By Anna Gersman
The maiden rose slowly from her silver chair steadying herself with an ebony cane. “Very well,” she said. “I will tell you the story of the Caliph’s offence. It was five long years ago on a night like tonight- dark indigo skies with no moon.” She gazed upon the men, sinking heavily down onto the silver chair.
“My parents were busy working to secure my hand in marriage. Hidden behind ornate screens I spent long hot afternoons watching the comings and goings of rich suitors. That sultry night my slave girl Zenova bewitched me with stories of passion and opulence at the palace. The young Caliph Harun’s uncle was notorious at that time for his lavishness-exotic food, dancing slaves and wild animals. Her stories whipped me into a fervent frenzy. I tossed and turned passionate thoughts preventing me from falling asleep. Finally I insisted she take me to the palace. Foolishly I dreamed of one wild night of freedom before my marriage. At midnight disguised as a slave girl, we crept out into the cool stone streets. Only bright stars lit our path.”
“Zenova knew the way having worked at the palace before my father bought her. Her silver bracelets tinkled as she gave a secret knock on an obscure wooden gate. Her sister, a palace slave, opened the gate and whisked us into a courtyard. I cringe now thinking what a stupid child I was. Water splashed in marble fountains. The air was filled with jasmine and the flutter of caged songbirds. Music and laughter wafted down from high windows. Before we even had a chance to hide, torches flared and palace guards surrounded around us. I would have screamed but a powerful hand covered my mouth. I struggled fiercely, choking on their evil stench. Rough laughter rang out as they dragged us down underground tunnels and into a dim smoky room. There we were thrown onto the ground.”
“Who are you and what are you doing in the palace?” a deep voice growled. A veil covered my face, but I could feel the sweat on my forehead cooling against the stone floor.
“Speak,” the voice shouted. Terror filled me. I did not want to shame my father. This kind of dishonor would bring the severest punishment. Feeling Zenova and her sister trembling at my sides I raised my head. I gazed with horror into the black slit eyes of a huge guard. He leaned back in his chair behind a desk -massive fists clasped over his belly.
“Please sir, forgive me. I was invited to the Caliph’s party tonight. Usually I come with my mistress, but today she had a fever. She was unable to bring me. I have a secret summons.”
“Who is your mistress? I have never seen you before. Show your face.”
“Rough hands grabbed my arms and yanked at my veil. “No please I beg you.” I screamed. “I cannot show my face. I have been badly scarred and the sight of my face will cost you your manhood.” The guards recoiled from me, while lust glittered in their leering eyes.
“My mistress commands me to keep my face covered at all times. I am powerfully skilled in the ways of love. Ask the Caliph’s uncle. I am his favorite, but please my face must be hidden at all times.” The head guard held my gaze his fleshy lips glistening. I dared not flinch.
“Take us to the party at once or we will be late,” I said boldly. “The Caliph’s uncle knows how to summon me.” I drew the black silk wrap around my shoulders and stood.
“Take them away.” He muttered with a wave of his massive fist. We moved through a maze of dank passageways beneath the palace. Our echoing footsteps mingled with the scuffing of rat’s claws and the dripping of water.”
“Go up these stairs. At the top you will see a black curtain. Behind it is the banquet,” a guard breathed hot and wet against my veil. They lurched away down the tunnel leaving us in darkness. We climbed the long circular staircase and stood trembling before the curtain. Reaching up I parted it a crack and peeked in. We were at the back of a large room crowded with lounging men in white robes. Scarlet curtains ringed the walls, while piles of colourful cushions lay scattered upon thick overlapping carpets. Palace guards in royal blue stood at intervals around the room, swords gleaming on their belts. Copper lanterns hung in a circle in the middle of the room above a raised platform. On the platform lay the young Caliph and his uncles wearing robes of black and purple. Behind a carved teak grate to the side of the room were the royal women. Around the central platform five harem dancers spun wearing flowing gowns of cherry, tangerine and azure. All eyes were on them as their hands twirled and gold bracelets and anklets flashed and shook. Musicians played silver pipes, strummed harps and rattled tambourines. Clouds of smoke from brass hookah pipes filled the air.”
“Zenova pulled me behind a large pillar where we could see but remain hidden. We sank onto soft pillows our heads barely visible. The dancers undulated around and around obscured by wisps of smoke. Vast platters of fruit and sweet delicacies rested on low tables before the platform- figs, dates, almond stuffed pastries. The uncle’s rings flashed as he plunged his hand into a mound of grapes. Juice ran down his chin as he stuffed his mouth full. He pointed at one of the dancers and she was dragged across the carpet to him. Curtains were drawn around the divan where he lay.”
“The music faltered briefly and then pounded faster into the night-the beat of drums pulsing in my chest. I leaned over hissing in Zenova’s ear, “Let’s go.” Hardly had I uttered the words when a large red macaw hanging in a cage above us began to screech, “Here is one, here is one.” Within seconds my arms were grabbed and I was rushed over cushions and carpets to the young Caliph himself. Tourmaline curtains were drawn around us and I was thrown at his feet.”
“Stand up,” he whispered his voice sweet as honey. Slowly I stood my heart pounding, my face bowed. “Come lie down,” he purred. The raucous music vanished into deep carpets, behind the thick curtains. Above us heavy fans of ostrich feathers undulated back and forth pulled by silk ropes in slave’s hands.”
“Remove your veil,” he commanded.
“I cannot,” I said. Then I told him the lie of my oil scarred face.
“Remove your wrap and lie down then,” he cooed tugging until my long black shawl fell away. Underneath, my turquoise sari rippled in the breeze from the fans. I lay back on the pillows trembling. He rested on the carpet beside me. At once he began to recite our great poet in my ear.”
“No one knows what makes the soul wake up so happy: maybe a dawn breeze has blown the veil from the face of God. A thousand new moons appear. Roses open laughing hearts become perfect rubies like those for Badakshan. The body turns entirely spirit. Leaves become branches in this wind….”
“Carefully he lifted my foot and traced a fingertip lightly along the arch and over the sole. He covered each part of my foot with cool kisses. He pulled silk ribbons around and between each toe. A sweet lute played outside the curtain. My head swirled. The night disappeared into cloud. My body burned hot on the silk pillows. When Zenova finally managed to reach me I could hardly walk on my inflamed feet. His hands never moved above my ankles but his lips scorched my neck with the words, “Come tomorrow.”
“I don’t remember descending the spiral staircase or moving through the dark tunnels and the stone streets. Zenova and her sister carried me to my bed as dawn broke violet over the roof tops and onto my balcony. All day I lay feverish in my room while Zenova sponged my smoldering body with frangipani blossom water. Nothing could cool the love fire ignited by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. I threw all caution to the wind insisting that we return to the palace.”
“No mistress we must not go again. Please it is too dangerous,” Zenova pleaded.
“Get dressed we are going,” I hissed shoving her hard, “or I will tell my father about your stories.”
“I could not rest. My eyes glittered like black diamonds, and my cheeks burned red hot. I waved away a dozen saris before finally choosing one of deep crimson. I wanted him to know the dark passion he had aroused in me. Close to midnight, shrouded in our black capes we slunk once again through the shadows to the palace. Guards were waiting at the courtyard gate and led us through the murky underground passageways. My silk slippers splashed in oily puddles. Once again we climbed the circular staircase and crept to the back of the pillowed chamber.”
“That night’s celebration was dominated by a strange jade luminosity. Emerald silk banners hung below the copper lanterns. The burgundy, gold and amber of the carpets glowed in the rich green light. A young slave girl danced with a cobra before the royal platform. Round and round the snake she twirled- arms raised, bracelets jingling- teasing it, taming it. Until in a flash it struck. Its fangs sank into her foot. At once the Caliph’s uncle signaled for her to be brought to him and the curtains were drawn. A new group of dancers ran in as the treacherous snake was locked inside a reed basket. There was a myth that snake venom was a powerful aphrodisiac. If extracted from one struck down, love making would spiral to new heights. The uncle was fixed on removing the poison from the dying snake charmer.”
“A wave of nausea washed over me. I closed my eyes just as the red macaw called out. “Here she is, here she is.”
At once I was whisked to the curtained divan of the Caliph. That night he again wore white robes. A single ruby shone at the front of his turban. I fell to my knees before him.”
“Welcome my dark beauty,” he said and a shiver raced over my body. He took my hands and whispered our famous love poetry in my ear.
“The most living moment comes when those who love each other meet each other’s eyes and in what flows between them then. To see your face in a crowd of others, or alone on a frightening street, I weep for that. Our tears improve the earth….”
I lay weak on the divan while he began to tease silk ribbons around each of my fingers. His hands moving up my arms until I floated through undulating air currents. Every part of me was alive in taunt raised tension. Time raced until his words burned once again on my neck. “Come tomorrow. I have an important question to ask you.”
“All night and the next day I soared. Zenova was crazy with worry as I would not eat. She coaxed single drops of water into my mouth. I slapped her and shook her roughly when she threatened to call my mother. I told her she would die that very night if she breathed a word. I ordered her to pour a bath of jasmine flowers, to apply lavender oil to my hair, to paint dark kohl around each eye. Choosing to wear a deep emerald sari I vowed to reveal my true self to him, not my scarred disguise. The night burned hot and dark. Not a breath of wind stirred the blossoms. The smell from the river was foul. Our footsteps echoed in the alleyways.”
“Knocking at the hidden gate we waited for the guards. We pounded incessantly for an hour but still no one came. The crazed fire in my body made me see green flashing lights pulsating across the sky.”
“Go to the main gate.” I hissed to Zenova.
“No mistress please, no one is allowed to go to the main gate,” Zenova cried.
“My nails dug into her flesh. I forced her out of the shadows towards the main gate. The watchmen there were notoriously cruel and sadistic. They grabbed her and beat her viciously for her impudence and cast her into the gutter. Her face was purple, her eyes swollen shut, blood poured from her nose which hung askew. Her clothes were torn and she could hardly walk. We staggered home losing our way many times in strange mists. Just inside our gate we collapsed, were discovered and taken to my father. He did not believe the story that it was I who savagely beat Zenova. She was hauled away. I was questioned incessantly. Later that night I fell into a coma. My terrified parents released Zenova to be with me.”
“For days I was unconscious neither eating nor drinking. Weeks turned into months, months into years. When I finally awoke my body had wasted away, my hair fell out, my skin turned dry and scaly. Zenova crept many times to the palace with my letters, but no reply came. My body turned hollow, dried up and shrunken. Large black moles with hair sprouted and covered my body. My nails cracked and split. My once full lips turned thin and parched, my breath foul. Rose petals withered in my bath. All my passions died- my love of wild figs and pomegranates vanished, nothing appealed. Not poetry, or music or saris, or jewels. I longed for death. The poison of a woman scorned twisted round my neck and choked off all feeling, leaving only darkness.”
The young maiden drew a long breath pulled aside her veil and revealed her withered beauty. The men cringed and gasped at her bared secret.
“Now you see why I must have his death. You must kill him and place his head at my feet. This is my only desire. He stole my beauty, my passion, turned them to hatred and revenge these five long years. He murdered me, and can never be forgiven. The maiden’s eyes flared in the room where the seven men sat around her silver chair. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid shifted on his cushion and opened his hand. Staring at the pearl in his palm his eyes widened and his breath came fast. The black pearl that had lain there moments before was now bright red. Bowing low he held out his palm before the maiden and the seven men in saffron robes. The maiden leapt from her chair.
“Explain that sir,” she shouted. Her guards drew swords and sprang close.
He fell to his knees at her feet his palm outstretched on the marble floor the red pearl glowing brilliantly.
“Please maiden, please allow me to tell my story.” He paused, “I am the Caliph Harun al-Rashid- The one from your story. I will submit my head to your sword if you will but listen to my story first. I promise it will be brief. It starts that same dark night- The one where you came to reveal your love to me. I did have a question for you that night. I too had fallen in love. My red macaw was a charmed creature trained to find true love. When he discovered you my spirit soared. My parents were trying to arrange a marriage for me, but no maiden sparkled, until you. With you a world of magic love appeared. But before I could reveal my love to you a dark terror fell upon us. A deadly plague swept through the palace that night. You smelled it yourself. It came up from the river- dank poisonous fumes wafted through the tunnels and into my chamber. It wiped out everyone in its path-slaves, guards, and our royal family.
I too would have died but the Vizier helped me escape. Our cortege left the palace in the middle of the night with only a few loyal guards. My parents, uncle and cousins all perished. The edge of the fever caught me in its grip, but I was kept alive by the Vizier and a few faithful servants. News of the disaster was kept secret. Our enemies never knew the extent of the tragedy. I was taken unconscious to a fortress by the sea a hundred miles away.”
“My uncle was behind the poison gas seepage. It took years for the plot to be deciphered. He had offended the great magician Konovi – imprisoned him in a dungeon forced him to concoct potions. Uncle was obsessed, driven mad by a yearning for aphrodisiacs and the secret to long life. He wanted to live a virile man forever. He was vain and stupid and brought ruin on us all. When he locked the sorcerer away, Konovi planned revenge. His plan came to fruition that night- The night I abandoned you.”
“Like you I lay in a fever for years, not knowing anything. The poison paralyzed me. I dreamed of dark hands choking me. I was chased but could not move. The only peace I had were visions of you- your crimson and turquoise saris, your small perfect toes, your long delicate fingers. You floated in wisps of rose petals surrounded by almond blossom scent. I suffered terrible pain lying unable to move all those long years. My limbs wasted into thin sticks. I had to be turned and cleaned and fed. I gave up many times. Calling for someone to throw me over the balcony into the sea, so I could disappear.”
“But eventually I learned to walk and how to feed myself. My only wish was to find you. I did not know your name only that you came to the palace secretly through the tunnels. I wanted to carry out the search myself but was not strong enough. So I sent the most brilliant spies to find you, but all their leads, their promises turned to dead ends. You were a phantom. My body browned in the sun and I longed to meet the maiden behind the red veil. But I was afraid too; the poison had struck terror in me. Fear dogged each footstep I took.”
“One clear night at the seashore a sign came. A full moon sparkled on the ocean. I gazed out as a clear breeze rustled the bougainvillea. The surf curled gently along the beach below my balcony. From the sea I watched the great blue whales leap in the moonlight. Their huge black bodies shining radiant. Then dolphins came a hundred or more, dancing around the whales. I heard the calls of these sea creatures, their annual song of passion, a language of undefeatable love. They pursued their love relentlessly, making this great pilgrimage from far southern shores. I swore then on that moonlit shore that I would return and find you. I ordered our caravan packed and we left the next morning.”
The Caliph dared look up into the face of the maiden. Tears spun down her cheeks but her face was an ice sculpture.
“My abandonment of you was wrong. I cannot change this. Take the pearl. I am ready for death. It is unforgivable.” He held out the red pearl resting his forehead on the cool marble floor.
The maiden gasped. The pearl had returned to a glossy black.
“Sir what have you done now?” she cried.
The Caliph looked up. “I have done nothing only told my story. I came out tonight as I often do-searching. Peace eludes me every night. I long for the love I held so briefly five long years ago. Please take it and put me out of my misery.”
The maiden reached out and plucked the black pearl from his palm. Instantly it changed back to the deep crimson of her robes from that night long ago. As she gazed at its smooth surface her skin began to glow, her hair melted into a dark glossy mane upon her shoulders. Her lips moistened and blossomed lush. Her shoulders relaxed and her breasts began to swell beneath her robes. Her lost passion was restored. Her youthful vigor rekindled. With a wave of her hand she dismissed the seven men and touched the hair of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He rose slowly from the floor his brown eyes sparkling. The five long years melted between them as he folded her into his arms. The ebony cane lay forgotten at her feet. The red pearl was clasped tightly in her soft hand.
Copyright 2012 Anna Gersman (Canada)