(illustration by Edmund Dulac)
Abdullah wanted to go to Khalid’s café, the tea was very cheap and there was always a free piece of basbosa and now that there was grey in his hair, he could kick one of the younger boys out of one of the new and comfortable chairs. But there was an atmosphere that didn’t sit well with him for some reason, a smell of honey and cinnamon that should have been welcoming but instead made him uncomfortable, so he took his tea at Shafik’s tea shop, where all the men looked like weasels or ferrets and Abdullah felt more safe. He knew he could eavesdrop and search for information in peace.
He had perfected the art of eavesdropping in cafes as he had no one to talk to after his father had died, and in each piece of information there was a benefit to him. If he heard that a coffee trader was giving his daughter in marriage, he would set out (in a prominent place) a light brown silk with gold trim the next morning, knowing that the coffee trader would be drawn unthinkingly to anything coffee-colored. If he overheard a traveler mention that the ruler of Petra had worn a peacock blue turban at his coronation, he would set out peacock blue silk the next day and tell passersby that it was the same shade as worn by the ruler of Petra at his coronation. If he heard that a caravan was coming from the coast he would combine that piece of information with a remark her had overheard about sand storms on the coastal road and would set out sturdy, plain fabric in shades of green the next day as the travelers would want new clothes and would be drawn to anything green.
He would sit and look with a contemplative mien at the middle distance, his ears tuning into surrounding conversations like an owl. He was so practiced at not displaying emotion that even one night when he learned a terrible truth, his face did not change. By chance, he had sat next to some young men who were explaining to a friend about how babies were made. The friend was going to get married the next night and, as a well brought-up young man, knew nothing of sex. His three, already married, friends were explaining the details to him in whispered voices, but Abdullah was practiced at hearing and understanding whispers. They said plainly the truth he had long suspected, that Noor must have slept with another man to get his daughters, even the first one. He finished his tea calmly, went to sit with other fabric sellers for a few minutes and then walked towards his shop.
He made it only as far as the well of the souq when the pain of understanding took the strength out of his legs. He set on the edge of the well, as parents always told their children not to, and held his head in his hands. Somehow, perhaps to prevent him from killing Noor, the sheikh in the Grand Mosque had lied. There was no way that any of his three daughters were his, the timing for the first was impossible and the existence of the next two were impossible.
But who and how? And what to do now? Killing Noor was, of course, preferable, but then would he kill the three daughters? People would notice, perhaps talk and not come to his store. If he poisoned them, then there would be talk of sickness and no one would come to his store. And if he didn’t have daughters, how would be get a son-in-law to run the store? Well he could kill them and take another wife. But then perhaps the same problem would come again.
But someone had to be punished – there had to be a punishment. And if he killed Noor, then he would have to take care of his daughters or hire someone to. But then whoever he hired, perhaps she would also be not honest, walking slowing to the well in the morning, so she could flirt with men along the way and. And. And. Balquis.
Noor never left the shop except to visit her mother; and her mother was as careful of Noor’s reputation as he himself was. So, the poison must have come from another source, another person who came to the shop and left the shop freely, who saw Noor and who saw other men.
It was Balquis. She must be the one at fault, and if she disappeared, no one would connect that crime with him. People would still come to the shop – no one stopped going to a shop because the maid had disappeared. And Noor would no longer have peaceful days, she would have to cook and clean; she would have her punishment as well. And he was sure his daughters loved Balquis, of course you love the servant when you are a child, so the girls would be punished as well.
It was perfect. He would kill Balquis and everything would be good. But how? For there would be a body and he had to make sure the body disappeared. He could wrap the body in the cheapest, coarsest fabric, what a waste! but he still had to put the body somewhere. He could not be seen carrying a roll of fabric, he had some gray hair now, it was beneath his dignity. But he couldn’t give it to the small boy who helped in the shop, he would ask questions or talk about it with other shop boys on Friday mornings when all the shop boys gathered at Khalid’s café.
How to make someone disappear? He looked around for inspiration, then realized, but of course. The well! One small push. He got up quickly and walked towards the shop. No one must see him near the well – there must be no connection between him and the well.
As he walked he realized that a dead body in the well would ruin the water, but there were other wells, one to the west of the souk and another near the Grand Mosque. He would get water from there until the water was clear again. And, he realized, it meant no more of her delicious coffee. He hadn’t ever liked it, but it did bring people to the shop. No matter – the punishment was more important.
And how to get her to the well at a time when no one was nearby? At night? There could be no reason for a woman to be outside at night. But morning, before fajr prayer, when it was still dark, in exactly the time before the men woke up to go to the mosque, yes, this was the right time.
But how to make her come to the well? He reached his shop and carefully checked all the piles of fabric, then listened carefully to make sure there was not one stealthy rustle of a mouse’s whisker. Then he sat by a roll of silk the color of soft caramel candy and thought.
Within a week, his plan was ready. Every day he kept his routine exactly so no one might say they noticed any difference with him. Then on Saturday afternoon, as Balquis was leaving, he pointed to a folded pile of pale cream cotton next to a large bucket, “I bought this fabric from a traveler, more the fool I, and I didn’t notice that there is a stain from the canvas sack. I will put in a bath of tea to dye all the fabric the same color to sell it. Will you meet me at the well of the souq before fajr? We will fill this bucket with water and bring it back to the shop. It will be too heavy for shop boy to carry but I don’t want to carry it during the day, the other men will make fun of me.”
He had no problem speaking of his fear of being made fun of, she would be dead before sunrise and never have the chance to tell anyone.
Balquis nodded without speaking, and when he met her the next morning at the well, she didn’t ask why he didn’t have the bucket with him. She simply stood, silent and covered in her dark veil, not even speaking or struggling when he picked her up and threw her over the edge into the dark well.
Then he walked slowly to the mosque and did his morning prayers. He expressed surprise when she didn’t show up that morning. And for several days had the great satisfaction that comes to people who successfully solve a problem.
But within a short time, it was clear that the result was not as Abdullah anticipated or wanted. He needed to eat, that meant someone had to cook, which meant someone had to buy the fruits and vegetables and meat and bread. Before, Balquis had brought everything to the shop, now sellers had to come to the shop for him to buy, which was more expensive and took him away from his customers. And people laughed that he was trying to buy bread at the same time he was selling silk.
So he told Noor that she had to buy the necessaries, but then she complained that the prices were high and the sellers who went store to store did not have the freshest and nicest pieces. It was better for her to go to the stores herself.
Within a month, Noor was leaving the shop every day to shop – there was always something: soap, new hair ribbons of one of the girls, a chicken for lunch, the special stone to scrub the tile floors, fresh peaches, the pomade he liked to put on his hair on Friday mornings. There was always something and when, at night, he swore, she would not leave the next day, she always had something very important that was needed and a promise that she would not leave the next day.
Abdullah fretted and complained, but Noor always took Lulu and Lala with her and how could a man live without a vegetable ragout for dinner and a new ledger for writing down purchases and apricots in season and study twine for tying bundles of fabric?
Lacassia stayed home – she was happy to do the work of the house, at first she had to have a stool to wash the dishes and the broom handle had to be cut for her to hold it but in time she could reach the basin to wash the dishes and sweep with a twirl in her step. Well, she wasn’t actually washing or sweeping, she twisted her hands in small circles and the water washed the dishes and the broom swept the floor. It was amusing for her, before she was completely in control there were a few mistakes. One hot afternoon she juggled the orange trees in their pretty blue and white pots; several neighbors saw the trees floating in the air and that had to be put down to heat sickness.
Another time she had all the scrapes of cloth float up to the apartment and she entertained herself for hours making sweet little jackets for the house mice and neighborhood cats. Luckily a cat fight broke out because a grey tabby wanted the silver silk jacket worn by an orange-striped marmalade cat and Khalfan was called in to adjudicate. When he realized what was happening, he disappeared all the jackets but not before several of the souk-dwellers had seen them and that had to be put down to the shadows of the souq creating illusions.
Lulu and Lala loved to be out with their mother – Lulu all in pearly white which stayed white no matter how twists of dirt whirled around her as she walked in the alley ways, Lala walking behind – always distracted, looking here and there, in a dark velvet cloak no matter the weather. “She’s always so dirty – dirt simply flies to her,” her grandmother said but it was Lala’s tea and Lala’s soup she wanted when she was sick. “Send Lala to me,” her grandmother told Noor almost every week in the winter.
And Noor, after so many years of looking at life through a wooden window screen, was happy to be out in the souq, learning every corner, every shop with her two daughters, then coming home to share the treasures she found with her third daughter.
(illustration by Edmund Dulac)