In this spell-binding tale, a Pakistani storyteller captivates a group of wide-eyed tourists with a nesting doll of interlocked stories about a trickster and a hidden city ruled by the Queen of Red Midnight.
1: FROM THE LIPS OF BABA KAHANI
Hatim took them to the chai-khana on Main Boulevard partly because they were jet-lagged and wanted to kill time, mostly because it had been years since he had visited and he wanted to see Alif Laila, the Book Bus, again. No such luck. The tiny park near Main Market where the double-decker used to stand was empty. Hatim was inclined to discount the donkey standing in knee-high grass gazing at the dusk.
They tell you many things, but they don’t tell you absence makes the heart grow older. Ghostly. As if one of your what-might-have-been lives just evaporated.
They bought badly needed travel accessories and retired to Tandoori Teahouse, a makeshift establishment in the parking lot of a building. Beneath a white canopy two chefs in shalwar kameez cooked chai in boiling clay pots and poured it into tin cups—the first sip a crackling, rich, earthy shock that jolted them awake.
“Ho-ly shit, Hatim,” Maurice said. “Imma be up for days now.”
“Indeed,” Hatim said.
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City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat
They had flown in for Lahore Comic Con two days ago, five artists and writers from a world so different it might have been another planet. Thirteen years in the US, away from the city with hardly a visit (Hatim came for a weekend when a cousin died from cardiac arrest a few years back), and now, gun to his head, he couldn’t take them to more than a few landmarks. Lahore had rearranged itself, indifferent to his memories.
They sat drinking tea, chatting. The subject of the conversation was a panel Maurice and Lyssa were supposed to be on in twenty-four hours—LOST TALES OF YORE: How Imperialism Has Influenced Storytelling Around the World. Maryanne and Tolya were of the view that one of the worst legacies of colonialism had been “cultural terrorism” and removal of traditional modes of storytelling from the mainstream. Lyssa and Maurice played devil’s advocate: such erasure was the legacy of every dominant culture in history and led to assimilation and desired change in language and literature.
So engrossed were they in their discussion they didn’t notice the man who had pulled up a chair and sat himself at their table until he coughed.
“Well, hello,” Lyssa said in surprise.
It was eleven p.m.
A stocky man in his sixties with a bushy mustache and almond eyes shining behind a pair of thick glasses. Long wavy hair oiled back. He wore a sequined waistcoat over pale blue shalwar kameez. His lips were his most singular feature: thick and large, like mutant tulips. Hatim’s first thought was he’d had an allergic reaction.
“Hello jee,” the man said, comfortably. He spoke in soft, flawless English with a subcontinental accent. “Forgive my intrusion, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I know a thing or two about stories, you see.”
His name was Baba Kahani, he said, and he was a qissa-khwan, a devotee of the oral storytelling tradition. He had learnt his art from a troupe that hailed from the oldest family of Peshawar’s famed Bazaar of Storytellers. Now he went city to city exhibiting the wonders of his trade to Pakistani youth, reminding them of what had been lost to the illusory grandeur of this New World.
Would they like a demonstration?
Intrigued, they ordered yellow cake and tea for him. A musician duo had been entertaining the teahouse patrons for tips, moving from table to table. After beckoning them over, Baba Kahani leaned in and whispered to the rabab player. The chubby man with the white skullcap nodded and began to pick a dark and distant tune. Alyssa listened. “Double harmonic major,” she said, smiling. “Fitting.”
“That so?” Tolya said.
“Hate to use the phrase, but we once called it ‘gypsy major.’”
“Listen, my new goray friends,” cried Baba Kahani, rising to his feet, becoming taller by the act, “as I tell you a story first told by the sages of Samarkand, buried in the annals of history, lost to centuries of marauding and pillaging; then revived in the rumors of the unlettered, the street-sons, who seeded it into the bosoms of their troubadours; and finally passed it to us through the songs of those sweet-lipped.
“Of a time when stars and sorcerers ruled the fate of man. This is a story of a land well removed from us, yet so close you could almost reach out and pluck its pearls—like our Prophet, midst a divine trance, once parted the world’s veil and nearly plucked a pomegranate from a tree of heaven.”
Baba Kahani sighed. His hands drew toward his mouth, forming a prayer bowl, then flew forth, coming apart, as if releasing the subtlest of enchantments into the evening.
“Listen, listen, my dear goray sahibs,” the storyteller whisper-chanted. “Now with your permission I recount to you—”
2: THE MARVELOUS TALE OF TAIMUR THE TRICKSTER AND THE MOON-MAD ROSES
It has reached me, my friends, that there once lived in the God-guarded city of Old Lahore a trickster named Taimur.
This Taimur was from a family of apothecaries and hakims. He made a living by selling medicines, sherbets, and potions out of his ancestral shop, The Dawa-khana of Empathy, but, unbeknownst to his neighbors, Taimur had mastered the arts of subterfuge, illusion, guile, and disguise.
Taimur was half-orphaned in his mother’s womb after his father fell from a horse and broke his neck. As a consequence, Taimur was a wild, sibling-less child, the bane of his mother’s existence, who gathered fame (and curses) around the neighborhood by squeezing through skylights and chimneys no wider than a man’s hand.
“Look, look, O mother of Taimur,” women would shout after him as he sped down the street with a stolen chicken leg ’neath his vest, “there goes your thief again. Oh, if you can’t take care of him, next time I will box his ears and redden his bottom for you!”
As a grown man Taimur’s many gifts and preoccupations included changing gold coins into tobacco leaves, replacing penned cattle with confused old men, and climbing up the sides of tall buildings without a handhold.
Taimur was careful to limit his practice of these interests to nighttime or to other cities where he was less apt to be recognized. Yet one delight he found irresistible—which by its very nature had to be indulged closer to home—was to make fools of rich merchants who passed through the gates of Lahore in search of Red Street.
“This way, gentle sirs!” Taimur would cry, disguised as a fakir, after accosting them in Anarkali or by the Blacksmiths’ Gate. “Follow me and I shall take you to the alley that hides the opening to the wretched horrors of Red Street. Right you are, sir. The very one!”
Thus cajoling and enticing, Taimur would lead these men down twisting streets until they reached narrow alleys impenetrable to their horses. The men would be forced to dismount and as they did, Taimur would pickpocket their purses and steal their rings and leave them yelling at a shadow disappearing fast into the maze of back streets.
Now, of course, you have heard the legend of Red Street and its claim to eminence.
No, my august hosts? Indeed! And the mysterious epidemic that spread like an ill rumor through northern India?
It happened thus, my dear sirs and madams, that there came a time when from Lahore to Lucknow the families of idolaters and iconoclasts alike were gripped by a gruesome sickness.
Their womenfolk began to turn.
Between the ages of twelve and forty, these unfortunates suddenly became vicious, venomous, and vile. Far from comforting their hardworking men, fetching them food when they returned home late at night, cutting them slices of mangoes, or pressing their sore legs, these wretches—were they berated even gently for good cause!—would seize and fling the nearest pot or bucket filled with the day’s garbage at the heads of their poor husbands, their earthly gods.
“May your face be blackened forever, you swine-faced dwarf,” shouted one woman at the master of her household.
“May your mother turn inside out, then squeeze you back in,” yelled another.
Some clawed at their men’s faces; others kicked them in their ball sacks. A few went so thoroughly insane that they ripped their chadors and lifted their dresses and dashed into the street, lighting up the muhallahs with the moons of their bountiful behinds.
Ah, what dismay they caused, what horror they wrought into the hearts of their loved ones.
“Would that the earth had devoured me,” wept one such man, “before this evil should have come to my home. Would that the sky had swallowed me!”
“Oh, why had it to be me,” groaned another. “Why mine!”
Strange, however, and noticed soon by the menfolk, was that this madness occurred for only a few days every month, usually around the lunar fourteenth. Come daybreak of the third or fourth day, the women would return to normalcy, their demeanors placid and habits docile. They would, in short, again become the homemakers, peacemakers, muhallah caretakers, and keepers of gossip they were known to be.
Inevitably they were sat down, probed, and prodded by their men and elders, mothers and grandmothers (among whom were some impertinent spinsters who said they didn’t care and would welcome a little insanity themselves). Slowly but surely a disturbing, wild tale emerged, which made many a heart shiver and many a pair of hands come together in prayer, for none wished to have such a terror visited upon their household. Notably chronicled too was the fact that each woman described arriving at her strange destination the same way on the same night, although the distance between the affected houses was such that the fastest Arabian horse couldn’t cross it in a month.
The following is the tale the women—later referred to as the moon-mad roses—told their men (a tale Taimur the Trickster knew well and used to his advantage in his dealings with foolish merchants), and with your gracious permission, I shall now relate it to you.
It has reached me, my auspicious friends, that one of the men said to his youthful spouse, “What happens to you every month that you aggrieve me so?”
That fair woman replied, “My dear husband, may my soul be sacrificed for you—”
3: THE ROMANCE OF THE RED ROAD AND THE ONE WHO CALLED THE TRAVELERS UPON IT
“It happens to me the same way every month: when the moon becomes bright and full like a houri’s lips, there fall upon my window three loud knocks.
If I don’t answer by the third, a smell fills the room, like raw meat or dung; it makes me gag until my head spins and I pass out. (I am out for days and only awaken to the sound of everyone fussing over me, loosening the chains around my hands and feet.)
If I answer and open my window, there sits a pigeon on the sill. It gazes at me with ebony eyes until I step onto the ledge.
Allah be praised, it is no ordinary bird. Its beak is blue, its feathers ravish-red. In its shadow the moonlight turns the color of blood, and as this devil-bird snaps open its beak and gurgles gootter’goo, behind it materializes an opening made of moonbeams, a smoky cave hovering in the air.
Whispers roll from the cave like a Turkish rug, soothing me, calling me inside. I leap off the ledge into the cave mouth and find myself on a red brick road under a shining white moon.
The road trembles, then stills. I begin walking and it leads me through hills and dark forests quickly, so quickly, as if time has changed here. But before I can get dizzy or too frightened to move, the road has brought me to the Red Bazaar!
My godly husband, may my soul be sacrificed for you, the Red Bazaar is a wondrous place, with its air bathed the color of firebrick, its ground soft like a baby’s palms, its niches illuminated with oil lamps and coal pits. It is set up like a Friday marketplace, busy with street food in carts large enough to need two horse-pulls. Stalls made of wood and thatch flank the market square. Bright canopies with incense-filled doorways beg to be entered, swinging doors lead to taverns overflowing with—may Allah forgive me—wines of a hundred species as well as tea shops with myriad teas and mounds of mithai and delicacies from every part of the world.
Yet there is not a living soul in the Red Bazaar. Not one.
Instead, behind every counter and weighing scale stands a clay puppet, tall as a man, with ruby insects for eyes. The puppets’ lips are parted in circles; eternally startled, they gaze at their wares and me with a red gaze. The collective weight of their gazes is heavy and I find myself flushing. Warm is the Red Bazaar, sultry this air of another world, and I begin to imagine I am submerged in a tub of madder root tea.
The first three times I was taken to the Red Bazaar, I wandered the square for days, fearful and bewildered, my only company the mute puppets and the blazing coal fires. I tried to escape but discovered that the red brick road had vanished, leaving a trail of dull feathers behind. I would follow the trail and circle right back to the Bazaar. I did that until I tired of it. Yet hunger and sleep evaded me. I had no sense of sunset or moonrise. Silence, red as desire, filled my ears and mouth until I became hollow, a cavern of occasional echoes that rose from elsewhere.
Each of my visits would end with the fires dying suddenly, the oil lamps puffing out, leaving me in absolute dark; which would lift as the lifting of a veil from my eyes, and I would find myself back in my home by my hearth and kitchen and you, my godly husband, and my sweet children.
The fourth time I walked the Red Road, however . . .
Arms outstretched, I am standing in the middle of the market square, listening. Something is different this time, a hint of smell in the air, saffron or camphor. I cannot recall if I have smelled anything in this world before.
Comes a distant rumble. I strain my ears. A rhythmic sound, like drums beating.
The puppets shiver. Their eyes burn.
I am seized by horror.
One by one the puppets turn and sink, rapidly, as if swallowed by the earth. Have the fourteen subterranean realms of Paataal crashed and taken them? The stalls shake from the puppets’ descent; fruits and vegetables and mithai plates tumble and plunge. The ground rises in mounds, as if hundreds of monstrous fish are trying to break water beneath my feet. The mounds surge forth in waves of grit and mud that spread toward a distant canopy.
And now I can hear the sound of someone singing.
I remember then a story I heard as a child on my mother’s lap, a legend of Younan.
Sailor-soldiers on a king’s mission ignore the warnings of their oracles and allow themselves to bask in the lambent, enchanting music of sea nymphs on a remote island. These creatures with heads and bosoms of beautiful women, torsos of sparrows, and feet of pigeons play tortoiseshell lyres and sing sonorously. Their music lulls the unfortunate mariners to sleep, upon which the creatures climb up onto the ship’s deck and tear them to pieces.
I remember too another part of the story: Should the men muster strength or cleverness and pass by the creatures without getting bespelled, the bird-women will shed all feathers, turn white, and fling themselves into the sea. Their perished bodies form stony islands that will forever float on the waters; desolate, desireless.
The sound of drums grows louder. I can feel it in my body.
All fear leaves me. I turn and follow the music (and the moving mounds) to the distant canopy.
Wherein I find in a sconce-lit chamber, surrounded by hundreds of puppets of all shapes and ilk, a woman tall and beautiful with a crown of feathers and rubies on her head. In the middle of the puppet sea she stands pounding her feet on the ground, one then the other, and from her lips pours this sweetest of songs in a language I know not, but which is familiar. It is her pounding that has shook the Red Bazaar and fetched the puppets, her song that has called me, and thus it is that I know her to be a creature of enormous power and sway.
I say, “Who are you, O lady, and why do you beat the earth so?”
She stops her pounding, smiles coyly at me, and her face is fierce and handsome, the kind of face that does not betray its parries with time.
“I am the Queen of Red Midnight,” says she, “and I pound at the rotten core of the world.”
“What gain have you from this pounding, O Queen? What sort of kingdom dubs itself Red Midnight, and why has your magic—for it cannot be aught else—plucked me away from my comely home and hearth?”
“Never have I plucked a maiden who didn’t desire to be plucked.” She resumes her pounding and the puppets tremble. “And the ones who follow the Red Road stepped on it long before I came along.”
I will not believe this, so I cry, “Never have I stepped on such a road as you speak of until that demon pigeon alighted on my windowsill.”
Without pausing her beating she glances at me, and I see that she too has a red gaze that bores deep into my soul and fills it with all manner of anxieties.
“I glimpse the truth otherwise in your heart, my fair rose,” she says in a voice that stirs the hair on the nape of my neck, “but I see also that you do not see it. Would it perchance help if I tell you the tale of how I came to be in this place and how Red Midnight surrendered its kingdom to me?”
I tremble a little at this, my dear husband, but I am filled with a mighty curiosity. I nod, and she smiles, her face glowing like the melting sun of dusk. She strides up and puts her arms around me, embracing me to her bosom. She smells of cinnamon and saffron and roses that grow only on hilltops, and my breath stops in my chest for a few moments.
She gestures and two puppets fly like hawks and bring us a pair of gao takiya and a very fine quilt.
The magnificent queen bids me sit on the floor next to her and says, “My fair love, hear then the tale of the Kingdom of Red Midnight and my ascension to its throne.”
“And with your permission now, my godly husband, I will recount that tale to you.”
4: HOW THE QUEEN OF RED MIDNIGHT MET THE HAUNTER OF CAIRO AND WHAT TRANSPIRED BETWEEN THEM
Many years ago I lived in Cairo (said the Queen of Red Midnight) with my man M____, who made our living by patching old shoes.
Now you know a story once unleashed grows its own tail. You might have heard M____’s tale told a different way and you would not be the first: a cobbler whose wretched wife Fatima, nicknamed “the dung,” made his life a living hell. M____ prayed to be relieved of his burden and was whisked away by a spirit to another country, where he became master of a powerful jinni. The jinni made him the richest man in that land and M____ was able to marry the king’s daughter.
You might have been made to understand that his misery and his longings and his fantasies entitled him to happiness forever. That his caravan of dreams led him to eventual everlasting contentment.
But this is neither M____’s tale nor his truth but mine, and truth wears a dubious face and a sour expression.
So let us have Fatima the Dung tell you her tale in her words.
I was married to my husband M____ when I was fourteen and he twenty-three. My father, a Protector and Reciter of the Quran, had told me that M____ was a good, pious man and would be a suitable match for me.
I trusted Abbi’s word.
Indeed M____ was a pious man, if all of piety rests in a man’s quick grin and charming ways. He was a good man, if goodness comprises chess playing with one’s friends all day and coming home to one’s pregnant, sixteen-year-old wife with nothing but mollifying words, wine-sweet breath, and an erect penis.
I lived with him that way for years during which God filled my womb three times with life and three times He took it away. Yet I gave up neither my mandatory prayers nor my faith in Allah.
“What ails her, woman,” M____ cried at the midwife who attended to me each time, “that she will not give me a child?”
“It is not her fault,” said the midwife. “It is something else.” And she stared at M____ and his old cloak and our empty kitchen cupboard and my pale face. She gazed so long and pityingly that M____ flared with anger—I could see it in his eyes, those blue, trickster’s eyes—and soft as a shadow’s tongue he told the midwife that we were grateful but her services were no longer required and would not be in the future, as he wanted to have me fixed permanently by Hashim the apothecary. “To protect my dear wife’s health,” he said, yet he looked or spoke to me not once. He said this in such a way that I’m certain the midwife never felt the malice in his words and she left, thinking he was a good but ill-fortuned man who couldn’t provide for his wife and unborn children.
M____ was like that.
After that he soured toward me and lost his easy laughs, the only intimacy left between us. He already had fewer patrons than the beggar who roamed our street and now he began squandering money on pigeon flying and cock fighting. If I said anything upon his return home, he would grab his satchel and go off to Hashim’s apothecary next door or to Abu Bakr the baker’s or to Fariduddin the attaar’s. I would lie in bed, listening to their din late into the morning hours, sometimes even when I awakened for tahajjud, and many mornings I found my pillow salty and wet.
I have heard it said that happiness is like quicksilver: it runs through your fingers no matter how much you try to grasp it. But what if you’ve never felt its warm touch? What if your element and the elusive element of joy have always been at war?
Still I did not give up my prayers or my faith.
Years passed and Abbi passed with them. M____ attended his funeral and offered salah with the other men, but the same night he went from his cobbler’s stall straight to the perfumer. The next morning I heard Fariduddin and his friends had paid a midnight visit to the shuttered hut behind the winehouse.
Things might have proceeded thus, defiant of meaningful change, except that six months after Abbi’s death I returned from the hammam, where I cleaned the stalls for a pittance, and found my late father’s gold-leafed Quran missing.
This manuscript had been Abbi’s most precious possession, and was now mine. It had a richly illuminated frontispiece and finispiece. All one hundred and fourteen of its surahs were calligraphed in an early Abbasid script and decorated in gold leaf. The four quls were ornamented in gold filigree and the Chapter of Light and Verse of the Throne in silver.
My first thought was it had been stolen, and sorrow and fear gripped my heart. I rushed to the market where my husband sat knocking a nail in an old shoe, while a frowning customer tapped his bare foot on the ground.
“Have you seen Abbi’s Quran?” I cried, breathless.
My husband gave me a look.
“M____,” I said. “Do you know where Abbi’s Quran is? I can’t find it at home.”
“Patience, woman. Can’t you see?” And to the customer: “Forgive her ill manners, sir. She lost her father some months ago and is still grieving. We’re nearly done here.”
He raised the hammer to strike another blow, and all at once I was filled with rage.
I know not where it came from, this devil maelstrom that stormed inside me, filling my bones, my marrow with a red heat. I seized the hammer from his hands and, lifting it above his head, said, “By His Name who has created me, if you do not tell me where Abbi’s book is I will bring this hammer down and smash your skull till all your stupidity has leaked out from your ears.”
Fear and surprise filled M____’s face. “Fatima, set your heart at ease! Hashim came by earlier and was admiring the book. He asked to borrow it and I told him to return it by tonight.”
“You gave him Abbi’s book.”
“For a day! It’s Hashim. He will take good care of it.”
The devil in me coiled like a sand viper. I lowered the hammer, apologized to M____ and his customer, and went home. There I flagellated myself with an old leather strap M____ had kept for his long-dead mule until marks long and bloody ran up and down my back. I donned a black abaya and left for the Qadi’s courthouse.
“Woe betide me,” I wailed in front of the judge. “In a moment of anger I raised my voice to my husband, and look at what he did! Oh, if only my father were alive.”
Two runners were sent to the cobbler’s shop to summon M____, who came in, looking frightened.
“Did you beat your wife, O son of Habib?” asked the Qadi.
M____ denied the charge, his voice righteously indignant, but in his hurry he had brought his cobbling hammer and I saw the judge steal glances at its sharp claw and hefty face.
“The Quran tells us to treat our wives with great kindness and love. I do not know how she got those marks and I may not pass a sentence without a witness, but next time I hear a complaint from her, it’s off to prison with you. Go home now, both of you.”
Witness, I thought. He wants a witness. All these men with their starched turbans and silver seals want a witness when a woman reports maltreatment. But have her walk the street, head uncovered, and preachers and counselors pour out of rat holes, a hundred recriminations in hand. Have her complain about shabby shoes or threadbare clothes and she’s a squanderer. Have her try to earn a few extra dirhams washing out men’s filth at the bathhouse and she is a harlot.
Men are each other’s brothers and keepers. A woman needs a witness.
We went home, M____ whispering furiously at me, as our neighbors pretended not to eavesdrop.
“Such lies. Never have I been insulted thus,” he cried once inside. “What if he had taken you seriously? What if I were sentenced? Who would put food on your table?”
Food on the table, I thought. Hungry for two, carrying two, and not a lick of honey or a pinch of kalonji to strengthen my unborn daughters. They perished from starvation, drowned in their mother’s sorrow, and he talks about how he provides.
I feigned remorse. I blamed my monthly. I wasn’t right in the head. The female madness overcomes a woman sometimes. Thus I was able to placate his passion, lull him back into the stupor he had sunk our lives in.
I waited a good week; then, as he slept, I stole his hammer.
I made sure to create a ruckus—spilled some pots, threw some pans. Before he could hasten into the kitchen, I crushed two toes on my left foot, swung the end of the hammer at my forehead, threw the instrument in his bewildered face, and ran screaming down the street, “Help. He has killed me. O my brothers and sisters, I am killed!”
Plenty of witnesses saw M____ yelling, half-naked. They saw him chase me through the muhallah, a hammer in his hand, as blood pooled in my shirt and the broken nails of my foot tore right off.
This time four runners were sent to apprehend him.
M____ managed to abscond, and took my father’s Quran with him. He was seen fleeing toward the two-towered Gate of Victory; subsequently he vanished and was never seen in Cairo again.
Comfortably, as if slipping on old sandals, I took charge of my house and my life. Finally my neighbors and friends believed and helped me, as I deserved to be helped. People pitied me and gave me gifts. I sold M____’s stall, his cobbling tools, his mother’s fake necklace, and the last of his chessboards. I gave the proceeds to a moneylender who invested them for me.
Slowly I made a life for myself, a living in which I was alone and happy.
Many months later, however, I heard rumors. Whispers. Stories too strange to believe at first.
They said in a land far away, in a city girded by soaring walls, filled with resplendent palaces and gold-ornamented buildings, the richest of merchants had appeared. A man beauteous and powerful, who held magic in his palm and did things no man could. He was able to raise armies and caravans from the desert sand, his glass of water turned to sherbet if he gazed upon it, and on the poor he showered gold coins with sigils so ancient no one could interpret them.
The strangest fact about him, though, was his refusal to purchase new footwear. Tidings of him came routinely on land and by sea, and everyone who claimed an encounter with him swore that the man insisted on patching his old shoes and wore them proudly.
Every single time, the description I received matched that of M____.
I was filled with disbelief, suspicion, and finally rage.
Why was I furious, my fair moon-struck rose?
It wasn’t resentment at his riches or anger at his eluding just punishment; neither the years of sorrow and starvation nor the late nights of drinking and whoring.
I was enraged because he had taken my father’s Quran. This filthy wastrel of a man, a drunkard who wouldn’t be allowed into the mosque at the best of times, had stolen my father’s most prized possession and done Allah knows what with it. And now, supposedly helped by a jinni, he walked this land, this city of treasure and fortune, like a king.
The cup of my patience had brimmed over. If I could, I would have traveled to this land and removed the holy book from his dying hands if I had to.
But I was a woman, and a poor woman at that.
No tears would come to me but were made of vitriol and blood.
I stopped my mandatory prayers and gave up my faith. I went and mixed with men at taverns. Why should I fear dishonor or pregnancy? I had been fixed for M____’s wine-stung pleasure. I gave up the shawl of modesty and bought with it notoriety. I kissed men at dusk and women at midnight. At first, a few times a month, then every week, and eventually every night.
Fatima the Dung. Fatima the Whore of Cairo.
In the second quarter of one night—I remember it was the lunar fourteenth, the rooftops, streets, and terraces whitened by a full moon—possessed by a strange restlessness, I left the tavern. Walking by the Gate of Victory, I nearly tripped over a child of seven or eight sleeping in the shadow of the gate’s tower.
She was a small, frail creature with frightened eyes and a sullen mouth. As we gazed at each other I saw hunger—such hunger and listlessness in her eyes that a moan escaped my own lips. Perhaps it was the drink in me or the mirror of the girl’s eyes, but I turned and ran, not knowing where I fled, and soon found myself in front of a narrow, man-sized opening cut into a part of the gate, dim-lit with an intermittent, flailing light. I stepped across the threshold, and an anguished cry burst from my chest, as if I were a bottle of restless liquor uncorked by a fierce hand. I wept even as I was drawn to that light, and the closer I got the more tears ran down my cheeks.
Surrounded by night birds I could not name, a woman sat on a heap of dirt in the middle of this cavern. She was tending a fire.
“Pass me the kindling,” she said.
My first thought—She is the ilk of cat!—came and went like a thief in the night. My second was to marvel at the two-horned hat she wore (so close to her head it seemed a part of her scalp), her pointed ears, and lovely face.
“Pardon me, O lady. I have neither kindling nor straw to help you with your fire, but if you are in need I can go home and bring some.”
She rose and moved so quickly I could not see the shape of the body she pressed against me, but one hand was in mine now, her other against my hip, and we were twirling around the fire.
“Home is where,” she whispered—I felt the points of her teeth press against my neck; she smelled like the essence of jasmine and pomegranate—“your heart’s true desire is. The place you live now—is that your home, then?”
“Who are you?” I said. As she bent me at the waist I caught a glimpse of her legs, but my inebriation must not have worn off, for they looked double-jointed and her feet were hooves; then I was upright and she was staring into my eyes.
“Would that I had never seen your sight nor met you,” she said, her voice gentle, but was there also not mockery? “For I am prey now to the mysteries of your tears, Fatima.”
She let go of me, bade me sit, and told me her name was Zulaikha. She asked me what ailed me, for she had heard my wailing and felt my pain and wanted to help.
“No son of Adam can help me, nor any daughter of Eve.”
“It is a good thing then that I am neither,” Zulaikha answered.
Mistrustful but enraptured, I told my story. When I was done, she murmured, “The haunter of a mosque helped your husband travel to his newfound land—a spirit that is neither helper nor wish-granter, but a trickster. The question is: is the trick between a man and a man or a wolf and a she-wolf?” and she looked at the fire.
I thought: the haunter who helped M____ was a man, for why would it be otherwise?
“I have lit many fires and made many a man insane with longing,” she said. “I once captured a Bedouin traveler and made him dance until there was naught left on his feet but toe-bones and sinew, but a woman’s desire is a whole other thing.” Zulaikha’s voice had the soft deceptiveness of rain patter before a mighty storm. “So what is it that you want, O Fatima? Your darkest and deepest want?”
“How shall it matter what I want?” I said. “For a woman’s want alone changes neither her fate nor her fortune.”
“That may be so in some worlds and stations,” she said, and I sensed again the edge of a sword in her words, “but consider: were it a night of fulfillment, what wish would you make?”
The rage had returned, pulsing in my forehead, neck, and chest. I knew fear, especially fear of her, for it was clear now that she was of the Si’la: temptress, trickster, beguiler, shape-changer, lighter of midnight fires. The mother of an entire tribe of warring humans, they say, who returns to her home at the crack of ancient lightning, having danced, seduced, bedded, and made bargains with men of all nations, natures, and species.
But my fury was more than my fear: the shape of living fire that spouts from the mouth of trembling mountains. I told Zulaikha my wish. Smiling, she nodded and whispered to me, and I imagined no trickery or bedevilment in her words.
We slept together, flesh upon ancient flesh. It was strange, for I couldn’t divine her anatomy, but it was also sweetly satiating and filled my head with visions of woodlands, ruins, cleft hills, and empty gardens, yet I was troubled not one bit.
Thus we made our bargain and so we sealed our pact, wherefore Zulaikha transported me to and made me Queen of Red Midnight, a place of mine own, body and soul, where I would rule peacefully and powerfully until the day of my own choosing.
And this is where you find me now, my moon-mad rose: in my kingdom of Red Midnight and in my sanctum the Red Bazaar. This is where your desire and the desire of so many others have led you.
“So tell me then, my fair love, is it such a bad place?”
Now spoke that fair woman, that wanderer upon the Red Road:
“And thus, my godly husband, the Queen of Red Midnight and the mistress of mute puppets, Fatima the Powerful, concludes her tale—one so peculiar it leaves me quivering like an arrow upon reaching its destination.
“I sit in Fatima’s canopied chamber for I know not how long, her hand cupping my thigh. A touch on my arm, a tender shake, and I realize I nodded off. She is standing, my queen, looking down upon me—her eyes not red anymore but many-hued. She lifts her leg and slams the earth and the ground splits open. Two puppets fly forth, grasp my arms, and we are airborne before sinking through the crack. The last thing I see before darkness takes me is Fatima stomping with her mighty legs; then I wake up and I’m back home with you, my dear husband, may my soul be sacrificed for you.
“But the wondrous smell of her still lingers in my head, a panacea for the exquisite, inexplicable loneliness and yearning I sometimes feel when I am away from the Red Bazaar and her, and I wonder how long she will stay there, tireless and alone, limned by her panoply of joyless puppets, pounding away at the rotten core of the world.”
It has reached me, my august hosts, that such was how this fair woman, rosy-cheeked and wet of eye, finished the tale of her travels upon the Red Road. The account filled the master of her household with dismay, for now he knew his youthful spouse to be senseless or bewitched, and neither was a conclusion agreeable to him.
Thereupon, he (and other men who heard the tale from their sweethearts) rose and went quickly to fetch doctors, hakims, and mullahs to begin a series of treatments: cupping and bloodletting, herbs and aromatic vapors, knot-tying and taweez-hanging, dalak massages and manual kneading of their temples and soft tissues with black seed and wild Himalayan violet oils. The women were sent away to hilltops and remote farms to stay with friends or cousins, then called back to be evaluated by faith healers and mystics. Prayed upon, blessed, threatened, cajoled, oftentimes manacled.
Yet none of these measures were to avail. Wherever the women went the Red Road went with them, and the monthly madness descended upon them with an increasing vengeance.
Now that you understand the consternations visited upon the menfolk, you will also understand that many attempts were made to locate the Red Road’s whereabouts. You will also know (although efforts were undertaken to conceal this and pertinent historical documents destroyed), that noble women and daughters of rich merchants and mansabdars were affected by the same malady. Therefore adventurers were sought, clever scouts bought, and brave warriors summoned. God’s Shadow Upon The World, the Emperor himself, offered up gold, silver, titles, and land to any who could help bring an end to this plague of disgrace.
Such is how an ordinary back alley in Lahore called Red Street (like other similarly named thoroughfares) became a lodestone for desperate merchants from hundreds of kos away. They came here convinced they would find a cure for their women’s sickness, having heard the plain fact of it from such and such, a friend of a friend.
They arrived in droves and left in tears. And the trickster Taimur exploited their hopes thoroughly, knowing as well as any local that nothing lay in Red Street but sawdust and pottery shards from a handful of craftsmen who worked there.
That was until a man with strange clothes, who spoke in a stranger tongue, came to Lahore and brought new horrors with him.
And with your permission, my dear goray friends, I will recount the story of their meeting and its aftermath to you.
5: THE ASTOUNDING STORY OF TAIMUR’S ENCOUNTER WITH THE SORCERER SUPREME
It has reached me, my auspicious hosts, that upon a cold winter’s evening, the moon at its fullest, Taimur the Trickster closed his dawa-khana, disguised himself as a madman, and headed to the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh.
His fingers played with the taweez around his neck, an apotropaic amulet that had belonged to his mother. More than most men, Taimur was prone to bouts of bladder trouble, and he was tired of it. His urine had burned all day and attempts to cool his bile with a wash of butter and milk cream and consumption of cucumber seeds had failed. This on top of his daily tonic depressed his disposition. Now he was hoping a sincere darood, perhaps a small dispensation of charity would bring divine favor and do the trick.
Near Bhati Gate he saw something and paused. He forgot his burning micturition, smiled, and began following the man.
A fog had lifted from the Ravi River and blanketed Lahore with it. His quarry strode down the warren of alleys so well known to Taimur until they came to Nawab Rahim Khan’s haweli, whereupon the man stopped and stood, gazing upon its ornate doors.
From a pocket in his dirty robes Taimur brought out a flask of wine, wet his lips and chin with it, and drenched his collar. He stumbled forth from the fog, his gait unsteady, arms flailing.
“Would that I were a dog of her street,” he sang, “that I could see her every night, then complain to the mooooon.”
And ran into the man. Taimur rolled his eyes, one hand gripping the man’s fine coat—“Oh, pardon me, sir”—the other sneaking its way to the man’s left hand, feeling for the ring he had glimpsed earlier.
A spark, a jolt, and he was flying.
Taimur landed in a heap of filth ten feet away, periwig knocked off, his fake beard tangled with rotting goat intestines abuzz with flies. His right hand felt as if it were on fire. When he looked down the first three fingers were seared, large blisters already forming.
“This proves, if nothing else,” said the shadow above him, “the fact that thieves and pickpockets are the same everywhere: ugly and stupid.”
“Your . . . Excellency?” Taimur gazed at the tall man with kohl-lined eyes, a trimmed and oiled black beard, and a cruel aquiline nose. The strangeness of his accent confirmed what Taimur already knew, as did the shape of the emerald-studded blade that hung from the man’s belt. “My apologies. I drank too much and couldn’t see straight. I—”
“Now that is the truth: you couldn’t see straight, for if you did, you would have kept your nasty, stealing hands to yourself. I wonder, though,” the man knelt and looked at him with interest, “what do you see when you look upon me? What is it that goes through your idiot head?”
“Well, then.” No doubt it was the contempt in the foreigner’s gaze, which made Taimur give up pretense, look straight up at him, and speak thus: “Your red and mauve turban is tied not in any Hindustani fashion I’m familiar with but Arab. You wear robes of the softest wild silk but that blue sash is Bengali muslin. The binding of your sash and the growing of your beard are reminiscent of Kashgar or Tartary, but that gold embroidery around the neck of your coat appears to be Ottoman. And your shoes, once lovely Punjabi khussas, now worn and patched. It would seem that you choose your attire with nary a care, yet only the wealthiest may afford such reckless mismatch.
“If I were to postulate, I’d say you were a noble or a well-traveled merchant who has adopted the likings of versatile cultures, but that ring I tried to unburden you of,” Taimur pointed to the man’s left hand, “that tarnished signet ring, seemingly made of brass and iron, is no ordinary jewel. The sigil with the peculiar geometry is Hebrew, the two winged women cupping the seal—”
“Indeed.” The man’s face changed. He tapped a finger on the hilt of his dagger. “I see my thief is a clever trickster, a very shrewd one indeed. Quite interesting and remarkable, but is it fortuitous?” And he stood quietly, staring into the fog.
Taimur’s burnt hand touched the taweez around his neck. The unharmed hand crept into his robes, but before he could do something with it, the man flicked a finger absently and the vial of fainting powder exploded in Taimur’s pocket, filling his nostrils with the soporific.
“What—” He sputtered, tried to hold his breath, but the powder, potent and quick, effected its function admirably. His mind and the city’s fog became one and Taimur fell back into the filth.
He awoke upon a divan bed surrounded by walls painted with the mystery of birds in motion, one of them—the twelve-hued Himalayan monal with its rufous tail and speckled green-blue head—an eruption of bright color aimed skyward. The room softly lighted with glass-cased oil lamps in niches. Thick frilled curtains, a low mahogany chair, an ivory inlaid hookah. At the far end a girl paced before a closed window, occasionally glancing at the sky beyond, her profile sleek and soft.
Taimur’s right hand ached. He regarded the blisters on it, lifted his gaze to the tall foreigner standing by the door, hands clasped behind him, watching the girl. The dagger in his belt gleamed in the lamplight.
“You can speak freely. She sees us not nor hears us,” said the man.
The girl grazed her ear with a finger and came to a stop before the window, eyes fixed on the round moon anchored to the night.
Taimur tried to raise himself, but his legs wouldn’t move. He looked down and saw no constraints. He strained again, but they were immovable, like pillars of lead. “You are not a merchant or nobleman,” said Taimur. “Nor a trickster, for what you have done to me is no trick or illusion.”
The man said nothing.
Taimur patted his face. It was his own, no masks, paints, or disguises. The man had removed them for him. In a panic Taimur felt his underclothes and sighed with relief: his tonics, potions, and accessories were intact. “Who is that girl?” As he said it the girl stirred sideways, the slightest of movements, and the answer came to him: She was Mehrunnisa, the daughter of Nawab Rahim Khan. Everyone in the walled city recognized her.
Just as they knew that she, too, was a moon-mad rose.
“My wife,” said the man, “has been causing trouble in these whereabouts. Such raucous trouble that word of it has crossed many seas to get to me.”
“I do not know what you are talking about,” Taimur said, but a dreadful feeling was growing in his chest, a bat unfurling its wings.
“I think you do, such a man as you.” The man stepped forward and placed a finger on the base of the girl’s neck. She shivered as if touched by ice, and stilled. “Look at how much misery the loved ones of these exquisite girls, these moon-struck roses, as your people call them, continue to suffer. What anguish these lovely flowers must bear! Not safe within the confines of their own homes.”
“Where is her family? How come she can’t see or hear us?”
Pleasure spread across the man’s face. Watching him was like watching a six-year-old beam at his success at a hard task. He is a child with magical powers, Taimur thought. That is who he is.
“They have been taken care of. Not hurt—just put away for a bit while we conduct our business.”
“Indeed,” said Taimur; he slipped a hand into his robes, remembered what had happened before, and removed it. “And what do you propose is our business here?”
“I bring glad tidings, of course. I have come to remove my wife’s cursed existence from your land. Shall I tell you a story?” said the man, his finger tracing down the bones in the girl’s spine. “Shall I tell you who I am and where I have been and what brings me here?”
He wishes to tell his tale. A true self-lover. Taimur considered. “No.”
A flash of surprise as the eyes widened, then anger, which was quickly superseded by pride and will. “No?”
“I only meant, my dear sir, that no telling is necessary. It is perfectly clear you are no ordinary man but a sorcerer supreme. And whatever brings you to our land is of paramount importance.”
A slow cooling of the flame, another, darker presence Taimur couldn’t quite read. The sorcerer dropped his hand from the girl’s flesh and stepped back. “What brings me here, after so much time,” he said, “is the Red Road and the woman at the end of it.”
And there it was. If the stories were true and he was who Taimur thought he was, he wielded a power far greater than magic. Taimur remembered the ring and the way it had emptied his hand of feeling before inundating it with a fire so hot it seemed to have been fetched from hell itself.
So why share his secret with Taimur? Why bring him here?
The sorcerer M____ — Taimur forced himself to accept the conclusion—seemed to read his mind. He smiled. “You, my clever trickster, are here because Fatima must give up her magic, and I need you to be my messenger.”
Which is when fear truly began to seep into Taimur’s heart, for he knew now what this ancient man wanted. “No,” he said. “It is impossible.”
“By now, surely,” the man said, stooping to gaze into his face—his breath was unpleasant: bitter-sweet, onions dipped in musk—“you know nothing is impossible. Here, let me show you.”
He lifted his left hand and kissed the seal of the ring.
Black fell so quickly about him that for a moment Taimur thought he had gone blind or passed out again. But he could feel, hear, and smell the room. There was geometry to this void, a circularity, a strange density, as if he could tear out chunks of it and build of them a creature of darkness. Sparks of light made him throw up his hands; when his vision returned he saw something that made him utter a cry and stagger back.
My dear hosts, I remain unable to tell you precisely what Taimur saw, for he would not speak of it to anyone. In fact for many years he would not share his story at all, not even with his family. Nevertheless, the scribes of yore note that years later at the darkest hour of night, deep in the drink, Taimur the Trickster finally opened his mouth.
He told his fellow drinkers that his dreams were filled with half-shapes. Sometimes he imagined he could not feel one side of his body. One midnight he woke up convinced that another man’s limbs and torso were attached to his left side and they moved on their own. His right eye, mad with fear, rolled, while the left twinkled with glee. One half of his face grinned at the other.
My auspicious hosts, the scribes of yore believe Taimur saw the homunculus mentioned by Al-Qazwini in his classic Wonders of Creation and Miracles of Things Existent: a creature with the form of a half-human, like a man sliced longitudinally, that keens far from human footsteps, forever longing to conjoin with its missing half.
Whatever appeared to Taimur, the organism lay curled in front of a crackling fire, its malformed body bound in rusted chains.
“People think I traveled to Ikhtiyan-al-Khatal and Solomon’s ring fell from a tree into my lap,” said a voice in the dark—the sorcerer’s. “If they only knew what I had to do . . .”
Taimur licked his lips, his hand curled around his mother’s amulet. “And what was that?”
“To begin with, I gave a pint of blood to the haunter of the mosque by the Gate of Victory. In exchange he made me close my eyes and when I opened them, Cairo was gone. I found myself in a vast desert with nary an oasis or refuge in sight. Three days I walked amidst the sand dunes—hungry, thirsty, heat-struck—until I arrived at a place of ruins and bones, where I encountered a race of men whose heads were in their breasts.
“When they spoke, the movement of their lips made their lungs blossom and their hearts gallop like Arabian horses. Their voices resembled the rush of water and wind and their eyes were large and red, bloody eggs in the nest of vessels enmeshing their head. They offered me a tough meat to eat and a beaker of black water to drink; and had I partaken of either I swear upon Him in Whose hand flutters my life my head too would have sunk into my breast forever.
“But I resisted their enchantment and fled until I came upon a place called Hazman’s Grove, where dwelt this creature you see before you. Only it was a hundred times more powerful and dreadful and many times taller, and it called me and it asked my name. It read to me primal poetry, horrific words meant to shatter my wit and nerves, and we battled for seven days, reciting verse to one another, tricking, beguiling, then each falling to beat the other, determined to do so to death, until I noticed it wore in its inhuman nostril a glittering signet ring. At the next opportunity, I tore the ring out from its flesh, upon which it uttered a fearsome wail and dropped cowering to the ground, and that was how with a lost ring of Solomon I enslaved it to my purpose.
“And now we had us a marvelous time in that land, and I became one of its richest and most powerful merchants. I married the king’s daughter, but she served not my pleasure and I banished her and married another whom I deemed better suited to my needs.
“We were happy and satisfied for many years. My wife aged but my body changed not a bit. I transformed my adopted home for the better: Bigger and richer caravans, having heard rumors of the wonders of M____, came to our gates, loaded with goods, eager to make peace and trade with us. The city prospered and my people thrived.
“But came a morning I woke and found my creature awfully ill. Its eye had sunken into its doughy flesh, its arm flailing like the tail of a worm. It had curled into a ball. Distinctly I noticed that overnight my power had weakened. I couldn’t summon a crow if I wanted, let alone a magic caravan.
“Well, my puny trickster, I thought this would not do. It cost me magic, mental strength, and not an inconsiderable amount of calf’s blood to discover that something or someone had been stealing magic from us. It was being drawn from my half-creature and directed to the west.
“I sent forth my scouts, and we heard curious tales of a red land. These tales spread through many decades across many continents, moving like a slow sinuous living thing, and they all sounded the same. A red land, a mistress of this land, and her bewitched girls who all returned home befuddled, telling the same story.
“My story, but malformed. Like my creature.
“This is how I discovered that my wretch of a wife—Fatima the Dung, Fatima the False Accuser—had entreated with a haunter too and transposed another world unto ours and made it hers; and through some secret spell has been leeching my magic, my power to serve her nefarious purpose. Luring innocent women into her world and casting madness and grief upon them and their men.
“No, no, my clever trickster, this would not do. I said to myself something must be done. So, here I am now and here is my plan.” M____’s voice filled with elation at his own cleverness. “We are in this ridiculous nawab’s house on the eve of full moon. Tonight when Fatima throws her damned Red Road like a lasso to drag this lovely bird away, you will follow the girl into Fatima’s abode and offer the mistress of red a bargain on my behalf.”
Taimur had suspected this was coming. Nevertheless his legs turned to water, his innards to cold stew. The Red Road. The man wanted him to walk it!
“My dear sir, I beg you, please listen to me,” said Taimur. “I am a mere street trickster with no magic or power. I know nothing—
“You will go to Fatima and offer her this,” said the sorcerer. “She can have her father’s gold-ornamented Quran, and in return she must give me back my magic. I know how much that stupid manuscript means to her. The compact and the treaty will be agreed and sworn upon Solomon’s ring to ensure it is an unbreakable binding.”
Perhaps he’s chosen the wrong house, Taimur thought desperately. Surely he couldn’t know the Red Road would appear to this particular girl on this particular night.
But the sorcerer would know.
“Hear me, your exalted Excellency,” cried Taimur to the dark, “you must hear me. You are not the first to have thought of this. Of course, other men have walked the road in search of its red mistress. Not one has returned.”
“I am not other men.”
Neither am I, Taimur thought. But you are sending me, you craven, while you sit here smug, waiting for my return.
“A trickster knows another trickster, my lord. There are gaps in her story, events that make no sense. Please, sir, I beg you—”
“Silence, you charlatan!” A shimmer, a flash, and a moan. The creature was gone, the darkness lifted. They were back in the lush bedroom with the silent girl gazing at the moon outside her window.
The sorcerer’s face had darkened. “You will convey my message or you will turn into a misshapen fish flapping in the street and none will dare give you a drop of water.”
As the sorcerer said this, there fell three knocks upon the window.
M____’s eyes widened.
Taimur felt the color drain from his face.
The stories said the road appeared to some women and only the men who followed them vanished. Maybe he wouldn’t see it at all. After all, he hadn’t so far. So long he had protected himself. Carefully avoiding any association that might oblige him to an affected family, suppressing emotion at the women’s fate, never uttering the wrong thing to the wrong person.
Even as he pondered this, he knew he was becoming incoherent. Taimur began mumbling the Verse of the Throne, his mother’s taweez clenched in his burnt hand.
The girl Mehrunnisa reached forth and unfastened the window bolts.
“It is time,” whispered M____.
Silent, the window lifted, a flimsy wing opening to the night. On the sill perched a bird-shaped shadow.
The girl bent and stepped out onto the ledge and as she did something changed in the nature of the night. The darkness twitched; red began to pulse inside it.
Horror filled Taimur’s heart. Rapidly, desperately, he thought, A child. M____is a child. How do you handle matters with a child?
When the answer came to him it was so simple it surprised him out of his fear.
The girl stood still on the ledge. Taimur strode forward, peered, jerked, and cried, “Wonder of wonders.”
Quickly he slipped out and joined the girl, gazing where she was gazing.
“What do you see?” said the sorcerer from the room.
“Marvel of marvels,” Taimur whispered and swayed on the sill. “My God.”
“What is it?” Excitement in the sorcerer’s voice. “Tell me.”
“A doorway made of red moonbeams, just as the stories describe it.”
“Yes! Come take a look.”
For a moment there was no sound, then shuffling; the sorcerer spoke right by his ear, voice filled with amazement, “Allah be praised. An astounding work of mag—”
Which is when Taimur whirled, the fastest he had ever moved in his life, and wrapped his arms around M____’s torso. A burst of heat swept through his body, but Taimur didn’t let go. Instead he threw himself back into open space, the sorcerer from disparate lands pulled down with him.
How do you deal with a stubborn child?
You intrigue him with shiny objects, he thought, as they fell, fell, and fell forever.
Such is how, my esteemed hosts, Taimur the Trickster and M____ the Magician found themselves drawn into the land of Fatima, the Queen of Red Midnight, and with your permission now I will recount that meeting of three to you.
6: THE QISSA OF THE QUEEN OF RED MIDNIGHT AND WHAT HAPPENED IN THE REDLANDS
It has reached me, my dear goray sahibs, that Taimur the Trickster and M____ the magician stood finally on the Red Road amidst sky-high roseate mountains and faced each other, and upon M____’s face was disbelief followed by rage so dreadful Taimur felt his micturition sting no more and a stream ran down the inside of his shalwar, darkening further the red dust and gravel beneath his feet.
“You,” said the sorcerer in a voice so flat it increased the terror in Taimur’s heart tenfold, “will pay for this. Your punishment will last not for a moment or two, but a hundred years.”
Worse than this? Taimur’s body was on fire. The protective magic of the sorcerer’s ring had scalded him in several places; large bullous blisters wept all over him.
Did their intrusion break the moonbeam enchantment? The girl Mehrunnisa was nowhere to be seen.
Above them the universe was starless, a darkling goblet.
“Why do it? What gain have you from this?” said the sorcerer, a note of bafflement in his voice.
“None,” answered Taimur, “but that if I were to come to harm, why should you escape it?”
The fury returned to M____’s face. He lifted a hand, but before he could as much as flick a finger, the earth jerked them both. One moment they were upright on a still, unending stretch of road; the next the ground had folded on itself, its two ends meeting—or so it seemed to Taimur, for he had the sensation of the world rounding, a perfectly dizzying feeling that knocked all breath out of him—and they were standing in a vast tenebrous market square.
“God above,” breathed Taimur. “It is true.”
This was a world baptized in blood, its air and sky inflamed unto disquiet. Lamps drooped from wooden posts to redden its eerie corners. Desolate stalls, barren horse carts, neatly piled bundles of rich rugs, trays of apples, pomegranates, and mangoes—wherever they looked lines of merchandise and edibles stretched. Yet not a soul to partake of any of it.
In the center of the square was an elevated platform, a ten-foot-high floating circular structure of marble atop a thick old-wood pole of carved human faces. These visages were wide-eyed, lips stretched back to reveal discolored teeth and thick, lolling painted tongues. And each tongue moved: slow, molten wood licking the face above and below it. Before the pole stood an army of man-sized puppets, their ruby eyes fixed on the interlopers.
A woman with a crown of feather and gemstone stood on the marble dais above them. Her presence filled the world.
“Mercy of mercies, you are here, dear husband,” she said, her words loud and commanding, as if they were the only reality in this world, “may my soul be sacrificed for you.”
“Fatima,” said M____ and on his face was awe absolute. Words seemed to fail him. He gazed at her, this tall, beautiful being with her perfect face seemingly chiseled of agate and fire opal. Time would not dare touch it. Her hair, black as the beginning of time, streamed around it.
“Welcome to my world, my earthly god,” said the Queen of Red Midnight, her face a glittering, million-faceted gemstone. “See how I’ve prepared it for you. The sweetmeats, the clothes, fineries, enchantments. All for you, life of my heart. Oh, how I’ve waited for you. Come see what my longing and heart-blood have made of me and mine.”
M____ stepped forward. A buzzing permeated the air as the sea of puppets parted and a shimmering staircase appeared, coiling down the pole, wrapping itself around the grimacing faces.
“Centuries I waited,” said the woman, “thousands of miles I traveled to find you. Pray tell, did you not miss me, my lord, your vexing, emotion-ridden wife? Did you not think of our love and our youth?”
“Yes,” said the sorcerer as if transfixed, but his left hand twitched as he ascended the staircase. The latter spiraled up gently, like a serpent, each face on the pole turning to watch the sorcerer go by. “Yes, my dear. I have missed you. I’m so sorry for all the distance and trouble we have caused each other. That I caused you. I thought you would hate me for it.”
“Trouble, yes, so much trouble,” said the mistress of red. “But hate you? It took me a while to understand my missteps. An epoch, and many houses. Tell me, my husband, do you still have my heirloom, my father’s ornamented manuscript?”
“I do,” said the sorcerer. “But I don’t have it here, my dear. It sits waiting for you in my chambers beyond your redlands.”
“Your chambers, my lord?”
Fatima lifted her gaze and looked at the heavens of her making. M____ reached the dais and stepped off. Outlined against a bleeding sky, twin titans, they faced each other, as the forgotten Taimur watched from below.
“Indeed. But all I have to do is snap a finger and my creature will bring it in the turn of an eye.” His eyes were fixed on Fatima, clever and eager. “I know, Fatima, that I made many mistakes. I should have never left. I should have taken your reproach, fair as it was, and my punishment for those years of neglecting you. But it’s not too late, my wife. Say the word and we shall be together again, our powers conjoined, two halves coming together to create a tremendous whole the like of which the world has never seen.”
Fatima smiled. “Would that we could, my dear husband. Indeed that would be most desirable.” She leaned forward to rest her head on his broad chest. “Except for one minor difficulty.”
“What is it?”
Taimur watched her lift her head and gaze into M____’s eyes. “I detest that book.”
The eagerness in M____’s face disappeared. A frown replaced it. “My lady?”
“There is, however, another book I’m very interested in.” Fatima reached out and touched the ring of Solomon. The sorcerer recoiled, but the spiral staircase behind him lashed and twisted itself around his torso. M____ jerked and tried to move his hand, but it was useless. The Queen of Red Midnight held him firm, nary a care on her blazing face.
“A monkey appreciates not the taste of ginger,” she said. “What wonderful adages exist in this land.” Tenderly she removed the ring from his finger. A spark, a curl of sanguine smoke, and the ring sat glittering on her palm.
“No!” The sorcerer’s voice was filled with such horror that Taimur fell back.
“No? But this is my world, my love. Shaped in my image, painted with my blood.” She slipped the ring on, moved back from M____, and twice blinked.
The kingdom of Red Midnight crumbled.
Taimur experienced it like the dissolution of smoke above a coal hearth or the surfacing of one’s face from water.
They stood in an enormous cavern before a flickering fire. The ceiling was higher than Lahore Fort, the walls uneven, strangely undulating. Ten paces away in the finger-play shadow of the flames, M____ hung spread-eagled, as if pegged to the air, his patched Punjabi khussas dangling a foot above the ground. Fatima stood before him, face solemn, looking up into his eyes.
“I’ve reddened many a midnight dream,” she said, “and cast the net of my talism wide in the eight directions of the wind. I’ve called many moon-struck roses to me: to unshackle them, sometimes to make love to them, and found their husbands or fathers or brothers trailing in their wake, pet mongrels reluctant to let a prize bird go.”
She glanced beyond the fire and Taimur saw that the walls of this cavern were not granite or rock. They were constructed of the bodies of thousands of Fatima’s puppets, except that their flesh was meat and not wood. Their eyes were stitched closed with what he first thought was worms. Another look showed they were coils of intestines sewn through the lids. The meat puppets writhed, thousands upon thousands, palm sutured to face, foot to lip, torso to torso—a tenebrescent mosaic of male flesh of every color and race splayed, conjoined, and alarmingly alive.
“But this is my place, my talism,” said Fatima. “Do you know what I had to do to make it mine?”
M____ screamed in response. His eyes bulged as he struggled to lower himself to the ground, but it was impossible. Fatima’s magical construct had disintegrated; her magic had not. The air gripped him tight.
“Three children, she told me—Zulaikha, that ancient lighter of midnight fires. And they had to be mine. So I went back, you see. I went back and fucked those men in their winehouses and alleys and this time their seed came alive in me. I bore their bastard children.
“And a part of me said, O Allah, if You are still there, give me a sign. Destroy them in my womb like you destroyed my other children. But you know—” And here Fatima laughed a laugh that singed the air and flooded the air with crimson. “Such was not His will this time. They lived. All three. All boys.
“So when I had my third, I took them to Zulaikha in her unholy cave and she bade me slice their genitals and throats until blood spurted from them into her bucket of sigils. She feasted upon the meat dolls left behind and satiated her hunger thus. Then she dipped her hooves into the bucket and drew upon my womb, upon which red gushed from between my legs. She admixed my blood and the blood of my blood and I drank it, and in that way I was begotten anew.
“So you see, dear husband, I did sacrifice my soul for you. This is no accidental magic like yours. This is another kind. Here you are not my earthly god, nor I yours. In this domain I am all gods. I am,” Fatima said kindly, “godhood.
“But we were speaking of books, weren’t we? I hated my father.” She frowned. “Tell the truth I don’t remember him much now, but I remember the hate. ‘He is a good man, Fatima,’ he said to me. ‘Marry him, Fatima.’ Abbi and his damned book. Abbi and his sacred recitations. Fourteen, and he married me off, arranged and decorated, like a travel bag. I wanted his book back so I could destroy it. I could not care less about its contents; what mattered was it was his. And I knew eventually you would come to me to bargain if you weakened enough. And indeed here you are.
“But you didn’t bring my book.”
Taimur trembled like a drop of exudate on a fingertip. The air of the cavern thrummed with heat.
Fatima reached up to kiss M____’s hands tenderly, one after the other. Something shifted in her eyes and a thought occurred to Taimur, Not eyes but festering wounds; then she stepped back and closed them.
Red eddied up from the earth, a delicate churn that turned into a whirlwind. It engulfed M____.
“A book for a book,” said Fatima.
M____’s rich robes fell like curtains.
He opened his mouth and gurgled. His tongue dropped out and kept dropping, a fishing line of bloodied meat, bits of bone and cartilage crunching and mashing their way out, until his gullet and stomach had been fetched. His heart warped into a beating walnut, his lungs popped and shrank into ribbons that flailed out of his nostrils. His rib cage collapsed inward to meet his vertebrae, an ossified marriage thrust back into the serrated scaffolding of spine.
Taimur fell to the ground, drew his knees to his chest, and began to moan.
M____ quivered midair; his bones melted. The skin of his torso and limbs softened, peeled, and unfurled into fine parchment, hanging down in sheets; the lining of his intestines snapped free of its contents and draped his redesigned organism. His entrails unraveled, dozens of feet of it, snaking back, threading and climbing his spine like vines. Blood from his ruptured vessels, thousands of intimate channels and red roads, streamed out to join the crimson maelstrom enwombing him and painting him. Came the pièce de résistance: M____’s head slumped forward, thinned and fused with his excavated chest to form a brilliant frontispiece.
Thus emerged the sorcerer, in Fatima’s domain, a newly bound red book with ornamented, glistening leaves.
“My manuscript of M____,” purred the Queen of Red Midnight, opening her eyes and gazing upon her masterpiece.
As her storm began to abate, M____ fluttered, weeping red vapor that ebbed to the ground. A keening sound filled the air briefly. Then the tome of blood that was M____ vanished.
Finally Fatima the Great and Terrible turned her eye upon Taimur.
He flinched and curled himself into a ball.
“Thank you for bringing him here. You can come out now.”
Taimur stared at her.
She smiled and her smile was the appearance of the sun on a cold day. “All ruses, all guises, all veils part in this world, my love. Rise, child. Come to me.”
Taimur’s heart thundered. He tottered to his feet.
“A wonderful mother, wasn’t she?” said Fatima. “After your father died, the greatest of mothers. What did she say to you when she first revealed the truth?”
Taimur’s legs trembled. His tongue was cotton, but Fatima was waiting. One didn’t make a queen wait.
“Seven,” said Taimur. “I was seven and hiding beneath our old cracked table, furious at my mother. Asim and Qasim, the two neighborhood bastard boys, were making fun of me, saying I was a craven, because I refused to take my clothes off and swim with them in the canal. I told them I had weak lungs and Mother said my body must always be kept warm, but they laughed at me and called me a eunuch. So I ran and hid, and she found me sobbing, my mother. She sat me down and we talked and that was when I really understood why she hid who I truly was from the world.”
Fatima’s ageless eyes were gentle. “Say it.”
Taimur’s cheeks were wet. Were they tears or the sorcerer’s blood?
“Out with it,” said Fatima. “Say your name.”
Taimur opened her mouth. “Tehmina. I am Tehmina.” And she lifted a hand, wiped the moisture from her face, and clasped her mother’s amulet to her chest.
Fatima’s face was a rose of pleasure. “Yes, my love. There is no shame any longer. No fear. No need to hide, for you have done me the most exceptional of favors and you will be repaid in kind.”
“I am a woman,” said Tehmina, words now rushing from her mouth, as if a moment’s pause would bind them. “I was born a woman. But my father was dead and I had not brothers, and Mother, when she was fifteen, was married off to a man nearly twenty years older, and we had this shop but no one to run it. The apothecary was at risk. A dawa-khana run by two-women would wither and fail—but if I were a boy . . .” Tehmina swallowed. “I am so thirsty.”
Fatima rubbed two fingers together and Tehmina held a goblet of cool rosewater sherbet. She lifted it, took a few sips. Fear was leaving her. If the Queen of Red Midnight had wanted her harmed, she would be dead already.
“So she gave me concoctions and a daily medicine to ensure I would not curve. My body would remain flat like a man’s. And her plan worked. I have been a man all these years with no one the wiser. Sometimes”—Tehmina paused to drink— “sometimes I forget it myself: that beyond the dull evenness of my body lies secreted a woman.”
“But there is a bit more to it, my love.” Fatima’s gaze went to the amulet around her neck. “Isn’t there?”
Tehmina glanced down at it. “This? It was my mother’s.”
“What you wear is an ancient scroll of Afrasayab, once a great king of sorcerers. I know not how it came upon your family, but I would venture that it is what perfects the illusion for those around you. It offers you protection. How else could you get M____ here? You should always wear it . . . as you should this ring.” Fatima took off the ring of Solomon and tossed it to Tehmina, who caught it, surprised. “Put this on, my lovely rose, and make a wish.”
“A wish.” Tehmina looked at the ring, at its tarnished ancient sigil of black onyx and two winged women carved around its band, as one looks at a scorpion’s stinger. “Isn’t that how the hidden folk of Peristan and Mount Qaf trap a human? By granting wishes and binding them in evil covenants? No, my queen, I’m better off without the dual-edged blades of wish and magic.”
Fatima nodded. “You might be. But the half-creature of the ring is not. Without a worthy master to restore it, the homunculus will wither and pass on, its ancient magic vanished from the world. I must not take the ring, for if I do I may become a greater specter than I am already.” In her eyes were shadows that slipped past each other. “Fear not, O Tehmina, for my spell has been lifted: The homunculus will weaken no more. It will serve your pleasure, for I know”—she smiled—“you will be a worthy mistress.
“And now, O Tehmina, I give you this: You will be the witness to my story and your words will be sweet and beguiling. You will repair the story of M____ the cobbler of Cairo so the world knows the story behind the story. Let his name be lost, let his legacy not be his contrived caravan of dreams, for there was naught but greed and ignorance that traveled through that desert with him.
“My sweet Tehmina, come nigh. Step close to me. That is right: Put your forehead on mine. Now, my dear sweet blushing rose, make us a wish.”
And, it has reached me, my wonderful hosts, that eyes wide, palms sweating, Tehmina the Trickster stepped forward, and rested her head against the queen’s.
7: THE STORY UNLEASHED
“Such is how,” said Baba Kahani with a flourish of his arms, “my auspicious hosts, my gracious friends, my wonderful goray companions—may the stars forever align above your heads and the planets spin into favorable formations—the Marvelous Tale of Tehmina the Trickster and the Moon-Mad Roses comes to an end.
“Now, a qissa-khwan should boast neither of his tales nor his narrative prowess, but I hope you will agree that it is a worthy story, a valuable mode, a memorable history, and a useful frame to view our delightful world through, is it not?” said Baba Kahani, smiling, and lifted a steaming cup of chai to his ample lips.
Hatim and the others started. Lyssa looked around as if in a dream. Maurice scratched his head. Tolya yawned, stretched his back, and reached for his tea, but the tin cup was empty.
Around them the teahouse bustled and banged, a perpetual motion machine that rolled from dawn to dusk and dark to light. Hatim remembered one particular nihari shop in Old Lahore where supposedly a copper pot had not stopped simmering since 1947. The owners worked in shifts around the clock.
Wonders forgotten everywhere, he thought. Tomorrow we will sit at a flat table and talk about stories. Injustice, corruption, and the making of fiction, but what of wonder? What of ancient, overlooked, tongueless pockets of the world? Miracles wrought in the mundane never told, because the tellers aren’t around anymore.
Such peculiar thoughts, Hatim mused, but then, the night was peculiar.
He glanced at his watch and was startled to see it was only eleven forty-five p.m. How was that even possible?
“But that’s a poor end,” cried Maryanne. “What was Tehmina’s wish? What happened to M____ after that horrible shit he went through, well deserved though it was? How about Fatima? She wasn’t a saint herself, was she! And the girl Mehrunnisa? Why is she such a passive side character?”
Baba Kahani’s eyes glittered. “A slew of questions, my gracious host. Didn’t the Queen of Red Midnight say a story once freed grows its own tail?”
“No, she didn’t,” said Maurice thoughtfully. “She said a story once unleashed grows its own tail. There’s a difference, I think.”
“Perhaps Tehmina’s wish,” continued Baba Kahani, “freed them both and Mehrunnisa and Tehmina had their own happy ending. Perhaps Fatima was satiated and gave up her kingdom and spent the rest of her life in service of her fellow women. Mayhap Tehmina returned home without the ring to her life of duplicity and dissociation—who knows?
“What I do know, my lovely friends,” said Baba Kahani, rising to his feet, “is that it’s getting late and I must be going. Thank you for the tea and cake, most generous of you. I hope you enjoy your visit to our astonishing city.
“And with that I bid you adieu and a marvelous night.”
He bowed, the sequins on his waistcoat catching the light. A glimmer on his left hand, then Baba Kahani straightened. He took off his swollen lips, removed his face, shook open his long oiled hair (it fell in midnight rivulets to the ground) and walked away into the faintly red smog of Lahore.
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City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat
“City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat” copyright © 2020 by Usman T. Malik
Art copyright © 2020 by Scott Bakal