The Maiden, the Caliph, his Lover and their Dream

By Bernie Brooks

The Caliph Harun al-Rashid, one night, in the grip of insomnia, disguises himself as a merchant and goes out into the streets of Baghdad. A boat carries him along the waters of the Tigris to the gate of a garden. At the edge of a pool a maiden beautiful as the moon is singing, accompanying herself on the lute. A slave girl admits Harun to the palace and makes him put on a saffron-coloured cloak. The maiden who was singing in the garden is seated on a silver chair. On cushions around her are seated seven men wrapped in saffron-coloured cloaks. “Only you were missing,” the maiden says, “you are late;” and she invites him to sit on a cushion at her side. “Noble sirs, you have sworn to obey me blindly, and now the moment has come to put you to the test.” And from around her throat the maiden takes a pearl necklace. “This necklace has seven white pearls and one black pearl. Now I will break its string and drop the pearls into an onyx cup. He who draws, by lot, the black pearl must kill the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and bring me his head. As a reward I will give myself to him. But if he should refuse to kill the Caliph, he will be killed by the other seven, who will repeat the drawing of lots for the black pearl.” With a shudder Harun al-Rashid opens his hand, sees the black pearl and speaks to the maiden. “I will obey the command of fate and yours, on condition that you tell me what offense of the Caliph has provoked your hatred,” he asks, anxious to hear the story.

“That was the dream” he said opening his eyes and allowing them to rest on that familiar point of the ceiling immediately above the couch. “What do you make of it?” he asked into the shadowed emptiness behind him, knowing full well how the question would be met. “What do you make of it?” she replied, impassive and calm in the fading autumn light.

He imagined her face as blank as the ceiling. He wanted the gift of his dream to unlock her detachment and objectivity.  He wanted to arouse her curiousity and to turn her grey neutrality into anger, pain or desire. He knew the dreams parallel would not be lost on her, its mirror intensifying the flesh and blood of this moment, this room, but he also knew she would not give him the pleasure of acknowledging this unless his words were artful and beckoning.

He settled back into the stillness hearing the cars droning in the street and imagining passers by ghosting the damp streets, heading for the lights of home.

The dream had taken time and effort to craft, an adaptation of a tale from1001 Nights, a dusty copy of which he had found in a second hand bookshop in a dirty side street on one of his fitful afternoon meanders. He had re-spun the tale and now he hoped it was too intriguing for her to refuse the invitation for exploration, disclosure and perhaps more.

The darkening corners of the room seemed to close in, holding his body, as he rummaged for what to say that would not be too plain or too pointed, but would offer a gentle opening, like a veil for her to draw aside or a threshold for her to secretly cross.

Through the hushed still air he thought he heard her gentle breathing and the rustle of her skirt on the dark leather chair as she gathered herself. He feared and envied the small silver clock on the mahogany table next to her, clawing away at his precious time, receiving her glances as she waited serene and apparently unconcerned, for his story to unfold.

“Dying of ones old self in order to be re-born, I guess, and perhaps the myth of suffering and redemption. I can identify completely with the motif of slaying part of myself –that which is outmoded and part of the past – to possess the truth and beauty that the maiden perhaps promises”. His words tailed off into silence as if swallowed by the burgundy walls lined with books whose order never seemed to change. He knew he had already betrayed that part of himself that identified with the Caliph, their destinies now inextricably bound together by the maiden’s seemingly capricious but deadly whim.

He spoke again into the thickening emptiness. “And the black pearl says to me that I must defy convention and risk taking the path less travelled if I am to follow my fate and destiny. The fact that the maiden has been waiting for me to arrive says to me that I cannot escape this destiny and that it has already taken me too long to act.”

Behind his gaze he felt her eyes surveying the room and his prostrate form. Self consciously he smoothed the creases in his trousers and ran his fingers across his face, wishing the lines would fade, and the stubble disappear. He waited anxiously for a response, an affirmation, a declaration, anything.

His mind wandered as he waited and he alighted on the picture on the wall above his right shoulder, a black and white pencil sketch of woman sitting on what looked like a high backed chair or throne perhaps. Its bare simplicity was soothing and annoying, unpretentious yet with no depth or colour. Its lack of detail – it was impossible to tell if the woman was clothed or naked – made it all the more alluring. He now knew each line so well, the spidery signature in the corner, indecipherable, provoking the wish to ask if it was one of hers or perhaps someone she knew. In their unspoken way he had learned that such questions were taboo, such boundaries inviolate. Yet he came back again and again circling his longing like an eagle circles the carrion.

“If the Caliph represents aspects of yourself, who or what does the maiden represent?” came the soft and seldom heard voice from behind, shocking him out of his deepening reverie and back to the soft lamp lit shadows. He contained his emotions as he detected a level of engagement and connection which surprised and thrilled him. His fingers tightened round the braided edge of the couch as if holding on to a small boat in a storm as he censored the flurry of words swirling in his throat.

“She is desire and death” he began, stumbling through the dark undergrowth of his thoughts. “She shows the two to be inseparable, inextricable. She represents the madness and desolation of love, the pain that we must endure if we are to know its terrible beauty.  Love is something different here” he continued breathlessly, “Love is dark and uncompromising, love is inescapable, love hunts us down, love will not be denied, love is all consuming….” He stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, suddenly flushed with shame and the awareness that he had said too much, that he would be punished for this indiscretion.

He imagined the consulting room like a womb, pregnant and dark, pulsing, heavy and urgent, pushing down on him until the pressure forced an uncontrolled release. He thought for a moment about the offspring this liaison would produce, what bastard child might be spawned and crawl towards him crying to be held and fed.

He pictured her now framed against the fourth wall behind him as she was when his fifty minutes finished, cordial yet aloof, a faint smile, businesslike, brushing her mouth and eyes. He saw the sober dark dress and shoes and the surprising necklace and earrings of heavy pendulous stones gleaming softly in the half light against her pale throat and neck, which he had longed for so long to kiss.

“And how do you know whether to trust the maiden with your fate and destiny?” she spoke from the gloom, her unerring words like arrows burying themselves in the heavy velvet curtains, the richly patterned oriental rug and their tender flesh.” How do you know she does not tempt you like a siren onto the rocks, like a lost traveler into the wolves den, like a mad lover to his…?” she left her question hanging precariously, balanced on a knife edge in the quivering air.

He was slightly stunned by the power of this unexpected interjection and unable to fully believe that she had been so quickly ensnared by the dream of the Caliphs dilemma.

A long haunting silence descended again upon the consulting room. Her words rippled out into the night, beyond the warmth of the room and into the cold windswept streets. He felt their softly goading echo against the bare skin of his face and hands as she gathered them up again into herself, jealously, like jewels. He could barely resist the temptation to turn his head and see how she held herself, her grainy silhouette perhaps like the pencil woman’s, taut and brittle astride her throne, peering across the darkening plain of the room.

“If I was the Caliph I would trust my heart and intuition. If we wait for certainty in these matters we may wait for ever. Better to take the risk and see what happens. Love may grow from the roots of revenge and blossom with the buds of desire” he flinched to hear himself speak so poetically in the confines of this hallowed room where the wings of imagination were quickly clipped. He sought to press home his advantage, “the maiden may come to love him even as she uses him for her own purpose, these are the trades that are often made in affairs of the heart”

He closed his eyes again and let his words settle around him, covering the surfaces of the room with the dust from another world, shading the brightness of his longing with the dreamer’s cloak.

His thoughts drifted to a scene where brightly plumaged birds flitted in their precise, choreographed, almost comical display of courtship followed by the swift, rough consummation. Was this how it was for her he wondered?, allowing the thought to fuel his excitement. Was the woman merely holding out the challenge in order to test the strength and dedication of her suitors? To see who in the deadly game would be found wanting and left to live an empty and legacy free life on the margins?

“Continue with the dream then”, she spoke, seeming to taunt him “what happens next, how does the Caliph resolve this dilemma and have the maiden he has so quickly come to desire?

He thought of the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ and felt now the full force of what it really meant. Now that the moment was here he didn’t feel as in control as he had imagined. He knew what he wanted to say, but couldn’t be completely sure he was correctly reading the cues from the disembodied voice issuing from the shadows behind him. Like the fencer who confidently thrusts but finds his partner has parried, feinted and swiftly counter attacked, he felt wrong footed and cumbersome. For the first time in their encounters he wished that time would accelerate and that he could depart into the wide open spaces of the world beyond this small, soporific kingdom where she ruled supreme. He wanted to gather himself, to catch his breath and clear his head, buying time for the next advance.

His other thought was to answer her question with one of his own and break the unspoken taboo. He would ask her how the dream continued for her, why the maiden commanded the Caliphs self destruction, why she didn’t or pretended not to know him and why she offered to give so much in return?.

In the hypnotic confines his breathing slowed as he strained to hear the silence breaking like waves over his inert body. He felt himself floating in the warm shallow waters of an endless sea. From the gentle lapping he heard her voice like a rising tide, but could no longer tell whether it was real or his own imagination, so becalmed were his senses in the isolation of the still, quiet half light.

“The maiden agrees to the Caliphs request to know why she wishes him, the Caliph, dead. Without a word she ushers him down a dimly lit corridor to a small richly decorated room,  heavy and dark, the walls and floors covered with fine tapestries and heavy oriental rugs so no light can enter from outside. The air is heavy with the perfumed oil from lamps that cast soft shadows in the scented air. Thick cushions are randomly strewn about the floor. Against the back wall is an imposing gilt chair framed by the flickering light that shimmers and softens its hard edges. The rugs soak up noise so that their footsteps die in a soft muffled dawn.  She gestures for him to sit in the chair and then sits facing him on a cushion. Their breathing slows and seems to almost synchronise. After what seems an eternity but may only have been a few seconds her wavering voice begins to speak into the heavy, fragrant air. “Ten years ago when I was still a girl, my father, who was a wealthy trader, died suddenly whilst away on a trip dealing pearls, from a fever he had contracted on an island in the Indian Ocean. My mother, myself and my two younger sisters never saw his body – he was buried on the island – and we were sorely stricken with grief and loss. After a few months my mother had used all the family savings and had to look for work. As fate would have it she found employment in the Caliphs Palace as a housekeeper, cooking and cleaning. The Caliph was not the one you have bound yourself to kill; it was the current Caliphs father who ruled then, although he was already a sick and ailing man. My mother was, despite her grief, still a young and beautiful woman and only a few years older than the Caliphs son. Suffice to say it was not long before he took a liking to her as she went about her work.”

She halted and he saw the glint of tears brightening her downcast eyes and leaving a sparkling trace down her smooth olive cheeks. The Caliph, to his shame and guilt, realised as soon as she mentioned the beautiful housekeeper how the story was to unfold. It explained how she did not recognise him. He wanted her to stop, to halt the pretence and unmask him or to run from the cocoon like room, but none of these things happened. He was powerless to stop her, entranced as he was by her sad beauty and stung by his own guilt to make amends. She continued with her story wiping the tears with the sleeve of her fine golden robes.

“One day whilst she was cleaning his chambers he commanded her to submit to his desires. She was fearful of losing her job or worse so surrendered to his bidding. From then on she became his secret lover, betrothed as he was to the daughter of a rich and powerful king from the country bordering the Caliphs kingdom. Although the liaison started like this the Caliphs son was a handsome and gallant young man and over the next few months, as happens in matters of the heart, my mother fell under his spell and was soon deeply in love. Their affair continued even after the Caliphs son inherited the Kingdom and still after his marriage to the young and powerful new Queen. Indeed, as you will know, forbidden fruit is often sweeter and their passion became more intense not less as secrecy stoked its fires. However the new Queen quickly became jealous of the Caliphs obvious fondness for the lowly yet beautiful housekeeper and she demanded that my mother was sacked or sent to work in one of the country retreats far from the roving eyes of her husband. Reluctantly the Caliph, fearing to upset his new wife and her powerful father, agreed and my mother was removed from her service in the Palace and sent to an isolated retreat in the hunting forest many hours from the Caliphs Palace.””

In the consulting room he suddenly felt cold and something akin to both reverence and menace lurking in the shadows. He realised that it was him who was now ensnared in the gilded cage of the Caliph and maidens story. Waiting, like something hunted, for her, seated on her dark leather throne, to continue the story, to consign him to his fate, to spin his world around her whim, like a web. Yet he felt strangely that the story came from somewhere beyond the two of them and that even as they sought to wrestle the tale from each others grasp it had assumed a life of its own. He could not be sure but he thought that she too was waiting, unknowingly, even as the story uttered itself from her throat.

““For a while their affair continued on the infrequent occasions he was able to escape for a brief hunting trip. But as you might expect the Caliphs wife soon realised the threat of these solitary visits and forbade the Caliph to visit that place without her. From that moment on the Caliph never saw or spoke to my mother again. My mother, who had moved us all to the isolated forest, was heartbroken to have lost the two loves of her life. She ceased to care for herself and I had to look after her and my two sisters even though I was still only a girl of thirteen years. She simply wasted away and nothing we or any doctor did could save her – her will to live had gone, her spirit was broken, her soul had flown – she died in our arms within a few months of the Caliphs cowardly and cruel rejection, a pathetic and broken figure. Over the last few weeks that my mother lay in her bed dying she told me the whole sad story of the years since my father had died.  I vowed, then and there, to my mother and myself that I would revenge her untimely end. I decided that my life’s mission would be to see the Caliph suffer the pain and anguish that my beloved mother had done.
You are the agent of my destiny; it is you who have been chosen by fate to avenge my mother’s death. Do you understand now why I want the Caliph dead and why I will, to achieve my end, sacrifice that which is most precious to me?”
“I do” said the Caliph quietly.”

Like the Caliph he felt trapped in the consulting room, unable to escape, the architect of his own downfall. Yet, he reminded himself, he had not actually done anything wrong, his desires were still alive only in the realm of dreaming, they had not come home to the world of flesh and blood, had they? What did she, sitting silently now behind him, know of the dark desires and imaginings that had given life to the dream, the unfolding story that had now flown on wings of its own from her throat?

“Was that your creation or a story you had already heard?” he asked, thinking of the picture of the seated woman on the wall above him. He needed to puncture the almost overpowering sense of expectancy that had flooded the consulting room in the last few minutes. “What does the Caliph do to make amends to this poor woman he has so shamefully wronged? he asked, hoping to shift attention away from his longing which was palpable, almost visible, in the dying light.

“There are many endings to this story” came the disembodied voice from the darkness behind him “and you can take your pick which one is meant for you.

In one the Caliph, weighed down by guilt, asks the maiden to leave him for a few minutes whilst he plans the Caliph death. On her return she finds he has twisted one of the tapestries into a noose and hung himself from a heavy brass curtain rail. The maiden smiles and checks for the scar on the Caliphs chest that her mother said she would find there.

Another has the story ending with the Caliph leaving the room, renouncing his past, giving away all his riches and going out into the world disguised as a poor beggar to die a paupers death as an outcast of society.

Yet another sees the Caliph returning to his Palace summoning the Royal Guard and making his way back to the maidens house where he has her, her entire household and the seven would be assassins put to the sword and all trace of them erased from the earth.

Still another has the Caliph demanding to sample the maidens merchandise before he attempts to kill the Caliph in order to test her sincerity.  Afterwards he leaves to do her bidding. But he returns the next evening with some story as to why this was not possible and demands to sample the goods once more before he carries out her wish. This continues for a week by which time the Caliphs wife grows suspicious and has him followed. She finds out what is going on and on his return slays him while he sleeps. The maiden gets her wish fulfilled but loses her new love at the same time”.

“Which ending pleases you” he asked, already knowing the answer. Then he waited, certain his time was up, expecting the usual cursory words, ‘that’s all for today’. The silence descended and with it a sense of anxiety, no sound, not even the rumple of her skirt on leather, the squeak of  revolving metal or her soft exhalation. He waited almost too scared to look at his own watch, wondering whether time had telescoped or compressed during the uncanny sequence of dream and story. In the end almost motionless he craned his head to see the watch on his right wrist, it told him the session should have finished fifteen minutes ago. He hauled himself upright and swivelled his legs to plant his feet upon the floor. He looked across the room and to his amazement the door was open and the chair was empty, save for seven gleaming white pearls nestling like eggs in the warm hollow of the chair left by her departing body.

Copyright 2012 Bernie Brooks (UK)

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