I had already been walking for a good hour, when I realized that I was not alone. The road was strewn with gravel, and my legs were aching. My pace was slowing down and the stranger had taken the opportunity to come near me. I glanced at him briefly. He had an unshaven beard and his bare chest was stained with dust. Moreover, his dark, squinted eyes bore the stigma of old age. I continued my journey in silence, aware that I would soon have to start a conversation with the traveler.
— You are not from here, are you?
The stranger had said these words in a light tone. Above us, a bird of prey was circling in the sun. I considered my fellow traveler for a moment, then stopped to catch my breath. He also stopped and resumed his question:
— If I’m not mistaken… You tell me if I bother you… But you are not from here.
— I am going to Khandigar, I answered, pretending to smile.
— I’m going to Khandigar too. It’s still far, we haven’t arrived. How about going a little way together?
I shrugged my shoulders, which he seemed to take as an acquiescence. The sun was at its zenith and the heat was making me a little dizzy. I stopped again, took out a metal canteen from my bag. I noticed that my companion had no luggage.
—Do you want some water? I offered him.
That’s very kind of you. He took the bottle and poured a good half of it down his throat. Some of the water spilled on the ground and I shivered with nervousness. »That man is simply rude, » I said to myself, although I had learned not to judge men by their first impression.
—You are going to a wedding, aren’t you? he asked, handing me back the flask.
— Oh me… That’s different. I’m not going as a guest. I’m just a public entertainer.
— If I am not mistaken, I asked him in my turn, you are a Baul singer?
— You recognized me, he said, smiling broadly.
The rays of the sun gradually took away all our reserve, and we conversed energetically.
—Then you go to the marriage? Will you sing there?
— I came to sing. But my work doesn’t stop there. I never stop singing. When nature or an event inspires me, I write poems. I put them to music and sing them through the villages. But you, you came because you know the groom?
— Actually, I know the bride.
— Oh. I see…
I started to blush and hoped he would take this sudden upset as a slight sunburn.
— You are childhood friends.
— How do you know that?
— You know that.
— It’s a common occurrence. Two childhood friends who love each other, as you certainly do, lose touch with each other, and then meet again for the wedding of one of them. It must not be very pleasant for you to go to the wedding.
I swallowed. This beggar was too curious. He continued:
— I am only attached to the stars. They show me the way. He burst out laughing, revealing several black teeth. His heavy grey mane waved in the wind.
— A little wind. Enough to push us in the direction we want to go, he remarked.
— There was no wind earlier, I wondered. Is it going to rain?
— Are you from the city? It rarely rains here. Do you know what this place is called?
—I don’t know, no. This is my first time in Khandigar.
Two small gray birds were fighting over a worm in front of us. I chased them with a stick.
— You saved this poor insect. It is all to your credit. This vast deserted land between Khandigar and the city is called the Doyel’s Ghost Field. You know, the doyels are those sparrows you chased away. According to the legend, the souls of the inhabitants of Khandigar who died during the year take the shape of a doyel. If you walk around this area long enough, the birds get used to you. They are very intelligent animals. They are able to feel your pain. See over there? Pairs of birds are following us with their eyes. They sense from your pace that something is wrong.
— Those are the people of Khandigar, hey! I mocked, looking at my companion with contempt.
I didn’t like those country legends, perhaps I had kept a certain fear from my childhood when I heard them. I paid attention to the black shapes that shaded the sky. I noticed that in this barren desert field, only the doyels looked happy. The vegetation was almost non-existent and if I believed the singer, it hardly ever rained here.
Finally, we reached the village. The night had almost fallen. My fellow traveler left me without telling me his name, and I was received by my hosts. But the beggar had left a strange impression on me, and I slept badly that night. The next day, the wedding day, I dressed in a shirt that I carefully folded out of my bag. Ants had invaded the room I had been given for the three days of the wedding.
I fought with the insects that had taken up residence in my bed, then went out for a walk in Khandigar. My friend was too busy with her wedding preparations to keep me company. I was feeling a bit lonely, but I went to the market stalls to do some shopping. When the afternoon was well underway, I decided to go home; they were waiting for me, the wedding had to start.
Two days later, exhausted and desperate, I greeted my hosts without letting anything show. I had not met the beggar baul during the wedding and it seemed likely that he had lied about his identity. Was he really a singer? A poet? Nothing was less certain. I threw my bag on my shoulders and set off. At that very moment, my childhood friend took a few steps with me. She had appeared from nowhere, wrapped in a midnight blue sari that made her look like a shadow. I congratulated her once more and she raised her eyelashes like bird’s nest branches at me.
— I hope that you will make good road, she said to me.
— It was fabulous, » I said. You are very lucky.
She looked down, then bit her lip.
— It is all the same horrible. There was a funny incident yesterday.
— An incident?
— Just as we were exchanging vows, a beggar threw himself off the tent. He broke his neck.
I immediately thought of my fellow traveler and shuddered. My friend left me and I saw her walk away with regret. I clenched my fists and promised myself not to feel too sorry for myself. I was going to go home, get back to writing and become a good journalist. Alya would be proud of me, and maybe one day she would regret not choosing me as her husband.
I had already been walking for a long time in the red-hot iron heat, when I heard a chirp above my sunburned neck. The sound of a lyre reached me and I turned around with a start. No one was there. The doyel’s ghost field field was absolutely deserted. Where could the music be coming from? Gradually, as my knees began to tremble from exhaustion, I heard a cry break through the heat. My eyes began to play tricks on me, and my vision became blurry.
As I stopped for a moment to regain my senses, I noticed a bird circling above me. It was silent, and the lyre had stopped too. I watched him for a moment, and as if he had sensed it, he swooped down towards me. It landed right in my shadow. It was a beautiful doyel bird, small but bright, gray and shiny. It flew close to me; I reached out my hand and it landed on my open palm. At that precise moment, I fell unconscious. I woke up in the room of my hosts in Khandigar. The wedding had not yet taken place. Next to me, the same carpet from the past days; on my back, the same full-length mirror. I went out on the step of the room and heard notes of lyre.
Some ghost was definitely playing a trick on me. I wondered about the identity of the beggar baul. Had he turned into a doyel bird? I held my breath and went to my friend’s house. She was not yet married, I had gone back in time. I resolved to take leave of Alya immediately. I wanted to return to the field of the doyel’s ghost to find the bird that had taken me back in time.
But the moment I saw her, a weight was lifted from my chest. I understood that the ghost of the beggar was telling me to act, and I took her hand. She was surprised, but did not withdraw it. Her eyes shone, and I understood that I had always been mistaken about her feelings, that she loved me too. As I let go of her hand, the music of a lyre echoed through the room again. Alya was trembling, she stood up and took a cup of wine out of a cupboard from the last century. She raised it to her lips without offering me any and then spoke to me softly like the summer wind:
— And now? Are you going to kidnap me and take me with you?
I thought about it and shrugged my shoulders. But a bird suddenly entered the room. Alya touched it and I barely had time to take her in my arms, when we were thrown into the doyel’s field. Alya was wearing a red sari that fit her perfectly, but she was walking with difficulty.
Crazy with joy, I embraced her. Several birds began to swirl around us. The sky seemed electric to me. There were no clouds, only a brilliant blue that captured all the heat of the earth. So we walked, hand in hand, towards the next town, until nightfall. Then a shape in the darkness appeared. I recognized the beggar baul.
He took out his musical instrument from his back, and began to sing a song. Even today, while Alya has been with me for years, I can still hear him:
« My heart is a cage. A bird I don’t know how entered it for eternity. I offered him a cup of wine, he refused it. So I sacrificed myself. I took the form of a dean bird. I crossed the night with my grey wings. I flew between sky and earth.
My heart is a cage. A bird entered it, I opened the door of its golden prison. The bird thanked me. It flew all around me. I can hear it laughing from heaven. »