© Mary Louise Clifford
This essay was first published in my private collection, Walk into the Wind, later in the Christian Science Monitor and in The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004.
They stood on a bleak, treeless plain at the intersection of the dirt roads, two vigorous Pushtun tribesmen in their thirties. Over six feet tall, with full black beards and thick bristling mustaches. One of them wore the ubiquitous gray wool of the North-West Frontier of Pakistan—long shirt and baggy pants, leather chaplis on his feet. The other’s costume, similarly cut, was the dun-brown of the blank adobe walls of his village to our left. Tightly wound pogris covered their hair and high foreheads, with one end of the cloth hanging loose behind an ear.
These details were, however, just part of the overall impression they made. What I registered most clearly was the glint of the early morning sun off the brass cartridges in the bandoliers that crossed their chests and the long Enfield rifles slung over their shoulders. The warrior stance . . . the piercing black eyes . . . and the flower. One of these formidable tribesmen, standing in a crisp, cool dawn at a bleak crossroad with a barren landscape stretching behind him to a thin blue line of mountains on the horizon, held in his hand a perfect Talisman rose.
Their remarkable stance did not, of course, startle my Pakistani driver. Hassan was a Pushtun himself and would find them perfectly normal. What interested him was directions. My son and I hadn’t had a bath in two days, one of which had been spent driving across the Sind Desert in second gear along a track a foot deep in sand. My husband was meeting that morning with the District Officer in Kalat, but there was nothing to hold me here. He suggested that I take one of the jeeps and go ahead to Quetta to the hotel, where we could have hot showers and get our laundry done.
We had just left the rest house where we had camped overnight, had skirted the mud walls of the small town, and were now at this treeless intersection with no way of knowing which road led to Quetta. My driver leaned forward and peered around the small boy on my lap, asking directions.
As the verbal exchange in Urdu was going on, the two Pushtuns stared at Kit’s red hair. This was not the first time I had encountered Pakistani fascination with the child’s hair, particularly in remote towns like Kalat, for its hue was the exact shade as the hennaed hair or beard that the Prophet had instructed should identify those pious Muslims who had made the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca. These men thought that a child with hair that color must surely have been touched by the hand of God.
As they stared at my son, I smiled at the apricot-colored bloom so daintily cradled in the brown fist. The arrested moment seemed almost like a frieze sculpted on a temple wall—the fierce-looking men frozen by the little American boy with the hair of a hajji, and I, stunned by the incongruity of the pale rose in the hand of a warrior.
Without taking their eyes from Kit’s head, they pointed out the road we wanted. Hassan murmured a word of thanks, shifted gears, and let out the clutch. And in the instant that the jeep started to move, one burly Pushtun lifted his gaze from my son’s hair, reached out and handed me the rose.