Author’s note: The Sister of the North is quite distinct from my other essays. It is my attempt at an allegory, a story with lessons that are as true and as old as time. Because they are old, elements of it should feel familiar; while this narration is mine, the story is not. My mind composed this story from what I have read, heard and watched over the years. I hope you will enjoy it.
Once upon a time, a beautiful Sister lived in the North.
She had lived with her younger brother ever since their parents died. Her brother was the best hunter in the village. He would sell the game he caught to buy food and lovely gifts for her.
One day, her brother fell off his horse and broke his legs while hunting. He could no longer walk, let alone hunt in the woods.
The voice said to the Sister, ‘Life has taken away your brother’s health. Life is always cruel to you.’
Filling her heart with patience, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
The brother now had to work for a scribe, copying Persian manuscripts brought by ships that passed through the Northern Harbour. Every sunrise, she carried him to the harbour before spending her day working on cleaning the docked ships. Her brother never told her this, but he hated that he now had to learn to read and write. But he did it anyway because he loved his Sister.
Just before winter, the Duke of the North sent out his soldiers to all the villages. They forcefully recruited all able-bodied men to invade the neighbouring province.
When the soldiers came to the house, they saw her brother’s legs. They left him alone.
The invasion eventually failed. All the men who were recruited were either killed or captured.
The voice said, ‘Life has spared the only family you have. Life is always generous to you.’
Filled with gratitude, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
In retaliation, the neighbouring province invaded the North with a full battalion. And they took all the houses as their own. The Sister and her brother barely escaped when the enemy arrived.
They travelled to the South. Carrying her brother was difficult. The journey that should have taken weeks now took months to complete.
The voice said, ‘Life has taken your home and everything you owned. Life is always cruel to you.’
In perseverance, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
As they crossed the Southern gate, they overheard the garrisons at the wall, talking about an unprecedented winter storm that had swept over the North. The Sister and her brother learned that their village was utterly destroyed. It was so sudden that they would not have survived had they still lived there.
The voice said, ‘Life has saved you and your brother. Life is always generous to you.’
In a thankful whisper, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
Since they arrived, the Sister and her brother could not find work. The Southerners had a deep mistrust for those who are foreign to their land. For days, the Sister and her brother had to beg at the bazaar for food and water.
The voice said, ‘Now life has taken away your dignity too. Life is always cruel to you.’
In calm resignation, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
One evening, a poor old lady came to them, begging for the little bread that they had for the day. The brother looked at his Sister. They knew that if they gave it to the lady, they would be hungry for the rest of the night.
The voice said, ‘Life has taken everything from you. You do not owe kindness to a cruel life. Kindness will starve you and your brother.’
Filled with compassion, the Sister replied, ‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not.’
The Sister looked back at her brother’s eyes and nodded.
While eating the bread, the old lady asked about the Sister and her brother. They told her everything that life had offered them–the things they had to be patient about, and the things they were grateful for.
‘Come with me,’ said the old lady, ‘and you shall have shelter for the night.’
The Sister and her brother were astounded when the lady took them to an enormous, elegant chateau.
‘I am the Baroness of the city,’ said the old lady, ‘but I was a commoner before. Now, from time to time, I go to the bazaar, hiding in poor cloaks, looking to extend the grace that He has given me to the hearts that deserve it.
And yours does.
Since your brother can read and write, I will hire him as a tutor for my daughters. And I invite you to stay as one of the ladies of my court. I shall give you two a new home.’ The Sister and her brother hugged each other in tears.
The voice said, ‘You have gained more than you have ever lost before. Life is always generous to you.’
‘Perhaps so, and perhaps not,’ the Sister replied, ‘and no matter which is true, I will choose Contentment for you, for He does not withhold because He is forced to, nor does he give because He needs me or you.
Original photo by Daniel Burka (@dburka)
- Contentment or Riḍā is a Sufi concept related to patience and gratitude, but also love: ‘When a man is truthful in his love, there emerges between him and God, most High, a partnership of surrender . . . he has trust in the excellent choice of the One whom He loves’ (Abu Sa‘id al-Kharraz, d. 899).
See Khalil, A. (2014). Contentment, Satisfaction and Good-Pleasure: Riḍā in Early Sufi Moral Psychology. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, 43(3), 371-389 (full-text).