Ancient Sumerian retelling of “The Secret Garden”

Well, I’m finally doing it. The idea for a jinn retelling of The Secret Garden has been brewing in my thoughts for a while now. There aren’t many The Secret Garden retellings out there, and there are fewer Middle Eastern retellings of most of classic literature.

After thinking about it, and really wanting to use the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a starting point for the garden aspect of the retelling, I started reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. The story speaks of on the city of Uruk, which was an ancient city of Sumer situated east of the Euphrates River.

This seemed like a great city to include in the retelling, so all in all, this new manuscript I’m working on will feature ancient Sumerian history and culture, some mythology, and of course, my favorites, jinns.

I plan to include Arabic words in there, too, even though it may not be historically accurate to do so. And, of course, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon will feature in the story.

Here is the first working chapter:

Chapter One

Sixteen and straight as a river reed, Maryam hid under the low metal-and-wood bed in the assassin’s private quarters. She held her breath, listening to the screaming coming from beyond the door. 

She tried curling and uncurling her toes, just to keep the blood flowing. Her legs were cramping from tucking them in tight, and her arms were growing numb from keeping still for so long. 

There was a heavy thud and the sound of metal scraping against stone. Maryam froze. She could smell wood burning, and taste the ash in the air. Maryam bit her fist to keep from crying out. 

Footsteps sounded down the hall before the bedroom door swung open. The footsteps take on a  softer edge now, and Maryam noticed its owner pausing, as if listening. Biting her lower lip so hard, Maryam tasted blood, as the assassin paced the room. 

She wanted to run out from under the bed and stab the assassin with the copper blade Hasha, her guard, gave her, right before the attack. But Maryam knew she was the only left to take the throne. Duty over pride, her baba always told her. Throne above self.  

She could tell it was a man by the size of his boots and the way his steps came down strong and even, as sure of himself as the blood running through his veins. She wondered if this was the assassin who sliced her mother’s throat with a single swipe of his sickle sword. 

“Not here!” she heard the assassin’s gruff voice yell. “Continue searching the palace! A slip of a girl couldn’t have gotten far. We are hashashins!” Assassins. 

Maryam lay still as a stone, even when the assassin left. Blood was pooling under her from her torn lip, but she didn’t dare budge from her hiding spot. 

Not until her personal guard, and closest friend, Hasha, told her to. Unless Hasha’s dead, too. 

No, they wouldn’t kill their own kind. 

But Hasha left the Hashashins’ Order a long time go, would they consider her one of their own anymore?

She heard more screaming as the servants were cut down. Her umma’s pale, lifeless face flashed in her mind, wide dark eyes shot with blood, an angry gash across her throat. Her mother fought, wielding blade and shield, screaming at Maryam to run. But Maryam stood there, frozen in fear, watching as her mother fought two assassins before any of the crown’s guards could reach her. 

But even two assassins to four guard meant nothing: the assassins cut down the guard and slit her umma’s throat. It was only then that Maryam ran, slipping and skidding on her mother’s blood, leaving blood footings for the assassins to follow. 

She ran past the throne room, where she found her baba, riddled through with arrows and slumped on the very throne he sat on as malek. 

His eyes were closed and a long black curl hung down the side of his head, matted in blood and curling at the end like a noose. 

Maryam started choking, and she covered her mouth with her fist to keep from making a sound. 

Maryam swallowed the memories down and wriggled just a bit so she could peer from under the bed. Two eyes peered down at her. 

“Found her!” the assassin said. 

Maryam screamed and kicked as the man dragged her from her neck and shoulders. She arced her arm wide and swung the blade she was still gripping. The blade’s tip just grazed the man’s thigh. He didn’t seem to notice. 

“Found the rabatu!” he shouted. 

“Let me go!” Maryam yelled.

“Hasha!” Maryam screamed. “Hasha!”

“She’s dead, rabatu,” the assassin said. “Dead for her betrayal of the hashashins.” Assassins. 

“Why did you kill my family!” Maryam screamed, her throat going raw. “They were your malek and maleaka!” She held the blade before her, as if the thin blade was a wall between them. 

The assassin eyed the blade and sighed. “I am truly sorry, rabatu.” He leaned his face in close to Maryam’s, so close she could count the lines across his nose. “But I have no king or queen other than the order of the hashashins,” the assassin said. “I follow no code of conduct but those set by the Order.”

“You attacked the crown!” Maryam said, crying now. She aimed the blade but the man slapped it out of her grip, sending it skidding across the floor. 

“Stupid girl!” he said as he threw her to the ground. 

Maryam scrambled back, slipping on blood. “Who sent you? Tell me who ordered you to kill!” 

“Does it matter?” the assassin said. “You will die this night and be forgotten alongside that malek father of yours. No jinn should have taken the crown.”

“We’ve been the royal family for generations. Jinn were the first royals–” Maryam started saying, but the assassin swung his hand and slammed it into the side of her jaw. Maryam’s head swung to the side, and she felt a trickle of warm blood trail down her chin. 

“Please,” she said breathlessly. “Please. Don’t kill me. Whatever you have been paid, I will pay you far more than you can imagine.” You are cowering like a dog, get up, Maryam, get up! Get to your feet and die a dignified death. 

But she couldn’t get up, her legs refused to obey. 

The assassin smiled. “I’m sorry, rabatu, this is such a waste. You truly are a beauty as everyone says. But I have my ord–”

The man’s eyes widened and he stumbled forward, clutching at his neck. 

Maryam noticed the blade sticking out from the side of his neck just as he dropped to the ground, head smacking the tile. 

“Maryam,” Hasha said, pulling her by her feet. “We have to go, now!”

The two ran, Hasha cutting down the assassins who stood in their way. Maryam paused just once to grab a blade from a dead assassin. It was a short blade, strong and sturdy and enough to slip in between ribs. 

Her steps faltered, and Hasha grabbed at her, pulling her ahead. “No stopping. We have to hurry.”

“We need to go out through the tunnels,” Maryam said, just as Hasha said, “This way,” and turned a corner before pushing Maryam into a room. Hasha kicked away a heavy shield that hung decoratively on the wall, wide enough to carry three women. The shield clashed  to the tiled floor with such a loud clang that Maryam winced in pain. But behind the shield was a narrow tunnel, just a step or two fup from the ground. 

“Go, rabatu, go,” Hasha said, grabbing Maryam by the arm and shoving her into the tunnel. Hasha followed, and tugged on the side of the tunnel, slamming a metal grate into place. 

The two crawled forward a few paces, then stood in a small cavern, their arms skimming its stone walls. 

“Go, go, Maryam, go!” Hasha said, already running past Maryam. 

Their footsteps pounded against the stone, the smell of dirt clinging heavy in the air. 

“What is this place?” Maryam said. “I knew there were escape tunnels, but not this one.”

“I found it some months ago, on an old map,” Hasha said. She paused, her breathing raspy. “I-I-”

“Hasha?” Maryam said, only now realizing her old friend was hunching over. 

“Hasha!”

Maryam clutched at her friend, her hands pulling away warm and slick. Hasha was bleeding from her abdomen, a deep wound that soaked the front of her tunic with blood. 

“Please,” the guard said, “Please, go. Straight. I left a bag at the end of the tunnel, with some coin. Take it, and flee. Don’t return to this kingdom unless it is with an army.”

“Hasha, no,” Maryam said, her chin trembling. But Hasha was sliding to the ground, her skin pale even in the darkness. “Hasha, please, don’t leave me. I’ve–everyone’s gone.”

“I have protected you, rabatu,” Hasha said, her voice wavering. “I did not protect the malek and malaeka, but I did protect you.”

“Hasha. Hasha, no,” Maryam cried. “Please, not you, too.”

But Hasha was dead, and Maryam was alone in the world. 

I’ll find out who did this, and make them suffer. 

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