A string of caravans makes its way ponderously across the Karakum Desert. The weary thuds of the horses’ hooves fall in time with the sleepy nods of the riders. Even the warriors – the ones paid to protect the merchants – are affected by the scorching heat. They are heading to the nearby oasis, hoping to reach it before nightfall.
They will never reach their destination.
The bandit leader is on the top of the sand dune, knowing that the travellers will not look up. Even if they do, it’ll be too late.
He heads back and looks at his band. They are a motley crew, browned by the sun and hardened by their greed. On their necks lie gold chains, taken from previous victims. Clinking together, they weave a battle melody as the bandits prepare themselves. Tonight, more chains will join the song.
Horses thunder out from behind sand dunes. The warriors curse and scrabble for weapons. The merchants moan at their ill fortune. Their wives shrink into corners of their caravans.
The war-cries of the bandits and the pleas of their victims fill the air. But the desert falls silent once more as the sands take in their bloody meal.
The bandit leader strides from caravan to caravan, inspecting the goods. He pays no attention to the corpses sprawled around him. The loot is the only thing that matters.
Upon opening a caravan door, he is surprised when a young girl leaps out at him, brandishing a knife. Unskilled, she is disarmed quickly. The bandit leader surveys her.
The girl cannot be more than nine summers old. Her hands are soft yet her fingertips have calluses, the rewards of playing a string instrument. There is no fear or grief in her eyes, only hatred. The girl is strong.
He decides to keep her.
Slinging her over his shoulder, he does not notice the blows that fall on his back nor the shrill squeals of indignity that break the desert’s silence once more.
The bandit leader, along with the screaming girl and his band, soon reach the caves and haul the spoils inside. Even the girl is silenced – temporarily - by the amount of treasure that glitters inside the caves.
There are dates and nuts, taken from the merchants of Persia. Frankincense and myrrh lie on the right, snatched from the traders of Somalia. Logs of sandalwood are piled at the back, plundered from the foreigners of India. And there is the silk, the cause of all these opportunities for fortune. They shimmer in the dim light, beckoning and cooing. Men have lost their lives to obtain these bolts of fabric. The cache hidden in the depths of the dark cave sparkle and purr in harmony, whispering, “Come” and little are the men who can resist their charms.
The bandit leader strides to his quarters and puts the girl down. She ignores him and instead inspects her surroundings. In the corner, a liuqin sits. It is of good quality – obviously ripped from some travelling musician’s hands. The girl picks up the lute. Shifting her hands so that the pear-shaped instrument is balanced, the girl gingerly strikes a note. A pure sound echoes up and down the caves.
Slowly at first, then picking up the pace, the girl lets her fingers fly over the strings, plucking a mournful song – a tune for the dead people who have died today.
The bandit leader listens to the melody with a slight pang in his heart. He has heard the song before and plays it often – he has lost companions too. The child is exceedingly good. He settles his chin on his hands and immerses himself in the heartbreaking harmony.
Every day, the girl plays a different tune for the bandit leader. Some are merry, others forlorn. Some are foreign to his ears, others remind him of his old life.
After she finishes, the bandit leader is subjected to her scrutiny. Every day, she sighs and turns away. When he asks why, she answers, “I wanted to see if you were ready to learn the Song of the Silk Road.”
Tonight, the bandit leader leans back against the wall of the cave and gestures for the girl to start.
Her hands in position, she starts to strum a well-known folk song. Her fingers pull and release with practiced ease and send the chords resonating through the caves. Her hands dance up and down the lute and so, too, does the melody. It sails out, a net of happiness, and catches the bandit leader unawares. Yet something pricks the back of his mind, pushing a long-forgotten memory forward. He is sure he knows the tune…
A village woman sits on a crudely fashioned bed, humming gently as she brushes her son’s hair. The boy’s eyes are half-closed, relishing the soft touch…
The boy is running, feet slapping the ground in a fast tempo. Into the fields he flies, stopping only when he sees a muscled man. His father turns and roars in delight. They pad off home, singing boisterously…
In the hut, the woman plays a liuqin, crooning in dulcet tones. The father joins in, a deep bass and their voices soar, twining around each other. The father gestures at his son and the boy lets his voice loose. The music spins around and around the hut, bouncing off the walls, surrounding the family, binding them together in the Song of Love...
It is a long time before the bandit leader realizes that the girl has stopped playing. He touches his face wonderingly and feels the wetness underneath his finger. He looks up at the girl. For the first time, she is smiling.
They sit on top of a sand dune. The bandit leader is puzzled as to why the girl insists that he must learn the Song of the Silk Road but tonight he has been reminded of a long-forgotten song and is feeling amicable.
“Close your eyes… listen...”
The girl is already positioned, eyes shut off from the world but with her mind and her ears wide open, ready to receive the Song of the Silk Road.
The bandit leader is cautious as to closing his eyes; it goes against his most primary instincts. But in the end, he forces himself to relax and listen.
He can hear nothing.
Sitting there, he wonders how long they have sat already. Surely it has only been minutes but it feels like several summers. He can feel his mind settling, as if about to enter a deep sleep.
The wind rustles through the sand.
The bandit leader hears.
The wind hums. The bird calls. The cat howls. The snake hisses.
Was this the Song of the Silk Road?
Shhing. Ahhhhhh!!!!! Sliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Splaaaa!!! AIEEEEE!!!!
The bandit leader hears, his ears open to the Song of the Silk Road. In his mind, the swords unsheathe. The victims cry. The blades slash. The blood spurts. The bandits roar.
The bandit leader wants to open his eyes, and close his ears. He can do neither. He cannot tear himself away from the bloody images because he knows that he has lived this before.
The music changes suddenly, a river diverted from its true course, flowing from melody to melody.
Come…Touch us…We can give you so much…Come…
The silk croon. The scents tempt. The wood whispers. The silk murmurs again.
Come… sing with us…
The bandit leader forgets the other melody of the Silk Road. He can only hear the silk singing. Treasure. Wealth. Power. The words boom in his head.
As if she can sense the shift in his mind, the girl suddenly brings out the liuqin and plays on it a simple, familiar tune. The bandit stiffens.
A woman hums. Two people warble. Three people sing.
The Song of Love… The Song of the Silk Road…
A woman hums. Shhaaaa. Come. Splaaaa!!! Three voices soar. Come.
The bandit leader’s eyes fly open. He is panting. Again, tears stain his cheeks. He buries his face in his hands. He has learned the Song of the Silk Road, or perhaps, he had learned the Song of the Silk Road long ago but had only just started understanding it. It is a tune so different from the Song of Love. Composed by greed and malice, its lyrics sing of blood and gore. Yet…
He stands up, not meeting the girl’s eyes. The girl does not say anything. There is nothing to say.
He cannot give up the Song of the Silk Road.
A string of caravans makes its way ponderously across the Karakum Desert. A girl no more than ten summers old runs out from behind a sand dune, a liuqin strapped to her back. The caravans stop. The girl boards.
On top of the sand dune, the bandit leader looks down, knowing that the travelers will not look up.