and ran faster than he’d ever run, weaving through Tashkent’s tangle of streets and alleys by gut and the muscle memory of a thousand chases and games of hide-and-seek. Sensing only the crashing of blood against his eardrums and the waves of pain in his legs, he ran, until he threw open his home’s front door and leaped into Grandfather’s arms.
“Ali, my little boy, my joy, I was so worried,” Grandfather said, holding Ali close with one hand and stroking his head with the other. Behind Grandfather, Salim trilled his delight.
“I, didn’t know, where you, were,” Ali said, gasping.
“I didn’t want to wake you, to worry you, my little one. I needed to go find out what was happening.”
“The Russians,” Ali said.
“All over the city, there’s fighting.” Grandfather shook his head. “No one knows how they got past the wall.”
“What will happen?”
“I don’t know,” Grandfather said. “I didn’t think they were a danger, there are so few. Now, I don’t know.”
The three of them spent the rest of the day, and the next one, huddled together in the back room while the sounds of battle, joined now by the thunder of cannons, ebbed and flowed around them, now so close that they set the dishes clattering on the shelves, now receding to a mere child’s rattle. By nightfall of the second day, the fighting quieted, and Ali, drained and exhausted, curled up in Salim’s arms and buried his face in the soft hair covering his brother’s chest. They lay in silence, the slow, steady beat of Salim’s heart permeating Ali’s body and mind. Salim’s warmth settled around him like a blanket, and Ali was asleep.
He awoke to voices outside, a loud conversation punctuated by hoarse shouts in a language he didn’t recognize. As he tried to lift himself up, Salim stirred awake around him.
Ali signaled for Salim to remain silent and crept to the front room. Grandfather was snoring lightly in his bed. Ali tiptoed across the floor, pressed himself against the wall by the front window, and listened.
The conversation outside petered out, and most of the voices moved off down the street, but two of them came closer, speaking in more subdued tones. They stopped just outside the door, and their words were replaced by the trickle, accompanied by loud exhalations, of a man relieving himself.
As these sounds continued far beyond the capacity of any human-sized bladder, Ali’s shock turned to disbelief, and then to overpowering curiosity. He crouched down next to the window and poked his head up to get a look.
Outlined by the light of the moon and the dim yellow glow of distant, dying fires, a man was urinating on the side of the house, just a few steps away. While Ali’s perceptions were adjusting to the scene, the man finished, let out a deep sigh, and looked up, right at Ali.
The man’s eyes sprang wide, he cried out, Ali ducked down, Grandfather snapped up in bed.
For a moment, everything was still. Then the house shook with the force of the pounding on the door.
Grandfather looked at Ali, at the door, at the window, in which a man’s bearded face had appeared, back at Ali.
“He saw me,” Ali whispered, still crouched on the floor by the window.
Grandfather motioned for Ali to go to the back room, stood up, walked to the door, slid aside the latch, and opened it a crack.
A growl outside, and the door swung wide open, and Grandfather was shoved back from the doorway and tumbled onto the floor. Ali ran out and knelt by his side.
A man stumbled in, tall and broad, with a thick beard, wearing a thick coat and large boots, and a musket slung over his shoulder. He reeked of sweat, leather, and steel, and, penetrating through everything else, an unfamiliar smell so astringent it made Ali’s eyes water. A second man, similarly attired but shorter and with darker hair, limped in behind the first, leaning on his musket.
The taller man’s shoulders tensed, and he slowly turned his head from side to side. It was too dark to see his eyes, but Ali felt his glance sweep over the room, lock in on him and freeze him in place.
The man let out a hoarse roar, and his arm shot out grasping in Ali’s direction. In two floor-shaking steps, the man was looming over him, blocking out the world, bending down, his hand crushing Ali’s throat, lifting him up, up, and off the floor.
Ali couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t even close his eyes as everything around him went dark, and the world fell away.
He hit the floor hard; it was he that had been falling. The pain of impact jarred his perceptions into focus, and he heard a deep, guttural growl and saw a larger, darker shadow blanket the man who had attacked him. Salim.
Salim’s arms engulfed and crumpled the man as if he were made from twigs and straw, tossed him halfway across the room. The second soldier took a step back and lifted his rifle, but Salim swatted it aside like a blade of grass and fell upon the man like an oxcart wheel rolling over a dandelion.
In the span of a breath, the two soldiers’ bodies lay sprawling on the floor, bloodied, broken, and unmoving. Salim towered over them, far taller than Ali had ever seen him, a low rumble like distant thunder issuing from his throat. A force of nature.
Grandfather lowered himself to the floor next to Ali, pulled him close and embraced him.
“You are all right, sshh, everything is all right.”
Ali felt Grandfather shudder and gasp, and looked up to see Salim beside them, his arms, like the boughs of a great sycamore, reaching around to encircle them both, and to hold them with all the tenderness in the world. And what Ali felt most, in that moment, was safe.
Salim dragged the bodies down into the cellar for the night, and they scrubbed the front room floorboards clean. At dawn, they buried the Russian soldiers in the corner of the small orchard behind the barn.
After they cleaned the front room once more, while they were eating boiled eggs and bread, a knock at the door sent Grandfather scrambling. Paler than Ali had ever seen him, he herded Ali and Salim into the back room and had them hide under the blankets while he went to answer. Ali heard him converse with someone in hushed, agitated tones, but couldn’t make out the words.
When Grandfather came back in, his face was grim.
“The Russians have won,” he said. “Tashkent is theirs.”
He sent Salim out to the orchard to pick cherries, and, after he’d left, looked at Ali and said, quietly, “Salim must leave.”
Ali didn’t believe what he’d heard.
“Salim must leave here,” Grandfather repeated.
“For him to remain, it is too dangerous.”
“But he didn’t do anything wrong. He saved us. The soldiers, they would have–”
“It doesn’t matter, Ali. The Russians will come looking for their comrades, and they will not care who struck first.”
“They won’t find anything. They’ll never know!”
“I hope you’re right, but even then, it will only be a matter of time before there is another incident.” He narrowed his eyes and slowly dragged his fingernails along his sparsely-bearded jawline. “I did not think things would change, but I was wrong,” he said, not looking at Ali. “Their general just declared a year of no taxes. These fools”–he inclined his head toward the front door– “are celebrating the decree, but it means the Russians are here to stay. And that means Salim must go.”
“Where could he go?”
“Salim was not born in Tashkent, Ali.”
Ali could only stare at Grandfather, who raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders, took a deep breath, and spoke.
“Not long before you were born, your father traveled with a caravan to Kashgar, as he did nearly every year. There had been unrest and fighting, and your mother pleaded with him not to go, but he insisted that there was no danger. The return journey was delayed, and by the time they were crossing back over the mountains it was nearly winter. One night, your father’s caravan made camp high up in the mountains, in the bitter cold and howling wind. As your father was drifting off to sleep, he heard strange cries outside of his tent. It was a small boy, barely able to crawl, covered with hair all over his body, and still shivering. If left outside, he would have frozen before morning. Your father took him along and nursed him on mare’s milk for the weeks it took to return to Tashkent. By the time he came back, you had been born, and your mother had died. Your father resolved to raise him as your brother, and, after he died, that is what I have done.”
“Where did he come from?” Ali whispered.
“There are tribes, in the deserts and mountains far from our cities, of wild men who live unbound by laws or customs. The most primitive of these, maybe, don’t even know speech. Salim, I think, came from such a tribe, and that is why he cannot speak, and he has hair all over his body because his people do not wear clothes and need the hair to survive in the cold.”
A faraway look in his eyes, Grandfather nodded, as if to himself, then shook his head.
“I hoped that growing up here would suppress his savage nature, but, after what happened, I don’t think it can, not enough. You and I were lucky he did not turn on us. Next time, who knows.”
“Salim was protecting us!” Ali screamed. “He would never hurt us, never!”
Whatever had been building up inside him burst then, into a whirl of dizziness that blurred his vision and made his ears ring. He jumped up off his stool and ran out, stumbling and nearly falling before he reached the door. Grandfather shouted something after him, but he kept running.
With the dust his sandals had kicked up swirling around him, and the bright sun only adding to his disorientation, it took Ali several moments to spot Salim up in the largest cherry tree. His legs wrapped around a thick branch, his torso hanging off to the side, and his arms outstretched, Salim appeared at first glance as just another tree branch, swaying in an imagined breeze. In one hand he held a wooden bucket, which his other hand was quickly filling with cherries. When he saw Ali, he deftly climbed over to the tree’s trunk and slid down to the ground, using only his legs and his free hand.
When he landed, Salim put down the bucket of cherries and shook his upper body, dislodging some of the twigs and pieces of bark clinging to him. Ali threw himself at him, wrapped his arms around his midsection, squeezed his eyes shut, and held onto Salim with all the strength of a brother’s love.
In the days that followed, Grandfather did not allow Ali or Salim to leave their home, and he himself went out only rarely. He said little to Ali even as he kept him always nearby, and almost nothing to Salim.
As the summer wore on without incident and the Russians’ presence became simply another facet of life in Tashkent, like the swarms of flies driven indoors by the heat, the alarm in Grandfather’s features softened, faded. What lingered on was watchful concern toward Ali, and, toward Salim, continued coldness.
In previous summers, when the melons had ripened in the field, the three of them had gone together to the bazaar in the mornings, with Salim pushing the wheelbarrow overflowing with their harvest, and, at the end of the day, Ali would get to bounce around in the empty wheelbarrow on the way home. Now, when the time came–with the harvest delayed, and diminished, by the water shortage during the siege–Salim stayed home, Grandfather pushed the wheelbarrow, less than half-filled, by himself, with Ali by his side, and they had to make two or three hour-long replenishment trips through the draining midday heat before the bazaar closed at sundown. Ali did not get to ride in the wheelbarrow even once, nor did he get to push it, even empty.
They had just set out on their return trip to the bazaar one early afternoon when the wheelbarrow struck a stone embedded in the road and bounced, twisting, to the left. Grandfather yanked on the handles to straighten it out, yelled, let go, grabbed his left wrist and, grimacing and cursing, clutched it to his chest. The wheelbarrow fell over on its side with a loud thud, sending melons rolling in all directions. Ali watched their lazy trajectories through the dust, struck by how, as some of the more elongated ones slowed, they began to rock from end to end, like a waddling walk, more and more pronounced until, with a final heaving step, they came to rest.
When Ali looked back, Grandfather’s face was slack, his shoulders drooping, his arms hanging at his sides.
“That’s all for today,” Grandfather said.
He bent down, grabbed the right handle, pulled up to level the wheelbarrow and then lowered it to rest on the tips of its handles. He straightened up and surveyed the melons strewn around them.
“Maybe Salim can roll it?” Ali said.
Grandfather lifted his left hand and gingerly rubbed the wrist with his right.
“Salim,” he said, slowly, as if he were hearing the name for the first time. “Yes.”
Grandfather kept an eye on the fallen melons while Ali rolled the empty wheelbarrow home, where he and Salim filled it up partway, and then Salim rolled it back. After they loaded up the melons that had fallen off, with the wheelbarrow fuller than Ali had ever seen it, the three of them headed back to the bazaar.
Along dusty, narrow streets and winding alleys, to the main road stretching from one of the city’s gates to its center, past the mud-brick houses of their neighborhood and the baked-brick mansions of wealthy merchants, past the tearooms and the bread-bakeries, past the shops of cobblers and barbers, past the mosques, their domes gleaming in the sun, past the charred ruins of houses burned down during the battle with the Russians, past the camels of a departing caravan and the donkey-drawn carts of local peddlers, until–
“You! With the melons!” The command, heavily accented, came from behind them, from the bottom of the hill they had just climbed.
They stopped. They turned. Three Russian men, muskets on their backs, were straining to pull a cannon, perhaps one of the iron thunder-makers from Tashkent’s siege, up the hill, and a fourth, taller and better dressed, with a curved sword hanging in a scabbard at his side, stood beside them, looking straight at Salim.
Salim did not move. Grandfather tightened the sash, cinching his caftan coat, put his hand on Salim’s arm, and said, “Come,” and then, to Ali, “Stay here.”
Grandfather led Salim down the hill to the Russians.
“What do you want with my grandson?”
The Russian officer looked at Grandfather, then at Salim, turned to the other men and said something in Russian with a chuckle. They snickered, and one of them squealed a word and pawed clumsily at the air in front of him, which sent another wave of laughter through his comrades.
Grandfather said nothing and held on tightly to Salim’s arm.
The officer yanked out of his men’s hands the ropes they’d been using to pull the cannon.
“Take these and pull,” he said to Salim, gesturing uphill.
Salim looked at Grandfather, who looked at the Russian, slowly nodded.
“Pull to Ali,” he said.
Salim took the ropes, two in one hand and one in the other, crouched down facing the cannon, and pulled.
The cannon did not move.
Salim straightened up, wrapped the ropes around his hands, squared his shoulders, spread his feet apart, bent his knees, and pulled once more.
The cannon budged, rocked back, and began to roll up the hill, with Salim pulling as he walked backwards, and the Russians watching with awe.
When Salim had made it to the top of the hill and stopped near Ali and dropped the ropes in the dust, the Russian officer whistled and clapped his hands.
“I need him in my army,” he said to Grandfather.
“He is only a child,” Grandfather said, his voice cracking.
“A child stronger than my three men,” the officer said, and added something in Russian, quietly, as if to himself.
“He’s mute, and I’m the only one who can talk to him,” Grandfather pleaded. “He won’t leave me.”
“He will,” the Russian officer said, turned, and headed up the hill toward Salim, with his men close behind him. Shaking his head, Grandfather followed them.
“Keep pulling,” the Russian said to Salim, and motioned down the road.
Salim inclined his head to the right, then to the left, looked at Grandfather. Grandfather crossed his arms, said nothing.
The Russian pulled his sword out of its scabbard and waved it in front of Salim in a prodding motion.
“Go on,” he said. “Go!”
Salim did not budge.
The Russian nudged him with the flat of the blade. Salim stood statue-still.
The Russian whipped around to face Grandfather.
“Tell him to do as I say!” he yelled through clenched teeth, the sword’s tip less than a hand’s length from Grandfather’s face.
Grandfather’s eyes went wide, and he stepped back. He sighed, lifted his skullcap, and ran his hand over his sweaty scalp.
“Do you plan to send for me whenever you need him to do anything?” he said.
The Russian glared at Grandfather, nostrils flaring. As he turned back toward Salim, his eyes passed over and fixed upon Ali.
“You, boy! You can talk to him?”
Ali’s throat was instantly as dry as the Kyzyl Kum desert. He tried to swallow, but his muscles wouldn’t obey.
“Or can you not speak also?” the Russian demanded.
“Leave him alone,” Grandfather said.
The Russian swung his sword in a wide arc that stopped a mere flicker from Grandfather’s neck.
“Enough from you, old man!”
“I can talk to him!” Ali screamed. “I can talk to him!”
The Russian turned slowly back to Ali, smiling like a fox who’s just found a hole in a chicken fence.
“Aah! Good.” He slid the sword back into its scabbard, stepped close, and bent down so his face was just higher than Ali’s. “Tell him to pull the cannon and follow me.”
Ali nodded, took a step toward Salim.
The Russian grabbed his arm just below the shoulder, squeezing so hard it hurt. “Instead, tell him to follow you.”
Ali heard Grandfather gasp, and tried to turn around to look at him, but the Russian’s grip tightened even more and pushed him toward Salim.
“Please!” Grandfather cried out. “Just a word with the little one.”
Ali was yanked back, turned around, shoved at Grandfather.
Grandfather lay one hand on Ali’s shoulder and the other on the back of his head, pulled him close.
“Alisher, my beloved grandson, my little man,” he said, his breath hot on Ali’s ear. Something in his voice brought sobs out from the depths of Ali’s chest. “You must take care of Salim, no matter what happens.”
Grandfather swallowed, took a deep breath.
“When I tell you to run, you and Salim must run and hide, somewhere, out in the neighborhoods, where the Russians won’t find you. After nightfall, go to Abdulloh, he will help you. Understand?”
“Always remember, my little Ali, I love you very much.”
He squeezed Ali’s shoulder and head, pulled back and looked in Ali’s eyes for a moment, nodded, blinked, and straightened up. He stepped around Ali, so that they stood back-to-back, with Grandfather facing the Russian and Ali facing the crowd that, he now saw, had gathered around them.
“Salim!” Grandfather called. “Go with Ali!” He pressed his hand in the small of Ali’s back and launched him at the crowd. “Run!”
Ali ran. The tears in his eyes smeared the men in front of him into an impenetrable wall, and he stole a glance back, and saw Salim running toward him, kicking up a cloud of dust with each loping step, and Grandfather locked together with the Russian officer on the ground.
Ali ran, and leapt upon the Russian’s back just as he had rolled over and straddled Grandfather. He wrapped his arms around the man’s neck and sank his teeth into his ear. The Russian screamed and reeled back, swiping at Ali’s head while trying to shake him off, but Ali planted his feet and held on. The Russian pushed off the ground with his legs, staggered and fell back, crushing Ali’s rib cage with his weight. As Ali writhed on the ground, struggling to breathe, blinded and disoriented by pain and by the midday sun beating down into his eyes, he felt the Russian’s weight slide off him, and strong, sure hands lift him up off the ground.
A blur of motion, sound, color, light, shadow, heat, cold. The first to come into focus were Grandfather’s smiling face, bruised above the right eye and under the left, looking down at Ali, and Grandfather’s arm, patting Ali’s forehead with a cool, damp cloth. Around them, an unfamiliar room, its walls finely carpeted. In Ali’s chest, a dull, throbbing ache.
“You are a very disobedient boy, Alisher. Very disobedient, and very brave.”
Ali started to sit up, but streamers of pain squeezed his chest, and he coughed and settled for propping himself on his elbow.
“Salim?” he asked.
“Resting. He carried you all the way here.”
The corners of Grandfather’s eyes crinkled with mischief. “You started a brawl. When you jumped on that Russian it was like a spark that ignited the anger of the men who’d been watching, and a handful of them attacked the Russians. We didn’t stay to see how the fight turned out.”
“Good, he’s awake.” Ali turned to see the speaker of those words enter the room–Abdulloh, a local merchant and a distant relative.
“Abdulloh let us stay here,” Grandfather said. He glanced over at Abdulloh, and added, “For now.”
“Why can’t we go home?” Ali asked.
“It is not safe. May be unsafe for a long time. May be better for us to leave Tashkent.”
“It is no place for you, for Salim. The Russians, like a python, will suffocate this city, then swallow it whole.”
“But–where can we go?”
“East, beyond their reach. To Khokand, maybe to Kashgar, even.” He shrugged. “Maybe we’ll find Salim’s tribe in the mountains along the way.” He slowly shook his head, sighed. “I hope they will be more hospitable to us than our tribe has been to him.”
It took two days for Grandfather–Ali and Salim remained at Abdulloh’s–to sort through their house and to barter away, for a pair of mules and provisions, the things they would not take along. The rest they packed up in sturdy sacks, and, just before dawn on the third day, made their way through side streets and alleys to one of the city’s gates, far from the Russian encampment. A caravan of two dozen camels and a handful of horses and mules, loaded with fabrics, rugs, and clothing, met them at the still-locked gate, and Grandfather had a brief, hushed conversation with one of the merchants. When the gate opened at daybreak, they followed the caravan through the gate, Grandfather riding the chestnut mule in front, and behind him Ali on the tawny one, with Salim, wrapped in a coarse cloak and carrying more than either mule, walking alongside.
For the first time in his life, Ali was outside Tashkent’s walls. As they made their way up the road, and he glanced back at the city, already growing insubstantial in the morning mist, a knot tightened his throat and traveled down to his gut. He inhaled deeply the cool breeze coming off the mountains, and reached over and patted the shoulder of his brother beside him, a walking hillock seeming taller with every step, and sensed, in that moment, that, like a thin wall whose shadow covers a splendid garden at sunset, the world they were leaving behind was mean and meager compared to the one they were taking with them.
Igor Teper is an author of fiction, poetry, and scientific essays, and a physicist who uses lasers to teach old atoms new tricks. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and Strange Horizons, among others, and his story “The Secret Number” was adapted into an award-winning short film of the same name, for which he co-wrote the screenplay. Igor lives with his wife and sons in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more about his writing, check out igorteper.com.