new work
Illustration from What is the Full Moon Full of

Shulamith Levey Oppenheim

Cricket Stories

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Ali and Old is Best


The Persian (Iranian) New Year, Norooz, falls on the first day of spring. It is a time when winter ends, and the earth is reborn. On the eve of Red Wednesday, the last Wednesday of the year, giant bonfires blaze red in public squares. People pray for Evil to disappear and Good to prevail.

Norooz is a time to put aside the old and take on the new!

SUCH ACTIVITY! Merchants coming and going, filling Ali's home with sweets, fresh fruits, and the first flowers of spring-hyacinths, narcissus, lotus blossoms, and the slim branches of the snow-white almond tree.

"Oh, Layla, take a deep breath," said Ali. "Smell the air!" He kissed his beloved monkey on the nose. Layla was perched in her usual spot on Ali's shoulder, and they were surrounded by tall vases and huge glazed pots overflowing with blooms.

Ali turned toward the archway as a tall man entered the courtyard. "Here comes Father! I am to get a new tunic for the New Year, Layla. We'll get you a splendid new collar, too." Layla chattered her pleasure and patted Ali's cheek with her paw.

"Let's be off to the bazaar, my dearest boy," said Father, smiling. "Off with the old, on with the new. Time for a fresh beginning!"

"But, Father, I love what is old," said Ali. "Grandmother and Grandfather are old. They are beautiful. Our home is old, and it's beautiful. Layla isn't very old, but she is the loveliest, sweetest monkey in the world. Aren't you?"

Layla scrambled down from Ali's shoul-der. She wrapped her tail around his leg and her arms around his waist. She shook her head and buried her face in Ali's soft tunic. "That may be, dear one," Ali's father said. "But you must have a new tunic. It is your birthday soon, and you will have the honor of lighting the bonfire on the eve of Red Wednesday. Come, we must be on our way." In the bazaar, everyone greeted Ali's father with respect. He was a wealthy merchant who gave most generously to the poor, the homeless, and the orphans.

At the Booth of Cloaks, Ali tried on a peacock-blue silk tunic embroidered with birds, flowers, and gazelles. "Very handsome," said the merchant.

Pleased, Ali turned to show Layla and realized that she was no longer beside him. His cheeks, a moment before rosy with happiness, turned chalk white.

"Father, where is Layla?" he whispered. Not waiting for a reply, Ali raced into the street, shouting, "Layla, habiby, beloved. Layla!" Frantically, Ali pushed through the crowds, calling, crying out Layla's name. But no monkey ran to greet him.

Ali's father caught up with him. "Ali, stop this. Layla knows her way home. She is a curious creature, and no doubt she is in a shop, enjoying a bowl of sweet, creamy pudding. Have faith. She will return."

But Layla did not return. For the next two days, Ali and the family servants searched every corner of the city. They asked everyone, "Have you seen a small black monkey with a red collar?" Nobody had.

Ali's sleep was broken by nightmares filled with Layla's mistreatment or even death.

On the third day, Ali refused to leave his room. His food, lovingly brought by his mother, sat untouched on the hammered brass table. He stood glued to the window that looked out on the courtyard, hoping that any moment his precious monkey would appear.

In the late afternoon of the third day-his birthday and the eve of Red Wednesday-Ali's mother drew him close to her. "My son," her voice was gentle but firm, "do not disappoint your father. His love for you, his pride in you, are great and deep. He has sent out servants each day to search for Layla in the most hidden corners of the town. He has done all he can. You must put on your new tunic and stand beside him to light the bonfire. You must trust in Allah, in God. Layla would wish it!"

Ali knew his mother was right. Though his stomach felt like stone and his heart ached, he would not disappoint his father.

Ali walked to his chest of clothes. As he pulled out the beautiful silk tunic, a tattered cloak fell to the floor. Startled, Ali picked it up and held it to his lips. "The beggar's cloak!" he whispered. "The beggar who sits by our gate. Oh, beggar! You gave it to me!" And in an instant he relived the terrifying memory of his father's close call with death.

Many months ago Ali's father had returned from a journey racked with fever and pain in all his limbs. He had lain in bed, begging for shula kalambar, a stew made from garlic, coriander, spinach, and lentils. As Ali dashed out to purchase the ingredients, the beggar at the gate stopped him. "The stew has great healing powers, but," he said, raising a knobbed finger, "for it to work, all ingredients must be purchased with coins begged from the street."

"Then give me what you have," Ali had said. "I will give you gold coins in exchange." "Ah, Ali ibn Ali," replied the beggar, "it is not that simple. The coins must be obtained by a family member who begs from the street, in the clothes of a beggar, hunched as a beggar, with a beggar's bowl."

Overcoming his distaste, Ali smeared his face with dust, exchanged his tunic for the beggar's cloak, and with Layla on his shoulder, set forth. Jeers of "Useless flesh!" and "Out of sight, son of filth!" followed him through the streets, but at last Ali had enough coins to buy the ingredients for the shula kalambar, which saved his father's life.

Afterward, the beggar had said, "Keep the cloak, Ali ibn Ali. Keep it as a reminder of the pain unkindness brings."

As these memories washed over Ali, he knew what he had to do. He held the ragged cloak close to his heart. He knew he had to be wearing it when he lit the bonfire, when the entire town would be there. Then, with God's help, Layla might, just might ...

Covering the cloak with his new tunic, Ali flew through the long marble corridors with their alabaster skylights, past the fountain spouting from the backs of four massive lions with jade green eyes.

Just outside the gates, he found his mother and father looking anxious and sad. A huge crowd had gathered for the festivities.

He saw the wood piled high and wide in the center of the town square. Performers wearing red satin vests danced and sang. They banged kettledrums, blew trumpets, and shook tambourines. Silently, Ali's father handed him a burning fagot.

Ali touched it to a thick wad of oil-soaked paper. The paper burst into flame, and the wood caught fire. The crowd shouted, "Allahu Akbar, God is Great!"

Suddenly, through the flames, Ali saw a small black monkey chained to the belt of an entertainer. Its eyes half closed, the monkey lay on the cobblestones at the musician's feet. "Layla!" Ali rushed over to the monkey. "Layla, what happened?"

The musician, who had been pounding his kettledrum, pulled on the chain, causing the monkey to whimper. "This is my monkey," he spit out angrily.

"Oh no. No." Ali knelt beside the trembling creature. She tugged at her chain with one paw; with the other, she reached out to stroke Ali's tearful face. The crowd began to whisper and shift about uneasily. The music stopped, and no one spoke.

"This is Layla," insisted Ali. "This is my monkey. See, she is patting my cheek. She always pats my cheek to show she loves me. Doesn't she, Mother? Father?"

His parents were silent, their eyes shimmering with tears. Ali felt anger rising in his chest. It seemed to cut off his breath. But he understood his parents' silence. He must do this thing himself.

A sob broke from Ali's lips as his anger melted into fear. He put his face close to Layla's. "Oh, Layla, they will take you away from me. I must prove you are mine. Pray Allah it is still there!"

Ali stood up. He held his head high. To steady his voice, he took a deep breath. He had never before spoken to so many people.

"There is a short, thick scar under the fur near Layla's tail where she was once bitten in a fight." He knelt and slowly parted the fur. The golden-red glow of the bonfire shone on the little monkey's back. A scar blazed forth for all to see. Now Ali's father spoke. "My son, on his own, has given proof that this monkey is his." He turned to the musician, who was as red as the flames before him. The man bent down and released the heavy chain collar from Layla's neck. Immediately boy and monkey were hugging, eyes closed in sheer joy.

When Ali opened his eyes to look again through the fire, in his mind's eye he suddenly seemed to see a gray-bearded beggar leaning on his staff, heavy-lidded eyes half closed - the beggar whose tattered cloak Ali wore close to his heart.

Once again, Ali knew what he must do. He pulled off his new embroidered silk tunic and handed it to the musician. "Take this," he said softly. "It will buy you your own monkey. But you must swear before this whole community and before our God, Allah, that should you acquire another monkey or any other animal, you will treat it with love and respect and, above all, with kindness."

"I promise," said the man. Bowing slightly before Ali and his parents, he threw the cloak over his shoulder and disappeared into the crowd.

Ali looked up at his parents, who stared in wonder at their son. He stood proudly in front of the crowd, holding his Layla and wearing the ragged, tattered beggar's cloak. Smiling, Ali smoothed the ragged cloak and said, "I told you, Father. Old is best!"

Suddenly the crowd gave a resounding cheer. The red bonfire danced higher and higher. The gilded wrought-iron gates opened, and the people streamed into the courtyard to feast at long tables laden with delicacies made especially for Norooz, the New Year.

Rainbow-colored glass bowls held the sweet creamy pudding, samanu, that all of Persia would be eating this night to celebrate the holiday. Ali dipped a shining spoon into the pudding and fed his beloved monkey. He looked up to the fire-lit sky and smiled as he felt Layla's soft paw stroke his cheek.

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