This is an excerpt from "And so the heavens turned", my work for string quartet and narrator with text by James Pritchett. It is performed by Maya Bennardo and Sabina Torosjan, violins; Liuh-Wen Ting, viola; and Kate Dillingham, cello. Below is the text that the narrator reads; "The story" before the music starts; "The storyteller" during the end of the piece.
"And so the heavens turned"
1 — The story
When I arrived that evening, he was on oxygen and I thought: “He won’t be able to continue tonight.” But as soon as I sat down, he started telling more of the story.
"You will remember,I was telling you about Zal. And you will remember,his father abandoned him with the Simorgh — you know, the great bird in the mountains.
Now, I will tell you of Zal and Rudabeh. The land next to Zal’s was ruled by a king named — Mehrab. Mehrab was descended from the demon king — I told you of him, yes? His name was Zahak — but Zahhak was defeated and there was peace between Mehrab and Zal.
Now Mehrab had a daughter: Rudabeh, and she was — very, very beautiful. When Zal heard of her, he fell completely in love with her — all at once. And when Rudabeh was told of Zal, she, too, fell in love. You understand? — they had never seen each other, only heard."
I could see that he was struggling, but he kept going. He took longer and longer pauses to catch his breath.
"Rudabeh told her servants ‘Go, find out about Zal.’ They picked flowers by the river near his camp . . . . They told him that Rudabeh wished to meet with him.
So Zal went into the night, to the castle of Mehrab. He saw Rudabeh on the top of the tower . . . she outshined the moon. He climbed the tower . . . and they met — very much in love.
Bu Zal despaired—could they be married? Families would disapprove ... evil Zahak. But his heart ... the rose in Zal’s heart . . . ."
2 — The storyteller
He fell silent; I gave him a drink of water. It had always been hard to make out his words, and tonight it had become impossible. But the energy of his speech had carried the story along, even after the words fell away.
I said my goodbyes, put on my hat and coat, and left. On the way home I thought about his urgent desire to tell stories, even now, when he could barely speak. What was he trying to tell me? One night he had been in tears as he told me about Zal begging the Simorgh to save his son Rostam. He also cried when he told me the story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers, or the story of Ferdowsi saving the Persian heritage by writing the Shahnameh. It was in these moments that I understood the power of his storytelling: he was seeing his own life in these stories. At each of the points where the lives of Zal, Joseph, or Ferdowsi intersected with his own, a door of memory opened for him.
Whom had he asked his benefactor to spare? What betrayal had he forgiven? What tradition had he preserved?
He didn’t tell me these personal stories; he didn’t need to. His stories and the stories of countless others flowed around us in that room: real people, storybook people, mythic people; those he knew and those he never imagined; stories from before his life and beyond his life. So many people, so many shared stories: no wonder it moved him to tears.
— Griggstown, December 2015
In memory of Mohammad Habibian