Darling, we talked about this! You simply must be careful with yourself in quarantine. There is so much depressing, scary, unknown and unpleasant in the world at the moment. Fight the good fight as best you can, but then sometimes you must, simply must, crawl into bed with some sparkling tea (dear F & M, so innovative and so droll, do you know that on their website right now they proclaim they are “currently experimenting with sausages”? hmmm) or bubble tea or a large mug of “tea” that happens to look exactly like Mount Gay rum (Trudiann Branker, we salute you).
And what to read while you are hiding away? Darling, fairy tales. Read fairy tales, and to demonstrate…
(Illustration by Artuš Scheiner)
Although the custom in the souq was you were always given as many cups as you wanted, Balquis would only pour out one cup per person. Even if the sheikh of the largest tribe yelled at her, she would pour him no more than one cup. And once the three carafes were empty, she would not make any more until the next Eid.
But Noor could have two or three, even four cups every day to drink in the quiet of the pretty roof courtyard with the fountain playing and the gentle scent of orange blossoms, even if the fountain was full of fabric and the trees were draped with fabric.
One day, as she was drinking the coffee, a handsome man appeared. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and held out his hand towards her. Noor was startled, she looked at his tall figure, his short beard which appeared now black, now dark brown, now deep red, his long elegant cloak which appeared now dark blue, now black and now the dark green of coconut palm fronds and she thought he must be the djinn of the souq.
How else could a man appear in her own bedroom? The walls were smooth stone, windows were all covered with carved wood, with holes so small only the youngest of mice could ever enter. There was only one staircase that led up the courtyard and it came from the store where Abdullah, his father, the guard and the small shop assistant were all sitting.
Noor thought for a moment and then stood up. She placed her half-drunk cup of coffee in the man’s hand. He drank it, then set down the cup and held out his hand again. She walked to one of the trees, picked a small orange and placed it in his hand. He ate in one gulp, his sharp teeth grinding the sections into pulp, and held out his hand again.
She placed her hand on his and let him lead her into the bedroom. The door shut itself after them and she heard the lock click shut, although they were now both standing by the bed. The air was scented with roses and even though it was afternoon, the room was dark except for a small flame that appeared about three feet off the ground, to the left side of the bed.
When she woke up, the room was empty and the plain white cotton sheets had turned to silk. Noor thought carefully. First she took water from the fountain was washed the scent of roses off her body. Then she took the silk sheets and hid them away in a cupboard. Then she waited until it was the fourth week of the month, told Abdullah yes and endured his short and unpleasant visit to her room.
She insisted that there be no light and that they use black sheets so there would be no stain. She also insisted that he bathe before leaving the room, sloshing about in the utter darkness.
Then she waited. After four months and three weeks, he told her to prepare herself for their monthly walk around the parapets of the city and she responded that she was too fat and tried to walk. He looked at her carefully, saw how the fabric was stretched across her stomach and told her that he would take her to her mother’s house to live.
Noor said no. She promised the baby would not harm the fabric and he must give her one chance. Let her stay and if any fabric was hurt, then she would go to her mother.
He agreed and two months later, Noor’s first daughter was born.
“A six month baby!” Abdullah thought. He was sure that was not right, but he had no one to tell. He hadn’t admitted that he had been married for two years before he had touched his wife so no one, not even his father, was suspicious. Abdullah was suspicious, very suspicious, but he had no idea what to do.
He and his father never left the store unless they closed and locked the door themselves. When they were in the store, there was always the assistant and a guard who sat next to the door to the stairway. The assistant was hired because he was the orphan son of one of the fabric sellers. He was learning the trade until he was old enough to take over his father’s old stall, but he was now only seven or eight and too young to make a problem with Noor. His guard was hired because he was a brother of one of the fabric seller’s, a soldier who had hurt his leg. His eyes were everywhere to make sure not even a finger’s width of fabric went missing but he couldn’t walk up the stairs to make a problem with Noor.
Abdullah wanted to ask Balquis if she had ever seen a man upstairs, or heard Noor speak to a man. Maybe Noor wrote messages and pushed them through the small holes in the carved wooden covers of the windows, but how would the man and Noor meet? It was impossible for Noor to leave the shop without being seen, impossible for a man to get upstairs without being seen and the roof patio had straight smooth walls much higher than any man’s head.
He did not believe Noor, but he did not not believe Noor. He wanted to ask someone, but the other fabric-sellers, how could he bring up such a delicate subject when all they ever spoke of was the prices, the caravans and the weather? Abdullah pondered and pondered but he told himself to not think of it and went back to thinking of his fabric. Noor knew Abdullah was wondering, but never paid him any special attention, knowing the fabrics would call to him, pulling all his attention to them and away from her.
Noor gave birth to her daughter alone, lying on the white silk sheets; she felt a slight tug, had laid down and suddenly the baby was there, by her feet. There was never even an instant of pain. When it was over, Noor wrapped the baby in a corner of the sheet and held her next to her. She must have slept because when she opened her eyes, Balquis was there with a carafe of coffee. Noor, the baby and the sheets were clean and the room smelled of roses.
Balquis, as normal, said nothing, only nodded and handed over the carafe and a small plate of saffron-colored orange cakes. Noor drank the coffee, ate the cakes, held her baby and smiled at how well everything had turned out.
Noor insisted that the baby be called Lulu, “Pearl,” as she was so pure and white, with the palest pink lips; Abdullah agreed and then spent a fruitlessly week trying to think of any men who had a mother called Lulu.
Lulu grew slowly, a quiet, placid baby who only cried if her mother didn’t give her a sip of the delicious coffee. She was so quiet that it took Noor weeks to realize the magic. She had left Lulu sleeping on the folded up white sheet next to one of the orange trees and a blue and white porcelain pot, but when she went to check on Lulu, Noor noticed that the Lulu had rolled herself off the sheet and was sleeping peacefully on the brown tile floor, curled up next to the pot. But the tiles Lulu was sleeping on were no longer brown, but a lighter color, like toast or a baby camel or tea with a lot of milk or a palm frond that had been cut and left in the sun. And the pot, just where Lulu’s hand had been curled up against it, looked bleached, the dark blue faded to the color of an old indigo scarf or an old man’s eyes.
Noor drew in her breath. Magic was all well and good, she had dreamed for years of being the bride of the djinn of the souq, but this was not the comfortable magic she had dreamed of: magic carpets, teapots that poured themselves, heaps of jewels, palaces with gold plates.This was uncomfortably real.
She experimented for a few days and, yes, anything that Lulu touched lost its color. A brief contact didn’t really have an effect, but ten or twenty minutes left a gentle lessening of the shade, like a whitewash had been applied, a few hours left the object pure white and many hours turned the object a colorless, shiny grey the color of the inside of an abalone shell.
Noor hadn’t realized because she had kept Noor swaddled in pieces of the white silk sheets from her afternoon with the djinn and she had thought that the pink hair bands and dresses Lulu wore had turned white because Balquis was washing them with bleach. But now she had to do something.
The last test she gave Lulu was a Friday afternoon when Abdullah and his father went to prayers and Balquis wasn’t in the house. Noor stole down the stairs to the store and took some rice sacks which were used to pack fabric in. They were thrown in an untidy stack by the stairs so she took a few and placed Lulu on them. She kissed her gently, then closed the door to the room. Lulu slept and Noor prayed.
Four hours later she checked. The rice sacks were a soft dove grey but when she held them to the light, Noor could see all the colors of the rainbow. She was in terrible trouble.
How could she explain this? No daughter of a coppersmith and a fabric seller could have such magic in her. Which meant a djinn, which wouldn’t be so bad if Noor had said that at the beginning. There were some stories of this kind of situation (there was that honey seller whose wife was a djinn’s lover), but she hadn’t told her mother (like a good daughter) or her husband (like a good wife) and now she was stuck with a magic baby and no resources.
She went to the window and looked out; she had to make a plan. At first, she contemplated accidentally on purpose letting Lulu drop, perhaps into a well, or over the wall of the city, oh but then perhaps there was a djinn nearby who would save her, or worse, recognize a child from the djinn’s own race and then…But in the middle of her despair was a quiet, soft voice that sounded like her own saying, “You are the only coppersmith’s daughter who married a fabric seller.”
“Yes,” thought Noor, “and? So what?” But then she realized, it wasn’t really a matter of “so what?” She was the only coppersmith’s daughter who married a fabric seller. The only one in the history of the souq and it was a long history. If she could figure out how to do that – to escape the fire and the heat and the coals and the hammering – she could figure this out as well.
She took the rice sacks and hid them under her bed, wrapped Lulu tightly in a piece of the white silk sheets and sat by the window thinking, what could she do to protect herself – what could she do to keep Lulu’s secret.
She thought for days, shifting, altering, re-arranging, and deciding, then she started to work on Abdullah. The tiles on the roof needed to be changed; the dark brown kept in the heat and hid the dust. They should be changed to white, or at least grey. Abdullah disagreed but she kept on at him about how she was never sure if the floor was dirty or not with brown tiles and she was afraid dust from the roof would slip down the stairs and into the shop. He finally gave in and she took Lulu to her mother’s for a week while the workmen changed the tiles.
On the way to her mother’s, she asked to stop at the soap-sellers and bought a jar of rose-scented soap and tucked it in next to Lulu. That night, when she unwrapped Lulu and saw the jar, it was no longer the color of Ashtaran clay but the light color of cardamom tea; she wrapped a white ribbon around the neck of the bottle and gave it to her mother.
Then under pretext of wanting to help clean, Noor went through all the old fabric and hid the oldest, most torn and tattered pieces from the house at the bottom of the cloth sack carrying Noor’s clothes. She kept Lulu well-wrapped but of course Noor’s mother took Lulu in her arms many times every day, washed her and kissed her.
When it was time to go home, one of the neighbor’s noticed how pale Noor’s mother’s hands and face had become.
“It is the soap I bought her,” explained Noor. “It’s made from Himalayan roses, specially made to make skin white.”
The neighbors demanded to see the pot and instantly affirmed that it was not from Ashtaran. They knew every potion and concoction in the soap-sellers part of the souq; this was a new type of bottle. Noor let it slip that she had bought the soap from a traveling peddler and promised if she ever saw him again, she would buy more. On the way home, she bought a few more pots from the soap-seller and thus the mystery of Noor’s mother’s white hands and face were explained away for years.
Once back at home, Noor started on the second part of her plan. Every night she would lay Lulu on the old fabric from her mother’s house for a few hours, then on the cool floor tiles. She carefully drew a map of the terrace and her room in charcoal on the inside of her dresser and put a mark for each tile to make sure Lulu sat on each tile in turn. Thus, over the next year, every tile slowly turned from dull white to deep pearly grey but the change was so gradual, no one except Noor noticed.
Then, when the fabric was thick, soft, heavy and shiny with the light of all the colors, Noor started the third part. When Abdullah came up for his nightly check, Noor showed him the fabric saying, “A friend of my mother’s gave me this when I was visiting her. She makes it herself, alone and in secret for no coppersmith’s wife should be making fabric, she learned from her grandmother when she was a child. She wanted to know if you would buy it.”
Abdullah was amazed at the fabric, so supple and smooth; it emitted a glow like a candle in a dark room and gave off the light scent of roses.
“She made this?”
“Her grandmother died several months ago and when she went to pay her respects, she found the loom with this fabric on the roof. She was the only grandchild who knows the secret, so she took it home and put the loom, under a cover, on her own roof. If you buy the fabric, she can buy more wool and dye it, and make more, as her husband won’t give her any money for wool.”
Abdullah agreed and said he would discuss the price with the woman’s husband and pay him.
“Never,” cried Noor. “Think of what would happen to his reputation if it was known his wife works for money! No one must know!”
Abdullah argued, but he could see Noor’s point. No man would want it known that his wife worked for money, but also a wife shouldn’t have her own money either.
“She only wants to buy more wool, and roses to scent the fabric, some sweets for her children, perhaps a new shawl for herself and her sisters.”
Abdullah said that he himself would buy these things.
“And then, would you walk into her house and hand them to her? Her husband would kill you on the spot.”
“I would buy them,” he said patiently, “And give them to you, to give to her.”
“But how could you? No woman would accept a shawl from a man who was not her husband or brother or son, and how would you know the right kind of roses, you know nothing of flowers, or the right kind of wool? You don’t bargain with the sheep shearers. She has an old servant, an old woman who worked for her grandmother, who can take the coins and buy what is needed.”
The arguments arrayed against him, Abdullah had to concede and handed over a pitifully small amount. And the games began.
She had the small shop assistant come and paint all the furniture white, then bought metal fences, also painted white, which she put around the blue and white pots which held the orange trees, “so that Lulu does not grab and eat the dirt by accident.”
Each small change, if Abdullah noticed it at all, was explained by saying the friend of her mother who wove the cloth had given Noor a few coins in thanks for selling the fabric and Noor had, of course, spent the money on improvements for her baby, and soap for her mother.
Within six months, Noor had a few gold coins hidden away and everything in the room that was within five feet of the floor was white. The cabinets were all white, but she had dark wooden shelves filled with dark wooden bowls and dark blue glass bowls placed on the wall far off the ground. The blue and white pots were now beyond Lulu’s reach, although the leaves were definitely a lighter color green and the oranges were the color of young apricots.
Noor wore white gloves and only held Lulu if she was covered in fabric. She had been worried about Balquis for a few weeks, but thankfully Balquis didn’t seem that interested in the child. She would greet her every day, and give her sips of coffee, sometimes giving Noor sweet cinnamon toffees or sugared almonds, but never touched or held Lulu herself.
So Noor, like so many people, having successfully passed a great danger, decided to put herself in more danger. Lulu was now a year old and there was not the slightest hitch in her plans, it was time for another child but she wondered how to get the djinn back to her bedroom. There had been nothing special about her life before he had arrived, no signal that she was special, besides that she was the coppersmith’s daughter with long hair.
She knew the people of the souq thought she was pretty, but when she went to weddings and she drew off her scarf, the women never commented on her beauty. All the comments were about her dresses, which were made of the most costly fabrics as advertisements for her husband’s store. The dresses never quite fit, always a little too big, because her husband always sold the dress after she wore it and he wanted to make sure it would fit as many women as possible to increase the number of possible buyers.
Noor sat through the weddings in her tent of a dress, ever watchful of a stray crumb or splash from the coffee pot. For herself, she took only one sip of water, so that the necessities of being a guest were observed, but she didn’t dare even take a sugared almond to eat, perhaps a bit of the coloring would come off on her finger and then onto the dress.
As soon as she returned home, he would examine every inch of the dress and then hang it in the store room, perfumed it with the smoke of frankincense, roll it in pale silk and wait until the husband or father of one of the women who had seen it would come to ask about the price.The dress was always discussed, but never Noor herself.
Noor wanted to be discussed – or least have someone to discuss with. The djinn had come when she was wearing only her plain housedress, he was not a djinn interested in fabric. How had he known of her and why had he come, questions she had not asked before but now that she wanted another child, she wondered. Perhaps it was the coffee – the delicious smell?
The djinn came every once in a awhile to see Lulu, but only in the early morning and he stayed in the courtyard. They had polite conversation; this had to change. The next morning when Balquis came, Noor put her hand on Balquis’ arm and asked her, “My dear, all these years you are working here and your coffee has given my much joy. I want to say thank you, and thank you for taking care of me.”
Balquis looked up at her, aware that a request was coming.
“Please take this,” and Noor handed her three large pieces of Lulu’s special, supple fabric with every color of the rainbow.
Noor had meant to give them to Abdullah, but she had realized that if the djinn had come because of the coffee, then she must ensure more coffee, and, besides, she already had some gold saved.
Balquis took the fabric without a word and waited for what she was to do in return. But Noor only smiled and returned to look out the window. A little later, Balquis brought up a cup of coffee and some fruit and bread for breakfast, Noor smiled and thanked her. Balquis stood patiently, waiting to know what she had to do in repayment for the fabric, but Noor turned back to the window.
When Balquis had gone, she took the cup of coffee and set it next to the window, so the curls of steam escaped out through the carved wooden lattice and into the souq. “I won’t drink it until you come,” she whispered.
It was a hard promise to keep, especially since she had to throw out the coffee before Balquis came to take the dishes and it was painful to toss the delicious coffee down the drain, but Noor wanted a second child and so for seven whole days, she never touched a drop of coffee and then one day he was there.
She smiled and when he held out his hand, she took it immediately, but before they lay down, she put the black sheets from the only time her husband came to her on the bed.
A few months later she again told Abdullah that she was too tired to walk on the top of the city wall. He looked closely at her and she modestly looked at the floor.
“How?” he asked.
“I have been sleeping on the black sheets, praying for a child and our wish was granted.”
Abdullah was furious, but also confused. He was pretty sure he knew how babies were made, and sheets were not sufficient. But there was no way a man could have gone to the roof patio, and no way for Noor to go to meet a man. She went to weddings and funerals, always accompanied by other women, and to her mother’s house, accompanied by him. He knew his in-laws watched her closely, she was not allowed to even visit a neighbor. So how?
He showed his anger as he usually did, by telling Balquis not to give her coffee or anything except dry bread and water for two weeks and he carefully guarded the stores of food, thinking Noor might plead with Balquis and Balquis might relent. But only dry bread went upstairs on the tray, with fruit, cheese and a small stoppered bottle of coffee hidden under Balquis’ large apron. Noor paid Balquis from her supply of gold from selling Lulu’s fabric.
Before Khalfan came once every few days to see Lulu, but now he came every evening, bringing a plate of food, rice with meat or small pastries, some with cheese, some with fruit and nuts. Sometimes he brought a heap of fruit, kumquats, tangerines, mangos and papayas, with a special knife that would cut the fruit for you, and a fork that would take each slice and bring it up to your mouth. He waited for her to ask for gold plates or a magic carpet or jewels or a castle with elephants to carry her, but the magic knife and fork were amusement enough for her.
The baby was born in the winter, a cold night. Noor was alone but unafraid, Lulu was wrapped in her white silk and slept through the arrival of her sister.
“Lacassia,” said Noor.
“Absolutely not,” replied Abdullah. “My child will not be named after a cinnamon tree.” He gave a proper, good name to the clerk when he went to register the birth, but somehow the certificate when it was written and stamped by the governor said “Lacassia.” Abdullah kept Noor on bread and water for a month but she never complained.
More careful this time, she waited only two days before she wrapped Lacassia in a rice sack and let her sleep. When she returned after three hours, the sack was darker and velvety.
“My mother’s neighbor has started to use wool from black sheep, it’s cheaper,” explained Noor after a few months when she started to bring Lacassia’s fabric to Abdullah. “It will be good for winter dresses and heavy shawls.”
“People won’t pay as much for this as the grey shimmering silk,” he replied. “And why are the pieces only this big, why not make longer pieces so the tailors don’t have to put in seams.”
“She doesn’t have that much money to keep buying wool and cotton and silk and dyes,” Noor replied, having already thought out her answer long ago. “She can only work a piece this size, then sell it to buy more supplies.”
Abdullah was caught, as Noor knew he would be, between greed of wanting larger pieces and then pain of having to give out more money. Finally, he shook his head. So when Noor went to her mother’s house, she paid beggar women to buy large pieces of the cheapest fabric and set the fabric under Lulu and Lacassia and sold it to her husband.
As the girls grew, the fabric reflected their growing powers: for Lulu, the fabric more sheer, lighter, and colors danced across the translucent like the surface of a bubble. Fabric placed under Lacassia became darker, thicker, warmer, with a closer weave that kept out even the strongest sand storm.
Noor fretted a little, watching Balquis under her eyelashes as she drank the delicious coffee, but Balquis swept and cleaned with no apparent interest how the white fences protecting the blue and white pots with the orange tress had turned russet brown and how the white tiles around the fountain were now a hodge-podge of colors. How once Lacassia managed to crawl out of her cradle (made of mahogany and covered in claret-colored velvet) and fell asleep on a tile which turned a warm dark blue, or when Lacassia discovered the long, white curtains and played with them one afternoon, the curtains turned the green of an old frog.
The girls were fascinated with each other but would start to cry if they were touching each other for more than a few minutes, or even on the same piece of fabric. Once, when Lacassia was still young, Noor heard sobbing from the bedroom and when she went in, she saw Lulu crying on her white silk sheets and Lacassia holding on to a corner. There were long, thin spikes of dark red, almost the color of blood, seeping out from the section that Lacassia was holding. The white silk was moving, shifting, in a way that made Noor dizzy so she quickly pulled Lacassia away.
A few times, until they both had their minds, they would by chance sit on the same floor tile and within a few minutes start weeping. Once they were both mobile it was easier, as Lulu was always out on the patio, sitting in the full sun although she never got sunburned, whereas Lacassia was always in the bedroom or in the shade of the roof overhang. Sometimes she would sit under the mother-of-pearl table and play with Lulu who was sitting in the sun, separated by the line of shade.
Abdullah decided that he should be a real man. Besides he wanted a son, so he decided he would visit Noor every Thursday night. he told of his intention to make sure she prepared; Noor asked Khalfan for a sleeping potion. It was her first request and he agreed and, even more, he got a potion that made her snore and fart. So for a few weeks, Abdullah climbed the stairs on Thursday, covered the two cradles with a shawl and went to his wife, who was making disgusting noises as she slept. He would debate within himself and then go resignedly back downstairs to sleep with the fabric.
“A third one?” Noor asked Khalfan.
“If you want, yes,” he replied.
She smiled and held out her hand.
He came almost every night, if only for a few minutes and Noor had taken the sensible precaution of calling him “lizard.” Khalfan sometimes turned his skin and clothes green so that Lulu babbled about her friend the lizard who came at night and brought sweets. Djinn children had to learn facts and dates but were born savvy; a child of a djinn and a human took longer to understand.
Abdullah told Noor to stop telling his child fairy tales. Noor meekly agreed.
Khalfan changed appearances, sometimes an owl, sometimes a baby goat, once a rabbit, sometimes and a parrot. “It’s a bit undignified,” he complained when Noor told him she thought a goldfish for Lulu might be fun.
“Oh yes, the difficulties of being a parent,” she answered.
And Khalfan, aware of how little he did as a parent, shut up and turned himself into a goldfish for a few nights and once, how Lulu loved it!, a miniature dolphin.
“Pony?” Noor teased.
“My poor back,” he answered.
They sat, his arms around her, on the window seat, looking as she always did through the small holes out at the world of the souq. She pulled his hand onto her stomach, happy that he had agreed.
Khalfan pulled her closer, happy at the ways of the world which had brought her to him. He had heard of the beautiful coppersmith’s daughter who wouldn’t cut her hair and had snuck into her room as a mouse a few times to see her, but she seemed nothing special. When she married, he saw her a few times but never thought of her except that she was the lucky woman who had the coffee from Balquis, who he and all the djinns knew.
But one night as he was sitting on the edge of the city wall as a pigeon, she and Abdullah walked by and her sadness trailed behind her as an almost visible haze of dust, despair, anger and confusion. He could sense that, though she hadn’t started to think of it, she could one day soon simply walk off the edge of the wall in her fog of desolation.
He sent a cockroach to spy on her and report back: sitting endlessly at the window, no need to cook or clean, no one to speak to. Her bleak inability to find a purpose or meaning for her life made him decide to visit her. Sex might help and since she was rumored to be the most beautiful, well it would reflect well on him.
So he had offered and she had accepted. He decided to ask for a child, something to keep her busy, not really thinking it through that this would be his child as well. He continued to check on her, glad she seemed to be more in the world and came to visit when Lulu was born. Week by week he realized that her silence was not ignorance and her watching hadn’t been passive. She was the woman for him, the type that could get stuck in with a cicada swarm and really sort them out. She told him about the complicated stories of all the people in the fabric seller’s area of the souq. All that time, she had noticed, compiled, processed, and, unknown to anyone, started to change destinies.
(Illustration by Artuš Scheiner)