NEW BOOK ALERT!
I’m working on a new book and want YOUR feedback! Each week, I’ll post a new chapter, and want you to provide your thoughts, opinions, feeling, and feedback on the chapter.
Be brutally honest.
Layala slips into the house that night far later than she’s allowed to be out.
“Maman?” she whispers. I pretend to be asleep but watch her from my cot. She has a smile on her face, one that stops my heart for a breath. It’s the smile of a young girl in love.
I want to reach out to her, to tell her that love will come, more mature love, and to wait. But I know it’ll be no use; I had that love at her age, who am I to begrudge her it.
Instead, I let her be, and stay up the rest of the night, counting my prayer beads and asking a wish-prayer on each one.
Keep her safe.
Keep her happy.
Let her find good love.
Let her know peace.
Let her know her heart and mind.
Let her be.
It’s a prayer I’ve said for Layala since before she was born.
Before the sun has even had a chance to yawn, Layala is up and about, setting tea, kneading dough, and laying out the zaatar and oil we will eat for breakfast.
“Layl, you’re up early,” I say.
“Sabah al kheer, maman.” Good morning.
“Your father won’t be here for another two hours, at least,” I add.
Layala ignores me, humming and smiling to herself. I want to know who the boy is. But though the words hover on my lips, I don’t ask her. Let her tell me in her own time.
“Off to jido’s?” I say, when we’re done eating and she slips on her velvety blue robe. It’s one reserved for special occasions, though we rarely have those.
She nods, but her cheeks flush red with the lie. I wonder if I should send a hawk out to follow her. I decide I will.
As soon as Layala dashes out the door, barely a goodbye on her lips, I take a clay ochre-hued hawk from the shelf and run my hands over it.
Its eyes flash open and I set it down on the table, watching it grow to full size.
“Watch over my girl, Saqr,” I tell it, weaving the words in the air with my fingers and letting them sink into the hawk’s fresh feathers.
Its eyes glint and in the next breath, it’s out the door and streaking into the sky.
I grab my basket and go outside the gather the pomegranate seeds from the night before. The basket feels heavy this morning, though there are fewer seeds than normal. Just a few handfuls of dead souls, but as I carry the basket on my hip, my bones feel weighed down.
Sighing, I slip into the house and shut the door behind me. Again I press the seeds into a juice and again I drink that juice. Every morning of every day, for fourteen years.
The stories are sharp, cutting through me like daggers. I pour in extra honey, stirring it in until I can no longer taste pomegranate, only bee’s nectar.
I catch the tail of one story, and it surprises me. I know this woman, an old one from the village next door. She used to cook for my family, when we were wealthy and jinns were respected.
But like every other soul, her story is told through images, through symbols that make little sense, even put together. The images of her life fade into the story of a pearl tree.
The pearl tree stood alone in the center of a poor man’s garden.
It dropped iridescent pearls every morning, but if the man got too close, branches whipped out to slap him. Pearls at his feet, and not one to sell in the markets.
Still, the man tried every so often to snatch just one pearl. But each effort left him with a welt across the face and a gash on his arm.
One day, the man grew so angry he decided to cut down the tree. He took an axe to its roots, dashed them into pieces, and gathered the pearls. One basket, two, then three were filled with the pearls.
The tree lay in ruin, however, its once proud trunk a stump in the garden. Its branches lay scattered about, hacked into pieces.
The man smiled to himself, thinking of all the riches he would buy. New teeth to replace the ones he sold for a bit of coin to buy his food. New shoes to protect his rough bare feet from being cut on stones along the road. A new house, with a roof that didn’t leak. And, most of all, a wife. A beautiful one, to be dressed in jewels and dresses fit for a rani.
But when the man checked on his baskets later in the day, he found nothing but ash. He pulled at his thin hair, ripping it out in clumps.
And in the midst of his bawling, a knock sounded at his door.
He snatched the door open, finding the kingdom’s prince standing at his door.
“I have heard tales of a magic tree that drops pearls instead of leaves. Do you know of this tree?”
“Why do you ask?” said the man.
“I wish to plant it in my own gardens. I will pay handsomely for it.”
The old man glanced behind the prince, at the severed pieces of the pearl tree.
“You did this?” the prince said, following the man’s gaze.
The man nodded, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Stupid, stupid man,” the prince said. “Do you know what you’ve done? That tree, those pearls, they are the dead. The souls of our dead. Without that tree, the dead cannot pass to the next life. They will become ghouls, wandering the earth, wreaking havoc on it.”
And just as the man hacked at the tree, the prince’s soldiers cut down the man. They gathered the pieces of the tree, hoping upon hope that there was some magic in the world that could heal it.
The story ends there, and I am none the wiser to its meaning. Still, I sense the woman clutching her story to her breast, worth more to her than gold to the living. Her dead spirit understands the tale more than my living one could. I sense her gratitude, like sun on a cold winter day, and then I feel the thread between us cut.
“Allah ma’eek”, I whisper. God with you. She’s paid her way into Mote with our tale; she will have everlasting peace now.
I turn back to my juice and drink the rest, weaving each story as lovingly as I can. The morning spread apart into the afternoon before I am through. Night falls, and still Layala hasn’t returned home.
Saqr? I think, Where is she? I pad over to the door, sticking my head outside. I glance expectantly at the stony pathway to our house, hoping to find Layala on it. But it’s empty save for a rabbit who hops away into the woods beyond.
The hawk shoots in through the door, landing deftly on the table.
“Tell me,” I say, laying my hand lightly on its back.
I see flashes of Layl as Saqr followed her. She walks through town, her velvet hook up to hide her face. Smart girl.
She walks into a ribbon shop, leaving empty-handed. Then she wanders more around town, looking at the wares, her face always hidden from others’ views.
Until she stops at the edge of the market, and instead of turning back home, she continues on. She walks to the village over, her steps growing lighter, more skips than steps now. She’s happy.
And then she stops at a door, glancing around as if not wanting anyone to see her. She knocks, once, twice, before the door swings open. I see a hand, pale with long fingers grip my daughter’s arm and pull her in.
Saqr’s view shifts, now glancing through the window of the house. Layala is inside, sitting by a fire, her cloak off. Her face is in full view of a boy. Just as I expected.
But this is no ordinary boy. He is one made of smoke, hair tipped with flames. His face is pale, his eyes dark, and his teeth shine with silver. He is no ordinary boy for he a jinn.
And jinns are trouble.