In Fever Valley, poppies bloomed red, purple, and white, a Technicolor maze inviting you to lose yourself. These were not the cheerful blossoms of California. To Daniel, these flowers signaled death. But for others, they signaled life. Since childhood, he had heard about the rhythm of the opium harvest. Every fall, the poor came to collect on the hopes of a year. Their wages were so small, they counted them in fractions. A destitute man could proudly call himself a farmer because he helped reap a field. In the spring, he would help sow seeds. His wives, his daughters and sons, everyone came with a small blade, same as last year, working alongside the professionals. The old uncle who never found a wife, who aged alone in something that looked like a town but had no name, he came, too, though he moved slower than the others. He might earn enough to buy a box of potatoes, a jug of oil, and save a little money to someday buy a goat of his own. Every summer, those who knew him asked, Did you buy the goat? Not this year, he replied. Next year, inshallah. God willing.
Daniel grew up on these stories, told to him by his father and Sherzai, the man who had become his guardian after Sayed died and the Iranian woman Sayed was married to decamped to Tehran with her relatives. Even today, Sherzai would tell Daniel stories about a time he recalled only vaguely. The days when there was no Fever Valley, just vast fields in the northeastern corners of the country and lesser-known plots hundreds of miles south of here in Helmand Province. Tucked away in the south were hidden swaths few people could find, beyond the flat deserts where only camel thorn grew.
He wondered how much Taj knew about Sayed Sajadi. He spoke like someone who wanted others to think he’d had an education, but something in his inflection, the way he seemed to strain to articulate longer words instead of swallowing the middle syllable, told Daniel that the khan had been born someone else. His name sounded impossible, too, chosen by a person who had come into the world without one.
That the Sajadis were rich was no secret. Schoolchildren learned about Sayed the war hero, but depending on the teacher’s leanings, Sayed either became the republican who bravely challenged the king or the traitor who insulted the monarchy. He had gained followers after helping to drive out the English and eventually challenged the king’s candidate for the governorship of Helmand, promising he would rid the province of the small but growing opium farms. Daniel was only eight when the royal army arrested his father. Sherzai explained that no king could abide a man who was more popular than he was.
Maybe Taj only planned to extort money, demanding cash in return for not broadcasting the accident within the better circles of Kabul. Drug lords understood money, never content with what they had, spending their lives like magpies hoarding shiny things. Daniel wondered if they also understood the shame that decent people felt when they harmed the less fortunate.
“Turn here,” Taj said after more than an hour on the desolate road.
Daniel found himself on an unpaved path, surrounded by a night so black he never knew what was ahead. And yet he knew Taj was leading him to the Yassaman field. He had been here four times in six months. How different it was at night, empty of USADE’s crews, who came and went each day with their notebooks, shovels, and bright, shining hopes. How much more alive it seemed in this darkness with the wind and the flowers in a whispered dialogue.
The car lurched along like a skiff on stormy waters. Daniel skirted a curve in the road, his headlights gilding over stunted trees dying of thirst on the margins of a great opium field, the well-watered poppies a cruel taunt.
“I know who you are,” Daniel said at last.
“You know what I am. You do not know who I am.”
“Why did you tell me we were going back to the elders?”
“I wanted to talk to you, man to man. I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
“Forgive me. It was presumptuous to think a man of your lineage should be frightened by anything a humble servant like me might come up with.” Taj signaled for Daniel to stop in a clearing and follow him into the field, gesturing again with his gun. They passed the equipment that stood along the edge, the power plows that USADE had brought to the field. A cloud slipped away from the moon, and the Dannaco-Hastings logo was briefly visible on the machines, which looked like reconstructed dinosaurs in a museum. Daniel’s crew had already begun digging channels that would bring water from the thin river nearby. Though they would not be used for several more weeks, Daniel had made sure tillers and cultivators were brought to the field, too, warning the khans of what was to come. Pressuring them to abandon these poppies, this life. Judging by the man beside him, Daniel had failed.
They walked into the night, crossing what should have been a stream but was a dry ditch. The poppies rose up before them, a fragile truce between beauty and poison. They rustled, protesting Daniel’s clumsy advance, while Taj nipped forward with ease and purpose. A small breeze lifted, scattering lost petals and leaves. Along the eastern margin of the field were boulders and shrubs Daniel had never noticed before. The rest was familiar.
“Every year, I need more workers,” Taj said. “The nomads are good. They’re used to sleeping outside, and they’ll take scraps of food as payment. They are not so different from animals.”
Something violent bloomed in Daniel’s mind, and it was the color of Telaya’s dress. “There are animals that compare favorably to you,” he said.
“I did once know a cat who displayed an enviable talent for strategic planning. And I’ll admit to a fondness for llamas.”
“They command a certain respect. It takes great insight and spirit to spit at human beings.”
“They rarely spit at human beings. They spit to remind lower-ranking llamas of their place.”
The khan stopped and faced him. “Is that so?”
Not far ahead, a flicker of white light danced above the poppies, the moon reflected in a window. It was the shack Daniel had entered a few months ago, hoping to find a place to leave his jacket and briefcase. He’d turned back around at the sight of rats gnawing on an old mattress. They were heading straight toward it now.
“How long have you had this field?” Daniel said.
“I don’t know. I don’t like time.”
“That’s understandable. Time isn’t working in your favor. Your days here are numbered.”
“Everybody’s days are numbered.”
“Some of us have more favorable numbers than others. You’re up against men who are smarter than you, with much more money. This will become farmland.”
“It’s already farmland,” Taj said.
Daniel wished this pointless tour would end. He had essentially been brought at gunpoint and couldn’t decide if he was supposed to behave as if the gun was there or not. Part of him thought the khan meant to end his life, but he was strangely unafraid. It was as if the accident had snuffed out some capacity for perspective or feeling. Some events were so immense, they could drain someone of a lifetime of emotions.
“Make this disappear.” Taj spoke as if reiterating something they had already agreed upon. The gun was still in his hand. “Leave my field.”
“Did I not take you away from the elders when you begged for someone to save your life?”
“I didn’t beg. And it’s not the same thing.”
“Indeed it isn’t. Some would say the favor I’m asking for is small in comparison.”
Daniel began to wonder if his faith in the region’s safety was misplaced. He thought again about the war on drugs in other countries. USADE had lasted just four weeks in Burma, its director gunned down on an open road. The violence had to start at some point, before which people said, Those things don’t happen here.
Daniel turned and walked toward the car.
“Not yet,” the khan said. “Give me an answer.”
Daniel kept walking. “I’m only one man.”
“You’re a Sajadi, and the director of your agency. They’ll do what you say.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s my government, not me, that’s taking your field.”
“Men like us don’t have governments.”
“Men like us?”
“Whenever a man has a government, then the government has the man. If you are wise, which of course you are, you will aim your loyalties elsewhere.” Taj pointed to the shapes at the eastern edge of the field. “Look closely,” he said. “Do you see?”
Daniel’s eyes fell on the lumpy bundles beside the machines. They looked like large, grotesque weeds sprung from the earth without order or design. He walked toward them. One of them stirred. They were not weeds; they were human beings. Dozens, maybe more, with threadbare clothes and provisions bundled into sacks. A pageantry of want.
“Without an opium harvest, they will be paid nothing,” Taj said. “Don’t you care?”
“Your fake concern isn’t any more convincing now than it was—”
“When you killed the girl?”
Daniel didn’t reply. He looked at the poppy pickers. Seth and Iggy, USADE’s best engineers, came to Yassaman two days a week, sometimes more, and had told him the channels were coming along, the crews working diligently. But there were other crews, too, the poppy workers, mainly villagers and Kochis, whom Daniel saw each time he came to observe. They worked from sunrise to sunset, serving the khans, whom no one ever saw. This year, the poppy workers kept to one edge of the field to avoid the machines and crews on the opposite side.
“Leave our land alone,” Taj said. “It isn’t yours. It belongs to the poppies and those who pick them.”
“The people who want you out have more resources than you could dream of.”
“You have no idea what I dream of. And I have a resource they cannot match.”
“What would that be?”
“Hunger,” Taj said. “It is the greatest resource of all, because it is infinite.”
“It won’t exist anymore once we’re done here.”
“Americans watch too many movies. You think people in poor places dream of fields of rice and wheat. But the poorest people don’t dream about the means to an end. They dream about the end itself: enough money to live and something extra to give to their children. Your crops will never outearn the poppies.”
On the gentle wind, the flowers whispered in agreement. Or maybe they were mocking the nearby land, visible from Yassaman. The Gulzar field was a naked, barren lot where a handful of poppies struggled to grow. Fever Valley sometimes reminded Daniel of New York, where Tiffany neighborhoods were divided from ghettos by mere blocks.
They stood at the threshold of the shack, its metal door ajar. The smell of old tea, sweat, and tobacco drifted into the night, but there was another smell, too, pungent and foul. Daniel heard a scraping sound. He turned toward the road, which he could barely see. “I’m going back to the car.”
“No, you’re not.” The Manticore touched Daniel’s shoulder and added matter-of-factly, “I’m not ready to leave. And you’re my ride.”
Daniel pulled away. He could not orient himself in the vast darkness. He tried to gauge where the car was, but they hadn’t walked in a straight line.
“Do you know why this business will always exist?” Taj asked. “Even if the people in these fields stopped being hungry, I could count on a different hunger. The wealthy world’s famine is its craving for drugs. There will never be enough.” He vanished into the shack. “Come in. I want to show you something.”
Daniel hesitated before following. Inside, the stench was immeasurably worse. Taj lit a candle on a paper plate heavy with hardened wax. Vomit was pooled on the floor beside a metal frame bed Daniel recognized. What he did not recognize was the person in the bed, covered with a blanket. Rodents had chewed holes in the thin fabric. They were lapping at the vomit now.
“This man is one of my new workers for the season. He has stolen poppy pods from me. My men said he was so heavily drugged when they caught him, he could barely speak.”
“He couldn’t even wait a few weeks for the resin to perfect itself. He just tore at the pods.”
Daniel was unable to look away.
“I said they should leave him here,” Taj continued. “I had other matters to tend to. Your friends with their machines didn’t seem to notice him collapse. Perhaps noticing is not part of their job.”
The rats scattered as Daniel sank to his knees and removed the blanket, discovering that beneath was not a man, but a boy in the throes of adolescence, a thin stubble and a sprinkling of blemishes on his face. He was chained by his wrist to the bed. He tried to say something, but managed only a moan.
“He’s alive,” Daniel said.
“They usually just fall into a long sleep and never wake up. That must be a pleasant way to die. But this way isn’t bad, either.”
The crack of a gunshot blew apart the air. Daniel sprung to his feet and he thought he was shouting but could barely hear his own voice. He’d instinctively covered his ears, the room ringing with the aftermath of the shot. His movements were a series of reflexes. He seized Taj’s shoulders, surprised at their slightness. He lost count of how many times he yelled the word no. He was shaking Taj as if trying to force loose a response. None came. Daniel let go and leaned against a wall, overcome by heat and the sense that he was unable to breathe. The boy’s blood was on his skin and his clothes. Taj headed for the door, and Daniel followed. Outside, he shoved Taj hard from behind. The man stumbled but recovered, turning to face him, and dug the gun into his ribs.
“Don’t do that,” Taj said, cocking the barrel.
Daniel heard Telaya say, Men who hurt little girls deserve to die. He scrambled backward and lost his footing. The Manticore grabbed his arm, breaking his fall. He returned the weapon to its holster and walked away, an ordinary man on an evening stroll. “You are not useful to me dead.”
“If I stop, how am I supposed to lead you to the car?”
The wind tickled the flowers. Daniel’s breath, thoughts, and vision were trapped inside his thirst for righteous violence.
“You’re not going to kill me,” Taj continued. “You know how I know? A man like you doesn’t kill two people in one day.”
For a moment, Daniel’s desire to harm the man became as blisteringly alive as he was, and he could not distinguish between his life and his desire to end Taj’s. What purpose did this man serve? What did he bring to the world that was not better destroyed? Was killing a man like him not right and honorable?
Traces of reason returned. It was true; he wouldn’t kill the man, and maybe Taj was right about why. Daniel was no murderer. But there was also the Reform. A man found dead in the Yassaman field, revealed to be an opium khan, might derail everything. Daniel imagined the State Department shutting down the project and maybe even the agency, the Reform set aside amid talk of rising violence in the drug trade. Mere rumors had wrecked initiatives bigger than this.
Taj pulled away and melded with the night. Alone, Daniel felt something in his body churn. He became violently sick. Again and again, every muscle and organ in his body wrenched involuntarily. Every heave was like reliving the moment of impact, those impossible seconds between his old life and what it was now. He fell onto his hands and knees, and eventually, it stopped.
The darkness was breathtaking. It was as if the universe had simply switched off the lights above this place. Daniel slowly made his way back to the car, exploiting rare glimpses of moonlight. Taj was waiting in the passenger seat.
“Good, I was afraid you were lost. City people lack a sense of space. It has to do with perspective.” Taj clicked the seat belt into place, flicked down the visor, and examined his wounds in the mirror, complaining about the blood on his piran. Daniel sat in the driver’s seat doorframe, feet on the ground and back to the khan. He used his shirt to wipe his mouth and the blood from his skin. In his suitcase in the trunk, he’d found clean clothes.
“I had to kill the boy’s brother a few months ago for the same reason,” Taj said. “Now his mother has no children, unless you count the girls.”
“Get out of my car.”
“Really? All by myself here? It’s not a safe area, as you can see.”
“Get out.” Daniel reached across Taj and shoved open the passenger door.
The opium khan glanced toward the shed in the field. “That’s what happens to those who don’t understand the rules.”
“You might as well kill me, too, because I’m not driving you anywhere. I’m sure you would have no qualms about killing twice in one day.”
“What makes you think it would only be twice? By the time we met, it was late in the day for a humble working man like me. Nevertheless, as you wish. I wouldn’t want us getting off on the wrong foot.” Taj climbed out of the car and raised his hand in farewell. “Until next time, Daniel Sajadi.”
The tires whined as Daniel spun the car around. The air inside was dense with sweat, sour breath, and the copper-penny smell of blood. He wanted to leave this place far behind and return to the city, to Rebecca. To the normalcy of a room, a shower, and a bed. A bed that had not been the scene of a killing. Daniel looked in the rearview mirror and saw Taj standing alone in the clearing, flooded by the car’s taillights. His robes floated on the gentle wind. As Daniel drove away, the khan called out a warning. “Watch your speed. That’s how you ran over the girl in the first place.”
I’m fast, Telaya said, clutching her doll. I can do it.
“No, you can’t,” Daniel said. “You should’ve stayed out of the road.” He slammed his fist into the dash, and his hand and his head throbbed as the car lurched over the rugged roads that led from the poppies to what passed for civilization around here.
From The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq. Used with the permission of the publisher, Soho. Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine Aimaq.